Thursday, October 30, 2008

Elections and Grace

Sometimes I am painfully aware of how unlike Jesus I really am. Just before we left for Zambia Paula and I were in a Staples store looking for an external hard drive, and when we asked for help because we couldn’t find what we needed, we were greeted by clerkzilla – who looked much like a regular store clerk except that she was convinced that her job description was to make every customer feel as though they were intellectual fleas.

ME: Hi. I’m looking for a portable, external hard drive with a firewire connection.

CLERK: They don’t make those. They only make desktop external hard drives with firewire connection. Besides, you don’t need firewire anyway. USB 2.0 is faster.

ME: No it isn’t.


ME: Actually, they DO make them, because I HAVE ONE, and NO, USB is not as fast and did they EVEN HAVE COMPUTERS 20 YEARS AGO?!

Jesus wept.

And today, driving that favorite stretch of road of mine, the pothole laden Lusaka to Livingstone road (also known as The Highway to Hell), the dark side of Jerry reared its ugly head once again.

You see, I don’t do well in heavy traffic, and by that I mean that the way some people drive makes me wish I had a rocket launcher attached to the front of my car so that when someone cuts me off without the courtesy of a simple signal, I could blast them into a thousand tiny little slivers of rudeness.

Tomorrow is election day in Zambia, and elections here are not the multi-million dollar, finely tuned machines they are in the states where candidates, in the most civil fashion, pretend to debate one another by ignoring every question the moderator asks and instead blatantly lie about their opponent. After which they shake hands and call one another “a fine American.”

Though I’m not sure exactly which quality makes them a fine American, whether its the ability to dodge questions, or to just make stuff up, or that they are able to do it and call it a debate.

In Zambia election campaigns are conducted from the backs of pick-up trucks and mini buses, filled to overflowing with revelers payed to shout and dance and sing in support of a particular candidate. Its a bit unruly and you can’t help but expect a riot to break out at any moment, but then the same is true of our conventions. But as a result, roads in Lusaka, where sitting in traffic has begun to replace football as the national pastime, come to resemble a Wal-Mart parking lot on Labor Day weekend, except that Zambians are generally better dressed than folks at Wal-Mart.

And when caught in the middle of it all, I just become very unspiritual.

Did you see that IDIOT!

Honey, he’s just changing lanes.

There’s no lane changing in a traffic jam! You just stay where you are! That’s the rule! UUGGGGGHHH. Stupid lane changing...lane...changer! UUUGGGHH.

And then I almost ran over a poor fellow hawking “Beware of Dog” signs and “Certificate Frames.” You have to understand, certificates are very big here.

Anyway, all of this though, just reminds me (rather painfully) how much I’m a work in progress. In one sense, I feel I should have by now risen above such trivialities, that obnoxious clerks and insane traffic should affect me about as much as does the social life of Brittany Spears (which by the way, is not at all).

But it does affect me and at first, it makes me a little depressed because I start to think that I am a terrible, traffic hating, clerk bashing Christian, which maybe means that I’m not a Christian at all. And where then does that leave me?

But then I realize what a false version of Christianity that’s based on. After all, God doesn’t accept us on our merits, but on His merits. He doesn’t redeem our lives based on our holiness, but based on His. As Jesus says in Mark 2:17, “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick.”

And so, I’m reminded today of that amazing thing called grace – God’s unmerited favor, and that God has saved me not because of who I am, but because of who I might become as He works in my life.

And when my own clerk bashing and traffic neurosis has me feeling quite unlovable, the realization that God’s love for me has neither been diminished nor repealed, causes me to be overcome with a desire to do a better job of extending some of that grace myself.

Even to people who CLEARLY deserve to be blown to smithereens.

Friday, October 24, 2008

A Vision of Hope

Sometimes God shows up at the most unexpected times, and in the most unexpected ways.

Yesterday as Paula and I were driving back from Lusaka, and just as we were approaching a police stop, I had a waking vision of our son Josiah. He was in heaven and it was as if we were arriving there. I didn’t see Jesus, but I knew he was there, because his presence was unmistakeable. Josiah was tall with sandy brown, blondish hair and blue eyes. He wasn’t a baby. He was grown, yet he had a sort of baby like quality to him. It was as if the infant and the man were one, and we could look upon both of them at the same time.

