Pickle Heaven Press-James R. Johnson

something to help you laugh and think about life with Christ

herded — September 18, 2019


james ray johnson

The hymn says, “He leadeth me,” but does He?  Does God really reach down from heaven and direct me as I make my way through life?

If so how?   Does He navigate a metaphysical map app and speak to us in a Siri voice?   That might be creepy?

And suppose He does lead us – do I necessarily want to go where He is leading?  

Consider Isaiah 48:17, “This is what the Lord, your Protector, says, the Holy One of Israel: “I am the Lord your God, who teaches you how to succeed, who leads you in the way you should go.”   NET Bible®.

That answers 2 out of 3 of my questions.  Yes, God does guide us.  He “leads us in the way in which we should go.”  And yes, we probably want to follow His lead because He “teaches us to succeed.”   Who wouldn’t want that?  Only the “how” question remains to be answered.

Sure, the Word of God is a great help.  He gives us such wonderful specific direction there about life and marriage and money and parenting and so on.  But the verse seems to be talking about God’s personal intervention.

Perhaps Jake could help?  Jake was a dog – a heeler to be exact.  He was a solid, sturdy, compact dog that was bred to herd sheep and cattle. 

Heelers have coats that are speckled with either blue or a red flecks.  We preferred Jake who was a Blue Heeler.  He complemented my eyes.

Jake had once been one of several working dogs on a cattle ranch in New Mexico.  For some reason the other dogs decided they didn’t like Jake anymore.  They refused to work with him.  (You know how things can be in the work place.)  

Anyway, my son happened along as the rancher was about to give the dog the pink slip (which clashed with his blue specks).  He rescued Jake and took him to his home in the Rockies.  But Jake eventually returned the favor.  He courageously chased a bear from the front porch.

My son did some transitioning, so Jake eventually wound up moving in with us in Texas.  

I understand that the heeler breed originated in Australia. He is part Collie and part Dingo.  Or maybe it was part dingy, because that he was.

He once ran into a brick wall head first which didn’t help his mental stability. 

And he had an obnoxious habit of howling through the night unless he was in bed with you. His howl was an ear piercing elongated, “oooooo” – like a police siren except out of tune.   Maybe that’s why the other heelers shunned him.  A working dog needs his sleep. 

So, what does all this have to do with God?  Keep reading!

My wife and I would occasionally take Jake for a walk.  This was always a memorable experience.   We let him wander without a leash, but he always stayed very near.  In fact, he would pace to and fro, back and forth all around us.  We were being herded – like a couple of cows. 

We walked down the center of our quiet street but if we moved close to the curb (where the wolves lurk) he would cut us off and force us to redirect.  I don’t how many times I almost tripped over that dog.   He would work the right and then the left, but always kept us centered.

If we were to stop and greet a neighbor, he would bump our heels to get us moving again.  Another skill he learned in the livestock business.  Hence the name “heeler.”

I sometimes wondered if he was leading us to the tattoo parlor to be branded!   

I suspect that God guides us much as Jake did.

You didn’t get that job for which you applied. Maybe God blocked the path because it was a diversion from his ultimate best for you. 

You met your fiancé at church even though she lives 2 hours away and you intended to skip church that day.  Could it be that God bumped your heel to get you out of bed, to be there with her in the same place at the same time?   

You and your business partner eventually went your separate ways.  Three years later he was indicted for fraud.  Could it be that God allowed that rift to fester in order to protect you? 

Yes God “leads us in the way in which we should go.”   His sovereign guidance is mysterious, wise and wonderful and oh so effective as He watches over and directs us.  For this I am grateful.

will I be taller in heaven? — September 12, 2019

will I be taller in heaven?

james ray johnson

I taught the Bible to a group of sweet little older ladies.  One was somewhat “littler” than the others and it was apparent.  I sat taller than she stood.

She said she had been a church organist.  Wow!  A pipe organist must reach 2 different stacked keyboards with her hands, and then her feet must reach down to their own oversized keyboard.  I bet she had stretch marks.

We were considering the future and the new heaven-fit bodies that we will be given.   She interrupted with an odd question, “I have often wondered – will we be taller when we are in heaven?”   

She used the word “we,” but I am pretty sure she meant “I.”  She must have endured a lot of teasing through the years and had decided that her short stature was a liability. 

