Tuesday, December 23, 2008

No Small Thing

The other day, I was helping our youngest son find a page to color in a Bible-based coloring book. As we flipped through the pages, we came to a depiction of Moses and the burning bush. Something struck me as unusual about the picture, so I took a closer look.

The burning bush was there, Moses was there, "authentic" clothing, walking stick, movie-star hair, everything you would expect.

But one thing was a little odd: the expression on Moses' face. The picture showed Moses approaching the burning bush with one hand raised as in greeting, with a grin on his face from ear to ear, as though he had just run into an old friend in the airport and couldn't have been more delighted.

Somehow, I doubted this was Moses' actual state of mind at that moment, and a review of Exodus 3 confirmed my suspicions.

The scene in the text is quite different from the coloring book version. In the text, Moses approaches the bush out of curiosity, is commanded to remove his sandals out of respect for holy ground, and hides his face for fear of being in the presence of God.

Moses does not respond with enthusiasm to the message given to him from the burning bush. In fact, Moses tries everything he can think of to persuade God to go find someone else for this mission of freeing God's people from slavery.

The scene continues with two miraculous signs that terrify Moses: his staff turning into a serpent, which he then has to pick up, and his hand becoming leprous and returning to normal. And, to top it all off, Moses is told he will have the opportunity to threaten the life of Pharaoh's firstborn son.

We know the rest of the story.

Moses' call at the burning bush results in the rest of his entire life being given to the service of God and His people. And this time is not filled with delight. In fact, the hardship far outweighs the pleasure. The burden is heavy, the people are ungrateful and disobedient, and Moses does not always feel the mission is worthwhile.

Yet his work was necessary. He ushered God's people from one point in their history to another.

Still, do you ever wonder whether Moses thought back on that day when he saw the burning bush? Do you ever wonder whether he wished he hadn't seen it, or that he had just minded his own business and not gone to check it out? There were times when he vented to God in exasperation, asking why he was stuck tending to these people whom he had not fathered, and asking God to simply strike him dead (Numbers 11).

Yes, Moses would have had a simpler, probably more pleasurable life had he not responded to God's call. But can you imagine the depth, the purpose, the understanding he would have missed? Apart from his most frustrating moments in God's service, surely Moses understood this.

The point is not to criticize a coloring book.

The point is to remind God's people that it is no small thing to answer His call.

He asks us to be faithful until death. He promises us an eternity of blessing if we will do so. Few believers hesitate about this, but we tend to forget that this requires a different attitude toward this earthly life than most people are willing to have. Eternity has to be more important, even if it means our time here being nothing like what we had planned and wished for.

Moses learned this, even if he didn't yet understand it at the burning bush.

Will God's people today understand what the children of Israel seldom did?

Sunday, December 21, 2008

You Came...Here?

Anyone who has ever moved from one place to another has heard the inevitable questions:

"You're going where?" "Why? What are you thinking?"

It's not always easy for people to understand why someone they care about would choose to relocate. Even if they understand, it's still emotional, with feelings mixed between happiness for a new opportunity, and the grief of knowing how much the person will be missed.

Something interesting can happen on the other end as well.

If you've ever moved from one place to a smaller, less "glamorous" place, some of your new neighbors might very well express surprise that you left what in their minds is a "better" place, to come live in the town they've always called home. While they're glad you're there, and they've welcomed you like family, somewhere in the back of their minds, they're asking, "Why would you come here?"

People are funny. Our hometowns are so great no one should move away, yet at the same time, other places, bigger and better, are so wonderful no one should ever want to leave them and come to our little one-horse town. A lot of this, of course, is in our imagination. Life is life wherever you are.

"You're going where?"

"You came here?"

Two questions asked sincerely by people trying to understand another person's decision. And most of the time, the answer is perfectly understandable once it is explained, and loving people support one another throughout these decisions.

There is a story, however, in which the answers to these same questions aren't so easy to understand.

"The Word became flesh and dwelt among us." -- John 1:14

Never fail to marvel at the fact that He came here. That the Creator became a part of His creation. That He entrusted Himself to the care of two first-time parents with nothing in this world. That He grew up to live a sinless life and gave Himself as the sacrifice to end all sacrifices. That the veil of the temple was torn in two so we could approach God. That He defeated death and rose from the grave. That He sent His Spirit to help us; and that He intercedes for us still. And most of all, that the story is far from over; that He's coming back again.

Who would do this? Is there any other object of faith in this world who can claim anything like this?

What sense could this have made to the angels who announced His arrival? (I Peter 1:12) Can we even claim that it makes sense to us?

Whatever else you do at Christmas time, take time to marvel at what God has done.

Marvel, but more importantly, respond.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Wrong Hombre to Fool With




You see the picture.

A hat like that would be a prized possession by anyone’s standard. In fact, I had one just like it back in my teens, and wore it with pride, until…

One random weekday morning, my brother Samuel was getting ready for school, and asked if he could borrow my Raiders stocking cap for a field trip that day. It was a cold day, and he was going to be outside, so I agreed, and Samuel took my hat.

I went to school that day and never gave my hat a thought. When I got home that afternoon, I breezed straight to my room as I normally did, unloading my school stuff and turning on some tunes.

Just as I was getting settled in, the moment came. Not sure what the deal was, or what the chemistry of that moment was, but for whatever reason, my fuse was unusually short.

Samuel came in, looking forlorn.

“Uh, Dave…I lost your hat. I left it somewhere on the field trip today.”

Oh, no, you didn’t.

I really don’t remember my words. I hope Samuel doesn’t, either. All I know is that I let him have it. Man, I shook the leaves on the trees. Yeah, that’s right. I was the wrong hombre to fool with. One tough sunnuvugun.

Samuel took this tongue-lashing quietly. He just stood there in silence, staring down at the carpet as I strutted past him and out of the room, far more macho than this hat-losing brother of mine would ever hope to be.

I cruised down the stairs and through the kitchen, right past my mom, who stopped me and said, “Oh, David, I need to tell you something before you talk to Samuel today. He lost your hat on his field trip, but I need you to be understanding. He really felt bad about it. He was crying on the way home.”

Wow.

(Do you remember those old cartoon scenes, when a character realizes he's been a complete jerk, and for just a moment, turns into a skunk, and then back to his normal self?)

Could anyone have scripted this?

My crime became even more heinous when I later learned that Samuel had made a valiant effort to save my precious hat. As his class was about to return to school on their bus, he realized he had left it behind, and insisted the teacher make the bus driver wait while he went back to search for my hat, only to find it was already gone. He had done all he could.

What are the odds? The moment my brother, six years my junior, acted most like an adult, I chose to respond like a child. When the moment called for grace, I refused to be gracious. When a loved one was vulnerable, I was vicious. Just when a point did not need to be made, I took it upon myself to pound it home, and in dramatic fashion.

It was the worst possible response, short of physical violence.

And in contrast: Just when my brother might have felt most justified in fighting fire with fire, he turned the other cheek and absorbed it all.

For everything we understand about the danger of the human tongue, how often do we forget that it's more than a simple matter of the words we choose and the stories we tell?

One of the most revealing tests of our character is the way we choose to treat someone who is vulnerable. What do we do or say when we have the upper hand, and someone else is in a position of weakness? "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy." -- Matthew 5:7

Another test, just as crucial as the first, is our commitment to living out the truth of Proverbs 25:11. "The right word at the right time is like precious gold set in silver." How well do we sense where other people are and what they need?

Don't feel up to the test?

"If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him." -- James 1:5

Or, there is always the world's way: Show 'em how tough you are. Repay any offense. Make sure they know you're the wrong hombre to fool with.

And how will Jesus answer?

"I never knew you."

Saturday, December 6, 2008

What Is Your Beauty?

Ezekiel 16 is one of many unexplored corners of Scripture to most believers.

In this passage, God gives the prophet Ezekiel an analogy for His relationship with His people, Israel. The analogy begins with a passerby discovering an abandoned newborn, left on the ground, unwashed and helpless. The passerby rescues the baby and cares for her, and watches her mature into a beautiful woman He will call His own. The passerby/rescuer/husband gives His beloved everything there is to give, and she becomes famous for her beauty.

If only the story ended there.

Chapter 16, verse 15: "But you trusted in your beauty..."

The rest of the story is a tragic spiral of promiscuity, idolatry, infanticide, and ruin. In the end, God assures Israel that she will ultimately repent of her evil, and that He will provide atonement for it. But there is much pain to be suffered in the meantime, as Israel reaps the consequences of her unfaithfulness to God.

Naturally, the reader's attention is drawn to Israel's conduct, the idolatry that is equated to marital infidelity. This makes sense, because this conduct is what brought about Israel's ruin. But there is something else here, something that preceded the idolatry and unfaithfulness. Something that provided the starting point for all of that:

"...you trusted in your beauty..."

The origin of every evil committed by Israel was the faith she developed in her own beauty. She came to believe she was who she was by her own power, by her own virtue, and that she could continue to have everything she had by her own will, charm, and connections.

