Saturday, February 26, 2011

Let Me Carry You

When I was a kid, my family used to take car trips.  We went south mostly because my grandparents lived in Texas.  So, frequently we would meet them halfway between Texas and Michigan.  I have a very distinct memory from one of our trips.  We were driving along in the blue van.  I was in the back seat and at some point I happened to catch a glimpse of a little orange light on the dashboard that said “low fuel.”  I thought that this might mean we were running out of gas and we needed to stop, but I figured my dad had everything under control.  We’d never run out of gas before.  As we passed exit after exit, I started to feel a little nervous.  I leaned up again, thinking my mere presence would make my dad realize he should stop and get gas.  No such luck.  We hurtled down the highway as if all was well.  But, I couldn’t shake the anxiety and so I decided just to ask.
“What does ‘low fuel’ mean?” 
“It means we’re running out of gas and need to stop to get more.”

Yesterday morning I came home from a business trip to Phoenix.  I had been there for four nights (it was supposed to have been three, but something ran late and I missed the last flights out).  I had been involved in some super-intense work stuff and had not slept much.  I awoke before my alarm went off at 4:45 and had been watching the hours tick away on and off since midnight.  I believe I saw all of them except 3:00.  I had a cup of coffee and was out the door by 5:02 to catch my 6:35 flight. 

On the way to the airport, my GPS kept losing its signal; the line to return my rental car included 10 people in front of me and about 8 behind, so I had to leave it without checking it in to avoid missing my flight; the bus to the rental car building took forever; I tried checking into my flight with Delta when I was flying American; I got in the wrong security line for 10 minutes; I had no time to use the restroom before boarding; and the woman in front of me leaned her seat all the way back for the entire three-hour flight.  You get the picture.  I know you have had these days.

Here’s the thing, though, every single person I encountered was a barrier to what I needed to accomplish.  I caught myself every time, but couldn’t stop.  I hated doing it and yet, it just came out of me.  I felt like I couldn’t control it.  

The woman with the two young kids in front of me was not moving up in line fast enough and this annoyed me.  I have been through the airport with a young child and know how hard it is.  Yet, I struggled to have sympathy.  My thought: Move up!  We’re late!  The woman behind me was talking to me about how she had gotten in the wrong line and she wasn’t sure she’d make her flight (which was the same flight I was on).  My thought: I don’t want to talk to you right now.  I’m in a hurry, don’t you know?   A barrier.  The line at the coffee shop was long and the guy in front of me couldn’t make up his mind.  My thought: How hard is it, come on!  A barrier.  The American Airlines attendant checking the passengers onto the plane asked me to turn my suitcase sideways to see if it would fit on the plane.  My thought: I have been taking this bag on planes for 6 years.  It fits.  Please leave me alone.  A barrier. 

I could go on demonstrating my ugly thoughts.  This lasted much of the day.  I realized that the worst stuff in me comes out when my low fuel light is on.  All of my selfishness, uncaring, lack of sympathy is exposed.  When I am well-rested, when I am not under stress, and when I am in familiar surroundings, I can be so good and peaceful, caring and giving.  But put me in a hard spot with little sleep and I don’t even recognize the person God has made me to be.   And worse yet, I see people who God has created in His image as a barrier to achieving my own goals and needs.

So often we think that if we are not committing the “big sins” – murder, adultery, stealing, for example – we are pretty good, acceptable to God.   But then you have a day or two (or more) with your low fuel light on and you realize how far from God’s holiness and perfection you fall.  It’s like looking into one of those super-magnified mirrors they often put in hotel rooms (for reasons I don’t understand at all) that show each and every blemish on your face.  Low fuel exposes so many blemishes in my heart.  I can barely stand to look.  So, what I do is to attempt to resolve these feelings on my own – to beat myself up, try to fix my heart by yelling at myself, or push the feelings down and chalk it up to being tired. 

This time, though, I reached a point where I couldn’t help myself.  I actually got angry at a car in front of me who I let change lanes, but then did it too slowly to my liking, and I yelled (inside my car): “Come on!”  -- with a contempt-filled spirit.  I tried to calm myself, tried to collect my thoughts and talk myself into better behavior.  But, this contempt and irritation continued to build.  There was only one thing to do: pull off onto the nearest exit to re-fuel. 

