Saturday, May 6, 2017

A Wee Little Man Was He

The Gospel of Luke is the only gospel that records Zacchaeus’ encounter with Jesus in the city of Jericho (19:1-10).  As is characteristic of Luke, this story contains lots of details.  For example, Luke gives his readers the occupation and financial status of his subject.  This is understandable, as it is important to the overall story.  Luke also describes Zacchaeus as short; and when Luke explains Zacchaeus climbed a tree to see Jesus, he also tells us what kind of tree it was (sycamore-fig, which happen to be very easy to climb).  Pertinent or not, it was Luke’s style to record the details, and Luke lets us know exactly how Zacchaeus came to be in the tree when Jesus passed by. 
This is all just set up, though, for the most important details to come – Luke tells us that when Jesus got to the tree he “looked up” and he addressed Zacchaeus by name.  Jesus knew who Zacchaeus was and right where he was.  It is possible Jesus knew who he was because he traveled the region and would have been aware of the tax collectors.  Maybe that is why Luke included the detail that Zacchaeus was a “chief tax collector.”  But Luke never offers us any clue about why or how Jesus knew to look up.  Was it happenstance?  A quick study of the history of the region informs us that sycamore-figs were once very prominent, because they were planted and grown intentionally; the roots were fed to local herds to increase milk supply.  This is no longer practiced, and there is now only one sycamore-fig tree left in Jericho.  However, they were once very popular and would not have seemed out of place and worthy of Jesus’ attention.
One of the points, I think, this passage illustrates is that Jesus knows who we are and where he can find us, and he uses our story to make his introduction.  Zacchaeus may have been bitter about his height his whole life, but in the end, his stature is what led to getting to encounter the Lord and ultimately receive salvation. 

Jesus operates within our story. 

So many times we want Jesus to change our story, when in fact he is just waiting for the right moment to arrive in our story.  This principle applies to people who have never received salvation, and it applies to believers who have been entrenched in the faith all their lives.  This applies to people who are coasting through life, as well as those who are desperately praying for a miracle.  Crisis, handicap, or bad hair, we are all just short people climbing trees when Jesus finds us and calls us by name.  Only the details have been changed to protect the innocent.  When we realize that he already knows who we are, it is not so necessary to understand how he knew to look for us.  Instead, we understand Jesus has been tracking us the whole time.  This is a tale of good news.  This message is for anyone who needs to hear that God is after our hearts and he will go out of his way to stop under our tree.  When all along we thought we were the ones trying to catch a glimpse of him, we find out he was navigating towards us with great intent the whole time.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Playing Too Close To The Edge

Recently my five-year-old son fell into the swimming pool at a home we were visiting. I was very close by and immediately jumped in after him. I lifted him up and set him safely on the edge. As I stood there in the chest-deep water, hugging and scolding my son, I noticed the solemn look on his face. “What’s wrong, buddy? What are you thinking?” I asked. Barely lifting his hanging head, but with a quick glance at my eyes, he simply said, “You’re disappointed in me.” I cupped his face with my hands and gently said, “I’m not disappointed in you. The truth is . . . that scared me.”

I never told him to not fall in the pool. I did establish boundaries to caution him against getting too close to the edge. However, when his ball went in the water that was reason enough in his mind to violate those boundaries, and the very reason I gave him those boundaries became a reality. In a split second, he went from feeling in control to being in great danger.

Haven’t we all had moments like that? We respect the boundaries until we are presented with an enticing enough motive to cross the line. Often the danger is not immediately recognizable just across the line, so our resolve weakens as we question why the boundary was set where it was. We crumble completely once we arrive at the point where we begin to question the One who established the boundary in the first place.

If a teenager is told to not use drugs. She will typically not have issue with that until the day she is first presented with a real opportunity. Once she hears her peers describe the experience of a high, a seed will be planted. Once she recognizes there may be a reason to pop this or smoke that AND that danger is not immediately guaranteed, the door becomes open to questioning why she was ever told not to. She can then be convinced that her parents and teachers are truly just killjoys. At that point, she has no argument against crossing the line.

We see this drama unfold in the very beginning of the Bible with Adam and Eve. In Genesis 3, we see Eve transition from stalwart to rebel immediately upon being convinced that 1) there was some value in eating from the tree God said was off limits and 2) God’s reasons for banning the tree were questionable to begin with. It is in these moments that we are distracted by the rules themselves, and we forget about the relationship with the rule-maker and the boundary-setter.

When asked to prioritize the laws, Jesus said this could sum them all up: love God and love people. John wrote that we are motivated to love as a response to love, e.g. we love because God loved us first (1 John 4:19). Our love is a response to His love. So the logical conclusion is that God’s laws collectively demonstrate what love does and does not look like. We can also conclude then that God’s standards exemplify His character, because John also wrote “God is love” (1 John 4:8).

