Speed Bumps

Speed Bump SignThere were four or five speed bumps on the road ahead, but what caught my attention was the car in front of me. As it approached each bump in the road, it veered way over to the right to go around it. Didn’t slow down. Just avoided the speed bumps.

I don’t mind speed bumps. They don’t bother me or my car in the least. Unless they are particularly obnoxious, or unless my wife is in the car with me, I go right over them without worrying. Without slowing very much, either, I must confess.

When the car ahead got to the last speed bump, there was a parked car on the side of the road, so the driver had no choice but to go over the bump. To accomplish this feat, he came to a complete stop. Then he crawled over the speed bump as if his car might be damaged if it went more than 2 MPH over that obstacle. It was a fairly new car, and it didn’t seem fragile. Yet he crept over that speed bump as if his very life depended on not going any faster than the snail on the sidewalk next to him. The earthworm on the other side sped past him. Just zipped on by!

I watched the scene play out, trying to remain patient. I had a meeting to attend, but I could wait a little longer to see what the fellow would do. See if his jalopy would survive the ordeal of climbing over that mountain. It got all the way to the top of the speed bump and eased down the other side. Then the driver looked around, breathed a heavy sigh of relief, and accelerated. He was a success. A survivor. He was having a good day!

After the meeting, I thought about the speed bump episode. We all face bumps in the road in everyday life. Sometimes we call them hiccups or obstacles. Some people refuse to use the word “problem,” preferring, instead, to call them “challenges.” But they’re real.

Jesus said plainly in John 16:33 that there’ll be trouble, sorrow, pain, and difficulty in this world. Different translations of the Bible use words like tribulation, trials, distress, and afflictions. The Greek word is thlipsis, which refers to a variety of tough circumstances.

The fact is, life is tough. And just when you think it’s going to ease up a bit, it gets harder. It tests your faith. It raises hard questions. It makes you want to run away. “But be of good cheer,” the Lord goes on to say. “Take heart, be brave, don’t let it defeat you.”

Jesus knew about hardship. He knew what it meant to suffer, to hurt, to wish things could turn out differently. So did James, who wrote that we can be joyful even when going through tough stuff, knowing that the Lord is at work in our lives. So did Paul, who said God was working for our good in every situation. Even when hitting those speed bumps.

Years ago, in a pick-up game of basketball, the other team got a rebound and was running a 4-on-1 fast break. Trying to defend them, I turned to reach for the ball. In doing so, I twisted my knee, snapped my ACL, and landed on the ground in pain. Surgery was followed by months of physical therapy.

To this day, I have an awareness and a compassion for people who have a leg, knee, or foot injury. Whenever I see someone in a wheelchair, on crutches, or wearing a knee brace, I remember what it was like falling to the ground in agony, then being helped off the court by friends. For a moment, I relive the exercises designed to restore strength and range of motion.  My painful experience helped me become more aware of other people and what they’re going through.

We can’t avoid speed bumps, can’t always drive around them like the guy in front me was trying to do. There will always be problems, challenges, and obstacles. Some will be overwhelming, others mere hiccups. What we can do is face them with courage, patience, and confidence, staying open to the idea that they just might lead to personal growth and maturity, and just maybe help us develop a sense of compassion and an ability to relate to other people.

Speed Bump Image

Unity Produces Winners

quarterback-73614_1920Football season is in full swing. All across the nation, players and fans have high hopes and great expectations that their team will win. And let’s be honest, for most people, it’s not how you play the game. It’s whether you win or lose.

Last week, several sportswriters interviewed a college quarterback whose team just won a big game. They had beaten a good team by a pretty wide margin, and when asked how he did it, the QB deflected the praise. “It was my guys. They played a great game. I know I can count on them to come through.” Another question elicited this answer, “The reason we’re doing so well is that we all bought into what the coaches are telling us. There’s no fighting or working against each other here.”

Winners always have one thing in common: They have team chemistry and camaraderie. After a successful game, and especially after the season ends and they win the championship, a reporter inevitably asks the question, “What’s special about this team? What made it possible to win it all?” And the answer is always, “We’re a family. On and off the field. We have a sense of togetherness that really made it happen. I love these guys.”

The same happens in any sport. Unity produces winners, and this dynamic is at play in every field, whether a business, a school, a club, a fraternity, a church, a military unit, a marriage, or a family. Even in politics.

In Matthew 12:25 Jesus says, “Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand.”

A kingdom? A city? A household? The context of his statement is the spiritual realm, which means the same principles are at work in the spiritual dimension as they are in human relationships, athletics, and the business world.

