Loving Smeagol–and Addicts

Odd, as it may seem, reading J. R. R. Tolkien has helped me love meth addicts—of which there are many in Myrtle Point. Tom Shippey’s book, J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, argues that Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings addresses surprisingly modern issues even though written by an antiquarian professor of Old English. Shippey asserts Tolkien may have given us one of the most insightful studies of the nature of addiction.

It is, of course, the power of the Ring that is addictive. The Ring can capture and submerge the identity of the user. We see this powerfully in the character of Gollum. Gollum was the name others gave him when they heard him making gurgling sounds. His original hobbit name is Smeagol. Throughout The Lord of the Rings we see a battle between these two identities. Peter Jackson’s movie makes this battle come alive in several scenes where Gollum and Smeagol argue fiercely over whether to betray Frodo and Sam.

I have seen this: the drug personality at war with the God-given personality. I have eaten dinner and had polite conversation with an addict who a few months later viciously beat and robbed an old man who lived up the street. I have seen how lying and stealing to get drug money changes a person’s heart and mind. Here addicts lose their names to “tweaker or junkie”. Sadly, many meth addicts also end up looking like Gollum.

Tolkien shows the utter depravity of Gollum, while at the same time insisting that Gollum must be shown mercy. Every attempt to cure him must be made. Pity and mercy demand it. Gandalf insists Gollum is not wholly ruined, “There was a little corner of his mind that was still his own, and light came through it, as through a chink in the dark: light out of the past.” I have learned to pray that addicts will have memories of light. Teckla and I once threw a birthday party for a local meth addict. His smile was beautiful—full of light from better days.

Gandalf says, however, that Gollum “hated the dark, and he hated the light even more: he hated everything and the Ring most of all.” Frodo asks Gandalf why Gollum didn’t just get rid of the ring if he hated it so much. Gandalf explains, “He hated it and loved it, as he hated and loved himself.” Like Frodo, I am baffled why drug addicts, who hate their addiction, don’t just stop using. But like drug addicts, Gollum “could not get rid of it. He had no will left in the matter.” Addicts, I have discovered, love and hate themselves. Heaping shame on them doesn’t help.

It is easy for us to just want to be rid of addicts. Frodo’s initial response to the story of Gollum is “What a pity that Bilbo did not stab that vile creature when he had a chance!” Frodo goes on to insist that Gollum deserves death. Gandalf agrees: “Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? The do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment.” Later Frodo remembers these words of Gandalf and shows pity and mercy to Gollum—hoping to bring him back to Smeagol.

It becomes easier for Frodo to show mercy to Gollum after Frodo has worn the ring and has felt its power. He understands the power of addiction and the bondage of the will. As much as I may not understand physical addiction to a drug, I understand sin—especially my own. I understand Jesus’ declaration, “Everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin.” My Ring and my drug of choice is what Paul called his “old self.” When he looked at Gollum, Frodo saw himself—or at least what he could become. But Frodo also saw Smeagol—the young hobbit Gollum once was.

The tweakers and junkies that wander the streets of Myrtle Point may not deserve much. Neither do I. And they all have names—given by those who love them—sometimes given by God. Under the deformity of each Gollum is a Smeagol. Mercy and pity should move us to seek their cure. We must learn to love the Smeagols who were once happy hobbits.

Posted in On Faith, Tolkien, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Kingly Gifts

Re-reading The Lord of the Rings while going through the darkest year of my life has led me to think about the kingly gifts that have sustained me. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is in many ways a story of gifts. Some gifts are simple and others astounding in their power and beauty. These gifts sustain Frodo in his quest and help him through the darkest times and places.  When Frodo visits Bilbo in Rivendell, Bilbo gives him two important gifts: an elven sword (named Sting) and a coat of mail made of mithril. The sword glows whenever orcs are near, and the coat of mail is light, beautiful, and strong.  

Other members of the fellowship don’t know Frodo is wearing this light coat of mail under his humble hobbit clothes—the gifts aren’t obvious. When explaining the value of the mithril mail, Gandalf says, “I never told him, but its worth was greater than the value of the Shire and everything in it.” Gimli declares the coat of mail a “kingly gift.” Frodo is “staggered to think that he had been walking around with the price of the Shire under his jacket.” And indeed, the coat of mail, nearly forgotten by Frodo, saves his life. Here I remember some kingly gifts that have saved me.

