Monday, May 30, 2011

A Veteran I'd Love to Meet

I just finished a remarkable biography. It's called Unbroken. It's written by Laura Hillenbrand, and she recounts the life (so far) of Louie Zamperini. Louie grew up in Torrance, California during the Great Depression. He was not a good boy. He connived. He stole. He got into numerous fights. He and the police were on a first name basis. He was, as Hillenbrand described him, a "one-boy insurgency." If it hadn't been for patient parents and his older brother, Pete, who knows what would have become of Louie? It certainly wouldn't have been this story.

The only way Louie avoided a life of crime was his interest in running. Pete was a runner and he saw something in the way Louie ran that could lead to greatness. And did it ever! He set all the California high school records for the mile run. He went on to the University of Southern California and set all kinds of records there, winning the mile run in the NCAA meet. He was a natural.

He even set his sights on the 1936 Olympics. He was the youngest man in the field, and he didn't make it in the mile. Not to be deterred, however, he tried the two mile and miraculously made the Olympics in that race. You've heard of those Olympics, haven't you? Berlin. Jesse Owens. Adolf Hitler. Zamperini placed seventh in the two mile run and because of the way he went about his business, he even shook hands with Hitler. Louie knew he was a bit young to compete with all those young men in their prime, so he refocused his energies on making the 1940 Olympics which were to be in Tokyo. Of course, a world war erupted and those Olympics were cancelled.

To avoid the draft, Louie enlisted in the Air Corps and became a bombardier on a B-24. He was good at what he did. But he didn't get many missions under his belt because he and his crew were forced to fly an unsafe plane on a search mission. The engines gave out. The plane went down into the sea. Only three of the crew, including Louie, survived.

There would be no rescue either. Louie and two others drifted for almost seven weeks, fending off hunger, sharks, a Japanese attack, and storms. One of the three died during their weeks on the raft. And just when Louie and his friend thought they were about to make land, a Japanese patrol boat found them and took them prisoner.

The next couple of years were hell for Louie. The Japanese were vicious to American prisoners. You've heard of the Bataan death march and the conditions in which these men had to live. It wasn't any better on the Japanese mainland. The men, even the officers, were treated as slaves, denied basic medicines, adequate food, and Red Cross packages. And worst of all, they were unmercifully beaten on a whim by the guards. One guard in particular took a sadistic interest in Louie. They called him "the Bird." He beat Louie with a belt. He beat him with rods. He beat him with his fists and kicked him with his boots. The bird knew Louie was a famous Olympian and wanted to make an example out of him, wanted to break him. And even though the Bird got Louie in two different prison camps, he never quite could break Louie Zamperini.

Finally, with the war over, Louie returned home, and quite the hero. People thought him dead, so it was almost a resurrection story. Add his war experiences to his Olympic glory and everybody wanted to hear Louie's story. Louie told it. He seemed okay to those who didn't know him, but he was not okay. He couldn't sleep. He couldn't get the Bird out of his mind. Louie couldn't sleep for thinking of him. And when he did fall asleep he dreamed of the Bird. Louie was eaten up with bitterness and a desire for revenge. Many war criminals had been caught and tried in Japan but the Bird eluded capture. Louie used to dream of how he'd kill the Bird. Once, he was awaken by his wife's screams as he sat on top of her choking the life out of her, thinking she was the Bird. Add to these problems Louie's constant drinking to numb the pain, and he was as big a mess as he was as a boy.

Everybody was worried about him. His wife left him for a time but came back to him. She wanted to help him but didn't know how. Until one day in 1949 when this gangly, young evangelist from North Carolina set up a tent in Los Angeles to hold a crusade. His name was Billy Graham. Louie's wife heard him and was saved from her sins. She gave her heart to Jesus. She tried to get Louie to go. He fought it but finally gave in, only to run out when Graham gave the invitation to trust Christ. He said he'd never go back, but he did. And as Graham preached, God broke through to Louie's heart. Louie trusted Christ for his salvation and invited Jesus to come into his life, save him from his sins and give him the life that is really life. Jesus answered that prayer. Louie was saved, transformed in every way. 2 Corinthians 5:17 says, "If anyone be in Christ he is a new creature; old things pass away, all things become new." You could paste Louie's picture right next to that verse. He was a changed man. He gave up his drinking immediately. And even better, he never had one more dream or ill thought about the Bird—not one. Isn't Jesus a wonderful, merciful, glorious Savior?

