On Finding Security in an Insecure World

Well, it’s happened again. For reasons as yet mostly unknown and perhaps unknowable, an angry, crazed gunman has given evil yet another infamous face by unleashing an unrelenting cascade of bullets into a crowd assembled outdoors in Las Vegas for a concert, killing almost 60 and injuring about ten times that many. And that is only the physical damage. In a world where we grow weary of exponentials, and tired adjectives just seem to fail us—this is being called “The most devastating mass-killing in American history.”

A lot of questions come up, mostly starting with “why?” or “how?”—and the answers to these questions are hard to come by. An unthinkable act has become all-too-“thinkable”—in fact, almost expected in our culture. Hardly a week goes by now that there is not a terror-related attack somewhere in the world. It comes and goes as a blip, almost having become a now routine part of life in a world where terrorists are very good at what they do. IFlags+Half+Staff+Washington+After+Tucson+Shooting+w-77rngekU5l[1]t happens less often in America, for which we should be grateful, but it happens often enough that we have become somewhat de-sensitized to it all. We lower our flags to half-staff around the nation, mourning the price of evil and groaning under the collective and ever-increasing weight of our existence in a truly fallen, broken world. Maybe we should just leave the flags at half-staff all the time.

Without delving into the myriad of angles this issue deserves, I really want to point out just one thing. Of course the world is a dangerous and scary place, and we are more aware again of how true this is due to the proximity of this week’s recent terror. But the awful, unavoidable reality of the matter and palpable horror associated with the trauma doesn’t really change anything. Indeed it should only serve to make those of us who should know already–more aware again of this truth: In a sin-devastated, vulnerable, dark and dangerous world—the only true security will never come from anything tied to this world. Paul was looking beyond the world to a greater hope when he wrote to believers, “If in this life only we have hope, we are to be pitied above all men.” Paul knew that a believer’s hope and security must be found in things far greater, far beyond this troubled earthly space or any imagined security it might provide.

Evil will have its day and say in the world, and more people will get hurt and damaged by the brokenness exploding and perhaps imploding around us. Legislation and controls and cameras and police and Homeland Security will only make a tiny dent in hindering evil’s course. But one Day, Jesus teaches, that which is broken will be fully healed and made right with the dawning of a new heaven and a new earth. The only thing that will ever adequately fix this broken planet is the final culmination of the redemptive work of Jesus Christ. If nothing else, we should be eagerly welcoming the Day.

Until then, we’re here. We need to remember this is only earth. It’s broken and dangerous and we are at risk, every one of us. We only have to look in a mirror to be reminded that apart from the redemptive work of Jesus, any and every one of us bears a sin nature that could explode in a newsworthy fashion. But for the overruling grace of Jesus things would be much worse even than they are. Still, it is a scary time to be alive and the news troubles our hearts and makes us homesick for the kind of security and safe place we’ll never find here. Until that Day dawns when Jesus says, “Enough!” and time material collides with time immaterial—until that Day, we must remember that we are strangers here, but not in any way abandoned or forgotten or alone. To those in a storm-tossed terrorized world Jesus still has the same words that he did long ago for disciples who were terrified by a storm: “Peace, be still.” And those words mean the same thing to us that they did to the 12 terrorized sailors who feared for their lives in a tossing ship that day—those three words mean that Jesus knows and Jesus cares.

No one is more offended by this sin-scarred world than Jesus, no one knows better the cost of sin and the consequence of human gone-wrongness. And no one else could make the promise Jesus did, “I am with you always, even until the end of the earth.” It’s a promise you can count on, if you’ve trusted him as your only true security. Come what may, we are safe in Jesus!

Until he comes, we his Church continue our mission, the daunting task of being the sacrificially redemptive elements of salt and light in a shadowy, decaying world. We “live our lives” –less afraid of what evil might do to us or to those we love–because we know that even death is no big deal to Jesus, and that even if through death we are parted from our loved ones, it is only temporary. Eternity will provide a perfect cure for all of the trauma earth can provide. Paul calls these things we suffer “light and momentary struggles that will be far outweighed by the glory that is to come.” Maybe we should live less afraid for ourselves and “more afraid” for those whom death will not find in the embrace of Jesus but consigned to a hell without him.

The flags around our nation may be at half-staff; our hearts indeed are broken for those who’ve tasted loss and pain in this most recent event. We wonder what has come of our nation and where it is heading, although we know the answers to those questions perhaps better than we’d like to admit. Against the backdrop of lowered flags, grieving hearts, questioning uncertainties—the empty Cross of Jesus Christ still stands tall as it ever has been, the sentinel statement and reminder that God indeed will get the last word. Put your hope there. You are absolutely secure there.

Elkatarot Ekamaals 2003-2017

I’m filled with a strange sadness and joy as I try to wrap my brain around the news that one of the children Holly and I sponsor through CRF in Turkana has died—drowned –in a desert where it never rains.  It was a flash-flood I’m told. Elkatarot was out gathering firewood (a daily ritual in Turkanan life) when he and several other children were caught up in a flash flood. Field workers were able to save the other kids, but Elkatarot could not be reached, and now he is dead; he would have been 14 in one week.

This makes me sad, in many ways. Holly and I sponsor several kids from Turkana (my church members sponsor, collectively, some 170 of them!) and I have no less than six pictures of Elkatarot in my office.  His photos stand out because he is taller than most of the other kids, older. And there is that smile. IMG_2986 (2)Most kids from this region don’t smile much, partly because life is hard in a desert where it never rains and you have to walk miles for water. It’s also partly because certain tribes in Africa don’t smile in pictures.  But Elkatarot almost always did, because he wasn’t like most kids. He was special, what we’d call here in the U.S. “special needs.” When I first met him four years ago I was told by the field workers that he was “slow, not-right.”  But there he was, one of about three kids among more than fifty who kept catching my eye.  And he was always smiling, very curious.

