Thursday, December 13, 2012

On the Sobering "call" to Service

It seems, at times, that though some words are overused they show no sign of going back to reasonable usage levels. Words like "awesome" and "radical" fall under that category. In addition, the word "calling" gets thrown about far too much, particularly as it relates to Christian ministry. So intangible are the impromptu definitions given when asked what is meant by it, I'm convinced no one really knows what they mean when they say it. This, however, doesn't stop some from confidently asserting, "I was 23 years old, and living just for myself, when God 'called" me into the ministry."

What does that mean? What was it like when you got "called" by God? Did you hear anything? What form did the theophany take? How did you distinguish God's "call" from your own ambitions? How did you know it was God that "called" and not just a whim of fancy? How can we tell the difference?

What did it produce in you? ...Resolve? Piety? Fear?

What is the nature of "calling?" Is it static and fixed, remaining on someone forever? Or is it more dynamic and fluid, coming and going as the Spirit sees fit during realtime Kingdom operations?

I've often wondered if our debates over whether pastors that sleep with their secretaries can return to ministry after being deposed has been muddied by the assumption that their "calling" is irrevocable. Sure Moses can be denied entry to the Promised Land for losing his temper and striking a rock, but the embezzling clergy MUST be allowed back in the saddle because "the 'call of God' is on his life." I've always found that problematic. "Calling" should not be a credential touted to gain privilege or even be tossed around to open career doors. On the contrary, "calling" should be a sobering concept. It should carry the flavor of being summoned for perilous service, for being drafted into a battle that some might have otherwise avoided if left to themselves.

My fire chief in Fate, Texas used to communicate to the firefighters the true weightiness of "calling" by reminding them: "The nature of the fire service is that you enter the station each day not knowing whether you'll ever see home again, for the nature of that next 'call' could potentially hold mortal dangers into which you will gladly wade in service to your community." In other words, "calling" is cause for sober reflection on the epic perils possibly awaiting the one that answers the "call." Yes, firefighters experience the high of an adrenalin rush when the tone goes off and they must ride out on the apparatus to the scene; but that "high" is also the spike in awareness so that the very real potential dangers can be addressed as well. The "call" of the alarm tone is cause for excitement, but also cause for a healthy fear of the unknown - a fear that makes one careful and vigilant.

For this reason, I believe we do better, as clergy, to view "calling" in this manner. The "call" of God takes on some tangible form through the authority structures of the Church, but when it comes we soberly and fearfully consider what perils we have volunteered to face. In addition, the "calling" is not a cause of pride, advancement or privilege. Instead it is a reason to be vigilant and alert, knowing that to serve Christ and his Church is no comfortable matter. History demonstrates examples of men who, knowing this to be the case, had to be drug to ordination in chains. This is understandable considering what we should think regarding God's "calling."

It is not something we should seek with unbridled enthusiasm regarding our career advancement. The "call" to service is instead a heavy weight to bear on one's soul. Even a little reluctance would be understandable. Nevertheless, for those that find fulfillment in service, being "called" to serve God's mission is an adrenalin rush all its own, albeit at the same time a reason to sit back and contemplate the dire responsibility they've been loaded down with which can be taken back or redirected should the Holy Spirit see fit to do so. However we speak about God's "call" on us into ministry, it needs to be laced with some sober contemplation and hushed tones knowing that this "call" could hold potential mortal dangers we'd otherwise have passed up given the choice.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Local Church as a Fire Station

A lighthouse, that shines out their light for ships to navigate by.

A hospital, where the sick may come to get well.

A home, where the "family" lives and grows together in harmony.

I've heard many analogies used before to describe the local church and it's function in the kingdom of God. On the one hand, they were accurate to the description of the local church's function they were trying to offer at the time; on the other hand, the analogies proved lacking because they offered a less complete picture of the church's role in the world. No analogy can truly cover every aspect of the local church's importance and function in God's plan of redemption for the world, but some analogies can be more accurate and comprehensive than others.

I believe seeing the local church as a fire station is a better analogy than others I have heard.

Consider the nature of a fire station in a community...

It's the gathering place where first responders (firefighter and EMT) collect together for training and for their efforts to be coordinated. As a natural byproduct of "congregating" together, they develop a sense of camaraderie. Spending so much time together with common training and purpose, having shared experiences and struggles will do that. At the station personnel are issued uniforms to show the community who they are and to enjoy common identity. They keep watch together, remaining alert for when the "call" sends them out to bring rescue (i.e. salvation) to those in peril.

At the station they all recognize they are under authority and are part of a dept, a crew, a team. They wouldn't think of going about their roles alone. After all, no one ever thinks they can just one day "decide" to be a firefighter or EMT, and then start riding around their town by themselves with a garden hose or medical kit in the trunk of their car. They recognize that they must enter into the dept, submit to its authority structures, assimilate into the culture and mission of the dept, then be authorized and "called" to ride out.

Each station has about four, five or six apparatus to convey the crew to the call. Fire departments know that better to have stations planted strategically throughout the town than one massive one in the center of town. This cuts down on response time to the emergency scene, and also enables each station to interact more directly with the community in which they're situated. NO one would ever consider having one huge mega-station downtown, with twenty-seven pumper engines and ladder trucks, thirty-two ambulances, five rescue vehicles and three large rehab RVs. That would be just silly, taking a "Walmart" approach to fire station planning. Such a silly idea would never be considered.

