Saturday, April 28, 2007

The Clouds Above Me

I was staring outside at the clouds today and I realized that at no time in the history of the world had any other person on the planet ever seen that exact formation of clouds. I mean, maybe someone else was looking up with me, but never in the thousands or millions or billions of years of this galaxy’s existence has anyone else before, or will anyone else ever again, have the opportunity to watch the clouds meander through the sky in just this exact formation.

Just think, unless the sky is totally clear or completely overcast, the odds of the clouds being formed in just the way that they are right now, at just that height, are astronomical. I’d say, impossible.

The wisps and curls of the clouds are like the whorls in our fingerprints. Every day God leaves his fingerprints etched in the mists of the sky, and most of us don’t even notice. Billions and billions of people have lived and died without ever really noticing. Without realizing how unique the sky above them was every single moment.

In fact, when I look around the street, I see that no one else is looking up at the sky.

Look up at the sky right now. Take a minute to cherish the gift of his moment’s unique view. In all the span of time, no other human being has ever had the chance to watch the clouds outside your window curl and wander the way they are doing right now.

And no one will have the chance, ever again, once this moment has passed.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Honoring Mothers and Comedians

I was speaking at a Christian conference and one of the most famous Christian speakers in the world stood up to speak. I won't tell you his name, but it rhymes with Bosh McFowell.

And, right after a comedian had performed and the band had led us in a great time of worship, he walked up to the microphone and said, "I'm not here to entertain you, I'm going to share with you from my heart."

I felt like slugging him--in a Christian way, of course. What an insulting thing to say to the band members, to the comedian. As if they're not sharing from their hearts. As if actors, storytellers, writers, musicians are not serving God wholeheartedly with their unique gifts just because they’re not preaching. As if the ministry of entertainment, or leading worship, is someone less significant or less genuine than the ministry of giving a keynote address.

I see this attitude a lot in Christianity today. Just this morning on the radio, the host of a program called Real Family Life (I won't tell you what program it was, but the guy's name rhymes with Grennis Plainy), started reading a list of what all the descendants of a Christian man named John Edwards who lived in the 17th century had accomplished. He listed how many had become doctors and lawyers and senators and even a vice president.

My children were in the car and I snapped the radio off. "That makes me so mad," I said. "As if being a lawyer is more noble or important than being a plumber. As if being a mother and waking up in the middle of the night for years on end to take care of your baby is less significant than being a politician. Or that a farmer who works from dawn until dusk to provide for his family isn't worth appearing in a list of important descendants. How many of the guy’s descendants were mothers or farmers?"

Every person can serve, speak, play, work and honor God from the heart. And whether or not my daughters grow up to be lawyers or politicians they are just as worth honoring and remembering as those who do.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Christians & Ghosts

Lots of Christians get uncomfortable when people start talking about ghosts. Well, here’s something to think about: Jesus’s disciples believed in ghosts. Once when he was walking across the water, they thought he was a ghost and when he called out to them, Peter said, “If you’re not a ghost, tell me to join you on the water!” And Jesus could have said, “You moron! There’s no such thing as ghosts!” But he didn’t. He just said, “Come on down.”

Then, after Jesus’s resurrection, they once again thought he was a ghost and he said, “Check it out, I’m not a ghost, look I have hands and feet. Does a ghost have feet?” And then he asked them if there was anything to eat. The last I checked ghosts don’t eat dinner either.

So once again he could have debunked ghosts, but he didn't. In fact, a fair reading of his words seems to indicate that ghosts are real, but are not physical entities like us.

And then of course you have the very strange story of Samuel’s spirit appearing to Saul in the Old Testament (see 1 Samuel 28) when a witch calls him back from the dead. Spooky.

Finally, Jesus sent the Holy Ghost (Holy Spirit) to his followers. And, while most Christians accept the Holy Spirit kind of ghost, when it comes to the others they typically tell me, “Ghosts are demons.”

Perhaps some are, but what about Samuel's spirit? There's no evidence that was a demon. Besides, Jesus didn't refute the existence of ghosts and as far as I can tell, neither does the rest of the Bible.

