Monday, November 9, 2009

Saints & Saints Fans



Who could have guessed it?

The New Orleans Saints are 8 - 0, one of only two undefeated teams remaining in the NFL halfway through the season.

Honestly, it's not a huge deal to me, other than the novelty of a historically woeful team having an outstanding season, coupled with curiosity about the Saints' chances of carrying this momentum deep into the playoffs.

We'll see how it plays out in the coming weeks.

Flashback to 1989:

I was a sophomore in high school in Oregon, when my dad had to travel to New Orleans for business. This was an exciting trip, as no one in my family had ever been to that part of the country before. My dad asked us boys what we might like him to bring us back from The Big Easy, and it occurred to me that a Saints T-Shirt might be a cool item to have, despite the absence of any allegiance on my part to that team. So, that's what I asked for, and Dad came through with a cool Saints shirt that I wore for no real reason for a few years thereafter.

Fast-Forward to 2009:

Just imagine it: Had I only begun rooting for the Saints way back then, and had I followed their fortunes faithfully for the next twenty years, I would be riding high right now. I would be an original. A die-hard loyal, undeterred by years of futility, enjoying the fruit of years of faithful devotion.

But I didn't do that.

So, if I were to try to claim the Saints now, I would be a fairweather fan, a front-runner, a Johnny-Come-Lately, the total opposite of an original, and not likely to be fully embraced in the ranks of the New Orleans faithful.

I can imagine the sideways glances of the originals, viewing my brand new Reggie Bush jersey with suspicion, especially in the light of my near-total ignorance of Saints history & tradition, my absence of emotional investment in previous wins and losses, and the fact that Archie Manning is just Peyton and Eli's dad to me.

And, I don't think many of us would blame original Saints fans for being hesitant to welcome aboard every Johnny-Come-Lately who will just as likely become a "fan" of some other team later on when it's popular to do so.

How interesting, in the light of our feelings about the late comer, that Jesus would make a point of telling a story that overturns our instincts on this subject.

The workers hired on at the eleventh hour in Jesus' parable in Matthew 20:1-16 were just the kind of late arrivals we so often tend to categorize as lesser members of the group, lacking the full legitimacy of those who have "borne the burden and the heat of the day".

But Jesus, even at the expense of displeasing the "originals", makes the late comer their equal in every way. Worthy of the same reward. Free of any stigma or additional obligation. Not subject to any probationary period. Defended by the Master against any aspersions cast by brothers or sisters.

Do saints truly understand and accept Jesus' stance on the soul who arrives at the eleventh hour?

Even if we understand that Jesus accepts this new saint, do we comprehend what his stance means for us?

Do we get the fact that it is up to us to demonstrate that acceptance? That it's not enough to believe in the abstract that the late arrival is equal to the "original"?

If an eleventh-hour saint is made to feel like a Johnny-Come-Lately, then the body is not following the direction of the head, and the newcomer will not be likely to remain.

Picture yourself in the line receiving wages in Jesus' parable.

To be Christ-like in that scenario would mean celebrating the fact that the eleventh-hour hire received the same pay as you did, after you worked all day and the newcomer worked an hour. Not just celebrating it after the fact, but anticipating it beforehand, welcoming the new worker at the eleventh hour, knowing full well that his reward would equal yours, being glad about it, and expecting nothing different.

Are we there yet?

Sunday, November 8, 2009

2 Moments, Frozen in Time

Kristi and the boys and I recently enjoyed dinner on the Riverwalk in San Antonio.

As you can imagine, getting a 5 year-old and a 2 year-old to dinner and back in this setting is kind of an adventure. We parked on Travis Street, took a flight of stairs down to the Riverwalk, and followed the water for what seemed like a pretty good distance.

The boys were well-behaved, but it's still a little nerve-wracking making sure no one gets too close to the water or gets lost in the crowd. On the way back to our car after dinner, we were the classic picture of a family with small children: Daddy holding the hand of the 2 year-old who's had a noticeable accident, Mommy holding the hand of the 5 year-old who would just as soon follow the ducks off the path, both boys clutching their flashing, souvenir cups from the restaurant. Throw in a backpack of "kid stuff" and the picture is complete.

As our rag-tag caravan made its way through a quiet area of the Riverwalk, we came across an unexpected scene: A bride with her father and bridesmaids, gathered together by the water, waiting out the last few moments before her big moment, ready to take a stairway up to an open area where wedding music was playing.

In order to proceed, we had to squeeze right by this group, within inches of them, apologizing and trying not to impose in any way.

It was a chance encounter, but an interesting pair of snapshots to look at side-by-side. This new bride provided us with a visual reminder of where we were seven years ago next month, and, if by any chance she noticed and thought about it, we might have given her a picture of what could be in store for her and her new husband in the coming years.

A preacher I know often points out that a wedding and a marriage have frighteningly little in common, and our two snapshots provide evidence of his claim: The formality, pomp, and idealism of the wedding day, giving way to the all too "down-to-earth" reality of making it all work in a marriage with children.

So, which picture is right?

The perfect wedding dress? Or, a child's wet pants? The strings that serenade the bride coming down the aisle on the day she's dreamt of her entire life? Or, the clatter of cookpots on the kitchen floor, serenading mom on a random Tuesday afternoon? The carefully chosen words of devotion spoken earnestly by bride and groom? Or, the sometimes careless words of hurriedness, spoken over the shoulder or around the corner, by harried husband and wife?

Well, if you've been there awhile, you know they're all right; they're all true. You're not going to have one without the other. It's a mistake to overlook or to exaggerate the importance of either at the expense of the other.

Which picture is more true:

The new creation emerging from the water?

Peace in the face of imminent death?

Moments of intimacy with God that put a lump in your throat and bring a tear to your eye?

Times of everyday ordinariness that leave you wondering if you're missing something?

The clutch of temptation and sin?

The embrace of a forgiving God?

The approval of the like-minded?

The scorn of some who think it's so foolish?

Once again, they're all true. Each one is a part of the deal. None can be ignored or forgotten. Each will have its place in the life of a Christian.

Where is wisdom?

Wisdom lies in seeing one of those pictures while experiencing its opposite.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Business Cards

I just finished putting a stack of my business cards back into their carrying case, to go back into my pocket. The other day, one or the other, or both, of our boys got ahold of my case and took all the cards out to play with, and I found the cards scattered on the floor.

Lord, please help me remember that there will come a day, far sooner than I'm prepared for, when I would give anything to find my business cards scattered around by two little sons who think my stuff is cool.

Help me remember that.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Why It Matters

Does a leader's personal life matter?

Every so often in American politics, this question rears its head and generates fierce debate, pitting voters against each other and stirring volatile emotions on both sides. Some argue that an individual who has proven less than trustworthy in personal matters is not worthy of the trust of strangers. Others argue that anyone, even a powerful leader, should be judged only on the performance of formal responsibilities, and that anything beyond that is no one else's business.

To date, no resolution to this argument has been found, but opportunities for debate still abound.

In the latest example of a high-profile individual caught up in personal scandal, comedian David Letterman addressed his audience frankly about his recent experiences with attempted extortion committed by an individual threatening to reveal embarrassing information.

While few would consider a TV host to be an important leader in our society, the incident serves as an example of how a leader's standing, credibility, and authority are compromised by personal scandal. Like it or not, Dave will never be looked upon in the same way.

Sure, Dave's comments to his audience were well-received, and he will certainly have the support of his fans throughout the ordeal, but few leaders have the benefit of Dave's sharp wit and a nightly TV audience to help overcome the damage of personal scandal.

Most leaders in this position are simply compromised and crippled by it.

For the Christian, it's easy to think this principle applies to ministers, deacons, shepherds, people we recognize as leaders in the body of Christ. And, of course, it does. Scripture makes clear that leadership in the church requires a personal life that will not be a stumbling block (I Timothy 3:1-13).

