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Blog Archive for 5/2/04 - 5/19/04

Note: During these dates most of my posts were in a series,
       "Why Did Jesus Have to Die?"

The Power of Genuine Christian Community
Posted at 10:00 p.m. on Saturday, May 15, 2004

Yesterday I had coffee with a young man named Ray. Though I had known Ray casually for over a year, we had never before enjoyed an in-depth conversation. Yesterday I finally had the chance to get to know Ray much better.

Ray is a strong Christian. But I knew that his background was quite a bit different from most Christians I meet. His family emigrated to the U.S. from Afghanistan when Ray was young, and he grew up as a nominal and cultural Muslim. I was eager to ask Ray how in the world he became a Christian, given his background. I did during our meeting together, and his story impressed me.

In high school Ray was an outstanding athlete, one of the finest football players in Southern California. In his own words, “Football was my god.” But during his junior year he wrestled with several discouraging injuries. In the midst of his struggle he met Shawn, the local Young Life leader. (Young Life is a Christian ministry that reaches out to secondary school students with the love and truth of Christ.)

After they became friends, Shawn invited Ray to Woodleaf, a summer camp for high schoolers. Woodleaf, nestled in the pines of northern California, features a fantastic program for kids, including horseback riding, sailing, mountain biking, etc. In the evening a member of the camp staff presents the Christian message in a simple and clear manner, without pressure or emotional manipulation. It was during his stay at Woodleaf that Ray decided to put his faith in Jesus Christ.

What led Ray to this decision? Yes, he enjoyed the program. Yes, the speakers were persuasive. But, more than anything else, Ray watched the way the leaders treated each other. “In so much of my life I saw people being unkind to each other,” Ray explained to me. “But the leaders really cared for and respected each other. As I watched them, I decided that what they were saying about Jesus must be true. So I decided to become a Christian.”


Campers at Woodleaf in Northern California.

This story reminds me in a moving away that my words will ring empty apart from my deeds. If I preach the good news of Jesus – which I do on a weekly basis as my vocation – then I must also live as if that good news were true. Not only am I to deliver the message of the gospel. I must live out that message each day in the way I treat the people around me.

In the midst of the hype over The Passion of the Christ, one promoter referred to the film as “the greatest evangelistic opportunity in 2000 years.” A bit exaggerated, don’t you think? But there’s a deeper theological problem with this claim. No matter how powerful a film might be, the greatest evangelistic opportunity in the world should be the church of Jesus Christ. Now I’ve been around enough churches to know this isn’t always true. But what should draw people to Christ, and what should show people that the gospel is true, is Christian people being the church together: loving, praying, serving, forgiving, and growing together. As the Apostle Paul said in Ephesians, through the church all creation will see the truth of what God has done in Jesus Christ (Eph 3:7-13).

As a pastor, I can tell you how hard it is to get my church to live out the gospel in real life. As a Christian, I can tell you how hard it is for me to do this as well. Yet, with God’s resources of Word, Spirit, and Community, we Christians can learn to live in such a way that the world will see the light of Christ shining through us. As this happens, we’ll hear even more stories like that of Ray.

A Mother Who Loves to Death
Posted at 10:00 p.m. on Sunday, May 9, 2004

It was just about bedtime when my phone rang. There had been an emergency call to the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood, and I was the pastor on call. The operator informed me that Mary, a member of the church, had asked for immediate pastoral assistance because her child had just died.

Jumping into my clothes, I sped off in my car to a hospital several cities away. I was thankful that I had some idea who Mary was. In a church of over 4,000 members you couldn't count on this. But Mary had been involved in the young adult group, so I knew her enough to say "hello." Yet I couldn't ever remember seeing her with a child, so I was shocked to hear that her child had died.

When I got to the hospital, I was directed by the nighttime staff to a dark, quiet corridor. There I found Mary, just outside of her son's room.

"Thank you so much for coming," she said. "I really needed to pray with someone." As Mary and I sat in the hall, she told me the heartbreaking story of her son, Jimmy. He had been born with multiple physical and mental handicaps. His life of seven years had been marked with countless surgeries and therapies. Mary had spent much of her life in hospitals and long-term care facilities, comforting and encouraging Jimmy. He wasn't able to be around other people, so that's why I had never seen Mary with him at church.

After we talked for a while, Mary and I went into the room where Jimmy's body lay. All the tubes and wires were still connected to him, and I was shocked by what I saw. He was tiny, much smaller than a normal seven-year-old boy. His little body was badly twisted and deformed. I found it difficult even to look at him without wincing. But not Mary. She looked upon him with eyes of uncompromised love. She touched his face and spoke quietly to him, even though he couldn't hear anymore. She tenderly kissed his cheek many times. Mary told me how much he had meant to her, and how much she would miss him.

