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).


Which Grinch Do You Remember?

Grinch

The commercials always feature the grumpy Grinch–the Grinch who stole Christmas.  Even now, many years after its first broadcast success, people accuse others who discount/derail/deride Christmas as a “Grinch.”

To be sure, the Grinch was gleefully in his element as he carefully planned and exquisitely executed his Christmas Eve theft.  He stole the presents and the tree and the tinsel and the garland and the colored lights and the cookies and the Roast Beast.

He took it all.  He took it with not an ounce of remorse.  In fact, he took it all with grinning Grinchly greedy glee.  And he took it with the help of his hapless little dog.  I never did catch the dog’s name; did you?

The Grinch we remember is that grumpy Grinch.  The Grinch who couldn’t wait for Christmas morning anticipatory smiles to give way to Christmas morning heartbreak.  The Grinch who took malevolent pleasure from the prospect of others’ disappointment.

You remember him, don’t you?  When you call someone a “Grinch,” that’s who you mean.  I know that I do.

What we don’t usually recall is the “heart-grew-three-sizes-that-day-post-discovering-the-true-meaning-of-Christmas” Grinch.  Remember him?  The Grinch who, while expecting sounds of disappointment to ride yuletide thermals up from Whoville, heard something else instead.

Upon close listening, His Grinchness heard the sounds of Christmas morning joy float his way.  That joy gave him pause; that joy made him reconsider all of his presuppositions; that joy made him regret his Grinchly choices; that joy moved him to (dare I say) repentance; and that joy blossomed in his heart as “the true meaning of Christmas broke through.”

I don’t know what it is about us that makes us remember the small-hearted Grinch rather than celebrate the miracle of the heart-grew-three-sizes Grinch.  I just know that we lean reflexively toward that memory.

And I think another thing about this remembrance tendency:  we do the same thing to pretty much everyone else–and we also do it to ourselves.

We remember our former selves; we remember everyone else’s former selves.  Our own former selves haunt us with our failures and foibles and the awareness that we often feel a mere centimeter from relapse.

Others’ former selves haunt us with the power of remembered hurt and the fear of a reversion to harmful habits.  There is even, perhaps, the idea that we don’t believe the change from pre- to post-Grinch will “stick.”

We don’t see transformed “new creatures in Christ;” we see the ones who let us down or hurt us or hurt someone we love.

But, in Christ, the change will “stick.”  We are not on a self-help program subject to failure as we revisit our weaknesses.  We are in a Christ-empowered relationship that enables us to realize His strength precisely at the point of our weakness.  And that is what we should remember.

We must not forget that the miracle of the Grinch story is our miracle too:  “the old has gone, the new is here” (2 Cor. 5:17).

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


Despicable Me and the Vitriolaters

DESPICABLE-ME-21

I love the Despicable Me movies.  The minions crack me up.  And Gru–you have to love a guy who works so hard to be so bad only to find out that he can love his adopted daughters with a heart-melting kind of love.

But Gru is the focus of the “despicableness” of the Despicable Me movies.  In fact, I would go so far as to say the recent Minions movie (without Gru for 99.9 percent of the screen time) just didn’t quite reach the same level of, well, despicableness.

As opposed to, say, me: because while Gru tries so hard to be bad without being able to pull it off, I try so hard to be good, but I cannot even get close.

That brings me to this:

I have been in and out of pastoral ministry for a couple of decades.  I have had my share of high intensity disagreements with folks who thought ministry should be done differently or who disagreed with me about something I had done…or hadn’t done…or had done but hadn’t done to their satisfaction, etc.  Once or twice the accusations rose to the level of acrimony.  But, in most every case, on the other side of the acrimony, there was usually a level of reengagement and forgiveness and reconciliation.

But I have reached a new level in my pastoral career–it turns out that I am now–wait for it–“despicable.”  It was the actual word used in an actual email from an actual person to describe the actual me.

Don’t believe me?  Here’s some sample (unedited) verbiage:

Yea, thats right, your gutless! I think youre so gutless, in fact, that you wont even have the nerve to read this through without cutting me off again. Thats how much of a gutless coward I think you really are.

