Slogging Through

“But I do not count my life of any value to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the good news of God’s grace.” ~St. Paul (Acts 20:24 | NRSV)

It is a good thing we don’t know the outcome before beginning; most wouldn’t have courage enough to initiate the journey. This life is anything but a cakewalk for the vast majority, meaning perseverance trumps giftedness. It is likely that the preacher had this in mind when he quipped:

“Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the skillful; but time and chance happen to them all” (Ecclesiastes 9:11 | NRSV).

While most enjoy occasional triumphs along the way, much of life is spent slogging through the mundane. As a younger man I eschewed anything that smacked of ordinariness; in my latter triad of life I am discovering that God rests in the people and experiences easily taken for granted. The everydayness of our existence will never enjoy good press, simply because it is so, for lack of a better word, common. You must grant yourself permission to discern grace in the commonplace. This is more than stopping to smell the roses. It is reveling in the rose’s glory and, more importantly, finding delight in its Creator who designed such beauty for our enjoyment. Make today an experiment that may change your life: Look hard to detect meaning in the most mundane aspects of your day, and then voice praise to your Heavenly Father for granting that moment or person or trial for your benefit. If Scripture is true in stating that God gives good gifts to his children, this day is replete with gifts waiting to be unwrapped by the discerning heart. Do yourself a favor as Brother Lawrence did, and practice the presence of God by establishing an altar in your heart that turns each moment into fuel for red hot passion for Holy God. In so doing, you will discover not only joy for the journey, but endurance needed to finish well. 

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Disagreement

“‘That was excellently observed’, say I, when I read a passage in an author, where his opinion agrees with mine. When we differ, there I pronounce him to be mistaken.” ~Jonathan Swift

We are not all the same, but we were never intended to be. A single note holds meaning, but greater beauty is produced by dissimilar notes pressed into service cooperatively. Single notes sound forth a simple melody, but chords navigate and convey the complexity of a symphony. The larger question in life is not how to avoid conflict, but rather, how do I manage dissonance? I rarely read authors with whom I know I fully agree. Frankly, I am convinced of what I believe, making it all the more critical that I test those beliefs against divergent voices. I am stretched to think deeply when someone challenges my sacred presuppositions and forces me to reexamine in light of Scripture rightly divided. The individuals that help refine me are those who refuse to accept me at face value and push to see if there is substance behind profession. Disagreement may be voiced in love. There is no plot without conflict; I am able to improve because of friction rising from dissonance. Never give hatred a foothold. Choose to rise above anger and learn from it. Re-evaluate your position and humbly admit when you are wrong. “One of the truest signs of maturity is the ability to disagree with someone while still remaining respectful” (Dave Willis). Humble yourself by refusing to gloat when you are right. Whether we want to admit it or not, we do not grow in an environ of sameness. We flourish as we push back from what we recognize of ourselves in those we oppose, and as we give the Father space and permission to prune us in the process.

Words Are Life

“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” ~Ernest Hemingway

Imagination budded as a child and written expression gave it wing to soar. I learned the comfort of words and the ecstasy of a reader’s admiration. Literary growth stalled in my youth as creativity succumbed to academic necessity. What began as an extension of myself muddled into stifling limitation, graded boxes that confined imagination. I place no blame for this on my teachers or curriculum, realizing the responsibility rests squarely on my shoulders. In college, I found new pleasure in research and academic writing that in turn prepared me for fulfillment through sermon preparation. I rarely read from a manuscript when preaching, but preparation for oral expression comes primarily through written construction. Words are life.

In the late afternoon of life, I am discovering writing as calling; or perhaps I should say that writing is uncovering me. Instead of sudden insight, self-awareness more naturally unfolds like a quilt removed from cedar chest storage and unfurled into winter service. Personal exploration may be excruciating, but it is necessary preparation for higher expression. All that is to say that I write these days with hope that my words shaped by moral and spiritual underpinnings will linger long after I’m gone. Find what it is that allows you to most fully be yourself, and express it in such a way that others may be altered by it. What we do in life should grow beyond our death. Each of us is called to outlive ourselves. 

