Category Archives: Redemption

Advent: Meth, The Messiness of Lie, and the Incarnation of God

Years ago I was sitting in the living room of a couple that I was reading the Bible with. I met them because I had seen the man hitchhiking in the rain and stopped to give him a ride. As I go to know them, I heard that both he and his wife had been released from jail for crimes related to a methamphetamine habit. Nevertheless, they were nice and I was hoping to teach them about Jesus

On this particular day, the wife had made some brownies and she offered me one. I knew it would be impolite to refuse, so I politely received the plate with this very appetizing warm and fresh out of the oven chocolate brownie. The problem was that is was so gooey that I needed a fork and so when I asked for a fork, I was told to look in a particular drawer in the kitchen. So I did and when I opened the drawer, there on top of the utensils was a used hypodermic needle which presumably was used to shoot up meth.

As you might imagine, every worst case scenario of possible health issues suddenly came to mind. I also had a decision to make. Do I eat the brownie or do I not? Be polite or possibly risk offending this wife? Do I put my own health first or the relationship I am building with this couple first? What does faith look like in this moment and do I have that faith?

Joseph, Mary, and Baby Jesus

I mention all that just to illustrate how messy life can really be. The good news is that God doesn’t avoid the mess, our mess, that life often is. Instead God embraces the mess by becoming one of us, becoming flesh, in the person of Jesus. We call this the Incarnation and a significant portion of our incarnational theology flows from reading the Gospel of John but the Gospel of Matthew has something to say about our understanding of the Incarnation too.

In short, Matthew draws attention in the genealogy to the names of four women: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and “the wife of Uriah” which we know is Bathsheba. There is scandal attached to each of their stories which sets us up for the scandal attached to the story of Joseph and Mary, namely the fact that Mary is unmarried and pregnant. You see, prior to the angel of the Lord appearing to Joseph, all he knows is that Mary is pregnant and he’s not the father. In his eyes, Mary has committed adultery and this is why the angel must first tell Joseph “don’t be afraid” (Mt 1:20). Then in the eyes of their neighbors, who are unaware of what the Angel says about Mary conceiving a child by the Holy Spirit, Mary simply appears as unmarried and pregnant.

Those two words, unmarried and pregnant, are word that no pious and God-fearing person wants to hear in the same sentence. It’s scandalous! And yet this is the story in which this baby child, who will be named Jesus because he save his people from sin, is born (Mt 1:21). It also is the fulfillment of prophesy in which child will be called Emmanuel because this child is “God with us” (Mt 1:23).

This is the scandalous story that Matthew tells of the Incarnation and it tells us something about who God really is. God doesn’t run from our sin, with all of its scandal and shame. Rather, in Jesus, God risks becoming associated as a sinner so that he might embrace us as sinners and save us from our sin. In fact, God took this risk knowing that  the cost of salvation would lead Jesus into Jerusalem to suffer death by crucifixion on a Roman cross. Though we feel the shame of our own sin and often our hesitant at involving ourselves in the lives of others, whose sin we seem to deem as more shameful than our own, God risks his own self to embrace us and the other so that he might save us from sin.

And if you’re wondering, I ate the brownie and it tasted good. I never became sick or experienced any illnesses that I irrationally feared might happen. I don’t know what ever happened to the couple because it wasn’t long before they both were back in jail facing new criminal charges. But on that day, as the ambassador of Christ that I am, I hope they somehow saw that God loves them and isn’t afraid or ashamed to be around them because of their sin.

That’s good news to us as well. For we know very well that we are sinners too and yet God still loves us and embraces us with the grace extended in his Incarnation. And this is another reason why Advent matters. It’s the messiness of life, marred by our sins, that is met in the coming of God Incarnate, born among us as the Savior.

Born that man no more may die:
Born to raise the son of earth,
Born to give them second birth.
Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the new-born King !”

Advent: Waiting With Hope

One of my favorite lines in the Psalter says “I was too troubled to speak” (Ps 77:4, NIV). It’s a line that has resonated with me for seventeen years, ever since that doctor in the emergency room pronounced Kenny dead. For I still know not the words that adequately describe losing my son.

In my lament, I ask how can it be that my son is dead? Why did God allow this child to be conceived and born only to die three days later? Where was God throughout those nine months as my wife and I prayed so fervently for the well-being of our son? Why did God not heal Kenny when the doctors were attempting to resuscitate him? Has God even heard my cries begging aloud for him to help my son? Yet God did not answer… Why?

Seventeen years later, I’ve certainly processed through these questions of lament. I seem to think I can answers them, at least in part, as abstract theological inquiries, though that offers little, if any, comfort. Perhaps I can even answer some of those questions in a pastoral manner that gets at the heart level.

Maybe.

But even then, these answers don’t assuage the grief and pain of such a loss like this. As a believer committed to following Jesus, all I am left with is the hope that one day God is making all things new. So I hope for the day of salvation when death will be no more, when the grief and pain is consumed in the fulfillment of redemption, when the tears and disappointment are gone, when the blessing of joy and peace are forever lived in the presence of the Lord, when the sting of death gives way to the victory that we will forever share in with the Lord.

christmasstar

This promise of hope is one of waiting. It is to look upon a distant bright star showing forth among clouds of darkness, with an anticipation veiled by tears. This is advent hope.

For four-hundred years after being exiled into Babylonian captivity ended, Israel waited for the day of the Lord. That’s four hundred years of waiting. At the time, they weren’t sure when that period of waiting would end and that is what makes waiting with hope so difficult.

