Sunday, May 25, 2014

He Never Knew the Difference He Made

Count me as one of those Americans who grieves the fact that most of our World War II veterans are gone now.  These are the men who impacted my life in so many ways, and America is diminished without them.  So on this Memorial weekend, let me share a story from a surprising email I received just a few weeks ago.

The email came via our church’s website.  It came from Michael Hurst, a Canadian, a Christian, businessman and historian who has lived and worked in Taiwan since 1997.  He’s devoted the past 17 years of his life to researching the story of the Allied prisoners of war held captive by the Japanese in Taiwan during World War II.  In the last 17 years, Michael has found and contacted more than 500 of the former 4,375 POWs who were held in camps there.  He wants their sacrifices and their stories to be told.

As he interviewed these former POWs, he kept hearing a particular name over and over again.  That name is Kenneth Scott.  Ken served aboard the Escort Carrier USS Santee, ship involved in rescuing and evacuating POWs from Taiwan in September, 1945.  Michael had been searching for Ken more than 15 years.  He finally found what he hoped was a connection through First Baptist Church of Hot Springs, Arkansas—thus, the shot-in-the-dark email.

That shot-in-the-dark hit the bulls-eye.  Ken had been a member of our church from 2001 until his death just after this past Christmas.  Michael wanted to find Ken so he could tell Ken what a profound difference he had made in the lives of so many of those POWs.  Numbers of those POWs told Michael that as they were on their way to Manila from Taiwan on the Santee, they received a visit from Kenneth Scott.  He came around to visit them and gave them a little Gideon’s New Testament and Psalms with a blue cover.  They were so moved at this act of kindness, and it brought them such comfort and encouragement to know someone cared for them.  Most of the men had lost all their possessions as POWs, and this was the first new thing they had to begin their new life as free men.  Some were helped greatly through the trauma they had to endure post-war as there was no PTSD counselling available back then.

Michael shared a couple of stories.  Here’s the first one:

Very early on in my work, one POW contacted me who had received the Testament and was still so thrilled that he cherished it and wanted to return it to either Kenneth or his family in memory of what he had done for him.  At first the POW sent me a photocopy of the cover and the inside page of the Testament to me help me trace Kenneth.  Later he personally gave me the Testament for our POW Museum collection and I have it and cherish it even more now.  When I visit schools and put on displays, I always include Kenneth's Testament in the display and tell the story of how this sailor gave it to one of the POWs after rescue.  People are always moved and blessed by the story.

And here’s the second:

I had another contact from the daughter of a former POW who had passed away in recent years and she told me that her father was not a particularly religious man but that he kept that Testament and cherished it dearly because of the act of kindness and love shown by Kenneth in giving it to him.  Later I received other notes and photocopies of Testaments and pages from other Santee POWs and they all had Kenneth's name written inside of them with exactly the same stamp and information.

Michael assumed Kenneth must have been a chaplain.  He was not.  He was a simple sailor.  Kenneth told me some about his war experiences.  His ship, the Santee, was among the ships involved in the first Japanese kamikaze attacks on American naval forces.  Ken said, “When those planes started diving right toward our ship, we really had to screw up our courage and just try to keep doing our jobs.”  He told me some stories, but he never said one word about giving the New Testament.  Not one word.  I don’t think his family knew anything about it either.

I suspect that Kenneth just did that because he was a Christian man trying to follow Jesus’ command to do for others what you would have them do for you.  He must have figured a New Testament would help mend his life had he been broken every way a man can be broken in a Japanese prison camp.  So he gave the Testaments.  Knowing Ken, I am confident he did it with no fanfare or search for notoriety.  He was just trying to share a witness of the love of God for men whose experience must have surely made so many of them doubt it.  And what an impact Ken’s small act of kindness made on so many of those men!

Now here’s the kicker: I don’t think Ken ever had a clue God had used his life to do such good and to give such hope to broken men.

