WHY ME, LORD?

We passed and nodded to each other as I exited the Bo Jangles restaurant, the WWII veteran who stormed Normandy on that longest day long ago. He’s gone now, laid to rest with so many of that greatest generation. He raised two sons here, one of whom helped start the Church I serve, and the other I met in Georgia, who connected me with that Church. I’ve had the privilege to know and be mentored by others, WWII and Korean War vets, men who lived a hundred lives in combat before mine ever began. Also, the Vietnam veterans I’ve come to know over the years, some of whom became dear friends.

Why me, Lord? Why was I born between the wars, after Korea, just before Nam? Why did I come of age after it ended, before I could be drafted? I think often of those men and those wars, as well as the men and women of the generation behind me, who’ve been fighting since 9-11, and though I honor them I am also thankful that I did not have to endure combat.

A photo from 2005 rests on the shelf in my office. I’m surrounded by Papuans, reading a Ketengban Bible. A mere thirty years prior they were still stone-age cannibals, living naked in the mountains, killing and being killed, scared of the spirits inhabiting every shadow.

Why me Lord? Why was I not born six thousand feet up the side of an equatorial mountain, child of spear-wielding cannibals? I think about my Ketengban friends, about how far they must travel, generation’s worth, before they will ever have anything like the life I’ve known.

I also think of Jackie, Randy, Doug, and others born ten years or more before me, who limp through life with great difficulty and never without a crutch, each afflicted with polio.

Why me Lord? Why was I born after the discovery of the polio vaccine and other such life-saving treatments?

I could go on and on, but I think you get my drift. I was born in the best country on earth, at the best time on earth, to some of the best people on earth, in one of the best climates on earth, in the most prosperous economy on earth, under the best health care system on earth, equipped with the best Bible scholarship on earth in order to have what I have and do what I do on earth. And so were most of you.

What are we to make of all of that? Only this: Give thanks for the providence of God and let it cause you to seek him and help others do the same.

From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us.[1]

Happy Thanksgiving!

[1] The Holy Bible: New International Version. 1984 (Ac 17:26–27). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

FIND YOUR MARGIN: How to Put Back In What Life Takes Out

A young friend, and when I say young I mean thirty years younger than I am, recently confessed that he had said yes to so many things that he finally had to say no to a regularly scheduled workday.

“I’ve found that when you have construction skills you also have lots of friends with projects that need your help,” he said. “I became so wrung out that I had to shut down for a day. I wasn’t sick, but I was going to be if I didn’t rest.”

Richard Swenson, M.D., author of the book MARGIN wrote: Something is wrong. People are tired and frazzled. People are anxious and depressed. People don’t have the time to heal anymore. There is a psychic instability in our day that prevents peace from implanting itself very firmly in the human spirit.

Swenson calls the problem marginless living. “Margin,” he says, “is the amount allowed beyond that which is needed.”

Jesus understood better than most the need for margin. He called it Sabbath. To Jesus the Sabbath was not created for its own sake; it was a gift of God to man. Its purpose was not to put man in a kind of straight jacket. It was for his good–to provide rest from labor and opportunity for worship. (Mark 2:27).

We work in a world cursed by sin. That makes work difficult and draining. It taxes us spiritually, emotionally, and physically. Sabbath compensates us for the energy we spend dealing with the challenges of living with frail bodies in a fallen world.

Fatigue, I have learned, is incremental. It is also cumulative, building up unrecognized in our souls until we become ill or have a nervous breakdown. We know we are tired, but we don’t know we are impaired, skating along the edge of physical and psychic burnout.

We need Sabbath time. It restores us.

Pastoral work doesn’t require much in the way of physical labor. But it does demand a lot of psychological energy and careful concentration on multiple strands of information, multiple relationships. It is stress inducing. Motorcycling on roads like the Blue Ridge Parkway (BRP) and Cherohala Skyway is one of the things that restore me. The physical exertion of wrestling a six-hundred pound bike through the mountains at speed, the concentration required to keep it on the road, and the sheer joy of experiencing grass, tree, granite and sky in beautiful combination puts something back in that work takes out. It drains me physically but restores me spiritually. It helps me think about things that the normal flow of life prohibits.

God wants us to be strengthened by the gift of Sabbath, but like so many gifts we have to learn to use it. Often all that is needed is the setting aside of a day, like Sunday, for worship and celebration and rest. But sometimes we need more than that. I find Sabbath on two wheels on the BRP. Where do you find it?

Sabbath is one of the best things you can do for your soul and your body. For, when a man or woman is not resting, he is not reflecting, she is not thinking about the things that are most important in life, he’s not thinking about what he’s investing his precious, limited time and energy in. More importantly he or she is not putting back in what life takes out.

BAGPIPE BLESSINGS

Fog deep and cool shrouded the road and the massive, borrowed 1975 Lincoln Continental that we drove down the mountain. It was the morning of our marriage, a day or two into our honeymoon near Banner Elk, North Carolina. I could barely see past the hood ornament, doing my best to follow the yellow lines a few feet at a time, wondering if I should turn around.

