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.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Memories and Milestones

Ever notice how certain dates can stick in your mind? You may be just looking over your planner for the coming week and one numbered day unexpectedly gets your attention, triggering memories and pulling up thoughts and feelings that have long been dormant. That happened to me this morning when I noticed tomorrow's date, March 11. Suzanne says it's because I was a history major in college. Dates and times and events stick in my mind somehow, even though I can't seem to remember useful stuff, like we're out of peanut butter. I can't help it, I just remember stuff, both the happy and the sad days.

It was on March 11, 1975 that my family moved from Windsor, the small town where I grew up, to Grandview, a suburb of Kansas City. It was spring of my freshmen year in high school. We had only moved once in my brief life, from Maryville to Windsor when I was only seven years old. When you are seven, a family move is just another exciting adventure, no big deal at all, but when you are fifteen years old, being uprooted can be a cataclysmic event.

I don't recall my parents taking a family vote on the move, but if we had, I would have voted against it, loudly. Mom tried to explain to me all about God's will and Dad's ministry, but I wasn't hearing it. My brother Jerry was staying to finish out his senior year, so I was the only kid making this move, and it was a hard one for me. Not to be overly dramatic, but it was a painful transition and it came at a difficult time. A back injury had knocked me out of football a few months before, so I already had a sour attitude about life in general. Then I learned that in Grandview schools, I was going back to junior high because high school there didn't begin until tenth grade. And some of the classes I had been taking in Windsor were not allowed for a ninth grader in Grandview, so I ended up with three straight study halls, assigned seating, me alone at a cafeteria table for three hours each day. That didn't help much, just making me feel that much more alone. My back condition kept me out of P.E. and any school sports, so most of the things I had done before to make friends were no longer available.

Though I struggled through those first few months there was some good news to go with the bad. For the first time in my young life, I was nobody's little brother. No one knew my family. As far as they knew, I was an only child, and I did find that strangely refreshing. The bad news was as far as they knew or cared, I was nobody. Getting acquainted was tough towards the end of the school year and making friends was a slow process. The few kids I had met from Dad's new church went to a different school, so I was pretty much on my own.

Amazing to me how vivid some of those memories are for me. The weekend before we moved I remember a "going away" party with lots of friends, a bittersweet goodbye that meant a lot to me. I remember the youth choir at church singing a song for Dad, an old Irish blessing, "May the Road Rise to Meet You." I remember lots of hugs and tears that I did my best to hide. Then it was goodbye. March 11, thirty-nine years ago. Gosh, I'm old. By now I should have worked through all of this, shouldn't I? And I have. Since that snowy March day, I have moved many times, from Grandview to Liberty to Kansas City to Lincoln to Independence to Lamar to Sedalia, and most recently here, to Arlington, Virginia.

And here's what I've learned about life and faith in the moving:
  • Go means go.
  • You and I are in no position to see the big picture.
  • Our comfort and convenience are not high on God's list.
  • Moving usually means growing.
  • The world is a big place, bigger than we think.
  • Faith in God is never static, always dynamic.
  • We cannot receive the new while we cling to the old.
  • God always gives more than He takes.
I wonder sometimes how different my life would be, but for March 11, 1975. Come to think of it, it was just about a year later when a sixteen year old boy felt a strange inward stirring, the call of God on his life. Would I have been listening? Would I have been ready to respond if God had not picked me up and put me down where I did not wish to be? God knows. Indeed, He does.

Think of old Father Abraham, a wandering Aramean, moving from place to place, pursuing the promise of God, and every time he moved his tent, he built an altar. Not a bad approach to life when we face tough transitions and painful change. Move your tent and build an altar. Trust Him to turn your painful memories into milestones of faith. 

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Taking the Long Walk Together

Today the journey begins, the long walk of faith that will lead us eventually to a lonely hill and an empty tomb. We will be traveling light these next forty days, no baggage to carry and none of the trappings and distractions of our normal routines. One by one we lay down and leave behind those godless charms and trinkets that have held our gaze for too long, until our hands are free and our pockets empty.

As we walk we cannot escape the blazing sun, the glaring searchlight of the Spirit, illuminating every dark corner of our willful, wayward minds. Step by step we must trudge through the barren wilderness of self-examination, our hearts laid bare before the One who sees all. Caught in the reality of our sin, we can no longer rationalize. Exposed before God, we can only confess. "Lord have mercy on me, a sinner."

In that moment, there in the scorching wasteland of repentance, the cool, clear water rushes in, swirling around our feet, a rising flood of forgiveness, until we can bathe in it, even swim in the current of God's grace. The Spirit washes away the stains, scrubbing behind our ears, and finally wrapping us in the embrace of His love.

A deep hunger stirs in our bellies, growling for more than bread or meat, craving only the Body and Blood and holiness of character. A prayer to walk in a new day, a new way, a new person, like walking out of your own tomb on Easter morning.

