Garage Sales and the Kingdom of Heaven

We just had the all-city garage sale here in Myrtle Point. Teckla and I sold some furniture that belonged to my brother, Stanley, who died last year. I even sold a desk and chest of drawers that Dad bought long ago and repainted bright red and yellow. They had been mine as a child, and then given to Stanley. The empty drawers are full of memories. Garage sales and estate sales are poignant reminders that our lives are not our stuff and that our real treasure needs to be heaven. We need to think more of heaven.

Often, however, the accusation has been leveled against Christians that they think too much about heaven—pie in the sky by and by.  Famously, Johnny Cash sang of people who are so “heavenly minded they are of no earthly good.” However, I would argue that most Christians have the opposite problem. Many believers have only the vaguest idea of what treasure in heaven might be. They seldom think about it and are seldom moved by it. And yet Jesus talks a lot about treasure in heaven and heavenly reward. Paul also makes clear that he earnestly desires to secure his heavenly reward by living faithfully.  

We sometimes think of the Sermon on the Mount as practical instruction for living out our faith, but it is here that Jesus speaks the most about heavenly reward. In the beginning of the sermon he declares (5:3) that the kingdom of heaven belongs to the poor in spirit. A few verses later he says that those who are persecuted and falsely accused should “rejoice and be glad” because their “reward in heaven is great”. I, like many Christians I suspect, find great reward in heaven such a foggy idea that it would have little power to help me rejoice in persecution. Nonetheless, there are solid biblical reasons why caring about heavenly reward and treasure will actually make a believer of more, not less, earthly good.

First, it should make us hypocrisy-proof. Hypocrisy has two roots: pride and fear. Either of these can make us care more about how we appear to others than to God. Both can make us live for the applause of men instead of the applause of heaven, treasure now instead of later. Jesus addressed this:

Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise, you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven. Matthew 6:1

Jesus goes on to warn that those who do good only to be noticed by others have their reward “in full” and are getting no reward from God.  In fact, much of chapter six is about the power and reward of living the hidden life that does not seek the spot-light and is not motivated by what others think—either for good or ill. We need not fake anything because we live in the eyes of God who sees us as we are. We need not fear anything because our reward, God’s approval, can never be taken away. There would be fewer hypocrites in the church if more of us cared most about God’s opinion of us.

Second, a focus on heavenly reward should make believers the moral compass for their communities and nation.  The currents of peer pressure and cultural corruption can easily float believers into moral compromise. However, caring most about the approval of God can empower us to swim against the current and stay faithful to the commandment to love God and our neighbor as yourself. God’s people should be those that can’t be bought and can’t be bribed because the only treasure we care about is that which comes from the hand of God.

A book entitled “Lest the Innocent Blood Be Shed” by Philip Hallie tells of a Protestant church in the village of Le Chambon that went to extraordinary and courageous lengths to protect Jews during the Nazi occupation of France. Members of the youth group served as scouts to warn the village that the Nazis were winding their way up to their mountain village. Farmers opened their land and high mountain pastures as hiding places for the Jews so that the Nazi buses ended up going back down the mountain pass without any Jews.

It is when we become earthly minded and full of earthly wisdom, which James calls demonic, that we get caught up in the world’s corrupted morality, racism, and prejudice. God’s Word and desire to be found faithful on judgment day can anchor us.

Third, having our treasure secure in heaven should make us fearless and generous. Our treasure is untouchable by all the forces of evil and all the circumstances of our life. Everything stolen from us in this life results in riches in the next. All suffering and misery for the sake of Christ is a direct deposit of heavenly riches in our account.

This is why Jesus says if someone asks for your shirt, give them your cloak also. We are free to be wildly generous now because we know the wealth that really matters is kept safe in heaven. We can seek first the kingdom of God and trust God for everything else. This will make us of more earthly good than those who keep a tight and fearful grip on their earthly treasure.

Fourth, a focus on heavenly reward should set our hearts free from bitterness. In this life dreams are sometimes shattered. Our hopes for our children and grandchildren can dissolve into trouble or plunge into tragedy. We sometimes smash into our own limitations and discover that the platitudes spoken in graduation speeches aren’t true.

We also face the terrible unfairness of life and the ingratitude of people. But if our heart is truly set on God’s approval and His reward, we can weather being overlooked, misunderstood, and ripped off. We are filled with thanksgiving for all God has given instead of bitterness over all that has been taken.   

Think about this: Of how much practical good would it be to have a church full of people who are unoffendable, free of bitterness, and immune to resentment? People who do not need to get their way or get recognition because all their treasure is in heaven, not here?

