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.

The Last Wedding

This past weekend, we hosted our third, and most likely the last, wedding reception/rehearsal dinner for one of our kids. As the father of the bride, I had the opportunity, one more time, to welcome our guests and share some thoughts with the kids as well as the friends and family in attendance.  Below is the text of my speech.

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First, I’d like to thank you all for coming tonight. We are honored to have you join us as we celebrate Kaitlin and Charles’ wedding.

Kaitlin has always been the reader in our family.  For as long as I can remember, on family trips the most important thing for her to pack was the latest book she was reading, or in more recent years, her Kindle.  Her Kindle cover is frayed just like a book that has been read over and over, and her charger connection is just flat worn out from overuse. Books that would have taken me days or weeks to finish, she read in what seemed like just a few hours.

All that reading soon grew into the ability to write and tell stories. She would often help us entertain the other kids with fun stories while Sally cut their hair.  Sally and I often thought that Kaitlin would grow up to have a career as a writer of children’s books. So imagine our surprise when she grew up to be a high school math teacher! How did that happen?

In the short time we’ve known him, Charles has shown a similar knack for storytelling – but in different ways.  If you get the opportunity at the reception tonight, be sure to ask Charles to tell you the story of how he proposed to Kaitlin.  His creativity and thoughtfulness were remarkable, and as I told him at the time, he was making the rest of us guys look bad.

So, with all this talk of reading and writing, my charge to you as a married couple is three-fold.

First, be a dedicated student of each other, every day. People grow and change, so make sure you’re always up to date on just who the other person is.

Second, be an open book with each other. Hold nothing back. Married life is wonderful, but it can also be challenging.  And at those times, you’ll each need to know that the other one is all-in.

And finally, together, tell a story with your marriage.  Decide together that your marriage will be a story of love and of laughter.  A story of sticking with each other through hard times.

But most importantly – and I know each of your hearts wants this – let your marriage tell THE story.  The story that God intended for marriage to represent, the relationship between Jesus Christ and his church.

Because for someone you know, your marriage will be the only opportunity for him or her to read that story.

 

Kansas Thunderstorms

Note:  This is a repost of a blog post I wrote in June 2016. The picture above is not a photo of the thunderstorm I wrote about two years ago, but is a dramatic photo of a thunderstorm in central Kansas taken earlier this week (June 2018).

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On my way in to work last week, God gave me the privilege of driving along the northern edge of a slow-moving Kansas thunderstorm. It was just far enough away for me to avoid the wind, rain and lightning, and just close enough to observe all of its beauty, from top to bottom. Storms on the American Great Plains are different than they are anywhere else in the country. When the conditions are right, you can see from the ground up to the “the anvil,” where the jet stream shears off the top of the clouds and allows the storms to become even stronger.

This one was a beauty. As I headed toward it, the high white puffy clouds became progressively darker and more ominous. Lightning flashed repeatedly in its channel for a second, before disappearing into a wisp. On one side of the storm, a curtain of torrential rain obscured everything behind it. On the other, clear air revealed birds fleeing the oncoming rain.

Everything was just perfect.

The beauty of a storm must be viewed in light of its power. If you live in this part of the country, you know people who have lost property and even their lives from the effects of a single thunderstorm. Which reminds me of a line from C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, where Mr. Beaver is explaining something to Susan Pevensie about Aslan the Lion, who is a picture of Jesus Christ in that story:

“Aslan is a lion- the Lion, the great Lion.” “Ooh” said Susan. “I’d thought he was a man. Is he-quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion”…”Safe?” said Mr Beaver …”Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

Thankfully, through King Solomon, God has provided wisdom on the right approach to Jesus’ holy power (after all, He holds the keys to heaven and to hell): “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (Proverbs 1:7). And it occurs to me that this advice can be applied to so much of God’s creation in the world around us, beautiful and dangerous at the same time.

Respect its power, whether it’s the Rocky Mountains, or a black widow spider.

Stand in awe of its intricate design, down to the last detail, whether massive or impossibly tiny.

And praise the Creator for the glory and majesty of his creation – just a tiny example of His infinite creativity and power.

And that Thursday morning Kansas thunderstorm? No, it wasn’t safe – but it was good.

AN ASIDE TO MY FELLOW WRITERS:

This is the second time I’ve written this post. The first time, it was accidentally deleted from my computer and wasn’t recoverable. I thought it was gone forever, and I didn’t plan to resurrect it. However, when my pastor’s sermon used the very passage from Proverbs 1 that I discussed in this post, I felt that God must want me to get this post out. So here it is.

The point of this little aside (also in my pastor’s sermon): In the words of Winston Churchill, never give up.

Peace

So this is how the big city folks do it.

