Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Joy To The World

I don't know if I am good at simplifying things because I am....well, a rather simple person, or if it is some kind of gift from Christ.

Either way, it doesn't matter to me.  I like it a lot when something becomes less complicated.  It's easier for me to share that way.

When I think of the Christmases that have meant the most to me; the ones which store the most memory-driven smiles, they were de-cluttered Christmases.  They can be summarized in one sentence and my family will know exactly what year I am speaking of.  For instance:

The year there were four-foot snow drifts and the power went out for a week.
The year we drove to and from Phoenix in the LeBaron.
Just my wife and I, (plus a kitten) in frozen, snowy Chicago.
All the presents stolen from the back of a VW squareback, after a foggy drive to Medford.
Two cats for Christmas, (That was nuts!) in a parsonage in Idaho.
Nairobi...our youngest asked for pencils for Christmas...our oldest directed the children's program.
The year of the Charlie Brown tree in Varna.
Three months of snow in Poznan; and the perfect view of fireworks above the city on New Year's Eve.
Completely lost; driving through 6 inches of snow in the little Opel Astra somewhere between Wroclaw and Krakow...

The list above is not complete.  In fact, the more I think about it, pretty much each year has been special, but the best part of each holiday was not the emphasis on the bigger, brighter, louder things, but rather the point where everything slowed down a bit and got smaller; quieter.  We enjoyed the presence of God, (whether we knew that was what was happening at the time or not) and consequently our family also enjoyed each other, in a better, simpler kind of way.

The link below is a testimonial to this thought.  My daughter and son-in-law created the video several years ago.  It was their first Christmas as a family.

A click on the link should get you to the site.  Enjoy.  :)

(This was the brief summary that leads into the video)

The first year we celebrated Christmas as a family was the close to a rough year.  We had $30 to our name.  In spite of what could have been, It remains one of my fondest memories.  We made a home video that year that I re-watch every Christmas.  It helps me to refocus on the things in this world that mean the absolute most.  Take a deep breath in.  Love each other.  Hold each other.  Repeat.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Walking in Dad's Shoes

     He's been gone for five years now.
Feels so odd to write that.
One day, I will say, "Dad passed away 20 years ago."
I will be nearly 70 then.

     This past Sunday morning I laced on a pair of his shoes that a few months back came into my possession.
    We wear the same size shoe.  I don't think I really knew that.  Ten and a half.
    I have two pair of his shoes.  Wingtips; a brown pair and a black pair.
    Not sure if that is one or two words; wingtips.  I have never owned a pair before.  They were expensive shoes.
   That's how Dad did things.  He saved until he could get something well-made; something solid, something that would last.  Then he wore it, or drove it, or used it until it was done; completely.

   Both pairs of shoes have these little "risers" tacked to the heel where it had been wore down.  Cobblers did that.  I have never taken a pair of shoes to a cobbler.
     I have some other things that were Dad's.
A few ties.
         A shirt.
              His wallet.
   But for some reason, it is when I put on his shoes, internally,  a "pause" button is pushed, and I will sit on the edge of the bed, chair, or stool...and remember.
     And I remember odd things...
    The way he shifted gears while driving the pickup.
    The songs he used to like to sing.
    The stiff way he shot a basketball or swung a baseball bat.
    The precision of his technical drawings.
    The look in his eyes and the way his mouth curled when he smiled.
    But what I remember most is not an image; it is a feeling.  It is the feeling that mostly, Dad always seemed prepared for what was coming next.
    There was a plan in place.
    He was working the plan that he designed;
                that he had thought out to its logical end in advance.
So, in the current moment, he was just following through with his plan.
     I would look at him, and say,
    "How did you know that would happen?" or
    "How did you learn how to do that?" 
     and he would return that smile and tussle my hair and say,                                  
                                                  "Your Grampa taught me."
    I wish that I had paid more attention to the things Dad tried to teach me, 
    but there were times when I thought he didn't know anything about anything that really mattered.
I don't like thinking about that now, but it's true.
   We were fortunate enough to enjoy an incredible friendship for the last 25 years or so of his life.  It was a gift from God.  We both found a place in our lives where Christ's Spirit wrangled away our differences and left us with less edginess toward each other.
     In the past decade, as I have aged, people have said more and more that I remind them of him.  I used think how terrible that would be.  Now, it is a comfort.
     As I walk in these old wingtips, I feel a squeeze in the arch.  The form of them is not contoured to my foot yet, but the size is a fit.
    These shoes,
                they speak to me of he and I, and our journey together
                                                                                 and separately now.
    They are a reminder to me that we have been very different men.  That at times those differences seemed so pronounced that there was little to find in common.
   Yet now, I believe we are more the same than I ever conceived we would be,
                                                                                         and I am contented with that thought.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Flower Girl vs. Spider Man

    There was a joy in the air.   Our youngest daughter had just received and accepted a marriage proposal.  My wife and her spent the next several days trying to put together the myriad of plans that were necessary to pull off a ceremony.
    We were excited to share the news with all of our friends and family.  Our grand-daughters were over to our house one evening soon after the announcement, and we asked the youngest one,
   "Do you want to be the Flower Girl for your Auntie's wedding?"

   The four-year-old furrowed her brow, looked annoyed, and emphatically said, "No."
    "What?" I said, thinking that I had just offered the opportunity that all young girls ache for,
    "You don't want to be Flower Girl?"
    She shook her head again and said with staunch determination, "No, I want to be Spider Man!"

     We all laughed...except for a certain four-year-old who failed to understand the humor in the moment.  She was serious as a thunder storm.  She knew who she wanted to be and our pre-conceived notions were not going to dissuade her.  You could see it all over her.
    Flower Girl? (insert image of wrinkled nose and sour expression here) What kind of special powers does Flower Girl have?  Certainly she could not compete with Spider Man.  Spider Man crushes Flower Girl - case closed.  

