The Launch

On February 24th, the Space Shuttle Discovery took off on its final flight. I always try and follow the Shuttle launches because for many years my dad has worked as a contracted programmer for NASA. The Space Program was an important part of my life. I grew up in Clear Lake, a community populated with many NASA folks and “space people,” as I like to call them. And how cool is this: I had a Sunday School teacher that was an Astronaut. No offense to any of my other teachers, but his examples and stories were just a bit more interesting than anyone else’s.  In 2nd grade, I went to see a Shuttle launch in Cape Canaveral, Florida. When the Shuttle launched, you could see all the flames, and with binoculars, you could see the Shuttle itself, but it was still tiny and far away. It was amazing, but I remember feeling far away from the action.

Today I read a fascinating article which helped me remember this experience, and it explained to me why it was a fairly good idea to have the audience 6 plus miles away from the launch pad.[1]  In a Shuttle launch, the Shuttle’s three main engines fire first, releasing 37 million horsepower with a temperature of 6,000 degrees Fahrenheit.  The two white Solid Rocket Boosters then fire, releasing an extra little boost of 44 million horsepower.  The sound pressure energy level at the launch pad is 220 decibels. At a mile away it is 135 decibels. Human death by sound (the intense vibration) would occur at around 200 decibels. At 400 feet away, the heat would kill you. For perspective, most major league baseball parks have a distance from home plate to the centerfield wall of about 400 feet. At 800 feet, the sound and its vibrations would be fatal. Ok, I admit I should have been a lot more thankful for my beach spot 6 miles from the launch pad. I think that worked out best.

There is a fascinating Scripture in Exodus describing an encounter between Moses and God. Earlier, the text has told us that God and Moses would speak intimately and personally like friends. Here, we are reminded of God’s eternal power and holiness:

And He said, I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The LORD.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and I will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But he said, ‘You cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.’ And the LORD said, ‘Behold there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock, and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen.’[2]

Basically: Moses, you have no idea what you’re asking for. 

This is such an intriguingly detailed account of Moses’ intimate encounter with God. The message seems to be that God is so powerful and glorious that even in our most personal encounters with Him, we still have no grasp for His true glory. He reveals Himself to us, but if we really fully glimpsed His beauty, our heads would go ‘poof.’  We are reminded of this at the beginning of the Gospel of John: No one has ever seen God… (John 1.18a)

 But this is the beauty and glory of Christ Jesus. In Him, God fully reveals Himself in a way which we can see, and we encounter God in the most intimate way, face to face. Jesus is not merely a teacher, or thinker, but he is the revelation of God’s truth and grace. Jesus responds to his disciple Philip, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say ‘show us the Father?’ Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his work” (John 14.9b-10). Paul speaks to this in his writings as well: “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (Colossians 1.19). He also states it this way, “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 4.6, [emphasis mine]).  Here Paul seems to be comparing Moses’ encounter and his encounter with the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus.

Our greatest promise from God is His covenant and revelation in Christ Jesus. God is certainly beyond our understanding, but in Christ, we know Him and have communion with Him. Christ reveals God even beyond the dangerously close encounter Moses experienced. Christ is the fullness of God. He is Lord of all. The Space Shuttle might be one of our greatest and most impressive innovations. And God of course is so much more powerful than the greatest of our creations. But he has invited us to Him, closer to His glory than we could know and would even dare to go.     


[1] http://www.roadandtrack.com/special-report/space-shuttle-test-nasa-endeavour-ov-105

[2] Exodus 33.19-23

Valentine’s Day

Oh no. It’s here. Valentine’s Day… Let’s just be completely honest; it’s a thorn in most of our sides, and the thorn probably comes from the expensive bouquet of roses that are bought out of necessity. I know that I am completely sounding like a grump, and I apologize. And I do wish my wife a very happy Valentine’s Day, and she is the love of my life. Listen, I’m certainly not anti-romance, it just seems like V-Day is a little bit forced upon us. In light of the Hallmark Conspiracy theories that I’ve heard, I thought I’d research a bit and drop some knowledge about the origins of the day and why we celebrate.

