The Rich, Young Preacher

The preacher had a deep respect for Pastor Adam. As a pastor himself, he admired Adam’s life and ministry from afar. Adam planted and pastors one of America’s fastest growing churches, which was now planting new churches, blessing cities, and bearing tremendous and fruitful success. The preacher had dreams for the church he pastored to reach similar outcomes. He wanted to see his church grow, cultivate life transformation, and bless their community, even the world.

The preacher was working tirelessly and devotedly to accomplish these things, and he wanted to know if he was on the right track. He wanted to know how effective he truly was regarding these endeavors and what he needed to do to come closer to realizing these dreams. The preacher came upon an interview with Pastor Adam on a recently released podcast. The preacher placed earbuds into his ears and began to listen on his way to work one day.

The preacher focused intently on Adam’s words. He was struck by Adam’s heartfelt responses, which conveyed profound wonder and humility. His spirit was refreshing to the preacher – the sense in which he expressed so easily the depth of God’s love and his love for people. His transparency and honesty was unlike many colleagues he knew. Much of what Pastor Adam said the preacher knew – tips and hacks about working with volunteers and creating a culture where vision can blossom and grow. It encouraged the preacher to find similarities between he and Pastor Adam, and he felt good about himself. The preacher was pleased, because it did not seem he would have to change much.

Toward the end of the interview, however, Pastor Adam was asked about the amount of times he gives up the pulpit of his church to other preachers, which is quite a few in a given year. This created conflict within the preacher. You see, the preacher loved preaching, and he was good at it – or so he had often been told. He did not like the idea of constantly cycling in different preachers. He thought to allow two or three times a year for guest preachers was a good thing, but anything beyond that is unacceptable, quite frankly. The church needed his voice, his wisdom, his skill in explicating the scriptures. It was, after all, the preacher’s call – to preach.

And as if Adam knew exactly who was listening, with that same Christ-like love and compassion, he told the interviewer of a prayer he prays when guests preach at his church. Every morning on these Sundays, Adam prays the guests would completely and utterly out-preach him. He prays they would paint a picture of the Father’s love and the gospel that is so breath-taking and compelling that the congregation would long for the guest to come back another week and share more.

The self-sacrifice of Pastor Adam’s simple prayer was too much for the preacher to bear. He realized that for the first time there was a prayer he actually could not pray and a cross on which he was unwilling to die. The cost was too high for the preacher.

The interview came to a close, and the preacher took his ear buds out of his ears. The preacher walked into the doors of the church sad, because he had always been told he was a fine preacher.

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Mars

Most scientists conclude we can do it. It is well within the realm of possibility for a human being to make it to Mars. Our technology can put human feet on that red dirt. Making it to the red planet is no longer an issue.

The problem is getting back.

What our technology cannot achieve is a two-way trip to Mars, a there and back-again journey. Until we figure out how to find engine parts on the fourth planet, until we can harvest fuel on the ice-cold rock, all while being able to withstand deadly sand storms, the journey of a lifetime will be a journey of suicide.

Moon walkers of the past and those with the insatiable appetite for exploration are prepared for such risks, gladly willing to give up family, careers, comforts, even their very lives for such a monumental opportunity. Those in the control room, however, the ones pulling the trigger, watching from afar, cannot fathom carrying out such a mission. Seeing a man or woman on Mars in our lifetime is not possible without agreement that it is worth the loss of a human life.

The bolder I get in exploring the depths of Christian faith, the more I come to find that Jesus is on Mars. He is a one way trip, a suicide mission, for He bids us come and die. To truly come to Jesus is to never come back.

When Jesus asked two would-be disciples, “What do you want?” They asked him not for a principle to apply to their lives or a philosophy to bring back to their lives as they knew it. They ask, “Where are you staying?” They are prepared for a new life, prepared to live in a new place, prepared to abandon the settlement of an old life for an entirely new one.

