Friday, February 24, 2012

The Vow

Dad loved to sit in the summer sun. Wheelchair bound in his final few years, he would park himself outside Emerald Meadows, the assisted living home where lived until he passed away. If the sun was shining and the temperature was warm, he’d be there for hours on end. Because of his wheelchair, he wouldn’t wander far from the front doors of the facility. He would just sit quietly, watching the world of Emerald Meadows come and go. When I’d visit, I’d have to remind him to change how he folded his hands in his lap to be sure his summer tan was even on each hand. He’d laugh and then proceed to tell me about everyone who had come and gone that day, how many airplanes flew by, what birds he saw, and what projects the maintenance man was up to.

Dad wasn’t the only resident who enjoyed the sunny sidewalk in front of Emerald Meadows. On many occasions I noticed a man who seemed to be in his 60s, pushing a lady in her wheelchair around the parking lot. It was obvious that the lady was a fellow resident, but I surmised the man was not. Dad, all-knowing in regard to the comings and goings of his home, explained that this couple had been married for many years and the husband would come visit his wife almost every day. I asked why she lived there as she looked much younger than most folks at Emerald Meadows. Dad said she lived in the dementia ward because she suffered from a severe case of Alzheimer’s. As I watched this man walk circle after circle in the parking lot with his wife, I felt a deep sadness for them. What was it like for her to be pushed around by someone she may or may not remember that day? What was it like for him to take care of the woman he loved for decades who didn’t always know him, appreciate him, and love him back?

Though I felt sadness for this couple, I never saw any sadness in the spirit of this man. As a matter of fact, I saw much of the opposite. His interactions with her were always pleasant, gentle, patient, and even joy-filled. And he was incredibly faithful. Dad would often remind me how faithful this man was with his visits with his wife. I think this deeply impressed my dad, a very faithful man himself. Dad had been married to my mom for almost 60 years before she passed. But, I think dad saw a whole new level of husband-type faithfulness in this man.

When I brush shoulders with people like this, it makes me wonder what causes them to be able to love so faithfully, unconditionally, and sacrificially. I wonder what would have happened if the pastor who officiated their wedding would have told him at the altar, “Your days together will end with you caring for her in a deeply demented state. She will die and won’t know you.” Would he still choose to marry her? Who knows? But, I’m confident in saying that he must have learned at some point to make some critical conclusions about love. I’m betting he believes love is a decision more than an emotion. Though feelings, attractions, and emotional moments can draw a man and woman together, they ultimately fall short of being true love. How could this man faithfully and joyfully serve his wife while her mind drifts farther and farther away?

As we examine our relationships this week, it would be good to have a clear definition of love in our minds. Eugene’s Petersen’s The Message defines love this way from Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 13.

Love never gives up.
Love cares more for others than for self.
Love doesn't want what it doesn't have.
Love doesn't strut,
Doesn't have a swelled head,
Doesn't force itself on others,
Isn't always "me first,"
Doesn't fly off the handle,
Doesn't keep score of the sins of others,
Doesn't revel when others grovel,
Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth,
Puts up with anything,
Trusts God always,
Always looks for the best,
Never looks back,
But keeps going to the end.
Love never dies.
1 Corinthians 13.8-10

This is the love that makes these wedding vows work: “For better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish; from this day forward until death do us part.”

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Giving. Saving. Trusting

Save 10%. Give 10%. Live within your means. Trust God with the rest. This was my dad’s sage advice for me when I got my first job. Regardless of economic means, whether plenty or little, learning to save and give was the best financial wisdom he could offer me. But, these were not just words of advice, Dad lived out this principle and over the years, I was able to see the fruit of his wisdom and discipline in this area.

My dad was a World War II vet who grew up during the Great Depression. When the war ended, he entered Moody Bible Institute to begin his pastoral training. Along the way, he met my mom; and upon graduation, they started their life of ministry together. For over 50 years, dad pastored small, rural churches that couldn’t pay him much. But Mom and Dad lived by the principles they learned about saving and giving.

In March of 2008, we moved my dad into an assisted living facility. My mom had passed away a few years earlier and since that time, he had been living on his own. Dad now needed some assistance in the everyday things of life. His new home provided personal care, good food, and no worries of falling or being alone. When he moved, my family entrusted me to manage his finances and pay his bills. As I began to dig into his financial paperwork, my biggest question was, “How much does he have stored away and how long will it last?” My sisters and I would struggle to afford the cost of long-term elder care, so this was an answer we all wanted to know. What I discovered was that we had nothing to be concerned with. He had saved plenty. Mom and Dad had planned well for the later years of life. How did they do this? Dad never earned more than $25,000 in a year.