As I stood there, I realized that she loved with kind of love that was far, far beyond any love I had ever given to anyone. It was the undeserved, unabashed, unquenchable love of a mother for her child. Whereas I saw Jimmy as someone marred in his appearance, almost beyond human semblance, Mary saw him as a beautiful, lovely human being. Jimmy had not earned her love with his handsomeness or his human achievements. Mary loved him simply, freely, graciously, all of Jimmy's life. Had she been able to do so, Mary would have exchanged places with Jimmy that night, dying so that he might live. Mary loved her precious son with all she had. Truly, she loved him to death.

Sisters and brothers, in Mary's love for Jimmy I saw a stirring picture of God's love for you and me. God loves us, not because we're beautiful, not because of what we've accomplished, not because of anything we've done, but because he is a God of love. In fact, God is Love, according to 1 John 4:8. This means that no matter how ugly you might feel today, no matter how unworthy, no matter how imperfect, God loves you. He sent his son to die for you. That's the proof.

A Tribute to My Mother
Posted at 10:30 p.m. on Saturday, May 8, 2004, in anticipation of Mother’s Day

A few days ago I posted a tribute to my father on the occasion of his birthday. Unfortunately, my father is no longer alive to enjoy my accolades. Today I’d like to match that earlier tribute with one for my mother who, I’m happy to say, is very much alive.

In praising my father, I spoke of his exceptional honesty. The same could be said for my mother. I have no memory of my mother ever telling a lie or being deceptive. One of her common refrains was “Just tell the truth.” And she always practiced what she preached.

Sometimes, I must confess, my mom’s honesty made me feel a bit uncomfortable. I can remember occasions when we went out to eat and something that was brought to the table wasn’t right. Whereas my dad, my siblings, and I preferred to just let it go, my mother’s sense of justice was too strong and her commitment to bold truthfulness too well established. Inevitably she’d tell the waiter exactly what was wrong and ask for it to be fixed. She wouldn’t do this in a rude way, but she would speak directly. While this truthful conversation happened, the rest of us would make a valiant attempt to hide under the table.

After my father’s death in 1986, my mother became the Director of Children’s Ministries at the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood, where I worked as the Director of College Ministries. It was interesting to have my mom as a colleague for a while, until I got promoted to be her boss. Now that’s a relationship I wouldn’t wish on anyone, being your mom’s boss. Thank God she did a fine job so our interactions were almost always positive. Nevertheless, how would you like to have to give your mom her annual review?

There were times, I must confess, when my mother’s bold honesty made me want to hide under the proverbial table all over again. I remember once during a church staff meeting when the Senior Pastor, Dr. Lloyd Ogilvie (who later became the chaplain of the Senate), proposed a new ministry for Sunday mornings. My mom correctly sensed, as did I, that this proposal would have a negative impact on children’s ministries. I quickly decided to hold back my reservations until I had a chance to speak with Dr. Ogilvie privately. I knew he’d want to do what was right for the children, but I didn’t want to torpedo his plan right in the middle of the staff meeting. But would my mom cower in the presence of one of the most influential Christian leaders in the world? No way. When Dr. Ogilvie finished, she blurted out something really diplomatic like, “Oh, that will never work. It would be terrible for the children.” As Dr. Ogilvie looked at my mother, my employee, with an annoyed expression, I looked for the nearest table to cover my embarrassment. After a few awkward moments, Dr. Ogilvie and my mom talked through the issue, and in the end he modified his proposal so it would be beneficial to the children. Chalk up one more for my mom!

In retrospect, this story still gives me the willies. But it speaks volumes about my mother. She had a job to do, a ministry to care about, a calling to fulfill, and she was willing to take on anyone for the sake of the children under her charge. If that meant crossing swords with Dr. Lloyd Ogilvie, so be it. My mom didn’t care so much about being liked; she cared completely about telling the truth and doing the right thing.

I think my mother’s commitment to being a truthful person contributed substantially to her success as the children’s director at Hollywood Pres. During her tenure the ministry grew steadily both is size and in strength. She earned the respect of all those she worked with. Last year I had the privilege of attending the worship service in which the Hollywood congregation acknowledged my mom’s service and her retirement. When she was invited forward in the service, the whole place erupted with a spontaneous standing ovation. It went on for a long, long time, and it was well-deserved. I don’t think I ever felt prouder of my mom than at that moment.

Mom, you know I’m not the sort to give you a standing ovation all by myself. I’ve got a whole bunch of Dad’s reticence. But if I could give you an ovation right now for the mom you have been to me, it would be longer than the one at Hollywood. And it would be well-deserved. Happy Mother’s Day!!
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