Tuesday, December 15, 2009


I’m convinced that, when observing the lives of others, there is a story we know and then there is another story behind the story that we don’t know and may never know. When a man is walking with a limp, we assume there is a childhood injury in his past, or maybe a birth defect, or, maybe he was driving drunk one night and caused a terrible accident and suffered a permanent injury himself. The point is, we rarely ever know the story behind the story. That’s why judgment is God’s business and God’s business alone. Only God knows the whole Tiger Woods story, and the story behind the story.

Besides that, it’s been my experience that, when I’m busy pointing the judgmental finger at someone else’s moral failure, I’m not paying attention to my own steps. Which means that I run the risk of stepping in the very same pothole as did the one I’m judging. Judgment is God’s business.

Which doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be discerning and doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have boundaries and certainly doesn’t mean we shouldn’t hold people accountable. It just means that we never know the whole story, and probably never will.

In the meantime, there is a silver lining in the cloud that will now shadow Tiger Woods the rest of his life. All of this outrage over his infidelities ought to tell us something. It would appear that, despite what we see on television or in the movies, by and large, as a culture, we still hold certain values to be dear. Like marriage instead of just cohabitation. Like marriage instead of divorce. Like staying faithful to your spouse. It would appear that adultery is not all it’s cracked up to be. Like a good habanera pepper, the first taste may be great but the painful kick on the backside just isn’t worth it.

Honestly, I’m disappointed in Tiger Woods, not because he’s Tiger but because of what his choices will mean for so many people. At the same time, my heart breaks for him and his family. He apparently made some terrible choices. I can only wonder what would have become of my life if I had been worth $1 billion by the time I was 30. Not many people ever have the maturity to handle that kind of prosperity well. Is there any chance we can learn something from all of this about the dangers of the false gods of fame and fortune that too often distract us from God?

My only job now is to let all of this serve as a reminder to pay attention to my commitments and responsibilities. All of us are, every day, only one step away from taking a step from which we could never publicly recover. I’ve got all the prosperity and responsibility I can handle. Managing my own life is a full-time job.

Monday, October 26, 2009

When Worship Just Happens

Sunday evening, after the youth Bible study concluded, we were all walking out to our cars when a car I didn’t recognize pulled onto the lot, backing up to the salt store next door. I decided to just wait a couple of minutes, let the driver get his salt and then follow him off of the lot, locking the drive-through gate behind him.

Instead, as the driver got out of his car, he walked straight toward me, asking as he walked, “Are you the pastor here?” I barely finished telling him my name when he asked, “I was wondering if I could ask you to pray for me?” Just a couple of days before, he’d been involved in a terrible car crash. The wreck was the other driver’s fault and he had died instantly. The total stranger standing before me was still visibly shaken at having seen it all, so much so that he was willing to ask a total stranger to pray for him.

Earlier that day, I’d left church feeling a little frustrated. Among other things, like asking people to “bow their eyes and close their heads” during the invitation, instead of the other way around, I had also forgotten to take my Bible to worship. I intended to read the gospel as part of my message but instead found myself standing there asking if I could borrow someone else’s Bible. Worship had not gone like I planned.

Praying with a total stranger wasn’t exactly how I planned to end the day, either. Yet, praying with that man turned out to be one of the most meaningful experiences of worship I had all day.

There is worship that we plan and there is worship that just happens. I’m so glad things don’t always turn out the way I plan them.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Tooth Fairy

If you have followed my blog, you may remember this blog from July, 2008. It continues to be one of my very favorite stories. I share it again because I can't help but think of all the people I know who need hope this morning.

In another time and place, 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. Pain aside, 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!” His sister’s 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.

One of the greatest and recurring themes of God’s word, from cover to cover, is the promise 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. Even so, 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 . . ..”

Hope never disappoints because disappointment is just hope’s doorway into our lives.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

God Knows

In a moment freeze-framed only in the electrical synapses of memory from nearly twenty years ago, I’m standing beside a professor’s desk at John Brown University in northwest Arkansas. The professor was giving his new pastor the nickel tour. Just above his desk, already overcrowded with work from the new semester, hung a plague that quietly whispered above the clutter, “Happiness is someplace to belong, something to do, someone to love.”

I’ve never been big on theology or politics that can be reduced to a bumper sticker or a plaque. That day, though, I was reminded yet again that something doesn’t have to be complicated or sophisticated to be true. Common sunsets and tiny green-breasted hummingbirds’ wings, the loving sparkle in my wife’s eyes and the joy in a friend’s voice, all announce the presence of incomprehensible and creative love, any day I’m willing to look, or listen.

Jack Dorsey never dreamed that his simple e-networking brainstorm with a very common name, Twitter, would, be worth $1 billion, only thirty-six months after his first tweet. All he’s done is find a way of marketing a product designed to address a need as old as creation. By the millions and counting, people are tweeting and facebooking proof that, no matter how big or complicated our world becomes, the greatest of human needs include belonging, doing and loving.

