Monday, October 24, 2011

Learning from a Foreigner

We Americans think we’re so smart. While non-Americans often love the idea of America, they’re not so wild about Americans. They consider us loud and arrogant. You know why? Because Americans tend to be loud and arrogant. God has blessed me with the opportunity to see various places in the world. It’s usually easy to pick out the Americans that are there. They’re the loud ones. They’re the ones who seem to carry a sense of entitlement to whatever they want: attention, service, a better bargain, respect, deferential treatment, an expectation that the whole world should speak English. Nothing personal here, but compared to others in the world, Americans do tend to be loud and arrogant.

And that’s a shame because there is so much we could learn if we’d shut the heck up and listen to those outside of our culture and our country. Travel to Latin America or Africa, and if you’re paying attention you’ll learn that time should be our servant rather than our master. That’s a hard lesson to learn for those of us who live by the clock, on the clock, and with a clock on our wrist when we’re awake and by our bed when we’re asleep. But instead of learning such a helpful truth, we Americans tend to categorize the non-time-conscious as lazy or unfocused or ignorant. And we arrogantly pronounce that judgment as we pop a couple of heart pills and swig our ulcer medicine. We can learn a thing or two from foreigners.

Just yesterday, one of my Russian friends preached in the church that I serve. His name is Pavel Ruseev. He’s really good at Russian but barely speaks a lick of English. He’s a pastor in Russia with a great vision to plant churches in a nation that doesn’t have a church on every corner or even in every town. I met him a couple of years ago in Russia and bonded with him immediately. He’s young, he’s passionate, he’s entrepreneurial, and he’s trying to do God’s work in a culture that’s blowing a 100 mph wind in his face no matter which direction he turns. I don’t see how he does this and keeps his sanity at the same time. Must be God’s grace. Anyway, he preached a very fine sermon yesterday on Jesus’ great commandment to love God and love others. But I don’t want to talk about his sermon; I want to talk about the three things he said that have stood out to him about American culture in the month or so he’s been here.

Pavel said he is amazed at the size of food portions in our restaurants. In Russia, a little dab will do you. In America, load up the plate—“Can you use a bigger serving spoon, please?” “Super-size that for me, would you?” My first thought was that he wouldn’t be quite so surprised about the size of food portions in America if he would just look at the size of so many Americans. We don’t miss many meals and we usually go back for seconds. Geez … who knows what Pavel might have thought had he visited an all-you-can-eat buffet! So many in the world are hungry, and we keep piling it on the plate. Pavel didn’t seem offended by this, more amazed really. But it kind of offended me. We Americans could do better, you know. I could do better. Eat a little less, share a little more, care about the hungry and find ways to help.

Here’s a second thing that stood out to Pavel: Americans do so much of life without having to get out of the car. He said, “You go to a restaurant, and you don’t have to get out of your car to get your food. You go to the bank, and you don’t have to get out of the car to do your business. In Fayetteville, I went to a movie and didn’t have to get out of the car to see it. I was in Arkansas a week-and-a-half before I took my first walk.” I didn’t have the heart to tell him that there are a few places in America he could even go to church without getting out of the car. Pavel’s right, you know. He lives in a culture that relies on public transportation and shoe leather. Only the more well-to-do can afford a personal car; everybody else walks or takes the bus. And if you take a bus you’ve still got to walk some distance to the bus stop. He talked about his grandmother who used to walk to the nearest church every weekend. It was 45 miles away. She left on Saturday and returned home late Sunday evening. “You do everything from your car,” he said. I’m just glad he didn’t ride with somebody who drove around a Walmart parking lot for ten minutes just trying to get the spot closest to the door. Even though getting plenty of exercise is not a problem for me, his comments made me want to use my body more and my machine less.

Pavel then said that the third thing that stuck out to him about American culture is this: so many, many churches. He had no idea. Oh, he knew America was far more churched than Russia, but he had no idea that there really was a church on almost every corner. This observation struck me at a deep level. On the one hand, I was grieved for Russia and the need for more gospel witness, more churches, more communities of faith for a people so in need of Christ. On the other hand, I was grieved for America: so many churches, so little gospel witness; so many churches, so few devoted disciples of Jesus; so many churches, so little impact on our culture, so little assistance to the poor and those in need—and why? Maybe it’s because we’re more about glitz than God’s glory, more about entertainment than worship, more about self than others, more about “our church” than God’s kingdom. Most American Christians see the church as an organization they can use to make their life a little better rather than as the bride and body of Christ which forms me as a disciple of Jesus and sends me into the world in His name and for His glory. How else can you explain the disparity between the number of churches and the lack of influence? Pavel’s words stirred in me a desire to be a better pastor, to love and serve Christ’s church more deeply and encourage others to do the same.

