Tuesday, November 16, 2010


Rudy, our sixteen-week-old Golden Retriever, chewed up my eyeglasses the other day. He normally goes after shoes left out, four pair down and counting, or a particular hairbrush he’s taken a liking to, making quick work of them all with his needle-pointy, razor-sharp puppy teeth.

By the time I found my glasses on the floor the other day, Rudy had left the ear pieces rough as cobs. Worse than that, he’d twisted the frames, leaving one lens pointing a full twenty or thirty degrees off of the direction of the other. I didn’t realize it until I went to put on my glasses and looked out onto a very distorted view of the world around me.

None of us sees the world with pure, perfect vision. Reality is one thing but the way we see it, and others, is often altogether another. We see the world in which we live through the lenses we inherited or we have trained ourselves to use or have simply accepted without question. All of our lenses are twisted to some extent, twisted into distortion by painful, unresolved experiences from the past, by unchecked passions for the material, by the sin of prejudices yet unresolved or even by the unfinished business of forgiveness of self and others.

Now and then, with Rudy around, I have to check the way my view of the world is framed. It’s just part of choosing to live with a puppy in my world, no matter how tedious it becomes. To adjust the way our vision is framed so that we see the world as God sees it and to seek greater understanding of why others see the world the way they do is one of the most difficult of all Christian disciplines.

A passage from Jan Karon’s Patches of Godlight has proven to be a good spiritual optometrist for me as we approach Thanksgiving. She writes, We are not here to prove God answers prayer; we are here to be living monuments of God’s grace.

My vision is more clearly framed when I realize that being thankful doesn’t just mean listing out all of the things God has provided. Sometimes, our material blessings can actually discourage others whose prayers they feel God has ignored. To be a monument to God’s grace, however, means to let others see in us and through us our gratitude for how God has chosen to see us, through the purest of all vision, God’s holy eyes, the eyes of pure grace, framed in mercy and love.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010


About the time Jesus was born, just one little baby in a manger in a remote village in the middle of nowhere, thousands of miles away a snowflake fell. It fell in a place so remote that no human has ever set foot there. It was just one snowflake, but, it was one of billions falling that night, in a place so far north it never gets warm enough for snow to melt, only to freeze even harder as it becomes part of a magnificent ice field, dozens of miles wide, even many miles longer.

As the snowflake fell, unnoticed by anyone but God, it floated gently into a place where other snowflakes had been falling for many thousands of years. All together, the frozen snowflakes became a river of ice, a glacier so deep and so wide and so cold that, even over hundreds of years, it had moved only a few miles. As it coursed its way downhill toward the sea, the river’s sheer weight carved out microscopic pieces of dirt and boulders the size of multi-story office buildings, slowing shaping out valleys where there had once been great mountains. It was just one snowflake. But, frozen together with all of the other snowflakes, it became part of something incredible, the very hand of God carving out God’s never-ending creation.

In 2004, twenty centuries later, Nancy and I stood with some friends in the place where that one snowflake now rests, atop Mendenhall Glacier, just outside of Juneau, Alaska. Our guide told us that the ice on which we were standing had fallen as snow about the time of Christ. Looking back up the valley it had taken that snowflake 2,000 years to travel, I stood in sacred awe of the patient hand of God and of the value of just one.

History is not so much the story of the great brushstrokes of powerful, brilliant or lucky people as much as it is the combined stories of the power of billions who make their contribution, unique from all others, one small stroke at a time on the canvass of God’s never-ending creation. One smile. One kiss. One word of encouragement. One prayer. One vote. One simple word of witness. One dollar for one hungry child. One line in one letter. One teacher’s influence in one classroom. One song. One life connecting with one other life, one at a time.

It was just one snowflake. But, it helped reshape the surface of the earth forever. Ours may be just one life. Only God knows, and God does know, the uniqueness of our lives and the power they are having, one simple act of love and mercy at a time, to reshape the course of the world we were given the privilege of touching, for this one brief moment in time.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

I Will Love You Again

More people I talk to than not these days tell me of how heavily life weighs on them. People are working so hard, in many cases, just to survive. When they aren’t working hard to survive financially, they’re working hard to keep their kids focused and in the right place at the right time.

Just this morning, another young mother tells me of a failed job search, one of many in many, many months. It was hard to choke back the tears as she shared her feelings of anxiety, mixed with her stubborn faith and positive, hopeful spirit that God will provide. She really, truly believes that.

