Friday, September 22, 2006

Cliff Is Out of Iraq

Last night, Jana and I received the call we have been waiting for: Our son Cliff is out of Iraq and has returned to his base in Germany.

He has been stationed at Camp Victory in Baghdad for the better part of the past year, and is now back at the Hanau Army Airfield outside of Frankfurt. He is in the 320th Engineer Company charged with surveying the land for logistical support and construction. You may read more about his unit's return on the base's website,

As many of you know, Cliff is our second son to serve in Iraq. Our oldest, Chad, parashuted (I'm never sure of the past tense of that word, so let me put it the way the soldiers do: "jumped out of a perfectly good airplane!") at midnight on March 26 in 2003, right after the war started. His unit, the 173rd Airborne Infantry Division, secured the Bashur airfield near Kirkuk, and prevented the basically stable Kurds from retribution against their oppressors.

I will express my feelings about our continued involvement in Iraq in a future blog. For now, we are very proud of Cliff, inexpressibly relieved that he is out of harm's way, deeply grateful not only for the service he has rendered in Iraq, but also for his amazing maturity and growth, and earnest in our unceasing prayers that this war stop soon.

War makes a young man grow up fast. We have twice seen this sad, sobering reality.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Learning and Limitation

"When I finished medical school, I thought I had learned a lot," the young cardiologist told me. "We studied hard, digested a huge body of information, really got after it."

"Upon graduation, we were let loose on the world. Ready to heal. Primed to fight human disease with our massive arsenal of medical knowledge. 'Knowledge is power,' someone has said, and we felt invincible."

"Not long into my practice, I was summoned to the hospital emergency room to attend to a man who had just had a heart attack. I rushed to the hospital feeling strong. I was going to save a life, perform a healing!"

"But, after examining my patient I realized I was not going to do anything of the sort. The man's heart had ruptured. There was absolutely nothing I could do. No sophisticated procedure mastered in a medical school clinic was worth a thin dime now. None of the hundreds of medicines I knew like my own name would work. I was helpless to heal."

"My patient was going to die. And did."

"At that moment, I learned just how much I did not know, a medical lesson not routinely taught in my school. For all my training and knowledge, that man died. His heart literally broke, and all I could do was idly watch that muscular pump quit working, as life and breath left him."

My doctor friend reminded me all over again that one of the major objectives of any enterprise of learning is the realization of how much we do not know. Any authentic course of inquiry will put the student squarely in touch with her finitude.

My Old Testament teacher in seminary would open his classes on the first day by looking over his half-glasses to survey silently the fresh faces before him, finally offering the observation, "Ladies and gentlemen, there is a God... and you are not he."

Limitation is a rude awakening for young physicians fresh out of med school, and for young seminarians ready to cut loose on the church.

As well as for a middle-age pastor whose tenure on the planet should have taught him better.

But it comes barging in to bear that rarest, most blessed virtue: humility.

With humility we are kept from indulging the pangs of omniscience that hungrily beckon us to violate our boundaries.

Without it, we suffer, like Pharisees old and new, that untold ignorance of being too sure.

It surprises even me, who has spent the better portion of his life assuring prayers to and for people in need, to note what impact of love these simple expressions deliver.

We had hardly gotten Dad settled into the Hospice residence before our family's church in Pensacola cranked into action with calls, visits, food-- indeed, fleshed-out prayers. Perhaps we tend to de-value these seemingly small caregiving gestures. We shouldn't. These reminded Mom at a tough moment, when her sons had to return to Mobile and Atlanta for their weekday responsibilities, of that most critical piece of information: you are not alone.

First thing Monday morning, I received a call from my pastor who was already marshalling forces of love on our behalf. Take it from one who has made thousands of such phone calls over the past twenty-five years: it touched me. Hearing the voice of my pastor assure not only his own prayers but also those of the church located me in instant spiritual solidarity.

Being on the receiving end of these electrical charges of love reminds you of why it's so important to keep vigil at your post on the giving end.

Hard business dealing with these end-of-life issues, no two ways around it. But, in the midst of it all there is provision at every turn. The word is from the Latin, pro-video, meaning not only to "see ahead," but also to "see for." There is One who sees ahead of us on the journey, who, according to our Leader, knows what we need before we ask. But, this One also sees for us, that is, on our behalf, in advocacy, paving the way for us.

Example? When Mom finally reached that place last week where she knew she could no longer supervise Dad's care in the home, there was a place available the next day in the Hospice residence, as if it had been waiting for him all along. One can feel the force-field of compassionate care upon entering the place. The miraculous merits of Hospice I will celebrate later.

Dad was a little more lucid yesterday, which is always a mixed blessing. On the one hand, he can commune sweetly with his lifelong companion, but on the other hand, he knows more fully and sadly that he is no longer in his own home.

Like driving through a mountain fog, things will be clear for a brief moment, then back into the haze. He must wonder: can't I linger in this lovely clearing just a little longer?

