Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Jesus in Aurora

     My youngest grandson Jakson is goofy cute. Jakson is 1. He has too many teeth for his little mouth. His hair is so blonde that you can see through it. And his head (to accommodate that powerful brain of his, I’m sure) is three sizes too big for his body. It looks like a pumpkin on a broomstick. But there is something about his smile that lights up a room. And when he waddles though the mall heads turn to enjoy him going by. I know I am anything but objective about this but Jakson has a beauty in the midst of all of his awkwardness that captures your attention. At least it seems that way to his PoppyC.

     This week I sat horrified in front of the TV as the news unfolded of the massacre in Aurora, Colorado. You know the story of a lone gunman walking into a crowded movie theater and opening fire. At least 70 people were shot with a dozen fatalities. Like most of America, I wept for the families of those senselessly slain young people. I prayed for the soul of one so depraved that he could unleash that kind of inhumanity on his fellow human beings. And I groaned for the brokenness of a fallen world that created the backdrop against which this all too familiar tragedy played out. A cafeteria in Texas, a high school in Columbine, a classroom building at Virginia Tech, over the last 30 years in our country alone we have rehearsed this gruesome and grotesque scene until we can describe the players almost before the gunfire ceases. Yet, as often as we have experienced it we are each time in utter shock that this would happen again. Horrible. Ugly. Terrifying.
     If I am not careful I can succumb to the horror and hopelessness of those stories. I begin to see only dark, demonic, destructive forces at work in my world. I recoil from the anger and awfulness that surely must possess an individual to drive him to such an act. I begin to look at everyone around me with suspicion and fear. And I only see the ugliness that we have become as a people, as a planet. The cruelty of one human being to another has been a theme of our reflection since Cain slew Able. We are no longer surprised at the capacity within our own kind to unleash damage and devastation on, well, on us. And it is no consolation to remember that this kind of nightmare is not exclusive to America. Mosques and churches, busses and embassies all around the world have witnessed such hellish moments. There seems to be no limit and no end to the atrocities that we commit. It is all I can see. If I am not careful I go there. But I can’t.
     For one thing, I don’t believe we can survive as a culture or as individuals if we allow ourselves to sink to that level of despair. King Solomon came close to that point when he wrote in Ecclesiastes 1, “Meaningless, meaningless, utterly meaningless. Everything is meaningless.” To begin to believe that this is all there is, that the world is now populated and permeated only with death and destruction, that all that is good about life is either gone or so overwhelmed by evil that it is irrelevant is to leave no space for hope or a willingness to work for change. I think the purpose of chaos is to cause us to quit and to only see the horror makes me want to do that.
     Secondly, more importantly, it just isn’t true. When I begin to only see the awful, terrible, ugliness I am seeing a false image. God is good. His creation is good. There is redemption still at work and “greater is He that is in us than he that is in the world.” The wanton wickedness that we see is the exception and not the rule. In fact the very shock and sadness that it brings up in us is proof that this is not who we are, this is not are nature. We are better than this as a people and as persons. The lie of the enemy is that what happened at that movie theater is symbolic of all of society today. Not true! Not true! Not true! Good not only still exists but it still reigns, and always will because the One who reigns is good. Like the goofy beauty of my grandson, there is still something good and right and noble about the world we live in. The positive still far outweighs the negative. We, the people of God, must, we must, proclaim there is still Good News and not surrender our message of redemption to the violent, viral You Tube clips, or the scandalous sound bytes if the evening news.

