Tag Archive: Gospel


As you are well aware, I continue to walk my dog, Vader, every morning before sun up and every evening after sun down.  Sometimes I’m not so sure I’m walking him.  He walks me most of the time.  

Vader is half lab and half hound.  He has the head of a lab but the body and muscle structure of a hound.  Usually, the morning walks are uneventful.  Usually.  Every so often the hound part kicks in, and, instead of a nice morning exercise, we are tracking something.  That’s because his nose has caught a scent, and it’s time to hunt whatever it is down.  

So, back and forth the hound dog that looks like a lab goes.  Left and right he sweeps.  Nose to the ground and ears ignorant of his owners commands.  Sometimes he finds what he is looking for.  There was one morning he caught a scent, and it was all I could do to hold on to him.  I was scared I might need rotator cuff surgery after the walk.  Sure enough, down the street and off to the right stood a doe with two fawns.  The hound won out.

It’s sort of like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  The classic was dead on.  In case you never read the book or watched the movie, Dr. Jekyll is trying to find a potion to address his bad impulses.  The only problem was he created a portion that left him with no conscience.  Thus, Mr. Hyde the evil animal is born.  Robert Lewis Stevenson, the author, believed there was two sides to a man.  There was a good side and an evil side.  

As a believer in Jesus Christ not yet residing in heaven, we do have two natures battling inside of us.  We have our fallen nature defined by our propensity to sin, and we have our redeemed nature that desires to be more like Christ.  They do a battle royale.  

Recently during a meeting, a friend said, “You know, it is not our redeemed nature that governs our first response.  Our first response is often not very good.”  She is right.  Whenever we get cut off driving, do we think, “Hey that person might be on the way to the hospital?”  Do we think, “They are late for work and need to get going.” Nope!  We think and say, “You idiot, where did you get your license, the five and dime?”  

Our first response, since it is so quick, is governed by our fallen nature.  Even when we might respond with kindness, most will admit they are trying to avoid a conflict and seek peace not so much Jesus, the peacemaker.  If we don’t overreact, then our redeemed nature is given the chance to kick in.  Otherwise,  just like Vader, the hound in us tends to take over.

There are some that like to think that as a believer in Jesus Christ they have become a good person.  That is dangerous ground.  The moment we don’t think we need a Savior is the moment we are in the greatest danger.

The same goes for Vader.  If he puts his nose to the ground and begins to take off, and I let go of his leash,  where will he go?  He will run like the wind to fulfill the desires he is born with in that hound nose.  Don’t get me wrong, as long as his nose is not activated, he is a good dog.  Right now he is curled up in the sun at the front door being a good dog.  He obeys pretty much except for the “Come” command.  He loves to lay next to you and lick your hands.  He is a blast at fetch.  Got a ball and he will run till he drops.  But, engage the nose and look out.  Off he will go without question.

The stories in the Bible pretty much show the same pattern.  Man thinks he’s good to go only to discover he falls pretty hard.  Somebody asked me why the Bible is so thick.  It shows the endless story of man trying to be god only to discover he needs God every second of the day.  Even the best intentions are pretty much driven by our desire to be declared “good.”  We are only declared “good” by the Lamb of God, Jesus.

 It has been said that the more we grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus two things occur.  We become more aware of our sin nature in light of the Light of the World.  We also become aware of the tremendous nature of the gospel of Christ, which is necessary in our salvation and our sanctification.  Any true good that magnifies Jesus and not the doer is only due to the work of the Holy Spirit.  That’s the gospel.  Man can’t.  God can.  And he does.  

Next time your nose takes over and you are tracking down your own desires, just remember one thing:  Jesus still has ahold of the leash, and he promises not to let go.  He is a patient God.  He calls our name.  He gives his commands.  He waits and knows we will turn to Him.  The faster, the better.  

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We sat in the upper level section 3 every game that we attended.  The Baltimore Clippers (American Hockey League) were competitive and a constant force striving for the Calder Cup.  This particular year they had a shot at the cup.  I remember a stifling defense, a goalie who did not wear a mask (not mandatory at that time), and just enough offense to win close games.  For a ten-year-old boy it was hockey heaven.  

This particular game was right before the playoffs.  The place was sold out.  We had to sit in section 11 instead of 3.  It didn’t matter.  We were at the game.  Only things didn’t quite go as planned.  Here we were down by 3 with six minutes to go.  The defense was weak that night.  The offense was nonexistent.  

In order to beat the rush we headed for the exit.  This one was over.  Since we sat in different seats, the exit was much farther away.  As we headed for the lower level, the crowd broke into a sustained cheer.  A goal had been scored.  It was now 5 minutes to go and down by 2.  Had the tide turned?