In the very first book of the Bible, just barely above the din of creation itself, God’s sentiment is poignantly stated in only nine little words. “It is not good that man should be alone.” Centuries later, Jesus’ response to the dilemma of human isolation was what is now commonly known as the “church.” Some have given up on the church because it’s too human, as though it could be anything else, as in “non-human.” Yet, despite all of its failings, that’s what keeps me coming back, the voice of Holy God speaking hope right into the middle of all of this humanity. Even my creator knows that I need someplace to belong, something to do and someone to love. That’s what keeps me coming back, specifically to the church. I know God knows that. I know God knows!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


When Carol walked into the church office that day some twenty years ago, she had the misfortune of running into a very immature youth minister who had yet to learn that a man should never ask questions about a woman’s clothing, ever. We may have walked on the moon but in the entire history of the human race no way has yet been invented for a man to safely ask questions about what a woman is wearing or why.

Carol happened to be wearing a moo-moo that day, one of those tent dresses designed to cover everything without revealing anything of the form it’s covering. “I didn’t know you were pregnant,” I said to Carol, my mouth open just wide enough for my size 12 loafer to fit comfortably inside. “I’m not,” Carol said, rather plainly, staring right through me.

At this point, you’d think that I would know enough to shut up and look for a safe exit, both from the conversation and the room. Instead, like a snake disjoints its jaw in order to swallow a much larger animal whole, I opened my mouth even wider, enough for my other size 12 to fit comfortably inside, too. With both feet firmly in place, nestled next to my out-of-control tongue, I followed the first question with one just like it. “Then, why are you wearing a maternity dress?” I asked.

It’s a real witness to Carol’s maturity that all she said next was, “It’s not a maternity dress,” no expletives added for emphasis. It was a real witness to my immaturity that my judgment of her life’s condition was based solely on what I could see.

“The Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7, NRSV). Very early on, most of us learn how to disguise what we’re thinking or feeling by changing our outward appearance, chameleon-like, depending on the crowd we’re with. Too bad that, just as early on, we don’t learn to see others as God sees us, from the inside out, not the other way around.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Super Glue

It wasn’t until after I dropped my Blackberry the third time that I finally learned that the devices aren’t made of rubber. When I went to holster it and it wouldn’t fit, I realized it was bent (read: broken) out of shape. It didn’t seem like there was anything wrong that a little Super Glue wouldn’t fix.

Super Glue people must assume that even an amateur handyman knows some basics. At least the $1.05 tube didn’t come with instructions. Like, about the value of punching a good hole in the end of the needle-pointed glue squirter before you squeeze. If you don’t, when squeezed, the glue will get out one way or another. If there’s no hole, it will make a hole wherever it wants, usually squirting out all over whatever fingers are holding the tube and all the while making a sound similar to a flatulent lawnmower that just won’t start!

After I had Super-glued my right thumb and forefinger to the tube, gotten a nice smear of the stuff on my desk pad and a healthy Super-glue thumbprint on the face of the phone, I finally got a drop where I needed it most. But, by the time I could free my thumb and finger and push the broken pieces back together, the glue was already set. My phone is fixed, sort of. Like my golf game, it now has an oversized handicap. It’s fixed, but it will never be the same.

A friend in another city is married to a man who broke their marriage badly. She’s trying but it’s already been years now and, to say the least, the marriage is terribly bent out of shape (read: broken). It’s just that marriages aren’t like phones. When you drop them and they break, you can’t just glue the pieces back together and then go on, as though nothing ever happened.

It’s been a costly lesson, and a painful one at that. Some things can’t be fixed (read: unbroken). They can only be forgiven.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Beau Dog

Beau died July 11. He was, among other things, a fourteen year-old, blonde, thirty-pound Cocker Spaniel-Golden Retriever mix. He was so much more than that though. Clichés aside, Beau was one of my best friends.

Whenever I doubted the presence of God in this world or in my life, a brief glimpse into Beau’s big brown eyes reminded me of our mutual creator. I made many confessions to Beau. When confession was too hard, he’d curl up beside me, rest his head on my chest and close his eyes, as though absorbing into himself whatever was hurting me. The presence of God, in a dog?

Beau gave no warning of needing to leave. So, I was taken aback early that scorching Saturday evening when I heard an unusual noise that included the violent shaking of Beau’s tags. I looked up to see him writhing on the kitchen floor, obviously suffering some kind of seizure. I rushed to him. Nancy was outside. I yelled for her so loudly that I’m sure someone in Des Moines heard it. I was praying that Nancy, being a nurse, might be able to do something to save our friend. It was not to be. By the time she could get there, Beau’s eyes were fixed. He’d already let out some kind of soulful wail, as though he knew he had to go and was saying goodbye. In no more than two minutes, Beau was gone, fourteen years of love slipping through my helpless, powerless fingers, just like that.