There are some who will object that being motivated by a desire for heavenly reward is less spiritual than just serving God out of love. Some say, “I will happy just to make it.” Or the more spiritual will say, “Jesus is enough of a reward.” But these misconceptions are based on two errors.

First, we need to understand that treasure in heaven and heavenly reward are relational. This point is made in the parables of Jesus. Our reward is to be found a faithful servant who Jesus can trust to reign with Him in the next age. Therefore, serving God out of love and seeking heavenly reward are not at odds with each other. Loving God should always mean us being faithful. We treasure the approval and trust of those we love most.

Second, in the parables of Jesus and the teaching of the New Testament, heaven is not some static state or perpetual worship service. If it were, why would heavenly reward matter? But again and again Jesus talks about the faithful reigning with Him in the age to come. We aren’t given many details about what “reigning” includes, but it is certainly something more than sitting on a cloud, strumming a harp. In a sense, this life is like try-outs for the next age. We can say, as some do, that we would be happy to just make the team and warm the bench. A true love of God, however, should make us want to someone Jesus can trust to play the game—to reign with Him.

At garage sales we often see the stuff people have spent a lifetime gathering sold for almost nothing. We see that no one, no matter how poor or rich, can really take it with them. Our true riches must be in heaven. The more we care about heavenly reward, the more earthly good we will be today.

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The Monarch

Yesterday I saw a monarch butterfly in the garden. It nearly brought me to tears. Bright orange and black, it danced over the milkweed (asclepias speciosa) then landed and nectared from the pink and white flowers. It flew up and danced in the late afternoon sun and landed again for a longer time. I am hoping this meant it was female and was laying eggs on the milkweed. I am hoping for caterpillars in September. And then an emerald and gold chrysalis.

Monarch butterflies are rare in Myrtle Point. I saw one flying over Maple Street about seven years ago. About five years ago I planted some milkweed seeds I had gotten in the mail. They stayed small and struggled to make it in the shady front part of the house, so I re-planted them in one of my growing beds in full sun. In the last four years the milkweed thrived, sending rhizomes in all directions, threatening to take over the whole growing bed. The four replanted milkweeds are now twenty.

Even though the milkweed is native to Oregon, it, like the monarch that depends on it, is rare in Coos County. As I watched the milkweed take over the growing bed, I wondered if I was an idiot to plant it. After all, I had seen no monarch visiting them and found no caterpillars munching on them. Nothing in five years.

I was hoping to do my small part to help the western population of monarchs by planting the milkweed—the host plant for the caterpillars. The population has been declining for years due to pesticides and loss of habitat. The western population often winters in eucalyptus trees in southern California. The much larger eastern population migrates all ways to Mexico where it winters in the pine forest. The fly way of the western population is further inland from Myrtle Point, in the Willamette Valley and eastern Oregon. I planted milkweed on the edge of the monarch’s range.

Planting and tending the milkweed, therefore, has always felt like prayer. It was sowing without the certainty of reaping. It was laying out a welcome mat for a monarch that might never come.

Seeing one yesterday, felt like hope vindicated. The wings of the monarch were full of glory. It had been a long wait, but the king (or queen) returned.

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The Third Prodigal

Most of us know the first prodigal in Jesus’ parable (Luke 15). We know this so guy well because he all of us, all of humankind, every son and daughter that has fled God and wallowed in sin. Adam and Eve were the first prodigals who wasted all God had given them.

In some ways, the parable of the prodigal son is a tale of two parties. Although we commonly refer to any wandering soul as a prodigal, the word prodigal actually means recklessly or extravagantly wasteful. The younger son recklessly wastes his inheritance on harlots and what today we call “partying”. Those parties left him longing to eat pig food. Later he comes home to a different kind of party—one thrown by his father to celebrate his return.

The second prodigal is the father who lavishes love and resources on the son. It is likely that the father knew what the younger son would do with his inheritance but gave it anyway. Since we are told the father saw his son from afar, it is also likely that the father wasted time looking for his son and longing for his return. There were probably sleepless nights praying and worrying about his son.

The father wasted his dignity. I am an old man with bad knees. I look silly and, I suspect, a little pathetic when I run, especially if I have on sandals. I am sure the older son thought his father looked ridiculous running down the road to his brat of a brother.

The father wasted a great opportunity to fold his arms and give a lecture; instead, the father enfolded his son in his arms. The father started down the road before he had any proof of his son’s repentance and change of heart. What if the son quickly went back to his old ways? Don’t we need some tough love here? Shouldn’t the younger son have to prove he has changed? Isn’t the father taking a stupid risk here? There are consequences! But love sweeps aside lectures.  

And, of course, the father is also prodigal in giving the son his best robe, his ring, sandals, and then a feast. He is a little over-the-top in his celebration and joy. There is music and dancing. Everyone is invited to come celebrate the return of the son who wasted his inheritance.

