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Joined for Life

George Eliot wrote, “What greater thing is there for human souls than to feel that they are joined for life – to be with each other in silent unspeakable memories.”  Last weekend Becky and I were privileged to reconnect with people with whom we are joined for life.  We returned to a church family we were part of more than twenty years ago.  It was like going home.

The Country Club Road church in Roswell, New Mexico is a special family and place.  Our youngest was born there, and all three of our children spent some of their most formative years there.  This is a community of faith that helped to raise our children.  What am I saying?  They helped to raise us!  It was a great weekend.  We reminisced.  We laughed.  We shed a few tears.  We reconnected with people who were dear to us long ago and who remain so.

What do people do who have no such family?  How do they cope?  Where do they find the joy in living?  Today, I’m thanking God for family, for church families to whom we are joined for life, for opportunities to revisit one’s happy past, and for the truly wonderful gift of memory.  All of these are priceless gifts of a loving, heavenly father.

One by One

One thing that never ceases to amaze me when I walk or drive the streets of Chicago is the mass of people that call this place home.  There are just so many people here!  And, when I think about all these people pressed into this shared space, I wonder, “How can we reach them for the Lord?  How can we share the story of Jesus with them?”

I often try to think of some grand plan that would reach this mass of humanity.  Perhaps we should try newspaper ads.  Or, direct mail.  Or, television spots.  Or, a call-in radio show.  Or, even a plane overhead that pulls a banner, like some of the planes I’ve seen over Uptown when the Cubs are playing at Wrigley.  “We need mass evangelism to reach the masses,” I sometimes think.

Then, I have experiences like I had today.  I left our apartment this afternoon to get a haircut.  On the way, I spoke to one of our neighbors who was walking her dogs.  She said, “They are pit bulls.  That’s why I pulled them away when you started walking toward me.  They are easily intimidated, and I didn’t want to upset them.”  “Thanks,” I said.  “I wouldn’t want them to get upset.  They are beautiful dogs.”  We smiled at each other and I walked away.  I walked by our bank on the way to the barber.  The bank manager saw me and waved.  I waved back and walked on.  Then, I thought to myself, “Go back there and talk to that young man.  You’ve been wanting to start and build a relationship with him.  What are you waiting for?”  So, I turned around, went in the bank, and greeted our bank manager.  “Good to see you, Mr. Holton,” he offered politely.  “It’s good to see you, too, Alper.  I was just wondering if you ever have time for a cup of coffee, or lunch.”  “I do on Saturdays or Sundays,” he said with a smile.  “Well, I would just like to get to know you better,” I said.  “I would love that,” he replied.  “Here is my business card, and let me write down my personal cell phone number.  Hey, I bought that book you recommended.  I haven’t started it yet, but I will.”  “Good for you!” I said.  “I’ll call you one of these days in the near future, and we’ll go out for coffee.”  I don’t even like coffee, but I’m eager to get more involved in this young man’s life.  As I turned to leave, one of the tellers who often helps me looked up and saw me.  She smiled and gave me a friendly wave which said to me, “I know you, Mr. Holton.  It’s good to see you!”  (It’s amazing how small gestures like these can renew one’s strength.)  After leaving the bank, I walked another four blocks to the barber shop.  My barber was having her hair colored by one of her colleagues.  “I think you would look good with purple hair!” I said.  “Oh, my husband would faint dead away if I came home with purple hair!” she said.  “If you’ll give me ten minutes, I’ll be ready to cut your hair.”  “No rush,” I said.  “That will give me time to walk to Walgreen’s.”  Three minutes later, I was having a conversation with a cashier at Walgreen’s, and ten minutes later, I was sitting in the barber chair.  My barber, Anita, and I had a wonderful conversation about God.  She brought up the subject.  She asked about our sons.  “How are they?” she asked.  “Well, the one in Mozambique is doing well, and the one who recently came back to the states from north Africa is planning his next move.”  “Thank God he is home safe!” she said.  That led to raising your children to love and serve the Lord, how it is that some people feel called to serve God in certain places, etc.  It was a wonderful conversation.

I want to continue to dream of ways to reach the masses in Chicago.  I think that is a legitimate dream.  But, Kerry, you must not overlook the individual persons you meet in the course of an ordinary day.  Perhaps the best way to influence the masses in the long run is to reach my neighbor, my banker, my bank teller, the cashier at the store I frequent, and my barber.  One by one.

By What Authority?

An Iraqi friend that Becky and I see often sent me an interesting email a few days ago.  The gist of his email was that he could no longer shake Becky’s hand when he greets her.  Before you jump to conclusions, dear reader, I should say that the reason for this no-handshake rule is not that Becky has angered our friend or that she has a communicable disease or that our friend is simply unfriendly.  He is very polite and friendly and we love to be with him and his family.  It is that someone told our friend that since he is a Shia Muslim he is not permitted to shake hands with or touch a woman who is not his wife.