We were there in 2013 to tour CRF’s project in Turkana, at that time consisting of about one school house and a few wells, the first fruits of a project to save people with clean drinking water. This place was called Nadabal, it was truly out in the middle of nowhere, a sort of mini-oasis in a seemingly God-forsaken desert, made into a community by virtue of a new well. The water brought animals, and a village had sprung up around it simply because of the water. A church met there under one of the few shade trees nearby, and that morning hundreds of people were on hand for services. Church. Under a tree.  It tends to last a long time in Africa!

It was after a dozen baptisms miles away and a 3:00 lunch (a goat, slaughtered and barbecued on the spot, a meal for Chiefs and Elders) that my good friend Francis Bii came around behind me, DSC01407 (2)leading Elkatarot.  He said, “This child needs your help. He needs clothes and food and schooling and to know about Jesus.” I must have, in my awkwardness, said something to the effect, “I’ll bet we can do something; I’ll consider it.” They left. In about 20 minutes Francis came by with a dozen of the most forlorn, dirty, ragged kids you can imagine. He tapped on my shoulder. “Pastor Jim. These children also need your help.”  I felt sure we could find sponsors for 13 kiddos back in the states, so I nodded, “Sure. We’ll see what we can do.” About 20 minutes later he came back around, this time with about 40 kids! “Pastor Jim, these children…” he started. I finished the sentence: “Need my help?”  DSC01410Before an hour had passed every orphan within reach was rounded up, photographed, interviewed, and thus became potential CRF kids, the only thing standing between their orphaned destitution and a life with love, food, clothing, medical treatment and education was a willing American sponsor.  I’m proud to say that my church has never failed to sponsor a CRF Turkanan child since that day, given the opportunity! Lord willing, it will always be so.

But Elkatarot was the first, you see. He was the one Francis and God used to finish breaking my heart. He was the one, with needs beyond my imagination, needs that could mostly be met for my magnanimous (lol) sacrifice of $35 a month—a pittance out of the well-spring of wealth God has given me, and given… you.  How could I have possibly said “N0?” Saying “Yes” has changed my life, and the life of my church. And it changed Elkatarot’s life dramatically, and God has used a gangly, slow, mentally-challenged  “not-right” African orphan as the first seed. Because of Elkatarot there are a dozen water wells today that weren’t there four years ago, new school houses and missionary residences and churches and irrigated farms that weren’t there. There are ambulances and motorcycles and dozens of supported, trained pastors. There are hundreds of souls who have been saved and thousands of people who are alive because they have clean water to drink, who, because they are alive will have the chance to drink the living water of Jesus. Connect the dots and they all lead back to Elkatarot, and the God who made him special, the God who used him to bring about God-sized things. Isn’t that God’s way?

So I’m sad to think of this “son” of mine now dead in a desert somewhere.  I need a funeral to go to, some way to do something.  I think about the last moments of his life and hope he wasn’t terrified long, hope God granted him a quick transition from pestilence to Paradise.  The best thing I can imagine doing is making a life-changing difference in the life of some more Turkanan orphans.  If Francis shows up today, I’m in real trouble!  I’m sad, but I’m joy-filled to know that in his last four years of life he was known, loved, taught, nurtured, clothed, fed and introduced to Jesus Christ. I’m joy-filled that this simple-minded-ever-smiling-very-special-special-needs-child—was used by God to make “starving African children” real and personal to me, and to do elkatthe same for my whole church.  I only got to talk to Elkatarot face to face on two occasions; I only wanted him to know that he was loved and known and indeed special. Now he knows that in a perfect way. And I hope he knows all that God made possible because he was there that day behind my chair.  Elkatarot: The next time I see you will be in a place more different and even farther away –yet closer and more familiar than we can imagine. I’ll be seeing you in heaven, along with all of the other people who are there because of you, special child!

Because He Lives…

I’m sitting at my desk on Monday morning, the day AFTER. You know–the day after the BIG day. The day after EASTER!  Some of you were there, some of you saw it, some of you helped make it happen.  I don’t mean Easter, I mean the production our church put on to celebrate it, by having a combined gathering of our whole church under one roof on Easter Sunday instead of our typical four services. Over a thousand showed up in that one place, and it was a stellar event by all measurements! The music was glorious and inspirational and the fellowship exuberant; even the sermon was not all that bad. It was everything you’d expect for an Easter Sunday morning and so much more! And I’m tired today, along with every other Christian pastor in the world this “day after”. I could use a little resurrection. I need some more Easter!!

We sang a song yesterday that is famous in America, and perhaps even overseas in places.  It was written by Bill Gaither, and might just be one of his most famous compositions: “Because He Lives”.  The song is a sermon.  We sang it and even though we don’t sing it that often at our church, I know the words by heart:

            Because He lives, I can face tomorrow

            Because He lives, all fear is gone.

            Because I know who holds the future,

            Now life is worth the living, just because HE lives!

Now that’s an Easter song! And that really is the message of Easter, isn’t it? Everything in our lives, everything in our marriages, our ministries, our relationships, our work, our daily battles to survive and walk faithfully as believers—it’s all different, all possible and given purpose, all enabled and  changed to the core by one fact: BECAUSE HE LIVES!! 

We sing it so well on Easter Sunday, along with our other favorites: “Up From the Grave He Arose!” and “Christ the Lord is Risen Today”—but I wonder sometimes if we remember it on Monday? The Resurrection changed everything for the first followers of Jesus, and it seems to have colored their every day for the rest of their lives. It gave them the courage to lead boldly and believe boldly and even die boldly. We know their stories!  But what about yours and mine?  Does the fact that HE lives make a difference today and tomorrow?  I hope so!

