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Tuesday, July 5, 2022

Forever Friends

 Last week we went on an “almost post-Covid” cruise to Alaska. There were still testings and protocols to pass, but the cruise business is back.  What made the week truly spectacular was going with our best friends from college. We had a great time exploring new places and reflecting.  We were young when we first met.  My wife and our friends were fresh from high school graduations in Texas and Kentucky.  I was older and wiser by a year or two. 

 After we married, we gathered in each other’s apartments as penniless newly-weds and played games, affordable and unforgettable entertainment. Our paths parted when we started our families. Identical twin girls for them, three children stretched over 13 years for us.  We stayed in touch at a distance.

 Fifty years later, our children are grown.  They are advancing in their careers and raising our grandchildren.  We have completed most of our journey, in good health and full of memories, hoping to remain useful and finish well.

 We are thrilled to make new friends for whom we are grateful, but we shared our youth with these friends when we were trying to figure out our own identity and had little idea of the direction our paths would take. We have other friends from our childhoods and our careers whom we love.  Some drifted away.  Some died. But this couple stuck.  Nothing can reproduce the treasure we have found. 

.And now that we have re-converged in the late years of our journey we are overwhelmed with gratitude for God’s goodness and grace.  We are more content than we were in our youth. We are still ambitious to do good and to bless others, but we know we are blessed beyond measure in ways we could have never imagined. Only God could do such a thing.

 Friendship gives us a glimpse of the relationship God desires for each of us.  As Proverbs says, “There is a friend that stays closer than a brother.”  (Proverbs 18:24).

 After three years walking the hills of Galilee and Judea, Jesus explained his relationship with the twelve in these terms:   Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command.  I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.” (John 15:13-15).

 No matter who we are or where we came from; no matter our race, gender or age, God desires to be our friend. He desires to lead us on our journey, from beginning to end.  An old hymn perhaps expresses it best, “I’ve found a Friend, oh, such a Friend!   He loved me ere I knew Him; He drew me with the cords of love,   and thus He bound me to Him. And round my heart still closely twine, those ties which naught can sever. For I am His, and He is mine, forever and forever.”

Sunday, June 26, 2022

The Fourth

 Next Monday we will celebrate the Fourth of July, a uniquely American experience.  When our founding fathers signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776, John Adams envisioned celebrations in every city with parades, fireworks and political speeches “from one end of this continent to the other.”  More than two centuries later, Adams’s dream is a reality.  Next Monday skyrockets and exploding bombs  will illuminate the night skies over cities, parks, and lakes.  Bands will march in the streets followed by decorated floats and mounted horses.  Politicians will address crowds from platforms decorated with red, white, and blue bunting.

 The Declaration of Independence adopted on the fourth of July in 1776 provides the focus for our American ideals: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”  When the Declaration was signed our nation was far from the ideals it embraced. Slavery was widespread. Most states limited voting rights to white men who owned land.  Two and a half centuries later we have made progress, but the struggle continues to implement the ideals of equality.

 Robert Kaplan’s Empire Wilderness sought a re-examination of America in 1998.  Visiting a Mexican church in Tucson, Kaplan wrote, “The church conjured up tradition, sensuality, nostalgia.  If only this church were more relevant to the social forces roiling the southern half of Tucson.”  In The Next One Hundred Million, Joel Kotkin painted an optimistic future for America in 2050 based largely on our unique faith. He wrote, “a ‘spiritual’ tradition that extends beyond regular church attendance … persists as a vital force.” 

 We strive toward equality because that is the way God made us.  We are each made in His image and “endowed” every person with infinite worth. We best achieve equality when we seek to defend and achieve the rights of others.  We are taught, through faith, to “love our neighbor as ourselves,” to “do unto others as we would have them do unto us,” that we are greatest when we are servant to others and that service to God is measured by our actions toward the “least of these.” 

 The pursuit of happiness can degenerate into the self-absorbed and destructive pursuit of pleasure.  Without faith in Christ we are prone to become captive to addictions and sins that easily beset us.  Jesus said, “Everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin … if the Son makes you free you shall be free indeed.” (John 8:34-36).  For every individual and nation, real freedom comes when God sets us free from greed, corruption, lust and addiction.  Real freedom is won when we seek the welfare and opportunity for others, especially for those who are "not like us."