     So, how do we find hope in the hopeless? How do we avoid the doom and despair that screams at us from the headlines and from our hearts? Where is the beauty buried beneath the bloodbath of last week or the terrorism of tomorrow?
     First, we step in to look closely at the miracle moments of the event in front of us. Several years ago we had the widow of Todd Beamer speak at our church. Todd was one of the heroes of Flight 93 on September 11, 2001 who apparently charged the cabin of that doomed flight and caused the terrorists to divert in to a rural field rather than the supposed target of the White House. Last night I watched the stories of at least three young men in that Aurora theatre that used their own bodies to shield their girlfriends, giving their lives for others. Stephanie Davies stayed with her wounded friend and applied pressure to her bleeding neck the entire time the gunman was walking up and down the aisles of the smoky theatre. She saved her friends life. Jarell Brooks ran back to up the aisle to help a terrified mother and her two young children escape. Out of almost every story of murder and mayhem arises an even more powerful one of heroism and sacrifice. It is as if the good is saying, “You cannot win. I will use your blackness to illuminate the fact that people are still good, that love still triumphs.” In fact, in some ways the more atrocious the evil the more brightly shines the good. That’s what we hold on to in moments like these.
     Secondly, we step back to look carefully at the context of our faith. We live in a fallen, frightening world but it is undergoing the “birth pains of redemption” as Paul says in Romans. God is victorious over evil from the Garden to the Grave. At the fall of Adam and Eve God clothed them and gave them a promise. When Cain killed his brother God gave him a mark to protect him. All through Old Testament history God works for the redemption of His people. Until finally in the New Testament, at the Cross and that horrible, ugly moment when even His Son is the victim of evil, God raises Him from the Grave and gains the ultimate upper hand over the darkness. These awful moments in time remind us that this is the very reason Christ came. The wickedness of the world only serves to prove the significance of the Savior. The event in Aurora, and all the other mind numbing, hope shattering events of our day, focus our faith like a laser beam on to the only One who can make a difference. As someone said, “A messy world like ours obviously needs a messiah.”

     When it gets right down to it, we see in these horrific moments what we are looking for. If we are looking for hopelessness and despair, it is certainly there to be seen. But if we have our “eyes fixed on Jesus, the Author and Finisher of our faith,” we see God still at work, still redeeming even in the darkest of nights. It’s like Jakson. You might see a goofy little fellow with head too big and teeth too many. I see the most beautiful little guy in the whole world. That is what I am looking for. And today, even in the horrible headlines and the numbing nightly news, I am choosing to look for Jesus.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Dancing The Soul Salsa

I grew up in a home that did not dance. Just the mere mention of the word was anathema. My mother called it foot fellowship. She taught us that dancing was the root of all evil and was the portal through which every other vice imaginable entered. “Don’t ever dance,” she said. “All of that closeness leads a boy and a girl to other wicked things like smoking and drinking beer.” We didn’t dance.

At the end of the school year when the area high school held the annual prom our tiny little church would plan a “prom alternative,” a miserable little affair when all 3 of the teens who went to my church would meet in the basement of the Sunday School area to celebrate the fact that we did not dance. There would be balloons, crepe paper tablecloths, and cardboard stars thumbtacked into the ceiling. A half-dozen matronly, old women would hover around us as we sat at the table, filling our plates with sweet potato casserole and baked ham. We tried to look excited about what was going on, and to ignore the 5th graders that had been invited to make the room more full. We would listen to records of Gene Cotton and Andrae Crouch (the contemporary Christian musicians of that day) and at the end of the evening the preacher (usually my dad) would bring an inspiring devotional message about how much better off we were because we did not dance.

So imagine my surprise when I discovered one day that the Word of God is laced with invitations to dance. Ecclesiastes 3:4 says there is a time to dance. Psalm 30:11 says, “You have turned my mourning into joyful dancing.” And in II Samuel David danced before the Lord “with all of his might.” The most amazing dance note is in John 10:10. It is a very familiar verse where Jesus says, “My purpose is to give life in all its fullness.” The Greek word for fullness is orkaomi. It is the root word that gives us rejoice or dance. Jesus was saying “My purpose is to teach you to dance.”

I love John Ortberg. In his book The Life You Always Wanted  he says, “We will not understand God until we understand this about Him: ‘God is the happiest Being in the universe.’ God also knows sorrow. Jesus is remembered, among other things, as a ‘man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.’ But the sorrow of God, like the anger of God, is His temporary response to a fallen world. That sorrow will be banished forever from His heart on the day the world is set right. Joy is His eternal destiny. God is the happiest being in the universe.”

