Monday, May 30, 2011

Freedom Isn't Free

It’s Memorial Day and the older I get, the more this day becomes less about sales and picnics and more about the service and the sacrifice that ensured my freedom to write this blog, to openly attend and work in a church of my choosing, to speak my mind and stand up for what I believe in knowing that my family, my home, and myself are protected from government intimidation or reprisal. If I openly disagree with the leaders of this country, I don’t have to worry about police breaking into my home, dragging me away to who knows where for who knows how long. The laws of this land guarantee that I cannot be detained or arrested without legal cause and assure me the right to due process, legal representation, and protection from abuse from those who enforce the rights of all Americans if I ever find myself in the unlikely event of being in police custody. This assurance came at a huge cost – the service and sacrifice throughout this country’s history of the dedicated men and women of the military and their families. You only need to spend a small amount of time outside of this country to realize how precious those rights and privileges are and how far too easily we take them for granted. It’s not enough, but I offer my thanks and deep appreciation to those who have served and to those who are serving in the military and to their families.
Yes, I am an American, and yet, still, I am a foreigner in this country. My true citizenship lies in an even greater kingdom. I am a citizen of the Kingdom of God. I am a daughter of the King and a servant of the Most High. Just as I owe my human rights and freedom to the sacrifice and service of the noble men and women of the United States Military Service, I owe my spiritual and eternal freedom to Someone other than myself whose sacrifice guaranteed my complete and lasting freedom from sin and eternal protection from sin’s tyranny. Jesus willingly left behind the glory of heaven to be confined within the smallness of humanity to reveal the Father’s love, power and grace which is available to all. He did not come as a human king, but as the Noble Servant. He loved with his Father’s heart those who were unlovable, untouchable, ignorant, poor, sin-ridden and hopeless. He ushered them to the door of his Father’s kingdom and then welcomed them in with his sacrifice on the cross giving them the rights and privileges as Kingdom citizens when he rose from the dead and took his rightful place ruling at God’s side. Even now, thousands of years later, he continues his work of bringing his beloved children into his Kingdom through the work of the Holy Spirit who lives in and reaches out through all servants of the living God.

Remember this day the service and sacrifice of the many brave Americans who believed your freedom was worth their lives. And remember every day the sacrifice of the One who loved you so much, even in the depth of your sin, that to him, his own death on a cross was worth your freedom and redemption.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Joe and the Elephant

In 1972, Joe Miller was on holiday in Kenya after graduating from Tulsa Junior College. On a hike through the bush, he came across a young bull elephant standing with one leg raised in the air.  The elephant seemed distressed, so Joe approached it very carefully.  He got down on one knee, inspected the elephant’s foot, and found a large piece of wood deeply embedded in it. As carefully and as gently as he could, Joe worked the wood out with his knife, after which the elephant gingerly put down its foot. The elephant turned to Joe, and with a rather curious look on its face, stared at him for several tense moments.  Joe stood frozen, thinking of nothing else but being trampled. Eventually the elephant trumpeted loudly, turned, and walked away.  Joe never forgot that elephant or the events of that day.

Thirty years later, Joe was walking through the Tulsa Zoo with his family. As they approached the elephant enclosure, one of the creatures turned and walked over to near where Joe and his family were standing. The large bull elephant stared at Joe, lifted its front foot off the ground, and then put it down. The elephant did that several times then trumpeted loudly, all the while staring at the man. Remembering the encounter in 1972, Joe could not help wondering if this was the same elephant.  Joe summoned up his courage, climbed over the railing, and made his way into the enclosure. He walked right up to the elephant and stared back in wonder. The elephant trumpeted again, wrapped its trunk around one of Joe's legs and slammed him against the railing killing him instantly. Probably wasn't the same elephant.

I bet you thought you knew how that story was going to end and you were wrong – weren’t you? It never ceases to amaze me how often I am taken by surprise when life doesn’t work out the way I think it should. When I do everything “right” and life still turns out “wrong” – I feel like I’ve been cheated! I get angry and somewhere inside me a voice screams, “It just isn’t fair!” I pray and read my Bible, I give of my time and my talents and still, I struggle. Everything is going along great and then something happens to steal my happiness away once again. Where is God when things go wrong? When the good suffer and the evil prosper? Why does he seem to answer some prayers and not others?

