I often wonder if my pants are going to fall down or, for that matter, if anyone’s pants ever have fallen down, after taking off their belt at the Vancouver airport security checkpoint. On a dismal, drizzling departure day, I scrambled my stuff onto the conveyor bins and walked through the security X-ray scanner without incident. I quickly grabbed my things from the conveyor’s end hoping to avoid the stress of a bin pileup. I slipped my belt and boots back on, headed through U.S. customs, grabbed a quick bite to eat with my wife, and completed a partial marathon to the boarding gate for the promise of a hot holiday in the desert down south. My pants stayed put, but there at the gate, I realized I had left my carry-on luggage—containing everything I needed for the week’s vacation—back on the conveyor in security, on the other side of U.S. customs, with absolutely no way to retrieve it and still make my flight.
Call it what you will—metaphor, prophetic word, picture, unintended prophetic sign-act (à la Ezekiel, Jeremiah), whatever. I had a sense about my conundrum: leave the baggage behind. Which I did. And carried on down the jet bridge.
I had been in a heavy desert season. The light of God was highlighting, for lack of a better word, junk in my heart—even on the most subtle of levels—that needed to be ousted. Fragments of bitterness, unforgiveness, jealousy, offense, zeal without knowledge (as the wisdom tradition puts it). All contrastingly coupled with a seemingly insatiable desire to know God more—to go deeper. Like the desert mothers and fathers who left the distractions of the city to drink deep, I had been living as a sort of urban monastic.
Around that time, I had spoken from Matthew 5:8, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God,” but I addressed the beatitude in reverse: if you’re hungry for more of God, desiring to grow in kingdom identity and greater character transformation, you’ve got to let him extract the junk from your heart. In other words, leave the baggage behind.
Unsurprisingly, the message found me, and during a time of silent prayer, I was reminded of some unfinished business. I had asked God to show me anything he wanted me to see and my mind traveled backward on the timeline of my life to a few years prior.
In an attempt at a vacation, my wife and I had gone to the same desert destination for which I would later leave my bag at the security check. While we were there my wife needed to deal with a fairly serious family crisis back home. It was a Sunday, so I ambled over to the local African-American Baptist church. I love Gospel worship and that engaging preaching style of call and response.
The sermon was fantastic, and the finger of God pointed deeply into some places of my heart with healing hope and redemptive truth, provoking tears that rushed out almost uncontrollably in a room full of strangers.
I met the pastor after the service and encouraged him in his preaching gift. We exchanged information, my wife and I popped in to see him before returning home, and then we kept in touch over the next few months. Somehow in our communication back and forth, it came up that I would be back in his city in six months’ time, and he extended an invitation for me to preach in his church.
Then in one of our following emails, he dropped a comment that caught me off guard—he mentioned that I should ensure I was biblical when I spoke there.
Moi?! MA and PhD in biblical studies? Having taught university-level courses in the field at both undergraduate and graduate levels for just under twelve years, and subsequently, pastored for almost ten? He was concerned that I would be biblical? I had taught homiletics and biblical theology to MDiv students, for heaven’s sake.
And that’s when it happened. One acerbic email response from me killed the deal. And the relationship.
Now, years later, this desert season of whatever you want to call it—revelation of junk; heart gardening; humility school; repentance into the new—this season unearthed something ugly in me. The ugly root of pride.
In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis called pride “The Great Sin” ending that chapter with, “If you think you are not conceited, it means you are very conceited indeed.” There is probably a good reason why the New Testament alludes to Proverbs 3:34 twice, both in James 4:6 and also 1 Peter 5:5: “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Mash that up with Canadian poet/musician Bruce Cockburn’s powerful prescription, “And if mankind must have an enemy, let it be his warlike pride.”
The Greek word for “offence,” skandalon, refers to the moveable stick or trigger of a trap, the device that would set off the snare . . . to ensnare.
I got tapped again by the holy finger. And then I knew what I had to do. Humble myself. Lose the baggage. Address my prideful outburst.
My email went as follows:
Greetings in the name of Jesus. I trust that you are well and enjoying the blessing and favour of the LORD.
It has been a few years since we have been in contact. God has been doing a deep work in me, and I have an apology to make and a request for your forgiveness.
Some time ago, you and I were talking about the possibility of me coming down from Canada and bringing the word (sermon) to your church. In an email, you had mentioned a comment, totally legitimately, that you wanted to make sure what I taught was solid biblically (not sure exactly what may have been behind it, but I do know that we see differently on women in ministry, and my wife Heidi and I share the preaching load at our church). But of course, fair enough, as the father of that house, you are completely in order requesting that, and especially because we had just met and did not know each other in any detail.
Anyway, I wrote some kind of email back, which I cannot find on my phone, but it was not awesome for sure. What the LORD has shown me is that my pride rose up, and I took offense (which has been described as the bait of Satan, based on the Greek word), and I responded and acted out of that place. So I am confessing pride and offense to you as a sin and am asking you to forgive me for this.
Today in a time of extended prayer, I asked the LORD to speak to me about anything he wanted to talk about, and this whole situation came to mind. And I felt it was important to clear up for the sake of the Kingdom. No loose ends.
So there you have it. I bless you in the name of Jesus to receive an abundance of his love, grace, and peace.
I was not sure how he would respond. Or when. Even if. Less than three hours later, however, I received a response that began with: Brother Brother Brother and I say again, Brother.
Now that was a good start.
“I have on so many occasions been where you are. It is with great humility and love that I accept your apology. We do disagree with women in ministry however that does not break our fellowship. My comment about being doctrinally sound was not a slap against you. Shucks Brother you can drive a Ford and me a Chevy but just as long as we’re truck people, all is well.
Just the other day I was looking at the pictures we took together and had fond thoughts of you and your dear wife.”
After advising me that he had relocated, he closed with “I pray the Lord’s blessings upon you, and always, your brother P—“.
Man, I’ll take the Lord’s blessings any day. Especially from that guy.
In Hebrews 12:15, the author denounces a grace deficiency in the early Christian community—those who allow internal bitter roots to spring up, cause trouble, and defile many. The Greek verb, miainō, used here for defilement, actually refers to painting, staining, and dyeing in various of its earlier Classical Greek appearances. Bitter roots stain the heart. And others. Especially others.
I talked to a commercial painter once about the innovation of spray gun technology for house painting. Although this new approach became a huge timesaver, tweaks in air pressure were needed in the early days because the paint would sometimes spray all over the place, onto proximate cars and neighboring houses.
My bitter root had begun to stain others, and therefore, something had to be done about it.
In the post-resurrection encounter of John 20:10–18, Mary Magdalene mistook Jesus for being the gardener. In a slightly playful ironic reversal, my prayer is that I will not fail to recognize the divine gardener through any prodding his life-giving finger might enact. I want to extract any incipient roots a little earlier next time, prior to them becoming baggage, prior to them beginning to spray and potentially hurt or affect others, prior to them trapping me with something that a more careful heart-weeding might avoid.
Cover image by Liu Revutska.