I turned to God in despair, embarrassed by my contempt.  I said: “Lord, I am so sorry.  This is just coming out of me, I can’t stop it.  What is going on?  Why am I doing this?  I’m just so tired.  I’m so tired.”  Do you know the response I got?  Not:  “Stop behaving this way!  Figure it out.  Get some sleep.  Straighten things out.  Pick yourself up.”  No.  

I immediately heard (not aloud, but it might as well have been): “Let me carry you.”  This broke me.  Tears filled my eyes.  I could only say: “Ok.  Yes.  Please, Lord.  Please do.  Thank you.”  I can’t explain the relief this brought.  Something had cleared out.  I suddenly knew, I mean really knew, what David meant when he said that God is “gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love.”  (Psalm 145:8)  You see, I can't reach God's holiness and perfection.  I cannot bridge the gap.  Nothing I do can get me there.  Jesus bridges it for me though and instead of pointing out all the ways in which I fall short and condemning me for my inadequacies, He will simply carry me and give me His strength where mine fails.        

If your low fuel light is on, it means you are running out of gas.  Take the nearest exit.   There is someone who will carry you if you would only turn to Him.  

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

In All That I Do

The crush of busyness has been weighing heavily on me over the last several weeks.  It stems from work-related tasks primarily -- lots of hours, travel, conference calls, small battles, etc.  And, in the midst of this, I have stuck with my morning prayer and reading routine (Old Testament, New Testament, Psalm, Proverb, devotional), which sets the tone for my day.  At times recently, though, I have unintentionally rushed through the process, needing to move on to the work that awaits anxiously for my attention.  I try to slow myself down, reading Scripture aloud, for example, but this has been a struggle.  I can't force my relationship with God or fit it into a neat 15-minute time-slot (and isn't this true of all relationships?).  Nor do I desire to, but, well, that's how it has been going lately.

I have begun to see God in smaller joys instead of deep connections of late.  This is not to say I don't desire the deep connection, but I just can't get there right now.  Yesterday, I had a very busy, stressful day.  I talked to God frequently throughout, but felt a little like I was just talking into the air.  Late in the afternoon, I went and got a cup of coffee, knowing I would need to work into the night.  I had been holed up in conference rooms and my hotel room (Phoenix again) all day.  I stepped outside and the warmth of the sun momentarily took my breath and I smiled.  I walked to the coffee shop and as I approached the door, I heard coming from the speakers above (people sit outside in Phoenix in February!  Imagine!) one of my favorite songs of all time.  A song that for reasons that aren't relevant now makes me feel an overwhelming sense of home: Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald singing They Can't Take That Away From Me.  (Louis and Ella)  Maybe you have a song like this, and you know the feeling when you hear it unexpectedly.  It brings such unexpected joy and peace.

After getting my coffee, I talked to a good friend.  I described what I was struggling with -- this sort of disconnection caused by busyness.  He asked about my prayers.  I said I pray for focus and strength.  I pray for courage and peace in stressful situations.  He asked whether I prayed that I would reveal Christ through my work, whether I prayed to God and asked that in my work today, let someone who sees me think or say to themselves: there is something different about her, something I am drawn to.  Do I pray that God would use me even in my work to reach others and bring them a step closer into a relationship with him?

Such wise counsel.  I had been (yet again) so self-focused.  I haven't been feeling deeply connected because I have been doing all the talking and almost no listening.  I had been asking God to do for me, yet not asking what I could do for Him.  God got to me anyway -- through the sun, and a song, and a friend.  Today, before I venture off to my next battle, I will still pray for peace and focus, but I will also pray that God will use me to reveal Himself to someone else, to glorify Him in whatever way He asks and in all that I do.  "So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God."  1 Corin. 10:31.  What a blessing it will be to be used by the Most High God.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Justice, God's Way

I spent this past weekend in Bend, Oregon at an incredible conference called the Justice Conference.  I can hardly explain all that I came to understand there.  Here are four things:

1.              The local church is the hope of the world.  (This may sound familiar, see I Didn't Know Until I Knew).

2.              There are at least 1050 people who love God in a way that leads them to irrational love, self-sacrifice, and humility.