There was a buzz in the crowd.  It could be felt in the hallways.  We decided to cross the stage to catch the #3 bus home.  As we hit the stage, the crowd burst into maddening exuberance.  With 2 minutes and 30 seconds left, we scored to only be down by 1.  Nobody sat in silence.  Everyone who was headed for the exits, including us stopped dead in our tracks.  Not only had the tide turned, the tsunami was overtaking the entire coliseum.  The Clippers were alive and so were their fans.  Enthusiasm reigned.  

I wouldn’t have believed it if I didn’t see it with my own eyes.  The entire place was electric.  The Clippers skated circles around the Hershey Bears.  The crowd was plain nuts.  They tied the score within seconds of the faceoff.  Maybe we could win in overtime.  We contemplated returning to our seats.  

No need.  With 35 seconds left on the clock, the Clippers had succeeded in tallying the winning goal.  That’s right! four goals in less than six minutes.  I have never experienced such a scene.  Electric enthusiasm was contagious.  Everybody yelled and screamed and jumped for joy.  The players were grinning from ear to ear.  Once the final horn sounded, the place almost collapsed due to the noise.  At least it seemed like it.  I can verify because I was standing on the stage.  The bad boy was vibrating.  

The electric wave proceeded out onto the streets and onto the waiting buses.  I don’t remember all the details, but as for me, I was a-buzz as I laid my head on the pillow that night.  Something had happened that few will ever see.  What was lost, was won!  

I’ve met a few people over the years who live in constant ecstasy.  There is something about life that they are tuned into that few find.  It doesn’t matter what’s going on; they seem to have that winning grin the Clippers had that night.  My father-in-law was one of those persons.  As my mother would say, “Come hell or high water he would still be dancing all night long.”  Trouble wasn’t a downer.  It was an opportunity.  

Now, 50 years later since I witnessed one of the most amazing comebacks in sports history (at least I think so), I sit in many religious meetings wondering what happened to the enthusiasm.  Stages are not vibrating.  We seem to have to purposely generate any excitement to make it look like we are happy.  Strike up the band.  Shout from the pulpit.  Do something to awaken the masses.  

We have come to believe that Jesus came to this earth.  As the Son of God, he walked with us and didn’t catch the next plane back.  He sacrificially bought us with his own blood as he was beaten and nailed to the cross of shame.  The only righteous one we murdered.  Instead of remaining in the grave, he conquered that as well, rising from the dead the third day and showing himself to a large amount of people.  He ascended into heaven, preparing to return for us, and, in the meantime sent his Holy Spirit to be with us at all times.  

Now I don’t know about you, but that sounds a lot more exciting than a come from behind victory by a minor league hockey team that is now defunct and has been for a long, long time.  So we come on Sunday with drudgery and solemness.  Not only was He who was dead alive, but by his sacrifice we as believers were once lost but now are found!  

Let the stage vibrate from our enthusiastic reply.  In Luke 15 Jesus talks about the celebrations in heaven when we who are lost are found.  So, where is the celebration?  Where is the enthusiasm?  Let’s not make for the exits.  That’s for those who think all is lost.  Our hope is not in our ability to score one for Jesus.  Our hope is in the one who beat death.  As the Apostle Paul wrote, “Death has been swallowed up in victory.  Where, O death, is your victory?  Where, O death, is your sting?”  It’s time to celebrate!  Party on! 

Sometimes I think I’m demented.  Something is wrong between the ears.  Those who know me are laughing right now, I’m sure of it.  Because I was born the last of four, my uncles used to joke that I was dropped at birth.  It’s safe to say my brain does not work the same as others.  My family was full of analytical brainiacs with accounting or mathematical analysis dominating our lineage.  Then along comes John.  

I could do the accounting.  I aced Accounting I and II as an Education major.  It didn’t make the business majors happy.  The only problem…I couldn’t stand it.  I don’t see the world in those terms.  I see colors.  I see so much more than two numbers added together.  Without question, I always felt like something was wrong, and maybe, just maybe, I was switched at birth.

That can’t be the answer.  I look like my father’s mini me.  At the end of the day, I’m more of a circular reasoner than a logical thinker.  It’s sort of like my kayaking treks.  Some people paddle down the river.  Not me.  I try every crossbow, inlet and swamp entrance I can find.  It takes the boring out of the paddle.  

I don’t know what anyone calls my condition.  I’m not sure anyone cares.  However, I love the context of the Bible, not just the words we read.  I want to know what Jesus laughed at.  We don’t find him laughing in the Scriptures.  He was a man, and he cried.  He had to laugh.  

I want to know what Jesus did for fun.  Did he play any of the popular games of the day?  Did they play “I Spy with My Little Eyes?”  How about “Would You Rather?”  I chuckle when I imagine Jesus playing “Would You Rather.”  I can see it now.  Jesus would be wrapping up the game with, “Now for the last one.  Would you rather spend eternity in hell or in heaven?”  See, I told you in the very first line.  I have a demented mind.

