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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.

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“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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 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil;  my cup overflows.
Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever (Psalm 23:5,6).

As Christmas Day approaches, my nation is reeling from a terrible massacre of 20 innocent six and seven year old children in Connecticut by a deranged 20-year old. He also killed six adults in the school, using a military-style rifle, before shooting himself in the head with a pistol.

Five days later, the country is in shock. The usual issues have popped up, i.e. the need for gun control and the requirement that we do some soul searching about how we treat the mentally ill.

One commentator wrote that such mass killings today are prompted by three things: 1) extreme anger 2)isolation 3) too much time on the Internet.  To me this is a scary cocktail because I see all three operating in my life at times.

What is particularly troubling is isolation. As a person of faith, I find the feeling of being abandoned by God as the worst form of this.

One former pastor turned politician, Mike Huckabee,  got into  some trouble with some people of one political persuasion when he answered the question  “Where Was God?” He told his listeners in an interview that this was an interesting question since for the last few decades we have been kicking the Lord out of the public schools.

In an episode of the old TV series Touched by An Angel, Monica the angel finds herself in a situation where she too asks the question,”God, where are you? Why can’t I feel you with me?”.  She has witnessed a building blow up due to a bombing with a lot of people inside.

Earlier she had met a little girl named Madeline who was to be her assignment from God. This child was in the explosion. Monica  watches as her colleague the Angel of Death approaches the building, and her heart breaks.

That’s it for Monica. She walks away, walking down the road to who knows where. She has left her post.

As she walks, a charming man in a black sports car offers her a ride. Monica knows who the fellow is.  It’s Satan, otherwise known as Lucifer, the Devil and a host of other names.

Satan has seen his chance to knock an angel out of the heavenly realm and wastes no time tempting Monica. He is conniving, helpful and clever. Why, he understands Monica. After all, he tells her, I’ve been there.

Monica and Satan are now out in the desert, and he says to the distraught Monica,”I remember when you walked through the desert unshod,  unafraid, an angel of God.  Confident of your divine mission.”

Monica is upset, but she tells Satan she wants to be alone. He tells her that she doesn’t have to do anything she doesn’t want to do. “We don’t have to be friends”, he says,”but we don’t have to be enemies.

Monica replies,”You are the enemy.” Satan’s rejoinder? “I’m not the enemy. I’m the alternative. That’ s what you’re looking for isn’t it?”

Satan even asks Monica to come work for him. “You don’t have to work for Him you know. There are options.”

Monica doesn’t want to forget God, though, as the devil suggests she do.  But Satan doesn’t quit. He even asks her where God is as she has done?

When she tells the devil that God is where He has always been,Satan asks,”Then what are you here for?” Monica answers: “Because I am hurting.  Because as much as God loves them they hate each other. Oh, they say the words and they write the books and the songs about love and they make the vows of love, but they don’t love!

Satan then lets Monica observe a scene where she is a human wife and mother. This is because Monica thinks that just maybe she could love better than they can.

The devil offers her this chance. Monica is drawn to this opportunity. “I’ve always wondered what it would feel like to be a mother”, she tells the devil.

After that, despite Monica’s protest that she is God’s and belongs to Him and that she is returning to Him, Satan continues his deceptive assault.  When Monica tells Satan that she will find God again, he replies:

“Where? At Madeline’s grave?  Year after year, century after century Monica, you watch the suffering and the sorrow.  All you can do is stand by and utter the words that sound so hollow every time you say ’em: God loves you.”

After more arguing, including a theological one about the meaning of suffering,  and more temptation to become human, Satan asks her,”How long can you go on like this? Lost between heaven and earth. You must be so lonely.”

Monica tells Satan,”Sometimes.” And as she weeps and falls on his chest in tears, she says,”Sometimes I am.”

Satan sends her off to the desert to think about his offer. He tells Monica to find a high place and when she is ready to just jump. He’ll be there to catch her.

As a viewer, I know that this is like receiving an offer from a slick used car salesman. However, as Monica walks, Satan sings to her.

