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Should I feast or should I fast?

One child dies every 10-15 seconds due to hunger-related causes, and 870 million people were suffering from malnutrition in 2012. (Source:

Within a few miles of my home in Huntsville, AL are dozens of restaurant buffets where I can eat any amount I want. If I skipped a buffet meal and gave the $10 to “Food for the Hungry,” I could probably save a life.

Should I feast or should I fast?

I currently live in an 850 square foot home, but my last home measured 2200 square feet. Which house choice is right?

Should I feast or should I fast?

My church community rents inexpensive space in a wonderful little community center. but my last church spent well over a million dollars to build a brand new facility. Which is the right way? What does God want?

Should churches feast or should they fast?

Each month, I set aside a portion of my income to give directly to families in drought-stricken Ethiopia. If I sold my house, I could give thousands more to people in desperate need.

Should I feast or should I fast?

My first car was a $300 Pontiac Catalina that had more rust than paint. I have also bought a brand new Nissan Sentra. Which was the wisest choice? Which car would God prefer I have?

Should I feast or should I fast?

I have enjoyed weddings with lavish meals, an open bar and dancing for hours to DJ music. Joy and I celebrated our own wedding with home-made snacks, a punch bowl, and music from cassette tape. What is the right way to do a wedding?

When planning a wedding, should we feast or should we fast?

What is the heart of God? What does He want? Should we feast or should we fast?

The answer is clear. Consider this word from the Bible (New International Version).

When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (Luke 18:22)

Or is it so clear?

Moreover, when God gives someone wealth and possessions, and the ability to enjoy them, to accept their lot and be happy in their toil—this is a gift of God. (Ecclesiastes 5:19)

But then there is this word from Jesus.

And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life. (Matthew 19:29)

On the other hand, God commanded lengthy celebrations for Israel.

Celebrate the Festival of Tabernacles for seven days after you have gathered the produce of your threshing floor and your winepress. Be joyful at your festival—you, your sons and daughters, your male and female servants, and the Levites, the foreigners, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns. 15 For seven days celebrate the festival to the Lord your God at the place the Lord will choose. For the Lord your God will bless you in all your harvest and in all the work of your hands, and your joy will be complete. (Deuteronomy 16:13-15)

But Jesus himself appears to have owned almost nothing.

Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” (Matthew 8:20)

Still, his very first recorded miracle was to provide liters and liters of backup wine at a wedding where the bar had run dry.


As best I can tell, we should fast on some occasions.

And we should feast at other times.

So, how do you live in a feast sometimes and fast sometimes world?

That is a great question…for another post.

Until then, I’d love to get some of your ideas in the comments section.

Broken Cards. Broken Spirit. Part 2

[It will help to have read the post “Broken Cards. Broken Spirit” before reading this post.]

It’s probably happened to you. You are playing a game where another player gets all the good cards. Every time it looks like you’ve got a little chance to get back in the game, that player drops another ridiculous card. At some point in the game, you realize there is absolutely no chance for you to win. So how do you feel? How do you play from that point?

Do you enjoy every minute of the game, finishing it out with excitement and careful strategizing and passion? Uh, not me. I check out. Out of hundreds of cards in the game of Agricola, there are 5 to 10 cards that are so powerful that some call them “broken.” Some players will remove them from a game or amend their power because they create too great an advantage. In playing a recent game of Agricola with a friend, he got THREE of those cards. With another hour still left in the game, I totally checked out. I stopped trying. Why bother?

For me, it was just a game, but for some people that is their life. And it wears on your spirit. It reminds me of this proverb from the Bible:

Unrelenting disappointment leaves you heartsick, but a sudden good break can turn life around. (The Bible, The Message , Proverbs 13:12)

There is a narrative about why people are poor; I read it in comments and hear glimpses of it in conversations. “They just don’t try hard enough. They take no initiative. Just look at those people in public housing, living off the government. They’re just lazy.” Maybe some are. But many others are experiencing what I felt playing a board game. Why try anymore? I just don’t have a chance.

“Unrelenting disappointment leaves you heartsick.”

“But a sudden good break can turn life around.”

In the game of Agricola, we could say: “But a sudden broken card can turn the game around.” In life, some people get a lot of “broken” cards and others get little or none. But what if the people with the broken cards shared their grace and blessing with those who didn’t get them? What if that is how the game of life is supposed to work? What if that’s what it means to love your neighbor as yourself?

