The Gates Are Open

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The Best of Winters, The Worst of Winters

It is never a good sign when you look out the window and the snow is falling sideways. When you can look for miles in a city and not see a single car on the road, you know you are experiencing some kind of Snowpocalyse.

We lived in Canada for many years and moved to Montana in 1989. In 1996, Montana suffered through the worst winter conditions on record. That winter, 17 feet of snow came down on Northwest Montana. So much snow pelted the ground that my boys made a toboggan run off the roof of the garage and were able to schloss down their manufactured run without any jump. Yes, it was that much snow.

Between Christmas and New Years’ the snow starting falling heavily and the wind picked up to 40 mph. It was coming down from the north and did not stop for three days. After the first day, the snowplows gave up trying to clear the drifts off the main highways and everyone was advised to stay in and wait out the blizzard. Montanans live for these kind of days; it gives them a sense of achievement similar to Californians tanning without burning. I digress.

The only person not happy with staying indoors during the blizzard was my wife. Normally, she is more than content with snuggling by a fire, reading a good book and napping. But she also is the most dedicated worker I know and she was supposed to show up at the hospital for her shift as a nurse.

My wife worked on a heart Telemetry unit at the Kalispell Regional Medical Center. They worked 12 hour shifts and hers started in a half hour. The phone lines were not working, so Kathy couldn’t call the hospital to find out if they were expecting her. But after looking at the closed highway, she realized they probably needed her desperately. The nurses working these 12 hour shifts could not go home until they were replaced. No one was driving in or out of town at all, so we figured these nurses who had been looking after patients all day would have to continue in that vein for another 24 hours. That’s when I got a bright idea.

We only lived about 6 blocks from the hospital, straight down Highway 93. We had done cross-country skiing for years and now we could put good vocational use to the sport. Since we had both grown up in Canada, we were well stocked with all the accouterment clothing for frigid weather, including long, thermal underwear. We layered on the garments, pulled on our ski boots and headed out the door. It took us almost a half hour to navigate the drifts and bare spots on the road in near zero visibility, but we did arrive at the hospital doors right as her shift was supposed to start.

As we sloshed down the hallway, the nurses on duty just stared at us as if we were living snowmen. Kathy was able to relieve a couple of them, allowing them a few hours sleep. Over the next 24 hours, they were able to keep spelling each other off in 3 hour increments, thereby giving some of the most medically fragile patients the best care.

The next day the road was still closed, so I skied back up to the hospital and retrieved her. I remember stopping at one point on the way home and looked into her frost-covered face. She was smiling with a tenacity I had never seen on her before. She was actually enjoying this!

There is something about conquering adversity and overcoming obstacles that thrills the human soul. It is ironic we spend most of our lives wishing for comfort and ease when what we really enjoy is the challenge of living.

Perhaps we should think a little longer about how much comfort we really need.

Spirit of the Joy Robber

Last Friday night, my wife and I attended a banquet as guests of a close friend. The speaker for the evening was a man I had met almost 20 years before when we lived in Montana and I was excited to hear and meet him again. His name is George Otis, Jr., President of the Sentinel Group and a man who studies spiritual revivals as they are happening around the world. His message that night was riveting–as always–but that is not the point of this article.

I had an unusual encounter with the spirit realm years ago. It was through reading one of George’s books I was armed for the battle.

In 1997, I read Otis’ book “The Twilight Labyrinth: Why Does Spiritual Darkness Linger Where it Does?”  George and his company, the Sentinel group,  are researchers. They explore the stories and statistics behind trends and happenings around the world. For years, their business was to help entities understand markets and market trends. But George himself became fascinated with trends in the spirit realm. He conjectured that some geographical areas see positive spiritual things happening and other places mostly negative spiritual results. In this book, he categorized his findings and theorized on why this might be.

He spends several chapters writing about a particular area of the world which seems to have more demonic, satanic, and shamanistic practitioners than anywhere else. For this article, I will not mention the name of the place, but you can certainly buy the book and find out where it is. I read the entire book in one day; it was that fascinating. I have had encounters with unclean and dangerous spirits over my years in counseling and pastoring and I wanted to know more about that realm.

