Wednesday, July 16, 2008

To My Friend

We are so worried about you. I know that worry is a waste of time, but there seems to be little else for us to do. We cannot help you when you don't want to be helped. We can pray, and we are doing that. We can try to form a plan to help, and we are doing that. And we worry.

You are so beautiful. You have always been the one who was open and transparent and steady, always there for the rest of us. You are the one who in so many ways has changed the least - your laugh is the same, your outlook on so many parts of life is the same. You are so smart, so talented, so able. You understand me. You understand all of us. You understand so many things in this world that baffle so many others. I wish you could understand yourself and what is happening to you.

They call this thing a disease. I have no reason to dispute that - it is way outside my expertise. But to me, it looks like you are fighting demons: demons who are coming at your weak point, demons who know your Achilles heel. You don't know how to fight these demons, or you have given up fighting them, or they have convinced you that you don't want to fight them.

I don't understand your fight, because your demons are not my demons. I have mine, of course; we all do. But your demons are not the kind that tempt me, so I don't understand your fight. But I understand that you are fighting, that you were fighting, that you need to fight.

Oh friend, hear me across the miles. I want you to know that I am desperately hurting for you, as if knowing that would somehow give you the strength to fight harder. Know that there are so many of us who do not want you to give up, who understand that one thing that you don't - you. We know how much the world needs you and what a void there would be without you.

I am told that tonight is a crucial night for you, and I am hundreds of miles away. And so I pray, and I talk to others of our friends who are far away, and I type this letter that you may never see. You won't talk to any of us now, won't return calls, won't even send a text message or an email.

Those of you who do see this letter, please pray for my friend. And please don't stop fighting your own demons, whatever they are.

My friend, I look forward to seeing you again, for you are so important to my world. Don't forget who you are, and whose you are. Don't forget all the people who love you, and all the people whom you love - children, parents, sister, brothers, friends. Fight on.

We have a mutual friend who has fought the same demons you are fighting now. He wrote these words: "There's a light at the end of the darkness, and it shines for all the world to see. It will shine in your life, if you will let it. I was blind when it finally shined on me. There is hope in that light for the hopeless and a soothing balm for pain and misery. It's as near as your faith though sometimes seems fleeting. I was blind when it finally shined on me. I was looking up through the bottom when it finally shined on me."

Look up. Let it shine. Fight on.

I love you.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Last Lecture and Millennium Goals

I just finished Randy Pausch's inspiring little book called The Last Lecture. Pausch is a university professor dying of pancreatic cancer who writes the book, which grew out of his farewell address to his students, as a memoir/treasure chest to his kids. I highly recommend it.

I find myself focusing on a couple of interesting nuggets from the book. He quotes his first football coach for the line "you've got to get the fundamentals down, otherwise the fancy stuff won't work." Late in the book, he notes the futility of "treating the symptoms instead of the disease." For the latter, he uses a great illustration of a friend who is barely unable to make ends meet. She is so stressed out about finances that she spends her Tuesday nights going to a yoga class (which of course costs money). With his help, she figures out that she can stop paying for yoga and instead take a temporary part-time job on Tuesday nights, and she will eliminate the financial problem and thus the stress.

The UN has some so-called Millennium Development Goals that many churches are adopting as their own. They deal with worthy things like fighting malaria and educating children and empowering the downtrodden. I am in favor of all of them -- in fact I serve on the Board of Directors of a non-profit organization dedicated to assisting with sustainable development in a third world country. The Development Goals are of course examples of the kinds of things Christ calls us to do. But...

On June 28 (three blogs ago), I wrote about fundamentals and how some of us may be avoiding them. I am pulled back to that topic today after reading the book and then hearing this morning's sermon. You see, I think that the Millennium Goals are what the football coach would call "the fancy stuff". They are worthy, but they only work if we have the basics down. If we are not grounded in the love of Christ and motivated by having been saved from our own multiple errors and vices, we will not last long trying to generate the energy and the emotion and the perseverance it takes to minister with any real meaning. You can't be the hands of Christ if you don't know Christ. That is why the world has forever cried out "Peace, Peace", but there is no peace.

Reaching out to the poverty-stricken and educating children, without introducing them to Jesus, are just fancy ways of treating symptoms.

