Some Good News

The following has absolutely nothing to do with Paul, whom I’ve been writing about a lot lately.  Just the same, the following was exceptionally encouraging to me.  And so, it gets passed along to you.

A couple years ago I was invited to speak for a week at a Christian summer camp for teens.  I don’t often have the opportunity to connect with high school students any longer, but these are typically enjoyable experiences.  Students, when they catch a glimpse of the Lord can be so invigorating.  Their passion–for boon or bane–is unbridled.

Anyway, I looked to spend the five evenings talking through highlights in Jesus’ story–his baptism, his healing work, his death and, of course, his resurrection.  The goal, as always, was to give these young people a genuine encounter with Jesus himself.

By the way, this is what every generation of the church needs.  Long before we start talking about catchier music (We’re like a more overt Mumford!), hipper communications (Our pastors tweet!) and trendier civic engagement (Some of us are registered Democrats!), we need to set our focus on introducing people to the living Christ.  Let Jesus captivate us, and the rest falls where it should, in the style category, window dressing.

So on the second night of my time with the students, I taught through Jesus’ interaction with the bleeding woman and the official’s dying daughter (Mark 5).  As I concluded, I remarked that it would be a shame to tell this story and say, “Isn’t it nice that Jesus did this for these two desperate people?” or slightly more faith filled, “Isn’t it nice that Jesus could do this sort of thing?”

To me, Jesus is still alive.  We carry the same Spirit that empowered him.  So a story of Jesus healing a woman who was likely impoverished, in pain, and certainly a social outcast, should inspire us to faith to do the same for others.

So I invited students who were hurting physically to stand and for others to surround them with simple prayers.  I wanted them to simply invite Jesus to do the sorts of things he likes to do for people.  As they did so, we simply waited to see what God might do.  Many reported relief and substantial healing.  That was good news.

One of these students was a young man whose name wasn’t Bobby, though that’s what I’ll call him.  Bobby suffered from cerebral palsy, and I noticed when I met him at the beginning of the week that his right foot turned inward at about a 90 degree angle.  It was perpendicular to his left foot.  He also walked with a severe limp and reported constant pain.  I like Bobby.  He was a delightful kid.

Bobby told his counselors that night that he had been healed.  He looked the same.  He still limped a bit, but he claimed that all his pain was gone.  He was certain that the Lord had done something significant for him that evening.  Bobby was eager to call home and tell his parents.  His counselors were skeptical and refused.

I learned the next day that they weren’t the only ones who doubted.  Several other staffers had wondered at what I had attempted the previous night.  Few, it seemed, had encountered Christians who actually encouraged prayer for healing, let alone expected it.  They weren’t sure what to do with me or what to tell their campers.

As a result, I was asked to forego whatever teaching I had prepared for the next evening and explain what I had done.  Basically, I was being asked to backtrack in the politest way.

I was demoralized.  The rest of the week was flat.

Well, a week ago I ran into Bobby and his family for the first time since this incident.  They were so excited to see me.  Bobby is a couple years old and a lot taller (I hear that happens with teens).  Better than that, he and his parents report that everything is positive with Bobby’s health.

It’s been a journey for them, but Bobby’s feet are now straight, he walks without a limp, a bar has been removed from his torso, and Bobby remains pain-free.  Moreover, Bobby’s parents have had their faith encouraged throughout the process.  They continue to run into issues where they wonder at whether the Lord was really doing what they thought or hoped.  Yet each time God has proved faithful and thoroughly good.

I was encouraged.

The day after his cabin mates had prayed for Bobby, he didn’t look much different.  He still limped and his foot still turned drastically inward.  Though he said the pain had left him, there was no external evidence that he had changed.  But I still remember him asking me, “Why did you have to backtrack on having us pray for each other?”  “Well,” I said, “that was a new thing for some people.  I had to explain what was going on a bit.”  “Oh,” he replied, “I don’t think you had to.  God healed me.  I’m certain of it.”

Two years later, God continues to heal him.  That’s good news.

God Is Better than You Think

In Luke’s account of the crucifixion, Jesus hangs from the cross between two common criminals (Lk 23:32-33).  Jesus hangs there with them, as a convicted criminal just as they are.  Indeed Jesus hangs indicted as an enemy of the state.  An empire whose Caesar rules the known world cannot have a rival king within its territories.  The King of the Jews had to be dealt with severely.

As Jesus hung with his life slowly slipping from his tortured body, onlookers vied for his clothes and hurled insults at the dying man (vv.34b-37).