Standing over Beau’s lifeless body, I was reminded of the words of an older friend as he reflected on his own life’s fleeting moments. “We cannot hold onto life,” he said. “We can only kiss it as it passes by.” Just this morning, I read Martin Luther’s similar confession. “Many things I have tried to grasp, and have lost. That which I have placed in God’s hands I still have” (Jan Karon, Patches of Godlight, Penguin, 2002).

Later that evening, as Nancy and I laid Beau Dog on the doctor’s table, we bent over and kissed his soft, furry head one more time. Just as I have with all those who matter more than life to me, I placed him in God’s hands one last time, entrusting to God what was never mine to hold onto in the first place.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Taking Out the Trash

Somewhere in a shoebox, there’s a picture of me taken by my dad when I was about fourteen or fifteen. I’m standing in the kitchen, near the backdoor that leads to the alley. My arms and hands are full of sacks of trash, collected from all over the house. It was my chore to carry the trash out to the alley at least once a week or whenever the trash cans in the house got full. I despised that chore. Maybe it was stubbornness or teenage rebellion or laziness, or, all of the above.

I just hated carrying the trash thirty feet to the alley. I’d wait until I absolutely had to carry it out then load my arms and hands as full as they could get. I only wanted to make the trip once. Without fail, trying to carry out that much trash at one time almost always led to disaster. One or more of the sacks would rip and trash would spill everywhere. Then, I’d have to clean up the mess and still carry it out.

Dad absolutely refused to do the chore for me. It was my trash to carry out. Sometimes, he would actually stand there and laugh at the mess my pride and stubbornness could make of things. He told me more than once that, “if you’ve got to carry out the trash, it’s better to keep it up to date, every day if necessary. Sure beats the alternative.”

Our souls get clogged with trash. Unconfessed sin. Fear. Anxiety. Unresolved anger. Disappointment that God has not answered our prayers the way we thought God should. It all adds up. If we wait too long before we dispose of soul trash, disaster can result. Some of the saddest people in the world are Christians whose joy has been robbed by souls too full of undisposed trash. Sometimes, it’s just been too long since our last confession and the soul cleansing that always comes with it.

Now and then, hot tears coursing down my cheeks, tears that seem to have no reason, and a sadness of soul like low-hanging, dark clouds of winter, remind me of that picture my dad took so many years ago, and the lesson he hoped it would always teach.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Bird On A Wire

Now and then, I ponder a bird on a wire. It doesn’t take much to get me intellectually stimulated. It’s just always fascinated me how a little bird can light atop a high-voltage wire without getting electrocuted.

My new friend and fellow faith-struggler, Dwayne Blevins, is more knowledgeable of all things electrical. An engineer by training and instinct, he’s been kind enough to fill in some of the blanks in the more simple explanation that the bird lives to chirp the story of its high wire act only because it’s never grounded. Dwayne kind of lost me somewhere in distinguishing amperage from voltage. My ignorance of something I trust every day to power virtually my entire world is truly shocking.

Turns out that the bird is floating atop a wire transmitting anywhere from 1,200 volts to some 300,000 volts, depending on how far that point on the wire is from its source. If the winged wonder were to reach across a very small expanse and grab another wire at the same time, it would close the circuit and be instantly vaporized in a white cloud of pulverized feather and beak. Remarkably, all of that voltage/amperage leaves the bird totally unaffected, as long as it doesn’t close the circuit.

From time to time, the memories of painful experiences from the past haunt me. Over time, I’ve observed the fact that those memories cause more pain at certain times than others. Sometimes, they feel like a slow, dull ache, like a bad bruise yet to fully heal. Other times, they feel like a terminal malignancy, slowly but surely growing to choke out my very life, deadening my soul and destroying any opportunities for loving the only life that is mine, the one right in front of my face. What makes the difference in how much pain the memories cause seems to have everything to do with whether or not I close the circuit.

When the painful current of a hurtful memory enters my heart, I can close the circuit by demonizing the person who sent it my way. Anytime we call someone by a name other than the one God has already given, we reduce the worth of that person to nothing more than the sum total of how much they hurt us. What a sad, egocentric existence! As though our comfort or pain were the center of the moral universe!

That’s why forgiveness that is waiting on an apology must be particularly nauseating to God. Forgiveness waiting on a down payment of contriteness is a forgiveness that has usurped God’s place. Indeed, it’s a not-so-subtle form of spiritual prostitution, as in, payment for services rendered. Why would we demand of others something as an exchange for our mercy that God has not required in order for us to receive God’s forgiveness (check it out – Ephesians 2:4-8)? Forgiveness waiting on an apology is nothing more than an empty piñata, the shell of religious piety void of any true holiness and only masquerading as Christianity.

