Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Dear Miriam

I stood in the back of the room looking for a seat,

looking for someone I knew in the sea of women seated facing forwards.


I saw her near the front and I headed in her direction.

Only, by the time I got there, she had leaned forward.

I could hear her sobbing.

Women jumped up before I got there and surrounded her with arms and tissues and the quiet murmurings of voices slipping underneath unspeakable pain to help bear the weight.


I slid into the end of the pew feeling helpless and small, unable to reach through to join in. Feeling foolish for not having seen the pain before.


We stood to sing together, the tune of the hymn familiar and strong. I opened my mouth and joined my voice to the hundred or so other voices around me.


What a friend we have in Jesus,

All our sins and griefs to bear!

What a privilege to carry

Everything to God in prayer...


I have sung these words since I was small, learned to play them on the piano and know the feel of the chords beneath my fingers.

I have known the truth of them and they became my prayer for my friend bowed over in grief.


There was a book wrapped up and placed under our Christmas tree about 3 years ago now and I eagerly devoured the pages.



I remember falling asleep in evening services to strong voices around me lifted up in the rich and ancient truths found in the hymnals tucked into the front of the pew near my knees.

I remember that Sunday the projector made its way on to the stage at the front of the sanctuary, the words and chords laid down on transparent paper and songs like Majesty and Faithful One and guitars and drums joining in with the piano and organ.

I remember my first worship service that felt nothing like the quiet sanctuary of the small church I had been born into. The rush that I was somewhere modern, somewhere new.


I remember the joy I felt the first time I heard the beginning chords of a hymn after years of the absence of one. Oh, it had been reworked, yes, but it was beautiful.



This book I had read, it talked of the importance of the "why" of what we sing.

We sing during worship, not for our emotional filling or really for anything about us - we sing during worship for each other. As we sing, we are singing praise to Jesus, yes, but more importantly, we sing to encourage the brothers and sisters around us. We sing to strengthen broken hearts and point them back to the tender and holy mercy of our amazing God.

We sing to hold the gospel out to those around us who don't know Jesus. To surround them with the beautiful truth of a compassionate and loving God who sent His Son to die for the sins of the world and draw us to Himself.


Every Sunday at the end of the service, our pastor, without fail, closes with an opportunity to know Jesus. With all our heads bowed, he extends the invitation for anyone to raise their hand, to receive the gift of eternal life.

And then, without fail, he asks us to all join our voices together and lift them in prayer...us who have already prayed and received. Us who have already walked with Jesus for years. I lift my voice and it joins in with the many and brothers and sisters lift up the voice of one who is receiving Jesus for the first time and I am reminded that we are not meant to walk through this life with Jesus alone.



On the edge of the Red Sea in the book of Exodus the Israelites are found standing. They are facing a charging, angry Egyptian army who are hell-bent on taking the people back who they believed were rightfully theirs. They stood there full of doubt and fear. But God, faithful and steadfast in His love and mercy proved in a mighty way that these weary and broken people were His.

Moses breaks into a song of praise that wraps around each Hebrew heart and draws their eyes up to the Most High God who had set His love on them and rescued them, first through the marking of blood and now in the parting of water.

As his song fades away, his sister, Miriam, takes on the song and I wonder if she isn't an example to us as sisters in Christ:

Then Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a tambourine in her hand, and all the women went out after her with tambourines and dancing. And Miriam sang to them:
“Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously;

the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea.”  

Exodus 15:20-21


It doesn't say that she led some women, or a few women...

it says that all the women went out after her with tambourines and dancing.

And in this beautiful picture of celebration, Miriam sings to them:

Sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously...


The Creator of the world around us, the One Who set the sun and moon and stars in place - Who upholds the hugeness of the universe by the very power of His word,

He created you.

And not just created, as amazingly beautiful and tender as that is,

but our God who creates and is sovereign over all things, He bent low and He became man, He died for you and for me and He really did triumph gloriously.


Where can you be a Miriam? Where can I? Where can we pick up our voices in praise and lead all the ones God has purposely placed around us to see the beauty and grace of our Savior...and not just to see, but to know the One who became the Way, the Truth, and the Life for us.



This road winds and twists and is marked by death and fear and so many unknowns, but this road is one, when we believe in Jesus is one that rings with the song of hope.



So let your life be one that fearlessly goes out into the broken spaces around you with praise and joy, even through tears of sorrow, because our trust in the last words that Jesus spoke here on earth are the ones that fuel our faith.


