The Pile…

garbage pile

Imagine all the evil of the world piled into one place.  What’s in the pile?

There is big evil, of course.  Slavery throughout the centuries.  Genocide.  Wars of conquest and plunder.  Apartheid.  Into the pile goes not just the sins of nations, but the sins of complicit individuals, many of whom would claim, “We were just following orders.”

On the pile goes personal sins.  Lies. Adultery.  Failure to rest.  Dishonoring your father and mother.  Coveting.  Our assumption is these are little sins.  Not in God’s eyes.   They are violations of his values.  On the pile they go.

Crimes are on the pile.  Personal crimes like assault, murder, theft.  Crimes committed by corporations and businesses go on the pile too.  Treating people like machines.  Corporate greed.  Failure to pay a living wage.

A big addition to the pile are the sins of God’s people.  Start all the way back with the people of Israel.  They doubted God in the desert.  Their neighbors’ gods were more attractive, so they failed to be loyal solely to God.  Forward to the church.  The sins of the church are many.  Lusting for power.  Failure to welcome the least of these.  Attaching God’s name to things God wants nothing to do with.

There is evil in the world that doesn’t come from personal choice.  There is the evil of cancer and of AIDS.  There are the unexplained hurricanes and tornados, the earthquakes and floods.  All the unexplainable evil is added to the pile as well.

Then there is what you add to the pile and what I add to the pile.  I bring my assortment of the seven deadly sins: pridegreedlustenvygluttonywrath and sloth.  I shaped each of these sins according to personal preference.  Some control me more than others.  All are present in my life… and in yours.  Compared to the rising mountain of sin, our contribution can seem small.  But comparison is useless.  Add garbage to a pile of garbage and it still stinks.  Add my sin and your sin to the pile of sins and it still stinks.

Jesus followers claim that on Good Friday, Jesus did an extraordinary thing.  He gathered up the towering pile of the sins of the world, past, present and future, and put it on his soul.

Imagine the agony.  His soul, pure, perfect, never warped by double minded thinking, now bearing the pile of sin that stinks up his creation.  We don’t like to think about this big pile of sin Jesus carried.  It’s too ugly.  It stinks.  It overwhelms us.

Only when you force yourself to look at the pile do you realize the magnificence of the cross.  Sins that would crush our souls with their wretchedness are loaded onto Jesus’ soul.  He absorbs the punishment you and I could not carry.  The death we deserved became his.

Before we rush to Easter and its joy, pause and look at the pile.  Now you understand how big a miracle Jesus’ resurrection is.  He took the whole pile of sin and crushed it with grace.  The sins of the nations.  The sins of the criminals.  The sins of God’s people.  The sins of corporations and businesses.  Your sins.  My sins.  Crushed by the power of His grace.

Larry’s Truck…

My brother-in-law, Larry, is a great guy.  A Florida Athletic Hall of Fame High School Soccer Coach, in his 50’s he discovered turkey hunting.  When Larry gets interested in something, intensity is too mild a word to describe his focus.  The ranch has ready-made turkey hunting habitat.  Larry was hooked.  Before long, he was embracing all of ranch life, including having of few cows of his own.

The only problem was, Larry had a “city” truck.  A “city” truck is deceptive.  The advertisements say they ride like a car and carry a load like a truck, but in truth, they do neither well.  “City” trucks don’t clear stumps well and don’t have four-wheel drive.  As a result, “city” trucks get stuck – a lot.

I know this because I’ve had “city” trucks.  A couple of them were compact trucks, which meant they would clear an anthill on a good day.  I took one of my city trucks to the ranch once and got hung up thirty feet past the gate.  Once again, I had to endure the humiliation of calling for help.  Pop, my brother Steve, and our foreman Richard have all had to come and pull me out.

The same thing happened to Larry.  He would go down into the pasture to check his turkey feeders or his cows, and he would hang up or bog down.  He got stuck at one creek-crossing so much, we named it after him: “Larry’s Crossing.”

It must be hard to be a Hall of Famer and have to call people to pull you out.  Finally, Larry had enough.  Not too long ago, he told me he was getting a new truck.

