Monday, January 31, 2005

Irony of Ironies

"Sometimes irony can be so. . . ironic!" It was a line from a movie I saw. It stuck with me, maybe because I run into irony so often, or maybe because I remember stupid stuff. But it's stuck in my brain somewhere between the name of the winner of the 1911 Indianapolis 500 (Ray Harroun) and the lyrics of "The Night Chicago Died" (Trust me, you don't want to remember that song.)

Irony is everywhere. But the picture of irony came to me again last weekend as I read a blog from Iraq about some of the details of the elections there. Danger was the key word, but fearless determination apparently won the day as the Iraqi citizens turned out to vote. We probably won't know for a few weeks, but the turnout in dangerous Iraq may have actually been higher that the turnout in safe and apathetic America. The courage of the voters is only matched by those who worked to ensure the safety of the voters. While terror did not rule the day, there were those who made the sacrifice to keep the peace. One of those people was Police Constable Abd al Amir.

Baghdad Police HQ reported that at 1200 hrs today, Police Constable Abd al Amir was killed in the line of duty at the Khalil bin Walid Polling Center in the Yarmuk section of Baghdad. Abd al Amir identified a suspicious man wearing an explosives belt, and immediately tackled him, shielding the lines of voters with his body, and dying instantly when the terrorist detonated his belt.
I cannot convey my thanks to al Amir and his family personally, but I am incredibly grateful and awestruck by his sacrifice on behalf of his country and his countrymen and women. He is a real hero. I think his story is an amazing picture of a man putting others before himself, and in so doing, made the ultimate sacrifice -- dying so others could live.

So where does the irony come in? I'll explain. . . in a minute.

I get asked a lot of tough questions in my line of work. Some I can answer, others I can't. One of the most common is the whole idea about the exclusivity of Christianity. "Why do you believe that Christianity is the only way to God? What about other religions?" People think we are such a private club, not wanting anyone else in on "our" heaven. True, there are some who are so prejudiced that they think heaven is only for white, middle-class Americans, but those are the real nutjobs. Reading the Bible tells you that access to God is made possible through the Son. If you reject the Son, you reject the Father. And that is certainly harsh sounding at times, but it is an important part of the Gospel. Christ is not exclusive to any one group. Well, that's not exactly true. Christ is exclusive to those who accept Him. But anyone is free to become a part of that group.

So in order to get to the irony, I have to make an assumption. I am assuming that Mr. al Amir was a Moslem. I could be wrong, and I hope I'm wrong but from circumstantial evidence I would suppose I must be right. And if I'm right, then Mr. al Amir is not in heaven right now. No person is saved by the good things he does. According to the words of Jesus, "No man comes to the Father but by me," if you reject Jesus, as a true follower of Islam would do, then despite his courageous sacrifice the Constable died in his sins.

I can already see part of the gallery picking up fruits and vegetables to throw at me. Believe me, I wouldn't say such things if Jesus didn't say it first. But His words are pretty clear.

I've heard many equivocate on this statement, saying that God would never send a good person to hell. Those who try this argument forget that God doesn't sentence anyone to hell without their agreement. A person agrees to eternal punishment by refusing Jesus Christ as Savior. Toss out Christ, toss out heaven as well.

Others tell me that they believe that God will save those who have never heard the name of Jesus Christ. And while I could go into a whole four-page counterargument about those people in far away places, I'll just point out that I'll leave judgments up to the only qualified Judge. And I'll just mention that if a person could be saved by never hearing Jesus' name, then we're wasting a lot of money on missionaries and outreaches. If people were saved without hearing about Jesus, we should spend the money to make sure that all books are burned and all means of communication with the outside world are destroyed. Wouldn't that be the most effective means to bring people into the Kingdom?

So, is that the irony?

No. It is a bit ironic. But the irony of ironies takes us back to the story of Police Constable Abd al Amir. Mr. al Amir gave his life sacrificially for others so that they could live. But if he was not a Christian then Mr. al Amir rejected the One who gave His life sacrificially so that he could live -- eternally.

Ironic. And sad.

Sunday, January 30, 2005

Hate Leftovers

Last week I had heard about a unique auction happening at an auction house in Howell, Michigan. It was the theme of the sale which brought a ton of controversy. The auction, which was held on Saturday, was of Ku Klux Klan memorabilia. Old pamphlets, buttons, robes, books, swords and patches proclaimed the superiority of the white race and the demonization of Jews, Catholics and especially, blacks. These symbols of hatred were auctioned off to the highest bidder. In essence, they were selling off "hate leftovers."

Reports from after the sale say that among the items sold were a KKK knife for $400 and robes ranging from $700 to $1425. In all $24,000 was taken in for the memorabilia. Some items went to people whose views were in direct conflict with the Klan, like the robe which will be housed in the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memoribilia at Ferris State University. But many items were purchased by the heirs of hatred. One man said he felt like the auction made him feel like he was at a Klan rally.

It's hard to believe that there are people who still align themselves with this group. These days, being in the KKK is not exactly a badge of honor. Eighty years ago that was not the case. The midwest was thick with hooded knights. The governor of Indiana was a Klansman and over a million of his compatriots lived in Indiana, Ohio and Michigan. Mind you, this was the North, not the South. In those days, the propaganda appealed to the patriotism of the prospective recruit. The Klan stood for America, they claimed - albeit their own vision of America. The Klan also stood for Christianity, they said. However the incredible twisting of Christian doctrine completely subverted the message of the Gospel. The image of a "lighted cross" being used as a tactic of intimidation is so amazingly contradictory, but so many of that era didn't see it that way. Or else they didn't allow themselves to see it that way.

