Thursday, November 20, 2014

Turkey Talk and the Ball Drops

It occurs to me that the two holidays that make a sandwich of Christmas tend to point us in opposite directions. Thanksgiving reminds us of the past while New Year's Day focuses us forward into the future. While Turkey Day causes us to take stock, to count our blessings, to reflect on all the days behind us, New Years takes the measure of our time and calls us on into the unknown, uncharted journey before us. And maybe it is fortunate for us that these holidays surround our celebration of Christmas, because until we can make peace with our past and find hope for the future, we don't have much to celebrate.

For most of us the past is a mixed bag, a blend of both blessing and regret, pleasure and pain. At Thanksgiving we give thanks for the good things we have been given, but we might do well to make a second list alongside of our blessings. What about the old hurts, the deep regrets, the episodes of our lives that we would give anything to be able to do over again, knowing what we know today? Bad choices, dumb moves, thoughtless words. We beat ourselves up for such things and yet we are too often blind to the way our past is poisoning our present.

Maybe the best part of Thanksgiving is not the tallying of our total accumulated blessings. Maybe the real joy comes in finding grace and release from the broken pieces of our past, to be set free from those haunting hurts of yesterday. And to see how some Sovereign Someone has brought you through it all, the good and bad, the joy and the tears, to this new day - today - is to be blessed indeed. 

And then there's New Years. The crystal ball drops illuminating the big "2015," someone to kiss and a whole new year to worry about. Like Thanksgiving, New Years is a mixed bag, with equal parts of anticipation and trepidation, hope and fear. Just putting up a new calendar is an act of faith. We make our plans and pencil in our dreams, but who knows how things will actually play out for us? It's a scary world out there, with plenty to frighten us, to make us feel powerless and defenseless. We resolve to make changes, trying to face up to the same struggles we were having last year and the years before that. But genuine new beginnings don't come easily, especially when we realize we are not the One holding all the cards. God knows what lies ahead.

So, our New Years can sink from optimism to pessimism faster than the ball drops, like an express elevator to the basement. Too many of us wring our hands over the days ahead, living with a low grade, ever present anxiety based on fear, not faith.

Maybe the best part of New Year's Day is not football or our feeble efforts to reform ourselves. Maybe the real joy is found in our confident hope that though the unknown future is in God's hands, so are we. Try as we may, you and I cannot control what lies ahead, and that's actually good news, since we are not up to the job anyway. It is enough for little people like us to be faithful and to follow, to take His hand and walk into the great unknown without fear.

As our Celtic forebearers prayed:

God before me, God behind me, 
God above me, God below me;
I on the path of God,
God upon my track.

Sweet release from yesterday. Confident hope for tomorrow. Faithful companionship today. Now, we can join the party.   

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Football in the Mud

Rarely has the news been more depressing or disgusting. Turn on the evening news and you get to see clips of burning homes, raging floods, hundreds of Ebola victims, a woman punched out by her lover, and another reporter beheaded by terrorists. It's almost more than I can watch, just too big a dose of disaster and pain and cruelty.

These days I'm feeling better about my disappointed childhood dreams of one day playing in the NFL. Our heroes are turning out to be wife beaters and child abusers and sometimes just plain stupid. I heard on the news today that while suspended and awaiting the outcome of his felony child abuse charges, Adrian Peterson will continue to draw his normal weekly paycheck of $691,000. What's wrong with this picture?

What a mess we have created. In all fairness to these professional athletes, they have been treated like royalty since adolescence, given fabulous wealth when they couldn't handle an allowance, pressured to perform at herculean levels, and then expected to behave like mature adults, good role models for our kids. Not very likely, is it?

Who taught Adrian Peterson his brutal parenting approach? Nobody but his own parents. Who taught Ray Rice about relationships and respect for women? Apparently, nobody. That certainly does not excuse their behavior one bit, but our own warped sports culture has helped to create a class of athletes who lack even the basics of class and character.

And what makes it seem even worse is the fact that we rarely hear about the good guys, the athletes who not only perform on the field, but serve and volunteer and have healthy marriages and raise happy kids. But they rarely get the press. Scandal makes better copy I guess.

Maybe this will be the year when I just stick with baseball. After all, the Royals are still in the hunt and the Nationals are already in the post season. Praying for a DC-KC series. Yes, I do still believe in miracles. And I'm ready for some good news, too. Go, Blue!


Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Jekyll and Hyde

Every person is in reality two persons. Each of us has an onstage life and an offstage life, a public persona and the private reality. Hopefully, these two are very similar, not dramatically different. But we all struggle to bring our two selves together, so that public and private, outward and inward, are reflections of the same consistent character. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde make for a great story, but a painful, pitiful life. Yet, how rarely do we come across anyone who is genuinely and deeply integrated, with no dark side, no mixed messages, no contradictory values, and no inconsistent behavior.

