Friday, December 26, 2008


It never seems quite like Christmas unless I see “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the 1946 James Stewart Americana classic, at least once. Though I first saw it over two decades ago, I’m still caught off guard by the power of the closing scene, the classic image of someone awakening to the life that had been happening to them while they were making other plans.

George Bailey had lived virtually his entire adult life wishing he’d found a way of getting out of Bedford Falls. He just knew he’d lost out on the life that could have been, the life to which he felt entitled. Instead, he’d been stuck in his Podunk hometown, taking care of the Building and Loan he inherited, while his younger brother, Harry, went out and saw the world, making a big name for himself at the same time. All along, while he thought life was happening somewhere else, George was busy taking care of the poor and disadvantaged, making more friends than money. In the end, he realized that a man with friends is truly the richest man in town.

The movie came on the other night, just about the time of the closing scene. So did the tears, but, this time, for a different reason. For perhaps the first time ever the movie had the impact its original author may have intended six decades ago.

As I watched all of George’s friends come to him at the time of his greatest need, I realized that the approaching New Year brings to a close my own “wonderful life” moment. A moment that stretches all the way back to July 7, 2007, when Nancy rushed me to the emergency room and I nearly died from a liver infection. A moment that stretched, like a bad dream that wouldn’t end, over the next 18 months. At the same time as Nancy walked with me through a long, hard recovery, we also suffered the loss of our church home of ten years. It was truly a bad dream from which, in many ways, I feel that I’m just now awakening.

This year, perhaps more than ever in my life, I’ve grown to realize how I must be one of the richest people in the world. In our time of greatest need, Nancy and I discovered like never before what it means to have friends. Friends who will come from hundreds of miles just to stand by you. Friends who stand faithfully by, even while you are not, literally, conscious enough to know of their presence. Friends who call and write and come by unannounced bearing gifts of food and wine. Friends who will listen to your story again and again, not because they haven’t already memorized its every detail but because they know how badly you need to tell it. How do you measure the value of friends like that?

Yesterday, I felt little two-year-old Adeline’s fingers grasp my left index finger as we said grace over the Christmas feast of glazed ham, medium-rare beef tenderloin, sweet potato casserole, black olives and home-pickled okra, broccoli and rice, hot rolls and iced tea, all spread out before us. It was nothing less than a parable of the sea of blessing this year has brought. I felt like a Pilgrim, without the hat.

Last night, as we said goodbye to family in the driveway, I looked up into the sky. Venus burned like a laser through the South Texas night sky, its ancient stones from the beginning of time reflecting the white light of tomorrow morning’s sun. The light that has come unbidden into my world, along with the blessing of being able to see it.

As this morning dawned, the day after Christmas, I took out the trash. No need in holding onto yesterday’s rubbish. Time to kick it to the curb and move on. New gifts wait to be given, and received. I turned back toward the house and looked up. Wispy-gray clouds of the new morning were sailing by in the warm breeze, carried by winds they neither created nor controlled. I felt something warm inside, too. What was that? What is it a new day dawning, a new light coming into the world, into my heart?

The deer came for the morning corn, just outside our bedroom window, too many to count. Sam and Beau pressed their rubber-black noses to the cold glass, wondering who these new friends might be in their world. Yellow-bellied Finches were feeding just above the deer’s heads, feasting on the seeds we gave them just for the privilege of watching them eat.

As these miracles of nature paraded in front of me, mocking all the times I’ve worried about how I’d pay the bills, I wondered how it was that I could have ended up in this house, in this place, on this day. Just one year ago I fretted myself sleepless as the long winter days stretched out unendingly in front of us, wondering where we’d land when all the dust settled.

Now, aside from Venus, Sam and Beau, the deer, the birds of the air, the little-girl-two-year-old fingers wrapped around mine and four generations of one family sitting around the same table filled to overflow, we have a new, first-generation church family to serve and to love. Nancy has a new, invigorating job, something to stretch her personally and professionally. I have Nancy and she has me. The boys are coming in just two days. I have them all to myself, for a whole week! All of that, not to mention the friends we have, from coast to coast. People who don’t measure us in terms of anything but the inestimable value of the laughter and tears we’ve shared together, and know we’ll share again.

Will I have all of this one year from now? Who knows? What I do know is what and who I have in this moment, right now. Is this me, standing in my world, with more blessings than I can count? Is God determined to love me, to bless me, no matter what?

Life is what happens to us while we’re making other plans, or while we’re regretting a past we can’t change or fretting a future we can’t control. Life-giving gratitude replaces soul-killing fear in the moment we stop to see the smiles in the faces of those who are genuinely glad to see us when we show up, those willing to hold our hands and share the feast. People God gave us, in this moment, just to be our friends. Nancy and I turned to each other last night just before we slipped off for a night’s rest. We said thanks to Eternal God, ever-present. Then, to each other, we said, “We are blessed.”

Friday, December 12, 2008


That’s virtually all I know about my maternal grandfather, his nickname, Red. His given name was Harold Eugene Lockwood. I’m guessing that he got the nickname from the color of his hair, although I’ve only ever seen two pictures of him and they were both in black and white, from sometime just before World War II. In one, he’s wearing his oil field khaki shirt and pants and he’s fairly unkempt.

Freeze-framed, he’s standing all alone in some long forgotten oil field where he made his living. The squint in his eyes speaks of a sunny, probably blistering hot and muggy, Gulf Coast summer day. When I let my eyebrows grow unchecked for not too long, they are bushy and slightly reddish, just like I’m told Red’s were. Even though I never met him, there is solid physical and even emotional evidence in my life that the man did exist.

When I was a little boy, my dad took me with him from time to time to the oil fields of his career so often that I can almost smell the picture where Red made his living, too. Now and then, when I pump gas into my car, I literally smell my family history.

Red died of an intestinal blockage after a botched appendectomy when my mother was only eight or nine, the same malady that later claimed my mother’s life when she was only 54. Her dad, Red, is buried in Jennings, Louisiana, in a family plot. The sadness of his premature death cast a dark shadow over my mother’s life, some of which she passed along to my siblings and me. All of which has made me more sensitive to the fact that it’s not just the lives of those who went before us that made our lives what they are. Their deaths, too, though unknown to our personal experience, also shaped our character in ways we cannot ever know.

Three of the gospel writers, Mark, Luke and John, tell of us Jesus’ birth only in the starkest, minimalist kind of ways. I like John’s best, “the word became flesh” version. It’s mystical and even mysterious, the way I know God best, more in terms of questions that demand faith than in terms of absolute answers that require nothing but the presumption of human intelligence. It’s Matthew alone who goes into great detail about Jesus’ family tree. It’s pretty boring reading, unless a person looks deeper at what Matthew is giving us other than
a list of names we’ll never pronounce correctly.

Matthew is telling us about where Jesus came from in the physical, biological sense. He’s telling us that, though Jesus may have been born of a virgin, he wasn’t born in a biological vacuum. Jesus had roots in the same human family we do. Which is at least part of the point Matthew must have been trying to make. In Jesus, Eternal God grafted himself into the human family tree, the very fallen one he created, so that he might graft his eternal life into ours. Go figure!

All of which means that, somewhere back in our human lineage, our genes make connection with Jesus’. The blood Jesus shed on the cross was red, just like ours. Matthew’s not just giving us a list of weird names to pole vault on the way to the exciting stuff that happened in a manger. Matthew is telling us that we have a human family history, even with God.

It’s really sad that some of us know more about the donkey Mary rode into Bethlehem than we know of the history she was carrying in her womb. We weren’t born in a vacuum. Just like his birth, Jesus’ suffering on the darkest levels of human existence and his very excruciating human death played one of the most profoundly formative roles in the shaping of our lives even before they began, whether we believe it or accept it or not.

Here’s a mystery worth exploring. We all have a history with God! The only question is whether we’ll take the time to know it and the possibilities that our history with God opens for our eternal futures. Christmas is one of the best chances we have each year to rethink the mystery of our very human family tree, and the color red in it.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Truth, In Blue Eyes

If you were to ask me why I love my wife, Nancy, as much as I do there are many answers I could give. I love her eyes. Gentle, ocean blue that invite you in. They see right through you like lasers and love you all the way through at the same time. I can’t count the times her eyes changed my view of the world, of myself and of my place in this world, all at the same time.

I love her laugh. She has more than one. I love them all. I love the one that comes from deep within, especially when we’ve both seen something that makes us both laugh in sync.

I love her body. OK, this is getting personal. But, my wife’s body is a daily reminder that God finds joy in giving us good pleasure. The first time I saw her she was walking away from me and I’ve been in love ever since. What a body! Interesting how age has only made it better. How someone looks to you has everything to do with how you feel about them. I’ve known people that, on face value, would be measured pure ugly, until they smiled or opened their mouth. The smile melted the ugly and, like hot wax in a potter’s hand, reshaping their figure into the most fetching, intriguing physique.

It happens the other way, too. I know people who, on the outside, are reasonably if not spectacularly beautifully, like Sports-Illustrated- SwimSuit edition beautiful, until they open their mouths and expose their inner character.

My wife is beautiful, because of what I see and what only my heart sees – and hears. Tonight she told me the truth about something I was doing wrong. She nailed me about how I was spending too much time worrying about lost opportunities of the past instead of giving myself away to the opportunities that were lying at my very feet. Dang! I got angry and defensive. She didn’t give an inch. She kept pressing the issue.

Down inside, I knew she was right, long before I admitted it. But, she didn’t give up and what little integrity I have when I’m stripped down to my bones was begging for relief. About four hours later, I told her that she was right. I told her again how much I love her. Because she tells me the truth.

I went on to say that, because she tells me the truth when I’m wrong, it makes it possible for me to believe her when she says she loves me, too, or, that I preached a great sermon, or wrote a great piece, or, that she loves me just because, go and freaking figure, just because. Go figure!

