Greatest Exceptions, Greatest Friends

Image result for somali grandmother

[This post is from my recent newspaper columns published in the Arkansas-Democrat Gazette between July 2016 and June 2017]

“I used to think all Baptist preachers were self-righteous *********, but then I met you so now I think all Baptist preachers are kinda self-righteous *********.”

Hmmm.  I guess that’s a compliment?  I enjoy those moments – breaking up someone’s stereotype.  “Hey, you’re not so bad after all!”  Helping someone mature is always a good thing.

My church pays me to read the Jesus stories from the Bible.  Ha!  I would do that anyway – but don’t tell them that!  Recently several of these stories have exploded out of the pages for me.

Luke the gospel-writer was no  Roman Imperialist.  His birth narrative (aka “the Christmas Story”) is a subversive account of a baby messiah more potent than the mighty Caesar.  Yet Luke includes a story about a Centurion who, apparently, is the only person in the gospel who truly understands who Jesus is.

Similarly, there is a Samaritan – and a woman – who encounters Christ at the water cooler    (Samaritans, incidentally, were the theological enemies of the Jews).  But after her conversation with Jesus, it is this woman who, unlike any one else in the gospels, runs home and tells everyone that she met the Messiah.

And don’t forget our favorite wee-little-man Zacchaeus.  He looks different, steals from people and is a traitor who works for the occupying enemy.  Yet he ends up being described as a true “son of Abraham.”  Stunning praise from the Son of God.

What do these stories have in common?  They all highlight exceptions.  Occupying soldiers, religious enemies and traitorous crooks might be easy to despise, but the gospels reveal people in these groups to possess beautiful, world-changing faith.

What’s my point?  In my years on this planet I have never seen my fellow citizens at each other’s throats like we are now.  Sadly, our country has become highly polarized and every form of media is filled with sweeping stereotypes and hateful generalizations.  Every day we hear stories of hurtful words, painful actions and even gunfire in our wars against people on the other side of the aisle.

But whatever group you despise remember this:  there are always exceptions.  As the gospel stories remind us, there is always someone in “that” group who possesses a beautiful, world-changing love for God.

I told a twenty-something friend the other day, “You have more in common with a 17th-century Somalian grandmother who loves Jesus than you do with a white, twenty-something Arkansan male who does not love Jesus.”  A common love for Christ creates the deepest of connections that transcend culture, age, economics, education, heritage and even politics.

The gospel stories tell us to be careful.  Because you never know who you might find in that group you despise.  Our brothers and sisters in Christ are everywhere, even in the strangest places.  And they are the greatest friends we can ever hope to have.

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Dogpile

[This post is from my recent newspaper columns published in the Arkansas-Democrat Gazette between July 2016 and June 2017]

Last week something happened.  Having played Fayetteville Parks and Rec soccer for seven years, a minor miracle occurred.  My youngest son, for the first time in his life, scored a goal.  We cheered like lunatics.  A top-shelf bullet from 20 yards.  And then, ten minutes later, another goal!  The keeper couldn’t even touch it.  Every time I see someone a little dialogue enters my brain:  “Have I told them about Joseph’s soccer prowess?”  Who cares!  Tell them again anyway!

Yes, I was proud.  But mostly I was happy for him.  The look on his face is something I will treasure forever.  It made me happy to see him happy.  Fulfilling my ego through my children’s accomplishments is odd to me.  He scored the goal, I didn’t.  My ego should find its place through my own efforts and successes, not someone else’s.

I do not live through my kids.  I have my own life.  I love them, support them and haul them all over NWA, but in my opinion, the best thing for them is to see me living a rich, abundant life of my own.   Because, someday, they will need to sculpt their own lives.  I hope to be an example to them as I pursue my own created uniqueness instead of putting my life in orbit around theirs.

I give my kids the benefit of the doubt, gradually loosening my grip as they grow older.  Yes, they may make mistakes or get hurt, but I trust them to learn and grow.  Each year I trust them more and more to try new things and use their own judgment as they learn to navigate this world.  My most important work as their parent was completed years ago.