For all the personnel, the camaraderie, the sense of community, the training, the fellowship, the shared identity, the authority structure, the uniforms, apparatus and equipment all find their fulfillment when the alarm tone sounds and they are "called" out into the emergency. In the end, it's all about the surrounding community that they're going to ride out to the rescue. If they can't respond when the community calls, all the other things they enjoy are for naught. They find their fulfillment, for everything they do, in riding out to the call. Ask any firefighter and, if they're honest, they'll confess to you there's nothing like the adrenalin of riding on the engine with lights and sirens blaring.  There's a life INSIDE the station, to be sure; but it's completed by the calling OUTSIDE the station.

The duties outside the station need everything that happens inside the station in order for those responding to the call to do so with excellence and teamwork. The activity inside the station yearns for the calls outside the station for their training and existence to find fulfillment. Both need each other. No one joins a fire dept just to hang out at the station anymore than someone thinks to be a first responder without assimilating into the dept at the station.

The local church is so, So, SO much like a fire station. Hopefully the parallels have been obvious between the life of a Christian and that of firefighter/EMT. INSIDE the local church/"station," we gather and enjoy the Lord and each other, worshiping together and finding our meaning and shared identity in Christ, being nourished by the Sacraments and receiving instruction from the Word of God. OUTSIDE the local church/"station," we find fulfillment through obeying the Great Commission, participating in the Mission of God to "rescue" the lost and bring redemption to the world. Christians that don't leave church each week eager to share Christ and bless those outside are like dept members that never want to go on a call (if such dept members actually exists anywhere). People claiming to be "Christian" but shun the local church are like someone that wants to wear the dept uniform, but won't go down to the local station and apply.

GOSH! The parallels could go on and on! Every Christian is a missionary to the community in like manner that every dept member wants to go on calls. Every local church is a "station" for gathering in believers and equipping them to be sent out. The discussion could go on, but I must conclude this post. A book could easily ensue.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

On Tobacco and Prayer

Throughout the Bible, and quite notably in the Old Testament, God has allowed, encouraged, even ordained "props" to facilitate his people worshiping him. Whether it was the community gathering for public sacrifices, or just the private prayer of the sincerely pious, God appears to understand that we, as humans, interact with "stuff" in our normal lives, and thus has fully endorsed the use of "stuff" by which we can interact with him too. This all is in line with the regular teaching on praxi fide I perform concerning the "elements of the sacred:

-Sacred times
-Sacred space
-Sacred rites
-Sacred offices
-Sacred objects

Each of these categories can be further classified in terms of whether they are used in a normative vs deviant manner, or whether they're utilized at the official or popular level. I also want to differentiate whether it was a typical vs atypical use of that "element of the sacred" as well. Concerning "sacred objects," while we see a "typical" use of the Ark of the Covenant during the history of ancient Israel recorded in the Hebrew Bible, the use of Elijah's cloak to part the River Jordan, so that Elisha walked across it on dry land, would be more an "atypical" use. The use of the cloak, itself, doesn't get much more "screen time" after that, if any. So there is a sense in which a "sacred object" develops a "typical" use among God's people, often because it's used in normative, official worship. In like manner though, an object can become "spontaneously sacred" because God appears to have decided it warranted an "atypical" use for an opportune moment (i.e. Elisha's use of Elijah's cloak, God's use of a fish for Jonah, Jesus' use of mud to restore a man's sight, etc.).

While I'm loathed to arbitrarily dubbing things "sacred" on my own, and certainly not for normative, official use outside of the accountability of the Church, there have been times when it seemed the Lord used a object for a decidedly "sacred" purpose. At those moments I'm amazed at his willingness to use "props" to get the job done. Recently I was struck by two occasions in which God appeared to have "ordained" tobacco for "sacred use." This might seem quite obvious to pipe smokers, who often must sit and contemplate something while packing and re-lighting the bowl; but it is just as possible for cigars as well. This is nothing new to the men that attend "Pipe Club" at my church, but to the untrained eye, it might be surprising. Nevertheless, the point was driven home to me recently when at the station for Westlake Fire Dept.

On the first occasion, it was my pleasure to begin getting to know firefighters and EMT personnel during the night shift. As several of us stood out in front of the bay, it suddenly seemed wise to have another good reason to stand around and slow down (pending whether we got a call or not right then). Recalling that I had brought a cigar with me, the moment could not have been more opportune to light it and take the necessary time to enjoy it there among my new crew. The result was magical. The timing of drawing and blowing smoke actually helped pace the conversation. This was ideal while interacting with one firefighter with whom I was able to share aspects of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The slow rhythm of drawing and purging smoke made me draw out sentences and thoughts in a manner this young man seemingly needed to get the greatest impact from the conversation. I would later tell my wife it seemed like a "magic cigar" because of how God used it as a "prop" to maximize my connections to firefighters that night.

