Grace Like Snow

We sing of “grace like rain,” but not of “grace like snow.” It may be limiting, perhaps, to do so. Half of the world would not fully understand the comparison. Other parts of the world would understand it so well that, even as they were singing, their mind would sing back “No it’s not!”

But what is snow? Isn’t snow something that comes from the heavens to cover death? Doesn’t snow cover the ugliness around us and make our world at least…presentable? Just like grace. In our death, also known as sin, we need a covering. We need something to hide the unpresentable. We need grace. And God gives. Abundantly.

It does not fall evenly, for every realm of our life is unique. But, in the time before new life, our ugliness – our death, our sin – is covered. And there are some areas where grace piles up, either by the winds of life or in our own piling up. As I removed snow from one area and placed it in another this morning, I thought of this “piling of grace.” It made me think of Romans 6:1,2.
What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? We died to sin, how can we live in it any longer?

But yet there are times where we pile up grace, forgetting that what is underneath is already dead. More grace will not change that. But there is new life coming; we are certain of that. And how does that happen?

In God’s perfect time, the warmth of his love allows for the grace to go into our death, go into our ugliness, go into the areas where we have sinned. What was once a covering becomes a source of nourishment for new life. What we once had as a cover for our imperfections has now become a promise. So, for a brief time, under the warmth of God’s love, our ugliness will be exposed. We stand naked before the Lord; ready for new life and completely soaked in grace. Our former death revealed. Once dead in sin, we have now died to sin. New life is coming. This becomes the point of our testimony: “I once was, now am, and will be!”

Once dead in sin. Now alive. And growing in Christ.

The warmth of God’s love comes by the gift of the Son. His son. As God allows for grace to enter in, Jesus becomes exactly what we need to live anew. We need the Son. And do not worry about those piles of grace you have accumulated. Even those, and even those parts we hide from the Son, will eventually feel the warmth of the Son so deeply that life will spring forth there as well.

As you fling grace around this weekend, as you delight in it or loathe it, remember why it is there. Remember that it is a covering. Receive it, knowing that soon it will be exactly what you need to be a living testimony.

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Caleb: Dog

I recently made the comment to my oldest son, “I haven’t written about your name yet” (having already written about Joshua and Jonathan). I am pretty sure that, at some point in the process of naming him, I saw this meaning. Whether I knew it at one point or not, I had since forgotten. If we had been selecting a name based on the meaning, Caleb would not seem to be a top choice. The Hebrew word keleb means dog, and comes from the root klb which may be the equivalent of “woof.” Maybe we should have named him Bark.

No, in naming my oldest son Caleb the meaning held held no value. The attributes of the biblical Caleb, however, held tremendous weight. (We also thought we were choosing a less popular name, only to find out within five years how wrong that was.) Caleb, along with Joshua, is known for giving a good report to the Israelites concerning the Promised Land. It is not so much that he gave a good report as much as he reported a good expectation. He trusted.

Here were the Israelites, freed from the tyranny of Egypt. The story of their exodus is well-known. No longer were they slaves; their identity as God’s chosen people had been restored. Passing through the Red Sea, following God’s pillar of fire, and receiving daily manna, the Israelites had every reason to trust God. That is, until, they saw the descendants of Anak. Upon hearing of Anak, a potent mixture of truth and legend clouded the eyesight of the Israelites. In other words, fear became a four-letter word.

You have probably heard that fear and faith both look ahead to the future. Both confront an unknown. And both create certain responses. Fear can generate a fight-or-flight response, one of our earliest and most primitive responses. Faith, however, creates a fight-for-right response. Here’s what the Israelites heard when the twelve spies, one from each tribe, returned:
They gave Moses this account: “We went into the land to which you sent us, and it does flow with milk and honey! Here is its fruit.”
So far, so good. They continue.
But the people who live there are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large. We even saw the descendants of Anak there.
The teeter-totter is swinging back down to earth, and those two little words “but” and “even” carry most of the weight. And then the crash landing.
The Amalekites live in the Negev; the Hittites, Jebusites and Amorites live in the hill country; and the Canaanites live near the sea along the Jordan.” (Numbers 13:27-29)

