Break our hearts for what breaks Yours

I assume you have guessed by now, with the many music references, that I am an audio junkie. All the way back to my high school days, Koss High-Velocity headphones on, the Allman Brothers full tilt; I would while away countless hours. Music has been my escape as far back as I can remember. Back in the day, we played vinyl, good old scratchy vinyl. One of my favorite parts of buying records was finding the liner notes. Yes, I was the geek that would read every word. I knew every tune and every sideman. Who played for whom? It has served me well over the years as I moved from rock and roll to jazz and blues back to classic rock and blues rock to modern blues rock and contemporary Christian music. I still read the liner notes when I can find them, although they are harder to find with today’s digital format.

Most of us know the feeling of having a song stuck in our heads. Sometimes it is a good thing, in the case of a good or great tune. Sometimes it is a bad tune, a mind-numbing nuisance. Sometimes you wake up with it, sometimes you catch a piece of it on your favorite audio source. Sometimes a mischievous friend will implant it in your brain. Think of this lovely beauty from back in the day (click at your own risk). Sorry, I couldn’t resist.

Enough of that. I said all that as an introduction to a recent discovery. God has sent me a message in a song and I can’t escape the lyrics. Driven to do my best to follow their suggestion, I went looking for the lyric sheet. I discovered that the song was penned by two of my favorites in today’s contemporary Christian music scene. The song is “Jesus, Friend of Sinners,” written by Mark Hall of Casting Crowns and Matthew West and performed by Casting Crowns. It goes like this…

 

“Jesus, friend of sinners, we have strayed so far away
We cut down people in your name but the sword was never ours to swing
Jesus, friend of sinners, the truth’s become so hard to see
The world is on their way to You but they’re tripping over me
Always looking around but never looking up I’m so double minded
A plank eyed saint with dirty hands and a heart divided

Oh Jesus, friend of sinners
Open our eyes to the world at the end of our pointing fingers
Let our hearts be led by mercy
Help us reach with open hearts and open doors
Oh Jesus, friend of sinners, break our hearts for what breaks yours

Yeah

Jesus, friend of sinners, the one who’s writing in the sand
Make the righteous turn away and the stones fall from their hands
Help us to remember we are all the least of thieves
Let the memory of Your mercy bring Your people to their knees
Nobody knows what we’re for only against when we judge the wounded
What if we put down our signs crossed over the lines and loved like You did

Oh Jesus, friend of sinners
Open our eyes to world at the end of our pointing fingers
Let our hearts be led by mercy
Help us reach with open hearts and open doors
Oh Jesus, friend of sinners, break our hearts for what breaks yours

You love every lost cause; you reach for the outcast
For the leper and the lame; they’re the reason that You came
Lord, I was that lost cause and I was the outcast
But you died for sinners just like me, a grateful leper at Your feet

‘Cause You are good, You are good and Your love endures forever
You are good, You are good and Your love endures forever
You are good, You are good and Your love endures forever
You are good, You are good and Your love endures forever

Oh Jesus, friend of sinners
Open our eyes to world at the end of our pointing fingers
Let our hearts be led by mercy
Help us reach with open hearts and open doors
Oh Jesus, friend of sinners, break our hearts for what breaks Yours

And I was the lost cause and I was the outcast
Yeah
You died for sinners just like me, a grateful leper at Your feet”

 

Just let the words wash over you for a moment. So many calls to show compassion and the words that stick in my mind, the prayer to “break our hearts for what breaks Yours.”  Many of us pray for help to become more Christ-like. I do, daily; I pray for a servant’s heart and to grow to be more Christ-like. It is something for which I need many corrective nudges from above. Some days I do better than just break even. I still have much work to do.

Many, if not most of us are too quick to judge, too slow to show compassion. The homeless beggar who has his hand out in front of our favorite fast-food stop more often than not provokes anger or aggravation, not empathy. Aren’t most of us just a few bad decisions and a lost paycheck or two from being in those same shoes?