That’s when we heard the music; bagpipes? Yes, unmistakably, bagpipes, the sound rising from the mists, enchanted. We could not see the player until we were almost on top of her, the fog and the switchbacks conspiring to keep the young lass from view until suddenly; there she stood on a small rise, in front of an old stone church barely visible, surrounded by tombstones, blowing a blessing on us. The road curved again and just as suddenly she was gone, the notes of Amazing Grace trailing after our tail lights.

We looked at each other and smiled in awe and wonder at the sweetness, that God would give us such a gift on such a day.

Many days have passed with many mountains sweet and valleys bitter, between that one and this and I see that drive as a metaphor. Life unwinds before us, a mountain road in the morning mists. We get glimpses here and there of the highlands and of cool meadows near rushing streams, feel the blessing of those things, and are drawn by them to take the journey. But mostly, like the lass on the hill, they show up unexpected; bagpipe blessings blowing in the breeze. We cannot see beyond the hood ornament, we do not know what waits around the next bend.

Live long enough and we will meet with bitter disappointments, hurts too deep to bear. If we had known they were coming, we would have turned around, never taken that road. Having retreated, however, we would have missed the bagpipe blessings, the sweet things hiding in the morning mists.

The lessons? Never fear the fog, to live the life God has called you to, to take the journey into the unknown even when you cannot see past the hood ornament. Never linger in the bitter curves, the painful unexpected turns of life. Keep moving, keep trusting, and keep listening, for you do not know what blessings lay hidden in the mists.

We found that little stone church again last week on our vacation. Thirty-two years, many mountains and valleys later, we remain blessed by God, enchanted by grace, and following his road. May he give us thirty-two more.

SLOWLY SERIOUS SUMMER READING

Some of our lives speed up in the summer. I’m thinking of my farming friends who are already working well before sunup and late into the evening this time of year. But some of us, thankfully, get a chance to slow down and recharge.

Few things refresh my batteries like a good book slowly absorbed in the shade of long summer day. I like to begin the season with fun stuff that helps me completely disconnect from everyday life, and slowly work my way toward more serious titles.  If you’re looking for some good summer reading, here are my favorites from the last twelve months.

A Man Called Intrepid – by William Stevenson. Ever wondered how Churchill managed to outwit the NAZIS, engage the aid of a war-resistant America, and snatch victory from the jaws of defeat in history’s greatest conflict? Wonder where the American CIA got its start? How Ian Fleming created James Bond? The biography of Sir William Stephenson, (no relation to the author, whose surname is spelled with a “v”) is the most fascinating non-fiction account I’ve ever read of a global intelligence operation. Personally code named Intrepid by Churchill himself, Stephenson, who was an air-combat veteran of WWI, a scientist, engineer, and wealthy industrialist, risked his life and his personal fortune to help not only Great Britain, but America set up and run the spy rings and covert ops that were essential elements of Allied victory in WWII. Reading it is not only entertaining, but also an excellent education in the geopolitics of the mid twentieth century that still shape today’s world.

At Risk – by Stella Rimington. Interested in more up-to-date spy thrillers? Stella Rimington satisfies with her fictional heroine, MI5 agent Liz Carlyle, member of the British Intelligence Joint Counter-Terrorist Group. Rimington, who was the first female director of MI5 from 1992 to 1996, knows whereof she speaks, spins a good yarn, and provides insight into the kinds of asymmetric warfare western governments fight every day against international terrorism.

Looking for something a bit more personally edifying? On the self-help side of things I’ve found the following serious titles quite encouraging.

Blue Genes: Breaking Free from the Chemical Imbalances That Affect Your Moods, Your Mind, Your Life, and Your Loved Ones – by Paul Meier M.D. and Associates. Meier, who is not only the founding psychiatrist of Meier Clinics, but also holds advanced degrees in Biblical Studies from Dallas Theological Seminary, completed his psychiatric residency at Duke University, and was one of the founding members of the Focus on the Family Physicians Research Council, has written over 70 books, including the bestsellers Love is a Choice, and Happiness is a Choice. One of his earlier books, Don’t Let the Jerks Get the Best of You, was tremendously helpful and introduced me to the importance of serotonin in brain chemistry. His insight into the connection between brain, body, and spirit is, in my opinion, unsurpassed.

Forgive and Forget: Healing the Hurts We Don’t Deserve – by Lewis Smedes. Have you or someone you love been wounded? Hurt? Irreparably damaged by a close friend, or loved one, or even a complete stranger? Read this book. We’re not talking about minor slights here; we’re talking about the big stuff: infidelity, assault, murder, sexual abuse. And don’t let the title throw you off. No one every truly forgets, not even God, and Smedes does a brilliant job of explaining that. These injuries go deep and have the power to fester into soul-wrecking, permanent disabilities if they are not healed by the Great Physician. Smedes shows the way into his office.