Wednesday, December 16, 2009

A Christmas Thought - To Whom Did the Christ Child Come, and What Earthly Difference Is His Coming Making?

And there were in the same country shepherds, abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night. And suddenly, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them, and they were sore afraid. But the Angel said, “Fear not, for behold I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all people. For unto you in born this day in the city of David a savior, which is Christ the Lord.”

Don’t miss it in its familiarity – “which shall be to all people.” Jesus came to Middle Eastern sheep herders who lived in the desert. He chose to be born to an unmarried pregnant teenager. He spent early years of His life in Egypt, of all places, Arab home of Pharoahs and haters of Israel (both then and now).

I think that is relevant to us this Christmas. This is not a blog about racism, although there may be a point there. This is not a political statement against the war on terrorism, and to hear that message in what I have to say would be a serious misunderstanding. This is not a devotional about classism, although there is certainly inherent in what I have to say a message about humanity’s equality before the throne of God. No, this is a question – For whom, or perhaps I should say to whom, did Jesus come … and to whom does He come today?

I am not trying to be politically correct here. I am asking a serious question. For all of our words about loving everyone and our songs that say
“red and yellow, black and white,” what do we really believe about God’s relationship to humanity? Eight years and three months after September 11,
knowing about the history and claims of what we know to be false religions, in a world where lovers of Jesus are very literally targets, does Christmas mean anything new?

Did Jesus come for Osama bin Laden?
Did Jesus come for Timothy Mc Veigh?
Did angels sing of good tidings of great joy to the World Trade Center terrorists?
Did Mary bear a savior for Adolf Hitler, or Pol Pot, or Stalin, or Manson, or Jack the Ripper, or Slobadon Milosovic?

Let’s move out of the headlines – did Jesus come to the gangbangers of East LA or the slum dwellers of Detroit or the loyal subjects of the Taliban or the cannibals or the communists or the Mafia?

Of course He did. That is not a hard question... at first glance. Some of you are wondering if I have anything deeper to say than simply to recite the obvious – that Jesus came for all. I hope I do. Bear with me.

Let’s get a little more personal. Did Jesus come for that guy who stops you on Sunday mornings when you get off the interstate on your way to church, the one who smells bad and asks for money? Did Jesus come to that woman you have to meet every week in your business, the obnoxious one who has no interest in the things of God but has a great deal of interest in making your life miserable? Were the tidings of great joy for the mugger who took your wallet and for the mechanic who took your money but did not fix your car and then laughed at you when you complained?

Yes.

So what is my point?

If Jesus came to all those people, then what earthly difference is it making to all of those people that Jesus came? And what part are we, the body of Christ, playing in making that difference?

Hear me. I am not here to discount the heavenly difference it makes. Jesus came to earth to bring salvation. We are the bearers of good news, and through our offerings and our prayers and our cooperative ministries, we are striving to make a difference to those people. That is priority one. It always will be. I do not want to be misunderstood.

But it is not the only priority. Jesus called us, and calls us, to follow Him. We sing “Wherever He Leads I’ll Go” and “Footprints of Jesus” beautifully. Do the Pol Pots and the gangbangers and the panhandlers and the cheating mechanics of the world hear us singing? Do they see us following? Does it make a difference to them?

I am not really talking about what used to be called the social gospel. I think that our witness is, ultimately, a verbal thing. I do not think that doing good works and helping the poor and the needy is the best way to share Jesus Christ. I understand the idea of "loving people to Jesus," but I do not think it always works. I think that people are greedy and needy, and they often take what we have to offer without thinking about why we have done it, much less about asking us to tell them why we have done it. Sometimes it leads to that conversation, and praise the Lord when it does, but often, at least in my experience, our random acts of kindness are either taken at face value and appreciated for the momentary relief offered or else ignored altogether.

I certainly do not believe that we should consciously substitute doing good and being nice for giving our personal testimony about the difference Jesus makes in our own life. That is a cop out, and it is contrary to the direct instructions of the Master.

And while I am making disclaimers, let me be clear that doing good works in no way brings about salvation. It works in reverse, or it should. Our salvation should bring about good works that should make a difference in the world. In other words, the coming of the Christ child should be doing a lot of earthly good.

It has to be a priority of people who follow Jesus to be Jesus - to come to the world as Jesus comes – not for any sake other than the cause of doing good because Jesus did good and we are trying to follow Him. And we should do good to others out of love: love for Jesus and love for them.

Steven Vincent Benet’s play “A Child Is Born” tells of the coming of the Christ child through the perspective of the wife of the innkeeper, the one whose stable served as maternity ward for Mary. Through her eyes, and through the eyes of her servant girls (yes, the original Jeannette and Isabella of the carol), we see how the nativity of the Son of God changed one person’s perspective on treating everyone else. Through another character, a common dirty thief named Dismas, we hear of the countless others – called by Dismas "the vast sea of the wretched and the poor" – who wait to be touched by that child.

How can Jesus touch those people? It has to be through us. For whatever reason, He has chosen to work through the church, so much so that we are called His body. For Jesus to have hands to heal and feet to go and tongues to tell and shoulders to comfort, we have to provide freely those hands and feet, tongues and shoulders. For the world to see anything that it can call “Jesus,” it has only the option of looking at us, for we are the only body of Christ to be seen.

“If anyone would be my disciple, he must take up His cross daily and follow me.” I do not think that means simply to be willing to die for those who are already Christians. I do not think it means only sharing the message of the cross, although it assuredly includes that. I think it means that the coming of Christ must make a difference everywhere on earth. If Jesus came to the thieves and the beggars and the bothersome panhandlers and the vast sea of the wretched and the poor - and He certainly did - then we must take up our cross daily and make a difference in the world in which thieves and beggars live. It is not for me to define for you how you do that. I have no planned giving program or soup line for you to join. I write now, at Christmas time, only to ask to whom did Jesus come, and what difference is the fact that He came making to those people? I am here to challenge you to see the celebration of the coming of the Christ child as a motivation to take up your cross for the people to whom the child came.

Not because it is a way for them to become Christians, although it might be.

Not because it will get us to heaven, for it surely will not.

Not because we are secular humanists, although true humanitarians should occasionally cheer our actions.

But because we are Jesus’ church, and He came to bring good tidings of great joy to all people – peace on earth and good will to all.

The children in each diff'rent place will see the baby Jesus' face like theirs, but bright with heav'nly grace, and filled with holy light. Some children see Him lily white. Some children see Him bronzed and brown. Some children see Him almond-eyed. Some children see Him dark as they. And, ah! They love Him, too!

He came to everyone. That is elementary, at least to us. But it will not be elementary to that everyone until we let Him make a difference through us.

Surely He taught us to love one another. His law is love and His gospel is peace. Chains shall He break, for the slave is our brother, and in His name all oppression shall cease. May it be so.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Jogging - My New Forbidden Fruit

I have always hated running. To start with, I am slow. I have always been slow. So running was never about winning. Running was often about embarrassment, just trying hard not to finish dead last.

Then, there was football practice, where running was punishment. I always gravitated toward baseball, where running frankly was not all that important. At school, I was required to run as part of the dreaded "weights and agilities" intramural athletic program that solidified my distaste for running.

I ran a little bit in high school because I decided I needed to, but then I broke my arm and had surgery and got thoroughly out of the habit. I ran a little bit during college when I started feeling really out of shape, but I always hated it and always found excuses to quit pretty quickly.

The only time that running was ever minutely successful for me was the ten months I was engaged. I ran a lot that year with an upcoming wedding on my mind.

Since then, I have worked out off and on, using elliptical machines, stationary bikes, swimming, basketball, and racquetball. Every once in a while, I would take up jogging on a track for a while. But I hated every minute of it.

This spring, my weight was up, I was out of shape, and my knees were hurting. Gena wanted me to see a doctor about my knees, but I knew better. I knew that the pain was just nature's way of telling me that it was time to get back in shape. So, I went on my diet. I lost 25 pounds. And I started exercising again. First, walking two miles a day, then slowly adding running to the mix until I was running about a mile and a half at lunch time every day. And lo and behold, my knee pain went away.

Until it came back. About a month ago, the pain behind my right kneecap came back with a vengeance, and I could not run twenty yards without feeling as though my knee were giving way. I finally took Gena's advice and went to the doctor; several visits, some x-rays, and one MRI later, I have my diagnosis - the beginning stages of arthritis.

And my doctor said these words: "I forbid you from running or jogging again for the rest of your life."

Suddenly, jogging has become the most enticing thing imaginable. I sit on the stationary bike and look outside and envy those lucky ones who get to have the great pleasure of running.

Why is that? What is it about human nature that makes what we cannot have the most desirable thing we can picture, no matter how little we actually care for it?

It is, of course, a story as old as any. The phrase "forbidden fruit" comes from the story of Eve. And it is illustrative to us of the basic concept that much of what we think we want is really nothing more than rebellion, or our innate desire to change what is into what it should not be.

I will try to get over my newfound lust for the jogging that is not allowed to me. And when I have other strange longings, I will try to take a moment to figure out just why they have come to me.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Human Institutions

An older minister returned to the church he had pastored in his youth. The building had been renovated, a new sanctuary had been built, and the old sanctuary space was now the fellowship hall. Looking around the hall, the old pastor remarked, "I know this was the sanctuary, but now I cannot even tell which end I preached from."

Our human institutions change. What was once special - even sacred - to us can become mundane. It can become unrecognizable. At times, it can lose all appeal, even becoming scandalous. We look at what was once home and find that we cannot even remember where we stood and which direction we faced.

