It’s the presence

Sue Ellen agreed over the telephone to marry me.

She lived in Colorado. I was a poor college junior in Oklahoma. Two years earlier, we grew to know each other as volunteers at a Spanish Baptist mission in New Mexico, fell in love, then went our separate ways.

She brought me to my senses a year later, when she came to visit her sister at the same college I attended. We ended up spending a lot of time together, talking about the things that mattered to us. Hours after she left, I woke her dad in Colorado to ask if I could marry his daughter. He asked, “Which one?”

When I told him, “Sue Ellen,” he asked only, “Do you love her?” My “yes, sir,” satisfied him and he went back to sleep. So I called Sue Ellen as she was getting ready for work, 600 miles away, to ask her to share the rest of her life with me.

Of course, I didn’t have a ring to give her, no symbol of my adoration and commitment. She had no diamond for friends to notice, no rock to wave so they could exclaim, “Oh, Sue Ellen,you’re engaged!”

Her mother to this day says she never was engaged. Wearing no symbol, she had only my word…and sure knowledge of our mutual love.

A month later, at Thanksgiving, I saw her for the only time during our engagement. We picked out our plain gold wedding bands in a discount store and dreamed of our future.

In another month, we married at the mission in Española, N.M. Lack of an engagement symbol could not negate the reality of our marriage and of our waking in each other’s presence each morning.

Nor, does the world’s largest diamond guarantee the man who gave it will love you in the morning. Ask Marla Maples or Jennifer Anniston, or any number of women in lawyer’s offices filing for divorce.

After the Israelites had their tails kicked at Ebenezer (I Samuel 4) they sent men back to Shiloh to bring the Ark of the Covenant to camp. “When the ark of the Lord’s covenant came into the camp, all Israel raised such a great shout that the ground shook.” (I Sam. 4:5)

Chin up everyone, God has arrived.

When the Philistines learned the Israelites had the Ark, the symbol of God’s presence, they trembled, remembering the power the Jewish God displayed against Egypt.

But the Philistines reasoned if they quit the fight they would be subject to the Jews, as the Jews had been to them, so they joined the battle. That day, Philistines killed 30,000 more Israelites, and captured the Ark.

Turned out, the Ark guaranteed neither God’s presence, nor His favor.

A few years later, Philistines have another Israelite army pinned down, hiding in their tents from a giant named Goliath. A young shepherd comes to bring some bread and cheese to his brothers in the army, and is embarrassed for them and their comrades because they cower before one man.

When David volunteers to fight the giant, King Saul puts his own armor on the boy, a symbol of authority and strength. Instead, the symbol is heavy and useless for the real battle and he sheds it.

David picks up five smooth stones from a creek bed as he trades trash talk with Goliath, telling him he will cut off his head “and the whole world will know there is a God in Israel.” He runs toward Goliath and drills the first stone into the giant’s forehead and drops him like pulpwood.

David dropped the symbols before he dropped Goliath and enjoyed the presence of God.

Israelite soldiers of the previous generation mistakenly thought the symbol was the Presence.

Sue Ellen never had a diamond, but we’ve enjoyed each other’s presence for 41 years.

In relationships, it’s not the token, it’s the trust.

In worship, it’s not the symbol, it’s the Presence.

Have you ‘settled?’

Because Abraham figures prominently in the origins of the world’s three major religions most of the world knows the story of how he responded without protest to God telling him to “leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you.” (Gen. 12:1, NIV)

His unquestioning action – while he was yet named Abram – is held up as an example of how we should respond to God’s calling: immediately, unquestioningly, without reservation. Much is made of the implication that he did not know his destination when he started his journey. “Go to the land I will show you,” says the verse.

We know from further reading that the target land was Canaan.

As God is laying out the challenge, God promises to make childless Abram, age 75, “into a great nation,” and to make him a blessing for “all peoples on earth.” Chapter 12, verse 4 says, “So Abram left, as the Lord had told him.”

One reason Christians argue so much about points made in the Bible is that such points and quotations are read out of context. Reading Abram’s story a little further back, into chapter 11, we see that as a younger man, he had set out for Canaan with his father, Terah, but when the clan got to Haran, the Bible says in Gen. 11:31, “they settled there.” (NIV)

Haran is coincidently a region with the same name as Abram’s deceased brother.

How often have you started on a journey, toward a goal, but you got part way down the road, found good grass and water, and you “settled,” far short of your goal? Maybe you looked back to what you were leaving and halfway was so much better that you were content to plop right there.

Are you living a “settled” life?

