A Prodigal’s Progress

ArtRembrandtSon2

“It’s too late for me” is my lifetime cry
“Second tries aren’t possible” screams out the lie
Bitterness feels good, a drug that fills
It’s an unnatural high that quickly kills

I’ve sanctioned my actions, sold out to compromise
Defrauded my mind, it’s made me unwise
I am wonderfully made, it’s called Amazing Grace
My life’s full of fear, it’s such a disgrace

Children should learn, the world needs their illumination
My focus on “I” has muted a powerful generation
More for the rich, more for the strong
Can I keep affording to be wrong?

Prophets redundant in their admonition
Promising pain and affliction
I use up my resources without permission
While missing the point of true religion

Self-indulgence, gluttony, greed, I easily meet
From the inner city down to Wall Street
Covet my neighbor, keeping track of what they own
My happiness is fragile, I don’t even know the Jones

Called to eternal reasons, called to bigger dreams
Called to deeper thinking, it’s harder than it seems
Obsessed with brief amusement, my aim is so small
Bombarded by shallow living, I’ve succumbed to the fall

I’m far more powerful than I believe
Truth is, if I walk in, scarcity must leave
Cynicism rules the day, it has strangled my soul
Stops me from changing, it has taken its toll

Parched soil, empty bellies leads to much heartache
Many won’t eat today, while my plate is too great
I’m not here to manipulate, to throw out guilt or coerce
But I’m missing opportunities that bless and don’t curse

In the words of Paul, “I don’t do what I should”
He goes on to say, “I’m not always good.”
In the words of James, “Your faith might be dead”
He goes on to say, “They’re not works if just said.”

I compromise with apathy, bragging I’m doing no harm
I do just enough, showing off my charlatan charm
Justice is calling, it’s a Kingdom mandate
My comfort zone is charity, I’m missing my fate

The message is simple, it’s clear and concrete
My directive is obvious, overt, not discreet
Hand over my life, it’s the power of surrender
It’s about loving the least of these and a heart that is tender

As Mother Teresa said, “At the end of life we will not be judged by how many diplomas we have received, how much money we have made, how many great things we have done. We will be judged by ‘I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat, I was naked and you clothed me. I was homeless, and you took me in.’”

The Upside of Failure

Believe it or not failure can be a launching pad to great things.

Winston Churchill was a huge failure. Even though he is known as one of the leaders that saved Europe in World War II, he was actually dismissed from leadership in World War I.

One of his famous sayings was, “Success is going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.” Can you relate to that one?

Failure can teach us far more than success can.

Mark Twain said, “A person who has had a bull by the tail once has learned sixty or seventy times as much as the person who hasn’t.”

Failure also teaches us about grace and forgiveness. Proverbs 24:16 says, “For though a righteous man falls seven times he rises again.”

In this life, we will not always do things perfectly.

We will fail.
We will be tempted to quit.
Our journey towards maturity will seem longer than necessary.
We will have good days and bad days.
Life is filled with both.
Isn’t it amazing how quickly a good day can become a bad one?

I went from a good day to a bad day very quickly once.

It was January 2005 and my wife and I were in Hawaii for our anniversary.

The fourth day we were there started out like it should.

We walked the beach, swam with some sea turtles, ate some pineapples, hung out at the pool, did some people watching, and observed some of the most talented surfers in the world ride 20 foot waves.

It was 78 degrees, perfect weather, and we were carefree and in love.

IT WAS A GOOD DAY.

Then, I became stupid.

We are in Hawaii. It’s just my wife and I. It’s perfect, and then I suggest that we not go out that night because the college football championship game was on and it would be fun to watch it together.

I will admit right up front, that I’m not very bright.
We are in Hawaii. It’s our anniversary. My wife hates football. And I make that suggestion.

She says, “You can watch football all the rest of the year.”

I say, “You don’t understand, this is a very important game.”

She says, “It’s always a very important game.”

I say, “C’mon, let’s do something that I want to do.”

She says, “What? Have we not been doing stuff you want to do? Like being with me!”

I say, “Yes, it has been great, but I WANT TO WATCH FOOTBALL!”
(Aren’t you impressed by my intelligence?)

Quickly everything became ugly. I lost my mind and my competition strength kicked in and it was no longer about doing the right thing, but rather it was about winning.