The devil is known as an angel of light, and his song is beautiful and seemingly promising. Furthermore, it seemingly gives Monica dignity as the lyrics tell her that she gets to make her own decisions apart from God.

No one here to guide you

Now you’re on  your own

Only me beside you

Still your not alone

Truly no one is alone

Sometimes people leave you

Halfway through the wood

Others may deceive you

You decide what’s good

You decide alone

But no one is alone (Mandy Patankin)

Monica eventually comes to the precipice,  and Satan is there to catch her.  She utters the same words to the her Heavenly Father that Jesus did on the cross to God–“Why have you forsaken me?.

Right after this  a bouquet of Monica’s favorite flower , the lilac,  suddenly grows from a stone. Satan has told her as a human that lilacs will smell much sweeter.

However, God has just revealed Himself as the Creator of all beauty.  He is trustworthy and greater than t he ugliness Monica sees in the world.

Satan may have wooed her. But God is the better Romancer.

She is not alone in any sense. Knowing he has been defeated, Satan fades from view.

Monica asks God for  forgiveness. She tells God she wants to come home.  She is restored and returns to her duties as an angel who takes care of humans.

Jesus knows what it’s like to be abandoned.  When He  turned 12, he went to Jerusalem with his parents for the Passover feast. After it was over they headed home, but soon realized that Jesus was not with them. They had forgotten Him at the feast.

After three days they found Him.  His mother said to Jesus,“Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.”

“Jesus replied, Why were you searching for me?” Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house (Luke 2:48,49)?”

Popular preacher T.D. Jakes says of this incident,”They found him right where they left Him: in his Father’s house”.  Jakes exhorts today’s believers not to forget Jesus themselves while celebrating the feast that bears His name.

Isolation is a terrible thing. It opens us up to all manner of evil and Satan’s lures. As I said, it scares me, especially if I there is a sense that God has left me.

Mike Huckabee offered viewers one other explanation as to where God was at that school during the killings. He explained that while evil was present, God was there in the presence of the first responders and the teachers who courageously protected their kids.

I too have realized where God is in my own community.  Jesus is right where I left Him. He is over there at the church in my town that I’ve been staying away from for so long. And He’s there in the pastors and people who go there.

It’s a foolish thing to walk away from God. He’s the only source of beauty and love in this sometimes ugly world.

 

 

 

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“Light shines in the darkness for the godly (Psalm 112a).”

“I’m here as a doctor, not a mother”, says Elizabeth Lawson. She says this in reply to Dr. Robert Chase, who connects the last names of their six-year-patient and the doctor when they are introduced.

The doctors on the diagnostic team in the TV drama House look at their boss, Dr. Eric Foreman, with incredulity. However, Foreman insists that they use the woman’s expertise even though she is the mother.

Gregory House, the team head, is not on the case, but with his best friend Dr. James Wílson, whom he discovered in the last episode has cancer. Although Wilson has been trying to hide from him because he doesn’t want his friend involved in his care, House tracks him down.

When Wilson tells House that he doesn’t want him around, House replies,”I’m not here as a doctor, I’m here as a towering pillar of strength.” Wilson doesn’t believe that one of the world’s great diagnosticians can keep out of his case.

Two doctors. Two sick loved ones. Two people struggling with their roles in the relationships.

Dr. Lawson obviously loves her daughter Emily. However, Emily has a genetic illness which gives her a life expectancy of 20 years. Her mother can’t seem to come to grips with that and has spent much of Emily’s life apparently being more of her doctor than her Mom. For example, Dr. Lawson has been treating her daughter with an unapproved drug at home as a test.

The doctors don’t know what to think of Dr. Lawson’s duality. As they are observing Emily in an MRI machine, Dr. Jessica  Adams looks at her colleague Dr. Chris Taub and says,”What do you think of her mother?  She called her daughter ‘the patient’. Taub answers,”If my kids were born with an expiration date, I don’t…”. (He is interrupted by Emily’s cry from the MRI machine.)   

