The He[art] of Reconciliation

502155-iStock-176884046I didn’t expect for last week’s post to have a “part 2”, but apparently God wasn’t done teaching me through my empty tank situation. If you haven’t read about that, read the post right before this one. Then meet me back here.

You good? Okay.

On my way to work yesterday, I was just rolling along thinking about stuff that I can’t even recall right now. My mind zips from one thing to another but it likely had something to do with students or student ministry or my wife or Chipotle or ducks or who knows what.

So a week ago I was driving to work and knew that I knew that I was going to run out of gas. It was just a matter of how far I’d have to walk when it inevitably happened. And here I was yesterday on my way to work; same road, same route, same minivan, same time, same everything. And on this winding, woodsy road I see up ahead a car that seems to be stopped dead. I slowed down to see a man emerge from the driver’s side, notice I was there and began pushing his car forward.  Yep. You guessed it. He had run out of gas.

I’m not a “favorites” kind of guy except for when it comes to things like books, movies, tv shows, restaurants, smells, shoes, toothpastes, cheeseburgers, music, and my children. But I will say this: One of my favorite passages in the bible is 2 Corinthians 5:18-19…

“All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them.
And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.”

I quickly surmised that this guy was out of gas, so I pulled up next to him (now in the wrong lane on this narrow 2 lane road) and asked the obvious question: “You outta gas?” “Yeah.” was the reply. I continued, “Let me pull onto that side street and I’ll help you.”

As quickly and safely as I could, I got my car out of the way and then ran back to the rear of his car, leaned all my weight into thousands of pounds of metal, and together we began to roll that dead weight forward.  All the while I’m thinking, “I’m gonna feel this tomorrow.”

We got his car onto a side road and I offered him a ride to the gas station. Yep, the same one my van somehow mysteriously made it to just a week before. He gladly accepted and off we went. He ran in and out quickly with a small gas can he had bought and quickly filled it up. Hopped back in to my van and within a couple minutes was pouring that sweet sweet gasoline into his vehicle. He thanked me profusely while reaching into his pocket to pull out what appeared to be 2 or 3 dollar bills. He said, “I don’t have much, but—”  I shushed him and with a smile assured him I didn’t want anything from him.  I said, “I’m happy to help. That could’ve been me just last week.”

And as I said goodbye to my new friend Arturo, I thought about what God has saved me for. And us for. And why it is we’re here and not there with Him. I stand on the conviction that God has saved us to serve. We’re forgiven for giving. We’re reconciled to carry out the ministry of reconciliation.

Once again, so thankful that God has given me another chance to see Him move. Thankful for that fact that God has reconciled this wretched man and calls me His. And so very thankful for the ongoing opportunities to love.

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I got here on prayer.

overhead woodsI sometimes forget things. Important things. Things that could have a pretty severe impact on my day. Things like putting gas in my car. Today was that day.

I vaguely recall looking at the gas gauge yesterday thinking, “Oh yeah, I should get some gas soon.” When I got into my ride this morning, there it was: a gauge that was not too happy with me and my “I’ll do that later” lackadaisical attitude.

I had to get my two high schoolers to school (like I do every morning) and then I could see to the urgent gasoline matter I was facing. And as I was turning into the school drop-off area, I got a sinking feeling. “Uh oh. This is going to be close.”

Thankfully I got them dropped off with no hint of distress or the quietly emergent situation developing. I was still a handful of miles from the gas station that was thankfully on my way to work, so I began my mental preparation of what I would do when the seemingly inevitable run-out happened. The road to work is woodsy, and windy, and normally wonderful. But today it felt more like a labyrinth with no cheese; each curve taunting me that there were a dozen more of its cousins I still had to survive.

Once I mentally settled on a lovely morning walk along a windy, dangerous, shoulderless road in order to purchase a gas can and then fill it with gas before walking back to my sad van, I simply leaned into a simple conversation with God.

I know its not uncommon to treat prayer like a spiritual flare gun, firing it off when all other options have been exhausted. But this talk was more along the lines of knowing that God knows exactly where I am and exactly what I’m facing and exactly what I need.

Maybe you didn’t face the dreaded “E” this morning with your gas tank. But I know for sure that you need to hear that last sentence: God knows exactly where you are, and exactly what you’re facing, and exactly what you need.

So my talk with God wasn’t “if you’ll just get me out of this mess, I’ll do anything” kind of talk. It was rather a trade that He invites us to make every single day. You submit your problems, trials, stresses, and empty tank, and He supplies His peace. Its a crazy offer we’d be crazy to pass up.

Before I knew, my rickety old van rolled into the gas station and I turned it off with a gratitude not only that I had made it and didn’t have to risk life and limb on a walk to the gas station, but that I had been given the opportunity to be reminded that no matter where we are, no matter what the gas gauge reads, we are held within His hand.

