September 7, 2012

The Other Side

NOTE: This is the first post I wrote for Relevant Magazine's God Column. It was an enormous blessing to see the Lord use trial, sorrow, and the valley in my life to be an encouragement to others. I think that's a vital part of our journey as Christ-followers - our suffering and sorrow shaping our hearts and drawing us to the great Comforter. I hope you are encouraged.

Have you ever had that moment, that experience, that phone call that you won’t forget for the rest of your life? I have. It was Friday night, January 9th, 2004, at 10:15pm. I was at one of my former students homes; he had just returned from boot camp and a group of us had gone over to hang out and hear the stories. My phone rang and it was my brother. He asked me where I was and if I could get somewhere private. “Are you sitting down?” This immediately pushed the panic button. I went into a bedroom, closed the door, and said, “What’s going on?” Here is the point where life changed…and has never been the same.

A sidenote for background purposes: My parents had just a year and a half earlier built their last house; the one they would retire in, have the grandchildren playing in the backyard, host BBQ’s and dinner parties – the house was great. And it wasn’t anything ridiculously extravagant. It was just what they needed. One of the details about my parents home that added so much to its beauty was the 12-foot ceilings. This made the house seem so much bigger than it probably was. I loved that house.

So I sat down and asked my brother, “What’s going on?” Very calmly Brent told me that Dad had been in the attic and fallen through the ceiling. And when he fell (12 feet down) he hit his head on the island in the middle of the kitchen. They were in the ambulance, headed to the hospital and Dad wasn’t conscious. I kept waiting on the “good part”, the part where he says, “…but the paramedics think he’s fine…he’ll be OK….” The good part never came.

That night was filled with phone calls, prayers, tears and 15-minute segments of sleep here and there. It seemed eternal. The next morning I got on a plane with my wife and daughter and took the Wichita to Dallas flight. We were at Harris Hospital in Ft. Worth before 9am. As I entered the hospital, I remember being awestruck by the hundred or so people gathered in the lobby from my parents church. Yes, hundreds. You see, my dad was a pastor. Not a preacher…a pastor. And for years, if you were a member of Fielder Road Baptist Church and you were in the hospital, or your spouse had suddenly passed away, or your child was lying in NICU with a breathing tube, or your daughter had run away in anger, or your marriage was being torn apart – my dad was there. You would be hard-pressed to find a handful of people at the church (and we’re talking out of thousands) who had not been touched or impacted by my dad and his ministry. And now suddenly, HE was the one in need. It was as if this countless army of people who were part of our family had no choice but to come…to be there. And I remember standing there in the lobby at one point that morning, being touched by people with tears and smiles, and someone suddenly breaking out into my dad’s favorite hymn, “The Love of God”. I was moved.

I remember my mom taking me into my dad’s room in the Trauma ICU and not being able to do anything but stand there, hold my dad’s hand and cry. I remember as my mom left the room, leaning over on my dad’s chest and weeping, asking him to wake up. You are never the same when you’ve seen someone you love strapped to a bed with wires coming off of every part of their body and a breathing tube snaked down their throat. It changes you. Instantly.

The next day I was in my dad’s room, with my head again on his chest, and all of a sudden I heard a man named Don joyfully and confidentally praying over my dad, claiming his life and ministry could not possibly be coming to a close. Don put his hand on me at one point and I lost it. I believed everything he was praying, I just couldn’t get those words out of my own mouth. I didn’t feel that I could say anything to God without screaming. I would re-live this moment and many like it over and over again the next weeks. And then, something happened.

I remember, after returning to Wichita and attempting to return to life as normal, the phone call from my mom saying, “Dad’s opening his eyes!” You don’t know the power of those words until you’ve lived everything that came before them. This was the beginning of a very long road; a road with twists, turns, hills, potholes, detours and passers-by, oblivious to the baggage we were towing. It’s also a road that my family remains on today. You don’t walk this mountain and return the same. Things don’t return to normal. But I think one thing I’ve discovered is, normal is a mirage; it’s a figment of our imagination. Normal is a sedative we allow ourselves to swallow that makes us think we’re untouchable and that life as we know it is in this invisible bubble. Well, my bubble was popped.

I’ve realized that there was so much God had done through my dad’s accident, recovery, and his new life, that would never have happened without walking through this trial and experiencing everything that came with it. I think of the countless times I’ve been able to put my hand on someone, pray with them, and feel their pain in my heart. I KNOW what they’re going through. I know what it’s like to feel powerless, wanting that person you love to wake up, get up, go back and to have never gone into that attic, or gotten in that car. I drive by people now and realize that I have no idea what might have been thrown their way today. I just don’t know, and neither do you.

