Monday, March 2, 2015

Selfishness or Sacrifice?

Animals are…well..animals and they do some things that don’t always make sense to us.  In late 2013, a mama sloth bear in the Smithsonian’s National Zoo gave birth to the first of what would be three cubs.  Shortly after the baby was born, she proceeded to eat her young, much to the horror of the keepers who were watching on closed-circuit television.  She then gave birth to the other two cubs and everything seemed normal as she nurtured them for the next week. Suddenly, she ate a second cub.  By now, her keepers knew that they must intervene so they took the third tiny bear away from its mom.  Turns out that the baby was sick, probably having caught a virus that ran through all the sloths over the next few days.

Still, the thought of mamas eating their offspring is exponentially repulsive to most of us.  The idea of mothers, even animal mothers, thoughtlessly ignoring or destroying their young grates at every decent thought we can form.  We can excuse an animal, though.  It’s the stories of young human mothers who have a baby, then abandon it in a dumpster that screams INJUSTICE. Such selfishness makes us want that parent to be caught and punished harshly.

Contrast those atrocities with mama polar bears.  They must put on over 400 pounds of weight just to get pregnant (they eat seal blubber, not ice cream), but then they fast for eight months during their pregnancy.  They go through a bear form of feasting, then fasting so that they can have healthy babies.  Something about the discipline it takes to do both causes us to rise up and cheer.

Do you remember the 1988 story of the Armenian mother who was trapped for eight days with her four-year-old daughter in a collapsed building caused by an earthquake?  After she gave her daughter their only food, a jar of blackberry jam that had miraculously landed with them as the nine story structure fell on top of them, they had nothing else to eat.   “I’m thirsty, mommy,” said the child.  The mom, barely able to move, chose to do something she had heard about somewhere.  She cut her finger and gave some of her own blood to her daughter.  Then she kept doing it for days!  They were starving and dying of thirst.  The mother cared nothing for her own survival; she was willing to drain out her own lifeblood to save her child.  Miraculously, they both lived.

Selfishness or sacrifice?  We all face the question of whether we will be more like the polar bear or the sloth.  Will we end up doing the desperately selfish act of discarding others to go on with our own lives or will we give our lives away so that others might live?

We HOPE that we will be the ones who sacrifice.  But this is not a choice which we usually make just one time.  We keep making it over and over again, each time deciding who will pay and who will reap the benefits.  It’s those decisions that must be faced as we consider what it means to “Pay It Forward.”  That’s our topic this weekend at Stone Ridge Church and I hope you will be in one of our services to hear about it.  Can’t join us?  Catch the podcast!

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Taking The Risk

It has been about three decades since I first read these words:

“The bride, bent with age leaned over her cane,
Her steps so uncertain need guiding,
While down the church aisle
With a wan toothless smile
The groom in a wheelchair came gliding.

“And who is this elderly couple thus wed?
You’ll find when you’ve quickly explored it
That this is that rare most unusual pair
Who waited till they could afford it!"

I remember that couple today because the lesson they teach is as profound as their story is silly: virtually every decision we make involves risk!  I long ago noticed how hard it is for people to make a decision about marriage after they have lived for many years as a single adult.  It could be that the years make them more picky about a mate, but it is far likelier that they are ever more aware of the risks the decision carries. Consequently, they tend to move away from any such uncertainty.  On the other hand, people just moving into adulthood quickly dive into decisions like marriage because they have no real idea about the problems and the pain that could follow.

When we are young, we get married even when we can’t afford it.  We have kids without considering the full cost of bearing and raising them, nor understanding that those same kids just might break our hearts in a few years.  When we are young, we think nothing of moving to another state, even though we aren’t really sure we can find a job.  When we are young, we make big decisions about things like cars and houses, not knowing for certain that we can fulfill our commitments.

It’s when we mature a bit that we pay more attention to Jesus’ warning, “But don’t begin until you count the cost. For who would begin construction of a building without first calculating the cost to see if there is enough money to finish it?"  Luke 14:28 (New Living Translation)  Those simple and wise words can have an effect on us, though, and I’m convinced that it’s a result which Jesus himself never intended.  Counting the cost can focus us only on the risk and cause us to freeze when we face an important decision.  Sometimes we SHOULD make the hard choice IN SPITE OF the risk.  After all, it’s the risk that can lead to the rewards.

