Friday, December 31, 2010

The 2010 Highlight Reel


I was pedaling away in a spin class at FBC Fitness yesterday morning when, after a particularly grueling series of spin exercises, one of the ladies in the class said to the instructor, "I'm taking you off my list of the year's ten most influential people in my life." That got me to thinking. And so I did this: near the end of the class the instructor asked us to think of our top three blessings of 2010. So, after a day of reflecting on such things, I decided to run my 2010 highlight reel. There's no video, only words, but I see pictures in my mind when I run down these highlights. Here goes, and they are in no particular order, by the way.

1. The birth of our fourth grandchild, Macey Jo Parrish, on October 2. At one point, she was due on my birthday. That didn't happen, but she happened, and are there any greater blessings than grandchildren?

2. Bible-storying in Paris with men from Taiba, Senegal. Our church has been building relationships with the people of Taiba for three years now. We minister to them in Paris and in their village in Senegal. They are warm, hospitable people who give us as much as we give them. We've offered medical, dental, and eye-glass care for them. On our last trip to Senegal they allowed us to show the Jesus film. But Paris in October is the first opportunity we've had to engage them in spiritual conversations based on Bible stories. That is the beginning of an answer to many prayers, and it was a thrill to be a part of it. The fact that my son was able to be in on it too just made it all the more a highlight for 2010.

3. A man named Danny who came to know Jesus. Before they moved to a new state, Danny's wife and sons were a part of our church family. Danny played some softball on one of our teams and visited church occasionally, but labled himself as an atheist. Slowly, and on the wings of many prayers, Danny became a bit more open to Christ and His claims. I received an email from his wife earlier this week telling me that Danny made a decision to follow Jesus. What a great reminder of patient prayers and waiting on God!

4. My sabbatical. I get one of these every few years. The church allowed me to take off for the whole month of August. We traveled to see family. We visited Washington, D.C. for the first time. I got to watch the Baltimore Orioles (my favorite team in my childhood) in Camden Yards. And I actually got some rest—well, a little.

5. Insanity. No, not a mental illness; an exercise program. It's 63 days of the most intense cardio work I've ever done. I do a lot of intense exercise, but when I finished day 1, I told my wife, "That was the most intense thing I've ever done in exercise." When I finished day 2, I told her, "That was the most intense thing I've ever done." It is a butt-kicking, body-shaping, fat-burning, muscle-sculpting workout. It's insane. And I was so thankful to God and proud of myself that I actually finished. Who knows? I may do it again in 2011.

6. My son got engaged. After around three or four years of being single, my son popped the question to his longtime girlfriend. "Wilt thou?" he asked. And she wilted. She's a peach. She loves God. She loves our grandchildren. No date set just yet, but should be sometime in 2011. I'm thankful for God's grace, new beginnings, and promising futures.

7. The Razorbacks go to the Sugar Bowl. Only an Arkansas Razorback fan would understand how big this is for our fan base. We've been close so many times and just never seem to breakthrough. This year we broke through: our first BCS game. And our coach wants to stay with us a long time. Many of us feel like Sally Field when she won the Oscar years ago: "He loves us. He really loves us." Wooo pig sooie! Beat the Buckeyes!

8. Mike Pounders. Our church voted to call Mike Pounders to a part-time position as Administrative Pastor. He begins work on January 1. It's a joy to see him back in the vocational ministry. He brings so much to our church family: a love for God, a love for his family, a love for people, and very good administrative and pastoral skills. He's served so well in this wilderness time between ministry posts, but I think he's felt like he's been on the bench. Well, your back in the game again, Mike. Praise God!

9. FBC Fitness. Last spring our church started a fitness ministry. It's been touch and go financially, but we're seeing lives getting whole and healthy physically and spiritually! We've opened another door to Christ and the church and God is using it, and I'm grateful.

In spite of the fact that I could go on, I'm stopping there. Your job is to pick up where I left off and make your own list. Remember, reflect, and give thanks. At this point every year, I can't help but think of the third verse to a great hymn:

Through many dangers, toils, and snares,
I have already come.
'Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.

Happy New Year!

Monday, December 20, 2010

It's a Boy!


Christmas is a beautiful story—especially if you don't give it a lot of thought. Stop and think about it for awhile and the perplexities are enough to drive you nuts. It's not an easy story to understand. Remember, Christ didn’t get His start in Bethlehem. He has existed for all eternity. Wrote John: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God" (Jn. 1:1). This Bethlehem child was no Jesus-come-lately; He was the eternal Word made flesh to dwell among us. As the poet George Herbert put it:

The God of power, as he did ride
In his majestick robes of glorie
Resolv'd to light; and so one day
He did descend, undressing all the way.

Though Herbert wrote in the lofty metaphor of the poet, he was more earthy than he knew. "Undressing all the way" was right. Not just in the sense of stripping Himself of the full benefits of deity, but more earthy yet—this baby Jesus was born like you and me—in his birthday suit, as naked as a jaybird. And He was born not in the birthing room of a modern hospital, but in a cave-like stable amid dusty straw and the steaming dung of beasts.

Does that not bother you—even a little? Couldn't God to better than a stable? I did better for my kids and I'm not even God. And to come as a baby? Angels from heaven made grown-up appearances, scared the bejeebers out of people, impressed their socks off. People took note of angel's appearance. And yet who will take note of baby's appearance, except the immediate family and those who are annoyed by a baby's cry in the middle of the night. And what about the fact that God cast His own Son our our mercy. God trusted His only Son on history's most important mission with a couple of young folks who had zero parental experience—zero. What was God thinking? Do you suppose this is where Edgar Rice Burroughs got the idea for his Tarzan series: a baby raised by apes in the jungle? Hmmm.

It just doesn't seem very God-like. Now sending plagues and splitting seas, crushing city walls and humbling kings—that's God-like. But showing up as a baby? Even though the prophet predicted it, would he have even believed if he saw it: “Israel, behold your God!” (Isa. 40:9). And what do they see but a little bundle in a teenage mama's arms. His eyes can't focus. He cries, He whimpers, He fusses, He even messes his diaper. And if left alone with no one to care for Him, He'd die in no time at all. Israel, behold your God? You can see why it took the cross and resurrection before anybody made much of Christmas.

And maybe that's why we can be too quick to rush past the manger to the cross and the empty tomb? Though perplexing in their own way, those things, especially resurrection, feel so much more like God's doing. But I don't want to run past the manger this Christmas. I want to linger there a while and, like Mary, ponder what is going on there—to think my way through the perplexities to a deeper faith and a wider worship.

See Him there in the manger. In the manger. Not a palace. Not a comfortable home. Not even an Motel 6. But a manger. When Christ emptied Himself to come down and save us, He didn't just do it halfway. Jesus checked His pride at the door on the way down to earth. He didn't say, "I'll go so far and no farther." He didn't say, "I draw the line at a stable." He didn't say, "I refuse to be born in that dump." No, Jesus was willing to do whatever it took, willing to reach as low as He had to go, willing to make His beachhead on the earth in a musty stable in Bethlehem. Jesus came all the way down. Now, no one can say, "Jesus, didn't stoop far enough for me." No one can say that—not the poor, not the outcast, not the man without a home. Born as He was in a stable, Jesus demonstrated total commitment to go as far as He had to go to seek and to save humankind.

And to come as a baby. Why not just beam Him down like an angel? Why not step out of heaven and into Jerusalem as a grown-up Christ ready to accomplish His mission? Why not execute what the military calls a surgical strike? Move in quickly, execute the mission, and get out before people know what hit them. Why come as a baby? Why risk the Son of God to a couple of bumbling parents? Jesus was their first child, you know. They had no experience. Jesus would be a guinea pig of sorts as they tested their parental skills. Why put the Son of God in the care of others? Would it not have been a safer course to send Jesus at an age when He could have cared for Himself? And why risk the Son of God to adolescence and the temptations that come naturally to changing bodies and racing hormones? What if Jesus gave into temptation even once? What then? This Lamb of God would have been blemished and His sacrifice unacceptable. Why did God send His Son as a baby? Why this route, this risk, this way?

Because God loves us, that's why. If Jesus was going to save us He would have to be one of us. His ministry needed context, roots, and history. He needed to know us from the inside out. Now Jesus understands us completely. Now Jesus knows our temptations and our struggles and overcame them every one. Instead of acting the role of a TV meteorologist who tracks a tornado on radar from the comfort and safety of a studio, Jesus moved right out into the storm—seeing the twister with His own eyes, feeling the wind in His face, dodging the debris, experiencing the sense of danger that comes from being in the thick of it all. And He did it from birth to death; from the crib to the casket; from the womb to the tomb. He did it without sin so that He could bear our sin on the cross and kill its power and penalty once and for all. And He did it all to a T—perfect in every way. Pretty darn amazing if you ask me!

About twenty years ago somebody left this poem on my desk. I really like it. It's simple. It's to the point. And it's the truth:

A cave, a birth
A cry, a song,
To praise a King expected long.
To heal with love,
To give with joy.
A star above,
It is A BOY!



Monday, December 13, 2010

God With Us?



