Sometimes things just don’t happen the way we want or plan, no matter how hard we try. It’s hard to watch someone you care about face that reality. My wife and I had to watch our then seven-teen year old son do just that a few years as he competed in his last High School Wrestling match and came up four points short of a State Championship.
He has always had tremendous work ethic. When he sets his mind to something, he will work as hard as anyone to make it happen. I can’t think of a time when he didn’t accomplish the goal he had in mind. Over the last few years of his High School life we’ve watched him train, bleed and compete with injuries that put others out of the sport completely. He had an amazing High School career breaking school records, and even earning himself several entries in the State High School Wrestling Records, but not the title.
It was heartbreaking to watch him after the final match realize that he had fallen short in his goal. His first thought was about all the people he imagined that he had let down. Of course everyone was more proud of him than we could express, but the disappointment he felt was real and his to face.
The apostle Paul found himself in a similar situation (Acts 17). Paul was in Athens teaching with little success. This was not the first or last time Paul would face opposition or difficulties. Instead of being discouraged into giving up or spending time depressed about his failures, Paul kept moving forward until he was given an opportunity to speak in the Areopagus. Even then his success was apparently marginal, but it was still success and God took advantage of it.
Sometimes we forget that real success should not be measured by the goals we set, but by the opportunities we create for God’s goodness on the journey. Our son had been extremely successful by everyone else’s standard, touching and blessing many lives in the way he worked toward his goal. He had no idea how many people were inspired and blessed by his attitude, work ethic and heart. Forget the medals and awards, he was a tool for God to change lives and bless others, especially his mother and me. We can not count how often God has pulled us out of discouragement through him and his sister and brother.
He surpassed my expectations once again a few hours after loosing the state title. Just as I was about to have the fatherly talk with him about “winning some and losing some” he said, “Well since I won’t ever be the State Champion in High School, I’ll have to settle for National Champion in college.” Success is really subjective. God doesn’t need us to always come in first, just to keep going. As usual God does the rest.
In the summer of the year I turned thirteen, we moved to a small tobacco farming community. One of the farmers in church with teenagers near my age, invited me to their farm to learn how tobacco was harvested. The next morning I woke up at what I thought was early…especially for summer vacation. I dressed in my favorite white shorts, white t-shirt, white socks and white shoes, and rode my bicycle down the road several miles thinking I would be early. When I arrived I found them already hard at work – as they had been for the last three hours. They were unloading a trailer full of freshly harvested tobacco into a large curing box. The farmer immediately made room for me as he said… “The best way to learn is to do.” As we worked, I learned how to harvest and cure tobacco.
I will never be able to describe the joy that I felt when we finally emptied that trailer, expecting that we were on the verge of a break. My smile quickly faded as the empty trailer was pulled away so another full one could take its place. And so it went all day. For nine hours we worked (twelve for those who were on time), stopping only for lunch. By the end of the day the farmer had to load me and my bicycle in the back of his truck to haul me home because I was too tired to walk, much less ride. I was so filthy; my mother stopped me at the door and washed me off with a garden hose. The amused farmer jokingly said “I’ll pick you up at 6 am tomorrow so that you won’t be late.” I think to his surprise and mine, I said “Thank You. I’ll be ready.” He picked me up at 6 am every weekday for the next five summers.
We are surrounded by work that needs to be done, differences that need to be made. We are often hesitate to get involved because we may not know what to do, or maybe we don’t think that we have the time. Deep down we may even be reluctant because we are fearful of making our own lives too dirty or complicated. Many times I’ve heard individuals claim to be waiting for someone to teach them before they get involved. One of my favorite Bible verses is James 1:22, “But don’t just listen to God’s word. You must do what it says. Otherwise, you are only fooling yourselves.” It reminds me that we are called to express our faith through action.
It is only when we cast ourselves totally into the journey that we really begin to personally know Christ. Even then our journey should be more than an effort to know Christ. It has to include making Christ known. If we continue to wait until our personal and spiritual lives are perfect and tidy we will forever be on the sidelines. In life and faith, we learn best by doing and ‘getting our hands dirty.’ That first day on the farm taught me a lot about farming and faith, neither of which are spectator sports. I think the most important lesson I learned was that if at the end of the day your hands are clean, you probably did not make a difference. Live life to get dirty and make a difference.
Some years ago, right after moving to a new congregation several members invited us to spend a couple of days white water rafting on the Ocoee River. I was a little frightened. In the nights leading up to the trip I had a reoccurring nightmare of being thrown out of the raft because I had “stepped” on the wrong toes.
