Sunday, April 26, 2009

On Turtles and a Changing Church

Humans are a lot like turtles: we have shells. Not a physical shell that protects us from the elements or predators, but a shell we create and modify as we crawl through life--an emotional sphere in which we can feel comfortable, secure and un-threatened.

Sometimes we call our sphere a comfort zone. We are careful to engage in activities that don't overly stress us, to accept those beliefs that do not overly challenge us, and to relate to people that do not overly intimidate us. New activities, beliefs and people often present us with a challenge.

Do you remember when a new student was introduced into your classroom at school? There was a nervousness in the air, wasn't there? "Is he going to be weird?" you asked yourself. "Will I fit in?" he wondered to himself. In time, however, those anxieties dissipated as the new kid gradually became incorporated into the life of the class. Fear was weakened through the expanse of knowledge and experience.

We live in a time when the culture about us is changing at an unprecedented rate. It is easy to become intimidated by the evolution of society. It is easy to want to shrink back into our shells and desire to live as if it were yesterday. But adaptability is an essential component of life.

If you were to take a snapshot of the church standing on the threshold of the 21st Century and compare it to one taken of the 1st Century church, would the pictures offer a mirror image? In certain respects, yes: we share in the fundamentals of Christian faith. In certain respects, no: we may differ in terms of methodology and practice. The passage of time results in the transformation of any organism or institution.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ is timeless and the faith we express and practice must not be affected by the transformation of society and culture. However, our methods of teaching and worship, service and fellowship are often affected by time. And, thus, when certain circumstances such as lessened effectiveness demand change, let us not fear new things, but approach them with a rationality founded on the Holy Spirit's direction, study of God's Word, and prayer.

Do you remember that the 1st Century church wrestled with the inclusion of Gentile converts within the boundary of Christian fellowship? The church was faced with a dilemma and the specter of newness. many sought to withdraw within their shells--within their established comfort zones--and not mature in their faith. But, many sought God's guidance, stepping out of their shells, and becoming transformed into a people ready to confront the next challenge.

Where do we stand today?

New Mexico Capitol

Make that 12 State Capitol buildings I have photographed in the past 7 months. The "Round House" in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Look to the left, and you will see a glimpse of Santa Fe Baldy.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Colorado Capitol

Yesterday, I made my eleventh visit to a state capitol building in the past 7 months. The Capitol in Denver is impressive, especially the golden dome . . . plated with 200 ounces of pure gold!

My Start in Ministry

My ministry "career" began in May 1990, with the church that meets in this building, the University Church of Christ in Denver, Colorado. I spent two of the most important, formative, and enjoyable summers of my life (1990 & 1992) working with the youth and families of this congregation.

I came to University as a 19-year-old kid at the invitation of Dale Hukle. In 1990, Dale was the youth minister for the University church. Four years earlier, he had been my youth minister at the Green Lawn Church of Christ in Lubbock, Texas. In March 1990, Dale called me and asked if I would serve as his intern for the summer in Denver. At the time, I was an aspiring youth minister and in my sophomore year at Lubbock Christian University. At the time, I was also employed at the Brittany Restaurant in Lubbock flipping hamburgers. A month earlier, Vance Crowe had offered me an opportunity to spend the summer at Camp Blue Haven as a counselor (a dream job). After a lot of thought and prayer, I called Dale and accepted his offer to come to Denver for the summer and then called Vance and declined the opportunity to be a counselor at Blue Haven.

That was one of the hardest decisions in my life, and one of the most important. I've often wondered how different my life would have been had I taken the position at Camp Blue Haven. I know I would have enjoyed it there (I had already spent three glorious summers there as a pot-washer, and had the time of my life). But, the opportunity to work alongside Dale Hukle, one of the most important men in my life, and the chief mentor I've had in ministry, was an opportunity I could not pass up. Although, in taking the University job, I was biting off a lot more than I expected (but I found the chewing to be quite satisfying).

I remember arriving in Denver (actually, Aurora) late one evening in early May (I think it was the 12th). I came to Dale and Carla's house where I was supposed to be staying for the summer. I had a great reunion with Dale and his family and was enjoying a wonderful meal (I still remember the homemade strawberry shortcake!), when Dale said, "I've got some news for you. I just accepted a position with the Broadway Church of Christ (in Lubbock), and we will be moving there in 5 weeks." Then after the shock wore off, he continued, "And, YOU are going to finish the summer here at University as the youth minister (not, youth intern). The elders have already signed off on it."

