Looking for a Safe Place…

safe place church

When I pastored in rural Kentucky, we lived in the parsonage (a house the church provides for the pastor).  Because this church always wanted to know where to find the pastor, they located the parsonage right next to the church.  Everyone in that rural community knew if I was home, they felt great liberty to call me and tell me someone had left a light on in the church next door.

After three years, my wife and I sensed the time had come to move on.  A church in Louisville had contacted me, expressing interest.  We set a time to meet with them, on the next Sunday evening.

On the appointed Sunday evening, I was finishing tying my tie, when there was a knock at my door.  Opening it, there was a young woman, about 23, wearing jeans and rubber farm boots.

“Are you the preacher?” she asked.  I told her I was.  “I want to kill myself,” she said.

I wish I could tell you my first thought was “You poor woman,” but it actually was “Not now!  I have an interview!”  My pastoral gear did kick in, however, and I invited her in.  Gina and I listened to her story – she worked on one of the dairy farms, her marriage was falling apart, and she felt like there was no hope.

I knew this woman’s troubles were over my head.  I told her we would get her the help she needed.  I called the chair of the committee and explained the situation (if you must cancel a pastor search committee interview, dealing with a suicidal woman is a pretty good excuse).  Gina and I drove the women into Louisville, to the hospital where I had interned as a chaplain.  On the way there, I asked her why she came to our house.  She said, “I figured it was a safe place.”

Mental illness touches one out of five Americans.  Chances are pretty good you know someone who struggles with a mental health issue.  Mental illness can manifest as addiction, depression, anxiety, outbursts of anger, disorientation, and disconnection from reality.  In my years as a pastor, people have sought me out for these issues and more.

Pastors by nature know a little about a lot of things.  We’re generalists.  We are not really equipped to treat people who have mental health issues.  But we can do two important things.

First, we can make sure the churches we serve are places of grace.  We need to make sure people know they can be real about what’s going on in their souls.  When the disorientation of mental illness begins, we want people to know that they can talk about it to spiritually wise people at church.  People with mental illness will not be judged, but loved.  As churches and pastors, let’s pledge to do our best to steer people toward the best care available.

Second, we can pray for God’s peace in souls.  I believe our God heals not just the body, but also thoughts and feelings.  We do not pray enough for healing of troubled souls.  There is a peace that passes all understanding, and God wants to give that to people.  How much time do we spend praying for God’s peace for people?

Our mayor has proclaimed this weekend as the Mental Health Weekend of Faith.  He has shared with me and other pastors this is a growing concern in our community.  We know that ultimately, spiritual power can overcome the evil that robs people of mental health.  This why Jesus’ church must be a place of grace for all; therefore, Jesus’ people must boldly pray for the peace of God to richly dwell in every heart.

A month after that Sunday night, there was again a knock on my door.  When I opened the door, it was the same young woman, with a bright smile on her face.  She told me at the hospital she had gotten some medicine, which she considered a gift from God.  She had talked to some helpful people, who gave her a different perspective.  She found out she loved her life and was making plans to move ahead.  I celebrated with her, prayed with her, and then stood up to say good-bye.  She looked me in the eye, and said, “Thank you for being there, for being a safe place when I needed one.”

Somewhere in our town, someone needs a safe place of grace and a powerful prayer of peace.

My Many Mothers…

11800207_10153357048161273_7970820962766669759_nDurrances (2)

 

Don’t get me wrong, my mother was an amazing woman. Growing up, she came home every afternoon from school, saddle up her horse and rode out with her brother Pete to doctor screw-worm calves across 10,000 acres of marsh and swamp.  She was the most popular girl in her graduating class at Lake Placid High School (of course, there were only six).  She married my father, who though a tough cowboy, still lived with his mother. When Daddy died, Momma resisted all suggestions that she sell the ranch, move into town and live a life of ease.  Momma had strength.

