The other day I gave my answer to a question asked in our church Community Group Discussion Guide which read: “How does knowing you are adopted by God change your view of yourself and of God? How does this give a new answer to your identity?”
My honest response was:
“Knowing God has chosen and adopted me as his son brings me to my knees in highest praise. Unfortunately, the overwhelming sense of guilt and shame past sin often reminds me of competes for my ability to see myself as the forgiven, regenerate, and redeemed child of God he tells me I am, and walk confidently of my ability to each day be everything he says I am.”
Dear Christian friend, I wonder, might our lives sometimes run along a parallel path? Knowing what God says to be true but haunted by yesteryear’s sin, perhaps yesterdays? Instead of seeing the person God declares you are in Christ today, the image you see in the mirror is definitely not the Imago Dei (image of God) and the story being told by that person staring back at you is very different. One of a shameful, sinfully dark past that any fair and reasonable self-examination will find a despairing case of hopelessness. A story that from your vantage point trumps the new story God wants to write into your life; the story he has in fact already written.
The bible I read in Numbers 23:19 tells me “God is not man, that he should lie,” and in Hebrews 6:18 I found it to say that “it is impossible for God to lie.” That being true, and it is, the questions I then should ask become who I will believe him or me? Whose word is most reliable, his or mine? That’s a no-brainer, right? It should be, yes. But in spite of my best effort to go all-in with God’s divine assessment of who I am in Christ, there are still times I find myself wrestling with that vile man sneering at me in the mirror each morning. His rap sheet is just too long to be considered for a heavenly pardon, I sometimes think. How then can it be? I lack understanding. It’s too deep.
Then this morning while reading Calvin’s Institutes I ran across these waking words of encouragement*:
“We have come into the way of faith,” says Augustine: “let us constantly adhere to it. It leads to the chambers of the king, in which are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. For our Lord Jesus Christ did not speak invidiously to his great and most select disciples when he said, ‘I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now,’ (John 16:12). We must walk, advance, increase, that our hearts may be able to comprehend those things which they cannot now comprehend. But if the last day shall find us making progress, we shall there learn what here we could not,” (August. Hom. in Joann).”
I like that. I’m good with that.
*Calvin, John. The Institutes of the Christian Religion – Enhanced Version (p. 130). Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Kindle Edition.
In the early years of church history here in the U.S., a community might see a different preacher each week; one Sunday a Baptist, the next a Methodist, Presbyterian, or just a man on horseback with a bible in his saddlebags and a sermon on his lips. Old-timers in the rural Kaufman County church I once pastored shared their parent’s, and grandparent’s passed along memories of those circuit riders (as they came to be known) galloping up to the one room building that served as a schoolhouse, community gathering spot, and the Sunday go to meeting place. I so enjoyed walking alongside those old farmers down garden rows picking a mess of peas and listening to those stories. Their days on earth are over, but their memories live on in mine.
When Gaby and I began attending the Community Life Church in Forney, Texas it wasn’t anything at all like that old framed church house I pastored about 20 miles east or any other church I had set foot in. There were no hymnals to sing from, no pulpit for the preacher to preach from; they didn’t pass an offering plate, and the pastor didn’t look at all like a pastor, he wore jeans and a pullover. Our daughter told us the environment was relaxed, but a coffee bar with donuts – what had I gotten myself into? And with no altar call at the end of the service, what in the world was the world coming too?
If only out of curiosity or perhaps to be sure I hadn’t just dreamed it, we found ourselves westbound on US-80 headed back for round two the next Sunday.
Grabbing a cup of Joe and a donut (yes, I did), we found a seat and buckled up. Having been a longtime fan of progressive Christian music (even when it was a bit taboo) the worship team doing Chris Tomlin and Matt Redman music was good by me. Had they busted out with a little Petra or Stryper, I would have sung along. The music was great, and I was looking forward to hearing that baldheaded pastor continue the sermon series he had started the week prior. It was well presented, informative and inspiring, enough so that I was able to do a mental write-off of his unpastoral-like attire and just listen to what he had to say, but who is this dragging a small table and stool to center stage?
He introduced himself as Randy something. “Randy who? I don’t care; I want to hear the bald guy. I came specifically to hear part two in the series from the bald guy, not a visiting preacher.” It turns out he wasn’t a visiting preacher, but when he referred to himself as a co-pastor of the church, I thought to myself, “nice title for the assistant, maybe he won’t mess the series up too badly.” How quickly though I found myself hanging onto his every word. Like the week before, I was captivated, a sponge soaking up the warmth of the Son. He was funny too, using a lot of humor to convey the points he wanted to make.