She forgot her beauty was a gift from God. She forgot what she was before He came along and picked her up off the ground. She forgot she was nothing without Him.

Once these facts were forgotten, once the prideful seed was planted and took root, the door was open for God's beloved to become no different than her worldly neighbors. In fact, according to Ezekiel's prophecy, she became even more evil than they were.

If only God's people today weren't just as vulnerable to the same mistake.

What gift from God are you tempted to trust and consider your own? Your looks? Your talent? Your charm? Your intellect? Your wealth? Your career? Your rolodex?

What is your beauty?

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Points of View

Fall, 1991.

Abilene Christian University.

A Freshman English class on a random weekday morning.

Just as our professor was making a point about whatever we were reading, an unmistakable noise broke the quiet and competed for everyone's attention. It was the noise of a gas-powered leaf blower being operated down on the sidewalk outside. A work crew was hard at it that morning, oblivious to the advanced scholarship they were interrupting.

Our professor paused, looked out the window, and sighed in exasperation. "That is the most pointless machine ever invented..." she muttered, before gathering her thoughts again and getting our lecture back on track.

The comment about the leaf blower obviously made a much more lasting impression on me than the lecture did, but it also said something about the professor herself, and something about me.

What my professor didn't know that morning was that, by the time I sat in her class at the age of 18, I had personally logged many hours doing the very same kind of work those men on the walkway were doing that morning.

This experience gave me an altogether different attitude about the sound of a leaf blower. Sure, it's noisy, but if your only other option is to take a broom and manually sweep a sidewalk or curb, with several other lawns still to do before dark, then a leaf blower is an absolute godsend, not "the most pointless machine ever invented".

To her, it was just noise. To me, it was an important tool, worth the noise.

Granted, the noise of a leaf blower outside the window of a class full of freshmen is probably not the best situation. And, my professor's frustration at her lecture being interrupted was understandable to a point. But, her comment went beyond expressing her point of view, (i.e. "I wish they could blow off the sidewalk some other time") and ventured out into total disregard for someone else's point of view ("...the most pointless machine ever invented").

No, I didn't say anything to her. It wasn't a big deal, and I wasn't hurt by it.

But, how often are people hurt this way?

How often do we say things that may contain some element of truth, at least the way we see it, but don't take into account where someone else might be?

For example:

"People just waste public support." (To the single mom who used public support to make ends meet the first few years after her husband left.)

"Anyone who wouldn't help a homeless person is heartless." (To my grandfather, who numerous times offered jobs at his business to homeless people, who rarely ever took him up on it.)

"Spare the rod and spoil the child." (To the couple whose teenager is living in defiance of their every value, in spite of their diligent efforts to raise him/her in the Lord.)

"Can't let worries over money get you down." (To someone who can barely pay his bills, from someone living on two pensions and a part-time job, in a paid-off house.)

"Anyone who would look at pornography is a sick pervert." (To the wounded Christian fighting a losing, secret battle with this very evil.) -- see The God of the Towel, by Jim McGuiggan, page 225.

Have these examples brought to mind other things folks have said in your hearing, that were offensive, insensitive, or at the very least, ignorant of your point of view?

Have you thought, perhaps, of some things you've said to others, that you now wish you hadn't said?

In James chapter 3, we read of the dangers inherent in the gift of speech: "...no man can tame the tongue. It is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison..." (3:8)

Typically, when we read this passage, the dangers that come to mind are of a deliberate nature, such as gossip, profanity, and outbursts of anger. And, rightly so, as these dangers deserve our careful attention.

But again, how often are people hurt, not by a deliberate attack, but by a careless remark, an insensitive observation, a needless expression of one's personal opinion, without regard for the possibility that someone within earshot could be in a totally different place, and vulnerable to the remark?

Combine this insensitivity with most Christians' refusal to follow Jesus' command from Matthew 18 about going to a person who has caused offense, and the result is a body of believers fractured and divided, with souls and groups of souls walled off from one another, not in the unity Jesus prayed for in John 17.

So, what is the answer? If this is the case, what can anyone say? Couldn't almost anything we say be potentially misconstrued and taken as offensive by someone? And, in fact, isn't the Gospel itself offensive to many? (I Cor. 1)

Yes, but we're not talking about the Gospel, or anything even close to its importance.

And, we're not talking about that person we all know who seems to find a way to read something offensive into even the most harmless incidents and remarks.

We're talking about those times when we should have known there was potential for offense in what we said or did. Those times when the offense was reasonably predictable, and the matter at hand not nearly important enough to be worth offending anyone over.

Those times when needless offense creates a barrier to either the Gospel itself or to Christian fellowship.

That's what we're talking about, and it's far more common than we might like to think.

So, the answer lies in James 3, and in the mirror.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Gratitude

It's Thanksgiving Day.

As I write, our feast is finished, our guests are gone, and the Cowboys are beating Seattle.

Now that it's quiet, what better time to reflect on what I'm most thankful for?

Father, I thank You for:

*The family You've given me.

*The job You've provided for me, and the purpose I find in it.

*The fact that this physical life is not the whole story.

*Your church on earth; we're not alone in our faith.

Not to minimize any of these things, but I am conscious of my gratitude for them most of the time.

Today, for whatever reason, I am particularly thankful for something else:

*The times when You've allowed me to endure hardship, and through hardship brought about growth in me that I could never have foreseen. Growth I didn't even want, and hardship I never would have chosen.

I know many have suffered more pain than I have, and many might trade their circumstances for mine in a minute. But I also know that You work in my life, and on my heart, and You've made me more like You than I was before.

I don't desire difficulty; I would never pray for pain. But I do pray for growth, for continued growth, and to be molded and shaped by Your hand. This is what I desire.

And if it hurts, it hurts.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Recon



Have you seen the new TV commercial for Levi's jeans?

This ad ran during the 8 pm hour on NBC last week. It features close-up shots of a teenage boy and girl in the process of getting undressed together. It's clear they're standing outside, but not clear at first where they are. The nervous couple exchanges hesitant, intimate words, such as, "This is your first time, right?", planting a clear idea in the viewer's mind of what is about to happen.

The commercial takes a bold turn with a close-up of each teen opening the button-fly on their Levi's jeans and pulling them down.

Just when it seems the kids are headed the rest of the way, they embrace side by side and jump off the pier on which we now see they've been standing, splashing happily into the water below, where they enjoy a swim in their skivvies.

Pretty shocking? No doubt.

Imagine the effects of these images planted in the soft soil of your child's mind.

Imagine the conscience of someone who would create and broadcast such an image, unconcerned for its potential effect on your child. But, how would that person respond, if confronted by you or me? The answer would be quick and brutal: Your child is your responsibility. Making money for my company is my responsibility. Wherever these interests might be in conflict is your responsibility.

A brutal response, but ultimately, true.

Not morally right, but technically accurate.

The haunting fact is: If you don't protect your child's innocence, who will? We no longer live in a world in which merchants are concerned with your child's upbringing. (Was there ever a world like that anyway, outside of our imaginations? Or, has that envelope been steadily pushed all along, shocking each successive generation of parents?)

So, how should the Christian parent respond to such an ad?

*Boycott Levi's? -- Nothing wrong with that, if it makes you feel better.

*Write an angry letter to NBC? -- Again, fine, and who knows? Someone important enough might actually be influenced.

*Cut off TV service to your house? -- Definitely an aggressive strategy, but is it throwing out the baby with the bathwater?

*Aggressively "inform" your child that such an image is bad, and he/she better not ever...yada, yada, yada...? -- OK, but who ends up feeling guilty and alienated from you? Levi's, NBC, or your kid?

*Go to bed in utter dismay over the state of the world, feeling bitter, attacked, and alone? -- No comment.

Any of these reactions might come naturally to Christian parents who love their children and desperately want a Godly life for them. And, if Christian parents feel as though they are at war for the hearts and minds of their children, they are correctly perceiving reality: We are. We always have been. Even back in the good ol' days. To have ever had faith that a secular world would care as much for your child's soul as you do was utter foolishness, even when Ed Sullivan wouldn't show Elvis from the waist down. The problem is not 2008, as opposed to 1958. The problem is sin, in all times, and in all places. The sands shift, but the battle is the same.

But there is still something missing in the parental responses listed above.

King David wrote a beautiful passage in Psalm 101:3: "I will set no worthless thing before my eyes; I hate the work of those who fall away; It shall not fasten its grip on me." Show this to anyone trying to justify pornography. Read this and remind yourself of the value of remaining "unspotted from the world", in the words of James 1:27.

However, as fervently as David and James would undoubtedly speak about the value of purity, neither man, especially not David the warrior, would ever overlook the necessity of one vital element of success in warfare, and one vital element missing in many Christian parents' reactions to the popular culture: Reconnaissance.

Recon, surveillance, scouting, combat intelligence. Call it what you will, no military commander would ever enter into battle without it. To do so would be folly, and suicide. Before committing troops to an objective, what must be known, at least to the degree possible? The lay of the land, an accurate assessment of enemy numbers and positions, enemy fortifications and armaments, possible routes of escape, weather conditions, and so on. All this, on top of a thorough, honest assessment of the state of your own side's capabilities.

