Friday, December 31, 2010


I think it was Socrates who said that "unexamined life is not worth living."  He's right. For those who love to be reflective at the end of the year here’s some questions that may be helpful.  
Do you like the person you’re becoming?
What or who do you keep stumbling over?
Are the people who need you the most only getting the emotional scraps?
How is your soul?
Where do you need to be encouraged most right now?
What, if anything, is holding you back from living more fully for God?
What is bringing you joy?
In what ways are your deep passions meeting the deep needs in our world?
What’s the root of any sadness in your life?
Is there unresolved sin in your life?
Where is your source of accountability?
What’s your next step?
Who are you trusting with your secrets?
What needs to change?

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Scraps of Thought

It’s been a heck of a year hasn’t it?  
The biggest disappointment has been the ongoing lack of civility in our public discourse.  Both Democrats and Republicans seem to believe that the American people value posturing at the expense of action.  Acting like spoiled children on a playground, without adult supervision, folks on the left and right are constantly sticking their tongues out at each other and making creepy faces as they mark their territory.  All the while the people they serve are getting more and more frustrated.  Thus, the huge turnabout in the recent congressional elections.  Frustration is going to the ballot box.  
Unfortunately, the posturing still continues and I don’t see it getting much better when the new Congress is seated.  I can’t understand why so few win/win compromises can’t be reached.
The economic downturn is making itself felt in a variety of ways.  I’m running across more and more people who tried to make good decisions throughout their life but got caught in a vice grip of unpleasant circumstances.  Some are close to losing everything.  It’s infuriating to know that good people are suffering the consequences of the decisions made by those who don’t seem to have any moral underpinnings at all.
Spiritually, it’s still a mixed bag. I sense many are still adrift in our culture.  Of course, there are those who are on a journey of faith that’s pretty exciting to watch. Bravo. Others are turning their back on orthodox expressions and are buying into what is called Moral Therapeutic Deism.  It’s tenets were discovered by Christian Smith from the University of Notre Dame after interviewing over 3,000 teenagers.  I think what he discovered is pervasive in the adult world of faith and isn’t just an adolescent belief system however.  It’s been around for a few years now and it’s interesting stuff.   Some of you might read these and think ... ‘What’s wrong with this?’.  From my perspective there’s plenty that gives me pause for concern.   Here are the tenets of MTD.
  1. A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
  2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one's life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
  5. Good people go to heaven when they die.
I sense a gap between a biblical view of faith and what appears, at first glance, to be a fairly narcissistic life credo with a pretty superficial notion of God. Nonetheless it’s a helpful viewpoint to keep in front of me.  It can help me enter into faith conversations in more encouraging ways.   A good exercise might be to go through all five of these tenets of MTD and gauge your own belief against them.  Would be interesting to hear what you’re discovering.
2010 wakened me to the ways in which the diversity of the world is right at my doorstep. I’m one of those folks who welcomes such things even if does make life harder.  The reality is that my grandchildren will find themselves a minority race in the USA before they die.  How we live into the new realities of race and culture will help pave the way for their journey.  Will we live in fear of our changing world or will we embrace the possibilities?
2011 is almost before us. There are so many place to engage and make a difference.  There is no end to the number of issues needing the attention of good people.  Will we enter the fray? The tendency is to hunker down and count our blessings.  Counting our blessings is always good.  Hunkering down might be beneficial for a season but standing on the sidelines of life isn’t a good thing. My prayer is that each of you would find increasingly good ways to put your life into motion.
Happy New Year.

Friday, December 24, 2010

'Tis the Reason

Those who don’t live with a biblical view of the world probably wonder what the fuss is all about at Christmas.  In fact, a whole lot of people would even argue that a world with or without the birth of Jesus is basically the same.  That birth, of that baby, changes nothing.  Never has, never will.

I don’t believe that. I believe that what happened on that night 2000 plus years ago was a game changer. Without what we call the ‘Incarnation’- God becoming flesh- …the world would be a sorry place and filled with even more terror and fear than we have now.  And our world would be standing on tiptoes, hoping for a sign from God that everything is going to be alright.

It boggles the imagination to think that God would send His own Son to our planet.  But God did. The Creator  sent His son, allowed Him to become flesh and blood, and approved of His moving into our neighborhood and into our lives. Jesus, motivated by love, was a man  on a mission to deal with the most damaging thing in the world. Sin. And sin is the cause of everything  horrible  humankind has ever conceived of doing.  It’s behind every shed tear and is, unfortunately,  part of the fabric of every human life. 

And how do you deal with something horrible and scary. God chose to go at it head on.  Face to face. And so a child was born. The visible image of the invisible God.  Flesh and blood but fully divine. Fully divine but as human as we are.

And so on Christmas we look into the eyes of a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and sing the Christmas carol. The words of the carol are haunting …”the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” When we sing those words we’re proclaiming that  the hope of Christmas trumps all that is scary and discouraging.  The presence of Jesus, his life, his death, his resurrection, and his ongoing presence with us defines all that is good and all that brings hope.

I’ve always felt something as big as Christmas deserves a response. Whether they realize it or not everyone does respond. Some people respond by minimizing what this all means. Some try to ignore it completely.  I’ve heard some make fun of it all, others discount its message and secularize its intent, some create a small placeholder for it in the midst of a busy schedule but then scurry back to what really seems to give their life meaning and purpose, some debate the meaning of what we celebrate tonight. others become religious for a few weeks each year or at least when visiting mom and dad again. But when push comes to shove …the scoffing, the indifference, the debate, and  the religious posturing is just shorthand for saying: “I’m not buying what God is offering. Nice holiday.  Love the Christmas cheer. But I’m not buying this whole Christmas thing.” Maybe that even describes some of you reading this.

