Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Go to Jail or Go to Church, Your Choice

When Tyler Alred was 16 years old, he got behind the wheel of his truck after drinking alcohol. In the seat next to him was his friend John Luke Dum. They crashed and Dum was killed. Alred was charged with manslaughter and pled guilty.

Oklahoma District Court Judge Mike Norman could have sent Alred to jail, but instead, taking into account his clean criminal and school records, sentenced him to wear a drug and alcohol bracelet, participate in counseling groups and attend a church of his choosing—weekly. He must graduate from high school.

To avoid jail time, Norman gave Alred a maximum 10-year deferred sentence.

This is not the first time that Norman has sentenced someone to attend church. You can read more about this story at the ABC News blog.

Have you ever heard of such a thing? I have but it has been a long time. About 25 years ago when I served another church in another state a judge specifically sentenced a man to attend my church. I knew the judge. I knew the man and cared about his plight. The judge called me before sentencing, told me his idea and asked if I was willing to be involved in the man’s life along with some drug and alcohol rehab programs. I was and the man was sentenced to a creative program that included attending my church with the hope that his life could be rescued and not lost in the prison system.

This of course raises several questions about a judge’s legal right to order such sentencing and the ABC News blog already has many comments on both sides.

However, my reflection is about the value of attending church. Obviously if a judge sentences a troubled person to attend church rather than go to jail that judge holds an opinion that something worthwhile will happen.

In contrast recent polling has indicated that in the USA the number one fastest growing group of people regarding religion is “none”; that is, people who have no preference regarding religion or faith. In other words, millions have concluded that attending church is a waste of time.

Which is it? Does going to church contribute to life transformation or to boredom and a waste of time? The answer is YES. The answer is mostly dependent upon the person and it is also dependent upon the church.

Walking in a door, sitting in a pew or chair, enduring religious music, rituals and talk, does little if anything to change or help anyone. But if a person has a hunger for God, gathers with people of faith who passionately worship God and do life with God, then that person may with God’s help experience a life revolution and transformation that cannot take place any other way. That is my experience and I’ve witnessed it happen with hundreds of others through the years.

I pray that Alred finds forgiveness, redemption, restoration and life purpose in Christ. I pray that Dum’s family receives the grace and comfort that only God can give in light of their terrible loss.



Friday, October 12, 2012

Creating Needed Space

How do you create space in your life?

My life is a story, as is yours. I love stories. They are powerful to me. Stories inspire, challenge, provoke laughs and stir tears.
I believe that God uses His story and ours to impact and change the lives of people.
Recently my story has become dull and uninteresting. I think it is reflected in how little I’ve been able to blog lately. What’s going on? There are too many “words” on the page.
If you notice when reading a book, the publisher has been careful to have margins on each page. There is “white space”. That margin helps us to read and take in the page. The more words and less space on a page make us work harder to get the story.
For around two years I’ve had too much stuff going on in my life. It is good stuff; important and eternal stuff. Often it is life and death stuff. But if I don’t intentional keep margin on the pages it becomes too much stuff and the story is bogged down.
That’s where I am. What should I do?
I’ve sensed God inviting me to slow down and create some space with the experience of solitude. For years I had the habit of going away to a cabin in the woods for a couple of days, two to three times a year. In solitude I worship, read, sing, think and write. I haven’t had meaningful solitude in about 16 months. I’m overdue.
I’ve placed on my calendar a date for two days of solitude, soon. Meanwhile, Thursday looked like the last decent day for weather as we move into the rainy Fall so I dropped everything and went for a day long motorcycle ride.
I took a book and my journal. I searched the net for a cool coffee/bakery type place as a destination to hang out. And I plotted a course that I’d never driven that looked like it would be picturesque with the colors of Fall.
The day didn’t turn out as I hoped. The morning was cold, overcast and damp. After two hours of riding I was chilled and tired. About ten miles from my bakery destination the sun broke out and the colors began to pop. I thought, “This is more like it.”
Then I got to the “bakery”. It was a little trailer at a spot in the road that I missed and had to turn around to find. When I walked into the empty room and asked "What's cooking?" they said they had “baked” some pizza. It was not the haven I longed for but I knew where one was and I mounted the bike for the hour or so ride to get there.
The ride was on the Mountain Loop from Darrington to Granite Falls. It was beautiful in a dozen ways. I drank in the sun breaks, colors, streams and rivers and wildlife. Then suddenly my dream ride ran out of pavement, seriously. The loop has a 15 mile stretch of single lane, gravel road. My cruiser and I were not excited to navigate this road as I had to cease drinking in the surrounding beauty and fix my gaze on the hundreds of pot holes I was now dodging. Did I mention for 15 miles.