Well, he does now.  Ken died at the end of this past December.  And what a thrill and surprise he must have experienced when waiting at the gate to greet him were many of those POWs who had preceded him there.  I can imagine the conversation:

“That New Testament changed the course of my life.”

“God used the message of that Testament to help mend my broken places.”

“When you gave me that Bible I had assumed everyone except my mother had forgotten me.  But you didn’t.  And God didn’t.  And trusting in the Jesus in that New Testament is why I’m here today.”

Wow!  It must have been incredible.  I can see Ken with a look of shock and surprise, quietly turning attention away from himself to the Lord who had come to greet him too.  And I can see Ken whispering to Jesus, “I didn’t have a clue.  I never even knew.”  To which Jesus smiled a broad smile and whispered back, “But I knew, Ken.  I knew.  Well done, good and faithful servant.  Enter into the joy of your Master!”

Not all veteran stories are of military exploits and heroics.  Some are just Christian people acting like Christians in the midst of the violence and the death and the brokenness of war.  That’s Kenneth’s story.

What was it Paul wrote to the Corinthians?

Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain (1 Cor. 15:57).


For more information on Michael Hurst’s work check out his website:

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Have We Lost Our Minds?

Those of you who read my blog posts know that I rarely engage in social commentary—now and then, but not often.  Well, this post is going to be one of those now and then times.  Unless you live on another planet, and especially if you live in Twitter world, you’ve witnessed yet another chapter in the unholy crusade to force Americans to legitimize homosexual behavior as “normal” and “heroic.”  The St. Louis Rams drafted Michael Sam in the seventh round.  Sam, a pretty good defensive lineman from the University of Missouri, decided a few months ago to make public his homosexual proclivities.  He was the first football player to do so.  And the media swooned.  Sports Illustrated put him on its cover—not because of his football skills but because of his declaration.  He is hailed a hero in many circles.  Really?  Maybe there was a day when that declaration took guts.  Now it’s commonplace.  But it got him a Sports Illustrated cover and a congratulatory call from the President of the United States—far more attention than his football ever brought him.  So the Rams drafted him late.  Hey, if he wants to be public about his homosexuality, that’s his business.  (Of course, by going public in a bold way he really wants to make it everybody’s business.)  And if the Rams want to draft him and inherit not only what could be a good player but the media circus that comes with it, that’s their business.  I’ve got no beef with that.  It’s a free country.  Live and let live.

But I do have a beef with this: a Miami Dolphins player, Don Jones, who played college ball at Arkansas State, tweeted upon Sam’s draft announcement “OMG” and “Horrible.”  And the man was crucified: he was fined, told to take down those two tweets, dismissed from participating with the team till he could get his act (uh, their act) together, and ordered to go to some sort of “educational training.”  I’m not making this up.

And I read a couple of days ago that a similar thing happened with Marshall Henderson, a show-off, big mouth, but darn good basketball player at Ole Miss.  Here’s his beef: ESPN’s SportsCenter decided to air (over and over) Michael Sam’s kiss of his boyfriend after the news came that he was drafted.  Henderson tweeted that he would be boycotting SportsCenter because he thought it was inappropriate to show that kiss.  To paraphrase Henderson, “I’ve got two brothers who are 7 and 11 and I don’t think it’s appropriate for them to see that.”  That took Henderson to the front of the line for the next batch of tar and feathers.  He was corrected by the Ole Miss Athletic Director.   He had to recant.  He changed his story to say the tweet was some kind of “experiment” for a friend who studies psychology—you know, to check people’s reactions.  And like Jones, Henderson will be forced to endure some kind of “training” until he can spout the party line that homosexual behavior is “normal” and “heroic.”