My father gave me a love for the church—God’s people. My father, a Church of the Nazarene pastor, had enough hard times with congregations and mean folks to sour forever his attitude toward the church, but he just kept loving and serving. His heart broke for God’s wayward people, and sometimes those people broke his heart. It was often what he didn’t say that revealed his deep love for God’s people. He taught me not to pull away—to be unoffendable. The love, prayers, and practical help of the Church have strengthened my heart and given me courage. I have been less alone.

My mother gave me a passion for Jesus. She would often pray, “God, help us to have radical obedience to your Son, Jesus.” Mom believed in complete surrender to God’s will, radical obedience to God’s Word and the voice of the Holy Spirit. If I had been, lukewarm, double-minded, or a half-hearted Christian, my faith would not have survived this last year. Anger, despair, and grief would have crushed me.

John Wesley Adams, who I met at Mid-America Nazarene College in 1980, gave me an absolute faith in the authority of God’s Word. Sometimes Teckla and I would come by his office and ask him questions about the book of Acts. Wes, a professor of New Testament, would carefully explain the most hermeneutically sound interpretation of the passage—no matter how much trouble it would cause. We asked, “Do you think the account of the church in the Acts is just history or is it normative? Should the church and evangelism depend on the power of the Holy Spirit today like it did then?” His declaration that Acts is normative has changed my life and defined my quest. Wes, by word and example, taught me to have the courage to trust God’s Word.

My brother Larry, a religion and philosophy major, taught me that I did not need to put my mind on a shelf to follow Jesus. Much of this gift was indirect: conversations about metaphysics at the dinner table, books left at the house left for college, and his example. By reading widely and exploring ideas boldly, Larry made me intellectually unafraid to go to graduate school at Washington State University. Yes, I was coming from a Christian college, but because of Larry I had already read Samuel Beckett, Allen Ginsberg, and Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice. I followed Larry’s example, and took two years of philosophy from a famously demanding professor. Because of Larry, I became intellectually unafraid.

My brother, Stanley, gave me a love of nature. Although ten years older than I, he would take me on nature walks around Milton-Freewater. He was a birdwatcher but knew the species of every tree and flower as well. Stanley was never about checklists or bragging rights; he loved nature for its own sake. Knowing the names of everything was just friendship with God’s creation. He taught me to see, know, and love nature. This delight in the natural world has enriched my life and made me at home wherever I go.

Far more precious than anything I inherited from my parents is the Holy Spirit—my inheritance in Christ as an adopted child. In this earthen, hobbit-like vessel is something more valuable than mithril. It is God himself living in me through the gift of the Holy Spirit. I have often wanted to cry out, “I can’t take anymore!” But God’s Spirit assures me that I am not alone and that it is not by my strength that I stand. When all the arguments of despair wash over me, the Holy Spirit speaks hope.

Like Frodo, I am staggered by the kingly gifts I have been given. And too often I forget them. In the midst of darkness and hardship, we might be surprised to discover the gifts we carry under our ragged hobbit clothes.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Lauren Daigle, Mushroom-pickers, and Church as Staging Area

Recently I was listening to Lauren Daigle’s song “Rescue” on the radio (K-Light). As can happen with radio, her beautiful song was juxtaposed with news of the ongoing search for a lost mushroom picker. On the southern coast of Oregon, we have deep woods full of mushrooms: boletes, chanterelles, even pine mushrooms. Mushroom fever can easily lead pickers over one ridge and then another until they are lost and need to be rescued.

Daigle sings, “I will send out an army to find you in the middle of the darkest night.” We have experienced search and rescue teams that will quickly set up a staging area for the volunteers who show up to help with the search. Like the words of Daigle’s song, we send out an army to rescue the lost mushroom picker, child, or patient from a nursing home. We do whatever we must to find the lost. Daigle’s song speaks powerfully of how God hears our “SOS” and relentlessly pursues and rescues us in the darkness of our sin and unbelief.

Her song, and the news about a search for the mushroom picker, challenged me to think about ways that the local church should be more like a staging area for the search and rescue of the lost. I know it is an imperfect analogy and certainly doesn’t define every part of the church’s mission, but the comparison can be instructive.