So forgive me, God, for being an arrogant American who thinks I know more than folks from other cultures. And thank you, Pavel, for teaching me a thing or two about my own culture. I’ve always wanted to be a lifelong learner—even when that learning comes through a foreigner.

Friday, October 14, 2011


So Dayna and I went to see the new Christian film, Courageous. It’s produced by a church in Georgia that has produced other films like Facing the Giants and Fireproof. Courageous is a compelling film for families and especially for fathers. If you’re inclined to cry at movies, take some Kleenex. If you’re not inclined to cry at movies, take some Kleenex.

Courageous is a film about fathering, and it stirred me to think about the way I fathered my kids. Of course, with kids who are 31 and 29, my fathering is pretty much past tense. “I’m feeling a little guilty,” I said to Dayna as we were driving home from the theater. “I could have done better with the kids.” I don’t think I was courageous.

Having been raised in a home without a father, I was ill-equipped to be one. I didn’t read any books on the subject; I just sort of followed my gut. Sometimes that worked out pretty well. Sometimes it didn’t. Like the Saturday I was supposed to watch the kids (who were about 4 and 2 at the time). I put them down for a nap about the time the Razorback game was supposed to start. Nathan, the oldest, refused to go to sleep. He kept asking for one thing or another, kept bugging me like a mosquito in a tent, kept me from being able to watch my game. Exercising zero maturity, I didn’t deal with the issue, I got into a back and forth exchange with him—my line usually being, “Don’t make me come in there.” Being a mouthy kid, he wouldn’t shut up, so (during a game timeout) I pulled him out of his room and took him to the kitchen sink. He wants to be mouthy; I’ll deal with his mouth. I’ll wash that boy’s mouth out with soap. But dang! There wasn’t any bar soap at the sink, so I grabbed the next best thing available: dishwashing liquid. (Before you judge me you must realize that I was in a hurry; the game was about ready to start again.) He was crying. I was mad. And I was going to win. So I smeared some of that blue soapy liquid on my finger and rubbed it in his mouth. And do you know what he did? He looked up at me with tears rolling down his pudgy cheeks and blew the biggest soap bubble you ever saw! Hysterical. I got to laughing and he got to laughing and I hugged to my chest the one I was ready to exile to Siberia just moments before. Not very courageous, huh?

I wasn’t much better with my daughter. Having been raised with two brothers, I had no concept on how to raise a girl. As demonstrated in the previous paragraph, I knew all about boys (yeah, right). I knew about wrestling and playing ball, about getting dirty and eating like a pig, about bodily functions and acting crude. And I knew how to discipline a boy too. They take a spanking pretty good. I could yell at a boy when I needed too. But how do you discipline a girl? From the first time I saw her, I wasn’t sure I had it in me to yell at her. And I wasn’t sure I could spank her either. So I was kind of nervous about having a girl. Could I discipline her when needed? Could I find a way to enter her world? Other than the GI Joe I played with in the mid-60s, I’d never been around dolls in my life. And even then GI Joe was no girl doll. He was always shooting the enemy and blowing stuff up. He’d have had no trouble wiping out Barbie if he thought she was a Communist. He was one bad dude. But this girl world was different—dolls and tea parties, Kaboodles and My Little Ponies, jewelry and makeup, dresses and ribbons and lace. I was glad she liked sports—we made some connection there. But on the whole, I was out of my element and would be the whole time she was growing up. But I loved her, how I loved her and love her still! Yet what’s so courageous about that? She was easy to love.

So if I was grading myself on my daddy-work I’d have to give myself a B. I think I was generally better than average but certainly not exceptional and certainly not courageous. Truth is: both of our kids were easy to raise and both turned out well. They love God, serve Him in their churches, live responsibly, and are raising their own kids to do the same. I credit this end-product to many prayers, Dayna’s influence, and two good churches we’ve been a part of. We did do our best to show them Christ, keep them in the Scripture, and keep them in the church. We did love them unconditionally. We laughed a lot—a whole lot. And we never for a moment forgot that these two kids belong to God and are only on loan to us. The bottom line is that God was merciful, and God shaped these kids into the adults they are today—in part because of us, in part in spite of us, especially in spite of me.

