Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Morning Has Broken - A Thought for Thanksgiving

Morning has broken like the first morning.
Blackbird has spoken like the first bird.
Praise for the singing, praise for the morning,
Praise for them springing fresh from the Word!

Sweet the rain's new fall, sunlit from Heaven,
Like the first dewfall on the first grass.
Praise for the sweetness of the wet garden
Sprung in completeness where His feet pass.

Mine is the sunlight, mine is the morning
Born of the one light Eden saw play.
Praise with elation, praise every morning
God's recreation of the new day.

Morning has broken like the first morning.
Blackbird has spoken like the first bird.
Praise for the singing, praise for the morning,
Praise for them springing fresh from the Word!

How interesting that Eleanor Farjeon's eighty-four year old hymn text has found its way into popular music, recorded famously by Cat Stevens (after he was Steven Demetre Georgiou and before he was Yusuf Islam), Neil Diamond, Kenny Rogers, Aaron Neville, Roger Whitaker, and Pam Tillis among others. These words of gratitude for new beginnings speak to the congregations on Sunday mornings and to the concert goers and those beside their radios. We all, churchgoers or not, find ourselves in shades of night, waiting and longing for the morning. And morning always arrives.

The lessons of life come almost too routinely. Spring always follows winter like resurrection follows burial. The retreat of the caterpillar into a cocoon is merely the preparation for the birth of the beautiful butterfly. Consider the lilies of the field, which neither labor nor spin, yet Solomon in all his splendor was not dressed like one of them. The rain falls and the sun shines and the grass grows.

And morning follows night. Always.

Elie Wiesel’s novel about a man who believes that he lives in a world without God is appropriately entitled Night. Robert Frost, in writing of sadness and loneliness, says that he has been “acquainted with the night.”

Night comes in many, many forms. There is the physical night of disease, torment, and disability. There is the mental and emotional night of dementia, forgetfulness, and confusion. Night can form from regret and disappointment. Worry creates a long night. Fear darkens the world around us. It was the Spanish poet and mystic Saint John of the Cross who first referred to that phase of spiritual loneliness and desolation as the “dark night of the soul”.

But the lessons of life teach us that morning follows night as certainly as spring follows winter. And, in echoing that message, the scriptures teach us that while weeping may last for the night, our joy comes in the morning.

It was God’s first act, after creating the world itself, to dispel darkness. “Let there be light” is a mighty statement of hope and power. The "one light that Eden saw" was the very light of God, as morning broke for the first time over a new earth as yet unstained by sin.

Into your night of sin and lostness, morning has broken. Like on the first morning, God has said “let there be light” and has sent His only begotten Son.

Your night of sickness or disillusionment or betrayal may be at its darkest, but the lessons of life teach us that for those of us who are His, it is but a moment. Our God is the Father of light. Joy comes in the morning.

When you wake up tomorrow and see that, indeed, the darkness has gone and the sun has arisen, rejoice that morning has broken like that first morning. Say to yourself that the morning is yours, and understand that His feet are passing close by.

And He shall be like the light of the morning, when the sun rises, even a morning without clouds. Your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear. Then you will call, and the Lord will answer. You will call for help, and He will say, “Here am I.” Arise, shine for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you. Morning has broken like the first morning.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

A Look Back at My Move Ten Years Later - Be Careful What You Teach Teenagers

One of my favorite chances to speak when I lived in Nashville was the opportunity our church's Youth Minister gave me to write dramatic scripts based on Biblical characters that our youth were studying during youth camp.

In 2000, the character was Abraham, and the drama dealt with God’s telling Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. I wrote the drama with a voice over Abraham and a modern day character, played by me of course, who was dealing with God’s telling him to make a sacrifice.

I had not thought about that script for a couple of years until I found it while unpacking at my new home in Texas. I was hit between the eyes.

