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).


Six Things I Hate

1.  Wisest Kid Commercials. Really? Now adults are so pathetic that we can’t even pick out something for lunch or dinner?  Someone, somewhere needs to put a stop to this cultural craze that has us believing that younger is wiser.  Sometimes kids stumble upon charm…but wiser?  Honestly, we need some adults with the intestinal fortitude to step up and say, “Knock it off.  If I want wisdom, I’ll ask someone who has a few more laps around the track than I do; not someone with a fake beard who can’t even tie their shoes.”  Wise-guy kid maybe (yes, I initially thought to use another word there, but this blog is rated “G”).

2.  Donut Ditherers. You know, patrons at the local donut shop who, after waiting in line for at least ten minutes, start to think about what they want WHEN THEY GET TO THE REGISTER.  “I’d like a dozen donuts please.  One…ummm…one chocolate frosted, one glazed…no, wait, ummm…”  Fifteen minutes later (note: more than a minute per donut), the Ditherers finally leave–oblivious to the charm fest they’ve left in their wake.

3.  Movie Seat Clusterers (yes, I made up a word). You’ve experienced this.  You get to the movie a few minutes early (so that you can get some popcorn and be seated in time for the trailers).  The theater is practically empty.  But, no matter where you sit, the boneheads who come in after you, decide to SIT RIGHT BEHIND YOU!  Dozens, nay hundreds of empty seats, and they decide to SIT RIGHT BEHIND YOU!  Honestly, I know I am neither charming nor popular nor, well, any of those things that would attract a crowd.  Why oh why oh why?  And, if you decide to sit right behind me, do not compound your lack of grace by ENGAGING IN CONVERSATION WITH THE CHARACTERS ON THE SCREEN.  The people in the audience with you can hear you, and are annoyed by you, BUT THE CHARACTERS ON THE SCREEN IN THE FILM CANNOT HEAR YOU!

4.  Stoplight Micro-Millisecond Timers. It happened again today.  I was first in line at the stoplight; it turned green; before my brain (which I admit is sometimes on the “slow cycle”) could process the change in color, the Uber Intenser (yes, another made up word) behind me HONKED HIS HORN.  Trust me, nowhere in the arctic wind chill of this winter wonderland is a destination worth the stress that comes with constant horn honking and pedals to the metal.  I could understand if I’d taken to reading War and Peace at each stoplight.  But honestly, a micro-millisecond?

5.  That I hate these stupid, minor things and that I let them get to me so often. Where in the world is my perspective?  The Apostle Paul said that the travails of this world are “light and momentary” (2 Cor. 4:17).  Since he was talking about things more egregious than traffic honkers or movie squatters, I have to wonder why it is that I let the “light and momentary” become so weighty and permanent in my mind.

6.  That I do not hate the things that God hates. “Hate evil, love good,” Amos says (5:15).  Why is it that I don’t hate the injustice that plagues our world?  Why is it that so many people without Christ doesn’t bother me enough to be more purposeful in my relationships?

Perhaps you have a similar list; perhaps you don’t.  If you do, maybe we should give the trivial over to God and let Him fuel our spirits with His own concerns.  Maybe.

© All Rights Reserved. Scripture Quotations from the NIV.


“Ladies and Gentlemen, This is The Captain…”

delta md88

One of those frustrating airline moments…we had just pushed back from the gate but then had stopped on the taxiway; as the minutes ticked by without movement toward the runway, it became clear that something was amiss.  There are some disadvantages to having been in the Air Force–you can pick up little, telltale signs (like engines powering up, then powering down) that something isn’t quite right preflight.

Soon enough the captain came over the intercom, “Sorry, ladies and gentlemen, but one of the engine generators doesn’t seem to be working and after consulting with maintenance we are going to return to a gate to have the problem checked out…as soon as they can find us a clear gate.”

Ha!  This was at Atlanta’s Hartsfield airport; the last time they had a clear gate was just after Wilbur said to Orville, “Hey, shucks, this thing works!  You didn’t die!”

Almost immediately passenger frustration began to rise.  Sure, everyone was pleasant enough for the first few minutes–laughter and airplane “war stories” bounced around the cabin.  But just beneath the surface banter lurked a simmering frustration.

I saw it in my fellow passengers…the smiles that too quickly faded to frowns…the jokes and stories told with ever sharper edges and more pointed punch lines.  The babies who seemed to intuitively know that they’d have longer to wail in their lap bound disappointment.

