Thursday, December 31, 2020

I Never Got To Be A Wiseman, Until Now (A Christmas Meditation)


 
Christmases growing up always centered on church with the big event being the Christmas pageant. In those days, we just called it the Christmas “program.” We were simple folk and “pageant” sounded a tad too uptown.
 
I always wanted to be a wiseman, but never made the cut. It was disappointing and I'm not sure I've ever completely gotten over it. By the time I was grown enough to fit the part, our little church had moved into the “modern day” by discarding the traditional reenactment of the Nativity.
 
Instead of the brilliant simplicity of the Christmas story read from the Bible and enacted by kids and teens costumed in bathrobes, towels, ingeniously pinned sheets, and a silent toy baby in a manger playing the part of Jesus, we moved to “skits” and “cantatas” that were supposed to make the Bible story more relevant.
 
These were miniaturized dramas and musicals cast in some contemporary setting that modernized the story of Jesus' birth. It wasn't so much about Him any longer as about the season and good feelings. Or so it seemed.
 
My attitude toward this was not progressive. I preferred the traditional retelling of the events. Still do.
 
|| Getting To The Big Day \\
 
On Christmas Sunday, which was whatever Sunday fell just prior to December 25th, that's when it all happened. 
 
In the morning service, it was always the little kids reciting lines from slips of paper the size of fortune cookie fortunes. All ages from the little to the small to the tiny participated. But no big kids, adults, or teens; they were on in the evening service.
 
Always there were a couple of little ones who couldn't remember the four or seven words they were tasked to memorize, and so had to be coached by their teacher or parents mouthing the words s-l-o-w-l-y one at a time.
 
And, of course, there were the precocious kids that recited perfectly every word with the diction of an experienced Thespian. Show offs.
 
But it was all adorable. And touching.
 
Parents ran to the front and jockeyed for position to capture on camera the precious moment featuring their child sharing some tidbit about the coming of the Child. 
 
In between shuttling the various age groups off and on stage we sang Christmas carols. “Silent Night.” “O Come All Ye Faithful.” “Joy To The World.” All the traditional greats.
 
We knew the tunes. We knew the words. And we sang our hearts out.
 
We started singing Christmas songs the first Sunday after Thanksgiving. The typical rest-of-the-year hymns, songs, and choruses were all sidelined. The month of December was all about singing the Christmas carols – the songs of the season sung only this one time of the year – and nothing else. Period. Just as God intended.
 
|| Back To The “Pageant” Prep \\
 
We began preparations for the Christmas program a few weeks before Thanksgiving. The casting calls went out, adult assistants were recruited, and the rehearsals began. 
 
But really, we all knew the different parts by heart. The only questions were who would be cast as whom based on age and growth spurts. Whoever had the better looking bathrobes also factored in.
I dutifully moved up through the ranks.
 
I did the morning service several times as a small child, saying my part, and, later, participating in the song flute choir. Everyone knew that every fourth grader was given a song flute at school so there was no dodging this rite of passage. 
 
|| And Now The Big Show! \\
 
After my years of morning service appearances, it was onto the big stage of the evening service, our stage being nothing more than the raised front of the sanctuary -- the platform. A wire was strung across it and hung with sheets that acted as curtains. We kept it simple.
 
Over my years of Sunday performances I was an angel or a shepherd. For boys, the progression went more or less like this: angel, shepherd, wiseman, and then if you were really lucky, Joseph, or maybe the innkeeper. Every once in awhile a Roman soldier or miscellaneous bystander was tossed into the mix.
 
Do you see the problem here?
 
The same number of kids were in the pipeline. While there was always a need for a “host” of angels and any number of shepherds, all of which could be drawn from nearly any age, for the bigger boys there were only three wisemen, one Joseph, and one innkeeper.
 
The competition for these roles heated up as we grew. It was all a matter of numbers. Although I’m guessing some backroom politicking went on among the mothers.
 
For girls, it was worse since they had to jump directly from angels to Mary and that was pretty much it. On occasion there would be a need for a female bystander or the innkeeper would get a wife. Sometimes girls even got to play shepherds. But this was all hit and miss.
 
|| Don’t Forget The Candy! \\
 
The program wasn’t the only thing we looked forward to on Christmas Sunday. Besides dreaming of the sweet part in the program we also longed for the special bag of candy.
 
Every year on Christmas Sunday every person in attendance got a small white paper bag of candy. There was also an orange or an apple included, but the candy was the real prize. We all prayed that the bag we got would have one or two extra of those little caramel candies with the white sugary filling. Those were gold.
 
The handing out of the candy happened after the morning service and was executed decently and in order. No one took more than one bag unless a family member was home sick. After all, it was the season of colds and flus.
 
But the men who handed out the bags were aware of who was there and who wasn't and we didn't even have to ask for the extra bag; they knew.
 
As times changed and inflation grew as steadily as we did, the bags held less and less and the selection of candies became more limited.
 
Finally, before they were abandoned altogether, the fruit was eliminated and all that remained were a few pieces of the cheaper hard candies. The anti-sugar movement was the final stake. Bah! Humbug!
 
|| Being A Real-Life Wise Guy \\
 
I miss the bags of candy and the Christmas programs. And I’ll most likely never get the chance to take on the role of one of the three wisemen in one.
 
But, for all of us, there are opportunities to be wise men and wise women every day. The Bible offers a lot of guidance on how to do it. Being wise in life is a lot tougher than donning a bathrobe and a cardboard crown and standing silently next to a makeshift manger as the narrator recites, “And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night....”
Real-life wisdom requires doing the Word.
 
There have been days when wisdom has ruled. Others where I played the fool all too well. Fortunately, God’s grace can redeem even the dumbest episodes.
 
His grace was made flesh in a manger a couple thousand years ago. About two years later, the original wisemen, the Magi, found him, were overjoyed, and worshipped the baby king.
 
Those wisemen had to travel from afar to find the Child, the King of kings. Today, we only have to travel to our knees and this King will take up residence in our hearts and be near to us day in and day out.
 
How to be a wiseman or wise woman today? “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths” (Proverbs 3:5-6, ESV).
 
So, I guess, in a sense, I did make it after all!
 
But I still miss those bags of candy.
 
 
====================
© Stephen R. Clark

Perennials (Poem)

 

 

A Father's Tale (Fiction)


On the night our son was born, it was odd. We thought we heard singing wafting in from the fields where the shepherds bedded. And there seemed to be lightning in the distance, unusual for the time of year.
 
From time to time, clumps of people, buzzing in excited murmurs, passed our home on the dark streets. We were curious but preoccupied with him, our son, our only child, born healthy and whole, who had come to us unexpected and late in our lives.
 
I held him, barely able to fend off the weakness of awe, cooing to him, telling him one day he and I would work together, that I would teach him all about my trade. That night I vowed I would protect him with my life. 
 
Then, mere months later, coming home after making a delivery from my shop, I found my wife sobbing, hysterical, sitting on the floor just inside the front door, holding his lifeless sword-hacked body. His throat was cut. Blood was everywhere. He was only two years old.
 
I tore my hair, threw dust in the air, and vowed revenge upon whoever was behind this. Then, realizing sounds of grieving were coming from other homes, I went out and discovered the devastating truth. We were not alone in our loss. Death drenched the village. When I learned it was Herod’s men carrying out his orders, hope drained from my body. I went back inside, held my lifeless son in my hands, and tried to comfort my wife.
 
