Of Killer Whales and Alligators

“Are you not thirsty?” said the Lion.
“I’m dying of thirst,” said Jill.
“Then drink,” said the Lion.
“May I—could I—would you mind going away while I do?” said Jill.
The Lion answered this only by a look and a very low growl.  And as Jill gazed at its motionless bulk, she realized that she might as well have asked the whole mountain to move aside for her convenience.
The delicious rippling noise of the stream was driving her nearly frantic.
“Will you promise not to—do anything to me, if I do come?” said Jill.
“I make no promise,” said the Lion.
Jill was so thirsty now that, without noticing it, she had come a step nearer.
“Do you eat girls?” she said.
“I have swallowed up girls and boys, women and men, kings and emperors, cities and realms,” said the Lion.
“I daren’t come and drink,” said Jill.
“Then you will die of thirst,” said the Lion.
“Oh dear!” said Jill, coming another step nearer.  “I suppose I must go and look for another stream then.”
“There is no other stream,” said the Lion. 
    ~C.S. Lewis, The Silver Chair

This summer we are working through the life of Joshua. We are continually brought face to face with the majesty and holiness of God.  This is a God we do not know today, One who is the mighty warrior of Israel, One who requires complete devotion, One who brings down walls and removes nations at his will. Yes, He is the One who swallows up whole realms.

Tillikum at Seaworld Show

Tillikum at Seaworld Show

Moses was warned that no one could see the Lord and live. He was permitted to gaze upon God’s backside, protected by God from seeing His face. I am reminded of the man who hid at SeaWorld in Orlando when the park closed one day in July of 1999. Apparently, this man had seen one of the shows during the day and thought it would be fun to swim with the killer whales that night. No surprise, the next morning he was found at the bottom of the pool.  A marine biologist remarked:

Killer whales play. They are often seen tossing prey around for no apparent reason other than play.

The 12,000lb whale Tillikum mistook the man for a play toy. There is a reason they are called killer whales.  (By the way, the name Tillikum means “Friend” in the Chinook language! This animal killed one of its trainers in 2010.)

In the same, we trivialize encounters with God. We speak of him as our buddy with the familiarity we would speak of the chap next door. Tamed in our imagination, we then wonder why we find it difficult to worship God. We wonder why we do not enjoy and glorify Him. We are the ones missing out

Ask Isaiah. He will tell you that you cannot stand in the presence of God without trembling. The burning angels announced God’s holiness and Isaiah felt the impurity of his sin.  Jeremiah learned that the Lord does with the nations as he pleases.  Paul praised:

Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable his judgments,
and his paths beyond tracing out!
“Who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has been his counselor?”
“Who has ever given to God,
that God should repay them?”
For from him and through him and for him are all things.
To him be the glory forever! Amen.
  — Romans 11

It is from the observation tower of God’s holiness that we experience the terror of being out of our league, over our heads, and in the clouds.  It is also the best vantage point from which to see the wonder of God’s grace.  Here we stand awestruck at the wonder of God’s patience, His mercy, and yes, His love.

Alligator on the Peace River

Alligator on the Peace River

When I was a teenager, my mom took my two brothers and me on an adventure to the west coast of Florida.  We had heard reports that the Peace River was an extraordinary place to find fossils and we were, at the time, collectors.  We found a spot along the river to go into the water with masks and search the bottom. No sooner did we hit the water that we discovered a significant problem with our plan.  Alligators were in residence there.  “Mom, will you keep your eye on the alligators on the bank while we swim?”  This is a question that a mom wants to answer both “yes” and “no.”  Yes, I will watch the gators. But, no, you need to get out of the water. In other words, you need a degree of reverence in keeping with this situation.  None of our explanations (They don’t look hungry. They are not in the water. We can get to shore before they can get to us. They are on the other side.) were acceptable, of course.  The book of Hebrews says it this plainly:

It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. Hebrews 10:31

Yes. It is.  It is when we glimpse God in his holiness that we begin to understand the marvel of grace…that God has come to us in Christ, and that he has come for us.