And I felt it in myself.  I tried to decipher my own emotional churn.  Was it just that I’d be late?  And that I wondered how late?  Was it the disappointment of delayed connection with loved ones I hadn’t seen in too long?  Was it that an already short trip was being compressed like it had been tossed into some Travelocity trash compactor?

I don’t think the frustration centered on the details or the delays…as annoying as those things can be.  And I don’t think it was that folks really wanted to travel on a plane that might not have been safe…I mean, who in their right mind would?

I think it was this: we want control.  And when we run into circumstances that shatter our illusion of control, we rebel.

Giving over control of any aspect of our lives runs counter to our desire to be masters of our own fate–even though that desire can never be realized.  All kinds of things can shred the bogus notion of self-control–they range from the grand to the bland:  illness, wayward kids, job loss, flat tires.  When anything along that grand to bland spectrum targets me, I respond with the same simmering frustration that wrung the passengers’ spirits on that Atlanta tarmac.  I want control; I want it now; and you (especially you) had better not mess with it.

Isn’t that what Adam and Eve wanted?  Isn’t that what most of Israel’s and Judah’s kings wanted?  Isn’t that what the Sons of Zebedee wanted in Mark, Chapter 10?  Isn’t that what you want?  I know it’s what I want.

We work so hard to construct a zone of personal control, little realizing that it’s like a hyper inflated balloon just hanging in the air waiting for some circumstantial pinprick to make it go “Pop!”

“What is your life?” James asks.  “You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.  Instead you ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that’” (James 4:14,15).  God is not opposed to our investment in careful planning.  He is just opposed to the idea that we ultimately control anything.  And He is most opposed to our presumption and our attempted assumption of His sovereign prerogative.

Fortunately, this time, I’ll give Delta props (well, it was actually a jet, but you linguistic hipsters know what I mean)…just under an hour later we were on a replacement plane–winging our way to our destination.  Funny thing, as soon as the new ride took off, even cocooned in a vulnerable metal tube at 35,000 feet, we all (at least I know I did) settled back into our illusion of control.

It seems this is a lesson I’m forced to relearn.  “What a wretched man I am!  Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?  Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ, our Lord” (Romans 7:25a).

(c) All rights reserved; Scripture quotations from the NIV (Zondervan).


They’re Stamps; They’re Green; They’re Not New

green stamps

In the grocery store; paying for my stuff.  The cashier says, “Do you want the stamps?”  I say, “What stamps?”  He pulls out a roll of little green stamps…which are, apparently, a reward for shopping and can be used as future purchase credits.

I’m thinking…green stamps?  Green stamps?  Then I recalled sitting on my grandpappy’s knee and him telling me about S&H Green Stamps…available at many retailers (gas stations were particularly prolific dispensers of green stamps).  You pasted them into little booklets (according to my grandpappy) and then you could redeem them for prizes or could use them for future purchase credits.

So…meanwhile…back at the store…the cashier is acting like this is a NEW AND VERY EXCITING IDEA!  It’s not…not even close.

Then…post an annual church leadership mega conference, put on by a mega church, served up to mega audiences.  One of the speakers talks about thinking outside the box.  (Actually he made it another box and labeled it “Box Three.”  Which is technically different than the other two boxes but is, itself, a box, so as to not misplace things deposited therein…which can be, you know, a problem for things outside a box.)

Later, the same mega church has people thinking about this boxiness stuff and they come up with a grandly gushed over NEW idea: maybe some folks will need some…wait for it…quiet in their worship.  Maybe some folks will resonate with…wait for it…liturgy and structure in their worship.  They then acknowledge that these are not really new ideas…just new to them.

My daughter sometimes uses SMH (shaking my head) when I say something corny or ridiculous (no, she does not have an accumulation of concussive injuries because I am so frequently corny or ridiculous).

When I encountered the much gushed over ideas above…as if they were NEW, instead of SMH, I went all the way to BMHATNWATTMIFOAB.  Sorry, for the uninitiated, that’s “Banging My Head Against The Nearest Wall And Then Throwing Myself In Front Of A Bus.”

Now, I have nothing against reclaiming practices that have meaning and purpose–in fact, I’m a fan.  Let’s just not pretend they are new or that we invented them or that all those who went before us were ignoramuses of the grandest order and that nothing meaningful happened until we showed up.  Let’s not mask our willful obliviousness of 2000 years of church history with tweets that have aspirations of profundity.  Let’s not pretend that the Holy Spirit was on strike right up until the moment we arrived on the scene.