The key words in the previous paragraph are "accurate" and "honest". True recon is not concerned with what anyone wants to be true, or hopes to be true. It isn't afraid of reality, or insistent that reality fit a mold of what anyone thinks it should be or used to be. Recon insists on being accurate, conveying the truth of what really is, in order to provide for effective planning that will preserve life. It does no soldier any good for a commander to be unaware of reality. In fact, a nation would be outraged at troops needlessly jeopardized because of a commander's ignorance of recon or refusal to be informed by it.

Most Christian parents are pretty good at their own personal purity, but many ignore cultural reconnaissance on behalf of their children altogether. Would you not be outraged at troops put in harm's way due to the ignorance of those sending them? How is it any different to send your child out into a world with which you're hopelessly unfamiliar and in which you're increasingly irrelevant?

In case you're getting nervous:

*A few things we are not talking about:

Putting your children in harm's way for the sake of exposure.

Sinning for the sake of being familiar with sin.

Immersing yourself in popular culture in order to be the "cool" parent.

Giving financial support to sinful influence. (The web is the ultimate tool, allowing the Christian parent
to scout popular culture without necessarily having to buy it.)

*But, seriously:

Do you know the names and material of any popular music artist today?

Have you ever read a novel your child is reading?

Are you familiar with any slang terminology your child hears at school? Have you ever asked?

Do you know what your child thinks about sex?

Do you have the kind of rapport with your child that will allow for these conversations to happen without your child
feeling like he or she is in trouble?

Is there some element of risk involved in a Christian parent's commitment to cultural recon? Yes, it's possible for a parent and a home to be led astray by cultural influence. But, this occurrence will be rare in comparison to the numbers of children led astray by the culture, right under the noses of Christian parents who had their heads buried in the sand and never had a clue.

If you're too afraid or bashful to speak up, you're the only one in your child's life who is. This world is not afraid of you, is not the least bit bashful, and it will speak up so your child will hear.

Soldier, where are your binoculars?

Sunday, November 16, 2008

"I Just Snapped!"



"Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom." -- Viktor E. Frankl

We had quite a moment at our house a couple months back.

I don't recall exactly what was going on, but our then-19-month old son wanted to do or get something that just wasn't going to work at that moment, so the answer to his request was "No", or "Later", or something to that effect.

Unfortunately, little Jonathan wasn't at all pleased with this response, and let it show by falling to the floor and wailing to the heavens, in hopes that someone, somewhere would care enough to intervene on his behalf. This display didn't work as he hoped it would; in fact, it only cemented the "No" from his original request.

There's nothing out of the ordinary here. Every household with children has been blessed with scenes just like this one.

But, to the close observer, there was something highly instructive to be found in one slight detail of Jonathan's tantrum.

At the precise moment Jonathan received the bad news that buckled his knees, he and I were standing on the hard tile floor of our home's entryway, but only a foot or two away from the nice, soft carpet of the living room.

Looking at the replay in slow motion: When Jonathan took the "No" response, and "lost" control, he bent forward at the waist to begin his "uncontrolled" freefall. Just before crossing the point of no return, he paused, took a full step to his right to position himself within range of the carpet, and then resumed his fall, landing safely away from the tile, where his fit could continue, injury-free.

I'm not sure what my familiarity with this maneuver says about me, but I did recognize it right away:

*Making a statement, but making sure it won't hurt.

*Carefully controlling the "loss" of control.

*Trying to have it both ways.

In Galatians 5:19-21, Paul lists several behaviors that characterize the lifestyle of those living according to the flesh rather than the Spirit. Listed among these sins are "outbursts of wrath", or "fits of rage". While Paul's list includes many items that most of us would know only in the abstract, such as murder, witchcraft, and orgies, his mention of uncontrolled anger hits a lot of us pretty close to home.

And, as common as this problem is, there is an excuse for it that is every bit as prevalent: "I don't know what happened. I just snapped!"

Without judging the sincerity of anyone's apology, there lies within this statement an attempt to refuse responsibility for one's actions. If I did indeed just "snap", then I didn't really choose to do whatever it was I did. And, while I can then be sorry that it happened, or sorry for how someone took it, it's not really the same as saying, yes, I did it, I chose to do it, I was wrong, and I'm sorry. The difference is subtle, and many don't even perceive it. But, it's an important difference.

It's so easy to claim a loss of control. So easy to say, "I just snapped!"

But, really, now. Come on.

Have you ever...

*Cursed at your boss?

*Yelled at your spouse in a crowded restaurant?

*Berated your child in front of his teacher?

*Thrown a fit in your front yard?

*Peeled out of your own driveway?

*Knocked over a grocery basket on your way out of the store?

I'm guessing you answered "No" to all these questions, and either laughed at them, or found them offensive. And, why wouldn't you ever do these things, besides the fact that they're just wrong? Because you know full well that doing so would be very risky for you. You would probably get hurt. There would be painful consequences that you would very much like to avoid.

So, somehow, some way, even in the face of serious provocation, we all dig down deep and find the patience and self-control needed to avoid these risky behaviors. Somehow, with this much at stake, we manage never to "snap".

But, then, there are other times, when the immediate risk doesn't seem so great. Times when our sense of entitlement outweighs our good judgment and our love:

*An athlete, coach, or fan disagrees with an official's call.

*One driver doesn't like the actions of another.

*A wife hears the beginning of the same old excuse from her husband.

*A husband hears the beginning of the same old criticism from his wife.

*A child hears the beginning of the same old correction from a parent.

*A parent hears the beginning of the same old nonsense from a child.

*The TV remote has vanished.

*Someone forgot to buy more sodas.

*The toilet seat was left in the wrong position again.

And, there are yet other times when we bottle up our anger in public, only to shake the bottle and pop the cork once safely behind the closed doors of home, not unlike little Jonathan carefully targeting the safest place to fall while "helplessly" losing control.

Is this really the best we can do?

That's actually the wrong question. The question should be: "Is this the conduct of people who have the Spirit of God in them?"

Paul, in the same passage in Galatians, describes the result of being Spirit-filled. He uses the analogy of fruit that grows by the power of God. The fruit, or result, of being filled with His Spirit will take many forms, including patience and self-control, the very opposite of the fits of rage so common to the sinful nature.

A person who would truly "snap" and act without control would do so in any situation, regardless of the risk.

People like that do exist, but it's not likely that you're one of them.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Falling Down

Who hasn't joked about the infamous TV commercial: "I've fallen, and I can't get up!"?

Of course, falling down is no laughing matter; not when it's for real, and someone is hurt.

Who hasn't cringed at a story of an elderly person breaking a hip in a random fall? Or, a story of someone who suffers an incapacitating fall, and isn't found for hours or days? For that matter, who hasn't dreaded the thought of dying in a fall from a great height?

This article details the reality of how devastating a fall can be, especially for the elderly.

Two quotes from the article are especially relevant:

"Falls Merit Complex Care" (from the headline)

It's not likely anyone would fail to appreciate the need for care and rehabilitation for someone who has fallen, either physically or spiritually. But, do we really understand what "complex care" entails? Not likely, until the need for it arises. The difficult, ongoing therapy described in the article is likely to be news to anyone who hasn't been through it, or had a loved one go through it. Healing the wounds of a physical fall involves a great deal more than a bandage and an aspirin. And, the injuries suffered in a fall often go deeper and spread wider than anyone would have thought.

So it is with a spiritual fall as well.

When a Christian falls into sin, the effects can be just as far-reaching, and the healing and restoration that are needed require more time and attention than can be given in a brief conversation at the end of a sermon. Are we prepared to give the time and attention it takes to provide loving accountability to one another in our daily lives? Are we willing to help a struggling Christian overcome sin Monday through Saturday?

The second quote is even more critical, perhaps even haunting:

"For some people...admitting that they fall is tantamount to admitting that they are no longer competent to take care of themselves."

We've all heard sad stories of elderly people struggling to come to terms with their need for assistance. My wife and I know an aging farmer who we learned had suffered repeated falls out on his land, each time warning his farm hands not to breathe a word of it to his wife. Finally, thankfully, one of them did.

How true is this of most of us?

Admitting we fall means admitting we're not self-sufficient.

But, we all know we're not self-sufficient, right? Who would ever claim to be? We're not even supposed to be!

Maybe it's fear of being an imposition. Or, embarrassment over what exactly we've fallen into. Maybe too much of our identity wrapped up in an image of having it "together". Or, an unwillingness to jeopardize our social standing.

Whatever the reason, a Christian who falls into sin and keeps the matter quiet has handed Satan a double victory.

Falling down doesn't have to result in death.

But, how often do we allow it to?

Sunday, November 2, 2008

"Looks like you've been shot a few times there..."

Kristi and I were watching one of those "ER" reality shows, where a TV camera crew follows a doctor around.

One patient who visited the ER left a memorable impression.