I suppose Momma once had a nurturing side, but when Daddy died, something inside her died.  I remember Momma as fun and strong.  As I look back, the weight she carried was unreal.  But she didn’t have time to explore her feelings; there was work to be done and she did it.  She had a lot of steel, not much cushion.

But God put other mothers in my life.

When I went to my Aunt Frieda Gill’s house, the rules were different.  We could have cokes and Hershey’s Chocolate Bars.  Comic books were forbidden at our house.  Not at Aunt Frieda’s.  There was a stack of comic books you could read till your eyes hurt.  Aunt Frieda gave me a lot of joy.

My aunt Faye Shackelford owned the S&S Grocery Store in town.  Whenever Momma went in to buy groceries, Aunt Faye would call me over and tell me to get a candy bar – but not to tell Momma she let me have one.  It would be years before I realized you had pay for candy bars.  Aunt Faye taught me grace means something you get, something really good for free.

My aunt Mildred Hadsel (we called her “Aunt Mooie” for some reason) would pick me up and go riding around the county to look at new houses people were building.  I can still see her, in her heels and holding her purse, exploring Adrian Chapman’s house while it was under construction.  “Good Lord,” she said, “You’d have to ride a bicycle from the bedroom to the kitchen for breakfast!”  Then we’d go to Senterfitt’s to get a cheeseburger and fries.  That was the best part of all – I didn’t have to share fries with my brother.  Aunt Mooie gave me taste for exploration – and she spoiled me a little too.

My aunt Neta Prescott kept me often when I was small.  Every afternoon she would settle into her recliner for a nap.  I would watch “Let’s Make a Deal” and she would emit gentle snores.  About four in the afternoon, a thunderstorm would come up.  Thunder and flashes of lighting could scare a five-year-old boy, but Aunt Neta would sleep right through the storm.  Something about her steady breathing made me feel safe in the storm.

My aunt Iris Hendry was my defender.  Once she told my brothers to stop picking on me or she would sit on them.  They did not heed her warning and keep it up.  The next thing they knew, Aunt Iris had picked them both up, put them on the couch, and sat on them.  Aunt Iris was not fat, but she was also not small.  The couch erupted with cries for mercy.  Aunt Iris protected me.

Bert Calder helped my Momma at home and watched over us.  I loved Bert.  All I had to do was tell her Steve was picking on me (whether he was or not), and she would get on to him.  Bert was always on my side.

Somewhere in college I learned that parents were supposed to be perfect.  Any problem in your life could be traced back to your parent’s failures, according to Freud.  I spent too much time being angry at my mother for not being perfect.

As I matured, I realized Momma did the best she could.  Given who she was, what she was dealing with, she did what she could.  It’s not fair to be mad at someone for not giving what they don’t have.  One the most important things I did as a follower of Jesus was to forgive my mother for not being perfect.

God was gracious enough to give me other women in my life who filled in the gaps.  I’m not sure Hillary Clinton is right, that it takes a village to raise a child, but I know it took a whole lot of women to raise me.  God provided many mothers for me.

This Mother’s Day, forgive your mother for not being perfect.  She probably was doing the best she could.  I’ll bet God sent some other women into your life to mother you in the best sense of the word.  Give God thanks for the many mothers in your life.

And if you are a woman, chances are pretty good someone besides your own child needs you to pour into them.  You might be the mother God sends to help someone know they matter, they are safe, and someone is on their side.

 

 

A Word to Your Circle…

circle of influence

 

Wayne Collier helped us work cows after my father had died.  I was four years-old, riding my one-eyed Shetland pony, gathering up cows.  I felt so big.  Even a four-year-old on a Shetland pony can move a cow.  Then I rode up too close to the herd and Wayne hollered at me, “Son, don’t ride up on them cows.  They’ll scatter.”

It was the first time I remember anyone calling me “son.”  “Son” is what older men in my neck of the woods called young boys when they needed to correct them, but not be harsh with them.  Since my father died, I didn’t hear “son” too often.  Wayne that day gave me a word of affectionate correction when he called me “son.”  I’ll never forget it.