As you move forward in life and ministry, I hope you will not leave behind the power of Easter and the empty tomb. I hope as you run into fears and obstacles, giants and battles and all the other glorious disasters that make life tough and serving Christ more about the nails than about the glories—I hope you’ll stop often and remember: The CROSS IS EMPTY! The TOMB IS EMPTY! And life is worth the living, even on the “Mondays after”—just because HE lives!!

What Can Happen in Three Days

 

As I’m sitting here this cool spring morning in my office, I’m a little numb to the fact that only three mornings ago I woke up in the desert of Puerto Penasco, Mexico, where last week our group of almost 50 intrepid nomadic carpenters spent a HOT week building  a couple of houses over Spring Break. (We actually spent four days travelling, and three days building.) But it’s always a blur looking back, and it’s always amazing to me that over the span of three days two entire houses can be built from scratch. Here in the states you can spend three days on hold just trying to find a human who can answer a question about your cell phone bill!

I’ve done this 19 times now, but the whole process is still thrilling to me!  This house-building “miracle” we participate in every spring is truly a “something from nothing” story–but can you imagine how much more amazing it must be to be the recipients of the house? When we roll up on day one, typically all that’s there is maybe an ancient trailer, or a dilapidated shanty tacked together from scavenged pallets, tin, a few boards and some tar paper. (This year’s recipients already had very small homes, but very large, growing families…they needed more space!!)  By our standards the best of these houses are rather pitiful and forlorn—but it’s the product of what they can do by themselves. Nearby we find the staked-out footprint of the 242 square-foot house we’ll build for them. Only a footprint. No foundation, no walls, no roof, no house—nothing but a huge pile of sand and gravel, 30 sacks of cement, a stack of lumber and a couple boxes of nails. These are raw—very raw—materials, to which we will add buckets of sweat.

To the persons living in that shanty, what we are about to accomplish in 3 days is, in most senses of the word, impossible—personally, practically, physically. While I have no doubt the resourceful people of Mexico would certainly be able to build a house themselves, the folks we build for could never imagine ever being able to afford it. So to them, it must seem a miracle. Not about their merit, but about their need. Not about their effort, but about being chosen. Not about repayment or debt—completely about acceptance and gratIMG_2342itude. We drive up to a shanty and some bare ground and that carefully-guarded precious pile of materials that have also miraculously appeared in the last day or two, then three days later we leave behind a small but sturdy house with a door, windows, foundation and roof. And some very happy homeowners!

Now hang with me, as I’m changing lanes. The Christian life is really the same story. We start with our own old nothing and end up with a new everything that is amazing and priceless and incredible—far beyond even what we might ever have imagined. We’re found spiritually, just as we are, living in the “dilapidated shanty” of our own best efforts, a life that is the cobbled-together cumulative pitiful mess of our own making—our own resourcefulness, wisdom, self-effort and strength, built on a foundation also as flawed and inadequate as its builders. The “pallets and tar-paper” of our own do-it-yourself domains are obvious: pride, greed, lust, anger, fear, ignorance—the list of human building materials could go on and on—these are the best we can do by ourselves.

And then something incredible and impossible happens. Against the backdrop of our abject and pitiful poverty, we learn that we’ve been chosen for a “new house”—a new and better and brighter and richer existence than we might have hoped for—but this comes to us in an unexpected way. It’s not about our merit, it’s about our need; it’s not about our effort, but about being chosen; nor is it about something we could repay as a debt, but completely about our acceptance and gratitude. Paul explains it this way in Ephesians 1:4 ff—“…he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and his will—to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us…”  It’s about grace, purely and simply. It’s about the pleasure of our Father. It’s all His sweat, all His equity, all of His blood. And none of our own—because all of ours would never be even more than a miniscule fragment of enough. His is just that. Enough!

A couple thousand years ago something else truly amazing happened in only three days: a man was killed and buried on a Friday and then on Sunday He walked out of the grave alive. It seemed impossible, too good to be true—but it was true. And it is in fact because of that very truth of all truths that we are able to step from the old house we’ve built ourselves into the new one provided for us entirely by the grace of God. In the words of Watchman Nee, “Our old history ends with the cross; our new history begins with the resurrection.” IMG_2374As we move toward the blessed season of Easter, I hope you’ll spend some time considering the “house Jesus built” for you, and allow yourself to marvel and be amazed in the simple fact that you were chosen even before the foundations of the world were laid. And as you think about His power over all creation, including you, think about what can happen in three days.

Not My Father’s Oldsmobile…Maybe

I was digging through my mailbox at church recently; it was more like archaeology.  OK, sometimes I tend to use it as a file instead of a mailbox, and stick things down under the layers to “deal with later.” It’s a problem I have…

Anyway, I found a magazine called “Church Executive,” and pulled it out.  I usually throw most of these kinds of things away, since it’s not something I subscribe to and is usually just a glossy sales pitch for church-related products. But I had a few minutes between appointments and decided to thumb through it, just to see what gadgets and gimmicks the church business marketeers were hawking at present on the media midway.

Page 6 opens with a picture of a youngish mega-church pastor and his Barbie-esque wife, sitting onstage together, obviously engaging their 3,000 plus church attendees in an engaging way, as if they were sitting in their living room with you, their best friends. Their church is just embarking on a $30 Million dollar capital project, and this beautiful, massive facility is certainly impressive. Page 10 says I need a church app so that I can “seize my mobile moment.” Page 12 tells me how a pastor can save money for his kid’s college education. (Wish I’d seen that one 20 or 30 years ago!) Page 14 shows another huge auditorium space, complete with four theaters, jungle gyms, an ice cream parlor and some classrooms—turns out it’s a mega-million dollar kid’s church, that, according to the article, proclaims, “Kid’s matter here!” Page 22 details a church with 13 campuses, and an explanation of the financial engines necessary to fuel it all (some $21 Million this year alone!) and an accompanying article about the “metrics” connected to church success, followed by an article about cyberattacks and a justifiably-concerning one about sex offenders and churches. The mag circles to a close (or as much as I could take) with an article about live-streaming that volunteers can actually run and a last one about pastors finding the right leadership coach.

