Are We Allowed to Believe?

My car battery died today.

The thing is, I knew it was coming. The car isn’t old, just a 2016, but it was taking two tries to get it started. We’d looked up the make and model online and found that battery issues were common.

Still, I kept driving. I hoped the spot it died in would not be too inconvenient. Leaving a surgeon’s office on a visit, it finally refused to start.

Val picked me up and, a few hours later, AAA sent out a service guy and he replaced the battery. The procedure was simple enough. It could only happen after death, though. And it could only happen with a cost.

Photo by Hilary Halliwell on Pexels.com

I grew up with a system of belief. It took a few decades of life to knock that down and rebuild it into something more genuine, a faith more connected to the reality of struggle and suffering.

These past few weeks we’ve seen the country torn apart. All sides of the issue are still fighting. We’ve dug in, more divided than before. Our labels carry so much weight. Our political leanings drive nails of darkness into our identity.

One cannot be seen as simply one thing. Conservatives become fascists. Liberals become socialists. Support the police, support movements for social change. Support the misrepresented and underrepresented.

Do these things and you will be hated.

So, why believe?

Why pick a side?

Why stand up for anything when it will cost you friendships, relationships, maybe even employment?

If there is anything to believe in, it is this:

Believe in change.

Believe in grace.

Believe in large holiday dinners again, the smell of cooking ham and potato filling, deserts and coffee.

Believe in the human spirit.

Image from USA Today

Look in the eyes of our children and believe that love can be taught, tolerance can be learned, courage can be embraced and the foundation laid deep in their hearts because, one day, they’ll run the world.

Believe in freedom. Believe that struggles will pass, that poverty and sickness can be overcome. Believe that your story is not over.

Believe that the sun will rise on endless dark nights. Believe that raging fires can be walked through, that heat is only temporary.

Believe that generations of hate can be overcome. Believe that systems can change, that nothing is forever and new ideas can heal old wounds.

Someone may not have told you this is a long time, but:

You can dream.

It may not feel right, but you can dream. You can look forward to a different future.

You can hope.

You can live with a renewed strength.

2020 so far, has been a year of dealing with our illnesses. From the physical side to societal pains. Exposure of deep wounds, of those struggling and left in the wake of rampant self-centered drive. As much as companies are racing for treatments and vaccines, as much as a slow roll of political change is sounding, we must be willing to continue the work. Not just on ourselves and our families, but our jobs and our community.

All of creation demands a response.

But some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Him, “Teacher, rebuke Your disciples!” “I tell you,” He answered, “if they remain silent, the very stones will cry out.” 

Luke 19: 40

The stones are crying out.

What if everything so far has led to 2020?

And now the time is yours.

No Longer Silent

We were riding in the car, afternoon sun beating down.

“Do you know what’s happening?” I asked. My oldest son looked out the window. “Like with the riots and everything?”

“Yeah.”

We were on our way to a pitching lesson. For more than a year, we’ve met with a former MLB pitcher. He loves his time there.

“Here’s something you need to know,” I said, “If you go out with your friends, you will run into situations where you are treated differently.” I listed three or four names of kids his age but different ethnicity. “If you all decide you are headed to a baseball game, for example, and walk into a gas station to get food, you will get treated differently.”

He nodded.

“Your job,” I told him, “is to stand up when you see this, when you see anyone being bullied, and try to stop it.” He swallowed. “It won’t be easy, but you have to.”

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“If God is talking to you about it, he wants you to talk about it.”

Erwin McManus

The obstacle is the way, as Ryan Holiday has written in one of my favorite books. Conflict is our radar. Stress is our tracking arrow.

What if God calls us into it to face it.

Society lacking coherent healthcare resources. 150 years of institutionalized racism. That internal system that tells us to resist the different, circle the wagons, and hold on to the life preserver because we may need it even if the boat is just fine.

The boat is not fine.

No matter where you stand.

We’ve turned away too often, looked away too long, and were willing to stand silent due to a variety of pressures.