If Abram had stayed in Haran, only part way to Canaan, we wouldn’t even know his name today. It’s easy to lose sight of the dream destination. Haran was close enough, good enough, until God said, “Go.”

Going meant leaving behind familiarity, comfort and security. Going meant forging ahead to the unknown. It also indicated belief in God’s ridiculous promise that a childless 75-year-old man would become father to a great nation, and be a blessing to all nations.

Haran was good. “Go” was far better than he ever could have guessed. Haran was three square meals and a warm bed every night. “Go,” was nomadic and uncertain.

Haran was settled. “Go,” was claiming a ridiculous promise, the outcome of which was unknown. Haran was safe. “Go” was fraught with danger, hardship, moral dilemmas and previous occupants in the land Abram was promised.

I don’t know why Abram’s father Terah settled in Haran, without continuing on to Canaan. I suspect he found good grass and water. But a settled life – when God has bigger plans for you – will never bring you deep satisfaction.

Possess the New Year

How are things going for you so far in this new year?

Lots of bad things are going on in the world. No need to enumerate them. You have your own definition and awareness of those things that makes you feel threatened.

And yet: the economy is showing slow, steady growth, unemployment is at its lowest rate in many years, the stock market is near record highs, building cranes mark the skylines of many cities, the U.S. is making a peaceful transition of leadership and optimism seems on the increase.

So if things aren’t nearly as bad as they seem, why do they seem so bad?

Uncertainty and insecurity are the biggest wet towels draped over our plans for 2017. It is tough to act in the face of uncertainty.

My sister was a nurse in a major veterans hospital and she says when most cancer patients in remission suffer a reoccurrence of their disease they are not frightened, but are almost “relieved” because they expected it to come back eventually. They dreaded it of course, worried about, feared it…but now they don’t have to worry about it showing up any more. It’s here, and they can deal with it.

Doing a story in Houston once, I met a former New York actress who fled an abusive relationship. She huddled each night in the closet with her baby, listening to her boyfriend’s footsteps up the stairs, knowing that if he doesn’t beat her tonight, he will eventually. Still, she told me that the certain knowledge of a beating was better than running out the door with her baby in her arms into an uncertain future.

In the second year after the ancient Hebrews fled centuries of slavery in Egypt they arrived at the land God promised them. The barrier, of course, is that the land wasn’t gift wrapped. Other tribes occupied it, and the Hebrews would have to deal with those tribes before they could possess the land.

Moses wanted to know what his people were up against, so he assigned 12 men to scout the land, including Caleb and Joshua.

For 40 days the 12 explored, skulking around the desert, checking out crops, cities and people. They found a land flowing with milk and honey, rich in fruit and cropland. The grape cluster they brought back as evidence of the land’s bounty had to be carried on a pole between two men!

But they also saw those people who occupied the land, and it was scary. To the scouts, according to the story in the book of Numbers, chapter 13, “We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them.”

Yikes. How often is your self-image determined by comparison to others? As someone said long ago, “Comparison is the thief of joy.”

The scouts saw the occupants as giants compared to themselves. Their fear was not misplaced. Those guys were big. Taking that land would be tough sledding. Ten scouts thought it would be too tall of a task and they recommended slinking away.

This is what happens when we compare our situation to someone else’s without taking into account the promises of God.

Human nature dreads an uncertain future. We dread it even more than we hate a horrible past. We’d rather live in a paralyzed present.

Joshua and Caleb, on the other hand, considered the promise and said, “Let us certainly go up – and we have possessed it; for we are thoroughly able for it.” (From Young’s Literal Translation) As far as they were concerned, the job was as good as accomplished.

It is only when we see ourselves as God sees us that we are empowered, encouraged, and enabled.

Three things to remember from this story as you race toward December:

  1. To gain a more accurate view of yourself and of your possibilities, raise your eyes. Don’t compare yourself to your friends or colleagues or neighbors. Don’t hold your successes up to theirs and find yours to be less. See in yourself the giant God sees.
  2. The past you cling to wasn’t all that great.

The 10 fearful scouts tried to persuade the people to go back to Egypt, where a king “who knew not Joseph” had enslaved the Hebrews, cut their food rations, increased their quota for brick making and ordered midwives to kill any male child at birth.

  1. Don’t paralyze your present by preferring the past.

In Caleb’s mind the land was already theirs. It sat like a great, unopened present under the Christmas tree.

The new year stretches before you. I know it’s just a quirk of a calendar page, but Januarys give us a chance to reset our emotional clock; to clear our desk, empty our inbox and embrace possibilities.

What has God promised you? “What?” God told Moses, “Are my arms too short to do what I promised?”

