Police Summons or Why I Left the Scene of an Accident and What Happened After That

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[I told a version of this story in my last International Christian Fellowship sermon, if you prefer to hear me tell it.]

I left the scene of an accident.

I consider that one of the truly horrible things to do, ranked somewhere in the range of mocking disabled people and hurting children.

But I did it.  I drove away.

I did return, but the other car was gone by the time I got back.

Now I don’t blame you for judging me, but unless you’ve lived through a collapsing government, I’m going to suggest you hold off.

I’m writing this with one week to go in Nicaragua but I’m not going to post it until I’m out of the country.  Do I think there could be retribution?  I do.

I pulled out to turn left on the same highway where I had my horrible accident because it’s also the place I had to drive every day.  But his time, our country was in upheaval because the government had been directing violent backlash against the protestors. This also led to a lack of police presence and neglect of protecting citizens, which meant random crime and violence was on the rise.  I’m describing June 1st.  It’s still happening.

I used what I have come to consider a Nica driving maneuver for a left turn, pulling out across lanes of oncoming traffic and waiting there, so that I can slip in when there’s an opening in the lane into which I’m turning.  Is that a dangerous move and emphatically illegal in the States?  Maybe.  I’ve become accustomed to it; I’ll need to unlearn it.

An oncoming car slowed for me—which is normal since I’m in his lane and all—and I saw a sufficient gap where I could enter, so I pulled across—and got hit.  Slammed my front passenger corner, shockingly loud, and suddenly I’m sitting still in the lane and have just shouted something and my girls are silent and what just happened?  How was there a car coming at me where I’d already turned left?

I broke a Nicaraguan rule immediately: I pulled off the road.  I sat there and breathed and prayed and groaned and probably said a few other things.  Then I got out to look at the damage to our car.  It was surprisingly minimal, considering.  Our car has headlights and also lights below.  The collision took out the passenger side foglight and scratched and dented that corner, but the bumper and the actual headlight were, to my great surprise, intact.

I then looked out at the car that had hit us/we had hit, sitting stopped in the lane, as they’re supposed to.  Someone had gotten out and was walking around the car, leaning in through the window, walking around some more.  We looked at each other.  They didn’t approach me.  I didn’t walk back out into the road.

I circled our car some more.  I breathed some more.

Now what?  Call the police?

The police had stopped functioning as police.  I hadn’t seen a single traffic police officer in over a month, since we were in Ireland and it all went crazy.  It’s not like the States, where police cruise and patrol and you might see several randomly or not see one. Here they stand by the side of the road.  In fact, about 150 meters up the road from my accident, there was a police station.  I say “Was,” because protesters burned it while Kim and I were in Ireland.  Burned it completely inside, so that there’s still a building but it’s just a shell. Before things fell apart, I’d see at least two policia transito at that station, sometimes six, at any hour, standing there waving people over, doing their thing.

But last week our friend got mugged in broad daylight, literally across the street from where I just got hit, because the police were no longer a presence.  No, that’s not true.  The police were no longer a presence restraining crime and violence.  They continued to be a presence threatening and attackingn protesters, shooting at unarmed civilians,* and guarding areas the government does not want protesters damaging. The police would dress up as civilians and commit crimes and hurt people to discredit the protestors.

Do you call the police?

Here comes the kicker:  I didn’t have my license.

Context:  I’d left my backpack, including my wallet, at our basketball team goodbye party the day before.  Stupid, but such is life.

Context: Kim had stopped carrying her license or purse at all when she drove, because again, no police on duty, and having her purse taken now seemed more of a danger than getting pulled over without it.

Context: Kim’s first week-ish driving in Nicaragua, she got pulled over without her license and the policeman immediately threatened to put her in jail. Just a threat to get a bribe? Maybe.  Probably.  Scare the gringa.  She was scared then.  Since then, she’s become such a BA she would not have blinked at that—I mean, before this all went to hell and now we’re all afraid of the police because they shoot into crowds and use sniper rifles on unarmed protesters. Because just yesterday another child, eighteen months old, was shot and killed by police.

So there I am, with two daughters in the car, trying to figure out how I got hit, trying to grasp my new situation, and I realized, “I cannot have the police come talk to me without my license.  I can’t.  I will be in a potentially bad situation that I am not prepared to put my family through—I’m not going to risk going into police custody for that.  Not now.   Not with the reports we’re hearing.”

I stood there for a while and prayed the other car would drive away.  But they didn’t.  They just looked over at me, then the person standing outside the car got back in the car and they sat there.

I drove away. We drove to school in absolute silence.  But the thought kept blaring in my head, “My daughters now think I’ll leave an accident!”

I got my backpack.  A few people spoke to me and I acted like things were normal, because AAAAAAHHHHHH!

Then I drove back.  Crazy, wild thoughts banging in my head.

When I got there, the other party was gone.  Normally, meaning back when Nicaragua was its version of “normal,” the police would arrive, eventually, talk to both parties, look at things and take pictures while traffic somehow weaved its way around.  Leaving cars exactly where they got hit is one of the Nicaraguan rules of the road I have to question, but you could always count on that it would take a long time.  Usually hours. I was composing the Spanish to explain why I’d left, which would include neither “I ran to get my license” nor “I don’t trust the police not to hurt me.”   But no one was there.  So I drove home.

I told Kim I’d been in an accident.  To her credit, she didn’t freak out at all.  She agreed that I had to have my license.

Oddly, bizarrely, I then jumped back in the car and drove the same route an hour later to pick the girls back up from youth group. Because life goes on, even when the country is coming apart.

“I had to get my wallet,” I told them.  “I couldn’t talk to the police without my license.  I felt like it was the wrong thing to do but there were no right options and I couldn’t just see how the police responded now without having it.”

“Yeah, of course,” they agreed.  Then we talked through the accident.

“How was there someone there?  Wasn’t I on the other side of the yellow line?”

“Yeah, you were.  He shouldn’t have been there.”

“Okay, that’s what I thought.”

“He came out of nowhere.”

“So…he pulled around the person who waited for me and tried to pass there?”  Because that’s a really busy, crazy place to try to pass, even for traffic here.  I mean, a motorcycle still would, but a car?

We all concluded that’s what had happened.  The fact that they hit my passenger side meant they had to be way over there, because I was turning left, remember—they should have made contact with my driver’s side.

I still felt freaked out and bad, because that’s something I never thought I’d do, but the mitigating factors remained  1)the police here, 2)I thought the other driver was at fault, 3)it was too minor of an accident to have caused injury.

I was nervous for a couple of days, just moderate anxiety to blend in with the overall anxiety of living in increasing violence and chaos.  Or disintegrating society.  Or bordering on civil war. Call it as you see it.

But really, since they were on the wrong side of the road and the police can’t really be trusted, they weren’t going to tell the police. I thought.


Last Thursday night, I came home from a wonderful, gut-laugh-filled dinner with what I affectionately referred to as “Last Gringos Standing.”  Not literally, of course, but a handful of the remaining gringos of our community.  I had been fed and loved, which felt exceptionally marvelous because 1)my family had been gone from me since that Sunday, 2)I had gotten nasty sick with some chikungunya knock-off that was still close enough to cause me misery for four days straight and this was my first day back eating a real meal or, for that matter, seeing the outside world.  Not exactly how I’d planned my last hurrah in Nicaragua, even my adjusted last hurrah within the crumbling world around us.  But there I was, glowing with amistad and choosing to focus on how great Katie and Amy and Nate and Claire and Landon are instead of “Was that my last time hanging with them?”  That was a choice.

I got home and my neighbor immediately messaged me that he had something for me.  Cool.  Totally full, but our neighbors really love me, far beyond anything I deserve, so I was nearly sure they were bringing me food, since I’m living as a bachelor without a stove.

Juan Carlos walks across the street and I make a joke about bringing me more cats.  But it’s not cats.

It’s a summons.  I’m to report to the police at 8 the next morning because of my traffic accident.  It has my name on it.  It has the license plate of my car on it.  How freaked out was I?  I went over and checked that it actually was my license plate.

Since the country erupted on April 18-19, I’ve felt moments of real fear two or three times.  Mostly, I’ve just carried the vague anxiety/trauma that it’s coming apart, people are getting hurt, and it’s impossible to know exactly how to stay safe or to help.

