God Needed Another Angel…And Other Non-Helpful Comments

      I spent the day yesterday at the local high school as part of a team of counselors, helping students and staff deal with a local tragedy that happened over the weekend. (See yesterday’s entry for more details.) I was impressed with both the students and the staff- they really pulled together and helped each other get through the day. They were an inspiration.       

     As I moved through the day, going from conversation to conversation, I was reminded of what I feel to be one of the worst things we can do when we are talking to someone who has experienced some kind of loss. How many times have you heard one of the following? “God needed another angel.” Or “It was his/her time.” Or “it was God’s will.” We have ALL heard them…and probably ALL said them as well. And when we say them…when anyone says them…we do so with the best of intentions. We want SO desperately to say something that will offer comfort to people who are hurting that we say things that simply…don’t help. Let me explain.
     We want so badly to provide meaning in a difficult situation, so want to answer that burning question…”Why?”…that we say those things. But have YOU ever found solace in one of those sayings? Have you ever had someone say one of those things and said to yourself, “Well, that does it…it all makes sense now!” Of course not…how could you? The answer to “Why?” is NOT because it was his/her time. It’s NOT because God needed another angel. It’s also NOT because it was God’s will. I find, instead, that those answers are veiled indictments of God- blaming Him for bad things that happen.
     So what IS the answer to the question “Why?”, Mr. Smartpants Preacher Man? The answer, often, is that accidents happen. In a fallen world…bad things happen. Sometimes they happen because someone CHOSE to act in a way that would be harmful to others, and sometimes they happen because an unintentional, accidental string of events played out in such a way that the end result was catastrophic. 
     So, next time you are in a situation where your inclination is to offer one of these well-worn but ineffective responses…fight the urge. Instead, be willing to tell the person you’re talking to that you simply don’t know why…there IS no way to know why. Once you experience the freedom of NOT having to have all the answers, you are much more able to offer true comfort to that other person!
     Thanks for stopping by- I pray you have a blessed day! Please make sure and stop by again tomorrow, and stick with Jesus!

When Tragedy Strikes

      It was Saturday, about 4:45PM. I was driving through my home town in Southern Illinois, taking my family and my wife’s parents to dinner (mother-in-law’s birthday) when I got the call. It was someone from where my wife works. The staff phone tree had been activated- a staff member had died in a freak accident. Not much was known at that time…just that the staff member had died. A 2nd phone call later that evening brought more details…and a request that I be involved in the staff meeting that would take place this morning. And while the details helped better clarify what happened…it didn’t make it any easier.

     The details of this particular event are better left to another time and another place- suffice it to say that a community is hurting and a family is devastated. But this overwhelming tragedy raised an issue that comes up somewhat often in my line of work. I can’t imagine how many times, in the midst of a terrible tragedy, I have been asked, “Why do things like this happen? Why would God do such a thing?” Clearly, what those kinds of questions signify is someone in great despair…searching for answers. And they turn to me, as the resident clergy, wanting me to tell them something that will explain it all, put everything in perspective in such a way that it all makes sense. And I must tell you, when I am in that position, I would like NOTHING better than to offer them just that. It would make life so much more…simple…if there were tidy answers to the difficult questions. Frankly, it would make my job easier…and make me look much…smarter…it that were the case. But sadly, it doesn’t work that way.
     The reality is this…there ARE no easy answers. But there ARE answers. And here they are. The 1st question was: “Why do things like this happen?” And the God’s honest truth? I haven’t the foggiest idea why they happen. The 2nd question was: “Why would God do such a thing?” And the answer to that one is…He didn’t. And I will admit right up front- this is where I tend to diverge from many of my fellow clergy. I do NOT believe God causes everything that happens TO happen. I believe a great many things that happen in this world happen because we live in an imperfect, fallen world. Because accidents happen. Because people get sick. Because…because…because. And that stresses a great many people. “Well, I thought God was all-knowing, all-seeing and all that? If he IS, then He caused this bad thing to happen. And if He’s NOT…then why in the world would I want to follow HIM?!” Valid thoughts, to be sure. Understandable, especially under terrible circumstances. But the God I understand, the God I know, the God I have experienced as a major part of my life for the past 2 1/2 decades…would NEVER cause what happened on Saturday. It’s not in God’s nature to intentionally create that kind of pain, that kind of devastation. 
     The logical follow-up, then is- “If God didn’t CAUSE it…then God ALLOWED it…right?” If you follow the train of thought from “God can do anything God chooses to do”, it easily leads to “God allowed this to happen”, and in that sense…yes…God allowed it. He could have stopped it…and didn’t. Well, then…Mr. Preacher Man…WHY? WHY did/would God allow it? I have to confess…I have no earthly idea. You see, I think in incredibly finite terms, while God looks at things in marvelously infinite terms. 
     So… where is God in the middle of tragedy? With us…that’s where. Sometimes walking behind us, gently nudging us forward. Sometimes walking in front of us, encouraging us to keep moving. Sometimes walking alongside us, arm in arm. And sometimes, when we are at our lowest, He carries us. And through it all, He laughs when we laugh…and weeps when we weep. I am certain God is weeping with the people of the community I serve, as well as people everywhere who mourn this day. God is with us, in the middle of life, good, bad, and everywhere in between. 
     Thanks for stopping by- I pray you have a blessed day. Please make sure and stop by again tomorrow, and stick with Jesus!