     There was a certainty.  There was a commitment to reject the mundane.  There was adventure ahead and it all lay before a three-foot tall, female version of Spider Man.

    While living in Nairobi, Kenya about a decade and a half ago, I read a beautifully written book entitled, West With the Night, by Beryl Markham.  It's an incredible autobiography about the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic.  She was a hunter of lions.  She was a racehorse trainer.  She wrenched all the life she could from East Africa in the 30's and 40's like she was wringing water out of a damp wash rag.  But I noticed something else in her writing.  It seemed that there were people who came along at just the right time to spill light across her path in such a way as to inspire and encourage "next steps" that otherwise may not have been taken.  She describes such a moment in time, just before she determined to learn to fly airplanes.  Her trail was intersected one day by a young man who was attempting to nurse life back into a broken-down automobile.  The two were discussing progress.  Remember, this was a time when horses were the main form of transportation in East Africa.  There were few motorcars and fewer planes.  At one point in their dialogue the young man described for Beryl his growing affinity for flying,
     "When you fly, you get a feeling of possession that you couldn't have if you owned all of Africa.  You feel that everything you see belongs to you-all the pieces are put together, the whole is yours not that you want it, but because when you're alone in a plane, there's no one to share it.  It's there and it's yours.  It makes you feel bigger than you are -closer to being something you've sensed you might be capable of, but never had the courage to seriously imagine."
      This is an invitation.  It speaks to my heart about something I have never done, but am suddenly wishing I had.  It is amazing.  It makes me want to fly.  The descriptive phrases draw us out of our easy chair.  The author, Ms. Markham was equally touched.  Here was her response:
     "He had been lavish with a stranger.  He had left me a word, tossed me a key to a door I never knew was there, and had still to find.  'All the pieces are put together, and the whole is yours...'  A word  grows to a thought - a thought to an idea - an idea to an act.  The change is slow, and the Present is a sluggish traveller loafing in the path Tomorrow wants to take."
      As is often said, "The rest is history."
     In Matthew, chapter 4, we read this: "Walking along the beach of Lake Galilee, Jesus saw two brothers: Simon (later called Peter) and Andrew. They were fishing, throwing their nets into the lake. It was their regular work. Jesus said to them, “Come with me. I’ll make a new kind of fisherman out of you. I’ll show you how to catch men and women instead of perch and bass.” They didn’t ask questions, but simply dropped their nets and followed." (Message)  
     All three of the story lines shared above speak to moments in time where folks turn their focus toward something larger than themselves.  I am going to be Spider Man!   I am going to become a pilot!  I am going to become a fisher of men!  
     Granted, the second and third seem more realistic; more possible, but they all involve risk, determination and commitment.  I guess that what I am realizing today is that the adventure in life truly begins when we are willing to step into a place of uncertainty.  Our Christian experience is so like that.  The conversations of our lives take on fresh and dramatic plot twists when we are willing to lay down our nets and follow Him.   The invitation stands waiting.  There is more to each of us than we right now can imagine.  We must be willing to wonder, willing to move, even willing to fly whether we own a cape or not.  He said....Come... and I will make...!  Only the first step is up to us, it is letting go the familiar for the sake of the unknown....the "making" part is up to Him.  :)


Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Adam's Tree-fort

   The phone rang at 2:38am. 

   I can remember the precise moment. I sat straight up in bed and looked over to the digital clock on the bookshelf. The numbers that announced the time lit up like they were neon. I fumbled around for a second and then found the phone and held it to my ear.

   “Is this Pastor Ev?”
   “Yes, who is this?”
   “This is know...from the Wildwood Apartments?”
   “Sure Paul, what’s going on?...It’s kinda late you know.”
   “Yeah, I know...but I got a problem...a big problem, and I didn’t really know who else to call.”
   “What’s going on?”
   “Well Pastor Ev, I’m calling from the police station...”
   “The police station!?”
   “Yeah. Terry and I, we sorta had a bad argument...and well, she pulled a knife and was really gettin’ crazy, so I called the police and they took her away and now I’m down here tryin’ to work things out.”