I can see it now: “Let’s make a movie about John’s fathering.”

“Ok, but what will we call it?”

“How about Courageous?”

“Don’t make me laugh.”

“Then what would you call it?”

“I’d call it … Blessed.”

And so would I.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Take That, Cancer!

I sure get weary of burying my friends. A week ago I spoke at the funeral of David Martin. David and his wife Debbie were part of our church family for three years or so before work took them to the Dallas area. We continued to stay connected via email.

And when David was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor a year and some months ago, we exchanged some of the richest email correspondence of my ministry. David sharing his heart; me trying to encourage him; me in my health telling David that God is with us in suffering; David on the frontline of suffering confirming for me that it’s true. I saved most of that correspondence and am very glad I did. Even though David didn’t want the tumor, he certainly embraced his condition and searched for God in the midst of it like a miner searches for gold. And David hit the mother lode. Did he waver in his faith from time to time? Yes, on rare occasions, but never for very long. He just kept leaning into Jesus and found Him in every twist and turn of his disease.

A few months ago I shared with David a poetic expression that was supposedly read at the funeral of a military chaplain who had died from cancer. Here it is: Cancer is so limited... It cannot cripple love. It cannot shatter hope. It cannot corrode faith. It cannot take away peace. It cannot destroy confidence. It cannot kill friendship. It cannot shut out memories. It cannot silence courage. It cannot invade the soul. It cannot reduce eternal life. It cannot quench the Spirit. It cannot lessen the power of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

I had hoped to encourage David, but again he encouraged me. He sent me back a response in which he wrote his own reflection on cancer …

It’s not about the cancer; it's about the glance, or touch on the shoulder by a friend who leans forward and says "I have been thinking about you and praying for you, I love you brother.”

It's not about the cancer; it's about the concerned look/expression of a frightened family member and the comfort they experience as we all learn to hope more fully in God.

It's not about the cancer; it's about your spouse, your son, your daughter or sibling, and the pain they endure and the challenges they experience as they walk with you on this journey.

It's not about the cancer; It's about relationships—past, present and future.

It's not about the cancer; it's about living life. It's about loving life. It's about God and His glory.

It's not about the cancer; it's about magnifying the person and name of Jesus Christ—to Whom be glory, forever and ever, Amen.

See what I mean? David leaned into Jesus. Though he also wrote about his moments of anxiety and fear, he always found his way back into the peace and comfort of Jesus. And not long before the disease robbed him of the ability to concentrate or type an email, David sent me this: “God is so beautiful lately. I’m beginning to understand why Pentecostals whoop and holler.” That was David.

So it was David in one corner and cancer in the other. They traded punches in the middle of the ring for more than a year. David fought valiantly. In his corner stood family and friends, doctors and nurses, who cheered him on and tended his wounds at the end of each round. Yet in spite of the courage and faith with which David fought the battle, cancer finally took him down to the grave. The evidence suggests that cancer won the battle—his death certificate will say as much. But don’t believe that evidence. It’s tainted. It’s tainted by shortsightedness that sees life as a fixed continuum between birth and death. It’s tainted by a cynicism that believes cancer is king and death is final.

But against that evidence is the Scripture—a lot of Scripture—like this one from the apostle Paul who knew much about suffering: "Therefore we do not lose heart. Though we’re wasting away on the outside, we’re being renewed every day on the inside. For our light and momentary troubles are preparing for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen but on what is unseen. What is seen is temporary; what is unseen is eternal. And we know that if this earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house in the heavens, not built by human hands."

David believed that with all his heart. He knew Jesus was with him in the battle—the same Jesus who suffered and died and was raised from dead on the third day; the same Jesus who is the first and the last, the beginning and the end, the one who was dead but is alive forevermore; the same Jesus who holds the keys to death and the grave, who is with us and who is for us, and who is the resurrection and the life. David did cancer with Jesus. I so wish God had chosen to heal him this side of eternity, but for reasons known only to God, He healed David with the healing from which he will never be sick again. That’s why cancer didn’t win and why cancer doesn’t get the last word on David—God does, heaven does, life does.

So take that, cancer! You knocked David down, but you cannot knock him out! And even more, you will be knocked out in the end. And as you lay beaten and crushed on the mat, David and a host of other believers you’ve victimized over the centuries will raise their hands in victory and praise to the God who will finally set all things right.