May I Have This Dance

Has the weight of just a thought ever taken your breath away?

Happened to me just this morning.

Maybe it’s the fact that my daughter’s wedding is now less than two months away, and she was in town this past weekend for her first bridal shower. Maybe it’s this fact that this afternoon, my wife and I are attending a funeral for a long-time family friend who lost her battle with cancer. Her two kids are the same age as my middle two kids.

No matter the reason, here’s the thought that left me struggling to breathe:

A husband and wife, in their 80s, dancing cheek-to-cheek in their kitchen.

It’s so easy to say, “Aren’t they cute? They still love each other, after all these years.” But have you thought about what that dance really represents?

  • Millions of miles together in the same car.
  • Tens of thousands of nights together in the same bed.
  • Depending on how many kids they had, thousands, or tens of thousands, of diaper changes.
  • Countless ER visits, late nights with sick kids, and broken hearts.
  • Graduations, weddings, births, and then round two of graduations, weddings, and births.
  • Deaths of their grandparents, their parents, their siblings, and occasionally, their children and even grandchildren.
  • Several major health scares, surgeries, and treatments.

Those of you who have lived it know that this list isn’t even close to exhaustive. And to top it all off, society has changed so extensively, and so rapidly, that the elderly couple can be left wondering if they’re even still relevant.

As my thoughts sunk in, a physical weight rested on my chest. The sheer magnitude of two lifetimes, lived together and for each other, was more than I could bear.

Anyone looking for miracles in the modern age need look no farther than the couple celebrating an anniversary of 50 years or more.  God’s design for marriage, and God himself, for those who choose Him, make it possible to complete the journey.

Even to your old age and gray hairs I am he, I am he who will sustain you. I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you. – Isaiah 46.4

And for another post: What the elderly still have to give to their families and communities. Here’s a hint: They’re not only still relevant, they’re the missing link to sustaining our society.

I’ll never look at an elderly couple dancing the same way again.

Real Power

“We’re moving your daughter back to the ICU.”

What?!? Why?

The call on my cell phone shattered our somewhat peaceful dinner at the Med Center’s cafeteria with dear friends. We ran back to her hospital room as quickly as we could.

We had watched her get sicker all day long, with no idea why. Extreme lethargy, no appetite, and then vomiting.  It was less than a week after her traumatic brain injury, and it was imperative to keep her calm and quiet, to reduce the risk of further brain bleeds.

After the bout of vomiting, when she was again calm and resting, we took the opportunity to get something to eat in preparation for yet another long night.

While we were gone, the nephrologist (kidney doctor) made her rounds, took one look at our daughter’s lab results over the course of the day, and ordered an immediate transfer back to ICU. My phone rang at dinner with the news.

Praise God for excellent doctors. That doctor saved her life that night.

It’s common for head injury patients to experience a “sodium crash,” where the body’s sodium (i.e., salt) levels drop to where the body can’t function. Too little sodium, and like my daughter, you get really sick.

Brain seizure-type sick. Had that happened, she likely would have died.

And all because her bloodstream had slightly less salt than normal. Things can start happening even with a small drop out of the normal range.

Now that’s power. Like a single candle illuminates an entire dark room, just a little salt can determine life and death.

As the Creator of the Universe, Jesus knew this. But the science of his day didn’t yet fully understand the role of salt in the human bloodstream, so I’m not surprised that he didn’t use this medical analogy when talking about salt in Luke 14:34. Would’ve gone right over their heads.

But as a 21st Century father whose child has experienced a “sodium crash,” the point is not lost on me.

Just like salt, followers of Jesus Christ can have a big impact everywhere God has placed them. But, if they let the world take away their witness, the impact is lost, and the world is a little sicker for it.

Of course, getting my daughter’s sodium levels back to normal wasn’t as simple as feeding her more salt. After a complex medical procedure and the infusion of more powerful saline solution directly into her bloodstream, in a couple of hours she was much better, alert and calm.

And best of all, hungry.

Perspective, Promise and Presence

There are just two things I want to know when I start hiking a trail.

Where does it go?