Sing loud, dear Miriam - we all long to hear you.


Friday, March 10, 2017

Oscar Wilde and Me {A Post by Tony}

The great playwright Oscar Wilde once said there was only one thing he couldn’t resist …

Temptation.




“Do you want to come over this weekend? My roommate is away and I don’t have plans...”

I’m 20 years old and this isn’t the first time a woman has acted interested but it’s the first time they’ve put it so bluntly. 

“Oh,” I mumble, “That’s okay, I have plans with family this weekend but thank you for asking, that’s very nice of you.” 

 I don’t want her to feel bad, but I’m not coming over, and since we’re in the middle of our shift at the restaurant I don’t want her to feel uncomfortable at work.  

Too late, now it’s out there and we have to face it. 

If I’m honest I have to say I see the reason: generational sexual sin has been an issue in my bloodline for, well...generations.  Like the circular marks from a hot stove, I see the scars at family reunions, birthday parties, and weddings.  Satan sees this too; I should be an easy mark, but my stubbornness makes me resist this idea even more, the idea that I can be easily duped, manipulated, pulled under.



There’s this reminder too:
  
A couple years before that when I was 18, a girl that I worked with at camp got me alone under false pretext and when she suddenly realized I wasn’t going to take advantage of her she started to cry and admitted that before becoming a Christian she had let men take advantage of her and that she was thankful I didn’t. 

We talked and she left feeling better, instead of used.

The opposite sex will often get emotional or angry when you refuse their advances, they take it personally at a very deep level, but later, if you continue to show you care about them they come around to the idea that you’re not hating or judging them. Instead you are loving them in the way God intended, as a brother or sister in Christ.  The love you’re giving them is the one they really need.  A love that doesn’t selfishly drink stolen waters for the benefit of themselves but keeps those waters safe for the one God intended for them to share it with - their future spouse, or in volatile cases, their current one.

I can honestly say my wife Is the only woman I’ve ever been with and that not until we were married. I am so thankful to God for this piece of grace in my turbulent life. It can be done but not under your own power. Jesus Christ alone carries you through.   




It’s New Year’s Eve and my father is hanging dead from a tree. (Don’t turn away, get in front of it.) I can wrap my arms around my wife and mother while they weep but apart from that there’s nothing else I can do.

In the next year I spend nearly every moment of every hour going over the day he killed himself and the time we spent talking, where I desperately tried to convince him that we needed him. I could feel him fading away and knew the end was near but there was nothing I could do. He slipped out of the house and never came home. 





“Papa go to heaven?" My 3 year old daughter asks.

“Yes,” I choke out.

Her big brown earnest eyes bore into mine, “But why?”

My voice is a hoarse whisper, and I shake my head, “I don’t know...I simply don’t know.”

She starts to cry.

That year was hell and every night after we put the kids to bed I would turn up the music, the football game, the movie, whatever and wrap my hand around a cold glass of scotch and just fade away into evening, never getting drunk but close enough to the rusty razors edge where I could fall asleep as quickly as possible.  Anything, anything at all to dull the pain. 


But something woke me up.




I was working at a job where I was the Director of Operations and answered to the president as head of a large number of departments.  At 34 it was a promising future; 60k a year, free health care, new car and only 400 dollars a month in housing payments. I couldn’t lose on that career path and I was proud of that position.  

But something was wrong with every financial report that came across my desk.  

Money was missing but It wasn’t from my end of things.  

As I dug deeper I found that 250,000 dollars was missing, on top of that another 15 grand, and so on and so forth.  It went right to the top and as it turned out the president, the CEO and the chairman of the board had been approving large increases for themselves and then paying off their houses, buying new cars and wardrobes and whatever else they needed for a more than comfortable life, while disguising the loses in the mountains of financial shifting and slick accounting. 

The worst part of it was that they were firing long time employees left and right and telling them with tear filled eyes as they wrung their hands, “We’re  experiencing financial trouble and we can no longer keep your position open.” 

They displaced one family after another, families that had trusted them.  I confronted the president and was told, in a round-about way that I could quit or get fired if I didn’t keep my mouth shut.  I chose to quit AND not keep my mouth shut.  Calling my former boss at Starbucks in Seattle I was immediately rehired and given the option of moving to Yakima or Eugene.  

The choice was clear to Kimberley and I.

Yakima had a much higher crime rate.




