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.

Seasons of Life

 

Maybe one of the wisest things ever said by the wisest man who ever lived was this: “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven.” (Ecclesiastes 3:1) I guess if you wanted to paraphrase this in a more modern bumper-sticker-ish vernacular, you could say, “Seasons happen.” Of course this simple reality is loaded with impact and import for our lives. One thing it points to is that everything changes. And it does. And it will, whether we like it or not. Everything that is physical or temporal in nature…changes! If you want proof of that, just look in the mirror or take a walk in a cemetery.

I’m not someone who always rolls with change especially well. Changes in government? Wow, we could use a few of those! Hurry please! But often change impacts us in the more trivial areas of life, areas that really don’t matter at all. I get a little grumpy when, for some reason, manufacturers decide that they need to change the packaging on my toothpaste or shampoo after thirty years. It makes it hard to find, and I think it just doesn’t look right in the cabinet or taste the same. (I don’t recommend tasting the shampoo.) They don’t care what I think. They never ask. They just change away. I work as a pastor for a church. Of course, change never causes any problems in churches…

But as hard as change is to accept sometimes, can you imagine how difficult and dreadfully monotonous life would be if things never really did change? The late great author C.S. Lewis wrote in his delightful Chronicles of Narnia series that one of the earmarks of a land controlled by the force of Evil was that it was a place where “…it was always winter, but never Christmas.” In other words, he suggested, the changing of seasons and events like Christmas that break up the dull/white/icy/drab/harsh monotony of winter—are a huge blessing. Lewis was citing Christmas as the great interjection of light and life and warmth into a world gripped by the gray of winter. But imagine the same truth related to other seasons. What if it was always summer, but never the Fourth of July? What if it was always fall, but never Thanksgiving? What if it was always spring, but never Easter? You get my point? All of those seasons are made special—and in fact desirable—primarily because the days shift and march from one event toward another, things and times we have learned to look forward to, even for which we have a longing. We call them holidays (from what used to be called Holy Days) in that they stand apart and usually give us pause and a reason to do something a little different from the daily flow.

I love the seasons, and I love living somewhere that we actually have them! The old wag around here is that if you don’t like the weather…just wait! Sometimes we’ve been known to experience all four seasons in one afternoon! I lived for, well, a season—about 12 of them actually—in Houston, Texas. One of the oddities about Houston was that being so far south, in a mild winter, there might not even be a freeze. That meant that trees didn’t lose their leaves all on one day in October like they do in Amarillo, and potted plants could grow to gargantuan proportions. For a West Texas boy, very much accustomed to the stark bleak and white of winter, that was strange. And you should have seen those webbed-footed Houstonites scramble if the temperature neared the extreme of, say, 40 degrees. (I remember well one of the three winters I lived there; it actually snowed an inch one day. They shut down the entire city!) I’m so glad I live in Amarillo again. It’s home. And I love the seasons here; I love that we’re moving into fall, which is my favorite. May it be long and glorious!

There is a point to my rambling, I hope. And that is that seasons, and the changes they bring with them, are very good things—even hope-filled things. To give example, I buried a good man last Monday. There are so many things I could say about Don Stark. He lived through 300 seasons, some 75 years, 40 of them spent in our church. And all through them one of the earmarks that described his life was that he was as faithful as the changing of seasons. In a time when so few men are the men God wants men to be, he stood out in his dependability and genuineness, season in and season out. And even as things changed around him in sequence and circumstance, he remained constant. Or did he? Maybe the secret of his success in life was that he learned to roll with the changes but at the same time didn’t change in the things that mattered most. Yes. That’s it. When the season of cancer came into his life a few years back, it changed a lot of things in his life circumstantially—but it didn’t change anything substantively. We learned from Don a lot about living well through a season such as this. I believe one thing that maybe helped him run the race so faithfully was the greater truth than cancer doesn’t last forever. Even though most kinds of cancer will eventually prove fatal—ultimately incurable—still, there is a well-known and readily available cure for death. Ever since Jesus died on the cross and rose from the grave, death has been curable. Reversible. Don knew that. And it kept him running the race.

