Friday, April 30, 2010

Happy Birthday, Mother

On May 1, 1928 word spread through the little town of Branson, Missouri, that Joe and Helen Campbell had just become the proud parents of their first-born child—a daughter they named Joan Telfer Campbell. Twenty-eight years later their daughter became my mother. And if she was still living, she would be 82 years old today.

Mother was raised in a Scotch Presbyterian home. Both sides of the family had Scottish roots. My mother’s grandmother was an immigrant, coming over to the United States when she was just a little girl. With so much Scottish blood coursing through her veins, she picked up some of the traits of her family: a kind of emotional stoicism, a somewhat arms-length posture in her relationships, and a stubborn devotion to God. I don’t know if all Scots possess these traits but they were certainly in her make-up and in the make-up of her family.

Mother didn’t have an easy life. She was only a year old when, like a plague of locusts, the Great Depression swept across America devouring money and jobs and homes and property. That disaster compelled her daddy (and she says she was a daddy’s girl) to take his family to Florida in search of work. Did I mention that Joe and Helen birthed another daughter, Pat, just before they moved? Sadly, the move didn’t work out. My mother’s daddy liked to hunt. One morning he went out alone to shoot some ducks. He didn’t come home, and he didn’t come home, and he didn’t come home. Everybody was worried sick. Some men went to look for him. It wasn't long till they got the word: apparently Joe was reaching for his rifle and it fired. It hit the bull’s eye—tragically, the bull’s eye was him. He was killed on the spot. Daddy’s girl lost daddy when she was six-years-old. They had no money but by the time family and friends pitched in what they could, the family scratched just enough cash together to get back to Branson. They moved in with my mother’s grandmother and grandfather, and that’s where my mother finished growing up—in a white house with a large porch on Atlantic Avenue. Her grandparents became like second parents to her.

She graduated from Branson High School in 1946. She married Billy McCallum in 1951 (my mother called him Mack). They lived in Little Rock and started a family. David was born to them in 1953. I came along in 1956. And their third and final child, Ray, was born in 1958. I wish we had been a storybook family we appeared to be, but we were not. We were active in church. We got along with our neighbors. Both my dad and mother had good jobs. Things looked fine on the outside, but inside the family was a like a grenade with the pin pulled out. Sooner or later it was going to explode.

It exploded in 1964. I won’t go into the reasons why, but it blew our family to smithereens. My mother suffered what appeared to be a stroke. She passed out in choir at church one Sunday morning—just dropped like rock during worship. Doctors called it a nervous breakdown. The result was that she lost use of her entire right side. That’s never good under any circumstance; it’s murder if you happen to be right-handed. My mother was right-handed. Over the next few years she got better emotionally, but she never recovered her right side. If you want a picture of what it was like for her, start wiggling the fingers on your right hand while twisting your right wrist in random directions. Her right leg also moved involuntarily on her, but it was never as bad as her arm.

That was the last straw for their marriage. This all happened a few weeks before Christmas so my mother moved us three boys (in an ironic déjà vu of her own childhood) to her mother’s house in Branson on Christmas break. She told us we’d just be there for a little while so that she and daddy could work things out. I was in third grade when we moved to Branson. I graduated from Branson High School in 1974. We never moved back, and we rarely saw our daddy after that.

My mother was down as far as I would ever see her until her last days—which were very low days for her, too, but for different reasons. She could have just quit on life. She could have tried to get permanent disability. Since, by her choice, there was no money coming from my dad, she did have to get some welfare for a time. She was in one deep pit, but she didn’t stay there. With the help of her mother, a psychiatrist in Springfield, and a pastor and church in Branson, she got back on her feet again. She learned how to write left-handed (even though it was always hard to read). She learned how to drive a car again which was no small chore for a person whose right arm and right leg were of no use to her in—a hindrance rather than a help in the process. She even got back into the work force. A local lawyer from our church hired her to be his secretary. She worked for him for more than 30 years and became the fastest one-handed typist on the face of the earth. I’m a good typist but my best with two hands was slower than her best with one—her left hand no less, and on a electric typewriter without automatic margins, custom formatting, and a delete button. Incredible! (I think that must have been a God-thing.)

My mother finally retired. I don’t think she liked retirement very much. She volunteered at the local library and continued to teach the Bible in her church. She lived alone and seemed to like it that way. She always was kind of a hermit. She only got out for church and the grocery store and for occasional gatherings with some of her old classmates from the 40s. She lived a quiet life.

In her last few years dementia began to set in, and we three sons finally talked her into selling her house in Branson and moving into an assisted living complex near our youngest brother Ray and his wife Joan in Olathe, Kansas. She spent the last days of her life there. I wish I could say she died a happy person, but she did not. She usually put on her best attitude for her friends, but her sons experienced her darker side as much as anything else. She just couldn’t seem to get happy.