Finally I hit pavement again, enjoyed the ride for several miles, and then arrived at my warm coffee shop with the overstuffed leather furniture, only to find it closed. Are you kidding me?

I’m really tired and cold after four hours of riding. I know another coffee rendezvous about an hour away so I hit the road. I can’t wait to smell some roasted beans and pour some hot coffee down my throat. But, about mid-way between the two towns, literally in the middle of nowhere, I had a flat.


Fortunately my phone worked and I called AAA. They were quick to inform me that my “Plus” membership didn’t include motorcycle service but they were glad to upgrade me for a fee. I upgraded. They contacted a tow truck and dispatched him to my location with the promise of a 45 minute wait.

You know where this is going. The tow truck called me in 45 minutes to say they were not coming because their truck broke down. AAA called another truck that was already helping someone else. He said he could get to me in 90 minutes.
As I sat on the side of the road for two and a half hours I prayed. I wondered if God would redeem this lost episode so that something meaningful would happen between me and the truck driver, or some other driver that might stop, or the service tech at the shop or anything else that God is capable of doing.
No, there was no magic to the day. No great story to tell. No productive thinking and writing. At the end of the day I was simply a tired, hungry, cold rider with a flat. Even as I write and read that last statement I think, “Yea, pitiful first world whining.”
But, it is where my story is right now. And, I’m not satisfied with my story. I’m challenged to create space and see my character engaged in more interesting, meaningful, and Gospel mission engagement. It’s not like that is not happening right now. It’s just that I’m not able to enjoy and engage it as I know it can be.
How’s it going with your story?


Friday, June 15, 2012

What Not to Say to Someone Who has Cancer

Recently I’ve been praying for and seeking to support some friends who are battling cancer. I discovered on Jon Acuff’s blog a guest post by Tracey Solomon that is spot on regarding what not to say to someone who has cancer. Her comments are very helpful and deserve to be read and passed on to others.

What Not to Say by Tracey Solomon

We totally need a Christian version of What Not To Wear.  Only it should be more holy and less about clothes. It should be called What Not To Say. Since my husband’s diagnosis with prostate cancer this fall, I’ve heard people say a lot of stuff that hasn’t been helpful. Maybe, that’s partly because, for awhile, I had a bad case of Cancer Tourette’s. Cancer Tourette’s is a condition where you randomly blurt out the diagnosis to everyone who asks “How are you?” Including the chick ringing up your Target basket and the 12-year-old boy putting your groceries in a bag. (FYI: 1) He doesn’t know what a prostate is, and 2) is afraid of you, prostates, cancer and your crying. Leave the poor kid alone.

Actually, it’s not always what people say that is hard…it’s how it sounds. Which could be totally a problem with my hearing, and since my husband’s diagnosis, I’ve been hearing things differently. It’s like I hear everything through a crazy morbid mix-master’s cancer filter. I think the world is auto-tuned to upset me. And it does.

But, I’m not the only one. I’ve heard others talk about stuff Christians say when there is a bad diagnosis, so I thought I’d ask Jon if I could give you guys a behind-the-cancer listen to the things we say and how they sound. I gotta be honest: Cancer (and any crummy diagnosis, really) is hard enough without having well-meaning people say things to make it harder.

Things like:

“You gotta stay positive.”

What it sounds like: “If you keep being so negative, you’re going to kill your husband.” (Which I sometimes want to do, but that has nothing to do with cancer, it has everything to do with hormones. Mostly.)

How I want to respond: ”I AM positive. I’m positive that cancer stinks. Also: Thanks. Now I’m afraid that if I’m not positive enough my husband will die. It will be my fault.”

