Thursday, August 25, 2011

I'm a Rock-Climber?

I heard recently that the perfect physique for a male rock climber is 5’10” and 135 lbs. I haven’t been 5’10” and 135 lbs since middle school. So what was I doing harnessing up to climb a 40 foot rock face? Great question. But there I was off a boon dock road in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan getting prepped for my accent. This wasn’t one of those walls built in a gym with screwed in hand and foot holds; this was a God-made rock face that had been there for thousands of years.

Grant, my son-in-law, is a certified climber and loves to take climbers to their first assent. Grant began our Saturday adventure by lead-climbing the rock, using safety clips pre-set in the rock by other climbers. When he reached the top, he secured a rope and pulley to the clip at the top of the rock face. That was our goal… to get to that clip. He made it look fairly easily, but I wasn’t sure this experience was for me. I grabbed my camera and confidently stated that I would be the event photographer capturing memories made by others.

Through the course of the morning, my son and his three friends enjoyed climbing this rock with various degrees of success. My camera was busy and I was happy with my role until I heard, “Your turn dad.” I’m not sure if I felt pressure or encouragement. In watching the kids climb, I realized that there are three possible outcomes if I were to give this a shot. First, I could climb successfully to the top. Second, I could get tired and/or frustrated and quit. Third, I could fall. But no matter the outcome, at some point I would have to put my trust completely into one person—the person belaying my climb. This person’s job is to remove slack from the line as I climb, to secure me if I fall or to help me repel when I want to come down. They stand at the bottom, fully harnessed with an ATC (belaying device) clipped to their harness. They must know what they are doing and how to work the equipment.

As I began to harness in, Josh (who would belay me) and Grant began to explain some things. Perhaps they saw fear in my eyes. They explained how each piece of equipment was rated to be several thousand pounds more than my falling weight. They also spent time explaining Josh’s role, his experience level and his confidence in making my climb successful and enjoyable. I clipped in and began to climb. I knew that fatigue would be my first enemy, so my plan was to navigate the face as fast as I could. I felt a sense of freedom and confidence as I found places to grab, stand, and move upward. This was going better than I expected. But the higher I climbed, the smaller the holds seemed to be, and my hands and feet began to hurt and tire. I wanted to move through this tough spot but I could feel my weight pulling me off the wall. As I made a quick move to get to a more secure spot a few feet higher, everything slipped off the wall and my entire weight fell into the harness. That uneasy falling sensation rushed through my stomach and throat for just a brief moment until I felt the tension and bounce of the rope. It had been several minutes since I thought about Josh but at that very moment, he became a very important person in my life. I looked down and made instant eye contact with Josh. Both his hands were locked on the rope above the ATC and he smiled confidently up at me and said, “Got ya!”

As I read through the Gospels and see how Jesus interacted with his disciples, it’s clear to me that Jesus was developing three significant qualities in them. First, he wanted them to understand and to believe that he’s the One. He wanted them to see him for who he truly is—the Divine Son of God who has the authority and ability to direct their life. Second, he wanted them to trust him. It was vital for them to be assured he had their best interests in mind. And third, they were not God, they were not self-sufficient, and they had no strength and safety to climb the rocks of life on their own. Perhaps rock climbing and following Christ come down to three important words: belief, trust, and submission.

Do you believe that Jesus is who he says he is? Do you trust that he knows what he’s doing in our world and in your life? Have you submitted fully to him whether in success, fatigue, discouragement or in falling? God won’t climb the rock for you, but he will hold the line. He takes great joy watching you stride and accomplish the route he has planned for you.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Sight to the Blind

In June 2010, ABC News reported an amazing medical breakthrough that would help people who have been blinded in tragic accidents. The procedure involves harvesting stem cells unaffected by the accident from the patient’s eyes and then using them to re-grow the cornea in a laboratory setting. The new cornea is then placed back into the patient’s eye and in a matter of months the person’s sight is restored. Researchers were finding enormous success in this new procedure. One patient, who had been blinded for over 50 years before the procedure, had his sight restored to 20/20 quality.

Can you imagine being blind for most of your life and then being given the ability to see colors, faces, and nature? I can’t imagine too many things being more exciting. But, what I found interesting about this report was that the story did not interview anyone who had received the procedure. Instead they interviewed doctors and professors who had been involved in this breakthrough. Their excitement was off the charts as well. “If you’ve seen one of those patients (regain their sight), then you have reason to wake up in the morning to start running to do your job. Just one patient is worth it. You have purpose in your life,” said Professor Graziella Pellegrini from Italy.

It’s no coincidence that Jesus paid attention to the blind. Jesus was the Master Healer whose deep compassion led him to use his divine power to heal the sick and afflicted. On several occasions, people whose sight had been lost were helped by Jesus. But, it seems that Jesus had more in mind when he touched the physically blind. Jesus was even more concerned for their spiritual blindness. His compassion was even greater for those that were wandering blindly in a dark world with no spiritual sight. Healing the physically blind was a massive object lesson for his greater mission—giving sight to the spiritually blind.

