Monday, August 8, 2016

Help for Saying Good-bye to Our Children

After reading so much on Facebook of the trials of sending that first child off to college, I was reminded of a sermon I preached in August of 2000 when my youngest headed off to UCA for her freshman year.  If you have one leaving home for any reason, maybe these reflections will help.  I called the sermon Go with God.  My text was Psalm 121.  I would encourage you to do some kind of send off with your child and read Psalm 121 over that child as a blessing.

Looking out my window, see you playing in the leaves;
It’s amazing how a little girl means all the world to me.
When I tell you that I love you, I love you more than words can say.
Smile, say cheese, pretty please, I wanna take your picture;
How’d you ever get so big, oh I gotta take your picture.
Hold on to the memory before the whole thing slips away.
I wish I could save these moments, put ‘em in a jar,
I wish I could stop the world from turning,
Keep things just the way they are.
I wish I could shelter you from everything
Not pure and sweet and good,
I know I can’t, I know I can’t,
But I wish I could.[1]
This is not a day I have looked forward to.  We take our youngest to college today.  From now on, when I drive up the hill to my house after work, her little red car won’t be in the driveway.  When I shout for her at the other end of the house, there’ll be no answer.  When I stick my head in her room, she won’t be there.  When we sit down to supper, her chair will be empty.  The phone will ring less.  The piano will sit silent.  And if I want to see her strawberry-blond, freckled-face countenance, I’ll have to look at pictures.  I know, I know, it’s not like she’s dead or anything.  We’ll still see her a lot.  But anybody who’s sent a kid to college knows that once they walk out that door, things are never quite the same. 
Just two years ago we sent our first one off to college.  Man, did I miss him!  We moved his stuff up to Jonesboro early in the month, but he didn’t leave until later.  And a couple of weeks later, when I watched his little gray truck roll down Meadowmere Terrace on his way to college and independence, it darn near killed me.  But I survived.  I think it helped having one still left at home.
And that one leaves today.  And will I ever miss her.  I wasn’t so sure what to think when she was born.  She was, after all, a girl.  And I knew nothing of girls.  Having been raised among three brothers and having a two-year-old son when she came into the world, I knew all about boys.  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?   When I saw her for the very first time, 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 really 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 her girl world was gonna be different.  Dolls and tea parties, Kaboodles and My Little Ponies, jewelry and makeup, dresses and ribbons and lace.  I hoped she’d at least like sports and was so pleased when she did.  But this girl thing was gonna be a whole new world for me.  I wasn’t sure I would ever be able to understand girls.  And after eighteen years I can honestly say: I don’t understand them any better.  But I wouldn’t trade her for all the boys in the world.  She is truly my beloved daughter in whom I am well pleased.  And she begins a new chapter in her life today.  I’m happy for her, but I’m a little sad for myself.  Our nest feels awfully empty.
Maybe that’s why that Collin Raye song appeals to me today.  He sings about special moments with his little girl in the present tense.  I’m using the song to look back.  “I wish I could save these moments, put ‘em in a jar. / I wish I could stop the world from turning, keep things just the way they are. / I wish I could shelter you from everything not pure and sweet and good. / I know I can’t. I know I can’t, but I wish I could.”
That’s a good song for mamas and daddies who have to say good-bye.  But I’ve found another good song too.  It’s a Bible song.  It’s Psalm 121, and I invite you to open your Bible to it this morning.  Psalm 121 is the second of a group of fifteen psalms known as the “Songs of Ascent”—psalms marked by rural flavor and simple piety; psalms associated with the pilgrim’s sojourn to Jerusalem for special holy seasons.  It’s a beautiful psalm for any journey, and it’s a wonderful way to say good-bye.  Hear the word of the Lord … (read the text).
