What Others Say

Thank you for writing the article in Saturday's edition of New Castle News. It was very good and very interesting. You bring it all to light, making everything very simple and easy to understand. - Kathy L. - New Castle, Pennsylvania

Monday, June 1, 2020

Our Moral Drift and the Way Back

Five years ago I wrote about Sandra Bland, a 28-year old black woman who changed lanes in Waller County, Texas to allow an approaching patrol car to pass.  Instead of passing, the patrolman pulled her over for failure to signal a lane change. The video of her arrest was haunting.  Sandra was understandably upset.  How many times have we all changed lanes without giving a signal? She was simply moving over to let the policeman by.  It seemed like such a trivial stop.

She showed her irritation.  The officer was insulted and grew angry, demanding she put out her cigarette. She refused.  He threatened to “light her up” with his Taser, forced her from her car, manhandled her off to the side of the road, wrestled her to the ground, handcuffed her and carted her off to jail. Three days later, unable to post bond, Sandra Bland was found dead in her jail cell, victim of an apparent suicide.  A graduate of Prairie View A&M, she had been a part of the Black Lives Matter movement.

The video was disturbing because of the injustice of it all, similar to the video of George Floyd.  Both videos are disturbing because of repeated incidents of police brutality against black persons.  They are disturbing because they represents our cultural drift from the values that make life work.  Our politicians hurl insults at one another, calling names, seldom restrained by the truth.  People scream at one another in movies and dramas, releasing unrestrained anger.  We laugh at the snide remarks of comedians. The principles of courtesy, respect, patience, honesty and forgiveness seem to be slipping away.  

Have we slipped our Christian moorings?  Are we adrift in a sea of uncertainty that has no true North, no compass? Are the darker impulses of prejudice, fear and hatred leading us off a cliff?

We turned to science and technology believing they would pave the way to a brighter future.  And, while science and technology have given us a higher standard of living with conveniences our forefathers never dreamed, they cannot provide the values necessary for living with each other.

The stones that pave the path for our future are the same stones that paved the pathway for our forefathers.  They are found in the Commandments: “Do not murder. Do not commit adultery. Do not steal. Do not bear false witness. Do not covet.. Honor your father and mother.” (Mark 10:19) 

They are found in the words of Jesus:  “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  “Be merciful as your father is merciful.”  “Give and it shall be given to you, good measure, pressed down and running over.”  They are found in the Lord’s Prayer.

The stones for our pathway forward are found in the fruits of the Spirit that overcome the flesh: “Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality,  idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, ...  But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” (Galatians 5:19-23).

Faith that fosters forgiveness and respect for all people of all races is essential to our survival. 

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

The Eyes Have It

We have entered a new era unfamiliar to us all.  We are greeted by family, friends and strangers wearing masks everywhere we go.  Some masks are like my own, a dull and unremarkable: black, white or gray. Others, like my wife’s, are bright and cheerful.  Her mask is decorated with little birds.  The designs and decorations are unlimited.  But all of them have one thing in common.  They hide our faces.  We cannot determine if someone is smiling, frowning, sneering or simply dead-pan.  We cannot read lips.  A significant percentage of our normal public face-to-face communication has been stolen. 

My wife and I were watching an old black-and-white Gary Cooper movie the other night.  When the villain suddenly pulled up his bandana to mask his face we were struck with how familiar he looked. Once upon a time, meeting a masked stranger on the street might create shivers of suspicion and fear. But, today, it is normal, expected, even required.

But one facial feature remains:  the eyes.  Even with masks, the eyes communicate. They seldom, if ever, lie.  They portray innocence, beauty and wonder; the sparkle of imagination, compassion and love.  They can also convey anger, fear, suspicion, even deceit.  Our music recognizes this fact:  The Eagles’ Lyin’ Eyes,  Willie Nelson’s Blue Eyes Cryin’ in the Rain, Van Morrison’s Brown Eyed Girl, and the Beatle’s Close Your Eyes and I’ll Kiss You, to name a few.