Thinking of her determination to get up and put her face into the wind of one more job search this morning, and so many like her carrying back-breaking loads of responsibility, I was reminded of words a friend once sent me by an author of whom I’ve never heard. Why these kinds of words arrive when they do is mysterious. Their timing is almost, as we sometimes say, “spooky,” as in, Holy “ghost-like.” See what you think about what Ellen Bass writes in Mules of Love:

To love life,
to love it even when you have no stomach for it
and everything you've held dear crumbles like burnt paper in your hands,
your throat filled with the silt of it.
When grief sits with you, its tropical heat thickening the air,
heavy as water more fit for gills than lungs;
when grief weights you like your own flesh
only more of it, an obesity of grief,
you think, How can a body withstand this?
Then you hold life like a face
between your palms,
a plain face, no charming smile, no violet eyes,
and you say,
yes, I will take you
I will love you, again.

Loving life, it would seem, means loving the life that comes to us, not always waiting until life is more lovable.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Feel Like Crying

Last week, a Dallas Baptist mega-church pastor said that all Muslims are evil. Or, at least the Muslim religion is evil. One and the same. He said it on television for all the world to hear. Painting with the most judgmentally broad and theologically and historically uninformed brush within politically correct reach, he effectively condemned all Muslims based on the activity of one Muslim in the ninth century A.D.

He knows all of this to be true because, well, because he believes it and because he read it somewhere, no documentation cited. No mention was made of what Christians did to Muslims during the Crusades during the Middle Ages. I wonder if the pastor, like me, doesn’t even know so much as one Muslim by name or has ever had a personal conversation with a Muslim.

A Florida pastor is leading his small congregation to burn scores of copies of the Quran on the anniversary of 9/11. Despite pleas from everyone from the Pope to a four-star general with boots on the ground in Afghanistan and who is concerned for the safety of troops actually fighting real terrorists, the pastor believes this is what God has told him to do and is planning on going ahead and lighting the bonfire. As though, like Hitler, he believes that burning books destroys ideas.

Isn’t that what the radical Islamic terrorists believed as they nosed-dived hijacked airliners into the twin towers nine years ago? God told them to. Incinerate, verbally or literally, whatever is different from you.

Of course, it’s always easier for so-called evangelicals to say such things, in Dallas or Florida, because that’s where their pulpits are located, safely removed by thousands of miles from the dying and those who actually have the courage to do it. I wonder if the pastors’ perspectives might change if they had to remove their feet from their mouths, lace up combat boots and sling M-16’s themselves.

Are we less evil because of what we believe or because of the religious worldview to which intellectually subscribe? Are we less evil simply because Jesus was holy and we say we believe in Jesus, even if, in the way we actually live, we are self-centered, greed-driven consumer-gluttons, unforgiving political and socio-economic segregationists?

Even the venomous vitriol spouted by Republicans against Democrats and Democrats against Republicans who all then sing, “Oh, How He Loves You and Me,” must rise like a putrid stench in the nostrils of the Father who calls all of us His children. What is evil, anyway?

Long before the Nazis lit the ovens in Eastern Europe that eventually helped incinerate six million Jews during the Holocaust, someone started talking about how evil the Jews supposedly were. Religious leaders were among those who at least condoned the vitriol and the eventual extermination of European Jews, all in the name of God, of course. We think evil and then we speak evil and then we do evil and the rest is evil history.

The world will not be transformed for what is truly good and not evil by those who spew hate in the name of political correctness, especially those who do so in the name of the Jesus who conquered real evil by his own, personal, blood-soaked death. Just because it’s said from behind a pulpit doesn’t make it true. Jesus really does love all the children of the world, red and yellow, black and white, Democrat or Republican, Christian, Muslim, Jew, Buddhist, or whatever.

No one has the right to speak evil of anyone for whom Christ died. The world will only be transformed by those who speak and then live out the gospel of the one who said, with his own mouth and because God really did tell him to, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God” (Matthew 5:9). Strange. Jesus didn’t specify the peace we preach or the name of the political party or religious affiliation in which we do so, but the peace we actually make.

As we approach the anniversary of 9/11, there is a sick feeling in my stomach. I cried that day nine years ago. I feel like crying again. How sad that all of those people died, not to mention those since, and no one seems to have learned so much as one thing about why.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010


Everyone needs a nickname, or tends to get one assigned whether they need it or not. At Grace Fellowship, among the youth, mine is “Papa Schmuck.” I don’t know if the young lady who originally tagged me with that nickname knew that “Schmuck” is a term of 19th century Yiddish derivation that, graciously translated, means, “Jerk.” I’m certain it was a simple shortening of my last name that led to me being called “Papa Schmuck,” the “Papa” part being of we-were-taught-to-respect-our-elders derivation.

One of our summer interns started calling our youth, “Youthers,” a term that loosely translated means “wonderful, beautiful and full of life and possibilities, the hope we have for our future.” That name stuck, too. I’ve kind grown attached to what we all call each other.

