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A Tale of Two Cities

“Be back here by 5:00 so you have time to shower before supper!” Mom exclaimed as my brother Chad and I leapt off the front porch, landed in a leg-extended gait, and sprinted to the barn.

“We will!” we screamed.

The farm had a plethora of exciting adventures in the offing. We could spend countless hours building forts in the hay mow, collecting tadpoles in the ponds of the pastures, sing to the heifers (always a captivating audience no matter how awful the performance), or play in the grove. The grove offered two attractions. We could play in a tactically built treehouse that offered ladders, ropes, and swings or we could venture into the forbidden areas of the grove—a heap of garbage and an old hole under collapsed concrete (The remnants of an underground bunker my uncle Verlyn had accidently bombed from the inside from the fumes of cattails soaked in gasoline). The treehouse was safe and fun, but it lacked some of the adventure and excitement that one could easily encounter in the dangerous bunker or the heap of garbage. While Chad swung from the rope in the treehouse, I ventured over and started sifting through the garbage heap. Chad immediately joined me. It was forbidden; it was unsafe; it could cause injury or even death; it was exciting; it was an adventure! What is it about the human spirit that compels us to abandon the safety of the treehouse for the ambiguity of the garbage heap?

The night before attacking the city of Ai, Joshua chose five thousand of his best fighting men and commanded them to set up a place of ambush between the cities of Ai and Bethel. The next morning, when Joshua attacked the city, he planned to retreat and draw the king of Ai and his army away from the city, so the ambush to the west of the city could attack and overcome the unguarded city. The plan was successful, and Israel conquered the city of Ai and set it ablaze (Joshua 8:1-29).

This isn’t the first time we encountered the city of Ai in Scripture. Only weeks earlier, Joshua and the Israelite army underestimated the power and influence of Ai and they were routed by Ai’s army when they attacked the city (Joshua 7:3-5). Several centuries earlier, Abraham received a call from God to pack up all of his belongings and move to Canaan. Upon arriving in Canaan, Abraham first settled directly between Ai and Bethel—probably the exact same location the five thousand Israelite soldiers lied in ambush the night before the attack of Ai (Genesis 12:8; Joshua 8:9).

It’s peculiar to me that Abraham and the Israelite Army set up camp between Bethel and Ai—not committing to either city. The word Ai means a heap of ruinsand the name “Bethel” means, “The house of God.” Why do we neglect God’s desire to live within our hearts, and instead ogle the heap of runis on the horizon while anticipating the eventual ambush of the city and rummaging through it for treasures? I have to confess, there are several seasons throughout my life where I would rather dwell upon a heap of ruins than allow God to live and thrive within my heart. I fear that God’s presence will drag me down, prevent me from experiencing a life filled with fun and adventure—the life I frequently believe exists upon that heap of ruins.

We often underestimate the power that heap of ruins has over our hearts. God instilled adventure, excitement, love, romance, hope, and joy in every human heart. Like Abraham and the Israelite army, the illusory safety and boredom often associated with the house of God deters us from pitching our tents in Bethel. Instead, we are tempted to camp on the garbage heap of Ai. Often, the dangers and stench that comes from the death and destruction of Ai overcome our hearts, so we set up camp somewhere in between. We don’t commit to either, so we ebb and flow our way in between the life of Bethel and the death of Ai. Where did we go wrong? Who taught us that a life in the Kingdom—a life walking side-by-side with Jesus was uneventful and unsatisfying? Why do we envision a life within the presence of God to be dreadfully boring—lacking in adventure? Why do we perceive a life upon a garbage heap to be exciting and fulfilling? Who planted this notion that Ai was a place of treasure and Bethel a place of misery?

I have my theories. When I hear a boring sermon, endure the judgmental ostracizing from an elderly parishioner in a dying church, or suffer through a barrage of litanies while praying for the end of the service, I get why we avoid Bethel. When I witness people who claim to live in Bethel while spewing racial slurs and following bigots, I camp closer to Ai than Bethel. When the citizens of Ai are kinder, gentler and show more compassion than those in Bethel, I find myself pitching my tent upon the garbage heap.

Unfortunately, these “pseudo-citizens” of Bethel have given it a bad name. Arguably, God can’t dwell in the hearts of judgmental bigots, war-mongers, and merciless savages. Their hatred caused their hearts to harden, thereby impeding the Holy Spirit from finding a home within. True citizens of Bethel experience love, joy, adventure, and the thriving Spirit of God within their hearts. Imposters have prevented us from experiencing the joys of Bethel, thereby sending us to Ai to find an alternative that pales in comparison.

The treehouse in the grove can provide everything our heart desires. Joy, adventure, and true love can be found among its limbs, ladders, and rope swings. My prayer for today is to no longer oscillate between these two cities, and allow God to enter my heart to live in Bethel for eternity.

I want to dedicate this post to my uncle Verlyn—a man of God and true citizen of Bethel. Verlyn Vander Lugt discovered adventure, love, joy, hope, and excitement; not in Ai (a bunker filled with the fumes of gasoline-soaked cattails) but in Bethel (the Holy Spirit living and thriving within his heart).


Achan for More

While living in California, I ached to own a home of my own. I felt like I wasn’t providing for my family. Seeing as the purchase price for a small, two-bedroom bungalow was over $500,000, that dream could never come to fruition…especially if I continued to work for a young Christian publishing company. I often felt sorry for myself and lived in a state of permanent discontent. I coveted what others had and was rarely satisfied or grateful for the many blessings I had already received from God. I had a loving wife and two adorable, healthy children, a career where I could implement my creative gifts every day, incredible friends, and a great little home ten miles from the Pacific Ocean. Yet, I couldn’t cease from coveting the things I didn’t have. I would desire more, recognize the sinfulness within my own discontent, and then hide it deep within my heart. The aftermath was destructive. By internalizing my discontent, I became depressed. My wife, children, friends, and career were deprived of the attention and time they deserved because I was too self-involved. By hiding and internalizing my sin, others suffered.

