The Jonah Experiment and Unexpected U-Turns

The Jonah Experiment and Unexpected U-Turns

Some of life’s rawest moments lie within the slip.  The slip through the bloodied messy passage of the birth canal  as new life emerges underscores the whispered rasp as the last breath fades to release the soul into the cradle of death.

When numbness is raw…

17109860 - prison window. freedom conceptFor anyone who has experienced life come and go, the mystery of joy and pain is never more present than what is experienced in these moments.  When my mother passed away, the numbness which shrouded the first moments of disbelief gave way to pain and lots of questions.  But in America, time spent with reconcilling death is not an expedient option.  Burials are expensive and must be conducted quickly. Unlike the African tradition where time spent in palpable grief is thought to ease the transition. Which was why my grief was quickly swallowed into a whirlwind of urgent activities.  So much to be done, so many arrangements and considerations…so many to inform.  I could not reach out to everyone who needed to know.  My voicemail messages filled up as I filtered them through a sieve of who I had the strength to talk to that day.

Seeking help…

So when a friend offered to help spread the word to a church we had attended as a family for many years, I was grateful to catch a break.  That was one burden lifted – a group that would be informed with a note or  maybe a notation on a bulletin or whatever churches do to inform the members that someone they knew had died.

Except there was one problem.  Although Mom had been a member and served in various capacities for many years, when our family left to attend a church closer to home, she reluctantly joined us.  However she maintained relationship and prayer circles with members of the congregation till the end of her life.  So when our friend returned to inform me that the answer was ‘NO’,  – at first I scrambled to figure out what was being referenced.  My world had become warped by grief and the busyness that surrounds figuring out so much of what accompanies the business of death in America.

When ‘No’ is official policy…

As the mist lifted, I heard the words clearly – NO, the church will not honor your request to provide any information about your Mother’s passing.  You left the church.  They don’t provide that information about people who are no longer members.  It’s their policy.  My heart struggled to keep pace with the information – we were not asking for money, flowers or a card. Simply a notification to those who knew her, that their friend and prayer partner had gone to be with Jesus.  I was stunned, shocked and angry!  Where was the NO when we had attended the church for special occasions and made offerings after we had left?  Where was the NO when the same church made exceptions for high-profile funerals at their facility?

Remembering Jonah…

It would take time to absorb the incredulity of that experience.  Except God has a way of working through the threads of the heart in remarkable ways.  Remember Jonah?  That was the question that pressed urgently into my heart as I prepared for devotional meditation nearly a year after the funeral rites.  I hadn’t planned on studying the story of Jonah that morning, but of course I remembered Jonah.  My remembrance was specifically brought to bear about an incident at the end of the book (Jonah 4: 1-11) during which a reluctant Jonah, having delivered his message of destruction to what he felt sure was a damned city, went outside the city to watch and wait for the judgement which he was sure God was going to rain down on the sinful city of Ninevah.

Pondering fate…

While pondering the gruesome fate he anticipated witnessing, God allowed a vine to grow up so swiftly, that in hours it was large enough to provide shade from the blistering heat.  A grateful Jonah acknowledged this providential blessing presumably for a job well done!  However the next day, an ugly and ferociously hungry worm ate up his plant umbrella and, along with a scorching wind, withered his shade plant to a crisp nearly as quickly as it had grown into being.  And Jonah was angry!  Angry that he was being punished while the sinful city of Ninevah was still very much alive and well due to a last-minute mass repentance by just about everyone.

As I thought about the story, the Holy Spirit spoke to me and said,

‘So, why are you being like Jonah?  I allowed that church to be a blessing to your family and your mom in many ways.  When your son was very ill, a Pastor from that church prayed for you and your family.  If another pastor from the same church determines that you are not eligible for any consideration during this current situation, what is that to you?  Do you have the right to label an entire church and my children whom I love because of the actions of a few?  I raised up a vine for you (which like Jonah, you had no rights to), if I choose to allow it to be taken down – what is that to you?  You didn’t create or pay for my grace.  Nor do you have a right to determine when, how or to whom my grace will be extended next.”

