I twisted a little in the chair and felt my shoulders pull in tight. The edges were fuzzy, but the conversation was starting to come back to me in pieces as I sat at the kitchen table drafting a report into the evening hours.
I said that?
I wanted to be sure, so I texted her.
Did I really say there was a third brother?
Yes, she answered back. I think you did.
Fresh from ten-plus days at the edge of night with Heman, my heart felt a little achy and exposed. I probably should have taken a nap. Instead, I let my mind loose on the playground a little longer, until it hung upside down on the monkey bars of one question: Did Heman’s light ever come back on, or did his world stay dark until the end?
Earlier that morning, our adult class spent some time on the swing set of Luke 15. We looked at the brother that went all wild, exhausting the riches stashed in his pockets from his father only to be washed away in an even wilder grace that rushed him while he was still on the road to home.
And we looked at the brother who witnessed redemption and seethed, angry that grace should be so crazy and not better measured.
We thought together that much of the time, we find ourselves to be one brother, or perhaps the other.
But that afternoon, in my petulant brooding, I determined to be neither.
There was a third brother, I barely recall saying. The brother nobody talks about. The father built a shed out back and put the third brother in it because they didn’t know what else to do. That’s the brother that is me.
Here in the light of day, that’s outrageous. And even as the words appear in front of me on the screen, my stomach goes soft and my shoulders clamp tight, and shame drips down around my neck.
I’ve just rewritten words that drew life from His lungs.
But I stop, and consider. While in adding a new chapter to His parable I may have been less nuanced than usual, I see I am a revisionist through and through.
I footnote and annotate and asterisk where His Word clearly stands on its own. Yet I feel compelled to qualify His truth and articulate the provisions that might just not apply to me.
Why must I think I stand outside the reach of His unrelenting mercy?
Where did He ever say such a thing?
And when will I cease to deny the power of the Gospel with my slimy, proud disbelief?
I stood some feet away and looked at the Word, still open to 88, to Heman’s painful cries of anguish from a dark place. And I asked Him, quiet, not to ask me to go there again. Please. Let’s move on.
He smiled, it seemed, and so I took to my place on the floor and turned pages. In mere moments I rejoiced over the Rock of my salvation right there in 95, just like it had been waiting for me to arrive.
And mere moments later, I doubled over as though sucker punched.
I wasn’t. God doesn’t do that.
But it felt so all the same.
This song of rejoicing, it ended badly. It was Heman and his bestie the darkness all over again.
“They shall never enter My rest.” (95:11)
Was this the answer to my jungle gym question? When I wonder if Heman died in the dark (and by implication how that might have anything to do with me), this is what I hear in response?
“They shall never enter My rest.”
Quick, read backward. Read backward. Read backward. Hurry!
I read backward a lot. What did He say before that?
What He said was “do not harden your hearts.” (95:8)
I slumped back and let out a long draw of air.
You know what is true. But you harden your heart against it. So yes, it will be tiresome and dark and you will not rest. Not until your heart is soft and you take the truth as it is written and stop writing your own.
And so, yes, I know what is true. I know it is finished and He is enough and grace doesn’t run out and mercy reaches me.
Oh, how I know.
And oh, how I forget.
So how would you like to help me out today? Because I could sure use a little truth over here.
Tell me some truth.
The rules are simple:
- It has to be the truth. That is, God has to have said it in His pages.
- It has to be the truth. That is, I don’t need an ego boost; I need Jesus.
- It has to be the truth. That is, unqualified, no-asterisk, straight-up truth.
Here’s your chance to “give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” (1 Peter 3:15)
Ready to preach me some Gospel? Go!
Photo: sad swing by Jonathan Malm via Stock.xchng
When it comes to our boys and school, we follow (at least) one general rule around our house: Let the teachers teach.
Of course, it helps that one of the grown-ups in our house is one of those teachers.
And it helps that we school in one of the best districts you’ll find. Our teachers are not only highly qualified (take that, NCLB), but they are of the highest quality. We know them, and we trust them. Around here we can’t help it — we live and buy groceries and drink coffee and worship with them. Teachers live in over half the houses on my block. We were even taught by some of them.
And it also helps that, despite the occasional after-school lament that in one classroom or another there is simply no justice, our boys refuse to allow us to do battle for them. Don’t be, they tell us, those “torch and pitchfork parents” who are always in the office crying about something.
So, with few exceptions, we let the teachers teach.
But those exceptions, they tempt.
With just hours left in classrooms this year, we logged on to the school’s web portal last night to take one final peek at the grades. JP’s gym class grade set our teeth on edge again, just like it has all quarter. How does a guy get 100 percent in every other part of the class except a written bowling test and barely scrape by with a B for the term?