Winning in this situation was about watching the football game that night.
I could go on but you probably can guess the rest of the story.

A GOOD DAY became a very BAD DAY!

I was thinking about a character in history whose life was the epitome of good days and bad days.

His name was Simon Peter.

He was one of Jesus’ first disciples.

These are the events of his life:

Peter is a fisherman and Jesus comes along one day and says, “Simon, I want you to follow me. I want you to learn about my forgiveness and Grace. I want you to love a love-starved world. I’m going to make you fisher of men. You are going to change people’s lives.”

All of a sudden Simon Peter’s life goes from the mundane to a life of following the one who raised the dead, healed the sick and forgave sins.

IT’S A GOOD DAY when you are become a follower of Jesus!

Instantly Peter puts his foot in his mouth. He gets into an argument with some of the disciples about who the greatest was and Jesus rebukes him.

IT’S A BAD DAY when you are rebuked by Jesus.

But then Peter walks on water. Ever walk on water? If you have, you probably do not need to keep reading this.

IT’S A GOOD DAY when you walk on water.

Peter sees Jesus out on the water, he’s in the boat and he gets out and he takes a couple steps and then looks down and realizes what he is actually doing and he sinks.

IT’S A BAD DAY when you sink.

Now Peter sunk, but at least he got out of the boat. His buddies were sitting in the boat with their floaties on playing it safe. Simon Peter sort of failed, but he walked.

IT’S A GOOD DAY when you take a step of faith, even when it is not perfect faith.

Then Jesus says, “I’m going to build the church on you Peter. Peter, you are the man! You’re going to be the foundation of the church, and not even the gates of hell will be able to prevail.”

IT’S A GOOD DAY when Jesus calls you to a higher purpose.

Jesus goes on to say, “And I’m going to die on the cross. I’m going to be sacrificed.” And Peter interrupts, “Well if I’m the head of the church, that’s not going to happen to you.” And Jesus calls Peter, Satan.

IT’S A BAD DAY when Jesus calls you Satan.

Peter then says, “Jesus I’m here for you. If you’re going to be crucified then I’m there to the very end. I’ve got your back, you and me. Let’s walk down this difficult path together.”

IT’S A GOOD DAY when you tell your friend that they will not be alone during tough times.

Jesus gets arrested and Peter denies ever knowing Jesus. “I don’t know the man” he ends up yelling at some girl scouts around a camp fire. He betrays Jesus three times, and at his friends worst moment on the cross he doesn’t show up.

IT’S A BAD DAY when you fail a friend.
IT’S A BAD DAY when you fail God.

Not being there for Jesus was devastating to Peter. The guilt and shame was almost too much to bear. Peter is thinking, “This is it. I’m a failure. I blew it. I know I’ve blown it before, but this is too big to recover from. This will be my identity. I’ll go back to being a fisherman. I guess I wasn’t cut out for what Jesus wanted me to be..”

IT’S A VERY BAD DAY when you lose all hope.

A few days later Peter is fishing and Jesus has resurrected and he sees Peter and he says,“Peter I’m not done with you yet. I still have plans for you. You have made some mistakes. It would have been nice for you to have been around when I was going to the cross, but I’m not done with you yet. You’re still going to be the leader of the church, I want you to love and serve and share with people the hope of salvation. Tell them about the cross and my resurrection and about eternal life.”

IT’S A VERY GOOD DAY when we get to experience forgiveness and second chances.

Then Jesus tell Peter that he will die for his faith and even though Peter doesn’t struggle with that revelation, he does struggle not knowing what’s going to happen to his friend John.
So Peter gets nosy and asks Jesus, “What about John? Is John going to suffer too?”
Jesus’ response is, “What’s that to you? Mind your own business!”
IT’S A BAD DAY when Jesus tells you to mind your own business.

But then something miraculous happens.
It’s recorded in Acts Chapter 2.
Peter stands up before the very people who killed Jesus and he preaches grace and forgiveness.

Peter confidently proclaims, “The one you crucified, you can now have a relationship with. Your failures and sins do not have to have the last word and you can enter into eternal life. Turn back to God and trust Jesus.”

Peter who denied Jesus and was afraid to even show up at the crucifixion shows up and preaches. And the Bible says that over 3,000 people, just in that one message, became followers of Jesus.

IT’S A GREAT DAY when we overcome our fears, when we take risks and we don’t let our failures have the last word.

