Thursday, June 22, 2017

Lesson I Learned From My Father (Adapted from an article written for The Racine Insider, July 2017 edition)

Just over a month ago, I laid my father to rest as his earthly sojourn came to an end after an extended bout with early onset dementia.  As a pastor, I have officiated countless funerals, but none delivers the emotional complexity of burying one’s own parent.  All at once, I felt the responsibility of comforting family and friends who needed spiritual support, the duty of ensuring his military service as honored and the grief of having lost my first and greatest hero.  As I reflect on why my father was such a heroic presence in my life, I am reminded of the importance all fathers have in creating a healthy and stable life for their children.

When I describe my father, I usually say that “If you would take Andy Griffith from the old TV show, dip him in chocolate, and make him a married career paratrooper with me in the role of Opie, you’d have a good picture of what my father was like.”  What are those “Andy Griffith” characteristics that made my father such a memorable and impactful character who influenced so many for the good?

My father was courageous.  Leading a family takes courage, and my father had courage in abundance.  As a paratrooper and combat veteran, no one doubted my father’s courage. That courage manifested itself in a commitment to truth, a unquenchable thirst to see righteousness prevail and an inclination to put oneself between danger and those you love and desire to protect.  A good father reassures his family through daily actions of responsibility and endless “stepping up” that there is no obstacle he is not willing to confront nor is there any challenge he is not prepared to face for the benefit of his loved ones.  He exhibits physical and moral courage that not only protects, but reassures and inspires those who walk with him under the family name.

My father was wise.  Friends, colleagues and members of our broader community sought my father’s input for advice and direction.  A good father carries himself in such a manner that his life reflects sound thinking, and his normative actions expose meaningful reflection and consistent application of the wisdom he expounds.  Families need men who think well, seek to grow in wisdom and freely share what they have learned with others around them.

My father was kind and affirming.  We live in an age where the ability to insult others and “play the dozens” is highly prized and loudly praised.  My father was consistently careful in his speech, and even as a military man, he was never one given to screaming, yelling or delivering insults.  He was committed to building others up and his words were always “seasoned with grace.” Good fathers understand the power of words and their speech reflects a commitment to help and to heal.

My father was resilient.  While there are innumerable stories of mothers who have endured all sorts of heartaches and hardships for the sake of their families, even in the face of grinding hardships, fathers sometimes have a spottier record when times are tough. My father was blessed to have men in his life who “hung in there” with him as times got tough and life delivered the occasional setback that can break the will of lesser committed individuals. Surviving a difficult 1940’s and 1950’s Mississippi childhood prepared my father for tough times.  As any good father, he leaned into the tough times, providing encouragement for all our family and stirring hope within us, illuminated by his smile, his confidence and his leadership of presence.  Good fathers do not run away from challenges, they led others through them.

My reflections on my father have served as a wonderful reminder of how his modeling and mentorship proved vital in shaping me as a man.  As a father who had benefited from such an example, and sought to live up to it, I encourage other fathers to remain faithful to the task, diligent to the calling and faithful to our duty so that future generations might not just praise us, but carry on our example for years to come.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

I Will Obey My Special Orders

In Matthew 5:43-48 Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.  If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?  And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?  Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

In the political landscape of the United States, among the so-called Christian politicians and citizenry of all stripes and denominations, those who are supposed to hold the words of Jesus in the highest esteem and follow them, these words are not being demonstrated. We are now in the midst of tumultuous and contentious times where most everyone justifies selective unforgiveness, particularized hate and laser-focused malice towards those they believe “deserve it.”  A poison of hatred is now coursing through the arteries of the nation and is slowly killing our collective spirit. It has been present in our system for some time.  We have fooled ourselves into believing we’re still obeying Jesus by repeating his words, even as we rip into one another with unprecedented ferocity even to the point of justifying behavior we would “normally” call out as hateful or barbaric. 

Jesus did not want to be misunderstood, so he clarifies that we are not just to love those familiar to us and in agreement with us, but also and especially those we are inclined to hate and those we consider our enemies.  If we are to love declared enemies, how much more those who are compatriots with whom we strongly disagree?  For those who claim to follow Jesus, it’s time we stop imitating everyone else, and begin to imitate the One Whom we represent and Who has sent us to be salt and light in this world.  Our responses to those who vehemently oppose us on any issue must fall in line with the instructions of the Lord: Love them.  Pray for them. Greet them. Do good to them – striving for perfection in doing so. If they don’t reciprocate – it matters not. Our actions are not dictated by the actions or reactions of others.

