Touching Lives

If you have been to the University of Tennessee Medical Center lately, you may have seen a life-size picture of one our church members.  The Medical Center is using the photo of Jami Ward to promote the Medical Center’s Guardian Angel program.  It has been in use for some time now.

I saw it again this week. I guess I was finally over the excitement of seeing someone I know on display in such a prominent way, because I read the caption for the first time. The caption said, “Who’s touched your life today?”  What a powerful question next to the face of someone who works in an intensive care unit for infants.  Every day Jami touches the lives of families as she cares for what is most precious to them.

As I let the caption rest in my mind, I saw another face from our church family.  It was not Jami’s this time, but that of young girl who I met for the first time when she was a patient in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. Years later, her smile now regularly brightens our hallways at church.  I thought of that little girl’s family and their amazing love for her; love so strong and so deep that it gave life to her not by chance, but by choice.  Touching lives indeed.

The kind of love that Jesus talked about, demonstrated with his actions and that ultimately carried him to the cross, is love like that.  It is rooted in real time and touches human beings in noticeable ways. Yet, it is not confined to the moment in which it is demonstrated or to the person or persons toward which it is directed. The love of Christ has a carryover effect. When we are loved by Christ, or loved with Christ’s love by one of his followers, a residue of grace lingers in our lives.

To be loved is the most basic of human needs.  When we experience it, we do not soon forget.  If at times we live as though we have forgotten the moments we felt loved, still the experience of it remains.  In it we felt acceptance.  This is different than the validation we sometimes receive for doing the things we do. No, to be loved with the love of Christ is a gift. We may long for it, yet it is not offered to us because we merit it, but because there is something in the nature of it that compels those who have experienced it to share it.  Our lives are transformed by such love.

As I think about Jami’s picture and the caption over it, I can easily imagine a number of other faces in our church that would fit appropriately under it.  Faces that bear the names of people who are the answer to the question, “Who touched your life today?”  Whether it is a formal role as teacher or caregiver, or in less formal ways as friend or neighbor, sharing the love of Christ in even a seemingly insignificant way can touch a person’s life in such a way that he or she is transformed by it, marked by it, so much so, that later in that person’s life, he or she is compelled in big ways and small ways to share that same love.

Touching lives is what we do as followers of Christ. Someone, perhaps several people, touched our lives with the love of Christ; and having been touched with such love, we are compelled by that love to touch the lives of others.

Advertisement

Well Hidden

The Psalmist says, “I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you.” (119:11 TNIV)  In recent days, I have found much comfort in words of scripture that have come to mind.  Bible verses memorized long ago, as well as ones recently brought to my attention by friends, have strengthened and encouraged me as I live through some challenging days. Those words have kept me connected to God, mindful of God’s presence, and aware of God’s promise to always be with me.

How do words get hidden in the heart?  The most apparent answer is that they are memorized.  A verse written on an index card, continually read and reread, will eventually plant itself in the mind. Repeating the verse from memory enough times will secure it there.

Yet, the heart language of the Psalmist seems to indicate something more than mental activity. The words are not hidden in the mind, but in the heart. The heart, in the Psalmist’s anatomy of prayer, is located deeper in the interior of a person. Hidden words capable of keeping a person connected to God, and not separated from God, find their place by something more than speaking and repeating, writing and rewriting.

To sin against God is to be separated from God —  out of fellowship with God. The word that finally brings us into fellowship with God, and removes our separation from God, is the Word made flesh. It is not so much the word we hide in our hearts, but the Word we hide ourselves in, that connects us to God and keeps us connected to God.

Together the words of God that we hide in our hearts, and the Word of God in which we hide ourselves, move us beyond talking to God and thinking about God, to being with God.  The heart does not think about the function it performs. It does what it does without thinking. Breathing is not a decision we make; we just do it. Neither does the heart decide to pump blood through our bodies; it just does it.

I wonder if the Psalmist had such a thought in mind when he designated the heart as the hiding place for God’s word.  Was he thinking of situations and circumstances that would be so taxing that the mind would be too stressed to provide comfort, consolation and strength?   The mind gets busy at times like that, searching for solutions, solving problems, and mapping out alternatives. Trying to figure out why something happened can at times be such a frustratingly large question that the mind has little energy for anything more. Yet, the heart continues to beat, bringing oxygen and supplying blood; so words hidden there do not depend on our ability to recall them. They come to us like our next breath, and they sustain us without our even being aware of the life they give to us.

In those moments, we are freed from the illusion that we are in control of our lives, and that our connection with God is the result of our mental effort, intellectual activity, or even thoughtful reflection. Rather, we find ourselves sustained by a merciful God, and there we truly find rest.

