My Confrontation With Westboro Baptist Church

For years I’ve heard of the terrible and notorious antics of the folks just up the highway at Westboro Baptist church.  I have on many occasions been left with my head in my hands in disbelief whenever the stories of Westboro Baptist’s protests are told. Disbelief was usually followed by anger as I’d hear about them protesting a soldier’s funeral, or a gay kid who was beaten to death by his hateful peers. Anger would then lead to sorrow as I began thinking about the poor families being screamed at in their time of great grief. Sorrow also when I thought about the level of deception the people from Westborro must be under to justify screaming hatred. Following the progression of emotions, I began to grow bitter toward Westboro Baptist. Eventually that bitterness turned to hate. Hate turned into slandering them whenever I saw them on the news or heard about the legitimately horrible things they would do.

Most would find my hatred of Westboro Baptist completely justified as they are justifiably doing things to munger hate. However their was one person who wanted me to change my heart and attitude toward the infamous church. Jesus tells us to love our enemies, bless those who curse us, and give to those who harm us. I often teach these things, but just like anyone, have to follow through with what I teach. When I would go to pray after having talked trash about how much I hated Westbrro Baptist, I could feel that subtle prick from Heaven asking me to change my heart. No matter the sin they were in, nothing justifies joining them in sin, nor gives me the power judge them with slander. We don’t have to condone or stay silent in our calling them out in their error, but we have to do it from a place of love least we only continue the cycle of hate. In December at our annual Onething conference I was blessed with a chance to face my hatred head on.

Last year, for whatever reason, Westborro Baptist had decided to target our conference and stand outside in protest of it. The theme of the conference was “Jesus: Our Magnificent Obsession”. Every message, song and exhortation was centered around the theme of Christology, the person and work of Christ. Not even our Calvinist/ Cessastionists friends could have taken issue with this conference. Yet for what ever reason outside was Westborro Baptist with their notorious multi-colored signs, t-shirts and mega phones. I debated going down to talk to them for about 10 minutes, until I decided to just pull the bandaid off and confront them head on. Seeing them in the distance as I approached, I began to pray. “Jesus keep me tender, Jesus keep me tender, help me confront them in love, help me confront them in love.” I kept saying those two phrases over and over under my breath until I reached them.

Their message was confusing. Some signs said “God Hates Fags”, “Your Pastor is a Whore to $$”, others said “God Hates America”, “Stop Lying, God Hates You”, I couldn’t get a handle of what exactly they were protesting. Walking straight up to the leader he began screaming in my face “God hates you! God hates you!” over and over incidentally spitting on my face a few times. I suddenly felt a little foolhardy. Like I had decided to jump into the Hyena cage in hopes of taming them while they prepared to devour me. However I felt the need to persevere. I starred at the leader square in the eyes, calmly and patiently asking him if I could have 5 minutes of his time. The notorious founder Fred Phelps was not present, however his daughter and grandson were. His grandson was the one presently screaming in my face as I solicited a moment of conversation. After about 10 minutes he ran out of breath. Which to be honest was quite impressive in context. Screaming slander on the top of your lungs for 10 minutes without pause takes some serious pipes. He finally dialed down a notch or two and asked “what do you want?”

Trying to diffuse his energy rather than add to it, I asked calmly and quietly “What is it that you are protesting? You seem to be aiming in every direction.” Expectedly he launched into a tirade. “What are we protesting?! How about the fact that your church is taking millions of people’s money at this conference and whoring out the Bible. How about the fact that right now the leaders of this church are making money hand over fist from people without telling them about the coming judgement. How about the fact that you publicly support fags in ministry. How about that!” Genuinely, though not wisely, I snickered. My snickering only fueled another ten minutes of titration. I waited until he was done then I asked him the obvious question: “So you really have no idea what you are protesting or who we are do you? Because we are public about homosexuality being a sin, we are public about our belief in judgement, our conference is free, and we barely break even on it. So obviously you’ve been misinformed.” He stepped back and paused. He pondered another angle to come at us, then launched, “Well the leaders at this church are still living large while everyone else starves!” I snickered again and looked at him square in the eyes, “Sir I am one of the leaders here, and these are my only pair of jeans. If we are making a ton of money here it’s news to me.” I then proceded to laugh, honestly hoping to dial him down a even more. I coxed him along a bit, “Bro, you gota laugh a little bit. You gathered up about 30 people, printed signs and drove an hour to get here from Topeka only to find out you kinda wasted your time.” He snapped back, “But that’s not enough! You have to hate and publicly denounce gays or you’re going to burn with them.” I asked him, “What about those that lie on their resume’s, drink too much alcohol, or cheat on their taxes sometimes. Those are sins also, do those people need to be hated too?” “Yes!!” He yelled. “America is going to hell! God hates them!” Curiously, and with genuine compassion I asked him, “By that notion how do you plan to make it without going to hell?” This question struck his heart. For the first time in the conversation his face looked human. The tention and angst he was wearing disappeared. He hung his head and dropped his signs and mega phone to the ground. “I don’t know.” We stepped away from his still screaming crew and he began to open up a bit.

It was extraordinary. He told me that they simply go where they are told, that he actually never knows much about who they are protesting. He told me that they believe God is going to judge America with fire for it’s sins. He said they protest because they are terrified of being judged because of other people’s sin. He said he often lays awake in bed at night tormented by the idea that he is going to burn at the hand of God’s judgement. He felt that protesting is his way of screaming to heaven that he is not one of the sinners. He said it was a way of saying, “God don’t judge me! I’m not one of them!” Still not liking or remotely condoning anything they do, however for the first time I saw these hateful people for who they really were: broken. I offered to pray for him, and wanted to talk to him more, but he was teary-eyed and a little embarrassed about it. He gathered up his crew, they packed up their signs and left.

I wanted to feel victorious as I had taken on the most notorious protesters in the world and won. I wanted to walk triumphantly back into the conference and pump my fists bragging that I had gotten them to leave. Instead I was burdened for them. Having confronted my hatred I saw them for the lost and broken people they were. It doesn’t change my attitude toward their actions, but now when I see them on the news in a tirade of hatred I pity them. I pity them because they are trying to serve and represent a God they know nothing of. They are unknowingly agreeing with the voice of the darkness over the people they are protesting. And Sadly, they may even be headed for the very fate they are striving so hard to avoid.