We see this again in Matthew 18:19-20. “If two of you on earth agree about any matter that you pray for, it will be done for you by My Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there among them.”

According to these verses, unity turns on the power of God, and invites the presence of God. No wonder unity produces winners. We need the power and the presence of God at work in our lives and our relationships.

Years ago, my wife and I adopted the slogan “We’re on the Same Team.” We’re both competitive, and there’s a potential for one of us to feel good for winning, at the expense of the other feeling bad for losing, and we don’t want that to happen. In reality, husband and wife both win, or they both lose. Everyone in the church wins, or the church loses. Just like on the football team, everyone wins, or everyone loses.

Unity produces winners.

rugby-596747_1920

Broken & Hurting

loneliness-1879453_1920Many people experience the worst life has to offer. Sometimes, the pain is the result of illness or accident, but at times it is intentionally inflicted by other people.

Debbie grew up in a Christian home, and shortly after high school, met Kyle, a young man who attended the same church. After dating for a year, Kyle asked her to marry him, and she said “yes,” expecting to live happily ever after.

A few months after the wedding, however, Debbie was still on cloud nine when something went terribly wrong. When she got home from work one day, she found out he’d been drinking, and in a rage, he hit her. Horrified, she called their pastor, who provided counseling for several weeks. Things seemed to be getting better, until one night Kyle put a loaded gun to her head. In a panic, Debbie managed to escape. Even though her grandmother lived several miles away, Debbie somehow found the strength to run all the way. She survived, but something inside had broken, making it hard to trust anyone. She left Kyle and abandoned her faith in Christ.

Every one of us is broken in some way. We might look fine on the outside, but inside we’re hurting. If we’re to find healing or any positive result from the pain, it might be helpful to take a look at Job, James, and Jesus to see how we can respond in painful circumstances.

Even though he did everything right, Job suffered terrible business losses, extreme physical pain, and undeserved accusations from his friends. His wife also lost everything, and chose to let go of hope and faith, suggesting that he do the same. Instead, Job turned to the Lord, and began to understand more fully his own weakness and need for God. These are important lessons that sometimes have to be learned the hard way. We have a tendency to be self-sufficient, unaware of our desperate need for God. In his darkest moments, Job chose to turn toward the Lord, and so can we.

The second possibility for meaning in our pain is character growth. James 1:2-4 tells us to remain joyful when we endure tests and trials, because they will help us mature. It is true that pain can break us, but it also has a way of strengthening us and deepening us. The difference is how we respond to the crisis and to the work of the Holy Spirit.

A third potential benefit of tribulation is that it can help us develop compassion for others. When Jesus looked at the crowds, he saw their need and was moved to compassion. He cared about people and saw their hurts. He felt their need, and acted. He fed them, healed them, taught them, loved them. The Apostle Paul picks up this theme in 2 Corinthians 1:4 when he says the Lord comforts us in our troubles so that we can comfort others.

Some people respond to pain by becoming hardened, bitter, or angry. Others are jealous of those who seem to have everything going right. If we want to grow in Christ and enjoy life to its fullest, however, we can’t afford to let either of those happen. Instead, we can turn to the Lord, mature as human beings, and develop a sense of compassion for others.

Silver

There’s a song in the musical version of Les Misérables that a Christian pastor sings to a hungry, homeless criminal, “Come in, sir, for you are weary, and the night is cold out there. There’s a bed to rest til morning, rest from pain and rest from wrong.”

That’s what the Lord is saying to us in Matthew 11:28. “Come to me, you who are tired, carrying a heavy load, and I will give you rest.” Rest from pain, and rest from wrong.

Boy in the Fountain

Boy in Fountain

The little boy sat in the water directly on top of a water spout, cooling off from the heat. How old does he look to you?

He loved the feel of the cold water, contrasted with the hundred-degree temperature of the day. There were other children in the fountain – running, splashing, yelling, having fun. But this little guy just sat there. He didn’t need much; just to be there was enough. I asked around until I found his mother, and got permission to take the picture. I didn’t want her to think I meant any harm. I mentioned that I had children and grandchildren, and I thought her son was adorable. She looked at me, hesitated, then nodded.

Posting the picture on Facebook, I received likes and comments from people all over the country. They wrote things like Cute, Adorable, Smart boy, Awww, and Can I Adopt Him. I “liked” every comment.

A year later, I still wonder about him from time to time. What’s his life like? Has he grown much? What’s his family like? Does he ever go back to that fountain?

