Where Does Real Courage Come From?

Monday, March 31, 2014

Born To Serve

                                                 Reflections on Ruth 4:7-22

“A son has been born to Naomi!" So they named him Obed. He is the father of Jesse, the father of David.
                                                                        Ruth 4:17

The baby snuggles soft against her neck and coos. She gently rubs his back, wondering if he’ll fall asleep but he doesn't. The little man is wide awake. She lifts him into the air, rubs noses with him, stares into his big bright eyes, and instantly she’s transported back in time. Back thirty years ago and more.

When she held her firstborn son.

She and Elimelech were happy then. He’d come home after working in the fields and find the house full of family and friends. A big meal on the table. She can still see him – like it was yesterday. Not long after, they welcomed a second born son and, somehow, way too quickly, her little boys became handsome young men. Like their father. Working the fields of Bethlehem. And finding favor with God.

Until the famine came.

She cradles the baby in her arm and smiles at him. He squeezes her finger and stretches his pudgy little legs. She holds him closer and, just as she starts to sing, she hears the sound of people coming. Then a light tap on the door.

“Naomi?” someone whispers, cracking the door slightly.

She invites them in. These women are her friends. Some since childhood. She still remembers seeing the surprise on their faces when she returned from Moab dirty, poor, hungry. No husband. No sons. “Is this Naomi?” they cried out. And all she could do was shake her head and say, “No, my name Bitter.” For, back then, all she could feel deep in her soul was the Lord’s anger against her. 1

One of them sweeps the baby into her arms and, quite spontaneously, bursts into joyful song. They all do. They praise the Lord for Boaz who’d redeemed her. Then for Ruth who loves her better than seven sons. Then – with the baby passing one to the other – they sing God’s praise for the blessing of this beautiful child.

And they are right. Only the Lord could do this!

No one ever said it out loud. At least, not in her hearing. But everybody knew. They had to know. Ruth had been married for the better of part of ten years and had no children to show for it. In Israel, such a woman is branded as barren. 2 Now, in front of everybody in Bethlehem, she was supposed to conceive a child?

Impossible! But not with God.

One of the women shouts out, “A son has been born to Naomi!” and, who said it first? They started calling him Obed -- “servant.” As if he’d come into the world for the sole purpose of serving Naomi. As if this little man was here to give back what years of bitterness had stolen from her. And somehow, the name stuck.

Breaking every tradition of how a child is named!

Naomi quietly nods her head. The women are partly right. Obed is her son – the surviving heir of her marriage with Elimelech. At the same time, he’s the heir of Mahlon and Ruth. So, legally, she is mother. Grandmother. All at the same time. But no, she can’t agree, the child is not here to serve her.

She’s here to serve him.

Like she did her boys. Like she did Orpah and Ruth. And if she does her job well, she will etch the character of God into little Obed’s heart. So he’ll be kind with the “hesed” kindness of God – like his mother Ruth. And merciful – like his father Boaz.  And he will rise up in his day as first, and always, a “servant” of God.

That he might serve his generation. For the sake of others. For the glory of God.

For this is her family’s legacy. Meant to be passed down not just to Obed. Or his children. Or his children’s children. But, like a runner holding high the torch, to every generation down the corridor of time. This is her prayer. That her family always be known as “Obeds!” Not those who are served. But those who serve.

And give themselves for the blessing of others. 3

*       *       *

The church van was at my house a little before seven.

Every once and a while, Pastor Adams gets invited to share the story of The Naomi Project. He always takes people with him and, this time, he asked if I’d like to go. “It’s a Baptist church upstate,” he said. “They want to do what we’re doing. You in?” I quickly accepted.

The van was full. I got the last seat in the back.

I was surprised to sit next to Hammer.  “Adams let you come?” I asked, telling him I’d been there the Wednesday night he spoke.

“That was four months ago,” he said, nudging me. And then came the stories, one after the other, of rough teenage kids giving their life to Christ. We must have talked for nearly an hour.

“We've got trouble!” Pastor Adams shouted. We heard people gasp. There was an accident up ahead.

“Looks bad,” someone cried out.

“Call 911,” Adams barked. “We've got no traffic. No emergency lights. I’m thinking it just happened. We’re pulling over. Somebody pray to Jesus.”

“Pastor, we can’t stop, we’ll be late,” somebody said.

“No, we won’t,” he said strongly, his voice loud.