In spite of the fact that I have so much Bible to work with, one of my favorite texts is this Christmas one: “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’—which means ‘God with us’” (Matt. 1:22-23). Immanuel is two words stuck together as one: immanu (immanent) which means present, near, with us, and el which means God. He is God present, God near, God with us.

And notice there are no exception clauses in the word. God with us means always, all the time, no matter what, and in spite of the evidence. We forget that. We tend to equate God with us to the good and happy times of life—to the there’s no cancer, I passed the test, I got a raise, she said yes, I escaped without injury, kinds of times. Here’s a classic example: you see a picture of a mangled, twisted car, you hear the driver escaped with only scratches, and you say, “God was really with him.” But if you look at the same picture and hear that the driver was paralyzed or even killed, my guess is the phrase, “God was really with him,” never comes to your mind. See what I mean? I don’t think most of us intend to leave God out of the hard and trying times, but we are pretty quick to do so.

And that’s why we raise this question in our difficulties: “Where is God in this? Where is God when the diagnosis is ALS? Where is God when the baby is born with birth defects? Where is God when I lose my job and can’t pay the rent? Where in the world is God?” Such a question rises out of this bad theology: God is with us in the blessings; God is absent in the trials.

But here’s the truth: God is with us always, always, always—when we can see Him and when we can’t, when we win and when we lose, when the cancer is cured and when the cancer takes our life. When we know Christ, God is with us, period. That’s His promise. That’s who He is: God with us.

Back in 1981 as I was preparing a sermon on this text, God gave me a story. I’ve told it numerous times across the years. Let me tell it one more time.

A man was facing heard times. His wife had left him, his job was in jeopardy, his security was threatened. He truly needed help. He thought for sure that God had abandoned him. If God was really with Him, things would be better, right? He sought the counsel of his pastor who tried to assure him that God had not left him, but the man was not convinced.

That night he went to bed. As he struggled for sleep he kept asking over and over: "God, where are you? God, where are you? Why can't I see you working in my life?" Finally, he drifted off to sleep and fell into a dream.

He dreamed that he lived in Palestine many years ago. He dreamed that he was searching for God. Everywhere he went he asked people if they could tell him where he could find God. "Check the temple," they said. "God lives in the temple." He looked in the temple but did not see God there. Disappointed, he journeyed on. Then, one night as he was warming himself by the fire at his campsite, a group of shepherds came passing by. "What's all the commotion?" shouted the man to the shepherds.

"We're off to see the Lord. Angels have made known to us that the Lord is in Bethlehem. Would you like to come along?"

"Would I?" exclaimed the man. "I've been looking for the Lord."

So off they journeyed to Bethlehem. But when they arrived, all they saw was a mother and a father and a baby in a crude little stable. Disgusted at another faulty lead, the man said to a shepherd, "I thought we were going to see God."

"Look at the baby, man!" said the shepherd. "Look at the baby!"

"The baby? I didn't come to Bethlehem to see a baby; I came to see the Lord." And the man stormed out of the stable and into the darkness.

He decided to give up his search for awhile. A person can only endure so much frustration and disappointment. His dream fast-forwarded many years and he was encouraged when he began to hear reports of a miracle worker from Nazareth who claimed to be God. He followed these reports, but he was always a day or two behind.

Finally, his journeys took him to Jerusalem during the Passover. He got there on Friday. It was unusually dark for that time of day and there was much commotion. The man stopped a passerby and asked him what was going on. The passerby said that the commotion centered around a particular Nazarene. The man asked, "Would this be Jesus of Nazareth – the one who claims to be God?"

"That's right," said the passerby. "That's who it is."

"Where can I find Him?" asked the man. "I've got to see the Lord."

"Oh, you can find Him outside the city on Skull Hill. Go look there."

The man raced to Skull Hill, but when he arrived all he saw were three men being crucified. He grabbed a spectator and asked, "I was told God was out here on this hill. I've got to see Him. Can you tell me where He is?"

"Why sure," the spectator mocked, "that's Him on that middle cross. There's your God."

The man looked at the middle cross only to see in silhouette a dying, suffering figure of a man in the midst of common criminals. Disheartened and discouraged, the man kicked the dirt, walked away, and mumbled to himself, "I came here to see God and all I see is a man on a cross. God can’t be here. Will I ever get to see Him?"

The man hung around Jerusalem for another day or so. He got up to leave early on the day after the Sabbath, and as he was leaving Jerusalem he passed some very excited women. He thought he overheard them say something to the effect that they had seen the Lord. He stopped them. "Did I hear you right? Did you say that you have seen the Lord?"

"Oh, yes! He's alive. We have seen Him with our own eyes."

"Where? Where did you see Him? I’ve got to see Him too!"

The women pointed in the direction of the tomb and said, "We saw Him there … in Joseph's garden."

The man sprinted to the garden. He looked and he looked but found nothing. All he saw amidst spring flowers was an empty tomb with some grave clothes left upon the slab inside. Having had it up to here with frustration, the man wept and pounded on a large stone adjacent to the tomb, "I came to see God and all I see is an empty tomb. How come I never see God? Where is He? Where is God?"

Our Matthew text tells us exactly where He is: "The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a Son, and they will call Him Immanuel – which means 'God with us.'" Where is God? He is with us; that's where He is.

The manger shows us that no situation is too degrading, no experience too humbling what that God, in Christ, is with us right in the midst of it.

The cross shows us that no struggle is too great, no grief too deep, no suffering too intense, not even death itself is so awful what that God faces it with us in Christ.

And the resurrection assures us that because Jesus rose from the dead and lives today, He is able to send us His Spirit so that He truly can be with us and in us everywhere, all the time, and in every situation.

You may not always see Christ, and you may not always feel Him. But be of good cheer! The witness of Scripture is true: His name is Immanuel—which means “God with us”! God – with – us! Always and forever. Amen.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

John the Baptist: Desert Storm


Every Advent John the Baptist makes his often unwelcome appearance. He’s not going to win any popularity contests when he shows up. To many, John is like your crazy Cousin Eddie who shows up every Christmas uninvited, unwanted, and seen in general as an embarrassment to the rest of the family. To others, John is like opening a day on your Advent calendar and instead of finding a delicious piece of chocolate behind the little door, you get a punch in the gut. He’s different. It shows in his dress. While most religious leaders dressed in their finely tailored clothes from Dillard’s, John got his stuff off a rack at the outpost. While most ate a diet filled with rich foods and expensive meats, John ate locusts and wild honey. While most religious types lived in community among people, John lived like a hermit in the desert. Strange, eccentric, and odd are all terms that you could hang on John.

And after years in the desert, He heard the stirring, the prompting, the voice that called him out of the desert to prepare the way for Messiah. His message was simple: “Repent! The kingdom of God is here! Turn from your sins. Clean up your life. And get yourself ready for Messiah!” He baptized those who did as a sign of their repentance and God’s forgiveness. He made quite a stir. The common people loved him; the religious leaders didn’t know what to make of him. Was he a prophet or a crackpot? Anyway, they were his biggest obstacle and harshest critics. But he preached on, getting people ready for Jesus.

So I got to thinking—what would John have to say to the American church in this Advent season? And you’ll find below what I think his message might be. I’m casting it in the first person, as if John was doing the preaching. Fasten your seatbelt; it might not be easy to hear.

__________

“REPENT!! Repent of your sins!! The kingdom of God is near. Take stock of your life. What sins are you harboring? What sins do you feel entitled to? Well you’re not entitled to a single one. Repent! Be relentlessly honest with yourself. Name your sins and repent! Do you gossip? Do you cheat? Do you lie? Are you filled with lust? Are you greedy and envious and covetous? Do you seek to do the will of God or do you do your own thing without thought of God’s will for your life? Do you share faith? Do you reach out to those in need? Are you prayerless? Are you self-righteous? Do you sit in judgment on others? Repent! Do you think God doesn’t notice your sins? Do you think God doesn’t care? He notices. He cares. That’s why He sent me. So repent! Turn from your sins and get ready for the coming of Christ.

And in this Advent season you need to repent of sins that are particular to this time of year and to the American church.

Repent of worshiping Christmas instead of Christ. Don’t love the season; love the Savior. To get caught up in the trappings of the season is a trap for your soul. Don’t you realize that most of the stuff that occupies your attention in this season is man-made not God-made. Repent of such nonsense and turn your attention to Christ. Christmas cannot save your soul; only Christ can save your soul. Worship Christ, not Christmas. Repent!

Repent of preparing your house but not your heart. Ask yourself a question: do I spend more time getting my house or my heart ready for the coming of Christ? Do I spend more time in stores or in the Word, more time wrapping gifts or worshiping the gift of Messiah Christ? Be honest with yourself—the well-being of your soul is at stake. Quit fussing about your house and start fussing about your heart. Reflect on what God has done for you in Christ. Give praise that the Word who was with God in the beginning and who is God became flesh to dwell among us and bring us salvation and life. Spend time thinking about that. And spend time thinking about the second coming of Christ. Are you ready for that coming? What if it were today? Would you be prepared? Would you be ready? To heck with your house and your tree and your shopping and all that jazz; prepare your heart for the coming of Christ. Repent!