   I rubbed my eyes with the heel of my palm and groaned into the phone. Paul was the manager of the apartment complex that we had previously stayed in. It had just been a few weeks earlier that we had moved out of the apartment and into the home we were now renting. He was a recovering alcoholic. The way he spoke of the time that he drank, you could tell that they were dark times, and that the balance walk he stepped these days was built on sheer determination to survive. His position as manager at The Wildwood was his last chance, a bone thrown him by a friend who didn’t want to see Paul’s life disappear down the neck of a bottle.
   Terry showed up at the swimming pool in the center of the apartment complex one summer afternoon about six months earlier. Her 13-year old son Adam was swimming as my wife and I were relaxing in the pool chairs reading. Terry spent most of the time building on her tan and working her way through a pack of cigarettes and three or four beers. She asked Rhonda about borrowing one of the magazines she was reading and they began to talk. I have always appreciated that my wife is able to carry on a legitimate conversation with just about anyone. From a superficial perspective, there could not have been much the two women had in common, but Rhonda always takes that as a challenge to see if she can develop some type of foundation from which she will eventually try to share Christ. This time was no exception, and soon, despite their many differences Rhonda had won Terry’s friendship. As Rhonda learned bits and pieces of Terry’s history, we discovered that her journey was one of short-term relationships, broken hearts, bad choices and scarred emotions.
   Inside of a week from their arrival pool-side at the Wildwood, Terry and Adam moved into Paul’s apartment. It’s hard to understand the logic used by people we care about sometimes. From the outside looking in, seeing Paul and Terry together was like standing on the side of a road watching two cars bound for a head on collision come at each other from a mile away. We liked both of them, and it was hard to know what to do to stop what appeared inevitable.
   We had several guys in the youth group about Adam’s age and soon he was a regular part of the church program. He never talked much about his past; his feelings hid deep inside the false bravado that lots of 13-year-old boys wear like a suit four sizes too big. Eventually though, some of that wore off in the security of the church youth group, and at a summer camp cabin with support from four or five other guys praying with him, he gave his life to Jesus.
   That moment was far removed from this one. Paul’s voice echoed in my ear,
   “So, can you help me out with something Pastor Ev?”
   “Well, I’m not sure what I can do to help you out in this case Paul. Maybe it’s time for you and Terry to come in for some counseling...”
   “I’m not worried about us right now. I was thinking about Adam. It sounds like they won’t let Terry out of jail until tomorrow and so he’ll wake up without his Mom around. I wish you could meet him in the morning and explain to him what happened...I don’t think that I would know what to say.”
   “I’ll meet him there at the apartment in the morning. What time does he usually leave for school?”
He gave me the particulars and I hung up the phone, explained the conversation to my wife, set my alarm, and lay my head back on the pillow trying to get a few hours of sleep.
When I got to his house the next morning, Adam had already gone. I didn’t catch up to him until after school that day. I watched the road leading into the apartment complex, and when I saw him walking toward me I pulled the car up beside him and motioned him to get in. We drove over to the apartment.
   “What’s going on Ev? Why did you pick me up?”
   “Well... did you miss seeing your Mom this morning?”
   “Not really, ...her and Paul stay out late sometimes. They go out drinking or dancing and they don’t get home until real late. She’s hungover so she doesn’t get up until later.”
   “I see, ...well, she didn’t get up this morning because she wasn’t there.”
He dropped his head, but the expression on his face remained stoic.
   “Where is she?”
   “She’s in jail.”
   I explained the circumstances of the evening prior. His face never changed expression.
   “Are you okay?”
  “Me? Are you kidding. I knew it was just a matter of time. We don’t stay anywhere too long. She always says she’s not going to drink anymore, and that this boyfriend is different, but everything always turns out the same. I think the longest I’ve ever lived anywhere is two years. We’ll probably be moving from here soon.”
   He looked straight ahead out of the car window as he spoke. His words were hard and cold. They fell out of his mouth like ice-cubes.
   He shook the blonde hair out of his face and looked up at me.
   “I’ll be fine....” he said.
   Everything about him looked calm, but when he reached down to grab his backpack from the seat between us, I could see that his hands were shaking. He turned to open the door.
   “Adam, wait a second. Where are you going? What are you gonna do?”
He thought for a second and then shrugged his shoulders.
   “I don’t know. Go watch some TV maybe. Do my homework. Hey, wait a minute. You wanna see something?”
   “It’s really cool.”
   “What is?”
   “I built this tree fort. You want to see it?”

   He carried his books to the apartment and threw them on the bed in his bedroom. I locked up the car and he led me out of the apartment complex, across the street. We hopped a ditch and in seconds were walking through a heavily forested area that could have been the middle of a wilderness jungle deep in South America if not for the far-off noise of cars rumbling down the road we had left behind us. Several varieties of fir trees reached high into the green canopy above us. Sunlight squirted past the higher branches, and blue sky peeked between those branches and fluffy, gray clouds that rolled above us. The further we walked, the less the cars could be heard, and the calls of birds, and soft sound of water gurgling down the Issaquah Creek finally replaced that noise all together.
   Suddenly, he stopped walking and lifted his arm pointing, “There it is.”
   I looked in the direction that he was pointing, but couldn’t really see anything except a fallen tree leaning against another tree. I looked quizically back at him. He smiled, then led me to the opposite side of the fallen tree. He pushed his way through some underbrush, I bent over and followed him and in a moment we were standing in kind of a dark green cave, just a bit of light entering from a place where a tree branch had been chopped off. There was a small wooden stool against an ancient log that formed the back side of the cave. There were posters tacked against the log. A picture of him and his mother was sitting atop the stump of another tree that had been taken some time ago. He reached behind a rock and pulled out a walkman and a flashlight. Then from underneath a covering of tree-branches that he had sawed off the fallen tree, he took a sleeping bag and a pillow.
   “See,” he announced, “I have everything here that I need.”
   I smiled and nodded my head. His eyes moved around the tree-fort with pride.
   “I come here whenever I just need to think. When I need to get away.”
   “Today is a pretty good day to get away I guess. What are you thinking right now?” I asked.
   There was a long period of quiet. Then he picked up the picture of him and his mom and sat down on the stump with me across from him sitting on the wooden stool.
   “You know, sometimes, I hate her,” his chin began to quiver and tears came to his eyes.
   He reached up and brushed them away immediately.
   “I really like it here. I don’t want to move again. I’m tired of moving all the time. I have friends...but I guess that doesn’t matter does it.”
   He looked up to me with eyes that begged for an answer, and I knew that I just didn’t have any to give. I put a hand on each shoulder and pulled him to my chest. For a moment he forgot about being tough and he just sobbed, his whole body shaking, tears all over the sweatshirt that I was wearing. I wished I could have been Adam’s Dad, and tell him everything would be okay. Yet, I knew that everything probably wouldn’t be okay. The future would play out much as he feared.
   “How about if we pray for her and Paul and for you too," I said. He nodded.
So we bowed our heads and I began to ask for Jesus to give reason and wisdom to the mind of a Mom that really needed it right then. I prayed for the hurts that she must have in her heart to be healed so that she might stay longer in one place. I prayed that she would see in her son the unique gifts and graces that the Lord had given. Then I said, “Amen.”
   Adam nodded again. He pushed away from me, wiped his face with his shirtsleeve, picked up the framed picture and stared at it again.

