Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Like Sand Through the Hourglass

Some time ago I stumbled across this anonymous take on the journey of life:

"Life is tough. It takes up a lot of your time, all your weekends, and what do you get at the end of it? I think that life is all backward. You should die first and get it out of the way. Then you live twenty years in an old-age home. You get kicked out when you’re too young. You get a gold watch, you go to work. You work forty years until you’re young enough to enjoy your retirement. You go to college; you party until you’re ready for high school; you go to grade school; you become a little kid; you play. You have no responsibilities. You become a little baby; you go back into the womb; you spend your last nine months floating; and you finish up as a gleam in somebody’s eye."

Nice, huh? But reality works our journey in the other direction: we are born, we live our years whether few or many, and we die. A popular soap opera opens their show with these words: “Like sand through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives.”

I’ve been thinking about that sand through the hour glass a lot these days because of what’s been going on in my own life. In the month of June alone, I’ve officiated three weddings and four funerals; I’ve led a Parent-Child Dedication Service for three sets of parents and their new babies; I attended a surprise party for my son’s 30th birthday; I’ve spent time with a guy who was in my youth group from ’79-‘81—he is now 48 years old and a grandfather; I attended a 36-year high school class get-together and my in-laws’ 55th anniversary party. That's a lot of hellos and goodbyes and blasts from the past. Like sand through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives.

That’s life. Time rolls on and waits for no one. Columnist Charley Reese once wrote: “When each human being is born, God opens a checking account in his name and makes a single deposit. The currency is more valuable than gold or platinum. It’s time. No deposits are allowed. No interest is paid. The most intriguing thing about it is we are never allowed to know the balance in our accounts. We just write checks on it until suddenly one day we are notified that the balance is zero and the account is closed.” So true.

But it seems like we don’t appreciate the brevity of life until we get a few years behind us. Not long ago I was visiting via Facebook with a high school friend and we got to chatting about the time we were flying up highway 65 as he was trying to see how fast his Opal Cadet could go. By the time we hit around 100 mph, the car started shaking and rattling. Until he got it slowed down, we both were pretty sure we were going to crash and die. Until that moment I sort of assumed I would live forever. I'm too old to think that anymore. And so are many of you reading this. When we look around and see people we knew in their youth now middle-aged, when we see children we rocked rocking children of their own, when we see some of our peers already in the grave, and a generation we looked up to pretty much dead and gone, it's a bit sobering. It’s sobering to become part of the “terminal generation”—the generation standing at the front of the line at the cemetery gate.

Most people get to this point with some unfulfilled dreams and a few regrets. Knowing we can’t hit the rewind button and don’t get any do-overs for days gone by can feel a little heavy on the soul. And there’s really no antidote for it. We can’t change the past. But we can do some things. We can be grateful for the many good things in the past. We can give thanks that God works for good in all things and has a way of turning our bumbles into blessings. And we can do this too: we can embrace the present. The psalmist said, “This the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it.” We can do that. We can do that day by day through the sunshine and the rain. We can embrace the present in the confidence that God meets us there. Someone once said, “The past is history, the future is mystery, today is a gift—that’s why they call it the present.” So receive the gift of today. Give thanks for it. Rejoice in it. Make the most of it. Don’t just exist today, live today. Look and feel and listen and taste and smell and pray and whistle a little and sing some. Endure your troubles, enjoy your blessings. Hug those closest to you. Speak life into someone who needs you. Lift up someone who has fallen. Do the right thing even if it’s the hard thing. Live today. Like sand through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives. For all you know, there may only be a few grains of sand left to fall. So live today.

And as you do, remember this: if you know Jesus, when that last grain of sand falls from the top of the hourglass to the pile at the bottom, the end of your life on earth is but the beginning of your life in heaven—that place where we no longer mark time with clocks or calendars and where hourglasses are turned on their sides, that place where hardships are gone and rejoicing comes easy. That place where, as C. S. Lewis so aptly put it: all the adventures we have ever had will end up being only “the cover and the title page.” Finally we will begin “Chapter One of the Great Story, which no one on earth has read; which goes on forever; in which every chapter is better than the one before.”

