Saturday, May 28, 2011

Ananias answered

Acts 9:1-21 NASB

Now Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest, and asked for letters from him to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, both men and women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. As he was traveling, it happened that he was approaching Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him; and he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?" And he said, "Who are You, Lord?" And He said, "I am Jesus whom you are persecuting, but get up and enter the city, and it will be told you what you must do." The men who traveled with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; and leading him by the hand, they brought him into Damascus. And he was three days without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
Now there was a disciple at Damascus named Ananias; and the Lord said to him in a vision, "Ananias." And he said, "Here I am, Lord." And the Lord said to him, "Get up and go to the street called Straight, and inquire at the house of Judas for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him, so that he might regain his sight." But Ananias answered, "Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much harm he did to Your saints at Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on Your name." But the Lord said to him, "Go, for he is a chosen instrument of Mine, to bear My name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel; for I will show him how much he must suffer for My name’s sake." So Ananias departed and entered the house, and after laying his hands on him said, "Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road by which you were coming, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit." And immediately there fell from his eyes something like scales, and he regained his sight, and he got up and was baptized; and he took food and was strengthened.
Now for several days he was with the disciples who were at Damascus, and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, "He is the Son of God." All those hearing him continued to be amazed, and were saying, "Is this not he who in Jerusalem destroyed those who called on this name, and who had come here for the purpose of bringing them bound before the chief priests?"

My thoughts -

In my Bible there's a heading for this section that says "The Conversion of Saul". This was a big event for the early church. One of their persecutors converted. The man who had presided over the stoning of Stephen and had been given authority to persecute and arrest the faithful became one of them.

This was also a big event for Christianity in general. Without the conversion this man goes down in history as Saul, a man who persecuted first century believers. An important figure? Perhaps, but probably not. The early church had no real shortage of enemies. For them I'm sure Saul was a significant one, but historically speaking I don't know.

But with the conversion here we have the Apostle Paul. An important figure? Absolutely! In fact, he's an important enough figure for Christianity that the bulk of the unsolicited junk mail and Twitter spam I get from New Atheists accuse him of founding our entire religion based on his own delusions and ambition.

I won't get into the veracity of their claims. It's unimportant to me. But even and especially non-believers know Paul. He was instrumental in the spread of the gospel in his lifetime and the author of the bulk of the New Testament. Other than Jesus there may be no person more important for the church than Paul. And that all came because of this conversion. God took an enemy of the early church and decided to make that enemy his chosen instrument for the spread of the gospel to all nations. This is a truly amazing thing.

So it may surprise you that I don't want to talk about Saul/Paul here. There was another man from this passage who did an amazing thing. Sure, Saul/Paul was miraculously converted. Jesus appeared to him, blinded him, and in his blindness Saul/Paul could finally see. But when God called Ananias he had no real way of knowing that.

Why was Saul going to Damascus? He was going to find believers there and, by order of the high priests, take them back to Jerusalem for trial. Stephen had already been stoned. Saul was "breathing threats of murder against disciples of the Lord". Ananias knows this. This man Saul was his worst nightmare. He was bad news for followers of Jesus. And now he's here. He's on a mission to arrest believers and take them to be potentially executed, and he needs Ananias to care for him.

He... wait... what?

Lord, you want me to do what? I've heard about this guy, Ananias might say. I know what he's doing. I know what he had the authority to do. And you want me to go to him. Do you think I'm nuts?

But God insisted. Saul was his chosen instrument. Sure, it's easy to see that now. We have the benefit of history now. But how was Ananias to know? Could God really be asking him to do this thing? How could he be sure?

But Ananias answered the call. He went to Saul. He laid hands on him and healed him in Jesus's name. He did this knowing that it outed him to a man who had the authority to lead him to his death for it. He did this knowing the risk. He did this because he answered the call of God. Even though that call could have him martyred.

Saul was then baptized and went out and preached proclaiming that Jesus is the Son of God. Saul became the Apostle Paul, who all of us know. This happened because God called Ananias, and in the face of mortal danger Ananias answered that call.
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Friday, May 27, 2011

He got up and went

Acts 8:25-40 NASB

So, when they had solemnly testified and spoken the word of the Lord, they started back to Jerusalem, and were preaching the gospel to many villages of the Samaritans.
But an angel of the Lord spoke to Philip saying, "Get up and go south to the road that descends from Jerusalem to Gaza." (This is a desert road. ) So he got up and went; and there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasure; and he had come to Jerusalem to worship, and he was returning and sitting in his chariot, and was reading the prophet Isaiah. Then the Spirit said to Philip, "Go up and join this chariot." Philip ran up and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet, and said, "Do you understand what you are reading?" And he said, "Well, how could I, unless someone guides me?" And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. Now the passage of Scripture which he was reading was this:
"He was led as a sheep to slaughter;
And as a lamb before its shearer is silent,
So He does not open His mouth. "In humiliation His judgment was taken away;
Who will relate His generation?
For His life is removed from the earth."
The eunuch answered Philip and said, "Please tell me, of whom does the prophet say this? Of himself or of someone else?" Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning from this Scripture he preached Jesus to him. As they went along the road they came to some water; and the eunuch said, "Look! Water! What prevents me from being baptized?" [And Philip said, "If you believe with all your heart, you may." And he answered and said, "I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God."] And he ordered the chariot to stop; and they both went down into the water, Philip as well as the eunuch, and he baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; and the eunuch no longer saw him, but went on his way rejoicing. But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he passed through he kept preaching the gospel to all the cities until he came to Caesarea.

My thoughts -

This is one of my favorite passages. A few things happen here that just blow me away.

First, Philip listened and did what God desired. He didn't do some huge thing. God didn't tell him in this instance to leave everyone and everything behind. God didn't give him any earth shattering revelation like he did to Noah along with a command to do something crazy like build a giant boat. This was a simple thing. God didn't ask much. Just take that road. You know, the one over there.

This wasn't some huge thing, or at least it didn't seem that way. He was just taking a different path. But he did what he was told. He listened and obeyed, even in this small thing. Philip got up and went.

Along that road was a man ready to receive Jesus. Philip had know way of knowing this but his openness to the voice of the angel and his willingness to do God's will enabled him to encounter this man. He was in the right place at the right time. Just as God intended.

The man, an Ethiopian eunuch (so maybe "man" is the wrong word here - I'm not sure how gender identity works with eunuchs) was reading scripture. He was reading the prophet Isaiah, and he did not understand what he was reading.

I've often wondered what led this eunuch to read Isaiah. Was he just bored and it was there? Was he seeking something? Had someone previously tried to explain this to him? I don't know. But he was reading it as Philip happened by. Philip asked him if he understood what he was reading, and I love the eunuch's reply. This is a man ready to receive Jesus. He says, "How could I unless someone helps me?"

Philip needs no more invitation than this and preaches Jesus to him beginning with this scripture. The eunuch has questions. Philip answers, teaching him all about Jesus. And then again I love the eunuch's response. He sees water and essentially declares that he's ready to be baptized and nothing can stop him.

What a response! He's ready. Let's do this. No time like the present. So Philip baptizes him and then the Spirit wisks Philip away to wear he needs to be.

This all happened because the eunuch was ready to receive the Lord and Philip was willing to do God's will. There's no real supernatural miracle stuff going on here until we get to Philip's ride home. This is every day, garden variety evangelism. A heart was ready to receive the Lord and a believer was willing to listen to God and to preach the word.

Any of us can do this. We can do this any day. We can do this every day. All we have to do is be open to doing the will of God, go where we're sent, and tell people about Jesus.

Philip was faithful. We can be faithful in this same way.
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Thursday, May 26, 2011

What a response!

Acts 2:37-47 NASB

Now when they heard this, they were pierced to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, "Brethren, what shall we do?" Peter said to them, "Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. "For the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself." And with many other words he solemnly testified and kept on exhorting them, saying, "Be saved from this perverse generation!" So then, those who had received his word were baptized; and that day there were added about three thousand souls. They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.
Everyone kept feeling a sense of awe; and many wonders and signs were taking place through the apostles. And all those who had believed were together and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need. Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved.

My thoughts -

The disciples have received the Holy Spirit and are speaking in tongues. Each person in the crowd hears them in their own language and is amazed. This must be a raucous event to observe from the outside, as speculation arises that all of these people are drunk.

So Peter comes forward and says that they aren't. He says it's only the third hour of the day. I've known people for whom that would not be an obstacle for drunkenness. But Peter says "Look at the time. We haven't been drinking! Come on, man!"