The last time I saw her was when we threw a little birthday party for her at her assisted living residence when she turned 80. She seemed to enjoy the day but, as always, was ready for the party to be over and for her children to go back home. She died Christmas Eve a few months later.

I wish I could say I was emotionally close to my mother, but I was not. Some of that was because of her; most of that was because of me. Sadly, she didn’t really forge emotional connections with any of her sons. Maybe it was her upbringing—her family never seemed to be emotionally connected to each other either. Maybe she’d had too much sadness in enough of her close relationships that she protected herself from future pain by avoiding the kind of intimacy that rips the heart when the relationship goes south. I don’t know. I do know I could have and should have been a better son to her.

In spite of all that, I did learn some lessons from her along the way that have shaped my life and my behavior:

Jesus provides. In spite of barely two nickels to rub together after the divorce, my mother continued to tithe whatever she had to the Lord and the church in the belief that the Lord would provide for her family's needs. We didn’t have much, but we always had enough.

Reading is a pleasure, and it’s hard to do too much of it.

Jeopardy is the greatest game show in the history of television.

Smoking stinks. She was an avid smoker till the day she died in spite of having two kinds of cancer from it. I grew up with enough second-hand smoke to kill an elephant and decided then I would never put a cigarette to my mouth.

Church is important. She loved God her whole life long and served Him in His church until her health kept her on the sideline.

It matters what one believes. My mother took a stand on orthodox theology that caused her to leave the Presbyterian church for awhile. She attended a more evangelical church instead. I was so happy, however, that in her last years in Branson her beloved Presbyterian church called a pastor that brought them back to their orthodox roots. This allowed her to go home to the church of her childhood and pretty much her whole life long.

• When your kids graduate from high school, let them go. I still remember my first night at college when I found a note she tucked into my Bible. It was her formal “letting me go” announcement with the promise that God had good things in store for me, that God would take care of me, and that I would always be in her prayers.

Those lessons have shaped my life in many ways. I suspect they are even shaping the lives of my grown kids in some ways too. And I’m grateful for what she gave me through those lessons.

Per her choice, we cremated her after her death. It always troubled her that she felt like she didn’t have a place to be buried. There was an understanding that she would get the last spot in the family plot in the old Branson cemetery. Her dad was buried there. Her aunt and uncle were buried there too. And my mother would get the fourth and last spot. But her younger sister died unexpectedly in 1987. Her sister’s family didn’t have much money to buy a plot, so she was buried in my mother’s spot—the urgency of the moment trumped the plan of a lifetime. She knew if she was cremated we wouldn’t have to buy a cemetery plot. That solved one problem but raised another: we didn’t know what to do with mother’s ashes. None of us boys really wanted to have them. So we made a few calls, got some special permission, and because she was in a small box rather than a large casket we were able to bury her ashes right next to her daddy after all. I think that would have made this daddy’s girl smile.

But what makes me smile is to know that she is with the Lord she loved, relieved of her sufferings, clear of mind, able to use that right hand again, and reunited forever with a dad she only knew for six short years on the earth. I’ll see her again there too. I will apologize for not being much of a son to her on earth. But I suspect she’ll say to me in heaven what she said to me on earth. “You were a great son. I raised you to live your life, not mine. I’ve always been so proud of you.” She’ll probably give me one of our awkward hugs. And then she’ll say something she probably wanted to say to me her whole life long but never could say until now: “John, let me introduce you to my dad.”

Happy Birthday, Mother. I can’t wait to meet him.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Small World, Big God

In 1992 my family took our one and only trip to Disney World. Our kids were pretty much the perfect age for it: twelve and ten. And we had a great time—saw some neat stuff, rode some cool rides, ate some incredibly expensive food. (I don’t know what it is that increases the value of a hamburger to 8 bucks just because it’s served in the Magic Kingdom … but I digress.) Anyway, back to the rides. Some were a lot of fun, but one was really annoying. If you’ve been there you may have found it annoying too. I think it’s called “Small World.” It’s just a little boat ride through a meandering stream with small characters hanging out along the route. That part was boring. This part was annoying: over and over and over and over and over and over they played the song, It’s a Small World After All. Talk about engaging lyrics: “It’s a small world after all. It’s a small world after all. It’s a small world after all. It’s a small world after all.” Profound, huh? Did I mention that they played it over and over and over and over and over? It’s a trick, I think, to drive parents crazy. Not only do they bore you to death, they weld that squirrelly little song to your brain so that it keeps playing there long after you’ve exited the ride. It’s been eighteen years since I heard it and it’s still in my head. Maybe I need medication. Maybe I just need to punch Mickey Mouse in the nose. But the song is still rattling around somewhere in my head. I will say this, however: the message of the song is spot on. It is a small world after all.