First, search and rescue teams have a sense of urgency that the church often lacks. When temperatures are dropping, rescuers know they are on the clock and must rescue the lost before they succumb to hypothermia and exposure. Here in Coos County we have high rates of domestic, child, and drug abuse. We have high rates of depression and suicide.  We can not be casual about rescuing the lost. Urgency should muster an army and our resources.

Second, the search is intentional, united, and organized. People come together and work together to find the lost. A search is laid out on a grid so that available resources and people are used effectively. People are often paired up so that none of the searchers are at risk of getting lost or hurt.  In this county, however, it has been difficult to get churches to work together to reach the lost. If we could ever get all the pastors in the same room, we would discover there is no organized city-wide strategy for reaching people for Christ, addressing the homeless crisis, or setting free those enslaved to addiction. We are haphazard and that puts both the lost and the rescuers at risk. Our urgency should compel us to set aside our denominational and territorial differences and work together to rescue the lost and bring them into relationship with Jesus Christ.

Third, rescuers go. They don’t set in the staging area hoping that the lost wander in on their own. Occasionally this does happen, but it can never be the strategy of a search and rescue team. The staging area is important—it is where the rescuers are equipped with lights, maps, whistles, blankets, radios, and first aid kits. But if having a great staging area becomes our goal, we have missed the point. We must go.

It is true; many don’t know they are lost and do not want to be rescued. But many do know that things in their life are dark. Many have lost hope and direction. Many are crying out—but don’t know they are really crying out for God. Believers need to be a light in the darkness, warmth in the cold, a friendly voice to broken by loneliness. Sometimes we withdraw from the search thinking we searched everywhere and have cried the names of the lost until our voice fails. But with Lauren Daigle’s song, we need to declare, “There is no distance that cannot be covered over and over.” Our search and rescue mission needs to be as persevering and unswerving as God’s search for us.

Posted in Culture, On Faith | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Nietzsche, Tom Bombadil and the Stronger Song.

Friedrich Nietzsche famously said of the church: “They would have to sing better songs to make me believe in their Redeemer.” Although wrong about much, Nietzsche is right about framing belief and salvation as contest of songs. J.R.R. Tolkien also understood this truth and embedded it in his stories. In The Silmarillion, Tolkien’s cosmology, all of creation is sung into existence. Even the evil song of Melkor that challenges the song of Iluvatar is blended into the over-powering song of creation. God, the creator, has a stronger song.

The contest of songs appears again in the story of Tom Bombadil.  Tom was excluded from the movies, so many may not remember this story from The Lord of the Rings. Frodo, Sam, Pippin, and Merry had fled the Black Riders by heading into the Old Forest where they were soon lost. They came under the spell and song of the rotten-hearted Old Man Willow. Tom Bombadil, by accident or providence, came to the rescue.

 Everything about Tom, his bright blue jacket, his yellow boots, and his singing, are filled with joy. Desperately, Frodo explains that the Willow has trapped his friends. Tom replies, “That can soon be mended. I know the tune for him.” Tom sings his song into the Willow until the tree releases Frodo’s friends. Tom leads the hobbits out of the woods to his house.

The house of Tom Bombadil and his wife Goldberry is full of light, song, joy, and good food.  Singing becomes the common language. The hobbits “became suddenly aware that they were singing merrily, as if it was easier and more natural than talking.” The tired hobbits are refreshed and strengthened, their ponies fed. Before they leave, Tom gives them a song to sing if they face any danger:

            Ho! Tom Bombadil, Tom Bombadillo!

            By water, wood and hill , by the reed and the willow,

            By fire, son and moon, harken now and hear us!

            Come, Tom Bombadil, for our need is near us!

Before they go to bed, the hobbits all sing through the song after Tom. The next day they leave Tom and head off along the edge of the barrow-downs. The weather is warm and sunny, so they eat lunch in the shade of a standing stone where they fall asleep. When they awake, fog presses in on every side. They become separated from each other in the fog. Soon Frodo finds himself and his friends captured by a barrow-wight.

The barrow-wight sings a terrible song over them: “Strings of words would now and again shape themselves: grim, hard, cold words, heartless and miserable.” Frodo summons all his courage and with his sword hacks at the hand of the wight. Then in the darkness of the barrow, Frodo remembers and sings the song of deliverance Tom had taught them. Frodo soon hears the song of Tom Bombadil as though it were coming from far away:

            Old Tom Bombadil is a merry fellow,

           Bright blue his jacket is, and his boots are yellow,

            None has ever caught him yet, for Tom, he is the master;

            His songs are stronger songs, and his feet are faster.

