Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Why Can't We All Just Get Along

He sits in a living room that has been converted to a shrine in honor of his dead uncle. Surrounded by portraits of his fallen idol, a video of his uncle’s last words plays in the background. He holds a poster with his hero’s portrait on it and declares, "When I grow up, I want to be just like him." It is a welcome sentiment in most families. It might be in your own, except for this: four-year-old Ahmed Masawbi holds a poster of his uncle, Ismail, the suicide bomber who killed three Israeli soldiers last month. Unlike most four-year-olds, whose greatest ambitions run somewhere between becoming a race car driver and a cowboy, when Ahmed is asked about the future he replies, "I want to kill the enemy." Such hate. Such chilling talk from one who only has recently learned to speak at all. It is nothing new. Ahmed is merely continuing a family tradition that is thousands of years old.

The Arabs and the Israelis have been brothers for thousands of years – and not just in the sense that "all God’s children are brothers" either. They have a common ancestry. They come from the same family tree! Ishmael, the father of the Arab nations, and Isaac, the Patriarch of the Jewish people, are both sons of Abraham. These two warring peoples who claim to have such extreme differences have the same father. In Genesis 16, God foretold the strife that would result from Ishmael’s birth when he told the boy’s mother: "This son of yours will be a wild one—free and untamed as a wild donkey! He will be against everyone, and everyone will be against him. Yes, he will live at odds with the rest of his brothers." Despite having the same father, the Arabs and Israelis seem bent on a path of mutual destruction. Unbelievable! Or is it?

The fact is, we often find ourselves "at war" with our Christian brothers and sisters, don’t we? In spite of our best intentions, we find that we just can’t seem to get along. And while we may not send suicide bombers into the "enemy’s" camp, we find other, more subtle means, of assassination. The subtle innuendo. The failure to correct an accusation we know to be false. Questions that sound more like an inquisition. It’s amazing what Christians can do to one another when they cast off restraint. I wonder if the pagan world looks at us Christians, the way we look at the Middle East. I wonder if they ask the same question Moses asked six millennia ago, "Men, you are brothers; why do you want to hurt each other?"

I began corresponding with a new friend recently. In the course of doing some genealogical investigation on the Internet, I discovered a Jewish man named Weller who lives in Israel. I asked him if he knew much about the Jewish roots of our shared surname. His English is excellent, so we have carried on a conversation for a few weeks. If we continue our email conversations, I hope that I might have the opportunity to tell him about another Jewish friend of mine - a fellow named Y’shua who, despite being an observant Jew, has become the friend of Arabs, Germans, British, Japanese, Nigerians, and even a red-headed, pot-bellied preacher in America. I hope I can tell him about this "brother" because I believe that if he, too, will become one with Y’shua, then he will learn that in Christ there "is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one."

What too few realize, or are willing to admit, is that the solution to the Middle East conflict isn’t for the two sides to both claim Abraham as their father. The solution is for them to submit to the same elder brother – Jesus Christ. Actually, He is the solution to our conflicts as well. When we turn our eyes away from our differences and turn them towards Christ we just might find the peace that four-year-old Ahmed needs, that Israel needs, that we all need.

Monday, June 27, 2005

Love is . . .

Sometimes parents can be downright sappy. Recently I snuck up behind Mrs. Weller and gave her a pat on the bottom and a kiss on the cheek - much to the disgust of our teenage daughter. If I had a dime for every time I’ve heard our resident adolescent say "Dad, that is gross!" I’d have enough to pay for the 487 gallons of water she goes through each time she steps in the shower.

I come by it honestly, though. My dad was (is) one of the mushiest guys I know. There was this cartoon that ran in the newspaper that dad would cut out every chance he got. It was called, I think, "Love Is . . ." It depicted scenes from a wispy couples mundane life. "Love Is . . . washing his back." "Love Is . . . taking the three o’clock feeding." "Love Is . . . saving the last piece of pizza for her." You get the idea. Anyway, my dad would clip these out and would tape them on my mom’s mirror. Invariably, he would put his name beneath the guy and some pet name for my mom beneath the little cartoon girl. Four moves and five states later, I’ll bet if I sneak in their bedroom, those faded cartoons will still be in the corner of her mirror.

Dad may be mushy, but one thing he taught me through his cartoon collage was this: love is a verb. It is not just an emotion; it is an action. Love means doing something.