No one said it would be an easy, pleasant journey, more likely painful and convicting. But if you long to see your own stone roll away, take the long walk of Lent.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Making Every Day a Better Day

“I've learned that no matter what happens, or how bad it seems today, life does go on, and it will be better tomorrow. I've learned that you can tell a lot about a person by the way he/she handles these three things: a rainy day, lost luggage, and tangled Christmas tree lights. I've learned that regardless of your relationship with your parents, you'll miss them when they're gone from your life. I've learned that making a "living" is not the same thing as making a "life." I've learned that life sometimes gives you a second chance. I've learned that you shouldn't go through life with a catcher's mitt on both hands; you need to be able to throw something back. I've learned that whenever I decide something with an open heart, I usually make the right decision. I've learned that even when I have pains, I don't have to be one. I've learned that every day you should reach out and touch someone. People love a warm hug, or just a friendly pat on the back. I've learned that I still have a lot to learn. I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” - Maya Angelou

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

A Holy Hand

I have just returned from Madhira, India, where I visited twenty-one of the churches that we help to support. After each service, people came to me for a touch, a prayer, a blessing. Young and old they came, the old and feeble, the sick and suffering, the discouraged and despairing. Parents bringing their sick child, a mother holding up her newborn infant, widows needing comfort, teenagers seeking some kind of future.

Often I was led away from the village church to enter tiny homes, to touch and pray for a crippled child, a young man dying with AIDS, a father struggling after a stroke.

I confess their pleas for prayer were a little unnerving for me. I felt so inadequate, powerless in the face of such overwhelming need. I had to relearn something I must have forgotten somewhere along the way. You and I have the power to bless, to touch and to pray and to know that the power is not in us or from us. Other hands, unseen hands, scarred hands are reaching out through our own touch to heal and to bless.

Frederick Buechner expresses my feelings in these words from Godric:  

"To touch me and to feel my touch they come. To take at my hands whatever of Christ or comfort such hands have. Of their own, my hands have nothing more than any man's and less now at this tottering, lamewit age of mine when most of what I ever had is more than mostly spent. But it's as if my hands are gloves, and in them other hands than mine, and those the ones that folk appear with roods of straw to seek. It's holiness they hunger for, and if by some mad grace it's mine to give, if I've a holy hand inside my hand to touch them with, I'll touch them day and night."

Friday, January 3, 2014

An Old Prayer for the New Year

Disturb us, Lord, when
We are too well pleased with ourselves
When our dreams have come true
Because we dreamed too little,
When we arrived safely
Because we sailed too close to shore.

Disturb us, Lord, when
With the abundance of things we possess
We have lost our thirst for the waters of life;
We have ceased to dream of eternity
And in our efforts to build a new earth,
We have allowed our vision
Of the new Heaven to dim.

Disturb us, Lord, to dare more boldly,
To venture on wider seas
Where storms will show your mastery;
Where losing sight of land
We shall find stars.
We ask you to push back
The horizons of our hopes;
And to push us in the future
In strength, courage, hope and love. Amen.

- Sir Francis Drake, December, 1577

Friday, December 27, 2013

Numbering Our Days

As 2013 begins its long fade into memory, a brand new year brightens with anticipation. The turning of the year is a moment to pause and reflect, to take notice and take stock.

Some of us will take down the old calendar, pitch it in the trash and say, "Good riddance!" Sometimes the best thing you can say about a block of time is that it's finally over. Others may choose to save the 2013 edition because of all the blessings and beauty of the past twelve months. "What a year!" we say, and wonder how life could be any sweeter.

Perhaps most of us are living somewhere in the middle, between the positive and the negative, scrambling to manage the ups and downs, the highs and lows of everyday life and each passing year.

In the good 'ol USA our life expectancy is now 78 years of age, (81-female, 76-male). If you and I had been born in Botswana, the news would not be so good, a life expectancy of only 47 years. If we were Canadian, we would get bonus years, an average of 81.

If you are turning 65 this year, you can take heart in knowing that 1 out of 4 will live to be 90 and 1 of 10 will surpass 95 years of age. Now that's pretty old, but of course no one gets to choose the quality of those years either. Growing old gracefully is a rare blessing indeed.

So, to take notice and take stock, I did the math - a life expectancy of 78 years translates to 28,470 days. I will turn 54 years old in a couple of weeks, so I have already lived 19,710 days (most of which I can't seem to remember), leaving me a remaining balance of 8,760 days if I make the national average. My father died at the age of 60. If I were to do the same, that means I only have 2,190 days remaining, and this one is almost half over. Wow.

It seems to me that the most dangerous thing about life is the temptation to put our lives on autopilot, stuck in a mindless routine, coasting through life, squandering our gifts, wasting our God-given opportunities, missing those golden moments, heedless of the passing of time. All the while the sand falls through the hourglass, ruthlessly and remorselessly falling, as our days on this earth dwindle down to dust.

As a new year dawns, maybe what we need is not a few well-meaning and quickly forgotten resolutions. Maybe we need a whole new approach to life, seeing each day as the incredible, fantastic gift that it is. No more "someday." Only today, only here and now, only this moment, fully alive and in step with the Creator, the One who has numbered our days.

One man who was battling a serious illness put a big jar of marbles in his home with one marble for each week of his expected lifespan. Every Saturday he took out one marble and was reminded of the passing of time. When he poured out the last marble, still alive and kicking, he reversed the process, putting a marble back in the jar each week with a whispered prayer of gratitude for the precious gift of a new day, a new week, a new year. 

Just one wish for the coming year for all of us - may we be fully alive in 2014 - seize it, use it, celebrate it, all to the glory of God.

"Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom." - Psalm 90:12