He was an elderly man complaining of lingering pain in his collarbone area. He had fallen a week or so before, but had not sought medical attention, thinking the pain would just go away. It hadn't, so the man wondered whether he had broken his collarbone.

The doctor felt the area and seemed fairly certain the collarbone was either broken or dislocated, but wanted to see an x-ray to determine for sure what to do.

When he asked the patient about any past medical issues, the only item offered was a stroke some years back.

This answer in particular provided a moment of shock and off-beat comedy when the doctor actually viewed the x-ray. Clearly visible on the x-ray were four distinct, completely intact bullets lodged in various places within this poor man's body.

At some risk of appearing insensitive, the doctor chuckled at this unexpected sight. "Well, I asked if there were any past medical issues, so I guess he didn't think this was any big deal. In all fairness, I didn't ask him specifically whether he had ever been shot four times..."

No explanation was given as to the nature of these wounds, or even how old they were. What is certain is how fortunate this man was to be alive, having sustained such trauma to his body, and apparently without sufficient medical treatment.

It's interesting how this can happen. Something that appears so out of place to an outsider or a newcomer can be just another forgotten part of the landscape to the person who has learned to accommodate it for enough time.

How on earth could a person carry bullets lodged in his body for years, and not bother to mention it to a doctor before an x-ray?

Oh, I don't know...

How could a Christian rarely pray?

How could a Bible gather dust?

How could someone bear a grudge for a lifetime?

How could a married couple live together without intimacy for years on end?

How could a habit become more important than a family?

How could a once-vibrant faith become a time card?

These scenarios are every bit as real as the bullets in that old man's body. And, they are certainly much more common. To anyone on the outside looking in, the bullet is plain to see, glaring back boldly from the x-ray, even if the wounded soul has made peace with it, or has forgotten its presence altogether.

What wounds do you carry?

What bullets are still lodged in your soul?

Why carry these things, when Jesus is so near?

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Shifting Sands, Solid Rock

It was sometime in the mid-80s.

A Los Angeles TV news station ran a story about an up-and-coming heavy metal band called Poison, that was beginning to emerge as a popular act in town, and seemed to be on the brink of making it big.

The reporter questioned the band members about the name of their group, wondering why they would choose a name as seemingly unappealing as "Poison". One of the members answered, describing the band's struggles against parents who accused them of "poisoning our youth" with their music. Fed up with all the negative vibes, the band chose its name in defiance of these very parents and their concerns.

The quote given in the interview was: "Cut the crap, we're Poison!"

Nothing noteworthy in the quote itself, but there was something interesting that occurred in the broadcast of this interview:

The word "crap" was bleeped.


Let that sink in for a second...


Sounds quaint, doesn't it?


Times change.

Any adult could tell stories just like this one, stories of a more innocent time. A time when people cared about what was good and decent. A time when people took greater care to preserve the innocence of children. A time when right was right and wrong was wrong.

And, who could argue with these observations?

Yet, those same "good old days" included many plagues better left in the history books. Really, is anyone up for a return to segregation? Pre-suffrage politics? Primitive medicine? The chamber pot?

Perhaps that's some of the wisdom behind King Solomon's words:

"Do not say, 'Why were the old days better than these?' For it is not wise to ask such questions." (Ecclesiastes 7:10)

Solomon doesn't elaborate on this thought. He doesn't say exactly why it's so unwise to dwell on the good old days and look with scorn upon the present. He just says it's unwise.

Perhaps he knew people's tendency to exaggerate, making the good better and the bad worse than either really was.

Or, maybe people in his day were just as prone as we are to airbrushing the problems out of our fondest memories, creating in our minds a past so perfect, the present can't measure up to it.

Then again, it could just be that people in Solomon's time were just as troubled by shifting sands as we are today.

As long as people walk the earth, times will continue to change. The world's concerns will evolve and shift. Words will go unbleeped that were bleeped a generation before, while at the very same time, other matters will be treated with greater sensitivity than they had been previously, leaving us wondering how we ever overlooked them before.

In the end, will one generation's landscape prove to be categorically better than another?

Or, is every disciple called to be salt and light, right there in the very present time, regardless of when that happens to be?

Could it be that you live today, because God wants you here?

Times change, but Christ doesn't. (Hebrews 13:8)

Stand on the Rock and let the sand shift around you.

Don't love the sand, or hate the sand, or wish it would stand still. Or that it would go back to the way it used to be.

Certainly don't blow away with it.

Just stand on the Rock, and let not your heart be troubled.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

"Oh, no, you didn't!"

Are you familiar with this phrase?

It's an expression of shock or anger at something provocative that another person has just done; something, in fact, that is about to meet an equally forceful response from the person saying, "Oh, no, you didn't!"

This TV commercial for a new video game is a great example of how this expression is used today:



The main character in this video game is a mercenary who was denied the money he was owed by whoever hired him, and so now, it's on.

(Well, there's another one. If you're not familiar with "on", it's pronounced somewhere between "own" and "awn", and it basically means the fight has started.)

I seriously doubt I'll never play Mercenaries 2, because in the world of video games, I never graduated beyond the Atari 2600. I couldn't even tell you what machine you have to have to play this game. But, regardless of your video game skill, the sentiment involved in this TV commercial is something that is all too familiar in human experience, and completely at odds with the will of God for His people.

"Payback is a comin', you will be runnin' forevahhh!"

"Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, 'Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,' says the Lord." -- Romans 12:19

"Until I get my vengeance, I will never end this mayhem."

"For we know Him who said, 'Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,' says the Lord. And again, 'The Lord will judge His people.'" -- Hebrews 10:30

It's doubtful anyone would seriously dispute God's command against taking personal vengeance on another person, although it can't be assumed every believer is aware of it. On the other hand, human emotions can wreak havoc on a person's commitment to remain true to God's commands. John Grisham's novel A Time to Kill is a fictitious example of a person convincing himself that personal vengeance is justified, even to the point of committing murder in retaliation for an unpunished crime.

Does God really prohibit us from taking vengeance in every case?

Yes.

Doesn't He allow for any exceptions?

No.

Not even if your pre-teen daughter is raped by two men and left unable to conceive, and you fear her unrepentant attackers will be acquitted by a racist jury. (This is the main plot of A Time to Kill.)

Not even then. Not even when every emotion in your mind tells you the wrong has to be made right. In fact, especially then.

God reserves the business of vengeance for Himself alone. Funny how most of us wouldn't be bold enough to walk into our boss's office and sit down at the desk, out of respect for that person's territory. Yet, vengeance, as clearly as God has marked it as His own, is a place where many people are willing to tread without fear.

Vengeance is God's place. Don't go there. Make this commitment now, while all is well. Get this anchor in the water before waves begin to swell. If not, if you wait until you've been wronged, you can't trust what your mind will work out on its own.

But, even if we manage to resist the temptation to take vengeance when we've been wronged, is this really all God is looking for?

What was the standard Jesus taught during His ministry?

When Jesus spoke on the subjects of adultery and murder (Matthew 5:21-30), He took the discussion to a higher level than the people were accustomed to. No longer could righteousness be found in the mere avoidance of the full-blown, completed, physical act. Jesus challenged the people to consider the state of their hearts and minds, and made it clear to them that the fantasies of their minds had just the same spiritual consequence as the actual deed would have had.

Should we not apply the same principle to the discussion of vengeance?

Can we consider ourselves Christ-like for turning the other cheek, if all the while we're imagining carrying out our full vengeance against the offender?

"Create in me a clean heart, O God, And renew a steadfast spirit within me." -- Psalm 51:10

Ordinary Heroes

Foo Fighters' 1997 hit "My Hero" has long been a favorite of mine.

In the artists' own words, the song is "a celebration of the common man and his extraordinary potential". The lyrics certainly back up this message: "There goes my hero; watch him as he goes! There goes my hero; he's ordinary!"

In my own experience, this song has evolved from a great tune to play loud in the car, to a thought-provoking 4 minutes.

Check out the video:



If that's a little too hard for your taste, try this live acoustic version:



So, what's the difference now? Why does this song mean so much more to me now than it did when it was brand new?

The answer: The eyes of my two sons when they look at me.

Whether I deserve it or not, whether I live up to it or not, in the eyes of these two innocent children, I am a hero. Along with my wife, I define normal for them. I demonstrate habits they will either pick up without thinking, or make a point of avoiding; either way, specifically because those habits are mine. Decades from now, these boys will remember moments, words, and deeds that I will have long since forgotten. They will be impacted by all I do, and all I don't do.

They will see how a Christian husband treats his wife. How he treats his children. How he acts in the privacy of his home. His real attitude toward everything he shows the world in public.

They will see, in living color, whether the Christian life is really a daily lifestyle, or whether it's a weekly time card.

Ultimately, they will learn whether a Christian man means it when he says he is a slave to Christ.

They will learn all this from me, because to them, I am a hero. Yet, in my own eyes, I am quite ordinary. Any honest parent feels the same way. And, not just parents. Every Christian is an example to someone in this world who notices and remembers. Any Christian can be a hero to someone out there who is trying to find the way.

Why would God actually entrust something this powerful to us, when we are clearly so ordinary?