And this,

Its Pastors like you who expect high pay to fulfill positions of sacrifice and who make me want to puke. Youre ability to bring the worst out in people is real and that should tell you that youre not fit to be called Pastor.

And this,

You’re a despicable Pastor.

That’s right, Despicable Me.

Now, I have written elsewhere about recognition of not just my tendency toward, but my regular wallowing in, my own sin.  My spirit echoes the Apostle Paul’s angst:  “For, I have the desire to do what is good,” Paul says, “but I cannot carry it out.  For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do–this I keep on doing…What a wretched man I am!  Who will rescue me from this bondage to sin and death?” (Romans 7:19 & 24).

I must find my rescue in exactly the same place that Paul found his rescue, “Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 7:25).  It is there (and only there), accessing the full resources of the Trinity, that I begin to wade my way through and out of the muck and spray of sin that I exude on a regular basis.

So there is some truth in the “despicable” label.  But not the kind of truth spewed by the above “Vitriolater” (yes, I made up a word to describe those who spew vitriol).  So the Vitriolaters are often right…just not in the ways they think they are.

Many others, much wiser than I (if you’d humor me by accepting the premise that I might be, in some small way, “wise”–and not in the “wise guy” way of being wise), have attempted to ferret out why intensity of faith can result in the venomous spew of the Vitriolaters.

Marshall Shelley wrote Well Intentioned Dragons (in 1985) about people who are extraordinarily critical but who, at their core, genuinely seem to want the best for the Kingdom and its people.  But Vitriolaters are not “well-intentioned.”  They aim to destroy.

The trouble with the Vitriolators?  They think they’re right…about everything…all the time.  And they may sometimes be right in seeing the sin; but they are always oh so wrong in their thinking that they have been deputized as “Assistant Holy Spirits” to so flagrantly berate us sinners.

Is there need for genuine accountability in the Body of Christ?  Absolutely.  But it is “wounds from a friend that can be trusted” (Proverbs 27:6), not improvised explosive devices from the Vitriolaters.

Vitriolaters elevate their opinions to orthodoxy.  “Speaking the truth in love” seems to be beyond them.  Hungry to hear their own voice and hungry to have their voices validated by others, the Vitriolaters develop a streak of viciousness that seems to relish the prospect of proving themselves right at another’s expense.

Vitriolaters, it seems, eventually become idolaters–they worship their own “truth” instead of the One who is Truth.

And–please hear me–this is not a cry for sympathy.  I am not in the hunt for blogosphere shoulders upon which to cry.  I am genuinely puzzled by this phenomenon.  I am genuinely puzzled about how recipients of a Gospel fueled by the sacrificial love of Christ can wind up spawning so much hate.

What do we do about Vitriolaters?  Forgive them?  Pray for them?  Turn the other cheek?  Go the extra mile?  Give them our cloak too?  Yes, all of those things.  But beyond those things, as stewards of Christ’s Church, we must also do what the Bible also says about tending to the health of His Church, “Warn a divisive person once, and then warn them a second time.  After that, have nothing to do with them” (Titus 3:10).

Carefully, in the company of seasoned, spiritually deep church leaders, we must warn them and warn them again and then we must let them go.  Just as Gru would do anything to protect his girls, we must do everything we can to protect the integrity of Jesus’ first love: His Church.

Yep…I am despicable.  Now, if I only had some minions.

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


Under the Dome and Other Closed Systems

oxpecker on zebra

I only saw two episodes of the TV series.  But I had read the book:  Stephen King’s Under the Dome.

It’s a crazy story about an impenetrable and transparent semi-sphere that appears in the sky and surrounds a New England town–the bubble (funny typing moment: spell check turned my initial attempt at “bubble” to “Buble” as in singer of songs–my spell check is likely on some controlled substance) is quickly labeled, “The Dome.”

