Victim-less crime ...
Unhappy with much of the current TV and Netflix offerings, I have been searching my Roku device for some long-forgotten, “clean-ish” shows to watch when I want to be entertained. One that I am re-watching now is the 1980’s show, Hill Street Blues, the BEST Police drama ever (don’t even attempt to argue this point!). I loved it for so many reasons, but Sergeant Phil Esterhaus’ tag line at the end of every roll call, “Let’s be careful out there,” made a lasting impression on me. But I digress …
I also discovered Hill Street Blues has been airing on an obscure channel and so I’ve seen some episodes out of sequence. This one caught my attention. Lt. Howard Hunter (he was sergeant at one time, played my James Sikking) had previously been portrayed as a straight, no-nonsense, by-the-book, clean-living guy. But during a prostitution round-up, he took a fancy to one of the ladies who was arrested. He visited her in the lock-up, and, trying to endear himself to her said, “I’ve always thought what you did should not be prosecuted. It is a victim-less crime …”
A victim-less crime … hold that thought for a moment.
While I was pondering what to write for this blog, I wrote down some ideas to research along the lines of what Jesus taught in Matthew 5:17-48. One of my ideas was about a quote from then presidential candidate Jimmy Carter, 1976 (this was the next election following Nixon’s impeachment-resignation-embarrassment-fiasco). While giving an interview to a vulgar magazine (something I think he should have NEVER granted, and one I refuse to name because I don’t want to give it any publicity – just trust me - but I digress again), he said had he had "looked on a lot of women with lust" and had "committed adultery in my heart many times." Clearly, he was referencing Jesus’ teaching from Matthew 5:27-28 but the press and entertainment world had a field day! They mocked and teased … this was obviously a good topic for my blog post. I did some digging and I found a 1996 LA Times, “Ten years later” article from one of the OG interviewers trying to set the record straight about Carter’s comments. None of that is relevant to me or this post, but then the author said this, “Sad, because the lies of Johnson and Nixon resulted in the deaths of millions in Vietnam, while Carter's vicarious adultery hurt no one.” (emphasis mine)
There it was again … a victim-less crime/sin, that “hurt no one.”
To be sure, when we merely think something, (robbing a bank, killing someone, etc.) it IS “less-than” actually taking the action and doing it. And I don’t think Jesus was saying, “Well, if you’ve ever been angry with someone, you might as well go ahead and murder them, because it’s just as bad” (Matthew 5:21-26). But Jesus IS saying that having those thoughts in our hearts is not OK.
“But who is hurt by it?”
Do you know the number of wrecked marriages and wrecked lives brought about by pornography? (1) I’m talking about men (usually) who “just” look at it? Do you know what it does to their brain? How they view women? How they view their wives? The loss of intimacy it brings? (2) A victim-less crime?
Not all murder is pre-meditated, but a lot of it is. Before there is a rash action, there has usually been some kind of thought going on for days, weeks, even lifetimes in the case of prejudices, unresolved anger issues ready to boil over … thoughts that had safe harbor in the mind and heart come out in violent, irreversible ways. Hating someone, just thinking about it, what’s the harm in that?
Jesus said, “What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart …” (Matthew 15:18). But so often “we” think that as long as we don’t “act” upon our thoughts, everything will be fine. Or, “as long as no one is hurt, it’s not wrong.” That goes back to Lt. Hunter’s opinion about prostitution, but it reaches into recreational drug use, pornography, and so many areas that Jesus would say are not for us.
Jesus calls us to live by a different standard. He is not merely concerned with our outward actions but also our inner thoughts. May I offer two possible reasons?
One: Jesus knows that our inner thoughts are the source of our outward actions. Not too long ago, celebrities and other public figures were routinely getting in trouble for using racial slurs or angry, sometimes drunken, outbursts. Often their apology included some form of, “I just slipped; I don’t talk like that; that’s not who I am, blah, blah, blah.” But the truth of the matter is, if you NEVER thought those words you wouldn’t say them. Their “unfortunate” public outburst was just the fruit of their private language, thoughts and feelings. Jesus knows, “out of the heart the mouth speaks.”
Two (and for me, this is most important): Jesus knows that our inner sinful thoughts are still sin. Our Heavenly Father knows what is in our hearts. He is not by fooled. And when we foolishly accept the premise that as long as we put on some religious-looking appearance, everything is spiritually fine, we run afoul of exactly what Jesus was teaching against in The Sermon on the Mount. There is no such thing as a “harmless sin” or “victim-less crime.” If nothing else, as Christians we should know that Jesus is the victim of every sin: every single, little, hidden or uncovered, discovered or secret, big or small, spontaneous or premeditated sin.
He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. 1 Peter 2:24 (ESV)
So while we may think that no one is getting hurt by our thoughts (or even perhaps some of our actions), Jesus was and is.
With apologies to Sergeant Phil Esterhaus, let’s not only be careful “out there” but also “in here” (our hearts).
1) I intended to provide a link here but there seems to be some controversy over whether or not viewing porn alters chemicals in the brain. There’s an article by Psychology Today in which the author says it does not, but other studies that show it does. However, I have counseled with people whose marriages have been ruined by pornography, specifically because it altered how the husband viewed his “less-than-perfect” looking wife or that their sex life wasn’t as “exciting” as portrayed in the pornography he had been viewing. I’ll let others argue about brain chemicals but there’s more than enough evidence for me to say that viewing pornography ruins relationships. Incidentally, pornography is not just a male problem. More and more women are viewing it as the “50 Shades of Grey” series has capitalized on.