Paul put it this way in the most-read-at-wedding verses of the Bible:

Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. Love does not demand its own way. Love is not irritable, and it keeps no record of when it has been wronged. It is never glad about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance. Love will last forever, but prophecy and speaking in unknown languages and special knowledge will all disappear.
1 Corinthians 13:4-8 (NLT)
Action, action, action. You can't read Paul's words without realizing that love means we have to do something. If I love my son, I will be more patient. If I love my wife, I will be more kind. If I love my neighbor, I won't rudely honk the horn when I'm cut off in traffic. If I love, I won't give up, lose faith or lose hope.
Maybe, just maybe John (Lenin) was right: "All you need is love." Especially if you think about the words of the other John (the Apostle): God is love.
Stick with me now. I’m coming to a point, really I am. If "God is love", then I can substitute God for love in 1 Corinthians 13. "God is patient and kind." "God is not irritable." "God keeps no record of when he has been wronged." (As far as the east is from the west so far has he removed our transgressions from us. - Psalm 103:12) God never gives up. God never loses faith. God is always hopeful, and God endures in every circumstance.
And here is the point: if God is love, and if love means I receive all these blessings from God (patience, kindness, faith, hope), then I guess I can love those around me by doing the same for them.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Does Jesus Care?

Does Jesus Care?

We’ve all asked that question. Even though he probably wasn’t the first to ask it, Frank Graeff, a turn of the century hymn-writer asked that question in a song:

Does Jesus care when my heart is pained,
Too deeply for mirth and song;
As the burdens press, and the cares distress,
And the way grows weary and long?

Ever find yourself feeling that way? You’re not alone in that. A recent tragedy shook our community. Some might wonder if Jesus cares. May I encourage you with these two thoughts?

First, its okay to ask that question. God is big enough to handle it. When our faith feels shaken, and we ask God, "do you care?" He is not offended. In fact, it gives Him the opportunity to answer "yes!" and show us how much He loves us.

The second reality is this: HE CARES! God cares about you deeply. That is why He sent Jesus to die for our sins. And that is why His Presence is with every Christian as they walk through life. The Apostle Peter knew something about Jesus’ caring. He wrote: "Cast all your anxiety on Him because He cares for you." (1 Peter 5:7)

Does Jesus care? Let songwriter Graeff answer his own question:

O yes, He cares, I know He cares!
His heart is touched with my grief;
When the days are weary, the long nights dreary,
I know my Savior cares.

Fat Men Can't Run

Remember the movie, "White Men Can't Jump"? I never saw it actually, but I could have starred in a similar movie my senior year in high school: "Fat Men Can't Run." It was a radiant day - the sort that even makes you look forward to the school bus ride. With windows down and radio up, our track team traveled north to Hamilton High School to take on our intra-conference rival.

Everything was right with the world. I had joined the track team to meet girls - and it had finally paid off! At the previous meet, I asked Laura - or was her name Julie (I can't really remember) - to be my date at the prom. She said yes. Now Laura, or Julie, or whatever and I were on our way to a sunny spring track meet.

Track star is not quite the first thought that leaps to mind when one ponders my ample girth. Alas, I was part of that forlorn group of tracksters that Garrett High labeled the "weight men." We were never really sure if our moniker had to do with the amount of time we spent lifting weights to prepare for the shot put and the discus or if it referred to our considerable heft. I suspect it had more to do with the latter. While Kirk Johnson and the other guys were sprinting and puking, we were jogging and eating. Most of our group were wrestlers who had spent the winter months in forced starvation and thirst trying to make weight. If not lean, they certainly were hungry, and track season presented them with an opportunity to regain lost ground.

I knew something was fishy weeks earlier when the coaches proclaimed the inaugural "Weight Man Relay." Coach Hecksel, who suffered from having been born without a neck, and Coach Wellhausen, who had a beautiful daughter and was affectionately known as "The Gut, " would sit with the opposing coaches in the top row of the bleachers and laugh as their respective weight man quartets squared off in the 400 meter relay.

Each meet ended the same way: four coaches convulsing in laughter, and eight runners convulsing in nausea.

Ha ha ha.

We endured, though. And on this April day, giddy with thoughts of the prom and what's-her-name, I thought I would one-up "no neck" and "The Gut" once and for all. "Coach," I began as our bus turned off the interstate, "why not let me run the 400 meters today?" Coach Hecksel turned in his seat to better see me (no neck, remember), a look of astonishment written across his face. "Are you serious," he growled. "Yeah, I am. I want to be able to say I ran that race in my lifetime, even if only once." He and "The Gut" began a whispered conversation like doctors trying to decide who was going to tell a patient that he was terminal.

