Grace’s Reward

“The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you.” ~ Frederick Buechner

“Grace is but Glory begun, and Glory is but Grace perfected.” ~ Jonathan Edwards

Writing for me is like hunting a needle in a haystack; I know it’s in there somewhere, I just can’t put my finger on it. When I do, it generally pricks me before I share the needle with anyone else. My recent travel destinations sound like a litany of C&W anthems or B-Westerns: Amarillo, Abilene, Fort Davis, Cisco, Comanche, El Paso, Pecos, and Waco. On one particular journey I was stalled against my will by road construction along Highway 6 somewhere between Dublin and Eastland. It is a barren stretch of tarmac under the best of conditions, along which I’m never tempted to text and drive simply because I lack cell coverage most of the way. Restless and fighting a mild version of road rage, I tuned in Hank FM for some country therapy. I heard Radney Foster sing “Everyday Angels”, David Frizzell belt out “You’re the Reason God made Oklahoma,” and Willie Nelson croon “The Wall.” I have a missionary friend who took a bullet in Africa and credits God and Willie for getting her through the depression, pain and rehab that followed. In front of a lonely farmhouse on Highway 620, still miles from Eastland, stood a tilted and slightly rusted sign bearing the words: ‘Grace’s Reward,’ below which were depicted a horse, a cowboy, and a cross. Questions instantly surfaced. Was the farm a gift to someone named Grace? Was the sign maker stating cryptically that owning a horse and space in which to ride is its own reward? Was the homeowner making a theological declaration?

As I considered its meaning, the radio voice from Hank FM gave breaking news that country singer Hollie Dunn had died in Albuquerque that morning of ovarian cancer at age 59. I am unfamiliar with her life or music, other than her first top-10 hit, “Daddy’s Hands.” What I am acquainted with are the emotions that reacted like involuntary muscle as I considered the unexpected juxtaposition of an untimely death with a roadside reminder. I am not standing in line waiting to receive grace’s reward; this day, this moment, this breath is divine recompense. We cannot and do not deserve any of God’s bounty, but it overflows in spades for those who pause long enough to detect holiness midst the routine and unremarkable. 

“Bless the Lord, O my soul,and all that is within me,bless his holy name. Bless the Lord, O my soul,and do not forget all his benefits— who forgives all your iniquity,who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the Pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy, who satisfies you with good as long as you live so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.” (Psalm 103:1-5 | NRSV)

Smorgasborg of Grace

“God’s relationship with man does not work in a way in which man stumbles and then God has to drop what he is doing in order to lift him up; rather, man stumbles so that God can lift him up. Hence it is utterly impossible to truly diminish his glory.” ~ Criss Jami

I blew into Amarillo the other day like a West Texas Scirocco, greeted by a sunset the color of a day old bruise spread wide and low across the horizon like a flattened sombrero. I checked into my hotel and promptly went in search of food since I had not eaten for nearly eight hours. The life of a road warrior is not all glitz and glamour, even if I do work for the most wonderful international relief organization in the world. Cafeteria food has always been a treat for me, probably because each foray down a serving line prompts memories of special Sunday childhood lunches after church at Luby’s Cafeteria in the Jefferson City Shopping Center in Port Arthur. A brightly lit neon sign indicated a Furr’s Cafeteria to my right, so I turned off Soncy Road, parked near the entrance, and walked inside. The young lady behind a counter near the entrance greeted me and informed me that this was a Furr’s all-you-can eat buffet. That wasn’t what I had in mind, so I asked if there was a true cafeteria nearby, and she directed me to the other Furr’s on Georgia Street, just off Interstate 40. Traffic was light, so I navigated seven miles to the cafeteria in about seven minutes, parked, and went inside. There was no other starving patrons in front of me, so I wasted no time in grabbing tray and linen wrapped utensils. I side-stepped to stand in front of the meat selections, and after an agonizing choice decided on fried chicken-dark meat. The man behind the counter in apron and paper beanie placed a diminutive thigh on a plate and shoved it my direction. I looked down at the meager portion, shrugged, and scooted left to the vegetable choices. I made the healthy choice of two starches-mashed potatoes and sweet potatoes, each consisting of one ice cream scoop sized dollop. Deciding that I had made a poor choice for this over priced meal, I limited myself to just the three items except to splurge on a wheat roll with butter. At the check out stand, the wiry aproned middle-aged employee rang up my bill, and as she delivered the paper verdict I told her that I didn’t want to be rude, but that these were the smallest portions I had ever seen at a cafeteria. She simply stared at me, shrugged, and said, “Most people start small.” I ignored her cryptic response, eased myself behind a table by a window, all the while chastising myself for wasting money and time on such a meager meal. A pleasant young lady who seemed out-of-place working for tips in a cafeteria stopped by my table a few minutes later to ask if I needed anything. Not wanting to be rude, I couldn’t help launching into the same expression of disappointment over the size of the portions. She said, “Well, sir, you can go back as many times as you want. We keep the portions small because most customers like to sample a number of different entrees.” I’m obviously not the brightest pea in the patch, but it slowly dawned on me that this, too, was an all-you-can eat buffet. I had been frugal for no reason. I ended up going back uncharacteristically through the line another two trips, ending my feeding frenzy by sitting back in my chair, sipping complimentary coffee, and forcing down a slice of lemon ice box pie. 

