Ever since humanity “fell” in the garden back in Genesis 3, relationships have been difficult. Interactions with others can often be strained, awkward, and painful—sometimes even vicious or violent. But ever since Jesus died and rose again from the dead, relationships have been given new hope and a real potential for peace, sincerity, depth, and authenticity. It’s a long road back to the serenity of Eden, but it’s a road paved with the blood of Jesus Christ, so it’s a road worth traveling.
The Book of Philemon answers the broad question, “What does Christianity look like when it’s put into practice, especially as it pertains to relationships? What does our faith look like when it’s set in motion—not only in the Roman Empire of the first century, but also today—in the twenty-first century? Philemon gives us a partial answer, and it involves the spiritual practice of forgiveness. C. S. Lewis once said, “Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea until they have something to forgive.” He was right, and that’s why we sometimes feel squeezed in the Christian life. As recipients of forgiveness, we’re called to be distributors of it as well.
Paul’s letter to Philemon is only 355 words in the original Greek, but it carries a weight far beyond its length. Everyone here is being “squeezed.” Onesimus, the runaway slave is being squeezed. Philemon, the slave owner, is being squeezed. Even Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, is being squeezed. Our focus in Part 1 is Onesimus, who shows us that the more we try to run from God and his ways, the more he puts the squeeze on us, pulling us back to himself. Moreover, Onesimus shows us that so often we run from one set of circumstances to another—trying to find true freedom and personhood—only to get imprisoned in our own escape routes.
The good news is that God does his squeezing with the gentle hands of love so his people will be conformed to the image of his Son. But the shaping can make us uncomfortable. We come to see that a change in circumstance doesn’t change who we are on the inside. Indeed, we discover that we can run from one set of circumstances to another—trying to find true freedom and personhood—only to get imprisoned in our own escape routes. Thankfully, the gospel of Jesus Christ re-humanizes us so we can flourish in this life, regardless of our circumstances. That’s because freedom is a mentality more than a locality.
The book of Philemon shows us that sometimes God doesn’t want our situation to change; he wants us to change in the situation. Such change is possible with the help of Jesus Christ, the one who died by crucifixion—a slave’s death—though he himself was completely innocent of all wrongdoing. Running to him is the only way to find a true and lasting freedom.
Best I can tell, the day of my conception was July 1, so happy pre-birthday to me! Here’s the story. A young woman living in Philadelphia, PA met a military guy passing through town. In time she became pregnant by this man, which was totally unexpected. Not wanting to stick around for the delivery (or the subsequent duties of fatherhood), the guy split, and the pregnant lady was left alone. “What man would want to be with me now?” she thought to herself.
But eventually she became romantically involved with another man, even though she was pregnant, and the new relationship seemed like it might fare better than the previous one. There was, however, one complication. The new guy on the scene wasn’t so sure he could accept—as his own—a child sired by another man. “I want you,” he said to his new sweetheart, “but I’m not so sure I want the baby inside you.”
So, a decision was made. When the baby finally came, he or she would be placed in a foster home. Abortion was not legal at the time, so their options were limited. The young woman had to carry the baby to term. Pre-born children back then were protected in law and welcomed in life.
The Following Spring
On March 31 the baby was born and placed immediately—as planned—into a foster home. It was a boy. Because he was unwanted, unplanned, and unloved, he needed a place to stay. Enter the Children’s Aid Society of Philadelphia. “We’ll find parents for the boy,” they said. “We understand full well that one couple’s ‘mistake’ is another couple’s dream—the answer to all their prayers—a blessing from heaven.”
“Miss Andrews” from the Children’s Aid Society went to work. Her labors eventually paid off. On April 20 of the following year, another young couple—this one from Reading, Pennsylvania—walked out of the Berks County Courthouse the proud new legal parents of that baby boy.
This couple could not produce children of their own, but they could receive children of their own. And they did so through the miracle of adoption. In fact, this was their second of three trips down the adoption aisle, and they were thrilled with their new bundle of joy each time.
I am that second child—the adopted child of Carl and Cherie Valentino. This unwanted boy was wanted after all. And that’s why I am “one less”—one less orphan in the world today. I was an orphan for just thirteen months of my life.
A Word of Thanks
To all those who are reading this post who have fostered a child, adopted a child, or provided resources for others to do the same, let me offer a sincere “thank you.”
I am here today because of people like you.
I owe my very existence to people like you.
I can write this post today because of people like you.
You are the people who are filled with compassion, who genuinely care, and who not only love children but reach out to expectant mothers in crisis, too.