"Okay," he said, "if we're ahead in points you can do it."

I threw the discus with extra vigor that day. I put the shot further than ever before. I couldn't wait for the 400 meter dash. Finally the event arrived. "The Gut" called me over and said, "line up behind Johnson." I didn't even know you could do that. Kirk got down in the blocks, I got down behind him - not the view I had in mind, by the way - but I was running the 400 meters.

The gun went off and so did I. I shot forward and ran with everything that was in me. I held my own through the first turn. I was within striking distance with the others only a few yards ahead. As we rounded the second turn though, a breeze (read "hurricane") stood me up. So much for the spring
day. If coach was laughing, I'm sure God must have been on the floor at the sight of me facing the wind He cooked up. Slowly the pack pulled away - the "tink, tink, tink" of their spikes growing softer and softer until I was alone. Undiscouraged, I reasoned that this same gale might help me when I rounded the corner and headed down the home stretch. I could still have a respectable finish. I lumbered through the third and fourth turns and then - CRAMP!

I often wondered why runners spent so much time stretching before their races. I just always assumed they either weren't hungry, or that their girlfriends were on the softball team. Now I knew.

With head pounding and quadracep twitching and my Keds on fire, I limped forward. Rumbling through the last twenty meters, I glanced backward to see the guys behind me setting up the high hurdles for the next event. I felt like the final entry in the Walt Disney Parade of Lights - ten seconds after you see it, you can't even tell there has been a parade. I finished, though, in 75 seconds. The longest minute and one-fourth in my life.

Looking back it doesn't seem so bad . . . I guess. I imagine "The Gut" and "no-neck" drag that story out for a "remember when" moment from time to time and have a good laugh. Let 'em. They deserve it for putting up with me and my teammates.

The moral of the story: runners should run and weight men should lift weights. I had no business running the 400 meters because I wasn't gifted for it. How about you? Are you doing what God has gifted you to do?

Monday, June 20, 2005

Amazing Love

I leaned over the bed to give my slumbering daughter a kiss goodnight. Abby woke up and mumbled, "Daddy, you saved my life!" I chuckled. All I did was give her a kiss. I asked her, "Are you having a bad dream, honey?" "No, just your being here saved me." I laughed later as I told my wife, Tracy, what our sleeping beauty said.

Inside, though, I was beaming. What dad doesn't want to be his daughter's lifesaver. I am keenly aware that these special daddy-daughter moments are numbered. She doesn't call me daddy too often anymore - mostly "dad." Don't get me wrong. "Dad" sounds pretty good, but I still long for the pig-tail and ribbon days when I was The Man. You dads know what I mean.

A friend told me some time ago that the time comes when daughters look at their dads differently. Dad is no longer cool. In fact, he is a little embarrassing. The funny things that he used to do that made her giggle, now elicit a roll of the eyes and an I-can't-believe-we're-related sort of sigh. My friend's solution to the problem: whenever his daughter and her girlfriends are in the car with him he turns up the oldies station and sings at the top of his lungs. My kind of guy.

Still, there may be some truth in her words. Although I didn't save her life when I leaned over her to peck her on the cheek, I am the one who, together with her mom, gave her life. I am the source of her life. I am also the one who protects and nurtures her. And I
would die for her. Even though I'm pretty certain she has never thought, "Dad would die to save my life," she knows that she is safe when she is with me.

Abby is learning about another Father who did save her life by surrendering His own. This Father came to earth as God incarnate – God in the flesh. He took the name Jesus – the very name which means "salvation." He lived a life of perfection, showing Abby and all who want to be like Him how to have life, and not just life but abundant life. And then He died. Not a natural death. He didn't live to old age and die in His sleep. Jesus didn't die from some random accident. He died intentionally. Though without sin, Jesus said to Abby and to me . . . and to you . . . "I will pay the penalty for your sin." He said to His Father, "I know that your children cannot be in your presence if they are sinful, so I will take their sins to the cross with me, and there I will pay for them." Now that is love. In fact, it is an amazing love.