When my son fell in the pool I was maybe a little more than scared. I was frustrated that he didn’t trust me enough to obey me. I suppose I put God through the same experience more often than I care to admit. Paul wrote, “So Christ has truly set us free. Now make sure that you stay free, and don’t get tied up again in slavery to the law.” (Galatians 5:1). God wants us to be free from sin and it’s fallout, and His boundaries are good. They exist to keep us free, not to enslave us. But even when we fall in the pool, our Heavenly Father is there to lift us up and set us on the edge.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Respecting Limitations

It’s fascinating to watch my son discover his limitations – both physical and imposed.  He turns one this weekend and can confidently walk on any flat surface.  I find it amusing, however, that a slight incline, such as the driveway, still poses a challenge to his mobility.  He can climb the stairs, but he doesn’t understand how to navigate downwards.  Whenever his eagerness overtakes his ability, he inevitably tumbles face first towards the floor.  Often his mother and I are right there to break his fall, especially on the stairs, but there are too many times when we aren’t close enough to stop him from adding a fresh bruise or scrape to his little body.  How many times, I wonder, must he collide violently with his physical limitations before he learns to respect them?

At the same time, we’re beginning to teach him the word “no.”  Lately, the most frequent application for this lesson comes when he opens the DVD cabinet.  Early on, we allowed him to open it and pull out the DVDs because it was adorable to watch.  Then when he started chewing and stepping on them, we decided to nix this behavior.   Sometimes he listens, and sometimes he stubbornly disobeys.  The point being, though, that while he is capable of accomplishing a certain act, we are imposing limitations by saying no.

Unfortunately, these two types of limitations have a convergence.  Around our house, it looks primarily like an electrical outlet.  Now, before you get worried, nothing has happened yet, but here’s the rub.  His curiosity continuously draws him, like a gravitational pull, to finger each socket his eyes land on.  We faithfully tell him no, and when he disobeys, we physically remove him from the temptation.  It’s very possible, however, that one day he will ignore our imposed limitations and quite literally be shocked to discover he has overstepped his bounds, and tragically so.

Observing this play out with my son, I’m startled by the ramifications for my own life.  Too many times I arrogantly rebel against my limitations.  I drink more than my body can handle.  I eat more than I should.  I stay up late too many nights in a row.  There are physical consequences for these actions that I cannot avoid, no matter how often I try.  Likewise, I drive faster than is legal.  I share information that was meant to be a secret.  I procrastinate.  And there are legal, relational and professional consequences for violating these imposed parameters.

A lot of times I manage to skate by with only minor consequences.  I push through my limits only to suffer a speeding ticket or a hangover or an awkward apology.  Sadly, this type of tolerable fallout seldom convinces me to respect my bounds.  It would seem, after all, that the only difference between my son and me is our thirty-year age difference.

Oddly enough, it’s by observing him that I am learning to have greater respect for my own limitations.  I think 2012 is a good year to shut my mouth before I lose a friendship, increase my professionalism before I lose my job, and pay better attention to my wife before I lose her heart.  And that’s just for starters.  So pay attention, my son.  Perhaps I can spare you a hard lesson or two.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Arrogance and Stones

I love the story of the woman who was caught in the act of adultery and dragged before Jesus.  In John 8, we see that the religious leaders hated Jesus for interrupting the status quo.  They were so full of themselves they failed to recognize their own God when he stood right in front of them.  In a foolish effort to entrap Jesus, they decided to test his enforcement of the law.  Somehow they managed to catch a woman in the midst of sexual passion with a man she wasn’t married to.  Nevermind the sting operation, Mosaic Law clearly provided that she be stoned to death for the sin of adultery.  They had complete legal authority to kill her, yet in an act of great spectacle they paraded her in front of Jesus and asked him what they should do. Jesus immediately recognized their devious intent.  These religious fanatics were not zealous about keeping God’s law; rather they were power hungry and arrogant.  So Jesus tells them to go ahead and stone her, “but the one who has never sinned throw the first stone!” 

This week, our nation watched as a jury acquitted Casey Anthony of the murder of her daughter.  In the court of public opinion, however, she was found guilty a long time ago, and now many are outraged that she was not convicted.  Across the nation voices are erupting with indignation over this perceived injustice.

I have no idea if Ms. Anthony is really guilty or not, but that’s not what concerns me.  As I digest the multitude of news clips and articles about her trial and its subsequent impact, what strikes me most is the arrogance displayed by those who decry her innocence.  Strangers have gone out of their way to make signs and protest outside of the courthouse.  One sign declared, “Casey deserves to burn in hell!”  Well, that may be true, but don’t we all?

