Thursday, July 17, 2014

Staying Connected - Tuning Out

Since our three kids are now in their twenties, I am regularly reminded that I am no expert regarding social and cultural trends. Apparently, in spite of my best efforts to stay informed and relevant, I am still pretty much in the dark compared to my brilliant and up-to-date offspring. I get it. I know there is at least some truth in their point of view. And, I confess, there are more than a few things going on these days that I simply cannot figure out. Ever feel that way?

For instance, I have noticed two obvious, dominant characteristics in my kid's generation and some of my own that appear to me to be incongruent if not totally incompatible. I'll bet you have noticed these lots of times. First is the obsession to stay connected. Each person must stay in constant contact with an enormous circle of "friends," and I use that term loosely.

I was running on a treadmill at the gym the other evening and a young woman was on the machine next to mine. As you would expect, she was working out at a faster pace then I can handle, but every few minutes or seconds, she had to jump on the treads, quit running, and respond to a text. I don't think she ran for two minutes uninterrupted by her phone. It's an obsession.

We've all seen it. Distracted drivers, servers, checkers, tellers, and most of all, customers, who cannot stand being out of touch or disconnected, even for a few moments. I'm waiting for someone to file a lawsuit so that the court can tell us that everyone has the inalienable right to be on their phone, no matter what, no matter when, no matter why.

Our kids can't imagine what life was like before smart phones, in the ancient days of letters and land lines and real live conversations. Okay, that's number one - obsessed with staying connected. Here's the second seemingly contradictory characteristic - the desire to tune out.

I was on a plane a few weeks ago and I noticed two young guys seated in the exit row where you have to get some extra instructions and agree that you will act accordingly in the event of an emergency. The male flight attendant asked for their attention and was ignored, earbuds in, eyes rolling. He asked again politely and was given an annoyed nod, but the earbuds stayed in. Finally, the flight attendant patiently put his hand on their shoulders and said loudly, "I need to you hear me and acknowledge that you agree to these instructions." Finally, both guys pulled out one earbud and did as he requested, but not without acting like their sacred privacy had been blatantly violated. (If I had been that flight attendant, I would have just choked them until the earbuds popped out.)

Again, you see this all the time, people in public, but not present, doing business, but totally tuned out. And, don't tell me it's just the music, because we've always had the music, and music has always had its fans. I have to believe that this is much more about tuning out than it is about tuning in. I just wish I was in the earbud business. Somebody is making some serious money.

So, am I crazy or does this all seem remarkably inconsistent? All kinds of people obsessed with staying connected and at the same time determined to tune out. Doesn't make sense to me. And, of course, the smart phone is the indispensable tool for both sides of the equation.

So, I'm wondering what the world would be like if everyone took this two-fold approach to life. What are your thoughts? Put down your phone, pull out your earbuds, and help me understand.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Prayers and Poop and Politics

When our kids were small we had a nightly routine as I guess most families do. After baths and pajamas and stories we would say our prayers at bedtime. This was always interesting, often an adventure, and sometimes unforgettable. It is a parent's great joy to hear their children pray, and each of our kids seemed to have their own approach to their Heavenly Father. Sometimes we would try to help them along, suggesting people and things they might want to pray about, trying to expand their little world.

One night it was Jake's turn to pray and he was trying to branch out. His prayer went something like this: "Dear God, thank you for this day. Bless Mom and Dad and Sam and Becca and bless Grandma Hill and Grandma and Grandpa Jones. And God bless President Clinton and help him to . . . help him to . . . (Of course, he had no idea what presidents do, so he thought about his own struggles.) . . . help him to . . . go potty on the potty chair and not to get poop on his big boy pants." Now, I'm betting not many presidents before or since have had such prayer support regarding their own personal hygiene. But, then again, it can't hurt.

Like little Jake, sometimes I find it hard to know how to pray for our country and our leaders. Certainly I pray for wisdom and direction for them, for their safety and health, for their faith and their families. But more then anything, I am praying these days that solving problems and caring for people will matter more than staying in power or regaining power. I pray that our leaders will remember how to listen to each other and respect alternative points of view. I pray that the art of compromise and genuine statesmanship will become the rule again instead of the exception. I pray that our leaders will put back into practice some of those noble ideals carved in stone around here.

