Thursday, November 06, 2008

Cardioectomy

During the ten years I spent working for various radio stations, I saw these scene numerous times. After all, radio stations try to bribe people to listen. They offer money, prizes, and all sorts of excitement just ot keep people listening or to get them to show up at a radio station event. Often those events brought out some real gems.

I had been at this new car dealership for about an hour and a half with free hot dogs, drinks and balloons for the kids. The guy at the grill had gone through all the hot dogs on hand and since the appearance was almost over, he didn't go out to get any more. Then a man walked up to me at the radio station van. He wasn't shabbily dressed or anything, but he smelled like he hadn't bathed in a few days.

The man said, "I wanted to get a couple of hot dogs."

"Sorry, but we're all out," I explained.

"But you said on the radio that if I came down here you'd have free hot dogs, and I want mine!" he countered.

"Um, if you listened, you know I said 'while supplies last' when I was talking about the hot dogs. We had a whole bunch during the last hour and a half, but now we're all out. Sorry about that."

It was at point the man started shouting at me about me telling him lies and him wanted what I promised him. Eventually he stormed off.

That scene happened for a hot dog, for a t-shirt, and for an album or cassette (it's been a few years ago). I was yelled at for giving someone the wrong size free t-shirt, for giving away a tape the person already had. Some people really appreciated the free gifts. Others felt cheated by receiving something for free.

I realized back then that being given something for free didn't mean a person would appreciate the effort. It would be easy even for me to complain about a free gift. I've received birthday and Christmas gifts that I didn't like, maybe because it was the wrong color or it just didn't suit me. I probably wasn't very appreciative that someone gave something to me as a present.

I was having a discussion last week about this very phenomenon. Do most people appreciate a gift received? What about a benefit received from a church or a service organization? What about from the government?

Our church typically collects money in a fund and then gives it to people we know are in need, whether they are part of our congregation or not. There are plenty of stories of people needing $300 desperately, then our check for exactly that amount is enclosed in a card. God works miracles through us, and the recipient understands that and is truly grateful. From my understanding of Scripture, that's one of the things a church is supposed to do.

While debating whether or not a government should be giving things away, I tried to play things out in my mind. I've got to admit, I've rarely seen any appreciation for a government check. I've seen plenty of people angry when the check was a day late, though. It seems like a "regular gift" can quickly deteriorate into an expected right.

In my area there are many people out of work. Around one in ten people in this county are jobless, many recently losing positions due to plant closings or other issues. While not every displaced worker does this, a large majority of them plan to remain on unemployment as long as possible. They are not even considering looking for another job until the unemployment checks have all but dried up.

"I've got 18 months of benefits coming? I'll look for work in about 18 months... not before."

They do not appreciate the benefits. They consider them something they deserve. Some of those folks are simply getting what they paid in... for a while. But they want to get paid for doing nothing. Again, not everyone, but more than I would have thought.

I know farmers who own ground they do not farm. The government pays them not to use that land in some sort of federal program. They get paid for doing nothing, much like a welfare payment. Is that right? Does it fit with a Christian worldview?

My observations lead me to believe that this isn't how Christ would have us operate. The New Testament tells us that every person who is able should work. The church takes care of the widows and orphans. I think there is an important distinction there. When the church (or for that matter a private, secular social agency) provides, there is more appreciation from the recipient. Their heart is in it. When the checks come from a faceless entity, it's too easy to feel entitled to them rather than thankful for them.

But I'm not simply griping about people who get free benefits. Some of those government benefits come from me. Now I realistically don't feel any too wonderful about giving that money when I don't have a choice in the matter. The Lord loves a cheerful giver, right? And I have no problem giving. But when it is simply taken from me, my heart isn't in it.

With all that, I wonder if the current way our government does things is more like giving us all a cardioectomy -- taking our hearts out of the whole process. I don't want my gift taken forcibly and the recipient feels like it's not a gift, but an entitlement. No heart.

I want those who need taken care of to be taken care of. But by the same token I don't want them like the guy demanding a free hot dog or the guy complaining that his t-shirt is too big. Maybe that's foolish on my part. But I do know that I want my heart to be in every gift and sacrifice I make for someone else. Anything else is simply going through the motions.

Thoughts?

Friday, October 24, 2008

Yo hablo Inglés

I do remember 1977. Not every bit of it, of course. But I have my selective memory retention intact. The Late 70’s Memory File was reopened this morning when I heard my two teenage sons speaking Spanish. The younger boy was hurriedly running through various Spanish words and phrases in preparation for what I can only assume was a test of some sort in Spanish class. My older son, who completed two years of Spanish, was busy peppering his brother with more foreign terms, probably only serving to confuse the whole situation. Mixed in with the dialogue was the giggling of my first-grade daughter who just thought the boys sounded pretty silly.

With this odd mix of United Nations and slumber party running through my ears, I thought back to 1977. I was a freshman in high school taking Spanish I under the tutelage of Mrs. Kaye-Smith. We had the technologically-superior classroom, with trays of headphones that descended from the ceiling at the press of a button so we could learn our second language with the help of a state-of-the-art reel-to-reel tape recording.

I thought back to what I learned during those sessions. I learned basic words and phrases. I learned to conjugate verbs. And I learned how to create feedback in a pair of headphones.

I began to think to myself that I really should learn a second language. Spanish would be the most obvious choice since I already had a head start — a year of Spanish! Maybe I could pick up one of those “Muzzy” videos or a set of CDs for the car or even some computer software. My heart started to pick up the pace as I realized that I could certainly build on that year of headphone-enriched language skills. All it would take to be fluent in Spanish would be taking the time to study and memorize and learn and practice and…

Then I remembered 2008. “I don’t have time to do all that!” I reminded myself. “It’s all I can do to find time to mow the lawn and buy gas before the price changes.”

Sadly, that’s the way yet another brilliant inspiration ended. There in the driver’s seat of my car, my future as a bilingual quickly died. I could probably pull it off but it would mean dedication, sacrifice, and well, work. The ability to speak Spanish just isn’t a big enough reward for me to use up my spare time to achieve the goal.

It didn’t stop there. Oh, no. Once my mind starts filing through the memory banks, it apparently can’t stop. I was reminded of many other goals, promises, vows, and New Year’s resolutions that had suffered the same fate as my mastery of the Spanish language. Whatever happened to the closet I was going to build? What about starting that online business? And what happened to the whole exercise every day and get myself in shape promise?

I know most people have encountered the same experience. You set that goal of walking or running a mile every day, and the first five days go incredibly well. Then on Day Six it’s raining pretty hard and the decision has to be made. The real decision happens on Day Seven after missing a day and wondering if it’s all worth starting again.

I know people who set goals and try to stick to them. Read the Bible every day. Take self-defense classes. Stop smoking. Learn Spanish. Some people succeed. My dad gave up smoking cold turkey, an accomplishment I attribute mostly to his stubborn streak.

Many of the rest of us fall flat after some initial success. I think it comes down to, as one of my old coaches used to say, “How bad you want it.” If I see the goal as important enough, I’ll buckle down, make the sacrifice, put in the effort, and eventually succeed. If I am not convinced that achieving the goal is that big of a deal, I might as well wear a t-shirt that reads, “Quitter” across the front.

Others don't even try, not out of an inability to do something, but either a fear of failing or an overwhelming laziness. I have talked to many, many people about their need to read the Bible. I am convinced that it is the major way God communicates His truth to us. Yet far too many Christians refuse to make it a habit.

"I don't read very well."

"I don't like to read."

"I don't have time to read."

"I fall asleep when I read."

I've heard 'em all. But no matter the excuse, no matter the reasoning behind the failure to crack open the Good Book, it comes down to the question of how badly we want to do it. And, truth be told, far too many Christians don't see a real value in reading and studying Scripture. If we did believe it was important and we would get something out of it, WE WOULD ALL BE DOING IT!

As I drove this morning with the echoes of conjugated Spanish verbs still ringing in my ears, I understood that my mastery of Spanish will never go much beyond a Mexican restaurant menu. I don't value that skill enough to pull away from my fears or my limitations or my laziness. What we value, we will try to accomplish. And with God's strength, we can accomplish anything. Even reading, studying, and finding joy in a centuries-old Book.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Crying at Wal-Mart

My daughter loves to have slumber parties. Being a six-year-old girl, it kind of goes with the territory I realize, but this really seems to be exciting for her. These attempts at sleepovers haven't always gone well. We have had to call the parents of a none-too-happy girl to come pick up their crying and homesick daughter on a couple of occasions. But usually everything goes smoothly.

Earlier this spring my daughter wanted to have the mother of all slumber parties. We eventually talked her into scaling it back to just four other girls from the original invitation list of the entire county. The girls mostly all got along well and were typical talking, giggling six-year-old girls.

The whole scene was working very well. The potential problem we had to watch for was from little Rachel. Two days before the sleepover Rachel found out that her mommy and daddy were separating and that daddy was moving out of the house. Her mother told us that Rachel had naturally been upset, but she was so looking forward to the sleepover that she was fairly certain she would be alright with all the other girls.

