Tag Archives: Jesus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Vanishing Mists

mist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Despicable Me and the Vitriolaters

DESPICABLE-ME-21

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

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

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

That brings me to this:

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

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

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

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

And this,

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

And this,

You’re a despicable Pastor.

That’s right, Despicable Me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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).


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?

© All rights reserved.


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.


Learning to Count

2-plus-2

2 + 2 = ??

You know the answer to that math puzzle, don’t you? And yet you hesitate because you fear there is some bloggish mystery about the equation that will result in a case of the chagrins if you blurt a wrong answer. You’re still holding back, aren’t you? Even though you are alone, in front of your computer or tablet and there is NO ONE watching. You are afraid; you are very afraid. Hey! It’ll be OK…give it a whirl…

So, 2 + 2 = ??

2 + 2 = 4 (Tada!)

You knew the answer all along because you mastered basic math skills back when you were a wee lass or lad. Simple operations, like addition, came right after the primary math skill: counting.

Crawling, walking, talking, household pet aggravation, accurate aim in toileting (at least for boys), reading, writing, arithmetic…these are some of the skills people aspire to acquire as they grow up. These are also some of the skills that we hope our progeny develop as they grow up. And the last one, in particular, is a skill Christians need to master as we grow up.

We want kids to learn to count; God wants His kids to learn to count too. Why is that? Because Christianity is not all “get”; there is a great deal of “give.” Now, let me quickly add (Ha! Get it? Add?) that this is not a “give” to earn or buy but a “give” that is a response to the lavish love of God.

How do we know this is true? Why, the Bible. Jesus, in cautioning a burgeoning yet perhaps uninformed enthusiasm in Luke 14: 25-33, tries to make sure that His followers “get it”–that is, that they “get” that counting is a key element in Christ following.

In that Luke passage, Jesus cautions the crowds to beware that family connections might become casualties if those in the crowd choose Him. He cautions the crowds that their very lives might be forfeit if they choose to follow Him. Count, He says! For the sake of it all, count!

Jesus points to construction contractors who count to make sure they have the resources in place to finish their projects. In similar fashion, Jesus says, governmental leaders, intent on warfare, do their “battle damage estimates” before firing the first shot.

This counting is not, I believe, a call to hesitation–a discipleship “speed bump” if you will–it is rather a call to “eyes wide open” discipleship. Knowing that following Jesus has some associated risk makes for more determined disciples. This is not a “Wow, that’s going to cost way too much so I’m going to back off,” message. This is a “Wow, this is important enough to mean something,” message.

A hundred years ago Eleanor Porter wrote a book about how a cheerful girl changed the outlook of an entire town with her indefatigable optimism. In 1960, Walt Disney (ever the marketer of good feelings) made the novel into a film starring a teenaged Haley Mills. The book and movie: Pollyanna. By sheer force of cheer, Pollyanna rescues a town, a church, and her family from a distasteful tendency toward the dour. The film paved the way for a label that came to mean a disingenuous cheerfulness: Pollyannaism.

That label, unfortunately, describes many in the believing community. It is talked about as a matter of faith: “just believe” and, to be sure, there is the highly commended, scriptural faith essential. And…if we have to lean…we should undoubtedly lean in the faith direction.

But there is also this call to count…and I think it’s a call often ignored in the Christian community. Again, not the counting to avoid, but the counting to proceed with determination down the path Jesus has marked for us.

Friends may indeed abandon; family may wince and walk away; treasure may be given over; reputations may be tattered; lives may be surrendered. All of them happily ceded as a result of this very basic math skill: counting.

I believe Jesus wants His followers to have eyes wide open. If our eyes are not wide open, they cannot see the cost of the following. But neither can they see the joy of the following. This is a joy in the same “joy family” as Jesus’ “joy set before Him” in Hebrews 12:2. This joy came as a result of enduring the excruciating challenge of the cross and finding joy on the other side of a hard obedience. Our joy can come in a similar way; it can come on the other side of “eyes wide open” discipleship as we count the cost of following Him.

This joy is not mere relief that the endurance test has passed; it is the incomprehensible delight at the things that God has prepared for those who love Him (1 Corinthians 2:9). Eyes wide open indeed.

© All rights reserved.  Scripture quotations from the NIV.


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

sinners-wanted-001

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

My response:  Guilty.As.Charged. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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