But what is so easy to forget is that every Christian is in a position of influence and, in the eyes of someone, leadership. Scripture clearly identifies every member of the body of Christ as a "priest" in his or her own right, (I Peter 2:9), having full right to approach the throne of God through Christ.

Every Christian relishes direct access to God, but imagine for a moment that we didn't all have it, that only certain, special people did, and the rest of us looked to them for contact with the Lord.

In that scenario, what would we expect of those special people? How would we feel about their privileged status, and our dependence on them, if we found them to be personally lacking in character or trustworthiness?

No, no one is expecting anyone to be sinless. All need the blood of Christ. No one can stand before God without it.

But influence is a fragile thing. Credibility is just as easily broken.

We all expect our leaders to maintain both.

But is there any reason why we should expect anything less of ourselves?

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Where Does the Bad Stuff Go?

Maybe I'd like to forget it, but I know I never will.

On the other hand, I have gotten so many good laughs out of this moment, I'm not sure I really want to let it go.

I was in my late teens, and we were visiting my grandparents. I don't recall all the circumstances now, but I was riding in the back seat of my grandparents' car, and we stopped to check on some work my grandpa was having done out on a section of his land. While we waited, Grandma opened her car door to let some air in.

Little did she know what else she was letting in.

One of Grandpa's employees, an older man, came over to visit, and hunkered down in the dirt on one knee, just inside Grandma's open car door. We made small talk with the pleasant workman for a few minutes, and then it happened:


Without warning, comment, or fanfare, as a chuckle wound its way down, the man looked down to earth, snorted deep and long, reared his head back, turned to his right, and spat the biggest loogie you ever saw, right smack in the middle of the inside of Grandma's window, not three feet from her face.

I guess it was just one of those moments where you forget where you are.

But in his defense, the ol' boy wasn't totally insensitive to the mess he had made. After a surprisingly slow moment's delay, he suddenly realized his error, and with his usual jovial spirit, declared, "Aw, lookee here what I done..." and began using his filthy shirt sleeve to smear the mucus and spittle all around the window, doing as much harm as good. But he tried, bless his heart.

What to do with a mess like that?

There's not enough Windex in all the world.



It matters where the bad stuff goes, doesn't it?

The spitter in the story obviously broke some critical rules, rules we live by, care about, and expect everyone around us to know and obey. In fact, we tend to judge pretty harshly those who fail to abide by those rules, and probably won't choose to spend time in their presence. And who could blame anyone for feeling that way?

But what if we tried something a little different?

What if we took the rules governing phlegm, gas, and earwax, and applied them to the most toxic, germ-infested forms of human interaction?

What if we practiced the most careful hygiene with:

*The scandalous story about another person.

*The offense taken at someone's stray comment.

*The hurt caused by a friend's oversight.

*The disagreement with a point made in the Sunday sermon.

*The complaint against a child's teacher.

*The bitterness over an age-old slight.

Or, to put it another way: Would we really want to explain to God why we are so careful to keep our noses blown and our ears clean, but so careless, or perhaps vicious, with words and emotions containing sickness far more contagious than any bodily fluid?

Few have actually suffered the misfortune of being spat upon by another person, but who hasn't felt the sting of the wrong word at the wrong time?

Few have actually spat upon someone else, but who hasn't taken advantage of an opportunity to twist the knife just to make the wound bleed a little more?

Some are as careless with hurtful words as that poor workman was when he spat on the window.

Some of the careless are oblivious to where the loogie landed; some realize it, but choose not to care. Others realize the mess they made, but prove as inept as the workman at cleaning it up. (Assuming it's even possible to clean it up.)

A small minority of the careless spitters realize their error, repent, and in humility clean up the mess, restoring trust in the process.

Still others actually spit on the window on purpose, relishing the chance to maximize the damage of hurtful words.

But what if it really was different?

What if we were actually as careful with our words, especially our angry words, as we are with a used Kleenex?

Saturday, August 8, 2009

"Is It Oso?"



In the last few months, our boys have gone crazy for a new cartoon, Special Agent Oso.

"Oso" is a teddy bear fashioned after James Bond, and he is routinely sent out on missions to help young kids trying to complete random tasks. Oso arrives on the scene out of the blue and lends a hand, much to the appreciation of the child who needed help.

For kids who just can't get enough of Oso, parents can go online and sign up for a personal phone call in which Oso will call your child by name and assign a special mission to complete around the house.

A few weeks back, my wife Kristi lined up both of our boys to receive "the call" from Oso, and it went over big. Both Benjamin and Jonathan were blown away by the phone call, listened intently to Oso's message about replacing the batteries in the household flashlights, and talked about the phone call for days.

I'm not sure we had fully grasped just how excited our boys were by Oso's call, until a few days later, when Kristi's cell phone rang and 2 year-old Jonathan, snapping to attention, asked, "Is it Oso?"

Now, that is a kid who is eager to hear from his favorite cartoon character. He just can't get enough.

Isn't that how it is with those we love, while we are apart? We want to hear from them. We look forward to any word that might come, and we appreciate the message when it arrives. If the message is written, we don't stop at reading it once. We just can't get enough.

"The days are coming," declares the Sovereign Lord, "when I will send a famine through the land -- not a famine of food or a thirst for water, but a famine of hearing the words of the Lord." -- Amos 8:11

God's people, throughout history, have not always demonstrated love for Him in their appreciation of His message. In fact, in Amos's time, God decided He had had enough of seeing His message ignored, and told the people He would withhold it for awhile, knowing it would be sought again:

"Men will stagger from sea to sea and wander from north to east, searching for the word of the Lord, but they will not find it." -- Amos 8:12

Sometimes we don't know what we have until it's gone.

Have you forgotten the taste of the Word of God, the taste described as being "as sweet as honey"? (Ezekiel 3:3)

Has the hearing of His message become so commonplace that your ears no longer perk up and give attention to its reading?

Can you imagine the irony of camping next to a fresh water spring, and never quenching your thirst with its water?

Or, forgetting you're thirsty altogether?

Is God's message greeted with eagerness from listeners who can't get enough? Or with apathy, from people who think they've heard enough?

The proof lies in what we do after hearing. (John 14:15)

I'd better go see about those flashlight batteries...

Saturday, June 13, 2009

What's That Smell?




Let's face it.

No one wants to smell bad.

Even our 2 year-old, if he manages to sneak into Mom & Dad's bathroom, can be found applying Old Spice High Endurance to his stomach. He's got the right idea, anyway.

Like it or not, people make judgments about other people on the basis of any noticeable smell, whether pleasant or unpleasant. The right perfume or cologne may be intoxicating, but any failure to prevent unpleasant odor is, well...

One summer when I worked at a university bookstore, there was a customer who entered the store almost every day, and carried with him a cloud of the most staggering stink you ever smelled. Seriously. It buckled the knees. It lingered in the air after the man left the room. I am not exaggerating when I say this guy gave me a headache.

Looking back, I have to admit there was a character/personality profile I imagined about this poor man, based on nothing more than this unfortunate problem. I never once spoke to him, never even allowed myself to be close to him. I avoided him and made fun of him with my co-workers, and that was about it. I decided in my mind that this guy was either unsanitary, inconsiderate, or simply oblivious.

But one random day it was different. The smelly man entered the store and didn't smell anymore. Something had changed, but I never found out what. Had someone spoken
to him? Helped him? Befriended him? Had he been painfully aware of the offense all along, but lacked the resources to remedy the problem, until that day? (Of course, he was book-shopping, so one would assume he had some money.)

In any case, however it happened, the fog had lifted, the odor was gone, and the man's presence no longer caused offense. I was uneasy with the realization that I was only then willing to deal with this man.

Makes you wonder how some of the people Jesus dealt with smelled. A group of fishermen after a long night on the water? Sowers who scattered seed by hand? Impoverished people without the luxury of concern over appearances?

