Saturday, September 6, 2014

God's Strange Call to Failure

Here's a strange call from God. It's the call to failure. It is a call foreign to American exceptionalism which rewards success and throws failure in the trash heap.  Failure is the antithesis of everything we've been taught and conditioned to believe since we were children. How strange that The Lord called us to fail!

Teachers don't teach it. They reward the successful student. When I taught in the public school, an ice cream party with a goody sack was held for honor roll students. They were privileged and got of class to participate in the celebration.

Coaches don't coach to lose.  A team's failure will only be tolerated for a short time before fans clamor for his dismissal. College athletic directors and owners of professional sports teams won't put up with a coach who loses more games than he wins. There was even a popular saying several years ago. "Second place is the first loser."

Businesses don't reward failure.  If a company loses money year after year, the CEO is replaced by the stockholders with someone who can make it profitable again.

Preachers don't preach failure either.  How many sermons have you ever heard on God's call to failure?  I can't think of a single one. Instead, it's all about overcoming failure to be the success God wants you to be. In fact, pastors who build bigger buildings, increase giving, and add members are often rewarded with even bigger churches and bigger salaries.

No husband and wife wants their marriage to end in the failure of divorce. On their wedding day, they dream of happiness, joy, and marital bliss.

Failure is not an option in our American culture. It is never recognized, never rewarded, and never held as a standard for others to follow.

As General George Patton famously said, "America loves a winner!"

It seems so odd and peculiar that God would call us to failure. It's so wrong. It's so out of the ordinary, and yet that's exactly what God wanted on one occasion for the Israelite army and His chosen people.

The strange call to failure is found in Judges 20:23-26.

"The Israelites went up and wept before the Lord until evening, and they inquired of the Lord. They said, “Shall we go up again to fight against the Benjamites, our fellow Israelites?”

The Lord answered, “Go up against them.  Then the Israelites drew near to Benjamin the second day. This time, when the Benjamites came out from Gibeah to oppose them, they cut down another eighteen thousand Israelites, all of them armed with swords."  

Can you imagine the consternation and confusion of the soldiers who survived this battle as they ran from the scene of slaughter where 18,000 of their comrades in arms lay dead?  Can you imagine the hurt, disappointment, protest, and even anger they had toward God?

They must have said, "But God, you told us to go fight against the Benjamites when we asked you whether or not we should fight them.  Why did you tell us to fight and not give us the victory?  We were defeated, and You were the One who told us to go into battle!"

So, let me ask.  Is every call from God a call to success. Is every task He sets us on going to end in victory?  Can a victorious life be a failed life?

It takes a lot of time in meditation, counsel, and reflection to get over the shock of failure that God engineers. The heart can become bitter. Doubt in the Lord's goodness can drive out faith. But in such times, faith is all we have to hold us together. And faith always leads to hope as God reveals the purpose of his strange call to failure.

George Matheson(1842-1906) knew failure. He lost his eyesight at age 20. His fiancé broke their engagement.

One of the great hymns Matheson wrote, "O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go" contains these lines.  "O Joy that seekest me through pain, I cannot close my heart to thee; I trace the rainbow through the rain, And feel the promise is not vain, That morn shall tearless be."

Matheson also wrote a book of devotions, Thoughts for the Journey, (which is available in a free ebook by clicking the link). He observed: "Is there no such thing as a call to failure?  What is it that God wants to perfect in us? Sympathy. How is sympathy made perfect?  Is it in the number of my victories?  No.  It is in the number of my defeats. It is not in my gains but in my losses that make me human. My heart must go through the pathway of thorns. The cross has fitted me for sympathy with the crowd.

"It is not the powers but the difficulties of the great that inspire us. I get my wings from their night not from their sunshine. I make their clouds my chariot. I rise upon the step upon which they fall. It is not the footprints they left on the sands of time that impel me to follow.  It is the spots where the footprints fail. It seems a strange thing that the temple of a holy life should have one gate not beautiful. Elijah had his depression. Moses had his temper. John, who saw heaven, had his moment in Samaria. I will take wing from their weakness. Get robed from their rags. I will rise from the spot where they wrestle. In the place where they flagged, I shall be constrained to fly."