I’ve presented before you the three basic ideas from 1 John 2:16,

 For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world.

Three temptations we all face: lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes, pride of life. 

Sex, power, wealth.  

Do not be deceived.  

I am not racing ahead of you.  I am not falling behind you, I am not better than you.  I am not worse than you, I’m nothing more than a sinner saved by grace that is clinging to this promise from 1 Corinthians 10:13,

No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it. 

God provides a way out of all temptation, and I’m acting out in faith on that promise.  In the iconic movie Jurassic Park, when the T-Rex attacks the children the lawyer runs away and hides; the little girl is left alone to defend her younger brother. Deep in shock, she repeats over and over again, “He left us, he left us.”  The protagonist calmly puts his arm around her, looks her in the eye and says, “But that’s not what I’m going to do!”  



Many people in your life will allow themselves to slip into sin and betray or leave you but that’s not what Jesus is going to do. He’s there with you every step of the way, praying for you, holding you up and fighting every battle for you. The way of escape.

A final story




Gane and I make another attempt at getting her to play.  

She's only been at Madison House for a couple of weeks.  

She disappeared for a week, but she's back now.

"Come play with the rest of the kids, there's nothing to be afraid of."

We smile and encourage but her eyes drop down and she quietly shakes her head.  Gane looks at me and I shrug.  

Nothing we can do.  

She's the second oldest with a few younger siblings. 

They have all joined in the game. 

One younger brother, about 6 years old didn't show up,  

he normally does. 


I start to walk away because we've reached the point where I will just annoy her. 


Later Gane tells me the girl took her aside and partially pulled up her shirt exposing a swath of bandages around her abdomen. 

Bullets started flying through their house a week ago and she flung her younger brother to the ground. She was only grazed but as we find out later her 6 year old brother got the worst of it.

He had to be flown emergency style to Harbor View.  

The surgery was successful but they are not sure if he'll ever be able to use his hand properly again.  

The bullet entered at the elbow, traveled up his arm, and came out his palm.  


Another week goes by and I'm standing on the front steps greeting children when I see him coming toward Madison House.

"Hey" I ask with utmost concern, "How are you?

His young face flushes with happiness.  "I GOT SHOT!"

"Oh, okay," I'm not sure what to say next, so I say, 

"Well, are you going to be okay?"

He is hopping up and down with excitement.

"It was awesome!"

"Why was it awesome?"

"I got to fly in a helicopter to Seattle!" 

His feet dance and his smile never fades, he has a monstrous cast that covers his arm from mid bicep to the tips of his fingers, he waves it like a flag an exclamation point to his every word.

"And do you know what Tony?!" 

"WHAT?!"

"At the hospital in Seattle you can order whatever you want to eat and they have to bring it to you! It was amazing!"

He pushes past me into Madison House, running up the steps and out of site. 

For the rest of the day I can hear him from different points on the playground yelling excitedly, "HEY GUYS, I GOT SHOT, AND IT WAS AWESOME! "

He is the star of Madison House for the day and he deserves to be.

That family is with us for another week and then they move away to a safer town.
Not because of gang violence, drugs, or poor housing.  I quickly learn from the neighborhood rumor mill that there is more than one father involved in creating this particular family.  

Before you judge that too harshly, read Genesis.


One of the fathers didn't appreciate being cut out of the picture and came back with a gun. 
How does it feel to be betrayed by your own father? How does it feel to hit the floor as a bullet ruins your arm, knowing that a man you call ‘father’ is the cause of your wounds instead of the healing balm, the protector they were created to be? I can tell you from first hand experience it doesn’t feel great. 

I was either going to break or fight back. 

Nothing could have been easier for me at the loss of my father to give up; to float away, to slowly weaken myself to the point where even the most innocuous seeming temptation would have broken me.

But that's just not me. How WE feel, or what WE want is immaterial to the mission of Christ and the Cross.

I encouraged one of my brothers by telling him that, "With dad gone, we're already a man down.  If you drop your weapon and flee that's exactly what the enemy wants, to pick us off one by one, until we give in to subtle attrition and fade away into the night.”   




Once you present yourself before God as an act of service, the enemy, Satan, our real adversary, takes immediate umbrage and starts shooting and he doesn’t stop until he kills your ministry or you go home to be with Jesus.  When I finally die and lay on my face before God, he’s going to ask me, “How did it go?”

 I’m going to answer in praise, 

“I got shot and it was awesome!”  

