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.!

Remembering My Mom

As Mother’s Day approaches, pastors are always searching the horizon for what they might possibly say to their flocks that weekend. I don’t especially enjoy preaching on Mother’s Day, mainly because I’m not a mother. Oh, I had one. The best! But even though we men should appreciate and hold our own moms and the moms of our kids in a state of holy reverence—I just think it a bit audacious for a man to pretend to know or attempt to say much of anything about mothering, or how it should be done. The only area where we might possibly be qualified is if we ourselves had a fine mother, and we remember her impact in our own lives. That I did, and that I do.

My Mom and I perhaps bonded in a special way because I was the youngest, and, as she often said, “…so much like her in many ways.”mom That was not necessarily a compliment–more of a fact, really–that made her much too gifted at knowing what I was doing and even thinking about doing a lot of the time in my teenage years. She told me, more than once, that she understood what it was like to be a rebel, to flirt with danger and color outside the lines. Although I really couldn’t at the time (and barely even now) imagine or acknowledge that her teenage indiscretions could have even approached some of my own, I do remember feeling at least the comfort that she was more empathetic toward my rebel inclinations than she was judgmental or condemning. She would say, “I’ve been in this or that position myself… be very careful who you spend time with and what choices you make. Try to live your today in such a way that you don’t have to be ashamed of it or regret it tomorrow.”

I remember so well her work ethic; it was passed down so obviously from her own mother and father, formidable and noteworthy people in their own rights. I remember Mom never sitting still (another way in which we are alike). I think it helped her not completely obliterate either me or that tree out behind the church she was always pulling limbs off of to thrash me with, because, truth be known, she was probably having as hard of a time sitting through the church service as I was! So many things to do and places to be—and sitting was not getting any of them done, and thus not high on the list of priorities. She was a doer in all ways, even when it came to worshipping, serving, loving, teaching, living out her faith. Of the physical possessions I have that belonged to my mom, two that I treasure dearly are her work gloves, small and feminine and well-worn—and her power drill. Strange, I know, but those two objects sum up a lot of who she was, and her independent, can-do-anything-self-sufficient approach to life. When I pull the trigger on that small gray metal power drill, I’m instantly a six-year-old again, standing and watching her work in the garage, expertly making lamps out of driftwood.

I learned to love nature and soil through her eyes and our backyard activities; one of my earliest memories was of her letting me sow tomato seeds into little peat cups. We watered them, they sprouted, we planted, we tended, we harvested, we shared and we enjoyed, literally, the fruits of our labor. There were so many lessons in that simple exercise. I have from that time had a love for the soil and growing things; it’s a blessing and curse both—that affords me many hours in the back yard, fighting against West Texas to create a bit of Eden—and also cutting severely into what would have been my kids inheritance every time I stop at the greenhouse or garden center! To Mom the yard was therapy; for me, it is as well, a life-saving refuge. In my book $100 spent on peat moss and vermiculite and manure (and the hours to use them) beats any day $100 spent on one hour with a therapist. She and I are again alike in that we “work things out” while we’re digging in the dirt and making our few square feet of earth a little prettier. Mom was always teaching us about nature by pointing out sunsets and lightning storms and rainbows and butterflies and birds and perfect windless evenings, or smelling the joy of freshly cut grass or new aspen pads in the swamp cooler. She marveled at what most people missed, and taught me how to see that as well. I remember her reading to me, over and over again, what we called “Billy Books”—because the kid in the books was named Billy. One of them I can still quote, about nature: “Red and yellow, blue and green, orange and purple all are seen in the rainbow fair; I’m so glad God put them there.” I’m glad, too, Billy. And I still to this day stop and stare anytime a rainbow paints the sky.

Mom was extremely demonstrative in her love, believed in copious hugs/actions/words to back it up. Mom was also a huge believer in discipline, that judgment and sentencing and punishment need not hang over one’s head long. She carried, I think, on her person a half-inch wide three-foot-long leather strap. The time between judgment and the sentence being executed was about 2.5 seconds. There was no appeal! She believed a “good whipping” and a “good boy” were related ideas, and she was not bashful about proving it. She would have NOT fit in well with modern permissive ideas about sparing the rod. The best thing, though, is that while she did not shy away from administering justice—immediately following the punishment she was on her knees with open arms and forgiveness to welcome back the penitent transgressor. I learned a lot about consequences, punishment, mercy—and especially grace—from Mom. She was the picture of absolute acceptance, even when the child might be behaving unacceptably. She had no tolerance for telling lies or taking things that weren’t yours. I bore the strap (and on other occasions a fly swatter) for getting caught in a fib; one time when I purloined a piece of penny gum from Jack Bell’s candy counter, she made me go back in, confess my sins to the clerk, give back the still un-enjoyed gum, and pay for it anyway. That made an impression….