Here is a link to a lengthy article "The Human Brain on Porn." And a link to a YouTube of Christian author, Dr. William Struthers, discussing, "Wired for Intimacy - (the effect of porn on the brain). Interestingly enough, both (unrelated to one another) use the phrase, "pornography is NOT a victim-less crime/sin/activity."
2) Focus on the Family, www.family.org, has some great resources. Here is just one brief article highlighting what porn can do to a teen that will affect their future marriage relationship: How Porn Affects Your Child's Future
Take the Challenge!
Even if you've never watched what some are calling Netflix' "first cult classic" (a record 45,037,125 accounts tuned to it during its first week last November), I'm still guessing that since you're reading this, you probably have a computer, and so it's possible that you've at least heard about the movie Bird Box and the "Bird Box Challenge." In the challenge, people pay homage to the film by blindfolding and then filming themselves doing everyday, mundane tasks, such as petting their dogs, playing basketball, and putting on lipstick. But some of the activities that are filmed should never ever be done with eyes closed, like giving a tattoo or driving a car.
The phenomenon got so out of hand that earlier this year, Netflix released a Twitter statement saying:
"Can't believe I have to say this, but: PLEASE DO NOT HURT YOURSELVES WITH THIS BIRD BOX CHALLENGE. We don't know how this started, and we appreciate the love, but Boy and Girl have just one wish for 2019 and it is that you not end up in the hospital due to memes."
(It's okay if, at this point, you need to stop and Google "Boy and Girl" and/or "memes.")
Now, I understand the challenge; I just don't get it. I mean, if you want to experience life without light, you really don't need a blindfold. You can have the exact same experience in the middle of an Indiana cornfield.
It was Mark Twain who supposedly said, "The coldest winter I ever saw was the summer I spent in San Francisco."
Well, I've never been to San Francisco (but I kinda like The Beatles.)
Wait a minute. Wrong song.
How 'bout this?
"The darkest night I ever spent was in the middle of a cornfield in Indiana." (It doesn't quite have the same ring to it, but it's true.)
First off, I'm a city boy. My wife tells me this all the time. While I thought I grew up in the country, apparently having driven on a dirt road at some point in my life and having viewed (not milked) a few nearby cows does not mean that I lived in the country.
That said, most of my life has been lived "in the light." Whether it was the security light on the Duke Power pole outside my childhood home or the streetlights outside my current home, I have never really had to fumble around in the dark, no matter what time of night it was.
Except for that one night in Indiana in the middle of a cornfield.
Okay, it wasn't really in a cornfield; there were just cornfields as far as the eye could see. I had driven my parents up to northern Indiana for my sister's and her husband's graduations from Purdue University and we ended up staying a couple nights in their home.
Remember that line from The Fugitive where Tommy Lee Jones asked for a search of "every gas station, residence, warehouse, farmhouse, henhouse, outhouse, and doghouse" in the area?
Well, with apologies to Deputy Marshall Gerard, that night in Indiana there was no sunlight, moonlight, starlight, streetlight, flashlight, candlelight, or even lightin' bug light.
It was dark.
And so, when I got up in the middle of the night, it was a completely new experience. I literally could not see my hand in front of my face, much less the furniture in front of my shins!
While I've always just sort of taken it for granted, looking back, I can't imagine a world without light. I don't want to even think about a world without light.
And yet, we live in a world where, albeit the minority, there are voices at two extremes:
1) Those who want a world without the light of Jesus.
2) Those who are convinced that the light of Jesus has been extinguished from the world.
First, there are those who actually dream about a world without Jesus. I mean, isn't that what John Lennon sang? "Imagine there's no religion..." (Okay, maybe I don't kinda like the Beatles.)
How dark would that kind of world be?
In his book, How Christianity Changed the World, Alvin Schmidt lists fifteen changes that the light of Jesus brought to our world, including the sanctity of human life, sexual morality, the freedom and dignity of women, hospitals and healthcare, and liberty and justice for all.
I mean, a world without just those five would be so much darker than that Indiana cornfield!
But then there are also many (Christian?) naysayers who lament the fact that the darkness has overtaken the world. Like Elijah falsely believing that he was the only one left on God's side (only to have God tell him, "Nope, you're one of thousands"), they take their cue from the nightly news and report that, "Evil has won. The light is gone."
Jesus says, "Not as long as you're around."
"You (the clear emphasis in the Greek) are the light of the world." (Matthew 5:14 ESV)
By the way, it's impossible for the darkness to extinguish the light. The light will always shine. It isn't even dependent on if we hide or shine the light ourselves. The light shines on... but it will be so much brighter in our world if we will just allow it to shine through us.
So, here's my challenge to each of us light bearers (and it has nothing to do with a blindfold):
Don't hide the light; instead, show it. Even when it's uncomfortable, shine the light.
And, if you ever find yourself in an Indiana cornfield in the middle of the night, take a flashlight. You're gonna need it.
You might even run into Boy and Girl!
"Blessed are the meek ... "
My dad used to be a pilot. He flew small, single and twin-engine prop planes. He earned his commercial license and his instrument instructor license. He never flew for an airline, but occasionally did fly passengers. Most of the time, he flew cargo: checks from various cities around the state back to Charlotte. This, of course, was before technology made the physical check-in-hand, obsolete. Back then, getting checks back to the banking hub in a timely manner was a matter of many tens of thousands of dollars.
One of his usual stops was in Raleigh (RDU) close to where I lived. Often, he would have a wait, and if he knew that ahead of time, Meribeth and I would drive to the airport and meet him – bring him supper sometimes. It was only for 30-45 minutes, but it was nice to just visit on occasion.
