Dusty People

Dry Earth_Dusty People

People outside the faith have no idea that we who want to follow Jesus live in constant tension. It’s the tension between the ideal of trying to live the way Jesus calls us to live and the reality that we are, most often, just like everybody else. We struggle and fail and refuse to do what we know God wants us to do. It can be a life of constant frustration and deep discouragement as we experience the reality of the traditional prayer of confession:

…We have done those things we ought not to have done

And left undone those we ought to have done

And there is no health in us.

The disillusion and failure have taken many people away from faith. Facing this reality, however, can actually deepen our understanding of grace and our gratitude to God. It can also reshape our unbiblical expectations.

The starting point is learning, in humility, to accept the fact that we are works in progress. We are not “struck perfect” simply by expressing faith in Christ. Faith is a both an act and a process:

It is an act of commitment—like a wedding,

and a process of becoming—like a marriage.

It is like the birth of a child

and the process of that child growing to mature adulthood.

Second, it helps to realize God is not surprised by our failures. That doesn’t excuse them, but it does give us hope. As I wrote in a recent blog, “Our sin spoils our fellowship with God, but it does not make God love us less.”

My “trigger phrase” to awaken humility and gratitude at the same time is that we are “dusty people.” I take this concept from Psalm 103…

As a father has compassion on his children,

    so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him;

for he knows how we are formed,

    he remembers that we are dust. (Psalm 103:13-14 NIV).

God knows our limitations. God knows our personality faults and the deep scars of our experience. God knows we don’t have– and cannot get— it all together. God knows we are dust. Mortal, wounded… and redeemed by grace to be resurrected in glory.

In his book, Testament of Devotion, Thomas Kelly frequently recognizes our imperfection and provides guidance for those who are likely to be overwhelmed by failure.

“The first days and weeks and months of offering total self to God are awkward and painful, but enormously rewarding. Awkward, because it takes constant vigilance and effort and reassertions of the will, at the first level. Painful, because our lapses are so frequent, the intervals when we forget Him so long. Rewarding, because we have begun to live. But these weeks and months and perhaps even years must be passed through before He gives us greater and easier stayedness upon Himself.

“Lapses and forgettings are so frequent. Our surroundings grow so exciting. Our occupations are so exacting. But when you catch yourself again, lose no time in self-recriminations, but breathe a silent prayer for forgiveness and begin again, just where you are. Offer this broken worship up to Him and say: ‘This is what I am except Thou aid me.’ Admit no discouragement, but ever return quietly to Him and wait in His Presence.” (p. 39)

The First Letter of John reminds us,

“If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us. 2 My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One” (1 John 1:8-2:1 NIV).

Realistically, we will fail God daily– and often fail to recognize most of our sins. (And that’s a mercy, in and of itself!). God does not want us to punish ourselves with guilt and shame as the way of “self-atonement.” Instead, we cast ourselves on God’s mercy. It’s not about being perfect. It’s about faith embracing God’s grace.



Gollum and Necessary Companions

We all have people in our lives we’d like to avoid and be done with. But in doing so, we may miss something essential to our life and mission.

Gollum was a disgusting, dangerous and necessary companion for Frodo Baggins. If you’re not familiar with J. R. R. Tolkien’s classic novels of the The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, a brief background will suffice. Tolkien’s epic work The Lord of the Rings, tells the story of evil power rising to tyrannize and exploit Middle Earth, controlled by The One Ring of Power. Thousands of years before the events of the novels, the Dark Lord Sauron had forged the One Ring to rule the other Rings of Power and subdue those who wore them: the leaders of Men, Elves and Dwarves. Sauron was later vanquished in battle by an alliance of Elves and Men. The One Ruling Ring was lost in the River Anduin at Gladden Fields. Over two thousand years later, the ring was found by one of the river-folk called Déagol. His friend Sméagol (who was eventually called Gollum) immediately fell under the ring’s influence and strangled Déagol to acquire the Ring. Sméagol was banished and hid under the Misty Mountains. The power of the ring seduced Gollum, controlling him and making him a lesser being. One of the benefits of the ring was being invisible, which had great advantages for survival. The ring also extended his lifespan and transformed him over the course of hundreds of years into a twisted, corrupted creature. Ironically, Gollum lost the ring, his “precious”, and, as recounted in The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins found it. Meanwhile, the Dark Lord Sauron re-assumed physical form and took back his old realm of Mordor. (Hang in there– I’m getting to my point…).