In the book, George relates how shamans in this particular place would occasionally give spirits an assignment to rob joy out of their enemies. It is thought in that culture if a person has no joy left they will die. This may or may not be true, but I have seen what it is like when people have no joy, and it is certainly ugly and life-threatening. I had no trouble believing this is sometimes the result of the occult. The Twilight Labyrinth claims this is a common practice in this part of the world. I mentally noted all of this and went on with my life.

Two weeks later, a group of cowboy evangelists, known as “Cowboys With A Mission” asked me to do a debriefing weekend with them at a ranch north of our town in Montana. Their team of about 20 people had just returned from spending several months overseas and they would soon be returning home. During their time away, they had done preaching and rodeo demonstrations on another continent. When I agreed to speak, I had no idea where they had been.

On the Friday night, I did my first debriefing talk. The second I began to teach, I felt a spiritual storm start. I am sometimes aware when things change in the spirit realm, but this was too obvious to miss. Both my wife and I knew we were fighting something at a deep spiritual level. The students literally looked and sounded like they were dying. I am not exaggerating. Even their pallor was deathly. No one asked any questions and their vacant stares were as creepy as a horror movie. What had I stepped into?

After the evening was over, I asked to meet with the five leaders of the team. I told them about my spiritual discernment and they were not surprised. That’s when they casually told me where they had been living the previous few months. It was that exact place mentioned in the Twilight Labyrinth. When I heard this, I asked a simple question: “Does it feel like someone has sucked all the joy out of you?” I had no idea the response would be that dramatic.

The wife of the key leader began sobbing. Within 30 seconds, all the other leaders were crying as well. Something had beat up these people. I quickly explained what George Otis had written in his book about a joy-robbing spirit, and asked if I could employ the power and name of Jesus to help them. They agreed between tears. Very simply, I took authority over any spirit which had been sent on assignment to bother them. Instantly, they all settled down. Then Kathy and I laid hands on them one by one and asked God to fill them again with joy. I won’t go into great detail what happened next. But we spent two hours seeing the fruit of joy flowing into them and out of them as well. It reminded me of what can happen when a lot of people get into a keg of beer. Only in this case, no one lost their mind or said regrettable things.

The next morning, I invited the leaders to come and together we did the same thing for all the students. We commanded the joy-robbing spirit–I have no idea if it had a name or if that is what it is, but it is certainly what it did to them–to leave them all alone. That entity, that unclean spirit, left immediately. The name of Jesus Christ is more powerful than any spirit on this planet and they must obey Him.

Then the leaders laid hands upon the students and they were all filled again with joy. For the rest of the weekend, we mixed in simple teaching on demonic realities with more mundane instructions on how to get re-integrated into their home life and culture. I have kept up on the Internet with several of those students and they continue to tell me about the dramatic change that weekend wrought in their lives. One of the men is now the CEO of a company and he told me God is using him to pray protection over several branch offices. He was never a believer in spirits, but he now believes they exist after what he experienced.

Last Friday, as George spoke, I was reminded of the Cowboys weekend and thought to myself, “I wonder, with all the shamanistic practices people are now toying with in our nation, if people really know what they’re fooling around with?”

My answer is “probably not”. I have talked with people recently who have cursed family members and they have no idea there are opportunistic spirits who love to take people seriously when they curse others. A curse is simple. If you utter a desire or wish that someone else be harmed or attacked, that wish becomes a spiritual curse. Let everyone reading this be aware that these things work. But they often backfire and create much more damage than people realize.

Bless you George Otis for your faithful speaking and writing. It has helped so many more than you will ever know.

A Father With Borrowed Wisdom from God

Posted on June 19, 2016

jack phillipsMy father was 41 years old when he died after having lung cancer for only six months. I was one month short of 17 when he passed. This week, I turn 59 and because it was just Father’s day  and  the preacher this morning talked about his dad in such loving detail, I started thinking about my own dad.

I have now been alive for 42 years after his death. That is longer than he was alive. But years don’t matter all that much–what matters is how much life and love we squeeze into those years. And my dad did love me.

I won’t rehearse the problems my dad had in life. Suffice to say that he struggled with addiction all the years I knew him. But he was a friendly guy who never had problems getting along with others. He could be hard on my brother, sister and me. He expected a lot and he didn’t do a lot to help us work through our problems. However, one time he did help me changed my life.