Make no mistake. We are being called into it. God is talking to you right now. God is talking to me right now. God is talking to the world right now.

So could things be different?

Is reform more than a politically weighted buzz word? Can anything exist outside politics?

-An education that equips students for modern and relevant skills applicable Day One after graduation.

-A college system that is no longer a set of handcuffs for debt often costing more than a first house.

-Increased mental health services and screenings. -Availability to community resources that provide food and shelter, personal care items and personal connections.

-Police and prison reform. Reeducation. Equipping offenders for change not chains.

-Voices and seats at the table for everyone.

As a man of faith, one of the more interesting parts of the Bible to me is that Jesus is often mentioned having meals with followers. The meals had points to them, from instruction to physical demonstrations of grace.

Often Jesus gathered with “sinners.” He sat with outcasts.

Imagine, the ones on the fringes, the hated, the despised, the victims, those who struggled against the Roman empire occupying Jerusalem at the time. The ones unseen. The ones society had enough of.

Jesus spent his time there. He taught, laughed, joked, shared a meal and served.

Where do we spend our time?

Where could we?

The Open Hand

Today at church we started a series on Detours, those moments you find yourself off the path of life.  We all have them.  Some detours just knock you a block over and some are severe, causing a journey far out of the way.

The pastor mentioned the route Israel took leaving Egypt and making their way to the Promised Land.  It was not straight and direct. It was a “roundabout” way. It was a journey of internal work, progress of change through something not to something.

In this process we read that God leads with a hand outstretched.  Pastor Jason Mitchell made an excellent observation that our view of God’s hand is usually one of two ways.  It is either shaking hands in making a deal.  Or the open and calming presence of a father to his child. Each one impacts your view of faith.

You may see God as a deal-maker. If I just _______ enough it will all work out, heal, go away, come back, pay off, jump on, add up, respond, whatever you may need.  If I do what I need then God has to come through. When you have this view and a major detour strikes, your faith evaporates.  You hang on the WHY question.  Why did God not do what he’d promised when we made the deal. Why did God not come through.

When you see God as the father, your view shifts.  You flip the question from Why is this happening to What does God want to do in me. The one question answers the other.

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Fortunes have been made by pastors pushing God as deal maker. Books have been sold. Seminars booked. Checks cashed. There’s a power dynamic so appealing to people looking for control, for the deal offers control.  If we can just be good enough, God will come through.

When Val and I dealt with a miscarriage in 2018, this was me.  I had nothing to say to God. My deal maker hadn’t held up his end of the bargain. Even though I’d made progress, even though my faith had grown, even though I’d thought I’d matured as a believer, there was still work to be done.

This morning, the nail was driven home.  I realized he was right.  My pillars built up over the years were wrong.  My God is not the one of the deal.

My God is one of outstretched hands with big dreams, plans and visions.  Words that reach nations. Legacy with impact. My God is not the one of control. My path is not A to B.  It is the roundabout journey through the desert.

Jesus offers no deals.

Follow me. Do Not Be Afraid. I have overcome the world.

So go forward and enjoy the work. When the detours come, know the job is not yet finished.  You are still being refined for greater things. For life and life to the fullest.

For the journey not yet written, the path not yet taken, and bridges not yet built.

 

 

Answer the Call

What makes you, You?

In that Marvel cinemas flipping title sequence scroll, what shows up?

In the temperance path of life, where do you live? Age Twenty? Thirty? Fifteen?

At the end of a bad day, what moments do you revisit?

From your first breath to now, you are where you need to be.

The question is, what to do with it?

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Photo by GEORGE DESIPRIS on Pexels.com

Our stories are ours alone, ours to share with someone, our battles to fight.

Our suffering shapes our identity.

Our faith hangs on the hope of something more, the pull on our heart towards a compass direction rising out and above our trajectory, spreading to lives and people we have not known and may never meet.