I’m in a current season of life (God has given me 226 seasons, so far) that is the busiest and most demanding through which I’ve ever lived. Sadly, it has been true for several years now that the pace of life seems to be picking up, right along with the number of appointments and endless lists of “necessary things” that have to be done to keep a church healthy and moving and growing. Don’t misunderstand. I love what I do and hope God lets me do it until my last breath. But the burdens of the realities of my life during recent seasons have been terribly demanding, almost suffocating sometimes. Always winter, but never Christmas it would seem—not that it’s bad or only filled with bad things. Just that it’s so crazy busy that one day flashes into the next seemingly without much hope that it will ever be different. Days, weeks, months—just begin to be about a rodeo-ish hanging-on so as not to get thrown or gored by the monster to which we’re saddled. I know what I need. I need a Sabbath. God invented the Sabbath to be a weekly season of rest and refocus. I know what I need. Physician, heal thyself!

Wrapping this up, I guess what I would say to you, dear reader, is to cherish the seasons because they do have a limit. You may get 300, or more. You may not get any more. Every one of them matters! And I would say that if you are in a particularly challenging or difficult or perhaps just demanding season of life—maybe you’re unemployed or caring for grandchildren in a role you never imagined, or maybe you’re sick and fighting a health battle, or perhaps the skirmish is relational or spiritual in nature, or you’re caring for aging parents, or even riding the bull named “success”—well, whatever the nature of the battle, keep repeating to yourself four words: It’s Only a Season. It’s Only a Season. It’s Only a Season. It is, you know. It won’t last forever. And there are things to be learned and seen and discovered in every season, both good ones and hard ones. And maybe the one other truth you simply must remember is that the God of all seasons—this God who never changes, and who is ever-faithful—is walking with you through this one toward the next. You are never forgotten, never abandoned, never alone.

Everything’s Going to Be OK….

 

I saw something that got my attention in the eastern sky last evening. Something rare. Something unexpected. It was a rainbow. Now I know that rainbows are a fairly common occurrence; a scientist would tell you, perhaps, that they are the result of the refraction of light through droplets of water vapor in the air, the result of a prism effect that in essence splits the light into different colors and wavelengths which then become visible in the distance.  And they would be right. That’s how and why they happen, partly.  Around these parts we consider them miraculous because, it takes rain to make rainbows. I cannot thank God loudly or long enough for all the rain he’s sent so far this year; there was another inch yesterday morning, and then about 6:30 last night the sky darkened a bit and the heavens opened again for a short burst of blessing.  It was over fast. But it didn’t leave without leaving also one lasting benefit—a well-defined half-rainbow in the northeastern sky, beautifully framed amidst the brownish-gray clouds, remnants of the tiny storm that had blown through moments before.  Like I said, one reason rainbows are noteworthy is because rain is pretty noteworthy in the Panhandle of Texas. But there’s another reason, as well.

If you’ve read your Bible at all, you probably remember the story of the flood in Genesis, and that after the flood God makes a promise that he will never again destroy all life on earth with a flood.  The conditions of the covenant are repeated a few times there in Genesis 9, specifically, that the rainbow is an “everlasting covenant” between God and all living creatures.  Interestingly enough, it is a one-sided covenant that appears only to depend on God and his promise to “never again” wipe out creation with a flood.  Living where we do, that God will keep that particular promise has never been a worry of mine.  It would take a flood of Noahnine proportions to wet the dirt for more than a few days! And if he should get really ticked-off, even without a flood, there are plenty of other ways he could wipe the disease off the planet: a tornado, a hailstorm, a wildfire, closing all the coffee shops, no donuts at church, etc. Natural disasters, you know?

