Archive for the month “July, 2013”

The God Who Runs

The dawning sun dressed and redressed the Texas horizon, the lady of light going through her eastern closet, choosing just the right color for the day. I stepped out onto the front porch, took one last sip of coffee, and flicked the cup sideways, the lukewarm dregs spraying the dirt. It’d been one of the driest summers on record, in a part of the country where drought was hardly a stranger. I glanced at my watch. Time to get moving. A ten mile run lay ahead of me. I was training to qualify for the Boston Marathon, which, for men my age, required a finishing time in another marathon of 3 hours and 15 minutes or less. To reach that goal, both in distance and speed, would demand months of preparation that was downright grueling. But grueling is just what the doctor ordered. For hardly had I crawled out of bed before a veritable legion of dark thoughts had already begun to jockey for position inside my head, each one vying for supremacy. And it was time to see if I could outrun those demons, one more time.

I punched the start button on my GPS watch, sprinted across the yard and onto the street that would take me to the highway, that would take me five miles out and five miles back. I ran past houses where families still lay sleeping, past an empty church and a bustling convenience store, onto a southbound strip of road with barbed wire fences lining each side. Narrowing my vision to an imaginary two feet wide strip of black pavement, my feet drummed the asphalt, beating out a rhythm that matched music only my heart could hear. I ran hard. I ran fast. But, at first, the demons seemed to match me step for step.

There are whole books written on the best diet for a runner, the fuel he needs to keep his body strong enough for the rigors of his chosen sport. But many runners are propelled forward more by alternative fuels, such as rage and shame, grief and loneliness, heartache and addiction recovery. I’ve known a man to run harder and longer while trying to digest the five words, ”I don’t love you anymore,” than he ever could have from all the calories packed into a five course meal. All kinds of people run from their problems, but runners do that quite literally.

As mile one became mile two, and three, and five, and seven, the pain that had begun in my feet inched its way upward, soon engulfing both legs and hips. My lungs burned, my heart screamed. But, as grace would have it, the cacophony of voices that had resounded in my head when I woke up had, one by one, become mute along the way. All that remained was the single, panting chant of, ”Keep going…keep going…keep going.” And that I did, collapsing in a sweaty heap on the floor of my living room after the tenth mile, in seventy minutes flat, relishing a few moments of pain that felt almost redemptive. For somewhere along the way the demons had dropped out of the race, allowing me a brief respite during which life seemed oddly worth living.

Running has been, and remains, the most virtuous of my antidepressants. And I firmly believe it is one of God’s unexpected gifts to me. For while it is true that the Lord has his primary means of working faith and healing in the lives of broken people, he also has other ways of uplifting and sustaining us during life’s most trying times. That may be through the inimitable love of a family that accepts you as you are, absorption into the worlds of literature and art, or dedication to excellence in a hobby or sport. But even in these, God is present, often laboring unseen, to help us along on the long road to recovery.

Just the other day, my running partner, Sam, was apologizing for slowing us down when we eased from a run into a walk. But as I told her, I tell you also, that it is a blessing to walk instead of run, to no longer be fueled by anger and resentment, or fear of the demons hot on your heels. It took a long time, longer than I ever expected, to slow from a sprint to a run to a jog to a walk, but I finally got there. I got there because, as in a story Jesus once told, my Father saw me, a lost son, when I was still a long way off, and he came running. God himself ran to me, fueled by love, embraced me, and welcomed me to walk home with him once again.

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Ragman

I read this story for the first time when I was in college.  The other night, my pastor reminded me of it.  Here is the text.  I love it now as I loved it then.

by Walter Wangerin, Jr.

I saw a strange sight. I stumbled upon a story most strange, like nothing my life, my street sense, my sly tongue had ever prepared me for.

Hush, child. Hush, now, and I will tell it to you.

Even before the dawn one Friday morning I noticed a young man, handsome and strong, walking the alleys of our City. He was pulling an old cart filled with clothes both bright and new, and he was calling in a clear, tenor voice: “Rags!” Ah, the air was foul and the first light filthy to be crossed by such sweet music.

“Rags! New rags for old! I take your tired rags! Rags!”

“Now, this is a wonder,” I thought to myself, for the man stood six-feet-four, and his arms were like tree limbs, hard and muscular, and his eyes flashed intelligence. Could he find no better job than this, to be a ragman in the inner city?

I followed him. My curiosity drove me. And I wasn’t disappointed.

Soon the Ragman saw a woman sitting on her back porch. She was sobbing into a handkerchief, sighing, and shedding a thousand tears. Her knees and elbows made a sad X. Her shoulders shook. Her heart was breaking.