And then Peter tells them why they're acting this way. Peter tells them all about Jesus. Peter gives one heck of a sermon and we pick up in this passage immediately after it with the people's response.

This sermon was convicting. It says the people "were pierced to the heart". God's word has gotten through and now they want to know "what shall we do?"

So Peter tells them. Repent! Isn't that the message God always has for us? Repent! Turn from your sin. Turn back to God. Repent.

I know a lot of pastors who would do pretty much anything to have to opportunity to do what Peter does next. He baptizes three thousand new believers. I'm pretty sure this was the first alter call in Christianity. I'll let the scholars get back to me on that.

God is working here. We don't have people just "giving their lives" in some kind of academic sense. They are literally giving their lives. Their conversion doesn't end with some kind of academic "acceptance" of Jesus as their saviour. They are giving their lives. They are selling all they have and sharing with the needy. They fellowship and worship with each other daily. Think about that the next time you're not sure you have time to make it to church this week.

They're seeing and doing all kinds of amazing things for the Lord. Now I wonder, do they this faithful because of the amazing things, or do the amazing things happen because they are this faithful? This is a community on fire. And it is growing and spreading like a wildfire. You start with eleven people and within days have thousands. And out of those thousands you end up getting what has become Christianity as we know it today.

All of this happens because people hear the word and repent. They are baptised and they are faithful. They do God's will, they worship God and they care for the needy.

It wasn't all roses. The early church faced serious persecution and death. Many of the people who were there on the day of Pentecost were eventually martyred for their faith. But they remained faithful. The heard God's word and they responded.
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Wednesday, May 25, 2011

See my hands

John 20:19-29 NASB

So when it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and when the doors were shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, "Peace be with you." And when He had said this, He showed them both His hands and His side. The disciples then rejoiced when they saw the Lord. So Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you; as the Father has sent Me, I also send you." And when He had said this, He breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. "If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained."
But Thomas, one of the twelve, called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples were saying to him, "We have seen the Lord!" But he said to them, "Unless I see in His hands the imprint of the nails, and put my finger into the place of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe."
After eight days His disciples were again inside, and Thomas with them. Jesus came, the doors having been shut, and stood in their midst and said, "Peace be with you." Then He said to Thomas, "Reach here with your finger, and see My hands; and reach here your hand and put it into My side; and do not be unbelieving, but believing." Thomas answered and said to Him, "My Lord and my God!" Jesus said to him, "Because you have seen Me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed."

My thoughts -

Maybe it's the name. I guess that could be it. Maybe it's the name. Maybe that's why I identify so easily with Thomas.

Jesus came back and Thomas missed it. Poor guy. Everyone else was there. Everyone else saw him. But not Thomas. Thomas was off doing something else. What was he doing? That isn't written here. It wasn't important. Whatever Thomas was doing when the other disciples received the Holy Spirit from their risen Lord, wherever Thomas was instead, that information has been lost in time. It wasn't important enough to remember. One wonders if Thomas, after all of this happened, even remembered.

Where were you the day you didn't encounter the risen Christ? Where were you the day you didn't encounter the Lord our God in the flesh? What were you doing instead? Did it matter? Not in comparison.

Talk about an all time missed opportunity! The other disciples tell Thomas all about what he missed. Maybe it was pride. Maybe he didn't want to believe that he was off doing something else when Jesus returned. I've missed a number of wonderful things because I was off doing something else. You find out what you missed and you want to just kick yourself. You can't believe it. You want to just say "How stupid of me! I should have known better." Or you want to deny that it happened. Not the way they said it did. You couldn't have missed that. No way.

Thomas didn't want to believe he'd missed it. He didn't want to believe Jesus came back while he was off doing something else. He didn't want to believe he'd missed a once in a lifetime opportunity. So he didn't.

Thomas said there was no way. Thomas said it wasn't possible. Thomas said he didn't believe it. Thomas said he wouldn't believe it. Not unless he saw the nail holes. Not unless he saw Jesus's pierced side. There's no coming back from that. No way. And there's no way Jesus came back and Thomas missed it. Wasn't possible. It couldn't be.

How sad it would have been if Jesus left things here. How tragic. Thomas would have missed out. And not only that but he would not, could not believe what he had missed.

We call Thomas a doubter. We call him Doubting Thomas. That is what we remember him for, as though Thomas's reaction to the news that Jesus had raised from the dead and Thomas had missed it was not something any of us would have done.We have given him a bad rap. If this story ended there Thomas would be an even more pitiful person. He wouldn't be the doubter. He'd be the one who missed out.

But Jesus revealed himself to Thomas. Jesus showed Thomas everything Thomas said he would need to see in order to believe. And Thomas responds with elation, exclaiming "My Lord and my God!"

Like Thomas, I don't respond well when I find out I've missed out on something. Also like Thomas I do not believe easily. Some of what we believe sounds crazy. Grace is something too good to be true. Heaven is a fairy tale. That the Maker of the Universe cares about something so insignificant as me is a fantasy. It's all wishes and hopes and dreams. It's too good to be true. I need evidence. I need to see things with my own eyes. I need proof. God, if you're really there and you really care then you'd better show me. Jesus, if you can save me from my sins you'd better prove it to me. I'm wretched. I'm awful. If you knew half the things I've done, if you knew half the things I've thought, you'd just wipe me off this planet. I'd be like a squished bug. A spot. A stain. And then nothing.

But God is good. Jesus revealed himself to Thomas and showed him everything he needed to see to believe. And in my doubt, anguish, self loathing, and fear I call out to God and God answers my prayers. I see the power of grace working in my life and the lives of others. I see first hand the love of God bringing healing to a suffering, sick, fallen world. I feel the peace of God we find only in Christ and a calm warmth fills me. I may not see the face of God. I may not see Jesus in the flesh. But I see enough. I see just enough to believe.

And like Thomas I am blessed for that.
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Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Go and sin no more

John 8:1-11 NASB

But Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. Early in the morning He came again into the temple, and all the people were coming to Him; and He sat down and began to teach them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman caught in adultery, and having set her in the center of the court, they said to Him, "Teacher, this woman has been caught in adultery, in the very act. "Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women; what then do You say?" They were saying this, testing Him, so that they might have grounds for accusing Him. But Jesus stooped down and with His finger wrote on the ground. But when they persisted in asking Him, He straightened up, and said to them, "He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her." Again He stooped down and wrote on the ground. When they heard it, they began to go out one by one, beginning with the older ones, and He was left alone, and the woman, where she was, in the center of the court. Straightening up, Jesus said to her, "Woman, where are they? Did no one condemn you?" She said, "No one, Lord." And Jesus said, "I do not condemn you, either. Go. From now on sin no more."]

My thoughts -

A couple of things about this story have always bothered me. First off, where was the man? The story says "a woman caught in adultery", but who was she caught with? And how was she caught? This whole scenario feels wrong, doesn't it?

It also bothers me that the concern of those who brought the woman to Jesus was not with the woman or the law. This had nothing to do with adultery. They were trying to trap Jesus into saying something that clearly went against the law. There was no concern for this woman. They were willing to potentially have her killed in order to punish Jesus.

There was no concern here for the sanctity of marriage, either. Adultery is a violation of a marriage covenant. A husband and wife are to be faithful to each other. Where was the husband? Was this woman married and cheating on her husband? If so, how did he feel about his wife being stoned? Or was the other man the one that was married? Again, where is he?

This is no honest dilemma. They are trying to trap Jesus. But he would not fall for that.

When my children bring concerns they have with each other to me sometimes I act like I can't hear them. Sometimes I act like I'm not listening or I'm too busy. One of them will have taken someone else's something or will have said something mean or will have done something to cause offense and the others will try to bring Dad into the situation. If the problem doesn't seem like a big deal and if they're just sniping at each other I will ignore it and see how they work the problem out for themselves. Often times these things just work themselves out. They get so worked up trying to get me to solve an issue and then when I don't respond it's like their focus shifts from the original issue to the issue of getting my attention. By the time they get my attention the original issue just doesn't seem like as big of a deal.

I wonder if Jesus was doing something similar here. Was Jesus just drawing in the sand, ignoring the accusers, and letting this situation defuse some? I'm not sure. It says Jesus was writing, but what? Was it important? Was it some brilliant teaching? Was he making notes for himself? Was he just writing for the sake of writing as things played out? It doesn't say.

My pastor, Steve, speculated in a sermon on this passage once, that Jesus was writing each of the accusers own sins. I like that. It plays well into what he says when he finally does address them, what most of us remember from this passage.