I’ve really grown attached to these youthers, too. I’ve never been closer to a group of youth, as a pastor, than I am with these kids. It’s part of the blessing of being the pastor of a small church. About thirty percent of our average worship attendance consists of Middle and High School aged youth. The downside is that we keep graduating about ten percent of our active membership each May. It hurts just a little more every May. Even this week, we bid goodbye to this year’s college-bound ten percent. It hurts to see them go.

This summer, I asked each of the kids to meet me one-on-one for one hour at Starbuck’s. I don’t usually care much for coffee in the summer but the Venti, black, unsweetened iced tea is pretty sweet in the heat. The conversations make me forget I’ve got something to drink until all of the ice is melted anyway.

I’ve laughed until I thought I’d be sick. I’ve wanted to cry. I’ve sat in utter astonishment as one after another told me of what they dream of doing with their lives. So far, most of these kids have left-brain skills that are simply mind-numbing to me. I think my left brain was starved for oxygen at birth or something because, beyond reconciling the bank statement, math leaves me out in the dark every time. I can tell you funny stories about math; I just can’t do math.

One youther dreams of landing on the third moon of Jupiter one day, and maybe playing his cello there. Why not? One dreams of being a pediatric cardiologist. Another has her sights set on biomedical genetics while another will someday mix medicines that make us well. Some will teach. One is committed to serving his country as a military officer. Some will do music and the other arts that help us interpret the meaning of it all. The list goes on.

The most significant thing I’ve felt with these kids is dignity. They are so good and respectful, so thoughtful. Thoughtful in that they are thinking very seriously about their lives, about their God and what their lives mean now and what they can mean.

One young lady told me of a surgical scar that is hers from early childhood. She said that she’s proud of the scar because it reminds her of what a gift her life is and how grateful she is for the one who was gifted enough to save her when she was too young to know she even needed saving. She wants to spend her life paying it forward.

I sat there, trying not to let my jaw drop. The third moon of Jupiter! Genetics! Pediatric cardiology! And, most of all, the maturity already to appreciate the value and meaning of scars. Youthers!

I’m feeling better about the future with each Venti, black, unsweetened, iced tea. Wish you could join me. I’m the lucky one!

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Just Passing By

Taylor called and asked if I’d write her a letter of recommendation. She’s applying to colleges for admission in the fall of 2011. Taylor is getting ready to leave? When did that happen?

Jake says he’s taller than his dad, by about half an inch. He’s leaning forward to a time that is not yet while I find myself too often leaning back, reaching for a time that is no more. I told Jake that no matter how tall he gets, he’ll always look up to his dad. Jake got it.

Like I still look up to my dad. There are some days, like today, when I just wish I could pick up the phone and give him a call. There are so many things I’d like to talk about. Sometimes, I’m almost reaching for the phone when it occurs to me that I can’t call dad. He died in January of 2005. Mom died nineteen years before that.

There are so many conversations I’d really like to have with my parents, conversations you can only have with the people who nurtured you in your earliest years and only once you’ve reached life’s midpoint. I guess those conversations will just have to wait.

Sometimes I wish I weren’t so nostalgic. On the other hand, I wouldn’t want not to feel as deeply as I do, though sentiment can overwhelm me at times. Old music, old movies, a picture of an aging friend on Facebook can all take me back decades in a split second. If I’m not careful, I can get trapped in the past, losing that careful balance between reliving a wonderful time and trying to live in another time other than this one moment. This day is the day the Lord has made.

Years ago, a friend told me that you cannot hold onto life. You can only kiss it as it passes by. I kiss Nancy a lot. I give lots of hugs, to my sons when I see them, even to Taylor and Jake and all the other kids shooting up like weeds on a hot summer day. Even to their parents. You never know when you’ll look up and little children will be grown and gone, conversations you should have had must be put on hold and you wish life’s passing would slow down, just a little.

I do savor life more now. I sip instead of gulp, trying to really taste before I swallow to make room for the next bite.

The more I kiss and the more I hug, the better I do. I only get in trouble when I try to hold on to what is just passing by.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Storm Scars

When you are in the storm, it feels like your life will never be about anything but the storm. A hurricane leaves its scars, physically and emotionally, on the coastline it strikes. Eventually, the storm subsides, the sky clears and the sun does shine again.

The storm scars will never completely go away. They will always remind you, and others, of what did happen.

In time, as hard as it may be to believe right now, the primary story of your life will no longer be about the storm, or the storm scars, but about the life you rebuilt after the storm.

The suffering that you once thought was the central story of your life will eventually become just another chapter, if not a footnote, in the bigger book of the story of your life that you and God are still writing.

Here’s to turning the page! Can’t wait to read what’s coming next!