Let me educate the truck illiterate among you.  A good basic truck is a F-150 or a Chevy 1500, 4×4.  That’s what I have.  It will get you where you need to go in the woods.  If you want a little more muscle for pulling, you get a F-250 or a Chevy 2500.  These are working trucks.  My brother Steve drives a F-250 4×4.  A F-350 or Chevy 3500 is a serious truck.  They are built tough and will pull just about anything you’ve got.  The ranch truck is a F-350 and we pull a loaded stock trailer with it.

Larry was tired of having the smallest truck in the family.  So, Larry bought a new 2018, F-350 Diesel 4X4 Super Crew Cab.  Now if any of us got stuck, we’d call Larry.  He and his monster truck would pull us out.

Larry had his truck for two weeks.  He was down at the ranch and a line of thunderstorms was moving through.  There were warnings of hail.  Larry didn’t want his new truck to be hit by hail (I understand – I don’t want any scratches on a new vehicle until I put them there).

The problem was the new truck wouldn’t fit in the garage – too tall.  We haven’t repaired the tin roof at the barn since the hurricane, so the truck wouldn’t be safe there.  My brother Steve suggested Larry park his new truck under a hundred-year-old oak tree.  The oak tree was thick and would block the hail.

Larry parked his truck in the suggested location and went in the house to wait out the storm.  He heard the lighting strike close, but didn’t think anything of it (there are more lighting storms in the Tampa Bay area than anywhere else on earth).  The lights flickered, but they do that when you are the end of the power line.  After a few minutes, Larry heard “pop.”  Then another “pop.”

He went outside to check out the odd sound, and smelled smoke.  In panic, he thought of his beloved new truck.  He rounded the corner of the house to see his brand new, 2018 F-350 Diesel 4×4 Super Crew Cab truck with 700 miles on it, on fire.  Lighting had hit the oak tree and the truck was burning.

The ranch is twelve miles from the fire department in town.  By the time the firefighters got there, Larry’s new truck had burned to the ground.

When I heard the news, I sent Larry a text telling him how sorry I was.  He sent a text back to me, “Thou shalt not covet.  Lesson learned.”

I need to tell Larry coveting is when you want something someone else has because you think it will make you somebody.  Buying a big truck so you don’t get stuck is not coveting.

Maybe a better scripture is “He makes the rain fall on the just and the unjust.”  Every bad thing that happens isn’t because God is punishing you.  Bad things do happen to good people.  Lighting strikes the just and the unjust.

What do we do when bad things happen to us?  The best thing I know to do is go to the Father and ask, “What am I supposed to learn?”  Sometimes we learn God is all we need.  Sometimes we learn that stuff really isn’t important.  Sometimes we learn God will carry us through.

Insurance should cover most of the loss.  Larry will get another truck.  I suspect the oak tree will live.  And God will be with Larry and you and me, when rain falls, hail comes, and lighting strikes.  In the end, God is enough.

PS:  It never did hail.

The Night They Tried to Fire the Preacher…

church fights

We moved away from the ranch when my mother married my step-father.  For ten years, I lived in Largo, an exploding suburb of St. Petersburg.  It was at the First Baptist Church of Largo that I made my profession of faith and was baptized.

Because Baptists believe in the priesthood of believers, at that time baptized church members no matter their age could attend church conference and vote.  At eight years old, my vote carried the same weight as my parents.

I was a weird kid; church conference fascinated me.  Normally calm men would get red in the face as they struggled to hold back words.  I think I knew what words they wanted to say; I’d heard them in the cowpens.  Timid women would forget Paul’s injunction to keep silent in church and would stand up to lambast Deacons, Music Directors, and the Preacher’s wife.  If you didn’t have a dog in the fight, a Baptist business meeting in late 60’s was better than anything on television for raw entertainment value.

I must have been about eleven when I sat with Mama at a church conference one Wednesday night.  Pop was there too, which was unusual; that should have been my first clue that something was up.  Roy Attaway, a good friend of my parents went forward to make a motion declaring “no-confidence” in the preacher.  I’d never heard this phrase before.  I wasn’t sure what “no-confidence” meant, but I could tell by Mr. Roy’s tone, he didn’t like the preacher.