Whoever of you hasn't sinned throw the first stone.

Now of course they had all sinned. Everyone has. None of us is perfect. Only one ever has been. Per Jesus's reasoning on Jesus was fit to stone this woman, and he was too busy writing in the sand to be bothered to do it.

Maybe Steve is right that Jesus was, in writing, confronting each of them with their own sins. Even if he wasn't this statement does that. They have all sinned. They know it. Each of us should be pretty aware of our own failings. These accusers certainly were.

One by one, starting with the oldest among them, they put down their stones and walked away.

Why starting with the oldest? I don't know. Maybe with age came the wisdom to know their own sinful states. Maybe with age came some perspective. Maybe with age the desire for wrath and punishment had waned. Maybe with age came more years and more opportunities to commit horrible acts that they then became aware of anew with Jesus's confrontation. Who knows? In any even they all left, and no one was left to accuse this woman.

But what about her sin. Though this confrontation was never really about it, or her, she did commit adultery. Does Jesus just let that slide? Is that no big deal?

Jesus does not accuse her. Jesus does not stone her. But Jesus does send her away with a command.

Go and sin no more.

And after all of the drama from this situation I'll bet she did just that.
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Monday, May 23, 2011

Bike to battle hunger

You're not leaving too, are you?

John 6:59-69 NASB

These things He said in the synagogue as He taught in Capernaum.
Therefore many of His disciples, when they heard this said, "This is a difficult statement; who can listen to it?" But Jesus, conscious that His disciples grumbled at this, said to them, "Does this cause you to stumble? "What then if you see the Son of Man ascending to where He was before? "It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life. "But there are some of you who do not believe." For Jesus knew from the beginning who they were who did not believe, and who it was that would betray Him. And He was saying, "For this reason I have said to you, that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted him from the Father."
As a result of this many of His disciples withdrew and were not walking with Him anymore. So Jesus said to the twelve, "You do not want to go away also, do you?" Simon Peter answered Him, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life. "We have believed and have come to know that You are the Holy One of God."

My thoughts -

Jesus fed the crowd, and after Jesus fed them they couldn't get enough. They wanted more, so much so that they chased after him. He had to flee. He walked (ran?) over four miles across water to escape them. And they still found him, wanting even more.

So Jesus offers them not what they were looking for, but something better. He just does it in such a way that they can't really tell how much better what he offers is. He tells them that they can eat bread from heaven like their ancestors did, but they will just be hungry again. The only thing that will satisfy them is his flesh and blood. In fact, they have to eat his flesh and blood. If they don't eat his flesh and don't drink his blood then they do not have any life.

In this passage we see how Jesus's disciples respond to this message. You can just image what it would be like for them. You can imagine what they would say in their grumblings.

Lord, that's just gross. Are you actually asking us to cannibalise you? Is that what you want? Really? Who would do that? Who wants to listen to that? Have you lost your mind? This ministry is working. The people love you. They will follow you anywhere. They can't get enough. And you go and say something like this? Lord, you're going to run them all off.

Jesus responds to their grumblings. We mortals are so concerned with the flesh. The people wanted Jesus to feed their bodies. But Jesus is telling them that there is no life without the spirit. Here he is, offering more than just food to feed hungry bellies, but himself to feed starving souls. And what do they want more of? The bread.

Obviously Jesus was concerned for bodies. He fed hungry people. He looked on them with compassion and filled their bodies. But his concern for them was greater than that. He wants them to have true, abundant, and eternal life. He wants that so much that he offers himself, and not just bread. But we get so caught up in the superficial. We get so caught up in the things of this world that we neglect the things that are eternal.

Jesus tells his followers that, when it comes right down to it, the body is nothing. It is temporary. It will perish. Life comes from the spirit. What he is offering is greater than the concerns of the body. And all they have to do is believe in him and they can have this real life.

For those whose concerns were for the things of this world only, this is not good news. If you only want bread what good is it to believe? Many people left. Jesus wasn't offering what they wanted.

So Jesus turns to the twelve and asks if they're going to leave, too. This seems like a fair question. They had just been grumbling that Jesus was running everyone off with his teaching. They had just questioned his teaching, his methods, and even his intentions. They had fallen into the same trap as all of the people who left. They had been thinking worldly things. They had been concerned about superficial things. They had seen a large, growing, vibrant ministry implode and watched thousands of followers leave. Why wouldn't they leave, too?

Peter chimes in. "Lord, where would we go?"

These men had spent the most time with Jesus. They left everything to follow him. They had been given the most instruction. Jesus had revealed the most to them. Peter ended up being the first to identify who Jesus really was. They knew they needed more than just bread. They knew they needed Jesus. They knew that Jesus had more to offer them than everything in this world. Sure, they may have questioned. Sure, they may have doubted. But they knew.

Well, eleven of them did.
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Sunday, May 22, 2011

Come and see

John 1:35-51 NASB

Again the next day John was standing with two of his disciples, and he looked at Jesus as He walked, and said, "Behold, the Lamb of God!" The two disciples heard him speak, and they followed Jesus. And Jesus turned and saw them following, and said to them, "What do you seek?" They said to Him, "Rabbi (which translated means Teacher), where are You staying?" He said to them, "Come, and you will see."
So they came and saw where He was staying; and they stayed with Him that day, for it was about the tenth hour. One of the two who heard John speak and followed Him, was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He found first his own brother Simon and said to him, "We have found the Messiah" (which translated means Christ). He brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him and said, "You are Simon the son of John; you shall be called Cephas"
(which is translated Peter).
The next day He purposed to go into Galilee, and He found Philip. And Jesus said to him, "Follow Me." Now Philip was from Bethsaida, of the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, "We have found Him of whom Moses in the Law and also the Prophets wrote--Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph." Nathanael said to him, "Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?" Philip said to him, "Come and see." Jesus saw Nathanael coming to Him, and said of him, "Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!" Nathanael said to Him, "How do You know me?" Jesus answered and said to him, "Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you." Nathanael answered Him, "Rabbi, You are the Son of God; You are the King of Israel." Jesus answered and said to him, "Because I said to you that I saw you under the fig tree, do you believe? You will see greater things than these." And He said to him, "Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see the heavens opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man."

My thoughts -

John and two disciples hear Jesus speak. They are impressed. They have to have more of this in their lives. So they ask Jesus, "Where are you staying?"

Jesus answers with an invitation.

"Come and see."

Philip goes to Nathaniel and tells him all about Jesus. Upon hearing that Jesus is from Nazareth Nathaniel questions how Jesus could be all that.

"Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" he asks.

Philip answers with an invitation.

"Come and see."

We can share the good news. We can preach the gospel. We can tell all about the wonders of God's love for us through Jesus. But if anyone asks we may be best off answering with an invitation.

Come and see.

Nathaniel was impressed with Jesus that Jesus could tell him things about himself that Jesus should not have been able to know. Jesus tells him that if he finds that impressive, just wait. He will see many more amazing things than that on this journey of faith.

Come and see.

If we really believe Jesus is who he said he was. If we really believe God is who we say God is. If we really believe we can talk and argue and shout and try to convince anyone and everyone. But Jesus, in gathering his followers, did not make his own case through an argument. He didn't shout people down. He didn't declare his divinity and say "Follow me or burn in hell." he gave an invitation.

Come and see.
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Saturday, May 21, 2011

Insert REM song here

Luke 21:5-36 NASB

And while some were talking about the temple, that it was adorned with beautiful stones and votive gifts, He said, "As for these things which you are looking at, the days will come in which there will not be left one stone upon another which will not be torn down."
They questioned Him, saying, "Teacher, when therefore will these things happen? And what will be the sign when these things are about to take place?" And He said, "See to it that you are not misled; for many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am He,’ and, ‘The time is near.’ Do not go after them. "When you hear of wars and disturbances, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end does not follow immediately."
Then He continued by saying to them, "Nation will rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be great earthquakes, and in various places plagues and famines; and there will be terrors and great signs from heaven.
"But before all these things, they will lay their hands on you and will persecute you, delivering you to the synagogues and prisons, bringing you before kings and governors for My name’s sake. "It will lead to an opportunity for your testimony. "So make up your minds not to prepare beforehand to defend yourselves; for I will give you utterance and wisdom which none of your opponents will be able to resist or refute. "But you will be betrayed even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death, and you will be hated by all because of My name. "Yet not a hair of your head will perish. "By your endurance you will gain your lives.
"But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then recognize that her desolation is near. "Then those who are in Judea must flee to the mountains, and those who are in the midst of the city must leave, and those who are in the country must not enter the city; because these are days of vengeance, so that all things which are written will be fulfilled. "Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing babies in those days; for there will be great distress upon the land and wrath to this people; and they will fall by the edge of the sword, and will be led captive into all the nations; and Jerusalem will be trampled under foot by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.
"There will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth dismay among nations, in perplexity at the roaring of the sea and the waves, men fainting from fear and the expectation of the things which are coming upon the world; for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. "Then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. "But when these things begin to take place, straighten up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near."
Then He told them a parable: "Behold the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they put forth leaves, you see it and know for yourselves that summer is now near. "So you also, when you see these things happening, recognize that the kingdom of God is near. "Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all things take place. "Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will not pass away.
"Be on guard, so that your hearts will not be weighted down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of life, and that day will not come on you suddenly like a trap; for it will come upon all those who dwell on the face of all the earth. "But keep on the alert at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are about to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man."