You would have thought that by moving to Colorado and buying a home, I would no longer covet. That just wasn’t the case. The problem with coveting—and it has been the problem since Eve coveted the forbidden fruit and gave it to Adam—is that once you get what you covet, you end up coveting something else. For several months after my divorce, I would sit in church and watch other couples. I would tear-up as I coveted their lives, their apparent happiness, the love and affection they shared. I coveted nuclear families and the fact that their children would never have to endure the pain of divorce that my children had to endure. Their ostensible functionality made me sick; I even stopped going to church for a while because I couldn’t prevent feeling sorry for myself. I couldn’t circumvent my own sins to focus on the real purpose for being there. Then there was Facebook. Research suggests that social media can be associated with depression. On Facebook, we see these enhanced and premeditated images and status updates of other people’s lives, when quite often they’re far from reality. In fact, the images that ran through my mind at church were most likely false ideals. What happened, though, is I compared my own life to the embellished ideological lives I saw in church or online, and I envied these people while feeling sorry for myself. Once again, I internalized my discontent and began the downward spiral that only lead to darkness and despair.

There was only one solution; one way to escape—one door through which I could discover hope, light, and contentment. I had to repent and ask the Lion of Judah, the one and only Redeemer to remove my discontent from my heart before it forever dominated my existence.

God promised the nation of Israel a beautiful land of their own—a land flowing with milk and honey. By the time the walls of Jericho came tumbling down, that promise was the real deal. The Israelites were at an all-time high; they had everything they could have possibly wanted and more. Like I said before, the problem with wanting, is that once you get what you want, you end up wanting something else. It was during this all-time high where a man named Achan, from the house of Judah, repeated the folly of humankind. Achan wanted something he couldn’t have, so he took it, and then he hid it. Achan’s sin didn’t just harm Achan, it harmed the entire community. Soldiers died, Israel injured her reputation, and Joshua reached his lowest state of desperation. When Achan hid his sin, others suffered. Because Achan caused so much trouble, the Israelites took him, everything he coveted and stole, his sons and daughters, his cattle, donkeys and sheep, his tent and all that he had, stoned him and his family to death and buried them and their possessions under a pile of rocks. Therefore, that place has been called the Valley of Achor (which means “valley of trouble”) ever since (Joshua 7:24-26).

Several years after this rather unfortunate incident, the prophet Hosea wrote, “There I will give her back her vineyards, and will make the Valley of Achor a door of hope. There she will respond as in the days of her youth, as in the day she came up out of Egypt” (Hosea 2:15). Hosea was speaking of a day when we will no longer receive our deserved punishments for our sins. Instead, we will enter a door of hope. We will get to hang out in vineyards, drink wine, and never be discontent again. Hosea was speaking of Jesus. Someday, Hosea promised, another man from the line of Judah will open up a door of hope for all humankind. Where Achan failed, Jesus will succeed. Jesus will provide us with that escape from our downward spirals. Jesus will open that one door through which we can discover hope, light, and contentment. Jesus “will rescue [us] from this body that is subject to death” (Romans 7:24).

I’m relieved I have a Savior. If not, I’d be under a pile of rocks somewhere in East Bellflower, California. I’m not saying I’m completely free from discontent. Unfortunately, the enemy still holds that carrot of coveting out in front of my nose and coerces me into periods of self-pity and envy. Yet, Jesus is always there inside a doorway of hope, welcoming me to enter into his presence and offering me a peace that surpasses all understanding. And instead of aching for more stuff, I’m aching for more Jesus—because our stuff just gets buried with us under a pile of rocks in a valley of trouble.


Walls

A dirt clod tumbled past my hand as it gripped the small protruding root of an old elm tree desperately hanging on to the eroding hillside. I could smell the mouth-watering boneless, rib-eye steaks grilling on a built in BBQ pit just beyond the wall overhead. Like a scene from the ever-popular Looney Tunes cartoons that materialized from the television set in my living room every Saturday morning, the smoke from the BBQ pit formed an upside-down hand with one finger beckoning me to advance up the hill.

“You’re almost there Shawn!” yelled my brother, now standing on a narrow ledge next to a ten-foot, brick wall at the top of the hill. “There’s a tree over here we can use.”

My brother was the first to look over the wall. He climbed the tree and then boosted himself up in order to grab the edge of the wall. Securing a foothold on a small outcropping of mortar in the wall, Chad Vander Lugt peered over into the Promised Land—the home of a wealthy doctor. All we knew of this man was that he drove a Porsche convertible, he never waved to us while we were riding our bikes at the entrance of his private drive, and he didn’t have a lot of hair. His house was amazing though. He had a built in BBQ pit, a crystal blue swimming pool, gorgeous women sun-bathing in bright white bikinis, and two Doberman Pinchers guarding the perimeter of his property—as if the ten-foot wall wasn’t enough. It was like a scene from Magnum P.I.

Chad and Shawn Vander Lugt loved to dream about someday living on the other side of that wall, frolicking in the crystal blue waters of paradise, hosting beautiful models in snow-white bikinis, driving pretentious cars, and treating kids on bicycles like they were beneath us. That was the dream. If only we could overcome the walls that lay before us.

Walls!? I’ve heard a lot of talk about walls lately. From an orange clown on television talking about building an impossible wall between us and our friendly neighbors to the south to my next door neighbor complaining that the wall between him and his neighbor to the east just isn’t tall enough. Why are we constantly talking about building walls when God wants nothing more than to tear them down?