Everything was moving along well. My brave wife, bless her heart, decided we needed to pick up a few things. So we loaded up the truck and took the whole gaggle of giggling six-year old girls to Wal-Mart. It was a high time for the soon-to-be kindergarten graduates, let me tell you. They were involved in picking out shoes that the boys would like them to wear, and choosing entire ensembles, and basically acting like they were ten years older than they were. Six going on sixteen times five. My wife was browsing through the aisles and I was mostly trying to keep the whole herd in the same general area until the shopping stopped.

Then I heard it. I didn't see how it started, but I saw what was happening. It was little Rachel, eyes awash in tears, wailing and sobbing. My wife, her motherly instinct taking over, immediately swept Rachel up in her arms, asking, "Honey, what's wrong? What's wrong?"

The sobbing continued for a minute or two, maybe. Then finally little Rachel was able to form words. Those words sent a chill down my spine.

"I want my daddy back!"

I looked at this tiny girl, her body shaking and convulsing with tears. I looked at my wife, her eyes had started to well up. I had to turn away. The tears were running down my cheeks, one after another. With the drama being played out in front of the other girls, including my own daughter, I didn't want to break down. I wanted to be strong for them somehow. I couldn't.

I turned and walked quickly up and down the shoe aisle, rubbing my hands across my face as if to try to push the tears back into the ducts. My heart was breaking for this little girl. In the teary eyes of little Rachel, I saw my own daughter. "What would it be like for her if my wife and I separated?" I thought to myself. "Would it be my own little girl sobbing and crying her heart out at Wal-Mart?"

My daughter greeted me when I got home last night with so much love. "Oh, Daddy, I haven't seen you all day!" she told me. We had some special cuddling time on the couch. She colored me a picture. She chose me to tuck her in. She said, "I love you very much, Daddy."

I love you too, darling.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Full Moon Fever

I'm inside tonight. It's raining. But for the past two nights it's been hard to escape the great outdoors. For me it was the call of the full moon.

Two nights ago I looked up and noticed that giant orb of reflected light. Before I went to bed around midnight, I had to go outside for a while. In the place I live there aren't a lot of artificial lights. There is a lot of farmground surrounding me, and at this time of the year the crops are all cut. The land is flat, the trees are few, and that night it was brighter than twilight from only the light of the full moon hovering overhead.

It's a odd look at midnight with the bright light of the full moon illuminating the lawn. Things are easy to detect when a normal night hides them well. Light in the darkness.

Last night was mostly cloudy. But I knew where that moon was. Clouds blew slowly across the sky, but the clouds were of different densities and didn't control every inch of the sky. From time to time I could make out the arc of the moon as it stood silently, waiting for the clouds to pass. Soon it would be covered in clouds again -- thick, purplish-black clouds that gave no hint of the light coming from behind them.

But even when the full moon was blocked, some of the thinner clouds were reflecting the light. With a bit of study, I could figure out exactly where the moon was by concentrating on where the light was brightest. Even when I couldn't see the moon, I saw light.

I am a servant of the Light. But there are plenty of times when I simply cannot see the Light. For one reason or another, He has hidden himself from me, wanting me to continue to seek and lean upon Him. But I cannot see the Light.

Yet even when the Light is hidden behind the darkest clouds, I still see light. The reflection of His light is apparent in so many places. The people around me. My family. An answered prayer. A word of encouragement. A dark night lit by a full moon.

Like last night, not even the darkest of clouds hides all of the Light. But sometimes I have to study the situation and concentrate on the Light to see the Light.

In these days when the clouds seem much more abundant than clear skies, I am so grateful that He cannot be completely hidden.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Empty

I haven't visited here much lately. Sorry if there's anyone around still checking in on me. I plan to do better once again.

You see, the thing is, Attention Span has always been a great outlet for me to pull some thoughts together that have inspired and encouraged me. I like to use Attention Span to help fill others with what God has filled me with.

Funny thing happened to me... I hit the spiritual "empty" point. I had nothing much to give. I started a few blog posts, but didn't finish many. There just wasn't much inside.

As a pastor, that kept me from being what God wanted me to be. Preaching was difficult. My daily life was also. Life was pulling me down, and I wasn't leaning on Him as I should.

God is merciful. But I do get reminders not to start thinking I don't need to lean on Him. I'm not that strong, and I realize that.

At this point, God is beginning to fill me again. My life isn't perfect... far from it. I still have major issues to deal with at church, at work, and at home -- especially in my Christian walk. I guess maybe I had many of those issues before but didn't want to admit it.

I have been incredibly blessed. My wife is wonderful. Having her by my side means so much. There was a time I took her for granted. Not anymore.

My children are constant challenges, especially with two teenagers, but they bring me so much joy. I am really enjoying watching them mature (albeit slowly) each and every day.

My calling as a pastor is both a blessing and a curse sometimes. Often I feel like Solomon, realizing I need wisdom to care for God's people.

I have many other blessings too. We have so much. I've found friends both old and new. We have the support of family. And God is granting direction. It's still a little fuzzy, but it's coming. I'll be patient.

More than anything, God is filling me, slowly but surely.

"Lord, pull me to You. I am weak, but You are strong. Fill me and use me to Your glory. And thank You for the strength You have provided... strength that I could count on when I had no other way to stand. Thank You for being so patient with me. Amen."

Monday, June 16, 2008

Anni-Birthday

I haven't posted as often as I would like, but I had to make a brief stop tonight. Tomorrow my wife and I celebrate our 19th wedding anniversary as well as my wife's 39th birthday. It's her Anni-Birthday and it's always a special time.

I have often wondered what I did to deserve a wife like I have. The truth is, I could do nothing to merit the affection of this wonderful woman. She amazes me each and every day. She has such a never-say-quit attitude that I have found her doing things I didn't think she'd ever do. Yesterday she was helping me change the headlight in her car, getting grease all over her hands and her cute little face. She was something to behold.

Words cannot describe how I feel about her. She married me on her 20th birthday, without getting the chance to live life as a single person. I know that many times she wishes she could have experienced being out on her own, but personally I'm glad God worked out the timing the way he did. I was in a sad state before I met her, and I'd be nothing without her today.

A lot of things have changed in our relationship over the years. Just over the past year, we've been through a lot. I truly admire her courage and her sacrificial attitude. I marvel at her willingness to beat the problems she has been given. And I am ever so grateful that she is by my side as my wife.

As we begin our 20th year of married life tomorrow, I have little idea what the next 12 months will hold. I sincerely hope the ride is less eventful than the past 12 months have been. There are all kinds of options open to us. But whatever God brings into our lives, I want her there beside me for the rest of our lives.

I love you, darlin'.....

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Mercy Refused

Please forgive my absence over the past few weeks. I'd like to tell you that I've been traveling hither and yon bringing joy and excitement to one and all, but in truth I've simply been working too much.

As part of my work, I find myself in courtrooms from time to time. No, I'm not in trouble or going through a divorce. But I do get to see a variety of people at crisis points of their lives. Some are sorry for what they've done and some are not. For a few, a court date is simply an inconvenience while for others it's a chance to get out of the cell and see some new surroundings. But with all the differences, the process is almost always the same and the variety of personalities all end up facing the justice they'd rather avoid.

This week I saw something different... truly different.

She didn't look like all the rest, but she didn't look out of place either. 26 years old. College graduate. Facing four felony counts. And she was smiling, even joking with her attorney a couple of times. When the hearing began, I didn't think too much about her attitude. The charges against her were read -- theft, complicity to commit theft, complicity to commit theft, engaging in a pattern of corrupt behavior. Obviously, this young woman had some problems.

The typical process involves a plea bargain. The prosecution agrees to reduce the charges against a defendant in exchange for a guilty plea. It saves the county money because the expense of a jury trial is saved. The defendant usually gets a lighter sentence since the charge against him is less serious. I've seen the whole parade go by dozens of times.

This week the parade took a detour.

During the hearing, it was revealed that this young woman had conspired with another person to steal big-screen televisions out of the local Wal-Mart, then either sell them or return them to another Wal-Mart and collect the money. The lady helped her partner twice to sneak out televisions. Then she stole one on her own. Then the police showed up and the whole thing fell apart. She was charged with four felonies, three counts less serious and one count -- engaging in a pattern of corrupt behavior -- much more serious.

As usual, the prosecution offered a deal. They would dismiss the most serious charge which carried with it a possible 8-year prison sentence if she would simply plead guilty to the three lesser charges and face a possible three years in prison. But this woman refused the deal, and decided to plead guilty to all four charges! Her attorney tried to talk her out of it, but she was determined to plead guilty to all four counts and face a maximum 11 years total and up to $22,000 in fines!

I don't know why this young woman wanted to do this. The difference between 3 years in prison and 11 years in prison is staggering. As I sat in the courtroom, I wondered about her motives. Was she trying to punish herself? Was she trying to make a point about the justice system? Was she just being stubborn? Was she reflecting a recent more awakening in her life? Did she think she'd get a lighter sentence by going through this act?

I couldn't decide. But whatever it was that made her refuse the mercy offered to her, she appeared to be at peace about it all. She was happy facing the full consequences of her actions, and not just getting away with a lesser punishment. Despite the urgings of her lawyer and even the prosecution, she wanted to face all four charges head on.