On the short drive back to my hotel, I couldn’t shake my embarrassment, thinking how narrowly I had escaped a colossal blunder. How could I have been so blind? I had started through the cafeteria line like a pauper, while all the while a king’s table was spread before me. Ignorance is no excuse for missing out on serendipity. How often do I fail to recognize the heavenly blessings I am the earthly beneficiary of? Surrounded by glory, I opt for self imposed blinders that prevent me from detecting the lavish grace of a grand child’s reckless laughter, a daughter’s sterling respect, my wife’s long-suffering, a stranger’s need, or the intricate reflection of heaven found in rose petals or an asparagus fern. Truth be told, I am blessed beyond measure, and far beyond anything I deserve. The King of Glory spreads a veritable smorgasbord of grace in front of me; God forbid that I would settle for two dollops of potatoes and a thigh.

“Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.” Ephesians 3:20-21 | NRSV

Glimpses of Glory

Logan stopped and gazed skyward as the kite began to soar above them, and when he clapped his hands at Ben’s obvious joy, she was strucked by the simple truth that sometimes the most ordinary things could be made extraordinary, simply by doing them with the right people.  ~ Nicholas Sparks

She heard and spotted them first. She always does. We were on the return portion of our customary evening walk atop Lake Waco dam, facing into a north breeze that made me anticipate upcoming brisk winter walks that will be, quite literally, breathtaking. Since my hearing has never been quite up to snuff, subtle nuances of sound often escape me, which explains why she paused and looked up toward the westerly thunderheads while I maintained rhythm of pumping arms and straining footfall. When she vanished from my periphery, I slowed and turned, and then followed her gaze skyward.

“Do you hear them?” she asked. 
“Hear who?” I replied.
“The geese.”

We aren’t “tree huggers” in a political sense, but my wife and I definitely appreciate and are drawn to the natural side of living. We own more bird feeders than pretty much anything else, and erected a deer feeder several years ago in the pasture behind our home–not to lure deer to their death, but to keep them well fed in winter. As a result, simple events that fly below the radar for most, like hummingbirds disappearing for warmer environs and the honking of geese high above or near the horizon, command our attention. When I heard what had stopped my wife in her tracks, I strained to find visual evidence of audible clues, finally detected the pulsating ribbon of geese snaking its way above black and blue mottled clouds towards the southern horizon. It was in that moment that my wife gripped my arm and jerked me to attention. Starboard of the skein of geese, a Bald Eagle came into focus almost directly overhead. We have enjoyed rare sightings of eagles on the periphery of Lake Waco before, so we had no problem identifying the proud raptor. I attempted to capture the image with my iPhone, but vision was rendered useless by the blinding sun. Had it not been for geese we would not have seen the eagle.

Geese brandish their own strain of beauty, but they aren’t exactly exotic creatures. In fact, we have friends living on Lake Athens that loathe them because of their propensity to blanket a lawn with poop. Pre-winter geese sorties are pleasant to behold, but never catch one by surprise. They are somewhat expected, even taken for granted, until winging it next to eagles. Thank God for the ordinary events and individuals that bring the larger picture into focus. I better detect what God is up to when I see him in juxtaposition to my grandchildren, the cashier that annoys me, the colleague with cancer, the relative that talks non-stop out of loneliness, the friend agonizing over a prodigal child, a church that has lost its way. The ordinary yields glimpses of glory when I pay attention.