That was once again brought home to me a couple of weeks ago. Every year our church holds a mission celebration—five of my favorite days of the year. We invite missionaries from all over the world to join us. We try to encourage them and learn from them. We get them with as many of our people as possible during those days. We mingle them with our young and our old and every age in between. It seems they are all stricken with a serious case of mission fever, so we mingle them with our folks in the hope that we'll catch the fever too. Jesus told the church to go into the world and make disciples of all nations; our church is under the impression that He was talking to us. So we go on lots of mission trips, do a lot of mission work in our own city, and spend some quality time with our missionaries. When you go on mission trips and when you spend time with missionaries the world gets smaller. You can’t hardly look at a map anymore without thinking, “That’s where Rusty and Lori live. And Harriet lives there. And Rodney and Diana live in that country.” It makes the world smaller.

So we enjoy having the missionaries with us each year. I always get a kick out of listening to them describe crazy things they have had to eat on the mission field. This year one of our missionaries from East Asia talked about being served something kind of nasty. Not wanting to offend his host, he ate it. He said he kept thinking as he was trying to choke it down that it tasted just like poo. Come to find out, he was eating animal rectum. (Pause here while you go throw up.) Another ate this fermented crud (something like rotten potatoes) that these South American Indians bury in a hole in the ground and leave there until it would knock a buzzard off a gut wagon. They call that mess a delicacy, but if you’ve got a delicate stomach, I wouldn’t touch it with a ten-foot fork. Some food, huh? And I’m only scratching the surface here. Many of our missionaries work in impoverished cultures where, unlike we wasteful Americans, the locals won’t waste one thing on any animal they kill for food. How about eating the fat out of a cow’s horn? Yes, they do that too. I’ve been served some interesting things on the mission field, but nothing quite like what I’ve mentioned here. And honestly, I’m not sure I love Jesus enough to eat some of the stuff that our missionaries have forced themselves to chew and swallow. They do it in an effort to gain credibility for them and the gospel. I'm embarrassed to admit it but I don't think I could do that. I’m so picky with American food that I didn’t start eating broccoli till I was 30, and here in my 50s I just started eating mushrooms and asparagus and red peppers. Still, listening to them talk about these crazy foods seems to make the world smaller too. You look at a map and think, “That’s where Jim and Linda eat animal rectum.” Yum, yum! The more we know about cultures the smaller the world becomes.

But while it’s entertaining to hear missionary menus, the most compelling thing we hear is their God and people stories. Let me tell you one that made a deep impression on me. I can’t tell you the real name of the missionary because he serves in a dangerous area. We’ll call him James. Much of James’ job is to develop strategies to reach groups untouched by the gospel. Some of that includes training local believers to reach their own people for Jesus. James was invited to provide this kind of training for a particular group in a particular city. Due to another commitment, James was unable to go. Not wanting to miss the opportunity, however, James sent a couple of local believers who work with him to go in his place and do the training. Somehow word got out about the meeting and when James’ friends arrived there, they were met by a fundamentalist group of the local religion (not Islam by the way). This group brought baseball bats along. They broke up the meeting. They broke up James’ friends too. They clubbed them with baseball bats. They cursed them and spat upon them and dragged them through the streets. Then they separated them, moved them to different parts of the city, stole their cell phones, and abandoned them in those isolated spots beat up, alone, and unable to contact anyone who could help them.

When James heard this story, he was both sad and angry. As James put it, “It’s a hard thing to know you sent someone to take the beating that was meant for you.” When James finally got to speak with one of his friends who had been persecuted (we’ll call him Hadji), James said, “I told him that I was praying that God would drop hellfire and brimstone on those men who brutalized him.” But Hadji didn’t concur. He said, “Remember, James: before Paul was a missionary, he was a persecutor of the church. I’m praying that God would save them and make them followers of Jesus and lovers of the church.” Needless to say, James felt duly put in his place by the trajectory of Hadji’s prayer compared to his own.

Just a couple of weeks before James came back to the States for a break, Hadji gave him a call. It seems that Hadji was going back to the same city where he had been beaten and persecuted. He was going back to offer the training that had been so rudely interrupted the first time he tried it. And guess what Hadji told him. “James,” he said, “I’ll be training one of the men who beat me up.”

For some reason, hearing a story like that makes the world smaller for me. I have read numerous persecution stories but to listen to a man who lives it draws me closer to the action. Now, when I hear other stories of persecution, I’ll think of James and Hadji and pray for all our brothers and sisters who pay a sometimes severe price for following Jesus. See what I mean? It sort of makes the world a little smaller.

But listening to missionaries does something even better: it makes God a lot bigger. What a large God we serve—big enough to work both sides of this story. God gave Hadji the grace to forgive the men who brutalized him. And God gave one of those persecutors the grace to save him from his sins and draw him into faith and life and the very church he tried to destroy. That’s some big God. Small world? Yes. Big God? Absolutely!