My cousin Tiny Durrance grew up with my Dad.  His home in Chattanooga was halfway between Florida and Kentucky, where I went to school.  Half-a-dozen times I stopped and spent the night.  Tiny would start to tell stories about my Daddy.  He would tell about the time Daddy overturned the truck with fifteen men on back, when Daddy knocked out a man’s eye in a juke joint across the county line, and when Daddy’s mare beat his cousin Floyd’s colt in horse race one Sunday after church.

Tiny gave me memories of my Daddy I didn’t have.  He gave me stories I needed to hear, stories I stored up in my soul, to pass on to my children.  I’ll never forget those stories.

Doing graduate work at seminary was like living in a war zone.  The competition was fierce, the expectations high.  You never knew when a stray verse of Hebrew would be lobbed at you in class.  Halfway through my Ph.D. studies, I realized I did not have a scholar’s temperament.  I really didn’t care how many variations of conjunctions there were in the book of 1 Chronicles.  I decided to finish my degree anyway, but it was like giving birth to watermelon.  My supervisor, Dr. Marvin Tate was patient beyond belief with my missed deadlines and immature conclusions.

After I left school and came to pastor Alice Drive, I sent a weekly newsletter to Dr. Tate (we mailed them in those days before the internet).  One day my assistant told me a Dr. Tate was on line one and asked if I wanted to speak to him.  I immediately broke into a cold sweat; had I failed to turn in a paper?  Were they revoking my degree?

Dr. Tate came on the line and told me a column I had written about women in ministry was the best summation of the issue he ever read.  He asked permission to use it with his Sunday School Class.  Then he asked if I ever considered being a full-time writer.   In that moment, I received an affirmation I never dreamed of.  A simple phone call healed many of the scars I incurred during Ph.D. wars.  I’ll never forget his call.

One day I felt this strange prompting to write a thank you note to John Ortberg.  John’s books have grown my soul through the years.  He introduced me to Dallas Willard, who in turn challenged me to go deeper in my walk with Jesus.  I met John once in a conference in the bathroom.  It’s an odd place to meet a hero.  We didn’t shake hands.

John had added so much to my life, I felt the need to say “thanks.”  I wrote a note, sent it to his church, and felt like I had done what God wanted me to do.  A few weeks later, I received a note back from John.  It simply said, “Thank you Clay.  Your note encouraged me.  Appreciatively, John.”  It must have taken him 10 seconds to write.  I keep in my desk drawer to this day.  I’ll never forget that note.

Each of these men were people of influence in my life.  In their circle of influence, they reached out and communicated something positive.  Their words and stories helped my soul.

There are people in your circle of influence.  They need encouragement.  They need something positive.  They need your response.  You are a person of influence and your words and stories matter.

You may think your influence doesn’t matter.  You are wrong.  It matters a lot.  There are people in your circle who need your blessing.  Bless them.  They will never forget it.

Up is Down…

 

 bonanza plane crash

When I was in college, I got a hankering to learn to fly.  The cost was not out of reach back then.  I would sneak away from campus, down to the Bessemer Airport, and get an hour of instruction for $35.

Good pilots know how to focus.  I can still hear the voice of my flight instructor Tom telling me on final approach, “Airspeed! Outside! Airspeed! Outside!”  He was trying to drill into my head that when you land, keep looking at your airspeed and keep looking at your target – the runway.  You need reference points.

I was not a good pilot.  I don’t have ADHD on the ground, but I did in the air.  There were too many interesting things to see: houses, farms, other planes, roads, birds, sky – it was all so amazing.  I would be looking around at amazing sights while Tom was shooting, “Airspeed! Outside!”

Beginning pilots are VFR:  Visual Flight Rules. This means you fly only when you have space to see between the clouds and ground.  You can get an IFR rating: Instrument Flight Rules.  When you have this rating, you can fly into clouds, through fog; but you rely on your instruments to tell you where you are.