The truth: ”Sometimes I need to get the negative out of the way so I can get to the positive. I’m positive that God will get us through this, even if we don’t like the outcome. Staying positive doesn’t mean living in denial. It means accepting the truth and hoping for the best.”

“God won’t give you more than you can handle.”

What it sounds like: “Buck up and deal. You can handle this, or God wouldn’t have allowed it.  You should be honored He thinks so highly of you.” (No clue where the term “buck up” came from. Blame the cancer.)

How I want to respond: “God needs to have his head examined. (Does God even have a head?) Or, he thinks way too highly of me. Has he not been paying attention to my immaturity? Maybe he needs bifocals or something.”

The truth: God gives us things we don’t think we can handle and then he works in and through us. (Which is good because otherwise he’d have to recall my kids. And since two are in college, that would be really awkward.) It’s not about US or what he thinks we can handle…. it’s about Him and what he can handle. But cancer still sucks.

“Is there sin in your life?”

Okay so no one has actually said this to me, But I know they say it to others. That, or it’s a Christian urban myth. Have you heard it?

What it sounds like: “Is there sin in your life? If so, sinner! You deserve this!”

How I (would) respond: “Of course there is. Duh. I’m human. Is there sin in your life? Cause, either you lie or I think you just fell into the whole plank vs. splinter in the eye thing which I’m pretty sure is sin and now you probably have cancer, too.” (But, I really hope not, because, like I said, cancer sucks.)

“That’s a good kind of cancer to have.”  Or, “At least they caught it early.”

How it sounds: ”Like you just said: “That’s a good kind of cancer to have. And at least they caught it early.”

A little cancer secret: There is no good kind of cancer. Cancer is BAD, always bad. That’s why we need to cure it. It’s also why we need God to help us through it.

“My _______ had ______ cancer and they’re doing great. (Or they died. Either one.)

I’m really glad your loved one is doing well. Or really sorry they died…. but, right now? This is about me. Let’s talk about me. (If there is ever a time to be selfish, it’s when you’re facing cancer or the cancer diagnosis of a loved one.

The bottom line (s) –

Please don’t:

Minimize: Say things to make the issue smaller than it is. It may make you feel better about the situation, but it makes the people involved feel like they’re crazy.

Spiritualize: Say things that make a physical issue into a spiritual one. Which, while I believe there is a spiritual aspect to everything, exactly what is really hard to tell from a diagnosis.

Traumatize: Now is not the time to share cancer horror stories.

If someone you know is faced with a nasty diagnosis, please…

Listen more. Talk less. Listen to how I feel, instead of telling me how I should feel.

Pray more. Preach less. When I’m afraid, pray with me. Now. Not later.  And really, the cancer center waiting room is not the time to preach or argue doctrine.

Bonus: When someone shares about a recent scary diagnosis, it’s probably not the time to tell them how wonderful your experience with that illness was, or how much you loved it. Or how it made God so real in your life and that you pooped rainbows after treatment. It could be true, but this is probably not the time to share. I may have threatened to stab the next person to do so. In love, of course.  (That has actually happened to me a few times. Except for the pooping rainbows part. I made that up.)

So have Christians said weird things to you when you’ve faced a crisis? What did they say? How did it sound? How did you wish you had responded?  What would have helped?

Final note: Ha! I said “prostate” on SCL! I think that’s a first.

Final, final note: Never confuse “prostate” and “prostrate.” Not the same.

PSA about PSA: Dudes, I don’t care what the government says, get checked your prostate checked. My husband is 45.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Tim Tebow and Turning Pages

I am a big-time fan of Peyton Manning. I was a big-time fan of his dad Archie. I have followed Peyton’s career throughout college and professional football. I falsely hoped when Indianapolis decided to let him go that Seattle might aggressively seek Peyton’s services. Alas, the Seahawks are another story.

I’m also a big-time fan of Tim Tebow. Not only does his faith and life inspire me but his work ethic in the game excites me. The Broncos drive through the playoffs last fall was the most entertaining football I’ve seen in a long time.

Now Peyton is becoming the Broncos starting quarterback. What will happen with Tebow? Will he be a backup to Manning and learn from one of the best? More likely I think Tebow will be traded. The Tebow mania in Denver could be too much for the business of football to happen effectively in the Broncos organization.