Creative Thinking

     Question #1- How do you put a giraffe in the fridge? You open the fridge, put the giraffe in…and close the door! This questions tests whether you tend to do simple things in overly complicated ways.

     Question #2- How do you put an elephant in the fridge? You open the fridge, take out the giraffe, put in the elephant…and close the door! This question tests your ability to think through the repercussions of your actions.
     Question #3- The Lion King hosts an animal conference and all the animals come…but one. Which one? The elephant- he’s in the fridge! This question tests your memory. Even if you didn’t get the 1st 3 right, you can surely answer this one!
     Question #4- You must cross a river that is inhabited by crocodiles. How do you do it? You swim across- all the crocodiles are at the Animal conference! This question tests whether you learn quickly from your mistakes.
     90% of professionals who took that quiz got them all wrong, while many preschoolers who took it got several right!
     Do you like to color? Do you always carefully color within the lines, or are you sometimes unwilling or unable to follow the rules? Today I want to challenge you to look at words like “faith” and “church” from a different perspective. Why DO we do the things we do? Is there room “outside the box” for God and Church? Is there really even a “box”? Today we focus on creative thinking as it applies to faith. Creativity is the ability to bring into existence, invest with new form or produce by imaginative skill. The power to connect the seemingly unconnected, the ability to do things a new way is a wonderful and rare thing.
     What would you say is the most creative force on the planet today? Hollywood? The business world?  The Internet? What about…God?! The church SHOULD be the most creative force in any community. Why? because God’s there! And if you don’t think God is so creative, look at the night sky, the stars. Or look at the earth itself, with the wildlife, the flowers, the amazing beauty. Imagine for a minute a world without form- nothing but void and darkness. Suddenly, God speaks and brings forth light. From there, He forms the earth, with its water, and plants, and animals. And then, in a great act of love- He creates human life. God clearly doesn’t like the dull, the boring, the routine. He has demonstrated His creativity through His Creation. Did you know that the retina has 100 million light-receptor cells, with cones and rods that convert light to electro-chemical energy? The eye is a delicate camera that takes 196 color photos/second. It has its own light meter and cleaning equipment. It also has self-repairing abilities. Amazing.
     Some see God as dull and boring, while sin, on the other hand, is fun and exciting. But in the end, nothing could be further from truth. Imagine how boring life would be without God’s creativity? God could have made one thing and multiplied it an infinite number of times, but instead He exhibits unfathomable creativity by the variety of His creation. The Bible begins with the creation of heaven and earth and it ends with the creation of a new heaven and a new earth. Science says all of this is simply an accident of nature, there is no real reason, life just…began, and from there it was simply survival of the fittest and natural selection. But if that’s true, then where does our appreciation for art, music, literature and poetry come from? Where does our creativity come from? Actor Alan Alda said, “The creative is a place where no one else has ever been. You have to leave the city of comfort and go into the wilderness of intuition. What you discover there is wonderful. What discover there is…yourself.” Einstein said, “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift, while the rational mind is a faithful servant. However, we have created a society that honors the servant, but has forgotten the gift.”
     When people think they can’t, they won’t. They are many myths about creativity. here are 5 of them: 1. “I’m not creative”- we are all creative, but we often become parrots, just repeating clever things with no effort made toward creative ideas. When we do that, we learn to inhibit our creativity. 2. “That’s a stupid idea”- we have a habit of censoring creative ideas, telling ourselves that our ideas are stupid. 3. “Creative people always have great ideas”- no they don’t- they always have ideas…some are good, and some are not so good. They have learned to throw them all against the wall and see which ones stick. 4. “Constructive criticism helps others improve their ideas”- tripping a child when they are learning to walk doesn’t help improve their walking skills! Criticism squelches creativity and teaches people to keep their ideas to themselves. Fresh ideas need nurturing, not kicking. 5. “If ain’t broke, don’t fix it”- too many people feel there is no need to change what currently works. Good thing Dr. Hans von Ohain and Sir Frank Whittle didn’t think that – or we’d still be flying propeller airplanes. You see, propeller airplanes worked perfectly fine when they invented the jet engine!
     Birds fly with the wind, rivers wind because they take the path of least resistance. But we aren’t meant to live that way, taking the easy path- our lives are meant to be lived. But things that are new, creative and fresh are often looked upon with suspicion, not fascination. We tend to stifle creativity for the convenience of the known, the recognizable, and the measurable. But a Christian life based solely on yesterday’s repetitive patterns never results in its full potential.
     A company hired a consulting group to come in and increase creativity. So, they tested all the employees. The only difference they found? Creative employees believed they were creative, while less creative employees believed they weren’t! God is creative- and we are made in His image! Therefore, we should value creativity…because we are inherently creative. God created and gifted each of us with a tremendous amount of creative potential. I challenge you to tap into your God-given creativity and find new ways to serve. Use your potential for God’s glory. Because creativity gives birth to New Life. Brennan Manning, in The Importance of Being Foolish, said,
“The Church of Jesus Christ is a place of promise and possibility, adventure and discovery. But security seekers are enemies of openness. Insistence on preserving the status quo thwarts innovation and spontaneity; wanting to keep things the way they are automatically introduces new insecurity with more cautions, threats and nervous tension.” 
     Are you creative? Do you want to be? Do you believe God is more creative than the world? Are you willing to open up to His creative force? Are you willing to pray and ask God to help you be more creative? I believe in a big God Who calls us to big and creative things. We need to be a “possibility” people. Are you ready to become more creative? 1st- think about all the reasons reasons why you are NOT creative: “I never have been been, I haven’t had a new idea in ages, I don’t have the time!” Then…reverse those and make them positive: “I AM creative, I have LOTS of new ideas, I don’t need more time because I already AM creative!”  Do that every day…and see what happens. Join me on creative journey- see how God can use you!
     Thanks for stopping by- I pray you have a blessed Sunday! Please make sure and stop by tomorrow, and stick with Jesus!

