Monday, January 31, 2011

My Big Blue Funk

No, I’m not talking about a 70s rock band; I’m talking about my mood. And I hate it. I hate it because I prefer to feel upbeat and optimistic. I hate it because I can never predict its onset or its exit. I hate it because I have no known reason for feeling this way. I hate it because I deal with people every day whose circumstances could make the hardest heart weep in sympathy. I hate it because I can’t control it, because it reminds me that I am weak. I hate it because I don’t know how to rid myself of it other than to wait it out until the blue funk becomes a blue sky once again. And I hate it because pastors, many think, should be immune from such things. And even though I know better, sometimes I think that too.

But no one is immune. A young man came to a renowned doctor in Paris complaining of depression. He asked what he could do to get well. The doctor thought of a well-known young man named Grumaldi, prince of clowns in the Paris circus. The doctor told the young man, "Go see Grumaldi. He will make you laugh and forget your troubles. He will show you how to enjoy yourself. He can help you get well." The downcast patient looked at the doctor and said, "I am Grumaldi." I think I understand how Grumaldi felt.

What I’m describing is not some deep dark depression. It’s not the kind of thing keeps me from functioning or smiling or laughing at something I find funny. It doesn’t keep me from coming to work and counseling with people and writing sermons and teaching Scripture and dealing with issues (although those things take a lot more energy when I feel this way). I don’t have any compulsion to stay in bed or keep the curtains drawn. I don’t court the darkness. I don’t stare into the face of the great abyss. It’s not that. It’s not that bad or that deep or that pervading. It’s what I call my big blue funk. It’s not a pit; it’s a rut. It’s not a Rottweiler that takes a chunk out of my backside; it’s a Chihuahua that nips at my heels. It’s a joy-stealing heaviness of heart I call my big blue funk.

It would be easier to understand if things were going badly in my life, but they are not. I am blessed. Things go well. My family is fine. The church I serve is rolling right along and doing significant kingdom work in our city and around the world. I don’t feel lonely, unloved, or unappreciated. Maybe that's why my heart is often drawn in times like these to the prophet Elijah. In 1 Kings 18 the Lord gave him a great victory over the false god Baal and Baal’s prophets. Revival broke out on the mountain and multitudes of people praised the one true God—in 1 Kings 18. But in 1 Kings 19, Elijah gets wind of Jezebel’s threat on his life, takes off running for the desert, and ends up moping and depressed in a dank dark cave. That didn’t make sense for Elijah, and it doesn’t make sense for me. Seems like I ought be doing a march or singing in major chords, but minor chords are the best I can do today. I wish I could be cheery in every season and all the time like some Christians I know, but I’m not and I can’t.

And I’ve learned to be okay with that. I’ve learned that God loves me no less in my funk than He does in my joy. I’ve learned to rest upon the wings of grace to carry me through. Such funky seasons are no stranger to God’s people. Consider the prayers of the psalmists, the laments of Job, the frustration of Moses, the cave of Elijah, the thorn in the flesh of St. Paul, the stomach trouble of Timothy, the cries of Jesus on the cross. So I’ve learned through the years to just ride it out and wait on God to lift the funk.

Even though I hate feeling this way, I’ve grown to appreciate these seasons to some degree. My big blue funk keeps me humble. It keeps me grounded. It keeps me authentic and real and teachable. It also helps me move a bit more deeply and quietly into Jesus—my ears and my heart more attuned to that still small voice of God.

Ann Lamott writes of a mother whose two-year-old child accidentally locked himself in a room one night. She heard him calling for her: "Mommy! Mommy!" She couldn't open the door from the outside, so she kept saying, "Just jiggle the doorknob, honey." But he didn't understand because he was afraid and sobbing. She tried talking to him. She tried coaxing him. She tried everything she could think of and nothing seemed to calm him down. When the woman could think of nothing else to do, she finally fell to her knees and slid her fingers beneath the door in the space between the door and floor. She told him to find her fingers. He did, and they stayed like that for a long time—on the floor, with him holding her fingers in the dark. Eventually he stopped crying. Once he was calm, she gently said, "Now stand up and jiggle the doorknob." He did, and in just a moment the door popped open.