Yet I confess to have thought Jesus to be the man on the moon, a daunting and arduous journey following Him to be sure, but a journey you can always come back from to the comforts and safety of life as usual. Mars, however, is not for visitors but for colonizers; the wonders of truly calling Jesus ‘Master’ cannot be found by the vacationer but the planted, not by the casual but by the consecrated.

For Jesus came to us, colonized the earth, and surrendered His life. He called to us, built for us an engine, supplied the fuel, welded a fuselage – that we might now launch to Him.

Mars is not unreachable. Mars is costly.

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Beans

“Why don’t yuh go get yuh some of them beans, boy,” Saunders asked me.

I sat on an old but very comfortable couch while Saunders sat in a large, dark-blue recliner in the corner adjacent to me – his usual place. We were in a living room at the bottom of an awkward five-story house with rooms stacked on top of each other. The first time I had entered and toured up into the house I couldn’t help but think that I was ascending the steps of some swaying and unbalanced tower of Pisa. One careless step might send the whole thing toppling over.

“Were they good, man?” I asked him. It was really more like stalling, uncomfortably full from the meal I had already consumed.

“Yeah, boy. Go in there and get yuh some,” Saunders persisted with his eyes remaining fixed on the television watching Steve McQueen escape from prison in Mexico. This was a new Saunders. I had not seen him so open to me.

This had been my third time to be with Saunders, each time we would sit and watch television together. Saunders was a tall man, always wearing a cap, with long legs that seem to hang over just about anything. Maybe in his late sixties or early seventies, I rarely saw him leave his recliner chair. Saunders found comfort in that chair with the television in front of him, and he did not like to be bothered. I remember in our first time together, when he quite frankly wanted nothing to do with me, we were making small talk during the commercial break of an intense re-run of “Law and Order,” his eyes firmly gazing at the television. When the commercial break ended and I was in the middle of a sentence, he slowly raised his hand and quietly said, “Okay, okay, I’m done witchyuh.”

“They were really good beans, huh?” I stalled again still quite content with the hearty cheeseburger I had just eaten. The idea of eating beans prepared in this dusty place was far from appetizing to me. I wished I could remain on the couch, watch “Papillion,” and make small talk during the commercial breaks.

“They’re right in there. Go in there and get yuh some. There’s bowls in there,” he said a third time. At certain syllables his large hand hopped from its perch on the arm of the recliner that he might express the passion of his plea to me.

“Okay…” I said unconfidently. After standing I wandered into the hallway leading into the kitchen, not knowing what I was really doing. Saunder’s push, his almost order, weighed heavily on me, making me feel I shouldn’t be in that room without this now famous bowl of beans.

I ventured into the kitchen, which was painted in tans and yellows and smelled like a mixture of peas and Lysol. There they were. Said beans simmered in a large pot on the stove, ladle and bowls and spoons sitting conveniently beside it. Still disinterested I walked past them through the back door in the kitchen and into the back parking lot of the house. The back lot seemed to be deserted save for an assortment of old, large appliances scattered in various corners and a middle-aged man sitting some distance from me. He sat on an old window air unit wearing black jeans and a white t-shirt. The man’s skin was sun-darkened and his hair short and silver. His face was worn and angry making him look older than he probably was. He didn’t notice me.

His name was Matthews, another man who lived in the house. From what I could gather the other men did not care for Matthews much. He had a reputation for being ‘unhinged.’ While most of the men living in the house had made it there by way of prison Matthews’ record was speculated to be far more disturbing than the others. No one could offer much clarity in the matter, however. I must confess a slight unease standing there alone with him in that back lot until something caught my eye.

As I watched him anonymously from a distance something fell at his feet, something small and faint. It is some wonder that I even saw it at all. I probably would’ve missed it had I not seen another tiny thing fall again…and again. My mind was suddenly thrust into a rapid clockwork of observation – a piece of paper in his left hand, a lit cigarette in his right, the sound of whimpering, and his rugged shoulders moving uncontrollably as if shaken by someone invisible. Matthews was weeping. Matthews was broken.

