Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Ode to a Dead Van

This past week our van died. We don't usually mourn the loss of vehicles in this home, but I was strangely moved by memories of the 14 years we owned this one. If we were hosting a memorial service, I would read the following letter to our deceased van.

Dear Van,

You left us this week very suddenly, but I'm glad the end happened quickly. There was a certain mercy to the finality of your death. I guess warning signs were happening for a while, but we never noticed your condition until it was too late, and now you are gone from us.

You have left me feeling quieted and introspective. Your passing has occasioned the remembrance of past events and seasons. For fourteen years you were as much a part of our lives as the home in which we lived. And with a quick signature and the passing of a few hundred dollars between hands, you now rest with the dismantler who will oversee your final hours as a single vehicle.

Truth be told, we bought you to use you. You came nice and clean, whole and sturdy, ready for kids and trips and packages and gear. But we didn't drive you the way you expected. Within a few months we sent you to the customizer who shredded your soul and replaced your ordered interior with a lowered floor, a wheelchair ramp, and multiple brackets for tie downs and straps. You must have felt a measure of concern as your original soccer-mom design was tossed aside and you were transformed into a work horse. The conversion added excessive weight which you were never truly built to carry. You looked fat and unappealing, and into your new cavity of an interior we drove a heavy wheelchair and treated you more like utility truck than a family car.

The weight did its damage over time. You were quiet in 2000, mildly noisy in 2008, and an utter rattle-trap by 2013. The heaviness of your conversion and cargo beat you into the ground. Every bump was magnified and every broken road gave you a bruising. I thought the end would come with a transmission failure, but your life concluded with a piston rod jutting unceremoniously out of the hole it blew in your oil pan. You died of a broken heart, I think. You carried our family as long as you could, then ended your service with a bang and whimper—one of the few times you ever left us stranded.

Did you know the weight would kill you? You carried it every day, whether or not the chair was present. We're all like that. The weight never ceases, even when the chair isn't around to remind us. It beats us into the ground, even when the bumps in the road seem small to a typical car. We feel them more deeply, and they break us down over time.

You never complained when we piled our gear around the chair and forced you to take the whole family along with a friend or two (and the cats in their cages) all the way to the cabin. You ran warmer, perhaps, but you got us there. Then you gathered the dust of the mountains all over you for two or three weeks while we tried to give the family a normal vacation. There was no normal, but we did our best. We had no choice about taking you down those roads. You were the only way we could get the chair and its owner away from home and up into the beauty of the woods. You bore the abuse quietly.

I envy you. You have come finally to a place of rest. I know, there will be no future glory for you, no eternity for your soul. You have no immaterial substance to abide forever. But if you did, here is what I bet you would think as you enter the season of recycling and rust: it was your honor to carry the weight. It was your glory to be converted and reassigned for the thankless task of ferrying burdens for a burdened family. It was worth it to be driven to death for the sake of priceless cargo.

I will remember these things, dear van, when I drive past the dismantling yard off highway 65, for you an industrial grave yard, but for me a reminder that it, too, is my glory to carry the weight of priceless cargo. It is an honor to bear the burden of a burdened family, and to be beaten down by the heaviness of it all. The task is its own reward. I hope I bear it as steadily as you did for all those years. Greater love has no man than this: that a man lay down his life for his friends. Or family, in my case.

Enjoy your rest. Should I die like you—spent, broken-hearted, beaten down, old and worthless, yet filled with glorious purpose, my life will have been a wonderful success.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

How Good Can I Write Bad?*

Memories! Oh, the strange things that enter our thoughts in the dawning moments of the day when we are neither asleep nor awake. This morning I was taken back to an old bit of writing. I have no idea why, but since my last post was so serious, I thought I'd share some silliness with you and anyone else who wants to rate my ability to be bad with the beauty of language. Feel free to comment.

World Magazine once sponsored a blog contest to see who could write the worst piece of Christian fiction. Below is my entry. Entrants had to keep their post to a certain length, and I wanted to cover a certain number of themes -- perfect conditions for the trite and sappy. It's a challenge to present eternal truth and emotional depth in sitcom-like brevity. 

I only shared it with a few friends at the time and one person mistook it for serious writing, so in his eyes I failed to be bad, which was an off-handed compliment, I guess. 

I wish I could say I wrote from experience, but I've never been a foreman...

The Hands of Pastor Ed

Pastor Ed crashed against the cabin’s wall, nose gushing blood from the crush of Tom’s mighty fist. The blow rocked him to the core. Never in his days as a boxer had he faced such a menacing opponent. The memory flashed across his mind. The ring. The bell. The crowd. The lust for blood and victory. The last deacons’ meeting. Could he keep it all a part of his hidden past or would the fury erupt as it had so many times before?
He shook his head to clear the hum from his pounding ears, pushed himself away from the wall, wiped the blood on the sleeve of his suit, then with a strength that came from deeper than his soul, drew himself upright to face the foreman. His hands remained open.
Tom’s confidence was shaken, though his eyes still bulged with rage. What kind of man could take such a beating and still stand? This was no common pastor, not like the others he had beaten, all stuffed with casserole and coffee. This one was different. This one had sand.
Ed raised his shaking finger and pointed it at Tom’s heart. “I understand your anger. I was an angry man, Tom, like you, but Jesus showed me His love, and forgave my sin, just like he wants to forgive yours.” His voice rose as strength flooded into his battered body. “Jesus loves me. He loves you, Tom. And I love you.”
Tom’s heart cracked under the weight of Pastor Ed’s words. His face contorted and his rage gave way to open weeping. He fell to his knees. “I love you”—words he had not heard since his childhood, since his father’s fatal illness. And in the deluge of tears, he felt arms around him, hands embrace him, hands that could have killed him—the hands of Pastor Ed. He pressed his face into the minister’s coat. It still bore the scent of the fields, the scent he remembered from his father. His heart yielded. He suddenly knew—he was home.
Mary Ellen could finally breath, though she hardly dared. Her fright gave way to relief, then slowly to other passions stirring in her soul. Her pastor, the brave hero? And soon to be her husband. The broken nose and bloody face gave depth to his tender eyes and square jaw. She knew now she would be the envy of the association. Their eyes met over Tom’s sobbing form, and her cheeks flushed with desire...