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Verses for the Wilderness

I wake up the last four mornings barely able to breathe.

Panic clings close and all the unknown things lurking in the future loom large.


Suddenly, time has moved too quickly, and it isn't slowing down and how can the oldest of my four be less than a year from middle school?

How can I be thisclose to 40?

Shouldn't there be more time?





I wake up this morning and think of his dad. As the second hand clicked closer to 10:30 a.m. the memories did too.

The sound of the door opening.

The sound of his voice.

Celia's breath catching.

Elias trying to roll over.

My frantic phone call to my best friend.


The story never changes, year after year.

These memories are solidified.


I wondered, as I ran last minute errands this afternoon, if I would still be grieving like this 50 years from now? Would the pain always feel this fresh?






This past week, the words for this year changed suddenly.

And I was okay with it, until I saw the verse that went along with it.


It's been a long battle for me to fall in love with the pages of scripture. For so long portions of it were associated with people and events connected with pain. It was easy to skim, rather than dig. Easier to rush through rather than to sit long and slow.


The battle was slow and unrushed, and my love has grown deep and true. But there are still prickles of pain that snake up my spine when certain verses or words brush too close.


This verse is one of those.




In my kitchen, the day after Christmas, seated at my desk with my pen and journal in hand, I gave into the pain.

A few years ago, the year was named New, all tucked in with the verse found in Isaiah 43:19,

Behold, I am doing a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert.


The verse for this year, while different, represents a portion of my life that is a wilderness - that has represented death and brokenness for so long. And so I wasn't really surprised when both verses of scripture were laid out on the same page of a book under my nose while I sat there wrestling with pain filled memories and emotions.



I rush through books.

Because I want to know how the story ends.


I run away from pain.

Because I don't want to live with the hurting.


I push against the unknown.

Because I want to know how it all turns out.




But that isn't my place.

It's Christ's.




As I prayed over this year ahead, all I've sensed was a call to Be still.

Not "being still" in the sense of doing nothing, giving up, and burying what little talents I have in the ground and just waiting.


No, the call to Be still is one with a purpose.


God, through the Psalmist, calls out clearly,

Be still and know that I am God...


Being still walks hand in hand with action. It's joined in with the action of knowing and this knowing has a very specific result - to know God is God in and over all things.


I don't know what this coming year will look like.


But I know what my role is to be.

In all my living, in all the moments given, 

my heart is to be in a posture of stillness, no matter how quickly everything around me spins.


The purpose of this life He has given me is to glorify and honor Him, yes. 

Always.


even if the only glimpse I ever see is here on 4th Street.







So, I stand here, on the edge of the end of the year of Grace, ready to walk through the unknown wilderness of this coming, whirling year learning to Be still.

May I know Him more deeply at the end of it all.










Tuesday, December 20, 2016

How a Brother's Voice Can Echo {A Post by Tony}

I’m 5 years old, so it must be 1979. 

My grandparents purchased a giant house complete with fall-out shelter on a hill.  

100 acres.  

On the front of the hill is the Christmas tree farm and on the back end is a lake and a massive amount of woods; a boys dream.  




We live here frequently, on and off again, whenever my parents money ran out of money or the plans changed. 

In this memory I am sneaking through the woods, my cousins and older brother have left to go build a fort.  I begged to come too but my cousins said I was too young to help and no good at sneaking so I was left behind.  

I’ll show them, I’ll sneak up on them, then they’ll see how good I am at their game and they’ll have to let me play.  

It works! I surprise them but they are not impressed. They are angry and dismissive asking me to stop bothering them and go back to the house.  My older brother, he’s 9 and outnumbered, hestitates, and then steps in, “Hey guys it’s ok. Tony’s a cool kid. We should let him help us build a fort.” That’s all I can remember from that day. 

It’s a good day.   





We move again. Up to Canada.

We live in two bedroom apartment; 2 girls, 4 boys, my parents sleep on a hide-a-bed in the kitchen/living room. The apartment is only 500 square feet. 

We live there 9 months. 

We move again, to Oregon, to a parsonage, where my dad is an interim pastor of a church.  During that time my brother finds an old book in the church library, “For This Cross I’ll Kill You.”  It’s an amazing book, I am enthralled by my brother's ability to add voices and further characterize and color the people in the story.  It’s about a missionary who moves down to South America from Minnesota and walks into the jungle, discovering an unreached people group all on his own and bringing them the gospel.  