One time, dad called to tell me that he was flying a passenger to RDU and would have a couple of hours of wait time, so we go out to dinner. I don’t know who he was flying; I suppose most of the time he didn’t either – he just knew their name and that they were a VIP of some sort. After all, you had to have money to rent a private plane and pilot and it must be pretty important business if you don’t have time to wait on the commercial airline schedule.
I arrived at the appointed time – it was in the evening and the FBO terminal (Fixed-Base Operator– i.e., the private plane area of the airport complex) was pretty much empty (this was before Sept. 11 and security at FBO’s was pretty much on the honor system). I strolled in as I had done many times when dad was there for his check-runs, but this time was different.
I saw dad coming down the hall, carrying a suit-case with Mr. V. I. Person in front of him. I wasn’t really thinking about things or paying attention, I was just ready to get dad and go get supper! I started to say “Hi!” but dad’s eyes caught mine and he shook me off with a stern look … not angry or anything, but the look said, “Don’t speak. Don’t break protocol.” (OK, we hadn’t established any protocol to break, but I got the message.)
I quickly looked away and walked passed them and took a seat in the waiting area. I could hear Mr. Important telling my dad what to do, when to be back, not to be late … etc. and heard my dad say, “Yes sir, yes sir, three bags full!” several times, in a voice that was … well, not the way I was used to hearing my dad speak. It was clear, he was the hired-hand. He was the servant.
Did Mr. V. I. P. not realize that MY DAD was the one who had the pilot’s license? That he had logged 10,000+ flying hours? Had flown into and out of thunderstorms … successfully? That he was not only able to fly through those storms but was good enough and smart enough to train others how to do it? Did Mr. Important not realize that MY DAD had just taken him safely to 7,000 feet above the earth and brought him safely back down? You’d think that he would realize who was REALLY important in this scenario!
But my dad carried his bags; my dad dutifully answered, acknowledged and acquiesced to Mr. Big-Shot VIP … and I didn’t like it. I have a strong protection tendency, especially toward those I love.
I did not mention anything to my dad that night. As I recall, he didn’t mention it either. We went to supper, it was nice, but there was a pall in the air. As you can tell, it stuck with me. But I learned from it also. The memory is still a bad one, but I’ve come to reconcile it. My dad understood “his place.” In that moment, he WAS the hired hand; he WAS the servant. Whether I liked it or not. His “job” was to carry the luggage, be on time, do as he was told, and safely fly his plane and passenger to their agreed-upon destination. While he was on Mr. V.I.P.’s time, Mr. V.I.P. “owned” him. When we he was on his own time, he could spend it with me.
Someone much wiser than I once said (and I’ve heard Shannon repeat it several times), “Everyone wants to be known as a servant; nobody wants to be treated like one.” I did not like seeing my dad being treated like a servant although that’s who he was; that’s what he preached, that’s what he taught us to be.
Being humble is not pretty. It isn’t glamorous. There are no awards, no (earthly) rewards; no matter how we (preachers or otherwise) spin it, dress it up, spiritualize it, there’s just no up-side for true humility. And yet Jesus bases His whole teaching on it.
· “Blessed are the poor …”
· “Blessed are the sorrowful … “
· “Blessed are the meek …”
· “Blessed are the hungry …”
· “Blessed are you when people (notice these words) revile you, persecute you, speak falsely against you ...” (see Matthew 5:3-12)
Basically, “Blessed are you when you act like a servant and when people treat you like a servant.”
This is something we’ve got to master (forgive the reverse pun) if we are going to be disciples of Jesus. The disciple of Jesus does not retaliate when hit; does not refuse an evil person; offers up to the thief more than they stole from them; goes the extra mile. (Matthew 5:38-42)
These things are not valuable to the world, but they are valuable to the King of Kingdom of Heaven. As His disciples, we are on His time. We ARE servants and not just in name only. He expects, nay DEMANDS that we … give to the needy, care for the sick, tend to the needs of those in prison, love our neighbor as our self, love our enemies, and so many other things that can only be done when we are truly humble and willing to be humiliated.
[If this rubs you the wrong way, then good. Our “flesh” is prideful and does not want to be humiliated. Remember, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” (James 4:6, 1 Peter 5:5)]
I don’t know when the next time you will be asked to carry luggage, or acquiesce to another person’s wishes … I just know Jesus has called us to follow in His steps … and His steps led to a cross, a humiliating cross. But on the other side of that cross is glory. But more than that, there is the admiration of a Heavenly Father who will say, “Well done good and faithful servant.”
Ode to Tony Romo (aka What If?)
Twenty-three years ago today - January 28, 1996 - the Dallas Cowboys defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XXX. It was the Cowboys eighth appearance in the "big game," their third win in four years, and their fifth Lombardi trophy... at the time, an NFL franchise record. (The Steelers have since won their sixth championship, with the Patriots playing for their sixth this coming Sunday).
Things were looking pretty good for Big D.
Now, for those who know me even just a little, you know that from this point on in this post, there will be no more praises for large men wearing stars on their helmets, because I am an avowed "Anti-Cowboy."
In fact, in the almost twenty years I played fantasy football, I only had one rule when drafting:
Never draft a Cowboy.
And I never did.
So, it is with complete dry eyes that I share the news that over the last twenty-three years, "America's Team" has been to a total of zero Super Bowls.
(By the way, the Patriots have been to ten of 'em during the same period of time... just saying.)
Not only that... they haven't even been to a single NFC title game for the chance to get to the Super Bowl.