Years ago I realized that unless I found something or someone  bigger than I was that my fears would consume me.  I needed ‘hope’.  And I found that hope in the person of Jesus Christ. I tried looking other places, some good some not so good but I didn’t find what I was looking for. I discovered Jesus was more than an image in a  hallmark card. 

Through the reading of Scripture I heard Him claim to be the one our heart always yearns for.  And my heart leapt for joy.  I saw Him wrestle with evil and take my place on a wooden cross. And it finally dawned on me that I would never be good enough to get where I ultimately wanted to go.  But I didn’t have to be good enough for He was. On the cross I watched Jesus die.  But death could not contain Him. He rose from the dead and into my heart.  He promises to be with me always.  Just as he promises that to you. 

You see the birth we remember tonight is only one part of a bigger narrative.  Jesus’s friend John writes in a book called Revelation in the Bible.  What he writes help us get a glimpse of the even bigger story Christmas is part of .

Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.  And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.  ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

 He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

 …“It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life. Those who are victorious will inherit all this, and I will be their God and they will be my children.

Did you catch all that? In the bigger story every tear is wiped, there’s no more death, no more mourning or crying or pain or thirst of any kind.  There is a new heaven and a new earth.  This is the hope and the promise of Christmas faith. 

Whatever our best images of Christmas are now will someday be surpassed a thousand times over by the reality of what comes next.

All that is contained is this bigger picture deserves a response. There’s a Christmas present for all of us today. It’s the child in the manger, who becomes a teacher who speaks of real and abundant life, who’s capable of healing all wounds, and who is the Savior who frees us from burden of our sin.  The baby is the Lord of Lords, the King of Kings, He is the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End.  And He is … for you.

And He says simply and clearly to all of us “I love you very much.  Will you give me your life?” And for those who say ‘yes’ someday they will know what it’s like to have Christmas forever.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Coach Riehle

A fine man died yesterday. His name was John Riehle.  He was the football coach at Evanston Township High School for more than a few years.  My son Kevin played for him and was proud to be a Wildkit.

By football standards he was a very, very good coach.  Top twenty teams.  A final four in the state tournament.  45 full scholarship players.  Lots of conference championships.  4 of his players made the NFL.

It’s a cliché to say it but John was a molder of young men.  He was an old school coach.  He could yell with the best of them and could stare down a battalion of Marines.  He wasn’t soft.  He’d call people out with his trademarked raspy bellow. He got  in a player's  face and then ten minutes later he had his arm around the player gently encouraging him.  He demanded excellence on the field and on the classroom.  He found places for his guys to play even if it wasn’t at the D-I scholarship schools.  He was for his guys and wanted his guys to be for him.  They'd walk through a wall for him.

Not long ago I was with a guy who played for John at Oak Park River Forest High School.  He started describing his high school coach.  And I knew immediately who he was talking about.  I said, "You played for John Riehle didn't you." He said, "How did you know?  I didn't mention his name."  I said, "Who else could it be?"  And then we laughed.  He was one of a kind. 

John always made it a point to make sure each senior started at least one game during their career even if they weren't all that good. He wanted everyone to be able  say that "I started for Evanston'.  It was one of the ways he emphasized being a 'team' above all else. 

If you were going to be late for practice his players knew that a phone call was in order.  My son still says that John’s phone number is still indelibly etched in his head.  

I knew John off the field.  He was a good man.  Kind.  Caring. Intense. He chose to work at Evanston calling it ‘the finest highest school anyone could work at’.  He loved the racial and economic diversity of ETHS.  He thought sports could cultivate a spirit of community that nothing else could quite accomplish. I think he was right.

John was a man of faith.  It wasn’t an ‘in your face’ kind of thing.  He just lived out what he believed to be true and supported those of us who tried to do faith related activities in and around the school.

When I heard John died I got very sad.  I hadn’t seen him in quite awhile.  But I never forgot him. In fact, even this fall I used some John Riehle stories in a talk I gave at a middle school. He was a larger than life figure.  He loved my son.  He coached him up. He gave him an opportunity to play high school football at the highest, highest level in the state of Illinois. And his teams just didn’t play the game.  They played with pride, with skill, with attitude and with a chip on their shoulder. And they became a team in all the best senses of that  word.  They were expected to succeed but never at the cost of their integrity or good sportsmanship.  John knew there was a way to both win and lose.  You left it all out on the field and walked away with head held high.  

So, this blog is for you John.  Thanks for impacting my life.  Thanks for touching my son’s life in profound ways.  Thanks for Friday night and Saturday afternoon memories.  Thanks for a life well lived.  You did it right. You've left a legacy.  It doesn't get any better than that.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Wiped Out

Did a bit of traveling last week and into this one.  Headed to Sarasota for a surprise 80th birthday party for my father in law.  It was a good time and he was surprised.  Nice.

Somehow, someway on that trip I managed to catch a cold.  Couldn’t have anything to do with being in crowded airports and aircraft could it? And now I’m feeling wiped out.  Really wiped.
No energy. Plus I have a busy schedule.

When I look at my to do list for the next week or so I’m already overwhelmed. 

            Buy Christmas presents.
            Prepare a talk.
            Coordinate a Christmas party for 50.
            Church staff party.
            Assist at a Sunday service.
            Plan and help execute a Christmas Eve service, a service on December 26 and another on January 2.  
            Be available to those going through the holiday blahs.
            Christmas Day.
            Several counseling appointments.
            Sort presents at the Breakthrough Christmas Store.
            Holiday party with 200 single adults
            Etc., Etc.

And on top of that add the expectations of the holiday season to the mix.

Combine wiped out to overwhelmed, cap it off with a cold and stir it all around in an unhealthy mix of Christmas expectation and you’ve got the recipe for something quite ugly.

And so what does one do? The only sane thing to do is tend to the cold, do only what’s necessary and adjust expectations.  But that’s the catch isn’t it? Am I willing to do what’s sane and in the process disappoint some people and perhaps even add to their already heavy burden?  Or will I bravely walk towards what looks like a living insanity?