Praise the Lord: that day is coming. But until that day, whether you've got more sand in the bottom of the hourglass or the top, remember to live today.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

On Fathers and the Father

A man once told me that he won’t go to church on Father’s Day. “Oh, really,” I said. “Did you lose your dad and being in church on Father’s Day reminds you of your grief?”

“Nothing like that,” he replied. “It’s the discrimination.”

“What? Discrimination? What do you mean ‘discrimination’?”

“Well, on Mother’s Day every mother gets a rose. On Father’s Day every father gets a lecture: ‘Do this! Do that! You’re missing the boat. You’ve got to do better.’ Discrimination!”

I suspect he’s got a point. But the word is probably not discrimination; the word is complication. Being a father is a complex thing. We know we’re important; we’re just not sure exactly what we’re supposed to do. We know we’re supposed to pass out cigars when the baby comes. We know we’re supposed to make sure the kid has shelter and diapers. We know we’re supposed to open the jar lids that get stuck and kill the bugs and spiders that sneak into the house. We know we’re supposed to teach them how to ride a bike and throw a baseball. We know we’re supposed to take them to church, discipline them when they get out of line, teach them how to be responsible with money, show them some level of affection, help them pay their way through college, and then let them go when they find Mr. or Miss Right. It’s complicated. And since there’s no book I know of called Daddy for Dummies, some of us just kind of figure it out as we go along. If you’re like me, you depended a lot on their mother to make sure they turned out okay. Complicated.

But oh so powerful in the life of a child! Roger Thompson put it this way: “If you were a piece of paper held up to the light, we would see a water mark on your soul that has the name of your dad on it.” I’ll never forget watching an episode of the documentary Moon Shot in which one of my childhood heroes, Alan Shepherd, described a conversation he had with his father after the Apollo 14 moon landing. “Son,” said his father, “do you remember in 1959 when you told me you were going to be an astronaut, and I told you I was against it? Well, I was wrong.” There’s really nothing all that striking in that comment. We fathers give bad counsel now and then to our kids—sometimes we get it right and sometimes we get it wrong. That’s life. What was striking, though, about Shepherd’s telling of this story is that as he concluded it, his eyes began to well with tears and he couldn’t speak. Here was a now-retired, larger than life American hero, first American in space, a man who had stood on the face of the moon, a man of immense courage and daring, getting all choked up as he talked about this backdoor blessing he received from his father. See what I mean? Powerful and complicated.

So let me encourage you fathers today to set aside the complexity of your role and to use the power of this relationship to bless your children. Even if your example isn’t so good and even if no one’s going to be nominating you for Father of the Year, find a way to bless your kids. They need it. They yearn for it. Only you have the power to do it. I don’t know why this is so, but it is so. And oddly enough some of the joy your children will feel in your blessing will bounce back to you.

Oh, and one other thing: when you’re struggling with the complexity and the power of your father-role, remember this: you're not alone. You’ve got help in heaven—Someone who understands, Someone who sympathizes, Someone who is with you and for you, Someone who can show you the way and bless you with the wisdom, patience, and strength to do your job well. Jesus told us how to get hold of Him. He said, “And when you pray say, ‘Our Father …’”—a pretty remarkable metaphor when you think about it, huh?

Monday, June 14, 2010

Old Glory

On June 14, 1777, the Second Continental Congress authorized the United States of America to adopt a flag to represent the new nation. And while President Woodrow Wilson called for the celebration of the American flag on June 14, 1916, it wasn’t until 1949 that Congress declared June 14 to be national Flag Day every year.

But you’d hardly know it. Flag Day is on most calendars but it is not a national holiday. The government conducts business, banks are open, the postal service is still going to deliver your mail. Groundhog Day gets more press than Flag Day. Perhaps if Flag Day had a living symbol, like Punxsutawney Phil, rather than a piece of cloth, Flag Day would get a little more hype.