Here I was, a 19-year-old kid, without a day's experience in leading a youth ministry, being told I was already hired as a youth minister for what was at the time the largest Church of Christ in the state of Colorado. And for a congregation I had yet to visit. And for a youth group I had yet to meet. Talk about baptism under fire. Half-a-lifetime later (literally), I look back at that moment as one of the single greatest gut-checks I've ever experienced . . . and as one of the most important moments of my life.

I relished those next 5 weeks as I sought to soak up all of the wisdom and instruction that I could from Dale. The first 3 weeks were spent in Denver meeting youth and families and the other members of the congregation, and receiving a crash course in big city, big church youth ministry. The final 2 weeks of that orientation were spent directing a Vacation Bible School in Kearney, Nebraska and teaching a class at Soul Quest, the camp York College hosts every summer. Then, as we came back to Denver from York, Dale gave me the reigns, and I did my best over the next 2-and-a-half months.

Those next 11 weeks were amazing. I didn't always make the wisest decisions, but my good ones somehow outnumbered the numb-headed ones. I developed some really close relationships with some fantastic teens and their parents. I saw a lot of growth (in the kids, but especially in myself). I baptized three of the teens that summer (the first time I had ever done that!). I began that summer as a teen ministering to teens (although, I made it to 20 eight days after I arrived in Denver), and left a changed man who knew without a doubt what I wanted to do for the rest of my life . . . ministry.

Little did I know, however, that 4 months after I left Denver, I found myself in the frying pan again. In January 1991, the Green Lawn Church of Christ (my home church) hired me to be its interim youth minister, a position I would hold for the next 8 months. God had prepared me for an even larger responsibility.

An Editorial Cartoon from 2009? Try 1934!

Monday, April 20, 2009

From the Hell's Angels to a Classroom

A former Hell's Angel as a teacher? Yes, and he was one of the best teachers I ever had.

Coach Bruce Dean was my teacher in the 7th grade at Lubbock Christian School. He was unlike any teacher I have had in the years before and since. Coach Dean was not well-schooled in the art of teaching, and he was not well-versed in the subject area he was responsible for teaching us: science. Coach Dean was unorthodox in his methods, yet he taught us with an effectiveness that was exceptional.

Coach Dean had led an interesting life. He had made his share of poor choices. He had even spent time as a Hell's Angel. But at a certain point in life, Coach found Christ, and his life changed profoundly.

Coach Dean's effectiveness as a teacher was founded on his transformation as a person. My classmates and I knew Coach's story; he told chapters of it to us often. He did so to make a point (actually several): he was exhorting us to avoid the mistakes that he had made. He was using his life to steer us along a better path and to discover LIFE a lot sooner than he had.

I don't remember learning much science in the seventh grade, but I do remember learning a lot about life. I believe that Coach Dean's influence kept me away from many wrong turns and dangerous things in life. He equipped me to make the right choices.

Those are the best kind of teachers: those individuals who teach using their example and those individuals who can speak from the great reservoir of "I've been there, I know what I'm talking about." Do you listen and learn from those individuals? Are you using your life experiences to teach others? I hope that you (and me) can answer in the affirmative to both questions (especially with regards to our own children!).

Tragically, Coach Dean was killed in a motorcycle accident about two weeks after the completion of my 7th grade year. Hearing the news of his death stands as one of the clearest memories of my childhood. It remains one of the saddest moments of my life. Yet, I know that he was victorious, because he was a changed man. He is Hell's angel no more.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Go, and Sin No More

Go, and sin no more.

I'm not sure how many times Jesus said those words to people he met. I remember a few times in the Gospels where he spoke them, or words similar to them. But I consider them to be some of the most beautiful words in Scripture.

We all have our pasts and particularly those moments which are regrettable. As the apostle Paul puts it, "We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God." But how beautiful it is that God, rich in mercy, has, through the blood of his Son, washed us clean and made us whole. He has given us a new day, a renewed lease on life, the opportunity to reach new horizons.