Hospice residence is designed only for temporary care. We are now searching to find a competent facility for Dad's ongoing care. There was a place available months ago, but Mom simply wasn't ready. She is the chief decision-maker; we follow her lead.

Thoughtful prayers are the best gifts these days as we do this difficult dealing. Thank you for them.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

That Inevitable Day

Many of you know that my father has suffered from Alzheimer's disease for years.

Recently, health care providers have added two words to this diagnosis, "end" and "stage." End-stage Alzheimer's is the clinical way of saying that Dad is dying. He has a degenerative disease for which there is no cure.

The Alzheimer's Association website explains that something called "amyloyd plaque" builds up around the outside of nerve cells in the brain, prohibiting healthy brain function. Researchers know that this material is made up of protein, but they don't know yet how it impedes normal cell activity.

Such a microscopically small thing means that my father has forgotten how to button a shirt, buckle a belt, tie a shoe. The simplest procedures of daily dress and personal hygiene have been daunting for some time now, and would long ago have been impossible to negotiate were it not for Mom's transcendent courage and patience.

But, the inevitable, long-forecast next step has finally come. Dad can no longer be cared for in his own home. We moved him to a temporary Hospice residence this weekend, and will soon place him in a residential care center.

It is hard to see this once robust man now so slumped and crumpled. No measure of stoic bravery can shield his four sons from the awful realization that dementia has robbed them of their bigger-than-life daddy.

Even Mom, who has tenderly noted every single minute graduation of this disease's progress, was not prepared to see her husband in yet this new state of reduction.

Aging ain't for sissies. Browning must have been on drugs the day he wrote that ridiculous thing, "Grow old along with me! / The best is yet to be, / The last of life, for which the first was made."

I guess denial is a fine invention as long as it works. It no longer did the trick for what I saw this weekend.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Thanks, Gordon!

I want to thank Gordon Atkinson for the kind words he wrote on his remarkable blog,

If you have not visited that site, leave here and do so right now. Gordon has done something that is always notable for a minister: opened a window and given us a peek at the faith-- and the faith community-- before the window is dressed.

One of the motivations of faith is to act right. This, of course, is a good thing. But, it is a bad thing to cover up when we don't, which is much of the time. It is an unfortunate feature of human nature that people and churches do more of the latter than the former. So, it sure is good to have folks like Gordon who are honest and insightful enough to expose these deceits.

He is prophetic in this way, but gently and wryly so. He uses a mirror instead of a club.

We laugh, we cry, we wince, but we never yawn, which is miracle enough in anybody's preaching!

Saturday, September 16, 2006

A Church Home Finds Us

We make much in the "Christ-haunted" South, as Flannery O'Conner would say, of "finding a church home."

Yet another peculiar phrase of our provincial religious lingo, "finding a church home" implies that worshippers are not pilgrims but consumers. Which is it: are we on the prowl for the place that suits us best or in search of a community where we might serve?

Maybe our church home, like our biological family, finds us instead.

Shortly after we arrived in Atlanta, we couldn't help but notice the Peachtree (wouldn't you know it?) Baptist Church right down the street from our home. I knew nothing about the fellowship or the pastor or its mission or theology or affiliation.

But, the message on the marquee got our attention: "our doors and our hearts are open to everyone." Sabbath day rolled around and we headed to Peachtree to give it the "truth in advertising" test.

We were greeted warmly at the door, seated hospitably by the usher. Looking around, we saw that all kinds of folks, like us, were testing the message on the marquee too: old and young, black and white and brown, male and female.

When the worship began, the music inspired, the preaching challenged, the pastors-- both female and male-- blessed. The minister extended the invitation, and I felt my wife's elbow in my side. "Get up," she whispered. "We're joining."

"We are?" I asked, shocked, as Jana nudged me out into the aisle.

Within seconds, we were huddled at the altar praying with our new pastor and being introduced to a new fellowship of Christ.

As you might have guessed, we have discovered in the ensuing weeks nothing but delights of meaningful relationship, purposeful mission, and impactful ministry. In the midst of these glad discoveries, we will also soon see that this fellowship too, like all other bodies of Christ, has its struggles and shortcomings.

No surprise there. One need only look as far as the newest members to see that mixed bag. A seminary professor of mine used to suggest that folks dispense with their arbitrary ecclesiastical consumerism-- after all, how do I know what church is best for me?-- and simply attend the one nearest their home.

Try it. You might just be found by a church home.

Monday, September 11, 2006

That Awful Day

This very hour five years ago, American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center. Within the next 100 minutes or so, both towers fell, and our world of relative security and invincibility collapsed with them.

We watched, horrified. We huddled around televisions not only to witness, but also, together, to weep and pray.

What monstrous inhumanity would do such a thing?

Like Pearl Harbor was for my parents and grandparents, we will have that awful moment frozen in our consciousness for the rest of our lives.

