Tuesday, December 25, 2012

The Spirit of the Shepherds

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger.

Luke 2:15-16

While we all know this story, I wonder if it's really possible to get inside the minds of these shepherds, to know what it was like to experience this heavenly interruption to the workaday routine? Probably not, but it is such a fascinating scene, that I can't help but wonder what it must have been like for these unprepared, unsuspecting men.

Besides reminding myself that I would not be whipping out my phone to record the scene and upload to You Tube, I have a very real difficulty placing myself in the shoes of the shepherds:

Being initially terrified by the angelic visit? -- Check.

Listening to the announcement without a word? -- Not a problem.

Feeling relief at the assurance not to be afraid? -- Definitely.

Wanting to see the baby the angel spoke of? -- Absolutely!

Actually leaving my job site with work in progress, and exposing the animals entrusted to my care to danger, to travel some distance back into town to search for a family of complete strangers in an unknown location, for a reason that wouldn't be remotely plausible to my boss, if he should ever ask?

Are you kidding?

What about the sheep? What if they got scared and wandered off? What if a predator attacked them? What if someone came along and stole some of them? What if the owner checked in, as Murphy's Law dictates, right when I'm gone and not paying attention?

Is anyone out there with me?

Anyone else so conditioned to being obligated to maintaining the routine of earthly responsibility, that the risk of consciously taking a pass on the arrival of Jesus into your world is a very real possibility?

I'm not talking about being too busy to notice He's there. I don't mean never hearing the message, or being persecuted or prevented in some way.

I mean knowing He is there, having every opportunity to go to Him, and deciding, like George Bailey did when Sam Wainwright offered him a ride to Florida, "I'm afraid I just couldn't get away."

Don't get me wrong. I'm not suggesting anyone cast aside the responsibilities of life in the name of Jesus.

But there is something we should learn in the spontaneous decision of these shepherds to leave their flocks unattended in the fields long enough to get themselves to Jesus and be changed by His presence. To trust that everything would be all right long enough to see the One they needed to see, to get hold of a story they would be telling the rest of their lives. And I imagine there was joy in the Father's heart every time these men recounted this event to anyone who would listen.

What better time than now?

Step away from your work. Stop your routine. Disconnect from media.

It'll all be OK. Everything will be there when you return. The Father who wants you to know His Son will cover you.

And you will find yourself eager with anticipation for the next time His arrival is announced by angels in the sky.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

He Does Understand

"The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us."

John 1:14

"...we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need."

Hebrews 4:15-16

He does understand.

He understands what it's like to live in a world where good and evil reside, side-by-side.

What it's like to see the best and worst in the human condition, in the same place, at the same time.

What it's like to wonder why some people do the most terrible things.

What it's like to see the grief of those who have suffered loss from which they may never heal.

What it's like to know that some may reject Him because of these losses.

What it's like to be tempted to think the worst about all people.

What it's like to be tempted to circle up into camps against one another.

What it's like to wonder when He is coming again.

He understands that we don't understand why. He understands how hard it is to witness things that are only possible apart from His presence, in the middle of the season when the whole world remembers the story of His arrival here. He understands that our minds long for an answer, even as we concede the fact that an answer will probably never come.

He understands the temptation to despair.

He understands when we ask why He doesn't prevent these things, if He understands them so well.

And He understands that by not guaranteeing us a life free of grief, He may very well lose some of us.

He simply asks us to trust Him, especially when those answers don't come, and nothing makes any sense.

And that's what I choose to do.


Wednesday, December 5, 2012

You Packin' Heat?

I am haunted by this news story:

A boy is dead who didn't have to die, and a man has killed, who might not have had to kill.

While I generally support the idea of concealed-carry permits, I have grave reservations over whether John Q. Public always understands what it means to measure one's response to the actions of others.

Yes, I understand that a citizen should have the right to draw on some criminal who threatens his safety, and I understand that criminals deserve to live in fear of whether their potential victims might be armed.

I occasionally visit the Chinese buffet that resides in the building where the Luby's massacre took place, and I, like everyone else, have wondered how many lives might have been saved if someone could have fired back at the killer.

