The Film That Haunts Me

As a parent, I have had to sit through countless children and young adult movies. Some I tolerate, some I wish to never see again, and some haunt me, in a good way, for years. One such movie is Because of Winn Dixie.

What has haunted me is the beautiful picture of God’s available blessing expressed in the film. In the film, a diverse and disparate group of people are brought together because of the precocious friendliness of a mangy dog and the available love of a little girl. There is a blind recovering alcoholic, an antiquated and lonely spinster, a convicted felon, a grumpy dog hater, and a preacher who has lost his wife. All of these people have been written off by society and judged to be beyond true blessing. They, in the world’s eyes and even in their own eyes, have some fundamental flaw, that makes them unworthy and hopeless.

The best way of looking at the Beatitudes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is to not see them as prescriptions to blessing but as proof that blessing is for everyone, even the meek, even the grieving, even the spiritual flunkies, even the ones who are missing righteousness.  Dallas Willard describes it this way:

The Beatitudes…They serve to clarify Jesus’ fundamental message: the free availability of God’s rule and righteousness to all of humanity through reliance upon Jesus himself, the person now loose in the world among us. They do this simply by taking those who, from the human point of view, are regarded as most hopeless, most beyond all possibility of God’s blessing or even interest, and exhibiting them as enjoying God’s touch and abundant provision from the heavens.

At the end of Because of Winn Dixie, all of these forgotten and despised members of society are brought together for a party. These scenes are my favorite from the film as these people who have had such burdens and faced such condescension and judgement are renewed through the power of friendship and love and community. They found blessing in the love of others and the breakdown of assumptions and false narratives. And like the ragamuffin guests at the banquet in one of Jesus’ parables, they are free to taste goodness and true blessing.

There are some things in my life that I often feel make me unworthy of blessing from God. Maybe there are some things in your life as well but the truth is that no “human condition excludes blessedness, that God may come to any person with his care and deliverance.” Jesus welcomes all to his kingdom. Even you. That is the gospel of the Beatitudes and the Gospel of Because of Winn Dixie.

The Promise Land Fallacy

“Everything will be better when I get this job.”

“When we get this situation turned around then things will be fine.”

“What is most important to me is achieving this goal.”

“I just need my relationships to be restored and then I will be truly blessed.”

“If healing would just come to this family member, that would make all the difference.”

These are all Promise Land situations – events or resolutions that we think are life’s great purposes or antidotes. The truth is that, like Moses, we may never make it to the promise land.

Moses had two great purposes in his life – deliver the Hebrews out of Egypt and lead them to the Promise Land. In what seems like a cruel turn of events, God doesn’t let Moses enter the Promise Land.

God leads Moses to the top of a nearby mountain so that he could see all that was to be promised and envision the full potential of the land and the blessings coming to God’s people. On the side of that mountain, Moses’ dreams are in sight and all of the conflict, all of the times of uncertainty, all of the difficulties are finally worth it because the Promise Land is at hand. But, God tells Moses that, “I have let you see it, but you will not cross over into it.”

Moses, who was never one to shy away from a complaint to God, who liked to plead his case before God, who would call God out if he felt it warranted – doesn’t say a word. Moses doesn’t argue or make a suggestion even though his life’s work has led to this great moment. Half of Moses’ life has led up to this moment. He had dreamed of this chance to walk among this great land and call it his own. Instead, he seems perfectly content on the side of that mountain.

Moses’ contentment at that point in his life came not from an achieved goal, or a positive turn of events, or a restored relationship, or a healing but from a dynamic, interactive relationship with God. Earlier in the Moses story, Moses had asked God to send people to help him, that he couldn’t do this job of being deliverer by himself. God doesn’t send helpers, but he does provide help, “The Lord replied, My presence will go with you and I will give you rest.”

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From that moment on, Moses experienced God’s presence and began to see that this was all that he needed and that true rest was found there. He began to see that the actual Promise Land was not the point of his life and was not the maximum fulfillment he thought it would be. True fulfillment was found in God’s friendship, his love, being in his will, growing in knowledge of him. For Moses, the Promise Land wasn’t the point.

