This is a devotional I shared January 14, 2020 with my fellow staff members at Alamo Heights United Methodist Church.
On January 14th, 1991 the United States Congress passed Public Law 102-1 which authorized the use of U.S. military force in the Gulf War.
I was a 21 year old Bible college student approaching my final semester and working at a small photocopy shop in downtown Pasadena, California. If we rewind to January first, I joined the throngs of people who flocked to Colorado Blvd to watch the Tournament of Roses parade. I stood amazed at the revelry as floats covered in a vast array of flower petals and organic materials passed before my eyes. College and high school marching bands filled the downtown corridor with a reverberation of sound and rhythm. With awe and bewilderment I watched a celebration unfold, the likes of which I had never seen outside of our small family tv screen in rural Oklahoma. For a brief moment it seemed the public set aside the stress and fear of the imminence of war.
Two weeks later President George H.W. Bush signed the bill and the news broke. We were officially going to war. An odd and eerie feeling came over me as I pondered the meaning and ramifications of war. Though I was alive for part of the Vietnam war and had family members who had served, I felt that was one of the factors that separated men from boys..but this was different. This war would be fought by people my own age. I later discovered I had friends and family who were deployed to serve in Operation Desert Storm.
I felt different inside, partially numb, partially afraid and largely isolated despite being surrounded by 10 million people. I walked the sidewalk along Colorado Blvd, where the joy and celebration from two weeks before was replaced with a sense of defiance, engulfed in a cacophony of silence. I felt as if I were a spectator, watching as the scene before me unfold in slow motion. In an instant I was jolted out of this almost trance-like state by the sound blaring from a car stereoÖÖWar!...... What is it good for? Absolutely nothing!..Say it again..War!
On that January day in 1991, I was different, my world was different and I knew it would be changed forever. In those days before the internet, news was primarily obtained from TV, newspapers and radio. During my work day I often walked by newspaper stands filled with the Los Angeles Times. The current headlines began to solidify and make real the changes I was feeling. Many of the stands had slots below that held posters for advertisements or additional headline emphasis. One day I passed the stand as a simple yet profound poster caught my eye. It contained white block lettering on a reversed black background. I looked around to see if anyone was watching, slid the poster out of the slot, rolled it up and kept walking.
Little did I know at the time but I would dwell on the profound simplicity of this poster for years to come and still do to this day. While the original context served as a cynical antiwar sentiment, I have often used it like a compass to point me in the right direction.
It is a question with almost unlimited answers and responses and if we fast forward 29 years to today, January 14, 2020 as each of our journeys bring us together to this space, and to this place in time let us ponder. What is the point.
In the constant bombardment of a 24 hour news cycle it doesnít take long to see there has been little to no change in the Middle East as tensions continue to escalate. However, that is not my point today. We all know 29 years is a drop in the bucket of a 5000 year conflict.
I would like to look at a scripture that has been meaningful to me much of my life. In 1 Corinthians 13:12 Paul writes. Now we see but a poor reflection, then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part, then I shall know fully even as I am fully known. I have taken this scripture to say we donít see the whole picture and we donít know the whole picture. In other words we do not see or know as God sees and knows and in time we will see God face to face. This is a fair and safe translation but what if there is more to gain? Paul wrote this to the church in Corinth who had become somewhat out of focus by placing more importance on a couple of spiritual gifts. He brought the point the body is comprised of many parts and all have a place and all have significance. Without each part the body would not function properly.
As an artist, I have spent the majority of my adult life learning how to see. Whether it is repetitious patterns, contrasts of light and dark, or highlight and shadows, it takes time and effort to learn to see what is around us. To illustrate this point have any of you ever seen the sky turn green during the sunset?
(**Also known as a green flash. Here is a description from EarthSky.org. The green flash is the result of looking at the sun through a greater and greater thickness of atmosphere as you look lower and lower in the sky. Water vapor in the atmosphere absorbs the yellow and orange colors in white sunlight, and air molecules scatter the violet light. That leaves the red and blue-green light to travel directly toward you. Near the horizon, the sunís light is highly bent or refracted. Itís as though there are two suns Ė a red one and a blue-green one Ė partially covering each other. The red one is always closest to the horizon, so when it sets or before it rises, you see only the blue-green disk Ė the green flash..)