Solomon was right, “There is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9).  Oh, sure, there are some nifty gadgets (where is my lightening cable, anyway?).  But with respect to human nature and our proclivities and the deepest and most meaningful engagement of Christian faith, there is truly nothing new.

Perhaps it’s hubris that keeps us from acknowledging this.  Perhaps in a selfie world we just can’t help ourselves.  Perhaps in an era when anything can be googled and therefore nothing is learned and held closely, it’s the price we pay for techno-dependence.  But they’re stamps; they’re green; they’re not new.

© All Rights Reserved. Scripture Quotations from the NIV.


Eight Things I Learned about Church Life and Ministry from Baseball

One: Nobody bats 1.000.  In baseball, the very best offensive players only get it right about a third of the time; the rest of the time they are out (sometimes down and out).  In this Christian life, clinging to the solid truth that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23) can mean that we have a better handle on our propensity for “striking out” and will, perhaps, be better able to cultivate a temperament suited to understanding, forgiveness, mercy, and grace.

Two: Comparing batting averages is a waste of time.  Baseball players don’t advance by comparing their stats to someone else’s.  Baseball players advance by focusing on their own game.  Besides, all comparisons do is fuel either pride or despair.  The Kingdom of God functions on neither.  In the Kingdom, we do best to look to our own standing before the King.  “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye” (Matthew 7:3).

Three: We don’t have to swing at every pitch.  Batters know that lots of different pitches will come their way.  They need to discern those pitches that have the best chance of connecting and going somewhere.  They do that based on their experience and their coaching from those wiser than they.  In church life and ministry, it seems that everyone is an expert–except that they’re not.  Do I believe that God can bring ideas to and through anyone by virtue of the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit?  Absolutely!  Is that the way it happens (and has happened) throughout two millennia of church history?  Not regularly–God speaks to and through leaders and then expects those leaders to lead.  So, we lean into the wisdom of those called, gifted, and equipped for ministry leadership–checking their ideas against Scripture and testing the spirits.  But every idea that comes our way is not worthy of engagement.  “Test the spirits to see whether they are from God” (1 John 4:1).

Four: Especially never swing at a pitch in the dirt.  Batters are sometimes fooled by a pitch that looks like it will be in the sweet spot but then trails away (often bouncing in the dirt near the plate).  Sometimes the pitch is so “off” that the batter can tell it’s going to be in the dirt from the time it leaves the pitcher’s hand.  Two things happen when you swing at a pitch in the dirt: (1) you look stupid and, (2) you end up covered in dirt.  In ministry, the sheep will sometimes throw a pitch in the dirt–a snarl, a cutting remark, a baseless accusation, a tome of complaint, a general disdain.  Sometimes they’ll do it accidentally; oftentimes purposefully.  When we swing at those “pitches,” we end up covered in dirt and looking stupid.  It is so tempting to engage the defensive machine and blast back…perhaps “charging the mound” in indignation.  It is the wise person who knows when to simply let the pitch go by.  “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1).

Five: It’s at least a nine-inning game and it takes as long as it takes.  Fans sometimes chafe at extra-inning games or pitchers who take their time between pitches.  Sure, some of that pitching motion is strategy, an attempt to throw off batters’ timing.  But much of it is simply the rhythm of the game–integral to the test of endurance that is baseball.  It’s at least a nine-inning game and there are 162 of them in the regular season.  A team’s prospects at the beginning of any one game or at the beginning of any one season are not always predictors of the final outcome.  I once watched a 16-inning battle at Fenway Park that saw the lead switch several times before the home team finally nailed it in the bottom of the sixteenth inning.  People seated next to me left in the eighth inning because they thought the game was over.  Ha!  In church life we must get used to the reality of endurance that is simply the rhythm of the Christian endeavor.  “…the one who stands firm to the end will be saved” (Matthew 10:22).

Six: Sometimes you have to sacrifice for the team.  Many a superior hitter goes to the plate with instructions from the coach to try to get put out–to hit the ball somewhere they know it will likely be caught but which allows the runner(s) to advance into scoring position.  Church life is full of these moments.  Moments when we can choose to “swing away” and attempt to grab personal glory or when we can choose to make the “sacrifice” that offers the “team” the best prospects for Kingdom impact. “Now, to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:7).

