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.


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.