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” Each of you should continue to live in whatever situation the Lord has placed you…(I Corinthians 7:17a).”

I sometimes get my epiphanies in the middle of the night, and this weekend a pattern of thinking came to me in the wee hours. I realized as I lay there in the sack that I have a problem with envy.

This little issue centers around three things. First, I have noticed that one of my best friends is living a dream I have of attending major sports events. It seems almost every weekend he is at some football game, race or other noteworthy sports happening.

Now this fellow has been quite generous with me in recent me years, having spotted me some tickets a couple times to some nice football games, and taking me to a race. However, I want more. I want to be him: an uber sports fan. I had thoughts of being a sports journalist when I was young, and did do some reporting as a stringer. I even got a journalism degree. Alas, that dream died, as I decided to stay in the big city I was in working in customer service so I could do Christian ministry. To develop my journalism career, I would have had to go to some Podunk to start, and I did not think this was God’s will for me at the time.

Secondly, speaking of ministry, for much of my life I wanted to be a missionary. I went to grad school to get a degree in teaching English as a foreign language and intercultural studies so I could have a ticket overseas. I understood at the time that I had no skills to offer anyone abroad. I investigated mission boards, but none of that ever came to fruition. Oh, I did spend some years abroad and before that did work to develop an English program for international students in the States, one where they could freely be exposed to the Gospel. But there was no real personal fruit from any of that. At best, I was more of a middleman in the latter work, connecting students with other people desiring to minister to them.

What happened overseas? Life happened. I got so wrapped up in the job and other issues that I never had time or an inclination for mission work. I dabbled in church ministry and even went on a two-week mission trip with my kids. But, personal gospel work for many reasons never occurred to any extent.

What does this have to do with my night time confrontation with the green-eyed monster? Well, many of my contemporaries from my younger days are in full time Christian work. They are missionaries, pastors, staff workers and evangelists. I want what they have, or at least I used to until I became rocky ground. (See Mark Chapter 4 for the Parable of the Sower, which Jesus related to his disciples.)

Finally, on one of my overseas stays I met a man who is someone I call “ a bruthah from anothah muthah”. Abroad we were colleagues. He and I are much alike in personality. Both of us are writers, (In fact, he has trumped me there, too. He has published a novel, a lifelong ambition of mine.) We also share a certain wanderlust.

Unfortunately for me, in comparison to him I am a cross-cultural hick. This buddy has traveled and lived in places I could only dream of visiting—four times over! Like my sports pal, he has treated me to a bit of his lifestyle. But again, I just have barely scratched the surface when it comes to global trekking if I view his life.

I think the thing I grasped as I lay there in bed was that trying to become any of these people is a fruitless endeavor. As Popeye said, “I yam who I yam,” and they are who they are.

I also determined that in the final analysis, God could care less if I go to the Super Bowl, become the next Hudson Taylor or jet set around the planet. He has other fish to fry when it comes to me.

The Scriptures seem to provide evidence to support my thought that God just isn’t that interested in my achievements in comparison to others.

For example, after Jesus mapped out Peter’s future, even giving him an indication of how he was going to die, the latter asked about the plans for his fellow disciple John. Peter too seemed to like the comparison game.

John refers to himself as “the disciple whom Jesus loved” in relating this conversation. He is following Jesus and Peter, and perhaps was eavesdropping.

When Peter saw John, he asked Jesus, “Lord, what about him?” Jesus answered, ”If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you. You must follow me.” (John 21:20-22)

Jesus’s response reminds me of several “mantras” I have developed in my relationship with him over the years: 

  • Where are you going, Lord? I’ll follow.
  • (Jesus says) “Listen to me.”
  • You choose.
  • (Jesus says),”Watch me work!”

My nocturnal wrestling helped me to once again ascertain that if I am truly one who belongs to Jesus, I will do what He tells me to do, regardless of how it impacts my desire to keep up with the Joneses. Planting this in my noggin’ will keep me from spending much needed time and treasure trying to maintain a level playing field with my friends, which in truth is a wasted effort.

 

 

 

 

Summer Fruits

“What mighty praise, O God,belongs to you in Zion. We will fulfill our vows to you, for you answer our prayers. All of us must come to you.Though we are overwhelmed by our sins, you forgive them all. What joy for those you choose to bring near, those who live in your holy courts. What festivities await us inside your holy Temple.” (Psalm 65:1-4)

When I recall this summer, one of the things I will remember was the amount of time I spent with God. And the movies.

By the beginning of July I was toast after a long year as a university educator. I had several weeks off, and I intended to sleep a lot and get time alone with God. I pretty much accomplished both.

I did have an agenda with the latter goal, I was seeking God’s leading on my life. What I learned at the end of many hours in the Bible and Christian books and prayer was that God was more interested in me seeking Him: period.