And lest we forget, we are all broken sinners. Remember that the Bible tells us that “None is righteous, no, not one;”( Romans 3:10 ESV) and  for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” (Romans 3:23 ESV). For me, being more compassionate seemed a good place to start. It costs nothing.  My natural inclination is closer to turning a blind eye or something nearer to cynicism than compassion. We don’t all have a lot of money to give the homeless person or the orphan child but we all have the smile God gave us and the warmth of our hearts. Kindness goes a long way toward healing wounded souls.

 

Friends, I am no saint. This is in no form a lecture or righteous chest thumping. It is merely the observation of a struggling, broken man who is trying to make his little spot in this world a better place. My days have become less stress-filled since I first began to practice having a servant’s heart. My bookstore has become somewhat of a sanctuary. Often a place of prayer. A place where students often come just to say hello, or to brag about a new job or another life point. My students even complain when I am out of the office and they have to deal with someone else. Pretty funny, considering that my daughter is usually the “someone else.” Many of my students even came around hoping for a report on my recent surgery and recovery process. Kindness is infectious. Jesus called it the second great commandment.

37… you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  (Matthew 22:37-39 ESV)I may be wrong but it seems to me that if we all followed this commandment more closely, the world would be a far better place. I was once asked by a new acquaintance if I was a minister. My best response was “not nearly often enough.” I was pleased by his confusion. Today, I would be overjoyed to be asked if I was a disciple.

 

 

To everything there is a season…

Nearly every breathing soul on earth is familiar with this message. Whether from the song written in the 1950’s by Pete Seeger and made famous by the Byrds (Turn! Turn! Turn!), circa 1965. Or with the Bible passage from which it was taken.

1To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:

A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;

A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;

A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;

A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;

A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;

A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;

A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.                                                                       (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 KJV)

I have been observing a season for healing and introspection. I had a knee replaced during the week of Thanksgiving. Recovery and rehabilitation has been an adventure that has taken a great chunk of my energies and most of my strength during the last 12 weeks. The good news, as always, is that God is good, all the time and I have come to find that my recovery is more than I bargained for.

That is the story. That is the message in the Bible passage. This is my story of the season that I found myself knee-deep (pardon the pun) in after my surgery.

Let me say first, that my surgery went off without a hitch. I had a great surgeon and the best nurses that I might have imagined. My physical therapist had me up and walking the halls of the hospital the day of surgery. Through the miracle of modern pharmacology, the pain was manageable and I couldn’t wait to be released for home. I got to go home on schedule and the storm clouds of impending difficulty began to form.

The doctor generously prescribed some strong (really strong) pain medicine which I took like clockwork and in a smaller-than-prescribed dose. Before the week was gone, the storm had fully developed and I found myself cut off from my version of reality and comfort. The narcotics had in effect turned me into a radish. I was, seriously, unable to form a coherent sentence. I was lost and alone in an uncomfortable daze. As I have previously confessed; I am no stranger to drugs and their effects on the user but this was something different. This was no blissful fog. I was not stoned as in the seventies. I was utterly and completely zombied.

Dose upon dose of this mind-numbing stuff and I found myself in a sort of void, a sensory vacuum. The worst part was that I began to feel isolated, especially so from God. I know, this sounds pretty melodramatic, but it was my reality, as skewed as it was.

I tried to say my prayers and not only could I not form my thoughts but I could not feel the presence of God at all. I was terrified! I am a pretty big guy and haven’t been really afraid of much in my life but this shook me to my core. I broke down as the storm washed over me. I felt that my soul was being battered by the terrible wind and drowned in the torrential downpour. I cried out the only way I knew how and I realized that the downpour was coming from within me.  Tortured by fear and shame I shook and wept over having somehow lost God. My wife at my side, she reassured me that this was all the work of the evil one and that deep inside I knew that my God would never forsake me. I knew that when we are not strong enough to cling to God, that is when he tightens his grip on us. He is faithful to never let us slip from his loving grasp.

This marked the beginning of my season to heal and to start some pretty serious soul searching. With God’s help and with Cynthia’s soothing words in my ears I began to see a break in the turbulence of the storm.  I concentrated harder and was able to reach out beyond the darkness, finding (at last) my God. He was right where he always is, waiting with open arms. I prayed hard, pouring out my fear and need. I realize that this all sounds overmuch and I suppose you would be correct in your thinking so. However, as the singer/songwriter Zach Williams reminds us, “fear is a liar”, and this had been the Mother of all Fears.