Now who is this Anak, and why is this such a big deal? Why does he receive special mention? If we look ahead to verse 33, we see that Anak’s descendants “come from the Nephilim.” So who are the Nephilim? Well, they are certainly a strong and numerous group of people. They made some of the spies feel like “grasshoppers” (v. 33). They were also mentioned before The Flood, in Genesis 6:4.
The Nephilim were on the earth in those days – and also afterward – when the sons of God went to the daughters of men and had children by them. They were the heroes of old, men of renown.
Some scholars believe that this means angels or spiritual beings (Nephilim means “fallen ones”) had children with humans. Wow. For some reason it makes me think of the ridiculously ripped army in the movie “300,” but let’s try a different analogy.

Suppose my dog, a lab/shepherd mix of decent size wants to go for a walk around the neighborhood. And I, his master, have promised him that we will go. But, before going for the walk, he (the dog) sends out the cats to spy out the route. One cat (the one I don’t especially care for) comes back saying, “It looks great out there – everything that you could want – but, there are two Great Danes around the corner. You should stay here!” That’s not a completely illogical conclusion, right? Great Danes can be huge! (And there really are two around the corner, but the part about my cat talking is made up.) So, should my dog never go for a walk?

What do you do? You have seen God work in your life. You know He can deliver you from very difficult circumstances. You have seen Him remove enemies from your path. You have likely even heard His promise. But there are still some really big obstacles out there. Does that mean it is time to sit tight, or does that mean it is time to fight-for-right?

Many of the writings on the meaning of the name Caleb work really hard to clean it up. They try, almost desperately, to put a positive spin on the meaning. I get it. People probably have reservations about having a name that means “dog,” especially since that almost always has a negative connotation in the Bible. But that is alright. I see a connection between my Caleb, my dog, and the Caleb of Numbers 13, and it is absolutely beautiful. They all trust like nobody’s business.

My son Caleb has placed an almost unnerving amount of stock into my guidance. We are engaging in discussions about making choices as he grows older, but wow, does he trust my opinion. For example, we often have pizza on Friday nights. I will call my sons to the kitchen to grab some pizza. And, more often than not, I hear this question from Caleb, “Dad, can we get some pizza now?” It’s not that he did not hear me. It’s not that he doubts. He is simply making sure that his steps match my plans. Hmm.
My dog loves walks, but he used to be a big fan of leading them. He pulled, sniffed, stalled, wherever he chose. It was no fun for me, and not great for him. Then we started using a gentle leader on our walks. It gives him some freedom, but it also makes him more dependent on my guidance. Some day he will be such an expert about knowing my plans, his steps will match mine. Hmm.
Caleb, son of Jephunneh, of the tribe of Judah, watched God in action. He knew God could deliver. He knew God’s promise. So, when the Anak report came in, this happened:
Then Caleb silenced the people before Moses and said, “We should go up and take possession of the land, for we can certainly do it.” (Numbers 13:30)
Caleb simply wanted his next steps to match his Master’s plans.

Now back to my spying, talking cats. We heard the report of one. But the second one (the one I like better) says this to my dog, “Yes, there are Great Danes out there, but remember, you will be walking with your master and it will go as planned.” At that point, besides finding the cat to be impressive, wouldn’t you say that my dog should go? If my son has heard from me that it will work out, shouldn’t he go forward? If God had revealed the Promised Land, shouldn’t the Israelites go take it?

You likely know that the Israelites did not go up to take it. Not right away. And not one of the doubters was allowed in when the Israelites eventually claimed the land. But Caleb and Joshua did; they saw the land God had promised. And the best part about when they did? Caleb was given the city of Hebron. Hebron was the city of the great and powerful Anak, and Caleb drove them out. God is a powerful Master, much more powerful than those obstacles in your way.

It is not always easy to compare ourselves to something like a dog, but my dog teaches me so many lessons about God. One of the biggest reminders that he gives me is in how he always follows me, and always trusts me. In that way I would like to be more and more like him and my son Caleb, trusting and following the One who leads.

What can we learn?
*Our next steps are very often determined by fear or faith. Have you evaluated which one is guiding you?
*If you trust God as your Master, you need only to walk along with Him to receive His promise.