Jesus tells us that the greatest of our institutions will fall so that not even one stone will remain standing on another.

And yet we cling to our institutions ... to our churches, denominations, schools, conventions, alumni associations, clubs, jobs, organizations, teams, rotisserie baseball leagues, and political parties. Whether we are so attached to a memory or a name, or whether we simply do not have the imagination to see what could be for being caught up in what once was, we find ourselves dogpaddling against a current to preserve what we wish still were.

We are proudly pointing out the sanctuary that no longer exists, even when we don't remember which end we preached from.

There are, no doubt, human-created (I am trying, in my newfound gender-sensitivity, not to say "manmade") relationships and institutions worth fighting for. But that does not mean they all are. And just because something is worth fighting for today does not mean it will be worth fighting for tomorrow.

God sometimes takes away our institutions with a violent crash, and great is the fall of them. More often, I think, most of our institutions tend to wither and atrophy as their guardians revel in what used to be, what might have been, and what never was.

The problem is usually not the institutions themselves. The problem is our faith in the institutions. When we begin relying on what a university inherently is instead of working to make it better; when we count on what a denomination can provide instead of using a denomination to serve the Master of that denomination; when an alumni association becomes more important than either the school that granted the degrees or the alumni themselves; when any institution becomes the object of faith and adoration ... then downfall is inevitable.

When spouses pledge allegiance to the marriage instead of each other, trouble is brewing.

A church is not worthy of our worship. A convention made up of churches is not entitled to our fealty.

A teenager may stay in a dating relationship long after there is any real interest in the boyfriend or girlfriend simply out of the comfort of having the relationship. We all know the feeling of "being in love with love." Hopefully, we grow out of that.

But we don't seem to learn that lesson very well. We have a very poor understanding of the shelf life of much of what we have built, hanging on to a name or a tradition or a reputation when its raison d'etre has long past.

I am not suggesting anarchy. Of course we must work to preserve those institutions that are valuable and healthy.

But we must do so with discernment. We must do so with care.

And we absolutely must do so with our eye on the ball. The institution exists for a purpose, and our call is that purpose, not the tool we have crafted.

It is so fortunate that rubble is a raw material for God. When our monuments crumble under their own weight, God takes the broken pieces and fashions something better. The myth of the phoenix rising from the ashes is nothing more than a picture of God's miraculous re-creation that happens when we get out of the way, or when God gets us and our stuff out of the way.

We have to learn to tell the difference between the decaying and the re-created, the work of people and the work of God. Jim Elliot was paraphrasing the words of Paul and the words of Christ when he said, "He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose."

As a sermon I heard this week reminded me, the destruction of what we would preserve is often a mercy, for as long as we struggle against the grain, we shut out what would be a work of God.

We must stop clinging to what we cannot keep.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Simple Acts of Grace

Earthshaking movements of God are hard to miss. We can reject them if we want. We can call them "natural" and choose not to see God's hand in them. We can even claim credit for them ourselves. But we cannot simply miss them.

But for every resurrection and each calming of the storm, I believe there are thousands - if not millions - of discreet acts of grace that God carries out every day, and they indeed can be missed. The writer of Lamentations tells us that they are "new every morning." God often surprises us with apparently small, minor events that we can miss if we are not ready for them... The unborn child's leap of joy inside Elizabeth. Jesus deciding to walk across a lake just as the storm has arisen. More fish than the nets can hold. The decision to look up into a sycamore tree when the short man just happens to be sitting there. The Master's wanting Mary to sit and talk instead of rushing to prepare the meal.

I think that human history's first example of a simple act of grace comes in the third chapter of Genesis. As you know, the first chapter tells the story of creation, and the second chapter tells us of the formation of Eve and the placement of the first humans in the garden.

We generally think of Chapter 3 as the story of the Fall, and indeed it is. It is the story of the first temptation, the first sin, and the first punishment for sin. But buried (to those of us who are not looking for it) in there is also the first act of grace. Verse 7 tells us that Adam and Eve, having sinned, suddenly realized their nakedness. Verse 21, which comes before the banishment from the garden, tells us that God "made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them."

Do you see it? Because sin made them naked, God made them clothes. Our loving God is always on the move to repair the damage that sin has done, usually before we are even aware of it. Where sin makes us naked, God makes us clothes.

Where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more. Paul said it, but he learned it from Genesis.

Friday, November 6, 2009

How Would the Story End?

Pastor Charlie asks an interesting question. He wants to know how we think the Prodigal Son parable would end if Jesus had not stopped where he did. Would the older brother have come in to the party? Would the younger brother have come out and joined the father in begging his brother to come in?

The responses have been varied, but most of them have disappointed me. Most have viewed the older brother as a stubborn and jealous prig who would have sat outside and sulked. Many have doubted the sincerity of the younger brother, accusing him of coming home only because he was broke and hungry and intimating that he would have picked up and left again when his belly and his wallet were once more full.

I don't think Jesus told this story in order to demonize either son. I believe He told it to help us identify with both of the father's children. But more than that, I believe He told the story to show how the Father - God - relates to both sons. And I believe that Jesus fully intended a happy ending.

Let's play this out, almost as though we had a "director's cut" DVD of the story with "alternate endings."

Alternate ending #1 - The Father tells the older brother that "all I have is yours, but now we must celebrate because what was lost has been found." The elder brother, in a fit of pique, turns his back on the father and returns to the bunkhouse, where he sulks and plans ways to expose his younger brother as a fraud. Why would Jesus tell this story? Well, perhaps to show that there are many of us who have stayed "in the family" but have never come to understand the love of the Father. Perhaps Jesus is aiming at the pharisees who created rules and waited to point fingers at those who broke them.

Alternate ending #2 - Noticing that neither his brother nor his father is in the party, the younger brother looks out the window to see his father pleading with the older brother to come to the party. Seeing his chance to hog the attention at the party and relishing being, for once, the only brother on his father's good side, the young recently-prodigal son turns on his brother as he self-righteously slaps the backs of the party-goers and accepts still more well wishes from those ranch hands who are genuinely glad he is back. Why would Jesus tell this story? Perhaps he would be emphasizing that while some of us will go to heaven and enjoy the fruits of the Father's house, others - by their own choice - will not. Maybe Jesus was emphasizing that we are only responsible for own decisions, and if others who have known the Father's love for years choose not to respond, that is beyond our control. Or maybe Jesus was in fact pointing out that simply returning from the pig sty when you are hungry is not a real repentence, that the prodigal son has far to go before he really understands what it means to love as his father loves.

Alternate ending #3 - Hearing his father say "all that I have is yours, just as it always has been," the elder brother is brought to his knees, seeing in his father's eyes the depth of love that has always been available to him. Hearing the father say that the celebration has broken out because "what was lost has been found" reminds the brother of how he has come through his own kind of lostness; even if he never physically left the estate, he has wandered in his mind and in his desires, and his father has never stopped loving him even when he did not love his father. The older brother understands the need for celebration; indeed, he needs to celebrate maybe more than anybody else in the house (including his brother) does, and he runs in before his brother ever even notices that he was late to the party.

I think Jesus had something like ending #3 in mind. I think the point of the story is that the love of the Father is transforming, whether we are derelicts who have wasted what we were given on prostitutes and "riotous living" or we are the seemingly upright who jealously guard our position and trumpet our own righteousness. I think Jesus' point is that the Father, just like the woman with the lost coin and the shepherd with the lost sheep, rejoices over each of us and expects us to join in the celebration, just as we would rejoice with the woman and as the angels rejoice with the shepherd.

Yes, Jesus did not end the story. He left it hanging. And yes, that leaves us the freedom to imagine alternate endings.

But surely Jesus did not tell the story as a downer, a finger-pointer, an indictment. This is a parable about the loving father, the father who has different kinds of children who squander what they have been given in different ways, a father who keeps his eyes open at all times for any chance to run to his children.

Just as the father runs down the road to the younger son, he comes out to the older son. He leaves His own house to welcome in the penitent and leaves His own party to plead with the impenitent.

The alternate endings really apply to us. Many of us are older brothers, and we certainly can eschew the open door of our Father and return to sulk in our bunkhouses. Some of us are riotous livers who may only temporarily come to our senses when our bellies are empty and growling. By leaving the story unfinished, Jesus gives us the chance to end it badly.

But I don't think that is Jesus' intention for us, nor is it the point of his story. The story is about a party awaiting both brothers.

The story is about the Father throwing the party.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Running with the Horses

My favorite hymn - one that I want sung at my funeral, among other places - is “It Is Well.” Perhaps you know the story of its composition, of a man's discovery that his wife and child have drowned while crossing the ocean to meet him... of his own struggle with grief and anger and all of the emotions that must come with a moment like that... of his ability to understand the comfort of God enough to say "Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come, let this blest assurance control: that Christ has regarded my helpless estate.... It is well."

I think that an experience with the comfort of God has to be a part, if not the central tenet, of the testimony that most of us have to offer.

That does not mean that all of us have faced the tragic death of an infant child. Thankfully, I have not had to face that pain.

It does mean that we live in a world where bad things happen. God's comfort is only necessary because we are uncomfortable, battered, sick, sore, grieved, alone, abandoned, or desperate. I have seen clients go bankrupt. I have seen partners, clients, and my own company lose trials worth millions of dollars. I have seen colleagues belittled to their face.