It is that contradiction which has drawn my interest over the years. How could a Christian accept such hatred? How could this way of life be supported from the pulpits of mainline Protestant churches in the South during the 1960's? I saw a Moslem imam on television last night who was raised in the midst of the segregationist Christian church of the deep south. The contradiction and hatred caused him to abandon his faith and years later he converted to Islam. What an incredible legacy of supposed "Christian" hatred!

The tragedy today is that these attitudes still exist. Some, like the rabid bidders at the KKK auction, still carry the same unchecked hatred. In others the hatred has faded somewhat, but the same anti-Christian attitude remains. It's sad to say, but there are still neighborhoods near me where an African-American would not be welcome to live. There are still people who carry the same ignorance as their grandparents in regard to racial differences. And somehow some of these people claim to be Christians.

In the Roaring Twenties, Christian doctrine did not get in the way of ingrained fear and hatred. Even today the teachings of Jesus Christ can be ignored in favor of our own feelings, prejudices and preferences. In many "Christian" churches, a man with long hair and a leather jacket would not be treated in a "Christian" manner. And that is a heinous distortion of Scripture. It seems we are willing to serve Christ in any way -- provided it doesn't make us uncomfortable. When Jesus went into the Temple and literally turned over the comfortable system which was set up, He gave us an obvious clue about God's feelings on hypocrisy. And when He took the Pharisees to task about honoring their traditions over honoring God, it should have given us difinitive proof that the principles of Christianity aren't to be fudged to allow us to remain in our comfortable, sinful attitudes.

But until we look to Christ instead of looking to our comfort zone, we will continue to dine on hate leftovers as vile as a KKK robe.

Saturday, January 29, 2005

The Saga of the Button Pusher

Since Christmas, I have made much use of my Christmas present. You see, I'm one of those "hard to shop for" people. I usually don't want much. Maybe a sweater or a pair of jeans. But this past year, my family got the one thing they knew I wanted and would use - satellite radio. I'll admit that it sounds like such an incredible luxury (and it is), but the reason I use it so much is that the radio in my truck is lucky to pick up static. The local station fades out while I am less than two miles from the signal tower. So having satellite radio gives me something to listen to during all the driving. And listen is what I do; not just in the truck, but in the house also. I figure that if I'm going to pay for keeping the service, I'm sure going to get my money's worth!

So as a subscriber to Sirius satellite radio I now have around 120 channels to choose from. There is almost every kind of music imaginable on individual channels -- smooth jazz, traditional jazz, raggae, new country, relatively old country, really old country -- you get the idea. There are also a bunch of sports-talk and news-talk stations, ten regional weather channels, comedy stations and some stations you would have to hear to believe. Now to complicate things, I'm a button pusher. If I don't care about what's on then I hit the next preset or roll to the next channel. I try to sit and listen to one station sometimes, but eventually I'll try for something else.

There is one station which features all Contemporary Christian music - channel 12. I like channel 12 just fine. I listen to channel 12 more than any other channel. But it seems I'm always hitting the buttons to switch to 148 to hear a talk show or 146 to hear comedy bits. Many times it's other types of music I go after. Maybe it's 14, 15 or 16 to hear classic rock or 72 for jazz or 32 for country oldies. It seems there are always a bunch of channels begging for my listening.

It hit me this week that my Christian walk can sometimes resemble my radio habits. There is that one focus for my life -- my own version of channel 12 -- which is Jesus Christ. But there is always the call from the other channels trying to drown out what I'm hearing. It's not always the bad stuff either. Channel 26 is my wife trying to get me to do what I have promised to do. Channels 27, 28 and 29 have the concerns of my three kids. Channel 9 broadcasts the needs of my shirt business, while Channel 3 is for pastoral concerns. Then there are my hobby stations: 33 for IndyRacing, 56 for NFL football, 77 for college basketball, 41 for history, and a host of others which are naturally a part of my life. Channel 12 -- my Christian walk -- usually blends well with these concerns. Apparently the channels with one or two digits can be tuned in with or without channel 12 humming along in the background. My desire is to keep it on at all times.

The trouble is that there are another hundred or so stations which the world broadcasts especially to pull me away from my Christian walk. Those triple-digit channels cannot be heard while channel 12 is being received. Channel 139 is greed. Channel 160 is lust. Channel 183 is hatred. Channel 128 is laziness. These stations don't just compete for my attention, they try to keep me away from dear old channel 12.

It's easy to be a button pusher in life. There are a ka-jillion choices out there. Some of them blend in beautifully with a Christian way of life. But too much time on these stations cause us to lose our focus also. Even family is not a substitute for a relationship with Christ. Of course too many channels exist only to pull us away. Jesus said that men loved the darkness because their deeds were bad. It's easy to keep hitting the envy button or the obscenity button because that's what the world around us is listening to. We hate to be left out.

There is always a battle for our minds. It never ceases. And there's always another button waiting to be pushed. I'm glad channel 12 comes in so clearly.

Friday, January 28, 2005

Playing Favorites

I spent some time today in discussion with internet friends about music. What is your favorite Beatles song? What is your favorite Rolling Stones song? What is your favorite British group song not done by the Beatles or Rolling Stones? It was an interesting conversation, but I had a hard time coming up with favorites. It's not because I didn't know the music. After all I spent ten years working on-air in the radio business. But the problem was just picking one. How do you pick only one? How can a person have a favorite?

My boys can't understand why I don't have many favorites. They ask me for my favorite IndyCar driver and I can't give them just one. They ask for my favorite singer and I can't answer. I try to tell them that I don't have a favorite, but that idea seems to be lost on them.