But when I read that, I immediately felt scared, and more than a moment’s worth.

I ran from the scene of an accident, no one knows that I came back, and this accident got reported by the guilty party—which could only mean they were prepared to lie boldly.

Possibilities:  I’m put in jail.  In Nicaragua, during crisis, while uncounted hundreds (or thousands?) are being held in secret, indefinitely.

I’m not allowed to leave the country.  Kim and kids flew out on June 18th and I could have been in the US on that date and never have seen this piece of paper.  But now I’m here.

Is the other driver going to try to shake me for everything he can get?  That’s done a lot here. Some good friends just went through that, including coercion and threats, false witnesses, police seeming to have been bribed, and ended up paying over $4,000 on false accusations.

Or did the other person get hurt?  Is that somehow possible after all?  

Lord Jesus, hear my prayer.

I think you’ve grasped context enough to know that I’m not making up bogey men here.  My Spanish is still only passable if I’m with Nicaraguan friends who adjust to help me understand them.  I can’t go to the police station alone.  I mean, besides the obvious it-would-be-good-for-someone-to-know-if-they-jail-me.

I’m writing this calmly because it’s now, but I was Freaking. The Heck. Out.  Racing, spinning, cartwheeling thoughts of worse-case scenarios.  So do I not go?  What happens then?  Do I change my ticket to fly out tomorrow? Will they stop me at the airport because of this?  Who knows?  Sometimes information enters the “system” here and a lot of times it doesn’t and who can tell which, especially now?

Again, I’m not talking about “I did something wrong and now I want to evade responsibility.”

Just to bring that into focus:

I wrote my good friend, one of the best friends I’ve had in my life.  He’s been here longer than I, dealt with an accident or two, navigates the culture far better than I, and is not one to get ruffled easily.

He wrote me this, and I am quoting it verbatim except the names–

Listen, I hesitate about telling you this, because I’m not sure if you have a choice, but want you to be prepared and to be able to get Jairo’s opinion on this. This is a message that [a woman] sent my wife two weeks ago: “We changed our flight and left Friday. Last week was a very strange week for us. Last Monday a pastor friend of ours took our vehicles to transit to finalize the registration for them to get them out of [ministry’s] name. He let us use his name since we don’t have residency. The police ended up setting him up by putting drugs in the cars. They surrounded him after he left transit and pulled him and his friend out of our cars, beat them, seized the vehicles, and took them to chipote. Now they are charging him with drug trafficking and money laundering since he was receiving the vehicles from a non profit. It is a mess! We reported the vehicles stolen to embassy but not sure if we will ever see our cars again. [My spouse] was concerned about getting out of the country because his name was on the original donation contracts that we used to get car insurance. And then afterward found out the two attorneys that told us we could own vehicles without residency were wrong. It’s like we’re in a drama movie or something. Last week was rough. So we are thankful to be out of there right now.”
I think you need to be very careful at Transit. Just rely on Jairo for communication and be very aware of what’s going on around you.

Nope, not nervous merely about a visit to the police station, not even “just” a reckoning with having made a lesser-of-two-evils choice and seeing if I made the wrong one.

You get now why I decided to wait until after flying out to publish this?

My good friend also urged me to get everything that could be construed as anti-government or pro-protesters off social media. There are rumors the government is black-marking people who post about them. Who knows what’s true?

But I’m slightly ahead of myself, because I heard back from my friend the next morning.  I still had the night to survive.

I prayed fervently whom I should ask to help me and decided I had to ask Jairo to come with.  Jairo has become a dear friend and is extremely knowledgeable in the inner workings of immigration, police, and most of the other sources of red tape and tension experienced by expats here.  He’s also calm, godly, and bi-lingual.  He said “yes.”

That was my first moment of feeling slightly better.  Slightly.  So I did some anxious organizing, just for the sake of movement, prayed with intensity and clarity that I rarely experience outside of, well, crises like we’ve been going through here, and got all ready to go see the police the next morning.  Then I went to bed.

I tossed and turned, as expected, but did fall asleep, then woke up in the middle of the night.  Yep, that’s normal for insomniac me.  Okay, so I went to bed about 11:20 and now it’s…12:50AM.

Oh.

And that’s the last I slept.  Or I might have for tiny bursts (do you sleep in bursts?), but I’m pretty experienced at sleeplessness and this was not dozing on and off.  This was intervals of praying, futilely trying all the relaxation tricks I know, and having my mind generate new worst-case scenarios.

I gave up and got up at 6:30.  Then I read my friend’s message.

Imagine if I’d read that message before I tried to sleep.


We arrived at the police station. Everything seemed normal. It was much less crowded than any of my previous visits there. We were told I had to pay 100 cordobas as an automatic fee for the incident, regardless of fault. Then we waited for a long time, at least 45 minutes to an hour. I kept watching for the other drive. At last, a policeman came out, called me into his office, and asked for my version of the story. Jairo translated. The policemen showed me the drawing of what the other driver had reported, which was not how I experienced the event at all. Then they told me to wait.

So we waited. We sat and watched grainy (World Cup) soccer on an ancient TV. The police came and went. We waited for the other party to arrive. I tried to unclench my teeth. We chatted. We waited some more.

A younger officer came out and told us to go with him. Where? He needed to look at and take pictures of my car to help them decide who was at fault. So we went out and watched him take photos.

When we came back in, a larger, much more scowling officer asked me a question at a speed and with an accent I could not understand at all. I asked him to repeat it, which seemed to anger him more. He then stood a few feet from us and reviewed papers, seemingly on my case, for a very long time. Occasionally he would stop to watch the soccer game, then return to his papers and his scowling.

Two hours went by like this. Jairo was calm. My heart felt like I was playing ultimate. The pounding part, not the joy part.

Then a policeman, a different one than , came out and explained that they had found me at fault. Okay. No mention of leaving the scene. Okay. My multa (fine) for the accident would be 350 cordobas.

The cord is presently thirty-two to the dollar.

But no, that was not all.

As we were waiting for our next instructions, a police woman came out of her office and started to talk with Jairo. She asked a question that I didn’t understand and he said Yes, of course, and the next thing I knew, we were in her office helping her with her English homework. Active and passive voice, to be exact.

The last twenty to thirty minutes of our time at the police station was spent (passive voice) helping her complete several worksheets on English grammar.

When we finished doing that (active voice)—Jairo asked, “Do we pay the fine now? Are we done?”

And she said, “No, don’t worry about it.”

Then I breathed for the first time in sixteen hours.

So that is how I paid three dollars for my accident. Plus our labor, of course.

I am certain God answered many prayers for me. It could have been a horrible situation, and as we hear new reports of violence and cruelty every day, it’s clear this wasn’t just silly worrying.

I felt so grateful to be free and alive and not scared. Breathing free air was wonderful. Is wonderful. Freedom!

But I also remember and carry heavily that over two hundred Nicaraguans have been killed by the police in the past seventy days not for crimes but for trying to speak against injustice, for trying to have a voice, or simply for being in the wrong place when the police started shooting.  This week an 18-month-old baby was shot and killed by police while being carried to his babysitter.

Therefore, I decided not to post this until I departed.

 

*This video was taken at Metrocentro, a shopping mall we’ve visited a hundred times.  A friend who was there that day told me it was a normal shopping day, then suddenly stores were closing and owners were leaving with their arms full of merchandise.  Ten minutes later, the shooting started.

I Am Crucified with Christ

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My final sermon at International Christian fellowship, on Galatians 2:20.

I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

It includes the story of my recent police station visit after my accident.

My Twisted Ankle Vs. Your Broken Leg

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“How are you guys doing?  How’s the transition going?”

This is a good, right, and considerate question people are asking us right now.  We hear it a lot.

Here’s the problem:  Nicaragua is a mess right now.  Our “civil unrest,” which might be too euphemistic, keeps spiking.* Protestors keep getting murdered.  Right this second, I’m praying for a friend who is driving home from his ministry.  He works out in a remote pueblo in the campo, where he visits once a week.  The drive typically takes three hours.  But many of the main roads here have roadblocks where those protesting hold traffic for two hours.  Stop and imagine that.  His drive home–it’s 6PM now–will likely take between six and nine hour.  I’m praying for his safety.  I believe he’ll be fine.  He’s not in imminent danger, certainly not compared with many who are speaking up, putting themselves at risk by seeking justice and regime change here.  

