What Others Say

Bill, I always love the artistic way you express your faith. It reminds me so much of CS Lewis and others who did not purport that Christianity had to be dry, sterile, hard, and artless to make its impact on people’s hearts and minds.
It is the first thing I turn to on Saturday mornings in the Galveston Daily News.

Director, Medical Student Education Program
Professor, Family Medicine

University of Texas Distinguished Teaching Professor

Monday, April 25, 2016

Good and Evil in the Garden

When I lived in Minnesota, I always had a garden.  I guess it was “our” garden, our children and mine. Every spring we would pick out what we would plant and, after I spaded up the earth, we would plant our garden together:  cilantro, tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, cabbage.  One year we grew a pumpkin two feet in diameter (as I remember it).  We tried okra, but apparently it needs the searing heat of Texas.   Rhubarb didn’t require planting, it just volunteered itself every year.

I wasn’t a very good gardener. After the ground was turned and the garden planted, we pretty well left it alone, and it grew. That is what things do in Minnesota.  Long days of sunlight, pleasant summers and occasional rain. Things just grow. They can’t help it.

But, the same conditions that stimulate vegetables also cultivate weeds.  By harvest we had a wonderful crop of both.  Our whole family would visit the garden like children on an Easter egg hunt.   Searching among the weeds we celebrated the discovery of tomatoes, squash, cabbages and a “great pumpkin,” hiding among the weeds. 

Jesus used a similar image to help us understand the mystery of good and evil in the world: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field.  But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away.  When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared. The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field?  Where then did the weeds come from?’ ‘An enemy did this,’ he replied.  The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’ ‘No,’ he answered ‘because while you are pulling the weeds you may uproot the wheat with them.  Let both grow together until the harvest.  At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into the barn.’” (Matthew 13:24-29).

The world is kind of like our garden in Minnesota. Evil flourishes in the world, like the weeds in our garden.  It dominates the news and grabs the headlines. But hiding among the weeds is the wheat, those things that are good, righteous, wholesome and healthy.  In every situation where it appears that evil will triumph, we find, hidden beneath the headlines, acts that are heroic and sacrificial, acts of forgiveness, kindness, goodness and faith.

Someday the harvest will come.  When John introduced Jesus, he said, “One is coming who is mightier than I, and I am not fit to untie the straps on His sandals; ... His winnowing fork is in His hand to thoroughly clear His threshing floor, and to gather the wheat into His barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”  (Luke 3:16-17).

Monday, April 18, 2016

Getting Beyond the Noise

Our world is filled with noise: the whine of tires on the interstate, the roar of eighteen-wheelers;  the constant chatter of televisions in the background, talk show hosts over-talking each other, voices escalating in pitch and volume; politicians screaming insults and accusations at each other.  

Even the sanctuary of my car has been invaded by a talking GPS system.  “Recalculating,” she says, followed by “Make a U turn!”  Once, when my grandkids were riding with me, I switched her language settings from English to German, Russian, Spanish and Arabic just so we could hear what it is like to be corrected in different languages. The grandkids loved it.

Libraries are still pretty quiet. No one wants to mess with a stern librarian. Beaches and parks are quiet, unless someone pulls up nearby with a boom box.  

Silence can make us nervous.  We like to surround ourselves with sound.  It somehow comforts us, relieves us from thinking our own thoughts or, worst of all, being alone. But maybe we are missing something.  Maybe there is something in the silence of solitude that we have lost in our streaming, screaming and crowded world.

Before Jesus launched his public ministry he spent 40 days in the wilderness.  There were no radios, televisions, iPods or iPhones.  He was completely alone in the silence.  I have been there, stood on the edge of the wilderness where he wandered alone for 40 days. It is a stark and silent place.  It prepared Him for the days when He would be buried by the crush of the crowd with little time to eat or sleep.

When John preached near the Jordan River, thousands came to hear him.  The hillsides were covered with people listening to his messages.  People lined up to be baptized for repentance.  But before his remarkable public preaching, John spent years in the wilderness listening to God. 

Our lack of silence and solitude threatens to make us shallow, only able to repeat the slogans and jingles of the latest commercials.  Our minds repeat the lyrics of the latest pop songs.  If we would have depth of character, if we would think new thoughts, if we would hear the voice of God, we need time alone, time away from all the noise.  Time to think new thoughts and time to pray.

C.S. Lewis wrote, “We live, in fact, in a world starved for solitude, silence, and private: and therefore starved for meditation and true friendship.” 

The Bible says, “Though youths grow weary and tired, and vigorous young men stumble badly, yet those who wait for the Lord will gain new strength; they will mount up with wings like eagles, they will run and not get tired, they will walk and not become weary.”  (Isaiah 40:30-31). “’Come now, and let us reason together.’ Says the Lord. ‘Though your sins are as scarlet, they shall be white as snow. Though they are red like crimson, they will be like wool.’” (Isaiah 1:18).