Can we say with Caleb at the start of this year, “Let us go up and possess the land?”

Massacre still permeates Newtown

The December 14 anniversary passed unnoticed for most of the world. Yet, just four years ago, Adam Lanza rocked the world when in an act of unspeakable evil, he killed 20 children and six teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

At memorial services for the victims it is common to toll a bell 26 times – once for each of the children and teachers who died that horrible morning.

When the faith community tolls a memorial bell, it rings 28 times, to include Lanza and his mother, Nancy, who he killed before wrecking his havoc at the school.

“They were members of our community,” said Kristen Switzer, associate pastor of youth and mission at Newtown Congregational Church. “We choose love over hate. We choose forgiveness over hate. We choose community over brokenness.”

I interviewed Kristen at the God and Guns conference in New York City in October. The incident hovers over Newtown like a fog. People function. They eat and drink, marry and give in marriage. The city moves, the elementary school has been razed and a new school built.

But everywhere the misty wet, seeping blanket of memory permeates the town and its residents like a morning fog that rolled in off the ocean and settled.

When you are in the “depth of despair” from that mass killing “there is literally nothing left to do but love,” said Switzer, explaining why the faith community includes Lanza and his mother in their memorials and prayers.

Switzer grew up in Newtown and attended Sandy Hook school.

“When I get together with friends we know we will end up talking about it,” she said. “The memory is relentless.”

And yet, she and Newtown friends feel they live in an alternate reality. Their past and future is heavily linked to that day and every step, corner, sign, shrine and memorial in town reminds them #WeAreNewtown or #NewtownStrong, they know the rest of the world has moved on.

“We’re always thinking about that day,” Switzer said. “And no one else is.”

Switzer was not living in Newtown on that fateful day, but she came quickly to volunteer, sorting donated goods and sifting through email messages from around the globe, passing on those that required attention.

“One day I looked up and people from the Amish community where five girls had been killed at school (in 2006) were there. They had driven to see us. That’s when I realized the depth of our situation.”

That’s when she knew Newtown would be dealing with the aftermath for many years.

Today Switzer is a youth and mission pastor in her hometown, which itself has a mission: to end gun violence once and for all.

“We are all responsible for the state of our nation, good and bad,” she said. “We don’t have the privilege of being silent anymore. You must get active before it happens in your community…because it will.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I don’t care what you want for Christmas

Don’t tell me what you want for Christmas. I don’t care.

I’m not a vending machine, and you’re not a quarter.

If you are on my Christmas list my goal is to gift you with something I consider meaningful that I hope becomes special to you.

I know. If you’re in charge of the gifting you worry that your recipient will be disappointed. And, selfishly, you want to be the cause of that squealing, split faced “this is the best thing that ever happened to me” moment under the Christmas tree. But isn’t “surprise” always an element of the biggest squeals?

The truth is your little gift getters and bed wetters won’t remember the next day who gave them what. And it’s unlikely that whatever you gave them will still operate the next week.

And what are the odds that their “must have” request only made their wish list because they were seduced by massive advertising, trend manipulation and herd mentality. Cabbage Patch, pet rock, beanie babies anyone?

I know, it’s easier to work from a list provided to you; easier still to give a gift card so they can “get what they want.” Honestly though, you can do that anytime.

If Christmas gift giving is our joyful response to the great gift that God bestowed upon us in the person of Jesus the Christ, let’s consider God’s rationale. Did God ask His chosen people what they wanted? They probably would have said, “Freedom from Rome,” “rain,” “food security” or a “cure for leprosy.”

Instead, God sent the gift He wanted us to have, a gift with special meaning to God. We still remember who sent it. And we still remember what it cost.

If you lament the commercialization of Christmas, do not participate. Give a gift that brings joy because your thoughtfulness made it special.

 

Handling Grand Things

Nature awes us at points where it convulses, where it snorts, sneezes and shudders, shaking its head to rise above the “ordinary” and astound us with a glimpse of grandeur.

Gentle waves sooth us, but we are awed when the ocean flails its fury against beach walls.

Rolling hills comfort us, but our mouths drop open when we first see a July cardigan of snow lying across the shoulders of Pikes Peak, which rises above Colorado Springs like Neptune from the ocean.

A cool breeze refreshes, but when winds wrap around themselves and drag a furious funnel tail through a city, we cannot comprehend its power.

We live in the womb of nature and pattern our lives on its dependability. We install no furnaces in Key West homes; no air conditioners in Juneau. We wear shorts in July and store our lawn mowers in November.

