Thursday, June 25, 2009

Michael, Farrah and Strawberries after dark...

I just came in - 10:56pm - from watering the gardens.

It's been a long day: dissertation, arranging music, swimming lessons, board of directors meeting, director's dinner, movie and of course, watering...

In between all of that Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett died. I guess it really began a few days earlier with Ed McMahon, proving the theory of "threes" - if you buy into those kind of things.

I don't really subscribe to those theories; unless of course it helps you make a bit more sense of life. Life tends to just happen.

But as I watered, tended the garden in the moonlight, I had time to think.

Life is so short and so fragile.

Two of my generation's cherished icons met his and her Maker in the last 24 hours. Farrah Fawcett, star of Charlie's Angels, the dream girl of so many teenage boys in the 1970s, died of cancer. Michael Jackson, pop music icon, "King of Pop", the original star of MTV and his now famous "Thriller" video died of a heart attack. People dying is not an extraordinary occurrence. It is what we do. (Now, people dying "well" - I would say - is an extraordinary occurrence - but that is for another blog!)

What struck me though, as I watered my parched plants, was that these deaths seemed to signal the beginning of an end: an end to my generation. We are succumbing to the ravages of age, disease and foolishness, like every other generation. (Here I stopped watering the corn and moved over to the squash, beans and tomatoes, then kept watering).

[I watched Norma (a young cat), skamper across the lawn about this time. What a beautiful little Siamese I thought, and kept watering.] As I walked across the lawn to another pair of tomato plants and began to water again, I wondered aloud whether Farrah and Michael, in all of their popularity ever really knew love. I wondered if they ever experienced the joy and grace of knowing their Maker here in this world. No - I don't mean - "were they saved?" - just wondering if they knew that joy, love, grace and peace.

I stooped down then to see my little strawberry plants buried amidst the towering tomato plants. Yes, I noticed - as a smile crept across my face in the dark - they were beginning to turn red and plump up... as I stooped to admire those little berries in the dark, Miss Norma silently came and rubbed up against my leg - never meowing - but showing a bit of affection.

Then it struck me: I don't want to miss life. I want to drink every moment of it. I want my family and friends to know how much I love and appreciate them. I want my students and congregants to know how much they are loved, cared for and prayed over. I want to enjoy the heat as much as I enjoy the cool. I want my daughters to know how much their dad loved them to the very end. I want to enjoy every breath and every smell. I would trade all of the dissertations, compositions and professional accolades for one look of love.

I want to look on in wonder at little strawberries after dark.

Requiescat in pace, Michael and Farrah...

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

An Open Letter To A Young Friend

I don't remember not having pain in my life.

The pain of cuts, bruises and doctor's office visits; the pain of sports injuries and bicycle accidents are a part of any young person's life. But the emotional pain of losing people you love is something for which none of us can truly prepare. Indeed, there is nothing more difficult or more painful than coming to terms with losing someone who is important to you. We can tolerate the minor injuries and pains that our body often absorbs. We can even tolerate the pain, or better - humiliation - of failing at a certain task; but the loss of someone we love?

In my 45 years, I have endured the painful loss of many relationships. My parents divorced when I was 12 and it changed my family forever. I had a beloved step-father who died unexpectedly when I was 15 and it too shattered my world. As a pastor, I have been with members of my congregations as they have left this life. These members are never simply numbers, or faceless tithing units - they are people, people I knew well and with which I had a relationship, even friendships... and they are gone. I had a student in one of my Old Testament classes last fall die senselessly in a car accident.

The pain of loss with many of these people was debilitating. I became an emotional wreck; I even made myself sick. I did not know how to respond except with tears and even anger. I was angry at doctors, I was angry at people and I was angry at God. I could not be strong when I thought I should have been... which made me even angrier.

Now that I have experienced these losses, how do I cope when I lose someone to death? How do I cope when an important relationship is broken? This is where what you understand and what you believe becomes everything... read carefully...

1. It is never easy and it always hurts.
As human beings we are created for love and fellowship; and when that communion is broken, it is devastating. This is not God's fault and it is not your fault. The pain of loss shows us that we are alive and fulfilling our purposes - living in love and community. Our pain does not reflect the tragic purposes of an unfair God; rather, it reveals to us the fallen nature of our world. We live in a world of disease and accidents. Our lives are fragile and short. Loss, pain and suffering are consequential to this life.