“Will we be taller in heaven?”  That might come in handy if there is a pick-up game of basketball.   Ah, but Michael Jordan will be 12 feet tall if that were true.

I had never thought about heavenly heights, so we jumped back into the study.  But I continued to think on her question because I have my own liabilities – I hate it when I don’t have an answer. 

My mind carried me back to the biblical character Zacchaeus.  According to the children’s song “Zacchaeus was a wee little man.”   Children can be so cruel. 

However, he may not have been the shortest man in the Bible.  Some argue that the award goes to Knee-high-miah (Nehemiah 1:1).  Others say it was Bildad the Shu-hite. (Job 8:1) Still others say it was Peter who slept on his watch.  (Mark 14:27 KJV)

Jesus was passing through Jericho.  Zacchaeus wanted to get a glimpse of Him but couldn’t see through the throng.  So, he climbed a tree and perched himself on a branch. 

From his lofty seat, he saw Jesus, but more importantly, Jesus saw him.  He told him to come down because He wanted to spend time with him

Zacchaeus was overjoyed.  Most would look over and beyond him, but Jesus looked at him and saw him.   He scampered down the tree and eventually into the Kingdom of God because of His faith response to Jesus.

I asked my friend, “So what about Zacchaeus?  Do you suppose that he wanted to be taller when he got to heaven?” 

She paused and finally said, “Probably not?”  “Why” I asked.  She said, “If he had not been short, he wouldn’t have climbed the tree and perhaps would have never been seen by Jesus?”   

Exactly!  I suspect, in fact, that Zacchaeus wears his short stature as a badge of honor in heaven today. 

So, what is your question?  “When I get to heaven will I be skinnier, more attractive, maybe more coordinated?  Will I be smarter, will my nose be smaller and my lips bigger?   Will I be able to run faster or eat slower?  Will I have more hair on my head and less in my ears?

True confession!   I looked forward to growing older knowing that my complexion would eventually clear.  I am 66 and still waiting.  Maybe heaven will clear that up. 

Here’s the thing, the Scripture tells us that God deliberately and carefully crafted us while we were in the womb – just the way we are.   King David wrote, “Certainly, you made my mind and heart; you wove me together in my mother’s womb.”  Psalm 139:13.  -NET Bible®.

There is no promise that each of us will be perfectly made, at least in the way that we measure one another and yet David, in the very next verse wrote, “I will give you thanks because your deeds are awesome and amazing.”

David may have had big ears and eczema, but he still regarded himself as an awesome creation of God.

I suspect that if we were perfect or close to it, then we would not sense our need for God.  Our weaknesses and imperfections generate a longing in us for a God who loves us anyway and is able to compensate for our weaknesses.    

The apostle Paul had a problem.  Some suspect it was poor eyesight.  He pleaded with God to fix it, but the Lord said, “My grace is enough for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”  (2 Corinthians 12:9 -NET Bible®)  In other words, “Paul, I am allowing you to have this issue, because it compels you to seek me, and to find the grace and power you need to manage.”

Paul replied, “So then, I will boast most gladly about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may reside in me.” (9:10)

I guess height can be measured in more than one way.  I suspect that one day I will meet two people in heaven who stand quite tall – Zacchaeus and my little lady friend.    I hope to stand beside them (possibly with a clear complexion.)

cornered — September 4, 2019


james ray johnson

My mother-in-law lived in a home that was last updated during the Eisenhower administration.   One day she came into a little money and decided to freshen up her long-neglected living room.

The walls were begging for fresh paint, so my dad and I volunteered our brushes and went after it. The dingy, quickly gave way to the bright and beautiful. 

She began with a professional carpet cleaning.  The carpet was of a high-quality which was a very dark shade of gray, except it wasn’t.  The cleaning made it five shades lighter.  Did I mention years of neglect? 

We happily worked our way around the room until we came to a triangular-shaped corner cabinet.   We needed to move it to paint behind it, but Margaret wouldn’t hear of it. 

She wanted us to just paint around it.  We were puzzled of course!  What was she hiding? A wall safe? Letters from a high school sweetheart?  A portal to Narnia? 

The more we insisted, the louder her protest.  But dad and I were thorough types, so we ignored her and pulled out the cabinet from the wall.   We were stunned by what we found.

There, on the carpet, was a perfectly formed, filthy, black triangle where the cabinet had stood.  It looked a giant rug tattoo.  The cabinet had clearly not been moved for many years.  