But in some ways, that red, white, and blue piece of cloth we call our flag is a living symbol. At least it is for me. It lives in my present as I see it flapping in the breeze over a few local businesses, at the post office, and even on one of those stubby little poles people set into a small bracket on their front porch. I also see it a few times each week in the form of a pin tacked to someone’s lapel. (This being an election year and all, I see it on lapels more than usual.) And of course, you can’t watch a sporting event on TV without seeing the flag and listening to some celebrity sing The Star Spangled Banner before the first pitch or the kickoff or the opening tip. So the flag lives in my present.

And it lives in my past through my memories. There are pictures in my mind that are filled with the flag.

• The thrill in elementary school of getting to raise and lower the flag for a week, handling it as if it were a precious, fragile family heirloom (and it is).

• The first time I saw the flag flying at half-mast. I saw it flying that way at my school after John F. Kennedy was assassinated. I was only in the second grade at the time and didn’t understand all that was going on, but that flag at half-mast told me that something wasn’t right.

• Then there’s Neil Armstrong and company planting the flag on the moon.

• Newsreels in the late ‘60s of protesters setting fire to the flag in anger over the war or politics or who knows what. I’d be less than honest if I didn’t say that seeing those images set me on fire a little bit too. I couldn’t understand why anyone would do such a thing. I still don’t. I could understand angry Iranians burning our flag when they took our people hostage in 1979, but our own citizens setting it ablaze? Go figure.

• I remember the first picture I saw of my older brother after he joined the Marine Corps. There he was in his uniform and behind him, the American flag he had sworn to defend with his life. It made me proud.

• Who can forget the flag planted and waving on the ruins of the World Trade Center in 2001, and then the miniature flags displayed on countless cars and trucks in the months after 9/11?

• Or the numerous flag-draped coffins rolling off those massive military transport planes during times of war.

• And on a more personal note, I have often stood next to flag-draped coffins at graveside services I officiated. Retired soldiers folding it with such reverence, the slow-motion salute as they present it to the family, the ear-ringing 21 rifle shots, and the playing of Taps.

• What about the flag raised behind an American athlete who just won Olympic gold and the tears in her eyes as she mouths the words to our national anthem?

• Then there’s the first flag I see when I get off the plane that brought me home from some mission point in Africa or Russia or Europe or Latin America. It reminds me that I’m home.

I could go on—so many images and memories of the flag. I hope my memories have sparked some of your own. America has never been a perfect country, and there are plenty of things wrong in our country today, but through it all the flag sort of ties us together. It remains, in spite of our many differences, an enduring symbol of freedom, hope, and opportunity.

So on this Flag Day, I want to salute Old Glory one more time. And I want to say, “Thank you, God, for our nation, for our flag, for those who have sacrificed to keep it flying high, and for all it means to each of us.” It may not be a Hallmark holiday, we’re not waiting to hear if some animal saw his shadow, and there won’t be any office parties to celebrate or gifts to exchange, but it’s a meaningful day nonetheless. Happy Flag Day, everyone!

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Birthday Boy

We didn’t think he’d ever get here. He was due May 23, 1980. He didn’t arrive until June 8 (thankfully, it was still 1980). And his tardy birth came after a day’s and night's worth of worthless labor that finally gave way to the C-Section that brought our Nathan David McCallum out of the womb and into the world. He is our first-born, our only son. We love him. And he turns 30 years old today.

Nathan David McCallum. There’s story behind his name. The front story is this: we named him for Nathan Larry Baker, one of my key mentors in ministry. And we named him for David McCallum, my older brother. I was named for my dad’s oldest brother; I thought I would keep some of that tradition alive. That’s the front story.

The back story is a bit different. If you know your Bible you will recognize that the names Nathan and David belong together. David was Israel’s greatest king. Nathan was a prophet in David’s court who called the king to task for his sin with Bathsheba. And in some ways that story has played out in our son’s life. There’s some David in him for sure. He’s a leader. He likes music. He loves God. He expresses his thoughts very well whether in speaking or writing. And he has some bold sinner in him too. By the same token, he’s got some Nathan in him as well: he desires righteousness, and he loves to speak God’s word into people’s lives. Nathan David McCallum—that’s our son.

