Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Amazing Grace

I'm sitting here, at my keyboard, wanting to write a blog on "Grace". I feel like an ant attempting to write a thesis on The Grand Canyon. The word rolls easy off the tongue but feels like a barbed hook when I try to swallow it. Grace. It is what is at the very heart of the Prodigal's Story. We love the way the story ends but, at the same time it is such a hard pill to swallow when we see it happening to someone who doesn't deserve it. Someone like the Prodigal Son, who throws his inheritance away with drinking and drugs and gambling and prostitution.... and God only knows what else.....

John Newton was a ship's captain in the 1700's. He lived for the slave trade. He was responsible for thousands of men, women and children to be bought on the auction block like so much chattel.

I think it takes a heartless man to treat another human being like a commodity,... but, back then slaves weren't "human beings"... they were just commerce.

One night, during a storm that threatened to sink the ship, John Newton cried out to God for mercy. Amazingly enough, God heard his pitiful plea and spared his life. John Newton. The slave trader. God not only heard him, God intervened in a powerful way and changed John Newton's heart.... made him a different person. That is so.... unfair. Maybe that's why there is the saying that "God works in mysterious ways".... If "I" were God I sure wouldn't have done it. I would have thrown him overboard and saved the ship... but not him.

John Newton eventually left his sailing life and became a preacher. He shared what he had found with others. He shared this "grace" he had discovered.

Another fellow by the name of William Wilberforce heard John Newton preach and he, too became a disciple of Grace. So much so that William Wilberforce started the movement to abolish slavery. Interesting how that works....

John Newton found an interest in hymn-writing and started writing music for The Church. Among the many hymns he wrote, one in particular has always stood out. The song is called, "Amazing Grace". I'm sure you've heard it,... even sung it at one time or other. There must have been something amazingly memorable in being the captain of a slave ship, in the middle of the night, in the middle of a storm.... and having your entire world turned upside-down by the simple cry of "God have mercy on me!"......

I know it works. It happened to me... many years ago. I had my world turned upside-down by Grace. Actually, to be correct, I would have to say that I had my world turned "right-side up" by Grace. Perhaps it is something that has to be experienced rather than explained. Like I wrote in a previous blog, it is like trying to describe what the color "blue" tastes like....

All I know is that, when I hear or sing this song, I can definitely relate. It's the best thing I've heard that comes the closest to describing "grace"..... It is.... Amazing....

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound

That saved a wretch like me

I once was lost but now I'm found

Was blind, but now I see

'Twas Grace that taught my heart to fear

And Grace, my fears relieved

How precious did that Grace appear

The hour I first believed

Through many dangers, toils and snares

I have already come

'Tis Grace that brought me safe thus far

And Grace will lead me home

When we've been there ten-thousand years

Bright, shining as the sun

There's no less days to sing His praise

Than when we've first begun

Saturday, July 24, 2010

The Prodigal Part 2

"Becoming an addict is the worst thing that has ever happened to me in my life"....

"Becoming an addict is the best thing that has ever happened to me in my life"...

Two addicts, two different views on life.....


It has to do with the story of the Prodigal Son. I wrote the chapter in my previous blog from last week. (You can read it for yourself in Luke, chapter 15)...

I've heard these words often. To one person, their addiction has ruined their lives. They've suffered loss. Loss of health, finances, family ties, jobs, reputations....

Another addict has suffered as much but sees life in a completely different way.

Like The Prodigal, they have squandered their wealth (however you might describe "wealth")... and they have found themselves far from home, friendless, pennyless, ...perhaps even living like one of the pigs in the pig-pen of life....seemingly without hope, without a future.

The difference between the two is that one has, as in the story of The Prodigal, "come to their senses" and headed for "home".. to a loving Father,.. perhaps for the first time. They have surrendered their lives to God. Given Him the "junk" in their lives. They made a U-Turn in life and headed in a Spiritual direction, a place where they are taken in and embraced as family. They've found "community" in groups like The Church, or A.A., or N.A., Al-Anon, or a family group that shares their experience, strength and hope. (by the way, the word "repent" simply means to "turn around".... go in a new direction)....

It's not a terrible thing to be a "Prodigal" in the eyes of God. Actually we're ALL prodigals in some sense of the word, but most of us never seem to realize it. We're all broken and Spiritually "homeless", but we've learned to cope with it, somehow even seem to have prosper in it.... materially.

What the one addict (the one who considers it a blessing), has learned, is that no matter how much a person screws up their life, there is a homecoming awaiting them and there is a Love awaiting their return Who is constantly watching the distant hills, daily waiting to see that wandering soul of a son or daughter,..come up over the horizon. A Father who is willing to not only "forgive" all faults, but is ready to throw a party to celebrate our return. This prodigal has experienced a supernatural grace that the other prodigal (the one who considers their addiction a curse), will never experience.

When Jesus told this story he was talking to an audience which included a lot of very "religious" people who didn't think they were in need of grace. They "had everything together" and were appalled that Jesus would depict God as a loving Father who was willing to embrace "sinners".... prostitutes, drug addicts, gambling addicts, sex addicts, I.R.S. agents (the scandalous "tax collectors" of Roman-ruled Palestine)...... and even those who simply saw their need for grace and mercy... and forgiveness. The scandal of.... grace.