On a second occasion, I was at the station and determined it was a good time to go outside and enjoy a short 4.5 inch Arturo Fuente sun-grown cigar. This time there was no one around for whom the cigar could "pace the conversation," so instead it paced my conversation with God. Too often time spent in prayer can be rushed, hurried or cut short by distractions. It can be necessary to use "props" to remind us of the value of slowing down and drawing out the prayer time in a meaningful way. Needing to take my time to enjoy the cigar helped me think prayerfully about the dept, its personnel, the apparatus that conveys them safely to the scene and all those who will interact with the dept when emergency strikes. This cigar facilitated the "sacred rite" of prayer, walking around the station and stopping to consider each aspect of the department's operations in entreating God to be gracious to them and empower their efforts. Of course, a byproduct was that any firefighters that walked up to me right then got my full attention because I was not in a hurry to leave that setting anyway. I still had half my cigar to go!

In a sense, the first story was about prayer as well because each slow draw allowed me the time between sentences to listen carefully to the Lord, asking in him in the moment, "What do you think I should say next?" (e.g. Neh 2:3-5). It would appear that the Lord had spontaneously "ordained" cigars as a "prop," or "sacred object" for use in the "sacred rite" of prayer. There's no denying the level to which I was assisted in slowing down enough to talk with God in those ministerial moments, even as I also was speaking with others in front of me. Now I see a connection between tobacco and prayer that had previously eluded me. There is nothing in the tobacco itself, but the practice of enjoying the cigar or pipe forces me to slow down and be more calm than is my default setting. This alone is a tremendous spiritual benefit. For this reason I will strive never to go to the station without at least one cigar in my backpack. I may take a spare to prepare for the eventuality that a firefighter needs to talk with me over the "holy smoke" too.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Inevitability of God

It never fails. Sheep wander away. That's what sheep do. They're rather predictable that way. Fortunately for them, they often don't have the final say as to whether they remain lost or not. A determined and decisive Shepherd may just decide to go find them, and is wholly undeterred by their pathetic nature as sheep. He knows they're sheep. He knows their nature, and it doesn't phase him in the least. He WILL find his lost sheep. It's really rather inevitable.

For this reason it is so very appropriate that God is likened to a Shepherd in several places of Holy Scripture, and we likened to his "sheep." Many wander off that fall into traps of their own making. However, for reasons which seem good to Him, God will select some "sheep" to hunt down, seek out, track and rescue even in spite of themselves. There is no way to predict it. God is his own person and often plays things rather close to the vest. In fact, among the more meaningless exercises is to busy one's self with speculations about why he chose to rescue THIS "sheep" but not THAT one. That is why I often say, "for reasons which seem good to him..." to preface something he apparently has done or is up to. But in any event, when he decides to track down and rescue a "sheep" that has wandered astray, there simply is no stopping him, avoiding him or resisting him. He is the preeminently inevitable force that cannot be deterred, redirected or stifled.

God can be likened to a freight train with a mile long link of connected boxcars. There is simply no stopping it. To try would be the height of folly. Only this "train" is not going to run you over, per se. It's going to pick you up and carry you to a land of blessing you didn't expect, and didn't even think to ask for. I suppose that inevitability applies as a destructive force for those rebelling against God and filling the world with evil, but his preferred role has always been that of a Redeemer who swoops in to rescue people from destruction. Any time he has announced pending judgment in the Bible it was always to offer people time to turn away from their destructive practices and avoid harm. It seems God prefers to be the "rescue train" that comes barreling down the tracks with no signs of slowing.

I have experienced God's inevitability many times in my life. Each time I have been rescued by his unstoppable force it has always left me humbled that I seemingly was never out of his mind even as I was trying to push him out of mine. I had a very distinct experience in the Navy when I thought I was "far from God," only to soon find that train coming down the tracks toward me. "He found me!" I remember thinking to myself, "How did he know where I was? I mean EXACTLY where I was?" Such thoughts speak to the inevitable nature of God's rescuing instincts as a Good Shepherd. In like manner I have had friends that, having been rescued by God after having wandered away said, "I see now that he was never going to leave me where I was. He saved me in spite of myself." Their thoughts reflect how all that are rescued from truly hopeless situations feel: that God was the rescuer who, by his own will and drawing on his own resources, saved the day all on his own. His love as a Good Shepherd, his determination as a tracker and rescuer, was simply inevitable. When we realize it, we kneel in quiet thankfulness that he is the way he is, regardless of how "sheep" are.


Monday, May 14, 2012

Banning Mother's Day

In a stunning admission, last week the President of the United States declared women to be worthless. By "coming out" in favor of gay marriage, Barak Obama revealed his fundamental belief that two men are able to constitute the completeness that has been traditionally seen as only possible through the union of a man to a woman. Thus, of all the jobs in society in which women could claim that men cannot replace them, their role of being the unique counterpart of a man seemed safely intact; but no longer. Now, for the first time in history, a U.S. President has declared that two men are just as complete as a man and a woman. The woman is therefore entirely replaceable in this role.

Ramifications of this assertion stretch inevitably much further though...