I think I can really admire her for that. I'm not really sure, as I don't really know her motivation. Still it seems somehow honorable to take full responsibility for one's actions.

But as my mind continued to wander, and I continued to wonder, I realize what I had just witnessed. This woman had refused mercy. That's very unusual in most settings, but not in the realm of Christian witness.

I've known countless people who have refused the mercy offered to them. I've talked to many who seem content facing the consequences for their life of sin, thinking it somehow wrong if they accepted the grace of Christ. There was the old man who saw no reason to accept Christ at his age because it wouldn't seen fair to live as a sinner for almost 90 years, then slip into heaven after one little prayer. There was the lady who realized her sinfulness but wouldn't dream of asking for mercy. She didn't think she was worth it.

I find it odd that refusing mercy is so easily understood when it involves Jesus Christ, but stands out so when it happens in any other walk of life. Perhaps it is a pride issue. Maybe that old man simply didn't want to give up control of his life. Maybe the other lady didn't want to seem hypocritical to others. Could it be that they felt the need to take responsibility for their own actions and didn't want to be obligated to Someone else?

I don't know what will happen with the 26-year-old television thief. I hope she has refused mercy because she feels the moral obligation to take her punishment, and I hope that mercy will still be given by the judge. I'll know in about six weeks. But more than that, I wish that refusing the grace and mercy offered through Christ Jesus wasn't so easy for so many to do.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Lost



After we got home from church on Sunday, the TV was on the NFL Network. Now I realize that this isn't exactly football season, but around here it's always football season. The program was a countdown of the top ten biggest mistakes in the history of the NFL. Now I don't for a minute believe these were the ten biggest foul-ups, but they were certainly high profile.

But none were more high profile than Jim Marshall's wrong way run. Marshall, an all-pro defensive lineman for the Minnesota Vikings, had a stellar career. He was a big part of one of the most feared defensive lines in the NFL -- the Purple People Eaters. However, even with all the accolades for his accomplishments, Jim Marshall is still remembered by many for his wrong way run.

The Vikings were playing the San Francisco 49ers when the 49er runner fumbled the ball. Marshall, quick as a cat, scooped up the pigskin and headed for the end zone. The only problem was that Marshall didn't turn around, he simply ran. His teammates were yelling at him from the sideline to turn around, but Marshall thought they were just cheering them on. When he reached the end zone, he tossed the ball into the stands thinking he had just scored a touchdown for the Vikings. Unfortunately for Marshall, he had just scored a safety -- 2 points -- for the 49ers. Eventually, as the pictures above show, one of the 49er offensive players caught up to Marshall to give him the bad/good news.

The announcer on the television program spoke about how Marshall was seen as a superman in the league up until that day. Then he said, "But on that one play, Superman was just a man who was lost."

Those words struck me as odd. Remember we had just been at the church for Sunday services. This Sunday we had an unexpected visitor. I'll call her Eve.

Eve hadn't expected to visit our church that Sunday either. She had received a call from her 24-year-old son from a county jail about 30 minutes from our church. After she took her son his heart medication, Eve got back in the car for the 30 minute drive home. But somewhere along the line, Eve got mixed up and went in almost exactly the opposite direction as she should have. Finally, feeling exhausted and desperate, she saw a church with a bunch of cars in the parking lot and a few people milling about, so she pulled in to ask directions.

She was quickly brought in for a restroom stop and a cup of coffee. It was (coincidentally or providentially) our coffee and donut time, and a lady from our congregation sought me out to see if I could give Eve directions back home. I did, then turned to get the service started.

We were about ten minutes into the service before I realized that Eve was sitting in the back pew, right beside the lady who had asked me to give directions. She stayed there listening as I preached about not being able to understand God's plan sometimes, and how God's love doesn't fail even though tragedy befalls us.

Eve asked to talk to me after the service. She was truly lost. Her husband had died just three months ago. Now she was all alone, away from a man who almost never left her side. Her head wasn't quite right. She was a bit confused. She was lost.

She asked me to find a pastor for her in her hometown so she could talk to someone once her nerves settled down a bit. She told me she had wanted to sit down with a pastor but didn't know who to talk to. Then after Eve composed herself, she and a couple from church left for home. The couple wanted to be sure Eve would make it, so the woman rode with Eve while her husband followed. On the way home, Eve made two wrong turns due to her muddled mind. Finally she made it home. But she's still lost.

If a superman can get lost, a woman mourning the love of her life can certainly get lost. Please pray for all of the lost -- especially Eve.

Friday, April 04, 2008

The Battles

I just got done watching a classic basketball game on ESPN Classic. It was 25 years ago and I
was in college, marveling at the incredible run of North Carolina State. My friends and I were huge basketball fans, especially at our own school, but once the Ball State Cardinals were done for the season, we turned to the bigger schools and the NCAA tournament.
In 1983, the Wolfpack were decent, but they were nowhere near the best team in the land. That was Houston. The Cougars went by Phi Slamma Jamma becasue they slam dunked the ball so often in an era where dunking was not an every-second occurrance.
State clawed their way through the Atlantic Coast Conference, actually made the NCAA tournament field and methodically began picking off teams they were not supposed to beat. The team's colorful coach, Jim Valvano, took his team all the way to the championship game against the number one team in the land -- Houston.
The Wolfpack took the opening tip and scored immediately with a slam dunk -- usually not their forte. For the rest of the first half, the underdogs kept the Cougars at bay, piling up an eight-point lead at halftime. But Houston came out smoking in the second half and soon asserted control. But the 'Pack wouldn't quit, and with less than a minute left, the score was tied and State had the ball. Playing for the last shot, the Wolfpack almost frittered away the entire remaining time with Dereck Whittenberg picking up the ball near half-court with less than five seconds remaining and heaving a desperation shot at the basket. The shot fell about a foot short, but it didn't fall all the way to the floor. Lorenzo Charles grabbed the ball as it was passing in front of the rim, turned and slammed it through with two seconds left. The Houston players were so stunned that no one thought to call time out. The game was over, and Valvano was running wildly around the floor looking for someone to hug.
I remember so much about that game, even though it happened 25 years ago. It's the stuff of legend. Two years later, Villanova did something similar when they upset Georgetown to win in 1985 and I remember some of the same things. But it's not just wild upsets. In 1979 it was Magic vs. Bird as Michigan State took out Indiana State. In 1982, Fred Brown made a pass to the wrong team as his Georgetown Hoyas were coming down to take the winning shot. These are a part of my memory.
Yet I find it interesting that I can remember vividly the 1979, 1982, 1983, and 1985 NCAA Championship Games but I couldn't tell you much of anything about 1980, 1981, 1984 or 1986. I'm not exactly sure why, but I think it has something to do with the game itself. Watching the back-and-forth struggles and battling for supremacy make things memorable. There may have been high drama during the years I can't remember off-hand, but for some reason it hasn't stuck with me.
I remember other battles from sports. Billy Buckner lets a grounder go through his legs. Dwight Clark makes "The Catch." The "Do You Believe In Miracles" USA hockey gold medal game, The "Thrilla in Manilla", Boise State's Statue of Liberty touchdown win... the battles make memories.
I think it's the same way with life. The episodes in our lives that make the most impact on us are the ones that involve battles. There's something about fighting through adversity that makes an impression on the ol' memory bank. That struggle you find yourself in will affect you. You'll remember the hard times, but you will also remember the victory that was won. Some may seem like hollow victories or even complete losses, but if you are still alive and kicking afterward, there is victory to be found. After all, God has preserved you for this moment, for this time. Your victory may be found in how He helped you through, in how you learned from tragedy or from your mistakes.
There are some who would want life to be easy, without battles. I think that sort of life wouldn't teach us much of anything. We wouldn't learn how God strengthens us. We would see how He upholds us. Our character wouldn't grow. Neither would our perseverence. We wouldn't be all that God wants us to be.
It's the battles that make us better. It's the battles that draw us closer to God. It's the battles that make memories because battles with God lead to the ultimate victory.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Authentic



Likewise, unless I level with God -- about bitterness over an unanswered
prayer, grief over an unforgiving spirit, a baffling sense of God's absence --
that relationship, too, will go nowhere. I may continue going to church, singing hymns and praise choruses, even addressing God politely in formal prayers, but I will never break through the intimacy barrier. "'We must lay before Him what is in us, not what ought to be in us," wrote C. S. Lewis. To put it another way, we must trust God with what God already knows. -- Philip Yancey from the book, Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference?

I've been working through the old Bill Hybels book, "Too Busy Not To Pray" and teaching a study on Sundays. Last Sunday we talked about authenticity in prayer. It's a topic that on the surface isn't one that strikes a chord of guilt with me. When I'm praying, I don't think I'm being dishonest or secretive about my feelings. After all, it's God. How am I going to fool Him? Or to paraphrase Yancey's paraphrase, "Why wouldn't I trust God with what God already knows?"

I realize that many people can develop the habit of going through the motions. Rehearsed prayers, standard blessings, perfuctory psalms... boy am I glad I don't have any issues like repeating prayers over and over again with no real meaning seeping through. Thank God I'm not like other men.

Too pharisaic?

OK, so I'm not always authentic. My mind can slip into daydreams if I'm not careful. I can resort to the same old prayer requests without thinking.