And he was a joy to raise. Having grown up for the most part without a father on hand, I didn’t know fathering, but I knew boys. I was pretty sure I’d figure out how to raise a boy. And Nathan was easy. He provided us with lots of laughs. Like the time he escaped from the church nursery one Sunday night on a little scooter and rode it right down the center aisle of the sanctuary while I was preaching. Or the time when he was around eight and was the lead in a church Christmas play. He spoke his lines, was supposed to move down the steps, but caught his foot on a cord, pulling a mic stand down hard on the side of his head. Ever the consummate professional, he just rubbed his head and didn't miss a beat with his lines. He always did have a lot of poise. He was also very good at imitating voices and entertained us at countless mealtimes. He was especially good at doing Steven Urkel from Family Matters. He could do the Urkel dance and everything. He was pretty good at doing the opening of Monday Night Football too. Talented kid and pretty darn funny.

He rarely gave us any trouble either and usually did what he was told. There was one occasion that stands out in my mind about one of those rare moments when he was less than cooperative. When Nathan was about three years old, my wife was out and I was trying to watch a Razorback game while Nathan was supposed to be napping. Very few Razorback games made TV in Kansas City, so I liked to devote full attention to them when they were on. But Nathan wasn't cooperating. He kept calling me for this or that, and I kept telling him to pipe down and take his nap. It became a war of words that wouldn't have escalated if I had just gone in there in taken care of the situation. But I was more interested in my game than I was in my son at that moment. So I let it get out of hand. I got so mad at his interruptions that I decided I'd fix him good … at the next commercial. Since he was being so mouthy, I determined to wash out his mouth with soap—and not just any soap, but dishwashing soap. So I dragged him by his little arm into the kitchen, put a few drops of that slimy, blue liquid on my finger, and smeared it across his teeth and mouth. Then he looked up at me, tears streaming down his sweet, pudgy cheeks, and do you know what he did? He blew a soap bubble. Then I laughed and he laughed and I scooped him up in my arms and gave him a great big hug. We survived moments like that, Nathan and I.

We even survived the infamous California Grapes caper when he was in second grade. The kid had the nerve to steal a couple of California Grape characters (remember those claymation figures back in the mid-80s?) from a classmate at school. We found them in his room. We learned he stole them, and I lowered the boom, trying to put the fear of God and the fear of Dad in him all at once. I made him give them back. Then he had to apologize to the student he stole them from, to his teacher, and to the school principal. I gave him a spanking, a lengthy lecture about the morality of stealing, and I threatened to take him to the local jail so he could experience the last stop on the road of thievery. Then, I grounded him. You’re probably thinking, “That’s a little over the top.” You’re right. It was; I was a maniac. But the good news is that since he turns 30 today, his grounding is finally over. I have a daughter too, but for some reason, right or wrong, I was always harder on my boy.

But we have enjoyed a lot of great times too—lots of pitch and catch with the baseball, basketball under the lights on our back driveway, four downs (a football game for two we made up), lots of watching the Hogs and the Royals and the Chiefs, and plenty of video games when those games were just taking off. We played Nintendo RBI Baseball until Nathan started whipping my backside. That’s when I decided to leave video games to the younger generation. Nathan and I had a lot of fun together while he as he was growing up, and I wouldn’t trade those times for all the money in the world.

Nathan had a pretty good childhood, I think, a happy one all in all. He became a Christian as a youngster and walked with the Lord pretty closely until we moved from our home in Greenwood to our new assignment in Hot Springs. Nathan was 15 at the time and just didn’t make the adjustment all that well. He did very well in school, had lots of friends, and was even voted by his classmates as the “Best All-Around” boy in his class. But he struggled spiritually. That struggle reached its peak during his college years when he fell into some serious sin. Maybe that’s the David in him.

But there’s some Nathan in him too, and I can’t tell you how proud of him his mother and I were when Nathan rebounded from his fall to get back on the path with Jesus. Dayna and I knew he hadn’t been walking with the Lord. And we’d been praying for the Lord to draw him back. Well, the Lord answered our prayers with a sledgehammer. But that’s okay. God is a wise and loving Father who knows just what it takes to do redeeming work in the lives of His children. Nathan fell, and both God and the church caught him in the safety net of grace.