The third prodigal, the older son, is one we might overlook. He refuses to join the celebration and accuses the father of never doing for him what his father is doing for his rebellious brother. The older son points out that he has never left and that he has obeyed all the father’s commands.

The father answers that everything he has belongs to his oldest son. The father makes clear that his oldest son should not think loving the returning son diminishes his love for his oldest son. It is also clear that the oldest son could have at any point enjoyed himself just as his brother at feast was.  

The older son is prodigal because he had wasted the opportunity to know his father and his father’s heart. Although a child of the Sixties, I never went through a time of rebellion toward my parents, but  like most teenagers, I was quick to view them as irrelevant. In high school I soon spent more time with friends and a girlfriend. I had little or no interest in doing things with Dad. And like many teens, I gave one-word answers to my parents’ questions.

Then I was off to college, and then off to graduate school, and then married and off to a job in Kansas. Of course, Teckla and I visited, and they made some trips to Kansas. After thirteen years in the Midwest, we got word that Dad was dying of cancer. I quit my job and we moved back to Myrtle Point as quickly as possible to help with Dad. But Dad went more quickly than predicted. Teckla and I pulled into the driveway just as Mom and my brother, Stanley, came home from the hospital where Dad had died. Since that day in 1993 I have wished that I had not wasted my teen years avoiding Mom and Dad. In a sense, I left home my sophomore year of high school.

I wish I had taken more time to feel and know the heart of my father—who had the heart of a shepherd. My father was also an English teacher, so I wish I hadn’t wasted the opportunity to talk to him about faith, reason, and culture. He was a man of prayer; I wish he and I had prayed together. There is so much I could have learned from him. Even though I wasn’t a rebellious son, I failed to know and enjoy my father and my inheritance as fully as I might have. I identify with how the older son wasted his opportunity.

Despite all the attention given the younger son, this parable is mostly about the older son. At the beginning of the Luke 15 we are told the scribes and Pharisees were grumbling that Jesus was spending time with sinners and tax-collectors. Jesus responds with a series of parables about how God rejoices over every sinner that repents and returns to God. Like the older son, the scribes and Pharisees wasted the opportunity to join the party and share in their heavenly Father’s joy.

The oldest son, like the scribes and Pharisees, also missed the reason for the blessings and inheritance they had received. As Jesus pointed out, the Scriptures the Pharisees loved so much all pointed to Jesus and his ministry as the Messiah. Most Pharisees missed the whole purpose of all the promises given to Israel. They were blessed to become a blessing to the sinner and outcast, and eventually the Gentiles. Clearly the father and son had been blessed with some wealth and abundance, but only the father understood that the purpose of the blessing was to bless others, especially a wayward son.

The elder son missed the opportunity to run with his father down the road. Had he shared his father’s longing for the return of his brother, he could have shared in the joy and joined party celebrating his return. It is possible that the elder brother thought his father had been wronged by his brother who had caused his father so much grief. He may have justified his anger toward his younger brother as a defense of his father, but all his complaint is about himself.  

The eldest son, although never leaving home, was just as far from the father as the younger son who had gone to a distant land. He wasted the opportunity to fully enjoy the goodness and the purpose of his inheritance. He really didn’t know his father or understand his father’s heart.

It is interesting that the elder son argues that he had kept all the Father’s commands. It is easy for church folks, especially those have gone to church for years, to become like the elder brother who thinks everything should be about them. We can get so caught up in our programs, our buildings, and our righteousness that we forget about the extravagant and prodigal love our Father has for the lost. We can know about our heavenly father but fail to understand His heart.

Let’s look ridiculous and run with our Father. Let’s join the party. Let’s dance, even if we have bad knees. Let’s love our brothers.

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Uncalculating Love

Times have been hard, finances tight, stress high, and our energy low—so we got a dog. Not just a dog—Pharoah, a large male Doberman that our son Claude and his wife, Katie, shipped us from Illinois. Claude and Katie had moved to a smaller place in Kansas City where they both found jobs. They moved from a house with large yard to a rental, and asked if we wanted Pharoah, an eleven-month-old Doberman.

Our last dog, Mira, was a Doberman and a wonderful dog in many ways. She was, however, not easy to care for. She would snatch food off kitchen counters and tables, eat socks and underwear, dig holes in the yard, and scratch deep ruts in the doors. Our house and yard are full of dog scars. And then there were the vet bills and finding someone to care for her when we were gone. In short, we knew what we were getting into if we said yes to Claude and Katie’s offer.