It's not that I don't have any favorites at all. I have a favorite football team - the Chicago Bears. I used to have a favorite baseball team, but I've lost interest in Major League Baseball. With most everything else, my favorite tends to change with my mood. One day my favorite food is steak. The next day it could just as easily be sugar creme pie. Next week who know what I'll be craving.

Sometimes it's good not to have favorites. Tommy Smothers always used to tell his brother Dickie that "Mom always liked you best." As a parent, I know I can't have a favorite kid. Thankfully, I'm never tempted to have just one favorite out of my three. But most every kid wants to be a favorite. Not just my kids, but all of them. I wanted to be a favorite son. And when that didn't work, I wanted to be the teacher's favorite. Then the urge switches so that a boy wants to be the girls' favorite and the girl wants to be the boys' favorite. But why?

God doesn't show favoritism. That's what the Bible says. And so far as salvation is concerned, I believe that's true. But God also picked a few favorites to do His bidding. Noah was the lone bright spot on the earth. Abram was chosen to be the father of God's people. Moses was picked to lead Israel out of Egypt. Other favorites were chosen also: Joshua, Samuel, Saul, David, Elijah, Nehemiah -- the list goes on and on. The thing is that being one of God's favorites didn't mean you could coast. God's favorites often had a tougher time than the rest of the folks.

A teenage girl named Mary was chosen by God to bear the Christ Child. But this most favored and blessed young woman had much to endure as God's favorite. Besides the gossip about Jesus' conception and the flight to Egypt to save the young boy, Mary also had to deal with a grown Son who was so embarassing that she and the family thought He was crazy. Then when she came to believe, her baby was taken from her; first at the cross and then at the Ascension. It's not easy being God's favorite.

In many ways I feel like God's favorite. I have been blessed not only with family and material things, but also a business and a position as pastor. And with all those blessings come responsiblilites. Sometimes I think it would be much easier without all those blessings. Then I snap out of my laziness and realize what I've been given. Any weight on my shoulders is from the riches God has placed upon me. I think I can handle that. With God's help, of course.

To some extent Americans are God's favorites too. Let me explain. We are so blessed as Americans to be able to worship God without the fear of a government spy reporting us. We can share Christ without being arrested. We can gather together without worrying about gunmen coming in with AK-47's blazing. We have the oppotunity to hear about Jesus Christ our whole lives long, whether in person or via broadcast ministries. And with all these blessings come responsibilities. It would be easy to sit back and enjoy the bounty of the favorites. But when we rest on our laurels, we are exactly the opposite of what Christ wants us to be.

The poor and disadvantaged somehow seem to be rich and advantaged when it comes to faith. With no bank account to rely on, they have to rely on God. With no well-equipped hospital to go to, they must depend upon the Great Physician. With no religious freedom, they treasure every page of Scripture in their possession and every moment of corporate worship. For us "favorites" the world invites us to vacation in the great La-Z-Boy of comfortable materialism, and it's mighty tempting to kick our shoes off and stay awhile. But the price of being God's favorite is having to deal with the temptation of materialism and learning to lean on Christ instead of bearing the weight ourselves.

Luckily God doesn't play favorites when He offers the precious gift of forgiveness. When John 3:16 says "whosoever will" there are no qualifiers to deal with. While God blesses people differently, He saves people from every possible walk of life because there are no favorites. God doesn't like me best. But He loves me enormously.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Control Freak

Back in my radio days, Janet Jackson came out with an album (remember when they were albums?) called Control. The explanation for the title was that this was the first time in her life she ever felt like she had control of her music. Isn't that what we all seek? Control? The ironic thing is that Miss Jackson may have had a bit more control, but she still had producers, writers, musicians, publicists and a ton of others who had much more control over what happened to her music than Janet ever thought about. She was in control, yet she didn't have control.

I wouldn't call myself a control freak, but I will admit that I don't enjoy being told what to do. I know that my wife REALLY doesn't like being told what to do. Yet somehow, things get done at our house. Go figure.

But I think most people have a certain percentage of "control freak" inside. It's natural to want the ability to always get our way. Now maybe there are a few people who enjoy being told what to do, but those are the exceptions which prove the rule. Almost everyone wants to call the shots if they can. I'd rather be behind the wheel in a car during bad weather than to ride along without the ability to do anything to prevent skidding into oncoming traffic. When we get sick, we get uncomfortable in part because we're at the mercy of the doctor and the pharmacist and the medication and who knows what else. If our hands are tied, we tend to panic.

The reason I mention all this is a passage in a book I'm reading. It's a biography of George Washington, His Excellency by Joseph Ellis. The author mentioned that before the Revolutionary War, Washington was a "lukewarm Episcopalian" who prefered to stand instead of kneel to pray. Then the author made an aside, "Was this a statement?" That struck me. Is standing for prayer a subliminal way for us to keep control in prayer?

I'll admit that most of my prayer time isn't spent on my knees. In public I stand. In private I'm usually sitting or lying on my back. If that's a statement, I'm not sure what that statement is.

I'm sure that many times I'm tempted to set the agenda for prayer time. First comes praise, then some confession, some thanksgiving, then the laundry list of concerns. But is that how God wants us to pray? Where is the time for listening to God? Prayer isn't designed to be a monologue, but a dialogue. But there are times when I don't let God get a word in edgewise. Is it a control issue? Or am I just afraid of what I might hear?

I've heard it said that at salvation we turn over the keys to our life to God. Then for the rest of our lives we keep trying to find a way to take them back. Pretty stupid, really. Like I can come up with better answers than the Almighty. But the battle for control continues.