Seconds later, the van pulled to a stop. Adams turned around from his front passenger seat and said, “Church, you know what to do here. We never pass by. We do what we can, where we can, when we can. This is our time. Go out there and do what the Lord gives you to do. Let the Holy Spirit use you. Now go!” With that, the van doors opened and out we went.

Two cars and an SUV.  

The SUV upside down with people trapped inside. One car back ended. The other badly damaged. We had an EMT and nurse in our van. They quickly assessed the scene: Eight people total. Two seriously injured. One critical. All three in the upside down SUV. The other five were either at their cars or trying to help the people who were trapped.

Our team seemed to know what to do.

Some surrounded the five.  Some stayed back and prayed. The rest of us went with the nurse and EMT to the upside down SUV. Hammer and two other men pried open the car doors. The nurse started working with the most critically injured while the EMT dealt with the other two.

“We've got a bleed. I need hands,” the EMT called out.

I watched Pastor Adams get on his knees and crawl part way into the back seat. One hand on the bleed, the other holding the man’s hand.

The nurse and EMT put us all to work.

Within minutes, the place was filled with lights and sirens, medical teams and police. With precision and care, all three people were extracted from the car. Two went by ambulance. The most critical was flown out by helicopter. We stayed until all three were safely on their way to the hospital.

Soon enough, we were back on the road.

Pastor Adams was slated to speak at 9:00. When he started at 11:15, his first words to a packed church were met with laughter and applause.

Are we late? ‘Cause I’m thinking we’re on time if we’re on God’s time -- you with me?

And with that, he began. For most of the day, he let his team from The Naomi Project lead the conference and workshops. But his opening words, for me, said it all. He gently led us into the things that belong to the heart of God. I did my best to capture some of his words in my journal.

            What happened this morning is all I've got to say to you
            Jesus never passes by
            If He doesn't pass by – we don’t pass by
            All we've got to do is look

            Walk the streets where God has placed us, Church
            Start with our families. Go to our neighbors
            Ask the Lord to open our eyes to see the needs around us
            And hear the cries of the people
            For if Jesus never passes by – we don’t pass by
            All we've got to do is look

            And when we do – we follow in the footsteps of Naomi
            Great grandmother of King David
            In the royal line of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ
            This is her story. It is His story. It is our story
            We are here, Church, to serve our communities with mercy
            For if He came not to be served but to serve
            We are called to do the same.

            Rise up, Church!
            This is our hour to say what we need to say
            And do what we need to do.
            We never pass by!

1 See Ruth 1:19-21
2 See Genesis 11:30; 16:1-3
3 The great storyteller of Ruth concludes by surprising us. All along we've been reading the story of King David’s family. Their story, their actions, their character become the heritage passed down to Obed, Obed to his son Jesse, and Jesse to his son King David. And of course, from King David comes the royal Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. Like the name “Obed” – “servant” – our Lord ‘s own character is revealed as He tells us He came not “to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45).

+ + +

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Introduction to 'Real Love'

('Real Love' is Volume 2 of Thad's devotions coming out late summer 2014)

Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.
                                                                        Matthew 11:28


After mom died in October 1973, my older brother and I entered our adult years rarely crossing paths. We simply couldn’t find common ground. He gave himself to psychology and philosophy with as much passion as I gave myself to the Lord. Early on, we ended up butting heads. Nearly every time we talked.

The two of us – well, it just didn’t work.

As much as we tried to connect, superficial was about the best we could do. Weather. Health. Family. Work. We always promised to talk soon. Always said we loved each other. But nothing ever came of it. And somehow years passed between us. For reasons of his own, he distanced himself from many in our family. He rarely came around. We’d see each other once, twice, a decade.

Until we entered our fifties.

We talked a little more. He came to some family events. The things that separated us didn’t seem to separate us as much. The bond between us was real and strong. He loved us – me, my dad, my sister Kate and our families.

And we loved him.

Surprisingly, he not only came to our dad’s 85th birthday party in January 2012 but he and his wife actually stayed with Erilynne and me at our home for a night. It may sound small, but it was big to us. And what concerned us most that night was his health. He wasn’t feeling well. He had all kinds of doctor appointments set up and – was I misreading him? – he looked scared.

So I called him more. He called me more.

Then the news came. On May 17th, the doctors said he had metastasized cancer and months – maybe a year or more – to live.

After that, we talked or texted every day.

“I want to talk Bible,” he said, not long after. “Where do we start?”