The history of Valentine’s Day is an odd mixture of two completely polar opposite things. We’ll start with the pagan side of things and then discuss the more saintly aspect. In ancient Rome, there was a festival called Lupercalia. It lasted from February 13th to 15th and was about the most debaucherous party you could possibly imagine. Basically it was like a crazy fraternity toga party times 100. For three days, people would get completely inebriated and then randomly paired off together. No more explaining is necessary. This misguided “romantic” festival was celebrated for centuries but would eventually take on a different aspect.  

In the meantime, in ancient Rome the martyrdom of Christians was a common practice. Some emperors were more brutal and violent than others, but it was a fairly consistent threat. Claudius II, continuing the practice of persecution in the 3rd century, put to death two men. One was a priest and one was a bishop. They were both named Valentine.  There are various legends as to exactly why they were put to death, but it was most certainly because of their Christian faith in a country which at the time was very hostile to the church. 

Let’s fast forward to the 5th century where many things in the Roman world had changed. Under the reign of Constantine, Rome had become accepting of Christianity, to the point where it was actually quite popular. There has been much debate about the faithful sincerity of this popular Christian movement, but regardless, it was rapidly becoming the faith of the empire. Due to this movement, some of the pagan practices were transformed or altered. Instead of getting rid of all of the festivals, some of them were modified in honor of Christian figures and ideals. So it was no surprise when Pope Gelasius I placed the celebration and remembrance of the two Valentine martyrs upon the pagan festival of Lupercalia. The dates of the festival remained, but the pagan activities were mostly removed.  Thus, Valentine’s Day began, as a remembrance of two men martyred for faith. One of the martyred Valentines was claimed to have performed wedding ceremonies for young men soon to go off to war. So, St. Valentine became the patron saint of lovers, and the day kept its emphasis on love.

Now, obviously our modern adaptation has changed a lot and has little to do with the two men named Valentine. For any men reading this, I trust you’ve bought you’re flowers and chocolates for the lady in your life. Otherwise you could end up being another tragic Valentine.

Highs and Lows

I’ve noticed that life can easily take the form of a constant series of highs and lows. For instance, during the 2011 Snowpocalypse here in North Texas, I experienced the ups and downs.  I felt the momentary elation of having a snow day bringing with it the joys of being stuck inside: extended breakfast and newspaper reading, a little afternoon TV, and maybe even a nap. Within about 12 hours, this joy quickly melted into the anxiety of cabin fever and knowing that the week’s schedule was now completely topsy-turvy.  I realized how pathetically quickly I wanted or needed to get out of the house, feeling like my sanity was on the line, when I had only been in for a day or so.

I’ve noticed this feeling in ministry as well. Some Sundays one is left with the feeling that the worship service was a wonderful head on collision with the divine. Then, maybe even on the next Sunday, one is left wondering if anyone was challenged or convicted by anything that occurred. This is the nature of faith, though. Relationship with God is complicated, and He works at a level beyond our emotions and our definitions of success. Truly neither the high nor the low defines God’s presence or absence. Our highs and lows are most often defined by our unstable emotions and insecurities. God is neither unstable nor insecure. He is steady and present, and he works through us despite our capricious nature. And the highs and lows are healthy reminders that the Gospel message is not about how good you feel and how smoothly something goes. The Gospel message is about God intervening in His world through His Word, Jesus Christ. The Gospel message is for co-dependent, insecure, emotional, anxious people- like you and me.

I’m willing to bet you know plenty about highs and lows. You’ve had them in the practical and relational aspects of life. You’ve probably experienced how life can feel like The Superman Ride at Six Flags. You might connect with this feeling spiritually as well. You know what it is to feel the intimacy of God and the forgiveness of grace. You also may know the feeling of insignificance and loneliness in a giant universe. The people whom God worked through in Scripture knew these feelings as well, though. I’ve heard pastors point out how in the Psalms, David moves between the emotions of feeling God being frighteningly close to God being mysteriously distant. And if you read the Old Testament prophets, they weren’t exactly poster-boys for coping skills and emotional stability.