Even though Dr. House and Dr. Lawson claim to be dealing with the medical troubles of  their loved ones in chosen predefined roles (i.e., ” “best friend” and “doctor”), it is of course impossible to prevent leakage from the other realm of their relationship. For example,  in one instance Lawson overrules the medical team, saying,”I don’t mean to pull rank here, but I’m her mother.” Chase comments rather sarcastically that he thought she was her doctor.

House attempts to talk Wilson out of a risky procedure he prefers over the counsel of several oncologists, knowing it could kill his friend. However, when Wilson still insists upon doing it, and away from the hospital, House agrees to supervise the treatment medically at his place.

As House begins administering the high dosage of medicine which could just as easily kill Wilson as push him toward a cure, he outlines for his friend what to expect in terms of side effects.

Wilson let’s House know he is wasting his time, saying,”I know, I’m an oncologist.”

House tells him,”If you did you wouldn’t be sitting here”, and proceeds with a list of other side effects.  He has crossed over from the land of friendship to the world of being a medical doctor. Still, Wilson is determined to have the treatment.

Although it is a journey, by show’s end the doctors have assumed the roles they were meant to have. Dr. Lawson removes herself from the medical debates of the House team and becomes the girls mother. When Emily is cured, Lawson talks of going to the aquarium with her estranged husband and  her daughter.

House, having gotten Wilson through the ordeal of his chemical treatment, reverts to form. He leaves silly pictures of Wilson during the procedure on the latte’rs laptop in his office,accompanied by equally ridiculous music. Wilson bursts out laughing hysterically.  His best friend has come through.

Understanding our identity and our role is a crucial thing in life. It is abolutely essential to live a life in God.

Today I listened to a talk by Christian pastor and speaker Jonathan Welton, who talks of how getting an understanding of who he is in Christ delivered him from a 10-year battle with lust.  Welton notes how grasping the power of God’s grace to give him self control and reign in life delivered him (Titus 2:11-14; Romand 5:17).

More importantly Welton also notes how Christ showed him his identity in relation to the beauty of women. Instead of being a predator, a role regularly assigned to men these days according to Welton, he understood God had called him to be a protector of women and their loveliness.

A few months ago I put on my prayer list a request that God would tell me how He sees me. Gradually, He has done that as I read the Scriptures. Here is what He has said so far:
 
1) )I am His child (He is my Father). He bends down to listen to me (Psalm 116:1,2) 2) I am His sheep whom He guides, protects and comforts (He is my shepherd)-Psalm 23 3) I am His marvelous creation (He is my Creator).Psalm 139:13,14  4) I am the main character in a book He is writing (Psalm 139:16).

Gaining an understanding of how God sees me, and my role and His role, has made me grasp how valuable I am to him: I am immensely so.  Welton today enhanced my comprehension of this when he said that that the message of the Gospel is that we are worth dying for.

As we struggle through life we learn about ourselves. The fictional Dr. Wilson learned something in his struggle to get through the administration of potentially lethal medicine with horrible side effects. He learned that he was not particularly empathetic beforehand.

His friend House has pain from a leg injury that is always there. He constantly takes pain pills to alleviate it.  After his chemical treatment, he tells House,”So the way I felt, you feel that, what, most of the time? It really does suck being you, doesn’t it?”

Wilson also comprehended how weak his attempts had been in attempting to comfort his own cancer patients in the past. He now understands, having wrestled in House’s apartment with the thought of dying of a disease he treats for other. He now gets  how pathetic his comments  to patients were. He always told them to avoid trying to figure out what their cancer meant.

Wilson’s journey and ours are of the same kind. It’s painful to get to the truth of who we truly are. There are times we have to face up to and set aside old judgments about our identity which we have developed over time, sometimes decades.

I recently told my pastor that I can’t figure out why it has taken me a lifetime to understand the things I know now about God. I believe I said something specifically about the length of time spent learning who I am in His eyes.