Tom explained in vivid detail what would happen if a beginning pilot like me flew into a cloud: You would get disoriented.  Unless you relied on your instruments, you would begin to think up was down and down was up.  I thought Tom was making this up, but he told me we rely more on visual references than we think.

I think all flight instructors have a book of horror stories to tell their students.  Tom proceeded to tell me about a Doctor who only had a VFR rating, but was over-confident.  He took off under marginal VFR conditions, traveling cross country.  Conditions worsened.  He got disoriented.  He flew his Bonanza straight into the ground, killing him.

When you have 10 hours of flight time under your belt, that kind of story makes a point.  During the few years I flew, I avoided marginal conditions at all costs.   Tom’s voice rang in my memory, “In the burned wreckage, they found him with the yoke pushed all the way in.  The only explanation: He thought he was headed up, when he was really headed down.”

Jesus gives us the same warning.  The most dangerous sin of all, the unforgivable sin, he said, was to believe that evil was good and good was evil.  When you are spiritually disoriented, you fly your life into destruction.

Even Christians accept this line of reasoning too often.  We believe an explosion of our temper will solve our problems.  We believe we can steal and cheat and never get caught.  We believe we can control our spouses or our children.  We believe our way is better than God’s.  We wind up flying our lives right into the ground.

The only way to stop this is to check your reference points.  “Airspeed! Outside!” can be changed to “Worship! Bible! Prayer!”  Jesus followers believe worship matters because it is a reminder of true reality, God’s reality, God’s Kingdom.  That’s why being in church to worship matters.  Bible knowledge is not just so you can win Bible Trivia; it is so you have a guide to ultimate truth.  Prayer is daily conversation with God so you can stay in touch with His reality.  What are your reference points?

When do you cross the line to the unforgivable sin?  When you no longer check your reference points.  When your heart is so disoriented you believe what is evil is good for you and what is good for you is evil.  This is what happened to Pharaoh in the Book of Exodus.  He got disoriented.  Despite overwhelming evidence, despite the advice of his own cabinet, he would not see things God’s way.  He flew his army, his nation, and his own life right into ground.

Knowing reality, knowing up from down, knowing good from evil – it’s the most important skill of life.

Are you flying up?  Or down?

Spewing Liver…

spit out

I realize most of you grew up in tasteful families with genteel manners, where everyone was born knowing which fork to use for dessert and which fork to use for salad.  I grew up in a family that was proud to have forks.

We did have some couth.  Chewing with your mouth open or smacking your food meant you were sent to your room without finishing supper and with no dessert.  “That’s disgusting,” Mamma would say.

At this point, I should inform you that I hate liver.  As far back as I can remember, someone has been encouraging me to eat liver.  I was told, “How do you know you don’t like it unless you try it?”  I’ve never tried self-performed surgery either but I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t like it.  It did not matter if the liver came from a chicken or a cow, my parents thought there was some virtue in consuming it.

Mamma finally decided on a fool-proof plan to make me eat liver: she would fry it, like fried steak.  Mamma made the best fried steak south of the Suwanee River.  She would flour it with salt and pepper mixed in, and slide it into an iron skillet of hot Crisco.  Then she would cook rice and homemade milk gravy (this was before cholesterol).  Green beans that had simmered all day with a ham hock and homemade biscuits with butter completed the meal.

I came in from a hard day of running around being a boy.  Being a consummate consumer of Mamma’s fried selections, I knew this was not fried chicken.  I asked Mamma, “What’s for supper?”  She said, without cracking a smile, “Beef!  Now, set the table.”  I neglected to ask which part of the cow would be served, and with mouthwatering, I set the table.

We said the blessings, and used our single forks to spear a piece of crispy brown meat.  I quickly cut a piece, lifted my fork to my mouth, and let my lips capture the prize.

My taste buds registered surprise.  The crispy fried outside was familiar, but beyond that thin layer was a meat of unknown origin. Instead of the sweetness of round steak, there was a bitterness, like burnt motor oil (don’t ask how I know burnt motor oil is bitter). My brain began to frantically search its memory files.  With amazing speed my neurons went back into the cobweb covered taste recollections.  The taste fit the profile of “liver.”