Even the Apostle Paul struggled to tame the old sinful nature. "I do not understand what I do. . . . For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do - this I keep on doing. . . . What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God - through Jesus Christ our Lord!" (Roman 7:15a, 19, 24-25 NIV)

Even early in life we become masters of disguise and deception, highly skilled at presenting ourselves publicly in positive, socially acceptable ways, while keeping our private demons out of sight, lurking in the dark corners of our lives. Many of today's popular television shows and movies center on this "dark side" theme, this breaking bad, this giving in to our raw, base passions.

And where do these demons come from? Are we born with this "sinful nature," an inbred badness passed down from Adam? Certainly we do come into this world with a sense of brokenness, an instinctive waywardness, a spiritual estrangement that we can't escape or explain. "Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it. Prone to leave the God I love." 

But, some of our demons do not come as standard equipment. They are not the result of our sins or Adam's, but someone else's. They are the result of the pain others have inflicted upon us, the wounds we have absorbed, the abuse we have endured. Harsh, cutting words. Cruel, callous acts. Heartless neglect. Unthinkable abuse. Innocence is violated, trust destroyed. And in the compost of pain and abuse, bad seeds take root and grow.  

How does our faith in Christ address this inner struggle, this unending battle to civilize and baptize Mr. Hyde? It seems to me that the simplest answer may be the best answer. If you want Hyde to get out and stay out, someone else needs to move in and take over - Christ Himself. Only Christ, dwelling in us by the Holy Spirit, can heal our past hurts, sweep out the dark corners, and break the chains of selfish, self-destructive behavior.

Will it be easy or painless? Of course not. It will likely be a long and difficult journey. The renewing of our minds and the reshaping of our character are no minor adjustments. But never doubt for a moment that healing can come, forgiveness is offered, grace is sufficient, and even dead men will rise. We can by the grace of God become whole, healthy persons, a new creation in Christ. May it be so for all of us.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Finding Your Tennis Ball

"When I think about it, the happiest and most successful people I know don't just love what they do, they're obsessed with solving an important problem, something that matters to them. They remind me of a dog chasing a tennis ball: Their eyes go a little crazy, the leash snaps and they go bounding off, plowing through whatever gets in the way . . . So it's not about pushing yourself; it's about finding your tennis ball, the thing that pulls you." - Dropbox CEO Drew Houston's 2013 Commencement Address

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Staying Connected - Tuning Out

Since our three kids are now in their twenties, I am regularly reminded that I am no expert regarding social and cultural trends. Apparently, in spite of my best efforts to stay informed and relevant, I am still pretty much in the dark compared to my brilliant and up-to-date offspring. I get it. I know there is at least some truth in their point of view. And, I confess, there are more than a few things going on these days that I simply cannot figure out. Ever feel that way?

For instance, I have noticed two obvious, dominant characteristics in my kid's generation and some of my own that appear to me to be incongruent if not totally incompatible. I'll bet you have noticed these lots of times. First is the obsession to stay connected. Each person must stay in constant contact with an enormous circle of "friends," and I use that term loosely.

I was running on a treadmill at the gym the other evening and a young woman was on the machine next to mine. As you would expect, she was working out at a faster pace then I can handle, but every few minutes or seconds, she had to jump on the treads, quit running, and respond to a text. I don't think she ran for two minutes uninterrupted by her phone. It's an obsession.

We've all seen it. Distracted drivers, servers, checkers, tellers, and most of all, customers, who cannot stand being out of touch or disconnected, even for a few moments. I'm waiting for someone to file a lawsuit so that the court can tell us that everyone has the inalienable right to be on their phone, no matter what, no matter when, no matter why.

Our kids can't imagine what life was like before smart phones, in the ancient days of letters and land lines and real live conversations. Okay, that's number one - obsessed with staying connected. Here's the second seemingly contradictory characteristic - the desire to tune out.

I was on a plane a few weeks ago and I noticed two young guys seated in the exit row where you have to get some extra instructions and agree that you will act accordingly in the event of an emergency. The male flight attendant asked for their attention and was ignored, earbuds in, eyes rolling. He asked again politely and was given an annoyed nod, but the earbuds stayed in. Finally, the flight attendant patiently put his hand on their shoulders and said loudly, "I need to you hear me and acknowledge that you agree to these instructions." Finally, both guys pulled out one earbud and did as he requested, but not without acting like their sacred privacy had been blatantly violated. (If I had been that flight attendant, I would have just choked them until the earbuds popped out.)

Again, you see this all the time, people in public, but not present, doing business, but totally tuned out. And, don't tell me it's just the music, because we've always had the music, and music has always had its fans. I have to believe that this is much more about tuning out than it is about tuning in. I just wish I was in the earbud business. Somebody is making some serious money.

So, am I crazy or does this all seem remarkably inconsistent? All kinds of people obsessed with staying connected and at the same time determined to tune out. Doesn't make sense to me. And, of course, the smart phone is the indispensable tool for both sides of the equation.

