The Face of God

Posted: January 26, 2020 in Meditations
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Sixty years ago a young boy scratched out his school lessons in the red dirt of equatorial Africa. His home was a rural town, the tribe’s pride and identity exuded from the elephants that roamed their land. Its people worked hard, their loyalty to each other ran deep. Mom and Dad had nominal educations but harbored big dreams for their children. The young boy grew into a young man’s body. He was bright, at sixteen he carried ambition and dreams. “Father, I’ve been offered a good job in the big city. I can work and go to the community college.” Father paused, “No, son, wait. As long as you have a chance at going to the national university, wait.” In a country of over 40 million people, only 1000 students got accepted into the university each year, most with connections to privilege. The young man’s chances were slim at best yet Dad said, “Wait”. This simple family knew one important detail, the God of the Bible makes the impossible possible.

Years of hard work and a precocious mind paid off. A young man from hard scrabble town received an acceptance letter from the university. His scores, prodigious by any standard, were forwarded to the best universities in America. He got offers from Yale, Harvard, Stanford, and Johns Hopkins. He chose Johns Hopkins. Today, this father of six is one of the foremost medical research scientists in the world. Many of our genetic breakthroughs originated from his research in his laboratories. Who knew? God knew.

Last year I sat at a large dinner celebration for a wedding. A young lady was wheeled in by her parents and parked at the adjoining table. I knew immediately that this precious daughter had never walked and never talked. She seemed oblivious to her surroundings, the eyes vacant. The Holy Spirit grabbed hold of my heart. I did not see a severely disabled child, I saw the face of God. I saw the sacredness of life, I felt the accountability for my own life, a life breathed into existence to glorify my creator, the Great God, Infinite Goodness. I saw in this young girl my future. I prayed this prayer, “Lord, someday, when this child and myself serve you in heaven, let me do an assignment with this girl and let her lead the way.” I saw what God sees. No matter how we are compromised in the eyes of man, we are never compromised in the eyes of God.

“Philip went to look for Nathaniel and told him, ‘We have found the very person Moses and the prophets wrote about! His name is Jesus, the son of Joseph from Nazareth.’ ‘Nazareth!’ exclaimed Nathaniel. ‘Can anything good come from Nazareth?’ ”  John 1:45,46  Nathaniel is no different from us. We judge others all the time. You went to Yale? You must be a smarty. Grew up in the slums of Baltimore, the backwater of equatorial Africa? Nobody of note is going to know your name. You have a child with profound challenges? Glad I’m not you. You get the point. We make snap judgments about the worth of individuals everyday. Jesus got “Nazareth” and “the carpenter’s son” label hung on him day in and day out. Jesus shared a parable in which the righteous were given their reward. The righteous were a bit confused and asked, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go visit you?” The King answered, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”  Matthew 25:37-40

Every individual is sacred unto God. I recently talked to a seventeen year old Hispanic girl who has been verbally abused. I said, “Love in our hearts is so crucial. Never surrender your heart to hate. Sometimes it is so difficult to see the face of God in others because of the warp of evil. ” Apart from God’s work in our heart, we will fail to see beyond the warp of evil, whether it be our heart or their heart. John wrote, “Dear friends, since God loved us, we  also ought to love one another.”  1 John 4:11  Jesus showed us the way, he affirmed the face of God in all of us. He loved us, he died for us. Now love others. Don’t measure worth, don’t give in to prejudice and hurt. Love, affirm, invest, all to the glory of God. Be bold, in the end, Christ is all that matters.

Eve Of Destruction

Posted: January 22, 2020 in Meditations

Mushroom cloud over Nagasaki after the d

A Soviet Union bomber took off from an isolated military airbase north of the Arctic Circle on October 30, 1961. A small crew led by pilot Andrei Durnovtsev said little. Today was no ordinary day. The plane carried one bomb, a bomb so big the entire plane had to be completely retrofitted to house and release the weapon. 26 feet long, 7 feet wide, the “tsar bomba” weighed in excess of 50 tons. Remember the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that halted World War 2? Multiply the combined release of energy of those two atomic bombs by 1,570 and you get the equivalent energy release of this singular bomb. The crew said little because they expected to die on this flight. Soviet physicists gave the crew an optimistic 50% chance of surviving the blast. The bomb detonated at 30 miles and the shock wave hit them at 71 miles. Flying at 35,000 feet, the fireball scorched the plane. The crew survived but not without a harrowing instant free fall of one kilometer and a smashing shudder to the plane.

