Holy Spectacles

untitled“One…” *click* “…or two?”

“Ummm…”

*click*

“One…” *click* “…or two?”

“Two… I guess—maybe just a little.”

*click* *click* *swivel* *click*

“One…” *click* “…or two?”

And so it went. My optometrist would click a lens in place—“one”—then click a different lens in place—“two”—and ask me which one made the little teeny-tiny row of letters I was looking at more clear. Sometimes it was pretty obvious, but most of the time it was more like a Moe’s burrito vs. a Chipotle burrito—it’s a tortilla with beans, meat, and cheese. Bueno.

While the whole optometrical once-over—including the air rifle blast in the eye and the blinding dilation drops—is kind of a chore, it’s worth it to get a new pair of glasses every year.

And now for the rest of the story…

*squish*

From “The Lizard Lounge” Series on Clay

Below is the next installment in “The Lizard Lounge Series on Clay,” a wet-n-wild little piece about disasters—house AND spiritual varieties. Here is a link to the whole series, if you’re just tuning in. (And here’s a link that explains the whole “Lizard Lounge” bit.)

Who knew my earthly home could teach me so much about the journey toward my heavenly one…?

• • •

Stepping into my dark kitchen one evening after work I heard a sound I wasn’t expecting…

*squish*

*squish*? I thought. Tennis shoes on tile don’t usually make that sound. *squeak* maybe or *kerplop*—but *squish*?

I made my way across the room to flip on the light switch.

*squish*squish*squish*

That can’t be good

And it wasn’t. With the light on I could see that the kitchen was standing in water. While barely a half-inch deep (so far), standing water of any depth in one’s home is not a good situation. Not a problem on tile floors, but…

…wood floors. Please no, I prayed silently as I set out on a tour of the rest of the house.

And now for the rest of the story…

At a Loss

I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. Philippians 3:8 (NIV)

I remember standing on Main Street, U.S.A. in Magic Kingdom Park at the Walt Disney World Resort one night when I was about 15 years old. I had spent the day watching life-like robotic parrots and pirates sing, taken a simulated rocket trip to Mars, watched talented singer/dancers put on a spectacular show in front of the iconic Cinderella Castle singing every Disney song ever written, and watched Abraham Lincoln stand up and deliver a stirring speech. It was an unforgettable day.

As I stood there that night watching the glittering Main Street Electrical Parade and listening to its catchy musical soundtrack, I was struck with the realization that I had experienced something that day I couldn’t articulate at the time, something exemplified by the parade I was watching and listening to. While the bouncy and repetitive main melody played nonstop throughout the half-hour parade, never ending and never missing a beat, I noticed that, as every themed parade float wheeled into earshot, it overlaid its own unique tune, totally in sync with that main soundtrack, matching its rhythm precisely, beat-for-beat. As one float moved on another would turn the corner, broadcasting “Whistle While You Work” from the Seven Dwarfs float or “When You Wish Upon a Star” from the Pinocchio float. Float after float and tune after tune came and went, always in perfect synchronization with the main soundtrack.

It was one of those defining moments. After all, the Magic Kingdom wasn’t the rinky-dink county fair back home with its rickety Ferris wheel and merry-go-round; and the Main Street Electrical Parade wasn’t the tacky little homespun Christmas parade – this was something in a class by itself, a level of excellence and technology I had only imagined existed. I had never experienced anything quite like that in my 1970s small-town existence.

I left the park trying to get my arms around what I had seen and heard that day. I didn’t believe in actual magic, but if it existed, this was where it lived. Every time I set foot in the Magic Kingdom or see that parade, I’m transported back to that first visit 40+ years ago.

I thought nothing else could ever be that amazing.

Later, when I was in college, I spent a couple of years writing, arranging, orchestrating, and choreographing some major pieces of choral music for my college show choir, the best in the Southeast – some of that music inspired by what I had seen at Disney. (I loved those years in college. I came into my own during that time and discovered musical and writing abilities I never knew I had. I also discovered I could dance, which was really astonishing for a Southern Baptist boy. I didn’t want to leave after I graduated. They had to take away my key to the music building and usher me off campus…just kidding.)

