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.

 

 

 

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

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.

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.

 

 

No Secret Passages

The world of secret passages conjures up for me visions of medieval castles, old Frankenstein movies, and trying to win Clue games against my wife (and losing…everytime…). By the way, I’m grateful to Mel Brooks for removing the scariness from Frankenstein movies, and providing an endless supply on one-liners in his classic 1970s movie Young Frankenstein. Am I the only person who couldn’t watch Everybody Loves Raymond on TV and not see Dr. Fronk-n-steen’s monster? (Rest in peace, Peter Boyle.) Any coincidence that the name of Peter Boyle’s character was Frank? I think not.

What brought secret passages to mind for me in sunny and warm May 2016 is….weddings. And graduations. Yes, it’s that season again, with days filled with grad parties, wedding showers, and the actual ceremonies themselves, often on the same day. Both stressful and expensive. What a combination.

Like birthdays and anniversaries, these celebrations can lead some to experience pain and heartbreak. So much so that they might even choose to skip them to avoid the pain.

It’s important to remember that celebrating any significant milestone in life — a passage from one chapter of life into the next — serves an important spiritual function. One of my personal heroes, King David, reminded us to number our days, so that we might gain a heart of wisdom. Memorializing life’s passages serves as a reminder that our time on earth has an end, that the number of weddings and graduations we’ll attend is limited. And it highlights the importance of each choice we make in our lives. Choices to love, to show support, and to be there for those we care for, even if we don’t quite feel like it. And choices to live the next chapter of our own lives in line with His will, and to His glory.

Besides likely not being as glamorous as portrayed in the movies (think rats and black mold), secret passages were more often than not used for nefarious purposes. So my prayer is this: That we won’t let Satan succeed in his nefarious purpose of avoiding or even eliminating the observance of passages in our lives. Jesus blessed weddings by attending one in Cana and performing his first miracle there. Bless your loved ones by being there for every birthday party, anniversary, Thanksgiving dinner, Christmas celebration, New Years’ Eve party, and yes, every grad party, wedding shower, and graduation or wedding you can possibly attend. Even if they’re on the same day (and they probably will be).

Let’s lead lives that have no secret passages.

 

 

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…..