I have been guilty of turning situations in my life into a Promise Land. I think that if this one thing will change, then everything else will fall into place and life will be the way it is supposed to be. But that one thing might not be the point or what God wants to do with my life. The point may be for me to Grow Up, to learn to trust, to experience his presence, to find rest in him, to die to self. My Promise Land may be right in front of me in the transforming work of Christ and his redeeming love and mercy. A relationship with the almighty was good enough in the end for Moses, it should be good enough in the end for me.

Let go of your personal and self-generated Promise Land and see how God will go about bringing you true rest, fulfillment, and contentment.

If Your Belief Doesn’t Change Your Life Then What Belief Do You Have

I heard a speaker say recently, “I have no interest in theology that is not incarnational.” In other words, they don’t want to hear big thoughts on God that cannot be lived out in the little moments of today.

He then began to tell a story of a person who his friend was working with who faced years of abuse and has multiple personality disorder. His friend was a noted author and professor who has written big ideas about God but was willing to bring those to practice in this one darkly troubled life.

Last week, the whole country was moved by the gracious mercy and forgiveness shown by Brandt Jean towards Amber Guyger, the person who shot and killed his brother. Jean noted the forgiveness and mercy shown to him by Christ as reason for him to show the same to the one person he would have every right to not show forgiveness and mercy to.

Botham Jean's Brother Forgives Amber Guyger, Hugs Her ...

Recently, I have been struck by the encounters of the resurrected Jesus and his followers. I was struck just by how ordinary and real they were.

Here is the only person who has truly defeated death and he looks so ordinary to be mistaken for a gardener. Another time, he is just walking along a road and another time he is just a guy on a beach telling fishermen how to do their job.

There were no more miracles, except the whole reappearing and disappearing thing, done on the other side of Jesus’ death. But there was relationship, there was deep understanding, there was love, there was restoration, there was consecration of food and conversation. Seems rather ordinary for someone who just rose from the dead. But is it really that ordinary?

Mary’s deep, sobbing grief was turned to elation. Thomas’ skepticism was turned to faith. Cleopas’ broken heart was warmed, and Peter’s life and ministry was restored despite his rejection and betrayal of Jesus. The settings were ordinary but the results were nothing short of a miracle.

Jesus’ concern was not to perform tricks or to spout off doctrinal statements but to touch people right where they were. The obvious truth was Jesus was the son of God who through the power of the resurrection had defeated the sin and death that went after him with such precision and force. He had bore the weight of sin’s curse so we wouldn’t have to. Out of those great truths, he fed his friends breakfast, restored their doubts, and renewed relationships.

None of what Jesus accomplished on the cross and through his resurrection means anything unless individual lives are changed and futures transformed. That is theology that is truly incarnational.

Have You Tried Trust?

At some point in everyone’s religious life, one has to make a choice. Do I double down on this religion thing and jump through more hoops, maybe up the ante on my dogma and belief system or do I just simply trust that God knows what he is doing and Jesus is who he says he is?

I heard William Paul Young, the author of The Shack, say recently that, “religion is easier than trust.”

So much of religion becomes personal image management. I may not really love God or neighbor but if I can attend this next Bible study, read that book, do that service project, have that theological stance I can project an image that will impress others. Jesus’ enemies were not the “unchurched,” do-wrongers around him; those people were especially fond of Jesus. No, Jesus’ enemies were the very religious people around him, the Pharisees, who thought they could put God in a box by their strict adherence to rules and practices and dogmas. Through their actions, they tried to manage God so they wouldn’t have to listen to him, follow him, or love others. This is a great temptation for all of us.

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When you really think about it, nothing about playing church will get us ready “to receive God’s sufficiency in our lives.” Only trust will do that. When I trust God, I put myself second in the equation and him first. When I trust God, I can leave outcomes up to him. When I trust God, I can sit when it is time to sit and act when it is time to act and worship when it is time to worship. I have the freedom to live my life without adhering to the latest cultural church fad, without solving the latest theological controversy, and without meeting everyone’s expectations. Those are religious concerns that may hold some importance but do not bring life and definitely not an abundant one.