I would love to know what made Jesus cry when he came upon Lazarus’ family after he died.  I would love to know what Jesus talked about after his resurrection on the road to Emmaus.  I want to get an idea of the tone of his voice, especially when he puts the low down in a sense, on the Pharisees with the 7 Woes.  Sometimes I think we make Jesus like a robot.  No way!  Doesn’t a part of you want to know what kind of personality he had?  

I’ve been around some who make Jesus out to be passive-aggressive. Jesus to them is a cool, calm cookie looking to strike at the optimum moment.  Then there are those who make him out to be a Type A get-it-done type. Nobody wants to cast him as a Type D, but, then again, we sure don’t have him happy.  Maybe he was all three personality types. Actually, they now say there are 16 different types.  Really, my mind is swimming now.  My sarcastic side wonders if Jesus had a God-complex.  Yup, I’m close to losing it.  

I read recently where the Sermon on the Mount in the Bible is actually more than likely the CliffsNotes edition.  Do they still have CliffsNotes? They were the boiled down edition of the novel we were supposed to read and then write a book report about.  Those bad boys saved my grade point average without question.  Back to the main point.  The Sermon on the Mount is the edited version.  I want the unedited version.  Maybe then we can stop taking guesses about what “pure in spirit” really means.  

The older I get and the more I look into the Bible, I see colors.  I see so much more than the Bible teachers told me.  It’s a story.  It’s an incredible story.  In many respects, it’s an unbelievable story.  But that is just it.  It’s so incredible, but it fits together.  See, incredible stories don’t hold water.  This one does.  Unbelievable stories don’t have connection.  This one does.  

It really is a simple story.  We are the ones who make it an incredible story.  It’s God and a special creation called man.  Man has a problem.  He thinks he knows better than the One who set him up in an incredible situation.  Let’s face it.  None of us used to walk naked with God.  So man decided he knew better.  Then it all went south.  Most of the Bible is about how man tries to make it right.  He only has one problem.  He can’t.  God keeps trying to show him and grace keeps flowing, but man is so warped with the god complex that, no matter how hard he tries, he fails.  God gives man an out.  His name is Jesus.  He is the Son of God who came to set the captives free, bind the broken-hearted and give sight to the blind.  Man now has hope.  It rests in the sacrifice of Jesus.  All a man or woman has to do is believe and follow Jesus.  That’s it.  The early believers called it “The Way.”  I love it.  So beautiful.  They didn’t call it the First Church of whatever.  No sir.  It was “The Way.”  That’s about it.  

The gospels Matthew, Mark, Luke and John tell us what Jesus said about “The Way.” It’s pretty simple.  It boils down to…”Man’s way or God’s way?”  Man’s way has its problems.  God’s way is full of incredible love, indescribable grace and unbelievable mercy.  Now you choose.  Only, choose wisely.  

 I warned you I don’t think or process like the average joe. 

Sitting in the parking lot I was preparing for my next chaplain visit.  It takes time to build relationships when one serves as a chaplain.  One  stage in building relationships as a chaplain is hearing the  complaints.  Sometimes I don’t think I am a chaplain.  From time to time I think I’m the complaint department.  

Today I was walking into my first stop as a corporate chaplain.  Most of the employees I have known for years.  I can almost predict how the day will go, barring an emergency, death of a loved one, or somebody is about to get the dreaded pink slip.  Today was no different.  As I prayed before entering the front door, I asked Jesus to provide a means to change the day.  

As I entered the room, sure enough I heard the same complaints that flow every day and every week.  Management is dumber than a box of rocks.  Fellow employees are selfish.  Nobody understands, and, best yet, everybody is out to make their day miserable.  Of course somewhere mixed in the complaint department is the classic, “And they don’t pay me enough for this either” comment.  Today was the day it was time to turn the tables.

At first, I asked the loudest voice, “How long have you worked here?”  I knew he was a long- time employee and a long-time complainer.  “18 years,” he answered wondering where I was going to go with this.  “After working here for 18 years, I would have guessed you would have figured this out by now,” I replied without wavering.  My reply caught him off guard.  Suddenly, and I don’t know where it came from, I asked, “Instead of a complaint, tell me what you are thankful for today.”  He paused.  After a few seconds that seemed like hours, with a smile that I haven’t seen for some time, he answered, “My family.”  He turned and went to work.

The rest of the day,  to everyone I met, I explained that I had heard all the complaints that are possible in the workplace, and I wanted to know what they were thankful for.  Everyone answered with a smile.  A smile.  I encouraged everyone to work the rest of the day thankful.  I saw more smiles in one day than I have seen in a long time.

Complaining attitudes are infectious.  They infect our hearts, and infect those around us.  Our world is full of complaints.  It’s an attitude.  Everyone else is wrong.  When we are constantly complaining we don’t hear anyone else around us.  Often, there is a solution and a middle ground, but we can’t find it if we only want things our way.

