Wednesday, July 23, 2014

This is only a test…

Have you ever felt that your life is like an ongoing sound check?  You know: Testing, testing… Just when you think you can see the light at the end of the tunnel, you discover it’s an oncoming train. Or you face yet another obstacle or are forced to endure one more hardship.  I recently read a humorous spin on this, called “you know it’s going to be a bad day when…” Perhaps some of you can relate.                                                                                                            
  •   You see a 20/20 news team in your office
  •   You call suicide prevention hotline, and they put you on hold.
  •   You turn on the news, and they’re showing emergency routes out of the city.
  •   Your car horn goes off accidentally and remains stuck as you follow a group of Hell’s Angels on the freeway.
  •   Your boss tells you not to bother to take off your coat.
  •   Your income tax check bounces.
  •   The timer on your coffee maker is set to brew at 8:00 a.m. and you forgot to put the coffee pot in the dispenser.
  •   You put both contact lenses in the same eye.
  •   You spend ten minutes looking for something you’re already wearing.
  •   Your twin sister forgot your birthday.

OK, so chances are that none of those things is in your immediate future, but what about others, such as

  •   You are 23, and despite a commitment to Christ, the earnest prayers of hundreds for your healing, and the love and support of a wonderful family, you succumb to cancer (a young friend who recently lost the battle, but won the war)
  •   You remain unemployed after months, if not years, of seeking work
  •   Your home feels increasingly unsafe due to emotional or physical abuse
  •   Your childhood innocence was shattered by sexual abuse
  •   One of your parents abandoned you just when you needed them most
  •   You are drowning in debt and see no way of escape
  •   You are facing retirement with uncertainty and financial instability

Whatever it is, we sometimes conclude that God is testing us.  And that’s if we’re even willing to believe there might be a redemptive purpose in what we’re going through.  But if we’re honest, the thoughts that occupy our minds during such times often sound more like this: Where are you, God? Are you on a break? What about all your promises?  (We may even defiantly quote scriptures.) You know, like those listed in Psalm 27:

For in the day of trouble, he will keep me safe in his dwelling
he will hide me in the shelter of his sacred tent and set me high upon a rock.

Essentially, we the created ones, put God on trial. We demand answers.  Like Jerry McGuire, we may say we want the truth, to which God often replies, “Your 3½ lbs of brain can’t handle the truth. You’re just going to have to trust me on this one.”

So why did the Psalmist write “when trouble comes…he will keep you safe”?  Sounds pretty straight-forward to me. I don’t pretend to understand God in all of these circumstances, but he has clearly stated in His word that my ways are not His ways, my thoughts His thoughts (Isaiah 55:8,9).  And He pointedly doesn’t just declare His thoughts and ways to be different…He says that they are HIGHER.  Like, exponentially higher. They ultimately lift us up!  That is encouraging!

In the same way, the writer to the Hebrews says in chapter 11 that faith is ‘the conviction of things not seen.’  Not clear.  It is not faith if God can be figured out by using our mind and senses alone.  It involves a trust leap. Continuing in Psalm 27, David reminds us of the need for tenacity in our faith.

My heart says of you, "Seek his face!"  Your face, LORD, I will seek.
Though my father and mother forsake me, the LORD will receive me.
I am still confident of this: I will see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living.
Wait for the LORD; be strong and take heart and wait for the LORD.

I find myself as I write this in just one of these places.  It may be a “wait and see” moment…or a “trust and obey” time.  The jury is still out.  As a worship leader, singer and teacher, much of what I do comes from the ability to use my voice properly.  Five days ago, I had a polyp removed from one of my vocal cords. I have not been able to talk, sing, or even whisper since then.  The doc says if I behave and don’t abuse it, I should be back to good as new soon.  But since then, I’ve heard horror stories from other singers who claim their voice was never the same after similar surgery.  (Reminds me of the old joke about the guy who asks his doctor, “Hey Doc, after my shoulder surgery, will I be able to play the violin?” to which the doctor replies, “I don’t see why not.”  The patient exclaims, “That’s amazing, ‘cause I never could before.”)