While a senior and then a graduate student there, I created four 15-20 minute musical extravaganzas, two with original theme songs I had written. My senior year we toured the Northeast, including a couple of nights in New York City. I’ll never forget performing one of those pieces, a quasi-patriotic medley about America, in Rockefeller Center Plaza. As we sang about “tall buildings that touch the sky” I glanced upward, surrounded by (at the time) the tallest buildings in the world, buildings that illustrated beautifully the song I had written.

Although I couldn’t say exactly why, I cried a little bit.

Again, I thought nothing else could ever be that amazing.

Several years later, I played Benjamin Franklin in a production of the musical, “1776.” The play was about the writing and signing of the Declaration of Independence by the Continental Congress, and portrayed such famous founding fathers as Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and of course, Dr. Franklin.

I know that sounds yawn-inducing, but the members of the Continental Congress, as I said in my role as Benjamin Franklin, were “not demigods” as we often think of them today; they were just guys – and most of the time, rowdy guys who just liked to drink rum and fight. This lent itself to a rollicking and often hysterical reenactment of a pivotal moment in our country’s history. (Of course, it transcended all that testosterone and was elevated to the sublime when, one-by-one, they all signed the Declaration document during the final scene as the music swelled and the sound of the liberty bell rang out through the theatre. Gives me chills thinking about it.)

I had the best part in the show. (Don’t tell the guys who played Adams and Jefferson I said that.) As Ben Franklin, I had the whole bald head and fringe of hair (two hours in makeup) and limped about the stage with a walking stick as though I had gout. (Something the real Franklin suffered from.) I perfected the (temporary) loss of my rural southern accent and spoke in what I imagined was an 18th century manner. I also had all the funny lines and sang about making the turkey our national bird and danced with Thomas Jefferson’s wife in a hoop skirt. (She was wearing the hoop skirt, not me.) I became Benjamin Franklin for the run of the show and had a grand time doing it.

I’ve done a lot of theatrical productions, but that was by far my favorite. It was like I was made for that part. I could have been one of those people like Carol Channing, who spent the rest of her life starring in productions of “Hello, Dolly!”, a role she made famous. Give me a walking stick, a bald wig, and an orchestra in the pit and I could be playing Franklin to this day. I hated to see it end.

I definitely thought nothing else could ever be that amazing.

There have been other times like that…

  • Singing the moving and emotional Verdi Requiem with a massive choir and symphony orchestra.
  • Standing above the clouds at 10,000 feet at sunrise and looking down into the alien landscape of the Haleakala volcano crater on the Hawaiian island of Maui.
  • Attending a lavish banquet for recipients of the highest honor awarded by my company and listening to guest speakers like the legendary Julie Andrews and Sidney Poitier.

…and each time I felt as though I had reached some sort of pinnacle moment; each time I just wanted to revel in that moment, to sear it onto my brain so I would never forget it; each time, I thought nothing else could ever be that amazing.

And each time…

…I was wrong.

When Philippians 3:8 rose to the top of my memory verse stack recently and I began studying it – even after reading it many times before – the Lord suddenly put Paul’s words into perspective for me. Paul said:

I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.

Before his encounter with Jesus, Paul considered himself to be the quintessential Jew – a “Hebrew of Hebrews” from one of the best tribes of Israel, faultless in his observance of Jewish law. But once Jesus took control of his life, all that changed; none of those things held the same importance anymore. After his conversion, he realized that, compared to knowing Jesus, all the things he had prized – his “blue-blood” Jewish pedigree, his obedience to the law, his reputation among the Jewish elite – were, in his estimation, no better than human waste.

Not that there is anything wrong with cherished memories and moments that shape who we are; after all, God is the author of every moment. But for me, singing and making jazz hands don’t compare with knowing Jesus. Having a leading role in a play? That either. (Even a really cool play where you get to wear a Ben Franklin wig and scold John Adams.) Of course, Disney is really awesome, but – again, no comparison. Compared to knowing Jesus, nothing else is even in the same universe – not even writing about Him in a blog.

Although Paul is not saying I have to give up the highlights of my life to know Jesus, writing this has made me wonder – could I? Is He that important to me? Would I give it all up – memories, music, family, friends, comfort – if that’s what it took to know Jesus fully and completely?