Retreat Debrief

I thought it only appropriate to double back and review our fall retreat for high schoolers that happened this past weekend. Warning: Full disclosure/honesty ahead.

First of all, I really do love fall retreat more than anything else we do throughout the year. I can’t say specifically why that is, but it is. I think it has a lot to do with the overall tone/purpose of the weekend. We build it as highly relational, restful, spiritual, and communal. Because of that, there are prime opportunities to simply sit on a bench swing by a fire while sipping hot chocolate and talking life with a high schooler. You can’t not be refreshed after fall retreat.

When we purposefully enter into a time (even as brief as a weekend) where we are focused on God’s voice and others’ stories in an intentional way, we come away from that with a much stronger sense of who we are based on who God is rather than who we try to be based on who others say we should be. If I can put it this way, students who get away like this come back with a deeper, clearer sense of self as well as the imperative of spiritual community. And by contrast, those who don’t…don’t. At least not in the same way.  I’ve heard it said that a church’s weekly prayer gathering is a good barometer of a church’s spiritual health. And for better or for worse, I think there’s a similar metric with our fall retreat. I gauge much of what I consider spiritual hunger/growth on who and how many I see coming away for a time like this. And just being transparent here…this year’s group was our smallest one in recent history at 28.

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We spent the weekend gathering around a few different truths. We had 4 “sessions” together and there were 4 statements that encapsulate each of those sessions:

Session 1: “Come Away”: Mark 6:31…. “The investment of conversation you place in a relationship is a very accurate measure of the importance you place on that relationship as well as the consequential health of that relationship.”

Session 2: “For the Mems”: 1 Cor. 9:19-23… “If you want your life to mean something, do something that actually has meaning.”

Session 3: “Unrivaled Love Deserves an Undivided Heart”: John 17:20-21 & Psalm 86:11… “When we are willing to take up our cross, we agree with Jesus that our mission is to love as he loved, to serve as he served, to share as he shared, and to be willing to die before we would turn our back on our Savior. This is revolutionary. This is the most revolutionary life you can live.”

Session 4: “You Share What You Love”: Psalm 96:2-4 & 1 Peter 3:15-16… “It is such a powerful thing to realize that your story interacts and intersects with my story and his story and her story; that God can use your life as an eternal impact on the lives of those around you if you’ll let Him.”

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Every indication is that fall retreat absolutely nailed its purpose. Students came away refreshed, connected, challenged, and encouraged. I’m doing all I can to help students see and take next steps, but much/most of that is the Holy Spirit’s work in each individual. All in all, fantastic weekend retreat. To those who prayed, I can’t simply thank you enough!

Anytime I post to this blog, I always wonder what readers think. And maybe you didn’t go on this retreat–maybe you’ve never been away like that. But what are the most restful, recharging activities you engage in; what is it that is spiritually rejuvenating to you? What more than anything else draws you close to Christ and re-calibrates your heart to His?

“Pretreat”

hammock heavenNext weekend I’ll be heading to our annual fall retreat with some of our high school students. It promises to be an amazing weekend. Despite the fact that our numbers are less-than-stellar at the moment, and that I don’t think they’ve ever been at this point within 2 weeks of launch, I’m still thrilled to get away. Or as the invitation has gone out: “Come away.”

But in the pace of the average high school student who seldom thinks past the next half hour, even an annual retreat can sneak up–on all of us. But not this time. I can see it coming and I’m looking it dead in eye. And honestly, I couldn’t be more filled with anticipation. Our group needs this time. Friendships need this time. Our leaders need this time. I need this time.

So I want to make the most of a weekend; what amounts to less than 48 hours. In order to do that, here are the thoughts I’m focusing on…

  1. Expectation. What we expect is usually what we experience. I can’t lead students into a sense of wonder and expectation unless I’m already swimming in it. Am I even paying attention to God right now? What He’s doing? What He’s saying? Where He’s leading? Who He is calling me to see and to serve? God, don’t let my expectation be anything but representative of the fact that my heart knows You, needs You, and will be refreshed beyond measure as I meet you for a specially divined appointment.
  2. De-cluttering. Assessing in ministry and assessing in life can be tackled by wrestling with one question: What am I doing that isn’t making a difference? Routine can help us in building stability, but it can also create blinders that stop us from seeing where we’re spinning our wheels. This isn’t just about schedule or calendar, this goes for our minds and hearts too. What has taken up residence in my mind that has become a drain on my energy without contributing, like a tenant that isn’t paying rent? God, show me what I’ve allowed to take root in my mind and heart that isn’t growing me closer to you.
  3. Gratefulness. I’ve found that little else does what genuine gratefulness does. Gratefulness is our message to God to that see what He’s done (no matter if you directly benefit or not) and it also puts you in a place of receptiveness and awareness for seeing more of what God is doing. And the beat goes on. God, bring my heart back to a place of sheer thankfulness for all You are and all You’ve done. 