The truth is, I am amazed that Abby loves me. After all, I often lose my temper. I can't seem to help her with long division without both of us pulling our hair out. I am entirely unworthy of her amazing daughter-love. As amazing as my daughter’s love is, my Heavenly Father's love for me is even more incredible. And someday when they lay me down for the last time, and I awake to find my Daddy leaning over me to peck me on the cheek, I will look up at my Abba and say, "Daddy, you saved my life!" And, I'll be right. He has.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

The View From the Driver's Seat

Matt has dimples that sing whenever he smiles. Kylie talks non-stop (usually about nothing), and yet I can’t seem to ignore her. Her enthusiasm is too infectious. Kyle corrected someone’s grammar. With his wire-rimmed glasses, he looks almost professorial. Wes is growing his hair long – like all the other guys. Last year they all had short hair, but now it’s back to long. I wonder if I’ll hear the word "hippie" again soon. Terry looks slimmer than I remember. Has he grown taller? Sarah is so fresh-faced and innocent. When I tease her about her crush, she blushes. Stephanie seems sleepy. She is so laid back and calm. I wish I was more like that.

Funny the things you see on a school bus. I am a substitute driver, and this morning I enjoyed the company of some of the greatest kids in the world. I’m sure there is more to them than what I saw in the few minutes we shared on the way to school. I am able to see a lot, but I wonder what I often miss.

I wonder if am so busy with deadlines and duties that I miss seeing someone who is hurting. Jesus is never that way. I love what Matthew wrote about Jesus: "When he looked out over the crowds, his heart broke. So confused and aimless they were, like sheep with no shepherd." Jesus’ heart broke because he not only looked, but he saw.

Too often I look without seeing. I gaze without grasping.

How about you? Do you miss seeing people because you’re too preoccupied with profits? Too tyrannized by tasks? Has life become too frenzied for your friends? Maybe its time to step back and re-inventory your life a bit. Maybe you need to . . . wait, let me include myself in this . . . maybe we need to look a little longer and really see one another. When we do, I suspect we’ll all be a little more understanding and forgiving. A little more kind and compassionate. And when that happens, maybe this world will look a little more like the next one.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Of Bats and Books for Singing

The auditorium was dimly lit as I made my way from my office to the back of the room to prepare for Sunday morning’s services. I don't know why I looked up, but I did. Usually I am pretty focused on what is ahead, walking with head bent towards the task I am undertaking. This day, for whatever reason, I allowed my eyes to drift upward. There I saw it. It was hanging right next to one of the chandeliers - the largest bug I ever saw. Veering from my charted course, I drew closer. But it was not a beetle; it was a bat that had somehow found his way into our sanctuary and decided to bed down - or up as it turned out.

Just so you know, I am no wimp. Growing up on our family farm, the only time I can recall being really frightened was when I came face to face with a nest of rats in my uncle’s old barn. I used to think that a rat was the most terrifying animal God ever made – that is, before I met his flying cousin Mr. Bat.

I did the only thing I could think of. I made a hasty retreat into my study and called the church custodian. "Surely," I reasoned, "Necia will know what to do. After all, extermination is closer to her job description than mine." (Fear makes people think strange things.) Of course Necia thought I was a big baby. She was right. A few minutes later, her son, Troy, arrived ready to do battle with the flying mammal. We closed all the doors, taped a sheet of plastic over the foyer entrance and opened a window.

When the siege was laid, Troy threw a red
hymnal at the bat. The bat just laughed and sang We Shall Not be Moved. Troy tossed the hymnal again, missing the bat and nearly knocking the chandelier off the ceiling. Finally, I worked up the courage to try my luck at chucking the hymnal upward. I leafed through the songbook until I found Out of the Ivory Palaces, marked the page, and heaved it heavenward.

I hit the bat . . .at least Troy said I did. I was already half-way across the room before the bat took to flight. He fluttered everywhere in the room except out the window. As I cowered behind the piano, Troy shouted, "Herd him to the window, herd him to the window." “Exactly how does one herd a bat, anyway?”, I thought. Dazed by my assault-with-a-deadly-hymnal, the bat finally beached himself in the greenery above the baptistery. While I pinned it down with a fly swatter, Troy grasped the tip of each wing and, as the bat was singing Rescue the Perishing, escorted the creature to the open window and freedom.

Believe it or not, that is not the first bat I have ever seen in church. In fact, some church people are a lot like him. They show up every so often and hang around, but they never really do anything. Like their flying mammalian counterparts, they appear when you least expect them and leave just as suddenly. They don't make a lot of fuss, or disturb anything, but if you challenge them to leave their comfy perch and get involved in ministry, they disappear faster than a plate of cookies at Vacation Bible School.

