God, bless America… please.

Our family spent last week at Pensacola Beach, part of the so-called Emerald Coast. The name comes from the gorgeous water that kisses this 100 mile stretch of sand – a glimmering, translucent shade of green. Pensacola Beach claims to have the whitest beaches in the world. IMG_6743 editTechnically speaking, the sugar sand of Pensacola Beach is very fine Appalachian quartz, eroded from the mountains and deposited at the Gulf Coast over the ages. It’s a stunningly beautiful place. For me, it’s a also a spiritual place, an annual respite from hectic summers of ministry.

Pensacola is home to the Blue Angels, the Navy’s flight demonstration squadron. Founded in 1946 and piloted by Navy and Marine aviators, the six F/A-18 Hornets of the Blue Angels  perform for approximately 11 million spectators a year. blue angels 2014On most Tuesday and Thursday mornings, the Blue Angels can be seen practicing in the skies over Pensacola. If you’ve never seen them perform, they are awe-inspiring. Their sheer force, matched with the incomparable precision, is truly something to behold. It is not uncommon for beachgoers to witness a flyover.

On Tuesday morning my eight-year-old daughter and I were sitting on the beach together when we heard that familiar, distant roar. We looked up to see the Angels flying east, about 500 yards off shore. It gets me every time. Chills ran down my spine and I got a lump in my throat at the display of American power.

There had been a good deal of nuclear saber rattling during the previous week, as the American president and the North Korean leader traded jabs and threats. There was something very reassuring about sitting on a sunny, beautiful beach with my daughter as the massive force of the U.S. military roared overhead. God Bless ‘Merica.

On Thursday morning I was reading by the pool when the familiar roar returned. But this time it was different. Judging by the relative height of the buildings, the six Blue Angels jets were no more than 75 feet off the beach. They flew right at the water’s edge, no more than 100 yards out from where I was sitting. The F/A-18’s were close enough for me to see the individual helmets of the pilots. Being that close to a fighter jet is not just something you see – it’s something you feel. It never gets old. I messaged several friends with the simple caption, “God Bless America!” That was Thursday.

On Friday in Charlottesville, Virginia, white supremacists from across America gathered for the “Unite the Right” rally.

NYT charlottesville pic

Credit: New York Times

They were protesting that city’s decision to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee, standing incongruously in the recently renamed Emancipation Park. For the past 100 years, the park had been named for the Confederate general around whose statue they gathered. They chanted anti-Semitic and white nationalist ideology. On Friday night the protestors carried tiki torches.  On Saturday they carried Confederate and Nazi flags.

Having gulfed hard all week, I was driving our family back home on Saturday. We followed a well-worn path that thousands of Arkansans travel each summer when returning from the Emerald Coast: west on I-10 through Florida, north on Highway 98 through Mississippi, then West on I-20 through Louisiana. Around 2 p.m. the news broke: someone drove a car into a crowd of people who were protesting the white nationalists. Dozens were injured. Heather Heyer, 32, from Charlottesville, was killed. It was hard to explain it all to my daughters.

Blood and news flowed in Charlottesville. The president struggled to respond. My reaction to Charlottesville was similar to my reaction to the Blue Angels just two days before. The words may have been the same, but the feeling was different. God Bless America.

On Thursday, I had tasted the acrid residue of American fighter jet exhaust while sitting in a beautiful courtyard overlooking one of the most picturesque beaches in America. The beauty, the might, the freedom, a lump in my throat. God Bless America!

On Saturday, Charlottesville (and America) tasted the acrid residue of centuries of sinful oppression. Heather Heyer is the latest causality in the age-old battle between human beings… all one race, all created in the image of God, yet divided by hate. The ugliness, the division, a lump in my throat. Where do we go from here?

God, bless America… please.

 

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The Merciful Manager

It was the summer of 1993. I was 16 years old and had found gainful employment at Wal-Mart store #279 in my hometown of De Queen, Arkansas. That building now houses a Tractor Supply Company, but I digress and we’ve got work to do here.

When the store was exceptionally busy I would work as a checker, but my usual task was stocking the shelves of the household chemicals department. I would spend hours going from the stockroom to the sales floor, carting cases of bleach, laundry detergent, and awful assortments of potpourri sprays.