Somehow  I think this long process might have something to do with God’s desire for me to grasp who He is. Jesus Himself went through the same struggles I have had to and will continue to face my whole life (Hebrews 4:15).

 I am called to follow in His footsteps, experiencing the same kinds of things He did. As I do, I get an an understanding of Jesus’s heart, and that although He is God, He is also truly human.

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King Jotham became powerful because he was careful to live in obedience to the LORD his God (II Chronicles 27:6)”.

Papillon, aka as Henri Charriere, is a genius at escape. He is the subject of a best selling autobiography and popular film starring Steve McQueen about a prisoner on Devil’s Island in French Guyana during the 1930s.

Papillon has been sentenced to prison after being convicted of murdering a pimp. He consistently denies the charge throughout the film.

In the movie, Papillon conducts numerous escape attempts. Each time he manages to get out of jail, only to be apprehended again and put in brutal solitary confinement for months and years. Some of the captures he endures are due to being cheated by people he trusts, people to whom he has given large sums of money to aid his escape, including some nuns.

In solitary, Papillon perseveres even when he has sunlight taken away from him and is put on half rations. He eats bugs to survive. Even when he is told to stick his head in a hole outside his cell and has a baton stuck under his neck, he refuses to give in to the torment by revealing the source of coconuts smuggled into his diet.

Papillon eventually is placed on a small tropical island in the penal colony. He is there with a fellow prisoner of long acquaintance, Luis Dega, the rich prisoner whose life he had once saved and who had sent him the coconuts..

Because of the beauty of the sea and the tropical climate, the island seems almost like a paradise despite being a prison. Dega tells Papillon,”This is nice, huh?”.

Papillon replies,”You’ve made it nice, Luis.” To Papillon, the tropical isle is still a jail.

As always, Papillon begins scheming to get off the island, despite years of physical, mental and emotional abuse that have worn him down . He tells Dega that he thinks he has a way and involves his friend in the escape plan.

The idea is to toss a bag full of coconuts from a high cliff into an inlet and then jump in after, riding the bag to freedom as it is washed out to sea.  Papillon jumps, but Dega demurs. Dega decides that staying in his confinement is better than risking death.

As the movie ends, Papillon is seen floating out to sea. A narrator states that he made it to the mainland and lived  the rest of his life in freedom.

I wish I had the wit for escape of a Papillon. The prisons I would escape from are just as insufferable as Devil’s Island.

Sometimes I make my own jails due to bad choices and character flaws. Other times, the God who governs this universe places me in the penal states I find myself in.

The kings of Israel and Judah in ancient times found themselves in tough, inescapable situations as I sometimes do. They ended up there for the same reasons I do as well.

Some of the kings sincerely followed God. At times the Lord put them into a place where the only way out was to trust in Him.

One such monarch was Jehosophat of Judah. He was faced with a huge enemy force which was ready to crush his own army.

Jehosophat pleaded with God for help, and God came through. He told the king that the battle was His own, not Jehosophat’s and that He would see the defeat of the enemy. The forces opposed to Judah were thwarted (II Chronicles 20:1-26).

Other kings started off well, but then for whatever reason they began to believe their own press clippings and turned against God. One such ruler was Uzziah.

The Scriptures say of him that he did what was right as his father King Amaziah (II Chronicles 26:4). It was “like father like son”.

However, very much like his father, who rejected God later on for some foreign gods, Uzziah got proud and took on duties God had specifically assigned to Levitical priests. The king was struck down with leprosy as he stood in the Temple (II Chronicles 26:16-21).

Uzziah was succeeded by his son Jotham. Here is the biblical preface to this young man’s reign:

Jotham was twenty-five years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem sixteen years. His mother’s name was Jerusha daughter of Zadok.  He did what was right in the eyes of the LORD, just as his father Uzziah had done, but unlike him he did not enter the temple of the LORD (II Chronicles 27:1,2a).

If I were king Uzziah, I would hate to have my name documented in the Holy Scriptures for eternity in this way. How would you like to have something of this kind written about you?

