When Is the Ordinary…Not?

Some afternoons, it just takes coffee to make it through.

Last Tuesday was that kind of afternoon.

That day, I decided to walk a different route from my office to the neighboring McDonalds, walking through our parking garage and exiting on the street a little closer to the restaurant than the door I usually use.

Just as I exited the garage, a homeless man was walking by on the same side of the street. He stopped me, said he needed bus fare to get to work, and asked if I had any money.  I looked him in the eye, gave him the dollar or so of change in my pocket, wished him a good day, and continued walking to McDonalds. He didn’t seem very pleased with the small amount, but said “thank you” anyway, and turned toward the bus stop just down the street.

This wasn’t a momentous encounter, or even a significant one. I didn’t give him a lot of money. We didn’t have a deep spiritual conversation. In fact, the whole thing was over in 15 seconds. I even forgot to ask him for his first name, a tactic my daughter uses with great success to let the person she’s talking to know they are valued.

No, I woudn’t even bring up this on-the-street meeting, if it weren’t for the fact that God has placed the Old Testament story of Ruth in front of me several times this week. What brought Ruth, a poor widow and the daughter-in-law of another poor widow, to that particular field in Bethlehem owned by Boaz? He was a wealthy relative of Ruth’s late father-in-law, and under Hebrew law, was one of the only men alive who could redeem Ruth.

It was all so ordinary. Ruth needed food for her and her mother-in-law, Naomi, and was gleaning grain at harvest time in the part of Boaz’s field reserved for the poor. And Boaz, as wealthy landowners will do from time to time, just “happened” to show up at the same time to see how his crops turned out that year.

Boaz saw Naomi working in the field, and the rest, as they say, is history. Actually, it’s “His story,” as Boaz and Ruth became grandparents in the human ancestral line of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

So, I’m convinced that the meeting on Kansas Avenue in Topeka last Tuesday was a divine appointment. But what was God up to when I crossed paths with the homeless gentleman that afternoon?

I have no idea. But God knows.

I can only hope he was blessed by our brief encounter, by the small amount of money I gave to him, and by the respect I showed to him when we spoke. In retrospect, I also hope that our meeting will help me not to overlook any future “chance” meetings. And to be prayerfully ready for whatever God wants to come out of that meeting.

God has done some pretty big things with seemingly random encounters. And I don’t want to miss what He’s doing.

Conversation Starters

On a back road in Southern Illinois, heading home for a Memorial Day visit, I saw these words on a church sign in Thompsonville, Illinois:

Jesus is God’s selfie.

I love clever church signs as much as the next guy. And I understand the desire to engage the culture “where it’s at.”

As long as we don’t allow the discussion about Jesus to end there.

A selfie is just a representation of a person. And every selfie I’ve ever taken is a bad representation of me, at that.

But Jesus wasn’t just a flat, one-dimensional image of God. In a way, mankind more closely fills that role, since Genesis 1 says that we were made in God’s image.

But Jesus was so much more. It’s the hardest thing for our limited human minds to grasp, this concept of Jesus as fully man, but also fully God. Yet it’s the most important thing to remember when we consider what Jesus came to earth to do.

He was fully man, to taste the full scope of human experience. Hunger and thirst. Fatigue. Temptation. Danger. Joy at a wedding in Cana. Sorrow at a close friend’s death.

He was also fully God, to meet the needs of His people that only He can meet. Of course, some of those needs were physical, like food for the hungry and healing for the sick. More often, He answered the unspoken questions of the heart. Questions like, “Who is God, really?

In the end, he did what only God could do. He took the sins of all mankind, past, present, and future, on himself. He willingly laid down his own human life.

And then, he took it back up again.

That is some kind of selfie.

We have a great God.

So kudos to you, Mr. Church Sign Writer, for yet another pithy phrase that captures the imagination of our tech-distracted world.

Love Is…..

A spring break trip to Waco, Texas last month landed us at the Magnolia Market, the home of the design and decor empire founded by HGTV’s Chip and Joanna Gaines. We were well aware of the Gaines’ Christian faith before we arrived. And true to form,  beautiful items of home decor incorporating Bible verses into their designs surrounded us as we toured the store and grounds.

The sign in the picture above took me back to our wedding, on a muggy June day in 1985. It’s a complete rendering of 1 Corinthians 13:4-8, known as the “Love Chapter.” And it’s beautiful.

Back in the mid-1980s, I didn’t know much about the verses in 1 Corinthians 13. I knew it was trendy to read those verses in Christian weddings, but that was about it. At the time, I’d been a Christian for only about 10 years. I was just 22, and hadn’t even begun to spiritually mature. Reading these verses at my wedding just made sense.