Life has had its challenges for Nathan along the way. Things have rarely been easy for him: a major move during a formative time in his life, major facial reconstruction surgery his junior year in high school, some bad decisions in college, a lost scholarship, having to grow up ahead of schedule, a rocky marriage, and finally divorce. But while life sometimes knocks Nathan down, it does not knock him out. To paraphrase Paul in 2 Corinthians 4, Nathan has this treasure in a jar of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from himself. That's why he doesn’t throw himself a pity party and doesn’t sit around moaning, “Why me?” Nope. He always gets up. He always moves forward. And God continues to work His plan in Nathan’s life.

God is using Nathan’s life these days to influence college students, young adults, and especially his own two children, Noah and Reese, who adore him. He loves them very much. It’s hard for him as a single dad, and I am often amazed that he does as well as he does in that situation. He works full time, he’s active in his church, and he takes care of two little kids half of every week. It makes me tired just thinking about it.

I’ve always believed God has great things in store for Nathan. Some of that greatness is going on now. Some has yet to be revealed. But this I know: Nathan is up for whatever God leads him to do. Maybe it will be in vocational ministry some day. Maybe it will be in volunteer ministry (which he does a lot already). Maybe it will be the raising of two kids who may end up being difference-makers of their own. But this I know: whatever God has in store for him, Nathan will rise to the challenge. By God’s good grace he always has.

And so on his 30th birthday I want to say of him what another Father once said of His Son: “This is my beloved son in whom I am well-pleased.”

Nathan, it's a joy and a gift to be your dad. Happy Birthday, son! And, God willing, many, many more.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

15 Years and Counting

As of June 1 it has been my privilege to serve the First Baptist Church of Hot Springs for 15 years. That’s a long time in pastor-years. It was mentioned this morning that in our 173 year history I now have the longest pastoral tenure by five years. That’s hard to believe—especially with a church that has been so stable for so long.

Some have asked me what the secret is to long pastoral tenure. (I was in my first pastorate for almost 14 years before I came to Hot Springs so folks think I must know something about this subject.) Well, I’ve thought about that question a lot, and I don’t know that I really have any answers. I did hear one answer from a long-tenured pastor. He said the secret to long tenure is this: no pulpit committees. It has to be more than that, but I don’t know that I can put my finger on it. Perhaps, however, these things have helped:

• I try to keep fresh in my relationship with the Lord so that I’m working in His power instead of my own.

• I try to love the church family as they are and not as I wish they might be.

• I try to bring it every Sunday.

• I try not to let either the criticism or the praise I receive linger in my heart and mind.

• I try to show up each day even when I don’t feel like it.

• I value church unity.

• I try to deal with church problems rather than sweep them under the rug.

• But at the same time, I try to pick my battles wisely.

• I try to assemble a good team of staff and volunteers.

• Rather than doing the same year of ministry every year, I try to make sure we’re always doing something in the church that keeps us moving forward in some way or another.

• I’ve always hated packing and moving.

And that’s pretty much it. You’d think someone with my experience would be wiser or more profound, huh? Sorry. That’s about all I got on the subject. But it seems to be working, and God seems to be using me, and the church seems glad I’m still around.

Today, as people were leaving several said, “I pray you’ll be here 15 more years.” To which I replied, “No you don’t. In 15 years I’ll be 68 going on 69 years old and you’ll be thinking, ‘Is that old man ever going to retire so we can get some young blood in here?’” I worry about that a little—knowing when it’s time, knowing when I’ve quit growing and started coasting, knowing when I’m a liability rather than an asset for the church. But I’m not going to worry about that today. Today, I'm giving thanks to God for allowing me to serve a church that loves my family as we are and that treats us better than we deserve. Today is celebration day because it’s been my great joy and privilege to have served the good family of First Baptist Church in Hot Springs for 15 years, and, God willing, for many more years to come.