But the biggest problem for me with authenticity is not taking it to God in the first place. It's easy to fake authenticity if I just avoid a sensative topic in prayer, or even avoid the prayer altogether. It's tempting to keep certain select areas of my life away from the Almighty. But it's not like He doesn't already know.

He also knows about my bitterness, my hurts, my fears. And while that may sound intimidating, I'm glad He knows. Someone needs to know. And because He does, I can be, well authentic with Him in prayer. I can pour my heart out to Him. In fact, our relationship gets deeper as I continue to confide in Him. What's more, our relationship takes a step back when I stonewall Him or ignore Him.

"Lord, You know me and my heart. Continue to draw me to You, unafraid to be open with You."

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Puppy Love

Here she is... the newest edition to the family. Her name is Maggie. She is a Beaglier. That's cute-dog-speak for a cross between a beagle and a cavalier King Charles spaniel. She's been in the family for about 48 hours now, and my wife is in love.

Maggie is what you might call an impulse buy. OK, she is an impulse buy. We had been discussing adopting a golden retriever who needed a home. Then, while killing time during our daughter's dance lesson, we stopped by the pet shop. Guess who was there? Our daughter was mighty surprised at what happened during her class!

The idea of cross breeds is kind of strange. They call them "hybrid breeds" and they come in all shapes and sizes. Want a schnoodle? A puggle? Just mix 'em and go.

Q: What do you get when you cross an insomniac, an agnostic, and a dyslexic? A: Someone who stays up all night wondering if there is a Dog.

Q: What do you get if you cross an artist with a policeman? A: A brush with the law.

Q: What do you get when you cross a chicken and a pit bull? A: Just the pit bull.

Q: What do you get when you cross one dog breed with another? A: Apparently you end up with a hybrid breed with some of the characteristics of both breeds. Our beaglier has some of the coloration of a beagle and the facial expressions of a cavalier. We've already noticed that she follows her nose around like a beagle or any other hound.

The other side of the coin is that the hybrids end up with possible weaknesses from both breeds. Every breed of dog is succeptible to certain problems. Big dogs have heart troubles. Some terriers have weak livers. Check the list for a hybrid breed and it includes the weaknesses of both mom and dad's families. Not that every cross breed will have every weakness, but one side's weaknesses aren't cancelled out by the other side. There just aren't breeds with super-strong livers to counterbalance those with weak ones.

Into every relationship, each side brings its own set of baggage. With our relation with the Almighty, we bring in sin while God brings in perfection. Our sin is never fully counteracted in this lifetime. We continue to struggle with our sin nature. Yet, God brings to us the ability to overcome that nature. But we refuse to allow Him far too often.

Yet this hybrid of our sinfulness and God's forgiveness is infinitely lovable by the One who loves with an infinite love.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Easy to Miss

Every year at Christmas time, I marvel at how easy it is to miss the real importance of the holiday. We become bogged down with shopping, baking, wrapping, travel plans, and the like and we lose sight of Advent. We have plenty of reminders like Christmas carols and songs, TV specials, traditional events and men in red suits on streetcorners. Still the meaning of the holiday is so easy to miss, even for a Christian. We become lost in tradition or busyness or anything which pulls our minds and our hearts out of God-mode.

I really hadn't considered the same effect on Easter, but it may be even more apparent here once you start to think about it. My Holy Week wasn't exceptionally holy, and I'm really quite sad about that. We had a short vacation on Friday and Saturday planned to coordinate with the only Spring Break our kids get from school. Earlier in the week I had the funeral of the two-and-a-half-month-old baby. We had a pizza party after worship on Palm Sunday and a carry-in breakfast between services on Easter. Plus I had two services on Easter to plan. Where did it all go?

I missed it.

I've blogged before about some of the Holy Week activities when I was a kid. Our church had services all week. Maunday Thursday was the Love Feast with footwashing and communion. It was special.

There are no Easter carols leading up to the big day. Sure, an occasional bunny appears on TV commercials and the store aisles fill up with bag after tempting bag of candy. But it would be easy to miss Easter altogether, let alone the meaning of the season. Unless I set aside specific time, Easter can fly right on past for the most part. The possibilities are lost. The clock is unable to be pushed back. I wait for next year like a deranged Cubs fan.

Fortunately, the Resurrection is celebrated every Sunday. That's the reason we gather on the first day of the week instead of the Sabbath, you know. Each and every Sunday is a celebration of the conquering of death. On every First Day we recognize that Christ provided the perfect sacrifice for us, and that the tomb that Sunday morning was empty. Our holiday is not annual, but weekly.

That way it's not so easy to miss.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Out of the Closet

Looks like all that talk about communism and nature was just a front. Mikhail Gorbachev has come out of the closet by confirming his Christianity. Read about it here. At least that's what he says. And to back it up, the former Soviet leader spent a half-hour in prayer at Assisi.

I'll take this at face value for the time being because I have no real reason not to. But what was it like for Gorby to deny Christ repeatedly for years? I write this in the midst of Holy Week, remembering Peter's threefold denial and subsequent glance at the Master he claimed to have never met.

I understand lying. Sad to say, I've lied myself on too many occasions. Those moments have been dominated by my own selfishness and fear of getting caught doing something wrong. I cannot, however, think of a time when I lied because I did something right. But I'm sure it may have happened.

The idea of a closet believer is so foreign to what I am used to. We are told that Nicodemus came to Jesus at night for a sermon because he was a secret believer. Pilate's wife was said to be a Christian. But my experience is with the closet heathen. You know the type: Talks about his love for the Bible, yet needs the table of contents to find any book except Psalms; Brags about her church, but doesn't seem to know many of the people beyond the occasional last name. You get the picture.

While I find it refreshing that Gorby has come out of the closet, I wonder how he was able to live with himself after all those denials. Peter got a face-to-face "Feed my lambs" experience with Jesus. Gorby got some prayer time at St. Francis' old stomping grounds.

At the same time, I wonder about the closet heathen. Would it be better for the rest of us if they would simply stop the charade? Or do we simply hope and pray (and pray, and pray) that somewhere along the line they listen to what they profess to believe?

If it's simply a matter of heart, we all have to fight off temptation and selfish desires. I just wonder if the closet heathen has fooled himself.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

After the Funeral

Thanks to everyone who prayed and sent words of encouragement. The funeral went well, or at least as well as a funeral for a two and a half month old baby can go. Lots of emotion. Hopefully some lessons learned.

I was surprisingly calm except for when my wife came to the funeral home. It did bring back a rush of memories of 17 years ago. Like I told the baby's mom, we never forget. Oddly enough, had my son lived, he'd be the same age as the mother of the two and a half month old baby. I guess I'm getting old.

I talked about not having answers, but having confidence in the afterlife. I spoke about a lack of understanding, but confidence in Christ as the way to the afterlife. And I spoke about God not guaranteeing a lack of trouble, but promising help through the trouble.

Please continue to remember mom and dad and the family, especially over the next few weeks. Thanks so much. And maybe I can get back to a couple of Holy Week posts this week.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

What to say, what to say...

I have a funeral to preach on Tuesday. This evening my wife asked me what I was going to say. I told her that I didn't know yet. She seemed surprised, but I'm not sure why. I don't know if I'll know what I said after the service is over.

The loss of a child is so different in each situation, but so similar. I've been reading poems and stories and although each honors a different child, a common thread runs through everyone -- an incredible grief. It's a grief that doesn't just go away. It's part of a hurt that pitches a tent and sets up permanent residence in a heart.

I wrote about my experience burying a child. It's here in this post. I just reread it, and I invite you to read it again or for the first time. I'll wait.

Not that long ago, I told my wife that sometimes I felt ashamed because I didn't think of our little boy every day. Unlike her, my life has gone on for short bursts without being dragged down by the memories. But not for too long.

You see, it seems like God is always placing people in my path who have a child in NICU or have lost a baby or have lost a grandchild far too soon. It's almost a little freaky. Last month, on the anniversary of my son's funeral, I was speaking with the mother of a sick little boy in NICU who shares my birthday. That mother shares my son's birthday. You can't make this stuff up.

I've mentioned to a few people that I wish I could remember more about my son's funeral, especially with this service coming up in 36 hours. All I remember is my wife and I taking pictures of our dead son in the casket, bringing him to the cemetary in what looked like an ice cooler, and a whole heap of crying. The minister traveled two hours to perform the service, and I don't remember a word he said. But I do remember he was there.

Maybe most of the burden for the family and friends (not to mention the pastor) is just being there. I believe God will give me some insightful words Tuesday morning, but I don't know if they will be memorable or even make a difference to anyone for the next week.

And in a strange way, I feel the love of God reaching out to me in all of this. I still feel the grief 17 years later, although it's not the same intensity. I have the comfort of knowing that I will see him again, without the tubes and wired that accompanied our first meeting. But I also have the prayers and well wishes of many people who realize that I have a tough job to do. My friends at the racing bulletin board, TrackForum, managed to find me even though I didn't try to burden them. (Hi, guys and gals!)

Then there is the bond that my wife and I share in all this. This death has brought back the experience that we shared so long ago and still share today.

