Tuesday, November 16, 2010


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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 2, 2010


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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

I Will Love You Again

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Feel Like Crying

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 18, 2010


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Just Passing By

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Storm Scars

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

My Journey Toward God

Last Sunday, part of our worship experience included a time for a “Blessing of the People.” The entire service was structured around the power of words, beginning with the thought that words are themselves deeds. They are deeds that create or destroy. Before I got to the text for the morning from James 3:1-10, I asked the people to take just a moment to bless each other.

I wasn’t sure anyone would participate. Being a small congregation does tend to facilitate this kind of experience but I was still concerned that people might feel intimidated. I couldn’t have been more wrong. People were hungry to bless each other. As soon as I described what we were attempting, just to say a kind or affirming word about someone else present in the congregation that morning, people started blessing each other left and right.

Some of the blessings were humorously warm. Others were surprisingly personal and beautifully sentimental. All of them were moving. Before long, someone had gotten a box of Kleenex and started passing it around. People were as moved by giving the blessings as they were by receiving them. Even when I tried to bring the whole thing to a meaningful conclusion, people continued to raise their hands for the opportunity to say a good word about someone else.

One of the last to speak was eleven year-old, sixth-grade, Taylor. Her blessing was different than anyone else’s in part because it wasn’t for any one person in particular. It was a blessing to her church, her faith community. She said, “I want to thank everyone here who has been a part of helping me on my journey toward God.”

Her words stunned me, literally. “My journey toward God,” Taylor said. All these years I’ve been preaching, teaching or writing about what it means to be a believer, or to be “saved” or to be a follower of Jesus, always looking for the best way of describing this thing called faith. In those few, very simple words, Taylor said it all.

Faith isn’t a structured set of ideas about God. I keep forgetting that. I keep wanting to tweak my thoughts about God into perfect form, like maybe God will think more highly of me if I can think more deeply about him. That’s a frustrating way to live.

Taylor reminded me that faith is a journey toward God, a pilgrimage toward a deeper way of living and loving both God and those on the journey with me. Church is what happens when two or more people on that same journey get together and just help each other along, on their journey toward God.

Thank you, Taylor. You have blessed me more than you can know, even as I tell everyone else what you said when we really had church last Sunday, and you helped me on my journey toward God.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Even When We Make Mistakes

This past Sunday morning, in lieu of our normal worship service, the youth of Grace Fellowship presented a play in a dinner theater setting. It was one of those priceless projects where, with the exception of the catered Italian meal of salad, bread, ricotta-packed lasagna and chocolate cake, as well as the professionally written play, everything was produced in house.

The cast of some fifteen, with the exception of two adults, was made up entirely of our kids. The other adults pitched in with logistics and background, props and decoration, publicity and food service. It was wonderful to watch the way it all finally came together, with the largest attendance to date crammed into our small worship space around well-decorated card tables and metal folding chairs.

Last night, we had a cast party at our house and I was reminded of how it once felt to be young. After wolfing down home-grilled cheeseburgers, chips and dips and freshly baked chocolate chip cookies, all washed down with ice-cold soft drinks, the whole group went outside and played a long, hot, sweaty game of football. I mean, throw-‘em-to-the-ground-like-rag-dolls football. Girls were neither shown nor showed mercy.

It was brutal and hilarious. Their laughter chased off all the deer and echoed across the 18th fairway the kids had commandeered for the game. To my knowledge, even after that big meal, not one of them puked, or hurt. How do they do that?

I stood by, laughing at the game while choking back joyful tears behind a smile as broad as the sunset. These kids love each other. They know what faith community means. They call me, their pastor, “Papa Schmuck,” and I love it. I was tear-smiling because I was trying to find adequate words to thank God. To thank the God who has blessed me by allowing me to share these young lives for this ever-so-quickly passing season of life, and how they have blessed my life in ways they could never, ever imagine.

Somehow, I was able to corral their sweaty hides back inside for a few minutes of celebration. I asked the kids to each share their favorite line from the play, either theirs’ or someone else’s. I haven’t laughed that hard in a long time. Some of those lines will be our favorite pet phrases for a long, long time.

I also asked them to share what they felt was the best part of the whole five-month experience. Thomas, one of the youngest, raised his hand and said, “It was really cool the way we just kept going even when we made mistakes.”