We swaddled our son’s body and placed him in a straw-filled manger for the night and then cleaned his blood from the floor, from our hands, burned our blood-stained clothes. The next days were filled with burials and tears. For years sorrow gnawed our hearts. Everything changed.
 
Now, here I am, growing old, alone, more than thirty years later. My wife gave birth to sorrow that day and nurtured it until it killed her. She’s been gone some years now. We never had another child. She feared having to relive loss, cringing every time she heard a child’s cry.
 
I went to Jerusalem for Passover one year. There I heard rumors that taunted me. That a man some cite a savior had been passing through, doing amazing magical things. He was apparently born the same night as my son, and in Bethlehem, too. I was curious.
 
As I gathered bits and pieces about him, the oddness of that night seemed somehow connected with him. Questions nagged me. Mostly, how is it that he was alive and my son is dead? Making inquiries, what I learned disquieted me.
 
I’d been walking the streets of Jerusalem, following the news and the gossip. I heard he’d been arrested, but the charges weren’t clear. Sharing my story of loss with a local Rabbi, I was told this man is the reason for Herod’s murderous rampage so many years ago. He was suspected of being a would-be king and challenger based on stories some wandering, stargazing magi were spreading. He was the one who was supposed to die the day my son was murdered.
 
More than that, they said he was the son of a carpenter. I am a carpenter. He was as my son should be now. Alive, by my side, carrying on the trade. How is it this man lived and not my innocent son?
 
Later there was tumult in the street that leads to the hill of crucifixion, the mount of the death skull. I wasn’t sure what was going on so went to see for myself. Behold, there he was! Beaten. Bloody. Being prodded along like a sheep to slaughter, dragging a beam, the wood upon which he would be crucified.
So, he was a criminal. Herod wanted him dead decades ago and now his crimes have caught up with him, reaping what he has sown. I followed and watched with satisfaction as he winced in pain when he was raised to his death. Finally, justice for my son.
 
But then a sign was posted above his head saying he was King of the Jews. I was confused, conflicted. What is this? I asked questions of others and slowly was able to piece together a clearer picture of what was happening.
 
They said this man was a living prophecy. He was born of a virgin. He healed those who were sick, brought sight to the blind, called the dead from their tombs. From only a few fish and a loaf of bread fed thousands. Even walked on water! He has been called the Son of David, the Son of Man, Jesus Christ, son of God. Emmanuel!
 
He was not a criminal after all. He was a madman! And, so it turned out, even his followers, his so-called disciples, abandoned him. What a joke. My son and the sons of my friends died so this yokel could live? Could spread lies? Could deceive with tricks and magic and fancy words?
 
Dead! I wanted him dead! Death to the sorcerer!
 
I think of my son. See his face, fading in my memory, and know that he would not approve of my fury, my anger, my wish of death on another. What is there to gain? His mother, in the end, ravaged by grief, despair, anger, became bitterness personified. I loved her but was a little relieved when she died, finally free of the life-voiding sorrow.
 
Suddenly the sky darkened. The man cried out that it was finished. The earth quaked! A centurion standing by exclaimed that this must truly be the Son of God. Sometime later word came that the temple curtain ripped on its own. This was not normal, not any sorcery known. Everyone was gripped with fear and awe. Could it be?
 
I watched at a distance until they took him down and carried him to a tomb. Finally, he was as dead as my son. Certainly he was just a man, not anyone’s savior, right?
 
Three days later, in the morning, clumps of people buzzing in excited murmurs passed the inn where I was staying. Something was happening, had happened. I went out to the street and immediately was accosted by an excited man who shouted in my face -- “He’s alive! He’s alive!” -- and then ran off. From others passing I gathered this was about the man I had watched die on the cross. His madness apparently didn’t die with him!
 
Throughout the day and beyond, the stories came, the evidence mounted, witnesses stepped forward. Somehow a dead man came back from the grave, a tomb now empty. Others long buried also were seen around the city. If they could come back, I thought, why not my son? My wife?
 
Through more inquiries, I eventually made contact with the crucified man’s disciples. They had been in hiding, but as the resurrection news spread, they became more visible. I latched onto the group and followed them as much as I could. In the next several days, I saw and heard things that were inconceivable. I listened to all they taught and questioned them at length, trying to understand what had happened. What was happening.
 
After months of following, listening, wondering, questioning, pondering, the truth reached my heart. Not a criminal. Not a madman. Not a sorcerer. He had arisen from the dead. The evidence was undeniable, even though reality shaking. He brought a message of redemption from sins, a promise of new life, the renewal of joy, a reason for hope. The man was not just a man, but truly the Son of God.
It was a hard message to hear but it was what I needed. Finally, months later, I assented to being baptized. The brokenness inside me is shifting toward something new. Yet, I miss my son. I still don’t understand why he had to die so that this man-God could live.
 
But, in my heart, I know, I hope, one day I’ll see my son again. Maybe even my wife. Until then, I’ll share the good news I’ve received, continue being a carpenter making tables and chairs, and look forward to the return of the King.
Yet, there are days when doubts crowd faith, a faith that fights hard to keep the Truth and the promises in sight. On those days I miss my son and my wife very much. So very much.
 
And every year on his birthday, at night, I look toward the shepherd’s hill and listen, wondering if the singing will return.
 
 
=======
See Matthew 2:16.
Copyright © by Stephen R. Clark. All rights reserved.

Premonition (Poem)

  

 

Originally published here: https://www.facebook.com/StephenRClarkWriter/posts/2719621864962286

 


A Twisted Kind Of Normal

On December 24, 2010, I was stopped by a police officer who pulled his gun on me. Unnerved barely begins to describe my reaction in that moment.

As I interacted with the officer, my emotions ranged from confused to terrified to annoyed to angry to frustrated to shocked to, ultimately, helplessness and powerlessness.

It became increasingly clear he was agitated and, if pressed, I felt that the situation could go south fast. So I shut up and patiently waited for him to write out my ticket and allow me to go on my way.

So why am I sharing this?

First, I’m 68 years old and this is the only time anything like this has ever happened to me. The same is not true for a large majority of people of color. Being stopped for no reason, having a gun pointed at them, being searched is not uncommon. Which is just bizarre.

Second, every time I encounter in the news yet another story of a person of color killed or seriously injured by a police officer, I flash back to 2010 and the image of that gun in my side view mirror. All the emotions from then course through me once more. Including the anger.

When recent unrest blew up after the horrific death of George Floyd, I had little trouble understanding the outrage being expressed. It was not surprising. Especially given that this was the fourth such incident within a month and played out on TV so graphically.

What happened to me allows me a very tiny window into the pain felt by people of color who have been wrongly accosted by police. It amazes me that more riots haven’t broken out and more frequently with even more intensity.

My (hopefully) once-in-a-lifetime encounter with having a gun pointed at me caused stress at the time. I came home shaken, unsettled, generally freaked out. What I experienced was trauma. And each time I recall the event, those emotions come back and I relive them.

For people of color, these kinds of encounters are a twisted kind of normal. Parents have to train their children how to prepare to respond. And then worry if their kids will make it home alive. Again, this is just bizarre.

Living for decades with the fear of being targeted and, potentially, killed has to wear on a person. And it does. A lot. I have nothing but deep admiration for those who have endured so much and still maintain their sanity.

For people of color, this “normal” fuels high levels of hypertension, depression, PTSD, and other stress related physical health and mental health issues. This is not a kind of “normal” anyone who is created in the image of God should have to be subjected to as a matter of course.