This has gotten long and I could write a book, but I won’t. While having a Dad like we did was a huge factor in our views on ministry and church life and what a pastor is supposed to be and do, I suspect, at least in my case, that Mom had more to do with who I am today, how I think today, what thrills me today, what shames me today, what I worry about and what I laugh at today, who and how and what I love today, my inability to sit still today—than any other factor or person in my life. Her picture from the early 60’s is on my desk right now, one of the few things I’ve unpacked from an office relocation as of yet. I’m not sure why her picture came to the surface amidst so much flotsam in the torrent of moving items, but I’m glad it did. And I’m glad to be able to look up and see her watching over me. I like to think in some way she does that still. She’s been gone now for a long time. But she’s always here. Moms are that way. Especially my Mom….

If you still have a mom on earth, give her a call or a hug. That’s the perfect gift. Or maybe take her to Weinerschnitzel or Outback. If your mom is long gone, or recently gone, spend the time to remember and honor who she was and all she did for you and taught you. And forgive her imperfections. If you live with someone who’s a mom, let them know how much their role matters and help them bear that sacred burden. If you are a mom, and it seems such a hard and thankless job—look up and you’ll see your Father looking down with pride on you and the children he’s given you to mold further into His image. He will tell you, if you listen, “Mom…your work matters! I’m trusting YOU with life itself, and so much responsibility for what those lives become. You’re not forgotten, you’re not alone!”

Dyslexic Loyalty and the Life of Riley: A Tail That Will Give You Paws

He was the best of dogs; he was the worst of dogs… That pretty much summed up my daughter Jamie’s comments when she learned of the passing of Riley, who had been a four-legged fixture at our house for most of the last 15 years. You might say that Riley came into our lives providentially. IMG_1764 (2) In August of 2000, when Holly and I returned home from an anniversary night out, the kids had a surprise for us in the back of my truck—a cute little long-haired mixed-breed mutt with big brown eyes and Yoda-like ears that had wandered into the yard and captured the attention of my children. Their words, if I remember, were something like this: “Oh he was lost daddy; we put him in your truck so he wouldn’t get lost-er.” That’s logical, I suppose. Well, to make a long story shorter, even after our attempts to help Riley find his way back to his rightful home, a few weeks later he had made his way back into our house, and into our hearts, and that was that. He was well-behaved in the house, didn’t desecrate the floors or furniture. He was smart and loving and craved attention. He was a noble watchdog, appropriately ferocious when the mailman came walking across the porch or another dog down the front sidewalk. He was the best of dogs…

I wish that could be the end of the story. He was good in so many ways, but in other ways he was equally the worst of dogs. For one thing, he was a runner. (That’s probably how he came to be “lost” that fateful night when my kids “saved” him!) Any little crack of the door was adequate; he’d nose out and take off like a bullet straight down Everett Avenue for Bell Street. He took great delight in the chase, and was a master at avoiding capture. He was also very hairy, parts of this dog producing annually enough hair to make about four Rileys; hair “bunnies” became a part of our lives, no matter how much you vacuumed or swept. We bought rugs the color of Riley just to make it simpler. He tolerated—but hated—my grooming attempts and baths. He was a hopeless beggar at the dinner table, and guarded the kitchen counter, snapping at the feet of anyone who got too close to the roasted chicken cooling just above. He loved to roll around outdoors in things that smelled of death, then come inside, prideful and strutting in his toxicity. His breath could have killed a small child. His worst personality trait of all, though, was in his ability to be surly and just plain mean if you tried to make him move from where he was napping or take away a bone or object of his affection. He could be a dog-possessed-by-evil at these times; I once think I saw his head spin completely around when I tried to take his pig’s ear away. Bad story. Bad dog. His first and last pig’s ear. Sometimes he truly was the worst of dogs.

