Friday, February 25, 2011

No Mercy

Remember “Seth”? He was one of the bullies that made life miserable for me back in middle school. He rode my bus and (thankfully) was one of the last to be picked up in the mornings and the first to be dropped off in the afternoons. I appreciated having as little exposure to him as possible.

Well, I survived three years of middle school (7th-9th grades) and was rewarded by going to high school as a sophomore (no freshman hazing for me!). As the years passed by, my memories of middle school bullying began to dim and fade into a dusty chapter named “ancient history”.

Or so I thought.

I was taking an economics class at college several years later when HE walked in and took a seat.

It was Seth, and he was even bigger than before.

Just my luck, in a city of millions, in a school made up of tens of thousands of students, Seth would just happen to walk through those doors.

I stayed still, avoiding drawing any attention to myself (hey, it was a reflex ok?), but was soon spotted anyways. His face burst into a big grin and … he moved over to fill the vacant seat next to mine.

“Hey! How are you doing?!” He stuck out a meaty hand. I took it and gave a firm shake.

“We went to South Miami Middle School together right?” he asked.

I nodded dumbly in reply, “Yeah.”

“Great! It’s nice seeing a familiar face.”

So we sat together in class the rest of the semester. One day as he was giving me a lift from my dorm to the class (which was at the far side of campus), I finally asked why he was so nice now after what he put me through in middle school.

He was taken aback. “Really? I did that to you? Man, I’m so sorry.”

I could tell he was sincere, and it was my turn to be shocked. For most of my young life, I had put people into specific boxes. Boxes of my own design. I categorized people and stuck these labels on them with super-glue.

Trouble was, I didn’t realize how much people could change.

God used Seth to show me that He can indeed change people (even me).

And I am grateful that God hasn’t finished with me yet. I am grateful that He is merciful over my “enemies” as He is merciful over me.

Let us remember to pray for others so that God may change our hearts towards them.


Matthew 5:43-48
“You have heard the law that says, ‘Love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy. But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike. If you love only those who love you, what reward is there for that? Even corrupt tax collectors do that much. If you are kind only to your friends, how are you different from anyone else? Even pagans do that. But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.

Jonah 4
This change of plans greatly upset Jonah, and he became very angry. So he complained to the LORD about it: “Didn’t I say before I left home that you would do this, LORD? That is why I ran away to Tarshish! I knew that you are a merciful and compassionate God, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love. You are eager to turn back from destroying people. Just kill me now, LORD! I’d rather be dead than alive if what I predicted will not happen.”

The LORD replied, “Is it right for you to be angry about this?”

Then Jonah went out to the east side of the city and made a shelter to sit under as he waited to see what would happen to the city. And the LORD God arranged for a leafy plant to grow there, and soon it spread its broad leaves over Jonah’s head, shading him from the sun. This eased his discomfort, and Jonah was very grateful for the plant.

But God also arranged for a worm! The next morning at dawn the worm ate through the stem of the plant so that it withered away. And as the sun grew hot, God arranged for a scorching east wind to blow on Jonah. The sun beat down on his head until he grew faint and wished to die. “Death is certainly better than living like this!” he exclaimed.

Then God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry because the plant died?”

“Yes,” Jonah retorted, “even angry enough to die!”

Then the LORD said, “You feel sorry about the plant, though you did nothing to put it there. It came quickly and died quickly. But Nineveh has more than 120,000 people living in spiritual darkness, not to mention all the animals. Shouldn’t I feel sorry for such a great city?”


Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Exit Ramp

Don’t ask me for directions; I get turned around even when using a GPS.

I actually take a sort of bizarre pride in how easily I get lost. I am not exaggerating when I say that on at least TWO occasions (both during youth trips) I have gone into the wrong STATE. When you’re in Pennsylvania heading to another part of Pennsylvania, you need not take a detour through NEW JERSEY.

And the closest distance between two points in Maryland typically do not involve PENNYSLVANIA.

What I just can’t understand is that growing up, I fancied myself a GREAT navigator. On all our trips from Miami to New York City, I loved to hold the maps and try to compute mileage and our estimated time to arrival. I never got us lost (then again, most of the trip is just I-95 North).

Dad (not I) was driving, which also helped keep us heading in the right direction.

