Living By Faith

Posted: December 14, 2019 in Meditations
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Fred Rogers, the children’s television host, struggled to assemble a tent during a shoot. Try as he might, Mr. Rogers failed to put the tent together. He finally gasped, “I can’t do it. I need another person to help me.” His television director offered to rig the tent to easily snap into position. Fred said, “No, I like the scene just the way it happened.” When asked why, Fred Rogers replied, “Children need to know real life isn’t what we expect. Sometimes we fail; sometimes we need help.” Life is unpredictable, a mixed bag of success and failure, calm and crisis, joy and sorrow. We never figure it out. So how do we cope? How do we roll with the surprises life inevitably confronts us with?

Acts 12 is a gift to us. The Bible never sugarcoats life. God does not want to blindside us with a false sense of security. He challenges us to live our lives on principle rather than emotion. If we quit our jobs on our worst day, how many of us could hold down a job? “The just shall live by faith.” Habakkuk 2:4  We trust God in life. We do not trust ourselves to wind our way through circumstance. At least that is the way life should work. Too often we forget, we panic, we lose our way. Jesus warned us, “You will be hated, scorned, and some of you will die because of me.” Acts 12 is a terrifying tale of circumstance, principled trust, and glorious deliverance.

James the Apostle is dead, executed by sword to the delight of the Jews in Jerusalem. Peter, under guard in prison, awaits his execution. “The church was earnestly praying to God for him.” Acts 12:5  Don’t forget, they just lost James – by all accounts, a devastating loss to the church. Their prayers added up to a big fat zero in the answered-prayer column. God must have seemed far away in that moment. Did they doubt? You bet they did. Peter? No one is more surprised than Peter when he finds himself alone on a darkened street, a free man. Fear, doubt, and everything in between tortured their minds as it does ours. Despite pounding hearts, they lived by faith, they acted on principle. They knew one basic truth, Christ is all that matters” But Peter kept on knocking, and when they opened the door and saw him, they were astonished.” Acts 12:16  Have you been surprised when God answered prayer? We all have. Have you been disappointed or worse when God didn’t intervene in circumstance? Again, we’ve all been there. Let’s be honest, much of life is a mystery. And that won’t change this side of heaven. We eventually find out the “who” is much more important than the “why”.

Jesus Christ, Son of God, born of woman, crucified, risen, now seated at the right hand of God the Father: that is our truth. Created by and for God: that is our reality. So, brother and sister, stand tall and live life with purposed ferocity. We cannot assemble the tent of a well-lived life alone. No matter how we try, we fail. Disappointment, fear, and the unknown thwart us. God is our advocate, the Holy Spirit is our senior partner. Together we snap that tent into place and anchor it stake by stake into the living principled word of God. Be bold, trust God. In the end, Christ is all that matters.

 

God, I Miss Her

Posted: December 10, 2019 in Meditations

 

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My Aunt Faith lost her battle to cancer thirty years ago at the peak of her powers, a brilliant force for all that is deemed good in this world. And I miss her, God, I miss her. She remains an icon to all who knew her. If you listen to a recording of her teachings, you will understand why. The rare seer articulates the truths of Scripture within the fabric of life. Faith had that ability to challenge hearts to a way forward that puts flesh and soul to the plow of the Gospel. Platitudes melt and volition to spiritual revolution arise. Faith called us to arms with humor that softened an uncompromising alacrity. God, did you have to take her so young?

My aunt was born in a world of want far from her adult home of New York City. From all accounts, Faith was painfully shy. One of eleven children, it was easy to lose this little blonde jewel in the hustle and bustle. She went to college in Greeley, Colorado. Her dry wit made Faith a family treasure but nothing betrayed the person and calling that still dominates our memories today. Who would think a life in rural North Carolina and eastern Colorado could prepare woman for ministry in New York City? And who would imagine a shy blonde woman could command respect in Harlem? God could, and he did. Did you have to take her so young?

“It was about this time that King Herod arrested some who belonged to the church, intending to persecute them. He had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword.” Acts 12:1,2  James was one of three with Jesus at the Mount of Transfiguration. Jesus poured himself into Peter, James, and John like no others. And yet, ten years later he is killed like a dog. Why did we lose the best at the peak of his powers? “When Herod saw that this pleased the Jews, he proceeded to seize Peter also.” Acts 12:3  Imagine the alarm of the church, James is dead and Peter is soon to follow. “So Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him.”  Acts 12:5  The church earnestly prayed for James and he died. From their perspective, I’m sure they were crushed when the worst happened. How do you think the church felt with Peter in prison? They feared the worst; they had every reason to doubt a miracle. Peter faced the same doubts. If James died, why on earth would God spare me? The rest of Acts 12 tells the miracle of Peter’s escape from prison. Peter and the church were surprised by God’s intervention. Their prayers were answered. Why Peter and not James? Only God knows. We call it providence and leave it alone. Still, I ask, did you have to take him at the peak of his powers?

