Monday, December 15, 2014

Blue Flowers

At seven, she dwelt in the depths of the Great Depression. With five older brothers and two younger sisters, Juanita had been born into hopeless despair. Her father had deserted the family, succumbing to the blistering drought, insects, and hot winds that ravaged their Kansas farmland.

Her mother went callously about the business of scratching out an existence on the remnants of useable land she and the older sons toiled over. Juanita helped as well, up before the sunrise gathering eggs and toting water from the well. In the dimness of the kitchen, her mother began a breakfast of cornmeal mush and biscuits. The sole exchange between mother and daughter was a slight nod as she took the pail from her and poured the water into the tin basin on the table.

"Go git ready for school, Skeeter"

Juanita drew warmth from the nickname, passing through the dingy sheets hanging in the doorway that led to the backroom of the house. Often she would pretend to be a princess readying for the ball, while slipping on her faded, handmade blue-flowered dress...

At seventeen, she’d grown bitter at the depths of her poverty. Juanita managed to finish high school, despite the taunting she endured from classmates who looked upon her as a poor, dirty outcast from the farm. Her mother watched through empty eyes as her daughter slowly packed a grip one night and walked out with nary a departing word. Juanita never turned back, and the threadbare relationship she held with her mother grew even thinner.

But the world proved to be harsher than she had imagined. Juanita skipped from one nickel and dime job to another, often sobbing herself to sleep in her one-room flat, as insects and rodents scurried about. Perhaps she’d judged her mother too harshly, but she clung to her prideful determination to carve out a life on her own. She drifted off to sleep, gazing emptily at the shabby blue-flowered wallpaper...

At twenty-seven, Juanita’s husband found more regular railroad work in Missouri. The young family was allowed to ride on the back platform of a caboose to their new hometown. Juanita allowed herself a slight smile of hope, perched atop suitcases and other belongings with her two older children. She tightly clutched her newborn, as the brisk autumn air blew through Juanita’s blue-flowered scarf...

At thirty-seven, her life nearly ended as a careless driver ran a stop sign, while browsing through photographs he just picked up at the drugstore. Juanita lay dazed on the floorboard of the family station wagon, unable to move a shattered knee. As paramedics eased her gurney into the back of an ambulance, Juanita took great solace at the little voices from the curb.

"We’re ok, momma. We love you!"

Juanita turned to see her children, standing together along the curbside. She whispered a prayer of thanks and slowly faded into unconsciousness as the attendants warmed her with a soft, blue-flowered blanket...

At fifty-seven, she wiped away a tear, sitting alone in the back of the limousine that had carried the family to her mother’s graveside services. Though she’d spent the last few years dutifully caring for her elderly mother, Juanita still felt the anguished twinge of a relationship so torn by the times. She softly dabbed at her eyes and gazed out at the blue-flowered arrangement sitting beside her mother’s grave...

At seventy-seven, she stood over an open casket, saying goodbye to a man with whom she had found true romance. Gazing at the only man she’d ever loved, Juanita gently reached in and touched the hands that had held hers for nearly 60 years. She softly murmured a few parting words, turned away, and reached in her handbag for a blue-flowered kerchief...

At eight-seven, her life's song in its final stanzas, Juanita’s days are taken up by caregivers and the routine of assisted living. Although many memories have been robbed by the evil wretches of dementia, her eyes still twinkle when she sees her baby boy come for a visit.

 We sit eating ice cream, watching the old black and white westerns that she loves, until she’s ready for her afternoon nap. Helping her into her bed, I wonder how many more times I’ll get to tuck her in, like she must have done for me so many years ago. I kiss her gently on the cheek, pulling the blue-flowered quilt over her shoulders...

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Beth's Affliction

Beth was a vivacious young girl. Together, we shared the warmth and love of our parents’ home. She grew into a bright, beautiful young woman, with an ambitiousness beyond any of our peers. She both intimidated and captured the eye of many a young man. As her older brother, I saw no suitor worthy of her attention. But she had no need for my overseeing, as Beth exuded confidence and grace...until the affliction.