* John was a godly man just like his Dad, but unlike him he didn’t cheat on his taxes.

* Casey was a follower of Jesus Christ as his father was, but unlike his Dad he didn’t watch drink to excess.

* Barry was a committed believer in the same ilk as his mother, but unlike her he didn’t fly into fits of rage.

 I have figured that God puts us in “jail” on some things until we “get” it, just as the French wardens did with Papillon. Sometimes we make a run for it and, like him, feel like we have escaped the pain of our prison, only to be captured by the One whom poet Francis Thompson called The Hound of Heaven. Says one commentator about the use of this title for God:

 The meaning is understood. As the hound follows the hare, never ceasing in its running, ever drawing nearer in the chase, with unhurrying and imperturbed pace, so does God follow the fleeing soul by His Divine grace. And though in sin or in human love, away from God it seeks to hide itself, Divine grace follows after, unwearyingly follows ever after, till the soul feels its pressure forcing it to turn to Him alone in that never ending pursuit.

The Neumann Press Book of Verse, 1988 (quoted from Wikipedia)

I have learned that the only way off my personal Devil’s Island is to make an end of the running from God. Instead,I have noted that only fleeing TO Him, my Heavenly Father, and obeying Him as His child is my only means of escape from my individual imprisonments. 

 

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“You hem me in behind and before, and you lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain (Psalm 139:5,6).”

Jimmy McNulty  is a detective enjoying a Saturday out with his two boys. Theyare browsing around a Baltimore farmer’s market when McNulty spots Stringer Bell, an elusive leader of the Barksdale drug gang.

In an episode of the hit TV series “The Wire”  called “Lessons”, McNulty tells his sons to employ a game he has taught them called “Front and Follow”.  One boy walks in the path Bell is facing while the other tails him from behind.

McNulty doesn’t follow Bell himself. The crook knows who he is.

Bell leads them out into the street outside the market area. There he gets into his car.

One of the boys steps aside and takes out a pen and paper. He writes down the license number of Bell’s car before the mobster drives away.

The technique their Dad taught them has proven to be quite effective. There was no way they were going to lose sight of Stringer Bell.

The kids are so good at this spy game that not only do they get valuable information about a criminal, but they lose their father.  McNulty, having lost sight of his boys, ends up having to get the market management to help him find them.

With the boys’ effective strategy, Bell has no idea that he is being followed. He has no clue that  people who are perilous to his welfare are lurking around.

In this world, believers in Jesus Christ have the same problem as Bell. We are being tailed by some expert followers of Satan who wish to do us harm.

According to the Apostle Paul, Satan is pretty good at blinding people, especially those who have chosen to ignore God and reside under his authority. The devil and his minions are out of sight, but they are doing their own version of “Front and Follow” in order to get the goods on their targets (II Corinthians 4:4).

If you you think Satan is not alive or well today, or some guy parodied at a Halloween party, think again. Better yet, pick up a copy of Bill Scott’s book “The Day Satan Called.”

In this book Scott relates a true story of his encounter with a demon at the radio station where he once worked. The call was initially handled by a colleague.

When Scott first met with the situation, the coworker had just gotten off the phone and was white as a ghost. He related to Scott that he had just talked to a demon.

Scott was skeptical at first. However, once he took one of the calls, he too was quite scared.

The actual calls were placed by a 16-year old girl who claimed she was living in a witches coven and would be sacrificed on Halloween, which was coming in a few days. She would then be interrupted by a demon, who would come on the line in a voice that was not human and spit out venom, blasphemy and threats.

While not blind to spiritual things like those who do not follow God, believers are still subject to Satan’s “Front and Follow” techniques.  Paul himself didn’t see the devil visually, but he felt him. Paul wrote,”We are hard pressed on every side (II Corinthians 4:8a)”.

The Scriptures discuss not only our openness to the devices of Satan, but also to the world system under his control (I John 2: 15-17; I John 5:19). We are surrounded by an increasingly chaotic culture in which right and wrong have been turned upside down.