Here’s the deal: for most of human history and certainly American history, homosexual behavior was considered deviant sexual behavior.  I took Abnormal Psych in college in the mid-70s.  The text explained that it was the first edition of that text not to classify homosexual behavior as “abnormal.”  Science is inconclusive as to whether a person is “born” that way or if it’s a learned behavior or just another moral choice a human being makes.  And yet when someone expresses a view that’s supported by most history, much science, and the historic ethical systems of the major religions that declare homosexual behavior as immoral or sinful, in today’s culture that person is considered abnormal and out of step.  And I'm not talking about the hateful, vicious taunts of the Westboro Baptist Church crowd here (even though they have the freedom to be jerks).  I'm talking about people just speaking their mind on the subject.  If they have First Amendment rights, why must they be censored, punished, and “trained” until they get it right?  Or in the case of Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich, fired because he contributed a thousand bucks six years ago to Proposition 8, a California initiative to prevent legalization of gay marriage in that state.  Have we lost our minds?

We’ve become a nation of the thin-skinned.  Inherent in the freedom of speech is the possibility that someone will say something to you or about you or about one of your cherished viewpoints that you find offensive and hurtful.  But instead of dealing with this like grown-ups, like people who are truly free, we have made offending someone else one of culture’s chief sins.  We cry and pout like babies. Harry Truman said, “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.”  I don’t care if you’re a homosexual or a devoted Christian or a Muslim or a Star Trek fan—if you don’t want to take some heat about your identity, then don’t be so in-your-face, public about it; keep it to yourself or within the circle of people you know who won’t challenge you or give you a hard time.  That goes for the Michael Sams and the Tim Tebows of the world.  Just shut up and live your life.  Or risk living with the abuse that comes from being so public about it.

And please don’t assume that people who speak against your identity hate you or are scared of you.  Maybe they feel this way.  Maybe they don’t.  It’s possible to love people and treat them with respect whether you agree with their lifestyle or not.  Why can’t we just agree to disagree?  Sam goes public with his homosexuality; Jones calls his draft horrible—why aren’t both free to express their views without Jones getting hammered?  ESPN airs the homosexual kiss; Henderson doesn’t like it—why can’t both be free to express their views without Henderson having to be retrained?    

Well, it seems most people are willing to cut each other some slack here in many areas—especially in politics where candidates routinely lie about one another without repercussion or retraining.  But there’s no slack to be cut in this issue of homosexual behavior.  So at the risk of someone wanting to send me to some kind of “sensitivity training,” let me share my take on these matters.  I believe homosexual behavior is a sin on the same scale as heterosexual behavior that is outside of God’s boundary of marriage.  All sexual sin is a reflection of the brokenness of our sexuality.  And sexual sin, like all other sins (pride, idolatry, greed, selfishness, murder, stealing, etc.), required the death and resurrection of a sinless Jesus Christ to redeem it and heal it and save us from the penalty and the power of it.  Though it may still be a struggle, in Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit, we don’t have to be slaves to our sins any more. 

I also believe marriage is clearly defined in the Bible and in thousands of years of human history as a relationship between a man and a woman.  I’m opposed to sanctioning homosexual marriage (as an Arkansas Circuit judge did this week).  Call their relationship a civil union if you want but don’t call it a marriage.  This is not just a matter of semantics in my judgment.  Marriage is not just two people living together in a committed relationship but a man and a woman living together in a committed relationship.  Because I take this stance, does that mean I hate persons who identify themselves as homosexual since I disagree with them on these matters?  No—no more than it means I hate the couple that chooses to live together before marriage or the man or woman who commits adultery or the man who struggles with pornography.  Is it possible to call sin sin and love sinners?  Yes.  God is able to do this, and we can do this too.  As C. S. Lewis once pointed out, we treat ourselves that way every day.  And do my views on sexual sin mean that I need some kind of “training” so I can fit in with current cultural trends?  No.  I think I get what they’re teaching.  They run that course in the media every day of the week.  Here’s the short version: Sex however you want it, with the exception of children (for now), is culture’s highest value.  And disagreeing with or offending someone about the morality of their sexual preferences is culture’s chief sin. 