Tuesday, June 21, 2022

A Place To Turn In Time Of Need

 Like many Americans I have long been fascinated with Abraham Lincoln.  He stands out among all the men who have occupied the White House for his genius, his eloquence, his honesty, strength of character, and his determination to hold the nation together in its most perilous time. Books about Lincoln often occupy an entire section at the library.

 Recently I stumbled across a volume I had overlooked, Behind the Scenes, or Thirty Years a Slave and  Four Years in the White House by Elizabeth Keckley.  Written in 1868, the book contains the memoirs of the woman who served as Mary Todd Lincoln’s personal seamstress.  She personally designed, sewed and fitted the many dresses Mary required as First Lady and became Mrs. Lincoln’s closest friend and confidant. Elizabeth was born a slave, but at age 30, having become an accomplished seamstress, was able to purchase her freedom. She relocated to Washington, D.C.  When the Lincolns arrived, she went to work for Mrs. Lincoln. Her memoirs offer a unique glimpse into unguarded moments in the Lincoln home. I was especially struck by this candid description of Lincoln during one of the low moments of the War. 

 “One day he came into the room where I was fitting a dress on Mrs. Lincoln. His step was slow and heavy, and his face sad.  Like a tired child he threw himself upon a sofa, and shaded his eyes with his hands.  He was a complete picture of dejection. … He reached forth one of his long arms, and took a small Bible from a stand near the head of the sofa, opened the pages of the holy book, and soon was absorbed in reading them. A quarter of an hour passed, and on glancing at the sofa the face of the President seemed more cheerful.  The dejected look was gone, and the countenance was lighted up with new resolution and hope. The change was so marked that I could not but wonder at it. … He read with Christian eagerness, and the courage and hope that he derived from the inspired pages made him a new man.  … What a sublime picture was this! A ruler of a mighty nation going to the pages of the Bible with simple Christian earnestness for comfort and courage, and finding both in the darkest hours of a nation’s calamity.” 

 It is well known that President Lincoln never joined a church.  But it is abundantly clear from what he said and what he wrote that he was a man of deep faith. This surprisingly candid witness from Mary Lincoln’s seamstress is revealing.  In the privacy of his home we find this remarkable insight into the faith that sustained him. 

 The opening lines of Proverbs capture the essence of the Bible’s impact:  “To know wisdom and instruction. To perceive the words of understanding. To receive the instruction of wisdom, justice, judgement and equity. To give prudence to the simple, to the young man knowledge and discretion,” (Proverbs 1:1-4).  If we would find our way forward as individuals, families and as a nation, we can turn to that source to which Lincoln turned.

Tuesday, June 14, 2022

Trusting God in Challenging Times

 

We have entered a financial intersection of inflation and, perhaps, stagflation. Even my 9-year-old granddaughter has opinions about why the price of gasoline has soared. We all must go through challenges that raise the level of risk, and anxiety.

 Some of us have been through similar crises to the one we face now.  A few of us were around when the oil embargo hit in the early 1970s.  Richard Nixon was President.  Overnight the price of gasoline doubled, followed by the price of everything else. Speed limits on Interstate highways were lowered to 55 mph to conserve gas. Gasoline was rationed and cars lined up down the street and around the block to buy a few gallons.  Inflation and high interest continued through the 1980s. Some of us bought houses with 14% mortgage rates.  The Fed raised interest rates to 12% to curb rampant inflation, and then came the Savings and Loan crisis, followed by the2000-2002 dot-com bust. and, in 2008, the housing crash.  For the last fourteen years, at least until Covid in 2020, the economy has been cruising along on something of an open freeway.  The trillions of dollars pumped into the economy to offset Covid bought us a couple of years, perhaps, but eventually, we have entered another economic intersection littered with casualties.

 We encounter other challenging intersections when we choose a career, find a partner for life and give birth to our children.  We encounter them when our preschoolers start first grade, when they reach puberty and struggle to grow up.  Promotions, layoffs, career changes, moves to a new house in a new city, aging and old age.  Life is filled with intersections.