It's the image of the fingertips under the door that Lamott could not forget. It's the way that we are like the two-year-old in the dark, and God is the one who, though we can't see Him, is there to comfort us and help us until we are clear enough to get out of a big blue funk or even out of a deeper, darker pit of depression.

So if my big blue funk sounds sort of familiar to you, then hang on, listen for God’s gentle voice, or just hold onto His fingers in the darkness. Perhaps, and even sooner than you think, you’ll be able to stand up, jiggle the doorknob, and come out into a better, brighter day.

Monday, January 24, 2011

I Surrender

I follow two NFL teams—only two—the Dallas Cowboys and the Kansas City Chiefs. Both are done for the season, so I don’t have any more dogs in the fight for the championship. And since I’m not all that big of an NFL fan in general, I haven’t been paying much attention to the playoffs. I did catch a little of the Bears-Packers game on Sunday. When I turned it on the game was in the third quarter. The Packers were up 14-0, but I quickly learned that the story of the game was Jay Cutler, the Bears quarterback, who was on the sideline with a mysterious knee injury. No one, not even Cutler, seemed to know just when the injury took place. That left the Bears with a washed up second-stringer and an inexperienced free agent to carry the team, neither of whom could get much done. Now I’ve had a mysterious injury like Cutler claims to have so I kind of understand, but apparently the rest of the NFL is not all that understanding. There were some pretty vicious tweets by other NFL players accusing Cutler of more or less faking the injury to avoid the pounding he was taking by the Packers. The basic accusation is that he quit. He quit on his teammates. He quit on his coaches. He quit on his fans. I have no idea as to the extent, or lack thereof, of Cutler’s mysterious injury. But a good number of observers believe he essentially waved the white flag and surrendered.

In most venues, surrender is a dirty word. It’s a dirty word in war. A friend of mine was General McAuliffe’s aide during World War II. He was with McAuliffe at Bastogne during the famous Battle of the Bulge. You probably know the story: the Nazis had the American troops surrounded. The Nazis sent a messenger to McAuliffe demanding an American surrender: “Surrender or die.” My friend, Col. Dowis, said McAuliffe talked over this surrender proposal with the officers in the room and decided on a one word answer: “Nuts.” McAuliffe wasn’t about to surrender. He considered the whole idea nothing short of crazy, nutty. And you also know the rest of the story: after taking an unmerciful beating and suffering many casualties from both the Nazis and the weather, the U.S. Airborne broke out of Bastogne (with some late help from Patton’s Third Army), and effectively ended Germany's last ditch attempt to turn the tide of the war. Surrender is a dirty word in war.

Surrender is a dirty word in fighting. Whether it’s a couple of kids wrestling in the yard, the stronger demanding the weaker say “uncle” as a sign of surrender, or whether it’s a professional boxing match when one fighter has to throw in the towel, surrender is always the last option, the dreaded outcome, and one of the most difficult things a fighter might ever have to do. Surrender is a dirty word. It's one of those words that gets stuck in the throat when you try to say it.

And you know why. Surrender is largely viewed as defeat, as weakness, as quitting. And nobody much likes a quitter. Armies have been destroyed and fighters have been killed because of a stubborn unwillingness to surrender to superior forces even though the outcome was inevitable. Surrender may have nine letters, but to many it’s a four-letter-word.

Maybe that’s why it sometimes strikes people strange that in the spiritual realm, surrender is the only path to victory. Giving up, letting go, waving the white flag in the face of God’s superior wisdom and strength is how a person wins in matters spiritual. When God called me to the ministry, I described my experience as "accepting" God's call, but most preachers describe their call as “surrendering to preach.” When God knocked Paul off his high horse and called him to faith in Christ, the Lord asked Paul, “Why do you kick against the goads?” In other words, why do you fight against that which you know is true and right? Why do you fight a battle you can't win? And when did Paul find victory in that experience? When he surrendered. We even have a hymn that speaks to this. It’s called I Surrender All—not some, not a little, not this or that, but all—I surrender all. I surrender my willfulness. I surrender my right to run my own life and call my own shots and be my own god. I surrender my time and my talents and my treasure. I wave the white flag of surrender. I lay them down at the feet of Him who laid down His life for me on the cross. And you remember that Jesus did that after a night of praying, “Father, I’d rather not drink this cup of the cross. If there’s any other way, could we do that instead? Nevertheless, Father, not my will but your will be done.” There’s a word for what Jesus did in that prayer. That word is surrender.