Another reason God's call to failure is strange to us is because He wants to form the image of His Son in us making us complete and whole through the humility caused by failure. Our default position is pride. There was a time in my life that I was like the Israelites. I prayed and felt God calling me to "go into battle against the Benjamites."  But, I failed miserably. Pride kept me from seeking a counselor. "After all," I thought, "I'm a pastor. I have helped others with my counsel. I am the pastor-counselor, and counselors like me have all the answers. I even took several counseling courses in seminary." I thought I didn't need anybody's help, but I was so wrong.

I rationalized, "Why should I go to anyone else since I have all the answers?"  So, I tried harder in my own strength and was crushed again and again when I tried to figure out my issues on my own that had brought me such pain and depression.  But each time, I was routed on the field of battle like Israel. It was with enormous difficulty that I swallowed my pride and sought professional counseling and began in earnest seeking self understanding through long times of prayer, meditation, Scripture, journaling. Slowly, piece by piece, The Lord chiseled away offensive pride and self-sufficiency in me and wrought in me the grace of humility. 

One of the many truths I learned was to put aside my prideful self-esteem. I learned instead to bask in God-esteem and accept His providence in that He was and is always working to bring good out of my failures including His strange call to failure. The call to failure creates the image of Christ in me. Jesus said, "Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls (Matthew 11:29-30).

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Lord's Baseball Game

Now Fred was a real baseball fan.  He had been invited by the Lord to watch the game in the owner's box and sat next to the Lord.  The Lord's team was at bat, and they were trailing 3-0. It was the bottom of the 9th inning with two outs.

The batter named Love stepped to the plate.  He swung at the first pitch and knocked a single because Love never fails.

Next up was Faith.  He beat out a bunt and put runners on 1st and 2nd because Faith works with Love. 

Batting third in the bottom of the 9th was Godly Wisdom.  The devil tried to deceive him with a curve ball.  Godly Wisdom looked it over.  Ball one, the umpire called.  Three more trick pitches but Godly Wisdom refused to swing at the sucker pitches.  He walked, and the bases were loaded because Godly Wisdom never swings at what the devil throws.

The Lord turned to Fred and said, "I'm bringing in my star player now with the bases loaded." Grace stepped into the batter's box.  Fred looked at Grace and said to the Lord, "He sure doesn't look like much!"  The devil's team thought the same thing and relaxed thinking they had won the game. 

The devil went into his wind-up, and threw a 99 mile per hour fastball.  It was high heat.  To the shock of everyone, Grace swung and connected.  Grace hit the ball harder than anyone could have ever imagined.  But the devil wasn't worried.  His center fielder was fast and never missed a fly ball.  He ran back, back, back to catch the ball and went up for the ball.  But the ball went right through his glove, hit him on the head, and sent him falling to the ground.  The ball bounced off his head and over the fence for a grand slam home run!  The Lord's team won 4-3.   

Then the Lord turned to Fred and asked him, "Do you know why Love, Faith, and Godly Wisdom could get on base but couldn't win the game?"

Fred replied, "No, I really don't know why."

The Lord explained, "If your love, faith, and wisdom had won the game, you would think you had done it by yourself.  Love, Faith, and Wisdom will get you on base, but only my Grace can get you home."
Click this link or the arrow on the embedded video for the Victor's Crown by Darlene Zschech and Hillsong.
"The Lord's Baseball Game" is copied with my edits from Evangelist Joyce Payne's September 2014 newsletter, "Outpourings of Good News."  Click on the link to go to her website. 

Monday, August 18, 2014

A Most Bizarre Promise

I love to watch God work in people's' lives.  Even more, I love to experience His work in my life. 
 
