Sometimes I wake up and can’t sleep.

Sometimes I wake up early and can’t sleep. I’m not so holy that I’m compelled to wake up early and pray. I just tend to have insomnia. So, this morning when I work up at 5 a.m., after having slept only about five hours, my mind began to ponder. I thought about the wet and the cold and that silly mimosa tree that had grown up into my neglected flower bed. I thought about one thing and then another. Finally, and I don’t know why, I began to think about Christ as he entered into the Heavenly Tabernacle and presented His own sinless blood on the Mercy Seat before God the Father.

So, let me say to my skeptical friends, yes, I believe this. What human priests did for centuries were merely, as scripture says, a shadow of what Christ finally did “once for all.” This said then, if Christ were “slain from the foundation of the world,” then the Mercy Seat in the Heavenly Tabernacle must have been prepared waiting for eons of eternity past. This raises a question in my sleepy mind: How many times “before iniquity was found” in him did Lucifer walk past it, not sure what it was or its purpose, since until man sinned there was probably not even a hint of its value.

I can imagine him in that time before time walking by, maybe wondering about it periodically, other times not even noticing it. But it was there. And in the Father’s mind, the true significance of it was clear and remained. Had Lucifer asked about it, maybe he could have been warned about his own future fall and possibly kept his pride in check. Probably not. Or, did he look at it and think what a useless piece of furniture God had put in such a prominent place and then question God’s wisdom, after all. More likely. And how often do we do the same thing?

Are there things that God has placed in our lives, maybe even before we were born, that make no sense to us and cause us to wonder at God’s wisdom, though we might not want to admit this to ourselves? Has God put things in MY life that I walk around daily and ignore or treat with contempt? The Heavenly Mercy Seat is one of a kind, placed in Heaven and prepared to receive Christ’s sacrifice “from the foundation of the earth.” Likewise, Lord, show me the unique things in my life that you have ordained but that I ignore or question. Help me not to rearrange the furniture or put in a yard sale those things that you have placed with a purpose. Please don’t let me walk around something for my whole life, thinking You’ve given something a prominent place needlessly. Forgive me my arrogance and help me to “humble [myself] under the mighty hand of God” and just leave the furniture where you’ve placed it and learn its value and purpose.

And now that I think about it, maybe my life-long insomnia could be there for a reason. Maybe I don’t fall asleep right off or wake up not because I’m so holy but because I’m not. Maybe I need to take advantage of the early hours of quiet, leave the TV off, and spend time with my Heavenly Father since His Son’s sacrifice has made it possible for me to cry out “Abba Father.” So that’s what that thing is for. I gotta go. I need to talk to my Father. Maybe there’s something else I’ve been ignoring that I need. In fact, I’m sure there is.

Precious Memories IN THE MORNING

Folks, sometimes life can, well, really suck. (Can I say that?) But for those times, I’ve learned to draw on my memories of better times. For example, I was trading emails with an old college buddy this week. We both marched in the Jacksonville State University Marching Southerners “back in the day.” (You may now be in awe that I was a member of such an auspicious group.) He and I agreed that good memories, especially those of special times in our lives, are a gift and resource from God to sustain us through tough times. In fact, I don’t think it’s wrong to equate this with God’s command to Israel to set up monuments of remembrance for themselves individually as well as nationally to call to mind His blessings of the past. He said more than once something like “when your children ask… tell them.” So, I show my children pictures on Facebook of the Marching Southerners and old college friends. I was truly blessed to be a part of this group and have lifelong friends because of it. And the memories are not just “glory days” reminiscences. Instead, they are reminders in tough times that there were blessings in my life and that there are promises for the future. Now, I’m not about to break into a refrain of “precious memories, how they linger…” But, I might just lean back sing “I’ll fly away IN THE MORNING!” (Sorry folks, inside joke for all my 5,000 plus Southerners alum buddies.)

So, if you’re in a tough place in life, think back over where you’ve been and the good things and family and friends that God has put in your life. And if life is pretty good at the moment, then get off of that silly computer and get out there, live, do something, and make some memories for the future!

Out of the Mouth of Babes

This is from several years ago when my kids were younger and I drove them to school daily. I miss those days, the laughter, and the lessons.