(Of course, there is no guarantee that 6 or 7 random, panicked, civilian diners, pulling out firearms of their own in the middle of that chaos would have made anything better.)

We all know the narrative that is used to explain the need to pack heat:  The law-abiding citizen is just minding his own business, when the criminal seizes the moment, has a weapon and the element of surprise in his favor, and carries out the robbery, the assault, the kidnapping, the rape, the murder, or what have you.

And who hasn't wished this innocent victim could have been armed, and at least had a chance to ward off the attacker?

But the story above is different, isn't it?

Yes, the guy is claiming a shotgun was pointed at his car, and maybe it was. The surviving boys from the car are claiming there was no weapon in their vehicle, and maybe there wasn't. We will probably never know.

But what led up to the critical moment?

The innocent, upstanding citizen himself, John Q. Public, supposedly minding his own business, was the one who initiated the argument over the volume of the music, and made contact with the boys a second time when the music was turned up again. The guy who had no legal standing to order these boys to turn the music down. The man who was waiting five minutes for his fiancee to get in and out of a convenience store. The father who didn't live in the area, but was visiting town for his son's wedding. The visitor with no stake in the community in which he was a guest, and no connection to the boys he confronted.

Do you really think the volume of the music in the car next to him was not something he could have tolerated for five minutes?

Do you really think he could not have simply joined his fiancee inside the store if he didn't like the music in the car next to him?

Do you really think this matter was so critical that he needed to confront complete strangers he was never going to see again?

Do you really think something so important was at stake here, that it warranted introducing hostilities into a visit that was supposed to be about his son's wedding?

Surely not.

Why do you think this man confronted these boys?

Just because he was annoyed by their music? Maybe. Who hasn't been annoyed by the rudeness and presumption of someone's loud music? Or maybe this guy is just a complete hothead who confronts people all the time. Who knows?

Of course, now that his only priority is to avoid legal culpability for this killing, we will certainly see him portrayed as a kind and gentle soul who feared for his life and fired eight shots into a car out of pure necessity.

But I doubt he fits either stereotype, the hothead or the gentle soul. I suspect he is an average guy given to normal human emotions, and the fact that he was armed had something to do with the boldness he felt and the shortness of his patience, which prompted him to confront complete strangers over a trifling nuisance in a convenience store parking lot in an unfamiliar city he was visiting for his son's wedding.

Who doesn't feel tougher when insured by Smith & Wesson? Who hasn't fantasized about inviting some disrespectful punk to go ahead and make your day? Anyone might feel like the wrong hombre to fool with if a loaded gun were within easy reach.

Is it tempting for us to go ahead and start a fight we might otherwise avoid, when we know we have the power to finish it?

How do we handle the power to hurt other people?

Whether or not you're carrying a physical weapon, you have within your reach, at this very moment, everything you need to make someone bleed.




*Uncontrolled anger.

*Digs at character flaws.

*Assumption of bad motive.

*Reminders of past sin and its aftermath.

These weapons and others like them are more damaging than any blade or bullet, and are readily available to every one of us, without any permits or restrictions. When it comes to these weapons, we're all packing, aren't we?

Since we're all practicing concealed-carry, what kind of people ought we to be?

*Makers of peace (Matthew 5:9)

*Absorbers of insult (Matthew 5:38-42)

*Lovers of enemies (Matthew 5:43-48)

*Choosers of loss (I Corinthians 6:1-7)

*Refusers of revenge (Romans 12:17-19)

Where is maturity? Where is wisdom?

Wisdom and maturity are found when our easy access to the deadly weapon makes us less likely to pick the fight in the first place.

What do you imagine the shooter from the news story is now wishing he had done that day?

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Telling the Truth

If the following *quotations don't create some kind of deep emotional response within you, I don't know what would:

"The most powerful men at Penn State failed to take any steps for fourteen years to protect the children Sandusky victimized."

"In order to avoid the consequences of bad publicity, the most powerful leaders at the university...repeatedly concealed critical facts relating to Sandusky's child abuse from the authorities..."

"These individuals...empowered Sandusky to attract potential victims to the campus...by allowing him to have continued...access to the university's facilities..."