You see, the modern day character in my script was asked to sacrifice his job, home, and secure life in order to follow God’s call to another place.  I had some very convincing language in his lines about not understanding what God wanted, but if that was what God called me to do then, like Abraham, I was willing to make the sacrifice.  I would, to quote the script, “quit my job, put the house on the market, and tell my wife it is time to leave.”

It was a pretty good script.  It got the kids’ attention as they studied about following Gods commands, even when they do not understand them, and about being willing to sacrifice. Little did I think that it applied to me.  I had a secure law practice, a good home, and a life of church service that was, I had no doubt, squarely down the middle of God’s plan for my life.

Now hear me well - I think I was right.  Looking back, I believe that I was in fact doing my best to pursue God’s will.  I don’t think that you have to be a wandering prodigal making your way through the wilderness before God calls you somewhere else.  I don’t think the Bible indicates that Abraham was on the wrong road. In fact, I think it was precisely because he had shown such an ability to follow God that he was called to bigger and better things.

But what I tried to teach the kids through that script was that God is interested first and foremost in our listening to Him and our obeying Him. Sometimes, He explains Himself, and often times, He does not. Our understanding is not the point.  Our following is the point.

n   Noah did not understand about rain.
n   Joseph did not understand about dreams.
n   Moses did not understand flaming plants.
n   Caleb did not understand how his group of wanderers could defeat the giants in the land.
n   Balaam did not understand how a donkey could talk.
n   Ruth did not understand why she should go to the wheat fields.
n   Samuel did not understand why he was to anoint the youngest of Jesse’s sons.
n   Nehemiah did not understand why he should leave his cushy job as cupbearer to the king just to go build a wall.
n   Esther had no idea what her cousin meant by his phrase “for such a time as this.”
n   Job did not understand much of anything that was happening to him.
n   Solomon did not understand why all his toiling was a chasing after the wind.
n   Elijah did not understand why he should pour water on the altar.
n   Ezekiel did not understand why the Spirit led him into a desert full of bones.
n   Hosea did not understand why God wanted him to marry a prostitute.
n   Jonah did not understand about the worm and the weed.
n   Habakkuk did not understand why there were no grapes on the vine.
n   Matthew did not understand why he should leave his tax booth.
n   Zaccheus did not understand why he should climb down the tree.
n   Peter did not understand why he could not stay on the mountain.
n   Paul did not understand why he could not see.
n   Ananias did not understand why he had to meet Paul.
n   And, for a moment, Jesus did not understand why a cup was not taken from him.

These heroes have two things in common.  One is that they did not understand.  The other is that they followed anyway.  Some needed a little push - be it a big fish or a big fire or an audible voice - but they followed.

And that is what I taught some teenagers. If Abraham was willing to sacrifice his only son, then they should be willing to make whatever relatively small sacrifice God asked of them.

Be careful what you teach teenagers.

I have no explanation for why God wanted me to move.  I had lots more to do in Nashville, in my church and in my Sunday School class and in my community. I was positioned to have some serious influence for the cause of Christ in Nashville over the next decades.

Now I am in Keller, Texas.  It makes no sense, but I went, and ten and a half years on the other side, I can see that it was right. I do not know that I can articulate yet why it was right, but God led us here.  He has not yet told us exactly why we had to come down out of our tree, to go to the wheat fields, perhaps to go build a wall or maybe even fight some giants.  He has not told us why we cannot see the whole plan.  We do not know why the call came at such a time as 2003.

Like a car on a Tennessee highway (my Texas friends don’t really understand this example) whose headlights only see to the top of the next hill, we can only see so far ahead on our road.  Of course, when we get to that spot - to the top of that hill - we can see further down the road.  We never actually reach the point where we can see no further.  And I found an old script that reminded me that that is ok.  I found a script by a very wise playwright that taught me that it is not the understanding that is important. It is the following, for we cannot find God unless we follow where He is leading us.

