“God is a two-faced, back on his word, Indian-giver,” the man sputtered with a forcefulness that caught me off guard. He stood there fuming, halfway in and halfway out of my office doorway, straddling a threshold much greater than he understood.

The man was an office ‘walk-in’ off the street. This happens a lot in our small town, and in my office in particular, which sits in the middle of the historical district like Main Street’s fishbowl, large glass windows inviting the scrutiny of the curious. The man had been curious. Stepping inside, he’d introduced himself with the question- “What does this place do?”

When he realized that “this place” was a church office, the man immediately began hinting at his displeasure with God, all the while prefacing these hints with assurances that he had great reverence for ‘The Man Upstairs.’ “I was raised catholic,” he said reasonably, “so I respect God.” I wondered what ‘respect’ meant to such a man. Little did I realize how soon he would spell this out for me— it became all too clear that for the man in my doorway, respect had more to do with resentful fear than submissive trust.

It was near the end of a predictably typical ramble about religious abuses in the world that the lit match finally reached the powder keg that apparently lurked just beneath the surface of his measured facade. In this case, I unfortunately served as the match. “God is in the business of redemption,” I had said meaningfully, intending to exude a ‘mercy triumphs over judgment’ sort of attitude. That’s when he turned on me. Snapped. Face flushed red, eyes widened, pupils dilated, voice, trembling. “God is a two-faced, back on his word, Indian-giver.” He spat it out. Wow. I stood there like a deer in the headlights of his blinding anger and thought— ‘Was it something I said?’ It was. It was the idea of mercy. Of Grace. Like a balloon on a blade of grass, it rubbed him the wrong way. The mere idea of mercy, that God could set aside punishment and grant second chances had triggered instant rage.

“Do you know the story of the Prodigal Son?” he demanded, hands opening and closing erratically at his sides.
“I do,” I acknowledged.
“The Father in that story is supposed to represent God, right?”
“So He splits up His livelihood between His two sons, one responsible and the other not. But when the irresponsible son returns, the Dad throws a party for the irresponsible son—it’s like He rewards him for his bad behavior!”
I admitted it certainly could feel that way. He brushed off my comment with a dismissive wave of his hand—“That’s exactly what he does—rewards bad behavior and ignores responsible behavior.” By 'responsible behavior' I could see he meant the older brother. And, I could see, he meant himself.

It eventually came out that the man in my doorway was indeed an older brother, a responsible brother, the brother who had always followed the rules and resented the second chances afforded his younger sibling who was now “born again.” He said those two words like a four-year-old says ‘spinach.’ It was as if he saw it as some sort of spiritual redundancy, an “again” he had never needed. I realized then that this man saw the mercy of God as leniency. I tried to explain the difference between leniency and grace--that one is a blatant abuse of justice, because no one pays for the crime (leniency), while the other is only possible because justice is first satisfied by another. God can only be merciful towards us because His own Son was already punished in our place--! But this key to grace was lost on him. All he could see in his tunneled-vision fury was the other son.

For most of us, we frame the story in much the same way this man saw it— it’s the story of the other son, “The Prodigal Son.” Singular. But I think that’s a title that misses the full scope of what’s going on in Jesus’ lesson. Most people understand that this tale comes as the third in a trilogy of parables, all about the recovery of lost things, with this final story as the anchor. There’s the parable of the lost sheep, the parable of the lost coin, and then we go and lose the ‘lostness’ in the name of the third story—by calling it “The Prodigal Son.” One commentary said that in these three parables, “more fuss is made over the recovery of something that was lost than over the safe-keeping of what has been there all the time.” I would agree; the emphasis on God recovering, or ‘receiving back’ what was lost is the big idea of all three parables—but I think we miss a key point if we think only the first son was lost, while the second son was in the category of “safe keeping;” I think in a sense, he was lost too.