The disease is not poverty or ignorance or discrimination. The disease is not even AIDS. The disease is the lack of a relationship with God, a relationship made possible through Christ. That is the fundamental.

I suspect most fundamentalists are against churches' adopting the Millennium Goals because these Goals are not pure evangelism, and for most fundamentalists I know, it is folly to state any goal other than evangelism. (It is ok, apparently, for fundamentalists to have other goals - ranging from electing favored candidates to shunning undesireable folks from the church - just so long as they don't publicly admit that these are goals.) And therein lies one of my primary departures from the Christian fundamentalists - evangelism is an important thing that Jesus taught us, but it is not the only thing. It is not the Great Commandment.

Again, I am all for the Millennium Goals, just so long as they do not become THE goals of Christianity. Ministry to the poor is an important thing Jesus taught us, but it is not the only thing. It is not the Great Commission.

When a church or a convention seems - and I believe it is simply how it seems, not how it is - to generate more excitement for the Millennium Goals than for spreading the gospel, we are treating the symptoms. We are trying the fancy stuff without getting the fundamentals down.

There is no doubt that Jesus fed the hungry and healed the sick, but I believe He did those things as a part of a larger, more directed aim-driven ministry. He was all about the Kingdom. That was the fundamental. He was treating the disease.

My college debate coach had a five-point mantra that he would recite to me before every round. "Be clear. Sound like you're winning. Keep your options open. Tie things up in the last rebuttal. And don't put the round on a trick!" That last point was telling me not to try to win a round with the fancy stuff. We won or lost with the fundamentals.

So too, the world will be won or lost with the fundamentals, no matter how non-progressive it sounds. The social gospel is marvelous right up until it supercedes the gospel. Never let the good get in the way of the best. Adopt the Millennium Goals and minister to the needy, but do so in the context of making disciples of Jesus Christ. Fight the disease.

And by all means, read The Last Lecture.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Slogans for Life Learned at the Water Park

Spent a great day with my daughters today at NRH2O (for you non-Fort Worthers, this is our local water park, sort of a AAA version of Hurricane Harbor). There's a lot to learn on a day like today.

1. "JUST ADD WATER" -- It is amazing how a little water - and a few kids - can make anything fun. Things broke down, it was about 110 degrees, there were skads of people... it did not matter. People had fun, got along, enjoyed themselves. And that includes people of all ages, races, classes, and languages. I recognize that North Richland Hills is not Memphis, Atlanta, Boston, Detroit, or East LA, but I got a glimpse today of the fact that racial disharmony is not inevitable. There were no such dividing lines today among people enjoying the water together.

2. "TATTOOS - NOT JUST FOR SAILORS, BIKERS, AND ANGELINA JOLIE ANYMORE!" -- I saw more body art today than I had on every other day of my life put together. This fad, like the tat itself, is here to stay.

3. "NOT EVERYONE SHOULD WEAR A BIKINI" -- Some slogans need no elaboration.

4. "CHURCH IS LIKE A WAVE POOL" -- I was struck by the lifeguards. I am sure there is a "right" way to do a wave pool. I am sure that the lifeguards have been trained to teach the swimmers exactly where to be, how to use the floats, the best way to catch the waves, and many more things that will never occur to me. But in practice, what the lifeguards do is make sure nobody drowns. Sure, they would love to see perfect swimming and the best possible enjoyment of the wave pool, but after I observed the lifeguards for several hours today, I think they go home and know it is a job well done if they have made sure that everyone has survived and had a reasonably good time. It struck me that the many people in the pool are sort of like my church. My object lesson is that maybe we should not expect our ministers - who admittedly have been educated in theology and trained in all sorts of "proper" and "best" ways to do church - to lead us to perfection in worship, ministry, and interpersonal relationship. They really are focused on making sure that nobody drowns, and if they get through another week without losing anyone, that is a job well done. Anything else is gravy.

Like all parables, this one cannot be stretched too far, or it will fail - of course church is more important than a trip to the wave pool, and of course we are not there just for enjoyment and exercise, and of course we are trying to serve. I am not forgetting any of that, and I am not trying to stretch my illustration to cover that. I am just noting that maybe we are too hard on our leaders sometime, and maybe we don't even conceive of what their primary job is.

5. "SPEND MORE TIME WITH YOUR KIDS" -- Again, no elaboration is needed, but a day with your daughters at the water park is one to remember. I recommend it.