Contemporary research believes Jesus to have been an architect, a stone mason and not a carpenter as originally conceived. This makes sense as he often spoke of building lives and laying foundations. The towers of our life can only be built on strong foundations, firm borders and set boundaries.

So, what makes you You?

Be something different.

In this time of division, be Unity.  In this time of hate, be Love. In this time of poverty, be Generous. In this time of violence, be Peace.  In this time of noise, be Silence.

Trends are made to be broken.

The status quot must end.

The future is being painted today by the brushstrokes of the fearless, of revolutionaries willing to answer the still, small voice that calls them in the dark hours.

The voice that calls to you.

Will you answer?

What Really Happened

Recently listening to my favorite pastor, Erwin McManus out at Mosaic in Los Angeles, he made a point in a message that stuck with me.  He stated that none of the Gospel writers were around for the birth of Jesus.  Matthew, Mark, Luke and John came into the picture when Jesus was an adult. This means Mary and Joseph had to tell others the story.

Imagine how many times they had to tell the story.

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I think we tend to minimize what happened.  Most can recite it by heart and our minds go to the plays and musicals of youth.

At the time, Roman gods painted a different picture.  They demanded obedience and sacrifice.  Temples and worship centers were across the empire. The gods, when bored, messed with humanity. When angry, bad things happened.  When happy, times were blessed.  The gods were distant though and creation bent to their whims.

This was different.

Imagine, the moment.  The instant. The blink of an eye when the particles of the universe moved and the divine arrived.  This wasn’t a temple in the midst of an elaborate worship ceremony.  This was dirt and darkness.  Animals and a star that lit the darkness around it.

This was a young father listening to his partner say she was pregnant when there was no way for it to physically be possible.  They decide, against everything else, to see it through.

This was angels, towering figures of light telling regular people to not be afraid. This was shepherds making a journey to people they’d never known, seeing the message and rejoicing, letting loose in celebration!

This was men traveling from far lands bringing gifts.

And lest we forget, this was death to hundreds of young boys in the attempt of a rash king to preserve his legacy.

The birth of Jesus was dark and dramatic and powerful. The creator of the Universe arriving in the form of a child, helpless and hungry.  The Holy arriving to show understanding and compassion, to dig in the dirt and meet us there.

God’s first breath coming in the cold Bethlehem air, first cry in humility, hunger and thirst.

Imagine his first perception of light, light created in the Beginning by the Word. Imagine the first touch of wind on his skin, wind coming from the Breath.  Imagine stars cast into the sky by the same small hands that grasp Mary’s finger.

Human and God.  Dirt and Noise. Power and Praise.  Fear and Celebration.

A night that changed history, past and present. A night that rewrote the future, that tipped the scales against death and the balance that would be paid on the cross.

Make no mistake, in the distance from the manger, over the hills, the cross loomed large. The story would be complete, victory would be won, creation transformed.

And it started here.  This night. This moment.

This look between Mary and Joseph and a smile saying we’ll be okay.  No matter how scared we are, we’ll be okay.

Everything will work out.

Dear God….

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It’s me.  We met back when I was a teenager in a moment of grace. I felt it and I knew something had changed.  Not that I was healthy then.  No, there was still work to be done.  You had bigger plans, more to do and more preparation.

The years haven’t been easy.  We’ve had ups and downs, miracles and nightmares. We’ve survived hard times and created more hard times.  We’ve started this family, the four of us, and we’re trying to make it and not let things slip away.

This morning, we need something from you. It’s about Carter.

You know him, our oldest.  Our sensitive one, the early riser, the one who never really quite fit in.

The worries started a few years ago. We tried to shrug it off, to chalk it up as “just his personality.”  We hoped he would grow out of it. We assumed it would fade as he grew into years of security and personal identity.

It did not.

Right now, today, he’s in the middle of a relapse of his anxiety and worry, in a hole deeper than he’s faced before. His mind churns like storm water. His heart is heavy. His eyes are longing.  He’s in the middle of changes that seem so big they cannot be overcome.