For the first few weeks, I knew nothing of her nemesis. She and Mother often whispered in the dark corners of the house, sheltering some sort of secret. Beth often sobbed endlessly and trembled with fear. Father seemed unattached and distant. I awoke early one day to find him in a quiet moment of contemplation.

“What is burdening you so, Father?” He drew in a large volume of the cool morning air, then slowly exhaled.

“Beth...she has some sort of illness. It’s a woman issue. Her – her bleeding has not stopped as it should and she’s remains unclean...unclean.

Father’s voice trailed off in despair, his massive, calloused hands cradling his head.
We sat in silence for a few moments.“Doctors, they must know something, Father.”

“She’s been to three already. No answers.”

Thus, my dear sister’s long journey began. We helplessly witnessed our beautiful vision of vitality slowly deteriorate into a picture of ashen gauntness. Through hushed tones, our community assumed it was Beth’s own sin, or possibly a family offense, that had brought about her situation. We were often the target of a scornful sneer.

A shelter for the unclean had been designated beyond our locality. Leaders from the temple insisted that Beth be sent there, deeming her no longer fit to be in our vicinity. I faithfully made trips to this dark, stench-filled area. At first it was a frightening experience, but I grew accustomed to it, delivering rations and fresh linens to my beloved sister.

Twelve long years passed, with Beth’s situation unchanged. Father died a broken man, having failed to return his beautiful daughter back to her loving home. We pursued any glimmer of hope that we could for Beth, desperately seeking out the services of others who were revealed to be charlatans and frauds. They rid her of nothing but our money, often subjecting her to humiliating treatments and worsening her condition.

One afternoon as I was returning from the marketplace, a large throng approached. They were following a man walking beside one of the rulers of the synagogue. It was unusual to see a ruler out walking with the commoners. I asked one of the crowd what the commotion was about.

“Jairus’ daughter is dying! He’s pleaded with this great teacher to heal her.”

I’d heard talk of a new teacher in our area. Even Beth had spoken of him, as someone had shared the teacher’s words and deeds with her. She held great hope that this man was from God and could somehow remedy her situation. I feared those hopes would once again be dashed.

Racing ahead of the crowd, I climbed atop a small porch to get a better look at this man walking with Jairus. His appearance was unremarkable, with well-worn sandals and a tasseled robe that was rather tattered and frayed. The crowd swarmed around them as they continued their determined walk.

Suddenly the teacher whirled about as though something had struck him from behind...

“Who touched me?” (1)

One man looked at him incredulously and said, “Master, the people are crowding and pressing against you.” (2)

“Someone touched me; I know that power has gone out from me.” (3)

In an instant, the crowd retreated from a weeping woman, her head bowed and covered. Through her sobs, she admitted she had sought his healing power, believing he was a true man of God.

The woman lifted her head and I saw my sister’s radiant face, now restored to her former beauty. Through sheer determination and faith, Beth had somehow eluded her confinement and fought her way through the crowd to reach this man...just to touch the back of his garment.

“Daughter, your faith has made you well. Go in peace.” (4)

As we struggled through the crowd to reach one another, Beth paused and looked back, her beautiful eyes following the steps of her Savior...and mine.

1 Luke 8:45 (NIV)
2 Luke 8:45 (NIV)
3 Luke 8:46 (NIV)
4 Luke 8:48 (NIV)

Monday, December 1, 2014

Bottom's Up

The poverty-stricken area of Guayaquil, Ecuador was like nothing I’d ever seen. My mission travels have taken me to areas of the poor that most people will never witness...but this was on another level of impoverishment.

It surpassed comprehension that people actually dwelled in the run-down shanties that had been built over a city garbage dump.

We’d walked the streets all day, sharing the Gospel at some pre-arranged appointments or, occasionally, with folks we just happened to meet. Fatigue was setting in as we came to five young men sitting on a street corner. My initial thought was to just move on. But the pastor of the small church we’d been working with made a straight line for them.

My eyes scanned over the group. Five young street thugs, complete with dyed, spiked hair, gold chains, piercings...what was the use? They greeted my mission partner Mel and me sneeringly, and, though I couldn’t understand their Spanish, the tone dripped with disdain and mockery. I nodded and winked at Mel.