Besides physical smell, many people Jesus interacted with bore the stench of the condemnation of their community: Lepers, Lunatics, Prostitutes, Tax Collectors, and ultimately, two thieves.

What made Jesus different was his willingness to engage humanity right where it was, however it looked, however it smelled, whatever anyone thought.

How interesting, then, that the analogy of fragrance is used to describe the effect the people of God are supposed to have on their surroundings:

"We are to God the fragrance of Christ among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing." -- 2 Corinthians 2:15

We smell like Him. If He is really in us, we smell like Him. People can tell when we're near. They notice it. It surrounds us, and lingers in the air after we leave.

So, is it a nice smell?

Well, that all depends. You might say it's in the nose of the smeller.

"To the one we are the aroma of death leading to death, and to the other the aroma of life leading to life." -- 2 Corinthians 2:16

What a person thinks of Jesus will determine what he thinks of how a Christian smells. Not everyone likes Him. Not everyone appreciates His fragrance. And, if you choose to wear it, not everyone will appreciate you.

Do you trust Him enough to wear His fragrance and let others think what they will?

"If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you." -- John 15:18

Consider how self-conscious we all are about odor, and the measures we take to prevent it. Few among us would dare expose the public to our own natural scent.

Jesus has a scent all His own.

What then? Will we wash it away, mask it, prevent it? Or trust it to have its effect, knowing it's not about us anyway?

Considering all this, and looking back on the smelly man in the bookstore, the clear question that comes to mind is:

Did I actually smell worse than he did?

Saturday, May 23, 2009

New?




True story:

On a random visit last year, my mother-in-law offered me a pair of Dockers she had bought for my father-in-law, since the pants had turned out to be the wrong size for him. Once I made sure the pants would fit me, I gladly accepted the offer and brought the pants home.

A week or so later, I decided to wear the pants to work. I removed the labels from the pants, touched up the ironing, put on the pants, and went on my way. (I know, I know, I didn't wash them first...)

Later on, in the middle of my work day, I happened to put my hands in the pockets of the pants, and felt a piece of paper. I pulled out the paper and realized it was the receipt from the purchase of the pants I was wearing.

The date of the purchase was printed on the receipt, and, much to my surprise, the date was five and a half years prior to the morning I pulled the labels off the pants.

My brand-new Dockers were actually five and a half years old!

They were both new and old at the same time.

A pair of pants that should have been well-worn, if not worn out, was still in mint condition, never used, never even tried on, forgotten for half a decade. The pants hadn't served their intended purpose for anyone in five and a half years.

"A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another." -- John 13:34-35

"Brethren, I write no new commandment to you, but an old commandment which you have had from the beginning..." -- I John 2:7

Love one another.

A new commandment? An old commandment? Both?

The children of Israel had been commanded to love their neighbors as themselves centuries before Jesus' ministry (Lev. 19:18). So, it's certainly an old commandment in that sense. But Jesus made it new again by raising the bar of what the commandment means. When He talked about loving one another, the standard became, "as I have loved you". Who could have claimed to have already had that covered?

In another sense, as John reminds his readers, the commandment to love one another is old to every Christian, because it was introduced right along with the gospel, at the very beginning of each soul's walk with Christ (I John 2:7).

But, there is yet another sense in which this commandment is both new and old at the same time, and will be forever, for every Christian.

Like my "new" Dockers, the commandment to love one another is brand-new again each time we realize we've forgotten about it.

Maybe the commandment was accepted warmly, even eagerly, to be put into service to the blessing of others, only to find its way to the bottom of a drawer, out of commission and unaccounted for. Maybe the season or the fashion changed, and it just didn't seem like the right time to wear that garment.

For whatever reason, has the commandment to love one another, as Jesus loves us, fallen to the back of your mind, or been forgotten entirely?

Is it so taken for granted that we're content never to see it?

May it never be so.

Pray that our Father will make this old commandment new in our lives every day.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

What's the Point?




OK, NBA fans: Did you hear the news?

The Los Angeles Clippers, through some far-fetched stroke of what statisticians refer to as "dumb luck", claimed the #1 pick in this year's NBA Draft Lottery.

Perhaps you, like me, are rolling your eyes and asking yourself, "What's the point?"

Or, maybe you're even feeling a twinge of pity for the young athlete selected by the Clips. "Sorry, man. Hang tough."

Growing up in the L.A. area, my blood ran purple and gold. The life of a Lakers fan was good in the 80's. I actually remember the Clippers' move from San Diego to Los Angeles in 1984, and, even as a kid, wondered what on earth was the point.

Ever since, the Clippers have operated for the most part in total futility, right in the shadow of an NBA powerhouse. Not even #1 draft picks in 1988 and 1998 have helped right the Clippers' ship.

And, now, here they are all over again.

But this really isn't about the Clippers.

Have you ever given up on someone? Do you know anyone who is so chronically unreliable that you finally roll your eyes in disgust?

Someone who, despite the help of everyone around, and the benefit of every resource and opportunity, just never seems to get it together?

Someone who prompts you to ask yourself, "What's the point?"

Of course you do. We all do.

*The struggling, straggling student who can be led to water, but can't be made to drink.

*The troubled employee who doesn't seem to comprehend that the boss's patience will eventually run out.

*The borrower back in debt just a year after being bailed out.

*The spouse who never matured beyond selfishness.

*The child who continues to abuse his parents' trust.

*The hollow promises coming from all of the above.

Where does anyone find the patience to deal with this? So much promise, so much possibility, so little results. Total futility.

More importantly, do we realize that, on our own, this is all we amount to before God?

Where can we find the patience to deal with unreliable people who don't perform?

Where does He?

May His grace toward us give us the perspective we need to extend grace to others, even when efforts are futile and patience is thin. Even when it's hard to see the point.

In fact, especially then.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Classic Quote

So often, the classic quote comes at the most random moment.

This afternoon, I spent some time with our boys, letting them ride their bikes up and down the sidewalk by our house. This is still a "follow-along" activity, as Jonathan is barely getting started at riding, and Benjamin still needs a little help now and then.

We were following our usual route, past the next-door neighbors' house, over the drainage ditch (yes, a glorious view) and on to the driveway of the next house, where we turn around and head back home for another lap.

Just as we made the turn in the usual driveway, I took hold of Benjamin's handlebar to guide him around. Without hesitation, he made clear he had it all under control:

"Daddy, you just have to let go now."

I had to let that one sink in for just a second.

How deep does that statement go in your mind?

Talk about flash-forwards. Coming back up that sidewalk, I saw visions of everything from the first day of Kindergarten to high school graduation, relationships I may or may not approve of, and life choices that will be entirely our son's to make.

Lots of moments ahead when I will have little choice but to let go.

But that's only part of the story. The fact is, the only reason Benjamin was able to tell me to let go, was the fact that I had held on for as long as I had. Today wasn't his first bike ride. I've taken hold of the handlebar many times before. And, it probably won't be the last time he ends up needing my help. But his confidence has grown to the point that he believes he can handle it on his own.

And the safety of my grip on the handlebar was needed for a time.

Just not forever.


*The wisdom to know when to let go.

*The courage to let go when you know you should.

*And, the commitment to hold on long enough to make your grip obsolete.

All this wrapped up in the confident statement of a 4 year-old.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

On Mothers' Day

I thought it would be appropriate to re-post this one from last year on the occasion of Mothers' Day. This one originally appeared in July, 2008, and was entitled, "A Promise Kept". Happy Mothers' Day!

Jane: "Mary Poppins, you won't ever leave us, will you?"
Michael: "Will you stay if we promise to be good?"
Mary Poppins: "That's a pie-crust promise; easily made, easily broken."

Most of us know the story of the prophet Samuel's birth.

In a sense, every human being owes his existence to his mother, but Samuel in particular owed his life to his mother Hannah's deep faith and heartbroken prayer.

We read the story in the first few chapters of I Samuel.