Simply put, because it's not about us. It's not about how ordinary we are. It's not up to our own strength. It's all a matter of who lives within us, and who directs the ones looked upon as heroes by others.

A life lived in submission to Christ does indeed have "extraordinary potential". And, a soul in submission to Christ will be a worthy example for anyone to follow.

Most children will, at some point, admire a super-hero, a professional athlete, or an entertainer of some kind. However, these heroes are not likely to stand the test of time or truly influence a soul's eternal destiny.

That privilege is reserved for ordinary heroes, just like you.

Friday, October 3, 2008

A Good Day


Stayed a little late at work today.

On my way out, the building was pretty much silent, but for the sound of custodians running vacuums off in the distance.

The door to the custodians' empty office was standing open as I passed by, and from inside I heard the sound of a radio, and vaguely recognized the song playing. It was a rap song from the early 90s, entitled, "It Was a Good Day".

In a way it was fitting, but it also provided food for thought.

This song's lyrics do not convey godliness in any sense.

The "good day" described in this song involves getting up around 10 am, eating breakfast cooked by "mama", packing a gun but not having to use it, driving around town on hydraulic shocks without being pulled over, winning money at dice and dominoes, committing fornication, celebrating a Lakers' victory, not losing any friends to murder, and enjoying a Fat Burger at 2 am on the drunk drive home.

What a day.

Besides the poignant note about the commonness of murder in a gang-infested area, this song describes a day in the life of a person living only for himself, thinking he is independent, but not realizing he is owned; he is under the sway of Satan.

Reflecting on this song prompted me to think back on my own activities of the day, and what I thought made today a good day.

Last night, the Dodgers beat the Cubs to take a 2-0 lead in the National League Division Series. This morning, I beat the traffic under the overpass and had a quiet morning drive. At work, I was able to finish the tasks I hoped to get done today, along with the unpredictable stuff that always happens. I helped a teacher, a student, and a parent patch things up after trust between them had been ruined. I found out we have a brand-new nephew in New Mexico. (Congratulations, Dan & Syndi!) No major problems among the student body today. And, tonight, Taco Bueno!

I gotta say, it was a good day.

But, I'm left unsatisfied with my thinking on what a good day really is.

Did I, today, at any moment, with any deliberate attention, give glory to God?

Did I remember the sacrifice of Jesus Christ for me?

Did I humble myself before God and acknowledge my dependence upon Him?

Did I give my wife a moment of my best attention, a moment she might remember someday after I'm gone?

Did I give my sons a piece of me today, something to mold their understanding of what a Christian man is? Did I do or say anything to turn their eyes to the Lord?

Did my colleagues see Christ at work today, or did they see me?

What is it we hope to accomplish when we get up in the morning? What are we satisfied with when we go to sleep at night?

What is our standard for our use of the time we have? Are we happy as long as our goals and desires are met, we manage to avoid disaster, and we pick up some fast food on the way home?

Or, are we mindful of eternity as our days pass us by?

Sunday, September 28, 2008

All in the Packaging



*A knife through the heart of your best friend, and the end of your child's innocence.

*Rent due, but money gone.

*Your boss gets over the disbelief, and makes peace with firing a trusted employee.

*A relationship so distant and cold you can't make yourself open the door.

*A life in ruins over a habit you never dreamed of having.

Not very appealing images, are they?

Try these instead:

*Just a fling, just for fun. Won't mean anything, won't hurt anyone. No one will know. You're attractive. You deserve it.

*You're sure to win! Just think of what you can do with all the money you'll bring home!

*It's just a little bit. You'll pay it back, and it won't happen again. He really owes you anyway, with all the extra time you put in.

*Pray later. He'll always be there. You're just not in the right frame of mind right now. You don't want to be a hypocrite, do you? If you really aren't feeling it, you shouldn't say it.

*What's the harm? Everyone says this is fun. You need to be more of a risk-taker, after all. You've been under a lot of stress, you know.

Now, those are images that appeal to people every day.

Don't underestimate temptation.

The evil one knows what makes you tick, and he knows it as well as you do, probably better. He knows what packages you're most likely to unwrap, and he's not likely to waste his time wrapping those you won't open. He will hit you with what he thinks will work, and he'll make it look awfully good.

"No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it." I Corinthians 10:13

Friday, September 19, 2008

"It Still Hurts, David."

It wasn't one of my finest moments as a school administrator.

I was fed up with one particular student and his mother. The student was one of my office's frequent fliers, and his mother was one of the most combative and accusatory I had ever dealt with.

Normally, this kind of thing is fairly easy for me to keep in perspective and take in stride, but this time, this student, and this parent, had really gotten under my skin. My thoughts regarding them were not kind, and my manner toward them was becoming less cordial by the incident.

Then, one day in the spring semester, after this student had been through the wringer with me several times, the parent sat down for a lengthy conference with the student's teachers, a conference I did not attend. The teachers reported to me later about how the conference had gone, and I didn't hide my feelings regarding this mother and her son.

But, this conference was different.

The teachers told me that this mother had broken down in the meeting and cried. She wept over her son's foolishness, defiance, and refusal to learn. She mourned the consequences he had already suffered, as well as the unknown consequences to come in a future that appeared to be heading south in a hurry. She had no more answers, no more accusations, no more defenses. It was all gone, and all she had left for her son were tears.

The moment I'm not proud of came when these teachers told me this story.

My initial reaction was anger. Anger, mixed with resentment and disgust, at this mother who had taken me on a joyride to Hades, who had so confidently defended her son, who had so boldly accused me of being racist and deceitful, now breaking down to someone else and admitting she was out of gas. Now, after all this, asking for help. Now, after creating the problem herself, laying it at our feet and weeping over it. Where in the world does she get off crying now? Where was this humility several months ago when there might have been some hope? Doesn't she know this is her own fault? Doesn't she understand she created this herself?

I don't remember what my exact words to the teachers were, but those were the thoughts I communicated. I'm not proud of it, but it's the truth.

What I do remember, though, was Mr. Mims' response.

He looked at me kindly, with the wisdom I respected so much about him, with a face that said he understood both my feelings and the mother's, and said, "It still hurts, David. It still hurts." I remember the nod of his head, the slight narrowing of his eyes, and the smile that conveyed sympathy both to me and this mother. I remember his genuine respect for me, but also his awareness that I was still a pretty young guy whose back had never felt the canvas. And, he was giving me an insight into life that would only become real for me later on.

Once Mr. Mims said that, I ran out of gas myself. There was no more to fuss about. Yes, this poor woman had caused her own grief. Yes, everything I was saying was accurate, in the sense of being provable in court, but it just didn't matter. Her pain was still real, her outcry was still genuine, and our job was to be bigger than our feelings about how we had been treated.

In a recent television interview, a celebrity wept over his young son whom he rarely sees, due to the child living a great distance away with the celebrity's ex-wife. This father's genuine pain and guilt came through in the interview, along with the tears.

The background to this interview is the fact that this celebrity destroyed his marriage to his ex-wife by having an affair with another woman, whom he later married, and with whom he now has two children. So, this man lives on one coast with his second wife and their two kids, while feeling guilty over his dramatically reduced contact with his son from his first marriage, who lives on the opposite coast.

Again, my first reaction was judgment. Didn't this guy cause his own grief? Didn't he see any of this coming? And, what in the world is anyone supposed to do about it now? What can be done?

And again, Mr. Mims' kind words reminded me: "It still hurts, David. It still hurts."

Isn't that the nature of sin? Not only can it take us places we never dreamed we would go, but it can leave us with problems, messes, and dilemmas that defy any resolution and cause lingering pain. And Satan loves every minute of watching us weep over it.

Take King David as an example.

One look at his most grief-stricken moment brings all these same questions and feelings to the surface:

"Then the king was deeply moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate, and wept. And as he went, he said: "O my son Absalom--my son, my son Absalom--if only I had died in your place! O Absalom my son, my son!" (II Samuel 18:33)

"But the king covered his face, and the king cried out with a loud voice, "O my son Absalom! O Absalom, my son, my son!" (II Samuel 19:4)

David's grief over his son Absalom's death was beyond his ability to contain. It spilled out for all to see.

But, what led up to this moment?

Absalom, the son of the king, briefly overthrew his father and assumed the throne, forcing David and those loyal to him to flee the city that became synonymous with his name.

But, prior to that?

Absalom had only recently returned to Jerusalem after spending three years in exile after murdering his brother Amnon, over Amnon's rape of their sister Tamar.

But, before that?

David had been informed of the rape of Tamar, and had become angry over it, but apparently did nothing to resolve the matter, allowing Absalom to develop the vengeful heart that led to his plot to murder Amnon.

And, before that?

David had sent his entire family into a tailspin by committing adultery with Bathsheba and having her husband Uriah killed in his attempt to cover it all up. The issues that plagued David's family and reign found their origin in what David assumed would be just another roll in the hay.

As the saying goes, there is no free lunch.