David Jeremiah notes that believers are under a lot of pressure to conform to the culture today. In a message calling for the Christian to be totally consumed by commitment to Jesus Christ he says:

“We are in a very vulnerable place in our nation and in our churches. If we continue down the road of just trying to be Christian enough so that we can get counted on the roll, we are going to be victimized by the culture in which we live.”

It is as if the believer is a submarine being hunted by an enemy on the surface whom they cannot see.  However, the “ping, ping, ping” of the sonar is there.

When the attacks come, our boat is subject to collapse under the pressure.  If we don’t have internal fortitude, the stress will kill us if the external bombs don’t.

Thus, not only do we have to battle against Satan and the world system, but also fight our own selves. This is why it is so necessary to have the radical commitment to Christ Jeremiah talks about.

He summarizes one of Paul’s arguments for this: “If we’re going to function, if we’re going to be faithful in this culture, you have to present everything there is about you to everything you know about Him.”

One of the things I do know about God is that He is omnipresent. He is present everywhere.

God is not controlled by space. He is not limited by time. Thus, there is no ability for us to  slip out of His sight (Jeremiah 23:23,24; Hebrews 4:13).

God also doesn’t fall asleep at the switch. He constantly has His eye on things. The Psalmist writes:

 He will not let your foot slip—
   he who watches over you will not slumber;
indeed, he who watches over Israel
   will neither slumber nor sleep.

  The LORD watches over you—
   the LORD is your shade at your right hand;
the sun will not harm you by day,
   nor the moon by night.

  The LORD will keep you from all harm—
   he will watch over your life;
the LORD will watch over your coming and going
   both now and forevermore. (Psalm 121:3-8).

Another thing I know about God is that He calls Himself our Father. However, he is not a Dad cut in the mode of a Jimmy McNulty.

He is completely “all that”. Our Father will not lose track of us. In fact, He wouldn’t put young boys up to a dangerous surveillance mission of a mobster either.

Indeed, God has His own version of “Front and Follow” which He engages in on His own. While Satan and his demons are out there spying on us, God has His own eyes on those evil beings on our behalf.

The only difference is that God doesn’t need two of Himself to play the game! It’s mind boggling.

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“When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.  Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few.  Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field’ (Matthew 9:36-38).”

The World Cup women’s championship game this weekend went back and forth. One team went ahead, it seemed for good.

Then, a defender for the winning team gave the other squad a gift. She kicked it right to her opponent standing in front of the goal.

Of course, the alert opponent obliged. She kicked the ball into the net and saved her team from a sure defeat.

With the score now tied, the team that had given away a goal scored again. They were jubilant and seemingly on their way to victory.

However, with time running out the losing side scored again. Once more, the teams were tied.

As the rules required, the game was decided on a shootout. The team that had outplayed their opponent on paper most of the game unbelievably missed most of their penalty kicks.

As they had the whole match, the team that had been outplayed took advantage. They made the needed shots in the shootout. They were world champions.

The emotions on the faces of the losing team told the whole story. During the game, as they made one key mistake after another, the ladies’ expressions reflected shock, sadness and heartbreak.

The British TV announcer during all this mayhem described the game with one of the cleverest statements I have ever heard during a sporting event. He called the happenings of this championship  a “19th nervous breakdown”.

This reporter got this phrase from a hit of the 1960s by the Rolling Stones. It describes a girl who is flighty and unstable due to a terrible childhood.

In his novel “Bleachers”, John Grisham describes a gathering of former high school football players who remember their own past glories on the field. They show up in their old home town because their old football coach is on his deathbed. They hold a vigil in the bleachers at their old field, now named after there coach, Eddie Rake.

Rake put their small town of Messina on the map. In 34 years as coach, his Spartans won hundreds of victories and many state titles.

However, Neely Crenshaw, the main character of the story and the quarterback of one Rake’s best teams, wishes he had never seen a football. Playing for Eddie Rake was a nerve wracking and even physically harmful experience.