A trade to another team is what I call a “turning of the page”. If God is the Author of life and each of our stories become a part of God’s metanarrative, then Tebow’s move to a new team will be the turning of a page into a new chapter in his life.

AND, Tebow will be just fine. In fact I predict he will flourish. No, I don’t have an inside scoop on what team will pick up the Heisman Trophy winner. It really doesn’t matter. I hope that Tim will have success in the game wherever he goes but if he doesn’t it won’t matter. Since football is “A” passion of Tim’s and not “THE”Passion of his life he will be just fine wherever he is and whatever he does.

Tim has made it clear that following Christ is his all-consuming first priority in life. Knowing Christ, serving Christ and seeing the difference that Christ makes all around his life won’t change. Just the city and team will change. AND, I predict that the graceful, classy way Tim handles the transition will likewise bring honor to Christ.

I’m looking forward to the next chapter in Manning’s career. I’m especially looking forward to the next chapter in Tebow’s life.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Is there such a thing as "Wrongful Birth"?

A Portland area couple was recently awarded nearly $3 million because their daughter was born with Down syndrome. Around 13 weeks into her pregnancy the mother had gone into a clinic and received the chorionic villus sampling or CVS. The results showed that the child had a normal chromosomal profile. When the child was born it was then discovered that she did in fact have the chromosomal abnormality referred to as Down syndrome. Statistically the test has a 97.7% accuracy rate.

The couple sued the clinic claiming that had the test been accurate and they knew that their child was Down syndrome they would have aborted her and thus never gone through the ordeal of raising a special needs child.

The child is now 4 years old. The parents say that they love her. They simply want the clinic to pay for their error. If you’re interested in the specifics of the testing and trial you can read the story at the Oregonian.

The whole case is a reflection of our times and the questions that modern medical science is presenting to society. Upon what basis will we make such life and death decisions?

The term “wrongful birth”, like other current euphemisms in the news such as “after-birth abortion” and “selective reduction”, sends a chilling message that many of us can be misled by the changing of language.

Those of us who are guided by the Bible through the questions and values posed by contemporary culture have to see this crafting of words for what it is. Most of our society would not tolerate the murder of babies but would give little attention to someone preventing a “wrongful birth”.

Yes, I’m aware that scientifically a sperm and egg unite and from that conception a developmental process is launched until there is a birth. Increasing numbers in our society are having to reject the notions about life beginning at some point of viability or at birth because science has convincingly demonstrated that life begins at conception.

But theologically the Bible contends that life begins in the heart of God which precedes the uniting of sperm and egg. In the story of God’s call to Jeremiah to be a prophet, God informed Jeremiah,
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” (Jeremiah 1:5)

The implication of this verse is clear. God conceives our lives and has determined the value of our lives and has plans for our lives before our parents even come into the picture.

Was there a wrongful birth of this little girl 4 years ago? No. Were it known that she would be born with Down syndrome should there have been a selective reduction? God forbid. Within minutes of her birth when her condition was discovered should there have been an after-birth abortion? Are we insane?

Changing the language does not change the fact that we are “playing God” when we make decisions for death instead of life.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

When God Works in Unique Ways

About a week ago I had the privilege and unique opportunity to travel to Nicaragua as a part of a service team for a newly established village. While in the village our team of 16 served alongside the members of the community harvesting and planting crops, building friendship, offering support and sharing life.

I use the word “unique” because of several factors. First, the trip was planned by my Rotary Club in Sammamish, not by my church. Some months ago Charlotte, the chairperson of the international committee of our club discovered a Seattle based non-profit ministry called Agros. She was impressed with their model of offering help to the poor in ways that empower them to bring about change in their lives (more about that later) and she led our club to partner with Agros in a multiyear commitment of several thousand dollars. As far as we can tell this partnership between Rotary and Agros is a first.

Regarding the uniqueness of partnership, for this trip Sammamish Rotary was teamed up with church members from three churches in Spokane. Though Rotary holds many values and goals that are common in churches, Rotary is also careful to not embrace Christianity over any other religion but mutually respect all. In my estimation the partnerships with Agros and the churches was terrific.

