Monday, May 30, 2005

How Much Will You Take For It?

I confess, I don't care for garage sales. I often wonder, "If it isn't good enough to live in that house, why do we think it is good enough for ours?" Fact is, I don't like any place where you have to barter or play pricing games. They are too much like life. I'll explain.

It happens to everyone, and this particular night it was my son's turn. The wind caught his door and it thumped into the car door next to him. I was blissfully unaware of this until we got halfway from the car to the restaurant and he said, "Dad, I'm not sure, but I might have dented that car." We walked back and checked the door. Yes, there were two dents in it. We opened ours. Yes, it matched one of the dents. The smaller dent was probably ours. I pulled out one of my business cards and wrote on the back of it that the owner should call us and we would take responsibility for fixing the door, no questions asked. Duncan wondered if we should have to fix the whole door when we were only responsible for the smallest dent. I told him that it was our job to have it fixed. They could decide whether or not to mistreat us. That was their decision. Our decision was to own up to what had happened.

We could have walked away, but think for a second. If I traded my living, breathing Christianity for a few hundred dollars it would have revealed that everything I preach and teach is a fraud. I couldn't sell my faith that cheaply.

And my son? I showed him no anger. He kept saying he was sorry until I held up my hand to stop him. "Duncan," I said, "you are a good son and a good man. You and I have a great relationship. This kind of accident can happen to anyone. Truth be told, it DOES happen to everybody some time or another. There is no way I am trading my relationship with you for five minutes of yelling and three or four days of making your life miserable. It isn't worth it. Let's go eat."

Why sell your son for a lot of yelling and feeling all self-righteous? Why sell your Christianity for a lousy wad of tens? It is still far too easy to sell Jesus for thirty pieces of silver and to sell your family for less.

It is far too easy to sell our unity in Christ for a song preference or a perferred interpretation of a beloved Scripture. It is far too easy to sell our relationship with our loving wives for a power play in an argument or for a half hour of lust fulfilled. It is far too easy to sell our call for evangelism, social justice, peacemaking for another raise, another filled line on our schedule, another entry in the Palm Pilot or ... a pair of shoes. Amos warns us twice (2:6; 8:6) against selling the needy so cheaply.

When we still lived in Scotland we had visitors from time to time. One time a couple came who said they wanted to come and work in Scotland with us to help us build the church. I didn't know him well but I was happy to show him around. He took lots of photos and wanted to have them developed so I took him to a chemist's and we waited a day (this was back in the 80's, children). When we came back for them and he was told by the little girl how much they cost he exploded. It was about twice what he paid for that service back home in the US. He was abusive and insistent about the evil being perpetuated on him. It got so bad that I got hold of his belt (he was a lot bigger than I) and pulled him away from the counter and out of the shop. "Congratulations," I told him. "You just sold that girl's soul for twelve pounds. I will never be able to talk to her about Jesus because she is going to associate me with the huge, red faced, angry American who berated and belittled her over something she could not control or change. I hope you feel better, but she doesn't, I don't, and Jesus doesn't since He now has to find someone else to reach her with the gospel of peace."

In case you are wondering, twelve pounds was about twenty dollars back then, but that isn't the point, is it? The point is that we have a tendency to sell for pennies those things most valuable: our character, relationships, reputations, influence.

Speaking of which... how much do you want for it?

Sunday, May 22, 2005

WAY too busy for....

At my latest high school question/answer period I was asked two different questions that helped me explain Christianity more clearly than I probably would have on my own. One Muslim girl wanted to make the point that Christianity was a religion for lazy people. It didn't demand enough from them, she said, and she pointed to our lack of hundreds of rules for day to day life, dietary laws, strict social rules, etc. as proof. Another question was from a young man asking why there were so many denominations in Christianity. Wasn't that, he said, a sign that there was something wrong with it; some inherent flaw?

I opened my response with a discussion of irreducible minimums. In science, we often speak of the irreducible minimum to establish exactly what we are talking about. For instance, a cup of water can be minimized all the way down to one water molecule, but no further. If you remove one hydrogen atom or one oxygen molecule you no longer have water. Then I took that idea to Christianity. One of the real challenges is to take Christianity down to its irreducible minimum. We don't do that to make following Jesus easy, or because we have a propensity for laziness. We do that so we can truly understand what our faith is and what the Lord requires from us.