   “I don’t really hate her you know,” he said, still staring at the photo, and you could see the years of frustration begin to fade, as if some sort of new understanding about those years had come to his young mind. Slowly a smile spread across his face. He set the picture down, gently on the stump, then reached back to where the sleeping bag had been hidden and pulled out an unopened bag of Doritos. Until the sun set, we talked, laughed and reveled in the peace, quiet and understanding that enveloped that place. I often wonder about Paul, and Terry and Adam...especially Adam. It has been several years since we saw any of them. They moved on a few months later, all three of them. I can’t remember where, I just hope there was a spot for Adam to build a tree-fort nearby.

There is a place of quiet rest, near to the heart of God; A place where sin cannot molest, near to the heart of God... There is a place of full release, near to the heart of God; A place where all is joy and peace, near to the heart of God.” - Cleland B. McAfee

Friday, July 31, 2015

A Prodigal Perspective

Sometimes, I feel as though Christ speaks to me in disjointed sentences.  In other words the whole text of what He is saying doesn't come in one setting.  For instance, recently the lesson began this way...

Nicholas entered the foyer of our church building, thirsty and tired.  He carried with him a sign, like so many we meet at the intersections of our community.  He was looking for people to donate to his cause, and so printed on the front of his cardboard sign were these words, 

"Found the right girl.
Need to put a ring on her finger.  
Please help!"

I could remember feeling that same sentiment over 30 years ago, but didn't think to market my need in such a fashion.  Nicholas deserved points for creativity I thought.  My wife met the young man in the foyer and sat him down to sort through his situation with him.  He had a story to tell.  (Don't we all?)  Honestly, a lot of what he was currently dealing with in life seemed more pressing than what was printed on the front of his sign, but then again, I am not walking in his shoes.  

To the point....The whole story had many edges to it, but for my purposes here, the most interesting part of it was this:  Although it had been some time ago, maybe 20 years or so, Nicholas had been a child in the classroom of a church school that once met in our facility.  That school had long ago moved off our campus to another location, but he had come through those front doors with a burden and believed that this could be a safe place for him to share it, based on past experiences that were surrounded with warm memory.

The second half of my learning came from a radio piece I listened to in the car a week or so earlier...

A man from the UK was diagnosed with a disease that would eventually take his sight.  It was a process that would move from seeing images that began to blur, to only seeing shapes, to just distinguishing light from dark and finally, to total darkness.  The main story line was about his journey.  However, there was a side story about a conversation that his wife had with some of her friends.  Another lady had commented to her, "One of the possible good things about this my dear, is that your husband will never see you grow older.  His image of you will forever be framed in the present. In his mind, you will always be his young bride."

These two ideas were brought together for me a week later like separate cars on a train being backed into each other; linked from this point forward for the next stage of the journey.  

I have no idea what Nicholas was like as little boy coming to school at the location where our church now meets.  The young man in his late twenties that wandered into the foyer, was a bit rough, both in appearance and language.  Emotionally, and spiritually he had been worn down.  Still, a voice inside of him, one that he recognized, was calling him back to a place that he knew.  So, cardboard sign in hand, he rushed through the front doors.  

Doesn't The Father do that with all of us?  No matter if it has been years or only days, His Spirit is faithful to call us home.  And the kicker is this...When He calls us to come home, the thought that we need to couple with our decision on whether or not to return is:  In his eyes we are that young boy with a bright and shining future.  Or, we are the young bride without blemish or wrinkle.  Because of the work of Christ on the cross, we are not seen as the one layered with the pitiful garments of bad choices or age.  He sees us through the forever hopeful eyes of a creator.  For him, we will always be shining potential, dressed in all the attributes He imagined when we were first conceived.

Grace and peace,

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Where the Rust Sleeps

It had been a difficult past few weeks in Nairobi.
One friend had been diagnosed with full-blown AIDS. Two others had died of malaria. The recent bombings in the Congo had brought tragedy to many family members of our French interpreter at the church. A young friend was so distraught with his situation in the Kibera slums, that he was contemplating sneaking aboard a ship at the Mombasa sea-port and trying to steal away to America and I had to talk him out of it.
I was thinking to myself that even though we had been witness to Jesus' hand affecting some miraculous work in the lives of those around us, the pain involved with watching many of those close to us suffer, was overwhelming. I was wondering if it wasn’t time for me and my family to also steal away to America, and leave these hurts behind. It had grown hard to focus on the eternal, when the temporal was screaming so hard at me.

As I sat alone in the living area of our home, my head bowed in my hands, Jesus reminded me of Mary. Mary, with the coke-bottle lensed glasses and funny accent. I had met her as a youth pastor in Spokane, Washington. Her granddaughter introduced me to her one day when I had come to visit.
She was just a wisp of a woman; thin and gray-haired, but there was a quickness to her step and perkiness to her speech that was so attractive and inspiring...I had no idea.
So Patty, this is your grandma Mary. It’s good to meet you ma’am. How are you?”
I am fine. It is good to meet you too. I have seen you at the church,” she said somewhat shyly.              “Sorry for my accent. I don’t speak the English so well, you see I am Polish....”
No problem, I understand you just fine. So how long ago did you leave Poland.”
It was just after the war. I come and marry my husband. He was a U.S. soldier.”

So you were in Europe during the war. When did you leave?”
“Not so long after I left Auschwitz.”
My mouth froze.  It took me a moment to regain speech and then timidly, I continued.
Do you mind if I ask you a couple questions?”
It’s okay,” she said.
And so we sat down on the couch together for a couple minutes to talk. I didn’t want to push too much, so it was a brief conversation, but she seemed very comfortable in talking about this terrible event of her past.
Would you be willing to come and share at youth group on a Wednesday evening with some of our teenagers at church?”
She nodded and we scheduled a date. 
When the Wednesday arrived that Mary was going to share with the youth, I could barely handle the anticipation in my own heart. Really, I hadn’t asked for any details about the time she had spent in the camp. Patty had told me that her grandmother was a strong Christian, so I was confident that as long as the Lord bridged the generation gap it would be meaningful time for all of us. I prayed that He would help our group to be sensitive, and for Mary to be comfortable.

