Monday, September 27, 2010

Cutting Off Limbs and Gouging Out Eyeballs

Autumn is here! I think that of the four seasons, autumn is my favorite. For starters, I was born during the month of October, and celebrate for the entire month. And secondly, the flavors of autumn are a treat to the senses of smell and taste. Pumpkin spiced latte, cappuccino, even lollipops from See's tell me that Thanksgiving is right around the corner. Sweet potatoes, pumpkin bread, pecan and fresh apple pies usher in the month of December. And December brings...

Chocolate chip, peanut butter, and sugar cookies galore! Decorated and ready to share with friends and loved ones.

I think the one holiday treat that has the most thoughtfulness is the Gingerbread Man Cookie. The one creating it starts with a blank naked expressionless wafer shaped like a human with its arms wide open. Then he takes special care to give cookie-person its own unique personality, whether smiling, embarrassed, flirty, or gushing-lovey-dovey. And the individual cookie's personality perfectly complements its intended final recipient.

What's the best thing you can do to show your appreciation of a hand-decorated Gingerbread Man Cookie made especially with you in mind? You eat it, of course! Many people start by breaking off its limbs or gouging out its icing eyballs or plucking off its gumdrop buttons. If Gingy were cognizant of what was happening, the whole concept of being decimated, unable to defend yourself, is not something he would want inflicted on any cookie. But he – and his creator – know that without such unimaginable trauma, his purpose would not be fulfilled.

In a way, we go through the same thing as Cookieman. We have times in our lives where we figuratively have our eyes gouged out or limbs cut off. It could be a business partner embezzling hundreds of thousands of dollars, leaving you with lots of essplainin to do and a Mt. Everest of debt to go with it. Or being diagnosed with a serious illness such as cancer or MS. Or having a love one brutally murdered. Or a natural disaster such as a wildfire or flood, where you lose everything and are forced to start over with your life. Or worse yet, several devestations happening back-to-back, breaking you to the point where it takes every ounce of your being to cry out to God, “I can't take any more!”

In the midst of our cries for mercy, it is not uncommon for others to come along side of us. Trying to comfort us. Telling us what they would do in our position. Telling us that things happen for a reason; that God doesn't give us more than we can handle; that it'll be OK, that God is in control.

“God is in control.” That means that He causes the good things to happen. He also allows hardship in our lives (read Job, chapters 1 and 2 if you don't think so). If God allowed Satan to run amok in Job's life, what makes us think God won't allow it in ours?

The whole thought of God lifting His hand of protection from my life terrifies me! But God is faithful to His promise that He is with us always. Let me give an example of what I mean.

When I was about seven or eight, my family went to Magic Mountain. There was this one ride that was kind of like a ferris wheel, but was a little different. I can't really explain the ride, but I was absolutely terrified to go on it, to the point I was hysterically screaming and crying right there in the middle of the park. Everyone else in the family wanted to go on the ride, but for them to do so would mean that I would be left alone to sit on a bench – not acceptable. I remember my dad trying to calm me, reassuring me that he would be right by my side the whole time. I finally agreed. I think I still cried the whole time, and at the end still told my parents that I never wanted to go on that ride again. Did I get mad at my parents for making me go on that ride? Yes, a little. But my dad was faithful – he was still beside me, holding my hand, keeping me safe. What loving father wouldn't do that for his child?

If you are in a place in your life where you feel as though you're being torn apart, know this:  You do not have to fear that God has so much power over your life.  Sometimes we wonder “God, what are you thinking??"  Sometimes we get downright angry with God for allowing evil in the world. And Sometimes the circumstances are a result of us making bad decisions instead of seeking His guidance and direction, with severe consequences to pay because of it. You may not sense God's presence during the worst time of your life. He is still there, with His hands graciously, mercifully extended, faithful to His promise to be with us, even if it kills Him. He will not leave you to sit alone on the bench.

In the mean time, enjoy an early Christmas treat. Have a cookie.  I made them for you!

Monday, September 20, 2010

Neighbors From Hell

Over the past couple of weeks I've written about the journey home to heaven. We've taken a winding, wandering path through life that, like Dorothy's yellow brick road, took us on many twists and turns through this world we don't quite fit in. During this long, seemingly endless journey, we have asked many questions and at times grown impatient along the way, all in anticipation of our life in heaven. And I got to thinking, Jesus is preparing a place for us in heaven. I wonder, what will my next door neighbors be like?

I've lived in my share of rental property during my adult life, until about 11 years ago when my name was recorded with the County of This Big Urban Metropolis as a property owner. For the most part, I've lived in places where I had some decent neighbors. Occasionally there would be little uproars about something. I remember moving in to the townhouse we rented in T-ville. Our unit was next to the back corner of the complex. Four doors away in a unit that faced ours, a couple was having an argument. F-this, and F-that, and some other profanities and accusations... and then the kicker - the wife shouts, "GOOBER!" ... What? Did she really call him "Goober"??? Weeks later, we would see Mr. Goober standing outside, shirtless, wearing his sweatpants, holding a lit cigarette in one hand and a can of Coors in the other, shouting for his children to come home. Yeah ... he really was a goober ...

