Was it His Time?

Day 237 of 365 - Moo Clock

As a pastor, death is part of my job.  I’ve done over 500 funerals in my time.  Once, I did three in the same day.

Each death is different because each grief is different.  I’ve done funerals where no one cried, because everyone was glad the person died.  If you don’t understand that, you’ve never watched your Momma suffer with Alzheimer’s for fourteen years.  I’ve done funerals where everyone was in tears, because the person’s work wasn’t done yet, and everyone knew it.  That’s the reason people cried at my Daddy’s funeral.   Forty-two was too young for “King Kong” Smith to die.

There is a way of thinking that says, “When it’s your time, it’s your time.”  I understand where this thinking comes from.  It comes from a hundred years ago when the number one killer in the United States was strep throat.  We’ve forgotten in 1850, the infant mortality rate for whites was 22%; for blacks, 34%.  A man could be cutting wood and get a splinter; he might be dead from blood poisoning in a week.  Death was a lot closer back then.

We live in a different time, a time that is still new.  Strep throat now means a trip to the doctor, not a death watch.  Frying everything you eat really isn’t healthy (even if it is delicious).  Exercise really helps.

If a man smokes three packs a day, gets lung cancer, and dies, do we say, “It was his time?”  If a man overeats, becomes morbidly obese, and dies from a stroke, do we say, “It was his time?”  If a man drinks too much and drives, then hits a car and kills a family, do we say, “It was their time?”

I wonder if God grieves because some people show up in heaven too early.  They might arrive early because someone took an assault rifle and fired on a crowd at a concert.  They might arrive early because they were poor stewards of their own body, of their own soul.

No one, of course, knows the answers.  Our inability to know means sometimes people say, “Don’t ask why.  Have faith.”  I think that’s the wrong equation.  The Bible is full of people who ask God “why,” including Jesus (“Why, O Lord, have your forsaken me?”).  It is okay to ask God “why.”

The Bible also shows us that God does not always give a direct answer to “why.”  Sometimes he does, usually when people have sinned and want to know why God is punishing them (see the Prophets).  God answers pretty clearly.  When there is tragedy, however, God does not answer the questions.  But he does show up.  The point of the book of Job is not that God gives Job answers; it is that Job asked God to come and speak, and God did.

I think after you ask why, and you encounter God, real faith begins.  This is faith that is based, not on human logic (“It was his time”), but on a living God who walks with you, talks with you, and loves you through every moment of life.

God wants us to know more than anything that life is a precious gift.  Life is to be cared for, stewarded, treasured.  Take care of your life; exercise; eat right; go to the doctor.

But above all, seek God.  He gave you your life as a gift.  Real encounters with him make life worth living.

Who Can You Call?

poor 

The great Clarence Jordan founded Koinonia Farms in Americus, Georgia in the age of segregation.  He dreamed of a Biblical community that was racial integrated, a common purse was shared, and the only thing that mattered was being a child of God through Jesus Christ.  Dozens of people came to work on the farm.  Some stayed their whole lives; others stayed a season.

One young family came, full of zeal for Jesus and commitment to a radical lifestyle change.  They embraced living in community, simple living, and loving deeply.

Luther said, “Our righteousness can be more dangerous than our sin.”  When we give up a lifestyle, when we sacrifice, an unholy pride can creep in to fill the vacant space in our souls.

The young father was talking with Clarence one day.  Rather humbly, he told Clarence he was learning to depend on God because he had chosen poverty.  Clarence, with the same wisdom Jesus showed the rich young ruler, challenged him.  Clarence said, “You are not poor.  You have chosen to set aside your wealth for a season.  That’s a good thing.  But you are not truly poor.  If your child were stricken with a rare disease, you would call your parents.  They would fly down immediately on their private jet.  They would take your child to finest doctors, the best hospitals.  They would spare no expense to save the life of their grandchild.  The poor have no one to call.”