This is symptomatic of a larger issue in contemporary American culture: human beings are essentially reduced to little more than sexual beings.  Witness all the sex talk, sexy music videos, magazine covers, advertisements adorned with scantily clad men and women, ED and male enhancement ads, churches fussing over homosexuality, and this orchestrated crusade to have society legitimize and normalize one’s sexual identity as if that’s the most important thing, the essentially defining thing, about any individual.  Is sex really a human being's greatest good?  Is orgasm our highest aspiration?  As Will Willimon wrote, “We simply cannot imagine any fully human being who is not driven by genitalia.”[1]  So I ask again: have we lost our minds?

But back to the issue at hand: while I'm more sympathetic in this issue with Jones and Henderson, I do wish Michael Sam well in his NFL career.  I hope he succeeds like I hope all those draft picks (especially my Razorback draftees) succeed.  What athlete doesn't dream to make it in the bigs some day?  But won’t it be interesting to watch what happens if Michael doesn’t make the team (like so many seventh-rounders don’t)?  The Rams are media darlings now, but I suspect they will catch you-know-what if they don’t make a place for him on the roster. Because sadly, I’m afraid we have lost our minds and this situation really isn’t just about football anymore.

[1]William H. Willimon, Why Jesus? (Nashville: Abingdon, 2010), 71.  

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Namibia and Beyond

Some months ago, missionaries Bryan and Dana Bullington invited me to help lead a conference for church leaders in Windhoek, Namibia.  He titled the conference This City Matters.  Bryan didn’t have to ask me twice.  I was all in.  My assignment was to develop the biblical/theological basis for God’s love for cities and the urgency for cross-cultural missions.  Other conference leaders focused on matters theological and practical that impact life in the city: the gospel, technology, demonization, fatherlessness, and sex-saturation.  The conference began on Thursday evening and we didn’t say the amen over it until Sunday evening.

Here are some of my takeaways from the experience:

Most people don’t know where Namibia is.  I wasn’t sure myself.  As I was preparing for the trip, several people told me that were praying for me and my trip to Nambia (no doubt confusing Namibia with nearby Zambia).  Namibia was once called Soutwest Africa.  It is tucked into the southwest corner of Africa bordering South Africa on the east and the Atlantic Ocean on the west.  It is high desert—Windhoek is slightly higher in elevation than Denver.  And the country has a strong German and English heritage.

Some of the locals fondly refer to Namibia as Africa-lite.  I’ve been four times to West Africa with its desert conditions, extreme temperatures, difficult roads, and Muslim culture.  The people are wonderful and hospitable but the conditions are challenging.  Not so in Namibia.  It felt more like Europe than Africa.  The city of Windhoek, anyway, is highly developed.  You can even drink the water.   

I didn’t need a translator.  This is very rare for a foreign mission trip.  The citizens all speak English.  Heck, some of them speak it better than I do.  English and Afrikans are the local languages.  Most are fluent in both.  In terms of preparation that meant that I got to prepare twice as much as usual when I preach or teach on a foreign field.  That felt a little weird, but it was nice and I think increased communication between conference participants and myself.

I served among a company of heroes.  I was the only pastor among the conference leaders.  The other leaders are current missionaries.  One of the leaders is a retired missionary—he and his wife have long been my missionary heroes.  These are people who have completely sold out to Jesus Christ.  They have been willing to go wherever He leads them.  They all live half a world away from most of their family.  They serve in challenging settings.  They have a big vision, broad experience, a vital faith, a rich sense of humor, and a burning desire to see people from every nation, tribe, and tongue come to know Jesus.  And every day of their lives is given to that end.  I learned so much from each one of them.  I wasn’t worthy of the company I was keeping.

The city matters.  That was the theme of the conference, and it couldn’t be more on target.  Currently 81% of the population of the USA and Canada live in cities.  And by 2050 75% of the world’s population will live in urban areas.  Paul took the gospel to cities.  God loves cities.  Reach the cities, reach the world.

