Tuesday, August 31, 2010


The “Letter of Paul to Philemon” is a short book of the Bible tucked into the late part of the New Testament; if you blink you’ll miss it. But it is a powerful letter that is the backdrop for a story of a fresh start, a second chance made possible by the grace of God.

Philemon and Onesimus had been estranged; the letter does not reveal the reason. Paul is now writing to Philemon to encourage him to reconcile with Onesimus, to be in relationship again, as a beloved brother.

There is power in reconciliation. In the same way that forgiveness does not condone the preceding harm, reconciliation does not ignore the estrangement that precedes it. Reconciliation simply moves on from there. Reconciliation is a fresh start on a relationship that carries its baggage along for the journey.

With whom do you need to sense the power of reconciliation? A family member you’ve been fighting with? A friend you haven’t seen in weeks or months? There’s no need to pretend that the estrangement didn’t happen. In fact to do so would be unhealthy. Why not take a risk, reach out to them, and let them know you still love them?

The baggage of the estrangement will be heavy at first, but over time it will lighten. The burden will grow less and less as the relationship is nurtured in grace, until it will be all but imperceptible. And then you will be so much closer to living the life God desires for you.

When we are struck by grace, we can only barely begin to imagine the possibilities of what God might do.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

First Stone

Here's what I wrote for my newsletter article this week:

I have a stone on my desk. I got it a long time ago, so the writing on it is faded a lot. But you can still just barely make it out, if you look closely and squint.

It says, “First.”

I keep it close to me, to remind me of the story from John, chapter 8, where Jesus calmly addresses an angry mob saying, “Let anyone among you who is without sin cast the first stone.”

I keep that stone on my desk because there are times that I really, really want to metaphorically hurl it in the direction of some person with whom I am angry, or who I feel is in the wrong somehow, or even sometimes who is just bugging me. Most of the time I can catch myself before I let loose; a glance at the “first stone” on my desk will remind me of that shocking story in John 8.

That story is shocking not because an innocent woman was about to be stoned by a crowd. It is shocking precisely because the woman really was guilty of the sin the crowd had accused her of, and yet Jesus himself did not condemn her. Earlier in the Gospel, John has reminded us that Jesus did not come into the world to condemn the word, but to save it (3:17).

And so, if Jesus himself did not come to condemn guilty people, but to forgive … maybe we should try to follow that lead. It’s funny, isn’t it? We can see ourselves in the crowd, we can see ourselves as the woman forgiven; but how often do we see ourselves as Jesus? How often do we realize that Jesus doesn’t condemn the would-be stone throwers, either?

To borrow a well-worn cliché, it’s either forgiveness or it’s not. Or said another way, forgiveness is either there for everyone or no one. Now, that would be a shock!

As usual, I've been thinking about it a lot since I wrote it. What came to mind this morning was this - we often use forgiveness as a schlocky self-help technique, and remain blissfully unaware of the raw power of grace. How often do we say, "You've got to forgive others ... " or "The hardest thing to do is forgive yourself, but you have to ... " so that YOU will feel better?

It is as if my act of forgiveness is intended only to erase my emotional response to some event that has offended me, and make everything my-pretty-pony shiny and happy again. The more I think about it, the harder it is to swallow.

Our model for forgiveness is Jesus. He did not forgive others for his own benefit. His forgiveness was given so that the one who was guilty would be set free to live a new life. His oft repeated nudge to "go and sin no more" at the end of so many episodes reveals his desire that the one who has been forgiven is now expected to live differently. Sin matters to Jesus, and his standard operating procedure is not to beat people up with how sinful they are, but to forgive them and then release them to do better from here on out.

Another thing I'm thinking about - I absolutely LOVE to throw stones at stone throwers. You know what I mean? When I percieve that stone throwing is happening, I am happy to wade into the fray, if not outwardly, at least in my mind, and often in long gripe sessions to the captive audience of my wife! But in this story, Jesus does not throw any stones himself. His desire seems to be to set the would-be stone throwers themselves free to live a new life, as well.

That's hard for me. Because there are times, when harm is being done, that we have got to stop it from happening. And there are times when the most effective way to stop it is to directly confront the one doing harm. And yet there is no denying that, in John 8, Jesus' approach was effective; he prevented the stoning from happening, got the crowd to confront their own sinfulness, and charged the woman to go and live a new life. Not that I am surprised that his approach worked; he is, after all ... well ... Jesus.

I don't have a pithy conclusion to all this musing. It's just musing, working things out, trying to figure out what questions I need to ask. I would love to hear any thoughts that you might have about forgiveness, condemnation, passing judgement, and the power of grace. To be continued...

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Hello, Little Girl

We set up the crib this week. Covered all of the outlets, got down the high chair again, dusted off the stroller. We have exchanged all the nice books on the living room table for board books, and found all of the lids for the sippy cups.