Combination Lock Theology

     My youngest son just started Middle School. One of the “rites of passage” there is getting a lock for your locker. So, we went to the office the 1st full day of school and purchased one. The nice woman at the counter even tested it to make sure it worked…and it did! So I handed him the lock and said, “Do you want me to show you how to open it before you go to class?” He assured me that he knew how. I reminded him that he had, to date, NEVER actually opened a combination lock, but he was certain he could. So I told he me could NOT lose the paper that had the combination on it (although I had already memorized it! Remember…this is NOT my 1st rodeo!) and sent him on his way. 

     After school, I asked him about his day (Remember the scene in the movie “The Breakfast Club”? “How’s your day, pal?!” I have become that!) and then asked him about the lock. His reply? “It’s broken!” “Broken? How could it POSSIBLY be broken? You JUST got it!” Then I understood…it wasn’t broken…he was simply unable to get it opened! So we had him bring it home and gave him a the 2-minute training on how to open a combination lock. Now he’s a pro! 
     If you don’t approach a combination lock with the correct steps (turn it all the way around to the right once, then stop at the first number, then to the left PAST the first number and stop at the second number, then to the right again stop at the last number), you will NOT get the lock open. It doesn’t matter how many times you try, or where you stand, or what words you utter or scream, it simply isn’t going to open without the correct approach. 
     The Christian faith is a bit like that as well. I know LOTS of people who say, “I’m a good person, I’m nice to others, I volunteer at the homeless shelter….that’s enough to get into Heaven!” And while appreciate the fact that those folks do all those good things, that’s NOT exactly the combination to get into Heaven. In the Gospel of Matthew, the “powers that be” try to trick Jesus into choose one of the Commandments over the other nine, thereby breaking both tradition and law. They say, “Which is the greatest of the Commandments?” But Jesus, in true Jesus fashion, outsmarts them with His answer, “Love the Lord your God with all you heart, soul, mind and strength and love your neighbor as yourself.” 
     As it all turns out, THAT’S the combination to Heaven. Love God, love neighbor. You may be saying, “That’s IT?” Yep…that’s it. But hearing it and understanding it intellectually is one thing…living it out in  praxis is quite another. In my HEAD I understand it, but do my day-to-day actions reflect that understanding? Do we REALLY love God with everything we have, and do we REALLY love our neighbors as much as we love ourselves? 
     People want to establish their own criteria for everything…including “God stuff”. But it doesn’t work that way. God is our Creator, and as such has earned the right to establish some guidelines…the combination, if you will. But look at it this way- these particular guidelines are pretty simply to understand. They are not at all complicated. As I mentioned before, they can be a challenge to live out…but easy to understand. So…love God, love neighbor…and the rest will figure itself out!
     Thanks for stopping by- I pray you have a blessed day! Please make sure and come back again tomorrow, and stick with Jesus!