In life, I have been dealt broken cards. Lots of them. One was “easy access to cheap loans.” I cannot emphasize how valuable this is. At age 16, I borrowed money for my first car from my parents. Because they had the funds. With their good credit, they could co-sign for me as I was building up a credit rating. With that early foundation, I have always been able to borrow easily at very good rates. I once got a house loan without having a job or a penny in the bank. Seriously! Beyond that, I have borrowed my from friends. Huge advantage.

The second “broken card” I got was a car. I have owned some form of transportation since age 16, when my parents loaned me the funds for a 1967 Pontiac Catalina. Having cars opened up so many more job opportunities. Having great credit helped me pay for repairs. The two cards play very well together in getting and keeping a job.

I got the card of a healthy, supportive family. I got the card of extremely good health. Good grades came easily; I didn’t have to try that hard, and sadly I often didn’t. And I am a white male. In our country, that has created some advantage.

So, how can I use my cards to create “a sudden good break” for others who have encountered unrelenting disappointment? I can hire people to work with me or for me. I can offer an emergency loan. I can give rides to car-less neighbors to get to and from work or the plasma donation center or the store or the doctor or the courtroom. I can be a supportive friend, offering encouragement through a setback. I can use my network of relationships to recommend people for work. I can work alongside a neighbor on a home repair. I can teach some skill I’ve been privileged to learn, like remodeling or roofing or painting or selling on eBay. I can give a gift.

The cards I was dealt were never just for me. They were given to me to be shared. But there is a catch.

People with a lot of the broken cards tend to hang out together. Live in the same neighborhoods. Work at similar jobs. Enjoy the same kinds of entertainment venues. In order to share, I am going to have to get to step out of my normal circles, make some new friends, go to some different places.

Thank God for every grace you have received.   Hang out with people whose story is very different from yours.  Listen to those stories. Pursue friendships. And share.

“Freely you have received. Freely give.” (The Bible, NIV, Matthew 10:8)

Broken Cards. Broken Spirit

I had been looking forward to this game night for days. A friend and I were pulling out the classic Agricola game for a couple of hours of great fun. At the beginning of the game, you are dealt a number of cards, each of which will give you a particular ability or benefit or resource stream. There are hundreds of cards but you are only dealt a few. And some are better than others. A lot better. In fact, there are a handful of cards that some have called “broken cards.” Getting one of those cards gives you such an advantage that other players may have little realistic chance of winning. You really hope to get one of those cards!

So Jordan and I took our handful of cards, checked them out, plotted our strategies and began the first of 14 game rounds. Two rounds into the game, Jordan played out one of his cards. He had been dealt one of those “broken” cards. Bully for him. Bad for me. This was now going to be a tough game to win, but I am up for a challenge, and this was going to test my full range of gaming skills. I would not be daunted. I am not a quitter. If you try hard enough, you can still win. Right?

In round four, Jordan played another card. A “broken” card. I am not kidding…and I was in no mood to laugh at any point the rest of that night. All fun immediately disappeared. This card, paired with the other, meant that I had zero chance to win the game, a game whose rounds would stretch out another hour. An hour. I told you that I am not a quitter, but I essentially checked out. I didn’t care. Make a dumb move. Why not? Why bother? I have no chance anyway.

Now Jordan was having a blast, all the while trying to be gracious in light of his good fortune. I know, I know. I should have been overjoyed that the next hour was going to be awesome for Jordan. I was not overjoyed. I was borderline obnoxious. Something happens in a game when you don’t stand a chance. At least for me. I cannot repeat what went through my mind when Jordan played a third “broken card” three rounds later.   I tried to force a smile. I couldn’t.  The game could not end soon enough.

As we were putting away the game pieces later, a thought flashed through my mind, and it hasn’t left me since. “This was just a game for you, but this is real life for a lot of people you know.” Setback after setback after setback. Card after card after card stacked against them. Disappointment after disappointment after disappointment. It calls to mind this word from the Bible:

Unrelenting disappointment leaves you heartsick, but a sudden good break can turn life around. (The Bible, The Message , Proverbs 13:12)

Unrelenting disappointment leaves you heartsick. You try so hard. You aren’t a quitter, but every time you start to make a little bit of progress, you hit a wall. Why bother? You’ve got no chance. You lose heart. I experienced that for a two hour game, but it is an entire year for many people. I know the stories. Real stories.