The flicks I watched tended to convince me of this, also.  I am drawn to biopics, and the one’s I have seen this year have centered on the failed lives of musicians, real and fictional.

Before the summer I had seen “Jersey Boys”, the life story  Frankie Valli. I wanted to see it because I had gone to the show in Las Vegas and wanted to see how the movie treated his life.

Both the play and the flick noted Valli’s messy life, although the former focused more on his music, which made it better in my view. The singer was involved with hoods and had a failed marriage. A later relationship ended when the woman decided she would always be second in his life to his career.

Despite his success, I walked out of “Jersey Boys” thinking how badly Valli’s personal life was in shambles, even at the end.

Another flick I saw this summer was a fictional treatment of a singer who is in a rocky relationship with a pop star, played by Adam Levine. In “Begin Again” Gretta (Keira Knightley) is a gifted songwriter, but one who doesn’t care so much about fame. However, she is discovered by Dan Mulligan (Mark Ruffalo), a down and out record producer who sees her perform a song impromptu in a small club in New York .

Dan is only there because he has gone on a bender after losing his job with an indie record label, one he helped start. Add this catastrophe to his failed marriage and non-relationship with his 14-year old daughter Violet, and it is obvious that Dan’s life is in the toilet.

Gretta is in the pub for similar reasons. She has just moved in with her fellow British pal Steve because she has walked out on her budding rock star boyfriend Dave Kohl (played by pop sensation Adam Levine). The insightful lyricist has just figured out that her boyfriend cheated on her after he plays her a new song which has infidelity as a theme.

Gretta is at first reluctant to perform at the club or anywhere else. She is pushed on to the stage by Steve and when Dan attempts to convince her to let him produce an album for her, the best she can say is that she will think about it.

However, Gretta calls Dave the next day and agrees to come under his wing. What happens next is nothing short of brilliant. Dave and Gretta’s plan for their collaboration is extremely creative.

Their imagination and use of their talents are what makes the story in “Begin Again”. From their vision comes a new life for them and for several other characters in the film.

“Begin Again” will inspire those who find themselves at a crossroads to use their talents and ingenuity to take the next step when their lives are shattered. Dave and Gretta’s original thinking is a model for people who need to find a way to pull themselves out of the slough of despond.

Finally, there was the movie about the life of “The Godfather of Soul”, James Brown. “Get On Up” reveals the harsh nature of Brown’s upbringing and how it influenced his approach to life. The singer, born in 1933, was the son of a 16-year old mother and a barely adult father. The film shows the violence and immorality surrounding Brown in his youth. His mother eventually left the family and moved to New York. His father is portrayed as an abusive husband and parent. The movie shows Brown spent part of his childhood growing up in a brothel.

I felt sad for James Brown after viewing his story. It is said that it is lonely at the top and “Get on Up” emphasizes how true that was for him. His only true friend was singer Bobby Byrd, who helped Brown get into music. As Byrd’s role in their singing group diminishes and Brown’s shines, their relationship in the film becomes more like one between a boss and a subordinate.

Great men and geniuses like Brown seem to have a certain arrogance that drives others way. As the story in “Get On Up” develops, Brown grows more and more authoritarian and tyrannical in his personal and business life. The end result is that he alienates just about everyone around him.

Even as a famous entertainer, Brown can’t seem to avoid jail time. He ends up in the pokey after firing a rifle at one of his business enterprises and leading police on a high speed chase.

Valli, Brown, the fictional Gretta and her producer Dan inspired me to reflect on my own losses. By July I had no strength left and was trying to figure out how to maintain my health with changing insurance rules. In many areas I felt hemmed in. I couldn’t move. I felt I was growing old. I felt alone and abandoned.

The one common denominator in the terrible lives of all these musicians was that they did not have God in their lives. My discovery while doing all the reading and praying was that I did not need direction from God. I needed Him. I needed to give Him my life.

I had supposedly done that in the past–many times over. But this time, when I decided to quit trying to manipulate my circumstances and let God do what He wanted to do, I really meant it. 

I was hoping for great miracles and a change of environment. None of that has happened. What HAS happened is that I have more joy in just knowing God every day and trusting Him.

One of the authors I focused on this summer was Catholic priest Henri Nouwen. He wrote, “Your search for communion often takes place too far from where true communion can be found. Still, communion is your authentic desire and it will be given to you. But you have to dare to stop seeking gifts and favors like a petulant chhild and trust that your deepest longing will be fulfilled. Dare to lose your life and you will find it.Trust in Jesus’s words.” 

I am trying to do that minute by minute.

After all the searching for God’s leading I was led to the simplicity of believing that God exists and that he rewards those who seek Him (Hebrews 11:6) . Just as simple is my understanding that I know God loves me and that I can trust in that love.