My thoughts -

The end is near. That's what we keep hearing. This time it's that the end is coming today. Or was that yesterday in this time zone? Did I miss it? Did Mr. Camping recalculate again? The rolling rapture thing didn't make much sense to me, anyway. Not that any of it ever did.

Jesus is coming back. Soon. We are in the last days. Still. We have been for the last 2000 years. Each generation of believers has some that believe that they are the last.

This chapter was part of my devotional reading this morning. I did not plan it that way, it just kind of happened. There's some stuff in here that, quite frankly, I wish Jesus didn't say. Like the prophets before him Jesus is speaking of some pretty gnarly things. There's a lot of doom, gloom, and destruction.

We've got earthquakes. We've got plagues. We've got famine. We've got wars. We've got invading armies circling and hell, death, and destruction on earth. This is not a pretty picture that Jesus paints.

Desolation is near. Head for the hills. Woe to the pregnant and nursing. Our nation is getting trampled. We will fall by the sword. We're all going to die.

Why is Jesus saying these things? What does he mean?

I wish I understood more than I do. But this I am sure of. We have had all of these things for as long as we've had people. There have been wars and rumors of wars (see Matthew 24 and Mark 13) for the entirety of human history. We have had earthquakes. We have had famines. We have had plagues. We have had destruction. We have had death.

But what does Jesus offer his followers in response to these things? Hope. That seems odd, doesn't it? Hope? In destruction? Hope? In death?
"But when these things begin to take place, straighten up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near."
Your redemption is drawing near. And it has been. And it will be. We have hope in Jesus even in what would seem to be the most hopeless of situations. We have hope in the face of destruction. We have hope in the face of destruction. We have hope in the face of death.

I'm not convinced Jesus was describing a particular day here any more than he was describing all days. Each and every day some disaster strikes somewhere. Horrible, horrible things happen everywhere, all the time. In the face of these horrible things we who believe know that God is still in control. We who believe know that we have hope in Jesus.

The world is probably not going to end today. (Yesterday? I'm still confused about the whole rolling rapture/international date line thing.) But we will face terrible tragedies. And in the face of them we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that we have hope in Jesus.
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Friday, May 20, 2011

How to pray

I read two passages in Luke 18 this morning that really speak on how to pray. Both prayers are sincere. Both prayers are simple. Both prayers have a certain amount of desperation. Both prayers ask for mercy. The first:
Luke 18:9-14 NASB

And He also told this parable to some people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt: "Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. "The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. ‘I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.’ "But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’ "I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted."
Here both men are sinners, as we all are. But one comes before God and puffs himself up as though God does not know his heart. The other acknowledges his sin and humbles himself before God and begs for mercy.

We cannot exalt ourselves before God. God is the Creator/Sustainer of all things. We're going to impress God? Really? And we're going to do so by putting others, who were made in the image of God no less than us, down? This is not a good plan. This is not a good prayer.

The one who honestly and humbly confesses his own sin and asks for mercy does so acknowledging that he cannot save himself. His goodness is not enough. He is not sufficient. Only God is truly good. Only God can save. Only God can forgive sins. Only God can make things right. He has humbled himself and gone to the source of his salvation and begged for mercy. This is a good prayer.

We see the idea of calling out to Jesus for mercy in the second prayer. It may not seem initially like a prayer, but what else do you call crying out to God?
Luke 18:35-43 NASB

As Jesus was approaching Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the road begging. Now hearing a crowd going by, he began to inquire what this was. They told him that Jesus of Nazareth was passing by. And he called out, saying, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!" Those who led the way were sternly telling him to be quiet; but he kept crying out all the more, "Son of David, have mercy on me!" And Jesus stopped and commanded that he be brought to Him; and when he came near, He questioned him, "What do you want Me to do for you?" And he said, "Lord, I want to regain my sight!" And Jesus said to him, "Receive your sight; your faith has made you well." Immediately he regained his sight and began following Him, glorifying God; and when all the people saw it, they gave praise to God.
Look at what the blind man calls Jesus. He calls him "Son of David". He acknowledges who Jesus is. He identifies that Jesus is the only thing that can help him. Jesus is the only thing that can save him. And so he cries out to Jesus. He begs Jesus for mercy.

The crowd is annoyed with him. They tell him to be quiet. They try to shut him up but he doesn't care. This is a man in need of a Saviour. And his Saviour answers, asking what he wants. And then Jesus gives it to him.

When we pray do we go to God without regard to what others think? When we pray do we acknowledge how much we depend on God? Do we humble ourselves, knowing that we are not the source of our own salvation? Do we acknowledge our sin? Do we beg for mercy? Do we need our Saviour as much as these two men did?
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Thursday, May 19, 2011

Knock and it will be opened to you

Luke 11:1-13 NASB

It happened that while Jesus was praying in a certain place, after He had finished, one of His disciples said to Him, "Lord, teach us to pray just as John also taught his disciples." And He said to them, "When you pray, say:
‘Father, hallowed be Your name.
Your kingdom come. ‘Give us each day our daily bread. ‘And forgive us our sins,
For we ourselves also forgive everyone who is indebted to us.
And lead us not into temptation.’"
Then He said to them, "Suppose one of you has a friend, and goes to him at midnight and says to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves; for a friend of mine has come to me from a journey, and I have nothing to set before him’; and from inside he answers and says, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been shut and my children and I are in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ "I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his persistence he will get up and give him as much as he needs.
"So I say to you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. "For everyone who asks, receives; and he who seeks, finds; and to him who knocks, it will be opened. "Now suppose one of you fathers is asked by his son for a fish; he will not give him a snake instead of a fish, will he? "Or if he is asked for an egg, he will not give him a scorpion, will he? "If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him?"

My thoughts -

I don't like to pray. That's not really true. I do like to pray, in a way. There's just ways that I don't like to pray. It's not necessarily that there's anything wrong with praying these ways. I am just not comfortable with them.

First, I don't like to pray in front of people. I don't know why. I just feel self conscious in front of others. If I'm with other believers I feel like my prayers are stupid, simple, and weak. They lack a certain sophistication you often hear. I don't do well with the flowery language. I don't "beseech" well.

When I was in high school we did events called "See You At The Pole" each year. Each year groups of believing students would meet at the flag pole before school and pray. It was at one of these events that I first discovered how inadequate my prayers were. I just couldn't keep up with some of these students. They used such beautiful language. They described God in a variety of ways. They prayed with intensity. They prayed with passion. I had none of these things. I probably prayed aloud for 15, maybe 20 seconds and then said "amen" and sheepishly walked away. I just couldn't hang with the "big boys and girls" of prayer there.

This problem has followed me over the years. Every time I am asked to pray in front of others I recall my own inadequacy. I wonder if everyone can see it. I fear they'll see right through me and know, when it comes to prayer, that I am a fraud.

But then look at Jesus's prayer here:
Father, hallowed be Your name.
Your kingdom come. ‘Give us each day our daily bread. ‘And forgive us our sins,
For we ourselves also forgive everyone who is indebted to us.
And lead us not into temptation.
Jesus is teaching his disciples to pray with a prayer that is not that long. It's not that flowery. It's not that complicated. It's actually pretty simple. It's beautiful, sure, but it is beautiful in its simplicity.

Let's look at this same exchange as recorded in Matthew 6:
Matthew 6:5-13 NASB

"When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. "But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.
"And when you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition as the Gentiles do, for they suppose that they will be heard for their many words. "So do not be like them; for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him.
"Pray, then, in this way:
‘Our Father who is in heaven,
Hallowed be Your name. ‘Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven. ‘Give us this day our daily bread. ‘And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. ‘And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil. [For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.’]
So all of those words I don't use, all of the flowery language I am uncomfortable with, the anxiety I feel praying in front of others, they don't seem to be that big of a deal here, do they? Sure, I should be more comfortable going to God in prayer. What others may think about how I pray shouldn't matter to me. I don't believe it matters to God. In fact, I get the impression here that if I pray to impress others then I'm doing it wrong. If my prayers are impressive to others that's all they're good for. That sort of thing does not impress God.