3.              The best thing to do with the best things you have is to give them away.

4.              Injustice is the norm.

The most important thing that happened, though, is that I came to a better, more palpable understanding of the Gospel.  And this understanding came in struggling with the idea of justice.  Something about it makes me queasy, uneasy, anxious.  This seems weird to say for a couple reasons. 

First, I am a lawyer.  And some might say that lawyers exist to promote justice.  Whether this is true I will save for another day. 

Second, justice seems pretty easy to get behind.  If someone asked me: what do you think about justice, I’d surely say: “I’m for it!”  I don’t know many people who would say they aren’t.  We do act in ways that undermine justice, either unintentionally, or in reckless disregard of the facts (to use a legal phrase).  Example: we demand goods (coffee, chocolate, clothes, etc.) cheap and fast.  This feeds the human-trafficking and sex-slavery industries.  Yeah, it really does.  As a concept, though, justice is hard not to support.  So what is my issue?  Why does justice talk rattle me?

In trying to answer this question, I reflected on the definitions provided at the conference. One speaker defined justice as “giving that which is due.”  Another: relationships that are in balance.  Another: “rendering to each person that which is his or her right.”  Another: people experiencing what they have a right to.  The dictionary says “rightfulness” or “lawfulness.”  No argument on any of these. 

I also attempted to examine the relationships between certain other concepts and justice.  In other words, what is the relationship between the Church and justice?  Jesus and justice?  Worth and justice?  Value and justice?  Rule of law and justice?  Love and justice?  Mercy and justice?  Grace and justice?  And then it hit me.  There are two sides of justice: the offender and the victim.  I realize this seems quite obvious, but it was this realization that led me to understand my anxiety about justice.  If justice means balance in a relationship and injustice means imbalance in a relationship, then to achieve justice, there must be a leveling.  The offender must be brought lower, or humbled, or even punished.  And it means that the victim must be lifted up, lifted out. 

The Justice Conference was about understanding justice, identifying injustice, and determining how to lift the victim up.  There was less discussion about the other side of the equation – the lowering, humbling, or punishing of the offender.  This is okay, I am not complaining, justice is a big topic.  But it is on this side of the equation that I came face to face with my anxiety about justice. 

What made me uneasy was that grace – a concept I cling to, rely upon, hang onto desperately – and justice, seem inconsistent or incompatible.  And what I need most of all is grace and forgiveness.  But does grace undermine justice?  Does it devalue the victim of injustice to forgive the offender?  Who has the right to forgive or give grace to an offender?  Only the victim?  Who has the right to impose punishment and sanction?  How exactly do these concepts fit together?  Did Christ’s message remove justice from the lexicon altogether and replace it with grace?  Very smart biblical scholars disagree about the answer to this question.  I don’t attempt to answer it here and not because I’m afraid to venture my view, but because this conceptual debate is not the source of my justice anxiety.

The source of my justice anxiety runs deeper.  You see, I don’t want justice, at least not in all circumstances.  If I am a victim of injustice, I want to be lifted up, lifted out.  In that circumstance, I want justice.  And where I see others subject to injustice, I want to lift them up and out.  But there is someone I have most offended.  There is one upon whom I have foisted immeasurable amounts of injustice.  There is one who has the ability to bring about the harshest, most terrifying rendering of justice.  There is one who has the best claim to punish me.  And from Him, I do not want my due.  I do not want justice under these circumstances.  It would be more than I could ever bear. Thus, my fear and anxiety about justice. 

Turns out, the most offended and most unjustly treated one, instead of giving me my due, forgave me.  The one who could punish me for all of eternity in ways that I could not imagine in my worst nightmare has cast my offenses, my transgressions, my injustices, as far as the east is from the west, buried them at the bottom of the sea.  The one who has the best claim to punish me, died a most gruesome and painful death for me.  All of this He did while I still sinned, while I still offended, while I continued to pour injustice upon Him.  Jesus Christ has leveled my previously unjust, imbalanced relationship with God; he has made it just by punishing himself, humbling himself, lowering himself, the innocent, instead of me, the offender.  This is the good news.  This is the Gospel.

