Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door

Is your life swirling counter-clockwise around the toilet?  Have you burned the bridges between you and a meaningful life, between you and happiness?  Have you hurt the ones you love, hurt yourself?  Do you think you are unlovable?  Well–get in line, take a number, join the crowd.  You are most definitely not alone.

There are very few people whose lives haven’t been a wreck at one time or another.  Most of us look upright and respectable but we have just learned to hide what shames us the most.  I know I don’t want anyone peaking in my closets, or digging around in my backyard.

But, whether we have buried our sins away in the deepest caverns, or they are out in the open and obvious to all; whether we have America’s dream family with a house in the suburbs and a spot on the city counsel, or we have all our belongings in a tattered backback next to our cardboard sign — we are all in the same boat.  To paraphrase a metaphor from Max Lucado: We are all jumping for our salvation.  Some of us can jump four feet while others only one inch, but what difference does it make when we are jumping for the moon? We all missed by 280,000 miles… give or take a foot or two.

Without some serious help, all our lives are swirling down the toilet.  Whether it’s a toilet of gold in a perfect home or a puke-stained toilet behind the gas station in the projects makes no difference; we will all end up in the same sewer.

It doesn’t matter how badly we have screwed up, how low we have fallen, if the one who created us cares–there is hope.  Jesus told a parable about an unbelievably disrespectful, greedy, and selfish son going away and squandering much of his father’s wealth on “wild living”.  Yet, the father never stopped searching the horizon for a sign of his son’s return, and when he finally did, he staged a great celebration.  “For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”

The church down the street might not accept the heartless jerks, or the sexual deviants, or the selfish, or the drunks, or the thieves, but God’s church will.  If you are searching, you don’t have to enter a building with a cross on it to say; God, I need help.  Are you there?  Are you real?  Jesus said, “seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you”. That means, if you are honestly searching, God will show you that He Is, and who he is.  Don’t expect a thunderbolt.  It might take seconds, or it might take months.  Just keep your eyes and heart open because he WILL show you.  Count on it.

A.J.

Basics of Christianity: #11 – End or Beginning?

Why are you reading this?  How did you get where you are?  Is it all by chance that you ended up on this page, or could there be a reason that things worked out  for you to be where you are right now, reading this post?  Is he way more dramatic or would God use an average joe like me to tell you about him, on social media no less.

I remember as a twelve-year old, because I couldn’t be trusted to stay out of trouble if she left us behind, my newly divorced mom would drag my little brother and I to these prayer meetings she attended.  But, one time she did leave me behind and, true to form, I found trouble.  That evening I was supposed to babysit my eight-year old brother, but obviously eight-year-olds are plenty old enough to take care of themselves.

With a directive to stay in the house and a threat that I would beat him up if he told on me(I wouldn’t have, but he didn’t know that),  I left my brother behind and went out with my friends.  An hour later, we were crossing a busy highway when I saw a gap in traffic that wasn’t actually there, and I ended up running into the side of a car that was going fifty miles per hour.  I don’t remember this part, but my friends told me that I was limping around, screaming in the middle of the road, as horrified drivers swerved and slammed on their brakes.

Had I been an instant faster, this page and this post would not exist. The smallest things we do or don’t do can change things forever.  If I had been an instant faster across that street, none of my children would exist and every influence they have had or will have on situations or people throughout their lives would or will never have happened. Who knows how many others would not be born, all my future grandchildren and great grandchildren and so on, possibly all because my foot slipped slightly on the gravel before I started my sprint across that busy highway.

Is it all chance or did God work everything out for you to be you?  Is it chance or did God find a way for me to write this series?  Is it chance that you are reading it?  Today, right now, is God talking to you?  Is it possible that he would use a semi-struggling sinner like myself to tell you about Jesus?

Is this a special page?  Am I a special author?  I don’t think so, but I believe God will use anything and everything to tell us what he wants us to know.  The apostles were nothing special as men go.  But, God used that unlikely group of men to spread the word about his son, the same word that is being spread around the world two thousand years later despite all odds.  The same word I am spreading with this page.  God can use anything for good and letting you know about Jesus is the greatest good–for you.

God does not want to condemn you.  He never did.  He always wanted to free you from judgement, and take away your shame.  But, it is your choice.  Jesus paid a terrible price for your sin because he chose to do so.  Is that so unthinkable?  It is good news;  hear it that way.

Your call.  You are the only one who decides what you believe.  What feels true to you?  Think it through, but pay attention to your feelings.  Use your head, obviously, but make this choice with an open heart.

A.J.