I’m on a train from Kansas City to Chicago. Right now, I’m in a quiet coach car. Everyone is either reading, sleeping, or in the observation or dining cars, and I now have time, in the morning when I’m fresh, to do some writing.  I think it was Scott Turow, or maybe J.K. Rowling, who said they wrote entire novels while commuting to and from work on the train. Now I get it, how someone could do that.

Can’t do much writing driving home on the interstate.  And once in the office or at home, the work begins.

Writing on a train was, and maybe still is, a daily experience for Scott and J.K. It’s a brand-new, first-time thing for me.

But the northern Missouri scenery is beautiful, the ride smooth, and the peacefulness of the traincar welcome.

As I get older, I find that peace is the one thing I yearn for the most.  No, not “world peace.” Athletes change their names for it (remember “Metta World Peace” in the NBA?), and it’s a cliché answer for beauty pageant contestants (“If you’re chosen Miss Universe, what’s your platform?”), but it means something different for everyone.  As long as that’s the case, “world peace” won’t happen.

The peace I crave is an inner calm.

Life will disrupt your peace. Money gets tight, friends and family become ill and die, divorce happens, jobs are lost. Those are facts, and can’t be avoided. So what then? Those of us who have lived long enough can attest to times in our lives when the old saying that “God will never give you more than you can handle” just doesn’t ring true.

So before I criticize that old saying for not being Biblical, let me step back. It may not be a quote from the Bible, but it’s really only incomplete.

God didn’t intend for us to face all of our struggles alone. What is impossible for man is possible with God.  Paul put it differently: “I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me.” (Romans 8:28)

So maybe the old saying should be changed to read like this:  God never gives you something you can’t handle, because with God, you can handle anything. It changes that peace-taker in your life into a peace-maker, as you realize who has control over everything, and that any circumstance is no match for his mighty power.

So rest on God’s ability to handle whatever is robbing you of peace.  If you can’t find any peace of your own, take his, through his son Jesus Christ.  It’s a gift, free for the asking.

I’ve always been intrigued by Jesus’ greeting to his disciples: “Peace I bring to you; my peace I leave with you.”

Now I get it.

It Starts

You know that thing you knew would happen, you just didn’t know when?

That’s happening to me, right now.

And whenever this kind of thing happens, I hear the voice of the inimitable Nathan Lane, as Timon the meerkat in Disney’s The Lion King, in his best street-wise Brooklyn accent:

It starts.

For Timon and his rotund sidekick Pumbaa the warthog, the dreaded event was their buddy Simba the lion growing up, falling in love, and returning to his pride.

For me, it’s helping my parents synthesize 60 years of married life into a one- or two-bedroom assisted living apartment.

I’m an only child, I love my parents dearly, and I’m so happy they’re moving closer than the 400+ miles away where they currently live.  And I’m rejoicing that they may be able to actually attend our oldest daughter’s wedding this summer, as they missed our youngest daughter’s wedding this past March because they couldn’t travel.

But I didn’t count on the emotional toll this change would take. On them, or on me.

They live in the third house the’ve owned since I left home 38 years ago.  So for me, it’s not the place they are leaving that’s difficult. I never lived there. It’s their home for now, but it wasn’t my childhood home. (Thanks to the U.S. Marine Corps, my “childhood home” would be in about 15 different places.)

It’s what this change represents that hits the hardest.

These are the people who have given me everything. I never had to wait for them to deal with anyone else’s issues, as there never was anyone else.  I’ve lived my entire life up until now with a remarkable sense of security, because I could be certain of two things: One, they were always there for me. Not to bail me out of a jam, not to protect me from whatever bad might happen.  But just to talk and offer whatever wisdom they had. And two: They always, always accepted me for who I am. There was never even a hint of rejection.

So how do I now ask them to do something we all know needs to happen, but none of us want to happen? Is this how you “honor your father and mother” as God requires in the fifth commandment?

I don’t know. I just don’t know.

But I do know this: I will cherish their remaining years.

 

 

 

On a Cross Beside Jesus (Luke 24:32-43)

I’m thankful every minute of my life that Jesus died for me on that cross.  I know that if God had chosen, he could have punished me for my sins instead of punishing Jesus.  But Christ’s atoning death satisfied my sin debt, and the debt of everyone else in the world who believes in Him.  Because Jesus chose to do it, I don’t have to take my place on a cross.

Nevertheless, someone like me was on a cross, that very day, at “the place of the skull.”  In fact, someone like each and every one of us was there. You may think I’m referring to Jesus himself — he took on human flesh and form, was tempted as we are, and suffered as a man.  But I’m not.  No, as Luke the physician points out in his Gospel, there were two others on the hill that day.  Two criminals, condemned to die, hanging on crosses to Jesus’ left and right.