David said, “He makes me lie down in green pastures.  He leads me beside quiet waters.” (Psalm 23:2)  “Surely I have composed and quieted my soul; like a weaned child rests against his mother, my soul is like a weaned child within me.”  (Psalm 131:2)

Monday, April 11, 2016

Surprised by Glory - The Child Within

They are everywhere. They are found on every continent in every culture. Without them the human race would be doomed to extinction in a few short decades.  They fill the air with laughter, like the sound of water gurgling in a happy brook. Their capacity for imagination and happiness is almost boundless.  They find treasure in the common things in common places. They are the children.

Children rip away the paper from brightly wrapped presents, discard the expensive gift and spend hours playing with the box. At the playground, they make friends of complete strangers.  In a matter of minutes they are playmates making up imaginary games. They are as happy and excited to kick a half-deflated soccer ball in a back alley as any player in a World Cup stadium. They see the world with wide-eyed wonder, and they are blind to color, race or social standing.

We are born reflecting the eternal light that enlightens every man. (John 1:9).  But, somewhere along the way, the light dims. The carefree joy of childhood is lost. 

Too often, and too soon the children will learn the lessons of prejudice, self centeredness and competition. They learn it from watching the grown ups around them. They learn it from pressure to perform in sports on the field, pressures to live up to the expectation of adults who too often measure life by fame, fortune and winning at all costs.

Jesus treasured the innocence of childhood.  He once took a child and stood her in the midst of his grown-up disciples who were arguing among themselves about which one of them was the greatest.  Holding the child in his gentle hands, he said to them, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:2).

We all were children once, full of hopes and dreams with boundless imagination.  We are prone to lose the magic, exchanging laughter for worry, innocence for anger, expectation for resentment.  But somewhere, down deep inside, is the child we once were.

I have known adults living into their eighties whose eyes still twinkle with the joy of a child, whose faces are wrinkled with lines of laughter, who seem to wake up each morning with a child-like excitement for the next day’s adventure. We need not surrender to the bitterness of disappointment.  The wisdom of experience can serve as seasoning for the joy of childhood.

Regardless of our circumstances; in spite of our difficulties, set-backs and disappointments; Jesus invites us to enter the Kingdom as a little child, to be filled with a faith that expects to be surprised by glory. 

Monday, April 4, 2016

Spring Planting

There is something about digging in the earth, sowing seed and burying plants in the freshly turned soil.  It is an act of faith, of hope and expectation. It is an ancient ritual of believing. It is a way of interacting with life’s mysterious miracle. When I was in Minnesota, I wrote a poem about the experience.

I have bedded them,
laid them down to sleep,
dug shallow graves
and buried them
beneath soft soil,
dark, moist, rich dirt,
gently padded and patted.

They have been accepted
by the earth,
their burial signified by stick-markers
on which are written their names,
not in remembrance but in expectation,
waiting for them to wake,
to spring from dormant death into full flower:
pink and red and lavender,
yellow and white
the funeral-ritual of spring.

Cemeteries are like gardens, the name markers signifying the faith and hope with which the bodies of those who have gone on before were laid to rest. What is buried appears to be dead and lifeless. But is it?

A few years ago I visited a cemetery in old Boston where the tombstones date back to some of the earliest residents of The Colonies.  Those grave markers erected before 1730 bore skulls and cross bones.  They were the picture of death and despair. The markers erected after 1740 bore the images of angels and cherubim and were often inscribed with verses about heaven.  The only event that could have made such a difference in the Boston markers is the Great Awakening that swept the Colonies in the 1730s.  Benjamin Franklin wrote of the Awakening that there was a “wonderful change soon made in the manners of our inhabitants. … so that one could not walk thro' the town in an evening without hearing psalms sung in different families of every street."

Paul had this image in mind when he wrote, “When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else.  But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each kind of seed he gives its own body.  … So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power;  it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.

      "I declare to you, brothers and sisters, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed— in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.  For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’ … thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 15:37-54).

Monday, March 28, 2016

Why So Lonely?

A couple hundred years ago people lived in remote isolation, farming land on open prairies. Travel and communication were slow and uncertain.  Letters took weeks, if not months, to reach their destination. Responses were long delayed.  A visit to town might take an entire weekend. Camp meetings lasted for a week or more.

Modern technology has changed all of that.  Travel is rapid and relatively cheap. We can travel to the other side of the earth in a day. Communication is immediate and global.  Email, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Skype and cell phones connect us with family, friends and strangers.  We can as easily communicate with someone in another corner of the same department store as we can someone on the other side of the earth.  

Strangers stroll down grocery store aisles “talking to the cabbage.”  Young girls jog along the street, their pony tails swinging in rhythm to their stride will they jabber away on their headset. Distracted motorists navigate through traffic, one hand on the wheel, another holding a cell phone to their ear. Text dings are commonplace.

You would think that loneliness would be something of the past in our social media world. 

But a strange thing has happened. In spite of our technological connections, loneliness is epidemic.  According to Social Media Week, “Despite being constantly connected, people are still feeling alone. So what gives? With the ability to keep in touch with all our loved ones, why are people lonelier than ever?”