Jesus said that he was the “way, the truth, and the life.” He didn’t say he was the ritual, the ceremony, or the religious system.

Live in trust in Christ today. Leave your religious ways of manipulating God and others behind and find life, love, and a new way of being.

Our Most Human Power Is Our Biggest Obstacle

Humans have tremendous power. Take the simple act of making a choice. Essential to the human experience is to act on our own, independent of external pressures.

Today, as an adult human, I chose to go to sleep at a certain time. No one made me have a bed time; it was my choice. Take away our freedom to choose and you take away our ability to be human.

It is not a stretch to say that this power to choose enables us to be rulers of our own kingdoms. This is exciting and thrilling but also frightening because we see in others, and maybe in ourselves, how poor we humans are at ruling over our own kingdoms.

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The crux of the Christian story is humans coming to recognize their inability to properly rule themselves and instead place Christ on the throne of their lives and uniting their kingdom with his. Through repentance and declaration we invite Christ onto our kingdom throne but it may take much grace, fear, and trembling for us to not continuously try to kick him off the throne and put us back in his place. That is the Growing Up process.

Your choices will reflect who is on the throne of your life. Don’t worry, as a follower of Christ we not only have the power to choose, which sometimes steers us wrong, but we also have the inner working of Christ in us to accomplish far more than we hoped or imagined.

And once you live with enough experiences that demonstrate the kind of rich, thriving, love filled, precious, and dynamic life possible through making Christ king, one only desires that life and nothing else.

So be human, make choices, just know who is on the throne of your life.

Smiling At Walmart

Inspired by some of Rob Walker’s ideas about The Art of Noticing, I have started a new practice that has helped me function in a very difficult place – Walmart.

As an introvert, I am often drained by crowds and as a burgeoning grumpy old man, I don’t like hassles and encountering difficult people and avoidable social irritations. So, I often avoid Walmart and its crowds and sensory overload and seek quicker and less intense locations.

But lately, I have begun visiting Walmart with a smile on my face. Not because I am naturally cheery or experiencing tremendous highs in my life but because smiling is a tactic against our fears and a salve against what can often be a rather sorrowful existence.

Has it made a difference? Has there been any noticeable effects to this practice?

Humorously, God has orchestrated strange encounters at the check out line that are hard to believe unless he had something to do with them. One time, I had someone, on a Saturday when the lines are the longest, notice that I had a few items compared to their basket and let me go ahead. Another time, someone apologized to me when they were holding up the line with all of their items. I said, “It is not a problem, you don’t come to Walmart on the Weekends expecting things to go quickly. I am fine.” Huh? Who is this guy and what are the words coming out of my mouth?

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Another time, a lady with a patch over her eye and who has clearly experienced healthier days noticed that I was getting some ice cream. She started to chat with me about the ice cream and I told her how much our daughters like ice cream. She was so pleased that I was getting this for them and said,”Well, I am sure they appreciate what a good dad you are.” What? You don’t know me lady or my parenting skills but that sure was encouraging.

Last week, it was my turn to hold up the line. Why? Because the check out lady and I couldn’t stop telling each other to have a good day. First, she praised me for getting to Walmart early and I stated that it helps to plan out these things but Walmart isn’t that bad. She said, “No, it is really not. There are a lot of good people here.” Then I said my goodbyes and wished her a nice day. She followed up with “have a nice day” even though she had already said it when she loaded my last item in the bag and when she gave me the receipt.

That is just the check out line. Smiling changes my mindset enough in the hustle and bustle of the aisles that instead of expecting the worst experience coming around the corner to the next aisle I find myself expecting a chance to smile at someone, to offer courtesy, and to assist someone trying to get something off the top shelf. I don’t have a scowl on my face trying to figure out how to maneuver to the piece of real estate that is most advantageous to me but am willing to offer someone else the lead and the opening needed to get that one item in that one place.

Who knew that simply smiling would make such a difference?

This whole experience has reminded me of what is taught by James Bryan Smith,”I am one in whom Christ dwells and delights and I live in the strong and unshakable Kingdom of God.” And the gates of hell, or Walmart, shall not prevail against it.