Hannah lives, as so many women of her era, in a polygamous relationship, with a husband who loves her dearly, but also has another wife. The other wife has borne children, but Hannah has not. In fact, the Scripture says, "the Lord had closed her womb". (1:5)

No explanation is given for this, but it is clear that Hannah's inability to conceive is a source of great pain for her. This fact is not lost on the other wife, who takes advantage of this sore spot to "provoke her severely, to make her miserable, because the Lord had closed her womb." (1:6)

"She was in bitterness of soul, and prayed to the Lord and wept in anguish." (1:10)

Out of this torment comes a request, and a promise.

"O Lord of hosts, if you will indeed look on the affliction of your maidservant, and remember me, and not forget your maidservant, but will give your maidservant a male child, then I will give him to the Lord all the days of his life." (1:11)

Hannah's prayer is granted, and she names her son "Heard by God".

As moving as this part of the story is, it alone does not provide the most compelling point for us today. That is yet to come.

God's intervention in this story is, like most of His deeds, beyond our grasp. How does God take a woman who cannot have children, and bring about whatever change is necessary to allow conception to occur? How or why had He prevented conception from occurring before? We'll never know; we accept that He can and does intervene in such ways, according to His will.

Not to suggest that God's work is not the most remarkable element of this story, but His intervention in this case is similar to innumerable miracles He has performed over the centuries, completely in keeping with who He is and what we have always known Him to do.

The most unusual element of this story is Hannah's promise. More specifically, the fact that she keeps it.

After all the years of torment and depression, after all the wishing and hoping, the son she wondered if she could ever have is finally in her arms. Any mother who has locked eyes with her newborn knows the instant and eternal bond. Everything else is reordered. Previous priorities fade. Nothing is ever the same.

Yet, in spite of all this, as God remembered her, so Hannah remembers her promise. She weans her son, and then takes him, at a very young age, to Eli the priest to begin his life of service to God. And, the course is set for a critical period of Israel's history.

Imagine it. Taking your small child to begin a life apart from your household, willingly giving him up to see him again only once a year thereafter. A tear-jerker of a passage is found in chapter 2, verses 18 - 19: "Samuel ministered before the Lord, even as a child, wearing a linen ephod. And his mother used to make him a little robe, and bring it to him year by year when she came up with her husband to offer the yearly sacrifice."

Can you see Hannah stitching her son a new robe, remembering what he looked like the last time she saw him, wondering what he would look like now? Wondering how much he might have grown? Hoping he'll like his new robe? Can you imagine the annual reunion, with Hannah helping Samuel try it on? Can you imagine how often Samuel thought of his mother throughout the year, every time he wore that robe?

Considering all this, it's truly amazing that Hannah kept this promise. Honestly, if she had failed to keep her promise, would we judge her for it today? Could we blame her? Could any of us keep a promise like this? Would any of us have made such a promise in the first place?

Hannah would have had at her disposal any and every rationalization she would have needed to break her promise to God, and make it all right in her mind. Imagine how the tempter might have worked on Hannah's mind in the few years she had Samuel at home. We're not given any indication that Hannah even struggled with this decision, but if she did, she would have had plenty of help.

While we might not have been inclined to judge Hannah harshly had she failed to keep this promise to God, Scripture indicates God Himself would indeed have taken it seriously. (Ecclesiastes 5:4-5) And while Hannah's story is not entirely equivalent to the story of Jephthah (Judges 11), it serves to illustrate the same point: take seriously what you tell God you're going to do.

Buried beneath all this, lies an often-overlooked fact in Hannah's story.

"And Eli would bless Elkanah and his wife, and say, 'The Lord give you descendants from this woman for the loan that was given to the Lord.' Then they would go to their own home. And the Lord visited Hannah, so that she conceived and bore three sons and two daughters. Meanwhile the child Samuel grew before the Lord." (I Samuel 2:20-21)

Who knew Hannah was going to have more children after she gave Samuel to the Lord?

There is no indication that anyone knew. Hannah's original prayer was for "a male child", not for the ability to have as many children as she and her husband might have wanted to have. It was on her heart to have a son, and once that prayer was granted, it is clear her heart was content. (2:1-10) In fact, we have to assume that Hannah thought she was handing over to the Lord her one and only child, and that she would live the rest of her years on the joy of her short time with her baby Samuel. There was no inkling of future children to numb the pain of giving Samuel up, or to make it any easier to keep that promise. The reward of having five more children must have overwhelmed her heart.

Promises, promises. We live in a world today in which promises don't seem to mean very much. It seems people vow first, and think later. The vow may even be sincere at the time, but changing circumstances provide the back door people use to abandon a promise they no longer wish to keep. Even marriage vows turn out to be pie-crust promises with disturbing regularity.

More than anything else, a Christian is supposed to be different from this world. How seriously do we take our promises to ourselves, let alone others, let alone God?

"This is the year I'm going to exercise again."

"Till death alone separates us."

"You are my God."

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Watching Jim Bob

Are you familiar with the Duggar family?

These great folks are the subject of an interesting TV show called "18 Kids & Counting". It's more or less a wholesome reality show about the day-to-day life of a family with 18 children. Besides the daily adventures of the family, there are many moments that should prompt a little self-examination from the viewer.

Over the last few seasons of the show, the head of the family, Jim Bob Duggar, has on two specific occasions laid down an example that should make every husband and father squirm.

The first was an episode that featured a family trip in an older-model RV that was also towing a large trailer. The family had prepared for days, packed with precision, planned for everything, and finally launched off on the trip, only to have the RV overheat and break down just a few miles down the highway, unable to handle the weight of the trailer behind it.

So, there was Jim Bob, with wife and children in tow, broken down on the side of the road, with the hopes of a joyful trip hanging in the balance.

No joke, no exaggeration: The man never batted an eye. Never broke a sweat. Thought and spoke calmly, but quickly. Not a hint of frustration. No sign of despair. The man regrouped, devised a new plan, fixed the vehicle HIMSELF, and got the family back on the road, joking later on about the pace of the trip thus far.

What?!?

Is this guy a robot? Is he just doing this for the cameras? Would he really, like most of the rest of us, blow his stack, curse the vehicle, and terrorize some toddlers if it hadn't been for the TV show?

If you had any doubt about it, all doubt was erased in a more recent episode, in which the family experienced an ice storm that broke the limbs off several trees on their property. One huge limb demolished the family's outdoor storage shed, and another knocked out the power lines to the house, leaving the Duggars without electricity for days.

The camera crew dutifully followed Jim Bob around as he surveyed the damage. Just then, Jim Bob said something that explained everything about his previous calm reaction to the RV breakdown:

"Right now, the kids are watching how I react to this."

Amazing.

To be in that very moment, responding in real time, and to say such a thing.

Every one of us could say that in retrospect, but not many of us could say it in the moment.

We all regret tempers lost and careless words, but not many of us avoid the need for regret.

Thanks, Jim Bob.

Your words made me squirm, but I needed it.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Finished

So much is wrapped up in these final words of Jesus on the cross:

"It is finished."

The torment of a cruel execution. The weight of the world's sin. The strain of the most difficult mission ever undertaken. The grip of sin on the helpless souls of humanity. The burden of the Law on the backs of believers. Separation from His Father.

All of this, finished finally when Jesus breathed His last.

We have the benefit today of knowing the rest of the story, unlike all those witnesses who saw this happen, felt the earth shake beneath them, wondered at the darkened sky, and later encountered people long since dead. Jews who heard rumors of the temple veil being found ripped apart, stories of people claiming to have seen Jesus again, reports of miracles performed by His apostles.

It was a time of great events, events that required decisions on the part of everyone who heard of them. To believe, or not to believe?

But from Jesus' perspective, a phase was complete. Everything He had come to earth to do was done. For better or worse, it was done. Whether everyone believed, or no one believed, it was done. He was going back home to prepare for His next visit.