Rake finally was fired after one of his players died during a practice after Neely Crenshaw had graduated. The coach had pushed his players to run the bleachers on an extremely hot day and the boy, Scotty Reardon, died of heat stroke.

While sitting in the bleachers reflecting, one of Rakes’ old players produces a radio broadcast of the state championship game in which Neely Crenshaw had played.  Many of Rakes’ former players gather around to listen.

They skip the first half because their school was behind 31-0. The broadcast they listen to begins after halftime.

The broadcaster notes two key points. First, he expresses his belief that in all of his years of doing the team’s games, he doesn’t remember them ever being so far behind at the half. Second, he points out that the team’s coaches are nowhere around.

As the men listen, during the second half the Spartans slowly come back. The game is full of bone-jarring hits, astounding plays and extreme excitement.

What is curious is that Neely Crenshaw doesn’t throw one pass. While he is on the sidelines, his throwing hand is in an ice bucket.

Crenshaw replaces his coach as the field general since the man is absent. He calls running play after running play.

With seconds left and his team behind by a touchdown, Crenshaw leads the Spartans down the field. On the final play of the drive, he falls into the end zone and wins the state championship for his team, sans coaches.

What doesn’t come out until later is that the team had played so hard because they were enraged at their coach, Eddie Rake. He had come in at half time and hit Neely Crenshaw so hard that he had broken his nose.

Crenshaw retaliated on the spot. He slugged Rake right in the face and knocked him cold in the locker room.

One of the defensive players, an extremely brutal player named Silo, mades the coaches leave. They show up in the vicinity of the field only as the game is coming to its conclusion.

The fictional state championship game of the Messina Spartans was similar to this week’s women’s World Cup in drama. The whole episode was one big “19th nervous breakdown”.

For 15 years Neely Crenshaw has harbored bitterness toward Eddie Rake. Even though Rake visited Crenshaw in his hospital room after a career-ending injury in college, and asked his forgiveness, Neely has refused to let what the players call an “altercation” go.

At Eddie Rake’s funeral, a message from the coac is read to the huge crowd. In it, he tells of two regrets.

One is the death of Scotty Reardon. He has already sought and been granted the forgiveness of the family, and has been buried next to the boy.

The second regret is his actions toward Neely Crenshaw during the state championship game. In the message he apologizes and asks for the team’s forgiveness.  

Crenshaw is surprised that he is one of three former players to be asked to read  a short eulogy. Struggling with his feelings toward Rake, he finally tells the crowd he has now forgiven the coach.

This is a watershed for Neely Crenshaw because he himself needs forgiveness, which he has found hard to come by. He is divorced and estranged from his ex-wife, whom he misses.

In addition, Crenshaw is kicking himself that he dropped the love of his life in high school for a promiscous fling with a loose girl. On the visit to Rakes’ funeral, he has sought forgiveness from the girl, Cameron, with only a small result.

Cameron was devastated for 10 years because of what Crenshaw did to her. However, she has moved on and is happily married and a mother. 

Crenshaw, though, is full of regrets. He calculates the life expectancy of Cameron’s husband, and tells her that when he dies, to give him a call.

The Bible is full of such messy stories. One is that of Jepthah, a judge in Israel.

Jepthah’s origins are a little awkward. His father Gilead, the tribal sheikh, fathered him via a prostitute.

When Jepthah comes of age, his brothers, the sons of Jepthah’s wife, throw him out. Jepthah, the Bible says, begins to hang out with a group of scoundrels.

However, Jepthah may be a bastard, but he is quite a fighter. Thus, when Israel needs someone to take on their enemy the Ammonites, they call on Jepthah.

 Jepthah responds as you might imagine. “Oh, before you had no use for me, but now you need my help when it’s convenient. Take a powder.”

The leaders of the Gilead clan  finally convince him to take on the role of leader of his people. He does so, and gives the Ammonite king a history lesson.