Do the Wise Men Prove the Bible Wrong?

     I have a collection of Nativity scenes in my office. (I know…yesterday was St. Louis Cardinal memorabilia, today Nativity scenes. You’re thinking, “Just how big IS your office?” Let me assure, not very!) I currently have 7 different Nativities. One is very representational, with the characters put out of wood. One is pretty small and “Precious Moments”-ish. (Insert your joke here!) One is rather large and “traditional” and was given to me by a parishioner when he downsized to a smaller home. And the list goes one. Big, small, old new, you name it, it’s covered in those 7 scenes. Of course they all have the baby Jesus. (Wouldn’t really be much of a Nativity without Him now, would it?) They all have Mary and Joseph. They all have some number of shepherds and sheep- the number varies from one to the next. And they all have Wise Men…again the number varies from scene to scene. And there you have it- the classic understanding of the Nativity. But it’s incorrect!

     We traditionally include the Wise Men in the Nativity scene…as if they were actually at the stable when Jesus was a baby. But if you read the Gospels, you find that they didn’t get to Jesus until He was around 2 years old. So clearly they weren’t at the stable. And yet, we put them in the scene. Why? I think the answer to that question points to a larger truth about studying the Bible and applying it to your life. In my opinion, we include them in the Nativity because, in the larger picture, they are a part of the rather sketchy childhood of Jesus. There is almost NO information to be found in the Bible about His life from birth to about age 30. But the Wise Men story is one of the few detailed accounts we get…and He was a small child when it happened. Therefore, we include them in the scene. 
     I have had people say, “Yeah, but they weren’t there!” And they then extrapolate that out to a larger understanding of the Bible as a whole, arguing that this detail and that detail don’t agree, or that there is NO way 3 million people crossed the parted Red Sea, or how could Moses have written the first 5 book of the Old testament when it includes the description of his death? The bottom line is this- if your goal is to “proof-text” the Bible, looking for anything that could be called into question, you have lots of ammunition. AND…you have the entirely wrong approach to reading the Bible! Because we say that the Bible is a history book, people want to use that to make their claim that the Bible is false…since not every fact is logically and perfectly laid out. (I would argue, however, that even the history books…the ones in classrooms across the country…are revisionist and written by the winners. I guarantee other folks have a much different perspective about some of the classic stories from history that we hold dear!) 
     Here’s my perspective on this whole “is the Bible TRUE or not” question. YES…the Bible is true. Is the Bible absolutely 100% accurate in every detail it records from literally the dawn of time? Probably not. Does that matter? Not to me. here’s an example. In seminary, I had a professor who went on and on and on…and on some more…about how the Bible couldn’t possibly be accurate about the number of people it suggests crossed over that parted Red Sea mentioned above. “Instead of 3 million, it was more like 50,000!” My response, which was NOT met with great enthusiasm, was, “So what?” Is the story about exactly how many people were there…or the amazing grace and power of God to deliver His people in their hour of need. I choose B., and therefore how many people were there is suddenly irrelevant. Just like it really doesn’t matter to me that all of my Nativities have Wise Men in them. The Bible IS a history of God’s people…and a history of God’s love for those people. It was written over thousands of years by bunches of people, translated into a gozillion (or so!) languages…and, after all these years, it still holds timeless insight into what it means to be a child of God! I’d welcome YOUR thoughts on the Bible…what IS it?
     Thanks for stopping by- I pray you have a blessed day! Please make sure and come back again tomorrow, and stick with Jesus!

Bordering On Obsession

      I am a St. Louis Cardinal baseball fan. I have hesitated to say much about that to this point, because I live in Central Illinois and the Cards/Cubs rivalry is HUGE here! But the truth is, growing up in the St. Louis area, I am a lifelong Cardinals fan. And having been fortunate enough to grow up in an area whose local team is fairly successful, I have been rewarded over the years with competitive teams…and few World Series titles. (I try HARD to forget the 70’s, however!) The accompanying picture is of one wall in my office at church. That is just a PART of the Cardinal memorabilia I have on display. In fact, there is a sign on my door that says, “St. Louis Cardinals Clubhouse- Pass Required”! I will readily admit that my love of baseball in general and the Cardinals specifically borders on the obsessive! 