I think we would all agree with Jake's childhood concern. There's way too much poop in politics these days. We need clean big boy (and big girl) pants on both sides of the aisle and in all branches of government. Maybe little Jake was wiser than I realized. Not a bad prayer for the Fourth of July.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Father's Day Reflections

"The heart of a father is the masterpiece of nature." - Antoine Francois Prevost

Father's Day, to quote Dickens, is "the best of times and the worst of times." Perhaps no holiday can elicit such a wide array of emotions from great joy to deep sadness. Even as we prepare to celebrate, I pray for my friends who long to have children and have not been so blessed and I ask God for grace and peace for those who have known only the dark, ugly side of fatherhood. And God's special comfort to those parents who have experienced the heartbreak of losing a child. May God bind up your broken hearts.   

I recently started hosting a monthly breakfast for all of the new dads in our church. I think we have fourteen new papas and three soon-to-be dads. A few already have older children, but most are first timers. We meet and eat and talk, wonderful conversation really, a great opportunity to talk with other men dealing with the same issues and changes and adjustments. Mostly I just listen and smile. So far I have only asked one question and the conversation never lagged after that. "What surprised you most about becoming a dad?" 

I'll bet you thought a bunch of guys would never open up and talk about family stuff, but you would be mistaken. Here's a safe, comfortable place to compare notes, ask questions, and be reminded that we can take this journey together with brothers in Christ, not all alone in isolation. And Suzanne is planning to get the new moms together too, so they can get in on this kind of encouragement as well.

As I listen to the guys talk about their experiences, I can't help but reflect on my own life as a dad. What an incredible blessing it has been to me. Now, I don't pretend to have all the answers and most of what I have learned through the years, I learned the hard way. But I have mentioned two things that sum up my little bit of wisdom for our new dads.

First, that little baby owns you now. Tiny little fingers have taken hold of your heart and they will never turn loose. It's no longer just about you and your life, or just the two of you, now it's a whole new ballgame. You feel the tug on your heart and a weight on your shoulder that was not there before. It's a surprising, almost frightening kind of love welling up inside. Suddenly, that easygoing guy you used to be has become a fierce protector, a committed provider, a nervous lifeguard. Who knew that this little one could have such a hold on you?

Don't get me wrong. You will be the dad, and you and mom will determine what's best and make the difficult decisions and even administer discipline when needed. But in a very real sense, you are no longer your own. You belong to your child and your child belongs to you. And life is never the same.

Second, savor every moment, every season and stage along the way. Don't be tempted to push ahead, to hurry on, to live in the future instead of the present. Cherish every day because days are what life is made of, all kinds of days. Looking back now, I honestly couldn't tell you what years I enjoyed the most. I loved it all and I love it still. So, I don't want you to miss anything. It's all good. Savor the moments, number your days, and make each one count with your kids. Never forget how quickly now becomes then.

So, I am happy indeed for my younger father friends on this Father's Day weekend, for I have been blessed on both sides of the equation. I am the child of a wonderful dad and I am the father of three great kids, more than doubly blessed. And all of us, and I mean all of us, can know the love and blessing of a Heavenly Father who knows better than anyone how to care for His children.

"See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God, and that is what we are!" (1 John 3:1 NIV)

Monday, June 9, 2014

A Bunch of Scheming Swindlers

"The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world? Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church's prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Oh, priceless scholarship, what would we do without you? Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes, it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament." - Soren Kierkegaard


Monday, May 26, 2014

"What If?"

Today, our son, Jake, walked away from what could have been a tragic accident, rolling his Ford Escape trying to avoid a turning vehicle on the highway. No serious injuries. Jake is a little shaken and sore, but he will be good as new in a few days. Thank God for seat belts. No one else was involved or injured. No fire. No "jaws of life." No helicopter. Just a ride to the ER and a good going over from the doctor and nurses who kept assuring Jake, "You are one lucky young man." Indeed he is, if luck has anything to do with it.

It's no fun being a long distance parent in such situations. Frantic phone calls, trying to get the details, poor phone service, scrambling for insurance information, "I think my wallet is still in the Escape." Thank God that Jake has lots of family nearby, Uncle Clif to the rescue with Jerry and Becca standing by.

All evening I've been playing that nightmarish game called, "What if?" I guess we just can't help it in these situations. What if our son had been hurt, injured, disabled, or even killed? What if he had hit someone, hurt someone, even killed someone? How would Jake live with that? Terrible, wrenching "What ifs" keep creeping up in my mind, and what makes it worse is the fact that I know how these things go. As a pastor of more than thirty years, I know the score. Some young men do not walk away. Some kids cannot call their mom and dad to assure them that they are okay. I have been in those emergency rooms when there was nothing the doctors could do. And I have tried to speak words of comfort to those who have suffered great loss.