It really was an amazing experience. During each trip down the river I would loose myself in the beauty of God‘s creation. The fellowship was so meaningful that all of my fears disappeared. That turned out to be a blessing, because on the last day of the trip I fell overboard. The shock of falling into the ice cold mountain water took my breath. It only took a few dozen sharp rocks to knock me back to my senses, and cause me to wonder how I was going to get out in one piece. As I turned toward the raft there was the most beautiful sight…hands were outstretched everywhere to help me back into the safety of the raft.
That image will follow me for the rest of my life simply because it reminds me of the beauty of God‘s church. Life is full of rapids. Just when you think that you are safe, you fall overboard. How wonderful it is to know that you are not overboard alone. In fact, Jesus reminds us in Matthew 28:20 that he will be with us always. He is not only with us through the power of the Holy Spirit, but also through the lives of our fellow Christians that surround us. Ephesians 4:25 emphasizes that we are all one body. Hebrews 10:25 tells us that we should “encourage one another” in life and worship. This love and support should extend beyond denominations, race and gender. We are all part of the church GOD created.
We may not always agree with each other. There may be times when we don‘t even like each other, but we are always expected to love and offer support to one another. This new year, let us not forget that we are all working toward the same goal…God‘s kingdom on earth. One of the most beautiful sights in the world is to see Christians overlooking differences to help one another get back into the boat. After all…we are all in the same boat together.
Each year everyone in our family chooses a new Christmas ornament. We all have our own special, personal box in which we keep our ornaments between seasons. I always enjoyed watching the children open their boxes and pull out their ornaments. It seems like Christmas Day to them as they are reminded of those special memories that surround each ornament.
A few years ago, I noticed something unusual as we began decorating our Christmas tree. Our sons were their usual exuberant selves, but our daughter seemed distracted. Later that night she told me that she had found a thank you note which she had written the year before to one of her grandfathers. Somehow the note fell into her box and was never sent. She was troubled that she didn’t get to properly thank her grandfather before he died earlier that year.
The word Advent means ‘coming’ and the season of Advent is intended to be both a celebration and preparation for the coming of Christ, personally and communally. Throughout his life, Jesus restored relationships with God. He said, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:39b).” Jesus understood that the way we relate to one another is a reflection of our relationship to God. Typically, those who neglect their earthly relationships also tend to neglect their spiritual ones. God uses us as symbols and examples of His love, acceptance, forgiveness, and presence in the way we relate to others. The influence we wield in our relationships can either encourage the advent of Christ in their lives, or discourage it.
It can be so easy to neglect relationships that really matter. Sometimes we get too busy for others, or we convince ourselves that there will be plenty of time to be with others when we have retired – been promoted – earned enough money – or even after the holidays when things slow down. Pride can also cause us to neglect relationships. Are we too proud to make the first reconciliatory move when a word has been misspoken, or a misunderstanding has been left unresolved? Everyone knows someone who needs to know that God is present with them, cares for them, and loves them. This is a message that is better exemplified than spoken.
The Advent and Christmas seasons are the perfect times to reach out and begin to restore or even strengthen our friendships as we prepare for God. The best gift one can give to God is trying to actually ‘give’ God to those around us. And time is always short. The old saying is still true, “A single rose to the living is more beautiful than a wreath to the dead.” Even if they have another Christmas, you may not.
I have a niece who has taught me more about God from a distance than I ever learned in seminary. We’ve never lived close, and unfortunately my time around her has been limited to holidays and funerals. She is twenty two years old, and has spent all of it overcoming more physical and developmental obstacles than I can count, most recently open heart surgery. By necessity my niece’s medical conditions have required her to be under constant supervision and kept her from doing most things others her age did all of her life. She has a way of seeing things and making comments that leave you thinking about God in a new way, and a few years ago she did it in a powerful way for me.
We were at a water park with some youth and college students from church. My sister and brother in-law had just moved near the water park with their family and they joined our group. One of the young men in our group knew all about my niece and her condition, and still invited her to join him and his friends as they enjoyed the park. For several hours my niece spent time with a group young people her age. It was one of the few times in her life that she didn’t have “adults” hovering over and around her.
The following week she commented about how special those few hours were to her. She said, “If it never happens again, it was enough.” She went on to explain that she knew that one of the young men was still “watching out for her,” like everyone does…but said “he didn’t make me feel like I was being watched.” She described how he treated her just like everyone else in the group, and how the group didn’t seem to notice she wasn’t like them. She said, “For once in my life, I knew what it was like to fit in and feel normal.” Hearing that filled me with pride for our college students and youth.