Then there was the time where the local police responded to a call in my corner at that same townhouse complex. Since it was not clear which unit the disturbance was coming from, several residents got a personal visit from Turlock's finest.
"T-ville Police Department - Can you open your door please?" 
I comply, not exactly sure what is going on.
"We have a report that there is screaming coming from one of the units."
"Well, I am watching a movie"
"What are you watching?"
(I can't believe I have to actually admit this...) "I'm watching 'Plan 9 From Outer Space.' Maybe there was some screaming in the movie?"
"But you're OK?" 
(I am willingly, voluntarily watching an Ed Wood movie, the worst movie of all time, and I'm being asked if I'm OK ... what is the proper response in these circumstances?) "Yes, officer. Everything's fine."
As it turns out, the couple just off the corner - not the Goobers - was having the argument.

Then there was the family who lived in the front house when we lived at 2124 in the city with the beach. We had our washer and dryer hooked up in the garage, but it seemed their clothes were in them more than ours were. When we brought up the subject, communication seemed to immediately break down. A few months later the sheriff officers from the next city paid a visit to the Front-House family. As I recall, it had something to do with check fraud and a couple of other charges. No one was home, so the officers "let themselves in." We started looking for a different housing situation shortly after that.

Neighbors. Sometimes you can't live with them, but in the city, you can't live away from them. Why can't they all be like Brad, the guy who lived in the very corner at the townhouse complex? He was the kind of guy who quietly lived his life, worked at his job, kept his place neat and tidy. He even offered to give up his parking place when he found out my family was coming up to visit. People like that are so easy to like.

But what if Mr. Goober is in heaven? Or the Front-House people? Will I have "neighbors from hell" on the gold-paved street where I will live? Say it isn't so!
Maybe this is part of the reason Jesus taught us to love our enemies. Oh, it's easy to love the Neighbor Brad's of the world. I'm sure not even the Goober family could find fault with Brad. But as children of God, we are called to live lives that set us apart from everyone else. That means we are to love our neighbors from hell the same as we would love Brad. 

You mean the Goobers, the Corner Couple, the Front-House Family? I have to love them too? 

Yes. You have to love them too. For starters, God provides sun and rain for you, right? Guess what - God provides it for them too! Besides, you haven't always been the perfect neighbor yourself. Remember the time you fell asleep with your stereo turned up too loud, and the downstairs neighbor left that angry note on your door? 

Loving your enemies is part of loving your neighbor. It is part of living a life that is pleasing to God. As it is written in Proverbs 16:7, "When a man's ways are pleasing to the Lord, he makes even his enemies live at peace with him."

We pray, "Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." Our lives here on earth are a training ground for our eternal life in heaven. Our lives on earth ought to mirror what life is like in heaven. God knows what it is like to love the unlovable. Heaven is full of people who used to be his enemies. Through Jesus' death and resurrection, we can receive forgiveness for our un-neighborly conduct toward Him and be in a right relationship with Him once again. God has made that promise not only to you and me and the Neighbor Brad's, but also to the Goobers, Corner Couples, and Front House people. So, love them now - they may be your neighbors in heaven!

Monday, September 13, 2010

"Are we there yet?"

Children are full of wonder. They love to explore the world around them, and often experience the world through their imaginations. I remember when I was younger I'd play make-believe games with my brother and sister. We had a swingset in our back yard with a treehouse attached to it. NASA's space program was in the news, with expeditions to the moon and back happening quite frequently, so our treehouse was our “rocketship”, the back yard was the moon or Mars or some planet to be conquered in the name of science, and our basset hound Mortimer was a space creature to be either befriended or avoided, depending on the scenario we were playing out at the time.

Role-playing and make-believe games are just one way kids experience their world. Another way they learn is to ask questions. And they have a never-ending series of questions they seek answers for.  “Why is the sky blue?” “How come it's cold in winter?” “Why does the giraffe have a long neck, and snakes don't have legs?” Their thirst for knowledge is never ending. We love it that they ask these questions, even though we often don't know the answers ourselves.

And there are the questions kids ask nearly every day. “Mom, where are my shoes?” “Can I have a snack?” My sister would wake my mom every morning and ask with sleepy half-opened eyes, “What's for bwekfast?” Mom would give her answer. Mom could have said anything, from Cap'n Crunch to deep fried pig snouts, and Julie would say, “OK,” and make her way back to bed and go back to sleep. She was content just to know that mom was there, and that we would be provided for.

But there is one question we wish they wouldn't ask so often:

“Are we there yet?”

The road trip question. Actually, you don't even have to be on a road trip to hear the incessant “Are we there yet?” from the back seat of the car. You just have to be going someplace, and it doesn't even have to be far. I heard the question from the back seat of the car on a 10-minute trip once. It wasn't in the form of “Are we there yet?” It was “How many turns until we get there?” But the meaning was the same.