For me, just going several days with limited ability to communicate has caused me to ask God questions.  What are you trying to teach me here?  Do I depend too much on what I say to others and not enough on what I do for them.  How many other precious gifts do I possess which I take completely for granted?  And, how much must you love me to put up with such childish whining (in my spirit, remember—I can’t talk!)?
Ultimately, where I want to live is not only trusting in the God of the Happy Endings.  Rather, I want the assurance and conviction of the Old Testament prophet Habakkuk, who concluded:

Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, 
yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in God my Savior.

The Sovereign LORD is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
he enables me to tread on the heights.

Indeed, his ways are higher than mine. For whatever I am facing right now, I can trust Him. After all, it is never His intention to let us drag Him down to where we are, limited by our finite bodies and brains.  Rather, He would use His limitless resources and bountiful grace to lift us up to where He is, enabling us to tread on the heights where angels attend Him. Believe me, friends, there are worse things to hear from one’s God than “testing, testing.” In just such times, may our response be “trusting, trusting.”


Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Grace that fits 'just right'

(Author’s Note: Portions of this article are reprinted from a previous blog, but it addresses a topic which I believe cannot be belabored. A key to looking for God’s activity in even the hard places of life is in knowing that his custom-fitted grace is always available to us…just for the asking.)

One of my favorite stories from childhood was about Goldilocks and the three bears. You remember… the one where the little blonde girl happens upon a house in the woods and ends up sitting in someone else’s chair, sampling someone else’s soup, and sleeping in someone else’s bed.  If memory serves (and lately, I confess, it seems a tad overworked), the catch phrase in each of those situations was something like “this one is JUST RIGHT.” There was always something very satisfying about that statement, since to me it validated that little people, like big people, are individuals with different needs and different tastes.  Never mind that blondie was breaking and entering.  I identified with her curiosity, and, as a high J on the Meyers-Briggs personality inventory, I understood her need for closure before moving on to the next task. 

As a child I was labeled a worrier, particularly by my mom.  She often commented in my grade school years that I would have an ulcer at 15.  What did I have to worry about?  Well, for one thing, I was going to be getting this ulcer in a few years according to my mother.  And then there were the monthly checkups to see if I had bitten my finger nails.  If I was guilty (and, obviously, there was no hiding the evidence), I promptly received a spanking.  (Not sure which was the cause and which was the effect in that case!) 

But part of my anxiety was the result of being blessed with a creative imagination.  Upon viewing virtually any situation, I could easily project myself into those circumstances—good or bad.  This was a plus if I imagined myself a lifeguard saving a drowning victim or a firemen rescuing a cat from a burning building.  But on the flip side, it caused great dread or fear if I witnessed sad, tragic or frightful things, either in real life or just watching TV.  Once, I got physically sick following a trip to the junk yard, where my father took me to view the wrecked remains of a car driven by a member of our church.  Just seeing the steering wheel imbedded in the driver’s seat traumatized me, so vivid was my imagination. 

And then there was the time, while in the back seat of my parents’ car, we happened past the local hospital, and I saw a poor man who had no arms or legs sitting upright in a wheelchair.  At first horrified, my shock quickly moved to fear that someday I would be so handicapped…then to worry that I would be utterly helpless and totally dependent on others…and finally to despair that I would not be able to handle it and probably die.  The mental and emotional progression which seems almost humorous to me now was very real then, and I will never forget the comfort my mom brought me at that moment.  She quietly reminded me that the man I saw in the wheel chair had just the grace he needed for that situation.  The reason I couldn’t imagine handling the challenges he faced was because God wasn’t asking me to.  And, I concluded that day, that whatever God allowed into my life would be accompanied by a custom-made grace that fit my particular circumstances “just right.”

 One of Webster’s definitions of grace is simply “help given man by God.”  Since I have concluded, like Goldilocks, that I am unique and that my life circumstances are similar to and yet unlike anyone else’s at any given moment, a “one size fits all” grace simply will not do.  Rather, my loving Father tailor-makes the particular faith, comfort, spiritual resources and supportive relationships I need to endure with joy whatever comes my way. 