They are still the object of God’s affections, the dream of his heart, and still have a chance at redemption. I pray for them regularly and I hope to run into them again.

Holy Spirit, enlighten the eyes of their understanding, that they may have their eyes opened to the truth and love of Christ.

“So when you, a mere man, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment? Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, tolerance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness leads you towardrepentance?” Rom. 2:3-4

The Fight For Hope: Reflecting On Loss One Year Later

An excerpt from chapter one of my book on the year anniversary of this story. God is good, therefore we never stop.
Tired but content I sat down at the dinner table with my ministry assistant, as “Ms Vicky” cooked us up some authentic New Orleans food. Ms. Vicky, as she liked to be called, was a wonderful southern belle. She and her husband were hosting us as I preached at a two day youth conference at her church Butte Louisiana just outside of New Orleans. Having traveled on quite a few ministry trips, I had yet to come in contact with someone as generous and accommodating as Ms. Vicky. We spent that night sharing stories about parenthood. Her kids were all grown up and moved out. I told her about my 2 kids; Natalie Sage who was the cutest 1 and a half-year-old you’d ever meet and my precious second who was still in the womb at that time. I told her about our hopes and dreams for that little one. How my wife Carrie and I had a vision of him or her being a confident, wise, yet gentle person. As we talked she unveiled the fruit of her culinary genius. She brought out a number of dishes, Shrimp Pasta Alfredo, southern cooked chili, and a “king cake” of Mardis Gras infamy. My assistant Dan and I slowly but effectively cleaned our plates, savoring every bite.
     With satisfied sighs and endless praise for our chef and host we headed up to our rooms. Generally I rarely sleep well on the road. However the combination Ms. Vicky’s home cooking, and an entire day of being in front of people preaching put me into an instant state of exhaustion. I texted Carrie the menu from dinner, that I loved her Natalie and that precious little one in her tummy. I told her that I couldn’t wait to see them tomorrow. I put my phone under my pillow just in case she needed to get a hold of me while I slept. My head hit the pillow and I was gone into the deepest sleep I’d have for the rest of that week.
     Maybe it’s different for you but when I’m in a deep sleep, sounds, smells, and feelings happening in the conscience world show up in my unconscious dream world. For instance I remember one very frustrating time years ago when I worked as a Concierge at a Phoenix hotel. I hadn’t slept in 2 days and had fallen into a deep sleep. I dreamn’t that I was a spy chasing an evil 7 fingered man in black gloves all around this old empty warehouse. I was about to catch him when he pulled the security alarm and vanished. The beeping of the security alarm was so loud a had to cover my ears as I chased after him. 10 to 15 minutes went by as I chased him around the known dream world trying to find a way to shut off the alarm he had pulled. Finally I woke up to find that I was late for work. The villain in my dream hadn’t pulled an alarm, but my alarm clock had been going off. Instead of it waking me from the unconscious world, my brain added its elements to the unconscious world. I rushed to work that day, and tried to get a laugh out of my boss concerning my tardiness. This same type of thing happened to me that night, only I didn’t chuckle at the result.
                I was dreaming that I was leading a group of sick people out of a ravine filled with bio toxins that was making them sick. As I led them out we kept encountering Earth quakes that sent many back into the canyon. Over and over I would run to the bottom, get the tumblers, and bring them back up to rejoin the group. At some point during this unconscious Sisyphean challenge I woke up to find my phone vibrating under my pillow.
                Looking at the clock without my glasses on I could barely see it was about 2am and I had a number of texts and missed calls from my wife. I read the texts first. “call me, I’m bleeding and think something bad might be happening with the baby, calling the doctor” next one “It won’t stop, called your mom she is taking me to the ER, your Dad is watching Natalie, I wish you were here or at least answered your phone!” last one “Please answer! I need you, this is so bad”. My body jumped out of bed as my stomach sank. “No!” I yelled, “Please don’t let this be what I think it is.”
Dialing so fast I dropped the phone two or three times before I could finish. My wife answered in tears. The bleeding from her uterus had increased. The doctor had just informed her that we, at that moment, were losing that precious little one in her tummy. Sobbing was all I could hear from my wife on the phone. She gave the phone over to my mom who was there with her and sobs were all she could hear as I hit the floor. I felt like someone had reached into my chest and ripped out my insides. The pain of losing this child, the pain of not being there to support the woman I vowed to always be there for during times like this, the pain of knowing I’d never get to see the face of the little one we just lost. My mom finished telling me that they would hold Carrie in the hospital until all the biological matter had passed out of her; our precious little one. They told me they’d call me back after the doctor fished talking to them. All I could do was put my head into my pillow sobbing, yelling and pleading with God for mercy not to take this one from us.
Once I had gathered myself a bit, the next call I made was to the airlines. I had to get back to Kansas City. I had to hold my wife and support her. I had to do something besides cry.
After 4 hours of negotiating, there was no way to change my flight. So I got up and got ready for the day. I still had to preach that morning at the local church. Ironically the subject I had already prepared was I Peter 1:3 on Hope. Rising to the occasion was out the window for me as I tearfully preached probably one of the most scattered sermons of my life. I felt like I was dreaming, and was waiting for Dan to shake me awake and tell me I was late for service. Since I seemed very awake, all I could focus on was getting back to my wife. After a long journey through layovers and delays that moment finally came. Instantly we fell into each other’s arms and wept together.
We talked about the dreams we had for that little one. Carrie shared how she felt God take our baby back to be with Him, and how she could feel His presence even in the middle of the pain of it all. We stayed up most of the night praying, talking and crying until we passed out from exhaustion.
Later the next day I was visiting with a friend who was checking in on how we were doing. I told him this was one of the most painful-sorrowful things I had ever experienced, but that both Carrie and I had this surprising peace or impossible joy on the inside despite the pain. There was a fight on the inside to resist the temptation of depression, or despair. Surprisingly, there was this solace in knowing who we were in the eyes of God and knowing where we are going ultimately that gave us the courage to fight for hope.
“Why so downcast O my soul? Why are you in turmoil within me? Put your Hope in God; for I shall again praise Him. Ps 42:5 (ESV)
            Hope. Often a sentiment to help us feel better during times of uncertainty is quite more than sentiment. The reality of Jesus, what He accomplished on the cross, in the resurrection, and in light of His soon coming, hope is a power greater than sentiment. Hope starts in the truth of knowing who we are in the eyes of our creator.
This knowledge is like a pilot light in our heart. Even when all fuel to keep going is gone, the understanding of who we are and where we are going is a flame that never dies. Once that flame is lit, no storm in life can blow it out and the slightest glimmer of hope is ignited into a roaring fire. Yet knowing who we are and where we are going because of Him who ordained it in creation and sealed it at the cross is not a subjective journey. We must reach outside of our short-sighted vision of ourselves to touch the vision of the one who created us. We are not the subjects of creation, but the objects of our creator and subjected to Him. This is good news because He is good.
                 Knowing is one thing, fighting through discouragement is another. We need an intentional act of our will to grasp the future we know God has ordained for us. Like the psalmist says when in turmoil, when we are downcast, we look to our soul and command it to action: “Hope in God!”
Today, exactly one year later, I remember our loss. But it’s not the pain and reliving the loss that I remember. It’s that in the pain of mourning and injustice the hand of God never left. My hope was not shaken because of pain, it was given courage to persevere because of the truth that pain has an appointed and eternal end.
Even so, come Lord Jesus.