As a boy, I was easily talked into mischief. One summer afternoon, three of my friends proposed a game I had never played before. We went to the end of our alley and looked out into the busy street. Cars whipped by us going 40 MPH. That’s when my friend Derek explained the rules of the game. Each of us would pick up a rock. We would wait until a passing car came close to us. Then we would throw the rock across the road. The one who came closest to hitting a car–without hitting one of course–was the winner.

The other three guys went before me. Each of them threw their rocks across the road with lots of time to spare. I figured I could easily beat them all. When my car came, I’m not sure what happened. I don’t know if he sped up, if I hesitated out of fear, or if my young brain miscalculated.

But my rock went through the side window of the passing car. At that moment, all of us scattered like shrapnel from a grenade. I hoped the man who slammed on his brakes couldn’t figure out who threw the rock as he saw boys running every which way. But when I looked behind me down the alley, I was the only one he was chasing. He had figured it out. I ran into our backyard, past the babysitter and up the back stairs. As I went by her, I shouted out,

“There’s a man chasing me who wants to hurt me!”

I admit, I left a few details out of that description. The babysitter sopped up her courage and refused to let the man into the house. I watched from my bedroom window to see if he was coming in. The two of them talked for a long time. Then, the man wrote some things down on a piece of paper and gave it to my babysitter. I may not have been that old, but I knew he had written a note for my father.

And just as decidedly, I knew I would suffer severe consequences.

So I hid in the basement. There was an alcove cut out of the wall behind the furnace and it just fit my tiny body. I hid there and waited until dad came home. When he finally did, I sat quietly, listening for the inevitable explosion. After about five minutes, I began to hear the rumble. Dad was tearing apart every room looking for me. He didn’t know my secret hiding spot, so all he could do was search, yell, and voice threats. The more he described what was going to happen to me, the more I decided to say nothing and stay hidden.

At one point, things got quiet. Then my mother started pleading with me to come out. She even began to cry softly. I couldn’t take it any more, so I slithered out of my hole and slowly went upstairs. I won’t describe the initial scene as my parents saw me come out of the basement door. It was complicated.

I went to bed early, without my dad punishing me as he promised. But the next morning, he got me out of bed at 6:30 a.m. This was strange: He never got up early, and this was summer vacation. I never got up any earlier than I had to. But dad told me I had to make a decision. I needed lots of time depending on what decision I made.

Dad had called the man whose window I had broken the night before. He had already paid the man for the window and now it was time for my payback. I was sure a spanking with the belt was involved, but that is not what happened.

My dad just looked sad. He told me how disappointed he was with me. He had expected so much more out of me than I had shown. I cried. I was steeled with resolve to withstand a beating. i never expected this.

Then dad explained my choice. I could pay for the window one of three ways:

  1. I could give up allowance for the rest of the year.
  2. I could do 20 hours of work in the yard over the weekend. This involved back-breaking labor (dad took delight describing all I would do).
  3. I could go over to this man’s house and work for him for as long as he wanted.

 

I chose number two because I wanted my allowance and I was afraid of this other man. So dad started me in right away with the work. That Saturday, I must have put in 12 straight hours of work. I was so tired, I didn’t even eat dinner. The next morning at 6:30, dad got me up and worked me again. The second day was even harder than the first.

Then something happened after lunch. Dad came out with his work clothes on and began to help me. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. So I asked him.

Didn’t you say I had to do all this work myself?

Yes, I did. But this is my punishment and my rules. I can help you if I want to.” For the next two hours, dad helped me do all the chores I had left. Then, when we were done, he told me to have a bath and put on some good jeans and a shirt. When I came out, dad told me we were going for dinner; just me and him.

He took me to a diner across the street from his work. It was great food and we had a fantastic time together. He told me about all the things he got in trouble for as a boy . He warned me never to tell my siblings or my mother about that conversation.

At the end of dinner, we just sat in silence for a while. Then dad looked at me and said, “I’m proud of you son. This was worth the broken window to see you work like a man.”

I cannot think back to that day and not feel the weight of his love. It still sits on my shoulders.

My Bridge Too Far

My children are now old enough that I can tell this story. I never wanted to tell about it while they were teenagers or younger because I would have felt guilty if they copied me. But I shouldn’t have worried. I raised them all to live their own lives their own way, and for the most part, they have all done that.