Everything within a 34 mile radius of the bomb blast was utterly destroyed. Stone buildings 62 miles away lost their roofs. Windowpanes broke up to 560 miles away. The estimated energy yield exceeded the yield of all conventional weapons used in World War 2 by ten times. Andrei Sakharov designed this “layered cake” hydrogen bomb to be a clean bomb, minimal radioactive fallout. Yet today, the bombsite still cannot be inhabited by man. Nobody will live on this island in my lifetime.

Sakharov abandoned a career in weaponry, largely the result of this bomb test. “I will not pursue self immolation.” Andrei Sakharov sacrificed his future to fight the madness of man’s race to destruction. But what have we learned since 1961? China, France, Russia, United Kingdom, United States, India, Pakistan, North Korea: all have verified nuclear weapons. Israel remains undeclared. Iran aggressively pursues nuclear weapons. Now the arsenal of man reaches to space, the new frontier. Who will dominate? Who crosses the line? Where? When? And for what?

Energy, in many ways, is the visible essence of God. Building blocks of the universe inspire awe and every year unveils more secrets. The applications of energy cast heavenly dreams on one hand and our worst nightmare on the other. The economic welfare of whole nations is sacrificed today in order to hold weapons of mass destruction, and for what? To feel safe? No, the argument boils down to this, “If you are going to destroy me, I am going to get my pound of flesh.” Nations seek to ensure that any existential victories will be pyrrhic victories. Nuclear weapons declare the depravity of man. Platitudes and treaties cannot shadow lurking arsenals. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said, “Men have forgotten God: that’s why all this has happened.”

“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” Matthew 7:13-14  Man is who he is. William Golding, in Lord of the Flies, says, “Maybe there is a beast…maybe it’s only us.”  How many people cling to the childlike illusion of John Lennon’s “Imagine”? How many of us refuse to acknowledge the madness we live in? How many of us have forgotten God? Folks, run to Jesus. You are created by and for him; he is the only solution to our depravity. Christ is who he says he is. Be bold, no regrets, do the right thing. In the end, Christ is all that matters.

Real Freedom

Posted: January 15, 2020 in Meditations
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You may be a preacher with your spiritual pride
You may be a city councilman taking bribes on the side
You may be workin’ in a barbershop, you may know how to cut hair
You may be somebody’s mistress, may be somebody’s heir

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes
You’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody

Gotta Serve Somebody, by Bob Dylan, hit me like a ton of bricks in 1979. The poetry may be lacking, no classic Dylan metaphors, but that phrase, “you’re gonna have to serve somebody” ate me whole. Freedom and personal liberty are themes that rage in the human soul. Who is boss: the state, the individual, the devil, God? Fundamentally, do I control my own destiny and how will we define what that means? What does Patrick Henry’s vow, “Give me liberty or give me death”, mean today? “Don’t tread on me”, what circumscribes its ominous warning? The libertarian’s demand, “Your business ends at the tip of my nose”, how does it manifest itself in real life? Wars wage over these convictions of man’s soul.

The Apostle Paul opens his letter to the church at Rome with four powerful words, “Paulos doulos Christou ‘Iesou”.  Those words translate, “Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus”. Some translations properly render this, “Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus.” Doulos, “slave”, is the key word that unlocks the genius of Paul’s appellation. Paul is writing, most likely from Corinth in Greece, to the church at Rome. The Roman church is primarily Gentile with a Jewish minority. The classic western mind, particularly Greek, abhors the very thought of being a slave. Aristotle and Plato celebrate the freedom of every man. “I am king of my life; I am the despot who makes the decisions for my life.” The spirit of the Greek and Roman heart ideally bows to no man. Certainly no citizen of the west would freely proclaim themselves to be a slave of anyone or anything. And the spirit of these words live on today without resolution. Why? One bedeviling reality, “it may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”