As the Dome materializes, it carves cattle in half (giving new meaning to the phrase, “thinly sliced roast beef”); planes abruptly disintegrate in the sky and the air is filled with a blood-and-body-parts kind of rain.  Birds splat and slide to the ground.  Trucks experience full-powered disintegration as they encounter the Dome at highway speed.

Then, as the Dome is completely formed, the people inside realize they are trapped.  They hammer and they pound and they scream and they pound some more, but they cannot get out.

Outside the Dome, emergency crews bring explosive and military might to bear as they attempt to bust in.  They can’t and they don’t–not for lack of trying, but for lack of ability to break into this completely closed system.

Interested in the story’s end?  Read the book…binge watch the series…ask someone…Google away…I am not a spoiler…you have no need of an alert about me (at least not for this)…

Meanwhile…

I was at someone else’s family celebration in the not-too-distant past.  The celebration was both well-deserved and well-attended.  And…most of the people attending were Christians (in the they’ve-told-me-so-and-I’m-taking-their-word-for-it kind of way).  I attended for two reasons: (1) I genuinely appreciated those being celebrated (they are loveable and huggable and kind and laden with been-around-a-long-time wisdom) and (2) their life achievement was a rarity in our day.  I also sort of “had to” attend by virtue of my connection with those being celebrated.

In the military we used to call that kind of attendance requirement, “mandatory fun.”  In this case, the sweet nature of those being celebrated genuinely made seeing them fun–even if it was semi-mandatory.

But, since I wasn’t part of the main family group that comprised this celebration, I was able to (read, again: had to) stand to the side.  From my vantage point, I got to see an extended family system at work.  It was the sort of observational opportunity that makes family systems theorists salivate.

Now, these family members seemed to enjoy each other very much; they seemed to extend genuine welcome and affection toward each other.  There were lots of smiles and hugs and pats on the back and bantering remarks tossed about.  Many “How have you beens?” peppered the conversation.

But one thing was very, very, very (yes, three “verys”) clear from the outset: this was a tightly closed system.  The Dome had nothing on this group.  I don’t think the folks inside were concerned about getting out.  But those on the outside could not get in…at all…in any way…for any reason… (again) at all.

Because, not only was this system tightly closed, those inside seemed oblivious to the presence of those outside…maybe it wasn’t actual obliviousness…maybe it was obliviousness’s more informed cousin: indifference.

Like yellow-billed oxpeckers riding the backs of indifferent zebras, the outsiders were barely noticed by the insiders.  The outsiders’ presence was tolerated but they were not taken in.

Another non-family system member, also consigned to outlier land, leaned toward me and said, “Now I know what a church visitor feels like.”  I sighed internally (in my position you must master the internal sigh) and thought, “He’s absolutely, heartbreakingly, incontrovertibly, right.”

We need to do something about the reality of “insider” versus “outsider”–we need to realize that, except for God’s grace through Christ, we are all “outsiders” and we’d best cast our loving embrace toward all the outsiders who come our way.

“I was a stranger and you did not invite me in” (Matthew 25:43).

© 2015, All rights reserved.  Scripture from the NIV.


I Am an Orphan Now

I am an orphan now.

Dad has left us…following Mom by just under two years.  He barely made it past what would have been their 61st wedding anniversary.  I had seen him a mere week before on a two-day “drive by” enroute to new jobs for me and my wife.

I usually associate the word “orphan” with youngsters.  Images of Dickensian waifs from 19th Century novels waft through my mind.  I am by no means minimizing the trauma of growing up without parents in the picture–or the loss of parents at tender ages.  But when I tried to label the dagger of feelings that sliced through my heart as I heard the words, “Dad’s dead,” this idea slapped my mind: I am an orphan now.

It seems a child’s orphanhood must be filled with “I don’t know what I’ve missed.”  Adult orphanhood, at least for me, is filled with, “I really miss what I’ve had.”  And I really miss what I’ve had.

I am not alone in this, of course.  My two brothers and so many millions of adults who have lost both parents share this orphanhood with me.