I was seven years old when I dreamed of owning material items and living the life of a pretentious, egotistical doctor. The wall between reality and that dream of wealth and material possessions thankfully no longer exists. However, I still have my fair share of walls…and my loved ones still have their walls as well. For me, the walls I want to overcome are walls of loneliness, walls of not being able to effectively communicate with people I love, walls of past hurts, addictions, and self-destructive tendencies, walls that stand between me and healthy relationships with God, family, friends, and lovers. I don’t want these walls; I want them destroyed. Currently, my amazing mother has a wall standing before her; a wall we all want to come crashing down. How can we destroy these walls that stand between us and the wonders God promises us? How can our wall come crashing down, revealing the paradise that exists on the other side?

After crossing the Jordan River and entering the Promised Land, the largest obstacle standing between the Israelites and their beautiful land was the walled city of Jericho. The walls of Jericho needed to be destroyed along with the city itself in order for the Israelites to fully receive the bounty of God’s promises. Now, they could have tried to breach the city walls conventionally by the use of siege machines, ladders, and fire. But they didn’t. Instead God commanded them to march around the city once with all the armed men for six days. Then, on the seventh day, they were instructed to march around the city seven times, with the priests blowing the trumpets. When they heard the priests blow a long blast on the trumpets, the whole army was to give a loud shout, and then the wall of the city would collapse. The Israelites did exactly as instructed, and when the trumpets sounded, the army shouted, and at the sound of the trumpet, when the men gave a loud shout, the wall collapsed; so everyone charged straight in, and they took the city (Joshua 6).

There are ways to attack my walls conventionally and they’ve proven to be effective. I could seek counseling for the communication problems I possess, I could continue to hop online in order to find a date for next weekend and not be lonely for a couple hours, I could put forth more effort into my relationships in order to connect better with the people I love—and I probably should. My mom could agree to all the treatments recommended by her doctors, undergo chemo therapy, and seek the best medical care available—and she probably should. The Israelites still ran into Jericho and took the city through conventional methods (sword, spear, and dagger). On the other hand, they relied on unconventional methods first…they trusted in God to tear down the wall before them, to breach that which stood in their way, and overcome their major obstacles. Faith in a powerful God is what overcame the walls of Jericho…not their own strengths, tactics, and methodologies. Faith in a powerful God is what will first and foremost tear down the walls that stand between me and the promises of love, companionship, purpose, communication, and joy. Faith in a powerful God is what will first and foremost annihilate the wall of cancer that stands between my mom and recovery. God promises us that, by faith, he will utterly destroy these walls that prevent us from experiencing freedom, and he also promises to provide us with the strength we need to march over the rubble and take the city because “[we] can do all this through him who gives [us] strength” (Philippians 4:13).


When the Manna Runs Out

The sparkling sunlight shimmered and bounced off the swaying leaves of the tall sycamore trees that bordered the long driveway that lead to our small two-bedroom bungalow directly off Park Street in the bustling suburb of Bellflower, California. Hannah strapped on her tiny, Sleeping Beauty bicycle helmet and wrapped her small hand around the left grip of her bicycle’s handlebar. She had a look of apprehension on her face as I maneuvered the wrench to remove the small nut that fastened her final training wheel to the back tire of her bicycle. After removing the training wheels, I stood up, grabbed the back of the seat, and looked up at the sun. The warm Southern California breeze blew through my hair as the hum from the 91 freeway oddly, and somewhat naturally, blended with the rustling of the sycamore leaves. The faint sound of splashing and laughter wafted over the fence from the next-door-neighbor’s children as they joyously played in their above-ground swimming pool.

“I’m not ready for this, Daddy!” exclaimed my innocent daughter still gripping the left grip of her bicycle’s handlebars until her knuckles were depleted of blood and appeared whiter than the never-seen snow of Southern California.

In my most compassionate and empathetic manner, I gently sat my daughter upon her steel steed, painted pink and purple with Disney princesses posing for their ancient cameras. Perhaps this paint job was intended to calm and appease the fears of any four-year-old attempting to ride her bike for the first time without training wheels. The façade of painted princesses on Hannah’s bike couldn’t provide her with any more true courage and necessary bravado than the eagles, skulls, and flames found on Harley Davidsons can for their riders. She needed the assurance from her father that everything was going to be okay. She needed to know that even without training wheels, her dad would still be there to help her, to guide her, and to pick her up if she fell over. We started down the drive and she peddled hard and fast. She was excited while confidence and courage began to course through her veins. I held onto the back of her seat the first time down the drive; and the second time as well. The third time, however, I let go. Hannah peddled and rode with the confidence of a seasoned biker, until she realized I was no longer there behind her—holding her, protecting her, guiding her. She looked back to see her dad standing at the end of the driveway, wearing a smile that stretched from his huge left ear to his enormous right one, and she immediately tumbled to the hard concrete drive. Screams rang out, tears began to fall, and blood began to seep to the surface of her scratched knee.

“You did it! You did it! You rode your bike all by yourself!” I excitingly yelled as I ran to pick up my fallen daughter. “Let’s get you a Band-Aid and do this again! You want to?”

Of course, the Band-Aid was a must. Doing it again was a never. She was done with riding bicycles. Obviously, Hannah was back on her bicycle the next day and riding it without training wheels by the end of the week. She learned how to ride her bicycle without training wheels and she learned how to trust herself and ride with confidence, without the assistance from her father’s hand. She also learned to trust her dad again…even though that took some time. Hannah discovered that her father wanted her to mature to the next level of bicycle riding abilities. Hannah couldn’t discover the wonderment that comes with riding a bicycle through dirt paths or along the Big Thompson River, if she never removed her training wheels. Looking back, Hannah now realizes that her dad wanted her to experience the freedom and joy that comes from riding a bike on her own.