We puzzled. We calculated. We pontificated about grading theory and testing practices and if we were the gym teacher this would never happen. We snorted and stewed and wrote drafts of emails we would never truly send.
Okay, okay, okay. This isn’t about the morality of a grading rubric. It’s really about how keeping score in bowling makes me think of things that make God say Ick.
Straightforward enough, don’t you think?
The neighbors heard the gnashing of teeth through our windows when we saw the grade on the bowling score-keeping test for the first time weeks ago.
Over his parents’ red-faced, spittle-punctuated rant about how such a smart kid and good athlete could get a grade like that, JP quickly explained the hopelessness of it all. Because you see, if you get one frame wrong on the bowling score sheet, you get every frame wrong after that.
The score in each frame is dependent on the one before it. So the wrongness in Frame 3 spreads to Frame 4 and Frame 5 and Frame 8 all the way to Frame 10 where your final score is complete rubbish. Even if you do the math right on all the subsequent frames.
And when your test grade barely scrapes its way into existence, it doesn’t matter that the rest of your scores are flawless.
The wrongness spreads.
All the perfect throws and nine-minute miles and brilliance at badminton will not overcome one wrong frame in bowling.
They just won’t.
So, God says Ick.
We looked at Ick on Sunday morning, a group of adults and I around the tables in our Bible study. We considered our best efforts to muster up righteousness on our own, deliver ourselves to God’s feet in our own good standing. One shared how the very best we can do is a pile of stained and smelly rags:
All of us have become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags;
we all shrivel up like a leaf,
and like the wind our sins sweep us away. (Isaiah 64:6)
These rags? They aren’t like the ones I just used to dust in my living room. They aren’t shop rags from the garage. These are special purpose rags, of a nature we won’t talk about here in polite company.
This is the part of the conversation where I have to go wash my hands.
After Paul listed out his sparkling resume in Philippians 3, clearly demonstrating how he had done anything and everything the law required, he said the same thing. He called it rubbish. The KJV calls it dung.
But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ.
Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ, And be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith: (Philippians 3:8-9 KJV, emphasis added)
Paul knew this thing: that what we have to offer God on our own is not just worthless. It isn’t just not good enough. It’s not just missing the mark.
It’s all of those things, yes.
All of them.
But it is also loss. They serve to our disadvantage, our own efforts.
When I bundle up my good stuff, everything good I can crank out, and lay it up all excited at the Father’s feet because He will be so impressed and delighted with my really cool gift to Him, He says it.
He says He doesn’t love my gift of dung wrapped up pretty in nasty smelling rags.
I stood a bit ashamed, me who thinks to be a wordsmith, that the best I had to offer to describe the best we have to offer was Ick.
But it’s the best word I have right now.
Our own righteousness — it doesn’t just fall short.
And it is good for nothing but burning on the trash heap.
(Please. As soon as you can.)
The illustration, it’s pretty small-scale. But when we mess up in the second frame, we can’t make it right in the eighth. And we can’t make it right in another sport.
Our best efforts will not overcome.
The blemish carries over. The stain has set.
The garbage, it stinks.
Putting roses in it won’t make it smell any better.
I need Jesus.
I need His righteousness in me.
Right here, right now, this very moment. Trust me.
Nothing else will clean my rags, give me new garments, make me smell good to the Father.
I can’t do it. I just need Jesus.
The day Bill Watterson hung up his Calvin-drawing pencil was a sad one. I still get my daily Calvin and Hobbes on my Google homepage and he still makes me laugh as hard as he ever did.
Once upon a time I had another blog that about 2.37 of you knew about. I posted this piece on Calvin’s Guide to Sin and Confession there last year in honor of John Calvin’s 500th birthday. The air has been pretty heavy around these parts lately and I thought this might be a good way to lighten it up a little.
I don’t know if my folks knew the meaning of my name when they gave it to me. I was named for family, not for August Rush or Oasis.
Maybe Dad will confirm it in the comments, but I’m pretty sure I wasn’t named for night, though these days it may have seemed fitting.
And while a long trail of misspellings and mispronunciations litters the path behind my name, until this afternoon I was glad not to have one like Elimelech.
I don’t plan a change any time soon, particularly not to some tongue-twisting Hebrew man-name.
But I’m seeing today that Elimelech got one of the good ones.
Just how long is Your arm, Father? How long is long enough for me?
The question formed as I knelt beside a queen bed in a hotel squeezed between Iowa cornfields. I rose early and lingered there before joining the growing crowd of family in the breakfast nook downstairs. I flipped through thin pages looking for Isaiah 59, wanting just one thing. I felt hungrier for the sustaining words of this one short verse than for an AmericInn breakfast no matter what the ads say.
