Archive for February 2022

The Half-Full Glass of Hope

February 26, 2022

“So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” (2 Corinthians 4:18)

Recent events, challenges, and heartaches have dehydrated the perspective of many folk. In their eyes the glass is already half-empty and has a crack in the bottom. It’s understandable. COVID-19, restrictions on what people could and can do, drastic changes in how the education of our kids and youth are conducted, Washington uncertainty, rising costs, and now the Russian invasion of Ukraine that causes people to wonder if the world is about to blow apart.

It’s challenging to see that the glass is half-full. Some people say that I’m simply optimistic in an age of overwhelming pessimism. I can understand that, but I would reshape the understanding of my optimism as being hope-filled faith in the One who is so all-knowing that He can count the hairs on my head, all-loving that He holds me in the palm of His hand, always-present walking closely beside me, and all-powerful in that He can change the direction of the world and restore the wounded to health.

In a half-empty mentality, the Russian invasion is the bitter icing on a sour cake. It’s a punch in the gut that causes folk to double over in pain and disbelief. In the half-full view, I believe that the One Who created the universe is still looking at the moment He will refill the glass, that the unsettling of the world’s events does not change what God is about.

In our life journeys, there are times, some brief and some long, when having faith is a struggle, a slow walk in sinking sand. It’s as if our vision in the Unseen disappears and we’re not sure if He is still there. I compare it to the Saturday of Holy Week. Jesus has been crucified and then laid in the tomb. Sunday, and it’s proclamation of new life and new hope hasn’t arrived yet. Saturday was confusing, depressing, a day of soul-searching. It’s difficult to see the hope in the midst of the day between the emergence of calamity and the arrival of resolution.

As we scan the history of mankind we’re reminded that there have been a multitude of “Saturdays”. Hope, however, is in the glass.

Yesterday I attended the funeral of a man from our small town church who recently passed away from COVID. A Vietnam veteran who experienced some of the horrors of that “Saturday sorrow”, he had found new life in Jesus. As the chaplain stood by his hospital bed in my friend’s final hours, the soon-to-be-departed took a notepad and, since he no longer was able to speak, he wrote the words slowly but confidently “It is well with my soul!”

His glass, in a spiritual and eternal sense, was about to be overflowing with the glory of the Lord.

A Losing Perspective

February 20, 2022

“For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.” (Matthew 16:25)

Twice in the Gospel of Matthew Jesus talks about the necessity of losing in order to find, losing in order to gain. His message was counter-cultural then and would be greeted with scoffing and shaking heads now. After all, losing is for losers, right? Why attempt anything if you’re not going to end up on top?

Jesus’ words were focused on the thought-line of surrender. Surrendering means giving up control, losing the control. It’s taking my hands off the steering wheel and letting someone else, the One, direct and drive me. (Side note: I confess that I’ve noticed my uneasiness when I sit in the passenger seat and my wife is driving the car. I’m impatient and irritable, feeling every bump in the pavement! There, I admitted it!)

The Winter Olympics had brought the issue of losing to the news spotlight again. Sports Illustrated predictions on who was supposed to win and place in each event or team competition did not play out much of the time. Long on-air discussions on what happened to certain athletes who lost, consumed much of the broadcasts. The disappointment was evident in the commentators’ voices. The viewer got the impression that losing was either unpatriotic or the result of unfairness in the competition.

The reality, and the basis for many life lessons, is that we all lose, and losing reminds us that we’re not all that! Sometimes we need to lose in order to gain perspective. Losing shows how grounded we are, and whether we can accept being humbled. My college basketball team was 4-22 in my senior year. We were experienced in the art of humility. But I learned so much during that season about supporting one another, striving to be a better player, and the bond of brotherhood. In our situation losing brought us closer together instead of pulling us apart.

I was watching an episode of The Andy Griffith Show a few days ago that was actually the seed thought for this writing. Andy’s son Opie was in a 50-yard dash race. He dreamed of winning the race and having a medal pinned to his shirt. Barney Fife, the Sheriff’s deputy who often pretends he knows it all, trained Opie for the three days or so leading up to the race. Opie, however, finishes fourth out of four, and stalks off, refusing to congratulate the winning runner. His dad is disappointed in him, not for losing but rather for his conduct after losing. His dad tells him that no one wins all the time and it’s how we act following a loss that is a telling feature of who we are. It takes Opie a day to let the message of his dad’s words soothe over the misery and anger of defeat. Finally, he comes to Andy and tells him that his heartache is about his father’s disappointment.

There is a long list of things in life that are more important than winning. For us to admit that, however, means taking our hands off the steering wheel and losing the power that we thirst to always have. In essence, it’s not it means to be a follower of Jesus, not the one that Jesus follows.