The Ragman stopped his cart. Quietly, he walked to the woman, stepping round tin cans, dead toys, and Pampers.

“Give me your rag,” he said so gently, “and I’ll give you another.”

He slipped the handkerchief from her eyes. She looked up, and he laid across her palm a linen cloth so clean and new that it shined. She blinked from the gift to the giver.

Then, as he began to pull his cart again, the Ragman did a strange thing: he put her stained handkerchief to his own face; and then HE began to weep, to sob as grievously as she had done, his shoulders shaking. Yet she was left without a tear.

“This IS a wonder,” I breathed to myself, and I followed the sobbing Ragman like a child who cannot turn away from mystery.

“Rags! Rags! New rags for old!”

In a little while, when the sky showed grey behind the rooftops and I could see the shredded curtains hanging out black windows, the Ragman came upon a girl whose head was wrapped in a bandage, whose eyes were empty. Blood soaked her bandage. A single line of blood ran down her cheek.

Now the tall Ragman looked upon this child with pity, and he drew a lovely yellow bonnet from his cart.

“Give me your rag,” he said, tracing his own line on her cheek, “and I’ll give you mine.”

The child could only gaze at him while he loosened the bandage, removed it, and tied it to his own head. The bonnet he set on hers. And I gasped at what I saw: for with the bandage went the wound! Against his brow it ran a darker, more substantial blood – his own!

“Rags! Rags! I take old rags!” cried the sobbing, bleeding, strong, intelligent Ragman.

The sun hurt both the sky, now, and my eyes; the Ragman seemed more and more to hurry.

“Are you going to work?” he asked a man who leaned against a telephone pole. The man shook his head.

The Ragman pressed him: “Do you have a job?”

“Are you crazy?” sneered the other. He pulled away from the pole, revealing the right sleeve of his jacket – flat, the cuff stuffed into the pocket. He had no arm.

“So,” said the Ragman. “Give me your jacket, and I’ll give you mine.”

Such quiet authority in his voice!

The one-armed man took off his jacket. So did the Ragman – and I trembled at what I saw: for the Ragman’s arm stayed in its sleeve, and when the other put it on he had two good arms, thick as tree limbs; but the Ragman had only one.

“Go to work,” he said.

After that he found a drunk, lying unconscious beneath an army blanket, and old man, hunched, wizened, and sick. He took that blanket and wrapped it round himself, but for the drunk he left new clothes.

And now I had to run to keep up with the Ragman. Though he was weeping uncontrollably, and bleeding freely at the forehead, pulling his cart with one arm, stumbling for drunkenness, falling again and again, exhausted, old, old, and sick, yet he went with terrible speed. On spider’s legs he skittered through the alleys of the City, this mile and the next, until he came to its limits, and then he rushed beyond.

I wept to see the change in this man. I hurt to see his sorrow. And yet I needed to see where he was going in such haste, perhaps to know what drove him so.

The little old Ragman – he came to a landfill. He came to the garbage pits. And then I wanted to help him in what he did, but I hung back, hiding. He climbed a hill. With tormented labor he cleared a little space on that hill. Then he sighed. He lay down. He pillowed his head on a handkerchief and a jacket. He covered his bones with an army blanket. And he died.

Oh, how I cried to witness that death! I slumped in a junked car and wailed and mourned as one who has no hope – because I had come to love the Ragman. Every other face had faded in the wonder of this man, and I cherished him; but he died. I sobbed myself to sleep.

I did not know – how could I know? – that I slept through Friday night and Saturday and its night, too.

But then, on Sunday morning, I was wakened by a violence.

Light – pure, hard, demanding light – slammed against my sour face, and I blinked, and I looked, and I saw the last and the first wonder of all. There was the Ragman, folding the blanket most carefully, a scar on his forehead, but alive! And, besides that, healthy! There was no sign of sorrow nor of age, and all the rags that he had gathered shined for cleanliness.

Well, then I lowered my head and trembling for all that I had seen, I myself walked up to the Ragman. I told him my name with shame, for I was a sorry figure next to him. Then I took off all my clothes in that place, and I said to him with dear yearning in my voice: “Dress me.”

He dressed me. My Lord, he put new rags on me, and I am a wonder beside him. The Ragman, the Ragman, the Christ!