Now, I don't pick my friends based on their team allegiances. It might influence whether we watch the game together, but never my friendships. So, over the last twenty years, I have heard quite a few "what ifs" from my friends who are, if nothing, loyal fans.
(Please be sure to read the following with some passion in your voice, if not also a bit of whining.)
"What if Jerry Jones (owner) and Jimmy Johnson (former head coach) had both just set aside their massive egos and learned how to love one another... or at least live together? How good could the Cowboys have been?"
"What if Tony Romo hadn't fumbled the snap on the potential game-winning field goal against Seattle in the 2006 NFC semi-final?" (This, along with Jessica Simpson and the next "what if" would, I believe unfairly, define Romo's career.)
"What if Dez Bryant's 'no catch' against the Packers in the 2014 playoffs had been ruled what it actually was... a catch?"
I agree completely. No doubt about it. It was a catch. (Oh, my goodness! Please tell me I didn't just say that out loud.)
You know, I have my own "what-if's" about the same date in history, and they have nothing to do with football. On January 28, 1996, I didn't even watch the Super Bowl.
That's because that was also the day my dad died.
Twenty-three years ago today... the day after his 60th birthday... four days after the doctor had told him that he had "six months or less to live"... while I was preaching a sermon in Reidsville about "Jesus and the Hurting" less than fifty miles away, my father passed from this life... and with him, my greatest earthly influence.
Again, I have a collection of "what ifs"?
"What if my father had been successful in one of his many attempts to quit smoking in the years before he developed lung cancer?"
"What if, after his diagnosis and ensuing surgery, his follow-up treatment had included any type of chemotherapy or radiation?"
"What if he had lived long enough for his grandchildren, including my own son, to know him and his incredible influence?"
But my greatest "what if" is easily, "What if I had just left the church when I got the call that morning (even though there was nothing to suggest that he would die that day, much less in a few hours)? Why in the world did I stay?
It wasn't because the church didn't give me the opportunity to leave. They did.
But I didn't.
And so, by the time I drove the hour to Forsyth Hospital, my dad was gone.
Twenty-three years later, I am stilled plagued with the "what ifs."
Only recently... surprisingly, only recently did it dawn on me where these "what ifs" come from.
They come from my accuser. They come from the one who not only accuses me of my sin before the Father (Revelation 12:10), but who also whispers (and sometimes even shouts) at me the accusations of "What if?"
This coming Sunday, I am teaching about Jesus' three temptations (Matthew 4:1-11). While Satan never accused Jesus with a "What if?" from His past, he does begin the first two temptations with a question: "If you are the Son of God..."
In other words, he tries to get Jesus to doubt His own identity.
Doesn't he do the exact same thing to us with every "Woulda, shoulda, coulda?" Every time Satan gets us to focus on our past, our mistakes, and our failures, in part, he causes us to forget who we are.
We are loved. (John 3:16)
We are accepted. (Romans 15:7)
We are forgiven. (Colossians 1:13-14)
We are shown grace beyond anything that we deserve. (Psalm 103:10-12)
Any accusation that tells us otherwise is nothing but a lie.
It's natural to regret our mistakes... to want to go back in time and change things, or fix things, or do things differently... but we can't.
We would, if we could... but we just can't.
Thankfully, the One Who holds not just our present and future, but also our past, He calls us to...
"... focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us." (Philippians 3:13-14 NLT)
And trust me, that's a prize beyond anything that's going to be handed out on Sunday!
Side note: I'm really looking forward to Tony Romo's color commentary this weekend. He did such a great job last week, seeming to know exactly what play was coming next, that I was sort of surprised he didn't win more games as a quarterback.
(Oops, did I say that out loud?)
Summer Church Camp was one of my favorite things to do. Back in the day (as they say), it was what church kids looked forward to – a week away from their parents (except my dad was usually on staff), half-camping, swimming, games, bunches of other kids – almost none of them knew you, so you were just “you.” No one knew any different.
We were living in Ohio and I was at Round Lake Christian Camp. I was probably 9 or 10 years old when this particular story took place. If you were never a church camp goer, let me tell you what it used to be like. On Sunday night, one of the first activities was to divide up into “families.” For the rest of the week, whatever you did, you did with your family – eat together, go to classes together, play sports together, whatever … including “talent night” (or something similar).
At one of our first family meetings, our leaders were telling us the plans for the week. To a 9 year old boy, it sounded like Charlie Brown’s teacher, until, that is, I heard my name and the leader say, “And you, Scott, are going to be our drummer!” (At least that’s what I THOUGHT she said!)
“WOW!” I thought to myself, “How did she know? Is it that obvious? I mean, I’ve always WANTED to be a drummer, but I’ve never actually played the drums. I’ve certainly put down some rad beats on the chairs I’ve sat in. Clearly, the word is out that somewhere inside of me is an awesome drummer and this Christian Camp leader has the spiritual gift of discernment and prophecy!” (Yes, I was quite mature for a nine-year old boy and had an exceptional vocabulary.)
In the middle of thinking this to myself, I managed to say, “Sure” in a tone that was agreeable without revealing my elation. My family leader told me that we would be meeting at (sometime) that evening in the chapel (where the drum set was, I was sure!); it was during free time, but hey, I would gladly give up my free time to be the drummer! All the other kids would think I was cool (much cooler than I really was) because I was the drummer! This was going to be the best summer camp ever!
