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.

With Your Whole Being

So I’m writing from a different spot in the coffee shop today.  Private chair in a corner, in the back room of the shop away from the ordering counter.  A faux-palm tree stands about five feet high over my right shoulder. My laptop is on my lap and not on a table. I can see almost the entire shop from here.  And the perpective is quite different.

I’m really encourged to see that the vast majority of people here are sharing a meal or a cup of coffee together. I mean, it is lunchtime, but I expected to see more people like me, drinking coffee alone, head buried in a laptop, smartphone, or some other device. Thankfully, it’s just the opposite.  The shop is full of converation, quiet yet lively, lighthearted yet intense.

The power of face-to-face communication cannot be denied.

The non-verbal communication by a person’s face alone communicates half the message. Posture, nods and hand gestures tell even more.

Often, words are just an extra, the icing on the cake.

What better way to tell someone “I love you” than to tell them in person, right in front of them?  To communicate your feelings for them with your whole being, and not merely with words?

Jesus Christ came to earth 2000 Christmases ago to do just that. He who was fully God and fully man came to tell us, His people, how much he loved us. In person. Through His touch, through a smile, through tears for a dead friend or for an entire city.

Through sacrifice.  Through pain.

Through the cross.

Don’t those you love deserve to hear that you love them – and see it, and feel it — from you, in person? Don’t let today go by without communicating your love to those who mean the most to you.

With your whole being.

 

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

The Snake Stick

Man, I really miss my Grandma.

Grandma was a woman of the Old World. Born in America, mind you, but not of the modern age. She was born in the hills of Appalachia in the early 1900s, to a family that we could trace back to the early 1700s in her small Pennsylvania town. Somehow, her family found its way to rural, coal-mining southern Illinois, where she met and married my grandpa and finally settled down.

In her 84+ years, she never got a driver’s license. She lived in a house that had no running water, central heat or air conditioning until she was over 70. I’ll never forget the smell of coal burning in the fireplace instead of firewood. In the golden days of Crisco, Grandma cooked with lard. You hear that, Mrs. Obama? Lard. No one ever ate so good as us grandkids when we went to Grandma’s for fried chicken. And the water from the well outside the kitchen? People pay millions  of dollars each year for bottled water that doesn’t taste half as good as the water from that well.

When I was a kid, my Grandma and Grandpa’s little four-room house sat about a third of a mile back from a county road, just a stone’s throw from places with names like Gobbler’s Knob, Eagle Creek, Pound’s Hollow, and Cave-in-Rock. They didn’t have many visitors, so their long, gently sloping driveway was visible, if not a little overgrown. And it was down that driveway Grandma would walk, day in and day out, to retrieve the mail from the box at the end of the drive.

Some other notable residents of their little piece of southern Illinois were rattlesnakes.  Lots of rattlesnakes. So to make sure she didn’t have to entertain any unwanted reptilian guests during her walk to the mailbox, Grandma would – without fail – take along her snake stick. What is a “snake stick?” Well, it’s a stick that’s between 4-5 feet long, about the thickness of a pool cue at its thickest part. It was basically a tree branch, with a small “Y” fashioned in the end where the main branch had separated into two smaller branches. The smaller branches forming the “Y” were trimmed down to about 2-3 inches long.

You see, Grandma was not just Old World, but old-school smart. She knew that she wasn’t quick enough to kill a rattler with a stick, so she didn’t carry a “snake spear.” And she probably wasn’t a good enough shot to kill a rattlesnake, so she didn’t carry a gun. But with her snake stick, she could at least pin the head of the snake to the ground until she could safely walk by, and then release it.

Most of us don’t live in a forest infested with poisonous snakes, but to be sure, we all deal with “snakes” in our lives. They just take different forms. The most dangerous snakes are the “slings and arrows” of temptation and sin that Satan and his demons send our way every day. Thankfully, through Jesus Christ, God has provided our “snake stick” for daily living through his Word and the Holy Spirit. If fact, the Bible says that God provides the believer with an entire spiritual suit of armor, if the believer will just use it.

So don’t even start your day without your “snake stick.” Meet with God in the morning, hear from Him through his Word, and invite the Holy Spirit into your day. Because you’re going to run into some snakes today.

 

 

Lessons From a Broken Gas Gauge

In the early 1980s, summers in Kansas City were wonderful. More fountains than Paris, beautiful flowers and foliage, and at the time, pretty good baseball too (we had this guy on the Royals named George Brett — you might want to look him up). One of the oldest and largest parks in Kansas City, Swope Park, housed a beautiful outdoor theater known as Starlight Theater. On a glorious Saturday night in July 1984, my fiance and I decided to take in a show there. I don’t know what we saw, but I can guarantee it was excellent.

I was just 21, about to graduate from college, and engaged to my high school sweetheart. At the time, I drove a school-bus yellow Oldsmobile Omega, and even though the car was only three years old, it already had a broken gas gauge. At any given time, I really didn’t have any idea how much gas I had in the tank. So we dressed up, me in a nice suit and my fiance in a dress, and we took off in the Omega for Starlight. I chose not to put gas in the car that night, believing I had enough to make it to the park and get her home.

I was very wrong.

When the car finally ran out of gas, it was on a street in a relatively safe area of Kansas City Missouri, and thankfully just a couple of blocks from a gas station. Knowing my issues with the gas gauge, at least I had the forethought to keep an empty gas can in the car. So, my fiance and I walked to the gas station, filled the can, and began the three-block walk back to the car.