Second, God was a work in a unique way by sending me on the team. Yes, I’ve been on international mission teams before but my participation has been around my skills and abilities. I’ve done teaching and leadership training for church leaders and various outreach efforts. But those that know me laughed or smiled broadly when they learned that I was going to go do work on a farm. I’m about as unhandy as a guy can be when it comes to working with my hands but there I was milking a cow, picking peppers and watermelons and cutting plantains.

Third, my experience was unique because of the way the events of the week unfolded for me. Most of the team from Spokane did not know that I was a minister and none in the village did. Though our team had devotions and prayer together and we experienced chapel services with the people in the village, I never led a meeting, led a prayer, or led a devotional time. I didn’t facilitate any of the debriefing sessions in the evenings. These are the kinds of things that I do all the time but in the first part of the week my role was simply servant and friend. It was refreshing for me and I enjoyed watching others do a great job leading. I love being led well by others.

But midway through the week the Spokane friends had hoped that our team might be able to have a communion service with our friends in the village. The leadership council kindly said that this would not be possible without an ordained minister to oversee such a service. At that point someone mentioned that I was an ordained minister. After I sat down with the leadership council and we discussed various issues of difference between the Catholics and Protestants in the village we were able to have the Lord’s Supper together in our Thursday afternoon chapel service. It was one of the most special communion services that I’ve officiated.

Now that I was “outed” as a minister various villagers asked me to pray blessings on their homes and families and crops. In my last hours there I was privileged to serve with the gifts and abilities that God has given me.

During my time in Nicaragua God spoke into my heart and addressed several lessons for my life that I’ll share in the next couple of posts.

I’ve been following Christ for over 35 years. I still marvel at the new and unique things that He does in and around my life.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Finishing Well: A Reminder from Joe Paterno

Sunday Joe Paterno, the all-time winningest college football coach died after a battle with cancer at the age of 85. He coached the Penn State Nitanny Lions for 61 years (46 as head coach) winning 409 games, playing in 37 bowl games and winning two national championships.

Paterno will most likely be remembered as a man of determination and dedication to the sport, the University, his family and friends. Paterno will also be remembered for failing to do more in the protection of children that were allegedly abused by one of the members of his coaching staff. For all of his accomplishments and respect in the world of football, Paterno will also be remembered for being fired by the University for the child sexual abuse scandal.

It is hard to live life well and finish life well.

My family and friends began a journey January 1 of reading through the entire Bible in 2012. In these first few weeks several have commented to me, “I didn’t realize that the people in the Bible who did great things for God also committed such awful sins.”

It’s true. I tend to look at Moses and David as heroes in the faith. God used them in powerful and eternal ways. But they also committed terrible sins and finished life poorly.

For over a couple of decades now I’ve intentionally concerned myself with the challenge of how to live lovingly, adventurously, generously, holy and also finish well so that when I breathe my last I’ve not been an embarrassment to God, my family or my church. I’m not talking about sinless perfection but rather a consistent godliness that honors the Lord and encourages others.

I regularly meet with some men with the same heart. We’ve made a commitment to each other to be accountable. We confess our sins to each other. We pray for each other. We call each other whenever we think the needle on our heart-gauge is getting in the red zone of danger. We regularly exhort one another, “Let’s finish well.”

As a fan of college football I’ve admired Paterno for years and with respect to the game I probably will never forget him. I’ll also not forget the final few months of his life.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

What Is Your Experience In Church?

Do you attend church? If so why? If not, why not?

Recently the Barna organization surveyed Americans who have attended church sometime in the past and discovered what they say about their experiences.

1. Connecting with God was most important. Around 66% said they have had a personal connection with God when attending a church. That would mean that roughly a third would say that they haven’t connected with God when attending a church. What’s more, those who said they have connected with God when in a congregational setting describe the encounter as rare.

What about you. How frequently do you connect with God when attending a church? What helps or hinders?

2. Experiencing Transformation or that life had been “greatly affected” by attending church was said by 26%. Another 25% said attending church had been “somewhat influential”. The other half said that their lives had not been changed at all by attending church.

This is an interesting factor. One of my passions is life transformation. I pray and serve people with the hope of seeing transformation. However I would probably say that I’ve experienced little if any transformation by attending church. I can be inspired, informed, encouraged, and equipped but the life change really comes when I put into practice the things I feel stirred about. Obedience to God changes my life.

