Tuesday, August 9, 2016

When All Seems Lost


Last night…actually it was very early this morning, I was handed a mostly melted plastic cup by a firefighter.  Its contents were recovered from a bedroom in a house that was destroyed by fire.  “Go find the owner of these”, he told me.

I knew the residents, a family of 16 on vacation here in Nags Head, had kindly been given refuge from the rain on the ground floor in a vacation rental across the street.  They had no place else to go.  Their vehicles were blocked in the driveway by great big fire trucks.  One SUV was parked under the house, and who knew if it would survive the inferno above.  All their clothes, food, boogie boards…whatever they brought for their week on the beach was lost.

Except the contents of this melted cup that I held in my hand.

As the department chaplain I was there to do whatever I could to help whoever needed it.  In my turnout gear (I was called “chief” a few times during the incident, I guess because I wear a white helmet) and through the rain I walked across the street and into the game room with a pool table, furniture and big TV.  All sixteen were huddled there.  Grandparents. Siblings. Kids.

“Do you have any blankets?”, I was asked by one shivering young lady.  Most were barefooted, wearing whatever they were wearing to bed a couple hours before. 

“No. But I have some rings.  Whose are they?”  And I poured the four gold rings, one with a sizable diamond, onto a cocktail table.  From the crowd around the TV a young woman jumped up.  “They’re mine!”  Included in the four rings were her wedding and engagement rings, something no woman wants to ever lose.

She came up and looked at her soot covered jewelry on the table and the tears began to flow.  Then, with such a look of gratitude, she hugged me and planted a big kiss on my cheek!  What she thought was likely forever lost, items precious to her because of the love they symbolized had somehow been returned. 

Picking up the melted cup and looking closely at it I saw a name that had been written on it with a Sharpie, although it had shrunk with the plastic.  “Who’s Jeff?”, I asked.  And Jeff raised his hand.  “Here’s your cup!”  Everyone laughed.  Laughs were good at that time for that family.

Sometimes life can’t seem to get much worse.  These folks were on a vacation they had likely planned and saved for since last summer.  They drove all the way from somewhere in New York to be together in an oceanfront home.  My guess is they were having a great time until they were awakened at 3AM by a neighbor pounding on their door.  I’m told they last one out got out just in time as the flames rapidly expanded through the dwelling.

Suddenly, in a moment we can lose what is most precious to us.  The blessing was that no one was injured.  No one lost their life.  They would have to find a new place to stay.  They would have to buy clothes to last them through the rest of the week.  A week’s worth of groceries for 16 people gone. 
But the salvaged rings brought a night of horror a realization that all was not lost.  They were able to smile and laugh and rejoice with their owner. 

I hope she’s been able to clean them up today and put them back on her fingers.  But now they are more than reminders of a proposal and vows.  They’re also a reminder of how precious life is, and how quickly everything we possess materially can be lost. 

The Bible tells us that life is brief.  Like a fog, it’s here, then it’s gone.  There are no guarantees of tomorrow for any of us.  But God has provided something more precious than silver, gold or precious stones to give us hope.  And that gift is the offer of eternal life in His Son Jesus Christ.

I’ve seen so many in my lifetime receive that gift and have what was lost found.  There is no greater joy than that moment in a person’s life. 

Monday, August 1, 2016

Guest Blog: Why Religious Liberty is Good for Everybody

Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson, who is viewed by many as the alternative candidate to either Trump or Clinton has made statements in opposition to religious liberty.  But can we continue to be America without a liberty that was foundational to our existence?

Phil McCutchen, a pastor friend and blogger in MA offers his thoughts on the subject.


Sunday, July 31, 2016

When I Came of Age

Ten year old boys are still pretty much innocent and na├»ve.  At least they were in 1966.  My greatest passion and desire was baseball. 

Every day, all summer my life was a mirror of the movie “Sandlot”.  I played Little League ball that summer.  Second base and occasionally I got to pitch.  But when the season was over the guys in the neighborhood would gather in Randy’s back yard and play ball all day.  We kept hydrated by drinking from the garden hose behind home plate.

I was also into cars in those days.  Not Hot Wheels, but real cars.  The game we played as we were driven here and there by our moms (our dads were in Viet Nam at the time) was to identify the cars we passed.  It was pretty simple.  Pretty much you had your standard American cars and the occasional Fiat.  We didn’t know the Japanese made cars in 1966.