Lately, I personally have eliminated the news media from my life.  It’s designed to promote complaining attitudes.  The Democrats blame the Republicans, and the Republicans fire back.  The various races want more, and it doesn’t matter what color we are.  Somehow we have forgotten we are all the same race…human.  In my world, husbands blame wives, and wives respond in kind.  Both blame the kids.  Employees never have anything nice to say about management, and management can’t find a good enough employee.  Customers are not always right.  Often they have no idea what they are talking about.   Complaining rules; love lays beaten on the floor.  

Recently, we started a Saturday night service called “Come As You Are.”  No need for a fake smile and deceptive attitude.  Come As You Are is more about our hearts; not our dress.  When we start the service, we begin with prayer.  We open it up to the audience, asking for prayers of thanksgiving.  I’m often surprised how hard it is for us to be thankful.  One person thought I was nuts when I thanked God for running water and flush toilets.  I’ve been in parts of this world without both.  I’m truly thankful.  

We offer prayers of thanks to put us in the mood to listen to a God who always provides, instead of having a bad attitude, expecting God to do things the way we want them done.  The apostle Paul said, “All things work together….”  To the Philippians who were undergoing persecution (beatings, torture rape and murder), Paul also wrote, “Whatever happens conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel.”  Say what?  The gospel is one of forgiveness, grace, love and mercy.  Jesus didn’t give us a single out.  He said to “love our enemies.”  Hold on!  At one time I thought the gospel was just about getting to heaven.  

The gospel is not about heaven.  It’s about Jesus.  Jesus laid his life down so we could have life.  “Life abundantly,” Paul declared.  A complaining attitude sucks the life right out of a room.  It also sucks the life right out of those we say we love.  No wonder we are encouraged to “give thanks.”  It’s then we are reminded that there is more to life ,and it’s more than “me.”  

The driver was not happy.  He hadn’t been happy for a long time.  The flat tire on the rear of his truck short circuited his plans.  As he approached the Chesapeake Bay Bridge the blow out would need to be changed.  Little did he know his plans were going to change more than the left rear tire.

He pulled to the side of the road.  For a few minutes he had to think where the jack might be and how the spare tire could be lowered.  It had been a long time since he had to use either one of them.  He was startled when a man knocked on his window.  He didn’t see the other pickup stop behind him.  “Do you need some help?” the Good Samaritan asked.  

He needed help, that’s for sure.  They looked for the jack and couldn’t find one.  He had no idea his son had changed a tire months before and left the jack in the garage.   Not only that, but his spare tire was flat as well.   His son didn’t tell him he never fixed the tire.

The Good Samaritan asked if he would like a ride.  He may as well.  His plans were totally disrupted.  Since they were already on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge approach, there was only one way to go…over to the main land.  About half way across, the disgruntled traveler looked longingly at the water below.  “Would you like to grab some coffee on the other side?” the gracious driver asked.  With little words to spare, he muttered, “Sure, why not?”

Once over the Bay Bridge, they found a local coffee shop waiting for weary travelers needing a cup of brew.   The driver noticed the seemingly weary man was not in a hurry to get a tow truck.  In fact, he was brooding over everything including ,his cup of hot coffee.  The Good Samaritan now turned into a potential friend when he asked, “Is there something you would like to talk about? You seem to have a lot on your mind.”  Again, he received the answer, “Sure, why not?”

After approximately two hours as they talked, the truth was revealed.  The weary and disgruntled man was driving to the top of the bridge to jump off and end his life.  His family was in disarray, and not much had gone right for some time.  His new friend told him his profession, “I’m a pastor of a church on the Eastern Shore.”  At this point, there was only one way to go.  “Do you mind if I tell you about the hope I have found?” he asked.  “Sure, why not?”

The Good Samaritan told his story.  It was a sad story at first.  Premature deaths, trouble with alcohol, and plenty more to send anyones life into a tailspin.  “But,” and there is the best word in the Bible.  But, Jesus had other plans.  After hearing his story, the weary traveler wanted to know more about Jesus.  To make a long story short, after about 5 hours together, he decided to follow Jesus.  

So, why did I tell you this story?  The pastor who stopped to help a man in need had a history of stopping his own life to engage others.  He had the reputation for looking around and reading people.  This was not his first flat tire engagement and it won’t be his last.  This would not be his only weary traveler on the road of life.  He saw them as people who needed to meet the One who promised life.  He also happened to be the pastor of the fastest growing church on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.  

I was having breakfast this week with a good friend who is also a local pastor.  We had asked the waitress last month how we could pray for her.  She replied, “My son needs prayer.”  She didn’t give details.  This month another waitress we asked said she was going through a divorce and asked prayer not only for herself but for her soon to be ex-husband.  A few minutes later, the waitress from last month stopped by.  She asked us to continue to pray for her son.  He has a drug abuse issue.  Both the son and the mother needed prayer.  They got it.  