That was the best sermon I heard all day long. Up until the day before the performance, some of us were still struggling with our lines and cues. Everyone was nervous. Then, it was time, ready or not.

We made mistakes. Some lines were either forgotten or someone would just pole-vault right over a cue, leaving the cue-less to make it up as they went along. In the end, by the mercy of God, it all came to its purposeful conclusion, to thunderous and sincere applause.

Thomas was right. The best part was when we made mistakes and just kept going. Isn’t that the only way to live?

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Friends and Tears

Our community has been hammered by the death of four young boys, all sophomores in high school, in a tragic automobile accident a few days ago. Two of the boys were twins, the only children of their parents. They were all skateboard fans and were on the way home from a skate park when the accident happened. Two died at the scene and the other two were dead just a few hours later.

I remember the death of a guy named Johnny when I was in high school. He was about sixteen when he died from suffocation. He was experimenting with an inhalant to get high. The inhalant coated his lungs like lacquer, a doctor later said. He died in the back seat of a car driven by friends who didn’t even know he was in trouble until it was too late. One of those guys has never fully recovered even though that was forty years ago.

I still remember the sick feeling inside when I heard the news of Johnny’s useless death, the hollowness, the fear, the slug-in-your-face reminder that life is so fragile, even when it’s just beginning, that some mistakes are fatal. I remember the church being packed the day of his funeral, the open wailing of his girlfriend that could be heard by everyone throughout the sanctuary. This week’s car wreck takes me back. I didn’t know the boys. My heart aches for those who did know them and can’t hold back the tears. Tears that express a pain too deep and too confusing to express in words.

Last night, as we were preparing for a youth play rehearsal at church, I expressed my condolences to a young man who knew the boys well. As I put my hand gently on his shoulder, he broke into tears, a quiet sobbing. There were several other young people sitting at the same table with us. When the young man started crying, something incredible happened. The table grew absolutely silent. No one said a word.

I’ve never seen such unspoken compassion. It was an eerie kind of beautiful. It wasn’t anything anyone said. There was nothing to be said. Death hurts. It hurts every time, but especially so when it’s a senseless death, a useless loss of precious life, times four. It was just the silence. Silence that went on for at least three or four minutes, uninterrupted. The only sound in the room was the quiet sobbing of the young man whose heart was so broken.

Several others had tears in their eyes. I could tell they were hurting, too, but, it seemed, as much for the young man at the table as for the four who died. It’s hard for a man to cry, especially in front of others. Unless those others are friends to whom you can entrust your tears.

Death is a sad darkness. It is so final. In some cases, like when four friends were just going home from skateboarding, it seems so useless and meaningless. Death always transfers a terrible pain to the shoulders of those left behind. Death always leaves unanswered questions. When there are no answers, the only thing we can do is what those kids did last night, respect and safeguard the tears of those whose shoulders now bear the unbearable pain of permanent loss.

When that pain is mine to bear again, I hope I have friends like I saw last night. Friends who just sit and listen as I cry. There is no better friend than one to whom you can entrust your tears.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Just For One

The day before Easter, while their California family was vacationing in New York City, two-year old Bridgette Sheridan slipped away from her dad’s hand and fell twenty feet into the ice-cold East River. Another man saw the little girl in the water, thinking at first it was a doll, not a person. When it occurred to him what had actually happened, he pulled off his coat and jumped into the water without even thinking.

The stranger reached Bridgette even before her father, David Anderson, who had followed him into the water. While her dad held Bridgette above the water, the mystery man held onto both of them so that they wouldn’t be carried away by the current. Rescuers soon arrived and all three were pulled to safety.

Once out of the water, the unknown rescuer, dripping wet, hailed a cab and disappeared into New York City traffic, not even waiting long enough for anyone to get his name much less thank him. This past Tuesday the mystery man was identified as Juilen Duret, a tourist from France, where he was finally tracked down. When asked about his bravery and his willingness to risk his life for one little girl whose name he didn’t even know, his response was, “I’m just happy the family has been reunited.”

Jesus once said something about a shepherd leaving ninety-nine sheep in order to go after one sheep that was lost (Matthew 18, Luke 15). It’s not that the ninety-nine didn’t matter. It was simply Jesus’ way of saying that the only way ninety-nine can matter is if one matters. Even the number one billion is nothing more than a billion ones.

