Three Things I Learned from Three Dog Night (It’s a Band; From the 60s…Sigh)

three_dog_night

I went to a Three Dog Night concert last month to celebrate my birthday–the tickets were a gift from my dear wife. Several things surprised me about the concert. First, was that Three Dog Night was still rockin’ and rollin’ after these many years. They got their start in the 1960s (yes, last century). The second surprise was that they were playing in the metropolis I now call home.

But, the concert was fun. The guys played most all their well-known stuff and the crowd rocked along–in actual rockers. (Yes, that was an “old people” joke.) I’m not saying the crowd was old, but the synchronized, motorized wheel chair line dancing was a thing to see. “Reach high, when you sway those canes!” Three Dog Night shouted. “What’d he say?” the guy next to me asked. “Highway cones,” his wife said. “What the what?!?”

I’m not saying the crowd was sedate, but the police officers (all two of them) assigned to S.W.A.T. patrol kept chuckling as the attendees shuffled in and out of the concert hall like they were in the line for the dessert trolley at the cafeteria. By the way, S.W.A.T. stands for Something Will Ache Tomorrow.

A woman seated in front of me tried to dance…it was not pretty. At least I think it was dancing; it may have just been a pacemaker flameout. Then there was that one 1960s-era rebel carrying pot with him…no, not weed; it was an actual pot. The bathrooms were on a distant shore.

I was having a good time laughing at all those old people, up until I encountered the old, bald, fat guy staring me down in the bathroom—I was stunned to realize the old, bald, fat guy was me in the mirror. Turns out, these old people were my people.

But as the concert got underway and I was “present in that space” (sorry, that’s a line that makes me gag that I heard from a chaplain once), I figured out that I was learning a thing or three. So, here they are:

One:  Old dogs should keep doing what they’ve been gifted to do as long as God empowers them to do it. The Three Dog Night guys are old–at least the original members of the band are. We’re talking not leathery skin, but busted up, frayed in all the wrong places, pleathery skin. We’re talking encore appearances that took hours to get underway because the Dogs had to limp off and shuffle back onto the stage. We’re talking that when they sang their hit, “Celebrate,” it was because they had managed to not trip over their mic stands. But they still have it. Those God-empowered vocal cords can still “dance to the music.”  The Christian community has bought the culture’s notion of retirement. So, we look to artificial age benchmarks to begin thinking about not doing anymore what God has gifted us to do. If you want to retire, fine, but don’t stop doing what God has gifted you to do because Uncle Sam thinks it’s time. Or because some young pups think it’s their time.

Two:  Old dogs need to stick around to help the new dogs. It’s a shame that old dogs shuffle off the stage (or are shuffled off the stage) at the precise cultural moment when all the research says the young dogs not only want but need mentorship and friendship and the benefit of experience. The young dogs want to be wise, but wisdom is a commodity acquired over time. And part of that wisdom is learning from the old dogs. Shared wisdom is a biblical mandate from the very beginning. It’s one of the reasons that Christians lean into the Holy Spirit-inspired words of the Bible. It’s one reason why we “test the spirits” against the systemic teaching of Scripture. If I want to navigate Snapchat, I’ll ask my grandkids. When I wanted wisdom for navigating life’s speedbumps, I asked my Dad.

Three:  Old dogs can learn new tricks. Three Dog Night introduced a new song at the concert. It was an acapella rendition of Prayer of the Children. It was grand and it was good and it gave lie to the notion that “older” means done. Three Dog Night was self-deprecating about how age had made them a bit slower, but when it came time to create something new, there was nothing “slowish” about it (yes, I made up a word).

I have to go now. I am about to install a new eight-track player in my component stereo system. But I should go to the bathroom first–someone said something about blue teeth–and the bathroom is very far away. 

© 2016, All Scripture quotations from the New International Version.