“Your turn,” I chuckled quietly, hopping up to sit on a concrete ledge with the Pastor.

As Mel began to share through our interpreter, I decided to use the time to rest a spell. But, hearing muffled snickers coming from the group, I began praying that Mel, a newcomer in the mission field, would have the courage to continue despite the group’s apparent disdain for his message.

Mel began wearing down as the gang’s resistence started getting the better of him. I couldn’t blame him. After all, I’d bailed out at the beginning. But then, I got an odd feeling – quite literally. It jarred me and I jumped up, out of my comfortable rest. I found I’d sat in a puddle of cold, muddy water, and the seat of my trousers were soaked and stained.

I grumbled at my predicament. But instantly, God flashed an illustration through my mind, and undeniably distinct directions:

“Take a shot.”

I strolled over to the group. Mel had somewhat penetrated their initial barriers and I wanted a crack at them with what God had just laid on my heart...and elsewhere.

“Any of you ever make a mistake? Ever really mess up?”

The group looked at each other reluctantly. These cocky street thugs admitted they indeed had made mistakes in their young lives. They chuckled and nodded in agreement.

“Well, I just screwed up big time,” I confessed as I bent over, pointing my rear end in their direction. The young men burst out in laughter at my situation as I sensed the chill between us beginning to thaw.

“Let me ask you this: any of you ever commit a sin?”

Stillness filled the air as five sets of eyes cast downward. Shoulders, once erect in pride, now drooped in self-awareness.

“Yes, I have plenty of sin in my life, too. In fact, the Bible says we all have sinned. You know fellas, I can take these pants and wash them and that stain will come out. But, while I can get my pants clean, I can’t clean the stain of sin from my heart. Only the Blood of Jesus, shed on the cross, cleans that stain.”

“Take a shot.”

“I’m gonna ask you to do something brave today. I’m gonna ask you, in front of your friends here, to admit you’re a sinner and need Christ in your life, for your salvation.” Four pairs of eyes rose up at me in prideful rejection...but Juan’s remained cast downward.

“Take a shot.”

“I’m gonna ask you to stand up in front of God and your friends and receive Jesus as your Lord and Savior.”

Without hesitation, Juan raised himself up. Suddenly he appeared childlike, his once prideful eyes welling with tears as he stumbled forward in my direction.

I took Juan aside with Mel, and we prayed with him as he asked Christ to forgive his sins and reside in his heart. Mel looked him in the eye and praised his courage.

“Juan, standing up in front of your friends was about the manliest thing I’ve ever seen.”

I couldn’t have agreed more. But there was great irony in the moment as well. You see, Juan had demonstrated that becoming like a little child.

...“Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
Matthew 18:3 (ESV)

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Old Soldier Still Marched...

Having procured his merchandise, the old timer shuffled away from the cashier, behind his WalMart cart.  I didn't pay Him much mind as I turned to grab one of the empty carts and he headed my direction.

As the old gentleman neared though, the writing on his hat seized my attention, and I straightened up in a gesture of respect...and reflection. "WWII VETERAN" his hat announced proudly, and I stepped aside quietly out of appreciation for his duty to our country as he slowly made his way toward me.

No doubt my own father’s service in World War II makes me even more appreciative of this fading generation of heroes. I felt a lump 
in my throat as the man passed by, thinking of dad, now gone these past ten years. But I was quickly jolted from my moment of sentiment as the man raised up in a moment of realization that something was amiss in his shopping cart.

Like the proud soldier he once was, the old vet did an about-face
and marched directly back to the cash register. Suddenly those once shuffling feet began to lift, right-left-right, in a straight line that would make Gen. Patton proud. I stood and curiously watched, then meandered over where I could hear what could have riled up the man so. I surmised that he must’ve realized that he been overcharged, or perhaps been short-changed.

I saw him reach down in his cart and pick up his cane and begin waving it at the cashier, though I still wasn’t close enough to hear what he was saying. He was obviously distressed over something, and honestly, I thought I might have to come to the cashier’s rescue...