Surely the arm of the LORD is not too short to save, nor his ear too dull to hear. (Isaiah 59:1)
But I’m not good at just one verse. Raisin Bran would wait a little longer while I held up my bowl like Oliver and begged, “Could I have some mo’ please?”
I got some mo’.
Mo’ than I know what to do with.
Thoroughly enjoyed my reading of 103 earlier this week and thought I’d give this to you straight out of the journal.
Unredacted. (Yeah, that’s not a word. But I like it.)
If this is the first time you’ve ventured this far, my humble apologies. I do write better on days when I’m not talking to myself.
Wait a sec . . . for all I know, that’s what I do here all the time. Hello . . . ?
This is a hair scattered. When it comes to the Psalms, I like it that way. And please forgive all the shouting CAPS. I got excited.
Five posts into the Samson series, and we still haven’t made it to the really big deal, the thing everybody likes to talk about: his hair.
I’m pretty sure we made his hair the big deal about the same time as the flannelgraph and modern Sunday School came on the scene. (Sorry to burst anybody’s bubble, but nope, John Stamos wasn’t really the father of the mullet; Samson was. And yes, I’ve been known to watch too much TV and movies. But I promise, not lately.)
My theory is the prospect of explaining Samson’s whole story for young kids came off a little daunting and so we took the shears to the story, not to his hair, clipping away to something that felt easier to teach.
To prove out my hunch, I did a little Googling and found that after we trim away the sideburns and hard questions, we’re left with Sunday School lesson plans that have learning objectives looking a little something like these:
- Students will recognize that girls are sneaky.
- Pupils will learn not to listen to sneaky girls.
- Learners will discover that sneaky girls will destroy them.
- Students will remember that girls named Delilah are sneaky and deceitful.
- Learners will be reminded not to cut their hair because it makes them more vulnerable to the wiles of sneaky girls named Delilah.
This is what I remember about Samson too. His hair was a really big deal, and he was a sucker for a sneaky girl.
Samson had it all, and lost it all when a sneaky girl tricked him and cut his hair.
But is this it? Have we taken away all we can from Samson’s story when this is all we see?
What about his utter lack of self control? What about his short fuse and relentless drive for vengeance? What about his superficial motion-going with his Nazirite vow?
I sit with several unfinished drafts in my folder, none of which I’m able to complete. Somehow, it appears I forgot how to write over the weekend. Begging your pardon while I repost and try to regain my bearings. Only two and a half of you probably caught this anyway when it posted during my first full week of blogging.
And if you happen to see me out wandering around, laptop dangling and drool on my chin, point me back home?
I grew up watching Rocky and Bullwinkle and loving it.
My favorite is a Dudley DoRight episode. In case you weren’t so enchanted with talking moose and flying squirrels (or too young to know better), let me fill you in.
Snidely Whiplash is the show’s villain, and with his handlebar moustache and black hat is perhaps even the caricature on which so many other villains are based.
The episode opens with Snidely lamenting what a pathetic, disgusting creature he’s become. You see, he has a nasty habit of tying helpless young ladies to railroad tracks. (“I have this thing,” he explains.)
His favorite victim is the delightful Nell Fenwick, a beautiful damsel with lovely blonde curls who is always rescued just in the nick of time by her brave and daring boyfriend, Dudley DoRight of the Royal Canadian Mounties.
(Part 1 of Samson and Me is here.)
I come back to read Samson’s story for the 91st time, this time finally to put pen to paper and make some sense of it. Ambitious, I am.
One foot slides forward, the other stays put as the drumbeat of the first verse echoes back, and I stand straddling the text. I set aside the online Bible, as much as I love my Biblegateway.com. The feel of worn paper better ignites my heart. I reach for my leatherbound and push fingertips over the words.
Turning pages fails to drown out the drumming while words march in straight lines and the ground rumbles beneath my feet with the rhythm.
Rhythm (rith′em) n [< Fr. or L..: Fr. rhyme < L. rhythmus < Gr. rhythmos, measure, measured motion < base of rhein, to flow: see stream] 1. a. flow, movement, procedure, etc., characterized by basically regular recurrence of elements or features, as beat, or accent, in alternation with opposite or different elements or features [the rhythm of speech, dancing, the heartbeat, etc.] b) such recurrence; pattern of flow or movement 2. flow or apparent movement of a work of art, literature, drama, etc. through patterns in the timing, spacing, repetition, accenting, etc. of the elements.
When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight. They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:30-32)
Glum, these two.