Your car stops working and the repair cost is worth more than the car. You can’t afford to get it fixed, and you can’t get a loan. With no car, you lose your job. With no income, you get evicted from your home. Then you find yourself on the street with your kids dragging black trash bags holding all you have left. You apply for emergency housing, praying to get accepted. You end up in public housing, and it is a grace. But now getting a job will be extremely difficult. Oh, and now some people look at you a little differently.

There is a narrative about why people are poor; I read it in comments and hear glimpses of it in conversations. “They just don’t try hard enough. They take no initiative. Just look at those people in public housing, living off the government. They’re just lazy.” Maybe some are.  Some are working very hard.  But others are experiencing what I felt playing a board game. Why try anymore? I just don’t have a chance.

“Unrelenting disappointment leaves you heartsick.”

Hopelessness can look an awful lot like apathy, like complacency, like laziness.

I have met lazy people before. Ironically, I have been employed at jobs with a few of them!

There is more than one story why people don’t have a job. Why they seek housing assistance. Why they sit at home. Some are just heartsick. Because every time they step out, they run into some new obstacle. Another bill. Another fee. Another “we hired someone else.” Another emergency loan with an absurd interest rate. Another medical emergency. Another bike stolen. Another car repair. Another person assuming they are lazy or irresponsible.  It’s like one step forward, two steps back. Every week. And it takes a toll.

“But a sudden good break can turn life around.”

[And that will be the focus of my next blog post: “Broken Cards. Broken Spirit. Part 2.”]

Crimes of Desperation

One of the more fascinating prayers recorded in the Bible is voiced by a man named Agur, whose prayer is one of the “Proverbs.” He writes:

“Two things I ask of you, Lord; do not refuse me before I die: Keep falsehood and lies far from me; give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’ Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonor the name of my God. (Proverbs 30:7-9, NIV, Copyright 2011 Biblica)

I encourage you to go back and read Agur’s prayer again.

Some people would label the neighborhood where I live as “poor.” As a reflection of income and available resources, the label may be accurate, though our neighborhood has other kinds of wealth. Still, I have a greater appreciation for Agur’s deep insight, living where I live among some who have been “given poverty.” I see what Agur saw.

Desperate people often do desperate things.

“Or I may become poor and steal.”

One of the great aches of my heart is how often I stereotype people and how often my “narrative” about other people is negative. I grieve how quickly I embrace the worst narrative as the obvious narrative. There are people who sell drugs or steal stuff or sell sex on a shadowed street. I embraced a narrative about “those kinds of people.” The story is obvious, really. They have no regard for the law, no moral compass, no respect for authority, no conscience. They are greedy and lawless and insensitive. Criminal types. Or…

Or they may be people like Agur or like me who became desperate. Having inherited poverty, they choose a way to get income that they really don’t like, don’t want, don’t believe in. I have thought about this a great deal.

Here is what I wonder. How many kids grow up just dreaming of the day when they will be able to give sexual favors to strangers for money? How many teens or adults “just love” that source of income? How many kids grow up hoping they can get a job selling illegal drugs, always looking over their shoulders for fear of either their dealer or a police officer?

I have a friend in another state who sold drugs as a child to help support his sister and himself in a home where Mom might be “out of it” for days at a time. My friend was given poverty…and he made a desperate choice. Was it the right choice? No. Choice, however, is a complicated word. What were all the choices my friend actually had? Perhaps he had two obvious wonderful legal choices, and he chose the illegal choice because he was just a lawless, disrespectful thug with no concern for others. Or maybe he did what Agur feared and did the only thing he thought he could do to survive.

I’d love to think I’d never break the law in a desperate moment, but I can’t say I wouldn’t. Can you? If your child suddenly began convulsing in the back seat of your car, and you were 5 miles from the hospital, would you break the speed limit or run a red light, even though those choices were wrong and could endanger other lives? Perhaps that is an easy decision for you, and you would never consider breaking a law.

I can’t say I would not break a law in a desperate moment. Neither could Agur…which is exactly why he prayed that God would keep him from poverty. But a lot of people do end up in poverty, and it creates a terrible tension. I think God wants us to remember that there are many different stories behind wrong choices. And I am certain He wants us to be gracious and humble and compassionate…which takes me to one other thing Agur is concerned about.

“I may have too much and disown you and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’”

I have had abundance most of my life, and there is a great temptation that comes with that, one into which I’ve often drifted. “Who is the Lord?” It’s that subtle thought that I really don’t need God…or anyone else, for that matter. If I don’t need God, I certainly don’t need others. It is a terrible arrogance.

