Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Playing the Percentages, Beating the Odds

Ever been to Vegas? Do you enjoy a little gaming now and then? I guess gamblers learn pretty quickly to play the odds in their own favor, although the house always seems to come out ahead. I wonder what percentage of people actually beat the odds. And for the life of me, I can't understand why anyone ever plays the lottery. The odds are just ridiculous. I am more likely to be struck by lightening - twice, then to win the big jackpot. But gamblers keep trying to beat the odds.

Athletes are often gamblers as well. And not just the Pete Rose variety either. In just about any sport you choose, the players, coaches, and managers quickly learn to play the odds, to figure the percentages, and to adjust their strategies accordingly. And God help the big league manager who bucks the odds and lets his big right hander pitch to the lefty slugger with the game on the line. (Goose Gossage pitches to George Brett and the Royals win the pennant.) It just makes sense to play the percentages.

Sometimes we gamble with our health without much choice in the matter. The doctors lay out the odds and percentages for us. The oncologist may give us a forty percent chance of living two to three years if we can handle the chemo. The radiologist is not so optimistic, six months to a year, and the surgeon says that nothing can be done. Whose numbers do we believe? Whose odds do we play?

And no matter whose prognosis we choose, most of us have been around long enough to know that real people like us make up both sides of the equation, the people who survive and those who don't. And we don't get to choose which end of the percentages will be our fate.

In the Gospel, the math used to figure the percentages gets seriously skewed. Apparently, Jesus knew nothing about playing the odds. He says it's best to leave the ninety-nine sure things in the wild and go after the one you may never find. And the widow who gives a little pittance is honored above the big donors who put their names on new buildings. According to Christ, the most blessed and happy people are not the movers and the shakers, not the superstars or the celebrities, but the poor and the pure, the humble and the hungry. Even the one who gains the whole world isn't a safe bet for heaven. Seems like God's got it all backwards.

Or, maybe he's trying to tell us something. Remember Blaise Pascal and his famous wager? If you bet your life that God is God and you are wrong, you lose nothing. But if you bet against God and you are mistaken, you lose everything, even your very soul. Are you looking for a sure thing, a safe bet, something that is can't miss and utterly reliable? Better go with God. Count on Christ. And when the chips are down, put all your chips on Him. "Whoever believes in Him will not be disappointed." (Romans 10:11)

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

On Soldiers and Cemeteries

Last year I visited the World War I battlefield in Gallipoli, Turkey. Here on this rugged coast, young troops from Australia and New Zealand were sent into a bloody, confused battle. Having been landed on the wrong beach, without cover or support, and exposed to withering fire from the Turkish defenders, the green Anzacs showed their mettle and proved to be brave and determined soldiers.

Across the battlefield are several cemeteries where the fallen from both sides now rest. I noticed this grave marker among the many there. Young G. R. Seager, just 17 years old, lies here thousands of miles from his home, his native land. My first thought was, "What a waste, what a terrible waste of a young man's life. How sad."

But on this Memorial Day I have a different perspective. Now I say, "What a sacrifice, what a stirring sacrifice from this young man, from his family, for his country." You see, no matter how senseless the war or how incompetent the command or how suicidal the mission, the sanctity of a soldier's sacrifice is undimmed, undiminished.

So today we honor their sacrifice wherever they have fallen, every mother's son who lies far from home. And we pray and plead for peace, for an end to senseless bloodshed and the tragic waste of war.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Sam's Summer in the City

Our son, Sam, is spending this summer in Washington, D. C. doing a ministry internship at a church there. You can follow Sam's summer on his blog, Musings of a Young Traveler. He'll be posting his thoughts and some pictures along the way.

We appreciate your thoughts and prayers for Sam during his big summer adventure.

Friday, May 9, 2008

What About Bob?

"A faithful friend is a strong defense: and he that hath found such a one hath found a treasure." - Ecclesiasticus 6:14

"The glory of friendship is not the outstretched hand, nor the kindly smile, nor the joy of companionship; it is the spiritual inspiration that comes to one when you discover that someone else believes in you and is willing to trust you with a friendship." - Ralph Waldo Emerson

My close friend and ministry partner of fifteen years is moving away this month, headed to Texas to be near his kids and grandkids. We all understand Bob's decision, his sense of God's timing, and his family priorities. And, I have no doubt that Bob will find as many wonderful ways to bless and serve in his retirement as he found during his long, fruitful ministry.