Daily Grace

The moment you understand that people are not as free as they think they are… you are able to have compassion.  Instead of judging them for doing wrong when they should be doing right, you start developing some sympathy. –Paul Zahl

One of the pillars of grace is the teaching that people do not have free will.  Of course, this sounds blasphemous in a culture that trumpets the utter freedom of the individual, that says, “I am the captain of my fate.” You see, if the will is free, we should not need someone to save us. But, clearly we do.

I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. Romans 7:15, 18

WGThe Apostle Paul confesses the inability to live the life he wants, as hard as he may try. He says, “I can’t bring it about.” Our “un-free” will explains our addictions, our compulsions, and the brokenness that gets the best of us each day.

We hear that our will is not free and our collective roar insists: “If we do not have free will, then we are puppets. We cannot be responsible for our actions.” We need to know that God has not made us puppets. We can’t lay the blame with him. What Paul says is that we do precisely what we want to do.  That is the problem. Our wills are corrupt, unable to choose the good, unable to execute on what often are noble wishes.  Or, as Gerhard Forde says,

We have no remaining choice, not because we are supposedly forced into something, but because we have already made it.

In a sense, our choice was made long ago, and we are simply living out of it every day.  For me, this leads to three implications.  First, there is no room for pride in me (or any of us for that matter). Whatever good we may have results from grace. “Nothing good lives in me.” (Romans 7:18)  Second, this makes room for compassion for others.  It shows us that other people need grace just as we do. How often do we judge others for their weaknesses and criticize them in our hearts? The truth reveals this perspective as the unhealthy and dishonest pride that it is. Third, it changes how we speak to people. Here is Jonathan Wong’s perspective:

The people that fill our pews are in desperate need. They have come because they are “weary and heavy laden” (Matt. 11:28). Yet instead of rest they receive an additional burden of what they ought to do, or be, or become. This is because the preacher assumes that their wills are free, and they assume that the must exercise their free will to help themselves, of course with the help of grace… The reality, however, is that they are sinners whose wills are bound, and they cannot act on the exhortation, because they will not… Therefore the hearers need deliverance, not a helper merely, but a savior.

Are we asking others to do what they cannot do? Are we frustrating and discouraging them rather than sharing the liberating grace of Jesus?  Are we ourselves frustrated for the same reason? Grace is not something we need once. We need grace day in and day out.

In Everything…

16 Rejoice always, 17 pray continually, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. 19 Do not quench the Spirit. 20 Do not treat prophecies with contempt 21 but test them all; hold on to what is good,22 reject every kind of evil. 23 May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24 The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it. 1 Thessalonians 5

One of the signs of grace in our lives is that we notice gifts.  We notice God’s gifts, and we can see the gifts he gives us through people.  I find that there is a gravitational force pulling the spiritual and personal tone of life downward.  It is true: I am known as the guy who whistles as he walks through life. But sometimes, my whistle disguises a deeper and more negative introspection at work in my heart. For hours or sometimes for whole days, I find myself ruminating on the negative. And, negativity has the power of exaggeration.  It causes us to see things worse than they are and it soon begins to color everything we see.

Gratitude unleashes the freedom to live content in the moment, rather than being anxious about the future or regretting the past. –Ellen Vaughn

grateGod challenges me with his grace to see life, all of it, as his loving gift. He pushes me to see grace and to express the fact that I need it. God patiently opens my eyes to see that for which I can be grateful, and the people I can thank him for each day.

  • I am grateful for parents, who raised me in the church, where God pursued me and revealed himself to me.
  • I am grateful for a youth director who looked beyond my pimples and social awkwardness and who affirmed me as a follower of Jesus. Along the way he helped me to see that God had a future for me.
  • I am grateful for a pastor who mentored me, and was persistent with his affirmation.  He valued me when I did not value myself.
  • I am grateful for my wife who stands with me, and sometimes she stands against me when I am not looking or walking in the right direction. I am grateful for her love and patience.
  • Yes, there are so many more people for whom I am grateful: my children, faithful brothers and sisters, gracious friends, and many others. When I think of those who have prayed for me, walked with me, lifted me up, encouraged and challenged me, I cannot think about my life without gratitude.