When it comes to George Floyd, if you’ve seen the video or photos, we are all witnesses to his murder. What strikes me most about those images is the flippant smugness of the officer and the utter helplessness of Floyd.

George Floyd was a big, fit man. He was 46 years old. For a man of his stature and maturity to call out for his mama is a clear indication of the extreme duress he was under. I can only imagine the pain his family has felt watching his death play out, ultimately, in front of the entire world. Over and over.

Where do we go from here?

I think we who are white need to be a little more quiet and listen a lot. When we listen, much of what we’re going to hear will be very, very hard to receive. Still, we must try our best to feel and understand the pain that has been inflicted on our brothers and sisters of color.

People who, like us, are created in the image of God and are infinitely valuable in his eyes. Yet, unlike us, are treated as less than valuable just because the color of their skin is different. Or their culture is different. Or their language is different. Or their heritage is different.

We need to lay our own hearts open, become vulnerable, humble, and admit the flaws in us that are racially-driven. We are all culpable and any white Christian who doesn’t get this is not allowing the Holy Spirit to work in their life.

As for me, my one experience has changed how I see these events playing out on in the media. When I see the images of George Floyd or Ahmaud Arbery, or hear the horrendous details of Breonna Taylor, or the last words of Elijah McClain declaring he was an introvert and then apologizing, or seeing the name Stephon Clark who was shot in the back in his grandmother’s backyard -- and the names go on and on! -- I just want to scream, “What the hell is going on! This is so wrong!”

My heart breaks. And that nauseating sense of powerlessness sweeps through me as I relive my own, solitary experience.

But, the truth is, I am not powerless. And neither are you.

It’s time we use our power -- our love, our wisdom, our intelligence, our creativity, our politics, our faith, our voices, the grace and giftings that God has given us -- to drive positive change, to support our brothers and sisters of color, and to actually be the Christians we claim to be.

Scripture makes clear that our enemy, Satan, roams about seeking to devour whomever he can. That his goal is to steal, kill, and destroy. To divide. Scripture also makes clear that we, as believers, have an obligation to resist Satan, to foil his plans, to disarm his intentions, to protect those he is targeting, to defend the helpless, fight against injustice, love others like Jesus loves us.

My single experience pales against the endless experiences faced by people of color. But it allows me a small glimpse into the frustration and challenges they endure day in and day out, year after year. How utterly exhausting!

People of color are being subjected to systemic, systematic, debilitating, death-dealing injustice. They have been for decades and decades. If we are not rising up to stand with them, to protect them, to defend them, to believe them, to hear them, then we are not serving our Father in heaven. Instead we are a viper’s brood serving our father the devil.

It’s that simple.

May God have mercy on us.



======


© by Stephen R. Clark. All rights reserved. Please feel free to share with others.

Originally published here: https://www.facebook.com/notes/stephen-r-clark-writer/a-twisted-kind-of-normal/2618071215117352/

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Done for now.

After 9 years and almost 500 posts, I'm done blogging for awhile. Thanks for stopping by and reading what's here. Feel free to follow me at https://www.facebook.com/StephenRClarkWriter/.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Odd & Marvelous Work Of Grace

This is the devotional message
I gave on 12/31/17 at my church,
Huntingdon Valley Presbyterian Church.
It’s been edited very slightly for this pos
t.

A couple of weeks ago, while I was attempting to prepare this message, BethAnn asked me what my topic was.

“Grace,” I said.

She replied, “That’s a big topic!”

And I thought to myself with a sigh of desperation, “No kidding!”

At that time, I’d been thinking about this big topic for a few weeks. After all, Advent and Christmas is all about grace. When I volunteered to speak, I knew immediately grace was to be the topic. I even had a pretty good idea of an outline for the message. At least I thought I did.

I started reading, making notes, and mulling.

One night, as I lay in bed, I began thinking through how to structure the message. All the pieces seemed to come together. I was pretty confident that I had a plan and went to sleep.

You may be able to guess where this is going.

The next day, when I finally got the time to sit down and start writing -- “Poof!” -- all those pieces came apart and evaporated.

Well, maybe not totally “Poof!”

The general ideas were still rattling around in my head and heart. But, as happens sometimes in the process of writing, getting those things in my head to appear on the page -- or, rather, my computer screen -- just wouldn’t happen. At least not in any cohesive way.

I had an outline. I had ideas. But I just couldn’t make it all coalesce into whatever it was that God wanted to communicate through me.

After all, that’s what preaching is. Even when it’s what this is supposed to be -- a brief devotional thought. When you stand up here, you’re -- well, as Peter puts it, an “oracle of God.”

That’s a little scary! Which may have fed into my sermon block.


The context is in 1 Peter 4:10-11 where Peter writes, “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God's varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ....”

Even this cautionary encouragement mentions grace.

Which is what I’m supposed to be talking to you about.


Okay, as I mentioned, I had an outline in my head early on. It started with five or six items, got trimmed to four, and finally, I landed on three basic points. Here they are:
  1. Grace is a stupendously marvelous thing.
  2. If grace is working in us, it should show.
  3. All we covet about grace for ourselves, we must freely extend to others.
I mean, that’s all pretty obvious, right? I’m sure everyone here agrees with these points. How hard should it be to flesh them out?

I thought about opening with a few facts about the word grace. Like how in the New Testament, the original Greek for grace is charis -- c-h-a-r-i-s. And that charis actually appears around 159 times in the New Testament.

By the way, many passages are about grace even though the word grace is not used. Practically the entire Bible is about grace! Even the book of James.

Anyway, charis, when not translated as grace, is usually translated as favor or pleasure, or some version of thanks such as thankful.

A more expanded definition for grace is “that which affords joy, pleasure, delight, sweetness, charm, loveliness, good will, loving-kindness; of the merciful kindness by which God, exerting his holy influence upon souls, turns them to Christ, keeps, strengthens, increases them in Christian faith, knowledge, affection, and kindles them to the exercise of the Christian virtues.”

So says Strong’s Concordance.

A simpler definition, and the one you’re probably most familiar with, is that grace is the unmerited favor of God.

You get the idea.


But I also thought it would be important to really punch up how truly marvelous grace is -- redeeming us from sin and making us new creations.

You know, like in the hymn that says, “Marvelous grace of our loving Lord, grace that exceeds our sin and our guilt | Grace, grace, God's grace, grace that is greater than all our sin.”

I need this grace!

I can’t speak for you, but David speaks for me in Psalm 51:3 where he says, “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.”

A quirk of being an introvert is that memories of decades-old failures can pop-up out of nowhere, any time, feeling very present, and make us cringe.

As a result, I covet all the grace I can get.

I love Micah 7:19 that declares, “[God] will again have compassion on us; he will tread our iniquities underfoot. [He] will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea.”

Or how about Psalm 103 -- you could call it the Grace Chapter -- that goes into wonderful detail about how God forgives all our iniquities, crowns us with steadfast love and mercy, is gracious, slow to anger, does not deal with us according to our sins, or repay us according to our iniquities.

And my favorite part declares, “as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us.”

I don’t know about you, but having my sins removed as far as the east is from the west sounds like a really good deal.

But then there’s Isaiah 43 that goes further when God declares, “I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins.”

Talk about something going “Poof!”

All this is done by grace.

Amazing grace! How sweet the sound! Bring it on and save a wretch like me!


So that’s more or less what I had in mind to try to get across how stupendously marvelous grace is.