"...that continued access provided Sandusky with the very currency that enabled him to attract his victims."

"...coaches, administrators, and football staff members ignored the red flags of Sandusky's behaviors..."

What can ever be done for the victims of these crimes? What can ever be said to console their parents? While Jesus Christ is more than able to help those who have been hurt in this way, how many of them may be so embittered by this experience that they will close their hearts to Him?

Why didn't anyone with knowledge or suspicion of these crimes make any statement to the authorities who could have put a stop to it? 

Why wouldn't anyone tell the truth?

In this particular case, the reasons are evident:  Those with knowledge or suspicion chose to value their personal stake in the reputation of their university and football program over the safety and innocence of children. They chose to protect a child molester.

How could these people have made this choice?

Why is the temptation to "not get involved" so strong?

It seems the simple answer to this question is fear. Fear that getting involved may bring something bad into my life. Fear of embarrassment or scandal or damage to something important to me. Fear that the bad guy will do something bad to me. Fear that the bad guy's friends or family will be mad at me. Fear that the matter won't be simple or short-lived. Fear of being on my own in a tempest.

And while several people conspired to conceal Sandusky's actions for some of these same reasons, he went right on preying on young boys.

Sometimes, the inhibition is not even based in fear, but in a twisted form of loyalty.

Several years ago, I questioned a student while investigating a matter, and found the student unwilling to share the information I strongly suspected he knew. The student was committed to the idea of not being a "rat" under any circumstances, and when I asked whether he would hypothetically report a student who had a weapon at school, he provided one of the most disturbing responses I have ever heard: 

"It would depend on whether it was a friend of mine."

I'll never forget those words.

I can't tell you how many times I've dealt with parents who actually encouraged their children not to report information about misconduct or abuse, regardless of who had been hurt or stood to be hurt, for the fearful reasons mentioned before. These folks have planted in their children's minds horrific visions of severed horse heads under the bed sheets, and drive-by shootings choreographed by omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent gang-bangers who miraculously know who ratted them out before the helpless saps ever get home from the principal's office.

These fearful parents have taught their kids that life is one big mafia movie, and that good people have too much to be afraid of to tell the truth.

And if you assume these fearful people who prefer to protect evil in order to avoid personal risk are all unbelievers, guess again. Do we think none of the exposed Penn State officials would identify themselves as Christians?  

I'm not saying there is no risk involved in telling the truth, especially when fortunes and futures are at stake. But I am asking when people forgot just who it is we serve, and how it was we decided that other factors, confined to the temporary world of this life, should outweigh the reality of God's power and truth?

In fact, God has something to say about who or what we should be afraid of:

*Luke 12:4-5 -- "Do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that have no more they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear the One who, after He has killed, has authority to cast into hell; yes, I tell you, fear Him!"

*Jeremiah 1:17 -- "Do not be dismayed before them, or I will dismay you before them."

*Deuteronomy 31:6 -- "Be strong and courageous, do not be afraid or tremble at them, for the Lord your God is the one who goes with you. He will not fail you or forsake you."

*Isaiah 51:7 -- "Do not fear the reproach of man, nor be dismayed at their revilings."

Is there comfort to be found in these assurances? Yes, but there is more than that: A command, an expectation, that we will keep in perspective the frightful choices we face, and never allow our fears of those who might threaten us to cause us to act as if God isn't there, as if our personal stake in some earthly matter is all there is to consider, as if telling the truth should be contingent upon the possible repercussions for my life, my standing, or my comfort.

There is a moving lyric in an old hymn, "Now the Day is Over":

"...those who plan some evil, from their sin restrain..."

This is certainly a worthy prayer. God's people should pray that those who are planning to carry out some sinful act would reconsider their actions.

But we should also pray that God's people would be people of courage and truth in the face of potential backlash. Those engaged in actions that hurt others should never be able to count on the cover provided by the silence of the people of God. 

Yes, if I report a crime to the authorities, or report an abuse of company time or materials to the boss, or if a student reports another student's misconduct, there is a chance the perpetrator could learn who reported the matter and seek some form of revenge. 