            Shrivel like the cold mist, like the winds go wailing,

            Out into the barren lands far beyond the mountains!

            Come never here again! Leave your barrow empty!

The barrow in which the hobbits are trapped falls open and stones roll away. The light of day breaks in. Tom then sings a song of exorcism:

            Get out, you old Wight! Vanish in the sunlight!

            Lost and forgotten be, darker than darkness,

            Where gates stand for ever shut, till the world is mended.

The wight leaves with a long trailing shriek. Tom’s song was stronger.

Nietzsche has sung a sad and empty song that has influenced a lot of modern thought. He is, of course, famous for announcing the death of God in the modern area. Nietzsche was not declaring a literal death of God or even making a statement about God’s existence or non-existence. It was more a claim that God had become culturally and philosophically irrelevant. To some extent, this has become the case for the secularized West. However, in much of the developing world the Church is seeing extraordinary growth. God’s song is proving stronger.

Tolkien heartily disliked allegory, so you will find none here. However, he did allow that good stories can be applicable in many ways. We are all, I think, caught between two songs: the song of death and the song of life. We must make certain that we are listening to the song God sings over our life. In this story Tom Bombadil is not a Christ figure. However, Jesus, like Tom, sings a stronger song: one of love and adoption.

Like Tom, we are called to be singers and overflow with joy. Paul expresses this idea in his letter to the Ephesians: “But be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another, in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord.” Historically, every moving of God’s Spirit in revival has resulted in new hymns and stronger songs than those sung by the world. Songs have been both fuel and the fruit of revival. Prayer for revival is prayer for God to give the church a stronger song—one that transforms our communities and our nation.

But the song of death is powerful. A few years ago one of my students killed himself. He had made several attempts before but supposedly was getting help and getting better. He wrote an essay about it for my class but presented his struggle as something he had overcome. Then one day when I called his name, there was silence. After I marked him absent, a student quietly told me he had killed himself the night before.  I know it is common for people to blame themselves when someone they know commits suicide. I have tried to avoid this, but I can’t help asking how I might have done or said more to help.

I do know this. I want to be more like Tom—full of joy and a stronger song. I want my words to affirm the value of my students and the goodness of life. I know death is singing its merciless song of despair, so I need to hear and learn to sing God’s song of hope. But our song must be more than good words; it is a life lived in the power of the Spirit. It is irrepressible joy that sings the kingdom of light into the darkened world. Through us we must let the Spirit sing Christ’s victory over sin, Satan, and death.

Posted in On Faith, Tolkien | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

“Pajamas!”–A Hobbit Battle Cry

Of course, the actual battle cry of hobbits was “The Shire!” This cry, like “pajamas,” does not summon visions of military or urban grandeur. The memory of fat cabbages in well-tended gardens and fat hobbits in cozy holes are what stiffened the spine of hobbits about to fight. Hobbits fought not for glory or even adventure, but for the simple goodness of life in the Shire. Hobbits fought for coziness and second breakfasts, so I am sure “Pajamas!” is a fitting hobbit battle cry.

When I scoop up my grandson Ari in his flannel  Batman pajamas, I hold in my arms all that I fight for in the battle against sin and spiritual darkness. As a battle cry, “Pajamas!” declares the goodness of the order and peace that gives us time for goodnight kisses, pajamas, and being “tucked in”.

It is a cry against the selfishness, sinfulness, and strife that set mothers and fathers against each other. It is a cry against the enemy who seeks to divide and devour families. It is a cry against the drug addiction and depression that fills the night’s streets with people who should be in their pajamas.

“Pajamas!” is also a cry for peace and justice. Many years ago Teckla and I hiked into Chel, a beautiful Ixil village in the mountains of Guatemala. We were with a church group there to build a small pharmacy where medicines could be safely stored and distributed. When we awoke, we discovered the little village square was filled with 20 to 30 people who had fled a guerilla attack on their village about a mile up the river. They had fled with nothing except the clothes on their backs. I will never forget a little girl in shorts and tank-top holding a turkey she carried through the night. The believers in Chel, who themselves were desperately poor, handed out corn meal and clothes to these refugees. Guatemala was war-torn in the eighties and there was no time for pajamas.