Nowadays, I consider myself blessed if I can just get to work without missing a turn.

There have been MANY u-turns in my life. You see, I have found the exit ramp to be my friend. Nothing’s worse than realizing you’ve goofed and then pulling up to a “NO U-TURN” sign. Then, furtively looking around to make sure the coast is clear you (A) compound your problems by making an illegal u-turn, or (B) sigh and turn into the street where you can turn around legally (I plead the Fifth Amendment).

Aren’t you glad that God does allow u-turns?

My earliest formal exposure to the meaning of repentance came with my first confession at St. Timothy’s Catholic Church.

I really had no conception about what sin was; just that it was bad. Sin was the bad things we did, and we needed to feel sorry for doing them and promise not to do them anymore. The feeling sorry part was the prelude to the confessing part.

I remember the first time I went to sit in the confession room. It wasn’t anything like the movies I had seen. The actor would enter a side door and behold an intricately carved wood panel with a tightly woven lattice. This was the confessional, which preserved his anonymity and allowed him to feel free to confess to God through the priest. At this point, he’d say, “Bless me father, for I have sinned,” and then shared his darkest thoughts and deeds. When finished with his list, the priest would dispense a number of prayers for him to recite to demonstrate his remorse. He’d go back to the chapel, prayed and felt better.


This is how I thought it would go.

But no.

I walked in and came face to face with a priest with a placid expression, who was sitting down in plain view. There was a screen, but it was tiny, and didn’t seem to be of much use now that the father had seen me.

I felt naked. How could I confess all the things that I had done wrong to someone who knew who I was?

Even worse … I had come in completely unprepared. You see, I didn’t have a list of my sins. Now, I hadn’t killed anybody or anything like that. I just thought sin was about big stuff, stuff that got you in trouble with God. I couldn’t imagine ANYTHING I’d done to do that.

The father gently motioned for me to sit down in the chair in front of him (I really would have preferred to sit behind the screen).

My mind was racing. Surely it was a sin to not be able to think of a sin you had committed!

So instead of confessing my ignorance, I opened my mouth and began to spout off lies.

Yes, I lied to the priest as I began to tell a series of sins I supposedly had perpetuated.

Each lie had something to do with putting a lizard in one of my sister’s hair (I had four sisters; do the math). Now, I don’t recall at any point the priest trying to cut me off, or looking at me as if I was crazy. After I had finished the fourth (and final) iteration, he nodded and told me not to do it again.

I contritely agreed, and can honestly say that I have kept that vow to this day.

Repentance is like a u-turn. We realize something we did (or are doing) is not correct, and we do our best to make things right.

U-turns are permitted on the road of life. As a matter of fact, they are ESSENTIAL. We have all gone off the right path, but the truly amazing thing is that no matter how far away we think we may have left God behind, He is waiting right alongside the next exit ramp.


Ezekiel 33:10-12
“Son of man, give the people of Israel this message: You are saying, ‘Our sins are heavy upon us; we are wasting away! How can we survive?’ As surely as I live, says the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of wicked people. I only want them to turn from their wicked ways so they can live. Turn! Turn from your wickedness, O people of Israel! Why should you die?

“Son of man, give your people this message: The righteous behavior of righteous people will not save them if they turn to sin, nor will the wicked behavior of wicked people destroy them if they repent and turn from their sins.

Luke 11:29-32
As the crowd pressed in on Jesus, he said, “This evil generation keeps asking me to show them a miraculous sign. But the only sign I will give them is the sign of Jonah. What happened to him was a sign to the people of Nineveh that God had sent him. What happens to the Son of Man will be a sign to these people that he was sent by God.

“The queen of Sheba will stand up against this generation on judgment day and condemn it, for she came from a distant land to hear the wisdom of Solomon. Now someone greater than Solomon is here—but you refuse to listen. The people of Nineveh will also stand up against this generation on judgment day and condemn it, for they repented of their sins at the preaching of Jonah. Now someone greater than Jonah is here—but you refuse to repent.

Jonah Chapter 3
Then the LORD spoke to Jonah a second time: “Get up and go to the great city of Nineveh, and deliver the message I have given you.”

