Friday, December 26, 2008

"Merry Christmas, Dad."

Here's my favorite Christmas gift this year, a picture of our three kids which they had taken without our knowledge and on the fiftieth try managed to capture their perfect smiles. I love the picture, but at the same time it made me a little melancholy. Our children are looking less and less like kids and more and more like grownups. Suzanne and I know our time is growing short. Our nest will be empty before we know it. Time goes straight ahead.

Anyway, we couldn't be prouder of our three. And, I'm feeling better about those frustrating moments of parenthood, when capital punishment seemed to be the only appropriate response. I'm glad in hindsight, that I chose other options. I feel very, very blessed.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Feeling Kind of Blue

Are you feeling a little blue this Christmas? Not Smurf blue, of course. Deep, dark, depressed blue, blue clear down to the bottom, blue no matter how bright the twinkling lights or how sweet the holiday tunes. Blue even when all the world seems to be celebrating.

Why so blue? It could be lots of things or nothing you can put your finger on. Take your pick:
  • unrealistic expectations
  • unresolved grief
  • past hurts remembered
  • unwillingness to forgive
  • loneliness
  • financial pressure
  • dissatisfied with job, career
  • disillusioned with life
  • fearful about the future
  • unable to accept God's grace
Wow. That's enough to get anybody down. So, don't be too hard on yourself if you are feeling blue. You've got your reasons, that's understandable. But don't stay there, don't grovel in it, don't settle down and soak in it. Let's move on, move out, move up from the pit of depression, just high enough to gain a new perspective. It's painful and it's difficult, I know. I'm not naive and I have fought my own bouts with the blues. And I know firsthand how bright the new day dawns.

Scot McKnight tells the story of Vincent van Gogh and the color yellow: "This famous Dutch painter, sadly, tossed away the truth imparted him in his Christian home and sank into depression and destruction. By the grace of God, as he later began to embrace the truth again, his life took on hope, and he gave that hope color.

The best-kept secret of van Gogh's life is that the truth he was discovering is seen in the gradual increase of the presence of the color yellow in his paintings. Yellow evoked (for him) the hope and warmth of the truth of God's love. In one of his depressive periods, seen in his famous The Starry Night, one finds a yellow sun and yellow swirling stars, because van Gogh thought truth was present only in nature. Tragically, the church, which stands tall in this painting and should be the house of truth, is about the only item in the painting showing no traces of yellow. But by the time he painted The Raising of Lazarus, his life was on the mend as he began to face the truth about himself. The entire picture is (blindingly) bathed in yellow. In fact, van Gogh put his own face on Lazarus to express his own hope in the Resurrection.

Yellow tells the whole story: life can begin all over again because of the truth of God's love. Each of us, whether with actual yellows or metaphorical yellows, can begin to paint our lives with the fresh hope of a new beginning."

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Coming Home for Christmas

Last week I listed my favorite lines from some of the classic Christmas movies, but I left out one of the best, the Walton's "Homecoming." Here's the concluding scene for you to enjoy.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Enjoying a Not So Perfect Christmas

Okay, the box says "Pre-lighted Christmas Tree" and that's a lie. It was dark in the box when I opened it up and there was not a twinkle of light while I put it together. The print should read, "Just might light, at least a little, maybe most of them, but absolutely no way are all 350 lights coming on or staying on." That's what it should say, but that's a lot of ink. So, here I sit, looking at our wondrous tree with soft glistening lights of red, blue, green, white, and pink, and a nice dark ring about two thirds of the way up and another dark patch at the bottom. Not so nice.

I did my part, four times, checking each bulb and wire and connection, each time feeling less like Cratchit and more like Scrooge. I'm telling you, this tree is a humbug if I ever saw one. I went to K-Mart's after Christmas sale a couple of years ago and did my part for the Chinese economy, I bought this "so realistic you can almost smell it" tree. Well, it stinks now, that's for sure.

And maybe that's part of the problem with Christmas. We have idealized our traditions and celebrations so that the bar is set awfully high each year. We want everything to be just right, just so, and when something goes awry, and something always does, our disappointment is magnified. The turkey is dry, the tree won't light, Grandma's gift got lost in the mail, your son has to work on Christmas. And when it comes to celebrating Christmas, it is hard for us to just relax and roll with the punches.

A family Christmas is a wonderful explosion of joyful chaos, at least that's the way I remember it. So, I'm going to loosen up and let the lights shine where they will.

Joseph was looking for a Holiday Inn Express and had to settle for a barn, and he managed. It's not the trees or the trimmings or the trappings of the season that matter after all. If the Child arrives, it's Christmas.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Wise Men: Three Who Made a Difference for Me

Three wise men. No, not the shadowy Magi that rode camelback across the desert pursuing a mysterious star. The Christmas story never tells us how many Magi, only listing three gifts. And somewhere between the scripture and the carols they all were promoted to royalty. Tradition has even added names - Balthasar, Melchior, and Gaspar. Nothing like a little good fiction to fill in the gaps, inspire a few songs, and sell a few cards.

I'm thinking of three wise men who went far out of their way to give good gifts to me. And, if you give it a moment's thought, I'll bet you can remember two or three of your own. Special friends, wise mentors, difference-makers in your life. Let me introduce three wise men to you.

I begin with David O. Moore, my Old Testament professor and the consummate Christian gentleman even in the face of criticism and personal attacks. Dr. Moore helped me connect rigorous scholarship and passionate faith. He kept me headed in the right direction, not letting me give up on the local church. When Dr. Moore retired, he brought me two grocery sacks of books selected from his personal library to help me in my ministry as a pastor. I still treasure and use those books complete with his notes in the margins.

I cannot forget Jerry Cain, my campus minister, who gave me, a bright-eyed freshman, so many unique opportunities to use my fledgling gifts, allowing me to stick my tentative toe in the ocean of ministry, eventually finding the courage to jump in head first. Now Dr. Cain is a college president, slightly more dignified, but still the same Jerry who opened many doors and made a huge difference for me.

And last of all, I think of Lewis Krause, my mentor and friend and surrogate father after Dad died, who from the first time we met somehow believed in me. I cannot think of Lewis without a smile and a chuckle. He ministered for many years in hard times and tough situations around the world and yet he never lost his joy. What a remarkable gift of encouragement he gave to me.

There you have it. Three wise men. Where would I be if they had not arrived just when I needed them? Thank you, God, for sending them my way.

Care to share your wise men or women?

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Christmas Movies That Move Me

Seems like several movie channels are already running the holiday classics. Here are a few lines from some of my favorites. These stories never fail to move me, some with laughter, others with a lump in my throat. Feel free to add your own choices.

"Charlie Brown, you're the only person I know who can take a wonderful season like Christmas and turn it into a problem. Maybe Lucy's right. Of all the Charlie Browns in the world, you're the Charlie Browniest."

"Rats. Nobody sent me a Christmas card today. I almost wish there weren't a holiday season. I know nobody likes me. Why do we have to have a holiday season to emphasize it?"

"NOW it was serious. A double-dog-dare. What else was there but a "triple dare ya"? And then, the coup de grace of all dares, the sinister triple-dog-dare."

"Some men are Baptists, others Catholics; my father was an Oldsmobile man."

"Aunt Clara had for years labored under the delusion that I was not only perpetually 4 years old, but also a girl."

"And the Grinch, with his Grinch-feet ice cold in the snow, stood puzzling and puzzling, how could it be so? It came without ribbons. It came without tags. It came without packages, boxes or bags. And he puzzled and puzzled 'till his puzzler was sore. Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn't before. What if Christmas, he thought, doesn't come from a store. What if Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more."

