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Monday, December 29, 2014

Unbroken - The Rest of the Story

My wife and I like going to the movies. There is something about spending two hours in a cocooned space removed from daily distractions.  We settle down in our seats in a dark room, midway up in the center and wait to be whisked into another dimension. The magic of surround sound and cinema stimulates our imagination and emotions allowing us to enter into other lives in another time and place.

Sometimes we scan the marquees to see if we can find a movie that interests us.  Once in a while a movie is released that we anxiously await, ready to join the crowds who anticipate its arrival.  Unbroken is one of those movies, the remarkable true story of Louis Zamperini.

I was introduced to Louis Zamperini in 2012 when I stumbled across Laura Hillenbrand’s book.  I was unfamiliar with his life or his story, but had a hard time putting the book down once I started reading.  I wrote about Zamperini in July of this year when he died. He was 97.
Zamperini’s story is remarkable for what he survived: his youthful beginnings as a thief on the streets of LA, his achievements as an Olympic athlete singled out by Hitler for his performance in the Berlin games, multiple bombing missions as a bombardier during WW II, the crash in the Pacific, 46 days at sea in an abandoned raft, years of torture and imprisonment by the Japanese. 
The movie ends with Zamperini’s victorious return from the war.  It stops short of telling his descent into bitter hatred, beset by nightmares from his tortured past. He turned to alcohol, trying to drown his painful memories in liquor.  His life was unraveling and his marriage was on the rocks.  Hillenbrand’s book describes in detail how his life was later turned around when he trusted Christ in the 1949 Billy Graham Crusade in Los Angeles.  
The real story of Louis Zamperini is the remarkable transformation God brought into the life of a man tortured by nightmares and rage.  When Louis Zamperini invited Christ into his life he quit drinking. The nightmares ceased.  He later returned to Japan to seek out the captor who tortured him in prison so that he could personally forgive him.  He established Victory Boys Camp and gave the rest of his life to rescuing juvenile delinquents from the back alleys of Los Angeles.
In his book, Devil at My Heels, Zamperini says, “True to His promise, He came into my heart and my life. It was the most realistic experience I’d ever had. … I felt no tremendous sensation, just a weightlessness and an enveloping calm that let me know that Christ had come into my heart.”
The movie pays tribute to Louis Zamperini’s remarkable ability to survive the war. The full story is beautifully portrayed in Laura Hillenbrand’s book, Unbroken,  and in Louis Zamperini’s autobiography, Don’t Give Up, Don’t Give In, Lessons from an Extraordinary Life.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Thank You for Coming - Tsunami Special Edition

Ten years ago, children in South Texas woke up on Christmas morning to a thirteen inch snow fall. The next day, while impromptu snowmen melted in the Texas sun, an earthquake equal to 23,000 Hiroshima Atomic bombs struck the Indian Ocean. The resulting Tsunami obliterated the city of Banda Aceh in Indonesia. More than two hundred thousand people died as a result of the killer wave.

A few years later, I stood on the beach at Banda Aceh, Indonesia and listened to the gentle waves wash upon the shore while the Indonesian people strolled along the jetties. It was a beautiful and peaceful afternoon. Behind me stood a lighthouse. It had been erected as a beacon to passing ships, but it now stood as a monument to the tragic moment that struck this place on December 26, 2004. The top of the lighthouse towering above me had been blown apart by the tsunami.

Aceh is perhaps the most rigid Muslim state in the world, governed by strict Sharia law. It is ruled by the Koran and the Muslim Imams. It prides itself as the “gateway to Mecca.” Prior to the tsunami Christians were not allowed entrance into the region. But the day the tsunami struck, everything changed. The city of Aceh was virtually wiped out by the force of the wave.

I was visiting with a group of Christians, surveying Non-Governmental-Organizations that had been allowed into the country to help the citizens rebuild. Separated from the rest of the world and taught that Christianity was evil, many of the people were beginning to ask why the Christians were the ones who responded the most to their disaster. President Bush immediately pledged $350 million to help with the recovery. Like many Muslim countries, the people of Aceh equate America with Christianity.

I noticed a woman watching us. She was sitting on her motorcycle. Almost all Indonesians ride motorcycles. The streets are filled with them. For days I had watched them leaving for work in the early morning, weaving their way along the streets, whole families balanced on two wheels, the father driving, one or two children in his lap, the mother behind him with another child. I watched young women, their blue and green hijabs flying in the wind. Through an interpreter I struck up a conversation with the woman.

She asked if we were Americans. We said yes. She told us that she was at this very spot when the tsunami hit. She said it carried her and her two children more than two miles inland. One child was separated and drowned. Her husband and the rest of her family were killed. Only she and her son survived, but he was badly injured. His wounds were infected and he was dying. She said an American doctor came and treated her son and he lived. In spite of her deep sorrow and loss, she smiled, not just her face, but with her eyes, and said, “I want to thank you for coming.”