Proverbs 2:7 tells us:
                   He stores up sound wisdom for the upright;
                   He is a shield to those who walk in integrity,
Integrity might be a dying characteristic in the world we live in today, but I’m thankful when I see integrity put into action, as I did that day in WalMart...

"No, ma’am, I don’t think you did," I heard the old vet say with a strong voice to the cashier, handing her his receipt with one hand, the partially raised cane in the other. 

The young woman's eyes quickly scanned the receipt. Giving it a thorough once over, she looked up from the paper, with a sense of realization of her own...

"Yes sir, you’re right.   I didn’t charge you for your new cane." Then, jokingly she added, "But you coulda just kept going, no one would’ve even known!"

"No, ma’am...I would’ve known," the old veteran replied, "And that just wouldn’t set well with me."

I walked on into the store and smiled to myself, grateful to have witnessed that simple act of integrity...I smiled again as I passed the $7.95 canes on display just beyond the cashier’s line.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Nothing New About New Age

For some time, there has been in our midst a movement commonly known as New Age. It is a conglomeration of several beliefs that have stemmed from mankind’s desire to reach ultimate oneness with the Almighty, circumventing truths espoused by traditional beliefs, namely Christianity. It’s far from harmless, as the movement leads directly away from Christ and to the ultimately destructive belief that salvation is achievable through eclectic means.

According to New Agers, man is divine by nature. Thus, as divine or god-like in nature, one can create his own version of reality. In other words, you can be like God. Further, you have the capacity to be your own god.

Now, New Agers have tolerance for nearly every belief under the sun, with the exception of Christianity. Christians know that we are sinners, saved only by the Blood of Christ shed on the Cross of Calvary. And, as Roman 10:13 plainly states, "whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved." Salvation is gifted through God’s grace and only God’s grace. New Age believers can’t tolerate this simple doctrine because they refuse to see themselves as sinners in need of a Savior. What’s ironic about New Age thinking is there’s nothing "new" about it at all. It’s a deception that has its roots in the beginning.

In the garden of Eden, Satan tempted Eve with the forbidden fruit with these words:

" For God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and
you will be like God, knowing good and evil."
Genesis 3:5 - (emphasis mine)

You will be like God, the serpent said. And here we are, so many centuries later with a "new"
movement that will be like God.

Lest you think this cult movement isn’t gaining traction, last week in Portland, Oregon an evangelical Christian organization came under fire from a group of organized parents called Protect Portland Children. They speak out against the evangelical group’s message and influence parents not to allow their children to attend its events. The message they found so offensive? Each person is a sinner in need of the Savior. Protect Portland’s Children uses a poster of a sweet looking, pig-tailed girl holding up a sign stating, "I am not a sinner."

Let’s face it, if we’re not sinners, we have no need for a Savior...we can save will be like God New Age thinking reminds one of another passage of scripture, from Ecclesiastes 1: 9...

"...there is nothing new under the sun."
(emphasis mine)

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Noah's Moment

Over the past few years, on mission trips in several countries, and in our own country, I've seen people come to Christ in a variety of ways. They’re often wrapped in emotion or thoughtful reflection. Many have been under conviction and they're submitting to what they know to be a Truth, that "Christ died for our sins, according to the Scriptures … he was buried. . . . The third day he rose again from the dead, according to the Scriptures . . . and he appeared (1 Cor. 15:3-6)". By that and only that are we delivered from our sin, as "He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. (2 Cor. 5:21)."

That is the Gospel, pure and true. But out of the hundreds of people that I've witnessed receive Jesus, perhaps none have struck me as profoundly as a young man in our church's Vacation Bible School program last week. His innocence and simple words reflected his young age. But they also served as a template for every lost sinner needing to come to Christ.

I sat down with eight-year-old Noah in our empty sanctuary, after his mother had relayed some of the questions that he’d been asking concerning salvation. She was of the mind that he was ready to come to know Jesus as his Lord and Savior. No truer words has a mother ever spoken of her child. With the permission of his parents, I’d like to share my conversation with Noah:

"Hey Noah, how’s it going?"

"Pretty good."