There were three voice mails waiting for us when we got back from vacation, three case workers asking us about placing five kids who needed a foster home. Before we could follow up on any of those, we got two more calls in quick succession the next morning.

Anyone reading this still not have an idea as to the desperate need for more foster families?

We said yes to a seventeen-month-old little girl who is as easy going as she is energetic. She’s toddling into every corner of the house, exploring everything, and reaching her arms out to everyone she meets, asking to be picked up, which is impossible to resist, of course. She has already been in foster care for two months, having lived in two homes in that time. She eats any food we put down in front of her, goes right to sleep when we put her in the crib, and sleeps all night long.

Funny how even though we have only known this little person for two days, we somehow seem to love her already. So much of this feels so familiar, riding a bike –ish; after all she is number 14 on the list of foster kids we have cared for. And yet at the same time it feels brand new, scary and uncertain; after all she is a singular person we barely know and have a lot to learn about.

We set up the crib this week, the same old, familiar crib with a brand new, wonderful kid sleeping in it. I can’t wait until our church family meets her and starts loving on her! And as usual, we’ll provide a safe space, healthy food, and all the love we can muster, for as long as we need to.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Life Unplugged

I am going to preach about healing on Sunday. And as it happens, I am using the idea of “unplugging” from the things that bind us in order to be healed. How fortuitous that I found this super cool article about how unplugging from the world actually helps our brains function like they are supposed to!

When we roll from one screen to another, be it desktop or laptop or phone or TV or whatever, our attention wanders. Our brains actually cannot pay attention to one thing for a long time, say some hypotheses. Others are skeptical, of course, and science is still exploring this brand new field of inquiry.

But personal experience (as in the last ten days) lends itself to support of this idea. I spent the vacation unplugged. No phone, no texts, no facebook, no emails. (In full disclosure, I did go online one time, to confirm a reservation – but that was all.)

And I felt the “third day syndrome” that the article talks about, as time slowed down and each moment became larger in my awareness. It was very cool. I never once thought, “Well where did that day go?” Time never flew by. Even as busy as we were seeing sights and doing all the camping stuff, the 10 days stretched out as I experienced them, they did not rush by.

So Jesus unbinds a woman from the disease that has been bending her over for eighteen years (Luke 13:10-13). Then the synagogue leaders display how bound they are by the rules of their religion by criticizing Jesus for his healing (v. 14). Then Jesus illuminates their hypocrisy by pointing out that they themselves unbind their livestock on the Sabbath, and so why should a woman of God not be unbound (v. 15-16)?

In other words, healing is all about being freed from bondage in this story. And that is helpful, I think, in distinguishing “healing” from “curing.” One does not have to be cured of an ailment in order to be healed. Being healed might be being released from anxiety about the ailment, even while still suffering from it. Being healed might look like relief of pain, even as the disease continues to ravage the body. Being healed might even feel like being ready for death, and at peace with God.

Being healed may very well be analogous with being cured, as well. God is infinitely powerful and is able to do abundantly far more than we can ever ask or imagine. And so sometimes healing and curing happen at the same time, and when they do, the stories people tell are called “miracles” or evidence of “blessing.” However, just because we don’t see a cure does not mean that healing has not happened.

Think about what binds you. Is it technology? Television? The giant tubes that comprise the internets? Your Blackberry Curve? (Ouch.)

Now wait, I’m not intending to say that all technology is bad all the time. Technology has connected us to one another in remarkable ways. But those connections can quickly become sticky strands of webbing that do not allow us to function as God intends. From time to time, we need to heal, to be unbound from what traps us in a kind of existence that really isn’t the abundant life Jesus came to offer.

Life, unplugged.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

See Ya!

We are packing today, and leaving tomorrow on the Bryan family vacation, version 2010. This year, we are going west: Grand Canyon, Mesa Verde, and Great Sand Dunes. We'll be tent camping in all three parks, and at this point I should highlight the depth of love I hold for my wife Erin, who is quite convincingly acting as though she is not going to be dreading every minute of it! :)

This time, I am unplugging. No Enter the Rainbow, no Facebook, no email, no text messages. We have our cell phones so that we can be reached in emergencies, but that's gonna be it. I'm not even going to be bringing my pedometer!

However, we know that my grandfather is having surgery today, and we are worried about him. The timing isn't great; this is a re-scheduling of his surgery from an earlier date, and our reservations are made. So we are not totally gone, since par of us will be in Dallas with him. He is surrounded by family right now, so that's good. But we still are feeling torn.

And at the same time, the weather forecast in northeastern Arizona and southwestern Colorado for the next two weeks is for highs in the low 80s and lows in the mid 50s. My amazing family unit will be together in the midst of some of the most beautiful area of God's earth. The pace will slow down, we'll have space to stretch and time to breathe deeply, and unwind our minds for a while.

See ya in two weeks!