Archive for November, 2019

Family, A Thanksgiving

Posted: November 28, 2019 in Meditations
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The kids are asleep. Mom owns the bed, the television and the two remotes. Hey, the Queen rules. I sit in a McDonald’s booth, pen in hand anticipating a bit of alchemy to flow from ink. It’s Thanksgiving morning, I time to pause, a time to reflect. Family done right is the best gift I can think of this side of heaven. My wife, my children, my grandchildren: folks, I’m a rich man. What I’ve done for a living, the places I’ve seen all fade to black compared to the extended embrace of my wife, tiny fingers of a grandchild clasped in mine, the affectionate barbs of four imps – my rascally kids! And this is only the immediate family. I’m one of five, my mother one of six, my father one of eleven. Encampments of the Brown tribe prepare to honor Thanksgiving 2019 across this nation.

And what will we celebrate? Relationships, ties that run deep, shared histories that shape and define us. We look beyond each other’s faults, we see the face of God. A brief illustration, my twin boys were eighth graders. One of the twins shot off his mouth to a school tough, not a good idea for a scrawny boy in search of puberty. A cocked right hand signaled impending street justice. A blindside shot knocked the boy off balance. Two boys pummeled a hapless sap with a bruised ego. Don’t mess with twins, especially if their last name is Brown. Families stick together, they stand in the gap when nobody else will. Time and wallets repeatedly open. We love, then love again.

Most of us understand family. We get it, we live it. But do we understand God’s role in family? In God’s plan, family points us to the heart of God. The concepts we learn in family: loyalty, faithfulness, forgiveness, unconditional love – these are all attributes of God’s love. My family is what it is because of God’s abiding love. We have discovered love and trust without borders because of the revolutionary life altering work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. “But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! Matthew 5:44 “If you love only those who love, what reward is there in that?” My family extends that love globally and in community. It no longer constrains to the borders of clan and tribe. “We love because he first loved us.” 1 John 4:19 Yes, we see the face of God in family. But we now see the face of God in everyone. We see God’s possibilities in man’s impossibilities.

Today, I give thanks for my family. I thank God for his many blessings bestowed upon me. But none of this means anything without the love of Christ reigning in our hearts. Christ is the tie that binds our hearts through thick and thin. We are now the face of God to others, his hand extended to a desperate needy world. Today, celebrate with purpose. Love, laugh, even cry around your tables. Be bold. Love, then love again. In the end, Christ is all that matters.

 

 

The Call

Posted: November 23, 2019 in Meditations
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The moment of salvation signals a new beginning. Its meaning derives from before-after, from-to. That contrast is nuanced for some, stunning for others. Ninety-nine percent of my church assumed I was one of them – I was the one percent. I grew up in the church. My extended family dedicated themselves to the cause of Christ. I lived like a young Christian but I had not accepted the call to take up my cross and follow Christ. I held onto my life with white knuckles, afraid of Satan, afraid of God. Paul was the polar opposite, a force of nature, brazen, fearless. Nothing shouts grace and God’s love like the testimony of Paul.

“Now get up and stand on your feet. I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen of me and what I will show you.”  Acts 26:16

We all have a call ordained of God from the moment of salvation. Amazing, dumbfounding: billions of people on this planet rocketing through a fathomless universe and I have a singular purpose. But it’s true. I live it as I write. Paul wrote, “But join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God, who saved us and called us to a holy life – not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time.” 2 Timothy 1:8-10  Paul is called to be a servant and a witness. No longer the Jewish rabbi Saul, no longer the rising superstar of the Sanhedrin, no longer the enemy of Jesus and his church: the new man is a servant of Jesus, a brother to the church, a witness to the truth of Messiah, Jesus Christ. Hate melts, love arises. Salvation births new beginnings.

“I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles. I am sending you to them to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins.” Acts 26:17,18

Who doesn’t thrill to testimonies of deliverance? But what we get saved from can only be appreciated when we consider what we get saved to. We turn from darkness to light – what does that mean? Unchained from the shackles of sin, I now love with the love of Christ, a selfless love without hidden agendas. Satan no longer steals pieces of my soul, no longer distracts and deceives my neediness. God transforms my wicked heart. He clothes me with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, forbearance and forgiveness. The peace of God rules in my heart. This is life in Christ; this is what we are called to be. “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” Colossians 3:17  Be bold. In the end, Christ is all that matters.