By the time my prayers had ended, I had promised the Father that I would put away the Oxy bottle and if He would help me with the pain I would dedicate my hard work in physical therapy and rehabilitation to His Glory. I also promised to increase my efforts to be an example of His Love to any who would come close enough to notice.

My season progressed. I took Tylenol before therapy sessions to dull the pain of extreme exercise, used ice packs a lot and made a rapid progression from a walker to a cane to walking unassisted. I am no longer parking in handicapped spots. I am now twelve weeks post-surgery and I have returned to serving on the altar at communion, scripture reading and leading Prayers for the People in my church. I never feel closer to the Father than at these times. I am richly blessed. I am in the gym three days a week, down about 30 pounds and have even moved the driver’s seat back to its original position, as my knee now bends better than before surgery. My only complaint is that when I sit for too long my knee stiffens and aches. But that is a “me” problem. The moral of that story is that I need to be more active than sedentary.

The season that began with storms and need and fear has turned into a beautiful season of hope and rebirth and pride in my God. He loves me, He loves us and is always waiting to hear from us. He is never more than a bent knee or bowed head away. He is faithful beyond any earthly measure.

God speaks. Faith awakens.

This is a true story that might be the beginning of my true walk with God. It is surely the beginning of my witness, my testimony. The awakening of my Faith. I am telling this for you, Abbie. You are a dear friend and you hold an important place in my heart. I know you will feel the rawness of the telling. I hope it moves all my readers as much as it does me in the telling.

Back in the late 70’s my wife and I had tried nearly every method to get pregnant with no success. After three years of disappointment we grew frustrated, as one might expect. Her doctor flippantly told her we should try more often.  Great idea, but still no positive result. Months went by and still no baby bump.

My wife, in going through her medical records, discovered that she had never been exposed to nor had a vaccination for rubella (German measles). Being exposed to the German measles during the first trimester of pregnancy can cause catastrophic birth defects in the baby. So, as a precaution, my wife got a rubella vaccination, only to find out a few days later that she was finally pregnant.

Our world was turned upside down. Our emotions ran the gamut from shock to anger to disbelief (How could this happen to us?) to serious despair.  The doctor was certain that the only alternative that we had was to abort the baby. We consulted other medical minds and their opinions were equally dire. We must abort. The child could not possibly be born healthy.

Keep in mind that this was all going on in 1979, but the prevailing medical opinion is still not much different today with all the advancements now at our disposal.  The Center for Disease Control currently has this to say about pregnancy and exposure to rubella.

“Congenital rubella syndrome (CRS) is a condition that occurs in a developing baby in the womb whose mother is infected with the rubella virus. Pregnant women who contract rubella are at risk for miscarriage or stillbirth, and their developing babies are at risk for severe birth defects with devastating, lifelong consequences. CRS can affect almost everything in the developing baby’s body.”

 

I won’t list the possibilities, but they were and still are, gruesome, at best. What were we going to do? We fretted. We cried. We prayed. We shook our fists at God. This was the toughest decision we could imagine having to make.

My wife was seriously Catholic. Italian. Catholic schooled with all the guilt and fear of Hell that the nuns and their rulers could instill in a child. I was new to Catholicism but was pretty sure that if we did abort this pregnancy, we would be reserving a seat by the fire. More anguish. More despair. More tears.

As you probably know, we didn’t have a lot of time to put off making a decision. The day finally came and we mustered up the courage, made the call and set the appointment to end the pregnancy. Why didn’t we feel like we were doing the right thing? Days passed uneasily.

On Sunday, the day before the abortion was scheduled. We did what we always did. We had our morning coffee, got ready and went to Mass. The Church was full of eager faces. Nothing out of the ordinary. Our priest began his homily and everything changed.

All at once it was as if God himself were speaking. As though he was seated on the back of the pew just in front of us. My bride and I were held captive by every word. I could hear no other sounds around me save the words being spoken directly to me. This message had our names on it and it was being written on our hearts.

There was moisture in our eyes as the Priest finished his homily. His topic was Faith. My God had answered my prayers. He sent His answer to me as surely as I am taking a breath. My wife and I cried on the way home after Church. These were different tears. These were tears of relief.