And how hard will it be?

For me, the trail is a metaphor for life. For the passage of time. For choices made and not made.

I’m also fascinated by the fact that inverting just two letters in the word “trail” creates a word that is completely different and yet so closely related.

You see, it’s always during the times of trial in my life that the trail of my life is the most obscure. You know, those times when life throws a curve. In my case, it was the birth of a son with Down syndrome. Then, the loss of a career job. And later, a traumatic brain injury to my youngest daughter. For others, it’s a catastrophic illness, or the disintegration of a family.

Perspective

The Bible teaches that God’s perspective on trials is 180 degrees from the world’s view.

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.  Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. — James 1:2-4

How can James possibly expect us to rejoice in our trials? During times of trial, even the next single step is uncertain.

Promise

I’ve always loved the quote from Michelango when he said, as he was staring at a plain rectangular block of marble:

The sculpture is already complete within the marble block, before I start my work. It is already there, I just have to chisel away the superfluous material.

The same is true for each life’s trail, when faced with the apparently impassable jungle of a trial. The trail is already there; it’s been there since the beginning of time. No, it isn’t marked, at least not that you can see; but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been set out for you by God.

Presence

It’s during the times of trial that God allows us to participate in finding the trail where none appears to exist.  So even though you don’t have a paper map, and the GPS on your phone doesn’t have what it takes, lean on and lean into God. He, through his Word, is your map.

I gain understanding from your precepts; therefore I hate every wrong path. Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path. – Psalm 119:104-105

Centerpieces

What do you see in this picture? I’ll tell you what I see.

Centerpieces.

Twenty-three of them, to be exact.

To be sure, they’re not ready yet to go on the tables at my daughter’s wedding reception next March. But it’s not something that 25 minutes and a chainsaw can’t fix.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in 5-1/2 decades of life, it’s this: Getting through life is all about perspective.  It’s not as simple as being a “glass half-full” type of person. “The power of positive thinking” was a great book back in its day, but that phrase is now cliche’.

It’s about taking what life presents to you, and choosing what you can do with it.

This has become even more critical to me, as someone very close to me has been diagnosed with aggressive cancer.  For the second time in 10 years.

How do you “make the best” of a cancer diagnosis? The simple fact is, you don’t. There are just some lemons that won’t make lemonade. But defeat is not the only option.

I’ll let Jesus, the only man who was ever victorious over death and the grave, explain.

You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. – Matt. 5:13-16

Has anyone ever been a light to others by taking a negative approach to any problem?

I didn’t think so.

Even just one of these tree trunks would break a table.  Properly prepared, they will adorn 23 tables in beauty and simplicity.

When properly prepared by the One who brought the light into this world, so it can also be with our lives.

 

 

 

Winning the Prize

Running a race. The phrase paints a lot of mental pictures, doesn’t it? Men and women, all dressed in bright colors, running on the same track, in the same direction, at the same time. Someone wins, the rest lose.

Then there are the marathon runners. Twenty-six-point-two miles of just you and the course. Running alone. Continuing to run in spite of withering exhaustion, and often searing pain. Hours to think, “Am I really up to this? What is the point?” That’s assuming your brain can even function after running, say, 19.1 miles.

My dear aunt passed away last month after a brief fight with cancer. The pastor of her small town church delivered the funeral message with a strong Gospel testimony, and a very definite theme from Paul’s writings in 1 Corinthians: She ran her life’s race to win it, to claim her prize.

It’s easy for most Christians to see that the “race” of life is a marathon, not a sprint. Paul’s use of the imagery of athletes training for competition helps readers understand what’s going on, but it’s not a perfect picture. Yes, our lives will have exhaustion and pain, mixed with moments of exhilaration when we get our “second wind.” But in each individual’s race of life, only that person can win. And only he or she can lose. There’s no arbitrary finish line. (I mean, 26.2 miles. Really?) No stopwatch to beat. No man-made route to follow.

Just you, and the race that God has set out before you. And in many important ways, you get to choose the course. Lifestyle. Relationships. Worldview. Entertainment. Perspective.

