Posts

Jesus Behind the Boxes

We preachers are guilty. Male or female, black or white, regardless of denomination or education, whether we wear a robe or a shirt, we’re all guilty.
Of what? you ask. Glad you asked.
We’re guilty of filling boxes and blocking the door with them.
I’ll explain (by picking on my wife, a little). She collects holiday decorations. Not a little. A lot. Half of my garage is crates and boxes of décor. As we enter the Thanksgiving and Christmas season, those boxes will rotate with Easter, Valentines, Halloween, birthday, July 4th, and other assorted, labeled boxes.
There are so many that occasionally I complain that I can’t find the door into the house. I have to maneuver around them, squeeze between her car and the current holiday, to get in. When I punch the garage door button in my truck, I groan at the sight.
Jesus called Himself the door. “No man comes to the Father but by me,” He said. If you would know God, the one, true, magnificent, unknowable, incredible God, you must know Him through Jesus Christ. He is the door.
The church is not the door. Doctrine is not the door. Preachers aren’t the door. Sunday School isn’t the door. Your denomination isn’t the door. Your theology isn’t the door. Your wisdom isn’t the door. Your tradition is not the door. Only Jesus is the door.
But we preachers… oh, we preach. We preach about antichrists, and bad habits, and “Five Ways to Succeed.”
We preach our dogma. We preach our party line. We make sure our listeners know why our church is the best, or the only one that’s really right. We’re subtle, but we’re clear.
We encourage, and sometimes demand, that our members bring a guest. Build the church! Build it big. We pray to expand! We select colors. We form committees. We decorate for the holidays. We argue and debate the right bread, or wine, or clothes, or props, or liturgy, or advertisements. What makes our church look good? What’s the best way to get attention?
Boxes. Boxes. Boxes. And more boxes. We preach boxes full. We design and decorate, and each design must reflect our doctrines properly. Boxes. We pile them up. Boxes upon boxes.
In one of his books, Jim Cymbala told a story of a particular service at his church. A guest had spoken of Jesus, and the transformation He had made in her life. At the conclusion, several people wanted prayer, and he prayed with each of them. He prayed till he was tired. It had been a long day. He was ready to wrap up and go home when he saw a homeless man shuffling down the aisle toward the stage.
He intuitively reached in his pocket for his money clip because he knew the man was coming to ask for a few dollars. But instead, the man pushed his offered money away. “I don’t want money,” he told the preacher. “I want to know that Jesus that woman just told about.”
How long has it been since you told someone about Jesus? How long has it been since you suggested that someone open that Door, and let Him in?
We are quick to offer boxes. We will give money. We will invite to church. We will promote a speaker, or a series, or even a book.
But what everyone needs is to find the Door.
Do we even remember where it is?
Is the Door so hidden by our boxes that it’s difficult for anyone to find?
Have we convinced ourselves that our boxes are more important than the Door?
Please, Lord, help us de-clutter.
Help us find Jesus behind the boxes.