Life is a series of hellos and good-byes, isn’t it?  And the good-byes are usually the hard part.  Most of us know something of saying good-bye to a loved one who is going on a trip without us.  Seeing our first-born off to that first day of kindergarten.  Waving to our child as the church van pulls out of the parking lot on the way to a week of summer camp.  Watching our child in the rear-view mirror as we leave the campus at which we’ve left her.  Waving good-bye as our child and her husband pull away from their wedding reception on their way to new places, new friends, and a new life.  Giving that last hug to old friends who are moving to a new opportunity in another part of the country.  Even standing over a gurney, kissing our loved one before he’s rolled off into an operating room.  Times like these are like the time when a trapeze artist lets go of the bar and hangs in mid-air, ready to catch another support: it’s a time of danger, of expectation, of uncertainty, of excitement, of extraordinary aliveness—a wild mixture of emotion.[2]  Our loved one is moving out from under our protective wings and watchful eye.  This requires a different kind of good-bye from the kind that says, “Bye, honey, I’m off to Wal-Mart.  Be right back.”  How do we say good-bye at the big transition points of life?  Psalm 121 can help us. 
Psalm 121 originated as a short liturgy for saying good-bye.[3]  Perhaps originally used to bless travelers on their way up the mountains to Jerusalem, the psalm has become a bon voyage for many journeys—a wonderful way to say good-bye.
The psalm is very optimistic, but it doesn’t have its head in the sand.  The psalm recognizes the dangers.  This is no escapist psalm.  The psalms are just too honest.  Even amid the peace of green pastures and still waters, David acknowledged in the 23rd Psalm that he still must negotiate “the valley of the shadow of death” and the presence of his enemies.  Like that hopeful psalm, Psalm 121 never claims that the journey will be easy either. 
“I lift up my eyes to the hills.”  The mountains leading to Jerusalem have a breathtaking quality about them, but there’s danger up there too.  There are idolatrous shrines in the high places that seduce the traveler to be unfaithful to the living God and to worship false gods instead.  There are steep cliffs and treacherous ledges where one slip could mean sudden death.  There are dark passes where thieves and robbers lurk.  There’s the blazing sun by day, and the cold, creeping chill of night—not to mention hungry bears on the prowl, and things that go bump in the night.  Mountains are beautiful.  Hills are awesome.  But there’s danger and evil up there too.
There are dangers in any journey really.  Will the airplane land safely?  Will we be able to drive through the fog without an accident?  Will the freedom and new ideas of college steal away faith and virtue from the young student?  Will the surgeon find something he didn’t expect?  Will the young couple make it or wind up in divorce court?  Will the child sink or swim in his new opportunity?  Will the promotion and impending move mean success or failure?  There are dangers in any journey.  And perhaps what scares us most of all is that we can’t always protect our loved ones from the dangers of their journey.
We have to let them go—danger or not.  People do not belong to us; they belong to God.  They must live their own lives—follow God’s leading as best they understand it, whether we like it or not, whether it looks dangerous or not.  We have to learn to say good-bye.  We have to let them go.  Even the dangers of the journey hold the potential to build character and maturity into the one we love and let go, but it’s still a little scary when it’s time to say good-bye.
That’s why we really say more than good-bye, we say, “Go with God.”  Psalm 121 recognizes the danger of the journey, but its focus is on the God of the journey.
“I lift up my eyes to the hills—where does my help come from?”  Well, it doesn’t come from the hills, as majestic and powerful as they may to be.  “My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven of earth.”  Why look to the hills when we can look to the Lord.  The Lord is larger than the hills, broader than the plains, deeper than the sea, higher than the heavens.  The Lord can hold the world in His hand.  He can spin a planet on His finger.  Don’t mistake creation for the Creator.  God is so above it all that He didn’t even have to break a sweat to make the stuff we call creation.  God spoke it into existence, and He made it all from nothing.  As Walter Sims put it:
Away out there, alone, above,
Without anything to make it of;
Without a saw, hammer, nail or screws
Or anything to fasten it to,
God simply spoke a word or two,
And the world came boldly into view.
So whether your journey takes you to the hills or the plains, to the next town or the other side of the world, every step you take will land you and your loved one in the realm of the One who made all things.  We can never get out of God’s territory or out of God’s reach.  Remember that the next time you say good-bye.