But what I have seen as a lawyer pales in comparison to what life has shown me elsewhere. I have sat in the hospital with my very sick child. I have seen my own dreams dashed. I have waited through my mother’s cancer surgery. I have attended my father-in-law’s funeral.

And I am one of the lucky ones. I have not had to face a fraction of what many of you are facing right now.


I do not think there is a person on this earth who has not grappled with the questions that arise when we see reality - OK, God is all-powerful, so He could have stopped that bad thing. God is all-loving, so He must have wanted to stop that bad thing. God is all-knowing, so He must have known that the bad thing was happening. Yet, despite His knowledge and His love and His power, the bad thing still happens... and we cry, and maybe we get mad and shake a fist at heaven, or maybe we just shrug our shoulders and decide that God is not nearly as interested as He was back in Biblical days, when He always seemed to be appearing to folks and healing their leprosy.

Since people a lot smarter than I have turned this question around every possible way for centuries, my thoughts on it are unlikely to shed much new light. Still, they work for me. They may not work while I am at the funeral, or in the hospital, or struggling to pay the bills. But when I take a step two back, these thoughts make sense to me.

To start with, we live in a world where bad things undeniably happen, so the question “Why do bad things happen to good Christians?” assumes that Christians are entitled to some special shield from the rain and the shipwrecks. I choose to look at the question of “Why?” this way - Why not? Who better to receive and endure what life has to offer than those who are gifted with the Holy Spirit and who know the comfort of God? Now, I know that does not provide much of an answer to you when it is your child lying under the oxygen tent - believe me, Gena and I were there in the fall of 1996 while our 4-month-old Carolyn struggled to breathe under the watchful eyes of the Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital staff. I think it is part of God's answer nonetheless to know that we Christians are the ones best equipped to handle life’s dangers and struggles.

If our world contained no pain, no evil, no suffering - if there were no opportunities for sin and no storms - how much less valuable would the comfort of God be. How cheap would be the free will given us. What a waste would be the peace that passes all understanding, and the incredible fellowship of the believers would never find a place. It is the black in the picture that makes the colors brighter, the rest in the symphony that makes the crescendos more musical, the choice to take the wide road that makes the narrow way more victorious. God is a brilliant craftsman, artist, composer, and director; His gifts are perfect. The phrase “no pain, no gain” is ridiculously overused, but it is true; there is a reason that we honor those who conquer Mount Everest more than those who can climb the hill around the corner. In facing, enduring, and conquering the challenges - the storms - we prove how much we have been given and what our true worth is.

If that is the world God has created for us in His love and omniscience, why should good Christians be, or even want to be, exempt from all it has to offer?


Additionally, I believe in a real, active Satan who is working evil in this world. One reason that bad things happen is because there is powerful bad that has a foothold in our world. Jesus discusses him throughout the gospels, and the prince of this world is still possessing, foiling, seducing, and corrupting God’s creations. I am in the middle of teaching a six-seek Sunday School series out of Job. Whether the Book of Job is a myth or a symbol or accurate history, the Satan it describes represents a palpable force in this world. You know the story... Satan shows up at a heavenly roll call, and God offers up Job. Satan is not allowed to kill him but is allowed to do pretty much whatever else he wants. As Job loses his livelihood, his family, and his health, his friends show up and tell him that all of this must have happened because of his deep-seated sin. Since we have read the first two chapters of the book, we know that Job is not being punished for sin but rather is being afflicted by a dark spiritual attacker.


Next, we may not always know what is bad. This is a hard lesson for litigators like me to learn - too often we are sure what a case is “worth,” and then a jury surprises us by bringing back a verdict that is a small fraction of what we predicted or that is orders of magnitude greater than the worst we feared. What that tells us lawyers is that we have become arrogant and lost perspective on what the real world thinks is good and bad and valuable and worthless.

It is the same thing with our human perspective of what is good and bad. We do not have the eyes of God or the perspective of the Everlasting One; and it borders on arrogant for us puny humans to declare that we know everything about what is good. I believe that there are things that happen that are absolutely for the best in the big picture. The problem is that we have no concept of the big picture. To use the words of a wise member of my Sunday School class, God is continually creating and painting and perfecting a huge mosaic, and even with scripture and prayer and experience, we see only a small corner. Or, to paraphrase a song from “The Prince of Egypt,” one thread has no idea of how the whole tapestry will look. Our view makes certain things appear certain ways, and we call them “good” or “bad”; from a heavenly viewpoint, those events may be good, bad, or neither.

I know that still does not answer many of the questions, and there are some things that are bound to be bad from any perspective: I do not believe that God thinks it is good when the four-year-old is killed by a drunk driver. Still, I do think that there are many times that we have no idea what the “good” result is.


A point that we cannot overlook is that sometimes God sends, or allows, calamity because we deserve it. I am not a proponent of the theory that we serve a wrathful, vengeful God hurling thunderbolts and conjuring up new diseases to punish the popular sin of the week; on the other hand, I do not believe you can read scripture honestly without recognizing that God often disciplines those He loves and that He sometimes punishes the evil.


Perhaps the toughest to accept but the deepest and most meaningful of the responses to our struggles is found in God's response to the complaining of Jeremiah: “If you have run with footmen and they have tired you out, then how can you compete with horses? If you fall down in a land of peace, How will you do in the thicket of the Jordan?"

If you have been wearied running with the footmen, then how will you ever run with the horses? You have to face and conquer the problems that come to you now, in a land of peace, so that you have some chance of victory when you face the swelling of the Jordan. If you did not recognize it, Jeremiah's words are Hebrew for “when the going gets tough, the tough get going.” The phrase “no pain, no gain” is ridiculously overused, but it is true; there is a reason that we honor those who conquer Mount Everest more than those who can climb the hill around the corner. In facing, enduring, and conquering the challenges - the storms - we prove how much we have been given and what our true worth is.

Don't you see? God wants us to run with the horses. He desires for us to mount up with wings as eagles. His plan is for us to walk on water.

We cannot automatically and immediately run with the horses. We are not the gold that we need to be until we have first gone through a refiner's fire, where impurities and weaknesses are removed and only the finest and most valuable to the Kingdom remains.

It was the Apostle Paul who wrote that we all must suffer if we are to be joint heirs with Christ. We join in His suffering so that we can be glorified together with Him. I do not understand that, and I do not welcome it, but I believe it. You may well know real suffering right now. Maybe it is in your body or in your family. Perhaps your business or your farm is in such a state that you are truly experiencing travail. If not now, you will know it in your life, if you are lucky enough to live that long.

That is where the comfort of God comes in. There is no question that bad things happen. At least they are bad as far as we can figure. The fact that those happenings may be coloring our world so that tomorrow will be brighter does not help, for the moment. The idea that an evil person is being punished or a good person is being disciplined is irrelevant to us as we experience what seems like yet another crushing blow. As even more lightning seems to strike us, the thought of being able to run with the horses sometime in the future could not matter less to us.

How fortunate that we serve a God who does not leave us there! God, like God always does, seeks us out. He comes to us. At Christmas time, we call His coming “advent.” In truth, advent happens repeatedly - our God seeks us and finds us and comes to us.

Before we can run with the horses, we need once again to welcome and to wait upon Him.

It is then that the comfort of God takes over. We stop asking why bad things happen and start resolving to move forward despite the bad things. Then the colors of the great mosaic sparkle brightly around the black that has been recently painted.

Then, when we have waited for the Lord and been renewed with His strength, we are ready to run with the horses.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Lint and Apartments

We start in apartments, and we end in apartments, and along the way we leave lint.

Lint is one of those things I never thought about much. It just is. You have to get rid of it, especially from the dryer.

Doing laundry this week, I noticed - as if for the first time - that lint is not random. If you are doing a load of whites, the lint will be white. If you are doing a load of jeans, the lint is blue. I know ... not very profound.

But to me, it was jarring to realize that lint is not simply dust and junk from the air - lint is actually a little bit of the clothes that is a lost during the drying process. I suppose, if I dried my jeans enough times, there would be nothing left but the button and the zipper.

If you have been reading my blog, you know that my Uncle Charles died a couple of weeks ago. For the last few years of his life, he lived in a two bedroom apartment. Come to think of it, he lived much of his life in an apartment - they call it a "flat" in London - but the last one was smaller than where I lived during law school. He had sold much of his stuff and moved into a small place that he could manage in his advancing years.

I remember how proud I was of the first apartment Gena and I lived in as a married couple. It was just a two-bedroom apartment, but it had big closets and a "dining room," and we thought it was cool.

We start in apartments, and we end in apartments, and along the way we leave lint. Here is what I mean. Since that apartment, Gena and I have lived in a couple of houses. They hold more stuff, more people, more memories. Along the way, we have left little bits of ourselves in neighborhoods, in towns, in jobs, in churches, hopefully in friends. While we have no plans to do so now, we may well end up in an apartment again some day, just enough for us to manage in our advancing years. Between now and then, we will leave a lot more of ourselves around. Some of our lint will be white, some blue, some dusty, all of it a part of ourselves.

There has been some great lint left in my life. Uncle Jerry left a wry wit mixed with a love of writing. Granddaddy left his smell when I hugged him. Great Uncle Sam left the joy of giving small treasures. Mavis left the model of what a friend is. Della left her song. Jenny left her resolute goodness. Jimmy left the sparkle in his eye. My father-in-law left a quick smile at a quiet joke.

Many of you, still living, have left your lint with me too, little parts of you that stay with me even when you are far away.

I think ending up in an apartment is the right thing to do. I think that means that you don't carry all your stuff with you. It means you have left things as you have gone. It means you have focused on leaving little bits of yourself in your world.