Naturally, it should horrify us when a toddler is murdered.  Anytime a person is victimized in any fashion, we should find ourselves incensed.  But I’m reminded in this moment of how unfit I am to cast judgment upon anyone.  I say we take a hard look at ourselves and maybe loosen the grip on our stones. 

Friday, May 20, 2011

Being the Traitor and the Betrayed

After years of clinging to the notion of sexual abstinence my resolve began to crumble when I became a soldier.  Socially speaking, the military was similar to my college and work experience; however, it was a culture drastically unique from any I had previously been exposed to.  I found myself in a sexually charged atmosphere, and all too quickly one young lady in particular became the focus of my attention.  After a lifetime of abusive situations, she seemed drawn to me; and I, in turn, felt obligated to rescue her from a vicious cycle of poor relationships.  I became obsessed and my judgment deteriorated as I continually compromised in order to counter her resistance.  Eventually, I caved completely and, consequently, lost her respect.  As a result, our relationship fell apart overnight.

Sometime later, I sought her out, hoping desperately to woo her back.  Put off by my advances, she spitefully confessed to having been with multiple other men during and since our relationship.  Never before and never since have I been so emotionally sucker-punched.  My knees buckled, and I fell face down on the ground, sobbing bitterly.  I was humiliated and crushed by her betrayal. 

My grief would take a while to dissipate, but that night bore a startling revelation.  Through the blinding agony of heartbreak, I was reminded of when Peter denied his association with Jesus on the night before the crucifixion.  In a horrifically insightful moment, I began to comprehend how both Peter AND Jesus must have felt. 

The Bible doesn’t reveal if Jesus had any immediate reaction to Peter’s actions, but we do know that Peter ran off and “wept bitterly.”  Peter hadn’t meant to hurt Jesus, but I imagine the look in his eyes pierced Peter’s heart.  Jesus had predicted Peter’s failure, and it must have been devastating to learn that his Master’s expectations were accurate.  Just like Peter boasted of his loyalty to Jesus, I proudly proclaimed my sexual convictions; and like Peter, I too let pride precede my fall.  I took my eyes off of Christ for a split-second and got burned by my selfish pursuit.  The knowledge that my sin didn’t catch Christ by surprise only added to my humiliation.  I felt utterly foolish for walking into a snare with my eyes wide shut.

In this scenario, however, I was also the person wronged, and I remember vividly wondering if how I felt was anything like how God feels when we wrong Him.  This woman acted selfishly, pursuing satisfaction from others without regard for how her actions would affect me.  We can analyze this all day long, but what she thought and why she made her choices are not important.  The thought to consider is how much we treat God the same way.  How often do we grieve God by our choices?  As I cried that night, I was given a glimpse of how my defiance and unfaithfulness breaks the heart of God.

I am struggling to know how to conclude these thoughts.  I do not claim to fully understand the thoughts and character of God.  I do know, though, the pain of being mistreated; and I know the guilt of having mistreated others.  And I don’t imagine that I am assuming too much if I suggest that we all have felt the same.  I suppose all I am hoping to convey here is that maybe it’s time we remembered the Golden Rule and relearned how to treat EVERYONE as we ourselves would hope to be treated.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Sunsets at Camp Taji

Approximately twenty miles north of Baghdad lays the town of Taji.  Formerly an outpost for the Iraqi Republican Guard, it was taken over by US forces following the invasion.  In late summer 2006, my brigade was reassigned to Baghdad, and my battalion moved into the “village” on the backside of Camp Taji. 

There were many factors that contributed to the overall anguish of that period.  Whereas in northern Iraq I shared a CHU (containerized housing unit) with only one soldier, I now had a hundred plus roommates in a cavernous warehouse.  With our arrival in the Sunni Triangle, came the extra weight of added armor (side plates), raising the total to thirty-three pounds.  The temperature consistently topped out around 120 degrees.  I was attending memorial services at awfully close intervals.  And nobody could tell us when we would be going home.

I remember my chest physically hurting as I cursed God for relegating me to such a torturous existence.  The truth was I found it impossible to abandon my belief in God, and this infuriated me.  I was so far removed from my last shred of hope that I welcomed death.  I was stuck in hell with nowhere to turn.

As my insanity worsened, I sought reprieve.  At sunset, as often as my schedule allowed, I would stroll beyond the borders of our “village” and claim a spot among the piles of rusty debris and tall grass that lined the road.  With overwhelming numbness and a clear view of the horizon, I would stare into the oncoming sunlight until I became blinded to everything around me.  My eyelids preserved the image burned into my corneas, and for a few seconds I could be anywhere I wanted to be, free of the war and its suffocating constraints.