I have few memories of this three-month boy who just died so suddenly, but the one that shines out is the last time the baby's mother brought them to church for Sunday worship. The baby's great aunt had been holding him through the pastor's long-winded sermon, but she had to come to the piano to play the final song for the service. So she walked with the sleeping baby in her arms and approached my wife from behind. My wife was suprised to see Great Aunt reaching out to her with that little baby in her arms, asking her to hold the baby while she played the piano. The expression on my wife's face was priceless. She's a little baby-crazy anyway, and the look of sheer joy on her face was something to behold! That tiny little boy had brought my wife an incredible amount of happiness.

And that's the story of his life. He brought happiness for almost three months. The mention of his name will continue to bring an odd mixture of happiness and sorrow for years to come, but the fact that he made grown-ups and children alike smile is a part of his legacy.

Some give joy their entire lives. This little boy was one of those people.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Prayers please


A teenage mother from my church is in need of prayer today. She and her boyfriend were staying with her brother and sister-in-law. The brother has a 2-year-old son. The teenage mother has a 1-year-old and a 3-month-old.
This morning, the brother stuck his head in the baby's room to check on him. The little one was on his stomach, against the side of the crib as usual. But he wasn't breathing. The brother turned him over to see that he was blue. 911 was called, but the baby was gone.
I could go through the litany of things that have happened to this family over the past year, but that's not really the issue. Pray that God will hold them through this horrible time. And pray for me, that God will give me strength and big load of wisdom for this.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

The View From Atop a Donkey's Back

What did He see that Sunday as He rode on the back of a donkey's colt up the steep grade into the city of Jerusalem -- a city which meant so much to Him. What did He notice through the tears?

The Palm Sunday passage is such a bittersweet portion of Scripture. Jesus, being hailed as king by the peasants, yet being despised and laughed at by the Roman soldiers. What did He see in the eyes of those hypocrites asking Him to silence the crowd? Did it please Him to hear the sound of "Hosanna!" in His ears, all the while knowing that the shouts would turn to cries of "Crucify!" in just a matter of days?

The words of the gospels seem so poignant at that moment where Jesus breaks out into tears, crying over the lost people that He wishes to protect under the shelter of His wings. It seems that the rest of the happenings of that ride are almost inconsequential to Him. He is broken-hearted over the lost. He knows He will save some. He wants to save all.

My mind often travels back to the post I wrote about the show, "The Moment of Truth" a few days ago. There's that question featured in the photo, "Do you really care about the starving children in Africa?" I don't know how the contestant answered that question, but I would have to believe that there is a better-than-average chance she had to honestly say "no." It's trendy to say you care, but mustering up a lot of love and concern over some people you'll never meet and have precious little in common with... well, it's tough for the average Joe or Jo.

But the same issue plagues the Church. Do we really care about the lost? Do we ache for them? Do we actually love them? Or do we look at them as folks who are happy in their hedonism or forget 'em? If we're brutally honest with ourselves, we are probably closer to the latter than the former. Sad, aren't we?

Jesus wasn't like that. He looked out upon that city and saw the prostitutes, the godless, the hypocrites, the homosexuals, the rich, the powerful, the stubborn, the self-absorbed, the drunks, and the average Joes. His reaction? Deep sorrow for their loss.

What is your reaction? What is the reaction of the person in the pew behind you? In front of you? Beside you? Do we see people without Christ the way He saw them? If no, then why not?

Climb on the back of the donkey -- not for the cheers of adulation, but so we can see better the faces of those we struggle to care about.

"Lord, help me to see others the same way You saw them on that Sunday morning, and the way You still see them today."

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Heart Condition


"Only he who is helpless can truly pray." - Ole Hallesby

Interesting quote, don't you think? Prayer is one of those topics that we as Christians like to give lip service to, pledge to do better, swear how important it is, and regularly regret how little we do it. I think part of the reason is that we wonder if we're doing anything more than talking to the air. After all, God already knows whatever it is we're going to tell Him. So it's hard to get charged up about rattling off a grocery list of prayer requests, no matter how much in need those people on the list truly are.

Over and over again, the topic comes back to me with a big, flapping, red flag attached to it. The words on the flag are pretty simple: Prayer isn't so much the words, but the attitude.

Jesus talked about the Pharisees who loved to be the ones called upon to make the big public prayer. They'd even do the prayers when nobody asked them to do it. They liked to be heard. They said all the right things. They were smooth as silk, and people looked up to them for their incredible prowess at public prayer. "Surely, that's a spiritual dude," the passersby must have said.

By Jesus talked down those showy prayers and the ones praying those prayers. Why? Probably because it was performance. I've done a little theatre work, and I realize that when I'm reciting my lines or even when I ad lib in character when I've forgotten what I was supposed to say, those words aren't real. Sure the words exist, but they don't really reflect what's in my heart. The words are uttered to keep the performance going. The show must go on, you know.

So all the recited prayers in the world don't seem to make a dent in our souls unless there is a true heart condition -- a point where what is said matches what is believed. On top of that, any prayer that does not come from the heart seems to me to be an almost useless exercise. Sure there are days that my heart doesn't seem to be in everything I pray, but if I am detached from what I say or simply praying out of obligation with no feeling whatsoever, I have to wonder what the point is.

Let's get back to Mr. Hallesby's thought. Helplessness. Do I really see myself as helpless when I pray? Am I fully leaning upon the everlasting arms? I'm not sure I can honestly answer that question because I'm not really sure. But what I do know for sure is that unless my heart is in my prayer, I feel nothing from it. I can use all the beautiful, poetic, psalmistic words my mind can recall, but as Paul might say, without my heart in it I am like a clanging cymbal.

I hate being helpless. I love to be able to do things myself. Down deep my manhood is bruised when I have to ask for help to do something that some other guy could do by himself. That same feeling hits me when I go to God for all those things I know I cannot do. Sick children I cannot heal. The pain of grief I cannot take away. Temptation I cannot extinguish. And my heart should reflect that in my prayer life.

So prayer actually begins, not with a list of concerns or a journal, but with a heart condition. Understanding my own helplessness puts me in the right frame of mind to go to God. I go not as a person saying all the right words, but as a person who acknowledges his own inability to do anything right.
"Apart from me, you can do nothing." - Jesus Christ.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Fall Forward

Daylight Saving Time begins tonight. It's the Spring Forward portion of our annual ritual, which means we will all lose an hour of sleep tonight -- like I needed one more thing to lose sleep over! Actually the hardest part about DST is remembering how to set the clocks. It's not just a matter of grabbing the big hand and running it clockwise one revolution. Oh no. It's holding the set button while pushing the seek button three times while repeating, "There's no place like home," or something like that. I'll have to look that one up.

Anyway, I have no real problem with DST. Usually I like it, although it's really kind of strange to still have daylight in July at 10 p.m. But I can adjust.

I live in an area near the great state of Indiana. I like Hoosiers. I was born and raised in the state. But you see Hoosiers are just recently a part of the whole DST world. Until last year, the state ignored the clock-switching tradition. As a result, there are plenty of people there with a vile hatred for DST. I mean hatred. Almost violent hatred.

I know a few of these people. They carry on like Satan himself has taken over the government -- at least the clock-setting portion of it. Cows won't give milk on time. It's too dark in the morning. The earth may fall off its axis. All pretty typical from some of the anti-DST hardliners. To hear them talk, that one hour is the one thing they hold precious in life.

Of course I've seen the same attitude in the church as well. Hymns vs. choruses. King James vs. New International. Pews vs. chairs. Some folks miss the point of why we gather on Sunday mornings. It's not to proclaim the truth that doesn't change in the traditional way that doesn't change. It's to worship God and to proclaim Him and His gospel to the world. And though it may bring a tear to the eye of the traditionalist, the time-honored traditions of the past 150 years is probably not the best or most effective way to proclaim Him. The truth doesn't change. Just the delivery method.

So as you and I move clocks tonight, let us remember that the responsibility of reaching others for Christ and helping people grow in Him is not a matter of making them learn and worship exactly the way our grandparents did, but of bringing them into His Kingdom. They, as we, are to conform to the image of Christ, not to the image of the churchgoer.

Tomorrow, we'll just do it one hour earlier.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

I'm Favred


As a Chicago Bears fan, I can't say I was all teary-eyed when I heard earlier this week about the retirement of Brett Favre from professional football. I always enjoyed beating the Packers. Favre stole too many of those games away with some bizarre lucky play. Of course he gave a few away by throwing foolish interceptions as well, so it's probably even.