Waiting to Cry

“These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” (Revelation 7:14-17)

These words were written to a struggling group of people. They were a small group relatively speaking.  Their size does not diminish their faith. Neither does it gain them any standing with their neighbors. They are different from everyone else. They are not like the Jews. Rome has learned to deal with the Jews. These Christians are different. They are pushed to the fringes of society and deprive at times of making a living. They are like persons of Hispanic descent living in Arizona. But rather than producing a document to show they are legal residents, they are invited to worship the emperor Domitian. When they refuse –their lives are in peril.

John writes to them to not provide an escape, but to give them hope. John writing from exile on the isle of Patmos understands as well as anyone that following Christ does provide for way around the harsh, brutal hatred unleashed by the powerful on those who are different from them.  John writes to give courage and encouragement to Christians who are living through a time of great tribulation.

No more hunger and no more thirst are words of amazing comfort to a group of people who have been enduring a place in society where their capacity to provide for themselves and their families is limited by those had the power to gainfully employee them. What do you do to provide food, clothing, and shelter? You get a job. You earn your keep. What if no one will give you a job because you are a follower of Christ?  You go hungry. You watch your family go hungry. It is a terrible kind of suffering.

John says, they will hunger no more, and thirst no more.

You can be certain that if there is work, it is the work that no one else is willing to do. It is the work done in the worse conditions. Under blazing Sun and Scorching heat. But if that is the only work that you can get, you take it gladly.

John says, the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat

In the midst of such living—stress, strain, fear, worry—doubts and uncertainty must have arisen from time to time. The tension between keeping the faith and surviving may at times have become unbearable. What to do? Would not life be easier if we just looked, acted, spoke, worshipped like everyone else? What to do?

John says the Lamb at the center of the throne will be the shepherd. The lamb of God who died for you, will be your Shepherd. In your uncertainty, let the lamb be your shepherd. In your doubt, let he lamb be your shepherd. He is the one that will show you the way through this time of tribulation. He is the one who will show you the way to God.  He will guide you to the water of life. Water is life. Then and now, we cannot live without.

John’s vision touches his readers in places where they have very real hurts and constant anxieties. He creates an image for them of a time where there is no more hunger, no more thirst, no more scorching sun. He writes of a shepherd who was a lamb who will lead them to the water of life.

And then he adds and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. What must that look to a people in the middle of live a trying life? To people with so many reason to shed tears? To a mother struggling to care for her children? To a father seeking to provide for and protect his family? To men, women, boys, girls, families seeking to faithful to what they know of God while they suffer intense persecution?

What does it look like to you? The idea of the God who took on flesh, dwelt among us and died for us reaching down to wipe away your tears, what does that look like to you? What tears would God be wiping away? How did they get there?

Perhaps more than any other aspect of this scene, this notion of tears being wiped away grabs us. Because we have tears, we cry, we weep. Maybe not today, maybe not right now but we have done so and we will again.  John knows that about the people that he is writing to just as we know it about each other. We do not escape from our trials or our tribulations. For that, John gives us an image of our tears being wiped away by God.

No more tears. In a world that so often has so many reasons to cry, to sob, to weep, how outlandish is it to speak of time when God will wipe those tears away once and for all. In a world crowded with people just waiting to cry is possible that there will come a time when no more tears will be shed?

I am leaning on the fence next to the track waiting for my son’s event.  I am not alone, other spectators are behind me in the stands, some have found a place along the fence, others are moving from one place to another. There is much activity and excitement. The day is absolutely gorgeous.

In the midst of all that activity, I notice that someone is standing beside me. He speaks, “I am not supposed to be here.” “No?” “I am not supposed to be within three hundred yards of this place.”   I want to say “Hey, sorry man, but I am off the clock.” “I am not here working, I am here watching.” I don’t say that. I don’t say that because there is something in his voice when he speaks. He is not just speaking, he is exhaling words. He is speaking because he cannot keep from speaking. He is hurting. I can tell by the sound of his voice. He is about to cry.

So, I listen. They are separated. His wife made allegations. There is a restraining order. She could not make it to the track meet. His daughter called him and asked him to come. That is why he is here, even though he is not supposed to be here, not supposed to be within three hundred yards of her.  He does not cry out loud, but I can see the tears in eyes.

That is the world in which we live. There are all kinds of people out there just waiting to cry. So when John talks about God wiping away our tears we perk up. We know tears. We know the pain, the hurt, the disappointment from which they spring.  A time and place when God will wipe them away once and for all no more tears seems rather delightful, rather joyous. A time and a place that we would like to get to. The resurrection makes such a time and such place a real hope.