But most of the time—that’s why I suppose we tolerated the negatives—most of the time he was a pretty good dog. He loved me, and I loved him. By my back-of-the-envelope-calculations he and I walked over 2,500 miles, our nightly ritual after dark, come rain or shine, snow or sleet or hail or wind, ninety degrees or nine below—we walked. He’s probably a good part of the reason I am not as of yet a complete solid! He would jump up into your lap in the recliner, and snooze for hours there, or make you pet him. And he would always meet you at the door with excitement when you came home. Especially if you were carrying in a carry-out box. He just knew.

Riley got old on us, about 17 years old by our guesstimates.  He’d gone totally deaf, was about half blind; he had arthritis and bad airway problems, honking like a goose much of the nights of late. So, one sad Friday the 13th in March we made a last trip with Riley to the vet, and did that thing that it is oh-so-loving-and-oh-so-terrible all at the same time. And there were lots of tears, and I miss him still. Especially when I come home, or when it’s time for him to walk me at night. I know, theologically, that animals aren’t given eternal spirits like humans. We are the only creatures created “in His image,” and animals are meant to serve men and not the opposite. But it would also be wrong, I think, to say that animals aren’t given some kind of temporal “soul”—so to speak—a personality, a spark, an intellect, a more than merely instinctual ability to love and be loved.  Or to be evil.  And often to be both.

Just like Riley typically approached our walks at night, I’m not sure what the point of all of this is quite yet, but I expect to get there in a bit. It does feel good to write about Riley, sort of an obarktuary, I suppose. A significant life and passing should be noted. Riley taught me a lot through the years about faithfulness, about adventure, about patience and begging and persistence. rileyHe taught me—showed me—unconditional love and forced me to learn it when dealing with his schizoid ways. How can one animal be so good, so capable of love and joy, so smart—and at the very same time be so bad, so capable of snarling and snapping and illogical paranoid destructive behaviors of all forms? How indeed? God probably wonders the same thing about me. The one with the eternal soul. The one created “in His image.” The one who knows better and has been called to higher—but who still returns time and again to his lower basic instinct.  Paul said it once, “I want to do right– I have that desire. But I see another law at work inside, a law that wars within me—brings out the absolute worst in me…” I can see that law too, Paul.

Maybe, just maybe, God gave me Riley to teach me how to put up with a haywired creature, to remind me that His love for me isn’t tied to my pedigree or perfect attitude. That it isn’t because of how well-behaved, wonderful or smart I am. No. God’s favor toward me is in spite of all of my shortcomings—against all logic, all fairness—it… just… is, it’s just grace. Even though I was a stray and still know how to run. Even though I have a split personality, a sometimes selfish snarling side, even in spite of my deafness and blindness and spiritual arthritis—and that I wheeze instead of praise and often wreak sinfully of death, at times getting so much backward and upside down—still, I have a God who loves me and doesn’t think I’m a lost dog or a lost cause.  And I was blessed enough, by the same God, to have a dog for a long season that thought of me as God. Well, most of the time anyway.

Thank you, Father, for furry companions and all creatures great and small. Thank you for Riley, and all the dogs I’ve loved before who’ve loved me back unconditionally. Thank you for thinking of everything we need, before we even know we need it. Your faithfulness and loyalty is unmatched, but thankfully it is often imitated.  And that should give us paws to think… Amen!

The Light Still Shines in the Darkness

I took a walk late last night; actually it was more like an almost mid-night march around my neighborhood in the name of exercise, sort of a pre-emptive strike on what those pre-Christmas goodies are conspiring to do to my post-prime body. It was a cold, crisp night, but pretty nice truthfully. By then the traffic is done, the neighborhoods are quiet, and all the smart people who aren’t criminals or working a late shift somewhere are in bed. I like walking at night, but there’s even a bonus to it this time of year—Christmas lights!IMG_6349

You really haven’t enjoyed outdoor Christmas lighting properly until you’ve seen it from outside your car, preferably from the sidewalk across the street.  It’s just better, more beautiful that way. We do some decking-out of our out-of-doors, and thankfully a lot of our neighbors do, too.

