Wednesday, June 29, 2011


Step into the Garden

What gain is there in my destruction?
What joy is there in my going down to the pit?
Will the dust worship you?
Will the dust proclaim your faithfulness?

When I am feeling discouraged, disappointed and disillusioned with myself, and in my faith, it is almost always when I also feel alienated from God. And that makes me resort to self-condemnation, because, I reason, how could a holy, righteous God be wrong?

Which is quite precisely the point, albeit with a different meaning than that produced by self-condemnation. The point of this question is . . . are you ready for this? The point is . . . Since God cannot be wrong, how could he have been wrong about me? Or you? How is it that he has made a mistake, a bad investment where you and I are concerned? You may consider yourself a failure, but God does not. You may, because of your indiscretions, or outright evil, think that you do not deserve, that you are not worthy of God’s favor, yet he thinks otherwise, yet he favors you – regardless of what you think about it, regardless of your human logic and moralizing or anti-moralizing about yourself. I’m pretty good at that stuff. After all, I’ve been to seminary! I mean, like Adam, I’ve gorged myself with the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. I know about this stuff! Don’t you? I suspect you might know a little bit.

Now to this self-deprecating notion of, “I am not worthy . . .” both you and I need to take a look at what God has paid! Let your mind envision his Son crucified on a Roman cross. That is what God thought you are worth. How then can you say, “I am not worthy?”

I know, I know, I’m bouncing back and forth between first and second persons. But I’m doing that for a reason. Writers have that dubious priviledge. We can ignore the rules of formal grammar to make a point. And the point is, we, both of us, you and I, him and her; cousins, aunts and uncles; all of us deal with this junk. Everyday.

For many reasons, you and I may feel unworthy, and we may rationally conclude that we actually are unworthy. I mean look at the facts; e.g., our screwed-up lives. But there is another set of facts that say something entirely different. Here is an irreducible, immutable factoid: God paid a terrible and costly price for you, and you can’t escape the raw reality that -- that is how much you are worth to God.

You may think, “Yeah, but Jesus died for the whole world. Not just for me.” Ok. But think about it. Suppose it was “just for you?” Suppose you were the only person alive at the time, do you think Jesus would have died only for you? Go ahead, deal with that for a second.

The answer is irresistible, and it is “YES!” He would have died just for you. And that, my friend, is the measure of God’s love for you and the value he places on you. I use instruments of measure all the time: Ohmmeters, meat thermometers, 1-foot rulers, yards, centimeters, meters, etc. When we say how much we love our kids, we throw our arms open wide and say, “th-i-i-i-s much!” Well, the cross is an instrument of measure, too.

The psalmist asks the question, “What gain is there in your being marginalized?” Good question. For God, there is zero profit in such a thing. You can be sure that God knows exactly where to invest his resources. He has chosen you, and offered the death of his Son as collateral. Do you think he is going to dump you when your spiritual, rational or emotional “Dow-Jones” plunges, or takes a dip? Hardly.

So loosen up, and with the psalmist say with joy, “Oh Lord you really do like me.” Sometimes like is better than love. You can love someone you don’t like, but you rarely like someone you don’t love at some level. But God likes as much as he loves. He makes the mountain of your life to stand strong. A mountain. Not dust!


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Wednesday, June 22, 2011


Step into the Garden

I brought you glory on earth by completing this work you gave me to do.

The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet their strength . . . is soon cut off, and we fly away. – Ps 90:10

Life expectancy for men in the United States for the year 1900, was 47.9 years. By 1997, it had reached 73.6, and in 2009, 78.7 years. With the increase in medical knowledge and expertise, life expectancy continues to increase. Where will it end, or when will it reach its zenith?

It is of interest to note that researchers from MIT have found an enzyme that extends the life span of yeast. When activated, this enzyme causes age-related chromosomes to be silenced, causing an extension in the life of yeast. Didn’t know yeast had life? Neither did I. This research carries broad implications for the human aging process, since this same enzyme has been discovered in humans.

News Flash: The Fountain of Youth is not in Florida. It lurks in a test tube!?

However spectacular these things may appear, they are in the learned hands of science. Scripture teaches that the days we spend here on earth are numbered by God. Some note that this is why Stonewall Jackson, of Civil War fame, was so brave. He was impervious to the mini-balls, cannon balls and grapeshot that flew about him, because he believed he could not die until God said it was ok. Regardless of general Jackson’s bravery, or something less than that, there is divine rationale, there is reason and purpose behind our days on earth, however long or short they may be.