As I continued to reflect on it, I realized there was a deeper truth being conveyed by my niece. The whole incident reminded me of Abraham in Genesis 18, who when he saw three strangers ran out to meet them and did all he could to make them feel welcome. There is even an old tradition that speaks of Abraham opening all four sides of his tent daily so that he could search for sojourners to welcome.
And it’s not just Abraham. The Bible is full of passages and examples that speak to the duty of making people feel welcome and as if they “fit in.” Leviticus 19:34 talks about treating foreigners as friends and loving them as if they were one of your own. It’s not simply talking about people who are not of your nationality, it includes anyone different from you…socially, theologically, politically. It especially includes those who live philosophically different from you, with whose actions and lifestyles you may disagree.
Jesus demonstrates the power of this “spiritual hospitality” in John 4 when he treats the Samaritan woman with kindness knowing that her lifestyle was not ideal. Scripture calls us to be welcoming and treat everyone with love and respect. In that act we demonstrate and live out the power of a relationship with God. Jesus always treated people with love and compassion even when society and religious people cast them out and treated them as worthless. Each time Jesus made the person feel welcomed and as if they “fit in.” When that happened they experienced God and their lives were changed. Of course this is also the time of the year when we celebrate the sacrifice Christ made for everyone on the cross regardless of who they were or were not. His death and resurrection make it possible for us all to have opportunity to be welcomed into God’s Kingdom and presence.
When you welcome someone they also have the opportunity to feel and meet God. When you don’t they only feel judgement…your judgement. It’s not our place to draw lines in the sand. It’s our place to love as we’ve been loved. When we do that, God changes people. When we don’t…well there’s a bible passage that speaks to that as well. It goes something like…”judge not lest you be judged.”
Thinking about what my niece said makes me wonder if I ever show enough hospitality to leave someone saying “If it never happens again, it was enough.”
Late one night, eight-teen or so years ago, we made a trip to visit my sister. The light from the stars and moon clearly illuminated the deserted road as they peeked out from behind a faint silhouette of clouds. I turned the radio off so that I could enjoy the unbroken calm of one of the most beautiful sights in God’s creation.
I thought that my wife and children were asleep, so I was startled when my wife said, “Aren’t they wonderful?” I recomposed myself and said, “Yes dear, tonight the stars and moon are almost as beautiful as you.” She laughed and quickly replied, “The night is beautiful, but I was talking about our children.” All of a sudden she became serious as she asked, “If something happened to our children, do you believe that they would go to heaven?” Still a little stunned by the seriousness of her question…I tried with little success to be a pastor, husband and father in the same moment. I responded, “Yes, I believe that they would.” All of a sudden, our then three-year-old daughter’s angelic face popped up, and with tears in her eyes she said, “But I’m not ready to go to heaven now!”
She was so upset that I had to stop the car to reassure her that we did not mean she had to get aboard the train bound for heaven right then. Finally she drifted back to sleep. My wife soon followed. As everyone slept my daughters words haunted me, “I’m not ready … ” What troubled me most about her comment was not what she said, but the truth in of it. In one phrase she had accurately portrayed the reality of many would be Christian’s spiritual lives.
Jesus tells us that no one knows the time of his return. In the parable of the Wise & Foolish Bridesmaids (Matthew 25:1-13), Jesus warns of the need to be prepared. Yet for some reason, we fail to recognize the urgency of our own spiritual lives. We all need to lead examined lives, asking the right questions during our spiritual journeys. Many of us do try to live good, examined lives … often concluding that we will be prepared when the time comes. The question is not “Will you be prepared?” but rather “Are you prepared?” We never know what the next hour will hold.
I was not completely troubled by my daughter’s statement. At least she knew that she was not ready to leave now. Use this season of Lent to ask the right question, ‘Am I now ready to leave?’
Quite a few years ago, a friend received thirty-six flowers from her husband to celebrate their thirty- sixth wedding anniversary. The flowers were beautiful long stemmed roses, wrapped in green paper. She had never received flowers before and absolutely adored them. She was intent on helping them survive as long as she could. She trimmed the stems and extra leaves. She even placed them in fresh water, which she changed daily. She purchased and used special products advertised to “prolong the beauty of fresh flowers.” A couple of weeks later, she remarked to her husband about how beautiful the flowers still were after two weeks. He began laughing and pointed out that the flowers for which she had been meticulously caring were not real, but expensive silk. They were so beautiful crafted and appealing that it was nearly impossible to see that they were fake.