God Wants You To See Him

“God has better things to do…”

“Does God really care about…”

Many of us suffer from the false narrative that if God does exist he is so beyond our little sphere of knowing and belonging that we are largely incapable of seeing or experiencing him. Worse, we think that God doesn’t really want to be known and doesn’t really want to be seen; that he has much grander and majestic things to be doing than messing with our insignificant and measly lives.

But what if the exact opposite was true? What if God wishes to be known and is knowable? If we asked longtime knowers of him, would they tell us that God is seen everywhere?

Julian of Norwich beautifully states, “for God wishes to be seen, and he wishes to be sought, and he wishes to be expected, and he wishes to be trusted.” If this is true, then why is it so hard to see God? To think that he is even available to be seen?

This is the whole crux of the human story isn’t? Do you remember those Stereograms that were popular 20 years ago? The image appears to be just a mishmash of squiggles, shades, and patterns but if you look just right or long enough you can see a giraffe or a building or a mountain. The true image is hidden and not visible until the viewer can “see through” the lines and swirls. I have never been able to see the hidden images, not once. Does that mean that the image isn’t there? I doubt that everyone else is just lying to me about what they are seeing.

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Our preoccupation, our selfishness, our greed, and our contempt for others and even God keep us from seeing him and knowing him. God doesn’t force us to see because he wants us to have the freedom of thought and attention so when we do see him it is because we are truly and fervently seeking after him.

In The Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard says, “No doubt God wants us to see him. That is part of his nature as outpouring love. Love always wants to be known. Thus he seeks for those who could safely and rightly worship him….The ability to see and the practice of seeing God and God’s world comes through a process of seeking and growing in intimacy with him.”

Yes, the more we Grow Up, the more we are able to see God and the more we are able to know God. But first, we have to believe that God wants to be seen and wants to be known.

Jesus once said, “If you have seen me, you have seen the father.” I would say the sheer fact of the incarnation of Jesus – his life, his miracles, his teachings and sacrifice – are evidence of God wanting to be seen. This is where we must start. Our God wants to be known and is knowable.

The Most Important Thing About You

The most important thing about you is who you are becoming.

The most important thing about you is not what you do for a living.

The most important thing about you is not what clothes you wear or your overall aesthetic.

The most important thing about you is not what people think of you.

The most important thing about you is not that everyone likes you.

The most important thing about you is who you are becoming.

The most important thing about you is not your strong ideals.

The most important thing about you is not your personal preferences.

The most important thing about you is not your stance on a social or political issue.

The most important thing about you is not who your favorite team is.

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The most important thing about you is who you are becoming.

The most important thing about you is not not drawing attention to yourself.

The most important thing about you is not having a dynamic group of friends.

The most important thing about you is not bucking trends.

The most important thing about you is not your personality type or Enneagram number.

The most important thing about you is who you are becoming.

The most important thing about you is not your “Previously Watched” list on Netflix.

The most important thing about you is not how many followers you have, who you influence, or how many likes you get.

The most important thing about you is not where you worship or which Bible Study you just finished.

The most important thing about you is not whether you can get alone time or find the next great event.

The most important thing about you is who you are becoming.

The most important thing about you is who you are becoming. Are you finding the good life that is marked by good things – faith, mercy, joy, justice? Do you reflect Jesus’ compassion, his willingness to be used by God no matter what that looked like to others, or his desire to help his friends. Is love, willing the good for others, a fruit of your daily existence? Do you seek what God wants done and go do it? Do you have tenderness when most would have judgement? Do you possess forgiveness where most would have resentment and hatred? What are you becoming?

I fail and I stumble and I screw up and I have deep regrets and I sometimes resemble the opposite of Christ but I pray and I read and I write and I exercise and I worship and I find someone to love because I follow Christ and want to be more like him. And by the grace of God I can become something more than this selfish, consumed by falsehoods, bitter, and full of sin person that exists now. That is what is most important.

What is the most important thing about you?

 

God Does Not Share Your Pessimism

The constant pull on the church is to drift in to secular modes of thinking. No, I am not talking about views on the latest social and culture trends that seem to cause ubiquitous fighting, name calling, and dismissive labeling. I am talking about the appalling lack of joy found among Christians and churches in general.