And repent of giving your best gifts to others instead of Christ. You say, “We give gifts because the Magi gave gifts.” The Magi gave their gifts to Christ not to each other. Do you think it is consistent with the Spirit of Christ to go into debt giving presents to people who already have everything they need? Please!! This is the season in which you celebrate the truth that Christ left the riches of heaven and became poor on earth so that you could become rich in the things that matter. He didn’t come so that you could be rich in sweaters and shoes and jewelry and gadgets. He came to make you rich in the giving, serving life on earth and the eternal life He has prepared for His people in heaven. Quit being so foolish by giving a bunch of extra junk to people who have what they need. Give your best gifts to Christ—to missions, to the poor, to charities that serve those in real need. These are the gifts that matter. These are the gifts that make a difference. These are the gifts that carry Jesus’ name on the tag. Repent and give your best gifts to Christ.

Jesus is coming. And when He comes He will have a winnowing fork in His hands and He’ll do the great sorting out. If you know Him, if you have repented of your sins and followed Him, then you have no doubt produced fruit in keeping with repentance and have lived a Christ-filled, Christ-centered generous, gracious life. You He will gather you into the place that He has prepared for you in the Father’s house: a place of life and peace and fellowship and joy!

But if you do not know Him and if your repentance is only word-deep instead of heart-deep (and Jesus knows the difference), then He will scoop you up with His winnowing fork, pitch you into the fire like so much useless chaff. And nobody will ever extinguish that fire.

You say, “That’s not very pleasant talk here at Christmas and all.” No, it’s not. You’ll never see this message on one of your Christmas cards. It’s not sophisticated. It’s not nuanced to fit your tastes. It’s not polite conversation. You know what it is? It’s the truth. So repent! The kingdom of God is near. Jesus Messiah is on His way! And you better be ready for Him when He comes.

____________

Ouch! But thanks anyway, John … I think.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

O Little Town of Bethlehem


It’s Advent season once again, and early in the season it’s customary to think through some of the prophecies of Jesus’ first coming. The Old Testament is full of them. Matthew cites five of them in his telling of the Christmas story in Matthew 1-2. One of those citations concerns the place of Jesus’ birth.

It comes from Micah. In the midst of Micah’s prophecies concerning God’s judgment on Israel and Judah, we find this word of hope for God’s people: “But you Bethlehem …, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.” Matthew alters this prophecy a bit when he cites it in Matthew 2:6. But he cites it as the clue that enabled Herod’s priests to tell the Magi where to find the baby king. That’s the key thing in both Micah and in Matthew: Messiah would be born in Bethlehem.

Why is this important? On the prophetic level it’s important because Bethlehem is David’s town and Jesus was to come from the line of David (Isa. 11:1-5). On a theological level it’s important because this prophecy hints at Jesus pre-existence: “whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.” And on a practical level it’s important because it reminds us that God works in history, in particular places and through particular people at particular times for particular purposes.

The Christian faith is rooted in history. Yes, God is transcendent and above history, yet God is also immanent (Immanuel—which means “God with us”) and works in history. God’s plan was to send His Son to earth to be born in Bethlehem. So when the time was right, God called a particular woman, Mary, to bear His child, and a particular man, Joseph, to provide a dad and a home for Jesus—both of whom were in David’s line. God then prompted Caesar Augustus to call for a tax registration (Luke 2:1-3) which got Joseph and Mary to leave Nazareth and get to Bethlehem just in time for Jesus’ birth. You see it, don’t you? God works in time and history through particular people in particular places to accomplish His particular will for our world and our lives.

And the good news in that for us is that God also chooses to work in your particular life in your particular place to accomplish His particular will in and through you. He knows who you are. He knows where to find you. He knows how to work in and through your life right where you are. Are you open to God’s work in your life this season? Are you listening for His call?

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

A Friend Named Thanksgiving


In 1 Thessalonians 5:18, Paul writes, “Give thanks in all circumstances for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” You got to figure Paul must have been a good mood when he wrote that verse. You got to figure Paul’s circumstances must have been good ones. But if we do that, our figuring is wrong. Paul certainly had his share of good times, but for the most part, life was hard for Paul. Most of his adult life spent on the road, often sleeping in the elements. He was beaten like a rug, pelted with stones and left for dead, shipwrecked in the dead of winter, jailed for long periods of time for nothing more than proclaiming the gospel, and stricken with this mysterious “thorn in the flesh” that God wouldn’t not remove. Paul had his good times, but he spent much of life in the worst of circumstances. Yet he was thankful—thankful when times were good, thankful when times were hard, thankful in all circumstances. And not because he was some extra strong Christian, but because giving thanks in all circumstances is God’s will for His people in Christ Jesus. That’s the same Christ Jesus who endured painful persecution and angry scorn, the same Christ Jesus who was nailed up on a cross—a cross He endured because He knew that death wouldn’t get the last word on Him; life would get the last word. Crucifixion wouldn’t be His swan song; resurrection just a couple of mornings away would be the new song He would sing for eternity. Knowing these things helped Paul and can help us give thanks in all circumstances.

It was like Thanksgiving was a friend to Paul—a friend Paul took along everywhere he went and into every situation he encountered. Years ago, Fred Craddock helped me see that Doxology can be a friend. Well, Thanksgiving can be a friend as well. And I live life on higher plane when I take my friend Thanksgiving along.

And Paul is not the only person who has modeled this for me. Teresa Walters did too. I knew her for many years. And I’ll never forget when I got word that she had died. I was at my son’s basketball game when the call came to meet the Walters family at the hospital. That death was hard to take on many levels. At her death, Teresa was only 25 years old. One of “Jerry’s kids,” she had been stricken with muscular dystrophy from earliest childhood. She had never known what it was like to run through the grass, to catch a ball, to drive a car. All she could drive was her little motorized wheelchair. And she drove it everywhere. It was a nifty little wheelchair: oxygen tank-ready and a bumper sticker on the back that said, "A woman's place is in the mall." And did I tell you it was a two-seater? One for her and one for Thanksgiving.

In spite of her problems, Teresa took Thanksgiving almost everywhere. Now and then God gives us opportunity to know someone whose courage and grace in the midst of adversity just lifts us up. She was one of those persons—an incredible young woman in many ways. But the older she got, the more tightly her terrible disease held her in its grip. And no matter how much she or her parents or the church or the doctors tried to pry its fingers loose, muscular dystrophy would not let go. Teresa got to the point where she had to be on oxygen all the time. She couldn't eat the things you and I could eat. She was literally skin and bones. So weak was Teresa that she had to be belted into her wheelchair or she would slide right out. She was as bad as I had ever seen her. She had bounced back before—this determined little fighter—but this time her disease squeezed her so hard that she died.

Thanksgiving had come along with me to my son's basketball game, and he said he wanted to go with me to the hospital too. "All right," I said (my heart not in it), "you can come along but I want you to sit in the backseat and keep your mouth shut." When we got to the hospital, we both started to get out of the car. "Where do you think you're going?" I said to Thanksgiving.

He replied, "I'm going with you. You may need me in there. Teresa was my friend too."

"Forget it!" I said. "You're the last person anybody wants to see right now. Just wait in the car." Obviously hurt, but equally submissive, Thanksgiving (who will only go where he's invited) climbed back in the car and shut the door.

I went up to the room and found Teresa's parents there. They were surrounded by family and friends in that hospital hallway. The three of us, however, went in alone to the room where Teresa's body lay dead upon the bed. Her flaming red locks spread out across her pillow. We cried and we prayed the 23rd Psalm. It was all very sad. We stood there for the longest time in silence. Then her parents started talking. They told me that late in the afternoon, when Teresa was struggling the most, they prayed and asked God to take her home to heaven. All these 25 years they could never pray that prayer, all the previous times death had knocked at Teresa’s door they couldn’t pray that prayer, but today they found the strength and peace to do it. And now, even though they were sad, they were thanking God for His mercy.

And then they told me about the last picture Teresa had painted. In spite of her problems, Teresa was an accomplished painter. I don't know how she did it, but she did it, and she did it well enough to win awards at art fairs. And, as her parents told the story, the last picture she painted (though hard to see the detail, that's it at the top of this blog) was based on Isaiah 40:31. You remember that verse, don't you? "They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint." In the painting, Teresa had drawn a skyline of the heavenly city encased in lush trees at the end of a long winding path. Above the city was a soaring eagle. And right there at the end of the path that led to the city, she painted something else—a tiny, empty wheelchair. She titled the painting Freedom Awaits. Teresa knew she was dying. She knew it wouldn't be long. She didn't want to die, but she was ready.

About that time, there was a quiet tap at the door. It was Thanksgiving. He came in and said, "I thought maybe y’all might need me about now." We did. And as strange as it may sound, Thanksgiving comforted us and made that experience a little easier to take.

But that’s what Thanksgiving does for every experience. Thanksgiving helps maximizes the joy of our blessings and helps lessen the heartbreak of our trials. Paul knew that. Teresa knew that. I want to know that too. How about you? So in this Thanksgiving season, let’s ask God to provide the Holy Spirit power we need to live this great thanksgiving verse in this season and all year long: “Give thanks in all circumstances for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”

Happy Thanksgiving!