And yes, it's possible that something unpleasant could happen to the one who told the truth.

But what would you rather live with? 

The pain of suffering for telling the truth? Or, the pain of knowing you allowed someone else, possibly many other people, to suffer because you wouldn't get involved?  

What would God have you do?

Behave like a frightened citizen of Gotham City, helpless against the all-powerful agents of darkness, silently cowering in the face of their threats?

Or, carry yourself as a child of God who knows full well that no earthly threat can come close to frightening Him?

In retrospect, what are those men from Penn State wishing they had done?

God, please give us the courage to remember You when we face the choice of whether to speak up in defense of the innocent, or keep the truth to ourselves in favor of an abuser.

It shouldn't be a debate at all. 

*Quotations taken from excerpts of report found here.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Texting God

I'm a Christian who struggles with prayer.

Don't get me wrong; it's not that I don't want to pray, or don't like to pray. I love the intimacy with God that is found in prayer, and I desperately want it in my life every day. But I often catch myself gliding through the motions of another busy day without having invested time in personal, private prayer.

It's the most discouraging thing, isn't it?

"Oh, what peace we often forfeit; Oh, what needless pain we bear! All because we do not carry everything to God in prayer."*

If that hymn has not brought tears to your eyes at some point in your walk with God, I don't know what else could.

I know I'm not the first to struggle with this, and I know it ultimately comes down to making prayer a priority. Those who pray consistently have trained their minds and hearts for this discipline, in ways that I have not.

To combat the usual issues with difficulty concentrating, falling asleep, and losing track of people and concerns I wanted to pray about, I've tried many things, from finding a specific spot for prayer, to praying out loud, to writing down prayers in a journal. Any and all of these have worked for me when I made prayer a priority, and have worked less well when I didn't.

But I have a new strategy I am really enjoying, and I'd like to share it:  Texting God.

I've created a prayer blog (on Blogger), and set it up to where I'm the only person who can access it. It's only for me. Blogger also has a free smartphone app, which I installed on my phone.

I treat this blog just like you would a prayer journal, except it's accessible to me through my phone, just as I would text anyone during the day. For lengthier posts, I can access the blog on my laptop, or for shorter ones in the middle of the day, I just open the Blogger app on my phone, and it's thumbs away! (I just keyed in a short prayer while sitting in a drive-through line about an hour ago.)

The most rewarding part of this process is going back later and reading earlier posts. It's nice to be reminded of where I have been, and what was on my mind to bring to God at different times.

I'm not saying spiritual disciplines should be morphed into a smartphone-ready format, but it has been rewarding to me to weave prayer into my everyday use of a vital tool that never seems to leave my hand.

Texting God is not a cure-all. It will not create a prayer life where there isn't one. But it may be a way for you to "slip away to the wilderness and pray", even in the midst of the demands of a busy day, like Jesus was known for doing. (Luke 5:16)

May we always ask, like Jesus' disciples:  "Lord, teach us to pray"!

*"What a Friend We Have in Jesus (Joseph Scriven, 1855)

Saturday, June 30, 2012


You've probably heard the news story about the group of middle school students who have drawn worldwide attention for throwing trash into one of the reflecting pools when they visited the 9/11 Memorial on a field trip. 

Apparently, the facts as reported in the media are true, as the students' principal issued a written apology about the incident.

It's certainly a troubling story, and we can only hope it is more a matter of childish behavior by one or a few, than any kind of group-wide disrespect for the meaning of such an important place.

This incident does, however, bring to mind a startling reality about memorials and the passing of time.

These middle school students, presumably ranging in age from 11 - 14 or thereabouts, were either newborns or still in diapers when 9/11 occurred. While these students' teachers remember 9/11 vividly, and probably still feel painful emotions associated with that day, not one of these kids has that feeling. While many visiting the memorial on the very same day are still grieving for loved ones who died in the attacks, these students would not be able to remember anyone lost that day, not even a parent.

In fact, these middle school students will soon be followed by kids currently in elementary school, who were not even conceived when 9/11 occurred.

How can we have arrived here so fast?