To this day, when I see the sun setting at the far end of an open field, that old ache returns.  I have been blessed with much healing in the years since then, but some reminders never go away and some wounds always hurt.  Such is life, I suppose.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

The Death of Usama bin Laden: A Veteran's Response

As a military veteran, and specifically as one who has served in one of the current wars, I have been asked several times over the past few days, how I feel about the death of Usama bin Laden.  Each time I have found myself hesitant to answer; my heart baffled by mixed emotions and my mind perplexed by conflicting thoughts.  Aside from conversations with my wife, I don’t think I’ve given anyone a full, straight answer yet.  I’d like to attempt to do so now.

While many are expressing happiness, the sensation that washes over me is one of relief.  Ten years of tension has at last been eased, and I wearily exhale, “Finally.”  First, because he has been found.  The great mystery of the past decade has been the location of Usama bin Laden.  The world has not known where he was or if he was even alive, and it has been maddening and frightening that a person of such high profile could hide for so long from all the military and intelligence resources of the world.  Never were we worried about what to do if he was found; rather we were solely obsessed by the fact that he could not be found.  Therefore, it inspires a sense of accomplishment that this case has been closed.  Once again there is a feeling that the United States military can accomplish anything; and that is crucially uplifting in an age of two decade-long wars.  The most elusive fugitive in recent history has been found, and it just feels good to have our confidence restored.

Secondly, I feel relieved that the bin Laden story is over.  Many will debate the pros and cons of killing verses capture.  In my mind it is too late for that, and I do not have the stamina to participate in such a debate.  For too long this man has consumed a nation’s nightmares, and I am simply relieved that we do not have to think about him anymore.  He is dead, and although another will rise to take his place, bin Laden’s reign is over.  We are now free to move on.

Still, my reaction to bin Laden’s death is far more complex than solely a feeling of relief.  The sight of Americans rejoicing in the streets resonates strongly with me.  The news elicits a surge of excitement over a mission accomplished.  I realize that the War on Terror has not been won, but does that mean that each inch of ground gained is worthless until the whole is achieved?  Terrorism will always exist, so will we not celebrate when Al Qaeda is finally destroyed?  The finding and killing of Usama bin Laden is but one aspect of a larger war, yet it is a victory nonetheless and should be appreciated as such.  I was on active duty when military forces captured Saddam Hussein and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (former leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq), both elusive targets, and although I was not part of those missions, I shared in the excitement of a mission accomplished.  Those events inspired the perception that we were winning, and that was a critical boost to morale at a time when even I was beginning to question the worthiness of the cause.

As for his demise, I’m extremely satisfied that bin Laden was shot and not bombed.  Whoever pulled that trigger inadvertently represented the entire US military and a large percentage of the nation.  It is so gratifying to know that the man who built a terrorist network known for its suicide bombs and views on martyrdom died unarmed at the hands of a member of the United States military.  It was personal, and it afforded him a chance to be scared, to know what was coming.  I understand that perhaps his death was not as brutal as some would have liked, and I might even be inclined to agree.  However, I am content that his death was no more merciful than it was.

Usama bin Laden will be remembered in the history books (the Western ones, at least) as one of the most notorious villains of the modern era.  He was responsible for one of the most traumatic events in our nation’s history.  He successfully placed Muslim extremism center stage and forever altered the way we attend to national security.  For his crimes, I wish he could die a thousand times.  I wish he had been strung up as the nation’s piƱata – dangling in place for every grieving, angry soul to unleash his or her fury.

Call it brainwashing or call it clarity, but sixteen months at war molded that perspective.  It was agonizing fighting a faceless enemy, and more often than not, we were denied the therapy of actually engaging our foe.  Rather, we were engaged in a deadly game of tag, cautiously awaiting the next buried bomb to detonate.  As time passed, my rage increased.  The mission began to feel like a vicious cycle - we were there because of the violence, yet the violence persisted only because we were there.  Naturally, we felt violated and toyed with.  Consequently, I quit caring about intelligence value and humanitarian issues, and I subscribed wholeheartedly to the belief that the only solution was to just “kill them all!”  In the exhaustion and frustration of war this was the mentality that surfaced as the most sensible; and although I have since recovered a more civilized attitude, the ghost of war still whispers convincingly in my ear.

In a world of 24-hour news and social networks, everyone has a voice, and those voices are understandably tempered by the context of personal experience.  So I offer these thoughts as merely my point of view – not politically correct or spiritually sound – just my honest reaction.