We had our usual time of fun, food and games beforehand and then I asked for the kids to circle the wagons for the devotional time. Mary had sat alone for the most part during the opening festivities. Occasionally she shook one of the kids’ hands that greeted her and smiled at their antics as we bounced around the room during the “ice-breakers”.
Now there were forty or so young people circled in chairs.
Some of you here today probably recognize our guest speaker tonight, but I am going to ask Patty to stand and introduce her to us."
"This is my grandma...Mary Siple," she said with a quick smile and then sat down.
The kids all gave her a closer look for a moment. Some faces showed immediate smiles as they nodded that they had seen her on occasion at Sunday worship. Others couldn’t quite place her, as in a church the size of ours, it was easy to miss this meek, little woman during the hustle and bustle down the hallways at service times.
“Thank you Patty,” I continued, “Most of you probably don’t know some of the special things I discovered about her a while ago, and that’s why I invited her to share with you tonight. You see, in addition to being Patty’s grandma, Mary is special for some other reasons as well. She has lived through some pretty difficult situations in life. Situations that I hope none of you ever come close to, and I will now ask her to share some of that story with us.”
Everyone turned to Mary with kind of a quizzical expression not having a clue what would come next. She took a deep breath and lifted her face to meet ours. The solemn expression disappeared and her sweet smile returned.
I am Polish,” she began, and for the next twenty minutes or so she outlined for all of us the story of a young girl growing up happily until the day war broke out in Europe and then moved on to how the Nazis had come into her city during World War II, rounding up all of her family and sending them off to various camps. She shared briefly about some of the brutal acts of the soldiers that she had seen or been a part of, but moved through that time very rapidly, and then on to how she had met her husband, married and settled in the United States. Then at the end of her sharing, her voice just trailed off, she pursed her lips and she looked down to the carpeted floor in silence.  
For 30 seconds not a word was spoken.  Then I looked to Mary and said, "I know that we didn't prepare for this, but would you be willing to answer some questions if they have some?"
There was another lengthy quiet.
Then one young lady raised her hand.  "Do you have anything, anything at all to help remind you of your family?"
Mary reached into her coat pocket and pulled out something small, holding it with both hands, like it was fragile, or might escape from her grasp. Her eyes were focused downward to her lap at the object she was holding, and all of us watched her hands in anticipation, still unable to see what she cradled there. Then she raised her hands and we could all see that the small item she began to unfold there was a photograph, tired and wrinkled.
This is picture of my mother,” she said, “It is only thing I was able to hide from the soldiers who take us that day. I hide it from them the whole time I was in the camp. There is nothing else left to remind me of family except my memory.”
She turned to her left and tenderly placed the picture in the hands of the teenager to that side, like she was handing them a treasured, glass sculpture. She sat silently for a moment, watching the kids who took the picture with equal care and passed it around the circle. There were audible sniffles and quiet tears that were rolling down the cheeks of several in the group, but no one spoke. Finally, another hand was raised in the silence.  It was a young man this time.  His question was simple, but his voice shook when he asked it.
" did you do it?"

Since we had not rehearsed any of the meeting and I obviously had not told her what questions we would want her to answer, I had no idea how she was going to respond to this.
When the soldiers come, they take everything, “ she said, “they take my mother and father that way, and they take my brother that way.” Her hands were pointing in opposite directions in the room. Her voice was shaky, as she was re-living the words that she heard on that day coming at this tiny young girl, from a dark-figured man with a gun, pushing people around like cattle. Harsh words that echoed in Mary’s ears all the way through the years to the room we were sitting in on this night.
Then the shakiness went away, she swallowed hard and when she spoke again, the words were strong and confident, “They can take away everything...But they can’t take my Jesus!”

I smiled at her, thankful for the conciseness of her words and the anointing of them by the Holy Spirit. There was something about the way she had said “my”, as in “my Jesus” that carried such a strength, commitment and perseverance that it washed away years of apathy for all who were there that night. I will long remember this simple woman of a simple faith who taught me about what is of true value in this life. Amidst pain unbelievable and ugliness unimaginable she held on to what mattered most, knowing that as long she had her God, she would make it, and when all else was taken, she continued to lay up treasures in heaven, where moth and rust will not destroy.
Now, years later, as I sat alone in the living room, I knew that whether it was in Poland, Nairobi or anywhere else; the truth that held Mary’s hope steady, was my truth as well.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Job's Friends

I can remember a message I listened to on the radio by Allistair Begg several years ago in which he said that the best thing that Job's friends did was to sit and cry with him.

I read this in The Chosen by Chaim Potok a few weeks back:  A word is worth one coin, silence is worth two.- The Talmud

There's something being said here about there being a productive type of input vs. input that only thickens the mire.  I fear that we have become a world full of analysts, consultants and theorists....and those are the nice words.  On the downside, we are just critics, pessimists, gossips and cynical consumers, even in the church; which is just so odd to me.

I am a pastor (which has also, always been odd to me).  I didn't grow up in the church; have no generational allegiance to it, and yet I am so completely in love with The Body of Christ, that I just can't bring myself to ever consider parting ways with it, even though I know it is filled with flaws....because, after all it is made up of people, and I are one.

I find my heart breaking as I see over and over new books arriving, and new articles in magazines that continue to speak negatively about the value or purpose of the church.  The worst part is that these condemnations come from folks who consider themselves as part of the church.  It seems to me that often the most revered representatives, at the forefront of this movement, are the ones who can point out the most faults. I wonder...Could it be more helpful if the voices calling out for change, did so, without tossing the existing church over the shoulder like it was a piece of wadded paper? 

I used to use the word, "relevant" a lot...back in the 80's and 90's.  It defined the heart of the choices we were making in ministry.  In these thirty years since, "relevancy" has remained at the center of our focus, but I don't like to use the word anymore because I think that it has become a tool in the hands of the people looking for ways to disengage from or speak negativity about those people I believe that Christ died for.

