Tag Archives: love

Bordermarches: Gracemarks

You can’t go around hoping that most people have sterling moral characters. The most you can hope for is that people will pretend that they do. – Fran Lebowitz

We all know the logic of “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” Our initial impressions of a thing may be way off once we look closer. That’s never more true than when dealing with the complexities of people.

But what if you could tell a person’s character at a glance?

What if you could know with near certainty?

That’s the idea that sparked my plan for how the Divine interacts with the populace of the Bordermarches.

This is the fifth in a series about the fantasy setting of the book I am writing. So far, I’ve introduced the world in general, the views of its people about science, the way magic works, and the various Aspects of the Divine.

Story is about people, not the pantheon of gods.

To be fair, stories about the gods, like Greek mythology, are more about exaggerations of people than about the Divine. The gods are like us writ larger than life, and their squabbles mirror those common to humanity. (My atheist friends would gently remind me that they see this as true about all faith.)

Even without a pantheon, even in a setting with only one God (or none at all), there are certain values or ideals that receive greater attention from one person than another. Where those values differ, there is room for conflict and story between characters.

Still, explaining the Divine in the Bordermarches serves to better explain how characters are empowered by their faith. Divine power is a common element of fantasy, just like magic. And just like my thoughts about a magic system, I do not want a Divine power system that boils down to “I can do these things because miracles!”

In my post on magic, I referred to Brandon Sanderson’s thoughts on explaining magic systems in a story. Here’s the link to the First Law, which I find very useful.

My thought process is this: If magic and Divine empowerment are commonplace experiences in this world and have been for all of recorded history, there has to be some knowledge in place about it. People would develop common terms for important parts of the system.

There may still be some mysteries, but there’s a generally understood “way things work.”

For the power of the Divine in the Bordermarches, that “way” is called the Gracemark.

The Gracemark is a symbol on the back of the individual’s dominant hand that normally looks like a tattoo about the size of an apple. There are seven marks, one for each pair of Aspects of the Divine. Individuals usually only have one mark, based on their primary passion or desire.

This mark glows electric blue when the power granted by the Aspect of the Divine is in use.

There are two types of Gracemarks, depending on the source:

1. Gracebrands are granted by the appropriate religious order upon a successful selection process. The nominee is examined and questioned and approved (or not) based on their known character and their perceived merit. The religious orders have devices that can track or sense the use of Divine power through a Gracebrand. This gives them some oversight of those individuals who do good or evil in the name of an Aspect.

At any given time, about forty percent of the populace of the Bordermarches has a Gracebrand.

2. Gracemarks appear spontaneously on approximately ten percent of the population. There is no definite trigger, but Gracemarked individuals in every case show an unwavering passion and zeal for something related to the Aspect whose mark they receive. Usually these individuals have been overlooked or rejected by the religious order’s selection process. The methods the orders employ to track and sense Gracebrands do not work on Gracemarks.

The commonly accepted explanation (of course unproven) is that Gracemarks come directly from the Aspects of the Divine.

The big question is, what do these Gracemarks actually do?

I borrowed from the words of Jesus, when asked “what is the greatest commandment?” His answer is that the first great commandment is to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.

Gracemark powers fit into one of those four categories.

Heart: This usage is called a Pulse. It releases Divine power externally, inspiring or strengthening a target other than the Gracemarked individual. Perhaps it might promote loyalty (Love/Beauty), or cure a person suffering from poison or disease (Nature/Growth). It can inspire others toward purity (Light/Truth) or against evil (Justice/Order). It can even heal (Eternity/Life).

Soul: This usage is called a Glimpse. The soul is the seat of emotion and will, and Glimpsing provides the Gracemarked individual with an emotional internal sense about a given thing. This is more an impression than an analysis of data. For example, one could sense the resolve or unwavering nature of another (Strength/Passion), or get an overall impression of another’s moral purity (Light/Truth). A Gracemarked person might have a sudden revelation about what is taking place in another person or in the world around them (Knowledge/Creativity). They may get a generalized idea of the past or future state of a thing (Eternity/Life). In every case, it is a non-empirical and vague intuition based on the particular Aspect for which the individual is marked.

Mind: This usage is called a Gaze. It is another internal revelation power. But the difference between this and a Glimpse is that the information provided by a Gaze is like empirical data to be analyzed. This enables special tracking skill, as the Gracemarked individual sees evidence of their quarry’s passing (Nature/Growth). It can enable an internal “compass” that points to someone the Gracemarked individual is bound to (Love/Beauty), like a spouse and children, or perhaps subordinates in a military unit.  This enables detection of evil (Justice/Order), or simply detection of life (Eternity/Life). It also enables a Divine sort of lie detector test (Light/Truth). It may even be used to get clairvoyance or prophecy (Knowledge/Creativity).

Strength: This usage is called a Strain. In almost all cases, it is an internal boost, an imbuement of Divine power that strengthens the Gracemarked individual. The Gracemarked person may exhibit superhuman strength (Strength/Passion), which is no surprise. They may heal themselves by setting their bodies and wounds back to the way they should be (Justice/Order). They may receive special knowledge about how to do a particular thing they’ve never been trained for (Knowledge/Creativity). They can seem to slow time by dramatically increasing their reaction and movement speed for a brief period (Eternity/Life).

