Saturday, January 24, 2015

Heart-Shaped Eyes

In Italy this week I had a chance to be in Florence and see Michelangelo's masterpiece, David. It is a stunning example of artistic skill and genius, David with his sling on his shoulder preparing to face Goliath. Actually, in this case, David is fifteen feet tall, so you might wonder why Goliath didn't turn and run for his life.

Even the supposed "mistakes" are part of Michelangelo's intentional perspective and practical approach.  Some say David's head is too large, but this was to indicate his thinking and his courage. His hands seem large to indicate a pose of action, prepared for battle. The extra large feet are due to practical considerations, an imperfect piece of marble that required a large foundation, large feet and the tree trunk beside.

All of this I had heard or read about before. But there's something else I had never noticed or considered. If you can zoom in close as I did, you will note that Michelangelo sculpted David with heart-shaped eyes. He left no reason or explanation for his choice, and so different theories have been set forth. Our Italian guide, Isabella, suggested that the heart-shaped eyes represent David's love for his people and their love for him. Or, it could mean David's love for God and God's love for him. This makes more sense to me, since the scripture does say that David was a man after God's own heart. Even the name, David, means beloved. Who knows? That's the thing about geniuses - it takes one to know one.

Heart-shaped eyes. I've been pondering those eyes all week. What would it mean to see the world through heart-shaped eyes? Would it be like wearing rose-colored glasses, just putting on a happy face, out of touch and unaware, naive about the harsh realities of life? I don't think so. There David stands, bold and courageous, staring down a brutal enemy with those heart-shaped eyes.

What do you make of it? I don't know the answer, but even so, I wish I had eyes like that. I want to look at life through heart-shaped eyes.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Double Nickels

"How did it get so late so soon?" - Dr. Seuss

Turning 55 this weekend has started me thinking, reflecting on the journey behind me and the road still left to travel. Birthdays have never been a big deal to me. When I was growing up, our family didn't have birthday parties. I guess there were just too many of us for that, and we didn't have money for a lot of extras. So my birthday as a child meant that I got to choose what we had for dinner that night, a favorite meal, and, of course, a birthday cake with frosting and candles, more than enough fuss to make me feel special and loved. Later on, as times got better we might go out to eat to celebrate a birthday, but we never did do birthday gifts and parties.

That pattern changed years later, when my oldest siblings began to hit the biggies, 30 then 40 then 50 and now 60. We would throw big parties, usually a surprise, filled with rude cards, gag gifts, and lots of laughs. But even those parties would loose their steam by the time we did each one eight times. There are only so many rude cards in the world, I guess.

And, by the way, my aging process seems to bother my older siblings more than it does me. They can get older I guess, but their baby brother is not supposed to be 30 or 40 or 50. I think it hits them pretty hard. Poor old-timers.

I think it was Ann or Mary Jane who invited me to her birthday party when I was about 10 years old. I remember spilling grape Koolaid on my pants and an embarrassing moment during "Pin the Tail on the Donkey", but it was a happy time, a good day.

When I turned 16, the youth group at our new church in Grandview threw a party for me, and I was totally surprised. There was a big chocolate cake, lots of decorations and funny gifts. Not a big deal, just a thoughtful gesture from friends, so why is it still so vivid in my memory 39 years later?

Through the years, Suzanne has surprised me a time or two with birthday parties. Once she and my brother, Jerry, gave me a nice birthday cake with big number candles, "32". I had to tell them that I loved the cake, but actually I was turning 33 years old. Born in 1960. Do the math. My sister-in-law, Janet, said, "I thought they were wrong, but how could I argue with your brother and your wife?" So, I may still be one year older than Suz thinks I am.

In my 55 years, only one birthday has really bothered me, or at least it got my attention. Turning 35 was a significant milestone for me. I finished my doctoral work that year, so I knew I could no longer blame any of my shortcomings on my lack of education. From now on, I'm supposed to know what I'm doing. And then I got to thinking about the time ahead: If I am able to serve until the normal retirement at age 65, than I have 30 years - 30 years to accomplish what I can, to make my contribution to this world. Just 30 years to minister and serve and then it will be done, over, finished for all eternity. When it's all done, I want to know that I made the most of it, that I made a difference, that I left some kind of mark on this world. I want to know that I made the most of it, the most of my gifts, the most of my opportunities. I want to stand before God with a clear conscience, having done what I could.