After bandaging up Hannah’s knee and kissing it for good measure, I poured myself a tall glass of lemonade, sat down on my patio in the backyard, and listened to the hypnotic sounds of traffic on the 91-freeway. The hum from the traffic propelled my mind’s eye into a trance and I began to reflect on an important day in my life only eight years earlier. I was restlessly sitting in my car staring at a payphone hanging off the front of an ARCO ampm convenient store in West Pasadena. I had just descended from the high desert into the smog-infested metropolis of the Los Angeles basin only an hour ago, after spending the night at a North Las Vegas Super 8. I was lost…aimlessly lost. The backseat of my Cutlass Supreme was overflowing with my clothes and a futon mattress; the passenger seat was occupied by a full-backed 19-inch television set. In my hands, I thumbed through the listings of apartments and rooms for rent in the Pasadena area. My only form of communication rested in my wallet—a prepaid phone card. I knew I had to connect immediately with the landlords and owners. I had no way for them to return my phone calls, because I wasn’t going to stand by this payphone outside the ARCO all day. I hoped to check into a Holiday Inn Express that evening and could continue to try calling the listings. I hoped and prayed that God would direct and guide me somewhere—it really didn’t matter where—just somewhere to live for the next couple months and I needed a place soon—very soon!

Up to that point, I really didn’t have to worry about my living conditions. There were always people around who could put me up for a couple nights. God always provided for me—whether that be a job, food, or a place to live. At that juncture—at that ARCO—I realized that my Father had removed my training wheels, compassionately and empathetically set me on the seat of my bicycle, started pushing me toward the end of the driveway, and was about to let go. Never before had I felt so helpless, so abandoned, yet so free. Three weeks later, while I was sleeping in my rented bed in my rented room, owned by a very strange couple, I woke to the shaking and trembling of the Joshua Tree earthquake of 1999. A couple books fell from my bookshelf, so I walked over to pick them up. The peculiarity of my surroundings shuddered into the forefront of my mind in the aftermath of the earthquake and the loneliness I had experienced for the past month flooded my consciousness. I lost my composure and fell to the floor. I was wounded, so I screamed, cried, and asked my Father to bandage the scrapes caused by his abandonment. The paradoxical feelings of freedom and desertion confused me and I began to question God’s providence.

How can my God who promised to love, protect, and guide me leave me to fend for myself? How can my God desert me? How can my God forsake me?

After crossing the Jordan and entering the Promised Land, God commanded Joshua to circumcise all the Israelite men, because no one had been circumcised during the 40 years they wandered in the Wilderness. After the men healed, they celebrated the Passover on the 14th day of the month. “The day after the Passover, that very day, they ate some of the produce of the land: unleavened bread and roasted grain. The manna stopped the day after they ate this food from the land; there was no longer any manna for the Israelites, but that year they ate the produce of Canaan” (Joshua 5:11-12).

Suddenly, after spending 40 years in the Wilderness, having everything provided for you, God leaves you to manage on your own. I can imagine the people of Israel experiencing the same emotions I experienced when I was left to manage on my own in Pasadena or my daughter experienced when I abandoned her to ride her bicycle on her own with no training wheels. Throughout life, we continue to grow and mature as Jesus’ disciples. We encounter these moments when the manna stops…when it seems God has abandoned us and left us to fend for ourselves. In a way, that’s exactly what God has done. God knows the right time to remove the manna from our life. God knows when we need to experience an emotional disturbance in our life that will help us grow and mature and become stronger individuals. God knows exactly the right time to remove our training wheels, run us to the end of the driveway, and let go of our bikes. When God does just that, we experience the freedom and joy God has always planned for us to enjoy. And when we look back, God is standing there with a smile extending from ear to ear.


Tractors and Horses

Grandpa Vander Lugt emanated grace and compassion. He loved God, his wife, his children, working the land, fishing, and playing with his grandkids. One of my fondest memories of Grandpa Vander Lugt was riding on the fender of his Minneapolis Moline tractor. My brother would ride on the left fender and I would ride on the right. Grandpa Vander Lugt would drive us out into the pasture to check on the fence line or pick up rocks. I would hang on to the handle of the fender and let the enormous tread of the tractor tires knock my feet into the air. In hindsight…this was EXTREMELY dangerous. Who needs car seats when you can put your four-year-old grandkids on the fender of a tractor and let its gigantic wheels systematically knock against the soles of their tennis shoes?

Grandpa Vander Lugt also loved Case International Harvester Tractors. He loved them so much, that he wanted to share his passion with his grandson. Every Christmas, Grandpa Vander Lugt would buy me a die cast collectable, Case International Harvester tractor or farm equipment. I had tractors, hay elevators, manure spreaders, and gravity wagons. To this day, every time I look upon my die cast collectable, Case International Harvester tractor, I think about Grandpa Vander Lugt and remember the wonderful times we shared, the grace and love he exuded, and the fun we had together on his farm and on that super dangerous tractor.

Grandpa Van Hill served and loved everyone around him with strength, humility, and more skills than anyone I’ve ever known. I’m not talking about Napoleon Dynamite skills like numchuku skills, bow hunting skills, or computer hacking skills. Grandpa Van Hill could take a rake and a bicycle tire, and with a little crafty welding and muscle grease, turn them into a surface-to-air missile. Grandpa Van Hill had the most amazing sense of humor; he was always cracking jokes and telling hilarious stories. One of my fondest memories of Grandpa Van Hill is sitting in his living room while the ninth episode of Hee Haw played on the console television set. We would entertain ourselves (because Hee Haw wasn’t accomplishing its task) with pick-up sticks and giving Grandpa a foot massage for a quarter. Which doesn’t seem like much, but for an eight-year old in the early 80s, a quarter is a fortune.