The exception to the internal rule is the Gracemark of Light/Truth, which enables single-target healing. These individuals use their strength of devotion to Strain on behalf of another in need.

Each Gracebrand has two powers associated with it, depending on the particular Aspect. Those with Light/Truth can Gaze as lie detectors and can Strain to heal others. Those with Nature/Growth can Gaze to track a target and Pulse to cure poison or disease.

Gracemarks enjoy access to all four types of powers associated with their particular Aspect. This, coupled with the fact that they cannot be tracked by and do not conform to the religious orders, makes their bearers persons of interest among the political and religious elite. Having a Gracemark in the Bordermarches means having a target on your head.

When asked about the greatest commandment, Jesus surprised His questioners by providing two. He followed the first by saying, “And the second is like it:”

Love your neighbor as yourself.

What happens if a Gracemarked individual violates their personal morality or their religious order’s commands?

Is a Gracebrand or Gracemark license to do whatever you want with Divine power?

Gracebrands can be deactivated by the religious order. The specifics are not commonly known, but the religious orders police their own and punish those who violate the accepted teachings of their Aspect. The process leaves a scar in the place of the brand. This clearly identifies that the individual once held favor with the Divine or the religious orders but was stripped of their access to that power.

Gracemarks have at times been known to vanish as well. However, the religious orders do not have control over these marks, and the individuals who bear them are usually unwavering in their commitment to the ideals represented by their Aspect.

If a Gracemark vanishes, it leaves a scar just like a Gracebrand.

That captures most of the details of how the power of the Aspects of the Divine fits into the Bordermarches.

Of course, what would a fantasy setting be without evil? And what self-respecting evil power would not corrupt the good into their own twisted service? Next, I’ll cover the seven Daemons and the empowering Curses they bestow on those who follow their ways.

Insulation/Isolation

I realized today what my spiritual life has been missing.

No, no… my problem isn’t a lack of discipline or a hypocritical lifestyle.

Those are just the symptoms.

My problem is that I don’t have a Christian tablet. I have a heathen iPad.

I saw this article and wondered what in the world we Christians are doing sometimes.

Seriously. “In the world, what are we doing?”

We live such neat little Christian lives, where we only listen to Christian radio or read from Christian media sources. Our Christian leaders in church and on Christian websites tell us what to think about all the stuff going on in the world. We can get together at our Christian coffee shop in the Christian version of Borders and compare Christian notes about the best-selling Christian fiction or self-help books. We’ll have Christian sports nights where we get together with all our Christian buddies and throw a football around. Maybe we’ll have Christian movie night, while the kidlets are in the back room watching VeggieTales (the good Christian ones from the old days with the Bible verses).

On the weekend, we’ll have Christian services (the good folks go to morning and evening service if available). And there’s the Wednesday night groups with good Christian activities for the kids. Don’t forget the Women’s Bible Study on Thursday morning and the Men’s Prayer Breakfast on Saturdays. Oh, and I can’t hang out Thursday night… Christian band practice, so we can jam to Christian music at Sunday’s service. But don’t miss the Friday night meeting where we talk about Christian politics and saving America and how candidates measure up in their support of Christian policies. (We won’t tell you how to vote. We’ll just tell you how they voted, and you can decide for yourselves at that point.)

Ok, I honestly don’t think any of those things, taken by themselves, are bad… even the political aspect. I’m no fan of the “Christian nation” idea, but if people are actually learning some of what is going on in the political realm, I think there’s a net gain. If people are being mis-informed to support a particular agenda, then that gets back to my point with all this.

Someone will ask, with the best intentions, “What about holiness?”

We are absolutely called to be holy. We can’t ignore that. But we’re also told to be “in the world yet not of it.”

Too often we solve the “not of it” by being “not in it.”

The Christian brands of everything are not going to make us “in the world yet not of it.” Though they may even be good competitive products, buying them doesn’t do anything for my spirituality.

If we mirror the culture around us–if we do almost everything people outside the church do, except we call our activities “Christian,” then I think we’re missing something important.

We can build up a fort to keep out the world.

We can isolate ourselves from everyone not us and insulate ourselves with Christian everything. We can hunker down like a family in the basement during a storm, trying to hang on in a culture some feel is steering farther and farther from traditional values. “Don’t go outside… it’s dangerous out there. In here, it’s safe. It’s Christian.”

Or we can build a home that welcomes the weary and refreshes their souls.

We could open our doors and our hearts. We could make our churches, our homes, and our very lives into places of refuge, where people can unload their burdens and find compassionate support.

We could show people we care less about cultural or political or religious views that divide us, and more about the person who has the views.

Instead of judging the person in trouble, we could extend a helping hand or a shoulder to cry on. We could roll up our sleeves and get dirty while meeting practical needs… not as some outreach program where we wash your car or give you a meal after we preach the gospel to you,

We could give someone a meal because they’re hungry, they need it, and we care about them more than the number of converts or new visitors our church gets this month.

Are we going to find out some ugly things about the world and life? Yes.

Are we going to deal with difficult situations where there are no real easy answers, no clear-cut Scripture verses we can parrot at the person? Yes.

Are our beliefs and our views going to be challenged? Absolutely. We might see a whole new side of the people we thought were against us. We might learn a completely different side of a political or cultural issue. We could be exposed to new thoughts we haven’t had before.

Then again, maybe I’m wrong. Everyone knows how dangerous thoughts can be.