“Pajamas!” is a cry for kids to grow up without fear or trauma— to grow up knowing Mom and Dad will always be there to keep them safe. It is cry against all the war and strife that displaces people and forces them to flee in the middle of the night. It is a cry for the refugee to have a home. Too many people sleep afraid—ready to run from violence or ethnic cleansing.

The peace and security of a child’s pajamas days pass all too soon. But while they last such days are one of the greatest gifts we can give children. It is the experience of being treasured, tucked-in, blessed, loved, and perfectly safe. It is an imperfect foreshadowing of a future homecoming when we will enter the safety of our heavenly Father’s presence. Our pajamas days prophesy of that future day when the Prince of Peace will reign—when all is right and all is safe.

We must fight the battle in our own families and neighborhoods. Our weapons are spiritual but powerful: goodnight hugs and kisses, Christmas lights, prayers at bedtime, forgiveness for the sinner, healing for the broken, hope for despairing, and super-hero pajamas to take away the evening chill. And Jesus—Emmanuel, God with us.  

Posted in On Faith, Tolkien, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

More Than One Angel

Despair. I don’t despair in God, but I am sometimes shattered by despair for those I love. Free-will is alternately exhilarating and terrifying. Of course, Christians have been divided over free-will and salvation. Some take comfort in the idea that those God has predestined to be saved will be saved no matter what. I, however, don’t know how this idea doesn’t also terrify us with the crushing possibility that those we love deeply have been predestined to hell—however we understand it. I am not objecting to the justice of God, but I would find it hard to say aloud, “God is love, and has, in his love, decided before time began to send you into everlasting torment.” So, I believe we are saved by grace and yet must respond to God’s free gift of salvation with faith in Jesus. But the free-will of those for whom we pray means they are free to resist God’s grace and harden their hearts to the voice of His Spirit. Here is where despair destroys me. Some are so hard.

Angels. Recently a friend praying over the phone with me said (I paraphrase a little), “God, you have more than one angel and more than one way to reach the heart of the lost.” The phrase “more than one angel” even though it states the obvious, helped me in the midst of my despair. Because my love for lost friends and family seems so ineffective, I am tempted to think God’s love is too. But God has more than one angel. My comfort is not in a kind of fatalism that God in the end gets His way—and somehow all is good. My comfort is in the infinite resourcefulness of a God who loves and pursues us. God, who doesn’t wish “for any to perish but for all to come to repentance,” is unrelentingly seeking the salvation of those we love even when we falter and despair.

Tongues. We can only pray for a thousand tongues to praise Him, but God has a thousand tongues to speak into the hearts of the lost. This is the promise of tongues at Pentecost—that God speaks the language of every heart through the voice of the Holy Spirit. Where my eloquence fails and my words fork no lightning, God’s voice can speak perfectly and powerfully. The smile of a child, the sun on a leaf, or the sound of a jay rejoicing in the dawn can become the language that awakens a prodigal son to the love of the Father. And we know from Scripture that God’s truth can come rolling out of any mouth: Balaam’s ass, shepherds, fisherman, the king of Persia, or some wise guys from the east.

Memory. When a prodigal seems to have forgotten every taste of God’s goodness, God can bring the memory of His love and goodness. God can make the memory of His reality inescapable and can plow through the lies cobbled together to deny His goodness. Memory of His Word and his promises can come alive on a starry winter night or gentle spring morning.

Judgment. God can use circumstances to awaken the hearts of the lost to their need for Him. The consequences of sin can be so bitter that the lost soul cries out for living water to wash away the taste of ashes. Both the kindness and judgments of God can lead us to repentance. It is better to respond to His kindness, but God’s judgments are drenched in His mercy, powered by His love.

Prayer. And our prayers matter. God bottles our tears (Ps. 56:8) and pours them out as blessings on those for whom we weep. God is moved by our intercession when we are helpless. Our prayers, in the hands of God, are a powerful weapon against the enemy seeking to destroy those we love. This side of heaven we will never know how much evil has been stopped by the prayers of the saints.

Krav Maga. Like Imi Lichtenfeld who developed this martial art used by the Israeli Defense Forces, God is a streetfighter. The emphasis of Krav Maga is real life effectiveness and the use of anything at hand as a weapon. God used pigs to awaken the heart of the prodigal son. God will grab anything and use it. I have a brother who, while far from God, randomly chose to see a play in San Francisco—a play called Godspell. The play began with the sound of a shofar and a song “Prepare, Ye the Way of Lord. At that sound, God’s Spirit ambushed my brother and called him back to his faith in God. God does not fight fair, and it is hard for kids to escape the intercession of their parents and grandparents.

