Thursday, April 28, 2011

Faith of a Shortstop

As I walked to our varsity baseball practice the other day, I noticed that one of our players was absent. Adam, our starting shortstop and one of our team captains, never misses practice. A couple of his teammates reported he was at his senior presentation. Every senior at NorthPointe Christian High School has to do a presentation in the spring of their senior year. It can be about virtually anything, but it needs to be about something personal to their life. Our head coach looked over at me and said, “Coach, you need to go that presentation. Skip out and go. I’ll handle practice.”

Though Adam was a senior and first year to our baseball program, he was not new to me. Adam had played on a couple of youth travel teams I coached when he was much younger. I had always known that he was a special young man. He had poise and maturity which excelled that of his teammates and he was gifted leader. After our travel teams disbanded and the kids moved to high school teams, I lost contact with Adam. I was saddened to hear that he had developed a significant elbow injury and couldn’t throw. I hoped the best for this young man. So when he transferred to the school where I was coaching, I knew it would be wonderful to get reacquainted with him and his family and to hear his story of the past few years.

Adam dedicated his senior presentation to the story of his injury. He spoke of his past, baseball being a high priority in his life, as a tool to build his life around. He talked about all the things he gave up to practice and excel at baseball. It seemed like a good investment of his time and energy, at the time. But then his baseball career hit a major hurdle. His elbow grew sore and doctors said it needed surgery. Two surgeries and many hours of physical therapy later, Adam was back on the field.

But, his injury had radically shaped his life for the good. You see, when Adam couldn’t throw a baseball, he chose to attend his youth group again; to go on mission trips and be mentored by his youth pastor. His injury afforded him time to discover other areas of his life that needed spiritual attention. He was able to grow in other areas rather than hitting and fielding a baseball. He was able to see a broader perspective of his life and God’s design and plan for him.

I left that presentation filled with pride and joy for this young man. As one of his former and present baseball coaches, I was glad that Adam had not given up on baseball. He’s a wonderful player and we are fortunate to have him on our team. But, I was even more moved that an 18 year old young man had learned such a vital life lesson. He learned that God loves to use the difficult hurdles in life to draw us to himself and to teach us invaluable lessons through our struggles. I’m confident that Adam will face challenges tougher than a blown out baseball elbow. But I’m not worried for Adam. I know he’ll face his next serious life challenge with faith that God will do something good in him, and hope that God will craft him into the man God wants him to be.

Testing and trials are constant threads in the stories I read in Scripture. Abraham, Joseph, Moses, Daniel and Peter are a few of my favorite Bible characters in whom God created something good through their testing and trial. I’m so glad my young friend Adam is setting his life in the same direction as these great men of faith. I’m convinced that God will do something special through this young man who is mature beyond his years.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Man Named Red

A handful of years ago, I stood in a baptism tub with Red, listening to his spiritual story being read. Red’s life was riddled with pain and tragedy, some of which was self-inflicted from frequent abuse of alcohol. He lived a hard life that was drastically far from God and his body and his soul showed the scars. But in the tub that day, he beamed with faith and hope.

Red struggled to get into the tub because his leg was still healing from multiple surgeries. Several months prior, he was broadsided while riding his motorcycle. The painful effects of his broken bones and the surgeries that followed were still evident. Dave, who had been instrumental in Red’s coming to Christ, was assisting me in Red’s baptism. As we began to dip him into the water, Red groaned in pain. Dave and I stopped. Baptism wasn’t supposed to be physically painful and we didn’t want to hurt him more. But Red looked at us and said, “Get it done, boys! I need to be baptized today.” With both pain and joy expressed on his face, Red emerged from the water. As a pastor, I’ve had the privilege to baptize many people, but Red’s is one of my favorites.

Red disappeared from my life for a couple years, but I got a call from him this week. He moved to Florida because he was unable to work due to physical restrictions from his injuries. The last couple of years have been financially difficult for Red and his wife. They moved from town to town in their camper looking for a place to settle. During that time, Red learned he has cancer. His call to me was to tell me that he was choosing not receive the treatment recommended for this type of cancer. As he said, “The treatment is worse than the cancer, Phil. I’m not going to do it.”