A good friend of mine (who shall remain nameless) had the same responsibilities for the adjacent department, so our paths naturally crossed. We had a lot of fun that summer. And sometimes, a lot of fun went right on over into too much fun, as you’re about to see.

If you’re unfamiliar with candied orange slices, they are hard to describe. The texture is orange slicessomething like a cross between a gummi bear and that paste that your dentist uses to make molds of your teeth. The flavor is too sickly sweet to be a fruit, but not nearly good enough to be called candy. So when my coworker and I discovered a bag of them unceremoniously busted on the stockroom floor, we immediately knew what to do.

We divided the bag between us and retreated to our respective sections of the stockroom. While generally unfit for human consumption, candied orange slices are perfectly designed for throwing. The size and shape are particularly suited for both distance and accuracy.  They are slightly curved, as well as angled toward their center, giving them an exceptional aerodynamic profile.

I hastily constructed my fort with cases of bleach and detergent while my coworker did the same with items from his department. Moments later, the shelling commenced. When he was in the open, a high-velocity, flat-trajectory sniper throw was in order. But when he ducked behind his fortifications, the situation called for an artillery-like arch. My goal was to lob a candied orange high and down into his cardboard foxhole.

My throw was perfect. Seriously, it was a thing of beauty. The high ceiling allowed for the perfect arc. I couldn’t have judged the height and distance better if I had a summoned all my geometry skills and used a protractor. I released the orange slice, and then stepped into the aisle of the stockroom to watch the beautiful flight, on a direct line to rain a sugary shelling on my buddy.

And then the unthinkable happened. My department manager was never at the store at that time of night. What was she doing here now?

The stockroom doors flung open as my orange slice reached its apex. In no-man’s land strolled my department manager, blissfully unaware of the unfolding carnage. My buddy’s head popped up and his eyes met mine. We both stood there, frozen. Between us stood my department manager. Unbeknownst to her, a candied orange was already beginning its descent. And her head was directly in the flight path.

Just as she turned to look in my direction, the orange slice smacked her right in the forehead. My buddy’s eyes were huge. I was utterly defenseless and without excuse. I froze, already framing my apology.

I don’t recall ever seeing an employee handbook, but I assume that shelling one’s department manager with subpar orange candy was a fireable offense.

To my great surprise (and relief), she simply said: “There’s some boys back here that need to stop playing and get back to work.” And with that, she turned around and walked right back to the sales floor. We cleaned up and went back to work. And that was it. No write-up, no warning, no scolding from the store manager.

Mrs. Frances was 44 then, just three years older than I am right now. She died on Tuesday after a very brief battle with cancer. I didn’t know she had been sick. I learned of her death during prayer requests last night at church. Her passing came as a shock to me, and I managed to hold back most of the tears until I could be alone after church. My personal surprise and sense of loss can in no way compare to that of her family, close friends, or church family. Or her coworkers from Wal-Mart #279 in De Queen, where she worked for thirty years.

My career with Wal-Mart only lasted six months (but not because of the candied orange situation). I moved on, but I never forgot Mrs. Frances and her mercy to me. I was impulsive and irresponsible; she was patient and full of grace.

In the years that followed, she and I never spoke of the incident, though we saw one another often. She and Mr. Don were the closest neighbors just up the gravel road from some property I look after for a friend. Our paths would cross on that gravel road every few weeks. She was always smiling.

Some lessons are hard to fully learn in the moment. In that moment, I was just glad to not face the full consequences of my irresponsibility. That was the short-term benefit. She corrected me, made her point, and that was the end of it.

The long arc of her reaction that day taught me how to show mercy, not just how to receive it.

I trust that the next time I cross paths with Mrs. Frances, the streets will be made of gold, not gravel.

Rest in peace, from the kid who threw the orange.

frances smith.jpg

 

It’s not about the yard.

IMG_6278 editYesterday was our church’s fifth annual day of service in our community. NEXT Teen Camp from Bogg Springs in Wickes, Arkansas brings its high school students to town one afternoon each summer. The project has grown steadily every year, and yesterday we had 13 dozen students sweating through a hot July afternoon to show God’s love to the people of De Queen.