Scripture tells us that out of the mouth of babes comes perfected praise. This is related to the idea that out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. I think this because babes just say whatever is in their hearts or minds, unfiltered, without reservation or self-editing. We mature adults, on the other hand, filter our prayers to make us sound better, forgetting that God looks on the heart more than He listens to the words. But, that’s a deep lesson for another day. Now, I’d also like to suggest that out of the mouth of babes God has perfected humor.

I pray with my children at night and everyday on the way to school. Some of the most beautiful and heart-felt prayers have come out of their mouths, which is one reason I like to hear them pray aloud. And sometimes they’re just plain funny, especially my son’s. A few weeks ago our Spanish and Portuguese speaking neighbors to the south along with the home of Calhoun and the seat of Southern rebellion were blessed. Nick was closing his prayer. He typically prays a very encompassing prayer. But he often has a unique twist on the God-bless-everyone approach. In his conclusion he prayed, “And God bless South America and South Carolina.” Today, he was even more encompassing in his prayer. Today, the solar system is blessed, in particular Venus and Mars, as he prayed God’s blessing on this corner of the cosmos. You can’t make this stuff up. You just have to enjoy it when it comes. So I smiled inside and said an amen to his prayer.

As a father, on one hand I want to direct him to focus his prayers and think about specific needs of others, as well as his own. But, on the other hand, you never know when out of the mouth of babes God has perfected praise, or in this case prayer, and just possibly the gravitational pull of one of our neighboring planets was intensified because of his prayer just enough to deflect a killer asteroid from a collision path with earth. I’m not out there in space. But God sees all and in His mysteries could have prompted the prayer to move something more than Dad’s face into a smile.

Jesus said not to forbid the little children from coming to Him. Moreover, we must become like a child to enter the Kingdom. Maybe it could be that as I try to focus my child’s prayer with my mature, adult thinking, instead I should listen and learn and expand my own narrow prayers. So, God bless Mars and Venus.

One for my Pocket

This is a memory from some years ago.

I was doing a little bit of laundry in the morning before anyone else got up. I couldn’t sleep and knew I needed some blue jeans for the day. As I was putting some of my things to wash, I grabbed a few pair of pants belonging to the kids. I learned long ago that many things go in pants pockets that don’t necessarily need to go in a washing machine. As I cleaned out the pockets of Olivia’s shorts, I found three individually wrapped Life Savers that she had taken from the candy bowl in my office.

My colleagues and I keep hard candy of various sorts on our desks at work. It’s there free for students or any other guests who come to the office. Most ask before taking a piece. Some don’t, realizing it’s there for them. My regulars, such as other faculty members or students who have taken a number of classes with me, will with ease lift a piece or two out of the bowl and crunch away as we talk, never hesitating to enjoy what has been freely provided for them. The candy is clearly out there for the taking as a gesture of hospitality.

My children have a different relationship with my candy bowl. I try to monitor their sugar intake because too much sugar is just not healthy. Also, if we’re passing through the office on the way to lunch or something, I don’t want them filling up on empty calories. So, they’ve learned to ask before taking candy from the bowl. But even though they have to ask, there is yet a different relationship that they have with the candy because of the relationship they have with me. That’s Daddy’s candy. And if it’s Daddy’s, then it’s potentially theirs in a different kind of way than it is for anyone else.

Here’s how the candy bowl rules developed. Early on they learned only one piece at a time was all I would allow them. Our exchange would go something like this.

“May I have some candy?”

“Yes, but only one.”

“Please…” and the pleading for additional sugar to rot their teeth would begin. Eventually, they figured out a subtler tactic.  

“Could I have one now and one for my pocket?”

I relented to this request. It became the pattern. They could have one now and one for their pocket, which sometimes turned out to be as many ones as their little pockets could hold. This is how the three pieces ended up in Olivia’s pocket.

I’ve said before I’ve learned more about God since I became a parent than in the years before. Here, too, I see my Heavenly Father. Several things come to mind.

If it’s His, it’s mine. But I do need to ask. He knows better what and when and how I need His blessings, but still I often have not because I ask not.

Second, I don’t have to take just one blessing from the bowl. I can take one, or many, for my pocket. For example, if it’s wisdom I need, James tells me God gives liberally. In fact, in many areas of our Christian walk God has a pocket full of blessings, but we fail to stuff our pockets.

