Thursday, March 6, 2014

We Sat Down and Wept, When We Remembered Zion

"Why are you so cute?"

I heard that refrain frequently during my childhood. I have to admit, I was cute.

Some days, like today, I gaze at my reflection in the morning mirror and hear a different refrain brought on by the harshness of time. "What happened?" The dark circles under my eyes. The white strands that salt my hair. The hairs that sprout from ears, nose and brow.

Superboy on his Steed
As I opened my sock drawer this morning, I stumbled upon a Ziploc bag which my mom sent me a few years ago. It's filled with pictures of that cute kid. I thumbed through those memories and found myself wondering, "What happened to that kid?" Untroubled by life. Unwearied by animosity. Unaware of stress. His greatest concern, what adventures would Superboy and his trusty steed get into today?

I think about those days and my eyes begin to well up with tears, my throat starts to tighten. I imagine that this is how the displaced Israelites must have felt as they sat down by the waters of Babylon. How had they ended up here? How they missed their home! Would they ever return?

I have lived in the Midwest now for more than half my life. Yet, the Warm Heart of Africa will always be "home." I have no family there. No friends. No connection at all. Except for memories. Sweet memories of swinging from bamboo trees, and exploring the forests and fields on my bicycle. (My parents were always amazed that no matter where we went, someone always seemed to recognize me. We could be all the way across town and hear someone call out my name in an accent that changes rs to ls and ls to rs: "El-lick-ee!")

I have no idea if I will ever return. I want to. My heart yearns to return. And yet, it doesn't. I don't want to be disappointed by what I might find. What I want is a return to my youth. But life only offers us a one-way ticket.

The reality of life as the child of a pastor (and as one who became a pastor) is that you move, a lot. Since the age of thirteen, I have never lived in any location for more than four years. Until now. This week I will have called the Thumb of Michigan home for five. If anything, that experience helps me to understand and appreciate all the more, the reality of life as a child of God.

I am but a stranger here; heaven is my home.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

For Dust You Are And to Dust You Will Return

Guess what day it is! That's right, it's Wednesday. Ash Wednesday. The humor of Hump Day falls rather flat for me today.

I am sitting at my desk, straining in my seat against the dagger-like pain that is piercing my left hip. Wincing, I stare  out the narrow window in my office, the only opening to the outside world, the only inlet of natural light. There isn't much of that today. The sky is cloud covered, a gray canopy hanging overhead. Tiny flecks of snow flitter and float, dancing with the winter air. Its' cold outside. Not the cold that burns the skin and pierces through to bone, brought on by the subzero temps of the last few days. But it's cold nonetheless, the kind of cold that settles on the skin and causes a wave of shivers to ebb and flow on my arms, even as I sit inside a 70 degree room.

Dreary weather for a dreary day. I can't think of much else except for dust and ashes. As dead as it is outside, today is a reminder for me of how much more death reigns in my natural self. There is still evidence of life out there. A murder of crows congregates around the deep green nettles of a fir tree. That evergreen was abused by the ice storm of early winter. Branches broken under the weight of ice still lie prone against its trunk. Yet the tree is very much alive. But inside, I find myself bent and broken under the weight of my guilt. Because of my sin, I am a dead man walking. Doomed to death. For dust we are, and to dust we must return!

Today I don't find myself gazing atop the hump of any old Wednesday in anticipation of the goodness that any other Friday holds. I rather find myself in a vale, peering upward in appreciation toward the one Friday that is truly Good. A Friday that happened two millennia ago and whose observance is still more than a month away.  On that day the King who had descended his heavenly throne humbled himself further by ascending the cross. It is Good because on that day, the Author of Life surrendered himself to Death - a curse that is rightly mine. It is Good because on that day, the Judge of All himself suffered under his own judgment and brought justice to us all.