Permanent Change of Station

As a former military guy, I quickly became acquainted with the acronym, PCS. It stands for “Permanent Change of Station,” which is a tad ironic since a PCS is anything but “P,” permanent that is. In fact, in my day, to qualify as a PCS, the move only had to be longer than 180 days.

I’ve tried to tally the total number of PCS moves I made. I’ve come up with six–which probably doesn’t seem like a lot, until I tell you that I was on active duty for 14 years–I finished my military career in the reserves. So, over 14 years, that averages a move every 2.3 years or so. Okay so it’s 2.33333333333… You got me.

Coupled with the not so “P” PCS moves, was a thing called TDY–which stands for Temporary Duty. You math geniuses have already figured out that, if a PCS is longer than 180 days, a TDY must be 180 days or less.

All that to say, in the military, moving is the norm. Being settled in any one place is a bit of an illusion. Sure, military folks, like everyone else, opt for the trappings of permanence. Houses are bought, schools are attended, friends are made, BBQs are had, life events are celebrated. But it was usually the case that the day someone new moved into the neighborhood was immediately followed by someone moving out. Then, of course, there were the combat-related deployments. No one knew how long those would last and no one knew who might or might not come back.

I say all of this (and, thank you to those who are still reading) to highlight the illusion of permanence in which many of us invest. My wonderful wife and I have just purchased a home. I have said a zillion times (yes, in my head that is an actual number) that I would never be a homeowner again. It seems to me that the home owns me. There is forever something to do–painting, fixing, cleaning, picking up the neighbors’ dogs’ poop. (Can you say “poop” in a blog?)

Many of the things we do in the new-to-us home are designed to make it feel (make us feel) settled—permanent. But we are not…permanent. Nothing around us is permanent. It is all temporary. You and I are on a TDY. It may last a lot longer than 180 days, but “T” it is.

To be sure, while we are here, we are to invest. But we are to invest in the stuff of genuine permanence. Relationships. Invitations to know our Savior. Worshipping our God. Relationships. Sharing the Name of Jesus. Praying. Study of God’s Word. Relationships. Did I mention Relationships?

Those are things that last—and Relationships are among the most profound of the lasting things. No matter what our street address turns out to be in the New Jerusalem, we will not be able to bring any of those prized “home accessories” with us; we will only have our Relationships. The Prime Relationship—with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and those Relationships with others who have given their lives to Christ. Those things will be truly “P”—Permanent. All else is truly “T”—temporary.

“P”–Permanent or “T”–Temporary–what’s it going to be?

“My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am” (John 14:2-3). 

© 2016, All Scripture quotations from the New International Version.


Seven Things I Learned When They Told Me I Likely Had Cancer

I don’t have cancer…at least they don’t think so; they want me to get retested in three months to see for sure. But there were a couple of weeks when those who should know said, “Cancer is the most likely meaning for this MRI result.”

I wasn’t prepared; I don’t think anyone really can be, but I really wasn’t prepared for this preliminary result. I am on the other side now. And, as I said a moment ago, they don’t think I have cancer. But during the process of testing and waiting and testing and waiting, I think I learned at least these seven things:

I. Prayers can be palpably felt. During my Christian life I have seen amazing results from God’s people praying, but I had never felt the power of those prayers deep in my spirit. The cadre of people who committed to pray and who actually prayed made me weep (actual sobbing and weeping) with gratitude. But then I genuinely sensed the praying deep in my heart and mind. It was tangible; it was touchable; it was so deeply encouraging. I told those folks when I got the preliminary “all clear” that I felt a little silly spinning up the praying, but the simple fact is that we could not have made it through those weeks without the praying.

II. Family members who weep with you and for you are beyond precious. A loving wife, children, “in-law” children, grandchildren, and brothers and sisters-in-law were my rocks of support. Without exception, they were ready to drop everything and do whatever it took to work our way through the medical implications. I am most thankful for all of them and their love for me has tightened its grip on my heart.