Consider the couple in the poem above.  They may begin their long-delayed marriage with financial security, but they will forego the joys (along with the trials) of a lifetime together.  They will never have the possible happiness of children climbing into their kitchen cabinets or smearing cake all over themselves on their first birthdays.  They will have missed graduations and awards ceremonies and ball games and proms and weddings with their offspring.  Even more, they are never going to feel the overwhelming pleasure of a tiny grandchild’s first smile at them.

I could go on and on.  The simple truth is that risk is a part of life and risk ALWAYS involves trade-offs. Though God is God and He knows everything, He was willing to create humankind, knowing that we would reject Him.  He did it anyway!  He sent His Son into the world, knowing that He would be beaten, spat upon, crushed with a Roman whip and nailed to a cross.  He did all this, knowing that you and I would taste His love, then walk away from Him.  Depending on your doctrinal position, you may or may not consider all this a risk, but the result is the same: He had to give up something in order to get something better!

That’s really what risk is about; letting go of something we value with the hope of receiving something better in return.  Another word for this process is FAITH.  Faith is at the core of Paying It Forward.  That’s our topic this weekend at Stone Ridge Church and I am excited to share it with you!  Can’t be there?  Catch the podcast!

Monday, February 16, 2015

Pay It Forward

In the first year of our marriage, Cathy and I faced one of those challenges that can leave you clueless about what to do and how to do it.  I left my young bride and flew off to Fort Ord, California, to take Army “Basic Combat Training.”  After about nine weeks, I completed that training and was assigned to stay on at Fort Ord for a second round of preparation for future duty.

There was to be a new level of freedom in that second training phase.  We were told, “Your Company Commander may or may not allow you to live off post with your wife if she is here.”  All I heard was “MAY.”  I don’t know what caused me to be so positive about the the possibility, but I was.  Cathy and I started making plans for her to fly out, with high hopes that she could stay.

On the night of BCT Graduation, I was checked into the Silas B. Hays Hospital at Fort Ord, with a severe case of influenza.  I was spiking high fevers and was admitted until we could make sure I was okay, plus I’m certain the medical people wanted to find out if I had something more serious.

We graduated on a Thursday morning.  Most of my unit spent Thursday night on the town before they were shipped off to other Fort Ord units and other Army posts on Friday.  Since I was in the hospital, Army procedure was that I be held over until the next Friday or until a Friday when I was well and could move on to my next training phase. It turns out that I was well enough to get out of the hospital on Sunday morning.

It was too late for me to get a ride to church that morning, but I had met a man who offered me a ride should I ever need it.  He attended a church which I had attended once or twice.  I got in touch with him that day and he offered to pick me up for the Sunday evening service.  Elated, I rode with him into town.  Upon arrival, I talked with the pastor of the church.  In the conversation, I told him that I had been studying music in college and believed that God had called me into the ministry.  He asked if I could sing that night during the service.

After I sang, the pastor explained to the church that my wife was coming in the next day (Memorial Day) and that we would need a place for her to stay for a few days until we found something we could rent.  After the service was over, we had two offers.  One was from an older couple who had a spare bedroom.  The other was from a couple about our age. It turned out that the young man was a Military Policeman at Ford Ord.

Something about that young couple struck a chord with us.  Cathy arrived on the evening of Memorial Day and we spent the night in a motel.  The next day, I caught a taxi onto Fort Ord and Cathy contacted the young woman with whom she would be staying.

The next few days flew by.  I was able to go to our new friends’ home in the evenings, where we played cards and started developing a friendship.  That Friday, I was shipped across Fort Ord to a new unit to begin my next training level.  It turned out that the new unit was right next door to the company where my BCT buddies attending the same school were assigned.  It also turned out that my new company had a Commanding Officer who set a stern policy, then allowed me to live off post with my wife.  The unit where I would have been assigned didn’t make any such allowances…three days in the hospital had made it possible to stay with Cathy.