Charles Spurgeon once wrote, “Before we ever had a being in this world, we had a being in God’s heart.” That’s one of the great truths we find in Psalm 139, which tells us that God knits us together in our mother’s womb.
God Almighty has a plan and a purpose for every child—each tiny miracle conceived in the secret place and fashioned so wondrously by the Master Artist. Those plans are to give the little ones a future and a hope, just like he did for me. That’s why his art studio should not be firebombed.
The Beauty of Adoption
It’s an amazing thing for me to think about:
I didn’t have a home, but through adoption the Valentinos gave me one.
I didn’t have a name, but through adoption the Valentinos gave me one.
I didn’t have a family, but through adoption the Valentinos gave me one.
I didn’t have an inheritance, but through adoption the Valentinos gave me one.
I didn’t have food, clothing, shelter, money, hope or love, but through adoption the Valentino’s gave me all of those things, and so much more. Through a binding legal covenant, sealed in a court of law, I became the real child of Carl and Cherie Valentino. It may sound like a cliché, but it’s true: Adoption is the option everybody can live with. Literally.
A Spiritual Illustration
When I read in scripture that God has “predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 1:15), I get excited because I have a little bit of “lived insight” into that great truth. When we believe into Christ, everything changes.
Spiritually speaking, we didn’t have a home, but God gave us one in Christ.
Spiritually speaking, we didn’t have a name, but God gave us a new one, written down in the Book of Life.
Spiritually speaking, we didn’t have a family, but God put us in one—his church, the Body of Christ.
Spiritually speaking, we didn’t have an inheritance, but God gave us “every spiritual blessing in heavenly places” and a salvation that can “never rot, perish, spoil or fade away.”
In that sense, I’ve been adopted twice, and I thank the Lord that he has allowed me to share this good news as a minister of the gospel.
They Told Us Early
Mom and Dad told us right from the beginning that all three of us were adopted. They were proud of that fact, and they wanted us to be proud of it, too, so they told us when we were very young. In fact, I think we were a little too young. I was maybe four or five years old, and I just didn’t know what the word “adoption” meant, so I formulated my own definition based upon the context of what they were telling us.
I thought the word “adoption” meant some legal arrangement whereby no matter how bad we three kids were, mom and dad couldn’t give us back; they had to keep us! The other kids in the neighborhood—if they were bad enough, their parents could give them back at any time because they didn’t have this special arrangement called adoption.
Spiritually speaking, that’s not a half-bad definition of adoption! Having become a child of God by faith in Jesus Christ, we’re in the family of God to stay (John 8:35).
The Card That Came with Me
It was fascinating to me—and hopefully encouraging to you—that there was a greeting card that accompanied me on my journey from Philadelphia to Reading. I got to see it for the first time a few years ago.
It was a card from my foster family, and it was addressed to “Timmie’s Parents.” (Now, if anybody tries to call me “Timmie,” you’re dead meat!)
It’s clear from the language in that card that the foster parents who took care of me for 13 months were people of faith. They were followers of Christ.
I don’t know their names. In fact, I don’t know anything about them except this: They had a very powerful ministry to children in need. The card indicates that they had prayed for me, for my new home, for my new siblings, and for my new parents.
The Valentinos were far from a perfect family, but I believe that God honored their prayers. In fact, those prayers are why I’m here today. And to those prayers, I would like to add my own grateful “amen.”
Who is God? What is he like? How do we conceive him to be? Years ago, a man was trapped in a railroad car all night. It was a refrigeration car, and he was horrified. He was desperate to get out, but he couldn’t. With a sharp object he found in the car, he scratched out a message on the wooden floor: “If I don’t get out of here, I’ll freeze to death.” The next morning, he was found dead. That was doubly tragic because the refrigeration unit wasn’t on that night. It never went below 55 degrees on the thermometer the whole time he was trapped inside.
Mental constructs are vitally important, and what we believe about certain things is no small issue. So, consider the question once again, “Who is God?” Christians are well trained to respond by saying, “He’s the God of the Bible!” But which God of the Bible? Not that there’s more than one presented in Scripture, but there are certainly many portrayals of him. The biblical God has many attributes and many ways of engaging with people as he travels from page to page, scene to scene.
The book of Genesis, for example, shows us a God who appears in many different disguises, playing many different roles, and wearing many different “hats.” He’s highly interactive with his creation—changing faces and changing forms without notice. What’s that all about? It means, in part, that Genesis is a “photo album of the traveling God.” It’s a collage of “God sightings,” and we need to read it with our eye on him. What do we learn about God and his ways from watching him in action?