2017-hs-fall-retreat-group.jpgIf retreat really is a respite from routine, an oasis in an overstimulated desert, and an appointment with the Almighty, then I don’t want to do anything but drink in every ounce. Even as I seek to minister to students and leaders, I get recharged and refreshed in the process.

So as we gear up for a weekend of laughter, friendships, activities, outdoors, worship, listening, teaching, sharing, eating, and resting, we’re ready for all that’s in store.

An Incomplete Thesis on Love, Its Impact, & Identity

The most impact-full relationship in your life is the one in which you have received the most love, and is likely the one in which you have given the most love. Likewise, the most damaging relationship in your life is the one in which love should have been given and either wasn’t or you were given some damaging counterfeit. I’ll venture a guess that you’re carrying scars from that even today.

Since the beginning of history; the creation of time and space–we can look back and see that love is the one thing we crave, the thing we are fascinated by, the thing we are shaped by, the thing that motivates us, its what directs our decisions, the thing we can’t seem to get enough of, and the thing science alone can’t explain. When its absent, it doesn’t matter what else we have and when its present, it doesn’t matter what else we don’t have. We write poetry seeking to convey its ferocity, we pen music seeking to herald its message. Name 5 songs right now that have to do with love. I bet its easy to do. The Beatles told us its all we need. Lenny Kravitz exhorted us to let it rule. And the Captain and Tennille claim its what will keep us together.

Imagine a world where every single person were motivated first by love for those around them. Can you even fathom what grocery stores would look like, what traffic would look like, or what Black Friday would look like? You’d never see another homeless person. Just imagine your life motivated by a love for humans. All humans. (If you claim to follow Jesus, you’d better view that as your marching orders. Because it is.)

I was recently reminded that there is nothing–absolutely nothing–stronger than love. I’m not being romantic here. I’m being logical and factual. You simply cannot come up with any scenario in which love does not have the ability to win the day. No matter what evil may befall or what struggles come against us, any move love makes equates to automatic victory. And while many people have a personal definition of love that by default has a slanted personal agenda, let me remind us of what love actually is:

“Love is patient. Love is kind. Its does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.”
1 Corinthians 13:4-8

While many humans choose to create their own definition of love, there is an actual definition of love that we would all do well to see, receive, and embrace. Otherwise, we are like actors in the same play reading from a different script or players on a field using a variety of playbooks. We as humans can’t hope to move forward until we embrace what love actually is.

12547692_VAI’ve spent the past week in Clendenin, WV seeking to help and bless a community ravaged (and I do mean ravaged) by the flood of 2016. It was called the “Thousand Year Flood”.  All the media trucks and news reporters have long gone home, but this town remains decimated by what these flood waters did. I marveled as I listened to story after story of the townspeople explaining to me the devastation of the flood waters. I saw firsthand the absolute obliteration of a once thriving neighborhood. I saw a completely empty lot as the words “A church once stood there.” fell on my ears. I sat on a bench listening to a man named Stanley retell the story of the flood, pointing to a 12 foot tall lamppost on the corner down the road with a clock on top of it, telling me the water was just up to the clock. I stood in a church sanctuary while a member of the church pointed up to the balcony 15 over our heads and said people were trapped in that balcony for days because the water was that high.

And it was during this week that I was reminded that love is the strongest and will always win the day. We can’t make the jump to say that love makes problems disappear, but we can say with all confidence that love helps us put problems in a proper perspective. Knowing I’m loved by my kids is jet fuel to my passion for living. Knowing I’m loved by my wife is like the oxygen my blood needs to flow. And knowing I’m loved by God is the very reason I exist.

As powerful and transformational as love is in our lives, love was not and cannot be created. We know this because 1 John 4:7-8 tells us what (who really) love is:

“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because GOD IS LOVE.” 

I’d encourage you to read that entire chapter, but those two verses right there speak to us about the identity of love and thus the origin of the love we experience. Any act of love is a reflection of God who IS love. And no matter what I may face in my life; even to the point of facing martyrdom for Christ, I can die victoriously in love knowing that no amount of evil or darkness can overcome love. Not because of what it can do, but because of Who it is.

“If only…”

If OnlyWe’re a backwards facing people. The average person lives their life walking backwards. We pay far more attention to the past than we do to the present or the future. Let’s just admit it. We’re backwards.

At this point in my life, I’m keenly aware that I am prone to be fixated with the rear view mirror. I very often catch myself thinking about what happened a half hour ago, a day ago, a week ago, several years ago. And I admit that when I do, I think “If only…” thoughts. “If I had only said that.” “If I had only done that.” “If I had only planned better.” “If I had only kept my mouth shut.”  Can you relate?