Hope. So, hope breaks through my despair, and I keep praying. I pray because God has more than one angel and more than one angle. God is a street-fighter whose wild love pursues those we love. I trust Him.

Posted in On Faith | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Chastch Me!

With eyes lit up and curly hair flying wild, my grandson, Ari, will often say, “Papa, chase me!” He is three, so it actual sounds more like “chastch me”—a combination of chase and catch. So around the kitchen table and into the living room we run, giggles and ear-piercing shrieks making it impossible for Ari to hide behind the couch.

Then he is caught, sometimes tickled, hugged, or tossed into the air—always squealing with delight, always loved wildly by Papa. The wisdom of the child grasps that the whole point of the game is the joy of being caught and being loved.

I think teens and young adults play “Chase me!” too. In the midst of insecurities and identity crises, many teens run from their parents and from God. Often this is a way of testing the love of both. The face of a teen defying loving parents is often saying, “Chase me!” It is asking if the parents’ love is strong and constant enough to pursue them in their rebellion and ugliness. They may, however, have forgotten the point of the game—getting caught and being held by arms of those who love them. Even so, buried in all that turmoil and confusion is a longing to get caught. Some parents must run a marathon of unfailing love.

Even as adults, we can play “chase me” in our relationship with God. We hide in our busyness and quickly explain away the sound of His steps pursuing us. We can harden our hearts and wriggle out of His arms when the Holy Spirit catches our heart and calls us home. The game only works if we want to be caught, and too many adults have made other things more important than being caught up in the arms of a loving God.

However, an instinct for “chase me” beats within the human heart. We long for love that pursues. We want that Father that runs down the road and enfolds the prodigal son in His arms. We desperately need a good shepherd that leaves the ninety-nine sheep and chases the one that is lost. We long for God’s unfailing love and fierce pursuit. Human love can be spotty and for some comes only once in a blue moon. But God’s love is unrelenting; it shakes the gates of hell and breaks the chains of sin.

In every heart is not just the cry “Chase me!” but also the cry, “Catch me!” The point of the game is love and relationship. Ari has it right: “Chastch me!”

Posted in Fathers and Sons, On Faith | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Dear Sons, In Case You Missed It

We are saved by grace. Yes, I know, you have all heard this. One of you even sang, “Amazing Grace” at Grandma’s funeral. Nonetheless, we all need to hear this again and again—sometimes in new ways. Sadly, much of church history is a story of God’s people forgetting and then remembering that we are saved by grace. Unfortunately, the drift toward legalism and salvation by works has been as regular as the tides. We are always coming home to God’s grace.

Guilt and shame have a black hole gravitational pull that bends and swallows light, so it is easy to forget our salvation is free. We also have an enemy who again and again whispers lies to us about how all our sins and failures disqualify us. Sometimes the stain of our sin seems too deep scrape off with a broken bottle.

The news that our salvation is a gift is much of what is good about the gospel’s good news. It is easy to overlook how good. Too often church kids confuse meeting people’s expectations with being saved. Often Christian parents (probably even me) make salvation and “being good” seem like the same thing. When this happens everything gets backward. Instead of obedience being a joyful response to the free gift, it becomes a dull duty performed to earn salvation. When we get grace wrong, we give up because we can’t be good enough for God. Church kids also discover that sin, in the short run, offers many pleasures. And we all weary of trying to be good.

The good news, however, is that we are not only saved by grace but changed by grace. When we look at ourselves and see our utter inability to change ourselves, when our defilement seems irreversible, and our identity and our sin are hopelessly entangled, God offers grace. God also offers us death—the death of our false and polluted self. By grace, God offers us a new self. As you guys get older and move around, you will discover that wherever you go, there you are. Only God can set us free from the sinful self that ruins everything. And, this change is free. It is a gift.

We are also set free by grace. We are ransomed by Christ from our jailer. God sets us free from every kind of bondage—sinful habits, rotten attitudes, and terrible addictions. God is a chain-breaker. When we are unable to help ourselves, He sets us free. Sometimes we wrongly think that we must get free before we can return to God, but the grace of God meets us right where we are and begins cutting the chains that make us miserable.