"Welcome, Christmas, bring your cheer. Cheer to all Whos far and near. Christmas Day is in our grasp, so long as we have hands to clasp. Christmas Day will always be, just as long as we have we. Welcome Christmas while we stand, heart to heart and hand in hand."

"Just remember this, Mr. Potter, that this rabble you're talking about... they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community. Well, is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath? Anyway, my father didn't think so. People were human beings to him. But to you, a warped, frustrated old man, they're cattle. Well, in my book he died a much richer man than you'll ever be."

"Remember, George: no man is a failure who has friends."

"A toast to my big brother George: The richest man in town."

"Look, Daddy. Teacher says every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings."

"It is required of every man," the ghost returned, "that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellow-men, and travel far and wide; and, if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death."

". . . for it is good to be children sometimes, and never better than at Christmas, when its mighty Founder was a child himself."

"I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year."

Monday, November 24, 2008

A Tough Time for Turkey

This year celebrating Thanksgiving has a different feel for me. Maybe it's because I'm feeling a little bit worn out and worn down lately. So much time with hurting people, grieving people, people in crisis, can turn the brightest rainbow to dingy gray. And, with the economy in the tank, so many jobs disappearing, and our 401k's stuck in a nosedive, it seems like bleak pessimism has settled in for a long stay.

Last year about this time I shared with you my "I'm thankful for" list, and it wasn't a hard list to compile. And, of course, I am still grateful for all those good gifts, but this year just feels different. My thanksgiving feels deeper, grittier, more tested and seasoned than before. So, here's my earthier approach to Turkey Day:

I am thankful for the . . .
  • Peacemakers, those daring saints who bravely venture into that no man's land between angry antagonists and hoist a white flag, surrendering in both directions.
  • Volunteers, those eager hand-raisers who have somehow cut themselves free from their natural self-centeredness and freely give themselves to a worthy cause.
  • Caregivers, those sons and daughters of God who have learned to enlarge their own hearts by patching up the hearts of others.
  • Extra Milers, those relentless runners who set no boundary or limit on their faithfulness, who pay no heed to their own fatigue, and who carry us far beyond our expectations.
  • Encouragers, those perpetual cheerleaders whose words get us back on our feet and ready to fight for another round.
  • Ungrossoutables, (I think I just invented a new word.) I'm talking about those children of Mother Teresa whose desire to comfort and heal is so strong that even a squeamish eye, a faint heart, and a queasy stomach cannot keep them from acting in love.
  • Protectors, those modern knights who still defend the helpless and the innocent, the weak and the vulnerable, laying down their lives in the face of violence and evil, fire and storm.
They are all heroes, are they not? Each one brings to mind the names and faces of very special people who have "been there" for me, and I am genuinely thankful. And I want to be more like those heroes in the future. Maybe that's the best "thank you" we can give.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Give Me a Full-Size Jesus

Michael Spencer at Jesus Shaped Spirituality has written a powerful piece called, Do You Trust an Abbreviated Jesus? Let me encourage you to take a look. Do you agree with Michael's indictment of much of contemporary Christianity? Does he make his case?

Monday, November 17, 2008

For King and Country

I do not often agree with the words of columnist Cal Thomas, sometimes but not often. But his recent editorial after the presidential election was something to behold, words I never thought he would write, words I could wish I had written myself. Here's a taste of it:

Thirty years of trying to use government to stop abortion, preserve opposite-sex marriage, improve television and movie content and transform culture into the conservative Evangelical image has failed. The question now becomes: should conservative Christians redouble their effort, contributing more millions to radio and TV preachers and activists, or would they be wise to try something else?

I opt for trying something else. . . . Too many conservative Evangelicals have put too much faith in the power of government to transform culture. . . . Too many conservative Evangelicals mistake political power for influence.

If results are what conservative Evangelicals want, they already have a model. It is contained in the life and commands of Jesus of Nazareth. Suppose that millions of conservative Christians engaged in an old and proven type of radical behavior. Suppose they followed the admonition of Jesus to "love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit those in prison, and care for widows and orphans" not as ends, . . . but as a means of demonstrating love for the whole person in order that people might seek Him?

Such a strategy would be more "transformational" than electing a new president, even the first president of color.

You can find the entire editorial here. I wish more Christians, blue and red, liberal and conservative, really believed in the power of the Gospel we preach and teach. Christ alone is the truly transformational Leader this world desperately needs.

Doing the work of the Kingdom is the best thing we can do for the country.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

What a Day for a Daydream

I believe that imagination is stronger than knowledge,
That myth is more potent than history.
I believe that dreams are more powerful than facts
That hope always triumphs over experience
That laughter is the only cure for grief
And I believe that love is stronger than death.
- Robert Fulghum, Storyteller's Creed

I confess. I have always been a daydreamer. I was the kid in class sitting there with glazed eyes gazing out the window, startled when the teacher suddenly called my name. "Uh, what was the question?" And even today, I sometimes like to let my mind wander to unexplored worlds and imaginary scenarios. Most of the time, like you, I am pinned down to dealing with realities, the needs and responsibilities staring me in the face. But every now and then God seems to call me out of myself and beyond myself, to count the stars and the grains of sand on the shore. Sometimes I find myself far above the mundane duties of the day, catching a glimpse from the lofty heights where the fog clears and I can see the distant miles stretching out ahead. God gives the best daydreams.

It doesn't happen often, mind you. Not nearly so often as I would like. But sometimes, in unscheduled sacred moments, I can see far beyond the range of my bifocals, I can begin to see a path and a promise for me, my family, my people.

And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your old men will dream dreams,
your young men will see visions.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days.
(Joel 2:28-29 NIV)

"How about today, Lord? Please let it be today."

Monday, November 10, 2008

Punched Out By a Priest

Here's a Monday morning headline for you: "Monks Brawl at Christian Holy Site in Jerusalem." There, in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Armenian monks and Greek Orthodox monks came to blows and had to be separated and cuffed by Israeli riot police. I've been in a couple of Baptist business meetings that were nearly as bad.

Six different Christian groups are supposed to share possession and administration of this church, believed by many traditions to be the holiest site of the Christian faith, built over Golgotha and the tomb of Christ. But things have never gone smoothly. These Christians can't seem to agree on anything. Here's part of the story:

The feud is only one of a bewildering array of rivalries among churchmen in the Holy Sepulcher.

The Israeli government has long wanted to build a fire exit in the church, which regularly fills with thousands of pilgrims and has only one main door, but the sects cannot agree where the exit will be built.

A ladder placed on a ledge over the entrance sometime in the 19th century has remained there ever since because of a dispute over who has the authority to take it down.

More recently, a spat between Ethiopian and Coptic Christians is delaying badly needed renovations to a rooftop monastery that engineers say could collapse.

You can read the rest of the story here. What a odd place to get punched out by a priest. And what a shameful testimony to the cause of Christ. It may well be true that Jesus of Nazareth laid down His life in or near that very spot. And He died and lives for the cause and purpose of reconciliation, our coming together with God and with one another.

Any time in any place in any church, when we put turf and influence before grace and love, we have disgraced the Gospel and sent Christ back to His cross.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Top Ten Things I Have Learned from Government

Our friends over at High Calling Blogs have asked us to write down our thoughts on the subject, "What I have learned from government." This writing project is hosted over at Middle Zone Musings and you can find the post here. So, here goes.