Everyone always seemed to glow about Favre, not necessarily because of the games he won or the touchdowns he threw. It always seemed to be about the way he played the game. He was the Pete Rose of football -- the guy who played with all his heart and soul.
But at the press conference where #4 announced he was calling it quits, he didn't look like he was a kid playing a game. He didn't look like he couldn't wait to run out on the field and let a few 50-yard bombs fly. He looked tired. And to back it up, Favre said he was tired. Mentally. Physically. Tired.
So after 17 seasons in the pros, 4 in college and most of his life growing up, Brett Favre is too tired to devote himself to playing football anymore.
I can relate. I'm tired too. The main difference is that there was no danger of me taking the field to rifle a few throws at acrobatic receivers. But I understand some of what Favre is going through. I've had plenty of Monday mornings where I didn't feel strong enough to start work on another Sunday service or any other administrative work of the church. There have been plenty of Monday mornings that I haven't felt good enough to head out to my secular job. Tuesday mornings too. And Wednesdays. And... well, you get the idea. So why do I go?
I suppose it's a sense of duty and commitment at my secular job, and a sense of calling for the pastorate. But I'm still tired. I'm tired of trying to run the ministries of the church with only a handful of people willing to do the work. I'm tired of doing the same old nonsense day after day at my secular job. I'm tired of the hardships and the setbacks and the disappointments.
But I go on. But it's not my own strength. I ran out of that years ago.
I can pretend that I'm superhuman, but I'm not. My strength is in the Lord. And when I try to convince myself that I am strong, something will usually happen to remind me just how strong I am not. But fortunately, I am weak but He is strong.
And so on those mornings (and afternoons and evenings) when I don't feel ready to try to round up a volunteer at the church or perform the same old tasks at work, and like Brett Favre, I feel like calling it quits for a while, I lean upon the Lord and accept the strength He gives me. Like after waking up from a good night's sleep, I head off refreshed and ready to go on.
Tonight I'm ready for a good night's sleep. Tomorrow, with God's strength, I'll head off to work again to do what he has called me to do. And luckily for football fans everywhere, I won't be chucking the pigskin around. Besides, you don't want to see me in those tight football pants.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

The Moment of Truth or The Biggest Loser


I watched the first episode along with the rest of my family. The idea seemed intriguing. A guinea pig willingly gets hooked up to a lie detector so he has to reveal embarassing things about himself just to try and win a million bucks. Now, that's television!

So we tuned into the debut of The Moment of Truth to watch the fun. But the funny thing is, it wasn't especially fun. It was more like driving by an accident along the highway and straining my neck to see the dented sheet metal and blood-soaked windshield.
The premise is fairly simple. Contestants are hooked up and asked questions that they have previously answered. If they don't set off the lie detector, they win cash and the audience applauds. It starts simple, like asking the pro athlete if he thinks he's better looking than his friends or if he's peeked at other men in the shower room. Embarassing, but hardly fascinating.
Eventually the stakes are raised. "Have you ever touched a female client inappropriately since you've been married?" "Do you really care about the starving children in Africa?" "Have you ever gambled away one of your children's college fund?" These questions are asked in front of the contestant's spouse, friends and parents to heighten the tension, not to mention the pain.
From what I've heard, last week's show featured a blonde lady who was bound and determined to win that cash, no matter the consequences. By the end of the hour she revealed that she had stolen money from work, she had been sexually unfaithful to her husband and that she thought she should have been married to her former boyfriend. Amazingly after each revelation and confirmation by the lie detector, the studio audience clapped, celebrating the woman's theft, unfaithfulness and all-around poor character. And with every answer, the woman's husband buried his face deeper and deeper into his hands.
Promos for this week's show promise a contestant having a nervous breakdown on-camera from the pressure of revealing the "truth" in front of her family. Just keep telling yourself, "It's entertainment. It's entertainment."
Why would someone put themselves through all this? Better still, why would someone put their loved ones through something like this? Money? Maybe. But I'm thinking these people are looking for their 15 minutes of fame. Attention. That's the name of the game. It's the same reason that Jerry Springer was able to find guests all those years. People crave attention. Even being known as "that chick who embarassed her husband and ruined her marriage" is better than not being known at all.
Somewhere in the back of my mind, whenever I try to think of the title of the show, "The Moment of Truth" I always think of "The Biggest Loser." Nobody is losing any weight on "The Moment of Truth." Perhaps it's my age and the effects of acquiring an addled mind. Or perhaps subconsciously I associate these attention-seeking attention with losers.
My wife has an almost-violent reaction to "The Moment of Truth." She often says that no amount of money is worth the damage some of these people cause by revealing their secrets on television. I understand that point of view, although I also wonder why people need to keep the secrets or harbor feelings that would hurt others in the first place. But to purposely expose and embarass a wife or husband or parent or anyone is beyond appropriate. Maybe these folks are the biggest losers.
But I remember how I felt after I watched that one episode. Maybe it's not the contestants on "The Moment of Truth" that are the biggest losers.
"Lord help me from judging others unfairly, especially when my own behavior is less than what you want from me on far too many occasions. Let me not revel in the pains of others or take cheap enjoyment in the presentation of hurtful behavior."

Sunday, March 02, 2008

A Weekend of Music


It's been an interesting musical weekend. On Friday night, I attended a concert consisting of one man and his guitar, occasionally set aside for a piano. No background singer. No bass player. No fanfare. Just a one man band in the midst of an elegant theatre.
Livingston Taylor is an interesting guy. That's him at the right. He will play a poignant piece, or a medley of interpretations from "Oklahoma" and follow it all up with a quirky comedic number. Much of his banter between songs reminded me more of an odd college professor than a tender-hearted poet. His humorous asides seemed so out of place at times, but then again here is a guy who played a beautiful number on the piano about pitch, yaw and the Wright Brothers followed by a quick tune about the upcoming intermission which would probably end about the time the CD sales in the lobby slowed down.
He's not exactly a well-known performer. In many circles, he's simply a footnote to his famous brother, James Taylor. But that sells Livingston short. At times during the show I found myself wearing a goofy contented smile, just wrapped up in the sound of a man and an instrument.
The atmosphere was different on Saturday night. My wife and I sat in a somewhat smoky bar and grill listening to an oldies rock and blues band. This wasn't just any oldies rock and blues band. This band is fronted by my mother-in-law. I realize that may sound strange to many, but it's old hat to me. Hey, I've known my mother-in-law longer than I've known my wife!
Besides, the band is good. My mother-in-law is a good singer too. They play every weekend at clubs and fairs around that area and have a pretty good following. I haven't spend an evening in a bar for a while, so it was an interesting change of pace. Of course I knew most of the songs Saturday night where the evening before it was rare that I had heard the tune before the performance.
Then this morning during our worship service, we had a guest performer. A high school junior, this boy did two numbers on the piano and two other tunes on the accordian. Yes, I said the accordian. I'm not a big accordian freak, to say the least. Weird Al Yankovic, Lawrence Welk, assorted polka kings... what other use does this squeezable "concert in a box" possibly have?
The kid did well. He explained that he learned the accordian because his grandmother played it, so I could at least understand his attachment. He did a fine job too, playing His Eye Is On the Sparrow and How Great Thou Art. I'll admit though that I enjoyed his two piano numbers much more. Maybe it's because the accordian seems a little cheesy to me. I'm sure it's difficult to master, but overall the presentation of music on most other instruments is much more enjoyable to me. Then again, I'm not a big polka fan.
Music has always been a big part of my life. The ten years of my life spent working in radio found me immersed in music of all styles and helped form my rather ecclectic musical taste today. It also burned me out on a lot of overplayed pop and rock songs from the 80s. At times these days I retreat to some types of talk radio or classic radio programs to cleanse the palate, as it were.
Still I find it easiest to slip into a mode of worship with music. I sing, but I can't play any instrument worthy of public performance. I wish I could. There is something about being able to journey to a place where worship flows freely, or for that matter, where non-religious thoughts flow freely.
I don't have to mention just how divisive music can be also. You've heard the stories of churches splitting over the whole "hymns vs. choruses" war. But even in the secular marketplace there is a gap between die-hard country fans and hard-core rockers, even though there are similarities between the genres. Mostly I think it's a matter of what reaches the soul. I'm thankful that in one weekend my soul can be touched by a guy and a guitar, my mother-in-law singing rock and roll and a high school kid with an accordian. Thank you Lord for my easy-to-reach soul.

Friday, February 29, 2008

Stepping Over the Edge


Apparently Luke Timothy Johnson has officially stepped over the edge. The professor at Emory University has made it known that he knows better than Scripture. In arguing for same-sex marriage, he stated:

I think it is important to state clearly that we do, in fact, reject the straightforward commands of Scripture, and appeal instead to another authority when we declare that same-sex unions can be holy and good. And what exactly is that authority? We appeal explicitly to the weight of our own experience and the experience thousands of others have witnessed to, which tells us that to claim our own sexual orientation is in fact to accept the way in which God has created us.

Pretty straightforward and honest, eh? The clear teachings of Scripture are jettisoned for our own experience.

Now I could spend another 47 posts arguing that we are all created with sin nature and that nature takes on various forms which would include homosexuality, but that's a discussion for another day.

What I want to call attention to instead is that a respected teacher at a respected school has said that at least on this one issue, we should chuck the Bible out the window and accept what we think as authoritative instead.

Are our feelings and experiences authoritative? Can we believe them as truth? I've had plenty of feelings which were no more than wishes and hopes. I've had a number of experiences which I thought was real but others with me said didn't happen. The Mormons believe in the Book of Mormon as divine because of a felt experience, despite the disagreements with the Old and New Testaments. How is it that because someone has a sexual attraction or preference for the same gender, that this means it is of God? I know people who have been greedy since they were greedy little kids.

The point being that the authority of Scripture is a standard. Make an exception once and you then have no reason not to make more exceptions. I have no problem with the study of scripture and textual criticism so that we can find out what the earthly authors of these books really meant to say. But to know what it says and reject that truth in favor of subjectivism steps over the edge.