I guess she won the argument with the carpet cleaner.  He was forced to clean around it.

Aw but don’t judge my mother-in-law. She is no different than the rest of us.  What she did to her carpet, we do to our souls. 

Jesus is our carpet cleaner.  His job is to cleanse us from the filth of sin.  The Bible employs the word “wash” to describe what He does for us. (1 Cor 6:11, Heb. 10:22)   How wonderful?  Who doesn’t like to be freshly showered? 

I remember when I first experienced that cleansing. I sought his forgiveness for the things I had stolen, for the people I had hurt, and for rejecting Him and His will for my life.  He forgave me and washed me clean.  The stains of sin were dissolved by His rich mercy and grace.  I felt spiritually fresh.

But, like my mother-in-law, I gave Jesus limited access to my soul.  There was still a small corner that I protected – a filthy spot that was “hidden” from the Lord and the people around me. It was a corner too troublesome to touch and embarrassing to explore.

Pride was the stronghold that continued to accumulate grime beneath my cabinet. 

That was mine!  What’s yours?  Do you harbor bitterness toward your parent(s) or maybe a former love interest?  Do your insecurities compel you to compromise your purity?  Are you strangled by guilt over that secret abortion?   Do you wake up at night wondering if that fatherless boy is actually your child?  It’s uncomfortable – isn’t it? 

We did my mother-in-law a favor when we removed the cabinet.  Once the spot finally saw the light of day, we applied a soapy brush to it.  It dried to look as good as the rest of the carpet.  She was greatly relieved and genuinely delighted.

Sin is very much like that.  It needs to first be exposed.   For a year after I came to Christ, pride lurked in that dark corner of my heart.  But then Jesus pulled back the mask. His Spirit weighed down my spirit until I confessed it and surrendered it to Him. 

Heads up!  Think of this blog as God’s way of moving the cabinet that conceals your sin.  He seeks your permission now to mercifully clean up your mess.

What you need to know, was written in 1 John 1:9, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous, forgiving us our sins and cleansing us from all unrighteousness.”  -NET Bible®. (with the emphasis on all!)

Consider the text to the old hymn: “Come ye sinners, poor and needy; Bruised and broken by the fall. Jesus ready stands to save you; Full of pardoning love for all.” 

Listen to the song link below and consider the words above and then surrender that stubborn dark spot to the Lord Jesus.   You’ll be greatly relieved and genuinely delighted if you do.

Come Ye Sinners: guitar and arrangement Jim Johnson
shoes too big — August 28, 2019

shoes too big

james ray johnson

My son was in the marching band.  His uniform included a pair of white shoes – stark white shoes.  You could wear them in the dark to find your way.

I had to provide these shoes.  They were expensive and only good for marching.   We tried to get him to forgo the prom rentals and wear his whities instead, but he refused. 

Every two years we had to upsize to accommodate his growing feet.  We forced his discards on his younger brother. 

This worked well until his junior year.  He was wearing size 16 by then.   They don’t carry size 16 white shoes at Wal-Mart.  But we did locate a pair at abominable-snowman.com. 

His little brother tried them on, and we decided to ship him to Florida to audition for the Ringling Brothers Circus: Atten: Clown Department.  

My son most definitely left behind some big shoes to fill.

But so did my dad!

Dad was my childhood hero without a doubt.  Such a hard worker.  He was once actually criticized by the union steward who said, “Slow down, you’re making the rest of us look bad.”

He had opportunities to move into management, but he turned them down because it would have meant upending his family.

He put his kids through private school and financed it by doing things like cutting his own hair.

He could warm your bottom with a needed swat, and then warm your heart with a hug.

He seldom interfered once I was on my own, but was ready to offer sound advice when I sought it.  

He wasn’t a perfect man, but certainly a good one. 

Dad has gone on to glory.  His enormous shoes are empty and need to be filled.  Could I be that kind of man for my wife and kids, my grandkids and my employer? 

Possibly!  Moses, the legendary leader of Israel, had died, after he had led Israel out of Egypt, through the Red Sea, around the wilderness and to the east bank of the Jordan River. 

A younger man named Joshua was tasked with leading the nation across the river and into the land to finish what Moses had started – to claim the promises that God made to Abraham centuries before. 