A Prostate Prayer

Not so many years ago I turned forty.  The whole thing was more or less anticlimactic. There were not many noticeable changes in my life, at least not many that I noticed.  One change that I did reluctantly make was to find a doctor so that I could have one to see for regular checkups and such.

I made this change reluctantly for two reasons.  First, I hate needles.  I always have. While I was well aware of advances in medical technology, I suspected that on some occasions needles would still be used.  I was right; they are.

My second reason for being reluctant was the pattern that I had observed among the members of the churches that I served — that being that once people start going to the doctor they always seem to need to go back to the doctor, or to go to another doctor and then go back to the first doctor, so that it seems that there is always a visit to the doctor looming in their future.  Turns out I was right again.

I have several friends, and more acquaintances, that have completed degrees in ministry and theology.  Discussing theology with them is something that I enjoy. My newest and best friend is Dr. Chris Ramsey.  His degree is not in theology.  His degree is in urology.  He is a great guy, though our conversations are not nearly as interesting or enjoyable as those that I have with other friends.  Yet he has pastoral sense about him.  I felt his gentleness and his concern when he told me that my prostate is cancerous.  He is thoughtful as well.  Yesterday he promised to see me regularly until he retires.  You see what I mean?  That was exactly why I was reluctant to go the doctor in the first place.  Once you start, they always find a reason for you to come back for another visit.

So now I am thankful.  I am thankful that there is something that can be done.  In fact, I have options.  I have to make a choice about which treatment I want.  How different that is from being in a situation where there are no options, no treatment, nothing that can be done.

I am thankful for all the people I have known who have faced disease, sickness and surgery and live to tell the tale.  I am especially grateful for those men that I know who have had prostate cancer and continue to live life to its fullest.  There have been many occasions in my life when I sought to give comfort to those who were facing medical challenges.  Little did I realize that they were teaching me and preparing me to face my own challenges.

I am thankful for Patti, Josh and Will for who they are to me and what they mean to me. While my condition is a long way from being life threatening, nonetheless it does give me pause to consider those people who are most important to me.  In a similar way, I think of others in my family who mean much to me.  Likewise, I am blessed with dear friends who freely share their love with me and lift prayers for me.

I am also thankful for church people.  Even before I told you about my condition, I was already drawing strength from you.  You are a gift.  You bring the presence of Christ to whomever you meet, even me.  Thank you.

I am also a little scared.  I still do not like needles, nor am I sure how I feel about a robot being turned loose inside of me.  If I knew more, I would most likely be more afraid.  But I do know that God is with me and that God will never leave me nor forsake me.  Thank you again for your thoughts and prayers.

Hate Converted

In reading the ninth chapter of the book of Acts, I am struck by the words in verse one that describe Saul’s (soon to be, but not yet Paul) demeanor.  He is “still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord.  Before his encounter with Christ, he is a man driven by his hatred of what he perceives as a threat to himself and his heritage.  Those who are following the way of Christ are deviating from accepted ways of knowing and relating to God.  Saul is consumed with eradicating this blasphemous deviation.  Coercion, persecution, even murder, he is ready and willing to do whatever it takes to force his vision of life, God, and acceptable human interaction on those who sense that God is doing a new thing in Jesus Christ.

Saul is “still” making threats of violence and harm.  The way he feels at the beginning of the ninth chapter of the book of Acts is not new.  He has been feeling this way for some time. Watching Stephen be stoned to death for his faith in Christ, Saul was feeling this way.  Going from house to house to imprison those who believed, Saul was feeling this way.  He feels this way still, “breathing threats and murder,” as the story of his conversion begins.

Breathing is what keeps us alive.  If we are not breathing, we are not living.  We are dead.  Saul is breathing murderous threats.  Living on hatred, his breathing is obsessed with doing away with those who are following the way of Christ by any means necessary. The diabolical air of hatred keeps him alive.  He is no longer living to experience the joy and peace of God in his life, but he is living against the life-giving encounter with God that those whom he persecutes have experienced.  They breathe hope, joy, and love, but hatred is his oxygen.

Saul’s threats are anything but idle.  He is actively engaging in the task of ridding the world of followers of the way of Christ.  Before he leaves for Damascus, he secures letters of introduction so that the leaders there will know that his activities are endorsed by higher authorities.  He is meticulous as well as hateful.

Then he is confronted by Christ.  Saul’s world, his life, even the air he breathes is changed forever.  He is converted.  He becomes a missionary, a planter of churches, and a teacher of the way of Jesus.  He becomes exactly what he formerly hated with such passion, obsession and energy.