Meanwhile, in our little lives, we’re moving back to the U.S.  That matters.  It matters to us.  It matters to some people here.  To a few people here, it matters a lot.  But in the big picture, it is not the big picture.  

How does this work?  How do we think about this?  How do we do it well?  

A brilliant Episcopal priest friend who died many years ago taught me a truth I found profound yet simple and, in my experience, rarely taught.  He said, “My twisted ankle hurts me more than your broken leg hurts me.”  

He was right.  That isn’t a lack of empathy or compassion.  This is not to say that I believe my twisted ankle is worse than your broken leg, which would be self-centered and immature.  I get that you are in more pain than I am.  

But I cannot feel your pain the way I can feel my own.  I just can’t.  To be a mature human being means acknowledging others’ pain and not merely my own; to be a Jesus follower means to embrace the radical teaching that I am to measure my response to your pain based on how I would have you respond to my pain.  “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”  This does not mean discounting or ignoring our own suffering, but it does mean seeing beyond just myself, even when I am suffering.  

Transfer this now to our situation here:  I’m living my life, ridiculous as it is.  We’re in the final months and weeks of seven years loving and failing and be-neighboring in Nicaragua.  I hate that we’re leaving, and I especially hate that we’re leaving now, in light of these terrible circumstances.  But I believe God is leading us back and I’m choosing to try (or trying to choose) to trust God in this.  

I know me and I wouldn’t be having an easy time of this in ordinary circumstances.  I’ve watched a lot of missionaries and ex-pats come and go in seven years.  I haven’t seen the perfect way to do depart, though I’ve seen a wide range of approaches; most people just stumble through, trial and error, trying to figure out the best process for them.  

Last Thursday, the remainder of our school year on campus was cancelled and we are finishing school online.  I can’t tell you how much this sucks for our kids, especially the seniors.  Some people have left abruptly while others are considering doing so now, since online school is, you know…online.  At one point not long ago, I thought we had an outside chance for one final basketball game for our team.  Nope.  Currently, I’m praying about how to give a commencement speech for a class whose final year has been so truncated.  

In the midst of all this, that voice in my head keeps saying, “This is your last time to get to…”  “You only have so many more chances to…”  “Do you honestly think you’ll see him/her/them again?”  

This is a stupid and bad time to be going through such a transition.  What’s happening here, the horrible fractured femur Nicaragua is suffering, matters so much more than my ridiculous twisted ankle.  

Yet all I can do is live this, moment to moment, as present and invested as I know how.  Pretending my situation doesn’t matter, or is meaningless in the face of Nicaragua’s misery, only cuts me off from anything positive that could come through this closure process.  

Here I am, therefore, trying to keep all of it in perspective.  I hate to see the agony this beautiful country suffers.  I cry to Jesus for peace and justice, over and over, and ask everyone who prays to join me in seeking God’s face.  I’m limping, because my twisted ankle does hurt,** and I’m a little better able to resist self-pity because this pain is a small discomfort in the face of what swirls around us every day.  

Tomorrow, we’ll celebrate our son’s 11th birthday, his party hosted at the home of one of his best friends, whose mother generously offered to let twenty-odd ten-and-eleven-year-olds rampage around her property.  They are a Nicaraguan family.  The party-goers will be a wonderful mix, boys and girls, Nicas and gringos.  I’ll remember one of the reasons God moved us here, right before my eyes.  I’ll grieve that this will likely be the last birthday he celebrates in Nicaragua.  

And I’ll pray that there are no more murders of college kids or any other protestors or police.  I’ll pray that somehow negotiations will lead to a better government for the people here.  All of that together is how the transition is going.  

 

Post-script: My friend made it home in  8 1/2 hours.

 

*Nicaragua’s crisis in numbers: 76 dead, 868 injured, 438 detained in a month of protests, according to prelim report by @CIDH, concluding 4 day visit to 4 cities and hundreds of interviews. #SOSNicaragua

**By the way, thank God I mean this figuratively and I’m still able to exercise and stay sane that way while going through this.  

The Art of Following

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I have some big thoughts building.  They haven’t quite coalesced yet, but they will soon.  Stay tuned.

Tomorrow, we ride a bus to Costa Rica for our high school teams’ basketball tournament.  Everything I’m doing right now feels like it’s my last time.  We’re in Transition.

But this one had an added complication:  Nicaragua unrest continues and we had to decide whether we should cancel the trip due to all the protests and the threats (and sometimes acts) of violence.

Our school’s board, administration, and athletic director prayed about it and weighed all the pros and cons and concluded we should go ahead with our trip.  But it drives home that we’re in a very tense time here and need prayer.  I’m glad we’re going; this trip is the culmination of our basketball season and we’ll get to spend concentrated time with our players for these next five days.  God does great and surprising things on trips like this.

But in the bigger picture, Kim and I are preparing to leave a country that feels like it has a very short, smoldering fuse.  We’re not leaving because of the current tensions and I feel inordinately offended when people ask, “Is that why you’re leaving?”  “NO!”

I’m offended because this is such a crucial, volatile, and shatterable time for our adoptive country (though more accurate to say that the country adopted us).  I’m offended because I don’t want our neighbors, or any Nicaraguans, to believe we would bail when things start to look tense.  I’m offended because it’s hard to leave and even harder when so much seems at stake for this country we’ve grown to love.

Kim started talking with me about how we might need to move back at the beginning of last school year.  She was right, as she so often is, but I’m struggling with the decision nonetheless.  Perhaps the biggest issue for me is trusting God: with this timing, with the transition, with letting go of things here.

Then you add what Nicaragua is going through right this moment–tomorrow could be a crucial point in this developing conflict–and I understand the timing even less.

Pastor Bismarck, in his signature pose.

Following God is an art form, not a science.  Hearing from God is more like learning music than learning math.  I recently spent some time with Pastor Bismarck, one of my closest friends here, and he encouraged me, as he always does.  He reminded me of some crucial things–even quoted to me from a sermon I preached four years ago!–and helped me get my focus back where it needs to be.

The circumstances don’t make a lot of sense to me.  But they don’t have to.  We pray and we listen and we walk where we believe Jesus tells us to walk.  Sometimes it’s hard to hear anything, maybe because my own thoughts are so loud in my head.  I was just talking today with a young man who expressed that it’s so hard to trust God with the things we care about most.

But as Bismarck reminded me, we see only a small part of the whole picture that God sees.  God can see this whole, enormous painting, and how each thing we do adds a dot, like pointilism.  The painting belongs to God, not us.  God is the artist.  God is Creator, not just once but always.

Therefore, the fact that sometimes even big decisions won’t fully make sense to me should come as no surprise.  I can’t see what God’s painting.  I can’t see how the little dots of my calling add to the whole.  I love this country and I don’t want to move away, especially when they are on the verge of either a great step forward or a very different step.  But I’m not saving this country; I never was.  I’m walking with Jesus.  Trying to follow, trying to hear.

I’m loving the people I’m with, as long as I’m with them.

The rest of this week, that’ll be basketball players.

 

After that, God knows.

 

 

“God Is” Manuscript

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[Manuscript of sermon “God Is’]

 

God is

It’s been a very strange couple of weeks for us. We went on a trip to celebrate our twenty-fifth anniversary. Two days later, the protests began. Some of the seniors in my Bible class accused me of timing our trip to get away during the trouble. I absolutely did that. We took this trip on our anniversary, remember. Twenty-five years ago, when Kim and I were deciding on the date of our wedding, we looked into the future and saw that this would be the time to get away. In fact, I was remembering that some friends of ours, Eric and Karen, asked if they could have our originally planned wedding date, April 3, and we swapped them for April 17. So when I mention up here that I’ve had people suggest I have the gift of prophecy, clearly this is what I mean. I foresaw that we would want to say “yes” to them and change our date for when we’d live in Nicaragua and this would happen. It’s actually pretty impressive, when you think about it.

It was odd being out of the country on this trip and trying to track with all that was going on. I know many of you experienced difficulty keeping informed on what was happening. Hearing all this news and reading updates and trying to figure out if we needed to make decisions, well, that definitely added another dimension to our trip.

Because of that, I feel a little out-of-step preaching this week. The 20th Century theologian Karl Barth said, “Take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible.” So as I was praying about what to say, this is what came to me. I hope you can apply everything you hear to our current situation.