Moses’ sandals felt like size 16s.  But God knew that, which is why He told him, “Be strong and brave! Don’t be afraid and don’t panic, for I, the Lord your God, am with you in all you do.” – Joshua 1:9, -NET Bible®.    

There was lots to fear – hostile forces, a sketchy supply chain and the prospect of failure.  God didn’t diminish the challenges, but He magnified the solution instead.  He promised to go with him wherever he went and in all that he did.

God told him to be brave.  I am not sure that you can just will yourself to feel brave, when you are feeling afraid.  You can however, move forward, despite your fears, trusting God to help you succeed.  That’s the kind of bravery the Lord had in mind for Joshua.

As a kid, I watched some teens play pinball at the bowling alley.  I accidentally bumped the table.  The game began to flash the word “tilt” and it shut down.  There were 3 angry teenage boys ready to tilt me.  I was terrified. 

Just then, my dad appeared.  I ran to him and left my fears back at the pinball machine.  The presence of a father can do that for a kid. 

Joshua assumed the lead.  When his crew stepped in the waters of the Jordan, the river ceased to flow, and Israel walked through it, just as they had once walked through the Red Sea with Moses.

What shoes do you need to fill?  

Are you subbing for a beloved teacher or maybe replacing the supervisor at work who just retired?  Perhaps the memory of your mother is making you feel inadequate as a mom or maybe you are a widower and your wife has left a huge hole in your family life.  If so – remember, “Be strong and brave! Don’t be afraid and don’t panic, for I, the Lord your God, am with you in all you do.”

one letter — August 21, 2019

one letter

james ray johnson

Have you seen that list of church bulletin bloopers and wondered, “Did they just make that stuff up?”   Well, I was a pastor and I have an authentic collection of my own.

My sermon notes were supposed to say, “the Most High God.”  But this is what came out – “Jesus was the Son of the Moist High God.”  Evidently there is a humidity problem in heaven.

I cited a Miranda Lambert song in a message, “You’re Running with the Fastest Girl in Town.” My spell checker rendered it this way, “You’re running with the fattest girl in town.”   Oops.

One of my most embarrassing typos happened when I was still preparing for the ministry.  During that time, I was also a printer, serving the needs of the Bible college and the community. 

One day Linda dropped by.  She was opening a new pizzeria in town and wanted me to create menus that she could distribute door-to-door.

It was a fun job.  I did the typesetting and used a font with flourish. Black and red ink gave it an Italian pop.   And at the top of that 11 x 17 sheet was the name: Linda’s Pizza Pantry.    She gushed over the finished product and I was proud of my work.

She then gathered her troops and delivered one to every household in our hamlet of 5,000.  At the end of the day, however, she returned with the leftovers to point out a typo. 

It was at the top, in a brazen, 42-point, bright red font: “Linda’s Pizza Panty.”   Panty???  Oh no!  Did it really say Panty?  It did, and Linda’s face was as red as the ink on the page.   She and her pizzeria became the talk of the town. 

One letter can make a huge difference!

The resurrected Jesus stood before Thomas and told him to put his finger through the gaping holes in his hand.  This was evidence that Jesus had died, but the voice speaking to Thomas was evidence He was alive. 

His faith took a giant leap forward.  He said to Jesus, “My Lord and my God.”   (John 20:28)   He was stunned as he recognized and then affirmed the Deity of Jesus.  Thomas essentially said, “Wow, You are God for sure.” 

His words became one of the foremost confessions of faith in the New Testament.

BUT one errant letter could have wrecked it all.  The word for God in the original language of the New Testament is “Theos.”   So, what if John had been sloppy when he recorded his Gospel?  What if he had accidentally added a letter to “Theos” to get ”Theros” instead? 

“Theros” is the word for summer.   So, Thomas would have gone on record as saying, “My Lord and my summer.” 

Ah but it didn’t happen.  It couldn’t happen.  Why?  Because the words that John wrote were precisely those that God wanted to have written.  According to 2 Timothy 3:16. “Every scripture is inspired by God.” -NET Bible®.    

The word inspired literally means “God breathed.”  Which is to say that God penetrated the hearts and minds of those who recorded the Scripture with His precise words.  They were put to ink exactly as they were given.  The passage says it applies to every Scripture. 

Once the Scripture had been revealed, it was faithfully preserved.  The Pharisees tried to argue away the truth, but Jesus said, “The scripture cannot be broken.” – John 10:35 -NET Bible®.    He didn’t allow the critics to side-step the words of Scripture simply because they retained the authority of having been God breathed.

