Category Archives: Compassion

Dealing With Life’s Most Persistent Question: Part 12 – The Top 10 Most Persistent Questions

Mt St Helens 7-9-11 PSYou don’t know what you don’t know. And you will never know exactly how another person feels or the depth of their personal suffering. I’ve spent almost 40 years of my life as a pastor and counselor. During those years I’ve empathetically listened as people have poured out their hearts and told me their stories. Some are horrific, catastrophic, or tragic beyond belief. All are filled with emotions from violent anger to shocked bewilderment. While the people and stories are all unique, the questions articulated remain very similar and all are a variation of what I’ve been calling life’s most persistent question, “Why?”

“God wants to build character in our lives,” I once mused to a young father with three children who was mourning the loss of his wife from cancer.

“I don’t need any more character,” he shouted at me. “I need my wife back!”

Ouch! His explosion reminded me of the then-recent eruption of Mt. St. Helens (pictured above almost 35 years after the explosion).  I was a young pastor and just trying to make sense myself out of his tragic circumstances. Parroting what I truly believed, but without any comprehension of his own incredible grief, my words, that were intended to soothe and answer, simply applied salt to his wounded heart. I’ve learned a few things about suffering myself since then and would never make such a statement under similar circumstances today.

Based upon many such encounters with grieving souls, I’ve compiled a list of the top 10 most persistent questions. Much has been written about them, and I seriously doubt what I might say will shed any additional light on the topic. But by their very nature, they persistently remain the questions that cross generational, societal, and geographical boundaries. They are universal questions, asked by all people in all places at all times. And in one way or another, they are also questions considered by the ancients and recorded in the pages of the Bible.

While there are personalized versions of every one of these, the general questions are universal.  And when asked in a real-life situation, every one of them are typically accompanied by a pretext. For example, “If God is all powerful, why doesn’t God prevent tragedy?” or “God answers prayers for other people, why doesn’t God answer my prayers? Here are my top 10:

10.   Why would a loving God send someone to hell?

9.     Why doesn’t God prevent corrupt leaders from coming into power?

8.     Why doesn’t God put an end to all suffering?

7.    Why does God allow innocent children to be victimized and harmed?

6.    Why doesn’t God heal everyone who asks?

5.    Why doesn’t God prevent tragedy?

4.    Why does God allow evil?

3.    Why doesn’t God answer my prayers?

2.    Why do evil people prosper?

1.    Why do the righteous suffer?

Before you quickly attempt to provide pat answers to these questions, consider the fact that these questions are consistently universal and ubiquitous—they appear everywhere at all times. If our philosophical and theological answers were adequate to explain the human condition on a level beyond the intellect, wouldn’t people stop asking them, and have stopped doing so years ago?

And please remember that they are posed in the midst of great turmoil of soul and spirit, typically generated by circumstances that have destroyed the fabric of human decency and order. They are not questions that inquire or call for a philosophical or even theological dialogue, although that sometimes occurs and may be profitable. No, these questions are more like a rhetorical shotgun blast, an interrogation generated by an internal explosion of angst and turmoil of the soul—triggered by external circumstances beyond our control.

These are questions that at the same time demand an answer, while not really expecting any single answer to sufficiently explain the catastrophe of a broken life and heart. So, how do we respond? How should we respond? And what do you think about the questions themselves? Are there other questions you would add to the top 10? I’d love to hear what you think, and I’ll share my thoughts in a later post. I will tell you this, Mt. St. Helens is proof that time may bring beauty out of the most explosive of circumstances. It takes time, but time alone does not heal all wounds. Ultimately, only Jesus does that.

The Rest of Your Story




Log balanced on large rock Snoqualmie River 2-28-15 Different AngleHolding on in a precarious spot. Sometimes barely holding on, getting a grip, standing your ground, or trying to keep your balance is all you can do—just to survive. Or so it seems at the moment. And if you remain in that position for long, it is easy to feel stuck, and wonder if assistance or a chance to move on to a better place will ever come.

Is it possible in some circumstances of life that the difference between being stuck and having an opportunity to rest is our own attitude or perspective? There are striking similarities between three dictionary definitions of rest and just being stuck, with one exception.

First, the dictionary describes rest “as cessation from action, motion, labor, or exertion.” Sounds like it could describe being stuck, right? Another definition for rest is something that is “fixed or settled.” Again, you can see the similarity to being “stuck.” The third connotation for rest is where the similarity ends, as it is likened to “freedom from that which wearies or disturbs.”