Now, after 34 years of marriage and a whole lot of living, it’s clear to me that these verses aren’t just for weddings.

“What’s love got to do with it?” Tina Turner asked in her iconic 1980s hit. And this question could easily represent our culture’s approach to life. Other than romantic love, which today is mixed up in so many ways, what does “love” have to do with business? With life? Consider this:

Who gets better results, the doctor with a terrible bedside manner, or the caring professional?

The secret of the care of the patient is caring for the patient. — Francis W. Peabody, M.D., 1925

Love is patient, love is kind.  – 1 Cor. 13:4

Which leader gets better results, the one who claims all the glory for himself, or the one who involves and gives credit to his team?

Love does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking. – 1 Cor. 13:4-5

Which police officer provides better public safety, the one who sees his beat as “just a job,” or the dedicated public servant who truly cares about the welfare of the community he serves?

Love always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. – 1 Cor. 13:7

Which teacher’s students perform better, the teacher who loathes spending time with children, or the one who cherishes the young lives he or she is entrusted with and wants to guide them on the path toward becoming strong, functioning adults?

And for you ladies, which hairsylist do you look forward to seeing again every four weeks, the one who only cares about collecting your fee, or the one who makes you feel beautiful just because of the time you spent with her?

And finally, who has the happier life, the one who holds on to perceived slights, or the one who freely forgives others?

Holding a grudge is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die. – Saint Augustine

Love keeps no record of wrongs. – 1 Cor. 13:5

So, as Tina asked, what does love have to do with it?  Only this:

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. – 1 Cor. 1-3

Without love, whatever I say means nothing.

Without love, regardless of what I can do, I am nothing.

Without love, I gain nothing.

The bottom line? Love is…everything.

It’s All Right to be Little Bitty

Fame.

In 2019’s social-media driven world, it’s all about being famous.

Today’s American culture considers entertainers, sports stars and “influencers” as the only people who are really important. That’s why the simple, plaintive words of the old country song “It’s All Right to be Little Bitty” speak so loudly to me, because they stand in such stark contrast. How appropriate that these words were written by Tom T. Hall, a man known in country music circles as “The Storyteller,” for they tell a story that everyone should hear, and take to heart.

It’s all right to be little bitty,

From a little hometown or a big ol’ city.

Might as well share, Might as well smile,

Life goes on for a little bitty while.

Tom T. Hall, 1996

This is not a condemnation of all social media. After all, I’m using social media to get this message out, and make others aware of it. But my heart, and I believe God’s heart, grieves the negative influence social media has when it leads readers to compare their lives with the non-reality often presented there. I’m not immune to this, either.

More than ever, it’s important for believers to “take their thoughts captive” in order to not fall prey to the “comparison flu.” And while they’re not scriptural, the lyrics of this song, at least for me, redirect my thinking away from what I don’t have, and who I’m not, to what is real, and what is true.

What is “little bitty?”

No one’s life is “small.” There’s at least one person out there, and more likely many people, to whom each person alive is a “big deal.” Are kids are a big deal to their parents? Uh, yeah. And even though many teenagers will deny it, parents aren’t “little bitty” to their kids, either. Wait until you lose one, like I did this last October.

To use an example from the work world, think about the people who live on a garbage collector’s route. To them, that garbage collector is a very big deal.

For each of us, there is only the territory – the family, work, and other relationships – given to you or to me by God. Whether God chooses to expand your or my territory, as prayed by Jabez in 1 Chronicles 4:9-10, is strictly God’s decision. And yes, God definitely cares how well each of us cares for the territory he’s given to us, both relationally and in our work.

Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive an inherticance as your reward.  – Colossians 3:23-24 (ESV)

I bet Martin Luther King Jr. had this verse in mind when he said these words:

If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michaelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.’

What is success?

To a world that doesn’t understand God, “success” equates to income, power and position. But does God see success that way? When answering this question, I’m reminded of the scene in Steven Spielberg’s great animated movie, “Prince of Egypt,” when after rescuing Jethro’s daughters from bandits at a desert well, Moses objects to Jethro throwing a feast for him because “I’ve done nothing worthy of honor.” In response, Jethro wisely says, “It seems you do not know what is worthy of honor.”

Perhaps 21st century America doesn’t know what really defines success.

Honoring your promises to the spouse of your youth. Knowing your kids, being known by them, and being the kind of parent they should follow. Not taking the easy way out, like drugs, alcohol, and divorce, when things get tough. Taking care of your parents when they’re older and unable to take care of themselves.

Those aren’t my definitions of success.  They’re in the Bible. Check ‘em out. In fact, Colossians 3 in the New Testament (the entire chapter) is a great place to start.

