Watch a sunrise, see the Son rise

Should be once a week homework.

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The other morning I watched something that I rarely watch – a sunrise. I had no choice; I was in the front passenger seat of a van heading East. And I watched God paint. It was glorious. I believe in a creative God. If you don’t, look in the mirror this morning – He IS creative. I believe that He has put layers and layers..and layers..of meaning into the world so that we can discover more of Him. Because, like Him, we are creative. And we barely scratch the surface. But as I watched the sunrise (just had a typo and put “sinrise” – that will be a topic another time), I thought of similarities that take place when the sun rises and when the Son, Jesus Christ, rises in our life.

ONLY ONE We do not see more than one sun. You will not find, nor will you need…

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The Sun of God

Part of our failure to recognize God’s constant presence in our lives can be found in our language. We talk of how the sun “comes up,” “rises,” “sets,” and “goes down.”
Nope.
The sun does none of those things. The sun is constant. It is always giving light. The only thing that changes is that we turn. More accurately, this planet turns. And we are just as helpless to make that happen as we are to turn ourselves toward God. But whether we are turned to face him fully or have completely turned away from him, God is. God is love. God is shining.
Our language that we use is only a symptom. It is not by itself the problem. Our brokenness leads to our huge blind spots. Our vision is small. We rarely imagine the size of our galaxy, much less the universe. We occasionally think upon our solar system. We will discuss our neighboring planets once in while and can sometimes catch a glimpse. We watch world news every so often. We consider our country most days. Our state comes to mind daily. Our city is a regular thought. Our home presses on us daily. And we are always on our mind.
Completely inverted from God’s design. Yes, that reflects the order of God’s creation, but it does not reflect the order of significance. And yet it does. God made the least his last and his pinnacle. Yet he makes the last first and the first last. What a marvelous mystery!
God made you. He loves you.
God is. He loves.
Constantly.
He does not set. He does not go dark. He does not turn.
We do.
I don’t imagine that these words will stop making you say that the sun “has set” or that the sun has “come up,” but I do ask you to pause and think – on God’s constant love.

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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.

Two Sparrows

“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father..So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” Matthew 10:29, 31

I do not start with this text to remind you of your worth – chances are you know that already. You might even have the song in your head already. If not, let me help you, “His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me! I sing because..” It’s not that you don’t need to hear that, or be reminded of your value. But I want to make you think of the bigger picture – and your view of sparrows.

What is often missed is the context of that passage. Those verses come in the middle of some of Jesus’ more potent instructions to the twelve. They were told to do things such as “Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons.” (Matthew 10:8) Before Jesus finished, he had told the twelve disciples, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul” (10:28a) and “Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me” (10:37a). Jesus was not sending the twelve out to sing songs around the campfire; he was sending them into battle. In fact, in the proper context, the words of comfort we take from verses 29-31 would really sound like this: “You might die; that’s a possibility. But God is watching you and guards your soul.” NOW try singing that happy little song.

And the words of Jesus remain the same today. There’s no clause in the instructions to his followers that states, “Do this for 50 years after I’m gone and then I’ll take back over.” No! If we believe that Scripture is living and active, it means that the commands of Jesus remain in place for his followers today. So how are we doing? Well, if we’re honest, we would have to acknowledge that we are treating a lot of our would-be brothers and sisters like sparrows.

“What’s wrong with our young people?” Ever asked that question, or been asked that question? Chances are you have a list of standard answers: absent fathers, pervasive technology, poor educational systems, government involvement, broken families. It’s pretty easy to toss up your hands there isn’t it? “Well, there’s nothing I can do there – it’s just a mess.” If that has been your approach, I would like to point something out: the Scripture I read only records one person who washed his hands of a situation, and I think you know how that went (if you don’t know, call me; we’ll talk).