I had a curious, dangerous relationship when I was a teenager. This relationship was not with a person, but with a railway bridge. This bridge in question spanned the North Thompson River in Kamloops, British Columbia. The Canadian National Railway used this bridge to send its trains out of the Kamloops station west toward the Port of Vancouver, some 200 miles away. The bridge itself was approximately 700 yards long and about two dozen trains a day went each way across it.

I lived four blocks from the bridge itself. It was on my way to Junior High School and I passed under it every day. It sat beside the park where my friends and I played football. At one time, it had been a drawbridge, folding upwards to allow steamboats to forage up the river to settlements further north, at a time when there were no roads to the logging communities of Barriere, Blue River and Clearwater. By the time our sub-division was built beside the tracks, the bridge’s movable span had long since been retired. But even though they were never used, the cables and the towers of the movable part of the bridge were still there. There was even a wrought-iron ladder that ran the entire length of the towers up to platforms on the very top near the wheels that pulled the cabling. It was perhaps 80 feet to the top. More about that in a moment.

Here is a picture of that bridge, just for your mental scrapbook as you read the rest of the story:

CNR bridge

CN workers could walk across the bridge fairly easily. And because it took quite a while back then for people who lived in North Kamloops to go the long way around to get to the station, many people who worked for the railroad would park their cars on one side and walk across. Several engineers lived in our neighborhood just so they could walk to work.

As they walked across the bridge, they had to look ahead of them and behind them for approaching trains. When they built the bridge, they kept in mind that workers would be walking across it. So every 50 yards or so, they built little platforms, sticking out over the river where someone could stand while the train went by. I imagine most of the people who went across regularly had to use these.

Under the bridge, there were handrails that ran the entire length of the bridge on both sides of the inner panels. I have no idea why they were there except as handholds for anyone repairing things under the bridge. The handrails were half-inch rolled steel bars set out about five inches from the edge of the inner walls of the bridge. They hung about four feet above the bottom of the panel. Along the bottom of the panel was a one foot wide lip that someone could push themselves along. It was about a 40 foot drop down to the river…a river which claimed about 6-10 lives each year because of its unpredictable current.

I had three friends in those days , and we closely resembled the four boys in the movie “Stand By Me” (based on Stephen King’s short story, “The Body”). We talked trash about each other, smoked cigarettes together, sipped occasionally on whatever alcohol one of us could swipe from their parents, and devised numerous ways to flaunt the conventions of the Law and Parental units.  Dave, Phil, Ray and I cruised the neighborhood looking for action and adventure. We weren’t bad kids in any legal or moral sense, but we wanted to test our mettle in a strange and challenging world.

Invariably, when we got tired of the old standby stunts, we were drawn to the colossus that was the CNR bridge. It was a magnet for young boys, a place where you could stake your claim on courage, look your fear in the eye and master it, impress other boys (and occasionally a girl or two) with your felonious abilities.  The two goals for things you did on the bridge were simple to remember. We all knew them:

  1. Do something more dangerous than the last time you were there.
  2. Do something more dangerous than the last person.

 

Our stunts started benignly, hardly denting our courage. it began with all of us walking across the bridge to the other side. If you want to get a feel for how exciting it can be the first time you try it, this scene from Stand By Me is pretty accurate in depicting how you walk across when you can see river between the ties.

As opposed to this clip, we could pull into one of the platforms if a train came across. In the four years we went across that bridge, a train only came twice that I remember, and both times we made it to a platform with lots of room to spare.

After several months of simply walking across this bridge, we discovered the railing underneath. This, of course, took a lot more guts to try. We took this feat in stages. As you can see from the picture of the bridge, it had concrete supports set in the river every hundred yards or so. The goal was to shimmy out to the first support column and back. We would grab the rail with our hands, and our feet shuffled on the bottom lip. For the entire 100 yards, our back was exposed to empty space culminating in the river. No one ever dropped into the river from the railing, but every time we did it I was sure one of us would.

