Peace—An Inside Outside Proposition

Today is Armistice Day and on this day in 1918, the worst war in the history of mankind until that time came to an end. The guns were silent in World War I.

Armistice Day is one of those “memory” days. It is a day when we remember those who died in the war to “make the world safe for democracy.” On this same day in 1939, the song “God Bless America” had a somewhat delayed debut. As a semi-official national anthem, this song was 22 years old before it was heard in public. Irving Berlin wrote it during World War I, but it was not sung in public until that day in 1939. Some may be able to remember Kate Smith singing it on a radio broadcast.

As we anticipate the “Thanksgiving/Christmas” holiday frenzy, it is vital to recall the peace process. It is vital to be grateful for those who gave their lives for the national and international peace we often take for granted. But most of all, it is vital to recall the place that Jesus, the Prince of Peace, wants to occupy in our lives. Remember this well: Peace is not the absence of conflict, withdrawal, or a forced tranquility, but a deep, abiding, internal “rightness” that reflects the presence of God.

Correctly rendered, Luke’s account of the angels’ message announcing the birth of Christ is not “Peace on earth and good will to men,” but rather “Peace on earth among men of good will.” Christ indeed is the Prince of Peace to those who know Him and find this “rightness” inside which results in good will.

Why don’t you decide now to seek “peace” in this hectic but Holy time. Seek peace, but remember, real, honest-to-goodness, life-sustaining peace is always an “inside-out” proposition.

Seeding and Believing

I was in my “wifi” zone. It was that time during vacation when I leave my beach bum world to visit my work world through the technology of “wireless” Internet. Not surprisingly, it was a rainy day.

Almost as a reflex, I looked up as a young man passed me. Like many of us freeloading on the wireless service, he was carrying a computer. A few moments later, he made his way toward me, paused at my table and said, “I hate to bother you, but you have a phone and computer like mine and I was wondering if you could help me?”

His accent was clearly northern, his eyes deep blue, and his two-day-old beard, GQ cool. His clothes were warm weather fun, but his ankle bracelet was ice-cold reality. Clearly not for decoration, this bracelet represented desperation and disappointment, the legal system’s form of extended incarceration.

His name was Patrick and he was a man in need of help. I slid over and made room for him. His story slowly began to unfold. A two-time DUI offender, he spoke in broken sentences and broken heart. His sin had cost him not only his job, but also his company. A self-employed pressure washer in New York City, his journey brought him to warm weather, perhaps to escape the wintry rejection of his mother, whose reflection was his screen-saver.

Down to riding a bike or taking public transportation, he was looking desperately for a job and had no idea how to operate either his iPhone or MacBook computer. How did that happen? Well, his assistant had taken care of that kind of stuff, but suddenly his life and livelihood had been dumped into the proverbial waste can and he had nothing or nowhere to hide.

I took him through the massive amount of knowledge gained through my years of mastering all levels of computer and phone technology (it took about 20 minutes!), and he kept mumbling about how grateful he was that I would help him. We successfully sent his resume to a potential employer and he rose to go on his way. Then it came. He said, “Man, I think God sent you to be with me today.”

I paused and wondered if I should let him know the “rest of my story,” and just when I was ready to launch into my massive amount of biblical knowledge gained through my years of mastering all levels of theology (it would have taken about 20 days!), I smiled and said, “I can tell you without a doubt, I believe God sent me here today as well!”

As he walked away, I wondered. Should I have said more?

Henry David Thoreau once said: “Though I do not believe that a plant will spring up where no seed has been, I have great faith in a seed. Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.”

Paul once said: “It is not the one who plants or the one who waters who is at the center of this process, but God, who makes things grow.”

Jesus once said: “But the good ground is the hearts of good people, who remember God’s Word and try, every day of their lives, to do as He wishes us to do, and to live holy and useful lives. The seed falling upon their hearts becomes strongly rooted and grows up vigorously, bearing good fruit.”