This attitude is evident in the written record of what Jesus did when He appeared to people after His resurrection. He appeared to the women who came to His tomb the third day. Walked and spoke with two travelers who initially didn't recognize Him. Grilled fish on the beach with His disciples. Appeared suddenly inside a locked room and comforted them. Offered his hands and side to Thomas, who decided he didn't need to touch them after all. Bestowed His Spirit upon them, issued the Great Commission, and ascended to Heaven.

It's interesting that there is no record of any confrontation with the Jewish leadership who wanted Him dead. No appearances to folks who had boldly disbelieved His claim to be the Son of God. No "How Do You Like Me Now?" moment with those who had dared Him to come down from the cross. No "Remember Me?" visit to Pilate. Apparently, no last look at the old wood shop, no contemplative visit to the garden to reflect on that last prayer. No retracing of the steps to Golgotha, no scanning of the ground for drops of blood spilled along the way. No search for the cross. No last cleansing of the temple. No last eradication of disease.

Every post-resurrection moment for Christ on earth was focused on the future, not the past. His appearances were spared for those who believed in Him, and dedicated to preparing them for the events recorded in Acts.

Everything that had gone before was, in a word, finished.

How could Jesus feel such a sense of completion regarding such dramatic and meaningful, even painful, events? How could He be at peace with all that had just happened? Did Jesus just not feel the emotions you and I feel? Of course He did, as we know from His tears over the death of Lazarus, even knowing full well he was going to raise Lazarus from the dead.

In all our talk about asking what Jesus would do, has anyone asked how Jesus would approach life after trauma?

How many souls who live through tragedy and turmoil, for whatever reason, never see these events finished in their lifetime? How many of us relive, revisit, feel again, suffer anew, and possibly hurt others with our inability to finish? And how many of us who don't finish, ever really want to?

Is it God's will for His children to keep salt sprinkled on their wounds, or to pierce those wounds periodically and make them bleed again? While scars may be unavoidable, does He really want us never to heal? Never to be at peace again?

Consider a contrast: The Apostle Paul on one hand, and King David on the other.

Both of these men lived lives marked by dramatic events, even tragic events. Paul somehow considered finished his previous life as a persecutor of the church. While he acknowledged his past as evidence of his opinion that he was the chief of all sinners, he did not allow those deeds to impede his efforts to secure the church's future. He accepted that God's grace was sufficient for him, and that he didn't have to resolve it all. It was in God's hands, and Paul was at peace.

King David certainly gave the appearance of a soul at peace as he lay dying and about to turn over his kingdom to his son Solomon. But the appearance was deceiving. It turns out David's business on earth wasn't finished at all, as he saddled his son, the newly anointed king, with the burden of two vengeance killings to be carried out after David's death so he couldn't be blamed for them. As grievous as David felt these two men's offenses were, he had clearly given the appearance of having made peace with the facts and let the matters go. But this was not the case. In David's mind, it wouldn't be finished until two men were dead.

In a small Texas town live two families who each lost a small child to the same type of accident: backing over the child with a family vehicle. These two families are just as much a study in contrasts as Paul and David.

One family, while never ceasing to remember their lost son, has long since allowed God to carry this burden for them, and has carried on to contribute to their community, and even to have more children who will only meet their lost brother after this life. The ache in the heart will never completely go away, but the incident and its related trauma are finished for this family.

The other family was destroyed by the accident, with the husband and wife descending into alcoholism, infidelity, and neglect of their other children. The end of that fateful moment will never be seen by this family, as every trial they suffer from now on will be linked back to it in their minds. Unless they make a major change of course, they will never know peace. It will never be finished.

When we suffer, and after we have suffered, what is it we seek?

Answers? Reasons? Numbness? Escape? Rectification?

We do seek these things, but God does not promise them. What does God offer?

" the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus." (Philippians 4:7)

Peace. He offers peace. The knowledge of being secure in Him in spite of not having answers, reasons, numbness, escape, or rectification. His presence, as real as the pain we suffer, and many times stronger. The confidence that eternity with Him will dwarf even our best recollection of the worst pain we endured on earth. (Romans 8:18)

The fluke accident that claims a child's life.

The job lost to unfair circumstances.

The deceit that claims a chunk of your heart and years of your life.

The reputation falsely injured.

The cruel disease that cripples a body.

The loved one lost to war or murder.

Any of these disasters and countless others could enter a Christian's life and open a bleeding wound. Healing isn't easy or automatic, nor will it occur at the same pace for everyone. No one forgets a traumatic event. No one should. No one survives such a moment uninjured. And again, no one should.

But after the trauma? What then? Will we claim His peace, or search in vain for the things He never promised?

Will our moments of trauma be landmarks along the road behind us, significant but finished, or will they be wet clay in our hands for us to mold, re-mold, re-work, and make a mess with, never quite finding the shape they should take?

What would Jesus do?

What did He do?

What would Satan have you do?

Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Real Battleground

Our 2 year-old son Jonathan accompanied me to Subway this evening to pick up sandwiches for supper. It turned out to be a good thing he's still a little too young to understand everything around him.

Jon-Jon and I entered the sandwich shop and approached the counter. A very friendly employee began getting our bread ready when I overheard a bit of a conversation at the opposite end of the counter.

A dad was in line, probably in his late 40s, with his teenage daughter in tow. They looked normal enough; didn't appear to be members of a biker gang or anything like that. The dad could have been a guy you would do business with, and the girl could have been a cheerleader at school.

Girl and pop were engaged in some sort of playful "joking reprimand/yeah, right, Dad" kind of moment that any father and daughter might enjoy. I didn't hear what Dad actually said, but the girl responded between giggles with the kind of "Oh, gimme a break" response that would be appropriate to the situation. She did not appear to intend any disrespect to her father, and he certainly didn't take her response that way. He said what he said, she said what she said, he finished paying for their sandwiches, and they walked out together.

Nothing out of the ordinary. In fact, a pleasant picture of playful interaction between parent and child.

At least, you would think that, unless you had heard what the girl actually said to her dad.

Her "Yeah, right, gimme a break, Dad" comment was worded in a way I'd never heard it worded before in that context. Without any hesitation, spite, fanfare, or response from Dad whatsoever, the girl simply said, "Shut the f*** up."

No, you didn't read that wrong. That is exactly what she said. And she left with Dad still chuckling to himself.

Fairly certain my 2 year-old was oblivious, (too distracted by all the foods behind the glass), and thinking I had surely misunderstood, I discreetly asked the lady making our sandwiches if she had heard what I thought I had heard. She confirmed it, and we shared our opinions about the matter.

I couldn't help but think back on my post about the folly of writing off our youth.

I couldn't help but feel defensive about my school. Many of my students are unfairly judged by community members who don't know them, yet none of them I know would speak to a parent that way.

I couldn't help but consider what it takes to create this scenario: a teenager so accustomed to using profanity that it flows right off the tongue, not only in the presence of a parent, but directed at a parent.

And ultimately, my thoughts centered on the home. The only conclusion to reach from this scene is that Dear ol' Dad either led his daughter to this kind of speech, or somehow failed to prevent the influence of someone else, and has now made peace with it. What is Dad going to say when his daughter is busted at school for addressing a teacher this way?

More importantly, how will this girl ever respect God, when she holds her earthly father in such low esteem?

For all of our fretting over society, the government, the media, the popular culture, our neighborhoods, churches and schools, the heart of the war, with bayonets affixed, in the trenches, mano a mano, occurs behind your front door. What's at stake in this war is the soul of each person who lives behind that door. The evil one respects no relationship and calls no truce.

As unsettling as it is to hear a child tell a parent to shut up, it only serves to remind parents that Satan is telling you the same thing:

Just shut up.

If you do, he wins. That's what he's counting on.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Misquoted

"Just like the Good Book says, 'Spare the rod, and spoil the child'".