When we are stuck, we typically feel weary, worried, and disturbed. But what if we used this period in our lives as an opportunity for rest? Easier said than done. I know from experience.

Perhaps one of the greatest invitations from Jesus in the Gospels is found in Matthew 11:28, “Come to Me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” (NLT) Weary, and carrying a heavy burden. . .sounds a lot like being stuck. Rest also sounds like being stuck—at least according to the dictionary! Perhaps the difference is a matter of our perspective and who we are trusting to bring us help and rest.

My oldest daughter Kristi sent me a powerful story this morning of a mother who discovered rest and hope in spite of the loss of a precious child. One line really caught my attention:

“Thankfulness, Hope, and Joy are not present only in good times; they are powerful reminders in the hard times that our story’s not over.”

Kristi, who has suffered a three year long battle wrestling with her own health issues while being a young wife and mother took courage from these words. Rest is a welcome relief when you feel boxed in, stuck, and helpless to resolve the circumstances that have you immobilized. I took the photo above the other day while enjoying a rare and restful hike with Kristi. Together, we pondered the forces required to place a log in such a position.

What are the chances of a log landing and lodging and staying perfectly balanced on such a rock? Especially when you consider the circumstances that brought it to rest were not restful, but the high raging floodwaters of the Snoqualmie River just below the falls. Hundreds of people, each with their own story, have passed by this very spot in the past weeks on the pathway to the lower viewing platform at Snoqualmie Falls. Perhaps they were inspired, as I hope you will be, that wherever you find yourself stuck, you will probably not be there forever. And from that place of being stuck, you may discover your next steps for your journey and be launched into the rest of your story.

Abraham Lincoln: Humble and Meek

Abraham Lincoln Statue

Abraham Lincoln Statue

Today we celebrate the 206th birthday of my favorite president, Abraham Lincoln. Born in a humble Kentucky log cabin, humility characterized the life of the tall, lanky, awkward-looking man. Yet perhaps meekness, often defined as “strength under control,” is a better word to describe his character. He leveraged his strength as a wrestler and a fighter by channeling those energies into educating himself and becoming a successful attorney. Legal battles turned to political battles and as President he had to battle the personal demons of self-doubt and clouds of depression, while being demonized by a hostile press and political enemies who loathed the backwoods country lawyer.

He led our nation during its greatest crisis to overcome our greatest national shame. Though a fighter, he led in his characteristic humble and meek style, enlisting his political adversaries into a “team of rivals” to win them over and help save the Union. Rather than taking a swing at those who opposed him or his ideas, he resolved to stand firm in his convictions, while listening to and engaging his opponents in dialogue. He once said, “Be sure you put your feet in the right place, then stand firm.” While standing firm, his self-effacing humor and ability to spin a yarn broke down defenses and built bridges.

One of my favorite Lincoln quotes is from the final paragraph of his Second Inaugural Address, delivered a few days before his tragic assassination: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

We can only imagine how much faster the process of healing our nation and reconstruction of The South might have taken place had Lincoln been able to serve out his second term of office. Perhaps we might have been spared some of the long and agonizing delays in the process of racial reconciliation and civil rights that continues in our nation and around the world to this very day.

But one thing is certain. Lincoln left his mark and made a difference in this world that is still recognized and appreciated today. His legacy is felt by all who work toward achieving and cherishing, “a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

Echoes of Lincoln’s hundred and fifty year old words are heard whenever a voice is raised to oppose injustice, whenever the chains are released from a soul rescued from human trafficking, whenever the lever is raised on a water pump to improve the health of a community, whenever a door of opportunity opens for a child born in poverty, and wherever freedom reigns so people have the right to lift their voice in praise to their Creator.  Quite an accomplishment for such a meek and humble man!

At the Intersection of Our Hopes and Fears

At the intersection of our hopes and fears“The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Thee tonight.”

We exist in a contradiction of emotions. Moments of great faith and courage. Moments of great fear and trembling. But between those extreme moments, we often swim in a sea of ambivalence. Tumultuous waves of fear, doubt, hate, anger, self-loathing, and cynicism threaten to drown our hopes, dreams, faith, love and peace. We search for a life preserver to keep us afloat long enough to survive.

We must face negative realities in order to survive, but focus on positive ones to thrive. What if we could find solid footing to maintain serenity in the midst of a storm of adversity? What if we could remain peaceful and calm when the waves of despair threaten to capsize our vessel? What if we could hold onto virtue during moments of weakness when tempted to compromise our values? What if there really was a life preserver to keep us from drowning in that sea of ambivalence? What if we could overcome our fears with hope?