We start in apartments, and we end in apartments, and in between we leave lint.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Father, Pastor, Teacher, Friend... and Uncle

My Uncle Charles Wellborn died on October 1, and his funeral was today. What a man.

The short version - national champion debater, decorated ski troop soldier, featured presenter/personality on "The Baptist Hour" radio program, leader of Texas youth revival movement, pastor of Seventh & James Baptist in Waco, the "most outstanding graduate student ever" at Duke University, university chaplain and religion department chair at Florida State, director of FSU overseas programs, multiple-publication author, actor/director, preacher, teacher, speaker, football fan, joke teller, world traveler, philanthropist, Christian, father, brother, uncle.

His last book is called Grits, Grace, and Goodness. It is primarily a collection of some of his previously-published essays and sermons, but the last section, called "Credo," is a combination personal testimony/autobiography that is one of the most transparent and inspiring pieces I have ever read.

He asked that his tombstone bear the words "Father, Pastor, Teacher, Friend." His pastor used those words today as the basis for the memorial message in Uncle Charles' honor. I will not try here to duplicate that sermon. Suffice it to say that those words - and many more - cannot do justice in trying to encapsulate Uncle Charles.

As is often true for me at funerals, I found myself wishing that I had taken more advantage of the days - in scriptural language, I would say that I should have better "redeemed the time" - that I had with him. Our relationship was largely one of typing - letters, emails, reading things that each other had written. I should have called him more often. I particularly should have called him more during his last months when he was sick. Hearing from his best friends today what he thought of me made me wish all the more that I had called him more often.

And yet, I am happy with the relationship we had. Of course I wish I had known him better. Of course it is my fault that I did not know him more. Still, I knew him, and I think I understood him.

Our politics were not identical - often not even closely related - but I believe we both brought the same idea from our debate lives to our politics. That is, he modeled for me how to listen to the opposition with all the kindness in the world without sacrificing personal conviction.

Our religion was - I hope - very close to identical. There is very little of what I know of his spiritual life to which I do not ascribe or hope I follow. He lived his life in certainty of the victory that was gained on the cross.

These words of his, from his last book, are a challenge to me: "Wherever the church is, there is love. Precisely to the extent that the church does not live by love, it misses the mark of authenticity. The early church made no claims to out-organize, out-promote, out-build, out-manipulate, or even out-think anyone else. It did promise to out-love everybody else. The hostile world in which if found itself marveled that these women and men of faith out-loved the pagan world. Their love reached out to embrace those who did not accept the church's doctrinal teaching, as well as to human beings of both genders, all races, and every economic or social status."

I encourage you to read his stuff. I was lucky to know him as well as I did, even recognizing that through my own fault I did not know him better.

Rest in peace Uncle Charles. Heaven is a better place because you are there. Our lives are certainly better because you were here.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Hospitality

I have a friend who is a recent college graduate with a degree in "hospitality." That means she has learned how to run a hotel or a restaurant.

It can be tempting for us Christians to think of hospitality as a limited thing like that – you know, something like having a friend over to lunch. While opening our homes and our churches to others is without doubt a part of it, I think Christian hospitality is so much more than that – it is opening our hearts. Our word hospitality comes from the Latin word that derives from hospes - "guest." The New Testament Greek word for it - philoxenia - literally means “love of strangers.” It is extending welcome to one - anyone - who does not have what we have and inviting him or her to join us and share in what we have. The next step, then, is to invite the one who is now sharing what we have to join in what we are doing.

I have the blessing, or the curse, to be able to remember random details. Along with batting averages and the capitals of all the countries of Central America, I can recite the lyrics of way too many songs. I can wade through my memories of the Eagles and the Gatlin Brothers and the Who to find a host of songs I learned in youth choir. One song we sang on a choir tour where we did mission work among the homeless of Chicago includes these words: “Give a cup of water in the master’s name, feed the poor and needy, comfort those in pain. Clothe the naked millions, touch the sick and lame. Welcome in the stranger knocking at your door. Go to all the lonely where few have been before. Help the poor lost sinner, tell him Jesus came. Give a cup of water in the master’s name.”

Fast forward from that Chicago trip of 1978 to a moment in November of 1992 that seems to be appropriate as I ponder the virtue of hospitality – it was the night I was ordained as a deacon.

My current church, Broadway Baptist, enjoys great tradition and standing in the Baptist world. Perhaps the only church with more tradition is the First Baptist Church of Nashville, site of the founding of the Baptist Sunday School Board and widely recognized as the “mother church of the Southern Baptist Convention,” back when that was a good thing.

That description would not lead many to believe that FBC would be open to variations from the stereotypes that many who like to toss labels around would expect. Yet even that bastion of tradition and Baptist history welcomed an amazingly diverse group to its deacon body that Sunday night when five of us were ordained. Fred was the poster child for Baptist deacons – a middle-aged white man who had raised a couple of sons through the youth group of the church. But the rest of us… well, I was 27, young and brash and wet behind the ears. David was single. Danny was Hispanic. And Mavis was single and female.

And yet that high holy Baptist church welcomed us and ordained us and charged us with serving the community of grace that is that great church. We did not need to look alike or be of similar status.

I read a wonderful quote from Dieter Zander. Although I do not agree with him on everything, I think he shows great insight when it comes to hospitality: “When we moved to San Francisco, we lived on a street where our neighbors included an atheist Jewish family, a Buddhist family, an Irish Catholic family, a gay family, and a Hindu family. There was no sense of community, so we decided to become conduits of the kingdom by practicing the discipline of hospitality. We learned people's names and used them. We introduced neighbors to each other. And something began to happen. My atheist Jewish neighbor came into my kitchen once and said, ‘You know, something has happened since you all moved to this neighborhood. It's hard to describe, but it's like an enzyme has been added. Where once there was no life, now there's life. What is that?’ And I said, ‘That's the gospel of Jesus being lived out in our lives.’ "

I heard another great illustration just last night. A yourg woman meeting her future in-laws for the first time felt their love and embrace, not because they knew her well yet, but simply because she was special to their son.

I am a very “churchy” person. I take the New Testament language that the church is the body of Christ very seriously and very personally. I believe that the way Christ most often works in the world is through the church - He hugs with our arms, speaks with our voices, feeds with our hands - and I intend to be an integral part of that. My understanding of that role was heightened, if not started, by a rudimentary understanding of hospitality, in singing about the importance of a cup of cold water and an offering of welcome. My faith was heightened again, if not confirmed, by the welcome I received as a church laid hands on me as I knelt between an Hispanic man and a single woman.

There is nothing wrong with running a hotel and inviting someone in for a meal, but we Christians cannot stop there. We open our hearts to the stranger, just as God open His heart to all of us who are special to His son.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Little Red Wagon

Our sixteen-year-old needs a place to park his new (OK, new to him) car, so we spent the weekend cleaning out the garage, re-organizing, and getting rid of stuff we don't need/use/want anymore.

We are getting rid of the little red wagon.

I had a red wagon when I was small. I have a few memories of it. Dad used to pull me to the store to buy candy. I remember riding downhill in it as though it were a sled on wheels, using the handle in a vain attempt to steer.

So, sixteen years ago when we had a son, I bought a little red wagon. My father once again was in charge of pulling my children in it through the neighborhood. My main use of it was to pull them to school on the first day of kindergarten.

It is not something that we used a lot, obviously. For the last years, it is has been a makeshift storage bin in the garage for extension cords, gas cans, and most recently seashells that the girls picked up last March on the beach and have been meaning to clean for the last six months.

Clearly, there is no reason to keep it. We don't use it. The kids are too big for it. It is old. It is taking up needed space.

But it pains me to give it away.

I expect that we all have little red wagons in our lives. We don't have a good reason for keeping them around, but they make us smile. They evoke memories. We just know that if we keep them around, we will find a use for them sometime.

Then keener minds prevail, and the wagon goes on the pickup, headed for Goodwill.

That's ok. I would rather use the garage space for Trey's 2003 blue Mustang than for the 1993 red Radio Flyer. The very new memory of seeing his face when he got the keys will not be erased either.

They can take my wagon away, but they cannot erase the memory of seeing my kids pulled by their grandfather. They cannot make me forget the walk from our house to the new Harpeth Valley Elementary School for Trey's first day of kindergarten.

Value your wagons. Value more the kids you pull in them. One is a symbol for the other, and symbols can be discarded while the symbolism remains.

If you see me smiling this week, I might just be remembering the little red wagon.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

A Week of Memories

I write this on September 13. I expect many of us have spent the last week living with memories, as have I. But before I get to the obvious nighmarish memories that we have all shared from that day eight years ago, let me start with two other memories that make this week quite special for me.

September 9, twenty years ago: Gena said "Yes." I became a fiance'. The idea that someone would agree to spend the rest of her life with me - would commit her very life to mine - is still hard for me to comprehend. The idea that that person would be the one who continues to bewitch and amaze me is quite breathtaking. That she would love me remains a mystery and a gift.

September 10, sixteen years ago: Trey breathed his first breath. I became a father. More mystery - that I could participate in the creation of life. That love could result in this incredible gift is beyond what any of us really understands. Now I watch him drive, interact with his peers, discover life and love, lead, and continue to learn to follow Christ. Amazing.