We talk about the demise of the modern day church.  We are pulling all the stops out in the book from shorter services, song selections, and programs upon programs.  We are looking in the wrong place.  Look outward.  

My friend commented how easy it was for the hurting waitresses to share their short stories.  “Hurting people are everywhere,” he languished.  Yes, they are.  They are in church pews every Sunday.  Only they have become conditioned to hide and avoid their pain.  

Jesus came across a lot of suffering people.  He didn’t hide in his office.  He didn’t make excuses such as, “I’m not here for that.”  No, he touched people all the way to the cross even giving hope to one who was on a cross right next to him. 

The main reason for the demise of the modern day Christian church is the inward attention trying to make comfortable people happy.  Instead, it’s time to change a spare tire, talk to a waitress, and get our heads up looking for those who can’t find a high enough bridge.  The gospel is good news.   When we look outward instead of inward we can see others.  They are looking for an answer.

This past week I traveled to Wake Forest, NC for training.  Honestly, I hate driving long distances.  It bores me to tears.  I used to like it.  Things change.  Anyway, as I drove up and down the road my mind began to race.  When it races anything is possible.  

I became transfixed on the idea that my trip resembles society.  Here I was driving past towns, through cities with all sorts of people around me.  I had a general idea where I was at all times.  There were places that stood out.  How can anyone miss South of The Border?  The billboards are so silly yet so funny.  I wonder how many of us have stopped just to check it out.  I bet it’s more than most want to admit.  

Driving up and down the road is no different than living in my neighborhood and even going to church.  We all whiz through our daily lives passing people on the left and on the right.  When we slow down a little bit, people pass us without looking back.  We know where we are.  We stop and look at things, especially those that get our attention ,just like South of the Border.  However, we seldom have the time to talk with anybody.  If we can’t talk with anyone, we don’t have the chance to know them.  They don’t get to know me either.

Just about every person I have counseled, including many teenagers, somewhere along the line talks about being lonely.  Some have more friends than anyone can count.  Some are involved in everything under the sun.  They run from one event to the other with little chance to catch their breath.  Surrounded by a great crowd, they declare loneliness.  How is this possible?  It’s very possible.  Being known and knowing someone is not a priority to anyone.  Yet it’s something that is a necessity for a healthy and intuitive life.  Left on our own is not a good place to be.  We grow when we engage others.  The biggest thing we grow in is grace and love.  They are attributes that need personal engagement.  

I can understand why hurt and discouraged people leave the church scene.  I don’t believe it is good, but I get it.  What good is time spent attending if the people are no different than those driving to the next event up I-95?  We see them.  We might even follow them for a while like I followed a driver for about 75 miles.  We were driving in tandem, following the same tract and going the same speed.  We acknowledged each other with a nod of the head and a slight wave at times.  But he got off an exit where I was not headed, and our relationship ended.  All we had was a nod and a wave.  

At church we are often in a hurry to get somewhere and only get a nod and a handshake.  I heard of a gentleman who was trying out a church his friend attended.  He liked the church and reported that it really was a nice place.  However, for 6 weeks he stood in the narthex or vestibule (hallway for non-church goers) and shook all sorts of hands.  In those 6 weeks nobody invited him to their house, out to lunch, or even to invite him to grab a donut and cup of coffee in the fellowship hall.  Like he said, “the church was friendly but not too warm.”  They were in a hurry to get to the next thing on the schedule.  Off the exit they went.

Jesus was constantly on the road.  He walked roads and crossed seas in boats.  As I look into the gospels, I see Jesus stopping to engage people.  Many were people that most avoided.  They were outcasts in their society.  Unclean and untouchable.  But Jesus stopped to engage them.  He asked them questions.  He touched their lives.  He knew their names, and he knew their story, and he still stopped.  

In today’s world I’m convinced more than ever the Children of God must purpose to stop and touch those God puts in their path.  Leave living like your home is in the fast lane of I-16 headed to Atlanta.  Those in our culture are done with the church that invites them in and leaves them to fend for themselves.  They’re also done with people who say they love, only to be abandoned.  

Too late in life I get it that the gospel is for the ones I used to avoid in life.  I get it now that the idea of Jesus to make me bigger and better is a false gospel.  John the Baptist had it right when he declared, “He must increase and I must decrease.”  It’s not our nature unless we stop and look to the one who laid his life down to engage us with his love.  

When we sinned, the first recorded words of God to man are found in the first book of the Bible, Genesis.  God asked a very interesting question.  He asked, “Where are you?”  That question is very applicable today.  Where are we?  We tend to be either head down, forward ho, or we have our heads up, looking to touch those in need with the love and grace of Jesus.  The person who needs our touch is probably right in front of us. 

Two weeks ago the Bluffton Book Festival held its annual fair.  Does anybody remember what a book is anymore?  Just kidding.  E-books are a great way to build a library without the cost and cramped conditions.  Being a bit old-school, I admit I love to have the book in my hands and turn the pages one-by-one.  