Seven: Getting to play in the minors is better than being in the stands at the majors.  Ask any player which they would rather do:  play or watch.  The answer?  Invariably, they want to play.  Too many in the Christian life these days are attracted to the bigger and the better–but all they want to do is watch.  Playing is always better–even if it’s only in the pickup game down the street.  “I have come that they might have life, and have it to the full,” Jesus said (John 10:10).  Nobody thinks (well, at least I don’t) that the “full life” is characterized by flattened and scarred backsides caused by sitting and watching others mixing it up on the field.

Eight: You need to be in shape to play the game.  Who thinks out-of-shape players will do well?  No one.  Everybody knows that players who are in shape will fare better: fewer injuries, more stamina, that extra “something” that makes plays and wins games.  The Christian life is joyfully rigorous and requires that we be in tip top spiritual shape: regular devotions, fervent prayers, supportive fellowship, genuine accountability.  Without those things we will not be “suited up” for the game and will falter when adversity comes our way.  “Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand” (Ephesians 6:13).

© All Rights Reserved.  Scripture Quotations from the NIV.


Maybe Gene was Right and Failure is Not an Option; I’m Still Not Sure (Part 2)

I have had lots of input since my last post (link here).  Many, many folks have been insistent that, in Christ, failure is not an option–if (and this, I think, is a big IF) we are honoring His call and committing ourselves to His purposes.  They have said (as I noted last time) that we do, indeed, live by faith and not by sight.  They have reminded me that human perceptions and evaluations are inevitably incomplete…handicapped by a lack of data and obscured by the sinful nature that continues to blur the plans and purposes of God.

So maybe Gene Kranz was right (or, at least, the Apollo 13 screenwriter who had Kranz’s character say), “Failure is not an option.”  I’m still not sure.

Perhaps it’s just vocational or existential angst.  [Don’t you love the onomatopoeia of “angst”?  Don’t you love the onomatopoeia of “onomatopoeia”?]

Anyway, perhaps it’s just vocational or existential or even life stage angst.  I don’t know.  I do know that the feeling of failure still hovers–faintly whispering like the revolving rotary wings of a black ops helicopter–just waiting to touch down with its rapid assault team to confirm my fears.

But I have been deeply appreciative of the encouragement.  And that is definitely something.  Really, definitely, something.

And I have been prompted to do what I have encouraged so many others to do when faced with hard questions for which there seem to be no easy answers.  When faced with what I don’t know about the Christian life, I hearken back to what I do know.

I know this: God is good all the time (go ahead, you can toss back the response, “And all the time, God is good”).  It’s worth reminding myself that the God we worship is not arbitrary nor capricious nor tantrum tossing nor ignorant of our circumstances and peccadillos.  His goodness is who He is; His goodness is what He does; His goodness flows from His love; and His love is deeper, wider, and higher than we can comprehend.

I know this: God has resources–has them all, in fact. And, though those resources are most often arrayed just beyond our sight sense, that doesn’t mean they’re not there.  It simply means that we don’t always get to see them.  Sometimes we hardly ever get to see them.  And maybe it’s the “hardly ever” that makes it seem, well, hard.

It was panic time.  The ancient city of Dothan was surrounded by an Aramean army which had snuck in overnight.  It was a manhunt…more accurately a prophet hunt.  Elisha kept derailing the King of Aram and his plans to destroy the Israelites.  The King thought he had a double agent among his people; but Elisha was giving the Israelites divine intel about Aramean troop movements.  Aram’s King wanted Elisha…badly.

So Aram surrounded Dothan in the night.  Not a good next morning for Dothanites (Dothanians?).  Elisha’s servant was mess-your-pants scared. Elisha prays and asks God to show nervous servant boy what’s really there.  Massed in the hills–masked to normal human sight–the Lord’s horses and chariots of fire surround the Aramean army.

That time, a servant of God got to see all that God had at His disposal.

I have to confess that I’m envious of Elisha’s servant.  Not envious of his era with its lack of indoor plumbing and all things “i” (Phone, Pad, Pod, etc.).  I am envious of that real time get-to-see-it experience in the middle of what looked like failure.  Man, what a day!

But part of what marks that day as spectacular is that it was not the norm.  To be sure, hanging around with Elisha heightened the probability that supercalifragilistic things would happen.  But even by God’s-prophet-is-in-town standards (see ax, floating), the vision of the Army of God for the servant of God was blockbuster stuff.

But it was not the norm.  The norm: we live by faith, not sight.  Right?

And I highlight that on the list of things I have known about God and this Christian life.  I live in the tension between what I know to be true about God and what I see happening around me.  So, maybe Gene was right, “Failure is not an option.”  But I have to confess I still hear the whispering blades of that black ops chopper.  Sigh…

“Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29).