At ten girls were still something we had to endure.  But about a year later that began to slowly change.  But even for the next couple of years they couldn’t compare to baseball and cars.

The kids in my neighborhood had come face-to-face with our own mortality a year or so earlier.  We couldn’t have been home from school for 30 minutes when I heard screaming.  Looking out my window was one of my classmates running down the street, frantically calling for her momma.  A few minutes later the news quickly spread that her little sister had been struck and killed by a car while crossing the road to get to the local grocery store. 

Mom took us to her funeral and to the burial at a roadside family graveyard.  Before that I had been to a couple of funerals.  But they were all “old” people.  Now I knew the possibility of dying wasn’t reserved for grandparents.  Kids could die, too.

My friend Randy (the one whose backyard was our sandlot) invited me to his church when I was ten.  We always went to church somewhere.  All of us.  I had been christened as an infant.  Mom played the organ.  But when I asked if I could go to Randy’s church, Mom said, “Yes”.  Sometime soon after she was checking it out for herself.

I’m sure that I had been in places where Jesus and His gospel were explained before.  But, if so, it never connected with me.  For some reason (I understand it better now) I was ready to not only listen to it, but to ponder my own mortality and consider what I was hearing.  I knew He was God, but never had I believed that He was my God. 

The pastor’s sermons were putting it all out there in that little church.  There was no air conditioning and often he would have to take off his coat (apologizing as he did) and loosen his tie.  A couple of big fans on stands circulated the summer air.  His preaching was both passionate and compelling as he invited anyone who had not yet put their own faith in Christ to do so. 

I was hanging on to my parents’ beliefs.  But he made it plain that their coattails wouldn’t pull me into heaven with them.  So, on that 31st day of July, fifty years ago I said “Yes” to Christ’s offer to give me as His gift a new life.  I’m eternally grateful I did and that He made me part of His family.  Best of all, it was pretty simple.  Simple enough for a ten year-old boy.

“But to all who believed him and accepted him, he gave the right to become children of God. They are reborn—not with a physical birth resulting from human passion or plan, but a birth that comes from God.” -  John’s Gospel.











Tuesday, July 26, 2016

There's No Such Thing As a Free Lunch...or College Education

[Warning Will Robinson: Political thought follows.]

I watched with interest as Sen. Bernie Sanders spoke at the conclusion of Monday night's DNC.  Passionate he is!  And I admire him for that passion.  It's clear that in his heart Sen. Sanders cares about the issues that matter most to him and, I would guess, most Democrats.

But passion plus a less than well-thought out solution does not equal wisdom, or even common sense.

As I listened to him proclaim he and Candidate Clinton have worked together to come up with a plan to make college education at all state colleges and universities tuition free my simpleton mind began to think it through.  And my conclusion was it would be disastrous.

1. Free?  Nothing's free.  Somebody has to pay.  Education is expensive.  And the payments would necessarily (because they are state owned schools) come from higher taxes.  Much higher taxes.  The state has no other source of income.  And who pays those higher taxes?  You, me (if you're working and have income) and (the killer is) those students once they enter the labor force. 

In France, where state universities are free, the income tax rate stands at 50.3%.  Sure, that covers other benefits such as universal health care, too.  But the fact is that graduates might not be saddled with enormous student loans (but they'll still have to somehow pay for room and board), but the trade off is being saddled with higher taxes.  Either way, the idea of "free education" is a myth.

2. The proposal is a federal government takeover of state institutions.  "You states can have your universities, but Washington, DC will dictate how they will be financed."  Thus, the federal government continues to confiscate from the states, and that, in my mind is a dangerous thing.  We are a union of sovereign states for a purpose: to prevent the federal government from taking too much power.  Remember the USSR?

3. This would spell the end of private colleges and universities, which are among our best.  If a student can go free to the state university, why consider a private institution that is so expensive.  In fact, only the elite rich would be able to afford private education.  Scholarship monies would be drastically withered away due to the cost to taxpayers for public education, drying up the donations that make so many scholarships possible.

4. #3 would also kill off those colleges, universities and seminaries that train church leaders.  In some ways that might be a good thing, driving the churches to train future leaders "in house". 

5. The end of private universities and colleges must also include the elimination of thousands of jobs in those schools, creating greater unemployment and increasing poverty and dependence on the state.