None of us wants to be remembered for our worst missteps. Yet, when the memory of some hurt someone else put on us comes again, it feels so very good to lay the blame for all of our misery at their feet. Blaming really does feel good, but, just for a moment. In time, we cannot demonize others without demonizing ourselves. The moment we call someone else by the name we’ve given our pain is the moment that we close the circuit of unforgiveness and absorb into ourselves the lethal current of judgmental unforgiveness. To put it another way, no one ever pays a higher price for our unforgiveness than we do ourselves.

Or, we close the circuit by accepting the judgment of others as the final word about us. For whatever reason, when another person curses us, all they are doing is naming us after their own unresolved soul-killing pain. The curse of another has no power over us, unless we close the circuit by accepting it as the final word for ourselves. Someone once said that a false god is anyone or anything to whom we assign the power to declare our worth to us other than the God who first gave us life. The curse of others wounds so deeply only because we valued their blessing too much. We only need the complete blessing of others to the extent that we are lacking a sense of God’s blessing.

At Grace Fellowship, we’ve been pondering Jesus on a cross this past few weeks of Lent. About the way he, in fact, closed the circuit between God’s mercy-judgment and our sin. He took the lethal blow, absorbing into himself the penalty that should have been ours (Ephesians 2:14-18). Before he did, he told his disciples that anyone who ever wants to follow him must be willing to do the same, to climb upon their own personal cross of suffering forgiveness. Forgiveness always hurts. Wherever forgiveness has been extended, someone somewhere bled to make it possible.

Jesus died to complete the circuit between God’s mercy and our dead souls. Why can’t we just let Jesus’ work be what it is, enough forgiveness for all sin for all mankind for all of time (Romans 6:9-10)? Otherwise, when we close the circuit of unforgiveness, well, we’re mocking the cross as insufficient and also dying a death God never intended for anyone, even for those who, like me, are still struggling to learn the Jesus way of forgiving.

A bird on a wire. Jesus on a cross. Something to ponder just before Good Friday – and the Easter that follows shortly thereafter.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Six Mexicans

After months and months of restraining myself, I finally created a Facebook account. It’s been interesting, fun and even frightening. It’s been fun and interesting to make connection with old friends from three decades ago. It’s been frightening as I wonder about whether or not I look as old to all of my friends as they do to me. Just to be safe, I haven’t posted a picture yet.

Most of my old friends have some kind of roots in West Texas, where I was raised in a small farming community southwest of Lubbock. It was a great place to grow up. We could ride our bikes all over town and our parents never worried about us being safe, even after dark. Neighbors helped neighbors raise each other’s kids. Teachers could paddle their students without calling an attorney first and even expect the parents to back them up. The worst and only incident of school violence I remember didn’t occur until my sophomore year when a kid pulled a knife and cut the boy he was fighting. There was no such thing as a metal detector in the hallways.

The good old days weren’t all good, though. Back in the 60’s, whites represented seventy percent of the population in our little town of 10,000. The Hispanic population made up most of the rest with the exception of a few blacks. We didn’t call them Hispanics, though. We called them “messkins,” a short, stunted kind of pejorative with not-so-subtle racial overtones. If you were using the word as a put-down, you could put a wicked spin on the inflection and say it with disdain. Some whites even referred to the Hispanics as “chili chompers,” belittling their diet as racially inferior or “wetbacks,” belittling their presumed country of origin, even if they’d been born north of the Rio Grande. It hurts me now to even write words I dared not utter in my father’s presence back then. To my parents’ credit, racial pejoratives were the same as curse words, punishable by the fear of a near-death scolding that blistered worse than any switch pulled from a tree.

The blacks and the “messkins” knew their place. If they were good at sports, they were respected on the field or the court. After the game, though, they knew where they belonged and invisible lines just weren’t crossed. The old courthouse still had separate water fountains for the whites and the “coloreds.” It was assumed, of course, that white was the standard color and anything else was a substandard and sad freak of genetic misfortune. A full century after the Emancipation Proclamation, most small town governments and even Deacon Boards hadn’t gotten the memo. We even had a “messkin” Baptist mission church in Brownfield. They still do.

I always thought First Baptist started the mission in order to reach folks who wouldn’t feel comfortable in our white church. It never occurred to me until decades later when I was able to demythologize some of my childhood memories that some of those who started the mission weren’t being altogether altruistic. They wanted to start a mission, in part, to keep the invisible lines clearly drawn; they wanted the “messkins” to remember their place.

In too many ways, nothing much has changed. In my former church, two miles from downtown Dallas in the 21st century, I once asked our Hispanic Director of Community Ministries to pray in our Sunday morning worship service. She prayed beautifully in her native tongue, the words I couldn’t understand sounding more like a symphony of praise than any prayer I knew. The next week, I got a call from an older white woman complaining that those who prayed in our church should only be allowed to pray in the language of the tithing people.