Perhaps what I experienced was a case of “seeding and believing.” Thanks be to God!

Fear Cuts Both Ways

I hate to miss the irony of historical coincidence. Being an ever-reflective historian (yes, I read “This Day In History”), I discover two sad but true events taking place on October 3, thirteen years apart.

On October 3, 1995, an estimated 140 million Americans listen on radio or watch on television (I was one of them) as the acquittal verdict of the O. J. Simpson trial is read. On October 3, 2008, he is found guilty of 12 charges related to the incident, including armed robbery and kidnapping, and sentenced to 33 years in prison.

While there is no real significance to the parallel dates, there is significance to the downfall of a man’s life, whose destruction began, at least publically, with reports of domestic abuse. Imagine this, a NFL football player is accused of domestic abuse. How do you spell “Déjà vu”?

With the carnival-like atmosphere of the arrest and trial of O. J. Simpson broadcast on television, we forget the unraveling of his life starts with charges of domestic abuse. A Heisman Trophy winner and star running back for the Buffalo Bills, Orenthal James Simpson becomes a popular television personality who marries Nicole Brown in 1985 and pleads no contest to a charge of spousal battery in 1989. She files for divorce in 1992 but is stabbed to death along with Ronald Goldman in June of 1994.

I grew up around domestic abuse although my story is one with an unusual and ironic twist. My father is killed in a work accident when I am 6 years old and my mother struggles for years with her grief and devastation. At least two of my mother’s husbands (she is married 3 more times and I call them her husbands because they are never fathers to me, she makes sure of that) attempt to abuse her physically. I say “attempt” because Mom, steeled by her grief and Hazard, Kentucky upbringing, does not allow it for two reasons: no man is worth it and her guns are always nearby.

What I most remember about the underlying anger birthed by the arguing and fighting is the all-consuming presence of fear. It is more than a fear of the unknown; it is a fear of loss, a fear of surrender, a fear of acceptance. It is not a fear of something that might happen, but a fear of what has happened and may happen again and again and again.
When I think of all the “stuff” happening in our country (ISIS, killing of black men by white police officers, domestic abuse, Ebola, growing distance between the rich and poor, campus sexual assault), I recognize the place of fear in all of these. Fear is the classic example of a double-edged sword: while a necessary ingredient to maturity, it can also be a cesspool for hatred.

Simply put, there is a good fear and a bad fear.

• Good fear is an instinct for protection and security. Good fear is a prompting to pay attention and make prioritized decisions.
• Bad fear is created with misconceptions, prejudice and pain that shackles us to a confused view of reality. Bad fear distorts the truth either by exaggerating evil or underestimating the potential for good.

• Good fear is what Nicole Brown is feeling when she leaves her husband.
• Bad fear is what O. J. Simpson is feeling when he physically hurts and ultimately kills (yes, I believe he was guilty) his wife.

• Good fear is what my brother and I feel as we hear our stepfather threaten our mother.
• Bad fear is what places my brother and I on the front porch of our home on Decoursey Avenue in Covington, Kentucky one night with a loaded shotgun as our drunken stepfather menacingly circles the block in his car.

Good fear and bad fear are daily choices. I suspect American novelist Marilynne Robinson is correct in her confession: “I hate to say it, but I think a default posture of human beings is fear.” For followers of Christ, there is an added dynamic to our daily encounters with fear. When scripture says, “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear” (I John 4:18), it means our access to a loving relationship with God can tilt the scales of fear in the direction of good.

Maybe the most realistic advice is captured by something Katherine Patterson writes in Jacob Have I Loved; “To fear is one thing. To let fear grab you by the tail and swing you around is another.”

Don’t Labor Under False Pretenses

It was years ago when I first heard of Lawrence Hummel. National news wires reported the death of this self-educated janitor who wore his lawyer’s hand-me-downs, but left over $600,000 to Bethany College in northern West Virginia, where he mopped floors for 30 years.