Third, we need to check our spiritual pockets more often. As I said, I found three hard mints in Olivia’s pockets that morning. They were blessing from her Dad’s candy bowl, waiting to be eaten and enjoyed. But she had stuffed them in her little pocket and gone on with her day, forgetting about them at some point. Eventually they ended up in the laundry and in this little blurb.

I looked through my pockets that morning and discovered they were full and running over also. I counted so many wonderful blessings, including two precious kids who were still asleep just down the hall. That’s two pieces of candy right there. I have a Christian heritage of parents, grandparents, and even great-grandparents who poured themselves into me. I have a pastor and several mentors in the faith, including some who have now passed to their reward, who also have given of themselves for my spiritual sweet tooth. That’s a pocket full!! And the list could go on of friends and family and colleagues and sunshine and flowers and…. and of the Holy Spirit that will lead me and comfort me and assure me that all of the candy in the bowl is for me, and I have permission to take some for my pocket. I just need to remember to fill my pockets more often and enjoy the blessings He has so richly and freely provided.

Now if I could only find something spiritual about the dehydrated earthworm I found in Nick’s pocket.

Well, enjoy your day and check your pockets. You never know what goodies from God you’ve stuck there and forgotten about.

Is anything too hard for God – even if we laugh?

“Is anything too hard for the LORD? At the time appointed I will return unto thee, according to the time of life, and Sarah shall have a son. Then Sarah denied, saying, I laughed not; for she was afraid. And he said, Nay; but thou didst laugh” (Genesis 18:14-15).

Having been promised that in her old age she would have a child, Sarah had responded as most of us would. I know my own too-often lack of faith; I would have laughed, too. Once she was called and confronted with her laughter, fear followed doubt and she denied she had laughed. But God knew the truth and simply said, “Yes, you did laugh.” He didn’t grind her to powder or condemn her or anything other than let her know that HE KNEW.

Of course, before we condemn Sarah harshly, we should keep in mind that Abraham laughed, likewise, when he had been given the same promise sometime before (Genesis 17:17). Here, Abraham tried to reason out what God really meant or to figure out using earthly means what God had promised supernaturally. So Abraham pronounced a blessing on Ishmael, the son that he had fathered earlier with his servant when he and Sarah had tried to help God’s plan along. God, then, said He would, indeed, bless Ishmael for Abraham’s sake, but He also said He meant what He had said, that a child of promise through Sarah would be Abraham’s promise come true.

Is there a lesson here? Yes, many, but one comes to mind at the moment. It’s simple. God doesn’t need our help and can even work in the midst of doubt and even laughter at His plan. He can bring it to pass. And when He does, He’ll even name it for the doubt that challenged it. “Abraham was an hundred years old, when his son Isaac [laughter] was born unto him. And Sarah said, God hath made me to laugh, so that all that hear will laugh with me. And she said, Who would have said unto Abraham, that Sarah should have given children suck? for I have born him a son in his old age” (Genesis 21:5 – 7). Isaac – laughter – was the fulfillment of the promise. God has a sense of humor. Abraham and Sarah had laughed in doubt at the promise of God; then they laughed in joy at the fulfillment of the promise.

Hold on the promises, even if it seems they can’t happen – even if you have doubted and laughed at the prospect. (Been there, done that, got that T-shirt.) Now, God won’t let it slide. He’ll check you and say, “Yes, you did laugh.” But, He’s the one responsible for bringing the promise to fulfillment. He will. And when He does it will be clear He did it in His time and His own way. Then, laugh again at the promise fulfilled.

How religious can we be and still be sinful?

How religious can we be and still be sinful? Matthew 27:3 tells us that “When Judas, who had betrayed him, saw that Jesus was condemned, he was seized with remorse and returned the thirty silver coins to the chief priests and the elders.” The religious leaders were unconcerned with Judas’ admission of sin. They didn’t seek to restore him. In fact, they essentially told him that his sin was his problem. Throwing down the pieces of silver, he left and took his own life. Taking up the pieces of silver, the priests admitted the money had purchased a murder. But instead of concern over the sin that they had initiated, facilitated, and purchased with the money, they only saw the taint on the money, not on themselves. It was the money that was tainted, so it could not go into the Temple offering. They were concerned about the right religious practice, not righteousness. They somehow did not feel nor see that their evil deeds disqualified them from entering the temple more so than the money was disqualified as an offering for the Temple.

Lord, what religious observances do I follow while I neglect “the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith”? Forgive me and show me, so I can repent.