Go, and sin no more is not a statement of judgment, but one of encouragement. One of the recorded moments Jesus spoke those words was in John 8 (in a passage with questioned textual authenticity, but likely historical in some measure). You remember the story of the woman caught in adultery and brought to Jesus. Those who brought her condemned her and sought Jesus' sanction of her stoning. As you know, Jesus ended up turning the situation around to reflect on the character and behavior of the condemners, and the woman was spared. As the scene closes, Jesus tells her to go, and sin no more. I'm sure he had her past in view as he spoke to her, but his main interest was on her present and future. Unlike those who sought only to condemn, Jesus was much more interested in how the woman might progress from that day forward.

How beautiful it is that our Lord is much more interested in our recovery than in our missteps. The whole story of the cross and opened tomb bear testimony to this message of hope. Death leads to life, in Christ. What should result in loss and despair (our sin), is washed away, taken away, remembered no more . . . from the perspective of our loving Father.

But we allow it to linger, don't we? Or, at least we allow the guilt and shame (and the despair created by these) to linger. And these feelings often co-opt our ability to move forward. We get stuck in a rut, because we can't seem to forget our past.

Go, and sin no more.

I am mindful of the words of the writer of Hebrews, who tells us to "run the race with perseverance, laying aside every weight and the sin that so easily encumbers, and keeping our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith" (Heb. 12.1-2). Among the encumbering weights that must be listed are our guilt, shame, and despair. Throw them aside, we are told, and look not to the past (to yesterday), but to the present (today) and the future (tomorrow) . . . down the road, that is, and toward the one who makes our journey possible and successful, our Lord Jesus.

Go, and sin no more.

Those are words directed not merely to self (and in our self-interests), but to those who surround us they are an appeal for mercy and patience. In other words, we are not merely to consider the new possibilities that are within us because of the mercies of God, but the new promise that rests in every one who is a child of God. Go, and sin no more were words meant as much for the condemners of the woman brought to Jesus, than they were for the woman, herself. The condemners sought Jesus' approval of the stoning of the woman. Instead, Jesus had mercy, and afforded the woman a new day. We must do the same.

The new covenant we find in Christ is all about renewal! It is about burying the past and opening oneself up to a new reality, a new opportunity. Go, and sin no more is an appeal to live a new life and an appeal to encourage a new life being lived.

Ask a marathon runner (which I am certainly NOT), and I imagine he (or she) will tell you that to run a successful race you must keep your eyes forward, toward the goal to be reached, and not backwards on the road already crossed. Chances are good that if you run with your eyes looking backwards you're gonna run into a tree!

Friday, April 17, 2009

No $5.00 Debt!

It was no $5.00 debt.

Do you remember the parable Jesus told about forgiveness? It was the story (Matthew 18.23-35) of a man who owed an enormous sum of money to the king--his debt was 10,000 talents. He pleaded for the king to have mercy, and his plea was answered: the king had the debt erased from the books. But, going out from the king, the man met a neighbor who owed him a sum of money--the neighbor's debt was 100 denarii. The neighbor pleaded for mercy, just as the man had done before the king, but the plea was not answered: the man had his neighbor thrown into prison.

Often this story is told with the attached moral: "If you cannot forgive a little, you will not be forgiven a lot (or much)." A good thought, but it misses the point of the story. The true import of the story comes with lessons in mathematics and in the currency of Jesus' day in mind.

The first man's debt was enormous--he owed the king 10,000 talents. One talent of Roman gold was roughly equivalent to the wages of a common laborer amassed over a period of 15 years. Do the math--this man owed the king the equivalent of 150,000 years of wages! No man could repay the debt, not even Bill Gates or the Saudi king. Yet, the king in Jesus' story forgave the debt; it was erased from the books!

The second man's debt, though often characterized as mere pennies, was also significant--this man owed his neighbor 100 denarii. One denarius was the standard daily wage for a common laborer. Do the math--this man owed his neighbor the equivalent of over 3 months of wages. This was no $5.00 debt.

Perhaps the moral of the story should be, "If you cannot forgive a little or much, you will not be forgive a lot (or much)." There is no forgiveness quotient. When Peter asked, "How many times should I forgive . . . seven times?" Jesus answered, "Not seven times, but seventy times seven" (Matt. 18.21-22). So forgive!

Thursday, April 16, 2009

All God's Creation

According to a popular book a person learns everything he or she really needs to know in kindergarten. I had to wait until the first grade to learn one of the most important lessons of all.

