Outside the Dance Hall

As we head into Memorial Day weekend here in the United States, it seems appropriate to re-tell a story I heard from a local area pastor about his family.

Returned servicemenHis grandfather had served in World War II. When he returned home he had quite an adjustment to make.

Many servicemen would go to the local Dance Halls for social connection, and on one occasion he found himself heading there too. As he approached, he noticed a young woman sitting on the steps outside, crying. He walked over to her and asked, “Are you alone? What’s the matter? Why are you crying?”

“Oh, I’m not alone,” she said, as she lifted her ring-finger for him to see. “I’m engaged to be married, but my fiance is inside dancing with other women and flirting with them.”

He looked at her and said, “Here’s what you’re going to do. You’re going to take that ring off. And you’re going to go inside and hand it back to him, and tell him, ‘There’s a guy outside who’s going to marry me.'”

And she did!

Three weeks later they were married and they remained married for 65 years until death parted them less than a decade ago.

It’s a wonderful story (and just a little shocking) of love and romance.

Christ has done the same for us.

At some point, we all sit outside the Dance Hall wondering if anyone will love us truly, faithfully, and eternally. We all feel rejected, alone, and insecure at some point. And Christ comes to us. He invites us to let go of the dreams and the hopes that once held us, and pursue an entirely new life (and an entirely abundant life) with Him.

And everyday thereafter (even today) we are invited to say “Yes” again to Him. He invites us softly and tenderly to a lifetime and a life-pursuit to know Him more.

Two millennia ago, the Apostle Paul was captured by this profound love of Christ (see Romans 8:35-39), and resolved that his real life-mission would be “to gain Christ…to be found in Him…and to know Him” (Philippians 3:8, 9, 10). Whatever we sense to be our calling from God or our mission in His Kingdom, nothing surpasses this; to know more fully and more deeply the One who meets us outside the Dance Hall and invites us to an eternal marriage.

He wipes away our tears.

Pause, even now, and say “Yes” again to Him.

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Memory and Vision

Dave Stone tells the story of a woman facing delicate brain surgery. The surgeon called her in and indicated the risk involved. On the one hand, she might lose her memory. On the other hand, she might lose her sight. All would likely be well, but if she were to lose one or the other, which would she choose? After a day of prayer and contemplation, she concluded she’d rather lose her memory. “I’d rather see where I’m going than remember where I’ve been.”

MemoryDave uses this touching story to illustrate the importance of vision – a dream and a preferred future – over memory. “Death comes when our memory of the past is greater than our vision of the future.”

But our ready abandonment of memory and our preference for vision, innovation, relevance, and growth comes at a cost.

The rise of the non-denominational church has both strengths and weaknesses. On the positive, it breaks free of bureaucratic, power-based, and often divisive structures. On the other hand, it is a church unmoored; with neither roots nor history.

Memory of the past, when it locks us into the past, can certainly create unhealthy and unhelpful wistfulness. Consider Israel in the wilderness, complaining that they missed garlic and leeks (and slavery) in Egypt! But we live most fully when memories inform the present.

Without memories, relationships remain shallow. Depth of friendship depends on increasingly shared experiences (which we remember). Faith itself depends on “remembering what the Lord has done” so that we can hold fast to Him. Loss of memory would, in fact, produce loss of faith and loss of connection. It undermines community, cohesion, and connection.

Vision without memory is nothing but the perpetual pursuit of a new experience. It loses its way. It rings hollow.

We need both.

The disdain that some have for the past is actually a pathway to loss not progress. Families without stories are families without intimacy. Trust itself is the fruit of past experiences.

Let’s learn to honor the past – learn from it, celebrate it, re-tell it – while we also lean into the future with hope and an open hand. If we deny either one (memory or vision), we’ll experience less than Christ intended; in marriages, families, friendships, and churches.

As a leader, parent, marriage partner, or friend, how’s your memory … and your vision?

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Forget the Balanced Life

We hear it all the time; “If you want the good life, get a balanced life.”

BalanceSomehow we have come to believe that the underlying problem for many of us is too much of one thing (work, school, church) and not enough of another (family, play, travel). We’d be happier if we could just do a little of this, a little of that, and not too much of any one thing.

Let’s forget the balanced life. It’s a myth. It doesn’t exist.

It assumes that everything in life is static and should be measured by hours. Is eight hours of work, eight hours of sleep, and eight hours of friends, family, or relaxation the balanced life?

Life is not like that. And we know it.

People suffer unexpected injuries and develop unplanned sicknesses. Financial pressures force lifestyle changes. Employment demands can be unpredictable. Anyone who has raised kids knows that there’s nothing routine about parenting. Serving others is messy. Other people’s lives don’t line up neatly with our own…and we don’t line up neatly with anyone else.

