Easy to say…hard to do

Digging through a box of memorabilia, I found a fierce declaration I wrote out by hand when I was just a freshman at Slidell High, not quite 14 years-old.

I share it (see below) because it’s illustrative of so many truths: the mysteries of the opposite sex, the humiliation and indignation of young love (and also perhaps why schools should consider bringing back “penmanship” as a subject).

Mostly, though, my manifesto captures the difficulty of keeping big commitments. Notice how forceful AND flexible my vows were–“I am never going to like another girl…I am going to be a bachelormaybe….trial basis…I will test it for a week.” Heck, I flip-flopped more times in seven or eight sentences than most politicians do in a lifetime!

Two explanatory notes: (1) I have blotted out the names of the two young ladies who triggered my rant. (2) “Craig Robinson” was my close friend and classmate, and I was in awe of him. A 9th grade version of Indiana Jones, Craig was cool and fearless and strong. He remained unaffected (at least outwardly) by most of the stuff that bothered the rest of us boys.

Girl Rant

Almost 42 years later, here’s something I’ve learned: It isn’t just high school boys who struggle to keep grandiose promises.

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The Festival of Meet/Meat

Today I am Baton Rouge-bound to participate in one of America’s most storied traditions: “The Festival of Meat.”

I exaggerate, of course. The FOM (as we often refer to it) is a highly unorganized college reunion, just a small group of guys (anywhere from five to ten–we’re never quite sure who might show up). We are old (I use that term literally) LSU friends and ex-roommates who used to live and/or congregate at 1956 Tulip St (in the Baton Rouge Garden District). And what a strange collection of characters we are: a disproportionate number of lawyers and clergy…plus a sprinkling of other guys from less eyebrow-raising professions.

Tulip Street 1982

During our brief time together we will consume–as the name of our event suggests–all manner of fleshly protein (from both the surf and the turf).

But the real feasting at The Festival of Meat will be found, not so much in our eating, as in our meeting. We will mostly–I can’t resist this euphemism–“chew the fat.” For hours on end, we will catch up and talk about our lives. We will mock each other’s quirks (as only long-time friends and former roommates can). We will wax nostalgic, retelling old college stories, laughing until we cry. And, as we are all older now and more sentimental due to the aches of parenting and the hard knocks of life, we will almost certainly get misty-eyed for other reasons.

As we depart, we will say, “We should do this more often! Let’s stay in closer contact!” And we will mean those sentiments with all our hearts.

But then we’ll return home. And life (mostly family stuff and work pressures) will resume. More frequent interaction between us likely won’t happen. But that’s okay…because at some point next year, or the year after that, we will come together again for another Festival of Meat.

I’m grateful for these guys. They’re good men. Each one talented and interesting, funny and one-of-a-kind.

Here’s something…at The Festival of Meat I will be, without question, the dumbest guy in the room. But the others will never make me feel dumb. They’ll just pass me another rib as someone starts telling another hilarious story.

Are you paying attention?

I am sitting on my back porch listening to the world wake up.

The cicadas sing ceaselessly. (Did they even go to bed? Do they ever take a breath?)

They’re joined by various birds, whose calls I recognize (but since I was a Cub Scouts drop-out, please don’t ask me to match each species with its signature sound). The one exception is the blue jay. I can’t see it, but I’d know that call anywhere. A chiding, angry shriek—sort of like an irritated mom of twin toddlers in the check-out line at Super One.

A squirrel chatters, then scurries up a pine tree. A neighbor’s dog barks. I hear traffic on I-20, a half mile away. Five miles above me a jet roars past.

It’s amazing what you hear when you stop and pay attention.

adult ear

A.W. Tozer said something once that I’ve never been able to forget. He said, “God is by His nature continuously articulate. He fills the world with His speaking voice.”

If that’s true—and I trust that it is—what’s God saying this morning? To me? To you? And why is it so hard so often to hear His voice?

I have a plaque hanging above my desk. It’s a quote attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson. It reads: “Let us be silent that we may hear the whisper of God.”