Grrr.  Decisions.

If the cold gets worse sickness will make some of the decisions for me.  If it doesn’t I’ll probably do everything I’ve committed to do. That’s how I’m wired. But I’m not happy about it.

Something happens to me at Christmas.  It’s not one of those ‘invitation to life’ times for me.  I feel stretched beyond my comfort zone, a bit out of sorts, somewhat lonely (funny because I’m surrounded by people who love me) and a little scroogey.  That’s the reality of the holiday season for me.  And I don’t completely understand it.

I wonder if the complications of the season become just a reminder of what is almost a primordial call to ‘simplicity’ that seems to resonate in some deep ways deep in my heart.  It’s something I yearn for.  It’s that desire to move away from ‘doing’ and to just ‘be’. To be true to my own heart. To be true to how God has wired me. To be with God.  To unplug. To rest. 

And all that is possible for me.  I have control of my calendar and my commitments.  I know my capacity and what takes me beyond it all.  I know how to care for a cold. And I know how to live sanely.

Perhaps that’s the gift I give myself this year.  It’s a permission to live better, less rushed, with less frustration and with more intentionality.  It’s a gift I promise myself each year.  Maybe it’s time I delivered it.

Thursday, December 09, 2010


The other day I went looking for a place to get a haircut.  I ended up at a shop not far from my home. 

It was a short wait and as I climbed into the chair I began to realize something about the place.  No one was speaking English except me.  Everyone was chatting in Arabic.  The more I thought about it the more I had to chuckle.  What had I walked into now?

I’m going to go back. The haircut was good but more importantly it might end up being the place where I can build some relationships with Muslims in my part of the universe.  And I need to do that.

We live not far from a mosque/educational center.  I ride my bike in the warm months through their parking lot at least a couple of times a month.  Once, right after a Muslim girl was allegedly attacked at a school and anti-Muslim graffiti was sprayed on a wall I stopped at the mosque and told some of the men sitting outside that I felt badly about all that happening. It was a short but cordial give and take.

I don’t understand the Muslim world.  All I know is that I’m intersecting with Muslim people more often than I ever have before.  So, I know for sure that I’m not supposed to avoid those interactions.  These are opportunities.  Opportunities for mutual growth and deeper understanding.  Out of real relationship good things can flow.

I’d love an opportunity to have heartfelt ‘faith’ conversations with Muslims down the road.  That means I should become more conversant with the Qu’ran.  I’m a bit ashamed to say that I know little or nothing of its content but I know enough to know that while jihad plays a prominent role it is not the only stream of thought and action that weaves its way through its pages. And like Christians there are Muslims that cherry pick the verses and themes that suit them.

In our bigger cultural conversation it’s clear there are a good many people want to build walls and not bridges to the Muslim world.  Muslim is synonymous in their minds with terrorism.  And there are certainly Muslim terrorists.  They’ve made their presence known in all too many dastardly and cowardly ways.  But not all Muslims are terrorists. 

I’ve been in developing countries where the Muslim influence is strong and a bit unnerving.  In all honesty I harbor some attitudes deep inside me that are troubling and unsettling. Some of these attitudes are grounded by the reliable testimony of good people who have experienced the dark side of Muslim practices. But a lot of my ugly attitude comes only from my 'quick to judge and stereotype' habit. It serves no one well when I don't resist every temptation to stay in a judgmental posture and emotional state. My solution to ‘staying in place’ is to put my life into motion in the most positive direction I can find.  With Muslims, that means moving in the direction of interaction and relationship instead of staying with my fears and prejudices.

Do I think Muslim faith is on an equal footing with Christian thought and practice? No.  I am unequivocally committed to the person of Christ and am, at my core, quite unapologetically orthodox. What we believe is important.  And I believe that Jesus is indeed both Savior and Lord.  But I also believe that Islam is on the march. Its numbers grow.  And as a person of Christian faith I need to know how to live with that reality. So do you.

For a long time I’ve believed that one ‘earns the right to be heard’.  In today’s world that is especially true.  We live in a time and place where people are suspicious of each other. Words are bandied about with both ease and indifference to potential harm. Lives speak.  Good lives speak loudly.  A life lived in love is the precursor to questions, challenges, and statements of faith.

So, in a couple of weeks I will head back to my newfound barber shop.  Maybe a conversation will develop.  Maybe not.  But it’s a step in the right direction, I think.  Out of my comfort zone and into a bigger world of possibility. 

Sunday, December 05, 2010


Author Kathleen Norris tells us that the Incarnation is where hope contends with fear. How do we stay hopeful when fear plants seeds of deep doubt in our lives?  Perhaps taking a look at Joseph, the carpenter from Nazareth can help us.  

We don’t know a whole lot about Joseph and thus talk about him relatively little except with occasional mention during Advent. I read once that a little boy, scheduled to play Joseph, in the church play on Christmas Eve took ill. Mom called the Director. And the Director said “That’s OK. We really don’t need Joseph.” And isn’t that the truth.  He’s the one in the shadows, between the ox and the cow. But even though we might not need Joseph except to make our Hallmark card vision of Christmas complete...  God needed Him.

Joseph was engaged to Mary.  Probably the same qualities that made God choose Mary were the same ones that brought her to Joseph.  Iraneus once said that the ‘glory of God is a man, a woman fully alive.”  When I think of Mary that’s what I think of.  Fully alive. I once wrote a short story about Mary.  I said that God liked to be in Mary’s company because she made His heart glad and that she made Him laugh.  And my guess that’s what she did to Joseph.  He was ‘in love’ with her.  This was the woman of his dreams.  And I’m sure he spent time daydreaming about what life like her would be like.  And those dreams were good dreams.  Dreams of a home, a companion, children, a legacy, a place in the community …and his heart had to race with joy as he thought of his future with her.  And then …this happened according to Matthew.

