Friday, October 27, 2006

Gone, Baby, Gone

"But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare. Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be?" (2 Peter 3:10,11)

Harsh words -- but profoundly true, nonetheless. Look around you. Everything will burn up one day. True enough, if the world lasts much longer, it will turn to dirt first but eventually the End of Time Barbecue will get it. This shouldn't surprise us... but it always does! A quick glance will show most of us that things change; they get old, worn out, and tossed aside.

When I want to buy a new car, I make myself do something else first. I go and spend a week or two walking around used car lots -- not the nice kind with well lit offices and smiling salesmen, but those that are behind high wire with dogs patrolling the area topped by signs saying "We finance everybody!", "Bankruptcy? No problem!", "Trespassers will be shot on sight!"

The time spent there reminds me that every one of these cars represented a dream for someone. They thought about that car, wanted it so much that they were distracted at work or home, did the research and picked that car. They thought it would make their life happier... and maybe it did, for awhile, but not anymore. Pick up a Penny Shopper or any other local personal sales paper and see how many people want to get rid of the same stuff they couldn't wait to buy not that long ago. The items went from "this will make me happy" to "what will you take for it?" Somewhere there are still closets full of Beanie Babies, Pogs, and Troll dolls someone thought would make them a fortune or, at least, fund their retirement.

There is an echo of this cosmic fact creeping into our culture. When my son takes me into Hollister or Abercrombie and Fitch (this doesn't happen often. The staff usually requests I go elsewhere) I gaze upon the shredded jeans, the shirts with frayed collars and seams, the faded hoodies -- all of which could have been worn by someone run over by a combine harvester -- and it finally dawns on me: this is just Goodwill with better lighting.

[helpful hint: Why pay $4 to have a shirt dry cleaned? Donate it to the Salvation Army. They'll clean it and you can buy it back the next day for $1. Also -- why does our local Salvation Army store have a sign up that says "no $100 bills accepted"? How often does that come up? I asked the guy behind the counter when was the last time he had someone try to pay with a hundred dollar bill. He said never... but he was pretty sure that was because they had a sign]

Change is everywhere. I asked a classroom full of college students yesterday if they had any CDs in their collection they would be embarrassed to admit to. A lot of hands went up. There are still a lot of Backstreet Boys, Debbie Gibson, and New Kids on the Block CDs out there, hiding. Let's keep them that way, shall we?

Tuesday morning I entered my office and realized that something was terribly wrong. The two guitars I keep there were gone. It didn't take long to find out it wasn't someone's idea of a joke and that no one had borrowed them without permission. They were stolen, heisted, gone, baby, gone. I thought "Heck." (for those of you who don't know, "heck" is where people go when they don't believe in "gosh.") My first suspicions were that a music critic had heard me play them and sworn to better the world by removing the WMDs (metaphorically speaking) from my office. This concept was shot down when I saw that the thieves left two ukuleles behind.

I sensed: this is a test. Do you really believe in 2 Peter 3:10,11? Can you let them go quietly with the full realization that they were just kindling for the end of the world anyway? I sat down and read Matthew 6:19-21 again where Jesus tells us not to store up treasures on earth, but to put them in heaven. What most of us hear is the first part -- not the second part. I've been told all my life that "you can't take it with you" but that's not true. We can't take physical things, but we can take our experiences, the relationships that changed us, our gains in knowledge, and our desire to love and serve with us from this world to the next.

You take there what you've made of your life here. Heaven seems to be a busy place -- not some eternal cosmic worship service, but the next and final stage in our service. What we learn and do here will help us up there. When I get to heaven, I will still light up at the thought of my daughter, son and wife. When I see them I will run to them in joy for, you see, I will take my love for them with me. This almost became a reality yesterday as a woman in an SUV didn't see that the light was red and barreled towards me at 60mph. When I saw her realize the coming disaster (she was close enough that I saw her eyes popping wide), I saw her tires light up as she stomped her brakes. She skidded this way and that and I had to punch the accelerator and run the light as she came spinning behind me -- not stopping until she was eighty feet past the light she'd failed to notice until it was almost fatally too late.

What would I have taken with me? Not the guitars, that's for sure. I would have taken my love for my family, for the church universal and local (bye, Rochester!), and for the Lord and His goodness. You see, some things will NOT burn up. Some things will NOT turn to dirt. Who we have become and the good works we do, our prayers and our love, THAT remains forever in the storehouse of heaven.

Take some time to review 2 Peter 3. I need to go now. I have to pick up some things I can take with me... and set in place some things that will remain after I am gone.

Monday, October 23, 2006

How Powerful is Love?

Just over a week ago I went out to Indiana and did a men's retreat on spiritual warfare. The men met in a YMCA camp just north of Lafayette. One warning the men gave me ahead of time: "the college kids probably won't be there. They think this is something for us old guys." I could understand that; when I was in college I am not sure I would go sleep in modified chicken coops for two nights and spend my weekend listening to lectures.

But that's not what happened.