Are there things you need to surrender to the Lord today? Has He been nudging you and pushing you and calling you to lay some things down or to take some things up that will get you in step with His plans for your life? Until you wave the white flag, you’re going to be at war with God and in yourself. You want peace? Then surrender. That’s the key to victory in the spiritual life.

It’s one of my favorite stories. I don’t know where I first came across it, but I’ve told it a lot over the years. It's about two monks—one old, the other a novice—walking together one morning in the monastery. The novice turns to the saintly old monk and asks: "Tell me, Father, do you still wrestle with the devil?"

"Oh, no, my son," he answered. "I'm much too old and wise for that! Now, you see, I wrestle with God."

"With God?" the young novice exclaimed. "But Father, do you hope to win?"

"No, my child," said the old monk. "I hope to lose."

Monday, January 17, 2011

Grace and Civil Rights

As our nation remembers Martin Luther King, Jr. today, I want to share a story. I read it this summer in Thomas Long’s book, Preaching from Memory and Hope. The story is one of those rare moments in the early days of the civil rights movement when a white person, a southern white person, that is, actually took a public stand in support of giving black people the rights they deserve as human beings, and the rights they deserve as Americans under our Declaration of Independence and Constitution. Her name is Grace Thomas, and this is her story.

Grace was the daughter of a Birmingham, Alabama, streetcar conductor and his wife. When she married in the late 1930’s, she moved to Atlanta and took a clerking job in one of the state government offices. Through her work, she developed an interest in law and politics, and she enrolled in a local law school that offered night classes.

After years of part-time study, she finally completed law school, and her family wondered what she would do with her law degree. They were shocked when Grace announced that she had decided to enter the 1954 election race for governor of Georgia. There were nine candidates for governor that year, eight men and Grace, but there was really only one issue. In the famous Brown v. the Board of Education case earlier that year, the Supreme Court had declared racially “separate but equal” schools unconstitutional and thus paved the way for integration of the public schools. Eight of the gubernatorial candidates spoke out angrily against the court’s decision. Only Grace said that she thought the decision was fair and just and ought to be welcomed by the citizenry. Her campaign slogan was “Say Grace at the Polls.” Not many did; she ran dead last, and her family was relieved that she had gotten this out of her system.

But she had not. Eight years later, in 1962, she ran for governor again. By then, the civil rights movement was gaining momentum, and her message of racial harmony was hotly controversial. She received death threats, and her family traveled with her as she campaigned, in order to provide protection and moral support. On Election Day she finished dead last again, but her campaign was a testimony to goodwill and racial tolerance.

One day in that campaign, Grace made an appearance in the small town of Louisville, Georgia. In those days, the centerpiece of the town square in Louisville was not a courthouse or a war memorial but an old slave market, a tragic and evil place where human beings had once been bought and sold like cattle or cotton or any other commodity. Grace chose the slave market as the site for her campaign speech, and as she stood on the very spot where slaves had been auctioned, a hostile crowd of storekeepers and farmers gathered to hear what she would say. “The old has passed away,” she began, “and the new has come." Gesturing to the market, she said, “This place represents all about our past over which we must repent. A new day is here, a day when Georgians white and black can join hands to work together.”

This was provocative talk in 1962 Georgia, and the crowd got all riled up. “Are you a communist?” someone shouted at her.

Grace paused in midsentence. “No,” she said softly, “I am not.”

“Well, then,” continued the heckler, “where’d you get those damned ideas?”

Grace thought for a minute, and then she pointed to the steeple of a nearby church. “I got them over there,” she said, “in Sunday school.”