All I know is, when I’m with my wife, in a crowd or all alone under the sheets, I’m with truth in the flesh. Truth, in blue eyes. I can live with that – for the rest of my life and then some!

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Mashed Potatoes

Cameron called from L.A. this past Saturday afternoon asking for my recipe for mashed potatoes. He wanted to make dinner for his girlfriend. It never occurred to me in all the years I thought I was just making dinner that someone was paying attention. Maybe that’s the way parenting happens.

We think we’re just doing the laundry, or paying the bills, or mowing the lawn, or arguing with our wife (or husband, as it may be), or complaining about how things went at the office when we think the kids can’t hear, or, if we are fortunate, reading the Bible and saying our prayers at day’s end no matter how crappy the day. All the while, we’re showing the best students we’ll ever have the recipes for managing life, taking care of business, maneuvering the mundane, dealing with success and failure as well as the give-and-take disappointments of daily life, not to mention how to handle conflict and respond to impossible people.

Most often, our kids just go on down the road, concocting the family recipes for all of the above from blind memory. It’s not until they get married and start having their own children that we begin to recognize the recipes on the plates they set before us at family gatherings. Only rarely do they ever call, from 2,000 miles and two time zones away, to ask us the exact recipe.

Of course, part of me is honored. I make dang good mashed potatoes if I say so. The trick, aside from proper proportions of salt, pepper and butter and from not cooking the potatoes too long so that they become mush instead of mash, is found in warming the butter before the mashing starts. Putting cold butter on hot potatoes cools them off too much before you serve them. Salt and butter to taste all you want, just don’t serve mashed potatoes cold. Hot mashed anything tastes better than cold potatoes. (I won’t even mention the unpardonable sin of instant potatoes.)

What honors me, humbles and scares me all at the same time is in knowing that, deep in his soul, Cameron has other recipes. Most of those he’ll make from memory, without even thinking, much less calling for directions.

That’s where faith comes in. Train up a child in the way he should go . . . we are promised (Proverbs 22:6), and in the long run, the recipe will pay off. I trust that word. That, though some of my life is a recipe for disaster, there was a bigger part of it that had something to do with calling on Jesus when I didn’t know how to handle the mix of ingredients life handed me. Cameron saw me pray, heard me pray, even heard me cry as I prayed and saw me cry, too, when the music touched me deep in my soul and heard and saw me laugh at life’s stupidities. He also saw me sing in church, stay awake during the sermon and even heard me brag when George Mason knocked one out of the park, which he did virtually every single time I heard him preach. How in the heck does he do that? What’s the recipe?

Anyway, Cam called. He wanted to make dinner in his cramped apartment for the girl that is the center of his world right now. I guess you could say that I was the unseen guest at the table. Isn’t the One who knows the best recipes always the uninvited guest, no matter what the recipe?

Thanks be to God!

Tuesday, December 2, 2008


Occasionally, someone responds to my blog on the blog site itself. Most of the responses I get come to my email address from people who want to say something but don’t want it for public consumption with their name on it.

Here are some of the responses I’ve already gotten to “Crunch Time,” yesterday’s blog. They are anonymous, of course. But, I hope they reach even deeper into someone’s heart.
One minister writes: "As I’ve thought about your experience over the months, I have been reminded of the many times when I did not receive the respect or authority that I thought I deserved. Sometimes I suffered “quietly,” and other times I spoke my “mind.” Sometimes I wouldn’t/couldn’t forgive myself for what I said or did. Other times I couldn’t/wouldn’t forgive others for their injustice or pain inflicted on me. I still bear the wounds and scars from some experiences, even some from my years (serving as a minister). I ask my self occasionally, what value is there in holding on to these memories? What need does “rehashing” the memories meet in me? I have been ordained 50yrs, and I still wrestle with some of my dragons. But God is gracious, and slowly with the help of my therapist and others, the healing continues. Whatever growth or healing has come, it has come with the help of others."

A man who rarely ever attends church anymore, a very sincere and gentle soul writes: “I’m writing you with tears running down my face as your words from “Crunch Time” are seared in my heart. I’m just beginning to realize the depth of pain and hurt that you have experienced recently and it hurts me too. I know what you mean…it’s so bewildering at times how hateful, how cruel and how un-Godly some of God’s people can be. What’s that all about? Those confrontations and conversations that keep coming back to haunt us are so dangerous. With God’s grace they will fade away soon, and replacing those thoughts with “anything worthy of praise” will bring us God’s peace. You said it all in your writing… “Blessings for me to enjoy over and over, every time I choose to think of them”. Yes, it’s our choice. And don’t you know God smiles with love every time we make the right choice?”

Just thought some of you might find encouragement in their words. I know they touched me deeply. In my experience, the institutional church has done as much to wound as it has done to heal. By the grace of God, I will to be a part of a healing community.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Crunch Time

A week ago Sunday, November 23, I preached from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, let your mind dwell on these things . . . and the God of peace shall be with you (4:8-9). Suddenly, even as I was preaching, Jesus and I started having our own private moment. I heard myself talking. What was going on inside of my head was so much louder.

The apostle Paul was in prison when he wrote those words. He was facing imminent death. He was facing all of that specifically because he’d been faithful to what he believed to be the call of God on his life. I thought I was being faithful, too, when I served Cliff Temple. What some of those people did and said to me is, in my opinion, simply unconscionable, not to mention un-Christian. Their words still haunt me. Oddly enough, I think some of them would take pleasure in knowing that their words still cause me misery.

Now and then, those words come back to mind. I find myself going back over the conversations word for word, arguing in my mind with these people, telling them off, saying the things I wish I’d thought to say then. As though, even if I could out-argue them, it would have changed them or the outcome!

The other day I was walking my dogs when we came upon a twelve-point buck. He was a phenomenal animal, beautiful, excellent in every way, just pure beauty on the hoof. Just thinking about him brings a smile to my face. The next morning, Nancy called across the house to tell me that we had deer in our new backyard, some twenty, all told. I went outside to put out some corn. It’s been a long hard drought for these animals; they’re starving.

One of the deer, a spectacularly beautiful Axis doe, came right up to me and ate the corn out of my hand, even let me pet her on the smooth of her neck. I could hear the crunch of the corn in her mouth. I stood there transfixed.

Crunch time, even as the deer slobber wet my open palm, was also when the words of scripture came back to me. “Whatsoever things are true, honorable, right, pure, lovely . . . if there is any excellence and if anything is worthy of praise, let your mind dwell on these things.” The man who first wrote those words had a choice. In his deplorable state, he could have had those mental arguments all over again with those who had treated him so unjustly. Or, he could think the good thoughts. The only real power he had was to choose his thoughts. The only thing that hung in the balance was his peace of mind, if not his sanity.

Walking along with my dogs, just after we passed the buck, when I started having that same old argument that I’ll never win in my head, I looked up. Across the way, the leaves were exploding in reds and yellows and oranges, all framed in the beauty of the low-hanging gray fall sky. Then, even as the deer crunched the corn from my hand, I thought of all the blessings that are mine from the hand of the Father. Blessings he’d given me when it was crunch time. Blessings for me to enjoy over and over, every time I choose to think of them, instead of the little, petty, painful thoughts that others would choose for me.

It worked. With each passing moment, as I think the pure thoughts, there is less time to think the painful ones. Less room in my brain or in my memory for the sewage others flushed onto me, for reasons that are their own. With each passing moment, as I think the pure thoughts, well, the God of peace comes to abide with me, and heal my mind and my heart.

Just thought I’d share this with you, in case it’s crunch time in your life, too. Look around at all the excellence and purity and beauty God has put in your world. Let me know if it makes the same difference for you it did for me.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Free Peanuts

Nancy and I have spent a lot of time on Southwest lately, commuting to and from our soon-to-be new home just outside of San Antonio. It’s fifty-five minutes down, fifty-five back. We’ve done it so many times now that very shortly I expect the flight attendants to call me by name.

Yesterday, I didn’t know the flight attendant but I knew the routine. The plane was packed and while we were waiting to “push back,” everyone was making their last cell phone call or digging out something to read for the flight. In short, everyone was pretty much consumed with their own stuff. All the while the attendant was regurgitating the security information, how to buckle a seat belt and even how to inflate the life vest in case of a water evacuation. I’ve always figured that if I needed to know how to inflate a life vest while flying from San Antonio to Dallas, I’d have greater problems than a life vest would remedy.

Anyway – the one thing that stood out during the security briefing was that no one was listening. I found the routine irritating myself. Aside from the fact that the intercom was cranked up to a decibel level that would compete with both 737 engines, the attendant was talking so fast that he sounded like a 45 rpm record ramped up to 78. If you don’t know what that means, you’re too young to appreciate why loud noises bother me more than they used to.

For another thing, it sounded like the attendant had licked the microphone while it was ice cold and his tongue stuck to it. Either that, or the mic had been surgically implanted inside one of his cheeks. His lingo was absolutely indistinguishable. All blubbed out from rote memory. Loud, way too fast and fuzzy. If he was saying anything important it was lost in translation. Even he seemed hopelessly disinterested in his own lecture. And, no one was listening.

I couldn’t help but wonder if that’s how my sermons must sound to some people. Loud, way too fast and fuzzy. Not that what is being said isn’t important, just that the competition for attention is too great, people tend to be self-absorbed and no sense of urgency is grabbing anyone’s heart beyond the need for something temporarily distracting from the boredom of routine. When I’m speaking I can’t help but wonder if anyone is hearing, much less listening.

I drove by a church the other day and the marquee read, “In Christ, we are high priests.” Aside from the fact I’m a Christian, I’m also seminary trained and yet that reading on the church marquee bored me stiff. If there was ever a greater waste of money in the kingdom of God than that spent on church marquees, I don’t know what it is. For the unchurched, church marquees like the one mentioned above must read like internal memos from a high-tech engineering company, the language foreign, the meaning mysteriously irrelevant, something like the noise that comes over an intercom just before someone passes out free peanuts.