Some college kids and teens came -- not many, but some. One of the first through the door was Rob. Rob was one of our Rochester kids. He grew up here in a Christian family. Sadly, in his last few years of high school, his family went through a terrible time. His father, formally a faithful leader, active in the church, went well off the rails. He got involved in gambling and that led to one vice after another. A divorce followed a long period of pain... but it didn't end the pain. Rob's mother stayed faithful to Jesus and continued to be marked by love and strength... but his father told him that the pleasures of the world were there for him. He had only, to coin a phrase, "take it and eat."

When Rob didn't go to one of the Christian colleges many wondered if he could stay faithful. He was an exceptionally bright young man and had a great future ahead of him if he could stay focused on his studies (he is in materials engineering, therefore Purdue is a good place for him), but his financial and professional future weren't our first concern. Would Rob stay faithful? I know the odds... and they aren't good.

But Rob walked through the door, smiling, personable, equipped with his Bible and marked by the love and faithfulness of his mother. He led songs, read Scripture, and was a natural leader among the men -- most of them two or three times his age. He was optimistic and had the heart of a servant (and the brain of an Einstein). On Sunday morning I watched with pride as he and his friends sat right up front. They arrived early, spent time greeting each other and people from other age groups, participated in the worship and were unfailingly polite.

I couldn't wait to get back home to Rochester and tell his mother: "Your love worked. He is marked with faithfulness and love because you never quit, you never gave up." His mother is a hero to me. I still shake my head about this nine days later. Here is a young man who is offered the world, given permission to do any forbidden thing, but who chooses righteousness because that is what he saw modeled by his mother.

It made me take a good look at myself in the mirror. I had to consider my ways and see if they matched Rob's mother's. I determined that I would remember to out-love everyone I met, to be the most loving person in any room I find myself in, and to remember that what I say and do in public and private will have long term effects in the lives of my daughter, son, and wife.

Later this week I will go shooting with some friends. I have several powerful weapons in the gun safe. Yet, even as I settle down behind this or that rifle I will remember -- this is nothing. This is not powerful. Rob's mother's love? THAT is powerful. And the cool thing? It is available to all of us who decide to love -- no matter what.

It matters.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

A Pathway to Strength

This blog deals mainly with matters of mental health, family life, and related matters. Awhile back I wrote about SAD, seasonal affective disorder. On a day like today when the clouds have closed in and rain and wind lash the streets it might be in order to discuss another pathway to strength; one which is ignored by the majority of Christians.

Take some deep breaths first and make youself promise to read all of this article, not turning off your brain when you see this word..... fasting.

I know the knee jerk responses. I've heard them all. People jump to state that Jesus never commanded us to fast. You're right. He assumed that we would fast ("...and when you fast..."). Others will say that when we fast we aren't supposed to let others know about it. No.... we aren't supposed to trumpet it about and brag about it like the Pharisees. Sometimes fasting is easier when others join you -- a fasting clug for mutual strength and service.

What is a fast and why does it help us? Fasting can be going without all food and just drinking water. It can also be going without food and drinking juices (lots of health benefits for that one). Fasting can also be giving up one particular food -- a favorite food -- for a season (many do this during Lent). When we read Isaiah 58 (go ahead. I'll wait. Back already?) we see that fasting can be the laying aside of self-centeredness and selfishness in order to bring grace, justice, and fairness into the world.

Fasting helps us in many ways. The first way is that it teaches us how to look at something we may have, that God created for us, and saying "no." The word "no" is such a powerful word. We want to tell others "no" but rarely tell ourselves as often as we should. We can fast from going to the mall, from buying online, from TV and the internet, from cursing, from driving too fast or too much... the list goes on forever. And the fast is a time that we give ourselves over to the Lord, to pray, to serve, and to reach out to others.

I fast daily. You see, I was an angry, bitter man who felt that I was called by God to enforce the purity of church doctrine at any cost -- up to an including splitting churches and tossing out the nonconformers. I shudder to think of how morally corrupt I was while at the same time I attacked others for this or that doctrine. When I finally realized what I was doing and how sinful it was (long story), I knew I needed a sign, a daily reminder that I was no longer a predator in God's flock. I stopped eating meat (yes, that includes chicken. I will eat seafood once or twice a month). Understand this: I love meat. I miss it everyday. There are times I go hungry because I'm on the road and there isn't much available that isn't meat-based. But that's good for me. It makes me remember my vow to God. It gives me time to think of those who truly experience hunger -- physical, emotional, or spiritual hunger. It reminds me that this world isn't about me.

There are other reasons to fast. Those who saw Morgan Spurlock's "Super Size Me" saw a quick interview with an MD who talked about the addictive ingredients in some fast food. I know it is easy to pooh-pooh that idea, but it is true. In fact, most foods can become addictive if consumed in great enough quantities over a long period of time, but some fats are especially addictive. The doctor uses one example of using a drug usually reserved for treating treat heroin and morphine addicts treat their cravings on people who are craving chocolate or fast food... and seeing their cravings stop. Through the use of PET scans we can see the same centers of the brain lighting up in the addict and the fast foodie! Why feed the addiction?