Our thoughts turned instinctively to our oldest son, Chad, who had just finished basic training in the Army, and was assigned to the 173rd Airborne Infantry based in Italy. Little did we know that day that a short six months later he would parashoot at midnight into the muddy wheat fields outside Kirkuk in northern Iraq.

Indeed, our thoughts and prayers today, as every day, turn to our middle child, Cliff, who is presently serving in the Army Corps of Engineers in Baghdad. It is night there, as I write this. Duerma con los angelitos, mi estimado hijo.

Fateful in yet another way, September 11, 2001 was my final day as pastor of Second Baptist Church in Lubbock before we relocated to San Antonio to serve Trinity Baptist. As the news stories poured out of New York, I knew I would have to dispense with the prepared speech that I was to deliver to the Lubbock Rotary Club at noon. I spoke extemporaneously instead, trying to give some utterance to the confusion and shock within us.

We also cancelled a community-wide service of thansgiving scheduled for that evening, and held a service of prayer instead. We just needed to be together in solidarity, grief, and hope.
We need to do that today too.

Let us remember the persons who perished in the attack and the resulting rescue effort, their bravery and heroism.

Let us remember the young men and women who have died in Iraq and
Afghanistan-- almost 3000-- their families and loved ones.

Let us remember those wounded in these wars, almost 20,000. I'm thinking now of the young man whose purple heart ceremony I was honored to witness at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio. He was gravely wounded in an attack, with severe burns over much of his body. When he spoke, though, his mind was on his buddies who didn't make it. "I just wish I could have done something for them." Where does a twentysomething year old kid get that kind of moral courage?

Let us remember what we don't want to remember: the Iraqi citizens who have died, perhaps over 40,000, many children.

Lux aeterna, luceat eis, Domine: Grant them eternal Light, O Lord.

Remembering is a powerful act. In it, someone has said, we get "re-membered:" put back together again from that which has "dis-membered" us.

You and I need that this day.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

A Word About…God’s Women

Forecasting trends of future Christianity is a dangerous enterprise. Who is ever to say what a Spirit as unpredictable and unmanageable as God’s is going to do next?

According to our Leader, this Wind blows where it wants to, which means that it may move in a different direction just to mess with our minds. Carlyle Marney, a maverick himself, likened that Spirit to a bucking bronco kicking the slats out of every corral we try to construct. Sooner or later a sane person might quit trying.

Therefore, please forgive the following hunch. It is based not on statistical data or empirical analysis or exhaustive research or scholarly inquiry, but, rather, on just looking around. Not an exhaustive field of observation, mind you, but just four sessions of two classes in one school of theology where I am teaching as a visiting instructor of preaching this year:

Many of the preachers in our churches will soon be women.

This will happen whether we like it or not, regardless of theology or biblical exegesis.

Over half of the students at the theology school where I teach are women. Over half of the students in the preaching class I teach are women. What this means, in terms of sheer arithmetic, is that churches will soon either have women in their pulpits or they will have no one.

These women are not overly gender-conscious concerning their call. They are not crusaders or pioneers. They are not out to make a point-- unless, that is, it’s one they are developing in a sermon.

Rather, they are submitting themselves to the call of God on their lives. Simple as that.

It would be understandable for these women to bear a chip-on-the-shoulder disposition, given the poor record of the churches in calling women to the preaching ministries. For years now, the churches have not been willing to call as preachers the very women they have sent to the seminaries to learn how to preach.

But, no rancor or self-pity here. These women just want to preach.

Some have directly criticized-- accurately, I suspect-- our more progressive churches for not having yet called a woman as senior pastor. This criticism will be short-lived. These churches will soon have no recourse but to consider women as candidates for the senior pastoral positions. The math will dictate it. There simply will be too many women for the churches to ignore.

The current situation reminds me of the old fellow who, when asked if he believed in a woman preaching in the pulpit, responded, “Believe it? Hell, I’ve seen it!”

Some disclaimers are in order. The argument I am advancing is in no way meant to devalue the considerable gifts and powers women possess for the preaching ministries of our churches. Nor, by the way, do I wish to overlook the capable, talented men God is equipping for the ministry of proclamation.

It is not my intention here to argue for an “unhindered” (as the book of Acts would put it) pastoral vocation for women, something I strongly embrace. Nor is it my intention to promote women preachers, something I firmly endorse. Nor is it my intention to advance biblical grounds for women’s church leadership, something I passionately espouse.

I do wish to say that the Holy Spirit is clearly and joyously calling women to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ, that these women are responding in remarkable numbers and devotion to this call, that it is the unmistakable intention of God to fill our pulpits with women as well men, and that the Spirit has a sneaky and persistent way of seeing that God’s will is done.

These women are not going away. God will continue to claim them for the announcement of the Good News in the churches. They will keep answering that call in ever greater numbers. They will count and pay the cost of that discipleship in rigorous training. And they will keep stoking that “fire in the bones,” staying ready, as Spurgeon put it, to “light a fire in the pulpit” anywhere they are given opportunity to do so.

I give testimony and bear witness to that.