Justice, God’s way.        

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Other Blog

So, this blog was finally restored today after having been down for over three weeks for reasons I still don't know.  I'm so relieved and thankful.  For now, I think I'll keep them both running.

The other one is

Thanks for hanging with me.  I did add a couple "pages" on this one (under "More Stuff") -- "Scripture that got me today" and "About."  Also, posted the entries that I had posted on the other blog while this one was down:  "The Unseen," "When You Forget About Grace," and "Mine And Yours."

Mine And Yours

This is the little placard sitting on the desk in my hotel room in Phoenix.  I'm not exactly sure what it's trying to tell me.  I know I think this often -- three for me, one for you.  If I had four dollars in my pocket and you needed money, three for me, one for you.  You never know, I could need the three dollars.  But what in this picture is "mine" and what is "yours"?   And who is the me and the you, anyway?  There is no explanation of any of this on the placard, believe me, I looked.  On the back is a menu for Rico's American Grill.   Is the girl mine?  The martini?  The olives?  Then what does that leave you?  Or, is all of it yours and you are saying I can have it?  I don't get it.  Somebody somewhere came up with this advertisement and concluded that it would have a desired result.  Why a person would look at this ad and go to Rico's, I can't tell you, though.  What's mine is yours?  I don't know.

Anyway, this prompted me to consider why we have such a need to classify everything as either "mine" or "yours"?  And why does advertising that reinforces this idea work?  What is it in us that wants not just dominion, but dominion followed by exclusion of all others?  You rarely see any advertising that says: "This could be ours!  Come see!"  Most of us often think, from the very smallest thing, to the very biggest thing, "if I only had that, then I'd be happy."  I recently watched the new Wall Street movie.  There is a line in the movie: "What's your number?"  one of character asks a big-shot Wall Street guy.  The guy looks at him and asks what he means.  The character says: "The amount of money you would need to be able to walk away from it all and just live happily ever after.  Everybody has one -- it's an exact number -- what's yours?"  The response:  "More."

When you see this, you feel disgusted.   But we know it all too well.  It may or may not be money, but there is something you are focused on and you think that if you only had more of it, you would be happy.  Not all of it is "bad" per se, some is good, but the trick is in the more: more kids, more electronics, more dates, more sex, more space, more fame, more opportunity, more time, more beauty, more freedom, more quiet.  This "more disease" comes from, most often, seeing others with the more that you want.  Others have two kids, a boy and a girl.  I want more than just my boy.  Others are more beautiful than me, they look happier.  I want to be more beautiful.  Others have more time than me.  I want more time.

You have had more before, though, and it never gets you any closer to the "then I'd be happy," at least not for very long.  In fact, sometimes having the more makes things worse than even your longing for more.  So the goal ultimately becomes not more kids, more electronics, more dates, more sex, more space, more fame, more opportunity, more time, more beauty, more freedom, more quiet, but just more.  More for more's sake.

What to do with this constant state of wanting more?  I don't know the answer to this at all.  I suffer from this "more disease" too.  It's discontentment, dissatisfaction with the present, the now.  Imagine: all we have is now, but we are discontent and dissatisfied so much of the time.  It is a constant struggle for most of us.  But, what if we started by stopping all the "mine" and "yours" talk.  Isn't it this that causes the "more disease"?  What if we loosened, just a little, the grip on the things we have?  What if we gave or shared more of what we have to those who do not have the thing that we do have?  Instead of giving one and keeping three, give all four (or, if you want to take it slow at first, give three and keep one).  What if the fear of how you might feel if you lost something important to you no longer had a hold on you?  What if your sidelong glances at what others have became just a little shorter because you know that there is a more in their life too and just a little more won't get you to happy?

What if we focused just a little bit more (pun intended) on where we are right now?  There is so much right here.  Such richness in what we do have.  And none of it is ours in the first place.  There is only one who can say "mine" to all things.  As Abraham Kuyper said: “In the total expanse of human life there is not a single square inch of which the Christ, who alone is sovereign, does not declare,'That is mine!'”