This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit.  Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.” 

In Jewish tradition an engagement was just like a marriage except there was no sex, no living together. If you wanted out you had to get a divorce. One just didn't ask for the ring back. Engagement was an expression of a covenant between a man and a woman.  In that culture, at that time, it was taken quite seriously. It was a sacred thing.

The gospel writer, Matthew, goes out of his way to make sure people understood that Mary’s pregnancy was a Holy Spirit thing.  He says it clearly: Mary and Joseph had not been sleeping together.  

Of course Matthew’s careful clarification didn’t do Mary and Joseph a whole lot of good at that time.  He wrote decades later.  This unplanned pregnancy put Mary and Joseph in deep, cultural  doo doo. Holy Spirit pregnancies weren’t the norm in this primitive culture. In fact, they’re not the norm in any culture

And so from the vantage point of the casual observer this whole situation was pretty clear.  Mary had been playing around.  And Joseph was probably the guy she was fooling around with.  They were both guilty of breaking cultural and religious expectation and obligation. Joseph, however, being the guy in this 1st century Judaic culture was in a better position to look the casual observer in the eye.  He cold simply cry ‘foul’ signaling illegal procedure in Mary’s direction and then just walk away.  He could divorce her, make it as messy as he wanted (if he intended to get even) and Mary would be left to fend for herself. Those were the rules.  Not good rules.  But the rules.

It's hard to for us to understand in this day and age what a serious business it was. Today, this would be tame for a story-line.  But in 1st century Holy Land there was nothing casual nor perplexing about this.  This was big stuff.  Hard stuff.

You gotta understand this. Joseph's world has fallen apart. Can't you just see him walking around in a daze looking at every man in the village wondering if ‘he’ was the one? His plans are in tatters. His hopes and dreams pushed to the side by doubt, hurt and possibly even fear. For Mary to be pregnant put Joseph between a rock and a hard place.  He knew the child wasn’t his.  He could walk away exposing Mary to public disgrace.  No one would object much if Joseph took out the hammer of ‘judgment’ and figuratively beat Mary with it. But being a righteous man he chose mercy over judgment and determined to divorce her quietly.  But God had another plan. 

 But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.  She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet:  “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”[c](which means “God with us”). When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife.

In the midst of what is a truly life defining situation Joseph gets a message from God delivered by an angel.  It’s a private message.  No witnesses.  If I were  Joseph I’d be wondering if a private message from God would make much difference in the midst of a public disgrace.  Who’d believe him?

So, he had a decision to make.  Do I play this out God’s way or not?  Joseph could walk away and start life again relatively free and easy.  Doing it God's way was problematic. The gossips would have a field day.  No one would believe, any longer, that he was righteous and good.  And they certainly weren’t going to believe that about Mary. This was a test of maximum magnitude.  It was a test of his character, his integrity and his faith.  It meant coming face to face with some shattered dreams and it meant leaning into his fears.

And so he made his choice. With a shattered dream behind Him, Joseph very bravely stepped into a whole new reality for his life. He is obedient to God’s request. He took Mary into his home.  And he gives the child its name.  This would formally acknowledge that this child is his son and legitimizes Jesus as a descendant of the great king named David. And by doing this Joseph stepped headlong into his doubts and fears.   He made the decision to believe God and to continue to love Mary.  To marry her meant that he would be publicly admitting that the baby was his and that all the gossip mongers could assume what they wanted to assume about both his and Mary’s righteousness. To do what God required meant potentially losing a great deal of the good reputation he had spent a lifetime acquiring.  

I wonder what questions were going through Joseph’s mind in the midst of his decision making and in the aftermath of it all?

Do I have what it takes to do this? How much do I really love Mary? Are there are lingering doubts about her character?Is obedience to God enough to sustain me? Am I man enough to withstand the gossip? Am I willing to do what’s right even though life is going to stink for awhile if I do it? And maybe the biggest question of all …am I up for the task of being Jesus’s human father? What do I have to offer?

And of course he did have what it took.  Obedience trumped expediency.  He lived with the gossip.  He stepped into the miracle.   But it meant that he had to scrap  plan A for his life.  And he had to embrace Plan B.  That meant a birth in a stable for the child.  A life on the run as a refugee in Egypt.  It meant coming back home to the rumor and innuendo that would always swirl around them.  But he loved plan A I bet.  It was a good plan.  Joseph/Mary, kids, a thriving business,  and community respect. 

And then God comes in with another plan.  It’s part of a plan that’s been in place for a long, long time. And Joseph, son of David is part of it.  The promise of a new king, a descendent of David had been promised for a long, long time.  This child, entrusted to both Mary and Joseph, would be the king, the savior of God’s people. And the irony of it all is that one who would save the world from sin would, in the eyes of many, look like he was conceived in sin. Gotta wonder, when Jesus was forced to defend the adulterous woman during his public ministry if he didn’t enter into that fray willingly.  After all his mother and Joseph had walked that road courageously before Him.

Joseph made a pretty significant choice.  He opted to step into a bigger story than the one He was living.  Instead of trying to manage the situation, which I often try to do (trying to manage my sin and others expectations) he walked into his fears and into a story the he wasn’t in control of. His whole life was laid bare and every good plan looked thwarted.  He walked towards Hope. He decided to trust a good and beautiful God. Joseph walked, I believe, into a bigger story with a confident expectation that this good God is 'enough' for every circumstance.  And that allowed him to walk headlong into his questions, his fears and even his doubts. 

I wonder as the years passed if he would have traded this new life for original Plan A. I don’t think so.  Every time he looked at his ‘boy’ and at his wife …he knew he was participating in God’s plan.  God’s good plan. Joseph could have easily walked away. He could have said ‘no’ to God.  He could have. But he didn’t. He stepped into the messiness of what God had laid out and made a decision to embrace it all. 