It sort of changes that Disney tune rolling around in my head: “He’s a big God after all. He’s a big God after all. He’s a big God after all. He’s a big God after all.” And I don’t know about you, but I like that tune much better.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

I Fouled

I play a lot of pick-up basketball. Our rules are pretty simple—basic basketball rules except for these: we play to 20, got to win by 2, and we call our own fouls. It’s that last rule that can get a little tricky. The burden is on the defensive player. You can’t call the foul if you’re the foul-ee, only if you’re the foul-er. Usually I play with a pretty good group of guys who don’t hesitate to call a foul on themselves when they do the dirty deed. But now and then, there will be a guy in the group who has never committed a foul in his life. He hacks the shooter—no call: “All ball!” he protests. He knocks a guy down trying to steal the ball in the open floor—no call: “Incidental contact!” he shouts. Yet this same guy is quick to point out when he thinks somebody fouled him. I can be as competitive as the next guy, but basketball just isn’t much fun when you play with a guy like that. And what’s funny about it all is that there is absolutely nothing on the line in these pick-up games. No NBA scouts are present. No bets are down. Nothing on the line but a little male ego. And yet some guys just won’t call a foul on themselves.

That’s what makes Sunday’s finish at the Verizon Heritage Golf Tournament so remarkable. Brian Davis was in a playoff with PGA tour veteran Jim Furyk. Here’s what was at stake for Davis: his first PGA win, a first-place check of over a million bucks, and a two-year exemption on the tour. We’re talking life-changing, career-making, financial-quaking stakes. It was his for the taking. But Davis called a foul on himself as he tried to hit his ball out of a hazard. Apparently, he just brushed a reed the least little bit on his backswing. Under the rules of golf, that’s a penalty stroke. Nobody noticed. Nobody would have called a foul on Davis. Nobody would have been the wiser. But Davis called it on himself. There’s a word for that: integrity. The difference in pay checks for first and second place in that tournament was right around $400,000. So we know that Brian Davis is a man of honor and that his integrity is worth more to him than 400 grand.

Golf is different than others sports. They all pay referees to call the fouls. Yet even then, how many times have you seen a basketball player groan and flop to draw a charge against his opponent whether it’s a charge or not? And how many times have you seen a receiver trap the football on the turf but get up strutting around as if he made a legal catch? They’re trying to cheat the system, trying to fool the refs. It’s sort of like operating on the principle that something is only wrong if you get caught. Well, nobody caught Brian Davis; he caught himself. He turned himself in. And he lost a lot of tangible rewards in the process.

A friend of mine sent me a link on this story and she raised an interesting point. She wondered if she could call a foul on herself. Could you? I heard someone bragging the other day that she had been to a fast-food drive-through and the clerk gave her a dollar too much in change. “Did you tell the clerk?” asked her friend. “Are you kidding?” she asked. "It’s the clerk’s fault, not mine.” I guess her integrity is worth less than a dollar to her.

It’s kind of sad, isn’t it? Sad that we’ll sell our integrity so cheap. Sad that far too many of us just won’t call a foul on ourselves. In his report of the Davis story, Brian Murphy recounted a quote from Bobby Jones, one of golf’s greatest legends. Someone once complimented Jones on calling a penalty on himself, and Jones replied, “You’d just as soon congratulate a man on not robbing a bank.” Think about that for a second: when was the last time you complimented someone for not robbing a bank? For Jones such integrity was expected. In our day, such integrity comes as both a startling and refreshing surprise. That’s sad too.

If you want to live a life of integrity, realize that it works itself out in the little choices we make every day: keeping our word, not taking what doesn’t belong to us, putting in a full day’s work for a full day’s pay, telling the truth, counting all our strokes—even the penalty ones. Get in the habit of showing integrity in the little day to day things, and integrity will rise to the top in the big things too.

Like when then President Harry Truman, fighting strong opposition from the South, and even fighting his own prejudices, came to this conclusion in regard to the random, senseless violence and blatantly unfair treatment against blacks. Wrote Truman to one of his critics: "I can't approve of such goings on and I shall never approve of it, as long as I am here …. I am going to try to remedy it and if that ends up in my failure to be reelected, that failure will be in a good cause." Integrity.

Or like when a Georgia high school basketball coach named Cleveland Stroud, whose team won the state championship a few years ago, willingly relinquished it after discovering that a kid who was scholastically ineligible had played 45 seconds in the first of the school's five post-season games. Said Stroud, "We didn't know he was ineligible at the time; we didn't know until a few weeks ago. Some people have said that we should have just kept quiet about it, that it was just 45 seconds and the player wasn't an impact player. But you've got to do what's honest and right … I told my team that people forget the scores of basketball games; they don't ever forget what you're made of." Integrity.