September 11, eight years ago: I was leaving my Tuesday morning Bible study group that met (and still meets without me) at Belmont University in Nashville. I turned on my radio at about 8:05 central time and - like you and everyone else - was shocked and saddened and concerned by the news. In fact, I was so taken that I drove absently through a school zone and got pulled over. Fortunately, no one was hurt. (The judge let me out of the ticket - a testament to the universal recognition of the effects of the news of that morning on all of us.) We still fight battles across the world that are at least tangentially related to that event. We live a little more carefully, take more time being cleared to get on airplanes, wonder a little more about the events of racial profiling we see around us, and pray more about our immediate futures than we did before. We see that void on the NYC skyline and remember. We visit a field in Pennsylvania or the side of the Pentagon and remember.

I am glad that this week - a week of most horrid memories for us all - is also one with memories for me that are transcendent. There is a lesson here, even if you did not get engaged or have a child born this week: God's gifts can be found through the smoke. He truly gives more grace.

Monday, September 7, 2009

God Is Love - A Lesson from a Funeral

It is the most basic of Christian ideas. It is what we have heard so often that many of us are no longer moved by it. God is Love.

I have heard more than one churchgoer say something along the lines of "I hope this sermon tells us something deeper than just God is love."

I don't think there is anything deeper than that.

I was a part of an event - a funeral, of all things - several years ago that has left images indelibly imprinted on my mind. I have told the story often, and I want to tell it here.

One of my very favorite verses comes from the little book of Zephaniah. “The Lord your God is with you; He is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, He will quiet you with His love; He will rejoice over you with singing.” That does not say that God rejoices when we do things well, when we sing just the right notes. He rejoices over us, period. We are His.

This point was brought home to me a few years ago at that funeral. Grant Cunningham was my age. We met the first day of Welcome Week at Baylor. You could not miss his absurdly curly red hair or his infectious grin. Seven years later, we found ourselves, both married by now, as members of the same church in Nashville. I had gone to Nashville to practice law. Grant had gone there, like so many others, to write music.

Unlike so many others, Grant was good at it. He was real good. He won Dove Awards. You may know Point of Grace's song called “The Great Divide.” Grant wrote that one.

And then, at the age of 38, with twin two year old boys, in a recreational soccer game of all things, Grant died in a freak accident.

I will never, ever forget Grant’s funeral. The music scene in Nashville can produce much in the way of cynicism and me-first oneupsmanship, but there was none of that to be seen that day, as an outpouring of love and respect could not be contained. The biggest names in contemporary Christian music were there; some, like Michael W. Smith and Nicole Nordeman, sang in the service because Kristen asked them to. Others were simply crying and worshiping in a memorial for their friend.

But then something happened that I had never seen before in a funeral service. After Pastor Scotty Smith finished preaching a powerful, evangelistic message that Grant would have “Amen”ed, Scotty moved to the side, the lights dimmed, and a screen descended from the ceiling. The projector came on, and we saw Grant’s face. It was a videotape of Grant singing – apparently at a writer’s night showcasing some new material – the song that turned out to be his last #1 hit. You may know the song “Blue Skies.”

I know it sounds hokey, but you will have to trust me when I tell you that it was heart-rending to see Grant’s face and hear his voice sing his words from a screen suspended over his closed casket.

When the song was over and the screen went dark, the room sat in hushed reverence. Then, without a script or a prompting, I saw Grant’s father stand up on the front row and begin to clap. Just standing there, back to the thousand or so people in the room, looking at … what: – the casket?, the blank screen?, his own tears?, I am not sure – and standing alone and clapping. I was devastated – it was a father’s applause for the life’s work of his son. We in the room were transfixed, for this was not an ovation for a great singing job – I promise you that Point of Grace sings “Blue Skies” far better than Grant could ever have hoped to sing it. Instead, we were witnessing a father watching his son’s last performance and showing his unashamed approval.

Don’t miss the message. God is rejoicing over us. When we come to the end and the tape of our life’s accomplishments is played, it will not matter how well we sang. What matters is that we are His. God will review the tape and stand and applaud and hand us our crown of glory and honor.

How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are. He is everlasting God, and we are His.

And God is love.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Liberals and Conservatives

This will be simple, simplistic even. It is not meant to be a poli sci term paper, an article, a debate speech, or an educational tool. I am just tired of some of the stuff I am reading and hearing, and I am ready to put my two cents in. This is how I view it.

1. I think very few people on either side are out to change America in any radical sense. This is not a culture war, a revolution, or an insurrection.

2. Liberals love America, democracy, and freedom.

3. Conservatives love America, democracy, and freedom.

4. Liberals have problems with some aspects of classic capitalism, particularly as it has resulted in marked disadvantages for poorer classes. That does not necessarily make them socialists, although some liberal ideas have some socialist overtones.

5. Conservatives have problems with some aspects of promotion of individual liberties, particularly as it has resulted in marked sociological changes in American culture that have changed what they view as the basic values being espoused in media and in Washington. That does not necessarily make them fascists, although some conservative ideas sound to some as if they have Nazi overtones.

6. I believe that there are three basic differences:
a. Equality of opportunity vs. equality of result. Conservatives believe in the former, liberals in the latter. Conservatives do not believe that all Americans have a right to health care, but they do believe that all Americans have a right to have the opportunity to earn their health care. Liberals want the government to provide health care.
b. Court process vs. court result. Liberals want a Supreme Court that reverses a conviction of a defendant if 5 members of the Court are convinced the defendant is innocent. Conservatives want a court system that allows a defendant to be tried by a jury, with appeals to make sure the trial system was fair, and with a reversal of any conviction that was reached by an unfair court, was disadvantaged by incompetent counsel, or did not have the benefit of newly-discovered relevant evidence that would have changed the outcome. But conservatives don't want a Supreme Court that strives to make law or find its own results irrespective of how the law has been set up by elected officials. Liberals like a court that makes law in certain areas - specifically areas where the court expands the concept of rights. Liberals believe that the power of the court to expand the view of rights is necessary to protect the minority from the oppression of the majority; conservatives believe that the values inherent in the American system appropriately value minority rights.
c. Government intrusion. The economically conservative position is for less government action that impedes individual liberties. Thus, a law outlawing abortion or flag burning is by definition a liberal law, and a law legalizing marijuana or unfettered talk radio is by definition a conservative law. Clearly, there are many so-called "conservatives" who would support certain economically liberal laws, and vice-versa.

7. I believe that many of the so-called political issues of the day have become such buzzwords that many of those speaking out on them don't know what they are talking about. While health care is one such issue, let me pick on a different one. "Tort reform" means many, many different things to different people. I am willing to bet that many people who speak out on tort reform don't know what a tort is. Tort reform in Texas is vastly different from tort reform in Missouri. To say that you can tell if someone is liberal or conservative based on how that person feels about "tort reform" is shallow and wrong.

I know that some of you are outraged that my definition of "conservative" or "liberal" does not accurately reflect your personal nuanced political philosophy, while others reading this are chuckling at my simple list. Again, I can go toe to toe with most of you on the implications of a lot of this, but that is not the point here. I really am just tired of hearing all of the vitriol that is being spewed by both sides, when in fact we have some specific differences that are worth debating without accusing the other side of a parade of horribles. Let's first understand what the fight really is, then let's figure out what our differences are and debate them.

As I have defined the terms here, by the way, I am "conservative" on some issues and "liberal" on others, and in between on a lot.

OK. Pollyanna sermonette over for tonight.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Of Josh, Mike, Hypocrisy, and Cynicism

Interesting how the world responds to the fallen, the falling, and the repentant.

You have read the stories this week. Heroes of the sports world whose transgressions have been published for the world to see.

Josh Hamilton, recovering alcoholic and drug addict, very public Christian, whose wild night in Arizona last January outed him for falling off the wagon.

Michael Vick, recently released ex-convict, public Christian, whose proclaimed "disgust" at his own actions and planned penance to be served in the community were broadcast on "60 Minutes" tonight.

I have been interested and a little saddened by the responses I have heard this week. The Hamilton story - undoubtedly in part because of the prurient nature of the pictures and the story that must go with them - has led many to say "I told you so" about his public testimonies of conversion. The Vick story has led person after person to scoff at his proclamations of reform and note with interest how many "handlers" Vick has.

Maybe I am just naive, but I look at some of this differently.

I am not ready to label Hamilton a hypocrite. To me, he seems to be someone who is struggling with a fight that will be with him for the rest of this life. When he says he thought he could handle one drink and found out he could not, that rings true to me. The rest of the story of what happened that night is easy to play out from there. Does that make him a hypocrite? Only if you decide that all of us who proclaim Christ but fall along the way are hypocrites. Maybe we are, but if so, it is a big club. Failure is not hypocritical; it is human. Owning up to your failure without calling in the players' union and the press agents to spin the story is admirable to me.

I am not ready to label Vick insincere. He may be. But the only pieces of evidence we have so far are his past actions and his present statements. His past actions label him a criminal, a person of horrible judgment, and something of a spoiled brat with little sense of propriety - in other words, a sinner. His present statements are those of someone who has been broken, who has been (in church language) convicted, who has repented. There is no way for me to judge his sincerity now because I cannot see his heart - I will have to follow his actions and try to make a judgment based on what I see. So too, however, there is no way for the cynics to judge his sincerity now, for they are no more able to see into his heart than I am.

My point is not to hold up Josh Hamilton and Michael Vick as icons or paragons of virtue. I may be wrong about Hamilton, and I may be naively guessing wrong about Vick. If so, ok... I have been wrong many times before.