This year I had the opportunity to attend the V.I.P. book signing event the night before the Festival.  A very good friend provided the tickets.  We got to hear from a few of the authors.  While the festival focuses on local authors, we had the opportunity to meet a few of the invited premier guest authors.  They also signed books for the attendees.  While a lot of attention was on Misty Copeland, the first African-American woman to be promoted to principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre, I was interested in Kenny Leon, a Tony award winning director.  He wrote the book, Take You Wherever You Go.  It is his memoirs, focusing on the main influences in his life.  He is quite intriguing and winsome.

I just finished the book.  It got me thinking.  Who were the main influences in my life?  What stories would I tell about them?  What wisdom have they imparted in my life, even though I have not achieved the recognition and prestige of a Misty Copeland or Kenny Leon?  Who are the people who have made me who I am today?  

Sometimes we think about the negative influences in our lives.  The unique feature of Leon’s book is the lack of negative influences.  We all have them.   I’m sure he did as well.  However, Leon made the point that all the influences and experiences in his life molded him to be the person he is.  

In the Christian faith we would take such a thought and relate it to the will of God bringing people in and out of our lives.  Therefore, who we are has been shaped by God.  His son, Jesus, has God accepting who we are, as we are, by his grace.  Too bad people can’t get that one.

Leon’s grandmother was the influence for the book and its title.  She loved her grandson enough to inspire him to be who he was instead of trying so hard to be someone he was not.  Often, when we try to be someone else we fall flat on our face.

As I read his book, I again was brought back to the nature of God’s grace and how much we need to grow in that grace.  The influence of Western Culture has our mindset directed to being the best at whatever we do.  There lives a “got to be first” mentality that often fails to celebrate those who don’t fail but rather finish just a few steps behind.  The difference in a race is fractions of seconds.  The difference in a baseball game is often found in the numbers “1” and “2.”  Move into other life situations and the difference is one choice or one chance meeting.  Yet, all we tend to do is honor 1st place and forget all the others.  

The gospel of Jesus Christ does quite the opposite.  It welcomes in those who would never win a race, hit a homerun, score a touchdown, write a book, or even be in position to take a leading role.  That’s what really attracts me to Jesus.

All other religions I have studied say man has to ante up.  Our only chance of redemption is to do better, be better, and so on.  Some institute strict guidelines and rituals.  Deviate one hair from them and you will not be in God’s favor.

Jesus welcomes all the other’s in.  Why?  Man is and always will be incapable of reaching the standard of “holy.”  We will always fall a little short.  In fact, if we were honest, man will always fall way short.  

If Jesus accepts me as I am and fills in the gaps, why can’t we accept those around us?  I loved Leon’s book.  I’m not Billy Graham and never will be.  I’m not anybody in the Bible.  I’m John Ring and you are who you are, formed by the many influences in your life.  My hope is not in being anybody different.  My hope is in Jesus.  

How do we then live?  With grace.  Always with grace.  I am and always will be the prodigal son.  I will always fall short of the glory of God.  My only hope is in the One who gave His life so that I may live.  So, you might not like what you see.  If you ever hang with me, you will discover my shortcomings, and they will add up.  All I ask is that you see me through the eyes of Jesus because, no matter what, as Leon’s grandmother said, “Take You Wherever You Go.”  

By the way, that person that’s getting under your skin,  he is taking himself wherever he goes as well.  Go in grace. 

We sat across from each other discussing various facts and philosophies of life.  We meet weekly, sharing ideas and thoughts with great freedom.  As we sat there I asked what I thought was a simple question.  “What is your dream?”  He surprised me with his answer, and then he knocked me out with his question.  He asked me, “Are you living your dream?”

I wanted to lie.  But I resisted.  “Honestly,” I began, “No I am not living my dream and my dream is closely connected to my calling.”  I began to tell him my story that I would like to share with you.

I didn’t go into ministry till I was close to 40 years old.  I do not consider what I do a job.  In fact, I have had a lot of heated discussions with fellow ministers over the topic.  We are called.  Money should be the last question not the first one.  Once a minister looks at his position as a job, he loses the calling.  I believe the calling to be serious and important.  

I spent my first few years in youth ministry.  For some reason, I was either attracted to the “least of these” (Matthew 25) or they were attracted to me.  Since I spent my first career in education and business, I think I do not approach ministry like the professional pastor.  Anyway, the attraction to the troubled, non-church kids created problems.

The church I was at actually started an alternative Sunday school class and youth group for the church kids.  They didn’t like their kids hanging out with gang members, those with bad reputations, drop-outs, and others that tend not to be welcome in the local church.  It’s kind of funny if you think about it.  If we understand the Christian faith, it is the Christian who should be impacting the world instead of the world impacting the church.  Amazingly, we believe that, but practicing it is a different story.