It took me my complete surprise. “How ‘bout tomorrow, late morning?” I asked, pushing him off.

“Cool,” he said back.

And immediately I felt this pit in the center of my stomach. I was scared this conversation would hurt our relationship. It would spark debate between us and we’d quickly fall back to old patterns of butting heads. Arguing. Building walls between each other and I didn’t want that. Not now, especially now.

How do I do this?

So the next day, I called him and admitted I was nervous. “I want to take this slowly, if you don’t mind, and if it doesn’t go well, let’s stop, okay?”

“Yeah,” he replied. “But I really want this.”

So off we went. “There’s one place we have to start,” I said, taking him to Matthew 11:25-26. “It’s a passage where Jesus prays to His Father and says, ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.’ This is important,” I interjected. “He’s setting ground rules. This has nothing to do with how brilliant we are.”

“No, I get that,” he came back.

“It means we can’t, with our own minds, understand God. Or the Bible.  We need His help. He reveals Himself – if we come to Him as little children. It may sound unfair. But He doesn’t care if we’re scholars or simple minded. People in the Third World, living in poverty, who have no access to universities, have as much access to Him as we do. That’s the story.”

He surprised me. He was all in.

“Agreed, I like it. Now keep going,” he insisted.

So I asked him what he thought of verse 28. He read it out loud, “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy laden.” And he stopped. There was silence on the phone between us. I waited until he finally read, “for I am gentle and lowly in heart.” I heard him take a deep sigh and say, “I’ve never seen that before.”

And here we were. The two of us. At the hardest place of all.

“Gregor, this is it,” I said to him. “This is everything. It’s the entire Bible in just a few words. Can you see it?”

“I’m not sure.”

“From the beginning, God created us to be in relationship with Him. We messed up. That’s why He came. It’s why He went to the Cross -- to right our wrong – so He could look us in the eye and say, ‘Come to Me. Be in relationship with Me. Real, dynamic, intimate relationship.’ This is His heart for us.”

“Say more,” he pressed.

“You and me – we’re not coming to a philosophy. A theological doctrine.  A worldview of some kind. We’re coming to God Almighty. We are coming to His Son. He wants us to know Him and love Him with all our heart, mind, soul and strength. He wants this relationship with us. That’s the beauty of it.”

I stopped and said nothing more. Not then. I knew I had stepped on sacred ground. Nothing plagued my brother more in life than broken relationships. It had always been hard -- with women in the past. With his own family.

Between us.

“You okay?” he asked, wondering why I stopped.

“Yeah, kind of,” I said honestly.

“Why, what’s up?”

Part of me didn’t want to go on. I didn’t want to tell him the next piece of the story – that is, if we step into this relationship with Him, He requires we step into relationship with each other. These two inseparable pieces are the exact reason I started writing devotions in First John. I knew, at the heart of John’s message, stood the Royal Law. That is, if we truly love God, if we believe in Jesus Christ as our Savior, then we must – by God’s decree – love one another.

And if we don’t, John says we are liars and the truth is not in us (1 John 2:4).

In my world, especially in 2012, I witnessed great Christian leaders break from each other. Churches split apart. Marriages in Christ end in divorce. Long time Christian friends taking sides against each other. Things done, things said, that should never be named among those who belong to Jesus. But it was.

It is. Division in the Body of Christ – it’s everywhere. And I was just as much to blame. Even here – starting here – with my own brother.

So I told him everything.

Broken relationships in the church. Among pastors and leaders. Between churches right across the street from each other.  Among Christian denominations who hold the same creedal faith in Christ.

The breaks in my own life.

“It’s not acceptable,” I said. “He doesn’t allow us to love Him and then refuse to make it real in the relationships in our lives. This is why I’m going through First John. It’s why I write devotions like I do. I believe with all my heart that He wants to take us to the place where Bible and life meet. Where what we say and how we live are one and the same. It doesn’t matter if we believe something is true. It matters whether it’s real in our lives. And if we’re going to say we love the Lord, then we have to do what He says and love each other with as much passion as He, in Christ, has loved us.”

“I agree,” he shot back quickly.

And then he surprised me – again.

“I want to do this with you,” he thundered.


“Yeah.  You okay with that?”

“With all my heart,” I agreed. And suddenly, the two of us – well, it just worked. Runners in stride for the first time since the days of our youth.

“We should’ve done this a long time ago,” he said later. 
And more than anything – in these days of his sickness – I wanted all those years back with decades more to come.

*       *       *

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