Aside from her, too many of those who made up the “tithing people” still referred to the non-English-speaking Hispanics as “those people.” I never dreamed I’d hear such profanity in the house of God. I’m so glad the tithing lady wasn’t there to welcome the first wetbacks who survived the Atlantic crossing. She’d have had to deport herself back to her very white Europe, leaving the American continent to the redskins who beat her and the other white skins to it through the Bering Sea back door centuries before.

The other day, I got an email from an old friend I haven’t seen in over thirty years. She was telling me about a friend of hers whose daughter was killed in a tragic automobile accident. My friend described how a “pickup truck with six Mexicans” came over a curb, striking the young lady and killing her instantly, just weeks shy of her graduation from a prominent university with a 4.0. My heart is broken for the young lady and her family, for a promising life that will never be.

My heart hurt, too, because of the way the accident was described. A pickup truck with “six Mexicans.” I couldn’t help but wonder. If the pickup had been carrying six whites, would my friend have bothered to make the racial distinction? I wondered, too, if she even realized she’d made the distinction. Was the pickup truck more lethal because those driving and riding in it were people of another color than hers? Did she hear what she was saying?

Old ideas usually die long, hard, slow and, even brutal deaths. Gandhi’s sandals, eyeglasses, bowl and watch were auctioned off last week for some $1.8 million. Part of what makes them so valuable is the brutal death Gandhi suffered, giving his life to help old and very profane ideas about people die.

Jesus died a brutal death, too, in no small part due to his trying to take profane ideas people have about each other to his grave with him. I wonder how long it will be until we never again refer to another person by the color of their skin, or their sexual orientation, or their political or religious ideology. Will we ever? Will we ever just refer to each other as what we truly are, brothers and sisters for whom Christ also died?

The way we treat people usually begins with what we call them, or how we speak about them in their absence. I wonder what the names of those “six Mexicans” might be, and how they felt about their role in a tragic accident. We know their skin color. Who knows their names?

Jesus loves the children. All the children of the world. Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight. The dark-skinned Middle Eastern Jesus who spoke Aramaic loves all the children of the world and when he speaks, he calls them by name, not by color. So should we.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

A Far Away Hill

This past Sunday evening, Nancy and I watched a new HBO movie, “Taking Chance,” starring Kevin Bacon. It’s based on the true story of a twenty-year-old Marine private who was killed in Iraq in 2004, Chance Phelps, from Dubois, Wyoming. Bacon plays the role of Mike Strobl, the real-life Marine colonel who volunteered to escort Chance’s body back home for burial. The movie grew out of a journal that Strobl kept of the experience.

I had no idea what all went into escorting a slain soldier back home. If it was Strobl’s intent to educate us about what happens to all those young people who are otherwise just combat statistics he certainly succeeded, and then some!

I found myself being drawn into the deep sorrow and respect that accompanied the young Marine’s casket from one airport to another, from one hearse to another and then to the cemetery. As the movie draws to a close, there is one final, gut-wrenching scene where Bacon’s character stands alone, beside the casket at the cemetery. The twenty-one gun salute is over. The parents have received the American flag. Bacon stands there, speechless, as the casket seems to levitate over the black, hollow void of the empty hole.

The only noise is the sound of the wind as it blows a chain against the flag pole holding high the Stars and Stripes that Chance died to protect. Gray, dark clouds hang low over the wind-swept prairie. It’s almost as if nature is weeping, grieving the loss of such young life. Cemeteries have always seemed like lonely places. The wind never blows colder than it does after a funeral is over.

As we enter the season of Lent I find my mind being drawn into the dark void of the tomb that awaited Jesus and the sad irony that those who die for others often face such a dark, lonely resting place. Seeing “Chance” during this sacred season reminded me of a funeral I conducted for an old Marine almost exactly eight years ago. This is what I wrote the week after the funeral.

An old gospel hymn begins with these words, “On a hill far away.” Anyone born before 1970 can finish it from memory. Too bad those born since then cannot. As long as they know and never forget the meaning of the song, who cares what tune carries the words? As long as they never forget the meaning.

We buried Bill Curry this past week. I held my own at the funeral. It was just after the twenty-one-gun salute, when the stiffly starched Marine sergeant handed his widow, Jimmie, the neatly folded American flag, that I swallowed hard. Anyone who knew what that flag meant to Bill swallowed with me.

The evidence is in a scrapbook Bill kept. There he is, a stout and strong twenty-six-year-old Marine sergeant, standing atop Mt. Suribachi on February 24, 1945. He’d landed there, on Iwo Jima, with the 3rd Marine Division, done his job and then come home to raise a family.

On a hill far away, our Lord paid the price of our eternal salvation. On another hill far away, Bill and his comrades, many who never came home, paid the price of our national freedom. Both are hills most of us will never see. Nor do we have to. As long as we never forget the meaning.