Another translation says we see in a mirror dimly. This is likely a reference to pieces of polished bronze which at the time were used as mirrors. Stop and think for a minute. What would the world be like if we didnít have mirrors. What or whom would you look at? How many of you looked in the mirror this morning? Can you imagine what it would be like if you didnít know what you looked like? Perhaps more time would be spent seeing those around us and knowing them more completely. Knowing fully as we are fully known.
The translation seeing in a mirror dimly piques my interest. In photography dim lighting can be employed in a variety of ways such as to create mystery, for enhancement, to bring out beauty and delicacy or to hide and minimize faults or blemishes. Even though we like to see fully we donít always like to be seen fully. We often like to dim the lights to blur or hide our own faults. How would it change our outlook if we saw each other fully? Would we still love each other? Would we even continue to like each other?
I would like to finish with another personal story so you may know me more fully. One of my former employers was a rather rigid man who was prejudiced by many things, especially physical appearances. I had just shared a couple of photos of myself from my wedding day with a couple of coworkers. When my wife and I got married, my hair was a little longer than it is now, falling just below my collar and landing at the middle of my back. As we shared the novelty of laughter and disbelief my boss came by the office door. There were times he could have a really good sense of humor and someone asked if he wanted to see a couple of funny pictures of me. I told him I would show him the pictures if he promised they would not change his perception of me. While I was slightly joking, I was a bit surprised he chose not to look at the pictures.
So What is the point? Paul goes on to write in verse 13 now these three remain..faith, hope and love but the greatest of these is love.
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I am a follower of Christ.
After 40 years I am still figuring out what that means.
I donít have all the answers but seek to discern what really matters.
Faith is simple.
Turn on a light switch and the light comes onÖyou just lived by faith.
Even when you canít see the electricity, you know itís there.
Your neighbor is NOT your enemy.
Even if they look or think or sin differently than you,
We all benefit from sun and rain.
Jesus was not a Republican. Nor was he a Democrat or even a Christian.
By earthly measure He began as a Jewish carpenter.
I would like Him to build my house.
Sheep cannot help being sheep because they are sheep.
We continue to protect sacred cows, cast stones.
Meanwhile, hate continues to masquerade as righteousness.
There is more to life than mere paper labels and rhetoric.
I refuse to be bound by the political shackles of either side.
This is not freedom. True freedom is only found in love.
I have a diverse group of friends, family and neighbors.
On any given day I may disagree with most of them.
They are still welcome at my table.
So, if you are hungry, I will give you something to eat.
If you are thirsty, I will give you something to drink.
Jesus saw the crowds and he had compassion. I am still learning this.
If this moves you, feel free to share, if this angers you feel free to move on.
If you feel the need to re-interpret my words please donít
I am still working on loving God and loving my neighbor.
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As I write, I am sitting in my air-conditioned office listening to the din of the air handler. The time is approaching late afternoon, it just cycled off followed by a brief adjustment in the change of air pressure. The sound of silence was traded for the whirring of the cooling fan on my computer. An email notice splits my focus momentarily and I have returned.
I am overcome by a familiar feeling, some may call it depression, for others it may be melancholic. In artistic circles it is often referred to as muse and in spiritual realms, a stirring of the Spirit. Yes, it is familiar. It could be compared to a faded pair of jeans, once your favorite jeans. The most comfortable pair of jeans you have ever worn. Jeans you never want to let go of, only time has left them worn and tattered, exposing parts that may be deemed inappropriate, all the while you constantly strive to keep them hidden. Once again your body is nestled among the seams, partially comforted, while taking the beginning steps of a journey not fully knowing the destination or even direction. Only knowing fully, it must be revealed.
In the quiet of the afternoon, my mind began to wander back through the recesses of my memory as it does frequently. I thought back to an interaction, that had a profound impact on me as a young adult. Allow me to lay the groundwork. I, like many children from young middle-class American families, grew up attending church regularly. Through this upbringing, I became familiar with most of the common stories and lessons found in the Bible. As I approached young adulthood, this familiarity increased as I set out to pursue a life in church ministry. The small church in which I was raised, was my first foray in full time ministry.