Hummel had amassed a million-dollar fortune from the stock market with knowledge gleaned from discussions with professors and from economics classes at the college. Even so, to the end of his life Hummel continued to live frugally.

“If you saw him and talked with him, “ said Joseph Gompers, his lawyer, “you might confuse him with a bum. But he wasn’t. He was a warm, compassionate person who cared about people.”

The story made news because Lawrence Hummel was different. According to the standards of contemporary American culture, he was even something of a misfit. He saw no need to turn his wealth into any of the normally accepted symbols of the American dream: clothes, travel, homes, or cars. Work had a higher purpose. Thoughtful Christians have always claimed the same thing—that work has a purpose beyond paychecks and interest rates.

Today as you enjoy your “Labor Day” take a few moments to realize the worth and value of your labor. Too much of America is trying to conduct business with little concern for right and wrong. Morality is supposedly a personal matter. But followers of Christ know better. Like Lawrence Hummel, we have an unusual view of work. We hold that the gospel brings responsibility, dignity, and purpose to what happens in the shop or office. Jesus, after all, was a carpenter. And God has purposes for our work that go far beyond our day-to-day tasks.

As you enjoy your “Labor Day,” determine not to labor under false pretenses. What you do and how you do it . . . matters to God and to others!

You Can’t Always Get What You Want

I was sweating acne and sporting bellbottom pants when I first heard the Rolling Stones’ song, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” Named the 100th greatest song of all time by Rolling Stone magazine in its 2004 list, it was written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards and released in 1969 on the Let It Bleed album.

While not an actual “news nerd,” I confess a reasonable obsession with news and current events. To that end, my reading and listening of recent relevant happenings, leaves me walking around in a “you can’t always get what you want” kind of daze.

• Internationally, the ethnic and religious cleansing in northern Iraq by ISIS is being called “the Rwanda of our time” by Dan Hodges of The Telegraph.

• Nationally, the catastrophe in Ferguson, Missouri where yet another unarmed black teenager is killed by a white police officer is a cesspool of allegations and overreactions.

• Locally, I talk with another mother that has custody of a “heroin baby” and struggles constantly with a husband who refuses the tough love option of refusing to give money to his addicted kids.

• Then there is the blended family where an intelligent, but emotionally damaged 8 years old is using the guilt of her dad and the vengeance of her mother as kindling for the ongoing flash fire that may ultimately consume both families.

• And finally, there is the pastor of a small congregation who has spent almost a year gathering information for a courageous outreach into a depressed and needy community yet his sleep is interrupted by the explosive dynamic of staff relationships and congregational contentment.

All of these scenarios rock with the haunting reality of the Rolling Stones lyrical truth: “you can’t always get what you want.” And just as each situation bears closer analysis, so our song requires a closer listen.

The three topics discussed in the song address the hot button issues of the 1960s and 1970s: love, politics and drugs. (Hmmm . . . does this list look familiar to our previous observations?) Most significant is the pattern outlined in the song. First, there is optimism, then disappointment and finally, there is an acquiescent practicality that saves the day:

You can’t always get what you want
You can’t always get what you want
You can’t always get what you want
But if you try sometimes well you just might find
You get what you need

Is it possible that every experience of life can in some way be redeemed or reconciled in a way that exceeds the pop psychology highlighted in Breaking Bad’s fictional character Saul Goodman or as the writer’s intended it to sound, “S’all good man?” Is our collective response to life’s difficulties simply reflected in the flippant refrain of Bob Dylan’s song “It’s All Good”:

But there’s nothin’ to worry about
’cause it’s all good
It’s all good, I say it’s all good

Life lived with an honest sense of sanity and perspective and hope demands an answer to that question. Is it possible that the dark, desperate, and deeply unsatisfying moments of life can be honorably redeemed or are we simply left to dance the dance of denial to the melody of “It’s all good, I say it’s all good?”