Friday, November 19, 2010

One Tough Persistent Saint


One more saint story to tell as I wrap up my tribute to All Saints' Day 2010. This saint has no fame that you would know her. Her name will not ring a bell. Nor does she come from some time past in our Christian history. But she is a saint all the same—a present day, on the job, serve the Lord saint.

Her name is Taryn Blocker. Taryn is a young lady currently serving a two-year term in Spain as a journeywoman missionary through the Southern Baptist International Mission Board. That in itself is no uncommon thing. Lots of college graduates have done and do that even today. They serve all over the world. "So why highlight Taryn?" you ask.

Well, a couple of things. First, I know her. I've known her since she was in junior high, I think. I know her family. I had the joy to watch her grow through her teen and college years. And second, what she had to endure to get to the field and what she endures even now is what sets her apart.
While Taryn and Brook, her partner in the mission, were getting their training and orientation in Richmond, they were involved in a terrible car wreck. Both were injured: Taryn had significant injuries: broken jaw, two broken legs, conditions that required surgeries. And then, after the surgeries, months of painful rehab just to be able to walk again. What always amazed me most is that in spite of the pain (a constant companion even now), in spite of the fact that she wouldn't be able to go to Spain when she was supposed to go, Taryn never lost faith and never lost her sense of call to go to Spain and reach out to immigrant Hispanics from Central and South America. Hers was one long and winding road just to be reapproved by the mission board. Needless to say they were concerned with her well-being in light of her injuries and weren't sure she would be up to the rigors of mission work. But Taryn hit all her benchmarks to get the clearance to go. It wasn't easy, but she pushed herself and leaned heavily upon the Lord for His strength that was and is made perfect in her weakness.

So today Taryn is in Spain, serving God and extending His kingdom in that part of the world. I wish I could say that she finally is pain free and her injuries from the wreck are just a part of her past, but I can't. She hurts every day. Most every step is painful. But she takes those steps, determined to fulfill the mission to which God called her. She continues to get medical attention. She continues to pray. She continues to serve. And I find that so very saint-like.

No one would have blamed her if she had given up this dream after the accident and after the rehab. No one would have been critical if she had said, "I thought God wanted me to go, but I guess these injuries are God's way of shutting the door on my mission." In fact, a number of folks figured that might be what was going on. But not Taryn. She was called. She was committed. And car wrecks, wounded legs, and pain nothwithstanding, she was going to go fulfill her calling. Taryn believes that God is larger than her challenges, that her mission is more important that her pain, and that she can do all things through Christ who strengthens her. The young woman is an inspiration to all who know her and blessing to those whom she serves in Spain. She is an example worth noting and following.

In His Revlation letter to the persecuted church at Smyrna, Jesus said, "Be faithful unto death and I will give you a crown of life." Taryn hasn't been asked to die for her faith; she's been asked to live it in a foreign culture and with significant pain. And she is being faithful in the midst of all that. She is marked by the life of Christ, and she is bringing that life to those in Spain. So in my book, this young woman bears the markings of a saint.

So Happy All Saints' Day, Taryn! Your parents, your pastor, and your church family are more proud of you than you know. And even then, nobody has a broader smile when he thinks of you than your Friend and Savior Jesus.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Four Chaplains



As I continue to post a few saint stories in honor of All Saints’ Day on November 1, today I post a saint story to honor American veterans on this Veterans Day, 2010.

For years, Daniel Poling was editor of The Christian Herald magazine. He had raised his children to be faithful to Christ and to the call of Christ in their lives. One December day in 1941, not many days after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Daniel's son, Clark Poling, went to Boston to see his father. Clark told his dad that he was going to enlist in the army as a chaplain. Clark was a young man. He and his wife Betty had a son named Corky and one on the way. Clark was a minister of the gospel and had every reason not to go to war. But he felt the tug of God at his heart to go and serve in the chaplaincy. As he visited with his dad about that decision, Clark said, "Dad, I believe in the power of prayers so pray for me. Pray not that I come back but that I shall not be a coward, that I shall do my duty, and even more, pray that I will understand men and be patient. And pray that I shall be adequate for whatever comes." His father began to pray that prayer for his son Clark.

About fourteen months later, on February 3, 1943, the U.S.S. Dorchester was heading across the North Atlantic for England. The ship was loaded with over 900 soldiers. There were also four chaplains on that ship: John Washington (Catholic), Alex Goode (Jewish), George Fox (Methodist), and the focus of this story, Clark Poling (Dutch Reformed). The voyage was going smoothly until just off the coast of Greenland a German U-Boat got the Dorchester in his sights and put a torpedo right in the hull of their ship. Chaos broke loose! "Abandon ship! Abandon ship!" came the order over the loud speakers. A mad scramble for life jackets and lifeboats ensued. The four chaplains quickly organized the men and, without panic, opened the boxes of life jackets and dispensed every one of them. Suddenly, the stark reality of the situation become apparent to the many men who were left on board: there were no more life jackets and no more lifeboats to go around. The four chaplains reacted instinctively: they quietly took off their life jackets, gave them to the first four men they found, and told them to jump. Not long afterward, the ship sunk. In all 678 men died, including the four chaplains.

In the Congressional Record of this incident, there is the testimony of one of the survivors, the ship's Chief Engineer. This is how he described the scene: "I looked and I saw the ship wallowing there. And then I saw the bow come up. I saw standing on the deck the four chaplains—arms linked together, standing on the slippery, slanting deck—praying for us. Suddenly, the ship trembled and sank. And they were gone."

In those last moments as the chaplains stood arm in arm on that sinking ship, I wonder if Clark remembered the prayer he had asked his father to pray: "Pray not that I come back, but that I shall not be a coward, that I shall do my duty; and even more pray that I will understand men and be patient. And pray that I will be adequate for whatever comes."

God answered that prayer. Clark and the other three chaplains were not cowards. They did their duty. They were adequate for what came. There’s something saintly in that spirit, don’t you think—courage, devotion to duty, love of others, and dependence on God to meet the challenge before them? In John 15:13 Jesus said, “Greater love has no man than this: that he lay his life down for his friends.” Jesus did that for us. These four chaplains did that for the men on their ship.

So on this Veterans Day 2010, let’s remember that a lot of other veterans have given their lives for us. Others have sacrificed lengthy tours duty away from family and physical and emotional wounds that never go away. I don't want to take such sacrifices for granted, do you? So join me in giving thanks for all our veterans in general and for these four chaplains in particular, because they model the best of what it means to serve one's country and the best of what it means to serve their God. Happy All Saints Day, Four Chaplains!

Monday, November 8, 2010

Dirk Willens: A Saint You've Never Heard Of


In honor of All Saints' Day on November 1, it's time time to introduce you to another saint—one you've probably never heard of. But first some background. When we think Reformation, the names that quickly come to the surface are Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Ulrich Zwingli. These were the headliners. Of course, when Luther nailed those 95 theses to the door of the Wittenburg church, his real intention was to reform the Catholic Church, not break away and start something new. But once set in motion, nobody could stop the wave of reformation that swept across Europe. Men like Luther and Calvin went pretty far in their theological and ecclesiastical reforms, but some in that era thought they didn’t go far enough.

I'm talking about the Anabaptists. These Anabaptists (ancestors to modern day Mennonites and Amish) took things a step further. In effect, they said to other branches of the reformation movement: “If you want to get back to the Bible, then get back to the Bible in all things.” That’s why Anabaptists (which means re-baptizers) were the only Reformation group to practice believer’s baptism by immersion instead of infant baptism. That’s why Anabaptists believed and practiced a form of church-state separation as best they could in a climate where church and state had been in bed together for centuries. And that’s why neither Catholics or Lutherans or Calvinists had any love for the Anabaptists. This group was persecuted and martyred by all of the above. Do you know the favorite way to kill an Anabaptist? Drowning—tie them to something heavy and toss them in the river. “If they are so committed to immersion baptism,” their persecutors said, “then we’ll immerse them into eternity.” Of course, Anabaptists were martyred in other ways as well.

Let me tell you a story about one of them. In 16th century Holland, the Anabaptists were outlawed and, when caught, often executed. Dirk Willens, a faithful Anabaptist convert, was being chased across an ice-field when his pursuer broke through and fell in. In response to his cries for help, Willens returned and saved him from the waters. His pursuer was grateful and astonished that he would do such a thing but nevertheless arrested him, as he thought it his duty to do. A few days later Willens was executed by being burned at the stake in the town of Asperen.

That’s it. That’s the story. But it’s a story that inspires me and makes Dirk Willens a saint in my eyes. Here’s a man who loved his neighbor as himself, who loved his enemies even. Here’s a man who put the interest of another ahead of himself. Here’s a man who loved Christ and Christ’s ways more than he loved his own life. Here’s a man who was faithful unto death. Here’s a man whose actions remind me of Jesus Christ. And it seems to me that if there’s one thing that should stand out about a saint, it’s this: when we think of the saint we can't help but think of Christ. Dirk Willens reminds me of Christ. And this leaves me with a question to ponder about my own life. Perhaps it’s a question you could ponder too: Do the people who know me best think of Christ when they think of me?