All that Paul had done out of hatred did not keep conversion from happening in his life. All the good that Paul did was possible because of his conversion.   To realize the power of conversion is startling.  Can a life really be changed that dramatically, that completely?  The testimony of the life of Paul is that the answer is yes.  There is comfort in knowing that a life that once breathed hatred is capable of inhaling grace and exhaling hope.

The mistake that we as followers of Christ sometimes make when we read this dramatic conversion story is that we think that conversion is an event that is confined to a particular place in time.  Saul was converted on the road to Damascus.  Where were you converted?  While it is true that conversion has a beginning point, conversion is not merely an encounter in a particular place and time.  It is a state of being.  Each day is a new day for us to inhale the love and grace of Jesus, and to be converted even more to ways of Christ.

Jesus, Justice and Loud Rocks

The crowd is loud and excited.  Their enthusiasm grows as they catch a glimpse of a man riding a borrowed horse.  Some of them have seen him do the unbelievable.  Most all of them have heard the stories.  He heals the sick, gives sight to the blind, raises the dead, feeds the hungry and proclaims good news to the poor.  He looks at women not as objects, but as human beings created in the image of God.  His idea of being a neighbor is not limited by race, religion, social status or politics.  He invites everyone to the table and eats with anyone no matter how scandalous his or her past might be.

For those who have eyes to see, He is the Messiah, the Christ.  For those who cannot see Him, cannot see Him in the face of a hungry child, a thirsty man, a sick girl, a boy in need of clothes, or an imprisoned woman, He is nothing more than a trouble maker, a problem in need of a solution.

Today, this crowd sees.  Given what they see, the whole multitude praises God with great joy.  Never in their entire lives have the hopes of these people been so close to becoming reality.  No longer able to restrain themselves, their hopes and dreams pour out. “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord.”

Some who are in the crowd, but not of the crowd, tell the man of the borrowed horse to quiet the crowd.  Their words have become dangerous, even treasonous.  Everyone knows that there can be no king but Caesar.  All the shouting could very well displease the Roman occupiers.  The results of such displeasure would not be welcomed by those who had made their peace with the powers and principalities of this world.  So they tell Him to shut the crowd up.  They do not understand that if the crowd is quiet, then the stones will start shouting.

In just a few days, the shouts of another crowd will fill the air.  A crowd that may well include some of the same people from the crowd that wanted Jesus to be king will shout, this time, for His death.  They will call for a cross instead of a throne and treat Him as a criminal instead of a king.

Looking back at those two crowds, one wonders how the public attitude about Jesus changed so quickly.  From the perspective of one who seeks to follow Christ, one wonders how the second crowd could have been so wrong about Jesus.  What happened in those few days to turn the opinion of so many against him?  Granted, political and religious leaders had already made up their minds about Jesus, but the people still seemed to look at Him with hope.

As tragic as Good Friday is, it is not the end.  Easter will come.  Resurrection will happen.  Unfortunately, that is not enough to convince most that Jesus is the Christ.  So through the years, Jesus continues to be not so much crucified as remade. He is remade into a more palatable figure, one who tends to agree with our way of thinking more than to challenge it.  He is fashioned as a Messiah who saves those that deserve to be saved and who condemns those that the crowd has already condemned.  He is worshiped as the Christ who bears the unmistakable image of the interpreters, editors, preachers and politicians who have, through the centuries, softened His hard sayings and radical demands.

What is to be done?  Is Jesus, riding on a borrowed horse, to be our king, or would we prefer to exchange him for someone more to our liking?  Which crowd will be our crowd?

Serious questions to ponder while we wait for Easter.  Even still, the stones are shouting,

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Ash Wednesday, Lent and the Cross

From the side, it isn’t much of a cross sitting there on the communion table. A thin sliver of metal pointing toward the ceiling makes me wonder what all the fuss is about. With apologies to Monty Python it appears to be more a wafer thin mint than an instrument of death.

Now, the crown of thorns hanging on it looks rather menacing. Those thorns would hurt, but would they kill a man? Wound? Yes, to be certain and left untreated a nasty infection might follow, but death by thorns seems a stretch.

No, to kill Jesus with this cross we would have to take hold of it and beat him with it. One hit would likely not be enough. Death would come after repeated blows.  Then we would have bludgeoned him to death. Surely, none of us have the stomach for that.

Jesus is safe.

Safe that is, unless of course he persists in this notion of living in me. Then I have a thousand ways to put him to death, to make his living irrelevant, to make his teaching impractical and his dying mere nostalgia.