Out of the abundance of our God's grace, mercy, and providence, he turns the hard times into immeasurable blessings. Only by the power of God can a hard stone turn into a pillow of blessing. That's what He did for Jacob, and I've witnessed this transformation in my own life as well as in the lives of others. I've also read about it in the biographies and accounts of Christians who had a stone for their pillow. 
 
Jacob fled for his life from his twin brother, Esau, after tricking their father, Isaac, into giving him the blessing. The blessing rightfully belonged to Esau, the older of the two brothers. When Esau discovered the deception, he became murderously mad and went after Jacob.
 
Jacob was an unlikely candidate to receive the promise that God gave to his grandfather, Abraham, which wasn't fulfilled until the Hebrews occupied the Promised Land. But, God had said at the twins birth that the younger, Jacob, would inherit the promise instead of the older, rightful heir, Esau. 
 
The working out of God's promise was fraught with doubt, drama and danger as is all the promises that God gives to us. Jacob's adverse situation caused him stress and anxiety. He was always looking over his shoulder.  He was always looking back to try and detect any sign that Esau was closing in on him.
 
On his way to Paddan Aram to find a wife among his people, Jacob laid down on the hard ground using a stone for his pillow. His sleep was fitful, restless, and taut with tension. He dreamed of a ladder with angels ascending and descending on it that caused him great anxiety. He woke up in terror. And exclaimed, "God lives here!  I've stumbled into God's home! This is the awesome entrance to heaven!” (Genesis 28:10-12). Such a vision of glory would be anyone's nightmare. It is enough to send any mortal to his/her knees. 
 
In that horror, Jacob heard the voice of God. "The ground you are lying on is yours! I will give it to you and to your descendants" (Genesis 28:13). This is one of the strangest promises ever conceived. The place of my humiliation, the place of my collapse, will become the place of my conquest.

It is not uncommon for a person in the hour of adversity to have hope and a vision of a better fortune. But this promise is different. It is remarkable in how bizarre it is.  God said, "The ground you are lying on is yours!" There is a time coming in which your glory shall consist in the very thing which now constitutes your pain. Nothing could be more dismal to Jacob than the ground on which he was lying. It was the hour of his poverty. It was the season of his night. It was the seeming absence of God. 
 
But God declares that this rejected moment is to be the scene of his glory. "The ground you are lying on is yours!" The place of your prostration will be your paradise." There is no promise in the world so bewildering and yet so sweet to a distressed soul as this. 
 

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The Hush of the Land

My wife, Joyce returned to me August 4. On her flight home that day, she reflected on her nine days in the Montana Rocky Mountains Bob Marshall Wilderness  riding horseback on the trail, camping, and experiencing the wonders of God's creation and love.  Here are her reflections.

Sitting here on the plane, I know this trip was meant just for me. A gift from God. A spiritual renewal for me.

I can't say I "prayed fervently" every day, but I worshiped every day. Just praising God for the beauty, the sights, and His protection through the storms especially the time I was almost struck by lightning high up on the trail which split a tree and set it on fire.  To not be afraid for in Him, I found my strength. To see with my own eyes the "grander"work of the Creator God. Yes, it was my "Experience of the Best." How grateful I will always be for this.

I came to realize that love should be given away - for in giving you receive. God gives the beauty and wonder of the mountain wilderness, and I received.

I rode horseback about 86 total miles over my eight days in the wilderness according to Mark, our trail ride leader. I really enjoyed it. It was hard, but I enjoyed it. I lost weight. I don't know how much if any, but I am down to my last belt notch. So, I lost in inches for sure.

I gained a deeper respect for our forefathers and the courage and strength it took to settle the West. I talked with Sandy last night at dinner around the camp fire. Her husband was a Lutheran pastor, and she recently lost him due to Alzheimer's. She questioned if she had strength. I responded and told her that if she did this trip, she had the same stuff our forefathers did to settle this wild country. She did the same things - rode hard  and camped!  Yes, she had strength to face life without him. A weak woman couldn't have rode the trails and camped in a tent day after day.

So with the trip at its close, I have these reflections.