Jesus lived 33 or perhaps 34 years. He died a young man, his life truncated by execution. Yet in the time he had on this earth, he brought glory and honor to God. More than any human who has ever lived, his life had meaning. From the manger in Bethlehem, to Golgotha, the life and death of Jesus resonated with the purpose of God. He completed the work his Father had given him to do. Today, his life has impacted almost 2 billion people now alive, not to speak of those who have gone before.

Like Jesus, and no less than he, each of us has a task, a purpose, a reason, or perhaps several reasons that compel our existence on earth. The Psalmist gives us threescore years and ten (more or less) to get this thing done. As the video below shows us, many do not realize their life on earth has such rationale. Some even think that’s cool. It is not. In such cases, the purpose of one’s life may never be appreciated or enjoyed.

Many people die with their music still in them. Why is this so? Too often it is because they are always getting ready to live. Before they know it, time runs out. -- Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., U.S. Supreme Court Judge

The Meaning of Life

Don’t spend your life getting ready to live. The rationale behind your life can be broken down to smaller pieces; into days, hours and minutes.

"Learn from the past, set vivid, detailed goals for the
future, and live in the only moment of time over which you
have any control: NOW." -- Denis Waitley

Each instant has as much rationale as the whole. In fact, the whole cannot happen if the instant did not exist. Don’t waste your time, don’t waste your life with non-redemptive stuff. Even moments of relaxation and fun can have purpose. Perhaps especially so. Find out why you are alive and then pursue it with every breath, with every beat of your heart. Every thought. Every dream. Nothing can be more liberating. More satisfying.

Stonewall, Kyle and Jason, you guys are . . . well, centered. You rock! And the game ain’t over, Mr. Engineer. Not now. Not ever!

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Wednesday, June 15, 2011


Step into the Garden

Why do you scramble for the most prestigious seats like chickens after a grub?

At the core of the desire for prestige is a misguided and exaggerated sense of amour propre. Such thoughts, feelings; such pathological urges and impulses are enormously counter-productive and worse, self-destructive.

Often, these impulses lead precisely to the opposing place than you thought they would take you. Thus, instead of placing you at the apex of position, they cause you to compare yourself with another; the ‘other’ usually winning out. Hence, one incurs the pain of self-imposed inferiority.

A group of chickens chasing after a grub is an apt metaphor. I have seen it. While growing up, I lived next door to a family that raised chickens. I discovered that if one purposes to spend time in observance of a pen of chickens, one must first-off realize that it isn’t going to be pretty.

A chicken pen is not a particularly hospitable place. Once I was charged with the formidable task of cleaning out Sister Hamby’s chicken coop. Sister Hamby was no nun. She was, in a word, a delightful elderly lady. Well, perhaps I am trying to be kind. A more apt description is one who gave the appearance of a white-haired old crone, who smoked like a chimney. She was short, wore thick glasses, and I couldn’t help but wonder how often she bathed. Still, I liked her because she baked me cookies.

As I addressed Sister Hamby’s chicken coop, I allowed the door to swing open, creaking on rusting hinges. There, inside, racked up against the wall, stood a chicken roost. It was daytime, morning actually, so the chickens were out in the yard, chasing grubs, or bugs, or each other. Who knows the complex priorities caroming off the walls of chicken skulls? Often, they peck at each other’s head, leaving the unfortunate with a head more resembling a turkey buzzard, than a chicken. And there, beneath the chicken roost, was a four-foot thick pile of chicken manure. The odor smelled a mixture of chicken feathers, lice, an odd white, gray and brown admixture of chicken bowel movements, and . . . ammonia.

If you know anything at all about a four-foot-high pile of chicken manure, the moment I mention the smell of ammonia, you know I am telling the truth.

Also, if you are a professional chicken pooper-scooper, you know you need the right tools for the job. The tool of choice here was a long-handled garden “fork.” An instrument about four feet long with pointed v-shaped tines on the working end, that with a little force, could tear into the earth seeking to cultivate and dismember huge clods of clay. Only in my case here, it was not clay, but chicken excrement, moist with said ammonia.

