Monday, April 30, 2012

No Bridge Over Trouble Waters

More than 6,000 Hondurans perished when Hurricane Mitch devastated the Central American country with 140 MPH winds in October of 1998. I witnessed the destruction a few months later serving on a mission trip to help build and rebuild churches, some that had been affected by Mitch. The massive amount of water dumped on the country before, during, and after the storm had turned rivers into wild ferocities, seeking outlets that were already overflowing.

One afternoon during our week-long trip, a Honduran missionary took me on a short drive to witness firsthand some of the hurricane-impacted rural areas outside the small village where we’d been working. In his sure-footed vehicle, we crept and climbed our way to a tropical rain forest area on a mountainside. Getting out beside a roaring river, my guide explained it was once a serene setting, the river merely a peaceful stream. The sound of its furious surge forced us to shout to hear one another.

He pointed to an area where a wooden footbridge had been washed out by the storm. The bridge, he noted, was the only link to the outside world for those living on the opposite side. I looked to see dozens of run-down shacks dotting the mountainside across the river from me. The community would be cut off until another bridge could be erected, which wouldn't be anytime soon.

As I peered across at the isolated community, I spotted two barefoot girls walking toward the raging river. They were seventy-five yards or so upstream from me, headed for the river with purpose. They looked to be about twelve and eight years old. As the girls neared the water, I began to watch them intently. What they did next will stay with me for the rest of my life.

With determination, the older girl grabbed the younger one and together, they walked straight into the furious river.

“LOOK! What are they doing?”

The missionary turned and saw what I’d been watching.

“Oh no...they’ve been told not to do that.”

“Hey, get out of there!” I yelled, though the girls had no chance of hearing me, let alone understanding the English I spoke.

My guide just shook his head in silence. I sensed this was something he’d witnessed before. We watched helplessly as the older girl battled her way across the raging river, with the younger girl clinging to her, literally for her dear life. At times their little heads were about all we saw bobbing above the water.

The force of the river carried the girls downstream as they finally emerged at a point just below us. They scrambled up the hill toward where we were standing. Dripping wet, their dark eyes met ours and they smiled, continuing on to a small concrete block shanty where they ducked inside.

When they emerged moments later, the younger girl was carrying a cellophane bag. As the girls approached us again, I saw it was a bag of rice. Both girls squealed with joy at the peppermint sticks I’d fished out of my backpack for them.

“Gracias, senor!” And with that, they scurried back down the embankment to return to their side of the river. I was still perplexed by the whole scene.

"That rice is probably all their family will have to eat for next week or so,” my missionary guide shouted in my ear. “Families send children across the river to find food on this side. You see, they send their children, because they’re the most expendable...” His voice trailed off as we nervously watched the two girls fight their way back across the river.

“Ok, but why send both of the children?” I asked, as the little girls climbed out on their side of the river and raced back to their simple shanty with the rice.

“Well, believe or not, the younger one serves as an anchor to keep the older one from being swept away. But, it doesn’t always work. Ten or twelve children have been lost since the bridge washed out.” Looking down the violent river, my throat tightened as I thought of the precious lives that had been swept away by the perilous act that I’d just witnessed.

“Dear God, please remedy this situation,” I whispered under my breath as we climbed back into the missionary’s truck. I didn’t turn back toward the river again, but I didn’t have to. I could still hear its roar for days, months, and now, years after I’d left it.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Three Dogs Tight

I heard Bill Cosby joke once that parents of only children aren’t experiencing the full joy of parenting.   After all, he said, if you come across a broken lamp in the house, you immediately know who did it.

Similarly, the same might be said for having multiple pets.   Being a three-dog family, we’ve witnessed some moving traits that animals demonstrate toward one another.   Our three dogs, Belle, Georgie, and Rosie are a mini family unit within our family.

We adopted Rosie the Boggle about two years ago. Boggles are a mix of Boston Terrier and Beagle, what some would refer to as a designer dog.   I suppose if you can think of a name for what were once called mutts, you can sell them instead of give them away.  Rosie has become the pup Belle and Georgie never had.   She follows them here and there, imitating their actions right down to the Belle-like way she sticks her hind legs straight back when she lies down.   She often basks in the sunshine with Georgie, nuzzling up against his soft black lab fur.