Of course, this exercise has consequences. It is not without its own controversies because it tends to toss dogmas out the window to land in the pile right on top of the traditions, preferences, pomp and ceremonies that had to be jettisoned in the search for the pure, the simple, the irreducible minimum. Nobody likes that, but it is a necessary part of the journey. A lot of people will lose their power, their place and even their meaning along the way and we can't expect that to happen quietly. But what it leaves us with is not minimal at all -- but very substantial.

I used First Corinthians 13 as an example (while referencing Galatians 5 and Ephesians 4 as other lists that could be used as a set of minimums) where Paul says only three things remain: faith, hope and love. Then I asked the question this way: "This obviously makes Christianity much simpler, but does it make it easier? Does this make it a religion for lazy people?" Some said yes, others said no, so I went on to explain how this central molecule of Christianity keeps us so busy.

If I love a person I cannot misuse their body for my sexual pleasure, nor can I stand by while they are being harmed, or while they go hungry, or when injustice breaks their lives. I have to spend my life in service to every person I have the opportunity to meet. My faith requires me to change the way I look at the possessions I am renting from God. My hope allows me to let loose of them because I know something better is coming. My love makes me actively seek for ways to use what I have -- goods, money, influence, words, gestures, time -- to bring light and peace into the lives of all around me. I am never given a day off from God or the requirement to show my faith in Christ by my faith, hope and love. And if there is every a question on how best to show my faith or illustrate my hope, I must use love as the trump card, the highest referree of my conduct.

That makes me way too busy to go about policing dogmas, traditions, preferences, dietary laws, song selections, or the thousand things that have split the church since time immemorial. I don't have time to carve out a fiefdom and declare myself the arbitrator of what is acceptable to God. I have way too much to do. I can't take time away from faith, hope and love to do anything else in Christ's name --- even miracles and many might works, as in Matthew 7. I am behind the curve as long as more people are born in the hospital than are born in Christ, and more are being buried in the ground than are being buried in baptism. After I have converted everyone in the Metro Detroit area I will still not have the right to add any of my molecules to the minimum established by Christ. For that minimum does not release me from duty or make my path easy. It consumes me and I have time for nothing else.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Hungry Kids

I got to spend the day at Rochester High School yesterday doing one of my favorite things in the world. For some reason, public schools in this area have invited me in several times a year to speak on a variety of issues -- all of which you would think would be verboten. Three times I have been asked to speak (all of these are to juniors and seniors) on "Why I Chose Christianity." Each time I was the last speaker after they had already heard from the top Iman, the top Buddhist, the head of the local atheist group, etc. Twice I have been invited to come and speak in one high school that advertised on flyers in the hallways for skeptics, believers, and nonbelievers to come and bring their toughest questions and try to stump me! Yesterday was the fourth time I have been asked to come speak to a world's religions class. The students compiled dozens of questions that I was handed as I came in the door. I love doing this kind of stuff and it never ceases to amaze me what questions they come up with and the grace of God in allowing me to walk into their lives like this.

Here are just some of the questions I was asked yesterday. I want to stress that you can read some of these questions in an agressive, ironic, or sarcastic way but NONE of them was presented that way to me. I was overwhelmed by the hunger in their hearts and the sincerity in their eyes as they looked for something solid, something real, and for someone who would answer their questions without flinching.

Why do Catholics pray to Mary?

What is the rosary?

Are there such things as mystical artifacts?

What Bible verse condemns gay marriage?

If I give oral sex, but don't receive it, am I doing anything wrong?

Is there anything a Christian can do that would make them not a Christian?

Is the Da Vinci Code true?

Why is there hell and how could a loving God send people there?

Why aren't you a Moslem?

What was there before God? If God is eternal, how can Jesus be His Son?

Explain the Trinity. Moslems say it is worshipping three gods. Is it?

How many denominations are there? What does nondenominational mean?