It is easy to imagine the poor are lazy.  We hear stories of people fighting their way out of poverty and we imagine everyone could fight their way out, if they just tried hard enough.  Most of us, however, have never stood on the other side of the poverty divide.  We do not know what it is like to see no vision for another future.  We do not understand the power of temptations to dull reality.  Think about how hard reality can be for people who have resources.  Imagine how much harder it is for people with nothing.

It’s easy to fool ourselves.  We can believe we’ve known hard times.  I remember my uncles and aunts discussing the Great Depression.  They talked about being poor.  The truth was, they had little cash.  But they had a ranch.  They raised their own food.  They were not poor at all; they were struggling.  There’s a difference.  We’ve all struggled.  To be poor is to not just lack money; it is to lack hope.

Before you judge the poor, remember you do not understand.  Jesus said, “Judge not, lest you be judged.”  Then remember Jesus also said, “Whoever does for the least of these my brothers, does for me.”  Jesus looked at the rich and the poor, and he said, “The poor are my people.”  To truly serve Jesus is to love and serve the poor, and to do it without condemnation.

As Jesus does, he leaves us with an uncomfortable choice: Do you want to feel superior? Do you want to be able to call someone when trouble comes? Or do you want to be where Jesus is?

Cousin James…

James Skipper

When I heard the news, I sobbed.  I’m not ashamed.  When someone adds deeply to your life, you cry when they die.  My cousin, James Skipper, passed away last week at the age of 59.  Fifty-nine is a lot younger than it used to be.

How did James add to my life?  He rolled me around in a barrel.  When we were kids, the Durrance boys (Kelly and Steve), James, and me, would play with the fifty-five-gallon barrels they used for barrel racing at rodeos.  You haven’t known fun until you’ve crawled into a barrel and your cousins roll you fifty feet or so.  Rolling around in a barrel shakes loose thoughts you didn’t know you had.  It sure beat any video-game I’ve ever seen.

Some people chuckle; James exploded in laughter. His laugh was a high-pitched squeeze of the gut that made you laugh, just because he was laughing.  It was his gift to the world, because when James laughed, you could hear it all the way to the next county.

Never have I known a man who enjoyed life so much.  At his own wedding, he was thrown into the pool, and he came up laughing.  He was a connoisseur of steaks, good breakfasts, and Cuban sandwiches.  Some men who claim to be tough don’t have much use for little girls in pony tails.  Not James.  He taught a brood of nieces to be racoon hunters.  He’d take eleven little girls out at night to shine light into the trees of the swamp to find the racoons.  I’ll spare you the details, but every one of those little girls grew up to be beautiful women who loved their Uncle James.  James found joy in the joy of those little girls.

James was comfortable in his own skin.  Other men in town tried to be a cowboy by dressing the part: jeans, big belt buckle, cowboy hat.  I’ve seen James go out to work cows wearing baggy sweat pants and crocs.  If you laughed at him, he’d have a fast retort.  You undertook verbal-jousting with James at your own risk.

For years, James was a volunteer coach at the high school.  He took fatherless young men under his wing and tried to teach them about life, about work, about self-respect, and about faith.  Seventeen-year-old boys are not very aware or very appreciative.  But James altered the trajectory of some lives.  He never bragged about it or sought recognition.  He just showed up in their lives.  Sometimes showing up is the most important thing.

My brother Steve and James were best friends.  Every Saturday, James would call Steve, and say, “I’ll be by to pick you up in a minute.”  They might catch breakfast at the Pioneer Café (where the elite of Zolfo Springs meet to eat), or they might drive to Tampa.  They might pick up a part for a diesel pump engine, or go to a gun show in Fort Myers.

Occasionally, I got to go along for the Saturday adventures.  James would give me the rarest of gifts: he related to me as a person, not a pastor.  Most people can’t get past the “Reverend” in front of my name.  It never mattered to James.  “Pastor” was what I did, not who I was.