The race of life is won by how you run your race. By why you took each turn in the course. And most importantly, by Who you’re running to. And while only Jesus can finally judge whether you or I have won our individual races, those of us on the outside can see evidence of a winner just by looking at the fruit of his or her life. Love and joy. Peace and patience. Kindness and goodness. Gentleness and self-control.

I am thankful for my aunt’s well-run race. And for her leadership as I continue to run mine.

Working Out

Though God in his threefold revelation has provided answers to our questions concerning Him, the answers by no means lie on the surface. They must be sought by prayer, by long meditation on the written Word, and by earnest and well-disciplined labor. However brightly the light may shine, it can be seen only by those who are spiritually prepared to receive it.

A.W. Tozer, Knowledge of the Holy

This is not just another rant on how people should slow down, simplify their lives, etc. Those things are probably true, at least for most people. But my message on this Sunday morning is for the church.

Attending Sunday morning worship is imperative. It’s specifically mentioned in Scripture, it’s transformative, and it keeps you connected as a member of the Body of Christ.

But if you leave the church feeling empty, or if the rest of your week isn’t filled with joy, don’t blame the preacher, elders, deacons, worship team, the guy running the videos, or your teen’s youth pastor.

It’s not their fault.

When A.W. Tozer wrote these words toward the end of his life more than 50 years ago, he wasn’t saying anything new. Paul called it “working out your salvation” (Philipians 2:12), which is ironic in 2016 given our society’s obsession with personal fitness. (I wonder if there’s an Aramaic or Latin translation for “working out?”)

Here’s another 2016 metaphor for the same thing: Investing. People invest in things they believe in, things they care about. Jesus even told parables about servants investing their masters’ money (Matthew 25:14 and following is a great example).

Tozer’s point? God has given each of us a priceless gift, the gift of time on this Earth. If you’re reading these words today, you are a recipient of that gift, as I am. But if your desire is to know God in this lifetime, and not just in the next, then give that gift of time back to God, invest it, in study of His Word, in community with fellow Christians, in worship, and in service to others.

C’mon, man, time to work out.

Close Calls

Ordinarily, we want our children to obey authority, right? Well, there was one time when it almost didn’t work out so well….

During a family trip to Washington DC one Spring Break many moons ago, we came to a stop on the Metro near the Smithsonian Museums, and our entire 8-person group started the processional of filing out the train, with my son with Down syndrome bringing up the rear. That was usually not a problem, except just as the person in front of him stepped off the train, a very authoritative female voice came over the PA system and said, “Step back! Doors are closing.” Stephen, ever the dutiful oldest child, stopped in his tracks, took a step back, and waited.

“Stephen, come on!” We all yelled the same words, almost like a chorus in an ancient Greek tragedy, aware that if he didn’t get off that train now, we might have to pick him up in Baltimore.  Still totally confused, Stephen still didn’t move. The doors started to close.

That’s when the “Dad instincts” kicked in.

With a shout of “NO!” I sprinted the 30 feet back to the train, pried the almost-closed doors back open, and pulled Stephen off the train. To hear my kids tell this story (and they do), I exerted Hercluean effort to open those doors. In reality, as soon as the automatic doors sensed my resistance, they reopened with no effort from me at all.

After a few minutes to catch our breath (first, I was really out of shape, and second, we were all scared to death) after that close call, we realized that we had been given a highly teachable moment.  There was absolutely no way we could be angry with Stephen. He simply followed what, in most cases, were reliable directions from a trustworthy source. The more important lesson for Stephen, and for the other three kids as well, was to pick wisely which authoritative voice you obey. Is it the automated voice on the train? Or is it Mom and Dad yelling, “Get off the train!”?

The Word of God warns us many times of false teachers and messages the world will ask us to believe. In fact, a 2013 article on Bible.org by Stephen Cole (find it here) states that warning against false teachings is emphasized more than anything else in the New Testament. So, what this near-catastrophe allowed us to share with our kids is what Paul shared with the early Church in Romans 16:19: “For the report of your obedience has reached to all; therefore I am rejoicing over you, but I want you to be wise in what is good and innocent in what is evil.” In other words, knowing which voice teaches good and which voice teaches evil requires wisdom, and wisdom comes from God.

