The Grounded Bird

I was recently on a hospice call to talk with the wife of a dying patient. Suffice it to say that, in the last year, the couple had become intimately familiar with sickness and pain. Near the end of the visit we went out into the lobby of the building where they have a large glass bird cage. As we sat waiting for her ride beside this bird cage that I really never paid attention to, I almost had to chuckle at myself as I got somewhat mesmerized watching the birds.

Earlier in the week, another volunteer had sat with the woman and told her about the birds. Birds are not exactly my thing, but I of course listen as she tells me about them. She pointed out a yellow canary that was on the floor of the cage. She said that it couldn't fly anymore because it was too old, but it sang all the time. She intently watched the canary waiting for it sing. Sure enough, every 45 seconds or so, it sang. Every time it did, the woman's face lit up as she pointed, looked at me and said, "Look! See, it's singing!"

Some of you know about what's called the "stages of grief." After the death of a close loved one, many people feel a sense of numbness at first, followed by deep pain, depression, sometimes anger, and a whole host of things that is never exactly the same for two people. But then, after a long time, sometimes several years, it's said that we begin to find our routine again, and we start to imagine and rebuild what our life looks like without the deceased person. The loss never goes way or is forgotten, but with the help and grace of God, we begin to heal...

...and find our song again. As I left that night, I wondered if the woman was consciously aware of why she found so much meaning in that bird who was too old to fly but still sang. I found myself praying that it wouldn't be too long before that woman found her new song, even with her broken wing.

A reason to sing when we can no longer fly. That's what faith can do.


Shoes (a parable)

A woman invented a revolutionary pair of running shoes, unlike anything that had ever been invented before. These shoes were state-of-the-art, beyond their time, using revolutionary technology. They were going to change the way people ran, walked, or did anything with them on.

Before the designer tried to get a patent, she sought out three area salesmen to contract with her to go around promoting the shoes. Since she thought it was important that the salesmen be able to precisely explain the revolutionary technology of the shoes, the designer called a meeting with them. She said to the salesmen, "My goal is to introduce people to my product and demonstrate how revolutionary the shoes are." But as she began to explain the technology of the shoes to the salesmen, one of them grabbed a pair of the shoes and quickly walked out. Unable to call him back, the designer continued to talk to the other two salesmen and prepare them for their task. The two salesmen felt very prepared and informed to explain the technology of the shoes.

At the end of the day, the two salesmen arrived back around the same time, and both reported that many people were not willing to listen to their presentation. All of the ones that did would not commit to purchasing the shoes and wanted more time to think about it and ask other people. The designer found herself discouraged and didn't know how to persuade people to give the shoes a try.

Just then, the third salesman burst into the room, sweating and breathing heavily. The designer glanced down and noticed the salesman was wearing the shoes.

"What's going on?" the designer demanded. "I wanted you to spend the day telling people about my shoes."

Through his panting, the salesman responded, "Oh, I plan to do that. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if you get your first orders next week."

The other two salesmen looked at each other and whispered, "What makes him think he can do any better than us when we're the ones who know all about the shoes?"

"But what exactly did you do all day?" the designer asked.

With a shrug of his shoulders, the salesman said, "I ran."


Before He Eats the Apple

My son likes to play with the older kids in the neighborhood. Several times in the last month, I've watched as those older children tried to insult, pick on, or otherwise demean him, and he continued to play with them, thinking nothing of it. As an example, two of the older children like to run off behind a tree whispering, trying to make my son concerned that they are talking about him or planning something in secret. My son, who is too young to get it, simply runs around the tree and keeps playing with them, unfazed by their efforts. He is still too naive to be bothered by psychological bullying.

Everyone knows the story of Adam and Eve, right? The famous story of Eve being tempted to eat the "apple" is found in Genesis 3. Many refer to this story in Genesis 3 as "the fall;" that is, the story of humanity's fall from perfection to sinfulness. However, it seems that the story is much more one of humanity's premature growth from naivete to awareness.

The fruit (not identified as an apple) that Eve is persuaded to eat by the serpent (not identified as Satan) is said to be from "the tree of the knowledge of good and evil." Adam and Eve eat the fruit and it says "their eyes were opened" and "they realized they were naked." In the serpent's temptation, he never lies but merely manipulates the truth. He suggests to them that they would not literally or immediately die (which turned out to be true), and he revealed to them the reason that God didn't want them to eat of it (God had not shared the reason but had only threatened punishment). At the end of the chapter, God laments this new knowledge that Adam and Eve have gained, and consequently locks up the secrets of eternal life and throws away the key: "[Mankind] must not be allowed to...take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever" (Genesis 3:22). It's a very profound and intriguing point. This narrative in Genesis 3 tells the story of a God who didn't want human beings to come out of a child-like naivete to see the world with insight...at least, not that soon. They were created naive (for lack of a better word), and gained the knowledge of good and evil when God didn't want them to.

My son has not yet eaten many apples. He's not supposed to yet. He will need the knowledge eventually. He must lose his naivete as he ages and matures...but not yet. Like Adam, Eve, and God, if he were to somehow come to me and ask for the knowledge I have (and if I were somehow able to give it in that moment), I wouldn't give it to him, and he wouldn't understand if I tried to tell him why. The best place for him to be right now is in his toddler world where there is no such thing as manipulation, rejection, and anxiety.