The sermon series continued our third week in attendance but with yet another man, co-pastor Paul McDill. Coming on the heels of the previous two weeks I thought this three-pastor model is weird but after being spellbound by Paul’s exhilarating message, and noting the seamless flow of a sermon series split between three pastors I thought, “they’re certainly in sync, they just might have something here. After all, having two campuses (Forney and Mesquite), you would need more than one pastor to keep the bases covered.”
Three years later the church would plant two additional campuses within the area, and the three co-pastors would rotate between them, much like the circuit riders of old. Although it didn’t make a lot of sense to me early on (a more logical approach being one man overseeing and serving each campus, I thought), the second Sunday at the new Kaufman campus, co-pastor David Griffin (the bald guy) had the Conn. Having invited friends living in the area to give c|Life Kaufman a try, Gaby and I were there to greet them. Randy Wade was the teaching pastor in week one, so when David stood to introduce himself, his was a face new to many. I wondered, were the people thinking somewhat as I had thought three years earlier? “What’s going on? Who is this? Where’s the funny guy, the guy with hair? I came back to hear him.”
David began with an intro that (in brief) went something like this. “You heard from Randy last week; you get me today. If you don’t like my preaching, none to worry, there’ll be someone else here next week.” Then (in my words) he offered this explanation.
Why do we do it this way? We want you to come to c|Life not because of a man, other than the man Jesus. That your faith does not rest in or rely on a preacher, but in Christ; that’s what is important, that’s our objective, the reason why.
As strange to me as the co-pastor model was at first (three men sharing coequally), I had come to terms with it years earlier, we loved our church. But it wasn’t until that Sunday morning that I fully understood the reasoning, and it made perfect sense.
“One man plants, another man waters, but it is God who gives the increase.” ~ 1 Corinthians 3:6
Keep riding the circuit guys; I will pray you never develop saddle sores.
“And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” ~ Acts 4:12
Several years ago, I was fishing along the banks of the Sabine River behind the Lake Tawakoni dam in waders. Stupid? Yes. Every few yards I would step out in the water a foot or two casting my bait in the direction of what looked to me a honey spot, the home of that long overdue trophy catch. Now, if you’re an angler, then you will already know I am not. I knew it too the moment I slipped.
Attempting to climb back up was hopeless. Getting traction on the muddy slope proved impossible, and my waders were filling fast. Unable to climb or swim, I knew I was in trouble, I would have drowned that day were it not for a man on the bank above me with his fishing rod pulling me safely from the river. I didn’t have to cry out; he knew my situation without me having to say a word. Little doubt he had a fish story to tell his buddies about the day he caught a 150 pounder on a Zebco 33 with 10-pound test line.
Okay, so you’re not into fishing, “Zebco” is Greek to you and “test line is what the IT department does when your work computer goes down – I understand. The point I would like to make, however, is this:
We all do the wrong thing sometimes, even when knowing better. What was I thinking to step out from a river bank in waders? Surely somebody switched out my vitamins with dum-dum pills that morning. But like the man who was there to rescue me, not just from my drowning, but from my stupidity. Our heavenly Father understands our ignorance and tendency to make bad choices in life, stupid choices, even rebellious ones; “he knows how weak we are; he remembers we are only dust (Psalm 103:14 NLT). Even so, he is always standing on the bank with an outstretched hand ready to pull us to safety; we don’t even have to say a word.
How many times have you looked up to find him reaching out to you? Me, I lost count a long-long time ago. Today I just sing along with the Psalmist and remember the words of Paul, “How precious is your steadfast love, O God! The children of mankind take refuge in the shadow of your wings; for he who promised is faithful” (Psalm 36:7; Hebrews 10:23b). Then comes to mind these words from Luke 10:37: “You go, and do likewise.” Yes, I am my brother’s keeper.
“for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard” ~ Acts 4:20
I have carried this story around in an invisible backpack a very long time. So long, in fact, I am not certain of the exact days and dates in which everything took place. Stored away under lock and key in the attic of my mind for nearly two decades, only a handful of people have been allowed into that reserved space of mental real estate to hear the story. Why? Primarily out of fear of being branded an enlistee in a hyper-faith church movement, denomination or other such religious label ordinarily associated with people telling such a tale as the one you are about to read – I detest labeling of that sort.