Psalm 130.1-2: Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord! O Lord hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my pleas for mercy!

Psalm 139.7: Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence?

But the blessing is that God is good, and that He is writing a story of redemption. We see in Scriptures that He has always been working through covenant to redeem, and it is a beautiful thing. As neurotic as we can be, it is a blessing know there is a constant, a God who is loving, just, and glorious.  So I’m challenging myself not to judge life day by day or week by week, but truly see it as God’s invitation to join Him in the narrative of creation being redeemed in Christ. That breaks down the pressure and the anxiety and brings a nice dose of true humility. Life isn’t defined by my tenuous evaluations, and I’m glad about that… I’ll let you know how I feel tomorrow!

True Grit

The new Coen Brothers’ movie, “True Grit” begins with Mattie Ross, the protagonist saying, “You must pay for everything in this life. There is nothing free except the grace of God.” That is a loaded sentence which sets the table for an intriguing and thought provoking remake of the John Wayne classic. I am slightly ashamed to say that I have never seen the original, but even without that frame of reference I think Jeff Bridges plays an amazing Rooster Cogburn.  But getting back to the opening line, through the entirety of the movie that quote floated somewhere in the back of my head, directing my thoughts between the harshness of life in a competitive world and the Creator of the world who speaks freedom and mercy into it.

Often people blame God for the sadness of the world and reject any possible hope that could be spoken into it. Sometimes the blame goes to God and people put their hope into the inadequate systems that people create. However, in the moral failings of leaders and the imperfect actions of organizations, governments, and even religious institutions, one must recognize that even humanity’s best attempt at solutions are responses to its own brokenness and the consequences of selfishness and greed.    

Certainly, many of the actions and attempts of mankind to positively affect its world are noble and grand. However, in the realities of a broken world with broken people, the ultimate hope and answer for the world is the free and perfect gift offered by the Creator.  The movie rightly applauds the tenacity and amazing toughness of Mattie, the 14 year old girl seeking justice for her father’s murder. She is so gritty and savvy that it is impressive and at times hilarious the way she puts people in their place. Also, her dedication to bringing about justice and leaving her mark on the world is inspiring as well. And as she continues on with full purpose, the realization remains that there is a cost to all the things we do, and even the noblest causes have a price attached to them. Even someone with the best intentions cannot escape reality and the fragile nature of life. But in all of that, God responds to His creation with mercy and forgiveness, offered with no catch. It’s not a trick or a contract or a game.

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Romans 5.1-5; ESV)

It’s all too easy to confuse grace, and make a system out of it. We can think that we earn grace or bargain with God to get it. Or we receive grace but have to do certain things that look a certain way to others in order to keep it. However the power of grace is that it is offered freely, and the realization of the magnitude of that gift brings about life change. People who have truly encountered God’s grace through Christ realize that they didn’t earn it, and to exclude others by self-righteousness is hypocritical to the core. The life of a believer reflects love, mercy, purity, and charity not because it’s part of some contract, but because of the magnitude of the free gift and the response it allows. And believers challenge one another and seek authenticity with one another to honor and reflect the call to follow Christ found through that gift. Authentic discipleship finds its source there.  So, grace is free but as Dietrich Bonheoffer wrote, it isn’t cheap.  A free gift offered to each in his or her most broken state can never be cheap. It saves one from despair with no ugliness or deceit or selfishness about it. It is the offer of a loving God, and its acceptance freely reflects a call to follow Christ.  The freedom of grace doesn’t remove a response, but the response flows freely when grace is truly received. The nature of grace is free to all at even the lowest point of despair. It can sound too good to be true or hard at times to believe when we see that nothing else in this world is free. But the beauty of God is that there is no one and nothing like Him.