But there was another interesting thing I discovered about his finances. He and mom had faithfully given to their church, to missionaries they personally knew and loved, and to organizations they felt worthy of their support. None of the gifts were large, but they were regular. My parents were giving out of the excess from their Social Security check. How could they have such financial peace in their final years? What was their secret? Save 10%. Give 10%. Live within your means. Trust God with the rest—even on a Social Security income.

When the stock market took the biggest dive since the Great Depression, a sense of anxiety gripped me as I looked at Dad’s portfolio report. Like most people, his savings took a hit. My stomach dropped as I realized we had lost over a full year of his care. “What if…” I asked myself. “What if this continues? What if he loses it all? How will we care for him?” As quickly as my worry consumed me, a voice of peace entered my soul. It was as if God was telling me, “Phil, I’ve always taken care of your dad. He’s been faithful. Why would I stop caring for him now?”

Save 10%. Give 10%. Live within your means. Trust God with the rest.

Friday, February 10, 2012

The Sunday Rules

We had some serious rules on Sundays, growing up. The TV was always off (unless it was sports). We never competed in an organized sporting event (unless it was in our backyard). We couldn’t go swimming even on the hottest summer days (we could run through the sprinkler). We never did any household chores (those needed to be done on Saturday). We never ate out or did any shopping (that would require others to work on Sunday to serve us). I’m sure there were many more things on the “we don’t do that on Sunday” list that I’ve since forgotten.

But, there was a long list of things that we did on Sunday that we didn’t do on other days of the week. We went to church for three to four hours: Sunday school, worship service, youth group, and Sunday night service. We usually ate a wonderful meal—typically pot roast with baked potatoes and mom’s “seven layer salad.” We often had company for Sunday lunch where mom got out her good dishes and we kids were on “be polite” alert. We played a lot of board games as a family with Christian programs on the radio in the background. Basically, on Sundays we were home and we were together. It was a special day of the week in our family. My parents called it the Lord’s Day and if we questioned the plan of the day, we were reminded of the fourth commandment, “Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.” They would explain that God had set apart one day a week for the nation of Israel to rest and focus their hearts and attention on him. They did Sabbath on Saturday, we do it on Sunday.

As I look back at my childhood Sundays, my memories are mixed. On one end, I loved Sundays. We had great food, time for a nap and lot of family time together. On the other end, there were just so many rules that didn’t make sense to me. And some of the rules seemed based on what other people would think if we would violate those rules. At times it felt we were protecting the perception of the Sabbath rather than the principle behind the commandment. To be honest, when I became an adult I rebelled against the traditional view of Sabbath rest. I tossed aside the rules of the Lord’s Day and claimed freedom. I didn’t care if my neighbor saw me mowing my grass and I refused to feel guilty if we decided to go to the baseball game or the movies on Sunday afternoon. But over time, I began to see some flaws in my new found philosophy. Sunday was beginning to look like every other day. Other than church, there was nothing holy or set apart in what we were doing. At times, Sundays got so busy that it felt like I needed to go back to work on Monday to get some rest.

Life, at times, is much like a swinging pendulum, isn’t it? We often respond to things in our past so strongly that we swing the pendulum too far and, again, miss the point that God was originally trying to make. That certainly happened to me in regards to my view of Sundays, Sabbath and rest. So, here are some Sabbath Rest principles that I’m now striving to find balance in.

1. After God created, he rested (Genesis 1). He didn’t rest because he was tired. He rested to step back and enjoy the outcome of his work. We need rest because we get tired, but we also need to model God’s character by slowing or stopping our activity to simply enjoy his goodness in our world and work.

2.We are commanded to set apart time to rest and connect with God (Exodus 20). If you had a friend that was involved in adultery, lying, coveting, dishonoring his parents, or worshipping idols, you may point them right back to the Ten Commandments. But for some reason, we look at the fourth commandment as just a good suggestion. I need to see it as God does, so important that he put it with nine other critical rules for living well. It’s in the Big Ten!