Last week, I returned from a mission trip to Haiti. That weeklong experience continues to captivate my thoughts. Our purpose in Haiti was to assist with a construction project on a school connected to a local church. We arrived on a Tuesday and for the first five days we did our work while experiencing the sights, sounds and smells of Haiti. Frankly, I saw Haiti as a very sad place. Poverty is stacked on top of poverty. As we traveled back and forth from the work site, there was no relief from the visual displays of the poor and destitute. Other than the natural beauty of the ocean, mountains and jungle, there was nothing “nice” about Haiti. Our host, Marcel, a Haitian pastor, told us of how the people of Haiti had lived for 200 years under a corrupt, inept and selfish government which compounded the extreme poverty over time. The struggle seemed so large. The problems ran so deep. At times, it felt hopeless.

Then Sunday came. That morning, we loaded into Marcel’s truck and began to wind through the dusty streets of St. Marc. Every few minutes, someone wanting to go to church would jump into the back of the truck with us. As we got closer to church, I asked one of our team members who was standing on a bench in back of the truck to get a head count. A minute later, he reported that we had 41 people in the open vehicle including six in the cab.

When we arrived at the church, which was next to the school we had been working on, I noticed something very new and different. There was genuine joy in this place. It was in stark comparison to the images we experienced on the streets of St. Marc. These people had spiritual sight. They saw their world through eyes of joy, love and hope. There was light in their eyes and smiles on their faces as they greeted each other. As I entered church, I noticed a large banner that read, “Hope for Haiti.” As I watched this group of people “do church” together, I became convinced that these wonderful people would change their world. They may never make a dent in the massive poverty or bring political reform to their government but I’m confident they will bring sight to the spiritually blind around them. God had given them a 20/20 vision for their world and they were poised to make a difference one spiritually blind person at a time.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Haitian Hope

The setting was welcoming and filled with loving hospitality, even though within a stone’s toss was an eight foot wall topped with razor wire and spiked bars. Dust from the road on the other side of the wall billowed from time to time as a truck or motorcycle passed the house. Noises of people, goats, chickens, and truck horns interrupted our conversations. We had just been served a wonderful dinner of Creole rice with fresh fruit. Even though we were outside, fans were blowing to move the still, muggy, hot, tropical air. As we sat on his patio in front of his home, I wanted to know more about what made our host tick. I felt safe and at peace in this new place, but there was so much I wanted to learn.

Our host was a gentle, passionate man named Marcel. His home was in the bustling, crowded city of St. Marc, Haiti. I was there with a group of Ada Bible folk hoping to make a small difference in a broken place in the world. As it turned out, Marcel and his Haitian friends would make a huge difference in the broken places in our hearts. That night we listened to Marcel tell his life story of how he came to be part of helping 11 churches and seven schools grow to be overcrowded, joy–filled places of hope and faith in his community. We also listened to his countless frustrations, struggles, and points of discouragement. He’s an honest man who has worked tirelessly to do what he believes God has asked him to do.

Marcel grew up in a Haitian Voodoo home. After too many dark and evil circumstances, including the death of Marcel’s twin brother, Marcel’s mom left that world and pursued Jesus Christ through the influence of some Christians Marcel’s family knew. Over the years, Marcel fell in love with Jesus, the Bible, and church. He grew to understand that the only lasting change that could ever be brought to his country would come from Jesus through the church. The church would be his hope. Marcel spoke with passion, joy, and a consistent tear in his eye as he described the churches and the people that he’s privileged to serve. It was obvious how much he loved the people of Haiti.

We had been in Haiti for a couple days before we were able to find the time to hear Marcel talk in length about his life in Haiti. We had seen plenty in our first couple of days to realize the extent of brokenness and poverty that has plagued his country. I asked him, “Do you ever struggle with discouragement here? How do you handle the constant struggles of living here?” Marcel didn’t sugar-coat anything. He talked about daily problems with a corrupt and selfish government. He talked about the lack of identity, self-respect, and personal ownership that his fellow citizens have. He talked about the devastation from the earthquake, the hurricanes, and disease. He talked about his life being threatened by people who didn’t want him to succeed. He talked about Satan’s schemes to thwart his efforts. He talked about the pain of being separated from his family so his kids could receive an education in the States. In all this, you could hear the pain in voice. He was visually angry as he talked about all the opportunities for discouragement, failure, and quitting.