Now, the other issue I have with prayer. I hate to ask for things from God. I get the feeling that what I think I need, that what's troubling me, that all of my issues are cosmically insignificant. Doesn't God have better things to do than listen to my issues? Doesn't God have more pressing concerns?

Yet in this passage from Luke Jesus is telling his followers that not only should they, when they pray, go to God with their needs, but they should pester God. Sure, God is the Creator/Sustainer of the entire universe. But God is also our good and loving Heavenly Father. The author of time itself is not bound by time. It's not like, in hearing my prayers, God will somehow not have time to do other things. That kind of thinking is nonsensical.

Jesus is telling his followers to go to God with their concerns. To go to God with their problems. To go to God with their needs. And Jesus assures them, and us, that God will listen. And that God will, in love, give us good things. We who are sinners give good gifts to those we love. God, who is perfect and loves perfectly does so even more.

All of my hang ups about prayer, when tested against the teachings of Jesus, don't make much sense.
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Wednesday, May 18, 2011

You do not know what kind of spirit you are of

Luke 9:51-56 NASB

When the days were approaching for His ascension, He was determined to go to Jerusalem; and He sent messengers on ahead of Him, and they went and entered a village of the Samaritans to make arrangements for Him. But they did not receive Him, because He was traveling toward Jerusalem. When His disciples James and John saw this, they said, "Lord, do You want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?" But He turned and rebuked them, [and said, "You do not know what kind of spirit you are of; for the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them."] And they went on to another village.

My thoughts -

I'm a twin. My twin brother and I were always thought of, growing up, as a pair. That was frustrating to us. We were always grouped together. We were not individuals. We were the twins.

We were, and still are, passionate people. We fought each other viciously to establish our own identities. We resented each other. No one who isn't a twin or who doesn't have twins can really understand this complicated relationship. We loved each other and hated each other simultaneously and with fiery intensity. Our fights were legendary. It was not uncommon to go by our house and see us rolling around the front yard biting, scratching, kicking, punching, and screaming at each other while Mom manned the hose hoping to extinguish our rage.

God be with you if you ever drew our wrath away from each other and toward yourself. It was well known not to mess with the twins. Look what they do to each other. They like each other. They don't like you. You want no part of that.

You never really see James and John mentioned as individuals in the gospels. They are a package. They are the brothers. They are the sons of Zebedee. They are the Sons of Thunder. Here you see the Sons of Thunder act a bit like the Baker twins.

Jesus and his disciples are traveling. Jesus wants to go to Jerusalem. They pass through a Samaritan village. Maybe these Samaritans had never heard Jesus's message. Maybe they didn't know his parable of the Good Samaritan that we know so well. Maybe they didn't know of his encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well. If they had known who this man was, what he believed, what he taught, they probably wouldn't have denied him lodging. If they had known that he was God's own Son sent for all, Jews and gentiles, maybe they would have acted differently.

But they didn't know these things. They just knew he was going to Jerusalem. They knew of their long history with the Jews. They knew of their cultural and religious differences. They knew the Jews looked down on them. And they decided if this dude was going to Jerusalem they sure as heck weren't going to make it easy. No lodging for you, buddy.

This decision drew the ire of the brothers. The Sons of Thunder were about to show why Jesus gave them that collective nickname.

Lord, you're not going to let them treat us this way, are you? Lord, we don't have to take this from them. Lord, let's show them. Why don't you let us call down fire from heaven and consume them?

I'd like to think that Jesus just shook his head wearily like my mother would do at the thought of the violence her twin sons could accomplish. Maybe, as he was shaking his head he put his hand on his forehead. Maybe there was some kind of Divine facepalm action. Then he turned and rebuked them.

Boys, stop it. You have no idea what I'm about, do you? You do not know what kind of spirit you are of. I did not come to destroy. I came to save.

We get wronged. It happens. People say and do mean things. Sometimes it's about us. Sometimes, like in this case, the reasons are historical and complicated. Worldly thinking demands retribution. Worldly thinking desires revenge. When we've been wronged we want justice. When we've been wronged we are the twins that turn from beating the snot out of each other to beating the snot out of those that did us wrong. When we've been wronged we want to call down fire from heaven to consume those that have done us wrong. We want to be Clint Eastwood or Charles Bronson. We want justice. We want vengeance.

But Jesus says no. Jesus says I didn't come to destroy, I came to save. Jesus says love your enemies. Jesus says if someone hits your cheek don't hit them back, give them the other one to hit. Jesus says you are blessed when you are persecuted. Jesus says to pray for those who do you wrong.

These things do not come naturally to us. It's not easy. We want to call down fire from heaven. But instead we should call down blessings. Jesus, thank God, doesn't desire destruction. Jesus desires salvation and reconciliation. And we should, too.
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Monday, May 16, 2011

The communion of saints

I'm no mystic. I'm not. I feel the need to say that up front. Because that is important to me for two reasons.

The first, my grandfather died in 1988.

The second, I spent the bulk of my day yesterday with my grandfather.

Now, that second part didn't really happen. Not really. I knew it wasn't real but the experience was so clear, so vivid, and it felt so real that I could not tell that it wasn't real at the time. Let me explain.

I woke up yesterday about an hour later than usual. I was very groggy and had a severe headache. I read scripture in the morning like usual but couldn't really wrap my head around it. I tried to compose a blog post yesterday like usual but couldn't really wrap my head around it. I went to the church and led worship like usual. Well, I guess I did. I honestly don't remember much about worship. My head wasn't there. I wasn't there. I was somewhere else. Or maybe I was nowhere at all. Wherever I was or wasn't my head was killing me there.

We went to The Rock / La Roca after worship and visited some friends. I perked up a little bit. Then I drove home, had lunch, and laid down for a bit. My head hurt. I wasn't going to take a nap. I was just resting. But I was lethargic. I couldn't do anything. I couldn't move. I could just lay there. Hurting.

I found out later that I had a fever. I don't know much about that. But I do know that I was moving quickly in and out of the room. I was moving in and out of myself and in and out of time.

In my travels I spent time with my grandfather. My Papaw. We hung out in his basement in Elgin. He smoked a pipe and we talked about basketball. We hung out in his basement in Springfield. We talked about life. We talked about pickup trucks and owls (my brothers will understand). My parents fussed at him because he let me drink too much pop. I went to a basketball game with him and he let me eat some licorice rope. We did things. We did nothing. We did them all at once.

Some of these events really happened in his lifetime. I remember them now. But it was odd. I was neither a child nor an adult. I was just me. He was not the age that he was in my memories, nor the age he was when he died. He wasn't any age at all. He was merely himself. That's hard for me to explain. It's hard now for me to understand.

I remember his face clearly. I remember his voice. I remember his scratchy stubble. I remember his Reebok basketball shoes that turned his toes black when he played in them. That man that I physically remember wasn't the person in my dreams. It's not that he didn't look like that. It's that he didn't look like anything. At least, not anything I can describe. I didn't either. I don't know how I could tell who either of us was but I could. I could just tell. He wasn't who he was in this life. He was who he always was. Who he was made to be. It was different. No age. No looks, or at least not any that made any sense. He was all ages and all times all at once. Equal parts adult and child. As was I. We were simply ourselves. Not ourselves at any point in time but ourselves at all points in time. If that makes and sense.

I didn't want to leave. While I was speaking to him it occurred to me that, as real as this felt, it was only in my head. I couldn't stay there. I was moving too fast. I was heading home. To this place in space and in time.

As I awoke I punched the wall in frustration. I had no idea how long I slept, but I didn't want to wake up. Not then. I just wanted to steal a few more precious moments with a man who hadn't been available to me for almost 23 years.

I don't know what heaven is like. The idea of time in heaven doesn't make much sense. What use is time in eternity? When I was engrossed in this fever dream time didn't exist. It was as if all times were available at once. Years went by in seconds and seconds lingered for years. I can't explain what this was like. It was a different universe. Time didn't exist. Not in the way that we think of it.