A key figure in the story, I believe, is the older brother. The brother who seemingly never did anything wrong, the brother who stayed on the farm and did all the heavy lifting. The one who never scandalized the family. He was appalled and angry that his father would accept this "black sheep" back into the family and even set him back in a position of trust. The older brother....

The Father showed that he loved the older brother just as he loved The Prodigal, but the older brother just couldn't stand this extension of forgiveness and grace. It wasn't "fair". The Bible teaches that God isn't "fair" when it comes to forgiveness... when it comes to giving grace freely and lavishly.

I think it's a great thing that Jesus portrayed God in this way, for most of us would be simply lightning rods for judgment if we truly got what we think is "fair" treatment from God for the way we've lived our lives.

The Prodigal.... He forever had a different relationship with the Father he had abandoned and disgraced. He found out that he had a Father who truly loved him and accepted him. He never realized this before. Now he had a new perspective on life. His prodigal ways had become the best thing that had ever happened to him. His eyes were opened to love and he had come back home .... for the first time....

"Grace substitues a full, childlike and delighted acceptance of our need, a joy in total dependence. The good man is sorry for the sins which have increased his need. He is not entirely sorry for the fresh need they have produced.".......C.S. Lewis

Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Prodigal, Part 1

Perhaps the greatest "short story" ever written, told by the Master Storyteller...

A man had two sons. The younger told his father, "I want my share of your estate now, instead of waiting until you die." His father agreed to divide his wealth between his sons

A few days later this younger son packed all his belongings and took a trip to a distant land, and there wasted all his money on parties and prostitutes. About the time all his money was gone a great famine swept over the land and he began to starve. He persuaded a local farmer to hire him to feed his pigs. The boy became so hungry that even the pods he was feeding the swine looked good to him,.... and no one gave him anything.
When he finally came to his senses, he said to himself, "At home even the hired men have food enough to spare and here I am, dying of hunger. I will go home to my father and say, "Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you and am no longer worthy of being called your son. Please take me on as a hired man."

So he returned home to his father.
While he was still a long distance away his father saw him coming and was filled with compassion and ran and embraced him and kissed him.
His son said to him, "Father I have sinned against heaven and you and am not worthy of being called your son.".... But his father said to the servants, "Quick, bring the finest robe in the house and put it on him.... and a jeweled ring for his finger and shoes for his feet!... And kill the calf we have in the holding pen. We must celebrate with a feast, for this son of mine was dead and has returned to life. He was lost and is found."

So the party began.....

Meanwhile, the older son was in the fields working. When he returned home he heard dance music coming from the house and he asked one of the servants what was going on.
"Your brother is back, he was told, and your father has killed the calf we were fattening and has prepared a great feast to celebrate his coming home again unharmed."

The older brother was angry and wouldn't go in. His father came out and begged him, but he replied,... "All these years I've worked hard for you and never once refused to do a single thing you told me to do, and in all that time you never even gave one young goat for a feast with my friends. Yet, when this son of yours comes back after spending your money on prostitutes, you celebrate by killing the finest calf we have on the place."

"Look, dear son, his father said to him, 'you and I are very close, and everything I have is yours. But it is right to celebrate. For he is your brother, and he was dead and has come back to life! He was lost and is found!".......

(to be continued).....

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Yes Men

Recently we did a Bible study on an Old Testament king named Eglon. Because he was surrounded by servants who were so intimidated by him, he allowed himself to be put in a situation where he was left by himself and was assassinated by an enemy.

I remember back about 20 years ago when my family and I were attending a fairly large, well-known church. The pastor was very well-known as a speaker and book author and had started the church from scratch several years before. The church had grown into sort of a mega-church and had a couple thousand members. The pastor had a group of elders who were accountable to him. The problem was,... HE wasn't accountable to them. They were basically just "yes men".... too intimidated to challenge the pastor on any issue. After all, he was "The Senior Pastor"... and, to most of the people in the congregation he was a "Spiritual Giant".

This pastor had always cautioned his staff that it was not proper for a man to counsel a woman by himself, that there should at least be another person present. This was so there would be no hint of impropriety... and, lesser chance of developing an unhealthy relationship.

So, ...one day, the pastor finds himself counseling a woman.... alone..without any oversight. The elders know this is a problem but they choose to simply ignore it because they are too afraid to "make waves", too fearful to confront him on the issue. After all, this was "Mr. Spiritual" who was doing the counseling. This was the senior pastor. What could happen?

Well,... what could happen is that the pastor could end up having an affair and running off with the woman to another state, forsaking his church, his wife and his family. Yes, ....it happened. It dealt a devastating blow to the congregation.

Eventually the pastor came to his senses, repented and returned to the church. But, the damage was done, the church was broken apart, and a lot of folks were left questioning everything they had ever believed about Christianity and true faith.

It's a dangerous thing to be surrounded by people who are too afraid to question you once in awhile,... afraid to "confront" you about a direction your life is taking.