No matter where you are, God is with you.

No matter what, God directs your footsteps.

He is the Creator. His "Eden," His Earth" is proof.

He reminds us to acknowledge Him in all things.

His love for me is beyond my understanding.

His desire is to bless.

And most of all, I must do like Jesus, and on occasion, go to the "mountain" to reflect and to pray in order to reconnect so I can go back to the "valley" a stronger person - a person full of faith and love.
 
Being in the "wilderness" puts everything else away. It's you and the land and God - nothing else to distract you. There you can hear His voice in the "Hush of the Land."

Joyce went with the Bob Marshall Wilderness Outfitters owned by Connie and Mack Long who are also guides on the trip. Click this link for their Facebook page. 
 
Click this link with Rocky Mountain scenes and the beautiful hymn rendition of "For the Beauty of the Earth" performed by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir or click the arrow on the imbedded video.
 

Saturday, August 2, 2014

The Guilt Game - Don't Play It

Do you allow others to control you by guilting you? Do you change your plans or feel shame and inferior because someone poured the hot grease of blame and shame down your back?
 
Shame and blame are cruel weapons to manipulate people into doing and into thinking ideas that you are reluctant to do and that are against your better judgment by a person who desires to control you.  Controlling people throw guilt to make you feel bad for the purpose of ruling you which fulfills their sick need for power. And in some cases, they simply want you to feel indebted to them in order to make you serve them.
 
Jesus refused to play the throw and catch guilt game. To maintain your integrity and identity, you and I need to decline playing that game too.
 
The Pharisees couldn't control Jesus by guilting Him. Oh, they tried and used every weapon in their arsenal. But, they couldn't control him. He knew who he was and is, and therefore, He was confident in his actions, teachings, and thoughts.  His Father affirmed his identity by saying on several occasions, "This is my beloved Son" (Matthew 3:17).
 
Both His opponents and friends tried guilting him into submission. Their fiery attacks were powerless against him.
 
Their are numerous instances in the Gospel narratives that show how Jesus refused to play the throw and catch guilt game both with the Pharisees and with his disciples.
 
One example is found in Matthew 15. The Pharisees were infatuated with their love for power and control. Anyone who questioned or threatened their dominant position had to be quickly eliminated, discredited, or silenced.
 
Jesus was their biggest threat as more and more people followed and listened to His message of hope, forgiveness, and love which was the antithesis of the Pharisees legalism based on making people feel guilty.
 
But, the Pharisees weren't alone in their thirst for power and significance. It was desired by Jesus' disciples.
 
Jesus' disciples wanted power too as evidenced by James and John's desire to sit on the right and left hands of Jesus in His kingdom. They coveted power and authority. And, the disciples did not want to upset or embarrass these power-brokers and be shunned by them. They questioned Jesus when He challenged the Pharisees and teachers of the law.
 
Here's the incident that embarrassed the disciples from Matthew 15 with my comments.
 
"Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, 'Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat.'" In effect, the Pharisees were saying, "We want to control you. We will control you by throwing the mud-ball of guilt at you. You and your disciples don't wash their hands like the Law of Moses says you should do. It's Bible. It's in the Old Testament. Wash your hands before you eat! You're not obeying the Bible. Obey the Bible and wash your hands! Do what we say or your guilty of breaking the commandment."
 
You see, the real issue was not obeying the Bible. The real issue was that they couldn't control Jesus so they threw some Bible-guilt at Him in an effort to rule over Him like they did everyone else. If they could control Him here, then they could control Him in other ways until they had total mastery over Him.
 
Have you ever had the Bible thrown at you? I have. Here's one instance out of many. After a sermon I preached, a church member came up to me and and spread the shame manure all over me. She said, "And you call yourself a preacher!? My Bible says divorce and remarriage is adultery! How can you stand up there and preach?" The issue was not my divorce and remarriage but a sermon I preached that this woman didn't like. I explained to her my basis for what I had said and my interpretation of the passage that she intercepted differently. When she failed to win me over to her point of view, she threw the old guilt slime ball at me using God's Word no less just like the Pharisees did to Jesus. I refused to catch it! She huffed off mad as an old wet settin' hen and gave me the silent treatment for a few Sundays. She even went out of the sanctuary's side door rather than the front door to avoid shaking hands with me.