I'm not certain that kneeling would help matters. God always stresses the condition of the heart not the condition of the body. The body posture seems to be a reminder. If we kneel, we should realize that we are not in control. "Should" is the operative word. But it's too easy to get a death grip on the keys to our lives; foolishly thinking we actually have control.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

On the Losing End

While waiting for my son's bus to arrive from an away basketball game last night, I saw that there was a game being played inside the school. So, I went in to check it out. It turned out to be the 8th Grade girls team finishing up their game. I didn't really know anybody playing, but I figured I'd see what was going on since I was just waiting anyway. I walked in the gym and stood beside a couple of men who were watching the game from the corner. I turned to the scoreboard and saw that it was the fourth quarter with 2:30 left. Then I noticed the score. We were winning. Really winning. The scoreboard read 47-3.

I immediately asked the guy standing next to me if the score was right. He assured me it was. I told him that my immediate reaction was that there were some lights burned out on the scoreboard. He and the guy next to him each chuckled softly. But even though we were all pleased that our team was doing so well, we all knew that it wasn't exactly good sportsmanship to be laughing at the other team's performance. In fact, I believe we all were a little awkward -- especially considering we were standing right beside the bleachers containing fans from the other school! But that scoreboard looked so strange.

I've been on both sides of that scoreboard. I don't remember a 47-3 score, but I've been a part of teams who have gotten soundly thumped. And I've been on a baseball team winning so easily that he allowed the starters to play at whatever position they wanted during the last inning. I remember how lousy it feels to get thumped and how good it feels to do the thumping. And there's another feeling that I've experienced. It's the feeling of slight embarassment of doing too well, almost unintentionally rubbing it in.

One of our boys played flag football one year where he was clearly the best player on the team. Now this was a typical team of 5 or 6 year-olds where the coaches try to get everybody a chance to play and to carry the ball. And I could see my son's coach trying to do that, but it seemed that my boy ended up getting the ball every other time. And he'd run for a touchdown almost every time. And as parents we were extremely proud the first couple of times. Then after about the fifth or sixth touchdown we started to feel it. Whether or not it was true, we felt the nasty glances and icy stares of the other parents -- on our own team and on the opposition. It may have been completely in our imaginations but we just knew it. We told each other, "Isn't it time to take him out for a few plays?" Anything to get the focus on some of the other kids for a while.

While winning big can be fun (and occasionally a little uncomfortable), losing big is no picnic. Disappointment is a hard pill to swallow. Failure can almost choke you. But we all experience the lows as well as the highs. Sometimes it seems like forever since your last big win. But God comforts us in our disappointments and our failures.

God doesn't always answer our prayers the way we want. Sicknesses linger. People die. Games are lost. Yet God tells us that He will never leave us. He will never turn us loose.

Sometimes we fall flat on our faces. We fail after putting too little preparation into a project. We lose out even after doing our very best. Yet God provides the comfort. God provides the peace.

One of my favorite authors is Philip Yancey. He has written many books with titles like, Where Is God When It Hurts? and Disappointment with God. And through many explorations on the same theme the answer comes out the same -- He's right there to help you through.

The score of the game ended up as 49-8. The other team hit a couple of late baskets and almost hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer which would have run their score into double digits. I'd bet it was a long bus ride home after that loss.

I'm eternally grateful that God rides that bus with me.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

The Faith of the Evolutionist

A friend of mine sent me this quote. It's from John Gribbin and Jeremy Cherfas' book, The Monkey Puzzle and it pretty much says it all.

" is an uncanny fact-amply documented-that fossil hunters have had a happy knack of finding exactly what they were looking for."
I spent much of last week in a couple of internet debates over the creation/evolution debate. The evolutionist kept talking about how that theory had been proven over and over again. He discounted the Biblical version of creation as not only unproveable, but wrong. My friend proved him wrong repeatedly, but the faith of the evolutionist in the truthfulness of evolution remained unshaken visibly.

Now if you've done any kind of study on some of these archeological "missing links" that have been found over the years, you come across serious problems. A couple were proven to be frauds. Others were proven to be mistakes. I came across this news story about a new find claiming to be confirmation of hominids walking on 2 feet about 4.5 million years ago. Then when you read the whole article you realize that the anthropologists found "The teeth, jaw, and part of a toe and finger bones." That was all. Not complete skeletons, but a couple of bones. From those bones, they invented the rest of the story. Now that takes some imagination!

It's funny that my debate opponent didn't want to talk about the imagination of these scientists. Perhaps it's because he's put so much faith in scientists just like that. I told him that I don't have that much faith! As the quote says, fossil-hunters find exactly what they are looking for. It's easy to see red while wearing rose-colored glasses.

I think that's a real danger for everyone though. Christians often come at facts with our own set of biases. I ran across a web site yesterday where the author was claiming that the European Union coming together was the fulfillment of end-times prophecy. Now that is possible. It is also just as possible that the author was seeing what he wanted to see. Essentially he was finding exactly what he was looking for in the same way as the fossil-hunter. Just as it is important for the scientist to investigate with an open mind, so too Christians must do the same thing. I like to encourage people who grew up as Christians to investigate the claims of Christ for themselves. See how true they are. See how amazing the things that Jesus said actually are. We shouldn't be Christians just because that's all we've ever known. The evidence stands up on its own.

I don't want to put my faith in interpreting newspaper headline. I don't want to put my faith in people who tell me their own invented ideas about how things were or how they will be. I don't want to put my ultimate faith in anything on this earth. Faith is only as good as the object of your faith. I'm grateful that the One I put my faith in is worthy of that faith.