© All rights reserved.  Scripture from the NIV.


With Respect, Gene, Failure Is An Option

apollo-13-failure-is-not-an-option-bumper-sticker-1608-p

They made a movie about it; they called it, “Apollo 13.”  The film dramatized the heroic and herculean efforts by the ground and space crews to get three astronauts home after a malfunction that cost the Apollo 13 crew their moon landing and had real potential to kill them outright or leave them stranded to slip into a deep and cold space death.

When confronted with the breadth of multiple systems failures, Ed Harris, portraying Gene Kranz, the NASA Flight Director, crisply insists that “Failure is NOT an option.”

Ironically, the words actually came from the “Apollo 13” script writer, Bill Broyles, and not Gene himself.  Kranz later adopted the phrase (which certainly characterized the NASA mindset…and his own), and used it as the title for his autobiography.

But, with respect to Gene, it is actually the case that failure is, not only an option, but an all too frequent reality for many, many, many, maybe most, perhaps all.

I was still in high school and was, ahem, “mastering” piano playing of the: you-can-be-in-a-party-band-and-plunk-chords-but-don’t-get-any-professional-real-musician-ideas kind of way.  My piano teacher had been offered a gig at a small honkytonk in Vermont.  He was not available, so he offered me the gig.  Problem: they did not have a piano; they had a two manual (read keyboard) Hammond B3 organ instead.

Now, I had seen Hammond organs before and heard some folks who could play really well, but I WAS NOT ONE of them.  I had never, ever even actually sat down at an organ to try to play.  When I mentioned this to my piano teacher (who was, in the “by the way” department) COMPLETELY AWARE of this, he said (and I quote because the entire episode is seared in that part of my memory labeled, “trauma”), “No problem; come on over this afternoon and I’ll run you through the basics and you’ll be fine.”

Assuming he knew what he was talking about, I went to his studio and sat with him for (another “ahem”) WHOLE thirty minutes, during which I apparently grasped organ playing to a degree he thought would bode success way up there in Vermont honkytonkdom.  Vainly trying to adopt his confidence (but not his skill…really and truly), I got in the car for the two-hour trip to the aforementioned honkytonk.

[Aside number one:  assuming you can play the organ because you play the piano and they both have keyboards is like assuming you can drive a tandem tractor trailer rig for UPS because you drive a car and the car and the truck both have tires.]

[Aside number two: this was before they had “The Voice” or any of the other searching-for-new-talent-because-there-is-a-worldwide-shortage-of-superstars shows.  I suppose there could be a show called “The Organ” but I’m confident too many people would get exactly the kind of wrong idea you’re getting right now.]

I got to the honkytonk.  I took my place at the organ on what passed for a stage.  I went on at 8:00 p.m.  I left at 8:25 p.m.  During the intervening 25 minutes I slaughtered several songs–killed them dead, dead, dead–mashing them into unrecognizable pseudo zombie songs; notes falling off like appendages from the undead.

Faux music was flung from the defenseless Hammond B3 by the sad combination of my less-than-novice organ playing and my mist-like confidence that vaporized when a honkytonk patron said (upon sighting this then skinny high school kid with his BIG FAKE BOOK of music), “Do have any idea what you’re doing?  We’re partial to GOOD music here.  You don’t look like you know what you’re doing.  Get me another beer!”  [That last part was aimed at the barkeep.]

After 25 minutes of organ-based torture (since outlawed by the Geneva Conventions), the honkytonk proprietor (who was kind of nice enough but insistent…really, absolutely insistent) said (again, words seared into the previously mentioned trauma memory section), “You can go now; we’ll just drop quarters in the juke box.  You wanna donate some quarters?”  [I made up that bit about him wanting me to donate quarters…but with the look on his face, I could tell he wanted me to feed the jukebox on my way out.]

Failure is most certainly an option.  Since the “organ episode,” I’ve had a not exceptional, but successful military career, been moderately effective in the classroom, had an advancing business-world effort as a health care administrator, and, in my primary vocation, pastored not “mega,” but certainly (except for one purposeful “church hospice” experience) churches that moved in forward directions (by those things we can measure).  Some super sweet kids and a terrific wife and blessingly adorable grandkids round out the resume. [I know, these should have been first on the list…mark my list making fail as yet another, ummmm, failure.]

