Thursday, April 26, 2007

Are You Dead or Alive?

A 30-year-old man in Mater Hospital in Dublin, Ireland was mistakenly pronounced dead. According to the Irish Times the patient was subsequently found to be alive when mortuary personnel came to collect his body from his hospital bed.

The man, whose name was not disclosed, had already had his family notified of his passing and they had already begun to grieve when they were notified of the hospital’s error.

If you were closely examined would you be declared “dead” or “alive”?

Obviously in my reflection I’m taking the conversation to another level. I’m sure if you are reading this post you’re breathing and have the necessary vital signs. You probably get up, drive in the commute, go to work, come home, go to bed and do the same thing all over again the next day. But, are you alive?

I’m suggesting that there is a very real difference between existence (necessary vital signs of respiration and pulse) and life. By the latter I’m referring to a capacity to love deeply, to sacrifice and bless others, to be moved by beauty and stirred by great thinking and conversation. Is there a purpose for which you get up in the morning? Is time spent in a way that matters in eternity? When you do die will there be significant grief because of a great sense of loss to no longer have your presence in the lives of others?

In the ancient book of psalms the writer prays to the Lord, “Teach me to number my days.” (Psalm 90:12) That’s not a request to be able to count one’s days, but to make one’s days count. The Psalmist knew that one doesn’t really experience life without a meaningful relationship with the One who gives life.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

What Is God Doing Up There?

My friend Kevin attends a Catholic church. He told me that on Palm Sunday his church did not provide the normal children’s classes because they were having a special mass. That meant that Kevin’s four-year old son sat during the entire service between Kevin and his wife.

The mass was about an hour and a half long. Kevin said that his four-year old son had been great for about an hour and fifteen minutes of the mass and then he started to get tired and restless. At the one hour and twenty minute mark, the four-year old looks up to the front where the priest in his robes has his hands up in the air saying something and the little boy says with a stage whisper sigh, “What is God doing up there?”

How many times have we felt like that tired little boy. Life’s tedious, mundane, and somewhat obscure circumstances take place and sometimes we sigh, “What is God doing up there?” Or conversely, life is assaulted by tragedy or terror and we cry, “What is God doing up there?”

It’s a legitimate question. I believe there are good answers. However, I’m nowhere close to knowing what all those answers are to all of life’s questions. God doesn’t always tell.

Why the senseless shooting rampage at Virginia Tech? Why the seemingly endless strife among Iraqi factions? Why did my friend’s wife have an affair with another man and leave her husband? Why is my hardworking and talented friend unemployed, again, for the third time in three years and now facing bankruptcy? I could go on.

In my experience God has sometimes answered those questions for me and sometimes He hasn’t. I’ve also learned that God is always more forthcoming with a different question. “God, what do you want me to do in light of what’s going on down here?”

God does not always respond to “why” questions. I’m learning to trust that it is because of His wisdom and love for me that He doesn’t always answer “why” questions. God usually does answer the “what do you want me to do” questions because that is a primary way that He changes my life.

He may want me to pray for someone’s hurt or need. He may want me to give my money toward something. He may want me to put my heart and compassion at work in someone’s circumstance. All of this serves to change me and form my life into something more like Him.

What is God doing up there? Caring. Grieving. Loving. Guiding. Providing. Correcting. Judging. Disciplining. Working. Delighting. Redeeming. And infinitely more than I can imagine.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Can Life Be Changes With a Hot Dog?

Sherry Gafney lived in a homeless camp with cardboard for walls. She prostituted herself in order to make some money for food and other necessities. Today she’s being interviewed on CBS News because she is overcoming alcoholism, holds down two jobs and has her own apartment. Her life has turned around 180 degrees and she gives the credit to a hot dog, or more specifically the “hot dog man”.

Rick Swyden lives in Oklahoma City, runs his own small business, is married and fathers 5 children. He’s just a regular guy. But one day he bought a meal for a “street person” and in his own words it changed his life. Rick began going into Oklahoma City looking for the homeless and offering them a hot dog meal. One day he met Sherry and gave her a hot dog. Sherry says that hot dog changed her life. Rick’s group began to encourage Sherry, helped her get employment and free from alcohol and now she has a sane and productive life.

Sherry clarifies, “It wasn’t really the hot dog that changed my life but the love that gave the hot dog.”