Making the Wrong Things Right

Begging for change outside of a busy Barnes & Noble is where I found him. It was January 2006 and the temperature was having a hard time reaching 15 degrees. Large snowflakes began rapidly accumulating on top of his head, and adding to the pile growing around his feet. His name was Randy. Often I had dropped change in his bucket, and chatted with him on occasion. This day was much worse than any day I had found him. His hands were shaking, and his eyes were starring off into the distance. I observed from the warm shelter of the Barnes & Noble lobby where I was sipping my coffee. I watched as people passed by with disgruntled looks on their faces, annoyed at his slurred requests for change. One guy even bumped over his bucket and looked back and said, “Get a job drunk.” I began to wonder how this man ended up this way. Surely at one point in his life he was young with nothing but possibilities in his future. Now 40 years removed from that youthful optimism, he sat on a street corner as a product of his bad choices.

I spent about five minutes pondering this, until I decided I was tired of pondering. I felt like the Rabbi who crossed to the other side of the road and starred at the Samaritan in need of help but did nothing. Throwing my scarf over my neck and straightening my jacket I marched out into cold to do something about his situation. I took off my jacket and put it over him as I lead him back to my truck in the nearby parking garage. He said he was raising money to get his heat turned back on at the house his family rented. He had been shot in both legs earlier that year while being at the wrong place at the wrong time during a gang fight. He had since had a hard time finding a job as he never learned to read and only knew physical labor. His wife and their two kids had nothing left to eat, so I took him to the local grocery store on our way to his house. After nearly breaking my bank account at the store, I decided to empty it to get his heat turned back on. I dropped him off at his house and met his family. Their house was a mess. Liquor bottles littered the corners, cigarette butts lined the floors and his wife looked as if she hadn’t gotten off of the couch in about a year. It broke my heart.

I spent the next year visiting Randy and his family in their neighborhood. Eventually he agreed to start going to church with me. I would pick him up every Sunday evening, and get him groceries on the way home. He decided to give up drinking, he would call me when the shakes would get really bad and I’d go over and pray with him and encourage him that he could make it. I was teaching him how to read, helping him turn in job applications around the city. I along with my girlfriend (now wife ) would take him and his family out to dinner and remind them what laughter was like. However in the end, our help wasn’t enough. Randy started drinking again. Loan sharks, and other hustling low lifes started hanging around his house. He stopped calling, stopped showing up at our pick up spot, stopped wanting to talk to me. Months went by, and all I could do was pray. Finally I got a call, Randy was in trouble. He asked if I would come by that night, and I did. I pulled up to his house to find about 10 people hanging out on the front lawn. It was a drug dealer and his minions. I know this because of his offers to me as I made my way inside. Three of the girls were prostitutes that offered me their services, another lifted up his shirt to flash his gun at me as I walked inside. I knew whatever I was walking into was not going to be good.

Inside the smell of pot and urine filled the air. I felt like I was in a movie. More specifically I felt I was at that part in the movie where you are screaming at the main character, “Get out! Don’t stay in the house! Don’t be a moron!” Randy ran out from around the corner frantic. His was wife in her chair watching TV, and his kids under his arms as he ran up to me. I sat down on the couch which felt lumpy, until I removed the Hennessy bottles that had been stuffed under the cushions. Randy’s eyes had regained their cloudy redness, and now started to fill up with tears. Getting on his knees he began to beg me for money. He said he owed the guys outside money for drugs they had already used and they were coming for him if he didn’t give them something. He said he needed about $3,000. I felt helpless as I was $2900. Short of that. I offered to pray with him but it only made him mad. He began demanding I give him everything I had. Mustering up the courage to threaten me physically, pointed at me and demanded my wallet. I stopped him.

“Randy, don’t go there.” Feeling a rousing surge of Godley zeal, I exclaimed, “Don’t you DARE turn on me. You KNOW I love you, and would give anything to help if I could! Don’t you dare try to rob me! That is NOT who you are!” He fell to the floor weeping, not knowing what to do. I sat on the couch praying, also not knowing what to do. I offered the guys outside the hundred dollars I had to get them to leave for the time being, and they did. I laid my hand on Randy’s head praying for him, struck with the realization that he didn’t need my charity, he needed a savior. Telling him I loved him, I grabbed my keys and left. It was the last time I ever saw or heard from him again.

Randy had a lot of needs. He needed sobriety, money, physical health, family care, friends that helped him not hurt him, food, a job. But of his needs only one would have fixed the others; the Gospel. I have helped a lot of different people like Randy, and still do today. Time after time the result is always the same because the impact is always short sighted.