Wow! If every pulpit and Sunday school in the South had taught the things Grace learned in her Sunday school, the road to civil rights would have been much smoother and Martin Luther King, Jr. would have probably lived to die at a ripe old age. What Grace Thomas did was exceptional and unique for her time and her race. Grace supported civil rights before civil rights were cool, before it was hip to do so. She supported civil rights in the heat of the battle, when reputations, elections, and even lives were on the line. But with a name like Grace, could we have really expected anything else? Such courage impresses the heck out of me. I sometimes wonder what I would have done had I been a pastor in Little Rock instead of a one-year-old boy when Central High School was forcefully integrated by the famous Little Rock Nine and the U.S. Airborne in 1957. Would I have embraced civil rights for all in that day, let alone speak out in favor of those rights?

I don’t remember hearing anything about such matters as a grade-school kid in my Sunday school in Little Rock, but I did learn about it at home. I remember when my mother and father insisted that our black housekeeper/babysitter actually sit at the table with us for lunch even when she was very, very hesitant to do so. I remember when my mother took her home after her work and she refused to sit in the front seat with my mother, insisting instead that the back seat was where she belonged and that her husband would have her head if he caught her in the front seat. I think it was at home that I learned that black people, white people, rich people, poor people, all people, are equal in the eyes of God, and that means they should be equal in our eyes too.

But I was just a kid in those days. I don’t know what I would have done had I been an adult. Would I have been supporting the Little Rock Nine or protesting against them and calling them vulgar names like so many others were doing? Or even more, would I have just sat idly by as a spectator, doing nothing, refusing to take sides, choosing instead to "rise above the fray"? It seems to me that most of us have a higher estimation of our courage from a distance than we would probably exercise in the actual moment. So while I don’t know what I would have done in that day, I do know what Grace Thomas did. And on this Martin Luther King Day, 2011, I honor and applaud her for it.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Not Again!

So I was reading the religion section of our local paper on Saturday, and there it was: an Associated Press article titled, "End of days in May?" Tom Breen has the byline. Seems that some 89 year old retired civil engineer named Harold Camping has it all figured out. Drum roll please: Jesus is coming again on May 21, 2011, and Camping's disciples (as you can see from the adjoining picture) are out spreading the word. Please, sir, not again! Camping believes the Bible essentially functions as a cosmic calendar explaining exactly when variouis prophecies will be fulfilled. He claims that events like the founding of the modern state of Israel in 1948 are signs confirming his date. Good luck with that, bro—I don't know how many modern false prophets have hedged their timetables on Israel's founding in 1948 only to end up with egg on their faces. We just never learn, I guess.

Reading the article brought back memories of Edgar Whisenant's book 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will Be in 1988. Whisenant was also a retired engineer and he was certain from his timetables that Jesus would come to rapture the church sometime between September 11 and 13, 1988, coinciding with the Jewish festival of Rosh Hashanah. I was a pastor in suburban Kansas City at the time, and that book was all the rage. A pastor and his church in a neighboring community became so enamored with it, so convinced of its truth, that some people in the church quit their jobs, spent their life savings, and put their pets to sleep. People in my own congregation asked me for my take on the matter. So the Sunday before the predicted dates I preached a sermon entitled, "Why the Rapture Won't Happen This Week." Of course, the very fact you're reading this blog is a stark rebuke to Whisenant's prediction. He was wrong. And then the dude had the nerve to come back in 1989 and write another book saying he miscalculated and was a year off—Jesus was coming back in 1989 instead. Good grief!

Whisenant joined a long list of false-predictors. I predict Harold Camping will join that list come May 22, 2011. Why is it that some of us just have a hard time accepting Jesus' statement on the matter: "But of that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone … Be on the alert—for you do not know when the master of the house is coming …" (Mark 13:32, 35). And when the disciples had a question about such things just before Jesus' ascension, He said, "It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has set by his own authority …" (Acts 1:7). We don't know. We can't know. We're not supposed to know. I guess the desire to know is just another echo of Eden: this desire to be like God, this craving to know what God knows.