I'm not sure what I believe about all this, but I think the message woven through all of the Bible is clear: there is more to this universe than meets the eye, spiritual entities are real, and rather than fear the ones we don't know, we should trust the One we do.


Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Remembering the Dead

On Sunday, as I was flying back to Johnson City, a man entered the plane. He was obviously drunk and as he staggered aboard I was thinking, “It’s Sunday morning. It didn’t take him long to get wasted.”

And of all the seats on the plane you can already guess his seat assignment. He positioned himself next to me and stared around the plane. “They didn’t want me to come on,” he told me. “But I told them I had to be on this flight. I had to be.”

About then I noticed that no one was sitting in the row in front of us. I figured it would give each of us more space if I went up there. I asked him if it was ok and he said that yeah it was fine.

I slipped up to the front row and somehow we got to talking over the seatback behind me.

“I’m on my way to Blacksburg,” he said. “My cousin was killed there. The sixth one shot.” Then he shook his head. “What could cause someone to do that?”

I swallowed. “I’m very sorry,” I said.

“Thank you,” he said. “I mean it.” We talked a little more and then he fell asleep.

The whole flight I couldn’t help but think about tragedy and how it doesn’t seem real to us unless we meet it face-to-face. Unless it somehow touches our lives. We’re quick to change the channel when we see the starving children in slums around the world until we meet them. We pass by the homeless guy on the street corner without a second thought until we take the time to look into his eyes and see that he’s just like us.

The bombings that happen every day in Iraq aren’t much different than the tragedy on the Virginia Tech campus, but they hardly make a blip on the radar screen of our lives. We hear on the news that another 30 or 50 or 180 people were killed by a suicide bomber and all we can think about is the skim milk we’re supposed to pick up from the store on the way home.

The middle east has its suicide bombers. Here we have suicide gunmen. And we spend a week or a year or a decade remembering their victims and mourning the dead because they are closer to us than the anonymous dead on the other side of the world.

Every day tragedies happen all over the globe. Tears and heartache permeate our planet, but only when they touch our lives do they affect our hearts.

I wonder how long the people of Iraq will mourn the victims at Virginia Tech?

Marketing Genius

Just a quick thought.

The other day I was searching for a place to grab a cup of coffee and I stumbled across a little cafĂ© called, “Coffee, Fudge, and Nuts.” That was the actual name of the place. It’s like calling your restaurant “Hamburgers, Fries, and Ketchup. Or “Pizza, Spaghetti, and Sauce.”

“Are you hungry dear? Let’s head out to ‘Fried Rice, Noodles, and Vegetables’ and grab some lunch!”


Sunday, April 22, 2007

Mr. White Shorts

Last night my flight was canceled so I got stranded at this hotel in Cincinnati. As I was sitting in the stiff chair in the corner of my room I started thinking about the last time I was sitting in a stiff chair in the corner of a hotel room. That was the night I turned on the TV and found a boxing match.

Usually I’m not really one to watch boxing, but that night I thought it might be cool to watch two guys pound each other to a pulp. You know, just for fun.

As they introduced the fighters I was thinking, “Those guys don’t look all that big.” Then they said what division it was: 115-pound class. That’s like a class for my left leg. I decided to watch anyway. It would be like watching a couple of fifth-graders have it out at recess.

So the match begins and this one guy started beating on the other guy right from the opening bell. I have no idea what the names of the two guys are, but they had different colored shorts. That seemed to be an important part of the whole business because the announcers kept reminding us that the guy in the white shorts was winning. So very helpful.

The guy with the blue shorts stuck his hands in front of this face and the guy with the white shorts pummeled him. That was about it, except for the fact that every couple minutes the guy who was getting clobbered would back up and taunt the dude who was thrashing him. Then he’d run away again and the white shorts guy won every round. And frankly, Mr. White Shorts was getting annoyed and so were all the spectators. They started booing and the announcers were trying to keep things interesting by saying stuff like, “It’s part of his strategy. He’s trying to tire Mr. White Shorts out. It’s brilliant. Just wait until the last round!” It reminded me of a baseball game where every batter is missing the ball, everyone just stinking to high heaven, and the announcers try to keep you interested by calling it a ‘no hitter’ (instead of an ‘everyone misser’) and telling the audience how privileged they are to be watching this “great pitchers' duel.”