I recently found a Bible with a heading for this story that I like much better—“The Two Lost Sons,” it’s called. The Lost Sheep, The Lost Coin, The Two lost sons. “Two?” you might be thinking—“Only one of them lived out his sin fantasies.” Perhaps. But if “found” in this story means living again like part of the family, both of them were lost, because neither of the boys were living like sons. One was a son, living like a self-made orphan. He had a family, but he'd emancipated himself from it. He’s the one we call ‘prodigal.’ He’s the show-stealer who disowns his father and family to go it alone. And it's really easy to look at the speck in his eye and distance our own lives from the bulls-eye of Jesus' target audience-- but there’s another character in this story. One was a son, living like an orphan. The other was a son, living like a servant. If ‘prodigal’ means “extravagantly wasteful,” both sons have wasted their Father’s inheritance because both sons prove they believe the benefits of sonship must be worked for. It must be earned. The younger son proves this by thinking he has to work off his debt in order to be received back as part of the family. The older son proves this mindset by acting like it’s been his faithful labor, his spotless track record all along that has earned him, at the very least, the right to share a goat from the family flock with his friends. We do this with God all the time-- it's a "Life for God" mentality. The Father sets the record straight— And he said to him, 'Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours” (Luke 15:31). What did that mean? It meant the older son could have enjoyed his Father and the privileges of being part of the family (including the use of the family wealth to throw a party for his friends) any time he wanted to. This is a "Life with God" mentality. Enjoy, live off the wealth of the Father with Him! That he hadn’t, to date, was his own choice. You can’t enjoy the gifts you're too busy trying to earn as paychecks. 

The man in my office left, unwilling to accept that God’s receiving of him didn’t depend on his own faithfulness, on his own responsibility. He left the office determined to hold God in contempt of justice, so focused on the unfair mercy shown his own brother that he refused to see the equally extravagant gift of grace being held out to him. Like the older brother in the Biblical story, he didn't see that neither he nor his brother could ever 'deserve' or 'earn' sonship-- it was a free gift! And yet... he was determined to continue comparing who had worked harder for it.

Do you see yourself as God’s servant, or His son? Do you run through mental checklists of things you have to “do” to make God happy with you, to keep Him loving you, to assure that He approves of you and lets good things happen to you? If so, you’re living like a servant.  A servant has to work for food, for shelter, for protection. His work must be worthy for him to receive such benefits. But a son “does” nothing to earn being a son or to experience the benefits of sonship. Being a son is not something you “do”—it’s something you are received into on the day of your birth. It’s something you are, by virtue of having a Father who claims you as His own. Why was the party thrown for the younger son? Because he allowed himself to be received as a son—he accepted the love of his father in full knowledge that he hadn't done anything to earn it or deserve it. He humbly accepted the receiving-back love of his father in full knowledge of his own unworthiness and lack of merit
Will you allow God to receive you? He longs to embrace you like the Father in the story ran to embrace the younger son, lifting him off the ground in such a fierce bear-hug that the boy no longer stood on his own two feet, until the only thing supporting the young man became the strength of his Father's arms. Do you know, He tried to embrace the older son too--? Because God's in the business of redemption. Because God wants all His children to live like a sons.

"So the sinner is received- not because of the service he is going to render, not because of the love he is going to show, not because of the value he is going to prove, but absolutely and wholly through the divine mercy, and for the sake of the atoning sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ, our perfect Ransom and our only plea."          -A.B. Simpson on the Prodigal Son


Due to rumblings of a boycott, followed by threats of fearsome rioting in the streets, I felt it prudent to announce the impending arrival of another blog post. COMING SOON: "Living like a servant."

GOD STORIES #2 ~ 9/10/10

Bob and his small family were not well-off. To be honest, they were struggling significantly with their finances. That’s why, when someone gave Bob a $100 bill one windy afternoon to buy his daughter a much-needed pair of shoes and some school supplies, he gave thanks to God. That night, as the family sat around a sparse table, Bob relayed the happy news to his wife and daughter. He knew he’d never forget the look of excitement on his daughter’s face when she heard. 

Bob was doing the dishes the next day when he got a call from his girl. She'd just gotten out of school and was calling to double-check that her memories of the previous night were not a dream. She was calling to make sure they were still really going to the store to buy her those supplies, to buy her those shoes. Bob laughed with the joy of a father able to do something special for his only child and assured her he was looking at the $100 bill as he spoke. He told her he’d be right there to pick her up. Again he thanked God as he hung up the phone, gazing at the money where it sat, folded carefully on the kitchen window sill.

Just then, the phone rang a second time. Thinking once more to hear the voice of his impatient daughter, Bob answered with another laugh and a joke. His face fell quickly as the bank employee on the other end of the line relayed a cold message: there had been an overdraw in the family’s account, and it would be closed immediately unless Bob came down and paid a minimum $100 towards the deficit. Crestfallen, Bob looked at the $100 in the window and thought of his daughter. She would be crushed. But if their bank account closed, it would mean even bigger financial troubles down the line. With great sadness, Bob walked to the bank and handed over his $100 bill. Then he went to break the news to his daughter.