 

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King of Hearts

Remember playing “king of the hill”?cropped-cropped-000_00891.jpg

After the snowplows cleared the school parking lot following a big snowstorm, they would leave behind a gigantic wall of snow probably 30-40 feet long and ten feet high.  As a boy, I remember fighting my way to the top many times only to be thrown headlong from my pedestal within seconds by wicked usurpers to my throne. I would have their heads–if it weren’t for the fact that as soon as they threw me from the peak, I was no longer king.  So, I would turn and fight my way back up dodging the plummeting bodies of newly deposed kings as I went.  Kids would get hurt every time–and we loved it.

This mayhem is what I imagine going on within us when we allow money, or our homes, careers, sports teams, vacations, or our grown-up toys to become king in our hearts.  Even the people we love do not belong on the throne.

“In the deep heart of the man was a shrine where none but God was worthy to come. Within him was God; without, a thousand gifts which God had showered upon him.”  A.W. Tozer

There may be nothing wrong with these things or loved ones that we value so much but when we try to crown them king, it is high-treason of the heart.  There is a place within us where only God belongs, and when we allow anything else to enter that place, it is nothing short of idol worship.  Something is deeply wrong when we value our gifts more than the Giver.

As the creator of all hearts, only God is worthy to be King in any heart.

A.J.

 

 

 

Pick a Side

I am staunchly pro-Israel.  I don’t pretend to follow the situation in the Middle East very closely.  But, like most mature adults I do try to have an idea what’s going on around the globe, although I do prefer my sports section.  That’s right; I still get a newspaper.  My dog gets the paper from my driveway every morning.  It is his only job. If I got all my news off the internet, he would be a free-loader.

Though I cannot claim to have great knowledge of the situation there, I do know enough of the history of Israel and its people to care a great deal.

In the history of our planet, there is no story like theirs.  Since the falling of both halves of their divided kingdom in the 8th and 6th centuries BC, there has never been a people so misunderstood, degraded, oppressed, persecuted, and terrorized as the Jews.  There is not even a close second.  Yet somehow through all the horrors of the last twenty-eight centuries, up to and including the Holocaust during World War II, they have kept their identity.  They are still the Jewish people, descendants of Abraham.

Wherever Jews have been, and they have been, and still are, all over the globe, they banded together, largely avoiding intermarriage with the people of the land they were in.  They clung to the idea that they were God’s chosen people, set apart to be different than the rest.  They believed that all their woes and heartaches were their penance for not honoring God the way they were taught.  Their Bible told of a Savior who would come and deliver them from all their suffering and they believed that someday that would happen.  So, wherever Jews were, they stuck together like their lives depended on it.

They didn’t even have a country for 2,500 years!  How does that happen?

The answer is; It doesn’t.  There is nothing to compare it to.  Countries come and go, and when they go, the remaining people of the conquered country meld with the conquerors.  Sometimes it takes decades, even a century or more for the conquered nation’s peoples to fully integrate with the conquerors but it has always happened, except to the Jews.

Imagine if America were conquered by another country or a coalition of them, and it’s remaining people banished to foreign lands.  Would Americans cluster together for 2500 years in whatever country they were banished to, stubbornly clinging to American customs for centuries, millenia, largely refusing to intermarry with their conquerors or anyone that is not American?  Would we call ourselves Americans 2500 years after America ceased to exist?

After World War II Palestine was given back to the Israeli people by the British government which “owned” approximately 70% of that land.  After 2,500 years the Jews had a place to call home again, a land where they were not outsiders, and they were determined to keep and defend that land with everything they had.  Remember, most of the remaining Jews in the world had just been systematically exterminated in the Nazi death camps of that awful war, over six million of them.

Today surrounded by a billion people who want them out or dead, they cling to their land like it was given to them by God.

I have little doubt that the Palestinian refugee situation is made worse by the strict Israeli security that is necessary because of the countless terrorist attacks on their country.  I know innocent children get caught in the crossfire when terrorists hide among the civilian population.  More than likely Israel has overstepped their boundaries and taken land that they could have done without.  But, considering what they are facing, I have a hard time blaming the Jews for anything they do.  Because there is zero chance, if they let down their guard, that terrorists don’t come in and kill Jews by the thousands or millions like the Nazis did.  Zero, unless God Himself protects them.

Therein lies the fate of Israel.  It won’t be decided by the leaders of adversarial countries.  It won’t be decided by the strength of their own resolve or their military might.  It won’t be decided by the American president or people.  Israel has a leading role to play in the future of our world, and I would not want to stand against them in that future confrontation.  Because God will decide the fate of Israel.  Standing against Israel will be standing against Almighty God himself.