Or like when a professional golfer named Brian Davis called a foul on himself. That's integrity too.

The Bible says, “The integrity of the upright guides them …" (Prov. 11:3). Brian Davis’ simple act on Sunday guides me too. It calls me to examine myself, to ask myself what I would do in a similar situation. I hope, like Davis, I would do the right thing. I hope I would let my integrity guide me. And one way I'll know if it’s working is when I have the courage to say, “I fouled.”

Monday, April 12, 2010

Life's Sure Things

I bought a large Sonic drink the other day at the Sonic just across the bridge on Airport Road. It cost me two bucks. And I smiled because when I buy that same drink in town it costs me two bucks and ten cents. Why the difference? Tax. Hot Springs has this tourist and entertainment tax in the city limits. And what a tax! Ten cents difference against a two dollar drink. As I handed the car-hop my two bucks, guess what song was cranking on my mp3 player: Taxman by the Beatles. Well, not really—I made that part up. But I did think about that song. George Harrison wrote the lyrics. Here are some of the words:

Let me tell you how it will be:
There’s one for you, nineteen for me
‘Cause I’m the taxman,
Yeah, I’m the taxman.

Should five percent appear too small,
Be thankful I don’t take it all,
‘Cause I’m the taxman,
Yeah, I’m the taxman.

If you drive a car I’ll tax the street.
If you try to sit I’ll tax your seat.
If you get too cold I’ll tax your heat.
If you take a walk I’ll tax your feet.

If you get a head I’ll tax your hat.
If you get a pet I’ll tax your cat.
If you wipe your feet I’ll tax your mat.
If you’re overweight I’ll tax your fat.

And you’re working for no one but me.
Yes, I’m the taxman,
Yeah, I’m the taxman.

It’s tax time. (Honestly, it’s always tax time in the USA, but you know what I mean.) Unless you file for an extension, the United States government is expecting an accounting of your finances for the year 2009 no later than April 15—just a couple of days from now. And even if you get an extension, sooner of later you still have to settle things with the taxman. Nobody much likes it. Everybody I know (who doesn’t work for the government) feels like we are taxed too much. And with the deluge of red ink on our government’s books in addition to billions of dollars in proposed new spending, it’s hard to imagine taxes not going up. Some wonder if it will finally get to the point where the old joke about the new simplified tax form will cease being a joke and start becoming reality. You remember that joke? The new simplified tax form has only two lines—Line 1: What did you make? Line 2: Send it in. “And you’re working for no one but me. Yeah, I’m the taxman.” Thank you, George Harrison—musician, composer, and prophet.

Taxes are nothing new, you know. Pretty much every society in history has had some form of taxation. The Bible doesn’t say a whole lot about taxes really. It just seems to assume that taxes are a reality of life in this world. Once some lawyers asked Jesus a question: “Master, is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” It was a trick question; it was like cheese in a mousetrap and Jesus was the mouse. Any way Jesus answered it He was going to offend somebody … well any way but the way He answered it. Jesus asked to see a coin. One of the lawyers reached in his pocket and produced one. “Whose picture is on the coin?” Jesus asked.

“Caesar’s,” the lawyer replied.

“Then what’s the problem?” asked Jesus. “Give Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give God what belongs to God.” Here was Jesus’ big chance to pontificate on the subject of taxation, and instead of doing that, He basically said, “Pay your taxes to Caesar because your money is stamped with Caesar’s image, but give God your whole life because your life is stamped with God’s image.” That’s Jesus’ take.

And Paul isn’t much help either for those who want to build some kind of Bible case against taxes. In Romans 13 he writes that if you owe taxes you need to pay up. The authorities in place are God’s servants whether you like them or not, agree with them or not. Gripe if you want. Try to change the system if that lights your fire. But here’s the bottom-line when it comes to the Bible’s take on taxes: pay up or face the consequences. It seems the old saying is spot on: taxes are one of life’s sure things.

And death is the other. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard that in my life: “John, there are only two sure things in life: death and taxes.” What’s interesting is that some of us spend more time discussing and prepping for taxes than we do getting ready for death. Both are forms of accounting. Taxes are a kind of temporal accounting; death is an eternal accounting. And when it comes to this eternal accounting there are no refunds, no lawyers to plead your case, no chance of getting the ruling reversed. God does the judging and He has all the facts. God already knows where all your receipts are and what they say. God knows your deeds, your thoughts, your words. And God will hold you accountable for them too.