Our eyes are the window of the soul. Whatever we choose to see, to read, to watch on TV or the internet floods our soul with images that enlighten, inspire, encourage or corrupt.  Perhaps that is what Jesus meant when He said, “The eye is the lamp of the body.  If your eye is healthy your whole body is full of light.”  The eyes not only fill the soul, they also reflect the soul.  Our secret thoughts, the things within our heart are often reflected in our eyes. 

One of the great treasures of the human experience is to find favor in the eyes of another, as when a groom lifts the veil and looks on the face of his bride.  Or when a mother beholds the face of her newborn child. The eyes can bestow unimaginable and unforgettable blessings.  With the eyes we can bless, and we can be blessed by another.  

Most important of all is how we are seen by God.  The Bible says, “Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be” (Psalm 139:16). “The Lord looks down from heaven on all mankind to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God” (Psalm 14:2).   And again, “The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). 

The Bible tells of a young man who came to Jesus wanting to go to heaven.  In response “Jesus looked on him and loved him” (Mark 10). Unfortunately, the young man turned away and missed his opportunity because he loved wealth more than he loved God.  I have always loved the old song, “Turn your eyes upon Jesus.  Look full in his wonderful face, and things of earth will grow strangely dim, in the light of his glory and grace.”  What are we choosing to see with our eyes?  Whose eyes do we seek?

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Class of 2020

Every May, when trees splash green lawns with shade and wildflowers fill the air with fragrance, we celebrate one of the significant rites of passage for each generation.  Normally young men and young women robe themselves in their school colors and don mortar-board-caps with dangling tassels to accept diplomas signifying their educational achievement.  But this year isn’t normal.  Not for the class of 2020. 

Some are watching commencement speeches online in the same way they completed their course assignments with their teachers and professors.  Some will dress for photos taken in their living rooms with family, or outside with their school building in the background.  Family and friends will do their best to make it special. But it is not the same.  The pressing crowd of friends with whom they once played on playgrounds, with whom they studied, competed, worked and grew to adulthood, will be missing. They will not stand shoulder-to-shoulder, searching the crowd to locate parents who search for them.  They will not walk the stage when their name is called and they will not pose together for a class picture.

I feel a sense of grief for the class of 2020.  The coronavirus pandemic has stolen something precious from them that will be difficult to replace.  Rites of passage are important.  But even if the pandemic restrictions take away the pomp and the circumstance of the moment, it cannot steal away the love and admiration we feel for these graduates. I hope in some small way, the words of this weekly column can add to the affirmation for this special Class of 2020.

My best friend’s granddaughter is a member of this class, one of the brightest young women I have known. When she was seven-years-old and entering second grade, I said to her, “You are very smart. But it is important as you grow up to be wise.” I asked, “Do you know the difference between being smart and being wise?” Without hesitation she said, “Sure, smart is knowing that 3 + 3 equals 6. Wise is doing the right thing.”  This month she graduates from high school with the Class of 2020, a very wise young woman with full scholarships to college.  I want to shout congratulations to Gillian and to the entire Class of 2020!

Many high schools and colleges are hoping to carry out graduation exercises later this summer.  I hope they can, although most expect it will still have social distancing restrictions.  Whether they do or not, my hopes are high that these youth will lead the world forward to a better day.  There is so much that needs to be accomplished in social justice, equal opportunity, environmental stewardship, global cooperation, and mutual respect among all peoples.

I am reminded of Paul’s instruction to his young friend Timothy, “Let no one look down on your youthfulness, but rather in speech, conduct, love, faith and purity, show yourself an example of those who believe” (1 Timothy 4:12).   And Jeremiah’s prophecy, “’For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope’” (Jeremiah 29:11).

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Children and the Secret of the Kingdom

Children are found on every continent in every culture. Without them the human race would be doomed to extinction.  They fill the air with laughter, like the sound of water gurgling in a happy brook. Their capacity for imagination and happiness is almost boundless. 

They make friends of complete strangers.  In a matter of minutes they are playmates making up imaginary games. They are as happy and excited to kick a half-deflated soccer ball in a back alley as any player in a World Cup stadium. They see the world with wide-eyed wonder, and they are blind to color, race or social standing. Even the Carona crisis cannot stifle their spirit. 