Just a few days after Thanksgiving, I was up in the attic crawl space swimming through the dust bunnies and cobwebs to get to the “Christmas Décor” section of our attic archives.  Every time I do this, I am instantly transported back to the decorating seasons of my childhood, and I am impressed with how different things were back then. Whereas the Shelburnes who live on Everett Street in 2014 have probably at least 25 different boxes of various Christmas decorations (we do love Christmastime!)—back in 1965, the Shelburnes who lived on north Goliad Street had, maybe, two boxes that lived up on a dusty shelf out in our single car garage that had never seen a car; for a six-year-old who could only remember three Christmases, that box held the stuff of wonder: colored glass ornaments, mirror-like and fragile, a shiny glass star for the top of the tree and a little plastic FullSizeRenderlight-up Santa who clutched a bubble light in his tiny red-gloved hand. I still have that Santa, by the way. Birthright goes to the eldest son, cheap plastic Santa to the youngest. Or something like that!

There were also to be found in those boxes what we called “icicles”—which takes some explaining to modern kids because you don’t see them much anymore.  They were thin, fragile, 18-inch long spaghetti-like strips of shiny aluminum foil that my mother from the depression era dutifully saved every year for re-use. And most importantly, there were lights—seven strings of lights with seven multi-colored twinkle lights in each string, the “modern” kind that would stay lit even if one bulb burned out. Those 49 twinkle lights transformed our humble $3 noble fir tree into something approaching noble, a glistening and twinkling work of art. The tree’s other accoutrements were fine, but those lights–they were the catalyst. And they also fired my imagination with the beauty and wonder of Christmas.

That was indoors. What about outdoors? Well, today we have 4 or 5 crates and boxes for those alone! But back then my parent’s sum total of outdoor Christmas regalia consisted of one string of about twelve lights. You may have seen these in museums. They were not today’s Chinese-made $2.99-for-a-hundred Hobby Lobby throw ‘em away after Christmas each year lights. IMG_6444No, these were heavy duty. Fourteen gauge red and green wires. Beefy bakelite C-9 sockets with brass inserts and rivets. And they featured these textured colored bulbs that burned bright and hot. And we had one string of just a dozen of them, just enough to drape across the small porch eave at our house, just enough to let the neighbors (and Santa, hopefully) know that Ebeneezer Scrooge did not live at 125 north Goliad. (He actually lived at 123, but that’s another story, for another day…)  Our miniscule decorations were pretty paltry by today’s standards—but I still took great pride in hanging them up and plugging them in each night, bathing the front entry of our non-descript little white brick house in the wonder of Christmas.

I still have those lights; what’s more impressive is that most of bulbs still burn, even though the wires are a bit stiff and brittle as they are approaching 75 years old. I’m pretty careful with them, and when we do plug them in we don’t let them burn for long. Still, I make it a point to sit quietly in their glow each year for at least a few moments, awash in their simple and basic warmth, a glow that also warmed my parents faces and that heralds from a time when Christmas—and life in general—was a lot more, well, simple and basic.

Christmas today is neither of those things, is it? December calendar slots have been overfilled for three weeks now; I’ve been coming and going, racing from parties here and activities there—all of them fun and festive and enjoyable obligations—but obligations, nonetheless. There has been a lot of time spent decking the halls (see above, 25 boxes worth!) both at home and at church, presents to search out and buy and wrap, special services to attend and prepare, relatives to meet and greet, cards to inscribe and mail, eggs to nog and reindeer games…and the list grows along with our waistlines and blood pressures as the season unfolds.  By the time it all gets done and 2014 becomes obsolete—unless we’ve been really stingy with our calendar slots and circumspect in our hearts—Christmas may have bloomed and faded and we may well have pretty much missed the real and most important points of what Christmas means and why that even matters. Don’t get me wrong with any of this. I love the lights, the smells, the sights, the sounds.  I love the music, the decorations, time with friends, special events.  I love buying and giving presents (as long as I don’t have to go to the mall) and I love getting gifts as much as the next guy. But I also know that Christmas can easily be about a mile wide and an inch deep—unless we remember what it’s really all about. And WHO it’s really all about.