10,000 Reasons

479) It might not be everyone’s favorite for driving, but wow, that snow is beautiful
478) Hearing that my niece had a successful emergency appendectomy
477) Having enough sense to stop cleaning and watch a movie with my son
476) Setting goals
475) Fund-raising ideas that are only made better by my dear friend’s additions
474) Parents who welcome my sons into their home
473) Parents gifted with hospitality
472) Caleb always remembers to say “thank you” at a meal
471) Joshua is such a word artist; I love listening to him
470) Knowing my niece will visit Israel
469) Watching a basketball team encourage each other

Bethel: House of God

There is a lot to like about the name, meaning, and history of Bethel. Believe it or not, kids sometime feel the need to point out the obvious, such as my baldness. Sometimes I like to believe that I have heard it all, but it is at that point that someone comes up with a new twist. At that point I often give them credit, “That’s a new one..nice!” Anything from cue ball to light bulb, MegaMind to alien..I’ve heard them. A vast majority of the time it is out of affection or endearment. On the rare occasion that it is mentioned in anger – “You baldheaded…” – I find some satisfaction that they can think of nothing else terrible to say. And, on my good days, I tell them about the story of Elisha.

After being mocked by youth as a “baldhead,” Elisha called down curses upon them for not respecting him as a prophet for the Lord. God heard Elisha, and two bears came out of the woods to maul 42 youth. That’s pretty impressive. Think about it. The bears didn’t just claim two youth – one each – but 42! That’s a rampage. (Makes me wonder if God is bald and took particular offense. Maybe? Maybe not.) Most kids don’t believe me that the story is in the Bible (2 Kings 2:23ff), so I just tell them, “You’re lucky I like you..”

That story took place at Bethel. But it is not my favorite association with that name. No, my favorite connection with Bethel is the story of its name change. It had been called Luz, a Hebrew verb that means to turn aside. The way we would describe that verb today, and the way it is mostly used in the Bible, has a negative connotation. If you “turn aside,” you are not doing what you should be doing. For example, maybe you have deceived your old and nearly-blind father into giving you your brother’s inheritance and blessing. Maybe you have stolen from your brother by plotting with your mother. What do you have to say about that, Jacob?

But we all have our Jacob moments. We all have had times (and likely still will) when we exert our own will and try to make things happen our way. We have our Jacob moments of trying to fast-forward God’s plans..”Here, God, let me help you.” And sometimes we pull it off. We execute our plan. We hustle. We trick. We deceive. We get what we want. Then, all of a sudden, it dawns on us that we didn’t think about the “Now what?” part. Jacob, in deceiving his father, received the blessing he wanted. I’m not so sure he thought about the part where his angry brother finds out. Remember, Jacob’s brother Esau was a hunter. A skillful hunter. Smooth-skinned Jacob was quiet and stayed “among the tents.” (Genesis 25:27)

Deceivers do not always see the big picture. Their goal is gratification and to figure out the rest later. “Figuring out the rest” is how we come to know this place called Bethel. Jacob was advised by his parents to take off. To get outta Dodge before his skillful hunter of a brother could lay hands (or weapons) on him. Jacob did. He ran. After a long day of travel, Jacob pulled up a stone for a pillow. And what a dream he had! A stairway from heaven to earth, God at the top, angels going up and down, and promises from God for land and for Jacob’s descendants.

But my favorite promise was this: “I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” (Genesis 28:15b) Isn’t that a wonderful promise? And wouldn’t our lives be much better if we remembered that? So often we take off running, we turn aside, from the plan that is laid out. We luz. “Hey, God, I found a shortcut! We don’t have to go that way!” I don’t know, maybe it’s just me that does that. I held back a laugh today when I received an email about discussing my “career path.” Career path? What’s that? I am as familiar with that as I am with the term “family planning.” Career path..sounds fascinating.

You see, I am a quiet, smooth-skinned boy from a rural area. I was always good with numbers so I pursued Engineering – for half of one semester in college. Then I found my next major by looking at the classes I was interested in taking. Criminal Justice. Then I worked at a summer camp for inner-city youth. Then I worked with juvenile delinquents in a residential treatment program. Then in a program for youth who commit sexual offenses. After-school programs. I was a “book guy” (ask me, I’ll tell you), a lawn care technician, a cell phone salesman, I worked in an all-girls treatment program, a case manager, a chaplain, at a charter school…so sure, I would LOVE to hear my career path!