A.J.

Basics of Christianity: #9 – Grace and Obedience

DSC_0432You don’t have to be good to get to heaven.

Does that statement surprise you?

Aside from Christianity, every other major religion in the world depends on man working their way to God, justifying themselves in some way.  Each person must do something, reach some level of goodness or higher-consciousness to eventually make themselves worthy of whatever reward is supposedly there for the taking.

This makes sense to us, for we are used to working for what we get; If we behave we get ice cream, if we get good grades we get to go to the water park, if we work hard we get a raise or promotion and a nicer house, car, and toys.  The flip side is the same in reverse; don’t behave and you don’t get ice cream, bad grades make you stay home on water park day, don’t work hard and you get fired, no raise or promotion.

Reward and punishment, the merit system.  We have been playing by these rules our entire lives. It is what we know, it makes sense to us even if we don’t necessarily like it.  Therefore, this idea of heaven for free does not compute easily for most of us.  There must be something required of us, some sacrifice– give more to the poor, fix a single mom’s car, quit drinking, help little old ladies across the street, give up our golf day to feed the homeless… something.  There is a cost for everything, so the ultimate reward cannot be free.

But Paul, who calls himself the worst of sinners(he persecuted, imprisoned, and executed Christians before his own conversion) tells us in no uncertain terms that our salvation has nothing to do with our own efforts.

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God–not by works, so that no one can boast.  Eph 2:8-9

If it isn’t computing yet, let me make it crystal clear; Heaven is not earned–it is a gift.  You don’t have to be good.  I know!  Crazy, isn’t it?

There is not a never-ending line of holiness hoops you have to jump through.  Your good deeds do not have to outnumber the bad.  There is only one thing required of you; faith.  You have to believe that Jesus aimed his earthly life towards that cross for you, that he purposely laid down his life to pay your debt to God–to free you from guilt, to free you from shame, to free you judgement.

Not by works… entire Christian denominations miss those three little words and hence try to put the crushing weight back on the believer that Jesus died to take off.  The believer is saved by grace alone, not by the good things he does, not by works.  Look at that passage again.  From front to back and top to bottom these two verses say it six different ways.  Salvation is free to all who believe, all who have faith.  Not a single one of us can boast that we earned what Jesus did for us.  It is a free gift of grace.  All you have to do is reach out and take it–you have to believe.

Completely free.  But, once we believe, if we don’t want to live like Jesus told us to live after what he did for us, then there is something wrong.  If we Christians think that floating in an ocean of grace frees us to stay as we are and live like he did nothing for us, then we have missed the point and we are definitely not listening to God’s Spirit within us.  Or, we never truly believed in the first place and God’s Spirit does not live in us.

Someone who sees grace as permission to sin has missed grace entirely. Mercy understood is holiness desired.  Max Lucado

We Christians are called to live differently.  From cover to cover the Bible tells us how we should behave. We are supposed to stand out as lights in this dark world.  Why? Not to get to heaven, our ticket is punched.  Then why, if we know beforehand that we will be forgiven, should we behave like God wants us to?

Love

If we truly love Jesus because of his great love for us, then we will want to do what he asks of us.  Our lives should steadily change, and God has put his own Spirit in our hearts to help make that happen.

Thus, if you have really handed yourself over to Him, it must follow that you are trying to obey Him.  But trying in a new way, a less worried way.  Not doing these things in order to be saved, but because He has begun to save you already.  Not hoping to get to Heaven as a reward for your actions, but inevitably wanting to act in a certain way because a first faint gleam of heaven is already inside you.  C.S. Lewis

Belief in the Gospel won’t suddenly turn you into Jesus Junior, growth takes time.  But your heart is changed.  Jesus calls it a hunger and thirst for righteousness.  Our old ways of life will not satisfy us anymore.  We have far more important business ahead of us.

A.J.

 

P.S.    We have only one or two more posts to go in this series.  I hope you have been enjoying it.  I have.  If you just jumped in, I encourage you to check out the rest.  It is the Gospel in plain language.  You can find the first post in the series if you scroll to the bottom of the main page.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Will I Ever Learn?

I was attacked recently by one of the people closest to me…

Via email.

It was bad.  I was ripped this way and that, up and down, and then told by this man that he was done with me.  It was a stress induced, guilt-ridden, preemptive attack.  He was positive I was going to mercilessly attack him for something he did, so he struck first, mercilessly.  I was accused, judged, and sentenced, all without seeing this man in person, although I tried to set up a meeting.