I’m admittedly proud and pleased that my old mom and dad’s ancient and basic Christmas lights still burn. A seventy-five year-old light bulb is impressive by any standard—but that’s nothing compared to a Light that came into the world and split the darkness some 2,000 years ago.  Isaiah (9:2) foretold it, “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the shadowlands of death, a light has dawned.” John, a gospel eyewitness, wrote about the culmination of Isaiah’s words, “In Him (Jesus) was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not overcome it.” (John1:4,5)

I like to think that one reason I love Christmas lights is because deep inside I know that Christmas, more than anything else, is about Light. God Himself pulled on a dingy cloak of humanity and came to get up close and personal with us—His majesty was cloaked, yes—but the Light leaked through. It pulsed above a stable in a Bethlehem sky; it illuminated the minds of shepherds and fishermen and rabbis and tax collectors and prostitutes and anyone else who would open their eyes; later, it poured out of a sealed tomb to forever change the score in cemeteries. And it is still shining brightly today!  Can you see it? Can others see it in and through you?

Jesus the Light said it: “Let your light shine brightly before others, so that they may see your good works, and then give glory to your Father in Heaven.” Now there’s our challenge for the New Year!

Merry Christmas!

Little Shepherds, Little Sheep, and a Big Message

Author’s Note:  I’m taking a break from my African posts during December. At our church we celebrate the season of Advent which encompasses the 4 Sundays before Christmas. Among other things, we light a new candle each week, which helps us realize how fast the season is moving, and also points us toward some of the significant players in the heavenly drama that unfolded that first Christmas. The third week of Advent begins Sunday, and what I will share below is a part of that message that centers around the “candle of the shepherds.”  Hope you enjoy it, and maybe even think about it a little bit! And in case I don’t get to write again before Christmas, let me say how much it means to me that I have a solid cadre of faithful readers.  Your encouragement–and really just the fact that you read my stuff–is what keeps me writing.  Merry Christmas!!

I love Christmas!  I love the lights and the music and the food and the presents and time spent with people I love. And I love the message! Whether you recognize it or not, Christmas is but one more resounding echo of the Gospel, the Good News–promised, provided and proclaimed by God himself. It’s beautiful, it’s good, and it’s all so unexpected!

Think back to the Christmas text in Luke 2: An angel of the Lord appears to these sleepy little shepherds who are out mindlessly minding their own little business. Then suddenly the night sky is ripped apart by the very Glory of the Lord, as if God for just a moment in time tore the curtain that separates heaven from earth, and that glory leaked out. And the shepherds are just terrified! This is no little fright. It’s a “fall to the ground and hide” afraid, a “change your pants” kind of afraid, a “this is it, we’re all gonna die!” afraid. They respond appropriately, as anyone would when confronted with the brilliant glory of God. You see, you can’t hide there! God’s brilliance not only shows us his incredible lightness of being, it shows and reveals all the things about us we’d just as soon hide. But in the light of God, we can’t.

These little shepherds knew, instinctively, what they were dealing with. So there was nothing to do but fall on their faces and hope the coming obliteration would be mercifully quick and painless. We lack their sense, when in our own ways we each tend to avoid or run from the unwavering light of God and his Word trying in vain to cover up the disappointing truth of who we are really. We know that truth already, of course. And so does he. But in the darkness or half-shadows, it’s easy to live with our ragged-edged realities or imagine that maybe we are somehow able to hide the worst of it, if not from ourselves at least from others.

Our own response is an autonomic echo from Eden, when Adam and Eve chose the Devil’s lie over a perfect relationship with God. They had been warned, and they deserved to die. When God shows up he finds that they are trying both to hide and cover themselves with fig leaves and excuses that are equally flimsy.  For the first time ever, they are afraid of God. But instead of obliterating them and starting over with better stock, God cuts them off from the relationship they’d previously enjoyed with him, and casts them out of Eden. And for the first time in their lives they inhabit the inhibited perspective of outsiders, no longer welcome in paradise.  As God explains the resonating consequences of their choice and spells out the punishment, he tells the serpent—the Devil—“I will make enemies of you and the woman and between both of your offspring. He will crush your head, bruising his heel in the process.” This Gospel fore-shadow all the way back in Genesis looks all the way to the cross, to the time when Jesus would inflict an ultimately fatal blow upon Satan, but not without injury to himself.

