Where Does Real Courage Come From?

Friday, December 19, 2014

Night Travelers

Reflections on Matthew 2:1–12
Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.”

—Matthew 2:1–2

I sat at the far end of the first row for the annual Christmas play. The children were adorable in their costumes, most a little shy to be on stage especially with their parents constantly waving and filming their every move.
I had no idea this little play was about to impact my life.

The play went like this—a young reporter was interviewing the three magi shortly after they’d seen the Child. He wanted to know why they seemed so troubled.

“We saw His star,” one said, “and we were filled with joy. We knew this was a sign from God above. A diviner like us, a magi from centuries back, spoke by the Spirit of God. He told the world that this star would appear in Israel announcing the birth of a great King. And now that day has come!”

“We went back and read,” another said, “and reread the ancient records of the Jews. It’s all there. The coming of their Messiah, the son of David, whom the prophets of old said was more than a great King. They said He was Emmanuel, both the King who is God and the God who is to be born.”

“When we saw His star, we knew we had to go see Him,” the third one said. And then they began to talk, one right after the other, blending their voices as one.

“But would they let us? We didn’t know. We told our families. We told our government officials. We brought the finest, most expensive gifts possible. We could only hope the Jewish leaders would allow us audience with the King. So we too might see Him and worship Him.”

The reporter kept watching as the three men talked to him. He tried to catch what they were saying but it left him puzzled and strangely speechless.

“We imagined all Israel would be in Jerusalem like they do at their feasts. Everyone celebrating with song and dance, food and drink, cheering at the sight of the royal Child and rejoicing with the greatest joy that His reign and His kingdom were here—finally here!”

“Then we realized we were thinking too small,” one magi said.

“Maybe the whole world saw the star like we did and were doing just what we were doing. We actually believed that Jerusalem, no, all of Israel, wouldn’t be able to contain the amount of people coming from foreign lands to worship the Child.”

And with that, disappointment fell on their faces. The reporter picked up on it and asked why.
“Because that’s not the story. We got to Jerusalem and it was no different than any other day. We went up to the religious officials and asked, ‘Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?’ In no time, we were summoned to see King Herod. We told him about the star and that we’d come to worship the newborn King. And we could see that deeply troubled him.”

“It was like he never heard it before. He knew about the star. He knew about the coming of the Messiah. He knew the ancient prophecies. But no one had made the connection. Not him. Not the Jewish leaders. Suddenly all of Jerusalem knew that we’d come—and why we’d come—and were as troubled as Herod,” one magi said.

“But still, even then, they didn’t get it. They didn’t understand,” another added.

“King Herod sent us secretly to Bethlehem where the prophets said Messiah, son of David, the great Emmanuel King was to be born.”

“We thought for sure all of Jerusalem would make the trek with us from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, following the star, in hope to see their Messiah.”

“But no one came with us. So we thought, surely the people of Bethlehem had seen the star and knew about the birth of the Child. Surely this great town would be filled to the brim with people and joyous celebration. But it wasn’t. We couldn’t believe it. This is the city of David. This is where the prophets said He’d be born. We asked people in town but no one seemed to know anything about why the star had appeared, what it meant, or that it shouted the news—the promised Son of David had just been born to them! They didn’t know or even seem to care.”

“So we kept on following the star until it led us to the place where the royal family stayed. We knocked and someone greeted us. The moment the door of that old barn opened, we saw the Child and instantly fell to the ground and worshiped Him.”

“The Lord had prospered our way.”

“He gave us audience into His royal presence.”

“But it was just us and no one else. We were told about the shepherds on the night of His birth and what the angels had said. We were told stories of how the angel Gabriel had visited His mother Mary and how God visited Joseph in a dream. We knew all the Scriptures God had spoken were true.”

“But it was just us and no one else,” one said, sadly.

“The people—they all saw the star. They all knew the Scriptures. But no one could put the two together. They went on with their busy lives not knowing that the greatest moment of all time had come upon them as foretold in God’s holy Word and announced by the sending of the King’s star. And even when we told them, they showed no interest. They weren’t moved by it.”

“They weren’t ready. No one was!”

“There were no crowds around the Child. No songs or cheers or dances. No streets filled with food and drink, entertainment and joy. No central platforms built so that all the people could see Him, honor Him, and worship Him.”

“We thought the whole world was going to be here with us. We never dreamed that we’d be one of the only ones who’d get audience with the great King.”