The Ammonite king claims Israelite land, indicating that Israel took it from him. Jepthah reminds the Ammonite leader that Israel had been peaceful toward his people, but were provoked. In addition, he refreshes him in the fact that what took place occurred hundreds of years ago.

None of this matters to the king of the Ammonites. He ignores Jepthah.

Jepthah talks big, but he doesn’t seem to have much confidence. He is about to  have his “19th nervous breakdown”.

Before taking on the Ammonites, Jepthah makes a rash vow to God. He tells the Lord: “If you give the Ammonites into my hands,  whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the LORD’s, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering (Judges 11:30,31).”

After Jepthah defeats the Ammonites, who should greet him at his door but his flighty teenage daughter, dancing with a tambourine in her hand. She can be best described by the opening lyric to the Stones’ song “19th Nervous Breakdown”:

You’re the kind of person
You meet at certain dismal dull affairs.
Center of a crowd, talking much too loud
Running up and down the stairs.
Well, it seems to me that you have seen too much in too few years.
And though you’ve tried you just can’t hide
Your eyes are edged with tears.

You better stop
Look around
Here it comes, here it comes, here it comes, here it comes
Here comes your nine-teenth nervous breakdown.”

Her father is distraught.  Jepthah obviously loves his daughter, his only child, but  tells her the bad news that she is to be a sacrifice.

Jepthah’s daughter consoles her father, but asks for two months leave to go off on a camping trip with her BFFs so she can reflect on her life. He grants her this request.
 
When she returns, Jepthah does the deed. In those days, the girls of Israel held a 4 day backpack trip each year to remember her.
 
Now, being a male and a father, I can imagine Jepthah playing the blame game over all of this. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards wrote a lyric for him in “19th Nervous Breakdown”:
 
Oh, whose to blame, that girls just insane.
Well nothing I do don’t seem to work,
It only seems to make matters worse. oh please.
Au contraire, Mr. Jepthah Gilead. James Dobson notes the empty headedness of today’s girls in a recent letter to his constituents, and puts the blame where it belongs.
 
Introducing his thoughts about today’s girls, Dobson desribes how a Christian leader was invited to a high school football game after he retired, but snuck away at halftime. He was so “profoundly burdened” over the kids around him that he went home to pray for them.
 
Dobson writes:

We see evidence of this vacuity among the girls who contact us to seek advice. They are very different from those who wrote us twenty years ago. Teens used to inquire about the “right” thing to do, which usually reflected a Christian foundation of some variety. Even those who had no faith seemed to know that some things were simply wrong. That has changed dramatically. A significant number of the teens who ask for our counsel now are not interested in what is moral but rather how they should deal with the messes they are in and whether or not they should act on their impulses and desires. Not all adolescents think this way, of course, nor do the majority of them. But we are hearing from more and more youngsters who are greatly influenced by moral relativism. For them, absolute truth does not exist. There is no reliable standard of right and wrong because they acknowledge no God who can define it.

This is why so many young people today are pursuing alien theologies and pleasures, such as New Age nonsense, the “hookup culture,” substance abuse, and raw materialism. They are searching vainly for something that will satisfy their “soul hunger,” but they are unlikely to find it. Meaning in life comes only by answering the eternal questions that are addressed exclusively within the Christian faith. No other religion can tell us who we are, how we got here, and where we are going after death. And no other belief system teaches that we are known and loved individually by the God of the universe and by His only Son, Jesus Christ.

Moses instructed parents to talk about these spiritual truths continually at home. This is what he wrote to the Children of Israel more than 3,500 years ago.

Dobson goes on to offer several suggestions concerning what parents can do to introduce their children to Jesus Christ.

Life is messy and we humans are a mess. We are constantly having our “19th nervous breakdown”.

Too many of us parents are creating our own Eddie Rake and Jepthah stories. Too many of us are no better than Gilead or Neely Crenshaw.

Is it any wonder that among the last words of Jesus was the statement,”Father forgive them for they know not what they do.”

Dads, we’d better stop, and look around. It’s halftime boys. 

 
 
 

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