Perhaps you have found yourself looking at someone in grief or misery and saying to yourself, “I could never handle that,” “I would never survive that much pain,” or worse yet, “I would lose my faith.”  In the Old Testament, Job’s wife took an inventory of his list of tragedies and concluded “curse God and die.”  In the HISTORY’S WORST ADVICE category, we have a winner!  I believe that reaction might come from an assumption that God is not very discriminating or particular in the type of care we need for life’s challenges.  We might see this type of divine oversight as little more than fatalism, a kind of que sera, sera existence.  Whatever will be, will be.  After all, isn’t this life just a ‘vale of tears’?  Well, yes and no.  In John’s gospel, Jesus promised us:  “In this world you will have suffering,” and “I will not leave you comfortless.  I will come to you.”

Think about it: would any thinking, feeling person ever offer the same counsel and comfort to a person who had just become paralyzed as one would to a child who had just lost a fish?  Both involve sensitivity, wisdom, and a grace that “just fits.” So it is with our heavenly Father, who offers us precisely what we need when we need it to handle everything that life throws at us.  The grace He offers that covers all our sins is universally applied. But the grace available to support and tend to us in our daily struggles is always a custom-fit.  

So until God redeems the life experiences which we wish had never happened, we have two choices:
·         Push Him away, clench our fists, and feel sorry for ourselves—in a sense, curse God and die OR

·         Draw near to Him, open our hands, and receive His amazing, personalized grace for every situation. 

Take a moment right now, in whatever circumstances you find yourself, and receive God’s custom-fitted grace!  Coming from Him, I guarantee you it will be ‘just right.’ 


Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Worship Can Be Hazardous to Your Health

Lessons from the very first worshiping community:  One of my favorite teachers on the subject of worship is Pastor Jack Hayford, formerly the senior pastor of Church on the Way in Van Nuys, CA.  Jack has an uncanny ability to take a simple Biblical narrative and draw a ton of applications from it without violating the text in the process.  Check out this portion from “A Man’s Worship and Witness” where Jack gives his own unique spin on one the very first worshiping communities—Cain & Abel (found in Genesis 4).

Soiled hands placed vegetables in a tidy arrangement on the rock altar. Cain felt proud of his display. His brother, Abel, had begun assembling his own offering hours ago and still wasn’t done.

Cain was. All Cain did was walk into his garden and pull up the fine specimens out of the ground. They had grown all by themselves. And the garden was close by. It all seemed so easy.

A smug smile curled Cain’s lips. His brother- still searching out in the fields for an offering- was laboring for nothing, Cain mused. He looked again upon the grand, colorful altar. There it was. Vegetables. On the altar. Easy.

This being one of his first offerings, Cain wondered what exactly was to happen next. Pondering this, he sat on a nearby stone and waited. HE looked over at this brother’s altar just as Abel came through the bushes carrying several ewe lambs. It wasn’t long before the lambs were mounted on Abel’s altar and slain.

Cain noticed that Abel’s altar was smaller than his. Good. Having sacrificed the animals on the altar, Abel walked several paces back and knelt in prayer. Cain felt uneasy. He hadn’t done that. But comforted himself by observing that Abel’s altar was blood-stained and dirty, while his was neat, tidy and colorful: orange and red and yellow and green and – just then: Whoosh! Brilliant flames from out of nowhere- from another realm- licked up all of Abel’s sacrifice! All of it! Cain jumped to his feet. A few ashes drifted in the breeze. The colorful harvest on Cain’s altar remained defiantly the same-unchanged. Nothing happened to his.

Cain stormed off, angered and pouting. And it was later, as his tormented mind seethed with hatred and jealousy, that the Lord met him near a tall palm tree: “Why are you angry? And why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if do not do well, sin lies at the door. And its desire is for you, but you should rule over it” (Genesis 4:6,7).

Shortly, Cain’s competitive jealousy grew to such intolerable levels that he rose in fury to kill his brother, Abel. And thus, the record teaches us: the first murder was born in the heart of a man who resisted God’s ways of worship. The first victim of violence was a man who worshiped God physically, openly, and freely.

Conclusion: the world will violently persecute those who worship the Lord is childlike obedience, even while they themselves exalt their own pretense of religious piety.