Now, that interested me.  So, I replied to his email.  After assuring my friend that Becky would not be offended by this change, I asked him why he was not permitted to shake a woman’s hand.  Was that a rule in his holy book that he believed came from God?  Or, was it a rule that his people and culture had fashioned?  I wrote that I was wondering by whose or by what authority he was not permitted to shake a woman’s hand.

He replied that it was not a rule that their Iraqi culture had made, but was a religious rule that came from their prophet.  He wants to please God and remain pure in his thoughts, he intimated.  Of course, while this is not a rule that I feel the need to practice, I respect my friend’s right to live by his beliefs, and I admire his motivation for doing so.

Still, I think my question is a legitimate one for my friend and for all of us.  It’s a question our Lord once asked of the religious leaders of his day.  “By what authority are you doing these things?” (Mk. 11:29).  Are the rules we try to live by of human origin or did heaven authorize them?  I think that is a significant question.

With his arrest, trial, and crucifixion just days away, Jesus uttered this brief but telling prayer to his Father: “Now my soul is troubled.  And what should I say – ‘Father, save me from this hour’?  No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.  Father, glorify your name” (Jn. 12:27,28).

This prayer tells us something of Jesus’ mental state in “this hour.”  Namely, that he was fully human.  He was troubled.  Perhaps the thought of his impending death brought before him its approaching horrors and pains.  Or, perhaps he was anxious about the effect his suffering and death would have upon his disciples.  Whatever the reason, “this hour” drove Jesus to reach out to his Father.

This prayer tells us that Jesus weighed his options.  “What should I say?” is an honest question, and Jesus does not mind his Father knowing that he is pondering it.  “Should I ask for the Father to save me from this hour?” Jesus wonders.  Notice that this is an option Jesus weighs – yes, he contemplates it – then moves away from it.

Amazingly, Jesus understood that “this hour” had its own special purpose.  He knew there was a reason he had come to this hour.  We know, of course, that the events of “this hour” made possible our salvation!

Finally, we learn the astonishing request Jesus made in that prayer: “Father, glorify your name.”  Isn’t this magnificent!  When Jesus’ hour comes he doesn’t pray, “Save me from this hour,” but “Glorify yourself through this hour.”

Our Lord can teach us a lot about how to face dark days of the soul.  When we come to distressing moments in our lives, we can reach out to God for his help.  We can bare our hearts to him in complete honesty.  We can view the hours we would want to be saved from as carrying a meaning and a purpose.  And, when we must endure dark days we can seek, not the avoidance of personal pain and suffering, but that our heavenly Father is glorified in the experience.  Lord, help us to respond as you did when comes our hour of grief and pain!

Listen Up!

There is a funny line in the Jackie Chan-Chris Tucker 1998 movie, Rush Hour, which has become part of our family history.  Tucker is welcoming Chan to Los Angeles, but Chan is silent and acting like he doesn’t understand a single word Tucker is speaking.   Raising his voice, Tucker asks, “Do you speaka any English?  Do you understand the words that are coming out of my mouth?”  I have modified that question over the years and tend to use it when I think Becky or my children are not listening to me.  I’ll ask, “Do you not hear the words that are coming out of my mouth?”

Well, they usually hear me.  They just don’t always listen.  Hearing and listening are two different things.  When you hear something, it can go in one ear and out the other.  My kids would attest to that!  But listening requires thought.  To listen to someone is to give one’s attention to what that person says, even to take notice of and act on what that person says.

This helps me to understand what Jesus once said: “He who has ears to hear, let him hear” (Mt. 13:9).  In the past I wondered, “We all have ears, don’t we?  How could we not hear?”  Perhaps Jesus is saying, “Let the one who hears, listen!”  Our Lord invites and commands his followers to listen to what he has to say.  To pay attention to it.  To act on it.

“Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves,” Scripture teaches (Jas. 1:22).  How would we who hear God’s word deceive ourselves?  By thinking that hearing is the same as listening or doing.  It isn’t.  James is saying that there is little value – dare I say, no value – in hearing God’s word if there is not the attendant intention to practice it.  When God speaks, we should do more than hear.  We should listen!

A Friend of Sinners

Jesus’ critics said of him, “He is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” (Lk. 7:34).  Now there is absolutely no evidence that our Lord was a glutton or a drunkard.  My guess is that Jesus hung out with people the religious leaders would never touch with a ten-foot pole, that he ate and drank with them, and that the religious leaders greatly exaggerated this story intending to undermine Jesus’ popularity with the crowds.  Jesus was gregarious.  He enjoyed people and had good times in their company.  But, an overeating boozer?  No way!