Fireworks and Fireflies

“Simplicity is the glory of expression.” ~Walt Whitman

We heard fireworks last night disturb the distance. At first I thought our grandchildren were having a late night soirée because our daughter had texted earlier to tell us they stopped by one of the numerous temporary stands to buy enough sparklers, Roman candles, and assorted noise makers to mark well the Birthday of our nation. When I looked at the time on my phone, I realized it was far too late for them to be outside disturbing the peace. I listened closely and recognized the sounds were reaching us from a decent span away. I decided to step outside anyway to see if any light displays accompanied the staccato blasts. I walked slowly up our circular drive and along the wooden fence that divides our place from the horse pasture to the south of us. Intent on determining proximity of the fireworks, I almost missed seeing the flash of light over my shoulder. The bright yellow blink was followed by another and still another, nudging me to turn around in the effort to discover their origin. I ended up witnessing a grand display of fireflies chasing one another with strobelike effect; however, much more was taking place than met my uninitiated eye. 

According to the Smithsonian Institute, fireflies have short lifespans. An adult firefly lives only long enough to mate and lay eggs—the larvae usually live for approximately one year, from mating season to mating season, before becoming adults and giving birth to the next generation. They are winged beetles, commonly called fireflies, lightning bugs, or glow worms for obvious reasons. What may not be quite so obvious is the underlying purpose for their conspicuous bioluminescence during twilight. Fireflies emit light mostly to attract mates, although they also communicate for other reasons as well, such as to defend territory and warn predators away. In some firefly species, only one sex lights up. In most, however, both sexes glow; often the male will fly, while females will wait in trees, shrubs and grasses to spot an attractive male. If she finds one, she’ll signal it with a flash of her own. In some places at some times, fireflies synchronize their flashing. What appears as intermittent illumination is actually drama on a grand scale.

I frequently pursue the distant darkened rumble at the expense of enjoying spectacular bursts closer at hand. We are wired to crave the spectacular; theatrics trump commonplace for most of us. We prefer the stage or silver screen to the backyard. I can remember as a child expecting to hear symphonic scores trolling as I went through the motions of adolescence. There is glory in the ordinary if we will pull ourselves from distant thunder and recognize what lies closest at hand. A grandchild’s grin, your spouse’s touch, the laughter of a friend, a moment to sit and reflect on the gift each breath brings–these are the currents of splendor waiting to be embraced and cherished. Glory abounds for those intent on finding it. Will I chase after fireworks or treasure fireflies?


(Photo from the Natural History Museum of Utah)

Judging

“As long as we continue to live as if we are what we do, what we have, and what other people think about us, we will remain filled with judgments, opinions, evaluations, and condemnations. We will remain addicted to putting people and things in their “right” place.” ~ Henri J. M. Nouwen

Walking the circuit comprised mainly of Horseshoe Bend is as close to an evening ritual as we get. Heading back home, my wife and I walked up on a woman gesticulating animatedly near the intersection with Rock Creek Road. Wary of a disturbed mental state, I moved between her and my wife. On closer observation, we saw that she was in her right mind and merely pointing excitedly across the road in the direction of dense vegetation and two towering elms. We heard them before seeing them. Mature owls were attempting to distract from young offspring in the trees. A family of barred owls calls our neighborhood home, and I’ll be the first to admit that their monkey calls to one another and stealth sightings are a pretty big deal. Still, the woman who first spotted them near the Bend was giddy to the point of appearing odd, and I said as much to me wife when we made our way around the S curve near the private lane we call home. I dismissed the strange woman’s worth and sanity with a sweeping statement something to the effect of, “That woman is crazy.” I stopped mid-sentence and remarked, “I’m judging aren’t I? Please forgive me.” Of all people, I have no right to judge anyone else, especially someone simply expressing enthusiasm over a seldom seen owl encounter.

I am offended by the world, largely because I see far too much of myself reflected in it. My heart rages at injustice, yet I detect my own prejudices staring back at me. I rant against liberal leanings and aberrant morality, but turn away in shame from the hypocrisy of my conservative theological and political stance juxtaposed against leniency toward sin in my own life. I cry out for light in a darkened world while refusing to be that light in fear it may cost too much, or anything for that matter. While proudly declaring myself Christian, all too often I fail to behave like Christ. Thank God there is hope for hypocrites like me. Recognizing our penchant for being spiritually two-faced is a first step toward singular devotion to Jesus Christ that transforms thought, behavior, and allegiance. Lower your head in confession, then raise it with your jaw set to live as Christ among a fallen humanity still waiting for someone to offer a hand up.

“The gospel is absurd and the life of Jesus is meaningless unless we believe that He lived, died, and rose again with but one purpose in mind: to make brand-new creation. Not to make people with better morals but to create a community of prophets and professional lovers, men and women who would surrender to the mystery of the fire of the Spirit that burns within, who would live in ever greater fidelity to the omnipresent Word of God, who would enter into the center of it all, the very heart and mystery of Christ, into the center of the flame that consumes, purifies, and sets everything aglow with peace, joy, boldness, and extravagant, furious love. This, my friend, is what it really means to be a Christian” (Brennan Manning).