I’m left after thumbing through this magazine feeling rather inadequate, rather ordinary and unimpressive, rather hopelessly outdated–an un-coached analog pastor in a very digital world. I guess I’m feeling enlightened, too, because I didn’t realize that to be an effective pastor I needed a $30M building or a church app, or a children’s wing that rivals any cinema multiplex, or a corporate lending agreement to maximize my investments and cashflow or a metric system to measure my success. Or a coach! I’m also left feeling kind of old, and wonder what my pastor father who began his ministry in the late 1930s would think about all this stuff it supposedly takes these days to have a church with any impact or that anyone might possibly ever want to attend.

Now, I’m not quite as out of touch as I sound. I use almost-current technology every day, as tethered to my iPhone and iPad and various iAccessories as the next guy. I’m white-haired, but I have a lot more hair than the mega-church dude married to Barbie. We spend multiple thousands of dollars each year to keep our technology current and communicating; we have some really gee-whiz stuff (necessary toys) with which to enhance our worship and work. In this day and time, I know that lighting matters, video matters, wireless and Wi-Fi and other such wonderfully complex but now ubiquitous layers of techstuff—matter. I’m SO thankful that I am surrounded by very smart people who know how to usually make all of this stuff work. And yes, we measure our health as a church with various metrics and we are quite careful about our financial management and debt loading. And we do care about kids! Still, my father, an excellent pastor, would have no idea what it takes to do my job; he wouldn’t recognize most of it. And he would just shake his head at this magazine that is more bewildering to me than helpful.

So what DOES it take to be a “successful” church? I think the answer to that question has to bypass the stuff, the toys, the rockstar personalities, the buildings, the numbers, the productions—as wonderfully helpful and indicative as they may or may not be—and remember that if God isn’t part of it, it’s not a church. It’s just a club, just a religious-themed entertainment venue, just a fancy building with a fancy price tag or a crumbling museum. And the other thing we have to remember is that the church, when it comes down to it, is nothing more or less than the people who circle together and make it up. So, by this bottom line “essentials” list, you can have a church with 3,000 or 10,000 members (or more) that meet in a massive complex, or you can have a church with 10 members, circled around a bush in Turkana. Most churches I know are something in between. There are a lot of very large churches out there doing wonderful ministry. And there are even more—most of them in fact—that may struggle to circle 100 or even a quarter of that number but who still are filled with people who love God and love each other. If I remember correctly, Jesus once said that those two criteria pretty much said all that was needed to be said in measuring a group, or a person, and that we would be known by one metric: how well we love.

What in fact makes a church a church? It has to be filled with devoted followers of Jesus Christ who serve Him as their Lord. It has to acknowledge Father God as creator and sustainer of all things. It has to be filled by and dependent upon the Holy Spirit, the Church’s very breath. It has to be fueled and guided by God’s inspired word and hold beloved the gospel and hold compulsively our responsibility to celebrate and share and spread its good news. And it has to be filled with people who are servants instead of takers, who show a quality of fellowship and unity that mirrors the Holy Trinity itself. All of that, and then it better be led by godly leaders, both men and women in their different roles, who embody the same qualities we’ve just mentioned.

So while the magazine I was reading might almost have made me feel like my medium-sized church in almost middle-America is somehow lacking, somehow “almost” a church—instead, it made me realize that while the modern church and way of “doing church” is certainly not my father’s Oldsmobile, in a lot of ways, perhaps all the ways that count, it really still is. That makes me happy. And I think it would make him happy, too!

On the Right Side of History…

A recent news report from Washington relayed that our Vice-President, Joe Biden, had performed a wedding ceremony in his residence at the White House.  That wouldn’t make the news, except for the “firsts” represented in the event.  Vice-Presidents don’t usually do marriage ceremonies, and he had to get special permission.  Weddings in the residences at the White House are not that common.  But really the news behind the story wouldn’t have made the news had Biden not tweeted something to the effect that he was “…proud to have married Brian and Joe, two long-time White House staffers, two great guys.”  So the news in this story is that a same-sex wedding was performed at the White House by our Vice President. The bigger news, though, is probably to be found in that the veep wanted to make sure it made the news.  It’s amazing to live in a country where at the highest levels of government we are “proud” to be a part of things that would have been considered shameful by practically every standard not all that long ago. My, how enlightened we’ve become.

There are three approaches (probably more, but three is about all I can juggle today) in how believers are responding to the raging storm of change with which we are assaulted daily in the ongoing charge of the sexual/moral revolution. This revolution is nothing new, its visibly traceable beginnings dating back now well over fifty years ago. But in recent years and months the fervor of the revolution has gone from “sleeping giant” to “unappeasable rampaging behemoth” as Supreme Courts and presidents and rogue judges and anti-discrimination movements have taken a lot of ground for their cause, erasing through both legislation and dictatorial fiat the norms and standards that have guided our nation for most of 250 years, and indeed universally-held and accepted moral boundaries that have governed most cultures and peoples throughout the world since civilizations began.

The three approaches? One is to ignore the battle, either to deny it or simply choose to filter it out in blissful unawareness, much like someone who has lived by the train tracks so long they never even hear the train anymore.  I almost envy those who can do this, but you ignore trains at great danger.  And just because you don’t hear the train doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

A second is to be won over by it, simply persuaded or de-sensitized by so many years of rhetoric and political correctness and media influence and secular educational system indoctrination that one finally just accepts that these new norms are the natural and acceptable evolutions of thinking.  This approach requires rationalizing that human enlightenment has finally brought us to a plateau “above” where we’ve been and that indeed if we want—as the argument is so often made these days—to “stand on the right side of history” we will get on board with the revolution and celebrate our new enlightenment and its “all-inclusive, everyone-deserves-to-be-happy-and-never-judged” mantra. It is staggering how many churches and believers are either embracing the revolution while jettisoning and replacing millennia-old biblical doctrines, or adopting a silent “live and let live stance” that in its attempt at kindness is basically bereft of standards that might offend.  No one will ride that fence for very long.