Even the discussion of the balanced life is perhaps the luxury of the affluent. Ask the destitute and homeless of our inner cities, the refugees from Syria, the starving families in Sudan, the war-afflicted villages in West Africa, or the poor in India about the balanced life. It’ll make no sense.

So where does abundance and joy lie, if not in balance? It lies not in balance but in Presence. God’s Presence.

Nehemiah reminded the broken and grieved people of Israel that “the joy of the Lord is your strength” (Nehemiah 8:10).

It’s not the ordering of our hours but the orientation of our hearts that leads to flourishing.

We want to believe that we’ll thrive when we can work a 38-hour week and play hard on weekends. Or find more time with the kids. Or get a few more hours of sleep (which can’t hurt). But for all the talk, this balance feels elusive. It’s like holding slippery soap. Just when we think we have a grip, it slips away from us.

Let’s lay aside the balanced life, and lean into the obedient life; the life deeply committed to Christ, aligned with His will, and responsive to His leading. Perhaps the real dilemma we face is not so much better time-management as greater surrender, and deeper sensitivity to the Presence of Christ.

How might we embrace His Presence more today?

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Journey with Jonah – #7

Then the Lord said, “You had compassion on the plant for which you did not work, and which you did not cause to grow, which came up overnight and perished overnight. Should I not have compassion on Nineveh, the great city in which there are more than 120,000 people who do not know the difference between their right and left hand?” (Jonah 4:10-11)

JonahAnd so finishes the story of Jonah.

The story finishes with a provocative and confronting question. Like so many biblical stories — even many of Jesus’ stories — it leaves us hanging. Suddenly we realize that this is less about an ancient prophet named Jonah, and more about us. As we wonder how Jonah might have answered the question, we discover that the story is asking us to answer the question for ourselves.

We live in a strange time. We’ll save the whale while we exploit women and children. We’ll argue about global warming and environmental concerns while we remain silent about injustice and global slavery. We’ll spend lavishly on our pets but not sponsor a destitute child trapped in poverty.

The spirit of Jonah pervades our day.

When did we become so dispassionate about suffering, so distracted by secondary concerns, and so distorted in our values? Of course I’m not describing everyone. Generosity oozes from the pores of so many people, but we live in culture that still places higher value on political reform than protection of the unborn.

The story of Jonah includes him running from God (chapter 1), running to God (chapter 2), and running with God (chapter 3). It finishes with the consequences of running ahead of God (chapter 4). When we begin to tell God what matters most in life, self-interest and distorted perspectives always take over. We devalue life and join the Darwinian quest; survival of the fittest.

The Gospel delivers us from this myopia. It confronts our hardened hearts. If Christ died not just for the 120,000 of ancient Nineveh but for the millions of our own day too “who do not know the difference between their right and left hand”, ought we not extend the same grace and compassion? More than ignorance, the Ninevites were enemies of the nation of Israel. Yet God did a work of revival among them. What He did once, He can do again.

Do we love people, even those who identify as our adversaries, more than we love our plants and pets? Christ did … and does. Jonah had to answer the question, and so must we.

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Journey with Jonah – #6

“But it greatly displeased Jonah, and he became angry. And he prayed to the Lord and said, ‘Please take my life from me, for death is better to me than life.” (Jonah 4:1-3)

JonahAngry enough to want to die?

Jonah was not the first servant of God to say “Kill me now!” Samson said it at one point (Judges 16:30); so did Elijah (1 Kings 19:4). Since then, tens of thousands of pastors have probably had similar moments on Mondays!

Jonah hits a low point, and will hit it again (Jonah 4:8) before the story ends. And the reason? God was simply too gracious and too compassionate.

Jonah wanted to watch fire and brimstone rain down from heaven and annihilate the Ninevites. Instead, God turned their hearts toward Himself, and spared them. Jonah cannot bear it. His personal sense of justice felt violated. And so he points his finger at God and says, “I told you so. I told you that if I came and preached that they would turn to You, and You would spare them. That’s why I headed for Tarshish. I’m so angry with You that I’d rather die than live to watch this!” (Jonah 4:2)

Revival breaks out, and Jonah cannot rejoice.

I remember a conversation in a church one time when we discussed how we would “manage” any outbreak of the Spirit during or after a service. “All things should be done with decency and in order.” We weren’t angry, but people felt fearful.

Another time, someone off the streets wandered into a service and said yes to Jesus when an invitation was given, and people felt awkward and uncomfortable and quietly hoped it wouldn’t happen too often.

Historically, revival has always been messy. People’s lives get turned upside down. Strange phenomena take place. Charlatans and spiritual salesmen show up. The real and the fake get mixed up.

Nineveh turned to God, and Jonah turned away from God. After a short stint of running with God, Jonah now ran ahead of God. He wanted to tell God how it should be and exactly what should be done. He had the plan, he knew what should happen, and he wouldn’t be happy unless God followed the script precisely.