I am not Catholic, but I went to Mass this afternoon, a week before Labor Day weekend, to honor a Catholic friend in the hospital and to pray for him at his old church. One thing this service emphasized throughout was the need for the forgiveness of sin. No drums, no hands in the air and waving, no complicated theological sermon. Just the simple Gospel.

 My prayer at the end of the summer is Nouwen’s:

“Dear God, I so much want to be in control. I want to be the master of my own destiny. Still I know that you are saying ‘Let me take you by the hand and lead you. Accept my love and trust that where I will bring you, the deepest desires of your heart will be fulfilled.’ Lord, open my hands to receive your gift of love. Amen.”

 

They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” Luke 24:32

The Scriptures have many metaphors for our walk with God. The use of the term “walk” to describe our relationship to God is apt. For example, the Bible sees our relationship with God as a journey, one that we takes with Him.

Father Henri Nouwen refers to this when he writes:

“Dear Lord, I will remain restless, tense and dissatisfied until I can be totally at peace within your house. But I am still on the road, still journeying, still tired and weary, and still wondering if I will ever make it to the city on the hill. With Vincent Van Gogh I keep asking your angel, whom I meet on the road, ’Does the road then go uphill all the way?’ And the answer is ‘Yes, to the very end.’  And I ask again ‘And will the journey take all day long?’ And the answer is ‘from morning to night, my friend.’”

Today I was wrestling with a matter and said to God, “Lord, I don’t know the way.” Immediately the words of Jesus came to my heart. Those words from Scripture told me “I am the way, the truth and the life. No man goes to the Father except by me.” (John 14:6)

Peter learned this truth when he saw Jesus walking on the water. He asked the Lord if he could come to Him and Jesus beckoned him to do so. A stormy sea is not your normal road on which to take a walk. Peter became frightened and began to sink, but when he looked to Jesus he was rescued.

The Life Recovery Bible comments on Peter’s fear:

“Courage isn’t the absence of fear. Courage means we take advantage of the little strength we find within ourself, and that we stubbornly stick to God’s program for us.  Courage doesn’t mean being free of fear. It means finding enough strength to take the next step.”

I don’t know the way, but Jesus does, and with Him I can take the next step.

Nouwen also notes that the Scriptures use words for the term ‘home’ both in the Old and New Testament.  The journey is meant to take us “home”, another metaphor.  Our home is where he is. Jesus has made his home in us. Thus, even though I am far away from my family at this hour, my true home is where Jesus resides—in my heart.

Nouwen writes, “When Jesus says ‘make your home in me as I make mine in you’, he offers us an intimate place that we can truly call ‘home’. Home is that place or space where we do not have  to be afraid but can let go of our defenses and be free, free from pressures. Home is where we can laugh and cry, embrace and dance, sleep long and dream quietly, eat, read, play watch the fire, listen to music, and be with a friend.  Home is where we can rest and be healed. The word ‘home’ gathers a wide range of feelings and emotions up into one image, the image of a house where it is good to be: the house of love.”

The priest points out that millions today are homeless. They do not have this place of love. This point of Nouwen’s is brought out every day in our news  as the influx of Central American children plays out on our southern border here in the United States.  These children bring with them poverty, disease and trauma. Having no home is a tragedy of immense proportions. For those of us who follow Jesus, we always have a home with Him.

A recent pop song sung by American Idol winner Phillip Phillips could have been penned by Jesus. It talks of home.

“Hold on, to me as we go
As we roll down this unfamiliar road
And although this wave is stringing us along
Just know you’re not alone
‘Cause I’m going to make this place your home

Settle down, it’ll all be clear
Don’t pay no mind to the demons
They fill you with fear
The trouble it might drag you down
If you get lost, you can always be found

Just know you’re not alone
‘Cause I’m going to make this place your home. “ (Written by Drew Pearson and Greg Holden).

“This place” is whereever Jesus is. Whatever road He goes down, I’m going with Him and He with me.

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“My old self has been crucified with Christ.It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. So I live in this earthly body by trusting in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Galatians 2:20

Recently I have thought of the above photo as a metaphor for my Christian life. I think of myself as someone who,  after getting pummeled by trials originating from the Lord, is waving the white flag of surrender.

This metaphor unfortunately has been short lived for me. For one, I keep withdrawing the white flag and go back to fighting the Lord. Then I get beat up some more. It’s an endless cycle.

Thankfully, I think  I have struck on a new metaphor. It comes from the hit television drama NCIS.

In one episode, NCIS Director Leon Vance is the target of Riley McAllister, a former NCIS agent in charge turned arms dealer. Through a series of flashbacks, it is revealed that McAllister has been gunning for Vance for a long time. McAllister has been after anyone he has seen as a threat to advancement, and that includes Leon, even at a young age.