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Say Hello to Teresa


As I continue my early November blogs in honor of All Saints’ Day, say hello to Teresa of Ávila. Teresa was from Spain and lived in the 16th century. From her earliest years, spurred on by her mother, she had a deep devotion to Christ. At seven years old she tried to run away with her brother Rodrigo to find martyrdom among the Moors. Her grandfather, who was returning to the city, found both of them outside the city walls and made them go back home. But Teresa’s devotion never wavered. She continued to grow in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and man.

In her adult years she founded a reformed Carmelite convent. She also experienced trials and illnesses that God used to deepen her prayer life and commitment to Christ. Teresa wrote much poetry and prose during her days—some of her best writing growing out of her troubles. Her writings reflected her life of prayer as well as her devotion to Jesus. Here’s an excerpt:

Let nothing trouble you
Let nothing make you afraid
All things pass away
God never changes.
Patience obtains everything.
God alone is enough.

Here’s my favorite Teresa story: she was traveling all over Spain by oxcart on bad roads in her efforts to reform Carmelite convents. One day she was thrown from her cart into a muddy stream. She shook her fist at God, “God,” she said, “if this is the way you treat your friends, no wonder you don’t have many.” I suspect God got a kick out of that. What a great lesson in prayer: Teresa reminds us we can talk with God about anything at anytime. She reminds us that prayer is not about results; it’s about relationship—a mutual relationship between God and His child, a relationship in which we can speak openly and honestly with God when it sounds pleasant and even when it doesn’t. Lloyd John Ogilvie once referred to prayer as "cumulative friendship with God." That is a perfect description of Teresa's prayers.

That's why Teresa inspires my prayer life. Knowing her leads me to ask myself some questions about my prayers: Are they open? Are they honest? Are they born out of a deep devotion to and friendship with God? Teresa’s prayers were. I hope mine are. And I encourage you to make yours this way too.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Meet Francis de Bernardone


According to the church calendar, today is All Saints’ Day, a day to remember and celebrate the lives of those who followed Christ faithfully—some even unto death. Of course, the Roman Catholics and mainline Protestant churches give much more emphasis to this day than do Baptists or our more charismatic brothers and sisters. Still, there’s good to be had for all of us to reflect upon the lives of saints past and present. Didn’t Paul encourage the Corinthians and the Philippians to imitate him as he tried to imitate Christ? So on this All Saints’ Day I want to post the first of series of brief blogs acquainting you with some of my favorite saints. My prayer is that these stories will inspire you and evoke in your own heart an appreciation for the saints who have made and are making an impact on your life.

My first story is about a young man named Francis. Francis lived in the years on either side of A.D. 1200. He was one of seven children born to Pietro de Bernardone, a wealthy cloth merchant. Francis grew up in the church, but like many children of wealth spent plenty of time walking on the wild side of indulgence and sin. But even early in his life, he discovered a part of him that was drawn to the poor and the needy. On one occasion he was selling cloth and velvet for his father in the marketplace when a beggar came to beg alms. Francis was too busy to deal with him, but when the transaction was done, Francis chased down the beggar and gave him everything he had in his pockets. His friends chided him and mocked him for his charity, and when word of it got to his father he gave Francis a harsh tongue-lashing. His father wanted Francis to be a businessman, to follow in his footsteps, to live the conventional life of the wealthy, to dress like the businessman his father determined he should be.

But those weren’t Francis’ clothes. God had different clothes for Francis. Francis was drawn to care for lepers against the counsel of his father and his friends. Francis had a heart for the needy. He had a heart for God and the church. On one occasion, he had a vision that he was to help repair the church. Francis assumed that meant the church in which he was praying so he sold some of his father’s cloth and gave the money to the church. That was the last straw for Francis' father. And it wasn’t just about the money. He could see Francis slipping away from the life he had planned for him. He tried to talk Francis out of it. He even beat him severely. But finally, in a legal exercise before the local bishop, Francis renounced his father and his father’s ways. And you know how he symbolized his decision? He stripped off the clothes his father provided him and laid them aside. He lived as a beggar for a short while. And the rest is history. You’ve heard of him. He even started a religious order that still exists today—the Franciscans. You know him as St. Francis—St. Francis of Assisi.

Francis heard the voices of his family and his culture: “Wear the clothes of a businessman, Francis. This is who you are. This is what you must do. This is what you should value. This is what should define your life. This is what people do in your station and with your money.” This is the message he received from childhood. But Francis knew God. He knew the Scriptures. He had a God-filled imagination. And he chose to be authentic to who God made him to be. And because he did, he lived a passionate, joyful life that made an impact and a difference in the kingdom of God. His life is still making a difference today.

Whose clothes are you wearing? Whose destiny are you living? Whose voice are you following? Every saint past and present has struggled with those questions. But sooner or later, every saint answers them with one word: “God’s”

Thursday, October 14, 2010

To All the Pastors I've Loved Before


One of my favorite stories is about Jesus walking along one day when he came upon a man crying and he said, “My friend, what’s wrong?” The man replied, “I’m blind, can you help me?” Jesus healed the man and he went on his way.

Jesus continued along and came upon another man sitting and crying. “Good friend, what’s wrong?” The man answered, “I’m lame and can’t walk, can you help me?” Jesus healed the man and they both went down the road.

As Jesus continued on he came upon a third man crying. Jesus said, “Good friend, what’s wrong?” He answered, “I’m a minister.” And Jesus sat down and wept with him.

You may or may not be aware of this, but October is National Pastor Appreciation Month. I guess somebody decided that if mothers and fathers and grandparents each get a day each year to be appreciated, pastors ought to get a month. Not sure I grasp the logic, but many church people do seem to buy into it and shower their pastors with cards and notes and even a gift or two. It’s nice.

Here’s my problem with it, however: I don’t have a pastor to appreciate. I am a pastor. Oh, I certainly can and do appreciate our staff pastors who coordinate and oversee various ministries within the church. But none of them are my pastor. I feel quite like the atheist who in a weak moment feels overcome with gratitude for the blessings and good fortune of his life and yet has no one to thank for them. What can I do for Pastor Appreciation Month?

How about this? I can use this forum to express appreciation for all the pastors I have had in my life. In God’s providence he has put pastors in my path that have had various levels of influence on my life. Even a bad detective could find the fingerprints of every one of them on my 30 year body of work as a pastor. So here’s to the all the pastors I’ve loved before.

I don’t even remember the name of my first pastor. That church is no longer in existence and both my parents are dead, so I don’t know how I would find his name even if I wanted to. But he was pastor of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Little Rock, Arkansas. I was just a little kid when we attended that church. I do remember that he had black hair, a five o’clock shadow, and was not an exceptionally big fellow. I remember the black robe he wore in worship. And I remember he didn’t seem to mind that on my way from Sunday School to the sanctuary I would stop at the church library and check out a Dr. Seuss or some such book to help me get through big church with minimal wiggling and fidgeting. (And I always was a wiggler and fidgeter—still am.) I remember he noticed me at the door and shook my hand too as we were leaving the church. I don't think I was just a face to him; I think he considered me part of his flock too.

I don’t remember the name of my next pastor either. I was in third grade and we were members of the Presbyterian Church in Ozark, Arkansas. It was a small church. I don’t remember much about the pastor or his family except this: when my mother fell out in church and was hospitalized for a couple of weeks, my brothers and I spent a lot of that time in our pastor’s home. It seems like it was most every day after school. If pastors are supposed to be hospitable, this pastor and family fit the bill.

My next pastor was at the Presbyterian Church in Branson, Missouri. His name was Byron Price. He was a God-send to our family. My mom left my dad and took us boys to Branson to live with our grandmother. Pastor Price came alongside and really ministered to our mother and to us. Her new disability kept her from driving, and there were multiple occasions when Pastor Price and his wife drove my mother to Springfield to see her psychologist. Pastor Price was from Texas and he gave me a homemade slingshot with the state of Texas carved into its handle. It was a pretty cool gift for fifth-grade boy. I really liked the Price family—had a secret crush on his daughter Mary Beth who was my age. And I remember being very sad when the Lord called them to a different place.

The pastor who followed Byron Price at our church was Sammy Shrum. He and his wife had a couple of kids younger than I was. I remember him taking my younger brother and I out with him and his son to look at land. I remember playing cowboys with him around the big rocks on the land he was checking out. He was a good speaker according to everyone’s report, though all I remember of his sermons through my teenage years was his use of the phrase: “What the world needs now is love, sweet love.” Honestly, I mostly passed the time in worship up in the balcony avoiding the stare of my mother from the choir and filling in the o’s and p’s and d’s and b’s and q’s in the Sunday bulletin. (Rarely were there any q's, but if they were there, I filled them in too.) I also played a lot of hangman and the dot game to pass the time. Another thing that stands out about Pastor Shrum was his kindness to me when I made a big goof in church. At an end of worship business meeting, when, for some reason, the youth were sitting at the front, the vote came up on the pastor’s annual salary raise. “All in favor, say aye.” I said, “Aye.” "All opposed, no." And horror of horrors, I said, “No”—the only voice in the sanctuary to do so. Honestly, I wasn’t paying attention and was just following orders: "Say aye; say no." My mother and grandmother were mortified and sunk down in their seats in the choir. My youth leader thumped me on the head. And Pastor Shrum smiled a great big smile, looked right at me and said, “I think we’ve had a little slip of the tongue up here.” And that was that. My youth leaders never let me forget it, but Pastor Shrum never said another word. It was like he understood.