The longer I live and the more I listen to the heartbeat of hurt and disappointment surrounding our world, both locally and internationally, the more I am convinced our only defense against the hardened cynicism of disappointment which left untended will result in life altering bitterness is the capacity to pay attention to what matters most. We hear it as children making our first steps, “pay attention,” we reflect on it as teenagers choosing our first friends, “pay attention,” and much too often we regretfully forget it as we make our first feeble attempts at adult life, “pay attention.”

I am not sure when I first heard or accepted it, but slowly I began to understand that life lived deeply and meaningfully is not simply choosing one path and pursuing it doggedly to the end. It has much more to do with how we pay attention and discern when to change paths or directions because the situation and circumstances allow and sometimes even demand it. Life lived on the far side of disappointment and bitterness is the result of responding with grace and faith when our journeys are interrupted and left unfinished.

This becomes clear in the final line of the “you can’t always get what you want” refrain. It says, “But if you try sometimes well you just might find you get what you need.” The “trying” speaks to our need to pay attention and getting “what you need” identifies the opportunity for every part of life to be redeemed or reconciled in a way we may not want, but we ultimately need.

People of faith see this in the life of Jesus. Leonard Sweet says, “Jesus didn’t know any waiting rooms—he knew only living rooms.” His point is an important one, especially to those who live with the terror of time, always trying to get to the next place or accomplish the next thing in hopes of outrunning our sense of disappointment and bitterness.

While we spin our wheels in “waiting rooms,” Jesus insisted on moving every experience of his life into the “living room.” Every moment had meaning because Jesus knew the author and finisher of time. Every second had power because Jesus knew the creator and sustainer of time. Every day had potential because Jesus knew the maker and redeemer of time.

No, we don’t always get what we want . . . but if we pay attention and live with grace and faith, we can find our way to the “living room” where we might get exactly what we need! Thanks be to God.

Is There Such a Thing as a Sanctified Selfie?

I do not often swim in the pool of American evangelicalism, but when my study (of the scriptures) and the stories (of those in ministry) collide, well, I dip my toe. Such is the case with the ongoing stories of transgressions and apologizes offered by Seattle-based mega-church pastor, Mark Driscoll.

I will not write here about the issues and concerns surrounding Pastor Driscoll (they are easily accessible on the internet), but I would like to voice one important observation I thought relevant to this discussion.

In my recent study of Romans 7-8, I realized that the Apostle Paul’s declaration of personal contradiction (“I really want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead I do the very thing I hate.”) found in Romans 7:15, is what my friends at Homiletics magazine call a kind of divine “selfie.” By definition, a “selfie” is a “picture of yourself, usually taken by yourself.”

Somewhere in my journey with this familiar but frightening text, a new thought came. As I spun the definition of a selfie around in my head, I easily acknowledged the first part of the definition, “a picture of yourself.” However, it was the second part that caused a stutter in my logic, “usually taken by yourself.”

While I do not personally know Pastor Mark and have not read all the “he said, they said,” machinations that have followed this popular pastor over the last few years, I did sense that perhaps the real issue and danger for any pastor facing accusations for which they must apologize is the haunting question, “Did I apologize because I got caught or because I recognized I did something that warrants an apology?”

The first happens as the result of someone holding up a mirror to my transgression, but the second occurs when the Spirit of God sensitizes my heart and mind to that personal contradiction that Paul pleads about in Romans 7-8.

The first apology happens as the result of someone pointing to my problem, the second kind of apology happens as the result of a prompting of my heart.

The first is embarrassed by the mistake of the past; the second is empowered by the opportunity of the future.

The first brings the weight of guilt from being caught; the second brings the joy of grace from being rescued.

The first worries about reputation, the second seeks reconciliation.

The first wallows in “total depravity” (“For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do”). The second is humbled by radical grace (“Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ our Lord!”).