One of those crews of volunteers was assigned to clean up a yard for a lady who lives just a few doors away from our house. Yesterday was hot, with a heat index well over 100 degrees. The students arrived at about 1:30 p.m., in the hottest part of a hot afternoon. The crew went to work, pulling weeds and starter cords.

When I knocked on the door to let my neighbor know we were there, she stepped out and gave me a big hug. I was surprised that she answered. For three days, I had stopped by to check on her and ask if it was okay if we sent a crew to clean up her yard. For three days, she hadn’t answered. Maybe it was sheer curiosity brought on by a dozen high school kids in her yard that finally brought her out onto the porch.

I explained the work day and what we were doing, and introduced her to the sponsors leading the crew. She was glad to see us, and sat down in a chair on the porch and started talking to the students. She has sons about the same age as these church camp students. Her life has been complicated lately, but that’s another story for another time. She hadn’t answered the door for a few days because she hadn’t wanted to see anybody. But she wanted to talk to the students while they worked.

To keep track of ten different work sites, I crisscrossed town all afternoon. Some locations needed more supplies, and some needed more workers. Even the best plans sometimes collapse when the action starts. I was stressed the whole time the volunteers were in town. I stopped back by my neighbor’s house about an hour into the project.

“I’m renting this place, but I’m about to move on Friday. Too many memories here.” Friday was only two days away. I was a little disheartened to think that those students were cleaning up a yard for a house that was about to be vacant in 48 hours. I left to check on other projects. She asked if they would clean up the back yard as well. I had budgeted an hour for her yard; it took two and a half.

It wasn’t until later that I realized what really happened. My neighbor has had a rough few weeks. She’s been isolating herself from the world. What drew her out to the porch was a yard full of energetic teenagers who volunteered for her under the hot July sun. The whole time the students were there, she sat on her porch and talked to them. Before they left, she gave them hugs and asked for a picture with them.

I’ve driven by a couple times since then, and she’s retreated back inside. But for a few hours yesterday, she enjoyed the presence of some strangers who loved her. It wasn’t about the yard at all. They thought they were just cleaning up her yard, but they were lifting her spirits. Even if she had lived in that house 20 more years, the grass would have grown back within a couple weeks anyway.

For ministry leaders, there’s a tendency to make ministry all about the method. It’s too easy to focus on the plan, the project and the process rather than the people. There’s a time and a place for plans, but this was ministry. And the plan can’t ever be more important than the people.

Have a plan, but love the person.

Finding the Good This Good Friday

 

cross pic upper room
Photo credit: The Upper Room

There’s a pastor out there stressing the crowd size for Sunday. Some are worried the crowd will be too small. Others will actually be irritated if the crowd is larger than normal, because after all, “Where are all these Christmas-and-Easter people every other Sunday of the year?”

There’s a pastor out there who’s stressing the fact that the church’s new projection system didn’t arrive in time for Easter services.

There’s a southern mom out there who’s stressing that this is the first years her daughters objected to wearing matching dresses.

There’s a grandmother out there who’s stressing the menu, and what time everybody will arrive for lunch, and how she’s going to get everything done in time.

There’s a believer out there who’s stressing that Christians have surrendered to paganism by calling it “Easter” and buying bunnies and eggs.

And none of those things dent the fact that Sunday morning commemorates the centrality of the resurrection to our Christian faith.

If there are five or 500 in your services Sunday, they need to hear about the resurrection, and it’s your job to tell them. All the disciples ran away from Jesus when it came time for Him to go to the cross. So He went alone. You don’t need a big audience, or any audience, to be faithful to God this Sunday. Preach your heart out to anybody who shows, and thank God for the privilege. If ISIS doesn’t kill 49 of your parishioners Sunday, you will have had a better Easter than the Coptic Christians’ Palm Sunday last week in Egypt

Christians victoriously celebrated the resurrection for approximately 1990 years before computerized projection found its way into church. It’ll be okay. I’ll be okay.

Through the deprivations of the Dark Ages, the Great Depression, and a thousand other catastrophes great and small, we are reminded that what anybody wears this Sunday is of very little consequence. By all means, wear some clothes to church Sunday, and thank God that you have clothes to wear and a church to attend.