 

 

 

Salvation Road Part 3

Posted: November 21, 2019 in Meditations
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“No longer, then, do we judge anyone by human standards. Even if at one time we judged Christ according to human standards, we no longer do so. Anyone who is joined to Christ is a new being: the old is gone, the new has come. All this is done by God, who through Christ changed us from enemies into his friends and gave us the task of making others his friends also.”  2 Corinthians 5:16,18

Salvation is a mystery. I marvel at my own experience as a lonely confused seventeen year old. The Great God condescends to the little world of a boy, a nameless individual to the world at large. Yet God calls me by name. “I have called you by name – you are mine. When you pass through deep waters, I will be with you; your troubles will not overwhelm you. For I am the Lord your God.”  Isaiah 43:1-3  The premise for my existence stands on one simple statement, Phil is created by and for God. I am created in the image of God. In other words, I am designed to communicate with God, to have relationship with God. Unfortunately I’m broken, a problem called sin – a problem I cannot fix on my own. I need God.

In my essay, Salvation Road, I left my story in a bedroom alone with my sorrow, a confused heap with nowhere to turn. Pastor Windle’s funeral was a blur. The church was packed and I memorized the grave site. I visited that grave a number of times, always alone. Each visit reinforced an odd conviction, God does not exist, something Pastor would never accept. Rebellion is often much more about hurt than it is about facts and reason. Pain ruled. I pushed aside my angst, I moved on.

January came and went. February gave no hope for Spring in Wisconsin. I looked forward to a big winter retreat at a church camp. Enclaves of youth descended from around the state. Sports, shenanigans, and girls were the only thing on my mind when I hit the bunk house. Mandatory church services were a fair trade for everything outside the chapel. I had no idea I would be a completely different person in 36 hours.

A blizzard followed by plunging temperatures cancelled outdoor events on Saturday. Instead we filed into chapel for services. I thought, God has a wicked sense of humor. I was not happy. The year was 1972. Unbeknownst to me, the Hippie Movement was being swept with revival. Folks called it the Jesus Movement. Long haired bearded college boys took control of the meeting. Stripped to the bone honesty poured from their lips, stuff I never heard before. One by one they spoke of deliverance, miracles, transformation. “God is not dead. God is alive.” Kids like me responded to their message. They stood up, many sobbing. They wanted what these men had. They wanted Jesus. I watched, stunned, just trying to make sense of it all. I knew all about revivals. I watched Billy Graham, sat in David Wilkerson crusades. Was this one of those events now happening on the fly? The camp meeting stretched to midnight. I said nothing, did nothing. I just marveled at what was happening.

Not much was said back in the cabin. No joking, no high jinks, the mood was somber. A prayer then lights out. I couldn’t sleep. I looked at my watch, the time read 3 AM. The words, “God is alive” kept ringing in my mind. If only that was true. Everyone else slept, I stared at the ceiling from my top bunk. “God, if you’re real, please be real in my life.” spilled off my tongue in a whisper. A peace flooded my being. Don’t ask me how I knew. All I can tell you is this, I sensed the presence of God in me for the first time in my life. I rolled over and fell asleep. I woke up a new man.

 

 

 

 

 

Salvation Road Part 2

Posted: November 20, 2019 in Meditations
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“Who are you, Lord? he asked. “I am Jesus, whom you persecute,” the voice said. “But get up and go into the city, Where you will be told what you must do.”  Acts 9:5,6

Ginger Baker, the legendary drummer of Cream, passed away this past week. Jack Bruce, Ginger Baker, and Eric Clapton produced musical magic fifty years ago that still inspires this old man. A song off the Disraeli Gears album, “We’re Going Wrong’, sticks in my mind. Bruce wrote this song after a spat with his wife. Nothing speaks to resolution, all the energy focuses upon a building frustration. Baker’s drumming senses the seething anger constrained by decorum, the rhythm intense but muted. Measure by measure the intensity builds. Clapton’s lead guitar pulses to Baker’s drums, each feeds the other. Bruce’s bass guitar echoes the whirl of pain unleashed. A fevered pitch captures every fiber of our being as we careen into a journey whose end is undefined. We go because we must; the end doesn’t matter, not as long as the music keeps playing. So often, this is how we live life, not knowing, not understanding. We get swept along in the emotion of circumstance finding no resolution until it is too late. Life has come and gone.

