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.