Sunday, January 4, 2015

Living Today with Eternity in Sight



O God, you are my God;
I earnestly search for you.
My soul thirsts for you;
my whole body longs for you
in this parched and weary land
where there is no water. 
I have seen you in your sanctuary
and gazed upon your power and glory. 
Your unfailing love is better than life itself;
how I praise you! 
I will praise you as long as I live,
lifting up my hands to you in prayer. 
You satisfy me more than the richest feast.
I will praise you with songs of joy.
(Psalm 63:1-5, NLT)




He opened his session with a sports story.  Pretty typical for a men's retreat, but this setup was particularly well-played.  He talked about a pro golfer on Wednesday, which is the normal final practice round, hitting greens but being far away from the pin.  Somebody watching commented that he must be "off his game".  But a wiser commenter noted he was hitting every spot he wanted - and that's where the pins would be placed on Sunday for the final round.  Even on Wednesday, he was playing for Sunday.

David did the same thing when he wrote Psalm 63.  His vision was long and he found his heart yearning for what was yet to come - that which only God can provide.  Oddly enough, he was writing this Psalm in the face of all the activity and swirl of 2 Samuel 15.  David was a much older man and was back on the run.  This time, the source of his trouble was his own son Absalom.  Before I heard this message, I'd never connected those dots at all.  It makes the Psalm even more pointed and the longing and desperation for God more rich.

So as we start 2015 with our hopes, dreams and resolutions (many of which will fall away even within the first week), I am reminded of Psalm 63 and and this message I heard.  I'm reminded that we are called to live a life with eternity in mind.  We are called to deal with the subtle idolatry in our lives that sets something on the throne of our hearts other than the "ultimate thing".  And we are called to be desperate for God to the extent that everything else is just perpetually disappointing.

I was reminded just today that the Father stands at the end of the Crooked Path beckoning us home while our Divine brother walks beside us, arm-in-arm, encouraging us and giving us strength for the journey.  He urges us to live today with Eternity in sight, for that is where our soul is designed to truly live and flourish.


Sunday, December 28, 2014

Reflections

A little reflection can be a good thing for anyone.  It helps us remember where we've been and what we've done.  It can be a pleasant thing that conjures up happy thoughts of times we've shared with friends or family.  It can be an instructive thing as we recall incidents where perhaps we didn't put forth our best self.  All of it, the good, bad and other becomes part of our story.  And it is our stories that both define us and provide us with vision as we travel on.

My year has been dull by most standards, though those closest to me might say differently.  I've watched my daughters grow and change, especially the one who is making plans to head off to college next Fall.  Both of them give me great cause for joy as I see the beautiful, intelligent young women they are becoming.  That's a good reflection.

My work is satisfying and I moved from a transient to more permanent state later in the year.  This provides us with a little more stability but still allows me to pursue my passion for corporate learning engagements.  I've become a valued resource both to my employer and the people who contract for my training services.  Both are fulfilling.

My wife and I are fast approaching three decades together.  That's quite a journey in and of itself.  We know each other better after all these years and there is comfort in the consistency of our relationship.  The progression of the girls toward young adulthood just amplifies that.

I'm thankful for friends we've connected with, especially those we sat down with across the table for a meal.  Some we hadn't seen in years, yet those same years melted away like a light frost in the sunrise.  I like those kinds of friendships because actual time and distance isn't really a factor that impacts the richness of the relationship.

I'm no prophet - and I don't pretend to know what the Crooked Path holds in 2015.  But I do know the One who walks beside me and I trust him implicitly to be there just as he has been all along.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Noisy Entrance of Hope

"Mary kept all these things to herself, holding them dear, deep within herself.  The sheepherders returned and let loose, glorifying and praising God for everything they had heard and seen.  It turned out exactly like they'd been told!"  (Luke 2:19-20, The Message)

I love the old Christmas songs.  They tell such a wonderful story.  They bring joy to the lips of young and old.  And so many of the favorites are just dead wrong.  The picture they paint about Advent, while melodic, isn't the way it happened.  Take, for example, "Silent Night" ...

Bethlehem probably hadn't seen that much activity in a long time.  It certainly wasn't a mecca for travel or a tourist destination.  Other than being the historical home of the beloved King David, it was that sleepy, dull town we've been told.  And then Rome ordered a census.  The rush was on to get back to wherever home was and check in - and pay up.

You can imagine that room prices doubled or tripled.  Plus, since Bethlehem wasn't really set up for this many people, rooms were scarce to say the least.  So when this lower-class couple with an "illegitimate" child show up, it's just one more guest that cant be accommodated. Amid the noise and bustle of this overcrowded town, a young and very pregnant girl is just another unlucky customer.