You see, life is Christ is to be ­enjoyed not endured.
Life is Christ is a party not a pity.
Life in Christ is a dance not a drudgery.

Now I don’t know how to dance but if I did, I would dance the salsa. I got the idea from Leonard Sweet.He says of the salsa, "it is fire and ice, precision and passion, delicate beauty and dominating athleticism all at the same time. The salsa comes from the Caribbean where it finds its African roots and its Spanish rhythm. It embraces the majesty of the royal court and the grit of the street. It has strains in Harlem in New York and in Mexico City. In short, the salsa is the dance of the whole world." And the soul salsa, well that’s the dance of the universe.

I am in a season of my life where dancing the salsa doesn’t seem to be very likely. For one thing my knees are creaky and my back is out of wack. When I stand up it takes me a minute to get my balance and to get my joints all moving in the right direction. Let’s face it the salsa is a young man’s dance with zest and zeal that we old folks gave up a long time ago. But that’s not what makes the salsa, or dancing in general, hard. Right now it’s hard to dance because life is happening. There is sickness to contend with, the economy is tight, I’m a little worried about the state of the nation, and the check engine light has come on in my car. Stuff just builds up all around me and I forget to dance.

In fact, I am coming to believe that this is the time when dancing is most important. Dancing, spiritual dancing, rejoicing in Jesus, enjoying the Spirit, soul salsa dancing brings life back into the heart of those of us who have been beaten down. The ability to dance is fights back the fears and frustrations of the foe and defeats the difficulties and destruction of the devil. Dancing is not only allowed us who call ourselves Christ followers, it is mandatory. While it is not exactly a dancing verse I am thinking of the prophet Joel quoted in Acts 2:17, “In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, and your old men will dream dreams.” That sounds to me like somebody is going to bust a move. Dancing is getting ready to break out.

So, the next time you find yourself in the basement of life, eating sweet potato casserole and baked ham, the next time your problems are telling you that you can’t dance, forget that. You crank up some Gene Cotton, hang out a few stars, and salsa your way into the life that God has designed for you.


Thursday, July 12, 2012


Here is a flagrant, no-holds-barred, begging on my knees plea for help. In fact I have two pleas. The first is very small. The second....it's a doozy. I have been reading a book, Platform, by Michael Hyatt. It's a good one. It deals with the social-media culture of the day and the tools necessary to use that modern day media for good. I am not so much about advancing me (though I certainly have my moments) but I am recognizing the stewardship involved in promoting the Branches story and using my gifts (such as they are) to further the Kingdom of God.

With that in mind I plan to become much more intentional about things like blogging, writing, mentoring, etc. So, here's the first little favor. If you have followed me on this blog will you follow me over to my new blog site and subscribe there. The new site is www.branchesblog.com. It was put together by my good friend Jody Webster at websterville.com and hopes to be simple, straight forward, and helpful. I don't know that I see myself as a mentor type person but I seem to have gotten old and with that comes some wisdom on how to live life better. I plan a weekly post on lessons about faith, practical ways to stay connected to the Vine. We will try to find balance in life, look for ways to engage the world and each other, and hopefully recognize the grace of God in all of life, even the "yukky" parts.

Now for the biggie, flagrant self-promotion. This change to a new blog is a great excuse to ask, will you help me by sharing my blog with as many people as you can. Put it on lists. Refer to it in your postings. Just help me kick-start this by getting the word out. To the person who does the best job there will be a huge cash reward. (That is not true! I just got desperate in trying to motivate you.) Actually there is nothing in this for you except my deep appreciation and the satisfaction that you have shared some things that may have been meaningful to you along the way. In return you have my commitment that I will work consistently and with integrity to present a "product" that you can be proud of and God will be glorified in.

Well, enough grovelling. You are probably here because you are a friend. Be sure I am grateful for that. Now "follow me, as I follow Christ." Let's see where He takes us.