Three weeks into my first grade school year, my family moved to New Orleans, Louisiana. My dad, who was in the U. S. Navy had been transferred to the south shore of the Mississippi River. I was enrolled in the Adolf Meyer elementary school. It was a big inner city school with hundreds of students. In that school, I was the minority. I don't remember there being another white student in my class.

What did I learn during that school year? Other than the color of my skin, I was not that different from the hundreds of other kids in that school. We all ate the same food in the cafeteria. We all studied the same subjects. We all played the same games at recess. We all laughed at the same jokes. We all cried when we fell and scraped our knees. We all had families who loved us.

I remember some awkward moments, especially at the first of the year as I was trying to fit in. But my final memory of Adolf Meyer reinforces the great lesson I learned. On the final day of the school year an awards ceremony was held. I was presented with a small trophy; for what, I do not remember. But I still remember walking up to the principal and accepting my trophy amidst the applause of my classmates. They were cheering for me . . . the white boy. And I cheered for them, as well, when they were called to the stage.

What lesson did I learn in New Orleans? I learned that truth that we must all know: color is only skin deep. Our planet is filled with a rich diversity of peoples, heritages, cultures, and races. Deep down, though, we are all human beings with a soul. We are all creatures shaped and loved by God?

Pie in Pietown

I ate a piece of pie in Pietown, New Mexico today. Let me wholeheartedly recommend the Daily Pie Cafe in Pietown. Great food (hamburger, real french fries, and pie). Extraordinary service. Beautiful setting . . . a couple of miles off the Continental Divide and in the shadow of the Sawtooth Mountains.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Very Large, Indeed

I visited the Very Large Array radio astronomy observatory, today, west of Socorro, New Mexico. The array is one of 10 National Radio Astronomy Observatories in the United States (and its Territories). The VLA consists of 27 antennas, each 25 feet in diameter and 82 feet in height, each working together to produce the effect of one large and powerful antenna. The component pieces are placed on three 13 miles tracks that radiate from the center compound. The antennas can be positioned in several arrangements along these tracks. The VLA studies a variety of astronomical features including quasars, pulsars, black holes, gamma ray bursts, supernova remnants, radio galaxies, and the dark matter that fills much of the universe.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Show Your Kids the World

My girls and I enjoyed the wonders of Carlsbad Cavern today. It had been 15 years since my last visit and the first visit for my daughters, ages 10, 8 and 6. I enjoyed every moment of watching them take in this place similar to but unlike any other place on earth. Hearing their laughter, gasps, "Wow's", and "Cool's" was well worth the price of admission (which, actually, is a dirt cheap $6 for 1 adult and 3 kids! . . . not counting the $107 for sweatshirts!) and the cost to my out-of-shape and near-middle-aged body.

As I walked through the Cavern today, I thought of all the places my girls have visited. The list of amazing places includes Niagara Falls (my oldest two), the top of the St. Louis Arch (oldest two), the Gulf of Mexico on a fishing boat (my middle daughter), South Padre Island, the Alamo, Six Flags, Palo Duro Canyon, Lubbock (you know I had to thrown that in), Pikes Peak, the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Great Sand Dunes, White Sands, Mesa Verde, Zion National Park, the Grand Canyon, Hoover Dam, the Pacific Coast, Disneyland, Coronado Island, the Pro Football Hall of Fame (oldest two), the top of Mt. Scott (you Okies will know), Monument Valley, Telluride (most beautiful town in America), La Plata Canyon, Organ Stop Pizza, the North Pole (okay, the one in Colorado) . . . and the list goes on. My goal, perhaps ambitious, is that by the time my youngest is in college, all three of my daughters will have visited all 50 states and at least a few other countries. My youngest is now 6, and we've got over a third of the states crossed off the list.

I am not able to provide my daughters with a lot of material things, but I strongly believe that one of the blessings I am able to give them is a love for travel and the opportunities to see much of this beautiful land we are blessed to call home. It is a blessing I received from my parents.

Children can learn so much from travel, from leaving home behind and discovering new things, sights, and people. Sadly, I've known some children who never left the confines of their home city during their childhood--their parents never took them anywhere. I don't mean to be harsh, but a family vacation to the amusement park across town isn't much of an excursion. Live a little, at least drive to the next county!