Why then do I choose to tell it now, to go public and risk the seering heat of the branding iron these many years later? God knows. Perhaps I have just grown too old to care what others may think, or maybe it has taken this long for God to burn out my senseless concern for being accepted or rejected by my peers and associates who I labor alongside side of in ministry and sit together with in ministerial circles. I really don’t know and with all due respect, I honestly don’t give a hoot.
What I do know is what I was a personal witness of; a supernatural God doing something supernatural in one of the most remote parts of the world. Thus to my friends, family, associates, acquaintances and colleagues please understand; This backpack has become too heavy – it is time to lighten the load, and might I add: If you should now or ever think to tell me “God Can’t” – you’re too late, and this story is why that is so.
Please note, this is a book I am currently writing and will add chapters here at my blog site as they are completed. I hope you will read along expressing your thoughts in the comment section.
Blessings to all,
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations. . .” ~ Matthew 28:19
The Delta flight departing Dallas/Ft Worth International in route to Atlanta arrived in the Peach State on schedule. Meeting up with a team assembled by Pioneer Outreach Ministries founders, Howard and Helen Toombs; we sat together in the airport terminal getting to know the 12 men and women from across the country who would be making the journey together on a four-week expedition deep into the heart of the Amazon Rain Forest. Our objective: build a house of worship and the faith of an indigenous jungle tribe who had recently received the gospel and would occupy that house.
Six or seven hours after take-off from Atlanta LAX, we disembarked the 747 directly onto the tarmac of Jorge Chavez International in the capital city of Lima, Peru. Exiting the plane, I quickly understood the need for the Environmental Protection Agency back home and was most grateful for it. Free-flowing toxins in the unregulated Peruvian air were nearly overwhelming, I felt nauseous. Burnt jet fuel along with diesel and gasoline fumes poured from aircraft exhaust systems and the tailpipes of automobiles, buses and commercial trucks lining the roads leading in and out of the airport. Thickened by plumes of gray smoke spilling from tall flue stacks in a neighboring industrial park, a brownish-yellow haze hung low in the rush hour sky. The only thing keeping the grizzly smog bank at bay, 30 feet or so above our heads, was the heat waves rising up in torrents from the near bubbling asphalt beneath our feet.
Wiping away the beads of sweat constantly popping out on our foreheads, we walked towards the terminal praying for favor with each step. Peru is probably not the best place in the world to be caught smuggling in contraband, but getting medical supplies to a people whose closest clinic would be a three to four-day journey, we thought the risk to be one worth taking.
Remaining poised, calm, cool and collected, we approached this burly, Lou Ferrigno looking customs officer who checked our credentials but nothing else. He did ask our reason for coming to Peru, however, and that set off flashing strobe lights, buzzers, bells and whistles in our minds. Howard and Helen had forewarned back in Atlanta to expect the question, but we were to say nothing about being missionaries or being there for religious purposes. The words “missions” and missionaries”, they told us, were red flags to the Peruvian authorities as missionaries were notorious for attempting to sneak things (however good) into the country and would result in a scrutinizing bag and luggage search that would consume time and may find us serving time. “Going on an Amazon fishing trip”, was my well-rehearsed reply, and it worked. It was also true, I did wet a hook a time or two.
Gliding through customs on spirit wings, we handed over our stamped passports to Helen for safe keeping, then hopped aboard a previously arranged charter taking a tired crew to the hotel where we would stay the night before making the second leg of our journey.
Overlooking the Pacific Ocean, Lima is a gorgeous city actually, World-Class should they clean up the air. Founded by Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro in January of 1535, Lima is home to one of the oldest higher-learning institutions in the New World, the National University of San Marcos. The colonial architecture is breathtakingly beautiful and well preserved. Magnificent cathedrals, top notch museums and lots of interesting places to taste the cuisine of South America make this multi-cultural city worth visiting. We saw bits and pieces on our commute from the airport and would see more on the return but for now, there were things to talk about and preparations to make.
Following a morning devotional in the hotel lobby and a simple breakfast of eggs, bacon, toast and a choice of grape or strawberry jelly, we loaded up the bus and were on our way back to the airport. The two-hour flight took us over the breathtakingly beautiful High Andes mountain range then down-down-down into the Amazon River Basin. Iquitos, the sixth most populous city in Peru, gateway to the Amazon, largest city in the world that cannot be reached by road – boat or air only.