MacAllister has failed to get Vance, but at the end of a two-part episode called “Enemies Domestic”, it appears he has finally succeeded. As Vance is recovering from an assassination attempt in a hospital bed, McAllister comes into the room and reveals his true self to the director.

The turncoat reaches over and fiddles with Vance’s morphine drip, increasing the dosage to fatal levels. After doing this, McAllister leans over Vance’s face and says,”For once, can’t you just die right?”.

Unbeknownst to the assassin, Vance has a knife which was snuck into  his room by Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs, the NCIS supervisor who is the star problem solver of the agency. With his last strength, Vance pushes the hidden knife into McAllister’s chest, killing him within a short time.

Vance is able to push his “call” button, and as medical staff rush to McAllister, Gibbs walks in and unplugs the morphine drip, saving Vance’s life. Gibbs lays his hand on his director’s shoulder to comfort him.

I realized after hearing McAllister’s sinister words to Vance after flooding the director’s veins with morphine that in some sense they could be a metaphor for God’s message to me.

“Can’t you just die right?” He says to me. It came to me then that the Lord does not  want me to surrender;  He wants me to die.

The difference between God and McAllister is that the latter’s intentions toward Vance were malevolent while our Lord’s motivation is to save me from sin and keep me alive  for eternity.  He is in some fashion both a good McAllister and a saving Leroy Jethro Gibbs.

If I am a believer in Jesus Christ and His work on the cross, I have already “died right”. When Jesus died, I died with him. This death, according to the God-inspired words of the Apostle Paul, was so that we could live a new life free from sin (Romans 6:4).

Paul writes, “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his.For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with,that we should no longer be slaves to sin— because anyone who has died has been set free from sin.” (Romans 6:5-7).

This is why my surrender metaphor doesn’t go far enough. I am waving the white flag with a hand attached to a body which still has sin as its master. My sinful “self” controlling this body  may have surrendered, but the Lord in His wisdom knows that turning my sinful self  and body over to Him is not going to free me. What will free me is the death of that sinful self.

Continuing, Paul notes that we are to count ourselves dead to sin and alive to Christ (v. 11). The King James Version of the Bible prefers the term “reckon” to “count’. “Reckon yourself dead to sin and alive to Christ,” it says.

A synonym for “reckon” is “suppose”. I find the word “suppose” interesting in this context because one meaning of it can be, according to Merriam-Webster dictionary, “to think of something as happening or being true in order to imagine what might happen.”

M-W notes examples of this meaning in use: “Suppose a fire broke out. How would we escape?” or “Suppose you agreed with me.”

I now think,”Suppose  that I agree that it is true that my old self is dead. What does this mean for my everyday life?”

It means, ladies and gentlemen, as I see it, that I do not have to sin and that I can stop sinning. Paul explains the application of this supposition that my old sinful self has died.

” Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body, that you should obey it in its lusts. And do not present your members as instruments of unrighteousness to sin, but present yourselves to God as being alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God. For sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under law but under grace.” (v. 12-14)

My entire life God has been after me. Occasionally I will surrender, but that has never been His purpose.  God wants me to accept my death.

However, I haven’t trusted Him enough to do that. As a result, He and I have been at war for decades in an endless fight in the trenches that happens again and again and again. He comes after me, saying, “Can’t you just die?” and I say,”I surrender”.

God and I are talking apples and oranges. It is no wonder that I see myself in similar fashion to the beat up guy at the top of this post.

But suppose I trusted God enough to finally accept my death, to “die right this time”? What then? I am supposing the answer to that is ,”Freedom–finally.”

 

 

Broken

I sought the Lord, and he answered me;  he delivered me from all my fears….This poor man called, and the Lord heard him; he saved him out of all his troubles…The Lord is close to the brokenhearted  and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” (Psalm 34:4,6,18).
  

E.F. “Sonny” Dewey stands in his room in the middle of the night yelling. Is he screaming at his wife, or his kids, or some other person inhabiting his mother’s house? No, he is yelling at God.

Sonny, a Pentecostal preacher portrayed by Robert Duvall in the film “The Apostle”, has been booted from his Texas church as a result of  a power play orchestrated by his wife Jessie (Farrah Fawcett). The lady has had enough of his womanizing and abuse, and she herself has taken up with the youth minister.

“If you won’t give me back my wife, give me peace,” screams Sonny.” I don’t know who’s been fooling with me, you or the Devil. I don’t know! I won’t even bring the human into this. He’s just a mutt, so I won’t bring him into this, but I’m confused, I’m mad. I love you Lord, but I am mad at you! I AM MAD AT YOU!” 

“I know I’m a sinner every once in a while, a womanizer, but I’m your servant. Since I was a little boy and you brought me back from the dead, I’m your servant. What should I do? Tell me. I’ve always called you Jesus, you’ve always called me Sonny, so what should I do. This is Sonny talking now!”