Called to be “little bitty”

But most importantly, John the Baptist, as he talked about Jesus Christ, set the ultimate standard for success on earth.

            He must increase, but I must decrease. – John 3:30

So to “decrease,” do I need to disappear? To withdraw from life, to cease to exist? Not unless God calls me home, because otherwise the people God gave me to reach won’t hear about Him.

For me to decrease in my own life, Jesus Christ must increase.

He must increase in my thoughts, in my speech, in my deeds. He must increase in my dependence on Him. And my love for Him must increase.

When those things happen, the focus on myself naturally decreases, and the power of my witness for Him will increase.

No, I won’t go away. But I will become “little bitty.”

Because what I want others to see when they see me…is Him.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beards and Babies

I loved when my wife and I attended the worship meetings for the network of house churches to which my son and his wife used to belong.

Every young man there (and they are all young men) had a beard of various lengths, and almost every young family has at least one child under the age of two.

That’s why I affectionately called it the “beards and babies” church.

I am of an earlier generation, one in which both the men, but especially the women, prefer clean shaven men. But I must admit, my son’s church was full of handsome men who sported beards as varied as the Don Johnson-like stubble (anyone remember his role in Miami Vice?) all the way to a full-on Willie Robertson “Duck Dynasty” beard. Any child in my son’s church saw only men with some sort of facial hair. I wonder if my future grandchild (due in July! Woo-hoo!) will ever understand that I am also a daddy, since I don’t have a beard.

Something else to ponder on this cold, wet Monday (a fellow blogger described this weather as “vile” – hat tip to you, Stephen Black and the Fractured Faith Blog):  The children of that church have this in common with the Christ child: the infant Jesus saw only bearded men.

Trivial? Yes.  Fun to think about? Yeah, that too.

God’s Daily Reboot

When a computer malfunctions, how often is the answer as simple as turning the computer off, and then turning it back on?

In my experience, usually the computer starts right back up again, working just fine. Whatever went wrong before disappears.

Our lives have a God-designed reboot button as well. It’s called night.

As I drove to work this morning, I noticed the marked difference between the landscape in the early morning sun on a clear day, and how it looks in the evening as I’m driving home. The clean and bright baby blue and yellow hues of morning give way to the muted oranges and reds of the evening. Even though the sun is at the same angle, just in the west instead of the east, the evening sun’s light strikes the landscape differently. The day just feels older.

In fact, on a clear day I’m confident that I could still tell whether it was morning or evening, even if I didn’t know the time or what direction the sun was coming from, just by stepping outside.

Jeremiah, the likely author of the book of Lamentations in the Old Testament, knew just what I’m talking about:

The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. — Lamentations 3:22-23 (ESV)

Like the sun striking the countryside after dawn, life’s struggles look a little different in the newness of each day. I’ve heard it said that God‘s economy allows for “do overs,” which Jesus Christ made possible through His death on the cross and His resurrection. Whatever happened in the past is irrelevant, if our faith is in Him. No, lost time won’t magically reappear. The consequences of past sin remain very real. And the coming day won’t be perfect. But the opportunity to make the best of life, by living for Jesus, starts anew each morning.

The morning light is a picture of God‘s daily renewal. The Bible’s description of Jesus as “the bright and morning star” takes on a whole new meaning. Now comes the hard part:

I have to choose it.

Electing to view the problems and sorrows of life the same way as before follows that old saying, “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.” Others might even think of the definition of “insanity:” Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results each time.

Accepting Jesus Christ’s free offer of salvation and renewal can break the cycle of despair, and allow God to renew your life as he promises to do. Someone very close to me once said that he thought he was too far gone for this life-changing grace to reach him. What better time than in the morning, when minds are fresh, to meet with God and let his Word show you how Jesus Christ makes all things new, including you, and that no one is out of reach of His grace and mercy.

And I’ll never look at rebooting a computer the same way.

 

 

 

 

 

The Time Is the Lesson

My dad’s nearly 20-year battle with Parkinson’s disease ended last Sunday.

The pastor who delivered the message at Dad’s funeral asked me at dinner the night before, “So tell me, what are some of the lessons your Dad taught you over his lifetime?”

Of course, a question like that opened up the floodgate of memories. What surprised me was how many of those memories had a funny twist to them.