My next pastor was a Baptist. I made the move to First Baptist Church in Branson at the end of my senior year in high school. (No, I wasn’t run out of the Presbyterian Church for accidentally voting no.) I made a conscious choice to become a Baptist. That pastor’s name was Gary Fenton. Gary took a real interest in me. He baptized me. He encouraged me. He helped me process my call to ministry. He gave me the opportunity to preach my first sermon and created a position of Summer Campground Minister on the church staff so I could work for the church in the summer after my freshman year in college, preaching in local campgrounds and assisting the staff in the day to day duties of ministry. What a learning opportunity! Gary talked ministry and even commentaries with me. A couple of years later, when Gary had left Branson, he invited me to preach a weekend youth revival at the next church he pastored in Windsor, Missouri. Gary came back to Branson to preach my ordination sermon a bit later as well. When she was a teenager, my wife Dayna babysat his children, so I felt close to Gary. I remember him looking in on my wife and I when we first moved to seminary. Things that stand out to me about Gary is that he is a very good preacher; he is very good with people; and he is a very hard worker. I learned a lot about ministry and preaching and people-skills from Gary. Even though he was only my pastor for year or so, he has had profound influence on me. We still stay in touch. I still learn from him.

The pastor that followed Gary to Branson was a man named Gilbert Spencer. I worked two summers at the Branson church with Gilbert. He also took an interest in me and helped me grow in my ministry. Gilbert wore these crazy-loud sports jackets he got from his father-in-law, a missionary from Singapore. Didn’t care for the jackets, but I sure enjoyed his preaching. It was so full of passion, so straight-forward. I don’t remember hearing a sermon that left me bored or or semi-conscious. He was able to engage me every time. And even if the content wasn’t all that good, his passion was magnetic. You knew he believed to the depths of his core what he was preaching. Gilbert also gave me opportunities to preach at Branson and at the next church he served in Nixa, Missouri. He was a blessing to me on many levels. He was the pastor who tied the knot for Dayna and me.

My college pastors were also an influence on me. My college church was the First Baptist Church of Fayetteville, Arkansas. My first pastor there was Paige Patterson. Paige took a real interest in college students who were going into ministry. He spent time with us. He gave us a list to build a good minister’s library. He gave us copies of a couple of commentaries he wrote. He was dynamic and very sure of himself. I don’t think he was as good a preacher as Gary or Gil, but he was dynamic and used a lot of big words. These days, he’s much too dogmatic for my taste, but for a college freshman, new to a serious faith and new to ministry and theology, I needed a person like him who spoke with such certainty on issues. God used him in my life.

And God used the pastor that followed him too: Nathan Larry Baker. Dr. Baker took me under his wing early on his ministry at Fayetteville. He gave me a little $50 a week job sorting out his files and visiting new residents in the community to invite them to church. When our Youth and University Pastor left to further his education, Dr. Baker gave me that job—my first regular staff position in a church. He was patient with me, coached me, helped me on many levels. I learned a lot from Dr. Baker. He left FBC, Fayetteville, to go teach at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City. I had planned to go to Fort Worth, Texas to seminary, but changed my mind and followed Dr. Baker to KC. Even there, he gave me opportunities. I was his grader. I got to spend some time with his family in their home. He helped me get my first ministry job as a seminary student too. I owed a lot to Dr. Baker. Dayna and I were so grateful for the way he helped me get started in ministry, that we named our son Nathan after him. We still stay in touch as well.

The last pastor I had was Bob Meade at First Baptist Church of Lee’s Summit, Missouri. In the summer of ’79 I was hired to be a summer youth minister there. That became a permanent Associate Pastor job when summer was over. Youth ministry was my primary focus but I got to do a lot of hospital work and preach for him occasionally too. He was not a very popular pastor in the church. Folks complained about him a good bit—some didn’t like his preaching, others didn’t like the way he ran things or the way he handled his schedule. Others complained that he played favorites with certain members of the congregation. And eventually, the church basically forced him to resign. That was a painful time for all of us—my first experience with how mean churches and Christians can be. Bob told the other staff member and me that we should resign along with him. We loved him, but we didn’t feel God leading us to do that. I think he understood. But he sure turned bitter over that whole episode. I learned a lot from that experience about church and about ministry. And I got the opportunity to preach every Sunday morning for almost a year during that interim period until I was called to my first pastorate. But here’s what I like to remember most about Bob. He knew I didn’t have much money. He knew I didn’t have a winter coat. He took me to the mall one day and bought me one. He did the same thing on another occasion to get me a sports coat. He was always kind and generous to me. He was always supportive of me. He believed in me. Bob died about five or six years later from a nasty stomach cancer—I think in part from the bitterness over the way things ended at Lee’s Summit. He deserved better.

So there you have it: my tribute to all the pastors I’ve loved before. I know this is long and probably not a very interesting read for most of you. But I guess I didn’t really write this for you; I wrote it for me—as a way to say thanks to God and to these faithful men who were my pastors along the way. I don’t have any gifts to give them. I won’t be sending any cards. But here’s my hope: that if by providence they know something of my ministry across the years, they can take great pleasure in knowing that any fruit I’ve born for the kingdom of God has been greatly influenced by the seeds of love, teaching, encouragement, and example that they sowed into my life. Thank you, pastors. My life and ministry is better on earth because of your life and ministry. And if I gain any rewards on the other side, you each share in those too. “Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Cor. 15:58).

Friday, October 8, 2010

Happy Anniversary, Baby, Got You on My Mind




Thirty-three years ago today, Dayna and I stood before God and a congregation of family and friends and said, "I do." I don't remember a whole lot about the ceremony. I was nervous and rather out of my element. But it was one of the best decisions I've made in my life.

It began one summer Sunday evening in 1972. I was working at Ken's Pizza in Branson, Missouri, when about three or four families came into Ken's around 8:30 or so. Dayna was the teenage daughter of one of those families. I learned it was their ritual: go to Sunday evening church; head to Ken's Pizza afterwards. Even though we lived in a small town, even though Dayna and my little brother were in the same grade, I had never seen her before (or at least I had never noticed her before). But when I saw her, she took my breath away: blonde flowing locks, cute face, pretty smile. Even though it's been 38 years, I can still see her walking outside of Ken's in front of the window after she had eaten and was killing time waiting for her parents to quit visiting and take her home. I think she was walking so I would see her. I felt something for this girl I didn't know. Though no words were exchanged, I think she felt something for me too.

In time, I found out all about her: she would be a freshman when school started, she was a good girl, a Baptist church-going girl from a Baptist church-going family. And I heard her parents were pretty strict: they wouldn't even let her go to a dance. I also heard she was pretty shy. No problem there: so was I—around girls anyway. I would be a junior in high school that September and had never been on an official date.

I finally got up the nerve to talk with her at Ken's. I called her a time or two. But there would be no dating, said her parents, until she was sixteen. Bummer. But we found some other ways to be together in groups. And then I stumbled upon a way to see her that her parents couldn't object to: I started visiting her church. I can honestly say that those visits were more about teenage hormones than Jesus, but I think Jesus was okay with that.

And what do you know? Her parents soon relented and let her date me before she turned 16. Those were good times. We went to movies. We went to the Dairy Queen, ate a little, and listened to music from the juke box. We eventually did a little parking out by the lake (but did nothing out of bounds in the process). I was taken with her—my first real girlfriend. I would sometimes drive by her house in hopes of catching a glimpse of her in the window. Later I gave her my class ring when we officially decided to "go steady." It was nice.

But it didn't last. For the next three years or so we were off again, on again. She knew how to break my heart. One of my friends even called her "ruthless." She wasn't really, but you know how teenagers have a penchant for making melodrama out of everything. To make matters more difficult, I had started attending her church faithfully, got serious about my relationship with God, and began to go there for Jesus instead of Dayna. But I saw her there every time, and that always hurt a little. I dated another girl for a while. Dayna had interest in another guy for awhile too. Teenage stuff, you know.

But after I headed to college and was gone for a year, I guess we realized that we really did love one another and wanted to have a future together. We wrote a lot of letters back and forth. I wrote her some poems and played my guitar and sang love songs for her. Before long, we started talking marriage. And that's where it all gets a little weird. I never officially proposed. I was too afraid to ask her dad for her hand, and I never did. For some reason he let me get away with that. As to the proposal, all I remember is that one night we were sitting on her couch (a couch that once gave way while we were making out after her parents went to bed—but that's a whole other story), and she pulled out a calendar, and the next thing I know we've got a date for a wedding: October 8, 1977. I did have enough wits about me to make sure we set the date on a Saturday the Razorbacks weren't playing. From there it was a whirlwind: get the rings, get the invitations, select the wedding party, make the plans, get some counseling, rent the tuxes, and "get me to the church on time."