I have difficulty discrediting an institution that with all of its problems, at its heart has still tried to live out the the Great Commission; not just around the world, but in me.  Absolutely, I see that there are many issues.  I have stood against things in our denomination at times that seem outside that calling in Matthew 28:19-20, and it has cost me personally.  However, I have always attempted to do so as someone within the ranks; hoping that we can apply some critical thinking toward the future, rather than just being critical.  Too much of what I see/read comes from voices that have already relegated the church to a place of irrelevance (There's that word again) or more pointedly, death.  Of course, the church will always live, because the church is people and not buildings or leadership structures.  I know that the analysts understand this, because the works I have read come from the minds of very sharp people, but it is still worth saying out loud.  The Church will never die.

I also want to share a few more general thoughts in response to some of the points being made by the writers I have read:

1.  I agree with the criticism that says: If the Body of Christ becomes less impactful in the world as an organized institution, it will be because we forgot how to maintain connection between those in the body and those who are not.  However, this is not about the ability of the organization or its leadership, but about how we achieve these things as individuals, as people, and with people.

2.  I do not believe it's the fault of the church if I don't see others coming to Jesus.  That is as much about me as it is about anything else.  In me, and through me, are people detecting a hope in something beyond what the world has to give?  Nearly every day I have ever lived as a pastor, I have been drawn to two questions, and in this order:  1) How can I effectively share my faith with people around me? and... 2) How can I inspire others, who are part of my church family, to also, through their own lives, share their faith with others around them?

3.  It is our collective investment into this process as a family, no matter the generation or culture, that truly builds the kingdom and makes for churches to remain vital.  If we can just set aside enough time in our schedules to not only talk and pray (although both are good) but also, to get about being the people of God rather than lamenting the organization's shortcomings, there would be much less need for consultants, analysts etc.

4.  If we aren't a contributor rather than a detractor to this effort, maybe we should just sit down on the side of the road somewhere with Job's friends and cry.  It could be the most helpful thing we do.  I know this sounds like a harsh place to conclude this commentary, but of all the things that we understand to be wrong with the church today, I am wondering if this is the most hurtful.  We cannot expect those outside the body to applaud us for our efforts to build the kingdom, but it is those from within, throwing stones instead of building bridges that troubles me most.

Today, as never before, I feel challenged to re-think the effectiveness of our crucial connections; between us and God, the church family and our community.  Yet, lately, the greatest battle my friends and family in the church face, may not be in finding their own way to share hope in Christ with their neighbor, but in finding a way to escape the defeatist statements they hear from the consultants who are assessing the church from removed places and telling them why bother, the church is a losing enterprise anyway.

When I first became acquainted with Jesus, as a college freshman, it was a wholly new experience, that took place in a wholly new environment.  Since then, I have never lost the weight of concern for keeping my new family of faith (the church) within arm's reach of those I know to have not yet found faith.  This I believe is a sort of necessary tension that is part of the journey for all of us.  Sometimes that tension has felt overwhelming.  When my concerns were heaviest during my first years as a Christ follower, I remember hearing preachers say something like this: "The future is as bright as the promises of God!"   There was a great sense of truth, joy and inspiration mixed into that sentiment.   I knew in my heart, that God's promises were strong; that His character was impervious to change.  Therefore, despite any challenge at hand, all-sufficient grace was still in place and tomorrow was a hopeful proposition. Somehow it seems that the analysts have slighted us in recent days regarding that statement.

It is as if we are being told that God's promises have suffered because of inflation and are no longer as bright as they used to be.  

I guess that what I'm saying in all of this is...I'm just not willing to allow for that word, to be the last word in my life and am praying the same for the Body of Christ.  :)

Grace and peace,


Monday, March 2, 2015

Broken Appointments

       He was wearing a denim coat with the white, fluffy stuff lining the inside.  It looked warm.  He had a baseball cap with the logo of a trucking company on the front.
      "You have classes or something on Wednesday nights?" he asked when he came into the office.
      "Yes we do.  Actually, we start with a small meal at 5:30 if you want dinner too," I offered.
      "Hmmmm," he said, "I will check with my wife and see what she wants to do.   We are here to meet our daughter.  She said that this was the church that she attends and we could meet her here tonight."
      Then he told me her name.  
      I didn't recognize it.  
      He described her for me, but still I couldn't place her.
      "Well,"  I said, "Why don't you just come at dinner time and watch for her."
      "We'll do that, " he said.

      At 5:30 I was in the fellowship hall as people began to pour in.  We had spaghetti and salad and garlic bread.  The man I had met earlier arrived with his wife about 5:45 and walked around the room looking for their daughter.  They found a seat at the far end of the room and continued to watch the entry doors.
     Around 6:15 he came over to where I sat and paced back and forth between me and the serving counter gazing toward the glass doors at the main entrance to the South end of the church.
     "Most of the time, people who are coming have arrived by now," I said softly.
     "Mmmmhhhm," he responded with a nodding head, as he bit his lip.
     Then he continued, "We came over from Poulsbo today."
     "Are you sure it was our church?"
     "Yep.  This was the name she gave us," big pause, "But the police may have kicked them out.  Her and her boyfriend were living in a tent she told us...probably in that patch of forest across the street.  You see..." another big pause, "She is bi-polar.  We rarely know where she is living.  Been on the streets for a while now.  Struggles with drugs.  But she said she would meet us here."
     "I'm sorry," I said, "Why don't you get some dinner, it's pretty good stuff."
     He reached into his pockets, "What is the cost?"
     "Don't worry about it."
     "No, it's okay, we brought some money we were planning to give to her."
     "Next time," I said, and he put the money back into his pocket.
     He picked up two plates of spaghetti and walked back to the table where his wife was sitting.
     About ten minutes later, I went over to their table.
     "I have to go now.  I have a bible study group I lead in just a few minutes.  You are welcome to stay as long as you like."  They nodded.  I could see tears in the woman's eyes.
     "Can I pray for you?"
     "Please," she said.
     The man reached up, removed the ball cap and placed it over his chest.  Their faces bent over the table as I prayed for peace of mind and heart in regards to someone I knew was dearly loved, but I had never met.