Isn't this the way it goes for most of our lives? We approach new things with a certain level of naivete, and then we eventually gain insight and learn the truth, and while we don't usually want to return to our ignorance, we wrestle with disappointment and think, "Man, this isn't all it's cracked up to be." As we become adults, we become aware of things like rejection and grief and begin to know the pain. We can't often see past where we are. When we encounter someone who is more naive than us, we shake our heads and think about how foolish they are; and when we encounter someone who is less naive than us, we feel disgust at what we perceive as their pessimism.

You might be familiar with the scene in The Matrix where Neo is talking to Morpheus after he has just learned the truth about his existence. In shock from all he has learned, Neo asks Morpheus, "I can't go back, can I?" Morpheus responds, "No. But if you could, would you want to?"

Man, what a question.

I'm reminded of the verse in the Bible that says, "Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come and the years approach when you will say, 'I find no pleasure in them'" (Ecclesiastes 12:1). If you're like me, every once in a while, you want that Garden of Eden you once lived in. The world where there's no such thing as rejection. The world where you've got nothing to lose. The world as it was before you ever knew of things like death or disease. The world where everything was under control and nothing bad would happen to you as long as you were faithful to God. There's not just one apple that we eat. Rather, month by month and year by year, we climb out of naivete into wisdom and insight. Sometimes, it's an exercise in having our bubble burst or our feet knocked out from under us.

But then we are left with a choice. We can let despair get to us and we can spend today longing for a yesterday that will never return. Or, we can embrace the rewards of the path we're on. The apostle Paul said it this way: "We know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope" (Romans 5:3-4). As we grow from naivete to maturity, there is something precious that we lose, but there is also something far more valuable that we gain.

But believe me: I love watching my son play in the Garden of Eden. And I'm not going to rush him out.


A Hallelujah for God (a parable)

One day, Gabriel and Michael decided to do something special for God. Knowing that God dealt with much sorrow and sin every day, they wanted to travel the globe and compile moments of the world's greatest "hallelujahs." They wanted to bless God with a showing of some of the greatest moments of worship on earth.

Off they went. They traveled the globe and went back and forth in time to gather the sights and sounds of the world's most spectacular worship. They came back to heaven with a collection they knew would put a smile on God's face. They reveal their collection to God, and ringing out around God's throne were some of the world's most well-known and favorite worship songs with millions of people singing together in one voice. Hands were raised and tears were streaming. There was dancing, drama, and many other gifts and talents people were pouring out. There was church after church being planted and shouts going up as people celebrate the new resources with which they will be able to spread God's word. As God listens, Gabriel and Michael say, "God, we wanted to bring you the most spectacular hallelujahs from all of your creation!" But with a shake of the head and a kind voice, God says, "Thank you, my friends, but these are not hallelujahs."

Disappointed but determined, Gabriel and Michael set out again. They traveled the globe and went back and forth in time to gather the sights and sounds of the world's most spectacular worship. They came back to heaven with a collection they knew would put a smile on God's face. They reveal their collection to God, and ringing out around God's throne were bedtime prayers and blessings before meals. The sight of so many people kneeling beside cozy beds or singing by campfires or even sitting in silence. Still yet there were people reading their Bibles, journaling along the way. There were pastors preparing and preaching sermons; Sunday School teachers preparing lessons. These hallelujahs, though quieter, seemed just as profound. As God listens, Gabriel and Michael say, "God, we wanted to bring you the most spectacular hallelujahs from all of your creation!" But with a shake of the head and a kind voice, God says, "Thank you, my friends, but these are not hallelujahs."

Frustrated, Gabriel and Michael go out a third time, and quickly realize that they cannot find anything pleasing to bring to God. They find themselves angry with God for not realizing or appreciating the great things they had seen. So this time, they traveled the globe and went back and forth in time to gather the sights and sounds of the world's most heart-wrenching scenes. They collect soliders crying out to God in pain and fear. They go to funeral homes and fires and floods and are overcome by the number of people asking, "Why?" They collect scenes of villages where people are praying and begging for rain and food. They round up some of the most shocking prayers of anger and rage at God for tragedies that have happened. They see murderers, thieves, rapists and adulterers soaked in guilt and asking for forgiveness. They bring their collection to God, and say as they begin to share it, "God this is most of what is left! There's so much pain and desolation in the world!" As Gabriel and Michael watch their own collection, they are jolted by the rawness of it and quickly find themselves weeping at the sight of it. But when they turn to look at God, He is no longer there. They called but got no response. They searched all over heaven, but God was nowhere to be found. Not knowing where else to look, they turned their gaze towards earth. Suddenly, they again saw all of the scenes of pain and the real people they had just been viewing, and stood stiff as they saw God, right in the midst of the hurting people, His arms around them, pulling them close, whispering in their ears. God looked up at Gabriel and Michael with tears streaming down His own face and said, "These, my friends, are hallelujahs. Please tell the others to meet me here."