We need your help.

Friday night, after a few long hours, I was putting him to sleep.  Through tears he yelled and pleaded,

I pray all the time about this stuff that God would take it away and nothing happens.  If he’s really out there, why doesn’t he do anything?

The cries of a child, an innocent soul.  So I ask you, not for me.  I’m almost forty years into this and you know I’ve got enough scars.  I ask you for him.

Where are you?

For this child.  For this boy whose life is still so far ahead of him.  For this child with so many gifts and such potential.  For the moment his heart is so heavy that he cries out to you.

And nothing changes.

Here’s a great opportunity.  We don’t need a Lazarus moment.  We don’t need water into wine or feeding five thousand people.  We don’t even need you to walk on water.

I need you to help my son’s heart, to quiet his mind. To calm his soul and let him know everything will be okay.

I’m typing this through my own tears.  Whatever it takes, please help him. He deserves it, he needs it. He’s done nothing wrong.

I ask for your grace.  I’ve screwed up as a dad more than once. I’ve not given him what he’s needed.  I’ve been emotionally absent more than I should and for that I’m sorry.

All time exists for you in a moment.  You know the plans you have for him and for us.

Please, today, right now, please give him peace. Let him know you are there and things will work out.  Let him know he doesn’t have to be owned by his fear.

Let him know he is stronger than he thinks. Help him to be excited by  life again.

Please.

 

Wind

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I overheard the following conversation this morning between two people at the office:

-“It was really beautiful this weekend.”

-“Yeah, it was kind of windy though.”

Life is perspective.

In high school I was on the mock trial team.  I was a lawyer, all four years, and enjoyed breaking down the case files and reading over the witness statements.  Now all were fake and written by law students, so every team had the same source material.  We’d conduct “trials” against each other (two matches, one prosecution and one defense) and be judged by a jury of lawyers from the county. You’d wonder how, if every team had the same material, we could develop any strategy.

Each team had lawyer advisers (our adviser one year turned into the current DA of the county next to ours).  We learned quickly that perspective is key.  Go to a crowded street corner and watch a car accident.  There may be twenty witnesses and each story will be different.  How did it start? How did it end? Who was at fault? Depending on your source of material it could be viewed twenty different ways.

A few years ago I got called to jury duty at federal court in Philadelphia.  I ended up chosen and served on a gun possession trial that lasted two days. It was immensely interesting to get in a jury room and listen to twelve different views and see how majorities would develop. We’d all heard the same witnesses and pulled different opinions.

This Sunday, our pastor delivered a message about Jesus and his final meal in the upper room.  He mentioned the observation given in the gospels that Jesus entered the meal In Full Knowledge of what was about to happen over the next few days.  Around him sat Peter, who would deny him and Judas who would betray.  The others would turn into cowards and stay silent. Twelve different viewpoints.

What did Jesus do?  He served.

It was a beautiful night for some.  For others, the beauty was lost.

We all choose how we see the world.  Our boys, Carter and Aiden, are prime examples of that. Aiden is the optimist. He lights up a room and can find joy in situations.  Carter is more serious, more emotional.  He’s like I was as a kid.  He’ll stay back and observe before jumping in and his opinions are passionate no matter right or wrong.

If you are like me, this new season is a time of reflection.  Fall leads to winter, the ending of summer and desolation of cold. Nights are longer. Time outside is now time inside.

I tend to take inventory in the fall.

Right now I’m feeling the gap and hanging on the expectancy of fulfillment. Maybe you are there with me, weeks and months of waiting, of work being done.  You are standing in the warehouse and God is putting you through whatever is needed so you can move forward. You want more. Your soul longs for meaning and greater things because the alternative is unfathomable.

You call out in the dark moments.  When the kids are in bed and you are in bed looking at the ceiling and wondering when tomorrow will be different, when you’ll love your circumstances. You may not find that love right now, no, but that is for a reason.