Today, more than any other day of the year, I humble myself. I lay myself in the dust that will one day become my bed, because I know that from this vantage alone I can look up and find grace and mercy. The Water of Life has covered my debt, washed me clean, and made me impervious to the icy hand of Death. I know that, one day, maybe even today, I will die. But that is something I no longer fear, for the Light of the World has pierced through the dread pall of death and opened the door to eternal life. Because he lives, I too shall live!

As I look out the window again, I notice the subtle movement of the corners of my mouth, fighting gravity as they push upward against my cheeks. The clouds are retreating. Grace always triumphs.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Physical Training Is of Some Value; Godliness Has Value for All Things

I woke up this morning in pain for the third week in a row. Before that I tackled Insanity for 4 weeks but had to concede 4 days shy of finishing Round 1. Siatica or Radiculopathy I'm told.

Ridiculous, if you ask me. I've been to a masseuse. I've seen a chiropractor. I went to the doctor. I've tried homeopathic. I passed out on pharmeseuticals. 

I am still in pain which is ironic because I started exercising to prevent back pain. I feed off of exercise. I need exercise. It keeps me sane and relieves stress. I'm glad that my daily spiritual exercise is so much more effective, less painful, and longer lasting.

Makes me wonder if I'd be more happy fatter than fitter. As I contemplate that today, here are my conflicting thoughts on Ash Wednesday Eve.

Fat Tuesday
Fit Tuesday

Do nots



Gorge oneself

Last Hurrah
Least hungover

Farewell to the flesh
Headlong into fun


He Is Done ("It is finished")

Monday, March 3, 2014

The LORD Opened the Mouth of the Ass

I flew off her front. He was flung off her rear. That was the last time any of us tried to ride her.

We had a menagerie of pets when I was a kid. Rabbits. Rats. Chickens. Dogs. Cats. A duiker. And that donkey. We called her Eeyore. Original, I know.

That day, my birthday, I learned first-hand where we get the expression, "as stubborn as an ass." I believe my sister still has a scar from where Eeyore up and reared her in the leg. She was stubborn, but she was also smart.

On a number of occasions we found the outside faucet running full blast. To our shame we kept blaming the gardener, until we caught Eeyore in the act. She would take the spigot in her mouth, clamp down with her ivory teeth, and twist. Once her thirst was quenched, she would turn and walk away. To this day we are confident that she knew how to turn the faucet off. She was just too darn stubborn to do it.

There are only three donkeys of which I am aware that have received good publicity. The donkey upon which a very pregnant Mary rode from Nazareth to Bethlehem. The foal which carried the humble King through the streets of Jerusalem five days before his crucifixion. And Balaam's ass.

I wish I could have been that ass this morning. As far as I know, he is the only ass that has ever had something to say which didn't get him in trouble. What I said isn't important. The fact that I said it, I deeply regret. The words rolled off my tongue and shot past my lips, and immediately I wished I could reel them back in. But I'm stubborn. And not that smart. So I opened my mouth and out they flew.

And yet, when I think about it, I guess the LORD opened the mouth of this ass too. He eventually humbled me enough to ask for forgiveness.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

"Let the Little Children Come to Me"

"Is it worth the hassle?"

"It's too much work!"

I am tremendously thankful for my wife who single-parents it every Sunday morning. While I am making sure that I'm ready for Bible class, that my sermon makes sense, and that I have my hymnal opened to the right order of service, she is dressing, feeding, and hauling the girls out the door for 10 o'clock worship. That's not even the tough part, because then she spends the next hour wiping noses, quieting tantrums, dolling out snacks, and doing goodness knows whatever else it takes it keep a 2 year old occupied and a 7 year old paying attention. There are days when I finally get home that she tells me, mostly in jest, "Well, I heard the 'Amen.'"

As hard as it is, it is worth it. It's worth it to me, because I love to hear my girls' voices in church. It doesn't matter if they are crying, laughing, jabbering, or singing incoherently. I love it. I love my eldest's simple yet unabashed confessions of faith as I ask questions during the Kids' Devotion. I rejoice when my two-year-old folds her hands without being prompted because it's time for prayer and when she says "amen" because she knows the prayer is over. It warms my heart when I heard our seven-year-old this morning say with disappointment, "Church is over?" It's worth it to see sights like the one pictured, a daughter who tucks herself in because she is all tuckered out from a busy morning at church. 