There’s a well known story in the bible of a man named Lazarus who was sick. His sisters Mary and Martha were there with him, but Jesus wasn’t. We know however that Jesus “loved Lazarus” so they sent word to Jesus that Lazarus was sick (and presumably near death) and eventually Jesus made his way to Bethany where Lazarus and his sisters lived. (You can read the whole story in John 11.)

But Jesus was too late. In fact, when he got word that Lazarus was sick, He even said, “This sickness will not end in death.”  And Jesus was wrong.  Lazarus died soon after.

Jesus stayed where he was for a couple more days before heading to Bethany where Lazarus had lived. On his way, He told His disciples that Lazarus had in fact died.

So many things in this story are baffling to me, but something was said in the context of this story that I think epitomizes how I live and maybe…just maybe…how you live too.

Okay, so let’s picture Jesus and His entourage entering the town of Bethany. Lazarus had died and mourners had gathered. We soon find out that Lazarus had died 4 days prior to Jesus’ arrival. And as he arrives, Martha goes out to meet him and says the words I want to focus on:

“Lord, if only you had been here my brother would not have died.”

That statement speaks so loudly of two of Martha’s convictions: 1) that Jesus had the power to heal her brother, and 2) that Jesus let her down by not being there.

“If only” is how a lot of us live our lives. We continually evaluate what was and all too often allow it to tell us what will be. “If only” keeps us imprisoned in past events, past mistakes, past missed opportunities.

I look back a lot and wonder about when I took that right instead of that left. When I had that chance and I didn’t take it. When it seemed like a door stood in front of me and I just stared at it.

Satan will use “If only…” if you let him. Given his way, he’d prefer that you aren’t ever a forward-facing person again. As long as you’re facing backwards and making “If only” statements, you’re not facing forward and being led by God in what IS and into what will be.

So, how do we turn around? How do we live a life that gives the past its due, but not more than it deserves? A few things come to mind…

  1. Recognize that you’re powerless to change what was. And I know that stinks.
  2. Make any and all amends and reconciliations that you can with whoever lives in those “If only” thoughts with you. If you wronged someone, speak to them. It doesn’t have to be eloquent or polished, but it does have to happen.
  3. Stand on the power of Jesus’ forgiveness; it wipes away the “If onlys” of our past. Nothing else can, so until you know you’re forgiven, you won’t be able to face forward.

I know there’s a lot more to this story (Martha’s next words are so powerful), so read it sometime. And as you do, recognize that the same Jesus who’s with you in this moment sees your past and yet desires most to lead you forward.

When Jesus Stands

 

Throne

I was reading the book of Acts recently. I have read it before, but as I went along and read about the stoning of Stephen in Acts 7, I noticed a detail that had escaped me before…

“Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”

Acts 7:56

These were the words of Stephen as the religious leaders and mob around him had begun to hurl stones at him in order to kill him for the “blasphemous” words he had spoken. And just between you and me, it wasn’t blasphemous. It was true. But as it turns out, they couldn’t handle the truth.

But do you see it? Did it jump out at you like it did at me?

“I see…the Son of Man standing…”

Hold on just one ever-lovin’ minute here.  Jesus is standing.

So what? Who cares?

We learn from Hebrews 1:3 and other references that once Jesus finished His redemptive work on earth He sat down at the right hand of God.  Jesus SAT down.

As in, “have a seat.”  As in “job well done.”  As in “mission accomplished.”  As in “take a load off.” Jesus sat down because quite frankly, He earned it. He was seated comfortably on His throne.

So why would Stephen see Jesus standing? What would cause Jesus to stand up?

File this under “partially substantiated speculation”, but let me share a couple thoughts.

What if Jesus stood knowing Stephen were only moments away from entering his eternal rest; entering Jesus’ very presence? What if Jesus were standing in preparation to “receive” Stephen home with a warm embrace, knowing Stephen were just barely on the other side of the threshold of heaven? Cool thought, right?

But the explanation I like even more is that Jesus’ response to the stoning of Stephen was so strong, so pure, so powerful that He literally had to rise from his throne. Akin to a standing ovation or the type of response that communicates an incredible amount of attention, esteem, and appreciation. Can you imagine living (or dying) in such a way that Jesus rises to His feet to show His approval and love?

Again, this is speculation but I don’t think its without scriptural backing. In the book of Revelation, we see a very tender exchange between Jesus the Lamb and those who had been martyred for their testimony. He seems to have a soft spot in His heart for those who lay down their life for Him. After all, its what He did for them. And you. And me.

Whether a standing Jesus is reserved only for those who lay down their pulse for the gospel, or if we can stir the attention of the Savior by the way we live our daily surrendered lives, it challenges me to love him so fully and serve others so willingly and be prepared to sacrifice so unreservedly that our Savior takes notice.