Punching Holes in the Night

“Faith is the strength by which a shattered world shall emerge into the light.”~ Helen Keller

Words hold potential to convey both meaning and sentiment, but every now and then fall short on both counts. At times, words won’t flow at all; herein lies my predicament. I fully intended to post compelling accounts of my encounters in Iraq, but each attempt ends in an unnerving swell of emotion that demands I turn away from the task at hand in order to weep and pray over the most horrific and hopeless contexts I have witnessed in nearly forty years of global ministry. Evil is neither philosophical abstract nor pigeonhole for whatever goes wrong in the world. It has a name-ISIS, whose hideous malevolence darkens the countenance of the innocent. While walking through the burned-out shell of a church near Mosul, Iraq, Franklin Graham’s translator told him that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria graffiti scrawled on the walls read, “You love life, we love death.” Members of ISIS had painted their flag and written, “We have come to drink your blood.” The full import of war can never be fully measured by calloused assessment of casualties and mass migrations, it is painfully recorded in hollow eyes and blank stares, in ragtag children forced to scrounge for food and live in plastic tents if they’re luck enough to call one home, in a mother raising a family of eight or more in a tent too small for half that many, in children that dream at night with no hope for tomorrow. Dignity is at a premium when life is reduced to living one cup of water at a time. 

Perhaps the starkest contrast for me in Iraq was standing in the Samaritan’s Purse emergency field hospital near the curtained off room where the injured lie who have no hope of life. They come there to die. A handwritten sign above the simple bed instructs the medical staff to secure a replacement before leaving the space. Someone sits at all times with the terminally injured while they step over the threshold to whatever awaits them beyond this life. Indiscriminate compassion trumps evil. Love flourishes in tears, and hope finds purchase in hearts cleansed by Jesus against the backdrop of blood smeared bodies and missing limbs. Evil does not deserve the spotlight; Christ definitely does. It is especially difficult for me to write about the night because I choose to linger on the light, however meager it may seem at the moment. Buechner speaks of this early in his writing: “…although many modern writers have succeeded in exploring the depths of human darkness and despair and alienation in a world where God seems largely absent, there are relatively few who have tried to tackle the reality of whatever salvation means…Sin is easier to write about than grace, I suppose, because the territory is so familiar…I was too occupied with my job to think much about the next novel I myself might write, but it occurred to me that, if and when the time ever came, it would be the presence of God rather than his absence that I would write about, of death and dark and despair as not the last reality but only the next to the last.” I push beyond the veil of hopelessness and choose to dwell on glimpses of redemption. I hold on to the memory of standing in a displacement camp for those forced to flee from their homes in Mosul and cooing to fourteen-day-old survivor Shahem whose name means “strong.” I choose to remember Milad who has lost everything of earthly value yet proudly declares his name means “Jesus came.” I lift my heart and pray for the ministry of Grace Community Center near Khanke IDP camp, where 16,000 Yazidis live in tents with another 25,000 outside the camp. The Center reaches out to survivors of mass genocide and a living hell at the hands of ISIS. Many of those finding refuge at the Center are girls who have escaped unspeakable slavery, and for the first time in a very long time are surrounded by people who care and offer restoration in Jesus’ name. Evil cannot hold a candle to hope. Darkness boasts that victory belongs to the shadows, but light triumphs by punching holes in the night.

Memorial Day

Love is not love

Which alters when it alteration finds,

Or bends with the remover to remove.

O no, it is an ever-fixed mark

That looks on tempests and is never shaken;

It is the star to every wand’ring bark,

Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.” ~William Shakespeare (Sonnet 116)

“No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”(John 15:13 | NRSV)

Sacrifice demands we remember. We pause in silence because greatest love leaves us speechless. Such remembering stops us in our tracks, and so it should because every human offering made in place of another is a sacred act that harkens back to the ultimate self-oblation by Jesus Christ on a Roman cross. This flies in the face of society that values self-preservation more highly than all else. The most unsettling element of sacrifice is that it transfers greater responsibility; martyrs pass on a sacred baton. Ours is to ensure that selfless acts are not offered in vain. “Sometimes when you sacrifice something precious, you’re not really losing it. You’re just passing it on to someone else” (Mitch Albom). The ones we pause to remember bequeathed a glorious burden to validate liberty; God grant us courage and opportunity to add punctuation to their selfless acts.