And, as the Psalmist reported:

"The earth is the Lord's, and everything in it,
the world, and all who lives in it;
for he founded it upon the seas and established it upon the waters."  Psalm 24:1-2.

It is not mine.  It is not yours.  It is His.  He has been so generous to you.

When You Forget About Grace

When I feel run down and in need of restoration, I am compelled to be near the water.  I don’t mean when I’ve had a bad day, or feeling a little stressed.  I mean when I’ve reached a point where I cannot find calmness anymore, the point where unrest has defeated rest, the point at which I might describe myself as a tortured soul – preoccupied with sin, anchorless, incapable of perspective.  A few minutes near the water and I am, at least for some period of time, centered again.  This past weekend, I went away to restore my soul with water.  As soon as I left, I had as my mission to take in whatever God presented to me.  I would not search for Him, or demand an encounter (I’ve done this before and it didn’t work).  I would just be and whatever happened, I would soak in and enjoy.  I felt blessed just to have the ability to seclude myself with my daughter, knowing that millions of people in the world have no such opportunity, ever.

While away, a special convergence in my soul occurred.  It was an encounter with God that, as usual, was unexpected.  You see, in the last several months, I think I’ve somehow forgotten about grace.  I mean, not really, not in the ultimate sense, but sort of.  I do not doubt my salvation.  But I had stopped allowing God’s grace to reach me in the everyday sense.

So this doesn’t become too esoteric, let me provide an example: I heard of a friend of a friend’s husband who has had some serious health problems.  I was told he may not make it for much longer and he needs prayer.  I said I would pray.  I do pray.  But, do you know what the very first thing I thought was?  “I hope the funeral isn’t on one of the days I’ll be gone because then I’ll have to change my trip and I’ve really been looking forward to that trip.”  Can you believe this?  Such depravity of heart.  The beating to which I subjected my soul after I thought this was legendary, immeasurable, unstoppable.  “What kind of person says this?  How can you call yourself a follower of Christ?  Can you imagine if others knew this about you?  Who would listen to you then?” This goes on and on and on.  It is toxic and became so normal (and not just about this one expression of my own heart’s un-goodness, but many others) over the last several weeks that it turned into a focal point: the depravity of my heart.  So secret, so clear, so prevalent, so hopeless.

You see why I needed to be restored.  I needed a reminder of grace, but I couldn’t get there intellectually.  I couldn’t talk myself into it.  I start every morning by reading a part of the Old Testament, a part of the New Testament, a Psalm, and a Proverb.  Then, I read the daily reading from Oswald Chambers’ “My Utmost for His Highest.”  Yesterday, I was in such a rush to get to the water, on my last day out of the tundra that is Chicago, I decided I would do my reading on the plane home.  I sat before the waves, listening as they crashed so rhythmically, eyes closed, and remembering the reading from the day before about Eli and Samuel, I said: “Speak, Lord.”  Then I said it again, desperate to hear.  “Speak, Lord.”  A few minutes later, after concluding I would not hear from God in that moment, I heard this:

“Stop focusing on your sin.  You are free of it.  Focus on what I want you to do.”

That was it!  That was the problem!  I had cut off (or quenched, as Paul would say (1 Thess. 5:19)) the Spirit. I had entered a new kind of self-centeredness.  I had become so focused on my lack of goodness, not in acts necessarily, but in heart, where it really counts, that I had lost focus on what God had called me to do.  I recalled a favorite passage from Hebrews that I have studied and repeated to others as encouragement:  “And since we have a great High Priest who rules over God’s house, let us go right into the presence of God with sincere hearts fully trusting him.  For our guilty consciences have been sprinkled with Christ’s blood to make us clean, and our bodies have been washed with pure water.”  (Heb. 10:21-22)  My spirit lifted, and I felt new.  Like I had heard about, and felt deep within me the power of, grace all over again.

Then, I got to the daily Oswald Chambers reading and it was upon reading this that everything came together.

“Our calling is not primarily to be holy men and women, but to be proclaimers of the Gospel of God.  The one thing that is all important is that the Gospel of God should be realized as the abiding Reality.  Reality is not human goodness, nor holiness, nor heaven, nor hell; but Redemption; and the need to perceive this is the most vital need of the Christian worker today.  As workers we have to get used to the revelation that Redemption is the only Reality.  Personal holiness is an effect, not a cause, and if we place our faith in human goodness, in the effect of Redemption, we shall go under when the test comes.”