In the midst of this horrific scene, Jesus utters a most remarkable prayer.  All around him, the crowds are either verbally assaulting him, mocking him, dividing his belongings as if he were already dead, or completely ignoring the one many had thought would be their Messiah.  The people have rejected the Christ, and in response, Jesus prays, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (v. 34a).

I’ve been pondering this prayer for the last several days.  There’s a single question that continues to pester me in response to Jesus’ magnanimity: Did God answer Jesus’ prayer?

Did the Father heed the request of His Son, the exact representation of His being (Heb. 1:3), and forgive the throngs who had thoroughly rejected the one way to the Father?

Saturday morning I had breakfast with a good friend of mine and she shared an incredible story about her own father.  She had come to know Christ as an adult and freely shared her newly found joy with her family.  After some time, her dad, a straight shooter, told her with no equivocation, “I don’t want to hear about your Jesus any longer!”  Obediently, my friend stopped talking about Christ, even as she continued to live Christ.

Years later, her father lay on his death bed and my friend arrived to visit.  “I’m going to die today,” he told her to her disbelief.  “No,” he said to her.  “I had an interesting dream last night.  Your Jesus came to me.  I made peace with him.”  He breathed his last later that night.

My friend’s story is simply fascinating.  Perhaps you’ve heard similar stories.  They abound.

It has me wondering, though, for how many does the Lord so graciously reveal himself.  And how often does the Lord save one to the knowledge of no one else?  In short, how many of those who mock his appearance on the cross are yet forgiven?

I’m no universalist, but I am convinced of this: God is better than I think.

Another Victory for Love

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever. Let Israel say: “His love endures forever.” Let the house of Aaron say: “His love endures forever.” Let those who fear the Lord say: “His love endures forever.” (Psalm 118:1-4)

Who wants another story about God’s hesed?

Several years ago, Ron moved into my apartment. I didn’t know Ron all that well. We were familiar with one another, had several mutual friends, but weren’t close.

I did, however, know Ron’s girlfriend, Jenna. Ron and Jenna had been dating for some time, through college and now a year or so removed from college. I thought the two of them were pretty tight, as relationships go. In fact, Ron moved from his home state in the upper midwest to be close to his girlfriend here in New England. It’s why Ron asked to move into my vacant spare room in the first place.

About a month after Ron moved in, however, things went terribly wrong. I don’t recall the impetus, but he and Jenna had an argument as Jenna was in her car preparing to leave for her home.

Now, Jenna had a tendency, when things got heated, to shut down. Her coping mechanism for a really intense argument was to simply disengage. On the other hand, Ron could tolerate just about anything, except when he felt ignored.

So in the midst of this verbal tussle, Jenna closed up. She rolled up her window and began to drive off to escape the heated argument. Ron blew up, went into a rage. He jumped into his own car and sped off after his girlfriend. They raced across town, and as they flew down the two lane country road that led to Jenna’s home, Ron pulled up along side her car in the wrong lane, screaming at her through the window. Finally the two reached Jenna’s house. She fled inside while Ron pulled his car onto the lawn.

And that was the end of that relationship.

Separately, both Jenna and Ron sought counseling. They began to do the hard work of exploring their broken pasts, digging into the root causes of their destructive tendencies, and working with the Lord to straighten things out for themselves.

Again, this is where God’s hesed comes in. God’s love, His enduring faithfulness, is relentless in routing out the ugly in our lives, when we give Him room. And so it was, slowly, with both Ron and Jenna individually. As they encountered deep seated lies they had believed about themselves, God countered those with His truth, and these two slowly grew healthy.

Then, sometime later, these two who had loved each other deeply, even in their brokenness, found each other again. They had not spoken since their final explosion, but now they reconnected, with each of them better than they had been before.

If there’s anything that the Lord loves, its anything on earth that resembles or reflects His own heart and character. To say it in words my sister might use: God loves love. He’ll vindicate true enduring and sacrificial love–hesed–every time.

And so the Lord’s hesed took another form, after Ron and Jenna spent the time in getting well. He reunited them in a stronger union than they had ever had. They continued to see a counselor, both individually and together. A few months later, they were married, proclaiming a victory for the hesed that God had shown them how to model.

And This, My Friends, Is God’s Love

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever.

This is perhaps the most common refrain in Israelite worship, with some iteration found in Psalms 100, 106, 107, 118, 136; throughout 1 & 2 Chronicles and in Jeremiah 33:11.

This weekend I’ve spent a good deal of time pondering this chorus, particularly the final phrase: His love endures forever.

Pardon me for saying it, but our English word “love” is far too weak a word for what the Hebrew writers had in mind.  The Hebrew word is hesed, and is variously translated in the NET Bible “loyal love, faithfulness, loyalty, kindness, love, mercy, and devotion.”