The second point of my cut-down outline is, “If grace is working in us, it should show.”

What I think I had in mind was looking at the characteristics, impacts, effects, and results of grace. And here’s where I think the subject just blew up bigger than I could wrangle it.

Seriously, pull out your concordance or go online to any of the Bible sites
-- I like BibleGateway.com -- and search on “grace.”

Depending on the version of the Bible you choose, you’ll get around 130 to 150 or so results. And in reading just these verses, you’ll begin to see the magnitude of the work of grace in our lives.

By the way, Dan and others will be taking us on a deep dive in Romans all year long and a big theme with Paul involves grace. It’ll be coming around again in the New Year.

Okay, so a handful of sub-points under “If grace is working in us, it should show” is that the grace of God, when it’s being effective in us -- justifies us, redeems us from sin, fuels gifts, transforms our thinking, reforms our behavior, re-centers our motivations, heals our emotions, empowers our love -- essentially does the yeoman’s work of undoing the horrendous damage of sin and making us into all God intended for us to be. Day by day. Moment by moment.

This is the oddity of grace -- it’s like grace is a solid, a gas, and a liquid all at the same time! Whatever we need, God provides the grace that is sufficient. Grace is the Swiss Army knife of faith!

This is a big, big deal!

Coupled with this is another sub-point -- which overlaps with the first point -- something to the effect that for all of this good stuff to happen, grace first gets us out of jail free! It removes the shackles of sin. It ends our slavery to sin. It lifts the crushing weight of condemnation from our lives.

Grace takes us from a place of closed in, suffocating bondage and sets us out into open air and sunshine. Grace gives us room and nourishment to grow -- in grace.

I knew this is important and struggled with how to convey it. I thought maybe something like this:

Being weighed down by the condemnation of sin, perhaps, is like being locked inside a dark cell. You have nothing -- no tools or supplies -- yet you’re expected to, let’s say, bake a cake.

You don’t even have an oven or fire! Yet every hour someone opens a little window on the door of your cell, sticks in their ugly face, and starts chiding you for not baking. They call you all sorts of belittling names. They mock you, shame you. Lay on the accusations and condemnations big time. You feel small, weak, useless, powerless.

But then grace takes you out of the cell, puts you in the most gloriously equipped and stocked kitchen you’ve ever seen. There are cookbooks, supplies galore, open windows, perfect lighting, a modern oven, and even helpers (also known as ministering angels). Everything you need to succeed at baking is freely and generously supplied. Regular and gluten free.

Now that we’re in the kitchen of grace, we ought to be baking grace cakes to give away. The work of grace in us needs to be visible and productive.

I think maybe Colossians 1:9-14 captures this, at least in part:
“And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; being strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy; giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”
This is the work of grace.


So those are the first two of my three points I wanted to make: That “Grace is a stupendously marvelous thing,” and, “If grace is working in us, it should show.”

The third point is, “All we covet about grace for ourselves, we must freely extend to others.”

I think some of what was fueling this thought is my own failure to show grace to others. Especially people who have, as the Country Western songs put it, “done me wrong.”

I’ve been “done wrong” a few times in my life. Some of those wrongs really, really hurt. At least one has hurt hard for decades, and there’s no end in sight. Yet, I’m supposed to extend grace to the wrong doers.

It’s not easy and I’m not always gracious in my actions, words, or thoughts toward them.


Another factor prompting this point are the really horrible posts I see way too often on social media -- and many posted by Christians -- that communicate the idea that “toxic” people are expendable. We should ignore them, shun them, toss them aside.

It seems anyone who annoys us in anyway can be labeled as toxic. That’s a pretty low bar to view someone as disposable.

In fact, a rather extreme post I came across recently lists “8 toxic people you should get rid of.”

It declares that if a person spreads negativity, criticizes, wastes your time, is jealous, plays the victim, doesn’t care about you, is self-centered, or keeps disappointing you, you need to get rid of them.

Be honest with me. If being tagged with just one of these eight characteristics makes a person “toxic” then I am, and, frankly, so are you. Who among us has not ever disappointed someone? And when it comes to being self-centered -- another term for selfish -- I’ll admit I’m really quite skilled. It sort of comes natural for most of us.

Posts like these are totally graceless. They are anti-grace and they are heartbreaking.

There may certainly be times when we need to step away from certain people. And grace does include accountability. But our first instinct should not be shunning or disposal -- especially when the issues are merely annoyances.

Rather, it should be seeking to come alongside in grace. And, when there is repentance, we should be like the father of the prodigal son -- expectantly longing and looking for the opportunity to extend grace and restoration.

One of the functions of grace is to protect both offender and offendee. Grace makes room for accountability, repentance, and restoration to happen. Grace keeps the door open.

Instead of posting or agreeing with these kinds of messages -- instead of too easily and almost joyfully denying grace to others -- we should be over-the-moon abundantly grateful that God doesn’t view us like this! If He did, we would have zero hope of heaven. We’d all be doomed.

We need to take to heart that at least one of our grace-fed superpowers as Christians is supposed to be the ability to spread grace to others as freely as we are receiving it. Yes, as a Christian you have access to superpowers -- or, rather, supernatural powers.

All the good stuff about grace that we covet feverishly for ourselves we must share with others. It’s really not an option.


R. C. Sproul wrote, “The more we understand how kind God has been to us and the more we are overcome by His mercy, the more we are inclined to love Him and to serve Him.”

I contend that an excellent way to understand and more fully appreciate how kind God has been to us is through the very hard work of ministering grace to others.

As I mentioned, there are a handful of people in my life that, when they come to mind, my first instinct is to wish them -- shall we say -- not good things. What stops me is looking in the mirror and admitting to myself that there have been times I’ve been the one doing the hurting. And that ultimately all my sinning has really been against God.

In other words, when it’s hard for us to extend grace to someone else, we should think about what God has gone through -- and goes through -- to extend grace to us.


We all know the Love Chapter, 1 Corinthians 13.

Nearly every Christian wedding includes it in the ceremony or the invitation or on a candle. When we read it, we get all dewy-eyed and warm inside.

Love! Yes! This is it!

Well, at least how we’d like it to be, especially when aimed at us. Doing it? That’s another story. But we try our best.

The Greek word -- agape -- translated as “love” in this passage is sometimes translated as “charity.” Oddly, the word for grace -- charis -- is also sometimes translated as charity. Love and grace are related. Who knew?!

So I thought, “What if we replace ‘love’ with ‘grace’ in this passage.” Here is what we get:
“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not grace, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not grace, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not grace, I gain nothing.”

“Grace is patient and kind; grace does not envy or boast; grace is not arrogant or rude. Grace does not insist on its own way; grace is not irritable or resentful; grace does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Grace bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

“Grace never ends.”
Wow.

The thrust of what I want to get across is that, when it comes to grace, we need to be giving as good as we’re getting. We shouldn’t be insisting others cut us slack while we tighten nooses for them.

If we aren’t being gracious with those around us -- even those who have hurt us -- well, then, grace is not working in us.

Withholding grace from others is the same as being a bully. It de-magnifies God. It tries to manipulate vengeance and bring on punishment. It’s refusing to forgive, refusing to show mercy, refusing to share in God’s provision, refusing to admit our own desperate dependence on grace.


So, these are the three basic points I wanted to get across:
  • Grace is a stupendously marvelous thing.
  • If grace is working in us, it should show.
  • All we covet about grace for ourselves, we must freely extend to others.
There was a lot of other stuff that came to mind. I accumulated about 20 or 30 pages of notes. The rabbit trails -- all worth chasing -- are legion and they go everywhere!