Humans are eternal beings. Whether dwelling in glory with the Father, or dwelling in the flames of His wrath, everyone dwells somewhere forever. The greatest problem Humanity faces, and the problem that causes all other problems is sin. When Paul addresses the churches in Rome, he doesn’t give them a layout of how to fix poverty or political issues. Instead He gives them the message of the Gospel and tells them not to be ashamed of it. The Gospel is the only solution to the Human dilemma of sin. It is the hope of salvation for our souls, for our hearts, our minds, our government, our circumstances, our pain, our shame, our stress, our culture. The Gospel is the literal righteousness and justice of God revealed in our hearts. It’s more than hope for us to grasp, it’s hope that overtakes us. It’s the knowledge that Jesus isn’t our emotional Santa Claus who brings us gifts once a year if we are good. Instead He’s a king and a savior coming down from Heaven to dwell on the Earth in human form and physically rule it in Righteousness. It’s the revelation that Jesus is going to destroy the wickedness of this world in his wrath that is stirred by His desire for you and me. It’s the hope for men like Randy that they don’t have to be the product of their bad choices, but can be re-born as the product of God’s good choices. God’s greatest vision for the poor of the Earth is not that they would have money, but be the image bearers of His righteousness and glory that they were created to be.

If there is to be any sort of social justice revolution in our time, it has to begin with the revelation of God’s justice in the Gospel. Jesus and the good news of His coming is the only way for the worng things to be made right. Without the Gospel as the center of that revolution we’ll end up like the church in Galatia more concerned with the practice of the faith then the faith itself. For our faith is not merely the practice of morality and ethics, but is the ability of God to embody the moral and ethical values He created for us.

I hope I get one more shot with Randy. I pray he’s still alive. I will probably still buy his family groceries, but I will labor and not quit until he grasps the truth and hope of the Gospel. As it’s the only thing able to save him. It’s true social justice.

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The Courage of Sticks and Pots

“Trust the Lord with all your heart, lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him and He will make your paths straight.” A proverb often heard during times of indecision, stress and or fear. Growing up as a teenager and on into my adult years, this verse became less a Biblical proverb and more a sentimental adage to make me feel better. It would often be during times of existential crisis when the robotic response would come. I would have an idea where I felt like God wanted me to go, or what I felt like God wanted me to do, but had no plan of execution. Deflated by lack of inspiration I’d go to a pastor, leader, or friend and vent my angst. At times I could time their sage like response, “Well Zack you got to trust the Lord. In fact there is a verse: Trust the Lord with all your heart…” Finally I got fed up with the lack of application, threw my hands up and said, “What does that even mean! Great verse, but it doesn’t help me decide or even hint at what choice to make!”

As life has progressed I have learned to love the wisdom of that verse. Wisdom I learned only through actually trusting the Lord, versus trying to find the wisdom in His direction. It was never easy, and never is. In fact it always seems that just when I think I’m about to do what I feel God has called me to do, He stops me and rearranges my life so that it seems harder than the plan I previously had. Yet somehow it always ends up better than anything I could have ever done. It’s a lesson I learned most from one of Christendom’s favorite Sunday school characters: Gideon. I will now digress to telling his tale.

Israel had become a nation occupied by a vicious people from Midian. These Midianites had brought the nation of Israel to its knees by nearly over taking the country. Near where the Midianites occupied in a town near Ophrah was a coward hiding in a ditch trying to do his chores out of plain sight for fear of the people from Midian. Sobbing at the terror of being outside of his house at all, he quickly beat the wheat against the stones trying to salvage just enough to eat. As he did this an angel appeared above him. Smiling and confident the angel called out to this man, “Gideon! The Lord is with you. O mighty man of valor!!” Gideon looked up and saw the angel standing above him. He paused for a minute or two in both awe and bewilderment. “Excuse me; did you just call me a mighty man of valor?” Gideon wiped his face with his fear soaked shirt, and climbed out of the ditch. “Please, if the Lord is with us, why have these barbarians from Midian over run us? And where are all the wonderful promises God promised? I mean you brought us up from Egypt, but now we are ruined again. The Lord you say is with me, though He seems to have forsaken me!”

Gideon then paused. That statement “mighty man of valor” had emboldened him in such a way that shocked even him. Ten seconds ago he was an anxious mess in a ditch and now he’s standing up to the angel of the Lord. He gathered himself together. “Is there hope for us to be free from the Medians’?” The angel’s eyes turned familiar. They went from angelic brightness, to the blazing fire he had heard about when Moses looked into the bush years ago. “Go Gideon in the might of yours and save Israel from the hand of Midian; do not I send you?” Gideon’s stomach dropped into a knot. “Wait wait wait! My clan is the weakest of the clan’s. I am the least in all of my father’s house. I was just hiding in a ditch, sobbing with fear of the Midianites. You want me to face them? And defeat them?” The Lord starred him directly in the eyes and said, “I will be with you. You will strike them as one man.”

A year had passed, Gideon returned to making sacrifices and rallying people in His area by telling them about his encounter. The Lord gave him signs from heaven to embolden him all the more. He sent messages to all the other clans and tribes in the region. Thousands came. He labored for months, and grew in courage. The day came when Gideon stood before 32,000 soldiers that he had rallied because of his encounter. He went to the Lord and said; “you promised us victory at my hand, bless us as we go to war” Then God did something shocking. “I’ll help you Gideon, but this is too many men. They may be foolish enough to think it was their own might. Tell them that if they are afraid that they can leave.”

Gideon, puzzled by the command, quieted everyone down. He stood on top of a hill, cupped his hands over his mouth and yelled, “Anyone who is afraid or trembling at the thought of war can leave now!” As he dropped his hands to his side, he witnessed a dust cloud as 22,000 men turning and fleeing the area. Frustrated he looked up to the sky at a loss. Once the dust had settled 10,000 men remained. Feeling like quitting, Gideon thought back to that day when the Lord called him out of that ditch. He remembered the promises the Lord made Him. Every bit of logic and reason told him going to war when you are outnumbered 5 to 1 is a bad idea. Still he chooses to trust and obey.

The next day Gideon gathered his 10,000 men to discuss strategy, and break them up into companies. He went to the Lord and asked for His blessing. The Lord responded,” Gideon there are still too many.” The Lord then gave Gideon the strangest of instructions. He told him to send the 10,000 down to the river to drink. Then he told him to send home anyone that drank lying on their belly. Well apparently drinking while lying on your belly was en vogue because 9,700 men drank their water as such. At the sight of so many Gideon threw himself to the ground in disgust. “We are ruined!!” He began to sobbing into his hands the way he had a year ago in the ditch. “Why God did you lead me this far, only to drop me back into despair!?” Still Gideon decided to trust and obey.