We considered the wisdom of getting another dog carefully. We had to think about the medical bills that hammered us this last year and whether we could afford a dog—even one given to us. We wondered if we needed one more worry, one more thing to think of between medical appointments. Every practical consideration argued against taking Pharaoh into our home and our hearts. So many people we have known have died in the last five years, I didn’t want to risk another dog dying. We were weary of heartache.

However, C. S. Lewis is right about how wrong it is for us to calculate the cost of loving. In his book The Four Loves, Lewis takes issue with St. Augustine’s advice to avoid suffering and heartbreak by loving only God, the “only safe investment.” Lewis argues rejecting love because it leads to suffering seems “to be a thousand miles away from Christ” and is remnant of Augustine’s Stoic philosophy. About the calculating the benefits of loving, Lewis asks, “Would you choose a wife or a friend–if it comes to that, would you choose a dog–in this spirit?” The cost of loving is suffering, and suffering is the cost of living redemptive lives of eternal significance. The call to love is a call to something higher and better than happiness.

I have heard that married couples without kids are happier than those with kids. I believe it. Loving kids opens you to all kinds of fear and hurt. No failure is more crushing than failure as a mother or father. Our decision to have kids was a decision to adopt. We have never regretted it. Nor have we doubted that we adopted in response to God’s direction and will. We have sometimes doubted whether we were best parents God could have given our kids. And we have doubted some decisions we made as parents. Could we have been wiser? Probably. Would we have been happier? Of course.

Often our kids have brought us great joy. There is no scale for weighing the genuine delights of parenthood against the worry and heartache. Even if there were such a scale, throwing grandchildren into the calculations changes everything. Grandchildren give us many more potential sources of joy and sorrow.

We have learned that pouring your love into kids means risking your heart and happiness. Nothing tears your heart apart more than watching your kid suffer sickness. Sin, rebellion, and impurity in your kids shatters every dream and godly hope for your kids. Every failure of your kids to follow God makes you question the quality of your parenting. It makes you wonder if you had been more spiritual maybe your kid would be Christian. Like God’s creation of Adam and Eve, the decision to have or adopt kids leads to the cross. It leads to suffering.

We are called to love without calculating the cost or fearing the risk. Loving is what we are created to do. Love is what were redeemed to do. But love with an eye on the benefits becomes something less than and something different from love. Jesus calls us to love one another as He has loved us and that means loving with abandon. It can mean washing the feet of Judas.

Although there is much mention of heavenly award in Scripture, the reward is always out of sight and a little vague. It is impossible to check the balance of our treasure in heaven. Lest we are tempted to love only God’s blessing and the promise of reward, the reward is always delayed or sometimes slipped anonymously under the door. As Lewis argues, we do not love even God with an eye only on the benefits. A decision to walk in love and follow Jesus sets us free from calculating love because we are asked to give all, follow Jesus anywhere, and love even if it kills us.

Love does not do cost/benefit analysis. So, we got a dog. We love him, but we wish Pharaoh would stop marking his territory against the legs of the kitchen table.

Love cleans up.

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God’s Path to Self-Care

Is the popular idea of self-care biblical? After all, many verses urge us to deny ourselves. Jesus said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). It is hard to reconcile the call to self-denial with a call to self-care, no matter how popular such exhortations are in social media.  

If part of self-care is about setting up boundaries and avoiding toxic people, we find little help in the Sermon on the Mount. Here Jesus tells his followers to bless and love their enemies, to rejoice when insulted, to turn the other cheek, to give to those who ask and beware of loving only those who love us. His warnings against anxiety could be seen as a kind of self-care, but it is accompanied by a command to not seek after the things we are anxious about: food, clothing, and financial security. Instead, we are to trust God for all things and seek first the kingdom of God. In many ways, this is more like self-forgetfulness than self-care. Jesus declares the best way to care for ourselves is to forget ourselves and seek God’s kingdom.

The apostle Paul doesn’t offer much support for self-care either. Paul describes his apostolic calling in terms of being “poured out like a drink offering” (Philippians 2:17). He explains that although free of obligation to anyone, he makes himself “a slave to everyone to win as many as possible” (I Corinthians 9:19). Lest we think this standard only for apostles, Paul cites the example of Christ: “And He died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves” (II Corinthians 5:15). Self-sacrifice is Paul’s theme.

Some have argued that the command to love our neighbor as ourselves provides a biblical justification for self-love and self-care. It has been used to lend a Christian veneer to the self-esteem movement. However, the emphasis of the command is clearly on loving our neighbor. God’s command assumes we all love ourselves. In other posts I have addressed this idea at length. If we genuinely hate a person, we are not depressed about that person’s failures, ugliness, or lack of talent. It is precisely because we love ourselves that we are so depressed by our shortcomings. The answer to such depression is self-forgetfulness not even more self-love.