After several trips out, it was getting fairly easy to make it to the first piling. So, Dave and I decided to try for the second one, which would put us about halfway across the river. For some reason, the railing on that part of the bridge had warped in places, which simply added to the danger and excitement. It is no problem for me to remember the adrenaline rush, even 44 years later. Eventually Dave, Phil and I were able to get to the third pillar, while Ray contented himself with the first one. No one ever ventured to the fourth pillar in my memory. There they be monsters.

The next level of courage was attained by climbing the nearest of the towers. At the base of the first one there was a large platform where all of us could stand without crowding the others. From there, the ladder ran up the length of the tower. If you look at the bridge now, you won’t see the ladder. I suspect we, or other kids, had something to do with it being removed. This ladder was welded pieces of rolled steel and painted black. In the summer, it was so hot it would take the skin off your hands and feet. (We did the climb barefoot which gave us better traction).

As with the railing under the bridge, the test was to see how high you could climb each time. If you look again at the picture, you can see cross-members every 25 feet. They were large enough that we could climb onto them and wait for the guy following you. By the end of our 9th grade summer, all of us had climbed to the top at least once, except Ray. He refused to do it.

One particular time, we were bugging Ray about his lack of courage as we defined it. We needled him incessantly that week and let it be known he was on thin ice in terms of membership in our informal club. Being a young man of great pride, this insult to his manhood was hard for him to take. So, late one Saturday afternoon in September, he announced to all of us he was going to the top of the bridge. We told him that he had to lead the way this time and all of us would climb behind him. Phil had taken a bottle of gin from his dad’s liquor cabinet and we were going to toast the river from the top. I think about it now and the entirety of this idea seems moronic. But that defined us in those days, so we were being consistent.

For the first 50 feet, Ray didn’t flinch at all about continuing on up the ladder. He had already accomplished the first two sections several times that summer. But he had never pushed himself past that point. This time, with our stalwart encouragement, he made it past his own personal barrier and kept climbing. I was next in line behind him, and it was clear he was slowing down. I egged him on because the last thing I wanted was to be stuck on the ladder behind him. I had that queasy feeling that this had been a bad idea.

Ten feet from the top, Ray stopped. He kept looking down–always a poor idea on that ladder–and I could hear him whimpering. It wasn’t outright crying, but it was nearing panic levels. I tried to soothe him and encourage him, but as he gripped the rung he was on tighter, I realized it wasn’t working. Dave figured this out about the same time I did. Instead of soothing him, Dave took a different tack. He started to drop F-bombs and threatened Ray with everything from torture to public humilation. That worked. Ray scampered the final ten feet to the platform at the top. What normally took the rest of us ten minutes to accomplish had taken a full half hour. We were all drenched in sweat, even though it wasn’t that hot out.

None of us felt like drinking by that point, so we all took a perfunctory sip and started to talk about going down. Ray was all for that idea. In fact, before any of us could work up the courage to head back down, he started. This time, Phil followed him, then Dave and me. Because I was the last to go, I took one last look west. To this day, I wish I had looked east.

When we had climbed a third of the way down, the westbound CN train entered the bridge. We had not heard it or seen it at all, because we were coming down the ladder with the station at our backs. During that whole summer when we climbed the tower,  a train had only come over the bridge once. Dave had been at the top that time and he simply waited until the train went past. He told us at the time that at the very top you could hardly feel the vibrations.

As we hung onto the railing  a third of the way down the ladder we realized Dave had lied to us about the vibrations. The ladder shook us senseless. I wrapped both elbows through the rungs and one leg as well. Even so, It was like a jackhammer was trying to pry me loose with vibrations. To add insult, we realized it was a Saskatchewan grain train heading west to the port. These trains were always longer than normal trains, and they had engines in the middle of the train to carry the extra weight. This was going to be a long wait on the tower.

After an eternity, the train finally went by and we could climb the rest of the way down. At least that was the theory. But Ray would not move. He was immobilized by fear. And because he was the lowest of the climbers, none of us could get by him. The wind took that moment to start gusting at us, and this just added to our panic. We all threatened Ray with bodily harm if he didn’t move. After a long while as our voices got hoarse from yelling, he moved to the cross-member below him. Phil scrambled by him and made it to the bottom rapidly. Dave did the same right after. As I went by Ray, I could see he wasn’t going to make it the rest of the way down. I asked him what he wanted to do and he began to cry softly.