What do we do when the story doesn’t end the way we think it’s should? I don’t have a satisfactory answer for you except to say that there are some things about God that we, as his creation, just aren’t able to comprehend. When I was little, my parents would often say to me, “because I said so” when I asked why. And when I became a parent, I said it to my child too. It’s what parents say when they know their children just aren’t capable of grasping the complexities of why. When I was a child, I hated “because I said so” and as an adult, I’m just as annoyed by it. Even so, I trust God and that means I trust him with what I don’t know as well as with what I do know. As long as one of us knows what’s going on, I’m okay with that. And if the only two options are him or me – I’d rather the omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent Creator of the Universe is the one who knows what’s going on and is in control of what is going to be. Wouldn’t you?

About the pictures:
Pittsburgh Zoo (June 2009)

Monday, May 16, 2011

Suicide, Grief, and God

Someone whom I was close with many years ago took her own life this past weekend. She leaves behind children, a husband, parents, siblings and a large extended family. Even though I have a very intimate understanding of the emotional pain that can drive a person to make that decision, I was taken by surprise because the little red-haired, freckled-face bundle of joy I picture in my memory just doesn’t equate with the despondent woman she must have become over the years. The world has lost something precious.

As I begin to process the grief of this tragic loss, my mind races to familiar scriptures. I think about Psalm 139 that tells us that we are fearfully and wonderfully made and how she was fully known and seen by God – all her pain, fear, and hopelessness. Even if she couldn’t see him, he saw her. He couldn’t take his eyes off of his beloved child, his precious creation. He cried with her and though she never felt his arms around her, he held her tight and whispered,” I’m here.”

I think about the Parable of the Lost Sheep in Luke 15 that tells us that God will go after the one lost sheep until he finds it. His love is so great for us – for her – that he will not stop UNTIL HE FINDS HER and then joyfully carries her home on his shoulders. Then he, with all of heaven, will rejoice! I wish she had been able to hear, through the drone of sadness that filled her ears, his voice calling out to her. Yet, still there is hope. Not even death can stop him from finding her and bringing her home for Jesus has forever conquered death. This parable tells me that Jesus himself cannot imagine heaven without his beloved children and his objective is to bring us home. And because Jesus never lies or fails, I expect nothing less than to see him in all his glory one day with all of creation singing his praises and worshiping at his feet. He will not rest until he brings us home.

Is she finally at peace in the presence of God? Some religious traditions say that she’s not because she committed suicide. I have decided to believe whole-heartedly that she is indeed at rest in God’s arms. God’s ways are higher than our ways (Isaiah 55:9) and we cannot know this side of heaven whom God’s grace has already escorted into paradise. To say that someone has or has not gone to heaven on the basis of their good or bad acts is silly human conjecture. Not one of us can earn our way. It is only by God’s grace alone that any one of us has the hope of eternal life with God. In Exodus 33:19, God tells us that he will have mercy on whom he will have mercy and he will have compassion on whom he will have compassion. God decides – not us or our religious traditions or our interpretations of God’s Word. Only God is fit to make that judgment. Jesus died on the cross and rose from the dead to release God’s grace upon the world. There is no offense that his sacrifice cannot or will not blot out. We are told in Isaiah 43:25 “I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions, for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more.” We find this same promise three more times in scripture – that our sins and lawless acts he will remember no more (Hebrews 10:17). For his own sake, he remembers our sins – and hers – no more. God is love (1 John 4:16) so I must believe she is resting in love now.
My heart goes out to her children, her husband, her mom and dad, and her brothers and sister. I know from my own experience that she felt that they would understand; that they wouldn’t have wanted her to live in unbearable pain and anguish a moment longer. I pray that they will be able to know God’s comfort and grace as they begin this new existence without her and to know that the separation is only for a little while until we are all eternally reunited in God’s great throne room.

If you are considering suicide – please seek help immediately. Call the 24-hour National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or go to your local hospital emergency room. I promise you, living is worth it.

About the pictures:
Pittsburgh, PA (May 2011)

Monday, May 9, 2011

Glimmer of Hope in a Hopeless Place

  • On January 12, 2010, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake hit Porte-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti, resulting in 3 million people needing emergency aid.
  • In the weeks that followed, 33 aftershocks occurred ranging in magnitude from 4.2 to 5.9.
  • 222,570 people were killed.
  • 20% of the city was destroyed and serious damage was done to the remaining 80%.
  • 14 months later – only 20% of the rubble has been removed and 1.5 million people are still homeless.
  • In November 2010, a cholera epidemic affected over 170,000 Haitians in Porte-au-Prince and killed over 3600.
  • In early 2011, a political upheaval significantly slowed down the already difficult process of earthquake recovery.