Soon To Be Released

Last night I reviewed the Page design from editors at Christian Faith Publishers for my soon-to-be-released “Ordinary Glory: Finding Grace in the Commonplace.” As soon as the cover design is complete, I will be able to announce the publication date. In the meantime, here is an excerpt from the introduction…

Listening-while-living is an art form worth learning. Life seems at times like a succession of converging and divergent tragedies, at once interconnected and then again, disparate. Unfortunately, our earthbound perspective is linear and we strain to see ahead and behind without the ability to focus properly on either. We do not realize that this “right now” perspective is actually a grace gift. Jesus expresses it eloquently: 

“Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.”

In other words, we have right now, not yesterday or tomorrow. Surrender this moment. Celebrate this day. Create this memory. Love immediately and passionately. Do what lies at hand and you just may find the dividend is eternal.

(From the introduction to Ordinary Glory)

Aging

“Most people don’t grow up. Most people age. They find parking spaces, honor their credit cards, get married, have children, and call that maturity. What that is, is aging.”
~ Maya Angelou

“The afternoon knows what the morning never suspected.”
~ Robert Frost

I met our oldest grandson ten years ago when he was two years old and I was forty six. His grandmother and I had met a short time before and she warned me ahead of time that he was perfect and that she was not interested in a relationship with anyone who didn’t fit like a welcomed glove with her family. I recall like it was yesterday my anxiety in anticipation of that first meeting. One-by-one I was introduced to her family, and then, finally, I met Joey. We went almost immediately to the backyard where I pulled him around in a little red wagon until I feared my arm would fall off, which would likely have been the end of my efforts to win him over, and his grandmother as well. As providence would have it, about the time I could no longer feel my arms or legs, Joey climbed out of the wagon and scooted over to the Little Tikes swing suspended by yellow ski rope from a frazzled red oak. I hoisted him up into the seat, secured him there, and gave his red plastic cocoon a gentle push. Joey giggled his approval. I slowly relaxed, and began to enjoy the moment as well. He was visibly contented seesawing back and forth in his cozy cockpit, so much so that he fell asleep to the rhythm of the swing. He was out, and I was in.

Joey’s grandmother and I married less than a year later, and as soon as he was comfortable sleeping away from mom and dad we began a Friday night ritual. I would drive in from working out of town and Joey would be waiting for me in our home. Weekends began the same way each week with what we still affectionately call the “sock game.” Joey and I, in turn, would take a running start on shoeless feet and launch ourselves into a slide down our wood floor hallway, measuring our ending mark against the other’s. Occasionally, we added a sleeping bag to the mix as a landing pad for knees and a sled to add distance to our slides. As Joey matured and I aged, he became more proficient at our sock game and I less so. Eventually he outgrew our weekend soirées, and the sock game went the way of Chinese checkers.  

For whatever reason, Joey announced early last week that on Friday night we were going to relive his childhood sleepovers and have a rollicking grandfather-grandson night, which began, of course, with the resurrected sock game. Time plays cruel tricks on the body and I quickly remembered that I am not the man I once was, at least when it comes to sliding down a hallway in socks. To be honest, I held my own at first against the twelve-year-old would-be sock Olympian, but when Joey threw the sleeping bag sled into the mix things went south–literally. I hurtled down the hallway and dropped downward toward the nylon sled, but instead of landing on my knees as intended, I plopped backward awkwardly onto my tailbone. To this day I’m unclear as to the Creator’s intent for this piece of human anatomy, but suffice to say it falls far short as a shock absorber. I fell back stunned, surprised at the amount of pain ruminating from my backside, and in the same instance it hit me–an old man should be wiser than to pit himself against a limber youth, at least when it comes to sliding down hallways. 

Aging wastes time waiting on dejavue. I am not and cannot be the man I once was. Many endure each day attempting to recover something that was lost; the problem being they can’t determine exactly what it is that’s missing. The key to navigating the incessant flow of years is learning from the past while refusing to repeat it. Wrestling with aging is an unavoidable occupational hazard, but maturity seizes the moment, holds it up to the light of experience, and responds with patient resolve to live better. Aging is a double edged sword–hardened by fatigue & failure, yet softened by wisdom forged from experience. Learn as much as you can from this life; others are watching to see what they may learn from you.