Am I calling each of us a criminal?  Not per se, in that most of us have done nothing to warrant punishment under man’s law, especially a death sentence.  Still, we each share something with one, or the other, of the criminals who like Jesus drew their last breaths on that hill.  But what?  I’ll answer that question with another question: What is your approach to Jesus?  Or, as Jesus asked Peter, who do you say he is?

One of the criminals (I’ll call him the “first criminal”) joined the crowd and the soldiers, mocking Jesus and calling on Him to save Himself, if He was indeed the Christ.  The second criminal recognized that Jesus had done nothing wrong and didn’t deserve to die.  And in recognition of his Kingship, that criminal asked the creator of the universe simply to remember him when Jesus came into His kingdom.  He was not disappointed with Jesus’ answer.

You see, there’s just no middle ground with Jesus.  Either you join the second criminal in proclaiming Him to be who He said He was, or you will join the first criminal in questioning and doubting Him.  Riding the fence is just not possible — Jesus said so Himself.

Here’s the amazing thing:  Yes, Christ could have easily taken Himself off that cross and chosen to save Himself, just as the first criminal suggested. But, by staying on that cross, He chose to save…you.  And me.  And the rest of us.

Yes, it may indeed have been a Friday on Golgotha…..but Sunday’s coming.

The Water, The Bowl, and the Teachable Moment

For my #ThrowbackThursday offering, here’s a Maundy Thursday post, originally published last year.  This lesson is one all Christians, and especially Christian leaders, need today more than ever.  May you all have a blessed Easter!

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Jesus had a lot of opportunities to teach his disciples while on Earth. Object lessons, lessons that couldn’t be learned in any way other than being in his presence. Like Peter walking on the water, but then sinking when he took his eyes off Jesus. There were miraculous creations of wine and food, healings, and raising others from the dead. And oh yes, the sermons.

And yet, he saved one of his greatest lessons on leadership for one of his final teaching opportunities, that Last Supper night more than 2000 years ago.

Jesus — the only begotten Son, the Creator, who in just three days would defeat death and Hell itself — took on the garb of a servant and washed his disciples dirty, dusty feet.

So why did Jesus wait until the end of his ministry to wash his disciples feet? Why wait until his time on Earth with his disciples was almost over to drive home the point that leaders serve, and aren’t just served? He had talked with the disciples about this before (see Mark 10:43-44).  So why deliver this message in such a powerful way at the end?

We don’t know for sure, because the Bible doesn’t say. One thing we do know: This message was important to Jesus.

Peter, if I don’t wash your feet, you have no part with me. – John 13:8

Maybe it’s because the disciples took the opportunity in the Upper Room to squabble about which of them would be greater in the Kingdom (see Luke 22:24-30). Maybe it was clear that the lessons Jesus taught earlier just hadn’t sunk in.

And perhaps there was yet another reason, one based on simple human nature.

Modern educators often reference the principle of “primacy and recency.” Learners tend to remember best what they heard first, and what they heard last. 

The very word “disciple” means “follower.” The disciples had been followers of Jesus for three years. And they had heard a lot of messages from Jesus up until that point.

But this time was different.  Jesus knew the time for His arrest, trial, crucifixion, and resurrection was near.  And, the disciples’ time for merely following was nearly over. Their time to lead was about to begin. And a refresher of what it meant to be a leader was in order.

In a span of just a few weeks, these men would cease being just “disciples” and become “Apostles.” Message carriers. Holy Spirit bearers. Called by Jesus Himself to take the good news of His Gospel to the ends of the Earth, and to show the infant church by example what it really means to follow Jesus.

Perhaps Jesus saved this lesson for the end because this time, it really needed to stick. The young church would face enough obstacles to its survival for its leaders to act superior to its members.

Leaders of today, no matter who you lead, pay heed. Serving those who follow you is your leadership.

 

Coming Up for Air

Some life events just stop you in your tracks. Like my daughter’s wedding this past weekend, for example.  I wanted to continue writing lots of blog posts during the weeks leading up to the wedding day, really, I did.

But for some reason, I couldn’t.

Did I have time?  Yes, there were always times when I could pull myself away to write.

I was physically well, planning and preparation for the big day was stressful but moving forward, and the bride (and her Mom) seemed happy.

So why couldn’t I write during those weeks?  I just don’t know.

I was able to eke out one of my weaker posts, Talking to Myself, in those weeks, but it was unsatisfying and largely misunderstood. And I’m not saying the post you’re reading now is a lot better.

But writing today just feels different than it has for the past month.

I really like Mark Gungor’s description of the compartmentalized male psyche as a bunch of boxes that can never touch one another, and that each man can access only one of his boxes at a time.  To borrow his description, for the past month, it’s as if my “Writing” box wasn’t only closed, it had been moved off the premises.

Miraculously, my Writing box has returned, as quietly and mysteriously as it left. And I plan to spend a lot of time there in the coming weeks.

And in the Nothing box. Gotta spend some quality time there, too.