“Are we there yet?” No amount of answering “NO!” seems to satisfy the petitioner. “Are we there yet?” “Five minutes more” makes the next five minutes an eternity. Why can't they ask something else, like “What makes glass see-through?” or “Mommy, who was your favorite teacher?” But nnnNNNNOOOOoooooo.... they have to ask “Are we there yet?” Doing our best to hold back our worst stink-eye ever, we patiently answer, “We'll get there when we have done what it takes to get there. But I promise – we will get there.” And when at last “Are we there yet?” becomes “We're here!” -- Oh, repeat the sounding joy!

Last week I blogged about being stuck in our own “Munchkinland,” traveling on the road to our heavenly home. Along the journey we find ourselves with many questions, such as “Why is there sickness?” “Why do bad things happen to good people?” “God, where were you on 9/11?” “Why is this happening to me when it's so unfair?” Even though the answers are not easy for us to explain or comprehend, God has answers for us. He welcomes not only the tough “why” questions, but the day-to-day requests too. “God, I don't know how I'll make ends meet this month, but I trust you to help me and provide a way.” “God, I know I need to have this talk with my son about what he did wrong. It's not an easy talk and I don't know what to say. Will you give me the right words?” “Can I exchange my Ruby Slippers for Nike's?” And He is faithful to answer those requests, sometimes with answers we like; sometimes in ways we don't care for; and sometimes in ways we don't expect!

“Is this heaven?”
No, it's Iowa.


“Are we there yet?”


Ahh, heaven... “Are we there yet?” No, not yet. For those who place their trust in Jesus, I promise someday the answer will be “Yes, we're here!” When we finally do arrive in heaven all of our questions will be answered. We will know what makes the sky blue, why some animals are eight feet tall while others slither on the dirt, and what kind of antics Jesus got into when he was young. We will see why we were allowed to experience hardship and suffering, and see how God was able to use atrocities for His good purpose. We will be able to explore our surroundings, not in our imaginations but first-hand. We will be able to look around us with a sense of peace and security like we've never known before, and joyfully say, “There's no place like home!”

Monday, September 06, 2010

Not until you've walked a mile in my Ruby Slippers

ruby_slippers by 323scotty via
We're all familiar with the story of The Wizard of Oz, right? Dorothy gets sucked up into a twister, and finds herself in this strange colorful land of little people singing about lollipops, wicked witches, and yellow brick roads. She is in child-like wide-eyed amazement at this wonderful place where she is treated like the hero that conquered evil and saved their civilization to live in peace another day. Yet in the midst of the endless accolades bestowed upon her, as much as the Munchkins wanted her to be a part of their world, Dorothy finds herself in a spot of trouble. As you recall, her house landed on the Wicked Witch of the East, and the witch's sinister sibling vows revenge on Dorothy. Dorothy, in the midst of trouble, sees only one solution:  To go home to Kansas.

She has three loyal friends, her ever-faithful Toto, and perfectly fitting Ruby Slippers (ever notice Dorothy never complained about her feet aching from skipping in heels on brick paving?). She also has a gnawing awareness that she does not belong. There was a portal into this place; surely there must be a portal out, right?

Dorothy's story is a work of fiction written to appeal to the child-at-heart in all of us. But the basic elements of the story are not so far-fetched if you think about it. We are all in a place where we feel valued and loved. There are people who look up to us, and people on whom we depend to help us move forward in life. Yet in the midst of the love-fest we find that we have this gnawing awareness that, like Dorothy in Munchkinland, we don't belong in this world.

You can't stay here, but you can't go home. Ever feel that way? I know I have. Family life hasn't been so warm and fuzzy lately, and as a result, I've been honing my avoidance skills. Don't get me wrong – progress is being made in the issues, but there are times when it feels like an eternal limbo of sorts. In the mean time, I might hide out at a friend's place, or at a place where I can use my laptop so I don't have to deal with the unpleasantries. I can't stay away forever though. And I can't go home because, well, it's not home. Sometimes it's just the place I go to end my day and start the new one. I'm stuck in a Munchkinland of my own, wondering if home will ever be warm and fuzzy again.

Jesus spoke of a young man who also thought he could never go home again. It is commonly known as the story of the Prodigal Son. The son asked dad – more like demanded – his inheritance, and then left home. After wasting all his money living high on the hog, he went to work at the pig farm, slinging swill to the swine and sweeping up after them. It didn't take much time to realize that he couldn't stay there any longer, and if he went home it wouldn't truly be home. Or so he thought. He quits his job as pig-slop guy and starts the miles long trek home in his mucky workboots (or whatever they wore back then), resigned to living out his days in the Biblical equivalent of Munchkinland because, after all, he traded the warmth of home for cold hard cash.

If these stories end where I left them, they would be dismal stories indeed. But those who are familiar with my ponderings know that God always shows up. He does not like to see people wandering aimlessly lost. We are much too precious to Him for that. You see, we may feel like foreigners in Munchkinland, but when we place our faith in trust in Jesus, we are fellow citizens with God's people and members of God's household. More than that, we are sons and daughters of the living God! We are not forever doomed to our present world or our present circumstances. The road will come to an end, and we will be greeted by the Father reaching with open arms open wide, saying, “Come in – this is your home!”

Ah, there's no place like home ... Until then, where can I find some Ruby Slippers like Dorothy's? It looks like I have some more miles to go, and my shoes are making my feet hurt!