"You know that money is the root of all evil. It says so in the Bible."

Really? Is that what it says?

Does it drive you crazy to hear Scripture misquoted? If it doesn't, I think it should. No, I'm not saying Christians with an impressive recall of text are better than Christians who struggle to quote Scripture. And I'm not saying memory verses stamp one's passport to Heaven. Memorizers should not feel superior, and non-memorizers should not feel resentful.

And I am definitely not saying that someone who misquotes Scripture deserves to be assaulted for it.

What I am saying is that Christians should remind themselves on a regular basis how important it is to be familiar with the Word of God. Besides the two listed above, how many other near-quotes and mis-quotes of Scripture have made their way into common language? And even more important than wording, how many misrepresentations of Scriptural ideas make their way into common understanding, simply because so many believers lack their own personal foundation in Bible reading?

Yes, Christians differ in spiritual gifts. Some will have more of a knack for wording and memorization than others. But even a Christian who isn't talented in this area has great tools available to help, if the interest and commitment are there. Just take a look at Search God's Word.org and see how easy it is to search for a phrase and find the Scriptural reference. Even without this site, any search of Google or other search engines will yield the results a reader needs to be sure a Scriptural citation is correct.

The tools are at our fingertips. It's just a matter of whether we care enough to know what God's Word says, or whether we're satisfied with what we heard somebody say sometime.

Not sure what the errors were in the "scriptures" at the beginning of this post?

Check them out. You'll be amazed at how much the meaning is affected by the real wording in both places:

Proverbs 13:24

I Timothy 6:10

Do you have any other favorite Scriptural misquotations?

Monday, February 23, 2009

It Didn't Take Long to Get Here

It was one of those moments when you grasp an entire scene in the blink of an eye.

Saturday morning. I was brushing my teeth in our bathroom. I could hear Kristi and the boys talking and playing at the other end of the house through the baby monitor that we still use for our now two year-old son. (Just when do you actually retire those things?)

I wasn't quite ready to emerge from the bathroom, when my morning routine was interrupted abruptly.

It was a sound I recognized right away. A great sound during a test run, but not a sound you want to hear unexpectedly. There was no mistaking it; the burglar alarm had been tripped.

My mental rolodex of possible explanations spun at light speed:

*No beep preceding alarm; that means back door. (Hadn't disarmed the system yet.)

*A burglar breaking in after daylight, with people obviously home? Not likely.

*I knew I hadn't opened the door. And Kristi wouldn't have without disarming the alarm. Only two suspects left.

*The top lock, the one out of reach of the kids, had to have been left unlocked for either of the boys to be able to open the door.

I sprinted from the bathroom to the living room. No burglar. Back door closed again. Benjamin running back down the hall to his bedroom. I hollered to Kristi that Benjamin had opened the back door, ran to the keypad, and punched in our code. Alarm stopped. Back to the bathroom to get the cell phone off the charger and await the call from the alarm company. Call came, password given, police averted, all was well again.

Now that everyone was back where they started and the dust had settled, the voices once again came through the baby monitor:

Kristi: "Benjamin, did you open the back door?"

Benjamin: "No. Daddy did."

Oh, yes, he said it. Our firstborn. That little baby we held in our arms. Benjamin Bunny. Little Bennigan's.

Our boy had looked Mom square in the face and told her a bald-faced lie. There was nothing subtle about it. He saw that Door #1 might have led to some type of reprimand, and instead chose Door #2, not grasping that the truth was already known, and that even if it had not been, Mom would have checked with Dad anyway. And that, even if she hadn't, lying is still the wrong thing to do.

Man, it didn't take long to get here. Our four year-old has taken his first step into that risky mine field of deceit. It's a tempting place to walk. The shortcuts and payoffs often seem great in comparison to the danger. The chance of harming oneself or a loved one seems ever so remote. It all seems so easy to control. And sometimes it is. That's what's so scary about it.

All of us who have walked that field know that eventually you take the wrong step and lose something more precious than an arm or a leg.

The trust of those who trusted you is hard to win back. And like the prosthetic limbs of an amputee, it's just not what it used to be. It can't ever be like it was.

Don't get me wrong; I don't distrust my son. He's only four. I did the same thing. Really, it probably wasn't the first time, and I am confident it won't be the last. But this time, it hit me that a threshold has been crossed in his life and ours. He is starting to see his options as being wider than simply doing what Mom & Dad would like for him to do.

That's a threshold we all cross at some point. We cross it at home, and we later cross it with God.

Father, please help us:

*To see our children as You see them.

*To accept that our children will go where we've warned them not to go.

*Not to overlook it when they do, but not to overreact in anger when they do.

*To make sure our children learn to accept the consequences of their mistakes.

*To trust our children as they grow up, and to allow them to learn how to earn the trust of others.

*To remember that deceit is tempting, and that our children need us to be watchful for it in their lives.

*Never to model deceit for our children, or be the ones to teach them how to lie.

*Not to believe the deceiver's lies, who tells some that their children do no wrong, while telling others that their children are no good.

*To be brave enough to lead our children to You, in the face of a world that would draw them away.



And as for me and Kristi, please help us to remember to lock that top lock on the back door.

Friday, February 6, 2009

What's Wrong With This Picture?

I was driving from my campus to my boss's office one day last week, when I passed by the Statue of Liberty.

Well, sort of.

If you've read my profile, you know I live in Texas, nowhere near the Statue of Liberty. In fact, I've never even seen her in person, though I've always wanted to. After this story, you'll understand why I want to see the real thing more than ever.

There's a mom-&-pop tax preparation business located on a street I take on this particular route, and both tax seasons I've lived here, this business has engaged in a marketing ploy that, in my opinion, is pretty senseless.

To attract customers who need their taxes done, they post a person out on the sidewalk in front of their office, wearing a costume of our Ellis Island landmark, complete with robe, hat, and torch.

The person in the costume waves energetically at motorists passing by, just hoping to attract that random taxpayer who will realize, "Oh my goodness! I haven't filed yet! And all my papers just happen to be right here handy in my car! And I have nowhere else to go right now! I'll just swing in here!"

Just my cynical side coming out. I guess I don't see how an "impulse purchase" marketing strategy could do much for this kind of business. But maybe I'm wrong. It's the second year I've seen it, so maybe it does work.

So, as I passed by the waving statue again this year, I thought the same thoughts about it, but noticed something just a little bit different than I had seen before. I thought I saw, and looked again to be sure I saw, a cloud of smoke billowing out of Lady Liberty's mouth.

I got closer and saw her bring her hand up to her face and take a long drag before waving at motorists again, this time with her cigarette clasped between her fingers in her grey-gloved hand.

Now, I don't know about you, but seeing the Statue of Liberty prancing around on Rancier Ave. in Killeen, TX, is already a bit of a stretch for me. But the cigarette just took the whole thing over the edge. A lame marketing strategy became something out of a low-rate comedy routine, just like that.

I'm not talking about whether or not people should smoke.

I'm talking about an image. I'm talking about impressions and associations. And ultimately, I'm talking about respect.

Who on earth would associate the Statue of Liberty, and all the grand ideals she stands for, with something as mundane as smoking a cigarette, or even munching on a sandwich or swigging on a soda, for that matter?

How could anyone, with any respect for this landmark, publicly bear her image and then treat it like it's no different than anything else you might wear?

How could anyone not realize that this behavior would be offensive to witnesses who associate this image with greater things? Or even if not offensive, at the very least unfitting or unbecoming?

How often do we forget to take seriously the names we wear and the images we show the world around us?

How quickly can our credibility be damaged or destroyed by carelessness with these things?

Verbal abuse from a counselor.

Profanity from a preacher.

Cruelty from a teacher.

Indifference from a doctor.

Corruption from a police officer.

Hatred from a parent.