Why do Christians oppose abortion?

And it went on and on. I spoke for three hours (two classes) and gave out my email to the students so that they could respond to me or ask any further questions down the road. In every class there were a couple of Goths, a few Muslims, some believers, some skeptics, a few Catholics, and a mix of Protestant church members. I had to keep reminding myself to tell the true but "be wise as a serpent and harmless as a dove," mimicking Christ who wouldn't break a bruised reed or quench a smouldering wick.

It is a blessing to speak with teens and hear their questions, their hearts, their blunt challenges, and see the map of their soul's journey revealed in their words and eyes. Don't buy into the world's assertions that kids are disconnected, uninterested, and unwilling to listen. But also don't buy into the myth that our kids have learned our faith well and can defend it. They haven't and they can't. Use this little math problem as an illustration: if a child goes to every Sunday and Wednesday Bible class, never missing, it will take him fourteen years to have spent as much time as he will spend getting through first grade. So, working from that, the seniors I spoke to yesterday have spent 17,280 hours in school (assuming no missed days) and 18,615 hours watching TV (assuming national norm of 3 hours daily) which means that if they also attended every single Sunday and Wednesday Bible class for seventeen years (1,768 hours tops), school has had ten hours for every one they had in Bible class and TV has had even more than ten for every one hour of Scripture teaching. Note that this leaves out hours spent with earbuds and iPods, video games, etc. No wonder they have so many questions and so few answers!

It is up to the parents to teach the children, and when they fail to do so it is up to the church to make teaching the children their first priority. One of Rochester Church's five commitments is that we will leave no child behind. All of them will be taught lovingly and thoroughly, given ample opportunity to fellowship, study, pray, and grow together with the rest of us. It has to be a higher priority than buildings, equipment, salaries, etc.

Teens. They are so wonderful, so precious, it breaks my heart with joy when I get to be with them. Even if they seem withdrawn, disconnected, sullen or quiet, they have questions. We have answers, for we know Jesus.

[NOTE: on a totally different matter -- some have asked me to tell the readers of this blog about a cruise my wife and I are leading January 7th 2006 for five nights on Royal Carribbean out of Fort Lauderdale to Grand Cayman and Jamaica. Money from the cruise is going to two mission points we support and we would love to have you join us. There are still some cabins remaining. Go to and click on Christian Cruises for more information or get the phone number from there and call Sue Yanaros, a sister in Christ who is organizing this for us]

Monday, May 16, 2005

It's All About Who?

My son was about seven when he and I went to shop at Target (hey -- only the best for us). In the checkout line a lady looked at me and asked me where I got the shirt I was wearing. I told her I got it from a youth rally I had spoken at... and she cut me off. "I was talking about him," she said, pointing to Duncan. Duncan told her about his shirt and then we walked out to the car. On the way, my little guy said, "You know, dad, sometimes it isn't about you."

Good thing to remember. This week has been a roller coaster ride as I spoke at two different treatment centers for the mentally retarded and developmentally disabled, one in Toledo and one southeast of Canton, Ohio. I was there to encourage the workers and get their morale up. When I arrived, I was given a grand tour and treated like a king... but I couldn't help but notice that those who were lauding me were better people than I will ever be. Let me explain.

In Toledo, the Sunshine Children's Home was started by a family who had five MRDD children of their own. Their family gave them some land outside of the city so that they would raise their children away from the city; so they wouldn't embarass the rest of the family. Rather than become bitter, this family placed signs on roads around the area saying that they would take any unwanted child. People took them up on it and they would find babies left on their doorstep or on a counter in their kitchen. Years later, as they aged, the Mennonites came in to keep their work alive. They are still a huge part of the funding and oversight of the home that now serves 76 residents and many more on a day care basis. The servers, nurses, administrators, and aides were happy in their work and the smiles of caregivers and patients alike were so genuine they jarred me.