 We do best at these moments when we trust in God.  He knows the “traffic patterns.”  He has been there.  He knows the outcome.  He is willing to take us by the hand or “take the wheel” and guide us through to the other side.

 He led Abraham to a foreign land he had never seen and multiplied his descendants like the sands of the sea.  He guided Isaac in search of a wife and blessed Jacob in a similar quest. He led Moses through the wilderness. He guided Mary and Joseph to Egypt and back after the birth of Jesus.  In every generation, God has been a comfort and a guide to those who trust Him.

 “In your loving kindness you have led the people whom you have redeemed; in your strength you have guided them to your Holy habitation.” (Exodus 15:13).  “For you are my rock and my fortress; for your name’s sake you will lead me and guide me.” (Psalm 31:3).  “And the Lord will continually guide you, and satisfy your desire in scorched places; and you will be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water whose waters do not fail.” (Isaiah 58:11). 

Tuesday, June 7, 2022

While You Were Sleeping

 I typically don’t think much about sleep. But when you fly through seven or more time zones in a single day, as I have done on more than one occasion, you think about it.  When everyone else is getting up, your body is begging to go to bed. When everyone else is settling down for a good night’s sleep, your body is wide awake and looking for something to do. It takes a few days, at least, to “reset the body clock.”

Sleep is an amazing thing.  We all require it, including the animals.  Even my dog sleeps.  I know, I have spent the night camping in a tent with him.  He snores. Sleep appears to be a requirement for all animal life, though it may vary in intensity and method.

 Something mysterious and magical happens when we sleep.

 Kenneth Cooper, the world-famous physician who set us on the path for aerobic health more than forty years ago, maintains that adequate sleep, like adequate exercise and diet, are essential to balanced health.  He states, “Most studies indicate that the average person needs somewhere between the traditional 7 and 8 hours a night. If you get much more sleep than that … you feel sluggish and fuzzy-headed during the day.  … if you get too little sleep .. you tend to feel like death warmed over.”

 Sleep deprivation has been used as a means of interrogation and even torture.  In some cases, the inability to sleep has had catastrophic consequences.  Many think the popular actor, Heath Ledger’s  tragic death from a prescription drug overdose may have been caused by his ongoing battle with chronic insomnia.

 Scientists have a pretty good idea of what goes on during sleep, but no one seems to know exactly how it happens. According to the Sleep Foundation, the body and the brain are repaired and nourished during the phases of non-rapid eye movement (NREM)  and rapid-eye-movement (REM). Somehow the body repairs its muscles, consolidates memory and releases hormones that regulate growth and appetite.

 Even Jesus slept.  His twelve disciples found it incredible that he could sleep in the bow of the boat during a raging storm. Frantic with fear, they woke him.   Awakened from his sleep, Jesus asked, “Why are you afraid, you men of little faith?”  He then rebuked the winds and the waves, and the place where they were became perfectly calm. His disciples were astonished and looking at one another asked, “What manner of man is this, that even the wind and the waves obey him?” (Matthew 8:23-27).

 The need to sleep recognizes our mortality.  For seven to eight hours of every day, between a fourth and a third of every twenty-four hours, the world continues without us.  During that time, we are totally and completely dependent upon others and upon God for our existence and our well-being.  We are not the masters of our fate.

 The Scripture states, “In vain you rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat — for he grants sleep to those he loves.” (Psalm 127:2)

Tuesday, May 31, 2022

Uvalde: Violence and Suffering

 We are reeling, again, stunned once more from the senseless murders of 19 fourth grade children and their two teachers in Uvalde, Texas. We have seen their faces and recalled their names. We have watched the videos of their family and friends embraced in grief, weeping.  And, as a nation, this week we mourn with them as they bury their dead. 