Today I have a sense of peace I haven't had for a long time. It will pass. It will wear off. My experience wasn't "real". It was only in my head. I didn't really spend the day with my grandfather. We were not transformed radically into new creations. Our old, imperfect bodies were not replaced. We did not really exit the oppression of time. We did not transcend life and death as we know them here. But my experience was no less real than the memories I have of yesterday. This was no mere dream in the way I experienced it. Rational me will take over. Rational me will talk myself down from this experience. Rational me will work to make this make sense. I had a fever. I was delirious. I was sick. I was exhausted. I was asleep. I was dreaming.

But this was no mere dream. Not to me. Not yesterday, at least.

They left everything

Luke 5:1-11 NASB

Now it happened that while the crowd was pressing around Him and listening to the word of God, He was standing by the lake of Gennesaret; and He saw two boats lying at the edge of the lake; but the fishermen had gotten out of them and were washing their nets. And He got into one of the boats, which was Simon’s, and asked him to put out a little way from the land. And He sat down and began teaching the people from the boat. When He had finished speaking, He said to Simon, "Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch." Simon answered and said, "Master, we worked hard all night and caught nothing, but I will do as You say and let down the nets." When they had done this, they enclosed a great quantity of fish, and their nets began to break; so they signaled to their partners in the other boat for them to come and help them. And they came and filled both of the boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw that, he fell down at Jesus’ feet, saying, "Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man!" For amazement had seized him and all his companions because of the catch of fish which they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. And Jesus said to Simon, "Do not fear, from now on you will be catching men." When they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed Him.

My thoughts -

Jesus provided Simon Peter with the biggest catch of his lifetime. They had worked all night and caught nothing. They must have been frustrated. Maybe even a little desperate. And here comes this guy, and he says "Hey, why don't you drop your nets over there."

Simon Peter replies with something like, "Sure, buddy. We're professionals. We've been at this all night. We know what we're doing. There's nothing out here to catch." But then, figuring it couldn't hurt anything he does what Jesus said. And there it is. A catch too big to haul in.

Simon Peter must have realized that there was something really different about this Jesus fellow. He stayed ahead of the game that way, as he was later the first of the disciples to figure out who Jesus really was. But here Simon Peter couldn't have known Jesus was the Messiah, but he knew there was something special about him. Look at how he responds to Jesus:
But when Simon Peter saw that, he fell down at Jesus’ feet, saying, "Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man!"
Jesus didn't go away, though. At least not yet. Instead he invited Simon Peter and his companions to follow him. And Simon Peter, James, and John left everything and did just that.

They walked away from a big payday. They left behind a thriving business. They left behind everything and followed Jesus. And Jesus asks us to do the same. Can we?
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Make ready the path of the Lord

Luke 3:1-18 NASB

Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip was tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene, in the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John, the son of Zacharias, in the wilderness. And he came into all the district around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins; as it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet,
"The voice of one crying in the wilderness,
‘Make ready the way of the Lord,
make His paths straight. ‘Every ravine will be filled,
and every mountain and hill will be brought low;
The crooked will become straight,
And the rough roads smooth; And all flesh will see the salvation of God.’"
So he began saying to the crowds who were going out to be baptized by him, "You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? "Therefore bear fruits in keeping with repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father,’ for I say to you that from these stones God is able to raise up children to Abraham. "Indeed the axe is already laid at the root of the trees; so every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire."
And the crowds were questioning him, saying, "Then what shall we do?" And he would answer and say to them, "The man who has two tunics is to share with him who has none; and he who has food is to do likewise." And some tax collectors also came to be baptized, and they said to him, "Teacher, what shall we do?" And he said to them, "Collect no more than what you have been ordered to." Some soldiers were questioning him, saying, "And what about us, what shall we do?" And he said to them, "Do not take money from anyone by force, or accuse anyone falsely, and be content with your wages."
Now while the people were in a state of expectation and all were wondering in their hearts about John, as to whether he was the Christ, John answered and said to them all, "As for me, I baptize you with water; but One is coming who is mightier than I, and I am not fit to untie the thong of His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. "His winnowing fork is in His hand to thoroughly clear His threshing floor, and to gather the wheat into His barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire."
So with many other exhortations he preached the gospel to the people.

My thoughts -

Can you come to Jesus without repentance? John preached and baptized in repentance for the forgiveness of sins in order to prepare the people for the coming of Jesus. Not only did John preach repentance he also demanded, upon receiving forgiveness of sins, that the people live lives that bore the fruit of that repentance and to not just rest on their status as the chosen people and those who had received forgiveness.

Can we uncouple repentance from forgiveness? Can we uncouple living changed lives bearing the fruit of repentance from forgiveness? Can we ignore that John preached these things to prepare for the ministry of Jesus? Is there an easier path we can take to Jesus? Is there one that demands less, or better yet nothing at all? Can we receive Jesus without preparation in repentance?

I have often wondered these things. I was involved in a ministry once in which people were sent out to witness to others. A big part of this witness was an effort to convince those who we were witnessing to that they stood condemned in their sin. The idea was that if they were not aware of their sin they could not repent. If they didn't repent they couldn't receive Jesus. No Jesus no salvation. But everything started with the conviction. Everyone must know how wretched and awful they were in their sin and how badly they needed to turn.

As you could imagine this was not a popular message. No one likes to hear it. Especially not from a total stranger. This method of witnessing I found to be both ineffective and in a bad spirit. It was as if we had something that we were lording over those we wanted to save. That was a big turn off.

Also, I can not recall a time that I have been unaware of my own sin. I've never needed anyone to beat me over the head with it. I do that quite enough, thank you. But the more people I know, the more I observe, the more I talk to, the more I am convinced want to believe that everyone is a sinner but them. This is an issue. Whether it is a turn off or not it is very difficult to repent if you don't feel like you have any sin to turn from.

I wish there was a simple method for witnessing. I wish there was a simple formula for preparing people to receive Christ. Someone going up to you in the mall, asking you a few questions about your life, and then telling you that you're going to hell unless you repent right now is probably not going to convince you to receive whatever kind of salvation they claim to be offering. But then again, if you don't know that you need salvation how can you receive it? If you are unaware of your sin how can you turn from it? If you don't believe you have any sin in your life how can you be rescued from it?

So let's look again at John. Who is he talking to? Who is receiving his message?

The crowds have come to be baptized by him. They know they need something. Maybe they've heard there is a prophet and are curious. Maybe they know that their lives aren't working for them and they need a change. But they have come for him. They have come to hear his message. They are prepared to receive it.

And so they hear him. And then they ask. What should I do? So he tells them.
And the crowds were questioning him, saying, "Then what shall we do?" And he would answer and say to them, "The man who has two tunics is to share with him who has none; and he who has food is to do likewise." And some tax collectors also came to be baptized, and they said to him, "Teacher, what shall we do?" And he said to them, "Collect no more than what you have been ordered to." Some soldiers were questioning him, saying, "And what about us, what shall we do?" And he said to them, "Do not take money from anyone by force, or accuse anyone falsely, and be content with your wages."
John didn't let them off the hook. He is preparing people for Jesus. There's no cheap grace here. They are to repent and they are to lead changed lives. They turn from their sin and lead lives that show the fruit of that change. All of their interactions, even their professional ones are to reflect that change.

That's no easy message. I'm sure that it, along with a lot of what Jesus preached (die to self, forgive always, turn the other cheek, be perfect as God is perfect) rubbed (and still rubs) people the wrong way. If we tell people they have to repent to receive Jesus some won't like that. If we say that their lives should (have to?) bear the fruit of that repentance some of them won't like that. It will seem judgemental. If we say that a big part if that is how they do their jobs and not just who they feel they are, you know, on the inside, they won't like that, either.

But if people want to know how to come to Jesus can we really honestly say that all you need to do is say this one little prayer, affirm these right beliefs, and it's all good? Can we honestly say that you don't need to prepare to receive Jesus? Can we look at John's ministry and say that it was unimportant? If people didn't need to prepare to receive Christ why did God call John? Why not just skip straight to Christ's redemption of us and be done with it?