It was during one of those Saturday morning breakfast runs, Steve and James were talking about heaven.  I’m in the back seat, listening.  My brother Steve (who after all, does have a lot to repent of) said he was willing to sweep the streets of heaven, just as long he got in.  I was about to open my mouth to correct my brother’s theology, when James spoke up: “Steve, it’s not about having to work to get into heaven.  It’s about grace.  Jesus came to give us grace.”  Great theology from a man wearing shorts with a hole in them and a pair of crocs.

It seems so unreal that James is gone.  I know he’s in heaven.  I know he knew the grace of Jesus.  But, I will miss his laugh.  I will miss his joy.  I will miss him.

Somewhere in heaven, a new arrival in sweat pants and crocs is laughing with Jesus, laughing in grace.

Cardinal at My Window…

cardinal

 Outside my office window is large crepe myrtle. A cardinal has taken up residence in that tree.  Whenever I go into my office, I turn the light on, which apparently wakes the cardinal.  After about five minutes, the cardinal flies up to my window ledge and begins to peck at it.  Then, he will turn, fly off, do a U-turn, and fly straight into the glass. I think he doesn’t like me disturbing his rest. I understand. I don’t like people turning on the light when I’m trying to sleep either.

I can’t figure out what the cardinal wants.  Does he want me to turn off the light so he can get back to sleep?  Does he want me to not talk so loud?  Does he want me to open the window and let him into the warmth of the building?  Sometimes I look at him and say, “I’m sorry, I don’t speak bird.”

My feathered friend is disrupting.  I’ll have a meeting in my office.  We’ll be at very serious moment.  Then we hear, “THUNK.”  The bird has flown into the window again.  Or I will be talking to someone about a very serious issue in her family.  She is crying and I need to offer words of pastoral comfort.  Then I heard, “TAP, TAP, TAP, TAP.”  The tears stop and whoever is in my office says, “What was that?”  I respond, “Just our version of ‘Angry Birds. Please continue.’”

There are people outside the church who run into our windows.  They tap at our window sills. We aren’t sure what they want.  They can be annoying.  Sometimes, we’re not even sure we should let them into church.  Maybe, we think, they simply aren’t church people.  Maybe, they would be better off if they went to a church with other people like them. “Birds of a feather stick together, you know.”

This is not what Jesus had in mind for his church. He never intended his body to be only for the people that fit in.  The invitation is clear: “Whosoever will come, let him take freely of the water of life.” “Whosoever” is Jesus’s heart.  “Whosoever” requires courage; it requires intentionality; it requires empathy; it requires mindfulness.

Most churches deny they put up barriers. Every church I have ever been part of or consulted with, assured me, “We are a friendly church.”  The reality is, they were friendly to people they already knew.  It takes energy to meet new people and to make new friends.  Some churches just won’t spend the energy.  Some churches just don’t have the heart.

There is an easy fix to this: See everyone the way Jesus sees them. Give your best effort at understanding their needs. Invite them to come to church with you.  Speak to strangers at church before you engage your “circle.”

Despite the decline in church attendance, I am convinced people are hungry to be known, loved, and accepted.  Will you listen to the taps on the windows and welcome in people who need to know church is a place of grace?

 

Show and Tell…

football baseball

As best I remember, it began the day Mark brought his new football to Zolfo Springs Elementary.  Suddenly, he was the most popular boy in first grade.  I had previously held the title (at least, in my memory), but Mark usurped my position.  All the kids gathered around Mark at recess.  He was the new king of the playground.

I went home that afternoon and demanded my mother buy me a new football.  I wanted to reclaim my position and I was sure a new football would do it.  My mother was old school.  You could threaten to hold your breath until she gave into your demands, and she would briskly say, “Go right ahead.  I’m cooking fried chicken tonight and your brother will get both legs.”  Manipulating a kid with threats of fried chicken is cruel and unusual punishment, and I caved every time.

The agony of recess continued.  Mark was the king of the playground and I was a has been.  It was a long fall and winter.