Then something happened we really don't quite understand.  The innkeeper, for whatever reason, turns the couple to his cave stable.  It's dark, dank and smells ... well ... like a stable, but it's someplace and that's what Mary and Joseph need.  In the middle of the noise and smell of this place, she goes into labor and delivers her child into a noisy, crowded and probably cranky world (they were all there to pay taxes remember).

The shepherds scene adds to the frantic nature of it all.  They come bursting in with some off-the-wall story about an angelic choir suspended in the air.  Whatever creature was sleeping in that stable is probably wide awake now.  And while our favorite songs have Jesus quietly sleeping, I'd say his human infant side was probably over stimulated to the point of crying.  Then there was that boy with the drum ...

So Hope enters our world with the mission to be human, fulfill the law and do what we couldn't do for ourselves.  The story is set to unfold as it has been planned since the beginning of time, and we have the chance this Advent to remember this entrance once again.  It wasn't silent in any way, but it certainly was holy beyond compare.

Merry Christmas and may the Love, Joy, Peace and Hope of Advent fill your hearts and homes. 

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Three Simple Words


A little back story on how I came to write this post.  Our annual men's retreat was last week and the Saturday night speaker was baseball great Darryl Strawberry.  I'm a baseball fan and Strawberry's Mets had won the World Series 28 years ago just after my dad died.  So while I expected other speakers to be good, I was attending because of Saturday night.  Then Saturday morning with Bryan Loritts happened.  

The thing is, in his second session, he spoke on a topic he hadn't planned to use.  So in a way, neither of us planned to have that encounter ... but God certainly did.  His topic was forgiveness and, by the end, I was ready to do something I'd been putting off for well over two decades.  It comes as a very personal letter, but I've decided to write it here as part of the Crooked Path.  

I'm still working through my perspective on forgiveness, but Bryan made me think in a way I couldn't just push it aside any longer.  He helped me see that forgiveness doesn't have to mean restoration.  It also doesn't mean we forget evil done against us or stop prosecution or other legal action.  It doesn't mean we grant absolution in every case.  But it does mean that we don't let "it" control us any longer.  Some of you might think what I'm about to write is silly - something I don't really need to do.  But I'm doing it for my own reasons because leaving it unforgiven needs to stop.  Twenty-some years is long enough.  So, just a few weeks after I marked the 28th year without my dad, I'm putting this out there on my blog.  It's just three simple words ... but simple doesn't mean weak and it's time I wrote this letter.

Dear Dad,

I forgive you for leaving us too early.  I was just twenty-three and only married for six months.  The next year was pretty tough on any number of fronts.  No Sunday dinner with you and Mom and Pete.  No visits or laughing or joking.  No chance for my young bride to cement her relationship with you and for me to see you through her eyes in a deeper way.  Nope - all of that gone with a single phone call on a Saturday afternoon.

I forgive you for not taking good enough care of yourself to see seven of your grandchildren ... eight really since Stephen was just a baby when you left us.  They are some pretty terrific kids, especially the two girls (or should I say young women) who live in my house.  I realize you may not have lived this long, but the loss is still very real even if you'd had only a few years with my girls.

I forgive you for not being around when I finally finished my undergrad degree and pressed on to grad school.  I know you'd have been proud of the man I've become, but it rings a little hollow when I can't hear your response.  Just once, I'd have loved for you to sit in on a Sunday School class I taught.  Sure we'd have had our differences, but I know we'd have found common ground in the same God and Savior.  I know you would have challenged my thinking ... yet I can only project that because neither of us had the chance

I forgive you, Dad, not just for dying too soon but for all the years you put ministry first and for the lessons I learned that had to be unlearned.  I spent quite a bit of time with a very skilled counselor who told me to do this decades ago ... but it took a long time and an unexpected encounter at a retreat to finally break that dam.

I love you Dad and I still miss you.  But looking for your affirmation and praise can't happen anymore.  It's time for me to consummate the forgiveness and let it go.  You left a big imprint on my life for the twenty-three years I had you and in the twenty-eight since I said good bye.  Your legacy will continue still ... but my perspective will change because I've finally written those three simple words:

I forgive you.

Love,

Mark

Sunday, November 2, 2014

A Little Perspective Please?



I'll tell you right now, I'm not quite sure where this is headed.  But the thoughts and images are strong in my mind, so I really feel like this is the topic for this week.  I'll do my best to get where I need to be, but it might be a bumpy ride.  So I'd encourage you to take a little perspective, please and know we are all more than the sum of our parts when we want to work collaboratively.



It's election season, just in case you haven't muted enough commercials, wanted to drive through a sea of vision-polluting signs or been tempted to send back unwanted junk mail with yesterday's coffee grounds.  There are few things more divisive in our country than an election.  In my own state of North Carolina, we've just won the dubious honor of hosting the most expensive US Senate campaign in history.  The two primary candidates and their backers have poured over $100 Million into a race for an office that lasts six years and pays $176K per year.  I know, I know ... it's never about the money, but if anything screams for a little perspective, this obscene and disgusting expenditure does.