Apparently such communication between Sonny and the good Lord is not uncommon. A neighbor calls up and complains to his Momma, who tells them,”That’s Sonny. Sometimes he talks to the Lord, sometimes he yells at the Lord. Tonight he just happens to be yelling at him.” 

Sonny’s anger issues aren’t limited to the Lord, however. At his kid’s baseball game he takes a bat to the youth minister and kills him. Knowing he’s in a heap of trouble, Sonny runs.

Somehow, even in the midst of the horrible mess he has mostly brought on himself, Sonny does not stop communicating with the Lord.

Even as a fugitive murderer, the preacher asks God to lead him. Eventually he arrives  in a rural Louisiana community.

His charismatic personality attracts the locals and Sonny plants a church with an African American minister.  He looks for radio time, and when he find out he has to pay, Sonny is offered a place to stay by a mechanic he helped out earlier.

This act of kindness causes Sonny to tell God, “I’m not mad at you, and I’ll never be mad again.” 

In the bayou and on the radio, Sonny is known as  “The Apostle E.F.”.Although his ministry booms and the church grows, his new life is on a short leash. Jessie hears a fuzzy radio broadcast of his one day and calls the cops.

Sonny is escorted away right after he preaches his final sermon. In “The Apostles” final scene, he is preaching at a group of inmates.

Robert Duvall’s portrayal of Sonny in the 1997 movie, which won him an Academy Award nomination, is not one of a typical suburban evangelical Christian in modern America. In “The Apostle”, we do not experience the stereotypical mega-church family cruising in their minivan and sipping lattes at the sanctuary coffee bar.

What we see is a precursor  of what would hit the media in the coming new century: the reality show. Indeed, the lives of Sonny,  Jessie and other characters in “The Apostle” foreshadow the brokenness of  many people in  America in the second decade of the 21st century, folks who still desire, nay, yearn for, a touch from Jesus Christ.

And not just a pat on the back from His hand. They hunger for a deep experience with Him, and one with power that will rocket their lives into outer space.

But they are broken and exhausted and don’t know how to be fixed and the church isn’t helping. Jesus is all the hope they have.

The life of the real American believer today is more true to the story of the average person we meet in the Old and New Testament. Those people were broken too and they needed the touch of Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit.

What they are getting instead from today’s American Christianity in many cases is church politics and hierarchy reminiscent of the Pharisees and Sadducees,  and expectations they do not have the strength or power to meet.

People whose lives are busted into a thousand pieces may  think it is  only the church which is to blame for their  condition. They should  think again and try to get rid of that mindset.

It is not right to think of  the church and pastors in our minds like we do the government and politicians.

It would be wiser to look in the mirror. Once we get past the fact that what we see there  looks like Humpty Dumpty post tumble, and overcome our despair that we shall never be put back together again by all the king’s horses and all the pastor’s men, we would do well to grasp that we are actually right where God would have us.

Although it certainly doesn’t seem that way, He knows exactly what he is doing.

It is only in our brokenness can we comprehend that we need grace and mercy from Jesus. I may currently be walking around my room after hours yelling at God like Sonny Dewey, but he isn’t screaming back.

As Moody Bible Church pastor Erwin Lutzer notes, God has promises for us he intends to keep.

An old friend told me this weekend to think about the term ‘covenant’. In biblical terms, a ‘covenant’ is a set of commitments that God has made with his people.

Lutzer says that God’s promises to us aren’t based on our brokenness, but on his faithfulness and power. If Abraham had gone to God, he says, and posed a set of “what if” questions to Him, God’s answer in each case would be that He would keep his promises to him.

For example, if Abraham had asked ‘what if I lie again” or “what if my people have a king named David who commits adultery” or “what if my descendants crucify your Son”, God’s answer would still be the same.

“How can God talk like that”?, asks Pastor Lutzer. “Because God is not a man like you or I.”

God will not change and he remains faithful because he cannot deny himself. It is upon that that we stand today.”

In the words of an old hymn:

“Fear not, I am with thee, oh, be not dismayed,
For I am thy God, and will still give thee aid;
I’ll strengthen thee, help thee, and cause thee to stand,
Upheld by My gracious, omnipotent hand.”

Like t E.F. “Sonny” Dewey, a man who was purportedly a man of God, many of us are messed up and torn apart and our pieces are spread out all over the landscape.  We would do well to follow his example and hang with Jesus regardless.

The final stanza of the aforementioned hymn says it all:

“The soul that on Jesus doth lean for repose,
I will not, I will not, desert to his foes;
That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,
I’ll never, no never, no never forsake.”

Matt Saracen

“The Lord gives both death and life; he brings some down to the grave but raises others up. The Lord makes some poor and others rich; he brings some down and lifts others up. He lifts the poor from the dust and the needy from the garbage dump. He sets them among princes, placing them in seats of honor. For all the earth is the Lord’s, and he has set the world in order.”(Hannah, I Samuel 2:5-9).