A city of a nearly a half-million people, we were pretty much mobbed by a herd of children desperate to extract an American dollar from our pockets as we exited the plane. “Let me carry that for you. Do you need someone to show you around? Let me help you, I can take you wherever you want to go”. Just about anything imaginable was in their little hands, draped over their shoulders or hung across frail looking five-year-old arms attached to twelve and thirteen-year-old bodies. T-shirts, shoes, jewelry, exotic butterfly collections, Piranha mounted on wooden blocks and if lucky, themselves as your personal tour guide. “I make you a good price; Anything you want; American money is okay”.
We would later learn whatever money these impoverished children might make peddling their goods would go into the pockets of their parents or pimps, and if fortune’s smile would be so kind as to find them invited to be a traveler’s private escort, just maybe they would get something to eat.
Coming face to face with people living in conditions several feet below substandard, the poorest of the Peruvian poor, was expected. I just didn’t expect those faces we would come face to face with to be so small; nor did I expect it showing up on the travel docket quite so early in our journey. My heart had been broken arriving in Iquitos, and would be broke again before we left the next day, but not completely shredded. That moment, about three and a half days up the river remained buried amongst the thick ferns and towering trees of the rain forest in a tiny village the natives called Pandora.
Early morning rainfall made for a muddy, slippery mess. Navigating the 45-degree slope leading down the river’s bank to the boat waiting to take us away was for us a challenge. The rows of merchants vying for one last sale, though, were unhindered by the slimy embankment. Sure footed, and quite industrious, they were all eager to make sure you made your way across the gangplank with the little luxuries unavailable the second you leave the landing. Like a troop of Carnies working a State Fair midway (minus the scent of corny dogs, popcorn, cotton candy, and beer); they held up their wares in display shouting aloud, beckoning you to their makeshift booths, “you don’t want to forget” this that or the other. Bottled water, toilet paper, an ice cold Coke (ice cold anything being something I would later kill for) snacks or a souvenir – “get it now – last chance”.
About a hundred and fifty feet, maybe two stem to stern, and about seventy-five feet wide, the big boat was an old clunker powered by a diesel engine in its belly. The loud rhythmic clanking of its cylinders pleaded for an extra quart or two of oil and was equally annoying as it was disturbing. Annoying in that the noise was pretty much a no sleep tonight guarantee while the thought of its giving up the ghost to leave us adrift or crashing into the river banks where some savage jungle tribe of pigmies looking for a head to shrink would hit the jackpot painted a not so scenic picture in my macabre imagination. I suppose I watched “Trilogy of Terror” one too many times.
Designed to be both a passenger and cargo vessel, river boats are the only means of public transportation throughout the Amazon basin for jungle dwellers and the adventurous tourist alike. Top to bottom, ours was a triple decker. Along with that obnoxious engine, the hull was the temporary home for peasants, those paying the lowest fare. Having precious little air flow below deck, it was horribly hot in the hull, sweltering. The stench of animal waste mixed with high humidity, not to mention the vermin (rats) and other nonhuman creatures I suppose lurked about, made for miserable conditions. However, it was just an ordinary day for native travelers, a place to perch with their goats, pigs, and chickens happy to be on the way back to home and family.
Deck level was for middle-class passengers (if there is a middle class in the jungle). They had it a little better, at least the air was less dense and an occasional breeze coming off the water would provide momentary relief from the heat and drive away the foul odors rising up through the cracks and crevices from below. The upper deck was the abode of the wealthy. By the standards of those in the hull, that was us. We were the big dogs on board; Americans, the only people on earth rich enough to enjoy the exclusive top floor accommodations
Although by comparison, a port-a-toilet would be spa-like, we had a bathroom to use, not a hole in the floor. We had a kitchen to cook a chicken in, a plate with knives and forks, and something that resembled a worn and weathered picnic table with a bench to sit at taking our meals. In likelihood, these people had never seen a port-a-toilet much less a clean bathroom, and any effort to describe my kitchen and dining room table would be met with a deer in the headlights stare of bewilderment. A bed with a mattress and box spring – what’s that? A living room? Privacy? Will no one see you pee?
The third deck was a wide open area with steel poles floor to ceiling and cross beams spaced and running at a distance between so to enable guests to hang their hammocks. Allowed for was just enough room to crawl (or if like me, fall) in and out of those mindless devils without sending your neighbor into a cocoon making spin or tumbling out on the floor. I had attempted lying down in a hammock a time or two as a kid but never had I actually had to spend the night in one. It took a few embarrassing spills to get the hang of it without getting hung up in it, but after a few practice runs, I was able to keep the number of bumps and bruises manageable.