And it is in that arrogance that I think myself superior to people who steal. I, the person with far more than I need (and a bit smug about it), think myself better than “one of those people” who steals. How convenient! How hypocritical. How broken.

Arrogance and stealing. One is illegal. Both are evil. Using Agur’s words, both dishonor God. Both work against God’s plan for the world.

May God give each of us grace to honor him, whether we have very much or very little. May we be gracious to others who are as broken as we are. May we assume the best of people rather than the worst.  And may we live each day as if we desperately need God.

The Killer Deal

I live in Huntsville, Alabama, in a $9,000 home on a decent-size corner lot in a simple little neighborhood. I would guess that it takes me almost an hour to mow my lawn. Often, neighbors will stop by my house and offer to do some work. I remember one particular day not long after I had bought the house. Someone knocked on my door and said they could really use some money. They would be willing to mow my lawn for 7, even 5 dollars. Could they mow my lawn?

So, what should I do? What would you do if it happened to you? Would you accept the offer or not? Why or why not? One of the influencers in the decision you will make is something you can’t really even see. It’s called “culture.” Culture, loosely speaking, is “how things are done around here.” This lawnmowing question impacts your money or assets, or economics. You live in a country that has an economic system—how money is made and earned, how goods and value are exchanged, how employment and markets work. In the U.S., that system has a name; it’s called capitalism. Again, it is a fancy word for “how money and employment and buying and selling work around here.”

Here is what is almost always true about our culture. We tend to think of “how we do things around here” as the normal way or the right way…every bit of it. So, we end up making a lot of decisions based simply on how things are done around here. Here is how capital and money and negotiation works. We don’t think twice.

We don’t think twice.

And that is a problem, at least for those of us who have decided to follow Jesus. Stay with me. When we choose to become followers of Him and entrust our very lives to him, we become part of the kingdom of Heaven. And in the kingdom of heaven, there is “a way things are done around here.” And the ways of God’s kingdom do not always fit the ways of our home country. This is what repeatedly got Jesus in trouble with religious and political leaders. The way he said things ought to be sometimes conflicted with the way things were done in that country in that time. The same is true today.

Let’s go back to my doorstep where a neighbor is offering to mow my lawn for $5. When he made his offer, here was my first thought. That’s awesome. You have to understand that I am a deal guy. Ask me about my eBay sales. Find a $75 drum, and sell it for $2,000. Awesome. Negotiate a really good price, the lower the better. Everything about this lawn offer is great. Someone is freely offering to mow my lawn for $5. Free enterprise. No coercion going on here. Just supply and demand, baby. I get my lawn mowed, and I get a killer deal. He gets some money, which he needs. That’s how markets work. Everyone wins.

My excitement fits everything I know about how money works around here. You look out for the deal that is best for you. By the way, a core tenant of capitalism is the motivation of self-interest. (The international monetary fund website list it as one of the pillars of capitalism.) We are highly motivated when something benefits us. So, of course, you look for a great deal for you. The market sets the price; this guy has established his market price. What more is there to think about? Fire up that lawnmower, and I’ll go get the $5.

We don’t think twice.

Oh, but followers of Jesus must think twice. The second thought must be: how are things done in the kingdom of heaven? So, how do money and negotiations work in the kingdom of heaven? Here are some thoughts from the Bible that God has brought to my mind:

“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. 5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus… (Philippians 2:3-5, The Bible, NIV)

Jesus said that the second greatest command in all the Bible is to “love your neighbor as yourself.”

There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land. (Deuteronomy 15:11, NIV)

Do not take advantage of a hired man who is poor and needy, whether he is a brother Israelite or an alien living in one of your towns. (Deuteronomy 24:14, NIV)

I had to think twice.

On “second thought,” I could not possibly hire that man for $5, because that’s not how it’s done in the kingdom of heaven. I cannot take advantage of desperate people. Only a desperate person will offer to mow my lawn for $5. God pressed into my heart the truth that desperate people are not truly free. They are forced to take the only option there is, if there is one at all. All across the world, people accept a pitiful wage because it is the only option they have…and the employer knows that, taking “advantage of the hired man who is poor and needy. Accepting $5 to mow my lawn fits free enterprise, but not fair enterprise. I cannot simply think free; I must think fair.