Please forgive my heavy sarcasm, but any honest look at how our government functions these days can turn the most optimistic Tigger into a gloomy Eeyore.
  • Truth, like lemon juice, must always be diffused and diluted, never taken straight.
  • A press conference is not unlike feeding time at the zoo.
  • Reporters are bright, ambitious persons who used to be human beings.
  • Post election speeches represent grace and forgiveness in its highest form, as both candidates express great appreciation and respect for the opponent they have mercilessly trashed for six months.
  • History has a remarkable way of putting our leaders in perspective. Some big people get much smaller with the passing of time, and a few little people may take on a stature and breadth that we never noticed when they were around.
  • Politicians are becoming more and more like pets – they are all owned by somebody. They may prance and parade their pedigree in public, but they still tend to fight and bite and make messes in private.
  • No matter what the job may be, there has to be a way to make it take longer and cost more than you ever dreamed possible.
  • Terms like revenue enhancement, fiscal evaluation, and tax assessment all mean the same thing – you and I are picking up the check.
  • People are fickle, flying wherever the winds of self-interest may carry us. Every conviction is negotiable it seems, except the ultimate truths like Ford is better than Chevy.
  • These days it’s not so much government of the people, by the people, and for the people. It’s more like government to the people, use the people, and confuse the people.
Cynical as I may sound, I do believe that we can do better, we must do better, and we will do better. I do not propose that we return to some past age of bliss, because we have never really had one. We can begin to listen, to learn, and to understand each other. We can practice the art of compromise without betraying our deeply held convictions. We can rediscover the noble work of citizenship and help create a culture of civility, leaving plenty of room for those unlike ourselves who are part of our common community.

I don't feel like bouncing like Tigger just yet, but I am hoping for better days ahead.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

My Life in a Box, Part Two

Just a few more memories stirred as I look through my box, all the things my mother saved from my childhood. Here's the starting lineup, all ten of us, and that's me, front and center, looking very dapper in a tie and blazer. Mom seems to doubt my ability to keep my cup from spilling, but so far, so good.

Then I found this little piece of art work. In fact, I remember very clearly coloring and cutting and pasting this little man and the mail box. But, who the heck is Nancy? I have no idea what I was thinking, but I must had a big crush on some little girl named Nancy. Now here I sit, more than forty years later, just wondering. Somewhere out there, Nancy may be a concert pianist or a biology teacher or a brilliant surgeon. Or, my mysterious Nancy may have become a welfare mother or a construction worker or a high priced escort. Who knows? But her name is still on my little crayon mailbox.

So, Nancy, if you are out there, stop by and say "Hi" sometime. Until then, I'll live with the mystery.

One more childhood moment to share. I was nine years old when this last picture was taken and printed in the our local paper, the Windsor Review. I am second from the right in a striped sweater and proudly holding a Punt, Pass, and Kick trophy, first place, age nine.

I will never forget the afternoon when I brought home my trophy from school. My mother was the only one at home that day. I had told her that I thought I had done well, but we had not been given the final results on the day of the competition. So when I walked in the house with the first place trophy, my mom celebrated with me like I was Michael Phelps fresh out of the Olympic pool. She made me feel like a champion. Next stop - the Super Bowl!

Back to the picture. The little guy on my left is Howie. He became an all-state running back and then a banker and a salesman. On my right is my friend Steve, who as a man was convicted of murdering his wife and is serving a life sentence without parole. I grew up with Steve and I will never believe he could commit such a horrific crime.

No matter how life begins for us, there are no guarantees about where the journey ends. Our destination will be the sum of the choices we make, plus the things we can control, minus the things we cannot.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Very First First Baptist Church

Sometimes it's embarrassing to be a Baptist. Being independent and congregational, just about any church or individual can call themselves a Baptist, even the guy in Arkansas a few years ago who kept his deceased mother in his freezer and held special services attempting to raise her from the dead. No luck.

With all the changes in Southern Baptist life in the past twenty-five years, being a Baptist pastor brings to mind a pretty negative stereotype for many people today. Can't say I blame them either. For many, the word 'Baptist' is a synonym for intolerance, sexism, and a narrow right wing political agenda.

People often ask me about why I am a Baptist or why I'm still a Baptist or why I ever became a Baptist. I have to remind them that being a Baptist has not always meant what it has appeared to mean in these recent years, and I stubbornly refuse to turn loose of the biblical values and timeless truths that Baptists have believed and practiced from the early days.

Bill Webb, editor of Word & Way, has written a fine piece describing his visit to the historic First Baptist Church of America and what a worthy and significant contribution Baptists have made to our national life and to the work of the Kingdom. If you are an occasionally embarrassed Baptist like myself, it will make you proud once again. If, on the other hand, you believe that the recent changes in the SBC have been a positive thing, you might just be surprised by what you read. I love the words on the church's sign. "We reserve the right to accept everybody." That sounds like the Gospel to me. That must make God smile.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

My Life in a Box, Part One

Like many parents, my mother has always collected special memorabilia for each of her eight children. She kept it all tucked away in an old file cabinet, overstuffed with baby books, grade cards, school pictures, various ribbons and clippings, and lots of really bad artwork. Mom's plan was to eventually turn each enormous file into a beautiful scrap book for each of us. And, bless her heart, she did make it through the first two kids before she went to K-Mart and bought six big plastic boxes and dumped a file of her precious treasures in each box. (Make your own beautiful scrap book!) A few weeks ago Mom gave me my box which I had never seen or gone through before.

Needless to say, it has been intriguing to work my way back through my childhood and relive some of those magic moments in my own story. And, if you don't mind, I would like to share a few of my thoughts and reflections from my life in a box.

First off, I was amazed to find a baby book with lots of stuff filled out and cards and notes glued in place. Suzanne and I have three children and I know we have a lot more pictures and things from Sam's birth than we do for the other two. It's not that we didn't love them as much. It's just that the novelty of being a parent begins to wear thin pretty quickly.

So for my folks, I figured by the time you get to your eighth child, everything is just old hat. "How was your day, Hon?" "Fine, dear. I had that baby we've been expecting for awhile, so we'll need to come up with a name pretty soon." "Oh yeah, I almost forgot about that. Everything go alright?" "Sure. No problem. I wasn't there an hour. In and out." "That's great, Hon. You're a real trooper. Boy or girl?" "Oh gosh, I didn't even notice. Oh, well the blanket was blue. Must be a boy." "Another boy? Well, just put him in the big bedroom with the other four. Do you ever wonder, Hon, if it's time we drew the line?" "Hey . . . 'Drew'. I like that name."

But no, not my mom. She had her eighth child (less than twelve years, first to last) and she still filled in my baby book, complete with our hospital wristbands, my footprints, a list of all my visitors, and even the weather report on the day of my birth - gray, overcast, and rainy. (Maybe I brightened things up a little bit.)

Yes, I was surprised and touched to open my baby book, but I don't know why. I really should have expected to find it just as it is. Why? Because my mom and dad never made me feel like an extra, like just another kid, one more mouth to feed, just another rug rat jumping on the bed. No, I have always felt that one-of-a-kind specialness that comes from being loved and accepted and cherished as a blessing from God. Is there a greater gift that we can give to our children?

There are lots of loose pictures in the bottom of my box, random shots tossed in the file from time to time. I found one picture of me when I was just six months old, and it proves a theory I have developed through my years as a pastor. I have heard countless proud moms and dads brag on their babies and debate who their newborn really looks like, favoring mom or dad or Uncle Richard or Aunt Joan. Here's my theory: for the first year of life, every baby looks like Winston Churchill. Then, gratefully, they start to have some distinct family resemblance.

I present, in support of my theory, my own baby picture at the age of six months. You see, if I had an overcoat and a cigar, I could pass for the prime minister, couldn't I? It happens all the time.

Thanks for letting me share my life in a box. Drop by soon for part two.