I get in trouble with folks now and then because I don’t preach like a preacher. I rather enjoy just talking as though I’m one of the people, which I am. I don’t like preacher tones and preacher words. I just can’t imagine spending my life’s energy saying things that only sound like I’m regurgitating from rote internal memos that only a few understand. It’s truly frightening how many people go to church every Sunday and say “amen” to stuff they’ve heard all their lives, regurgitated unthinkingly by preachers who may be heard but not listened to. Yet, at the same time, those same people tend to regard as heresy anything said different than the last ten thousand lectures and, sometimes, even if it’s just said differently and even if it all ceased being relevant to them decades ago. Why is it that some church people need so badly to be reassured of truth even they no longer accept as meaningful and for which there is not one shred of evidence that their lives are transformed by hearing it?

I want what I say to make a difference. All the rest is just marquee gobbledy-gook. Don’t we all have better things to do than just gobble down free peanuts?

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Rough Draft

It all started at the dinner table over a conversation about the potato fish. If you haven’t heard of the potato fish, not to worry. Apparently there is no such thing. I didn’t know that when I asked, “What’s a potato fish?” The question was natural enough. We’d just finished our Miso soup, Chinese honey shrimp and brown rice when the subject of Jake’s unfinished science project came up. Sterling had been helping him with it earlier and was now suggesting that, in order to create a fish that demonstrated all the evolutionary developments of the fish in an anatomically correct manner, a potato would make a good main frame.

“Evolution?” I asked. “Your school allows you to ponder that possibility?” I told him that I have friends whose children attend private Christian schools where evolution is downplayed, even mocked, as nothing more than heresy. To which Sterling replied, “In the debate over evolution vs. creationism, all I know is that God created all that is. It doesn’t matter to me how he did it.”

That opened the floodgate on all kinds of theological ponderings, with a seventh grader and senior leading the way, with their parents and Nancy and me watching from the galley more than anything. We talked about predestination and Calvinism, about Roger Williams and about the omniscience of God. Holding one end of an unwrapped straw to his left eye while pointing down its length to illustrate, Sterling speculated that, while we mortals see time as a linear continuum, God is not so limited. Seeing from outside our limited perspective, God has something more like a three dimensional view of all time, seeing every second that ever was and ever will be as though all time is happening right now.

By this time, I was looking for a way to excuse myself from the table before I embarrassed myself and asked another question like, “What’s a potato fish?” That’s when Jake, the seventh grader, broke in. I’d said something about God’s intention to redeem all of his creation when Jake suggested, “Maybe, to God, we are all like a rough draft, the piece of paper he never throws away.”

Nancy and I looked at each other, our jaws dropping in amazement. I sat there humbled in the presence of such profound insight and grace perspective, already bearing hopeful fruit in the tender hearts and minds of another generation.

Rough drafts? The piece of paper God never throws away. A work in progress, all of our lives. We’re the ones who define ourselves by where we are on a continuum, in infancy, youth, middle and old age. We’re the ones who too soon write ourselves and others off as being too young or too old to do this or that. If these two young men represent the generation that will take the torch of kingdom leadership we are passing to them, then we need to get busy passing it faster. There is great, wonderful hope for the future with minds and hearts like that sitting at the table of communion.

In the meantime, since these two young men will be listening to my sermons, I’ll be putting in more time on the rough drafts of what I say. I’ll also be celebrating, with Jake and Sterling, that we are all works in progress as well as the pieces of paper God never, ever will throw away. We’ll walk humbly together in the presence of the creating and redeeming God as we watch the impact of God’s grace evolve all around us and in us. I’m not a finished work, no matter how old I am, but, indeed, a rough draft, the piece of paper God never will throw away.

Friday, October 3, 2008

The Substance of Softness

One terribly sad day in the mid-60’s, when I was about ten, in a family just one block over from ours, a man left his wife and three sons for another man. My parents had been close to this family so it was particularly devastating for them. Remember, this was the mid-‘60’s and it was small town West Texas. Divorce, for any reason, was a huge scandal. Back then, two people who were miserably married just tended to stick it out no matter who it destroyed for them to stay together hating each other. For a man to come out of the closet as gay and leave his wife was the unspeakable scandal and unpardonable sin all wrapped up as one.

I’ve tried the best I can to figure out why it was that, at such a tender age, I didn’t grow up hating gays because of that. Those three abandoned boys were some of my best friends. My parents and others tried to help soften the social blow for them by giving the family a place to land. Soon, though, because of the scandal and to make a living, their mom had to move what was left of the family out of town to a large city where she could start over. In all of that, though, I have no memory of my parents saying anything hateful or vengeful of that man. I knew they were heartbroken, but they didn’t use that as an excuse to belittle him in my eyes. If anything, I remember them being sad that a family they dearly loved had been irrevocably broken.

Some years later, one of my closest friends, the valedictorian of our senior class, confessed to me and another friend that he was gay. It was in the same small town, in 1972. I remember the night we sat in Karl’s Volkswagen van just outside my driveway and heard Jerry’s midnight confession. I didn’t understand homosexuality. I did know Jerry and his family like they were kin, which, because of church, they were. I had heard him pray and share Christ with other people. I was confused, for certain. But, I never remember thinking less of him because he was gay. The only solid example of how to respond to him was the one my parents had already given. Jerry has since devoted his life as a research physician to treating and finding a cure for AIDS. Only God knows which of us has done more good for humanity with the gifts we were given.

I’ve gotten in trouble with church people before not because, as their pastor, I failed to say more about our responsibility to orphans and widows, but because I refused to hammer gays about how they were going to hell for their sexual orientation. It has troubled me deeply that those, in the church, who oppose homosexuality tend to do so while quoting a very selected couple of scriptures and do so with a venomous anger, something like you’d see in a frightened wild animal trapped in a corner. Aside from the fact that there are far more orphans and widows than there are gays, there are three reasons why I just can’t slam that judicial hammer down on the pulpit.

My parents’ response to a hurting family was one reason. Long before I knew the theological meaning of grace, my parents modeled it for me, teaching me how to live it before I could define it. Both of my parents had been raised in one of the most conservative and racist regions of the world. Yet, something turned them toward grace instead of exclusivity. Whatever that was (like Jesus?) seems to have rubbed off on me. The older I get, the less I’m interested in excluding anyone from church or my life because they aren’t oriented to this world the same way I am. Frankly, my sense of orientation about lots of things in my own faith struggle gets so wobbly at times it scares the dark side of eternity out of me.

It’s always easier to judge homosexuality when it’s just an issue, like divorce or whatever. When “gay” is someone you know and love, a person with a name and eyes and a beating heart, it transforms “gay” from an issue into a human being, one for whom Christ also died. Some of my dearest friends are gay. Strange how the more friends of any kind you have the less possible it becomes to judge anyone for anything. Is judgmentalism a function of loneliness, something we can only do in isolation? Is community a cure for judgment?

For another thing, I don’t get to judge who goes to heaven. As someone recently said of another issue, whether Jews will go to heaven or hell, “I’m not the gatekeeper.” I only have the privilege of standing at heaven’s gate and inviting others to join me as I hope to enter myself, not judging how people got to that gate or who God allows to enter.

I got an email from a gay man this past week, a friend whose name and story I know well. He is hurting badly because of the way a church slammed the hammer down on him. I reassured him that people behave differently in groups, even at church, than they ever do as individuals. (See Scott Peck, “People of the Lie,” read the Bible or, attend church regularly). Sadly, I have no answers for his dilemma. I have no church where he lives to recommend to him as a place to worship, openly, as he is.

I share in his sufferings only because I, too, have felt the church’s judgment of what some call my “softness” toward sinners. Some of the meanest people in the world pretend to worship in pews on Sunday. For the most part, they’re only mean in packs, like wolves wearing their Sunday morning wool’s best.

One on one, by and large, mean church people have these things in common. They almost exclusively define sin as something outside of themselves, “issues” with which they’ve never personally struggled. With rarest exception, they are wimps; their knees get wobbly under the weight of trying to be mean face-to-face. Like the playground bully, they only act the way they do when they have an audience. In my dictionary, “mean” is defined as “yet unchanged by a personal encounter with grace in Christ.”

It is also true that the finest people I’ve ever known are people I met in church. It is one of the most mysterious paradoxes of my faith experience that those who are meanest sit right next to others in the church who have modeled grace beyond belief for me.

If I’m soft, so be it. The only people who have helped me find my way into and through the Kingdom of God are those who showed me mercy and grace, not judgment. Mercy and grace are much harsher taskmasters than judgment could ever hope to be. It’s much harder to live with forgiveness, both giving and receiving it, than to experience the sad relief that hammering or being hammered tends to offer. It seems to me that those for whom mercy and grace are exclusively defined as the substance of softness just haven’t yet personally experienced the high premium Mercy and Grace have paid in order for God to give us a hopeful place to land in our suffering instead of a place that would have destroyed us for sure.

Monday, September 29, 2008


“Happiness: Something to believe, someone to love, something to do.” The saying was posted just above the professor’s desk. It was impossible for any visitor to miss. It was a small, private, Christian university, a place where the teacher-to-student ratio was very small. A place where the impact of his teaching would be pretty much in his face every day. For the few seconds it took me to first read those words so very many years ago, my mind took a snapshot of the saying.

All these years later, I still wonder what had possessed the professor to keep the words so prominently posted. Had his dreams been bigger than reality turned out to be? Had he surrendered his passion to mediocrity? How could anyone be happy in such a terribly small place? Was the saying true or did he just hope that someday it might be?