Gideon ordered the belly drinkers wearily to go home. He wiped his eyes, took a deep breath and sighed as he looked at the 300 remaining men standing at the bottom of the hill. The men looked at each other baffled. Many thinking maybe Gideon was more crazy than inspired; most sticking around out of morbid curiosity. Walking down the hill Gideon tried to remember back to the day the Lord called him out of the ditch. He tried to regain some semblance of the courage he had that day. Looking at the 300 men, knowing they are about to face nearly 50,000, courage was hard to muster. He began to pray and remind God of His promises to deliver Israel from the Midianites at his hand. He cries out in front of the men; “God there is no way this can work, give us wisdom, and show us what to do!” The Lord answers.

“You and your men drop your armor, swords, and weapons. Get some sticks, pots, and a few trumpets instead.” Gideon is at his wits end. “WHAAAT?! The God of Moses must be cruel. He must think of our lives as a joke, and us His play things. Why does He command such madness!?” He looks at the 300 curious faces in front of him and sighs. “Look guys, God has given me a strategy. I know it’s His a plan from the One who delivered us from Egypt, but I can’t for the life of me understand it’s wisdom. But you agreed to be here, and I am your commander, so here is what we are going to do…” He instructs the men, deciding to trust and obey.

Night came, and they grabbed their sticks as torches, clay pots, and trumpets. They waited until the Midianites went to sleep. They crept up the hill just outside their camp. Gideon met them there. He had been standing there all night replaying the encounter he had with the angel. Over and over he recited what the Lord had told him. He looked out over the sea of sleeping Midianites and looked back to his 300 faithful slowly climbing up the hill. He pondered calling it all off citing the pure absurdity of what the Lord had commanded. Still Gideon decided to trust and obey.

He lifted his arms to the sky and signaled to them to take heart. They crowded into a big huddle a top the hill. He looked them all into the eyes with surging confidence. “Guys, tonight Israel is free from Midian oppression. Tonight we break the pots, light the sticks, and blow the trumpets and victory will be His! Tonight we obey the Lord’s instructions, and trust Him.” They broke up into three companies and went to different parts of the surrounding hills to surround the camp. Then all at once they did as the Lord commanded. They broke the pots, lit the sticks, and blew the trumpets.

The strangest thing followed. The Midian soldiers woke up in terror at the sounds of being surrounded. So terrified that they ran out of their tents and killed everyone they saw, until they were dead. The Midianites committed suicidal war on itself and was thus defeated. Gideon stood agape along with his men. What was originally going to be a bloody battle of 32,000 on 50,000 turned out to be a complete victory without a single Israelite lifting a sword. God fulfilled His promise, in such an unusual yet effective way. Gideon and his men could do nothing but fall down in worship.

The story of Gideon is not one of valor, strength, or even emotional stability. It’s one of simply doing two things: trust and obey. It’s a story of putting our trust into the plans of a sovereign God. It never seems to make sense or be easy in the process.

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and He will make your paths straight.”

Selah

The Wedding that could’ve waited

Last Sunday morning’s Youth Service I continued my series on Basic Christian doctrine. Right now we are exegetically going through Matthew 5, 6, and 7, other wise known as Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Sunday I went over “Blessed are those who Mourn” better translated “Happy are those who Mourn, for they shall be comforted.” It got me thinking about a crazy experience I had a number of years ago. This story would be the antithesis of Jesus’ exhortation; a sorta “what not to do”. Either way, the story:

The Wedding that could’ve waited

If you have read here enough you now know that for a number of years I was a professional wedding DJ. I spent three years worth of weekends Dj-ing everytype of wedding, at every type of venue you can possibly imagine within a 100 mile radius of Kansas City. The worst wedding I ever DJed was back in the summer of 2004. The wedding reception was about 45 minutes away in an old barn just outside of Clinton Missouri.

I showed up at the barn an hour and a half before the reception as per usual. It was always a bit of an adventure to walk into a venue to see what you had to work with set up wise. I walked in to survey the lay out and figure out the best place to put my lights, Sound System etc. As I walked toward the old stage at the other end of the dusty room, I heard subtle sobs from the kitchen at the back of the auditorium.  I figured it was nothing, as you learn, sometimes weddings are just emotional for people. You learn to keep your head down, mind your business, make people have fun, and you’ll get paid well.

I pulled up my truck to the back door, and begin unloading my equipment. Poles, Light Cans, Amps, Speakers, it was the one part of the job I disliked the most. As I was hoisting one of the 60 pound Speakers above my head to set a top a pole, I was startled by horrific sounds come from the kitchen. Nearly dropping the speaker on my head, I regained control and got it up. I turned and ran toward the kitchen thinking maybe someone had been hurt. I walked in to find three older woman dressed up for the wedding, huddled together on the ground screaming, crying, and sobbing. Since it didn’t seem to be a physical injury, I paused a little hoping the wails of mourning would subside long enough to find out what was going on. I went and grabbed a tissue box I had seen in the lobby earlier. I placed my hand on one woman’s back to console her and hand her the box. Her lip quivering as she looked up at me and simply said, “He’s dead!”

It took the women about fifteen minutes more to gather their composer. The woman I handed the tissue box to pulled the other ladies up, “Alright girls, we gotta pull it together! There’s work to be done yet”. Puzzled, I asked her what was going on. Straightening her dress and wiping her eyes so as to keep the black mascara under them in place, she tells me the story:

“The bridal party was driving back from Kansas City this morning and The groom’s father Chet decided to stay behind to get something special for his son on his ‘Big Day’. He was running late to the pictures before the ceremony, so he was a speed’n down hwy 50. He took a corner a little sharp as did the guy on the other side of the road. They hit head on, and he died instantly. The Police officer that responded, saw the wedding gift and invitation and sped up here to inform us about 30 minutes ago. Oh God! How could this happen!”