And so it is with the power of love. This past week I had a 60 something man tell me that when he was in the middle of a health crisis about six months ago, someone cared enough about him that they took a week off from work and helped him literally get back on his feet and resume his life. The man commented about his benefactor, “He changed my life that week.”

I witnessed a young man who has a history of angry outbursts and troublesome relationships now living with greater peace and sanity because his “buddy” has helped him to learn how to deal with anger and sadness and to not get the two confused. His “buddy” has changed his life.

I could go on. Today’s reflection has reminded me how powerful love is. Love can open a closed heart to the presence of God and the working of His grace in and around them.

Rick Swyden handed out 16 hot dogs on the first day of his new life. Now he hands out about 300 every week. There’s a whole group of donors and volunteers that have joined in the effort. They all consider it the highlight of their week. They don’t just hand out a meal but they get to shake hands and give hugs and simply let others know that they matter. The love exchange has become intoxicating as Rick confesses, “I’m addicted to this now.”

Thursday, April 19, 2007

The Relationship Between Healing & Time

In the aftermath of the Virginia Tech massacre we are not only learning more about the shooter but today’s issue of USA Today carries profiles of the victims. Students and faculty that loved life, loved learning and possessed promising futures are now silenced and snuffed out.

How does a parent or sibling or friend cope with such a loss? I’m not an expert on dealing with and recovering from loss. However, I’ve had significant losses personally and I’ve been with dozens of people in times of loss through the years. Here’s some of what I have observed.

Many of the commentators featured on a variety of network news and talk shows have commented about “time” such as, “In time they will be able to heal over this loss,” or “It will take a lot of time for healing to take place.”

Time is overrated. Time is not the healing agent. If you have had someone significant to you killed and therefore brutally taken away from you a hundred years of time will not bring healing. I have literally seen parents and siblings of someone killed thirty years after the fact still crippled and not capable of resuming a life of joy and full engagement.

Time is simply a context in which certain healing processes can work. If the processes are not engaged or don’t work then time doesn’t make much difference.

One of the processes is GRIEF. Grief cannot be skipped or glossed over. I know you’ve been watching television and you’ve seen tons of grief. That’s just a part of what I’m talking about. The initial grief can’t be stopped. It comes flooding over you like the water over the New Orleans levees. It’s the grief that demands to be experienced later that is significant.

I lost my brother many years ago while we were both children. I had grief while in college because I didn’t get to share those days with my brother. I had grief at my marriage because my brother wasn’t there to be my best man. I had grief when my children were born because they will never know their uncle, my brother.

It is important and necessary to experience and “go through” grief every time it comes knocking at the door of your heart. The Bible says it this way, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”

In other words, the “comfort” can’t come unless mourning and grief open the door.

The second process that is necessary involves COMMUNITY. Community is a network of relationships that can enter the journey of grief with you. Sometimes community is like the large gathering of mourners in the Virginia Tech football stadium or being with the number of those attending any given funeral or memorial service.

But in the weeks to come community will look like my small group Bible study of 10 people with whom I meet every week. They check in on me, pray for me, put their arms around me, etc. Community looks like one or two good friends who will regularly call me or take me to coffee and help carry my burden of loss. The Bible says it this way, “Carry each other’s burdens.”

A third necessary process is HOPE. Hope is a promise; it is a confidence that this present painful day won’t last forever. It is a sense that a better day is coming. Hope believes that something good and positive and powerful can come from this horrific loss. The Bible proclaims, “God causes everything to work together for the good for those who love God…”

There’s more but I think you may already be seeing the overarching necessity to have “God in the picture”, to have God as a central character of the story of what is transpiring during your loss. God is the One who brings the comfort during your mourning. God is the One who touches you and embraces you and empowers you through the arms of community. God is the One who IS the Hope.

God loves you. God’s arms are open to you. You can have a full and meaningful life with God and you don’t have to wait until there is a crisis to find that out. I encourage you to seek and engage God before “time” is no more.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Tragedy At Virginia Tech

I’m commenting early on the shooting at Virginia Tech today before all the facts are known. In short, a shooter entered a lecture hall on the Tech campus and shot and killed over 30 students. An earlier shooting and murder of two people had taken place on the other side of campus. While the first incident was being investigated the second incident took place.