“The righteous flourish like the palm tree, and grow like a cedar in Lebanon. They are planted in the house of the Lord; they flourish in the courts of our God. In old age they still produce fruit; they are always green and full of sap, showing that the Lord is upright; he is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in him.”

Psalms 92:12-15 | NRSV

Anniversary

“You’re something between a dream and a miracle.” ~ Elizabeth Barrett Browning

She unexpectedly entered my life ten years ago and nothing has been the same since. Grace is always a surprise; a dream you could not have imagined, a miracle you would never have dreamed could come true. I need not remind myself of what I would not have if I received what I deserve–I can see her from here. For reasons I will never fully fathom, a God of grace placed her heart in mine, and ten years later I am more the man He created me to be than I was before we met.

 
“Earth’s crammed with heaven… But only he who sees, takes off his shoes.”

I detect something of divine pleasure when staggered by the thought of all life is with her, and the sad depths of what it would be without her. I am left with breathless gratitude; an endless debt. To describe this tenth anniversary as merely “happy” would undercut the profound current of joy that colors us with hues of mercy and satisfaction. God is highly exalted, yet my wife is his hand sweeping low to lift me beyond myself. 

Follow Me

“I have seen the light in the wilderness and I must follow it.”~ Seth Adam Smith

We played a familiar game, even though it had been some time since I had tried it. It came at the tail end of the nature walk my wife invented as a way of occupying our three year old granddaughter while her mother took her sister for a horseback riding lesson. We enjoy being with this dynamite in dimples, but she does keep us on our toes, hence the outdoor adventure. First, we marveled at the magic flurry of a myriad yellow green butterflies gorging themselves on Turk’s Cap near our carport. Onward we trudged and a short distance down our caliche path I began to skip and broke into an off key rendition of, “We’re off to see the wizard…” Neither wife nor granddaughter were impressed. We held hands, laughed and mimicked cow sounds, and shooed away the Great Pyrenees from next door while winding back the way we had come. In front of a stately old home that peers down on all passers by with historic indifference, my wife introduced the game. She stepped onto the fairly narrow cement edging of the park like lawn and said, “Follow me.” Hannah spread arms like an airplane and did her best in little girl cowboy boots to balance herself while staying close behind Jo Jo. I drew up the rear, so no one could see my clumsy efforts to imitate our leader. We successfully navigated the concrete balance beam and moved on to try our feet on the circular brick ledge that defines the transition from lawn to driveway in front of our bungalow. At the close of our grand adventure, Hannah declared, “Following is hard.” I agreed.

As Jesus traveled throughout Israel urging people to repent and believe the gospel, “Follow me” was his constant refrain. He began public ministry by calling his first disciples with the terse command, “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.” As his ministry progressed, he warned the crowds, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.” At the end of his earthly ministry, Jesus commissioned the repentant Peter, “Follow me.” This simple two word directive should lead to profound, transforming change in how we think about and practice the Christian life. Following Jesus begins when we respond to his call to repent and believe the Good News that God loves us and has taken initiative to reconcile us to the Father. He awakens us to God’s grace and motivates us to want to live well. When we turn our attention to what it means to follow Jesus in ordinary living, two things immediately stand out: allegiance and identification. Following Jesus demands ultimate allegiance, expressed through obedience and priority. Hearing and obeying Jesus’ teachings are fundamental to following him, and doing so forces us to reorder priorities, removing from our vocabulary an oath of intermittent allegiance, “Yes Lord, but…” Discipleship also requires imitating Jesus. After washing the disciples’ feet in the Upper a Room, Jesus instructed, “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet, for I have given you an example, that you should also do just as I have done to you” (Jn 13:14-15). A concrete example makes a deeper impact than statements of principle. 

Following Jesus, then, entails both obeying his teachings and identifying with his example, but obeying and imitating are not ends in themselves; they are the means to an even greater end. Following Jesus results in deeper intimacy. We more clearly resemble Jesus the more frequently we walk with him. Make no mistake about it, the goal of discipleship is nothing short of becoming like Jesus–to think as he thought, to feel as he felt, to act as he acted, and to desire what he desired. “Whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked” (1 Jn 2:6). Because Jesus is the image of God in human form (Col 1:15; He 1:3), the more we reflect Jesus, the image of God is increasingly restored in us. Following is hard, but it is everything.