The tone in his voice changed as a familiar, gentle smile formed on his face again. He talked about joy being a choice that he makes every day. “Joy is never dependant on your circumstances,” he quipped. Marcel had come to learn the contentedness that the Apostle Paul spoke of in his letter to the Philippians. He had also come to grips with the fact that his personal safety would be found in the smile of God’s will. Joy, contentedness, and safety in God’s will were the lessons we all learned from Marcel’s story. As the week played out, we got to see these virtues in action. We also got to see the fruit of living with this mindset in the people he serves. Joy, contentedness, and safety were displayed beautifully in one of the poorest, most corrupt, broken places on the planet. How does this happen? Marcel realized he was redeemed to bring redemption. He was saved to bring salvation. He was given light to light up his world. He’s a beautiful example of Paul’s works to the Ephesians.

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. Ephesians 2.8-10

Friday, August 5, 2011

No Matter What

There are times when you read Scripture and find a story that’s a spectacular display of God’s glory and holiness. God enters the everyday life of a fairly average person and shows himself in an amazing fashion. The person is left changed forever.

Several hundred years before Jesus, the prophet Isaiah was given a vision of God that left him physically and emotionally “ruined.” The image he saw was the Lord seated on his throne in majestic fashion. All around him were angels singing the words, “Holy, holy is the Lord Almighty.” The place filled with smoke and shook with an earthquake. Isaiah declared himself unworthy to see this site. His sin or uncleanness forced him to feel completely out of place. But when an angel touched his unclean lips with a hot coal, he was declared clean and his guilt was removed; a redeemed Isaiah who had encountered a holy God offered himself as a messenger for God’s news to his people.

During Jesus’ ministry, a cosmic battle between God and Satan continued and a glimpse of that battle was seen when Jesus interacted with a demon-possessed man. The story tells of a man who lived in the tombs. The people in that area called him Legion because they believed he was possessed by many demons. When Jesus passed by, Legion came out to greet him, but not to pick a fight. The demons knew that Jesus was the Son of the Most High God. They recognized him and pleaded with Jesus not to be tortured. The demons saw their evilness in light of his holiness and fell in fear. Jesus’ response was to cast the demons out of the man and into pigs which then ran off a cliff to their death. The freed man was forever changed and accepted an invitation to become a messenger for Jesus’ Good News.

As we reflect on these amazing stories, there are times we crave a vision or an encounter like these. As scary as these scenarios must have been to anyone who witnessed them, many of us long to see God in his full glory and holiness. And, if we’re honest, we’d admit that if only we could have an experience like Isaiah or Legion, we’d be better messengers for God. But, is God’s holiness only displayed in the dramatic?

Recently, I attended the funeral of a friend’s 72 year old father. My friend’s dad’s name was Chuck and he passed away due to complications from a brain tumor. I had only met Chuck a couple of times but I knew him from the stories his son had told me. The funeral was a packed house, always an indicator of someone’s impact in life. My friend spoke first, giving touching and personal words of honor to his dad. Chuck’s pastor spoke next and he read fond memories that the grandkids had compiled. But, it was Gary, Chuck’s friend and longtime colleague, who really captured my attention.

Gary and Chuck were school teachers together for many years in a Detroit suburban area school. Gary said that Chuck always wore his Christian faith on his sleeve; and in the early years of their friendship, Gary resented Chuck’s discussions of God, Jesus, and salvation. Gary claims to have tortured Chuck and set out to make him miserable in his attempts to lead Gary to Christ. But after four and a half years, Gary gave in to God’s calling in his life and he received Jesus as his personal Savior. Gary’s life was forever changed. He said that before Christ entered his life, “you wouldn’t have liked me very much and I wouldn’t have given a nickel about you.” Gary has spent the last 32 years being a vibrant messenger for the Good News of Jesus, telling anyone who listens about God’s love and Jesus’ sacrifice so our sins can be forgiven. He thanked Chuck for being a patient, persistent, loving friend but made it very clear in saying, “it wasn’t Chuck, but it was Christ in Chuck that changed me forever.”

Chuck’s pastor had mentioned that after the diagnosis, Chuck stood in front of their little Baptist church and proclaimed, “No matter what, God will be glorified.” He was determined to allow God’s glory and holiness to be clear and evident even in a battle with a killer of a tumor.

There’s a cosmic battle being waged every day around us. It’s a good versus evil, God versus Satan story. In this battle, God can display his glory and holiness in any way he wants. It can be spectacular or subtle, but my job is to see his holiness as he displays it and not to demand it to be as I want to see it. As I write, I’m wearing an inscribed rubber wristband given to me by one of Chuck’s daughters that reminds me today to look for God’s glory. It says “No Matter What.” His holiness can be seen in countless ways today. Just this morning I saw God’s glory through some subtle but valuable things: a tiger lily on the side of the road, the loving smile of my wife, a convicting word found in Scripture, and the reflection on a eulogy from a man’s old friend. These things renew my desire to be a messenger of God’s Good News.