Monday, October 13, 2008

One Hundred Heads Are Better Than One

Got questions? Ever have trouble figuring out how life and faith are supposed to work? Do you wish you could find some practical help as you put it all together? Well, I've recently come across a great resource, Here's your chance to ask your questions to a large, growing network of Christian writers from all kinds of backgrounds and perspectives. And, yes, I am one of those writers that will take your questions. It doesn't matter whether you are doing in depth research or just puzzling over some life experience, ask away and see what insights and ideas others can offer.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Just Another Day in Deep Space, Part Two

"When I consider your heavens, the works of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?" - Psalm 8:3-4

"He determines the number of the stars and calls them each by name. Great is our Lord and mighty in power; his understanding has no limit." - Psalm 147:4-5

"Praise the LORD from the heavens, praise him in the heights above. . . . Praise him, sun and moon, praise him, all you shining stars. Praise him , you highest heavens . . . for he commanded and they were created. He set them in place for ever and ever." - Psalm 148:1-6

Monday, October 6, 2008

A Monday Morning Prayer

"Our Father, we are beginning to understand at last that the things that are wrong with our world are the sum total of all the things that are wrong with us as individuals. Thou hast made us after thine image, and our hearts can find no rest until they rest in Thee.

"We are too Christian really to enjoy sinning and too fond of sinning really to enjoy Christianity. Most of us know perfectly well what we ought to do; our trouble is that we do not want to do it. Thy help is our only hope. Make us want to do what is right, and give us the ability to do it. In the name of Christ our Lord. Amen."

- Dr. Peter Marshall, Chaplain of the United States Senate (1947-1949).

Friday, September 26, 2008

Who Gets the Check?

Is it my imagination or just bad memory? I've been watching the news during this economic crisis and I maybe wrong, but I think I'm seeing a glaring inconsistency. These same guys who consider themselves the free trade, free market, cut taxes, small government, fiscal conservatives are the ones who are now begging for a big government rescue, a buyout at the taxpayers expense, to cover years of bad decisions and mismanagement. I'm trying to get my mind around 700 billion dollars. At the going rate, how many generations does that come to?

Our government can't find a dollar for all the families who are losing their homes. And no funds are laying around for those wiped out by the hurricanes. But let the high rollers get in trouble, and truckloads of money immediately pull up to the curb. I guess I just don't understand the problems of applied economics, but I get to help pay for them anyway.

And, in the midst of this tirade, there may be a truth for us to keep in mind. We are all too quick to believe in the myth of our own autonomy, our imagined self-sufficiency. Like our childhood superheroes, we naively believe that we are impervious to problems, immune to the painful crises that plague others. Well, don't you believe it.

Jesus told a story about a man who suffered from just such a delusion, a well-heeled farmer sitting in the lap of prosperity, nameless to us except for the tag Jesus gave him - "Fool." No matter who we are or how pretty we are sitting, it can all be gone in a moment, in a heartbeat. Or we may be gone. Either way, it will be up to someone else to pick up the check.

Monday, September 22, 2008

The "Don't Pray" List

I almost never post my thoughts twice on the same day, but I can't let this one go. I read this article this evening and I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. Sadly, it appears that Hindus, Muslims, and atheists believe more in the power of Christian prayer than many of us Christians do. See what you think.

Elias Al-Karim says he’s always gotten along well with his neighbors, who are evangelical Christians. But he was angered recently to learn that they had added his name, and the names of his wife and children, to Community Faith Center’s corporate prayer list. Elias called the church to complain.

"We do not want prayer from Christians, and we did not ask for it," he told a reporter. "It’s a violation to pray for someone without their knowledge or consent."

To ease tensions, the church did what many churches and ministries are increasingly doing: started a "do not pray" list. The list grew rapidly after Al-Karim alerted the local newspaper about his experience. Hundreds of Muslims, atheists, Mormons and even pagans called to have their names added to the list. Now when prayer requests come in to the church, names are checked against the list before they receive prayer.

"We have to respect people’s wishes," says the pastor. "If they really don’t want prayer, we honor that."

You can find the full story here. So, is this pastor right or wrong?

I have never felt particularly comfortable with large churchwide prayer lists. I understand the rationale and we all need to be reminded to pray for those in need. I just don't think God is ever impressed or moved by the number of our combined prayers, as if we can push God to do our bidding by the sheer volume of our prayers. It seems to me that God answers prayers that are genuine and passionate and consistent with His own character and purposes, regardless of how many are praying. "The prayers of a righteous man availeth much." Not a righteous mob.

Those who dial up the "Don't Pray" list had better change their strategy. It's not a bunch of kneeling Christians that they should be worried about. It is the restless, relentless Spirit of God, the most ruthless member of the Trinity, who will stop at nothing to win their love. It is the Hound of Heaven who pursues not to destroy but to capture by His grace. And there's no stopping Him.

Winning for a Reason

“I said this was going to define my career, but you know what, it made my career.” -Kenny Perry

I watched Sunday afternoon as Kenny Perry, choked with emotion, spoke those words. What was he thinking about? What made this win so meaningful for him? Here's my theory. This grueling Ryder Cup match was not about the big check or the lucrative endorsements or the individual achievement - the kind of things that professional golfers go after every other week of the year.

This was bigger, much bigger. This match was about playing for a team and a cause beyond any one person's ego or ambition. This was playing one's very best for something bigger than a bank account. "U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!" Competing to restore our national pride in an international sport is a strong motivation, whether in the Olympics or the Ryder Cup or the America's Cup.

I know. It's just a game. Just a silly old golf game. But Kenny Perry reminded me of a significant truth, that we all find our deepest level of fulfillment when we give ourselves to something bigger than our own self interest. Winning only for yourself is just feeding a wolf that will soon be hungry again. But achieving a victory for the teammate beside you and the flag above you fills you up until the tears run down your face and you can hardly talk. Now that's a game worth playing.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Better Check Your Blind Spots

These days I am trying to teach two teenagers how to drive. I've been giving lengthy explanations about the difference between a green light and a green arrow, and what the words "Stop" and "Yield" really mean. And we have had interesting conversations about blind spots and how to check them. Someday soon, I will have the courage to give them the keys for good.

Blind spots. I guess we all have them, and we are much better at spotting the blind spots of others while remaining largely unaware of our own. Sadly, churches have blind spots as well, people we do not see or acknowledge even though they may be in plain sight, right in front of our eyes. And all too often, we steam roll ahead, oblivious to the damage we do and the pain that we cause to those we have failed to notice.

Let me mention a few examples of those who seem to live perpetually in the Church's blind spot: single parents, the divorced, the abused, and the working poor. I'm afraid there are many others we could mention, but lately our church has been awakened to the needs of single parents in our own community. We are finally mobilizing our ministries to help address the practical, everyday needs of single parents. In this process we are finding many willing partners in our town - the community college, the local hospital, our county's social services, and several large employers.

Not surprisingly, some of our sister churches have been the least interested, the most hesitant to admit the need, and the last to get involved. Too many churches are pretending that the traditional 'Ozzie and Harriet' family is still the norm while gearing all their attempts at family ministry to a shrinking minority of "Christian" families.

God, forgive us for our blindness. Forgive us for not seeing the obvious, for not meeting the needs that have long been right in front of us, for not doing the deeds that match the message we proclaim.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Barack and Joe or John and Sarah?

"Without feelings of respect, what is there to distinguish men from beasts?" - Confucius

As the presidential campaign heats up, our real feelings about race and gender and leadership are boiling to the surface. Some people seem very positive, believing that our country has moved beyond racism and bigotry in this context. Others are much more pessimistic, fearful that some segments of our culture have progressed very little. And regrettably, we have not yet been able to exorcise all of these ugly forms of prejudice from within our churches. I still sometimes hear political discussions among "Christian" people with thinly veiled racism and sexism expressed in the guise of just talking politics.