While I’ve never felt His plan was to leave me destitute, He wants me to be willing to give Him all that I have, to prize Him above everything else – and not just my spare time or whatever I have leftover in my checking account or just an hour or two in church each Sunday. He’s worthy of every part of me – even my life – and expects me to understand that. He expects all of His followers to understand that.

Though it’s not likely any of us will ever be required to physically die as a follower of Jesus, we should be willing to symbolically die to our own wants and needs, to give up our homes, our families and friends, our pleasurable pastimes, or our bank accounts, if that’s what it takes to know Him fully and love Him with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength.

So back to my question: Would I be willing to give it all up to experience the “surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus as Lord”?

Based on my experience these past five years with being His follower, plus the relationship God has nurtured and developed with me, and the always-present Holy Spirit with His divine council and comfort, how could I answer any way but, “Yes – take it all. You’re all I want.”

Because when I surrendered my life to Him and finally knew Him – really knew Him – I thought nothing else could ever be that amazing.

And for the first time ever… I was right.

Jesús en mi corazón

This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down His life for us. 1 John 3:16

It was a warm, but not uncomfortable, day in the tiny village of El Rodeo, Guatemala. Actually, El Rodeo is less a village and more a scattered collection of shops, churches, and dwellings, some rather makeshift, nestled in the shadow of the volcano Fuego, which means “fire.” That fact, added to the ever-present, smoky aroma of tortillas cooking on the griddle and the occasional staccato clucking of an errant chicken punctuating the still air, definitely gave it an “I’m not from around here” feel – at least to my city-boy sensibilities.

I was part of a team that had just finished dedicating the small but sturdy home we had built for Iola and her family a few days earlier as part of a mission trip. Just like most of the people we encountered while we were there, Iola was small with dark eyes and jet-black hair, with a lovely burnished-brown complexion. While I felt like King Kong when I entered the 12’ x 12’ wood and corrugated tin house, her entire family of five practically rattled around inside it, making it look cavernous and roomy.

I had hardly noticed her during the two days we were there to build. While her husband, Edgar, pitched in to help hammer nails to attach the tin siding, she stood at a distance, curiously watching our progress. Occasionally she would come retrieve an escaped toddler, giving us a much-appreciated break to pass out candy and coo at the baby.

As part of the dedication service, we hung a hand-crafted cross inside the new home and presented her and her family with some food, clothing, and a Spanish-language Bible. Afterward, our interpreter, Lisa, shared a brief Gospel message, reading from the book of San Juan (St. John). As with all of our new homeowners, Lisa asked if they knew, or would like to know, Jesus as their Savior. Neither Iola nor her husband responded in the affirmative.

As our team concluded the service and gathered our backpacks in preparation to continue on to the next house, I silently prayed that somehow we had at least planted a seed that day and that someone in the family would one day know the amazing gift of God’s grace.

Little did I know…

We formed a sort of receiving line on our way out, each hugging Iola and her family in turn on the porch of their new home. Everyone had hugged and gone on to the truck except for me and my two dear brothers in Christ: David, our team leader, and Johnny, an evangelist and head of the ministry organization that sponsored the trip. When it came my turn to hug Iola and say adios, she hugged me back – tightly. Hers was no mere cordial hug, though; she clung to me, breathlessly murmuring a stream of Spanish punctuated by her tears.

My Spanish is practically non-existent – greetings, pleasantries, counting to ten, “Please stand clear of the door” (something I learned from riding the monorail at Disney World), a few mission-trip phrases like “God bless you” and “Jesus loves you” – so I had no idea what she was telling me. I assumed she was just tearfully thanking me for what we had done for her family, for my kindness to her children, for showing her husband respect.

But I soon discovered that wasn’t what she was telling me at all. What she was telling me and what I didn’t know at the time due to my limited Spanish, was that she wasn’t a Christian – and that she really wanted to be.

Obviously I can’t speak with any certainty, but remembering the almost frantic tone in her voice, this is what I now imagine she was telling me:

“Please don’t go yet. I heard the lady who read from the Bible say that I could have Jesus in my heart. I want that, what you have – what you all have. But I don’t know how to get it. Will you help me? Can you help me get Jesus in my heart? Please don’t leave without helping me find Jesus.”