Grandpa Van Hill loved to collect models and statues of horses and raise donkeys. There was something about jackasses that Grandpa Van Hill treasured. Perhaps they reminded him of raising his three boys—Grandpa raised his boys right and they grew to be strong, stubborn, persistent, and faithful—very similar to a jackass. He loved horses so much, that he wanted to share his passion with his grandson. Every Christmas, Grandpa Van Hill would buy me a model horse. I had Palominos, Thoroughbreds, Arabians, and Appaloosas. To this day, every time I look upon my Breyer Arabian Horse, I think about Grandpa Van Hill and remember the wonderful times we shared, his humor, his inventions, and the fun we had together playing games, massaging his feet, and riding in a cart behind his donkey Jake.

TractorHorse

After crossing the Jordan River, God told Joshua to choose twelve men, one from each tribe of Israel. Each man was to choose a stone from the middle of the Jordan and stack them up along the riverbank. This stack of stones was to serve as a sign, so future generations could remember that God cut off the Jordan so the people could cross from the desert into the Promised Land. The stones were a memorial to an amazing God who delivers them, protects them, and provides for them (Joshua 4).

Some people of faith forbid the use of any icon or symbol. Some Christians get bent out of shape over this issue. They believe that wearing a cross, building a church with stained glass windows, hanging a banner in your church’s sanctuary, and so on to remember Jesus or meditate on God’s deliverance, love, and grace is a violation of the second commandment—making an idol. I disagree. Here, upon first arriving on the banks of the Jordan and in the Promised Land, God commands Joshua to create a monument that will serve as a permanent reminder to God’s salvific actions and God’s providence. In the same way my die cast collectable, Case International Harvester tractor reminds me of Grandpa Vander Lugt and my Breyer Arabian Horse reminds me of Grandpa Van Hill, a cross can remind us of Jesus’ love and sacrifice for us or a loaf of bread and cup of wine can remind us of God’s covenant sealed in Jesus’ blood on the cross. It would be spiritually enriching if our homes were riddled with symbols, icons, statues, bread, wine, rocks, tractors, and horses to remind us of God’s love, God’s providence, God’s protection, God’s sacrifice, God’s deliverance, God’s salvation, and God’s promises. God wants us to remember—and having a rock, some wine, a tractor, or a horse to help us do that isn’t a big deal at all. In fact, it should be encouraged.

The Master, Jesus, on the night of his betrayal, took bread. Having given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, broken for you. Do this to remember me.” After supper, he did the same thing with the cup: “This cup is my blood, my new covenant with you. Each time you drink this cup, remember me.” What you must solemnly realize is that every time you eat this bread and every time you drink this cup, you reenact in your words and actions the death of the Master. You will be drawn back to this meal again and again until the Master returns. You must never let familiarity breed contempt.

—1 Corinthians 11:24–26, The Message


Crossings

I’m not afraid of heights—not in the least. As a child, my brother would torture me. He’d try to hit me, give me wet willies, tease me. My only defense was to scream like a girl with my legs in the air kicking him away, or run toward, climb, and then sway on the smallest twig at the top of the tallest tree in the neighborhood. My brother would yell, “You can’t stay up there forever, you little turd.” He’d throw rocks at me in an unfeasible attempt to remove me from the safety of my twig. Like a coon dog who had wearied with his quarry, my brother would retreat to the comfort of our home. I’d wait, swaying in the wind, and then descend from my retreat and sneak in through the back door.

On hikes, I love crossing rivers on fallen logs, traversing canyons upon the smallest ledges, free-climbing, bouldering, and scaling arduous mountains. I’m getting older, and my body doesn’t like this as much, but my mind and fears of the dangers involved with these activities never come into play. In high school, I’d jump from any bridge or trestle my friends dared me to jump. My friends knew that I’d do just about anything if they double-dog-dared me to do it. My proclivities to give in to a dare have long passed, so don’t try anything. Even though I’m not afraid of crossing a shaky bridge or hanging off the side of a cliff, I recognize that I probably should be—at least a little bit. Crossings can and have ended in imminent death. I watched Everest with my kids Tuesday night. When they were traversing the side of a cliff in the middle of a blizzard, I leaned over to Micah and said, “These people are just plain nuts. I will NEVER do that!” Crossings are dangerous, important, and life changing. In fact, crossings are great metaphors to illustrate important events in someone’s life.

Motion pictures often use crossing a bridge or a river to illustrate a moment of enlightenment, a passage into newfound maturity in our journey of life, an aha moment, an event of strength, freedom, and awareness. Crossings illustrate a movement from the way we were to the way God intended us to be. In my friend Brian’s favorite movie, White Water Summer, a young city boy named Alan (played by Sean Astin) is encouraged to face his fears head-on while going on an adventure with his three friends and a super-crazy guide, Vic (played by acting genius Kevin Bacon). Alan is cowardly and unable to face his fears until he crosses a bridge at the beginning of the film. This bridge crossing illustrates Alan’s coming of age. From the point of the crossing on, Alan embraces his true calling as a man and lives out his adventurous spirit. In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo embraces his purpose and grasps the understanding that it is his task—and his task alone—to bring the ring to Mordor only after he crosses the Bridge of Khazad Dum. I could go on and on, but I won’t. I promise.

When the people of Israel came to the shores of the Red Sea—and the dust from the chariots of the Egyptian army in pursuit could be seen along the horizon—they didn’t trust Moses or their God. They were afraid of who they were without the overshadowing presence of Egypt and the Pharaohs. They felt trapped…and they were—physically, spiritually, mentally, and psychologically. They were infants and they had no law to guide them, no military skills to protect them, and no government to oversee them. They were lost sheep about to enter a wilderness where the weak, aimless, and confused died almost instantaneously.