When I arrived at the chapel on Monday evening, during free time for most everyone else, there were no other musicians or instruments to be found. No drum set was on the stage. Instead, kids were on stage doing some kind of skit. Imagine my surprise, my disappointment, my utter grief at agreeing to forfeit my free time every evening for the rest of the week when I said to my leader, “I thought you said I was going to be the drummer?” and she replied, “No, I said I wanted you to be in the drama.” Remember, I was a nine-year-old boy who had less than zero interest in being in a drama. Fail.
Have you ever THOUGHT you heard something only to find out it wasn’t what was said at all? (If you’ve been married for any length of time or have kids, I’m sure you know what I’m talking about.) Some people call it “selective hearing” (which is really a thing, but not the thing I’m talking about). Sometimes we hear only what we want to hear, or what we HOPE to hear (as was the case that fateful summer camp).
We do that with Jesus. “We” only hear what we want to hear (sometimes) or hear what we hope to hear. But Jesus was very clear about what He calls us to. In Matthew 4, Jesus calls His first disciples and He simply says to them, “Follow Me.” (Matthew 4:19) Jesus does not tell them to follow the Law (what they had been doing), or follow a set of guidelines, rules, principles, political platform, 5-point doctrine, human wisdom, ancient writings … or anything else, just Him. Just Jesus. (See what I did there?)
It is easy for me to mishear (worse as I get older, but not the case when I was nine – and certainly not an excuse when it comes to reading words out of the Bible!). I want Jesus to give me a checklist (preferably with lots of latitude for my own personal discretion). But He doesn’t and He didn’t; He told me to follow Him. One thing. One simple thing. One simple, yet very hard thing, for me at least, to do: just follow Him.
Where Did This Change Come From?
Seven strange little coins. If you do the basic math, sixty-four Euro cents. That's what I had in my pocket when I landed in Delhi, India, with absolutely no idea where they had come from.
Let me backtrack just a bit.
In January 2006, I traveled to India with a good friend of mine. Our reason for travel was to join with eleven others from across the United States for a two-week trip to India with Central India Christian Mission. While our specific goal was to be involved in the dedication of the church building that our church had raised funds for in 2004, our general duties were to help and encourage the mission and the people in any way that we could.
My friend (whose name is withheld because of our differing views of the facts) had worked out the flight from the US to India, via Amsterdam, and had calculated that if we slept from Detroit to Amsterdam, then stayed awake on the next flight to Delhi, our bodies should adjust to the ten and a half hour time difference and be ready to sleep again after we landed.
My question: "How in the world are we going to sleep on the flight from Detroit when it's only 5:30 PM?"
His answer: "I've got something that will help us sleep." (At this point I should probably mention that he's a doctor, so it was legal.)
My response: "I don't take medicine very well."
His rebuttal: "Don't worry. It'll be alright. Trust me."
So, when our flight left Detroit, we took the "sleep aid" in preparation for our Transatlantic snooze. However, almost as soon as we were in the air, the flight attendants brought us dinner... and here's where the discrepancy in our stories comes in.
His account: "You (that'd be me) told me (that'd be him), 'Hey, we just ate a meal. I think I should take another.'"
My account: "He told me, 'We just ate a meal. You should take another.'"
Now, regardless of whose recollection is more accurate (and knowing me, I'm pretty sure his version of the story is the correct one), the end of the story is the same.
I took another.
And, as a result, I have no memory of Amsterdam.
Now, I understand that there are a number of people who are in the same boat - they don't remember their time in Amsterdam either - but I'm guessing their reasons may be a little bit different than mine.
Thirteen years later - still nothing.
I was told later that there was a question as to whether I was even going to get off the plane, and that when I did, I would have made a great "walker" on the AMC show. I was also told that while in the airport on our layover, I got a massage and I took a shower.
News to me.
Oh, and apparently, I bought something. What I bought, I have no idea, but obviously I spent some money there because I've still got the change.
It will probably be the only time in my life when I have change without knowing where it came from.
Because you see, change, and now I'm speaking about "the act of becoming different" as opposed to "coins," change doesn't just happen.
That's one of the main reasons why we make resolutions, right? We know that the change we want to see, for it to really happen, we must do something.
To that end, I personally have set a few goals for 2019. Now, the goals are not really the goals, but hopefully measurable ways to get to the goals.
This year, some of my "goals" are to...
1. Read 30 books
2. Walk/run/walk 365 miles and ten 5K's
3. Maintain my weight within in a five-pound window
4. Have lunch with a non-Christian friend at ten different hot dog joints
5. Stop biting my fingernails
6. Start/finish some of the home projects that I have neglected
7. Be more thankful
So, fifteen days into the new year... now's a good a time as any to take stock:
1. Nothing yet (but I'm in the middle of three)
2. 18 miles and one 5K
3. Every day but January 1st (so I'm cutting myself some slack)
4. Had one lunch and some very tasty hot dogs - please pray for me and my influence
5. To date, I have been able to get my protein from other sources. I now have this weird white stuff on the end of my nails that seems so foreign.
6. See #1
7. ??? (I know I'll be thankful when this post is finished!)
Here's the thing... and I will try to wrap up this lengthy treatise. Thanks so much for staying with me this far.
When I make a list of goals, I tend to think that I'm the one who's in control. In other words, if I do the things on the list, then I will see the results I want.
Maybe... but the reality is, for most changes, I have no control.
Oh sure, I can crawl out of bed at 4:30 AM to walk/run/walk in the cold January air, but ultimately, I don't even have control over waking up that morning, much less the health that is required for me to get up and move.
I can eat what I believe are healthy foods, but I still have no real understanding of metabolism and thermogenesis (Googled it!), much less any control over them.
I can have a monthly meal with a friend and ask God to use me in his life, but in the end, He is the One Who changes hearts... not me.