The goodness of grace should surprise and delight us. Do you remember when we all hiked through the desert at the Anzo-Borrego State Park? We wandered up a creek lined with cactus and sagebrush. It was hot and dusty, but we rounded the corner in the canyon and discovered a pool of water surrounded by fan palms. A little water fall that poured over a boulder fed the pool. Some of you grabbed old palm leaves and slid down the boulder into the pool. I hope grace is like this for you—but living water that satisfies our deepest thirst.

So how can we tell if, even as believers, we have missed the truth of God’s grace? We can check our gratitude level. When we realize that salvation and transformation is a free gift, thanksgiving explodes in our hearts. Worship becomes a joy instead of a chore. Gratitude for the free gift becomes the engine that powers our obedience.

We can also test our love level. The love and acceptance we see in the eyes of Jesus takes our eyes off ourselves. And isn’t that liberating? Mean and self-centered Christians (we have met a few) don’t grasp grace. If we recognize how utterly unworthy and undeserving we are and see how overwhelmingly merciful God’s grace is, we can’t help but extend grace and kindness to others—even the most undeserving. We have to show the grace we have been shown.

Perhaps the final test is humility. Grace takes away every boast. That’s why Paul, the guy who perhaps did the most to build and expand the church, insisted that he would boast in nothing but “the cross of Jesus Christ” (Galatians 6:14). Legalism, salvation by works, has a terrible one/two punch. When you fail to be good enough, you are filled with shame. If for a moment you succeed in being good, you are filled with pride. Grace frees us from both. Grace makes us humble but happy followers after Jesus, daily seeking ways to give grace to others and glory to God. In case you missed it, this is a great way to live—and its free.  

Posted in Fathers and Sons, On Faith | Tagged , | Leave a comment

He Came to Himself

In a hot mess of inarticulate father-love, I sputtered, “But you love Jesus!” My son had been explaining how he wasn’t sure he was still a Christian. I had been challenging him to return to Jesus. My declaration felt pathetic.

I understand the aching heart from which these words flowed, but only now am beginning to understand what I meant. After all, Jesus said if you love him, you will obey his commands. This kid wasn’t. And who was I to tell one my son who he loved? Was this another annoying example of parental over-reach? Maybe not.

Re-reading the parable of the prodigal son in the gospel of Luke has helped me figure out what I meant. After the prodigal son had wasted his inheritance and descended into poverty, he looked with longing at the pig food. In the King James Version (Luke 15:17), we are then told: “But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger?’” Other translations begin with “But when he came to his senses” (NIV, NASB). However, “to himself” is closer to the original Greek.

The phrase “to himself” helps me understand what was moving in my spirit when I told my son he loved Jesus. I want my son, like the prodigal, to come back to himself—to the person God’s Word declares, he was created to be. My sons were made to love God and be loved by Him. “To come to himself” isn’t just a turn back to who he once was; it is a step forward to the person God created him to be.

After coming to himself, the prodigal’s mind turns to his father because who we are is always defined by relationship. We are not ourselves apart from relationship with God. The idea we must escape God, run from our father, in order to be ourselves is one of Satan’s most terrible and yet popular lies. It is a promise of freedom that ends in slavery to sin and our own flesh. The son’s journey home is a journey back to relationship with his father.

Even though the prodigal son declares himself no longer worthy to be his father’s son, his father runs down the road, wraps his arms around his son, kisses him and gives him the robe and ring of sonship. In other words, the father ignores the son’s own despairing definition of himself and declares the prodigal, “My son!” With exuberant love the father completes his prodigal son’s “coming to himself”—a beloved son wrapped in His Father’s arms.

This is what was bursting in my heart when I exclaimed, “But you love Jesus!” And in many ways, it is what should be said to every young believer who is hurt or bored with the Church. Yes, Christians are a wounded and wounding bunch of people, “But you love Jesus!” Yes, earthly fathers and mothers are flawed and fail us in many ways, “But you love Jesus!” Yes, there are many intellectual questions about our faith that need answers, “But you love Jesus!”