6. The higher taxes needed to fund the "free education" will take away income from families already struggling to keep financially afloat.  They will either be forced to find second and third jobs, or drop below the poverty line putting them on government assistance. 

7. I'm sure that the solution to #6 will be to get the bulk of the tax income to finance "free" education from "the 1%" and corporations.  Less profits will then translate into fewer jobs and lessened productivity. 

8. And there's the old axiom that if you work for something or pay for it you'll have a greater appreciation for it.  You'll see it as an investment, not as a gift.  Giving out freebies has never resulted in greater prosperity, either for the individual or the state. 

While free anything is a wonderful thought, it's a pie-in-the-sky pipe dream.  Those who understand the ethic of working for what you have understand that.  Unfortunately it appears Clinton and Sanders do not.  And that would be disastrous for our nation. 

I don't want to feel that bern.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Is There Hope?



Bob Dylan sang it.  “Everything is broken”.  And he was right.

How did our country get this way?  Anyone with even the slightest moral compass knows that somewhere we’ve taken a wrong turn.  The too often “breaking news”, whether from Washington, D.C., Louisiana, Minnesota or Texas was chilling and sorrowful. 

Everyone from the President, governors, police official, reverends and talking heads tell us something is amiss.  Something has fundamentally changed.  Hate has become stronger it seems, than tolerance.  Wrong has become right. 

Jeremiah, known as the “weeping prophet” grieved over the signs he saw in his own nation – signs that told him things had to turn better or the downward slide would continue at roller coaster speed.  And God would let it go on and on. 

A prophet spoke God’s words.  Supernaturally he connected with the Almighty in such a way that God used him to convey His heart and thoughts.  One of those “words from God” goes this way.  For My people are fools; they do not know Me. They are foolish children, without understanding. They are skilled in doing what is evil, but they do not know how to do what is good.

Pretty damning words from God…”they do not know to do what is good”. 

I’m not of the opinion we’re there yet as a nation.  But who can convince me we’re not headed that way?  Yet I have hope that there are still millions, perhaps still the majority, who do know how to do what is good.  And if I’m correct, they’re not yet willing to throw in the towel and give in to injustice and immorality, including in our leaders.  Not yet.

Among those who should know right from wrong is the community of faith, whether in a locality or the conglomerate of believers across the land.  But knowledge can’t be held within, especially when it has the power to change the tide and bring us back.

So, how do we respond?  Let me suggest a few things.

First, as always, we can pray.  Prayer is first because it can and should be an immediate response.  But take the effort to look up the names of those killed last week and pray for their families.  They’re struggling with pain, anger and of course grief.  Pray that the “God of all comfort” finds ways to bring them what He brings best. 

Then pray for our leaders and those who would be.  The Bible says that our prayers for those in authority are “so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity”.  Note that it doesn’t say, “so that we can live however we choose” or “so that those we agree with are in control”.  God, in troubling times, desires us to live in “godliness and dignity”. 

Second, do some introspective evaluation.  Ask yourself (as I frequently as myself) if I’m cheering when someone “gets what he/they deserve”.  That’s a hypocritical reaction for someone who believes in grace and mercy.  And it’s easy for hypocrites to hide behind masks.  In fact, that’s what the word means.

Third, look for opportunities to speak the Good News.  I’m a firm believer that no matter what the world throws up (literally and figuratively) God has something better for us all and He has freely provided it in the gift of His Son. 

He’s the cure for what’s broken.  And He has a plan.  

He is the plan.



Thursday, July 7, 2016

For Pete's Sake, Do A Bit of Research First

A word to the wise is sufficient. (Somebody said that...) As Christians we are called by Jesus to be "wise as serpents and harmless as doves". Part of that wisdom is having Spirit-directed discernment between what is truth and what is less than truth.

With the proliferation of social media, blogging, and the tainted media (who is truly neutral anymore?) it is easy to accept the "spin" and believe the opinion without even seeking out the truth.

I know.  I've made this blunder, even though my source was legitimate and "reliable".

Make it a point to go to the source of the "story".  IOW, the person who said/did it.