In fact, looking back over my list, keeping my fingers out of my mouth may be the only thing that I really have complete control over (which means I'm doomed!)
As I referenced in a recent sermon (or is it upcoming? This snow/ice has got me so mixed up!):
[Jesus said] ... apart from me you can do nothing. (John 15:5 ESV)
Kind of humbling, isn't it? And yet, so very encouraging!
When God led John the Baptist to call each of us to "Bear fruit in keeping with repentance (Matthew 3:8 ESV)," He knew that we could never make those changes on our own, not completely.
That's because God and God alone is in the change business. He calls us to be a part of the process... He allows us to be a part of the process... but in the end, He is the only One Who can do more than we could ever even ask for or imagine... around us, and in us.
That's the kind of change we want.
That's the kind of change we need.
And there's no question where that kind of changes comes from!
August 21, 2017 … the first time since 1979 that a total solar eclipse was visible in the United States.
In 1979, the previous US total solar eclipse, I was 13 years old and although I recall it being a topic of discussion in school, we were far enough away from it that I don’t recall it being a big deal. The path of totality was in the Pacific NW and Canada, nowhere near us in Charlotte, NC. The one before that, I was only 5 and didn’t care about such things.
But in 2017, I did care. In addition to being an amateur, wannabe astronomer/meteorologist, Greenwood, SC was directly in the path of totality. Greenwood, SC? Where’s that and who cares? My son, Bryan, attends Lander University which is in Greenwood, SC. As for where it is … it is in between Promised Land and Ninety-Six, SC (map). Hope that helps.
Several months prior, we had made plans to go. This would be perfect. Later, the news would tell of hundreds of hotel reservations that were cancelled so that they could re-rent the rooms at exorbitant rates. This happened to a California family who made their reservations a year in advance at a Franklin, NC Microtel. We would have no such problem – we would have a place to park, a place to set up … viewing the eclipse was going to be a breeze. We were going to have to make a 2:30 drive (and my wife was going to have to skip a work day at her recently acquired new job), but it was going to be worth it.
I was smart enough to look on line and order some eclipse viewing sunglasses for the whole family and some eclipse filter sheets for the cameras (and again, the price would sky-rocket as the date approached - score 1-point for me!). However, that was about the extent of my preparation.
I took with me four “cameras:” my digital camera (camera 1), my phone camera, my iPad camera, and my old, 35mm film SLR Fuji camera that I hadn’t used in years. It was kind of a last-minute thought, but the film counter still showed 20 or so exposures left on the roll (I realize that some of you are Googling, “film camera” because you have no idea what I am talking about). It uses actual film … that you have to take to Walmart or CVS or somewhere and have sent off to be developed, sometimes it takes a week or more before you see your printed pictures. It is the same technology Fred and Wilma Flinstone used (another Google opportunity for some of you). But my Fujica had a history of taking good pictures and I was familiar with it, albeit rusty.
That morning we loaded up the car with my four cameras, two tri-pods (one I had gotten cheap at a garage sale), the eclipse glasses, a blanket, cooler, etc. – you get the idea. We arrived about 45 minutes before the eclipse was to begin, located our son who had scouted out a quite place on campus, away from the planned school activities. It was where several of the professors had also planned to view the eclipse, away from the maddening crowds.
We staked out our spot and I began to set things up … one of my tripods, the one I bought cheaply, was missing a critical part. Essentially, I only had one tripod. And I had not brought any mechanism to mount either my phone or my iPad. But I had planned to at least have my two cameras mounted on tripods, but now I couldn’t do that with my 35mm … but it didn’t really matter because …
I had NO FILM in my camera! I thought I did. The counter was in the middle, so I thought I had film in there, but when I got home and rewound the film and opened the back … nuttin!
To make matters worse, I had not practiced at all taking pictures of the sun with the special eclipse film needed to cover the lenses. I was out there on the Lander University lawn with tape and scissors trying to secure the film over the lens. I had no idea what I was doing.
Meanwhile, like “sands through the hourglass,” time ticked away … and the first “flickers” of eclipse shadows became visible.
As totality grew closer, I realized that I had no plan for how I was going to use my cameras. I knew I did not want to spend the short time during the total eclipse (a little more than a minute) looking through viewfinders; I wanted to enjoy it with my own eyes.
So while the eclipse was happening, I was taking pics with one camera, switching to another, back again, clicking my old-fashioned film camera … and then my batteries died in my digital camera (my #1 camera). I had more, but there I was in the middle of the eclipse, changing batteries. I wanted to shout at the sky, “Can you pause that for a minute while I get ready?” but that was not going to work.
The total eclipse was AMAZING! Seeing the sun’s corona is indescribable. My pictures do not do any kind of justice to it.
When it was over, my wife and son started playing “piggy-back” and they were laughing and it was so cute … I had messed with the settings on my digital camera and iPad so much that the images were too dark, I just grabbed the film camera, quickly changed the settings and shot out the rest of the roll of film – or so I thought (I was almost excited about those as I was of eclipse!) Of course, I had no film in that camera and so I have no pictures of them goofing off. I could have just kicked myself!
Probably even worse than no film - and much higher on the "no-excuse" scale - was that I wasn't familiar enough with my digital camera to know how to change/manipulate the settings to get a better picture. I was just scrolling thru menus looking for stuff and buttons to change the aperture, exposure, etc. I did find the menu where you change those things, but I had no idea at all what I was doing. I had not read ahead; I had not practiced; I had not adequately prepared.
I can hear you now, “How could you be so dumb, so … ill-prepared?” (well, that’s a long list for another day).