*********************************************************

Maybe you've had a moment like this. A moment when the bomb you built, and defended building, finally blew up in your face and left you hurt and scarred. A moment when your pet rattlesnake finally decided it had had enough of you, and bit.

Maybe it was a moment of pleasure that seemed not to cost much at the time.

Maybe a moment of anger that seemed like a justified release at the time.

Maybe a lie that no one was ever going to discover.

Maybe years of misplaced priorities that finally issued a massive bill.

Maybe a habit of neglect in an area that finally refused to be ignored any longer.

It could be any number of things, and will likely be different in every person's life.

How do we want to be treated by others when we are finally forced to pay the piper? When we finally see it all for what it is? When we are hurting, bleeding, and we admit, at long last, that we caused it all ourselves?

What do we need from our loved ones? From those who tried to warn us?

We need them to understand that it still hurts. Even though we're to blame, even though we were warned, even though we have no legitimate claim on their sympathy, the end result is that it still hurts.

And, in that moment, only Jesus Christ can help.

"Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted." Galatians 6:1

Monday, September 8, 2008

A "Looking-For" Face



Our 3 year-old son Benjamin has recently shown great interest in people's facial expressions, and he likes to practice his knowledge of them. Frequently, Benjamin will ask me or Kristi to "Show me a happy face," or "Show me a sad face," or a mad face, surprised face, and so on.

But, the last time we played this game, Benjamin threw me a curve. As we worked our way down the list of faces to make, he asked for a new one. He said, "Show me a looking-for face."

Well, I had never heard of that face before, but I guessed it must have meant the face of someone looking for something, so I gave Benjamin my most curious, eye-darting expression, in hopes of conveying what he wanted.

A "Looking-For" Face. What an interesting request.

Benjamin isn't the only one hoping to see this expression.

"But without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him." -- Hebrews 11:6

"He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and have our being." -- Acts 17:26-28

"But from there you will seek the Lord your God, and you will find Him if you seek Him with all your heart and with all your soul."
-- Deuteronomy 4:29

Struggling for answers in life?

Are you seeking the Lord?

Thinking you have all the answers in life?

Are you seeking the Lord?

How often does our God look at us and see a "Looking-For Face"?

How often does He wish He did?

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Attention, Uncluttered



A recent pair of moments led me to question seriously how my mind works.

The first moment came when my wife Kristi picked up one of her Brighton necklaces, commenting on how much she loves it, especially since it was a gift from me on the first Christmas of our marriage. I acknowledged her comment, agreeing on how special the necklace is, all the while realizing with some sense of doom that, had she not mentioned it, I would not likely have ever remembered the connection between that necklace and that Christmas. I'm not even sure I would have remembered the necklace came from me. (I know, I'm terrible...)

Once I concentrated and thought about it some more, I actually did remember getting that necklace for Kristi, at a store in the Mall of Abilene. I even remembered that the lady who rang up my purchase was also a member of our church. I even remembered later that I had also picked up a Brighton ink pen for Kristi at the same time, although the pen has disappeared somewhere over the last five years and two moves.

The memory was there, buried under five years of clutter. It just needed to be found, dug out, and brushed off.

But, any satisfaction I felt at my delayed recollection of a special gift given to my wife was short-lived. Not long after this conversation with Kristi, on a random day, at a random moment, for no reason I can fathom, something popped into my mind.

It was a television commercial from the mid-80s, a commercial for a life-like doll of Mr. T. Do you remember it?

The jingle went like this:

"Mis-tuh Tee! He's got legs that move! He's 12 inches hi-high!
Mis-tuh Tee! He's got a real cool haircut, and a mean, mean look in his eye-eye!
He's got arms that move, and fists full of rings!
You can pretend that Mis-tuh Tee is real tough and mean!
Mis-tuh Tee!"

I remembered it vividly, word for word, note for note. It was as if the jingle had been playing on the radio right then. And, I wasn't quite sure what to make of it.

A special gift given to my wife at a special time becomes a buried memory, unearthed only by her comment, but I can count on a useless TV jingle from a quarter century ago to snap to my memory at a moment's notice?

I began to see a disturbing scenario: Me, on my deathbed, looking up at my loving wife, who is wearing a necklace I don't remember giving her, and my mind enjoying one last chorus of "Mis-tuh Tee!" before heading off to eternity. How pathetic.

So, why would my mind work this way? Allowing something I'd rather not waste the "little grey cells" on to be burned forever into my mind, while also allowing something I really treasure to be as slippery as Jell-O to hang onto?

I'm no brain surgeon, but I did come up with a theory.

Obviously, the commercial for the Mr. T doll crossed my path when I was a young kid, with virtually no responsibilities and few cares in all the world. At the time, I was also a big fan of The A-Team, which featured Mr. T, so I thought the doll was pretty cool. There wasn't a whole lot else going on for me at that point, so the deck was pretty much clear for this jingle to carve itself right into the wood, so to speak.

Contrast that with where I was in life at Christmas 2002. I was a busy adult with a thousand concerns, a new marriage, a demanding job, and thoughts of moving to another city percolating in the back of my mind. It wasn't that I didn't care about Kristi's necklace, because I did. It wasn't that I didn't give it much thought or effort, because I did. I gave it the best I had at the time.

It was just that the thought and effort I gave it were similar to what you might give trying to complete a task while riding up and down in a crowded elevator. You still get it done, you still care, but there's a difference between doing that and really clearing the deck to concentrate on something and give it your whole attention.

I realized that I might be making the wrong comparison.

For instance, my memories of my first date with Kristi are vivid, and always have been. I remember getting my truck cleaner than it had ever been, in preparation for our date. I remember thinking to myself, "I'm glad I'm going this," just as I rang her doorbell to pick her up. I can tell you what we both were wearing, where we went, what we talked about. I remember trying to make sure she saw me leave a generous tip after dinner. I remember exactly how I worded my suggestion that we go to another place for dessert. I remember how perfect it all was, and how we both knew we wanted to spend more time together.

Really, the comparison should not be between Kristi's necklace and the Mr. T commercial. The comparison should be between Kristi's necklace and our first date. The difference is plain to see. The first date was a moment prepared for, a moment taken seriously enough to clear off everything else in advance. That moment is saved on the hard drive. The necklace, unfortunately, was crowded into a tight elevator with everything else I was trying to juggle at the time. It was still saved, but on a disk in a drawer, buried under clutter, not readily available, no longer a part of daily operations.

Relationships are easy to take for granted, especially the most intimate and important relationships we have. We are vulnerable to the temptation of thinking we can skate along, squeezing our most important relationships into an otherwise overcrowded mind. The divorce rate in our nation should tell us this idea is completely false. It takes time and attention, uncluttered attention, to keep important relationships strong and thriving.

What about our relationship with God?

Which of the moments above does this relationship more closely resemble? Is our relationship with God something to which we give our undivided attention? Do we deliberately clear away the clutter to engage with God on a personal level? Or, do we try to pack Him into a mind already filled with daily trivia? Is our time with God His alone? Or do we multi-task at the expense of our intimacy with God?

Jesus, in a brief passage so easy to overlook, provides the perfect example for us, for all time:

"Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed." -- Luke 5:16

How did Jesus manage this? He, of all people, would have been in demand for some need, somewhere, at virtually every minute of the day. His time could have been entirely at the mercy of the people around him, if he had allowed it to be. But instead, the Son of God made time for his relationship with the Father by clearing the deck on a regular basis, physically removing himself from distraction and giving full, uncluttered attention to the relationship that mattered most, but could most easily have been lost in the shuffle.

If the Son of God felt compelled to take such deliberate measures to ensure uncluttered time with God, how could we be any different? Why do we assume we can squeeze God in, when His Son made no such assumption, but instead demonstrated the total opposite?

Jesus' example of deliberate intimacy is the only way to establish God's place in our minds and hearts. Anything less will leave our relationship with God vulnerable to being drowned out by the jingles and crowded elevators of life.

May our moments with God, and the memories they create, be richer and more vivid than any earthly experience could ever be.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Trying to Impress

*The following story is true. The names have been changed for privacy.

I'll never forget the day Coach Garza brought Jason to my office.

I was an Assistant Principal at the time, a role which offers a close-up view of the good, the bad, and the ugly of everyday life in American households. And, a lot of the strangest things happening in those households walk through the school doors with the students each morning.

Once Coach Garza and Jason were seated in my office across from my desk, the scene went something like this:

"Mr. Dominguez, we've got a problem. I'm getting reports that Jason here has been telling the other kids in PE that he smokes crack."

Without even having to communicate, Coach Garza and I knew we were both about to fall over laughing. Jason did not exactly fit the "crackhead" mold, to say the least. In addition, I had already worked with Jason's mother on previous occasions, and knew her to be a caring mom who tried her best to stay on top of Jason's comings and goings. But, we carried on. I took up the questioning from there.

"So, Jason, you smoke crack?"

"Yes."

"How often?"

"26 times."

"You've smoked crack 26 times?"

"Yes."

"Who is giving you crack?"

"My uncle."

"What's his name?"

"Freddy."

"What's Freddy's last name?"