Earlier in the week, Noah had his appendix removed at a local hospital, so I used that as a sort of ice breaker:

"So, you’ve had a pretty busy week, huh? Having to go to the hospital and everything?"

"Yeah. It wasn’t too fun, but it’s ok now."

Noah smiled a bit, but for the most part, he maintained a seriousness that 
contradicted his young age. I wasn’t sure if he was intimidated by the moment or perhaps uncomfortable speaking one-on-one with an adult that he wasn’t that familiar with, so I nosed forward carefully...

"So, what else’s been going on in your life, Noah," I asked, hoping to draw him out a bit more. His immediate response will stay with me forever...

‘Well, I know you’re a pastor or something..."

I started to correct him that I fell more on the side of a something, but Noah was starting to roll...

"...and I’ve been wanting to talk to somebody about getting saved."

"What about getting saved, Noah?"

"I need to."

"Really? Why do you need to get saved?"

At that point, eight-year-old Noah looked me dead in the eye and stated his situation:

"Cause I got sin in my life, and Jesus died for sin. So I need to become a Christian so my sins are paid for...but I don’t know how to do that"

Noah’s attitude demonstrated a near-desperate situation of turmoil churning inside him. But it’s a situation that all without Christ are in, but many don’t comprehend. My own Pastor said recently, "The problem lost people have is, they don’t know they’re lost. It’s up to us to show them..." Undoubtedly, through his parents, his Sunday school teachers, and others, Noah had correctly accessed his situation and wanted to rectify it, and rectify it now...

After receiving the salvation through Christ that he’d desperately sought, Noah called his mom into the room and announced with a great deal of pride and relief, "I’m a Christian now, mom." They shared the kind of embrace that only a mother and child can experience. The moment was accentuated with a mother’s joyful tears. I just may have wiped away a couple myself...

I’m thankful to a loving God that gave His only begotten Son to die for my sins. I’m thankful for the opportunities I’ve had to share this Truth with people all over the world...none more so than Noah.   

Monday, March 10, 2014

Our Ride Home

That 5x7 card taped in the ticket booth window told us all we needed to know. The time was written boldly with a black marker, easily read by passing parents dropping off their kids for a night of movie magic. My dad was always quick to declare the time written on the card out loud, for all to hear.

“10:35, okay, I’ll be here to pick you up at 10:35!”

With that, I’d hop out of the car, joining my friends, who were acting out similar scenarios in their own family sedans and station wagons. We’d all fall in line for our tickets, making one last mental note of the time posted in the window. Up close, you could see the card completely, with the words “Show Ends” written in small letters just above the large time filling up the majority of the card.

You see, that card served as our insurance of keeping in good graces with our folks. My dad was going to be lined up with other parents on Main Street, between Second and First Streets, to pick me up at the time announced on that card...and I’d better be standing outside that Fox Theater.

Now, it really wouldn’t have been a problem at all, and it wasn’t, on the nights we actually stayed for the movies. But those nights that we got adventurous and took off for, say, the roller rink four blocks over and two blocks up, or down to Boone’s for some curly fries and a Cherry Coke...those were the nights that the time written on that card was so vital to our well being.

The Bible isn’t as clear as that little card in the window of my hometown theater was...there’s no posted time when Christ shall return for His church. But in Luke’s Gospel we are warned:

“But take heed to yourselves, lest your hearts be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness, and cares of this life, and that Day come on you unexpectedly.” (Luke 21:34, NKJV)

I suppose if there were a time and date posted for the Lord’s return, the human nature of many would simply put off living a Godly life for Christ until such time came to pass. But I don’t think that’s why God hasn’t revealed more on the subject.

I believe the Father wants in us a constant abidance, a steady readiness, simply out of love for Him. In the Bible, expressions of love on God’s part are usually followed by an action. For instance, John 3:16 tells us that because God so loved the world, He gave. We are to follow God’s example. For instance, after His resurrection, Jesus asks Peter if he loved Him. After Peter states adamantly his love for Christ, Jesus tells him to feed His sheep. Love, followed by action.