I recently used this story in a devotional with some young professionals, and one friend was surprised that someone like me, a lawyer and a debater devoted to logic, could express so freely that my faith includes significant lack of understanding.  To me, however, it is entirely logical to conclude that there are questions to which I have no answer.  The reason is not that there is no answer - that would not be logical.  The reason is that while I do not have the capacity to find or understand the answer, there is One who does.  It is entirely logical to me that the Creator, the Maker, the Master, the Lord, the One holds keys to locks that I do not yet even comprehend exist.

That, after all, is the message of the story of God's call to Abraham to take Isaac and the knife and the fire and go to a distant mountain. It was the moral of a little skit I wrote thirteen years ago for some bright young minds, never realizing how directly it would apply to me.

Be careful what you teach teenagers.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

I'm Shocked! The Media and the Ostrich Syndrome

It is one of the great lines and funny moments of the greatest movie of all time, "Casablanca." Captain Renault, played by Claude Rains, needs an excuse to please the Nazis and shut down Rick's Cafe Americain, and he chooses to use illegal gambling - about which he has known and in which he has regularly participated for years.

This week's NFL events surrounding Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin remind me of the Ostrich Syndrome that pervades our media and our society as a whole.  There are so many issues about which we leave our heads well-buried in the sand until something happens that forces a response.  Suddenly, we are shocked... SHOCKED I say... that there is gambling going on this establishment. 

I am as big an ESPN fan as there is on the planet.  Our cable system gets five ESPN channels, and I have five separate ESPN apps on my smartphone.  I don't remember the last day I did not watch at least some SportsCenter.  My gripe here comes from a fan, not a critic.

If the names Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin don't mean anything to you, you can read the long version of the story here.  The short version is that these Miami Dolphins teammates are in the news because Incognito was mean to Martin, "bullying" him with threats and racial slurs and perhaps overtones of more kinds of discrimination.

I certainly do not defend Incognito. What he said and did was wrong.  If the Dolphins choose to discipline him, that is their internal business.

But I am shocked... shocked I say ... at the self-righteous uproar that the media - and particularly ESPN - have brought to this story.  During last night's Monday Night Football broadcast and the immediately following SportsCenter, and then again on this morning's SportsCenter, the on-air talent could not have been more offended at the language used by Incognito.  Scott Van Pelt began to read the expletive-deleted transcript you can find in the story to which I have linked above and quit midsentence, exclaiming that it was so inappropriate he could just not go on.  The story was picked up with equal head shaking and tongue clicking by the Today Show this morning.

Again, I am not defending the language used, and I am fine with its not being repeated on TV.

But for the media to wonder about the use of such language and the choice of some people to adopt such a condescending and, yes, mean attitude towards others is quite astounding.  Have they not watched a movie in the last 25 years?  Do they watch cable television?  And remember, these are so-called sports journalists.  Have they never been in a locker room or on a practice field?

The shock is not that Incognito said what he said.  The surprise is not that people are mean to each other for the fun of it.  The shock and the issue are that we are surprised by it.  These attitudes and this language are commonplace, and the media is no doubt involved.  I am not taking a position here as to whether Hollywood sets our mores or reflects them - I expect it is some combination of the two - but nobody can debate that Hollywood and the media in general have reveled in this type of attitude, language, and relationship.

We live in an increasingly intolerant, mean, uncivilized society - and the way we speak to each other is at the forefront of the problem.  Before we stick our head back into the sand, we need to start addressing the cause of the problem.  That cause is that we don't love each other enough.  That cause is that we speak as though we were in a fight to the death, convinced that our words were our last line of self-defense.

I hope that my ESPN channels start addressing the issue of why the Richie Incognitos of the world behave badly, but I doubt they will.  I expect that they, like Renault, will slyly take their winnings and move on.  I do not expect the Today Show to address it meaningfully either, although they may have a psychologist or two on in the last hour of a slow news day.

The issue is for us, our families, our schools, and our churches.  The issue is how we treat one another.  The issue is as old as Cain and Abel.