In the vision, Josiah stretched out his arms toward us and said, “Mommy, Daddy. Welcome home.” I immediately began to sob.

What struck me about it all, was the joy in Josiah’s eyes and in his smile. It was pure joy and I instantly realized that I had never seen pure joy before. I had seen only partial joy, only joy laden with the certainty of being temporal, always marred by its finitude. I didn’t realize this until then, but all the joy I had ever known seemed to be riding a wave that was certain to break. But this joy wasn’t riding a wave. Rather, it was the ocean that carried the wave, that contained the wave and that would forever absorb and resurrect the wave.

Josiah’s joy had a permanence to it and it became the source of our joy. It was as if his joy radiated and produced ours, which in turn increased and amplified his own joy. And I think that’s what made the joy so, so joyous, was its sharedness, its reciprocity. It was joy produced and realized in communion with God and with one another and because we had an endless future, so did our joy. It was a joy that we immediately recognized as being far beyond what we could have ever imagined joy to be. I realized that all that we had considered joy to be before, had only been a facsimile, a latent image, a faint shadow.

The other thing I noticed in this vision, was that our joy wasn’t a feeling or an emotion. It was something more tangible than that. It was part of us and it came from our love for Josiah, as his joy came from his love for us. In the vision, Josiah’s face radiated with pure happiness and love – love uncorrupted by pain or by sin and I knew that we were experiencing just the very beginning of things. I knew somehow that all that we thought we had lost, was there waiting for us only in greater measure than we could have possibly conceived of. In Josiah’s welcome, we were stepping from the insignificant into the magnificent and all of this world so paled in comparison to what lie ahead.

It is a strange thing to share with others that you’ve had a vision from God and I hope that you don’t take this to mean that it happens to me often. It is biblical though. Joel 2:28 says, “ Your old men will dream dreams, Your young men will see visions.” And having just celebrated my 39th birthday, I am delighted that if nothing else this officially qualifies me as a young man.

But as I contemplated sharing this (and I was leaning toward not) I decided that I would on the basis, not that it should make me seem more spiritual, but that it should help us all to see God as more faithful than perhaps we sometimes imagine.

It is difficult to sum up what this vision did for me, because it did so many things that are difficult wrap up in nice and neat little phrases. But I suppose, in essence, it stirred up hope in me in a way only God could do. It was able to reach inside me and find a remnant of hope, and stretch it and enlarge it and cause it to begin to grow once again.

In giving this vision, God gave me what I so desperately needed to continue on the path he has placed us. He gave me the hope of knowing my son in a real way someday, both as a baby, and as a man. As one of our friends has said, “Josiah is not only a part of your past, he is also a part of your future.” God gave me a vivid reminder that, “our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Rom 8:18).

But really, it is much more than that, though I’m not sure the much more can be conveyed. Maybe its not meant to be. Perhaps that part is mine and Paula’s alone.

This morning during a time of worship and prayer, after months of wondering and asking, “God, where are you in all of this,” Paula and I had an incredible encounter with the Lord, right in our living room. As we sang and worshiped, God began to give me a prophetic word to speak over Paula’s life. In that word, God spoke directly to many of her specific struggles, and in doing so, I think a similar hope was stirred in her.

In a span of two days, we have found ourselves comforted by God in ways we could have never imagined. That is not to say our sorrows are all swept away, and that all is well. But rather that they have come once again to be mingled with hope. And I am convinced that this in part, due to the sovereignty and grace of God, but also in part due to the prayers that have been offered on our behalf.

The many of you who have prayed for us have had a vital part in all of this. Your prayers have been essential threads in this magnificent tapestry. And just as you have shared in our sorrows, I also am convinced you will share in our joys – and that your joy in turn will produce greater joy in us, and...well, you know the rest.

So I don’t know why God allows bad things to happen. I don’t know why our friends Andrew and Christie are having to watch their newborn twins struggle for survival. But I know God is not far from them, that he is not far from any of us, and perhaps especially near to those who suffer. And I also know that all that we do as the church when we pray, makes a tremendous difference.

And finally, I know that in the end, all of this, will pale in comparison to what awaits us.

(Please join us in praying for Andrew and Christie Lundgren and their twin boys, Luke and Caleb. Luke is especially critical and in need of a miracle to reduce swelling in his head, and that his seizures would cease).