Georgie and our petite Great Dane, Belle, are both nine years old.   They’ve both been a part of our family for the past eight years.   No two dogs were ever more compatible. I don’t think a cross word between the two has ever been barked.   But there’s been times when they’ve shown a companionship that left us smiling in wonderment.

Vocationally, my wife and I had to live separately in the early months of 2005. Georgie moved with my wife to our new house in Kansas, while Belle kept me company and sane, while I waited for my transfer from Louisiana.   In April of that year, my transfer came through and we joined the rest of the family.   As we pulled into our new driveway, my wife came racing out to meet us and I eagerly jumped out of the truck.

Belle’s attention was on something else.   In the backyard, from behind a chain link fence, she’d spotted her old friend, Georgie.   You see, it had been four months of separation for them as well.   Belle sprinted to the fence and both dogs put their front paws atop the railing, nose-to-nose in an excited reunion.   The rest of their day was spent in joyful play and joint napping.

From the day we took her in, Belle has claimed a spot in our bed, at our feet.   Georgie’s custom made bed lays on the floor at the foot of our bed.   This has been their sleeping arrangement every night we’ve had them...except for a two week period in the winter of 2010.   Georgie had undergone a serious surgery to repair a torn ligament in his leg.   He was unable to climb the stairs to our bedroom, so I’d made him a pallet to sleep on in the downstairs den while he recovered.

The first night home from his surgery, we went through our usual routine before retiring.   I headed up the stairs to go to bed, looking back to see Georgie resting comfortably on his pallet.   Oddly, Belle was lying on the floor, next to her injured companion, instead of her usual practice of following me upstairs.

"C’mon, girl, let’s go to bed."

In a rare moment, Belle deliberately disobeyed me, lowering her head on the floor next to Georgie’s bedding.   She seemed determined to stand watch over her buddy.   While I thought that was touching, I was sure it wouldn't last the night.   You see, Belle has always been a true creature of comfort.  But when I woke up the next morning, her spot in our bed was still vacant.

Belle’s vigil over Georgie lasted two weeks.   Then one night, she once again followed me upstairs to go to bed, but stopped at the top of the stairway.   Turning back with her head tilted slightly, Belle peered downward into the darkness while conveying the softest of whimpers.

Switching on the stairwell light, I saw her companion contemplating his first post-surgery climb of the steps.   With Belle’s urging, Georgie made a slow, careful ascent up the dozen or so steps leading to his awaiting friend.   Both dogs then headed down the hall and got into their familiar spots.

Our three dogs have always demonstrated loyalty and love toward us that can not be mistaken.   But the quiet bond they possess with one another is an example from which we humans could learn much. I know I have.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Saturday Blessings

The group I see every Saturday at a local drug and alcohol rehabilitation center is always diversified. They come from all walks of life, but it’s the homeless ones that grab my attention, perhaps a little more than the rest. They come from under bridges and back alleys for a few days, maybe a week of relief from the harsh cruelty of their lives.

Homeless addicts are generally easy to spot. Their clothing is tattered and worn out, matching the look in their eyes. It isn’t difficult to see when a man hasn’t had a real haircut for ages, or when the redness of his skin is aglow from the scrubbing of a long overdue shower. His eyes aren’t as focused as most, a reflection of the difficult life he’s led.

Many are illiterate, always looking at me with a prideful helplessness when I hand them a pen and registration form. And although the Bible I place before them will go unopened, they often run their rough, weathered hands over it in a moment of reverence perhaps we’ve long since forgotten.

Yet, it is often during these times of respite from their difficult lives that these folks have touched me and others with insight and declarations of faith that you might never expect. Stripped of the materialistic comforts we so often take for granted, many of those I’ve met from the depths of society have developed a spiritual relationship that always leaves me trying to find more meaning in my own life. In short, they minister to me, though our intended roles are just the opposite.

My Saturday morning sessions are generally centered on having a real relationship with God through Christ. I emphasize that one should repair or create that relationship first in their attempt to reconstruct the nearly destroyed lives their addictions have brought about.

Floyd sat through my Saturday rambling with nary a word from his mouth. He made no eye contact, and for all I knew, the words I’d spoken about trusting God with one’s life weren’t reaching anywhere near his ears, let alone his life. His hair was matted and disheveled. He had on the wardrobe of many years of collecting whatever he could come across. He sat staring off into space, seemingly wanting nothing but for me to finish so he could move on.