PETER HAD A GREAT DAY!

Just like Simon Peter, we all have GREAT DAYS and we all have BAD DAYS.

But just like Peter, God does not give up on us.

So we should not give up on ourselves.

The scriptures tell us that “God’s mercies are new every morning!”

Theodore Roosevelt once said “Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure… than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.”

The Most Important Thing in the World

I wrote this poem about the most important thing in the world:

“It is hard to explain, but you know it when you see it.
It is meek, but you can’t contain it

Hard to grasp, but you know when it’s around.
It is hard to teach, but it can be found.

Exceedingly quiet, while deafening loud.
It is extraordinarily humble, yet aptly proud.

Thieves want to own it, but it cannot be stolen.
Many are for the strong, It is for the broken.

No one’s ever dreamed it.
No one’s ever owned it.
No one’s ever bought it.
You just get it when you receive it.

No politics can claim it.
No business can sell it.
No celebrity can wear it.
The poor and outcast possess it.

It is private, yet transforms communities.
Largely diverse, yet brings unity.

It is unfair, yet purely just.
More powerful than our strongest lusts.

Often emulated, yet falling short.
Eye for an eye, it is karmas retort

Always talked about, yet seldom shown.
It is something you must experience to be known.

It is not so much a destination, than an eternal trip
You can’t get by trying, you just open the gift.

It is multi-faceted, never looking the same.
It is the one thing that will never change.”

This poem is about Grace.
Grace is a scandalous thing.
It will get you kicked out of your religion
It has gotten quite a few people killed.
Yet, Grace is the only hope for you, me and our world.

I am hesitant to try to explain Grace in a simple sentence or catch phrase.

Grace is better caught than taught.

When Bill Hybels said, “You have never looked in the eyes of a person Jesus didn’t die for”, that is a picture of Grace.

When the Apostle Paul said, “We have all sinned and fallen short of God’s standards, but the free gift of salvation is given to us through Jesus, His Son, through the work on the cross”, that is a picture of Grace.

When we forgive our enemy, serve the poor, fight injustice, love someone who is different than us ethically, politically, or spiritually, that is a picture of Grace.

Mercy is God NOT giving us what we deserve.
Grace is God GIVING us what we don’t deserve.

Grace offers forgiveness, eternity, power to forgive, endurance, joy, peace, and a lot of other things we could never have or do on our own.

Grace is a gift and is the only thing that can heal this tired, old world.

I think the most important thing the church should focus on is showing God’s Grace in practical, life-giving ways.

The one thing the church has to offer that no other organization can offer is Grace.

Yet, if you were to ask the average person on the street what word would they use to describe the church, do you think “Grace” would be on the first page of the list.

Programs, religion, judging, theology, hypocrisy, political, rules and rituals might top the list.
In my “unscientific” poll, Grace has rarely appeared.

Look around and see how we’re doing outside of Grace?

Why can’t Israel and Palestine find peace?

Why do we even have words and terms in our vocabulary like ethnic cleansing?

Why didn’t Bob Jones University, which is a Christian university, allow African-American students to enroll until 1975?

Why in 2010 did a white pastor from Mississippi get fired from his church by adopting two children who were African American? Because his white elder board said so!

When Ghandi was a young man practicing law in South Africa, he had become attracted to the teachings of Jesus and so decided to attend a church service.
As he came up the steps of the large church, a white South African elder barred his way at the door and said with a belligerent voice, “Where do you think you are going, kaffir(a racist term)?”
Ghandi replied, “I’d like to attend worship here.”
The elder snarled at him, “There’s no room for kaffirs in this church. Get out of here or I’ll have my assistants throw you down the steps.”
From that moment, Ghandi said he decided to adopt what good he found in Christianity, but would never again consider becoming a Christian if it meant being part of the church.

Once, when the missionary E. Stanley Jones met with Ghandi he asked, “Mr. Ghandi, though you often quote the words of Christ, you seem adamant against becoming his follower?”
Ghandi replied, “Oh, I don’t reject your Christ. I love your Christ. It’s just that so many of you Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

The church should not have the same reputation, if not worse than the world!

Take a look across your life right now. Where is Grace missing?

When was the last time you prayed for a militant Muslim to find Christ?

When was the last time you prayed for someone on the other side of the political isle to be blessed?

When was the last time you prayed for your enemy?