When rebuke is a stern grace…

Sometimes, the stern rebuke of God is a gift.  Self-pity and offense are easily justified, but they mask a trap designed to entrap and deplete life; especially potent when the object of our wrath seems justified. God reminds Jonah of his hypocrisy in appreciating the grace of some shade which he had nothing to do with, but being incensed at the grace that God was willing to give to Ninevah.

Breaking brass and cutting iron…

The Psalmist references in Psalms 107: 15-16 NASB the following:

“Let them give thanks to the Lord for his loving kindness, And his wonders for the sons of men. For he has shattered the gates of brass, And cut the bars of iron asunder.  Fools because of their rebellious ways and because of their iniquities were afflicted.”

I realised that almost a year had passed, and I was nursing a smoldering flame against ‘those people at that church‘.  Yet God’s grace had framed so many gifts of compassion, support and love in many unanticipated and unexpected ways.  Prayer support, comfort, encouragement and financial assistance were gifted to our family by so many and included individuals from that church.   It was absolutely time to allow his grace to shatter the gates of brass and to cut the bars of iron asunder that I had allowed to imprison my heart.  Inexplicably, the story of Jonah resonated in a different way.

You see, offenses in life are guaranteed.  Choosing to be offended is not. It’s not easy to forgive.  But it is better than living behind the brass gates of unforgiveness and the iron bars of bitterness.

image credit 123rf

 

The Syndrome of Unfriendly Friends

6974974_sThe term ‘friend’ has been redefined.  So has the word ‘follower’.  Words which used to resonate with richness and endearment have been neutered to a very shallow depth.  How can one have thousands of ‘friends’?  It is not possible, nor healthy.

Yet competitive instincts and desire for perceived popularity drive us to seek, accept and in some cases even buy friends and followers.  While social media is by definition a world which is not real, the issue of friendship is one which cuts deeply into the psyche of what it means to live in relationship with other human beings.

Wounds in the house of a friend...

Zechariah 13:6 says, “And one shall say unto him, What are these wounds in thine hands? Then he shall answer, Those with which I was wounded in the house of my friends.”

The above passage speaks to the deception of the false prophets and the judgement of God against deception and hypocrisy.  The prophet was supposed to be someone who spoke God’s truth, a trustworthy representative of the Almighty.  But the office and responsibility had become so watered down that prophets were lying and deceiving people in idol worship to such a degree that the term ‘prophet’ was in reality a misnomer.

Unfriendly friends are friends who are not true supporters.  They may appear to encourage and like you, but the real goal is far more insidious.  Unfriendly friends are users, not givers.  They are also thieves who will steal your resources, time, money, influence and even reputation if provided with the opportunity.  In short, they are not friends at all, but rather the opposite.

Because we live in an increasingly confused world in which orange is the new black and right and wrong are increasingly in doubt – for many, it can be difficult to discern who an unfriendly friend is.

True friends support each other in integrity.  A true friend is not malicious or secretly envious of another’s possessions, popularity or progress.  A real friend is there when things go south and rejoices with you in victory.  Friendship requires a willingness to fiercely protect even when that requires the tough truth.

Proverbs 27:6 Wounds from someone who loves are trustworthy, but kisses from an enemy speak volumes

The Bible says that wounds from a true friend can be trusted.   When we meander off the road into the wasteland of pretense and hypocrisy, the pain of broken relationships may be God’s way of helping us to take stock of who we engage with – causing us to ask deliberate, necessary and sometimes painful questions.

Firewalking…

Love NoteFirewalking is the act of walking over a bed of hot embers or stones. It is a practice that has existed for thousands of years. It was certainly a part of the broader ancient culture in Biblical times.

In Isaiah 43:2 the prophet gave the people of Israel some pointed words of encouragement. He said: “When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee: when thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned; neither shall the flame kindle upon thee.”

Most of us don’t relish the prospect of putting the soles of our feet on the top of smoldering red embers, but there is a certain fascination of observing someone walk through fire and emerge apparently unscathed. We wonder…how?