The Pretty People

Near the end of their lives, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson wrote letters, discussing many things as they rekindled their friendship. The close friends had been separated by politics for almost 25 years, but as the ice of their estrangement melted away the two patriots had much to say about the culture of the early 1800's. As the conversation turned to the aristocracy, or as we would say "The Pretty People", Adams wrote:
The five Pillars of Aristocracy are Beauty, Wealth, Birth, Genius and Virtues. Any one of the three first, can at any time, over bear any one or both of the two last.
His point was simple. If you are good-looking, rich or a part of a "good" family then you are set with The Pretty People. As I read that quote, I was taken with the fact that not much has changed in 200 years.

The Pretty People today are the ones who regularly make People magazine and the like. You know. . . celebrities. They are adored from afar and from closer distances as well. Impressionable young girls long to be like Paris Hilton (hard as that is for me to believe) and many long to have the power of Donald Trump. Why are these people celebrated? Beauty, wealth and birth. The whole issue of genius and virtue is swept away when one of the Big Three are present. Hilton has proven her lack of genius and virtue. Donald Trump certainly lacks virtue (don't we all at times?) but isn't he pretty smart to get that rich? Don't forget that Mr. Trump has seen the inside of bankruptcy court a couple of times. Let's face it - the reason Donald Trump is popular is because he is rich. The reason Paris Hilton is popular is because she's physically beautiful. Beauty and money are the Trump cards (pun intended).

Last weekend, Trump was married for the third time. His bride wore a wedding dress that cost more than my house, not including the jewelry. The Idol of Materialism did some good business that day. How people longed so much to be there! How they wanted to live like that! The coverage of that wedding fed the monster. Television feeds that same monster. And gives it steroids.

Did you ever see the reality show, Average Joe, which featured a woman trying to choose a possible husband from a group of 20 guys who were on break when the Beauty Fairy came calling? I didn't see much of that, but from what I saw the producers eventually brought in the Pretty People to make the woman choose between beauty and, well, the average Joe. Guess which she picked. That's right.

Let's not forget what Adams referred to as "Birth" or being a part of a preferred family. The daughter of O. J. Simpson got into trouble with the law a week back and it hit the newspapers. Now if she was the daughter of a longshoreman I doubt that Entertainment Tonight would have sent a camera crew. Some people are popular because of their family connections. Even if Paris Hilton was as ugly as my feet, she would still get attention because of her family's hotel chain.

While the world looks for beauty, money and family connections, God always seems to care about character - or "Virtues" as Adams wrote. Even brains aren't the big concern for our Creator. When the prophet Samuel was sent to Bethlehem to anoint one of Jesse's sons as the new king of Israel, he fell for the fallacy that The Pretty People are the best. Samuel assumed the oldest and best looking was the man for the job. He sounded almost despondent when he asked Jesse if there were any more sons around. And Jesse had all but forgotten about the kid watching the sheep, but David was the one God wanted. And He told Samuel that while man looked at the outside of a person, He looked at the heart. Or in Adams' terms, Beauty, Wealth and Birth mean nothing if there is no Virtue.

In a culture where The Pretty People are worshiped, God still looks past the exterior.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Sunday Morning at Home

This is weird. Sunday morning. No church. I realize that much of America experiences this every weekend, but for a pastor this is just weird. The snow was drifting so services were cancelled last night. That meant that I could, basically, sleep in today. On Sunday.

I thought of finding a church who hadn't cancelled services this morning, but my wife is gone and I have a sick child. So now I get to experience a Sunday morning at home.

The Sunday paper is still outside. I don't figure it's much different reading it at 9:00 Sunday morning than at 1:00 Sunday afternoon anyway. The radio is playing praise music. A different station is broadcasting a Lutheran service from Ft. Wayne. Nice, but they sure have a lot of announcements to go through. The TV schedule has a few Christian services on. I see these sometimes on Sunday evenings. Right now, James Kennedy's choir is decked out in blue with an operatic tenor singing. Before that, there was a good praise band which was leading what looked like a couple thousand in worship. A couple thousand looks foreign to this small church pastor. I've worshiped in small churches and medium churches. I've been part of a 60,000 man choir at PromiseKeepers. But a church that big looks both incredibly exciting and absolutely foreign.

But I can handle any size group in worship, provided it is a time of worship and not simply a time of going through the motions. On a Sunday morning at home, I have no regular routine. It would be easy enough to work my way into a weekday routine and forget God again today. That is, have a quick prayer and get to the housework or the bookwork. But somehow I just need a time of worship. And it's not something that watching a pastor on TV is going to satisfy. It's a time of refilling that an evening devotional doesn't do. It's a time of expressing myself to my Creator that can be substitued with nothing else.

I don't know how people call themselves Christian without attending church. I know too well the temptations of pushing God to the back burner, and often right off the stove. I have to deal with the urging to immerse myself in self, just like everybody else does. And I know that occasionally picking up a Bible, wiping the dust off, and reading something for a few minutes doesn't nourish a soul any more than being a starving man served a meal consisting of a single lima bean. And I smile quietly when I hear someone say that they don't attend a church but they pray and read the Bible. . . then I feel sorry for the person who is only fooling himself.

God is so easy to ignore when we allow the world to crowd Him out. When the demands of work get heavy it's easy to push God away and get some more work finished. When the kids have another activity which keeps you out too late, it's almost natural to head to bed instead of offering God some of that time. Hey, when there's something good on TV God becomes suddenly less important far too often. And when there's a snowstorm which forces worship services to be called off, it's far too easy to consider it a "day off from God" and try to drink in more time for yourself. And it feels good. . . for a while. But it doesn't satisfy. Not like worship will satisfy. Satisfy the longing a soul has for its Creator.