 

”Thank God…If There Is One”: How a Toilet Led to a Discussion of God’s Existence

I’ve delivered a slot machine to someone’s home, silhouette targets to a shooting range, and a bench press to the weight room of the Texas Tech football team. A coworker of mine was once given the charge of delivering a rather long pole to a gentleman’s club, the purpose of which is, of course, a total mystery to me. But yesterday, what sent me meandering through neighborhood streets to reach a customer’s home was quintessentially mundane—a toilet. I spotted the address, lugged the heavy box off the trailer, and wheeled it into her garage, where the lady of the home met me with a broad Texas smile, apparently happy about her new acquisition.

But before she signed the ticket and I got on the road again, she wanted to open the box to ensure all was in tiptop shape. So with my knife I slit the cardboard down one side. It looked fine on one side, but as she tilted the toilet sideways to give the other half a thorough inspection, it slipped out of her hand, and before she could catch it, fell with a bang on the unforgiving concrete. For a moment we locked eyes, she grimaced, then turned it back over. Breathing a sigh of relief when she saw no cracks, she exclaimed, ”Thank God!” and immediately added, in words that sounded half question, half statement, ”if there is one.” I smiled and said, ”There is.” And, laughing, she said, ”Yes, I know there is…I think.”

I didn’t quote a Bible verse or launch into the Athanasian Creed. I said the first thing that came to mind, and, in hindsight, quite possibly the most honest response I could have offered. ”Well, all I know is that I’d never make it through a single day if there weren’t One.” She thanked me, I got back in the truck, waved adios, and left her with her toilet. And, who knows, maybe with a little something else.

One thing I’ve learned over the years is that I recall very few sermons, and I can recollect only a handful of lectures from college and graduate school, but random comments made by friends or strangers have buried themselves into my memory like seeds into soil. I hope I planted a seed yesterday, that God used even the tipping of a toilet to work his way through my feeble words into his daughter’s doubting heart.

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Parking Lot Theology: Winning the Argument or Saving the Soul?

I was climbing back into the cab of the truck when she approached me, her dress flats clicking on the hot asphalt between the Discount Tire and the corner laundromat. The rumble of the diesel was drowning out her words, so I leaned out the window and inquired, ”Yes, Ma’am, how can I help you?” But, come to find out, it wasn’t a question of what I could do for her, but what she could do for me. For she was a woman on a mission, a witness for Jehovah, the iconic pamphlets in hand. And she was eager to introduce me to a life in which I would find hope in this world.

I listened politely as she explained how hard day-to-day existence can be, how many global problems there are, how there are true answers to life’s difficult questions, and that God was the key to understanding it all. I took the pamphlets from her and slid them on the dashboard. My eyes took in the time—fantastic, already running way behind schedule. She was looking up and smiling, waiting for me to say something, anything, in response. I confess that my first impulse was simply to thank her and drive on to the next delivery. After all, there were places I needed to be; customers were waiting on their freight. But, overcome with a uncommon sense of compassion, I took the truck out of gear, set the brakes, killed the engine, looked her in the eye and said, “I’m sorry, Ma’am, but I can’t accept what you say is true, for you and I, unfortunately, we believe in two different gods.”

And so it began, a brief but honest discussion between two believers, of two opposing faiths, about things that really matter. We talked about the crucifixion. We talked about the Trinity. The divine nature of Jesus. Whether the Holy Spirit is a power or a Person. She talked, I talked, and we listened to each other. Whether my words made any impact on her or not, I’ll probably never know. She was a random stranger, and the likelihood of our paths ever crossing again is very remote. But as we talked, reciting Bible verses here and there, comparing and contrasting our distinctive confessions, I began to realize something about myself.

When I was in my mid-twenties, newly ordained into the ministry, when I had a theological disagreement with someone, my main objective was to win the argument. Whether the issue was large or small, pertaining to a chief doctrine of the Christian faith or some minor point of the church’s non-binding tradition, the opponent was someone to be converted to the right answer. They believed 2 + 2 = 5, and I was there to show them it was really 4. Or they believed 2 + 2 = 4, but my 4 was a little better than theirs. And, let it be said, there’s nothing wrong with that, especially if the discussion is about a subject to which God’s word gives a clear answer.

What was so often was missing in those discussions over God’s answer, however, was a genuine concern for the person with whom I was talking. What mattered most was the correct belief, not the person believing or rejecting it. My objective was to save the truth, to defend correct doctrine, but more times than not I was so zealous in my endeavor that I forgot that the truth was there to save the person, and the correct doctrine actually led lost souls into a relationship with the Father, through the Son, and in the Holy Spirit.

While listening to the woman reveal that she does not believe in the Trinity, and thus does not believe in the one true God, I experienced nothing short of sorrow for her—not anger because she rejected the truth; not arrogance because I had the right answer and she didn’t; not a desire to win the gold in this theological debate. And that sorrow, joined with compassion, affected the manner in which I spoke with her. For when there is love for the truth, joined with love for the person, the tone of the discussion, and often the outcome, are vastly different than when naked zeal drives the debate.