After crossing the Red Sea, God spent 40 years training, preparing, conditioning, and refining His people so they would be ready for everything He had prepared for them. They were infants prior to crossing the Red Sea, teenagers in the Wilderness, and now they were ready for adulthood. By crossing the Jordan River, God’s people were entering a new and revitalizing stage of their spiritual journey. Everything God had in mind for them was about to come to fruition. Their fears, hesitations, and doubts were about to blow away with the sands of the dessert and it was time to embrace their destiny…God’s promise of redemption was about to become a reality.

It isn’t a coincidence that after Jesus’ baptism, He crossed the Jordan River, entered the same wilderness where his ancestors wandered for forty years, and spent forty days preparing, conditioning, and refining his mind, heart, and soul for his purpose—to make God’s promise of ultimate redemption a reality.

It also isn’t a coincidence when we face years in the wilderness after our baptism where God prepares, conditions, and refines us. A former girlfriend once told me that I had it easy—that I really didn’t have any problems. Where this isn’t entirely true—and a tad mean—if I honestly contemplate my own life in comparison to others, I have to admit that I don’t have it too bad. Sometimes, however, I think my faith in Christ and my attitude about life would be better if I did. I know when I was unemployed my faith increased and matured; I loved more and showed others more mercy. Tough times are blessings in disguise. It’s easy to view these trials and hardships as negative events in our life. It is also logical to gain a positive perspective in hindsight. Trials and crossings are God’s way to prepare us for His promises. God intends to provide us with redemption, maturity, and purpose on the other side. I can face those difficulties in the wilderness and during that crossing with a little more courage knowing that God has my back and has amazing things waiting for me on the other side of the river.

“What a God we have! And how fortunate we are to have him, this Father of our Master Jesus! Because Jesus was raised from the dead, we’ve been given a brand-new life and have everything to live for, including a future in heaven—and the future starts now! God is keeping careful watch over us and the future. The Day is coming when you’ll have it all—life healed and whole. I know how great this makes you feel, even though you have to put up with every kind of aggravation in the meantime. Pure gold put in the fire comes out of it proved pure; genuine faith put through this suffering comes out proved genuine. When Jesus wraps this all up, it’s your faith, not your gold, that God will have on display as evidence of his victory.”

—1 Peter 1:3–7, The Message


Lying for Blood

Are there Jewish refugees hiding in your attic?

Where were you last night between midnight and 2 a.m.?

Does this dress make me look fat?

Do you enjoy watching Harry Potter movies?

Have you ever cross-dressed as Olivia Newton John in order to win a lip sync contest?

We’ve all had someone ask us a question where a lie would result in the more preferred teleological result. We tell ourselves that the end justifies the means. I’ve never encountered a situation where I chose to lie in order to save the lives of those I love, but I would do so in a heartbeat. I have, however, lied in order to protect a relationship, to avoid conflict and keep the peace, or to save myself from embarrassment—by not revealing some of my deepest darkest secrets. My ex-girlfriend told me she was sick and stayed the night at her aunt’s house because I knew very well that nothing good happens after midnight (thanks for that advice, Dad). I’m shallow, so my wife and girlfriends have always been thin no matter what they’re wearing. I LOVE Harry Potter movies. There…I said it. I’ll remain silent about the Olivia Newton-John thing for now. But you know me, I typically don’t keep things from my friends, readers, or even complete strangers. Let’s just say, we won that lip sync contest.

Lying is never substantiated by Scripture, however, there are times where individuals lied out of their conviction and faith in God and God’s redemptive plan—and they are revered. Before Moses was born, Pharaoh instructed the Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, to kill any baby boy born to a Hebrew woman to control the population of the slaves. The midwives, however, feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do; they let the boys live. When asked why they did this, the midwives lied to their king. God honored and blessed the midwives because they feared him and ended up contributing to God’s redemptive plan.

Forty years later, Joshua sent two spies into Jericho to scope things out. While they were there, they hid in a house of a harlot named Rahab. When the king of Jericho asked Rahab if these spies were hiding in her house, she lied, and told him they had left at dusk. After the king left her house, Rahab asked the spies if they could protect her—and her entire family—when the Israelites inevitably attack the city. The spies promised her that they would treat her and her family kindly as long as she didn’t tell what they were doing to the authorities, kept her entire family inside her house, and tied a scarlet cord in her window. The spies said to Rahab:

“If any of them go outside your house into the street, their blood will be on their own heads; we will not be responsible. As for those who are in the house with you, their blood will be on our head if a hand is laid on them”

—Joshua 2:19

Super weird, right? Why the scarlet cord? Why all the rules?

We know the history of scarlet in Scripture. We recall the continuous history of scarlet blood atoning for our sins. Every year the Israelites would hold a sacred remembrance of the night when scarlet blood provided a sign upon their doorposts, informing the angel of death to “pass over” them and move on—thereby scarlet upon the house would save the entire household…as long as everyone in that household remained behind closed doors (Exodus 12). The scarlet thread wrapped on Judah’s son and Jesus’ ancestor (Genesis 38) marks the descendant and chosen child of the promise. The veil of finely twisted scarlet linen within the Tabernacle would separate the priest from God’s holiness and the mercy seat of redemption that sat upon the Ark of the Covenant (Leviticus 16). Rahab the harlot tied a scarlet cord to her window to redeem herself and her family from the impending doom of the Israelite army. Scarlet represents blood and blood represents redemption.