 Like everyone else, I am disturbed.  I am reminded of the killings at Sutherland Springs 5 years ago. The pastor’s 14 year old daughter dying on the floor, the Associate Pastor, Brian Holcombe, struck down as he stood up to preach, a 1 year old baby, 14 children, a 77 year old and others, massacred in a matter of minutes.  It is not like we have not been here before. We have witnessed this scene too many times,

 I have been disturbed and grieved over a lifetime of senseless violence. The first I remember was a sniper atop the University of Texas tower in 1966, killing 13.  Others stand out: the gunman that opened fire at First Baptist Daingerfield, Texas in 1980 and left 5 dead, including a 7 year old girl; The Oklahoma City bombing; West Paducah KY High School; Columbine High School; the Amish school in Pennsylvania; the Century 16 movie theater in Aurora, CO; Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut;   the gay nightclub shooting in Orlando. These are just the horrific events that I remember. There are others alongside senseless killings every day reported in local news across the country.

 Like everyone else, it leaves me reeling with questions.  Why does God allow innocent people to die?  Why does evil and violence strike at such random and senseless moments?  How can people be so deranged and cruel?  I wish there were no guns, no violence, no killing, and no war. I wish there were no deranged people.

 The best insight I find is in the symbol that dominates the landscape at Uvalde: crosses erected at Robb Elementary; crosses in the churches and the cemeteries. To remove all violence from our world, God would have to remove our human capacity for good and evil.  Instead, God chooses the Cross. The Cross is the ultimate expression of innocent suffering and torture. When Jesus endured the Cross, He took the sins of our violent world upon Himself.

 The Cross is not an afterthought.  It is not a footnote.  The Cross on which Jesus died is the focal point of history. It is the place where God’s love meets our agony, our grief and confusion in a violent world.  He took our violence upon Himself and conquered it in the resurrection. 

 According to the theologian N.T Wright, the day Jesus was crucified is “the day the revolution began.”  This is the reason crosses are raised above the rooftops, erected on hillsides, planted as grave markers and worn around our necks.  Violence will not prevail. Evil will be conquered. The revolution has begun. Another Kingdom is coming. (Romans 8:31-39).


Monday, May 23, 2022

Memorial Day

Next Monday we will fly our flag outside our house to honor Memorial Day. It is a tradition my wife brought into our marriage from her father who served in the Pacific during World War II. All across our country the stars and stripes will unfurl in the breeze, lifting and dropping, whipping and snapping above the roof tops of schools, factories and government buildings. It will fly over parks, parades and cemeteries. Millions will stand to their feet in stadiums across America and sing of the broad stripes and bright stars reflected by bombs bursting in the night.

Forty-seven years after Francis Scott Key wrote the poem that became our national anthem, the star-spangled banner hung in ominous stillness above Fort Sumter. For the next four years, bearing the stars of the states that rose against it, surrounded by the sound of screaming men and thundering horses, it led the way into man-made storms of grapeshot and cannon fire. Almost a century later it was planted on the black sands of Iwo Jima where young Marines gave their lives to lift its blood-stained cloth above their heads. The flag still marks Tranquility Base where the Eagle landed, and Neil Armstrong took a giant leap for mankind. Most of us have stood at the graveside of flag draped coffins and many mothers have held the crisply folded flag to their breast, solemnly handed to them by white gloved soldiers.

This Memorial Day the flag reminds us that America is still an experiment. Two and a half centuries is a very short time and our nation is still relatively young. Lincoln’s prophetic words at Gettysburg still ring true. We are a new nation “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Our generation, like every other generation must rise to the test to prove whether “that nation, or any other nation so dedicated and so conceived can long endure.” Every Memorial Day we are called to a new resolve that “this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth.”

Memorial Day helps us remember the men and women who gave their lives on the battlefield. But the most important battles to be fought for the future of our nation will not be with missiles and guns. The most important battles will be fought in the hearts of men and women. The preservation of our nation, its hopes, dreams and ideals, depends on the character of its people and their leaders. Honesty, integrity, compassion, generosity, goodness and faith are the elements that will determine the future freedom of our nation.  

In Proverbs, the Bible says, “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a disgrace to any people.” (Prov. 14:34) Isaiah says, “Behold My Servant, whom I uphold; my chosen one in whom my soul delights. I have put My Spirit upon Him; He shall bring forth justice to the nations. (Isa. 42:1).