It has taken me a few minutes to tell this story because of the way it became a part of  one of the most important friendships of our lives.  That young couple who opened their home and their hearts to Cathy and Me over forty years ago?  That was John and Rhonda McMurran.  I wanted to share this with you because their kindness to us became a part of our own “Pay It Forward” adventure.

The McMurrans welcomed us because it seemed like the right thing to do.  They had no idea the way God would use their simple act to tie our lives together.  This May will be 42 years since we met.  During those years, God has used John and Rhonda over and over again to bless our lives.  I don’t think that they did any of it to “Pay It Forward,” but God obviously had a plan and a gift to give to us all.  In the succeeding years, I ended up on the staff of that church where we met; the McMurrans ended up as leaders in the church.

Later, I was pastoring a church in Phoenix and the McMurrans decided to move there so that John could finish a ministry degree.  It was once again a way we could work together for a while.

In the early 1990s, almost twenty years from our original meeting, the McMurrans came to visit us in Yuma.  Their hearts were open and they wanted to move to the Southwest, out of the Oregon cold.  John was able to find a job that opened the door for them to move here.  Within a couple of years, we had an available position on our staff, where he served with excellence for twenty years until retirement.

I will always love how they Paid It Forward and how God opened doors for us to share our lives with them!

One reason I think we love "Pay It Forward" stories is because they originated in the heart of God.  The Bible is full of accounts of how He has Paid It Forward for us.  The ultimate “Pay It Forward” story is relived and cherished every year at Easter.  We begin our deliberate movement in that direction this weekend.  I am more than a little excited about this series, especially because Stone Ridge has a great opportunity for you and I to once again “Pay It Forward.”  It’s called 50 For 50 and I can’t wait to share it with you this weekend at Stone Ridge Church.  Can’t be there?  Catch the podcast!

Monday, February 9, 2015


I have a few friends who write very well.  They captivate me with the way they describe seemingly ordinary things.  In some cases, their metaphors are classic.  They seem to spring up like desert flowers rising from the sand after a warm rain.  In other cases, they use actual pictures — rather than word pictures -- to help tell their stories, often wrenching smiles or tears from their readers.

Today, I wish I had a picture.  Actually, I could take a picture, but it would take me so long to set up that I am using one I found online.

Avon nativity set
This picture will help me tell my “Squeeze” story.  You see, we have the nativity set that’s in the picture and, no, it’s not for sale.  Our set came as a gift from Cathy’s mom, who sold Avon for something like 50 years.  Our kids were growing up when we received this set and they became very accustomed to getting Avon gifts from Mamma.  In fact, our kids grew up wondering if just about everything on the planet came from Avon.  “Is it Avon?” was the common question at our house.

Every year, Cathy and I decorate for Christmas and pull out that Avon Nativity set.  As you can see in the picture above, each piece comes in its own box.  Therein lies the “Squeeze” challenge.  The plastic storage box we bought is just the right size to hold the entire set…if you pack it in exactly the right order.  If you don’t, you end up with a “full” box and a piece or two that don’t seem to fit.

For this reason, one of the most dreaded annual chores at our house is re-packing the Avon nativity set in individual boxes, then in the storage box.  The operative word is “re-packing” since we have to re-pack, then re-pack again until we get it just right.  This year, Cathy announced that I am better at this than she and I tried to “squeeze” my way out of it, but she wouldn’t budge.  It. Took. Me. A. Long. Time!  Finally, it was safely tucked away until later this year when, if we keep up our tradition, we will pull it out the Friday after Thanksgiving.

I described this “Squeeze” to you because we reach the end of our “Clean Slate” series this weekend at Stone Ridge Church.  After talking about numerous obstacles that keep dusting up our relational slates, it’s time to find a way to get clean.  The only problem is that relationships are continually messy.  The people who figure out ways to live at peace with everyone have to keep working at it.  Frequently it requires a lot of “do-overs” (re-packing) to get our relationships to squeeze together nicely.

We will talk about it this weekend at Stone Ridge and I hope you can join us.  Can’t be there?  Catch the podcast!