I think all of us would like to believe that we are always right about every issue in life. The simple truth is that we aren't. We all have our blind spots and will eventually, if not held in check, fall into a pit of some sort. It takes a degree of humility to admit this and to allow ourselves to be open to criticism. That doesn't mean that the criticism is always accurate, but it does mean that we have the ability to at least consider what people are trying to tell us.... without being offended by it....respecting the advice and even the "correction" of others.

I hope you will be one of those kind of people who refuse to surround yourself with "yes men" ... or "yes women". Allow yourself to be a person of integrity and humility. Both literally, and figuratively, it might save your life one day.

Friday, July 2, 2010

The Gambler

"You gotta know when to hold 'em, .. know when to fold 'em,...know when to walk away, ... and know when to .... run"..... (from the song, "The Gambler" by Kenny Rogers)....

My wife's father was an old navy man,... served on a merchant ship in World War Two.
He was getting up in years and not in the best of health when he got an invitation to attend a navy reunion in Las Vegas. So... he asked if my wife and I would go with him and be there to help with logistics and such. We had never been to Vegas so we thought it would be a nice thing to do, see a different part of the country, see "Sin City"..... Branson on steroids...
My wife and I are not gamblers...never had the inclination to do so even though "The Boats" had come to our own city a couple of years earlier and had made gambling a big attraction.

Anyway... we went to Vegas.

Walking through one of the hotels, surrounded by One-Armed Bandits, my wife decided to plunk a quarter in one of the machines and give it a whirl.
Well,... don't you know... the first time she did this, out popped about 7o dollars in quarters!
Hey!.... This gambling stuff ain't so bad!.... very cool....
I guess one has to figure if they hit the jackpot on the first try then it must be pretty easy to keep 'er going...
I ended up playing the poker machines and my wife and her mother played the Bandits pretty much the whole time we were there. No time for Navy Reunions when there's loot to win...right?

No...we actually did attend the reunion with her dad and had a good time, even when the ladies in their 70's and 80's came out in their skimpy outfits kicking up their heels and dancing in a chorus line... (although I still do have nightmares about that once in awhile)....
When we arrived back in dear old K.C. my wife and I decided it was time to, perhaps, visit "The Boats"... just to see if they were as exciting as the ones in Los Wages, Nevada.. They were.
I think we spent several months going down and losing our money. Sometimes breaking even, but.. most of the time... losing.
One day we were walking out of one of the casinos and just looked at each other, knowingly... the time had come to face it... we were being foolish. We decided that our money could be better spend having a nice dinner and going to a movie....

All this to say: In the world of "Addiction" I think Gambling doesn't get the respect that it deserves. There is definitely a chemical change that takes place in the brain when you're surrounded by the sights and sounds of the casino machinery.... a rush of adrenalin and dopamine... a "high" if you will. It is very reminiscent of the old "Pavlov's Dog" experimentation. Feed the dog, ring a bell....feed the dog, ring a bell. Keep it up long enough and fairly soon you don't have to feed the dog. The dog simply salivates at the sound of "the bell"....
There are enough bells and whistles in the Casinos to float a pack of German Shepherds....
Thankfully, I recognized the signs, and nipped it in the bud before it got out of control. Some folks don't. Sure, it's "entertaining", but it's also just another avenue into the world of addiction. I know of people who have lost cars, homes, jobs and families to a gambling addiction. I read of a man who committed suicide because he was too embarrassed to face his family and tell them he had gambled away ALL their money (savings, college tuitions, home mortgage,..everything)....

Following is a test that is given to people who think they might have a gambling problem. I hope you will look it over, maybe test yourself if you think this might describe you....and reach out for help if it does. Don't let any addiction ruin your life.. whether it's booze, sex, pot, cocaine,... cigarettes.... (they can shorten your life by 20 years).... food...?

Be careful out there.... the world is a seductive place.....know when to...run

The Test:
1. Did you ever lose time from work or school due to gambling?
2. Has gambling ever made your home life unhappy?
3. Did gambling affect your reputation?
4. Have you ever felt remorse after gambling?
5. Did you ever gamble to get money with which to pay debts or otherwise solve financial difficulties?
6. Did gambling cause a decrease in your ambition or efficiency?
7. After losing did you feel you must return as soon as possible and win back your losses?
8. After a win did you have a strong urge to return and win more?
9. Did you often gamble until your last dollar was gone?
10. Did you ever borrow to finance your gambling?
11. Have you ever sold anything to finance gambling?
12. Were you reluctant to use "gambling money" for normal expenditures?
13. Did gambling make you careless of the welfare of your family?
14. Did you ever gamble longer than you had planned?
15. Have you ever gambled to escape worry or trouble?
16. Have you ever committed, or considered committing, an illegal act to finance gambling?
17. Did gambling cause you to have difficulty in sleeping?
18.Do arguments, disappointments or frustrations create within you an urge to gamble?
19. Did you ever have an urge to celebrate any good fortune by a few hours of gambling?
20. Have you ever considered self-destruction as a result of your gambling?

Most compulsive gamblers will answer yes to at least 7 of these questions.