And yet I grieve his going. I dread this good-bye as much as any I have said before. But I'm not going to pout or mope about it. Bob and I have agreed not to cry or whine or blubber about our parting ways. In fact, I am trying to the lighten the moment by compiling the following list:

Top Ten Things I Will Miss About Bob:

10. Listening to Bob practice his trombone scales and drills early in the morning.

9. All the times Bob talked Susan into coming back from vacation a day or two early so he could get back to work.

8. Bob and I wolfing down big steaks and blizzards while our wives just shook their heads.

7. Watching Bob squirm and twist and discreetly check his watch when some service or meeting ran way too long.

6. All the times Bob found someone else's food in the office and helped himself to a huge anonymous bite.

5. Watching Bob trying to communicate with people overseas, not quite convincing a Belarussian pastor that the food would make him "strong like bear."

4. That pained expression Bob can't help but get when he hears really bad music.

3. Memorable office pranks like when we turned Bob's office into a 1960's coffeehouse or when he came back from Alaska to find his office had been hit by a blizzard of white packing peanuts. Or, when Bob got even by replacing my prized rhino collection with McDonald's 101 plastic dalmatians.

2. That tacky Florida State Seminole ornament on the staff Christmas tree.

1. All of Bob's trombone spit on the platform carpet.

Truthfully, I will sorely miss my friend and partner. For fifteen years we have planned and prepared, dreamed and debated, laughed and learned, trying to bring out the best in each other week by week, year by year. We have prayed and played and stayed, and now, by God's design, we must move on. New opportunities, new partners, new chapters in our lives, and I truly am excited about the days and years ahead.

But for today, I am feeling somber, just a little melancholy. My friend is moving away.

Monday, May 5, 2008

A Lesson Learned Under the Bridge

Connie buzzed me at my desk, "There's a homeless man here who says he needs to speak with you." I was trying to finish my sermon and having a frustrating time of it. Glancing at my watch and a little annoyed at the interruption, I walked out to the main office. He was sitting in a chair in the reception area and the smell hit me well before I was close enough to shake his hand. His name was Tom. He was wearing layers of ratty old t-shirts, a filthy green sweatshirt, dingy canvas pants, and worn out hiking boots. His hair was a sandy grey tied in a long pony tail. Tom had obviously not had a shower or a shave in weeks, maybe months. He was carrying a couple of plastic bags with some food that he had been given at a nearby restaurant.

We call them transients - people not from around here, passing through, down on their luck, and each with a story to tell. I don't know how many are telling me the whole truth, maybe three in ten. Who knows. I have heard so many stories, obviously well-rehearsed but untrue, that I am pretty much deaf to the details. But I hear them out and then Cara and I figure out what we can do. We try to help everyone a little bit so that we don't miss the ones who are genuinely in need. But Tom was different.

Nobody would make up the story this guy told me. He looked me in the eye and gave me the full lowdown on his life. "I been in prison 27 years. I'm an alcoholic and so is my girlfriend. They had warrants for me in this county, so they brought me down here but that's all clear now. I'm just trying to get home to St. Joe. I need to get home. I got people there."

"Where are you living now?" I asked.
"Under the bridge."
"Under the bridge? What bridge?"
"That bridge at the end of Main Street that goes over the tracks. We been living there since I got out. We got no place to go."

Tom showed me a copy of his birth certificate and his Social Security card. I told him we would need some time to make some calls and see if we could help him. He was anxious to get the food he was carrying over to his girlfriend. Tom said, "If you can't help me, that's okay, just tell me now, so I won't walk clear back over here." I said we'd just have to check and let him know.

"Well, I'm gonna take this food to my girlfriend. If you come over to the bridge, just pull up and honk. I'll come running." Tom went on his way while Cara figured out how we could put these two on a bus to St. Joseph.

About thirty minutes later I drove over to the bridge, parking where I could see under the bridge down to the tracks. There they were, a couple of blankets strung on a line and a little camp set up. No fire now but there was a rusty old barrel that looked like their night time fire place. It looked to me like people had been living under this bridge for a long time. I honked and got out of my car as Tom came trotting up the embankment. He seemed surprised to see me. I gave him the bus ticket information and all the details. He gave me a handshake and then a hug, grateful and excited to be going home. That part I know was sincere.

Believe it not, Tom invited me to stay, to come sit down with them for awhile in their place under the bridge, but I declined. I had stretched my comfort zone about as far as I could for one day. Looking back now, I wish I had accepted his hospitality.

Instead, I went back to my office to ponder the sermon that God and Tom had been preaching to me all afternoon. And, I thought about the words on a little wooden plaque my dad always kept in his center desk drawer. "Dare I treat with less than the greatest respect one soul for whom Christ died."