Floorplan

I returned home to Houston for a few days just recently to celebrate Christmas with my family. It’s always a bit of a trip down memory lane because my parents still reside in the same house that I grew up in. So, the house I returned to for the holiday is the same house I lived in when I graduated high school, the same house I drove home to after football practices, the same house I skateboarded out in front of, the house where I celebrated each birthday, the house where I played pranks on my sister, the house where I got sent to my room when I acted like a punk, the house where I took my first steps as a toddler, and the same house I was brought home to from the hospital when I was born.  Until I left for college, it was all I knew of living arrangements. 

Over the few days I was home for Christmas, as an effort to offset the ridiculous amount of food I ate with the family, I went on daily walks with my dad. On one of the walks, I took notice of a house in the neighborhood that was the exact same architecture of the house I grew up in, just a few streets over.  I never had much reason to go down this street as a kid, and the few times I might have passed this house I hadn’t taken much notice of the similarity. My old neighborhood was designed in the 1970’s, and one of the marks of neighborhoods from that era or before is that basically every house has a different build and floor plan. Very rarely are copies found. But this house was the exact same exterior as my parents’ house. I walked past it, examining it as I strolled by on the sidewalk, but quickly it struck me that while this house was the exact same on the outside, it was a completely different home. My parent’s house was no different at first glance, sharing the same floor plan, but what happened on our same floor plan was totally unique. Our laughter, our disagreements, our dinner time discussions, our movie nights, our anxieties, our jokes, our tears, our accomplishments were all totally unrepeatable.  Our adventures and moments were totally unique, as theirs in the other house would be. 

In our culture, it is easy to feel like you are a copy of everyone else. We struggle with identity. One thing I appreciate about teenagers is that they wear identity crisis on their trendy sleeves. One day they are a skater, then a jock, then the next they are wearing all black all the time, dressing like they might be tempted to bite you and then fly away. They clearly wear their search for identity.  Adults hide it and try to assuage the feelings by buying stuff or living vicariously through their kids.  However, the feeling of needing to be unique or different still nags at us, and we try the goofiest things to conquer that feeling.  Men often put sports and identifying with an athlete as a top priority in their life. Women often gossip about each other to justify their feelings of wanting to be more important. On social networking sites, people will post the most intimate everyday details of their lives and their family members’ lives as a way to one-up their peers. I’ve come up with a term for this: Hyperposting.  It means going overboard on status updates about mundane things.  I believe this comes from a need to convince ourselves and others that we are unique and valuable. We struggle with all of this identity crisis and social competitiveness, but the fact of the matter is you live a life completely unique and important to yourself and the immediate people around you. Your outside architecture doesn’t define the importance of what’s happening inside. I love the ending of the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life.”  It speaks directly to the importance of experiences and relationships that we tend to overlook. Many of our behaviors come from social competiveness and fear of our social worth instead of a pursuit of a life modeled after God’s interests and ideas of a life well lived.     

The familiar parable in Matthew’s Gospel of the two men who built houses comes to mind. The parable never tells us what their houses looked like.  But as I picture it, they would have been similar on the exterior, yet they were built on different foundations. As you might remember, the house built on rock stood firm through the storm, and the house built on sand could not weather the storm.

Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it. (Matthew 7.24-27, ESV)

Jesus tells this story as a closing to his teaching on the ideals of the Kingdom of heaven and what a life built around that resembles. His teaching starts with the Beatitudes (a list of things beautiful in God’s eyes that may be counter-cultural to the world) and continues with urgings of forgiveness, prayer, purity, faithfulness, and love.

The point is, a life may not be extraordinary by superficial standards, but in actuality it may be beautifully unique and precious by the standards of God’s kingdom. You might feel like just another house or apartment in just another neighborhood, but you are not defined by that. You are defined by the life you live and the way you portray God’s beauty and grace within those walls and out in the world around you.  No two lives, however similar, are the same by God’s standards. Every life is unique.

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