I am an online re-seller and I negotiate purchases all the time. It dawned on me that in every negotiation I engage, I am unconsciously assessing how “desperate” the seller is. The more desperate they are, the better deal I will get. I cannot, however, do that with vulnerable or desperate people. Sometimes, I am working with an estate sale company or a well-off person looking to unload some stuff. Their only desperation is to move stuff, to clear up space. The dollar amount means nothing to them. We both win. I’ll find my great deals there, but I cannot—as a follower of Jesus—find my great deals with the vulnerable and desperate. I have a new appreciation for the word “killer deal.” Someone else is getting killed in the deal. Tragically, I have in the past exploited the desperate. I can no longer do that.

The Bible never condemns self-interest. It’s natural to think about your needs and those of your family. The heart of our sin, however, is dominant self-interest. Jesus lived out just the opposite: dominant other-interest. I have to look into the eyes of the man wanting to mow my lawn and ask, “what does he need?” Not just: “what can I save?” How would I want to be treated if I were in his threadbare shoes?

I ended up giving him the killer deal. And we both won.

Dear Police Officer

Dear Police Officer,

My name is Roger. I am a white 54-year old living with my wife, Joy, in Huntsville, AL. I am a pastor, and I sell stuff online. I have four children and seven grandchildren. A few months back, I was pulled over by a police officer. He gave me a ticket for failure to come to a complete stop, and he was right. He told me he could also give me a ticket for a dangerous lane change, but he didn’t. I know that you have the freedom to make those kinds of calls–to extend mercy–and I am grateful that you do that. Very grateful.

I am deeply appreciative of the work you do, and the risk you take every day to protect my life and the lives of others. Frankly, I would not want your job. I cannot even imagine the weight that comes with carrying a gun and knowing each day you may have to use it. I would never want the split second kinds of decisions you have to make, decisions that can involve life and death. When I leave for work, my wife never wonders if I might lose my life on the job. Your family carries that weight. Thank you.

Police officers have been in the news a lot lately. I can loosely relate, in that clergy have been in the news a fair share themselves over the last several years, and there has been a lot of anger directed at them. I’m sure you can relate. I have tried to learn from some of the concerns or criticisms directed toward my profession, especially where the concerns are shared with some measure of good will. In that vein, I would like to share a couple of thoughts that have been pressing into my heart for you, the one putting your life on the line to keep me and my neighborhood safe.

The ticket I was given recently was my first in 31 years, but I have had several “conversations” with an officer about my driving. Almost always, the officer has been reasonable and respectful. I will tell you, however, that I have had two profiling stops, in both cases because I was driving a crappy van with an out-of-state plate. I will never forget those stops.

Close to twenty years ago, I was driving with my family to visit my in-laws in my wife’s South Carolina hometown. Speeding in that town will ALWAYS cost you money, and we didn’t have much money, so I never sped there. I still don’t! But on that day, the officer driving down the street toward me turned around in a convenience store a block behind me and then sped up to catch up with me. I pulled over for the blue lights. When I rolled down the window, he said that he had been following me for 3 miles and that he had clocked me going 50 mph. I was stunned…and angry. I respectfully but firmly told him that he had been following me for only 3 blocks, that I had never exceeded the posted 35 mph, and that he must have driven 50 mph to catch up with me in 3 blocks. After peering in the vehicle and going to his car to check my information, he returned to my van to give me a verbal warning.

Five years ago, I was driving with my wife and two youngest kids in a faded old green & white 1987 camper van on an eastbound interstate just south of Chicago. partway through a cross-country trip. I saw the officer parked next to the speed limit sign, but there was no problem since the heavy traffic made speeding impossible. Still, the officer pulled out and began casually following me, alternately pulling behind me and then pulling up beside me. Three miles down the road, the flashing lights came on, and I slipped to the side of the road. The very courteous officer who came to the window told me that he was stopping me for speeding but assured me I had nothing to be concerned about. Would I please get out of the vehicle? And when I did, that’s when another officer got out of his vehicle with a drug-sniffing dog and took a stroll around my vehicle. I was given a written warning…from the narcotics enforcement division.

I have no doubt at all that the officers involved in both those stops meant well. They were simply trying to thwart crime, and there was probably a day when I thought that officers probably had to do those kinds of things, but something changes when it happens to you. I cannot explain the feeling when someone with a badge and a gun looks you in the eye and lies to you. It is a mixture of shock, anger, confusion, and helplessness. You are falsely accused and you are powerless to do anything. The officer is going to be believed before me. I don’t stand a chance. I am sure one can rationalize that those kinds of stops have to be made, but I wonder if it doesn’t create a bigger loss. What I felt was just a little bit less trust. How can you not? And I have to believe that makes your job harder down the road. I expect those officers left those encounters feeling like their state was a bit safer; I left feeling their state was a bit less safe.