And I wonder about his future, too. What will become of him? Will he like school? What sports will he want to play? What kind of music will he listen to? What does he want to do when he grows up? Although that may change a hundred times during his childhood.

Then, in light of recent stories in the news, I wonder if he’ll turn out to be a good kid who grows into a fine young man, or if he’ll get into trouble along the way. Will he ever be shot at by a gang, a friend, or a policeman? These thoughts are very real in America these days, and I wonder about this little guy.

I also wonder about my own grandchildren. One of my sons married a woman of color, and they have children. I know their interests, their likes and dislikes, their preferences, what they want to be when they grow up. My eight-year-old granddaughter wants to be a doctor. Her five-year-old brother wants to be Buzz Lightyear or Spiderman, depending on the time of day, of course. They love school and learning. They love being part of a congregation of faith. They love playing family games. Life hasn’t turned ugly for them, yet. But it could. Hate is a powerful force in America. Racism is still prevalent. Unkindness lurks.

I wonder how they might turn out, too. Will they fulfill their dreams? Will they get into trouble? Will they ever be the victims of prejudice? Will they have to defend themselves simply because their skin is darker, or their hair gives them away? Might they be subject to racial profiling some day? So far, they trust adults, those in authority, such as teachers, pastors, and police officers. Will they ever find their trust betrayed? Will they ever be afraid of being shot by someone they trust?

When I finished my lunch appointment and walked back to my car, the little boy was gone. His mother must have decided he’d been in the fountain long enough. He probably needed lunch. Perhaps it was nap time. Maybe she needed to go to work.

Soiled Lives

Phone 2

When I answered the phone, it was my uncle. Though he had sons of his own and I had a father, he always called me “Son.”

“Son, I understand you want to be a pastor?”

“Yes, sir.”

“So you think you’re called, huh?”

“Yes, sir. I do.”

“Son, if you are really called to the ministry, meet me at the church Thursday morning and spend the day with me.”

My classes at San Diego State were on Monday-Wednesday-Friday, so Thursday morning I got up and went to the church. I had no idea what he had in mind. After chatting for a few minutes, he said, “Follow me.” We got into his car and, without saying a word, drove to the outskirts of town, pulled up to a cluster of tiny, two-room shacks, and parked on the dirt in front of a small green hut, too small to be called a house or an apartment, yet this was someone’s home.

Uncle got out of the car, and I followed. We walked up to the door of one of the units, and he knocked. No answer. He knocked again, louder this time. Again, no answer. “I know he’s in there.”

He tried the door, and found that it was unlocked. Slowly he opened it, and went in. There on the bed in the small two-room cabin was a man: drunk, passed out. A mixture of vomit, diarrhea, urine, and alcohol on the bed, walls, sofa, and floor. The stench was overwhelming, as if attacking my nostrils and throat. I thought I was going to throw up.

Without saying a word, without even a grimace, the pastor took off his suit coat and tie and handed them to me. I watched as the man of God took on the role of the servant. He turned on the water to fill the tub, then went over to the bed. He undressed the man, rolled up his putrid clothing, and placed them into a garbage bag. He picked up the still-unconscious drunkard, naked and filthy, placed him carefully into the tub, and bathed him. I thought of the scene in the Gospel of John where Peter said to the Lord, “Wash all of me. Not just part of me.”

After washing the drunk, who never did wake up, he said, “Watch him to make sure he doesn’t drown.” Then he went back to the bed, stripped it of the blankets and sheets, and put those into the bag with the clothes. Finding an old towel, he mopped the walls and the floor, repeatedly going over to the sink to rinse the crud away. He searched the dresser drawers til he found a set of clean sheets and a blanket, and made the bed. There was a fresh pair of pajamas in a drawer, and he placed them on the end of the bed.

After cleaning up the place, my uncle returned to the bathroom, dried off the comatose man, carried him to the bed, and put the pajamas on him. Covered him up, and tucked him in. Then he took the bag of soiled clothing, bed linens, and a few other things that needed to be laundered, walked out to the car, and put them in the trunk of his car.

After locking the man’s door, we got into the car. The foul smell was not confined to the trunk of the car.  It filled the passenger compartment as well. The stench came with us, not only because of the awful stuff in the trunk, but because the filth had gotten onto my uncle’s suit. Although by now it was almost time for lunch, I thought I was going to lose my breakfast.

Instead of going back to the church, we drove to the pastor’s home, where he took the bag from the trunk, went straight to the laundry room, and washed the man’s clothes and bed linens. After showering, my uncle dressed, and we went back to the church. Before I got into my car to go home, he said to me, “Son, that’s what ministry is all about. Good people soil themselves and make a mess of their lives because of sin. Your job as a pastor is to find out what Jesus wants you to do about it. And then do it.”