Today we have Bibles, which continue to preserve the original and exact words that God first gave to Moses, David, Matthew, Paul and so on.  People who according to Peter, were carried along by the Holy Spirit when they spoke the very words of God. (2 Peter 1:21)

I recently scoured the net looking for Linda’s Pizza Pantry.  Alas, it appears she may have closed her doors.  (I hope that wasn’t my fault!)  Not a problem with the Scripture. It will be around for eternity.  (Isaiah 40:8)   

So, forget that pizza you are thinking about right now, and taste the truth of the Scripture instead.  It has directed mankind in the past and will carry us into the future.

the weepy wheel watcher — August 14, 2019

the weepy wheel watcher

james ray johnson

This is the story of Wyn the weepy Wheel Watcher.  My friend Wyn is an avid fan of Wheel of Fortune.  He is even registered to win prizes. 

So, one day a studio contestant spun the mighty wheel and it came to rest on the “Mystery Wedge.”   He flipped it over and found that it was worth $5,000.   Then Wyn’s first name and last initial was projected on the TV screen.  He was randomly selected as the lucky Wheel Watcher.  If the studio contestant could solve the puzzle, then both he and Wyn would become $5,000 richer.

Well the boy was good with his ABC’s and he solved the puzzle.  They both won.  Wyn had 24 hours to contact the show and claim his prize.

No problem – except that on that particular day, Wyn was out watering his veggies instead of vegging out on the sofa.  So, he didn’t know that he had become a winner. 

No problem!  The show also follows up with a phone call – except that Wyn will not answer his cell phone unless he recognizes the number.  Vanna White was not in his contact list – yet. 

No problem!  The show also follows up with an email notice.  Now Wyn does look at his email, but not often.  He checked it the next day and finally got the news.   Fantastic!  He could do a lot with $5,000 bucks – except that he didn’t check his email until after the deadline had passed. He was 15 minutes too late and $5,000 the poorer.  Wyn lost! 

Now you may be saying to yourself, “That’s a nice story – a little goofy – but it’s got nothing to do with me.” But – it does.

Scripture pictures a similar scenario. Christ is in the role of the studio contestant, while everyone else passively sits at home and watches.   And – whatever He wins, we win.

Vanna tell them what they’ve won. “But God, being rich in mercy, because of his great love with which he loved us, even though we were dead in offenses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you are saved! – and he raised us up together with him…” (Ephesians 2:4-6) -NET Bible®.

Did you catch the word “with?”  We were made alive together with and raised up with Christ.  He won the contest when He defeated sin and death at the cross.  The proof of His victory was in His resurrection. 

Because Christ was raised from the dead, we who have believed in Him are also entitled to the same prize.  This is our ticket to the resurrection and eternal life – a very desirable prize.

I serve as a Hospice Chaplain.  My job is to sit with and listen to and encourage and pray for those who are dying.  Can you guess what they most often want to discuss?  The future, of course!  They want to know if they will live even after they die.

It’s a rich privilege to tell them they can.   John 3:16 is a reminder, “For this is the way God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.”  -NET Bible®. The person who has trusted Christ as Savior in this life, will enjoy His company in the next.   It’s already been won.  We need only claim it. 

But there is a limited time?  The deadline falls the moment we take our last breath in this life.  15 minutes after is just too, too late!  

Wheel of Fortune is the most watched program on TV, with an average of about 2 million people tuning in each day.  I bet one of Wyn’s countless friends was watching the day his name was chosen. 

It would have been nice if one of them would have called.  Wyn might have answered his phone for a friend.  That friend could have asked, “Hey Wyn, did you know that Pat Sajak has a check for $5,000 with your name on it? ” But alas, no one cared enough to call.

So how much do you care?  Isn’t there someone in your circle of family or friends, who needs to know that Jesus has won for them the gift of eternal life?  

I can think of an easy, non-offensive and fun way to do that.  Send them the link to this blog!

green stamp hope — August 7, 2019

green stamp hope

james ray johnson

Mom had her hope set on a plastic plant that was rooted in Styrofoam, surrounded by 8 cedar planks and bound by brass bands.  Back in the 50’s this was considered to be attractive! 