I started to work. Before long I was sweating. The smell of ammonia grew stronger and stronger. So strong, in fact, that it became hard to breathe; its molecules mixing with the molecules of my sweat, distilling itself through my eyebrows and causing my eyes to sting with acid.

The poop clung like honey to the tines of the garden fork, making it easier to carry it from the coop itself, to the waiting wheelbarrow. Only it wasn’t honey. It was well digested, chicken feed, assorted bugs, worms, and fat, yellow grubs. You know, the kind that looks like an obese caterpillar, brown head, maybe a third of an inch thick and an inch long. Grubby little things! Chickens will kill for them. One chicken grabs a grub, all of the other chickens converge upon it, until the hapless grub is torn to pieces by a wild, frenzied mob of feathers and beaks.

We upright humans, who also convey ourselves about on two scrawny legs, (in some cases, not unlike those of chickens) can be grub-chasers, too. We digest ours in the entrails of our pride and our sense of self-importance. Our grubs are influence, power, position, control, money and things -- to consume. Enevitably, our abandon to consumption produces an inordinate stench, not too dissimilar from ammonia, which, mixed with the sweat of expended energy, does far more damage than irritate our eyes; and the pile left on the floor beneath the roost is our character, our spirit, the very best of our souls.

I guess it labors the obvious to say that the marketplace and the media has shaped our culture. Glitz, glitter and glamour are prized. We love the TV commercials that tell us how much we “deserve” the products being hawked.

Humility – true humility, as opposed to feigned – is seen as weakness.

As for a servant of God, (we often wear this term as a title, pretentious in its paradox), one might prefer to be perceived as weak, than perceived as one chasing after a grub with the rest of the chickens.

But true humility is not weakness. It bears the regal stamp of strength too great for the imagination – especially the imaginations of chickens.

I wonder if God has ever created a chicken, who, instead of grub-chasing, quietly and humbly clucking, found its way to the nest, and did something truly productive?

Wednesday, June 8, 2011


Step into the Garden

I have strayed like a lost sheep. Seek your servant, for I have not forgotten your promises.

Ever felt like a lost sheep? Alone, all tangled up in the morass of your mistakes and wrongheaded decisions? Feeling really, really stupid and small?

Well? . . . maybe you are! A lost sheep, that is. Maybe the eraser on the end of your pencil is so worn down that you feel and hear its metal encasement scrape against the paper of life. You’re mistake prone, stupid, small and alone. Aren’t you?

Depends on who’s looking.

Suppose it’s you? Suppose you are the one looking. How hard is it to amp up self-condemnation? Not very. You say, you are your own worst critic; a cliché designed to mollify the huge negative, emotional impact of thinking of yourself as nothing more than a dipstick for a used-up camel. Somewhere along the freeway, you just up and stepped out of the car, and life went on, leaving you spinning on the pavement.

Suppose it’s someone else? Someone has rejected you, provided input that makes you feel small, like personal criticism, fired you from a job, etc. I can’t think of anyone who looks upon mean-spirited, hate or ridicule-driven accusation and criticism, as something to be coveted. The ancient ditty about “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me,” is 180 out – to put it timidly. All of us know people whose lives have been utterly destroyed by destructive, harm-intended words.

Suppose it’s God? Now. This is the all-consuming knife that really cuts. If you think that God has rejected you, if you believe that God loves others, but not you; somewhere in this storm called human existence, you surely must have committed the big ‘U,’ (the ‘unpardonable’ sin.) These thoughts will destroy not only one’s life, they can destroy one’s soul. You are lying on life’s path wounded and bleeding, and unlike the good Samaritan, and more like a self-righteous priest, God looks upon you with disgust, turns away, and crosses the street, just to pass you by.

You are a lost sheep indeed. Caught, lost and alone in the thorns of self-loathing, accused and condemned by others, so much so that even God forsakes you.

Touched a nerve, yet?

Struggle, if you must, with your agony, with your pain. But if you can disengage just for a moment, and come to stillness, you may hear, you just might hear -- footsteps coming in your direction. You just might feel the nearness of his love. You just might feel the thorns and brambles being removed from around your body, from around your head. You just might feel the oil of the Spirit being poured into your wounds. You just might feel yourself lifted, caressed, comforted, forgiven.

The pain is gone.

You have been found.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011


Step into the Garden

Remember how fleeting life is. What man can live and not see death, or save himself from the power of the grave?