Joseph trusted God. And then God entrusted Himself to Joseph.  May we be like Joseph.  People who love mercy over judgment, willing to deny ourselves for the sake of others, people obedient to the will of God. Willing to scrap our plans for His plans.  In Joseph we see someone grappling with both hopes and fears.  Hope won out.  May it be so for us.

Friday, December 03, 2010

The List

My dream when I was ten years old was to play major league baseball. I wasn’t alone. At least a gazillion others had the same dream.  And the first step to the majors for just about all of us was to make a Little League team.

It was a big deal to play Little League in the town I grew up in. A real big deal. We had a beautiful Little League park. Grass infield. Well maintained. And we had tryouts.  I grew up in a time when not every kid made a team.  You got cut and had to live with it.  Whether that was a good or not is debatable.  At the time it wasn’t argued with.

So it came time for the first of the tryouts. This determined whether or not you were even good enough to try out for a team.  Like I said …a bit more of a cutthroat system.  I tried out.

About a week later I asked Mr. Parenteau who’s Little League team practiced near my home if I was ‘on his list’.  After all, he had seen me play many times.  I practiced with his team every once in awhile when they needed an extra body.  But he was pretty evasive when I asked him and he mumbled something about thinking that the Red Sox had gotten me.  That got my hopes up.  And so I waited for the call from the Red Sox.  No call.

Being pretty resourceful, I found out where the Red Sox were having their tryout, got on my bike, and rode to the other side of town and walked onto the Red Sox practice field.  Except there was a problem.  I wasn’t on their list.  And I remember saying to the coach …" I’ve got to be. Mr. Parenteau told me I was." He shook his head and said “Nope, not here. No Mike Murphy on the list.” 

And all of a sudden I realized something. I hadn’t even passed the first tryout.  No team wanted to take a second look at me. I was never going to make it to the big leagues if I couldn’t make Little League. I had big hopes but nowhere to channel them. And then the Red Sox coach through me a lifeline, saying to me.  “Here’s what I’ll do.  I’ll check with the league. “ In other words we’ll scour the reject pile so I’ll know what to tell you the next time I see you which will probably will be never.  “But since you’re here …why don’t you join everybody else just for tonite.  Can’t promise anything beyond that.  The truth is  I can only take 12 players and I’ve got ten returning and there’s 30 players here trying out for two spots. And everyone else is on my list.”

Basically, he offered me a random act of kindness.  Man, I threw myself into that tryout. 

After the first night he came up to me, shaking his head and told me to come back for a second tryout.  He actually cut some guys that night.  I came back the next night.  I made the second cut.  I asked him if he had worked out everything with the league. “Was I on the list?  Was it OK that I was still playing?”  And he just kind of waved me away.

On the last night, after a long workout, he gathered the remaining six of us together and said.  I only have two spots.  I can’t take all of you.  If you don’t  make it I hope you try out next year.  And then he looked at me, shook his head and said “Murph, you made it. Unbelievable. You’re a Red Sox. Go grab a uniform." I can’t tell you how excited I was.  I wasn’t even supposed to be there.  And I made the team. I made a list.

We’ve all had experiences, I’m sure where, our hopes and dreams and our fears and nightmares seem to both collide and coexist..  I’m assuming that all of us know what it’s like to hold these seemingly competing realities in our hands. That tryout was one of those places for me. I thought I was good enough. Everyone else thought I was a reject or at least didn’t think I was good enough to be on the list. .  I don’t know if I was stupid or determined or both.  But I leaned into my hopes and dreams while facing my worst fears and doubts.  It was a good life lesson.  This time it worked out well. Sometimes it doesn’t. But it doesn’t mean that it’s not a wise strategy.

Author Kathleen Norris tells us that the Incarnation is where hope contends with fear. She’s right.  The Christmas carol says it well.  “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”

How does hope win out?  It wins out when we lean into our doubts and fears, not trying to run from them.  It wins when we trust that a good God is for us, not against us. Hope wins when we put our life into motion instead of allowing fear to trap us in the paralysis of analysis.   It wins when we respond to the invitation of the Incarnation …to accept the gift of life and to do something with it.

Hope wins even though it looks as it it's defeated.  For hope wells up inside of us.  It is the power of God reminding us of that which is not yet but is still to come.  Hope uses even cruel circumstance to help renew our faith.  Hope is like a little child who believes there is room for one more name on the list. Hope is kindled by a kind coach, willing to break a rule, to make room for possibility. 

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Wait

I’m impatient.  Don’t like long lines.  Poor customer service irritates me.  I like quick fixes.  Impatience isn’t a good life skill to have.  My guess is that most Cubs fan are impatient people that a good God has decided need a healthy dose of ‘waiting skills’.  I’m one of those Cub fans.

Liturgical churches have a ‘waiting’ season.  We call it Advent.  It’s a forced bit of calendaring that slows down a mad rush to Christmas.  The deal is that we are to spend some time anticipating the birth of the Savior.  It’s a little strange because we spend time hoping for something that has already occurred.  Liturgical masterminds hope we can use a bit of imagination and put ourselves into the story of Christmas.  Can we begin to see, here, smell, and touch the very familiar story so that it takes on meaning afresh?

As impatient as I can be I’m looking forward to slowing down the season a bit this year.  I’m sensing I need a fresh infusion of anticipation. 

I’m one of those people who doesn’t jump up and down gleefully during this season. Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not a scrooge (entirely).  It’s just that the hustle and bustle combined with holiday expectation takes its toll on me.  Couple all that with the disjointedness that a divorce causes on a family and it’s a recipe for some unsettledness.

And so I have to work on this Christmas thing.  And thus I’m a bit thankful for a church that believes in entering into an Advent kind of experience.  My soul needs a fresh movement of the rediscovery of the season.