Most of his accusations were baseless.  Those that may have held merit were twisted to make me look worse than I should have.  But, my guilt or innocence regarding the matters he accused me of is not why I write today.  You see, in this situation, my bad behavior really began when I received the email.

I was seeing red; I was so angry.

Would it shock you to hear that I seriously considered finding him and knocking his lights out?  I guess it probably would, considering the type of stuff I write on this site.  Would it make it any better if I told you that it wouldn’t be the first time one of us punched the other?  That’s right.  We have had many physical altercations, he and I.  He is my brother.

You may think that putting this out there will add to this problem.  Considering he says he is done with me I am not sure that is possible.  But, right now, most of the people I know, including my brother and his family don’t know about this page.  For now, it is anonymous.  This may shock you folks–so brace yourself; My name is not really Average Joe.  It is an alias.

Don’t worry.  I didn’t show up at my brother’s house and ask him to step outside.  I didn’t even go tit-for-tat and blast him with an email counter attack.  Instead, I responded very kindly, refusing to go down that low road.  Now, that may sound very mature to you, very Christian, but it is the heart that matters and my heart was on a looooow road.

I am pretty sure if they knew the situation and saw the email, my family, my friends, even his friends would come in on my side and think that a bit of righteous anger is justified in this situation.  I wonder where Jesus would come in, though.  Would he say, “Yeah, A.J., go ahead and bust him in the mouth.”?   Would he tell me never to talk to him again?  Or, would he tell me what he has already told me, that I need to forgive him?  How many times?  As many times as he has wronged me.  How many times has God forgiven me?  As many times as I have wronged him.

It probably speaks to the condition of my heart but I find that anger is easy, and forgiveness difficult.  For a while after the email, I went back and forth between anger at my brother, and concern for him.  That kind of animosity doesn’t come from a healthy heart.  My needle is pretty well pegged on concerned right now.  I guess that means I am beginning to forgive.  As for my sin of anger, that has been forgiven too, for I am covered by grace.

I love my brother.  Nothing will change that.  He is a good Christian man who is not hearing God’s voice right now, the voice that is telling him how much he is loved.  Please pray for him.

Thanks,  A.J.

 

 

 

 

 

Another Tough Day

I wish I had the knowledge to show the world how to stop our own from killing our own.
I wish I had the words, to comfort the families, the friends, the communities of murdered children.
I wish I had the influence to change the way we teach our kids, love our kids, and lead our kids.
I have none of these things in abundance, not enough to make a difference nationally or globally.  Not many of us do, but we can make a difference in our own homes, in our own neighborhoods.
It can be hard; we get so busy and have so many things on our minds.  It can be easy to think our kids’ issues will work themselves out.  But, clearly, sometimes they don’t.  A happy toddler can turn into a worried seven year old, who turns into a confused eleven year old, who turn into an angry teenager, who turns into a dangerous adult.  Dark thoughts usually turn into dark actions at some point.
I will tell you, though, it is hard for you to show your kids the right path if you don’t know what the right path is.  We parents need to figure it out or we will lead our kids the wrong way.
Some parents, especially single parents aren’t equipped to deal with their own troubled children.  Some of them could use some help.  That is where we are supposed to come in.  We can know the neighbor kid needs love and guidance if we know the neighbor kid, if we talk to him or her, if we smile and say good morning when the kid is heading out for school.  Sometimes, all it takes for a confused and lonely kid to find the right path is to see that someone cares.  How many of us can name all the families on our own street?  I can’t.
I don’t blame myself or any of you for school shootings or any other crimes that others commit.  People are responsible for what they do.  I am saying that we can make a difference, and I truly believe that many of you are.  Some of us never get out of our chairs though.  We decry the injustice of our world but never make a difference in the lives of kids who grow up to commit these injustices.
Believe me, I am speaking to myself more than you.  Kids that I don’t know walk by my yard all the time, and I hardly notice.  If one of them is troubled–I wouldn’t know because I don’t look up from my rake half the time.  These days, I am afraid kids will get the wrong idea if I am too nice.  We don’t want to be known as that creepy guy who talks to all the kids, but the alternative is being that grumpy guy who doesn’t.  Which is better?  Which do we think God wants us to be?
Now, more than ever, kids need to see loving, kind, and joyful people doing loving kind and joyful things, for them, even if it’s just a smile or a few kind words.  You never know, it could turn into a friendship that helps a confused kid see life as a gift, all life.  Then he may want to know the Giver.  That kid may help other kids…
How do we start?  First of all–eye contact, and a smile.  That’s my plan.  It is a seed that will grow if watered.        A.J.