In these times, I am reminded of the 2nd General order of the United States Army which says, “I will obey my special orders and perform all of my duties in a military manner.”  When I am tempted to act like everybody else around me or in front of me on the screen, I remember this order and apply it to my service with my true Commander Above.  I must choose, time and time again, to obey my special orders – the instructions Jesus has presented to me with no conditions or caveats – and to perform my duty, always, in a manner that is pleasing to Him!  I am on a mission from God.  I must embrace that mission with more intensity than my enemies embrace theirs and continue on mission with more tenacity than my fiercest foe. That means loving them, seeking to do good towards them, and blessing them even as they seek to harm me.

This is not an easy mission. If it were, everyone would be doing it successfully.  I am recommitting myself to the ways of my Lord in dealing with the evils of our day. I must choose the discipline of love and forgiveness, expressed in words and actions.  I will seek to tell the truth, seasoned with love and I will strive to exercise self-control in engaging any opposition, even when I get hurt.  Jesus is not offering another plan. If I find myself acting like my enemy, chances are I’ve deserted my post, and joined a different Army.   

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Are We There Yet?

Some days, events are so tumultuous and the world so wicked, one searches for the air evacuation in exasperation, asking, “How long, Oh Lord?”  Earlier this week, I read an account of a father and son from a nomadic people group were on a long journey.  Typical of kids everywhere, the son asked his dad, "Are we there yet?" The dad promptly replied, "We're never 'there' my child.  We're nomads." If that doesn't capture the essence of what our mindset should be like on this earthly sojourn as people of God, nothing does.

Hebrews 11:13 and the verses following says of people who have sojourned this planet during their lifetimes doing God’s work, yet never truly finding a place at which they feel at home, “All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth.  People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own.  If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore, God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.”

When the troubles of the world are so prevalent that you find yourself feeling as if you’re just not quite at home, remember that if you’re a Jesus follower, you’re not.  We press on through the struggles of life, comforted and energized by the knowledge that, by faith, there is a place being prepared for us –  a Grand and Glorious place - and we’re not there yet! Therefore Brothers, Sisters, and Friends - in faith - Press on! 

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Keeping America Real

My Friends, I love the United States of America.  I believe in the American Way.  My family has either fought for America or donned a uniform and stood ready to do so in every generation of our family dating back to the Civil War.  My family has been tremendously blessed by America, in America, and we are forever grateful for the blessings of America that are ours.

Some recent Facebook exchanges I have observed and in which I have taken part, lead me to explain that when I address a tough American issue like the painting of the "n-word" on LeBron James' gate, or share my disgust at having been called that same word, yet again, I address it because I know America can do better. Please don't dismiss me, LeBron, or others who share with candor by spouting black crime statistics at us, telling us that we're lucky that we're not sitting in abject poverty or some other deflection of the issue of racial prejudice. Suffering around the world must be addressed, but that suffering does not make the racial belittling of others, regardless of well off they may be, anywhere acceptable.

America can be great even as its problems are brought to the light. When Americans discuss these problems, especially the ones dealing with race,it is not whining or playing the race card, or being a perpetual victim. Such discussion is an attempt to expose the truth so that we might together face the truth and overcome evil with good. I believe this is a good and helpful effort. Nevertheless, if such an effort is unacceptable, tell me. Then, the next time there's a high profile racial incident and you ask how I'm doing, I'll smile and say, "Fine, thank you!" Just know that if it comes to that, I'm being totally phony, completely spurious and absolutely insincere.

I believe we as Americans are better than safe superficiality, and I believe we have the ability to engage in respectful and meaningful dialogue that can encourage, heal and inspire.  I believe that sharing the personal impact of one of the most harmful, insulting, and degrading words in the English language can help to stem the casual use of that word and help to quench the stubborn resilience of the hate behind it. Of course, I've been wrong before.  Only time will tell.

Pressing on still with hope for a better day,