Because you are meant for something more. Your story is meant to change generations and impact those you love.  It is meant to change hearts.  This change is work.  Sleep and rest, sameness and routine are so tempting.

Erwin McManus, head of Mosaic in Los Angeles, said this in a message:

Some of you know way too much about your lives.

It is time to embrace the mystery, step into the challenge.

See the beauty and feel the push of the wind. Know your heart aches for something more and follow it, no matter the cost.

Because nothing changes if nothing changes.  And it is time to wake up.

 

What if we got it wrong?

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Faith is a loaded term.

Brands demand faith. Politicians demand faith. Schools, teams, clubs.  Watch a college football game with 100,000 kids in the stands all wearing the same color and you’ll see faith in action.

The broad idea is commitment and conviction.  The broad idea is expectation that something will happen even without evidence (“blind faith”). Look through history and you’ll find moments of faith for good and evil, movements that changed lives and eliminated lives.  Faith is power.

And we’ve screwed it up.

Faith is hard.  Faith is not the belief that something will happen even without evidence. Faith is not pulling the lever of the slot machine in the sky. It is not the stoplight we made in Sunday School about How Prayer is Answered with stop, wait, and go.

Faith is not a request. Faith is not a transaction.  Faith is not conditional.

The night of the storm, Jesus calls Peter out onto the water. There’s wind and rain, waves and noise.  There’s a boat full of his peers and a man that looks like a ghost standing off in the distance.  Peter slings his leg over the side of the boat and takes a step.  We read he takes more than one before literally taking his eyes off Jesus.  At that point, he sinks.

Let’s dig deeper.

1-Faith requires the storm. Jesus tells us we will have trouble. Go through history, page through the Bible and do a quick Google search on martyrs.  No one who follows Jesus is immune.  There’s a reason for communities of faith.  They exist as support systems.  Life is ugly. More hands help to provide strength and comfort in the dark nights.

2-Faith is daily action. You can, and you will, have moments of distance. Jonah found himself in the depths, David in the desert. There is nothing about faith that is once and done. It takes effort and time, a choice every day to hear the still, small voice of the divine.

3-Faith is loss. Imagine the early church, the ones who had seen Jesus had to face his death.  The ones later had to go off of writing and witness accounts.  Faith is how we deal with the hole in our heart waiting to be filled with something. We will all become orphans one day. We will face the passing of time.  Faith is the intersection between loss, grief, and the sun rising. Baptism symbolizes death for this reason, it is a concept not far from the minds of every believer and a reminder of so much more.

So, if we’ve watered it down and compressed it, what actually is faith?  Beyond the car magnates, bumper stickers, conferences and political movements.  What does it mean to believe?

What if it has nothing to do with belief?

There is a divine story. There is meaning and purpose, influence and grace.  There is hope in helping and healing in sacrifice. Faith is tapping into the undercurrent.

Faith is a willingness to let go.

Faith is the point where you break through the weight of this world and feel the supernatural.  It is the moment of intoxicating joy and unending grace.

It is the laughter of your child, the sunset over the ocean, the red hue of a rose. Faith is the beauty of creation.

Faith is an invitation to be a part of something more. Faith is a journey. Faith is humility. Faith is knowing that you are meant for something more.

Faith is a state of cognitive readiness, of acting and living the circumstances you are called to embrace.

This has existed from the moment the universe breathed into existence.  Faith kept the stars in the sky, filled the oceans and pushed the winds across the desert.

It has nothing to do with right and wrong, with division and “teams”.  Faith does not place you against someone else. It hopes in bigger, better, and greater things. Faith is not a place of privilege or superiority.

Faith does not make you better than anyone else.

As Paul said, faith shows you your failings, holding up a mirror to the past to help you be thankful for the present and inspired for the future.

This faith can change the world.  This faith opens blind eyes.  This faith feeds the hungry, provides for those in need, and opens hearts.  This faith reflects Jesus and our calling to follow.