This last chapter in the short story of Jonah gets me every time. This is the chapter I have seen replayed too many times. Running ahead of God.

How different it is when we walk in step with the Spirit rather than run ahead of Him. Are we able to embrace the chaos of revival and the plans of God, even when we want otherwise? Are we truly as gracious and compassionate as Christ?

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Journey with Jonah – #5

“So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh according to the word of the Lord … and the people of Nineveh believed in God; and they called a fast…. When God saw their deeds, that they turned from their wicked way, then He relented concerning the calamity which He declared He would bring upon them.” (Jonah 3:3, 5, 10)

JonahMiracles happen.

In chapter 1, Jonah ran from God and ended up in the belly of a fish. In chapter 2, he runs to God (in prayer) and the fish vomits him onto dry land and Jonah begins his second chance. God is always “the God of the second chance.” Now in chapter 3, Jonah runs with God and travels to the dreaded Nineveh. And a miracle happens.

Against all odds, the cruel, vicious, and feared Assyrians (Nineveh served as their capital city) turned to God. Who could imagine? Certainly not Jonah.

I doubt that he preached very enthusiastically. All we know is that he said, “In forty days, Nineveh will be overthrown.” (Jonah 3:4) It’s unlikely he climbed the highest rooftops and belted out the message. Far too dangerous. Yet, God empowered that simple word and drilled it into the hearts of those ancient warriors, and they turned to Him!

When we run with God, the unexpected becomes commonplace. When we obey His leading, declare His Word, and yield to His guidance, violence changes and lives get turned around.

Need a miracle? Can’t see your way forward? Scared to death by what you are facing? Run with God.

God’s Presence changes everything. It saves; it delivers; it transforms. When we respond to His Presence, invoke His Presence, and become Presence-bearers in our marriages, families, and communities, He makes a difference.

Everything gets overturned in the “with God life.” People stop worrying and discover new reserves of peace, joy, and hope. The “with God life” produces more patience and kindness. When we embrace the “with God life” we don’t have to seek His will; we simply prove it (Romans 12:2) because we live in it.

Perhaps the weakness of the Church today lies in the failure of the people of God to practice the Presence of God, and to run with God into culture. We’ve allowed fear to turn our heads and move our feet towards Tarshish. God receives no glory when we board ships and head the opposite direction. Will we serve as prophetic voices to our culture, despite its hostility and antipathy?

Perhaps today, Jonah 3 stands as an invitation to a “with God life” marked by the supernatural. Let’s keep our eyes open.

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Journey with Jonah – #4

“Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the stomach of the fish….” (Jonah 2:1)

JonahPeople have prayed in many strange places, but none stranger than the belly of a great fish. The mind boggles. Yet, once Jonah quit running from God, the sailors tossed him overboard and a great fish (appointed by God) swallowed him. Then he started to look to God. Jonah prayed.

Many people turn to God in times of crisis. But what do they say? How do you pray when words fail you?

Today a dear friend let me know about the passing of his father-in-law this morning. He emailed me these words:

“He was two weeks short of 95. We were with him yesterday afternoon, and in the evening more family joined together to say goodbyes. We prayed the Lord’s Prayer and some psalms and said a blessing over him. My wife was alone with him this morning when he passed. He will be missed, but leaves a legacy of quiet, steady, and unassuming faithfulness. We think of psalm 116. Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his faithful servants.”

Kevin has continued a long tradition, all the way back to Jonah and beyond.

As Jonah languished for three days and nights in the dark belly of that over-sized fish, he prayed. He prayed … the Psalms.

In the mere 8 verses which record his prayer, he recites phrases from Psalms 3, 5, 16, 18, 22, 30, 31, 42, 50, 69, 77, 116, 120, 142, and 143. When his own words failed him, he utilized the prayers of Scripture to express his anguish, distress, repentance, faith, and hope.

So many followers of Jesus begin their Bible with the Gospels. Yet, the classroom of prayer sits in the middle of our Bibles, with 150 lessons we call the Psalms.

Benedictine monks read these Psalms — all of them — each month. In doing so, they learn a different language; a language marked by both raw feeling and faith; a language filled with both emotion and reason; a language that gives voice to the deepest cries of the human heart and the highest aspirations of the human spirit.

Jonah prayed the Psalms.

He turned his face again to the Lord, and repeated words which the Lord Himself had inspired. And as he cobbled together the words and phrases from centuries past, his soul drew a single conclusion: “Salvation is from the Lord.” (2:9)

How are your prayers? Shallow? Hollow? Empty? Short?

In sadness and sorrow, in joy and in delight, the Psalms have consistently shaped the souls of God’s people.

As Kevin and his family find solace and hope through this inspired poetry this week, perhaps some of us would benefit from a stint in the classroom, too.

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