If you buy the wrong ham, if you forget the beans are in the oven, you forget to make that weird salad that has nuts but no lettuce, and your irresponsible nephew is 30 minutes late to lunch, Sunday will go on.

If you’re a believer who’s stressing the incorporation of pagan symbols into the celebration of resurrection Sunday, take heart: the kids aren’t thinking about ancient Babylonian fertility rites (unless you tell them). And if it bothers you, then don’t call it Easter, and don’t hunt Easter eggs. We don’t mind. Easter and Christmas both represent the amazing power of the gospel to overtake darkness and baptize even its symbology to tell its own story… not unlike the cross itself.

Indeed, if the crowd is down 8% from last year, the rolls burn, the dresses don’t match, your sermon introduction is weak, and you can’t find your hideously ugly Easter tie… guess what?

If everything else goes wrong this Sunday, Jesus still rose from the grave.

In our own church, we lost four of our dearest older members over the course of the past year, the latest one just this week. Actually that’s incorrect. We didn’t lose them. We know exactly where they are. They are with Jesus. Their lives are hidden with Christ in God. And when He appears, they will appear with Him in glory.

So I’m in my office on this Good Friday, drinking coffee, typing through tears, and blaring some Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir and being thankful that we have a day like Sunday. I’m thankful that every Sunday is a reminder that Jesus rose again, guaranteeing that we will rise again. Stop stressing. Find the good in this Good Friday. If you’re grieving, Jesus crying at the tomb of Lazarus gives you permission to cry at the tomb of your friend too. If you’re my friend and you weren’t planning on going to church Sunday for whatever reason, come to church with me.

Just know this. Sunday’s coming, and there’s nothing that death, deprivation or disaster can do about that.

What matters come Sunday morning is that when Jesus rose from the dead, He gave us the power to shake our fist in the face of darkness and proclaim, “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting? But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

 

To a believer questioning cremation…

[The following is my reply to my friends who asked for insight on cremation as they sit down to pre-plan their funerals soon.]

First, you guys are to be commended for planning your memorial services ahead of time. I’m sure it’s not easy to sit down and go through the process. But I know for a fact that it makes things much easier on your family when the time comes, knowing that you have already taken care of these decisions. Secondly, I commend your seeking a biblical perspective on such an important topic. 

As of 2006, the national average for cremation was about 33%. Arkansas was near the bottom of that list at only 16%, along with the other Bible Belt states of Louisiana, Tennessee, Kentucky, Alabama, and finally Mississippi at only 10%. In other words, the most evangelical states have the lowest rates of cremation. That certainly doesn’t make cremation right or wrong, but I wanted you guys to have some perspective on national numbers.

By 2011, cremations nationally had risen to 42%. According to the National Funeral Directors Association, cremations were expected to outnumber burials for the first time in 2015. During that same time frame, Mississippi saw a 50% rise in cremations. Culturally, the issue is clear: cremation is increasingly popular.

Biblically, the picture is somewhat less certain. The Catholic church officially prohibited cremation until 1963. While not expressly forbidden in evangelical circles, the above statistics definitely show a historical evangelical slant against cremation. However, evangelical resistance to cremation is softening over time.

To be clear, the Bible does not expressly state a position on cremation. The traditional Jewish practice was burial. Egyptians mummified their bodies, while the Babylonians practiced cremation. Although the Bible strictly prohibited certain pagan practices (human sacrifice, idol worship), cremation is not forbidden in the Old or New Testaments, even though it was practiced in surrounding cultures. 

 There are some relevant texts:

 1) In Genesis 3:19, God told Adam that he was made from dust and would return to dust.

2) In 2 Corinthians 5:1, scripture describes our physical bodies as a tent, a temporary dwelling place.

3) 1 Corinthians 15:48 and 53 describe our physical bodies as “of the dust” and “perishable.” The same chapter depicts the resurrection body as “of heaven” and “imperishable.”

4) Revelation 20:13 speaks of the sea giving up its dead at the resurrection. Human bodies decompose in the sea just as they do in the earth, and yet God will be able to resurrect them. 