Followers of Jesus of Nazareth. At least, they had been His followers. They’d hoped He was the One.
But then He was killed by their own religious leaders. And the women, oh brother. They’d gone off the deep end, running around telling crazy stories about angels and an open tomb and a vanished body.
So now they were on their own again. Looking for another redeemer. Another cause. Another purpose in life.
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will— to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding. And he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfillment—to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ. (Ephesians 1:3-10)
When my kids are unappreciative of their dad’s efforts to help them see the upside of what they prefer to see as only unfavorable circumstances, they often deride him as one of those “optimists.” Those folks, as they say, who having had an arm severed by an angry (and hungry) crocodile would say something like “Unfortunately, an angry crocodile just ate my right arm . . . Fortunately, I am left handed.”
Let this serve as my contribution to the “Unfortunately . . . Fortunately” game.
Unfortunately, Sanchez Is a Lot Like Me . . . Fortunately, God Is Not So Much Like Me.
This is the good news angle produced by my reflection the other day on Sanchez-is-like-me.
It all started one day when someone said something to me about “my cat.” I replied that “Sanchez is not my cat. Sanchez is the cat that I permit to live at my house.”
When I said it, there seemed to be a familiar ring to it that I just couldn’t place. But it came back to me the other day when she had belly crawled across the living room floor, stalking me. Once she reached the chair where I was sitting, she looked up at me with her pupils dilated almost bigger than her eyes, and kept twitching as she held herself back from a full frontal attack.
I began to speak to her, telling her mean and hateful things, but in a kind and soothing voice. I realized in that moment (just before the bloodletting began) that what was so familiar was that it seems to me that I often view God and me like me and Sanchez.
That I seem to think God views me the way I view this menace that is systematically taking over my home. (Think I’m kidding? She took a nap in the kitchen sink tonight.)
I sometimes fall into a seemingly bottomless pit of thinking that God sees me just like I see her.
I don’t love Sanchez. I tolerate her. I abide her.
I don’t love her.
I did not one day announce my desire to have a cat and go to the animal shelter to choose her.
I did not have my choice of everything in the heavens and the earth and choose her. I do not treasure her.
I do not enjoy her fellowship.
I do not delight in her.
But these things are all true of how the Father views me. (Well, minus the animal shelter part.)
When she had her first visit to the vet, we got some of her shots for free because we had taken in an orphan. We were foster parents. Even then, we had no intention of adopting her as our own. She was still a temporary boarder, an alien to whom we were providing sanctuary until her permanent home materialized.
I put up with her, but I did not want her, did not love her, and did not wish to keep her around.
So here I am finding myself thinking that God often sees me the same way that I see Sanchez.
He had a momentary lapse in judgment and He let me in before He realized what He was doing, and now He’s stuck.
He puts up with me. He tolerates me.
He has to; it’s in the covenant.
But if He could find a loophole, He be through with me in a heartbeat.
It’s as though He’s like me when I say “Sanchez is not my cat.”
This is often a daily, hourly struggle for me, to recognize on a continuous basis that this is simply not the truth. That the truth is that God would never say that I am not His child. He would never say that He does not love me but only endures me because He signed on to a covenant in a moment of weakness.
God does not tolerate me.
He loves me with an everlasting love, all the while that He sees the Sanchez-like sin in my life, the selfishness and unrepentance in my heart, He also pours out His love, through the riches of His grace.
It was not in a moment of weakness that He chose me, but in a moment of outrageous love.
He does not permit me to stay in His home until He finds a suitable alternative for me. Listen to the words of Ephesians 1: In love He predestined us to be adopted as His sons (and daughters).
Predestination doesn’t smack at all of a hasty decision made at the end of a long and stressful day.
He knew, before He lit up the stars and before He poured water into the sea, that He would choose us, and He would adopt us as His own.
This wasn’t something He did when He was tired and not thinking clearly. He did it in accordance with His pleasure — it pleased Him to adopt us.
It has yet to please me to care for Sanchez.
But the Father made me His in His good pleasure.
I took in Sanchez out of obligation.
He takes us in freely.
We give Sanchez the food and water she needs and we clean her litter box when we must.
He gives us redemption through the blood of Jesus out of His riches, and He lavishes His grace on us.
He lavishes His grace on us.
That’s an outpouring.
Not a drizzle. Not a smidgen. Not the required amount.
An outpouring that washes over us.
An outpouring of grace is a far cry from just putting up with me because He has to
So, fortunately, God is not so much like me. He doesn’t see me the way I see Sanchez.
The trick, I suppose, is to keep that contrast between being stuck with me and pouring out buckets of grace on me because He just loves to do it.