Monday, February 2, 2015

Fully Equipped

My very first car, a 1955 Ford, was a jewel my dad found.  Dad was a mechanic and often the Service Manager at the local Ford dealer.  It was 1968 and dad knew the lady who had bought it when it was new.  He had overseen all the maintenance on it.  It was the proverbial “little old lady who only drove it to the store and to church” car.  I think it had something less than 50,000 miles on it at thirteen years old.  Dad bought it for me at the whopping purchase price of $150.

(Before I go on with my story, I need to stop and tell my antique car-building friends to quit drooling!)

That 1955 Ford was a classic.  It came well-equipped with an AM radio, a heater and a motor.  The standard transmission was a three-speed on the column.  The steering?  Well, let me tell you about the “power” steering…I powered it!  At the time, I thought nothing of it, but that steering wheel was HUGE!  The large size helped provide leverage to turn those front wheels.

I want to talk about the steering for a minute.  Early on, I just figured that I would never need mechanically-assisted power steering.  My parents had it in their new car at the time, but it didn’t make driving their car that much easier than driving my old 1955.  It’s only a slight exaggeration when I tell you that I just figured the over-sized steering wheel and MY SUPERIOR MALE STRENGTH made power steering unnecessary…

…until I found out just how wrong I was!  A few years later, our young family was in need of a car.  Our budget was low…we were trying to squeeze a dollar out of every dime…and I jumped at the chance when my friend John found a great deal on a used Mercury.  We bought that car, brought it home and marveled at how much we had saved.  Until we discovered a severe power steering fluid leak.  Did I say the leak was severe?  We could fill up the power steering reservoir and still hear the whine of low fluid after driving just a few miles.  I’m pretty sure we chip-sealed several miles of Phoenix streets with our power steering fluid!

The worst part was when the whine in the power steering unit was replaced by complete loss of power.  Turning that car became so hard that I could have cancelled my gym membership (if I had one) because of my workout while driving.  I’m pretty sure it is easier to turn a Sherman tank than it was to turn that steering wheel!

As you can probably guess, this post isn’t really about power steering.  It’s about the futility of trying to accomplish anything without the needed power.  Sure, we could barely turn corners by exerting significant, sweat-producing force on that Mercury steering wheel, but it was nearly impossible to turn.  And it was dangerous.  Why?  Because that car wasn’t designed to drive without power steering!

As you and I steer our lives toward reconciliation, we weren’t designed to do so without a power assist.  It’s futile to try living with deep, lasting relationships and a relational “Clean Slate” without the Power.  Don’t worry; if you follow Jesus, relational power steering is part of your factory equipment.  This weekend, we will talk about how to stay powered up.  Can’t wait to share it with you at Stone Ridge Church.  Can’t join us?  Catch the podcast!

Monday, January 26, 2015

Is jealousy righteous...or selfish?

Growing up on a little farm meant that dogs were a natural and necessary part of our lives.  We almost always had at least one (sometimes more) big dog.  Somewhere along the line we got a little Pekinese mix and she ruled all the other dogs, but that’s another story.  For several years we had a good-sized German Shepherd mix we named Keno (I had never heard that was a form of gambling when I was a kid, so I have no idea where the name came from.)  Keno was a loving, friendly and energetic family dog, but he protected his territory, especially our house.
Yellow guard dogs
Keno slept and stayed outside, even in the cold winters.  On nice nights, he would sleep on the front lawn, always alert for any incursion upon his territory (our property).  One evening, some friends were coming to spend their last night in town before they moved away.  They had finished packing quite late and finally arrived at our place long after we were bedded down for the night.  As their headlights turned into our gravel driveway, Keno immediately went into full protection mode.  He straddled the sidewalk, barking.  As our friends started opening their car doors, Keno added a ferocious growl.

Keno’s bark had woken up my parents, but our guests weren't sure so the man started hollering my dad’s name: “Jimmie!  Jimmie!”  As my dad opened the front door, the friend yelled, “I think it’s a lion!”