"I don't know."

"You don't know your uncle's last name?"

"I've been trying to find out, but no one ever tells me!"

At this point in the conversation, Coach Garza and I made eye contact, and we both knew it was time for a break. I excused myself, stepped out of the office for a few moments, had a good laugh in the hall, and returned to resume my interview with troubled young Jason.

"So, Jason, do you mean to tell me that your uncle Freddy, whose last name you don't know, has smoked crack with you 26 times, and your mom has never found out?"

"Yes, but the last time we did it, my older brother caught us."

"What happened then?"

"They fought."

"Who fought?"

"My uncle and my brother."

"So, you've smoked crack with your uncle 26 times, and on the 26th time, your brother and your uncle had a big fight, and after all this, your mom still doesn't know anything happened?"

Jason ran out of answers at that point. His story was circling the drain, and couldn't be retrieved.

Coach Garza took Jason back to the locker room to change out of his gym clothes while I called Jason's mom.

It took me a little bit to explain this whole story to her, but her reaction still rings in my ears:

"I told him to stop trying to impress those kids!!"

I was able to establish with whatever certainty I could get in that situation that Jason's story was, indeed, completely false, totally made up in an effort to look tough in front of his peers. I couldn't help but feel sorry for the kid, especially considering his mother's immediate assessment of his reason for saying what he said. She knew her son, had probably been over this before with him, and had a good sense of what motivated him.

It's easy to chuckle at Jason's story. I know I do when I recall it.

But it's worth pointing out that young Jason is not alone. He's certainly not the only young adolescent to care more about his peers' perceptions than his own well-being. But, he also has good company in any age group.

How many times have we all struggled with this tendency, well into our adult lives? Haven't we all worried too much about people's opinions? Haven't we all been motivated by a desire to impress?

Scripture addresses this issue plainly:

"Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds before men, to be seen by them." (Matthew 6:1)

"[The hypocrites] love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men." (Matthew 6:5)

"...they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting." (Matthew 6:16)

"...they loved the praise of men more than the praise of God." (John 12:43)

Your relationship with Christ is the only thing that will matter when your heart stops beating.

Not what a neighbor thought about your house. Not what a friend thought of your wardrobe. Not what a motorist thought of your car. Not what a colleague thought of your career. Not what folks thought of your wild and wooly days before you became a Christian. Not what those same folks thought of your repentance. Not what a brother or sister in Christ thought of your work in the church.

Paul takes it a step further by boldly stating that living in Christ and trying to impress others are mutually exclusive: "If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a bond-servant of Christ." (Galatians 1:10)

Live in Christ, or live to impress people. You can't do both.

To be sure, none of this should be taken as a license to disregard other people's rights or feelings, or to be rude or inconsiderate. The point is to do what we know to be right, and not to be distracted from this by a desire to gain the approval or admiration of other people.

Our worst sins, our greatest triumphs, and all we do in between are opportunities to pull closer to Jesus. They are also opportunities to make a splash in front of our peers.

Why do you do the things you do?

Sunday, August 24, 2008

2008-2009

At 8 am tomorrow morning, I will address my campus's student body and launch the 2008-2009 school year.

One of the reasons I love working in education is the cycle of each year's beginning, ending, and new beginning. Each year has a personality and feel all its own. Each group of students has a chemistry all its own. And, each year brings joys and sorrows, triumphs and challenges no one could have foreseen.

My prayers for this school year are:

*That our campus will be safe.

*That our students will truly experience what I will be promising them tomorrow morning: A Fresh Start.

*That our students will learn and enjoy success.

*That every adult who works with our students will do so with a loving spirit, even when they don't feel like it.

*That our focus will remain on students first.

I love the phrase "Times of Refreshing" from Acts 3:19. May tomorrow morning be a refreshing start to a successful year.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Replacing & Being Replaced



I'm not a Packers fan, but I'm rooting for Aaron Rodgers this NFL season. This young man will tread the minefield of replacing the immortal Brett Favre as Packers quarterback, after serving as Favre's backup the last three seasons.

I have a soft spot in my heart for anyone called upon to replace a legend. For that matter, anyone coming into any organization to replace someone faces a difficult challenge. So does the person who is leaving. So does every other stakeholder affected by the transition.

So far in my career, I have come in as the "new guy" seven times. I've moved on and been replaced by someone else six times.

On some of these occasions, I replaced someone who walked on water. Other times, I replaced someone not as highly esteemed. Either way, it's tricky.

In the first case, there is no shortcut to bypass the time it takes to win over the grieving fans mourning the loss of your predecessor, whose legend only becomes more golden with the passage of time. ("There just haven't been times like those since...[sniff]...I'm sorry, I just get so emotional....")

In the latter case, a ticker-tape parade is thrown for you at least once a week, and the no-good louse you replaced ("Oh, thank GOD for you!!!") becomes lazier and even more grossly incompetent in people's memories with every passing day. (This can go to your head if you're not careful.)

I'll never forget my arrival at my second teaching job. I took over in mid-year for a saintly teacher who left for another job. A fellow teacher showed me around the school, introducing me to everyone, and we came upon a parent volunteer in the workroom. Knowing this parent had a child in what was soon to be my class, my tourguide decided to introduce me to her.

"Mrs. ______________, this is Mr. Dominguez. He's the new teacher taking Mrs. _____________'s place."

It was suddenly clear Mrs. ________________ had not seen the memo about Mrs. _____________'s departure.

It was as if my tourguide had told this woman that her son had been caught with a thermos full of vodka. Her cheeks flushed. Her eyes bulged in horror and welled with tears. Then, right in front of me, Mrs. ______________ blurted to my tourguide, "But, I don't want Mrs. ____________ to leave!"

Welcome aboard.

Through these experiences, I've developed a sort of etiquette to abide by whenever these transitions take place. These rules have kept me out of hot water so far:

*When you're the new guy:

Ask a lot of questions and do a lot of listening.
Do the very best work you can do, quietly.
Be honest about your shortcomings.
Speak of your predecessor only when it is unavoidable to do so, and only in positive terms.
Overlook the insensitive remarks of those who fault you for not being just like your predecessor.
Call upon your predecessor for help or advice if needed. Don't let your pride get in the way.
Have faith. Time is the only cure.

*When you're the one leaving:

If you get to meet your successor, be kind and express confidence in his/her ability. Share all relevant information.
Understate your importance, but make yourself available, just to your successor, should he/she desire contact.
Praise your successor in the presence of your grieving fans.
Unless your successor requests otherwise, clear out and stay out. Don't haunt the place.
Do not allow yourself to become a depository for complaints from your grieving fans about your successor.

*When you're the grieving fan:

Grow up! Prepare your mind for a mature transition.
Be kind.
Never say, do, or even think, anything that would harm the new guy's chances. Make a special commitment to this.
Do not remind the new guy how the predecessor did things, unless you are asked for this input.

*When you're the one who celebrated the predecessor's departure:

Keep it in perspective. The new guy isn't perfect, either.
Don't badmouth the predecessor or exaggerate the new guy's greatness.
Take a look in the mirror. Any chance you were part of the problem with the predecessor?

What all this comes down to is the matter of how we treat others, and how we want to be treated, when we are at our most exposed and vulnerable. Every rule listed above is directed against the temptation to take advantage of someone else's vulnerability, and serves as a reminder that we're all likely to be vulnerable sometime.

No matter how many times we conquer new territory, no matter how confident we become in our ability, we will all face a moment sometime, somewhere, when we are made to feel like this:

"The scribes and Pharisees brought to Him a woman caught in adultery. And when they had set her in the
midst, they said to Him, "Teacher, this woman was caught in adultery, in the very act. Now, Moses, in the
law, commanded us that such should be stoned. But what do you say?" -- John 8:3-5

Of course, this story condemns self-righteous hypocrisy, and the men who brought this woman to Jesus did so out of false motive, but imagine how the woman felt at this moment. Does the word "humiliation" even suffice here? Yes, she was indeed engaged in sin, but she didn't deserve this treatment. She was vulnerable. She was exposed. She was alone, although she should not have been. (Where was the man she was in bed with, again?)

Consider how she was treated at her most vulnerable moment. The men who brought her to Jesus took advantage of this woman's vulnerability to use her for their own purposes. Jesus, on the other hand, restored dignity in a moment of shame. He did not allow the sin to pass unchallenged, but neither did he allow a soul to be abused.

How did you feel in your moment of unflattering exposure? That time when your faults were on display for the world to see and judge? That time when you threw the interception that cemented the opponents' victory, that interception your predecessor never would have thrown?

If you've lived through a moment like that, did it change your approach to moments when the shoe is on the other foot? When it is you with the advantage, and someone else who is exposed? When you are the interviewer asking the questions, instead of the nervous job-seeker scrambling for the right answers?

How do we treat people who are vulnerable? How did Jesus treat them?

"Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted."-- Galatians 6:1

"Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy." -- Matthew 5:7

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Common Ground, Across the Centuries

It's human nature to seek familiar company.