Like this one, that hoarding grace for ourselves is somewhat like the Israelites did in Exodus 16, trying to collect more than a day’s worth of manna and store it. It will just turn rotten and bitter.

Or how about the golden rule in Matthew 7:12 -- do to others as you would have them do to you -- a rule I probably break at least once a day
-- it’s about grace.

And, of course, Lamentations 3:22-23, “The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” Which shows us every day -- not just every New Year -- we can and should hit the reset button to start over with fresh grace, for ourselves and others.

And the passage in Matthew 18 about forgiving seventy times seven -- which is about grace countlessly multiplied. If someone offends us and then repents, our only grace-fueled option is to forgive them, extending grace to them.

Or how about this? Grace is not just passively applied to us -- we need to choose to engage with grace and encourage others to continue in grace. Acts 13:43 states in part, “Paul and Barnabas, who, as they spoke with [some devout Jews], urged them to continue in the grace of God.”

Oh, and this is kind of fun. In Romans 12:6 where it states, “Having gifts that differ according to the grace given us...” The Greek word for gifts in this verse is a form of charis; it’s charisma. So, since everyone who comes to Jesus is gifted to serve him -- none are left behind in this area -- it means that, in a sense, we’re all charismatics!

Anyway, see my dilemma? Grace just goes on and on, and on and on!


But this was supposed to be a brief devotional message (not so brief, sorry) so I should start wrapping up.

Phillip Holmes, the Director of Communications at Reformed Theological Seminary, writing on the Desiring God website, states:
“[God] is not ignorant of all the ways we’ve sinned against him. He knows everything we’ve ever done and is able to stomach it. His knowledge of who we really are will never hinder his love for us. He’s even aware of the evil behind our righteous deeds. The intimacy by which the Lord knows us but is able to lovingly embrace us as his children is supernatural. God’s grace is mind-blowing. Every time I think of this reality, I’m brought to tears because I serve a God whose love and grace baffle me.”
Yes. Exactly. Me too.

So, in 2018 and beyond, as grace upon grace is being lavished on us by God, may we be transformed more and more into His glorious image, and may his grace flow through us to others abundantly.

And that’s what I wanted to share.


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Yes, this is a long post. Sorry about that. But it seemed a good way to end the year. Do you agree with my assessment of grace? Are you baking grace cakes for others or tightening nooses for them? Please share your thoughts in the comments! And have a blessed New Year.

You can listen to this message at www.HVPC.org/Sermons.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Don’t include the uninvited (a rant)


A pet peeve of mine is when I email someone and, when they reply, they add a new recipient or few into the conversation.

Please don’t do this. It’s unprofessional and a tacky breach of email etiquette.

Here are a three reasons why:
  1. It wastes time. Not everyone needs to be included in every email about a topic, especially if it’s an initial communication. This is true even if later -- after all issues are clear and resolved, after all the facts are found -- others may need to be informed. Then they can be added -- by the originator. In the meantime, why bother them? It merely annoys busy people as well as clutters and confuses the conversation.
     
  2. It implies misdoing. Whether you intend it or not, to suddenly include a new recipient or two can imply to the originator of the conversation that you think they’re trying to get away with something. That they’re trying to go around someone. Or, it can imply shady doings to those added in making them wonder what’s up when nothing is amiss. It wrongly introduces mistrust and falsely casts aspersion.
     
  3. It can complicate the simple. An email may need only a simple response. The originator has carefully chosen the recipients and asked for what he/she needs to know. No more, no less. Adding in new recipients will almost always generate additional emails asking for clarifications, expressing confusion, injecting unwanted input, causing emotional distress, and on and on. What was easy-peasy becomes a muddled mess.
So, what to do?

The general rule of thumb is to only reply to the person sending the email -- the originator. Or, if it’s a group conversation (as determined by the originator), reply all only to the original recipients.

“But,” you object, “what if I feel really strongly about including someone new?”

Then call or email the original sender, tell them who you want to add and why, and ask them if they mind the addition.

What you probably will discover is that the originator intends to include the person or persons you have in mind at a later date. Often after details are worked out and settled. But only if the initial conversation yields a positive response that leads to further action. If not, then there’s no reason for bugging others (see #1 above).

One more caution: There may be very sensitive and confidential reasons for not including someone in a conversation. These are things you’re not privy to and are none of your business. Adding uninvited others into an email can be a serious ruffling of the proverbial feathers creating chaos, havoc, and serious personal and professional damage. This is never good.

If there really is a reason to add someone in, let the originator of the original email do so. They started the conversation, so, with respect, allow them to manage it. Don’t usurp their conversation.

Adding someone into an email conversation you didn’t initiate isn’t your call. Period.

And don’t even get me started on BCCs! Oy vey!



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Okay, I know this isn’t a “spiritual” topic but I do think respectful and clear communications is an important tact for Christians. Feel free to offer a scripture that supports this. Do you agree with my post? Can you think of exceptions to this rule? What are they? Have you experienced someone adding in new recipients when replying to an email? How did you deal with it? Did it ever create unnecessary conflict or other issues? Please sound off in the comments!

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Email me. Okay, I’ll text you. (a rant)


Not everyone likes to communicate the same way. Some people prefer email while others want to meet face-to-face and others like to text.

How can you tell a person’s preference? Simple. Pay attention to how they initiate contact.

Did they call? Email? Text? Come knock on your door? Send a Hallmark card?

There’s your clue.

I hate it when I send someone an email and ask for a response and they text me.

It’s like sending a message to someone to arrange a time for a call because right now you’re busy, and they call -- right now.

Please don’t do this to people!

If someone emails you, respond via email. If someone calls you, call them back. If someone texts you, text them back.

See how that works? It’s an apples-to-apples kind of thing. Yes, there is an exception and I’ll get to that in a bit.

While this practice is important to be aware of generally speaking, it’s crucial if you are a service provider. You know, like a plumber or freelancer or any kind of independent contractor.

Why is it so important?

Because you can annoy your customers away if you contact them (or insist they contact you) via a mode they don’t like. Especially if it’s a technology they aren’t proficient in or comfortable with.

I’m not a huge fan of texting, especially when complexity is involved. (And I generally loath Facebook Messenger!)

I prefer email, or, if that fails, perhaps a phone call. Or more email. Or, perhaps face-to-face. But probably still more email.

If you are a service provider and you insist on communicating only via text telling me that it works best for you, then I’ll probably look for a new service provider. Why? Because it doesn’t work best for me -- the purchaser of your service.

I know texting is popular, especially for the young ‘uns. But don’t force your customers to communicate outside of their comfort zones.

You want your customers happy and anxiety free. You want them to like being in touch with you.

So, what to do? Let’s review!
  • If someone emails you, respond via email.
  • If someone calls you, call them back.
  • If someone texts you, text them back.
  • And so forth. Except...
There is an exception to this rule. If someone texts you and says please respond using email or with a call, then do as they direct. That should be pretty clear. Otherwise, if no such specification is made, reply using the same mode they used to contact you.

Isn’t that just so simple?

Now, if we could only fix politics. Oh well. Baby steps to a better world!


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Okay, I know this isn’t a “spiritual” topic but I do think respectful and clear communications is an important tact for Christians. Feel free to offer a scripture that supports this. Do you agree with my post? Have you experienced someone insisting on communicating with you in a mode you don’t care for? How did you deal with it? Please sound off in the comments!