Then, at some point Floyd’s eyes raised to meet mine. He looked at me directly and I could sense he wanted to speak. I nodded his direction.

"When I pray, asking for money to buy gin and cigarettes, is the money I receive coming from God or the devil." What a question. My answer was simply, "Yes." It got a few chuckles, but Floyd didn’t laugh.

Floyd said whenever he’d asked for money, God had provided, even though He knew what Floyd would do with the money.

"Sometimes, I think God not giving me what I asked for would turn out better for my life..." Then after he reflected for a few seconds, Floyd had a moment of revelation.

"You know, maybe that was God’s way of telling me He was still there..."

There was a quietness that fell on the room. Many of the participants and I realized that sometimes, just knowing God was present was enough. Floyd had touched us unexpectedly with a simple testimony.

Yet another Saturday, Cuban refugee Carlos slowly raised a wrinkled, somewhat withered hand to ask a question. I called on him and he said something in broken English that I couldn’t quite make out. I heard "Jesus," "die," and "cross," mixed in with some slurred "spanglish." I walked toward him and asked him to speak more slowly. Carlos said, this time quite discernibly, "If Jesus had all that power, why did he allow himself to die on the cross? I’ve never understood why He did that." I asked him if I offered to pay off all his past, current, and future debts, would he take me up on it.

"Of course I would," Carlos replied. Jesus, I told him, died on a cross to pay for your past sins, your current sin, and your future sins, out of His incredible love for us. Without that payment, we’d have no way to reach the Father, no way to God’s presence, heaven.

"Carlos, have you ever accepted Jesus as your Savior?" I asked him.

"No," he replied, "but now that I understand, I do!"

All that and more from folks taking a short break from lives most of us cannot imagine.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Reflecting on Easter - Part III - One Last Detail

One last detail that I was reminded of when I reread the Easter story was that Jesus loved me as an individual, not just as a part of the great mass of humanity. He came to save all of humanity, yes, but each of us has our personal journey to the foot of the cross.   In John 19, as Jesus hung from the cross, we hear Him say some telling things:

26When Jesus then saw His mother, and the disciple whom He loved standing nearby, He said to His mother, "Woman, behold, your son!"

27Then He said to the disciple, "Behold, your mother!" From that hour the disciple took her into his own household.

28After this, Jesus, knowing that all things had already been accomplished, to fulfill the Scripture, said, "I am thirsty."

Jesus, bearing the weight of humanity’s sin in the most violent, gruesome manner imaginable, took a moment to take care of his mother and a beloved friend, the apostle John. Verse 28 says, "After this, Jesus knowing that all things had already been accomplished..." After this, one last detail that Jesus found needed to be done.

My sins, like the ones of those who witnessed His death, made it necessary for Jesus to go to the cross. His Love, like the Love he had for those at the foot of the cross, is the same Love He shows for me every day.   

Praise Him, praise Him, Jesus our blessed redeemer!

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Reflecting on Easter - Part II "Peter, Peter"

Luke 22: 54-62

54 Then seizing him, they led him away and took him into the house of the high priest. Peter followed at a distance. 55 And when some there had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and had sat down together, Peter sat down with them. 56 A servant girl saw him seated there in the firelight. She looked closely at him and said, "This man was with him."

57 But he denied it. "Woman, I don’t know him," he said.

58 A little later someone else saw him and said, "You also are one of them."

"Man, I am not!" Peter replied.

59 About an hour later another asserted, "Certainly this fellow was with him, for he is a Galilean."

60 Peter replied, "Man, I don’t know what you’re talking about!" Just as he was speaking, the rooster crowed. 61 The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word the Lord had spoken to him: "Before the rooster crows today, you will disown me three times." 62 And he went outside and wept bitterly.

This passage is often referred to as Peter’s denial. Two things jump out at me here. Verse 61 says Jesus turned and looked "straight at Peter." Looked him dead in the eye. Was this the all time case of conviction, or what! Only hours earlier, Peter vowed to follow Jesus, "even unto death," and at his first opportunity to make good on his vow, he fails miserably. And yet, I have so many times failed in my efforts to serve Christ. And, like Peter, God can look us dead in the eye, holding us accountable for those failures. But as we later find with Peter, God redeems us, forgives us, and give us more opportunities to feed His sheep.