That’s a good reminder. Underneath all these other sounds–made by bugs and animals and machines–there’s another sound: a faint, divine whisper.

Do I hear it? Are you paying attention?

“He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

Why we’re drawn to extreme makeovers

Our neighborhood is all abuzz. The dilapidated house on the corner is undergoing a major renovation.

My next-door neighbor, who’s lived on our street long enough to know about such things, remembers when this ramshackle residence with its unkempt yard was the class of the neighborhood.

Not so for the last couple of decades. For a host of reasons—but mostly just the law of entropy coupled with neglect—the place became an eye sore. A year ago I told a friend, “It’s beyond salvage. They’ll have to bulldoze it.”

Enter Jimmie and Susan.

If there’s an aspect of home repair Jimmie can’t do, I don’t know what it is. One week he’s transforming the snake-infested, leaf-filled “cement pond” in the backyard into a beautiful saltwater pool. The next he’s heaving old sheetrock and bathroom fixtures onto a growing trash pile by the street. Every time I look out my front window, Jimmie’s driving a tractor, wielding a jackhammer, or directing a crew of workers. They guy’s inexhaustible. Lots of days he’s working when I wake up, and he’s still going strong when I head to bed.

Renovation

Like Glady Kravitz (the quintessential “nosy neighbor” on the old TV show Bewitched) it’s sometimes not enough for me to merely watch from my living room. I have to walk over for a closer look. Jimmie always stops what he’s doing and graciously shows me around. During each guided tour I marvel at the progress that’s been made. But what I really love is listening to Jimmie talk about the changes he intends to make in each room. He’s a visionary. Where I saw only a dump, he and Susan saw the possibility of transformation, and ultimately, a beautiful home.

A few days ago, as I watched Jimmie use a forklift to install a giant beam in the attic, so he could knock out a load-bearing wall down in the main living area, I thought, Why am I so enthralled by this process? After a few minutes I remembered these words of C. S. Lewis:

“Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make any sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of – throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself.”

Maybe that’s it. Maybe we love stories of transformation because transformation is the heart of God–and the hope of our own hearts?

Anyway, I’m thankful for the “extreme makeover” going on across the street. Not only does it remind me of ultimate realities….it’s also going to result in some great neighbors.

What’s on your “to DO” list?

Like lots of people, I begin most weeks by making a “to DO” list.

You know the drill. Sit down with paper and pen. Begin mentally previewing the next seven days. Then wait.

It never fails. “To DO” items just start showing up. There comes one out of my foggy memory. Then two or three more from the pages of my calendar. Steadily they arrive, all the things I have to get done or want to accomplish. Obligations and desires, all in one place, each one with its very own checkbox. It’s a sweet deal–after just a few minutes, I’ve got a handy game plan for my day, a basic road map for the week.

To Do list2
But not this week. No. This last list-making exercise was anything but pleasant. A veritable mob of “to DO” items–many of them large and intimidating, came rushing at me all at once, yelling in surly, demanding tones. For a few menacing moments, I felt like a Walmart employee on Black Friday.

It took some doing, but I managed to wrestle them into rows. I looked down at them. They glared back up at me. The longer this staring contest went on, the more exhausted I felt. What’s the point? I finally wondered. There’s no end to all this DOING. Every time I check one item off my list, two or three more manage to muscle their way on!

Then, almost unconsciously, I caught myself writing across the bottom of my list this question: “Why don’t we make ‘to BE‘ lists?”

And so that’s what I did. With each item, I felt lighter. And when I read back through the whole list, I was no longer tense.

I’m not sure what all I’ll manage to DO today (or whether any of those accomplishments will even matter in a month), but here’s what I’ve decided I want to BE. Here’s my new and improved “to BE” list (for today–and, I hope, every day):

BE still

BE in the moment

BE present for my life

BE aware

BE thankful

BE open

BE available

BE courageous

BE honest

BE kind

 

What’s on your “to BE” list?

The “d” word

On Sunday I went to see a friend who has an inoperable brain tumor. Barring a miracle, he isn’t, as my Mom used to put it, “long for this world.” What do you say in a situation like that?