I need someone to tell me which are the Christian ones I’m allowed to have.

Maybe there’s an app on the Edifi for that.

Flip-Flops and Soccer Balls

“What are we supposed to do with a thousand pairs of flip-flops?”

I imagine this was the question for a pastor at BCC a few weeks or months ago. A local school had a fund raiser for a missions trip to Kenya, and they chose to collect flip-flops for the African children the team would meet.

They weren’t expecting a thousand pairs, and getting that many shoes from Nebraska to Kenya no doubt meant logistics and expenses and effort.

They get to the city and meet the couple who are running a ministry to children orphaned by AIDS and other diseases, and they find out that–oddly enough–the wife has been specifically praying for flip-flops for the 700+ kids she cares for.

On top of that, the team brought clothing and sundry goods, stuff we don’t even stop to think about like toothpaste and soap. It was like they were handing out treasure.

The team built two church buildings, visited with orphans, provided for needs, and even supplied joy in the form of soccer uniforms and balls. They saw returns on work they’ve been doing for over ten years, contradicting the thought that missions teams just show up for a week or two, then never come back to build relationships or follow up.

Teams I’ve supported or even traveled with have brought cases of medical and dental supplies, pulling rotted teeth and distributing basic vitamins and medicine. They have brought basic food, meeting the practical and real-life needs of the people.

Back on Okinawa, that one church partnered with several others to perform medical missions twice a year, to the Philippines and then Cambodia.

I know from a trip to the rural parts of the Philippines how much I take for granted.

A woman brought her infant to me and asked for prayer for his fever. I felt the baby’s head and ulled my hand away shocked. I thought about if it had been me with one of my kids. Jonathan was about four months old at the time, and so I thought of him. I would have been flying down the highway to the emergency room. My baby would have been full of Infant Motrin and Infant Tylenol and any other thing I thought might help.

This woman didn’t have any of that.

She and her child stand out as the memory of that trip for me. Her desperation and need for something we could meet with no real great expense or thought still haunts me. The unwillingness or apathy of Christians regarding meeting these needs… That frightens me.

Despite it being generally understood that Jesus’ last order to His people was to go into all the world and make disciples, we don’t always see a church that looks out past its building, past its community, past even the borders of its country.

In spite of common sense telling us that people need more than Bibles and “decisions for Christ,” that sometimes turns into the image we have of “reaching out to the world” with the love of God.

More than all of the above, we provide ministry to churches and we preach the Gospel to those who have not heard… Or who have seen no reason to believe before.

There are stories of missionaries handing out Bibles and being rejected. “Do you think I want your book? Will this feed my children? Will it keep them warm? Can your book be a roof or a bed? I don’t need this.”

We come not just with a Bible and a sermon, but with aid for real needs because our sermons based on the Bible tell us to do more than just give out a book or a tract. Sometimes we need flip-flops to deliver our message.

Some of my agnostic and atheist friends would say to deliver the latter, the real needs, while leaving the former at home in church.

They would ask, shouldn’t we do this practical ministry just for the sake of doing it? Should the goodness of the deed be enough to motivate the deed? Should we do this without such an obvious emphasis on Christ?

Ok, maybe.

Maybe it’s not enough to clarify that the response to evangelism is not connected in any way to the services received. But we’re out doing something about the suffering and tremendous need in the world, and we’re putting every cent and every bit of the supplies and support we raise into the people we encounter.

If you can find a better organization that does what you want more effectively, great. Support them. But if not, consider partnering with those who are meeting practical needs in the lives of others.

One of Them

Humanity is never so beautiful as when praying for forgiveness, or else forgiving another. – Jean Paul

“I got a way out, I got an idea — I figured out a way to get ridda all the lesbians ‘n’ queers. Ya build an electric fence…”

You’ve probably heard this quote in the last few weeks, or perhaps you’ve seen a video of a sermon posted to YouTube. It’s a bit old by now… ancient, really, by modern standards. But this topic has been bouncing around in my head and on my computer screen for a while now.

A North Carolina pastor decided to “solve” the “problem” of homosexuals through what amounts to concentration camps. In the firestorm of protest and controversy, he is (as of this writing) holding to his guns about what he has said on the subject of homosexuality. From the sermon video, “The Bible’s agin’ it, God’s agin’ it, I’m agin’ it, and if ya got any sense, you’re agin’ it too.”

A noted theologian and leader in arguably the most dominant Christian denomination in America expressed his concerns on this pastor’s frightening “solution,” yet also felt the need to state that homosexuality is the key moral issue facing America at this time.

Notable media attention has shown us kids who commit suicide rather than deal with the bullying and mockery they face when their sexual preference is made public. We read about school districts whose vague policies on bullying and sexual preference instill fear in the teachers and staff instead of providing healthy avenues of correction and discipline. We see that even though homosexuals are now permitted to serve openly, part of the “deal” that enabled that policy change was a less-publicized agreement to prevent these servicemembers, once married, from enjoying the housing benefits that heterosexual couples (and even single military members) are afforded without a second thought. And a few weeks prior to the “electric fence solution” grabbing the spotlight, we had another pastor talking about physically knocking sense into a child that acts outside normal cultural and societal standards, gay or straight.