Monday, October 06, 2008

Crossing Canyons

I hate airports. In fact, I am pretty sure that hell will be very much like an airport, only with no departures (in the same way that I think heaven will be much like the Olympics, only with less spandex).

Our trip a few days ago from Kansas City to Baltimore as we began to make our way back to Africa, set those feelings in concrete. Upon our arrival we set about to accomplish the monumental task of getting all of our luggage checked in. This was no small endeavor and the curb-side-luggage-check-in-guy was less than enthusiastic about our appearance at his station, and he let us know that by saying no less than twenty times, “It would have been cheaper to send all this UPS.”

Which made me want to point out to him rather forcefully that WE ARE NOT AT UPS AT THE MOMENT, AND SINCE THERE ISN’T A UPS STATION IN THE AIRPORT IT LOOKS LIKE WE’RE STUCK WITH YOU! I refrained, and fear I will forever regret that I did.

These days airlines are charging for everything, they say to make up for the rising cost of fuel. Which seems strange to me because I thought the ticket price increases were to make up for the rising cost of fuel. But apparently airlines can no longer afford to fly you AND your luggage to the same destination unless you pay them roughly the equivalent of what it would cost to repurchase everything in your suitcase when you reached wherever it is your going. They just hope you don’t figure this out until after you have already paid, which they accomplish be stating, “My computer won’t show a total figure until AFTER I have scanned your credit card,” (yes, we were actually told that!).

When curb-side-luggage-check-in-guy finally had our charges all tallied – like the fee for oversize bags (which is not dependent on our bag being too long, but on the total dimensions of your bag when they’re all added together- huh?), and the fee for overweight bags, and the fee for bags with pockets, and the fee for bags with wheels, and the fee for bags that look old, our total luggage cost ended up being four times the cost of our tickets, which means that I could have flown to Baltimore and back twice for what it cost to get my luggage there. Or for that matter, I could have sent them to Baltimore by limousine for less than what our airline charged.

When I protested, curb-side-luggage-check-in-guy informed me that he didn’t actually work for the airline I was flying, but that he actually worked for a private security company hired by the airport. Which when translated means, “Listen pal, nobody at this airline really cares that you are unhappy because they know you don’t really have a choice since you have already paid for your tickets, and since I don’t actually work for that airline, I care even less than they do.” And then he informed me, “It would have been cheaper to send it UPS.”

It seems being on a journey is often a costly experience. We move from place to place, season to season, from joy to sorrow, from life to death. As a missionary I sometimes struggle with the state of somewhat homelessness we live in (and I hesitate to write this less I be perceived as one unhappy with the journey I’m on). The truth is though I am happy with this journey, just challenged by it at times. Sometimes I long for more permanence than we have, for more stability and sameness in our lives. But the landscape seems to forever change. We go to bed in calm, and wake to chaos. We cross the creek, only to be confronted by the canyon.

But there is also something wonderful in that as well. And that is that simply, in the unknown-ness of our journey, in the midst of unforeseen challenges, we also find unexpected delights. As we crest the mountain, we witness the setting sun paint orange and pink streaks across the sky. As we emerge from the wood, we stumble on a field of wildflowers. As we pause by the roadside, we marvel at the multi-colored coat the forest dawns in mid-October. Just as there are unexpected obstacles, there is also unexpected joy. And without one, we would never have the other.

And the thing is, when we can’t see the whole road laid out before us we tend to expect more of our present terrain, whether it be good or bad. But often the move from struggle to success is as close as the next bend in the road – a bend we will reach only if we continue to travel.

The night we arrived in Maryland to visit Paula’s sister, we were getting settled in the house where we would be staying while here and were being welcomed by our nieces and nephews, when the youngest, four year old Hope, came up to me and said with a hint of concern in her voice, “Uncle don’t look like Uncle Jerry.”

Realizing that Hope hadn’t seen me since I started wearing glasses, I promptly removed them to see if that might change her mind about my not resembling myself. When I did, she beamed and dove into my lap with a hug, exclaiming jubilantly, “Uncle Jerry!” – as though the offensive Hyde had once again become the affable Dr. Jekyll.

Apparently, the resemblance had been restored. And with it, my own hope that joy and revelation might be closer than we think.