So is Pastor Mark and the rest of who desire to align our lives with Christ just poor vessels of humanity weakened by predispositions and corrupted gene pools or are we as the Psalmist said, “just a little lower than the angels” (Psalm 8:5)? Are we dust or divinity?

I count myself among those who lean toward the divinity side of that equation and one of my theological tenets for that conclusion comes from the late Dallas Willard and his classic book, The Spirit of the Disciplines. He identifies 3 stages of personal redemption with the third stage being a real, psychological process where “we consciously direct our bodies in a manner that will ensure that it eventually will come ‘automatically’ to serve righteousness as it previously served sin automatically (p. 117).”

Willard goes on to quote powerfully from Oswald Chambers: The question of forming habits on the basis of the grace of God is a very vital one. To ignore it is to fall into the snare of the Pharisee—the grace of God is praised, Jesus Christ is praised, the Redemption is praised, but the practical everyday life evades working it out. If we refuse to practice, it is not God’s grace that fails when a crisis comes, but our own nature. When the crisis comes, we ask God to help us, but He cannot if we have not made our nature our ally. The practicing is ours, not God’s. God regenerates us and puts us in contact with all His divine resources, but He cannot make us walk according to His will.

It is one thing to take a “selfie” of our dusty side and publically own our wrinkles and imperfections. It is another to take a “selfie” of our divine side and privately own our continued distance from God’s resources for righteousness.

I wonder, is there such a thing as a “sanctified selfie”?

The time is always right to do what is right.

Monday is Martin Luther King Jr. Sunday, reminding us that 85 years ago MLK was born and 45 years ago he was gunned down while standing on a balcony in Memphis, Tennessee.

On Monday of this week a retired police officer shot and killed a man at a Wesley Chapel, Florida theater because he had used his phone to text his daughter during the previews of the movie, “Lone Survivor.”  Even to the casual observer, America is a victim of the virus of violence.  This virus, like a sexually transmitted disease, lies dormant and then flares-up with a throbbing sense of urgency.  We are shocked it has again happened.  We knew it would but somehow it surprises us.

As King said: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”  While I stutter in knowing exactly what to do, I do know with certainty that we, “the salt of the earth and the light of the world,” must never despair.

As we grieve for the family of the man who died, Chad Oulson, a Navy veteran, we should also pray for the retired police officer, Curtis Reeves, who perpetrated this evil.  It would also behoove us to always remember the words of the Bible, “So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up” (Galatians 6:9).

We might also remember the words of the civil rights leader himself:  “The time is always right to do what is right.”

First Class!

It came easy.The idea to share a story from my writing over a decade ago for my father-in-law’s funeral, was a no-brainer.For most of my life with him, he always responded to my greeting, “how are you doing?” with two simple words:“First Class!” So, it is in his honor and hopefully for your enjoyment that I share it with you here.

It came as a surprise.  Matter of fact, it had never happened.  There I was sitting in first-class seating on an American Airlines flight out of Orlando, the gift of a crowded flight and coach-class seating draw.

It was so strange.I didn’t know how to act.However, I quickly noticed there was a certain etiquette to being first-class.By definition, it means “given or entitled to preferred treatment and handling.”Now I know what it means.

Being first-class means acting like you belong there.Holding my ticket stub and nervously watching every person board with a “Yes, I do belong in this seat” look on my face is not appropriate behavior for a first-class citizen.Sitting in only half my seat and wondering what to do with the rest is not the proper posture for the upper crust of frequent flyers and world travelers.So, I got over it.

Being first-class means acting like you expect to be treated kingly while roosting on your royal throne.It means not being surprised when you get your choice of drink served in a real glass, even before the buckle on your seat belt is snapped.It means not screaming with delight when you discover the meat and rolls with your meal were actually heated separately.It means not bellowing, “you’ve got to be kidding me” when offered the choice of a red or white wine with your meal.It means not using your pre-dinner, warm washcloth to wash your seating area, but waiting to see the others use it to freshen up their hands and face before the feast.So, I got over it.