Two days later I was speaking at St. John's Villa, a larger treatment facility for children and adults with MRDD. It is run by nuns of the Order of Saint Francis and I am here to tell you that his spirit is still alive and well in them. The facility was spotless, the children and adults were smiling, busy, working, laughing, making things and -- yes -- finding meaning and place. The people glowed with purpose and kindness. I was humbled and -- in an odd way -- ashamed to be in their presence. Here I am, a man with a lovely wife and two incredible, healthy kids. I am blessed to be the preaching minister for the largest church of Christ in the north and people pay me to come and talk to them about a wide variety of subjects. And yet... here are people who work 24/7 for pitiful wages, working with people who will never, ever get better. There are no goals they can realistically set for the kids. They are there not for glory, money, or even professional advancement. They are there out of love.

So I gave my talks, but part of me was screaming inside my head that I should shut up and just follow them around instead. Here are people glowing with the love that Christ told us about, that John declared was the mark of the true disciple of Christ in First John, and who took seriously Christ's admonition to care for the weak, fallen, poor, and needy. And they did it with a joy and peace that is still resonating in me days later.

These are people who get it: it isn't about us. We are a part of the journey, but we are not its point.

The most worshipped God I know is the god in the mirror. We spend our money on him, our time on him, and want to make him happy and comfortable. Even in our worship we want to please that god that stared back at us as we shaved that morning. If something upsets us we act as if the True God was offended for... He would have to be offended if we were, right? Somehow we have bought into the idea that this life, this world, and this church are about us. And yet, God -- remember God? -- doesn't act like that even though it really is all about Him! Instead, He stoops to conquer us with love. He gets on the floor with us even though -- like those lovely little souls in St. John's Villa and Sunshine Children's Home -- we have no real hope of getting much better. He feeds us, cares for us, showers us with rain and sunshine and, more than this, loves us deeply just because we exist.

My son was right. It isn't about me. I will only have value in this life to the extent that I reflect Christ in all I do and say. "Dear Lord, let me this day begin to fade away. May each day of the rest of my life find me looking less like me and more like Jesus. Make me as wise as a serpent, as harmless as a dove. And make me invisible. Let no one see me, but only You."

Monday, May 09, 2005


You've heard of Stonehenge, but you may not know that there are standing stones all over the Celtic lands of Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Cornwall, Brittany, and the Isle of Man. While other cultures used standing stones, the Celts used them extensively. Scotland, alone, has over one thousand standing stones. Some are in circles, others in long lines that can go miles, and some are clustered around huge cairns used -- probably -- as burial sites back around Moses' time. Many of the stones were originally plain and then adorned later by master stone carvers of the Picts. Others were elaborately adorned but time and weather have worn them down to the point where only sophisicated electronic equipment can discern the old markings. Some have ogham script along the sides, but most of that has been lost -- again, due to time and tide.

Many imaginative theories have arisen over the years to explain why these stones were raised and placed just so all over the northern lands, but it must be said that every theory has been lacking in one way or another. Caesar said they were Druidic temples but we now know the stones predate the Druids by a thousand years. More modern theorists declare that they were astronomical observatories or calendars. "See," they whisper excitedly, "how they point just so on such and such a date!" Unfortunately, everything is pointed somewhere at some time so these theories are probably just wishful thinking.

Whatever their original purpose, enough records survive to show how the later Celts used the stones. They served as touchstones for the community, places of gathering where the people could reconnect as a tribe -- one with each other and different from all others. It was where they came to settle differences, to trade, to worship, to find brides or husbands, to set races or other competitions, or to touch base with their cultural history and listen to the storytellers (the seannachies).

We all need touchstones. They are the re-centering points of our lives. They give us meaning, or remind us of our meaning. They serve the same purpose as our to-to lists: they show us how we are doing. Touchstones comes in a stunning variety of forms. For some, family is a touchstone. For others, it can be the raising of the flag. Everytime I see that flag go up and hear the Star Spangled Banner my allergies act up and my eyes start watering... even though my people lost that war! When I see a soldier walking through the airport, it is a touchstone, reminding me that the important matters in life aren't American Idol and Paula Abdul. When I come to worship with my brothers and sisters I encounter a significant touchstone that re-centers, re-focuses, and re-aligns my life. Others use vacation spots, hobbies, favorite old books... but touchstones are important to all of us. They keep us from descending into the anonymous, grey "they." We are something and we are going somewhere and we can tell because of the touchstones in our lives.