Louie went on in life to found and work with boys in camp. He has lived a life that matters. God has used him to do far greater things than win races and survive the horrors of war. And all these years later, Louie has stayed active, skiing and skateboarding well into his 80s—not the 80s, his 80s. It's a remarkable story. I encourage you to get it and read it. I've spared the details that add so much color and tension to the story. It's a biography that reads like a novel.

Louie's story made an deep impact on me. While I was reading the sections that describe his imprisonment by the Japanese, I actually dreamed that I was shooting Japanese prison guards—and liking it. That's not me, but I dreamed it. Louie let go of his hatred, bitterness, and desire for revenge. I was having a hard time with that, I guess.

One of my key takes from the story is this: the answer to bitterness, hatred, and revenge is not found in war, not found continuing the cycle of killing and brutalizing one another. The answer is found in Jesus. That's where Louie found it. Even though I assume that verse in the prophets about God turning swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks and nations studying war no more probably reflects a time when Christ comes back to this sin-sick, war-sick world, it seems like we could get a start on that even now if we'd all turn to Jesus and follow Him with the same passion and commitment of Louie Zamperini.

Did I tell you Louie went back to Japan to meet with former prison guards? He wanted to see them and forgive them. He wanted to forgive the Bird too, but the Bird would have none of it. Too bad for the Bird. But good for Louie. The Bird continued to live by his hate-filled heart. Louie followed the path of his master Jesus who taught, "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the sons of God."

Oh, for more and more peacemakers like Louie in our war-torn world.

Monday, May 23, 2011

My Trip to the Asylum

I’ve been out of the Asylum for one week now. I spent 30 days there. And those were some of the best and toughest 30 days I’ve ever spent. No, I wasn’t in a mental institution. I was in an exercise program called Insanity: The Asylum. Shaun Thompson is the trainer. The Asylum is Beachbody’s follow-up to the 60-day Insanity fitness program. I completed that in the winter of 2010. And I figured that sense I was insane I should spend some time in The Asylum. I’m glad I did. You may wonder why anyone would call a fitness program Insanity or The Asylum. Well, try a couple of days of either program and you’ll understand.

The Asylum did for me what Insanity did for me a year ago: it helped me get in the best shape of my life. And since The Asylum is Insanity on steroids, it has taken me to a whole new level of fitness. My fit test numbers dramatically improved from Day 1 to Day 30, and cardio endurance and muscle definition improved as well. The Asylum rocks!

As you’ve probably figured out, I love to exercise. I like to get my body moving. I like to challenge myself. And I like to reduce my stress. Exercise does that for me. As the old poster at the top suggests, exercise is a poor man’s plastic surgery. That’s only partly true—exercise is also a smart man’s plastic surgery. Study after study indicates that exercise improves mood, strengthens the immune system, builds overall health, increases energy, and slows down the aging process. I can do things at 54 that a whole of lot of people in their 30s could not.

So, get off your duff and get some exercise. You don’t have to do Insanity or The Asylum or any other program to get exercise. You can do little everyday things like these: take the stairs instead of the elevator, park farther away instead of as close as you can get, take long brisk walks or go for a little jog, ride a bike, hike a mountain, do a few pushups and squats and crunches every week. That’s a way to start. If you want more, join a gym ( and/or order one of Beachbody’s great fitness products ( But do something!