The truth is, I’m a lot like Jacob. Thankfully, however, there is a redeeming quality to his story. Jacob may have turned aside, may have tried the shortcut, but eventually he had to stop. He had to rest. And when he did, God showed up. More accurately, Jacob saw God. God reminded him, “We still have some work to do.” Jacob finally got it. And then comes my favorite part, the part that I am starting to understand in my own life:
When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.” (Genesis 28:16)
Amen. That is what God does. He never asks us to live in regret, never asks us to live in the rearview. He can, and does, use it all. I had a passing thought in high school of going into ministry. What I now see is that the Holy Spirit was prompting me. And God was preparing me. But God was not done with me yet. There was work to do. So He went with me as I turned this way, that way, this way, that way, all the while watching my path take the form of Billy in The Family Circus strip. All the while knowing that eventually I would rest. All the while knowing His promise to me – to not leave until He was finished.

And He waits patiently for us to reach this point, the point that Jacob reached:
He was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.” (Genesis 28:17)
The word “Beth” in Hebrew can refer to a number of different things. It can refer to a physical house. It can refer to an extended family (“house of Jacob”). It can even refer to a temple or tomb. It refers not so much to a specific type as it does to the function – what it does. It holds or contains.

Is that your life? Does it hold or contain the functions of God (Beth-el)? Or are you still in a place of Luz? Have you fast-forwarded the plan only to find yourself asking, “Now what?” Do not worry. God is not nearly as interested in your career path as He is your heart path. He wants to talk less about your past, and more about your present. God hopes you wake up to say, “This is amazing, God has been here all along!”

Indeed, He has. Will you let your life be a Bethel today? Will you remember God’s promise that He will be with you until He is finished?

Surely God is in this place that you are in. Rest. Listen. Look. And you will see your Luz become a Bethel.

10,000 Reasons

468) Unlimited car washes for the month
467) A mother protecting her daughter from the cold
466) Catching a nearly-full moon before it appeared to everyone else
465) An unexpected gift that fits
464) Noticing someone enjoying a book by C.S. Lewis
463) Jonathan called back to ask the percentage for a snow day
462) Jonathan called to check on his bird

Malachi: Messenger

I just love when God confirms. More on that later.

The final book of the Old Testament bears the name of Malachi, but there is some scholarly debate concerning the author. Because the Hebrew word mal’akh means “messenger,” there are some who propose that the title is not the name of a person directly. Other scholars contend that yes, it was the name of the author and his role: Malachi was a messenger.

Reading upon this Hebrew word revealed that the noun is sometimes considered to mean “messenger of God.” Because of this, the meaning is sometimes morphed into the word “angel” in certain texts and translations of the Bible. But there is no suggestion by any scholar that the final Old Testament book was written by an angel. Whether the scholars attribute the book to a person named Malachi or not, they all do agree that the book follows the formula: God delivering his message through a human vessel.

In this case, Malachi was given the task of correcting the Israelite people who had too quickly forgotten their recent struggles. They became comfortable again. Sound familiar? As in, all of us? The Israelites had also decided that they did not need to follow everything exactly, and began reducing their sacrifice. Instead of unblemished animals, they were accused of offering blind and lame animals. None of us would do that – give God our leftovers – right? The beauty of the Bible is its constant relevance to our lives. We just choose not to see that sometimes. The Israelites at the time of Malachi had also taken to doubting the love of God. They had begun to adhere less to the standards because God had not yet given them everything they had been promised. Again I ask, sound familiar? Perhaps too much so.

You may be in a place where you are honoring God with your firstfruits, unlike the Israelites. You may hold firmly to the truth of God’s love. Or perhaps you are in a place where you are still seeking, still learning about God. But my question for you today is not about that. We know we are like the Israelites – broken people. But do you know you are a messenger? Have you ever thought of yourself as a Malachi? Do you know you are a human vessel meant to deliver the message of God?

Let’s see if you are qualified. Ready?
I have loved you,” says the Lord. (Malachi 1:2a)
Q1. Can you tell someone that God loves them, as Malachi did?
A. Yes.