III. Perspective is hard to get and harder to keep. The word “cancer” has a powerful focusing effect. Lesser concerns (and most other concerns are lesser) tend to fall away in the immediate wake of hearing the “c” word. But I was (and am) amazed at how quickly the lesser concerns magnify themselves in my mind. Keeping the lesser things lesser and the major things major is an ongoing and difficult project.

IV. “Most likely” doesn’t mean “definitely,” even though it feels like it does. Now, in the post test era, I can see that more readily. But truthfully, in the first days, “most likely” felt like the gateway to a whole other turned-upside-down-life-shortening existence. I have to admit that hope was not my initial reflex; sadness at the prospect of loss was my initial reflex. But it turns out that “most likely” doesn’t always mean “definitely” and I am grateful for that.

V. “Thy will be done” is much easier said than lived. I am a champ at asking God for “my will to be done.” And, if the prospect of God’s will seems harder than my will, I will scurry back to my will. It was very hard during those first “most likely” days to settle into a sense that God may be doing something or allowing something that did not comport with my plans and dreams and schemes. Be careful when you pray that radical Lord’s Prayer, “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

VI. Health care people who actually care make all the difference in the process. My personal medical pros at Oasis Family Medicine  and the various testing gurus at Stormont Vail Hospital deserve more than a shout out. They deserve gratitude in perpetuity. And they have it. I can remember saying to my dear wife (post each encounter with various folks in the medical community) that if kindness alone could cure, I would be permanently well.

VII. We’re all still Vanishing Mists. When I wrote my last blog post I had no idea there was a period of medical angst ready to pounce just over the next hill. And it remains true that, even with this reprieve on the medical front, we are still not guaranteed the next day or the next minute. I truly want to live my life with an eternal focus and a quest for the things of God, making Jesus smile, and the treasured family and friend relationships I have.

I have been paying more attention to the Beatitudes this week. I have been especially hit by the call to “hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Mt. 5:6). I am hoping that these things I have learned will continue to fuel that hunger and thirst.

© 2016, All rights reserved. Scriptures from the New International Version (Zondervan).


Vanishing Mists

mist

I was in the hunt for a particular author of a particular book. It was a book about preaching, written by a prof who had taught me preaching in seminary. I know, you’re thinking, “Somebody taught you preaching?” Yes…tis true…but don’t blame the prof for my homiletic stumbles. After all, he didn’t have much to work with.

As I started my Googling for the book, I was startled to learn that the prof had died. In fact, he had died thirteen years ago. My heart thumped. He was 45 when he died…he passed away after trying to fight off brain tumors.

It was one of those internet shock moments for me. I would have had no reason to check on him before; we weren’t friends; he was an influential prof who had gone on to lead the Doctor of Ministry Program at an influential evangelical seminary. But we weren’t close.

He was good and he was kind and he spoke words into my life about the task of preaching that I have never forgotten (not always used effectively, but never forgotten). Now he is gone from this life (and has been for a while).

It made me sad to learn of the prof’s passing–it probably made me sadder because my first Father’s Day without my Dad is looming and I am, well…sad.

Mortality is on my mind these days. It’s probably there in a morbid kind of way. It’s settled in, I think, because I am (ahem) older than I used to be. Let’s just say that the tweens, teens, and millennials operating the registers at local fast fooderies and drinkeries don’t even bother asking if I want the senior discount, they just automatically apply it to my bill. Not that I mind saving the twelve cents…but still.

I never told that prof how much I appreciated his classroom wisdom. He was only in my life for two or three terms of the last year of my seminary program. He brought his wisdom to bear; I copied down his words in my notebook (I know…who writes down notes in a notebook anymore?); he modeled that wisdom; and I tried to weave his wisdom into my own preaching and teaching.