I remember very well learning the story of Noah and the flood as a child, at the feet of my parents who faithfully read us Bible stories.  I remember doing the same thing for my own children. What never dawned on me until I was a children’s pastor many years later was how frightening that story might be to a child.  I don’t remember ever being all that concerned about it when I was little, but I guess with a vivid imagination the picture of everyone on the planet except for 8 people in an ark drowning in a terrible flood might fuel some nightmares, and questions.  I don’t know why it didn’t bother me. Maybe, just perhaps, in my childlike understanding I could quite easily accept that if God had made all of humankind, it was within God’s right to “un-make them.” Maybe I lost the gruesome images in the more exciting details of the great ship, or all the animals inside, who had come two-by-two.  Maybe I was more fixated on the happy ending wrought by God’s grace than the horrible ordeal wrought by man’s sin and God’s wrath.

For whatever reason, the story didn’t scar me for life, didn’t make me fear God’s wrath, or even make me prone to worry during thunderstorms that I might be missing the boat somewhere.  But it did make me take notice of rainbows, and I never see one that I am not reminded of just one aspect of God’s grace, a promise made many thousands of years ago that his anger would not be satisfied ever again by a flood.  That reassured me somehow. And maybe it served to teach me a very important lesson that I grasped, even as a child, that God is first and foremost a God of love and mercy whose ultimate desire is reconciliation, not war; pardon instead of vengeance, rainbows and not devastating torrents.

As a parent I tried to teach my children as well as my parents did me, and we didn’t shy away from this story of wrath and grace. I will never forget once asking Jamie, my daughter, what the rainbow means. In her 5 year-old wisdom she quickly answered, “It means ‘everything’s gonna be o.k.!’”  And you know what, for a 5 year-old, that’s pretty deep theology. She was right. In spite of how “out of whack” life can get, how hard, how grueling, how difficult—God has promised us a hope that will not ultimately be disappointed. In spite of our sins and fallen-ness, through the amazing blood of Jesus Christ, we who were once “far off”—have been brought close as brothers and sisters of Jesus and sons and daughters of God. Another one-sided covenant! Perhaps the very same covenant! But that is the nature of God, and also the story of our relationship with him in spite of the fact that He could justifiably wipe us out at any moment, with cause and no explanation.

A little later in the Old Testament, in Exodus, When Moses and God have a very-up-close-and-personal meeting, not that long after Moses has seen the terrible wrath of God, and has almost had to “beg” God to stay the hand of his wrath against the Israelites—God introduces himself to Moses by name. “I am,” God says, “…the Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.”  (Exodus 34:6)  On the heels of anger, those are the words out of God’s own mouth that offer to Moses, and to us, the best picture of his essence.  I remember too many times to count from my childhood, when immediately after my mother whipped me (with cause, I’m afraid; see my last blog)—the very first thing she did was to embrace me in her arms and remind me that I was loved and accepted.  Not because of my evil, or corrected state. But in spite of it.  Not because I would never disobey again, but even knowing I certainly would! I got whipped ferociously, then I got loved, hard! It was her way of telling me that “everything’s gonna be o.k..” We need to hear that from time to time, even as the pain of our sinful choices or the cursed remnants of our diseased fallen nature stings and burns, as do our tears.

That, of course, is the message of Jesus on the cross. It’s another brutal, gruesome, terrifying story when you think about it. The wrath of God visited fully upon his own son so that you and I would not have to pay the penalty for our sins.  Or earn our salvation.  Another one-sided covenant.  Another very exacting picture of justice and mercy, punishment and grace. And another storm that led to another rainbow, as the Light of the world’s tears and blood were prism’d by the laser focus of first God’s wrath as it collided head-on with his love, then magnified by the Son’s sacrifice and displayed as a masterpiece of grace.

Every rainbow is worth stopping to look at, stopping to remember where rainbows really come from and what they really mean. They are testaments of God’s glory, reminders of God’s grace. And they are a pretty unmistakable message of just how much God loves us, too. He wants you to know that after the storm–even when the storm has been brutal–everything is going to be o.k.!