No sooner had this epiphany come than something shocking and terrible happened. Unable to stop looking at him he suddenly looked at me. His head moved swiftly around as though he had known I was there the whole time. His dark brown eyes were fierce and welling with tears. The gaze carried surprise and fear making me feel as though I had witnessed something sacred and something I shouldn’t see. But mostly it carried tenderness. It was the tenderness of Matthews’ eyes, which were something awesome, which thrust me back into the house.

After a measly response of “H-Hey, man…” I rushed through the back door and on into the kitchen, finding myself standing in front of the pot of beans still simmering on the stove while those eyes were still seared to my mind. Peering into the pot, my heart pounding, I saw a faint trace of condensation on the side – tiny beads of water like those that fell at the feet of Matthews, fell at the feet of all these men. I placed my fingers on the lip of a bowl. If I could ever see Saunders’ eyes, so hidden behind his low-brimmed cap and always lit by the television, I’d see them there too. I ladled the beans into the bowl; I ladled the invitation into the bowl.

I carried the bowl of beans back into the room and sat down on the couch next to Saunders still gazing at the television screen. I took a bite.

“These are good beans,” I turned and said to Saunders with my mouth full.

“Yeah, boy. Them bean’s real good,” he quietly said with his eyes still rigidly fixed on Steve McQueen.

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The Last Chapter – A Short Story

Mr. Reynolds viewed the delivery with confusion the first time after she passed. The white, Styrofoam was strangely unfamiliar to him. His brow furrowed, and his eyebrows cocked as he tried to understand and comprehend. It was something sharp and untouchable. I know this, because Mr. Reynolds did not even attempt to grasp it, did not even attempt to receive it or clutch it. I’ve heard that death does this to the world in which we live. The routine becomes alien, alien and harsh…she’s gone now. He beckoned that I take the delivery into his house and set it down for him. I walked in to the dimly lit living room that smelled like thick carpet and gently laid the delivery onto the coffee table. I felt the need to go, to get out, and so I did. I said goodbye, and Mr. Reynolds gently smiled. As I closed the heavy door, I watched him look down at what I laid there. Mr. Reynolds seemed as if to be learning how to live again. And it was rather uncomfortable to watch. It was there I learned that life is often like the turbulent, stormy sky above the serene and silent sea.

Mr. Reynolds received the delivery with less confusion the second time after she passed. This time in light blue, he slowly reached for it. There was hesitancy. It was always a viable option to ask me to bring it and set it on the table. But after a moment, he reached for it. Mr. Reynolds’ poor vision caused him to thrust his shaken and sandy hands far from the Styrofoam delivery. I helped him find it. He smiled and shut the door. He would put it on the table this time.

Mr. Reynolds wore his Yankee cap the third time after she passed. There was a smile in his eyes and less in his mouth. He did not hesitate to place his hands out ready to grasp. Once again, I helped him find it. He would take it in, putting it where he needed it to be. He began to walk back into his house, and I shut the heavy door for him. As I walked back to my car, I suddenly caught a burning sense about something. I smiled and backed out of the driveway thanking God that, even in the last chapter of our lives, he still works something new in us.

 

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Tread Marks

The black mark lays in the middle of the parking lot at the church I had previously served as pastor, the remnant of a tire peeling out. It’s not very big, but it will certainly be there for a long time. I never heard one remark, complaint, or cry about it, but it is unavoidably seen. It obstructs no one from parking vehicles, but the mark does disrupt the sheen of the recently paved concrete.

The mark exists because of an outdoor basketball goal placed on the lot. The goal draws all sorts of folks from the community to play when the weather is warm. For a number of days in a row last summer we saw a dozen or so high school students gather to play, driving their big trucks on to the property. We often heard the sudden rumble of engines and the screech of tires late in the night when the games were done, and one night their excitement and competitiveness left its mark.