I’ve often said that there are two qualities I want my children to possess:  1) happiness and 2) kindness.  I know there will be unhappy times, but I want them to face the world with courage, confidence and a big, goofy smile.  And, no matter what they accomplish in their lives, I want them to be kind to the people around them;  strangers, subordinates, employers, neighbors and elderly church friends.  Even if they are not wealthy professionals or esteemed civic leaders, I will be delighted to know that they have a sparkle in their eyes for the life they have been given and that they are gentle and respectful to everyone they encounter.

My own father never told me he loved me.  He was abusive to me, my mother and my sister.  He would do nice things like lead my Cub Scout den, but then embarrass me in front of my friends when my car crashed during the pinewood derby.  And as I learned to love him later in life, I discovered he did his best despite his own demons.  And even though I have plenty of my own faults, my father left me an unintended legacy:  I tell my boys I love them.  Every day.  As a matter of fact, I tell them “I love you always, no matter what.”  I hope they believe that.  It is the best I can do, which is what God has done for me.  The launching pad for an extraordinary life.  Demonstrated in Christ and, hopefully, demonstrated by me.

After the game we got into the mini-van and we talked about the game.  I asked him about his goals and what it was like to be dog-piled by his teammates.  And then I said, “You know, I would still love you and be proud of you even without those goals.”  However, the moment was passed.  He already had his earbuds in.  Oh well.  I think he knows that anyway.

Across the Void

[This post is from my recent newspaper columns published in the Arkansas-Democrat Gazette between July 2016 and June 2017]

My friends are white, 50-something year-old males who like cars, college sports and YouTube videos of people sticking firecrackers up their noses (do not try this at home).  Like you and your friends, we have a lot in common.  I resonate with these guys.  I am familiar with them because they are like me.  As a matter of fact, if I meet a guy with these qualities, chances are we’ll be laughing and talking like old friends in no time.  Perhaps familiarity breeds friendship.

Over 20 years ago I was in a private plane flying to Santa Fe, New Mexico.  As navigator, I sat in the front passenger seat with a pile of charts and maps.  Air traffic control in Denver gave us a heading right into a quickly-developing winter storm.  In minutes we were being slammed around the cabin as the mountain winds unleashed their fury.  Out of the corner of my eye I watched the pine trees race by as the ice on the wings grew thicker and thicker.  I gravely accepted the fact that I was going to die.

If you have ever been in a situation like this, you know how terrifying it is.  And, like you, I prayed.   But my prayer surprised me.  I closed my eyes and said “God, I need you to find me.  Please find me.”  As I anticipated my death I was worried that I would be misplaced, drifting alone across the cosmos.  “Come find me!”  (spoiler:  I survived)

But this incident taught me an unexpected lesson.  That moment gave me a glimpse of the distance God has bridged to save me.  I wasn’t part of God’s “in crowd,” I wasn’t “in the neighborhood,”  God didn’t look at me and say “He’s one of us.”  I was on the other side of the galaxy, selfish and lost as a goose – but God still found me.  And that is what God does.  He’ll cross astounding distances to love, forgive and encourage.  Christ did the same thing – lepers, Romans, sex workers and smelly fishermen were never outside the range of his compassion.  No one was too different, too broken or too far away.

Anyone who has enjoyed God’s barrier-crossing love should live the same way.  Though we enjoy the homogeneity of our friendships, there are always others who need us.  Others who may be invisible, ignored or alone.  And we cannot always choose who they will be.  Frederick Buechner wrote “If we are to love our neighbors, before doing anything else we must see our neighbors. With our imagination as well as our eyes, that is to say like artists, we must see not just their faces but the life behind and within their faces.”  Chances are, our neighbors are not just like us.  Rescued One, what barriers have you crossed to love others?

A decade ago a church friend received the phone call every parent silently dreads:  “You’re daughter has been in a fatal vehicle accident.”  I have not lost a child but apparently this was my moment.  My moment to step across a barrier and get to know my “neighbors.”  But instead of laughing at YouTube videos we talk, listen, weep and stand by one another in the raging storm of grief.  Not only are these parents within God’s range of compassion and consolation, they are some of the most courageous people I have ever known.