I don't have all of the answers I'd like to. I don't know the "best" way to reach people. There are things that make me a bit squeamish about witnessing, quite frankly. But I am certain of a few things. One, Christ saves. And also, if we want to be set free from our sin we have to turn from it. I don't know how to convince people to do that. I don't think shouting at them in the mall works too well. Maybe I missed the times it did work. I don't know. But we are all sinners. And we all need Jesus. And we need to make ready the path of the Lord.
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Saturday, May 14, 2011

You are not far from the kingdom of God

Mark 12:18-34 NASB

Some Sadducees (who say that there is no resurrection) came to Jesus, and began questioning Him, saying, "Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies and leaves behind a wife and leaves no child, his brother should marry the wife and raise up children to his brother. "There were seven brothers; and the first took a wife, and died leaving no children. "The second one married her, and died leaving behind no children; and the third likewise; and so all seven left no children. Last of all the woman died also. "In the resurrection, when they rise again, which one’s wife will she be? For all seven had married her." Jesus said to them, "Is this not the reason you are mistaken, that you do not understand the Scriptures or the power of God? "For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. "But regarding the fact that the dead rise again, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the passage about the burning bush, how God spoke to him, saying, ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? "He is not the God of the dead, but of the living; you are greatly mistaken."
One of the scribes came and heard them arguing, and recognizing that He had answered them well, asked Him, "What commandment is the foremost of all?" Jesus answered, "The foremost is, ‘Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ "The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these." The scribe said to Him, "Right, Teacher; You have truly stated that He is One, and there is no one else besides Him; and to love Him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as himself, is much more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices." When Jesus saw that he had answered intelligently, He said to him, "You are not far from the kingdom of God." After that, no one would venture to ask Him any more questions.

My thoughts -

Too often I fall into the same line of thinking as the Sadducees. The logistics of resurrection are too daunting for this mortal mind. The situation they proposed was ludicrous, and they proposed it to Jesus for dishonest reasons, but still, weird things happen in relationships in this life. As we deal with the idea of a next life we get pretty comfortable with the idea that these relationships, in some way, travel with us.

That begs the question of the logistics. How does what we do on earth translate into eternal life in heaven? How does who we love on earth translate into eternal life in heaven? When I was a child my grandfather, whom we all loved, passed away. My grandmother remarried to a wonderful man who was also a widower.

My young Christian mind was blow by how this might affect all of our relationships in heaven. Who would "really" be my grandmother's husband there? Who would "really" be my grandfather? Would I lose my "new" grandfather to his first wife and family? Would they all have to choose? Could I get to keep them both as my grandfathers? The logistics were impossibly daunting for me.

Jesus answers the Sadducees in a way that almost laughs off these childish questions. We don't understand. We have no idea what is in store. Our ideas of heaven are off base if we think that things like who is married to who will matter much there. Our heads are stuck in this mortal world. We just don't get it.

But we better believe that God is the God of the living and not the dead. The saints will be raised. When we are raised we will live with God like the angels do. This ought to be good enough for those of us who worship God. Our Creator can handle the logistics.

Hearing Jesus answer the Sadducees without getting bogged down in their ridiculous speculation and dishonest questioning impressed one of the scribes. He figured this Jesus fellow must really have some insight, so he asked Jesus another question. What is the most important commandment?

Jesus tells him that the most important commandment is to love God with everything you've got. Love God with all of your heart. Love God with all of your soul. Love God with all of your mind. Love God with all of your strength. In everything you do, with everything you are, love God. But also love other people like you love yourself. To love God is to love others.

The scribe likes this answer and affirms it. To love God and to love others is more important than giving offerings. To love God and to love others is more important than any sacrifice. To love God and to love others is more important than any kind of strict adherence to any part of the law. Would good would even the strictest legalistic adherence be without love? Jesus tells the scribe, based on this line of thought, that he is not far from the kingdom of heaven.

This gets me back to my wonderings about our relationships and what carriers over into eternity. I had been wondering about titles. I had been wondering about labels. I had been wondering about relationships in more of a formal sense. I've been bogged down in labels and formalities. I've been bogged down in legalism and logistics. Maybe this was the problem the Sadducees had when it came to the resurrection. Maybe they couldn't believe because they were concerned with all of the wrong things.

What matters is love. All that really matters is love. Love God. Love others. We can do that here. We can do that in heaven forever. God can handle the logistics and labels and formalities. We can be free to just love God and love each other in the way that we have always been intended to be.

And we can get a head start on heavenly living right here and now. All we have to do is love God and love others.
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Friday, May 13, 2011

But he kept crying out

Mark 10:46-52 NASB

Then they came to Jericho. And as He was leaving Jericho with His disciples and a large crowd, a blind beggar named Bartimaeus, the son of Timaeus, was sitting by the road. When he heard that it was Jesus the Nazarene, he began to cry out and say, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!" Many were sternly telling him to be quiet, but he kept crying out all the more, "Son of David, have mercy on me!" And Jesus stopped and said, "Call him here." So they called the blind man, saying to him, "Take courage, stand up! He is calling for you." Throwing aside his cloak, he jumped up and came to Jesus. And answering him, Jesus said, "What do you want Me to do for you?" And the blind man said to Him, "Rabboni, I want to regain my sight!" And Jesus said to him, "Go; your faith has made you well." Immediately he regained his sight and began following Him on the road.

My thoughts -

How badly do we need Jesus? How badly do we need to be healed? How desperate are we to be restored? How intensely do we need mercy?

Jesus was close and Bartimaeus knew it. He desperately needed Jesus to heal him. Nothing else mattered. So he cried out to Jesus. Though his cries became a nuisance to others he did not mind. Though they tried to get him to stop he wouldn't. He couldn't.

He identified Jesus as his only hope. He needed to be restored. He needed to be healed. He needed to be set free from his affliction. He needed mercy. The crowd did not matter. Their disapproval did not matter. He didn't care if he looked like a fool. He didn't care what anyone thought. He needed Jesus.

Are we desperate for Jesus like Bartimaeus was? Do we know that we need mercy more than we need the approval of the crowd? Do we have the faith and the courage to desperately pursue Jesus no matter what the crowd says?

My favorite part of this story: Even after his sight was restored Bartimaeus followed Jesus. He didn't just use Jesus to have his sight restored and then leave to pursue other things. Yes, he wanted to see. But more than that he needed Jesus. He didn't just need Jesus to heal him. He needed Jesus.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Feeding people and riding bicycles

I am sending out a fundraising letter for a ministry that I am involved in and it occurred to me that a great many of my "friends" from the "friends, family, and partners in ministry" part of the heading are, unfortunately, total strangers to me in real life. So many of you are on Twitter and read and write blogs and do all kinds of amazing things in your own "real lives", and yet I only get to interact with you in this online world. It seemed rather shortsighted of me to not send this to you. Some of you are, in a way, far closer to me than many people I "actually" know.

I wanted to make sure that I didn't overlook you so I'm posting this on the blog. If you feel led to respond to this please contact me through this blog, through my website, or on Twitter.

Dear friends, family, and partners in ministry,

I am writing to you because I am involved in an exciting ministry with The Rock / La Roca’s Community Garden and Hunger Ministries and it needs your help.

The Rock / La Roca’s Community Garden is in its fifth year and is in the process of growing. In fact, it has seen growth in each year of its existence. This growth has enabled us to produce larger and larger quantities of fresh produce that feeds the hungry in our community. Within the next year we have the opportunity to quadruple the amount of food that we are able to produce.

The Rock / La Roca’s Community Garden and Hunger Ministries currently serves over two hundred families in the community. This is done through the Monday night dinner that is offered, our summer feeding program for children, and the baskets of fresh food we send home with Monday night diners and deliver to shut ins and others in need. This year we also have the opportunity to partner with Arlington Elementary School and help them establish their own garden.

The Rock / La Roca’s Community Garden and Hunger Ministries also partners with gardeners, local farmers, and the Lexington Farmer's Market in order to provide huge amounts of fresh food to the hungry. These partnerships include organizations like Faith Feeds (, a local gleaning group that collects donations from local farmers and distributes them to emergency food agencies; InFeed (, a group whose mission is to use vacant urban land to grow food for the hungry; and Seadleaf (, a group whose mission is to give people a chance to grow food, to cultivate an appreciation for healthy, local, nutritious food, and to promote availability of such food by installing and maintaining gardens in and around Lexington.

As The Rock / La Roca’s Community Garden has grown over the years so have the costs of operating it. The greatest current needs are money for equipment and infrastructure. The biggest obstacle in the production of food in the garden is water. We simply do not have adequate access to water nor do we have adequate irrigation equipment. This limits what can be grown, when it can be grown, and where it can be grown.

We are looking to add a water line, tap and meter, and a drip irrigation system to the lot that we use. This will allow us to maximize our yield of fresh healthy fruits and vegetables for the community while responsibly using water, our most precious resource on the planet. The cost of adding this will be approximately $4000. We also have other equipment and infrastructure costs that we need to raise money for, including tools (rakes, hoes, shovels, etc.) for site preparation, seeding and harvest; harvest bins for carrying produce from the field; stakes and twine for supporting pepper and tomato plants; and canning equipment for processing surplus harvest for use after the growing season.