It wouldn’t surprise me if, somewhere way up North, another canine was barking that night.  This time, though, it would have been a wolf, fierce and hungry.  The animal’s bark could have been directed at a hunter, whose kill the wolf was attempting to steal.  It could have been a small bear or even another wolf.  The growl and bark of this animal was not the righteous protection of his “own” territory, but the attempt to control what belonged to another.

I have been thinking about our dog Keno and that imaginary wolf for a while.  Jealousy is one of our most powerful emotions.  When it is used to protect that which we love, it can be very righteous and helpful.  When it is used to control that which we want, it can be devastating…even deadly.

It’s that controlling type of jealousy that enters our conversation as we continue our Clean Slate series this weekend at Stone Ridge Church.  When jealousy is ugly and selfish, it becomes the root of much violence.  No wonder it keeps many from living in peace with others.  I can’t wait to talk with you about it this weekend.  Can’t be there? Catch the podcast!

Monday, January 19, 2015

If You Really Knew Me

From time to time I like to remember the day my friend and co-worker Tom rocked my world with these words: “I’m at the point of resigning and walking away,” he said, “because you’re not real.  In the past few months, your life has been turned upside down and you are deeply hurt, but you won’t open up about it.” 


Talk about a wake-up call!


The truth was that my life HAD been turned upside down.  Our church had gone through a major crisis and, in ways unrelated to the church problems,  my family was hit with some significant pain.  Looking back — it has been over fifteen years — I walked away from that meeting having no idea how to be what Tom called “real.”  At that point, my idea of a pastor was someone who took everything that came at him and ministered to the hurts of everyone else while not wanting to burden anyone with his own struggles.  It took a while to overcome my own internal image of invulnerability.  


In the years since that day, I have constantly been in a sort of “life school,” learning when it is best that I open up about personal stuff versus when I need to wait silently for the Lord to bring me through it.  I still don’t get it right sometimes, but God is faithful and I’m getting better about it.  


One question that comes back to me is whether my failure to open up was really an issue of pride.  Was I mum because I wanted others to believe that I was sort of a Superman who simply didn’t struggle with the things that might cripple “ordinary men?”  I admit that pride could have been part of my attitude, but a bigger part was the lack of awareness of my need to be vulnerable and how to do it appropriately.  



A very long time ago, I talked with a man about his need to be open and talk about things with his wife.  “Complete this sentence,” I said: “If you really knew me…”  Without hesitation, he replied, “…you wouldn’t like me!”  He lived in fear that others might learn of some great darkness in him and completely reject him.  This possible rejection caused him to isolate and insulate himself from others he feared might walk away once they knew the truth about him (whatever it was).  We talked a lot that day about the love of God and the deep love that genuine Christ-followers would have for him, regardless of his secrets.


The argument of God’s relentless love and the unconditional acceptance of those who walk in Christ’s forgiveness can be enough to help people like the “…you wouldn’t like me” man take a risk and open up.  But what about those who are afraid to open up to Jesus for an entirely different reason:


JesusIfILetYouReallyKnowMe 2


There is a movement afoot for people to open up about the person they are on the inside.  That can be a very good thing, but what often clouds this movement is that old lie, “you are basically good.”  In this context, people are encouraged to open up with the expectation that anyone who truly loves us would never want to change anything about us. But what happens if we take this subtle warping of truth to its natural conclusion?  That ultimate end could be found in someone like Adolph Hitler.  Let’s say that he opened up and told others, “I hate Jews and think all of them should die.”  Would we quickly say, “Well, those are your feelings and you are good, so we will just accept you with those feelings; no change necessary!?”


Anyone who knows the Gospel knows it wasn't that way with Jesus.  Over and over He met people in their brokenness.  He loved them deeply and unconditionally, then said, “Go and sin no more!”  It is for this very reason that many people resist coming clean with Jesus.  We will meet just such a person in the Bible this weekend at Stone Ridge Church.  Frankly, I was surprised when I looked at this meeting through the lens of personal pride and protection.  You may react the same way, but I hope you will LOVE the end of the story.  I can’t wait to share it with you!  Can’t be there?  Catch the podcast!