Every year or so I travel back to the Western Isles of Scotland. I stand on the tiny island of Iona where Christianity came to Scotland and reconnect by the huge stone cross in front of the ancient abbey. I watch the ships come and go in the little harbor of Tobermory on the Isle of Mull. I go the winged isle, the isle of mists -- the Isle of Skye -- and walk the cliffsides north of Portree before heading over just out of Edinbane and touching the stones. When my daughter was two I placed her atop one of the stones and took her picture. She is smiling, laughing, beaming in that photo. I saw her graduate from Lipscomb this weekend and took more pictures -- she was smiling, laughing, beaming. Touchstones.

Today is very busy. I got home at 1:30AM, was in my office by 8AM and I have tons of work to get done. But whatever else I do today, nothing will be as important as visiting the touchstones. I will pray, tell my wife I love her, hug my parrot, talk to my son, call my daughter, play a song on a guitar or ukulele. If I do not do these things I become a wanderer, a lost soul, without compass, community, or meaning.

Whatever else you do today, get to the touchstones in your life. Reconnect with the eternal.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Farther Along Than We Think

This will be a parrot-free post! Remember the name of this blog is "tentpegs"? It refers to the fact that we are on a journey from here to heaven and that we have a tendency to drive our tentpegs down deep, settling in, and acting like we are already home. I received a touching email from one of my members today concerning life, the universe, and everything. She had been deeply affected by the death of one of the most beautiful young ladies on the planet, Katie Kirkpatrick, earlier this year. Katie died the week of her wedding after fighting cancer for several years. She was prettier than most models I've ever seen and totally dedicated to her Lord -- heart, soul and mind.

Her friend wrote me wondering if Katie really understood the hymns she sang about going home to see Jesus. Then, she wondered, will I ever really be able to sing those songs and mean it? Why are we here anyway? How can we "give it to God" and still live up to our responsibilities? Why is it that God's plan doesn't always look right to us?

Let's review a vital statistic: one out of one dies. When we prayed for Katie over the last few years we asked God to completely heal her and bring her joy and peace. He did. He answered our prayers even though we didn't understand that her body was too broken to restore. He took her home and healed her there, wiping away her tears even as ours fell to the ground. Why? "We'll understand it all by and by."

We came into this world kicking, screaming, squinting, and swinging our little balled fists. We didn't want to leave the nice, warm, dark place we'd called home for months. It didn't seem right to have lights in our face, strangers hoisting us about the place, and somebody with scissors clipping off our lifeline to mom! After awhile we made peace with the new place, explored it a bit, and decided we'd stay here forever... only to find out that we wouldn't. Our bones got a little stiffer, God rearranged the hair on our bodies in rather embarassing ways, people started hiding our keys, and people started asking if we wanted the senior discount.

We look in the mirror and realize: we've peaked! We are never going to get better looking. It's over. You could Bow-Flex us within an inch of our lives and we still wouldn't look like the model on the box.

For most people, the last part of the journey towards God occurs in a dim fog, a slowing down of life and ability. For others it comes in a rush with an onslaught of steel at an intersection. For still others it happens with the slow drip of an IV and doctors making frowny faces. But the end always comes. For all of us, there will come the time to leave.

So how do we trust God during all of this? It is only fair to point out that He certainly trusts us! He lets us run off the leash. He sets us free. No robot children or Stepford wives for God. He loves us, gifts us, and asks us to stay close but like some beagle on its third cup of expresso we chase birds and butterflies and clouds as if we could catch them. He keeps calling us back, telling us to stay close, stay safe, make Him proud. It doesn't make sense to us at the time -- doesn't He see that bird? It needs chased!

Remember when you were a kid? Love didn't always feel like love, did it? Eat your peas, go to bed and, no, you can't watch that show. When you grew up a bit, you saw things differently. When you're a kid you deal with limited experience, limited knowledge, and limited perspective. We are all God's children and His perspective is entirely different from ours. We have to learn how to "trust and obey for there's no other way."