“If you cling to your life, you will lose it; but if you give up your life for me, you will find it.” Matthew 10:39  Jesus leads the way to freedom with words that repel the heart of sinful man. I want what I want. I justify my feelings. I demand autonomy, I insist on personal freedom. We rail at God bound by chains we cannot see. Paul says, “Don’t you realize that you become the slave of whatever you choose to obey? You can be a slave to sin, which leads to death, or you can choose to obey God, which leads to righteous living.” Romans 6:16  In this paradigm, the total commitment of the slave on the one hand corresponds to the total claim of the Lord on the other. We are unwilling slaves to our own nature. Jesus offers us two choices: death or life, bondage or freedom. “And remember, if you were a slave when the Lord called you, you are now free in the Lord. And if you were free when the Lord called you, you are now a slave in Christ.”  1 Corinthians 7:22  Paul spoke these words to literal slaves and free men.

When I prayed a primitive prayer at the age of 17, “God, if you’re real, please be real in my life”, I surrendered everything of me. I left nothing on the table. I wanted nothing of the chains that bound my spirit. In that moment, I found peace, I found purpose, I found home. Every one of us is created by God and for God. Grab hold of that thought. I treasure these words from Ravi Zacharias, “God has appointed you for this moment in time. Your life has particular value and distinct significance.” Seize your destiny, don’t waste another moment. Proclaim yourself a slave of Christ Jesus. In that moment, you will find real freedom. So be bold, no regrets, do the right thing. In the end, Christ is all that matters.

 

 

 

Bittersweet, A Farewell

Posted: January 12, 2020 in Meditations

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An old friend passed from life to life this past week. His last years did him no favors. Disease, the devolution to death, can be so cruel. My heart aches for his family. Virtually all of us have travailed intimately the death of loved ones. But my heart seeks out the first day I met this man, the conversations, the seasons of prayer, the possibilities of a life dedicated to the service of God. We were young, single, and optimistic. And why not? We served the Great God, the author of the universe, the creator of us.

My friend had it all, or so I thought. A great athlete in high school, he was the marble Adonis in flesh. His voice, sweet and pure, led us in worship. His preaching brought us to the prayer rail. He sought God early in the morning. Praying with him in the darkness of an empty church is something I’ll never forget. We welcomed the man from California. We loved him and he loved us. He never left. Today we bury his body in the earth of Wisconsin.

I called my dad in Florida to break the news. Silence, then Dad spoke, “He was an enigma. I know he loved the Lord.” Dad was right. My friend mirrors a statement from the movie Green Book. “Life can get complicated” My friend did great work for the cause of Christ. I’m sure he inspired thousands to pursue Christ. Sadly, terrible personal decisions shipwrecked his ministry and the well being of his immediate family. Personal demons won too many battles.

Life separated two young men. Years passed but we remained connected. I dismissed rumors about my friend. I lived 600 miles away and I was not going to get involved. Then a distraught call changed everything. It involved family and my friend. Heartsick, I drove all day praying, I was about to confront a friend with sin. The event was painful, thick with angst, filled with love. My friend denied any sin. I begged him never to cross the line again. Two years later, he was removed from ministry for a similar offense. I never stopped loving him.

“They sow the wind and reap the whirlwind.” Hosea 8:7  The devastation of personal sin often wrecks those around us, those we love the most. We call this generational sin, “punishing the children for the sins of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me.” Exodus 20:5  When none of your children serve the God you love? I cannot imagine the pain and regret. But I can pray and hope. I added his wife and the names of his children to my prayer list. Satan doesn’t have to have the last word on sin. My friend is a cautionary tale to all of us. Sin has taken all of us down, we know its effects. But we also have a savior in Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit is our advocate, our difference maker. “The mind of sinful man is death, but the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace.” Romans 8:6

I read a powerful essay by Rod Dreyer this week. He said, “Every time we fail to muster the courage to do what is right, what God is calling us to do, there is behind that failure a still deeper failure, a failure to love.” Friends, pursue God with a whole heart. Be bold, do what is right, no regrets. In the end, Christ is all that matters.