About a block away from the car, a older man pulled up alongside us as we walked on the sidewalk. He drove the car slowly beside us, matching the pace of our walk, watching us intently the entire time. I looked over at him once, but I didn’t acknowledge his stare.  I told my fiance to just keep walking. After about 20 seconds of tracking us step for step, he pulled away.

I don’t know what his intentions were. I’m hoping that he just wanted to help, but, seeing that I was carrying a gas can and walking away from the station, he assumed we were fine. Still, the very real possibility exists that his thoughts were far from honorable.

As I write this on Mother’s Day almost 32 years after that night, I am so thankful that God didn’t allow the consequences of my poor choices to have tragic effects. Because of his mercy toward us, my then fiance (now my wife) can celebrate this Mother’s Day as the mom of four grown children, the mother-in-law of one (so far), and the daughter of one of the finest mothers on the planet.

We will make bad choices. We’re human, there’s no way around it. And while Jesus chose to die on the cross so that we can be forgiven of our bad choices (sin) and not have to endure eternal consequences, the fact remains that our bad choices have consequences here on earth that can’t always be avoided.

My real problem on that Saturday in July 1984 was that I allowed one bad choice to be followed by another.  First, I had chosen not to have the gas gauge repaired.  I followed the first bad choice with a second one, choosing not to top off the gas tank before we left. Those choices, compounded together, could have led my life, and the life of my fiance, to places we definitely didn’t want to go.

There is a way to avoid compounding bad choices.  First, take advantage of the free gift of forgiveness of sins that Jesus Christ offers.  Then, learn from Him how to see where choices made today will lead in the future. It takes only a small correction to get back on the right path after just one bad choice. But after several unwise choices in a row, well, it’s a much longer and more difficult road.

It was a hot, humid, muggy Kansas City Monday morning in July 1984, as I was driving my yellow Omega to the service department at our local Oldsmobile dealer…..

Hope

In the middle of the Upper Ninth Ward of New Orleans stands a small pink church, Carver Desire Baptist.  On every first floor wall of the church, about 8 feet above the floor, is a brown stain showing where Hurricane Katrina’s floodwaters stood for more than two weeks in August 2005.  Our church sent numerous teams to New Orleans over the next several years to help Carver Desire’s members reclaim their neighborhood for Jesus Christ.  My 12-year-old son and I were blessed to serve on one of the trips in March 2006, almost seven months after the storm.

I was not prepared for what I saw.  We came to New Orleans on I-55 south, and began heading east on I-10 about 20 miles west of the city.  The vestiges of Katrina started to appear almost imperceptibly, with the occasional building having second-story windows missing or a tarp over its roof.  Then we began seeing the sparkling white FEMA trailers, at first just one, then a few, and as we headed east, we began to see entire neighborhoods with an identical trailer in each driveway. As we neared downtown, we began seeing boats and disabled cars stranded in the median of the highway.  Downtown, modern skyscrapers had numerous boarded-up windows as high as 15 stories off the ground.  In the Upper Ninth Ward, the devastation reached war zone proportions.  Houses moved off foundations.  Vehicles perched in trees.  And everywhere, the eerie quiet of desertion.

Perhaps the most haunting aspect of post-Katrina New Orleans were the markings on the abandoned houses, left after the Urban Search and Rescue teams completed their work. The markings communicated the date and time that searchers left the house, whether there are any specific hazards in the house (instability, rats, etc.), and at the bottom of the markings, an indication of whether searchers found bodies of humans or pets on the property. To a wary volunteer from Kansas, the markings were almost otherworldly.  The images are burned in my mind.

 

[Photo courtesy of southernspaces.org]
[Photo courtesy of southernspaces.org]
The scope of the destruction was difficult to comprehend. My 12-year-old son described it as “weird and scary.”  Personally, I couldn’t believe that in America, so little cleanup had been done in the seven months since the storm. Even more difficult to fathom was how our group of 30 people could make any difference in the lives of the residents of the Upper Ninth.  Still, our team spent several days cleaning out homes, removing debris and drywall down to the studs so they could receive a bleach wash and the long process of rebuilding could begin. During that work, I experienced sights and smells that will forever take me back there.  The scent of a certain brand of laundry detergent, in my mind, is the smell of disarray.  And it was on this trip when I learned what happens when a refrigerator full of food is flooded with ocean water and left to sit for seven months.  What comes out is not pretty.

So why did our group travel all the way to New Orleans to serve the people of the Upper Ninth? Pastor James Willis of Carver Desire Baptist Church said it best: “What you’re doing here is giving folks hope.  When people look at their devastated homes, full of damaged furniture and moldy walls, it appears to be overwhelming to them.  However, when the debris is removed and only the stud walls remain, people can start to see that their homes can be rebuilt again.  They can see that it is actually possible for their lives to one day be put back together.”

Hope.  How many times my wife and I have told our now-grown children that, because of our faith in Jesus Christ, we always have hope because Christ died for us and rose again. Paul explained it this way is Romans 5:2-7: “And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God.  Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance;  perseverance, character; and character, hope.  And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.  You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.”  And just as my anxious children need to be reminded of that hope, the good people in the Upper Ninth Ward needed a reminder as well. I’m thankful that God allowed me and my son to join in his work sharing that hope, for a week in the spring of 2006.