I leaned over to ask Mama what “no-confidence” meant and she shushed me.  When Mama shushed, she meant it.  So, I leaned over to my friend Charles Brown and whispered my question to him.  Before he could answer me, Mama grabbed my ear and yanked me back to her side (which is why to this day, my left ear lobe is longer than my right).

People got up and said nice things about the preacher, followed by people who got up and said not so nice things about the preacher.  As best I could follow, some folks were upset that the preacher always insisting on his way, and they didn’t like his way.  I looked at my parents and could tell by their nodding, they were on the side of people who didn’t like the way the Preacher was doing things.

When Baptists get up a head of steam, a church conference can last a long, long time.  The meeting had started at 6:30; it was drawing close to 9:30, way past my bedtime.  Still the entertainment value was high.  The drama was better than “The NBC Mystery Theater” on TV that night.

Someone finally called for the vote.  It was carefully explained by the Preacher (who was the moderator – awkward) that a “yes” vote meant a vote of “no-confidence,” and a “no” vote meant you approved of the preacher (Baptists would later go on to write many parts of the IRS tax code).  My parents raised their hands to vote “yes.”  It was then I realized I could vote too.

I didn’t particularly like the preacher, but I didn’t dislike him either.  To my eleven-year old mind, I knew he wasn’t perfect, but I didn’t think he ought to be fired.  It wasn’t like he was caught sniffing glue, or sneaking a peek at a Playboy.  It was just that he and the other grownups didn’t agree.  I understood that.  I didn’t agree with grownups very much either.

My mother reached over and tried to raise my hand for me.  I snatched it away.  When the vote for the “no’s” occurred, I raised my hand.  My mother gave a me look that said, “Wait till we get home, young man.”

As I recall the vote ended up failing by five votes.  On the way home, my mother said, “Why did you vote the same way Charles Brown voted?  Don’t you think I know more than he does?”  I recognized the danger in those questions, and wisely left them unanswered.  Then I spoke the truth, “I voted the way I voted because it seemed right to me.”

I mark that night as the first time I learned some people think church is about winning and losing.  Maybe my parents had a point; maybe the Preacher was a little hard-headed.  Still, I wondered then, and wonder now, why didn’t they just get together and talk about it?  Maybe even pray about it?  Why did it have to come down to winning and losing?

Too many churches make dumb decisions because they think every decision must have winners and losers.  Funny, I don’t remember Jesus talking much about winning and losing in the church.  I remember a lot of stuff about love, and serving, and making sure we follow Jesus.  Maybe if we stuck to that, we’d be a lot better off.

My parents are gone now; the Preacher in question is still alive and is my friend on Facebook; and First Baptist Largo no longer exists.  I myself narrowly escaped a group that wanted to fire me at a church in Kentucky for some reason or other.

Still, I think back to the night they wanted to fire the Preacher.  The biggest lesson I learned? You can be all grown up and still not really do what Jesus wants you to do.

 

We Are Different, We are the Same…

different same

We are different.

We have different skin tones, different facial features.  Northerners sound funny to Southerners; Southerners sound funny to Northerners.  Some have hair, others (like me) have beautiful scalps, free from follicle interference.   Some people like liver; others gag at the smell.

Men and women are different.  Sure, there is basic biology: women have different parts than men.  But our differences are beyond our parts.  Our bodies produce different chemicals at different levels.  Pharmaceutical companies are just waking up to the idea that they need to test some medicines on men and women before prescribing treatments.  We are different at a very basic level.

All women are not alike.  I know women who would much rather be in the garage fixing a car than in the kitchen fixing a casserole.  All men are not alike.  I know men who would rather arrange bouquets than hunt Bambi.  Before we say, “That’s not normal,” we must ask, “What is normal?  And who gets to define normal?  The US Department of Normal?”

Brothers can be different.  My brother collects guns.  I collect books.  Sisters can be different. One of my sisters can cook up a storm; the other sister can calm a storm of preschoolers.

We are different.

Why?  Maybe God knew we needed variety.  Maybe God knew we would never learn to love unless we learned to accept each other’s differences.  Maybe God knew different people would need different gifts to make a difference.

We are the same.