The Raleigh Rescue Mission could have served over 3.5 Million meals with that amount of money.  Samaritan's Purse could dig about 250K fresh water wells.  And I could go on and on with organizations such as Compassion International, Doctors Without Borders, and thousands more worthy and dedicated organizations seeking to bring relief and hope to a world so often devoid of it.  Yet the $100MM spent in North Carolina for a temporary political battle is what we get.  And if I look at it in perspective, it makes me angry and sad.

I realize some will tell me I've given over to a "social gospel".  My response would be to say, "What is more social than the True Gospel?"  Perhaps I'd quote James talking about the nature of true worship - giving to the orphans and widows in their hour of need.  Perhaps I'd remind them that a full belly with clean water and sanitary sewers will be far more open to the Gospel than somebody who doesn't know where tonight's meal comes from and never thinks about tomorrow's food.

But to put it all in perspective, I'd say we've become a nation obsessed with power and control - and I don't care where your political, spiritual or ideological lines are drawn.  We think getting "our man/woman" in office is the fix.  We want our agenda to move forward without giving thought for the love we are commanded to have for everybody else.  In other words, we've lost (or vacated) our perspective on the altar of something different.  And I believe we've grieved God greatly in doing so.

I've lived over half a century now and I have many people I call "friend" who don't believe as I do on multiple fronts.  The "better" friends share a common faith, albeit across a wide variety of denominations, that our Hope is only in Jesus.  I don't think I mention that enough to them, so perhaps I'm the one who needs some perspective.

The Crooked Path has room for many, and the call from the Father is to invite people to travel.  We won't always talk or look the same (how boring would that be?) but we should be united in the goal to further the cause of the Cross and our mutual disdain for squandered opportunities to love our fellow man.  I believe that's where it starts.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Who Misses Whom?

28 years since the call.  And there have been other calls in the past three decades as well.  Some were expected (if that really describes it) and a few caught me completely by surprise.  All of them created a hole of some sort ... an empty spot that you really never fill.  Oh, the images in my mind take on a "softer" quality over time, but at the core they remain as mileposts of loss.  But lately, I've begun to wonder if they miss us as well ...


I think the answer, though it may be tough for many to hear (I include myself in this "many") is, "No.  They don't miss us."  Now, don't hear what I'm not saying.  I'm not saying they have no knowledge of us.  I'm merely pointing out that as they stand before the Presence, little else is of tangible consequence.  They have moved beyond what C.S. Lewis called the Shadowlands ... why would they even think to look back with any sort of regret or longing?

No, friends, it is we who are left who do the missing.  And if anybody tries to tell you he or she does not miss a loved one, even one known to be in the Presence, that person is in denial or flat-out lying.  I've got friends with living parents who are suffering from diminished capacities who know the "real person" is still there and they still grieve for what they see.  It's just part of being human and still living on this side of what is yet to come.

When Jesus' good friend Lazarus died, our Brother wept.  He did so out of human grief and also because Mary and Martha were grieving.  He explained the nature of Life and Resurrection (take out the indefinite article "the" in his response from John 11:25 and you'll see what I mean) in terms they couldn't deny yet failed to grasp.  And it's because they missed their brother, not because of any lack of faith.  Frankly, it's Lazarus who got the raw deal - he had to die a second time.

The Crooked Path is a mortal walk, but there is a sunrise over the last hill we can anticipate.  We grieve now and miss those who have left.  28 years later, I still miss Dad and would give most anything for even an hour's chat.  But he doesn't miss me - he's in the Presence and that's far too overwhelming and glorious.  I just take heart to know I'll see him again.  I know he still loves me even now and would be proud of the man I am becoming.  For now, that's enough to get me through another year.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Simple Kindness and a Smile

I had the opportunity to put a smile on somebody's face this week and I took it gladly.  It really doesn't matter what I did, but I can tell you it was unexpected by the recipient and it did cost me something.  But it also put things in perspective for me, and perspective combined with serving kindness to somebody is a very good thing.

As we made the decision to take the action, my wife reminded me we had seen something far more selfless on one of our favorite TV shows.  One of the contestants gave his earned advantage to another to the tune of $20K.  Now, I'll probably never be in that position, but the way it came about had the effect of restoring a little faith in humanity.

Now, ultimately, our humanity is what does us in.  But in the midst of all that, we have a Savior who shows us far more than a simple kindness.  He gave up his all to show us an everlasting kindness that offers true and permanent change.  In embracing what he gives, we have the opportunity to reflect that gift out into a world that needs our Redeemer desperately.

As I walk my Crooked Path, may I often take time to show simple kindness - and also the faith that I reflect in those acts - to many who I encounter.  That is, after all, something we are called to do ... and the smiles we get in return are worth it.