If you are a grieving parent or grandparent, know that you are not invisible, ignored or alone.  On Saturday, April 8, Parents Left Behind of NWA is hosting their third interactive conference for those who have lost a child of any age  (you can register at http://www.parentsleftbehindar.com).  Previous PLB conferences had over 100 parents and grandparents finding acceptance, empathy and support.  Though the storm rages, there is shelter – and some amazing new friends and neighbors await you.

A Marriage Book

[This post is from my recent newspaper columns published in the Arkansas-Democrat Gazette between July 2016 and June 2017]

My wife is terrific.  She is funny, gracious and patient.  Most of all she puts up with my madcap schemes and hare-brained adventures.  If I’m working on some crazy new invention, planning a high-risk vacation or throwing spears in the backyard, she is always encouraging (if not shaking her head in amusement).  She didn’t bat an eye when I drug home a 33-year old sports car that “just needs a little work!”

But I, on the other hand, am prone to selfishness.  I don’t load the dishwasher correctly, I tend to ignore many of the little daily tasks around the house and our children’s endless logistical calendar never seems to take root in my conscious thoughts.  One time she was telling me about some important family business when she suddenly stopped talking.  After a brief pause she said “I just noticed the exact moment when your eyes glazed over!”  Not one of my finest moments.

But even after twenty-two years marriage isn’t easy.  And one of the biggest issues in a marriage is getting or NOT getting what you want from your spouse.  And we’ve all encountered this:  observing our parent’s marriages, talking to others about their own marriages or even experiencing this problem in our own marriages. “She’s doesn’t love me the way I need” or “He takes me for granted.”

However, this entire line of thinking is a serious problem. Regardless of what is not being given from one spouse to another, the marriage relationship was never meant to be built upon fulfilling specific demands and expectations. Anytime a spouse becomes disgruntled that they are not receiving what they want or need, the economy of the marriage relationship is at risk.  A marriage were never intended to include the dynamic of “you owe me this or that and if I do not receive those things I will grow resentful towards you.” Though the 1st-century phrase might not be clear to us, Paul’s words to the Corinthians warn against this: “Love keeps no record of wrongs.”

So what is the alternative? Instead of an “earn my approval” relationship, marriage as described in Scripture is based on grace. This is an “I love you regardless” approach and it is an entirely different relational dynamic. Instead of keeping a record of wrongs, this approach just keeps loving and loving and moving forward with love — even if it is not reciprocated in a particular way.

My goal in my own marriage continues to evolve. But, at its best, is this: “I am going to relentlessly love you and then love you more.” And, frankly this is a lot more simple, a lot less stressful and a lot more fun than continually focusing on what I’m not getting.  And when both spouses are invested in this love-regardless marriage economy the results are truly magical.

Of course this kind of marital love is not easy — as a matter of fact it is almost impossible. The only way it can happen is if someone has personally experienced the “I love you regardless” kind of love. This is where the believer in Christ is at an extraordinary advantage. By letting him love us to death (literally) do we experience first-hand the kind of love that is without condition, keeps no record of wrongs and is fully capable of transforming a marriage.

So I’ve destroyed the shelf where I keep my resentments and I’ve burned the book where I keep a record of my complaints and gripes.  What a relief.  And can someone tell me how to lead a dishwasher?

Post-election Prayer

[This post is from my recent newspaper columns published in the Arkansas-Democrat Gazette between July 2016 and June 2017]

I’ve heard some strange things since the recent presidential election.  I saw evangelical Christians raising their hands and exclaim “Hallelujah!” that Donald Trump was elected president.  And I read several people who were convinced that his victory was a sign of the impending apocalypse.

What troubles me the most about these and other examples of the marriage of religion and politics is how seamlessly it can happen.  Many church people are quick to blend the Kingdom of God with the Kingdom of America, or, even worse, relinquish the Kingdom God to the Kingdom of America.

We were all singed by the animosity of this election.  And regardless of where you fall on partisan lines, I submit that the polarization we all experienced has not determined the spiritual climate in our country, but, rather is the result of the spiritual climate in our country.  In the words of French philosopher Joseph de Maistre, “Every nation gets the government it deserves.”

How did this happen?  How do people who claim a God-sized lifestyle find themselves shrinking into systems created by politicians, marketing firms, campaign strategists and media biases?  And, more importantly, how do we crawl out of these undersized worldviews?