Let’s just say the conflict caused constant friction.  One elder told me he liked me but not the kids I attracted.  I asked him if he knew any of the kids he was talking about.  He replied, “No, I don’t.”  With my blood boiling, I probably said some things I should not have.  I regret that.  Grace for the wayward is grace for the Pharisee.  I learned that over the years.  I think.

Anyway, it reached a point I decided I wanted to reach people the church tends to miss.  We tend to miss modern day lepers.  It isn’t necessarily the fault of the Christian.  Lepers struggle to find comfort in the church as well.  It’s not about blaming anyone.  It’s about taking steps to touch the lives of those who seldom get touched by the redeemed.

In this short version, let’s just say it is with this desire I ended up in South Carolina instead of sitting comfortably in Maryland.  God provided a way and eventually a church that wanted to reach the unreachable as well.  The stories are incredible.  I wish I had the room to tell a few.  They include federal inmates, adulterers, single parents, the homeless, addicts, the mentally ill and more.  Their stories are not mine.  I have no right to tell them.  All I can say is I’m the lucky one, if there is such a thing in the Christian faith.  I get to see God at work in places most people don’t even get to see.  I get to see love, grace, and mercy win the day.  

Now, this is where the dream can disappear.  Let’s be honest.  The situation in Maryland is the battle all churches face along the line.  Instead of givers we become takers.  The needs, often assumed instead of real, move outreach into in-reach.  Often it’s hard to see.  We wake up one day and realize we spend most of our ministry time inside the church walls and very little outside.

Lives cease to change and we somehow role into making the parishioners happy instead of challenging them to forfeit themselves for the sake of others.  When we focus inwardly, our contact with those whom we tend to miss diminishes greatly.  And we wonder why church growth ceases and we lose our voice in the community.  

I’m there right now.  So my answer about living my dream is honest.  I spend most of my time with fellow Christians who struggle to admit their sin, brokenness and pain and have less and less contact with the truly broken and hurting.  Church people hide their issues. The only difference I can see between a Christian and a non-believer is God’s grace of which I am the most unworthy but the most fortunate.

  It is nobody’s fault but my own.  The prophet Jeremiah never got off point as he ministered to a people that wanted compromise and feel good ministry.  He held the line.  He rested in the promises of God instead of the desires of the people.  I have to make some changes.  Not because I have to.  It’s my calling.  Anybody want to join me?  

I came across an article by Dr. James Emory White in which he listed the top 10 books that helped shape his faith.  I’ve written that one before.  I must be a slower learner.  My list of 10 is really about 18.  

At about the same time I read Dr. White’s article a dear friend dropped off a worn copy of Rembrandt’s Prodigal Son picture.  He and I are constantly discussing the amazing story Jesus told to give a picture of his great redemption.  We talk about how we often demand our lot from God and run away squandering it.  Rembrandt’s rendition catches the attention of  both of us.

I don’t want to list the top 10 books that almost everybody reading this article will not read.  If you want to know email me.  I don’t want to list my favorite verses.  Why?  They are mine not necessarily yours.  I would like to talk about the Prodigal Son story.  Tim Keller, author and theologian, calls the story the Prodigal Father.  He’s right.  Prodigal means “wild.”  It’s not about the wild son.  It’s the wild nature of the Father who welcomes his son back to the family with no questions or demands.  The Scriptures are fulfilled in this story where we read in Psalm 103:12, “as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us,” and Hebrews 8:12, “For I … remember their sins no more.”  

Rembrandt’s picture details the love, grace and mercy in such forgiveness.  It is consuming and mysterious at the same time.  Henri Nouwen, author, had an opportunity to sit for hours with the original painting.  It humbled him and inspired him at the same time.  

The hands of the father bring comfort to the weary son whose shoes and feet reveal his troublesome paths.  We like to think we can hide the paths we have taken.  If only our feet and shoes could talk!  So often those paths are far from a loving God.  We like to think we know better than the young boy.  But, it’s the hands of dad that bring safety, drawing the smelly, stained and broken boy to his bosom.  

The eyes of the Prodigal Father look downward with compassion at his long lost boy.  He isn’t looking for a response from the onlookers.  He isn’t rolling his eyes as if to say, “What do I do now?”  No, they look to his boy.  His son!  Yes, “all we like sheep have gone astray.”  But, He, as the Good Shepherd welcomes the wayward one home.  No questions.  No demands.  The safety of His embrace is all that is needed.

Meanwhile, the onlookers are watching every move.  The older jealous brother of the prodigal is shadowed in the darkness that surrounds the embrace.  Their faces speak volumes of questions.  Those questions often like ours are not ones of redemption but rather ones of judgment.  

Can you hear those questions?  Where has he been?  What is wrong with the father?  Will he not have to give account?  They go on and on.  All questions whose answers cannot satisfy the one asking.  After the questions come the comments.  We have all heard them.  He must pay!  He is not allowed in the house smelling like a pig!  He needs to take a bath?  His father is out of his mind!  