This time Jonah obeyed the LORD’s command and went to Nineveh, a city so large that it took three days to see it all. On the day Jonah entered the city, he shouted to the crowds: “Forty days from now Nineveh will be destroyed!” The people of Nineveh believed God’s message, and from the greatest to the least, they declared a fast and put on burlap to show their sorrow.

When the king of Nineveh heard what Jonah was saying, he stepped down from his throne and took off his royal robes. He dressed himself in burlap and sat on a heap of ashes. Then the king and his nobles sent this decree throughout the city:

“No one, not even the animals from your herds and flocks, may eat or drink anything at all. People and animals alike must wear garments of mourning, and everyone must pray earnestly to God. They must turn from their evil ways and stop all their violence. Who can tell? Perhaps even yet God will change his mind and hold back his fierce anger from destroying us.”

When God saw what they had done and how they had put a stop to their evil ways, he changed his mind and did not carry out the destruction he had threatened.


Thursday, February 10, 2011

Prayers near Death’s Door

When was the last time your life flashed before your eyes? When you were certain you were about to see what’s on the other side of the silver door?

The most vivid memory for me was a few years back in South Florida. I was driving with a friend down I-95 on our way to a Panther’s game. We were driving through pouring rain; it felt like buckets of water were coming down (which forced us to slow down to roughly 80mph).

Let me pause for a moment to describe my friend’s automobile. It was a late model sports car which he occasionally used to burn rubber. This was our way to impress the ladies. Let’s just say that he needed new rear tires.

I don’t remember where we were when his car began hydroplaning. It started to SLOWLY rotate around as we continued racing down the interstate. There were cars all around us.

I knew we were dead.

As we sat looking out of our little carousel ride, eyes wide-open in terror as we saw the road, the cars, the guardrail, and more cars, our resulting conversation went something along these lines;

“Joe we’re hit! We’re hit! We’re hit! We’re hit!”
“No we’re not. No we’re not. No we’re not. No we’re not.”

The car continued to slowly pirouette until we had gone a full 360 degrees. The tires found their footing once again, and we were once again safely heading in the right direction (only going about 30mph slower).

As the cold grip of fear left us, we began to laugh hysterically. We were acutely aware of how surreal it all was. We had been going so fast that we essentially floated on top of the road as if it had been coated in bacon fat. Mercifully, we never veered out of our lane because of the Hand of God and the first law of physics (an object in motion will continue in that motion until another force acts upon it). Had our tires began to grip the road at any time around that spin, we would have wrecked.

As it was, we escaped without a scratch.

When we feel like we are about to die (time permitting), sometimes we try to prepare ourselves. We try to get our ducks all in a row.

I also remember the time in college when I was chased for over a block by a very mad pit-bull. I recited the Lord’s Prayer about twenty-seven times during that sprint. I was so scared that all I could do was run and pray.

Why is that? Why does it sometimes take a near-death experience to make us think about God?

Jonah was a prophet sent by God with a message of impending doom for Nineveh, the capital of Assyria (a ruthless empire). Knowing God’s character (His mercy and love), Jonah suspected that the Ninevites might change their ways and that God would forgive them. Jonah did not want that to happen.

So he tried to run away from God.

The first chapter ends with Jonah being swallowed up by a great fish.

Jonah had some time to reflect on his life and his calling. The result was that he decided a life spent with God was better than a life running away from Him.

When are times that we have hit rock bottom in our lives and could only look up?


Jonah Chapter 2
Then Jonah prayed to the LORD his God from inside the fish. He said, “I cried out to the LORD in my great trouble, and he answered me. I called to you from the land of the dead, and LORD, you heard me! You threw me into the ocean depths, and I sank down to the heart of the sea. The mighty waters engulfed me; I was buried beneath your wild and stormy waves. Then I said, ‘O LORD, you have driven me from your presence. Yet I will look once more toward your holy Temple.’

“I sank beneath the waves, and the waters closed over me. Seaweed wrapped itself around my head. I sank down to the very roots of the mountains. I was imprisoned in the earth, whose gates lock shut forever. But you, O LORD my God, snatched me from the jaws of death! As my life was slipping away, I remembered the LORD. And my earnest prayer went out to you in your holy Temple.

Those who worship false gods turn their backs on all God’s mercies. But I will offer sacrifices to you with songs of praise, and I will fulfill all my vows. For my salvation comes from the LORD alone.” Then the LORD ordered the fish to spit Jonah out onto the beach.