Telltale Signs of a Sixth-Grade Classroom

February 19, 2022

It’s been a week where I’ve been surrounded by sixth-grade students. On different days I covered all of their core classes: Science, math, language arts, and social studies. Roughly, the same 55 students each day, most dressed in interesting outfits either carefully thought through or whatever was on top of the pile when they arose from bed. In fact, I suspect a few of them wore what they had slept in.

If someone walked into a classroom he would soon figure out that it contained sixth-graders. You see, a sixth grade classroom has certain telltale signs that give it away, like a Wheel of Fortune puzzle where all the key indicator letters are filled in and anyone can figure out the rest. Sixth grade classrooms are like that.

Here are the clues I discovered this week.

The Noisemaker: There’s the kid who makes unnecessary sounds and little comments, like popping or clipping sounds with his mouth and tongue, or the kid who thinks his pencil is a drumstick, or the girl who giggles like a hyena, or the boy who likes to take advantage of the fact that his chair squeaks whenever he shifts his weight.Or, I can’t forget this one, the kid who brings some kind of snack with a noisy wrapper. If it was a movie theatre that usher with the flashlight would be constantly busy spotlighting the noisemakers.

The Brainiac: There will always be the student who knows everything, wants to answer any question, and set other students straight on their incorrect understanding. The thing is…he usually is right…but never gets invited to birthday parties!

The Walking Disaster: Every class has at least one student who’s notebook or binder looks like an explosion happened within it. Papers are hanging out in every direction. He’s like Pig Pen from the Peanuts comic strip. But instead of dirt and mud trailing along behind him, the Walking Disaster leaves a trail of paper, pencils, candy wrappers, and have a computer charging cord following like a dog leash. His shoestrings are flapping along and he frequently asks if he can return to his last class to retrieve something that he has forgotten.

The Red Buller: She has not necessarily had two cans of Red Bull that morning, but her hyper-ness gives the observer the impression it has been here breakfast. She can’t stop talking, erupting his attention-getting comments at just the right time to cause an evacuation from the lesson plan of the day. The threat of lunch detention works for about five minutes and then the Red Bull-effect surfaces again. When you see this student in the hallway during passing periods you realize this is how she is ALL DAY LONG!

The Quiet-As-A-Mouse Kids: They don’t stand out because they never say a word, make a sound, or even move! When any of them are asked a question the response is a usually an indecipherable whisper that not even the speaking kid can hear. They never ask to be allowed to go to the restroom or get a drink of water because that would require movement from their glued-to-the chair position. The teacher never has to worry about them, which causes the teacher to worry about them.

The Future Pro Athlete: Every sixth grade classroom has the kid who wears nothing but the jerseys of sports teams. Monday is a LeBron jersey, complete with wristbands; Tuesday is Tom Brady day…from his years as a Patriot; Wednesday is dress down day to a Duke Blue Devils t-shirt; Thursday is Max Scherzer baseball day; and Friday is patriotic USA Dream Team jersey day. And then the teacher watches the future pro athlete playing football with a group of students at lunch one day and realizes the kid can’t catch a cold!

I had all of these “personalities” this past week and more. And here’s the thing! I enjoyed it…mostly! 95% of my students were awesome, made me smile and laugh, and gave me hope about the coming generation. Yes, there was the 5% that caused me to grind my teeth at night, but the 95% full of personality and distinctiveness will carry me forward.

And now I start a two-month teaching gig for an 8th grade language arts teacher who have birth to her first child yesterday. I’m getting prepared to be harassed for my wardrobe, lack of knowledge about their favorite musicians, and total lack of understanding of certain words that they use. None of them say “groovy” and know who Three Dog Night is. They’ll look at me like I’m hopeless and make me feel like…a sixth-grader!

Fashion Critiqued by a Middle Schooler

February 13, 2022

I didn’t know. Somewhere along my journey I hadn’t been informed about how to wear a polo shirt. I suppose I could blame it on the fact that I have never subscribed to GQ magazine or stopped to look at the picture posters in the men’s sections of Penney’s, Target, or Dilliard’s. For several years of my life the wardrobe selections I chose from had mostly come from the Last Chance store of Dilliard’s located in Phoenix. Last Chance is the gathering spot for all the returned, and looking suspiciously used, merchandise the company receives.

So, the eighth grade student was simply trying to educate me on one of the missing links of my lifelong learning. The shirttails of polo shirts, he informed me, were not to be tucked into my pants. They were to be worn loose.

“Oh,” was my initial response.

“Yes, hanging out. Tucking your shirt in looks…” He paused considering what descriptive term he would end the sentence with. “…not cool!”

“Not cool?”

“Old, weird, nerdy,” he added. This from a student who is already taking calculus at the high school located next to our middle school.

“But I’ve always tucked my shirt in!” I exclaimed, sounding like a courtroom defendant.