We arrived at home and went directly to the phonebook. There were no cell phones in 1979. We managed to find the doctor’s home number and we called him. “Doctor we can’t do this. We have to cancel our appointment.” To our shock, he was relieved. He told us that professionally, he had to counsel us to abort, but as a Christian, he was happy that we had changed our minds. Everything would be fine. After all, we lived in Memphis where we had St. Jude and LeBonheur Children’s Hospitals. God would provide.

We stopped worrying that day (well mostly). Knowing that everything would turn out fine. We had a strong family behind us and the best medical facilities in the country for sick children and this child would be loved. The pregnancy passed mostly without a major snag.

Our son was born on April 7th, 1980. He had all his fingers and toes and he was healthy! Praise God! Rubella had been a factor in a minor way. Ben has a genius level IQ, a nearly eidetic memory. He is an Eagle  Scout. He once found an old pocket pager in the mud in the backyard and after cleaning it up and tinkering with it, he turned it into a radio receiver. He does, however, lack certain fine motor skills. He will never be the star quarterback. Oh well, who cares? He is a gift from God. A constant testimony to Faith!

 

Discipleship is not a spectator sport

Contrary to what is apparent by observing our western societal norms Christianity, specifically Discipleship, is NOT a spectator sport. We, as Disciples of Christ, are called to action by Jesus himself. Most of us have heard of The Great Commission as recorded in Matthew’s Gospel.

19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Matt.28:19-20 ESV

Perhaps not so often quoted, the Apostle Mark also wrote of Jesus’ last set of instructions, just before ascending into Heaven. Mark gave us this account of The Savior’s last words.

15 And he said to them, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. 16 Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. 17 And these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; 18 they will pick up serpents with their hands; and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.” Mark 16:15-18 ESV

Though Jesus spoke specifically to the Eleven (Judas Iscariot had already hanged himself in shame over The Betrayal), I can’t imagine that his words were only intended for those ears. The implication here is clearly that this teaching is to spread from teacher to follower, that follower becoming a teacher, and in turn teaching a new group of followers and so on through the ages to present day.

All too often, we are complacent to allow our Pastors and Deacons to carry the load. To be the teacher. We, as followers, are happy to tune in on Sunday mornings. Feeling satisfied that we have done our duty to God by our mere presence in Church. After all, we sang. We heard the sermon or the homily (can’t leave out Catholics). We even took Communion. What more does He want?

Tighten your seat belts folks! Here comes the big question! We call ourselves the Body of Christ. How can we be the hands and feet of Christ if we are sitting on our hands with our feet propped up in the grandstands? Pretty much just what many of us are doing. It is time for us to get up, get in the game.

Anybody can do it. We must do it. Before you say that you aren’t qualified or that you are afraid you will fail, consider these lyrics from Broken Things by Matthew West.

“The pages of history they tell me it’s true
That it’s never the perfect; it’s always the ones with the scars that You use
It’s the rebels and the prodigals; it’s the humble and the weak
The misfit heroes You chose
Tell me there’s hope for sinners like me”

The Body of Christ is so necessary today. Don’t believe it. Look at the violence in the streets, the racial unrest, and those stupid pink hats. We need to stand up. Stand up for Christ. He certainly stood up for us, all the way to the Cross of Calvary. We don’t have to be deal closers but we have to be present in the deal. The movement started over two thousand years ago. We just need to place our shoulders to the stone and make it roll again.

Love the one you’re with

Nope, this is not a 60’s flashback. My apologies to Stephen Stills and to you for the song now playing in your mind. I haven’t completely lost mine. Though it occasionally wanders off on its own when left without adult supervision.

Actually, I am rather referencing the second great commandment as Jesus gave us in Matthew 22:36-40

36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” 37 And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

Amazing in its simplicity. Not nearly as easy as it sounds.

A little over twenty years ago, while attending Freshman’s parent orientation at Catholic High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, I picked up a bit of wisdom from the featured speaker that has resonated through me constantly throughout my days since.  The speaker was Lou Holtz, once the football coach at Notre Dame and Arkansas among others.  Lou has always impressed me as a man to listen to when he speaks. The address to this auditorium of eager parents did not disappoint. He said many things that day that would leave a lasting impression on many of those in attendance.