It feels like the stake has been finally driven into the heart of “kid-dom.”  Though I haven’t doubted since I was a smart aleck 16-year old (with a shiny, new driving license) that I was an adult, I don’t have parents around anymore.  Mom’s caring attention was always there; Dad’s wisdom was always there, even if I didn’t think I needed it.

Dad and Mom had pulled beautiful lives together from what could have been disaster.  Dad’s own mother purportedly committed suicide when he was a very small boy (though Dad was increasingly skeptical about the suicide story).  Dad was fostered out and only reunited with his own father and brother after a new stepmother insisted that it be so.

Mom suffered from crude attempts at mental health treatment as a young girl.  When they found each other, Mom and Dad brought together a rarely spoken but driven commitment to nurturing their own family such that my brothers and I were blessed (in the most profound way) by their love and presence.  What could have become gross dysfunction turned into an environment of health and care and love.

Mom’s and Dad’s spirits first intertwined at an old-fashioned, drug store soda fountain.  Dad was the “jerk” (no, not that kind of jerk–the milkshake-making kind of jerk).  Mom came in with two of her friends and she caught Dad’s eye.  Up until the very end, whenever Dad talked with me about how he and Mom had met, he bragged about putting extra ice cream into Mom’s coffee-flavored milkshake.

Norman Rockwell did a painting of them–ok, it’s not them but, when Dad saw Rockwell’s rendering of kids hanging over the soda fountain counter, he got tears in his eyes.  He hung the print in his dining area and it became a mental time machine–dissolving the decades and transporting him right back to when his and Mom’s eyes first locked.

soda fountain

He wasn’t the same after Mom passed on to the presence of the Lord.  The two really had become one (in that Genesis 2:24 kind of way) and Dad seemed both adrift and alone in ways that I could see and hear but could not fathom.  Encouragement from his kids to get out and about, to do something (anything) with his time, was met with indifference (and sometimes grumpiness).  It seems now, at least to me, that he was hungering to be with Mom, longing for the Mom-shaped hole in his life to be filled once more–and that nothing here could do that.  The two had become one; so now he was just half.

I think he did try a bit…he learned to text with a semi-smart phone and, at age 81, took his first selfies.  Texting was often better for him as his jet-engine-noise (and increasingly) impaired hearing from his Air Force days made conversations more and more difficult.  He texted with his kids and grandkids and great grandkids.

But Dad is now gone from this life.

He won’t vote in the 2016 election.  Like many, he had been bemused by the ever growing, rampaging horde of candidates.  He won’t be watching O’Reilly faithfully every evening at 8:00 p.m. Eastern Time. (If I accidentally called during that “sacred hour,” he would hurry me along off the call.). He won’t be the occasional “Correspondent of the Week” with his letters to the Editor of the local paper.

He won’t be scrupulously attending to Mom’s silly little dog anymore (he had promised her that he would…and he kept that promise till his last breath)–the doggy maintenance will fall to someone else.  And he won’t be experimenting with Roku or searching for Foyle’s War on Netflix.  He won’t be gathering with my more proximate brothers for Friday night movies and pizza (I am so thankful for them being physically present with Dad when I couldn’t).

He won’t be there when I call; I have deleted my daily calendar reminder to “Call Dad.”

He just won’t…be around, that is.  I am an orphan now.

“Sing to God, sing in praise of his name, extol him who rides on the clouds; rejoice before him–his name is the Lord. 5 A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling” (Psalm 68:4,5).

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


Yes, the Church Definitely Stinks! Letter to an (Absent but Vocal) Church Critic…

[In response to a Facebook post about the sad, sad, sin-plagued state of the church today.  Names have been withheld, changed, or translated into Common Eldarin & Westron to avoid offense.] 

My response:  Guilty.As.Charged. 

Is the capital “C” Church, and are all the many, many individual churches, populated by sometime cantankerous, grumpy, judgmental people?  Yes, absolutely; guilty as charged.  Do those same people fall short of biblical expectations for life and service?  You betcha! 