My dad worked awfully hard, often 2 jobs, but money always seemed to be tight.  We were not poor, but we were the next thing to it.  We couldn’t afford such an item, but mom had a plan. 

Each week, the grocer gave her S&H Green Stamps in proportion to what she spent on groceries.  With 5 kids to feed, that was a lot of brown paper bags full.  One day she gathered her stamps and drafted us kids to fill her redemption books.  We licked ourselves silly.

Then all 7 of us jumped into our 56 Chevy wagon and headed to the redemption center where mom traded her green stamps for her heart’s desire – one cedar planter. 

She was happy!  She finally had some “nice” in the midst of the drab.  She proudly placed it in the living room for all to see and she really enjoyed it – for most of one day.  

See we were a wrestling bunch.  We kids liked to mix it up with dad on the floor.   Well he flipped one of us the wrong direction and crash went the planter.  It was flatter than mom’s expression when she saw it.   

She held her tongue while dad got out the tool box, with which he was known to do wondrous things.  He once took a bicycle kickstand and refashioned it into a car gear shifter.  So he used his screws and glues and the planter was restored.  Sure, there was a chipped board and a dangling leaf, but it was still sorta nice.

Days later, another kid planted themselves on the planter.   Dad worked his magic again, but it looked – well – it was looking more like the décor of the Frankenstein household.   Mom was a saint.  She said nothing. 

The cataclysmic cycle was repeated yet again.  Mom was living the sequel to the movie Groundhog Day.

And then – a fourth crash.  But this time, mom got to the wreckage before dad and she stomped it into cedar splinters and plastic plant pulp.  She wasn’t going to leave anything that dad could possibly resurrect. 

Her hope of having something nice died with that last crash.  She could hope no more.

Hope sometimes dies!

He hoped to get promoted at work.  He gave it his best, but 5 years later he was still lodged in the same cramped cubicle.  He quit trying and settled into 8 hours a day of apathy.

She was a writer who hoped to get her novel published.  It wasn’t!  After 56 letters of rejection, she threw her manuscript in the burn pile.

A young man hoped for years that his inattentive wife might change.  She wouldn’t!  He eventually stomped on that hope when he left her for another. 

Oh, for a hope that will not disappoint!   

Oh, but there is such a hope!

Titus 1:2 speaks of the “hope of eternal life, which God, who does not lie, promised before time began.”   NET Bible®   Eternal life is a never ending, blissfully, sweet existence in the company of Jesus and all our friends and family who have ever loved Him. 

According to the verse, God promised this eternal life before time began.  And since God is all knowing and all powerful and because He cannot lie, then we can count on it.

This hope will never disappoint. It is possessed only by those who have trusted Christ to remove their sins.

It’s ironic that the cedar wood in mom’s planter is valued for its ability to resist rot and insect damage.  Yet, it can’t begin to compare to the durability of our eternal hope.

Mom gave up on her prized planter, but she has held fast to the hope of eternal life.  She has passed on and is now enjoying that hope that will never be broken or even lamely patched.

My dad is trying his best to join her.  Any day now, he too will enter that place of sweet eternal hope.  But for mom’s sake, I hope he leaves his tool box behind.  

when does a dead man count? — July 31, 2019

when does a dead man count?

james ray johnson

7/3/2019:  Highway Patrol Trooper Travis Smaka was on the Interstate near Las Vegas when he noticed a car in the HOV lane with a solo driver.  He stopped the Chrysler minivan and informed him that he was getting a ticket because he was one person short to be using the HOV lane.

The driver reported that he was not alone.  There was another person in the back of the van.    Upon peering inside, the trooper found that the van was equipped as a hearse, with a rail and a gurney and even a deceased person.

The driver asked, “So, he doesn’t count?” 

Hmm…I wonder how else this guy used his cadaver?  Maybe he took him to Sunday School to win the prize for “Bring a Friend Day?”  (If anybody ever needed Jesus – his horizontal friend did).  Maybe he took him to the bank to co-sign for his car loan.  Surely the “stiff” came in handy at the company picnic when he needed a partner for the three-legged race!  

Alas, Officer Smaka burst his bubble.  He said, “No he doesn’t count.”

That’s no surprise, BUT if you were to ask Jesus, He would tell you that the only time a man counts, is when he is dead.”

Jesus had just told His disciples that He was headed to the cross.  Peter scolded Him, “Jesus – you can’t die.  You are gonna become our King.”

