Friday, October 28, 2011

How will he not give us all things?

"He who did not spare His own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?"(Romans 8:32)

Thursday we made the 10 hour round trip visit to Romney to see our son, Jake. This time we surprised him at his school, Hampshire High School.

He jumped up and down with his arms in the air and then hugged each of us for the longest time. His teacher, Mrs Sczabo, was so excited to show us everything they had been working on and Jake was so proud to display EVERYTHING he had learned.

We are truly thankful to God for this amazing teacher, the people of Romney, and the Potomac Center where Jake lives. He is so happy and progressing so far beyond all of our expectations.

As we walked the hallways of the high school with Jake, we were overwhelmed by the display of love and kindness towards our son. He is a very popular kid at this very typical high school. Every teacher we met, to include the vice principal, took the time to personally thank us for sharing Jake. "He is such a joy to be around," they told us.

We left the school with our excited son, who was just a little disheartened that he didn't get to ride the big yellow school bus that day (one of his top 10 favorite things to do in life), and carried out our usual strict routine of dinner at McDonalds and shopping at Walmart.

At McDonands, Jake walked up to almost every table in the dining room and greeted the patrons, shaking hands and giving high fives. His non-verbal display of happiness was met with warm smiles and surprisingly appropriate responses.

"He's never met a stranger." I tell them as I follow my son around the tables, keeping a safety grip on the back of his shoulder.

The people of Romney are so kind and patient with our son. Very few people stare in this small town where the two largest buildings are The Potomac Center for Disabled Children and The Romney School for the Deaf and Blind. Most openly embrace Jake as one of their "different" but friendly fellow townspeople.

Jake's true personality shines in this town. There are no outbursts of anger or emotional meltdowns. There is little frustration and no anxiety. The time we now spend with our son is a wonderful experience that bonds our family closer together each time we visit.

On our drive back to Jake's residence we passed by several old houses for sale in the surrounding area of Romney. "Maybe we should just move up here," I said quietly to my wife. "Maybe we should," she replied. "I could work at Walmart or McDonanlds," I half-joked. "Jake would love that."

The drive back to the Potomac Center residential home is usually very quiet and somber. Conversation is replaced with deep thoughts of mixed emotions.

Our strongest desire is to be close to our son, to care for him and to be an intricate part of his life, but he lives 250 miles away and because he is non-verbal, he can't even "talk" to us on the phone. Our involvement in his life is a trip to McDonalds and Walmart every couple months. It breaks our heart to live like this.

However, we are most blessed that our totally dependent, disabled son lives in a small town full of traditional people where he is well educated, well cared for, thriving socially, and loved by all. We could not ask more for Jake than what he has been given over these past three years.

But there will come a time (in about two years) when we will be forced to find a new place for Jake, possibly in some other far off town.

When he turns 21, his eligibility for the Potomac Center and the Hampshire County school system expires. He will never ride the big yellow school bus again. Our hearts absolutely break when we think about how difficult this time will be.

There are no facilities in the immediate area where we now live that are suitable for Jake's care. Even if there was, a move that far would mean a drastic shift in his structured routine. A new place, new facility, with new people, new rules means chaos and anxiety for our son.

All of this separation, heartbreak and uncertainty continually reminds us of of one thing--our desperate and absolute dependence on the One who cares for our son better than we could ever care for him ourselves.

God has proven one thing to us over and over again throughout Jake's life: He loves our son more than we could ever love our son. And what encourages us most is that God's amazing and continual love for this vulnerable boy is not only seen in the difficult life of our son, it is ultimately seen in gospel--the sacrificial death of God's Son.

Romans 8:32 is our promise that God's love and care for Jake will never fail.

As wonderful as Jake's current setting is, our hope is not in the Potomac Center, the Hampshire County school system, or the city of Romney. Neither is our hope in the circumstances of the future.

Our hope is in the gospel of the Father who did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up for us. With this continually on our minds and in our hearts, we ask the comforting, rhetorical question, " will He not also, with him, graciously give us all things?"

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Love Never Gives Up

"Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things."
(1 Corinthians 13:7)

"She begged me to stay, but I was already gone. I had walked away from our marriage, children, family, friends and church. I had turned my back on God and His gospel. My feelings were blank, my faith was lost, my love was empty, and I was dead."