While peering out the airplane window into the clouds, I could not keep from drawing a faith parallel to my first-class experience.My first-time encounter with the grace of God was a lot like discovering we have been moved to a first-class window seat next to the pilot when we actually spent all we had a lower-class coach seat next to the roar of the engines.But unlike my first-class experience, I have never gotten over my grace experience and neither did Arthur O. Little.No, he lived with the daily declaration that his walk with Christ was always, “First Class!”

“We read to know that we are not alone.” William Nicholson, Screenwriter of Shadowlands

One of the first things I did with Jensen, my 3-year-old granddaughter, when I got back from vacation was do with her what I had been doing by myself, albeit on the beach.  I read to her.  

She took me to her room, showed me her new “stuff” and then pulled a book off her shelf and wanted me to read it to her.  It was a book about “Little Cloud” and I read it to her twice.  

So, it got me to thinking about the benefits of reading and my “reading” led me to an article entitled “8 Benefits of Reading (or Ways Reading Makes You Better at Life).”  I like the second title best. 

The eight reasons the author gives are as follows:

Enhanced smarts

Reading reduces stress

Greater tranquility

Improved analytical thinking

Increased vocabulary

Improved memory

Improved writing skills

Helps prioritized goals

While I like all the reasons, I am most drawn to 1, 2 and 8.  I am a lifelong learner and reading is the key to my progress.  I need times when I reflect and lower the stress that surrounds me.  I need to sharpen the priority of my goals.

That said, I want to recommend two books.  One of them is the book being used in the series I am teaching now, Wild Goose Chase.  The other one is written by a lawyer friend of mine, Lyn Robbins, who is going to be leading my deacon retreat in a couple of weeks and it is titled, In the Court of the Master.  Both are well written and will meet at least 6 or the 8 reasons about why you should read.  So, go read and realize “we read to know we are not alone.”

Sounding Off About Sacred Delight

Ready or not, here it comes!  It, in this case, is the weekend that signals the arrival of summer, Memorial Day weekend.  From the “did you know?” category, did you know there was a time when Memorial Day, the day set aside to honor those who gave their lives for our country, was always on May 30?  However, in order to guarantee a three-day weekend, Memorial Day was placed on the last Monday in May.         

Through my years of reflecting on Memorial Day, I now understand it is not enough to remember the honored casualties of past conflicts.  Honestly, the best thing we can do in their honor is to ensure that they have not died in vain.  They died to build or to defend a better world.  The least we can do is to live for those same purposes.        

As I apply this understanding to our church, I am left with the question—are we doing our best to build a church that defends and offers a “better world?”  And what does “better” really mean?  Certainly, it means improved or superior, but maybe there is more to it.  When you look at the statement “It is better to give than to receive” in the Bible, it is interesting to notice the words offered as coming from the lips of Jesus:  “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”  (Acts 20: 35)        

“Blessed”—is a powerful word!  One of Jesus’ most powerful messages comes when he uses this word nine times.  It is the Sermon on the Mount and nine times he promises to the most unlikely that they will be “blessed.”  Max Lucado updates this word by defining it as “sacred delight.”  He says, “It is sacred because only God can grant it.  It is a delight because it thrills.  Since it is sacred, it can’t be stolen.  And since it is delightful, it can’t be predicted.”  (The Applause of Heaven, p. 11)         

How has God’s “sacred delight” thrilled you this week?  For me it has been easy and ever-present.  It came with a friend’s surprise and extended time of encouragement and affirmation.  It came when I opened my phone and found the picture and recording of my granddaughter’s giddy laughter.  It came with an understanding embrace of a joyful, faithful wife.   It came when I slowed down enough to honestly seek God’s presence.

As we begin our journey from spring into summer, may we do so with the clear and overwhelming direction of God’s sacred delight!