We are born reflecting the eternal light that enlightens every man. (John 1:9).  But, somewhere along the way, the light dims. The carefree joy of childhood is lost. 

Too often, and too soon the children will learn the lessons of prejudice and competition. They learn it from watching grown-ups around them. They learn it from pressure to perform in sports, pressures to live up to the expectation of adults who too often measure life by fame, fortune and winning at all costs.

Jesus treasured the innocence of childhood.  He once took a child and stood her in the midst of his grown-up disciples who were arguing among themselves about which one of them was the greatest.  Holding the child in his gentle hands, he said to them, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:2).

We all were children once, full of hopes and dreams with boundless imagination.  We are prone to lose the magic, exchanging laughter for worry, innocence for anger, expectation for resentment.  But somewhere, down deep inside, is the child we once were.

I have known adults living into their eighties whose eyes still twinkle with the joy of a child, whose faces are wrinkled with lines of laughter, who seem to wake up each morning with a child-like excitement for the next day’s adventure. We need not surrender to the bitterness of disappointment.  The wisdom of experience can serve as seasoning for the joy of childhood.

Regardless of our circumstances; in spite of our difficulties, set-backs and disappointments; Jesus invites us to enter the Kingdom as a little child, to be filled with a faith that expects to be surprised by glory.

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Changing the Way We Live

A strange thing has happened in our neighborhood.  Two months ago we barely knew most of our neighbors.  We would recognize familiar vehicles leaving for work, shuttling kids to school. But when they returned they either disappeared into their garages or quickly ran inside not to re-emerge.  Their lives were centered elsewhere, with their co-workers, their teachers and friends. 

But then the Covid crisis hit. Schools and businesses were closed.  We were told to shelter in place, which meant “stay home.”  We became desperate for a friendly face and a familiar voice.  We introduced ourselves to one another on our neighborhood walks, keeping a respectful 6 foot distance. And our neighborhood began to change. 

Today young mothers go for walks together, pushing their strollers.  Parents and kids play baseball in the front yard.  A young couple across the street eats their dinner on the front porch, waving to passers-by and chatting with those who stop to talk.  Neighbors offer to pick up groceries for neighbors.  And bikes.  Bicycles are everywhere: children, teenagers, adults of all ages, small bikes, big bikes, road bikes, mountain bikes, recumbent bikes, expensive bikes and bikes, like mine, that are over 20 years old.  Whole families: children, parents and grandparents ride bikes together. 

Churches are changing.  Instead of gathering in buildings to listen to a worship team and hear a preacher, families gather in their living rooms to stream their local church service and meet in small groups during the week through zoom.  Instead of shuffling their kids off to a Sunday school teacher, parents are opening the Bible and telling Bible stories to their children.  Church is no longer about a “performance” on Sunday morning.  It is increasingly about ministering in neighborhoods, helping those who are hurting; caring for those who are sick and dying; comforting those who grieve, finding ways to create community.

We are all anxious to get back to work and return to school, to see friends and co-workers, to shop without fear.  We look forward to eating out at our favorite restaurants with smiling wait staff.  We long for the day when we will again hear the laughter of children on the playgrounds and in the park, to stand in the bleachers and cheer our home team.  We can’t wait to return to our churches without masks or distance restrictions, to greet one another with hugs and handshakes.

But in the meantime, God may be teaching us something.  Under the Covid restrictions we are learning to relate more closely to our neighbors and our families, to be “church” in community.

The admonitions of Scripture give guidance: “Each one helps his neighbor and says to his brother, ‘Be strong!’ … Do not fear, for I am with you; do not anxiously look about you, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, surely I will help you with my righteous right hand” (Isaiah 41:6, 10).