She was interrupted by her own sobbing that had started again. At this point I too had tears. I put my arm around the lady and comforted her. I assumed that the wedding was called off for the day. Once she regained her composer I told her to tell the Bride I’ll tear up the contract, and come back and do it for free whenever they decide to reschedule. She got very firm with me. She grabbed my hands tightly, “Don’t you dare do anything of the sort! We are having this wedding today and you are the paid entertainment! Now you buck up, finish setting up your equipment and show this crowd the best night of their lives Or I wont pay you a single penny! you understand!?” One thing I’ve learned about older mid-west women, when they demand something of you there is only one reply that will suffice: “Yes maam”. That was mine.

An hour went by after I had completely set up my equipment, and people were finally starting to trickle in. Normally when the guests trickle in from a ceremony they are generally happy, shaking hands with people they haven’t seen in a long time, lots of smiles, hugs, etc. Not this group; It was like watching a bad Sean Penn movie. One of the ladies was even standing at the entrance passing out tissues to the misty eyed people walking in. Meanwhile I’m sitting behind my sound board on stage praying that they at least decide to cancel the reception. I look at my watch, and it’s time for me to stand outside and greet the Bride and Groom.

The limousine pulls up about fifteen minutes late carrying the bride, groom, and entire wedding party. I help them out and put them into a line in the order I’m going to announce them. The groom takes a minute, but emerges from the limo. I pull him and the bride aside. “I heard what happened. The food is ready to go- why don’t we announce you guys, eat, do the formalities all at the front end, so we can end early and get you out of here.” “NO WAY!” The bride says “You are going to make us party! His dad would’ve wanted it! We singed a contract for 6 hours, now I expect you to perform the full 6 hours. You got it!?” Continuing with my learned wisdom concerning mid west women I replied, “Yes Maam”.

As you can imagine the next 6 hours felt like 6 weeks. The Father of the bride paid extra to make the bar completely open. In the two hours it took to get through dinner to the cake cutting, I already had a guy on the ground passed out drunk. It only took those two hours to figure out the groups’ collective strategy for dealing with grief: suppress it with entertainment and alcohol… LOTS of alcohol. Finally my time was coming to an end. Most of the people had gone except the bride and groom’s families and their dates. I programed my computer to an  auto pilot song list, and spent the last two hours outside trying to escape the madness. The bride was passed out laying on top of one of the tables, and the groom was twirling on the dance floor with his pants on his head as his friends laughed and poured beer out on the floor in “memory” of his dad.

11pm meant I was off the clock as far as the contract was concerned. I walked back in to a room of drunken zombies. Many passed out, ones that weren’t were almost there. I figured I couldn’t leave until I knew that they all had a way to get home safely, as no one was in any condition to drive. The owner of the barn said he had a bunk house, so we helped everyone in.  But it was a sad state of affairs- and reminds me how happy I am that I don’t have that job any more.

Often I notice this scenario with friends, family, on Facebook, in the news. Our cultural strategy to deal with pain, to deal with sin, to deal with shame, is simply to cover it up. We try to do everything we can to distract ourselves  from anything that is hard or painful. As a culture we are monumentally afraid that Nietzsche was right when he said “if you gaze into the abyss the abyss gazes into you.” We are afraid of pain, afraid of sadness. We are afraid of that moment before we sleep when the bed room door is closed and we have nothing but our pain and grief starring us in the face. We are afraid to embrace the pain, embrace the grief, embrace mourning.

Sigh…

Oh but there is hope! We are created beings. Beings with purpose. Beings that operate most efficiently when we follow the instruction manual we’ve been given. Jesus lays out these instructions in Matthew 5,6, and 7. He gives us the road to happiness. He tells us that the only way to deal with the pain of sin and circumstance is to mourn it- not ignore it.

“Happy are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” The promise is comfort. Grieving brings freedom to our hearts, ignoring it restricts our hearts. It robs us the ability to love well, and fosters shame and bitterness in our hearts. When pain and hardship come, like the loss of a loved one, mourning them is vital to keeping one’s heart alive. I pray for those families from that wedding often. I pray the Father compels their hearts Christ so they can know the wisdom of functioning the way they were created to. There is real hope and fulfilling comfort for all those that give themselves to Christ.

Intimacy With Jesus pt. 2

“The Steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to and end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” –Lamentations 3:22-23

Struggles in life are common. Everyone has their kryptonite when it comes to having a consistent and fruitful relationship with the living God. In my adolescent days pornography was the temptation and stumbling block that I had to overcome. In my adult years, the green rock that drains all hope and strength from my heart and soul is anxiety. A few years ago it was common for me to lie in bed breaking into a hot sweat, anxious about any gamut of things life can make one anxious about. At times I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night. Tossing and turning trying to calm down my fears. My problem fed a psychosis of fear that I thought would never break. It got so bad that even with nothing to fear I would fear sleep itself. I was a afraid I wouldn’t be able to sleep, and if I missed a night of sleep I’d worry that I would miss the next night of sleep then the next, ultimately ending in  death. I know sounds absolutely absurd, and it is, but fear has the all inclusive ability to overtake one’s entire thoughts and emotions. For me this is what fear did, it took away my dignity and convinced me that I was a lesser man then I was.

I figured spiritual discipline was the answer to my problem. I filled my time reading books like St. John of the Cross’ “Dark night of the Soul” and St. Bonaventure’s “The life of St. Francis”. Now don’t get me wrong, I love spiritual disciplines and I love some of the Old Catholic Saints even if some of their conclusions would be best thrown out, but I feel the same way about Luther and Calvin. I would pace in my bed room with my Bible open praying in the Spirit, asking forgiveness for every sin I had ever committed. I would break off curses, bind the enemy, and chastise myself for feeling so anxious. Then once I had finished repenting I concluded that God still wasn’t pleased with my attempt at devotion because I still had anxiety lingering. I rescheduled my time so I spent 12 hours a day in prayer, studied theology during my none prayer time, and worked out in order to “buffet my body”.  These times were not innately fruitless; I got in shape, got a handle on scripture like never before, and probably read about 3 large theological books a week. As far as discipline goes it was a good schedule. As far as my heart and understanding of God goes, there was much to be desired.