Personally I am challenged by this story…not only from the original text, but also by the way Hayford has drawn applications for us as a worshiping community.  From this, I have come up with my own Top Ten List of takeaways:  

1. As we bring an offering to God (ourselves), He wants all of us, not what is comfortable or convenient.

2. Nothing less than our very best is really worthy of God.

3. He doesn't require what He does not provide.

4. Man looks at the outside - God looks at the heart.

5. No true act of worship can be separated from the need for the shedding of blood. Either we return to the old animal sacrificial system or we adopt God's new covenant offer of the life of His son. (Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness. - Hebrews 9:22)

6. Uncontested spiritual warfare can be deadly. For the time being, Cain, an enemy of true worship, succeeded in quelling the sacrifice of praise offered by his brother. But unlike Abel, we are not left alone to be victimized by the Enemy in an effort to silence our praise. This is why we often pray that God would "blind the enemy" (Mark 3:27) prior to our worship experiences. We believe the One in us is greater than the one who is "in the world."

7. If we allow our worship to go public, it will impact others. Some might be blessed and encouraged. Others will begin to pull away from us or, worse, try to silence or even discredit us.

8. As Abel learned, worshiping freely with abandon in public places can be hazardous to your health! At the very least it can result in you being judged, ridiculed, less popular. Kind of like Jesus.

9. In the end, warring over whose worship is more Christian or appropriate or godly still misses the mark. As wrong as Cain was, he still was not beyond redemption. The writer to the Hebrews reminds us, "You have come to Jesus, the one who mediates the new covenant between God and people, and to the sprinkled blood, which speaks of forgiveness instead of crying out for vengeance like the blood of Abel."

10. Sincere and God-focused worship touches His very heart! ("The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering..." 4:4) What could be a loftier goal?

Bottom line?  May our ultimate goal be to bring pleasure to the One who alone is worthy, no matter what the cost. 


Tuesday, July 1, 2014

True Freedom—Nothing but the Truth!

Without question, Americans are never more dialed into the subject of freedom than on the Fourth of July.  We talk about it, sing about it, consume mass quantities of food to commemorate it, and, as a nation, hit the collective pause button to celebrate one of our greatest attributes.  We are free…and we want the whole world to know it.  Accompanied with fireworks, parades, big concert events, and as much noise as we can generate, we pound our national chest, so to speak, and declare to the global community that we are different.

Most of us can tick off rather quickly a laundry list of freedoms we enjoy, including speech, religion, assembly, the right to keep and bear arms, a free press, etc.  Not a bad starter kit for any nation. Ours is the land of opportunity, we say.  And once again we affirm our right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  But what is it that makes us free, and more importantly, what will keep us free?  Many would argue that the foundational tenets that helped construct such a nation are no longer commonly shared. They would contend that the gap grows greater between the original vision of our forefathers and what we have become: an emerging society of individualists with an ever—increasing demand for personal rights. We the people has become Me the person.  

Many of the statesmen who were “in on the ground floor” believed freedom to be God-given and that an acknowledgement of this fact was critical to our nation’s survival. Those “voices” are now being drowned out by cries for personal liberty at any cost, devoid of any absolute moorings.

Listen to just a few of those early patriots:

It cannot be emphasized too strongly or too often that this great nation was founded 
not by religionists, but by Christians; not on religions, but on the gospel of Jesus Christ. 
For that reason alone, people of other faiths have been afforded freedom of worship here.

Patrick Henry

God who gave us life gave us liberty.  And can the liberties of a nation
 be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis,
 a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the Gift of God?
That they are not to be violated but with His wrath?
Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just;
 that His justice cannot sleep forever.

Thomas Jefferson

“We have staked the whole future of American civilization, 
not upon the power of government, far from it. 
We’ve staked the future of all our political institutions upon our capacity…
 to sustain ourselves according to the Ten Commandments of God.” 

James Madison

God governs in the affairs of man. 
And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, 
is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid? 
We have been assured in the Sacred Writings 
that except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it.
 I firmly believe this. I also believe that, without His concurring aid, 
we shall succeed in this political building no better than the builders of Babel.

Benjamin Franklin

The propitious smiles of Heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards
 the eternal rules of order and right which Heaven itself has ordained.

George Washington

We have this day restored the Sovereign to Whom all men ought to be obedient.
 He reigns in heaven and from the rising to the setting of the sun, let His kingdom come.

