Tag Archives: Bible

This Little Life of Mine

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I heard the old Sunday School song the other day: “This Little Light of Mine.” It got stuck in my head–the way I think it was meant to. It’s been rattling around ever since, but one of the words oddly transmogrified. The word, “Light,” got replaced by, “Life.”

This Little Life of Mine.

“Little Life”–has more meaning as I (ahem) age. Is it my imagination or does every physician, dentist, ophthalmologist, and CEO look like they are 15? Here’s a telltale sign you’re aging: they give you the senior discount WITHOUT. ASKING. YOU.

I’ve reflected more on this reality as life moves on. And I’ve written on this before (Unpotential Realized)…but it somehow seems more central to my thinking these days. One of the advantages of the pre-social media era was that we could convince ourselves (the “small” ones among us) that we mattered–that we were somehow “big”–at least in our local context–whatever that happened to be. The other six billion people on the planet were hidden by distance and the infancy of technological connection.

With the advent of all media “social,” it’s crystal clear that there are lots of people out there–living lots of “big” lives–lives that seem to dwarf other lives–or, at least, dwarf mine.

None of this diminishes the “big” things in a life–in my life: a wife who loves me (warts and all [my warts, not hers]), kids who have turned out great (part of their greatness being the delivery of terrific grandkids), some very special friends, some energizing experiences serving the Lord.

But as time creeps along (or moves at warp nine–depending on the day), it seems as if life has become smaller. The significant aspirations of my younger years have bumped into the realities of personal ability and opportunity. And it is truly depressing to see one’s life potential shrink away. Oh, I know, Ben Franklin served on the Declaration of Independence committee when he was 70–and he invented bifocals when he was in his late 70s. But here’s one of the realizations of aging: frankly, I ain’t no Ben Franklin. (Get it? “Frankly?” Sorry, couldn’t help myself.)

Trusting that the actuaries know what they’re talking about, and hoping that family history is somewhat predictive, and trusting that an Oklahoma twister will not yank me out of my shoes, I likely have about 20 years left. What to do with those years, given the aforementioned constraints of ability and opportunity?

This Little Life of Mine, Let it Shine. Whatever comes my way, in terms of opportunity–whatever tasks can be tackled by my feeble skills, I can still do this one thing: This Little Life of Mine, Let it Shine. My life can shine for Jesus wherever I am. The luminescent capacity may be limited, but my life can still shine. The opportunities for illumination may be circumscribed, but my life can still shine. It may only be a very small corner in a very small part of the world, but a life of shining is still within reach.

I am not saying that I am completely at peace with this. I am not saying that I am “content” with this ever-present realization of personal limitations–because I am not. I am saying that This Little Life of Mine can Shine. The hows and wheres and whens–beyond the obvious family connections–are all in God’s hands. But…

This Little Life of Mine, Let it Shine, Let it Shine, Let it Shine. Please, God, Let it Shine.

© 2017, All Rights Reserved.


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

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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).


Despicable Me and the Vitriolaters

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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).


“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).


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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