A tip of the ol' ballcap to Dunker Journal.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Change - Fear or Fear Not?

OK, so I made a few changes around here. There are probably a few more changes on the way, but I have time. Still tweaking the blogrolls too. A lot of folks have given up blogging while others have picked it up again. I can't blame them. After all, look at my blogging record over the past year!

Change is just natural, unless you're talking about the church. There change is something to be fought against, feared, resisted at all costs. Well, not everybody feels that way about change in the church but there are days when I'm hard pressed to find the exceptions to the rule.

In the church, change is difficult because the truth we hold to is unchanging. In the eyes of many the unchanging Truth is too closely tied to the way things have always been done. As a result, even the most minor of changes is viewed with suspicion.

So would someone please explain to me how the country can get swept up in Obama-mania when the man's buzzword is "change"???

What I've been able to ascertain is that Obama is talking about changing some nebulous concept of what people perceive to be wrong with this country or our government. He cries for change and the listener picks that certain change he has always felt was needed and somehow the two ideas meld. Hey, I'd love a little change too, but I have my doubts if my ideas of what needs changed and Obama's ideas are very similar.

Still Obama has tapped into the positive aspect of change. There are things we think need to be changed. Can we tap into that thought process in the church? I don't mean that everyone comes up with an idea of what needs to be changed then argues about what is important and what isn't. What I mean is that we need to see the real point, the real (forgive the Warren-ism) purpose of what we are to do as a church and as individual believers. Then we can truly determine the best way to get there.

The truth is that unless we are truly reaching people for Christ and bringing people farther along in their walk with Christ, we are failing in our mission. And no matter how much we love singing The Old Rugged Cross and holding potlucks, if that is keeping us from doing what we are supposed to be doing, we need to rethink our efforts. You know... change.

But we love sharing beef and noodles and singing 200-year-old hymns. It's how we came to know Christ. Why shouldn't others come to know Him the same way?

Change. The world has changed. Culture has changed. Music has changed. Isn't it natural that the way we express our worship to the Unchanging One would change too?

But our natural instinct is not to change. And in the process, we lose touch with the world. How are we supposed to reach the world for Christ if we lose that contact?

Somewhere along the line we need to need to get back to Romans 12:1-2. We need to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. Then we can tell God's will from our own selfish desires, and with God's help, separate the chaff of empty tradition from the wheat of truth.

The new banner picture and color scheme are just window dressing for the actual content of this blog. The good looking suit and chants of "Change" are only slick politics alleviating the need for revealing Obama's specific policies until after the election. The music styles, carpet color and building architecture are only the shell of church. We must rediscover the Truth of the church's mission and seek to obey.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Lazy

I caught myself the other day. I was driving my wife’s car. Like many two-car families around the country, my wife has the nicer, newer, better-smelling car of the family. Hers is fairly new-to-us. We bought it back in October as a long-awaited replacement for the family minivan.


I drive a full-size car from the early 1990s with over 150,000 miles, squeaky brakes, and a missing armrest, but it does have a strong heater. There has to be a saving grace.


My wife’s car has all sorts of bells and whistles and she loves it. Of course I don’t mind driving it either. There are all kinds of gadgets to play with, but the one that has captured me is the controls for the radio that are built into the steering wheel. On the right side is the all-important volume control. On the left is the channel selector and preset scan. I can thoroughly frustrate any radio listener just by letting my fingers dance along the underside of the wheel. Is the kids’ music too loud for my 46-year-old years? Tap, tap, tap. There. Am I tired of artists who make percussion sounds with their mouths? Boom.


But most of the time I’m in my car with my Sirius Satellite Radio and my manual volume controls. That’s always been good enough for me.


Then as I was tooling along in my sedan one day, there was that song I heard playing softly in the background behind the hum of the tires on wet pavement and the whistle of wind through the gap between the door frame and the window. I thought to myself that I should crank that tune up louder and relive some of the old glory days. Since I had been driving my wife’s car the day before, my right index finger instinctively began searching for the volume up button. But alas, I was piloting the 15-year-old gas hog without the magic of fingertip steering wheel control. So mentally I nixed the idea of turning up the volume and feeling 18 again and continued to listen to the song, straining to hear it through the noise of the road.


That was when I caught myself. I had actually written off doing something because I didn’t want to exert enough energy to lean over and manually twist a knob! I spent a minute or two tossing this whole event around in my mind, still seated comfortably in the drivers seat. I measured the distance between the place my finger was tapping and the knob awaiting adjustment. Nine inches. I couldn’t convince myself to lean forward and reach out my hand that extra nine inches! How spoiled had I become in my wife’s car! Am I really that lazy?


The simple answer I came to was, yes, I am that lazy. But I don’t think I’m alone in all this. I think the physics of the whole situation dictates that if a person is resting, he wants to stay resting, just as I can’t seem to pull myself out of the La-Z-Boy when I’m nice and comfortable. I believe that comfort is a strong pull on our actions.


I think this principle applies to the church as well. In many cases church members may seem to fear change. Or is it the larger issue? Is it that we are too lazy to change? Are we afraid of losing our cushy pew so we refuse to consider doing things differently?

We're going through a period in our church where we have to consider certain changes. The cosmetic changes we seem to be able to handle. We deal with more contemporary music and surface changes fine. But can we allow ourselves to be pulled off the recliner and make the real changes in our lives and in our hearts? That still remains to be seen.

Changing the window dressing is a bit stressful. Rebuilding the window is a full-blown ordeal. We have to make a real commitment. We have to actually change and not just go through the motions. When we realize what we should be doing for Christ and even what we want to be doing for Christ, will we actually put forth the effort to reach out an additional nine inches and act?

Or will we be content in our laziness, straining to hear God's voice above the noise of the world but too comfortable to act?

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Snow

It's snowing here. It's not a blizzard by any means, but it's coming down lightly. Sometimes I can't even see the flakes. But they are there, slowly but surely covering the ground. What yesterday was a disaster of frozen mud and brown grass is now a pure white. I really didn't notice the transformation. It happened while I wasn't paying close attention.

Isn't it funny that major changes can take place without any notice to the process? It works that way with lives sometimes. A hardened heart is slowly softened without fanfare or winter storm warning. An unrepentant attitude is eventually convicted. An unforgiving mindset slowly comes to peace.

Thank you, Lord, for those unheralded changes that make an impact just as the new-fallen snow turns a filthy backyard into a glistening white paradise.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Betrayed

Thinking about the whole Passion story today. It's good to have 40-plus days to focus on this portion of Scripture because there's just so much going on.

I played Judas in an after-high-school production of "Godspell," and one of the most emotionally-wrenching parts of that performance for me was figuring out what was going through Judas' mind at that time. At age 18, I had only given cursory study to the reasons behind the betrayal. All I could really figure out that would help me in my performance was that Judas must have had some sort of "don't do it" reflex going on in his head even while he was advancing toward the Master. Yet at the same time, Judas was determined to do what he was going to do. What an odd mix.

The way our performance was staged, I re-entered the auditorium as Judas from the rear doors and had to walk down the house steps, up the stage stairs at stage left, then walk all the way across the stage to where the actor playing Jesus was standing with the rest of the cast. My re-entrance was punctuated by my slamming of the door to the auditorium, which really got the attention of the audience. A spotlight hit me as I began that long walk to the stage through the silent auditorium.

My facial expression was the best I could do to represent this contradictory mix of motivations working in Judas. Tears were in my eyes, and I could feel one slide down my cheek each night. My expression was a combination of fear, determination, love, hatred, emptiness and anger. I don't know if I was biblically correct in my portrayal, but it made for good drama.

But the emotions I ignored in all this preparation were the emotions of Jesus. The actor portraying Jesus and I never lost eye contact during this long obstacle-strewn walk toward the betrayal scene. I'm not sure I could describe the look in his eyes because I was so focused on myself, but what struck me was the portrayal of peace. Jesus knew what was coming, knew it was necessary, and was at peace with His Father about doing it. The Bible tells us He even went out to meet His betrayer.

Of course, the backstory is that Jesus and Judas had spent the last three years together. Jesus trusted him with everything, and in the end Judas betrayed that trust. I wonder what would have happened had the relationship between Jesus and Judas continued after this point. (Yes, I realize that messes up the whole salvation timeline, but bear with me a minute.)

Could Jesus have trusted Judas again? Could that relationship ever have been the same again?

We do get a peek at how Jesus handles these relationship issues in the whole episode with Peter, which runs through the narrative next. "Jesus? Never heard of him." declared Peter, not once, but three times.

"Peter, are you standing with me or against me?"

"Against you. Against you. Against you," came the reply.

Then we see the dynamic between these two after the resurrection. There is restoration. There is forgiveness. Maybe that's the key in figuring out what Jesus felt about Judas. At the same time, maybe that's the key in dealing with those who betray us.

"Lord, when betrayals happen, give me the grace and strength to continue to forgive, to work at restoration, and to learn to trust once more."