In 1 Corinthians 6:19, scripture refers to our bodies as a temple of the Holy Spirit. Based on this scripture, some believers hold that care should be taken to preserve the physical body after death, and therefore cannot choose cremation.

We have no clear biblical mandate here. What do we do when the Bible doesn’t tell us what to do? We make the best decision we can, informed by faith. Romans 14:23 says, “…everything that does not come from faith is sin.”

In the absence of a clear biblical perspective about burial, can a believer opt for cremation in good faith? In my humble opinion, cremation simply speeds up a process that God Himself ordained: that the human body is inherently temporary, and ultimately reverts back to its elemental condition, from which God is supremely able to resurrect believers to eternal life. 

And at the same time, because there is no biblical mandate, believers who opt for a traditional burial should go forward in faith as well.

Compassion in the Clouds

On Monday, February 20, I boarded Alaska Airlines flight 665 from Dallas at 8:20 a.m., accompanied by two ministry friends, traveling to a conference in Seattle. Back in our own small town of De Queen, Arkansas, my wife had scheduled a 9:15 appointment with our friend and family physician Dr. Jason Lofton for our younger daughter Mia Beth.

rc-bess-snow

Riley Cate (L) & Mia Beth (R)

She is eight, and was diagnosed with severe asthma at age two. Over the past four years, she has been hospitalized five times for respiratory distress. During her kindergarten year, she spent the better part of three weeks in several stays in Arkansas Children’s Hospital. One of those trips was via Angel One, Children’s med flight service.

Since I had an early flight on Monday morning, I had left home on Sunday afternoon to spend Sunday night with friends in Dallas. During the night, Mia Beth’s cold had gone from bad to worse. We were concerned, but it had been two years since her last hospitalization. I decided to go ahead and make my trip to Seattle.

In the doctor’s office back in De Queen, Mia Beth’s pulse ox (percentage of oxygen saturation) had dropped into the low 80’s (normal is over 95%). Dr. Lofton quickly made the decision to transfer Mia Beth to our local hospital via ambulance, and then on to Children’s Hospital in Little Rock, about 120 miles away. I was somewhere over Colorado when I saw this image from the emergency room back home.

bess-rc-dq-er

In the plane over Colorado, I told my friend Doug what was going on, and then sank back into my seat between two total strangers. Mia Beth’s condition wasn’t life threatening. We had been through this a number of times before. Arkansas Children’s Hospital is a world-class facility. I knew everything would be fine, but Seattle is a long way from Little Rock when your daughter is in the hospital there.

Without my even knowing, Doug had quietly explained my situation to the flight attendants. About 20 minutes later, two of them told me they were sorry that I was having such a rough day, that they had spoken to the captain, and that Alaska was doing everything possible to get me to Little Rock as soon as possible. They asked me to have a seat and they would let me know when they had a plan. Soon after, one of them handed me this slip of paper and said the captain had everything worked out.

change-info

Alaska had arranged for me to be on their first flight back to Dallas. But not only that. They also arranged for me to fly from Dallas to Little Rock (five hours by car). 

But here’s the kicker: Alaska Air doesn’t even fly to Little Rock. American Airlines is a sister airline of Alaska, and the incredible people at Alaska arranged for American to fly me to Little Rock, at no additional cost to me.

Once on the ground in Seattle, the captain introduced me to a very professional representative named Bryan Andrews, who gave me my boarding passes and asked me to walk with him to a waiting area. Bryan escorted me to the Alaska VIP lounge and set me up in a private conference room. He invited me to make myself at home, charge my devices, call anybody anywhere on their phone, and help myself to lunch and drinks upstairs. Bryan gave me his personal cell number in case there was anything else he could do for me. He told me he didn’t want me to have to think about anything except my daughter.

Arriving in Dallas, I had just 14 minutes to make my connection in a different terminal for my American flight to Little Rock. I made my connection, and some great friends met me at the Little Rock airport and drove me on to Children’s where I finally got to see my Mia Beth about 10:00 p.m.

ach-er

We spent the next four nights in the hospital, and the staff at Children’s was fantastic as usual.

We were discharged on Friday afternoon. On doctor’s orders, she has to stay home from school all next week, but she is recovering well.