At the cross, which is just a skip from Christmas, the sin of Adam was paid for and the excommunication undone. Through the cross we descendants of Adam are no longer outcasts, no longer cut off from the presence of God. Although our human nature, courtesy of Adam, makes us inclined to hide and cower and cover up the nakedness of our flaws in a kind of vain insincerity—the message of Christmas, and the cross, is that we don’t have to be afraid of getting what we deserve, and that in fact, punishment is not God’s objective.

So the message to the little shepherds is really still God’s big message to us: “Don’t be afraid!” And here’s why—“I bring you good news that will be of great joy to all the people—today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.” Don’t miss the message! “Your Deliverer has come!” God says. “You’re about to be rescued! No more living in the dirt east of Eden. No more barriers between you and God. No more need to live or walk in the darkness; you don’t have to hide in shame, and you don’t have to be afraid anymore!”

Even though we are very much like these little shepherds of Luke 2 and their little sheep as well—even though we are little and timid and prone to wander and get lost; even though we need lots of attention and we reek of the fallen-ness of humanity, rightfully made outsiders due to the stench of sin—still the angel army choir shouts their song to us: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace to men and women on whom his favor rests.”  The message is good news…a message of favor instead of fear. When the shepherds received it, they “…let loose, praising and glorifying God.” When we receive it, shouldn’t we do that, too?

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Giving Thanks for the “Haves” and “Have Nots”…

Nothing moves as fast as the last six weeks of the year; the final “42” get sucked into the vortex of holiday activities, and perhaps, like the sun that seems to move faster at sunset, these last days of the year pick up speed before they’re sucked beneath the horizon of 2013, never to be seen again in their past form. There is something manic–and something very special at the same time–about the holiday season. And we can miss what is most relevant if we fail to consider some big picture issues, and indeed if we fail to pause at a few junctures along the way and take time to consider the same.

I’ve been blogging exclusively about Africa ever since returning from my travels in July.  Those of you who’ve only started following this blog in recent months may not know that before I went to Africa, I never wrote about Africa. In fact, truth be told, the “ink” of my writer’s pen had just about run dry in the first half of the year; due to schedules and stresses and the fact that good writing is hard work and takes time–there wasn’t much going on from my end. Then God detoured my agenda with a trip to Africa. What I experienced there caught my attention and gave me something to write about again, and that has been good. I realize today with some sadness that I’m running low on the notes I took during the trip, and my travelogue of that journey must certainly be nearing a logical end. I still have a few more installments; after that, well, I’ll pray that God will continue to fuel my passion and pen, and that I’ll be able to refocus a bit on the big picture that shows God’s abundant grace, given so freely to real people–real messes–like me. Every single day, if we pay attention, proves that God cares much more than he should for people who have it together much less than we should. But I’ll also be eager to continue finding ways to show how God’s grace is very much with the people of places like Africa and that indeed if he cares about them, then so must we.

All of this musing as the year runs low on days brings me to ask, how should my experiences this year color my perceptions of Thanksgiving and Christmas? Let’s tackle the Thanksgiving angle today.  My perspective on Thanksgiving, as it pretty much always has been, is primarily that of a child who never missed a meal, never lacked for clothing or shelter or love. My gratitude has never been hard to find because, in part, neither have my blessings. I’m a free citizen (at least for now) of what still is a country in which almost everyone in the world wishes they lived. I was raised on and have come to understand my spiritual blessings in Christ.  I have a great job with great people to partner with me in a great effort. I have a great family, all of whom are doing well and are healthy. My children (I love them dearly!) have all left the nest and only come back for welcome visits that have a beginning and end. My only debts are mortgage-related and manageable with an end in sight. I have a little retirement fund and a little savings and am even able through God’s blessings to give away a little more of it every year. I had great parents who, although they never had much materially, had the riches that only come to those who know true gratitude for what they have, and whose God never once let them down when it came to providing for their needs and beyond.  What I’m trying to say is I’m blessed and I know it.

But then this summer I was reminded anew of the fact that most of the people in the world have few or perhaps none of the things I’ve listed above. This was not an “awakening” awareness, as I’ve seen poverty and hunger before. I’ve been to impoverished Caribbean islands, I’ve been to rural Russia, I’ve been to Mexico every summer for the past 16 years. I’ve been to slums in Amarillo and I’ve waded through the sea of “humanity in need” that lines up at our Family Service Center 4 times a week. I’m not naïve about need and want. But there are times when God makes it personal–and Kenya made it personal. My time in Kenya gave names and faces to people who are just struggling to survive. And since I am now personally/financially/spiritually invested in these people–I see them in a different way. And I have had to come to terms with some confusion about blessing and provision.