At the intersection of our hopes and fears we find the babe of Bethlehem. During his human lifetime, that baby grew into a man who would calm storms, stop angry waves, offer the tender touch of healing and forgiveness. He would provide courage to a widowed mother, sight to a blinded beggar, a place at the table for the hungry, downtrodden and oppressed, freedom to one enslaved by the chains of demons, and tender mercy to a woman caught in adultery. Ask any one of them. Ask any one of the countless others named and unnamed in the Gospels. They will tell you. Jesus Christ met them at a moment when they were about to go under, capsized by fear. But his touch, his glance, his word made the difference. Hope.

Heaven and earth intersected in Bethlehem more than 2,000 years ago. God came down to human level to show us his heart and compassion. Hope met fear. And hope won.

It’s not about Bethlehem. It’s about that baby boy who spans the centuries and more. He spans eternity. And his love spans the chasm between our sea of ambivalence and the solid ground of his destiny. That’s why pastor Phillips Brooks penned those words more than a century ago. We hear them sung today in shopping malls and sanctuaries: “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Thee tonight.”   ©2013 Don Detrick

A Thanksgiving Story

a thanksgiving story 3Ten men huddle around an open fire on a chilly evening.  Their eyes are hungry with anticipation as they study the meager contents of a simmering pot, their only meal for the day.  These are hard times, and food is scarce – especially for them.

“I heard he’s coming tomorrow,” one of the ten, a rabbi, states.

“You mean the Galilean, the one they call Jesus of Nazareth?” asks another.  The questioner is from Samaria, a sandalmaker by trade.  Samaritans are a common enough sight in this border town between Galilee and Samaria.

“Yes, he’s the one” answers the rabbi.

A small gust of wind fans the flames to illuminate the face of the man next to the Samaritan.  His visage is scarred, almost grotesque.  His nose, or what was once his nose, is now a protruding ulcer.  He struggles to breathe through his mouth. Large spots of raw flesh randomly appear between patches of beard.  He speaks next, with some difficulty.   “I’ve heard of him.  They say he is a miracle-worker.   I believe in miracles, although I can’t say I’ve ever seen one myself.  We Pharisees have always believed in miracles.  Why, the Scriptures abound with stories about miracles and angels and the like.  I remember the stimulating discussion on the subject I had with a Sadducee in Jerusalem a few years ago.  But that was before . . . .” his voice trails off as another begins to speak.

“Well, that’s easy enough for you to say.  After all, you’ve always had a smooth life – up until now anyway.  But I’ve always had to earn a living by the sweat of my brow.  Nobody could ever say that this Galilean potter wasn’t a hard worker.  The only miracle I’ve ever seen was one I made with my own two hands.”  He holds up his hands and in the glow of the fire one wonders how those hands could ever have produced anything of beauty or value.   They are deformed and ugly – worthless for any meaningful work.  Only one finger is recognizable on one hand, two on the other.  In silent anguish, he lowers them to his side, despising their uselessness.

A break in the clouds reveals a full moon and for a moment a clear picture of the ten shadowy figures appears.  It is not a sight for the weak-stomached.  For each one seems to be a victim of some great physical disaster.  Perhaps a terrible accident, or a fire, maybe they are war veterans – it’s not clear at the moment.

“The soup’s almost ready, and I’m ready to stop this discussion about miracles” another states, a note of sarcasm in his voice.  “Like my potter friend here, I’m from up north near Bethsaida.  I once had a thriving business in the marketplace there.  Over the years I’ve met a number of folks from Nazareth.  But that was before this happened to me.  Anyway, like I was saying everybody knows nothing good could ever come out of Nazareth.  If this Jesus is from there, he’s no miracle worker.”

Another speaks, his voice cracking with age.  Yet the men listen to him with a respect reserved for one who speaks with the wisdom of many years.  “Yesterday people in town said Jesus of Nazareth recently visited Jerusalem and there he healed a crippled woman and a man who could not walk.  He had a condition the physicians call dropsy.  He healed that man on the Sabbath day and created quite a stir.”

“Yes, but what about us?”  The old man was interrupted by another.   “We’re all in this thing together.  I’m only thirty years old.  I have a wife and children, and was ready to go into business for myself as a tentmaker.  But now my wife and family have returned to the home of her father.  I may never see them again.  I’m forced to spend my days begging and my nights with you vagabonds.  I think I could still work with my hands and make the best tents ever, but who would buy them?  Nobody would even touch them.  ‘Unclean!’ they would say.  What about us?  Could this Jesus heal lepers like us?”