I am sure that people lie to you every single day that you serve. That should never happen, and I am sorry it does, but if you lie, it has extraordinary consequences; it is almost like me lying in a court of law. When you pull me over, the weight and integrity of the court and government comes to my window with you. You have the power to assign fines, put me in jail, or even use fatal force, if necessary. You can be angry with me, but if I am angry with you, it can have serious consequences. I have to know you are going to tell me the truth. I guess I just wanted to tell you what it feels like on the other side of the window.

Your job is enormously challenging. Just two months ago, I made a decision that every single time I see you or your vehicle, I will pray for you. I have never prayed this much in my life! Where I live, I will sometimes see as many as 15 police or sheriff vehicles a day, and every single time, I pray for the man or woman behind the wheel. You matter too much, and your job is too important. I must pray. I also pray that you’ll understand one other concern I share.

We all make mistakes. God knows that clergy do!! Officers are no more immune than I am. Officers make mistakes and on occasion they do the wrong thing. Sometimes they have the wrong attitude or a bias. Nobody escapes this—not me, not you. You know this of course, but sometimes it feels like raising a question about an individual officer’s behavior is somehow questioning the integrity of the entire police community. That it’s un-American. It is why officers turning their backs on NYC Mayor de Blasio at a funeral service last year was so troubling for me. It feels like the behavior of officers must never be questioned. And if a city leader can’t raise a question about police practices or decisions, what chance do I have? Or anyone else?

There are occasions where an officer has “blown the whistle” on a fellow officer’s behavior. You may have done that yourself, and I deeply admire that courage, because the stories I have read do not usually end up well for the whistle-blowing officer. And then there are those disturbing instances of multiple officers filing reports of a police shooting, when the video evidence shows an entirely different story. That concerns and angers ordinary people like me; we can’t help but wonder how often that happens and when it could happen to us. I hate to say it, but it has that feel of when church officials have “covered” for the transgression of a fellow clergy member. It is a terrible thing for clergy to do and a terrible thing for officers to do. But I have to wonder sometimes if officers feel trapped. To “tell the truth” is likely to cost you your friends, your job, your family’s sense of well-being, and possibly your career. I cannot imagine that kind of tension.

Unfortunately, in those instances where an officer is not honest, it creates a terrible cycle. Not only is it unjust, but people begin to trust officers less, and they don’t trust that justice will be served if an officer does the wrong thing. People that don’t trust officers are less likely to be respectful or responsive. Those disrespectful behaviors make encounters with officers that much more tense. And a lot of those tense encounters don’t end well.

With all of my direct words of concern, I hope that you have been wondering what I pray for you. I pray for your safety. I pray that you will not have to draw a gun, but that if you do, you will have a clear eye and a clear mind in that moment. I sometimes pray for your family—a spouse, a child, a parent. I pray that you’ll come home. I pray that you will be able to balance justice and mercy in every encounter. I ask God to give you joy in your work and discernment with every person you encounter through the day. I ask God to forgive your wrongs just as I ask Him to forgive my own. I pray that you will not lose heart in your work; I once felt led to pray that you would not think about taking your own life. I pray that you will know how much God cares about you and your work. And now I pray that will hear grace in my words and not accusation. God bless you.

Dreaming of the Perfect Christmas

Christmas decorationsMy 2013 Christmas season was definitely not perfect. We got a really late start putting up the Christmas tree and decorations. We traveled hundreds of miles and slept in eight different beds. On the road, it was hard to fix or find “good” food, and I put on a few extra pounds. My brother, Bruce, and his family were not able to attend this year’s family Christmas gathering because they had some gnarly flu bug. My team lost the family Christmas Eve football game when I fumbled a sure interception on the last play of the game! We were not able to be with any of our four kids or three grandkids on Christmas Day. We had some unexpected expenses, draining our checking account to almost zero. I disappointed some friends and family. My wife had an annoying earache all through the Christmas season.

This year’s Christmas was far from perfect. This should shock no one. What is shocking is that any of us ever expect the perfect Christmas. Or the perfect spouse. The perfect family. The perfect job. The perfect church. The perfect friend.