This Christmas season we are all like that Indonesian woman. Christmas is our way of smiling as we look into the face of God and say, “Thank you for coming.”

Monday, December 22, 2014

The Day After Christmas

It will soon be “the day after Christmas.”  The house will be littered with empty boxes, scraps of wrapping paper and strands of ribbon, evidence left from the gathering of family and the giving of gifts.  With kisses and hugs, children and grandchildren will start their long journeys home not to be seen for many months or another year.  Life will return to the challenges of work and school. But the memories of laughter and loved ones will remain.

For some, of course, Christmas can be a painful season. A few years ago I preached the funeral for my wife’s favorite aunt during the holidays. On another occasion, many years ago, I officiated a funeral on Christmas Eve for one of our best friends who was barely twenty-nine. The Holidays are not always joyous.  But the meaning of the day when God sent His Son to save us from our sins is all the more meaningful.

We all know the stories that led up to the birth: Joseph and Mary on their long journey to Bethlehem, turned away from every inn until they found a stall where the child was born;  the hovering star that led the Magi from the east bearing their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. The shepherds shocked from their sleep on the hillside by the angels of heaven proclaiming a Saviour.  But we pay little attention to what happened “the day after.”

Like most of us, Mary and Joseph had little time to enjoy the Christmas events that surrounded them.  They were immediately faced with Herod’s efforts to hunt down their son.  The soldiers fell upon Bethlehem with a vengeance, slaughtering every male child two years old and younger. (Matthew 2:16).  Warned in a dream, Joseph fled with his little family to Egypt where they spent eight years hiding as refugees from Herod’s wrath. 

Thousands today are living in exile, refugees from war.  In some places believers are spending these days in prison for their faith. Some are facing death because they have embraced Jesus as Son of God and Saviour.  Many others have heavy hearts from the loss of loved ones. 

The full story of Jesus’ birth embraces both the heights of joy and the depths of sorrow.  Whether we are filled with celebration and happiness or thrown into heartache and despair, God is sufficient.  He has been there. He knows our joy and our sorrow, and He has given His Son that we might know Him.  Shortly after Jesus’ birth, the prophet Simeon told Mary, “A sword shall pierce your own soul.” (Luke 2:35).  Many years later, after Jesus had finished all that He was sent to do, Mary watched Him die for our sins on the cross. Luke says she “pondered all these things in her heart.”  May we ponder these things, too, on this Christmas Day, on “the day after” and throughout the year that we might know Him and embrace His love in every circumstance.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Finding Christmas

Christmas is the time to communicate and gather with friends.  In spite of Facebook, email and e-cards, Americans will purchase and send approximately 1.6 billion Christmas cards this year.  Christmas cards lift our spirits, keep us connected and represent a tangible expression of thoughtfulness in an increasingly cybernetic world.

The gathering part can be a challenge. Office parties, church groups, close friends and family quickly fill the calendar.  Some of us will travel great distances and juggle schedules to spend this special time with family members we have not seen in a year. 

All of this communicating and gathering challenges us for control of our time and our lives.  With continuing duties for work, school and family overlaid with Christmas commitments, we sometimes find ourselves weary and exhausted, feeling as if our lives are spinning out of control.

Part of the tension comes from our effort to create the perfect Christmas. We have made Christmas a spectacular event: spectacular performance, spectacular lights, the spectacular gift. But, we know down deep, that our lives are not spectacular. Most of our days and most of our lives seem rather common and ordinary.  

It might help to remember that the first Christmas had little resemblance to our contemporary traditions and expectations. The birth of Christ occurred in the chaos of the common and the ordinary: a common stable surrounded by common animals in a common village.  Few took notice.

There was no extravaganza staged in the cities. The angels’ announcement occurred in a remote region with only a few simple shepherds present.  The Magi, who observed the star in the east, came and went almost unnoticed.  

 It was for the common and the ordinary that Christ came.  He grew up in a carpenter’s shop in the remote village of Nazareth.  He owned no house and had no possessions.  He had no place to lay his head.  And, after a brief public ministry in which he healed and taught thousands, he died upon a common cross outside Jerusalem and was buried in a borrowed tomb.  In birth, life and death, Jesus redeemed the common and the ordinary and elevated each of us to an extraordinary relationship with God. 

The first Christmas was an “out of control” event for Mary and Joseph.  The tax summons that took them to Bethlehem could not have come at a worse time.  The baby was due.  She was in no condition for such a long and arduous journey. When they arrived, the town was a bedlam of people.  No one wanted to be there.  They had come because they were obligated under Roman law. Of course, what appeared to be an onerous obligation and an inconvenient time was actually a fulfillment of prophecy that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. 