As one of the world’s tiny minority–one of  “the haves”–I live everyday and take for granted hundreds of blessings I don’t see and that most of the people in the world (the “have-nots”) couldn’t imagine. By almost every standard, in comparison with the vast majority of the world’s seven billion people–I’m rich. Africa pictures 2013 557But I’d be wrong if I only see them as poor, or paint them as poor. Because even though these people I’ve met may well have almost nothing to call their own and struggle every day just to find food and water–the ones who know Jesus Christ stand right alongside me as equal heirs in the kingdom. We are both made rich through the gift of Jesus. We both once were impoverished orphans and now we eat every day at the King’s table, with a seat of our own. Neither of us should be there, but we are.  The distinction of “haves” and “have-nots” does not exist at this table. We become simply, all of us, the sons and daughters of the King.  And being that, we lack for nothing. Our Daddy is the King, after all.

So this Thanksgiving finds me so aware of my material blessings, and more aware than ever of what Jesus said about “those who have been given much.” But my experiences of the year have made me mostly aware that real blessing is not primarily of the material kind. The people of Kenya I met in churches there are some of the most “blessings-aware” people I’ve ever met. They see themselves as rich, in spite of their needs. And that is because they are. They live every day in a close-quarters kind of provision from God’s hand to their mouths…and that makes them much more able even than am I to sing and praise and thank God for what he’s done for them. They depend on him alone, with no confusion about their part in the equation. That makes them rich indeed, a people whose understanding of God’s ability to provide is far more than only academic.

From my side, it serves to make me aware of how responsible I am. While America may seem to be the “bulls-eye” of God’s blessings–and He certainly has given us much–on spiritual terms the impoverished multitudes of Kenya are equally blessed, God having met their most basic need through his son Jesus. Maybe in their material deprivation, almost certainly, they are “more blessed” than we are–because they can see it better. And they sense the hand of God on very personal terms.  From this point on I will never again refer to America as “the most blessed nation”–although in many material senses I could make that argument. I choose to see America, including myself as a proud and thankful American, as “the most gifted nation”  on Earth. For we have been given so much; and that makes us the most obligated nation on Earth. With the great gifts of God come great responsibilities, not the least of which is to find ways to share some of what we have with those around the community and world who “have not.” And we must find more and more ways to do it with more and more unselfishness and less and less tendency to think anything is “ours to have” in any role beyond that of stewards who’ve been gifted much so that we can share much.

I am so thankful for the bounty of God’s blessings; I can count thousands!  But I’m especially thankful this season to have been given new eyes to see how God is blessing his people all over the world; when I become a part of that blessing, the cycle is complete, and my thanksgiving becomes a lot more than just a word.

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Of Outcasts, Idiots, Beggars, Freaks—and Other Assorted Lepers…

Our last adventure found us circled under a sparse shade tree trying to escape the hot desert sun of Turkana, where a roast-beast-feast had been prepared for the honored visitors—us! I covered all of that well in my last post, but I didn’t have space or time then to say much about what was one of the most significant events of that day, and perhaps the whole trip.

When we first drove up to the new well-site at Nadabal, there was a great deal of activity already there. It’s always interesting to take in with your own eyes the first real experience of something you’ve only seen in pictures or heard about second hand. And there was so much here to see: Africa pictures 2013 565a literal stream of water, overflow from the well, running a hundred feet or so away in the sand to where it disappeared into the thirsty mouth of the desert; animals of all kinds who had come to drink from that stream; people, as many as 50 at times, circled around the well while some pumped and some caught the precious liquid in old yellow recycled corn oil containers. As I framed the mental pictures of all of these things, one small boy kept finding himself in the corner or background. I have no idea at this time who he is, or who he belongs to; he is just there. (As I look back at my hundreds of photographs of these same images, it is amazing how many times I find his little face!) Africa pictures 2013 557It is obvious that he’s malnourished. In his tiny hands he holds a cup with a handle—his water cup—and a small yellow plastic pail for food. They are both empty, but he knows he has come to a place where they can be filled.