Yet, the needs that self-care address are real. Self-care is especially important for those in careers or roles where caring for others is part of the job description. Therefore, wise and mature women often urge younger women to take time for self-care. Traditional gender roles are quick to justify a man resting and pursuing a hobby after a week of work, but slow to give the working mother the same freedom to rest and pursue other interests. In a similar way, pastors can feel guilty if they aren’t always ministering to the infinite needs and unrelenting demands of their congregations.  Burn-out is common among pastors, teachers, social workers, nurses, and others in caring professions. For these people, self-care may be matter of survival. But where does Scripture address the need for self-care?

The first place is the sabbath. Books, mostly by Jewish authors, have been written on how the sabbath blesses us, restore us, and refreshes our spirits. By not working on the sabbath, we declare our freedom from the fear and anxiety that keeps us going a hundred miles an hour to be successful. We declare our trust in God and we rest in His care for us. Program-driven Protestant churches, however, have often turned Sundays into a day of labor instead of rest. My father preached on Sunday mornings and Sunday evenings and then essentially made Monday his sabbath. As congregations and individuals, we may have real work to do to make our Sundays (or Saturdays) into real Sabbath days, but the sabbath is clearly God recognizing our need for rest and restoration.

I would also argue that delight is part of the essence of the sabbath. In Genesis, God rests from creation and delights in all He has made: “And God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good.” Our delight in God’s creation brings us into communion with God and his own delight in what he has made. It is why even those who are not Christians are refreshed and restored by nature and wilderness.

The second place is prayer and the spiritual disciplines that surround it. Jesus went alone into the mountains to pray despite the pressing needs of the people (Luke 6:19). Not all prayer begins in tranquility, but most of it ends there. Our intercession for others can be agonizing, but Paul declares that bringing our concerns to God with thanksgiving will result in the “peace of God, which passes all comprehension” guarding our hearts and our minds in Jesus Christ (Philippians 4:7).

The spiritual disciplines of silence and solitude often accompany and support the discipline of prayer, for prayer is listening as well as speaking. It is possible to think of silence and solitude as “me-time,” but for believers it should be “us-time”—time we are alone with God in silence. Goal-oriented believers may be tempted to see prayer as little more than asking God to bless all their hard work. But there is little rest in squeezing these prayers into our days. Often, we think about getting prayers out of the way so we can get to the real work of the day. But in economy of heaven, few things are of more pragmatic and practical importance than prayer and listening for the voice of God.

A third place believers find self-care is in fellowship—mutual care. Many of our needs are meant to be met in community where we use our gifts to build up and refresh one another. Paul spoke of some brothers who “have refreshed my spirit and yours” (I Corinthians 16:18). In II Corinthians Paul commended the church in Corinth because the spirit of Titus had “been refreshed by you all.” Commands to love our enemies and bless those curse us may keep us from leaving behind every “toxic” person, but we can certainly seek to spend time with those who can refresh our spirit.

Recently, Tom and Carl, men from a morning Bible study I attend, came up to my house with a truck full of huge planks. I had asked Tom about the best and least expensive way to repair the rotting raised beds in my garden. He has a small mill on his dairy farm, so he milled some huge planks. Carl who is an excellent wood worker helped square them up. We then lifted them up and over the old rotten growing beds. We did no Bible study and did not lay hands on each other and pray, but their kindness and the goodness of our labor together greatly refreshed my spirit. Their care for me and their generosity was some of the best “self-care” I could have received during a difficult and weary week.

In all these sources of self-care we find a paradox and principle of indirection. When we forget our needs on the Sabbath, we discover God meeting our needs. When we take our eyes off ourselves and lose ourselves in the goodness of God’s creation, we are restored. When we forget about ourselves and enter into community with others, God uses others to refresh our spirit. When we give, others will give unto us “a good measure, pressed down shaken together and running over” (Luke 6:38).

So yes, God is concerned about our need for restoration, wholeness, and refreshment, but His path to these is different from the world’s. God invites us to forget ourselves and enter into the Sabbath, prayer, and fellowship. Of course, all of these require we humbly admit our need for God and our need for others. As often the case, humility is the first step.

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Where Was God When?

You can fill in blank. When cancer took my child, when the bomb landed on the school, when I was molested and raped, when my family was murdered, when millions of Jews cried out in the death camps of Hitler.

No question can have a more devastating effect on our faith in a loving God. Hundreds of books have been written trying to answer the question, so there will be no quick answer here. I have already written about how present God has been through my brothers and sisters who have helped and loved Teckla as she has battled breast cancer this last year. God, dwelling in the hearts of other believers, has been near us.