And if that all wasn’t enough, we have Westboro Baptist Church running around letting everyone know that “God hates fags.” Even though we might try to distance ourselves from Westboro, or claim that they’re not really “true Christians,” the rmajority of the world will see their signs and hear “Baptist Church” instead of “fringe element.” Clearly homosexuality is the bright blip on the Christian moral radar lately.

Like anything else, there are debates about the Bible and more importantly the New Testament being against homosexuality and to what degree. That’s not my point here.

My point is that when the Christian community focuses so strongly on one particular issue, we make a tremendous tactical blunder. We try to win one battle, and risk losing the war.

In fact, we forget exactly what war we’re supposed to be fighting.

In the movie, “We Were Soldiers,” a young lieutenant is leading his patrol through a patch of jungle in Vietnam, when his men come under fire from the enemy. Brash and hungry for glory, he tells his men to charge the enemy position. Then suddenly, his men realize that they are cut off from their allies and surrounded on all sides. Memory fails me, but I believe in the end only a couple of members of the lieutenant’s unit survive the difficult night.

It seems to me that the Church often charges hills, ready to “really impact society for Christ.” If we don’t anticipate some triumphant “victory” over the cultural “evil” in our crosshairs, we at least seem convinced we can snatch a few souls from the jaws of hell if only we tell everyone how horrible ________ (fill in the blank) is.

Years ago, it was heavy metal, and Dungeons and Dragons, and MTV. Then it was Harry Potter and Pokemon and video games. Somewhere in there, I remember ouija boards and Magic the Gathering cards. All along the way, abortion has been a key issue. And for almost as long as I can recall, anything to do with homosexuals was on or near the top of the list of spiritual dangers.

Every time, the Christian community (at least what I was familiar with) would get up in arms over the wicked nature and powerful influence of these various subjects. We would talk about how evil they were, and how misguided or intentionally evil those were who got involved in these different activities.

Look back over the list; how many of these controversies were dramatically affected by Christian protests and warnings to anyone willing to listen?

It’s wasted effort that misses the point of the Gospel.

I get the point many of my fellow believers are making: we cannot simply ignore sin. Jesus didn’t do that. He didn’t say to the woman caught in adultery, “Hey, no big deal, I know your heart, go on, keep living this way, I love you.”

He said, “Go and sin no more.” We can’t ignore that.

But I think some of my fellow believers forget where we came from. Growing up in church or in a “Christian” environment, growing up without doing any of the “really bad” sins, maybe it’s easy to look at other people and say, “Wow, you are LOST.” Maybe it seems right to look at them as dirty rotten sinners or something.

It’s not right. We can’t look at others that way. Or at least, we can’t look at the rest of the world as anything other than what we ourselves were before Christ changed us.

All of us are in the same category, according to the Bible. Nobody gets by on their good deeds and winning personality. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. All can be justified freely by grace through faith in Christ.

It doesn’t really matter what I did or who I was.

The focus is on who God is and what He’s done.

And when I become a Christian, it still isn’t about who I am now and what I’m doing now. It’s still about who He is and what He’s doing.

So instead of seeing me and mine as “us” in a battle against “them,” whoever “they” may be this year…

How about starting to see myself as “one of them” instead?

Because even though the pastor in North Carolina forgets this, when we start building electric fences for sinners, he and I are going to belong inside one too.

Father

“Mom, Dad, I really want to thank you for spanking me when I was little…”

Actual quote, from… I’m guessing… it’s been a bit… I’ll just say early 90s.

I was out with my parents, and we witnessed a toddler throwing a fit and actually going so far as to hit his mom because she wouldn’t let him have his way. Her response? “Now, now! (hit) Mommy doesn’t like that. (hit) Please don’t do that. (scream) Now now, son… (swing and a miss) don’t– (hit) don’t– (hit)”

I am pretty sure I never even thought of taking a swing at my father, out of a healthy respect for the permanence of death. I never thought of taking a swing at my mother either, because my father taught me to respect his wife.

I am one of the lucky ones. When I was young, “deadbeat dads” and single-parent homes were not nearly as prevalent as they are today. There were some, of course. But most of the kids in the neighborhood had both parents at home.

Not all those parents were winners, sure. But at least they were present, and at least they seemed to be trying.

From a very young age, my brother and I would go with my Dad on his weekend errands (which almost always involved a stop at one or more of the local coin shops) or on long walks around the neighborhood. He would hide coins and gemstones and little odds and ends in various places along our usual routes, often in the bowl of a tree trunk where the thick branches separate and stretch to the sky. And we would check those trees — the ones we could easily reach, at least.

I wonder if that was a way of seeing just how much we were growing, or if it was just a silly game. Either way, that was part of our relationship for years.

My Dad also loves trains, and our walk would inevitably lead up the hill near our house to the train tracks that bordered the golf course. We would walk along the tracks (my brother and I trying to see how long we could stay balanced on a rail) until a train sounded its horn. Then we would plant a penny or nickel on the tracks and step off to the other side of the road to watch it go by.

Dad recognized all the names of all the railway companies, and he would always look for the uncommon emblems, like a kid with a pack of baseball cards hoping to find a rare star player. “Such-and-such Pacific… I’m surprised that made it all the way from California. And the old BS&P… and then there’s the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe” (and he’d sing it as a little jingle, even though we’d never heard the commercial).

The train would pass, and we’d get back on the tracks or head down the hill, always looking out for those special trees along the way.