The 60’s/70’s rock group, Three Dog Night, made fame and fortune with their lyrics, “One is the loneliest number.” Jesus might sing, “One is the onliest number.” Virtually all of Jesus’ miraculous and redeeming encounters were not with the masses but with individuals, one-on-one, one at a time.

In so very many churches today, empty pews mock the church’s worn-out methodologies for reaching the masses. Maybe one good result of that will be that we will once again discover the importance of one. One life. One soul. One heart. One name. Just one. One God saving all of humanity, one soul at a time.

When large crowds have failed to show up to hear me preach, one of the worst responses of which I’ve been guilty is to let my preoccupation with those who didn’t show up cause me to overlook the ones who did. The easiest and, in some ways, the most evil of my responses to the numbers is to let their smallness define me to myself as insignificant.

Just this week, I got a call. One friend from another time and place was calling for advice about how to take the next step in the Journey. I’m pretty sure it was the Holy Spirit who tapped me on the shoulder, reminding me to pay attention to that one phone call. To let it remind me that, just like the stranger who jumped into the river and risked his own life for one little girl, God always measures the work of God’s eternal kingdom in terms of one.

Miracle of miracles, God let me share in the count, that one day, in the life of that one. As I shake myself dry from having jumped into the very same river from which I was once rescued, to help someone who felt they were drowning, my heart is full and bursting with joy.

I’m one whom God once took the time to save. Then, God let me jump into the river, too. Just for one. Is there any bigger number than just one?

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Stale Wafers

One Sunday morning I asked another minister to lead the Lord’s Supper during worship. The young man did a great job of helping us prepare our hearts for receiving the meal, just not our palates. Seated with the congregation, I took a wafer when the tray passed my way and, exercising good communion etiquette, held it until all were served. At the appropriate time, I slid the wafer into my mouth.

What happened next is hard to describe. The wafer was so old it surely dated back to the first-century church. It was so dry and pasty that it instantly sucked all the moisture out of my mouth, causing me to pucker, sucking both cheeks almost inside out.

I turned to a young couple seated nearby, Kayce and Neal, and saw Kayce puckering up, too. As best I could, I quietly puffed out to her, “That is one nasty Lord’s Supper wafer.” She whispered back, “Have you ever tasted a good Lord’s Supper wafer?” It occurred to me that I never had asked for seconds at the Lord’s Supper.

It also made me wonder how the bread must have tasted to Jesus the night he first took what we now call the Lord’s Supper. It was a meal he felt compelled to serve and receive, not one he seemed to particularly relish. After all, it was his body, he said, broken for those who needed its forgiving power.

In his remarkable work, The Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard postulates that “the most telling thing about the contemporary Christian is that he or she simply has no compelling sense that understanding of and conformity with the clear teachings of Christ is of any vital importance to his or her life, and certainly not that it is in any way essential. The practical irrelevance of obedience to Christ accounts for the weakened effect of Christianity in the world today.”

In other words, taking Jesus’ supper at church is one thing, but actually surrendering ourselves daily to the same death Jesus called us to share with him just doesn’t make practical sense. Isn’t that taking things a little too far? Forgiving others as God has forgiven us? Praying for our enemies instead of avenging ourselves? Selling off our stuff and giving the proceeds to the poor? Dying to self, whatever that actually means? Well, those things just aren’t palatable to our ever-refined taste for good living. A good living to which we’ve increasingly grown accustomed to believe we’re entitled, not in spite of our faith, but, because of it.

I’ll never forget that nasty wafer and the way it was almost too hard to swallow. Jesus never forgot either and, having choked down his last earthly meal ever, he then said, Eat this stale bread, “in remembrance of me.”

We can’t really celebrate, or experience, the resurrection to a truly good life until we observe and surrender to the stale death that made resurrection possible, and still does.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Easter Patience

There’s a growing sense of excitement, even impatience, as people await the arrival of spring, the season that teases us the most each year. Birds are singing their springtime medleys, perched upon branches filled with blossoms of red, white and purple. Flowers have started peeking out of their underground winter homes. Easter is just around the corner.

With new life bursting out everywhere, we’re filled with a stubborn sense of anticipation, awaiting the opportunity of witnessing God’s annual reminder that life always overcomes death. Then, just about the time we think we’ve turned the final corner coming out of winter, another cold front blows through and we’re left to wonder if the skies will ever clear and the earth will ever warm again.