I promise I did not do this intentionally.  It was an involuntary reflex.  My brain sent an emergency message to my lungs, my tongue, my cheeks, and my lips saying, “Expel this heathen substance!”  I spewed the half-eaten chunk of liver out of my mouth, into the atmosphere.  It landed on my brother’s plate.  He yelled my name: “Clay!”  My brain had moved onto other things, like chugging my glass of sweet tea to wash that nasty taste off my taste buds.

There then ensued a great family debate.  My brothers insisted I be banished from the table because I had been caught chewing with my mouth open.  I insisted I was innocent, because: 1) I had not repeatedly chewed, only moving my jaw once; 2) Spewing a deadly substance out one’s mouth is not a violation of Amy Vanderbilt’s Rules of Etiquette, but a survival tactic; and 3) My Mother lied to me.

Mercy prevailed and I filled up on rice and gravy (which was good, even if it derived from liver).

Jesus said to the church at Laodicea, “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other!  So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I will spew you out of my mouth.”

Jesus cannot stand people or churches that are apathetic and disengaged.  To him, they taste like liver.  Jesus can handle opposition.  He loves passion.  He loathes passivity.

When I was an adult, I told a doctor about my aversion to liver.  He said, “I don’t blame you.  Never eat another animal’s poison filter.”

Are passive Jesus followers, passive churches, bags of poison that Jesus will spew out of his mouth?

Or maybe the better question is, “Is Jesus about to spew me out of his mouth?”

The Empty House…

 two story house

No one lived in the old Durrance home place.  The two-story house sat empty most of my childhood and teen-age years.  What had once been home to a family was home to rats and snakes.  The house was a hazard.

The surviving grandson, Juddy, owned the place.  He decided to burn it down (you could do such things in those days).  Mildred, married to a Durrance descendant, asked me to go over with her to see if anything was left in the house worth saving.

The house had been emptied of all furniture years before.  But strewn on the floor were old papers, bills, and books.  It was debris left from decades of a family living and farming and making this house a home.

In an upstairs bedroom I found a Bible.  It laid on top of a pile of papers.  I picked it up and opened to the flyleaf.  Written there was the name “Sam Durrance.”

Sam was a country preacher legend where I come from.  He died before I was born, but I heard the stories.  Once, preaching at Fort Green, he got so excited he ran on the tops of the slat-backed pews from the front of the open-air tabernacle to the back and then ran up the center aisle, never missing a beat (church was more exciting back then).  Not content with just preaching, Sam was a County Commissioner, and a friend of political powers.  He had other colorful traits I won’t mention.

Now, here was his Bible, in an empty house, about to be burned.  If I left the Bible, it would burn up.  I picked the Bible up, gave it to Mildred, and told her if she didn’t want it, I would be honored to have it.  Just then, Juddy drove up.  We showed him our find and asked him if he wanted it (hoping he would say no).  But he said yes, and took the Bible with him.  I never saw it again.

A few days later, Juddy burned the house.  We saw the smoke four miles away at our place.  When we passed by a few days later, we saw still-smoking ruins.  The house was gone, everything good taken out of it.

Jesus told a story about a demon who left a man, trying to find a better place.  After wandering around for a while, he failed to find a new soul that would welcome him.  So, he went back to his old home.  He found the soul clean, but empty.  The demon went out and found seven other spirits eviler than itself, and the eight of them moved into the empty soul.  Jesus finished the story by saying the man was worse off than he was before (Matthew 12:43-45).

Jesus is teaching us that it is not enough to get rid of evil in our lives.  This is why most of us fail in our battle against evil.  We falsely believe if we have enough willpower, we can stop doing wrong.  We succeed for a little while, until evil comes back with a greater force, and wrecks our souls again. We’ve got to fill up our souls with something else, something more powerful than evil.   We must fill our souls with Jesus.