Probably the most profound thing that he shared was this. Talking specifically about some of the difficulties involved in turning his players from growing, testosterone-driven athletes into teachable young men of purpose. Lou’s pungent point was simply, “Those who need love the most, usually deserve love the least.” From that moment forth I will always lend an ear when that wise old football coach speaks, hoping to glean another bit of an inspiring life-lesson.

It is easy to love your spouse (most of the time) because you share so many happy times. The same is true of the people at work who, along with you, band together to triumph over the dilemma-of-the-day. Those with whom you share church services, singing songs of praise; my heart swells just looking at the angelic faces. Jesus knew that we were easily capable of this type of love.

I believe that Jesus and Lou were both speaking about the guy who cut you off in traffic and then took up two spaces in the parking lot you both turned into. Maybe it is the lady behind you in the lunch-time line at the bank who is having a meltdown about how horrible her day is and feels that it is her duty and right to make every individual she comes into contact with as miserable as she is. It is the homeless guy standing in front of McDonalds or the kid down the street practicing the bagpipes, sounding like he is killing the golden goose.

It isn’t always easy! If it was everyone would do it. I think we should challenge ourselves to share kindness with every person with whom we come in contact. It may take prayer and it will be difficult some days. The results will be more pleasing than not and, I promise, every day it will get to be easier and your day will be better. Less anxiety-filled.

We must see others through the eyes of the Savior. We were all created in the same manner. He loves us all the same. He favors us all. When we make the effort to love the one we are with, not superficial love, nor romantic love but the unconditional Love of Jesus Christ, we will change lives. I have. Maybe the largest change is the one in my own life.

 

 

The journey begins

Today I have had the idea placed in my heart to open a document to chronical my journey.  I will not start at the very beginning, nor will start at the end, but I will try to set the stage for where I am now and how and why I have arrived at this place and state of mind. The opinions expressed here are solely mine unless otherwise noted. I have had many influences in my life, many good, many not so good, many that were bad. In the end, it is my fondest hope that I shall hear my Creator say “Well done, good and faithful servant.”(Matt. 25:23 ESV). That is closer to the end of my story, let me rewind a bit.

I am the son of a sailor. I was unchurched in my youth. I never attended any school longer than 2 years until my father retired. Oddly, I attended high school (all 4 years) with kids with whom I shared the first grade. I was a better than average student –Beta Club and National Honor Society. I was an average athlete, earning my letter in basketball and track. I made a failed attempt at college, was the president of the Residence Hall Association, served in Student Government and ultimately spent more time playing Hearts and Spades than attending class.

I have been married more than once. More than twice… a fact that I am not proud of, but in the end, I am married to the one that was meant for me. The most important factor in our longevity is that God is a third member of our union. Sadly, He was not in previous attempts, thus my track record is not what I wish it could be. My wife, Cynthia, and I have been through a lot over the years. Like many others, we have had our good times and our bad times, our sickness and health; but by God’s Grace, we have survived to find a stronger love than most discover in a lifetime.

I am a broken sinner, as I believe we all are. I believe I may have been more broken than most. I am a child of the 60’s. I experienced all that brings to mind. I worked in the bar business for years and saw, often participated in, some of the least wholesome activities imaginable. As they say, there was sex (lots of sex), drugs (too many drugs) and rock and roll. I am not proud of my time spent in darkness. I am overjoyed that Jesus Christ sought me in the darkness and extended His loving arms to pull me into the light of His Mercy. I survived, no thanks to my own efforts but by the Grace of Almighty God.

Throughout my lifetime I have grown to believe in the Truth of God’s Word, the power of prayer, the unconditional Love that we are called to offer each other, and that we are all God’s Children. We are Citizens of Heaven and sojourners in this world. Just passing through. We are being prepared for Life Eternal. For some of us, the lessons come more easily than for others of us. Many receive their gifts from God at an early age. Sadly, I have come late into my inheritance. But now that I have received, I am thirsty for all I can consume.

That which follows will reflect my journey down the path of discipleship. Join me if you are so inclined. The Holy Spirit will light the way…