After a 9 month stint at the church, my father is not asked to stay.




Someone in the church takes pity on us and lets us move into their home that is sitting vacant outside Beaverton. 

The house is huge, an old Victorian, complete with its own pool table and all kinds of crafty built-ins and hidden closets.  In one of the hidden rooms we discover a stash of what I now realize are priceless old comic books and records.  My brother teaches me how to shoot pool and we play late into the summer nights, listening to Abby Road “Shoot Me” and pouring over all the amazing, color pictures of Fantastic Four and Superman.  In the afternoon my brother reads me all of the Chronicles of Narnia, and Tower of Geburah.  We are only there for three months, but what an amazing summer it is! 

We move to the beach.




 I never realize that we’ve been homeless for a couple years now. 

What kid does? 

According to the books I’m being read we’re just on one incredible adventure after another.  


It rains nearly every day at the beach so we stay inside and read.

“The Hobbitt,” My brother says.  

“It sounds dumb,” I say, “What’s a hobbit?” 

“It’s cool, you’ll like it.”


We are only there a month.




We move again to Idaho.

We stay! It’s a miracle!  

My brother joins High School football and even though I’m only in fifth grade, he needs, with his speed, a quarterback to help him practice the routes.

“No,” he coaches patiently, “don’t throw it to me, throw it to the tree. I might be at the porch when you release the ball but I’ll be at the tree when the ball gets there.”

I go to all the games. My brother is so fast and so quick, nothing can stop him. Once he gets the ball, he is gone.

I want to be my brother.




In my fifth grade opinion Back to the Future is the greatest movie ever made.  It’s a cold night and we are exhausted from getting firewood up in the mountains all day but there’s a reward waiting at the end.  My dad is letting my older brother and I go to the movies…BY OURSELVES!  We must be nearly grown up.  Nothing can stop us now, Not even the Libyans!

He goes to college and when he comes home at Christmas, I have missed him like crazy.  All the funny stories about dorm life and intramural football and girls.

“Girls!” I say, incredulous, “I don’t like girls.” 

This is a lie, I’ve had my eye on one all year long in seventh grade but she’s rich and beautiful and I’m invisible and poor so what’s point?

“You will,” he assures me.

I do.




My younger brother and I are standing in the restaurant facing my older brother with terrible news.
 
“Yes I know. I knew dad was dead when you walked in the door. I love you guys.”

I don’t hear any of this until later.

Shock will do that.  

It means so much to me now; a memory I can smile at on the darkest day.




Madison House. What a life! No regrets.  





People ask, “What would make you move to a part of the world that you didn’t know, to a culture you don’t have any affinity with, to share the gospel?”


In the rec-room, “How come you’re so good at pool?”


“Hey dad, how come you know so much about super hero’s, music and movies?”


“Tony’s on our team in snow football! He’s fast!” They smile.


“I don’t like girls,” A young man proclaims loudly for all in the Madison House kitchen to hear.

I laugh on the inside, “He will.”   


“No,” I say patiently, “Throw the ball to the end zone. Even if I’m at midfield when you release it, I’ll be in the end zone when the ball gets there.”


 “Hey, don’t leave that kid out,” I say under my breath to the older kid selecting, “Make sure you pick him for your team. He’ll feel special.”


“Dad, what’s a hobbit? It sounds dumb.”  

“It’s cool, you’ll like it.”
    

I pull aside the 18 year old, gently I explain, “The younger kids look up to you, that’s why I need you to be an example. 

He shrugs noncommittally, disbelief crosses his face.

“No I’m serious. You might not know it, but they’re watching your every move and they want to be just like you.  They are dying to impress you and get your approval. They might act like they don’t care but that’s just a front.  They want you to be impressed with them because they look up to you.  It’s not a contest against you, it’s a contest for you.”

He frowns but nods. 

It’s Thanksgiving 2016.

We are leaving the house in Lake Stevens to head back to Yakima and I see my older brother pull aside one of my young daughters; the one that struggles the most with self-image. 

“Hey,” he whispers just for her. “You are not a weirdo. You are a special kid. Don’t let anyone ever tell you that you’re weird. You are special.”  

She nods and a smile breaks her frown like an ice cream sandwich on a hot day. 




The truth is, my kids freak out with excitement when they know dad’s older brother is coming to visit. They love him to death. Any compliment from their Uncle puts them over the moon and has them walking on air for the rest of the week.

I know exactly how they feel.