And we have to make sure that the tentpegs aren't rammed down like we are staying here long. Look at your life and possessions. If you can't burn it on an altar, it is a god. If you can't walk away from it for Jesus, it owns you.

Sing the songs about home and Jesus. Live each day realizing the words are real and so is the journey. Saddle up.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Einstein and Zac the parrots

All right, since there seems to be so much interest here, you might want to check out: and click on the video of Einstein the African Grey. There is another video about Zac, a macaw, but Einstein steals the show!

A book about parrots that is also tied in with the kind of work I do on intelligence and brain function in humans is "The Parrot Who Owned Me" by Dr. Joanna Burger.

I'll stop talking about parrots and get back to work now. Cheerio.

Monday, May 02, 2005

What I Learned From My Parrots

We have a parrot of our own (his name is Scooby because he thinks he's a dog. Really) but we also take in sick, abused, or insane parrots, fix them up, work with them, and then find them homes. All that can take a year or more, but we have time and they are interesting so it's all right. The story of how we got into all of this is too long and, sadly, not terribly interesting, so I won't go into that. What I will take a moment to tell you is what my parrots tell me about life and God.

1. Greet the Day With Joy: I don't do this. I am not a morning person. If allowed, I would get up at the crack of noon every day. As it is, I pull my bones out of bed, calling upon the Lord, and sometimes, while attempting to stand, fail to nail the dismount. It isn't something you want to visualize. Mornings are just too early, too cold, and too dark for me. Parrots, however, are hardwired by God to greet every day with absolute joy and enthusiasm. Somewhere around seven they all begin to sing, laugh, chortle, scream, and whistle to greet the day. It is loud and it lasts about an hour until they see that they really do get to live in this wonderfully marvelous incredible day and their delight turns to curiosity about what it might hold.

2. Don't Lose Your Sense of Wonder: Birds are busy. They work hard on finding new ways to play with their toys, new ways to turn something entirely inappropriate (drapes, books, phones, small children) into a toy, or in walking around laughing and cooing at everything they see. If you are cooking something new they want to taste it. If you are wearing something new they want to examine it. When we turn on the TV four of the birds will run over to watch -- especially football. Sometimes they go to sleep, hanging sideways on the bars of their cages, while watching. They aren't bored. They see something to rejoice about every day. The ordinary thrills them.

3. Rest Time is Good. The birds take a nap every day. Somewhere in mid-afternoon a little birdie bell goes off in their heads and, no matter where they are in the house, they will climb up, perch on something, and go to sleep. Winston Churchill once said he accomplished so much in his life due, in part, to his insistence on the afternoon nap. Total disclosure here: the birds didn't have to teach me this. Resting is my spiritual gift.

4. Don't Be Afraid To Sing Your Song: Each bird has their own repertoire of songs, squawks, squeaks, and whistles. They aren't shy in trying out new words or new sounds and, in fact, can be overheard trying out new ones most days. It doesn't matter what it sounds like to anyone else: they like it, so they sing it. I own several guitars, ukuleles, dulcimers, banjos, etc. and play with a lot more enthusiasm than talent, but that's okay: my parrots taught me it's the joy in the playing, not the talent, that matters.

5. Color and Size Mean Nothing: The birds come in an astonishing variety of colors and sizes but they get along just fine (usually). They put no meaning on color and don't rank each other by size. Sometimes a parakeet will march over and bawl out a macaw that is sixty times his size. Some parrots were disturbed or ill fed and pulled out their feathers, looking like a plucked chicken, but they still are proud little guys.

6. Love is a Good Thing: They don't all love the same, but they all want to love you some during the day. One likes to lean against you and purr while another wants to sing to you, but doesn't like being touched. Each finds a way to show love and to request love in return -- every single day.

It interests me that when God says he owns the cattle, He thens says he "knows" the birds. He tells us that a sparrow will not fall to earth without Him; i.e. will not die alone. While we are worth more than sparrows, there seems to be a special relationship between the Father and His birds. Maybe if I watch them enough, I can learn more about Him. (see Romans 1 for further instructions)