I think about the old Durrance place, empty all those years.  But there was something eternal there, a Bible, God’s word which endures forever.  When the Bible was removed, the only thing really to do with that old wreck of a house was to burn it down.

If Jesus is not occupying your life, evil will move in.  It will shove out everything eternal, until finally, your soul is like an empty house, only fit for snakes and rats and burning.  That’s not what God wants for you.  He wants to give you eternal life and make your soul his home, his beautiful home.

Is your soul empty?  Or full of Jesus?

Temptations…

HorseManureLoad4

My brothers and I were given the chore of cleaning out the horse stalls.  Steve was seventeen, Bobby was fourteen and I was ten.  Over time, the horse stalls fill up with processed horse feed.  My step-father, Lawrence, never one to waste a resource, wanted us to shovel it onto the truck, and then shovel it out into a sandy section of the orange grove to build up the soil.

My brothers made it their mission in life to let me know where I stood in the pecking order.  When they were left in charge, I would have to run around the house three times before I could have one potato chip (I was a lot thinner then).  When the three of us were assigned chores, they tried to arrange things so they did the supervision and I did the labor.  This chore was no different.

The problem, however, with them supervising and me shoveling was that a scrawny ten-year-old boy can’t shovel very much.  They soon realized they would have to work as well.  Much colorful language ensued as we piled the contents of the horse stalls onto the truck.

We all three crammed into the seat (this was before super crew cabs) and drove over to the sandy place in the grove.  A fight ensued about who would drive the truck and who would shovel.  My brothers realized that if I shoveled, we’d be there all afternoon.  That’s when the miracle occurred:  they let me drive.

To those of you aghast at the idea of a ten-year-old driving a truck, I should explain we were all taught to drive early.  In the country, driving a truck or a tractor was an essential skill.  I learned to drive in a 1959 Willys Jeep truck three-speed, when I was five.  No body worried about me running into something.  There were only orange trees and cows.  The trees would stop me and the cows had enough sense to get out of the way.

My brothers climbed in the back with the shovels, giving me strict instructions that I was to ease forward, then stop.  They would shovel out the soil enrichment material and then I would ease forward again.  I put the truck in first gear, let out the clutch slow as I had been taught and eased forward.

After about five minutes, boredom had set in.  A bored ten-year-old mind is a dangerous thing.  I began to remember all the times my brothers made me run around the house for a potato chip.  I remembered them telling me about the monsters that only lived under my bed, because they liked young, tender meat.  I remembered when they told me I was adopted (I’m not and I have the pictures to prove it).  Then temptation came to me.

I can’t say where the idea formed, only that it sprang to life in my conscious.  What would happen if the next time they yelled, “Pull forward,” I popped the clutch and plopped them into the load of processed horse feed?  They would be covered in revenge.

A small voice in my head said, “Love your enemy, do good to those who persecute you.”  Another voice said, “It’s time to get even.”  Can you tell which voice belonged to God and which belonged to Satan?

Steve yelled out, “Pull forward.”  I popped the clutch.  They plopped into the pile of processed horse feed, revenge covering their faces.

I had enough sense not to stick around.  I opened the door of the truck and ran for the house.  I had a good head start but forgot they had the truck.  I looked over my shoulder to see Steve gripping the steering wheel, wiping the processed horse feed out of his eyes, bearing down on me.  Bobby was still floundering in the back of the truck, unable to get his footing.  I zig-zagged around orange trees, trying to shake them.  Steve was grinding gears, making those four cylinders whine.  I reached the house just as the truck skidded to a halt.  Mamma came out to see what all the fuss was about.

I can still see her, looking at one son, panting, out of breath, then looking at her other sons, covered with processed horse feed.  She covered her mouth and tried to look disapproving, but she broke into laughter instead.  She did not punish me.

Steve and Bobby, however, got their revenge a few days later.  This time we were in the grove, pruning trees.  They found a black snake, a harmless little thing.  Then a tempting thought entered their mind.   They waited until my back was turned and threw the snake at me.