I’m not sure if you’ve gotten that phone call or had that moment, but if and when it comes, know that you will be changed. Know that the things you see and the way you will look at life could never have been seen from the other side. And know that the times when we are rendered powerless, we are never hopeless. Those are the moments God made us for.

September 6, 2012

Using Your Own Fork

NOTE: A few years ago I had the privilege of writing a couple of posts for Relevant Magazine's website. Recently I've had several conversations not only about these issues, but the posts themselves. So I thought I'd repost them in hopes that they might be an encouragement to someone. This is the first. (My son is now almost 8 years old. I guess a few years means 5-6!)

Recently, I dialogued with someone who shared with me of their plan to find a new church. This person felt that he could no longer attend our church because he was not “being fed”. Due to the fact that I have heard these words countless times before, it got me wondering, “What does that actually mean? Why are there so many Christians out there leaving their churches because they are spiritually starving?” Am I missing something?

The writer of Hebrews boldly confronts the church by saying, “You have been Christians a long time now, and you ought to be teaching others. Instead, you need someone to teach you again the basic things a beginner must learn from the Scriptures. You are like babies who drink only milk and cannot eat solid food. And a person who is living on milk isn’t very far along in the Christian life and doesn’t know much about doing what is right. Solid food is for those who are mature, who have trained themselves to recognize the difference between right and wrong and then do what is right.” (Hebrews 5:11-14, italics mine)

My son is 2 years old and is moving into the “I want to be a big boy” phase very rapidly. We’re working on potty training right now. What fun! But as we were teaching my son how to eat –  how to chew his food, how to use a fork, why we don’t throw the green beans, we eat them – without question, the most difficult task my wife and I faced was getting him to the point where he fed himself. He would devour a mouthful of mac & cheese, but we had to put it on the fork and put it in his mouth. This wasn’t really going to help him in the long run. After all, if you can’t feed yourself, you starve.

Considering this, it makes me wonder: Could it be that so many get to this place of feeling they’re not “being fed” be due to the fact that we haven’t taught them well enough how to feed themselves? Should we have new classes in church like Feeding: 101 and Using Your Own Fork? Seriously. Should it be reduced to this? Or could it also be that there are many who never get beyond the contentment and complacency of having someone else feeding them? Doing the work for them? Surviving on milk?

Acts 2 is a description of the early church. Luke tells us that the people “…joined with other believers and devoted themselves to the apostles’ teachings….” (Acts 2:42, italics mine) Somewhere very early in the journey these people went from “being fed” to doing the feeding. They may have continued to be taught, led, fed, discipled and cultivated, but they also began to teach, lead, feed, cultivate and make disciples. And I believe they also figured something else out: if I’m not serving – putting my gifts to use – then I’ll eventually wind up starving. The cup gets full and has to be poured out. Otherwise, it cannot be filled again.

Most often, it seems that those who feel they are not “being fed” are the ones who have failed to feed anyone else. After all, Jesus wrapped a towel around His waist, washed His disciples feet and told them, “This is what it looks like to follow me.”

It seems to me that if someone has “counted the costs” as Jesus tells us to in Luke 14, and we understand that we must “take up our cross” – something no one else can do for us – then there has to be a point when we begin taking responsibility for our walk. There must come a day when we pick up our own fork and begin to feed ourselves.

I am not saying that we have no need for listening to sermons, hearing God’s word taught and proclaimed, or attending bible study. These are tools that we have as the church – His Body – that assist us in our walk. In fact, these tools actually further the point. If you’re attending a church where the Word of God is being accurately proclaimed, where the Bible is being taught, where the fellowship of the believers is present, where the Body of Christ is being the church and still, somehow, you’re not being fed…could it be you just haven’t learned to use your own fork?

Paul prayed for the Ephesians, “May your roots go down deep into the soil of God’s marvelous love. And may you have the power to understand….” (Ephesians 3:17-18, italics mine) “Let the words of Christ, in all their richness, live in your hearts and make you wise.” (Colossians 3:16, italics mine) He says that the church should “equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church…until we come to such unity in our faith and knowledge of God’s Son that we will be mature and full grown in the Lord….” (Ephesians 4:12-13, italics mine) Paul makes references in Colossians, Philippians and elsewhere about being “mature” in our faith. Are you striving for this? Are you “straining to…receive the prize…”? Or are you still wanting someone else to feed you?

It’s like I tell my son, “If you want to be a big boy, you’ve got to pick up your fork.” If you feel like you’re not “being fed”, I encourage you to wrap a towel around your waist, wash someone else’s feet and pour your life out into someone else. I bet you’ll start feeling full real soon!

Dig Deeper:
Romans 12:1-2
Colossians 3:1-17