We would hold hands fairly often, too. Eventually my brother stopped doing that, and I didn’t know why, but it didn’t matter. Then I stopped doing that, because who goes for long walks holding hands with their Dad? So not cool. (This might have been around the heady days of “rad.” Holding hands was not “rad.”)

But we would walk and talk. That was alright. You could still do that with your Dad, and if anyone picked on you about it, it’s probably because they don’t have a Dad like yours to go walk and talk with.

Eventually, Saturday morning errands and weekend walks became a “take it or leave it” kind of thing for my brother and me. We had video games, or toys, or, you know, cool stuff to do.

But I think I was always the one worried about feelings. And I would picture my Dad going off by himself on errands or sitting around in his workshop instead of going on the walk he had in mind, and then I’d get this horrible sense of something between guilt at my selfishness and abandoned loyalty to my Dad, and I’d say, “You know, I’ll go with you, sure.”

I thought I was doing him a favor.

Looking back, I know I got the better deal. Hands down, by far, without a doubt.

I had a Dad who wanted to be with me, who liked me the way I was, who was interested in what interested me, and who was eager to share with me all the things that interested him.

Even back then, that was something special.

Dad would build Lego forts for my brother and I to use in our epic wars… my brother with his toys lined up and organized in tight formations, his war strategies all laid out based on whatever historic battle he’d most recently read about. My army was a pile of all the toys, with maybe four or five of my favorites off to the side in some soap opera relationship squabbles. (This was also done out of necessity. My brother was fond of kamikaze attacks with his expendable first wave. He taught me the definition of “fodder.”)

I never really thought too much about sleeping arrangements in our house. Essentially, I didn’t have my own room for a long while. I would sleep on an air mattress, or on the floor in my brother’s room. I slept on a spare bed for a few years, but I never really had a room that was mine to occupy (and trash).

One summer, probably just before or early on in high school, my Dad said we were going to build me a room. We went to a lumber yard and bought all kinds of 2x4s and some paneling sheets. And then my Dad laid out this plan and basically built this wall in the basement so that I had my own room. I would help him hold planks in place or hold up sheets so they could get nailed down, but really, the work was all his and the benefit was all mine.

And I never heard him complain about it. He wanted to do it.

I like to claim that I have no regrets, no “what ifs” that I would love to go back in time and change. But in my relationship with my Dad, I do have a few.

I remember how disappointed and hurt he seemed when he found out that my brother and I, wrestling and fighting, had put a huge hole in the fragile paneling of the wall he’d built to make me a room. I recall being really mad at my Dad during an argument on a different occasion, and just because I knew it might hurt him, I punched another hole in that wall while he was standing there watching.

And then there’s the alcohol.

I like the occasional drink. I set a limit of one or two, and I rarely drink anywhere but home because I’ve seen how drinking can destroy careers and lives in the military.

My Dad has a very different opinion about alcohol, based on his experiences growing up with an alcoholic father. Dad hates alcohol so much that I recall him yelling at TV beer commercials for painting such a false image of the life you’ll have when enjoying their products. He can’t stand alcohol, not one bit.

I came home on leave, and I had turned 21. We went out for Chinese food, and I decided, “Hey, I’m not driving, and I’m old enough, and I can do this. I’m ordering a drink, right here, right now, at the dinner table with my Dad.”

This started quite the discussion, and I grew more and more defensive. “I’m old enough, I’m an adult, I’m mature. I’m allowed to do this, and you can’t stop me.”

Hint: Maturity is just like leadership or authority; if you have to remind people that you have it, you don’t.

Seriously, as far as the offensive effect it has, I think drinking in front of my Dad is like saying the N word to an African-American, or making a Holocaust joke to a concentration camp survivor. My wife reminds me often that there are terms we can say which mean little for us, but bring up incredibly painful memories for others. Certainly actions can have the same disparate impact on different individuals.

And if I know that already, what kind of person do I have to be to intentionally push that shiny red button?

Yes, that’s something I would go back and change.

My Dad has regrets, too. As he considered how our relationship as a family has developed over the years, he has said things like, “I can’t claim we’ve done perfect. I know we’ve messed up a lot.” (He’d list specific examples, but the details aren’t important right now.)

I grew up healthy. I was educated at school and then those lessons were reemphasized at home by my Mom and Dad. I had my medical needs met. I had more than plenty of material possessions. More importantly by far, I not once ever had to doubt whether my parents loved me or cared about me.

When we conduct evaluations in the Air Force, part of the brief that we are required to give the examinee is to not let a mistake become a distraction. It’s easy to spot when we screw up, and it’s easy to get caught up in all the reasons why we screwed up, and how we could have done better, and what we shouldn’t have done, and so on. Examinees sometimes do this. They know they said something wrong or did something stupid, and it becomes a fixation that causes more mistakes.

I wonder sometimes if my Dad’s assessment that he’d “messed up a lot” is something similar. When I evaluate my life and think about the influence he’s had on me, I am so grateful to have had such a father.

This Father’s Day, I wanted to give my Dad some of the attention and praise he is due.

If you have an awesome Dad, I’d love to hear about it. Please comment and tell me (and anyone else reading) a little more about what a great Dad looks like. If your father is no longer with us, I’d still love to hear about what made him special.

