No safer place

I was going through some old emails and found this letter that I sent to my family and friends while I was in Afghanistan. I’ve never had any real ‘near death’ experiences in my life that I can recall, but this was one of those ‘close calls’ that gave me a chance to really consider what it was that I believed. Looking back, I see this season of my life as an opportunity to grow in my faith and deepen my dependency on Christ to provide for my needs. He is my strength and shield.


May, 2011

Hello friends and family,

This update has been a work in progress. I started jotting things down on paper and on my laptop as they came to me and slowly I’ve been piecing them together into this update. I’ll try to be as detailed yet as brief as possible (for me).

Life here is, well, difficult but I’m starting to have a better attitude about it all. While the thought “what am I doing here?” was a frequent one my first several weeks here, the question has all but gone from my thoughts. Not to say that I have found some “purpose” for being here that is of any significance, I just have more of an assurance that God has not let me wander into anything He hasn’t already prepared for me; that I am here intentionally, for whatever reason that may be. Maybe simply to endure a little hardship. Regardless, I’m not leaving any time soon.

We had two close (close is a relative term; to some people on base it was more than just ‘close’) rocket attacks last week; my first experience. I tried to recall what was going on and what was going through my head as best I could.

Tuesday, May 3, around 8:30pm

As I’m leaving the testing center and heading to the main education center office (just a few feet away) we hear (and feel) a very loud BOOM! Now there are a lot of loud noises around here that we don’t even flinch at any more, unless they are accompanied by the percussive “thud” that you feel in your chest. At first I thought that they had set off another controlled explosion and forgot to give us the warning (or I had missed it). Then I heard a second one, followed by the air raid siren and “Incoming!, Incoming!, Incoming!” As I rushed out the Ed Center, more explosions and I saw a stream of soldiers and airmen running for the bunker. More like sprinting. Then we wait. 30 minutes before we get the “All Clear”.

Friday, May 6, around 8:30pm (again)

Since the last rocket attack I’ve been a bit more jumpy. On Wednesday or Thursday there were a few ground attacks during the day; these I don’t worry to much about because we’re not close to any of the gates or the fence. As I was getting ready to head over to the Ed Center (maybe there’s a pattern here?), I hear the air raid siren go off. I pause, waiting for the instructions that always follow. “Shelter in place” is what I’m expecting to hear, since I hadn’t heard any explosions. “Incoming! Incoming! Incoming!” My heart begins to race as I pick up my body armor, putting it on and locking up the office on my way out the door. The bunker scene is a bit more relaxed, probably because this one wasn’t as close (I didn’t even hear it). We can hear helicopters taking off as we wait. Then planes. Ground attack siren goes off. I still don’t have a clue what was going on, but after about 10 minutes at the bunker they gave the “Shelter in place”, meaning less of an immediate threat. Since we weren’t even IN the bunker (it was full) anyway, we decide to wait it out in the Ed Center (still wearing IBA). Over the next 20 minutes we heard 3 ambulances rush by. More planes. Heavy vehicles. Then, eventually, “All Clear”. We found out later that two people were injured in that attack, just “up the road” from the Education Center.

I’m still trying to process all of that. It’s all certainly put me a bit more on edge, and I sleep with my IBA next to my cot. All in all, I still feel safe here. It’s a big space, and while they have to land somewhere, it’s probably not going to be where I’m at.

“Though Satan should buffet*, though trials should come,
let this blest assurance control;
That Christ has regarded my helpless estate
and hath shed His own blood for my soul.”

*buffet is a military term meaning ‘to strike repeatedly and violently’.

Life isn’t just a random game of chance. God hasn’t just left us to fend for ourselves as if to say “See you on the other side. Good luck.” As Horatio Spafford wrote in the hymn above, Christ knows and has considered, the helpless state we’re in; His blood wasn’t spilled in vain, nor was it done in a way that was out of His control (as if to say it was the consequence of man’s actions); it was done deliberately, and specifically to save (let every believer say with me) MY soul. If my life was bought with such a high price, I can say with confidence that I won’t be an unexpected visitor when I finally reach Home. That doesn’t mean I’m guaranteed tomorrow, but it does mean I’m guaranteed every day God has set before me, however many that may be.

“My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there were none of them.” Psalm 139:15-16

I could not be in a safer place than right here with God.

Thank you again for your prayers and your e-mails.

Grace and Peace,
Paul

The Sandwich of Great Price

How far would you walk for a sandwich? Half a mile? Maybe a mile, for a great sandwich. Jimmy John’s delivers sandwiches, you know. Safe to say, I wouldn’t walk very far.

This, apparently, is where my dad and I differ.

It’s the early 70’s. Miami. A young student has just enough money each day for both lunch and his bus fare to get home from school. He’s a student at Miami Jackson High School, which is in Miami. My dad’s family had moved out of the city, but he didn’t want to change schools so he would catch a ride into the city with a neighbor and take the city bus back home. Apparently, there was a great food stand next to the bus stop and one day my dad was faced with a dilemma: spend the bus fare on the bus or spend it on a sandwich and walk home. He chose the sandwich.