God is.

God is real. God existed before we did. “IN the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” Genesis 1:1 God is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.

I had a fun talk with our host in Dublin. During the conversation, he said he thinks people have a right to their religious beliefs: “If they want to have an imaginary friend, that’s fine.” From my perspective, that’s kind of funny, but it’s also extremely sad. And it’s foolish.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,

and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.” Proverbs 9:10

God is real, God existed before we did, and knowledge of God is insight.

The fear of the Lord, proper awe of God Almighty, is where our wisdom begins. There are many voices, some of them are loud, some of them are urgent. Wisdom begins with God.

God is Good. Psalm 134:6 “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever.”

God is good and we experience God’s goodness:

O taste and see that the Lord is good;
happy are those who take refuge in him.”

God is a refuge.

A refuge is a place we go to be safe when we are in danger, a place of peace, and place of Shalom.

God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
2 Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
3 though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult.

God himself is our refuge. If you think God is an imaginary friend, that isn’t going to work very well. But God is real, and this means that anywhere we are, no matter our circumstance, no matter what we’re experiencing, we can take refuge in God.

There is so much in this one.

God is our refuge. God is our strength. God is present. God is a very present help in trouble.

And Therefore, because of all those things, we will not fear. That doesn’t mean “shame on you if you fear,” but “God is bigger and more powerful than the things that frighten us, God is with us and he is our help.” So even if the earth should change, even if the mountains shake in the heart of the sea, even if—fill in your own blank here—God is right here, right now, with us, and He is our strength.

God is strong in our weakness. It isn’t a fifty-fifty thing, a matching grant where if you can pony up X amount of strength, God will match that. God is strong in our weakness. When we are weak, we are strong because God’s strength is in us. That sounds paradoxical, like how can those possibly work together. It’s experiential. It will never make sense in theory. In practice, it works. Have you experienced that?

God is just.

God is merciful.

God is forgiving.

All three of those are true. I don’t always understand God’s justice, but I believe in God’s justice.

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God? Micah 6:8

I’m not focusing on what we’re supposed to do that much in this sermon. I’m starting with God because everything starts with “God is” and only after we learn who and what God is do we move to what we do, and who we become, in response.

But who is God, that this is what is he tells us is good and what he requires of us?

For I, the Lord, love justice;
I hate robbery and wrongdoing.
In my faithfulness I will reward my people
and make an everlasting covenant with them.”

I could get focused on God’s justice, of course. You’ve heard that from me more than once. God’s justice matters so much to me because there is so much wrong with the world, and only if God is truly just can we have hope that all this will come out right in the end.

But Jesus asks this question: “And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? 8 I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

That’s a rhetorical question.

7 And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? 8 I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”

God will bring about justice for his chosen ones who cry out to him day and night.

He will see that they get justice, and quickly!

I don’t know what “quickly” is. But I believe God that he will bring justice. I want justice. Mind you, I want a whole ton of grace for myself and I’m quicker to seek justice for others. That’s one of the biggest reasons I try to be all about grace, because I recognize my heart’s tendency to desire justice for others but grace for myself. But do to others as you would have them do to you I think also means seeking the same grace for others that I claim for myself.

I can’t figure out where the line is between grace and justice. But God can. Because God is just. And God is gracious. And the injustices we see, God’s children crying out to him day and night, we know god will answer. He will see that they get justice. So we pray. There may be other things we must do, but we know for sure that we pray for God’s justice.

I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth.”

Now that question, I’m afraid, is not a rhetorical “of course he will.” But here is what I know of God. God is faithful.

II Tim. 2:13 “if we are faithless, he remains faithful—
for he cannot deny himself.”

That’s what grace means. Jesus wants us to have faith. Jesus asks, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith? He tells us that even if we have a mustard seed’s worth of faith, a tiny little dot, that will mean we can move mountains. Yet here is the message: If we are faithless, if we blow it, if we completely lack faith, he remains faithful to us. God is always faithful. He will not leave us or abandon us or give up on us. Ever. Even if our faith tanks. For he cannot deny himself. God’s very nature is to be faithful to us. That’s wild.

Well, how do I know God won’t get weary of me and sick of forgiving me for the same sins over and over?” He remains faithful—for he cannot deny himself. God will not, wildly God cannot, go against his own nature. He will be faithful to us.

Now I want to step back and acknowledge: some horrible things have happened and more may happen. I’m not making light of any of it. I’m saying our trust must remain in God, in God’s nature, in God’s character, in God’s faithfulness.

What else is God?

Jesus said, I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. What is the truth in our present situation? Jesus is the truth, always. If you want to know the truth, seek Jesus first. Then research what is going on.

God is our rock. God is our fortress. God is a strong tower in times of trouble.

Jesus said to his disciples, and so he says to us, his disciples, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

The disciples thought it was the end of the world. They thought it was the end of their world. They had good reason. They had seen Jesus die. They had seen him tortured to death. The ones who had the courage to stay close had watched him, apparently weak and helpless, mocked, spat upon. They saw him breathe his last.

But while on the cross, Jesus forgave his murderers. While on the cross, Jesus offered life to a thief being crucified. Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live,26 and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”

Again, Jesus says, “Do not be afraid,” but he doesn’t just expect us to conquer fear on our own. He gives us his peace. Not the world’s peace. Not a false or empty or temporary peace. True peace. Therefore do not let your hearts be troubles and do not let them be afraid.

Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life.” Death has no power. Life is in Jesus Christ. If resurrection is true, if eternal life with God is real, and I believe it is, then as devastating as death is to us, death has no hold on us. Death has no final say.

I want to be really clear here: I am not speaking cliches, I am not saying nice-sounding empty phrases to give you false hope. Jesus defeats death. Every one of us here has some experience with death. Some of us have faced death. Every one of us here will die. We’re not trying to rush it, but it’s inevitable. By my understanding, over sixty people have died related to the protests. That is a tragedy. We must grieve and mourn and cry to God for justice day and not. But that is not the final word. Jesus is the resurrection and the life. Paul writes:

 

Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead?13If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised;14and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain.15We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ—whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised.16For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised.17If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.18Then those also who have died in Christ have perished.19If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.20

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. 21For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.23But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.24Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power.25For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.26The last enemy to be destroyed is death.

He must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. Whose enemy? God’s enemy. Death is God’s enemy, because death tries to destroy what God has created, death tries to steal what God has given. Jesus overcame death, he defeated death through his resurrection. In the end, God will destroy death. All the suffering, all the grief, my mourning over our son, the anguish over these murders, God overcomes all of this. Christ has been raised from the dead. There is hope. Our hope is in Jesus Christ. God has destroyed death.

Do you know what God destroys death with? Love. God’s love destroys death. God refuses to let our sin, our self-destruction, our hatred of him, separate us from him. God loves this world so much, God loves these students so much, God loves these protesters so much, God loves the police and the military so much, God loves us so much, that he gives himself in our place.

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.7Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die.8But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.

God proves his love for us. God demonstrates and reveals and manifests his love for us. Do you know why? God is love. God himself is love. God isn’t merely loving, but God, in his very nature, is love.

7 Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. 9 God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. 10 In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.

Jesus didn’t only come into the world to die for us, Jesus came into the world so that we might live through him. This is the love that destroys death. We don’t wait until heaven to have life in God, we live in and through him now.

And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding so that we may know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life.” I John 5

This is what we remember and remind one another when riots start. This is what we hold to when we see injustice, when we suffer tragedy. We grieve, but not as those who have no hope. We have hope. Our God is the God of hope. I’m not saying this makes it all better or takes away all the pain. I’m saying this is the bedrock, this is the foundation that we stand on, because we have built our homes, we’ve built our lives, on rock, not on sand. That’s what Jesus promises.

31 What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us?32 He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? 33 Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. 35 Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36 As it is written,

For your sake we are being killed all day long;
we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.”

37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

 

 

The Crying Prophet

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It’s first light, just coming over the horizon, but you’ve been up for an hour already. That’s early, even for you. Your brothers must have had a surprise, jumping on your mat to wake you and finding nothing except mat to land on. You’re on your second trip back from the well now, so your hardest chore is almost over. It’s a little risky, hauling water in the dark, especially now, when the city is going so crazy with Passover coming, but it’s obvious you don’t have anything of value, unless some lazy thug decides the water in your bucket is worth beating you up. But now home is within sight.