At home or in a church building; morning or evening; Sunday or any other day of the week; God asks for our worship. And our soul yearns to do just that.

Saturday, January 22, 2005

Whiter Than Snow

I like snow. That's not always a popular opinion around these parts. In town, people complain bitterly about shoveling and not being able to go anywhere without inconvenience. It gets in the way. It makes you so cold that it's hard to warm up again. But I still like it. If for no other reason, I like snow because of the way it makes things look.

In the church we sing about being washed whiter than snow. And that's pretty white. As I look out my window right now, we've had about 8 inches of snow fall in the past 48 hours. Everything is white. The only exceptions stick out like, well, dark things on a white field. And it's a stark contrast.

People are killed all winter long because of snow. Sometimes it's a heart attack while shoveling it. Other times someone is trapped and freezes to death. Then there are the traffic accidents caused by snow. Of course the snow isn't really the cause, it's someone driving too fast or in the wrong lane, but without the snow many of these accidents wouldn't have happened.

Yet at the same time, snow provides a setting for skiing, sledding, snowmobiling, hiking and a host of other activities which give people much joy. I remember the thrill as a kid getting to ride a snowmobile the first time. And more thrills when I got to drive! And who can forget waiting for school to be cancelled because of snow?

How does something cause joy and pain at the same time? Could it be in the eye of the beholder (or possibly the shoveler?) Is it simply a matter of seeing the glass as half full instead of half empty? Perhaps. But even in the worst of situations, God can mold us. Isn't that what Romans 8:28 is all about anyway? But no matter how terrible the situation, the good can still happen. Scripture often speaks of the refiner's fire - putting silver through fire to take away its impurities. The bad (getting burned is surely not fun) being used for the good. Good living with bad. Joy partnered with pain. What a symbol for our life on earth!

Yet some only see the bad. The snow becomes an obstacle instead of an opportunity. Tragedy becomes an excuse to run away from God instead of running to Him. I've seen many people who seem to relish the hate. They live for the chance to be surly. They are not comfortable unless there is reason to complain. I feel for those people.

For now, the snow continues to fall. And now it's blowing into drifts. The whiteness is becoming even whiter with the blowing snow in the air. And I wonder if that's a living example of being washed "whiter than snow" or just wishful thinking. Either way, there's a snowman waiting to be built.

Friday, January 21, 2005

Merciful Memory Loss

It had been almost 14 years. I hadn't set foot in that hospital since the day our baby died and my wife was released. She had spent a lot of time in University Hospital during her pregnancy. I got to know where everything was, which cafeteria foods were best, the best places to park. . . but somehow nothing seemed familiar.

I was back at University Hospital Thursday. And for all I remember from that stressful time back in 1991 I was amazed that as I walked the halls nothing looked familiar. I was a little disappointed. Granted the hospital had done a good bit of remodeling in the past 14 years, but still I thought I would seem a little more. . . at home. It was such a big event in my life. Why didn't the setting bring back more memories?

I realize that I can't remember everything. As I've gotten older, there are certain members of my family who will tell you that I can't remember anything! But this wasn't just anything. This was where my first son was born. And died.

I remember a Sherlock Holmes story where Dr. Watson told Mr. Holmes some obscure fact. Holmes was upset and told Watson something like, "Now that I know that I shall try my best to forget it. The human mind can only hold so much information and I don't want to waste my mind on something so terribly unimportant!" I always thought that was an interesting concept. And a pretty good excuse for forgetting things.

"Now honey, I forgot your birthday, but I can still tell you who sang "Torn Between Two Lovers!"

How does the human memory work? Why do we remember some things but others just can't be recalled. My wife has a great memory, except that she remembers very little about her childhood. Now her childhood wasn't a perfect one. In fact, far from it. Asking her about 6th grade is like asking a golden retriever about quantum physics. Is her lack of memory a way to forget the bad stuff?

I can remember both good and bad from childhood; ecstatic and tramatic alike. And I'm sure there are good things and bad things that have left me completely. But sometimes a switch is turned, a button is pressed, an electrode is connected or something which brings back a flood of memories. While watching a TV show a few weeks ago, one of the characters was feeling rejected and depressed and something inside me was triggered and those feelings came rushing back to me. I remembered years ago when I felt the same way. But it wasn't like remembering, it was like reliving. If it had been the beginning of the day it might have been hard to shake all day long.

Why did God design our memory this way? Or is our memory like our body - affected by the curse of sin and frequently breaking down?

It's been said that if women remembered everything about giving birth that no one would have a second child. But somehow, the pain is masked or diminished over time so that a woman is actually ready to go through it again.

I think it's mercy. Plain and simple. That verse about God not giving us more than we can handle. . . forgetting is like Spring cleaning - making room for the new by getting rid of the old. I think God uses our memory loss as a tool to wash us with His mercy. We don't have to live the pain of a lost child or a traumatic childhood constantly. There are still reminders, to be sure. But He gives us comfort. He grants us mercy.

The triggers which flood a person with feelings also aids us as we comfort others. Instead of merely feeling sorry for another person, often God allows us to share those feelings. I know that I can comfort a grieving parent a little easier because I have been a grieving parent also. And since that is true, then perhaps our memories are not always cleared away but filed away, able to be recalled if necessary; filed by God, mercifully, until needed to be used by Him to bring comfort to someone else.