This would be discouraging and frightening if not for one thing: Jesus. Because God loves us and because He knows that death is one of life’s sure things, God has done something about our death problem. He sent His only Son Jesus. Jesus left the glories of heaven to become flesh. He lived a human life. He was tempted in all ways just as we are but He never sinned. And because He didn’t have any sin of His own, He could bear our sin in His body on the cross. So if you’ll trust that what Jesus did on the cross He did for you, God will put your sin on Jesus’ account, clear your account, and save you from sin’s penalty and power. As Paul put it to the Corinthians, “He who knew no sin became sin so that we might become the righteousness of God.” Sounds sort of like God was cooking the books in our favor, huh? Well, God loves us and is determined to save us if we’ll open our hearts to Him. That means we no longer have to fear death because it gives way to eternal life. We’ll still give an accounting of our lives, but hell is no longer in the balance. Our Advocate (dare I say Lawyer) Jesus has saved us from that fate through the mercies of God.

When you know Jesus has taken care of life’s sure thing called death, you can face your death with hope and confidence. I still remember telling Ed McWha, emaciated with cancer, what was in store for him in heaven, and do you know what he did? He raised his stick-arm and with what little strength he had left, said, “Wooohooo!” And when my Uncle Doc was told he probably had a few days unless he tried this special kind of treatment which may or may not help, he said, “I’m an old man. God has given me a good life. I know where I’m going and I intend to die with a smile on my face.” I don’t know if Uncle Doc ever smiled at tax time, but he sure did at death time. Why? Because He knew Jesus had made accounting for Him.

So there are two sure things in life: death and taxes. Neither one we look forward to but both we can be prepared for. So get a good accountant for your taxes. And trust the crucified, resurrected Jesus for your death. With April 15 just a couple of days away, I hope you’re prepared for tax day. And since you never know what day death is going to come for his accounting, I encourage you to get prepared for that day today.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

April Fools!

I learned this week that the best time to play an April Fools joke is not on April 1. Everybody sees it coming. Everybody’s a skeptic on April 1. “Your shoe’s untied.” On 364 days of the year you’re going to check, but on April 1, you just scoff at the remark on move on. Your wife calls and says, “Now don’t lose it, honey, but I just backed into a pole at work and put a big dent in the fender.” On 364 days of the year, your temperature might rise, but on April 1 you just play along. Or maybe you get a message at work that says, “Call Mr. Lyon or Mr. Baer at 555-1212.” You know when you call the number, the voice on the other end is going to say, “Little Rock Zoo.” Ha, ha, ha. On April 1 everybody’s either a clown or a skeptic. God help the woman who finds out she’s pregnant on that day. Who’s going to believe her when she makes the big announcement? If you want to play an April Fools joke on somebody, wait a few days.

That’s what Ken did to me. Here’s the deal: some folks in our city held a This Is Your Life party for Jerry, a man I dearly love. He just retired from the work he did in behalf of our community. People wanted to express their appreciation so they threw him a party and gathered various people from his past and present to make roast and toast presentations. I was one of the presenters. The thing was supposed to begin at 7:00 that evening. I figured it would take an hour, hour-and-a-half at the outside. Wrong! It didn’t even crank up till almost 7:30. There were a lot of presenters. There was an intermission. My part was on the backside of the intermission. It was after 9:00 before I did my thing, and there were still several more presenters on the program. Hamlet had his question; I had mine: "To stay or not to stay?” And in my mind I did my own soliloquy: "Whether ‘tis nobler to suffer the slings and arrows of bugging out before it’s over, thus risking hurt feelings and looking bad … or to get the heck out of there so I could eat some supper and watch the end of Butler vs. Duke. To stay, perchance to leave … sitting through more presenters for another hour or enjoying basketball and food? The conscience does make cowards of us all."

But I screwed up my courage and left anyway. I felt pretty guilty about it on the drive home, and that guilt lasted about as long as it took me to make a very berry smoothie and half a peanut butter and honey sandwich. Once I sat down with my food to watch the basketball game, I forgot about my guilt.

But I forgot something else too. I had turned off my phone before I made my presentation and forgot to turn it back on when I was done. In fact, I didn’t turn it back on till the next morning as I was heading to my 6:30 men’s group. And soon as I turned it on, a text message popped up. It was from Ken. He, too, had attended the roast and toast event the night before. This was his message: “Well, it’s over. They made a group picture of the presenters, and you missed it.” Huh? They did what? My heart sunk. I had let down Jerry. I imagined him happily surrounded by all the presenters and then noticing my absence. “John? Where’s John? Anybody seen John? You know, my pastor. Did he not stay to the end?” Ouch! I can be so self-centered sometimes—so me-first. So I spent the drive to my men’s group that morning berating myself, thinking about how I probably hurt my friend’s feelings, how it made me look bad and selfish, and how I would word my apology to Jerry when I saw him later that day. To make matters worse some of our discussion in the men’s group dealt with self-centeredness. And I don’t know why I did it, but I made a confession to the group of my selfish sin from the night before.