2. God is there.
We have one purpose in life according to the Westminster Shorter Catechism: "To glorify God and to enjoy Him forever." The God that we glorify and serve does not take joy in loss and pain; quite the opposite. He gave His own Son over to the most painful death and separation ever in order to reconcile all of creation to Himself for eternity. God knows pain and suffering. He lives it everyday in Jesus.
So rather than being absent; God is present with you, right now. Maybe more so than at any other time in your life. He understands and shares your burden. He knows your "heart hurt" and the struggle you are having to be strong. "Yes, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for you are with me" (Psalm 23). God is there and He is sharing your burden.

3. Don't hold back.
Because God is there, you don't have to hold back.
Cry. Let the tears flow: tears of love, tears of pain, tears of uncertainty. Cry. Cry out to God. Ask the "why" question: Why God did this have to happen? As you cry, as you cry out, let Him reach in and hold you.
Love. Love the people around you. Cry with them. Show them your heart. Hold their hands. Hug. Release your pain and your tears to those who are your community. You will find healing in that act.

4. Believe.
You and I were not created for this life alone. You must hold on to that fact. We were created for eternity. What we experience here and now, in time, is but a single breath. This life is the "crucible of love" - It determines our character and destiny in and with God. Those who love God and leave this life early, we will experience again with God. These people have been in our lives for a holy purpose - to show us God; to teach us how to persevere; to reveal and give love to us. We grieve the loss of relationship; but the mourning must turn into joy as we honor a life courageously lived and a life that has so profoundly influenced our own. Understand God's desire for your life now. It will never be a pain free, untroubled existence. If you have loved, you will experience loss and heartbreak. But you will be the person God has designed you to be.

5. Know you are loved.
You have friends who love you. Friends who are there for you. Friends who love you, pray for you and hurt with you. You do not need to be strong. Your God is strong and your friends are there for you. You need to be love.

My dear young friend. It is hard now, but you are not alone. God is there. We are there. This is the circle of life in which we all find ourselves. Our lives are better for the valleys through which we have walked. Do not fear. Only love; and allow God to work in your life.

I have loved much and I have lost much; my prayer is that in the living of this life, I will become the person God has called me to be. I pray that is your heart as well.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

father's day


welcome to father's day and the art of two fingers and one thumb typing. i had dreamed one blog, but am typing another. i am conserving my capital letters for another blog. also its easier and quicker to not use them when several of your fingers are bandaged.

i invited my father and step mom down this weekend for father's day. i wanted it to be a special time, where son took care of dad. it started well with dinner and a movie friday. saturday he helped me with some overdue house maintenance, that is until my middle digits on my left hand tried to make friends with a rotating chain saw blade. oops. hey, did you know that the most expensive jewelry you will ever wear is an emergency room bracelet? well, after my accident, my wife and kids finished helping my dad. the weekend should end well though... no more sharp objects for me for awhile as a friend told me!

to the point though...

father's day is important. it has been an afterthought to mother's day recently, but that needs to change. far too often we hear about "deadbeat dad's" and "absentee father's." Men have bought into the cultural myth that mother's rear children while father is the breadwinner that has neither time nor patience to get involved with children... or worse, that men are unnecessary past the donation of dna to the basic process. in our reductionist age, where biology seems to have the upper-hand in determining human value and relations, women become monogamous nurturers who ovulate once a month and men become the irrepressible, irresponsible, polygamous seed sowers. but is that the final word?

created in God's image, past simple biology, the behavior of human beings has other determining factors. we have intellectual, spiritual and moral capacities as well. we are created for community - and that begins with family. we have the great privilege of choosing our mates. we do have the ability to restrain our reproductive urges; and, dads, we can and must be more than dna donors in our world!

children need fathers to which they can look up as much as they need mothers. they need fathers that model healthy love to their mothers. they need fathers that aren't afraid to show emotion, exercise their intellect and who will worship God unashamed.

children need dads who aren't consumed with being their 'buddies' but who will walk the straight and narrow way for them and with them.

So, man, pick-up the mantle. Understand who you were created to be. Be the man and father our world and your children needs; because when you are gone... the only legacy that you will leave, is your children.

Friday, June 19, 2009


Woke up this morning.