 

Prayer, A Legacy

Posted: January 10, 2020 in Meditations
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I was born into privilege, my father barely 21, my mother 19. My parents had no money, Dad left for Germany months after I was born, a draftee into the army. Mother moved from Colorado back home to Wisconsin. My privilege wasn’t money – everybody in the extended family was poor. They worked in mills, on farms, and in the trades. They got married, stayed married, and raised a family best they knew how. Their bond was their word and the local neighborhoods recognized their goodwill. But it was faith in Christ that stood out on both sides of my family. That is the privilege I was born into. That is the legacy that buttressed my life. I am who I am because of the prayer and nurture of family.

The world outside the church understands nurture. Who doesn’t respond to love, generosity of spirit, and encouragement. But prayer? Few understand prayer beyond a moment of crisis or the formality at solemn events. Prayer gets mocked as a behavior of the deluded. God might as well be the fictional rabbit, Harvey. The Christian life will never be understood apart from prayer. Worship, celebration, thanksgiving, petition, whining, intercession: every element of the human experience gets carried into prayer. Why? Prayer is the privilege of relationship with the Great God, Infinite Goodness. Jesus said, “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.” John 15:15  The God who created all that is condescends to be my friend and senior partner. He wants me to be successful in this life because I was uniquely created to serve and honor him, he loves me.

As a young boy, Grandpa Sheveland picked me up every Wednesday night for Prayer meeting. Each Wednesday, our church gathered for a time of singing and a short teaching before the men and women separated into rooms for prayer. The men sat in a large circle. I was so proud to sit next to my grandpa, a deacon in our church. The men prayed in earnest. I knew this was serious stuff. They fought for the well being of family, church members, their community, and missionaries around the globe. In essence, they went to war for the kingdom of God. A young boy doesn’t understand many of the specific petitions but he does learn a valuable lesson, prayer is the heart of a church.

My father’s mother prayed as no other I know. Grandma Brown was a disciplined intercessor, a woman who prayed on my behalf to her dying breath. To understand my grandma, let me quote the Apostle Paul regarding a fellow believer named Epaphras, “He is always wrestling in prayer for you, that you may stand firm in all the will of God.” Colossians 4:12  I wish you could hear the song in my mind, it is the voice of my grandma wrestling in prayer for others, it is the voice of praise and worship for the God she knew intimately. If you knew our family, now four generations beyond grandma, you would be awed by her legacy of prayer. Her investment in prayer now literally impacts the globe for the cause of Christ. An orphanage in the Ukraine bears her name. And we pray, we wrestle for others, we go to war in the name of Jesus.

Paul begins his letter to the Romans, “This letter is from Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus”. Powerful words, I too am a slave of Christ. I know that I know, there is no life worth living apart from as full surrender to Christ. Much of that understanding and conviction has been steeled on my knees. Prayer is not primarily an exercise in words. Prayer allows the Holy Spirit to shape our hearts, to give us his eyes. Prayer exposes my sin and leads me into righteousness. Prayer births and intensifies love for others. Prayer unveils the possible in the impossible. Faith born in prayer enervates our ministries, it puts boots and vitality to the plow of life, God’s hand extended. So be bold, pray and obey. In the end, Christ is all that matters.

Life Isn’t Fair

Posted: December 31, 2019 in Meditations
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My wife went to work early, before 7 AM. She headed to the bathroom when her feet flew out from under her on a tile floor. Her head slammed into the corner of a brick wall. That was four months ago. She presently deals with headaches, fatigue, and dizziness from a moderate traumatic brain injury. Our income stopped, bureaucratic red tape still holds up the first workman’s compensation benefit. Countless rehabilitation appointments do nothing to address her issues. We simply check the boxes as a duty to the system and wait. My wife, in her frustration, says, “But this wasn’t my fault.” And she is right. This isn’t her fault. But who said life is fair? Who is going to tell my daughter-in-law that her two miscarriages are fair? Who is going to tell the orphan in Haiti that his station in life is fair?