From the Father come no words. His actions are more important than his words.  Few understand it is not the actions of the son that are the center of this story. It is the actions of his father that are the emphasis!  For his actions say more than words can.  Anybody can say, “I love you.”  What they do in the name of love will reveal them as true or not.  

Of course this picture and story reveal the nature of our faith in Jesus Christ.  Christianity has forgotten that the faith is not about the Christian.  It is about the Christ.  HIs love transcends the expectations of a fallen people.  HIs grace is limitless.  HIs mercy is so profound a wayward son can’t help but be on his knees.

Left in the shadows is the brother.  His attitude and words reveal that he doesn’t understand the heart of his father as well.  He thought it was about obedience.  His love of the law kept him as well from the love in the heart of his father.  So, he stays in the background.  He should be on his knees as well.  

Our world is full of questions.  It’s full of condemnation and criticism.  What will it take to turn it’s focus as in the Rembrandt masterpiece, to the love, grace and mercy of the Prodigal Father?  We know the answer.  In the end of the Good Samaritan story, when mercy was given,   Jesus gives a simple command.  He says, “Go and do likewise.”  As we embrace the love of the Father, the words echo again, “Go.”  There’s more.  “Go and do.” Nope we are not there yet.  “Go and do likewise.”  Like whom?  His name is Jesus.  We can’t be known for our obedience.  But we can be known for our love, grace and mercy of which the Father through Jesus gives immeasurably to us and desires for us to give to others.  

Last week I traveled to Hot Springs, Arkansas to officiate a wedding.  It was my first time in Arkansas.  While it was a quick trip, it allowed enough time to check out Hot Springs.  Two things were hot.  The water coming out of the ground was between 135 to 160 degrees.  No wonder they named the town “Hot Springs.”  They could have named it the same since the air temperature was hot as well.  There wasn’t a breath of wind the entire weekend.  

Hot Springs is not only known for the water temperature but also the Bathhouses.  Enterprising individuals built bathhouses mainly for the rich and famous to enjoy the renewing elements in the hot water.  They didn’t know at the time that there is very little mineral content in this particular water.  It didn’t matter. The warm baths attracted the mafia and baseball teams for spring training.  What a combination!  Bathhouses, mafia and baseball teams make quite a mix for such a small town.  The history is rich.  The water is hot.  The town is small.  There it is…Hot Springs, Arkansas.  I might have left out that it is also the hometown to President Bill Clinton.  Now you know a couple answers on Jeopardy.

While there I was reunited with an old friend from Maryland.  When we get together, we love to talk philosophy, religion, and life for hours.  He challenges me to think beyond the norm, and I challenge him.  We don’t argue.  We sharpen.  Everybody needs someone to sharpen him or her.  Without people like him in our lives we can easily become dull.  

We both agreed that a key element to a church we consider “alive” is outreach to the poor.  Jesus said to take care of “the least of these,” naming various people groups (sick, convicts, homeless, and others) in Matthew 25.  Growing churches tend to look beyond their walls and call their church family to care for the poor.  Often we think it’s the governments responsibility.  Not according to Jesus.  

As we were talking, he made a statement that has preoccupied my thoughts for days now.  He said, “The poor are those who are outside of their established community.”  He actually made me pause.  I asked him to define his statement.  He took about 10 minutes explaining that some element of depravity, especially sin, tends to separate us from family, neighbors, church and work.  Once separated, we suffer, and, since we are made by God to be in community we will seek community.  Those secondary communities are often destructive instead of supportive.  

Consider the alcoholic.  His addiction tends to destroy his community.  Looking at Matthew 25, we see that each people group Jesus mentions is out of community.  The “hungry, thirsty and naked” defines those who are homeless and without family.  The sick cannot enter community.  In Biblical days they were unclean and purposely exempt from being connected.  The alien or stranger is outside of community simply by being new in town.  When a visitor comes to our church, is he immediately welcomed into the family?  The Bible says they are to be given the best seat in the house, fed, and welcomed into a place of rest.  The imprisoned were already mentioned.  Did you know that only 10% of all federal prisoners received visitors during their internment?  And we wonder why they become repeat offenders.  

As Jesus came to welcome us into the Kingdom of God called the church, we are to welcome in those outside of the community of God.  If not, they will seek community elsewhere, and I don’t mean another church.  We were not made to be alone and isolated.  Love, grace, and forgiveness are given us by God to come back into relationship with him and with our brothers and sisters.  Reach out to the poor.  It is those who are outside.

They have their issues.  They have their sin.  So do we.  Meanwhile, Jesus still welcomes us home as the Prodigal Father welcomed the Prodigal Son back into his family without question, without payment, and without judgment.  Now that is Christianity.  Only by grace are we recognized as members of His family.  Go and do likewise.