“Yes, well…”

“I’d feel almost undressed with my shirttail hanging out. And besides, this is coming from a generation that thinks sagging is a fashion style.”

“You look a little too much charter-schoolish with it tucked into your pants.”

“What about button-down shirts? Those should be tucked in, right?”

“Not really.”

I did a quick review of the fashion warnings of my lifetime. There was the time I wore jeans that were too short and was teased for having my Noah jeans on. And there was the time I wore white socks with loafers…dumb-looking! And black socks with tennis shoes in my 8th grade basketball team picture, the only kid who had a different colored sock on besides white! And there time I wore an out-of-style sportcoat for a couple of years for Sunday church services before someone told me it should be given to our kids whenever they wanted to play “dress-up”!

But the only times I’ve worn my shirttail out was when it was too small and short to tuck in. And now a straight-A 8th grader has given me the news that I stand out like a sore thumb.

So I went into the staff restroom and untucked it and felt like students were looking at me even more than they had evidently been looking at me. At the end of the next class I went back into the restroom and tucked it back in…and felt normal again!

Half-and-Half Communion

February 12, 2022

Perhaps it’s a sign of my traditionalistic tendencies, dating back to Central Baptist Church in Winchester, Kentucky in the late 50s…or my habit of adding creamer to my coffee (Hold on to that one!)…or my understanding of Scripture, the early church, and the community elements of the Body of Christ. In other words, I’m trying to rationalize my uncomfortableness with the road my life has traveled so far, and how I’m used to things being a certain way.

Okay! Here it is! I have misgivings about church communion being performed with little cups that resemble those half-and-half creamers for my coffee. You know, the mini-sized wafer on top and two drops of grape juice inside the cup! It’s just…just…so un-special, like buying generic at Walmart.

I understand the rationale for it: safer for these pandemic times, doesn’t consume a lot of time, and you don’t have to worry about dropping the tray and spattering the lady wearing the brightly-colored, flowered dress. Larger churches can distribute the half-and-half easily as people enter the sanctuary and there’s minimal clean-up afterward.

The positive aspects of half-and-half communion also make my inners itch. The fact that it helps keep the worship service to an American hour rubs up against my desire to slow down and contemplate the meaning of the elements and the memory of Jesus’ last supper evening.

At the small church I attend most Sundays and speak at once or twice a month, communion is a Body-building experience. For a while we had people come forward and pick up their elements at the front of the sanctuary, but now we’ve returned to passing out the tray of bread (Ry-Krisp crackers!) and then the tray of communion cups. In the communion experience I need time to think about grace, forgiveness, sacrifice, who I am and God still loves me.

The United Baptist church (A contradiction in terms, kinda like jumbo shrimp!) my grandparents were a part of in rural eastern Kentucky observed communion only once every three months, not because it wasn’t important, but rather to make it stand out as being even more significant. Most Sundays they had communion they also had a foot-washing service…another part of that Upper Room story.

I’ve got a little Lutheran in my blood in that I like how they make the eucharist the focus of their worship and observe it each week.

But back to the half-and-half creamers! I’m afraid our disconnectedness from our spiritual roots will obscure the understanding of Jesus’ last meal more and more. I can envision a grandpa sitting with the grandkids and saying something like, “Back in the old days, we used to PASS OUT little cups and pieces of bread ON TRAYS!” The grandkids eyes would get big and one of them would reply, “Grandpa, you used to do it THAT WAY?”

Okay, maybe we won’t get to that point…at least in our lifetime! I am, however, having nightmares of accidentally pouring my half-and-half communion juice into my cup of coffee!

Praying Offense

February 5, 2022

“Someone praying for you causes your problems to realize they have a challenger.”

The game of basketball has a multitude of offensive schemes and set plays. Some teams operate with all five players on the perimeter and look for back cuts, on and off ball screens, and mis-matches. Other teams, because of size factors use systems that depend upon ball control and patience, while others with speed look to push the tempo. Coaches look to figure out what gives them the best chance at success. What worked best for Brad Underwood at Stephen F. Austin does has not necessarily fit with his personnel at Illinois. The objective is to score more points than the other team. The method of that offense is secondary.

In each of the books of my novel series Red Hot, prayer is an offensive weapon used to battle illness, tragedy, bullies, and death. In fact, Maggie Bowman, the mother of Randy “Red Hot” Bowman is requested to pray for the eyesight problems that young Ethan Thomas has by Ethan himself. He tells her, in his opinion, she is the closest thing to Jesus. He says, “…so I figured it would almost be like the Great Physician…” Maggie replies, “Ethan, I’m flattered, but it’s not the person who’s praying that makes a difference; it’s the power of prayer.” (Red Hot: New Grace in Fleming, page 302)

Just as a good offense in basketball causes the defense to be back on their heels, uncertain and retreating, prayer charges at the dominion of darkness.