Let’s consider the issue of political diversity.  Both parties, and certainly the media, failed to value the validity of the other party.  Democrats devalued republicans and republicans devalued democrats.  But a Kingdom-of-God-person understands that “to each one a manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.”  My church has donkeys and elephants and they all possess Spirit-sourced ideas and energy – each one has a piece of the puzzle.  We need each other.

And what about political insiders?  Apparently there are American voters who are not concerned about lifelong politicians leading in an environment that has lost contact with the rest of us.  But a Kingdom-of-God-person understands that Christ has “disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.”  In other words, God’s people do not need to acquiesce to systems of power that originate in DC or Wall Street.  God has a better power at work.

Growing economic disparity also shaped this  year’s election.  While one side suggests everyone can work hard and earn their own way, the other suggests that the government needs to provide assistance to those in need.  But a Kingdom-of-God-person heeds the words of Isaiah and incorporates this issue into their daily lives:  “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:  to loosen the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke?  Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—when you see him naked to clothe him?”  Compassion should be our ongoing business.

Or what about nostalgia?  Can we really turn back the clock and restore our country back to the moral and economic climate of the 1950s?  If so, should we?  But a Kingdom-of-God -person does not need to look backwards to see God’s presence.  Again, Isaiah writes “See, the former things have taken place, and new things I declare;  before they spring into being I announce them to you.  Sing to the Lord a new song…”  God is fully capable of doing great things today and tomorrow, even in a rapidly changing world.  God always has a wonderful new thing.

Finally, this race was characterized by xenophobia, or “whitelash.”  It is as though white Americans are afraid to share the blessings of our country with others.  But a Kingdom-of-God-person does not have to look far to see examples of outsiders, such as Ethiopian Eunuchs, occupying Roman warlords and Samaritan divorcees being included in the richness of Christ’s purposes.  Personally, I have known Muslims who are more Christlike than some lifelong church people I have encountered.  God’s love is wide enough for everyone.

So my post-election prayer sounds like this:

“O Lord our God, we prayerfully lift up the leaders of our nation, regardless of their party affiliation, that they be guided and directed by you to  join us in your purposes of justice and compassion.  And forgive us for trying to wedge your Kingdom into a political process or a particular platform.  Give us the courage to value all the citizens and guests of our country, as they are created in your image.  And help each of us to work together to make our nation great in new and exciting ways, all for your glory.  Amen.”

The Church Forgotten

[This post is one of my recent newspaper columns published in the Arkansas-Democrat Gazette between July 2016 and June 2017]

Since Jamestown and Plymouth Colony, our country has relied on a religious foundation.  And for many years Christianity was not only the majority religion of our nation but, for all practical purposes, the state religion as well.  Many yearn for a return to the days of Christian prayers in publicly-funded settings and the nostalgic comfort of the assumption that every American was a Christian.

But those days are over.  And though the Christianity we are familiar with may be slipping away, we need not despair.  God is still God and greatly capable of doing magnificent acts of justice and compassion – even through people like us.  And, on the other hand, we no longer have to worry about Christianity being weakened by those who affiliated simply because of the social expectation to be a part of a church.

These changes are a critically important factor in our religious landscape.  Many congregations experience significant anxiety without understanding that church attendance, worship styles and ministry strategies are all deeply influenced by our current location on the religious timeline.  And while some of these changes are obvious, others are less noticeable – but still very important.

For example, as we move out of the Christian culture that was common in America for so long we have an opportunity to recapture some beautiful features of our faith.  Recently, one of the  magazines I subscribe to listed the best sellers from the twelve largest Christian publishing houses.  Of the dozens of books listed none of them were written about church life and relationships.  It is as though everyone assumes that we know how to relate to one another as Christians and church members.  But assumptions like this, especially as we come out of a time when Christianity itself was assumed for our entire nation, can be especially egregious.

Let me put it this way:  the New Testament, the basis for our faith and practice, includes 22 documents written to instruct believers in Christ how to be churches.  Mostly epistles, these are generally two-part documents.  Part one describes ‘who you are as a believer in Christ’ and part two says ‘because you are in Christ this is how you should relate to one another.’  I estimate that over 40% of the content of these documents are telling us how to be in relationship with other church members.