So the boxing announcers were trying to make it out like the cowardly guy had a secret strategy no other boxer had ever thought of—to let your opponent work you over until he’s too exhausted to beat up you anymore and then, once you’re a piece of hamburger meat, to punch the exhausted guy out. About then this other announcer got on and I liked him right away because he started saying the stuff everyone in the audience was thinking, “It’s a fight! You step into the ring you do it to fight, not to hide in the corner. This fight sucks.” I don’t know if he kept his job after that, but it was cool to hear him say it.

And here’s what I wanted. I wanted the first announcer to be right. I wanted the whole running into the corner to get beat up thing, to be some incredible strategy where he would suddenly explode to life and come out with his fists flying like itty bitty sledgehammers. But he didn’t. Round after round he ran away, got pummeled, and then he lost.

That was it.

But don’t worry. I don’t think he got hurt. Mr. White Shorts landed almost 1000 punches, but remember he was 115 pounds, so that’s pretty much like bumping into people on the subway on the way to work.

I’m sure there’s some profound truth hidden in that story. Maybe about us cheering for the underdog, or how our expectations frame our view of life, or how important it is to keep a positive attitude, but I just liked watching those little men hit each other. It was so darn cute.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

A Mighty Work and a Mighty Worker

After returning from India last month I wanted my friends to experience a little taste of the exotic and fascinating world I had just been to, so last week we invited a bunch of friends over to our house for an Indian Party. We played music from India, wore Indian clothes, burned some incense, and my wife spent the day (and a couple of days before) preparing Indian food: nan (I know this one, it’s a type of warm flatbread), basmathi rice, mutton vindalu (really spicy), chicken curry, Hyderabadi tarkari, aloo mutter, keema fry, vegetable kurm (you’ll have to ask Liesl about all the rest of these. I just know they tasted good. Everyone else agreed with me…)

Then, after the meal, I showed a slide show about my trips to India and a little about the ministries I worked with over there. (That's my beautiful family in the one pic, and my daughter's lovely friend Sydney in the other.)

During my ten days in India I was privileged to speak at the very first service at a newly-built church, help train writers from various international ministries, lead seminars for Sunday School teachers as well as for a ministry that produces a VBS program each summer for 4 million children. I also spoke at church in a leprosy colony, and told stories at two schools for children who live in slums.

As an added surprise, one of the pastors from India was visiting the states and was able to join us for the party! I first met Caleb last year on my first trip to India. I knew a little about his ministries there, but our mouths dropped open when he nonchalantly mentioned he had started 110 churches in the last ten years in areas of India where there were no Christians at all before.

Then Caleb began to share stories about seeing God heal people miraculously, casting out demons, and about two of his evangelist friends who had been murdered because of their work. We were speechless and humbled. “God has opened mighty doors,” Caleb told us. “He is doing a great work.”

Yes he is, my friend. And so are you.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Long-Term Memory

As I was checking into the airport this morning I walked up to the Delta ticket counter and, before I could say a word, the woman working behind the counter glanced down at her computer and then said, “So, you’re flying to Richmond this morning?”

Now, I fly out of our airport a lot and so I wasn’t so surprised that she knew me, but still, I thought it was pretty cool. “Yes,” I said. “Now that’s what I call service.”

“Oh, we know you here,” she said. I was feeling pretty flattered about then, frequent flyer that I am. Gold Medallion frequent flyer. Oh yeah.

Then she added, “You were mean to me once.”

My heart squirmed inside my chest. “I did? When was that?”

She typed away at her keyboard, avoided looking at me. “You were flying out with your wife and you were trying to use your frequent flyer miles.”