“Why weren’t they ready? Why was there no one here to welcome Him?”
And with that, the children bowed.

My busy, little world suddenly stood still. I knew then that times had not changed. That I was no different than the people of that day.

The Scriptures in one hand. Life in the other. And the two rarely meeting. And I wondered what I’m missing today. Missing because I’m too busy. Too busy to follow the night travelers on their quest. To find Jesus. To worship Jesus. And to follow Him with all my heart, soul, mind and strength.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Remembering Sandy Hook

December 14, 2012, was the crisis at Sandy Hook in Newtown, CT. 
In remembrance of that moment,taken from Real Love devotion #33,
we remember….

Sandy Hook
Reflections on 1 John 3:4–6

Everyone who practices sin also practices lawlessness; and sin is lawlessness. You know that He appeared in order to take away sins; and in Him there is no sin. No one who abides in Him sins; no one who sins has seen Him or knows Him.
—1 John 3:4–6

He shot and killed his mother.

Then at 9:30 a.m. he shot his way into Sandy Hook Elementary School. Within seconds, someone called 9-1-1. Within minutes, sirens were heard in the distance as first responders descended on the school in force.

By the time they entered the building, the shooter had already killed himself. The school was out of danger, the rampage over. They soon found six educators including the school principal, dead. They’d been shot. No, more than shot—they’d been slaughtered. And then they came upon the unimaginable, the incomprehensible.

He’d killed children, twenty of them, first graders, six and seven years old. It was December 14, 2012. Twenty miles from our home. We will never forget.

* * *

Everyone who practices sin also practices lawlessness; and sin is lawlessness. 
—1 John 3:4

* * *

There’s a basic rule in life: You don’t touch our children.

When a military power attacks civilians, unarmed and defenseless, we say it’s wrong and cowardly. But how infinitely worse to attack our young. Our Lord has no tolerance for it: “It would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matt. 18:6).

It is sin. It is lawlessness. It is evil.

When Dan Malloy, the governor of the state of Connecticut, arrived in Sandy Hook just hours after the shooting, he said the only thing that could be said: “Evil visited this community today.”

This is exactly what President Clinton said in April 1995 when he had to comfort a grieving nation after the Oklahoma bombing: “To all my fellow Americans beyond this hall, I say, one thing we owe those who have sacrificed is the duty to purge ourselves of the dark forces which gave rise to this evil. They are forces that threaten our common peace, our freedom, our way of life.”1

The president made no attempt to explain the massacre of human lives by focusing on the mental state of the bomber himself. He went deeper. These were “the dark forces” at work in the bomber which “gave rise to this evil.” Almost one hundred seventy people died in Oklahoma, nineteen of them were children in a day care.

No matter how often the secular world tosses the Bible aside, at times like these it expresses exactly what we are feeling. Our politicians, in the face of violence, especially when it’s our children, rise to the microphone and say what the Bible says.

It is sin. It is lawlessness. It is evil.

Kaitlin Roig was there at Sandy Hook. She was teaching a first-grade class when the shots rang out in the classroom next door. Scared, she did what she had to do. She gave them direction. She led them into the bathroom. She told them she loved them and tried, in simple language, to help them understand.

“It’s going to be OK, you’re going to be all right . . . be absolutely quiet . . . there are bad guys out there now. We need to wait for the good guys.”2

It’s that simple: There are bad guys out there who have handed themselves over to the Devil to do what he tells them to do. They practice sin. They practice lawlessness. They force the rest of us to struggle “not against flesh and blood, but against . . . the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12).

There are bad guys out there. Evil guys.

You don’t touch our children.

* * *

You know that He appeared in order to take away sins; and in Him there is no sin.
—1 John 3:5

* * *

The good guys came.

Without the sound of those sirens and the immediate intervention by the first responders, there is no imagining how many more teachers and children would have died that day at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

In the same way, there is no imagining what our lives would be like if the Good Guy Himself did not come to Bethlehem that first Christmas morning.

He is the sound of the siren. He is the One who has come to deal with those who practice sin, lawlessness, and evil. He has come to end the Devil’s reign over us—purging us from the dark forces that give rise to evil—and usher in the day of justice.

This is exactly what we need to hear when our children have suffered. President Clinton, in the days after the Oklahoma bombing, urged this point: “Let us teach our children that the God of comfort is also the God of righteousness. Those who trouble their own house will inherit the wind. Justice will prevail.”3

Justice always prevails in the Lord, whether now or in the time to come, and not only in the massacres of Sandy Hook and the Oklahoma bombing, but in all cases where injustice violates our children, the helpless, the poor, and the outcast.