Today, almost 10 years later, I think that lesson sunk in. Praise God.

Together, With a Capital “T”

While we’re on the theme of grandparents…..

What does a seven-year-old like better then a ride around town with Grandpa in his pickup truck on a Saturday afternoon? Not much, especially when that drive includes a stop at Dairy Queen for ice cream or McDonald’s for some fries. So it was for me on a chilly, overcast day in the fall of 1969. There wasn’t a lot of foot traffic in that small southern Illinois town that day, but just at the intersection of Sloan St. and Webster St., we passed a man walking on the sidewalk who was about my grandpa’s age at the time (mid-60s). At just that moment, Grandpa made several funny gestures with his left hand. And, to my seven-year-old amazement, the man on the sidewalk did exactly the same thing with his left hand!

I was scared to death to ask my grandpa what had just happened, so I waited until my Mom  (his daughter) was with us. Turns out that Grandpa and the gentleman were both members of the local chapter of a national fraternal organization. Those secret hand signs helped members feel the bond of belonging to a common group.

The need to belong is universal to mankind. “Belonging” leads to feeling accepted, valued and loved. The times of the greatest unhappiness in my life, whether in a job, with my family, or in any circumstance, came when I’ve felt like I’m on the outside.

My son Stephen is the undisputed family leader when it comes to bringing others into our lives. Anytime we’re planning an event or activity, regardless of what it is, Stephen suggests that we invite our friends to join us. To him, it’s not about what we’re doing. Chances are he’s been to that restaurant, movie theater, baseball game, etc. countless times before. No, it’s about enjoying the experience with them. Stephen longs for the experience of togetherness.

As is often the case, Stephen has it right.

God’s design for the Church is the we do life together. But that’s “Together,” with a capital “T.” You see, the Bible tells us that it’s not God’s will that anyone should perish, but that all should repent and be saved through Jesus Christ. John 3:16, that famous passage, says that God so loved the world that he gave his Son, that whoever believes in him would not die but have everlasting life. It doesn’t say that God so loved only part of the world, or that he loved only those who loved him back. Christ’s Great Commission? Go to the ends of the earth and make disciples of all nations.

Satan would like nothing better than for Christians to treat their faith like an exclusive club. Keep it to yourself, he says. Speak only in terms that other Christians understand.

Because I know Jesus and want to show him my love by obeying His commands, I can’t keep His story to myself. But how do I share Him? For starters, wouldn’t it be great for those who follow Jesus Christ not to speak only in “Christianese” and have secret handshakes? Shouldn’t I bring the message of Jesus’ love and redemption for our sins to those who haven’t heard of Him using terms and cultural context that they understand? Shouldn’t I want to help others see how Jesus is meaningful to them in their lives, right where they are, not just how he is meaningful to me in mine?

It might take more time to share Jesus this way. I might have to listen more to learn about the lives of those who don’t yet know Him. But like Stephen, I long to experience the love and redemptive power of Jesus Christ with them.

People-Watching

Don’t lie, you love to do this too.

Sitting in a coffee shop on a Saturday morning writing this blog post, I’m taking in everything that’s going on around me.  Couples are enjoying each other’s company.  Young families are grabbing some breakfast before their youth sports game of choice (baseball and soccer seem to be the favorites today). There’s a business meeting happening at the table beside me. Tables of 8-10 friends are meeting for whatever reason.  And then there are the guys like me plunking away on computers typing who knows what.

At 53, I’m not the oldest person here.  Still, I’ve lived long enough to be in the position of each and every person here, at least once. I’ve held several business meetings, met friends, joined in group Bible studies. I could swear I saw a younger version of myself when a young dad in a baseball cap walked by carrying his 2-year-old daughter in his arms.

This post is not just a walk down memory lane, as fun as that is.  It’s about contentment. My contentment issues have rarely been associated with material things. No, I’ve always struggled with, as Paul so aptly puts it, the “pride of life.” In other words, I’ve most often been discontent about who I am. Position, prestige, how others viewed me.