Put on the coffee.

Fed the pets.

Poured cup of coffee.

Read Scripture.

Turned on phone.

Turned on computer:
checked home page, my two email accounts and facebook page.

And now I am blogging.

In the 45 years that I have been alive, the world has changed tremendously. Technology has multiplied at such a rate that you almost need a separate college major, just to keep up with the advances. I realized that today when - as saavy as I attempt to be - I realized that I do not yet 'twitter'... 'Twitter'? Huh???

Now I email, I have a cell phone, I have a three computers in my home, I have a blog, I have access to three email accounts, I "google" and now, do I have to 'twitter'? I thought that was something that birds did.... but then I found out (on mind you) that Lindsay Lohan 'twittered' a racy photo of her person to the world. Another friend of mine has invited me to 'twitter' as well - and I thought he wanted me to whistle! Goodness!

Now before you get the idea that I am an enemy of technology, progress or don't want the Iranians to communicate their displeasure to the outside world through the latest gadgets.... that's not true. I like progress and gadgets. I am glad that technology is enabling social systems to change. But I am concerned on two fronts.

First, technology has become a self-sustaining economic entity causing the rise and fall of fortunes, and thus is an integral part of the health or dysfunction of our world economic system. All of the world must now be wired to survive. If one cannot afford the latest technology, then he or she must settle for less. Technology in the West then tends to form an economic caste system of its own, separating the 'haves' from the 'have nots' and thus marginalizing those who cannot 'connect'.

Second, a person becomes an outcast - a dalit or untouchable - if you choose not to be technologically connected or simply cannot afford to technologically connect. Communications technology has caused a massive shift in how human beings in the West - or any 'first world' culture - relate to one another. 'Texting', 'twittering', 'emailing', 'facebooking' and other "actual presence not required" communications mediums have replaced face-to-face or even voice-to-voice contact as the preferred method of relating.

And here is the problem: There is now a whole generation of American youth who do not know how to express their feelings, their 'self' in person, face-to-face. So, they post their pleasure or displeasure on facebook, on a blog, or now simply 'twitter' it. Now, again, before you think I am anti-technology, let me say this is not the case: what I am concerned about is how we have invested ourselves into it.

As my friend Stan Grenz so wonderfully phrased it, human beings are "created for community": community with the Creator, each other and the rest of creation. We are created to speak with God, make intimate relationships with each other and to stop, look at and smell the roses. If used without conviction and restraint, technology can rob us of the authentic relationships for which we are created. Through the various communication mediums we employ, we can represent ourselves as something other than what we are and what we feel. We don't have to do that... but more often than not, we do. It is a self-defense mechanism. We don't want to take the risk of being turned down or rejected, so we ever-so-slightly misrepresent ourselves through technology to "give the impression" we want... technology has just made it that simple. On the other hand, communications technology has also made it easier for us to break relationships and to hurt people. We no longer have to confront people in person with our decisions. We can text or email them with our decisions 'to break-up', to quit or to voice our protest. The safety is in that we don't have to face the other person's response. We don't have to see his or her humiliation, hurt or pain. We don't have to experience the implications of our own actions...

This past May, I was attending commencement as a faculty member at my university. After the ceremony, the faculty gathers outside the door in full regalia to greet the new graduates and their parents for pictures and goodbyes. As the graduates and their families began to disperse, I noticed a young woman and a young man waiting for me patiently. Both were students at HPU and the young lady in particular had been in several of my classes. They both wanted to say goodbye as they left for the summer. We spoke, smiled and laughed. The young man shook my hand and the young lady gave me hug. I think there were a few tears, but happy ones. My heart smiled.

I am not anti-technology; I am pro human. I need to hear voices, see faces and smell roses... and so do you. We cannot avoid the pain in life, and we desperately need to cultivate the joy of relationships. Let your technology serve you, rather than the other way around. Grace.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Life is...

a journey.

We are on a "sojourn" - a temporary stay - on this earth. At least that is what our 'beliefs' or our theology tells us. If this is true, then life is a journey with a beginning (birth), a midway point (physical death) and, if you are a Christ-follower, an eternal destiny. Most people focus on the time between birth and physical death, and rightly so. Our time on this earth as persons is precious, since it dictates how it all will culminate in eternity. Will we fulfill the intention of our Creator during this sojourn, or will we disregard it? Either way, our lives are journeys; measured in time. What we do on this sojourn is up to us.

what you make of it.