What was true of their accusation is that Jesus was a friend of sinners.  Remember the “sinner” Jesus welcomed who demonstrated her love and appreciation for him when she bathed his feet with her tears and dried them with her hair? (Lk. 7)  Remember the tax collector in the tree to whom Jesus said, “I must stay at your house today”? (Lk. 19)  Yes, Jesus welcomed sinners and ate with them, to the horror of the religious leaders! (Lk. 15:1,2)

Why sinners were attracted to Jesus is food for thought for another day.  For now, I only want to affirm that Jesus was a friend of those who did not appear to be religious.  Let’s think about that.  And, let’s consider how our practice may compare to our Lord’s.  Perhaps we need to become more intentional about developing friendships with people who don’t follow Jesus.

You know, we really shouldn’t spend all of our time with Christians.  We should hang out with people who don’t know the Lord.  We can get involved in adult sports leagues or book clubs.  We can attend our children’s sporting events to meet members of the community.  We can join an art class or get involved in a community project.  It’s time for us to remind ourselves that we are what Jesus said his disciples are: salt and light (Mt. 5:13-16).  It’s time to get out of the saltshaker and let our light shine!

Sonic-Slap Words and Guns…

In absolute horror I have watched the Arizona shooting media coverage over the last several days.  I’m sure you have too.  It appears that at least one person walked into a political “meet and greet” session outside a Tucson grocery store and just started shooting.  Six people are dead, including a nine year old girl, and fourteen others are also injured, several critically.

Why?  Why do these “not-so-uncommon” events continue to headline the news?  The Pima County Sheriff in Arizona hinted at a possible reason for this atrocity:  political mudslinging that has become vile, toxic, and destructive to human dignity with deleterious effects, particularly on those that are unstable.

Late yesterday afternoon I walked to our local Dollar General store that is located near a high school.  As students were exiting the school I was a bit taken back by the appalling verbal insults that were being hurled at each other.  Suddenly, just as she was passing me on the sidewalk, a young female ripped off her coat, threw it down, and lunged at a male student who was engaging in the verbal sparring with her.  He jeered and laughed and continued to loudly evaluate her character and her family in a most destructive and disrespectful manner.  Last week I happened upon an elementary school playground during recess.  The adult supervisors either didn’t hear or didn’t care about what the young children were saying to each other – statements that were intended to deeply hurt another child because of a disagreement over a toy.  A toy.

Have you attended a sporting event recently and listened to the comments of the crowd?  Or have you waited in a “customer service” line to return a retail item?  The conversations that take place between the employee and the disgruntled customer are usually not pretty.  One of my older friends who doesn’t quite qualify for disability status is having a hard time making ends meet.  She told me recently that she is considering a telemarketing job since she can sit down for that type of employment.  Not saying a word I cringed and scrunched up my face when she shared this job possibility with me.  She replied, “I know.  I’m strong but I really don’t know if I can take all the verbal abuse that people would give me when I called them.”

I turned on the television last night and heard with fresh ears the verbal volleying that occurs between actors on many shows.  It seems that the unspoken message is whoever can say the most hurtful, cutting remark – the quickest – is the better person.  It is all about “one-upping” another person with the quickest, Sonic-slap comeback.

Wow.

I don’t think it is just politicians that have become experts at hurling vile, insensitive, and hurtful comments at each other.

I am wondering if we have lost the art of respectful, social discourse and interaction with those that we live with here on the earth.  In fact, flip to the old movie channel tonight for a stark contrast in social interaction.  I know those old movies are just that – movies.  However, they are a reflection of the culture of that time.

I heard a quote last week that has come to mind during the events of the last several days.  The quote is:  “Nothing is as strong as gentleness – and, nothing is as gentle as real strength” (St. Francis de Sales).

That reminds me of Jesus.  I love the picture of Jesus calling little children to come to him.  I picture him swooping them up in his arms, kissing their little faces and hugging them tightly.  I also love the gentle way I picture Jesus with women – especially those that were outcasts of society.  He called them “daughter”, he looked loving at them, he encouraged them, he helped them, he took up for them, he healed them.  It touches me when I think about how he gently spoke to and cared for those that were so destitute and helpless.  But Jesus was not a wimp.  He knew how to get in someone’s business when he discovered that they were taking advantage of people for whom they should have demonstrated concern and gentleness.

Jesus showed us that there really is nothing as strong as gentleness.  Proverbs 25:15 (ERV) says, “With patience, you can make anyone change their thinking, even a ruler.  Gentle speech is very powerful.”

Vile, hateful language appears to be contagious and destructive these days.  However, Jesus reminds us that gentle speech is profoundly powerful and ultimately more contagious.

Let’s spread the word.