As hard as it is (for my wife) I am so glad she does, because she is helping them establish a friendship with Jesus that will carry them through this life and on into the next.

So, is it worth the hassle? Yes.

Is it too much work? It's work. But the reward far outweighs the toil.

I'm certain my wife would agree.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Though Your Sins Are Like Scarlet, They Shall Be As White As Snow

"How to Write Good"
After a restless night's sleep, I was woken by my wife informing me that it was snowing. Again.

Rule number 3 for "How to Write Good": Avoid clich├ęs like the plague. They're old hat.

My apologies for being a rule breaker, but I've heard it said regarding winter: "In like a lion. Out like a lamb." The lion definitely did not sleep last night. With more bone-chilling temps projected for this week, this winter apparently wants to go out the way it came in - with a roar. That poor lamb doesn't stand a chance.

 People said the same thing about Jesus (and they still do). In the pages of Scripture, Jesus is described both as a Lion and as a Lamb. He definitely came into this world like a Lamb. Meek and mild, he took his first breath in a barn. Weak and wearied, he breathed his last on a cross. But three days later, having devoured death, that Lion roared back to life.

Growing up in equatorial Africa, I dreamt in vain for a white Christmas. They were always green. We
never had to run to the flower shop to buy poinsettias. Our yard was already punctuated with them. Now, having called the Midwest home for more than half my life, I dream in vain for the temperate Christmases of my youth. I'm not much for snow.

Snow Covered Poinsettias
And yet, there is something undeniably beautiful about that freshly fallen stuff. I would rather look at that bright blanket than at what lies beneath - last Autumn's fallen leaves, branches broken from the weight of Christmas' ice storm, and three months worth of our dogs' waste. This latest snow fall covers a multitude of sins.

I thought about that image this morning as I headed into the city to perform a baptism for the infant daughter of a family in the congregation that I shepherd. Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow (Isaiah 1:18). No matter how messy or broken that little one's life gets, Jesus has her covered. His forgiveness will always top her sins.

Roar on, Jesus.

And if you must, roar on, Winter. Though I'd rather you didn't.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

As a Dog Returns to Its Vomit, So a Fool Repeats His Folly

I love my dog. He is a European Boxer. You know, the ones with the smooshed noses. The ones that are "so ugly, they're cute." We named him Duff. No not after Homer Simpson's beer of choice. After the Scottish word for "dark." He is such a calm dog. And a quick learner. However, he has some serious separation anxiety. He can't be left alone in the house, or car, or anywhere for more than five minutes.

Do it and we reap his destruction: garbage cans turned over and riffled through; bras, hats, shoes, toys torn to pieces; a puddle of drool; and yes, we even stumble across poop and pee in the unlikeliest of places (like on the couch). So we've taken to tying him up with a metal chain around a metal support beam in the carpet-less room of the basement. We tried a metal cage, but he is such a determined beast that he always found a way out (even through lock and rope).

When we do get back to him, it takes a good ten minutes for him to calm himself down. A process which sometimes involves him throwing up because he has gotten himself so worked up. It's always a pain having to clean up after him when we get home. But there is at least one part of the clean-up process with which Duff is willing to help: eating the vomit that he expelled moments earlier.

This afternoon, I had to run over to church to get some copying done. Ruthie wasn't home. I didn't want Duff running around outside by himself. We already lost one dog that way. So I quietly slipped out of the house and left Duff there, unchained. I wouldn't be gone long.

I was gone longer than I anticipated.

And, when I got home, there was a panting Duff to greet me at the door, an overturned garbage can in the kitchen. I don't know about the basement. Honestly, I'm afraid to go down there. And yes, there was the remains of a puddle of vomit.

My question is, who's the bigger fool? The dog for eating his vomit, or me for leaving him unattended.