As the day progresses, I see hundreds of other children. But there are a couple of them who catch my notice again and again. One is obviously older than the rest; he is tall and lanky, with tattered clothing and a vacant stare. Another, this one a girl, appears normal at first glance but walks with a strange gait. With closer examination I see that one of her feet is severely deformed, a club foot that “shovels” into the sand with each step. It doesn’t seem to slow her down much. Three children among so many, three children that for whatever reason today seem to be everywhere I am.

It is as we are just finishing the feast that my friend Francis (who helps direct relief operations for CRF in Kenya) comes over to where I am sitting. With him is a little girl; it is the same girl I’ve mentioned above. He explains that she is an orphan. Within about ten seconds I am a sponsor of a CRF child in Kenya! Communication is tough here, as the Turkanans speak their own dialect and the children haven’t learned the British English that comes with school-learning. There are almost no schools here. Yet. As best I can, I try to communicate that I will from now on make sure she is cared for. I’m not sure she understands what I’m planning to do for her, or what this will mean. She will come to understand it soon, I hope.  Very shortly after she has run off to play with the other children, Francis comes up with another child, a tall and lanky one, bigger than the rest, with a vacant stare. He is, of course, the same child I noticed earlier. This is a sneak attack, and within about another ten seconds I am the proud sponsor of a second child in Kenya. Let me introduce these new members of my family:

elkatElkatorot Ekamals is 10. When his parents found out that he was mentally challenged, they abandoned him.  He now lives with an elderly grandmother who has no means of support, along with 10 other people in a tiny grass hut smaller than your toolshed in the parched desert of Turkana. He doesn’t know it, of course, but he’s special. He is “officially” the first child sponsored through CRF in this region. He is the first of a wave that is coming.

Chrotine Akatapan is 5; her parents died of AIDS or were killed in tribal violence. ChrotNo one really knows for sure. Her only means of support is an older brother. She lives in a grass hut with 7 other people. She suffers from a serious foot deformity. She attends a new school that has one teacher and one blackboard. She has the distinction of being the second child sponsored through CRF in this region.

emanEmmanuel Lokolonyoi is 4; his family moved away and left him to starve because he suffers from mental and visual impairments. He moves from house to house wherever he can find shelter; he is never without his cup and bowl, and never without a concern for water and food. Emmanuel is the third child I sponsor through CRF.  (Although his number officially makes him the 89th child sponsored here, that’s only because I sent a picture and it took a while to find him!) I credit Emmanuel, whose name means “God with us”, for sparking the desire of my heart that our church family become significant sponsors and ongoing partners in this region where we have drilled four wells. We are just getting started!

I know these three pretty well; I’ve met them, I’ve seen them with my own eyes and touched them with my own hands. These are the orphans I sponsor in Turkana.  They are three of the hundred we support as a church; they are but three of the 2.5 million in Kenya, and three of the 50 million orphans in Africa. But these three are substantively different now than they were a few months ago, because someone who can make a difference knows their names and someone for whom God has provided much—has been moved to share that provision. I’ve had quite a few conversations with God about “why these three?”  It seems so obvious that I was supposed to see them. They are by no means the prettiest or happiest or smartest of the kids. There was nothing winsome about them at all. In many cases, in many places, these three kids would be, respectively, the village freak, the village idiot, the village beggar. They are but three incarnations of the so many kinds of lepers society loves to shun. To ignore. To marginalize. But now they have a place at the table. That makes me glad. And it reminds me of a bigger story.

Without getting too preachy here, let me remind you that the Gospel itself is a message of help for the helpless–for those who indeed cannot help themselves. For we are all, on our own, at our self-made spiritual bests, the freaks and idiots and beggars—at best—of the village. In our sin we are paupers, in our sin-deformed selves we are damaged goods, in our sin-confusion we are twisted and dim in our understanding. But then Christ, sent by the Father right into our damaged and dangerous world, has rescued us. And he has audaciously called us his brothers and sisters, the adopted sons and daughters of God. It’s a hard reality for us to fully grasp, that the King would so love and so choose the pauper children of earth to be his own. But he did and does. Maybe that’s why they call it good news.