Friday, February 4, 2011

A Reluctant Messenger

Hate is such a strong word. Let’s just say that there were some people that I “strongly disliked” during my elementary and junior high years. “Seth” was an older bully who rode my bus and occasionally pushed me aside in the pulsating hallways of South Miami Middle School. I learned to keep a sharp eye out for him (among others) and tried to be proactive in staying out of arms reach. He was pretty big (even by middle school bully standards) so he was easy to spot from a distance.

In a previous blog, I wrote about “Antonio” and my anger which one day melted into pity.

There was one kid in elementary “Michael” (who looked a lot like David Hasselhoff) who would try to make my life miserable as well. Years later, I was shocked to see him at my church. I gave him the finger behind his back in the lobby of Saint Timothy’s Catholic Church, an action that resulted in a stern lecture from my brother about propriety in church.

“Ralph” was by far the worst. He was a seventh grader who had developed about two years ahead of the rest of us. He had light blue eyes, spiked hair and a mullet. He was a royal jerk. He never physically beat me up, but he never lost an opportunity to ridicule or put me down.

I hated him.

I still have my middle school yearbook with his picture crossed out. I dreamed of ways that I could get back at him and even the score.

I never had the opportunity (thank goodness) to carry any of these plans out, because after middle school I never laid eyes on him again.

But what if I did?

I think I know what Jonah might have felt like.

Jonah is widely known as a prophet who was swallowed whole by a large fish. But the reason he was in the fish to begin with is a tale that is not often told.

God told him to go to Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, to foretell their destruction. You see, the Assyrians were barbaric (even by those days’ standards) and had caused great misery to the people of Israel. Jonah hated these people so much that he refused to share the message for fear that they might change their ways and be spared.

He WANTED to see them get punished, but God had other plans.

What people in your life have caused you so much pain that even the thought of forgiving them makes you sick? Does this anger that you hold onto hurt them or you more?


Matthew 5:43-48
“You have heard the law that says, ‘Love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy. But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. For he gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike. If you love only those who love you, what reward is there for that? Even corrupt tax collectors do that much. If you are kind only to your friends, how are you different from anyone else? Even pagans do that. But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.

Jonah Chapter 1
The LORD gave this message to Jonah son of Amittai: “Get up and go to the great city of Nineveh. Announce my judgment against it because I have seen how wicked its people are.” But Jonah got up and went in the opposite direction to get away from the LORD. He went down to the port of Joppa, where he found a ship leaving for Tarshish. He bought a ticket and went on board, hoping to escape from the LORD by sailing to Tarshish.

But the LORD hurled a powerful wind over the sea, causing a violent storm that threatened to break the ship apart. Fearing for their lives, the desperate sailors shouted to their gods for help and threw the cargo overboard to lighten the ship. But all this time Jonah was sound asleep down in the hold. So the captain went down after him. “How can you sleep at a time like this?” he shouted. “Get up and pray to your god! Maybe he will pay attention to us and spare our lives.”

Then the crew cast lots to see which of them had offended the gods and caused the terrible storm. When they did this, the lots identified Jonah as the culprit. “Why has this awful storm come down on us?” they demanded. “Who are you? What is your line of work? What country are you from? What is your nationality?” Jonah answered, “I am a Hebrew, and I worship the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the land.”

The sailors were terrified when they heard this, for he had already told them he was running away from the LORD. “Oh, why did you do it?” they groaned. And since the storm was getting worse all the time, they asked him, “What should we do to you to stop this storm?” “Throw me into the sea,” Jonah said, “and it will become calm again. I know that this terrible storm is all my fault.”

Instead, the sailors rowed even harder to get the ship to the land. But the stormy sea was too violent for them, and they couldn’t make it. Then they cried out to the LORD, Jonah’s God. “O LORD,” they pleaded, “don’t make us die for this man’s sin. And don’t hold us responsible for his death. O LORD, you have sent this storm upon him for your own good reasons.”

Then the sailors picked Jonah up and threw him into the raging sea, and the storm stopped at once! The sailors were awestruck by the LORD’s great power, and they offered him a sacrifice and vowed to serve him. Now the LORD had arranged for a great fish to swallow Jonah. And Jonah was inside the fish for three days and three nights.