Gratitude is a vaccine, an antitoxin, and an antiseptic. –John Henry Towett

Here’s what I have learned about gratitude.  First, if you practice it, it will reset the tone of your life.  This is why, I believe, God commands us to give thanks in all circumstances.  We need to see life, even those moments we do not care for, as something for which to be grateful.  Second, gratitude is a small door and relatively easy to open, but it leads into a large and spacious place where life can grow and flourish. Third, of course, it tends to always turn your face toward God, and this is always a good thing.  It helps us to keep our eye on him and to focus on his attributes of love and faithfulness.  It is then that we remember that our lives are all of grace.

Alongside

When Job’s three friends, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite, heard about all the troubles that had come upon him, they set out from their homes and met together by agreement to go and sympathize with him and comfort him. When they saw him from a distance, they could hardly recognize him; they began to weep aloud, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads. Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was. Job 2:11-13

In his book entitled The Happiest Life, radio personality Hugh Hewitt says there are seven gifts successful people give to others.  One of those gifts is empathy.  Empathy is the ability to come alongside someone who is hurting. As scripture puts it, being able to rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn.  This is what Job’s friends did when calamity struck him.  They showed up and simply sat with him.  There were no pious words, no attempts at explanation.  Their presence said it all: “We are with you and for you.  You are not alone.”

Some people think that those who experience trauma need space to sort things through. Assume the opposite. Most people need presence. –David Brooks

shoulderYes, we need to know we are not alone.  We need to feel love, especially when we are hurting and when words simply won’t help.  As Rabbi Kushner advises:  “Show up and shut up.”  But, empathy costs.  It hurts to be with someone who is hurting.  The sadness hits us when we walk into the hospital to see someone we love.  It feels awkward to make that phone call to someone who has suffered loss. And when we empathize, we are risking the possibility that coming alongside someone will unearth sorrow of our own.

So, why risk?  Simple, empathy is love. It is love in a most basic form.  It is saying, “I put you before me, your encouragement before my safety.”  It shows forth the gospel, Jesus’ determination to be God with us even though he knew it would be the death of him.

…the gift of empathy means a real willingness to go with suffering people wherever they are and walk with them as long as is required, to understand and to patiently endure with them all that their illness or loss entails. –Hugh Hewitt

The Gift of Caring

Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people. Philemon 7

Years ago when I was a struggling young church planter, I received a phone call from my mentor.  Somehow he had managed to get a cassette tape of a message from a wedding I had performed.  It didn’t take him long to get to the purpose of his call. He said that he was delighted to hear the message and quite impressed.  In essence, he called to encourage me.

encourEncouragement.  It is often called the “gift of caring.”  At those times when I was struggling to carry on, or when I felt lost, it was encouragement that kept me focused and positive.   Sometimes encouragement kept me from giving up.

The Apostle Paul was buoyed by the encouragement and love he received from his friend Philemon.  No doubt, long days in prison threatened to push Paul toward depression. But, he had faithful friends who supported him with their love.

The word for encouragement here is scripture means that someone comes alongside of you. This can be in the form of comfort, consolation, or appeal.  It can be an urging forward for someone who is stuck and discouraged.  The person who encourages reminds you of things you have forgotten or helps you to see forward from where you are.

Also, encouragement can happen in little basic in the most simple of encounters.  It is telling the barista, “You are really good at this job.” You can encourage by noticing any job done well or any action deserving recognition and praise.  For this reason, I believe it is a gospel virtue.  Those who live daily in the affirmation of God find it natural to affirm and praise others.  They regularly give the gift of caring.

That phone conversation from my mentor was no isolated event.  His life was one of on-going encouragement.  Some of the letters that I cherish and still keep in my files were ones he sent me, to encourage me.  His encouragement makes me want to extend this grace to others, to give the gift of caring.