I’ve never meet a human being who didn’t long to connect to another person.  I’ve never meet a human being who didn’t long to be noticed by someone.  I’ve never meet a human being who wasn’t hungry to be understood.

Every child, even a child who is profoundly disabled, is curious.  Put six children with different skin tones in a room, and they explore together.  They learn together.  They discover together.

I’ve never known a human being who missed out on pain.  We hurt.  We grieve.  Even the man who is mute expresses his pain with a silent cry.  Pain is a universal language.

Brothers and sisters can be the same.  My brother and I have the same upper sinuses that cause disgusting sounds when we wake up in the morning.  Since I’m the youngest, it’s frightening to see my future when I see my brother.

We are the same.

Why?  We are the same because we are all made in God’s image.  God said, “Let us make man in our own image, male and female.”  God crafted us all in the same basic design, with just enough difference to keep things interesting.  You bear the image of God; so do I.  So do people in China, North Korea, Iran, England, Costa Rica, Haiti, and California.  There is a sacred imprint on our souls that not even sin washes completely away.

How do you love people different than you?  Find inside that person what is the same as you.  Find the sacred fingerprint of God.

Maybe that’s what Jesus meant when he said, “I say to you, love your enemies, do good to those who persecute you.”

Find the sacred.  Love and do good.

Blind…

blind

 

I got my first pair of contacts in the seventh grade.  They were (and still are) the old-fashioned rigid plastic kind.  The optometrist emphasized to me over and over, “These must be kept clean.”  Have you ever seen a twelve-year-old boy keep anything clean?

After a few months of wearing my contacts (and not following Doctor’s orders), I woke one night with an excruciating pain in both eyes.  It felt like someone had ground up glass and poured it under my eyelids.  I was in agony.  As bad as my eyes felt closed, the pain increased a dozen fold if I opened my eyes.

I toughed it out until six the next morning.  I kept my eyes closed, felt my way down the hall, woke my mom, and told her what was happening.  She made a call to Dr. Sera, a family friend, who agreed to see me as soon as the office opened.

I kept my eyes closed as Mom fixed breakfast and had the strange sensation of trying to find my way to the eggs on my plate without seeing them.  Mom had to lead to me to the car and then out of the car to the Doctor’s office.

Dr. Sera put me in a dark room, pried open my eyes, put some dye in them (which increased the pain!) and told me to relax.  Why do Doctors tell you to relax when they have knowingly just increased the pain?

He examined my eyes with his special lenses and rendered the verdict: I had a corneal abrasion.  Lack of cleaning my contacts caused dirt to accumulate.  The contacts had gouged a trench in both eyes.  I was given some drops and told to keep my eyes shut for the next twenty-four hours.

To be blind means you can’t see (thank you Captain Obvious!).  My brothers tried to trip me as I felt my way to the bathroom. I was the object of lots of jokes at dinner. Mostly, I was bored because I could not watch TV or read.  I couldn’t go where I wanted to go.

People have scratches on their souls.  Sometimes they are wounds from history, or even wounds they absorbed from their parents and grandparents.  The scratches cause blindness.  In our pain, we close our eyes to realities that cause us to think uncomfortable, painful thoughts.  In our blindness, we stumble into prejudice, bigotry, self-righteousness, and self-aggrandizement.  No one is born a racist; there is a wound in the past that scratches a soul and causes blindness.  Our blindness as a culture keeps us from going where we want to go.

What’s sad to me is the number of Jesus followers who stay blind.  This is not what Jesus wants for any of us.  The foretelling of his birth included this line: “Rise and shine, behold your light has come!”  Jesus said, “I have come to give sight to the blind” and “I am the light of the world.”

Part of Jesus’s invitation of grace to you is leave your blindness to your blindness.  Let him heal the wounds of your soul.  Let him set you free from the limits of your past.

I’ll never forget what it felt like after twenty-four hours to open my eyes again.  There was no pain.  To paraphrase a classic 60’s song, “I could see clearly now, the pain had gone.”  I kept my contacts clean from then on.

Isn’t it time for you to let Jesus touch your blindness that you are blind to?  Isn’t it time for you to let his light shine on the wounds of your soul?  Isn’t time for your wounds and your blindness to be healed?

He sees you and sees the you he wants you to be.