Some might say that these predictors are no big deal. Their dates come and go and they are heard from no more. There's truth in that, but here's the problem: such phony predictions over and over again turn the Christian's "blessed hope" into a sideshow. They disillusion people who put their hope in the so-called prophet instead of in the Lord. And to a skeptical world, these false predictions and their disciples make the church look just plain silly.

Really, we've got all we need to know about these things in the Bible. Ezekiel and Daniel and Isaiah and Jesus and John are good enough for me. We don't need Edgar Whisenant or Harold Camping or Hal Lindsay or Jack Van Impe or any of these so-called prophecy experts to tell us how it's going to all come down. These people seem to stir up one of two pathological conditions in regard to Christ's second coming: apocalyptic fever for the folks who just have to be in the know, or apocalyptic atrophy for those who are so turned off by such imaginative interpretation and speculation that they refuse to even think about Christ's return. Let me suggets a better way, a prescription for these apocalyptic maladies—let's focus on what we do know about Jesus' return, let's focus on what the Bible says: Jesus is coming again; we don't know just when, so let's be ready for Him now.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Would Have Been 97 Today

Storyteller and writer extraordinaire, Garrison Keillor, once told this story about one of the dads in Lake Wobegon. The town ball club was the Lake Wobegon Schroeders, so named because the starting nine were brothers, sons of E. J. Schroeder. E. J. was ticked off if a boy hit a bad pitch. He’d spit and curse and rail at him. And if a son hit a home run, E. J. would say, “Blind man coulda hit that one. Your gramma coulda put the wood on that one. If a guy couldn’t hit that one out, there’d be something wrong with him, I’d say. Wind practically took that one out of here, didn’t even need to hit it much”—and lean over and spit.

So his sons could never please him, and if they did, he forgot about it. Once, against Freeport, his oldest boy, Edwin Jim, Jr., turned and ran to the centerfield fence for a long, long fly ball. He threw his glove forty feet in the air to snag the ball and caught the ball and the glove. When he turned toward the dugout to see if his dad had seen it, E. J. was on his feet clapping, but when he saw the boy look to him, he immediately pretended he was swatting mosquitoes. The batter was called out, the third out. Jim ran back to the bench and stood by his dad. E. J. sat chewing in silence and finally said, “I saw a man in Superior, Wisconsin, do that a long time ago. But he did it at night and the ball was hit a lot harder.”

I’ve known a lot of people over the years who had a dad like E. J. Schroeder—a dad who loved his kids for sure but had a hard time showing it, a dad who found it easier to find fault than to applaud and encourage.

My dad was not exactly like E. J., but to be honest, I don’t really know what my dad was like. At least E. J. was there for his kids. For the most part my dad ceased to be an active part of my life in the middle of my third-grade year. He did have time to pass on his love of sports to his three boys. My dad was a star athlete in Lakeside High School in Lake Village Arkansas, class of ’32. And I have yellowed newspaper clippings of his exploits as a fullback and punter for Arkansas College in Batesville (now Lyons College) where he played until financial restraints forced him to drop out of college and find work (it was the Great Depression, you know). My dad taught me how to throw and catch and love any good old American game that involved a round or oblong ball. The sad thing was: after my third-grade year he never saw me play again. So, would he have been an encouraging dad or an E. J?

I suspect he would have been a little bit of both. On most visits (which weren’t numerous) he would take my brothers and I bowling. He would show us how to do it, encourage us when we did it right and correct us when we did it wrong. I remember playing catch with him on some of those rare weekend visits. “Good throw, John Scott, but get your arm up here instead of down there.” He’d throw me a grounder: “Nice catch, John Scott, but don’t reach for the ball; scoot over, get your butt down, and keep it in front of you.” I played catcher for a couple of years of my Little League career, and when my dad found out, he bought me a full set of catcher’s gear—chest protector, shin guards, mask, the works. I really liked the gift. I remember standing in front of a full length mirror in my gear, dreaming of throw-outs at second and tag-outs at the plate. But I would have traded the gear in a heartbeat just to have him in the stands to watch me play. It’s not that he didn’t want to see me play, but he lived in Little Rock, my mother had moved us to Branson, Missouri, and things were complicated. But you can see what I mean, can’t you? I think my dad had some E. J. in him for sure, but he also could be encouraging.