I don't know. God doesn't give us all the answers. But He obviously gives mercy. And that's one memory we must keep.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

"Can I take my medicine now?"

Yup, that's what she said. "Can I take my medicine now?"

Maybe you can hear that sentence from the lips of someone recovering from surgery from time to time, but not from the lips of a three year old girl who mostly feels pretty good. It's music to the ears of this well-worn dad who has had to hold down the occasional son and force medication past the teeth and down the throat. But my daughter was ready, willing and quite anxious to take her medicine this morning when she rolled out of bed at 10 A. M. (Yes, it's heavenly to have a child who loves to sleep late!)

It's not horrible medicine - just amoxicillin - today's antibiotic of choice. And it's bubble gum-flavored. That never made a difference with my two older kids though. Usually they'd take it eventually, but they were never anxious to get to it.

It turns out that the rash that was on my daughter's back and belly is Scarlet Fever. Now I don't know about you, but the name "Scarlet Fever" makes me think of mosquito-infested jungles and writhing bodies being carried off on canvas stretchers to tent hospitals. Too many movies growing up, I guess. My little girl, mercifully, has almost no symptoms. The doctor said she should have a high (105 degree) fever, swollen glands and an almost raw throat. She doesn't have any of that. She hasn't even shown a sign of fatigue over the past three days. In fact, we just had a quick dance together moments ago. Strange, isn't it?

It's always strange to notice that some people are affected differently by misfortune. When I was a kid, my younger sister got the chicken pox. She, for some reason, had a grand total of maybe a dozen "pox" on her body. Her fever was almost non-existant. And when she found out it was contagious, she ran around the house trying to kiss me! About two weeks later, guess who had the chicken pox? You got it. But I didn't get the "one dozen pox and no fever" version. Like Elisha, I got a double portion. Pox in my ears and down my throat and other places that I don't wish to relive. The fever was in triple digits too, although I don't remember much of that because of all the ITCHING!!! I never found the way to exact my revenge on my sister for that episode. Probably just as well.

So why are we affected differently? Why doesn't God make sure the sickness and suffering are distributed evenly? Why is a Chinese pastor in jail for preaching the Word while I am sitting in a comfortable room with music playing, typing on a computer? Why is Linda, a lady at my church, having a second cancerous tumor removed this week while my grandmother has lived 91 years without having any?

I know all the verses to quote. I understand that we suffer the consequences of living in a fallen world. And I know that God will not give us more than we can handle with His help. That last one almost hurts as much as it helps. How many people give up without accessing divine comfort? Way too many, that much I know. And it brings me back to the lost in the world. People seem to want to do things themselves, even if they fail. Not everybody, mind you, but far too many. And if you can do it yourself, you certainly don't need a Savior. Too many people live with the delusion that they are actually handling things themselves. We are never as strong as we think we are.

I guess we're all different. That would partially explain why we are affected differently by things of the world. But is the rest of it simply the amount of leaning we do on our Heavenly Father? Not in the case of my daughter's lack of fever or my own "extra-pox" or any other physical ailment, but in the way we handle it. The leaning takes a lot of pressure off our own shoulders, and I don't understand why people are afraid to lean. But I realize that in too many cases I try to handle things without leaning also. I doubt that many of us are immune.

So when the troubles pile up, I try to remember to lean that much harder. And I thank God for His presence, His love and His mercy. And for bubble gum-flavored medicine.

Saturday, January 15, 2005

The Stranger in My House

We had a visitor at our house this week. Someone who we didn't know stopped by for a stay. My wife called him Teddy, saying he looked like a real live teddy bear. Personally, I didn't see the resemblance. To me, he just looked like what he was - a cocker spaniel.

We're dog people. We have a basset hound named Harvey and a black dog we picked up as a stray, named April. They're plenty of work on their own, but for two days we had three to deal with. And Harvey didn't want any part of "Teddy" setting foot on his property. But being dog people, seeing the dog running down our road, almost getting hit by a car, we just had to take him in.

We spent most of a day and a half looking for Teddy's home, searching everywhere to our east, since that's the direction Teddy was running from when he passed our house. But no one knew of a family with a cocker spaniel. We thought of calling the shelter, but decided we'd just plan on keeping him. The main reason to keep him was my wife, who has been wanting to get a spaniel - any spaniel. Then one showed up on her doorstep.

Then about 48 hours after he had showed up, Teddy's owners pulled in the drive. Turns out that he lives to our west, partially explaining why we couldn't find his owner. After all we were looking to the east. Also turns out that his name is Junior and was expected back home. We can even see the house where he lives from our kitchen door. It's just about a mile to the southeast of us. (Yes, we live in a place where seeing a mile away is no big deal.)

So now we're back to normal. Harvey and April are still here. And Teddy/Junior is back where he belongs, after giving his family a scare. But it's a little different around here. He wasn't here long, but that little cocker spaniel certainly made an impression.

The whole experience got me thinking. We all have people who come into our lives for a short time, then leave. And even a short time together can make a big impact. I have many friends with whom I rarely communicate and almost never see. Old college roommates, people I used to work with, shirttail relatives. . . all of whom I'd love to spend time with, but there's too much distance - physically and emotionally. I realize that most of these people I may never see again this side of heaven. Yet they had great impact on my life.

Some of the happiest times of my pre-married life were my years in college. We were tight, the bunch of us. Today, one is dead - killed by a drunk driver. Another lives over 1000 miles away. The rest are like me - tied up with family, work and our everyday lives. I miss those times.