I don’t know who was more traumatized, the snake or me.  The snake went one way and I went the other.  The war of the brothers continued most of that summer.

It’s been a long time since I thought about that summer and a long time since I was tempted to get revenge on my brothers.  My mind focused on different things.

Your battles, your wars always continue until you say “no” to temptation, “no” to revenge.  The best way to defeat temptation is to focus your soul elsewhere.  Focus on what God wants for you, not on putting people in their place.

Funny, though.  Suddenly I have this urge to call my brothers and pretend to be an agent of the IRS, telling them they have a tax audit.  Time for me to refocus again.

Peter Meets Jesus on Easter

Jesus laughing

It is just a fragment of a verse: “The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon (Luke 24:34).”  On the day that changed the world, Jesus took time to personally appear to Simon Peter.  Peter, of course, would become the leader of the church, the preacher of the first Christian sermon, and the one who broke the racial barrier by offering the gospel to the Gentiles.  Most scholars agree with the tradition that Peter provided Mark with the stories for his gospel.  Yet there is no detail of this encounter in Mark’s gospel.  Only Luke mentions it.  Why?

Imagine the President calling you personally.  I’d sure post it on Facebook.  I’d probably write a column about what was said.   One thing is for sure; I wouldn’t keep quiet about it.

I can’t help but wonder how this encounter between Jesus and Peter happened.    Maybe Peter was haunted by the events of early Friday morning.  He had vowed he would never deny Jesus, he would never run away, he would never be a coward.  In the span of minutes, he broke all his promises and hid in shame the rest of the day.

Saturday after the crucifixion was a day of rest.  Travel was forbidden.  Peter was house bound with the other disciples, perhaps still in the upper room.  When Sunday dawns, it is time to make plans for the next chapter of life.

All travel plans are put on hold by Mary’s news that the tomb of Jesus is empty.  Peter and John run to the tomb.  John gets there first; Peter arrives and goes in; John follows.  John believes.  Peter still has questions.

Peter and John go back to the other disciples.  No one knows what happened in that meeting.  My hunch is they argued (they were good at that).  John argues Jesus is risen.  He puts together all of Jesus’ teachings, predictions, and the empty tomb, and believes resurrection is the only logical possibility.  Other disciples are saying “No way!”  Some argue to get out of town now; others say let’s wait and see.

I wonder if Peter was off in a corner, for once not the leader.  Maybe part of him hoped it was true.  Maybe part of him was worried it was true.  What do you say to the Risen Lord you denied three times?

Did Peter go for a walk to get out of the house while everyone argued?  Did he slip down back streets where no one was likely to see him and identify him as one of Jesus’ disciples?  Did he find an unmarked trail up the Mount of Olives to be alone?  Did he look down at the city, seeing the Temple Jesus cleansed, the hill where Jesus died and the house of the Chief Priest, where he had denied Jesus?

Maybe it was at this moment that Jesus appeared to Peter.  I can imagine Jesus coming up behind Peter, tapping him on the shoulder, and saying, “Hi Rocky!”  Peter would have nearly jumped out of his skin, hearing that voice he knew so well.

When Peter turned and saw Jesus’ face, what did he see?  I imagine Jesus smiling at him.  Peter might have taken two steps back in shock.  Did Jesus reach out and bear hug Peter?  I can see him doing that.

What did Jesus say?  “I forgive you?”  Did Jesus remember another moment with Peter, when he walked on the water and his fear got the best of him?  When Peter started to sink, Jesus grabbed his hand, and said, “O you of little faith.  Why did you doubt?”  I wonder if Jesus repeated those same words again, with a twinkle in his eye.

We will never know what happened during Jesus’ encounter with Peter.  My hunch is the moment was too sacred for Peter, too holy to ever describe.

Sometimes if you try to describe something amazing, it makes it diminish in your soul.  Telling the story makes it lose size and power.  I think that’s what happened to Peter.  This was the holiest moment of all, to be treasured and never diminished.

Everyone needs that kind of moment with Jesus.  Have you had yours?

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.