So, perhaps this is the source of much of our fear and anxiety, that haunting question, "What if?" Too many of us live in a state of low grade fearfulness, a simmering worry that is always stirring down deep. We feel it for our families, our finances, our futures. This fragile thing called life is just too easily damaged, too vulnerable to pain, too prone to disaster, and too soon past. And so the question echoes in our fretful hearts . . . what if? what if? what if?

Much to our surprise and relief, biblical faith does not seem preoccupied with the "What ifs" of life. God steps into this uncertain and unpredictable world and says, "Fear not!" Over and over again, from cover to cover, hundreds of times we are reminded and even commanded, "Fear not!" Notice how God's response to the question mark is His own exclamation, loud and clear. Get this. 'Fear not!" In every circumstance, in fire and flood and famine, in wilderness and wartime, in battle and bloodshed, in plague and pestilence - "Fear not!"And when the risen Christ returns to His bleary-eyed followers, His first words - "Fear not!"

In Christ you and I have been given a faith that really can stand up to the dreaded unknowns of life and death with great confidence and hope. God knows, all kinds of things happen to all kinds of people, but He will never turn loose of us, never forsake His own, never fail to care for His children.

This evening I am giving thanks to the God who is God over all this fragile, broken world, the One who is faithful and loving in our joy and in our tears, in our triumphs and in our tragedies And though I am a dad with children far beyond my reach or protection, I will try to trust and do my best to "Fear not!" No more "What ifs" for me.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Seasons in the Sun, Part 1

When I was a kid growing up in little Windsor, Missouri, population 2,714, my summers consisted of three almost daily activities - mowing, swimming, and baseball. My brothers and I mowed yards in the summer to earn a few bucks of our own. Most every summer my Grandpa Barnes would fix up a little reconditioned mower for his grandsons, usually about a 21 inch cut with a 3.5 horsepower Briggs & Stratton engine, knowing full well that we would tear it up, bend the crankshaft, and otherwise abuse and destroy a mower that should have lasted for several years.

Being the youngest, as my brothers moved on to other jobs, their yards were often passed on to me. My busiest summer I had twenty-two yards to mow, though fortunately only three of them were large - Zinn's, Simmon's, and Kirkpatrick's. Some were so small I could mow them in twenty minutes. Believe it or not, for some of my smallest yards I was paid one dollar. No kidding. Mrs. Roop and Granny Powers. One buckaroo. Granny was a wonderful lady as many of my Windsor friends will recall. I would have mowed her yard for nothing. It was just fun to see her and talk a little while and hear her laugh. Sometimes Mrs. Roop would bring me a glass of ice water which was usually a mixed blessing. She only brought the water when she was making an extra request. I will never forget this conversation:

"Drew, have you noticed how the back yard grows so much faster than the front?"
"Yes, I have. The back does grow a lot faster."
"Well, next time you mow, I want you to mow the front faster and the back slower."
"Okay, Mrs. Roop, if you say so. Do you think that will help?"
"I don't know for sure, but let's try it."

And so I did, real fast in front and slow motion in the back, with little effect as you might expect. Mrs. Allen's yard just down the street was slightly larger and I pocketed a cool $1.50 from that job. Funny thing about Mrs. Allen was helping her with an unusual household task. Once a month or so, she would ask me or one of my brothers to flip her mattress for her, which we did for no extra charge. Now, Mrs. Allen might have weighed 85 pounds sopping wet, but she never failed to get that mattress turned. I'll bet when that great gettin' up morning finally comes, Mrs. Allen will probably just flip that mattress and lay right back down.

Most of the time I had company as I pushed my mower around town carrying my one gallon gas can. My dog, Jenny, usually came along. She would sit on the porch or under a tree watching me go back and forth and waiting for me to get finished. What she liked best was the walk home, because we usually stopped by our little walk up Dairy Queen for root beer floats - a medium for me and a special small one in a bigger cup for the dog. Jenny loved root beer floats and the bigger cup kept her face from getting so sticky. Only in a small town will they let you special order a root beer float for your dog.