Inspired by:
Amos 5:21-24, Matthew 25:31-46, Luke 18:9-14; "Better Than a Hallelujah" by Amy Grant


User Review or Salesman Pitch?

In the age of online buying and selling, the thing that any astute buyer wants to read is the "user reviews." There's nothing more honest and detailed than the observations and recommendations of the people who have actually bought the thing and are using it. Whether it's a product like a TV or a blender, or a service like landscaping or plumbing, every buyer wants to see the user review, and every seller fears it.

This is in contrast to a salesman's pitch. Nobody trusts the pitch. It's scripted, it's learned, and its motive is completely different. The sales pitch is meant to solicit a response from you that is favorable to the salesperson and who s/he works for. The sales pitch emphasizes the positives and the objective is to get you to buy. The salesperson may or may not use what's being sold him or herself. But the user review is completely different. It is candid, told from experience, and its objective is to simply give you accurate information. Before I take the leap and invest in something, I want to hear from others who already have.

It's the same way with religion. Which makes we wonder - why do so many of us Christians put forth a sales pitch rather than a user review?

Actually, many Christians, especially those of the Southern Baptist and independent evangelical variety, are being taught by their churches how to give salesman pitches rather than being encouraged to share a user review. Popular authors like Lee Strobel, Josh McDowell, Ravi Zacharias, and many others use book after book and seminar after seminar to teach Christians how to defend the Bible and argue for the truth of their beliefs. There is now even an Apologetics Study Bible whose reference notes are there to help prepare you for that frightful moment when a free-thinking person might ask obvious, down-to-earth questions about the Bible.

Here's my question: if you have to be taught to sell it, have you really used it? When you sit down to write a user review, the words just spill out. You don't even have to think about it. You've been using the product or service, you know what has worked and what hasn't, and nobody has to tell you what to say or how to say it because it's simply your own experience in your own words. But is this what we do when it comes to faith? There's a lot of talk in Christian circles about sharing your "testimony," which is what I'm getting at, but even the testimony has been co-opted by the salesman pitch. We're taught to give our "before Jesus vs. after Jesus" 30-second commercial.

Are we so unconvinced by the answer we claim to have that we have to be taught how to give it? Instead of being real and vulnerable and sharing from our own personal experience, we detach the conversation and talk about things like the Bible, the church, theological concepts, etc.

This is why we're sometimes surprised when we read about people wanting to follow Jesus only to have Jesus give them a response that could turn them off (Luke 9:23-24 and Luke 9:57-62). Didn't Jesus want followers? He's lacking in the marketing department here, isn't he? But he's not giving a salesman pitch, he's giving a user review. A user review is honest and authentic. "This could be hard." "You might have to sacrifice." "Make sure you really want it because it's a commitment." Or, as Donald Miller puts it:

I'm not convinced by a salesman's pitch that only gives me the positives. I want to hear an honest review by someone with first-hand knowledge, and I can accept some cons and down sides if the thing in question has made a positive difference in the person's life. User reviews are simple, flow freely from our experience, and can't be denied. For another great example from the Bible, see the story of the blind man in John 9. Notice that a simple, honest "user review" from the blind man freed him up from having to "own" something else or try to sell it. He originally made no definitive statements about God, Jesus, or theology (until the end) even though the religious leaders tried to bait him to do so. He simply shared what Jesus had done for him. Christians who are still a part of the institutional church are getting beat out in the user review department. All the good, honest user reviews out there are coming from those who left the church and had bad experiences. Those on the inside are sticking to salesman pitches that no one trusts.

You can't give a user review if you're not using what you're selling. I'm convinced we haven't personalized this stuff. Think about how Christians are taught to present the gospel: the "Romans Road" or the "4 Spiritual Laws" or some other way of talking about "salvation" in the abstract. But how has it transformed you? What is your story? You may know someone in our family or circle of friends who "got saved" and ended up becoming more obnoxious and arrogant than they ever were. What happened? They've merely been converted to a worldview, a belief system, instead of being broken, transformed, and renewed. This is what it means to be "born again" (John 3:3).

Believing in God helps us sleep at night; but actually meeting God can keep us up at night. Our beliefs help us feel we are right; but actually meeting God shows us how wrong we are and how incomplete our knowledge is (see Isaiah 6:1-8). Assent to a certain set of beliefs gains us acceptance into the church of our choice; but if God gets a hold of us and transforms us into people of love and forgiveness, we risk being called a "friend of sinners."

Earlier I mentioned the heavy emphasis on apologetics in some Christian circles. Ironically, these efforts hinder faith instead of helping it. For example, there's a lot of anxiety in the system about high school graduates going off to college and facing the challenge of "secularism" in the university. We're scared to death they'll lose or question their faith in college, so during youth group years, we teach them not to. Or, we at least give them ready-made responses to questions they might face. But by doing this, we shelter students from the very thing that will make their faith stronger and more personal: doubt and questioning. These efforts merely serve to prolong the amount of time that a young person's faith is borrowed. It must become their own, and the agent by which it does so is doubt and questioning.

Have you met the God you believe in? Has God messed up your life and diverted your path? Have your priorities, habits and behaviors changed because of what you say you believe? What is your user review?