Today I read Psalm 40: 1-3 from The Message.

I waited and waited and waited for God. At last he looked; finally he listened. 
   He lifted me out of the ditch, 
      pulled me from deep mud. 
   He stood me up on a solid rock 
      to make sure I wouldn't slip. 
   He taught me how to sing the latest God-song, 
      a praise-song to our God. 
   More and more people are seeing this: 
      they enter the mystery, 
      abandoning themselves to God.

I’ve felt like that.  I’ve waited and waited. Felt like I was in a ditch and needing solid rock.  And God met me in unexpected ways.  I need God to meet me again.  Maybe you do too.  But the waiting is hard especially when the way out is entering into ‘mystery’ instead of certainty and when abandoning yourself to God is the very last thing on your mind.

On my journey recently I’m encountering some pretty hurt people.  The holiday season seems to bring unsettling emotion to the forefront.  A whole lot of folks I know are waiting for a God that they aren’t even sure they want to see show up.  Because when he does He’ll get an earful. They want to ‘abandon themselves to God’ but are sick and tired of the uncertainty of the mystery.

Maybe this describes you. 

Maybe Advent is just what you need.  It’s where the ‘hopes and fears of all the years’ are laid out on the table.  And maybe that’s where we all start.  We lay are cards on the table, admitting our doubts and certainties, our pain and our joy and dare God to help us make sense of it all.  Such is the way of faith.  It’s not for the faint hearted.  It’s a necessary journey into the truth of our own lives and a hope filled yearning for a God who will indeed show up and makes things ‘alright’ again.

It’s in the ‘in between time’ that we live during Advent.  Will God really show up?  And if He doesn’t what will happen? Will we embrace the ‘waiting’ for another season?  And if He does will I recognize His presence?  And if I do recognize God will I willingly abandon myself to Him?  

So we wait and wonder.  Advent.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Broken Road Thankfulness

The broken road.  Most of us have traveled it.  When a dream is shattered, when a relationship flounders, when our world falls apart the superhighways of life seem to disappear and we find ourselves on what appears to be a lonely and barren path.

It is a good road but not a welcome one.  It’s not a chosen path.  Some die on this path.  They emotionally cave in.  Spiritually they falter.  When viewed as a broken road to nowhere that expectation comes true.

Others embrace the broken road. It heals them.  And on the journey into their brokenness they discover that they are not alone.  There are other wounded people on the same journey and God uses them to help heal our wounds.

I’m thankful for the broken road and for broken road healers.

Yesterday I did a wedding of two friends.  I said this to them:

 You have traveled a broken road. And on the broken road a good and beautiful God has helped you discover a partner for your remaining journey. On your road, you embraced your personal brokenness, dealt with your sadness, found traveling companions, reacquired confidence in yourself and God.  You’ve discovered that you can love again and in the process have allowed yourself to be loved.  And you’ve learned to trust once more.  And that’s huge because not to long ago you didn’t think you’d ever trust anyone again.

And so  I believe God is smiling today.  Two of his favorite broken road people are saying ‘yes’ to each other and He knows that you want Him in this marriage with you. 

I’m privileged to know both of you.  I’ve been blessed to be part of your journey.  Just as both of you have blessed mine. I’m convinced that you know what love will require of you. You have the right vision of what your marriage can be.  Your intention to live into the full potential of your relationship is a beautiful and good thing.  You understand that the means of living into your dream will be fueled by healthy doses of both selflessness and intentionality…

God has blessed your broken road hasn’t he?  You both have allowed God to use it to shape you more and more into the image of Christ.  And God will use your broken road experiences to help and encourage  others.  I’m convinced of it.”

During the candle ceremony Racal Flatt’s ‘God Bless the Broken Road’ was sung. Very appropriate.

So, today, on Thanksgiving Day, I’m thankful for so much.  But I’m especially thankful for ‘broken road’ people who enrich my life so wonderfully.  They are the wounded healers who ‘get’ what life was meant to be and are making kingdom impact wherever they continue to travel.

And I want to give a special Thanksgiving shout out to Mike and Joyce, the ‘two who became one’ yesterday.  Enjoy what God has done and will continue to do in your life.  Woo hoo!!!

Especially to God I am thankful.  Bill and Gloria Gaither said it well.  "Something beautiful. Something good.  All my confusion He understood. All I had to offer him was brokenness and strife.  But He made something beautiful of my life."  Yay God.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

What's New?

Change is a constant in all of our lives.  Do we want that change to occur with God or without Him?

The sad truth is that we are a part of a culture that likes to pick and choose everything. We even like to choose what version of God we want.  It’s as if we go into a God Shop and start shopping for a deity.  Not finding what we want exactly we begin to borrow from this philosophy and that TV show and this economic perspective and that political idedology (there are shelves and shelves of such stuff in the God Shop) and before you know it we have enough ingredients to mix ourselves up a little god.  And when that god is fully formed it's comfortable and cuddly. It looks amazingly like us if truth be known. But it’s really just a trinket god with no power to transform our lives.  It does however look nice on the mantel.

But  then there’s a real God.  People walk right by Him in the god shop.  He’s on the lower shelf, fairly non descript. Mother Theresa described Him as wearing the' most distressing of disguises'. As Lucy discovers in Narnia this God, who is the King, is never safe but always good.  And this God on the lower shelf doesn’t always say the most politically correct things.  This God won’t settle for sitting on the mantel.  He’s an active God who will challenge both our lifestyle and our thinking.  He is quite determined and inflexible in his notions of holiness.  And he’s crazy in love with us. 

And a whole lot of people don’t want this real God. He is not convenient or tame. Some find him embarrassing and far too demanding.  He is the God, however, who is.  He’s different from the god we conjure up.  The real God is a bit more inclined to mess with our lives and isn’t particularly impressed with those things we’re obsessive about.