Spoiler alert: There is no perfect spouse, no perfect family, no perfect church, no perfect job, no perfect Christmas because… well because there are no perfect people. Other people are almost as screwed up as you are. They (and we) misunderstand, disagree, shade the truth, break promises, judge motives, manipulate, hurt, irritate, exclude, ignore, fight, defend extreme opinions, say hurtful words, watch shallow movies, enjoy weird things, erupt in anger, and miss easy interceptions. People get sick, get old, get buzzed, get grumpy, get PMS, get tired, get crazy, get arrested, get depressed, get conned. The dream of a perfect Christmas is…well…just a dream.

Still, the dream rises each Christmas, and every year it is dutifully shot down. But the biggest casualty is not the punctured dream. The loss is what the dream shielded us from seeing in the first place. The search for the perfect Christmas invariably blinds us to the good: the good moments, the good conversations, the good breaks, the good God. Focusing on the hopes that never materialized, we easily miss the good that did.

So here is an odd thought that just might be true: When you go into Christmas expecting it to be imperfect, you are in a much better position to see and enjoy the bits of good scattered all through the Christmas season. I went in to this Christmas knowing it would be imperfect. It was.

Still, there were some moments of good this Christmas. I enjoyed meals and conversations with each of my children and grandchildren at some point this December. No one was injured in the Christmas football game. I had an important conversation with my mom until 2 a.m. one morning. I sang Christmas songs with my 92 year old mother-in-law at her assisted living center one evening. God forgave me repeated selfish thoughts, words, and choices. I slept beautifully. I didn’t have an earache. (O.K., that was out-of-bounds.) I had a long, refreshing afternoon conversation with my nephew. We didn’t have a flat tire. We didn’t attend a funeral. I experienced my thirtieth Christmas married to my friend, Joy. God was near. Hmm, that’s odd. Maybe it was the perfect Christmas after all.

[Ironic postscript: Here’s the story behind this blog. Turns out this “pursuit of the perfect obscures the good” theme has another unexpected application. It dawned on me that wanting to write the perfect blog keeps me from writing “just” a good one. A few paragraphs with a potential nugget of good for someone never get posted because I dream of a blog that is compelling, stirring, and life-changing for everyone! I’m thinking I’ll be writing a bit more this next year.]

My Tomatoes

At the prodding of a friend, we decided to build a raised bed garden in our side yard. I really didn’t have to be prodded much, since I love fresh garden vegetables, especially tomatoes. This love goes back to summers of my childhood spend on my grandparent’s farm in Murfreesboro, TN, where sliced garden tomatoes were served with every meal but breakfast. Since then, I have never been able to slice and eat a store-bought, box-ripened tomato. Not comparable. Not possible.

My love of tomatoes softened the blow of the time and money that building a raised bed garden requires. I bought the lumber and constructed a four foot by twelve foot frame, ten inches high. Friends on a nearby farm donated two trailer loads of composted manure, which had to be picked up, unloaded, and spread. To that sweet soil, I added a recommended cocktail of composts and soils to create the ideal raised bed vegetable-factory.

Next came the seeds and seedlings. The six tomato seedlings were fenced in by three cages on the far right side of the garden. Moving to the left came a row of bell pepper cages. Then came broccoli seedlings, lettuce and spinach sprouts, and finally, on the far left, a couple of rows of green bean seeds.

I had hope for great things. More specifically, I hoped to change my long history of planting gardens that produced sickly fruits with paltry yields. My love of garden fresh vegetables rarely ever matched my ability to grow said vegetables. Maybe, this year would be different.

My green beans showed their usual early promise, sprouting quickly and producing blossoms soon after. The tomato and pepper plants teased me with their quick early growth. The lettuce, spinach, and broccoli began to produce fruit quickly, but just as quickly went to seed. I’ve since been told that they are much better fall plantings. (So, why the heck do they sell them in the spring??!! O.K., I’m over that now.) I began to harvest some green beans, but three meals in, they just dwindled away.

My only remaining hope going into July was my tomatoes and peppers. The peppers looked green and lush, but resisted putting out blossoms and the fruit that follows. The tomatoes were a different story altogether. Also lush and green, they produced mega-blossoms which were cast aside by dozens of tiny tomatoes. Then came the July rains, more rain in fact than we have ever had in any previous July.

The tomatoes went wild…literally. My plants climbed through and over my powerless cages. They traveled to the right climbing back down outside the cage and into my yard. They traveled to the left, burying the pepper cages, leaving them to attempt survival with only the scantest sunlight. My tomato plants, each over 10 feet long, owned the garden. It gets funnier.