Yesterday, as I stood to preach my first sermon as the pastor of Grace Fellowship Baptist Church in Fair Oaks, Texas, I got the answers I’d been seeking. It occurred to me that, at 54, I have forever surrendered the idea of serving as pastor of what some would call a “strategic” or “prominent” church, the big church with the big name that most seminarians dream of serving the day they graduate. The church that will put their name in lights and make others ooh and aah. Every time I ever introduce myself to others as the pastor of this church I’ll hear the same question, “Where’s that?” Kind of like my last name, I’ll always have to spell it out for people. But, I now know why that professor always seemed so happy, in such a very small place.

When I was preaching, no one was more than fifteen feet away. I could see tears. I could see smiles and hear the smallest snickers at my poor attempts at humor. For the most part, these aren’t “church people.” I’ll probably never hear them say “Amen!” to one of my points. But, I could see it in their faces, in their back row blue eyes. I could hear silence when no one making any noise was the best response. It wasn’t a huge crowd, only 41. As the worship service ended, four people, ten percent of those in attendance, said they wanted to join us in the journey. As I pronounced my pastoral blessing on the congregation I couldn’t get that saying just above the professor’s desk off my mind.

I’ll never serve a huge church and have all the acclaim that goes with it, like the invitations to speak at huge conventions where the pastors of prominent churches are always asked to speak. However, I do have some thing I do believe very passionately. I do have some one – about forty someones – to love. I do have some thing – a very important thing – to do.

I am very full this morning. I feel electricity shooting through my fingertips as I dream about tomorrow. God has truly given me a gift that fills my soul to overflow. Do I need more? The gift of God’s grace is more than one soul can use. It must be true that it's not the size of the gift that matters, it truly is the substance. It’s something to believe, someone to love, something to do. If some is enough what more could anyone ask than some of what I already have?

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Eight to Ten Seconds

The moments we actually grasp the meaning of the unconditional love of God “have a shelf life of about eight to ten seconds.” We should “savor those moments when” such grace appears. So says David Roche, the pastor of the Church of 80% Sincerity (Anne Lamott, Plan B). I agree. For me, holding onto grace is like grasping the proverbial greased pig.

After chasing it around in something I’m writing or singing, in a field of Pacific-blue spring flowers or in a church full of fellow greased-pig-chasers, I find myself making a diving catch. Once in a slippery while, I think I’ve finally got it! I latch onto the thought that God really loves me, just like I am. Sure enough, in about eight to ten seconds, the grace moment slips away and I’m left to wallow in the self-made slop I can make of life when I think it’s all up to me.

Someone has said that the significance of life is not measured by the breaths we take but by the moments that take our breath. A few years ago, I had one of those moments. The entrance to the pastor’s study was just off of Sunset Avenue in Dallas. Our preschoolers released some pigeons one of the teachers had raised. I was invited to share in the moment. With diaper-stuffed britches, the children stood there with their faces full of expectation turned toward the morning sky. The pigeons were pulled from their cages, held between gentle palms and then released upward to the morning sky. In just eight to ten seconds, they’d been freed from their cages on Sunset, then circled back east toward the sun still rising. I stood there transfixed, savoring the moment while it lasted, about eight to ten seconds.

In those few seconds before the pigeons disappeared from sight, I saw the meaning of grace. Grace is not mine to capture and hold. It has captured me. Grace has held me close in gentle palms and, in Jesus, set me free to soar on wings lifted strong by hope in a sky full of mercy. It’s amazing what you can see, in just eight to ten seconds.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Sangre de Christo

If you drive north on highway 287 out of Amarillo toward the northeast corner of New Mexico, you will cross over the Canadian River though, most of the year, you probably won’t know it. At that particular point, eighty-five percent of the Canadian runs underground. Unless it’s just rained, all you will actually see is a dry riverbed. You won’t actually see a river.

The river is born in northern New Mexico at some 9,600 feet high in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. It runs for almost 800 miles before pouring itself out into the Arkansas River and, eventually, the Mississippi. As it resurfaces in eastern Oklahoma, it is dammed, creating the spectacularly beautiful Lake Eufaula, with 600 miles of shoreline and over 100,000 surface acres of water. If you ever see that lake, it’s almost impossible to believe that it was created by a river you can’t even see, hundreds of miles away.

I’m not a specialist in the physics of water. What I have observed, however, is that whatever is forced underground almost always finds a way of resurfacing. The only question is whether that resurfacing will be well-managed, so that it creates a source of new life, or it is allowed to run its own natural, ravaging course. Whether it’s water, or anger or sadness or hatred, what goes down must, and will, come up.

It’s also been my experience that one of the primary culprits in forcing destructive currents underground is the church. Though we are promised healing in our confession (James 5:16), sad as it is, too often at church we are made to feel that, if we confess those things which are destroying us, we will be judged as less valuable by those with whom we are supposedly worshipping. Or, we legitimately fear that we’ll be ostracized by those who assume that human frailty is some kind of lethal contagion.

Fear forces our sin underground instead of out into the light where the warm embrace of God’s grace can destroy what is destroying us, creating pools of mercy from which others can draw new life. The only people who have ever helped me change the course of my life’s current are those to whom I could make my confession in the confidence that I would not be judged or ostracized.

I’m praying that, as I go to Grace Fellowship, I’ll help create the kind of community where people find healing through confession. Where people can know that, as they allow their pain to resurface, they will do so within a family of hope. Otherwise, what’s the point of doing church, if all we do is participate in forcing sin underground?

Wherever there is a human soul, a river runs through it. The church should be the place where those souls are reborn as rivers of hope, in the Sangre de Christo, the redeeming flood of God’s grace, the blood that flows from Christ.

Sunday, September 21, 2008


Everything I’m about to describe actually happened in the brief span of maybe three seconds. The consequences ended a life unnecessarily.

I was driving home just the other day on a residential street not far from the house when a squirrel ran out in front of my car. It couldn’t have been more than two or three car lengths in front of me. I was traveling, I’m sure, at the posted speed of 30. Everything was fine until, for some squirrelly reason, the tree rodent decided to change his course. Then, just as he cleared my path, he decided to go back where he came from. (I will assume it was a “he” squirrel and not a “she” squirrel only because someone would accuse me of chauvinism for assuming otherwise). Making a U-turn in less space than it takes to write that word, the squirrel reversed course on the razor’s edge of its claws and started back, it’s huge, furry tail whiplashing with every turn. My heart stopped.

I know people who brag about hitting squirrels, or other living things. I’m just not a hunter. I shot a rabbit once, about twenty years ago. I grieved for a week and took that as a clear sign that hunting was simply not in me. I can’t shoot anything that can look back at me with its own eyes. When the squirrel cleared my lane, I felt instant relief about being able to keep my private vow not to take a life.

Then, for yet another squirrelly reason, the varmint did the same thing all over. It made another U-turn and then another. In the one or two seconds it took my car to close the distance, the squirrel was basically standing in the same place making one U-turn after another, like a drunk square dancer who’d lost his partner on the dance floor. Another car was too close behind me to slam on the brakes. The next thing I heard was a thump. I looked up quickly enough to watch in my rearview mirror as the now flatter squirrel went for a long roll behind me. Why did the squirrel cross the road? That’s one question for philosophical pondering. The more important question might be, why didn’t the squirrel just go ahead and cross the road?

I didn’t mean to kill the squirrel. He’d be leaping through the branches on this beautiful Fall afternoon or squirreling away nuts for the winter if he’d just made up his mind and stayed the course, one way or the other. An ancient scripture records something about “choosing this day whom we will serve.” Make a choice and stay the course. Stop making U-turns. Unless you can actually see a reason why moving in a certain direction is otherwise destructive, more likely than not, you’ll put more at risk by turning back than by moving forward.

There is a time for repentance, for changing the course of our life’s direction because of a higher call from a holy voice. Time and again, however, it’s not the sins we leave behind that finally catch up with us. It’s the sins to which we return over and over. As long as we are seeking Truth and honestly searching for God, there is very little out in front of us that is as threatening as the stuff behind us.

In my experience, even God can only do so much for someone who keeps looking back over his shoulder and going back because they really believe the good days are the old ones behind, not the new ones ahead. The apostle Peter was less tactful, describing such navigational folly as the equivalent of “a dog (that) returns to its vomit” or a “sow that is washed (and then returns) to wallowing in the mud” (2 Peter 2:22). What it is that is so appealing about vomit or mud that it would lure us back rather than urge us forward is truly one of the greatest mysteries of my own life, and human experience in general as I observe it.

The poor squirrel couldn’t make up his mind and the rest is road kill history. Life is in front of us, not behind us. The sooner we make the choice of which way to go and stay the course, the sooner we’ll make progress toward our true calling and avoid living a very miserable life, no matter how long it lasts.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

In Control

Saturday morning I took Sam for a walk. Sam is our ten-month-old seventy-five pound Golden Retriever. To say I took him for a walk is actually a tongue-in-cheek way of describing what actually happens when we go walking.

Sure enough, we were rounding the last corner, just yards from the house, when we encountered some doggie traffic coming the other direction. A lady was walking her yippy little pup, maybe five pounds wet. Sam doesn’t know his own strength. He may be one dog but he pulls with the strength of more than one horse. Nothing gets him in a playful mood more quickly than seeing another dog. I could see it coming.

I pulled the leash up tight, moving Sam off of the sidewalk. I was hoping the lady would take the cue from all the barking and just keep on walking her terrified terrier on down the road. For some incredibly mysterious reason beyond belief, she stopped, parking her paws just feet from Sam’s lurching! Sam didn’t want to hurt anyone; he just wanted to play. This just wasn’t a match. It was an overweight professional middle linebacker trying to wrestle a seventh grade volleyball player, not quite through puberty. It was a mess.