It broke my heart in a way nothing else ever had. He was so helpless in that moment. I didn’t know what to say to him or how to help. I told him that I would stay with him as long as he needed me to. I don’t know why or how I said this. I had become a Christian a few months before, and I think that maybe God helped me by filling me with his love and compassion for my friend.

After ten minutes, I asked Ray if he felt any better. He didn’t. At that moment an idea came to me. It was so silly and so outrageous, but I had to give it a shot.

“Buddy, are you afraid of the river?”

“No” was all he said. And I believed him. Both he and I had taken lifeguard training that summer and we had done long-distance swimming several times a week. He wasn’t afraid of the water.

“Then let’s jump in Ray. I’ll jump with you.” Before either of us could give it another thought, he grabbed my hands and we leaped. I think we missed the platform by inches, and we certainly didn’t miss the concrete pillar by much either. But we hit the water and began floating downstream rapidly. Swimming across the current was harder than I had imagined. I lost my way and actually started swimming for the wrong shore but soon corrected myself as I looked back at the bridge. Ray reached shore 30 seconds before I did and he helped pull me out.

Dave and Phil had scrambled down the embankment and helped to pull us out. There was a look of terror and then relief on both their faces. Neither of them was a particularly compassionate person, but that moment they seemed to feel what we were feeling. I was startled when I saw their concern. That underscored for me the critical nature of what had just happened.

Aristotle said that in order for any of us to feel compassion, we must see someone else’s suffering in three ways:

  1. We must believe their suffering is serious and not trivial
  2. We must perceive the person does not deserve their suffering
  3. We must perceive that it is possible some day that we could suffer the same way.

 

This is what Phil and Dave were feeling. They knew we could have drowned. To this day, the memory of that plunge off the bridge gives me the cold sweats. Dave and Phil also knew I had little choice but to propose jumping off. There wasn’t any chance Ray would be climbing down that ladder for any amount of coaxing. And I am sure that they at some time had imagined they might drop into the river below. They felt compassion.

There has been a doctrinal battle over the centuries regarding this issue of God’s compassion. Does God care when we suffer? How can God feel compassion if He doesn’t meet the above criteria? Aren’t all things trivial compared to what God knows? More than anyone, doesn’t God know what we deserve? And how could God possibly perceive that He would go through the suffering we go through?

I contend that the answer to these questions, as with many other doctrinal questions, ends with Jesus Christ the man-God. Jesus is God Incarnate. God became a human being. God could have become a superhero human being, with powers, authority, abilities and strength. But he gave up all of that to be born a human (See Philippians 2:5-11). He had no power or authority of his own. He borrowed his miracle-working power from God’s Spirit. He was completely a human. And when he suffered, he experienced all of our pain the same way we do.

I doubt he jumped off any bridges into the river. But he jumped into a deadly scene where he was tortured within an inch of his life, beaten, dragged and crucified. He gets it.

Does Jesus care? You know He does. And because God the Father laid all the sins of the world on him as he hung on the cross, Jesus also knows what sin, foolishness,, selfishness and cowardice feels like. He experienced all of that. And the Bible tells us he took his resurrected body into heaven with Him. He is a human in heaven as well as God almighty. He represents us to the Father. He explains our suffering to the Father.

In that moment, emerging from the river, I realized how foolish all of our grandstanding had been. None of us had much to do with the Bridge after that day. We moved on to other endeavors: Girls, school, sports and careers. Dave sells cars like his dad. Ray has been a concert pianist and court reporter. Phil entered the military and rose to a high rank. I have talked with two of them in the past few years and we all have different takeaways of our Bridge years.

For me, I came to three realizations.

First, I had to redefine courage for myself. Up to that point in my life, I saw courage as pushing myself past the limits I thought I had. But as I got older, I realized courage has more to do with sticking with convictions, staying with beliefs and choices, not being moved by the opinions of others.

Second, I saw that compassion is much better than coaxing and coercing. What convinced Ray to jump was not my wise and intelligent argument. It was the offer to go with him off the edge.

Third, I know that Jesus understands those moments where fear grips me so deeply I can’t move forward or head back. He really does care.

In the current part of my life, this means more than anyone reading this can ever know.

(Note: Ray is not his real name. I don’t have his permission to share this. The others have allowed me to tell their stories, so their names are real).

 

 

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