“I’ve been told by a reliable source” the old man continued, “that Jesus healed a Galilean not long ago of leprosy.  In fact, some say that this man is traveling around bearing witness to his healing and telling people that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah.”  The eyes of the men are all on the old man now.  A glimmer of hope has made the soup seem unimportant for the moment.

“Do you believe it’s true?” the young tentmaker asks.

“It could be” states the elder.  “I don’t really care if Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah or not.  I’ll let the experts decide that.  But if this Jesus can heal, I must see him.  I’m an old man and may never have a chance like this again.  I dread the thought of dying as a leper, an untouchable.  Why, no one would even give me a proper burial.  I don’t know about you, but tomorrow when Jesus of Nazareth comes, I’m going to be waiting, within shouting distance of him.  If this Jesus is as kind and merciful as they say he is, I intend to get his attention.  And then I’m going to ask him to heal me.”

“What have we got to lose?” asks the rabbi.  “Let’s go with him.  Surely a group of ten men together will have a better chance to get His attention.”

So one by one each agrees to go in the morning and join their voices with the voice of the old man.  They eat their soup in silence, each deep his own thoughts.  Some are skeptical, with a cynicism borne by years of bitter suffering and rejection.  Others finish their gruel and drift into sleep with dreams of love and family, employment and full stomachs.  Others lay awake, for the first time in many days looking forward to tomorrow and wondering what it will bring forth.

The morning dawns as bright as the expectation of what life could have been for these ten if it were not for leprosy.  Leprosy!  How they despise the word!  Leprosy!  To them the word means isolation and ridicule, poverty and vagrancy, hunger and despair.

Most of all, the word means unclean.  They did not ask for this curse, it just happened.  Oh, at first each tried to hide it.  But you cannot hide something like this for long.  And then came the inquisition, and then the meeting with the priests and finally the pronouncement of that vile word “unclean!”

As wretched as their wounds, even more wretched is their destiny.  Forced into isolation from healthy people, the leper is required to warn all who approach by calling out “unclean, unclean.”  Even the most spirited individual is soon beaten down in such a condition.

One can’t really expect others to understand a disease they are not afflicted with.  Most associate the plague with the person.  So lepers take their place in society as less than second class citizens.  In fact, they are treated worse than dogs by most.

There is not a moment of the day that these men are not keenly aware of what this disease has done to them – and what it has taken from them.  Leprosy!

There is not a day that goes by that each doesn’t ask the inevitable question:  “Why me?”  Obsessed by those words, they repeat them over and over.  “Why me?  Why me?”  But the answer never comes.  The silence echoes through their minds, constantly haunting their vacant souls.  Only a rational defense can break the silent spell.  Each one reasons:  “Surely I’ve never done anything to deserve this.”   Or worse, “Maybe I do deserve this.”

Thus finding no meaningful purpose for their plight, their tormented minds ponder another question.  A question that at least tends to soothe their wounds with the balm of fantasy:  “What if?”

  • “What if I were still a successful businessman?  I would never again take for granted my position.  I would give more than a paltry sum when alms for the poor were received.  Yes, I’d be more compassionate to the downtrodden and the needy.”
  •  “What if I were still able to live at home with my wife and children?  I’d never again resent having to feed those extra mouths.  I’d smile when the children needed new clothes, thankful for the ability to provide for a growing family.”
  •  “What if I were an esteemed teacher in Israel?  I had such a promising future.  My mentor said he had never taught a student with such insight into the Scriptures.   He once said I had a gift for teaching that would make my name prominent in Jerusalem, and I would be sure to use that gift to the best of my ability for God’s glory.  I would still have a home of my own.  I would be welcome in any synagogue.  And whenever I saw a leper, I would consider:  ‘There, but for the grace of God, go I.”

But as always, the stark realities of their existence soon terminates their brief respite of fantasy.  As diverse as they once were, they are now welded together by the white hot fires of suffering.  Leprosy, an unwelcome guest which suddenly invaded their lives, has thrown them together as surely as it cast them out of society and away from family and friends.

But today is different as the ten shuffle off together toward town.  Today there is hope.  Together they have formed a plan, tied to an incredible possibility.  Surely they have little to lose.  Their fate is already sealed anyway.  Why not believe the impossible?  Onward they proceed as faith replaces their fears.