As followers of Jesus it’s our job to make sure our life is being shaped and changed by the God who really is, not the god of our imagination, shaped by our own personality and our lack of discovery.  Our job is to be in search for the God of the bible.

I believe that God will change your life.  And as part of that process He wants to give us a new identity and a new name.

I remember once a teacher in grade school told me that I didn’t have what it takes. She said, “You’ll never go to college. Just not bright enough.”  Kind of shocking someone would say that to a little kid.  I knew instinctively that she was wrong and that I was more than 'not bright enough' but her words hit me hard and knocked me back. She had given me a name and it wasn't good.  It was one of those times when I realized that the old playground taunt is wrong …”Just as sticks and stones can break our bones words can hurt us”.

The Bible tells us in the Book of Revelations that God is going to do something for all of us who live victoriously. “And I will give to each one a white stone (a sign of victory in ancient times), and on that stone will be engraved a new name that no one understands except the one who receives it.”  (that secret name is a sign of great intimacy …given by a God who knows us to our innermost being).

What do you think is going to be written on your stone?  It’s not going to be Stinky or Thuderthighs, or Fat Bob, or Wiener. It’s not going to be Weird Al, or You're an idiot.  It's not going to say 'you’re the one who disappoints me’.  It’s not going to say divorced, dropout, sinner or unable to pay your bills. It’s going to be a name that builds you up, not tear you down. Mine isn’t going to say ‘not bright enough’.  That’s not my name.  Another teacher gave me a foretaste of what God is going to write on my stone.  She called me a talented student.  And I was able to finally trade in ‘not bright enough’ for a new name that helped me forge a more noble new identity. 

The God of the Bible is all about giving us a new identity.  Check out 2 Corninthians 5:17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! 

I don’t know what you believe about yourself but I know that the identity God wants us to live into is has power and purpose attached to it. Here’s the identity of the new person in Christ.  

I am a child of God. One in whom Christ dwells.  I am an inhabitant of a joy filled eternity.  I have been bought by the blood of Christ. I am infused with God’s power and presence. I do not have to live a sad, fearful or defeated life.  I am a new creation. I was designed to have the fullness of God inhabit me.  I am an ambassador of the Creator of the World.  I am somebody.  I belong to God. I am free from condemnation.  I cannot be separated from God’s love.  I am being transformed into the image of Christ. 

Our identity comes from being clear about what God has done, is doing, and will continue to do in our life.  And that identity can change the trajectory of our life.  When I decided not to buy into an identity of being stupid and instead saw myself as having potential my life changed.   Just as our life can change when we begin to live within the framework of a new God given identity.

So, is faith just about thinking about positively about ourselves.? No, but it doesn’t hurt.  Scripture does tell us that we will “be transformed by the renewing of our mind”.  I have no problem thinking positively about a God place identity.  Neither should you.

The tag line on this blog says this.  “Live like God is real and He will transform your life.”

Somebody might be saying: “Living like God is real can be hard. And I might not like the path the transformation takes me on.” And if you’re saying that …well, you’re right. But life  is difficult and hard no matter what. Would I rather walk through life with a good God who gives me new identity and renewed purpose or trust only in what the counterfeit god I’ve invented can do for me? 

I choose to go through it with  the God of the Bible.  Our job is to live into our new identity by holding onto the God that gives it to us. And we do it in a world that still carries far too much of the remnants of sin in it …a world that can defeat us at times unless we’re clinging hard and fast to a good God. 

When I used to coach I’d ask my players to trust me.  To trust that I knew what I was doing, how I was preparing them, and to trust me especially when crunch time came.  But they’d have to believe that my way was the good way even if, at times, my methods and my tactics seemed unorthodox.  Most players bought into it. A few didn’t.  The teams that bought into it did a whole lot better than those that didn’t. It wasn’t always easy.  But at crunch time, in the final seconds of  an overtime, when we had time for only one more play I loved looking into the eyes of my players.  They came to me as individual players.  Now they were a team and a band of brothers. They had succeeded in creating a new identity.  And as a team they were ready for the moment at hand.

And at times like that I could easily give them new names. I could look Darnell in the eyes and say ‘your new name is Sky Walker for no one jumps like you do, and I could say to Andrew …youre name is Stud Defender and I could look at Ricky and say ‘your name is Captain and Leader. To Michael I could say You’re our warrior.  To Jermaine I could say you’re The Glue that holds this team together.  To each …a new name added to a new identity. 

So it is with the Christian faith.  God says trust me. I know you’re not going to always understand why I’m doing what I’m doing.  For  “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways.  .”   He says, “Buy into what I’m saying. I am a good God. I’m a loving God. I paid a deep price for you.  You are a new creation.  I love you like crazy.  I have a new name for you. Trust me. Forever we’ll be together.  I am the God who is. I am the God who changes lives.  And I want to transform yours.  May it be so.

Monday, November 15, 2010

When you're not sure what to blog about.

I’m realizing that I haven’t posted on my blog for a couple of weeks.  I’ve been very busy.  I have some ideas.  Not sure what strikes my fancy but here’s snippets of some of the stuff going on in my head.  

Doing a sermon this week called God is Life Changing but wondering if anyone really feels their life is changing because of God.  Seems like there are a fair amount of people doing things that they hope will be life changing but not feeling any of the power of God while they're doing it.

I was channel surfing last night and caught a glimpse of Sara Palin’s Alaska.  No matter what you think of her politics she sure is a pretty good marketer of her message.

Why do I like to watch House Hunters International?

Also, tuned in briefly to Mike Huckabee’s show.  Never saw it before.  I’ve always liked the guy.  He has a way of talking politics that makes sense, invites dialogue, and isn’t mean spirited.  May his tribe increase.