     A day later I was thinking on this meeting with the Mom and Dad.  I remembered the nervous anticipation I saw in the Father.  I remembered the somber discouragement that shown on their faces when their daughter did not show up.  I have the sense that this scenario had played out before; perhaps several times.
     In those moments, I think that I saw the heart of God.  I think that He prepares for meetings with us over and over again that we never show up for.  He waits for us in the quiet of the morning before we look at our messages on facebook, email or phone.  He calls to us at the end of the day when our head hits the pillow, wanting for a moment between us and him that will allow for peace to cover our hearts before we close our eyes.  And for those who have left him alone for years, He still waits for us patiently, each and every time we set an appointment and then break it.
     His faithfulness is fortunately never dependent upon ours.  His heart swallows up all of our inconsistencies with certain, unwavering love that will not stop reaching out to us in all of our wilderness wanderings.

     Grace and peace,

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Adventures in Moving

     My Senior Pastor was out of the office.  I can’t recall where he had gone, but when Sharon showed up on the front steps of the church with her one box full of life’s possessions, I was the only one to greet her. Even the secretary was gone.
     She was very quiet. She said she had left her boyfriend because he was abusive. The black ring around her left eye and the bruises and scratches on her arms attested to her story. All she asked for was a ride to her friend’s mobile home a mile or two from the church. Me, Sharon and her box got into the church van and headed down the road.
     Her jacket was torn, and her hair was as limp and thin as she was. It hung straight to her shoulders. Her skin was empty of color and her face devoid of expression. Her words came almost in a whisper, her eyes never met mine. She softly instructed me toward the unit her friend lived in and in a single motion grabbed her box, was out the van door and striding toward the mobile home. The cool, fall breeze pushed into the van and I shivered as she walked away from me, then turned the vehicle around and started back to the church.

     Sunday morning was crisp and clear but the fall wind still blew cold and biting. I walked into the rear of the sanctuary and began to greet the congregation. There was Sharon sitting quiet and alone in the far right corner of the room. She was wearing a thin summer dress. I couldn’t imagine her walking from the mobile park to the church in such attire. Her dark blue, winter jacket lay across her lap. She spoke to no one but stared straight ahead, hands folded atop her jacket.
     “Hi Sharon,” her eyes looked up to mine and a smile came to her face, “It’s great to have you in church today!” She nodded.
     When the service was over, people quickly exited, we shared the building with a Southern Baptist congregation which had their worship service immediately following ours so the folks had learned to save their conversation for the fellowship time downstairs.
   Sharon didn’t leave though. She was kneeling alone at her pew, her back to the front platform. Quietly, I interrupted.
      “Sharon, is there anything I can pray with you about?”
      “I have to go back to the house.”
      “How come?”
     “I left some important stuff there. I could only carry one box, if someone could take me back, I could get the other. It’s sitting in the living room, all of my things are inside it.”
      “Are you sure it’s important, maybe you just want to leave it there.”
    “It has all of my pictures in it. From when I was a little girl. All of my bathroom things too; my blowdryer and curling iron. I really need those things...especially the pictures.”
      Her eyes were pleading.
     “No problem,” I said, “Let’s just run over there this week and pick it up. Meet me here at the church in the morning and we’ll take the van over get your things.”
      “Thank you Pastor,” she said and rose to her feet. I noticed that there was a slight Southern accent in her voice.