The third approach probably describes the bulk of evangelical believers. And that is that we are all-too-aware of the onslaught of changes and the incredible discomfort we experience living in a culture that seems hell-bent on casting off the moral anchors and ethics that have protected, guided and sustained us for as long as we can remember. We find ourselves reeling a bit at the pace of the changes, as the wind has been knocked out of us with the almost daily losing of sacred, foundational territory we assumed was unassailable.  We find ourselves dumbfounded that it has come to this, feeling (perhaps appropriately) guilty that it is happening on “our watch” or we have little response beyond shaking our heads and worrying about the future and the earth our kids and grandkids will inherit, or muttering incessantly about the sad state of the government.  In our fear and sense of powerlessness, we often respond and react in guttural, embattled and defensive ways that only serve to reinforce the “other side’s” assertion that we are indeed hate-filled, bigoted and judgmental Neanderthals, hopelessly out of touch and chained to an irrelevant and unkind wrong side of history.

Space (and the reader’s patience) doesn’t allow going much beyond the surface we are scratching here in this basic diagnosis of where we stand.  But without exhaustive dialogue, maybe the better-focused question asks believers,  “Where must we stand as the battle rages around us?”

The answer could take volumes. But neither of us have time for that.  I’ve been waiting for some wordsmith on the right to come up with a catchy phrase to counter the mellifluous “standing on the right side of history” that has become the winsome mantra for the moral revolutionaries on the left.  I haven’t read one yet, but I’m still hoping.  Maybe Martin Luther was onto something when he wrote his great affirmation of the strength we have in the battle against evil (and that is what this is!)  through the “mighty fortress that is our God.”  In the hymn he asserts that we’d have no hope in the battle–that indeed we would be losing the battle—“were not the Right Man on our side, the Man of God’s own choosing.”  He’s talking about Jesus, of course, the “one little Word” that will finally crush Satan, decisively ending the battle once and for all.

For believers, the only way to ultimately be on the right side of history is to stand with “the Right Man on our side”—or, with apologies to Martin Luther—to acknowledge that it isn’t first about Him standing with us. It is first and always at issue whether we are standing with Him–walking in His ways; living by His words; proclaiming His gospel and truth.  It’s about being His Church, His people, governed by His absolute standard and not some ever-changing subjective definition of what is right or wrong. And that includes treating both each other and everyone else with love and kindness, especially those who are confused by having no internal compass beyond their own.  We will be judged for how well we loved both those inside and outside the Church, which starts by remembering that we are all sinners in need of grace.

When it’s all said and done, historians won’t determine the “right side of history”—God will. It’s His story, after all. As believers, let’s make sure we are standing with Him. It’s a good place to stand when the foundations are shaking.

Feeling Like a Stranger

I’m of the opinion that getting one’s driver’s license renewed is about as close as one can come to going to jail, and probably almost as fun. For one thing, you are there simply because it has been decreed you will show up periodically to jump through hoops and dance the bureaucratic dance well enough to gain a four-to-six-year extension on the inevitable “one day” when you won’t be allowed to drive any longer, presumably due to advancing years.  (I know some older drivers who are great drivers, and some younger ones who represent a huge threat to the safety of everyone on the road. Age and driving ability is a very relative thing!)

Among the hoops to be jumped through are eye tests and fingerprinting and photographing and working through a checklist to verify that indeed you are not a terrorist or felon or draft dodger, or involved in illegal trafficking of some kind, or have failed to register to vote, or are left-handed, or have eyes of different colors. Since I was the holder of a Commercial Driver’s License, my checklist was long and somewhat complex. These tasks are all made the more unpleasant by the fact that once you come in, you are reduced to a three-digit number, and threatened with bodily removal if you even think about using your cell phone.  All of this, and, have you ever noticed that the women who often man the desks there are typically not happy people who seem to be just as excited to be there as are you? All of the ingredients are there for much joy.

But what do you do? You play by the DPS rules, and before your license breathes its last breath and you (gasp!) expire— you head begrudgingly over to the main office and start jumping through the hoops. This was me, back in February, on the 12th. My license didn’t expire until the 13th, but I wanted to get a head start on the process. And I waited that long because I despise the process so totally.

I ran afoul of the law pretty quick, as it was determined there was something “wrong” with my commercial driving status, which hasn’t changed in 30 years, and which I haven’t used in 25. With my foot caught firmly in the leg-trap of a formidable  DPS watchdog, I decided to yield my commercial status. I was too tired to fight the battle, and I never use it, and it saved me 40 bucks. That sped things along, as I was released to the next stage…waiting. As I sat and watched the number of the next customers come up on the monitor screen with a non-sequential illogicity that seemed to fit, I became aware of something else: I was the only person in the waiting room within earshot speaking English, at least as my first language.  This is not meant to be prejudicial in any way, just observation.  There were several Spanish-speaking folks, someone speaking French, one maybe Russian, a couple of middle-Eastern men, and an Ethiopian or Somalian (I suspect) caught in the same leg-trap at the first desk checkpoint I had only recently escaped myself. There was a lot of pointing and gesturing and frustration on both sides of said desk. Red-tape seems to be just as frustrating in any language.  I began to feel like I had stumbled into a world more akin to Ellis Island than I-27 and Georgia in Amarillo, Texas.