Consider doing something like this: two days a month, go on a juice fast. One week a month, do without a favorite food or activity. One meal a month, take the money you would have spent on that meal (ingredients, cost of preparation, cleanup) and give it to the church or to a local charity or mission. Get out your planners and do it now. Then, fast as in Isaiah 58 -- chose a mission, charity, or matter of justice and get involved in it in the Name of the Lord. When the dark days come -- and they DO come -- make yourself get up and serve anyway, pray anyway, fast anyway for it is not about you -- it is "unto the Lord", it is your sacrifice on His altar.

And you will gain strength as He pulls alongside of you and blesses your covenant. Warning: fasting can be very unpleasant at first. Stay with it and you will see a wonderful, wonderful power grow in you. Be strong.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Let's Go For A Walk

When I first met my wife I was so poor that we couldn't go out and eat or see a movie more than once a month. Our dates were me sitting at her dining room table and playing my 12 string guitar as she studied her homework. The greatest thrill, the highest honor, was getting to take a walk with this wonderful woman.

When I read the Bible, I see a theme, a motif, running through it. At the very beginning, in the Garden of Eden, God comes down and walks with Adam and Eve every evening. When the Flood is declared as punishment on the earth God partners with Noah -- one builds the big box and the other brings the animals to it. Shortly afterwards (if not in time, at least in terms of chapters), God comes to Abram and invites him on a walk to a distant land. When the Israelites are enslaved in Egypt, God steps in and attacks each of that land's gods in a series of plagues. When they are all subdued, God invites the people on a walk -- one that would last 40 years instead of one because of their rebellion. When Jesus comes, he does the same thing. He tosses out demons, gets the people's attention by healing and teaching, and then says, "Follow me." In other words, "Let's go for a walk."

Try to find examples where God found people and encouraged them to stay in place. He calls us forward, onward. He tells us that it is time to put on the yoke. While his yoke is easy, it is still a yoke and you NEVER yoke oxen so that they can stay where they are! You yoke them to move, to go to work.

We are made for movement. When we don't physically move, our muscles and joints get stiff and eventually lose their elasticity. Our spirits were made for movment, too. We weren't made to do mindless things in mindless places. Risk, learn, move, grow.... walk.

We are, according to 2 Corinthians 3:17,18, being transformed into ever increasing glory. Those are action words -- movement words -- walking words.

Some young couples in our subdivision take a walk together every evening. Those are the marriages that will last. Some of the young mothers take their kids for walks a few times a day, especially now that the weather will soon turn bad. Those are good mommas. Exercise scientists tell us that walking five miles burns as many calories as running five miles and with less stress on the joints. Sure, it takes longer, but that gives you more time to think and talk.

The whole of Scripture can be read as an invitation by God to walk with Him. In one instance, God tells Abram to "walk before me." That doesn't mean that Abram led and God followed, not at all. It was sweeter and more wonderful than that. It was God saying, "Let me watch you walk. Walk with me and let me rejoice in your walking." You have a Father who wants to watch you walk today. It's okay -- He loves you! And He will walk with you.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

The Present is Presence

Abram was an old, old man. God had promised him a great and wonderful family that would fill the earth. He promised him that he would not only be blessed, he would BE a blessing to everyone (Genesis 12:2,3). Now, as his eyes grew dim and his body grew stiff, he was wondering when or if God would fulfill His promises to him.

In Genesis chapter 15 God says something very profound to Abram. Maybe he caught it, maybe he didn't. "Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward." While I would like to go on and on about God being our shield, I want to call your attention to the second phrase.

God is our reward. Our reward isn't what God can and will do for us. Our reward isn't found in the provision of God, but in His presence. He promises to walk with us, to live with us, and make a way for us to live with Him one day in a place where we can stay forever. Presence is our reward.

When a man and woman marry, they often don't understand this. My wife and I play with this and act like our wedding vows were much more complicated than they really were. I will look at the bowl of cereal in front of me and say something like, "Didn't you promise to love, honor, obey and make biscuits and gravy every morning?" She will assure me that wasn't in the vows. Later she might say to me, "Didn't you promise to love, honor, obey and make sure the grass doesn't get over knee high?"

This is a game for us, because we understand what our vows were.

Many enter marriage thinking of what they can get out of it. They think, "I can have more consistent sexual activity, brownies on the counter, a steady paycheck coming in..." etc. ad nauseum. These people are going to be very disappointed. You see, life happens and it changes things, including your mate.

The vows promise presence. The benefit I received in marrying Kami was: Kami. I get to be with Kami. That's it. And that's wonderful. She is complex, interesting, mysterious, changeable... an enigma in a pretty wrapper. THAT is my present.

I know this will upset the Prayer of Jabez people or the Prosperity Gospel folks, but the presence of God is my present. My only reward is that He will walk with me and not turn away when times get rough (see Psalm 139). When I don't get the job I want, when a monster walks into a school in Colorado or Pennsylvania and kills sweet little girls, when my health shudders and breaks, or when financial disaster closes in on me, I have my reward -- the presence of God. He didn't promise me endless provision. He isn't some cosmic vending machine to dispense treats on a regular basis. He is my reward because He is there with me and that is enough.

How would your life be happier and how much more content would we be if we didn't look for provision as a sign of love or acceptance? What if we just accepted His presence as our reward? Ahhhh. That feels better already!