The article went on to say, “The problem with social media is the fact that people only share the good things about their lives. This constant barrage of good news causes a vicious cycle in which people post the great things that are happening, which causes their friends to only share the good things that happen in order to keep up. This kills any sense of vulnerability, of genuine shared experiences that were so crucial to emotional closeness between friends.

We need community, frequent face-to-face committed relationships with others.  This is why we need church. But we need more than assembling to sing a few songs and listen to a preacher preach.  We need honest and transparent friendships.  We need to “bear one another’s burdens and thus fulfill the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:2).  We need a place to “rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.” (Romans 12:15).  We need trusted relationships where we can “confess our sins to one another and pray for one another so that we may be healed.” (James 5:16).

This is why many churches are creating “Life Groups” that meet in people’s homes, where they can share a meal, visit over the table and study the Bible. 

God does not desire that any one should be alone. “A father of the fatherless and a judge for the widows is God in His holy habitation.  God makes a home for the lonely.”  

Thursday, March 24, 2016

SPECIAL: A Faith Response to Terror

When Donald Trump announced he was running for President of the United States, many laughed, others snickered.  Late night talk show hosts could hardly contain their glee.  But few people are laughing now.  Political pundits project a 90% probability that Trump will be the Republican nominee.

Apparently Trump tapped into a deep reservoir of American fear and anger.  In Donald Trump we found a loud and confident voice leaning out the window and shouting “I’m mad as h--- and I’m not going to take it anymore!”

Americans are angry.  And, Americans are afraid. 

Fear and anger go together. Fear begets anger and anger fuels our fears. The terror strikes in Brussels have heightened our fears.  Ted Cruz is calling for police patrols in Muslim neighborhoods. Donald Trump says he would consider a nuclear strike against ISIS. 

We must fight our way past fear and anger to a higher level of courage, faith and love. When we become divided, fearful, suspicious and angry, the terrorists win.

In the midst of the chaos that immediately followed the explosions in Brussels, an American doctor who was dropping off a friend at the airport immediately began treating casualties.  Many who were injured urged care for others who they felt were in worse condition, putting other’s interest above their own.

The international community has come together in support of Belgium, just as they did in support of France last November and in support of the U.S in 2001. Our flags are flying at half-mast in the United States as symbols of grief and support.
I suspect most Muslims are as bewildered and fearful as the rest of the world.  After all, far more Muslim men, women and children have been killed by terrorists than non-Muslims.  Millions have fled Syria trying to escape ISIS and are trying to survive in makeshift tent cities.  Our support must include prayer, love and understanding for our Muslim neighbors

Efforts to overcome hate with more hatred, violence with more violence, only escalates the problem and leads to greater suffering.  We must refuse voices of division and suspicion and put into practice what we are taught in the Scripture:  “Overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:21).

Terror is not new in the world.  In the first century, crucifixion was an instrument of terror. We must remember the example of Jesus who prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34).   

While being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously; and He Himself  bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed.” (1 Peter 2:22-24).

Monday, March 21, 2016

White Space

Life starts out fairly simple.  When my wife and I married we could, quite literally, pack all our possessions in the back seat of our car.  But along the way, we picked up clutter.  The closets and attic overflow. I rented a storage unit so she could get her car in the garage.   “Stuff” seems to multiply.  It fills every nook and cranny.  It is hard to throw it away.  Worn out baby shoes, broken toys and scribbled scraps of paper represent my life.

The calendar is the same.  Business, or “busy-ness,” claims every minute. Millions start the day with a swig of coffee while they maneuver onto the freeway munching a breakfast burrito.  Memos, phone calls, meetings and long hours on our feet are followed by a weary commute home to pick up kids for practice sessions.  No wonder we are exhausted. 

Christians are especially vulnerable. Richard Foster wrote, “We are trapped in a rat race, not just of acquiring money, but also of meeting family and business obligations. We pant through an endless series of appointments and duties. This problem is especially acute for those who want to do what is right. With frantic fidelity we respond to all calls to service, distressingly unable to distinguish the voice of Christ from that of human manipulators."

We need white space!

Look at Google’s homepage.  Google keeps it simple.  We need to learn how to live Google lives, with plenty of white space, space in our lives that gives us freedom.  We need deliverance from crammed calendars and cluttered closets. 

It takes discipline to create white space, room for flexibility and freedom, margins in which to breathe.  Jesus knew how to order life with “white space.”  He took time to listen to children, to help a desperate woman who risked touching his garment, to heal a paralytic passed over by the crowd.  He had time for people, and, when he died, his robe was his only possession.  He never punched a time clock.  He did not wear a watch. He was never rushed or in a hurry. 

It is entirely possible that, with our break neck race to “get somewhere” that we might end up “nowhere.”  Jesus said, “… you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed.” (Luke 10:41-42). 

And again, ““For this reason I say to you, do not worry about your life, as to what you will eat; nor for your body, as to what you will put on. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. ... And do not seek what you will eat and what you will drink, and do not keep worrying. For all these things the nations of the world eagerly seek; but your Father knows that you need these things. But seek His kingdom, and these things will be added to you.” (Luke 12:22-30).

When we simplify our lives with fewer “things” and build “white space,” we discover life itself.