They position themselves on the side of a road, the road by which Jesus is coming this day.  A crowd is already gathering in the early morning chill.  Soon the crowd becomes a multitude and some say “You lepers, get out of the way.  We don’t want you here.  Make room for us.”

If only one leper had been there, he could have been persuaded to move.  But ten, together, had formed a determined defense.  They had lost much.  They had nothing more to lose.  They made up their minds.  They would not move.  And they would not be moved by force of hand, for no one dared touch them, or even come close for fear of the curse.  So they held their ground.

Soon the noise of the multitude reached a fervent pitch in the ears of the ten lepers.  “It’s him.  It’s Jesus!” they hear.

A thousand questions race through their minds.  “Will he come our way?  Will he hear us?  Will he care?   Could he heal us?  Will he heal me?”  Now they see the object of the crowd’s attention.  They see Jesus of Nazareth.

“Yes it is him,” they agree.  “Now is our chance, we must act!”   Over the tumult of the crowd, with one mighty effort they raise their collective voices in a great shout of “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.”  The multitude grows silent.  Jesus turns, and spots the ten.

No one needs to offer an explanation.  Daylight reveals the obvious about these men.  Still, the embarrassed leader of the local synagogue speaks up, “Jesus, those ten lepers are vagrants.  Just beggars and not at all like the fine citizens of our community.”  But Jesus does not even acknowledge the man.  The ten lepers now have his full attention.

“What will he do?  How will Jesus respond?  Will he wave us away so he can visit with the “respectable” citizens of the community?” the lepers wonder.

With their eyes riveted on him, they hear Jesus say “Go, show yourselves unto the priest.”

“What kind of a command was that?  Doesn’t he know that it was the priests who pronounced us as ‘unclean’ in the first place?” they ask.   As they look at each other, they see nothing that would change the priest’s diagnosis of their condition.

“But there was something compelling about the way he spoke,” replies the former Pharisee.  Once again their gaze moves from each other back to Jesus.  “Yes, and there is something about the way he looks at us.  His smile is not a smile of mockery, but a smile of compassion,” says the sandalmaker.

One by one, in obedience to his voice, they proceed.  They are off to find the nearest priest.    Whether they believed before or not, as they walk along, each experiences a miracle of transformation.  Leprosy, the despised disease will plague them no longer.  Every man is healed and given a new lease on life.  Gone are the scars, the deformities, and the open sores.  Gone also are the stares of people as even missing extremities are replaced with new ones covered with skin as smooth as a baby’s.

Running and jumping, shouting with ecstasy, they proceed to their destination.  Along the way, the Samaritan ponders “Why should I go to a Jewish priest? I won’t be accepted by him.”  He remembers the stinging pain of rejection even before leprosy had afflicted him.  “You fellows go on ahead, perhaps I’ll see you later” he says.  “I’ve got some unfinished business.”

tenlepersThe other nine don’t seem to mind that he left the group.  In fact, now that they are all normal, it just doesn’t seem right for them to be associating with a Samaritan anyway.

Filled with a riot of emotions, the Samaritan tries to clear his mind as he formulates a plan.  “I will go show myself to a priest who won’t reject me because of my ancestry or birth.  I will present myself to a priest who seems to understand, and be touched by the way I feel.”

He makes his way back to the crowd, back to where Jesus is.  Cleansed of his disease, he falls prostrate at the feet of the One who made it possible.  His hands, once deformed by leprosy, now clutch the feet of Jesus.  He cries with a joy known only to one who has experienced sudden freedom after escaping from the prison of deep suffering and rejection.

Overcome with emotion, and struggling to form the proper words he speaks:  “Thank you, Jesus.  Thank you.  I was as good as dead.  Now I live again.  Thank you.”  But mere words seem inadequate to express the appreciation he feels.  From his inner soul he sobs deeply as tears of joy fall on the feet of Jesus, his real High Priest.  There is no pretense, no show.  His gratitude is sincere.

“Were not all ten cleansed?” Jesus asks.  “Where are the other nine?  Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”  Jesus was addressing the crowd, not the man at his feet.  Looking tenderly at the healed man he said “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.”  (Luke 17:17 NIV)

Only one returned to give thanks.  Ninety percent went on their way, more enthralled with the gift than the giver.  Jesus healed them anyway, “for He is kind unto the unthankful and to the evil.”  (Luke 6:35 KJV)  It is this great kindness of the Savior which ought to make us want to offer thanks.