I’ll never know how many prayers were said for me, prayers for protection, wise decision-making, and courageous leadership, but I know my life has been undergirded and moved forward on the backs of prayerful people. On the other side, I realize that I’ve doubted the power and purpose of prayer at times. Like a poor foul shooter stepping to the line, there comes into play not only the confidence of his teammates, but the confidence he has in completing the shot.

How often is it that we sense something supernatural going on around us? Sometimes we’re the prayer and sometimes we’re the prayed-for. In the past week there’s been several names added to my list of people to be lifted in prayer: My friend during my middle school years, Terry Kopchak, who I mention in the Foreword of the above named book; Pastor Rob Jones of Beulah Baptist Church in Proctorville, Ohio; the family of “Scooter”, the 50-year-old woman who passed away recently and whose parents I sat beside on the flight from Charlotte to Dallas; the family of Professor Robert Erickson, who passed away at the age of 90 (the last living original professor of Judson University); John and Sheri Metli, dear saints of Simla who has been ill; and Katie from Simla, whose husband recently passed away; and just this morning at Starbucks, the wife of my coffee buddy, Richard, who is dealing with an undiagnosed ailment. And then there’s the son of one of my Timberview teaching friends who had a dreaded but necessary knee surgery this past Thursday.

I could go on and on as I sit here pecking on the keyboard. The names keep coming, but not nearly of the same quantity as prayers that have been said on my behalf.

Offensive prayer. I realize that people are offended by a slew of things these days, but rarely is someone offended by being prayer for. As it should be!

Placed in The Right Spot

February 3, 2022

“He refreshes my soul. He guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake.” (Psalm 23:3)

God has a way of orchestrating a new song even when our hearing is cluttered with noise. That’s just how He is, ready to dumbfound us with the creation of a new chapter in our stories. Sometimes that new creation is resembling of the plot twist of a suspenseful novel or a tear-jerking love story. With our nearsighted vision we miss the signs, stumbling along the path, until suddenly there is a clearing, a clear moment of revelation and discovery.

And so it was on the second of my three flights as I head back to Colorado Springs from Ohio, the plane that would take me from Charlotte to Dallas situated in Seat 20A. My boarding group was 7 out of 9, always a mystery to me since I would be plopping down in the seat by the window. An older African-American couple was already in B and C as I finally made my way down the aisle pathway. I apologized for having to make them get up so I could scoot in. They didn’t mind so we took a few moments to get ourselves settled and resettled.

It didn’t take us long to start chatting. I told the lady, the rose between two thorns if you will, to nudge me if I started snoring, and the fact that I’d arisen at 4 AM to go to Tri-State Airport in Huntington, West Virginia. It broke the ice, so to speak, and we started gabbing about life. I told her that I had flown back to Huntington to surprise my sister for her 70th birthday, and then I asked if they lived in Dallas. She replied, “No, we live in Charlotte.”

“Going to visit family in Dallas?”

“Going back for our daughter’s funeral.”

Such words came out unexpected to my hearing. “Oh, I’m so sorry!” I paused, searching for the next words to say. “Was it unexpected?”

“Cancer. Three years, and then the Lord took her home.”

“Having a child go before you, that’s not how it’s suppose to be.”

“Yes, but she blessed a lot of lives and now she’s in the Lord’s hands.”

“Almost three years to the day I was on a plane back to Huntington for my dad’s last day before he passed.”

“How old was he?”

“Four months shy of 90.”

“Isn’t that something? My dad passed three last spring three months shy of his ninetieth!

“What is your daughter’s name?” She whispered her name through the veil of her face mask and I didn’t quite understand what she said so I said, “I’m sorry. What was it?”

She pointed to the front of her face mask. It had a picture of her daughter and her name. “Scooter. We called her Scooter.”

“I’ll be praying for you as you celebrate her life and grieve her loss.”

“Her life was a testimony for the Lord, and we know she is rejoicing in His glory.”

“For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain,” I said, quoting my favorite verse from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. We talked some more about Scooter and the memories. I found out that the lady had been a special education teacher and would be subbing for those amazing kids when she returned to Charlotte. I told her about my wife working with the same set of students and how she taught pre-school deaf kids when she got out of college. We marveled at God putting me in the seat beside her, the first and last time we would meet this side of Glory, to taught about life, death, and hope in the midst of death.

As they rose from their seats to exit the plane, I reiterated that I’d be praying for them as they gathered with Scooter’s friends and husband the next day and then escorted her remains back to Charlotte. She looked at me, grasped my hand, and said, “And may the Lord bless you!”

Sometimes God puts you in the seat next to the window not to look out, but to listen to the one sitting on your right.