What strikes me this morning is that 20 of those 30 years are already gone. Where did they go? It's as if the years slipped by unnoticed, sneaking past us when we weren't paying much attention. The time is rushing by, relentlessly pushing and pulling us forward.

And I've lived plenty long enough to know that the future comes with no guarantees. I remember listening to my dad talk about his plans for retirement, the things that he had been putting off or never had time to do, the time he wanted to give back to his family, the mission work he would be free to do. And then, at age 60 he was gone, heading home before the game was over, early retirement in Heaven. God sets the schedule for us and we don't get advance notice.

So, as I turn 55 this weekend, I'm thinking about the passing of time and what we make of it. I have lived a remarkably blessed life and I am truly grateful. God is good. Life is good. But it's time for me and perhaps for you, too, to wake up and smell the coffee. Time marches on. Better make the most of it.

"I wish it need not have happened in my time," said Frodo.
"So do I," said Gandalf, "and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us." 
- J. R. R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

Friday, December 26, 2014

Your Life in Six Words

If you had to summarize your life in six words, what would they be? Several years ago an online magazine asked that question. It was inspired by a possibly legendary challenge posed to Ernest Hemingway to write a six-word story that resulted in the sad classic "For sale: baby shoes, never worn." The magazine was flooded with so many responses that the site almost crashed, and the responses were eventually turned into a book. Not Quite What I Was Planning is filled with six-word memoirs by writers "famous and obscure." Here are some of the memoirs that range from funny to ironic to inspiring to heartbreaking:
  • "One tooth, one cavity; life's cruel."
  • "Savior complex makes for many disappointments."
  • "Cursed with cancer. Blessed with friends." (This one was written by a nine-year-old boy with cancer).
  • "The psychic said I'd be richer."
  • This one was only five words: "One long train to darkness."
  • "It all changed in an instant."
  • "Tombstone won't say: 'Had health insurance.'"
  • "Not a good Christian, but trying."
  • "Thought I would have more impact."
  • "I can't keep my own secrets."
Just six words, that's the rule, and that requires us to focus on what matters most. So, I'm working on mine and I promise to post my six word life summary before New Years. Will you join me in this exercise? Not a bad time to look back and to take stock of things and life in general. Give it try. And I hope you'll share yours, too. Your life in six words. Go for it. (Nope. That's only three words.)

Monday, December 1, 2014

The Fallout From Ferguson

The decision of the St. Louis grand jury, far from bringing any closer to this tragic situation, has revealed a gaping chasm of mistrust, racism, and violence separating the passionate people of Ferguson, Missouri and concerned people all across our country. It seems obvious that the tragic confrontation between Officer Darren Wilson and Michael Brown took place in the emotionally charged atmosphere of violent threats and alleged racism, blatant disrespect and perceived injustice. It seems certain that if Wilson were black or if Michael Brown had been white, this whole incident would have gone down differently.

So long is the history of mistrust and so deep is the anguish of past injustice, that the facts of this case - what actually happened - seem almost secondary to the issues that this confrontation represents. I have been amazed and disturbed to hear and read so much testimony that was grossly distorted, if not outright fabricated. Shot in the back . . . shot on the ground . . . hands up in surrender . . . apparently not so at all. Testimony presented to a grand jury by those who later admitted that they didn't actually see what happened - it's all very disturbing. Somewhere, lost in the reports is the fact that this young man physically threatened and assaulted a police officer. Also rarely mentioned is the truth that though the officer may have felt he was at risk there on the street, he was not. Could bloodshed have been avoided? No doubt. For God's sake, just get on the sidewalk. Don't pull that trigger until you have no choice. And maybe that's the way it went down. Who knows? I'm not the judge or jury. But one young man is dead and another has lost his career and lives in fear for his life. Both families are greatly in need of our prayers and support.

In the smoke of such a firestorm of controversy, two primary issues need to be addressed: the rule of law and a culture of mistrust. In this democracy, the courts with their juries made up of ordinary citizens have a sacred and vital obligation - to lay aside any personal prejudices or vendettas, to hear all the testimony, examine all the evidence, and find the truth as best they can. Is it a perfect system? Of course not. It is made up of imperfect people. Has the system faltered and failed at times? Yes, it has, and there are still many wrongs waiting to be righted. But it is the best chance we have of finding the truth and dispensing justice especially in high profile, emotionally charged cases like this.