Later, he says: “As long as our eyes are upon our own personal whiteness we shall never get near the reality of Redemption.  Workers break down because their desire is for their own whiteness, and not for God.”

I had my eyes upon my own personal whiteness.  And, in this way, I was far from Redemption.  I was broken down, in need of restoration, because I was desiring my own goodness, holiness (and frightened by the lack of it), instead of desiring God.  Living with a desire for my own goodness and holiness is living outside of Reality.  No wonder I felt so tortured and restless.

When we have trusted our lives to Christ, we may go right into the presence of God because our guilty consciences have been washed clean by the blood of Christ.  We need not, indeed, should not, for it is insulting to what Christ did for us, to focus on our sin.  We are free of it.  We need only focus on what God has called us to do – to preach the Gospel in whatever way He has called us to do it.  Not to state the obvious, but there is freedom, true, reckless, glorious freedom, in the reality of redemption.  Live there.  When you realize you’re not, when you forget about grace, step back in.

The Unseen

Last week a man in his late forties came to see me for assistance with a traffic ticket.  He had already retained a lawyer so we could not consult with him.  But, I wanted to make sure he knew that if he had any kind of immigration issue, he would make his lawyer aware of that.  This man was broad-shouldered, had a dark, lined face.  His hands looked calloused from labor.  He had been in a car accident – someone hit him from behind.  When the police came, they gave him a ticket for not wearing a seat belt.  And, they gave him a ticket for driving without a license.  He explained to me that he had come to the United States unlawfully nearly twenty years ago.  As he explained the situation, he wanted to be sure I knew a few things: he had not caused the accident and this was the first time he’d ever gotten a ticket; he had paid taxes for the entire time he had been in the U.S.; he wanted to be here legally.  As he defended his presence to me (unnecessarily, in my mind), he asked some questions.  “If I get the ticket cleared up, can I get a license?”  I looked in his eyes.  “No.”  “I’ve paid taxes for years, does that benefit me in anyway?”  I looked in his eyes.  “No.”  “I’ve been here for a long time, never been in any trouble.  Can I become legal here?”  I looked in his eyes.  “No.”

As I gave him these blunt, honest answers, I watched his eyes fill with tears.  I saw right before my eyes everything that he is – a man, a father, a husband, a worker, a son – evaporate, disappear.  It was as if all of what made him who he is slowly faded, like the closing shot in a movie.  By the time he left, he was a shadow of himself, a shadow of what God had made him to be.

This disappearance reminded me of a passage from a book I have read four or five times, Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison.  The passage is this: “I am an invisible man . . . I am a man of substance of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids and I might even be said to possess a mind.  I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.”

So many of us, in our homes and neighborhoods surrounded by others who look just like us, refuse to see the undocumented immigrant.  They are underground.  We turn our heads.  As a result, there is an entire group of people at risk -- at risk of dissolving, disappearing, becoming invisible men and women.  This dissolution should hurt the deepest part of any soul who follows Christ because it is those at risk, those who others refuse to see, who Christ reaches for, and says “I see you and blessed are you.”

It is not just the immigrant for whom Christ reaches and invites.  It is not just the immigrant that Christ instructs us to care for; it is also the oppressed, the hungry, the thirsty, the imprisoned, the unclothed.  But, as we look around us and ask, who do we refuse to see?  Who do we lump into a category and see not as individuals who God knitted together as masterpieces?  Who do we judge?  To whom do we refuse to extend grace?  Who is it that we refuse to see?  And who is on the verge of invisibility, dissolution?  It is the man who stood before me last week and disappeared before my very eyes.

The poet Emily Dickinson said “hope begins in darkness.”  We are in a dark period for the undocumented immigrant.  What an opportunity, then, for hope to arise.  What an opportunity for the church to reach into this darkness, open our eyes and hearts, and pull out the unseen, the disappearing, and say, “I see you; Christ sees you.  Blessed are you.”