That is a picture of Grace.

Let me finish with another picture of Grace.

I was in San Antonio, Texas. I was at a restaurant near the hotel I was staying at, and I began talking to my server, whose name was Niesha, who was a very nice, outgoing young lady who was genuinely interested about why I was in San Antonio.

She reinforced the theme that since I had arrived in town
people from San Antonio seemed extremely friendly.

Being from California, I was not used to this kind of genuine hospitality.
In California, when someone is nice to you, there is usually an alternative motive.
But in San Antonio, it seemed like everyone was genuinely kind and gracious.

I told Niesha that I was pleasantly surprised how everyone was so kind to one another in San Antonio, herself included.

I asked her how long she had lived there.
She said she had only lived in San Antonio for 6 months.

She had lived in Mobile, Alabama her whole life but her home was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, and she had escaped, safely, with her only son while pregnant with the second.

As a single mom, she had no where to go, but she had some family in San Antonio, and so here she was. She could not take credit for being a kind resident of San Antonio.

I asked her, “Are you going to go back to Mobile eventually?”
She said, “Probably not.. It was time for a new start.”

Niesha then told me her story.
She had grown up in Mobile, Alabama.
As an African American woman in the south, she didn’t grow up with a lot of dreams. There was no one telling her to do great things, to better herself.

But she did have a dream.
Her whole childhood, she was drawn toward deaf people and wanting to help them communicate.

She did what no one encouraged her to do.
She went to college.
When she was a few credits away from getting her degree in sign language she got pregnant.
The stereotyping and judging began.

People close to her told her to get practical and quit going after these silly dreams. She lowered herself to the view of the people around her.

She quit school and worked as a waitress thinking, “It was silly to dream. It is my own fault. I deserve this. This is my life.”

After giving birth to a precious healthy son, she got pregnant again.
Still single, it just reinforced the image people around her had.

Here’s the picture:
A single, African American mom, in the south, pregnant again, with her dream of teaching the deaf over.
Her life was in survival mode.
Then came Hurricane Katrina.
She lost it all. Her material possessions. Her home. Her shelter.
The only thing she had was her son, the clothes on her back and the baby in her belly.
She arrived in San Antonio, Texas to continue her plight.
She gave birth to her second son, got a job at a restaurant, and a few months later, I’m sitting talking to her, listening to her story.

As I was sitting there, I had a thought.

For most of her whole life, no one had ever told her to dream. No one had ever told her how smart she was.
No one ever applauded her desire to serve the deaf.
No one ever celebrated her hard work.
No one had ever bestowed Grace on her.
She had been judged, used, ignored and forgotten.

I thought, this is no accidental meeting.
I thought of the words of Proverbs 31:8 “We must be a voice for the people who have no voice.”
That is another picture of what Grace looks like.

Niesha had no voice. And the voices around her were all negative.

I told her, “I don’t think your dream is over, in fact, I think your dream has new life. Sometimes it takes a hurricane in our life to get us back on track. This time the hurricane was literal. You were stuck in Mobile with all the stereotyping and negative voices telling you to aim low, but you have been relocated to a new place of hope. A place of renewal. A place where you can get back on track for your dream. A place of Grace. It is no coincidence that we have met, and I want to tell you, not in a mystical way, or prideful way, but in a very humble way, God has put us together so you can hear a voice of hope. YOUR DREAM IS NOT OVER.”

As I was sharing, tears began to run down her face, and then she quickly turned and ran to the back.
I wasn’t sure what to think.

When she came back, there were still remnants of her tears, but she had a huge smile on her face, she sat down at my table and said, “I told my manager I was on break, and he said OK, so let’s talk some more.”

We talked about Grace, second chances, being created in God’s image, Jesus’ love, the plans He has for us, and how she has to finish her degree and that I was going to hold her accountable.

By the end of that conversation she was so fired up. She had gone from hopelessness to a renewed dream.

Niesha graduated with her degree.
Surprisingly, she is working with the deaf back in her hometown of Mobile, Alabama, where she is a setting a new example for young people to aim high and dream big.

Niesha is also offering Grace to deaf students who too often are judged, marginalized and ignored in our world.

Niesha is another picture of Grace.

It is a scandalous thing.
It will get you kicked out of your religion
It has gotten quite a few people killed.
Yet, Grace is the only hope for you, me and our world.