The Samaritan leper knew what he had been saved from.  For this he expressed thanks to the One who made it possible.  Jesus became not only his healer, but his Savior.

What would your life be like today if you were still being eaten alive by the leprosy of an unchanged sin nature?  What parts of your life would be missing?  How much would be broken, ugly and scarred?  Do you remember what it’s like to feel absolutely hopeless, knowing that even those who love you best are powerless to meet your deepest needs?  Can you recall when you looked to Jesus and He healed the leprosy of your sin, forgiving and removing the ugliness?  How you wondered in amazement at how He is restoring the missing and broken parts of your life as you go on your way?  How long since you’ve returned to your High Priest, to fall at His feet and express your highest gratitude?

Like the leper who returned to give thanks, may we also be grateful not only for what Jesus has done for us, but for what He has spared us from.   “Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift!”  (II Cor. 9:15 NIV).

(Story based on Luke 17; ©2013 Don Detrick)

Letting Go!

Letting Go - remote controlPut down that remote control. Now! Yes, I’m talking to you. Even if you are a male. Especially if you are a male. Put it down, slowly, on the coffee table. Then step back.”

Hard to do isn’t it? We’ve all watched siblings or spouses wrestle over the remote control. Nobody wants to wrestle to a draw. Everybody wants to wrestle to win. But what if the person you’re wrestling with is yourself?

Giving up control is seldom easy. Neither is losing. Unless by losing you are actually gaining. Like the times you might have lost at a game or something you knew you could easily win. Instead, you let somebody else win because you knew losing at that moment was actually winning. Winning a friend, or winning the heart of a child, or winning the wrestling match between your humility and your selfish pride. Tough choice to make, but often worth it. Because keeping your hand on the remote control is not the most important thing.

We come into this world crying with a closed fist. We generally leave with a final sigh and an open hand. What if we lived every day in between our first and last with an open hand? Instead of being grabbers, what if we moved toward opportunities for letting go?  Instead of trying to get at the head of the line, the closest parking space, the corner office, how would it feel to let it go?

“What a loser of an idea,” you might conclude. Taken to an extreme, I would agree. But most people don’t take it to an extreme. Most of us have to daily make a conscious effort to even think a little about others. Because we default to think a lot about ourselves. We are hardwired to think like a crying, grasping baby. Only maturity and an awareness of God’s grace makes us think more like Mother Teresa. What if we took a bit more seriously these words from the Bible?

“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same attitude of mind Christ Jesus had: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a human being, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:3-8 TNIV)

Remote. Control. What do those words really mean? I think they mean “distant” and “demanding.” Not qualities we normally admire. Quite the opposite of Jesus who humbly drew near the human race by becoming one of us, and took on “the nature of a servant.” Even though he could have been a “remote control” God, he did not choose to do so. Relationships thrive, not when we are distant and demanding, but when we draw near and serve one another.

“Put down that remote control.” Trust me, you’ll feel better if you do. Let somebody else win that wrestling match. What you gain will be so much more than what you lose.

Semper Fi: Enduring Influence – Part 2 “Heroes”

Semper Fi = Enduring Influence“We’re looking for a few good men”

– The U.S. Marine Corps.

I remember frequently seeing or hearing that phrase as a boy growing up during the Viet Nam era. In print, television, or radio commercials, the message was the same: it requires something to be a Marine. It requires faithful service, and only a few meet that requirement.

Though not a Marine, our nation yesterday (4/11/13) honored a faithful hero. The Congressional Medal of Honor was awarded posthumously by President Obama to U.S. Army Chaplain (Capt.) Emil Kapaun, a hero who died in 1950 during the Korean War serving and saving the lives of his fellow soldiers.

Chaplain Kapaun heroically saved the life of a wounded soldier who was about to be executed by the enemy by running to and lifting the wounded man. Both were captured and sent to a POW camp, where the chaplain continued to serve as a representative of Jesus, frequently giving his own tiny ration of food so other soldiers could live. He modeled faith and virtue. While keeping hope alive for others, he died of starvation in that camp.Chaplain Kapaun US Army Hero - Congressional Medal of Honor - Korean WAr

One iconic image of Chaplain Kapaun captures his story. The photo shows him helping a wounded soldier, with his arm around his shoulder. In an online article in Time magazine, Chaplain Col. Kenneth W. Stice describes Chaplain Kapaun’s heroism:

“I’ve read his story and wondered what were the influences that shaped him to be such a man of influence, willing to make extraordinary sacrifices for others.  Well there’s the obvious formation of his abiding religious faith and practice. That is common to all chaplains.