I asked a few questions. Mostly I just listened. Before leaving I felt prompted to tell him about a couple promises in the Bible that have given a LOT of people–especially people facing death–hope through the centuries. I printed those verses–John 3:16 and Romans 6:23–on the back of an envelope and asked God to help my friend not only understand the words but also to trust them.

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Flickr, Creative Commons, autowitch, April 23, 2008, http://bit.ly/1o7Osnc

Death. What a spooky, strange reality. We all know it’s somewhere up ahead, lurking, unavoidable. And yet we we do everything we possibly can to push it to the margins of our lives.

It used to be that when Grandma died, Mom and Pop would prop her up right there in the living room, and the neighbors would come over to the house and pay their respects. Now we quickly ship the departed off to special, separate buildings called “funeral homes.” It’s more remote and less personal that way–which is precisely the point, right?

Now, instead of burying Grandma in the family plot out behind the house (or adjacent to the church building we frequent weekly), where her marker would be an ever-present reminder of mortality, we inter her remains in a lonely graveyard …down some seldom-used country road.

Out of sight = out of mind. Or so we think. But try as we might, the reminders of death are everywhere—those aching joints, that wrinkled skin that no amount of miracle cream can fix, those preposterous commercials that, in urging us to take this or that drug for our latest malady, all but guarantee us a dozen new and even worse medical problems!

How did St. Paul put it? “Outwardly we are wasting away.” Perhaps it’s grim to admit, but our lesser ailments (and our more serious illnesses) really do act as death’s heralds—whispering (or sometimes yelling) the imminent arrival of our last enemy.

So what are we to do? Exercise more and eat more kale? Make an appointment with a good cryogenics lab? Throw up our hands in despair? Not at all. Paul would urge us to put our hope in the gospel: The good news that Jesus Christ not only died for our sin, He also triumphed over death. Meaning, He’s alive! And doing what? In St. John’s words, “making all things new.” Having completed the great work of Redemption, the risen Christ is now laying the groundwork for the Great Restoration.

I was sitting in the nursing home the other day with my Mom. She’s 86, and, yes, wasting away–not just her body, but her mind too. Most days, she can’t recall our previous day’s visit. Anyway, I saw her old King James Bible sitting there. And so I picked it up and read to her (and to my own soul) those words of St. John at the beginning of Revelation 21: the promise of a “new heaven and new earth.” The reverse of the curse. A restored universe with “no more death or mourning or crying or pain.”

Can it get more hopeful than that? A world where death itself is dead? Where even “passing away” has passed away?

A new chapter

Many of my friends have already heard our news. But if you missed it in the whir of summer vacation or the hype of the World Cup, here it is:

In recent months I have sensed an undeniable “Divine Nudging” to step away from vocational church ministry. In mid-June this gut feeling morphed into heart certainty. So last week I communicated my decision to leave the pastoral staff of The Bridge. “Final day of work” and other such details are yet to be determined.

How Cindi & I arrived at this decision, after almost 25 years of ministry in Ruston (see photo below of our move in 1990) is a long story….I won’t tell it today (maybe another time in another blog post or two?).

Image

For what it’s worth, I do not have another job lined up. Heck, I don’t even have a 90-day plan. For now all I’ve got is a conviction I need to “wait on God” and “walk by faith” (phrases that are SO easy to preach and SO tough to live out). I am trying to remain open to “whatever” (a word/mindset that is simultaneously exhilarating and unnerving). If you are “the praying type,” I gladly welcome any pleas heavenward on our behalf…for clarity and courage.

Our hope is to stay in Ruston and continue to be part of The Bridge (primarily because ours is an amazing community of faith).

We’ll see. God only knows what’s ahead. In coming months, I might be the barista making your latte at Starbucks, or maybe, to paraphrase Billy Joel, I’ll be “a real estate novelist who actually has time for his wife.”

I know this: What we’re doing is nuts…UNLESS there is a God who, indeed, loves and guides His children.

That UNLESS is the basket into which I’m putting all my eggs.