Thursday, February 5, 2009


Only on what I consider a dare from a very close friend, who happens to be the Editor of a distinguished religious publication and whose initials are MK, do I publish the following blog. Thanks, Marv, for whatever credit or otherwise may come my way on this one. Like more and more of my blogs, it’s something of a composite of emails I’ve sent back and forth.

About a year ago, I was sitting in an airport with a friend who happens to work with the Baptist General Convention of Texas. We'd gone into a bar to get a coke. It was packed. It was humid and the air was hanging heavy. It was one of those times when, at the end of a long, hot and sweaty day, everyone was just trying to get home. One of those towns where Mexican food rules and people eat like there’s no tomorrow. While we were talking, this truly unbelievably wicked fart came wafting by. It lingered for what seemed like forever.

You know, a fart is its own form of nasty. When a fart comes along and lingers at half the speed of smell, no one has to ask, "Is that a fart?" In the real world, no one asks, “Who cut the cheese?” No one says, “Someone stepped on a duck!” No audible warning whatsoever and we were suddenly and unexpectedly overwhelmed by a biologic that could at least stun the enemy on any battlefield. No matter where you are, no matter the company or the country, when someone farts, everyone knows someone farted. For the record, elevators are the worst.

It finally got so bad that I had to say something and then tell my friend (name omitted for the sake of presumed innocence), I had to get some fresh air. As we were getting up, my supposedly innocent friend exclaimed out loud, so that the guilty party could at least know he or she had been sniffed out, "Someone ought to take credit for that one!"

Some months later, I’m sitting in a very nice restaurant after worship on Sunday. Our company included two people from our church and two distinguished (by that, I mean, really nice people) guests from out of town. It was a very nice place with well-dressed people. We were enjoying a wonderful conversation over a very nice meal. Whatever thoughts we had about dessert were soon to evaporate in a climate change that would make global warming jealous!

An indescribably wicked fart came wafting our way, then lingered for what seemed like forever. I put my hands up to my face, feigning a gesture of contemplation, but, solely meant for self-preservation. If a waiter had been close by with a lighter, I’m certain he could have lit the air bright orange, or worse. We all tried to carry on like nothing had happened although, unless someone was already half-embalmed, they smelled what I smelled. It was brutal. Sulfuric acid comes to mind, like in high school when we’d pour the stuff down the sink just to watch the yellow gas waft up from the drain.

Every part of me wanted to stand up and yell out loud, “Someone ought to take credit for that one!” Shouldn’t they? As Benjamin Franklin once wrote, we should “fart proudly.” Don’t do it if you aren’t willing to own it. Although, I will admit that, with older age, willing not to fart is less and less an inalienable right.

Not bad advice for this “please-bail-me-out-blame-anyone-but-me” culture. I’ve thought about asking my church to apply for federal bailout funds. I’ve told them I’d be willing to set my salary cap at $500,000. A silent but deadly response is all I've received.

The bottom line, no pun intended, is that there are too many hot-gassed fart-heads running things these days - and not enough willing to take
credit for their own stink!

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Perfect Mate

More often than not, I learn what I believe by listening to myself explain it to others. There’s almost certainly a name for that disorder, I’m just not familiar with it since I’ve never heard myself use it.

Over coffee the other day, I heard myself telling another man what may well be the most significant thing I’ve learned about marriage, indeed, about life from marriage. In our youthful days, we tend to think of marriage as a point of arrival. A point in time in which the person who will make us completely happy finally wises up and decides to share the privilege of our life’s journey with us. Therein lie the seeds of the destruction of most marriages.

In truth, marriage is not a point of arrival. It is a point of departure. The traditional wedding vows hint at that. Most of us need more than a hint. We need a two-by-four between the eyes to get our attention.

Secondly, marriage is not the completion of a journey to discover our perfect mate for life. Marriage is the opportunity, if not the commitment, to learn what it means to become the perfect mate. The reason our mates often piss us off so badly is because they’re just doing their job, giving us the chance to grow up. A process which can only begin once someone has demonstrated to us how much growing up we are yet to achieve. In time, children come along to take up any slack in the process our mates started, the process of learning to face our own immaturity and childishness. That’s another blog, though.

Most marriages won’t survive the unrealistic expectations two people carry to the altar and then spend their best energies putting on each other, starting a week or maybe two after the honeymoon. We get lots of hints throughout our lives that no other person in this world can make us happy. Again, hints rarely work. Too often, over fifty percent of the time in first marriages, even among Christians, it takes the two-by-four of watching of our mate’s butt clear the door on the way to anywhere not with us to get our attention.