Be careful out there, sheep. Wolves abound. And their goal is to fracture your faith.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Guest blog: It's Like Herding Cats

David Wilson is a pastor and a friend.  He's been at this job for the same length of time as me.  And I post this without his permission!

http://itslikeherdingcats.blogspot.com/2016/06/so-youre-pastor.html

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Ending the Drought

 
It had not rained in Israel for three years. For a nation dependent on its agriculture and livestock for its survival, a three-year drought could be the end to life as they knew it.  The cause for the lack of rain was well-known to everyone, including the king, a morally corrupt man named Ahab.  Although most, including the king put the blame on a preacher named Elijah, God was behind it.

Three years earlier this prophet Elijah boldly proclaimed that the rain – the lifeblood of the nation - would cease until he said it would rain again.  I don’t know of any meteorologist or scientist that would be so brash.  But Elijah was because as a prophet he spoke for God.  So, you must be thinking the obvious: these people must have done something pretty bad for God to turn off the rain.

And you would be right.

When God gave His Law for this nation in its infancy He forbade the worship of other gods or the erection of idols representing those gods.  These people, the nation of Israel, belonged uniquely to God.  Their history was one of God, often though the miraculous, protecting the and preserving them against enemies seeking their obliteration.  He loved them. But He also demanded their loyalty.

Unfortunately, Israel’s leaders – many of its kings – led God’s people to abandon their relationship with the Lord and turn to idol worship.  It got so bad under Ahab and his queen, an idolaters named Jezebel, that God took the extreme measure of drought to get their attention and to turn their hearts back to Him.

As He had used Elijah to produce His judgment, He would use him to prove to the people that He, the Lord was truly God and the false god Baal was no god at all.

In a dramatic “competition” between God and Baal involving altars and fire falling from heaven, utilizing 450 of Baal’s prophet calling out to Baal and Elijah praying to God, it was proven irrefutably to the crowd that Baal was, indeed no God at all.

The apostle John wrote to the first century believers these simple words: “Little children, guard yourselves from idols” in 1John 5::21. The New Living Translation renders his words, “Dear children, keep away from anything that might take God's place in your hearts.”

An idol is “anything that might take God's place in your hearts”.  Could be other people.  Could be ambition and career.  Could be possessions.  Could be lifestyle.  Could be recreation.  Anything.  It doesn't have to be a statue.  But no idol will do for you what Christ has done and will do. 

I sometimes wonder if the current track of our nation, one of abandoning the Judeo-Christian principles upon which our nation was founded, is not largely due to the church abandoning God. We say, “The Lord is our God”, while embracing our own “Baals”. 

If this generation of Christians is being pulled away by idols, what will be left for the next generation.  If the Holy Spirit right now spoke into your heart and revealed an idol in your life and said, “Choose.  You have to reject one and embrace the other.  Which is God in your life?”

We may still have time to choose and bring and end to the drought.

(Read the entire story in 1 Kings 17-18.)

Sunday, May 29, 2016

For Those Who Didn’t Come Home




The memory is still vivid in my mind.

It was a spring day fifty years ago.  I was ten years old when our family – mom, dad and four of us (of which I was the oldest) loaded up the Ford station wagon and drove from our home in rural Onslow County, NC to Rocky Mount.  Of the six who took the trip five would make the drive back home.

Previous family trips never had us stop in Rocky Mount.  We would always pass through on US Hwy 301.  Interstate 95 wasn’t yet built.  But Rocky Mount was never a destination for us, since our reason for heading that northerly direction was to go farther north to the Washington, D.C. area to visit grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins.  This trip was different.

My memory doesn’t include some of the details.  I can’t recall if we were talkative or if we fought over our space in the back seat.  Most likely we did.  And maybe that was a good distraction for my parents.  Nor do I remember how long the trip lasted, although I know we were back home in the afternoon.  My guess is that I got to ride up front beside mom on the return trip, but I don’t remember her words or emotions.

But it had to be emotional for her.  We had taken Dad to the train depot in Rocky Mount, where he boarded a train.  Somewhere, I guess, he boarded a plane.  But he then spent a month in southern California training for survival.  When that month was up he got on another plane and wound up in southeast Asia – South Viet Nam – where he would spend the bulk, other than R(est) and R(elaxation) of the next twelve months. 

Dad is eighty years old now, but still very much a Marine.  He was just about to turn thirty when he deployed.  A father of 4 with one on the way.  Yet I don’t remember ever any regrets being expressed in my hearing, either before his time there or after.  Not a word. 