Should those facts make me stay away?  Better yet, should those facts make me stay away and then target those in the camp with explosive-laden complaint drones?  Well… 

There are a million reasons not to be connected with a local church or regularly in worship.  I’ve heard them all and, in moments of personal honesty, I’ve used some of them myself.  At the top of the list: many of the people you find there.  One seminary wag said it:  “Ministry is great, except for the people.”  Or, as a former parishioner of mine put it so eloquently, “I love God’s church; it’s God’s people I can’t stand!” 

There are a million reasons not to be in worship regularly.  But there is one overriding reason to be there:  God says so.  So, from a simple “obedience” perspective (for those of you concerned about the disobedient people in the church), I think you’d need to deal with that.  The Writer of Hebrews says, “Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another–and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Hebrews 10:24,25). 

But, in the purity of the power of a relationship with the Heavenly Father, that’s not what moves me to be among God’s people, in church.  I don’t “have” to go; I “get” to go…and there are light years difference between those two things. 

The God who loves me wants me to hang out with Him AND He wants me to regularly hang out with those other people He loves…not so that we can all show off how much better than the rest of humanity we are, but to worship Him and adore Him and face our need for His grace and power to accomplish His purposes.  “Apart from me you can do nothing,” Jesus said…nothing

The church is not a beauty contest, it’s a “Critical Care Unit” — “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”  That’s true before people come to know Christ and, sadly, still true after we come to know Christ.  This side of heaven we are still plagued by sin. 

Is the Bible full of calls to be better?  Certainly.  But that “betterment” is not a self-help effort.  It’s an “only Jesus can make this possible” effort.  And the very second we start to compare “betterment” we are in serious, serious trouble.  “Do not judge,” Jesus said, “Do not judge.” 

I think a wise church leader friend of mine is right: many in the church over the years have thought they were going to a spiritual Lowe’s to pick up the tools to be able to become better people (Let’s Build Something!).  When, in fact, worship is about God, not the life “score card” of the person sitting next to me–nor even my own spiritual “batting average.”  I don’t have to go; I get to go.  And, when I do go, I get to worship the God who loves this broken sinner.  And (and here’s the key point in this particular ramble): I get to hang out with others just like me who know they’re broken and who are partnering with each other and the Living God to experience grace such that we might show grace to each other and to the rest of the world. 

Do we get that right?  Sometimes…ok, maybe rarely…perhaps hardly ever…but when we do, it’s a wondrous thing to behold…and it’s worth every second of church-based stupidity I’ve ever experienced.  And trust me, as a pastor, I have seen, heard, felt, and been bashed by more of that stupidity than anyone observing from the sidelines will ever know. 

And…by the way…I do know that many have been egregiously wounded by those in the church…wounded by those who thought they knew better…or perhaps even wounded by those who did know better but couldn’t “speak the truth in love.”  This is not to diminish any of those hurts and pains.  It is to say, with Peter, “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68).  And, if we think we can have Jesus (Simply Jesus) without the pains, travails, and (yes) joys of the church, then I think we miss the entire tenor of the New Testament’s witness about the church. 

Winston Churchill, in commenting on the frailties of democracy, once remarked: “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all wise.  Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those others…”  The same could likely be said of the church:  “No one pretends that the church is perfect or all wise.  It’s the worst form of Christian gathering, except for all the others.” 

To a more “Christianly Correct” audience, perhaps it would be better for us to hear Billy Graham’s pithily profound observation: “There’s no such thing as a perfect church; if you think you’ve found a perfect church, don’t join it–you’ll ruin it.”  

I regularly hearken back to John Newton’s, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.  I once was lost but now am found; was blind but now I see.” 

What do I see? Not how much better I can perform now, but how much I desperately need the power of God every day.  What do I see?  That grace is not a onetime proposition, but the constant outpouring of undeserving love on this weary and wary sinner.  Where do I see that best?  With and among God’s people…in worship…even when they’re cantankerous, grumpy, and judgmental. 

Before you discard the church, friend…remember that the church was (and is still) God’s idea (Matthew 16:17-19).  Standing on the outside looking in and lobbing verbal grenades?  Well, that’s someone else’s idea.