Today is the day. People have been talking about it all over your neighborhood. It’s actually funny to hear them talk about him because there’s always a better story. It sounds just like fisherman or hunters who keep outdoing one another.

“No, I heard he told the Pharisees they were children of hell.”

“Yeah, but my cousin said he heard directly that he walked on water. On top of the water!”

“Your cousin didn’t see that, though.”

“No, but he heard it from the guys who follow him everywhere.”

“So? We heard he cast a demon!”

“One? My aunt who lives in Galilee, where he spends all his time, said he cast out a whole legion of demons!”

“That’s just crazy. Nobody has a legion of demons.”

“Yeah, but that’s not crazier than Lazarus. You know what they’re saying about Lazarus, right? That’s a respectable family. They’re not gonna make something like that up. There were like a hundred people there. Who would make that up? I think that might be true…”

Then, every time, the talk turns to what he might do to the Romans. It’s always funny to hear adults whispering just like kids. That’s when you have to turn invisible to get to hear. Nobody does that better than you. How many hundreds of times has your mother told you never to speak to an adult except when the adult speaks first? You just took that as a strategy. Stand still, or sit silently, look away from the speaker, act like your attention is elsewhere, never ever make eye contact, and it’s like they can’t even see you. You’ve even heard some neighbors hint that you aren’t all that bright. Nobody cares if the slow child is hanging around, playing in the dust. Poor slow child. If they only knew how many secrets you’ve heard.

Today, you’re also telling a little bit of a not-quite-truth. Of course, it could be the truth.

“I got my chores done early. Can I spend the day with Daniel?”

Daniel might be there. If he was smart, he would be. But it’s not that likely, because Daniel is a little too cautious. But he’ll be out chasing around, playing hide with the others, so it won’t be obvious to anyone that you’re not with him.

Yeah, it’s a little crazy. But your mother is just happy the chores are done. Your dad won’t be back until late. He won’t even know you were gone. And one fewer child around to fight and get in the way? Mother’s fine to see you go.

The leaving part is easy. The arriving might be something different.

Everyone in town and every stray dog knows he’s coming today. The rumors about him disagree and conflict sometimes, but somehow there’s a one-hundred percent certainty he will arrive in Jerusalem today. They’re even sure which road he’s coming by. It’s as if runners are going ahead, announcing his coming, but that’s not something to say aloud. That’s what they do for victorious generals and, of course, the Roman Emperor, may the Almighty One remove him from that accursed throne.

But that’s why it’s irresistible. How many false Messiahs have come through Jerusalem? How many claiming they are “The One?” How many strong men have gotten killed in doomed uprisings? Too many.

But what if…? What if this really is the one? Today might be the day! There’s something different about this one, if any of the stories have any truth to them. He doesn’t claim to be Messiah loudly and proudly like they all did, but he’s done ten times more to make people think he is. He calls himself “Son of Man.” What does that mean? The old men debated that passage from the Prophet Daniel. How could this man, this son of a laborer, claim to be what Daniel describes? That’s impossible.

Unless…

So no one really knows who he is, not really. Maybe his closest followers do, but nobody here. The whispers have gotten louder and more excited; there might be ten thousand people in the streets when you get there, even going as early as you possibly can.

As you get closer–and it is a long walk, even for you–you can hear the crowd well before you see them. It’s loud, like a buzzing, like what they say locust sound like when they come in clouds, just like you’ve always imagined happened in Egypt. How many people can this be?

Too many. Change of plans. There’s no way you’re going to get even a glimpse of him unless he’s riding into the city on an elephant, like they say that one general did against Rome. Wouldn’t that be amazing? Then everyone would know his intentions for certain!

You’re doubling back on your path now, because the further outside the city you can intersect with his path, the better chance you’ll have to see him. Then what? Maybe try to walk along with the crowd? Not for the first time, you consider this could get dangerous. What if it turns into a riot? What if—just what if—the Romans have heard, since everyone knows, it’s the worst-kept secret ever—and they bring their centurions? That seems unlikely, but there are rumors…

Still, that’s exactly why you can’t miss it. What if…never to be said aloud, just in your own thoughts, and the Almighty’s ear…the centurions do show up, and he…he…someone who can overpower demons and tell a storm to stop, could he…could he wipe them out?

Any risk is worth the tiniest chance to see that happen to these evil dog occupiers. Right? After all they’ve done?

When you reach the road going this way, further from the center of the city, there’s still a crowd, but not as big yet. Oh, but they’re excited. It’s like one of those high holy days when everyone starts in early: people shouting to make themselves heard over everyone else’s shouting. It’s funny to watch grown-ups behave like this.

A bunch of them are waving branches around that they must have just cut down from the palm trees near the road. The smell is really strong and green. Is green a smell? They’re waving those branches around, fanning themselves, and it’s almost like sea waves. Crazy.

You keep pushing up the road, and there’s the Eastern Jerusalem gate where the Mount of Olives comes down into the city. You’ve come too far to hesitate or second-guess, but if your parents ever heard you had gone outside one of the city gates by yourself… Better not to think about it. You say a quick prayer that you won’t have the dumb luck of being seen by someone you know.

You pass through the gate, which is wide and if there are guards anywhere you can’t see them through all these people. He’s got to be close now. Everyone’s waving those branches and some are tossing them out on the road. But there’s something else on the road. What is that? You’re hiking up this hill and everyone here has committed to holding their space, so you have to squeeze in between people, but you’re really good at that, almost as good as you are at becoming invisible. You take extra care not to step on anyone and keep weaving in between families and shouting men and other kids jumping up and down, trying to see, even though there isn’t anything to see yet.

As you weave, you pass really close to the road. Those are people’s coats! Cloaks and shirts and all kinds of clothing, folks are just tossing them into the road. Crazy! You see a nice one that might be your size but it’s probably a really bad idea to grab it.

The shouting suddenly crescendos. People are going crazy now. You chose well. If you stop right here, you’ll be able to see him for sure. Especially if he’s on an elephant, or, more likely, a stallion or maybe an ox. But something in you, some weird urge, refuses. You push on, now bumping into people, but everyone is bumping and colliding. It’s that kind of crowd now. You’re not a pickpocket and you better not be mistaken for one now or you’ll get beaten or killed.

There he is! He’s on a…wait—he’s on a tiny horse. No he’s not; he’s on a colt. Maybe a yearling? Hang on—that’s a donkey colt! It’s too sturdy in the legs to be a horse colt, but it’s really young.

People are whooping and shouting and you’re laughing and you literally can’t hear yourself it’s so loud, but that is not an elephant! Why would he choose that? And he’s not…he’s not handsome. His eyes are…

“Hosanna!” everyone shouts around you. More cloaks thrown into the road. More branches. “Hosanna to the son of David!” “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”

“Stop, stop!” someone yells behind you. You look back and almost jump into the street. It’s a Pharisee, a whole group of Pharisees, with their special cloaks which they have not thrown and they are not waving palm branches. In the midst of everyone screaming and crying out to the Most High, what are they saying?

A stout one who bellows like a shofar overpowers everyone around him: “Teacher, make them stop! Order your disciples to stop! This is heresy! What they say is an abomination!”

The colt is walking so slowly but the man stops it. He looks right at this Pharisee. What words could describe this man’s eyes? The crowd isn’t quiet but it’s maybe half as loud, with people pausing between shouts to see how the man will answer. Everyone says he doesn’t get along with the Pharisees; some even claim they want him silenced, or worse. But now you aren’t hearing stories, now you are seeing—and hearing—for yourself! No one will believe this. But that’s okay; you could never risk telling anyone, anyway, because if this got back to your parents…

“I could tell them to be silent. I could. But I tell you, if these were silent,” and he gestures with his arms at all of you standing close by, “the stones themselves would shout out.”

He didn’t say it loudly but everyone explodes with screams and hollers and “Hosannas,” what feels like ten times louder than before. Except you. You turn to look at the Pharisees and they are huddling together, no longer looking at the man, talking amongst themselves.