Sadly, in that moment I didn’t comprehend any of that. However, when I finally broke away and moved to go, clueless to her pleas for help, she didn’t give up. I know that feeling well, having felt that same sense of urgency prior to my own salvation experience a little over four years ago. When the Holy Spirit truly gets a toe-hold in your heart as he had Iola’s – and mine – there’s nothing to do but keep your hands and arms inside the vehicle, secure all loose items, and hang on.

Since David was next in line for a hug, she repeated her cry for help – and this time, the Holy Spirit (who is obviously fluent in Spanish, more than just “Please stand clear of the door”) broke through the language barrier.

When I heard David calling for Johnny, the evangelist, I knew I didn’t want to miss what was about to happen. I did an about face, ducking under the clothes she had hung out to dry, and hurried back to the receiving line, determined to be a witness to the new creation about to be reborn on that front porch.

You see, that’s why I went to Guatemala, why I begged friends and family to help me financially, why I worked in the hot sun in the morning and in the rain and ankle-deep mud in the afternoon. I didn’t go to build houses, although that’s what I did most of the week. For me, building a house for someone was just a way of getting a foot in the door (so to speak), an opportunity to be the hands and feet of Jesus, an entrée into the lives of people who don’t know the full measure of the sacrifice Jesus made for them. I went to Guatemala to testify to the widespread power of God’s amazing grace, given freely to anyone who asks for it – including Iola – even if those she’s asking barely know how to count to ten in her language.

Thankfully, though, having taken groups on mission trips to Spanish-speaking countries for decades, Johnny spoke enough Spanish to communicate with Iola, although that whole scene brought to mind what Paul said in Romans 8:26:

The Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.

Johnny and Iola prayed with words that the other didn’t understand. But the God of all creation, the good and gracious God who is “able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine,” the God who sent His only Son to die in our place – He understood. And in Iola’s confession of faith, we understood two Spanish words: Christo (Christ) and corazón (heart). Iola finally had Jesus in her heart.

John, the apostle Jesus loved, wrote:

This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down His life for us. (1 John 3:16)

Jesus laid His life down for Iola and for me and for you. His life wasn’t taken from Him. Not in one single moment leading up to His death on the cross was he helpless to prevent what was being done to Him; at no time was He an unwitting victim. He gave His life freely and willingly. That’s what love is. That’s the power of the cross.

So did ­­­Iola see that love in us as we worked on her new home (itself a special kind of fellowship)? Did God use that act of service to her family to show what happens when Jesus becomes Lord of someone’s life? Did that love somehow shine through us, eventually washing over Iola by way of the Holy Spirit to the point that she was not going to let those enormous gringos go without helping her to know that love as well?

Two words: Christo corazón.

Iola has a new home built by hands who traveled a great distance to share Jesus with her; but as David said later, “We witnessed the gift of a temporal home lead to the free gift of an eternal home.”

Beautifully said, my brother…

So I’m boning up on my Spanish so that when I see Iola in heaven, I can say a lot more than “Please stand clear of the door.” I want to be able to tell her what her salvation experience meant to me; how it tied the most beautiful bow on the gift that so many friends and family members gave me by making it possible for me to travel to Guatemala and meet her.

Most of all, though, I want to tell her that seeing her receive Christo in her corazón was worth the miles and the fund raising and the hours of labor that week. I didn’t have to understand her words – the language of grace is universal.

Until then, Iola, just know that Jesús te ama – Jesus loves you: He proved it long ago…

Risk Free

I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him for that day. 2 Timothy 1:12

I just read an article on the various infamous circumstances for which each of our fifty nifty United States is known, based on statistics taken from America’s Health Rankings and the U.S. Census. As it turns out, we’re a strange and wondrous lot…

  • Coloradans use the most cocaine. (almost 4% of the population – the phrase “Rocky Mountain High” comes to mind…)
  • The good folks of Maine have the lowest average SAT scores, garnering them the prize for dumbest state.
  • Alaska has the highest suicide rate. (Apparently all that ice and snow eventually takes its toll.)
  • California has the most air pollution. (quelle surprise)
  • Based on the high number of auto accidents, Massachusetts boasts the worst drivers in the U.S.
  • North Dakotans rank dead last in ugliest residents. (I’m doubtful this statistic comes from the U.S. Census. I mean, what kind of census question would lead the head of the household to avow that, “Yea, we’re all ugly, including the kids – especially little Henry.”)
  • Wisconsans have the highest rate of binge drinking – almost a quarter of the population. (Thanks, Miller Brewing Company.)
  • This one surprised me: Utahns have the highest rate of online porn subscriptions. (Say it ain’t so.)