I won’t bore you with a roller-coaster account of my contentment issues.  But what people-watching in this coffee shop has shown me today is that I’ve lived a really full life, even at the young age of 53. I certainly hope to live a much longer life, but in the end, I’ve experienced just about everything that a 53-year-old man should experience.  And, thank God, I’ve not yet experienced many of the bad things that others my age have already gone through.

As with almost everything in life, contentment is a choice. So many times, I chose not to see the good that God had given me. Instead, I longed to be somebody God didn’t make me to be, or to be someone I wasn’t ready to be. Those have been the unhappiest times of my life. And, I’m sure I’ll always struggle with that.

But today, after people-watching in a coffee shop, it’s a little easier to choose contentment.

 

A Reminder of Redemption

“If the Son has set you free, you shall be free indeed.”  (John 8:36)

The question came quickly and directly from the Middle Eastern man who had just sat across from us on the DC Metro.  We were in Washington for a Spring Break trip in March of 2007.  After touring the moving Holocaust Museum, we hopped on the Metro at the Smithsonian and headed south to our car, parked in Arlington.  We had been on the Metro for only a few minutes when this gentleman boarded the train at the Pentagon and sat down.  He was in his 40s, dressed in casual American clothes, not appearing to be poor but also without any of the trappings of affluence found on the other commuters on the same train. He had no cell phone, no briefcase, no shopping bags — nothing was in his hands.  He boarded the Metro alone.

I immediately noticed that his attention was fixed on our family as he sat.  After all, a couple with four kids aged 17 to 11 was likely to stick out like a sore thumb among the power suits and military uniforms on the Metro at that particular spot.   And yet, it was the small piece of jewelry around my wife’s neck that prompted this gentleman to speak.

In easy American English, the man said, “I see you wear a cross on your necklace.  Is that a fashion statement, or is it a statement of faith?”  My wife responded that it was most definitely a statement of her faith in Jesus Christ as her Lord and Savior.  With a smile, the gentleman replied, “Oh, that Jesus, we don’t like him too much, do we?  He keeps us from doing the things that we want to.”   We then explained how our obedience to Jesus comes out of our love for him, how God’s commandments are for our benefit, and how our obedience to God’s commandments frees us rather than restrains us.  Even though the gentleman’s comments suggested that he probably didn’t share our faith, he never once became argumentative, and he listened with a smile the entire time.  He rode with us until the next stop, when without so much as a goodbye, he abruptly stood up and walked off the Metro.

We spent the rest of the ride in a stunned, “what-just-happened” kind of silence. Was this man simply making small talk with a family of tourists?  Or was he seeking the truth, taking a few steps closer to surrendering his life to the one true King?  Was his heart already hardened to the point where he couldn’t hear the Gospel?  We won’t know the answer to these questions until we get to heaven.  But, we were grateful to have the opportunity to share our faith, and to show our kids that it’s OK to do so, even in strange and unfamiliar surroundings.

Sadly, we didn’t talk with the man about the most liberating aspect of faith in Jesus: Christ’s atoning death on the cross and his resurrection that set us free from our sins. In John 10:10, Jesus himself said that he came so that we could have life, and have it abundantly.  That doesn’t sound like restriction to me.  In fact, during his ministry Jesus saved some of his harshest words for the Jewish leaders who placed religious requirements on God’s people, while he showed kindness, compassion, and caring to the sinners he interacted with, which was, you know, everyone.  So, knowing how Jesus felt as reflected in the New Testament, why would Christians ever show the world that being Christian is more about judgment of others’ sins than about Christ’s love and his redemption of our souls?  If our goal is to make disciples, and that should be our goal, then we’re better served by following Jesus’ example.

If you’re a Christian and you wear a cross on a chain around your neck, you’re wearing a reminder of your redemption and the freedom your soul enjoys because of it.  And, if you’re in the right place at the right time, you may get to explain what that cross means to an inquisitive fellow traveler.