My point is to note how cynical our society is when it comes to issues of repentance, forgiveness, confession, and changed heart. So many of us simply don't believe it when we see it. Is that because people have not experienced it for themselves? Is it simply because we have seen so many phoneys that we cannot accept it for real?

Like Josh Hamilton, Michael Vick may have a new public failure that leads to ridicule and cries of hypocrisy. If it is a pattern that exposes his statements of tonight as lies, then so be it. If it is a single terrible failure that illuminates the fact (that should be obvious to us all) that his struggles are far from over, then I hope somebody continues to allow him to go through the process.

I am not defending dog fighting, drunken escapades by married men with party girls, or any other failings. I am only noting that we all fail, we all fight our fights and sometimes lose. I would hope that we can see our own fight in the struggles of others and cut them some slack.

Are they hypocrites? Maybe. Are we cynics? Definitely.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Me and the Atheist - Some Excerpts

I am involved in an interesting, crucial, in many ways heart-rending cyber-discussion/debate with an atheist named Daniel. He has his own blog in which he spews vitriol about Christians, the Bible, and religion in general. (He is happy to shoot at Jews and Muslims too, so I guess he is an equal-opportunity religion-baiter.) We have a mutual friend/family member who asked me to get involved with Daniel by commenting on his blog and trying to draw him into a conversation. This is not all that hard to do, since his blog includes an open letter to Christian pastors and teachers daring us to take him on.

He is articulate, logical, and often (with notable exceptions) respectful. He probably pays his taxes and doesn't kick the dog either.

That said, his arguments can be reduced to this: (1) Many fundamentalist and/or shallow Christians he has known have made bad arguments against his atheism; (2) the God of the Old Testament is different from the Jesus of the New Testament; and (3) science is in conflict with much of scripture.

I have tried to focus my conversations with him on the fact that Christianity is not a "religion" but instead is a relationship with God, that love is not a good feeling but instead is a reflection of that holy relationship, and that his own brand of scientific rationality leaves him with no hope.

Here are some of the things I have said to Daniel:

In response to his continued attacks on the general intelligence of anyone who would fall for a religion:

I am not interested in selling you on religion. I am interested in talking to you about a relationship that I have. I know that it is not irrational, but I do not expect you to accept that right now. You can grasp for rationality and "intellectualism" as long as you like - let me know where that gets you. As we carry on this conversation, see if you conclude that I am either dumb or crazy. See if you think I am suspending my rationality. Perhaps I simply know somebody whom you do not know. Perhaps I have exercised faith and seen the result. Yes, you can choose to call me a fool, and I suppose that over the internet you can call me that and still sleep at night, not having met me.

In response to his claim that love is simply a combination of moods and emotions:

You do your wife and those who love you a disservice if you think that their love is nothing but a combination of moods, feelings, and passions. You don't understand the love of Christians for you if you believe that "there's nothing more special about that than love from anyone else." That may be the fault of the Christians who love you, but since I know some of them, I don't think so. I think you are intentionally choosing not to recognize that their love for you comes from something other than their feelings. Given your recently discovered atheism and your cynical attack on what they believe, I expect that their "feelings" and "passions" would not lead to love for you. Love is an action, not a feeling, and love for the one who despises what you believe comes from somewhere other than a good mood.

In response to his attack on the Bible (the typical stuff about how God in the Old Testament, who told his armies to kill innocent tribes, contradicts the picture of Jesus in the New Testament) I asked him what he does with the resurrection of Christ, the presence of the Roman guard at the tomb, and the more than 150 witnesses to the resurrected Christ. He responded that "there is no resurrection" and that the witnesses were "hallucinating or misled" like those who see UFOs. My response:

Well, you can certainly end this conversation if you want by saying "there was no resurrection" without offering a hint of logic or explanation, but I didn't think that was your style. I thought you were the big logician. Are you really saying that the Roman guard, working for the governor on pain of death, was collectively "hallucinating or misled"? And over 150 witnesses were "hallucinating or misled"? That is awfully convenient for you, isn't it - to take an argument you don't understand and just toss it out as based on faulty witnesses? Isn't that akin to that for which you criticize [Christian] people [who claim that the inexplicable in science reveals the presence of God] ... what you cleverly label 'reductio ad absurdum'? Can't you come up with something better than that? I'll help you ... just say ... hmm... that it's all a lie - there were no Roman soldiers there.... Or... Jesus didn't really die on the cross, he just passed out.... Or how about this - the apostles drugged the soldiers and stole the body. At least those make more sense then "they were hallucinating." And as for the 150 witnesses, just say they were all in a conspiracy to start a new religion - Roman law notwithstanding - and it was cool for them to join in this mass lie. Any of those is better than "they were all hallucinating." Come on, Daniel, I am disappointed in you.

In reading your latest posts, I am beginning to understand what I think is the heart of your problem with Christianity. You say this: "My primary issue with Christianity and for that matter Judaism and Islam is these religions are based on the dreams, visions, interpretations of folklore, and/or outright fabrications and manipulation of historical events." This of course dovetails nicely with your "rebranding" argument, wherein you accuse us of tossing out the parts of the "dreams, visions, folklore, and... historical events" we don't like in favor of a flavor of the month.

That would all make sense if it had an ounce of truth behind it, but your premise is wrong. Christianity is not based on what some goatherders in the Middle East said - it is based on relationship with the living God. You can say that I am hallucinating or misled if you want, but short of that (and unless I am just a brilliant liar with nothing better to do than to throw my life away on this tale), you have to deal with my experience with God. That experience is the basis of my belief and my faith - the Bible then becomes, as I have written to you before, a biography of that God and the story of how God has dealt with people in the past. It is authoritative, not because of Obadiah's innate understanding of quantum physics and Nahum's clear explanations of Chinese history, but rather because God reveals Godself to us bit by bit. Yes, ancients living in an incredibly violent world latched onto what they understood of God - God's authority and power - in making some incredibly violent decisions. But God is fully revealed in Christ.

Are there some things in the Old Testament that no longer apply? Of course. That is why the vast majority of Christians don't follow the Kosher laws. That does not mean there was not a time and place for those laws when God was dealing with infant peoples in a new world, but it is equally true that God's dealings with us have evolved as we as a race have matured.

Surely you have seen multiple examples of progressive revelation in other parts of life. Do you have kids? I doubt you explain why touching a stove is bad in the same way to your six-year-old as you do to your 9-month-old. To the baby, you simply say "no" and forcefully snatch her hand away before she is burned. Have you ever coached a team? Surely you don't explain tactics in the same way to a rookie as you do to an experienced all-star. Have you ever taught a class? Of course you start with basics, even skipping some critical elements at first, until there is some understanding of what has to be learned first. Ever seen somebody take a piano lesson? They are at first told NOT to use a pedal, even though pedaling is integral to good piano playing, because they must first learn how to play one key at a time. That does not mean that pedaling is wrong, but it does mean that it would be wrong to reveal pedaling to someone who has not yet mastered Chopsticks.

I think it is time for you to quit picking on strawmen. Yes, it is easy to make fun of people who call themselves Christian and who make bad arguments in support of Christianity. I could do the same thing with shallow atheists, but what would be the point? Get out of the shooting gallery and start dealing with the real issue - the fact that God wants relationship with you, the fact that God demonstrates that desire to you through His love for you and through His children's love for you, and the fact that Christ gave His life for you even while you were (and are) uninterested in His life. Those are the real issues, not whether somebody's view of Jesus contradicts somebody else's interpretation of Second Chronicles.


I have no idea how this conversation will end. Since he and I have never met, it is hard for him to assign credibility to my claims, I am sure. It is easy for him to write me off as, in his words, "misled." So be it.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Reflections on a Reunion, Part Two

About 14 months ago, I joined with members of my church youth group from back in the late 70s and early 80s for a reunion. It was a powerful experience for me and for many others who came. I wrote about it here.

This weekend, I witnessed another, similar reunion. My current church family hosted a reunion of members of this church's youth choir, called the Chapel Choir, from the last 25 years. I was not a part of the reunion, although my son was. I heard about it from him as it progressed through the weekend, and then I witnessed its climax as the Reunion Choir sang several selections during this morning's worship service.

I was struck once again by the reality of the experience with Christ and His love that I had as a youth even as I heard and saw these young (and some not-so-young) folks reliving their experience. It was manna for me, and it was manna for them. (To give credit where credit is due, I am taking off on the theme of the sermon that Rev. Eric Howell, one of the reunion participants and a fine pastor, delivered in the service.) "Manna," of course, is Hebrew for "What is it?" As youth, we did not always have a name or even an understanding for what was happening to us. If we had stopped to think about it and try to analyze it, we probably would have asked, "What is it?" It was, in fact, the bread of life being provided to us by God... it was manna. The truth is that we middle-aged adults often cannot name what is going on in our lives when God is providing - whether we are too jaded or just too lazy to see the work of God, we tend to look around at blessings that literally fall around for us to pick up and ask "what is this?"

Fourteen months ago, so many of my friends were experiencing great tragedy, but fourteen months of experience with the Giver of manna teach us much. One friend, whose husband and son had been killed the year before by a drunk driver in a senseless accident, was suffering. Yesterday, her birthday, she and I talked about her new husband and the joy that is in her life. Another dear friend missed the reunion altogether because she was in the throes of an addiction that had grabbed a hold of her life. Today, on the other side of rehabilitation, she works every day to maintain what we call (because we don't have a better word for it) recovery. Yet another friend spoke during that reunion from her wheelchair. Last week, she wrote, "We just continue to press forward and into the Grace of God. All the little and big things He continues to do to show us he loves us."