A few things stand out in my memory. He hurt me emotionally several times and in several ways across the years—maybe that’s the E. J. in him. But I’m choosing today to remember better things. On those rare occasions when he made a visit, especially when I was still in grade school, I would run out to his car when he pulled up in front of the house, and he would greet me with a kiss on the mouth. His family was affectionate; my mother’s family was not. Why is it that I remember a warm kiss on the mouth from my dad? Did I yearn for touch and affection (so missing in my Branson home), or did I just want my daddy? I don’t know, probably both, but I remember it.

Another memory: my dad paid for the first three years of my college education. I got married early in my senior year, and he told me that if I was old enough to get married, I was old enough to make my own way. I appreciated both the first three years and the lesson he taught me in the fourth. But it’s something from the first year that stands out most in my memory. I received a valentine from him in February that said something like, “Valentine, you’re at the head of the class.” Go figure—I don’t think my dad had ever sent me a valentine in my life. I remember thinking that was strange at the time. What prompted him to do that?

Still another thing that sticks out in my memory is the 1964 Ford Fairlane Ranchwagon. I had no car my first year in college. I needed a car for my summer job. My dad sold me his old ’64 wagon for one dollar. I got ripped off. The car was junk. My college friends called it the Ratwagon. The heater didn’t work. It had a hole in the floorboard. It broke down at least three different times between Fayetteville and Branson. I replaced most every part over the next three years. But it was a car. I had wheels. I had independence. When I traded it in for something better in December of 1977 I got 200 bucks for it. And my dad made it happen.

Another memory: my dad was dying of cancer in a Jackson, Mississippi, hospital. I was going to make the trip to see him but couldn’t get away until after Christmas. I am a pastor. I had Christmas Eve Service, then I had a wedding to do the day after Christmas. His doctor told me he expected my dad to live for another week or two. Daddy and I talked by phone the night after Christmas. I told him I was leaving the next morning to head down to see him. He said he appreciated that. We small-talked a bit (which was hard for both of us, I think). Then, just before he hung up, he thanked me for reaching out to him and he said, “John Scott, I love you. I’ve always loved you.” My aunt called me not an hour later to tell me my dad was dead. I never saw him alive again, but those words of blessing and love still linger in my mind.

Still another memory: when we were cleaning out his apartment after his death, my aunt found a written prayer folded up in an envelope in a drawer. It was a prayer for “John Scott McCallum II.” It was line after line of petition to God that “John Scott McCallum II” be the best minister he could be. It was a prayer that God give me wisdom and peace and knowledge and understanding as I carried out the ministry to which God had called me. I don’t know if it was a prayer he wrote or a prayer he copied and then just inserted my name. I do know that I still have that prayer.

And one memory more: after his death, we found in his apartment every card and picture and letter any of us boys had ever sent him—every one. The cards and letters were neatly filed away; the pictures were on the dresser, the chest, and the walls. He saved them like treasure, hoarded them like a miser. It was as if he wanted to be surrounded by reminders of his children and grandchildren, yet he couldn’t or wouldn’t just pick up the phone and call us. And I don’t know how many times after his death we heard this from people who knew him: “He was so proud of you boys. He talked about you all the time.” That was good to hear, but I couldn’t help but wish he had said such things to us while he was alive. I think it would have built some bridges. I think it would have made things different in the relationship (or lack thereof) we had with our father.

So there you have it. My daddy was a little bit of E. J. and a little bit of an encourager too. Mostly he seemed pretty clueless as to how be a dad to his kids—especially after the divorce. He wasn’t perfect by any means. I don’t idolize him in my memory. But he was my daddy. He loved me as best he could, I think. And I loved him as best I could. I write this today because this is his birthday. If he were still alive he would be 97 years old today. And even though we never knew one another all that well, even though from the time I was 8 until his death I rarely saw him, and even though he’s now been dead for 23 years, that old man is still on my mind.