[An aside in this week following Muhammad Ali’s death: I picked up one of my favorite illustrations during this prof’s class. Perhaps the story is urban legend but…Muhammad Ali was on an airplane and had ignored several requests from the flight attendant to buckle his seat belt. After the last request, Ali said, “Superman don’t need no seatbelt.” The flight attendant replied, “Superman don’t need no airplane.” Ali buckled his belt. Classic exchange with the Champ–may he rest in peace.]

That last seminary year we worked our way through the Book of James in a joint exegetical and homiletical study/preaching exercise. My assigned passage was James 4:13-16, which contains these words in verse 14, “What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” 

So many of my influential “mists” have vanished and it strikes me that my own and others’ “vanishing” is certainly closer than it used to be. This particular prof; other profs who modeled Christian scholarship and Christian integrity; Air Force commanding officers and peers; pastors; tucked-deep-in-my-heart kind of friends; and, most of all, my Dad…they are all…we are all…I am…a “mist that appears for a little while.”

I want to do better at cherishing my “vanishing mists” before they actually vanish from this life. I want them to know now that they are loved and appreciated and still occupy key coronary territory–feeding my heart in ongoing ways.

Maybe you have some “vanishing mists” to whom you should speak before they feature in their own vanishing act? Don’t wait for a surprise Google search result like I did.

© 2016, All rights reserved. Scriptures from the New International Version (Zondervan).


The Worst Four-Letter Word

You probably have your candidates. I remember a friend of mine telling the story of a ride in the car with his five-year-old son who starting spelling, “F…U…” My friend halted the boy with a, “What are you saying!”

The boy said, “Dad, I’m spelling the words on that sign…see? Furniture Store…F…U…R…”

You get the point…Dad was panicked that he was on the cusp of a four-letter word extravaganza experience. Dad was worried that his son would not only spell the king of all four-letter words, but that he might have to explain to his son why the word was bad. Fortunately, for that Dad, that conversation was postponed for a few years.

I can remember the first (and only) time I used THAT word in front of my parents. As a late-stage teenager, I had been dispatched to purchase the family Christmas Tree at the local Christmas Tree farm. While in search of the perfect tree, I came across a family of four who had likely started out on an idyllic outing to track down their own yuletide perfection.

The expedition had clearly not gone well, because my introduction to said family occurred when the Dad shouted at the Mom, “I don’t care which (fill in the blank with aforementioned “f” word) tree you get, I. AM. DONE!” I recounted the story to my Mom and Dad–slyly proud (in the manner of all teenage boys) that I had gotten away with using THAT word in front of my parents. But a quick frown from my Dad wordlessly said it all: “NEVER AGAIN” (even though they both laughed at the story).

I know–bad boy–bad Christian–bad blogger. If it’s any consolation to members of the language police, my language reformed when I became a believer (which was a bit of a miraculous work of the Spirit, since I was in the military at the time). Now I never say bad words–ever–except maybe to myself–in the car–when one of you cuts me off in traffic. I am sure that no one else reading this ever has that problem.

But, alas, I have, in the words of a writing expert, “buried the lede” (look it up)–I have made you wait too long for the main idea. So, here goes…

There is a plethora of discomfort inducing, four-letter words out there. You probably have your own wince-meat “not-so-favorite.”

But, street foul language aside, here is my candidate for the worst four-letter word: Wait. That’s right: Wait.

I like to think of myself as a patient person, but I truly have a hard time waiting on God’s plan and His timing. I am forever checking in with Him about His schedule. “Surely, Lord, the time is now? Surely, Lord, this is the moment?”

Then those morph into petulance. “Hey, Lord! What’s up?!?” “Can’t you see what’s happening here?!?!” “I need You to do something!!!!”

When God says, “Wait,” I frump, mentally fold my arms and start tapping my foot. I have a hard time waiting.

Patience, being an aspect of the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22), often escapes me. Perhaps you don’t have this problem–but I confess that I do.