But maybe I’m being too hard on us, so I’ll give you agreement on one of your causes for the problems of our youth: messed-up families. But, to be fair, I should also note that WE are the messed-up family. That’s right – we as believers, followers, the Church, are messing up. Shane Claiborne made the very profound point that fatherlessness is NOT the problem in our society. Everyone has a Father, and His name is Almighty God. The problem then becomes the fact that we, having met and entered the restorative relationship with our Father, have not found our brothers and sisters and introduced them to Almighty Daddy. Think about it. Have you, or I, done something extraordinary to receive our Father’s love? (If you have, call me; we’ll talk.)

What we have done is simply been overtaken by God’s pursuit of us, and that pursuit (unless you are formerly named “Saul”) probably came in the form of one of your brothers or sisters – even if they were cleverly disguised as your parents. “Who are my mother and my brothers?..Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” (Jesus’ words in Mark 3:33, 34) We sing the song that declares God calls us “friend.” It cheers us, warms us, right? But why don’t we sing that Jesus calls us “sister” or “brother”? It feels different, doesn’t it? But it’s truth.

And it’s also true that we feel a different sense of urgency to help our family than we do our friends. Yes, there are tried-and-true friendships out there; many have been fortunate to find them. But in the best friendships, don’t they start to feel like family? Maybe you even call them “brother” or “sister”? That’s because we instinctively know the commitment level raises for family, so we draw in our dearest friends to that level and, in so doing, distinguish them from our “friends.” And everyone knows we care more about our friends than we care about the sparrows. That’s a no-brainer.

My friends…sorry, my brothers and sisters, we need to shift our “family to sparrow” ratio. What do I mean by that? I’m glad you asked. When Jesus used two sparrows as an illustration, he was really telling the twelve that God cares for the “least of these,” those that no one else would notice if they were gone. If someone could purchase two sparrows for a penny, how much thought went into their value? None. But aren’t there sparrows in our own lives? People who fade away without us even noticing? Who are the sparrows in your life, all around you? Are there young people who seem lost? Homeless people that pass you, or are passed by you? Prostitutes? Drug dealers? Drug addicts? Gang members? People who only come to our attention when they are shot and make the news? Aren’t they sparrows to us? Don’t we find it easier to twist God’s promise and say, “Well, I guess God is watching over them so I don’t have to.”

Yes, He is. And yes, we have to also. Here’s why. God gives us this reminder through His precious Son Jesus: “Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” So then we should discern God’s will. It’s pretty simple, really. Jesus, as he began his instructions to the twelve, said, “Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel” (Matthew 10:6). By the end of Matthew, his instructions were essentially the same, but now with a broader territory for us to claim, for his authority: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nation, baptizing them..and teaching them..” (Matthew 28:18-20). So there you go – do that and be called a sister or brother of Jesus! But why baptize AND teach? Can’t we just do one? No! Again, think of the “lost sheep” as your brother and sister who has not yet met Almighty Father. They are in the same position that we would be in if a brother or sister had not shown us who our Father is. The truth is, they have been looking for Him all this time, but they followed a lie instead of truth. They have become enslaved to a master, and it’s time to bring them to one who can redeem them!

Recently I was thinking of some young men I know – lost sheep claiming gang affiliation. I wondered, what would make someone hate another person that they don’t even know? I’m talking about being willing to hurt someone simply because they claim a different affiliation. As I allowed my mind to consider that, I realized that the enemy has twisted and re-worked his plan to enslave. Young people (and old people) seek unconditional acceptance, with promises that they will be cared for. They buy the lie. They think that a gang, or drug use, or many other vices will fill that void, only to find out that the acceptance was not unconditional at all. One may enter a gang only to find that there are rules and costs for loyalty, not to mention costs for disloyalty. One may find initial acceptance in using drugs, only to find that the drug refuses to stop using them. Another may look for love and beauty, only to find that they are following lust and pornography – and again, they are not free to leave. Still others may seek acceptance in the material world, only to become a “slave to fashion” or indebted to our debt. The slavery to our vices is very real, and it is time to act.