But as I was sitting there, watching, for some reason it struck me how difficult it must be to live in America as a “stranger” and outsider, either as a refugee or immigrant. Whatever you may think about immigration, it is stupidly, ridiculously hard to immigrate into America legally; and whatever you think about America, you might consider the fact that pretty much everyone else wishes they lived here and will go to great lengths to accomplish that, the least of which involves getting a TDL at the DPS. While we’re talking immigration, which is not really the point of this rambling, I do hold a firm belief that if you live here, you need to learn to speak English here and your kids need to speak English in school. You need to work hard and pay taxes without expecting rescue from a system that is already overburdened. And you need to live by our laws.

But what about those who’ve just arrived? How do they feel when they are, literally, a world away from their homes, their languages, their customs, their laws, their governmental systems and often their families?  Even if they have escaped war or persecution, how hard must it be to find oneself a stranger in a strange land where you just don’t fit? If it’s hard for a man who’s lived all of his life in America to jump through bureaucratic hoops, how impossible must it seem for someone who has no idea even where to start?  If I felt out of place there at the DPS, uncomfortable there, how much more must that describe their feelings every moment at almost every turn? The Old Testament has a lot to say about our kindness to strangers. Turns out that’s a big deal in God’s book.

A lot of those very commands go back to this Levitical paraphrase: “Remember the stranger, the alien, the wanderer, the lost—because you were once strangers in a strange land yourselves. Remember how that feels.” All kinds of commands are given to make sure we remember “outsiders” and how tough it is indeed to be a stranger in a strange place.  But it goes even further than that. In the New Testament we are reminded emphatically that we are strangers here too, that we are not to get cozy and comfortable here because this is only earth, and our citizenship is somewhere far away from here—heaven. We’re told that we don’t fit here, that we mustn’t even try to fit here, because, as the old song says, “This world is not my home, I’m just a passing through…”

In case you wonder about that restless uncomfortable feeling you get sometimes, that itch that just can’t be scratched, that feeling that you don’t belong—it’s called eternity and the Bible says you were created with that magnetic address in your heart.  Until you stand before Jesus in eternity, you’ll never truly be home. And that makes you a stranger here, which is hard. But Jesus has done something about this, something to anchor our hearts until we get home.  We sing a Chris Tomlin song sometimes that says, “I once was fatherless, a stranger with no hope, your kindness wakened me, awakened me from my sleep… Into marvelous light I’m running, out of darkness, out of shame; by the cross You are the truth, You are the life, You are the way…” We’ve been rescued, it seems, from the dominion of darkness (see Col. 1:13) and given citizenship in a new kingdom, God’s kingdom. And that is nothing short of a miracle of grace itself.

God knows all about this outsider business. He came from farther away than any traveler and entered our sphere in the familiar yet dauntingly different form of a God who came as a human baby.  He came so far, and we treated him so badly. He came so far, and he stands at the door of our hearts, knocking, looking for a welcome and a place to stay.  It’s funny. What He’s asking us to do for Him, He’s already done for us by dying on a cross so that we could one day have a home in eternity in the Father’s house.

Next time you’re at the DPS office and they ask your citizenship, I wouldn’t say “heaven”– even though that’s true if you’re a follower of Jesus Christ.  You probably should just say “Texas” and leave it at that. Any other answer will make your situation way too complicated! But nonetheless, don’t forget the real answers: YES, you are not really from around here. YES, you have a citizenship out of this world. YES, you are a stranger. YES, that’s supposed to make you strange compared to the citizens of this world. YES, this is only earth. YES, you won’t be stuck here forever. YES, you’re headed home!

I did manage to survive my brush with the law at the DPS.  I have the plastic card to prove it and it says I don’t have to navigate the system again for six years!! I don’t really like the picture though; I wonder how difficult it would be to get that changed…….?

A Connect-The-Dots Story

 

You’ve probably heard the idea that says something like no two human beings on the planet are separated by more than 7 degrees of “connectable dots”.  While that seems somewhat far-fetched, it is pretty amazing how small the world is, and how connected we can be in the providence and purpose of Almighty God.

I became aware of an amazing connection this past week, a link that actually starts way before I could even imagine seeing it; but I know historically when the lines began to merge that would connect two families together in significant ways. It’s a long story, so hang with me!

The part I know started about 60 years ago, in, of all places, Tucumcari, New Mexico. A young couple named Duane and Mary lived there, involved in the service station business and also very involved in their local church. Many churches of that era were small and financially unable or simply not interested in paying a man to be a “full-time” preacher/pastor, so their pulpits were filled each weekend often by young men who were training in ministry. It was a good arrangement. The young preacher needed the practice, it didn’t cost the small church much, and neither party was generally injured significantly as the neophyte parson mastered his craft before a very forgiving circle. In this case, once a month, the young preacher-in-training was my brother Gene. And as his life intersected with this young Duane and Mary, a friendship developed. This all was happening about 1955, a few years before I was even a sparkle of passion (or example of poor judgment) on the part of an older couple in Amarillo who probably should have quit having kids while they were ahead. That’s another story.

A part of the back story in this is that my father ran in Amarillo the very school for preachers and Christian workers that launched my brother and a dozen other men out on weekend preaching appointments in small towns and farming communities nearby. This school’s location embedded within what would one day be my home church guaranteed that said church was filled with young families and children, some outstanding, others with great potential, and maybe a few who had tried just about everything else in life to make a living besides preaching. It was a vibrant fellowship. And it beckoned in that warmth to that young couple in Tucumcari.  The more they learned about it, the more they liked the idea of being a part of it. So finally in 1958 they packed up, moved to Amarillo, and opened another service station on Washington and Wolflin that they ran by day and then attended this school by night. A lot of life-long friendships were born, and others firmly cemented, including those with my own parents-to-be. The dots were getting connected, the picture taking an early shape.