Spring came, the orange trees were in bloom, and it was baseball season.  Mama in a spurt of generosity bought me a baseball.  I’m not sure why.  We lived a mile from the nearest neighbors, so there was no one to throw it to.  My dog Moe just ran off with it when I threw it to him.

Lying in bed that night, it hit me: I could bring my baseball to school!  Maybe my baseball was my chance to regain the recess throne.

It worked like a charm.  Mark’s football was forgotten, and we played baseball (or a first-grade version of it) all through recess.  Once again, I was the king.

Aren’t you glad we grow out of such childish thinking?  Aren’t you glad no adult is ever envious?  Aren’t you glad adults don’t compete with each other?  Aren’t you glad no one measures self-worth based possession comparison?

Reality is we compare the size of our houses, the newness of our cars, and achievements our children.   Adults haven’t come that far from recess.

Salvation, among many other things, means you no longer have to play the comparison game.  Jesus comes to teach us a different way to live.  It’s not wrong to want nice things or have nice things.  It is toxic to base your human value on what you own.

That’s why the Apostle Paul said to us, “I know both how to make do with little, and I know how make do with a lot.  In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of contentment – whether well fed or hungry, whether in abundance or in need.  I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.”

Your worth is not based on what you have, but who you have.  If you have Jesus, you have everything you need.

Is it time for you to get off the comparison treadmill and be content with Jesus?

My Predictions for 2018

2018

Everyone, it seems, makes predictions for the year ahead.  I’ve heard so far that President Trump will be impeached, congressmen will be revealed to be aliens, and South Carolina will win the SEC football championship.  I don’t know if any of that will happen, but I’d like to offer my own predictions, with the prediction that all of them will come true.

In 2018, people will believe they are the exception to the rules.  They will think they can eat what they want and lose weight; spend what they want and not incur debt; and not be late for a 10:30 appointment when they leave at 10:33. People will then complain about the unfairness of life when reality bites them.

In 2018, people will hunger for connection so much they will hold onto unhealthy relationships, remain in circles that are toxic, and stay in abusive situations. They will tell themselves again and again, “He/she will change.”  They will enjoy a few good days followed months of bad weeks.

In 2018, people will be frustrated that they know the right thing, but are unable to do it.  They will resolve to eat better, exercise more, manage time better, and be emotionally healthy, but old patterns will take over before the Super Bowl.  As John Ortberg said, “Habit eats willpower for lunch.”

In 2018, our leaders will promise to get along, end poverty, lower taxes, stop war, improve the economy, bring justice for all, part the Red Sea, and cure cancer.  None of this will happen.  Our leaders won’t tell us the truth about what they can or can’t reasonably do because they are reasonably sure we can’t handle the truth.

In 2018, thousands of churches will pledge to change the world, while continuing to operate as if it is 1958.  Church members, instead of facing their resistance to change, will blame their pastors.  The pastors will blame their boards.  The board will blame the congregation.  The cycle will repeat.   No one will ask Jesus what he thinks.

In 2018, sexual wounding will continue at high levels.  People will believe sexual satisfaction is the same as soul satisfaction, and thus harm themselves.  Children will be pushed to choose their sexual preferences before they are emotionally and physically mature.  Despite the recent outcry against sexual harassment, harassment will continue.

In 2018, greed will silently drive men and women to avoid rest, work longer, cut ethical corners, go in debt, and stab co-workers in the back.  Justifications will be made that it is for the good of families or in preparation for the future.  No one will want to admit he or she is greedy; he or she will point to someone else who is greedier and proclaim they are not so bad.  People prefer their greed to live in the shadows.

These predictions might sound too pessimistic.  I simply think the most accurate prediction for 2018 is people will continue to act like people, just as they have for thousands of years.

In 2018, however, the Good News is God will still be God.  He will still forgive people when they confess their sins.  He will still help those who call on him.  He will still advocate for the poor and powerless.  He will still call tenderly to people far from him to come home, and find the rest their souls long for.

You can count on God loving you in 2018.  That means you can live this new year in hope.

Hopeful New Year everyone.