The other aspect of this passage that hits home with me is at the end of verse 54, "...Peter followed at a distance." Simon Peter was at his most courageous, impetuous self when he was in Christ’s immediate presence, wasn’t he? When Jesus came walking on water toward the boat full of disciples, it was only Peter who:

"... got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. (Matthew 14:29)

When Jesus was arrested in the garden, we see:

Simon Peter then, having a sword, drew it and struck the high priest's slave, and cut off his right ear; (John 18:10)

And finally, it was our friend Peter, who boldly and correctly answers Jesus’ question of identity with the statement of statements:

"...Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God." (Matthew 16:16)

Much like ourselves, when Peter followed "at a distance," his demeanor changed. His boldness weakened. We have to be careful not to follow Christ at a distance. When we put other activities or events ahead of serving or worshiping Christ, we’re guilty of following Christ at a distance. When we hear the Lord’s name used inappropriately and remain silent, we’re guilty of following Christ at a distance. We wouldn’t tolerate someone speaking about a family member in the same manner we tolerate the use of profanity with the Lord’s name, now would we? And that leads to, when we put other relationships ahead of our relationship with Christ, we’re guilty of following Christ at a distance. Our relationship with our Lord and Savior is to be the number one relationship we have. Jesus tells us plainly to:

"Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind." (Matthew 22:37)

In his book Experiencing God, Henry Blackaby points out that "What you do in response to God's revelation (invitation) reveals what you believe about God." So many times, I’ve failed in my responses because I found myself following Christ at a distance.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Reflecting on Easter - Part I - "Give Your Best"

Sometimes when we know a story by heart, like the Easter story, it’s easy to overlook details that go on within the story. This past week, as I’ve been reading the account of Jesus’s last week on earth several facts stood out to me that maybe you, like me, hadn’t contemplated. I’m breaking it down into a three part entry.  Here's the first part with two more to follow later in the week:  

Mark 14: 13-15:

13 So he sent two of his disciples, telling them, "Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him. 14 Say to the owner of the house he enters, ‘The Teacher asks: Where is my guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ 15 He will show you a large room upstairs, furnished and ready. Make preparations for us there."

Who were these two, the water toting man and the owner of the house? Random people that bear no significance? Not really. The man with the jar of water was the disciples’ guide, taking them to the right place. Jesus told his disciples to "follow him." I’ve often needed a set of eyes to point the way when I didn’t know where to go! And the homeowner is also more significant than we give him credit for. The key phrase in identifying the man is his house was "furnished and ready." Ready for what? Ready to host a most significant event in our Christian faith, the last supper of Christ and his disciples. The setting in the upper room was made ready by a man that we never learn anything about, except that he was ready to serve. 

Years ago, I walked into our church building in Louisiana on a Thursday afternoon and heard the sanctuary organ playing. I’d thought that I was the only one in the building, so hearing the organ playing was surprising.   I walked into the sanctuary, finding our regular organist playing to an empty room. Miss Aziele was a lady well into her 80's, who’d played the organ for that church for many, many years. She no doubt knew every key and pedal on that old organ frontwards and backwards. She saw me and stopped playing. I asked her if she was playing for any particular reason. Her response has stayed with me to this day. Miss Aziele said, "No, I just come down here every week for an hour or so to practice.   I always want to give my best."   After playing for so many years, one could easily assume Miss Aziele wouldn’t feel the need to practice on her own time, but she wanted to "give my best." What a lesson she taught me that Thursday afternoon.

Every Sunday, our sanctuary at our current church is beautifully adorned by one of our senior ladies. She’s done it for years, putting out seasonal flower arrangements, festive candles, etc., all in an effort to enhance our worship experience. Her work is rarely mentioned, most likely taken for granted, but not a week passes that she doesn’t spend her time quietly serving her God and our church with her efforts. She, like Miss Aziele, wants to always give her best.

I’m sure there are many in your churches doing likewise. So often the work of those in the spotlight gets our attention, but we need to appreciate those who serve in unseen ways. Think of someone you can encourage with a word of thanks that might not hear it otherwise. And as we contemplate this week, the holiest of weeks for the Christian, may we always remember the incredible sacrifice made on our behalf through Christ’s death on the cross, and as we do, may it inspire us to always give our best.