I wish this was someone else's story, someone vague and obscure to my immediate knowledge. Then it could be viewed as an anonymous lesson for personal application, or perhaps a good sermon illustration. I could file it away in a drawer of things that were at one time useful and now forgotten.

It is not someone else's story. It is neither vague nor obscure. It contains familiar names, faces and specific times. It is written in tears and pain and personal failure. It is my story, and it will never be forgotten.

Although it happened years ago, the scars are still visible, making the reminders ever present. I generally keep my sleeves down and the scars covered so that people who think highly of me will continue to do so, but there is a time in every man’s life when he has to step away from the stage of personal accolades and self esteem, take off his shiny clothes and show the world the stitches and scars of wars gone by.

This is the place where, after telling the mesmerizing war stories, he has to admit that most of his battle wounds were actually self-inflicted—mistakes, mishaps and sins—the worst kind of “friendly fire”.

I remember every detail of that day. I sat in the living room chair like an ice covered statue, frozen in apathy and hopelessness. A blank stare peeked though slitted eyelids as my jaws clenched in repetition with the ticking clock that hung on the wall behind me. The ticking grew louder as her cries grew softer to my deafened ears.

My wife knew something was desperately wrong with me, but she didn’t know the depth of depravity to which I had fallen. I had been walking like a ghost through our house for about six months now—a shadow of the former husband, father, and man that my family once knew.

I was living a lie, surrounded by twisted truth, all wrapped up in dark deception. She suspected the worst, yet was convinced in her heart that the man she had known and loved since she was fourteen years old could never commit these unspeakable acts, and the God she had trusted with her life would never allow her heart to be destroyed by love.

Either way, she was very aware that I had come to the end of myself, and the man who sat in that living room chair was not the man anyone had once known. Disgrace had settled on my shoulders like a wet wool blanket soaked in the sewage from the gutter of sin, and I was strangely satisfied in hiding under its cloak.

Ever aware of the statistics, I used all of them in my defense: 50% of marriages end in divorce. Add to the mix a severely disabled child and the statistics go up considerably. Throw in family history, severe anxiety and depression and it hangs by a thread. Stir together deception, treachery and infidelity and the statistics cannot account for the hopelessness that abounds. Statistics prove we never had a chance.

All that was left to do now was walk out the door and never return. I had counted the cost, accepted the consequences, burned the necessary bridges, and settled on the outcome as a sad, yet simple, result of the circumstances at hand. "Give up, go away and get over it." I thought to myself. That seemed to be the formula for most of the failed marriages I had observed anyway.

I was prepared to tell her that I no longer loved her. I was prepared for joint custody, child support and alimony. I was prepared to start life over with someone new. I was even prepared to reject my theology and accept the condemnation that I knew would follow.

I was prepared for everything that day—everything, except grace.

In a last ditch plea to wake me from my dying rebellion, she cast all of her pride and dignity aside, fell on her hands and knees and desperately wrapped her arms around my legs as I sat emotionless in the living room chair. Washing my feet with her tears, she said these words, “I love you, and I will not let you go.”

She didn’t know it then, and neither did I, but that single grip of grace would be the ember God would use to burn His gospel deep into my soul and reignite the love that was surely lost. In the difficult days to come, it would illustrate the application of the cross to my hardened heart more than all the sermons I had ever heard—all the books I had ever read.

I was captivated by her love and shocked by her response. As much as I wanted to run, I was paralyzed by grace.

Like a stick in the spokes of the wheel to my getaway vehicle, her words pierced my soul, stopped my rebellion and softened my heart just enough to allow me to feel again. It was as if Jesus Himself were holding me in that chair and speaking the same words, "I love you, and I will not let you go."

Looking back, I'm sure the spiritual warfare that day was as brutal as it had ever been in the invisible realm that surrounded our marriage and home. The darkness was powerful and relentless. God's grace was stronger.

I witnessed first hand the enemy's most potent weapon against grace. He simply dips his finger into the spilled blood of sinners and writes the letters "DIS" in front of "GRACE".

Disgrace is not a cliff where we run to commit spiritual suicide, suddenly jumping to our death. It is a gradual green slope that slowly turns brown as we descend. It is neither straight nor narrow. It is broad and curvy to keep us wide-eyed yet blind—a series of attractive turns that promises greener fields around every corner, but never delivers. Rather, around every bend the clouds get darker and darker until we find ourselves totally lost and completely without sight.