So then, maybe this cross is not the cross of Christ meant for his killing. Maybe it is my cross.  A cross meant to remind me each day that I am the one that needs to do the dying as impossible as that may be.

How is it possible? I never have to be reminded to think of myself, to serve myself, to protect myself, to do what is best for me. Only through indulgence, sloth and pride do I harm myself. Where would I find the will, the courage to die so that he might live in me?

Is it possible that God’s grace is that sufficient?

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

Do you ever stop to think about the things no one else knows about you? The things you have done that you now wish you had not done.  Your quirks and seeming shortcomings that were really beyond your control, but nonetheless you have always tried to minimize or hide them. The things about you that make you unique and special that you have always downplayed in order to more easily conform to everyone else’s expectation.

I suppose we all have some personal oddities about which we would just as soon not tell. In the same way, we have probably all done something about which would we would just as soon not be asked to explain.  All that not telling and not asking requires a good bit of energy. There is an ever present fear that the world might discover who we really are.  For everyone to really know us would be devastating because then the world would really know who we are and we might get voted off the island.  The worst part is that it keeps us from ever really accepting ourselves with all of our bumps, bruises, and bright spots for the human beings that God created us to be. The joy that God desires for us is lost in all of our effort to not tell and to keep from being asked.

If we are fortunate, over time we come to accept who we are.  We extend the grace that God gives to us to ourselves.  Our shortcomings no longer keep us from experiencing the contentment of being at peace with ourselves, others and God. We realize our notions of worthiness, disjointed and broken as they were by this world’s values, were completely redefined by God in Christ. We are made worthy by God coming into the world to be with us and to die for us.  God comes for each of us and God comes for all of us.

The time and effort that went into not asking and not telling can now be used for living as God has created and redeemed us to live. Now we have energy to love as we have been loved. Now we have time to forgive as we have been forgiven. Today we can accept as we have been accepted.

Loved, just as we are

Relationships are what make our lives interesting. Sometimes interesting is good and other times interesting is a challenge. Our relationships can be a source of richness and joy. They can also be a source of frustration and disappointment. The relationships that are closest to us are sometimes the ones that can be the most complicated. They call forth from us intentional effort and thoughtful interaction. Even then, they are not always what we need, expect, or want them to be.

Our relationship with God presents its own challenges. Perhaps the greatest challenge in our relationship with God is when we try to figure out who God is. There is certainly no shortage of images and ideas about who God is. Many of the portrayals of God that have been passed on to us through the years are not so helpful when it comes to our relationship with God. God is often presented as angry and vindictive. God demands perfection and punishes us when we fail to meet God’s expectations. Such images of God make it difficult for most of us to let ourselves fall freely and fully into the kind of intimate love relationship that God so desires to have with us. As sometimes happens in our human relationships, we find ourselves waiting anxiously for something negative to happen. If our understanding of God is angry and punitive, we may even feel that we deserve something negative to happen. Or we find ourselves putting distance between us and God. It is only natural to want to protect ourselves from emotional and spiritual pain.

What we often forget or too easily overlook is that God created us in God’s own image. We were made to be in a relationship with God. That is what God designed us for. Just as our actions and behaviors have put stress on our relationship with God, so too have the thoughts and ideas expressed about who God is distorted our understanding of God. Yet, neither our actions nor our misconceptions have changed who God is or God’s purpose in creating us. God made us to love us, and be loved by us. And so God does love us, freely and unconditionally.

We are all too aware of our shortcomings, weaknesses and failures, so it is often difficult to imagine being loved with the kind of love that God offers to us. What is absolutely mind blowing is that God’s love is greater than our shortcomings, weaknesses and failures. God demonstrated the breadth and depth of his love for each of us through Jesus Christ. In Christ on the cross, God was reconciling Godself to the world. That is, God in Christ, made things right between us and God. Whatever would keep us from God or prevent us from experiencing God’s love is gone. We are forgiven again and again and again.

Even in our state of forgiveness, we can be weighed down by the burdens of life. While God is always faithful and just to forgive us, we are not always so ready to forgive ourselves. So we carry our failures with us, unable to let them go and move beyond them. They get heavy and they can make life miserable. Their weight robs us of the joy and peace that comes from being loved by God. God gives us the freedom to let go of those past failures and mistakes. In the context of our relationship with God, we can simply give those shortcomings and weaknesses to God. We need not be afraid, ashamed, or embarrassed. God wants us to be free from the power of sin and death in our lives. God wants for us to fully experience the joy and peace of being in relationship with God. For that very reason God is always near us — not to catch us or punish us — but to receive our burdens and hear our confessions that we might feel again the depth of God’s love.