If the "completeness" of two men (or two women) can be equated in his mind with the completeness of a man and a woman, then logically there exists no difference of quality in the parenting of a gay marriage to that of a traditional marriage. Two men can parent just as well as a man and a woman might. Thus a woman, in her most fundamental role as a mother, is replaceable there as well. There is no escaping it. With all things being equal (i.e. income, education, non-abusive, etc.), if the gay couple can parent just as well as the traditional couple, then mother's are just plainly overrated. Oh of course I realize this applies to fathers as well if two women can rear children as well as could occur in a home with a mother and a father.

But I seek to demonstrate the irony of having just celebrated Mother's Day, having also heard certain mothers praise the President's announcement last week. I'm shocked by how flippantly they were willing to offend themselves in this manner. To support the marriage of two men, with the potential for them to adopt a child (they're not really designed to make their own), is for a woman to simultaneously declare herself irrelevant in the child-rearing process. Children simply do not need mothers as much as we've previously thought. In fact, these mothers are declaring that children don't need them AT ALL. Children don't need booboos kissed or stories read at bedtime. They don't need to be nursed as infants, or even birthed for that matter. If two men can marry and raise children as effectively as a traditional couple, then there isn't any remaining skill that a woman brings to the table that is not replaceable by a man.

When the President made his announcement, certain members of the news media suggested that those who opposed him were not yet "in the 21st century." In light of this, if indeed those asserting that traditional couples, not gay couples, is the norm that should receive societal recognition, then Mother's Day is a nostalgic reminiscing to a throwback era as well. It should therefore be banned, because it's very existence is oppressive. An entire day dedicated to asserting the bygone notion that mothers make a unique contribution to child development? Bigotry!

In solidarity with President Barak Obama, I call for a general ban on Mother's Day as a national celebration. Yes...to be fair...I'll give up Father's Day too. I realize I'm replaceable by a woman also when two women marry. I cannot fight the logic of it any further, and I don't want to be on "the wrong side of history." Nor do I want to be guilty of the hypocrisy of suggesting that mother's bring anything of value to the table, and at the same time suggesting a man can do it just as well. Indeed, if gay marriage is to be equated with traditional marriage, then suggesting that either sex (as mothers or fathers) perform anything uniquely beneficial in the home must be discarded to be consistently "progressive" in our thinking.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Case for Segregation

This week I've been instructed to assist in creating a "special," separate collection at my library that contains works pertaining to African-American issues, history and authors. That may seem odd, but the mission of the college actually includes a clause declaring that it will have a "primary focus on African-American and other ethnic minority groups." So naturally you'd create a collection within the library wherein patrons could quickly find materials related to that focus all in one place, right? Not so fast, sparky! Consider, for a moment, the ramifications of what you just nodded your head to.

Because of the limited budget of the Bible college, we're not purchasing duplicate copies of all these works for the new "African-American collection." We're pulling them out of the existing reference and general collection. Yes. That's right. We're taking all works pertaining to African-American issues and history, or written by African-American authors, and "segregating" them off to their own set of shelves...away from the rest of the collection. Those helpful, scholarly and pastoral works written by Dr. Tony Evans on theological subjects of Salvation, The Holy Spirit or the Church? Gone...or at least pulled out to be placed in the separate area. His book The Promise: Experiencing God's Gift of the Holy Spirit is no longer shelved with the other works on the same subject. Where it once would have been thought among the works to use in research by students writing papers on the subject, now has been yanked from that place to be shelved when we keep the "African-American collection" over on the side. Apparently, Dr. Evans' works do not belong among the other scholars that have written on similar subjects. He belongs over where we keep those works written by or about those people. This seemed particularly heinous to me because I've been to conferences where I enjoyed Dr. Evans' preaching, have enjoyed reading his books and have referenced his writing for research papers in the past. This practice appears to take away a pastor and scholar that I've found helpful for my own development before.

When I objected to the librarian on the inherent wrongness of this practice, the rationale given to me was that library patrons, for convenience sake, will be able to find all works pertaining to the college's emphasis in one location. I voiced my objections, but ultimately agreed to comply and assist as directed. Without disagreement there is no submission because loyalty is not tested in consensus. The project is underway and I continue to watch cart after cart of books taken out by the librarian from among our general collection that will be shelved in the set apart location. My heart sinks as I observe this symbolic segregation play out with volumes in the library. No....now that you ask...I DON'T believe segregation is made less destructive to society simply by being voluntary.

As the "African-American Collection" grows on the separate shelves, comprised of works pulled from out of the General Collection, I'm forced to consider the rationale for this project applied to a broader context. If "segregating" out African-American books "for convenience sake" makes sense...why stop there?

I'm sure many African-Americans would benefit from having stores dedicated just to meeting the needs identified as distinct to their cultural habits. It could be labeled as such. Wouldn't Walmart just make a load of money creating a store just for African-Americans "for convenience sake?" I imagine this trend would work well for school districts and city planners. Whole neighborhoods could have signage at the entrance that read "an African-American planned community." This could extend to every level of social services. Heck! Even public drinking fountains could sport "convenient" labels "for AA only." Wouldn't that be "convenient" and helpful? Imagine the confusion that could be cleared up by separating out the aspects of life and society used or designed by African-Americans away from the rest of the population. African-Americans would know straight where to go. There wouldn't be the burden of having to sift through things written, designed or used by the rest of humanity to find what was needed. I think this library project makes a good case for segregation on all sorts of other levels.