The expectation from the passage above is that we will pass through circumstances which threaten to make us feel as though we are being drowned and walk through situations in life which have the capacity to consume us with the fire of affliction.

But, there is a way of passing through these intrepid dangers which guarantees that the perceived assault will purify and cleanse rather than create unparalled destruction. This is the powerful promise from God which Isaiah references. God promises to be with us. God’s presence with us is the difference because it embodies all that God is. God’s wisdom, God’s protection, God’s love, God’s mercy, God’s kindness, God’s grace, God’s courage, God’s patience, God’s goodness…

However, this is an experienced reality, not simply a matter of mental acquiescence. This does up the ante a little. But when we have walked through stuff, and can look back on God’s grace, it creates in me an overwhelming sense of gratitude and humility about what it means to walk through fire and floods; knowing that there is no way that I can make it. I am simply not strong enough. But with God, all things are possible. And that is enough.

When Love Lets go…

2882672159_97609e4a20_oWhen you love someone enough to let them go, it does not mean that you ignore the pain & suffering that has occurred in the relationship or that you somehow develop amnesia about why it was necessary to part company.

The greatest service we can perform on behalf of someone who has wounded us to to let them ‘go’ and place them in God’s hands. It is not only the safest place to be, but it is the only space in the universe which deals through the hands of justice and mercy exactly what is necessary within the situation.

Even when the process may seem to take years, always remember – God knows, God cares and He will do right by you. Eventually. Always.

Why Giving Up is Not an Option…

The strength of a flower which perfumes the hand which crushes itTwo champions, each a heavy weight legend in their own right faced off in the ring again.  It seemed like a lifetime ago that the world watched the intense spectacle of one man being so enraged at his eminent defeat that he bit into not one, but two ears of his opponent.

The stage this week, was the Oprah Winfrey show where Mike Tyson had bared his soul in an earlier interview about the mistakes and triumphs of his life & explained as best he could, what was going on in his mind during that fight.  His honesty was profoundly captivating.

As Evander Holyfield walked onto the stage, it seemed that the intervening years had been somewhat kinder to him than the tortured existence that Mike Tyson had experienced.  We all held our breath just a little…what would they do.  Afterall, it’s not everyday that one meets on a public forum, the person who undermines the integrity of a harsh and violent sport by literally sinking his teeth into your skin.

It’s easy to watch a show by merely skimming the surface.  But, in some ways, the experience of these fighters is almost impossible for most of us to begin to comprehend.

However,  we can all understand what it means to get up and keep on fighting even after you’re down for the count.  And that’s why on a primal level, many can relate to the sport of boxing.  All of us have experienced a knock-down in life.   Some of us may be there right now.  It’s not easy and never pretty.

But it’s what you do next that matters.  When Tyson recognized that he was not going to win, he struck out and bit his opponent.  His rage blinded him and demeaned his prior accomplishments and then spiraled out of control on a journey that descended into the hell of drugs and prison.

But that crazed individual was not the one on the stage of the show.  Tyson demonstrated that none of us has to stay down, we can choose to get up, own our mistakes, apologize and strive to do better.  Several times during the interview, he choked up with emotion and Oprah captured the intensity of his yearning with a question…”Can you feel the love directed towards you right now?”

It was obviously hard for Tyson to really acknowledge how powerful and affecting this new round in his life is proving to be.  And his journey has lessons for all of us.  None of us gets to exit life without failure.  We will all participate in things we are not proud of.  That’s simply the essential nature of sin.

However, we can choose to get up and keep on going.  And we may be surprised like Tyson was to find out that support may come to us from unexpected places as we humble ourselves and admit to a cry for assistance.

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Love Lessons @ The School of Hard Knocks…

“Love is Not Proud

Resumés are interesting.  I’m not a HR professional, but I’ve had the experience of sifting through resumes trying to find an appropriate hire.  Sometimes, it feels like cracking a mystery code.

Looking at the nicely typed sheet of paper (or more commonly these days, e-mail),  it’s a challenge to discern what really motivates an individual.  Why did they apply for the job?  What sort of contribution will they be able to make?  Are they telling the truth?