So if so much of our Biblical witness is devoted to creating the relational environment that church members should share, why is no one talking about it?  I am certainly no expert in biology but I remember a few things from 8th grade science class.  I learned that the wall of a cell is permeable.  Somethings, like oxygen and water, can enter a cell while other things, like waste, can leave it.  Similarly, just as Christianity spread out of churches into our American culture for hundreds of years, some things from our culture seeped into our churches.

We lost our distinctiveness.  Even as churches spread Christianity throughout the land, Churches became places that absorbed many things from the culture that surrounds us.  Instead of being unique gatherings of people who demonstrated life-changing love, forgiveness and encouragement, we became people who behaved like everyone else.  I spoke with a friend recently whose daughter died.  She said “For two years no one at my church knew I had lost my child.”  This is as sad as it is stunning.  We let the isolation, conflict and social politeness of everyday “Christian” America permeate the sacred boundaries of our churches.  While scripture calls churches to be extraordinary places of intimacy and growth, most churches and Christian groups have exchanged these opportunities for other, less potent experiences.

In the apostle Paul’s letter to a new church in Corinth, he describes a visitor who experiences the interaction among the church members.  It is the encouragement, comfort and thankfulness shared among those church members – not lectures and lasers – that compels the guest to exclaim “God is really among you!”  New trends seem to encourage a passive church experience while tradition assumes that ‘we’re all good Christian people.’  But when we intentionally follow scripture’s instruction to become communities of uncommon and desperately-needed love and authenticity, lives are forever changed.

Rocky Mountain High

[This post is from my recent newspaper columns published in the Arkansas-Democrat Gazette between July 2016 and June 2017]

Our recent family vacation to Colorado was a madcap adventure.  The weather was beautiful and we actively enjoyed the mountains and wilderness.  About half-way through our trip, I asked my youngest, “We’ve gone backpacking, mountain-biking, 4-wheeling and whitewater-rafting – what would you like to do next?”

“Bowling!” he answered.  Sigh.

Needless to say, we did a lot of things that the kids enjoyed.  But I also did some things I wanted to do.  For example, we visited Christ in the Desert Benedictine Monastery in Abiquiu, New Mexico.  It was a moving experience to say the least.

But I did something else.  Something my kids were not allowed to do.  I went to a recreational marijuana dispensary in Durango, Colorado.

Don’t worry, I did not buy anything, I was merely window shopping.  I was curious about legal marijuana and its availability.  So I simply walked up a flight of stairs, showed my driver’s license and found myself in a dark room with all kinds of marijuana and accessories on display.  Under acrylic table tops I saw many varieties of marijuana that could be purchased for around $500/ounce (cash only, please).

Several things about this experience caught my attention.  First, the marijuana they sell is very strong, some claiming almost 25% THC.  The potency of these greenhouse varieties is much higher than the plants grown on a Madison county hillside.  Also, I was the youngest customer in the store – everyone else was in their 60s and 70s.  These were ‘regulars’ (the clerks knew them by name) which tells me any stigma related to smoking marijuana in a town like Durango is long gone.

But the main thing about my experience was the sadness I felt.  Yes, some use marijuana to help them with medical issues, but, for the most part, this store was selling a product for people to get high.  The only reason for using recreational marijuana is to introduce a chemical into your body that alters how you feel.   It’s like going into a liquor store where only pure grain alcohol is sold.  Or a buying pornography (where window shopping is vastly different).  I was sad because there is a tremendous market to legally sell a substance that offers an artificial short-cut to feel better about your life.

I am not interested in short-cuts.  Or chemicals.  Or pornography.  Or anything that exploits my own body for short-term pleasure.  Because despite all the sad and tragic events we may experience, there are always authentic and honest ways to face our problems.   God knows we will suffer in our lives, but chemicals and short-cuts do not provide sufficient opportunities for personal growth, spiritual maturity and faithfulness.  So I’d rather hike up a mountain trail, campout under the stars, read inspirational words, pray, confide in good friends, play with a child or pet an animal.  The list of healthy, life-enhancing things we can do is endless and costs much less than $500/ounce.  As a matter of fact, you can even go bowling.