All of that is a good story with a happy ending. But this is what makes it a great story, at least to me. On Monday, we were about 30 minutes from landing in Seattle when one of the flight attendants named Leah came to my seat.

She was the same one who had given me my flight information just a few moments before. She said she knew I was on my way to a ministry conference, and that her own father had been a pastor, and when he passed away, she had been given his visitation book.

visitation-book

She said, “I marked a passage for you that I thought might provide some comfort for you today. I’m praying for you and your daughter.” It was a Gospel passage about Jesus healing a sick child. The foreword of the book reads…

“Because we need God to keep coming to us, we need visitation. Members of the body of Christ need to go to one another and share the Word that opens our narrow hearts to all the blessings that come from the faith, hope and love in Christ Jesus.”

I simply want to convey my sincere thanks to Alaska Airlines for the culture of compassionate professionalism that empowered their people to care for me so well. A special thanks to Bryan Andrews in Seattle for his calming presence and personal hospitality. But most of all, my deepest appreciation to Leah, who spoke comfort to my hurting heart with the words of Christ at 30,000 feet. Your father would be proud.

Comfort is Close

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:4).

When I’m writing or speaking about these opening lines of the Sermon on the Mount, it’s almost inevitable that I end up defining what the word blessed means, or explaining the Latin reason why this passage is known as The Beatitudes. There’s a time for those things, but this is not that time.

This is just a simple post, inspired by the undeniable fact that mourning is part of life, because death itself is part of life. The more we love, the more it hurts when we lose those we love.

Let’s just be completely honest; there is nothing blessed about mourning itself. There’s nothing happy about putting a towel over your pillow because you know you’re about to cry yourself to sleep. There’s nothing inherently joyous about hot tears streaming down your face. There’s nothing to be envied about a person who’s too grief-stricken to speak. Nobody looks at that person and wants to trade places with them.

That’s why this very simple statement has an explanation. Jesus knew that in the depths of our sorrows, we wouldn’t be able to see through the storm clouds to consider ourselves to be blessed, happy, joyous, enviable, or anything like it. And so Jesus explained it for us.

The reason why Jesus understands us is because Jesus Himself knew how it felt to lose a friend. Jesus knew what it was like to feel that burning mixture of anger and sorrow that expresses itself in tears better than words.

And so Jesus explained the blessedness of mourning. Those who mourn are blessed because they will be comforted. It’s just a simple future tense, the normal way of stating something that will happen. The comfort is coming, arriving at any moment. But it’s also a divine promise, because God Himself said it was going to happen.

Jesus can say with certainty that comfort is coming, because He is the one who will bring it. As the gospels unfolded, Jesus told the disciples that when He left, He would send the Comforter, the Holy Spirit. That’s the same third of the Trinity that is also called the Spirit of Christ.

When you mourn, you don’t feel blessed. But you are. You are blessed in your mourning because you have a divine promise that you will be comforted. Jesus could promise that you’ll be comforted, because He will be the one to comfort you through His own Spirit. “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34:18).

If you’re mourning, take heart. Comfort is close by.

If you’re reading this, you probably shouldn’t still be a basket baby.

By faith Moses, when he was born, was hidden for three months by his parents, because they saw that the child was beautiful, and they were not afraid of the king’s edict.  By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter” (Hebrews 11:23-24, ESV). [For the full background narrative, see Exodus 1:1-2:3.]

The author of Hebrews uses the passive voice in 11:23 (Moses was hidden by his parents). In the passive voice, the subject is being acted upon. In verse 24 the writer shifts to the active voice (Moses refused). In the active voice, the subject is doing the action. That’s an important linguistic shift. But more than that, it’s an important spiritual shift that each of us must undergo. If we refuse to make that shift, we’re going to stay basket babies for far too long.

There is a time when it’s appropriate to be the baby in the basket, and when you’re there, you need to be thankful that somebody had the faith to put you there. Moses was born into an oppressive slave culture that considered his life to be worthless. Moses was born into a culture of death, but his parents had the rebellious faith to shield him by putting him in a basket to save his life. Moses had no choice in that. He was totally at the mercy of his faithful parents who made the decision about where he would go.