The African Bishop, Desmond Tutu, was once asked why he became an Anglican rather than joining some other denomination. He replied that in the days of apartheid, when a black person and a white person met while walking on a footpath, the black person was expected to step into the gutter to allow the white person to pass and nod their head as a gesture of respect.

"One day" Tutu says, "when I was just a little boy, my mother and I were walking down the street when a tall white man, dressed in a black suit, came toward us. Before my mother and I could step off the sidewalk, as was expected of us, this man stepped off the sidewalk and, as my mother and I passed, tipped his hat in a gesture of respect to her! I was more than surprised at what had happened and I asked my mother, ‘Why did that white man do that?’ My mother explained, ‘He’s an Anglican priest. He’s a man of God, that’s why he did it.’ When she told me that he was an Anglican priest I decided there and then that I wanted to be an Anglican priest too. And what is more, I wanted to be a man of God."

May we all grow up to become men and women of God, respecting the dignity and worth of every person for whom Christ died.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

The Trouble With Trophies

"Oh yeah, life goes on . . . long after the thrill of living is gone."
- John Mellencamp, "Jack and Diane"
Tonight I watched my daughter play volleyball. It was an away match, and while I was drinking a Diet Coke between games, I noticed a remarkable trophy cabinet, not unlike trophy cabinets in just about every high school in the country. What made this one especially interesting was the age of some the pictures and trophies. The Bulldogs apparently took second place in the local tournament in February, 1933. Another basketball team managed to win a Big Three Tournament in 1929, bringing home the first place trophy with engraving that is now barely legible.

I did a little math and calculated that those who played on that championship team would be 95 to 99 years old, if they are still alive today. Wow. Do you suppose any of those old-timers are still sitting around the nursing home, telling anyone who can hear them all about the big game, the clutch free throw, the final basket at the buzzer?

It's an honor to be remembered, but even our most cherished moments, even our engraved victories, even our noblest accomplishments seem to fade with the passing of time. But still we hang on, longing to leave some kind of legacy, something that will remain after we are gone.

As I recall, the only trophy that I ever received was for winning 1st place in the 9 year old Punt, Pass, and Kick contest in our little town. In one of our moves, my little trophy mysteriously disappeared. Suzanne had no explanation. I checked the Hall of Fame in Canton - it's not there. And, I have searched the Smithsonian. It's not there either. So, my accomplishments, my glory days, have faded into obscurity. Oh well. Life goes on . . .

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Finding Faith: One Woman's Story

One afternoon when I was a sophomore in college I was sitting in my dormitory room minding my own business when someone knocked on the door. I opened it and found two young women clutching Bibles to their breasts. My heart sank. With my parent's help, I had avoided organized religion most of my life, and these two - with their gleaming eyes, their earnest faces, their modest plaid skirts and sensible shoes - these were just the sort of people I had hoped to continue avoiding as long as I could. The Holy Spirit had sent them, they said. Could they come in? While I was thinking of a suitable reply, they did come in, and I was a goner. They sat down on my bed, opened their Bibles, and began to ask me questions.

"Are you saved?" one of them asked.

"Well," I said, "that depends on what you - "

"No," the other one said, writing something down on a pad of paper.

"Do you want to be saved?" the first one asked, and both of them gleamed at me while I thought how awful it would sound to say, "No."

"Sure," I said, and they leapt into action, pulling me down to sit beside them on the bed, one of them reading selected passages of scripture while the other one drew an illustration of my predicament on her pad.

"Here you are," she said, drawing a stick figure on one side of a yawning chasm. "And here is God," she said, drawing another figure on the other side. "In between is sin and death." she said, filling the chasm with dark clouds from her pen.

"Now the question is, how are you and God going to get together?" she asked me.

"I don't have a clue," I said, and they both looked delighted. Then the one with the pen bent over her drawing and connected the two sides of the chasm with a bridge in the shape of a cross.

"That's how," she said. "Jesus laid down his life for you to cross over. Do you want to cross over?"

"Sure," I said, and the look in their eyes was like one of those old cash registers where you crank the handle and the little "Sale" sign pops up. They told me to kneel by the bed, where they knelt on either side of me and instructed me to repeat after them: "I accept Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior and I ask him to come into my life. Amen." Then they got up, hugged me, gave me a schedule of campus Bible study, and left.

The whole thing took less than twenty minutes. It was quick, simple, direct. They did not have any questions about who Jesus was. You are here, God is there, Jesus is the bridge. Say these words and you are a Christian. Abracadabra. Amen. It is still hard for me to describe my frame of mind at the time. I was half-serious, half-amused. I cooperated as much out of curiosity as anything, and because I thought that going along with them would get them out of my room faster than arguing with them.

I admired their courage, in a way, but nothing they said really affected me. Most of it was just embarrassing, the kind of simplistic faith I liked least, but something happened to me that afternoon. After they left I went out for a walk and the world looked funny to me, different. People's faces looked different to me; I had never noticed so many details before. I stared at them like portraits in a gallery, and my own face burned for over an hour. Meanwhile, it was hard to walk. The ground was spongy under my feet. I felt weightless, and it was all I could do to keep myself from floating up and getting stuck in the trees.

Was it a conversion? All I know is that something happened, something that got my attention and has kept it through all the years that have passed since then. I may have been fooling around, but Jesus was not. My heart may not have been in it, but Jesus' was. I asked him to come in and he came in, although I no more have words for his presence in my life than I do for what keeps the stars in the sky or what make the daffodils rise up from their graves each spring. It just is. He just is. (Excerpt from Barbara Brown Taylor, "The Preaching Life")

Monday, August 25, 2008

Pirates or Poison or Pajamas?

I took this picture earlier this summer in a farmer's market in Eugene, Oregon. I wasn't sure what to think of it. Can you supply a caption?

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Thanks to a Mysterious Stranger

Last weekend Suzanne and I made a fast trip to D.C. to see Sam and to meet all the fine people who have given our son such a wonderful summer as a ministry intern. We were so pleased to attend worship at First Baptist Church of Washington, D.C. and hear Sam preach in that great historic church. What a warm and gracious congregation. Dr. Langley was a mentor to Sam, Lon was a buddy, Deborah supplied some orientation and teaching, Jean was a great co-worker in the office, and Charlotte provided room and board with grace and motherly care. And countless others came alongside Sam in friendship and encouragement. And of course, we are deeply grateful to each one for taking an interest in our young son so far from home.

But one man was missing, the one person who made this whole summer internship happen for Sam was gone to Scotland by the time we made it to Washington. Dr. Dennis Lambert, whom we have never met, took it upon himself to bring this all to pass, and I regret very much not being able to meet him and thank him personally. I guess I'll have settle for a letter for now.

It reminded me a little of the old westerns, where a mysterious stranger rides in and rallies the townspeople and rescues the heroin and saves the day. But finally when it's time to say thanks or at least find out who this mysterious stranger really is, he's gone, riding off into the sunset. Clint Eastwood made a career out of that plot. And what about the Lone Ranger? How many times did we hear someone say, "Who was that masked man?"

So, here's a question for you. Have you ever had a moment in your life when a stranger did some act of kindness for you or your family and then was gone, off into the sunset, without you even knowing who they were or being able to say thanks? I'll bet we all have, at one time or another, been blessed by some mysterious stranger. Someone helped you change a tire in a storm or brought some unexpected help or gave some life changing advice or kept you from making a big mistake. I'm asking you, "Who was that masked man?" Perhaps one way to say a tardy thanks to them is to tell their story now. What about you?