 Samuel Adams (at the signing of the Declaration of Independence)

We recognize no Sovereign but God, and no King but Jesus!

 John Adams and John Hancock, Founding Fathers

The laws of nature are the laws of God, 
whose authority can be superseded by no power on earth.

 George Mason

The great enemy of the salvation of man, in my opinion,
 never invented a more effective means of limiting Christianity from the world
 than by persuading mankind that it was improper to read the Bible at schools.

Benjamin Rush, Signer of the Declaration of Independence

For all their careful engineering of a lasting union, it is clear that these architects, at least, could not conceive of such liberty apart from that nation being under God.  For anyone wishing to challenge this, merely consider the inscriptions on many public buildings and government institutions dating back to the country’s beginnings.  References to the Bible—Old and New Testament—abound.  And yet some examples of such scripture usage are taken clearly out of context.  It reminds me of a church in the Midwest which had scriptures over the entrances to its many departments.  Strangely enough, over the doors of the nursery, they had chosen 1 Corinthians 15:51—“We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed.” 

Years ago while attending college in Austin, Texas, I noticed a Bible quote from the gospel of John on the main building and clock tower of the University of Texas.  It said simply, “YE SHALL KNOW THE TRUTH AND THE TRUTH SHALL MAKE YOU FREE.”  My initial reaction was, “cool, a Bible passage on a state university building.”  But it only took me a moment to realize that it had been lifted significantly out of context to imply that knowledge, learning, education—that kind of truth—was the key to freedom.  In fact, the verse that was quoted was from John 8:32. 

The passage actually begins with the word thenThen ye shall know the truth…  Dropping the word then was not a small detail.  Usually, a phrase beginning with the word then is preceded by a condition, starting with a word like if or when.  And in this case the if is a biggie.  Verse 31 of John reads: “If you continue in my Word (or hold to my teaching), you are my disciples indeed.  It is followed by the famous [then] “you will know the truth and the truth will make you free.”

Four verses later, Jesus makes another audacious statement. “If the Son sets you free, you are free indeed.”  Free indeed?  This would suggest a type of freedom which isn’t real freedom. How can He make such a statement?  The answer is simple. He is not just a truth-talker. He is truth.  Later in John’s gospel, Jesus made this claim: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”  What is He saying?  Jesus=Truth=True Freedom.  We have two choices:

Receive Him.  Trust Him.  Follow Him.  Know freedom. 
 Reject Him.  Trust yourself.  Follow anyone else.  No freedom.

Those responsible for inscribing a verse from John’s gospel over the entrance of a public university chose to omit other key verses which would make its meaning clear.  Maybe they had a limited budget and could only afford so many letters.  Maybe there wasn’t enough space for more verses. Or maybe they chose to take advantage of a respected holy book to add weight to their own ideology, and purposefully left out what the one being quoted really meant to say?  Think about it.  What is more audacious than to selectively choose what part of a particular quote we will use simply to perpetuate our own philosophy?  If we are to be a free people, free to think and free to choose, shouldn’t we at least start with the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?

This fourth of July, let us gratefully acknowledge once again the rare privileges and freedoms we enjoy as Americans.  Let us resolve to leave this great country a better place upon our departing. But let us resist any movement to rewrite our history to make it more closely resemble our current definition of freedom.  The Truth, indeed, will make us free.”  Nothing but the Truth.  And you know His name.    


Monday, June 23, 2014

Caution: Possible Memories Just Ahead

Ah, the family vacation.  Take any set of humans out of their normal habitat for an extended period of time, drop them into a strange, foreign land, and, well, stuff happens.  On the way there, on the way back, and everywhere in between, stuff happens.  You know, stuff like leaving one of the kids back at a gas station, because you forgot to count all six of them before departing.  Or having to shorten an extended camping trip because one of the little guys gets the mumps.  But in truth, these special times, these “parentheses” in our lives often become some of the richest treasures in our memory bank.