It is here where we stumble and fall from the edge of life into the pit of destruction, cushioned only by the rotting corpses that have gone before us. With dirt pressed hard underneath our fingernails, we claw the walls in an attempt to get out—blindly unaware that we are only digging deeper and deeper into the muck and the mire of sin. This is the cavern where love goes unwittingly to die.

Disgrace ultimately longs for death to cover its shame. I begged for it during those day.

But there is a strong voice from the edge of that pit—a voice proclaiming with awakening hope, that indeed death has covered your shame. The cross is the only answer to our disgrace.

It is here where Christ dips His finger into His own blood and forever covers over the "DIS" in front of the "GRACE".

"And you were dead in your trespasses and sins in which you once walked...But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our sins, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved." (Ephesians 2:1-5)

The gospel of grace is the rope of rescue from the pit of destruction and disgrace. Nothing else will do.

And so I post this vulnerable story with the risk of losing much respect from the people I most admire, and the reality of resurrecting much pain from the memories that are just now beginning to heal. But this is a risk worth taking because grace is always a story worth telling.

Sadly and realistically, not all marriages are saved. Not all families are spared. Not all men are awakened to the love of a tenacious wife and a merciful God. But some are, therefore there is hope.

There is hope for the men (and women) who now find themselves on the slope, around too many corners, in the fading darkness, or already clawing at the bottom of the pit.

There is hope for those covered in the muck of sin and the mire of shame.

There is hope for those who once heard from God, but now only listen to the faint whispers from the shadows telling them that they have dug too deep, turned too many corners or fallen too far.

There is hope for those who have lost all sight of life and think only death can cover their shame.

May this story and my testimony be a strong voice from the edge of that pit—a voice that proclaims with awakening hope, that indeed death has covered your shame.

“But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us…For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by His life.” Romans 5:8&10

Love never stops bearing, never stops believing, never stops hoping, never stops enduring.

In other words, love never gives up.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Does God Wear a Seat Belt?

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.
(Romans 8:28)