3. Gaining New Insights was a disappointing factor in the survey. Asked to describe what insight they gained the last time they attended church 61% could not remember anything of significance related to faith.

This of course is one of the frustrating and perplexing realities to those who speak in church every week. I’ll typically spend a dozen hours preparing for a 25 minute talk which is similar to a lot of other pastors. Yet we know that many of the people listening attentively in the moment will not remember 95% of what they hear because they are not writing any notes or deciding on any action steps to take in light of what they have heard.

The rest of the story is that many of us don’t grow in our ability to communicate. Means of communication are exploding all around us yet the Sunday message can often be a talking head that seems to drone “blah, blah, blah, blah.”

4. Feeling Cared For measured whether church attenders felt significantly connected to other people at church. Around 68% said they feel like they are a part of the group. Another 23% opined that being at church feels “like a group of people sharing the same space in a public event but who were not connected in a real way.”

If a church has over 100 people and regularly has new guests showing up it’s difficult for everyone to connect with everyone. This is one of the reasons that I’m a strong proponent of small groups. When I have meaningful connections in my small group of a dozen people I then have a capacity to reach out to and connect with several people on Sunday. I don’t feel as great a need regarding who, if anyone is attempting to connect with me.

5. Helping the Poor was the final factor measured by the survey. The question was whether you believed your church prioritizes caring for the poor outside of the congregation. Adults who attended a church said their church cared a lot (44%) or somewhat (33%).

What’s your opinion about the way your church cares for the poor? What part do you play in caring for the poor?

The survey addressed additional influences on the above factors like church size, age of participants, and denominational affiliation that you can read about here.

I’ve served the church for 35 years. I’m very acquainted with how churches fall short of God’s calling and I’ve been blessed to experience the church at her best. Many find healing and hope through the church while others find it boring and irrelevant. Some have even been abused by the church.

Nevertheless, the church is a primary expression and experience of God in our world. I’m committed to see the church as a people and place that glorify God and edify people. I’m convinced that sacrificing my life on behalf of God’s work in and through the church is worth it.

What about you?

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

A Dead Duck and a Lesson in Forgiveness

We’ve launched into a New Year. Are you ready?

Like many others you may be taking up new commitments and resolutions, things that you’re going to add to your life. Of course we can only carry “so much” in life’s journey and the question becomes, “What are you going to let go of in order to take up the new things?”

Life is a series of trades. I trade in late night television so that I can rise early to pray or exercise. I trade in junk food for healthy food. I trade in careless spending for thoughtful stewardship.

How about trading in a little guilt and experiencing forgiveness?

There was a little boy visiting his grandparents on their farm. He was given a slingshot to play with out in the woods. He practiced in the woods; but he couldn't hit any target. Getting a little discouraged, he headed back for dinner. As he was walking back he saw Grandma's pet duck. On impulse, he let the slingshot fly, hit the duck square in the head and killed it. He was shocked and grieved!

In a panic, he hid the dead duck in the wood pile; only to see his sister watching. Sally had seen it all--but she said nothing.

After lunch the next day Grandma said, "Sally, let's wash the dishes." But Sally replied, "Grandma, Johnny told me he wanted to help in the kitchen." Then she whispered to him, "Remember the duck?" So Johnny did the dishes.

Later that day, Grandpa asked if the children wanted to go fishing and Grandma said, "I'm sorry but I need Sally to help make supper." Sally just smiled and said, "Well that's all right because Johnny told me he wanted to help, didn't you Johnny?" She whispered again, "Remember the duck?" So Sally went fishing and Johnny helped Grandma.

After several days of Johnny doing both his chores and Sally's, he couldn't stand it any longer. He finally went to Grandma and confessed that he had killed the duck.

Grandma knelt down, gave him a hug and said, "Sweetheart, I know. You see, I was standing at the window and I saw the whole thing. I was wondering how long you would let Sally make you her slave. I love you. I forgive you."

You know that God has seen and known all that you have done. Do you also know that He loves you and is ready to forgive you? Today would be a great day to pray, confess your sins to God, experience His love and forgiveness and trade in your guilt for a fresh start, not just on the year but in your journey with God.