God does the unexpected. Saul had no clue what happened in that moment. “Who are you?” He knew but didn’t know. The Jesus he hated was now Lord. But how? The heroic faith of Christ followers lay suppressed in his mind but now exploded to consciousness. The Scriptures of Messiah must be true. Saul now beheld the glorified Christ. It made sense. In that moment, hate melted, the storm of circumstance stopped. Saul chose Christ. The music went silent. Life would never be the same again. The Apostle Paul speaks out of his own experience when he says to the church at Corinth, “Now remember what you were, my brothers and sisters, when God called you. From the human point of view few of you were wise or powerful or of high social standing. God purposely chose what the world considers nonsense in order to shame the wise, and he chose what the world considers weak in order to shame the powerful. He chose what the world looks down on and despises, and thinks is nothing, in order to destroy what the world thinks is important. This means that no one can boast in God’s presence.” 1 Corinthians 1:26-29

Today many are shocked that Kanye West proclaims the Gospel, stunned by the images of prisoners surrendering to Christ in a Houston jail. God chooses the anointed ones, not us. Wouldn’t it be incredible if revival breaks out in the chaos of the inner cities? I relish the thought of God shocking all of us, and yes, that means me. We see pain, sin beyond description, chaos with no order. God sees purpose, possibilities in every one of us. We, the nameless masses, are desired by God, to work for God, to the glory of God. Every experience good and bad directs us to encounter with God. But will we seize it? We have a choice, Saul had a choice. He seized it, and history was never the same. Now he waits for you, the moment of decision is now.

Salvation Road

Posted: November 19, 2019 in Meditations
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“He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem.”  Acts 9:1,2

Saul had no idea what was about to happen to himself on the road to Damascus. The great persecution spearheaded by rabbi Saul struck fear in every member of the Church. Many died by his hand, countless others beaten. The full blessing of the Sanhedrin rested upon his bloody cause, the extermination of a cult. Nobody saw the reality of the obsessed zealot’s heart, doubt had wedged a growing rift in Saul’s heart.

Where do you suppose Luke got his account of the stoning of Stephen? Who was there? The Apostle Paul, Luke’s friend and travel companion, told him the story countless times. Paul gave his testimony wherever he went. Paul remembered everything from this dark period. Memories flashed faces that haunted him forever, the lives he destroyed before his conversion. Stephen”s words never left him, the heroic faith of martyrs forever etched in his brain. Saul grappled with a crisis of faith he couldn’t understand before the Damascus road experience. Jesus will soon confront him at the moment of decision. Only then will Saul surrender, only then will the angst within become clear.

I remember my own road to my moment of decision. I was seventeen, felt completely lost, no vision, no feel for my future. But I was a senior in high school and life was pushing me forward ready or not. I grew up in church but none of it connected with my heart. Nobody knew and nobody asked. And why would they? The church was all I knew. Sundays, Wednesdays, every youth activity, I was there. But I was dying a quiet death within. I dropped off a key at the parsonage. Pastor Windle answered the door. Pastor greeted me with the same big smile I saw my entire life. “Phil, if you ever want to talk, please give me a call. I would love to spend some time with you.” I thanked him and left. Did he know what I knew?

A week passed. Pastor’s words kept echoing in my mind. I wanted to talk, I wanted to call. I kept saying, “I’m okay. Not now.” The reality, I was scared stiff. I never opened up to anybody. I didn’t trust myself, I didn’t trust others. Saturday evening came. The church basketball team was playing that night, I knew pastor was going. I called Pastor Windle, my heart pounded. I wanted to talk. Mrs. Windle answered the phone. I asked to be picked up for the game. “Oh Phil, he just pulled out of the driveway. I’m so sorry.” I hung up, disappointed. Another day, I thought. Two hours later, the phone rang. Mom answered. Her tone of voice changed immediately. Pastor was dead. I ran upstairs to my bedroom, shut my door, the tears spilled. “Damn you, God. Damn you to hell.” Little did I know that I was less than a month from my moment of decision, the moment that changed my life forever.

 

 

 

Murder, A Step Away

Posted: November 17, 2019 in Meditations
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Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul”  Acts 7:58

Thus begins the story of the most influential man in church history, The Apostle Paul. Saul was no innocent bystander at Stephen’s execution. He stood as an observer for the Sanhedrin of Jerusalem, the highest religious authority for the Jews. Saul hated Stephen, a follower of The Way, a cult following the teachings of a man named Jesus executed two years earlier. This was just the beginning. Saul envisioned stamping out this blasphemy by any means available. In his own words, “I too was convinced that I ought to do all that was possible to oppose the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And that is just what I did in Jerusalem. On the authority of the chief priests I put many saints in prison, and when they were put to death, I cast my vote against them. Many a time I went from one synagogue to another to have them punished, and I tried to force them to blaspheme. In my obsession against them, I even went to foreign cities to persecute them.” Acts 26:9-12  How did faith in God come to this? Why?