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Now or Never

Aint no use in complainin'
When you got a job to do
Spent my evenings down at the drive-in
And that's when I met you
Standin' on your mama's porch
You told me that you'd wait forever
Oh and when you held my hand
I knew that it was now or never
Those were the best days of my life

I was listening to an old Bryan Adams song on the radio the other day. The one above. I've heard this song somewhere around 277,518 times before, but this time the lyrics hit me a little differently. This time I remembered that moment of "now or never."

I should clarify that I've had more than one "now or never" moment. I remember that moment with my wife -- before she was my wife, of course. We weren't standing on her mama's porch. We were actually standing outside her cousin's house where she was staying. It wasn't really the end of a "real" date. We had just hung out together and watched TV at her mama's house. Then I took her to her cousin's place. We stood awkwardly outside my Ponitac Grand Am. I knew it was now or never. But I hesitated and did a lot of stammering.

Meanwhile, my future wife realized it was now or never and I was blowing it. So she leaned over, kissed me, said good night and went in the house. I avoided the "never" only because my darling was good enough to bail me out.

I guess I must have been a real loser with the ladies because I remember a few other "now or never" moments where I choked also. There were a couple of girls were I didn't avoid the "never" aspect. Of course I remember another where I was ready for the "now" but that seemed to be about as long as the relationship lasted.

As long as I've been a Christian, I've been taught that a person can reject Christ all his life, but accept Him on his deathbed. For many that doesn't seem quite fair. That "now or never" moment can be a "now or later" marathon up until that last breath. But to be truthful, I'm not sure why that is considered unfair.

I don't know about you, but God has forgiven me for the same sin around 277,518 times. It wasn't a "now or never" deal, and it's a mighty good thing it wasn't.

Jesus said we are to forgive our brother 70 times 7 times (translation: more than 277,518), even if it's the same sin. Personally, that's what seems unfair to me. Why should I put up with my brother cheating me more than a quarter of a million times? I might further wonder why I would give him the opportunity to cheat me that many times. But forgive? Repeatedly? Shouldn't I give him a "now or never" to change his ways?

In the church we also have this attitude of "now or never" with some of our brothers, especially new believers. How dare they still listen to that evil rock and roll music instead of a steady diet of Gaither cassettes! How dare they continue to smoke those evil cigarettes after Christ has washed them whiter than snow! Shouldn't these people immediately conform to the ways of Christ, or more accurately to the ways of the church?

The only "now or never" moment for us with God seems to be at the time of that final breath. Unfair? Thankfully no.

Perhaps the church will be able to follow this teaching of Christ someday.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Class Ring

My 16-year-old son has had a mighty busy month. At one point, during a seven-day period, Mr. 16 received his drivers license, had his first real date, and got his class ring. Now his mother and I have our own thoughts about our oldest getting so much freedom so quickly, but the boy is in heaven with all the instant maturity.

The drivers license speaks for itself. Not that he has access to a new Ferrari or anything, but four wheels and a big front seat is a quick ticket to adulthood. Unfortunately for him, it's also a quick ticket to more responsibility. We're working on that.

The date caught his parents off guard. Mr. 16 has always been one of the "quiet ones" in social situations. I know he has an eye for the young ladies, but he lacks the nerve to do something about it. Or so we thought. To my mind that's all pretty stupid because he's a fine looking young man -- certainly better looking than his father was at age 16. He's just starting to come out of his social shell, but he still prefers to be at home or alone. I figure that'll end pretty soon.

His first date was pretty informal. It was a school dance after a basketball game. They met at the game and he drove her home afterward. (She lives less than a mile from the school. Not a lot of time to fake running out of gas or getting lost in our town of less than 1,000 people.)

But the third segment is a bit different. His mother ordered his class ring a couple of weeks ago. It showed up about three weeks before we expected it, and my son is trying to learn to adjust to wearing one. I think he likes it, but I remember when I tried to make that adjustment as a 16-year-old with a big chunk of gold and cubic zirconium on my third finger. I was forever beating the underside on desks and tables, forgetting that I was wearing jewelry.

When my son's ring was delivered, my wife told me to get my old class ring out of a case on her dresser. Frankly, I was a little surprised it was still around and in an obvious location. When I picked it up, I was immediately struck by how heavy it was. This was no skimpy little ring. Size 12. 14 karat gold. Big chunky blue zircon with a starburst on the top. High school name around the stone.

I put it on and tried to wear it for a day, but couldn't quite do it. I did have to put it on my pinkie for fear that it would never come off my ring finger, so that may have had something to do with it. Truth be told, I didn't wear it much while I was in high school. It spent most of three years swinging on a gold chain wrapped around the neck of my girlfriend, or dangling from her finger with the help of a big wad of yarn to keep it in place. It was my ring, but it was rarely on my own hand.

I started to think about the purpose of the class ring. Wedding rings are a symbol that you belong to another. I wear a wedding ring that isn't nearly as clunky as the old class ring, and it doesn't get beat around like that chunk of gold. But my wedding ring does signify my commitment to my beautiful wife in a love with no end. A few years ago I looked at my wedding ring and noticed that it has cracked and was actually broken. Talk about some bad symbolism for my marriage!

Rings have been used for centuries to show the relationship of belonging to another. Even biblical references mention rings and the symbolism involved. True, rings are also simply used for ornamentation, but often there is a deeper meaning.

The class ring doesn't exactly fit that mold. It signifies that one belongs to a group -- a group united around a particular year and a particular school. It's not that we belong to another as much as that we are part of a group. That holds true unless it's your significant other's class ring you are displaying, of course.

My 16-year-old's class ring signifies that he is a part of a class of around 70 youth who will share a graduation ceremony and a lot of class reunions. It shows that he is a part of something bigger than himself. Yet that ring is unique. It not only has the name of his school and his graduation year, it also has his name and insignias that display his love of music and baseball. No other ring is just like it. Color, design, size, and material set it apart despite its significance as defining the wearer as part of a particular group.

That class ring is a lot like my faith. It defines me as part of a group -- the family of God. My faith also is quite unique. I am not gifted like others. I share a church affiliation with a group of people, but we are all distinct individuals, for better or for worse. Although I am marked as a disciple of Christ, my faith shows me as someone who isn't a mirror image of everyone else in the church.

Most times I think non-Christians don't understand that concept. Christians are pigeonholed and broadbrushed as intolerant, hypocritical, prudish, snobs. I know a few believers like that, but not many. We are all different. Most Christians certainly understand that.

Or do we?

It's amazing how we Christians believe that we must all share more than just core beliefs. For many there is no room for differences in music, in ways to evangelize or to serve, or even translations of Scripture. It's sad that it is frowned upon to celebrate and utilize our own diversity at times.

But more than that, it's a shame that many choose not to wear their faith. Like my class ring, safely tucked away in a jewelry case, the faith of many people is taken out only for special occasions like Sunday mornings or Easter or spending a day in a surgical waiting room.

Of course the best use of faith is to share it, kind of like letting your class ring swing from a gold chain around the neck of someone else.

One more thought about class rings... a year or two after my high school graduation I knew a man who bought other people's class rings. He would carefully examine the ring of someone who had grown tired of the piece, determine its precious metal content and weight, then make an offer to the owner. Most times, the owner was more than willing to take around $100 for a piece of jewelry he no longer wanted.

After the seller left the store, the man would take a pair of pliers and grip the class ring between its jaws. Squeezing the pliers, the stone would pop out of the ring and the gold or silver would be crushed into an unwearable shape. The man would then take the shapeless metal to market and sell it. He told me that he never crushed the ring in front of the seller because it was too upsetting. But he always crushed it as soon as possible so the seller couldn't change his mind and try to get the ring back.

Without the stone and shape, the class ring held no symbolism. It was a lump of metal. Period. It wasn't the metal that made it special. It was the uniqueness and the sense of belonging to another or to a group.

My faith is useless unless I do something with it. It is a gift meant to be used by me as a unique person who is part of a group of fellow believers.

Friday, February 01, 2008

From my 6-year-old

My daughter brought this down to me this morning. She's been singing it off and on for the past few weeks.

My chans ar gon
av bin sat fre
my god my saverr
hase rassa me
and like a flad
hase mese gras
anindeg love
amaseg gras

OK, the spelling isn't perfect, but the thought is there. It's the chorus from Chris Tomlin's Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone).

My chains are gone
I've been set free,
My God, my Savior
Has ransomed me.
And like a flood
His mercy rains
Unending love
Amazing grace.

Indeed. Amazing grace that saved the wretch that I still am too often.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Happy Belated Blogiversary To Me...

Hello. 'member me?

Yes, rev-ed is still alive and mostly well. Thank you to all who dropped me a line to check on me and left comments here. I'm sorry it's been so long. I have had plenty to write about, but haven't always had the time, the guts, or the nerve.

I've learned a lot over the past eight months, and God has used the good and the bad to shape me more and more into the image of Christ. And for that I am grateful.

I'm still the same guy as I was last year at this time, but I think I'm a bit more sensitive to the world around me and more appreciative of what I have now.

My intentions are to activate this blog again. There's a lot bottled up inside that I need to get into written form. All I have to do is push the family away from the keyboard long enough to get a post finished, right? Will do.

In the meantime, I'll wish myself a happy belated 3rd Blogiversary. Hope you'll have a chance to check back here from time to time.