To best get the definition of hesed, and why it is the principle praiseworthy characteristic of Yahweh, let me tell a story.

Ahem, A Story

I met Brian a decade ago.  From the very start, Brian was thoughtful, inquisitive, and kind.  He has always been quick to laugh, and ever ready to make others laugh, usually with his bright wit, but he has never been to proud to use slapstick.

For most of the time I’ve known Brian, he has been on a quest to find his partner in life.  To a large degree, this desire of his heart was noble.  He came from a terrific family of his own, with one sister and two adoring and supportive parents.  Brian longed to share and perhaps replicate the love he grew up with.

On the other hand, Brian’s pursuit of a wife could teeter on the edge of desperate, if it did not altogether fall off completely at times.  He’d be out with one girl, then another, then two dates with a third, and constantly flit between excited anticipation at what could be and the despair that something was most certainly wrong, that it would never work, probably, he thought, because of him.

Three or four years ago, however, Brian began to change.  He began to discover, or perhaps rediscover, God’s enduring goodness.  He began to learn afresh that the Lord was indeed good, that He adored Brian as a son, and that he had been made toward great purpose.  In short, Brian’s sense of worth and source of identity was shifting.  Quietly, yet significantly, he was learning that his Creator was a solid place on which to stand, that a bride would not complete his core.  His desire for a partner in life and a family to raise were being refined.

In the midst of this transformation, I stood with Brian one evening at a worship gathering as a trusted prophet began to pray for him.  Among the many targeted prayers spoken over Brian in that encounter, one came to the effect that the Lord had already prepared the perfect partner for him.  He didn’t need to search high and low, she would come along at the right time with all he needed.

Brian and Katie get married.

This past weekend, Brian and Katie got married.  From the time of their meeting a year ago, Brian has consistently said the same thing of his new bride: “I could not imagine anyone more perfect for me.”

Thus, I feel that I have had the blessing to witness God’s abundant hesed for my dear friend these last several years. It has been the Lord’s hesed, yes, to see through His promise to Brian, that a partner was out there for him, pre-selected.

More than that, however, it has been God’s hesed, His faithful commitment to Brian, to refine him in such a way that he would be prepared to handle the blessing that the Creator hoped to pour out.  Hesed is a faithfulness to one’s word, certainly.  But it is also a faithfulness to the one who receives the promise, that he or she will be molded to best obtain and retain the promise when it comes to fruition.

That’s what I’ve been thinking about this weekend.  Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good!

When Jesus Taught His Disciples to Pray, Did He Teach Them to Tebow?

My own New England Patriots travel to sunny Denver this weekend to tackle (literally!) the Broncos.  I’m excited about this game for two reasons: (1) it’s football involving my favorite team and (2) I get to watch Tim Tebow.

Tim Tebow scorching the Jets (via NYT)

For those who don’t know, Tebow is the epicenter of one of the strangest sports phenomena of my lifetime.  Tim Tebow was one of the greatest college football players of all time as quarterback of the Florida Gators from 2006-09.  Coming out of college, however, pro scouts weren’t sure how well he would do in the NFL given his unorthodox throwing style.  Basically, Tebow doesn’t play like a normal quarterback.  Sports commentators have spent the last two years debating whether he can actually do it.  Nevertheless, all Tebow seems to do is win.  (He’s 7-1 as a starter for the Broncos.)  So there’s that.

Factor into this that Tebow is unabashedly a devout Christian.  He was born in the Philippines to Baptist missionaries and seems to have grown to take his faith seriously as his own.  When he’s not winning football games, he can be seeing praying (or “Tebowing“) or mentioning his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in an interview.

The end result (so far) is that the entire nation — not limited to sports fans — is talking about Tebow.  People either love him or hate him.  Regardless of which side of the fence you camp, your eyes are fixed on Tebow.

My two cents on why Tim Tebow is so compelling?  He’s living a public life (and a good one, at that) with complete conviction.  Tebow makes no apologies for praying publicly (and doesn’t require anyone else do so; and doesn’t look down his nose at others when they don’t).  He doesn’t believe he should get a pass because he’s a decent person.  He understands that he’s easy to make fun of.  He’s working hard, just like, well, not everyone else.

As far as Tebow’s concerned, if he’s going to be a Christian, he’s going to be thoroughly Christian.  Whatever your own stated beliefs, or whatever your vocation, or however else you choose to identify yourself, you probably dream, like me, about diving into that with both feet.  At least, that’s what I’m tebowing for the grace to do.