Now, I am beginning to feel “failure” again on the horizon.  It seems tantalizingly close by.  It is stalking me–I see its shadow and its reflective glimpse when I turn quickly.  But this time with much bigger stakes.  And it scares me…really scares me.

And it raises so many questions.

After mustering experience-based wisdom and genuinely seeking God’s heart and plans and purposes for my enterprise, what if I fail?

Or, can it not be failure and still look like failure?

And, where is God in the middle of the failures?  Are they lessons in humility?  If so, why do so many other people have to be affected or tainted by my failed effort?  I am most certainly handicapped by lack of eternal perspective in moments of failure.

And, how much of our failures are we supposed to own?  Because, honestly, my tendency is to own all of it–even those pieces well outside my illusory control.  But if I haven’t purposed to fail (and who, in their right mind, would), then it seems as if failure is a divinely permitted dagger aimed straight at the core of my spirit.

And I know that God is sovereign and that we are called to live by faith and not sight.  But how much faith?  And is any sight permitted in the process?  No sight?  Never? Never ever?

And I know that conflating what we do (for good or ill) with who we are is always problematic.  Lean in one direction and you get pride; lean in the other and you get despair.  Traveling the road of pride is a recipe for disaster; taking the byway of despair drains one’s physical, emotional, and spiritual energy.

I could (and do) run to the scriptures in these moments…but is there anyone else who is left unsatisfied with the delayed response that they most always offer?  I know I’m not supposed to think that or (certainly not) say it out loud.  But there it is.  How many “somedays” and “perseverances” and “patiences” is one soul called upon to endure?

And I know that this feels like a little (ok, maybe a very lot) of whining when people around the world lose their lives or their livelihoods for their faith.  But it is real; it is here; it is scary.

Failure is most certainly an option, Gene.  When I am on the cusp of one, I struggle with all of the above and more…and I do not know what to make of it.  Do you?

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Owls Don’t Pronounce the “T”…

owl

So it’s “Who” not “Hoot.”  I bring this up because I was at a football game the other day where the team mascot is an Owl and people frequently say, “Hoot! Hoot!”  I keep pointing out that it’s “Who” and I even try to model proper supportive fan behavior.

Example One:  Announcer, “And that was Number 43 scoring for the Owls.”  Me: “Who!?!”  Adjacent Fan: “Number 43.”  Me:  “Who!?!”

Example Two:  Announcer, “A remarkable carry by Number 12 for the Owls.”  Me:  “Who!?!”  Adjacent Fan:  “Number 12.”  Me:  “Who!?!”  Adjacent Fan:  “One more time with the ‘Who’ and you’ll find out.”  Me:  “Who………………………..t”

I suppose, beyond the lack of fluency in Owl diction, what surprised me most at the game was the presence of so many critical “fans.”  I put the word in quotation marks because it seems to me that “fans” would be more supportive.  Perhaps I should call the critical ones “spectators” but that would mean that they just watched the game and, trust me, these folks do way more than watch.

What they do is monitor any misstep on the part of the refs or the opposition players or, if their team is doing badly, the aforementioned Owls (as in, their own players).  Then, poised with poison, they hurl epithets with an accuracy and completion percentage any quarterback would envy.

Those epithets are not only flung with precision, they are linguistic cudgels–the kind of language you hope you will never find splattered on your spirit.  All of this, mind you, at a college football game that, at the end of the day, amounts to no (zero, none, nada) eternal (and very little even temporal) consequence.

Sadly, though, this sometimes reminds me of churches.  Larry Burkett’s hoped for “Safest Place on Earth,” is often anything but, because the home team’s “fans” can’t quite get this “fan” thing down.  Tiptoe through the Scriptures and absorb the very many ways that the biblical authors addressed the paramount need to (in the Apostle Paul’s words) “speak the truth in love.”  Yet we hurl critique with the best of them…and usually at our own team…and often with nuclear effect (not to mention fallout).

I wonder about this even as I know that I can tend toward critique myself.  I know that there are times when we all need that relational-investment-based, love-motivated, gently worded “wound from a friend” (Prov. 27:6).  But can it really be that, in our verbal quiver, the “wound” arrows so outnumber the “encourage” arrows?

I sincerely hope not.  We need to work to find genuine words of truthful affirmation.  To not speak unless we know that the end result of our words will be to build up and not discourage.

It’s up to me…and you.

“Who!?!”  You (and me), that’s who.  Sorry, couldn’t resist.

© All rights reserved.  Scripture quotations from the NIV.