Waiting patiently. That’s the hard part. That’s the Easter discipline. “If we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience” (Romans 8:25, NRSV). Not that we’re expected to just sit on our hands until God proves our hope true with our own resurrection from the dead. Quite the opposite, we’re compelled to work like the resurrected people we are now for what is eternally good.

Impatience is born of futility, the sense that what we’re doing now is just biding our time until something better comes along. It’s born of a sad cynicism, most often fostered exclusively at church, that only when the clock starts on eternity, as in future time, will anything really matter. Yet, waiting with patience as we hope for what we do not see means laboring now in the faith that working on what we can see matters in ways we cannot see, in eternity present and eternity future.

Easter patience means believing in the worth of this moment, even as we wait for the new thing God is about to do. It means loving and forgiving, working for justice and peace now, sharing our hope in Christ that sin is forgiven, now and forever. Easter patience means leaning into this day’s work even as we keep our eyes on the eastern horizon, watching for the day when God will bring God’s kingdom to be on earth even as it is in heaven. Easter patience means trusting that eternal life is not just about going to heaven after we die to live there forever, but, instead, that “eternity is now in flight and we with it” (Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy).

Easter patience means living a life fueled by the hope that eternity is not so much a heavenly moment that begins when all earthly clocks stop as much as it is a relationship with God now and forever, not limited by time or place. Patience, Easter patience, is both the “substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1, KJV) and, at the same time, the offspring of hope, the result of believing in each moment we live now for its own value and purpose. So that, even as I tend my earthly garden or love my wife or tend to the work of my earthly calling, I’m participating, even now, in God’s eternal plan.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Happy Marriages and Cattle Auctions

Last week, ABC’s, The Bachelor, aired its final episode of the spring season. If you’re not familiar with the plot, The Bachelor is a weekly series during which a well-tanned, chisel-jawed, six-pack bachelor is presented with several stunningly beautiful young ladies from which he gets to choose one he’d like to marry, before the season ends, of course, and it’s too late. The audience gets to watch in as the bachelor dates each of the girls, even as he closes the door on their love nest for a near-end-of-season romp in the sack. Each week, the bachelor eliminates one of the girls until there is only one left, the right one for him to marry.

Aside from the blatantly chauvinistic nature of the show, Bachelor is an interesting commentary on American cultural values. That sexual intercourse, for example, is just an extension of making out, the next natural thing to do in order to get to know each other better before making a marriage commitment. That one’s ability to perform sexually should be a standard part of the litmus test that helps us all decide if we’ve found the right person. Really?

Aside from treating women like cattle at a sale barn auction and devaluing sexual intercourse, it’s that “finding the right person” idea of marriage that is most troubling. The entire premise of the show, and too many marriages, is that happiness is based almost exclusively on finding the right person. All of which is based upon the assumption that happiness is a commodity, of sorts, outside of us, that can be acquired or possessed, like a piece of jewelry.

I know. Shows like Bachelor are about making money for networks struggling to stay afloat in this Internet, DVD, Netflix generation. They are about high-dollar marketing, finding out what the audience wants and giving it to them in non-judgmental, amoral HD. Shouldn’t it tell us something about ourselves, however, that researchers have done their homework and concluded that shows like Bachelor are what it takes to get and keep our attention? What should it tell us that Christian marriages dissolve at the same rate as non-Christian marriages? Is it possible that just being a Christian doesn’t guarantee happiness?

Marriage doesn’t make anyone happy. Marriage only provides an environment which exposes our depth of happiness, or lack of it. Happy marriages are not the result of finding the right person as much as they are about being the right person. Healthy people tend to attract other healthy people. Happy people tend to attract other happy people. Happy marriages happen to happy people.

We were created for more than just standing around at someone else’s auction, hoping the highest bidder comes along before it’s too late.

Monday, March 1, 2010


A week ago Monday, one of my wife’s colleagues at work had to take his young wife, the mother of their only baby, to undergo a double mastectomy. We're just heartbroken for them. The next day, after sitting with a woman at the hospital while her husband had surgery, I was getting on the elevator to go home.

Trying to get on the elevator behind me was a middle-aged Hispanic woman, in a wheelchair, missing both legs just below the knees, freshly bandaged. I’d already witnessed her missing one elevator as I was walking up. She didn't have anyone there to help her get to the elevator and get on fast enough. I got to hold the door for her and something inside of me felt warmer.