Mowing yards was a great job for kid like me. I learned to meet people and to listen to their instructions and to do a good job for them. And I learned to be careful, too. I used to mow in an old pair of low cut, canvas Converse Chuck Taylors, turned to a dirty green from all the grass stains. One damp morning I was mowing the ditch at Jay Simmon's house and I slipped in the wet grass. My foot went forward and the mower rolled back over it. I flinched and jerked and pushed the mower up and off my foot. Looking down I could see my little toes wiggling, the rubber toe of my Converse sheared right off. Pretty scary. When I got home, Mom noticed my shoe. I told her I had cut the rubber toe off to make my shoes cooler. But why just one shoe? I guess I needed the safety lecture again after all.

Nothing like the smell of fresh cut grass and the taste of cold root beer on a summer day. And nothing like being able to buy my own baseball cards and put my own offering in the plate. Nothing like summertime where I grew up.


Thursday, April 3, 2014

Common Love

Driving back to the church today I heard a song on the radio about an uncommon love. The songwriter/singer was talking about a couple in love, a love that was unique and special, far deeper and higher than the typical day to day love. I liked the song, but I'm not sure I buy his premise.

Uncommon love? It started me thinking. Maybe what we really need is common love. And what is common love? Well, we know it's not just puppy love, the childish infatuation that can even strike grownups. And, I'm sure it's not that stunning, awestruck "love at first sight" that we hear about sometimes. And it's not the candlelight and roses, staring into each other's eyes goofiness, either. And it has nothing to do with the casual hooking up or the hot-blooded breeding that is so often portrayed on TV and in the movies. So what is common love?

Common love is settled love, love that is no longer in doubt, never in question. It is love that is so embedded in two hearts that it cannot be separated or removed. It is a love that means the past is history and the future is secure. It's an anchor, a rock, a quiet confidence that knows that for every sunrise there will be a sunset - together.

Common love is realistic love, not fueled by naive notions or false impressions. Common love is honest love, face to face and heart to heart. It is love that looks in the mirror every morning. Imperfections are obvious but accepted. Beauty is magnified. It is love that leans on strengths and covers weaknesses. 

Common love is blended love, a love that has learned to pull together those many "opposites attract" differences into one tasty recipe, as each is enriched by the other, stretching and stirring and getting stronger together.

Common love does not flicker or fade or falter. It brightens and deepens and strengthens. Common love is less like a bonfire and more like a pilot light. But, the furnace will still be warm the next morning, not just ashes in a pile.

Common love can communicate without words, touch without hands, celebrate without a crowd, give without gifts, and heal without medicine.

Years ago I was pastor to Willie and Fenna, ages 96 and 91, who died two weeks apart after 72 years of marriage. Fenna passed first and I don't think Willie took one bite of food from the moment she was gone, though he did keep chewing his tobacco. He couldn't bear the separation, so, soon they were together again, side by side. An uncommon couple. A common love.

Monday, March 24, 2014

"All Lives Lost"

Could there be a more wrenching, heartbreaking headline or post or tweet? Those bleary-eyed, pitiful families of the missing Malaysia Flight 370 passengers finally heard those chilling words today. After seventeen torturous days of waiting and praying and pleading, the last few drops of hope have been swept away, lost in a vast, deserted ocean of uncertainty. The lost plane is down in the distant depths, the satellites pinging its path towards disaster. No one knows what happened, what caused the plane to change course so dramatically and head in the direction of no return. The black box that could perhaps tell the whole story lies on the ocean floor with a dying battery and a fading signal.

I've been following the news of the recovery efforts day by day. Networks like CNN have just about exhausted every possible detail and perspective on this story and I confess, I got a little tired of it myself. But I keep coming back to those families, those anguished expressions, the angry frustration, the overwhelming fear on their faces. And now those husbands and wives, parents and children have an answer, a final verdict which must be true, but they can see no real evidence, no proof positive, and certainly no reason or explanation for their horrific loss. What complicated grief it must be, to lose a loved one so suddenly and tragically, yet stretched over seventeen nightmarish days, and then only to hear those words, "All lives lost." How can they put a period at the end of this story when so many questions marks still hang in the air?

So tonight, I pray for the lost and those who loved the lost. Give them grace to grieve and to heal, even while they long for answers, even without reason or explanation, even without a brow to touch or a body to bury. Give them courage to commit their beloved to the depths of God's grace and love. And may the Christ who came into this world to bind up the brokenhearted, find His humble way to their wounded, waiting hearts. Amen.