(c) 2014, All Rights Reserved.  Scripture quotations from the NIV (Zondervan).


See Ya Later, Alligator; After a While, Crocodile

We were having dinner the other night with some very good (bestest ever) friends.  The kind of friends with whom the relationship is forged in the trenches of shared ministry…

The kind of friends who, when you hurt them (and I had hurt them ever so badly) find themselves still (even as the hurt shreds their hearts) willing to ponder the possibility of restoration…

The kind of friends who work their way through the dung and to the other side of the hurt and find that the place that had been broken has healed and become stronger than it was before.

The kind of friends who make it hard (really, very hard) to say, “Goodbye.”

And we are saying goodbye this week.  Just as dinner was winding down my bestest ever friend said, “This is hard.”  A text from him later in the week echoed, “This is hard.”  And it is excruciating to say, “Goodbye,” to someone who you know would not even blink if you said, “I need you; please come.”

In my experience saying “Bye” to people you care about is rarely “Good.”  It always seems to hurt–a lot.  The hurt springs from the realization that you can’t just hop in the car and cruise on over to their place to hang out (even if you didn’t do it as often as you wanted to/should have).

The immediacy possible with geographic proximity is going to give way to some unknown something else that, no matter what, will not have “nearness” as its baseline.  It will be “farness.”

To be sure, these days the “farness” is somewhat mitigated by technology… texts… tweets… instant messages… emails… FaceTime… Skype… status updates… regular, old-fashioned, you know, phone calls… they all have the potential to rinse some of the pain away.  But still…

I am reminded of the Apostle Paul’s farewell to the Ephesian elders in Acts, Chapter 20.  Paul gives them a little speech (well, being Paul, it was not so little) and in the middle of the speech (v.25) he says, “Now I know that none of you among whom I have gone about preaching the kingdom will ever see me again.”

At the end of Paul’s speech (12 verses later), the Ephesian elders are found weeping as they “embraced him and kissed him.”  In verse 38, “What grieved them most was [Paul’s] statement that they would never see his face again.”  These were not faithless bumpkins; they knew the Gospel; they were church leaders; they knew the promised reality of being present together with the Lord.  They knew that heaven is real.  But they all felt the pain of knowing that, this side of eternity, they would likely not encounter Paul again.  FaceTime–not an option.

Being a bit of a geek, I wondered what’s up with the word, “Goodbye.”  It seems, on the face of it, so oxymoronic–so self-refuting.  And, any nincompoopish (yes, that is a word) soul with an Oxford Dictionary app on their iPad can tell you that the word derives from an Old English expression:  “God be with you.”

Later “good” was substituted for “God” and “be with you” was contracted to “bye.”  Perhaps the replacement of “good” for “God” was the first incursion of political correctness.  Perhaps, in that day, the words “good” and “God” naturally interchanged among a people who were generally godlier minded.  That deeper analysis is the province of etymologists–not a lowly blogifier like me.  But I did have this thought…

Maybe we need to recover that sense of God’s presence in our partings.

I can’t be with you, “God be with you.”

I really want to be with you, but it’s not possible, “God be with you.”

Will we ever, ever be together again?  I don’t know, “God be with you.”

Will we ever get to eat deliciously grilled steaks at the same table again (my bestest friend grills the bestest steaks)?  We have to trust and believe, “God be with you.”

We both believe in Jesus; He will bring us together; in the meantime, “God be with you.”

When my bestest friend texted, “This is hard.”  I replied, “How about if we say, ‘See you later, instead?’”

I don’t know how alligators and crocodiles meet and greet each other–if they do at all.  And, frankly, I’d rather not be close enough to a crocodilian conversation to pick up the nuances.  But I have heard the little ditty:  “See ya later, Alligator; After a while, Crocodile.”  Maybe those long snouts are onto something.

Meanwhile, “God be with you.”

© 2015, All Rights Reserved; Scripture Quotations from the NIV (Zondervan).


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