Now and then, someone is fortunate enough to actually get to the altar having already learned not to demand of anyone what only God can give the human soul: joy, and its third cousin twice removed, happiness. The fact is, if we don’t arrive at the altar fundamentally at peace with ourselves, we’ll more likely than not spend the rest of our lives trying our best to make the unfortunate soul who put their clothes in our closet miserable with us. Misery doesn’t love company because misery can’t love, only destroy. Like C.S. Lewis, I think that hell will be the place where those who choose to go there discover just how alone they’ve always been. Is there any worse hell than loneliness? If we aren’t good company at the altar, there’s nothing our mate can do to change that, other than prove to us what we never could accept about ourselves, our own lonely misery.

That’s because, long before marriage exposes any weakness in our mate, it exposes us for who we are. Our mate’s inability to make us happy simply provides the best reflection of our personal misery. If, in fact, if we did make a poor choice in a life’s mate, that only tells us more about ourselves than it does the one we chose to marry.

The corollary must also be true. If our choice of mates exposes us for who we are then I must be a much better man than I give myself credit for being. My wife is the best human being, the best Christian and the best friend I know, and, as she grows older, more and more the most beautiful person I ever laid eyes on (Thanks, Buddy Griffeth!). I must be something myself, right?

Now and then, I find myself listening to what I was saying out loud at the altar. Truth is, I wasn’t listening to me. I was too busy getting a buzz out of listening to Nancy spout her undying pledge of faithfulness and love to me. Wow! What a buzz! I can still feel it when I take the time to listen again. I’ve been learning since then that I wasn’t having an out-of-body experience at the altar. I was there, too. I should have been listening to me, too!

Marriage offers a much broader life lesson, too. Life’s happiness is not shaped out of what others give us. It is shaped within, out of the unspent fuel used to give ourselves away to others. Joy and happiness are the soul energy that flow back to us as we’ve worked at being the best person we can be, no matter how truly rotten others may prove to be. God’s greatest gifts come in the form of those God sends our way who are patient enough to join our journey with us and who keep giving us one opportunity after another to grow up.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

A Letter To Old Friends

First, I'll never think the same about church the rest of my life because of the influence you had on me. I suppose there is a way to read that humorously. I mean in it all sincerity. You four men personalized integrity, character, patience, hope, love and friendship, indeed, the Spirit of Jesus, in ways that few pastors ever experience. I was blessed to know and will always be blessed to count you as friends in the journey.

You challenged my theology and were, at the same time, willing to listen to my hair-brained ideas about God and church. You challenged me, more by example than by words, to reach for a level of excellence that rarely inspires most people in my profession. Cliff Temple was always an interesting blend of outworn carpets and dreams of excellence in the same place. Not many places you find both of those co-existing.

I had a great meeting this afternoon with the Chair of our Church Council. Over and over again I found myself referring to lessons I learned at Cliff Temple as touchstones for the new conversation we're having here. I find myself extremely disinterested in issues of governance - which is a very good thing - because these folks are very protective of their concept of a "lay-led" church. What they want and what I don't want seem to be a very good fit right now. For example: our church's process for selecting people to leadership positions is very fluid, if not loose, right now. A new man (a very good man) was added to the business committee and I found about it after the fact. That kind of thing. I'm just not worried about that anymore. Maybe I should be - I just don't have any heart for it anymore and these people know that and seem very happy about it.

Nancy and I miss our old house - which we still need to sell. Sam desperately misses his great big back yard. We miss our friends and being just around the corner from people. We love our new home, very much. You've heard me talk about the deer a lot. We're surprised at how attached we've become to them and how important it is to feed them. There are wooded hills in our window and we're anticipating a wonderful Spring of bluebonnets. I have to tell you that, honestly, I don't miss looking out my office window that fronted the back alley of Jefferson. I still can't believe God has blessed us with this opportunity - an incredible mix of what we believe in about church and our love for nature and animals at the same time. What more could I ask?

I'm learning to forgive - and to let go. I was very surprised to discover that a great deal of the forgiving I had to do was waiting on me until I got here. The two or three months we had in Dallas after I resigned were not nearly as difficult as the two or three months after I got here. I know it began to worry Nancy a great deal that I seemed stuck. And, I was. I didn't know why and, honestly, I don't know why now. Maybe someday I'll understand it all - you know, better, by and by. All I do know is that about two weeks ago I began to awaken to a new day in my life.

My latest blog, "Worth It," was my effort to express that. Those things I talk about in that blog are not just good memories. They are touchstones. They are mile markers along the road that remind me that the best things we do are often the things that, at the time, don't register as that significant. They are also places I go to touch in my heart that remind me that, when you love people as much as I always will many of the CT folks that let me into their lives, they are always with you - no matter where the road leads.

I've learned to accept the fact that, with some people at CT, I really blew it - more in little things along the way than in any one big thing. There were those who, for their own petty reasons, needed to hurt someone and I was convenient. I also made some huge leadership mistakes. I can see them now so clearly that I shudder to think how blind I could have been to them at the time.