There sure are a lot of empty seats at NFL stadiums these days.  Wonder what means?

Chicago is bracing for it’s mayoral election.  Might make a long winter a bit more entertaining.  It’s an interesting cast of characters.  Big shoes to fill.  Daley certainly made the city work.  How he made it work was a bit questionable at times but he certainly kept things moving.

Just heard that a Democratic congresswomen is urging her party to delay their decision about legislative leadership until they’ve had time to talk about and understand fully what the ‘shellacking’ a few weeks ago actually means.  Got to applaud her for doing this.  I doubt if they’ll heed her advice but moving quickly in the midst of adversity isn’t always the best thing to do.

My wife is on a book tour.  Heading to NY City next.  Lots of people don’t realize that writing a book is one thing.  Promoting it is an entirely different matter. Even with a good publisher like Zondervan there’s a whole lot an author has to do on their own to build an audience.  Anita’s lucky that she has a platform and contacts to launch a promotion so her ‘message’ can get out.  Others who have some good things to say don’t have that kind of platform.  It’s what makes publishing difficult these days.  Anita wrote a blog post about it.

Been thinking about something I’m learning about myself.  I’m afraid to live fully into the power of my own influence.  Wonder what that’s all about?

Holidays are coming fast.  I’m one of those folks who doesn’t revel in it all.  Not quite sure why.  Some childhood stuff going on I’m sure.  Divorce plays a big factor (the gift that keeps on giving J).  I think fear of not being able to live into the ‘high expectations’ of the season is another.  I’m sure there are plenty of folks like me out there.

My stepson John is in the midst of a college search and choosing process.  Whew!!!  Good choices he has.  Much money it will cost.  College, I think, is wasted on the young.  Wish I could go back.  I’d actually sign up for early morning classes now that I’m up early in the morning.  Does that have anything to do with age?

We’re planning an Advent series at the church for our 2HC Worship.  How to make Christmas come alive for folks who have heard the story a gazillion times?  Just praying that God will use what we come up with for His purposes.

I’ve been struggling mightily with the notion of ‘community’.  Is the community I’m looking for just a figment of my imagination?  Is it right before my eyes and I don’t recognize it?  What does Christian community look like or is Facebook community enough?

Still can’t understand why God is calling thousands of good faith-filled people to Florida and Arizona during the snow season?  It seems that many are going without any sense of a divine assignment but only out of a sense of personal entitlement.  Does that seem odd to you? Of course, if you've lived all your life without looking for a divine assignment doing your own thing is the only thing you know how to do.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Before the Votes are Counted

I don’t know who won or lost in today’s election.  The votes aren’t counted as I’m writing this.  My best guess is that the electoral tilt will be to the right.  There will be another week or two of detailed ‘spin’ from all sides and then who knows what will happen.  For sure, the Democrats will need to reorganize in order to reenergize.  The Republicans will have to heal the conservative vs. moderate rift in their own ranks in order to make sure this is not a one and done kind of deal.

America will be able to slow down, catch our collective breath and then start leaning into a world that is filled with both challenge and opportunity.  Are you ready?

If the latest electoral season is any indication we are in deep need of a deeper goodness in our country. Actually, I think that deeper goodness is here.  It’s just obscured a bit.  And we need an infusion of hope. At least I’m sensing we do.  I don’t think Rush, Glen, Jon, the ladies from the View, or Oprah can do it.  Not even Barak or Sarah.  God can certainly use them but we are in need of something more substantive than what our entertainers, pundits, gadflies, and politicians can offer us. 

For some of us that more substantive thing is a reawakening in our spirit.  In our churches it may mean revival.  In many arenas it’s a rediscovery of passion and an unleashing of talent. For sure, I think being more attentive to the promptings of God is at the heart of the renewal that needs to take place.

My prayer is that the church continues to show leadership in all things leading to awakening and re- imagining our preferred future. It means facing down and filling the holes in our gospel (thank you Richard Stearns) and living into the ‘unforced rhythms of grace’ (thank you Eugene Peterson).

The church is at its best when we do what we can do best.  That means showing up where the need is great.  How many hospitals, schools, orphanages, hospices, homeless shelters, feeding centers ….bear the imprint of the faithfulness of God’s people?  It’s everywhere you look  We certainly still see evidence of God’s people going to difficult places, to do difficult things often at the cost of their life.  It makes me want to both applaud and cry.  Even the most jaundiced observer of church life has to give a thumbs up to the millions upon millions upon millions of dollars given freely to help those who have so little.  Add to these heroic efforts the gazillions of little kindness and courtesies done day after day in every workplace and neighborhood that make our world a better place.

Yet, I think we’re just scratching the surface of our potential especially when we gauge the great need all around us.  How many of us are still caught up in things that are so self serving that we just can’t see a very cool, greater call on our life?

The hope we desperately need in our country and around the world is going to come as a result of paying attention to the very things God pays attention to.  In all honesty segments of the church seem to be playing around with things that don’t really matter and missing out on great opportunities to join God where He is truly at work.  I’m more concerned about what we can do proactively going forward rather than staying angry about what has already occurred. 

So, election day is almost over.  Some who read this will be very discouraged over the results.  Some not so much.  In fact, there will be great jubilation in some circles.  If history is any indicator our joys and sorrows in the political arena are short-lived.  It’s rascals in and rascals out (according to a finicky public) in pretty predictable cycles.  But God is doing something beyond our politics and culture battles.  He’s on the prowl.  He knows what needs to be done. As always, God will use the church.  It’s the vehicle He uses. Always has. Always will. I want in on this.  I want in on the next chapter God is writing. How about you? 

So, I will pray for our new leaders and for my friends that want to make a huge impact in the political arena.  May God use them greatly, beyond expectation.  Wouldn’t that be something?  In the meantime there’s another place to play, a different kind of kingdom to serve.  Here’s to the future.