And keep it in perspective when you do. I’m a little crazy about this stuff, but you don’t have to be. Just yesterday I was reminded of more important strength than I can build with exercise. I baptized a young woman who is having brain surgery this week. She has been a real star in our church’s fitness ministry. She’s lost a lot of weight and she has gotten herself in good shape. And while that will help speed her recovery, when she goes under the knife, she needs a different kind of strength. She needs the strength of the Lord. As the apostle Paul pointed out to the Corinthians, God’s strength is made perfect in our weakness (2 Cor. 12:9). And regardless of how much weight you can lift, how long you can run, how high you can jump, when you’re under anesthetic, your scalp is laid open, and some surgeon is poking around in your brain, you’re in a pretty weak position. As she told me yesterday, “As I face this surgery, I’m not depending on my strength; I’m depending on His.” And that’s a strength you can’t find in Insanity or The Asylum or anywhere else. You find that strength in a personal relationship with Jesus.

So by all means, exercise your body—you’ll get all kinds of benefits now. But even better, exercise your faith and trust in Jesus—you’ll get all kinds of benefits now and forever. And there's nothing insane about that.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Any News?

I guess I’m sick of it. And I’m going to use my blog to vent. Can I just go on record and say I couldn’t care less whether that kid in Connecticut gets to go to his senior prom or not? Apparently, he broke some rule that disqualified him from going to prom, but thanks to modern social media, the outcry against the school administrator for enforcing the rules became so loud that the woman had to relent, say the rule doesn’t really matter after all, and let the kid go to his prom. And this, dear reader, is news? In today’s world, yes it is. Oh, there have to be reports and interviews and opinion polls and discussion ad nauseum by the networks and cable news channels over whether or not this kid gets to go to his prom. Please!!!

There has always been a market for human interest stories. In the small town in which I did some of my growing up, our local, twice-a-week newspaper had a column called “Down DD.” The column was some local yokel's account of what went on down DD highway: who ate dinner with whom, who got a new tractor, who got a letter from their son back east, who put a new coat of paint on their house—that kind of stuff. That’s called human interest, but even as a kid, it seemed to me the only humans interested in reading that drivel were the humans who lived down DD. I don’t think anyone in Connecticut would have had an iota of interest. I’m not sure anyone in our small town did. There’s a reason why that column was never syndicated in say, The Washington Post, The LA Times, or the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. And it’s the same reason Walter Cronkite or David Brinkley never brought it up on the nightly news: nobody cared. And yet we’re all supposed to care about the kid in Connecticut who, save a national outcry, was almost shut out of his prom. That’s national news these days. And it’s been covered with as much detail and manpower as the killing of Usama Bin Laden.

I suppose we just have too much media: 24-hour cable news, four networks, countless internet news sources, Twitter, Facebook, and all the rest. With that much opportunity to report news and opine (which means guests interrupt and yell at each other on national TV), I guess you have to find something to fill up the time. Maybe that’s why we have to listen to the ongoing brattish behavior of Lindsey Lohan, the self-destruction of Charlie Sheen, and (dare I say it) the recent royal wedding, as if these things had the gravitas of the war on terror, our national economic struggles, and the powder keg going off in the Arab world. My fear is that our youngest generations may never know the difference between news and trivia, national/international interest and human interest, stories that matter and stories that amuse and entertain.

I enjoy a good human interest story now and then, but by nature I am not a busybody and have no need to know other people’s business. My own business is plenty enough for me to manage. That may help me here, I don’t know. So when I think of real news, I think about things that have an impact on whole communities, the nation, and the world, not on who gets shut out of the prom, who just got divorced, the latest goings-on in the life of some celebrity, or even who shows up on the “police blotter.” I want to know about things that impact on a much larger scale.

Which may be why I love being a preacher. I get to tell the best and most important news of all: that Jesus died for our sins according to the Scripture, that He was buried, and that He was raised from the dead on the third day (1 Cor. 15:3-4). What God did for us in Christ impacts persons, nations, history, and the whole wide world! Christ loves, redeems, transforms, heals, disciplines, and judges on scales large and small. And that, my friend, is news. It’s old news but it always feels new to everyone Christ touches. In fact, the Bible calls it good news. And I get to be a frontline reporter of that news every day of the week and twice on Sunday.