Before I knew it, Sam had stretched the leash free of my grip. I still had hold, I just didn’t have any say in what was about to happen. In the blink of eye, he bolted around the lady, going for her excuse for canine company. I was yelling at Sam, Sam was yelling at his new friend’s fast-retreating butt and the lady was screaming something in Spanish that I don’t think was complimentary of my dog’s butt or mine.

Sam went 360 degrees around the lady then, following the puppy’s lead, snapped right back toward me, instantly clipping the lady’s knees right out from under her like he was a free safety and she was going up for the pass. She kind of fell and rolled at the same time, scraping a pretty good piece of fresh meat off of her elbow. By now, I’m apologizing profusely in English and the lady is yelling louder in Spanish and Sam’s just having a great time.

A man stopped his car at the corner stop sign and looked sympathetically over at the lady, like I’d accosted her or something. I wasn’t enough of a coward to blame it on my dog. I said my last apology and then scampered away like I was as afraid a of lawsuit, which I was.

I really felt sorry for the lady. but, either I didn’t speak her language or she didn’t care. She never looked me in the eye. We both kept our dogs and I learned one valuable lesson.

Just because you’re bigger and stronger and smarter and just because you have something on a long leash doesn’t mean you’re in control.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

No Questions Asked

Having just returned from a long weekend, I had to make a grocery run. Making a run means that you want 7-11 speed with major grocery store selection. I figured fifteen minutes total from start to finish. What are the odds? As luck would have it, everyone else made their run at the same time. As luck would also have it, I found myself standing in line behind a woman with a basket full of groceries. It’s one of my life’s greatest unsolved mysteries, how I can pick the one line, at the bank or the grocery store, that always moves the slowest.

Sure enough, after the checker finished totaling up her purchase, the woman slid her debit card through the reader and it was rejected. The checker suggested she do it again, which she did, with the same result. She fumbled through her purse looking for cash or whatever. Finally, the checker suggested she take her card to the customer service desk and see if they could use her debit card to get cash. When she moved out of the lane, to my impatient relief, the checker started in on my basket.

Just as the checker finished with my purchase and I was pocketing the receipt, the debit card lady returned to announce that she’d had no luck getting cash. “I guess that deposit I made yesterday just hasn’t posted, yet,” she told the checker who then, very unsympathetically, helped her begin unloading her food. I couldn’t help but wonder how embarrassing all of this had been for the woman, knowing that several people saw and heard the whole ordeal.

By this time, my impatience had turned to pity. I remembered the times my mother, long before debit cards, wrote checks for groceries just hoping to beat the check to the bank the next day. I remembered the times when I was still in Jr. High mowing lawns for spending money that mom would borrow money from me just to buy groceries, making me promise I wouldn’t tell my dad. She always paid me back. It’s not the money that kills families, it’s those family secrets. They really suck, don’t they? Mom and dad both went to their graves without my breaking the private vow.

So, I’m standing behind this lady, about my age. No wedding ring on her finger and a basket full of single-serving meals. She had no credit card when the debit card didn’t work. Not enough cash to pay the balance. Never married? Divorced? Children? Who knows? It wasn’t mine to ask. I was pushing my cart away from the counter when something (or Someone) stopped me cold in my tracks. I looked back at the lady and wondered. I didn’t know her story, whether she was deserving of help or not. Then again, when the Prodigal came home, his Dad just doled out the grace freely, no questions asked.

Walking three steps back I asked the lady if she’d let me buy her groceries that day. You see, I remembered my mom and how sad I still feel for her. I still wonder how many humiliations she encountered at the grocery counter. I also remembered that we’d just gotten back from a weekend in South Texas where people hadn’t asked questions, they’d just doled out grace freely, generously, beyond belief. My heart was so full of unearned grace.

I honestly believe if I hadn’t given something of it to someone else, my soul would have burst from overflow. The lady tried to say “No,” graciously. But, it looked like she knew she needed to say, “Yes.” I didn’t and still don’t know her name, much less her story. She came and stood by me while the checker rang it all up. “I hope this makes you feel as good as it does me,” she said. “It does,” I said squeamishly. I could feel myself blushing; I felt embarrassed for being thanked for something I really needed to do. I didn’t have time to tell her the story of my sadness for mom or the unbelievable grace I had just experienced and how giving to her was both a healing experience for me and a liberating one.

“I’ll let you pay if you’ll give me your name and address,” she said. As I walked away with my basket full and my heart bursting at the seams, I shook her hand and said, “Don’t worry about it.” It wasn’t a loan. It was a gift.

It would be hard to describe how I felt while walking to my car. It was a rush like I haven’t felt in a long, long time. Giving, just for the fun of it! Wow! How do you describe that? I walked away, as though floating on white puffy cumulus clouds carried by the winds of the Spirit, having been reminded that grace isn’t really grace until it’s received and then given away. When we accept grace without giving it, our souls become Dead Seas of sad, dark, lifeless narcissism. We know that the Truth is setting us free when grace completes the circle and we give to others what Someone else gave us, no questions asked.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008


A friend’s mother was gracious enough to tell me part of her story the other day. It was priceless. There is nothing more beautiful or unique than the stories of other people’s lives. Nothing more humbling than for someone to open up the treasure trove of their life’s story and share just a little of it with you personally.

Amos Whitlock, her dad, was born in 1895 in Commanche County, Texas. He never had a chance for an education, just the opportunity to scratch a living out of the dirt with his family. Then, along came WWI. Amos went to the train station with a whole slew of other Commanche County boys and shipped off into a world they’d never seen. To leave a North Central Texas farm and end up in combat somewhere in France must have felt like being transported to another world altogether. Maybe it was.

Amos was there, in the trenches, on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month when hostilities formally ended. November 11 would later be designated Armistace Day and eventually Veteran’s Day. His daughter says that, the rest of his life, November 11 was his favorite day of the year.

Like most people who have personally witnessed combat, Amos rarely spoke about what he saw or what he did, even to his family. When he did, he reflected on how it sounded to him the day the guns fell silent. At one exact moment, all those years of war just stopped, at the very same exact moment, all along the front. After all the shooting stooped and the bombing ceased, Amos said, “the stillness was deafening.”

The other morning in Fair Oaks Ranch, I was watching the sun come up. In just a few hours, I would be formally accepting the call as pastor of Grace Fellowship Baptist Church, a decision that looks like a long-awaited chance to begin life again, at least in another world. I have to tell you, after nearly dying last summer and then dealing with issues for several months afterward that made death seem appealing, the other morning, the stillness was deafening.

It was so quiet, even in my soul, I think I almost heard the roar of the sun’s blaze. It’s amazing how loud the stillness can be. It felt like – well – like a long-awaited and desperately needed God-from-heaven-sent peace. Have you ever heard stillness like that? I have. It’s truly amazing, how deafening the stillness can be.

Monday, August 25, 2008


Grace comes in different ways. Sometimes we experience it as forgiveness, from God and others. Sometimes we experience it as receiving a gift we didn’t deserve from someone we didn’t even know cared. Sometimes, grace comes to us in the form of a new opportunity. That grace of a new opportunity means all the more when it helps reawaken your personal sense of calling in life, your true vocation.

Yesterday, Sunday, August 24, I accepted the invitation to become the pastor of Grace Fellowship Baptist Church, Fair Oaks Ranch, Texas. Fair Oaks Ranch is a community in the Texas Hill Country, just northwest of San Antonio, not far from Boerne. Grace Fellowship is a new church, with about 30 active members. They are affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and the Baptist General Convention of Texas. Most importantly to us, they have extended a real, genuine grace to us.

To be honest, I wasn’t sure I wanted to go back into the pastorate after my last experience. One or two churches sniffed around. Having been out of a job for six months, that wasn’t particularly encouraging. Yet, I never could get excited about anything they were doing. I hadn’t gotten desperate – yet. It never occurred to me that I would ever want to be involved in leading a new church, at my age. I never dreamed a new church would be interested in me. Sometimes, grace surprises us. Some of the kids took to calling me “Papa Schmuck” over the weekend. For the first time in my life, it felt like affection and not purely an age reference. I will confess that it was strange to join a church and, at the same time, become the sum total of their Senior Adult Sunday School.

The paradigm out of which most of us preachers live out our entire careers usually has something to do with hop-scotching from one church to the next largest church. Even in seminary, the model we were given for success had more to do with the size of one’s congregation than almost anything else. Forget vocation, just grow that church at all costs, even that of staying true to yourself. Not surprisingly, in my last experience, there were those who could not even see the remarkable ways in which we were touching the community because they could not look past the size of the congregation, which has been slowly shrinking since 1938, sixteen years before I was even born. A very noisy few found very creative ways of projecting their sense of failure onto me, because I couldn’t make that church bigger. The only way I could pull the plug on the projectors was to put distance between myself and them. I was very close to letting them hijack my sense of calling.

On the way to San Antonio, I decided to re-read Parker Palmer’s wonderful little book, “Let Your Life Speak.” Its size belies its potency. I’m so glad some editor didn’t decide it wasn’t big enough to publish. This one passage reaffirmed the decision I was making about Grace Fellowship as the right one. “From our first days in school, we are taught to listen to everything and everyone but ourselves, to take all our clues about living from the people and powers around us. Vocation does not mean a goal that I pursue. It means a calling that I hear. Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am. ”

Grace surprised us over the weekend. It seemed that saying no would have been a choice not to listen to my (even our) vocation, an unwillingness to accept the grace gift extended to us. So, we said, “Yes.” Already, I’m feeling true to myself again, as much as to the God who gave my self to me.

With no face further than ten feet away when I preached yesterday, I could see every smile, every tear. It felt like family. It felt like grace. It sounded like vocation.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Be Kind

The mournful look on his face is permanently pressed into my memory, like one of those patches mom used to steam press over the tear in my blue jeans. Something was torn, terribly deep, in that young man’s life. It had something to do with moral failure and was so painful he couldn’t talk about it. Whatever it was, it had happened recently those many years ago. He wanted help so badly he would sit in my office and just cry, or stare mournfully into some other world only he could see and I could not. Like he was watching the life he thought he was going to live passing before his eyes, slipping from his grip.

