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”