No...wait...if my history is correct...that's been tried already...and it was TOTAL CRAP!!!!!!!

Segregation is a blight upon history that contributed to the fracturing of humanity and the Church in America. To God be the glory that it's no longer lawful to separate people in that manner! And yet, it seems almost inevitable that we'll return to it because it's our fallen human nature to fracture and divide ourselves. Humans are not prone to balance. On the contrary, we're given over to destructive pendulum swings. "Because a people was marginalized in the past, it must be emphasized now" goes the logic; and with that the fracturing instinct is kept alive and well. The ONENESS of humanity, and particularly the Church, be damned...we need "social justice" by means of placing those on the top that were once on the bottom. It's not even entertained that this whole paradigm wreaks the same havoc as before.

There is ONE library, and ONE collection. We do not qualify our books by quality or by research value. We do not have signs that read "serious research books over here," and "lame non-helpful works bought just to fill over shelves over here." All of it is ONE library, and ONE resource for study, and ONE collection of scholarship and knowledge that the students can use for learning or profs for teaching. There is ONE collection for searching or finding the answers to those curious questions that good education is meant to induce.

At least that's how it should be...

But now books written by or pertaining to African-Americans don't belong in THAT collection. They belong in their own collection. So the obvious question then is, which is the "good" collection? Which is the collection students should browse for serious research? If they're writing a paper on pneumatology (the doctrine of the Holy Spirit) and they go browse the books on that topic, they're not going to find Tony Evans' book on that subject. It's not there anymore. It's been pulled and "segregated" off to the other collection. You see, Dr. Evans isn't merely one of the scholars that has written on that subject; he's African-American, and thus belongs elsewhere. This is so sick!

We no longer have just one collection. Now we have "THE General Collection" and the "African-American collection." The praxi fide of this is that African-Americans have no place among THE collection...they need their own. RUBBISH! I hope all recognized the clear satire. I don't, for a moment, believe there exists a good case for segregation. But I DO believe that practices such as this library project smack eerily reminiscent of it. It's wrong, and I'm having to watch it evolve in front of me.

Monday, March 19, 2012

He's Taken the Journey Away

When I was a security guard in California during college, I used to ride a patrol route, checking several different buildings, throughout the course of a night, contracted by my company. When I was first starting on the patrol duty, a security guard experienced with that route was assigned to train me for it. His name was John. John was Native American by descent and spoke much about his tribe's culture. One night John was somewhat quiet on our patrol route. Sensing something wrong, I asked him what was the concern. Apparently a close friend of his had died and he was mourning that loss. Respectfully, John asked me if I minded if he "mourned" his friend in the truck as we drove along. I consented, and John broke into his tribal song of mourning. The words were in his native tongue, which I could not discern; but John translated for me after:

He's gone away.
He's gone away.
He's taken the journey
far from me.
From herd and land and kin,
my friend has gone away.
To run and hunt where I cannot see,
my friend has gone away.
He's gone away.

As I heard him sing those repeated lines on his native language, I mourned with him. It was a sad song of loss. The tune echos in my mind to this day.

Christians sometimes get it wrong by refusing to mourn as is fitting. Yes, we have the hope of the resurrection in Christ, but there is sadness when my friend "has gone away." Certainly we mourn differently than "those who have no hope" (cf. 1 Thess 4:13), but we still mourn. As King David of the Old Testament spoke about the his own child's death, "I will go to him, but he cannot return to me" (2 Sam 12:23). Therefore I mourn the death of my dear friend David Shelton, who saw the face of the Lord Jesus Christ (directly!), who he had portrayed in many an Easter play, Saturday night on March 17th, 2012.

He's gone away.
He's gone away.
My friend has gone away.

I first met David when my wife and I were attending the college group at Overlake Christian Church in Kirkland, Washington (it's now in Redmond a mile away). He was telling his original story "The Great King" for the gathering. I admired him as a man of God then, and saw in him the rare character of godliness that had not shed any manliness. A meek and gentle man, his smile was infectious, but the words he spoke you knew were true. It was no wonder he was always selected to play "Jesus" in the Easter musical at OCC...he looked and acted like we all "think" Jesus must have been like when he walked through the Jerusalem or the Judean countryside.

David and I became peers when we were both on the facilities staff at OCC, working together cleaning the building, setting up classrooms and repairing things here and there. I was working through college and he was supplementing income between bookings for his performance ministry (http://www.davidshelton.org/). We talked about our respective ministries all night as we cleaned restrooms, stacked tables or repaired communion cup holders for the Worship Center. Theology and family, stories and children kept the conversation always lively. His humor and demeanor kept me wanting to work in the section of the complex where he was as often as possible. Of course breaks times were spent together, and on nights when my children were on site, he'd spend the break time telling my daughter stories that other venues would book him to perform.