If God is truly infinite, then all our ideas and understandings about him will be incomplete. Not necessarily wrong but incomplete. That’s why Peter instructs believers to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet 3:18). Likewise, Paul writes, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection” (Phil 3:10). Paul already knew Christ, but he wanted to know him more. He needed to know him more.
One of the greatest enemies to truth is thinking we have it all. That mindset causes us to stop looking, stop seeking, stop listening, and ultimately stop thinking. Religious people with deep convictions often fall into this trap. Indeed, it was a highly religious crowd that killed Jesus—the “God-with-us” Emmanuel. Their concept of God—which they thought was biblical—was radically wrong. It was also wrong-headed. But no one could tell them that. Not even Jesus.
If we’re not dynamically growing in our understanding of God—going deeper into the Infinite whose surface we have barely scratched—we might wind up crucifying the truth, too. It’s not enough for believers to be doctrinally right about God, we have to be dynamically relating to God on the journey of lifelest we get spiritually stale and obnoxiously blind. So, join us for this flyover of Genesis. You might discover a bigger, more adventuresome God than you’ve ever known. You might even start praying to “our Father, who art incredible.”
I know a few folks who have a bad case of fibromyalgia, and it doesn’t look fun. Recently, I’ve been suffering from a bad case of fibro-nostalgia. It’s certainly not as debilitating as chronic pain, but it sure can cause the mind to wander and the productivity to drop. I blame the latest flareup on my son.
Drew took me to see the new Top Gun movie on Father’s Day. It’s not a tear-jerker, but I found myself getting plenty choked up numerous times over the course of the film. Some of the feels were because I was, well, with my beloved son in whom I am well pleased. Some were because of the constant allusions back to the original movie. Maybe I subconsciously thought of that era as my heyday. Or maybe I’m just a sniveling wuss. 🙂
“Total Eclipse of the Heart” by Bonnie Tyler had been out for a couple years and was still popular back then. “Amanda” by Boston could be heard everywhere, along with “Say You, Say Me” by Lionel Richie. “Manic Monday” by the Bangles had just hit the radio, and I really liked that song because they included my name in it. 🙂 And, of course, “Highway to the Danger Zone” by Kenny Loggins made its debut in Top Gun.
Other top artists back then included Bon Jovi, Janet Jackson, Whitney Houston, Robert Palmer, and a slew of others. I didn’t care too much for Boy George or Madonna, but I (mostly) enjoyed Rush, Journey, Phil Collins, and REO Speedwagon. The Doors had flashes of brilliance, but their corpus was generally too dark for my taste. After I met Jesus, I wanted to make some adjustments to my collection, anyway.
Kate Christensen was surely right: “Nostalgia is a powerful drug. Under its influence, ordinary songs take on dimensions and powers, like emotional superheroes.” That said, I’m still more interested in tomorrow. As Anne Shirley Cuthbert put it, “Tomorrow is a new day with no mistakes in it…yet.”
Come to think of it. I could get pretty nostalgic about Anne of Green Gables, too. Bethany and her friends used to watch the Megan Follows version, which was adorable and extremely well done. (And—while it’s a completely different approach, not to mention earthy, dark, and raw—Anne with an E really should keep going, and the producers should finish what they started. We were all left hanging.)
Anyway, back to the present. The best days are ahead.
I’ve written before about my adorably delicious Samuel Sandwich gig—a fun little game I play with SamJam every time he comes to my house. You might remember that two pillows serve as the top and bottom slices of “bread.” Together they encase the “Samuel meat” and the tickling “condiments” he receives (endures?) from me before I gobble him up.
Well, for Father’s Day this year, I received two pillows that look like bread to give our game a touch of authenticity—one from Micah and Bethany, and one from Sonya. They were the funniest gifts I think I’d ever received, and I couldn’t stop laughing after I opened them. Of course, I had to try them out right away:
Micah and Bethany also got me a whipped cream spoon (long story, maybe for another post), and two beautiful cards that got me seriously choked up. Sonya got me a few polo shirts and a Japanese maple tree, something I’ve always wanted to get but never did. Her card was excessively kind, too.
Andrew took me to see the new Top Gun movie, which was fantastic. He also sprang for snacks at the theater, so he might need to take out a loan to pay for them! 🙂 It was great for just the two of us to hang out for a while. He’s a wonderful young man.
All this was after a great morning at church and family lunch at our favorite local Italian restaurant. Best Father’s Day ever. I am supremely blessed.