Finally, we would like to be able to hire some teenagers from the community to help with the garden this summer. This will allow for them to earn some pocket money, stay out of trouble and gain some work experience that will aid them in the future.

As a ministry that works primarily with the urban poor we do not have the financial resources at present to fulfill our vision for this ministry and to accomplish what we believe that God is calling us to do. This is where you come in.

In order to raise money and awareness for this cause some of us who work with the garden and feeding ministries have decided to ride our bicycles to this year’s Kentucky United Methodist Annual Conference. On Tuesday, June 7 we will gather at The Rock / La Roca United Methodist Church in North Lexington and mount our bicycles. We will ride from there to the Northern Kentucky Convention Center in Covington, Kentucky. That’s over 80 miles of riding.

I ask that you partner with us to achieve our goals. Whether through prayer or financial support as a sponsor, I would like you to please join us. If you would like to be a prayer partner by all means do so. You can start praying right now! All of riders, including myself are currently training and covet your prayers for our safety and a successful ride. If you would like to make a donation to this ministry, please send your check (made payable to The Rock / La Roca UMC and designated “Community Garden Fund”) to:

The Rock / La Roca United Methodist Church
1015 North Limestone
Lexington, KY 40505

I thank you for prayerful consideration and for your support.


Tom Baker


Mark 4:26-32 NASB

And He was saying, "The kingdom of God is like a man who casts seed upon the soil; and he goes to bed at night and gets up by day, and the seed sprouts and grows--how, he himself does not know. "The soil produces crops by itself; first the blade, then the head, then the mature grain in the head. "But when the crop permits, he immediately puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come."
And He said, "How shall we picture the kingdom of God, or by what parable shall we present it? "It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the soil, though it is smaller than all the seeds that are upon the soil, yet when it is sown, it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and forms large branches; so that the birds of the air can nest under its shade."

My thoughts -

I guess it's confession time. I confess that I am a bit of a control freak. I like to have my hands in pretty much everything. If I'm not doing it then I don't know that it is being done. This is a real issue for me.

I am also a bit of a pessimist. If I don't see immediate results then my mind starts to fill with a wide assortments of terrible and spectacular ways what I am doing will fail. Reality has never been nearly as impressive as my imagination and my imagination is nearly limitless with the creative possibilities of total failure.

In short, I do not trust well. I do not trust God. I do not trust people. I rely on myself, my own strength, and results that I can easily see with my own eyes. And I'd better see them quickly, too.

Jesus, with these parables, describes the kingdom of God in ways that challenge my way of being. In the first parable here we see a man sowing seed. He sows the seed and then goes to bed. There is nothing he can do to make it grow.

It's not that the man isn't doing any work. He is. He is doing what he is called by God to do. But what he can not do is make the seed grow. He doesn't even really understand the process. That process is one that God alone fully understands.

If I were the sower here I may tend to the garden. I may observe the crops. I may water and weed. But the growth of the seed is between the seed and God.

But that's not good enough for me. I can't trust the seed to grow. I can't trust that God desires nothing more than for the seed to grow and is working in ways I can't begin to understand to make that happen. I can't let go. And yet I still can't make the seed grow. And if I don't see some immediate growth I just don't know how to handle it.

In the second parable here we see a very small seed, a mustard seed. Someone like me could see that seed and be unimpressed. It is tiny, after all. What could it possibly amount to? God forbid it if the seed didn't take immediately. I was unimpressed to begin with. And yet here Jesus shows us something truly great that comes from something so small and unassuming.

God works in all of us in ways I can't even begin to understand. I have a hard time dealing with this. I have a hard time allowing that the Creator of the Universe is, in fact, quite the competent Deity and capable of accomplishing what is needed.

I am tasked with sowing seed and this is not always good enough for me. I need to be in control. I need to make the seed grow. And yet I don't even understand the process. And let's be honest here, I'm not even that good at sowing the seed. It's not like I could handle greater tasks that are beyond any mortal.

So when will I learn to let go and trust God to be God? Does God not desire to reconcile himself to all people? Does God not work to that purpose in all people? We can preach. We can teach. We can spread the good news of Jesus everywhere we go sowing seed. But we can not reconcile one person to God. We can not save one person. That task is God's alone through Christ.

But we plant the seeds and even the tiniest seed, when God encourages it to grow, can become a tree so large that birds can find shelter in it and it can provide shade for all who are near.
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Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Sheep and goats

Matthew 25:31-46 NASB

"But when the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne. "All the nations will be gathered before Him; and He will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats; and He will put the sheep on His right, and the goats on the left.
"Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. ‘For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.’ "Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? ‘And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? ‘When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ "The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.’
"Then He will also say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry, and you gave Me nothing to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me nothing to drink; I was a stranger, and you did not invite Me in; naked, and you did not clothe Me; sick, and in prison, and you did not visit Me.’ "Then they themselves also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not take care of You?’ "Then He will answer them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’ "These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."

My thoughts -

This passage really tears me up. I don't like judgement. I don't like condemnation. I don't like wrath. Give me grace any day. Give me mercy. Give me forgiveness. These things feel good. I like them.

And yet, what of justice? Do I not care for justice? And when I pray for God's will to be done on earth as it is in heaven do I not mean it? How will it be done of God's followers do not do it? Are we waiting and hoping that God will miraculously do it for us? Are we not called to do God's will?

So Jesus is speaking of salvation and damnation here and I think we have totally missed it. We want to hear what we like. We want to be happy. We want it to be easy. So we don't think Jesus means what he says. Not really. We're not required to do anything. We don't really have to. We just need to "accept" Jesus. We need to say the right prayer and believe. Jesus is an academic proposition, something to be affirmed. We claim to believe and it's all good. It's smooth sailing. We're home free.

And yet when Jesus talks of salvation it seems like it's an awfully demanding thing. Sell all you have and give to the poor. If you hand causes you to sin cut it off. If your eye causes you to sin gauge it out. Be perfect as God is perfect. Care for the poor, feed the hungry, give the thirsty something to drink, give shelter to the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick and imprisoned. And if you don't do these things, well then clearly you don't know me and I don't know you.

Do we hear this message? Does it sink in? Can we claim salvation in Christ and refuse to do God's will? Can we claim salvation in Christ but not work to have God's will done on earth as it is in heaven? Can we claim to have salvation in Christ but not care for all of God's children? Can we claim salvation in Christ but ignore God's concern for the weak, the lost, the poor, the oppressed and the broken? Is salvation something that's good to have only of it makes no demands on us?

Where did we get the idea that we just have to believe the right things, say the right prayer, check the box marked "I accept Jesus" and then we're saved?

Certainly not from Jesus!
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Monday, May 9, 2011

The road traveled

It was a beautiful morning and I had a little extra time so I took a pretty long and meandering route to the office this morning. In my wanderings I biked past the first home I ever really knew. We had lived in a couple of different places when I was a baby and toddler but I have no real memories of them. But when I was three we moved into the place I still remember as home.

I have many vivid memories of this place though we moved away from it when I was younger than my children are now. I remember biking to the corner store for candy and baseball cards. I remember playing ball in the street. I remember the swing set that equipped us for flight. I remember the baby pool with a basketball goal attached that we would play in in the back yard. I remember my mother speaking with a prophetic voice against violence on television and toy guns. I remember her words falling on deaf ears as we went over to Mike's house or Kyle's house and did whatever we wanted.

I remember less the arguing that my parents must have done back then and more the love they shared with us. I remember them holding me when I was scared. I remember being allowed to sleep in their bed if I fell out of mine in the middle of the night. I remember falling off of the top bunk with rather frightening regularity.

I remember them comforting and reassuring me when my brother broke his arm. I remember being certain that it would never heal. We had broken many toys before. I knew what that word meant. His arm was broken.

I remember not long after we moved from there my father comforting me as we threw rocks as far as we could in the park upon hearing of his father's death. That was my Papaw. Papaw was the best person in the world. He was the entire world to me. It was as if God Himself had died. It never occurred to me that that was my father's Daddy, too. I was my daughter's age then. Would I be able to do the same for her if she suddenly and tragically lost her Pops? Somehow I doubt it.

As I wonder these things I wonder if we have made the kind of home for my our children as my parents did for us. I pray that we have. I pray that they will remember their parents' love for them more than they remember our frail and fragile humanness and our failings.

And I pray that some day they will be able to wonder the same about their homes and their children.