The sign of our times in America is to be outraged, to bemoan, to criticize, to choose doom and gloom. And Christians seem to be no different. Why is that?

Perhaps it is because we view God as a being like us – prone to eyerolls, in constant need to point out faults, a glutton for reasons to be annoyed, always ready to pass judgement. But this is not the God that we worship.

Dallas Willard says:

We should, to begin with, think that God leads a very interesting life, and that he is full of joy. Undoubtedly he is the most joyous being in the universe. The abundance of his love and generosity is inseparable from his infinite joy. All of the good and beautiful things from which we occasionally drink droplets of soul-exhilarating joy, God continuously experiences in all their breadth and richness.

God’s great pleasure is for you and me to experience his life of joy. This isn’t some by and by sentiment about the afterlife but even now, even 2019.

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Jesus says, “my peace I give to you, not as the world gives.” Jesus, himself, was a peaceful and joyous and creative person. He told his followers repeatedly that if you have seen him, you have seen the father. Jesus was not morose, frustrated and did not lose himself in pessimism; instead he comes off the pages of scripture as tender, loving, ready for a dinner with friends, joyously wanting to heal and change hearts.

We should not overlook the great problems and tragic circumstances of this world but our general state of being should not be doom and gloom but joy and peace. We have a God who is a joyous being and is awash in his good creation and desires our lives to be echoes of this reality and even bodily representations of it.

Let’s call the church and its members to a Grown Up view of God and our lives in the strong and unshakable and joyous Kingdom of God.

 

 

The Night I Learned What It Meant To Be A Dad

I wrote this a few years ago when Grace graduated from High School. I thought I would update it and share it again on her birthday.

Our first born turns 20 years old today. She is bright, hard working, mature, and brave. I am amazed at her growth and maturity. She is going to be a great adult.

My most vivid memory of Grace as a toddler involves the moment I feel I first became a Dad. Sure, I was a dad by function and circumstance but it was this incident that showed me what kids can do to you and how they can teach you profound lessons.

Grace was two years old and a pleasant kid despite the age. My wife had a weekend commitment and that meant that I was in charge of Grace for the night. I would have to feed her, get her ready for bed, and make sure nothing seriously went wrong.

I was, and still am, an incredibly self focused individual. All of this responsibility was incredibly inconvenient, hard, and was removing me from my own agenda and preferences. I was feeling sorry for myself and bitter towards my wife for leaving me alone for hours on end with this bundle of demands, irrational behavior, and diapers. As the evening progressed, my plan was to do what I had to do and then get her in bed as soon as possible so I could be free of all of this annoying responsibility.

We lived in a duplex at the time and our neighbors had a toddler size play set out front complete with a slide. They were kind enough to allow us to use the play set whenever we liked. After I fed Grace, we went outside and she started to play and slide and slide and slide. At first, I thought this was a great way to occupy her before bed and I wouldn’t have to entertain her and I would soon be on to my own agenda. But something changed in the course of a few moments.

GRace

I think I first noticed her smile. Each time she went down that little slide, she had the most joyful grin on her face. It was infectious and I started to smile along with her. I began to notice everything, I noticed her joy, her beautifully cute hands and feet as she went about play. I noticed the way she completely lived in the present. Then I noticed the incredibly perfect night that enveloped us. West Texas sunsets are the best in the world and this night’s sunset was a masterpiece. The coolness of the early spring evening was so pleasant I wanted to soak in it.

Slowly, I began to live completely in the present myself.  This moment was beyond anything I could have ever concocted. This little girl was mine and she was planted on this earth to show me a side of love, compassion, and sacrifice that is unique to parents. I became a Dad that evening because there was nothing I wanted more than to have a thousand more moments like that night. To share a bond that only a parent and a child can experience. To recognize what family means on a heart level and not just a surface level.

I am grateful for that little girl teaching me this lesson and for the lessons she has taught me the following 18 years. Hopefully, I have taught her a few lessons and given her a few priceless moments along the way as well.