Some people can relate to each other because of a specific experience they share. War veterans are a prime example.

But, not everyone can be a war veteran. So, how does a civilian who loves his country find common ground with a veteran who fought to defend it? First, by showing gratitude, and by openly acknowledging his inability to understand firsthand the experience known only to the veteran. False familiarity with a veteran's experience would be just as insulting as any failure to respect the veteran's sacrifice. A grateful civilian will appreciate and thank a veteran, and a gracious veteran will accept these warm thoughts, and consider his civilian friend just as much his countryman as any fellow veteran.

Deeper than all this, however, lies the most important way a civilian honors a veteran's sacrifice. A truly appreciative civilian will live in such a way as never to bring dishonor upon the sacrifice of the veteran. A grateful citizen will live up to all the ideals for which the veteran fought, and never treat the veteran's experience as commonplace. Then the veteran can enjoy the peace of knowing his sacrifice was appreciated.

Common ground is found in shared allegiance, even when experience differs from person to person, and even between people separated by decades or centuries of time.

Hebrews 11 is a source of inspiration for any Christian. The tales of God's faithful from centuries past serve to motivate today's Christian to strengthen his own faith and demonstrate that faith in action. Every Christian reading Hebrews 11 should feel a sense of familiarity with the people cited in the text. These people are not just historical figures; they are family. They lived and died before our time, but we will meet them in a time yet to come.

Imagine the stories they will tell us!

Along with several major figures listed in Hebrews 11, such as Abraham, Joseph, and Moses, are other believers, unnamed personally, but immortalized for their faith, in particular for the way in which they died.

Easy to overlook, disturbing to contemplate:

"...others were tortured, not accepting deliverance...they were stoned, they were sawn in two...they were slain with the sword...they wandered in deserts and mountains, in dens and caves of the earth." -- Hebrews 11:35, 37, 38

How does a Christian today, in a developed nation, enjoying the protection of the law rather than the persecution of the government, relate to a brother or sister whose last sensation in this life was the terror of flesh and organs being ripped apart by the teeth of a saw? How does a Christian concerned with keeping his house cool in the summer relate to one of God's children driven to take refuge in a cave?

Of course, every person's experience is different, and no one is expected, in any area of life, to have lived firsthand the experience of every other person he knows. And, no one should expect to comprehend fully the life and experiences of people from another time.

But still, we have to wonder: Would our lives and concerns make any sense at all to our nameless family in Hebrews 11? More importantly, would our faith be recognizable to them? Would they understand, as people who were murdered for their faith, how hard we try to avoid even being made socially uncomfortable for ours?

Not everyone can be a martyr, any more than everyone could be a war veteran. It's not possible, nor is it necessary, or even helpful to the cause. But, today's Christian must take something from the stories of these unknown martyrs. The thought to be taken is the utmost necessity of today's Christian living a life that would bring honor upon these people's sacrifice, and that would never treat their sacrifice as commonplace.

While it is Jesus' sacrifice that saves us, these sacrifices of our spiritual ancestors also serve to inspire us to be less attached to this world and more attached to Him.

Common ground between an ancient martyr, and a 21st century Christian? It can be found only in allegiance to Christ, even if it should cost everything else.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

The Cost

I never thought I would be happy to see gasoline priced at $3.69 a gallon.

But I saw it today, and I was happy. A few months ago, I was horrified at this price. But, after riding gas prices up to $3.99 (So far, I've managed never to pay $4), I've been glad to see a 30-cent drop, at least where I live, over the last few weeks.

Someday, we'll all be telling these stories to our kids, but I remember paying a little over $1 a gallon in the early 90s, when I owned my first vehicle. At that time, gasoline was a modest portion of my monthly expenses, not even something I had to watch very closely.

Today, of course, it's a whole different story. Just about everyone in America has had to rearrange the household budget to accommodate the cost of fuel.

As frustrating as it is, and as unfair as it feels, it just costs what it costs, and we all have to drive, so we all find a way to pay.

I've spent most of this week interviewing candidates for open teaching positions at my campus.

One of the qualities I look for most in a teaching candidate is the commitment to remain positive and joyful, even when things get tough and people complain. Especially when things get tough and people complain. I'll take a joyful rookie over a grouchy veteran any day. I'm not easily impressed by years in the business. I'm impressed by the spirit that makes for good years in the business.

Teaching is a joy, but it's tough. Kids of any age require a deep well of patience. Anyone considering the teaching field must understand this.

Effective teachers have an inner source of renewable joy that allows them to remain positive in the face of constant challenges to their patience. Ineffective teachers lack this quality, thinking someone, somewhere is supposed to be doing something to keep them happy. They don't realize no one can do that for them.

A great teaching career costs a lot. It takes all the patience and love you have, and then some.

Is it fair that it costs this much? Maybe, maybe not. But, that's just what it costs, and anyone who desires the role must commit to paying the cost in full.

Consider these words from Jesus:

"If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters -- yes, even his own life -- he cannot be my disciple. And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple...any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple." -- Luke 14:26-27, 33.

Who could ever claim to be comfortable with these words?

We so often focus on what we receive as Christians, and rightly so, because we receive a lot.

But, do we think often enough about what it costs to follow Jesus?

There are deeper waters in which to dive for more complete answers to what Jesus says in Luke 14, but the bottom line is this: Being a disciple of Jesus means living a life in which you are no longer the center. Your wishes and preferences are no longer the rules that govern your world. Your pleasure is no longer the goal.

An effective disciple understands the cost in this life, and looks toward heaven. An ineffective disciple is shocked by the cost, and lives in frustration, thinking someone, somewhere is supposed to be doing something to keep him happy.

Jesus has paid our debt and freed us from sin.

Now, all He asks for is everything we are and have.

Are we ready to give it all to Him?

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Something I Just Don't Get

My mother was pregnant with me at the time of the Roe v. Wade decision. Abortions happened before my time, of course, but I've always found it disturbing that my generation was the first to be declared dispensable, and that if my mother had been of a mind to have an abortion at the time, I might never have been born.

The abortion debate is ongoing, but is not particularly hot this election season.

Most everyone has his mind made up about this issue one way or the other, with views ranging from opposition in any circumstance, to opposition with a few exceptions, to support with some exceptions, to support in any circumstance.

Most discussions of this issue dissolve quickly into emotional fiascos, but when rare civil debate occurs, it usually centers around the questions of whose choice outweighs whose, and whether or not we're dealing with actual life in the womb, and at what point in gestation a developing baby should be regarded as a living being with rights of its own that trump the mother's rights and choices. The most informed people on both sides have answers ready for their opponents on all of these points.

Just for the record, I regard a developing baby in utero as a life of its own, from the earliest stage, with rights that override mom's preference as to whether he or she should live. And, just for the record, so does my mom. She has three sons, loves us all dearly, and there was never a chance she would have had an abortion.

We've all heard the arguments on both sides, but there is one aspect of abortion and pregnancy that I've never heard anyone tackle. It is a simple, practical point that doesn't even require faith in God to consider. It's something I just don't get.

I just don't get how 40 weeks outweigh a lifetime.

40 weeks is the length of time of a normal pregnancy, with many pregnancies actually being a little shorter. Most pregnant women, in fact, don't even learn they are pregnant until some of this time has already passed. By the time we celebrate a child's first birthday, that child's lifespan has already exceeded the time he or she spent in the womb.

I know, I know. I'm a man, not a woman. I don't understand what pregnancy is like, and I never will. I'm not claiming I do, nor minimizing the drama and trauma a woman endures in a normal pregnancy and delivery, let alone a childbirth complicated by medical issues. Pregnancy and delivery involve a lot more than watching 40 weeks pass. Of course, an abortion involves a lot more than a mere removal of tissue, to be sure, although few abortion advocates want to talk about this.

The fact is, a pregnant woman faces mental and physical trauma either way, whether she delivers her baby or has an abortion.

Another fact is that a pregnant woman who does not wish to raise her baby has no obligation to do so, and never has. With countless couples longing to adopt a child, even an unhealthy one, it's amazing to me that any woman sees no option but to abort an unwanted baby.

Isn't it funny how different people are when they have to account for their actions face to face, rather than being able to do what they want without explanation? I have found that the "toughest" person, by this world's standards, often becomes nervous, vague, and shifty when faced with an eyeball to eyeball reckoning for his actions. The tough talk in front of his peers disappears in an instant before even the most unassuming and non-threatening questioner.

How different would the abortion debate be if someone choosing an abortion had to explain the choice to the baby, or more intimidating still, to the adult that baby would eventually grow into? Or, even, to the preschooler that baby would be in just a few years?

How would you explain to someone that, for the sake of 40 weeks out of my adult life, you can't have any life at all? (And, no, the fact that I freely received my own mother's 40 weeks makes no difference...)

Who would make such a claim to someone who could respond?

Who would accept the short end of such a trade-off, in any area of life?

For that matter, how many abortion advocates would accept the short end of that stick? I daresay they would run for relief to the same court that gave them Roe v. Wade.

40 weeks vs. a lifetime.

I just don't get it.