A Girl Named Sue — “The Middle” — And Rejection

rejectLately, most likely due to the parched land of the television desert known as “late summer viewing,” we had stumbled across voluminous repeats of a show called “The Middle.”

[I know, some of you are leaning snobbish right now because you eschew the pedestrian land of television (or, at least, you say you do).  That’s fine…I’ve been called worse (than pedestrian, I mean).]

The show’s about a middle (who knew?) American family named Heck (as in “what the?”)–and it unmasks a collection of decidedly not-put-together reverse caricatures of the perfect family.

The Hecks are the anti-Cleavers, the non-Huxtables of yesteryear.  Nor are they the realistically flawed but earnest Bravermans of current “Parenthood” fame.  And they are certainly not the cartoonish kids-are-always-smarter-than-the-adults small (and large) screen family portraits painted by many of today’s screen writers.  The Hecks are flawed, flawed, earnestly & deeply flawed people…both individually and as a family unit.

They love each other in a nearly impossible to predict, frayed edges, trying too hard in a not-very-hard kind of oblique attempt at family success.  Messes abound: personally and corporately…in their lives and in their environs.  They survive but nobody knows how.  They’ll never, ever thrive.  And yet they somehow do…thrive, that is.

Another blog post would be required to completely profile this whacky five-some and give them all the attention they deserve.  But, I have to confess, their antics on some of the shows have made me laugh at the number 10 belly pain level (dripping tears and all).

Amongst this bunch is Sue…the middler of the Heck progeny.  Sue is a forgettable non-person, invisible to most of the world, most of the time.  Her teachers do not know she is in their classes.  Her achingly embarrassing moments (and there are oh so many) are hardly ever recognizable as hers because the other kids in the school have no clue about Sue…at all…in any context.

Sue’s main dream has been to be picked…for something…for anything.  She has been on a quest to “make” the (a, any, please just one) team…club…committee…just something…please.  It is simultaneously gruesome and darkly hilarious to watch.  Well, mostly gruesome in a you-can-never-turn-away-from-the-train (car, bicycle, moped, you get the picture) wreck kind of way.

Sue had never been chosen for anything; she worked in rejection as her medium like some painters wallow in oils.  She was masterful at not mastering, nor even being able to muster, for anything.  Until, that is, her Mom (Frankie) MADE the school principal declare at least one sport a “No Cut” team.

But Sue, being Sue, nearly didn’t make the “no cut” cross country team because she almost didn’t make the requisite five-lap track requirement.  She dragged herself across the finish line (after first stopping at the “not finished” line), crawling on the track through a thunderstorm and pelting rain.  Sue, God bless her, who never gets picked for anything, by anyone, ever, was finally on the receiving end of a tossed team t-shirt from the Cross Country Coach.  YEAH!

Some of you may have never known rejection…the end of a relationship, the termination of a job, the thin envelope or terse email from the college, the “we’ve found someone more suited for the job.”  Good for you; the aura of self-sufficiency is firmly in place.  Good for you.  Really, I mean it: good for you.

I have had rejection recently, the particular category is not important.  You’d think at my age I’d have established some resilient baseline to help me navigate the jagged edges of the word, “no.”  Such a small word; such power packed into its tiny-lettered twosome; it’s a short-hilted, verbal dagger that slices through to the heart.  “No–not you.”

Of course, as we mature as persons, we need to learn to hear a certain kind of “no.”  We have to learn to damper the power of destructive whims and capriciousness, not to mention selfishness.  This is also not the other “no”–the one that believers need to embrace–the “no” to sin that we all need to grapple with as we are empowered by the Holy Spirit.

But the “no” of rejection…a Sue kind of “no” is neither of those.  It’s the “no” that drains our spirits and rattles our minds and stifles the sense of unique createdness to which the Scriptures testify.  And sometimes it seems as if “no” is the only word that the whole world knows.

But there is another word; a word that flows from the center of a deeply loving and ever present Savior.  It is the word, “Yes.”  This is the word of secure connection; this is the word of everlasting and lavish love; this is the word that looks past our many “tryouts” and “cuts” and “fails”; this is the word that transcends our plethora of personal “no’s” and reaches into the place deep inside us where we need to hear, “Yes.”  This is the word from Jesus.  This is the cure for the “no’s”—this is the word I need to hear; perhaps this is the word you need to hear.

“I will give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:28). 

“Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5). 

“And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20b). 

“For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38,39). 

“For no matter how many promises God has made, they are ‘Yes’ in Christ” (2 Corinthians 1:20a). 