I was brought on staff to serve as the youth pastor, which at the time also meant, custodian, and yard maintenance as well. On the outside, I felt reasonably equipped with all the tools necessary to be an effective youth minister. I was young, but not too young. I was dating the young, very pretty Jr/Sr Hi school choir director. I had recently acquired my dream car; a beautiful, blue, 1965 Mustang. My physical appearance was that of a wannabe rock star; long flowing hair, leather jacket, trendy work boots. I was riding a wave of momentum and excitement, trying to make connections with and influence young people in the analog world long before being an influencer was even a thing. On the flipside of all the awesome in my life, I half-heartedly tolerated the additional menial tasks that came with my job. It was certainly less than cool, but I scrubbed toilets and mowed the grass for Jesus. At least that is what I kept telling myself. I was always told menial tasks never hurt anyone; they build character.
While on the wave of my exciting, cool life, an older, single gentleman in the church whom I will call Robert, began coming by the office regularly to talk to me and really anyone else who may have been at the church. He also began calling me at home, often at very inconvenient times. It only took a glance to know Robert had some issues. The first and most obvious was physical. He could walk but wore old style orthopedic leg braces on both legs. Robert was a reasonably tall and lean man, so the addition of the leg braces made it difficult for him to move his knees adequately. This gave him an almost robotic, lurking gate. His personality came across as slightly gruff and stern. The less obvious issue and the possibly the most heartbreaking, took a while to rise to the surface. Robert heard voices. Before you get ahead of me and draw your own conclusion where this is going, I would like you to stop for just a moment. I do believe in demonic possession and deliverance. However, I also believe in untreated mental illness as well as other conditions such as traumatic brain injuries that can impair oneís cognition. Letís save the exorcism for another day. I donít mean to sound callous or unsympathetic. Quite the contrary, I spent many times in prayer for and with Robert crying out to God to heal and restore him. Here is a piece of information I later learned about Robert; I have intentionally withheld to this point. When he was a younger man, Robert had been a construction worker and fell 30 feet from scaffolding. On the way down, the back of his head hit a steel I-beam. Honestly, it is a miracle he even survived.
I was not real sure why this older man began seeking me out. I was the youth pastor and he was clearly not a youth. Just in case you are wondering, I have long since learned when you are ďin ministryĒ the only compartments that may exist are in your own mind. When someone comes in with a need, they donít really care if they are in the correct demographic for your services and attention. Suffice it to say Robert began to really annoy me. There, I said it.
Now, where was I going? Oh, yes. I mentioned menial tasks previously, but I will come out and be a little more concise. I hate yard work! I have always hated yard work and will likely always hate yard work! As a kid I spent countless hours pulling a stupid cord trying to start a stupid mower that may as well have been a stupid tool of Satan himself. It may have taken what seemed like an hour or two to get the mower started and once I did, I would mow like crazy until it would run out of gas only to start the process over again. Unfortunately, not every paragraph can be artistically eloquent. Sometimes you must be honest, own it and tell the truth. By the way, I am still working on building that character.
As I became acclimated to my newfound life as a full-time staff youth pastor, I was taken back to the storage shed behind the church where the lawn maintenance tools were kept. There were a few rakes and shovels hanging neatly from pegs on the walls. A little further back was what appeared to be one of the nicest mowers I had ever seen. It was clean, self-propelled and included the bag. I began to rethink my hatred of yard work. Beside the mower was a nice clean gas can full of fuel, waiting for me to complete my important task of mowing for the kingdom. With joy in my heart, I pulled out the mower, checked the fuel level and checked the oil level as I was taught from my early years. Once determining both were adequate, I set the choke level appropriately, and pulled the cord, and pulled the cord, and pulled the cord, and pulled the stupid cord on the now deemed stupid mower. This would be my Saturday routine for many weeks. I have since learned a little about a small internal combustion engineís need to breath along with the workings of the fuel delivery system and carburation but that isnít really the point.