Thank God, the Good Guy came!

Thank God that we can now see the face of the Shepherd, as described in Psalm 23, standing in “the valley of the shadow of death” (Ps. 23:4). He is there in our suffering. His hands, His feet, His side bear the marks. He died for us. He suffered for us.

The sounds of His siren are loud and unmistakable: Justice always prevails!

* * *

No one who abides in Him sins; no one who sins has seen Him or knows Him.
—1 John 3:6

* * *

The world media descended on the little town of Sandy Hook, Connecticut. The outrage over the killings could be heard from every corner of the globe. The response was immediate, the judgment decisive.
You don’t touch our children.

But odd as it might sound, as the days and weeks passed after the tragedy, I found myself feeling strangely good about myself and the world I live in. The shooter had proven the point again: There are bad guys out there. This is what they look like. This is what they do. In sharp contrast, I am not like that.

We are not like that.

An avalanche of kindness burst on the little Connecticut town as people gave generously, sacrificially, to comfort the grieving families and community. The nation, the world, mourned as we watched on TV the small caskets taken to the churches and then to the cemeteries.

We wept because we care.

There are good guys in this world! This horrible tragedy helped unite us in our outrage, in our fierce determination to protect our teachers and children, and in our resolve to never let this happen again.

There are forces of evil in this world.

There are bad people who do bad things, who practice sin and lawlessness and evil and they must be stopped, no matter what it takes. Oppression must stop. Violence of any kind must cease. Justice must prevail.

And it’s not me.

I am no shooter. I am no bomber. I am not one of the bad guys. That’s how I felt. For a brief moment in time, it made me feel strangely good about myself. I saw the world through the lens of one of Kaitlin Roig’s first-grade students.

Hearing the gunshots. Huddled scared in the bathroom. Praying, waiting for the Good Guy to come from heaven and deal with the bad guy. Having no understanding, none at all, that when He came for the bad guy, the bad guy was me.

Monday, October 13, 2014

To Love Mercy

                                                               Reflections on Micah 6:8, Matthew 10:8

And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.
                                                                                    Micah 6:8 (NIV)

                 Freely you received, freely give.
                                                                                                Matthew 10:8

There is a kind of mercy we can’t do in our own strength.

It belongs to God. It is given by God – freely. All we have to do is receive. And when we do, the miraculous happens. God changes us on the inside.

He makes us a people of mercy.

And suddenly, the motion begins. As we receive, we give. It’s how His mercy works. We can’t hold on to it. We can’t horde it, or hide it, or keep it to ourselves. When we’ve got it and we’re changed by it, we give it as freely as we received it.

But there are people…

Jesus warns us about them. There are people who receive but never receive. There’s no miracle. There’s no change. This, Jesus explains in great detail, is the story of a wicked slave. We are not to be like him.

But our Lord doesn’t leave us there. He also tells the story of a son, a lost son, who finds his way home again. This young man knows, in the depths of his soul, he doesn’t deserve the compassion and mercy of his family. But it comes, in full, and willingly, joyfully, he opens his arms and receives it.

This is everything.

It’s the very heart and soul of the good news: “But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ.” 1

And when it comes to us, we are made new.

That change is visible. It reshapes how we think, how we act, how we engage the world around us, and all of it to our very core. This mercy shapes our character. We see it in the royal line of Jesus’ own family. We find it in people we least expect – those we’ve labeled and pushed away.

It’s meant to be in us.

And the only way for that to happen is to let mercy come. He – the Person of Mercy Himself – must do with us what He came to do. And when He does, one taste of it in our soul and Micah 6:8 comes alive. He gives us everything we need to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.

And out we go – a people of mercy to live mercy. We are men and women on Matthew 10:8 mission holding in our heart His eternal promise: “His mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning.”  2

New and full of surprise.

For this is our God! And He zealously wants us to hear with His ears and see with His eyes. Just as He did in the simple story of a blind beggar.

A person no one sees.

With a cry no one hears, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” But He sees. He hears. It’s everything to Him. He wants it to be everything to us. So we must start here, outside the town of Jericho, with a man on the side of the road begging.

And let the story of Real Mercy change us forever.

*       *       *

I didn’t understand it at first.

Isn’t mercy something we do?