Because of my Dad, I know what it’s like to:

  • Watch the sun rise over Atlantic Ocean in a tiny boat 30 miles off coast of Maryland, all the while nearly passing out from the smell of the boat’s diesel fuel.
  • Eat PB&J sandwiches on a john boat in the middle of a lake while fishing, except that no fish were biting. None. Zero. Zilch. All day.
  • Use old-fashioned hand warmers, fueled by lighter fluid (and not by chemical reaction as they are today) while sitting in a freezing cold tree blind, waiting for deer. I never even ever saw a deer, let alone shot at one, but we were there, waiting for them. Maybe they don’t like the smell of lighter fluid.
  • Hear my Dad ask my Mom, in all seriousness, if she wanted him to “cut the cheese.” He did, after all, have a knife in one hand and a block of cheddar in the other. Being a child of the ’70s, I laughed about that for days (and obviously still do). He may or may not have known what I was laughing about.

There weren’t a lot of hunting and fishing excursions, so each one is burned indelibly into my memory. And these times would have been perfect for one of those father-son talks that help turn boys into men. But the “talks” didn’t happen. Dad was a man of few words, and talking just wasn’t his thing.

But what did happen in those times was real life. My Dad was always just himself.

In other words, the time I spent with him was the lesson.

While waiting quietly for a fish to bite, or in perfect silence for a deer to stroll by, I learned his patience and self-control. Sitting in that icy tree blind? There he showed me the value of being prepared, by making sure my hands stayed warm. As I fetched his tools while he worked on a car, I learned his attention to detail and desire to do a job well. And on that boat in the Atlantic, I learned his love for the beauty of nature and the serenity of being alone, miles from shore. I also learned that sometimes you have to endure the bad – in that case, nasty diesel fumes – to get the reward, seeing that huge orange orb emerging from the ocean, with a perfect copy of it floating right on top of the water.

Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.  — Proverbs 22:6 (ESV)

Thanks, Dad, for the “real life” training, the kind a dad gives to his son just by being with him. Your life spoke louder than any words could ever could.

Oh, and that “cut the cheese” thing? I didn’t learn anything from that. It was just funny.

Strength vs. Power

An elderly man sits alone in a room in a skilled nursing facility. He can move around the room in his wheelchair, but he’s too frail to walk without assistance, or to do much else. Two younger men walk into the room with him. Over which of the two younger men does the older man have greater power?

You might say his power over both men is equal. And if your focus is on the older man’s physical strength, you’d be correct. But look closer.

One of the younger men is helpful to the older man. He’ll push his wheelchair, get food for him from the cafeteria, and call the nurse when the older man needs medical assistance. The other younger man, on the other hand, hangs on the elderly man’s every word.

The difference? That man is the elderly man’s son.

Lauren Eberspacher is the daughter of one of my former pastors. She is a nationally–recognized blogger and writes the blog “From Blacktop to Dirt Road” (www.fromblacktoptodirtroad.com, and on Facebook @fromblacktoptodirtroad). Her writing has been quoted by the Today show Parenting page on Facebook. In a her Father’s Day 2018 blog post entitled “The Things That Happen When Daddies Die – The Sacred Place of the In Between,” Lauren makes this poignant observation:

This is the sacred place of the in between.

The place where heaven meets earth, the moments we wait for and dread all at once. The minutes we want to pass quickly, yet hang onto for dear life. Where grown women climb into the hospital bed and lay next to little old men, just so that they can sit on their Dad’s lap one last time. Where grown men call them “Daddy,” instead of “Dad” and talk about all those summers they went fishing. Where Superheroes lose their strength, but not their power.

As I walk with my Dad through his final stages of Parkinson’s disease, that final sentence resonates with a robust ring.

My dad is now almost 80 years old. When I was growing up, he was one of the strongest men that I ever knew, a United States Marine. When you hugged him, reaching around his back was like hanging on to a brick wall. It was solid muscle.

Can he today reel in a big game fish while operating a 40-foot boat off the coast of North Carolina’s Outer Banks like he used to? No, these days he sits in a semi-private room, on his bed, in a wheelchair, or in his recliner, unable to do much at all. Can he carry chopped firewood or haul cinderblocks with his bare hands? No, and no. His hands are idle now, after a lifetime of doing. But even though he no longer has the strength or ability to do things, and even though he and I can no longer have meaningful conversations, I’m that son who hangs on his every word when I’m with him. Why is that?

One of Webster’s definitions of “power” is “possession of control, authority, or influence over others.” Some of its other synonyms are even more telling: Authority. Control. Grip. Hold. Sway.

As Lauren said so eloquently, my Dad is Superman. The strongest and smartest man I ever knew, hands down. Yes, he has lost much of his physical strength. But, he has not lost any of his power. At least, not to me.

And his back still feels like a brick wall. I’m so jealous.

Daily Grins: The Six Fine Feathered Fellows of Florida

God’s creation loves togetherness, doesn’t it?