For me, it was my first trip to Six Flags Over Texas, which, as a ten year old, seemed like another universe from my normal life.  Talk about sensory overload.  Terrifying roller coasters and log rides, pulsating music, scenic boat excursions, spending the day on a constant sugar high—what’s not to like? But in looking back, what really made it extraordinary was that my mom and dad actually seemed relaxed and, as a family, we were all focused on just having fun.  Removed from all the usual stress and routine of life, their personalities seemed to morph before my very eyes.  Who were these people, and what had they done with my parents?

In a way, it’s kind of sad that as a culture we are so reliant on “getting away” to slow down, to relax, and to focus on the things and people that really mean the most to us.   Somewhere along the way, we’ve lost the ability to savor our surroundings and treasure our loved ones in the moment. We say things like “where did the time go?” and “they grow up so fast.”  Truth is, we get so distracted with the urgent that we miss the important.  And before we know it, the kids are grown and gone and we wonder where did the time go.  Well, in fact, no one stole it.  We gave it away.  To other things… lesser things.  And other people...from someone else’s family.

One of my favorite modern song writers, Chris Rice penned a commentary on this issue a few years back, entitled “Life Means So Much.” 

“Life Means So Much”
Every day is a journal page 
Every man holds a quill and ink 
 And there's plenty of room for writing in  
All we do is believe and think

So will you compose a curse 
 Or will today bring the blessing
 Fill the page with rhyming verse   
Or some random sketching

Teach us to count the days 
Teach us to make the days count 
 Lead us in better ways 
 That somehow our souls forgot 
 Life means so much 

Every day is a bank account 
 And time is our currency 
 So nobody's rich, nobody's poor 
We get 24 hours each 

So how are you gonna spend 
 Will you invest, or squander 
Try to get ahead 
 Or help someone who's under

Has anybody ever lived who knew the value of a life 
And don't you think giving is all  
What proves the worth of yours and mine

Every day is a gift you've been given 
Make the most of the time every minute you're living

I was introduced to this song in a most remarkable way.  A few years ago, my kids surprised my wife and me with a wonderful sampling of photos they had collected or taken over several years.  The video began with our own wedding picture, then each of theirs, and then pictures (for several minutes with accompanying songs) highlighting the early stages of our grandchildren’s lives.  Not posed pictures with hands folded.  These were the true stuff of life.  Swinging in the park.  Blowing bubbles.  Bedtime stories.  Opening Christmas presents.  The last song on this original video was Life Means So Much, and both my wife and I ended up in an emotional puddle!  We were so thankful for the incredible blessing each of our children and grandchildren had and have been in our lives and that these moments had actually been captured on film!
In truth, every day is a gift we've been given. It takes intentionality to make the most of the time every minute we're living.  It takes making good choices.  Saying yes to some things and no to others.  I think one reason we so freely give our time away to lesser things is pretty simple.  For most of us, our natural default is not to place a high value on time…on now...on today.  Moses prayed in Psalm 90 for God to “teach us to number our days and to apply our hearts to wisdom.”  Chris Rice simply paraphrased it in the modern vernacular:  “Teach us to count the days; teach us to make the days count .”     
The One who has ordained the number of our days has to teach us to live in the moment.  Left to ourselves, we tend to live as if time will never run out.  Much like the makeup opportunities we have for everything from missed piano lessons to college entrance exams, we assume that we can always do just about anything later.

As you hopefully look forward to a slower pace in the coming weeks and spending time with those ones most dear to you, also begin now to anticipate creating special memories.  Make these moments less about random sketching as Rice calls it, and more about a kind of rhyming verse, intentionally finding more opportunities for beauty and harmony in your own little world.  Believe me, those whom you love the most will not soon forget it.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             tad

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Dear Dad,

As we approach another Father’s Day, I wanted to share some thoughts with you as if you were still here, and we were having a conversation.  Writing this is probably much more for me than you, if King Solomon is to be believed, when he wrote:

For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; 
they have no further reward, and even their name is forgotten.
 Their love, their hate and their jealousy have long since vanished;
never again will they have a part in anything that happens under the sun.
  (Ecclesiastes 9: 5-6)

I guess I need to say some things that didn’t get said when you were still alive.  Maybe I took certain things for granted.  Maybe I assumed you always knew.  Call it fear that you might reject it.  That last fear would not be without some history.  I remember once walking in on you breaking down with emotion as your wife—my mom—lay dying in the same room.  When I approached you and attempted to comfort you with my arm over your shoulders, I was immediately rebuffed.  You quickly dried your eyes, stiffened up, and said you were fine.  I realized then a bit of how God must feel when I don’t let Him love me.