God works in mysterious ways…. that are as obvious as the nose on your face.

To me, one of the most sublime and understated passages in the Bible is Jonah 3:3: “This time Jonah obeyed the LORD’s command…” Jonah has been thrown overboard during a massive storm at sea, spent three days being digested alive in the belly of a fish, and has just been vomited up on the beach. God said, “Go” for the second time. OK, who wouldn’t obey “then”? I almost laugh when I read this passage. There’s a serious aspect as well since clearly God knows how to get the attention of His disobedient children, and yet the chapter reveals more than this about God’s ability to work with or in spite of us. Chapter 3 tells us that the people of Nineveh believed Jonah’s prophecy of destruction and repented and were spared. If we’re not careful, we’ll read right over this passage with a quick “praise the Lord” without realizing they mystery and intricacy of God’s working. Sure, the Word is sharp as a sword and surely pierced their hearts, but God knows how to set the stage for the greatest delivery and the greatest good. Consider the following.

First, Jonah has just experienced God’s judgment and then mercy firsthand. He knows judgment! He can speak to it with the passion of someone who has “been there and done that.” Fresh on his mind are the waves that crashed over him as he sank into the sea. Then, in his watery grave a living coffin in the form of a great fish engulfed him. Surely, he felt his deserved doom as the fish swallowed him. But he repented and the coffin became a lifeboat. God’s instrument of judgment turned into His vehicle of mercy and of Jonah’s salvation. Spat up on the shore of Nineveh, Jonah understood God’s great judgment but also His great mercy and surely preached this with the fervency of someone who had experienced both. Even if he wanted to hide this, I’m sure he couldn’t. Even if the spiritual understanding of his recent experience had not yet fully been formed in him, the psychological state of having lived through this trauma of his own making would have come through in his preaching. But it gets better.

Jonah’s spiritual and psychological condition would have surely infused his preaching with a passion he didn’t have before spending three days in the belly of the fish. But consider his physical condition as well; he must have been a mess. Now, I must give credit where credit is due. This idea is not original to me. Years ago I heard Christian comedian Mike Warnke discuss this. Mike has had his own issues since I heard his presentation, but his point is yet a valid one. What must Jonah have looked and smelled like after spending three days in the digestive system of a fish. Gastric fluids have bleached him white. His hair has been digested right off his head. And I just don’t think a quick bath on the beach got the smell of fish guts off him before he hit downtown Nineveh.

Picture this. A guy walks into your town, bleached white and smelling of fish guts, and says something like this. “Hey, I’m one of God’s Chosen People and His prophet. He did this to me because I disobeyed. Oh, and now you’re on His list. He’s gonna destroy you because of your sins.” If you had been there, you’d have to think that if God did this to one of His own, what will He do to me. Well, I don’t know about you, but I guarantee I’d repent! And in a hurry! So did Nineveh, from the lowliest servant on the street all the way to the king in his palace. And God forgave them and didn’t destroy them. Yes, God is mysterious, but if we pay attention when we read His Word we can see His mysteries unfold. No, God didn’t make Jonah disobey, but I personally think He used this to fulfill his plan. Of course, the rest of the story is that the very reason Jonah didn’t want to go to Nineveh is that he knew God was merciful and would forgive if Nineveh repented. Nineveh was Jonah’s enemy, and he wanted it destroyed. How ironic, then, that Jonah’s disobedience is the very thing that God might have used to bring about Nineveh’s salvation.

I take two things away from this story. First, even when they’re as obvious as the nose on your face, God’s ways are still mysterious. Consider this. He saved both his disobedient servant and a sinful city, oh, and a boatload of sailors in the process, and all in spite of everyone. Second, sometimes His ways are hilarious, too. “This time Jonah obeyed…” It’s still funny.

And then there was this student who owed me a late paper, a REALLY, REALLY late paper

I have a student who owes me a late paper. In fact, she might read this blog and know I’m writing about her. Of course, the truth of the matter is that I probably have several students at any given time who owe me late papers. But I’m thinking about one in particular at the moment. She had a legitimate reason for turning IT in late, and I gave her the OK to turn it in late. But time has run on and on and the paper has become later and later. I’ve sent her e-mails and spoke to her in passing in the hallway. I’ve even sent her messages by her friends to come by and see me about the paper, but now I’m hearing back from them that she is feeling uncomfortable and guilty about the paper being so late.