Why does God allow people to slip away from us? Why would I blame God? Isn't it me who lets people slip away? Looking from a distant perspective, those guys were a lot like ol' Teddy - here for a while, then gone. And even though I have let too many friendships slide in the past 20-30 years, I am so grateful for those people being a part of my life. Even the people I didn't care much for at the time, now I can see practical things in my life affected by those people.

I even remember being dragged along on a double date in college. One of my roommates was desperate to go out with this girl and she would only agree if he found a date for her friend. Well, I was the guy for the job, apparently. We went to the dorm to pick up our dates. I was introduced to my date. I can't remember her name, but I'll call her Cathy.

I said, "It's nice to meet you Cathy."

She nodded and forced a weak smile. Apparently I wasn't what she was hoping for.

As the double date progressed I began to realize that "Cathy" had not even said a word to me. Not "Hi." Not "Thank you." Nothing. So I began to ask her questions just to get her to verbalize something. Anything! But she managed to ignore me the entire evening. When we dropped off the girls, I was too amused to be mad. I had actually had a date with someone who wouldn't speak to me! Let me tell you, that's great training for marriage!

But the "visitor" who made the most impact on me was my firstborn son. Payton was the product of a troubled pregnancy and a premature birth. A wriggling in my wife's belly became a terribly small human being, seemingly right before my eyes. I saw the miracle of life. Then I saw that miracle taken away. And I didn't know what to do or what to think or even what to feel. And as I screamed out "Why?" to God and to anyone who would listen, nothing made any sense. There was absolutely no reason for God to allow my son to die.

It's been almost 14 years since then. And I'm still not sure I understand why God allowed Payton to stay so briefly in my life. Wouldn't it have been better if he had never been conceived? I would have been saved a lot of pain, as would my wife. But these days I can see a few hints of what God did with that tragedy. I can see how my attitude has changed toward others who are going through pain. I know that because of Payton, my wife gave her life to Jesus Christ. I know that I am now so incredibly grateful for the three kids I have sleeping under my roof tonight. Like the hints of daylight just before the dawn, I see the shadows from the brilliant light of God's love. Because of that little visitor who was almost literally, here one day and gone the next, God has gotten a stronger foothold in my life.

The cocker spaniel is home now. My old friends have lives of their own and I occasionally hear from them. Payton is home now too. I will join him there someday. But even the shortest of time together can change us if our hearts are open.

Friday, January 14, 2005

My Life's Ingredients

I like to bake. Especially at Christmastime. Part of the reason could be that I like to eat baked goods, but I'm going to set that aside for the time being.

With each recipe is a list of ingredients and a notation telling me how much to use. After the third different cookie recipe, it's pretty easy to see that many recipes are very similar. You almost always use sugar, flour and baking soda. Sometimes you throw in peanut butter or chocolate chips. Maybe you get to use brown sugar or powdered sugar. Then there's vanilla, coconut flakes, nuts, cocoa, and. . . better stop there, I'm getting hungry!

But my point is that there are always ingredients - the stuff that you make things with. And it works that way with life too, from what I can see.

All of us are "baked" with the ingredients of our lives. Usually they'll be similar - childhood, grandparents, job, kids, etc. But the differences are there too. Sometimes the amounts are different. Other times we are made with "freak ingredients" like tragedy or fame. And so no matter how similar we seem, we are actually all so incredibly distinct.

I like to tell everyone never to assume that other people look at things with the same perspective as you. I like that idea. I learn so much from the way other people view the same things as me but see things so differently. I hope you and I can learn from the unique perspective we each have.

The ingredients of my life may be pretty basic, but like everyone I have my own set of "freak ingredients" to deal with. I'm in my 40's, married with 3 kids aged 3-13. I have two jobs, each of which take up too much of my time which somehow causes me to spend too little time on them. One job is mostly seasonal - May through October. My other job is pastor of a small church.

"Yikes! Not a pastor?!" Yup, a pastor. Already many of you have "defined" me. But I'll bet you're off a bit. I haven't always been a pastor. For 10 years I worked in radio, mostly as a DJ and a Program Director. I've done other jobs too. Heck, I grew up working at my dad's shoe store, so I've been working for years. But there have been times I've had no job. I've been fired from my job through no fault of my own - twice.

I've had my share of tragedy too. Almost 14 years ago, my wife and I lost our first child - less than 24 hours after his birth. I'd be lying if I told you that still doesn't affect me. But I've found that God doesn't promise us a perfect life. He promises that He will strengthen us through the bad times. There are times when that doesn't impress me. It hurts to hurt. And sometimes I'd rather just be mad. But those times are fewer and farther between these days, and I think that's only because my relationship with my Strengthener and Comforter is stronger.

I have plenty of other interests. I've always been a sports fan although the past few years I've narrowed down the list of sports I follow. I've been a fan of Indycar Racing since childhood, and moderate an Indycar discussion forum at in my spare time. I love NFL football - Bears fan and the past few years a Colts fan too. Most of the baseball I watch these days are the games my sons are playing in. I'm also big into music (the radio background almost requires this interest), love animals, and can find few things as satisfying as a good nap!

I'm also pretty opinionated (you knew that from the "pastor" remark, didn't you?) and love a good debate, but I find that there are a lot of things which aren't worth the time to get upset about. I do always find time to remind my wife that I'm always right, though. Then I duck!

So all the ingredients are stirred and room in the bowl is left for the secret added ingredients (funny how God doesn't finish with us until we're finished here on earth). And from here I embark on reflecting on the things which grab my attention and trying to get them to make sense. Sometimes my atttention span is short. Other times it is not. But I struggle to pay attention and make the most of what I have been given.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I could use a cookie.