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

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Staying Connected - Tuning Out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Prayers and Poop and Politics

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Father's Day Reflections

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 9, 2014

A Bunch of Scheming Swindlers

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

Monday, May 26, 2014

"What If?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Seasons in the Sun, Part 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Common Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 24, 2014

"All Lives Lost"

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

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

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

Monday, March 10, 2014

Memories and Milestones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Taking the Long Walk Together

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Making Every Day a Better Day

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

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

A Holy Hand

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

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

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

Frederick Buechner expresses my feelings in these words from Godric:  

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

Friday, January 3, 2014

An Old Prayer for the New Year

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

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

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

- Sir Francis Drake, December, 1577