Matt Saracen stands at the door of his girlfriend Julie, his face caught appearing as if it is a mouse caught in a trap. She has just told the always-under-control former quarterback of their town’s championship high school football team that his father has been killed in Iraq.

In the television drama “Friday Night Lights’, Matt is the everyman, nonplussed while dysfunction reigns around him. He is concerned but unmoved while watching his friends from the team get in one fix after another.

Matt has enough to deal with on his own. Now graduated,  the young man has held it together all during high school as he watched his grandmother fade away with Alzheimer’s, except he has done more than watch. The young man is her caretaker. Dad’s off playing soldier and his Mom is nowhere to be found most of the time.

Although both Mom and Dad make occasional forays into Matt’s life, he really doesn’t know either one of his divorced folks. They co-wrote the book on absentee parents.

Jimmy Stewart and Gary Cooper rolled into one, Matt is now the signal caller who is blindsided by an onrushing defensive end called “Death”.

In the aftermath of learning the news of his Dad’s passing, Matt still carries on– distant and in-check. Surely, he has just taken a hit of the kind Joe Theismann received from Hall of Fame linebacker Lawrence Taylor on national television during a game between the Washington Redskins and New York Giants. (The damage to Theisman’s leg shocked everyone and caused even he-men NFL players to gag.)

Yet, Matt sits at his Dad’s wake in silence. Julie tells him,”You haven’t moved from that chair in an hour.” Matt calmly replies that this is no problem because people are coming to him. That’s Matt Saracen: always in control.

He isn’t always staid, however. The rigidity in Matt’s demeanor begins to loosen when a representative of the military shows up to pay respects to his Dad. The impeccably dressed soldier tells the son that everyone says his Dad was quite a man, with a wonderful sense of humor. Matt walks away in a huff.

He goes drinking with his old football buddies and expresses to them how he feels about his Dad. Hanging out at night at a football field, Matt says:

“I gotta get up there in front of everybody and say good stuff about this man. And all I really want to say is, ‘Here lies Henry Saracen, his mother annoyed him, his wife couldn’t stand him, and he didn’t want to be a dad, so he took off to be in the Army because that’s the only way he could come up with to get out of here and ditch all your responsibilities, and no one could call you out on it, and that worked out great so you just decided to enlist four more times, and that ended up getting you killed, and now here you are. And all you left behind is a mother with dementia, a divorced wife, and a son that delivers pizza. Thank you for coming, 100 people I do not know.’ You know what the worst part is? Even if I did get up and say all that, I don’t even know if I’m saying it to him, because I don’t know what’s in that damn box. It’s a closed casket — might be someone else, someone funnier or a bunch of rocks.

As a result of the push from his old pal, the loser alcoholic and immoral former fullback Tim Riggins, Matt insists upon reviewing his Dad’s remains. Saracen, the man whose emotions are so hidden that he appears to be without a face, begins to unravel when he sees that indeed his Dad truly does not have one anymore. For once, his eyes fill with tears.

The independent Saracen at least does the smart thing under cover of politeness. He runs for help.

Saracen keeps an appointment, even though he is late. Matt makes a late-night visit to Julie’s family, headed by Eric Taylor, his former football coach. Matt has been invited to dinner, but that isn’t why he is there.  Picking at his food,  Matt slowly reveals his true feelings in front of the caring and stunned Taylor clan.

At first, he reverts to form. Telling Julie’s Mom Tami that he doesn’t like carrots and the meat  touching his vegetables, he stands up and apologizes for being rude. “I’m just having a ‘moment’ here. I’m just having a moment,” But he  finally admits, “I don’t think I’m ok.”

Weeping and his profile marked by excruciating pain, Matt half unintelligibly tells Mr and Mrs. Taylor, as Julie watches in shock, “I hate him. I don’t like hating people. But I spilled all my hate on him so I don’t have to hate anybody else so I can be a good person…you know, to  my grandma…to all my friends…to your daughter. That’s all I want to say. I just want to tell him to his face that i hate him. But he doesn’t even have a face.”

But that’s as far as Matt will go in revealing his emotions, at least in public. Saracen excuses himself and heads out the door into the night, sobbing as runs down the street.

Julie, crying, tells her Mom that she  wants to go after him. But Erik Taylor, the tough yet inwardly tender coach, goes instead. Catching up to Saracen, and in his strong masculine voice yelling, “Matt!”, Erick gets the boy’s attention. “I’m walking you home,” he says. The two head down the street, with the normally unaffectionate Erik’s arm around Matt.

Somehow, Matt’s decision to open up to Erik, Tami and Julie pays off. He has a kind of epiphany.