Waiting for the doctor’s report or the job interview results or the tax return or the promotion or the acceptance letter or the sonogram results or the mortgage company decision or the search committee to respond or the email to arrive or…well, you get it.

What should we do when we hear this four-letter word? Throw ourselves on the mercy and power of God. Do what David did in Psalm 13.

– Be straight with God about our impatience:

1How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?  How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart?  How long will my enemy triumph over me?

Look on me and answer, Lord my God.  Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death, and my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,” and my foes will rejoice when I fall.

– But take the step to trust:

But I trust in your unfailing love;  my heart rejoices in your salvation.

– And, as crazy as it sounds, praise Him:

I will sing the Lord’s praise, for he has been good to me.

I am waiting right now. Maybe you’re waiting too. Let’s be straight with God, trust that He is at work, and praise Him–maybe out loud–in the car–when someone cuts you off.

© 2016, All rights reserved. Scriptures from the New International Version (Zondervan).


Embracing the Buts

Just to be clear–that’s one “t”–not two. We’ll not talk about the two “t” kind here.

We all have “buts”…some are more talkative about them than others. The “buts” usually come in the way of qualification about something we advertise as being generally ok…or even something we really like, but…

As in…I love my new house…but if the fence line could be just a few feet further back. Or, the new neighbors are very nice…but their barking dog is driving me crazy. Or, my professor is great…but all that homework. Or, l love my new situation, it lets me do almost everything I am gifted and am called to do, but my leader is a complete dope.

You see the idea.

At its core, I think the “but” issues are a lack of contentment or a lack of gratitude or an expectation that God is somehow required to “fine tune” our circumstances right down to the micro-millimeter so that our existence is maximized for our comfort and convenience.

We’re upset by the Copernican notion–that the universe does not revolve around us.

I suspect we all have our personal “buts”…and in the Body of Christ, the Church, we often get to identify even more “buts.” I love the preaching, but the music is so loud. Or, I love the music, but the teaching is mediocre. Or, I think I like the new ministry approach, but why can’t we just keep doing the things we’ve done?

When we do the “but” thing, we blunt the effect of God’s blessings in our lives–we take the confidence that God is working everything together for our good and turn it on its head…failing to recognize that God working everything together for good often means that we have to traverse some not-so-good. We smother (and sometimes strangle) the possibility that we will see God work in new ways because we cannot let go of the “buts.”

I have been oh so very guilty of this–and still am. Because I focus on the “buts,” I end up missing the majesty of God’s work in my life and the lives of people around me. When I fixate on the less-than-perfect or the not ideal or (worse yet) a failure for everything to conform to my preferences and expectations, I become joy-sapped and dreary.

I daresay that most of our “buts” do not really rise to the level of trials…they are more at the level of annoyance or inconvenience. But I think the words of James are still apropos: Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds” (James 1:2).

How about it? Can we consider it “pure joy” when we face “buts” of many kinds?

© 2016, All rights reserved. Scriptures from the New International Version (Zondervan).


The Case of the Missing Leg

I am a leg man…always have been.  The way the leg reaches up to the thigh, succulent and firm and is, all at once, gone.  Man, I love legs–especially when they’re fried.  I know they’re bad for me…dark meat…fried.  But they are delicious.

Wait.  When I said I was a “leg man,” where did your mind go?  We both know–and you should confess.

Anyway…I had stopped by the grocery store where they make the best fried chicken.   I asked the guy behind the counter for six legs and four wings (if you can’t have a leg, a couple of wings will do).  And there was the onset of tragedy.  He couldn’t find six legs.  With tear-drenched cheeks, I said, “That’s OK, I’ll just take a couple more wings.”  As he wrapped up the box, he said, “There’s four legs and six wings.”  I know his grammar wasn’t perfect, but I had chicken!

I made my way to the cashier–my heart was heavy, but at least there were four legs.

Now, the chicken packer, in an efficiency exercise, had put the legs and wings in the same box, with a price sticker for each of the two different chicken cuts on top of the one box.