So, I'm wondering what the world would be like if everyone took this two-fold approach to life. What are your thoughts? Put down your phone, pull out your earbuds, and help me understand.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Prayers and Poop and Politics

When our kids were small we had a nightly routine as I guess most families do. After baths and pajamas and stories we would say our prayers at bedtime. This was always interesting, often an adventure, and sometimes unforgettable. It is a parent's great joy to hear their children pray, and each of our kids seemed to have their own approach to their Heavenly Father. Sometimes we would try to help them along, suggesting people and things they might want to pray about, trying to expand their little world.

One night it was Jake's turn to pray and he was trying to branch out. His prayer went something like this: "Dear God, thank you for this day. Bless Mom and Dad and Sam and Becca and bless Grandma Hill and Grandma and Grandpa Jones. And God bless President Clinton and help him to . . . help him to . . . (Of course, he had no idea what presidents do, so he thought about his own struggles.) . . . help him to . . . go potty on the potty chair and not to get poop on his big boy pants." Now, I'm betting not many presidents before or since have had such prayer support regarding their own personal hygiene. But, then again, it can't hurt.

Like little Jake, sometimes I find it hard to know how to pray for our country and our leaders. Certainly I pray for wisdom and direction for them, for their safety and health, for their faith and their families. But more then anything, I am praying these days that solving problems and caring for people will matter more than staying in power or regaining power. I pray that our leaders will remember how to listen to each other and respect alternative points of view. I pray that the art of compromise and genuine statesmanship will become the rule again instead of the exception. I pray that our leaders will put back into practice some of those noble ideals carved in stone around here.

I think we would all agree with Jake's childhood concern. There's way too much poop in politics these days. We need clean big boy (and big girl) pants on both sides of the aisle and in all branches of government. Maybe little Jake was wiser than I realized. Not a bad prayer for the Fourth of July.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Father's Day Reflections

"The heart of a father is the masterpiece of nature." - Antoine Francois Prevost

Father's Day, to quote Dickens, is "the best of times and the worst of times." Perhaps no holiday can elicit such a wide array of emotions from great joy to deep sadness. Even as we prepare to celebrate, I pray for my friends who long to have children and have not been so blessed and I ask God for grace and peace for those who have known only the dark, ugly side of fatherhood. And God's special comfort to those parents who have experienced the heartbreak of losing a child. May God bind up your broken hearts.   

I recently started hosting a monthly breakfast for all of the new dads in our church. I think we have fourteen new papas and three soon-to-be dads. A few already have older children, but most are first timers. We meet and eat and talk, wonderful conversation really, a great opportunity to talk with other men dealing with the same issues and changes and adjustments. Mostly I just listen and smile. So far I have only asked one question and the conversation never lagged after that. "What surprised you most about becoming a dad?" 

I'll bet you thought a bunch of guys would never open up and talk about family stuff, but you would be mistaken. Here's a safe, comfortable place to compare notes, ask questions, and be reminded that we can take this journey together with brothers in Christ, not all alone in isolation. And Suzanne is planning to get the new moms together too, so they can get in on this kind of encouragement as well.

As I listen to the guys talk about their experiences, I can't help but reflect on my own life as a dad. What an incredible blessing it has been to me. Now, I don't pretend to have all the answers and most of what I have learned through the years, I learned the hard way. But I have mentioned two things that sum up my little bit of wisdom for our new dads.

First, that little baby owns you now. Tiny little fingers have taken hold of your heart and they will never turn loose. It's no longer just about you and your life, or just the two of you, now it's a whole new ballgame. You feel the tug on your heart and a weight on your shoulder that was not there before. It's a surprising, almost frightening kind of love welling up inside. Suddenly, that easygoing guy you used to be has become a fierce protector, a committed provider, a nervous lifeguard. Who knew that this little one could have such a hold on you?

Don't get me wrong. You will be the dad, and you and mom will determine what's best and make the difficult decisions and even administer discipline when needed. But in a very real sense, you are no longer your own. You belong to your child and your child belongs to you. And life is never the same.

Second, savor every moment, every season and stage along the way. Don't be tempted to push ahead, to hurry on, to live in the future instead of the present. Cherish every day because days are what life is made of, all kinds of days. Looking back now, I honestly couldn't tell you what years I enjoyed the most. I loved it all and I love it still. So, I don't want you to miss anything. It's all good. Savor the moments, number your days, and make each one count with your kids. Never forget how quickly now becomes then.

So, I am happy indeed for my younger father friends on this Father's Day weekend, for I have been blessed on both sides of the equation. I am the child of a wonderful dad and I am the father of three great kids, more than doubly blessed. And all of us, and I mean all of us, can know the love and blessing of a Heavenly Father who knows better than anyone how to care for His children.

"See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God, and that is what we are!" (1 John 3:1 NIV)

Monday, June 9, 2014

A Bunch of Scheming Swindlers

"The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world? Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church's prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Oh, priceless scholarship, what would we do without you? Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes, it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament." - Soren Kierkegaard