I want to run…

Heroes.  I read the story of a hero recently in John Ortberg’s book about Jesus: Who is this Man?.  Dick Hoyt and his wife welcomed their son Richard into the world broken.  The umbilical cord had been wrapped around his neck.  His brain was deprived of oxygen, and he would never walk or even talk.  They took him home with determination to love him and enjoy each day with him.

At age eleven, they took Richard to Tufts University to the engineering department with a request.  They wanted to see if a device could be made so they could communicate with their son. The engineers told the parents that his brain was not capable of communication.  Right then and there, Dick asked them to tell Richard a joke.  When they did, Richard laughed.  They designed a communication button that Richard could bang his head against since that was the only body part he has control over.

The years passed and one day Richard heard about a benefit race being run to help a young man who had been paralyzed.  Richard typed out with his head the message: I want to run.  Now Dick was not in the best shape, but somehow he managed to push his son in a wheelchair and complete the race.  Astonishingly, Richard said: When I ran, I did not feel disabled.

hoytThis spurred his father to run even more.  Dick has since pushed his son those 26.2 miles more than 85 times, and he has pushed, pulled and carried his son through more than 200 triathlons.  Dick got his marathon down almost to 2 ½ hours, just 30 minutes behind the fastest runners in the world.  That’s amazing.  But, what is even more amazing is that when Dick is called a hero, he points to his disabled son and says, He’s the hero.  He’s my inspiration.

When I read this story, I thought of the power of love.  How much a father could love a son and how much our Father loves us.  I thought of the commitment of Jesus to take us in his arms and carry us in all of our brokenness.  I thought that when he is carrying us we don’t feel broken.  We feel whole. I thought:  I want to run.

Missing Jesus

This is far from theology, simply the fact that the poorest little wood-cutter or peasant on the heath or miner can have moments of emotion and inspiration which give him a feeling of an eternal home to which he is near. –Vincent van Gogh

Years ago when Sandy and I were coordinating a summer youth hostel ministry in Europe, one of the missionaries we visited said he was taking us somewhere just north of Paris.  He wanted to surprise us and so he did not reveal our destination.  He drove us to the little town of Auvers-sur-Oise and then to the town cemetery.  He walked us to a plot and pushed away the vines covering much of a stone.  It was the headstone for the grave of Vincent van Gogh.

Vincent-Van-GoghPerhaps, you know much of this man’s story.  Born in the Netherlands, he learned art from a very early age, but painting did not capture his heart.  Jesus did.  He was trained as an evangelist and worked among the poor, the working class. Indeed, he adopted their lifestyle and received criticism from his supervisors for doing so.  He became disillusioned by a church distracted from her mission.  The result was that he lost his mission.

Somewhere along the way, the church had lost her humility.  No longer did she see her mission as to love the poor and share the grace of Jesus.  No longer were her pastors to be among the people.  They were too dignified for that.

Christ labored for thirty years in a humble carpenter’s shop to fulfill God’s will. And God wills that in imitation of Christ, man should live and walk humbly on earth, not reaching for the sky, but bowing to humble things, learning from the gospels to be meek and humble in heart. Vincent van Gogh

I couldn’t help but wonder if the church has always faced this temptation: to turn from the humble love of Christ to other things, from the poor to success, and in the end has lost the glory of Jesus.  This morning I am preaching on James 5, the opening verses of that chapter.  James’ letter almost turns bitter at this point because he sees believers turning away from Jesus and his kingdom to live for the kingdom of this world.  He grieves because they have forgotten Jesus.  I worry as I read the text that the “they” is me.  Our culture of wealth and status remains alluring and enchanting.  My heart can so easily be taken captive by it all.  I need to constantly look at Jesus.

I am still far from what I want to be, but with God’s help I shall succeed.  I want to be bound to Christ with unbreakable bonds and to feel these bonds. –Vincent van Gogh

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