"Does God wear a seat belt?"
That was the question my 5 year old daughter asked me on the drive to kindergarten yesterday. I thought hard to myself before I answered. Anthropomorphically speaking, the answer is "no". I didn't actually use the word "anthropomorphically" with my 5 year old daughter, but thinking about the myriad of theological problems in buckling the God of the universe into a car seat, I decided to do the best I could with the teachable moment at hand.
"Why would God wear a seat belt when He already knows, plans and creates everything on the road ahead of Him?" I answered.
"God would probably never break the law..." she rebutted and then paused, "...but who would give Him a ticket if He did?" We both laughed at her 5 year old reasoning. I smiled even more at her high view of the Almighty.
She then went on to spontaneously quote her memory verse for the week, which just so happened to be Romans 8:28, which also happens to be the real answer to the question, "Does God were a seat belt?" I love how God tenderly responds to our teachable moments.
Sometimes the answers come so light and easy, and sometimes everyday life is the clearest commentary to difficult passages. Sometimes the ride to kindergarten is a joyous opportunity for higher education. Sometimes the innocent musings of a 5 year old little girl make God look greater than a shelf full of theology books.
But most times, life is difficult and understanding is darkened, and all we have is a view of the road before us through a dirty windshield, and elementary theology will not keep our porous faith afloat. Most times it is difficult to see that "all things" really mean "all things".
I am a police officer and my wife is a neonatal ICU nurse. Believe it or not, we often deal with the exact same people in our line of work. I will arrest a pregnant, drug addicted, mother of three for shoplifting and two weeks later my wife will receive her baby in the NICU. My wife will then nurse the drug addicted baby through the horrible withdrawals, and remorsefully hand her over to the drug addicted mother to take home.
A few weeks later, I will get a call of a domestic disturbance and go to the residence to find the same mother strung out on heroin and beaten up by an ex-boyfriend. I will then call Child Protective Services to come get the baby until the mother can get her life straightened out. Tax dollars will pay for foster care, counseling, rehab and parental skills classes, and if the mother convinces CPS that she is once again fit for motherhood, the baby will be handed back to her waiting arms.
Or the mother can opt out of the entire plan and simply get pregnant again, restarting the (almost unbelievable) continuous cycle of parental depravity.
Add to this cruel story the fact that this couple (the cop and the nurse, that is) were never able to have biological children of their own, and the irony falls on them like bricks from a crumbling government project. They spend their lives rescuing the offspring of the often uncaring, thankless and unbelieving, only to be a working cog in the cyclical system which they abhor.
So where does Romans 8:28 fit in this scenario? I'm not specifically thinking about the addicted mother, or the ex-boyfriend who beat her up, or the drug dealer who got her hooked on heroin, or the wayward father who never gave her enough love or attention. Although common grace is extended to them as well, the verse specifically states that only “for those who love God” does God work “all things for good”. Only to those “called” is His purpose for good extended as a surprising gift.
But what about the cop who trusts God, loves Jesus and is indwelled by the Spirit only to experience a constant barrage of evil that breeds wasted lives, sinful suffering, tragic death and cynical attitudes? How are “all things” working for good in his life?
And what about the NICU nurse who loves God and spends a lifetime praying over her own empty womb while delivering drug addicted babies, caring for them with all her heart, coddling uncaring, drug addicted, government aided parents, only to hand the child over to a mother who will steal the baby’s medication and allow the child to suffer though the withdrawals of her own imputed addiction? Where can she find God, or good, or meaning in “all things”?
As much as I hate quoting philosophers, Sören Kirkegard got it right when he said, "It is perfectly true, as philosophers say, that life must be understood backwards. But they forget the other proposition, that it must be lived forwards.”
Live life forwards; understand life backwards. I think that is at least (a) key in understanding “All things”.
So, let's take a glance backwards about 18 years, at the forward lived lives of the cop and the nurse.
One morning, the nurse comes home from a long, harrowing shift at the hospital and tells the cop of a beautiful baby boy that she has been caring for over the past few days. A note on the baby's isolette indicates that the child has been abandoned by the drug addicted birth mother and is awaiting CPS to place him in the foster system. The couple immediately obtain legal counsel and adopt the little boy. The little boy grows up, leads the adoptive parents to Christ and changes the lives of countless people all over the world for the glory of God.
Perhaps it is significant to mention that this child is the biological son of a drug addicted mother and father, he is autistic, cannot speak, is physically disabled and has the permanent cognitive ability of a two-year-old. And "all things" in his broken body display the glory of God and work for good in the lives that are touched by his silent testimony.
Only God could put together a story like that. He writes it forwards, with purpose, beauty, mercy and grace. But it did not look like it was ever heading in that direction. In reality, it rarely does. That is what makes grace so amazing and so sweet.
As stated above with little effect, I dislike quoting philosophers. Even more, I detest using cheesy, shallow analogies to explain the infinitely deep things of God. But sometimes we must use the mundane to bring the profound to the simple. And we are all simpletons to God.
So, with some reluctance and the humble realization of an anthropomorphically limited application, here it is:
It’s sort of like riding shotgun with God. He’s driving fast--almost reckless, with one hand on the wheel. As per our argument above, He’s not wearing a seat belt. Even more frightening, He doesn’t even appear to be paying attention to the road signs, construction barriers or potholes. He seems too interested in carrying on a conversation with you to watch where He is going. And He’s smiling while he drives. He’s smiling because only He knows where you’re going.
You, on the other hand, are sitting white knuckled in the passenger seat watching the scenery flash by like a cartoon flip book written in Chinese. The road signs are all blank. Nothing makes sense. Nothing appears good. “Slow down!” you scream in your mind. “Watch out for that hole! What did that sign say?! Wasn't that our exit? Where are we going anyway!!!?"
Then nervously, almost out of desperation to find an answer to your unintentionally rhetorical questions, you look in the rear view mirror and see that the hole is gone. The road is paved smooth. Everything is moving slowly and clearly. All the signs are visible and readable. They weren't blank, they were just facing the opposite direction, written backwards to be read only in the mirror as you pass.
Everything you see is filled in with indescribable color and hue. All the chaos before you has been turned into meaning and purpose behind you. You cannot take it all in, but you see clearer and you trust deeper. It would be tempting to stare into the mirror for the entire trip, but looking backwards and driving forwards is a queasy recipe for car sickness.
So you face forward, sit back and ease into your seat--gazing on His face, glancing at the road, and glimpsing in the rear view mirror. You begin to find assurance in His hand on the wheel and eventually discover comfort and confidence in His mysterious smile. Still, you keep your seat belt buckled and hold on tight. After all, He is God and you are not.
Knowing how you are made, He whispers in a reassuring tone, "All things are going as planned".
“Everything?” you ask.
“All things”, He smiles.