She’s avoiding coming to see me because she feels awkward about how late the paper is, yet the paper gets later and later as she continues to struggle with it. It appears to her that I would be a source of discomfort, so she avoids coming to see me. But here’s the ironic thing. I’m not really the source of discomfort: I’m the source of help. I have all the resources she needs to write the paper. I have all the expertise that she needs to draw on to write the paper. I’m the one who gave the assignment and could modify or even cancel it if I so choose. I’m not the source of discomfort; rather, I’m the source of her solution, even if she doesn’t avail herself of it. You see, I love my students. I really do. I’m not going to beat her up and shame her. (OK, some of you know me too well. Yes, I’m going to tease her a bit when she finally gets up the nerve to come to my office.) I’m also going to help her if she’ll only allow me. Her momentary discomfort of coming to my office will ultimately be replaced by relief as she completes the assignment and then moves on with her academic life without the late paper hanging over her head.

I’ve said before how I’ve learned a lot about God, my Heavenly Father, from being a parent. Likewise, I’ve learned from my experiences as a teacher and from my interactions with students. Our relationship with God is much the same as that of my student with me. We avoid God. We try to handle our own problems. We try to hide our sins. We avoid God because the closer we get to Him and His holiness, the more our failures, shortcomings, and sins are evident. We feel guilty, just as my student does because her paper is late. Just as she has been doing, we avoid the very source, not ultimately of our shame and guilt, but of our hope and help. Only God has the resources and power we need. In fact, He can even cancel our sins, blot them out, and forget them as if they never happened. But He can’t do that until we come to Him and accept His help.

Be Like Marvin

Early this morning, I was meditating on my Sunday school lesson for the day. It focuses on two sad Christmas gifts. One is the gift not received, the other the gift not offered.

The first is like the Gospel rejected, which is “foolishness to those who are perishing” (1 Cor. 1:18) “who ignore so great a salvation” (Heb. 2:3). This is sad. Imagine a gift, bought and paid for, sitting under the tree as the intended recipient rejects it, leaving it unopened. That’s pretty sad. 

But the second is, to me, even sadder, the gift that is bought and paid for but never offered.

I never met my Granddaddy Rizzo. He passed a few years before I was born. But as I hear stories of him, I feel I know him because I have seen his character traits that come through in those stories exhibited in my dad, Aunt Susie, and Uncle Allen. There are lots of these anecdotes about his life that I have filed away in my mind, but about a year ago I learned a bit more about one of them. 

Just about everyone who talks about my grandfather says things about his jovial nature and how nice he was, but for most of his life he wasn’t a Christian. Then shortly before he passed he had a conversation with my Maw-maw’s brother Ralph Creel. Uncle Ralph was a minister, and I’m sure he had shared the Gospel with my grandfather. During one of their last visits together, my grandfather shared, “Ralph, I’ve met someone since I saw you last.” My uncle inquired who and the response was “Jesus.” My grandfather passed shortly after that conversation.

For years, I assumed it was my uncle’s and Maw-maw’s witness that brought Granddaddy to Christ. And I’m sure it was, but I never really knew the details of his friendship with Marvin Burns until last year. (If you attend church with me, Marvin is Wayne’s father and Rita’s father-in-law.) 

Marvin was a minister. He and my grandfather were friends, so my grandfather often chauffeured him to his speaking engagements. On these trips I’m sure they talked about kids and motorcycles and all kinds of things. But at each church service my grandfather heard Marvin offering him the gift of salvation through Jesus in his sermon and saw him living the gift as they rode along together. 

But with my lesson topic in mind, I began to ponder what if Marvin had never offered his friendship. Or what if he didn’t want to offend my grandfather? Or what if he felt religion is a personal matter? Or what if he for however many reasons never offered the gift of Christ’s love to my granddaddy? But he did, and sometime in 1955 or 56 my grandfather accepted “the” Christmas gift because someone offered it to him. 

So first, let me say if you have thus far left the gift of the love of Jesus and salvation through him under the tree, rejected and unopened, well, don’t. Just don’t. That’s just rude… and so sad and foolish. It is “the indescribable gift” (2 Cor 9:15) that was put there for you. It is a costly gift, one you could never afford on your own. Fortunately, “it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8), free for the receiving, purchased just for you. 

And if you have received this amazing gift, why aren’t you sharing it? Get busy and be like Marvin!