1400 years later, Pilate’s soldiers took this harlot’s descendant, Jesus, into the Praetorium, stripped him, and put a scarlet robe on him. They twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on his head. They put a staff in his right hand. Then they knelt in front of him and mocked him. “Hail, king of the Jews!” they said. They spit on him, and took the staff and struck him on the head again and again. Scarlet blood seeped from his scalp, his back, and his legs. After scourging Jesus, they took him away to crucify him. They nailed him to a cross as his scarlet blood dried upon his arms and his legs, and dripped down upon the ground below him. At 3:00 p.m., Jesus cried out and gave up his spirit. At that moment, the scarlet curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom, illustrating to the world that our sin no longer separated us from the glory of God. Because of Jesus’ scarlet blood sacrifice, we (our entire household)—will be safe from harm…from destruction…from death. God will redeem us. Our scarlet sins will be made white as snow (Isaiah 1:18).

“But when Christ came as high priest of the good things that are now already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not made with human hands, that is to say, is not a part of this creation. He did not enter by means of the [scarlet] blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own [scarlet] blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. The [scarlet] blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. How much more, then, will the [scarlet] blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!”

—Hebrews 9:11-14

Rahab is not honored because of her lies…she’s also not excused—yet she is forgiven. She’s honored because of her faith in God’s ultimate redemption of humankind. We also are not honored because of our lies.

It’s just not good to lie!

We are, thankfully, forgiven. And we are honored—not because we lie, but because of our faith in God and God’s ultimate redemption of humankind found in Jesus Christ our Lord.


Weak and Cowardly

I’ve been extremely discouraged lately. I’m one punch away from throwing in the proverbial towel on my love life and my church life. I’m disappointed in women, in love, in church, in church leaders, in the policies and political platforms of Evangelical Christians. I’m exhausted from trying to argue against the hatred and bigotry rampant within Christian circles. I’m sick of going out on dates, trying to convince a woman that I’m worthy, trying to find the love-needle in a haystack full of manure-saturated straw.

Those who don’t know Jesus, are confused as to who He truly is. I’m wearied from trying to introduce those who have questions to the loving, accepting, compassionate One—the Lord who recognizes the epidemic of loneliness and hurting and welcomes all people into His loving embrace. The simplicity, hypocrisy, and outright idiocy of the right is pushing me so far left, I’m about to fall of the spectrum completely. I’m tired, I’m lonely, I’m weak, and I’m afraid to face the world I call home because it’s a world that values hatred, anger, outward appearances, and disdain. I’m too weak and too afraid to cross the Jordan and engage this world that doesn’t seem very Promising anyway.

Therefore, I’m content to stay in the Wilderness and avoid the other side of the river completely. I’m grateful for the arrival of the football season and eventual snowboarding season to distract me from the loneliness, hatred, greed, materialism, bigotry, systemic selfishness that has become the identity of the world that exists on the other side of the river. So why shouldn’t I be afraid? Why shouldn’t I be weak? What does this Promised Land have to offer us anymore? I just can’t face this abysmal world alone…I can’t!

I honestly believe that this is exactly where Joshua was after his leader and mentor Moses died on Mount Nebo. Joshua had witnessed the futility of the world. He knew these people couldn’t be trusted. He doubted the value of the Promised Land and he was weak and afraid. He knew that the Israelites valued hatred, anger, outward appearances, materialism, bigotry, and selfishness. It doesn’t say that exactly in Scripture, but the fact that God had to tell him seven separate times to “Be Strong and Courageous” seems to suggest that God had some convincing to do (Deut. 31:6, 7, 23; Josh 1:6, 7, 9, 18).

I’m sure Joshua—like me—would rather sit in his chair east of the Jordan and watch the Minnesota Vikings embarrass themselves at Levi’s Stadium or shred the Gnar Pow on Mount Nebo than enter his world and embrace his calling. Joshua needed to know that he wasn’t about to face his abysmal world alone. Joshua needed an encouraging word from the all-powerful God and that is exactly what he received:

“Be strong and courageous, because you will lead these people to inherit the land I swore to their ancestors to give them. Be strong and very courageous. Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, that you may be successful wherever you go. Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful. Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”

—Joshua 1:6-9

God’s redundant persistence shouldn’t go unnoticed here. God had to drill the assurance of His presence into the mind and heart of Joshua. Not only that, he had to repetitively encourage Joshua to avoid the temptation to remain weak and cowardly and instead embrace the strength and courage that can only come from God’s Spirit. God had a task and purpose for Joshua. Without God, Joshua was afraid and discouraged. With God’s presence, strength, and courage, Joshua could overcome those fears that plagued him, embrace his purpose, and cross the Jordan into the Promised Land—a land that may appear abysmal, but held promises and hope beyond the reach of Joshua’s expectations and imagination.

I’m still going to suffer through a dismal shellacking of the Minnesota Vikings every Sunday. I’m still going to partake in the thrill of shredding eight inches of powder in the Montezuma Bowl at Arapahoe Basin. I’m not, however, going to let those distractions dominate my existence. I’m still going to reach into that manure-saturated haystack in search for that enigmatic needle of love. I’m still going to trudge into church in search for that community of believers who still worship the Jesus I follow, love, adore, and try to emulate. I’m still going to combat the hypocrisy, hate, and bigotry that’s become annoyingly prevalent amid many Christians today.

But I can’t do it alone.

Thank goodness the Lord my God will be with me wherever I go…so I don’t have to.


My Chicken Valentine

Back in March, I told you about my daughter’s chicken question:

“Dad, how come we can eat some eggs and other eggs have baby chickens in them?”

…and my brilliant answer to that question:

“Married chickens have baby chickens. If the chicken isn’t married, it has eggs we can eat.”