*Yes, I know. The bad grammar was intentional.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

A Missing Element

I've been missing something in my spiritual life lately, and this weekend I regained a piece of it. I see its importance and understand why its absence has left me crippled and discontent.

I don't fear God. At least, I realized I wasn't fearing God, and I pray that lapse will not soon be repeated.

The Apostle Peter wrote, “If you call on Him as Father who judges impartially according to each one's deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile...” (I Peter 1:17). Point: fear is an appropriate response to God in the heart of the redeemed Christian—not the ONLY response, but one of the ingredients in the mix of thoughts, motives, intentions, and emotions that make up genuine communion with the Father.

Indeed, the absence of the fear of God is the mark of an UNbeliever (Psalm 36:1).

What do we call that lack of fear as it shows up in saved people? Spiritual fearlessness? The inability to see, or maybe the art of denying, how one's behavior offends God? Blindness to spiritually precarious attitudes? Faithless disregard of God's promises to judge and discipline?

This fearlessness festers in a grumbling heart, extinguishes passion for prayer, douses compassion for the lost, minimizes lawlessness, and shrugs at rebellion. It holds hands with lovelessness, faithlessness, and forgetfulness.

I think we are suspicious of the promotion of the fear of God. We think it will produce Pharisees who glory in their own obedience. In reality, it produces Publicans who fall at a distance, beat their breast, and cry out for God's mercy (Luke 18:9-14).

I can only think of one or two worship songs that touch on topics that promote the healthy fear of God. Why is this? Why do we sing so much about how GREAT He is then only apply that greatness to the things we want Him to do? Why do we sing about holiness without grasping how defiled we are, and how much in need of cleansing?! Maybe we don't know how to fear God corporately? How can a church that “gives God a handclap!” even speak of fearing God without sounding trite? I can picture it now: “Hey everyone! Let's take a moment and fear God! Just tremble, right where you are! Wow! Wasn't that great? Now turn to the person sitting next to you and tell them you're glad they're here!”

Oh, please.

As for church, it is the preaching of the Word that ought to impress us with God's right to judge, and the reality of our doom apart from the justification He freely gives us in Christ. The Word made plain will cause us to “Rejoice with trembling” (Psalm 2:11) and lead us to celebrate how His infinite love and grace brought us salvation at the cross.

This is a sobering reality. And deep. One can hardly begin speaking of the fear of God without also beginning the long list of qualifying statements explaining what this fear is and isn't. But suffice it to say, “The fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever” (Psalm 19:9). We will fear God in heaven. We will love Him, and know Him, and be face to face with Him, and perhaps Jesus will meet us with an embrace when we arrive. But we will never cease to fear Him. Perhaps some of the tears He will wipe away will be tears of regret over our life's careless disregard for His holiness? How gracious His promise that we will not be put to shame in His presence (I Peter 2:6).

We find no backpedaling in the Scriptures over the fear of God—no qualifying, no minimizing, no soft-selling. But we do find it very clearly stated: the redeemed fear; the unredeemed have no fear. The redeemed are saved from His wrath because of Christ. The unredeemed will perish for eternity.

Let God bring a revival of holy fear in my heart, in my family, in my church, in my ministry. And let my friends and family who do not know Jesus move from the eternally dangerous place of spiritual fearlessness to the safety and security of the fear of God in Christ.


Here is one recent worship song worth considering:

Monday, March 17, 2014


Last Sunday I had the joy of preaching to the congregation at Harvest Bible Chapel in Sacramento. Pastor Scott asked me to take on Ephesians 6:1-4, one of the most concise statements in all the Scriptures about parents and children.

The command is given there: Fathers, do not provoke your children to wrath.

The Lord doesn't define exactly how a father might do that. I think He leaves it up to us to consider the possible ways children might experience injustice at the hands of their parents. I've seen a few such injustices in my short life, and I've seen the bitter kids they have produced. Here are my observations—the ways I believe parents might provoke their children to wrath.

1. Living a legalistic rather than a grace-filled life
2. Being overbearing and arrogantly authoritative
3. Focusing on external appearances rather than godly character
4. Maintaining inconsistent rules
5. Applying discipline inconsistently
6. Having a double standard between children
7. Failing to balance discipline with affection
8. Failing to instruct when punishing
9. Being impossible to please
10. Withholding praise when praise is due
11. Being insulting or degrading
12. Focusing on failure rather than edifying/building up
13. Being personally graceless
14. Not modeling forgiveness
15. Not asking for forgiveness from your children
16. Demonstrating lovelessness through permissiveness
17. Getting your way through manipulation
18. Modeling selfishness rather than humility
19. Refusing to grant legitimate freedoms
20. Giving freedom away before it is earned
21. Letting your child drop music lessons after only one year

I'm sure this list is not exhaustive, but it reminds me of my responsibility before God and affects the way I deal with all children. God could have said, “Teachers, provoke not thy students to wrath!” and it would have been equally appropriate!