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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Where There is Mourning, There is Love

We spent some of the waning hours of 2018 saying goodbye to one of my best friends’ 95-year-old father. In 2018, I was privileged to join in the celebration of home-going for the fathers of two of our dearest friends. I also said a final goodbye to my own dad.

My friend had the God-given strength to give the message at the funeral service himself.

He described his dad as a “giant of the faith,” and I could not more wholeheartedly agree. His father was a missionary to the African Congo for eight years, a Bible college professor, a pastor, and in later years, an assistant funeral director. He was always serving others.

And as God usually does, He chose to teach me at this funeral with just a single verse. This is not a verse for lightweights, so you won’t hear it at most funerals.

It was perfect for this one.

It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of everyone; the living should take this to heart. – Ecclesiastes 7:2

For many, this verse is a painful reminder of one of life’s certainties. But it also begs the question: Why is it better to mourn than to feast? The answer came quickly, as I set there in the pew:

Where there is mourning, there is love.

I’ll admit, most feasts I attend are with people who love each other. But it’s not a requirement. People can (and often do) feast with total strangers for all types of reasons. I just don’t get around enough to attend those feasts.

But you can’t truly mourn without a deep, abiding love.

Mourning a loss brings people together in a way nothing else can. Some, like his direct family or close friends, deeply loved my friend’s father. Others may not have known him, but deeply love his family and friends, and mourned their loss with them. My family is blessed to love both the man, and his family.

Still others were loved by this giant of the faith. Many at that funeral mourned simply because my friend’s father loved them. And countless others, many living in the remotest parts of Africa, would have also honored him at his funeral, had they known of his passing and had the means to get there.

I’m eternally grateful to say that my friend’s father also loved me.

These days, we have the Internet, the “world-wide web” as it is called, with Internet addresses even starting with the initials “www.” The funeral is available to be seen around the world using this modern communication tool.

But “world-wide webs” aren’t new. Jesus started one when he told his disciples, after his resurrection, that they would be witnesses of the Gospel to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to “the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). The life of my friend’s father is further proof. A life lived for others, through the love of Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit, will create a web of love around the world. Not everyone’s web will reach quite as far as my my friend’s father’s does, but you will be surprised how far your web of love will go.

Better to be in a house of mourning, indeed.

 

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 November Saturday

It was the late fall of 1982. The first semester of my junior year at the University of Kansas was almost finished, and my girlfriend’s sorority’s fall service project was to help with the Lawrence Special Olympics bowling competition. They were short on help, so my future wife asked me to tag along.

What follows was what I like to call “God’s audition to be parents of a disabled child.“ We had a wonderful time bowling, laughing, and eating with these young adults. Most of them had Down syndrome, but several others had different cognitive or physical disabilities. Regardless, my future wife and I left that event very happy that we had been involved, and wondering whether we should volunteer for future Special Olympics activities.

Little did we know what God had in store for us.

Helping with that bowling tournament was like being a grandparent. It was great fun while it lasted, but the kids weren’t really “yours.“

But once that disabled child comes home with you from the hospital, things begin to change. Slowly and imperceptibly at first. The first time we went to a Down Syndrome Guild meeting was just after our oldest son was born, seven years and a few months after that fateful Saturday in November 1982. I distinctly remember walking into the Guild meeting room, full of families who had also just entered the world of special-needs children, and experiencing a very familiar feeling.

I was instantly transported back to the 6th grade, when the class of disabled kids was in the self-contained classroom next door to my homeroom.  As they walked by our door, from lunch or the playground, I remember feeling an uneasy mixture of fear and pity. Fear, in not knowing what “those kids“ might do. And pity, at once thankful that I was not among them, and believing that their lives must be something less than mine.

Thankfully, over the years that all changed. It started with events like Special Olympics, where I could actually meet disabled kids, and grow to like them.

And then, I joined their dads.

Within a span of just a few short months, all those kids in the Down Syndrome Guild became my kids. It was impossible to know them all well, but 28 years later, I still know their names. William, Sean, Matthew, another Stephen, Kyle, Paul.

And their parents became some of our very best friends.

How appropriate it is, then, that our son’s favorite activity is….

# # #

I’d love to hear from you about your experiences with a disabled person in your life.  Please take a few moments to leave a comment. It only takes a few seconds!

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.

Courage

What does real courage look like to you?

To me, right now, it looks like a sister-in-law who is going through cancer treatment for a second time in 10 years.

It’s knowing the suffering she’s sure to face during the treatments, and choosing to go through them anyway, because the desired result is the best for those she loves.

Even though she’s near the end of her chemo treatment, the suffering is still real.  And intense.

Where does courage like that come from? Knowing her deep, abiding faith in Jesus Christ, the easy Sunday-school answer is readily apparent.

But that’s only part of the story.

For faith to mean anything in our lives, we have to allow our faith to move us to a conviction to act.

Once that belief becomes a deep conviction, things begin to happen. — Muhammad Ali

It’s on us to incorporate our faith into our lives. And the conviction that grows out of living out our faith — that we’re doing the right thing — leads to courage.

I can do all things through Jesus Christ, who strengthens me.  — Phillipians 4:13

My sister-in-law is living this out beautifully, today, right now.

By the way, haven’t we heard another story about someone who knew the suffering he would face, and yet chose to endure that suffering because the end result was the best for those he loves?

Yeah, I thought so.

 

Lunchtime Musings: Giftedness

I know I’ve written a lot about my daughter who had a traumatic brain injury (the youngest), and my son who has Down syndrome (the oldest). But God has blessed my wife and I with two other children as well, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t write about them, too.

Our two middle children, a 25-year old young man and a 23-year-old young lady, haven’t faced the types of challenges the other two have. That’s not to say their lives are without struggles, but theirs (to date, at least) don’t have weighty names like “Down syndrome” or “TBI.”

No, this post is to praise God and celebrate their giftedness. And to brag on them, just a little bit.

We’ll start with my world-travelling daughter, who studied abroad for six months a couple of years ago, and has already spent more time around the Mediterranean Sea than I will in my lifetime. One of God’s greatest gifts to her, like her mother and grandmother before her, is the ability to teach. While her Mom is probably the best teacher I’ve ever known, my daughter is a close second. Their ability to teach their curriculum to each and every student in their class, regardless of that student’s ability or disposition, sets them apart.  My daughter’s chosen to teach upper-level math in high school, another amazing gift from God.

My son is a “people magnet.” When taking care of the little kids at church, my son is the first one to become a human jungle gym, a walking piece of playground equipment. Their dads come to him for advice and support. He’s studying to be a pastor, and from where I’m sitting, he looks to be perfectly suited for that. He and his beautiful wife will have been married for three years this coming May.

Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. – James 1:17

My wife and I are thankful for all four of our children, and we are proud of them and love them for who they are, and who God made them to be.

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.