During those 13 months in absentia Dad missed some big events at home.  My first Little League season.  He wasn’t there to play catch or coach like he would in subsequent years.  My spiritual birth and then my baptism took place while he was gone. I joined the Scouts and went on my first camping trips without him.  He got word via the Red Cross that his number 5 child was born that fall. 

And I’m sure that there were other big happenings Dad missed out on in that year.  Honestly, everything he missed out on was a big deal to him.  And somehow my mother played the role of both parents those 13 months.  Four of us were in school.  A baby at home.  Yet, we never missed church.  I never missed a game or a Scout meeting.  I just missed having my dad at home. 

Am I resentful of that?  No way!  I knew from my earliest remembrances that my dad was a Marine  (and I was and am proud of his service) – that he had chosen this career that would take him from us not once, but twice for a year at a time in my childhood.  Mostly I have no regrets because at least my dad came home.

Monday is another Memorial Day, and with each one I remember my dad’s service, not because Memorial Day celebrates him.  It does not.  I think of Dad because of the stories he has told me of his Marine buddies who did not come home.  I see the tears well up in his eyes as he speaks of seeing “the bodies of Marines stacked up like cord wood”.

Fifty years ago I learned in a very personal way that freedom is not free.  I went to school with other Marine’s kids whose dads came home in flag-draped caskets.  It is for those Marines, sailors, soldiers, airmen and coasties – the ones who made the sacrifice of their own lives that others could be free – that we celebrated Monday. 

It might be easy to complain about the weather on Monday “ruining” our holiday.  But there would be no holiday had hundreds of thousands in our country’s history not laid down their lives so we could be free to celebrate. 

God bless the USA.  And thanks for all who gave it all.

I'm well aware that the little boy in the picture could have been me.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Using Jesus' Words (or not)

In the US politicians love to quote Jesus, especially when they take His words and apply them to their cause or agenda. 

Often those quotes are taken out of context and make it sound as though Jesus would support some modern social and moral issues when the entirety of Scripture shows that He would not.  The best known and misused words yanked out of context are probably "Judge not". 

Then when some Christian speaks up and says, "Hey!  That's not all that He said!", or "You got that all wrong", the Christian is chided for being "unchristian".  Happens all the time.

And then His instructions to His disciples about His kingdom are frequently and wrongly applied to man-made governments like ours.  That results in the government attempting to do the things Jesus gave to the church to do.  Then, as society accepts the government acting as a charitable organization the church and other charitable organizations are seen as unnecessary.  Taxes (compulsory) are raised to provide for these services, which takes away from the citizens' ability to contribute willingly to the church.

So, Jesus is convenient when His words can be used to support governmental social action.  But what about His words that don't support the cause?  Today I'm thinking of this parable, from Matthew 20 about a business man, his workers and equal wages.

“For the Kingdom of Heaven is like the landowner who went out early one morning to hire workers for his vineyard.He agreed to pay the normal daily wage and sent them out to work.

“At nine o’clock in the morning he was passing through the marketplace and saw some people standing around doing nothing.So he hired them, telling them he would pay them whatever was right at the end of the day. So they went to work in the vineyard.  At noon and again at three o’clock he did the same thing.

“At five o’clock that afternoon he was in town again and saw some more people standing around. He asked them, ‘Why haven’t you been working today?’ They replied, ‘Because no one hired us.’
“The landowner told them, ‘Then go out and join the others in my vineyard.’


“That evening he told the foreman to call the workers in and pay them, beginning with the last workers first. When those hired at five o’clock were paid, each received a full day’s wage.  When those hired first came to get their pay, they assumed they would receive more. But they, too, were paid a day’s wage. When they received their pay, they protested to the owner, ‘Those people worked only one hour, and yet you’ve paid them just as much as you paid us who worked all day in the scorching heat.’

“He answered one of them, ‘Friend, I haven’t been unfair! Didn’t you agree to work all day for the usual wage? Take your money and go. I wanted to pay this last worker the same as you. Is it against the law for me to do what I want with my money? Should you be jealous because I am kind to others?’

“So those who are last now will be first then, and those who are first will be last.”

I'm not hearing that parable quoted in the news by either the pundits or the agencies of government. 

I wonder what's wrong with it?  (I know the answer.)  It is against the law for the owner of the business to do what he wants with his money.  Apparently.