The point? I guess if you want to travel to Ohio or somewhere in 2024 to see the next one, you can learn from my mistakes. But really, I told you this story because we can easily do the same thing with Jesus.
If you are reading this blog (and have made this far), there’s a pretty good chance you know who Jesus is and are one of His followers. You know that He hears and answers prayer; that He speaks to us through His Word; that Sunday worship, communion, hearing the Gospel preached, being in fellowship with other believers is critical to our spiritual health. But often times we just shrug them off.
But then an eclipse comes; a health crisis, a job loss, a tragedy, a loss, a life-changing, life-altering event. You can’t say, “Hey! Can you pause this for a minute while I get ready?” Life moves with a relentless pace; time does not wait. And in the middle of our eclipse, instead of knowing how to handle it, we’re fumbling with settings, trying to change the batteries, realizing we don’t even have film in our camera … simply put, we are not prepared.
And (allow me to “up the stakes” even more), those “sands” are running through our hourglass. One day, the last grain will drop; either we will die, or Jesus will return, but either way, we are going to face eternity, ready or not.
I know my skills as an eclipse photographer do not qualify me as an expert on preparedness. But when it comes to eternity, I suggest you listen to what John the Baptist had to say (Matthew 3:1-12), repent and be ready, because the Kingdom of Heaven is near.
Almost twenty-five years ago, my predecessor at Reidsville Christian, Robert Forrester, retired, and in doing so, handed me, a twenty-eight year-old kid, the reins of the church (has it really been that long?). At the same time, he also left behind quite a few volumes from his personal library. While many of them have since found their way into our own church library or been donated to other ministers, I kept one book for me, for one reason and one reason only: Page 69.
Let me try and explain. The book is Christ in the Fine Arts, published in 1938 by Harper & Brothers Publishers. It is an anthology of the life of Christ as portrayed through multiple mediums of art - pictures, poetry, music, and stories.
Confession time: I got that information from the book's introduction. Quite honestly, I couldn't really tell you what the book is about... because I've never read it. In fact, I'm not so sure that I've ever even ventured past page 69.
You ask, almost in a hushed whisper, "Do tell. What exactly is on page 69?"
The answer is the artwork that's pictured above - Rest on the Flight into Egypt, which was painted in 1879 by French artist Luc Olivia Merson and is currently hanging in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston (the hyperlink will give you a great close-up view).
Now, just so there's no misunderstanding: I don't normally "go" for art museums. In fact, when we were in Washington D.C. over the last couple springs, while the rest of my family hung out in the National Gallery of Art and the Hirshhorn Museum, I was out on the National Mall, Munzeeing (another obsession for me to explain another time).
However, there is something about this painting that has stuck with me over the last two and half decades. I just can't seem to shake it. I've asked myself, "Why? Why has this canvas made such an impact on me... especially when all I've really seen of it is a black and white picture in a book?"
I've come up with a few possible reasons.
First, while I grew up in the church and have heard the story about Jesus' birth and eventual escape to Egypt (Matthew 2:13-17) countless times, I don't believe it was until I turned to page 69 that it dawned on me that the Great Pyramid of Giza and the Sphinx would have been on the Egyptian horizon as Mary and Joseph made their trek. Now, since they were both constructed 2,500 to 3,000 years before the birth of Jesus, of course they were there, but that thought had never even entered my mind... not until page 69.
I'm not so sure what that says about my I.Q.
But a second reason is the picture itself. Scroll back up to the top of this post and click on the "Museum of Fine Arts in Boston" link. Take a look for yourself.
Go ahead, I've got time. I'll wait.
Oh, it's too much trouble for you to scroll up? Well then, just click here.
Did you look? Okay, now, look at it again... this time closer.
Do you see it? Do you feel it?
Do you sense the weariness of Joseph and Mary? Joseph lies by the dying fire in a protective stance, and yet, he looks exhausted. Mary cuddles the baby Jesus to her as she leans against the Sphinx, her legs dangling off the side. The darkness of the sky seems to envelope them both.
To me, it's an image that is so different from the traditional nativity scenes that depict the wide-eyed couple as they gaze upon God's gift, the Babe, while the bright star shines down upon them all.
No, this looks more like real life.
Real life can be dark. Real life can be lonely. Real life can be exhausting.
Real life can be the call in the middle of the night that you weren't planning on getting, with news that you never wanted to hear. For Joseph, the news was simply, "You've got to go... now!"
I personally would have had a very hard time with that sort of news. Assuming that I could have even just gotten up and left, I still would have had a ton of questions:
"How hard is the trip going to be? Where will we stay? What's it going to be like? How long will we be there? What about the language barrier? Will there be anybody there that we know?"
I could go on.
That's because I'm a Planner... a Planner with a capital "P," but sometimes real life can make a mockery of our plans.
In fact, there are times throughout the Bible when God seems to intentionally mess up people's plan... and yet, if they choose to follow His plan, it ends up being a really good thing.
That's because God always has a better plan.
Trust me, I really need to remember that as I move into a new year... as I make plans as to where I want to go and what I want to do. Even if God chooses to lead me into the desert, I wouldn't be the first, He knows exactly what He's doing, and He has promised that He will not leave me there alone.
In fact, in the middle of the darkness, He offers rest.
This is the way God put it: 'They found grace out in the desert, these people who survived the killing. Israel, out looking for a place to rest, met God out looking for them!' God told them, 'I've never quit loving you and never will. Expect love, love, and more love!' (Jeremiah 31:2, The Message)
The same God Who gave rest to His children as they left Egypt also gave rest to Joseph and His family as they entered.