     Mid-morning on Wednesday, Sharon walked into the church office. The secretary hollered back to the rear of the sanctuary where my office was. I grabbed my coat and keys and headed out to meet Sharon.  We climbed into the van .
     “I hope he’s gone when we get there,” she said. “He’s supposed to be out of town this week.”
    I nodded as we sped away down through town and under the freeway overpass toward her home. I was only half paying attention at this point, still thinking about the work back on my desk in the office. It was about the time we began circling the East side of Lake Sammamish that I started to pay attention. Most precisely it was right after she said:
     “Well, maybe he got arrested and is in prison. He’s wanted in seven states...”
Those words trickled out of her mouth like she wasn’t even talking to me. They came out as innocently as dinner conversation. Like, “My, but this is a wonderful casserole, and the rolls just melt in your mouth...did I tell you my boyfriend is wanted in seven states?”
     “Wanted for what?” I said.
     “Oh,” she said, seeming surprised that I was asking.
     “He’s wanted in Montana for car theft, Wyoming for assault, Nevada for drug-dealing....”
     She went on from there. In some states he was wanted for numerous crimes.  Now, I must say at this point that I never have seen myself as a macho-man.  I would rather negotiate than go to battle, and I am no hero. In any case, there was a sense in the pit of my stomach that I should have turned around right then, but something about Sharon’s pitiful state kept me driving that old silver van down the road. As we continued toward our destination, I kept telling myself, “Don’t worry, someone else is in control of this whole endeavor.”
     We went up a long hill and through a heavily forested area, past a gas-mart and a wrecking yard.
     “Why would you get involved with someone like that?” I asked.
    “Well...He used to love me...I think. Things were different back when we first got together. We’ve been together for 12 years. It’s just gotten to be too hard now. He scares me sometimes. When he hits me, he’s so really scares me.”
     Her words were so soft and quiet, emotionless. Her hands were folded and in her lap, palms up, like she was holding a book and reading from it. She toyed with a ring on her finger.
    “The last time I told him I was going to leave him was after he beat me up pretty good...he went back to the closet and got out his rifle and cleaned it real slow, all night long. Turn right here.”
    And there we were. Pulling up and into the driveway of a wanted criminal who for all I knew was still cleaning his rifle, or perhaps now that it was cleaned, it could fire that much more readily upon unsuspecting youth pastors just trying to help someone and truly not wanting to cause anyone any trouble.
     Sharon hopped out of the van.
   “I should be just a minute,” she said, and she was gone. I wondered if I should keep the motor running for a quick get-away.
    She walked up to the front door. It was locked. She disappeared around the back of the house. I sat uncomfortably in the driver’s seat, trying to convince myself that the end of this story was going to be mundane.
    Suddenly the once-locked front door burst open and Sharon came running through it with a box in her hands,
    “Start the car! Start the car!” she shouted.
     I did as I was told.
    A few seconds later, about twenty yards behind, a criminal burst through the door behind her. Sharon climbed into the van spilling the contents of the box onto the floor between her seat and mine. We both locked our doors. She didn’t need to tell me it was time to go. I looked behind me down the drive to the street to see if the road was clear.
     Then I faced the front again and put the car in reverse. Seeing that he could not catch Sharon the man headed straight for the van. He carried some kind of metal bar in his hand. It could have been a crescent wrench or pry bar of some kind. As we were backing down the hill, he took flight and landed on the hood of the van, his face staring straight into mine through the front windshield. He had long blonde hair, with darker side burns and a moustache. There was a scar on his forehead, his eyes were blue and his teeth were yellow. I think he had fillings in all of his back teeth. He was screaming something which I cannot recall at this time. I turned away from him as we rapidly backed down the drive and swung the back end of the van to my left. The momentum from the turn flung the man from the hood of the van and onto the road. I threw the gear-shift into drive and we were gone.
     My heart was pounding! We zipped down the road and when I saw that wrecking yard we had passed on the way to the house, I pulled in behind the office, making sure the van was parked out of sight. Sharon and I went inside and she called the police, who came and arrested her ex-boyfriend. The rest of this account can be read in True Detective Stories magazine volume IX, 1985...Actually that is not true. The rest of the story is not so wild. Sharon stayed on with us at the church for some time. Her boyfriend was sent off to prison and we had the privilege of helping her get into an apartment and start her life over again. It was a true blessing to be a part.
     Now, in hindsight I cannot draw any particular spiritual analogy from this story. All of my efforts to be used by the Lord have not been quite so dramatic, in fact most would have very little chance of being told on CNN. Yet, one thing I can say truthfully is this, my journey in Christ has seldom been boring. You see, Christianity was not meant to be a spectator sport. I think that when Christ promised us that in him we would have life and that life in Him would be “life more abundant,” (John 10:10) he wasn’t kidding around.
     I heard Tony Campolo once say, “You will know you are a Christian when your heart is broken by the things that break the heart of God...” That is what I want. I desire to be so in-tune with what the Lord is feeling when he walks through life in my shoes that I will see, hear, feel and touch and love in the manner he would. I must confess that I am a long way off from that goal.
     Every once in awhile I hit in right on the nose though, and that’s when the adventure begins. That’s when I know that I have tapped into, “the life more abundant.” I think that most of us would be amazed at how we could be used if we would just get up off our faith sometimes and allow God to get us involved with what He’s doing right under our noses.

     BTW - For future reference, keep the van running...

Friday, January 9, 2015

The Teacher Teaches When The Student Arrives

The teacher arrived outside the church entry on December 19.  His name was Will.  He was a young man; African-American.  He quietly asked if I had some way to help with costs for prescription medication and he showed me the paperwork.

In the parking lot, our conversation drifted toward his past.  

Basketball.  High School.  College.  Struggle.

He had a friend who seemed to have found a truth that evaded his own journey.  The friend had been absent from his life for a while now, but in the teacher's mind there was still a hand extended in invitation.  

"He's done a complete turnaround," Will said.  

His eyes were looking outside the passenger window of my car, but they were focused on an image beyond the visible.
"I should go back home and see him again.  That's what I should do.  It's been a long time."

He asked if I would pray with him, and I did. 

It didn't work out to get the prescription filled because of some insurance problems.  So, we got cheeseburgers instead and then headed to Kent Station so Will could catch a bus home.  Home to family.  Home to a friend that may lend him more than money.

In the past hour, the conversation and prayer mixed with subtle pause and reflection had taken us to a place deeper than just acquaintance.  He bit his lip when the car pulled to the curb and I asked him, "How should I continue to pray for you?"

He looked back at me for a brief second, making truthful eye-contact and then my teacher answered, "From the moment the door closes behind me," and he was gone. 

My teacher......He had given me instruction on how to pray.  My question had been focused on gaining a list of particulars that I might approach God with, on his behalf, like pins to knock down with a bowling ball.  His response redirected my thinking.

My first thoughts were that people like Will lived in such a sad state; a place of shifting sand, with only fleeting moments of solid footing.  And for the following few days I thought often of he and others like him sympathetically.

Then, perhaps three days later, I came to a truth about myself.  My teacher had told of his own story, but it carried with it the lesson for me. 

Jesus said,  “Are you tired? Worn out?...Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life..." (Matt. 11:28, MSG) 
These words remind me that there is a place of security and peace, but I will never find it on a map...
Truth #1 - It isn't the passenger seat of my VW.  Will knew that.  What he was saying was that in those few shared moments together, he had encountered Jesus, and he wasn't sure when that would next happen.  
Truth #2 - It isn't a place at all.  It is only in the company of Jesus that I find real security and peace...and He can be found at the whisper of his name; anywhere.
Truth #3 - My sympathy for, "Will and others like him," is not terrible.  However, in some ways it can take me away from the understanding that I need that security and peace as much as anyone.  No matter how long I live, no matter how much I know, or how much that I think I know...without the consistency of His grace, I am...well, we all are, knocking on the door outside the church hoping to get our prescription filled, hoping that we might get through the struggles of life.

Grace and peace,