Many of you were raised (passive voice) by believing parents who placed you in a basket of faith before you could know the difference. Your being placed in the basket is evidence of somebody else’s faith on your behalf. Somebody took you to church, or told you when you were making a mistake. Your being a basket baby is the blessing of growing up with a loving, supportive church family. Being a basket baby means that as you grow and mature, you’re surrounded by a biological or church family that loves you and wants you to grow into conformity with Christ. That’s a great thing.

But at some point, you must be identified by what you choose, not by what somebody else chooses for you.

Moses could have chosen to stay in Pharaoh’s house. He could have had the life of ease and royalty, or he could live as a persecuted Hebrew. Either way, he had to make that decision himself. Moses’ parents chose life for him, but Moses would have to choose how he lived that life. Moses could choose to be a prince or a slave. As the song says, “Sometimes the hardest thing and the right thing are the same.”

Moses was 40 when he finally came to that crossroads and left the basket. If you realize that you were privileged enough to have been a baby in the basket, have you left it yet? Being in the basket isn’t really about your age, but your maturity. It’s how responsible you are for your own spiritual identity and development.

How can you tell if you’re still in the basket? There are a few ways:

If your faith is defined by what other people chose for you, then you are still a baby in the basket. Regardless of your age, if you believe what you believe simply because it’s what your parents believed, then you’ve not taken ownership of your faith. At the end of all things, you alone will answer for what you chose in this life, not what somebody else chose for you.

If you’ve never really struggled with what you believe and why, then you might still a baby in the basket. Kids raised in church should be thankful to God that their parents raised them in an environment of love and faith. But if you’re not a child, then you need to be making your own commitments. That process might be painful. You can imagine the personal crisis of Moses as he wrestled with his identity. It’s not comfortable, but it’s necessary.

If you attend church without a thought for what you can personally contribute, you’re behaving like a baby in a basket. If that seems harsh, just think about it: Moses was three months old when his parents put him in the basket. A three-month-old knows how to do about three things: eat, sleep and cry. There are more, but you get the idea. A three-month-old doesn’t care what else you have planned at 3 a.m. If the kid is hungry, you’re going to be awake. If the kid needs a diaper, it will not let you rest until it is warm and dry. We don’t expect babies to do anything more at that point because they are not capable of more. A baby in the basket expects everybody else to take care of its needs. Is that how you view your relationship with your church?

If you throw a fit when you don’t get your way, you’re behaving like a baby in a basket. If you whine when other people don’t meet your needs and expectations, you’re acting like a baby in a basket. Again, that doesn’t have anything to do with age. We’ve probably all known people who acted very much like babies when it came to church life. Everything revolved around them, and if they didn’t get what they wanted when they wanted it, you could expect a fit.

If everybody in your church were as committed to it as you are, would your church be better off, or would it be in trouble?

Moses was blessed to have protective parents; they rebelled against a culture of death in order to protect a helpless child. The church needs more people to outgrow their baskets, take ownership of their faith, and take on the responsibility of looking out for others, even when it’s difficult.

Be a fully functioning disciple, not a baby in the basket.

You do have time. Do it the Burls way.

The Brandon Burlsworth “Greater” movie opens this weekend. If you’re not familiar with his story, here’s the abbreviated version: an All-State lineman in high school, Brandon turned down scholarships from smaller colleges and chose instead to walk on at the University of Arkansas. By his sophomore year, he had earned a scholarship. By the time he played his final game, he had earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees. He was on the academic All-SEC team and was a first team All-American, leading the Razorbacks to two SEC West titles. In the spring of 1999, Brandon was drafted by the Indianapolis Colts.

Brandon’s senior year was the only year that I ever had season tickets for the Razorbacks. Even from the cheap seats, everybody could see Brandon’s trademark Superman glasses. His was a great life story that ended all too soon. I was living in Little Rock that spring Brandon died in a car accident, just 10 days after he was drafted by the Colts.

 
All over Little Rock, people flew their Razorback window flags that week in April. It looked like gameday in midtown, all in honor of Brandon. I worked in the Prospect Building and lived in Forest Place right next door, a walkable distance to War Memorial, the central Arkansas home for the Razorbacks. Strangers on the elevator talked about how sad it was, how fun Brandon had been to watch, and what might have been.
 