When the group was over, I called my wife: “Well, I’m a first-class jerk,” I told her (not the first time she’s heard that confession). I told her about Ken's text message, about missing the group picture. “You didn’t!” she said.

“I did.”

“What are you going to do?”

“I’ll apologize (maybe rationalize is a better word). I’ll tell him I hadn’t had supper and that I wanted to watch the end of the basketball game. And that if I had it to do over again, I’d certainly stay. And if I’d known there was going to be a group picture I wouldn’t have even thought about leaving early.” I couldn't see her, but I could feel her shaking her head on the other end of the phone.

I was feeling pretty low when about an hour later, I ran into Ken, the friend who had sent me the text. “Ken,” I said. “Man, I didn’t turn my phone back on till this morning and I just got your text. I can’t believe I missed the group picture.”

He grinned like a Cheshire cat. “You didn’t miss anything. I was just pulling your chain for leaving early.”

Hook, line, and sinker! Pranked. Punked. Had but good. And this time: glad of it! If he had tried that on April 1, I would have been a skeptic, wouldn’t have believed him. But on April 5—hook, line, and sinker. I was an April fool.

This little experience got me to thinking about what the Bible has to say about fools. It says quite a bit actually—especially in the wisdom literature, most of all in Proverbs. I’m not very good at math but I think I counted 43 times in Proverbs where the author talks about fools. It’s not a pretty picture. Here's a quick summary: fools find pleasure in evil; they have diarrhea of the mouth; they’re short-tempered; they spurn daddy’s discipline and refuse to take advice; they exalt self; they don’t learn from their mistakes; they’re really bad with money; and they love to share their own opinion on pretty much everything. Fools are servants to the wise, and the only time anyone thinks them wise is when they shut their big fat mouths. Hardly a flattering portrait, huh?

The Psalms mention the fool a few times too. In both Psalm 14 and 53 we learn that “the fool says in his heart that there is no God.” When everything in nature and even your own conscience screams “God,” to deny the obvious and say there is no God is … well, foolish. The Old Testament has a very low regard for fools.

And the New Testament echoes the same sentiment. Jesus tells the story about a man who harvests bumper crops, and instead of sharing his bounty with those in need, he decides to build bigger barns to hold the surplus. "Now, I can even take early retirement!" he exults. He didn't invite God to his retirement party, but God shows up anyway and tells him he’s going to have a short retirement because death is knocking on his door. And do you know what God calls him? “You fool.” He’s a fool for storing up things for himself rather than being rich toward God. The word is fool.

Jesus also uses that word in the Sermon on the Mount. He’s talking about murder and anger and how we treat others and said, “But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.” Wow! "You fool” must be the mother of all insults in God’s view.

So it’s April. A lot of us have already been April fools—the victims of somebody’s funny little prank. No big deal in the greater scheme of things. Ha, ha, ha—let’s just laugh it off and move on. But there’s another kind of foolishness that is no laughing matter. And that's being a fool in the sense the Bible describes it. If you’ve been playing that kind of fool, don't you think it's time to wise up—to believe in God, to practice His ways? And this April day would be a very good day to start.

Friday, April 2, 2010

An Easter Reflection on Death

Rising out of Hades like smoke from a smoldering fire,
roaming the earth with sickle in hand,
reaping one person after another
with no respect for age or race or creed or position,
Death has done his dirty work.
Death: an equal opportunity destroyer.

But descending from heaven came One
who had the courage and power
to look Death in the eye and say "No!"

"No! You can't have Jairus' daughter. Get up, child!”
And she did!

"No! You can't have this widow's son.
Come out of the casket, boy,
and kiss away your mama's tears."
And he did!

"No! Not even four days' death can seal your grip.
Lazarus, come forth!"
And he did!

It seemed as if Death had met has match.

Until …

Until one Friday.
A crown of thorns.
Nails in hands and feet.
"Crucified," they called it.
And with his ever insatiable appetite,
Death swallowed up
the One who had spit in his eye;
the only One who had been able to say "No!" to him
and have His way.

Jesus: dead and buried:
stone cold dead,
dead as the nails they pounded through His hands and feet.
Dead—no heartbeat, no pulse, no breath. Dead.
And buried:
hastily wrapped in death rags
and layed in a borrowed tomb—
a tomb sealed with a heavy stone.

Stick a fork in Him;
He's done.

Now Death, drunk with power,
reclined in his Lay-Z-Boy
after his best day at work.
Wine glass in hand,
he offered himself a toast:
"To me!" he said.
"I am more powerful than God!
I have done battle with His Son,
and won the victory!"

Oh, really?

Think again, Death.
Sunday dawned,
and God stomped so hard on Death
that the earth shook,
and the stone rolled away.
And from an empty tomb an angel said
to women who had come to anoint Jesus' dead body:
"Why do you seek the living among the dead?
"He is not here;
"He is risen, just as He said."