So there, I’ve had my chance to vent. I’m sure I’m overreacting—I do that sometimes. And while I do feel better for getting this off my chest, it certainly doesn’t qualify as news any more than the Connecticut boy and his senior prom. Can we just move on?

Thursday, May 5, 2011

An Interfaith Gathering

May 1 was Holocaust Remembrance Day. We have a synagogue in our city. When I first moved to Hot Springs, the local rabbi and I became friends. He asked two or three times to come to the synagogue and do a reading for their Holocaust Remembrance Service. I was happy to do it. Not having become acquainted with any of the rabbis since my friend moved away, I haven't taken part in one of those services in a long time.

But a few months ago I got a call inviting me to participate in this year's remembrance. It was going to be different—more of an interfaith service. The meeting place would be the chapel at Garvan Woodland Gardens. The rabbi and five Christian pastors would be asked to speak for five minutes each. The whole community would be invited. The service would be called Commemoration, Hope, and Peace: A Coming Together. And though I'm a little uncomfortable in that kind of setting, I agreed to take part and was honored to do so.

But what does one say at such a service? The service was about the holocaust; yet it was about more than the holocaust. It was an effort to bring people of diverse backgrounds and faith together in unity and respect. After praying and thinking about it, I came up with the comments below. I don't know why I'm posting them on my blog, really. Other participants had better things to say. But if my remarks help foster understanding and respect for one another in spite of clear differences, then that would be a good thing. So if you're interested, read on.


In Pierre Van Paassen’s book about the rise of the Third Reich, he describes a day when a group of Nazi Brown Shirts captured a rabbi in his study as he was preparing his Sabbath sermon. They mocked and humiliated him, then they stripped him and beat him. As they did, they laughed and said, “This lash is for Abraham; this one is for Isaac; this one is for Jacob.” After they tired of beating him, they took scissors and sheared his locks and his beard and mocked him some more.

“Say something in Hebrew,” the Nazi Captain ordered.

“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart,” the rabbi slowly pronounced the Hebrew words. But one of the other officers interrupted him. “Were you preparing your sermon this morning?” he asked him.

“Yes,” said the rabbi.

“Well, you can preach it here to us. You’ll never again see your synagogue; we’ve burned it. So go ahead, preach the sermon! All quiet now, everybody; Jacob is going to preach a sermon to us.”

“Could I have my hat?” asked the rabbi.

“Can’t you preach without a hat?” the captain asked.

“Give him his hat!” he commanded. Someone handed the rabbi his hat and he put it on his head. The sight made the Nazi thugs laugh all the louder. The man was naked and shivering as he spoke: “God created man in his image and his likeness,” the rabbi said. “That was to have been my text for this Sabbath.”

Talk about a moment thick with irony. We human beings wreak so much destruction on each other in the name of power and greed and God, and when we do, it’s not just an attack on a fellow human being; it’s an attack on the image of God in each of us.

It’s not news that there are great differences among us—even among those of us in this room. We don’t all believe the same things and we are kidding ourselves to profess otherwise. We probably have different views of reality and morality. I’m sure we have different views of God and how one comes to God and knows God. I read not long ago of a Christian minister who attended an interfaith gathering in a large city. The group was composed of a Muslim imam, a couple of Jewish rabbis, and a handful of Christian ministers from a variety of denominations and nationalities. They had gathered to talk about how they could work together to build bridges among the diverse religious and ethnic groups in their city. As these leaders took turns talking about such things, it was obvious that everyone was dancing around the issue, walking on eggshells, trying carefully not to offend anyone or say anything someone might disagree with. And that was taking that meeting to the same place most all of those meetings go—which is nowhere. Finally, one of the Christian ministers took his turn. He said something to this effect. “Honestly, I’m a little uncomfortable in this setting, and here’s why: my faith compels me to try to convert all of you.” As you can imagine, there was an uneasy silence; the elephant in the room had been exposed. Then the Muslim imam spoke up and said, “You know, I feel the exact same way.” I don’t know what they accomplished in the meeting, but it became a lot more honest, and I suspect, a lot more productive.