Saul grew up in Tarsus, a city of a half million people on the Mediterranean Sea at the base of the Taurus Mountains. A center of international trade, Saul grew up in a prosperous Jewish family. He spoke Aramaic in his home, spoke Greek in the marketplace,  and studied Hebrew in his religious training. His father sent Saul to Jerusalem as a young teenager to study under the great rabbi Gamaliel, the grandson of Hillel. Saul excelled at everything he put his mind to, he was fast tracking to a position of high leadership in the Jewish community. Mom and Dad had to be proud and deeply satisfied.

Identity shapes men and women. Who am I? What is most important to my life, the lives of others? Saul knew the Scriptures better than I ever will. “Trust in the Lord with all your heart. Never rely on what you think you know. Remember the Lord in everything you do, and he will show you the right way.” Proverbs 3:5,6  He knew this verse by heart, yet Saul stepped over a line too many of us cross, his belief system overwhelmed the personal relationship with God. His voice replaced God’s voice, all in the name of God. The Jew pursued an identity in God. Too often, especially for a Pharisee, their identity was found in the keeping of the law of Moses. Paul recalled, “I was circumcised when I was a week old. I am an Israelite by birth, of the tribe of Benjamin, a pure-blooded Hebrew. As far as a person can be righteous by obeying the commands of the Law, I was without fault.” Philippians 3:5,6  Purity of faith trumped life itself.

We commit these same sins today. Politics in America fights a zero sum war. The opposition must be destroyed. You must be good or evil – God forbid you have elements of both. Christians bicker over doctrine, question the salvation of sinners, and forget to love their neighbor. “The written law brings death, but the Spirit gives life.” 2 Corinthians 2:6  Who and what reigns in our hearts? Do we denigrate others? Do we elevate ourselves as Christians at the expense of others? We love truth, we pursue it with a whole heart. But objective truth without God kills our ability to love with the love of God. In Saul’s case, it led to murder.

 

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Love, Then Love Again

Posted: November 13, 2019 in Meditations

Protestors dragged church pews, statues of Jesus and other religious iconography out through the doors of the historic building before defacing it

I watched young Antifa thugs gut a Catholic church in Santiago, Chile this past weekend. Dressed in black, individuals carried out statues of saints, the virgin Mary, Jesus Christ – the statue of Christ, beaten, pierced and dead seemed so ironic. Paintings, altars, and finally the pews got stacked in the street atop a rubble of shattered statuary. Doused in gasoline, a march did the rest. Billows of mottled black and gray smoke rose high above the city skyline. None of this hideous act was done in the dark of night. Crowds milled on this street in broad daylight. Nobody raised a hand in protest. Most striking, police were nowhere to be found. As I write, five churches have been destroyed in this past week.

This was a humble church on the poor side of town. Why? Why would protesters attack the dreams and sacrifices of generations of Christians, people who toiled in conditions far worse than those faced by this generation? The selfishness, the lack of respect, the hate – it all boggles my mind. I weep for the parishioners who lost their church, who face the venom of godless persecution. I weep for the Catholic church, the increasing target of hate in the world. I am not Catholic but I am a Christian. I feel the pain of this offense. An attack on the Catholic church is an attack on the Bride of Christ, the greater Church, God’s kingdom on earth.

The blood of martyrs has watered the church throughout history. Jesus warned his disciples early on, “You will endure persecution. Men will hate you, they will revile you because of me.” Even so, Jesus commanded all of us, “But now I tell you: love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may become the children of your Father in heaven.” Matthew 5:44,45 Folks, this is not natural. How does a normal human being react to the senseless destruction of a humble church? Let me indulge myself – I’m mad as hell. I want justice, I want vengeance, I want restitution. And where are the police? I demand an investigation. I demand arrests, convictions, and draconian punishments. My pain demands pain, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a  tooth. That is my flesh. Obviously Christ demands something else.

Jesus said, “If anyone wants to come with me, he must forget self, carry his cross, and follow me. For whoever wants to save his own life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” Matthew 16:24,25 Don’t waste your time looking for this kind of goodness within yourself. You won’t find it. This kind of love only comes from a full surrender to the power of the Holy Spirit. No, you cannot hold unto the pain. You cannot feed it by any justification. Give it all to Jesus, every drop of pain and bitterness. Only then can wounds be bound, only then can the love of God flow freely. I still marvel at the last words of the martyr Stephen, “Lord! Do not remember this sin against them!” Pray, love, then love again. God will do the rest. God will have his way.