And so, when the gavel hits the wood, the matter is decided. This is the rule of law. An appeal process is available. Civil charges can be filed. Peaceful, non-violent protest is valid and appropriate, part of our birthright as Americans. There are valid means of regress and expression in the face of injustice, but the senseless violence, looting, and destruction that has taken place in Ferguson is not about the cause of justice. It is the further damaging and violating of a community that has already been tragically torn apart. Citizens and their property must be protected from those who seize such opportunities to pillage and rob and destroy. The rule of law must be respected.

Second, we must address this culture of mistrust, this long backlog of hatred and hostility that seems to pass from generation to generation with ever deepening animosities. Our cities are teeming with crime-ridden neighborhoods filled with desperate people, economically oppressed, under served and disadvantaged, fighting to survive, and finding little hope of change or opportunity. Families are often broken and forgotten. Children grow up among the gangs and the gangsters, the drugs and the dealers, and there doesn't seem to be any way out.

Police quickly learn to approach such neighborhoods as war zones, hostile territory where they are often an unwelcome, trespassing presence. And this is where the race issue often plays an important role, although I'm convinced that this is more of a black and blue issue, rather than black and white. Predominantly white police departments like Ferguson's patrol ethnically diverse communities, and you can bet that not many African American children from such areas want to grow up to be police officers.

How do we identify and address the issues that have created such a culture of mistrust in our cities? I don't have the answers, but I do know that somehow honest face to face communication must take place. It's time to talk, and we will likely identify many problems that we must all work together to address. You and I can no longer just congratulate ourselves for living in some safe place far removed from such heart-rending tragedies. We all have work to do, because nothing spreads faster than hatred and mistrust unaddressed and unrestrained.  I am praying for bold and brave souls, both black and white, who will come together with respect for one another to listen and learn how to live together with peace and justice for everyone. 

As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, "People fail to get along because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don't know each other; they don't know each other because they have not communicated with each other."

Can it really happen? Can change ever come? Praying . . . 

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Turkey Talk and the Ball Drops

It occurs to me that the two holidays that make a sandwich of Christmas tend to point us in opposite directions. Thanksgiving reminds us of the past while New Year's Day focuses us forward into the future. While Turkey Day causes us to take stock, to count our blessings, to reflect on all the days behind us, New Years takes the measure of our time and calls us on into the unknown, uncharted journey before us. And maybe it is fortunate for us that these holidays surround our celebration of Christmas, because until we can make peace with our past and find hope for the future, we don't have much to celebrate.

For most of us the past is a mixed bag, a blend of both blessing and regret, pleasure and pain. At Thanksgiving we give thanks for the good things we have been given, but we might do well to make a second list alongside of our blessings. What about the old hurts, the deep regrets, the episodes of our lives that we would give anything to be able to do over again, knowing what we know today? Bad choices, dumb moves, thoughtless words. We beat ourselves up for such things and yet we are too often blind to the way our past is poisoning our present.

Maybe the best part of Thanksgiving is not the tallying of our total accumulated blessings. Maybe the real joy comes in finding grace and release from the broken pieces of our past, to be set free from those haunting hurts of yesterday. And to see how some Sovereign Someone has brought you through it all, the good and bad, the joy and the tears, to this new day - today - is to be blessed indeed. 

And then there's New Years. The crystal ball drops illuminating the big "2015," someone to kiss and a whole new year to worry about. Like Thanksgiving, New Years is a mixed bag, with equal parts of anticipation and trepidation, hope and fear. Just putting up a new calendar is an act of faith. We make our plans and pencil in our dreams, but who knows how things will actually play out for us? It's a scary world out there, with plenty to frighten us, to make us feel powerless and defenseless. We resolve to make changes, trying to face up to the same struggles we were having last year and the years before that. But genuine new beginnings don't come easily, especially when we realize we are not the One holding all the cards. God knows what lies ahead.

So, our New Years can sink from optimism to pessimism faster than the ball drops, like an express elevator to the basement. Too many of us wring our hands over the days ahead, living with a low grade, ever present anxiety based on fear, not faith.

Maybe the best part of New Year's Day is not football or our feeble efforts to reform ourselves. Maybe the real joy is found in our confident hope that though the unknown future is in God's hands, so are we. Try as we may, you and I cannot control what lies ahead, and that's actually good news, since we are not up to the job anyway. It is enough for little people like us to be faithful and to follow, to take His hand and walk into the great unknown without fear.

As our Celtic forebearers prayed:

God before me, God behind me, 
God above me, God below me;
I on the path of God,
God upon my track.

Sweet release from yesterday. Confident hope for tomorrow. Faithful companionship today. Now, we can join the party.   