I suppose the more one advances in age, the more thoughts of one’s own mortality assault the mind. You look in the mirror and an elderly person looks back at you. “My feet hurt. Knees wracked with arthritis. Diabetes. How much longer,” you ask, “will this old body keep creaking?” Funny, you don’t necessarily feel elderly, except when the arthritis flares up, or you get “tired” taking a shower. You know that others with a body as old, or maybe even younger than yours, have suffered strokes, heart attacks, etc.; one day they are here and truckin’ along, next day they are gone.

Uncle Seb died of colon cancer. These days, colon cancer is one of the easiest cancers to treat, discovered in time. It wasn’t so easy 60 years ago. He died suffering and in great pain. These days, terminal cancer patients are kept comfortable, and all but free of pain. I visited Pop at his bedside, just a few days before he passed away. He knew, as we all knew, that he only had a few hours, or perhaps days left. I was privileged to visit and see him, as I lived out of state and the time.

All of the kids, even his own adult children called him, “Pop.”

Morbid stuff? Maybe. Maybe not. Depends on your perspective. “Mortality is just as much a part of life as being born,” one might think. You hear your heart beat and it sounds far away. You know one day it will stop.

The psalmist speaks languidly of the ‘power of the grave.’ At the moment he wrote this, perhaps he was not aware that for those who believe, the grave has no ‘power.’ For them the heart doesn’t stop, it just skips a beat. It comes to its last and final beat in the throes of death, and takes its next beat in the joy of eternal life.

“Eye has not seen, nor ear heard,
neither has it entered into the heart of man,
the things that God has prepared
for those that love him.”
--1 Cor. 2:9

Pop lay groaning in his bed. I knew it would be the last time I would see him alive in this life. I remembered the many times he was a part of my life, from a small boy to a young man in college. Pop was fond of giving all us kids nicknames. Mine was “Red Willy” – owing to my red hair as a child. Pop could be gruff at times, but even then, his gruffness was painted with love.

I remember sitting at the breakfast table over a platter of Aunt Cue’s biscuits. If I reached for one of these delectable confections without asking, “May I have a biscuit please?” Pop’s hand shot out like a rattlesnake and popped me on the back of my knuckles with the handle of a tableknife.

“Boy,” he would say to me, “Nex’ time you want a biscuit, you ask for it, and you always say ‘please.’”

Pop loved gospel music, especially when it was sung by a quartet. I remember listening on the Philco radio, the melodies of “Just a Closer Walk with Thee,” “I’ll Fly Away,” and “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord.” Pop would lift his voice in sweet notes and sing along. I can still hear his soft, musical voice as I write this.

He was a captain in the United States Army. Shot off his finger while demonstrating how to shoot a .45 automatic.

He was a Sunday School teacher at his church for years.

He kept a couple of hogs named Ike and Mike. I loved slopping those 300 lb. monsters. They’d get up in the trough with their front feet and I would pour the slop over their heads. They loved it. I thought it was funny. One day I was surprised by a couple of slabs of Ike and Mike on my plate at the breakfast table, along with Aunt Cue’s biscuits, and big, fresh eggs cooked sunny side up, with their fringes crisp and brown.

Pop built himself a motorized plow. Put a Briggs and Stratton engine on a pair of wheels with tractor-like tires and attached a plow to it. Blue exhaust from the Briggs and Stratton mixed with my sweat causing my eyes to sting. He let me plow a couple of times. He walked behind me, one might say, encouraging me, with a few expletives thrown in, to plow a straight furrow.

When I was maybe nine years old, he let me drive his truck on the dirt road leading up to his house. I promptly put the truck in the ditch. You should have heard Pop cuss. “Hell-toot, Red Willy,” he would fume, squinting and scowling around his big nose, “That ain’t no way to drive this hoss.”

It was a quiet moment as Pop lay dying on his bed. Aunt Cue stood next to me as I leaned over and said, “Pop, you’re going to be with Jesus, soon.”

“I hope so,” he groaned back, his voice terribly stressed by pain.

“I know so, Pop!”

I hope Pop’s plow makes to heaven. It prob'ly won't smoke so much, and I won't sweat so much, and my eyes won't sting, and maybe I’ll have time to learn how to plow a straight furrow. We’ll plant honeydew melons, okra, maybe a potato or two, corn, and . . .