Monday, November 27, 2017

That wasn’t the question (a rant)


A common and very annoying ploy of shady politicians is to dodge questions. It’s annoying. It’s dishonest. It’s just not very polite.

The same is true when people are making inquiry by email or text and the response is lacking.

For example, Jack emails Jill: “Will you be able to make the meeting today at 9:30 a.m.?” To which Jill responds: “I’ve completed the report on pails for Feldon.”

At this point Jack commences pulling out his hair or banging his head on his desk.

This kind of craziness happens all the time in other milieus. Here’s another example from a non-business setting.

Elaine texts George: “I’m tied up right now. When would be a good time for me to call you about Jer’s party?” To which George responds: “No problem! I’ll call you right now!”

Elaine makes a mental note to unfriend George.

By not paying attention or just being sloppy and not answering the question(s) asked, complexity and craziness ensue. Especially if in subsequent communications questions continue to be dodged.

Please, people! Stop doing this!

When receiving an email or text message, read it. Seriously. Take a few seconds and actually read it.

To understand how to respond, look for clues such as a question mark (this thing > ?). When you see a question mark (?) it means you’ve been asked a question the sender needs you to answer.

So, how do you reply? Answer the question(s)! Plain and simple. Just answer the question(s) you have been asked.

Let’s look at our two examples above and fix them.
  • Fixed Example 1: Jack emails Jill: “Will you be able to make the meeting today at 9:30 a.m.?” To which Jill responds: “Yes, I’ll be there on time. By the way, I’ve completed the report on pails for Feldon and will bring a copy for you to review.”
     
  • Fixed Example 2: Elaine texts George: “I’m tied up right now. When would be a good time for me to call you about Jer’s party?” To which George responds: “No problem! I’m free later today at 3 p.m., or any time tomorrow. Let me know what time works for you.”
See how simple this is?

It’s even okay to add a little additional information as long as you first fully answer the question(s) you were asked. Easy as pie. Well, actually much easier.

Don’t be like a shady politician tying to pull the wool over the world’s eyes. Be smart, courteous, and give a straight, complete answer to the question(s) you’re asked in emails and texts.

Trust me. Life will be so much better for everyone. The time saved and aggravation avoided, you have no idea!



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Okay, I know this isn’t a “spiritual” topic but I do think respectful and clear communications is an important tact for Christians. Feel free to offer a scripture that supports this. Do you agree with my post? Have you experienced asking someone a question via email or text and they didn’t answer it? Or, you asked 2 or 3 questions and they answered only one? How did you deal with it? Please sound off in the comments!

Monday, October 30, 2017

I love church! & other rambling thoughts on the privilege of preaching as an introvert


I cannot imagine being anywhere else on Sunday morning other than church.

Seriously.

There are moments when I’m in church that I just tear up.

Frederick Buechner writes, “Whenever you find tears in your eyes, especially unexpected tears, it is well to pay the closest attention, they are not only telling you something about the secret of who you are, but more often than not God is speaking to you through them of the mystery of where you have come from and is summoning you to where, if your soul is to be saved, you should go next.”

I try to stifle the tears. After all, real men don’t cry, right? When this happens, if we are singing, I have to stop as I consider where I have come from and to where, next, God is summoning me.

Often tears happen when we’re singing a particular hymn that reminds me of my mom. She loved to sing. Yesterday it was “What A Friend We Have In Jesus” that nudged out a tear or two. That was one of her favorites.

But it’s more than that.

There is such an intense thrill being with other believers as we are focusing our lives on the worship of God. It’s at times like these that the word “awesome” is accurate in its truest and deepest meaning.

How can one not tear up when God is affirming His presence in your heart?

Yes, what I’m saying is that in church -- and at other times -- I can feel the presence of God. Tangibly. This is a good thing. In fact, several million people around the world would agree with me on this.

* * *

To be loved by God, acknowledged by God is crazy delicious. And mind-numbingly humbling. All at the same time.

I know, better than anyone (other than God), that I don’t deserve His attention, His grace, His mercy. And yet, every breath I take, every move I make, it’s because of Him.

One of my favorite passages is Colossians 1:16-17 (ESV): “For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”

All things hold together. In Him!

This couples well with Paul’s statement in Acts 17:27-28 (ESV) “...that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for ‘In him we live and move and have our being.’"

This, too, is a good thing.

Surprisingly, even those who refuse to acknowledge God are in still His care. While these atheists or agnostics or “spiritual but not religious” often claim bliss in the midst of this ignorance, frankly, they don’t know what they’re missing.

And then there are those who wrap themselves securely in the banner of being Christian and yet eschew church completely, or, if they are a member somewhere, easily find “reasons” for not being in church on Sundays. And if they do show up, Lord help them if they are asked to serve more than rarely!

Forgive my little rant, but I don’t get any of this.

* * *

Maybe I was just spoiled as a kid. I was born into a family where being in church and serving in church was viewed as a privilege, an honor, a source of joy. And so that is in my DNA, as they say. Referring back to the Buechner quote, “this is telling you something about the secret of who” I am.

Mom and dad always held various leadership as well as behind-the-scenes roles in church. Me and my sister followed their leads. And I have zero regrets in this area.

Occasionally there is some Satan-seduced scoundrel that slithers into a church and tries to stir up discord and strife that results in hurt feelings and worse. These times are hard. Yet, inevitably, the Holy Spirit provides clarity and discernment, the scoundrel either is repentant or rebuffed. Healing comes and unity is restored. Until the next round. And there will always be another round.

Jesus made it clear that the Christian walk is no cake walk. There are weeds in the wheat fields. Goats among the sheep. It rains on the just and the unjust, and everyone has troubles to deal with. But the advantage goes to believers who get to hold God’s hand during the hard times.

I’d rather be worldly-poor holding God’s hand than wealthy and godless. I’ve turned my back on God a few times and it wasn’t a good thing. It’s those times that generated regrets.

* * *

But, as I was saying, I love church.

I love it so much that, even as an introvert who is not the most comfortable getting up in front of people, I will joyfully -- more or less -- say “Yes!” when asked to fill in for our pastor on any given Sunday and preach.

For some weird and inexplicable reason, God has subtly gifted me with the ability to preach, periodically. I know this isn’t something I could do every Sunday, and I have huge respect for the pastors who can and do. But, I can fill in now and then.

Oddly, it’s something I want to do, kind of.

Just recently I shared with a friend that, of late, I’ve found myself wondering when I’ll get to preach next, while at the same time, sort of dreading it. There is both eagerness and anxiety.

Probably at least some of the anxiety comes from such admonitions as found in 1 Peter 4:10-11 that advise, “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God's varied grace:  whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God....”

An oracle of God? Yikes! That’s some heavy-duty responsibility.

Confronted with such a burden of obligation, I cry out with Isaiah, saying, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips....” (Isaiah 6:5, ESV).

So, no, I don’t step into the pulpit lightly. I understand full well how serious such an endeavor is.

* * *

This awareness helps drive my preparation. I’ll even share an early draft of a sermon with my pastor and a few trusted friends to ensure I’m on the right track.

Sermon prep surfaces a few fears. Besides worrying that I might have to go to the restroom halfway through delivering a sermon, the bigger overarching concern is that I not misspeak, mislead, somehow misinterpret a passage, or provide any level of misinformation. God forbid! Which He does.

One of the advantages I’ve discovered of doing sermon prep is that it takes me into the Word at a different angle.