It’s not up to me to discern if Red is making the right decision in stopping his treatment; but what I know from my hour with him, he’s again filled with faith and hope. Throughout his history of pain and tragedy, Red has found strength in finding faith in a good God who has loved him and saved him from the horrible life he was living. Now, hope is what keeps Red’s heart alive. Hope is the ability to look beyond your current painful situation to see a day when all this will be made right. He still has hope that he’ll be healed of the cancer; but if not, he has hope that he’ll experience the embrace of Jesus.

Today, I’m tired of stories of death and sickness. Two friends of mine entered the hospital this week with serious physical issues. Yesterday, I listened to another close friend grieve. He had just attended the funeral of his teenage kid’s youth pastor who was tragically killed. Right now, I’m fully aware that this planet is broken. It’s groaning to be cleansed of sickness, pollution, and death. I’m so glad this is Easter week! I need an infusion of faith and hope that God will do what he says he’ll do to make all things right—to make all things new again.

Paul wrote to the church in Corinth about the importance of Jesus’ resurrection, which we celebrate this week. After giving a compelling argument that Jesus’ resurrection from the dead means we have a certain hope in our own resurrection, Paul paints a picture of the day when all will change; all will be new again. If you’re sick of sickness, if you’re weary of sin and death, let these words comfort you this Easter week.

But let me reveal to you a wonderful secret. We will not all die, but we will all be transformed! It will happen in a moment, in the blink of an eye, when the last trumpet is blown. For when the trumpet sounds, those who have died will be raised to live forever. And we who are living will also be transformed. For our dying bodies must be transformed into bodies that will never die; our mortal bodies must be transformed into immortal bodies. Then, when our dying bodies have been transformed into bodies that will never die, this Scripture will be fulfilled:

“Death is swallowed up in victory.
O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?”
For sin is the sting that results in death, and the law gives sin its power. But thank God! He gives us victory over sin and death through our Lord Jesus Christ. So, my dear brothers and sisters, be strong and immovable. Always work enthusiastically for the Lord, for you know that nothing you do for the Lord is ever useless. 1 Corinthians 15.51-58 NLT

Friday, April 15, 2011

Between Two Worlds

I’ve learned the hard way over the years that photographers can do amazing things in an advertisement to make a mediocre vacation place look exotic. The phrase, “Not as Advertised!” rings through as you try to adjust your expectations downward to make the best of a disappointing vacation situation. Bugs, smells, loud noises, broken furnishings, and trashy surroundings never seem to be depicted in brochure pictures.

But my last vacation, I have to say, was “As Advertised!” As we walked into our rented condo on the Gulf of Mexico, we all said in harmony, “Ahhhh… this is what we need!” Though the brightly decorated and well furnished condo was welcoming and warm, it was what we found in the back of the condo that was most inviting. A huge slider door opened to a sixth floor balcony overlooking the Gulf and its white sand beaches. The brilliant sunshine, the warm salty breeze, and the persistent sound of lapping waves brought a sense of peace and tranquility to our spirits. We knew this would be a place for rest and distraction from our busy and full lives.

But throughout the week, I noticed a stark contrast in our surroundings. While the backside of our condo spoke of ease, rest, and quiet, the front did not. If we needed to go somewhere for dinner, grocery shopping, or even to walk to the beach, we had to use the front door. There, the view was dynamically different. Instead of sand and water, there was the asphalt of parking lots and a five lane road. Instead of birds and boats, there were cars, water towers, a Rite Aid, and a boarded up gas station. Instead of the sounds of waves and kids playing in the sand, there were sounds of traffic and sirens in the distance. Instead of feeling a cool breeze cutting through the warm sun’s rays, there was a humid stench from the exhaust-filled pavement. Even the doors spoke to this contrast. The back door, a huge glass slider, invited a view toward beauty. The front door, made of steel with multiple locks and no windows, spoke to security and isolation. As I stood in the middle of this vacation condo, it felt like I was on the threshold between two distinct worlds.