You aren’t yelling because you’ve determined you’re going to get as close as you possibly can now. There’s no way you’ll be able to follow along through the crowd, even though he’s going slower than slow, because their stacked up too dense and wild and that won’t work to sneak through, even for you. The only other choice is to go out into the road with him and his followers. You don’t belong there and they’ll throw you out the second they notice you, so that’s crazy and stupid…and here you go.

It’s not hard getting out there. Nobody’s pushing against you, once you take that step, but with all this wild crowd on the sides, there are only a few big clumps of people out in the road. You’re not going to blend in with any of these huge guys with beards and–

He stopped. He just stopped in the middle of it all and got down from his donkey colt. You freeze dead still. You’re about four people away from him, big burley men, but that close. If anyone looks at you now, you’re done. Maybe this is the time he does something powerful? But since the moment you saw that donkey colt, the military attack has seemed unlikely. Who attacks on a little colt? You’re just a kid and even you know that.

The man turns his head and for a split-second, you think he’s going to look right at you. But he’s looking down the hill. You suddenly realize there’s a tremendous view from here. You can see most of the city. You might be able to find your house if you looked long enough.

You’re not making any sudden moves, because this is how you’ve learned not to be noticed. But when you shift your eyes you can see the man’s face and when you shift them back, you can see the whole city.

He’s looking out at the city, then around at the group of men and women with him, then back out. He puts his hand on the nearest man’s shoulder.

“If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. 43 Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. 44 They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.”

And he cries. His voice choked while he said that and now he’s standing there, crying. In the middle of this frenzied parade, you see tears dripping off his face. His followers are staring at him. You’re staring at him. Of the things you’ve seen today, this would be the hardest to explain, the hardest for people to believe; yet for some reason, this is what you most want to tell. Who is this man?

Then he looks at you. Not maybe. He’s looking right at you. His followers are staring at you.

Panic rises in your chest. He steps over to you.

And then he puts his arms around you and hugs you. His arms feel strong enough to snap you, or to lift the entire world, but his hug is gentle…and then he lets go and climbs back on the colt and he and everyone else move on. One of his disciples, a really ugly one, nods at you as he goes, like he knows what you know, what you now know.

But you stand there, alone, on palm branches and cloaks, as their shouting moves off into the distance.

Is that the Messiah? What kind of Messiah is he?

What’s going to happen next?

You start back for home.

Primal Scream

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There are times when I sit down to write and I just want to utter this guttural scream, like

AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRGGGGHHH!

Somewere between Charlie Brown flying through the air after missing the football again (I know, utterly dating myself) and this guy.

I look back on my day, in my calm, I’m-not-breaking-dishware-nor-writing-emails-I’ll-deeply-regret-later reflective mode, and start noting all the things that contributed–and built up to–that scream.

Some days, many or most of the contributors are self-inflicted.  Those are fun days.  It takes special grace to let yourself off the hook when you’re directly responsible for all the blood-spurting bullet holes in your own foot.  Of the Jesus followers I know, most are better at extending grace to others than receiving it for themselves.  On those self-injuring days, there’s an argument in my head that boils down to: “But it’s true.  I did screw up.  I deserve to feel miserable.”  This logic would suggest that grace somehow depends on having a reasonable alibi: If I’m feeling bad but can explain why I shouldn’t, then I can receive grace.

But this is, in fact, the opposite of how grace functions.  I don’t need grace if I have mitigating factors for why I screwed up.  The argument “but I have it coming” does not render grace null and void.  The prodigal son’s speech, “Look, I deserve all this, I’ve sinned against heaven and against you, I should be demoted from beloved son to ordinary servant,” does not win the day.  He doesn’t even make it to the end before his father rudely interrupts him with an embrace and a robe, a ring and a party.

So if you step back and run that parallel, when you are castigating yourself and arguing for why you don’t deserve grace, God isn’t listening through the end of your speech.  He’s already getting the sandals for your bloody, bare feet, when it was entirely your fault they got bloodied.  Yes, you did this to yourself, so you must know that “I told you so” speech God has prepared for you?

God doesn’t.

Grace means that the almighty God of the universe has chosen forgetfulness.  Grace means God acknowledges that you screwed up, sinned, betrayed him, let yourself down, probably did some damage to other people, and now God is going to bless you instead of punishing you for that.  Sure, you can punish yourself. Free will means you can keep whipping yourself over those failures and refuse to take the robe God is offering to cover your wounded, emaciated body.  But you don’t have to.

However, grace requires acknowledging that you need it.  You can’t keep your prideful self-image and receive grace.  You can have one of those.  Choose wisely.

 

Today, however, was a different kind of wounding day.  (Yes, that was a long tangent, albeit a passionate one. I hope it was a helpful one.)  Few of them today were self-inflicted.  The scream at the beginning was pain that my soul absorbed today.  Sorry if that sounds overdramatic. It was a rough day.

I love young adults.  God has given me something, some combination of empathy and an 18-year-old’s sense of humor and compassion and a constitutional inability to grow up that, when combined with the trust many of them extend to me, blends into this alchemy of relationship.

 I also stopped playing God about…I’d like to say 30 years ago, but we’ll say 10-15 years ago, to play it safe. It’s been a process.

Therefore, when I hear an agonizing story from a young adult, I’m less likely to go into savior mode and more inclined to pray and listen to God for ways I can help.  Sometimes I get a nudge, or I intuit how to respond.  Sometimes I can’t do anything more than listen, which I’ve come to believe is love, in and of itself.

Sometimes, though, I want to yell at God.  I know that’s not very pastorly-sounding when I’m being all calm and composed and not breaking anything, but seriously.  I told my wife tonight that my biggest question I have for God might be why some people experience God’s presence while others never do.  I’m on the outside, only seeing it from my point of view and not through their eyes, so I don’t know if God is constantly seeking them, sending thousands of signs and they are choosing to ignore all of it.  That may be.  I’m big on the whole free will thing.

If, however, as this person described, they ask and ask and never experience the presence of God, never see anything that they can recognize as communication, and have no sense of God’s reality—GAAAAAAAH!!!!!  I. DON’T. GET. THAT!

Sorry.  *Breathe.*  *Breathe.*

I don’t get that.

I really don’t.

There is an approach to following God that says, “Never question God, because God always knows and you don’t, God always does what’s right while you don’t have a clue.  Trust God, give thanks for literally everything, and keep your doubts to yourself.”

That isn’t my approach.

I think hearing what I heard today tapped into deeper, built up pain over hearing similar stories from too many people who are dear to me, who are still lost/struggling/wandering far from God/deeply in pain.

I think we’re supposed to agonize over people who suffer.  I think Jesus did.  

I think we’re supposed to agonize over people who suffer.  I think Jesus did.  Most of the time, I’m too guarded and self-protective to let it hit me as hard as it should.  I’m afraid it will capsize my little boat.  I don’t have any advice on this, though I’m told sorrowing over others will expand our hearts.  

 

That was the worst of it today, but by no means all of it.  I took a score of other emotional hits, some related to our current situation, some to other people I love.  Then, as a grand finale, my “therapy” for the evening backfired.  

Which brings me here, on my couch (literally), writing this as therapy.  So thanks for reading and helping.  Thanks for letting me scream a little in a non-destructive way.  

If you pray: Pray for my friend, whose family has been through a nightmare and who has basically given up on God.

 Pray that I would have a bigger heart.

And maybe pray that I can see how God is present with people who feel so abandoned.  

 

I Believe This

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“An empty stomach has no ears.”  

                          Sudanese proverb

Sometimes I watch the debates happening, the screaming and name-calling and ridiculing, and I feel absolute shame for the people who are supposed to be Jesus followers. I am ashamed for myself and I am ashamed for my brothers and sisters. 

I also believe that some of the conflicts come from a serious disagreement over definitions.  

Today, I want to be clear what I believe.  

Jesus, as depicted in the Bible, is God.  

The Bible itself is not God, but it tells us truth about God.

I believe in Jesus because of my experiences with him.  When I say “Jesus loves me,” I know that experientially, not merely because the Bible says so.  When I say, “Jesus has forgiven me,” I mean I have had the experience of forgiveness, not only the information.  When I say, “Jesus will always give me grace,” I know that because I have told Jesus to “f*** off,” for a long stretch of time, and instead Jesus stayed with me and refused to abandon me.  

I’m not debating whether or not you have had these experiences.  I’m not even debating whether or not I have–I’m simply telling you, yes, I have.  