Make no mistake. The first will never replace her son and will always miss her husband, the second has to fight demons every day that I will never understand, and the third is still in her wheelchair. I am not pretending that their problems magically disappeared.

But I can just as quickly say that none of the three of them could see, fourteen months ago, where they would be today. They all exhibit great faith in God, but faith is not sight, and they could not see then how God would bless them. They are all receiving manna, daily.

Now, other people who were in my youth group have had tragedies strike during these fourteen months. Mothers have died. Jobs are in trouble. The recession hits Christian youth-group-veterans just like it hits everyone else. We cannot see how God will bless us over the coming fourteen months, or fourteen minutes. When God does bless, we may not be able to put our finger on it. But the manna will still come. It always does. Remember, God's mercies are new every morning.

This weekend, I saw about seventy former members of a choir in which I never sang show up for a reunion. I heard them sing several songs that my youth choir did not sing, and I was struck how God works differently in different lives.

But then, at the end of this morning's service, this Reunion Choir sang "In This Very Room." They sang the very same arrangement that my youth choir used to sing. The words are simple: "In this very room, there's quite enough love, joy, hope, and power for all the world, for Jesus, Lord Jesus, is in this very room."

Suddenly, it was not about how God works differently in different lives. It was about the ties that bind us. It was about the very best of what we know as church. It was about a bunch of kids separated by years and miles and events and histories who nonetheless experienced and understood precisely the same thing because they - we - serve the very same God, and His blessings are new for all of us every morning.

Same song. Same Jesus. He was in the room with them while He was in the room with us. He's here with me now and with you as you read. That's manna. That's the bread of life.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

The Dog Days

Baseball fans know what the Dog Days are. We are in them now. In a 162-game season, the enthusiasm of April wanes as the calendar pages turn. The All-Star game is over. The postseason is still months away. The weather is hot and dry. It is hard to stay excited.... These are the Dog Days.

We all have Dog Days.

We have them in our marriages. It is not that we want out, or that we think we have made a mistake, or even that there is anything particularly wrong. It is just that years of marriage have followed years of marriage, and enthusiasm wanes.

We have them in our jobs, of course. No matter how called you are and how much you love you job, there are weeks that pass that simply require commitment to get up and go back to that same office.

We have them in our spiritual lives. God is still there, just as God has always been. We are not tired of God nor wanting to take our turn as the Prodigal Son. We are simply lacking enthusiasm.

The Dog Days can make it hard to teach a lesson or write a blog. What do we have to say? How can I find it in me?

The answer, of course, is that we can't find it in us, for we really have very little to say. The answer, of course, is to turn to the One who has no Dog Days. The answer lies, of all places, in the often-ignored Old Testament treasure called Lamentations: "Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: because of the LORD's great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. I say to myself, 'The LORD is my portion; therefore I will wait for him.'"

"Great Is Thy Faithfulness" is one of our greatest hymns. It comes from this passage that reminds us that God's mercies are new every morning. The writer of Lamentations is definitely in the Dog Days. Just before the passage I quoted, the writer has talked of tasting wormwood and gall. But even then, there is hope, for what God has to offer never fails. Our faithful God just keeps bringing it. God's mercies - gifts, grace, goodness - are new every morning.

The truth is that my marriage is precisely what I need, that my wife is God's gift to me, that our life together is a great gift. That job you may dread is in fact where you live out God's call on your life, and you are in fact where you know you ought to be.

Baseball players get through the Dog Days. Truth be told, they enjoy the Dog Days, for what could be better than playing baseball for a living?

So too, tomorrow is to be enjoyed, to be savored, for what could be better than walking with God, than finding what God has new for me today?

Great is God's faithfulness.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Do Americans Know What We Want?

Today's papers carried news about the latest approval polls that show President Obama's slide in popular opinion. In response, White House adviser David Axelrod is quoted as saying: "People fundamentally like this president, and they believe he's smart and capable and strong and trying to do the right thing."

I think Axelrod is right. I just don't think those are the key things that qualify someone to be president over the other realistic candidates. Of course President Obama is likeable. He is clearly smart. He is capable of many things. And I have no doubt that he is trying to do the right thing.

But is that really the defense we want to reassure us about our president? Isn't every viable candidate likeable and smart and capable? Don't we believe in our hearts that McCain or Nader or Bush or Kerry or Gore or Sharpton or Perot or Biden or Gus Hall would have tried to do the right thing?

I am discouraged that many Americans - and the official spokesperson of the administration - seem to be satisfied with someone who is smart and likeable and wants to do the right thing. (Lest you think I am applying this only to the current administration, I winced during the previous administration when President Bush's defenders would respond to attacks with lines like "He is such a good man.") I just don't think that's enough. I believe that we have to look at two more things: What does the president believe and what does the president do?

My objections to Gus Hall's candidacy would have had nothing to do with how smart he was or how much he wanted to do right. They would have arisen because his ideology was abhorrent to me and, in trying to do what he thought was right, he would have led the country in entirely the wrong direction. I would have voted against him because of what he believed and what he would have done.

George W. Bush's failure, ultimately, was not in being unlikeable or not smart enough. (I know, some of you are chuckling because of his malapropisms, but even you admit that he is smarter than the average bear.) President Bush's ultimate failures were because his actions did not reflect what he claimed to believe. He claimed to be an economic conservative but led the nation in huge (albeit dwarfed by the current administration's) increases in government spending. He claimed not to believe in nation-buidling but embarked on a long and costly effort in Iraq that can be classified as nothing else.

Near the end of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Dumbledore says, "It's our choices, Harry, that tell who we are, far more than our abilities."

This blog is not meant to gauge opinions about President Obama's policies. You believe what you believe, and I believe what I believe. My point is to say that I fear that too many Americans voted for a likeable smart guy without fully considering the consequences, and I am amazed that Americans now may be defending him on the grounds that he is a likeable smart guy who is trying hard. His job is too important for that. He should be defended - or not - based on his choices, not his basic skills.

I believe that President Obama is entirely honest. I believe he has done exactly what he said he would do, from his promotion of labor unions to his government intervention into the business of GM to his "stimulus package" to his health care initiative to his Supreme Court nominee. Those are choices that he has made. His abilities are admirable; his choices are not the ones I would have made.

I would hope that his defenders would have more to say than "he is likeable and smart and trying hard." I hope his defenders would defend his choices and his ideology.

I know that some of you do defend his choices, and I applaud you for your consistency, even if I disagree with the particular political choices. But I worry when the quote the White House carefully chooses to put out is the one that showed up in the paper today.

Is that what Americans want? Likeable, smart, trying hard to do right?

Friday, July 10, 2009

Thanks, Jessica

I have a pretty eclectic set of tastes in music. I am not much for jazz or metal or grunge or hip hop, but my music collection runs the gamut of almost everything else.

Today at lunch, in the 98 degree heat, I was doing a two mile walk and listening to my MP3 player. You know how these things work - it is programmed randomly with music from my collection, and I cannot predict what I will hear each time I turn it on. At my pace, a two mile walk allows for about eight songs. I started off country, with Tanya Tucker's "Down to My Last Teardrop." Next was John Denver's "Poems, Prayers, and Promises" and then Styx performing "Fooling Yourself." I went back to the sixties with Coven's "One Tin Soldier" and then started moving forward in time, if only slightly, with America's "Horse with no Name." Then came Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band singing "Against the Wind."

By this time, I had gone about a mile and a half, and the temperature was up to 101. My mind was not experiencing endorphins ... only heat. I was ready to be done. At that moment, U2's "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" randomly appeared as the next song in the playlist. Now, I love this song. I have written about it before on this blog. But today, I was troubled by it. It is Bono's searching voice that cries out through these lyrics: "You broke the bonds and you loosened the chains... carried the cross of all my shame, all my shame. You know I believe it. But I still haven't found what I'm looking for."

Maybe it was the heat, but I was struck with a troubling sadness. How many are there out there who "believe" in some intellectual sense but have not found what they need in spite of that belief? What is the difference between "belief" and "faith". What did Jesus mean when he told us to "believe in" Him. Why hasn't the singer of the U2 lyric found what he is looking for?

Before you think that I have lost my mind, rest assured that I do have some answers for those questions. I do not promise that they are satisfying answers to everyone, but in the peace and quiet of my study, I can work through them. In the heat of the day and the walk, however, I was not answering. I was just troubled.

About that point, I hit the 1.75 mile marker, and the last of the songs I would hear today came on. It was Jessica Lofbomm's "In the Morning." If you don't know Jessica and her music, you can learn more here.

Anyway, Jessica is one of my dearest friends, a virtual family member, going back to her days as Gena's and my "adopted college student" when she first moved to Nashville. She lives on the other side of the world now, so we do not see her often. But today, of all days, my little portable music box sent me Jessica's clear, strong, faithful voice just when I needed to hear a clear, strong, faithful voice. In my troubled response to Bono, I heard Jessica's "Alleluia" pour through. "In the Morning" is a relatively simple song - its message includes the same kind of uncertainty about faith as does the U2 classic. Jessica sings "Jesus, I am sorry, I have fallen asleep. Why are you giving your life for me?"

The difference is not in the questions, for we all have questions. We all face uncertainty. We all walk through the heat.

The difference is in the response. We can say "I believe but I have not found", or we can say "Why? ... Alleluia." That was what I needed today. Today, I do not so much need to be reminded of the factual details that I am supposed to believe. Today, I do not need to address every question, to psychoanalyze Jesus to find out why He did and does everything He did and does.