Our generation's "Pearl Harbor" incident, the day etched in the memory of everyone who watched these events unfold, is so soon shared with a new generation that knows it only as history.

It reminds me of a sermon I once heard, in which the preacher shared several elder church members' recollections of where they were when they heard of the Pearl Harbor attack, and how it changed their lives so quickly. There I sat, listening, learning, appreciating, but not feeling the same thing as those who remembered that day.

And here are my own two children today, who did not even arrive here until three and six years after 9/11.

How do we appreciate memorials to people and events we didn't know or see firsthand?

How do we ensure our children do the same?

I believe memorials continue to be respected by people who have been told the story so often they feel as though they lived it, and who, through the story, have come to share the commitment of those being remembered.

I can't help but wonder whether these middle school students who littered the memorial have ever been told the story in any context more personal than a classroom at school. Surely they have, we assume, but...

*When was the last time you heard someone's story of 9/11?

*When was the last time you heard the story of someone's life?

*When was the last time your children heard your stories of the events that prompted the big decisions in your life? How your family came to live where you live? Why you chose the line of work you chose? How you met your spouse?

*Could your kids finish your stories for you, or tell them to others with a dead-on impression?

*When was the last time your kids heard you recount how you came to know Christ?

*Have your children heard from you personally about what the Lord's Supper means to you? Why you worship? Why you pray? Why you read the Word of God?

Don't these stories go to the heart of Deuteronomy 6?

As parents and mentors, we have the choice whether to tell our stories or let them die with us. And if we don't tell our children our stories, a thousand other voices out there, from the earliest years of childhood, are not the least bit shy about telling our children theirs.

What will it be for your kids?

Will your stories be an enduring source of strength long after your death, a guide leading them to the Gospel? Or will your history become nothing more than a curious spot to pass by and litter with the leftovers of their time and attention?

Those you influence want to hear your story.

Tell it, and keep on telling.

Sunday, June 24, 2012


Do you have enemies?

Is that a tough question to answer?

Anyone who has read the Bible even a little bit has probably encountered this passage:

"You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven."

It's easy to read this and think about Hitler, bin Laden, the Unabomber, and other assorted nasties. But it's clear Jesus is making a much more personal application here, and is just as likely talking about that neighbor who lets his dog go on your lawn as He is some far-off historical figure you're never going to meet.

Either way, it's hard to love our enemies. It's hard to pray for them. It's not something we instinctively want to do, but something we're commanded to do, and can learn to do with the Spirit's help.

But have you ever put the shoe on the other foot?

Have you ever considered that someone else out there might just be praying for you, counting you as an enemy, asking God for relief from your persecution, and pleading with the Father to soften your heart?

This can't be, can it? Who would consider me an enemy? I haven't hurt anyone, have I?

Well, the more I think about it, there are people out there:

*Who don't work where they used to work, because of me.

*Who didn't get a job they wanted, again, because of me.

*Who put a lot of personal eggs in a basket depending on my decision about something, only to be disappointed in the decision I made.

*Whose children are experiencing disciplinary consequences for their conduct, despite their own conviction that my actions were unfair. (Could my picture be on a dart board somewhere? It just might be.)

Do Jesus's words take on a different tint in the harsh light of someone else's scorn for you, rather than the familiar ambiance of your own victimhood?

Does it feel unfair for someone else to look upon you as an enemy for actions or decisions you felt were justified? Sure it does, but that doesn't change the fact that those decisions might create the feeling of victimhood in someone else, with you squarely in their sights at the other end of that decision or action, doling out the suffering they are asking God to help them endure.

Knowing this, that someone could (and probably does) consider you an enemy for doing what you thought (and still think) was the right thing, are you motivated to reflect anew on what it takes for another person to be categorized as an "enemy" in your mind?

Are you motivated not only to pray for your enemies, but to pray for the grace to keep people out of that category who don't deserve to be there?

Help us, Lord, to be slow to count others as enemies, and to be gracious when others are quick to count us as theirs.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

A Common Love

One day back in the fall, one of my staff members and I, in random conversation, discovered we're both from Southern California, and lifelong L.A. Dodgers fans. And this guy was legit; he opened up his phone and showed me pictures of himself with his wife and daughter at beautiful Dodger Stadium, much more recently than I had been there. He even thought of me at Christmas time, giving me a Fernando Valenzuela bobblehead that now stands proudly on a shelf in my office.