But there’s also the influence of his family life – as one who grew up in rural Kansas, on a farm, within a tightly-connected community. It was in that context that he learned the value of hard and honest work, loyalty and support of neighbors, and simple a lifestyle with meager possessions.

Both of those streams of influence were absolutely vital in preparing him to endure captivity with such humility and courage, so that he became the inspiration of other POWs to carry on.  Chaplain Kapaun was consistent in his daily walk, and how he lived his faith.

The remarkable acts of bravery under direct fire in November of 1950 were reinforced through those daily acts of religious faith. All chaplains have the opportunity to make that impact on others with consistent living that was epitomized by Chaplain Kapaun’s example. His consistent walk and witness encourage me on my own journey of faith. But that same witness serves to convict me of areas that I need to be more faithful.”[1]

Did you notice how many times Col. Stice used the word, “influence” to describe this heroic man? I was touched reading about Chaplain Kapaun’s faithfulness and enduring influence. And I had to ask, What do all faithful heroes have in common? Here’s what I came up with:

  • They are present and available rather than absent and inaccessible. Can my loved ones count on me to be present and available–to be there for them when they need me?
  • They are alert and engaged, rather than pre-occupied and distant. Am I present when I am present, or neglecting my duty to pay attention to my family, my friends, my responsibilities?
  • They are courageous and sacrificial, rather than playing it safe out of harm’s way. Will I protect and serve others, or only myself?

The Marines are looking for a few good men who will be “always faithful.” It’s not a gender thing, anybody can be a hero to somebody by being faithful in who you are and faithful in what you do. Enlist today, your faithful influence will endure. Semper Fi!

[1] U.S. Army Chaplain Col. Kenneth W. Stice, “Medal of Honor: Chaplain Kapaun’s Heroism Feted Today. Time, April 11, 2013 at accessed 4/12/13.

Easter Hope: Resurrection & Reconciliation

Easter hope Resurrection & Reconciliation - PorcupineThe German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) compared the human race to a bunch of porcupines huddling together on a cold winter’s night. He said, “The colder it gets outside, the more we huddle together for warmth; but the closer we get to one another, the more we hurt one another with our sharp quills. And in the lonely night of earth’s winter eventually we begin to drift apart and wander out on our own and freeze to death in our loneliness.”[1]

But winter does not last forever, and in the Spring Easter warms the cold heart with hope. Christ provided us an alternative: to forgive each other for the intentional and unintentional pokes we receive. Because Jesus died and rose again, we have hope. Forgiveness, kindness and compassion are at the heart of the Gospel. Even in the face of injustice and sinful arrogance, Christians must have hope. Even in the face of anger and hate, Christians must have hope. Even in the face of war and violence and death itself, Christians must have hope. That’s what Easter is all about: hope for resurrection and reconciliation.

The Civil War was the most un-civil period in American history. It is hard to imagine the hatred, animosity and strife, not just between the states, but also between families and friends and neighbors.  620,000 American soldiers on both sides lost their lives in battle or as a direct result of the conflict. To place that in perspective, we must realize that the entire population of the United States at the time was a little over 30 million – thus over 2.0% mortality from the bloody war! All told, there were more casualties in the Civil War than in all wars America has fought combined from then until now.

During the war, half the men of military age in the state of Iowa served in the Union army and more than 12,500 of them died and more than 8,500 of them went home with serious wounds. The devastation in the south was even worse. Ten billion dollars in property damage – 40% of its livestock destroyed. The state of Mississippi spent 20% of its budget on artificial limbs for the wounded in 1866.[2]

In 1913, the Federal government held a fiftieth anniversary reunion at Gettysburg. It lasted three days. Survivors of unspeakable atrocities bivouacked in the old battlefield together, swapping stories, and looking up old comrades. They had witnessed the worst of the human race, but now these aged soldiers and one time mortal enemies came together for a final memorial meeting.

The climax of the gathering was a re-enactment of Pickett’s Charge. Thousands of spectators gathered to watch as the Union veterans took their positions on Cemetery Ridge, and waited as their old adversaries emerged from the woods on Seminary Ridge and started forward toward them across the long, flat fields. Philip Myers, (who witnessed the event as an 18-year-old) wrote, “We could see not rifles and bayonets but canes and crutches.  We soon could distinguish the more agile ones aiding those less able to maintain their places in the ranks.”