Our lives are to be lived out in reflection of the great love God has shone down upon us. We can’t possibly repay the amount of love that we’ve received. But, we can stay in God’s walk for our lives, better than I stayed in that movie theater of my youth, and stay ready for the Savior to come pick us up.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Short End of the Stick

"Oh, man, here he goes again, with that cockamamie pleading he does every Sunday,” Greg leaned over and whispered to his wife. Carla’s brow creased with concerned annoyance as she shot a glance at her husband of 29 years.

Pastor Burns continued with his urgent plea of invitation. Greg’s eyes rolled upward, as his lips moved with the Pastor’s familiar lines...

“Repent of your sin.”

“Ask Jesus into your heart!”

“Don’t wait! Tomorrow isn’t guaranteed. Today is the day of Salvation!”

There was a day when that last song was a real struggle for Greg. Oftentimes, he’d slipped out of the sanctuary, excusing himself to use the restroom, or something, anything, to avoid the unexplainable pressure he’d felt. But, over the years, he’d learned to overcome the Pastor’s coercing, using the same resistance he would apply to annoying salesmen.

Oh, he was no atheist, mind you. But he’d always tried to keep God in perspective. Carla and his now grown children had all succumbed to the convincing of the Pastor, and he never interfered with their spirituality, as long as it didn’t cause conflicts with his life. He’d regularly brought the family to church. Heck, he even helped take up the offering and such, whenever called upon.

Greg’s mind drifted toward his new fiery red convertible sitting out the church parking lot. Man, did he love that thing. Stick shift in hand, Greg felt a power surge his middle-aged life had been lacking...and the attention it brought from the female population was an option the salesman hadn’t mentioned. Maybe that brunette in accounting would finally turn her pretty head his way when he passed by...

“We’ll sing one more verse, one last chance to give your heart to Christ.

 Won’t you surrender to Him today?”

Pastor Burns’ final plea jerked Greg back out his bucket seat. His knuckles had whitened, gripping the back of the pew, mentally shifting from second to third gear. Just then, he noticed Bernard Myers, slowly heading up the aisle, tears streaming down his face.
"Oh, geez. This’ll slow the procedure," Greg grimaced
 to himself. "Myers has always been a little
 weak in the knees."

Glancing over his shoulder, he saw Martha Myers weeping uncontrollably as her husband embraced Pastor Burns.   Greg’s feet shuffled back and forth. An old familiar twinge bit into his chest.                                      
Turning away from the proceedings, he gazed out into the parking lot. He thought he’d heard some rumbling earlier in the service. Probably from that old pipe organ the church had treasured for
 years, but maybe it was thunder...

“I need to go check and make sure the top’s up,” Greg blurted out to Carla. “Meet you in the car.”

Carla's eyes followed as her husband scurried to get out of the pew, practically knocking over dear, old Opal Whitney sitting in her customary seat at the end. He nearly bolted out the back of the sanctuary, almost as if the place was on fire.

Carla took her place in line to congratulate her new brother in Christ, Bernard Myers. The line inched along slowly. While she knew Greg would be impatiently waiting, this was such a precious moment for Bernard and her good friend and coworker, Martha. She'd prayed with Martha many times in the nurse’s lounge for this moment. It would be worth whatever squawk Greg would put up...

“See you next Sunday,” Carla shouted joyously at Millie Carpenter as she lifted the handle on the passenger side door. But Greg hadn’t unlocked the door, so she pecked on the window a couple of times to get his attention.

Getting no response, Carla leaned over and started to rap on the window again. She stopped and screeched out loud.

“What is it, Carla??” Millie called out.

Staring into the car, Carla saw her husband of 29 years slumped over the wheel of his pride and joy. Those piercing blue eyes that once had captured her heart, were now transfixed in a stare - a lifeless stare that she’d seen all too often at work.

People began racing all about, shouting, screaming for help, but Carla stood frozen, hypnotized by the situation. Her eyes darted, capturing mental images...the tinge of gray at Greg’s temples that she’d previously somehow looked past, a slight paunch that she’d never really seen, and several brown age spots on the back of his right hand...a hand still firmly gripping the stick shift of his fiery red convertible.