It is time for us to be abolitionists and seek the freedom of our brothers and sisters. Isn’t that what you would do for your family? When Jesus said to baptize them, that is their freedom from enslavement! He HAS paid their redemption, but we must bring them to him to cash it in! How long would you let a family member sit on a winning Powerball ticket before you made them turn it in? Not long. And then we must also teach, just as someone cared enough to teach us. You don’t let your baby brother walk unguided down a flight of stairs! You walk with them until they know “to obey everything” that Jesus commanded. Family, there is slavery everywhere.

Maybe to you, like to many of our forefathers, it just seems normal. Well, normal don’t make it right. We must open our eyes to see those around us who have walked into some horrible arrangements. There is no way out except for their freedom to be purchased. It’s time to step up to the plate. And it does no good for us to attempt to free others if we are enslaved ourselves! Maybe you have found freedom from your vices, but now you are enslaved to fear. What was it again, those words that Jesus said before he mentioned “sparrows”? “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matthew 10:28) In other words, you could die saving a lost sheep; but you could also die from that Big Mac you’re eating while you drive past the person with the cardboard sign – pretty sure only one option there glorifies God. You don’t have to go it alone. Find a person with a passion and do what they’re doing. Or just try what you’ve been thinking of doing, it just might work!

Lastly, to those who have a hard time seeing brothers and sisters among the sparrows – you who find yourself stuck in apathy against your will: find out their names. Feed them. Open up your home. Only then will you know them. My son Jonathan met two sparrows, er, parakeets. He named them. He used his birthday money last year to pay for Moonlight and Sunshine, and purchased a home for them within our home. Sunshine met a tragic end last year, and he wept.

After some time, he opened up his heart to bring home Snowstorm, who found a home with Moonlight in our home. He cared for them, loved them, fed them, and cleaned up after them. Tonight, when we returned home from our trip, I noticed Jonathan was crying – weeping. I thought for a moment and ran upstairs. Both Moonlight and Snowstorm were dead in their cage. You see, while we had made arrangements for someone to take care of the dog, no one checked on the birds. In theory, they should have been fine. When we left, they had plenty of food and water, and were safe within their cage. The tragedy, however, was that their food container had somehow slipped off from the cage, and had fallen in such a way that they could not reach the food. I felt sick to my stomach and wanted to weep as Jonathan wept. The worst part (and I’m sorry for this, but you need to hear it) was that I could tell they tried to reach the food that had fallen under the rack in the bottom of the cage – their beaks were pointed down in a last, vain attempt. I had no words, but asked Jonathan if he wanted to hold them. He did, and I left him alone with them. When he was ready, he placed them back in their cage, and came downstairs.

I don’t know if that story brings tears to your eyes (it does mine), but I can explain the tears if it does: you cry because you know their names – Moonlight and Snowstorm – they were helpless in their situation, and they were loved by someone, and now you know their story. Moonlight and Snowstorm, even as birds, had become part of our family. Brothers and sisters, there are sparrows with names walking by you every day. Just like the tragedy in our home, they are dying to live. They are desperately seeking the Living Bread that you have found, but they are unable to reach it on their own. Helpless, unless you come into the picture. There is a Father who weeps for them when they die too soon, or alone. What you have been seeing as sparrows are actually children – God’s children – which makes them your sisters and brothers.

I know that Jonathan would tell you his life is better for having cared for those two birds. That crying is connected to loving. And that he would have them here all over again. Who knows how God will yet work healing and restoration in this situation? You could do as I am doing now, wrestling with the “woulda, coulda, shoulda” questions. Or you can learn the names of those who have been sparrows and open your home to them. You can love them. You can learn their story and become part of it – aren’t they much more valuable to you, and our Almighty Daddy, than two sparrows?

Note: I had intended to write a much different message than the one I just did. I intended to focus more on enslavement, but the course of events altered my writing. I will trust God’s guiding, and write more of the other message soon.

*I don’t mean to make too much or too little of Jonathan’s loss. When I use the word “tragedy,” I am considering his perspective. I have a long enough view to know that he will be okay, but I know that it hurts now, and will for some time. And feeling “sick to my stomach” is accurate. It was as if we – he, I, us – had been punched in the gut after an otherwise great week. I did not like feeling helpless to help the helpless who loved the helpless.