First, let me say that my prayers are with all of the victim’s families and fellow students. God can bring grace and comfort to our lives while we’re in the most painful life situations. I’m also prayerful for university administrators who had difficult decisions to make and may have made mistakes that resulted in more life being lost.

Second, I’m reminded today how truly fragile life is. On some level most of us know that disease or accidents or tragedy can befall us quickly and unexpectedly. Today’s shooting which is the worst mass murder in American history by an individual painfully makes that clear. Bad things don’t just happen to other people. Sometimes they happen to us or to people we love. It behooves us to live life well, thoroughly and lovingly connected to God and to others. That is life’s greatest priorities and we dare not put it off to another day that may never come.

Third, evil is alive and well. Again, most of the facts have not been discovered at the time of this writing. Nevertheless, taking a gun and pulling the trigger and blasting innocent people, no matter the state of one’s mind, is evil. And, I don’t mean to bring up the topic of evil with finger pointing. There is evil in me. There is evil in you. The Christian faith is about following Christ in such a way that He has greater opportunity to transform and deliver us of the evil within. I must regularly conduct a heart check to assess, “Am I more loving and less punitive or vengeful today than this time last year?”

Fourth, I predict that something of God’s goodness and greatness will be seen over the next few days, as coverage of this story will be extensive. Look for and listen to the stories of God’s grace, guidance, protection and provision. As you see and hear these things I’d love to hear from you in the comment section.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Can Beauty Transcend Inconvenience?

Back in January the Washington Post conducted an interesting experiment. It was 7:51 a.m. on Friday, January 12 in the middle of the morning rush hour. Strategically placed in the traffic pattern of commuters on the Metro located at the L’Enfant Plaza Station, a white young man in jeans, t-shirt and baseball cap, removed a violin from a case and proceeded to play for the next 40 or so minutes. Nearly 1,100 people passed in those moments. The question? Would passersby caught up in the hustle and bustle of life be able to recognize beauty when it would be inconvenient to do so? Would those in a hurry be able to recognize genius when it stood right before them?

What the pedestrians didn’t know was that the musician was world acclaimed violinist Joshua Bell who performs before sold out concert halls around the world. And the instrument was a 1713 Stradivarius, purchased for $3.5 million. And the music was six of the classical world’s greatest compositions. The result, a mere 27 people stopped for even a moment to listen.

You can read the whole story here.

This past Sunday was Easter, one of the two greatest days of the year to recognize God’s presence among us. It is a day to be reminded and to see the great length to which God went in history and today continues to go in order to reveal Himself to us. To behold God’s presence is in my opinion the ultimate of beauty and genius, wisdom and grace, kindness and love.

Yet, so many catch so little of His “performance” among us.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Cooperating With God's Work In You

My friend Kevin attends a Catholic church. He told me that last week his church did not provide the normal children’s classes because they were having a special mass. That meant that Kevin’s four-year old son sat during the entire service between Kevin and his wife.

The mass was about an hour and a half long. Kevin said that his four-year old son had been great for about an hour and fifteen minutes of the mass and then he started to get tired and restless. At the one hour and twenty minute mark, the four-year old looks up to the front where the priest in his robes has his hands up in the air saying something and the little boy says with a stage whisper sigh, “What is God doing up there?”

How many times have we felt like that tired little boy. Life’s tedious, mundane, and somewhat obscure circumstances take place and sometimes we sigh, “What is God doing up there?”

Tuesday I was traveling to Santa Fe, New Mexico to visit my son. I had a 6:00 a.m. departure so I left my house at 4:00 a.m. I was seeking my boarding pass when I was told that my flight had been canceled. The woman pointed to a long line about 30 yards away and instructed me to go to the end of it so that I could be re-ticketed. I literally waited in line for an hour and a half. Got my ticket and proceeded toward my gate. There were three lines screening people and, you guessed it, I chose the slowest line. Literally the other two lines screened three times the number of people as my line.

I had to make a connection in Denver and when I landed I had 10 minutes to get to the next gate. After racing down the concourse to my gate I found out that they had changed gates. I ran to the new gate and discovered that my flight had been delayed an hour. When I finally landed in New Mexico I discovered that my luggage didn’t make the flight.

What is God doing up there? I’ve been working hard for several months. I finally get a couple of days off to rest and visit with my son and nothing goes right the entire day! And yet, with every inconvenience I had a strange sense of God’s presence. It was as if God was saying to me, “I know that you’re tired and that you would like everything to go smooth and easy. I’m giving you grace to be patient and kind when it is beyond your natural capacity.”