Predictable nature comforts. For awe, we search the fringes of nature for majesty, grandeur, depth, color, number or brilliance.

One summer almost 20 years ago I rafted the Grand Canyon with extended family members. During our first day down the icy Colorado River we stared until the wind dried our eyes.

Sheer rock walls towered 1,400 feet and more above us, close enough to touch. Frigid, 48 degree water poured over boulders that had crashed off the mountain walls maybe centuries before, forming rapids over which ran water in a volume of 24,000 cubic feet per second.

Big horned sheep scampered down barely visible scars across the rock face to pull juicy tufts of grass from sandy bars at the canyon floor. It was all new. It was all amazing. We wore out the ball bearings in our necks arching, craning and turning to absorb it all.

In a day or two, we settled in and motored mile after mile before the hum of a 30-horsepower engine. We huddled in rain suits to fend off the deluge of water cascading over us from the rapids, and we sat with backs to our equipment and watched the walls slide by on either side.

The canyon was every bit as majestic on the fourth day as it was on the first, maybe more so. The rapids were as big, the sheep as entertaining, the night sky as brilliant. But because our senses were so completely saturated with the marvelous, the equally marvelous had no chance to elicit a higher degree of awe. The next turn presented merely another incredible view.

Grand things lose their grandeur with familiarity. Proximity to things precious renders them ordinary.

That is something of what Jesus meant in Matt. 7:6 when he warned us not to throw our pearls to pigs. We handle precious things too casually.

We polish a new car every week. By the second year, we’re barely changing the oil.

Babies make us coo, giggle and jump with every sound. Six months later we roll over and moan a prayer that they will sleep through the night.

Newlyweds get cavities from their sweet, sugary murmurings. Before the first anniversary wives seethe restlessly, feeling ignored.

Those hungry cries that brought us quickly to our child’s room in the middle of the night mature into a pained cry as our teenager struggles with identity or a broken heart or embarrassment at school. But we’re too tired to stay up and talk, or too busy to give them our attention.

How does the grand become so mundane?

The car, the child, the wife, your worship become ordinary. We’ve floated that river for years. Where once we craned our necks and laughed, cried, cooed, huddled and prayed, the grand became ordinary with casual handling.

When we handle grand things with casual touch, our pearls are downtrodden and we become the pigs.

Thanksgiving Phrases

You may expect an article about “Thanksgiving phrases” to be filled with words of thanksgiving, praise and gratitude – syrupy slogans poured over a Norman Rockwell painting.

But four days in Nana and Papa’s house with up to 10 children at a time – all under age 10 – becomes an exercise in instruction, training, and preserving sanity, especially when Nana is under the weather.

Grandchildren, their parents, their parents’ friends visiting with their own children filling a house not constructed under military grade specifications created a colorful chaos in which ever diligent parents tried to find teachable moments. Following is a random litany of phrases that boiled to the surface that will give you an idea of the scene.

“How old are you?” “Seven and a half. It’s a hard age.”

“Can I have a cookie?”

“Who wants to play me in ping pong?”

“I’ve got winner.”

“I demand a rematch.”

“Is that special egg nog? Or is it just egg nog?”

“Turn that down!”

“Where is this supposed to go?”

“Do you need to go potty?”

“Who didn’t flush?”

“Can we take the bikes to the greenway?”

“Can we go back to the park?”

“I wanna play.”

“No one will play with me.”

“How’s Nana feeling?”

“Are you feeling better Jules?”

“I’m all betta.”

“I’ve got your number, daddy.” (Says 2 ½ year old)

“Probably not.”

“I’m hungry.”

“As you wish.” (Quoting Princess Bride, which practically ran on looped replay)

“Can I have a cookie?”

“You just ate.”

“But I’m hungry.”

“Have you picked up all the toys?”

“Go outside and play.”

“Shhhh. Nana’s trying to sleep.”

“Why can’t we have dessert?
“What were you playing outside?” “Ghost in the graveyard.”

“Larkin hurt her knee.”

“Go back out. You’re fine.”

“Colton hit me with a towel as hard as he could.”

“Colton hit Harper in the eye with a bat.”

“Is this a clean cup?”

“Are these clean dishes in the dishwasher?”

“Can I get some help here?”

“No running in and out.”

“Shut the door!”

“Carry your dishes to the sink.”

“Are we out of milk?”

“I thought we were going to have popcorn and a movie.”

“I want some cantelopee.”

“Who’s going to the grocery store?”

“I’m hungry.”

Thank goodness for the ping pong table, warm weather, forewarned emergency services and accommodating neighbors.

Happy Thanksgiving!