This season of my life culminated into a single weekend that ultimately changed my heart and outlook on God forever. It was obvious to my friends and fellow workers in ministry that I needed some sort of break. I had been on this rigorous schedule for about a year and the pleasantness I had once carried had faded. I was becoming depressed, and anxiety was growing not weakening. I decided to take a three day break at a retreat center up in the woods. Staying in the vein of discipline I decided not to take anything but my Bible, Fire Within by Thomas Dubay, and a notepad. I figured I’d do some hiking, do some writing, and meet God in any way I possibly could. Instead of my time being relaxing, my time was tormenting. I spent all three days weeping over my inability to connect with God. I wrote pages and pages detailing all the way I was failing God in my life. I made a list of all the things I wanted to change about my life. I wanted to spend money better. I wanted to cut out any and all entertainment out of my life figuring I didn’t deserve to have fun when millions in the world are dying without the knowledge of God.  I wanted to never sin so God would never be displeased with me. The last day of the weekend as I was driving back to Kansas City completely dejected at the lack fruit my weekend produced. It was then I heard the Lord say to me: “I delight in you”. It was a line that struck me in the gut. I pulled over to the side of the highway with tears streaming down my face as I hung my head. Then he spoke to me again, “lift up your head, my son you have been loved and are loved.” I got out of my truck and walked over to a bridge just off the highway overshadowing a small trickle of water. I leaned on the railing and wept thanking Him for actually speaking to me.

I had spent the better part of a year, trying to earn something that was already mine. I gritted my teeth and clenched my fists trying so desperately to earn the affection of my creator and savior that he had already endowed me with. I don’t regret that year of my life I spent seeking God with everything I had and in every way possible. To this day I pray I’m always pursuing God with everything I possibly can; I just also pray I do it in the grace of Christ. The problem I was facing was confidence. I was not confident in His love for me, I was insecure in it. When he spoke to me that day after my retreat it woke me up. I realized that the answer to my anxiety, and desire to encounter God wasn’t found in my ability to strive but in my ability to rest. Rest in the grace he has provided in the cross. Rest in the love he expresses daily. Rest in the provision we has given me. It produced in my heart Gratefulness, and gratefulness slowly melted away the anxiety and fear that had plagued my soul. It lead me to intimacy.

Last week we looked at how God has loved us. Looking at three of the primary expressions of His love for us in history, today we will look at three ways God loves us. Three ways that he expresses His love for us daily. Again the goal of the first three posts on Intimacy is first to get an understanding of God’s love for us, so we can then know how to live our life in a way that best loves and glorifies Him.

Grace. “For the Grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self controlled, upright, and Godly lives in the present age. Waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and savior Jesus Christ who gave himself for us to redeem us from lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for His own possession who are zealous for good works.” Titus 2:11-14 Grace is one of the first and clearest ways He expresses His love to us. In our day, grace is a message that has been misunderstood. Grace for many is a license to do as you please. It’s a message that has been preached defining our sin as superfluous because His grace simply covers our sin. Promoting the idea that we need not worry about how we act. However in the misapplication of grace we have cheapened this beautiful gift that is renewed to us every day.

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” Jn. 14:15

As I talked about last week we are image bearers of God that have been broken in the image we bear by sin. Since the intimacy pt 2fall of man, sin has been the cause of much corruption. Sickness, disease, poverty, fear, depression, sexual immorality, lust, greed, pride, murder, etc. have kept humanity imprisoned in a sinful cycle un able to live in the peace we were created to live, and have kept us as objects of His wrath. The grace of God appeared placing the wrath of God we deserved on the son, and covered our sins so we could live in peace. However that was not the complete work of grace. Grace appears daily. Grace is the power of God to keep us from falling into the sin, and thus separating us from him. It does indeed cover our sin, but it also trains us to love him by keeping His commandments.

Grace takes depraved human beings, incapable of real love, joy, and peace and gives them the strength to overcome fear, sin and shame. Grace is the daily mercy of the Lord guiding us, and training us to live holy and righteous; transcendent from the effects of the fall. Grace is Jesus perfecting our faith daily. Lovingly keeping us from stumbling (Jude 24) and sustaining us until the day of our Blessed hope, Jesus Christ returns and completes our salvation by glorifying us with Him. Grace is one of the greatest acts of love God daily gives us.

Intercession. “But if anyone does sin, We have an advocate before the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” I Jn. 2:1; “He forever lives to make intercession for them” (us) Heb. 7:25

The second way He Loves us is through Intercession.

Jesus is our great high priest. He has voluntarily taken the position of intercession before the Father for you and me. Every passing day Jesus is our faithful witness (Rev.1:5) standing before the Father pleading our case. He atones for our sins, asking the Holy Spirit to reveal His love, His jealousy, his glory, his wisdom to us on the Earth. Jesus forever mentions your name, my name before the Father.

Often Jesus feels far off. When we pray, go to work, go to school, live our lives we feel like we are distant at best, of no importance at worst. This is where building our understanding of God’s love purely on how we feel can lead us to a misconception of His love. Instead we can rest and have confidence in the truth; You are on the Mind of God! (Psalm 139:17-18 “How precious also are Your thoughts to me, O God! How great is the sum of them!  If I should count them, they would be more in number than the sand.”)The ministry of Jesus as our Great High Priest guarantees that we are not only on His mind, but that his thoughts toward us the redeemed or not of condemnation but of great compassion. This allows us to live life with confidence. We have a God in Heaven fighting for us, thinking about us, loving us amidst every trial, pain, fear, or accusation.

Holy Spirit; Revelation “But the helper Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send, will teach you all things.” Jn 14:26

One of the greatest daily expressions of God’s love is how He reveals to us himself through the Holy Spirit. Just as I reveal my heart in vulnerable way with my close friends, God has opened up His heart to us through the Holy Spirit so that we may know Him better. “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has in store of those who love Him, These things God has Revealed through His Spirit, the Spirit that searched the deep things of the father’s heart… (We have received) The Spirit that is from God, that we may understand the things freely given us by God.” (ICor2:9-12) Catch that? The deep things of the Father’s heart.

God has not abandoned us to our own defenses, Jesus has not left us as orphans, but he has left with us the divine imprint of His nature to dwell within us. Paul speaks of this to the church in Colossi. He tells them not to be ignorant of the mystery of Christ living within us; our hope for Glory. (Col. 1:27) The Holy Spirit gives us direct access to God’s heart, and testifies the truth of Jesus to our hearts.