This faith gets us off the boat and, when we sink, it picks us up again to keep walking in the storm.

 

Changing Lanes

It was just after four in the morning.

Val had gone to bed before me and, as I was climbing the stairs I’d heard her moving around. She was fully dressed. She looked at me and said, we are going to the hospital.

After hours of pain, she was sent for an ultrasound. I’ll always remember the tech’s face as she looked at the screen and moved the wand around. The room was quiet, dark with that yellow light that comes in the hollow corners of bars and bedrooms.

“I’m not hearing anything.” The sentence was not more than a whisper and she pushed out the last word before taking the wand away. I remember looking at the clock. Val had been about nineteen weeks pregnant at the time. Now, she was not.

Something broke inside.

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In the weeks since we’ve talked about getting back to church, where we should go and which one to try out. We haven’t made it yet. I used to think I was putting it off for busy work, things like baseball and kids sleeping in or getting up way too early, an errand that needed to be done or something.

I realized I can’t go back. Yet.

I listened to a message from Pastor Erwin McManus from Mosaic out in Los Angeles yesterday where he spoke about Nathanael under the fig tree, the point that Jesus states he has seen him.

That no matter where you are, Jesus sees you. He knows you. He knows your hurt and your pain.

So I know I’m not alone. I know we are not alone as a family. I know that my faith has shifted and I can feel the last vestiges of my youth burning away. That optimism, the idea that if you are good enough it will all work out. I used to have a paper stoplight hanging in my bedroom as a kid, one I’d made in Sunday School that represented the possible answers to prayer. Red-NO. Yellow-NOT YET. Green-YES.

Funny how that doesn’t cover losing a job, relationships going south. A miscarriage.

I don’t resent my past. Val and I have been a part of some vibrant church families. We’ve grown through various stages of life to arrive where we are. We’ve sat in worship and prayer, cried out to God through sorrows and struggle.

There’s a point where you must go into the wilderness.

Jesus did it, for forty days, and faced more than his share of demons.

So I find myself in the wild and making the journey. The thing is, you don’t come back the same. And I think, today, I’m okay with that.

There are more and greater things coming.

Sermon

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Blessed are the poor in spirit. The beaten down.  The ones working three jobs and the fridge is still empty. The kids’ shoes are falling apart because they share them and there’s no way to get a new pair because the thrift store is ten blocks away and it is the middle of winter. The ones trying to fill the void of vacant spouses, angry kids, and disappointed family.

for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn. Those losing loved ones to cancer, addiction, disease and suffering.  Those who’ve searched for jobs for years and the phone stays silent.  Those who look in the mirror and see a ghost of who they used to be. Those facing a tragedy without the energy to take another breath.  The ones whose friends have gone away and comfort seems like a dream.

for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek. Those that do their jobs and slave to put food on the table.  The ones taking extra seconds to fold, shine, polish, prepare and present.  The ones unheard and unseen.  The ones that stand to the side while the blur of the city passes next to them. The ones we judge before we can stop ourselves.

for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. The ones serving when no one else will. The ones opening their doors, arms, and hands to others in need.  The ones that do it for no other glory than the peace they feel inside.

for they will be filled.

Blessed are the merciful. The ones unwilling to judge or condemn. Those that see opportunity in despair, hope in heartbreak, love in silence and peace in acceptance.

for they will be shown mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart. The ones with the courage to say no, to stand up for the ones that cannot stand on their own. To have the strength to do what is right in a world that tells them otherwise.

for they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers. The ones that hold hands on the front lines. The ones that refuse to step down or step aside in the face of violence.  Those speaking in love, stepping into darkness and shining light.  Those putting themselves in the crossfire with a blanket of hope and courage beyond measure.

for they will be called Children of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness. Every look, every whisper, every point and laugh.  Every comment.  Every downturned glare.  The ones who will do what is right when everything is against them.  The ones who are allies, supporters, friends and neighbors.  The ones that do it all without recognition and suffer without end.

for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.