The makeshift kitchen was located at the stern (rear of the boat) with a bathroom smaller than an airline lavatory directly behind. A paper thin graffitied wall separated the two. Water was suction pumped up from the river into a small sink for washing dishes and cookware, and into the commode for flushing. In fear of a stray Piranha or something else slivering up the plumbing, I refused to sit on the throne.
Having put away our bags and setting our living space in order, I meandered throughout the boat familiarizing myself with the available amenities (there were none) and looking for a muster station with a life raft in case that clanking engine caught fire. What? No muster station? No life raft? Definitely not a vessel owned by Carnival or Royal Caribbean. What had I gotten myself into?
Down in the hull, I walked among the people doing my best not to trip over anyone taking a siesta acknowledging those who would look my way with a head nod and/or a smile. Not knowing their language and making my little stroll without an interpreter to accompany me, communication of any kind was dependent on body language and facial expressions. A woman with a small child sat atop a small heap of plantains holding both the little one and a chicken in what looked a gorilla grip. The survival of one being linked to the other, her beady eyes darted back and forth in watchful guard. Her possessions weren’t much, but she was vigilant, ready to spring into action at the slightest threat of ill will from anyone, including me. I wanted to cry and as quickly as I slipped out of sight, I did.
Moving up the narrow creaking stairwell to the first deck, I stood alone port side at stern staring at the murky waters churned up by the propellers thrusting the big boat further upstream. Brushing away the tears trickling down my cheek I found my gaze shifting between the river banks on both sides about two or three hundred yards away. With the sun slowly dipping behind the skyscraper-like trees, darkness began swallowing the entire basin – just a few more bites and the day would be gone.
“So this is the Amazon”, I thought to myself. “Home of the jaguar, black panthers, ocelots, monkeys, the giant anteater, anaconda, parrots, toucans, green poison dart frogs, the infamous piranha and an entire host of unnamed and perhaps unknown creatures yet to be cataloged by science. 2.7 million square miles of river basin encompassing the greater part of Brazil, Peru, and significant parts of Colombia, Ecuador, and Bolivia”. At that moment I was so small, so insignificant. Like one out of the billion stars beginning to twinkle in the infinite sky above, I found myself but a droplet of water in a vast and mysterious landscape of shadows. “Why am I here, really?” I would know the answer but not yet, it would have to wait for Pandora.
As co-pastor Randy Wade spoke this morning (September 11, 2011) at the Community Life Church Forney campus, I found myself not just seated beneath his shadow, I was his shadow. A shorter, older and unfortunately, fatter version of the man he described himself to be. In so many ways, I was a mirrored image of the guy who stood on the platform before me.
In stark honesty, I too am a man desperate for acceptance, approval, and validation. I work hard at being the man I think others need and want to be in the company of, yet always wondering if their handshakes, smiles, and kindness are authentic or just an appeasement. Thus, I have to be in control, because being in control is the only way I can dictate the story with any degree of certainty the last page will read the way I think it should complete with the happy ending I want to have. But I’m not in control. I’m trying hard to get a handle on that and find the only way to get a handle on it is to wake up to the fact I don’t have a handle on it and reach out to the only one who does.
I need help, something or someone beyond myself who can put life, my life, into the right frame to remove the wrecking ball I perceive to be always poised and in ready to demolish the persona of myself I want up on the big screen for others to see. Admit it or not, you need help too, we all do. Unless you are sociopathic, it is only human to want to be accepted, to be validated and approved of. Let’s be honest, to some extent, everyone is egotistical. Consciously or subconsciously, we all go to great lengths to be accepted, to be that person others find attractive and want to be around. The cosmetics industry projected to surpass $265 billion in global sales next year is a clear testimony to that fact and I am quite certain a few dollars of your money will contribute to that figure.
Today I realize life on my terms is unmanageable, out of hand, a turbulent mess. I don’t have it all together and cannot get it all together – my way isn’t at all working out. Turning to Jesus I understand I am not the Conductor of the orchestra, he is. Me, I am but an instrument in the orchestra. If I will be content to take my chair amongst the woodwinds, the percussions, strings or in the brass section, focused on and playing my instrument as led by the Conductor. God will blend everything together to create the masterpiece I hope to be, and life’s song will turn out something beautiful, complete with that happy ending.
In this, the final message from the “Turbulence” sermon series. I found the help I was in desperate need of and believe you will too. I want to encourage every person reading to watch this sermon. I will share it as soon as it comes online.