     As humans, we’re obsessed with lots of things. Along with baseball, I love technology, reading, animals and hanging with my family. I know people who are obsessed with cars, money, real estate, status, or any number of other things. Quite frankly, you COULD be obsessed with almost anything. But what ARE you obsessed with? And if you feel that “obsessed” is too strong a word…I’ll give you that. Then what are you passionate about? What is it that really floats your boat? What gets you up in the morning and motivates you to go out into another day? Think hard now…and be honest with yourself. What is it? Got it?  
     OK…is it…God? Again- think hard…be honest. Most would agree in theory that, of course, God is the “correct” answer (Well, of course Pastor- God is #1 with a bullet!”)…but is it YOUR answer? I would hazard to guess that, if we’re honest with ourselves, God is NOT the answer nearly enough of the time. We have the BEST of intentions, we really do, but all too often, life gets in the way. Deadlines at work, kids having to go 9,000 places, bills to pay, laundry, cooking, mowing…the list never ends. And when Sunday comes, we simply want to collapse! (I recently had someone tell me, “I was going to come to church last Sunday, but I realized it was my only day to sleep in…so I did.”) In the midst of all that, it’s pretty easy to lose sight of God. But Matthew 6:33 says, “Seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” 
     What I hear from that is that, if we put God 1st in our lives, then everything else will tend to take care of itself. If we focus our 1st and our best on the One Who created us…it has a positive impact on every other aspect of our lives. So, again- where do you expend your energy? And perhaps a better question- where do you expend your “free time” energy? People have to go to work- it’s a reality of life. But what do you do with the time that YOU get to decide about? My advice? Seek 1st the kingdom of God…and His righteousnesses…and the other things will be added to it…by your Creator! And really…how awesome is THAT? Now…if you’ll excuse me, there’s a Cardinal game on!
     Thanks for stopping by- I pray you have a blessed day! Please make sure and stop by again tomorrow, and stick with Jesus!

Honor System Vegetables

      On the outskirts of town is a genuine anomaly. A true puzzle. Right there. On the edge of town. It’s…ready?…a produce stand. I KNOW…right?! Now, I’m sure you’re thinking, “Big whoop, preacher man! A produce stand? You’re going all ape-y over…a produce stand? You’ve finally gone off the deep end!” You MAY be right! BUT…this particular produce stand is… different. It’s run on the Honor System!

     If you’re like my kids, you don’t even know what the Honor System is. It hasn’t been used in so long…I think the last time I saw it, I was climbing down off my dinosaur to purchase a new cave! Well…here’s what the Honor System is- you walk into this produce stand (a pole barn) and there, sure enough, is produce! (Ergo the name!) Tomatoes, potatoes, green beans, corn, whatever happens to have been harvested the night before. What’s missing, however, is a human being. What? No sales clerk? How can that be? Because it’s the…say it with me…Honor System! You pick out the produce you want, figure out from the hand-written chart on the wall, what you owe, and slide the money through a slot cut into the top of a tool box that is A) padlocked and bolted to the workbench. Then, you bag your produce…and leave. Remarkable, isn’t it?
     The concept is SO foreign in this day and age. Could you imagine that working in very many settings? You go to Wal-Mart, get your stuff (always WAY more than you intended) and on your way out, you slip your money through a slot cut in a tool box that is A) padlocked and bolted to the work bench. Don’t see THAT happening any time soon! And why is that? Because “honor” isn’t something on which society places a high value any more. Trust is an endangered species. When I was a kid, we didn’t lock our doors. Now, if I’m mowing the back yard, I lock the front door. It’s a different world out there, boys and girls.
     But you know what I find? (I mean, besides a bit more gray in my facial hair every day!) I find that, although it is MUCH harder to see than it used to be, things like honor and trust ARE, in fact, still alive! And I find that the more I exhibit those traits, the more I see them. Likewise, the more I DON’T exhibit them, the LESS I see them. In other words, you get back what you put out. If you walk around, failing to make eye contact, refusing to talk to folks, ignoring simple gestures like holding a door or letting someone go ahead of you at the stop sign, then you are likely to think the world is a cold, harsh, impersonal place. But if you DO those things, then suddenly the world is not so bad after all. Other people are mirrors- they reflect was image we send their way. What image do YOU project? It DOES make a difference…for both you and pretty much everybody who comes in contact with you. Make a conscious effort to reflect the values of the “little produce stand” that could!
     Thanks for stopping by- I pray you have a blessed day! Please make sure and stop by again tomorrow, and stick with Jesus!