I was working overtime not to be voyeuristic in my questioning. I had long since passed the stage where I found the moral failings of others intriguing or even remotely fascinating. If there is any compassion in you at all, the kind borne of self-humiliation, watching others stumble only breaks your heart for them, never seeing their failings as a source of entertainment or distraction. Something had broken that young man’s heart. He was able to say enough to point toward himself as the source of the failure. There wasn’t an ounce of blame in him toward others. But, he was never able to actually name whatever breach of trust over which he was self-destructing before my eyes. Looking back some years, I sense that it had to do with marital infidelity, though, to this day, I don’t know that for a fact. He had certainly broken someone’s trust, especially his trust of himself.

Of all the ministry experiences I’ve wished I could relive, that moment rates at the top. I’ve replayed that hour in my study so many times, saying out loud the things I wish I had said then. Something, anything that would have helped ease his burden or bear it more responsibly. That young man eventually faded into the rest of the faces of the past that stand like mile markers on my memory’s highway. I have no idea what became of him. I wonder what he finally made of the sin that was haunting him that day, his own personal demon.

A colleague recently told me something one of his professors once wrote in Greek on the chalkboard. “Be kind. Everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle.” Some people have better poker faces than others and you’d never know anything is wrong. With others, you can read their pain in the grimace being permanently etched into their face as though with a laser, one burning cut at a time.

No matter what we see on the surface, we just never know what stories, what demons, lurk in the shadows of another’s heart. We never know what private battles of conscience they are fighting. It’s just safer to assume that every person we meet is fighting some battle and to be as kind to them as we would have them be to us. Almost certainly, the kindness we extend to others in their private pain will come back to bless us in ours’. Or, not.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Electric Fence

The very first church I served as pastor was located in the extreme northwestern corner of the Texas panhandle. The country was flatter than your computer screen and, for the most part, treeless except for a scrub brush here and there. Any summer day could be hot unholy but, a long sleeve shirt felt good at night as even the hottest July days cooled off in the high elevation. The winters blew cold, hard and long and wet. Maybe it was the stark geography or the spirit it took to settle that country but, whatever it was, the people were the best.

One of those folks was Kent Cartwright. Kent and his family lived fifteen miles northeast of town. There was nothing between his place and the North Pole but so much barbed wire. His ranch wasn’t in the middle of nowhere but, as the old-timers liked to say, you could see it from there.

Kent made his living out of the earth as a cattle rancher. It was hard to see where the dirt stopped and his well-worn boots began. He worked long, brutal hours, rain or shine, light or dark, sleet or snow, blistering hot or freezing cold. Raising cattle was a 24/7 kind of life. Something about being that close to the earth gave Kent a common sense view of reality that I found not only refreshing but even healing.
When things at church got boring, or started driving me crazy, I’d drive out to Kent’s place, hop up in his pickup and just ride around with him for hours. Kent had this long slow West Texas drawl. It took him ten seconds longer to say anything. Conversations could take a long time. An hour in the cab of Kent’s pickup was better than three on anyone’s couch.

One day, Kent began explaining the science of fencing. Turns out, there is one. Different kinds of cattle, geography and weather patterns demand different kinds of fences. In time, the lesson included electric fences. I couldn’t resist asking the next question.

“Kent, have you have you ever peed on an electric fence?” I asked, not sure how Kent, one of my deacons, would feel about knowing that his pastor knew how to say “pee.” Kent thought for a long time. Then, in that pokey-slow drawl, he answered, “Nope. Talked to an ol’ boy once that did – and that was good enough for me.”

I’m still laughing, twenty-five years later. Whatever that “ol’ boy” had described as his experience must have been horrifying as the stream of electricity followed his stream back up to his private parts in truly shocking ways.

I’m also still remembering the sage warning. We really don’t have to try to something before we criticize it. We don’t have to commit adultery or cheat on our taxes or spend money we don’t have or drink too much or stay in a career that’s robbing our soul and destroying our family. Sometimes, we can just talk to some ol’ boy, or girl, who did. Maybe that will be good enough for us, too. There’s more than one way to learn a lesson from an electric fence without getting burned, too.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008


Last summer while I was so very ill, unbeknownst to me, a dear high school classmate was also deathly ill, 1500 miles away. It was months before we caught up with each other’s stories. The illnesses were different, though both life-threatening. I just got started a little sooner than she did.

We talked about how strange it had been trying to re-enter our worlds, looking for some sense of normalcy. We both affirmed that, when you are gone that long, for whatever reason, the standard of “normal” has been redefined. New roads have been built. Others have closed. People have moved on while you were locked down. From your bed you could see the sun rising and setting each day. In my case, my hospital room was too high to be able to see the cars and lives passing on the streets below, on their way to their new life, while mine stood freeze-framed, locked in place.

People would ask us if “we were back to normal.” Some asked because they were genuinely concerned. Some asked with a tone in their voice that betrayed impatience. Answering their questions, despite their motives, was complicated by two facts.

One is that, when you are hit that hard, every part of you gets taken down. There is no part of your being, physical, emotional, spiritual or psychological that is not sick with you. In my case, when my liver nearly died, my heart, my soul and my mind all suffered. In short, it was easier to recover physically than it was to recover, say, spiritually.

I got out of the hospital just a little over a week ago. Hard to believe it’s been a whole year. I want to say that I’m back to normal, except that normal isn’t what it was the day I went into the hospital. That’s the second thing that complicates answering the “Are you back to normal?” question. What’s normal? I’m still figuring that out, frankly, and hope to be for a while.

There were those who just couldn’t understand why it took so long. That’s only because they’ve never been that sick. Someday they will be and then they’ll be more compassionate, maybe. Until then, the lesson from it all is just for me. “Be kind,” someone once wrote. “Everyone you meet is carrying some heavy burden.”

We don’t have to have a personal understanding of anyone else’s pain in order to be compassionate toward them. Compassion and empathy should be our default positions with everyone we meet. We never know when we may need to ask them to scoot over so we can climb into the same bed with them.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Fresh Air

The other day I was driving along and, out of nowhere, there came this memory of a person at church who had been particularly unkind to me, even seemed to enjoy it, get energy out of it. What she did and said easily rate as some of the most disrespectful, dehumanizing, insensitive and heartbreaking things I’ve ever heard come of out of the mouth of one who would claim to be a Christian.

Where did that come from? I was having a nice day until that memory got caught in the car with me on a very hot day. It was flying around like a wounded hornet looking for someone to sting again, me in particular. Every attempt to flush her out the window only made her madder and drove up the chance of me having a wreck exponentially. How’d she get in my car? How come I couldn’t get her out?

As I remembered what she said, the tone of her voice, the scowlish-mean look on her face, I found myself right back in the room where that conversation took place. My heart was racing. My palms were sweaty. I was coming up with things I was going to say back to her if and when she ever came up for air. I actually started talking back to her, as though the hornet was listening. Suddenly, it occurred to me that, by just allowing myself to remember what she said, I was actually reliving the moment, physically, spiritually, emotionally, feeling the hornet’s sting. From head to pucker, I was tight as a drum, needing to cry but not able.

Just as suddenly, something (or, Someone), recalled to my memory one of the Apostle Paul’s more potent hornet-swatting scriptures. “This one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and pressing on to what lies ahead.” Like a swatter, it’s one piece of equipment, with two sides. One side is forgetting, the other side is pressing on. Without both sides, it doesn’t work.

That’s when it occurred to me. One of the greatest of all spiritual disciplines is that of being able to remember but choosing, instead, to forget. The capacity to remember is a gift of God. Some researchers say that every event we’ve ever experienced, good and bad, is recorded somewhere on a molecular piece of our cerebral computer. Along with that gift, God also gave us the gift to say no to certain memories, to assign them a place in our heart and mind where they will starve to death for lack of attention. It’s a spiritual discipline, remember. It takes commitment and practice, all of your life, knowing how to remember but choosing instead to forget.

I’d like to tell you about some really awful things others have done to me, and some I’ve done to others. But, then again, I’d just be swatting at hornets and reliving the stings of them all, and wrecking my life and the lives of others for no good reason at all. Driving along, I think I’ll just leave the windows down and let the fresh air of God’s future clear my head. I might even stick my bald head out the window and feel the freshness of the new morning that just came with the sunrise!

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Getting Lost

Back to Garmin. Nancy gave it to me for Father’s Day. We found out pretty quickly that you don’t need it to navigate places you know well. At home, Garmin leads a lonely, quiet life. Out in LA, though, Garmin was a life-saver. Driving in totally strange places, we never once got lost, unless we ignored the directions, which was an option we actually chose once.

What we could see from the freeways was so limited. The winding drives up the mountains where palatial mansions clung by inches to vertical hillside foundations kept begging us to come have a closer look-see. We decided to listen to whatever voice was calling us up those unknown pathways, to take a closer look, without directions. We just wanted to drive wherever the road took us. We weren’t afraid of getting lost. We knew that, when we were ready, Garmin would tell us exactly where we were on the planet and how to get back home. Getting lost was the cost of exploring a world you just can’t appreciate from a distance.

Letting your children go off to college, you can’t realistically pray that they won’t ever get lost. They will. Sometimes, horribly lost. Sometimes, lost for a long time. What you can pray is that they will have the courage to explore unknown pathways. (I didn’t know until horribly late that education’s synonym is “exploration.”) A huge part of me believes that the day we won’t ever take an unknown road for fear of getting lost is the day we stop living, no matter how many more years we keep driving. I want Cameron to explore. I know that this all comes with the very real risk that he will get lost sometimes. I take my courage, my eternal hope, in God’s raw, unconditional grace.