As he walked to meet her at the store, Bob became angry with God. He felt tricked into joy, jerked around by providence, fooled into making himself look like a fool in front of his daughter, resentful for the pain of what felt like a broken promise of provision to him and his family. Then, suddenly, he felt ashamed. Had God not given him a family? Had God not given him a home? As sparsely set as their table was, was it not set?

Bob stopped then, mid-step and mid-complaint, quietly thanking God once more for His goodness, for His faithfulness, for His provision and gracious care. “Thank you God,” he said. “I don’t know why you have given and then taken away, but thank you, and blessed be your name.” The sense of entitlement that had been building to a deafening crescendo suddenly quieted, replaced by a deep and strangish peace. He laughed again for the first time since that second phone call and took a step, thinking to pick up the pace on his way to meet his daughter.
Hearing the noise from under his foot, Bob stopped and lifted his shoe with curiosity. There, lying flattened on the sidewalk, was a crisp, brand new $100 bill.

God may not always return what He allows to be taken away from us. But this, I see in the Bible, is true: God is pleased by faith— by a heart that trusts in the faithfulness of His character, irregardless of the circumstances. To Him, it is a sparkling diamond in an ocean of garbage, the greatest beauty in the eye of the greatest Beholder. God may not always return what He allows to be taken away from us, but the deeper fellowship with Him, opened to us through the pain, is a priceless return for even the smallest investment of trust, displayed by a thankful heart.

Surrounded By Grace,

Y'ALL COME BACK NOW... ~ 9/6/10

While perusing some local websites in search of interesting and unique things to do as a family, my wife stumbled onto this 'top 10' list of submitted reasons for visiting Trinity County. We both feel confident we've 1) moved to the right place and 2) won't be getting many visitors any time soon. Welcome to Trinity County.

Webmaster's TOP TEN REASONS to Visit Trinity County

  • 1- Get lost in the woods and meet our world-class Search and Rescue Group
  • 2- Have your picture taken with defrosted trout from a local supermarket
  • 3- Find Bigfoot or Intergalactic Travelers in the Forest.
  • 4- Forget to lock your car and find it where you left it, with camera still on seat!.
  • 5- Have that elective surgery in our excellent Trinity Hospital
  • 6- Wear a dress away from home, the other guys at the office will never know.
  • 7- Watch the Bears try and find the new Solid Waste Disposal Site
  • 8- Buy a lottery ticket in Trinity it is about time someone won here!
  • 9- Swap lies at a 100 year old bar, and look for bullet richochets from the 1850s
  • 10- Drive around all day and not see a traffic light...


On the road to Weaverville there stands a bright yellow sign, and on it, one simple warning: “DO NOT PICK UP HITCH-HIKERS.” It might as well read: “JUST SAY ‘NO’ TO ADVENTURE.”

When I first saw Marlo and his dog, it was dusk on a Wednesday and I was falling asleep at the wheel. Pinching myself was getting me painfully nowhere, slapping myself was beginning to attract unwanted attention from the drivers behind me and I was long out of ice cubes to suck on or drop down my shirt. So, as any law-abiding pastor would do, I picked up a hitch-hiker. And his name was Marlo. And his dog’s name was Blue. I pulled over to the side of the road and listened to my Ford’s abnormally high idle while the two of them jogged up to where I sat in the truck, waiting.

I immediately liked Marlo because his dog wore a backpack. Look, any guy can carry a back-pack and there are plenty of hitch-hikers with dogs. But I instantly liked Marlo because he was clever enough to train Blue to think dogs wearing backpacks was just the way of the world, and anything less was just plain lazy. I watched Blue jump onto the tailgate and decided he looked exactly like “BOLT,” the animated canine hero from a recent Disney movie.
“He killed a deer for me last week” came Marlo’s first words to me as he gestured proudly in Blue’s direction. “Took it down right in the middle of a creek.”
I nodded and flashed an ‘of course he did’ smile, re-evaluating Blue while deciding he was bigger and a little less cuddly looking than BOLT. He laid down calmly on the rubber bed-liner and grinned, sticking his tongue out at me.

That first encounter with Marlo and Blue was a short one. Ten minutes later I was exchanging the customary fare of ‘goodbyes’ and ‘God bless yous’ that come with the hitch-hiking experience. It was a short encounter, but in those brief minutes I learned three important things about Marlo that prepared me immeasurably for the exchanges we would have in the weeks and months to follow: 1) Marlo knew his way around the woods. 2) Marlo helped out on a pot grow and 3) It took a lot to get Marlo excited. Thus began my adventures with Marlo and Blue.