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Good and Evil in the Garden

Maybe our gardens will save us during this Caronavirus crisis.  Most of us are going crazy trying to “shelter in place.”  We are bored, lonely, sometimes irritable with those we love most who share our confined space.  But the garden offers a welcome release.  There is something therapeutic about digging in the dirt, sifting the soil with our fingers, planting seeds and seedlings that flourish in the sun,

When I lived in Minnesota, I always had a garden.  I guess it was “our” garden, my daughter and mine. She was seven when we moved to Minnesota. Every spring we would pick out what we would plant and, after I spaded up the earth, we would plant our garden together:  cilantro, tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, cabbage.  One year we grew a pumpkin two feet in diameter.  We tried okra, but apparently it needs the searing heat of Texas.   Rhubarb didn’t require planting, it just volunteered itself every year.

I wasn’t a very good gardener. After the ground was turned and the garden planted, we pretty well left it alone, and it grew. That is what things do in Minnesota.  Long days of sunlight, pleasant summers and occasional rain. Things just grow.

But, the same conditions that cultivate vegetables also stimulate weeds.  By harvest we had a wonderful crop of both.  Our whole family would visit the garden like children on an Easter egg hunt.   Searching among the weeds we celebrated the discovery of tomatoes, squash, cabbages and a “great pumpkin,” hiding among the weeds. 

Jesus used a similar image to help us understand the mystery of good and evil in the world: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field.  But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away.  When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared. The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field?  Where then did the weeds come from?’ ‘An enemy did this,’ he replied.  The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’ ‘No,’ he answered ‘because while you are pulling the weeds you may uproot the wheat with them.  Let both grow together until the harvest.  At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into the barn.’” (Matthew 13:24-29).

The world is kind of like our garden in Minnesota. Evil flourishes in the world, like the weeds.  It dominates the news and grabs the headlines. But hiding among the weeds are the vegetables, those things that are good, righteous, wholesome and healthy.  In every situation where it appears that evil will triumph, we find, hidden beneath the headlines, acts that are heroic and sacrificial, acts of forgiveness, kindness, goodness and faith.

Someday the harvest will come.  When John introduced Jesus, he said, “One is coming who is mightier than I, and I am not fit to untie the straps on His sandals; ... His winnowing fork is in His hand to thoroughly clear His threshing floor, and to gather the wheat into His barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”  (Luke 3:16-17).

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Persistence During Covid

Some of you will remember that we adopted Buddy, a tri-color corgi, 11 years ago after he was found starving on the streets of Fort Worth.  I wrote his story for my grandkids, “just the way Buddy told it to me”: how Barney the Blood Hound helped him survive on the streets until they were picked up by the dog police. I named the story, Buddy the Floppy Ear Corgi because his left ear flopped when we first met.

Like other dogs and pets, Buddy is doing his best to get me through Covid-19. He follows me from room to room and sits patiently near my chair on our back deck.  I am always learning something from Buddy. 

During these difficult days of “sheltering in place” he is teaching me persistence. “Persistence” isn’t a word we use much.  But we all know what it means: never quitting, never giving up and never becoming discouraged. Like most humans, I am not very good at it, but Buddy is a natural. He communicates most by “persistence.”

If he wants to go outside, he goes over to the door and sits there looking out the glass pane.  He never moves.  He just sits there until I notice and obligingly open the door and let him out.  He does the same thing about coming back inside. If I am eating he locks his eyes on the food and stares, again refusing to move.  I can scold him, tell him he isn’t getting anything from me, act as callous and cold as possible, but it doesn’t faze him. He just sits there staring with those big brown corgi eyes until I finally give in. He wins his arguments with persistence.

I need to learn more of that. We humans are always looking for shortcuts to get what we want.  We resort to tantrums, tears, weeping and wailing, pouting and protests. We get angry and argue.  But it seldom achieves our goals.  We need to learn from Buddy.  Persistence and peaceful perseverance is irresistible.

This must have been what Jesus was getting at when He said, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and goes to him at midnight and says to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves; for a friend of mine has come to me from a journey, and I have nothing to set before him’; and from inside he answers and says, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been shut and my children [e]and I are in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’”

I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his persistence he will get up and give him as much as he needs.  So I say to you,ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.  For everyone who asks, receives; and he who seeks, finds; and to him who knocks, it will be opened.” (Luke 11:5-10). 

Be persistent.  Be patient. Don’t get upset. Don’t give up.  A better day is coming.