© All rights reserved.  Scripture quotations from the NIV.


Some Assembly Required

some-assembly-required-mainThere are word combinations in the English language that I love:  “Pepperoni, Sausage, Extra Cheese,” hovers near the top of the list. 

There are word combinations in the English language that I despise:  “While you are up, can you…?”  Note to readers…waiting until I am up to have me satisfy your whims is not adorable; it’s annoying.  But I stray from the topic at hand. 

Because there is one word combination in the English language that makes me want to heave (as in, you know, projectile vomiting).  I am not talking about the mildly upset stomach followed by the quasi-catch-in-the-throat-near-miss vomit.  No, I am talking about solar system departure trajectory, full on, don’t-get-in-the-way-or-you’ll-be-knocked-down-and-covered-with-gastric-juices-for-life vomit. 

What words, you ask (so as to never utter them in my presence), might generate such a depraved, visceral (literally) response?  Here they are…mark them down…do not say them to me:  “SOME ASSEMBLY REQUIRED.” 

Now, I know that there are genuine he men and she women whose day is made more delightful by put-it-together-yourself-because-they-were-too-lazy-to-do-it-at-the-factory projects.  My hat is off to them (actually, my hat was off anyway, but I needed a handy cliché). 

Seriously, I know some ace project people who are both genuinely good at what they do and whose hearts thump with delight at the mere prospect of such projects.  You probably know some people like that too.  You may even be one.  You know who you are…you are barely on step one of the current project and yet you have already cast your eye on the next project.  God bless you. 

But…I am not a “SOME ASSEMBLY REQUIRED” kind of person.  This whacked me again when I was beginning to put together a chair.  Why I was putting the chair together is a post for another day.  But there I was, through no fault of my own, taking the chair pieces out of the boxes so as to lay them out and have each piece handy for the assembly. 

Unpacking the pieces is what got me riled up.  The pieces were each heavily fortified with nuclear detonation proof plastic and then sealed with THAT KIND of tape.  The kind of tape that will not detape itself…until you have tried to cut it with every sharp object at hand…and then cut your hand…until the tape finally yields only to reveal the INNER PLASTIC and TAPE. 

And this was my thought in that moment:  wouldn’t it have been easier just to assemble the stinking chair?!?  I mean, rather than wrap each little piece in multiple shrouds of bomb proof tape and plastic, wouldn’t it be simpler to just assemble the stinking chair?!?  [I know, I have said “stinking” twice…it’s for, you know, emphasis.] 

Of course the mere unwrapping of all the pieces is followed by the preliminary reading of the assembly instructions.  You have seen these instructions.  They are cobbled together by people whose first language is, indeed, English, but who have such demented minds that they use Google Translate to render the instructions through the entire list of available languages in the app before re-rendering the instructions in English. 

That process takes a sentence like, “Identify the four hex nuts and lay them side-by-side,” and transmogrifies it into something like, “Put your left hand in, take your left hand out, put your left hand in and then you shake the nearest dog’s tail until the dog eats the turnips left over from the guillotine.”  [This is not hyperbole; you know it’s true.] 

You have to read the instructions so many times that you forget why you started reading them in the first place.  And then you remember:  SOME ASSEMBLY REQUIRED. 

I so loathe those words…unless, of course, unless…they are about me.  Because I know that I am a horrible mess of a work in progress and I am so very grateful that Jesus has decided to work in me (and sometimes…rarely, but sometimes, through me).  I thank God that His work in me is not dependent upon my ability to bring it about. 

Oh sure, I read the instructions (His are plain enough) and I do my best to follow along.  But then I remember that it is God who is at work in me to accomplish His purposes. 

And the very funny thing is…He delights in the project–He’s one of those project types.  The Master Carpenter who labored over His neighbors’ household needs, is now at work to perfect His strength right here…in the middle of me.  

I, of course, am very much more complicated than a chair that comes in a box.  Presuming that I slog my way through the instructions, stick with the project, find that runaway bolt that must have rolled into the heater vent (again!), and connect all the connections…the chair will be assembled.  It will stay that way; it won’t try to disassemble itself.  But I will…try to disassemble myself, that is. 

And Jesus starts again…with me…putting me back aright and pouring out His compassion while I am in the very process of self-disassembly.  Oh, great love!  Oh, great mercy!  Oh, great power!  Oh, great patience! 

“Being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6).

 © All rights reserved.  Scripture quotations from the NIV.


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