Former Arkansas coach Houston Nutt was on the Dan Patrick show this morning, talking about Brandon’s work ethic, his life and his legacy. Coach Nutt shared something about Brandon’s final day that I didn’t know. Brandon had called Coach Nutt that Wednesday afternoon to let his coach know that he wouldn’t be at the team meeting that night. The Hogs were receiving their SEC rings for winning the west the previous season. Brandon was going to miss the ring ceremony because he was driving back home to Harrison to take his mom to their church for Wednesday night Bible study.
 
I’m not writing this to advocate for a rigid, legalistic church attendance. The nature of Brandon’s commitment to an All-American level SEC football surely caused him to miss more than a few church services along the way. But something about Brandon’s last day struck me. He told Coach Nutt he could get the ring later, but he really wanted to be at Bible study back home. Maybe it was because Brandon knew he he would be leaving soon for the NFL. He had no way of knowing he wouldn’t make it home that night. None of us do.
 

All these years later, there’s still the sadness that Brandon’s life was too short. But more than that, there’s the admiration of how well Brandon used the life that he had. You have time to do whatever you want to do. And as long as you’re alive, live.

Brandon Burlsworth

Weeping With Orlando

The following is taken from my sermon notes from this morning:

Before I get to my message this morning, I want to speak to a tragedy that will dominate the news this week. In case you haven’t heard, early this morning, a gunman opened fire in a night club in Orlando, Florida. The latest news reports say there are 50 people dead, and at least that many others wounded. The mayor of Orlando has asked the governor of Florida to declare a state of emergency. Local people in Florida are being asked to donate blood. In a nation that is no stranger to mass shootings, today’s goes on record as the worst mass shooting so far.

I read that news before I even got out of bed this morning. My reaction was a mixture of things. I was shocked, but I quickly moved on to be pre-annoyed at the reaction that I knew was coming. If the shooter turns out to be a conservative “Christian” then the left will go crazy. If the shooter turns out to be Muslim, the right will go crazy. People on both sides of the gun control issue will capitalize on the tragedy. The presidential political candidates will issue statements. This is all we’re going to see on the news for weeks. And by the way, it was a LGBT nightclub, which will bring in a whole other angle of the social war to this situation.

I started driving to church, with all that swirling in my mind. And then I heard the voice of a distraught mother being interviewed on the radio. It had been six hours since the shooting, and she still hadn’t heard from her son. You could hear her anguish.

It took me back to December 2012, when a gunman walked into Sandy Hook elementary school and took the lives of 20 children and six staff members. My daughters were the same age as the victims in Sandy Hook. I grieved hard that weekend. If you were here that Sunday morning in 2012, you may recall that I could barely keep it together. I grieved so hard that I could barely speak, because I could see my own children in those children. I could identify with those parents in their loss. And I wept with them.

This morning we Christians were on our way to church as we heard that 50 people died in an LBGT night club last night. There will be many opinions and many reactions… policy, ideology, morality. The social war will rage this week.

For a moment I felt morally superior as I considered that we should grieve for these victims because they are somebody’s children. And then I was reminded of a statement I read this week from Jefferson Bethke in his book “It’s Not What You Think.” He was writing about the female victims of sexual violence and how we sometimes say, “How could somebody do such a thing? She’s somebody’s sister, or somebody’s daughter.”

He notes that when we say that, we mean well. We’re trying to humanize a victim. But unintentionally we are actually devaluing her. Please listen carefully to these words: “We don’t realize that we are subtly tying one human’s value to another human’s value to have weighted value. A person isn’t valuable because she is someone’s daughter or sister; she is valuable and has dignity and worth because she bears the image of God. She is a human.

If every one of the victims from the Orlando shooting had been single, only-child orphans with no children of their own, they would still be human beings, created in the image of God and therefore worthy of our grief.

Heaven forbid that a mass shooting should happen in a Christian church this morning. But if it were to happen, and the news were about 50 Christians who died in church, would you expect LGBT people to say, “Well we really don’t agree with their lifestyle choice to be Christians and to have been in church this morning, but… it’s still sad that they’re dead, because they were somebody’s family member”?

Let us do as the Bible tells us in Romans 12:14-15: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.”