After a few seasons in Amarillo, this somewhat itinerant family would pack up and move to Oklahoma, where Duane would excel in the gift of salesmanship. A few years later would find them moving to Lubbock, and then about 1968, back to Amarillo, back again to the familiar church setting where my father pastored and ran his school. This time they would come with more baggage, two little boys to be exact, brothers named Shawn and Brendan. By that time the elder Shelburnes had also re-filled their nest with two boys, Curtis–and the one writing this blog. The four of us were kind of stair-step in ages, but the two boys in my family sure enjoyed the two boys in Duane’s. It would not last too long, this connection, because Duane would take a job selling tires that would all-too-soon find his family moving to Hereford. The family paths had crossed and merged–and now headed off in different directions for decades—never to cross again? No. Not by a long shot!

Some 40 years later two of these four boys, now grown men, would be blessed with briefly overlapping roles in an Amarillo church once again, But soon it would be the Shelburne boy, this time, moving off to New Mexico, keeping the reformation of a decades-old-relationship still in dormancy, with just occasional connections over the years until finally, in about 2010, some almost 50 years after their first fellowship as little boys, the two men, now much older than their fathers had been when this story began, would find themselves by God’s grace all sitting on the same pews, along with Duane and Mary.  A perfect circle? Perhaps. But the story doesn’t end there.

The two boys-grown-to-men in this story, Jim and Shawn, had also had a daughter and son each. And Shawn’s son Shane had gone off to college a few years back, not unlike his granddad almost 60 years before, to learn about the Bible and preaching. It was last Sunday, Palm Sunday2016 at Washington Avenue Christian Church, that Shawn’s son Shane preached his first sermon as a staff pastor at our church. Now I call that a pretty perfect circle!

Now did all of these connections occur because a young couple in Tucumcari decided to attend church faithfully there? Or did it happen because a young man (my brother) decided to go once a month and preach the gospel in New Mexico? Or did it happen because the parents of Duane and Mary Wyly instilled in them the importance of being involved in a church family? Or did it happen because a young man, my father, some 80+ years ago listened to the whisper of God when he told him to consider training preachers as his life’s work? Or did it happen because my grandparents had instilled the roots of faith in my father’s life that made it possible for him to listen? Was it because the Gospel is an incredible force that draws people toward a life response? Or did it happen because a hundred years ago someone in Tucumcari took the great commission seriously enough to start a church there where all of these dots would begin to connect? Did it happen because God had a firm grip on the lives of every man in this story–and their parents and grandparents? Or did it happen because 55 years into this chapter a grandpa’s grandson would answer the call to preach the Gospel? YES!! The answer to every question I’ve posed and the hundred others I can’t even know to ask—is—YES!

Isn’t God wonderful in his ability to connect the dots?Now to Him who is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us, to Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen.” (Ephesians 3:20)

Amen!!

In The Bleak Mid-Winter

I’m really not a fan of January, and I’m glad to see it go. February, at least, holds some excitement. Today, for example, even as I am writing, somewhere in the frozen eastern United States a thousand brilliant people are standing outdoors cheering on a grumpy groundhog named Phil, wondering if this stuporous rodent, so unceremoniously removed from hibernation, will be able to predict the weather in the entire United States for the next six weeks.  Now that’s pretty exciting stuff.  Phil bats .500, as a rule. This is high winter drama indeed, but, after today, February kind of returns to the same mid-winter malaise as January.

I’m not depressed. Really.  Not much anyway.  This is just Jim in winter, after Christmas.  I love Christmas, and I especially love the lights. (If I had been born a bass, my penchant for shiny and sparkly things would have quickly sealed my doom!)  Each year I fight my own little rebellion against the stark, bland, blackness of winter by leaving my Christmas lights on much longer than the average neighbor. There’s just something reassuring and winsome about turning the corner onto Everett Street as I head home and there my lights shine, a collective beacon of hope in the drab darkness. It welcomes and reassures me, while at the same time probably reassuring my neighbors that the local pastor is a bit…. strange.

All of this to back up the sad fact that last week I surrendered to winter as I succumbed to said neighborly (and wife-ly) peer pressure and the tyranny of the calendar, and I took down my outdoor lights, a task I find as enjoyable as, say, doing tax prep. IMG_0292I carefully evicted them from trees and shrubs and neatly coiled each string, where I laid it like a wreath of expired joy on the bleak dead brown freeze-dried Bermuda grass. But I’m not depressed.

It is, of course, necessary to put away Christmas stuff or it wouldn’t be special at Christmas. If it was never dark, never cold—well, we wouldn’t appreciate the power of light and the sanctity of warmth. It is unavoidably true in our lives that there are going to be seasons bright and shiny and warm and joyous—while others are “January” times—winter. Cold. Hard. Brittle. Grey. It’s just life. And thankfully it’s just a season. And all seasons pass. The nights are already getting shorter, the brave daffodils have already stuck their own tender shoots skyward, as if cheering on the grumpy groundhog and betting, foolishly perhaps, that there will not be six more weeks of winter. IMG_0294The tree and rose bush limbs in my yard are pregnant with buds, and the warmer days of late have the henbit and dandelion armies poised for their yearly coup attempt against the dictatorial Bermuda grass. Winter has just about had its say, and spring will soon overthrow it.

The Bible says something in terms of a natural covenant, very early in its pages: “As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease.” (Genesis 8:22) That is a guarantee from God that some things continue to change, just according to schedule, as they always have. It’s also a proof that God and his decrees for nature, seasons and cycles, will endure as long as the earth endures. The cycle of change, I guess you could say, is a powerful statement that He won’t, that He doesn’t –that this God who ordains the seasons and tells them when to shift—is just as constant and just as involved in the simple and not-so-simple details of our daily lives.  And that puts us in good hands.