I don't remember much about the ceremony. It seems like it was brief. I do remember she looked beautiful as we stood at the altar. We were married in First Baptist Church, Branson (when it was downtown). We had the reception there too. And then it was off to Tulsa for a big weekend honeymoon. Yeah, what can I say? I'm a big spender. Some grooms take their brides to Hawaii or Jamaica or New York City. I took mine to Tulsa. We only had Saturday night and Sunday. I did take Monday off from school but was back at it on Tuesday. We were poor. We did the best we could. I did spring for the Honeymoon Package at the Tulsa Hilton. It was a package deal. We got our choice of a bottle of champagne or a fruit basket. Since neither of us drink and since Dayna wasn't even legal drinking age yet, we opted for the fruit. What a disappointment. It was little more than a couple of overripe bananas and a bruised apple or two. And to make matters worse, our room was full of fleas. Having stayed in a hotel maybe twice when I was growing up, I didn't know to go demand another room, so we endured the fleas. We went to the zoo on Sunday. We ate at Casa Bonita. And before we went home, she left her purse at McDonald's and fifty of our few precious dollars were stolen from it. Good times!

And so began our 33 years together. They've been good years for the most part. Like any couple we've had our ups and downs, our seasons of passion and our wintry seasons too. We've even sought counseling a couple of times along the way. Coming from a broken home, I had nothing to go on as far as being a husband, no models to learn from, so I was kind of winging it. Sometimes I did pretty good, sometimes not so good. Dayna grew up in a hugging family; I didn't. Believe it or not, after 33 years of marriage, I'm still uncomfortable holding hands with my wife in public. Honestly, when the pastor said, "And you may kiss the bride," I'd have been a lot more comfortable if we could have just shaken hands on the deal. Dayna also grew up in a family that took care of one another; I didn't. That's why I have always had a hard time in any close relationship. It's hard for me to invest much beyond the surface. It was easier for me to just be married to my work—a work Dayna has always supported 100%. And like my two brothers, I have always been fiercely independent and therefore, even to this day, have a very hard time letting people in and letting people do for me. I don't like this about myself, and I try to work on it, but I'm still pretty much the same old me.

And yet Dayna has persevered with me through thick and thin. I've wondered over the years if I had made the right choice to marry Dayna. I've wondered if I made the right choice to get married at all. But I can't imagine my life without her. She has loved me unconditionally and with much patience. She could have done a lot better than getting stuck with me, but she would never say it. I guess as much as anything, she has taught me grace. Though I don't talk much, she listens when I need to talk. She gives me good counsel. And she keeps our scattered family connected. She has always been a good mother to our kids, and there is no better grandmother on the face of the earth.

And that's why we're not together on our anniversary. That's why I'm writing this blog instead of celebrating with her in a night on the town. Our daughter just had a baby a few days ago and Dayna is staying with her a little longer. I was down for a couple of days, but had to come back what with Sunday and all. The picture at the top is from our time together yesterday. We've talked a couple of times today, but there will be no celebration for a few more days. Thus the title of this blog. It comes from the opening line of Little River Band's 1970s hit, Happy Anniversary, Baby. I've got you on my mind today, Dayna.

And I want to say thank you for sticking with the one you're stuck with for these 33 years. How you've done it, and how you've done it with such grace is beyond me. When I think of all the marriage sermons you've heard me preach, there were any number of times you could have shouted "Ha!" in the middle of them. And you would have been right too. But you refrained. Thank you for that. And thank you for your faithfulness and support for all these years. You deserve a medal or something. I wish we had the money to buy you a new diamond or a precious stone that you would love and that you deserve. But unfortunately, all you get is more years of me. Some reward, huh? And yet I know what you would say about it. You'd say, "That's enough for me."

The wisdom writer in Proverbs said it well: "Many women do well, but you surpass them all. Charm is deceiving and beauty is fleeting, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised." Happy anniversary, baby. I've loved you for more than 33 years, and I will love you till I die.


Monday, September 27, 2010

When I'm 54


You remember this Beatles song off the Sgt. Pepper album? Will you still need me / will you still feed me / when I’m 64? The dude was a little worried about getting old. Well, I’m not 64, but yesterday I turned 54. I have no memories as a kid of ever thinking about getting this old. I do remember once, in fifth-grade, the teacher asked us to do the math to figure out how old we would be in the year 2000. My calculations told me I would turn 44 that year. That was ten years ago, and I don’t think I ever thought about being a day older than 44. And even then, I didn’t think about 44 for long; I was more interested in recess and lunch and the blond girl named Ann a couple of desks over.

Yet here I am at 54: that’s half-a-century plus 4; that’s 11 years short of the standard retirement age of 65; that’s an age where you are sometimes the oldest guy in the room; that’s an age where you find yourself married to a grandma; that’s an age where the wild eye brows and ear-hair that start sneaking up on you in your 40s mount an all out attack; that’s an age where you talk more with your spouse—not because you have more to say but because you have to say everything twice because of gradual hearing loss for the both of you; that’s an age where the annual visit to a doctor means he does something with a glove and his finger that’s not going to make the day of either one of you; that’s an age where you grew up in a very different world than the one you live in now; that’s an age where you’re beginning to have almost as many friends in heaven as you do on earth; that’s an age where you see more of your life in the rearview mirror than you do in the windshield.

Some of you reading this are chuckling right now, thinking to yourself, “Fifty-four? Why I can’t even remember 54. The boy’s still a pup.” (Thank you for that, by the way.) Still, while I may be a pup to some, I’m Papa to my grandkids, and I’m my kids’ old man.

Someone once described the four ages of a man: he believes in Santa Claus; he doesn’t believe in Santa Claus; he is Santa Claus; he looks like Santa Claus. Thankfully, I’m just a stage three Santa. But, if I live long enough, stage four is on the way. I’ve been blessed with good genes, I guess, because most people tell me that I don’t look my age—which is either a compliment on my looks or a disparagement of my age. I still have plenty of the red hair I was born with (a little less on the crown but pretty thick everywhere else). My hair is turning a bit in its color however. My wife tells me it’s turning gray. The lady who cuts my hair says it’s turning blond. I told my wife that I hate to disagree with her but that I was compelled to believe the view of my haircutter because she’s a professional. So my hair’s turning color a bit and I’ve got a few more wrinkles around the eyes. But stuff like that happens when you’re 54.

All in all, however, I’m in pretty good shape for the old man I’m becoming. I eat smarter than I have in my whole life. I work and play at keeping fit too. Fact is: thanks to FBC Fitness, P90X, and Insanity, I’m in the best shape of my life. Just to prove it to myself, last night before I went to bed, I dropped to the floor (on purpose—you have to clarify that statement at my age) and knocked out my age in pushups. That’s right—54 pushups on my toes, without a break, the last six harder than heck but I touched my chest to the floor on all six! Booyah!! I went to tell my wife, and she said, “Oh yeah, let’s see you do 54 pull ups.” (Did I mention that she's becoming more of a smart-aleck in her old age?) So I told her that I could easily do 54 pull ups, that I’ve done well more than 54 pull ups many times, but that it would take me 5 sets to get them done. Shoot—I may just do that today to spite her. And I plan on doing something else too: I’m going to run (jog, that is) 5.4 miles as another little fitness test at 54—not 54 miles now, but 5.4 (never has a decimal point been more important). I guess I'm in agreement with the guy who said, "I’d rather wear out than rust out." I guess I’m trying to stay young.

But it’s not because I fear aging. I fear weakness. I fear dependence on others. But I don’t fear the aging process itself. So far, I find mostly humor in it. Danny Gokey sings in a popular song: “Age ain’t nothin’ but a number.” (Have you ever noticed how young people find that very easy to say?) But he's right: age is really nothing but a number, and whether that number for me is one year or thirty years more, I’m not going to fret it or sweat it. I’ve had plenty of good years, more than a lot of folks, and for all I know, as Gokey also sings, maybe “my best days ahead are ahead of me.” But whether my days and years ahead on this earth are good or hard or whatever they may be, I’m going to deal with them just fine because my very best days await me yet when my body gives out and I wing my way to heaven. I owe that to Jesus (who only had 33 years on the earth) and what He did for me in His cross and resurrection. And knowing that helps me live whatever years, and whatever kind of years, I have left with confidence. It's very comforting to know I’ve got a safe place to fall when I drop to the floor for the last time in this world.

So here I am at 54. And here's my prayer: "Thank you, God, for 54 years. If you take me today I have not been cheated; I have only been blessed. So thanks for 54." Sure, I’ve got some regrets, and I’ve also got some plans. I want whatever years I have left to count for something larger than myself. I want to have a lot of fun in the process. And when I stand before God, I pray I’ll hear Him say something like this: “Welcome home, old man. You lived a faithful life. You did pretty well. And you left it all on the field.”

Thursday, September 9, 2010

What Is This Guy Thinking?