We interacted over what makes a good story, how you tell it and what keeps people interested. He agreed that all good stories cannot help but tell aspects of God's story because people are naturally drawn to stories that tell things that are true. Just a few years later David, and his wife Deb, would welcome me back to their home to tell my own "Bright Knight" story in places that had been previous enjoyed David's "Great King" trilogy. David was not merely my friend. He had such vast and far-reaching influence that many, many friends are mourning him now. David Shelton was a friend to me though, in a way that I've not had many other friends before or since. Therefore I mourn him. After several years of suffering from alzheimer's disease (a rather unjust affliction, in my opinion, for a man whose mind glorified Christ so greatly), he was freed of it when his mortality put on immortality (cf. 1 Cor 15). He was my friend, and I loved him. I know I shall clasp hands with him in the resurrection of the body promised in Christ Jesus, but in the meantime I also know that I will go to him, but he will not return to me.

He's gone away.
He's gone away.
My friend has gone away.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Them's Fight'n Words

I am conservative. And yes... I know that the term "conservative" has come to carry a largely political connotation; but I believe it's still a legitimate label for other tendencies as well. If I'm "conservative," it suggests I want to "conserve" things that I believe could be lost to society if not championed and guarded, and that loss would be a great tragedy. It means that I do not perceive all progress to have been beneficial. On the contrary, some advancements would seem to contribute to a societal regression, not progression. For instance, the recent movement to ensure equal opportunity for women in voting, in the workplace, in education, etc. and all areas of society has been good; but some have used it to the nail more nails in the lid of a proverbial "coffin" for a dying chivalry. So while western society may have "progressed" in it's acknowledgement of the inherent equality of women and men (obvious differences notwithstanding), in some cases it has "regressed" in its collective attitude regarding how a man treats a lady.

I apply this principle today to the realm of fighting in school.

Growing up, I heard stories from grandparents and parents about bullies and the social dynamic of teens in high school. Fighting and bullying occurred then as it does now. However, from their accounts, the bullying found a controlling mechanism that is "progressively" absent from the options available to those that are bullied today: fighting. What I'm suggesting is that by declaring "violence not the answer" to those kids that follow rules, we have relegated "violence" (with fists anyway) only to those bullies that do not follow rules. In this way we have done the "good kids" a great disservice. No longer are the bullies experiencing the resistance from those they bully that previous generations encountered; not until the bully's victim has so stewed about it in secret that they snap and bring a gun to school. What used to help keep it from getting that far is now discouraged among our young people.

My son recently reported to me that there had been four fights at his school in one day. Yes, this is disruptive to the school day. Admittedly, school is primarily a place to learn, not to work out our social standing and come to blows over trivial matters. However, when he told us, "My teacher told us fighting is NEVER good," I had to correct that misconception. "That's not true," I informed him. I went on to tell him that there can actually be very good reasons to fight, and that failing to do so could actually be wrong. It's all about following wisdom and using discernment to read the situation. A person may insult you in a manner that you need to shrug away "like water off a duck's back;" however, they might also pester you or someone else in a way that they need to physically answer for.

Case in point: We recently heard a story from another couple whose teenage daughter is in high school. Because of her popularity, she became the target of a "smear campaign" from other girls calling her various names like "slut" and "whore" and others that are much worse. The bullying found it's way onto a social network website and followed her into settings off campus too. Distraught at the meanness with which these girls were targeting her, she tried to ignore it (as instructed) but it was growing in intensity. At a particular point the "ring leader" of this slanderous encroachment spoke these words to her face as her math class was just dismissing. Our friends' teenage daughter balled up her fist and struck the girl with all her might square on the nose. Loosing her balance, she fell to her right, striking her face on a desk on the way to the floor. Bursting into tears, she laid there with a bloody face as the teacher quickly intervened and whisked the "fighter" away to the principal's office. Our friends' daughter was punished with a three-day suspension for fighting. I was pleased to hear that the parents stood up for her, telling the principal, "I understand you had to suspend her; but YOU must understand that we support her. We believe she was justified in this." I believe it was good that the mean girl had to answer for her words in this manner. She'll physically recover, but she'll think better of that behavior if the response may very well be two black eyes and the embarrassment of being put to the floor because of it.

Now I can hear the objection of some: "Are you saying that EVERYHING should be solved with fists?" What an unthinking question...and yet it still gets spoken by otherwise seemingly intelligent people. No...I am NOT saying that everything should be solved with fighting. Yet we have denied our young people the wisdom of knowing that SOME things should be addressed this way, and the discernment to know which is which. In our attempts to "civilize" them, we've added to the chaos of their lives by taking away a legitimate control mechanism within their social structures. There exists adults whose "zero tolerance" policy would suspend "George McFly" for decking "Biff" at the 1955 "Enchantment Under the Sea Dance" ("Back to the Future" reference). But I want my children to have the wisdom to know when are the appropriate moments to physically address the bullies in their lives, and the will to perform that action when the occasion calls for it.

In this I might be called "conservative" because I think something important has been lost when we no longer can say, "Them's fight'in words." I want to "conserve" those controlling dynamics among people that cause social groups to seemingly "police" themselves without having to involve civil authorities to settle everything. Sure I want my children to involve adults in their disputes; but that doesn't always make bullies quit. Instead, the bully may have to learn a lesson that, just because the teacher's not looking doesn't mean there will be no consequences if they keep this up. I'd like to "conserve" that societal lesson. "Progress" has not helped us in this respect...in my opinion.