Faith poured herself into me as a boy. I spent summer days in the Bronx. I played in the streets while Faith worked. Cars slowed down and yelled, “Cracker!” I smiled, waved back. Sometimes ignorance is a blessing. She pursued me as a teenager and college student, gave me books to read, literature I wouldn’t find in local libraries or seminaries. Point of view means everything and she wanted me to live in the skin of the oppressed. My kids often wonder why I react emotionally to bigotry and condescension. I believe a big chunk of my aunt lives in me, a piece that will die with me. I lacked the maturity to marinate in her wisdom at that time but the heart does not forget an investment. The word of God truly does not return void. I’m grateful to say, “Aunt Faith, I was not a waste of your time.” And that legacy passes to my children. my Elizabeth is only 20. I pour intention into her life as Faith poured into mine.

Aunt Faith passed to glory, she surrendered the baton of ministry to the capable hands of others. That’s how God works. On the Urban Youth Alliance site, I read these words, “The mother of Urban Youth Alliance, Rev. Faith Brown, loved New York City. She loved the drug addict, she loved the gang member, and she deeply loved the inner city.” My aunt dearly loved a little oblivious boy from Wisconsin named Phillip. God, I miss her.

Peace Beyond Understanding

Posted: December 6, 2019 in Meditations
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When somebody has life by the tail, it’s pretty hard to tell that individual how to live their life. Why should they listen to you, to me? What do you have to offer that they don’t already have? There is an old saying, “You don’t realize Jesus is all you need until Jesus is all you have.” I love to read history. Over and over again, history spins tales of fortunes lost, loves lost, lives destroyed and tragically ended – all within the span of days. Life’s trappings create an illusion of well-being. Life is good until it isn’t.

In 2005, I fell 26 feet off a two story roof gable. The fact that I survived is a miracle in itself, I landed on the back of my head and shoulders, my life forever changed. The darkest hour lasted seven years, years filled with prescription drugs, unrelenting headaches, unpredictable drifts into paranoia, and yes, psychotic breaks. When my life reduced to the size of a quarter my prayer was, “Lord, make my life a little bigger than it was yesterday.” My keen mind could no longer memorize a simple phrase. Retention was a futile exercise, sand slipping through fingers, a dream fading to mist. And yet God was there. In spite of the chaotic tumble of my brain, I knew God was there. And that simple conviction was enough to live each day for what it was.

“You will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are steadfast, because they trust in you.” Isaiah 26:3  I often wondered what went through people’s minds when the end was near. Was it dread? Was it anger? How do you know until you sense the shadow of death? The body instinctively speaks to us when we cross that line. I’ve been there. After seven years I was the wind up watch that had run its cycle. I was done. Barring a miracle, my time on earth was near an end. At that realization, peace swept my heart. I knew I belonged to God. No matter what happened, I was good with that. My Aunt Norma lost her battle with cancer at 64. My father asked his sister in that last month, “Norma, do you feel short changed?” She never hesitated, “Heavens no. I’m 64 years old!” Norma knew, I know, “the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard our heart and our mind in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 4:7 We are his and he is mine.

How will you face adversity when your life gets turned upside down? Where is your identity? Only you can answer that question. Only you and God know that answer. Life happens, it happens to all of us. David proclaimed, “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” Psalm 23:4  Do you know that peace? You can. I am the living proof. So be bold, trust without borders in the Living God. In the end, Christ is all that matters.

 

 

 

Mr Rogers, A Window to God

Posted: December 4, 2019 in Meditations

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This past weekend I saw a movie with my daughter, “A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood”. At the end of the movie as credits rolled, a packed house broke out with applause. Every individual knew something special had just happened, we saw the face of God. We witnessed life: betrayal, pain, hate, conflicted love, consequences, possibilities, forgiveness, and new beginnings. In Fred, we saw Christ, we saw our own possibilities.

I want everyone to see this movie – I won’t betray the plot. Allow me to share one small nugget early on in the movie that struck my heart. Lloyd Vogel, a notorious feature writer, interviews Fred Rogers, the PBS television star, over the phone. Fred Rogers asks Lloyd, “Do you know why you are the most important person in the world to me? Lloyd responds sarcastically, “No Fred, I have no idea.” Fred answers, “Because you are talking to me right now.” Fred was not pandering. He meant every word he spoke. He recognized the precious unique life of a man named Lloyd Vogel, created by and for God. Nothing Lloyd could do was going to change that conviction.

I saw my Heavenly Father in that phone call. I immediately pictured myself sitting in my perch, my chair in my house. It’s where I read, it’s where I talk to God. I heard God say to me, “Phil, do you know why you are the most important person in the world to me right now? Because you are talking to me.” My heart rushed, my eyes welled with tears. “His pleasure is not in the strength of the horse, nor his delight in the legs of the warrior; the Lord delights in those who fear him, who put their hope in his unfailing love.” Psalm 147:10,11  Our Heavenly Father delights in our conversations. Spend time with him. You are the most important person in the world to him.

 

 

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.