As the cashier rang up my chicken, she scanned just one of the price stickers.  When I realized this, I said, “I think you missed one of the stickers.”  After she confirmed the miss, she scanned the other sticker and I paid full price for my meal.  As I was swiping my debit card, I waited for the words…but they never came.

I had expected her to say, “Thanks for being honest,” or, “I appreciate you being honest.”  But…nothing.  I had done the right thing and naturally expected some affirmation for my $5.31, chicken-based honesty (the $5.31 sticker is the one she had missed).  But, no…there was no praise for me.  No commendation of my sterling character.  Nothing.  Nada.  Zippo.

Trudging to my car, I tried to put my finger on what irked me.  Sure, the cashier hadn’t acknowledged my honesty but it was, in fact, only $5.31.  Then I realized that the cashier’s failure to take notice of my exemplary behavior had swatted my most sensitive spot: my pride.  I had done something I thought worthy of praise and glory (or at least a little gratitude) and there had been none.  My ego had been poised for a little stroking but stroked it was not.  Pride had waylaid me once more.

God’s ongoing project with me is this matter of pride.  C.S. Lewis called pride “The Great Sin.”  In Mere Christianity, he said, “Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind,” and Lewis was right.  At least in my case, it is indeed pride that does me in.

I can find so many ways to feel slighted because people don’t know me or recognize my gifts or use me or listen to me or agree with me or marvel at my wisdom.  I marvel at my wisdom.  Why doesn’t anyone else seem to see it? The world I inhabit is so “me” intensive–so selfie centric.  In everything, it seems, I am prone to ask why there is no spotlight on me, rather than directing the spotlight toward God.

I am in what feels like an extended period of uselessness…waiting to see what (if anything) God has next in store on the teaching/pastoring front.  And, because I am sidelined, I am getting an intensive in pride awareness.  Every time I see or hear or read about someone else’s ministry efforts, pride tells me to envy.  Each issue of every Christian publication I read is pride’s sucker punch–raising my awareness that I am not as wonderful as I think I am–that I am (apparently) completely unnecessary in the Kingdom.  While I have written elsewhere that “we are all just penciled in,” it is a comeuppance to realize that the “we” includes “me.”

Because even though my “awareness quotient” is way up, my ability to hold my pride in check is still flat lined on the spiritual heart monitor.  Pride paralyzes my desire to see God at work in others and then pulverizes my capacity to celebrate His wonderful work in them.  From the sidelines, it is oh so easy for prideful me to say, “I could do that better.”  Pride excludes the idea that celebration of God’s work (through whomever He chooses), is part of the joy of Christian living.  Pride crowds out my very consciousness of God.

“In his pride the wicked man does not seek Him; in all his thoughts there is no room for God” (Psalm 10:4).

Pride is the seedbed of so many other sins.  Once pride takes hold, other sins are poised to go viral in my soul.  Holding pride in check is such a slippery proposition.  Once I think I’ve put it in its place, I then pride myself on having put it in its place.

It has occurred to me that this awareness exercise may be a purposeful part of the reason for this ministry “timeout”–that perhaps God is intentionally using this period to wring the pride from my soul.  It does not seem to be working.  I know, for example, that some kindhearted soul will likely commend me for this blog post.  I will say (to them), “Aw shucks; thanks,” I will say (to myself), “It was quite good, wasn’t it.”  Sigh…back under pride’s sway once more.

“Lord, lead me to the place of genuine humility…not self-noticing false humility…but other-celebrating and Christ-glorifying genuine humility.  Lead me to the place where the only opinion that matters to me is that of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.”

Oh…and by the way, the chicken packer had missed packing one of the four promised chicken legs–there were only three legs.  So I actually paid for more chicken than I got.  Does God have a sense of humor or what?

© 2015, All rights reserved.  Scriptures from the New International Version (Zondervan).


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