Jesus answered, “If anyone wants to become my follower, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” – Mark 8:34* The cross was an implement of execution.  He said each of us has one with our name on it and we need to embrace it rather than deny it.

Before you make out your will, understand that He spoke of death to our wills.  The cross was God’s will for Jesus.  To deny oneself is to give up the self-centered, self-directed life.

My best friend went to Seminary with the intention of being a pastor.  But a brain tumor got in the way.  He survived it, but it left his body somewhat diminished.  He thought that being a disciple meant being a pastor.  For him it meant dying to the dream of being a pastor.

To lose one’s life for Jesus sake, is to lay it all on the line to do His will and to advance His purposes.  

I could build the new lake house for me but maybe I should help repair the battered women’s shelter for Jesus sake.  I could spend that big raise on me, or I could raise the support I give to that missionary family.   I could win the argument with my coworker, or I could win his heart through gentleness and respect.  I could claim the parking space near the entrance or I could leave it for the mother of 3 in the car behind me.  Only a dead person is capable of such things. 

He continued, “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of me and because of the gospel will save it.”  Mark 8:35* 

Certainly, this applies to eternal life.  When we die to the impulse to save ourselves and turn to Christ, then we live.  To preserve the self-willed way, would be to perish.

But the principle has many reverberations.  For instance: the self-centered are busy saving their lives and often alienate others as they do.  The generous give their lives in service of others – and as a result they are rich with relationships.  So, who truly has the better “life?”

There was a missionary in India by the name of Sadhu Sunder Singh who was passing through the wintry Himalayan mountains with a friend.  They came upon an unconscious man in the snow.  The friend walked on, worried more about his own survival while Sadhu took the injured man upon his back.

The friend died of hypothermia, but Sadhu survived because of the extra work and the benefit of the warmth of the body of the man that he carried.

Most of us will never literally die for our faith, but we must die as an expression of our faith.

Yes officer Smaka – a dead man does count!

*NET Bible

now i-cy! — July 24, 2019

now i-cy!

james ray johnson

“Thank you for being with me!”  Those words raised chill bumps – more than the pot of ice water in which my hand was submersed.   Let me explain.

My youngest son and I were baking as we sat on an asphalt driveway in the middle of a sweltering Texas summer.   I don’t know if I lost my mind before the decision, or sometime during, but there we were. 

Our mission was to chisel out the crumbling portions and patch it.  Maybe I should have hired it out, but I am kinda tight.  How tight you ask?  When I grab a dollar bill, George Washington screams.

Anyway, there we were, chipping away when there arose such a clatter I sprang from my squat to see what was the matter.  He crushed his thumb with the hammer. 

He was in prodigious pain.  He was still a little guy, so he wasn’t much for hiding his hurts. He jumped up and down, cradling his thumb while the tears gushed.  I sensed that it was time for some fatherly comfort, so I firmly said, “Go in the house and put some ice on it.”

He stumbled in, but his anguish still echoed from the kitchen.  He has always dreaded the pain of the cold ice more than the pain of his injury.  He might need some help. 

I found him sitting on the tile floor, still sobbing so I made an icepack and tried to force it on him.  I’ve had greater success bathing a cat.

Plan B.  I got a cooking pot, filled it with water and topped it off with ice.  I then took his hand in mine and submerged them both in the water.

He squirmed and fought me at first but then began to relax.  His pain was easing.   We sat without a word with icy hands for 10 minutes.  That’s when he finally broke the silence to say, “Thank you for being with me!”

My turn to cry!  I choked up when I understood that what he wanted and needed from me – was not a lesson or an icepack – just a little empathy.  He needed me to be with him in his pain.

I was a decent dad, but I wasn’t very good at that.  And yet it was something that I also longed for as a kid.  I remember my dad handing me a paint scraper with a mandate to remove the chipped paint on the house so that he could repaint it on the weekend. 

It was a two-story frame house. There was more area to scrape than the Great Wall of China. I was overwhelmed.  Day after day I chipped away, while desperately wishing that someone would join me.  But a real man didn’t need such things – or so I thought – or so I was told. 

Jesus thought differently.  Joseph of Nazareth encountered an angel in a dream who said to him, “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will name him Emmanuel,” which means “God with us.”  (Matthew 1:23) -NET Bible®

God with us!  Jesus was named “God with us” – not God for us, or behind us, or beyond, or before us – but “God with us.”  In our brokenness, we must have needs that only His presence with us can begin to address. 