And He will give rest to us as well.
That's the last reason why I like this painting so much - it's name: Rest on the Flight into Egypt. I mean, it almost seems like an oxymoron - rest as they're running - but it's just the sort of thing that God specializes in.
This next year, wherever we find ourselves, whether it's a part of our plan or not, when we find ourselves looking for a place to rest, may we meet up with the God Who is already out looking for us!
Songwriters have made fortunes – well deserved, I might add – on the truth that Mary and Joseph were humble, obscure, run-of-the-mill, peasant-type first century Jews. They were not wealthy (c.f. Luke 2:24 with Lev. 12:8); not aristocratic, prominent, or remarkable in any outward or measurable way (by human standards). Songs like, Mary Did You Know?, Joseph’s Song, A Strange Way to Save the World and Breath of Heaven all remind us that Mary and Joseph were just as fragile and humble as the Baby they would care for.
But that’s Standard Operating Procedure for God. He has – and continues – to entrust the greatest things to the “least of these.” 2 Corinthians 4:7 reminds us that God put His “treasure” inside of us, jars of clay. Nothing fancy. Nothing super-strong or unbreakable. But plain, ordinary, fragile and certainly flawed.
Why would God do that?
At Christmas, we wrap presents with pretty paper and shiny bows … and no matter how beautiful the packaging, we know the real gift, what matters most, is what is on the inside.
Whether our wrapping is pretty and shiny or plain and wrinkled, what really matters is the Gift God put in us.
May we all take time this Christmas season to ponder God’s incredible gift of Jesus to us – not just 2018 years ago, but that still today, we, like Mary, carry inside of us the Holy One of God.
Have you ever seen two people (probably pre-teen girls, but we won't go there) make a promise to one another, then seal it by linking their pinkies together to make a "pinky swear" or "pinky promise?" That's one thing I don't believe that I've ever experienced, but I do understand the concept.
Did you know that this little gesture originated in Japan with the Yakuza, the Japanese mafia? Supposedly it was the highest seal of all oaths, with the understanding, "If I don't keep my promise, you can cut off my pinky."
That really makes me glad I've never "pinky swore" before.
I mean, that seems a little extreme.
Until I read (Genesis 15:7-21) about God's willingness to "walk" between butchered birds and animals and basically say to Abraham, "This is what'll happen to Me if I don't keep My promise to you."
But He did.
And He has.
And He will.
Every single time.
In fact, the Hebrews writer tells us that "God can't break His word! (Hebrews 6:18, The Message, emphasis added)
And while that may not be the first thing that we think about when we read Matthew's genealogy, that's exactly what he's saying. Not only does God use all kinds of people, but He also keeps all of His promises!
God promised Abraham, "I'm going to bless the world through your family." (Genesis 12:2-3)
God promised David, "I'm going to put your descendant on the throne forever." (2 Samuel 7:9-11)
And with the New Testament's very first verse, Matthew lets us know, “God keeps His promises. He said the Messiah would come, and He has!”
"The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham." (Matthew 1:1)
Now, from our vantage point in history, we might catch ourselves thinking, "Okay, great. Jesus is the Messiah. God kept His promise. Gotcha."
But would we really be that flippant if we were living during the "waiting?" I mean, it's always easy to look back, but living "through it" is something completely different.
Yes, there were prophets, men who spoke on God's behalf. He would send them to His people from time to time to remind them, "I know that things look bad right now, but just remember: The Messiah is coming. I promised!"
But then, four hundred years before Jesus was born, nothing. No prophets. No revelation. Nothing but... silence.
What would that have been like? How would we have felt about God and His promises then?
"Has He forgotten? I mean, it's been four hundred years... did He change His mind? Where is He?"
And David’s lineage? If you look at Matthew's genealogy in verses 6-10, it starts out strong:
King David... King Solomon... we might even recognize King Uzziah and King Hezekiah... maybe even King Josiah.
But then, in verses 12-16, seriously? How many of us have ever heard anything about Jeconiah, Shelatiel, Azor, and Mathan?
Famous kings... unknown kings... and then, no kings at all... just people.
Sure, we all know Mary and Joseph's name now, but who were they back then?
Joseph wasn't a king. Mary wasn't a queen. They weren't rich or powerful or influential. In the eyes of the world, they were just two nobodies, engaged to be married, living in a little hick town called Nazareth... just a small town, filled with poor people, all who were simply trying to make it.
"Just a small town girl..."
If we're honest, that is what Matthew's genealogy looks like. It looks like God forgot.
When it's been two thousand years since He first made the promise...
When there have been four hundred years of absolute silence...
When the kingly line has dwindled away through barrenness, civil war, slavery...
When hope seems lost...
When it feels like God has forgotten...
"and Jacob, the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ." (Matthew 1:16)
And it all happened at just the right time. (Galatians 4:4)
I'll be the first to admit it: Sometimes God seems slow. Sometimes it even looks like He has completely forgotten.
But He hasn't. He never has before, and He's not going to start now.
Here's something to think about: It's been another two thousand years since God made another promise, this one that Jesus is coming to this Earth a second time. He's coming back!
Today, I think we probably find ourselves in the same place that the people of Matthew's day were.
Now, I don't believe that our problem is that we've become hopeless and weary and tired of waiting. Instead, I would guess that our problem is more likely that we've all-together forgotten about the promise itself.
Personally, I didn't wake up this morning wondering if Jesus might come back today.
But He might.
Do you know why? Because God keeps all of His promises.
He always has.
He always will.
Every single one. Every single time.