A deep mandate woven into the bible and into the call of a believer in Jesus is the welcoming of our neighbors, showing hospitality. It is much more than simply having them over. It is a significant declaration that they are safe as they are in your presence, warts and all.

The reality is hospitality is going to leave a mark.

Like that church parking lot to truly practice hospitality one has to be willing to withstand tire tread, have coffee spilt on the carpet, hear language that violates your sensibilities, or even be criticized. It is an act of sacrifice to show this hospitality, but it is a redemptive sacrifice. Jesus shows us this. The truth is we have peeled out all over the Son of God Himself, marking Him when He had opened His life to us and shown the world hospitality.

“But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed,” Isaiah declares about Jesus. He goes on to say that Jesus remarkably did not show outrage against it, but He patiently endured it.

As Christ’s act of sacrificial hospitality brought peace and healing I trust that, by God’s grace and work, so too ultimately will ours. So when the family down the street comes over for dinner and one of their three kids breaks the leg of a patio chair while playing, patiently remember that it’s not broken in vain.

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The God Thing

“It was a God thing.”

I hear this phrase used every now and then to attribute an event in someone’s life and circumstances to the work of God. In the common use of the phrase the thinking seems to go that these events seem so fortuitous that the divine must have orchestrated them. From a chance meeting with a generous person with resources to the finding of an object that was lost I’ve heard a whole host of things attributed to the work of God and labeled “God things.”

There are a plethora of beliefs among Christians about the degree to and manner with which God is involved in the lives of people. I personally believe in a God who works in this world and in circumstances – I believe in “God things.” But I would draw our attention to one detail about the way I observe this phrase is often used. It is almost always used, it seems to me, to identify something being made convenient or pleasant or warm.

I cannot deny the possibility that these common claims are actually “God things.” God heals, comforts, brings relief, brings peace. I can testify to this. But this is one dimension of the way that God works in human lives. By the definition of “the God thing” I hear in my context it seems that those suffering brothers and sisters in such places as Iraq or Haiti, whose faith is far from convenient, have never witnessed “a God thing.” In fact the New Testament itself labels “God things” quite differently sometimes:

 They called the apostles in and had them flogged. Then they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name (Acts 5:41-42).

If I’m reading this correctly the apostles praised God for being able to be beaten. They believed the dirty, rotten, cruel and violent injustice thrown at them by the Jewish religious leaders to be a “God thing.” Not that they believed God to be orchestrating their persecution, but they believed somehow that the gospel was advanced through it. We see this throughout the New Testament where suffering, hard and nasty suffering, while not directly caused by God, is used by God to shape and form the Christian into deeper Christ-likeness:

Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us (Romans 5:3-4).

Suffering becomes a God thing from a biblical perspective. God moves and redeems not simply in a world of cool breezes and fluttering butterflies. God also works in the cold, dank world of flogging and disease and threats.

May we redefine “the God thing” or be more intentional with its usage. God is up to something far greater than our convenience or ease, up to something far more fulfilling for each of us.

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The Ugly Stuff

One morning, almost exactly six years ago, I arrived for an early seminary class, in which Dr. Gray posed a question:

What gift would you offer to Christ?

At first it seemed like a familiar question, something I had heard once before as the offering plate was passed in church or something. But that morning it became new for me.

What does Christ want? What could we possibly offer to Christ, seated at the right hand of the Father?

Images of nativity scenes, three kings, and frankincense appeared in my mind. I thought that maybe an acceptable gift would be a song, a beautiful work of art, or an act of selfless love. Each of these I can imagine Christ delighting in.

However, Dr. Gray’s answer surprised me: “Christ wants your hatred, your pride, your racism, your envy…He wants the ugly stuff so He can present us clean to the Father.”

The ugly stuff. Who would have ever thought to give the King of the universe the ugly stuff? It is too unique, redemptive, and holy to be untrue. Christ desires our ugly stuff in exchange for our restoration, wholeness, and fellowship with the Father.

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