The next day, at the grave site, with family, friends and military trappings surrounding him, Matt eulogizes his Dad. He tells a funny story about Henry Saracen, one he observed as a six-year old. Matt acknowledges that his Dad was indeed funnier than he let on.

“I guess he was private in that way,” says Matt. “But one thing he was not private about was his service.”

He was in the army for 20 years and that was something he was proud of. He missed some of my birthdays and he missed a lot of me growing up, but I think the point is I got to grow up. And I got to have those birthdays. You know, he went to do a job that many people don’t want to do. Because of that we all get to be here and we all get to grow up. And we get to have our birthdays.”

One by one, Matt’s closest friends kiss him, touch him and leave the scene. Only Saracen, Julie and a couple of soldiers and gravediggers remain. The latter begin shoveling dirt on the casket.

Matt stands up in his suit and takes the shovel from one of the diggers and begins to shovel dirt. Eventually, he is vigorously pitching dirt alone. Only Julie is there with him.

Matt is burying not only his Dad, but his own painful demons and past as the screen goes black.

This episode, called “The Son” was rated by Time Magazine as the best show of the 2009 television season. I can see why. I have never been so moved by a scene as I was when watching Matt at his Dad’s funeral. I admit to weeping over it, and I am not the only one.

Entertainment columnist Shirley Li wrote about the deep effect the episode had on her. In an article entitled “I’m Still Not Over…Matt Saracen from ‘Friday Night Lights’ in ‘The Son'”, Li notes:

“To be honest, you can just say the words Friday Night Lights to me, and I’ll probably start tearing up. FNL fans know what I mean: The series as a whole was just the perfect mix of heartwarming and tragic storylines, and as a crier, I’m particularly vulnerable. Coach’s “we will be tested” speech in the pilot? Sobs. The Mud Bowl? Waterworks. Tyra getting into college? Niagara Falls on my face.”

But nothing made me bawl more than season 4′s “The Son,” which centered on Matt Saracen and his struggles to grieve over the death of his father, a man he hated. I didn’t need a Kleenex for this one; I needed a towel.”

And I still do. Because anyone who has lost someone understands how hard it is to grieve and to go through the numbness that happens in the aftermath. And for Matt — awkward do-gooder Matt Saracen, number 7 and former QB1 — his father’s death doesn’t just numb him, it destroys him.”

Even as I wept, I was trying to get to the core of my feelings and learn why was I so emotionally affected by a cotton pickin’ TV show. What I have learned is that I could relate to Matt on so many levels.

I had my own absentee Dad and experienced the same emotions as Saracen did in “The Son” growing up. Yet I also, like Matt, have come to an understanding that my father made a  contribution despite his imperfections. I  continue to grow in admiration of him as I get older. Unfortunately, it’s too late to express my feelings to Dad, so I am left, like Matt, shoveling dirt on old pain.

On the other hand, I could also understand Henry Saracen, who I have seen alive dealing with his son on FNL. I have in some ways become Henry, and my own Dad. I am separated by hundreds of miles from my family as I give all my time to my job. The year before I took this position, I was at home but unemployed. The pressure on our  already stressed family was immense. Finding no position that would support us locally after 9 months of unemployment, I left town in search of work.

The financial pressures have lessened, but my absence from my kids especially troubles me. They are growing up, as Matt Saracen did, without a father present in the home. I am afraid that they will have to go through the same experience that he did in “The Son”.  I don’t want them to have to deal with that pain.

I just hope  they stick with God, and me. I don’t have the answers. God does, though.

The Bible tells the story of a woman named Hannah who had a family situation that was not optimum. Her husband had another wife. Although Hannah was her husband’s favorite, she was childless. The second wife, who was fertile,  made Hannah’s life miserable by trash talking about the latter’s barrenness, The other wife, Peninnah, did this  to deal with her own pain over having to play second fiddle to Hannah in her husband’s affections.

The taunting brought Hannah to tears, and not just once. The Scriptures say she wept every time she experienced Peninnah’s attacks, and was so distraught during these occasions that she couldn’t even eat.

At the beginning of its discussion about Hannah, the Life Recovery Bible notes;

“Living in a dysfunctional family does not automatically mean that an individual will turn away from God. Neither does turning to God guarantee that the problems of a destructive family situation will go away. Reaching out to God, however, does ensure that we will have a far better chance of coping  despite the devastating circumstances.”

If I were writing the sequel to “The Son”, I would have Matt Saracen on his knees in prayer. This is the action Hannah took in her grief. She prayed. God answered her prayers and gave her a son.

Yet, despite the answered prayer, Hannah still had to give up being physically present with her child. In fulfillment of a vow to God, she sent her son Samuel off to be raised in the Temple in Jerusalem.

As a result, in God’s plan, Samuel became the leader of the nation of Israel from all of this.