We acknowledge our many differences. That’s okay. That’s healthy. But I think we can at least agree on this: we are all made in the image of God—black people, white people, Hispanic people, healthy people, sick people, old people, special needs people, the most moral person to the most reprobate, Jews, Muslims, Christians, anybody and everybody, knitted together in their mother’s womb by the glorious hand of God, fearfully and wonderfully made. And if we can agree on that, then in spite of our differences, maybe we can treat one another with love rather than hate, with respect rather than disdain, with humility rather than arrogance, with compassion rather than anger, and with kindness rather than violence. And in spite of the fact that not all Christians do this, that’s the way my Lord Jesus calls me to act.

So we’ve gathered today to remember the horrible, unspeakable atrocities of the Holocaust. While we can’t fix that or all the other genocide that’s gone on in the world since then, we can do this: we can at least treat one another right in Hot Springs. It’s not the world, but it’s our world, and that would be a good place to start.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Things I Learned from My Mother

On May 1, 1928, Joan Telfer Campbell took her first breath. That same woman would later watch me take my first breath too. My mother died on Christmas Eve in 2009. If she was still with us, she would turn 83 years old today. Honestly, I don’t think about her all that often. That’s for self-protection. When I think of her I hold a mixed bag of emotion: gratitude mixed with guilt. I feel guilt that I didn’t love her as well as I should have, wasn’t there for her as she probably needed me to be. And yet I feel grateful for her influence in my life. To celebrate her birthday, I thought I’d reflect on some of the lessons she taught me—most of them more caught than taught, really, but important things that continue to give direction to the way I live my life.

Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so. I don’t remember not knowing the name of Jesus. My mother saw to it. She taught me that the Bible is God’s word and that it is important to read it every day. I saw her do it. I still do it.

Work is good. She was a hard worker. After her stroke or whatever it was in 1964 that rendered her right side essentially useless for the rest of her life, she learned to use her left side and became the fastest left-handed typist in the history of the world. She worked for the same attorney for almost 40 years, never made much money, never took vacation, rarely called in sick, and gave more than a day’s work for a day’s pay. I never heard her complain once. She was grateful to have a job. She also encouraged and allowed us boys to have jobs at very young ages. I have her work ethic ingrained in me.

Education counts. She was always very bright. She didn’t get to go to college till well into her adult years, and she didn’t get to finish her degree even then, but she always encouraged her boys to get an education, and I think she was proud when we did so.

Read books. She watched her share of television, but the woman was an avid reader. She read spiritual books. She read mysteries. She read Shakespeare. I don’t know how many book clubs she was part of over the course of her life, but they were many. And in her retirement she volunteered at the local library. I read a lot of books too. I wish she could have lived long enough to enjoy a Kindle. She would have really liked that.

When it’s time for kids to be let go, let ‘em go. She raised us boys to be independent, to take care of ourselves, to clean up our own messes, and to purchase our own stuff. She set us free to live our lives as we felt led to lead them. When it was time to let us go, she let us go.

Theology matters. She left her beloved Presbyterian church over bad theology. She was a Sunday School teacher and was disturbed at the curriculum. She said it questioned the truth of the Bible. She tried to make a case for changing the curriculum. She was largely ignored, and she left a church and denomination she loved because she felt they had turned their back on God’s word. Thankfully, in her latter years, the church came back to classic Presbyterian theology and she gladly went back. As a pastor, this was a good lesson for me to learn. It’s made me take my theology seriously too.

The tithe is the Lord’s. Even when we had nothing, she made sure to tithe what she had. She made sure we kids knew it too. She wasn’t doing that to brag; she was doing that to teach us a lesson. When you put God first in your finances, God will take care of you. She believed that. She practiced that. And I do too.

I could probably think of others, but this will do for now. I know this is too little too late, but it’s my way of honoring her on her birthday. It’s my way of saying that in spite of my inattention to her since I left home some 37 years ago, I learned from her, profited from her wisdom, and am a better person for having been her son. Happy 83rd Birthday, Mother.