And maybe you unfortunately didn’t have a father around. Sometimes, single moms or extended family or step-parents come in to fill that critical role in a life, and they’re just as worthy of praise. If you have someone who chose to be a father to you (yes, single moms included) and you’d like to share, please do.

Pride

PRIDE

Disclaimer: This is a *fictional* story, not an actual personal experience. I hope to do something like this some day, and to live out love like this every day. But this is just a short story.

It’s common knowledge that “God goes against the willful proud; God gives grace to the willing humble.” – James 4:6 MSG

I step out of the van and ignore the immediate hostility of passers-by.

Two cross-dressers glare at me as they head toward the parade route. A man is crawling on the pavement in leather chaps; he has a leash around his neck, and another man is ‘walking’ him. He barks at me.

These are among the more tame participants. It strikes me as odd that in such a crowd, I am the one who gets strange looks.

If I am embarrassed at all now, well… it’s going to get a lot worse.

I make my way to the edge of the crowd and try to squeeze through to the front. I need to be visible if this is going to be of any value. When people turn and see me, they assume they know what I’m here to do. I get jostled and shoved a few times as I gently push my way through. “Bigot,” one person says. “Homophobe! Go home!”

“Get out of the closet already, Bible-thumper.”

The police are out in force. Pride parades often get a lot of attention, not all of it good. That one church from Kansas is lined up farther down the street. Some local churches have put up their own signs, not willing to be outdone by these famous out-of-towners with the “God hates fags” posters.

The cops are busy keeping people marching in the parade from getting into fights with the various protest groups. None of them notice when I finally reach the rope that marks the edge of the parade route.

I stand at the edge and lean out, a Jesus in Teva sandals, a wig, and a polyester white robe with a red sash I borrowed from our church drama team. The beard is mine, scraggly but full enough after two months of growth.

The first few people to see me react in anger, swearing, shaking fists. “You don’t belong here,” they yell, along with some other choice words. People in the crowd throw half-empty Starbucks cups and large sodas and McDonald’s cheeseburgers. Ketchup and mustard splatter across my white sleeve.

No one throws rotten fruit any more. It’s not readily available, and it’s too expensive.

The folks marching in the parade are not happy to see me, either. Rainbow signs with witty slogans are shoved in my face. I don’t know if they’re meant to block my view with their message, or block the view of the other marchers so that no one else has to see another religious jerk condemning everyone in sight.

“What’s another name for the Crucifixion?” one guy asks the girl next to him, loud enough for me to overhear. She shrugs.

“A good start,” he says.

She laughs, and glances my way, her smile turning into a sneer.

I reach out a hand to those marching, and someone spits at it. The next person ignores me, stepping away.

“I am sorry,” I say, and he looks back, brow furrowed. But he’s too far past me now.

Mostly all I get from the faces in the crowd is the strong sense that I am unwelcome–a defensive posture and wounded expression that demands to know, “What are you doing here? You don’t belong here. This is ours… go away.”

I catch another guy’s hand, someone in a leather jacket, boots, and briefs. He recoils in disgust, but then I say, “I am sorry for how we have hurt you,” and he pauses.

Someone else spits on me. “Go back to the tomb, Jeebus.” His partner winks at me and says, “Hey, baby, I’ll nail ya.” They walk away laughing.

The man in the leather jacket, whose hand I grabbed–he simply nods to me, and I think I see his eyes glisten as he turns and continues in the parade.

A thin guy explodes into a rant with more f-bombs than actual words, arms waving, fists clenched. “What the f’ing f are you f’ing trying to do, f’er? You f’ing f’s think you’re f’ing doing any good with your f’ing ‘God hates fags’ signs and your f’ed up little white dress? Do you really f’ing think I give one good f’ing G-D what the f you f’ing have to say to me? F!!! I f’ing hate you, I f’ing hate your f’ing book that does f-all to teach love and tolerance, and I f’ing hate the f out of the f’ing God you represent! What now?”

He gets in my face.

“I’m sorry,” I say, and a tear runs down my cheek. “I’m sorry for how we have hurt you.”

He opens his mouth to speak, but nothing comes out.

I think of the recent news stories I’ve heard, the angry sermons on the Internet, the callous defenses of indefensible statements.

“I’m sorry for how we’ve let people say we should ‘smack the gay out of children,’ or put them behind electric fences.”

He says nothing now, but he continues staring at me.

“I’m sorry for how we’ve pointed the finger at all of you, instead of preaching against our own arrogance, our own pride, our own prejudice and hatred. I’m sorry for how we act like you are less than human.”

“I came to say I’m sorry for my people and what we have done.”

His friend grabs his arm and pulls him away. “Come on, man.” But he keeps looking back, and I see him mouth the words, “Thank you.”

Another person spits on me, and a big guy just happens to hit me with his elbow. “Bigot,” he mutters.

This pattern repeats itself for an hour and a half, some people accepting my hand in friendship, many slapping it aside at first, some of them turning back to acknowledge the apologies I offer.

One of the people in the crowd behind me tugs at my shoulder. He’s holding a black leather Bible, with the gold edges on the pages and a little fish over a monogram in the corner of the cover. “You’re in the wrong place, brother. We’re all protesting at the other end of this block.” He points to where the angry people are waving their signs and shouting Scripture like a battle cry.

I nod and remain in my spot on the street.

Two women walk by, arm-in-arm. The blonde says, “You want us to confess our sins, pervert? We’ve been verrry naughty.”

They giggle as they approach. Out of the corner of my eye, I see Bible Guy watching.

“I would like to confess my sins to you,” I say.

“Ooooh,” the other coos. “Kinky. Yeah, do it.”

“I am sorry for the double standards we use to judge you,” I begin, and the smiles disappear.

“I am sorry for acting like one sin is worse than any other, for acting like our sins don’t matter to God as much as yours. I’m sorry for behaving like we’re better than you.”

They are quiet, holding hands, waiting as I continue. Bible Guy storms off to rejoin his protest.

“I am sorry for treating you like you don’t deserve our love–like you don’t deserve God’s love.”

The parade marches on behind them. I look at them through tear-clouded vision.

“I love you. We love you. I am sorry for how often we fail to show it. We shouldn’t see you as what you do, but I know we also do that. Please accept my apology on behalf of my people.””

I extend a hand after wiping it off on a clean spot of my robe. They hug me instead, ignoring the chopped onions and ketchup and diet Dr. Pepper.

We stand there, hugging, for about a minute before they thank me and move on.

Bible Guy is back with friends, and they’re not happy. “Don’t you know Leviticus says homosexuals are an abomination and the Bible says it’s a sin?”

“I know,” I reply.

“Yeah, well, maybe you need to get your Gospel straight before you come out here supporting all these queers.”

“I know what the Bible says about homosexuality, and so does the rest of the world,” I fire back. “What they don’t know, what they aren’t seeing, is what the Bible says about loving others!”

“Hey Jimmy,” Bible Guy says to one of his friends, “What do you think we should do with false Christs?”

It takes a couple minutes for the police to respond to the situation and break up the fight. I’m the freak in an offensive costume, so I end up in the handcuffs. “For your protection, bud,” one of the cops tells me as he drags me away from the parade.

Sitting in the back of the paddy wagon, I pull off the wig and rub a bloody jaw.

“Not the smartest move ever for the Son of God, eh, bud?”

“Yeah, I guess not.” I answer. I don’t believe that, though. I felt the hugs, I spotted tears, I saw the faces change from rage to respect. “Then again, things didn’t go so well for Him either, so it’s nothing new.”

The cop laughs. “I thought I saw those punks head back over to the protest after we grabbed you. You sure got them riled.”

“They’re mad because I used to be one of the ones holding signs.”

“Oh… yeah, I used to hate dealing with this parade each year, too. And then my son started marching in them.”

He offers me a cup of water. “Take it you get beat up by Christians a lot?”

“You’d be surprised.” I take a drink. “It was the religious leaders that wanted Jesus dead, not the so-called sinners.”

“Feh.” The cop looks back out to the crowd. “I just wish those guys would go back to their caves sometimes.”

“They can’t help it,” I reply. “They kind of belong here. The event is all about celebrating pride. They’re just full of a different kind.”

Approach Boldly

Hebrews 4:14-16 states, “Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are– yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”

If God was going to speak to you today, what might He say? What thoughts arise to answer that question? Imagine for a moment that Jesus Himself was standing there in your office. What would you say to Him, and what do you think He might say to you?

Many times I have found myself expecting judgment, discipline, or condemnation from God. Sometimes, I hesitate to pray or to worship based on that expectation. After all, He is a holy God, seated on His throne of righteousness and justice, and here I am, little old me; I stumble and fail in so many different ways. If I go to God in my condition, He’ll probably tell me how many things I am doing wrong, or correct me for my faults. He probably doesn’t have a lot of time for a failure like me. On top of that, I’m reminded of everything I should be doing… I don’t pray enough, I don’t read my Bible enough, it’s been a while since I went to church, etc.

Ever feel that way? This phrase, “approach God’s throne with confidence,” shatters that fear of God’s anger and judgment for all those who are covered by faith in the high-priest ministry of Jesus. Christ’s blood was the perfect sacrifice, making atonement and “reconciliation for the sins of the people.” Our high priest is called “merciful and faithful.” He understands our weaknesses because He has walked in our shoes; He does not stand aloof, out of reach, glaring down on pathetic and pitiful humanity. Instead, He became pathetic, pitiful, “a man of no reputation, familiar with sorrows,” in order to reconcile us to God.

Now we are free to come to the throne. The throne is the seat of authority, and is approached with reverence and fear. The one who sits on the throne in a particular land holds the power of life and death for anyone who approaches that place. But because of our high priest, we are not coming to a throne of judgment, but a throne of grace, of unmerited favor. Nothing I can do will earn God’s acceptance– He has already accepted me! We come with confidence because the One on the throne has granted us His favor and love. He has approved us, selected us, welcomed us to come before Him.

This breaks down all my thinking that my relationship with God is based on “Jesus and _______.” All the good things that I do will not grant me special favors from God. “Without faith, it is impossible to please God,” and when I work to earn something from God, my faith is in what I have done instead of in Him. God’s plan works the other way around: He saved us by His grace, through faith, and not by good deeds that we have done, so that we can’t boast about our “special” relationship with Him as though we did it on our own. But we were saved for a purpose, so that we can be in the right position to accomplish good deeds for God’s glory. We do good deeds because God loves us, not so that God might love us.

At all times, knowing that we have received His favor, we can come boldly to God in prayer and in worship, knowing that we can receive His loving assistance (mercy) and find divine power and strength (grace) to help us whenever we have a need. Jesus is a faithful priest in things pertaining to God; He is always able to administer the blessings of God to us. There is no time where He takes a leave of absence; He is never too busy; He is never taking a break. We can always rely on His ministry, and find mercy and grace at every point of need.

Who Are We Dying For?

This is a post from a forum about 2.5 years ago. Now my family and I actually live here in Omaha, and we attend the church I mention below.
While I’ve been apart from my wife and kids, sent TDY by the Air Force to learn an exciting new aspect of management in my career, I have been attending a great church in Omaha, NE. The Friday night young adult group is particularly special to me, because from the first time I visited, they exemplified a welcoming loving community.Tonight, the speaker shared about love. I am trying to jot most of it down from memory, so of course some of it is lost. It is long, but I found it to be a very good message, and I hope others do too.

More specifically, he shared about relationships and how we show love in the relationship (anything from “I love pizza” to “I love my good friend” to “I love my wife” to “I love God”). He went to Plato and Aristotle, and then of course to the Bible, discussing concepts of “love” and how it works in our relationships. Naturally, there was discussion of the various Greek words, agape, phileo, eros.

Aristotle broke down “phileo” into three categories of “friendship.” There’s the friendship of utility; this is what we see in business. When you have something I want and I have something you want, we have to interact in order to make a deal, and generally we will do so in a polite way, treating each other nicely, being “friendly.” But this friendliness is more like that of an acquaintance. When I walk out the door, I really don’t think about that person any more. They don’t think about me either. Our business is done; we both got what we needed from each other.

The next step up was something like “friendship because we share a common interest.” Some people will go out and drink together, and they have a bond while they do that. People who share the same hobby may get together to pursue that. While they are together doing whatever it is that interests them, they have that friendship. It’s a bit closer than mere acquaintances. Maybe it’s a workout partner, or a member of a band, whatever. The key is, when the association stops, so does the friendship… kind of like how far too many of us probably are when we walk out of the church building.

Then Aristotle says there’s the friendship of character. I appreciate your character, I get along with you, we think alike, I enjoy your company, we have a good time together. We may be the best of friends… so long as neither of us change too greatly. When that happens, people often drift apart. Whatever held us together no longer does so. In the most extreme cases, you can think of common excuses for divorce. “He’s not the man I married.” “I don’t feel for her like I used to.”

The key point is that all of thisphileo– all of this “friendly” or “brotherly” love — is still focused on “I” and “me.” What do I get out of this relationship? What do you do for me? Are my needs being met?

Even among Christians, the two answers to what is the most important expectation in a relationship are honesty and reciprocity. In other words, a lot of how we relate with whomever we relate to has to do with “give and take.” Put another way, “I will give in the relationship so long as I get something from the relationship.”

The unspoken but obvious end to such relationships is that at some point, I will NOT love you if you ________ (fill in the blank). All too often, if we’re honest with ourselves, there is some line, some situation where I will no longer love you… because I no longer get what I want out of the relationship.

If that is any part of how we view our relationships with others, if we find ourselves looking at people’s value in terms of what they do for us, then we will sooner or later be willing to cut them off when they don’t meet our expectations.

When you boil it down, all those different versions of phileo seem a lot like eros. He didn’t mean just the “erotic” form of love, but the passion, the lust, the desire for something, the yearning to possess or control something. The “Oh, I’ve got to have that” sort of “love” we might feel. When you see that all those other relationships, the friendships mentioned above, are so easily based on me getting what I want from you, then you can see how deep down, it’s all about what I want and what I feel I must have.

It’s almost like we’re consuming ourselves, trying to find our satisfaction. “I like you because you think like me, you get my jokes, you make me laugh, you talk with me about what I’m interested in.” Basically, that’s saying I like me, and I see enough of me in you that we can get along for now. Don’t go changing on me.

It’s so refreshingly different when we see people who care about us or who love us without any sort of expectation, without looking for anything in return. People for whom the relationship is not “give and take” but simply “give.” People who die to themselves a bit and exemplify Christ.

This is, of course, how God related and relates to us. He doesn’t cause the sun to shine on the good people, or the rain to fall to nourish the righteous. He doesn’t extend His grace only to those who earn it or who qualify. He qualifies and accepts the “whosoever.”

We were also singing a song with a chorus about how we can give God “my everything, all of my incompletes, the worst and the best of me.” The worship leader had invited someone to church, and the man’s response was, “Oh, I can’t go. I’d have to hide my sin.” Somewhere along the line, his picture of God got skewed to look like how we treat each other all too often. Somewhere along the line, he learned that he can’t be honest with God, and he can’t give God what God wants in order to earn His love.

That is a horrible shame, when we know that God’s way of loving qualifies and accepts and restores and welcomes all who come to Him. I’m very grateful to God for the sense that I do comprehend a little bit of just how deep and how far-reaching and how amazing His love and grace and mercy are. I do know that He loves me, all of me, and that I can come boldly to Him, just as I am, without trying to present myself a certain way in the hopes of being accepted.

But this challenges me to wonder about what kind of picture people get of God’s love through my relationships with them, especially those I deem difficult to love. It is all too easy to be forgiven an incredible debt myself, to be treated in terms of grace… and then turn around and treat others based on what benefit they are to me.

“While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us…”

So who are we “dying” for?