Such was my thought when I spotted six fine feathered fellows (all pelicans) seated side-by-side on a perch during a recent trip to Madeira Beach, Florida.

No arguing or fighting. All of them facing the same way.

And each taking an equal space on the perch.

I had forgotten about these guys until my daughter’s wedding a few weeks later, where she and her now-husband asked his former pastor to read these verses from Ecclesiastes:

Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor: If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up. Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone? Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken. – Ecc. 4:9-12
Leave it to the pelicans in Florida to show us how it’s done.  Have a great Thursday!

Three Years

There were times that day when I remember wondering if three minutes would ever pass.

Now it’s been three years.

Three years since my youngest daughter’s longboarding accident, which left her with a traumatic brain injury, a fractured skull along the entire left side of her head, and a long six months of recovery and rehab.

This post is not just to relive the awful events of that day, and the following months. If you’re interested, you can read more about how it felt at that time in the blog posts I’ve already written about it, Angels With Beating Hearts, Soundtrack to a Brain Injury, and Real Power. No, this post is only to thank our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, for His grace and mercy. He could have taken her that day, but he didn’t. As humans, we’re not entitled to know just why He gave her back to us. We can surmise that it was for the Camp Timberline teenagers into whom she poured her life the following summer. Or maybe it was the faculty, staff and students at the cosmetology school she attended, where she daily brought the light of Christ into a very dark place. Perhaps it was for the awesome young man she married, to give him the lifetime partner that he knew she would be, even before the accident.

I could go on. But those are just some of the people she’s influenced for Christ these past three years. And she’s only 22.

No, my most painful memories of those first few hours after the accident don’t even involve my daughter or my own family.

In the ICU, a type of bond develops between families who have loved ones there. That happened for me and another dad, whose daughter was brought in at about the same time as mine. His daughter also had traumatic injuries, which she received while riding on the back of a motorcycle that crashed while going entirely too fast.

When I first met him, he was friendly, concerned but not devastated, and willing to talk briefly about what happened. However, each time we talked, his countenance grew darker, and his conversation more clipped. Perhaps it was just my perception, but as the hours passed, he even appeared to stand with more of a stoop. The last time we visited, his only words to me were these: “Do you know the only thing motorcycles are good for? Organ donors.”

Within a few hours, he and his family were gone. We never heard the ultimate outcome, but it’s easy to guess how his ordeal ended.

My family celebrates God’s goodness and mercy today because we have a healthy, whole daughter who is still with us. But it’s also easy to understand the question of the dad who loses his daughter under similar circumstances. Is God still good?

My wife and I faced the same question when our oldest son was born with Down syndrome, more than 28 years ago. Why didn’t God choose to give us a “normal” son?

The answer, as always, is one of perspective. Until we decided that God’s plans for our lives were more important than the plans we had made, it seemed unfair and unjust that we were bringing home a disabled son, when everyone else in that maternity ward was bringing home a healthy baby, or so we thought. I can see how that dad in the ICU could feel exactly the same way about his badly injured daughter.

But once we surrendered our lives, and the life of our son, to God’s will, God’s goodness began to become clear to us, in spite of what had just happened.  We met so many wonderful people who also had disabled kids. We watched God transform my wife and I from people who were able to love only those who were like us, into people who can love others no matter their appearance, abilities, or social stature. And we had the privilege — and I do mean the privilege — of raising a wonderful son who has blossomed into an amazing young man.

I don’t want to minimize the loss of the dad I met in the ICU, or suggest that anyone’s death is for the good. What I am saying, though, is that by surrendering everything to God, even your own children, He opens eyes to see the good things that happened because of the tragedy.

Many of the Bible’s oldest stories – Joseph and Job come to mind first – address this same theme. Job suffered greatly, losing all of his children, his material possessions, and even his health. And still, he was able to say, “Though he slay me, still I will hope in him.” (Job 13:15) I want to have faith like that.

Sometimes bad things happen to us. And yet, as Joseph told his brothers when he was reunited with them years after they had sold him into slavery, God takes the bad and uses it for good. (Genesis 50:20)

For those who accept Christ, Jesus makes all things new. (2 Cor. 5:17)

These are hard lessons for a dad to learn for the first time when he’s just lost a child. Better to accept Jesus as Savior now, before the storm hits, so that when tragedy strikes, your heart is settled.

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By the way, my daughter who had the accident is the brunette in the picture at the top of this post, second from the right. And this picture was taken a little more than a month after her injury, during her first trip away from home after leaving the hospital. In fact, if she had turned around, you would see that her face still bore the effects of her injuries. A full recovery was still months away.

God is so good.