If it sounds like I’m making really obvious statements, hang on.

I believe the Gospel that Jesus preached and that we, as his followers, try to live, tells us to love one another. 

Nope, don’t go away yet.  

Jesus even spelled out the ethos of this love: 

“Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

Notice that’s not “do to others what you think they might do to you, if your roles were reversed,” or “do to others what you think they deserve or have earned or have coming to them.”  

If I were starving, I would have you give me food. If my baby were dying, I would have you save my baby, if you could.  If my marriage were imploding, I would have you help, if you had any means of doing so.  If I were trying to escape a country at war to save my children, I would have you help me–I would have you help me save my children.  

Therefore, if your children are starving, I will try to help them have food.  If your baby is dying, I will do what I can to help save your baby.  If your marriage is imploding, I am going to try to help, if there is any way I can. If you are trying to escape from a country at war to save your children from dying there…I am going to help you save your children.  

That is how Jesus says to love one another.  

Any Jesus follower who limits “love one another” to “try to get the person to become a Christian” has not fully understood love the way Jesus talked about, nor the way Jesus loved.  

Yes, I am ashamed of the debates I am seeing within the groups of people who call themselves “Christians.”  I am ashamed because I believe we should seek unity, we should respect and love and hear one another and try to understand our disagreements. I am ashamed because we’re making following Jesus look unattractive, or even appalling, and they don’t know us by our love for one another.  

But I am also ashamed, frankly, because I hear people who claim to follow Jesus talking in such a way that they do not seem to understand the commandment to love one another.  They act as if they have not read Matthew 25, in which Jesus identifies himself as those who need food and water, who don’t have a home and live on the streets, who are fleeing a war-ravaged country with children in tow, who are dying in a hospital bed or are imprisoned.  

It’s bizarrre, but in Matthew 25, Jesus doesn’t stop to explain how the prisoner–which is him–was framed and sentenced unjustly, though innocent.  Jesus doesn’t address the prisoner’s innocence or guilt at all.  He doesn’t discuss whether the sick person made poor life choices nor whether the hungry person was irresponsible.  He doesn’t even ask whether or not the stranger got into the country legally.  

He says this:

I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.

And here is his conclusion, the wild twist at the end:

‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’

All this means, to me, that the Gospel of Jesus Christ embodies both telling people about God’s saving love and forgiveness of our sins and loving people by doing for them as we would have them do for us.  

My blog is named, “Grace Is Greater.”  None of us love perfectly, none of us fully do to others as we actually would have them do to us. Jesus was perfect and we’re not. We are called to faithfulness, not perfection. I’ve lived among impoverished people for seven years and every day ask if I’m screwing this up.

I’m also not saying that I have a fulll grasp of the truth.  I’m sure I have blind spots where I have not yet understood the whole Gospel.  

But a person arguing that these actions are not how we follow Jesus, that the Gospel does not command us to love the least among us, that we should first measure people’s worthiness before deciding how (or if) we love them, or that certain people are outside the parameters of whom God calls us to love?  

I have to question if that person understands the Gospel. 

Enough

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Too much is never enough.

God created us to be satisfied with enough. When we have the right amount, when we have our needs met, then we are working the way we are designed. We are built to have “enough.”

Too much is never enough. When we hear this, we usually think it means, “Even when we have too much, we still want (and believe we need) more; having ‘too much’ still does not fill us to the level of ‘enough,’ still does not satisfy us.” But in fact, too much is never enough because we have gone past “enough.” We have overfilled the tank, overinflated the tires, overwhelmed the mechanism. “Too much” is not good for us. We think we want “too much.” We think “Big Gulps” will make us happy, and we’re thrilled when we find that we can buy “Double Big Gulps.” Our new cars have larger cupholders so that we can carry sixty-four or one hundred twenty-eight ounces with us. We build bigger homes with more rooms than we need. We have more cars sitting in our garages and driveways than drivers in the home to drive them. We have overwhelmed our systems.

Target ran an ad campaign. They hung huge banners from their ceiling with pictures of all the great stuff you could buy in their store, and the banners randomly said, “WANT” or “NEED.” The Target marketing department was not trying to help us discern between our wants and needs. Quite the opposite. I walked around looking at the banners, with a bicycle helmet shouting “WANT” and a television set saying, “NEED.” I believe they were actually trying to muddle the line between the two categories. One Sunday in church, a precocious girl prayed after the children’s sermon, “God, give us what we want. Because what we want is what we need.” We all laughed and clapped when she finished praying. But I keep thinking about how untrue that is for us. What we have come to want is most definitely not what we need. I suspect most of us have lost track of what our actual needs are. God has blessed us by meeting our needs; we receive that blessing and want more.

Scripture tells us that wanting more than we need is bad for us. Do we believe that? The Biblical writers use words like “greed” and “gluttony.” Proverbs: “Human eyes are never satisfied.” When I discussed this with my young adult group, one of them suggested that this goes back to Adam and Eve, desiring what they cannot have. Maybe all sinful hearts desire more than they need, but we are a people who often can indulge this desire. When God gives us more than we need, he intends for us to share. Repeatedly we hear that there is enough food in the world for everyone if it were distributed properly.

We’ve traveled so far down the road of having too much, we now have a hard time believing that it’s bad for us. Doctors tell us that obesity in the US, especially in children, has reached epidemic levels. But we still want the oversized indulgence, be it a vacation home larger than our family needs for our full-time dwelling or an iPhone that has more apps than we could use in a lifetime. We have acquired a taste for gluttony and we simply don’t believe when God tells us that it’s bad for us and can never make us happy.

Another young adult suggested we’re like unrooted plants that thirst for more and more water, because no matter how much gets poured on us, we have nothing with which to hold it in so it just flows away. Plants don’t want too much water; too much water kills plants. Plants want enough water. Too much is never enough for plants and it is never enough for us. Enough is enough. Too much kills. We won’t believe this until we have acquired the taste for “enough.”

In his space fantasy novel Perelandra, C.S. Lewis creates a scene which has stuck in my mind since I read it as a teen. His protagonist, Ransom, has just tasted a new fruit for the first time:

As he let the empty gourd fall from his hand and was about to pluck a second one, it came into his head that he was now neither hungry nor thirsty. And yet to repeat a pleasure so intense and almost so spiritual seemed an obvious thing to do. His reason, or what we commonly take to be reason in our own world, was all in favour of tasting this miracle again; the child-like innocence of fruit, the labours he had undergone, the uncertainty of the future, all seemed to commend the action. Yet something seemed opposed to this “reason.” It is difficult to suppose that this opposition came from desire, for what desire would turn from so much deliciousness? But for whatever cause, it appeared to him better not to taste again. Perhaps the experience had been so complete that repetition would be a vulgarity–like asking to hear the same symphony twice in a day.

As he stood pondering over this and wondering how often in his life on earth he had reiterated pleasures not through desire, but in the teeth of desire and in obedience to a spurious rationalism, he noticed that the light was changing.

When we enjoy something, we “automatically” want more of it. But is seeking more furthering our pleasure or diminishing it?  Is our desire for more simply our inability (or refusal) to be satisfied when we’ve had enough?  Or are we satisfied but refuse to acknoweldge it?  Perhaps refusing to acknowledge when we are satisfied is a good working definition of gluttony.  

Ice cream is a want, not a need. It is a luxury by any reasonable human standard. It is a wonderful, delicious, refreshing treat for many people, especially when eaten in hot weather. Having seconds and thirds of ice cream does not increase our pleasure of eating ice cream; it does the opposite. Our taste buds get choked with the refined sugar (which isn’t good for us in the first place) and we actually lose our ability to taste the flavors as vividly. Most of us will begin to feel sick to our stomachs eventually. Feeling bloated is not satisfying nor pleasurable, but many of us associate being stuffed, even to the point of discomfort, with satisfaction.

I’ve struggled with this.  When I eat ice cream, I want to taste more ice cream.  Most of my life, I’ve been very poor at practicing moderation. I’m finally making progress.  Anne Lamott describes a revolutionary challenge to her eating habits when a friend suggests that she eat only when she is actually hungry. Food tastes better and satisfies more when our bodies need it. We can develop the taste for enough just as we’ve developed the taste for too much. In fact, when we come to realize that we feel well—that this is how feeling well feels—we begin to lose the desire to overconsume.