I'm sure you see the pattern, and I'm sure you could think of other examples. These are deeds or traits that just don't fit the person they've been linked to, any more than a puff of cigarette smoke fits the Statue of Liberty. Someone responding to one of these images might ask, "And you call yourself a....?" Someone wearing that name just shouldn't act in that way.

If you take seriously the images just listed here, what about the name of Jesus Christ?

No, no one can be sinless. That's why we need Him.

But there is a big difference between a sincere soul wearing His name with awe and humility, and a careless one, wearing it like a cheap costume.

Are you wearing His name?

If so, how?

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Hoods, Hooligans, & Honyocks

The doorbell rang yesterday, which is odd in the middle of a Saturday morning.

I answered the door and found a boy, maybe in the 5th or 6th grade, waiting on the porch. He had his bike with him, and an envelope in his hand. His buddy was back at the curb, waiting on his bike.

Assuming he was probably seeking customers for a school fundraiser, I greeted him, prepared to sign off on the purchase of a candle, a tub of cookie dough, or a discount card.

Instead, the boy simply held up the envelope in his hand, and asked, "Is this yours? I found it in the street."

I looked at the envelope, and sure enough, it was our monthly water bill, still sealed and in perfect condition other than the tread of a car tire across the front of it.

This young man had been enjoying a Saturday bike ride with his friend, had come across this envelope lying in the street, and had taken the time, on his own, to read the address, realize he was near my house, and stop what he was doing to see if the bill was mine.

Of course, I thanked the boy sincerely, and for just a moment, I wanted to say, "Tell me your name. What school do you go to? I'm sure I know your principal!" But, I didn't want to assume his parents would be thrilled that he had given his name and school to a random stranger, so I didn't ask. I just thanked the boy, shook his hand, and watched him ride off with his friend.

What a neat kid. What a cool moment. A child going out of his way to help a stranger, without any prompt from anyone. I would love to tell this story to his parents, and let them see some of the fruit of their labors.

This boy reminded me of a powerful passage, Proverbs 20:11. "Even a child is known by his deeds, whether what he does is pure and right." Without knowing anything else about this kid, it's safe to speculate he's laying the groundwork for a good reputation in life.

What are your feelings about the youth of today?

Are you concerned about the direction you see them heading? Worried over their exposure to images and content you weren't exposed to at their age? Offended at how spoiled and indifferent they seem to be? Perhaps indifferent to them at this point?

I throw out these suggestions only because these statements represented the general adult consensus 20 years ago, about my generation, Gen X, back when we were teenagers and coming of age. It was also the consensus opinion about the Baby Boomers, who in turn fretted over Generation X.

We shouldn't be surprised now that many folks feel the same way today about the kids and teens of this day and age.

(I had to laugh to myself one evening when we were having dinner at another couple's house. The wife was telling a harrowing tale from her afternoon commute, involving "some stupid teenagers" in another car. Funny; the woman telling the story was barely 30 years old. Just 15 years ago, someone might have said the same thing about her.)

But, yes, speaking from the perspective of a school administrator, I can say I have concerns of my own.

I've seen 13 year-old girls coming to school with their necks dotted with hickies. Young men stating boldly that they are willing to die for One-Tre Crip, Two-One, Eastside Locos, or whatever gang they happen to be claiming. Students exchanging profanity with their parents. Young teens keeping their forearms covered to conceal the cuts they've made in their own skin. I've seen a 15 year-old give the finger to a police officer. I've pulled marijuana out of kids' pockets and driven to seedy locales to find them skipping school.

Yes, there's a lot happening in our world and with our youth that should cause us concern.

But that's not the whole story.

For every horror story I could tell you about malice, mischief and mayhem, I could give you ten examples of fine and faithful young people, lovers of God, respectful of authority, desirous of honest success, intolerant of disorder, gentle to the weak and a comfort to the hurting, joyful in the face of hardship.

Future authors scribbling in their personal notepads. Future engineers asking tough questions of their Math teachers. Future counselors grieving over a parent lost at war. Future parents swearing never to repeat the failures of their own moms and dads.

And besides this, there are the remarkable cases of troubled young people who find their way back again, who are restored to a path of responsibility, and prove all dire predictions wrong.

Will some of my students end up populating our prisons? Yes, if statistics bear out, a few will.

But, the vast majority will grow up, leave childish things behind, raise families of their own, and lose sleep with their own grave concerns over the youth of 2030.

And, I earnestly believe this will even prove true of the hoods, hooligans, and honyocks from the stories I told before.

So, what are your feelings about the youth of today?

A better question: Are you engaged in any way with the youth of today?

Yes, if you're a parent, you're raising your own children, and no other priority comes even close.

But, are you engaged in any way with the youth of today?

I don't mean using their slang or wearing their clothes. They don't need more buddies; they need to be molded and led. The critical quality, however, is that they need to be molded and led by adults who at least try to understand them. People who are willing to establish relationship first, then let leadership have its influence in due time.

Volunteer. Tutor a student. Get to know a neighbor family.

Find a way to connect. Find a way to understand.

The easy and meaningless thing to do is to write off our youth as disappointments and failures. Every generation, in its youth, has been judged as such by its elders.

The meaningful and sometimes difficult thing to do is to resist that temptation and engage.

Will you judge from the sidelines, or be salt and light?

Friday, January 23, 2009

Classic Quote

I hope I never forget something a student said to me today.

This poor girl was upset over a rumor another girl started about her. She was adamant the rumor was false, that she would never do what this other girl had said she had done, and that the whole matter was an affront to her faith. In fact, she was so indignant about the insult that she had nearly set her faith aside, barely resisting the temptation to make the conflict physical.

But, she really said it better than I did.

Try to imagine a rapid-fire delivery, accented by an index finger in the air, and shoulders bobbing up and down in an alternating pattern:

"Ooooh, Mr. Dominguez, I cannot buh-LEEEVE she said that about me! I'm a Christian; I just went to church last night!" (Friend in background: "Yeah, that's right; Bible study!")

Now, for the kicker:

"You know, I almost said, 'Jesus, go back home to the house, and I'll meet you there after school,' but I didn't."

And, it's a good thing you didn't, young believer.

Sending Jesus back home for awhile. Or, perhaps, leaving Him there in the first place. Stepping away from Him so He won't hear. Turning the corner quickly so He won't see. Awkwardly neglecting to introduce Him to a friend. Pretending He isn't there. Giving Him the silent treatment, in hopes He'll give up and leave.

Good thing only kids think like that.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

What I Want to Hear

A movie from several years back climaxes in a dramatic court scene in which the following exchange takes place:

"I want the truth!"

"You can't handle the truth!"

Most of us would agree that when we are engaged in conversation, regardless of when, where, with whom, and on what topic, we would generally state that we want to be told the truth.

We would also agree that we have not always told the truth to others, despite the safe assumption that they want the truth from us as much as we want it from them.

We also know that we don't always like what people tell us when they are being honest.

So, what is it we really want?

An obscure story from I Kings 22 gives an insight into human interaction, and probably an example that could have come from just about anyone's daily life.

Ahab, the evil king of Israel, is paid a visit by Jehoshaphat, king of Judah. In the course of their visit, Ahab laments the fact that the border city of Ramoth-Gilead is still under the control of Aram, the kingdom to the northeast, three years after hostilities had ended. (Can't blame him; how would the average American, let alone the President, feel if Mexico took control of El Paso, and three years had gone by without resolution?)

Ahab decides to take action, and asks Jehoshaphat for support, which he gladly gives, but with the proviso that they first consult the prophets of God to find out whether or not to go to war with Aram over Ramoth-Gilead. Ahab doesn't hesitate to bring in a troop of "prophets" who spout the hoped-for line: "Go up, for the Lord will deliver it into the hand of the king!"