Years ago, Cameron asked Jesus into his heart. Letting me lower him into the water, he made his profession from the baptistery as he arose symbolically to a new life as a faith trailblazer. In a time, a place and a way no human mind could ever grasp, the Jesus who had known and loved him before he was even born became an even more intimate part of his life that day, one of the benefits of which is the presence of God’s Spirit in Cameron’s heart. A kind of spiritual Garmin, if you will, is always present with him, even when he chooses to ignore the directions.

My hope comes in knowing that getting lost is a part of life, even of faith. I can’t explain this as much as I trust it. But, the best stories of my life and the best part of my faith were forged while stumbling through lost places, looking for a way back home, even when I was lost because I chose to be. Like I said, I can’t really explain how God’s unconditional grace just won’t give up on us. I do believe with all my heart that grace never, in all of eternity, ever gives up. God is the eternal shepherd, never resting until the last single lost sheep is found, even when they behave like bad-tempered goats.

As he leaves for LA and whatever unknown roads await him there, I can also hope that Cameron has seen in me a good witness of what it’s like to get lost and still believe. Losing is an invaluable part of faith exploration. When he is lost, there will still be that still, small voice within his heart. If Cameron will just listen, that voice will lead him back home, no matter how lost he is, no matter how long he’s been lost, no matter why he got lost.

That’s how God is. There is no place on this planet where God is not already present. We can never go where God is not, and, therefore, where we cannot be found. Joy happens the day we personally discover just how much God loves exploring, too, looking for his lost children, and leading them back home.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Male Assist

“Male assist!” the TSA agent always yells just after I set off the metal detector at the airport. It happens every time and I’ve finally resolved myself to the fact that it always will. That’s unless they invent a device that can distinguish between the titanium that used to be my right knee and a genuine security threat. The other day, on the way to LA, they actually put me through one of those machines that blows spurts of air all over you. It was kind of exciting, actually. Almost like a cheap ride at Six Flags. Not sure what Puff the Magic Blow Machine tells them, but it didn’t hurt, nothing fell off of me and at least I cleared that level of security.

The part that bugs me the most is what happens right after I take everything off that’s holding me up. My shoes, my belt, my watch. Like one of the sheep being led to the sheering, I drop it all into plastic bins and onto a line that’s passing through an X-ray machine so fast they couldn’t possibly detect a 747 trying to get through. At least I’ve learned the value of only wearing shorts and sandals when flying. I don’t look very hip showing that much hip but it does help get my knee through easier. Something about being able to see my knee replacement scar makes the security guys frisk me less.

Frisk me they do, though. Some friskier than others. Not that I’m really worried about untoward advances at my age, from any sex. But, honestly, some of those guys seem to enjoy it more than others! One time, after the security guy wanded me over like he was prepping me for a giant rotisserie, he then gave me a thorough blue-glove pat down in the places he’d just wanded! When he finished I actually asked him if he wanted to share a cigarette. He looked at me with one of those thousand-yard stares and I figured trying to explain the joke would just ruin it, or get me locked up for the night. I just moved on.

“Male assist!” is always the first warning the National Security Agency gets when I set off the alarm. It’s so abrupt, almost crass or rude. The biggest set of lungs in TSA history announces, “Male assist!” so loudly to anyone who wants to hear that even to my not-too-pre-hearing aid ears it sounds like, “Herb! Tampons, aisle six! Price check!”

They never tell you you’re growing older. You don’t even realize it yourself until one day you wake up and shock yourself with the first glance of the morning in the mirror wondering how your granddad slipped his skin over your body during the night. Other than that, the surgeons will begin replacing your broken, falling-off parts and, if you have to travel, someone will yell, “Male assist!” Then, you’ll know for sure.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Calling Home

The first thing I felt this morning was nostalgia, and I’ve only been in this place three days. That was long enough to add some new life-long memories to a place in my heart reserved for Cameron, my youngest son. It’s been way too long, longer than I remember, since he and I had seventy-two uninterrupted hours together. Part of me wants to stay, though my heart is calling me home.

We landed in Los Angeles Tuesday, missing the earthquake by just about two or three hours. We were actually kind of bummed about that. I’ve never felt an earthquake, don’t stand much chance of ever feeling one in Texas. I’ve had plenty of earth-shaking experiences, though. Like taking my youngest son 1,500 miles from home to find a place to live just one month before he moves away.

We found the place, by the way, the very first day. We both laughed about how men hunt and women shop. We took the first place we saw. It’s one of three 11x19 rooms just above an art professor’s really messy studio. (Do clean studios ever produce really good art?) He will share a bathroom and a kitchen with two other students who are never there, like he won’t be, either. The Craigslist advertisement read “Spartan conditions,” which turned out to be an artistic way of describing a 1930’s era place with rotting stairs, cracks in the walls, barely enough light to walk around and no AC. In LA, though, that’s where he’ll start. He loves the place, plans to paint the walls and make it his own. The smile on his face was like soul medicine; it did my aching heart good.

Finding a place and talking to the financial aid people at the Art Center College of Design seemed to quell the little bit of anxiety he felt about moving this far away. It’s where he wanted to go. I’d never even heard of the ACCD before he mentioned it. Apparently, a degree in film from there will go a long way in the world he’s passionate about exploring.

Yesterday, having already bagged the crib, we went to see The Dark Knight, at the Universal City IMAX. I’d been on those grounds before, over twenty-five years ago with a youth group from Abilene on a “mission” trip. I have few memories of that trip. I’ll always have yesterday’s.

After that, we took a drive up Mulholland Drive. Its breathtaking mountainside overlooks gave us a spectacular view of downtown Los Angeles and a little more perspective of the massive city my son will call home for the foreseeable future. In the middle of all those millions, a piece of my heart will live there now, too. I’ll have to come back and check on my LA heart when Southwest runs Internet specials.

We cut our traveling budget by being more careful about where we ate. Olive Garden saw us twice, the same one. Last night, over really good Italian flatbread, chicken parmesan and a so-so plate of fettuccini alfredo (I make the best), Cameron looked up and thanked me for coming with him. At 19, I let him swig the last drop in my complementary glass of way-too-fruity house wine. He almost looked a little too experienced at the swigging part. I swallowed my spit harder than he did the wine. Flatbread and wine, it was a communal kind of thing, you know.

We rediscovered something I always suspected, that we have more in common than I think I ever did with my dad at nineteen. We actually enjoy hanging out with each other. We played together with the Garmin while the irritating computer-generated holy-spirit-of-driving voice guided us around a city I’ve never driven, without ever getting lost (well, almost). We finally found the mute button and just read the directions. The radio stayed off most of the time. We talked and said “Wow!” more than once, gawking at the hilltop mansions humans from another world call home.

Our plane takes us back home tonight, at least for another month. Where will home be next month? What do you when one son you love more than yourself lives one place and the other son you love that much, too, lives 1500 miles away and your wife who loves you more than you love yourself sleeps right next to you every night? You reach down and pat your dogs on the head then you roll over and thank God that your heart is big enough to love that much, to stretch that far and to call more than one place, “home.”

Thursday, July 31, 2008


This past Sunday I had the privilege of preaching at the First Baptist Church, Longview. The only place I would have rather been was in Latvia, where the pastor was, which is why I was filling in for him.

During the sermon, I mentioned the story about my dad being laid off some 36 years ago. He was a petroleum engineer. The oil business was way down. Dad had been with the company for some 20 years but one barrel of oil just wasn’t adding enough to the bottom line. Computers were also quickly replacing the work men once did from pickups. Some 1500 people, including my dad, got their pink slips. In our case, it was just two months before I headed off to college.

What happens in families is one thing. How parents interpret those events for their children is everything more. From the minute I first saw my dad after he got home with the bad news, the interpretation began. He was sitting in his favorite bedroom chair, changing socks, calmly telling me about the day he’d had.

He’d been laid off and, oddly, was not only relieved but even grateful. For years, he’d felt stuck in a corporate dead end. He wanted more for his life and his family, mainly the dignity of opportunity that corporate ladders with only so many rungs don’t afford. He’d prayed for relief, that God would open a door. Suddenly, according to my dad, God opened the door. It just wasn’t the one he expected, the trap door underneath his career. He was interpreting to me what had happened to him as nothing less than an answer to prayer. Now, he would be forced to look for the dignity of new opportunity, something he confessed he would have never done as long as he was satisfied to take home a guaranteed paycheck every two weeks, the one thing the corporation did offer. Until the layoff, that is.

Until he died, my dad said that losing his job was the best thing that ever happened to him. He spent the rest of his career doing what he loved most, working as an independent contractor in petroleum engineering.

Well meaning friends encouraged me not to leave my last job until I had something else nailed down. I wanted to honor their advice. But, I kept wondering what opportunities for dignity might be passing me by just while I stayed in a place where there was a somewhat guaranteed paycheck. Is it better to worry about money while it’s coming in or worry about it when it’s not? What’s the difference? Prostitution comes in many forms, not all of which are sexual.

I couldn’t get my dad’s testimony out of my mind. I kept hearing him say, “The best thing that ever happened to me . . ..” One day, I awoke with a “hold my beer and watch this” attitude and took the leap of faith into the unknown.

Last Sunday, an engineer came up to me after the service and asked about what my dad did with the rest of life. He feels stuck, after 30 years, on a corporate ladder with few opportunities. He wants his life and his training to count for more. It felt really good to tell him my dad’s story, the story that has now become my own.

I took the leap myself back in April. I’m still not sure, for a fact, how we’re going to make it. But, make it we will. I’m absolutely trusting God. I’m convinced that the day will come when I’ll say to my sons, “The best thing that ever happened to me was when . . ..” They already know the rest of the story. They’re just waiting to see how I’ll interpret it for them. Maybe someday it will be their story, too.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Going Back In

Some thirty years ago, my very first pastorate was in a community so tiny that part of its name included the word, “burg.” Forestburg had two stop signs that slowed anyone down going through. A post office, one school for grades 1-12, a grocery store where the clerks would pick out your groceries for you and three churches rounded out the cultural structure that some 300 families called home.