No, today I just need to hear a faithful sister sing "Alleluia" even though she has questions and uncertainties and heat to walk through. I can face the questions posed by Bono when I know the faith sung by Jessica is always right behind.

Thanks, Jessica.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Who Is Touching Jesus?

The story in the gospels of the woman who touches the hem of Jesus' garment is familiar. As Jesus is on His way to Jairus' home in order (as we find out in a few verses) to raise the man's daughter from the dead, His clothes are touched by a sick woman. She is immediately healed. The gospel writers tell us that Jesus feels power go out from Himself and turns and asks, "Who touched me?"

I have often wondered about this little story. Why would Jesus ask this? One explanation is that the crowd around Jesus is so pressing and so large that He simply does not know which person among many has touched Him.

That too-easy explanation does not work for me. Even in human form, Jesus is God. Of course Jesus knows immediately who has touched Him.

My Christology understands the healings of Jesus as personal extensions of Himself. If Jesus does not know who has reached out to Him, then the healing is simply an impersonal passing of power from the Christ to a sick person, transmitted by touch, without Jesus' independent knowledge of the faith of the one seeking the healing. I cannot accept that. I believe that Jesus does not act randomly. I also believe that the control of the whens and hows of His miraculous work is not ceded by Jesus to a person who chooses to reach out and touch Him at the coincidentally correct time.

I believe that Jesus asks this question - as He does many times with questions in the gospels - as a teaching device. I believe that Jesus, who is in a crowd and on His way to the house of an important man with an urgent need, pauses that journey and (first!) heals a person who would be considered "unimportant" by virtually everyone around, and then Jesus takes the opportunity to teach a lesson.

Stopping His important trip, having quietly healed the formerly-bleeding woman, Jesus asks a question to make the point that only He had noticed her. He says to those with Him - undoubtedly Peter and Thaddeus and Judas and Matthew and the rest - "So, did you notice? Of this whole crowd, who reached out to me? Out of these good people, whom did I heal? In the midst of this group, did you see the power of God displayed?"

The disciples are clueless. "Master, there are an awful lot of people here. And besides that, we are focused on the important job of getting to this important man's house. You can't have expected us to notice anything else."

I believe the same question could be asked today. We rush around on crucial errands. We direct Jesus in the way we want Him to go, aiming for the right person who has asked for proper help. On the way, we are surrounded by many others, some of whom desperately need the touch of the Master. I believe that He gives just that touch right in our presence, and we are none the wiser. I believe that the sick and the seeking are stepping out in faith right under our noses. Triumphantly, Jesus sees them and their faith and responds as only He can. Tragically, we never notice.

Maybe it is because we are legitimately distracted with serving Him in a different way. Too often, I fear, we miss the work of God because we are preoccupied with ourselves, our politics, our narrow views of how God works, and our so-called important stuff.

There is another reason Jesus asks the question, of course. He wants the woman to be noticed. He knows that her faith is exemplary, and He wants us to see it.

"Who touched me?" is not a request for information - Jesus already knew the answer. "Who touched me?" is a quiz, a rebuke to those followers of Jesus who wouldn't know a miracle if it happened in front of their face.

Jesus is acting around us all the time, rewarding faith and touching the needy. Do you notice? If Jesus asks you where you have seen Him work today, will you have an answer?

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

I Used to Be a Southern Baptist

I was baptized into a Southern Baptist church in April of 1973. Over the subsequent 36+ years, I have been a member of seven Southern Baptist churches. Both of my parents attended a Southern Baptist seminary. Two of my uncles pastored Southern Baptist churches. I have written for Southern Baptist publications.

My church is no longer a Southern Baptist church after this week's action of the Southern Baptist Convention. While the SBC never bothered to put a reason for its action on the record, the off-the-record and behind-the-scenes and blogosphere justifications for the SBC action all had to do with a disbelief of my church's testimony about itself and an assumption/interpretation by others about what my church affirms, approves, and endorses.

This is unprecedented at the national level. More than that, it is sad.

There are some who don't see much downside to the Convention's action. They don't see why my church should care that it is no longer affiliated with the SBC. They may be right. After all, the Southern Baptist Convention of today is a far cry from what it was in 1973. My church has many different priorities from those of the SBC. I personally am not enamored with many current convention positions.

Still, the history of the SBC has much to be proud of. Even in the current SBC, there are pockets - especially at the local level, where the national politics has not been able to ooze - of Christian service and discipleship that are worthy of support and acclaim. As my ability to support the majority of Southern Baptists in positions of power and the direction of the national convention has waned to almost nothing, I have focused on my support of these isolated areas. And if we (and by "we" I mean both my fellow church members and the Executive Committee of the SBC) are honest, we will admit that there is much that we have in common: we claim the promise of Christ; we seek to follow the Great Commission; we are active in mission work.

I am proud that my church has sought reconciliation. I believe that is the Christlike approach. Paul teaches that, as much as it is up to us, we should live in peace with all. We have tried to do that. The Convention has rejected our efforts and publicly disbelieved our testimony about ourselves. That leaves nothing for us to hold on to.

It is ironic that I write this blog immediately after having written a blog about how I am an optimist. I can see the good in the SBC (I know I sound like Luke Skywalker, seeing the good in Darth Vader) that still exists. I know that many who voted to oust my church believe that scripture is clear and that accepting certain people as church members is a de facto affirmation of their behavior. I believe them when they say that they have no problem ministering to everyone and opening the doors of the church to all people but that an extension of membership is a different matter.

That I understand them does not mean that I excuse them. It is, I believe, either dishonest or naive to conclude that all Southern Baptist church members are truly repentant for all their sins. As I say, I have been a member of Southern Baptist churches for over 36 years, and I know that our churches include many who commit sins for which they have no remorse and of which they have no intention of repenting. I also believe it is poor exigesis of scripture to conclude that the New Testament description of the local church includes only those who have repented of all sins, who have "arrived" at the ideal state of following Christ. Paul himself testified that he had not yet achieved his goal even as he approached his death. He continued to press on toward the high calling. So do we.

Do I think people should repent of their sins? Of course I do. Do I believe that unrepentant sinners are failing to meet the mark we expect of church members? Obviously.

It is a red herring to label my church as pro-gay or pro-sin or apostate or anti-repentance. I have never been in a church with a higher view of scripture in the worship service. I have been impressed with the respect for scripture that my church has demonstrated and continues to demonstrate in dealing with this very issue.

It is sad that we have yet another public picture of Christians who cannot get along. It is sad that the ministries of many good Southern Baptist churches who had nothing to do with the Convention's actions will be marred by the (deserved) bad publicity with which all who bear the name "Southern Baptist" will be marked as a result of this short-sightedness. It is sad that those who have firmly grabbed control of the name Southern Baptist have such little regard for the historic idea of what it means to be Baptist.

Go in peace, SBC. We no longer walk together - and that is sad - but we both continue to bear the name of Christ. I have little doubt that my church will continue on the path that God has laid out for us, and I have little doubt that you will continue on your own different path. I believe the loss is yours.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Do You Speak Funagalo?

Early in the first novel in Alexander McCall Smith's No.1 Ladies Detective Agency series, an older man speaking of his early days working in the mines of South Africa says this:

"They taught us Funagalo, which is the language used for giving orders underground. It is a strange language... which is good for telling people what to do. There are many words for push, take, shove, carry, load, and no words for love, or happiness, or the sounds which birds make in the morning."

I am by nature an optimist. I see the proverbial glass at least half full. It is hard for me to see the bad in people. Even after 19 years practicing law and thousands of depositions, I tend to believe what people say to me. Perhaps that is a weakness, but I don't think so.

It can be a challenge to be an optimist. My uncle is dying. In a quick review of updated status reports on Facebook tonight, I discovered that two of my friends have lost family members in the last two days. As I have blogged before, way too many of my friends are going through or have just gone through divorces. Like everyone else, I have lost a lot in the recession of the last months. We are at war. My church stands on the verge of potentially being disfellowshiped by our national convention over an issue that is neither doctrinal nor necessary.

And I have it good. Many of you can readily cite a list of reasons it is hard for you to be an optimist that is much longer and more debilitating than mine.

Still, I long for the words that express love and happiness and the sounds that birds make in the morning.

I know plenty of folks who speak their version of Funagalo. They are at work, where nobody does anything worthy of receiving a compliment. They can be found on the internet or the radio, where they preach gloom and doom. Sadly, they are at church, where differences and disagreements dominate the conversation and things simply can never be like they used to be.

Perhaps I am naive. Maybe I miss the forest for the trees. But I think there is much that is wonderful around us. I have met only one person in my life in whom I could find no good, and I suspect that was my failing and a result of a rather limited amount of time spent with him.

I remember a conversation with a close friend who lamented over lunch how terrible things are in the world, how they are continually getting worse. I was flabbergasted. This came from a Christian leader. Of course I see what is happening to our culture, and yes, I see many manifestations of sin and evil around us. But God is good all the time. God is at work all the time.

The coverage of our current economic problems that compares today's climate to the Great Depression shows an amazing historic myopia. As hard as the current economic crisis has hit - and it is a crisis and it assuredly has hit hard - the standard of living today is embarrassingly luxurious in comparison to that of the Depression. Walk through a Best Buy or a car lot and then ask yourself if life today is anything like the economic times of the thirties.

Birds still make those sounds in the morning. Love and happiness are everywhere. God loves you and me, in spite of you and me.

Let's speak a little less Funagalo.