Our eating habits serve as one example of our lifestyle of desiring too much. We learn to want more from seeing advertising, from watching others who have more than we do,* and from failing to seek our satisfaction in God. In the oft-quoted passage from Philippians, Paul states, “I have learned the secret of having plenty and of being in want. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Can I really? Can I really be satisfied with less, less than the neighbors or my friends have, less than I think I desire? If I were in a position of being in want, could I trust God and feel satisfied in Him nonetheless? How would that ever be possible if I have trained my heart always to want more?

Finally, yet again from one of my young adults, “If God blesses us with ample goods so that we have enough for ourselves and enough to share with others, we are stealing from them if we do not share.” I John: “How can you have this world’s goods and see another in need and not share and say God’s love is in you?” You can’t. It isn’t. There aren’t two possible answers for that rhetorical question. We could a)share what we have and feel God’s satisfaction or b)make ourselves sick by overindulging and ignoring those in need and not have God’s love dwell in us. Gosh, it feels like a no-brainer when I put it that way. Yet our daily choices are not for our own good.  We act against our own best self-interest.

We are sinners. Sin is that which God forbids us to do because it goes against our design and harms us. God loves us and tells us not to destroy ourselves. We don’t trust God, so we do what harms us. Then we get mad at God. This isn’t a new story. Our innovation is that we’ve lost track of why greed and gluttony are bad for us and we’ve become so myopic we can’t recognize how we are disobeying God or why we’re in pain. If we have too much, we need less. If we’re doing harm to ourselves, we need to stop! Buying more won’t make us happy—it hasn’t worked so far and it won’t suddenly start now.

Being part of God’s work, aligning ourselves with Jesus’ purposes for good in the world, living according to our design by seeking our true satisfaction in God and receiving every good gift with gratitude, these will make us happy. Even better and deeper than happiness, they will lead us into contentment and joy.

Enough is always enough. Any more than enough is too much. In His love for us, God desires to bless us with enough.

*A wonderful scene in a Veggie Tales video, The Toy that Saved Christmas, depicts two young carrots watching a TV commercial. The narrator says, “Billy has more toys than you!” The youngsters turn to their parents and crank up their best whiny voices: “Billy has more toys than me!”
The parents look quizzical.
Finally, one of them asks, “Who’s Billy?”
“I don’t know,” one child responds, “But he has more toys than me!”

Thirty Things for which I’m Grateful

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A lot is happening in my life right now; some of it is hard.  But today, looking ahead at Holy Week and starting to reflect on  Easter, I’m thinking on the abundance of ways in which I’m blessed.  Therefore, I’m going to list thirty here.  Because.  I’m also going to make them right now things, not overall life things, and not directly things about what stuff I have.  

  1. Last night, I caught up with some young adults whom I love.  I’m incredibly fortunate that I have gotten to play a role in their lives and now I get to see them growing and moving forward.  Jesus is my hope in the world and they’re the shape I see that hope taking.

2. I’m 49 and yesterday my 10-year-old son and I played ultimate together.

3. Yesterday when my 10-year-old son was deciding to play, he asked me to make sure that his counterpart, the girl he’d be playing against and guarding, was on a team that would throw to her (i.e. include her).  The only way I could guarantee that was to put her on my team, meaning he had to be on the other team.  He said, “That’s fine.”  I did throw a score to her, over my son.  He was happy for her.  

4. Yesterday, my son and I were the token gringos playing ultimate with a group of Nicaraguans–plus our two Zimbabwean friends.  I love that.  Those are Kingdom of God moments for me.  

5. Yesterday I got to preach on Palm Sunday.  I wasn’t scheduled to preach, but our scheduled preacher had a medical emergency, so i got to fill in, as of Saturday morning.  The sermon just started composing in my head, even before I was ready to sit down and focus on it.  Though I spent most of the day on it, I really enjoyed writing it and it didn’t feel like work at all. 

6. I told a story for my sermon, an imaginative, “you were there” account of a kid seeing Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem firsthand.  I got to hear from a few people who encountered God through hearing the story.  That was especially cool since I knew God gave it to me.  

7. I was able to do all these things this past weekend in spite of having a cold that made me miserable Thursday and Friday.  I’m still coughing but on the mend now.  

8. This is Semana Santa break and I’m getting more relaxed time to spend with my kids.

9. Yesterday the Sunday school teacher went out of his way to let me know that, while the boys in his class are “a wild bunch,” my son is “a little more focused, maybe a little more interested in the discussion, and with a couple other boys he helps anchor the class.”  That was great to hear!

10. The small things we get to do in our barrio–buying tortillas, giving a fan to a bed-ridden woman, loving preschool kids, loving our neighbors–make a difference.  

11.Two weeks ago, a group came from Wenatchee to work with us for a week and they did an awesome job of loving our neighbors along with us!  

12. Those people were also a blast and a big boost for us. Seeing our little world here freshly through their eyes reminded me how blessed I’ve been to get to do this.

13. That group was so random, I can say confidently they would not just happen to associate, much less get along and love one another, if it weren’t for God’s Spirit doing the connecting.  I just had to laugh, in the most holy way.  They were a week worth of a Kingdom moment, especially here loving these beautiful kids living in poverty.  

14. I screwed up a couple times last week and the people in positions of authority showed me grace.  

15. My eldest and I share a lot of (good) taste in books, movies, and shows, and we’ve been discussing some great ones recently.  I’m grateful for that connection when they’re so far away.

16.  We have not had the water go off so far this Dry Season, thanks be to God.  We’ve only had a couple days when we ran out until the evening/night, but no stretches of even a full day so far going without.  I’m profoundly grateful for this.  If you’ve been without water, you know.

17. Our daughter Annalise has great plans for this coming year, post-graduation.  She daily shows me humor and courage. I’m both very grateful and extremely proud of her.  

18. My sister prays for me every day.  This is both an overall life thing and a right now thing.  

19. Two weekends ago I got to play in an ultimate tournament and we lost (nope, not grateful for that–keep praying) but I was reminded again both how blessed I am still to run and that I’ve been able to have a positive impact on the young Nicaraguans who were our opponents.

20. My son’s closest friend is a great kid.  

21. Actually, as I think about that, all three of our children living at home have tremendous friends who have strong character. You can’t buy that, even if you have the money.  

22. Though she claims she doesn’t think I’m funny, one of my daughters and I share basically the same sense of humor (and the same forehand) and I think she’s hilarious!

23. I’m alive.  No, I’m not running out and starting to reach for them, I’m absolutely grateful for this. Today.  I could easily be otherwise.

24. I’m sober.  From all my addictions.  Ditto.

25. Kim gets me.  She really gets me.  I’m reminded of that this morning.  And I know I’m not easily got.  But she does.

26. I have to beg your indulgence for this one, but I found it both funny and affirming:  Yesterday, after church, a friend asked about my sermon (see #6), “Did you write that or did you get that from a real writer?”  When I laughed, she said, “Well, I knew you didn’t have much time to prepare, so I just thought maybe you found that from Eugene Peterson or someone?”*

27. I’m helping an engaged couple whom I love prepare to be married. I get to do their wedding in July.  Our friendship is a great redemption story and a reminder of God’s faithfulness.  

28. “God has saved us from the kingdom of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Beloved Son.  Because of what the Son has done, we have been set free. Because of Jesus, all our sins have been forgiven.” (Colossians 1:13-14)  I had a friend want to debate me yesterday regarding something I posted about Jesus, which is fine; I can do that.  But I was getting more irritated than usual and I realized, some time later, it was because the guy was impugning Jesus’ character.  I know who Jesus is and I know what he’s done in me (see #22 & #23).  I’m willing to debate ideas and beliefs, but I don’t take it well when people talk shit about any of my friends.  I know Jesus can defend himself, but it still doesn’t go over well with me.  It all reminded me how grateful I am to know Jesus’ character and know I’m loved. 

29. It’s been a good long while since I’ve hit any serious depresion.  Not take-it-for-granted long, but well-this-is-sure-nice, I-can-breathe long.  

30. I get to preach on Easter!  I love preaching on Easter! 

 

*I try to be very conscientious not to take credit from God when people affirm my preaching.  It’s a gift I enjoy, and that means it’s from God, not something about which I will boast.  But to be mistaken for a real writer?  C’mon, that’s funny!