Though my uncle is no longer alive, I never forgot him — or that lesson. As we go about the daily tasks that the Lord has called us to do, sometimes we find ourselves cleaning up our own messes; sometimes the messes other people have made. The ugly scenes are often the result of sin, our own or someone else’s. Some of the mountains of debris we are called to help clean up are caused by years of neglect, ignorance, discouragement, abuse, or failure.

In Lakeland, Florida, at the center of Southeastern University’s campus, is a bronze sculpture of Jesus washing the feet of one of his disciples. The sculpture is titled “Divine Servant.” I think of my uncle almost every time I see it. It is a great work of art, beautifully depicting the call for genuine disciples to be servant ministers. Ironically, the sculpture is beautiful, whereas the brokenness of human lives is quite unattractive, and working with broken people can get ugly.

Seervant Leader Statue

In his book, Facing Messy Stuff in the Church, Ken Swetland talks about the ugly, painful situations church leaders have to deal with. “Churches are made up of sinners whose lives are broken – sometimes because of their own choices, sometimes because of experiencing wrongs outside of their control. . . . Resolutions are hard to come by.” He goes on to write that the church is “. . . a fellowship of people who come together to worship God, serve him in the world, and be agents of healing in the lives of broken people who make up the church.”

As we respond to the situations that people have made of their lives, their families, their cities, or their nation, it is helpful to keep in mind that we have a rich heritage of serving in Jesus’ name, cleaning up the stench and the debris of people’s lives. As my uncle said, that’s what ministry is all about.

Silhouette 3

Potholes

The Lord must have been showing off his artistic skills when he made northern Arizona. On a recent trip, we visited the Painted Desert, the Petrified Forest, and the Grand Canyon. Such beauty on a massive scale.

We enjoyed downtown Flagstaff, and even spent some time standing on a corner in Winslow. Then, after a day in Kingman, we decided to drive out to the town of Oatman, on Old Route 66. We heard that the wild burros roaming the desert also walk the streets of Oatman, but we discovered they practically rule the town. In fact, they were the main attraction for many of the visitors. And, rather than being “wild,” they were definitely people-friendly. Even little children were feeding and petting the animals.

Shadow

Our day-trip was delayed, however, because on the way to Oatman, we hit a pothole. We weren’t going very fast, but the cavity in the pavement was deep, its sharp edges instantly puncturing the tire. Our only option was to pull off to the side, call for a tow truck, and wait . . . and wait . . . and wait.

Sometimes life happens that way. We make our plans and have a schedule to keep, but suddenly something happens and we find ourselves unable to do what we wanted to do. That’s when our automatic response system kicks into gear, and it’s usually negative.

Some people get angry. “Great! Our day is ruined.”

Some become sad or depressed. “Why did this happen to us? This is horrible.”

Others start blaming. “If you were watching where you were going, this wouldn’t have happened. It’s all your fault.”

Or criticizing. “I can’t believe they’d leave a huge pothole like that. They obviously aren’t doing their job.”

When things don’t work out the way we planned, or the way we hoped they would, it’s better to remember the words of Philippians 4:12, “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation” (NIV). That’s hard to do, but so important if we want to maintain a sense of joy and happiness.

If we can train ourselves to stay positive, and if we can discipline ourselves to avoid the automatic negative tendencies of our personalities, then hitting a pothole doesn’t have to ruin our day. Nor does it have to become a point of tension in a relationship. It could actually become a catalyst for discovering a blessing that the Lord might have in mind for us.

Can you imagine Paul and Silas sitting in prison, grumbling, blaming each other or the government, getting depressed, and complaining about the conditions in the jail? No, that’s not what they did. Acts 16:25 tells us that “about midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing” (HCSB). Their joyous faith during terrible circumstances led to the jailer’s family putting their faith in Christ.

James 1:2 reminds us to “count it all joy when you fall into various trials” (NKJV), because it’s often through the disappointments of life that the Lord is able to shape us, refine us, and develop our character. And sometimes, he performs a miracle or answers a prayer in the process.

The tow truck finally arrived, the driver put our car on the flatbed, and took us back to Kingman. The repair shop didn’t have the tire we needed, so they had to overnight one from Phoenix. Since it wouldn’t get there til the next day, we rented a car and went to Oatman to see the burros. That evening, we had an unplanned date night. Dinner and a movie in Kingman, Arizona.

Wild Baby Burro