My Conversation with Steve, in which We Explore Our Unique Identities

Yesterday, the aftermath of Irene’s fury had me at a not-so-local Starbucks to do a little work.  As it turned out, I had the most delightful conversation – with a stranger, no less.

Steve (not his real name) sat down next to me with his tea and asked how I had fared with the storm.  After commiserating some, he discovered that I was responsible for education initiatives at a local church, and it piqued his interest.  Steve, too, was an educator.  He was a retired elementary teacher, and I could tell he loved every minute of his career.

He continued to ask how it was that I landed in my career choice, how it was that I came to work in a local church and why I pursued that vocation.  So I shared some of my story.

In the process, I learned that Steve was gay and had been spurned, not surprisingly, by the Catholic church some time ago.  I told him I was very sorry about that, that I had heard similar stories from too many people, and not just gays, and not just from the Catholic church.

We talked back and forth, circling this very issue, of the intersection of homosexuality and the Church.  Steve was genuinely inquisitive and curious about me and my general background.  I hope I returned the favor, for I was similarly interested in who Steve was, how he felt about this and that, etc.  I recall thinking, mid-conversation, how enjoyable and challenging Steve was.

At one stage, I don’t remember the exact question that prompted these thoughts, I expressed my frustration with the whole issue at hand.  I said, “Steve, I really don’t like the way the Church, at large, has approached the issue of homosexuality.  And for that matter, I don’t care for the message I hear from the gay community, either.”

See, the Church has placed one’s sexuality at the center of the conversation, when that ought not be the main thing for us.  At my particular church, for example, our number one goal for everyone walking in the door is to have that person experience a real connection with God, to draw closer to Jesus, regardless of where they begin.  Our goal is not to discover to which club you belong and segregate along such lines.  No one is checking ID’s at the door.

“It would be dishonoring,” I confessed to Steve, “to treat you as if you were only an educator.  You’re clearly a teacher, through and through, but you’re so much more than a teacher.  Neither can I approach you as just a man, for you’re so much more than just your gender.  It would be disrespectful for me to make your sexual orientation the sole descriptor of your identity.  I need to address you as a whole person.”

And the message I get from LGBT communities, largely, is the same, that they are, first and foremost, gay or bisexual or whatever else.  They do themselves a dishonor.  In my opinion, it’s not the most important thing about any one of them.

Nor, as I’ve thought about it more, would I want to be treated in this way.  Sure, I love to teach, but I’d hate to be thought just a teacher.  I’m straight, but I’d hate to be approached as just a simple straight stereotype.  And I wondered whether there was a single category that I would like to dominate my being in such a way.

Steve and I found ourselves on delightful common ground.  I enjoyed who he was, a rich and thoughtful human being.  I hope I run into him again.

How Do You Tell The Story?

Via worthpoint.com

This week I’ll be speaking with teens at a Christian summer camp in western Massachusetts.  It’s something I’ve done before, and I’ve really enjoyed it.  During my last visit, the Lord moved pretty powerfully and impacted many kids and staff with physical and emotional healing, so I’m excited about this next week.

Doing these sorts of gigs (Can I call it that?) always presents me with a challenge, however.  It’s a good challenge, to be sure, but a challenge nonetheless.

See, when I speak, especially to teens or younger, I like to tell stories.  Stories captivate us, they make us participants, and they engage us to think about ourselves in ways that fell both safe and uninhibited.  Often, I’m compelled to tell the Jesus story.

So the question that plagues me as I prepare for this week is this: How do you tell The Story?

I’ve long been frustrated with the older evangelical way of telling our story, that Jesus died on the cross to save us from our sins and provide a way to heaven.  It’s true, to an extent.  But to me, it leaves too big a chunk left unsaid and fixes on an aspect that probably shouldn’t be front and center: me.  It leaves me wondering: Well, that’s nice, but what about the rest of the world?  What about everyone else?  Do I do anything now as a result?  And really, did Jesus die two thousand years ago just for me?  Isn’t God a whole lot bigger than that?  And why doesn’t the Bible actually tell stories about me?  It can’t be all about me, can it?

Each time I embark on some project like this, I’m revisited with the dilemma afresh.  How can I tell The Story in a way that is true to the history of the Creator intersecting His creation and still pertains to this 21st century world?  How do I tell the story that simultaneously demonstrates the personal, individual impact of the gospel (surely it’s there) and still highlight the grand scope of God’s project?

I’m open to ideas, whether revolutionary or time-tested.  I’ve been struck by N.T. Wright’s Five Acts, for example, though I won’t be using it this week.  As I go through the week, I’ll be outlining my approach (at least, this version of my approach).

But I’m curious: How do you tell The Story?