Monday, August 18, 2008

Six Random Things About Me

One of my friends and blogging buddies, Shane, gave us a little window into his life by posting on this subject and tagged me to do the same. So, here goes. Can't get much more random than this:

1. My first car was an enormous 1970 Dodge Polara, maroon with a black vinyl top. I once drove my entire intramural football team across campus and through town to visit an injured teammate at the hospital - seven guys inside the car, six more in the trunk. I bought the car with over 100,000 miles on it for $425, I drove it 90,000 miles, and I finally sold it for $350. Not a bad deal, huh?

2. When I was a kid my birthday often fell on Super Sunday, the day of the Super Bowl. In fact the last time my Kansas City Chiefs won the Super Bowl was the day I turned 10 years old, January 11, 1970. And, back then, I was a big Vikings fan, so the Chiefs spoiled my big day.

3. My first girlfriend was Carol, my fourth grade sweetheart. I remember trying to give Carol a kiss on a church hayride, but the ride was rough and each time we tried to kiss we ended up bumping heads. After the third bump she pushed me away and said, "Forget it." It took me years to work through that experience.

4. I preached my very first sermon on November 10, 1975 on a Sunday night at First Baptist Church in Grandview, Missouri. It was a youth night so all of the students had a part in the music or the scripture reading or passing the offering plates, and I was supposed to bring a sermon. I worked on it for six weeks and timed it out several times at 25 minutes. When the big moment finally arrived, I stood and gave them everything I had prepared and then some. It lasted 11 minutes. I had no idea at the time that I would end up in the ministry.

5. I love to play chess. My dad taught me to play when I was still a preschooler and I have enjoyed teaching our kids to play. Two out of three really enjoy the game. I don't get to play as much now as in times past, and my computer beats me with annoying regularity, but I still enjoy the game.

6. One more random thought. I love peaches. Peach pie, peach cobbler, peach ice cream, peach jam or preserves, peach ice tea - you name it, I love it. God's greatest gift to our taste buds and no doubt a major part of the menu in Heaven - peaches.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Just Too Cool for Words

It was back in the long forgotten days of long hair and disco music, the age of Farrah and the Duke boys and the Bee Gees. I was in high school and my older brother was in college studying for a semester in England. Mom noticed in the paper that Woolco, that synonym for style and sophistication, was having a big sale on polyester leisure suits for men. Big news indeed. So, off to the store we went scoring for me a big-lapel, flare-leg leisure suit in kind of a rusty, orange color, complete with a cool, silky shirt with a huge collar that actually matched the suit. And, no, we were not drinking - stone cold sober.

Back home a little later, Dad was admiring the suit and especially the $49.95 price, when he had a very practical thought. We should get one of those for Jerry, my brother in England. My mom asked the obvious question. "How are we going to do that, Melvin?" But Dad was way ahead of her. "Drew, go in there and try on Jerry's suit. His old brown one is still in the closet."

"C'mon, Dad," I protested. "You know I can't wear Jerry's clothes." (Jerry, 5'- 8", 125 pounds, me, 6'- 1", 190 pounds) But Dad had it all figured out. "Just put it on." Shaking my head I went in the other room and tried to put on my brother's old suit. I walked out to the family room holding the pants up with one hand since they wouldn't fasten and feeling like Jethro on the Beverly Hillbillies. Trying to stifle his laughter, Dad just smiled and said, "Now, remember how that fits."

Dad and I walked into Woolco (Mom decided to stay home for some reason.) and headed straight for the rack of leisure suits. A young gentleman offered his help and was sorting through the 42 Longs, when Dad grabbed a green 36 Regular and said, "Here, put this on." The salesclerk started to protest, but my dad was a distinguished looking man in a real suit and tie, so he bit his tongue while I tried on the suit. I stepped out of the changing room rather sheepishly and stood in front of one those three panel mirrors. I was holding my unfastened pants up as best I could with my arms and legs hanging out and a good five inches keeping me from buttoning the jacket. It was comical and the clerk started snickering in spite of himself.

But Dad looked up with a straight face, looked me over from head to toe, and said to the chagrined salesclerk, "That's it. We'll take it."

"You what?" I couldn't stop laughing as I retreated and put my own clothes back on. Dad never said a word to the clerk, never gave any explanation for our ridiculous purchase. And guess what? About a month later Jerry came home from overseas and his snazzy new leisure suit fit him perfectly, a job well done.

God, forgive us for everything we did and everything we wore in the 1970's.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Old School Prayers

Saturday we took our kids to the mall for some back to school shopping, and I got to spend three hours in a big bookstore, just browsing and reading and sipping Starbucks. It was a really good day. I love books and I watch for the latest novels from two or three of my favorite authors. And, as a pastor, I try to keep up with the latest books on leadership and theology and preacher stuff.

But sometimes the latest is not the best. It seems to me that on some subjects the old books are better, deeper, richer than the new stuff. One such subject is prayer. For me the old school guys knew more about the practice of prayer, its purpose, its passion, its power than most of the recent books I have read. When it comes to prayer I treasure the older books on my shelf, some passed down to me from my father and other mentors and friends. Authors such as John Baillie, E. Stanley Jones, Thomas Kelly, Richard Foster, Andrew Murray, E. M. Bounds, and Oswald Chambers have often stirred my thoughts and challenged my shallow prayerlessness.

So, let me share an old school prayer with you on this Monday morning, a prayer that I keep taped to my monitor to help me begin each new day. It's a morning prayer from John Baillie's "A Diary of Private Prayer."

O Holy Spirit of God, visit now this soul of mine, and tarry within until eventide. Inspire all my thoughts. Pervade all my imaginations. Suggest all my decisions. Lodge in my will's most inward citadel and order all my doings. Be with me in my silence and in my speech, in my haste and in my leisure, in company and in solitude, in the freshness of the morning and in the weariness of the evening, and give me grace at all times to rejoice in Thy mysterious companionship. My heart an altar, and Thy love the flame.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Remembering a Moment of Madness

On the way to Texas our mission team stopped in Oklahoma City at the Memorial to the bombing of the federal building in April, 1995. It is a beautiful and moving tribute to the victims of the bombing and a disturbing reminder of the horrific results of violence and hatred in our world, even in our own land.

Among the many questions such an tragic, numbing event raises in our minds is the question of God's justice, His righteous judgment against evil in the world. When we come to stare evil face to face, it can bury our own faith in the dust and debris, in the bloodshed and broken hearts, until we are ready to shake an angry fist in the face of God who seems passive or powerless to intervene. "Where are you, God? People are suffering. Innocent blood is spilt. Somebody's children are sacrificed on the altar of hatred. Why don't you do something, God?"

Maybe you've been there yourself. Perhaps you have been the victim of violence or abuse or some senseless tragedy. And you know how it feels to have your faith shaken down to its cracked, weathered foundation. In those dark and angry moments, the questions we demand of God are not unfamiliar to His ears. Our questions are Calvary questions. He has heard those words before.

An old hymn gives voice to our stubborn hope in the final purposes of God.
This is my Father's world, O let me ne'er forget, That though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the Ruler yet. This is my Father's world. The battle is not done; Jesus who died shall be satisfied, and earth and heaven be one.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Better Not Be Bored in Beijing

What would you guess is the most unpopular Olympic sport of all time? Tough question, considering the variety of weird events that have been included in years past. There was the Live Pigeon Shooting event in the 1904 St. Louis games. 300 pigeons bought the farm, God rest their souls.

Most boring? How about the 10k walk or curling or synchronized swimming? They may be tough, but they're not exactly riveting. Well, according to Floyd Conner's book, "The Olympics' Most Wanted," the least popular sport in all the annals of the Olympics is, you guessed it, croquet. Only one spectator, an Englishman, paid to watch the croquet matches at the 1900 Paris Olympics. And wouldn't you know it, the French swept the medals.