I've heard the excuses about the costs of travel, but it is amazing how affordable (and memorable) a trip can cost with a tent and some cast iron cookware! And, those excuses about the unbearable time spent in a car doesn't fly with me, either. Call me a glutton for punishment, but I find those long stretches on the road some of the most enjoyable times I spend with my girls. When else are we together in such close (and private) confines for as long a period of time? Those times make for great conversation platforms.

Plan a road trip for your family!

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Fork In the Road

Each of us comes to a fork in the road. Likely, our lives are peppered with such moments, those occasions where we must make a choice. Do I go the left? Or, to the right? What course do I set my life on? Which path do I tread?

We stand at the divide wandering to ourselves which way to go. If we have our faculties about us, we take the time to analyze the situation and fully consider the options, taking into account the consequences, for the good or bad, of the options before us. If we are in a hurry and more focused on the moving than the direction, we might just barrel through and pay little attention to the path chosen.

Often times, the choice before us offers a stark contrast. One road is obviously the high ground, well-trod, easy to navigate, with the goal clearly in view. The other path is riddled with obstacles, dangerous, and clearly the wrong way to go. It is easy in such situations to take the good road, enjoy our sojourn without many concerns, without regrets, and filled with the satisfaction of a choice well made.

But there are those moments when the choice is not easy and the options are not laid out before us in stark detail. Both roads are inviting. The further distances of the roadways pass out of view. The circumstances of the paths ahead, for the good or bad, cannot be seen. Yet, a choice must be made, the journey must be continued, life must go on.

On the left hand path we go. The way, at first, is good. Progress is made. There is optimism, joy, good times. But then the path begins to wind. There are dips. Unexpected hazards. The way forward becomes unattainable. It becomes obvious that this was not the way to go.

And there are those times when even the good road turns bad. A once good and sturdy path is washed away in a once-in-a-million flash flood. The ground suddenly gives way in a freak earthquake. Outside forces move in and make the continued journey difficult if not impossible. Someone hijacks the road before us and progress cannot be made.

Oh to go back to the fork in the road and once again consider the way to go. To be able to make the other choice is so desirable. Yet time does not retreat, and our choices once made are made, and the consequences are set in motion. I suppose the wisest course of action is to be diligent and make a quick assessment as to the frailty (and ultimate failure) of the road ahead, or at the very least to be strong enough to say enough is enough and to give up the folly of fighting one's way forward on an impassable road and try to find a way to the other path.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Wish I'd Said That

In my nearly 20 years of preaching and teaching for churches, I've told my share of preacher's stories, many borrowed from other preacher's I've heard or read. A favorite resource I've used over the years is a little book edited by Cleon Lyles entitled Wish I'd Said That. Here are some sample anecdotes and sayings from this book.


The story is told of a young man who, while preaching his first sermon, emphasized over and over that "The commentators did not agree with me?" on this or that. The next Sunday, a kindly old lady came in the auditorium lugging a heavy bag. She took it down to the front and deposited in ear the pulpit, and explained to the minister: "Young man, I heard you complainin' last Sunday that common taters don't agree with you; so I brought you some sweet taters to try."


There are too many people like the men who went 'coon hunting on Wednesday night. One said: "We are liable to go to the devil for hunting while there is a worship service at the church." The other replied: "I couldn't have gone anyway; my wife's sick at home."


A hangover is something that happens to heads that weren't used the night before.


The Sunday school teacher was describing how Lot's wife looked back and suddenly turned into a pillar of salt. Little Johnny raised his hand, "My mother looked back once while she was driving and she turned into a telephone pole."


In his birthday gift to his girl, the young man penned this note: "You're a sweet girl. May the Lord bless you and keep you. I wish I could afford to."


A man came home and saw his children and others on the front steps and asked what they were doing." We are playing church," they answered. The father was puzzled, and on inquiring further, he was told, "Well, we've already sung, and prayed, and preached, and now we're outside on the steps smoking."


A boy came home and reported to his father that he had been given a part in a school play. His father asked him what part. "A man married for 25 years," the son answered. The father looked sad. When the boy asked why, he replied, "I was in hopes you would get a speaking part."


Some people are so pessimistic when they smell flowers they look around for a funeral.


When tempted to gossip, breathe through your nose.