Great! You pass!

You see there are times when we get so worried about the rest – the part that we don’t know -that we never tell people what we do know. But you are qualified, and God will equip you. You can tell someone that God loves them (truth) and you have a pulse. Good to go.

Growing up I struggled with hearing calls to “evangelize.” Maybe part of the problem was not understanding my target audience. In a family with generations of Christ-followers and living in a small community where almost everyone went to church, who was I supposed to tell? Then I moved on to a Christian college. Again I saw myself as a learner, not as a messenger. Then I went to work at a summer camp. Finally! Kids who needed to hear about Jesus! But, as I look back, I learned so much more from them than I imagine they learned from me. Their child-like trust, their desire to learn, their freedom to be vulnerable..all those things were lessons for me!

In fact, I am still learning what it means to be a messenger. Because of my limited view of being a Malachi, I missed countless opportunities to share in the journey with others. I could have encouraged. I could have been encouraged. All I had to do was share. Sometimes those of us who have been given years of “head knowledge” fumble opportunities to be a Malachi. Unlike someone who is just coming to know of Jesus, we have made Jesus a rather comfortable part of our lives. And when we have become comfortable with Christ, we do not want to open up those uncomfortable parts of our lives. I think I know why. It makes us feel unworthy.

A year and a half ago I interviewed for a position titled “Spiritual Care Specialist.” Sounds impressive, right? All I knew was that it would get me out of direct care shifts and sure..I’m qualified. After weeping in the first interview and doing okay in the second interview, for some reason, they offered me the job. In my first meeting with my new supervisor, she said something like this,
“I want to challenge you on your response to being called ‘pastor.’ You will be seen as one by the kids and by the staff. You will be the spiritual authority when you walk in those homes..so think about that.”

I don’t know how that sounds to you, but my response was to think, “(Gulp)..What did I do?” The reason she began with that was because of how I answered a question in the second interview.
“How will you respond if someone calls you ‘Pastor Doug’?”
“(Nervous laughter)..Oh no, that’s not me. I will tell them I can (fumble, fumble) but I would not see myself as a pastor.”
Judging by my answer in the interview, she must have thought she had just told a nearly 100-year old man that he would be a father of many. But instead, all she had done was remind me that I am a Malachi.

You see my problem was, and is, that I did not see myself as worthy of that title.
But when would I be? When I get my “act together”? When I know enough Scripture? When I have the right education? Ha! If that is the case, I should quit now. And so should everyone else. I will never know enough, be good enough, or have enough degrees to qualify for a standard which I am completely unable to attain. As Max Lucado put it, it would be as if God told us we could be saved if we can jump to the moon. I have been working on the wrong vertical.

We are all a Malachi. God has the message. We are the vessel. And I know that if God can use this broken, sinful-but-saved saint, He can use you too. The truth is, whether our vertical is two feet or two inches, we are coming up short either way. But that is not to stop us from telling others who made the moon. And the stars. And the skies. And you.

If there is a message of love – deep, abundant love – the package does not matter. If a man proposes to a woman in the rain and drops the ring in the process, will she not still accept it? If Jesus held no earthly beauty, was willing to endure beatings and torture just to give us a message of salvation, would we refuse him?

No.

We often talk about “our story,” but I like how my spiritual brother puts it: “It’s all God’s story; we’re just wrapped up in it.” We were never asked to become worthy vessels before we should speak. If we cannot receive the grace God extends to cover our sins, how can we offer it to anyone else? I must first be a grace-receiver before I can be a grace-giver. Whether I feel worthy or not does not change the message of God. He still says, “I love you.”

Back to my confirmation. A few months ago I was in the chapel when someone from a church group asked me, “Are you one of the pastors here?” A year into the role and I still stubbornly hold back, “Uhh, yeah..I work with them.” Still denying that I am a Malachi. Then tonight, right before I was set to write, I received a text from someone who had never texted me before. The first three words were “Hey pastor Doug”. I’m learning. I smiled to myself and responded.

Now my question for you: If someone calls you a Malachi, what would you say? Do you know that, even though you are broken, you have a message to give? Don’t worry, it is not about you. It is always about God.