But recently another answer to my question keeps coming. When I ask, “God, where are you”, I have heard, I think, God say, “In Christ on the cross.” I am certain I don’t fully understand what this answer might mean. But let me describe three ways this helps me.

First, I believe God, in Christ on the cross, is there for us. On the cross, the Father and Son suffered for all our sins, for all the terrible things we have done and will do to one another. I say the Father suffered because this last year I suffered beside the bed of my intubated son, Peter, while doctors fought to save his life. On the cross both the Father and Son drew close to us. The Holy Spirit wept.

Jesus hung on the cross for not only our sins but also for the sins of those who hurt us. In the suffering of Jesus there is a promise of healing for the victim and deliverance for wicked. So when I wag a finger at God and ask why He doesn’t do something, I think He points to the cross and says, “Well, I did this.” The gift of His Son on the cross to save us all is something, even if in our suffering it does not seem like enough. On the cross the power of sin was broken. The most wicked can be cleansed and the most broken healed. 

Second, on the cross God is with us. In bearing our sins on the cross Jesus became God with us in the most intimate way. Although sinless, He was with us in our sins. We can never say to Jesus, “You just don’t understand my situation.” The cross may reach to heaven, but it is planted in the earth. God came to us. Jesus walked here, died here, arose here. He knows us, our sin, and our pain.

A third way is the mystery of the fellowship of His sufferings mentioned in Philippians 3. I am not certain I understand it, and less certain that I want it. But I think it means that when my suffering is surrendered to God rather than fought against with bitterness or hardness, it becomes redemptive rather than pointless. Where hurt has reigned, healing can abound; where our heart is in ruins, God builds an indestructible temple of love and grace. In the fellowship of his sufferings, my suffering becomes golden. In my helplessness, God empowers me to help others.

I know this does not answer all the “why” questions about suffering. Why did God not intervene? Is it that He doesn’t or can’t, or that in some mysterious way all suffering is His sovereign will? Those questions need books and different books give different answers.

In my suffering, I have learned to look to Christ on the cross. It is where God is both for me and with me. In the fellowship of his suffering, I am not alone and discover I never have been.  

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Marxists and Homeschool Mothers

I recently re-read The Blithedale Romance by Nathaniel Hawthorne. This story draws upon Hawthorne’s time living at Brook Farm, an experimental utopian community, founded upon some the ideals of New England transcendentalism. One of the main characters is a philanthropist named Mr. Hollingsworth whose soul is consumed by his project for reforming criminals.

Hawthorne’s critique of Hollingsworth gave me insight into why fervent Marxists and homeschool mothers make me uneasy. Hawthorne describes Hollingsworth as one of those who have “surrendered themselves to over-ruling purpose.” He says it is wise to avoid such people:

They will keep no friend, unless he makes himself the mirror of their purpose; they will smite and slay you, and trample your dead corpse under foot, all the more readily, if you take the first step with them, and cannot take the second, and the third.

Yes, Hollingsworth is an extreme case, but we have all seen the ease with which people dedicated to a good cause can become cruel and in name of saving humanity, lose their humanity.

I have, of course, met very humane and wonderful Marxists. One of my best, and most open-minded, graduate school professors was a communist. I got an A in her courses even though I directly attacked some of her dearest convictions. And I am married to a homeschool Mom who is full of grace and kindness. I know some homeschoolers who avoid making homeschooling into a all-consuming passion.

I use Marxists and homeschool mothers to represent those who sometimes sacrifice others for the sake of a cause. Often utopian leaders (of the left or right) become first frustrated, then angry, and then cruel. Marxists are famous for their purges in Russia and the tyranny of Red Guard in China, all in the name of ideological purity. I have seen homeschool mothers for whom home education is an ideology that condemns those who send their kids to public schools. Some homeschooling parents will continue to homeschool even when it becomes clear it is not the best choice for their kids.

I could present other polarities as well. I am wary of someone who puts denominational loyalty over the biblical convictions, but I am equally wary of house church pastors who rail against denominations. (I say that as former house church pastor). I am cautious of anyone who places a cause or ideology above kindness and friendship.

Hawthorne’s own critique of such people is harsh. He argues that this “over-ruling purpose” can become a “false deity”. It is easy to lose our way when as believers our loyalty to Jesus is diluted and then ruled by a loyalty to another cause—no matter how noble. In graduate school I attended a “Bible study” on liberation theology. The leaders loved Jesus to the degree he could be seen as a revolutionary leader championing the poor but disliked his teaching on forgiveness.   

Today we see people on the left and right enlisting Jesus in their causes. On one side there are those who are “woke” to social injustice and racism. On the other, there are those who are loyal to right wing politicians no matter how ungodly they act. Both sides can, like Hollingsworth, cancel others—even other brothers and sisters in Christ—if they are not ideologically pure enough.