So it’s dark again on my street and maybe the neighbors have stopped wondering so much about my odd-ness. January’s over and February won’t last. And, word on the streets in Philly is that Phil–the “prognosticator of all prognosticators”-did indeed not see his shadow, and is predicting an early spring. You go Phil! I hope you’re right!

A Place At the Table

Having been teaching a lot lately on the subject of the new identity and belonging we have through our adoption as sons and daughters of God, I had an experience earlier this week that drove a part of that point home to me. I was called to perform a funeral for the father of a sweet family in our church. I had never had the privilege of meeting the man personally, but as his three amazing daughters and their families shared wonderful stories with me, I got to see this fellow for the smart, caring, crusty, loving, energetic and determined 81-year-old man that he was. His name was Doyle, and home for Doyle was Andrews, Texas, about three and one-half hours south and west of Amarillo. I came to learn in my lengthy discussions with the family that one of Doyle’s most religiously-held habits was the daily 3:00 meeting of the Andrews coffee clatch, a circle of his friends that along with Doyle comprised and convened the Andrews Supreme Court at a place called Buddy’s.

Well, I got up early on Monday and before long was on the road to Andrews. I’d been there only a time or two before, but thanks to Google Maps and a much-too-smartphone — I found my way to the funeral home right on schedule; before long the family and many local friends were assembled, and we paid our homage to this good man who’d left his heartprints all over that little town. Being almost four hours away from home, I loaded up pretty quickly after leaving the cemetery and turned my old Ranger back toward the north. As I was making the last turn to leave town, there it was: Buddy’s. But not just Buddy’s. The sign said, “Buddy’s World-Famous Steak Finger Drive-in and Diner.” You gotta pay attention to things that are “world-famous.” Especially if they are deep-fried.

Well, I passed it, but then my wheels started turning. I was hungry, not having had time to eat lunch. It was only 4:00, but supper would be beckoning soon, probably about the time I hit Lubbock. But I was hungry now. Never wanting to miss the chance to try out a greasy-spoon roadside wonder, I waited for the intense Andrews traffic to subside a bit, wheeled a quick U-turn across the highway, and headed back to Buddy’s World-Famous Steak Finger Drive-in and Diner. Without trying to fully describe it to you, “sparkling” would not be a word I’d use. A dozen pick-ups were there, some bearing oil-field company decals. I found a parking spot, walked inside to the diner section, and there they were: the Andrews Supreme Court, 5 of them circled around a table, cigarette smoke mingling with the smells of strong coffee and the pall of 50 years of grease molecules floating in the Buddy-fied air. My arteries began to harden just as I walked in the door. And I am definitely the only guy there in a suit and tie. I knew this was going to be a world-class culinary experience.

The Supreme Court members, most of whom had just been a part of my audience at the funeral, acknowledged my entrance and beckoned me to approach the bench. They said their obligatory “thanks” and “great funeral, preacher” and I walked over and sat at a table just outside the Marlboro zone. A pretty waitress just like you’d expect in such a place came over and took my order for the World Famous Steak Finger Dinner, and then I sat, checked my texts and missed messages, and inhaled the grease and nicotine, feeling strangely energized by both. And as I waited there, I just watched, fascinated by this place, this sacred gathering of old men, catching occasional words that sounded like “Obama” and some others I won’t put in this blog. (I know groups like this; they happen in Amarillo, too. You can sit somewhere on the periphery of such groups and learn so much!)

I sipped my Coke and listened to noises coming from the kitchen that suggested my world-famous dinner was coming together, and then it struck me all of a sudden, kind of like a ton of bricks, that at the table across the smoky way where these five justices were holding court, there was an empty chair. I don’t know why I didn’t think of it earlier. Of course, it was Doyle’s chair. And it was the appointed hour. And he was always there, and would have been there, but for his change of venue caused by another appointed hour. The court met that day, but one seat was vacant, one voice muted, one sixth (or maybe a lot more in Doyle’s case) of the collective wisdom of the court was missing. And their meeting that day, slightly delayed by a funeral, went on as it always did but with a missing man and an empty place at the table–the silence from which spoke volumes.

It’s pretty important to have a place at the table, isn’t it? Maybe it’s not a literal table, and maybe it’s not at a World-Famous Steak Finger Drive-In and Diner, but I hope you have one somewhere, this place where you are included, invited, expected, valued. I hope as we move toward Thanksgiving, a holiday in which a table gets high focus, you’ll make an effort to be more aware of those who matter in your circle, and those others whose places at some table factor heavily in your life, that you’d really miss if they weren’t there. And I hope you’ll be more aware–always but especially during the holidays–of people who maybe don’t have a place like that, don’t have a circle to belong to, a court to have a voice in, a seat in a group that says, with no words, “I matter.” And I hope that you’ll make time, often, to circle with your group because these “court” sessions are a lot more important, perhaps, than most of the “important” things we chase after, that all-too-often keep us away from the table at the appointed hour.

I did get my huge order of steak fingers and French fries, gravy and Texas Toast, along with a little glob of salad for health’s sake. It was everything I’d dreamed of, and more! When I finally left, the court had recessed and it turned out that one or more of the justices had kindly paid for my meal, a sort of steak finger honorarium on behalf of their missing man. I was warmed, suddenly, maybe by their kindness, or perhaps also the quart of saturated fat now slogging through my bloodstream. Whatever it was, I felt honored and appreciated and full. As you circle up during the holidays, pay attention to the folks in your circle, and maybe expand that circle if you can. And be very aware of who sits where, because they might not be there next year, or even tomorrow. And as you are giving thanks, I hope, for the endless list of thanks-worthy things in your life, remember to thank God for the people around the table with you as you thank Him also for bringing you into His family, giving you a place, a name, a hope and a future. And one more thing: if you’re ever in Andrews, Texas—be sure and make time for a stop at Buddy’s.