Monday, January 30, 2012

The Enemy's Stamp of Approval

Among the greatest compliments a forward unit can receive is evidence that the enemy finds them threatening. Let's face it, they will not expend limited resources on you if you represent no real opposition to them. If either you are giving them ground with your retreat or occupying ground they don't want or need, you might not be attacked at all. A microcosm of this is pictured in the film "Saving Private Ryan" when Cpl. Upham was near the combat, but was so overcome with fear that he sat paralyzed in a stairwell unable able to contribute to the fight or come to the aid of a fellow American soldier. In the tragic scene, the Nazi soldier won the desperate hand-to-hand knife fight at the top of the staircase, then walked down the stairs to rejoin the battle underway in the streets. Half way down the stairs he encountered the cowering Cpl. Upham who was tearful and shaking in fear. The German rifleman delivered him the ultimate insult by walking past Upham, leaving him unharmed. Upham was so clearly not a threat to the enemy, or anyone else for that matter, he was not worth expending the energy to dispatch him; though the German could have easily killed him without breaking his stride.

In like manner, it's possible for the enemy of our souls (the Devil) to offer the "compliment" of an attack. He would not have attacked if he found you no threat at all. Unlike God, the Devil does not have unlimited resources to spread as widely as he wants. He must be strategic to target those places of The Church that he finds most threatening to his chaotic war against God's redemption for the world. His wiles attempt to erode the cohesion, shake the morale and destroy the confidence of God's people so as to render impotent their obedience to Jesus' Great Commission.

Recently our church suffered a break-in from trespassers. They rifled through the offices looking for any loose cash, but found very little. The mess they left was disheartening for two reasons: (1) the scattered papers and emptied drawers were a time consuming cleanup process, and (2) the sense of violation can be disconcerting for us when we have a reasonable expectation that all is secure. The event did, however, begin the conversation in earnest regarding installing a security system. Calls began to companies to receive quotes on installation and monitoring for an alarm package. All seemed to be proceeding well in terms of seeking to rectify the weak security in a timely manner...

...that is until we arrived at the church on Sunday morning, approximately a week later(!), to find that not only had another break-in occurred, but a generous amount of vandalism was the goal this time. The ubiquitous spray-painting left all manner of vulgar and profane messages on the interior walls of the perish hall. Hardly a surface was left unmolested by the trespassers (gang members?). Their mess included fire extinguishers that were emptied into the office rooms as well. Basically, Sunday school was obviously cancelled since the perish hall was rendered un-usable for the immediate future (at least until a proper cleanup could ensue). The children's room seemed hit the hardest, receiving spray-painted Satanic imagery clearly meant to shock religious people into dismay. When families arrived for Sunday school, some were understandably upset that their children, walking in unsuspecting, were subjected to imagery that their parents would have much rather spared them.

Some were angered by this event. Others were saddened and shaken that such a violation would be perpetrated against their beloved church. I was disappointed, to be sure, but also had to mute my satisfaction in receiving "the enemy's stamp of approval." Clearly the Devil finds us a threat to his operations in this community such that he would see fit to offer this type of resistance. "Bring it!" I muttered under my breath. Knowing that the "gates of Hell" will not be able to withstand the advance of the Church that Christ is building anyway, I was calmly pleased to be part of the action. Certainly the enemy believes us to be NO "Cpl. Upham" after all. I imagine if the enemy is so threatened by the church's ops in that community that he would offer that "push back," that just means we'll push back harder. Lashing out in fear of what Christ might perform through our church, the enemy has revealed his concern over our efforts to follow Christ in this location. Sharing the Gospel and dispensing the love of Christ to those around us, he needs to put on his "big boy pants," because all he's done is to galvanize an already committed people.

Game on!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

On the Entertainment Value of a First Bird Hunt

Recently I was privileged to have my first experience hunting waterfowl. Rather unfairly, I had previously not thought of it as “hunting” simply because of the size of the game (does size really matter?), being smaller than the deer or elk I had stalked years ago. For this reason, I’d often been puzzled by the plethora of bird hunting gear available in rows and rows of merchandise at the local sporting goods store. I noticed it, but pretty much walked past it, thinking it a strange and bewildering set of tools for some other mysterious pastime other than “hunting.” I now no longer think this, having seen all of this equipment in action.

The hunting area was surprisingly close to the city, approximately an hour’s drive away from the metropolitan area. Several men lease the rights to hunt birds there from the land owner, and I was the guest of one of those lease participants (a generous man that I know from church). When we arrived at the hunting “lodge” (some sturdy structures with a deck that really seem to take the "roughing it" edge out of hunting), I was struck by how quiet and peaceful it was there. The meadows stretched off in each direction, punctuated by ponds that geese and ducks had collected on. From this distance I could see several permanent “blinds” that had been constructed to hide hunters from birds’ on “final approach to runway 35R.”