I am a member of a conservative church body. In a few days, when it meets in convention, there will be matters up for debate, some minor and some major. Every time someone steps to the microphone to speak his or her mind, or gathers with a group of peers to talk about issues, what a difference it would make if love was in control of the tongue instead of pride or anger or party lines or political correctness or any of another host of possibilities. Would that in the church, those who love orthodoxy, always love the people to whom orthodoxy is God’s gracious, saving gift. For, as someone once said, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become as a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” God grant that love bridle my tongue, and the tongues of my brothers and sisters in Christ, that when the truth is spoken, it is always spoken with a keen awareness that the listener is one for whom God himself was willing to die.

A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Lies

There were pictures of her bathed in the sun of South Padre, sand between her toes, arm-in-arm with beautiful friends. Pictures of her holding up a margarita, toasting the unseen photographer. Pictures of her beside her new Honda, graduating with honors, random shots of her at forgotten Christmases and family vacations. In every one she was all smiles, seeming to radiate happiness.

But on the day when a picture would finally have spoken the truth, no one dreamed of lifting a camera. On that day the mourners were shocked to discover that behind the veneer of her bright smile lurked a fathomless darkness, whose depths she made manifest only when she despaired of life in this world.

Her name is Cindy. And her name is Audrey. And Liz. And Susan. And countless others, for hers is a story told with heartbreaking frequency. Her snapshots are images of an actor on the world’s stage, playing the part expected of her by the audience, conforming to social norms, smiling her way through pain, unto despair, into the grave. Her pictures are not worth a thousand words; they tell a thousand lies.

I was little different from her during the time in my life when suicide began to sing to me its siren song. I painted on the obligatory smile, locking up the grief when others were around, lest someone discover that I too was a frail human being beset with weakness. By then I had years of practice in the fool’s art of keeping up appearances.

St. John wrote that he who says he has no sin deceives himself. But that lie is only one of many self deceptions we perfect. We say we have no struggle with depression, while inside is a yawning, cavernous darkness. A husband says his marriage is just fine, while his wife, at her wits end, has scheduled a meeting with a divorce lawyer. A pastor pours a little more liquor into his glass week after week, self-medicating himself to sleep, all the while telling himself he’s just exercising his Christian freedom. And I’m willing to wager that you, dear reader, have told your own set of lies to the man in the mirror.

If I could possess just one snapshot of Jesus, one picture taken during his earthly life, it wouldn’t be Mary’s swaddled baby boy, or the walking-on-water Christ, or even the Lord affixed to the tree. It would be on the day he was told his friend Lazarus was dead, when St. John summarizes his reaction in two simple words, ”Jesus wept.” Two words, the significance of which heaven and earth are too small to contain. Here is God, crying over the death of a beloved friend. No Stoic divinity with a heart of flint, shrugging at the harsh realities of life. No actor faking composure for the evangelist’s camera. This picture truly would be worth a thousand words, for it would proclaim a thousand truths.

We need to know that God cried. We need to know that he knows what pain and loneliness and heartache feel like. We have a God who has been tempted, betrayed, hated, forgotten, rejected, stabbed in the back and spit in the face. He’s been through hell on earth, quite literally. He doesn’t just know intellectually what people suffer; he knows existentially. And he has scars to prove it.

But there’s more, and it’s even better. He not only sympathizes, he revitalizes–he literally “makes alive again.” When Lazarus lay entombed, there was a time to tear up, and a time to tear down the powers of life’s foe. So Jesus stood before the grave and commanded, ”Lazarus, come forth!’” Shrouded in the raiment of a corpse, but with a heart pumping life through his veins again, out stepped God’s friend. One of my teachers liked to remark that the reason Jesus mentioned Lazarus by name was that if he had issued a blanket announcement in the graveyard, every tomb would have coughed up its dead, alive again!

But, in fact, Jesus resurrects by name. He calls Lazarus and Cindy and Audrey and Liz and Susan. And he calls you by name—calls you out of the graves of grief and guilt. He bids you weep and wail, kick and scream, whatever it takes to purge the poison from your heart with unbridled honesty. And he will listen, without ever once interrupting, until you’re done, even if you have to tell him times without number. Into you, as into the first human being, he will breathe his own breath, a breath that bears the very life of God into you. And where God is, there is hope and healing, a recreative power that makes all things new for you who are not only his friend, but his beloved child.

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