Although early in life - as children, teens and young adults - we are shaped by forces that are beyond our control (parents, sickness, crime, government), we eventually reach a point where we control our own lives. We choose where and how we live. We get to decide by what ethic we will live and what our goals will be. There comes a point where we can blame no one but ourselves for our life's predicaments. Life is what you make of it. Many of my students are graduating from college and moving out of the family home. They are renting apartments, getting married and finding jobs. But your life is more than financial and relational independence. The question now is, "What will you do with this life that God has given you?"

too short.

The older I get, the shorter the days, weeks and years become. I was in such a hurry to arrive at certain markers (i.e. graduations, marriage, driving!) that I set a tempo in my life that is unrelenting. Now I realize that this earthly segment of our lives is special; it must be lived, inhabited and we must be present in it every moment - enjoying every morsel - for tomorrow is coming.

too long.

1996. I visited my grandma Ida in the nursing home outside of Tulsa, Oklahoma. She vaguely remembered me. She was the first female pharmacist in the state of Oklahoma. She had lived long and seen much in her life. By this time, she had been a widow for 30 years. As we sat together, she asked me a question that still reverberates in my mind: "Jay, why has God not taken me? I have no one left..." Life can be too long. We are created for community and when we no longer have that capacity, it's time...

to be enjoyed.

We are growing fruits and vegetables in our backyard. Melissa is growing vegetables and I am focusing on the fruits - grapes and berries. Melissa is sensible and I am, well, indulgent. She works hard weeding, trimming, watering, fertilizing and nurturing. At the end of that hard work lies squash, tomatoes, okra, corn, cucumbers, cantaloupe, beans, peas, strawberries, blackberries and table grapes. We will enjoy the blessing of the garden.

But life is more than food and work. It's people: relationships, laughter and love. It's about building friendships where laughter is the fruit of our labor. Where solace is found during the painful moments and joy is found in the rest. Lives - our persons - are to be shared with others and to be enjoyed in the making of memory...


I wish this were not true, but things are not right in our world. There is suffering, pain and death. The difficult moments in life are found in the navigation of the shoals in our world. Things don't always go our way. We love and our love is refused. We give and our gifts are spurned. We become ill and our life expectancy is shortened. We have accidents. We lose people we love and that loss is keenly and painfully experienced. To live life, to savor every moment means that there will be times when we taste the bitterness of disappointment, loss and death. But in those moments, we are shown more clearly than ever, the privilege of living.


Although our pain stands out, it is the joy upon which we must focus. We were created to live in joy, not in pain - though pain is inevitable. Joy isn't exclusively the emotion that drives us to the mountain top of happiness. More often than not, joy is smelling a whiff of honeysuckle; or reveling in the laughter of a baby; or being able to hold the hand of someone you love. Joy is walking through the backyard with no shoes on... Joy is being able to sing, off-key, your favorite worship song... Joy results from living before God a life that is pleasing to Him...


To live in awe and wonder of who God is and what God has done for us. Life is beautiful in that we are pierced through by His grandeur - His grace and glory. Our lives our beautiful when we become like "shining foil shook" - reflections of the divine grace and glory.

to be love.

We cannot avoid love in living. To avoid love in living, is to die prematurely. There are many people who live life with infirmities that most others do not possess; yet they live richer lives than we. Why is this? They understand that life is not encapsulated in physical, emotional or economic success. Every human being, no matter infirm or limited they might be has one universal capacity: they are able to love. The woman in the wheelchair, the child who is bound by multiple sclerosis as well as the man who has cancer often times understand love and share it more than the professional who has health and economic means. Many of us will say that we love, but do we? Love is without condition. Love does not expect. Love does not harbor bitterness. And in the end, the one thing that will matter is did we live our lives as love. 


Monday, June 15, 2009

Today the beautiful journey begins...

This is my first blog under this title. In recent years I have hosted several blogs, but my hope is that this one will stick. My intention with "Sojourn" is simply to chronicle my own theological journey. Hopefully, you - my readers - will glean spiritual "tidbits" from this chronicle that will benefit your own journey. May God open all of our eyes as we make the "beautiful journey" together!