And remember this too: the Lord watches over us.  The psalmist describes God as a “watcher” or “keeper” six times in this brief psalm.  This reminds us that God is no impersonal executive, locked away in his office, shielded by an attack secretary, unaware or uninterested in the lives of his employees.  On the contrary, as our “watcher,” God takes the journey with us—a very present help every step of the way.  The duty of a watchman is to guard us, to keep an eye out for us, to protect us, and to stay awake at all times while he’s on duty.  The Lord is such a watchman, claims the psalm, and He is always on duty.
“The Lord watches over you.”
“He who watches over you will … neither slumber nor sleep”
“The Lord will keep you from all harm” (better translated “evil”).
“He will watch over your life.”
“The Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore”
(which means from birth through death and all the time in between).
At first hearing this sounds like a sham, doesn’t it?  Either the Lord’s not a very good watchman or the psalmist isn’t telling us the truth.  We’ve all known lots of people—good Christians even—who have been on the receiving end of one kind of harm or another, people who have been battered about by the evil in our world—the victims of crime or disease, persecution or untimely death.  So what’s the deal?  Is the psalm making us a promise that the Lord can’t keep?
Not at all.  Neither this psalm nor the Bible as a whole promises a life free from worry, injury, accident, or illness.  What it does promise is preservation from the evil of such things.  As Eugene Peterson puts it: “All the water in all the oceans cannot sink a ship unless it gets inside.  Nor can all the trouble in the world harm us unless it gets within us.” [4]  That’s the promise of the psalm—that God will keep evil from moving in and taking over our lives: “The Lord will keep you from all evil.”  Sounds an awful lot like the prayer Jesus taught us to pray: “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”  And that’s what this psalm promises—a deliverance from all the evil that assaults us in this world.  No matter what bad things come your way as you journey through life, none of that will ever separate you from God’s love or God’s purposes for your life.
And that’s important to remember.  When things are going badly, it’s easy to conclude that God has taken His eye off of us, or that He’s snoring soundly, unaware of our troubles, or even that He’s shifted His attention to some other Christian more interesting or more committed than we are.  This psalm keeps us from jumping to that conclusion and making that mistake.  “The Lord who watches over you … will neither slumber nor sleep.”  He watches over you day and night.  “The Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore.”  I hope you hear the good news in that!  You are never out of His care, never out of His sight, or never out of His reach.  Never.  “The Lord watches over you.”
This psalm is so helpful in reminding us that our Christian lives are not defined by our struggles and our stumbles, our hardships and our trials; our Christian lives are defined by the watching, guarding Lord who keeps us always in His care.  Remember that the next time you say good-bye.  Remember that you’re really saying, “Go with God”—because God is certainly going along too.
I share all this today knowing that this won’t make your good-byes any easier.  Saying good-bye at the big transitions of life are, like that trapeze artist hanging in mid-air, colored with a wild mixture of emotion—no matter what side of the good-bye you’re on.  There’s nothing wrong with tears.  Some degree of anxiety is only natural.  A mixture of grief and gladness is common too.  Experiencing the power of this psalm won’t rob our good-byes of their rich emotion.  But the psalm can help us say our good-byes with more confidence—confidence in the God whose eye never misses a thing, whose heart never wavers a bit, and whose care never ceases for a second.  That’s why we can say more than good-bye, we can say “Go with God.”  And we can be equally sure that our God will remain just as faithful to those who stay behind as He is to those who make the journey.  When we know the God of this psalm, we can say our good-byes with confidence.
"Come to the edge," he said.
They said, "We are afraid."
"Come to the edge," he said.
They said, "We will fall."
"Come to the edge," he said.
They came.  He pushed them,
and they flew. [5]
“The Lord will keep you from all evil—he will watch over your life; the Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore.”  Amen.