His name is Terry Jones. He is a pastor. Last July he announced that his church would hold an "International Burn a Koran Day" at his church on September 11, 2010, the ninth anniversary of 9/ll. In spite of opposition from President Obama, General Petraeus, and too many rank and file Christians to count, as of now Pastor Jones is still planning on burning Islam's holy book.

He is pastor of a tiny church in Florida called the Dove World Outreach Center. Dove? More like "Hawk." And here's my simple question: what is this guy thinking? Our military leaders believe this will spur the recruitment of more radical Islamic terrorists. Our missionaries fear this will make their work in Muslim countries harder and more dangerous than it already is. Other leaders with political savvy see this action as something will only reinforce the idea that many Muslims have that America is not just engaged in a war on terror; it's engaged in a war on Islam.

This Qu'ran burning will not sit well in the Muslim world. To Jones' credit, he did meet with Imam Muhammad Musri, president of the Islamic Society of Central Florida. The imam, in my view, looks more Christian than Jones because he told the press after the meeting that he held no grudge against Jones. He may not hold a grudge, but many, many Muslims will—especially Muslims in other countries. Having worked a few years with West African Muslims in France and Senegal, I've learned that most Muslims will be more upset about the burning of the Qu'ran than most Christians would be about the burning of the Bible. They revere the Qu'ran. In bookstores it must always be kept on the highest shelf. It must never be treated casually, like throwing it in a backpack or leaving it in a stack of other books. It must not be marked in or defaced in any way. They revere, Revere, REVERE that book.

And don't think Muslims in other countries won't hear about this either. They are more connected than you think—cell phones and computers even in remote places. What possible good could come of this action? Would Jesus give His approval to this Qu'ran burning? Don't misunderstand me: I'm not defending the Qu'ran. I do not believe the Qu'ran is God's word; I believe the Bible is God's word. But I can't imagine why anyone would want to burn a book so many people find holy, a book so many revere. Discuss it? Yes. Debate it? Of course. But burn it? Thus my question again: what is this guy thinking?

I can't answer that question. But I can answer this one: what is this guy not thinking?

  • He's not thinking about the well-being of soldiers who serve in Muslim countries.

  • He's not thinking of missionaries who are trying to lead Muslims to Jesus and who, if he follows through with this plan, will have to try to explain his actions and overcome a whole new set of obstacles between Muslims and the living Christ.

  • He's not thinking about those words of Jesus that call us to love our neighbor as ourselves and to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.

  • He's not thinking of Jesus' words that we should do to others as we would have them do to us.

  • He's not thinking of Peter's encouragement for Christians to "always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give a reason for the hope that y9ou have. But do this with gentleness and respect . . ." (1 Peter 3:15).

  • He's not thinking, it seems to me, of anyone but himself and his face-time in the media.

Would you join me in praying that God would somehow intervene in such a way as to change Jones' mind and get him to back the heck off of his burning party? There are already enough walls between Muslims and Christians (they build some and we build some). We don't need more walls; we need some bridges. Some are being built in various places around the world through Christian witness and missionary work. But if Jones decides to stick with his plan to burn the Qu'ran, he'll be burning some of those bridges too.

UPDATE HOT OFF THE PRESS

Not two hours after I posted this blog I read an Associated Press story announcing that Jones has decided to cancel the Qu'ran burning. He says he is doing this because he's been promised that in exchange, the proposed mosque won't be built near Ground Zero in New York City. Imam Musri from Florida doesn't think it a good idea to build the mosque there anyway. However, Musri doesn't have the power to make that decision, and the New York Imam who wants to build the mosque may not change his plans. Stay tuned. Anyway, it appears for now that God has answered the prayers of so many who asked Him to intervene and change Jones' mind. Praise the Lord!

Thursday, September 2, 2010

A View From the Wall


During my Sabbatical, Dayna and I visited Washington, DC. I’d visited the capitals of six other nations; it was time to visit my own. Being a history buff, I was very much looking forward to it. Soon as word got out that we were going, a lot of people who have been there had a story of “you’ve just got to see this.” We didn’t get to see everything during our day in DC, but we got to see a lot. All of it was impressive: Kennedy’s grave, the Lincoln Memorial, the Capitol, seeing Honest Abe’s top hat in the history museum, and seeing moon rocks in Air and Space. All very, very cool.

But I suppose the site that touched me most was the Vietnam Memorial—the black marble V inscribed with the names of every one of our soldiers who either died there or who are still missing in action. I was touched on several levels. Maybe part of it was because this was the war of my childhood and youth. I saw it played out on television news every night. I saw the helicopters whipping the tall jungle grass as body bags and wounded soldiers were loaded on them for evacuation. I heard it debated and discussed in school and on TV. I read about the protests in the newspaper and saw images of them on the news. Ours was a patriotic family. We supported our soldiers. For a time I planned on enlisting in the Marines so I could go do my part. My older brother did enlist in the Marines in 1971, but thankfully, by that time we were bringing troops home instead of sending more in. He never had to go. And I abandoned my interest in a military life. Maybe these memories are why the wall touched me so.

Or maybe it was because I have known a number of men who fought that war. I have listened to their stories, seen glimpses of their scars, and watched some of them fall apart in a variety of ways some years after the war—post-traumatic stress disorder, they call it. While many died in the war, others died because of the war some years later. I still remember one Wednesday night in the late 1980s as I was leading a Bible study, a ragged-looking man none of us knew came into the sanctuary and interrupted our study by asking a question about how a person like him could go to heaven after all the things he did in Vietnam, all the blood he said was on his hands. He had been drinking and the liquor perhaps had loosened both his tongue and his inhibitions. He broke down in tears, sobs (as I’m almost doing as I remember that man and write this story). I feebly tried to assure him that God loves and God forgives and that the grace of Christ is high enough and wide enough and deep enough to include him too. He wasn’t hearing it. A couple of our men took the initiative to go to him and help him from the sanctuary so they cold talk with him and pray for him. They didn’t get a name, and we never saw or heard from him again. I hope somewhere along the way he found the grace and the peace he was so desperately searching for.

But back to the wall. We walked the length of the wall that day in DC. We saw flowers at the base of some of the panels. We saw and read a couple of the notes and pictures left there too. And we saw two men working feverishly, pressing paper to a particular name on the wall, running the edge of a pencil across that name, hoping to capture its image on their page. I wanted to ask them who this person was to them: a brother, a dad, a classmate, a brother in their platoon? But I didn’t ask. Didn’t want to interrupt the moment. Didn’t want to intrude. I did take a picture as you can see. I felt a little guilty about doing even that, but they were so involved in their mission that they didn’t even notice.

In watching these men painstakingly work with that name, it struck me that the more than 58,000 names on that hallowed wall are more than names. They are somebody’s son, brother, father, husband, sister, friend. It reminded me of the day the twice-a-week newspaper in our small town reported that Branson, Missouri, had lost her first son (I think her only son) in the Vietnam War. For some reason, I desperately wanted to remember his name. I wanted to remember his name and find his name on that wall and trace my fingers across his name and connect my life to his even if the connection was no more than having gone to the same school, having fished in the same creek, and having ridden bikes on the same streets. But his name never came to me. I hadn’t thought about that young man in decades, but I thought about him at the wall. For the life of me, I couldn’t recall his name, but I knew his name was there.

It’s all those names that make this memorial so different from the statue of the seven flag-raisers at Iwo Jima and from most of the other war memorials scattered around our country. It’s the names. Some communities have etched the names of their fallen in their local war memorials, but the Vietnam Wall is a national memorial. It bears the name of every soldier who paid the highest price he could pay: young men (some of them boys really) from Kansas and Maine, New York and Tennessee, New Mexico and Montana, men from my state and from yours. By inscribing all the names, this memorial allows us to grieve not just as communities but as a nation, and to graphically remember the cost of war—a war that destroyed a lot of people in our country and in Vietnam, a war in which it wasn’t just the raw number of 58,195 American servicemen and women who were killed, it was Robert Dale Draper and Kelton Rena Turner and Sharon Ann Lane. It was the boy next door who used to mow your lawn, the young candy-striper at the local hospital, the young man who carried the groceries to your car. The wall reminds us that the cost of war is not just numbers; it’s names, it’s faces, it’s neighbors. The wall won’t let us forget that so many died, and it won’t let us forget just who they were. So many dead. And for what? You’d think we’d have learned from that experience, but subsequent history tells us we have not.

I will never forget the wall. Just as the names of the dead and missing are etched into the marble, that experience is etched into my heart. I knew none of those whose names are on the wall, but as we walked back to the tour bus I thought of their brothers-in-arms I do know—ones that made it out alive. I thought of the men I know—men now in their late 50s and 60s, men who still carry both the scars we can see and the scars we can’t. I thought of them. I thanked God for them, for their courage to do their duty, and for the fact that they lived to grow older and to live the life their brothers or sisters on the wall never got to live. I chose in those moments not to ponder the big questions about why some survived and others didn’t. I will leave that in the hands of God who makes all things right in the end. Instead, I will be content to give thanks for the ones that died and the ones that lived, and I will continue to live in the hope that we worship a God who in His good time will bring about that great day when nations will beat their spears into pruning hooks, their swords into plowshares, and will study war no more.