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Football in the Mud

Rarely has the news been more depressing or disgusting. Turn on the evening news and you get to see clips of burning homes, raging floods, hundreds of Ebola victims, a woman punched out by her lover, and another reporter beheaded by terrorists. It's almost more than I can watch, just too big a dose of disaster and pain and cruelty.

These days I'm feeling better about my disappointed childhood dreams of one day playing in the NFL. Our heroes are turning out to be wife beaters and child abusers and sometimes just plain stupid. I heard on the news today that while suspended and awaiting the outcome of his felony child abuse charges, Adrian Peterson will continue to draw his normal weekly paycheck of $691,000. What's wrong with this picture?

What a mess we have created. In all fairness to these professional athletes, they have been treated like royalty since adolescence, given fabulous wealth when they couldn't handle an allowance, pressured to perform at herculean levels, and then expected to behave like mature adults, good role models for our kids. Not very likely, is it?

Who taught Adrian Peterson his brutal parenting approach? Nobody but his own parents. Who taught Ray Rice about relationships and respect for women? Apparently, nobody. That certainly does not excuse their behavior one bit, but our own warped sports culture has helped to create a class of athletes who lack even the basics of class and character.

And what makes it seem even worse is the fact that we rarely hear about the good guys, the athletes who not only perform on the field, but serve and volunteer and have healthy marriages and raise happy kids. But they rarely get the press. Scandal makes better copy I guess.

Maybe this will be the year when I just stick with baseball. After all, the Royals are still in the hunt and the Nationals are already in the post season. Praying for a DC-KC series. Yes, I do still believe in miracles. And I'm ready for some good news, too. Go, Blue!

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Jekyll and Hyde

Every person is in reality two persons. Each of us has an onstage life and an offstage life, a public persona and the private reality. Hopefully, these two are very similar, not dramatically different. But we all struggle to bring our two selves together, so that public and private, outward and inward, are reflections of the same consistent character. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde make for a great story, but a painful, pitiful life. Yet, how rarely do we come across anyone who is genuinely and deeply integrated, with no dark side, no mixed messages, no contradictory values, and no inconsistent behavior.

Even the Apostle Paul struggled to tame the old sinful nature. "I do not understand what I do. . . . For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do - this I keep on doing. . . . What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God - through Jesus Christ our Lord!" (Roman 7:15a, 19, 24-25 NIV)

Even early in life we become masters of disguise and deception, highly skilled at presenting ourselves publicly in positive, socially acceptable ways, while keeping our private demons out of sight, lurking in the dark corners of our lives. Many of today's popular television shows and movies center on this "dark side" theme, this breaking bad, this giving in to our raw, base passions.

And where do these demons come from? Are we born with this "sinful nature," an inbred badness passed down from Adam? Certainly we do come into this world with a sense of brokenness, an instinctive waywardness, a spiritual estrangement that we can't escape or explain. "Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it. Prone to leave the God I love." 

But, some of our demons do not come as standard equipment. They are not the result of our sins or Adam's, but someone else's. They are the result of the pain others have inflicted upon us, the wounds we have absorbed, the abuse we have endured. Harsh, cutting words. Cruel, callous acts. Heartless neglect. Unthinkable abuse. Innocence is violated, trust destroyed. And in the compost of pain and abuse, bad seeds take root and grow.  

How does our faith in Christ address this inner struggle, this unending battle to civilize and baptize Mr. Hyde? It seems to me that the simplest answer may be the best answer. If you want Hyde to get out and stay out, someone else needs to move in and take over - Christ Himself. Only Christ, dwelling in us by the Holy Spirit, can heal our past hurts, sweep out the dark corners, and break the chains of selfish, self-destructive behavior.

Will it be easy or painless? Of course not. It will likely be a long and difficult journey. The renewing of our minds and the reshaping of our character are no minor adjustments. But never doubt for a moment that healing can come, forgiveness is offered, grace is sufficient, and even dead men will rise. We can by the grace of God become whole, healthy persons, a new creation in Christ. May it be so for all of us.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Finding Your Tennis Ball

"When I think about it, the happiest and most successful people I know don't just love what they do, they're obsessed with solving an important problem, something that matters to them. They remind me of a dog chasing a tennis ball: Their eyes go a little crazy, the leash snaps and they go bounding off, plowing through whatever gets in the way . . . So it's not about pushing yourself; it's about finding your tennis ball, the thing that pulls you." - Dropbox CEO Drew Houston's 2013 Commencement Address