This clearly would have been enough for Ahab, who wouldn't have been likely to seek God's will anyway, but it wasn't enough for Jehoshaphat, who asks if there are still any other prophets to inquire of before proceeding. There's no indication of what Jehoshaphat's reason was for asking this. Was he distrustful of what the first round of prophets said? Did their word sound too automatic to him? Was he simply seeking additional assurance? Was he prompted by God to ask this?

We don't know, but for whatever reason, Jehoshaphat opened the door for a view into Ahab's nature, and the answer to the question of what many people really want.

Ahab concedes that there is another prophet in Israel, but it's not a man he wants to see. In fact, Ahab says, "I hate him, because he never prophesies anything good about me, but always bad. He is Micaiah, son of Imlah."

Jehoshaphat admonishes Ahab for speaking this way about God's prophet, and Ahab sends for Micaiah. While they await Micaiah's arrival, Ahab and Jehoshaphat are treated to even more assurance from the prophets who have already spoken, including one who uses an iron horn to predict that King Ahab will gore Aram to death.

The messenger who fetches Micaiah also pressures him to repeat the message of assurance given by the previous prophets, but Micaiah tells the messenger he'll do no such thing, that he will simply say what God tells him to say.

And the stage is set for a strange, but dramatic confrontation, as Ahab asks Micaiah the question of the day.

Interestingly enough, Micaiah doesn't do what he told the messenger he would do, but instead does what the messenger asked, and just repeats the party line: "Attack and be victorious, for the Lord will give it into the king's hand." No reason is given for Micaiah's reversal. Why would Micaiah boldly tell the messenger he would have no part of lying to the king, but then turn right around and lie to the king? Did he simply get scared, and decide not to make waves? Did he decide that Ahab was a goner anyway, and conclude it wasn't worth the trouble of offending him? What did God think of what Micaiah did? We're not told.

Ahab was evil, but not all of his instincts were wrong. He senses something is amiss in Micaiah's prophecy, and he doesn't trust it. He knows Micaiah has only prophesied doom against him in the past, and he is not prepared to accept this sudden show of support from the prophet.

His ironic rebuke of Micaiah almost sounds like it comes from a parent to a child: "How many times must I make you swear to tell me nothing but the truth in the name of the Lord?"

How many times do I have to tell you? I want the truth!

Really, Ahab? Is that truly what you want? We'll see.

Micaiah gives in, and goes ahead and tells Ahab the truth, accurately conveying God's message of failure and death regarding Ahab's idea of attacking Aram.

And Ahab responds according to his nature, becoming angry with Micaiah, telling Jehoshaphat, "See, I told you about this guy!", and ordering Micaiah thrown into prison until Ahab's safe return from battle.

For the record, Ahab's attack on Aram results in his death, as he is killed by an enemy arrow fired at random into the crowd.

With some people, you just can't win. They want it both ways. "Tell me the truth, but make sure I like what you tell me."

Just in this short story alone, we see examples of:

*A grudge held against someone for his commitment to speak the truth.

*Pressure to lie.

*A bold commitment to speak the truth, followed by a convenient lie.

*A demand for the truth, regardless of content, followed by anger over the content of the truth.

*Disregard for the truth in favor of a lie.

Human nature hasn't changed much since Old Testament times.

So, again, what is it we really want? Do we want the truth? Can we handle the truth? Are we prepared for what the truth might mean in our lives? Do we know where to find it? Are we committed to finding it, even when it's most challenging to our own ideas?

Or, have we already decided what we want to hear?

Much more than our human lives are at stake in our answers to these questions.

Friday, January 2, 2009

A Little Knowledge




My 7th grade History teacher assigned the class an unusual project.

He gave us a little background about a man we had never heard of, named Rube Goldberg. He explained how Mr. Goldberg was known for inventing ridiculously complicated machines to perform simple tasks, and then revealed what our project would be: Each one of us would design and actually construct a device along the lines of what Rube Goldberg might have designed. We were to create a Rube Goldberg machine.

Thanks in large part to my dad, I managed to complete the project, and demonstrated my contraption for the class: a golf ball rolled through a tube, setting off a series of movements, eventually resulting in an egg being cracked over a frying pan.

Neat stuff, but not the point.

It so happened that, during the period of time I was working on this project, my family had dinner with a couple we didn't see very often. We were enjoying getting caught up, and the husband asked me how school was going. I told him it was fine, and thought I would let him in on my project.

But just as I began my story, in a split-second, I reasoned that our family friend, a man in his forties, surely would not be familiar with the name "Rube Goldberg". After all, I had never heard of Rube Goldberg until my teacher brought him up. So, in an effort to spare this poor man the embarrassment of having his ignorance exposed, I launched off into a Rube Goldberg-style explanation of my project, but without actually naming Mr. Goldberg's name. I explained that I was working on a project where I had to create a complicated machine to do a simple job, and so on, and so forth.

Imagine my shock at the man's response:

"Oh, so it's kind of a 'Rube Goldberg' type of thing, eh?"

What?!? How on earth did he know that?

Simple answer: He had lived on planet Earth a lot longer than I had, and he knew a lot of things I knew, and a lot of things I didn't know. Despite my perception, I was, in fact, not in possession of a rare secret with my newfound but shallow knowledge of Rube Goldberg.

Oh, what a little knowledge can do. A measure of knowledge, mixed with pride rather than humility and perspective, can be a dangerous recipe.

About six years later, during my freshman year in college, I had the misfortune of seeing the ugliest form of the arrogance of knowledge. This time, I was on the receiving end.

I was working my job at the circulation desk in the library, when a graduate student approached to check out some books. (Gasp in awe...) What I assumed would be a routine transaction turned out to be a bizarre encounter. The student accepted my greeting, passed over his books and his ID card as usual, but proceeded to say, without any prompt whatsoever, "I was up here earlier, and heard you and that other guy talking, and I want you to know that neither one of you said anything intelligent."

Yes, that's really what he said. Honestly, I don't remember what "that other guy" and I had been talking about, but apparently this man had overheard us, and was not impressed. Why he chose to say what he said, I'll never know.

He may have been right. It's possible my co-worker and I were making no sense at all, especially as judged by the "superior intellect". But what kind of arrogance does it take to say what this guy said to me?

Possibly just a more complete version of the attitude I had toward my friend, when I assumed he wouldn't know something just because it was new to me?

Just as Rube Goldberg wasn't new to my friend, the arrogance of knowledge isn't a new issue in the family of God.

"We know that we all have knowledge. Knowledge puffs up, but love edifies. And if anyone thinks that he knows anything, he knows nothing yet as he ought to know." -- I Corinthians 8:1-2

"Because of your knowledge shall the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died?" -- I Corinthians 8:11

These passages are taken from Paul's discussion of a divisive issue facing the early church in Corinth: Whether or not a Christian could, with a clear conscience, acquire and eat meat that had been previously used in idol worship.

This issue might seem foreign to a Christian living in western culture today, but there are still many lessons to learn.

Paul makes clear in his letter that idols are nothing, and whether or not a Christian eats the meat in question is immaterial. But the interesting thing about Paul's discussion is that he focuses less attention on this question than he gives to the attitude of the people asking it. His primary focus is not on those who don't understand the meat issue; his focus is on those who do.

It's safe to assume that Paul's first choice would have been for everyone to have a perfect understanding of the issue. But short of that, it seems clear that Paul would prefer to see a sincere Christian live with the limited understanding that would lead him to think the meat in question was sinful, rather than to see the same Christian grasp this issue and become scornful of those who didn't.

The worst outcome Paul can see is not for a Christian to live with imperfect understanding; the worst thing would be for the Christian with the greater understanding to offend or alienate the one with less. Or worse yet, to embolden that Christian to violate his conscience.

Many a schoolteacher has quoted the mantra: "Knowledge is power". And there is ample truth to that statement. Knowledge is better than ignorance any day. But there is much more than mere knowledge to a Christ-like spirit and a Godly life.

We will learn much in this new year. Let us pray for the humility and perspective that will allow our knowledge to be a blessing rather than a curse.