So, I tried to cooperate with that sense of God’s movement in and around me. And, the more I chose to respond with patience, the more His grace came upon me. I hadn’t done anything wrong and yet everything around me wasn’t right.

How’s it going for you? When you make bad choices you kind of expect that bad outcomes will happen. But when you make good choices a sense of fairness says that circumstances ought to happen well. When they don’t, I believe God is often at work to develop character qualities and life capacities in us that are beyond our natural ability.

At that point, what God is doing is forming Christ in us.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Who Is Jesus & What Did He Do?

We had a wonderful Good Friday service at my church. Six people were baptized, committing to follow Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior for the rest of their lives. We sang songs about the cross and the price Christ paid for the sins of humanity. We celebrated His love and sacrifice for us by receiving the bread and the cup of the Lord’s Supper.

Who is this Jesus and what did He do? A Seattle pastor, Mark Driscoll reminds us of the following—

“Nearly 2,000 years ago a poor, homeless, single man in his early thirties was executed by crucifixion like many other common criminals. He never wrote a book, never traveled more than 200 miles from his home, never held a political office, never married or had children, and never ran a company. His name is Jesus Christ and history is divided into the periods before and after his life. Time magazine named him "Man of the Millennium," and more songs have been sung to, books written about, and artwork painted of Him than anyone who has ever lived. Moreover, a few billion people alive today worship Him as their only God and deeply love Him unlike anyone who has ever lived.

Why? Because Jesus has done what no one else could do: take away their sin by dying on a cross as a substitute in their place. It is the cross of Jesus that is the symbol of the Christian faith and the crux of human history . . . Simply, like I tell my little kids, ‘Jesus died on the cross in your place for your sins to save you from sin, Satan, death, and hell.’”

Tomorrow Christians around the world will celebrate Easter. We’ll celebrate not only what Jesus did but that He’s alive today. We’ll celebrate that we get to “do life” with Jesus everyday. We’ll celebrate that someday He’s coming again, but when He comes again it won’t be as the suffering servant who takes on the sins of the world but rather He will come in all majestic glory as King of kings and Lord of lords.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

They Don't Know What They're Doing

Spearsville School is a small school that has grades 1-12 under one roof in rural north Louisiana. On March 27 there was a special school assembly for grades 6-12 to discuss a stabbing death in which a Spearsville student was accused. A high school teacher would have normally supervised the 5th grade class of about 15 students during the time of the assembly. However, the teacher went to the assembly and through an oversight no other teacher came to supervise the class.

During the time in question allegedly four students – two 11-year old girls, a 12-year old boy and a 13-year old boy began having sex in the classroom in view of the other students. When the administration later discovered what happened the sheriff was brought in to investigate. The children were arrested on charges of obscenity, a felony.

According to the Associated Press it is unclear at this time what a juvenile would face in penalties. An adult conviction on obscenity in the presence of someone under 17 carries a $10,000 fine and 2-5 years in prison.

My first reflection on this story is those children “don’t know what they’re doing.” They have been exposed to movies or music or people that hold the wrong message about sexuality and love. Now their innocence has been destroyed. They’ve scarred their hearts and brought difficult challenges to their future marriages.

Please don’t tell me that I’m overreacting and that these children will get over it. I’ve had too many counseling sessions with men and women who have had young sexual encounters and then as married adults with children they begin to freshly deal with what happened.

But here’s my main point – when Jesus was hanging upon a cross for crimes and sins that He didn’t commit, He prayed for the forgiveness of those who rejected Him, ridiculed Him, spit upon Him and beat Him. With nails in His hands and feet He offered forgiveness to the man standing at the foot of the cross that had swung the hammer that drove the nails.

And, His assessment was, “they don’t know what they’re doing.”

Have you relegated to irrelevance Christ, the Church, and the practice of Christianity? I humbly contend that you don’t know what you’re doing? Do you realize the gravity of treating God with disrespect, dishonor, or disdain? Can one dare to say that they don’t have time for the Creator and Ruler of the universe? What will God make of the rudeness of those who perpetually procrastinate prioritizing the King of kings and Lord of lords?

A word to the wise is sufficient. If God is anything but supremely important to you, then use the approach of Easter as an occasion to turn your heart toward Christ.