In my state, however, we have the dubious honor of being known for the highest rate of identity theft.

I’ve already faked my Facebook profile with gibberish and silly information that would be useless to a would-be ID thief and I can spot a phishing scam a mile away, but learning this statistic makes me want to totally lock up my computer and wallet in a safe and just keep rolls of quarters in my pockets to buy stuff and carry a note from my mother for identification. (“Yes, that’s him – kind of tall with those funny glasses.”)

Data breaches resulting in personal information stolen from retail and e-tail transactions are becoming a fairly common occurrence. The institutions we assume will guard the information we’ve entrusted to them can no longer promise to do so with any degree of dependability.

Other than advising you to cut up all your credit cards and bury your money in the back yard, I have no words of wisdom – at least not when it comes to safeguarding your financial well-being.

But your spiritual well-being? Now that’s another matter. I can soundly report that the Bible is filled with words of wisdom for safeguarding that. Take Paul’s second letter to Timothy (1:12):

I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him for that day.

The thing that Paul and I (and hopefully you) have entrusted is our eternal salvation; and the “whom” and “Him” we’re trusting to guard it is God. And “that day”? The one when we finally meet Him face to face, free from this life and living forever in His glorious presence in the place He’s prepared for us.

And just to add a little extra security, in 2 Corinthians 1:22 Paul tells us that, when we become followers of Jesus, God puts…

…his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.

So we place our trust in God to safeguard us until He’s ready to bring us home and He places the indwelling Holy Spirit in us as a sort of “down payment.”

Sweet! It’s the only totally risk-free situation I’ve ever been involved in.

Paul was convinced he could believe everything God revealed to him – and a quick thumb through the New Testament reveals that God revealed a lot to Paul. God made it known that He is truth; that Jesus taught truth; and that the Holy Spirit guides us into all truth. That’s truthiness of the most divine magnitude.

In my personal experience, God has proven time and again that He is infinitely worthy of my trust; you only have to read a few posts on this blog to get that.

But the thing I’m learning – learning recently, actually – is that it’s important for me not to pin my hopes on anyone else. God is the only one I can trust to never fail me. It’s so tempting for us to hang our hat on someone besides the Lord – a church leader, for example, or a trusted Christian friend or family member. The Lord puts these people in our lives for us to fellowship and be in community with; and soon we learn to value and trust their walk with Him. And that’s good – we should be able to trust our Christian brothers and sisters.

But even those dear to us who lead Godly lives and preach the truth and lead us in amazing worship are still just people – fallen people, sinners saved by grace, individuals prone to struggles with pride and “issues” and human passions, folks who sometimes make less than perfect choices, guys (and girls) who put their pants on one leg at a time.

As important as they are as members of our “body of believers” posse, we can’t be thrown if they let us down. They aren’t who we should be pinning our hopes on anyway. As we learned from Isaiah 40:31:

Those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength.

The Lord – not a pastor, preacher, teacher, worship leader, friend, Roman, countryman – just in the Lord. He will never fail us. (And I don’t think He even wears pants.)

And you can rest assured that, if you put your hopes in God to guard what you’ve entrusted to Him, it’ll be in good hands – the very hands that created the universe. In John chapter 10 Jesus tells us that both He and God have a firm grip on anyone who belongs to them. Of Himself, He says…

“…no one can snatch them out of my hand.” (v. 28)

Of God He says…

“…no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand.” (v. 29)

No one. Go ahead and try, Grasshopper – I dare you.

So until “that day,” I’m entrusting all that I have to my Heavenly Father. No one can scam, phish, or bribe Him – He’s as wise and all-knowing as He is trustworthy. And as I mentioned earlier, I hope you are trusting Him, too.

If not – why not? For more information, click here.