The Holy Spirit’s activity manifests in a vast number of ways. First, through the Bible. The Word is living and active. When we read it our Spirit comes alive with real power as we touch the truth of who we are and who God is. Second, through Prophecy. We can hear the voice of the Living God, whether in the Word, in our Spirit’s, or in another. Prophecy is often one of the most dynamic ways the Spirit moves. Whether to warn us, convict us, comfort us, or edify us; it’s how Jesus express His heart to us. Third, through Conviction. When we falter in our quest for righteousness or stray from the truth the Holy Spirit is faithful to lovingly convict, and discipline us so we stay in the way of salvation. Finally through special revelation. Dreams, visions, audible hearings of God’s voice, words of wisdom, words of knowledge etc, are all ways he reveals His love, His intention, and His purpose to us who abide in Him.

All three of these expressions of God’s love should cause us to fall into wonder at who He is, and who He is toward us. I have practicals that we will go over in time concerning “How to” have intimacy with Jesus, but to be clear there is no formula. There is no amount of spiritual discipline, no amount of striving, no amount of righteousness you can gain on your own accord that will cause you to enter into a deep relationship with Jesus. We only enter in through His grace and intercession as stay attentive to the Holy Spirit as He teaches us more about this blessed God we so deeply desire to meet.

Learning to Discover My Wife

Six years ago, while I worked as a wedding DJ, I found myself backstage at a large Kansas City venue taking a break from the endless pounding of my own success at bringing energy to a room. I loved and hated my job, similar to the way a fireman loves being a hero, but hates watching a building go up in flames. I loved making a couple’s “big day” the best ever, I hated finding out months later that the marriage crashed and burned. After being a DJ two to three nights a week for a couple of years you start to get a certain feeling in your gut when you know a marriage was going to go sour. I found myself feeling the same frustration backstage that night. The signs that their marriage was headed toward a courtroom were easy to notice. The groom got trashed at the bar while the bride greeted guests. The maid of honor would be doing everything she could to convince herself that she did the right thing and remaining silent during the sober “speak now or forever hold your peace…” The signs were obvious.

Meatloaf, the singer, is a DJ’s best friend at weddings. Put on “Paradise by the Dashboard Lights” and you’ve got time to take a break thanks to his prolific-eccentric-long-windedness. I sat on a cigarette butt littered stoop behind the building pondering the state of matrimony this week’s couple was heading into while trying not to notice the stench of the dumpsters next to me filled with the Chicken Cordon Blue no one ate. I began analyzing them in my mind and began finding the entire institution of marriage hopeless. By this time an old man came and joined me on the stoop. He pulled out a cigar he had previously snuffed out and re-light it. “You sure got them dance’n in there! Gotta say you got folks in there mov’n like they used to 30 years ago. Shoot! My wife’s in there danc’n and she’s on her second hip! Ha!” Then he paused. He looked at me as though my thoughts were streaming across my forehead like the Nasdaq ticker on wall street. In a voice that I swear sounded like Jimmy Durante’s exclaimed, “Ah! You don’t think they’ll make it!… I’m right eh?”

Shocked by the nature of such an inquiry I took a moment. Looking into this man’s eyes, it was obvious to me that not only had he lived a life worthy of a Hollywood screenplay, he had also learned from his adventures. The result of which was the wise, tender, yet fierce light I was witnessing in his eyes. Since I could hear that Meatloaf was still “sleeping on it” I had about 3 minutes left. So I just came out with it, “No, I don’t think they’ll make it. If I was a bet’n man I’d be rich with the amount of times I’ve been right. In fact I don’t even know how most people make it in marriages anyway. I’m a Christian, so I know God will help you, but even in the Christian world it seems hopeless. I want to get married one day- but I’m terrified of ending up with the wrong person.”

Sigh. Yes very few times had I been that honest and open with a complete stranger. I could hear Meatloaf entering into the transition bridge meaning he had about 1:36 left on the song. The old man chuckled to himself and with what seemed like a twinkle in his eye offered me some advice as he began to snuff his cigar back out and follow me inside. “Young man, nothing’s changed. Marriage was hard 50 years ago when I got married, and I was scared out of my wits just like you. Let me tell you something, marriage isn’t about what you can get, but what you can discover. It’s not about finding some “broad” with good looks and a little bit of charm, it’s about finding that one woman who turns out to be your best friend, and helping her with her life. In doing so you’ll find your own life. That’s how God intended it.” Astonished by his generosity in sharing I thanked him as a ran, not walked in to fade Meat Loaf out. As I left he slapped me on the back side and called out, “Best of luck to ya kid, remember what I said!”

Paul talks in Hebrews about entertaining strangers, because you never know when you may be entertaining an angel. (Heb. 13:2) I’ve never really thought much about that verse, but I couldn’t help but notice that the old man was nowhere to be found after that. I have my suspicions as to who he was, but I’ll never forget what he said: “Marriage isn’t about what you can get, but what you can discover.”

As I transition from my rookie year of marriage I have discovered many things about my wife, myself and life. To not risk sounding too pretentious being that it’s only been a year, I’ll narrow it down to one discovery:   loving.

When I was younger I had always thought about marriage as that great institution that would take away my loneliness and give me someone to make me feel better about myself. I was wrong. The greatest thing I’ve discovered in marriage is that I take pleasure in and enjoy my wife so much more when it’s not about me, but about her. When I think about her needs and fighting for her destiny, loving and serving her where she’s at, I discover things about her I never noticed. I discovered that my wife is way more tender than I ever thought she was. I find that she is the funniest person I know. I began to notice why she gets frustrated from time to time as opposed to getting frustrated at her frustration. She became a person I marvel at and talk to the Lord about. I can tell when she’s hungry by the way she seems disinterested in anything I’m saying.  I know that if I don’t make her sit down and rest she’ll work herself to the bone. I know that in loving her as an intentional action, I fall in love with her more every day. I know that doing things for her still gives me butterflies. I know that she has helped me grow into a better human being.  I know that some people are at this point starting to get queasy at my gushy bloviating, so I digress.

My outlook on marriage after a year has been great. I love my wife, and in loving her she loves me. In fighting for her destiny in life, she fights for mine. Marriage has had its rough spots, loving no matter what is never easy. But like the old man said: “Marriage isn’t about what you can get, but what you can discover.” Thus far he has been proven right.

I love you Carrie Hensley- I’m looking forward to this next year.