Death is swallowed up in victory!
And we who know the Victor share in the spoil of His war.
So Jesus, not Death, gets the last word,
and that word is "Eternal Life."
For Death has met his match,
he's lost his stinger,
and all the power of Death is dead.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Saved by a Tree

Jesse Howard is not his real name, but his story is as real as it gets. Howard is middle-aged and works as an employment counselor. In his younger days, he was captivated by the party scene. It was not uncommon for him to spend every Friday night gulping wine and beer and shots of other liquor on the side. In reflecting on those days Howard called himself “young, drunk, and stupid.”

Then, after a string of ten automobile accidents in which he was driving or riding under the influence, Howard learned that well-rooted trees along curved country roads will usually win the battle even when challenged by the most determined of station wagons. Howard was sitting in the front passenger seat of a car that cornered like a four-wheel barge when a friend who was driving rammed into a hardwood more than 100 years old. “That whole night has a lot of blanks in it,” Howard says. “One thing I remember is waking up for awhile and not being able to breathe.”

The next day Howard found himself in the intensive care unit of a hospital with a stabbing pain in the right side of his chest and a tube coming out of his nose. He was remotely aware that he had been in a car wreck. He tried to talk, but he felt he could not get his lips to move. In the next few days, Howard learned that the force of the collision had broken several ribs and ripped a hole in his right lung. That injury and numerous cuts, abrasions and bruises dang near killed him. “I was young, drunk, and stupid,” he says. “I should have been killed. I deserved it.”

Howard used this near-death experience to reflect on his lifestyle, and he determined to make some major changes. He quit drinking altogether. He seldom goes to parties anymore. And when his job requires party attendance, he drinks only flavored water. He much prefers his new lifestyle, he says. There’s less hypocrisy and less game-playing than he experienced in the party scene. He’s much more content than he’s ever been in his life. As Howard puts it, “I can’t say I’m all that proud, but I guess I have that tree to thank.”

Jesse Howard was saved from who-knows-what by a tree—“I guess I have that tree to thank” he says.

On this Good Friday, I want to say a word of thanks about a tree as well. But this is no sprawling oak or hickory tree—no hundred-year-old hardwood. The trunk of this tree is no thicker than a fence post, and it has no branches reaching up to the sky. It has but one branch, really—a branch stretching out across the trunk creating the crude shape of a cross.

There is no beauty in this tree. Photographers do not fight to get its picture. Birds do not nest in its crook. No one seeks its shade. It is an odd little tree—marred by spike holes and stained with blood. Set next to a California redwood or an Arkansas pine this little tree would blush with embarrassment.

But this is the tree that saved my life. Well, not the tree so much, but the One who was nailed on it and left to die. We’re talking about the cross of Christ—the cross on which Jesus suffered and died for your sins and for mine, paying our sin debt, breaking the bondage of our slavery to our worst impulses and darkest thoughts.

Jesus did that for us on a tree—the tree that saves our lives. Jesus' death on the cross offers us salvation in so many ways.

We are saved from a life whose greatest accomplishment is summed up in terms of the size of a fish, the winning of a prize, a particular golf score, financial independence, a promotion in the company, or the applause of others. Because of what Christ did on the cross, our lives can have lasting value and meaning and purpose. Rather than being so earthbound, we can live in and for eternity, doing things on earth that really matter, like sharing Christ and ministering to others and worshiping the Lord. Jesus death on the cross is our salvation.

He saves us from living in the prison of sin’s power, a slave to the temptations that knock at our door. Now, when pride or lust or greed or any other sins that once controlled our lives come to lure us into their seductive embrace again, we can show them the door in the name of Christ. We can say, “Go away and leave me alone. There’s a new Ruler on the throne of my life and you can’t have me anymore.” Jesus’ death on the cross is our salvation in so many ways.

And when we come to that last day when we stand before the judgment seat of God, we need have no fear, for we will be standing in the presence of a Friend, an Advocate. We will know Him by the nail prints in His hands. We will know Him by His sweet voice that declares, “This is one of mine I died for on that tree. Enter into the joy of eternal life.”

Jesse Howard claims that he was saved from being young, drunk, and stupid, by a tree. Thank God for that tree. Jesse’s life is much, much better now. But on this Good Friday I thank God for another tree. This is the tree that can save us from being lost, spiritually dead, and holding a one-way ticket to hell. That tree is the cross—that old bloody cross where Jesus died so that we might have the life that is really life, a life that lasts forever. Let us remember that tree and give God thanks. It may not change colors in the fall. It may not shelter a family of robins in the spring. It doesn’t produce a single thing to eat. But there’s never been a tree in all the earth that matters more.