[1]“I Wish I Could” by Tom Douglas and Randy Thomas, sung by Collin Raye, The Walls Came Down, (New York: Sony Music Entertainment), 1998.
[2]I owe this image to Eugene H. Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1980), 16.
[3]James Limburg, Psalms for Sojourners (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1986), 69.
[4]Peterson, 38-39.
[5]Guillaume Apollinaire, Cited in Alan E. Nelson, Broken in the Right Place (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1994), 148.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Back the Blue

I was asked to share a few words and a prayer at a local “Back the Blue Rally” in our city.  In light of the recent cop-killings in our country (77 since January, 20 in July alone), police are on edge, and communities are trying to find ways to show some support for law enforcement.  Some good things have happened already in Hot Springs: some prayer gatherings, a few churches inviting police to come rub shoulders with them.  This “Back the Blue Rally” was another attempt to let the police know the community has their backs.  That said: the following are my remarks and prayer.
Samuel Tucker McCallum was the City Marshal in Lake Village, Arkansas.  He had served in that office just over a month when on October 11, 1928, in answering a disturbance call at a local coffee shop, he was ambushed by a drunk who shot and killed him.  He left behind a wife and six children.  One of those children, the 14 year old, was my dad.  Samuel McCallum was my grandfather.  No wonder I was taught to back the blue. 
I guess I grew up in a bubble of sorts.  My family left Little Rock when I was 8 and we ended up moving in 1964 to a small town called Branson, Missouri.  Not much crime in Branson in those days.  Not much of a police force either.  There were two or three cops as I recall.  Their headquarters was under the city library.  The policemen were friendly and pretty much knew everybody.  I remember the one named Hoss because he was a big fellow and reminded local folks of Hoss Cartwright on Bonanza.  The police would smile and wave.  And if you got in trouble they treated you more like a friend than a felon. 
My younger brother got caught with a few other teenagers for pulling a teenage prank.  They took some lady’s “Skunk Crossing” yard ornament as a joke.  She saw them, called the police, gave a description of the car, and not long after, the cop found them and pulled them over.  He lined them up, got their names, and when my brother identified himself, the policeman said, “Aren’t you Joan’s boy?  She’s not gonna like this.”  No arrest was made.  The policeman followed the boys back to the lady’s house where they returned her “Skunk Crossing” ornament and apologized for stealing it.  He then instructed them to go home and tell their parents about this.  “I know most of your parents,” he said, “so if you don’t tell them, I’ll find out, and we’ll have a problem.”  That is the kind of policemen to which I was first exposed in my life.  It felt a lot like the cops I got to know from Mayberry: kind, wise, put people first kind of officers.  Add to that, television shows of the day like Dragnet and Adam 12, The Mod Squad and Ironside, and police were real heroes to me and so many others.
My mother taught us to respect the police.  “They are an authority.  They are your friends.  You can trust them.  Treat them with respect.  Do what they tell you and you’ll be all right.”  I grew up in a bubble.
That bubble burst a little bit when I saw images on the evening news of policemen turning fire hoses on peaceful black protesters in the Civil Rights movement.  I didn’t understand that.  It didn’t make sense to me.  That did not jibe with my experience with police nor my image of how policemen were supposed to treat people.  That may have been the first time it occurred to me that even among the police there could be some bad apples in the bunch (which, of course, is true for plumbers and teachers and politicians and preachers too).
I guess I was growing up.  And as I became acquainted with police officers I realized they had the same problems as everybody else: trying to make a happy marriage, worrying about their kids’ grades and friends, making ends meet and taking off-duty security gigs to do it, just making their way in a world that can be kind of harsh sometimes.  So add a stressful home to a stressful job and it doesn’t take much for stress to become distress.  And these days there is the added pressure of all these cop killings going on and groups chanting for cops to be killed—a pretty lousy use of free speech if you ask me and all done under the protection of the police they despise.  This climate can make even a routine traffic stop a matter of life and death.  I suspect this cop-hate climate has most every policeman a little on edge these days.  I don’t know how they do this job, and to do it as well as our city, county, and state law enforcement do it.
Most Americans feel that way—which is why we’re here this morning.  After the Dallas shootings I remember thinking: I learned something about myself today: I take the police for granted.  I need to express more appreciation and offer more prayers.”  My guess is that speaks for a lot of us.  We have a deep appreciation and respect for our law enforcement officers, the sacrifices they make for us, and the risks they take for us day by day by day.  So we back the blue.  It would never occur to me to do anything else.  But it’s easy for me to feel this way because that’s the way I was raised to feel, and I haven’t personally experienced any reason to feel otherwise.
I can’t speak for those who were raised to feel a different way, or those with first-hand experience to believe that the police are an enemy rather than a friend, that they are out to get you rather than help you, that they assume your guilty rather than innocent.  That’s not my experience.  I can’t speak for them.  They will have to speak for themselves.
And even though it’s painful to be caught in this “black lives matter / blue lives matter” war of words in our culture, maybe one of the hopeful signs in all of this is that people are speaking up.  We’re getting these grievances on the table.  And more importantly, in many places they are not just speaking up to each other or about each other; they are speaking with each other—which is happening here in Hot Springs—building bridges of mutual respect and trust and teamwork that adds more light than heat, more hope than hurt, and makes things better and safer for everyone.
Don’t you long for the day when black and blue won’t be viewed as a bruise on society but the very colors of justice that rolls down like mighty waters and cleans up all of our acts?