It’s hard to understand why the barren Hannah would have to give up a son when she finally gets one after years of pleading. But my experiences as an educator help me grasp it some. As a teacher, I occasionally tell my students when they question me,”I know what I am doing.” God tells us the same thing.

I don’t understand why I experienced the things Matt Saracen did as a child or why I have become Henry Saracen. It’s complicated.

But God has a plan, and He knows what he is doing. The Scriptures say He loves me, and I have to rely on that. But my response to my circumstances shouldn’t stop there. I have to do more than passively receive His love.

One of the most oft-quoted Bible passages of all time tells me how I should respond. Not only that, it tells me why.

 “And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them. For God knew his people in advance, and he chose them to become like his Son, so that his Son would be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.  And having chosen them, he called them to come to him. And having called them, he gave them right standing with himself. And having given them right standing, he gave them his glory.

What shall we say about such wonderful things as these? If God is for us, who can ever be against us? Since he did not spare even his own Son but gave him up for us all, won’t he also give us everything else.” (Romans 8:28-32.)

God is a much better Father than Henry Saracen, my own Dad and me. I can trust Him to take care of my life and the lives of those I care about.

“There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you slaves, because a master doesn’t confide in his slaves. Now you are my friends, since I have told you everything the Father told me (John 15:13-15).” 

We were ready to sit down to dinner on Easter Sunday.  My brother Mark and his wife Christine were awaiting the arrival of some close friends whom they were hosting, along with me.

The couple and their daughter came in and there was this joyous reunion. Then something surprising happened.

The guest wife and mother came over and gave me a big hug.

Later, I commented to Christine about this event. I told her that it was amazing that this woman who didn’t even know me would come over and give me a warm greeting like that.

Christine replied,”Your Mark’s brother. That’s all that matters.”

I learned a big lesson at that moment. I knew intellectually that when God the Father viewed me, He saw me as Jesus’s brother.

However, in that couple seconds when I was being hugged by this lady, I experienced what that meant. I was valuable to her because of my relationship with Mark. She joyfully embraced me because I was connected to him in a close way, and this gave me value in her eyes.

I thus gained an understanding of how valuable I am to God the Father. I am an adopted son, the brother of Jesus, His beloved.

While Mark is my brother, an official, legal status that in our case is based on having the same mother and father and the same genetics and blood, he is also my friend.

I think of how my parent’s viewed my close friends when I was growing up. They were always welcome at our house.

My friends were important to my parents because they were important to me. I had a tight relationship with those boys, and that gave them worth in my parent’s eyes.

God the Father not only sees me as Jesus’s brother, but also as His  friend. Therefore, I have double the value to Him.

The wise man of Proverbs gives us some idea as to what it means to have a close friend in his writings in the book’s 27th chapter.

The heartfelt counsel of a friend is as sweet as perfume (v. 9). Furthermore, a true friend will never abandon you, even when disaster strikes. In fact,  it is better to ask a nearby friend for help at such times than to run to a brother far away (v. 10).

Finally, Proverbs 27 tells us that two friends will sharpen each other, as two pieces of iron give each other a fine edge (v. 17).

A good friend’s heart-to-heart is like a sword which can pierce through all the muck in my soul and spirit and help me get to the heart of the matter. The Word of God has the same function,  although it is infallible and my friends definitely are not! (Hebrews 4:12)

Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson has gone down in history as one of the top military leaders in American history.  Jackson was known not only for his prowess as a soldier, but also for his complete dedication to God.

He once said,”We are all children of suffering and sorrow in this world. Amid affliction, let us hope for happiness. However dark the night, I am cheered with an anticipated glorious and luminous morrow. No earthly calamity can shake my hope in the future so long as God is my friend.”

Jackson was tested on this statement when his young wife and first child died in childbirth.  He said at the time,”I do not see the purpose of God in this, the most bitter, trying affliction of my life, but I will try to be submissive though it breaks my heart.”*

How do we know these words? He said them to a friend.

Stonewall Jackson hit on something here. He understood the nature of friendship with God.

Jesus wants to be my friend. However,  being Jesus’s pal has requirements not seen in most close friendships.

My buddies don’t expect to have to do what I tell them to do to keep my friendship. Likewise, I would be shocked if one of them thought I would obey their orders as a private would an officer.

A friendship with Jesus, on the other hand, comes with the understanding that I will obey Him. It’s taken me a whole lifetime to get this.

Jesus doesn’t confide in everyone. He only divulges his secrets to His friends.

I’ve always struggled with having to obey anyone, God included. Having a tight, transparent friendship with the Lord of the Universe is worth it the blind obedience it takes to get it, though.

* The life of Stonewall Jackson is eloquently written about in James I. Robertson’s work “Stonewall Jackson: The man, the soldier, the legend.”

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