Just yesterday I had the privilege of filling in for our pastor and continued the series on John that he began over a year ago (Read it here; listen to it here). We’re near the end and the passage that was next was John 21:1-14, the breakfast on the beach scene.

As I mentioned in the opening of my sermon, on the surface, there doesn’t seem to be much there. What’s happening seems obvious. But is it?

Much if not all of God’s Word is like those expandable grow-monster sponge toys. They come in little capsules and when placed in water overnight, the next morning your kitchen is overtaken by a nearly life-size dinosaur or some other giant sponge beast. In fact, these things can keep growing for days!

This is what happens when diving into scripture with the intent of opening it for others. The Holy Spirit provides intense insight. Some may call this anointing or unction. Perhaps. But the application of these is entirely up to God and not something I can be presumptuous to claim for myself.

All I know is that as I examine a passage with the intent to preach it, the passage begins to look different from all the other times I’ve read it. What was unseen before glows, as it were. Well, at least eventually. It takes diligence, discipline, prayer, study, and panic before the glowing comes.

* * *

I don’t begrudge the need for some blood, sweat, and tears when digging into the Word to unearth the deeper truths. Nothing good comes easily. And the struggle forces dependence on the Holy Spirit which is as it should be.

I also don’t begrudge the sheer effort it takes for me, a God-imaging introvert, to stand up and preach. I don’t begrudge the exhaustion and recovery time needed afterward -- and every introvert knows what I mean. To echo Paul, I rejoice in this suffering because I know it’s productive and temporal. It’s good for me.

 * * *

Yesterday evening I was exhausted. And I was genuinely happy to be done with the preaching for the day. Yet, at the same time, I was happy to have had the opportunity, to have been entrusted with such a weighty task, to be considered by God and others as acceptable for such an endeavor. The tears welled a little thinking about this as I don’t really feel worthy. Others do, so I trust their judgment and work hard to live up to their trust in me.

Buechner also said once, “the vocation for you is the one in which your deep gladness and the world’s deep need meet. When you are doing what you are happiest doing, it must also be something that not only makes you happy but that the world needs to have done.”

From time to time, here in my little part of the world, there is a need for someone to fill in when the pastor has other obligations. For me, answering that need, saying yes, ultimately brings me deep gladness. Even as I write this, thinking about yesterday’s preaching effort, joy bubbles gently in my spirit and tears well.

Like I said, I cannot imagine being anywhere else on Sunday morning other than church. Even when it’s me -- the introvert -- who is preaching.


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Do you love church? Why or why not? Do you attend church regularly? Are you a member of a church? What is one of your most fond memories of church? Please share your thoughts in the comments!

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Things are not looking up, but I am. So is the body count.


I’m always looking up. When I’m out walking in the neighborhood and especially when I’m someplace surrounded by tall buildings. I look up.

Monday as the news of Las Vegas filtered out, the first thing that came to mind was the 1966 University of Texas tower shootings. I was 14. There wasn’t the intense 24-hour news coverage like we have now, but the news that did reach us was terrifying and transfixing.

Who would do such a thing? Why? Was it really happening? How could it happen? In America!

Thinking about the victims then I was gripped by a sense of helplessness. I don’t clearly remember all of the details, but I do remember that feeling. I’m wondering if that isn’t the impetus to my always looking up.

Looking up. I wonder.

Then came 9/11, demon driven terror plunging out of the sky. Memories of that day in 2001 and the weeks that followed are more vivid than those from 1966. The day after, I stepped into the backyard, and looked up. The sky was so clear and blue. Empty and quiet.

Even now I can’t resist looking up any time I hear a plane going over. I need to see it. To see that it isn’t diving down into the earth.

And now I wonder what it was like in Las Vegas to have hundreds of bullets falling down like a hard rain. Some told how they could feel bits of dirt and debris striking their face, thrown up by bullets hitting near them. Very near them. Shrapnel everywhere.

Many looked up, pointed at the Mandalay Bay hotel. Pointed at the source of the terror falling on them. And ran screaming. Many are still screaming in their dreams and silently in their heads. They will be for a long time.

* * *

I don’t own a gun now and have no objections to those who do. I’ve thought about getting one, but it’s not a priority. Years ago I won trophies on the rifle range at Scout camp. It was fun.

For some it seems guns are an obsession. They seem more passionate about guns than most other things in their lives. It’s a weird and desperate idolatry. A crazed addiction of a kind. A sort of paranoia-inducing gunpowder fever. Mad gun disease. Bigger guns! Larger clips! More ammo! Silencers! Bump stocks!

I don’t know a lot about the current gun laws, the lobbying practices of the NRA, or about specifics of different kinds of guns. I know some things and probably should learn more.

But I don’t need to know much to understand that if guns aren’t easily available, when a person goes all broken in their head and heart, when they let evil invisibly take them over, it’s less likely they’ll turn to a gun to do damage.

You can’t use what you can’t get.

* * *

There are those who claim it makes no difference if someone chooses a gun or a knife, that if they are intent on killing they will.

True.

But someone wielding a knife has to come down from the 32nd floor, walk into the crowd of 22,000 to inflict pain. They have to bring their evil up close and personal to their victims. Look them in the eyes.

Once aware that evil is running amok, people can avoid a person with a knife. And one person with a knife certainly isn’t going to kill 59 people and wound more than 500 others. Not even close.

A knife is inherently very self-limiting as to the amount of damage that can be done. You have to hold it in your hand and your reach is limited to the length of your arm. If you throw it at someone, you’re done.

A gun is a different beast. All that limits a person with a gun is how much ammunition they can carry and how fast they can reload. The reach of a single gun is vast and obscene. The Las Vegas shooter had dozens.

* * *

Every time there’s a mass shooting, we’re told this is not the time to talk about gun control or related issues. That doing so politicizes a tragic event. Which is an odd claim given that often those trying to talk about it are survivors, or friends and family of those killed.

What I wonder is, what is it going to take? What’s the body count that will trigger the backlash and release the courage needed to reign in this gun madness that infects our nation?

Clearly the death of 18 people and wounding of 31 at the University of Texas wasn’t enough.

Obviously 12 students and one adult murdered at Columbine wasn’t enough.

Evidently the 32 killed and 17 injured at Virginia Tech wasn’t enough.

Apparently 20 frightened children and six adults being killed at Sandy Hook wasn’t enough.

Forty-nine dead at the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando did not achieve the tipping point either.

You’d think that 59 dead and more than 500 injured in Las Vegas -- and the numbers keep ticking up -- would certainly be enough.

Instead, all that is accomplished is the setting of a new macabre record repeatedly touted in the news.

Get Guinness on the phone! It’s another one for the record books!

A “mass shooting” is when four or more people are killed. According to several sources, in the U.S. there have been 273 “mass shootings” in 275 days so far this year -- more than 1,000 people killed by guns -- and even this is not enough.

* * *

Many, taking a cue from the NRA and bizarrely intense Second Amendment firebrands, urge a wait-and-see approach. Just calm down and let the facts be gathered.

They claim we still need to know how many guns there were, we need to wait to learn if the gun Stephen Paddock used was fully automatic or was converted. We need to wait to learn if the guns were purchased legally. We need to wait until we learn definitely the shooter’s motive. Was it terrorism, a screw loose, a failed relationship, gambling debts, or something else? We need to wait. To wait and see.

Actually, no. We don’t need to wait. We need to act. As far as waiting, enough is truly enough already!