Fast forward to 2012. Our family is in Florida for my grandmother’s funeral. While in the city, running errands and sorting out last minute details, we drive past my dad’s old school. The story of the Bus-Stop Sandwich resurfaces and my brother and I start to think “this seems a little far from home…”. We map it out when we get back. It was a little far from home.

Eight Miles.

Miami Map

Well, Google says 8.4 miles to be exact. Now, you’d expect the story would finish with “and that was the last time I did that”, but it doesn’t. This became routine. For forty years he never knew exactly how far he walked for that sandwich. I’m not sure knowing the distance would have made any difference. It was a Cuban sandwich after all.

Sometimes a sandwich is more than a sandwich. Sometimes what is ordinary to most turns out to be extraordinary to maybe just one person. Certainly a lot of people bought sandwiches from that shop, but I doubt many were willing to pay that kind of price. But, when it’s worth it to you, you’re willing to do whatever it takes.

It reminds me of a story in the Bible that Jesus tells. He says that the Kingdom of Heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls. When he found one of great price he went and sold everything he had so he could buy it. That must have been some sandwich… I mean, pearl 🙂

And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” Mark 10:21

Does He Know You?

I was talking to a co-worker today about Judas, and how we both felt that he kind of gets painted as an obviously wicked person in sermons today, when he actually is no stranger to the Church.

I think (these are just my thoughts here) Judas really believed that Jesus had come to rescue Israel, but only in the physical sense by establishing a kingdom on earth (this wouldn’t have been all that uncommon at the time). I get the feeling that Judas had placed all his eggs in one basket, this new physical kingdom, and when he started to see this unraveling, he panicked and tried to secure some sort of future for himself. By believing in the lie (that Jesus had come to establish a physical kingdom) Judas’ belief was really unbelief—he didn’t believe in the real Jesus. This unbelief opened him up to be used by Satan (see John 13:27).

Church, where have we placed our hope? In the Christ of our own hearts, or the true Christ of scripture? Does Jesus just ‘love everybody the way they are’ or does he want us to repent and be forgiven of our sins? Would Jesus really send people to hell just for not getting the whole ‘believing in him’ exactly right?

It saddens me to think about this verse:

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’” Matthew 7:21-23

“I never knew you”. My heart sinks to think that Jesus will say these very words to some who attend church. Some who teach Sunday school; some who even start churches. Just like Judas, you can be very near to Jesus, do many great things and witness the work of the Holy Spirit, having never really trusted in Him—having trusted in an imposter, sometimes created by our own deceitful (Jeremiah 17:9) hearts.

So is there no assurance of salvation? Can we ever really know? Consider the following:

“I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me” John 10:14

“My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.” John 10:27-30

“And this is the promise that he made to us—eternal life.” 1 John 2:25

“And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.” 1 John 5:11

“All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.” John 6:37

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” John 3:16

“In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.” Ephesians 1:13-14

This barely scratches the surface, but hopefully it is enough to prove the answer is an emphatic ‘Yes!’, we can be assured of our salvation. We can be assured because it isn’t dependent on our work, but on Christ’s work on the cross.

And this is what Judas didn’t understand, didn’t believe: that Christ’s work was not on an earthy throne, but on an old rugged cross. He couldn’t believe that Israel’s salvation was to come through the humilation and death (and resurrection) of Jesus. Because of his unbelief, Jesus will say to him “I never knew you”.

For You Are With Me

The whole 23rd Psalm can be summed up in five words: for you are with me. Christian, the Good Shepherd, Jesus, is with you. He is near, close by, even tonight. Dwell on this truth.

Are you enjoying green pastures or do you find yourself beside still waters? You did not stumble upon them on your own. You weren’t told how to get there, you didn’t get a map in the mail. Sheep do not follow directions, they follow the shepherd. (Side note: They’ll also follow anyone with food and can be a bit pushy; I have a long weekend’s worth of experience caring for sheep, but that’s another story…). The Good Shepherd must be close by because he makes you to lie down in green pastures, and he leads you beside still waters.

Are you overwhelmed by worry, doubts, fear, anxiety? Don’t be afraid. Why? Because “God has it all under control”? While that is very true, it is usually not very comforting because we have very little capacity for comprehending God’s control over cancer, earthquakes, violence or a million other things that keep us awake at night.

“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” Psalm 23:4

We need not be afraid because Jesus is with us! If you trust in Christ, there are a lot of things to rejoice in (salvation, justification, adoption, sanctification, glorification) but what you may need to dwell on tonight to drive away your fears is the nearness of Christ.

Maybe you don’t feel that he is close by; trust him. These are not empty words. I would argue that the greatest distance he could possibly be is an arm’s length away. Verse five says: “You anoint my head with oil.” He doesn’t pour it on you from heaven, he doesn’t sprinkle it on you from across the room, he anoints you with oil; his hand is on your head. Believer, even if you don’t feel very close to him tonight, take him at his word, he is near, he is with you.