But that is but one memory.  And I now know that no one incident or character trait should ever be allowed to define us, to reduce us to less than we really are.  You were complex, Dad.  Somehow you managed to pastor churches, superintend a family of eight, keep your sense of humor, and keep up your golf game.  As a child, I never feared coming home to find you drunk, abusive, or even inappropriate.  Most of all, I never questioned whether you would be there.  Maybe not in the “I need you right now, Dad, can we hang?” kind of way, but certainly it never entered my mind that you would leave.  And you didn’t.  For that, can I just say thanks?

I never feared you using me as a punching bag verbally or otherwise if you had a bad day at the office.  You were, as dads go, safe.  Even though you, as a natural athlete, could easily have favored the two brothers (also natural athletes) born before me, I never sensed you were disappointed with my more artistic leanings.  In fact, I heard through many other sources later in life that you were quite lavish with praise for my gifts, at least when I was not present.  You did, after all, never want me to take credit for anything God-given. 

I believe your favorite Bible story had to be the parable of the prodigal son.  It reeked with grace—God’s undeserved favor, and that concept literally flavored everything you did and stood for.  You were a champion of grace.  If I could have written your epitaph, it would have simply said: He got it. You got it alright, Dad, and you clearly imparted it to me and our whole family.  I vividly remember a real life sermon you gave me as a teenager. 

When I asked you if I could take my girlfriend to a particular movie across town one Saturday night, you quickly responded ‘no’.  It’s too “adult,” you said (which, by today’s standards, means it’s probably playing in syndication on Nickelodeon).   Anyway, being the typical non-compliant, if not rebellious, teenager I was, what did I do?  I drove straight to that theater with my girlfriend and saw the movie anyway.  I figured what you didn’t know wouldn’t hurt you.  Unfortunately, when my car wouldn’t start after the show (probably around 11:00 o’clock that night), you were my last option for a ride home. When you asked me on the phone where exactly I was, the proverbial jig was up

And it was a lon-n-n-n-ng ride home, I might add, with my date sitting next to me.  Talk about adding insult to injury.  But then came Part One of the “sermon.”  And, Dad, it was the quietest sermon you ever preached. There was no haranguing on the way home, no angry lecture when I got home.  Instead, dead silence.  You simply let my guilt marinate and let me go to bed in that silence.  The next day in church, I remember getting convicted by the Holy Spirit big time and deciding to opt out of going to communion. You being my dad and my pastor, I knew all too well who would be serving me that meal. You, Dad.  The one I had lied to. The one I had resented. The one I had failed to trust.

And you noticed my absence.   At lunch that day, you took me aside and said, “Tim, why didn’t you go to communion today?”  I responded, “How could I, Dad?  I felt so unworthy.”  I’ll never forget your reply: “It’s those very times we need it the most.”  I knew exactly what you meant.  When we feel most weighed down by our guilt, Jesus gives this simple offer: Taste and see that the Lord is good.  And if Jesus could forgive me, so could you.  Message received.

That was you, Dad.  You got it.  And if I thank God for anything this Father’s Day, it is because of your example and tenacity in this truth, that I get it, too.  They say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.  Well, if this was what you had hoped for—that your children and your children’s children would understand the grace of God, then I believe you have a big stack of happy apples right underneath you.  To honor you today, may I never take God’s grace for granted and never forget the seeds you planted in my life.  I love you, Dad.  Happy Father’s Day...’til we meet again.                                                                                                                                                                                                          

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Pastor’s Point: Parting Thoughts