The season of Advent is upon us again. We celebrate Advent knowing that the Lord has come. God came into our world in the person of Jesus, born as a baby destined to suffer a humiliating death on the cross so that he could take his life up again in resurrection and thereby save us all from the sting of death, our sins. While we have this assurance of hope, by faith we still wait for it as the day when salvation will be fully realized. Until then, what we have is hope. So we wait with hope.

Waiting with hope isn’t so easy. It’s never so easy and the hope we have doesn’t negate the darkness of silence that we live with as we wait. So what can we do? Wait! And don’t look pass the darkness by For as the great hymn Be Still, My Soul reminds us, the mystery of our hope is known as we wait in the darkness.

Be still, my soul when dearest friends depart
And all is darkened in the vale of tears
Then shalt thou better know His love His heart
Who comes to soothe thy sorrow and thy fears
Be still my soul the waves and winds shall know
His voice who ruled them while He dwelt below

Remembering Kenny: God Spoke and Hope Emerged

After Kenny died, a dark cloud came over me that eventually appeared to snuff out any light.  Hope seemed dead and my faith in God was crumbling into ruins day by day.  There was two factors that added to this darkness.  One was another baby who had become critically ill but then became well again.  That is a good thing but for me, hearing people praise God for answering the prayers made on behalf of this baby only made me wonder all the more why God didn’t answer the prayers for Kenny.  The other factor was that a little over a year after Kenny’s death, my younger brother John also died.  He left behind a wife and two children.  It was just too much and yet, little did I know but an encounter with God was just around the corner.

This is the third part of the story: of how I discovered God again in a new way that brought a renewed faith and hope.  It is part of what makes me so passionate about the gospel of Jesus Christ and the hope it offers to a broken and hurting world.

I wish the process of healing was as linear as I am going to make it appear to be.   But that is just not how healing and renewed faith are discovered.  It tends to be a messy process that take different routes for every person.

For me, the road to healing begins with a wonderful community.  From the outset  Laura and I were surrounded by a very supportive family as well as friends from Harding University, Covenant Fellowship Church, and our Wednesday Evening Bible Study group.  I don’t know how many of those people had ever ministered to a people who had lost a child, but they were very caring and supportive in the way they treated us, listened to us, ministered to us, and so on.

I also had begun seminary at Harding School of Theology (HST).  In hind-site, I would not recommend beginning seminary right after losing a child but the community at HST also was helpful.  Over the year, as my faith continued to crumble, a couple of great things happened that kept steering me towards an encounter with God.

First, my wife and I did go through some grief counseling that was provided to us free of charge which did help my wife and I to practically help each other to grieve in more healthy ways.  Second, a friend of mine gave me a pocket knife that he had sharpened along with a story about the knife.  The story basically explained that he had bought the knife to pray for someone as he sharpened it and then God revealed to him that he was to be praying for me.  In some way, this all kept God in the picture even though God was becoming very fuzzy and frustrating.

One day I was sitting in chapel at HST and was just near the breaking point.  My brother had recently died and I was just tired.  On that particular day I heard the hymn Be Still, My Soul (see below) for the first time.  The song, which now is a favorite, eloquently expressed both the grief and pain I was reeling in as well as the hope I wanted so badly.

But hope seemed so illusive…perhaps impossible at that point.  I was tired.  I felt like a man lost in a dark cave with nothing but blackness.  I was just tired of walking in what seemed to be an endless journey of nothing but more darkness.

All I wanted to know was “Why?”  Why did my son die?  Why did God seemingly not answer the prayers?  Was he unable to or did he just not care too?  Did God even hear those prayers?  While Be Still, My Soul spoke of the hope I wanted to have, I was not even sure if there was a reason to hope in God.

As I said, I was tired and was ready to give up.  I had planned to quit seminary and even had been offered a job selling Honda cars.  But then I met John Mark Hicks, who would become both a friend and a Professor of mine.  He was speaking at HST on his own spiritual journey which included the death of his first wife and his son, Joshua, later on in life.  Despite his suffering, he spoke of a deep faith in God.  So I went up to him and asked him something about how he was able to trust in God.

What John Mark Hicks pointed me to was Romans 8:28 which says, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”  At first, I was sort of disappointed because far too many people had used this verse just to dismiss my grief and struggle without even taking the time to understand.  But I gave him the benefit of the doubt since he understood what I was going through.  John Mark Hicks told me to go home and read, to learn what that “good” is about.  So that night after Laura went to bed, I pulled out my Bible and began reading through Romans, reading again through Romans, and reading, and…

At some point God spoke.  Not in audible words but nevertheless I heard God speak and he said, “Rex, my good is your redemption and if you’ll trust me, I will see that good to the end even if you don’t understand how I work that all out.”  And just like that the light began to break through the darkness, hope began to emerge.  It was like a thousand pounds being lifted from my shoulders.  I no longer needed to understand or have an answer to the question of “why?” to all my questions and yet, I found myself able to trust God again.

Ten years later I am a person full of hope.  I believe God is redeeming the world in Jesus Christ, making all things new (cf. Rev 21:5) and that includes us…you…me.  I don’t understand everything about how that is happening and there are things about God which are remain mystery.  I’m ok with that.  I wish Kenny was still alive and would give almost anything to hold him just one more time.  I cannot contemplate the thought of embracing Kenny in the new heaven and new earth without some tears of joy.  Further more, as terrible as it has been to lose a son, God has used this journey to give me a faith and hope that I did not have before.  For that, I am thankful.

Thank you for reading this story, a story about Kenny and I.  But most importantly, a story about God.

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The following video is of the choral group Libera singing the hymn Be Still, My Soul set to a video with images of the Holocaust.

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See also part 1 and 2 of this “Remembering Kenny” trilogy: