Most of us have heard the common parallelism that because children's views of God are developed initially and primarily through the lens of their parents, specifically their fathers, a huge burden of responsibility lay upon those fathers not to raise children with warped or distorted views of the heavenly Father.

But I think this idea is more universal than child-parent. In almost any situation where one believer is urging a weaker brother or sister to exercise more faith, that exercise can be surprisingly affected by the strength of the one doing the urging.

To put it more bluntly: It can be hard for someone to obey your urging for them to trust God if they're not even sure they can trust you.

It shouldn't necessarily be that way, especially since we're all imperfect, we all sin. But just as children develop whatever level of trust they have in God through the lens of their parents, weaker or less mature brothers and sisters in Christ may falter simply because the one urging them on is not steady himself. (Yes, not one of us is perfectly steady, but hopefully you get what I mean.)

Trust begets trust.
Be a trustworthy person so that you may glorify the trustworthiness of God.

Repentance and Virtue

Gary Thomas is one of my very favorite contemporary writers. (His Center for Evangelical Spirituality site is linked in my sidebar.) In fact, if you're married, you should read Sacred Marriage, if you're a parent, you should read Sacred Parenting, and if you're a Christian, you should read Authentic Faith.
There -- that should cover the bases. ;-)

Today the Jollyblogger highlights a good article by Thomas titled "Repentance and Virtue."
Do check it out.


Good Ideas

Two weeks ago, while I was in Houston, I was waiting for some friends outside a coffee shop. Across the street I could see a homeless man sitting under a tree in the lawn outside a retail shop. It was raining. As plain as such a thing can be, I felt the urge to go talk to the man. I don’t know what I should have said, and “street evangelism” is not a habit of mine, but I could really sense God would like me to go talk to the man about himself and then about Jesus. It wasn’t really a command I was feeling; as far as I could tell, it was an idea of my own devising, although I would not deny the Holy Spirit’s nudging. But it was, basically, a good idea.
I didn’t do it. And ever since I have wondered if God has been withholding some of Himself from me because of the part of Himself I refused to share with a stranger in need. It’s not the first time in my life I have had a good idea and let it pass unrealized. And these aren’t just good ideas – these are ideas that are good, if you catch my meaning.

I came across this great parable from The Shepherd of Hermas in my readings of the Apostolic Fathers a while back:
"Hear the parable which I shall tell thee relating to fasting.
A certain man had an estate, and many slaves, and a portion of his estate he planted as a vineyard; and choosing out a certain slave who was trusty and well-pleasing (and) held in honor, he called him to him and saith unto him; "Take this vineyard [which I have planted], and fence it [till I come], but do nothing else to the vineyard. Now keep this my commandment, and thou shalt be free in my house." Then the master of the servant went away to travel abroad.

When then he had gone away, the servant took and fenced the vineyard; and having finished the fencing of the vineyard, he noticed that the vineyard was full of weeds. So he reasoned within himself, saying, "This command of my lord I have carried out, [but] I will next dig this vineyard, and it shall be neater when it is digged; and when it hath no weeds it will yield more fruit, because not choked by the weeds." He took and digged the vineyard, and all the weeds that were in the vineyard he plucked up. And that vineyard became very neat and flourishing, when it had no weeds to choke it.

After a time the master of the servant [and of the estate] came, and he went into the vineyard. And seeing the vineyard fenced neatly, and digged as well, and [all] the weeds plucked up, and the vines flourishing, he rejoiced [exceedingly] at what his servant had done.

So he called his beloved son, who was his heir, and the friends who were his advisers, and told them what he had commanded his servant, and how much he had found done. And they rejoiced with the servant at the testimony which his master had borne to him. And he saith to them; "I promised this servant his freedom, if he should keep the commandment which I commanded him; but he kept my commandment and did a good work besides to my vineyard, and pleased me greatly. For this work therefore which he has done, I desire to make him joint-heir with my son, because, when the good thought struck him, he did not neglect it, but fulfilled it."

Anyone, then, who knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, commits sin.
-- James 4:17 (NRSV)


Tobacconist Theology, Part Four: Burnt Offering

The late great Princeton-trained theologian M.B. Jackson, who happened to be my religious studies professor in college, was a daily pipe smoker. Whenever he would give our class a test, he would excuse himself to the front steps of the building by saying, “If anyone needs me, I’ll be outside sending up a burnt offering.”

I thought it a clever joke then. Now I believe he meant it.
I have pondered the interesting parallels between our sanctification and the making, preparing, and smoking of a good cigar. Dr. Jackson’s witticism has inspired this bit of free-form verse:

With a gentle violence
I am fashioned for your pleasure.
Like Abraham, I am cut.
Like Isaiah, I am burned.
Like Job, I am given breath.
In this needful destruction
I find the joy and purpose of my making.

I am drawn.

Grown to the fullness of time,
I have been cut down, splayed out, hung up.
And brought to life again in your hands.
Open, aflame, filled with your spirit,
Coaxed and cradled, the overflow of my life
Is but the incense of yours.

I am a burnt offering.


Tobacconist Theology, Part Three: The Glory of God

The Prince of Preachers, Charles Spurgeon, was an almost daily cigar smoker. This practice obviously raised the ire of many of Spurgeon's brethren. Phillip Johnson has devoted an interesting page to the Reverend's favorite pasttime in his online Spurgeon Archive: Spurgeon's Love of Fine Cigars.

One of the more famous anecdotes is an exchange that occurred when Spurgeon and Dwight Pentecost shared a tabernacle stage one Sunday evening in 1874. At the end of his address, Pentecost implicitly indicted Spurgeon's love for cigars by testifying to his own surrendering of them to the Lord. Spurgeon's response is classic.

Here's the tale reported by Christian World Magazine in September of 1874:

[Pentecost] said that some years ago, he had had the cry awakened in his heart, "Quicken Thou me." He desired to be more completely delivered from sin, and he prayed that God would show him anything which prevented his more complete devotion to Him. He was willing, he thought, to give up anything or everything if only he might realise the desire of his heart.

"Well," said he, amidst the profound silence and attention of the immense congregation, "what do you think it was that the Lord required of me? He did not touch me in my church, my family, my property, or my passions. But one thing I liked exceedingly—the best cigar which could be bought."

He then told us that the thought came into his mind, could he relinquish this indulgence, if its relinquishment would advance his piety? He tried to dismiss the idea as a mere fancy or scruple, but it came again and again to him, and he was satisfied that it was the still small voice which was speaking. He remembered having given up smoking by the wish of his ministerial brethren, when he was twenty-one years of age, for four years. But then, he had resumed the habit, for he declared during that four years he never saw or smelt a cigar which he did not want to smoke. How, however, he felt it to be his duty to give it up again, and so unequal did he feel to the self-denial, that he "took his cigar-box before the Lord," and cried to Him for help. This help he intimated had been given, and the habit renounced.

Mr. Spurgeon, whose smoking propensities are pretty well known, instantly rose at the conclusion of Mr. Pentecost's address, and, with a somewhat playful smile, said:
"Well, dear friends, you know that some men can do to the glory of God what to other men would be sin. And notwithstanding what brother Pentecost has said, I intend to smoke a good cigar to the glory of God before I go to bed to-night. If anybody can show me in the Bible the command, 'Thou shalt not smoke,' I am ready to keep it; but I haven't found it yet. I find ten commandments, and it's as much as I can do to keep them; and I've no desire to make them into eleven or twelve.

"The fact is, I have been speaking to you about real sins, not about listening to mere quibbles and scruples. At the same time, I know that what a man believes to be sin becomes a sin to him, and he must give it up. 'Whatsoever is not of faith is sin' [Rom. 14:23], and that is the real point of what my brother Pentecost has been saying.
"Why, a man may think it a sin to have his boots blacked. Well, then, let him give it up, and have them whitewashed. I wish to say that I'm not ashamed of anything whatever that I do, and I don't feel that smoking makes me ashamed, and therefore I mean to smoke to the glory of God."

Can a cigar be smoked to the glory of God?
For that matter, can a yard be mowed, can a race be run, can a picture be painted, can a house be built, can a plane be flown, can a post be blogged, etc etc, to the glory of God?

"You say grace before meals. All right. But I say grace before the concert and the opera, and grace before the play and pantomime, and grace before I open a book, and grace before sketching, painting, swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing and grace before I dip the pen in the ink." -- G.K. Chesterton

In so far as smoking a cigar is an enjoyment and appreciation of God’s good gift of tobacco – with all the godly rumination that goes along with it – it is an act of worship, and can therefore be exercised to the glory of God.
In fact, there is much about cigars and the smoking of them that inspires thoughts of God and His glory. But that is for tomorrow's installment . . .


Tobacconist Theology, Part Two: Work and Rest

"God saw all that he had made, and it was very good . . . By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done." -- Genesis 1:31, 2:2-3

Many people, and I am often one of them, believe work itself is a curse. But it’s not. Adam and Eve, by all indications, worked in the garden before the Fall. The curse of their sin, in relation to their efforts, was that work was (and is now) done “through painful toil" and by "the sweat of the brow.” (Similarly, we don’t think of childbirth itself as a curse. But the pain accompanying it certainly is.)

Work is a good thing. But so is rest.
And the way God has set up the world to work is that we can’t have one without the other, and the latter must be earned.
Six days of work. And on the seventh, rest.

The Sabbath rest isn’t just meant as a recovery period, a way to recuperate from the week’s effort (although it is that, no doubt). No, the Sabbath is also meant as a day to reflect on our work and our life, to declare it (and the God who commissions it) “good.” The Sabbath is for our enjoyment as much as it is for our recuperation. But, again, the rest cannot be properly enjoyed until the rest has been earned.

Lots of time and work goes into the creation of a single fine cigar.
Aside from the consideration of ideal conditions, the entire planting, growing, harvesting, curing, and other preparing can take several years.
And then the rolling. Good cigar rollers in the best factories have really made this part of the creation of a stogie into an art. Roll the cigar too loose, and the cigar will fall apart, lose its filler. Roll the cigar too tight, and it may not “breathe” properly, which means it may not burn right or it may dry out too quickly or it may not allow a good draw from the smoker’s lips. An unevenly rolled cigar may burn unevenly, and any serious cigar smoker can attest to how frustrating the ashy “overbite” an uneven cigar can be.

Cigars are a luxury, no doubt. They are a gift and a reward. They are things to be enjoyed (in moderation, naturally). But for the gift, reward, and enjoyment of a cigar to approximate perfection, lots of work must precede.

So rest and enjoyment must be earned, and therefore preceded, by work.
But it’s possible to work too much. It’s possible to work so hard that rest is neither restful nor enjoyable. (It’s also possible to negate real rest by working for the wrong things or for the wrong reasons.)
Sometimes when we are working too hard, we take our Sabbath begrudgingly, and consequently it is not enjoyable as it should be.
Sometimes when we are working too hard, we forget to take our Sabbath altogether, and rest is eventually forced upon us, and consequently is it not as restful as it should be.

Several years ago, when we were making our move from an apartment to our first home, we were trying to achieve the benefit of a loophole in our apartment lease by moving out in two days so that another family could move in. At the same time, I was studying for finals and working at a bookstore. We both worked to our limits for those two days, barely eating and not really sleeping. When we had finally moved the last box into the house early in the morning of the day we were to be out of the apartment, I went straight to work.
Five minutes after arriving, I went into shock and collapsed on the bookstore salesfloor.
My mentor-pastor Mike Ayers, after hearing about this incident, told me that sometimes our bodies force us to Sabbath. I had worked too hard without taking an enjoyable rest, and I was forced into a rest that was neither enjoyable nor restful.

On the flip side, it’s possible to take rest we haven’t earned. I do this every time I try to create an ideal scenario of sitting out on the deck to smoke a cigar in the cool weather. The activity rarely lives up to the feeling the idea conjures up beforehand. I tried this a few times when I was in Houston. When the rain would come, and when I had available time, I would go out onto my in-laws’ covered porch with a book and a stogie. Every time I found myself impatient with how long it was taking to “finish up.” I couldn’t for some reason just sit there and enjoy the cigar and the rest it symbolizes.
Because I was on vacation. I was already resting. The added rest of the “cigar on the porch” getaway wasn’t earned. It was indulgent.

Laziness is just unearned rest.

But on the flip side of that, I have found the “cigar on the porch” getaway most enjoyable and restful after an extraordinarily long week, and especially after I have spent several hours working in the yard. After mowing, trimming, pulling weeds, watering plants, and blowing off the driveway and sidewalk, it is nice to sit back with a glass of iced tea and a nice little cigar and just look at the work I’ve finished.
That is rest I’ve earned. And that I’ve incorporated looking out on the good results of the cleaned, manicured lawn is probably the primary reason why this rest is better. Because the rest is for reflecting on the fruits of my labor and enjoying the rest that has been earned.

There is even work that goes into the rest itself!
If my deck is cluttered or dirty, finding rest there is not really possible.
And my biggest problem, cigar-wise, is keeping my humidor maintained. Proper cigar storage involves a quality humidor (preferably lined with cedar, preferably Spanish cedar) in which one must maintain the proper temperature and proper humidity.
My problem is that I sometimes let weeks go by without refilling the humidifier, so by the time I’m ready to enjoy a cigar, it’s too dry to really be worth it.

I am fortunate to have received, over the last two weeks, five cigars from a place Americans aren’t supposed to have cigars from. Nevertheless, three different parties were kind enough to bless me with these much-sought-after treasures. For years after dabbling in stogies, I wondered if a C____ cigar really was worth all the hype. (It is, by the way.) And I always assumed I’d never be able to find out. C____ cigars are for the wealthy or the privileged (or for those living overseas ;-). Now I have four resting side by side in my best humidor. (I smoked one in Houston.) I have been tempted lately to smoke them “just because.” Because smoking a C____ cigar has a certain cache all in itself.

But I haven’t earned it yet. I’m saving them for when I complete various stages in the novel. And until then, I am having to remember to keep an eye on the humidor, so that when the time comes, the enjoyment of them will be worth the wait, worth that delayed gratification.

Before Grace was up this morning, I managed to get a load of dishes in the washer, put some clothes away, take out the trash, edit a chapter in my novel, help Macy put a puzzle together, and eat breakfast.
After I’d gotten Grace out of bed, I felt like it was time to just sit in my chair for a few minutes and watch the girls play. A song came on “Sesame Street” that encouraged them to dance, and both of them responded by twirling, whirling, and shimmy-shaking around the living room. It was a glorious sight, and I was able to watch them with pride and wonder, enjoying the work that has gone into raising two beautiful, joyful children.For some reason, I don’t think I would have enjoyed that sight quite so much if I hadn’t done some of that work before Grace was up. It didn’t take me all that long to accomplish what I did this morning, but in doing it, I felt as though I earned the enjoyment of the rest that resulted.

All of the good things God has given us, whether things we consider necessary or unnecessary (e.g. children or cigars), he has given as fruits of our labor. They are blessings nonetheless and reminders that there is no fruit without that labor.
Sometimes the fruit is itself a labor (e.g.children!), but that is only because work is good and rest must be earned. The former is not a curse. And the latter is not a vice.

(And of course the end of curse and vice is the risen Christ, the firstfruit of our future resurrection and the perfect rest from our toil and His own good work.)

"Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest." -- Matthew 11:28

(The lady in the image at top is a Cuban cigar roller. She appears to be enjoying her work. ;-)


Tobacconist Theology, Part One: Ideal Conditions

"I don't care what anybody says. I know it's a matter of taste, but as far as I'm concerned, this is something that not even the Communists have been able to screw up. It's the best tobacco in the world. There's no comparison. This is not to put anybody else's down. I've looked into it. I've studied it. It's like Bordeaux grapes. You can try growing them in California, but they're not the same. They've taken Cuban seed to Jamaica and Honduras, but it just isn't the same."
-- radio pundit Rush Limbaugh on why the best tobacco comes from Cuba, in a Cigar Aficionado interview

This brings us to the conditions under which premium cigar tobacco is grown. Producing first-class cigar tobacco is an exacting process. Growing the stuff requires using the right seed and having the right weather and the right soil. And that's only the beginning. After harvest, the leaves have to be cured (dried), fermented and aged properly. The entire process can take up to two years. Tobacco grows fastest with at least 3 or 4 inches of rainfall a month during the growing season and temperatures around 80 F (27 C). However, those conditions are not conducive to optimum quality of cigar tobacco, which requires less rain and somewhat lower temperatures.

What's so special about Cuba? Tobacco is grown in many parts of the island, but the best comes from a small region called Vuelta Abajo tucked between the Sierra de los Órganos and the Golfo de Batabano in the westernmost province, Pinar del Río. This is the wettest region in Cuba, receiving about 60 to 80 inches of rainfall annually. Normally that much rain would be ruinous to tobacco crops, but in Cuba tobacco is grown during the dry season (November-April), when rainfall averages less than 2 inches a month. The unusual combination of moderately moist sandy loam soil, high relative humidity, and moderately low but dependable rainfall during the growing season, together with warm (but not excessively hot) temperatures and little wind, is what makes Vuelta Abajo special.

-- from a Straight Dope article on growing tobacco

Cuban cigars are cherished not (just) because of the "contraband coolness" factor, but because Cuba really does make the best cigars in the world. Experts and aficionados agree that there is something unique about the sun, soil, and atmosphere in Cuba -- not to mention the long history and cultural identity -- that make it the ideal place for premium tobacco.
For the appreciaters of fine cigars, it really does seem that God made Cuba especially for tobacco. If you want to plant, grow, harvest, cure, and roll the best stogie -- the ideal conditions for your task are in the land of Habana.

Ideal conditions.
God has designed us for such a place, as well. We have ideal conditions collectively, and we have ideal conditions individually.

And even apart from the general ideal conditions for individual disciples, I believe there are still more specific conditions for which God has designed each of us.
Most of us, I would guess, are living in less than ideal conditions. But God can still make it work. We can still grow.

The ideal conditions for each Christian person or family may include the right neighborhood, the right church, the right town, perhaps even the right country. Some of us are in the right places for us on all of the above. Some of us are still looking for the right place to grow. Some of us aren't growing at all (although sometimes that has nothing to do with the conditions we live in).
But for most of us, there are certain places God wants us, places God has designed for us, and us for the places.
And for all of us, there is a certain "place" God wants us to be to best grow as one of His children.

You can get really good non-Cuban cigars. Some good brands actually grow Cuban seed in the Dominican Republic or Nicauragua. And there are many cigars that have no organic connection to Cuba whatsoever. Stateside, good farmers in Connecticut, Maryland, and Tennessee grow quality tobacco.
But if you want the very best . . .

It's possible to grow in Christ in less than ideal conditions, in places we know is not the best place to be or not the place we were meant to be. And there's no need to get frantic or paranoid about it. But if we're growing in the wrong place, I suspect we'd be fairly restless or feel vaguely unfulfilled, knowing that if we want God's best . . .

The ideal place for growing in Christ has good soil, plenty of water, and lots of light.
Praise awaits you, O God, in Zion; to you our vows will be fulfilled.
O you who hear prayer, to you all men will come.
When we were overwhelmed by sins, you forgave our transgressions.
Blessed are those you choose and bring near to live in your courts!
We are filled with the good things of your house, of your holy temple.
You answer us with awesome deeds of righteousness,
O God our Savior, the hope of all the ends of the earth and of the farthest seas,
who formed the mountains by your power, having armed yourself with strength,
who stilled the roaring of the seas, the roaring of their waves, and the turmoil of the nations.

Those living far away fear your wonders; where morning dawns and evening fades you call forth songs of joy.

You care for the land and water it; you enrich it abundantly.
The streams of God are filled with water to provide the people with grain, for so you have ordained it.
You drench its furrows and level its ridges; you soften it with showers and bless its crops.
You crown the year with your bounty, and your carts overflow with abundance.
The grasslands of the desert overflow; the hills are clothed with gladness.
The meadows are covered with flocks and the valleys are mantled with grain; they shout for joy and sing.

-- Psalm 65 (NIV)

Photo at top is by Abigail Seymour.



We live in a beautiful world
Yeah we do, yeah we do . . .

-- Coldplay

I am visiting family and friends in Houston right now, a city I only lived in for about five years starting in the tenth grade but which I nonetheless consider my hometown.

Last night I had a great dinner of Tex-Mex with my mentor-pastor Mike Ayers. We talked about Jesus, which is usually what we talk about, and the subject never fails to excite us. Fresh from that passionate conversation, I drove around a bit as night began to fall on Northwest Houston. This city is not much to look at; you have to know where to go to find the natural beauty. We brought a friend for Christmas two years ago, and she was shocked to actually see trees here. Once we showed her the right places, she conceded that Houston is indeed beautiful.
But you have to know where -- and how to look.

No one in their right mind would choose to live here. People live here by necessity, and the people who live here out of compulsion (or, like me, don't live here but still feel that compulsion) want to live here because of some emotional or familial connection to the place. In my case, the connection is also ecclesiological.
But it's not much to look at. It is concrete and steel. Dense traffic. Nice new upscale stores on FM 1960 jammed butt-up against old dilapidated stores. The streets are lined with restaurants and you could eat at a different place every night of the year if you wanted to.

And the heat. My goodness, man, the heat. I laugh at people in Tennessee when they complain about the heat there.

I have been told that Houston has not had rain in over a month. So the place is sticky-wet with humidity, but the grass is browning and the trees are starving. The place needs a cool-down rain.

After I stopped off at my in-laws' home after dinner last night, I headed back out for some coffee. It started to rain. I felt privileged to be here for the rain that ended the drought.

I saw people scattering. The lady at the coffee shop drive-thru said something to me that escapes me right now, but it blessed me somehow.

You know that people are hurting, right?
People in real life.
And a blogospheric conversation was fresh on my mind last night; it was about hurt too.
So I'm driving around in "ugly" Northwest Houston, watching the lights of evening shimmer on the wet streets, thinking about everybody I know who's hurting or who has recently experienced a hurt and everyone I drive by -- in cars, on the sidewalk, in their driveways or yards as I pull back into my family's neighborhood -- I'm looking at their faces.

I'm looking at their faces and thinking about hurt and thinking about the Jesus talk I just had with my old pastor.
And Coldplay is in my CD player, and Chris Martin is singing "We live in a beautiful world, yeah we do, yeah we do."
And I almost started crying, because I believed it. In hot, humid, gross, concrete-and-steel ugly Northwest Houston I believed the world was beautiful because wherever you go there are people made in God's image and there are people Jesus died for and there are people who live lives and think thoughts completely outside my selfish life and mind.

Today I went up to the church I (sort of) grew up in. I was a teenager in the youth group there. I worked maintenance there from the time I was of employable age to the week we moved away to Tennessee. I also ministered there for a couple of years after graduation.
Some people know this but this church, which began as a place of promise and growth for me, eventually became a place I couldn't wait to escape. It became a place of incredible heartache for me, of experiences I can only describe as spiritual and emotional abuse.

I have posted recently about forgiveness. It is a troubling concept for me.
A couple of years ago one of the people at this church who was most responsible for some of the deepest hurt and disillusionment I have experienced suffered a moral fall. When I heard the news I was intrigued by the fact that I didn't feel any sense of vindication. I suppose that, without knowing it, I had grown past that. A year or so earlier, and I probably would have taken some sort of perverse pleasure in knowing that someone who caused me such pain was now "getting his." But that didn't happen. Learning the news didn't surprise me (for reasons I won't go into), but I was actually saddened by it. Whatever confirmation it provided about this man's character, it was not a pleasing confirmation.
That was an unexpected test of my conviction that I had forgiven him.

In the years since I left that church, I have always been reluctant to go back and visit. This has been hard to explain, because 1) I have so many friends and family who still go and serve there, and 2) the church has changed so much since I've been gone. It is not really the same place.

But it's the same building. (And one other staff member who was/is more difficult to forgive is still there.) The few times I've walked in to visit (I've never attended a service there since leaving) I have really been tested emotionally and spiritually. A lot of bad memories come back. I remember which hallway I was in when I wanted to throw a chair through a window because of something said to me. I remember which office I was in when someone said something really hurtful to me.
The wall color has changed. The offices have been rearranged. Heck, the whole place has grown enormously, with added wings and buildings and bubbling fountains. But the same voices are there, especially the ones that the building puts in my head.

I don't remember the last time I visited, but the minister who eventually "fell" had not fallen yet and was still there. It was just my luck that we happened to cross paths. In the span of probably a three minute conversation, in which he did nearly all of the talking, he told me about two different ministries he gives money to and managed to work in a passive-aggressive jab at the church I joined after leaving his.

Having that conversation with a man who caused me so much pain in a buidling I really didn't want to visit in the first place was enough to make me decide when I left never to set foot in there again. I mean, I knew that wasn't realistic, but if I was serious about forgiving people and getting past hurts from my past and staying away from bitterness, I figured it was in my best interest not to go back again.

Today I visited the church. Just like the time I got the news that the minister had fallen, I was intrigued by the fact that I remained calm. I didn't have to tell myself to do so; I just did.

My brother and a few of my friends are on staff there. They showed me around a bit. I had never seen the inside of the "new" sanctuary.
I let my brother and my good friend Rob show off some of the stuff they had been doing -- displays and brochures and other handiwork. I let them tell me about the lighting and the way messages are burned on CD now (not recorded on tape) and about the outdoor baptistry.

And beyond that, I let them -- I let myself -- reminisce. We stood in the front atrium, a place that was there when I was there (so much of the structure has changed since I'd been gone), and talked about old times. They led me around the building and we looked at what had changed and what hadn't.
It felt . . . okay.
I was glad to be doing it.

I saw that the stair railing I painted had not been repainted or covered. The wood I had sanded and varnished remained. Carpet I helped lay was still down in some areas.
I saw that a piece of the life I lived there remained. The good piece.

(Is this making any sense? I know I'm rambling.)

I also learned that the place has changed just enough that I like what what part of myself still lingers there and I am interested in the parts that are there that had nothing to do with me and I am unhaunted by the bad memories I had of the place.

As I left, I was saying goodbye to the receptionist who had been there since before my family even joined the church. Before my "tour," I had talked with her about old times, old bosses, old funny memories of working there together. As I was making my perfunctory goodbye pleasantries, she said somewhat abruptly, "You know my Bobbby died, didn't you?"
I did, actually. Bobby was her husband, a great big teddy bear of a man that everybody loved. I learned of his death the week it happened from my mother in law.

"Yes," I said.
"December 20," (I think) she said. "But it's still with me." (That's not exactly what she said, but she was indicating that she was still struggling with it.)
I didn't know what to say. She was looking at me, looking for a response. I don't know if she expected something special since we have a history of sorts, of if she has been doing this to everyone and was just still releasing. I felt awkward. What do you say to an older lady who's suddenly without warning reminded you her husband died and she's still dealing with the pain?

She added more detail. "He was 65."
"That's young these days," I offered. I was trying to think of something.
"I know," she said. "Just poof. He died before he hit the floor.

How do you respond to that? What could I say that wouldn't sound lame but that would still be somewhat comforting? As I'm trying to leave! Is there any graceful way to offer encouragement and comfort and then leave?
I told her that we'd be praying for her. We exchanged another awkward goodbye. I think I added a "Take care," and then I left.

People are hurting. Seriously. I've just been burdened about this so-obvious-I've-missed-it fact in the last month or so.
But Jesus still excites those who love and are trying to follow him.

It's a beautiful world where the wounded people are, in the places where wounds are made. But only if you see Jesus in those people, be Jesus to those people. And follow Jesus to those places.

Mike Ayers's "life verse" is the one in Matthew (too lazy to look it up) where Jesus sees the crowd and had compassion for them because they were all sheep without a shepherd.

If we love Jesus -- wherever we live and whatever we've been through -- we live in a beautiful world.
Yeah we do.