Sometimes the revelation that we love Jesus is as important as the revelation God loves us. This is part of the what was pouring out of my heart to my son. How can one know of Jesus and not love him? I love his goodness, wisdom, gentleness, and boldness. I can’t read one of the gospels and not fall in love with Him, desire to follow Him, and hope to become like Him. I wasn’t merely informing my son that he loved Jesus—I was declaring Jesus worthy to be loved. How can we be honest with God and heaven and not love Jesus?

We can pray that every prodigal son and daughter will come “to themselves”. We can pray they will remember the relationship with their Father who is already making a cloud of dust as He runs down the road. Because, really, they love Jesus!

Posted in Fathers and Sons, On Faith | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

When the Light Goes Out

Few things are sadder than seeing the light of God’s Spirit go out in the eyes of your child. The moment it happens is easy to miss. There are natural rhythms of wandering and return in the lives of most Christian kids. And during troubled teens years, it is hard to tell the difference between a mood swing and the extinguishing of faith.

In some kids the light never goes out. My mother was this way. She couldn’t remember a time she wasn’t a Christian. She had vague memories of giving her heart to Jesus when she was four, but told me, “I already felt like a Christian and loved Jesus.” It sometimes bothered her that she had no dramatic story of when she got saved, but I think her story delightful. The light of Jesus shone brightly in her eyes even on her death bed, hooked to a feeding tube, barely able to speak because of a stroke. Her eyes said everything. They said, “Jesus!”

But I think my mom’s story unusual. Too many parents have had that moment when they looked across the room at their son or daughter and noticed the light was gone. Their eyes are dead. Joy and hope have fled. They may not be a monster of any kind, but like a zombie—they are still your child, but not the same—not who God created them to be and not the child you knew. Sometimes you see fear and bondage—the sadness of a chained animal.

I am not going to speculate as to what the light going out means theologically regarding a kid’s salvation. I just know it is heart-breaking.

What snuffed out the light? For each Christian kid, it can be different. Often it is simply their surrender to sin or their decision to embrace the values of the world instead of God. It usually isn’t a sin that smothers the light; it is steady rain (or reign) of darkness that comes sin by sin.

Sometimes a kid is wounded by someone in the church, or deeply disappointed by God in some way. The resulting bitterness can violently put out the light of God. To get back at God, their parents, or the church, they run as far from God as they can. Their eyes are not filled with the emptiness of those who have feasted on sin. In their eyes you can see flashes of anger and resentment toward God—their imagined enemy.

What can help turn the lights back on? Sometimes captives in Babylon need to remember the milk and honey of the promised land. God can bring to their memory the joy of being clean before God. The Holy Spirit, as we pray for our kids, can make them aware of the weight of sin and the burden of sin’s consequences. God can reveal to them that one from whom they are running and rebelling is the only One who can heal, restore, and save them eternally.

As parents and grandparents, the most important thing we can do is be steadfast in our declaration that God is good. We must be the real deal. Our life should say that God can be trusted. Any shred of hypocrisy in us, will be used to fuel the wandering child’s rebellion. This doesn’t mean being perfect; it just means being humble and honest about our own failings. We must model the long art of turning and returning to God.

I also believe every good childhood memory we create is part of the honey of the promised land that reminds the wandering of God’s love and goodness. It was remembering the goodness of life with His father that made the prodigal son reject his misery and head home. Here too there is no burden to give Christian kids perfect childhoods. Israel, for all her faults and failings, was still the home about which the exiles in Babylon sang with longing.

It is also true that God can powerfully use the birth of a child to turn the light back on in the hearts of our kids. When our sons or daughters look into the sparkling eyes of their baby, they often want to see the light of God in their baby’s eyes. At that moment, a parent may decide they need the light of Jesus turned back on. It is not just a newborn that is helpless—it is the parents who desperately need God’s help to raise the child.

Even when kids grow into young adults, their parents often carry in their heart a picture of their child when his or her eyes still shone with the light of Jesus When parents remember the beauty of God’s light in their child’s eyes, they fall on their knees and cry out to God—the only one who knows how to rekindle the flame of faith.

There are few joys sharper or more glorious than seeing the light of Jesus come back into the eyes of your children. I know some parents who have not seen it this side of the grave, but many pour out their heart in prayer hoping to see the light in their eyes before they die. There are few things that draw us closer to the heart of the Father than prayers for our kids to come home to God—the perfect Father who through Jesus has made a way. In these prayers my heart and God’s heart beat as one.

Posted in Fathers and Sons, On Faith | Tagged , , | Leave a comment