My first date with my wife was a double date with my friend David and his wife Joyce. I loved that man. He was so many things that I knew I wasn’t. David committed himself to academics while my mind wandered to women and sports. He served as a pastor in New York City and in Springfield, Missouri. I taught Sunday School. I don’t say this to disparage myself but rather to illustrate my deep admiration for my brother David. He stood up for me at my wedding. He went on to become one of the top Old Testament scholars in the country. I’ve listened to his lectures for hours on You Tube. A long time ago David walked away from his faith. He concluded, not only is God not fair – he is a monster. Joyce and his two sons left him. He remarried and continues to lecture on the Bible he no longer believes to be true.

My dad comes from a family of eleven children. Grandma’s daughters loved to tease her with a question, “Mama, who do you love the most?” Grandma’s response remained singular, “Why, whoever needs it the most.” Some would say that is a diplomatic response, I would say that response reflects the heart of God. The human essence is this, we are created by and for God. We exist to serve. My father took me aside at Christmas and said, “Phil, you and Steve are not going to receive gifts of money from me while I live. I am going to help your sisters who need a boost. Fair? Not remotely relevant. My dad serves the family by loving the individuals that need it the most.

Paul said, “I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength.”  Philippians 4:12,13.  In 1 Thessalonians 1:6 Paul says, “So you received the message with joy from the Holy Spirit in spite of the severe suffering it brought you. In this way, you imitated both us and the Lord.”  Circumstance never dictated who God was to Paul. Life in Christ had nothing to do with fairness. Life had everything to do with service to the Living God. And so it is with us. Regardless of personal suffering, the Holy Spirit puts joy in our hearts. Even in human despair, we can sing a new song. An old hymn by Michael Card, Joy In The Journey, speaks to the life we live in Christ, the fruit of service to Almighty God – even when life isn’t fair.

There is a joy in the journey,

There’s a light we can love on the way.

There is a wonder and wildness to life,

And freedom for those who obey.

All those who seek it shall find it,

A pardon for all who believe.

Hope for the hopeless and sight for the blind

To all who’ve been born of the Spirit.

Love Note To Mama

Posted: December 24, 2019 in Meditations

 

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My heart froze the first time I saw you in the Fall of 1979. The bloom of youth, a smile and personality that lit up a room – in that moment I couldn’t dare dream that girl might one day be my wife. Now, forty years later, I awe at the goodness of God and the miracle of love, the husband who knows full well he married above his station. Loyalty, faithfulness, perseverance, selflessness: you instruct my life, you push me to be a better man. You’ve shown me the face of God and I am indeed a rich man.

Ours is a love burnished by the Holy Spirit. We entered our partnership flawed and incomplete. I had a good heart with a woeful inability to express itself in fundamental ways, yet you loved me. Coming out of a broken home, you wrestled with fear and trust. But you never ran, you pressed on. You seized the possible and embraced God for the impossible. We’ve had forty years to discover the power of prayer and the healing balm of common decency and selfless love. The journey continues, the miracle of the divine unfolds, a love born, fed, and cultivated by a knowing God.

Four children, four brilliant torches of light – I cannot imagine a better gift in the entire world. What you invested in those unique children of God escapes the bounds of words. Each one of those rascals knows who the rock is; it’s Mama. I love you for every drop of blood, sweat and tears you poured into those lives. You understood better than me that we are God’s trustees. You saw fledgling warriors for God. I saw imps, messes, and impending disasters! And now? Four adults speak into my life – what a glorious legacy.

Mama, we enter this last season of life sobered by the vagaries of a fallen world. No human institution will ever adequately address the sin problem. But together we affirm the truth of the Gospel of Christ. We live the ongoing miracle of transformation. The knowing touch of your hand, the smell of your hair – these are no mere traces of human affection. No, these are the mirrors of God’s majesty, his love, his faithfulness, his intimacy. Our love born of flesh is now born of the Spirit, ordained to glorify the Great God, Infinite Goodness. Both of us in death will proclaim, “Christ is all that matters.” I love you, honey, with a whole heart. Thank you.