I felt sick. I knew immediately what she was talking about. About a year and a half ago Liesl and I were going to a marriage conference and were trying to fly out together on the same plane. There was some confusion about the frequent flyer miles, or the flight that I was allowed to use them on or something, and I was frustrated. At the time I was struggling with depression, our marriage was on the rocks and, quite honestly, we were going to the conference as a last resort to see if we would actually be able to work through some of our issues.

“That was a year and a half ago,” I said.

“Oh, you’d be surprised what I remember.”

“I’m so sorry,” I said. “I apologize.”

“It’s alright,” she said.

“No, I can’t tell you how sorry I am for treating you rudely.”

“Well,” she said, “you come in here a lot and I’ve been watching you since then.”


And then she said, “You seem a lot more at peace.” When I told her my wife and I were going through a tough time back then, she nodded. “I understand.” Then she told me about her struggles—her father died last year and her husband was just diagnosed with cancer. They would be heading to the hospital together in a week.

“You’d be surprised what I remember,” she told me this morning. “I’ve been watching you a lot since then.”

I felt a little weird saying it after finding out how I’d offended her, but I said. “I’ll pray for you and your husband.”

“Thanks,” she said. “I appreciate that.”

Then I headed to the airplane and she went back to work. And both of us were a little more human than we’d been before.

“You’d be surprised how much I remember,” she said.

I just hope she remembers today.

I know I will.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Bare-Naked Prayers

Everything has been a swirl of activity since getting back from India. Almost immediately after unpacking I had to fly out to Seattle to speak and teach at the Christian Educator’s Conference and then finish editing my new thriller, The Pawn.

But, without boring you with my daily schedule, let me get back on track and share a few thoughts I had recently as I worked on a couple of new book ideas.

Mostly I’ve been thinking about prayer.

All too often today, prayers among North American Christians are unnatural, fluffy, or simply absurd. I’ve heard some prayers that are speeches, others that are sermons in disguise, others that seem to be crafted with the sole purpose of impressing the other people present, others that sound like someone imitating Shakespeare. And of course we’ve all heard these contemporary classics:

“Oh God, we just thank you for just being God and we just ask that you would just help us today and just guide as we just seek to honor you and just bring glory to your name...”

“Father God, you are great, Father God. You’re a powerful God, Father God. And we ask you, Father God, to be with us, Father God...”

As my friend Tim Hawkins, one of the country's funniest comedians, ( pointed out to me, we would never think of talking this way to our friends:

“Oh Bob, we just thank you for just being Bob and we just ask you that you would just come over for dinner and just bring along some Pepsi and Cheetos and just ask your wife if she would just like to come too...”

“Oh Bob Friend, you are a great friend, Bob Friend. You’re a good colleague, Bob Friend. And I ask you, Bob Friend to visit me Friday night, Bob Friend…”

Now, I know that God hears all of our prayers no matter how feeble or ridiculous they are. But imagine how he must long for us to simply talk to him from the heart in a somewhat intelligible way, and to do so without pretense or gimmicks, and without lofty, holy-sounding language or inane repetition.

I believe God wants us to approach him with hearts filled with both awe and familiarity so that we might know him as our king, but yet speak to him as our friend; to pray with openness and vulnerability, with honesty and passion. I think he wants us to share our deepest needs and darkest desires, our hopes and our dreams, our secret little temptations and our dirty little secrets.

What if we came to him with all of our frustrations and questions, like Job… with our deep anguish and bitter tears, like Hannah… with our broken souls and healed dreams, like David… with petitions drenched in sweat and blood, like Jesus? What if we finally brought God all the bruises on our hearts?

We have deep rivers tumbling through our souls, why do we dip so many of our prayers from such shallow, muddy puddles? What would happen if we finally stopped praying comfortable and predictable prayers and started praying honest prayers, raw with the realities of life, tender with the realization of grace? What would happen if we finally brought God prayers with teeth and glory, born of marvel and pain?

Then we would be bringing him our true selves, our unveiled souls. Then we would be offering him our bare-naked prayers.

And I believe our relationship with him would be transformed forever.