People like this lady and the Pharisees misuse the Bible to throw guilt and rule over the person they seek to control.
 
Going back to the dialog along with my comments on Matthew 15, how did the disciples throw guilt at Jesus?

Monday, July 28, 2014

A Tribute to My Wife

Joyce with guide,
Connie, before disappearing
 into the Montana
Rockies for 8 days
I miss my wife. I missed her terribly. Her 5:30am flight out of Augusta was canceled.  We both teared up thinking her dream trip was doomed.  We will never book a flight out of Augusta again! 
 
Fortunately and after prayer, she was rebooked and confirmed out of Atlanta for her trip.  I took her to the Atlanta airport to go on her Montana Rocky Mountain wilderness adventure on Friday, July 25. She arrived in Missoula, Montana that night.  One of the guides picked her up Saturday morning from the Marriott, and they drove to the trail head that begins the Bob Marshall Wilderness. They saddled their horses and along with three pack mules and five staff personnel, her group set off for the adventure she has longed for.
 
She'll return August 5th. That's 11 long days. I say long days without her. It's the longest we've ever been apart in our thirty years of marriage. I thought I'd be OK. I encouraged her to go. "Fulfill your dream.  Seize the moment while you've still got your health. I'll be all right."
 
She deserved a break. She works hard. She's a Proverbs 31 wife. I don't deserve her. Out of God's overflowing grace and mercy, He brought us together.  For some reason unfathomable to me, she said, "Yes," when I popped the question. I was a broke, broken preacher. My life had collapsed. I was selling cars and serving a small rural church near Augusta, Georgia, when we met. She was a nurse.  Good job.  Good benefits. She owned a home and a car. I owned nothing. She said, "Yes."  Even after thirty years, I still can't believe it.
 
I have to confess. After all, they say confession is good for the soul. I have to confess I take her for granted sometimes. I just assume she'll always be there for me.  I don't show my gratitude and love like I should. You see, not only does she work as a nurse, but she runs the household too. I try and pitch in, but she does the lion's share or should I say the lioness' share of work around here which allows me to write, study, minister to my church, and teach part time at a small Christian school.
 
Bob Marshall Wilderness
Chinese Wall. Joyce will be
camping on the summit
Joyce wanted to get away. And what a place to get away to. She wanted to feel the creation and majesty of God speaking through the mountains, gurgling in the clear mountain streams, and whispering through the forest trees. She wanted to count the stars. Hear the silence before drifting off to sleep snug in her sleeping bag. She wanted to eat cakes on the griddle beside the morning campfire. And, she's finally doing it. Or should I say "being it."  For such an experience is not doing but being, renewing, and worshipping.  I imagine it's as close to heaven as a person can get.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

A Message from the Birds

Sitting here this morning in my screened in man cave, I watch the cardinals, tufted titmouse, hummingbirds, and house finches busy themselves at the bird feeders. The mocking bird who built her nest in a bush next to the garage sits on top of the feeder singing away. Sweet songs rise in chorus from all of them as God summons the first light of morning. It's an ethereal experience.

The happy birds are fed from a harvest they did not sow. They build their nests from materials they did not purchase. The momma birds lay their eggs, and together they raise their chicks from the bushes around our house that they did not plant. The Heavenly Father provides for them.

It's a beautiful picture of God's providential care for me through the years.

This morning's scene caused my mind to drift back to a moment 38 years ago. I was 35, and in seminary just a semester from graduating. I had a wife and was responsible for them. I worked the graveyard shift as a psychiatric technician at a hospital in downtown New Orleans. I caught the bus each night and morning to make it to my 8 o'clock class where I fought to stay awake. I could barely pay the bills and wondered how I could enroll in my last semester.