I see it in my Aunt Barbie and Uncle Paul. Their love for the Lord led them to start two mission centers in Colorado that serve hot meals and provide food, clothing, toys, blankets, counseling, and financial assistance to those in need.

It’s what my sister Kate does every day in her social work. Her big heart of love overflows with compassion for the rural elderly in southwest Ohio. It’s my Dad, every Wednesday night, serving the poor in Stamford, Connecticut.

This I get.

It’s what Christians do: We remember the needs of the poor. 3

I was 34, pastoring a church in Pittsburgh, when the “light bulb” went on. I was simply reading a book by an East African pastor. He urgently tasked all church leaders to do the work of “building the character of God’s mercy in the Christian soul.” He went on to say, “If we’re going to tell people about Jesus, they need to see Jesus in us. If we’ve received His mercy, we must be a people of mercy.”

I liked it – a lot. I wrote it in my journal. I thought I knew what it meant. But, truth be told, I didn’t. Not until I saw it the eyes of one man.


We met coincidentally.

In March 1991, Bob Merriman was in the hospital dying of lung cancer. He’d been diagnosed just after Christmas. On his last Sunday in church, he got on his knees next to his wife, Dot, and prayed as Jesus prayed, “Heavenly Father, not my will be done, but Thine.” 4

He was in a coma now. The doctors said it wouldn’t be long.

In the bed next to him sat a twenty-eight year old man by the name of Jared. He sat hunched over, his face down, his legs outstretched, fighting for breath. The cancer had already taken his left arm and collapsed one lung. It was easier for him to breathe bent over. Easier not to talk.

But he was beautiful. His eyes were huge, set to perfection above high cheek bones and a strong, chiseled face with cocoa brown skin stretched tightly over each bone. There was gentleness in his face – even as he struggled for breath.

One afternoon, I heard Jared’s phone ring.

“May I answer it for you?” I asked. He nodded and I soon told him “Your wife wants you to know she loves you. She’ll be in about quarter to seven.” He reached for my hand, squeezed it and whispered, “That was nice of you.”

I blurted out, almost selfishly, “How do you do it, Jared?”

He lifted his head, looked me in the eyes, and said, “Jesus is all I’ve got.”

I already knew this about him. His family was a Christian family. His mother told me Jared had given his life to Jesus as a young man. “He did everything right,” she said, and talked about his time in the military, his marriage to a lovely woman, a nurse, and their two children, both under the age of five.

“He wanted to see his children grow,” she said, “and that’s not going to happen. He knows that now. We all do.”

Even so, I didn’t understand it. It scared me to think of myself suffering as Jared was suffering. Would I be able to say what he just said to me?

Night soon came and Bob took a turn for the worse.

By 3:00 in the morning, his breathing started to slow. Dot was the only one with him. She was sitting at his bedside, holding his hand, her chair next to the curtain separating the two men.

She leaned her head on the bed and began to cry.

Then came this familiar sound – the curtain rings sliding on metal.

And then she felt it. This hand – his only hand – gently resting on her shoulder. Softly patting, tenderly rubbing, as a son would comfort his mother. She could feel his warmth. She reached up, covered his hand with hers, and turned to look at him. There was enough light to see those beautiful eyes.

“He’s all we’ve got,” Jared quietly whispered.

It was, for her, like medicine from heaven to her soul.

And by morning’s light, Bob had somehow recovered. He’d come out of his coma and would spend the next six weeks at home before he passed into the arms of the Lord. For Jared, the story was different.

On the very next night, the curtain stayed closed between us. His family never left his side. When morning came again, the curtain was finally pushed back. It was the first time we’d seen Jared lying down -- peacefully. No more struggles. No more gasps of air. No more sleepless nights to come. The watch was over.

But I have never forgotten him.

Or that hand stretched out in the night.

He’s the one who showed me that mercy isn’t first what we do. It’s who we are. It’s who the God of mercy makes us in Christ. Because of Jared, I began praying the prayer the East African pastor taught me to pray: Build the character of Your mercy in me – and in us Your people.

For this is where it all begins.

+ + +
1 Ephesians 2:4-4
2 Lamentations 3:22-23
3 Galatians 2:10
4 Thaddeus Barnum, Where is God in Suffering and Tragedy? (DeBary, FL: Longwood Communications, 1997), 254-257, 266-269.

John 15:1-11, the Vine and the branches. "Is He everything to you?