It makes zero difference the type of firearm, how it was purchased, or the motive. Having answers for these questions will be helpful, but they are not required for action. We have all the data and information we need to move, to act, to incite change. Now.

All that matters are the lives lost because a bent man with a gun sprayed bullets into a crowd at a concert. All that matters are the lives lost in 1966 in Texas. The lives lost in 1999 at Columbine. The lives lost in 2007 at Virginia Tech. The lives lost in 2012 at Sandy Hook. The lives lost in 2016 in Orlando. The lives lost this week and every week across the United States.

The body count is high enough already.

We need action to reduce the number of guns produced and available in this country. We need more stringent, consistent laws that make it tougher for anyone to get and own and use a gun.

It shouldn’t be easier to get a gun than it is to get a driver’s license.

It should be as regulated to own and use a gun as it is to own and drive a car. We need standardized training, mandatory testing, required insurance, a probationary licensing process, annual registration, license renewals and fees every couple of years, photo ID -- the works -- to get and own and use a gun.

Not doing anything is insane. Not taking action is irresponsible.

I agree with Stephen Colbert, now is the time to do something. Do something, “or come up with a better answer. Anything but nothing. Doing nothing is cowardice. Doing something will take courage.”

* * *

It’s startling to realize part of why I look up. Out of fear. Fear that was seeded when I was 14 and a madman climbed a tower in Texas. Fear that was fed when towers fell in New York City. Fear that has now been refueled by a guy with far too many guns shooting from high up in a hotel.

It’s a cautionary and not a paralyzing fear. It’s not like the fear generated by gun lobbyists and others that freezes lawmakers into inaction and insensitive excuses when it comes to making needed changes. When it comes to standing up and acting.

The country needs more courage and regulation. Not more guns. There are more than enough guns. Far, far too many guns.

So, while waiting for lawmakers to stand up -- to do what We The People want them to do -- I look up. I look up to scan the windows of the buildings towering over me, and, even though changes were made and it’s much more difficult to commandeer one, to scan the skies and watch the trajectories of the planes above me. And to keep an eye on all those around me vehemently, irrationally insisting they need more guns and fewer regulations.

I look up to God and pray that He will send comfort to the families who have lost a child, a parent, a spouse, a friend -- yet again.

I look up and pray and hope, knowing it will probably take another tragedy, and another, and another, and who knows how many more before lawmakers will find the courage to stand up and act, to push against our country’s gun madness.

God, help us.






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In the iconic image heading this post, think of the man holding the gun as the NRA and the other man as the USA. Agree? Disagree? Do you own guns? If so, are you in favor of more regulation? If not, what suggestions -- better answers -- do you have to better manage gun ownership? What ideas do you have for bringing mass shootings to and end? Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Pastors: The real superheroes

 

Paul, Don, Bill, Ken, Juri, Darren, Dan.

These are the ones who come most quickly to mind. I’m surely forgetting a couple.Who are they? No, not members of a rock band, although they all rock. They are a few faithful pastors who have had or are having an enduring positive impact on my life. I love these guys.

Pastors -- the good ones -- are unsung superheroes. Seriously.

I’m a church kid. Well, not so much a kid anymore, but what I mean is that I essentially grew up in church. Really. We were at church a lot and I liked it. Most of the time.

Every Sunday morning we went to Sunday school -- there was a class for all ages. Then came morning worship. This involved a lot of singing from the song book and a special or two.

Then the pastor preached. Boy did he preach.

Sunday evening we were back again for the “evangelistic” service. While similar to morning worship, the attitude was more casual. Still, there was a lot of singing, more preaching, and always the altar call.

Some nights it got pretty raucous. Good times.

We also had a midweek service on Wednesday nights. And the periodic revival weeks when we were there every night, often pretty late, even on school nights.

Outside of “church” at church, there was almost always something going on, some reason to be there. Youth meetings, Boy Scouts, pitch-ins, Vacation Bible school, committee meetings, choir practice, worship band rehearsal, Christmas play practice, and so much more.

At the hub of all this hubbub was the pastor, Brother Davidson. All of the adults were “Brother” or “Sister.” Brother Davidson (Paul) was my first really memorable pastor. He seemed to be always around no matter what was happening at church. If he wasn’t in the office working on a sermon he was puttering around the building fixing this, cleaning that, touching up the paint on a kid-damaged wall. Still, he always had time to listen to a heartache, to pray for a need.

After Brother Davidson moved on from pastoring and I had moved out of town, he taught Old Testament at a small Bible school in one of the Dakotas. Years later I ran into a man, a professor at a prominent East Coast seminary who had been a student of Brother Davidson. We both had great, fond memories of him. Small world.

Just a couple of years before he died, Brother Davidson reached out to me in a letter with encouragement having heard, somehow, about challenges I had encountered. Even decades later, he was still my pastor.

He was a good man. As are all of the men named at the beginning of this post. I call them superheroes because what they do is, if you stop to really think about it, epic. Few other jobs require such a wide diversity of skills and knowledge and crazy hours. Not to mention a bottomless sea of patience.

Real pastoring is hard, exhausting work.

Just doing sermons every week is daunting. I know, because I’ve preached a few times. (Emphasis on few.) Sermon prep alone could kill you if you let it.

Once, while in the midst of working on a sermon, I mentioned to someone how hard it is. Their response was, “Well, that’s the difference when you don’t have the anointing.” Yes, that was not encouraging in the least. But I let it go.

Sermon prep is hard. Every pastor I’ve talked to says so. It’s a labor-intensive endeavor as well as soul-challenging. Even when it goes well it has its frustrations.

Consider this. Imagine how hard it is to labor so lovingly and painstakingly to bring the Word, to do it faithfully, and with the hope that it will change hearts and minds, bending them more toward God’s will. You know, hoping against hope that there will be transformation in the lives of those hearing these sermons.

Sometimes it happens and the change in people is evident. Often it doesn’t.

Still, week after week, our pastors do the work and we are blessed. Even when we’re clueless.

It has to be incredibly tough, following a service, to have people come up to you with a complaint, a grievance, an annoyance. The sanctuary was too cold. The music was too loud. The sound system was popping. And on and on. With nary a nod toward the message.

Some will even go so far as to complain, right then, right there, about some point with which they disagreed. Usually these complaints arise from conviction that should be prompting a much different response.

And so it goes, week after week. The Word is given, brilliantly, yet the words fail to penetrate hearts a little on the hard side and minds that barely crack open.

My heart and mind have been like that.

Every time a truth finally penetrates my rebellious head and seeps into my sinful heart, I grieve that it took so long. That it took years and years of hearing great sermons, of being blessed by the faithful ministry of really good men, before I finally got it.

But I’m also thankful that they all kept preaching and teaching until the Word broke through. Thank God!

So, to all you pastors, the good shepherds, the faithful laborers, my apologies for being dense and stubborn and distracted.

Forgive me when I’ve failed to thank you for your service, when I’ve complained about something petty, when I’ve clearly behaved counter to the Truth you’ve diligently preached. In other words, when I’ve been a foolish, wandering sheep.

Thank you for your faithfulness, your humility, your travails. For your love and relentless caring.

And, please, don’t stop! The world needs real superheroes.

Respect, brothers (and sisters). Respect.



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How many pastors have had a positive impact on your life? Did you let them know? Do you view any pastor, past or present, as a kind of superhero? Why or why not? What do you think makes a good pastor? Please share your thoughts in the comments!



 
Juri, Dan, Ken.