Summer in the Oklahoma Panhandle is delightful, especially July. That is not right. Allow me to try again. Summer in the Oklahoma Panhandle is balmy and warm, especially July. No, that is not quite right either. Summer in the Oklahoma Panhandle is almost comparable to living in a kiln located on the 17th floor of a blazing towering inferno, especially July. It doesnít matter that it is dry heat. It is all heat all the time accompanied by the delicate breezes that blow just outside that gates of Hell.
It is a random Saturday morning in July and I begin my sacred cord pulling routine and somewhere by early afternoon I am in the middle of mowing the grass. It is blazing hot and not a cloud in the sky. There would not be a cloud in the sky for months and I am diligently providing my service to the kingdom, again with joy in my heart and a great hymn of faith on my lips. The part about it being hot is true.
The July sun is beating down on me and I am feverishly trying to finish mowing the grass before I stroke out. I am about halfway finished with the yard when I see Robert pull up in a parking space and get out of his car. He abruptly called my name a couple times and waved his arm, motioning me to come over to where he was. The only thing I could think was something akin to ďReally? What fresh hell is this? Can he not see I am busy?Ē I reluctantly turned off the mower and lumbered over to where he was parked to see what he needed. You see Robert was not much of a conversationalist so there were usually few pleasantries exchanged. I gave him a half-hearted greeting and he said something gruffly like ďI have something for you. Let me get it out of the car.Ē His issues with mobility caused every movement to be labored and take longer than that of most people. I was trying to muster patience, especially since all I really wanted was to be left alone to finish the yard and go home. He hobbled the few steps from the sidewalk back to his car and he opened the door, rustled a few things around in the front seat and pulled out a small ice chest. As he turned back toward me he stated something to this effect. ďI was driving by and you looked hot. I thought you needed this.Ē He reached into the ice chest, pulled out two cans of off-brand root beer and handed me one. The can, dripping with ice-cold condensation met my hand in a way I had never quite experienced as it began to soften and melt my hardened heart. As we popped open the cans of root beer, there was little to no actual conversation as Robert leaned against the edge of his car hood and I stood there on the sidewalk. At that moment we were just two guys drinking a cold root beer on a hot day, but it was so much more than that for me. For in that moment, I experienced true human compassion as I consumed the coldest, smoothest, sweetest, most satisfying root beer to ever pass my lips. My pride and arrogance dissolved with each sip and by the end of the can were replaced with gratitude and new perspective. I began to see clearly how God can use the simplest means to reveal complexities of the human condition. Once we finished, Robert reached out his hand to take the empty can. I expressed my thanks, we exchanged a see you later, he got back into his car and drove away. I returned to the mower, still hot but refreshed, physically and spiritually. This time with true joy in my heart and a song on my lips. I would go on to have numerous encounters with Robert in the year that followed. Sometimes he would need a ride to the local food pantry on distribution day. Most times he wanted someone to pray for his healing. I would take the time to listen to him with a little more patience and care.
Volumes have been and will continue to be written about the passage of time, distance and life. Phrases like learning life lessons and time heals all wounds take on a totally different meanings now than when I was younger. It has been almost twenty years since I moved away from my hometown. A couple years ago I was looking at the website of the hometown newspaper and came across Robertís obituary. My initial reaction as I read about his life was that of sadness followed shortly after by a warming peace. I imagined in his passing Robert received his healing as he stands and walks unhindered and unfettered in the presence of God almighty. The voices in his head no longer torment his every waking moment as he dwells in the place prepared for him.
Whether we acknowledge it or not we all have a need to experience compassion. Not all life lessons and defining moments are brought forth with fanfare or flashing lights. In fact, very few if any are. You may never know how profoundly the simplest of your actions can impact someoneís life. Here I am almost 25 years later writing about the day a poor, disabled man on a fixed income saw that I was hot and brought me a twenty-two cent can of root beer. As neighbors and fellow travelers on this journey we have the choice to bless or to curse. Are you willing to see as you are seen? There are dozens of illustrations and examples that could be made from this story, and you are free to draw from it what you may. Since this time, I have had many cans of root beer, but none would ever quite measure up and I still count that day as one of the most profound blessings of my life. Yes, I still dislike yard work but still have room to build some character.
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