Toward the end of The Blithedale Romance the most scathing critique of Hollingsworth comes from Zenobia, a woman he rejects in favor of a more completely devoted disciple:

I see it now! I am awake, disenchanted, disenthralled! Self, self, self! You have embodied yourself in a project. . . . But foremost, and blackest of your sins, you stifled down your inmost consciousness!—you did a wrong to your own heart.

Only Zenobia sees that Hollingsworth is not so much committed to his cause as he is passionate about his image of himself as a great philanthropist and reformer. At the heart of his cause, lurking in the fog of idealist rhetoric was “Self”. When we sacrifice others to our cause, we betray those noble sentiments that first drew to the cause. We betray our own heart when we put a cause on the throne that belongs only to God. When Protestants persecuted, even burned at the stake, other Protestants for not being biblical enough, they betrayed their own heart—and even their own love of God’s Word.

I find the example of Jesus with the woman caught in adultery as the right path forward. Pharisees saw a sin, Jesus saw a person. He did not diminish the sin, but instead said, “Neither do I condemn you, sin no more.” Some today would be offended that he straight-up called what she did “sin”. Others might be offended that he did not follow the Old Testament law and condemn her to be stoned. Jesus, however, never lost sight of the woman.

In all our passions for causes, even the best and noblest, we can’t lose sight of people themselves. Being right, never gives us the right to be mean. We can never justify a cruel means by citing a noble end. Loving people and bringing them into relationship with God is both the means and the end. We must join in God’s project rather than seek His blessing for ours.

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Talking Bones

As I grow older, my bones grow noisier. About 25 years ago, I shattered my right knee while playing with Peter at the playground in Bandon. A surgeon rebuilt my knee with bone taken from my hip. The knee works but doesn’t have much cartilage. It complains loudly after long hikes or being twisted the wrong direction.

Bone tired. As I have aged, the other bones have become a chorus accompanying my knee. Recently I noticed how often the Psalmists mention bones. In the Psalm 6:2 David asks God to heal him because his bones are “dismayed”. David is talking about something deeper than the creaking bones of the elderly. In verse six he says, “I am weary with my sighing. Every night I make my bed swim, I dissolve my couch with my tears.” Grief can make us bone-tired as we dog paddle in our tears.  In Psalm 22 David laments that he is “poured out like water and all my bones are out of joint.”  Like David, our bones ask, “O Lord—how long?” Our bones pray.

Bone praise. Yet as deep, even deeper, there is a joy and hope in my bones. In Psalm 35:9-10 David’s bones speak again:

All my bones will say, “Lord who is like Thee, Who delivers the afflicted from him who is too strong for him, and the afflicted and the needy from him who robs from him?

Yes, despite all the triumphant exhortations to be joyful over-comers Christians exchange, we still face circumstances and enemies that are too strong—who steal our joy and would like to steal our faith. But our bones can rejoice in God who delivers us and refreshes our bones.

Bag of bones. As we age or face sickness, we can easily feel like little more than a bag of bones. Sometimes those dying of cancer become terribly thin and their skin almost translucent, like parchment showing every vein, outlining every bone. Even so, our bones can, with every snap, crackle, and pop, sing and our hope of redemption, our hope of resurrection. Our lungs may wheeze and whine like bagpipes playing “Amazing Grace” but we limp toward victory.

In all our weakness, and in all our fading, the Spirit will grow stronger in us. And as we age, we get closer to the day when our bones will rattle like the bones of Israel in Ezekiel 37, and we will rise to see Jesus, face to face. Then every bone will sing, every knee will bend.

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And They Were Afraid

This is, we are told in Luke, the response of the townspeople to seeing the man called Legion in his right mind. He certainly seems more frightening before having met Jesus. He was naked, living in tombs, able to break chains and shackles when the demons seized him. But Luke’s account suggests that people in Gerasenes had been trying to control for him for quite a while. Perhaps they had grown use to this wild and tormented man and were frightened by the change.

It has always struck me as odd that the people were frightened by seeing this delivered man, clothed, sitting at the feet of Jesus, and in His right mind. They are so “gripped with great fear” that they asked Jesus and his disciples to leave. It seems odd that they shooed Jesus away instead lining up all the other demon-possessed people.

But really, few things are more frightening than a person in his or her right mind. People who aren’t possessed can’t be owned. We may think it is the insane person who is unpredictable, but madmen, as G. K. Chesterton points out, live in a small and predictable world: “his mind moves in a perfect but narrow circle.” Whatever obsession may possess them renders them predictable. It is the completely sane person who frightens those in charge, those with deadlines, and those with an agenda.