God does not need that sort of Christian. God expects us to do something. Not that our salvation depends on it, mind you, but someone else's might. Too many Christians believe that it is enough to simply “show up for the game.” But the contest isn't won – and neither are the lost - when Christians remain on the sidelines. James reminds us that Christians cannot merely posses faith; we must exercise it.

How about you? Do you just "hang around" at church, or are you making a difference? Does somebody need to throw a songbook at you to get you moving, or are you moved by the plight of the people around you?

Recently, over 51,000 Christians from all over North America gathered in more than 250 churches to learn how they could be more involved in their churches' ministries. They decided to do something for Christ. One does not have to attend a seminar to get involved in ministry, however. Joining this game merely requires leaving the bench. If you've been hanging around, perched in one spot, not involved in ministry, come and join the fray. I promise not to throw any hymnals.

Friday, June 03, 2005

The Right Side of the Fence

A couple Mays ago, I was invited to "pole day" for the Indy 500. This was not the first time I attended time trials, but it was the first time I was able to watch from the Tower Suites. Through no doing of my own, I was a guest of a well-healed DeKalb County native. In fact, I am pretty sure he didn't even know my name. I was invited because I was the friend of a guy who was friends with a guy who works for this fellow. Get the picture? Simply put, I didn't deserve to be there. Tickets to a luxury suite are usually reserved for folks who purchase lots of goods and services from the guy paying for all the free food and beverages at the race track. They're often a reward for employees who have worked especially hard. The suite owner's family and personal friends find themselves the beneficiaries of such relationships year after year but not someone like me. I didn't buy anything from this businessman. And although this gentleman's brother is married to my first cousin, once removed, that hardly qualifies me as family.

The reality of this unmerited favor didn't set in right away. In fact, it wasn't until we strolled down pit lane that the full measure of this grace hit me. My friends and I were ambling from the south end of the pits northward, taking our time, looking at cars, and trying to look like we belonged. Off to my left I heard my name, faintly at first, and then more insistent. "Frank!" the voice shouted. I looked to my left, and there was a guy from our church, Keith Smith, smiling and holding his camera. He came down out of the bleachers, and we had a nice chat! We visited and then went on our separate ways.

Interestingly enough, I began to feel guilty about our encounter. You see, there was a ten or fifteen foot high fence separating the two of us as we spoke. I was on "the inside", able to walk among the pit crews and drivers, and he was on "the outside," separated from all of that by a wire mesh barrier. It didn't seem quite fair that I had access to the places where only the privileged and the powerful dare walk. I mean, after all, Keith loves the 500 every bit as much as I do - probably more. He even thought to bring a camera (something I and my three companions somehow forgot to do). He has been there dozens of times, and I have been there only a few. Was it fair that I got to sit in the air conditioned suite watching all four turns on color televisions while Keith sweated it out on the aluminum bleachers? In a word - no. It's not fair. I didn't deserve to be on "the right side" of the fence. What I deserved was to be out there on "the wrong side" with Keith and the other paying customers.

But, that's the way it works sometimes, isn't it. We've all been in the bleachers at one time or another, looking down at folks just like us who, for some reason unknown to us, get to do the things we wish we could do.

He got the promotion I deserved. She made the cheerleading squad when everyone knows I can cheer better. Dad bought her a new Grand Prix; all I got was a used minivan. My son gets sick and dies and his bratty child is as healthy as a horse. Life is supremely unfair sometimes, and it would be tempting for us to pray that God would use His divine power to make things a little more fair.
Thank God he does not. Paul wrote in Romans 6:23, "The payment for sin is death, but the gift that God freely gives is everlasting life found in Christ Jesus our Lord." If things were fair, our sin would earn us exactly what we deserve - eternal separation from God. An eternity on "the wrong side of the fence." I don't know about you, but I thank God He is not fair in dealing with me.

In Luke 16, Jesus tells the story of a poor man named Lazarus and a wealthy man who both die and are sent to their respective "sides of the fence." Lazarus went to heaven while the wealthy man descended into hell's flames. Two men. In life, one was on "the right" side of the fence with wealth and prosperity, and the other on "the wrong" side with nothing but his ill health. But in eternity the picture is far different. The one so poor in life is now prosperous in death, and this life's prince becomes the next life's pauper.

On which side of the fence do you reside? On which side will you spend eternity? I got to eat fried chicken and drink Diet Coke and watch racing for a whole day because I knew someone who knew someone who knew someone. And to be completely honest, the only way you and I will get to spend eternity on the "right side of the fence" is if we know someone. And that someone is Jesus Christ.