John wrote of Jesus, “Now the Word became flesh and took up residence among us.”  (John 1:14). -NET Bible®    Eternal God added flesh to His being.  Why flesh?  In part, so that He might take up His residence among us.  He really wanted to be God with us.

Solitary confinement was pioneered in 1829 at the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia.  Charles Dickens visited the facility during his travels.  He described the “slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body” 

If the worst thing we can do to a person is to isolate them, then perhaps the best and most basic thing we can do is to be with them. 

My son’s words were more bracing to me than the icy water that numbed my hand.  He helped me see that my presence is a priceless gift that I can give to him and others.

Ironically, these days I serve as a Hospice Chaplain.  I visit those who have been given no medical hope of recovery.  Their days are few.  A nurse keeps them comfortable, an aide keeps them clean, but I offer them my company. 

We talk, read the Scripture, I’ll sing them a hymn or two, maybe make them laugh and of course I pray – and if it’s ever needed – I’ll grab another pot of ice water and we’ll soak together.

my four-point fiasco — July 17, 2019

my four-point fiasco

james ray johnson

It took my 4-point GPA to show me how dumb I really was! 

I grew up with the idea that getting to heaven depended on what I could do.  I assumed there was a cosmic scale betwixt heaven and hell, with my sin on one tray and my merit on the other.  If my merit should exceed my sin at the end of my life, then – boom –the doors to paradise would open to me.  Simple – I just had to obey the rules. 

Even as a kid I worked hard to tip the scale in my favor.  I listened to and obeyed my spiritual teachers, I prayed my rote prayers faithfully (though at the speed of light.) I also attended church service six days a week.  I really did. (So, don’t even look to me for sympathy when you feel like you need to sleep in on Sunday morning.)  I was an A1 rule keeper. 

But I eventually bumped my head on the words of Jesus.  He let me know that a rule keeper must keep the rules perfectly.  He said, “So then, be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  (Matthew. 5:48) -NET Bible®   

Did He really mean perfect? – as in keeping the rules flawlessly? – as in complete conformity to the intrinsic holy character of God Himself? 

I learned about perfect as a student at Tri-State Bible College.  After 4 semesters, my GPA was a flawless 4-point.  Straight A’s all the way – in every single class.  Cool.

But alas, I eventually blew it – just a little, and was given a final grade of B in a church history class.  My 4-point slipped to a 3.96.  Now I must admit that I am perceptive when it comes to theology, but as dense as a brick when it comes to math. 

Which is why I got out a calculator. I wanted to know how long it would take me to reclaim that 4-point average.  (please stifle that laugh)  

So, I multiplied future course hours by 4, and then added the sum to my current average. It came to 3.999999!  Not yet up to 4, but I ran out of numbers, so I found a bigger calculator.  This time it came out to 3.999999999.  An even bigger machine was obviously needed – an industrial strength adding machine.  This time it came out to 3.999999999999. 

Only then, I realized that I could go to school for the rest of eternity and get perpetually perfect scores, but the best average I could ever attain would be 3 with an infinite number of 9’s behind it.  Perfect does not allow for even one imperfection. 

So why then did Jesus say, “be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”   Doesn’t the Scripture say, “All have sinned?” (Romans 3:23).  All of us have missed the mark with God, so it is impossible for any of us to ever achieve the Fatherly 4-point. 

Which was His point!  Jesus wanted us to know that the bar is so high with the Father that no one could ever qualify for heaven – without Him. 

Paul put it this way in 2 Corinthians 5:21, “God made the one (Jesus) who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that in Him we would become the righteousness of God.”  -NET Bible®

Jesus became sin!  God, out of His mercy and grace, transferred the guilt of our sin to Jesus which left us guiltless before God.  God now views the Christian through the lens of Christ– and what He sees is His perfection.  The Father’s 4-point is met in Jesus. 

If eternal life is important to you – then maybe you should speak to the Father today and tell Him, “Father, I am helpless to save myself.  I cannot keep the rules perfectly.  Save me by the virtue of Jesus.  Wash me of my sin and give me the stamp of his perfection.”  

If you would like help in understanding this commitment, go to the contact page and send me your question.  If you need help balancing your bank account – I am probably not your man!

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