First, it hard to know which side a sane person is on. Sane people have the annoying habit of seeing some truth on both sides. You can’t trust the sane to stick to the party line. Sane folks have the gall to admit the other side may have a valid point. They refuse to see things through the filters provided them.

Second, the loyalty of sane people cannot be trusted because they put first loyalty to the truth. Even when a lie is expedient, practical, and necessary, the sane person insists on speaking the truth, pointing out hypocrisy, and challenging flawed logic. Sane people will betray you every time. Just when you are about to implement your proposal, some sane person will ruin everything by pointing the inevitable but unintended consequences of your project.

Third, you never know what people in their right mind might say. They don’t stick to the script. Their minds not only work, but are always working, analyzing, and reasoning. New things are always occurring to them. When your whole project depends on people not noticing or asking about something, along comes a sane person asking hard questions.

Few things are more frightening than a person that can’t be owned, isn’t possessed, and sees all things in the bright light of reason and faith. They can’t be labelled or leashed. They are free and therefore frightening.

More frightening than the man once called Legion is the man who set him free. Sadducees and Pharisees fought like cats and dogs, but both groups were afraid of Jesus. Jesus scared the Romans and gave Pilate’s wife nightmares. No man was saner–or more dangerous.

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How Grandchildren Save the World and Our Souls

I am convinced that grandchildren save the world. No matter how cynical, skeptical, and jaded we senior citizens become, our hearts still melt when a grandchild slips their hand in ours, places a kiss on our cheek, or squeaks out, “I love you, Pa!” This can generate a lot of “Aw, ain’t  that sweet!” However, I think something deeper and more important is at work.

When we look into the eyes of our grandchildren, we who are about to leave this world, are forced to care about it. We realize we have stake in the future: in the environment and climate we leave behind, and in the culture and social order. Will we leave our grandchildren a world at peace or at war? Will we leave behind a just world where both rights and liberty are safe?

For people my age there are certainly reasons for apathy or despair. I lived through the social activism of the sixties and seventies, so I am amused by those playing the “woker than thou game.” I have seen years when Democrats defended the Soviet Union and Republicans demonized it, only to see Republicans defend Russia and Democrats declare Putin the devil. My generation has lived through Nixon’s Watergate and Bill Clinton’s affairs, so we have few reasons to trust leaders. We have many reasons to dismiss all politics as pointless and corrupt.

Even more discouraging is how lukewarm, compromised, and moribund the Western church has become. The culture has become more secular and young people have been leaving their faith—at least their churches—in droves. Those who remain are caught between factions of cultural compromise and political captivity. It is tempting to pay more attention to my prostate than prayer.

But our grandchildren can, or at least should, awaken us from despair and cynicism. It is, perhaps, one the reasons people my age vote in larger numbers than young adults. It may be the reason so many retirees have (almost) a second career as volunteers in local organizations and can be seen cleaning up roadsides and parks.

Of course, one need not have grandchildren to care about the future generations, but it certainly helps. I would argue that it helps civilization stay civil. It helps us resist the temptation to secure our retirement and let the world go to hell on skateboards.  There are, of course, grandparents who essentially drop out and live for themselves. Some can be found at casinos pumping their retirement into slot machines. And certainly, the mobility of American society has made it easier to not think about grandchildren who may live hundreds or thousands of miles away.

But distance need not harden our hearts. During a visit to Dylan and Vanessa in Olathe, Kansas, my grand-daughter, Khloe, jumped into my arms and exclaimed, “Papa!” That is all it took to capture my heart forever. When my son Claude and his wife Katie brought their family from Illinois to Oregon for a visit, I got to see grandkids I had not been with much. As we went for walk around the neighborhood, Riyadh slipped his hand in mine. That was all it took. His trust moved me profoundly. I was not in that moment not just committed to him, but to the future.

Having grandchildren makes people more conservative, but in ways more fundamental than political. Grandparents have often lived long enough to identify what things in life are precious and ought to be conserved. This might be a river clean enough to swim in or a park safe enough play in. In our old age and even in our travels, whether we are liberal or conservative, we have arrived at a ragged patriotism that celebrates what is good about the country. Depending on the issue, grandparent activism may be liberal or conservative, but it is often more pragmatic than utopian. It seeks to preserve and conserve the common good. 

Grandchildren save the world by softening and reviving the hearts of their grandparents. They move us to care about a future that is not ours.  We are moved to leave behind a better world. They give us the strength to reject despair, and in their gentle eyes we rediscover a reason to hope. Grandkids give us another reason to persevere in doing good, loving justice, and walking humbly with our God. They save us—or at least me.    

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