On the far left side of my garden, two snaking tomato plants emerged from the ground, where I had most certainly not planted tomatoes. They just appeared. Within weeks, these snaking vines were weaving their way all across the garden bed, producing dozens and dozens of grape tomatoes, which my wife absolutely loves.

By the end of July, my tomato plants were allowing us to have tomatoes for every meal except breakfast, though I think we may have worked them into an omelet or two. I began counting the tomatoes we picked. At last count, we had picked over 180 tomatoes (not counting the grape tomatoes picked, which would also number in the hundreds). This does not include the tomatoes stolen by squirrels who would then taunt me, eating the tomatoes sitting in plain sight on the branches of my trees and occasionally dropping them on my car. I digress.

So, a week or two ago, we get an unexpected knock on our door. Knocks on our door are very, very common, but not at 10:30 at night. I hesitantly approached the door. Through the window, I could see an older looking gentleman fidgeting on our front porch. I slowly opened the door.

“My name is Wilson*, and I live under the bridge just down the street here. My grandmother lives one street over, and we were wondering if we could have some of your green tomatoes, so she could fry them up?” “Uh, you want to pick tomatoes right now?” “Yessir, but I won’t take a whole lot.” “Uh, o.k., Wilson, you can take some tomatoes.”

As the sun broke the horizon the next morning, I hurried outside to check my tomatoes. I discovered that Wilson’s definition of “a whole lot” was different than mine. I was bothered, but it was less about the number of missing tomatoes. I was wrestling with the same feeling I had encountered several times during the summer when Joy, flashing her winsome smile, would give away our tomatoes to this neighbor or that: “We’d love for you to have some of our tomatoes!”

You see the truth, don’t you? I have a hard time giving away ANY of my tomatoes. MY tomatoes. And that’s the little problem God immediately brought to my attention. I struggle to give away tomatoes that grew in soil that was given to me, that were showered with a record twelve inches of rain that kept me from ever needing to water them, that flourished in sunshine I did not produce. AND… two of the tomato-laden vines I didn’t even buy or plant! Could God have made it any clearer?

Like every good thing in my life, the tomatoes are a gift of grace from God’s hand. Sure, He loves for me to enjoy His tomatoes, but He also loves me to give them away, just like He gave them to me. Maybe one day I’ll learn. Until then, I think I’ll grow rutabagas. Nobody likes rutabagas, not even squirrels.

The Ethiopian Orphan’s Parting Words

Tired walkers, street vendors, goats, and uneven concrete flashed outside the windows of our taxi as it darted and bounced through the streets of Ethiopia’s capital city, Addis Ababa.  As the driver slowed to find the exact address of the orphanage, I wondered what to expect.


What would children, robbed by AIDS of their parents, think of seven awkward, white-skinned strangers visiting their home-in-lieu-of-their-home?  And, well, just how awkward would we be?  What would we do?  What would they do?


Prompted by the security guard, our driver nosed the van through the compound walls up a small incline into a more level parking area.  The metal gates were pulled shut behind us, hemming in the small outdoor courtyard.  Piling out of the van, we carted a load of medical supplies we had transported across the Atlantic in suitcases.  We dumped our treasure in a small building next to the van.


Then we were directed to a second, larger building where the children were taking their afternoon nap.  Stepping from outside into the sun-starved entry room, we gradually made out the dimensions of a large “living” room.  Tiptoeing in a single file chain, we followed a nurse from one room to another where children slept soundly in beds and cribs.


And then…one set of eyes blinked open.  A nearby child stretched and yawned, while another child slowly sat up, quizzically studying our faces.  And then there was a smile and then another.  Finally, one child reached out to one of the guys in our group, signaling to be held.  The children came to life like a late morning garden.

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Who Needs Another Blog Post?

What?  Someone else just launched a blog?  Make that blog number 164,586,782.  Someone just published a book?  Great!  Now, there are ONLY 138,461,822 books in the world.  Come on?  Do we really need someone else writing a book?  Do we really need someone else launching a blog (he asks in a blog post!)?

Old books

Hasn’t everything people need to hear already been said?


And further, isn’t publishing your thoughts and words rather audacious?  Isn’t it a kind of arrogance to think that your words need to be heard, that your words carry some kind of weight and importance?


I expect virtually every would-be writer has tossed one or more of those questions around in his/her mind.  I certainly have. Philip Yancey and Simone Weil (yes, two writers) point a wonderful light into the dark of those questions:

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