It was with this somber news that my church sent a mission team to Haiti to help rebuild. Seven men from our church were called to leave behind the comfort and daily routine of their lives for a week to spread a little of the hope of Christ by building a home for someone in need in Haiti. One man explained that several years before, he had been on a mission trip to the Dominican Republic (Haiti’s neighboring country) and was touched by the poverty and lack he saw there. And yet the country was being overrun with illegal immigrants from Haiti who were fleeing to the Dominican Republic because, in comparison, they were so much better off than the people of Haiti. What a sobering statement.

I expected upon their return for them to share how hopeless the situation in Haiti is. They were going to build one house in a nation where 1.5 million were left homeless. They were going to a place where the poverty and lack of a neighboring country was preferable to their own even before the earthquake. They were going to a place where it could take a decade for the inhabitants to once again enjoy the standard of living they had before the earthquake – not a standard of living we in the U.S. understand – but a standard of living that is representative of the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere – a title Haiti held long before the earthquake hit. I expected them to return feeling good for helping but defeated from the overall devastation.

Instead, they returned filled with hope – hope given them by the very people to whom they went to give hope. They told of a young man who hollowed out the trunk of a fallen tree to make a canoe which he used to help support his family by giving boat tours of the reef to tourists and mission workers. They spoke of a family of children given the hope of security by their grandmother who cared of them and the grandmother whose hope was fullfilled in the home (essentially a sturdy shack) built by strangers whose only motive was to help where they could. They told of the incredible dignity these people held onto amongst the rubble of their former lives.

One man brought back a souvenir that touched my heart and showed me the hope that God can bring even amid this unimaginable devastation. A young enterprising Haitian boy had picked through the wreckage to gather together some bottle caps, wire, tin and plastic sheeting out of which he carefully crafted a toy dump truck. The wheels move, the bed lifts and the tailgate is hinged to open. In this desolate place, surrounded by the debris left from the strongest earthquake Haiti has seen in 240 years, the children have found a way to play again. What greater hope can be found in such a dismal place than the laughter and joy of a child playing?

There is most definitely hope to be found in Haiti and in my own life. I’ve learned from the people of Haiti that my hope truly does rests in God and not in my surroundings or my situation. If I believe that with all my heart, I will act like I believe it, and then others will see that hope in me. And when that hope can be seen especially in the worst of circumstances, how much more is God recognized and praised for his amazing grace!

About the pictures:
All the pictures were taken by and posted with permission from Ted Martin. Thanks Ted.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Finding Jesus in the Doubts

A pastor friend of mine recently gave a sermon that explained that it’s okay for Christians to have doubts. I’m so glad he said that because I was going to have them whether it was okay or not. My faith was planted in a field of doubts. It grew and later flourished, transforming that field of doubts into a fortress of truth - beliefs tested and proven in adversity.

Jesus came to me in a time of my life when I believed that absolutely no one could be trusted – a belief proven beyond a shadow of a doubt repeatedly throughout my lifetime. I remember wanting to belief that this Jesus I was reading about in the Bible was real. I desperately wanted it to be true, but my life experience had told me that even if it were true, Jesus, like everyone else, would eventually hurt and/or abandon me.

It was the hope that Jesus was who the Bible said he was that gave me the courage and determination to approach the Lord that first time. I remember it so clearly. I told Jesus that if he was who he said he was – he knew that the trust had been beaten out of me long ago. I told him of my deep desire for him to be the person revealed to me in God’s Word and I offered to trust him as much as I could – as little as that was – and allow him to prove to me that he could be trusted more. That was enough for Jesus. He wasn't asking me for more than I had to give - only all that I had to give. He accepted all the trust I had to offer and over the years has proven to me relentlessly that he can be trusted beyond the shadow of any doubt. His patience, love, and acceptance won my heart little by little and I have learned and believe wholeheartedly – even in doubt, Jesus is trustworthy.

I find it amazing that, even after so many years, doubt is still just as present. But now, instead of doubt in God, my doubts are in me. Why would God love me? Was this the sin that broke the camel’s back – how can God forgive me one more time? I’m so inadequate – why would God use me to further his kingdom? Here’s the thing about doubting myself – it doesn’t change how much God loves me, or how much he can do in and through me! Even in my doubts, God can and will still do what God does and I get to see once again that he is the all-powerful, loving God revealed to me in the Bible. In fact, it is in my self-doubting that God’s power and love are so clearly seen.

I’m not saying that I have to go around doubting myself for the rest of my life. In fact, I’ve recently begun growing past my self-doubt and amazingly enough – God is still God. Doubt will continue to creep in on occasion over my lifetime, but even in doubt, I will have the rock solid assurance that God is with me, that he loves me, and that he will provide for and protect me to the best of his ability which can never fail me.

About the pictures:
Deer Lake Park, PA (August 09)