3.“Keeping it holy” simply means to set apart a day to make it unique from the other six. The objective is to find rest, reflection, and connection with God during this time. In that, there’s incredible freedom. We live within God’s principles but not under man’s rules for the Sabbath. Jesus said, “The Sabbath was created for man and not man for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2.27) Sabbath rest is a gift to you from God.

4.Sabbath rest principles can be enjoyed every day. It’s good for us to take a Sabbath 30-Minutes during a busy day to rest, reflect, and connect with God. The benefits of Sabbath can be claimed anytime.

We are busy people, aren’t we? We have so many options in how we can use our time. Perhaps less is more when it comes to how we fill our calendar. This week schedule your Sabbath time. When will you slow down to rest, to reflect on God’s goodness and to quietly connect with him? Rest in his goodness as you slow down. Enjoy the break as you connect with God.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Delivering Packages Matters to God

As I write this week, I’m sitting in a warm coffee shop doing things that I love to do as a pastor of ABC. This morning, I led a men’s Bible study, met with a fellow staff member to plan ministry and now I get to write some thoughts that I hope encourage someone. I just looked up to see a UPS truck drive by my window and I’m reminded of a past life I had in a brown uniform and a journey that God has brought me on in my work over the years.

I always counted myself fortunate to have a good job that paid the bills and gave me enough money to raise a family in a decent home, while having a little extra to have some fun once in awhile. For 16 years, United Parcel Service provided that for me. Every day it was hard work with constant pressure to produce in sometimes adverse conditions. “The tightest ship in the shipping business” was no exaggeration. I knew and accepted that as part of being employed by this company, so I dedicated myself to working as hard as I could each day. I knew that the harder I worked, the sooner I could get home. And, the sooner I got home, the sooner I got to do the things I really loved: family, fun, and ministry. I honestly didn’t enjoy the work much and there were times I really hated it. I remember days as a delivery driver having an overloaded truck, snowy roads, wet feet, demanding bosses, cranky customers, biting dogs, and mechanical breakdowns. But I stayed with it for 16 years because of what it afforded me to do. I often said, “Life begins when I get home.” My job was a means to a paycheck.

About ten years into my time at UPS, I began to grow discontented with my philosophy of life and work. Why was I spending so some much time and energy doing something I really didn’t enjoy? Why did I feel shackled to the golden handcuffs of this job? I was learning a ton about myself and was beginning to realize that I was a highly relational person who gains life from significant interactions with people. Delivering packages seemed like a disconnect with how God had wired me. Sure, I was having a ton of interactions with people during my day, but they were all in 30 second increments. “Good morning. How are doing today? I have five packages for you. Please sign here. Have a great day.” I must have said that a million times. I so longed to have a greater impact in people’s lives. I longed to use more of my day doing the things that God had uniquely designed me to do. For three years, I prayed daily for God to give me a new opportunity.

Eleven years ago this past Christmas, I began working at Ada Bible Church leading the charge for small groups. It was such an easy decision to leave UPS to pursue this as I had been attending ABC since college, and I was heavily invested in the small groups ministry. Finally, I found my calling. Finally, my work mattered for something significant.

Because I was offered the job in November, I decided to give UPS a one month notice. They were coming into “peak season” during the holidays and it didn’t seem right to leave them a man short. This gave me a full month to tell my co-workers and the customers I saw everyday that I was moving on to another job. Honestly, I didn’t expect much response when I shared the news. These people really didn’t know me. I was just another dude in a brown uniform. But, what happened over that month surprised me. I was blessed with notes, gifts, tears, hugs, and some very warm “well-wishes.” People thanked me for my service, my consistency and even my friendship. Friendship? Really? In some sort of weird way, those 30 second conversations with people made a small but important impact on their day. Perhaps the way I worked and conducted myself mattered to people. Just maybe, for 16 years, my work at UPS mattered to God. There was something missing in my perspective of work. I had missed something important with my “life begins after work” philosophy.
I remain thankful for the opportunity that God gave me to serve in the context of a church, but I’m humbled and sobered to think I may have missed opportunities because my thinking about work was slightly skewed. Perhaps I could have paid more attention to this passage during those days:

Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord. Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving. Colossians 3:22-24

What’s interesting to me is that Paul doesn’t differentiate between good work and bad work, high-impact work and low-impact work. He says, “Whatever you do, work with all your heart.” God is your boss and he cares about our attitude, our quality, our joy, and our ability. And as any good boss does, he’ll reward us for doing good work (any good work) with a good spirit.