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.