I drove past a cemetery the other day and thought about how long it’s been since I’ve strolled through one of those tombstone gardens.  On the surface, such an activity might sound kind of spooky.  But I’m talking about the intentional act of slowing down long enough to actually reflect on my own mortality.  Nothing is as effective in reminding us that these bodies don’t live forever quite like looking at the names of real people carved in stone… and their dates.  Sooner or later, the healthiest of us end up with dates.  You know, the kind that say the year we were born and the year we died.  Grim thought, I know, and if it’s too maudlin a topic for some of you, bear with me for a few minutes. 
If you are reading this right now, then you only have a date—one date—the year you were born.  But the other one is coming, and at some point, wise people do put thought into what will be the summary of their life when they reach their second date.  Sometimes these summary statements are written on one’s grave marker as an epitaph. But just as often, these inscriptions simply reflect a parting thought about the deceased or life in general.
Here are samplings of both, some flattering, and others…well, not so much:
All you good people
that here pass by
as you are now 
so once was I,
 as I am now 
so shall you be;
therefore prepare
to follow me.

The children of Israel wanted bread
And the Lord sent them manna,
Old clerk Wallace wanted a wife,
And the Devil sent him Anna. 

Here lies Ann Mann,
Who lived an old maid
But died and old Mann

Here lies an Atheist
All dressed up
And no place to go

On a dentist:
Stranger tread
This ground with gravity
Dentist Brown
Is filling his last cavity

On an auctioneer:
Jedediah Goodwin
Born 1828

First a Cough
Carried Me Off
Then a Coffin
They Carried Me Off In

Here lies
Ezekial Aikle
Age 102
The Good
Die Young

Here lies 
Johnny Yeast
Pardon me 
For not rising

Here lies Lester Moore
Four slugs from a .44
No Les
No More

Here lies the body of our Anna
Done to death by a banana
It wasn't the fruit that laid her low
But the skin of the thing that made her go

Looked up the elevator shaft
to see if the car 
was on the way down.
It was.

Under the sod and under the trees
Lies the body of Jonathan Pease.
He is not here, there's only the pod:
Pease shelled out and went to God

Good men must die,
but death cannot kill their names

God will not look you over
for medals, degrees or diplomas,
but for scars

She filled every second of her life
with laughter, love and happiness

They loved their Lord with all their heart,
with all their mind, and with all their spirit.

There was grace in her steps,
love in every gesture.

They gave their today for our tomorrow.

He loved and was loved.

I am not afraid of tomorrow,
for I have seen yesterday
and loved today

His courage, his smile, his grace gladdened the hearts 
of those who have had the privilege of loving him.

It is foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died.
Rather we should thank God that such men lived.
-George S. Patton, Jr.

The challenge of summarizing one’s life in a few words or verses is fairly obvious.  A life…in a few words?  Lives are works…not words.  Talk is cheap.  At the end of one’s life, the adjectives from others will be less important than the verbs which inspired them.  What we did, who we were in this life; these are the things that matter most. At the end of his Gospel, the apostle John had this to say about the life of Jesus:
Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, 
I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.

Notice, he didn’t say, “That Jesus, he was a great talker.” Rather, He did many things well.  He was a doer.  Just imagine John trying to write an epitaph for Jesus.  Fortunately for John…for all of us, Jesus didn’t stay dead! 
In the first century, the Apostle Paul wrote a letter to a church in Ephesus, encouraging the believers with these simple words:
…live a life worthy of the calling you have received.
Think about it—live a worthy life.  As opposed to a worthless life.  A life not amounting to anything.  A wasted life.  A directionless, purposeless life.  
Paul’s statement was full of grace and truth.  Based on the calling you have received (grace), choose a life worth living (truth). In other words, Christian, don’t settle.  Don’t just get by.  Don’t squander what’s been given to you.  Paul also believed that what makes a life worthy is not up for discussion.  It’s not up for a vote.  The only One capable of rendering a verdict on the value of my life is the same One who made me.  Writing to another church, Paul put it this way:
I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; 
indeed, I do not even judge myself.
My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. 
It is the Lord who judges me.
Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes.
He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart.
At that time each will receive their praise from God. - I Corinthians 4:3-5

So where do we go from here? Know that it’s never too late to start over. Consider one of Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits for Highly Effective People:

Begin with the End in Mind

Regardless of what your past has been, you can start today deciding how you want others to remember you after you’re gone.  It may not even be a bad exercise to contemplate just what that epitaph might say if you could have some say in it.  In truth, no one has a better chance to affect its contents than you yourself.  No one but you…and the One who lives in you.