“What’s going on?” I asked Marlo several months later as he opened the door to my office and sat down, telepathically ordering Blue, ‘the deer slayer’ to take a seat on my floor. I’d been hanging out with him off and on as he wandered in and out of my life, working on knives with him, talking survival tools, religion and trapping, sampling his homemade smoked venison (thanks Blue), and even taking good-natured flak from him as I hung a ‘chandledeer’ over my office pool table. “A little to the left” he’d said with his arms crossed, seconds after I’d finished drilling the hole, securing the hook and hanging the central light fixture for the room, all while dangling precariously over open space from a 10-ft. ladder. We’d all had a good laugh about that one. But Marlo wasn’t laughing now.
“It’s funny you should ask,” he said matter-of-factly as he tossed a bag full of sharp and survival behind a cushioned chair— “I’m on my way to the courthouse.”

The story that enfolded went something like this, and nothing like I’d have expected.
While working with his ill-tempered partner on their legal pot grow, a neighbor from ‘down the hill’ had wandered up drunk, onto the property, spoiling for a fight. A fight is exactly what he got.
“First,” said Marlo, “he started tossing dirt clods at my buddy. Then he began throwing rocks.”
“Uh-huh,” I answered on auto-pilot, checking my email quickly while he talked. Tossed dirt clods did not qualify as spectacularly interesting at the moment and, keep in mind, it took a lot to get Marlo excited, so the tone of his voice did little betray the actual epic…ness… of his story.
“The thing is,” Marlo continued casually from the chair behind me, “my buddy was holding a chainsaw when this guy started throwing stuff.”
Something about the word ‘chainsaw’ gummed up the gears in my head long enough to glitch my internet surfing mode, like some insidious verbal virus. I paused, considering the word in my head like a ten-year old with a magnifying glass considers an anthill. “A chainsaw?” I repeated finally, my ancient desk chair creaking like a prodded beetle as I turned around, the bait too irresistible to ignore—“Your buddy was provoked with thrown rocks while holding… a chainsaw?” 

Marlo shifted his weight with a slight grimace before going on. He has periodic problems with his knees and back after years of living on the move and out of a heavy frame pack. We have an interesting relationship, he and I, especially since we’re just about the same age. I think we both see in each other a glimpse of ‘what might have been.’
“Yup,” he confirmed after stretching—“a chainsaw.”
“So then what happened?” I was hungry for more now, vaguely remembering something about Marlo being on the way to the courthouse. There was something connecting the dots here, and I wanted details about whatever that ‘something’ was.

“My buddy started using his chainsaw like a bat,” Marlow continued, “knocking the dirt and rocks to each side as they came.” Then, apparently, the antagonist moved in closer.
“I suppose my friend could have put the chainsaw down at that point,” Marlo said thoughtfully, “or maybe turned it off.” This was just now occurring to him. “But that’s not what happened,” he finished helpfully.
What happened was that a running chainsaw was then purposely lowered onto the neighbors back, apparently while the neighbor was trying to tackle Marlo’s friend.
“Was the guy okay?” This was just too crazy.
“He was until he took a step back and didn’t run,” replied Marlo with a puzzled look. That’s when the chainsaw party really got interesting. At that point, Marlo’s partner decided to play for keeps, and swung the chainsaw down a second time, aiming for the man’s face. The neighbor lurched backwards with a shriek, revealing a clean slice through the bill of a baseball cap that basically saved his life, but not his good looks. A deep, oozing groove appeared from his eyebrow to the corner of his mouth, and he had stumbled off, hand pressed to his cheek. Within minutes the grow was a swarm of uniforms, guns and flashing lights. Marlo’s partner was headed to jail.

About two weeks later my wife and I had a visit from my sister who, at the time, lived an hour away in Redding. Showing her around Weaverville, I remembered something I’d left at the office and made a quick stop to retrieve it while she waited in the car. After grabbing what I needed and locking the office door, I looked up to see Marlo walking by on the sidewalk. He stopped and we talked, laughed and caught up with each other’s news for a few short minutes before I excused myself to get back to my sister.  When I climbed back into the truck, she looked at me and then turned quizzically to follow my dreadlocked woodsman friend as he passed by flashing the ‘peace’ sign on his way to who knows where. Then she looked back at me.
“Who’s he?” she asked. The truck rumbled to life.
“Oh, that’s my chainsaw friend,” I answered absent-mindedly as I hit the left-turn blinker and pulled out into traffic. My sister never said a word.
*Grace induces faith & Grace is obligated to faith ~