The hobbit Frodo Baggins inherited the ring from Bilbo Baggins, his first cousin (once removed) and guardian. Neither were aware of its origin and nature, but Gandalf the Grey, a wizard and old friend of Bilbo, suspected the ring’s identity. When Gandalf became certain, he knew the only way to destroy the Dark Lord and prevent the absolute corruption of Middle Earth was to keep Sauron from getting the ring. Gandalf strongly advised Frodo to destroy the ring by throwing it into the Cracks of Doom, the lava flow in the heart of Mt. Doom, where the all the rings were originally forged. Frodo agreed, and thus began an arduous and very dangerous quest.

Along the way Frodo was tracked and attacked several times by Gollum who was driven to get the ring back from Frodo. When Frodo had the opportunity to do away with Gollum, however, Frodo showed mercy. Instead of killing Gollum, Frodo made constructive use of Gollum’s knowledge and skills. Like David with King Saul, Frodo never took judgment into his own hands (see 1 Samuel 24:6-15 and 1 Samuel 26:1-25). The result (spoiler alert!) was that Gollum led Frodo to the Cracks of Doom and (there’s a lot more to this story!) the The One Ring of Power was destroyed. Middle Earth was saved.

We all have ambivalent relationships that we cannot avoid, trying as they are. I think of Jesus choosing Judas as one of the disciples and entrusting him with the group’s money (John 12:4-6). That decision takes us into serious contemplation on the nature of fellowship. Even among God’s people there are relationships in which we may feel devalued, undermined, put on the spot by competition and comparison, taken advantage of, taken for granted, and any number of other frustrations. And, to be candid, we often consider ways to avoid these relationships. The Gollum principle (perhaps we could call it the “Judas principle”…), however, sounds a note of caution. Maybe there is a redemptive purpose in the midst of this trying relationship. Gollum is that person who causes persistent irritation, but in the end plays an important, even essential, role.

Some time ago I made a list of my “Gollums.” I know this sounds terrible– but I had to be honest with myself as a discipline of confession and repentance. On reflection, I was able to name not only the “challenge(s)” those few people posed, but also the value they brought into my life. I do not claim I wanted to continue in those relationships. They are not friend-type folks for me. But I’ve learned that I am called to humility and patience, even when I think I have justification to change the relationship. They ended up helping me move along the journey.

We can all understand difficult, antagonistic relationships in the world. The sobering truth is that fellowship in the Body of Christ brings the us into community with those who would not choose to relate to us under other circumstances. It helps me to remember that I am to value and love all whom God calls. Knowing myself in all honesty, I am amazed at God’s love for me. And I sometimes I wonder whose Gollum I am.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19 Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord… 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.                  Romans 12:14-21 New International Version (NIV)

Backstage Grace

God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God.  Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. (Ephesians 2:8-9 New Living Translation).

Blog_Eagles backstage
Our backstage pass for the Eagles’ Concert authorized with Bernie Leadon’s initials (BL)

Grace is one of the most significant words in the Christian vocabulary. While it’s a good idea to avoid jargon, it’s simply a fact that all specialties have their vocabulary. In dealing with computers and data, I’ve had to learn megabytes, gigabytes, and terabytes. In caring friendships, I’ve had to learn about gluten-free and vegan. So what about grace? It’s not an easy concept to grasp. Before I share what it looked like once for me, it will be helpful to define grace and how it differs from mercy. The Apostle Paul used these two terms together in the greeting of some of his letters,

“I am writing to Timothy, my true son in the faith. May God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord give you grace, mercy, and peace” (1 Timothy 1:2 New Living Translation, NLT).