I'm learning not to beat myself up so much - to learn from my mistakes - and to find some way of at least wanting to bless those who hurt me. Jesus' words on the night of the last supper haunt me when I'm unforgiving: "On the night he was betrayed, he took the bread and broke it . . .." I'm not to the point that I want to give those who sought my destruction a plaque at a banquet. But, I'm making progress. And, I've decided that, in this life, we can't ask for much more than progress - especially if it's in the right direction.

My prayer now is that someday I will love myself as much as Nancy loves me, which is the closest I think I'll ever come to knowing the love of Jesus in this life. She is, indeed, the presence of Christ to me. I'm not there yet, either. But, like the deer who come from hundreds of yards away when we put out the corn in the dusk of the day, I've sniffed the good thing in the wind and have turned my face that direction.

I listen to good music (secular and Christian, if there is actually a difference). I try to find a way of meeting someone new each week. I listen especially for those who seem to have lost their way. I'm making a place for myself at the Boerne Grill, where the older men meet for coffee every Thursday morning (go figure!). I thrill when I hear a nine-year-old boy say, "I like Grace Fellowship because I don't feel dumb when I talk there."

I try to say good and biblical words on Sunday. I try to stay true to the only Jesus I know. We had 58 a week ago Sunday - a record high. That means a lot and, at the same time, doesn't mean what it used to - if you know what I mean.

If that's even a small part of my contribution to the Kingdom - then, well, Thanks Be to God!

Thank you - for all you will always mean to me.

I love you all very much.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Worth It

Over the last couple of days, I’ve been having an email exchange with a good friend. He and I re-established a college-era relationship over the past ten years. He stood by Nancy and me during some very difficult times. In an effort to be understanding and compassionate, he made the comment that only I could know whether the total experience of my last pastorate was worth the painful departure that brought it to an end. Though it’s a much larger conversation than this space allows and with some editorial changes to protect the privacy of the unnamed, this is what I said in response.

It was worth it. It was worth it for the little four-year-old Hispanic boy who sat in Santa's lap in our fellowship hall one Saturday morning ten years ago and, when asked by Santa, "What do you want for Christmas?" he responded, "Love." Santa asked, "Who from?" The little boy said, "Anyone." Then, he disappeared, unnamed into the crowd, leaving us to forever wonder what came of his wish.

It was worth it to have Nancy plop a little diapered orphan in my lap in Riga, Latvia, the first orphan I ever held, and hear her say (because she saw my anxiety), "Get with the program, Schmucker!" It was worth it for that little girl to wet on my left forearm and find out that a little pee never killed anyone. It was it worth to hear ten-year-old Olga, taking my face tightly between her two tender little palms, and say while laughing, in her native Latvian, “I love you!” It was worth it for Inars and Rinalds, Liva and Madara and all the orphans we met (and whose faces appear to me every single day in deep places in my soul) and the incredible, truly Christian, servants of God who minister to them when we aren't there.

It was worth it to see 75 kids come to our building every day and get After School care and tutoring.

It was worth it to know an elderly patriot, who fought on Iwo Jima in 1945 and who finally laid his undeserved guilt down about that in my office just before he died five years ago.

It was worth it to stand in that pulpit and hear some of the best music I ever heard in my life and then feel the incredible challenge of preaching.

It was worth it to be there to walk with dozens of other people whose marriages ended in divorce and to be able to hold their hand and pray with them when human words just weren't adequate.

It was worth it to go the VA Hospital every single day the last two weeks of an old man's life. He was a member at Cliff Temple. No one knew him, though. His wife had Alzheimer’s and since they’d joined the church five years before in absentia, they’d never been able to attend. It seems that I was the only one who would hold his hand. It was worth it to hear this man who had always believed tell of how he was scared of dying, and to be able to know that something I said seemed to comfort him, and encourage him that it was OK to go ahead and let go. That when he let go on this side, Jesus would be there to catch him on the other side.

It was worth it to be there that day in my office when a very successful and very bright forty-something dad discovered that believing and doubting are one in the same. Worth it to hear him say to me that, if I could have doubts about God and still be a pastor, then he could be a believer. Worth it to then baptize him and his ten-year-old son together in the same baptistery soon after.

It was worth it to meet, know and walk with scores of others who will always rate as some of the finest human beings and Christians I've ever known in my life. To have them hold me accountable to my own preaching and then also walk together with me when our faith got stretched to the breaking point, only to discover that's what happens when your faith is growing, not dying.

It was worth it to be close enough to your office to have lunch with you and establish a friendship that will last a lifetime.

It was worth it to discover, on what was nearly my death bed, what it means to have friends, friends who will never, ever abandon you. Worth it to hear Nancy say to me through the fog, "You're going to be OK."

It was worth it. And, that's also why it will always hurt at least a little. If it didn't hurt, it didn't mean anything. That it hurts reminds me how important it was. In time, I'll remember the things that made it worth it more than the things that hurt. I truly do believe that.