As they neared the northern line, they broke into one final, defiant rebel yell.  At the sound, “after half a century of silence, a moan, a sigh, a gigantic gasp of unbelief” rose from the Union men on cemetery Ridge.

“It was then,” wrote Myers, “that the Yankees, unable to restrain themselves longer, burst from behind the stone wall, and flung themselves upon their former enemies. . .not in mortal combat, but reunited in brotherly love and affection.”

“It was,” says Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, a Union hero of Gettysburg, “a transcendental experience.  A radiant fellowship of the fallen.”[3]

“A radiant fellowship of the fallen.” With all due respect to those Civil War heroes, that also seems a fitting description for a community of believers in Jesus Christ. Though fallen in sin, we are picked up and redeemed in Christ.

If members of the Civil War could discover reconciliation and forgiveness, surely we can find hope through reconciliation for the uncivil way humans—friends, strangers and family members alike—sometimes treat each other. And on this Easter Sunday as we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, let’s not forget what He said on Good Friday as He suffered unjustly at the hands of those He created:  “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”  (Luke 22:34 NIV)

Maybe the quills of broken promises and broken lines of communication have popped your balloon of hope. Maybe things just haven’t turned out as you expected.  Jesus rose from the dead so our hopes and dreams could be resurrected and we could be reconciled to him and to each other.

Jesus Christ is unique for two miraculous reasons: a virgin’s womb and an empty tomb. As fully God and fully human, Jesus suffered as no man ever suffered, and on the cross took upon Himself the sins of the world. His resurrection from the dead offers hope for the future and makes possible reconciliation for us all. Isn’t that a better choice than being poked by porcupines?

[2]The Civil War by Geoffrey C. Ward, Ric & Ken Burns.  New York:  Alfred A. Knopf, 1990   pp. 398-404.

[3]From Ken Burns, The Civil War Video series Vol. 9.

What to Say When You Don’t Know What to Say

What to Say When You Don't Know What To SaySilence is golden, and there is a time to be quiet. But at other times knowing the right thing to say at the right time is even better. The writer of Proverbs says, “Timely advice is lovely, like golden apples in a silver basket.” (Proverbs 25:11, New Living Translation) There have been times in my life when the kind words of a friend (or even a stranger) bolstered my sinking spirits as I grasped them like a drowning man clinging to a life preserver.

Having spent most of my life as a pastor, walking beside people through some of the toughest moments of their lives, I felt the tension between the need for silence and the need to say something spiritual or intelligent (when I did not feel either) during a crucial moment. Even at the risk of sounding clichéd, a word sincerely spoken can make a difference. So, for what it’s worth, here are some simple words I’ve collected over the years; phrases to sincerely say when you don’t know what to say.

  • “May I pray for you right now?”
  • “I am here for you, my friend.”
  • “I have complete confidence in you.”
  • “I am your biggest fan!”
  • “What can I do to help?”
  • “You do that really well.”
  • “How are you, really?”
  • “What you said helped me.”
  • “Where would you rather be right now, and what would it take to get there?”
  •  “What is stopping you from. . ..”
  • “It is amazing the way you. . ..”
  • “I was wrong.”
  • “I am so sorry.”
  • “I’m cheering you on.”
  • “I appreciate the way you. . ..”
  • “Tell me about your:  day, job, kids, etc.”
  • “Please forgive me.”
  • “I still love you.”
  • “God is big enough to. . ..”
  • “I am really proud of the way you. . ..”
  • “You’re really growing.”
  • “Could you come to:  dinner, dessert, coffee?”
  • “I missed you.”
  • “I’m so happy for you.”
  • “I prayed for you today.”
  • “That must have been very difficult for you.”
  • “I’ll be glad to!”
  • “You have a way of making people feel special.  Thanks.”
  • “What is one thing I could do to help relieve some of your stress?”
  • “I’m not sure I would be doing as well as you are.  How are you making it?”
  • “I admire the way you. . ..”
  • “Is there something I can pray with you about?”
  • “You are really making a lot of progress!”
  • “I’ll give you a call tomorrow to see how you are doing. Is that OK?”
  • “I treasure the moments we get to spend together.”
  • “Thinking about you always puts a smile on my face.”

I am sure you can think of your own favorites to create a silver basket full of golden apples for a friend in need. Sometimes words are not necessary, like when a hug or a shared tear do a far better job of conveying how much you care. But there is nothing wrong with being prepared for those times when you struggle to know what to say when you don’t know what to say.