In The Parlement of Foules, Geoffrey Chaucer writes:

For this was on seynt Valentynes day,
Whan every foul cometh ther to chese his make,
Of every kinde, that men thenke may;
And that so huge a noyse gan they make,
That erthe and see, and tree, and every lake
So ful was, that unnethe was ther space
For me to stonde, so ful was al the place.

Isn’t that beautiful?

I guess I wasn’t so far off. Who knew that the romantic pursuits of our feathery friends would have SO much bearing on the interaction of lovers in the 21st century?

Valentine’s Day was first recognized as a day to commemorate martyrs of the third century. They called these martyrs “Valentines.” In the 14th century, Chaucer suggested we observe the mating habits of birds and make them our own. If the birds are doing it…and the bees are doing it…so should we. In the 20th and 21st centuries, Hallmark and ProFlowers suggested we send people cards that involved no thought whatsoever on the part of the lover, waning flowers in pretty vases, and mysterious chocolate candies in satin-covered, heart-shaped boxes in order to profess something to our lovers we should probably profess every day of our lives.

On a side note: Thank you ProFlowers for reminding me every day—if not twice a day—to send flowers to the girl who broke my heart shortly after Valentine’s Day last year…Thank you! OK…so she didn’t break my heart necessarily…but I still don’t need to be reminded every day for a month how I once loved and lost.

What was once a day to honor those who died because they adamantly confessed their faith in Jesus has literally become a mockery where we imitate birds and initiate our spring mating practices by sending a card, a dozen roses, and a heart-shaped box of chocolates to our prospective chickens.

Love was the true motivation of these martyrs who are supposed to be memorialized on this holiday. These martyrs loved sacrificially in the name of Christ, and Valentine’s Day should still commemorate how their sacrifice helped spread the love of Christ throughout the world.

I’m not suggesting giving up Valentine’s Day as a day to love those who mean the most to us. This is just my suggestion…take it as advice from someone who failed miserably in this area and has learned a little from his mistakes:

Tomorrow, instead of following the example of a chicken or a barn swallow, follow the example of these “Valentines” who gave their life so that the world may know true LOVE—the love of Jesus Christ. Give sacrificially to your lover. If she desires quality time and you have difficulty sitting down for more than five seconds…sit down with her for more than five seconds. If he loves it when the house is clean but you’re no June Cleaver…clean the house for him. If she’s into gifts…put a little effort into the gift you’re giving. Sacrifice something for the sake of your love…be a martyr…be a Valentine.

“My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

—John 15:12-13


Failure

I spend my Sundays leading the children’s ministry at my church and occasionally I make it upstairs for the early “traditional” service to worship and hear God’s Word. It’s difficult for me to engage in worship with traditional hymns and liturgical prayers. I realize that true worship has more to do with me than with the music or the style, nevertheless, it’s still challenging to find my groove. As a response to that challenge, I worship at Timberline’s Wednesday night service while my children attend their Rangers and Missionettes programs. Last night at Timberline, Pastor Dick Foth referenced Mark Batterson’s new book The Circle Maker: Praying Circles Around Your Biggest Dreams and Your Greatest Fears and he had us write out, or reflect upon, our biggest dream and greatest fear, and then circle them with our prayers.

I was praying within seconds. It didn’t take me long to determine my biggest dream (true contentment) and my greatest fear (failure as a father, husband, and servant of Christ). As a divorced father of two, I often feel as if I’m already dwelling within my greatest fear. I’ve failed as a husband, I feel as if I’ve failed as a father by making the lives of my children more difficult in a divided household. Furthermore, when I read certain texts in Scripture, I feel like I’ve failed as a follower of Jesus. As I continue to circle my fears with prayer, I’m realizing that the two are connected. I can never reach my dream of contentment until I overcome my fear of failure. Once I completely circle my fears, I can move toward circling my dreams. I’ve also come to the realization that God hasn’t been perpetuating my fears. He’s confirmed—time and time again—through the affirmation of others, the emotional stability and resiliency of my children, the health of my relationship with their mother, my strength and compassion as a man and future husband, and the growth and maturity of my relationship with Jesus Christ—which has grown exponentially since my divorce. God has answered my prayers…it’s just sometimes it’s not the answer for which I’m looking; the contentment I desire seems to emanate from my failures. As David Checkett said, “Success builds character, failure reveals it” I’m not entirely pleased that God chose to answer my prayers to overcome my fear of failure by allowing me to fail and grow through it…but I recognize
it as such.

“My imperfections and failures are as much a blessing from God as my successes and my talents and I lay them both at his feet.”

—Mahatma Gandhi

I’ve been studying the patriarchs over the past month and one thing I’ve noticed is how often these men—who were chosen and blessed by God—failed epically. Abraham doubted God’s promise that Sarah would have a child, so he slept with his maidservant Hagar in order to manipulate the situation. Abraham and Isaac tried to pass their wives off as their sisters. Jacob lied to his father and stole his brother Esau’s birthright and blessing. Jacob had two wives, who were sisters, and two concubines. Levi and Simeon avenged the rape of their sister Dinah and murdered the inhabitants of an entire city. Reuben slept with his father’s concubine, Bilhah. Jacob showed favoritism to his wife Rachel and their sons Joseph and Benjamin. Jacob’s sons with Leah and his two concubines sold their brother Joseph into slavery. Judah slept with his daughter-in-law Tamar.

In Judah’s defense, he did mistakenly think Tamar was a prostitute.

By the time I reached Genesis 50, I didn’t feel so bad about my own failures. If God can provide true contentment for that group of misfits…he surely can provide it for me. I’m still not thrilled when God answers my prayers through my own imperfections and failures. However, I realized that I do tend to grow more through my failures than I do through my successes.  And like Gandhi, I consider them blessings and intend on laying them directly at the feet of God!