For a first try the conference was a success.  Over 120 registered.  Most were from Windhoek.  Four came from neighboring Botswana.  This kind of thing had never been tried before, so who knew how it might go.  Bryan and the New Song Family Church who organized and staffed it were pleased.  I can’t say enough about the quality of volunteers who put the conference together and made it happen.  They enlisted the help of musicians from other Windhoek churches and utilized a speaker from the local Campus Crusade for Christ.  It was a team effort and God blessed. 

It’s time for Namibia to become a sending nation.  More than one local person told me that like most of Africa Namibia has been a receiving nation when it comes to missions.  Missionaries come to Namibia.  But it’s time for Namibia to send missionaries deeper into their own city and local people groups.  It’s time for the church in Namibia to send missionaries into other places in the outlying regions of their own country and other countries in Africa that need the gospel.  It’s time for this to happen.  I get a big smile on my face just thinking of the impact this could have on the kingdom of God, not to mention the Christians and churches of Namibia.

Oh, and on a lighter note, two last takeaways.  First, I got to spend a few hours on a game safari in which I saw lions and giraffes and cheetahs and kudu and hembock and springbok and wildebeest and elephants and hippos and crocs.  To see them from a Range Rover in their natural habitat was pretty cool.  Second, on the flight over and the flight back I destroyed the competition in the In-Flight Trivia game.  Why my feeble little mind retains essentially unimportant information is beyond me.  But it’s always nice to be a winner.

And here’s the larger truth: anyone who takes a missional step is a winner.  Anyone who prays and gives and goes and shares and seeks first the kingdom of God above all things is a first-rate winner.  Thanks for praying for me, the conference, and the leaders.  God answered many of your prayers and, I believe, will continue to answer them in the days and months to come.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Happy Birthday, Mother

So my mother would have turned 86 today.  She died on Christmas Eve, 2009, after lengthy illness and a growing dementia.  The last time I saw her was on this date in 2008 when we gathered to celebrate her 80th birthday.  It took her all day to remember my name.

I’ve written about my mother before.  Our relationship could have been better.  And that’s on me.  She loved me.  Ours was not a warm, sentimental relationship so much.  Emerging from a painful divorce and serious physical ailments, she did the best she could.  She raised us to be independent, to take care of ourselves, stand on our own two feet, and all the clich├ęs that work along that line.  And my two brothers and I seized that independence and ran with it into our own worlds and lives and didn’t make the kind of time for her she probably needed but would have never ever asked for.  My younger brother and his wife did the best of taking care of her.  We moved her into an assisted living place a few blocks from their home in Olathe, Kansas, about three years before she died.  He took care of her bills and what not and was the son every mother wants and needs.

I dropped the ball there.  My only real contribution, aside from some financial support, was to drive to Branson and take her out to lunch each year on her birthday.  The conversation was pretty much the same every year—a little bit about the family, a little politics, a scattered memory or two, then kind of an awkward hug and I’d be on my way home.  I didn’t even spend the night.

I regret all that now.  I wish I had done better.  I wish I had loved her better.  She made some sacrifices for my brothers and me along the way, probably more than we know.  And I don’t think I honored her as I should have across the years.  I’ve asked the Lord to forgive me, and I know He has.  I asked my mother to forgive me.  Her response: “There’s nothing to forgive.”  Yes, there was.

That’s why I’m so grateful for heaven.  One of these days when it comes my time to join her there, the hug won’t be awkward, the conversation will be rich, and the love will be personal, deep, and everything it should have been and could have been on earth but just never was.  Oh heaven—when all things are made new, including relationships with loved ones that never quite lived up to their potential on earth!  Oh heaven—where the sadnesses of earth are swallowed up in the purest joy! 

Until then, I think of her now and then and especially on her birthday.  So, Happy Birthday, Mother.  Thanks for understanding.  And I’ll do better when I get up there with you.