When Jesus approached the cross, he felt the sharp contrast between two distinct worlds. As he was betrayed, denied, spit on, mocked, unjustly convicted, and then left to die in the most painful way of execution, he was experiencing the full impact of a broken and diseased world. But, what led him to stay on the path to the cross? My goodness, he was God! He didn’t have to endure this. He could have walked away from this ugly mire of humanity and left us in our stench. But, Jesus had a clear vision of a perfect world of rest, peace, rightness, beauty, and goodness. That vision kept him on the threshold, the cross, between two distinct worlds.

When I think of contrasting worlds, this passage moves me deeply. Decades after Jesus’ death, John, one of his disciples, had this vision. This was the “view off the balcony” that Jesus had from the cross.

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the old heaven and the old earth had disappeared. And the sea was also gone. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven like a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.

I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, “Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.”

And the one sitting on the throne said, “Look, I am making everything new!” And then he said to me, “Write this down, for what I tell you is trustworthy and true.” And he also said, “It is finished! I am the Alpha and the Omega—the Beginning and the End. To all who are thirsty I will give freely from the springs of the water of life. All who are victorious will inherit all these blessings, and I will be their God, and they will be my children. Revelation 21.1-5 NLT

Monday, April 11, 2011

Unjust Conviction

On January 18, 1991, Franky Carrillo’s life dramatically changed. The 16 year old from Los Angeles was identified as the gunman in a drive-by shooting, killing 41 year old Don Sharply on the steps of his home. Five witnesses at the scene testified that Franky was seen with the gun in the car at the time of the shooting. The first jury deadlocked, declaring a mistrial. But, the second jury found Franky guilty and a judge sentenced him to two life sentences.

On March 15 of this year, Franky was released from prison. After 20 years, new evidence proved to a judge that Franky had been misidentified. He was innocent. Scott Turner, one of the intended victims of the shooter and one of the five witnesses that testified against Carrillo, recanted his story. He said that he not only misidentified Franky in a photo lineup, but that he had also influenced the other four witnesses to choose Franky. Because there was no physical evidence in connecting Franky to the crime, the prosecution relied heavily on the testimony of Turner and the four others. Turner apologetically took the stand stating that what he had done in testifying against Carrillo was wrong and he was sorry he had “stolen the life of an innocent man.” Two others also admitted to the shooting. The evidence was clear and Franky was set free. (Story taken from

Can you imagine being accused of something that you didn’t do? Can you imagine people colluding against you in false testimony that would cost you decades of your life? Could you imagine enduring the penalty of a crime you didn’t commit as the real criminals go free? Stories like this horrify us. We are deeply saddened at an injustice like this.

As we read the story of Jesus’ final days before the cross, we should be horrified by the injustice of the scene that unfolds. Jesus is betrayed by a mole who called himself a follower and friend. Those who were known as spiritual leaders of Israel plotted to seize and kill Jesus under darkness of night so not to rile the interests and anger of the people. When Jesus is arrested, his followers flee his side and are scattered in fear and confusion. One disciple denied he ever knew Jesus. Only one disciple was found near Jesus at his execution. He was tried in a “kangaroo court,” being passed from authority figure to authority figure, none of whom really wanted anything to do with justice. Jesus was convicted for crimes that were trumped up by leaders who felt threatened by Jesus’ claims and teaching. At the end, Jesus was punished, not for his crimes, but for the sins of others.

In church circles today we often hear the words, “Jesus died for our sins.” These words are easily said but can lose their punch when we fail to recognize what happened as Jesus approached the cross with all its humiliation, mockery, spit, false accusations, and—on Jesus’ part— his silence. Could this scene be more “just” than it appears? Several decades after Jesus’ death, Paul writes to a church in Rome.

For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard. Yet God, with undeserved kindness, declares that we are righteous. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins. For God presented Jesus as the sacrifice for sin. People are made right with God when they believe that Jesus sacrificed his life, shedding his blood… God did this to demonstrate his righteousness, for he himself is fair and just, and he declares sinners to be right in his sight when they believe in Jesus. Romans 3.23-26