Portrait of a Saint

What do saints look like? Would you be surprised to know they look a lot like you? Saints are not carved in stone in Rome. Those are merely statues. The apostles called the church members of their day “saints.” People like you and me. The word simply means “set apart for God’s service.” “Venerated.”
Saint Billy walked into a church service where I was the pastor. He sat down on the back row after I had already begun preaching, and almost instantly he was crying. As soon as I dismissed, he slipped out and was gone! Ushers had missed him.
I was a young, new pastor building a new church. I needed people! We didn’t get his name or contact info. It bugged me that we had no way of contacting him.
The next Sunday, after I had begun my sermon, he slipped in again, and, as before, he began to cry quietly. And we missed him again! I told my ushers if he ever came back to tackle him. The third Sunday in a row he came, and we were prepared. Needlessly, it turned out, because this time he stayed. He wanted to speak to the pastor, and he invited me to breakfast the next morning.
We met, and after brief introductions, he told me a story. He was a truck driver. Khaki-wearing, calloused-hands truck driver. He drove a regular route, knew his customers along the way. A few months ago he and a waitress had carried their usual flirting to the next step. They decided that they would hook up on his return trip and spend the night together in a hotel down the street.
He was excited as he pulled out of the parking lot to start his run, but he was also nervous. He had never cheated on his wife. He wondered what his kids would think if they ever found out. By the time he reached the ramp to the interstate, he was already regretting his hasty, lustful decision. Aloud in his truck, he groaned and said something like, “Lord, what have I done?”
Almost immediately a bright light blinded him. The light filled the cab of his truck. And then, he told me, he knew it was Jesus! This blinding light Jesus told him he was forgiven, told him to simply not stop at the truck stop on his way home, and told him to bless his family, take them to church, and He would bless Billy. Wow, I thought, glancing at my watch. Then, the punch. “When the light vanished, I was gripping the wheel, and an exit sign was coming up. I knew my route. I had driven 45 miles and never knew it. Jesus was in control.”
I was polite. I glanced at my watch again. I was ready to move on. He must be a wacko. “I started visiting churches when I got home,” he continued. “But… He… wasn’t there. Each week I would visit a different church, but I knew what He felt like, and He wasn’t there. Until I visited your church three weeks ago. I slipped in and sat down, and the minute I sat down, He sat down beside me.”
Well, now I’m starting to like this guy. After all, if Jesus is promoting my church, who am I to argue? He came three weeks in a row to be sure. Now he wanted to know if he could bring his family to my church. So he and his family began attending my church.
A few months later, I received a phone call from a local hospital. Billy’s son was in a life-or-death battle. He had gone to school with a headache. A fellow student offered him an aspirin. In second period, his headache persisted, so the friend gave him 3 or 4 aspirin. Only they weren’t aspirin. The boy had taken some Valium from his mother’s medicine cabinet. He let another friend in on the prank, as they called it. By the time auto shop class came around, Billy’s boy had swallowed a dozen or more Valium, and he was barely standing.
The kids hid him from the teacher, treating him like he was drunk. Someone had a vial of acid used on some battery experiments, and he grabbed it like orange juice and chugged it before anyone could react. He collapsed instantly, bleeding, and unconscious. An ambulance sped him to the hospital.
The boys confessed. Billy’s son was in a precarious state. They needed to pump his stomach, but they could not risk anything in his esophagus because the acid had eroded his throat and esophagus. Basically, they were siphoning off blood and waiting to see if he would wake up.
At some point a doctor mentioned 12 hours, and Billy noted that as if it was gospel. Twelve hours later, with no change, he begged the doctor for any kind of hope. The doctor just told him they had to wait for him to overcome the drugs. Twelve more hours. They were just stalling, but Billy was counting the hours.
Somewhere between 24 and 36 hours, after a doctor had already warned that even if he pulls through he may not be able to speak, Billy asked me to come back to the hospital. He knelt on one side of the boy’s bed, and asked me to kneel on the other. He reached his arms across the boy’s body and asked me to reach over and interlock our arms across the boy’s chest. I did. The nurses were awkward. Everyone was awkward. This was the most desperate father ever! He wailed. He cried. He prayed. He reminded God of His goodness. He begged.
Finally, he released his grip on me, and we stood and embraced. No change in the boy. Long after I had left, a nurse was checking the monitors, and a voice behind her said, “I’m thirsty!” She turned to see who it was, and it was the high school boy himself, sitting up, staring at her. He wondered where he was, then repeated, “I’m thirsty.”
She ran out in the hallway and yelled for the doctor whom she knew was just a few rooms down. He came running, probably assuming the boy had died. When he walked into the room, he said he couldn’t believe it. He didn’t know anything to do at the moment but put a tongue depressor in his mouth and look at the throat that wasn’t supposed to be speaking. He turned around amazed. “The boy says he’s hungry,” he exclaimed, wiping a tear. “Somebody run across the street and get this boy a hamburger.”
And they did. And he ate all of it, and drank the coke they brought with it. No evidence of acid. No death. No funeral. Just a truck-driver dad laying his arms across his boy, reminding God of His goodness, and begging a little.
A saint, if you please. A saint in khakis.
An ordinary man. Like you.

As Silly as a Goose

Silly as a gooseThis is the time of year they are flying.  We were standing on a tee box last Sunday afternoon, and could hear them honking, high in the sky, their erratic V-formation painted on a blue autumn sky.  When you contemplate their magnificence, you wonder why anyone ever came up with the phrase “as silly as a goose.”

For one, the V formation is critical to their migration.  Instinctively they fly this way.  Like some inner voice lines them up. They cannot know that flying in such a way enables them to fly 71% farther and longer than if they flew solo. Each bird creates an uplift that buoys the birds behind.  I wonder how many of us recognize the value of belonging to a church?  I wonder how many people have hung on a little longer, flown a little further than they might have, simply because they were buoyed on by the faith, love, and strength of those friends at their church?

Secondly, there is that honking.  Do you know why they honk?  We may never know for sure, since we can’t talk to the geese, but the best experts seem to believe that it is simply a means of letting the ones in front know that they are still back there.  It’s like they’re encouraging them on.  Think about it. The front goose could fly a hundred miles alone, no one behind him.  But when he hears the honking, he knows he’s not alone.  And in some way, he may be encouraged to fly on.   A well-placed “Amen!” means a lot to a preacher.  And a well-placed “Attaboy!” means a lot to anyone!  We get that at church, don’t we?  “Hang in there!”  “Keep the faith.”  “We love you.”  “We’re praying.”

Thirdly, the leader is not the only leader.  Remember, the point goose doesn’t have the benefit of the uplift from another. He’s in the front.  So he tires much sooner than others.  And when he does, he simply slides out and relocates back down the line, and another slides up to the lead.   There are no “big I’s” and “little you’s” in church.  Look around at how many “leaders” simply step up and do what needs to be done.  No one leader is so critical to the direction of the flock that when he is tired, another cannot step up and lead for a while.  This constant support and encouragement is what makes the Christian church unique.

And finally, when one goose falls out of the flock because he is sick or wounded, he never goes down alone. Two other geese will peel out of the flock and go down with him. And they’ll stay with him until he is well enough to fly on, or until he dies.  And then they’ll either join another flock until they can break off and reach their own migratory route, or they’ll be a flock of three until they arrive at their destination. I think it was Madeleine Murray O’Hair who said the Christian army is the only army in the world which kills off its wounded.  What did she know?  The Christian “army” doesn’t kill its wounded. Much like the geese, it surrounds its wounded with love, forgiveness, and hope.  Oh, there are those on the fringe who are hateful or spiteful, as in any group.  But by and large, Christians stay beside those who are suffering and hurting in life. Like our Lord who promised He would never leave us or forsake us.  We restore. We heal. Because we are surrounded by His love revealed through the love of others.

I love being part of the Christian community.  And the next time someone accuses me of being as silly as a goose, I’m going to take it as a compliment.

Watch this sermon online