My parsonage was a single-wide trailer that was dated beyond repair even then. It kept the rain off but not the rats out. What I caught with cheese under the kitchen sink could be classified as big game. In the summer, it was a thermal conductor sucking in hot air like a starving furnace. It the winter, you could have hung beef, literally. But, it was almost like a camping adventure and it was my home for two years.

Sometimes, I got so bored that I’d actually go visiting total strangers in the community. I mean, visiting anyone whose porch light was still on after dark. This one young couple lived at the edge of town in another single wide. One cold winter night I pulled my 1974 Caprice onto their graveled drive. The young man was sitting outside smoking cigarettes non-stop in the cold early winter chill. Something was obviously wrong.

I’d no sooner told him who I was than he began making his confession. He and his wife, who was still inside and whom I never met, had just had a horrible fight. He wouldn’t tell me what about and I didn’t ask. I’d never been married and had the good sense not to presume to give him marriage advice. Even then, I seemed to have a sixth sense that anger that deep represented an even deeper pain (a lesson too many never learn about why people they love are so angry). Whatever they’d fought about had stripped him of his masculinity and dignity for the night. All I knew was that the frost-bitten air didn’t hurt as much as what he feared back inside the house. (Remember, I never heard her side of the story).

I just listened as the night air grew frostier by the minute and our breath blew whiter into the dim yellowish light that came through the kitchen window giving us a flashlight view of reality. I must have stayed the better part of an hour. For whatever reason, I never knew the outcome of that fight. At some point, even if for no other reason than to collect his things and leave, that guy must have gone back in and faced reality. Maybe they made up and found a way of making marriage meaningful for the last three decades.

The church and I had this pretty serious spat over the past year. Not all of the church, mind you (you’ll have to ask her about her side of the story). But, enough spatting went on to make sitting out in the cold for a few months seem more attractive than being inside. So, I’ve sat outside for a while. It looks like someone is about to invite me back in. There is someone inside that Nancy and I love very much. I’ve pondered my options. I think I’m about to go back in.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008


Hope is knowing that our lives count for more than our mistakes. That we’ve accumulated more substance than fluff. That the balance of our lives is weighed more toward the good than the bad, the things that are eternally good more than our mistakes. Though I’ve learned all of this in more significant ways, I made a simple mistake once that has become a parable of eternal hope.

Some years ago, I decided to bless my family by baking a cheesecake. I had yet to learn the simple truth that, when it comes to cheesecake, in cost, time and effort, it’s pretty hard to beat store-bought.

The recipe I was using called for a number of rather expensive items and a time-consuming process that all ended up in an electric mixing bowl. Before long, a beautiful mix of cream cheese, eggs, flower and other ingredients bearing mega-fat was swirling around just inches below my knuckles. The next step called for fresh lemon zest. I’d never zested a lemon or anything else for that matter. Not knowing any better, I went to work running the lemon over the grater just inches above the yellowish whirlpool, carefully slicing the tiny slivers of lemon rind into the mix. Not carefully enough, though. In a split second of inattention, the lemon slipped and my knuckle ran with the lemon over the grate. Before I could say “cheesecake,” I had added one more ingredient not called for in the recipe, a huge drop of my own blood.

There was no stopping it. That one drop of blood swirled into the mix and created something like a strawberry swirl. By the time I reached the power button the damage was done. There was blood in my cheesecake and there was no way to get it out. Even if I had wanted to, there was no time and not enough ingredients to start over. I pondered my options. I could throw it all away and make an excuse over dinner. Or, I could get creative. I looked around. No one was watching. I looked into the mixer and realized that there was more cake than blood. So, I turned the mixer back on, blended the blood in until it disappeared, slammed that puppy in the oven, baked it up and served it to my family later, none of them the wiser.

That’s the way life seems to work. Despite our best intentions and efforts, up to and including the passion to give our best to those we love, our humanity keeps getting in the way. Drops of our own blood get spilled into our parenting, our marriages, our finances and so on, places that we prefer remain pure. Everywhere we look, there’s blood in our cheesecake.

Hope comes from knowing that what God is up to in our lives is of greater substance, means more, than the sum total of all our mistakes. “This . . . is how we . . . set our hearts at rest in his presence whenever our hearts condemn us. For God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything” (1 John 3:19-20).

Hope is knowing that, even when we disappoint those we love the most or make the most humiliating mistakes, our humiliation and our humanity both get blended into the greater purpose of God for our lives. That’s why we call it hope.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Morning Light

At first we were kind of sad. During the night, a storm blew with a wicked wind and a tree across the alley gave way. We awakened to find it lying lifeless across our fence over into our backyard. It was just one of those alley fence trees, whatever kind that is. But, when you grow up in West Texas, every tree is a sacred thing.

Besides, for seven years we’d watched it change colors in the fall and blossom again in the spring. We’d grown sort of attached to it watching us grow, too. We were sad when the wind blew it down. Until the morning came.

As I sat down to write, staring out the north window to where the tree had been, I was able to see farther than ever before. And, oh, what a sight! The rising sun’s rays cut horizontal shafts of light through the morning’s haze, splashing the open meadow with pallets of gold and yellow all mixed with shadows cast by the morning light pushing its way through the tall prairie grass. As far as the eye could see, the view was simply spectacular. Now that the tree was gone.

We never realized how the tree had blocked our view. Until the morning came. It was only then that we realized how the storm had actually cleared the way for us to see farther than ever, especially to see the good gift of nature’s Master painter, just beyond the fence of our imaginations.

Storms can be like that. Wicked though they may be, they often clear the way for us to see what we’d never seen before. When the wicked wind blows, it seems like nothing good could ever happen again.

Until the morning comes.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Tooth Fairy

Last year, right before the children were to go on stage to perform their spring musical, another little boy inadvertently elbowed nine-year-old Ben in the mouth. Besides being painful, Ben was so very disappointed that the elbow also knocked one of his teeth loose. Ben screwed up his courage and sang the entire musical anyway.

When he got home, Ben stood over the bathroom sink to finish the work the elbow had only begun. As bad as it had been, it did open the possibility of leaving something for the tooth fairy. Then, just as he worked the tooth loose it fell into the sink and down the drain. Ben was horrified! His dad, Scott, who is not a Master plumber but who is a master father, decided to see if he could rescue the tooth by removing the drain trap under the sink. In the process, he got the trap loose but not without breaking another pipe that would require calling a real and very expensive plumber. Now, both father and son were so very disappointed.

The plumber came and, while fixing the broken pipe, discovered something else askew in the plumbing that required climbing under the house to repair. While there, he discovered something more ominous. It was a water leak that had been dripping for some time onto a gas line that runs beneath the house. The leak was just about to corrode a hole in the pipe that would have soon started causing a very dangerous gas leak.

The rest of the story involves older sister Corrie coming to Ben’s rescue. The missing tooth was never found. So, Corrie offered Ben a souvenir. It was a fossilized shark’s tooth she’d had for some time, a prized possession. She gave it to Ben telling him that he could put that under his pillow for the tooth fairy. Ben was aghast. “I can’t put that shark’s tooth under my pillow. The tooth fairy will think I’m a vampire!” Good intentions persisted and Ben decided to use the shark’s tooth anyway. Just to be sure, he wrote a personal letter to the tooth fairy explaining all that had happened and, what started out as one disappointment after another turned into something very wonderful.

Which is meaning of the tooth parable. Had Ben not been elbowed in the mouth and lost his tooth in the sink causing the plumber to climb under the house, well, none of us would like to think about what could have been had the gas leak not been discovered. The icing on the disappointment turned hope cake was that all of this created an opportunity for big sister to prove her compassion.

That is all the scripture is encouraging us to see. That what can at first cause us to be so very disappointed can, if we will let the grace of God have its way, come to be seen as nothing more than a painful way hope finds its way into our lives. Sometimes life can be so very disappointing. But, we also have this eternal promise from God’s word. “We . . . boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us . . ..”

Since I first wrote that story something else has occurred to me. It’s the singing we do anyway, even after someone has kicked in our teeth, that is the sweetest melody.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Bag Lady

A dear friend is working hard to start a new church in a fast-growing suburban community. It’s a progressive Baptist church in an extremely conservative culture. No question his voice and that church are needed. It’s just a lot of hard, gut-wrenching work. It’s often a three-steps-forward-two-steps-back kind of life. As it turns out, in what is otherwise a very wealthy community, a bag lady is one of the founding members of his church

Starting a new church these days means that you will more often than not find yourself swimming upstream against the cultural tide of high demand for simple answers to complex questions and good feelings confused as worship. You find yourself trying to make it work in a world where even the most committed followers of Jesus are having a hard time figuring out how to “do church.” You have to watch carefully for those who will guilt you into selling your soul (and family) to the church.

Not in spite of, but, because of all of that, my friend is trying to start a new church. Now, a new baby is on the way. The cost of failure just went up substantially. No one would ever blame him for working hard, real hard. The need to provide for one’s family and not fail God mixed together at the same time, working for a living where you also try to worship, can be a spiritual toxin.

By his own admission, he found himself not able to shut off his mind even when we was at home. Which means, his wife felt a little neglected. She knew he was worried. She wanted to support him. She also wanted him. One day, she found a way of both blessing him and getting his attention at the same time. “If you ever decide you have to leave town,” she told him, “I’m the only person in the world who will pack her bag to go with you.” The bag lady is his wife.

After he told me that story I tried counting how many people would pack their bag to follow me if I ever left town. It didn’t take long. On the other hand, if you have only one bag lady, or bag man, in your life, you are a very wealthy person.