Sometimes, it’s what a resume doesn’t say which is most valuable.  For instance, if there are gaps in the job history or sketchy details, examining these items more closely can yield valuable insight.

One of the most famous resumes in the world is found in the ancient book of Philippians 3: 1-9.  It’s the resume of Paul the Apostle.  Here Paul describes some of his proudest life accomplishments…circumcised on the 8th day, a Hebrew of Hebrews, a Pharisee, as for zeal, persecuting the church.  Whoa…How does one start as a Hebrew of Hebrews and then end up actively pursuing innocent people to put them in prison or kill them in the name of God?

Our weekly study on 1 Corinthians 13, the Love Chapter focuses our attention on the nature of Pride & Arrogance.  Here’s a question.  Is Pride always ugly? Can we instantly recognize the hazard for what it is?  And when we become depraved, when does the slide down towards hellish elements of our human nature start?

Can this downward descent within our moral/spiritual sensibility occur even while we are completely unaware…thinking that things are actually doing pretty good,  patting ourselves on the back for our accomplishments, pedigree, education, talents etc; not recognizing how indebted we are to the grace of God and to the contributions of others.  Becoming numbly blind to the remarkable coincidences and opportunities that we have been given?  And, perhaps more importantly, now knowing how close we stand on the precipice of a certain type of destruction?

Paul ( who was previously known as Saul)  had to be knocked of his high horse (literally) and blinded for 3 days before he became fully aware of far his heart had strayed and how craven his base instincts had become.  (Acts 9:3-17)

At the end of this experience with a revelation of the risen Lord Jesus Christ, the Apostle now enlightened by the presence of the Holy Spirit has a very different view of his lofty resume…he counts all the “stuff” as dung.

But gaining that perspective was a process aided by humility; one of the greatest lessons learned in the School of Hard Knocks.  And as Paul describes it in Philippians, these lessons changed how he judged the process of accomplishment.

Instead of aiming for glory, Paul emerged wanting to understand what is was to suffer the process of refinement to such a degree that it resulted in a Resurrection.  A new life freed from the petty boundaries which hinder so much of what God truly desires for us to become.

Love…In Defense of Itself or not.

first-spring-blushI’ve been thinking about tomorrow’s lesson. It’s been a couple of weeks since our last meeting as a group.

This week’s lesson is supposed to be about jealousy. We’re starting to delve more deeply into what love is NOT…

It strikes me that there is a central theme inherent in how 1 Corinthians describes what love is not. And it can be summed up in 3 letters. Ego.

Love is not about…

 

deflating another’s accomplishments or traits to enhance my own = envy

wanting what belongs to another = jealousy

puffing myself up to feel better = boasting

thinking myself better than others = pride

looking out only for my own interests = selfishness

All these types of activities fan the flame which guards the throne of our ego. They are a natural aspect of human nature when it operates with it’s baser instincts. At anytime in which these instincts inform our actions, intentions and motives…we are walking somewhere outside the sphere of true love.

One might actually conclude from looking at the list above that the manner in which love defines the defense of self is NOT to defend the egoic self at all. In fact, true love seems to require us to do just the opposite.

But does that mean that love weakens into a mushy sentiment devoid of any timber or fiber? Absolutely not! Infact, love is a strong defense; but in a way which turns ego on it’s head. Do you know the mystery of love’s defense? Have you witnessed the transforming power in your own life?

The Grey Life in Fast Forward…

Isn’t the principle inhibitor on our effectiveness, the fact that we’re dealing with a fiction?  George Will on the ABC News Program, ‘This Week’ April 5, 2009.

 

Have you ever seen a person without the artfully applied layer of make-up that so many have become so skilled in applying and not recognized them without the mask?  Some celebrities are known to use the unlikely cover of no make-up to appear incognito in public.

Interesting thought…especially within the context of a discussion about love.  When love is artificial, does it count as love?  Can we divorce love from the reality of truth?