Actually, for the most part, I enjoy the Games with their pressure and drama and dedication. The Olympic spirit, at least what remains of it, is a positive, much-needed antidote for today's wild and warped world of sports. As the games begin, I hope at least one honest, dedicated, non-doping, play-by-the-rules, patriotic athlete wins some worthy event to make us all proud.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Headin' to Texas

This week I'm leading a team of nine adults on a mission project to Arlington, Texas. The trip down was a western cattle drive in reverse. Old West buffs may remember that many of the cattle drives up from Texas ended up in Sedalia, Missouri. No, my team isn't just a herd of cattle, but the route is the same.

We are working with one of our wonderful mission partners, Mission Arlington, under the leadership of Tillie Burgin. Many of you may be familiar with this remarkable ministry. I have often said that if the Book of Acts were taking place today, it would look like Mission Arlington. I have never seen a better model. If you have not heard of Mission Arlington, you might check it out at

So pray for us. We spent today working on an outdoor construction project and the temperature was 104. We're thinking we are on the mission trip to hell. But God is already blessing in great ways. Think cool thoughts. More later on.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Scotty, Gilligan, and Fife

Newsweek ran a great piece of commentary awhile back written by a rabbi, Marc Gellman:

A friend I call The Flounder reminded me of the sorrowful fact that in the last nine months three television icons dear to me have, as we say in my line of work, passed to life eternal. They are James Doohan, who played Scotty on Star Trek, Bob Denver who played Gilligan on Gilligan's Island, and Don Knotts who played Deputy Sheriff Barney Fife on The Andy Griffith Show. May God receive their souls into the world where everyone is a star and where every life is syndicated. Beyond the personal grief their passing has brought to their families and friends, I ask you to consider the characters they played as metaphors of our lives in these broken times.

Scotty represents all of us who are constantly asked to do the impossible and to meet unreasonable deadlines by bosses who just don't understand that you can't run engines at warp speed after Klingons have blasted the engine room. I think mainly of the soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan now and of how every day they are asked by well-meaning bosses to go out there and do a job that everyone knows is impossibly hard but most people know must still be done if Iraq is to be stabilized, so that the Middle East can be stabilized, so that the war on terror can be won. If that example is too politically incendiary for you, then perhaps you might think of the linemen who repair power lines in the winter during a storm, or think of single mothers raising kids with not enough money or help, or think of clergy folk trying to get people out of the malls and off the golf courses on the weekends and into church or synagogue on the Sabbath. So many people I know feel like Scotty and so few like Captain Kirk. So many of us say, “I canno give ya more power captain. The engines are already overloaded!” And then…we do.

Gilligan represents all of us who are congenitally happy despite our circumstances. The Howells (and occasionally Ginger) were the first to complain, but Gilligan was always happy. Even though they were marooned on an island which nevertheless seemed to provide them with new clothes and new sets every week, Gilligan's choice was always to see things in a positive and hopeful light. He was helpful without being obsequious, brave without being foolhardy, and courteous without being slavish. He was also self-deprecating. His humor was always directed inward, and his optimism was the reason you knew that some day, when the network gods willed that it be so, they would be saved. Yes he was a buffoon (actually more a schlemiel than a buffoon) but aren't we all? There are just so many times when we can cavil against the fates, and list the reasons for our victimhood, but in the end, being a fool for hope is far preferable than being a cynic for reality. Gilligan had no desire for promotion and this makes sense to me now. A truly happy person is already at the highest rung.

Don Knotts as Deputy Fife personified the klutz who is convinced that despite everything he is destined for bigger things. Deputy Fife was all bluster with just one bullet, and that is just like many of us. The bullet is self-confidence. Do you remember when geeks were ridiculed? Now they run the world and the reason is that they are clueless about criticism and focused only on the road ahead. Many of us feel or have felt an absolute identity with Deputy Fife, who was clearly in over his head, but in time he and we have come to learn that those who are not prepared to fail and be laughed at, can never prepare to succeed (I read that in a self-help book). Anyway, when I came to my synagogue I only had one bullet in my gun. If I could not serve God through them, I would leave and maybe sell something for a nickel more than I paid for it. I never had to fire the bullet, because the Psalmist was right when he said that God protects children and fools.

Dear God, please protect the souls of James, John, and Donald, and please protect the Scottys, Gilligans and Fifes down here who are all just trying to do their best with what they have for you.

Monday, July 21, 2008

A Boarding Pass, a Bible, and a Blessing

As we walked through the airport headed to our second flight, my daughter said, "Dad, how come my seat isn't with you guys?" She handed me the boarding passes and sure enough, three in one row and one off by itself, 21E. "No problem," I assured her, "I'll swap seats after we board. You sit with Mom. I'll sit in your seat." "Thanks, Dad." Like I really had a choice in the matter.

Anyway, as we boarded I found Rebecca's seat and I plopped down next to a guy about my age. He was sitting next to the window with his overhead light on, reading a book. I buckled up and settled in, looking back a few rows to make sure my family had found their seats. That's when I noticed that this man was trying to read a brown hardback Bible opened to Leviticus. I say he was trying to read because every minute or two he would pause and shake his head, struggling to make sense of what he was reading. I couldn't help but think of Phillip and the Ethiopian trying to make sense of scripture on their chariot ride. I waited a few moments not wanting to seem abrupt or pushy.

"Hey, uh, are you reading some Leviticus? That's a pretty tough book."

"Tell me about it. You know this stuff? I've been trying to read this all week. I decided last month that I would read the Bible and see what it was all about, but this is killing me. Like could this be any more repetitive?"

"Well, if you really want to make sense of the Bible, maybe I can help you."

"Really? This is my fourth flight this week, and you're the first person to say anything about me reading the Bible. Have you read this before?"

"Sure have. I'm a pastor, so I'm more familiar with it. I've learned some background that makes it easier to understand."

"You're a pastor? Yeah, that would be great. I need some help."

So began my conversation with my new friend, Jesse. As we talked about the Bible, his thoughts soon took a more personal turn. Jesse told me about some of the ugliness and hurt that he had experienced as a child. Soon his story segued to more recent times and his painful losses to death and divorce. Now he is a part-time father of three, 14, 13, and 10, and trying to do right by his children.

Jesse told me how just a few months before he had a strong sense that he needed to find a church and read the Bible and find out what faith was all about. He started attending a Four Square Gospel Church and his kids were going with him. He said the worship was so real and relevant and moving that sometimes the tears would flow and he couldn't help it. But this reading the Bible thing was tougher than he imagined.

So, for another hour or so, Jesse and I opened the Bible together and I walked him through a little background and helped him find a plan to read that would help open his heart instead of cloud his mind. He had lots of questions. I marked some special things for him, some scripture that might speak to his situation. I told Jesse how obvious it seemed to me that God was doing a wonderful new thing in his life, that it was God who put that spiritual hunger and desire in his heart, and that God would help him become the kind of man and the kind of dad that he wanted to be.

Jesse said thoughtfully, "You know, I believe that. And God sent me a pastor today."

"I guess He did."

After we landed I gave him my card and said, "This has my email on it. It comes straight to my desk. If you have any questions or anything you want to talk about, you just call or shoot me a line. I'll be glad to hear from you, and I'll help you anyway I can."

"Thanks, Drew. You know, I don't believe in coincidences. Thank you for helping me out. I won't forget you."

"God bless you, Jesse. I know He will."

On the way to the baggage claim, I caught up with my family. "Rebecca, did you have a good flight?"

"Yes, Daddy. Thanks for letting me have your seat."

"That's okay, Sweetie. I was in the right seat. I was right where I was supposed to be."