As I stood in the elevator, staring at the closed door, taking the six-second ride up from sublevel 2, I thought, "I am so blessed. I have a spectacular and beautiful wife who loves me without reservation, I have two sons who still enjoy talking to me. I have a job, a roof over my head, food on my table, my health and, not least, a great dog. Everything else, I mean everything, is gravy - just gravy.”

It put all of my anxieties of the week into perspective. I said to myself, "I will love this day. I will live it fully. I will choose peace over anxiety. I will rest in Nancy's love and in the love of the Jesus who brought us together. I will not wait until all the bills are paid, until I have perfect answers to every question and absolute guarantees to all the uncertainties. I will dance in the sunlight that is mine today!"

Suddenly, the elevator door opened and I was standing two floors higher than I had started out. Not a bad day at all.

Monday, February 22, 2010


Just the other day, a baby cardinal flew into our sunroom and got trapped, unable to find its way out. We’d left the door open so Sam, our Golden Retriever, could get outside and get some fresh air. We hadn’t counted on what could get in if Sam could get out. Open doors work both ways.

Before long, we noticed Sam going crazy. We rushed out only to discover that he had cornered a baby cardinal. A beautiful bird and very tiny. A blood-red beak, canvassed against smooth, mocha-brown feathers. It had found sanctuary behind a potted plant on a plant stand, just outside of Sam’s reach, where it sat motionless, paralyzed either by fear or injury or both. Nancy had already made it clear which one of us would have to put the bird out of its misery if it came to that. I owe her one baby bird, but that’s another story for another time.

To Sam’s dismay, I cupped my hands around the little bird and carried it outside. To my amazement, it didn’t fight me. I could only imagine how frightening my massive hands wrapped around it must have felt. Yet, it was almost like the bird knew I wanted to help and, so, surrendering to my power, it didn’t struggle. It let me carry it outside and set it down in the grass where, just a few moments later, it took flight into the freedom of the sky.

If baby cardinals are hatching, Spring must be near. Easter is coming. Life always finds a way to trump death. Always.

Faith is when we stop fighting the God who has come to rescue us from death, even the paralyzing fear of it, and surrender to the same hands that were once nailed to a cross. What happens next is called hope, and the freedom to fly, our wings resurrected strong and high in the endless sky of God’s life-giving mercy and grace.

Monday, February 15, 2010


Over lunch at a steakhouse in Abilene years ago, I asked my friend Ron how he had survived the death of his four-year-old son a number of years before. His little boy had suffered from some kind of congenital heart defect and one day was just suddenly gone from Ron and Bobbie’s lives. At the time, I had two little boys of my own. The thought of losing one of them was simply incomprehensible and how a parent could endure such a loss even more so.

Ron was, and still is, one of the most mature, well-balanced, rock-solid Christians I’ve ever known. Frankly, when I asked the question, I expected his answer to have something to do with a particular Bible passage or prayer or something like that. And, I’m certain scripture and prayer played a significant role. Yet, his one-word answer caught me off-guard. I’d asked him how he had survived such an inconceivable loss and his simple answer was, “Friends.” Friends had become the presence of Christ to them, gotten under the load of an unbearable burden and carried the weight with them.

Jesus once said to his disciples, “‘I no longer call you servants . . . instead I have called you friends’” (John 15:15, NIV). Jesus thinks of me as his friend? That’s incredible! It occurred to me as I peer over the horizon into the possibilities of this new day that one of the most spiritual things I could do this week is seek to be a true friend to those with whom God gives me the privilege of sharing this journey.

When a man once got word that his father was dying, he went back home for one final visit. This is what he told his father as he lay dying. “You have always been there whenever any of us children needed you. And, across the years, you have given us the best single gift that any parent could give – you took delight in us. In all sorts of ways you let us know that you were glad we were here, that we had value in your eyes, that our presence was a joy and not a burden to you (John Claypool, Stages, Word, 1980, p. 23).”

The definitions of friendship are hard to reduce to a simple list. I do believe that, according to Jesus’ own word, that must mean that he takes delight in us. In all sorts of ways he lets us know that he is glad we are here. We have value in his eyes and our presence is a joy, not a burden to him.

How I thank God for my friends! How I pray that I might be that kind of friend to even one person this very week!