Ever since that conversation, I've remembered this bond every time I see Andrew at work, and I appreciate the qualities that make him a great employee even more than I did before.

But something still sticks in my mind from that first discovery:  Andrew happened to mention his age that day. Now, it's always been obvious that I've got several years on him, but I have to admit that my mind stopped short for just a moment when he said he was born in 1986.


Yes, 1986.

I actually remember 1986...pretty vividly. The Dodgers were terrible, the Lakers lost in the Western Conference Finals to (stinking) Houston, I turned 13 years old and received several power tools from my grandmother for my birthday, after telling her how much I had enjoyed my woodshop class at Walker Jr. High. I was watching Game 6 of the World Series when the ball rolled through Buckner's legs.

Shouldn't someone born in 1986 be....a baby?

No, Andrew is 26 years old, with a wife, a child, and a job. Amazing, isn't it? Amazing how fast younger people's adult lives fill up with the very responsibilities and relationships you're already accustomed to, and assume they aren't quite ready for.

But there was something else about Andrew's age that my mind just couldn't shake:

Where was he for Gibson's home run? (He was 2 years old.) Where was he during Fernandomania and the 1981 World Series win over the Yanks? (Not even born yet.) The disillusionment of Garvey's free agent departure for San Diego? (Nope.) The heartbreak of Ozzie Smith's playoff home run off Niedenfuer? (Mercifully, not here to live through it.) The Pedro Martinez-for-DeLino DeShields trade? (Not even out of elementary school.)

You get my point.

Every single one of my formative Dodger moments and experiences, all the things that make up my Dodger story, are known to Andrew only as history. He wasn't around for any of them. And honestly, by the time Andrew came along as a serious Dodgers fan, I was long gone, and I couldn't tell you what his formative Dodger experiences were. By that time, I had shifted from being a hometown fan to a long-distance fan, and wasn't paying nearly as close attention as I once did.

So, how to respond?

On the surface, there is no denying our common allegiance, but how tempting could it be for me to categorize him as a little less bona fide, a little less legitimate, a little less proven, because he wasn't around for the things that made me an original?

But even as I ask that question, I can't escape the reality that there are many who could wonder the same thing about me. My Dad could argue that he's more of an original than I am when it comes to Dodger fandom. He lived in L.A. before the Dodgers did, remembers when they played in the Coliseum before Dodger Stadium was built, and actually watched Koufax pitch. What could be more legit than that?

Is it possible my Dodger story could have seemed just a little less consequential to him at the time, in comparison to the legendary names and events from his early years? Do you think it escaped him, during Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, that I was totally unaware that Bill Buckner had played for the Dodgers years before I was old enough to know?

Could it have been tempting for him to categorize me as a Johnny-Come-Lately who might have a ticket into the club, but would never fully understand what you "just had to be there" for?

And speaking of things you just had to be there for:  It won't be long now before a new generation of Dodger fans will grow up never having heard Vin Scully's voice. How could that be? How will anyone's soul become stamped with the interlocking L.A. logo without Vin Scully? The same way it's happened for every generation sofar:  People will watch the games, cheer for Dodger blue, and over time, fall in love with this team for their own reasons, just as I did so long ago.

Formative experiences, defining moments, personal landmarks, enduring legends. So important in the development of a lifelong love, but so often different among people who share the same love.

What is more important? The love we share, or how each of us arrived at it? Is one generation's arrival at this love more legitimate than another's? Is my story more bona fide than yours? Is my bond with my generational cohort more important than my bond with all who share this love, of any age?

How tempting can it be to value the familiarity of similar stories more than we treasure the unique nature of each family member's story? To create tiers of acceptance, with those who haven't lived my story being somehow less than those who have.

This temptation wouldn't be much to worry about if we were just talking about the Dodger Family.

What about your family?

What about the Family of God?

"I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one, I in them and you in me, so that they may be brought to complete unity." John 17:20-23