In brief, grace is getting what we do not deserve. Mercy is not getting what we do deserve (usually in terms of consequences). Mercy is, well… merciful. It is pardon for breaking a law; it is forgiveness for an unkind word or act. Mercy cleans the slate so we get a new start. Grace is something added. It is a gift that blesses us. It is not only forgiveness, but reconciliation and restoration. Mercy removes the negative. Grace adds the positive.

So now let me share one of my special experiences of grace. Every once in a while I get an email that is quite understated. Here’s one that came out of the blue. I needed to read it twice to fully appreciate it:

“Doug, one of the board members in my motorcar hobby association is Bernie Leadon, founding lead guitarist of the Eagles (the rock group known for “Take It Easy”, “Peaceful Easy Feeling” and “Witchy Woman,” among countless other hits). They are playing at the Inglewood Forum in LA this week and next, and he has set aside 2 VIP tickets for next Wednesday for me and a guest. It also includes 2 back stage passes… Would you like to go with me? Just a thought.  Should be a great show.  (Signed) Bill.

Would I like to go??? Would I?! I play guitar and have enjoyed playing in a band with some church friends—and I’ve listened to the Eagles for decades. I told my wife, Sarah, the news… and let’s just say Sarah was fine with my attending—so long as she came, too! I didn’t want to presume on Bernie’s generosity, but we asked Bill if he could possibly ask Bernie for another ticket and backstage pass. (So you’re already seeing us pushing for more grace….). Bernie came through, “No problem!” he said.

It was an unforgettable experience. When we arrived at the Forum in Los Angeles, we went to a VIP entrance and were ushered to Bernie’s dressing room, where he greeted us warmly. Bernie really respects Bill and truly appreciated Bill bringing his pastor and wife. After some conversation, Bernie asked if we wanted to do anything special, and I asked if we could walk backstage and see his guitars. (I was thinking I might get some pointers for playing with my cover band, The Fabulous Edsels!) So Bernie took us backstage where we saw racks and racks of some of the finest guitars I will ever lay eyes on. In addition to Bernie’s guitars, we also saw two racks for Joe Walsh (of “Hotel California” fame), and guitars for Glenn Frey and the back-up band. Beautiful! (Sorry for all the exclamation points!). Most of the guitarists played a different guitar for every song. We also met the guitar technicians who continually tune and care for the instruments. Then there was the whole backstage set-up with the lights, computers, video equipment and so on.

After that tour we went back to Bernie’s dressing room and “hung out” for nearly half an hour, meeting some of Bernie’s family members and other friends he’d invited to the show. It was such a relaxing time. About 10 minutes before the concert began Sarah, Bill and I were ushered into our seats in Row Six, just to the right of center stage. I have never had such seats before—and never will again, I’m sure. I could watch all the chord progressions and lead-solo fingerings of Bernie and Joe Walsh—a guitarist’s dream! The concert was a blast—in more ways than one—and we felt a connection that really enhanced the whole experience.

The next day I wrote an email to Bernie to thank him. I said, in part, “Last night was a great illustration of grace for me. Grace is getting something we don’t deserve, and there’s no way Sarah and I deserved the VIP treatment we got last night. We ‘coat-tailed’ on Bill’s friendship with you, and you accepted us. That’s a lot like God’s grace toward us. Just had to let you know how deeply it touched us.” Bernie wrote a very thoughtful reply, and we’ve actually corresponded a few times since.

There are many grace-gifts in our lives every day, but some certainly stand out—like this backstage, behind-the-scenes experience. Thanks, Bill. Thanks, Bernie! And thank you, Lord, for your mercy and grace.