Without hesitation, each hunter fanned out in different directions to place themselves in an advantageous shooting position. As I had never done this before, I assumed one should walk toward the animals, weapon at the ready. It wasn’t long before a pair of geese flew toward me from the nearby pond, emitting their familiar honks. Elated over the opportunity to “bag” my first birds ever, I drew up and fired twice with precise and confident targeting...to no avail. For some reason, I must have mistakenly thought I was shooting my rifle for a moment. BB’s just don’t fly that high into the air. After both misses, I lowered my shotgun back down to my side, knowing there was no way to hide the embarrassment of having created the noise, but will have nothing to carry back to the lodge to show for it. When the exact same sequence played itself out not ten minutes later, I finally was able to decipher what the goose’s honks actually meant; the rough translation being - “I’m out of range, ‘ya stupid fool!” (Why they sounded French, I have no idea).

For the evening, I was soothed by the whistling breeze and silent fields. This is, until the hosted turned on the television to watch the football game. Blasphemy! A TV at camp? Where am I, Mars? The food was plentiful and so was the booze. All eventually migrated to our respective sleeping bags, dismayed at how soon we’d have to wake up for the morning hunt. Fortunately, I was able to get sound asleep before the real snorers hit the sack (in truth, I have no idea whether any snored; I was sleeping too hard).

Now I must tell you... at 0500 the alarm sound was particularly rude. Arising without fanfare, we sauntered out into the black of the morning darkness carrying bags of goose decoys along with our guns. My host was adorned with a collection of goose calls around his neck, resembling the bone necklace of some Indonesian shaman. I noted secretly how we might soon reverse evolution when all the gear slung around our necks no longer allows us to walk upright. We set out the decoys so as to resemble a brood of geese that had found a random place to “safely” congregate. How should geese look in their staff meeting, anyway? Is there a moderator? Who is running the PowerPoint slides? That seemed to over-think it. So I arranged my geese decoys to appear deep in concentration during a competitive, high stakes, Texas Hold’em poker tournament.

Finding tall grass to sleep...um...I mean... “watch vigilantly” for incoming game in, I sat comfortably as dawn approached. The fog was thick enough, as the sun rose, that the goose honking I heard all around seemed to come from no direction in particular. Eventually the sky cleared slightly and we could see what was flying. Most abundant, and flying rather low, were the species of geese who’s last season day to shoot them had been the day before. Clearly they are better at circulating important memos than my company is. It was plain that these Speckle-bellied geese had checked the calendar and now intended to mock us in unison. In addition, the geese that were in season that day had read the specifications of my firearm and knew it’s effective range (apparently better than I did, according to the previous days results), flying just close enough to be snide in their taunts. Nothing tarnishes a morning like having a bird flip you the middle feather.

The goal was, using his goose calls, for my host to call these geese over to where our decoys were holding their union leadership elections. He was setup in tall grass about 100 yards away from me (or “far enough away so that if we accidentally shoot at each other, it won’t hurt.”), and I could hear him use those calls with their various sounds. They nearly diverted the course of two geese at one point, but then the birds turned and flew away when they spotted the “Remington” logo on my camouflage ball cap (darn corporate brand logos!). When a diverse flock of geese flew over the field, I heard him cycle through all the calls whistles around his neck. “What respiratory discipline it must take to use all those in quick succession,” I thought, “without wheezing.” When none of the geese banked toward our artificial goose block party, I felt sorry for him. “Sheesh!” I silently mused, “all that and no one answered him? Surely SOMEone will respond to all that effort.”... mmmMMMMMOOOOOooo, answered the cows from the other side of the canal. It was difficult to watch for birds after that with the tears fogging up my vision.

With nothing to show for our morning efforts, we walked back to the lodge to confess our “wild goose chase” (is that where that phrase comes from?). Lunchtime was spent firmly establishing and ascribing fault to all the various other factors unrelated to our hunting prowess. When full bellies became convinced it was time to head home, we began to pack up the gear. I asked if there was still time for me to walk down to the pond and examine the legendary, plush blinds that had been built near the water. Being assured there was time enough for this brief hike, I walked down along the fence line, carrying my shotgun with me (of course). The ponds were devoid of any birds and there was no expectation of seeing any fly over. I merely wanted to see for myself these hiding places that rivaled most ten year olds boys tree forts (“Blind 2 has an espresso machine, blind 3 has the hot tub, but blind 4 has the whiskey...” I was told).

Exactly as you wouldn’t expect, my short trek spooked up two geese hiding in the tall grass and I shot them both as they attempted to fly away. Walking back to the lodge, my hunting companions celebrated with me in the sight of carrying my prizes. It was my first time to bird hunt and, while I didn’t expect to do very well, I didn’t want to come up blank either. A bird processing facility, on the way home, reduced the creatures down to their respective meats that will make an honored contribution to our meals at home. I’ve spoken before about the important connection made between quarry and feast, and the blessings of responsibly participating the ecological life-cycle of legal game. For game birds, this was my first time. It bore fruit, and I’m looking forward to the next opportunity.

Being a guest to a generous host, I have no expectation of a return trip to this particular property. However, the whole experience was reminiscent enough of the outings with my father growing up wherein prayer and ubiquitous lessons concerning God and his creations set the tone for the entire hunt, that I feel a great motivation to seek opportunities to take my boys out for such an event. Bird hunting, like other hunting forms, has the potential to hold all those wonderful principles I learned from my father, and convey them to my boys in the process as well.