Flowers are not the only imposters in the world. Everything under the sun can be imitated…even Christians. Christianity is more than a name or title. It is a faith, a hope and a lifestyle. Jesus said: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another (John 13:34-35).” Our faith and hope in Christ is expressed through our relationships with everyone. Real Christianity is patient and kind. It is not self-seeking but God serving. We serve God best when we support and trust one another. Ours is a faith that always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres and rejoices in the truth (I Corinthians 13:1-13). This does not mean that real Christianity tolerates just anything. It means that real faith is expressed not through compliancy, but in actively pursuing and encouraging what is JUST and TRUE.
The month of February sees St. Valentine’s Day and the beginning of the season of Lent with Ash Wednesday. It makes it a great time for us to reflect upon our faith journey and intentionally examine the leaves and petals that make up our lives for areas in which we might become more authentic. My friend adored her husband when he brought home the flowers until she found out that they were fake. They were still jus as pretty as before, but they were not real. The beauty and glamour of the gift was found in the reality of life, not its imitation. “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love (I Corinthians 13:13).”
Quite a few years ago, I was having the kind of day where things kept happening, and most all of
them frustrating. I was returning to town from a stressful day-long meeting just in time to be late for everything. I had picked up my then twelve-year-old son from practice and we were rushing to the elementary school to catch my youngest son‘s play performance. Walking into the school I was still on the phone putting out fires. As I closed my phone with that frustrated sigh, my son said, “I‘m sorry daddy.” I didn‘t even slow my pace when I replied…”Sorry? It‘s not your fault.” ” I know daddy,” he said, “I just thought that you needed to hear it.”
I knew he was growing up, but until that moment I had not realized how intuitive he had become. God always seems to give us exactly what we need. My son‘s words chased away not only my frustration, but also my inattentiveness. In that moment he was for me just like the angel who appeared to the shepherds bringing good news of the birth of a savior (Luke 2:10-11).
It‘s easy to let the problems and busyness of life distract and even overwhelm us. We began to focus on putting out fires and all the frustrations around us often losing sight of the moment and each blessing it contains. We become so wrapped up in ourselves that we forget what‘s important and fail to be examples of faith and trust to those around us. There is a greeting card poem that puts it so well:
“If our greatest need was for information, God would have sent an educator. If our greatest need was for technology, God would have sent a scientist. If our greatest need was for pleasure, God would have sent an entertainer. If our greatest need was for money God would have sent an economist. But since our greatest need is for forgiveness, God sent a savior.”
Christmas should be a reminder of God‘s answer to our biggest need: a child to save us…to save us from ourselves. A child to remind us that God is always with us to provide, guide and forgive. That night my son was right. I did need to hear those words, just not from him. I had to stop and tell him how proud I was of the man he was becoming. I had to say, “I‘m sorry.”
I am covered with scars. For years I self-consciously found it necessary to hide them, especially the larger ones. That all changed some years ago when I received a call concerning young teenager who had an accident which required painful treatment. His parents and physicians had requested that I visit him before his procedure. In High School I had suffered a similar injury and undergone much the same treatment. As soon as I introduced myself, he reached up his hand and asked…”Can I touch them?” I knelt by his bed and guided his hand toward the many scars that remain as proof of my ordeal. After touching them, he said…”I needed to see that I can get better.”
I’ve also noticed that my youngest son periodically needs to see and touch my scars. He has a particularly large one on his knee about which he is always concerned. When he’s particularly worried that his is not healing right, he’ll reach up and touch mine asking, “How long ago did you say this was?” Somehow seeing how a scar heals reassures him.
A scar is the visible evidence that something has happened. But it is not just evidence of a wound; it is also evidence of a wound that has healed. In the Gospel of John (20:20), after his death and burial, Jesus showed his scars to the disciples so that they would recognize him. It was only when they saw the scars on his hands and feet that they knew he was back.
Life has a way of leaving its mark upon us. In the same way that Jesus used his scars as proof that he was alive and well…God often uses someone else who has been wounded to bring love, understanding, and healing to others. No one goes through life unscathed, yet we still try to hide our scars. God doesn’t use the perfection of actions to change the world. It’s the scars that remain from our healed faults and failures that God uses to give hope to the hopeless. We only find true spiritual wholeness when we embrace our brokenness for others. We would do well to remember that “wholeness comes more from pain and failure than joy and success (Unknown).”