This is the question we wrestled with in group discussion this morning. Aided by a revealing section on love from the book, ‘The Spirit of Truth’ by Arthur Katz and Paul Volk; we had a discussion about how Christian communication often obscures the truth about who we are and what we really feel.  The authors have this to say about the resultant emptiness in life…

“We give each other bear hugs and say “God bless you” to one another, calling that love, and then go on pretending that all is well when all is not well.  The gnawing hunger in our hearts persists.  We begin by insulating ourselves from truth in order to protect ourselves.  But we end by insulating ourselves from love.

Wow, pretty potent stuff.   In our search for true acceptance,  the denial of truth costs us what we so desperately crave and long for.  Love cannot be divorced from truth, nor will it flourish in an atmosphere which celebrates unreality, whether that fiction exits on a movie screen, within a relationship or in a house of worship.

Peter was very clear about the implications of being deluded by the lie that true love can exist apart from truth.  Afterall, he experienced the limitation of his love and commitment to the Savior first hand and was challenged by Jesus about what was really in his heart when Jesus asked him several times about if he loved him.  (John 21: 16-18)

When you think of what Peter went through and how that loving confrontation must have deeply impacted his heart, you see this instruction in one of his letters to the early church in a new light…

1 Peter 1:22 KJV  “Seeing ye have purified your souls in obeying the truth through the Spirit unto unfeigned love of the brethren, see that ye love one another with a pure heart fervently.”

Jesus is clear about the life he intends to give us.  It is abundant life, free and deeply grounded in truth.  In our search for love without the truth, we condemn ourselves to a grey life; one which is in fast forward but devoid of the rich vitality which we long for.

Love…When Patience Shows Up with A Dirty Face.

Patience is a virtue…Virtue is a grace…Grace is the little girl who didn’t wash her face.

That little ditty is childish, but I remember it because of its incongruity.  The high minded elements of virtue somehow seem at odds with the picture of a little kid with a face covered by dirty smudge marks.

I‘ll be the first to admit, that Patience has not been a virtue which I’ve eagerly sought.  And to be frank, there’s precious little in my modern world which actively supports a drive to learn more about this character trait.

My world, as is your, is fueled in large degree by human impatience.  Food is nuked in the microwave to speed up the cooking process.  Dial-up service has been replaced by DSL for computers.  Cooking is something that many no longer do simply because it takes time.

But, what are we using this extra time to actually do?   Studies show that the average person spends at least 5 hours a day in leisure including approximately 2.7 hours watching images racing across a TV screen.  This was in contrast to the amount of time (1.1 hours) spent reading a book and 46 minutes per day spent on providing primary care to children between the ages of 6 – 17.  (Primary care was defined as primary activity done with children such as reading to them or taking physical care of them)

So, why is it that patience is something we struggle with so much?  Perhaps because we instinctively know that it’s hard…really hard work to develop this character trait.  It’s certainly not ingrained in our human nature.  Witness the loud wails of a newborn when mom delays a meal for a minute.

Yet, 1 Corinthians 13 starts off it’s description of Love by telling us that this is precisely what Love is.   Love is Patient! In fact you could group the first two descriptive traits about love together in a fashion.  Like two sides of the same coin…patience is the passive component of love while  kindness might be thought of as love in action.

Patience is the inner resilience which does not strike back in the face of antagonistic behavior.  It’s the unique ability within love to wait through the discomfort that is an on-going part of human interaction and support the other individual with grace and dignity even when their actions offend.

It is indeed a virtue which is developed in us through the ongoing grace of God’s work in our lives precisely through circumstances which tempt us to be impatient.  I think where the ditty goes awry is in the descriptive of grace…but perhaps not as awfully as one might first suspect.

Because it is God’s grace in our lives, despite our uncleanliness, ugliness and selfishness which most exemplifies His love and patience towards us.  In many ways, we are like ‘Grace’…the little girl with an unwashed face whom the Father loves unconditionally.  Not because she’s perfect and all cleaned up…but precisely because she isn’t.  And for that…I remain grateful.

 

Picture courtesy of Mexikids on Flickr w/Creative Commons