Perhaps God planned it this way to teach us that His intervention must be experienced in the common and the ordinary chaos of life. When we look for Christmas in the spectacular, we can only experience it once a year. But when we discover Christmas in the common and the chaotic, it can change our life every day.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Buddy's Christmas Gift

Buddy came into our lives five years ago, a sick and skinny rescue dog picked up off the streets of Fort Worth.  When we went to meet him at Corgi Rescue, we could feel the bones in his hips and he was suffering from “kennel cough.”  But fifteen minutes with Buddy won us over.  We left committed to adopt him.

It took six weeks for him to get over his kennel cough, put on weight and get all his shots from the vet. I drove back to Corgi Rescue to pick him up and, in a matter of minutes, we were Buddy’s proud, and nervous owners.  It took a couple of weeks to adjust.  He was nervous too. 

It was a mystery to me how a tri-color corgi as intelligent, well-mannered and affectionate as Buddy could become a stray on the streets. Then, one day, on one of our neighborhood walks, Buddy told me his story.  I wrote it down, “just as Buddy told it to me.”  It became a children’s book published on Amazon Kindle, Buddy the Floppy Ear Corgi.

I printed out a copy for our next door neighbor whose daughter was in the third grade.  He read it to his daughter and she took it to school.  The teacher read it to the entire third grade class. “One boy cried,” she said. 

Apparently Buddy had this problem when he was young, a floppy ear that proved to be an embarrassment.  All the other respectable corgis had ears that stood up straight and alert, except for Buddy. So, he ran away and became lost on the streets where Barney the Bloodhound befriended him and taught him how to survive. That is, until they were picked up by the dog police.

Along the way, Buddy learned to love himself and others just the way God made them.  It is a good lesson for all of us to learn.  He also learned the importance of being rescued.  Sometimes we all need to be rescued by someone.  Sometimes we all need to rescue someone else.

This year, Buddy wants to make his book available for free as a Christmas gift to all of our readers.  Just click on Buddy's photo on the right side of the blog and download  Buddy the Floppy Ear Corgi  for free on December 8 or December 11-14. 

Buddy is now five years older and on a diet to keep from getting too fat.  We still go for walks during the day. He loves strolls on Jamaica Beach near our beach house on Galveston Island. He constantly introduces me to other dogs and other people.  He never meets a stranger.  It’s something I think he learned from Barney.  His ear doesn’t flop anymore, but he still has a small scar on his nose, a reminder of his “lost days” on the streets in the city. 

Buddy and I both hope you have a very Merry Christmas with people you love.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Reflecting On The Ferguson Protests

Every so often our nation’s fa├žade of calm and quiet is peeled back to reveal racial unrest that simmers beneath the surface.  In 1992, smoke rose above the skyline of Los Angeles where businesses and abandoned cars burned following the acquittal of white police officers in the beating of Rodney King.  Last year thousands protested across the nation when George Zimmerman was acquitted in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin.  And last week, once again, protests boiled to the surface when the grand jury declined to indict a local police officer who shot an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri.   

Prejudice is a universal problem of the human condition.  It exists in every generation and every nation. Wherever there are racial, tribal and cultural differences, prejudice will take root, fueled by pride, ignorance, fear, bitterness, resentment and anger. 

So what can we do?  We must affirm the rule of law in our land. We must live up to our pledge to provide “liberty and justice for all.”  And we must recognize the problem is ultimately one of the heart that requires a transformation of soul and spirit.

We can do what Bennie Newton did during the Los Angeles riots.  Risking his life to save a truck driver who was being beaten to death, Newton rushed to the victim’s side, lifted a Bible above his head and cried out, “Kill him and you have to kill me too!”   We can do what the churches in Ferguson did last week. Worshipers from the mostly white St. Stephen’s and the Vine Church joined the predominantly African-American Wellspring Church for Thanksgiving dinner.  We can embrace one another across racial divides, like the white officer who embraced the black youth in Portland during one of the protests. We can take actions, little and large, to reach out as Jesus did, across the chasm of prejudice to embrace those of different ethnicities and cultures.

Jesus gave us the example when he found it necessary to go through Samaria, a forbidden territory where no respectable Jew ventured.  It was there that he sat down by a well, alone,  entered in to conversation with a Samaritan woman, and extended to her the water of life.  He crossed cultural, racial and traditional barriers to demonstrate God’s love for every person.  As the children’s song says, “red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight.”

When Paul was a young man he was filled with self-righteousness and contempt.  He considered himself a Jew of the Jews, born of the tribe of Benjamin, superior to others by race, class and intellect.  He once set out in an angry rage to arrest innocent men and women who disagreed with him.  But after he met Christ, his heart was changed. He later wrote, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28) “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourself.” (Philippians 2:3).