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Oregon's Outdoor Cathedral

And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ. - Ephesians 3:17-18 NIV

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Good for the Soul

I'm taking a few days off to vacation with my family in Oregon, my first ever visit. What a spectacular place! I'll be posting a few pictures soon. My wife's parents are celebrating their 60th anniversary with a wonderful dinner here this evening. So, this is some pretty special family time. I'll be catching up with you soon.

Monday, July 7, 2008

The "Fear of God" Talk

I need your help, all you dads out there. My daughter is fifteen going on sixteen and has a boyfriend. Fortunately, he's a great kid and doesn't have his license yet, so they aren't really dating. He comes over to our house to watch movies, Rebecca goes over there to eat or play board games or cards. They've started sitting together in church. Once his dad dropped them off at this little Italian place for dinner and said to call when they were ready to go. They were done in 25 minutes. Sometimes I think they would rather text from a distance than have a real conversation. It's all innocent enough. But it's coming. I know it's coming. So, I'm trying to prepare for that "fear of God" talk I plan to have with any young man who has the nerve to date my daughter.

Somebody asked Charles Barkley what he was going to do now that his daughter was growing up and boys were going to be coming around wanting to date his daughter. His reply was classic. "I figure if I kill the first one, word will get around." Now I am not usually prone to violence, and angry threats don't come naturally to me. But this is my daughter, my princess.

Rebecca has a special ring tone on my cell phone. When she calls me it sounds like a royal trumpet fanfare, so that I know immediately the princess is calling. I'm okay with that, but I did have to remind her that there is only one way a little girl gets to be a princess - her dad has to be the king!

So, lately I've been collecting things to say, questions to ask, in my "fear of God" talk I am preparing. Here's what I have so far:
  • First, I want you to know, I got no problem going back to prison.
  • Do you understand that 11:00 is my daughter's curfew and your deadline?
  • Feel how sharp my old hunting knife is.
  • Did you hear about that other boy about your age who turned up missing and has never been found?
  • Are you familiar with the phrase "drawn and quartered"?
  • What bone in your body would you least want to have broken?
Then, here's a couple just for us pastor/dads:
  • Did you know God watches everything you do wherever you go? And, since I'm a pastor, God tells me whatever He sees.
  • If you were to die a sudden, violent death, is there anything special you would like for me to say at your funeral?
I know, it needs work. I'm just getting started. Help me out here, dads. Any suggestions from those who have been there and done that?

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Thoughts on Independence Day

She's the USS Constitution, Old Ironsides, the oldest commissioned warship in the Navy. And, she's not a bad picture to capture our thoughts on the Fourth. The old ship has been meticulously preserved and maintained through the years since a famous poem and a bunch of determined school children rescued the never defeated warship from her demise and destruction. Today, only about eight percent of Old Ironsides is original. The rest of her is all exactly according to scale and specification, carefully replaced as necessary through the years. But to walk her decks today, she still looks ready for the high seas and ready for battle.

I'm not sure we have done as well preserving and maintaining our country, the nation the old ship defended so bravely. How close do we come today to the original, the specifications of our founders and builders? Are we still fitted out with the same ideals and dreams, or have we replaced the costly old values with cheaper, easier substitutes? I wonder. And as I take an honest look, I am fearful for the future of America. Outwardly powerful, inwardly decaying. Somebody better do something. Somebody should write a poem. Somebody needs to rebuild her.

Friday, June 27, 2008

When Johnny Comes Marching Home

The war came home to me today. Now, I usually watch CNN or the network world news each day, and TIME and Newsweek come to our home every week. I try to stay informed, but this was different, much different. This morning I sat down with and interviewed eleven real live members of the 442nd Fighter Wing who just returned last night from their mission.

I was asked by the Air Force chaplain to assist with the screening of 234 airmen returning from their deployment in Afghanistan to Whiteman Air Force Base near Sedalia. This was the first time that civilian pastors have been asked to participate in this reintegration program. The purpose was to help these airmen process what they have experienced and identify those who were in need of additional ministry or counsel.

One by one they came into my borrowed office, patiently waiting in the hall for their turn, yet anxious to get everything done so they could head for home. These are reservists, but in wartime that means practically active duty, and most of these airmen were active duty before entering the Air Force reserves.

I was impressed with the caliber and character of the airmen I met today. Three young men were returning from their very first theater of action. Others had seen years of active duty and many deployments as a reserve. One 26 year old came home to his pregnant wife and his new son coming in September. Another self-employed reservist was fearful for his business which had suffered greatly during his absence. Many spoke of the sacrifices made by their families.

I heard about trying to sleep with the sounds of battle in the night, other times being evacuated to the bunkers under threat of attack. Some worked in munitions for the A-10 and said simply, "Business was good." "We left a lot of lead over there." Call them just reservists if you want, but these are fighting men and women, fearless and determined and dedicated to their mission.

What I noticed most was not their uniforms or their haircuts or their camaraderie. It was their eyes, it was the humanity in their eyes. I saw in each face the weariness from their 22 hour flight, relief to finally be headed home, and gratitude for someone like me offering care and concern. Some thanked me for giving my day to come talk with them - one day of my time compared to their sacrifice of life and limb?

I will remember these men and women of the 442nd Fighter Wing. And I will never take lightly the prospect of war, when these fine men and women are some of those who go in harm's way, who we send into hell to guard and defend our nation's interests and values. I will be an advocate for peace, a strong, lasting peace that brings all of our airmen and sailors and soldiers back into the arms of their families.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Why I Bleed Blue

I was still playing Little League baseball when my uncle, Howard, took me to my first major league game in Kansas City, the Royals vs. the Yankees. I knew most of the Royals players from the baseball cards I had collected, but I had never heard of the rookie third baseman who started that night. He had shaggy curly hair and a big chaw of tobacco bulging in his cheek. "At third base and batting third, number 5, George Brett."

I have been a big fan of the boys in blue ever since - Big John Mayberry playing first base just like me, Dan Quisenberry with his side arm sinker, Frank White making amazing plays at second, Willie Wilson rounding the bases in a blur of blue, and of course, George, the greatest pure hitter of them all. Now it's been 23 years since the Royals were World Series Champions, and all the names and faces have changed over and over. In recent years it's been hard times for my boys, but lately I'm getting more optimistic.

I went to the game last night and took my friend Terry, who had never been before. It was a beautiful evening complete with some great barbeque, a rowdy crowd, and my Royals looked great. It felt like the old days. So hope springs eternal.

How can you not love these guys? The Royals are every man's team, the ordinary guy's team, with no big payroll, no big endorsements, no spoiled superstars, just the one token all-star that the league requires. To watch them play baseball reminds you that for these guys, it's still a game, a great game, a baseball game.

So, keep your big money, big market franchises. You can have them. I will always bleed blue.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

In the Shadow of the Man

Nineteen years ago my world changed. Nineteen years ago my son was born, my father died. "Goodbye, Dad." "Well, hello, Little Guy." Nineteen Father's Days have come and gone since I stopped reaching up and started reaching down, and nothing matters more to me than being a dad, being there for our three children.

I went by the cemetery in Kansas City the other day. I hadn't been there for quite awhile. The big tree near Dad's grave has been removed. It took me a minute to find it. It's been a long time since we laid his body down to rest there. Lots of summers and winters have warmed and chilled that spot.

Yet, the passing of the years leaves much unchanged, undiminished. I remain as always my father's son. I can still glimpse the gleam of his integrity in the expressions of those who knew him well. I can measure his character in the words of those who walked with him and worked with him. I can weigh the influence of his life in the lingering legacy he left behind for his family and the churches he served. My father's shadow still shelters and strengthens my life.

In another nineteen years I will likely be retired and most all of my father's friends and family will probably be gone. Few will remain on this side of death who knew him well, if at all. But one thing is certain. I will always be my father's son, and I will live then as now in the shadow of the man.