Father, it takes a lot of courage and a certain kind of edge to seek a career in law enforcement.  If just anybody could do it, maybe more of us would.  We can’t begin to imagine the stress they are under in these days and the worry that chips away at the peace and joy of their families.  So very few of us serve in occupations where a kiss goodbye could be the last and where a return home at the end of a shift is met with a sigh of relief and a quiet prayer of thanks.
Though our police are like us civilians in many ways, their lives are different from the rest of us in significant ways.  We get to run from danger; they don’t.  We get to avoid high-crime neighborhoods; they don’t.  We get to choose the kind of people with whom we spend time; they don’t.  We can close our eyes to the seedier side of our communities; they can’t.
Father, please give us a deeper respect for police and appreciation for all they do for us.  Forgive us when we take them for granted or treat them with contempt and anger—even when they write us a ticket we deserve.  Our city, our state, our highways, our lakes would be chaos if it were not for their presence.  Thank you for the order and stability they bring to our world.

We pray for them today.  We pray you would give every officer …
a kind heart, a keen eye, and a firm hand,
a respect for and understanding of all those they serve,
a distinct blindness to the color of anyone’s skin,
a humble heart that longs for justice,
and the wisdom to know the right and do the right, especially when they have to decide all that in a split-second.

We pray you would bless them with …
the courage to take the risks required of them,
a heart not hardened by all the evil that they see
a salary they can live on
satisfaction in their work,
and a sense that they make a difference in their communities, that their communities are better places because they are in them.

And, Lord, if it’s not asking too much, we ask for …
a supportive constituency,
the opportunities to build bridges toward those most suspicious of them,
cordiality with the public they serve,
collegiality with their co-workers,
and a sympathetic friend who can help them process what they feel.

Would you please get them safely home at the end of each day to a family that loves them and supports them and doesn’t live in fear when they go off to work?  Please bless their families.  Would you mend the frayed edges of their nerves with peace, and surprise them with joy?

And finally, we ask you would bless each officer with …
a long, healthy, and peaceful life,
and a sense that they need you to be their best as men and women and as officers of the law, so that in the words of the prophet Micah, they may do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with you, God.

In Jesus’ name, amen.