We Can See Russia From Here

Have you ever been “the ugly American?” I have. It happened in Paris. The $600 luggage charges for our flight from Paris to West Africa seemed exorbitant. So in my best high school French I told the counter agent what I thought. I accomplished nothing but to make my high school French teacher look really bad. Worse yet, I embarrassed myself and my country. I paid the $600. Nothing was saved. Much was lost.

Here in northwest Iowa, in an insulated corner of an insulated state we may not think we have much opportunity to represent our country to the world. Oh sure, we travel. And even a short trip to Worthington, Estherville, or Storm Lake can put us in touch with people from many nations. But we think Dickinson County, the Okoboji Lakes region, is different. It isn’t, especially in the summer.

Students from around the world come to our shining lakes for summer employment. I bumped into Bulgaria, noticed China, became friends with Jamaica, and enjoyed conversation with Russia. I’m still hanging with Turkmenistan. I’m told there were more than 70 internationals working here. We had opportunity to welcome and at least in some small way influence the planet, perhaps for decades to come.

Most of these global guests have now departed. What impressions did they take home? Will they love America? Or will they remember ugly Americans? Will they never forget the kindness of strangers? Or were they mistreated, misunderstood or ignored?

In 1 Samuel 30, there’s a great little story of the Poet-Warrior David before he became Israel’s king. David’s then hometown, Ziklag, had been attacked. Innocents were captured and belongings plundered. David and his soldiers pursued the vandals, the Amalekites. In their pursuit they came across a foreigner, an Egyptian. He had served the enemy, but had now been left for dead. David cares for him, giving food and water.  The Egyptian proceeds to help David by revealing the enemy’s location so justice can be done.

It would be easy to conclude that the moral of the story is that we should help foreigners because they just might be useful. That fits with why we would show kindness to internationals serving the tourist trade each summer. It’s good business. But that really misses the point. David helped the foreigner before he knew that the foreigner could help him. David missed perfect by a mile but he was “a man after God’s heart.” God’s heart is to care for the abandoned and the foreigner for His own sake, for pure love’s sake, without expectation of return.

So how did we do this summer? How did I do? I didn’t do much. But I came late to the fact that these young friends were here. I’m already thinking about next summer. I can do better. In loving foreigners with no strings attached we’ll show them the heart of God and just maybe, we’ll change the world.



USA Today recently featured 13 of the newest roller coasters in the country. These thrillers promise higher speeds, steeper drops and sharper turns than their ancestors. From Cedar Point in Ohio to Wisconsin Dells to Orlando to Dollywood and beyond, these whiplashing wonders carry brave souls higher than a 20-story building, hurtling them downward at freeway speeds. After twists and turns and dips and swirls riders debark to check off bucket lists and look for buckets.

The nation’s newspaper overlooked a local coaster. Here in beautiful downtown Arnolds Park, our amusement area boasts the “Legend.” But then again, it’s not new. Built in 1927, it’s the 13th oldest wooden roller coaster in the country. The highest point is a mere 63 feet and that drop will generate 41 mph. It might blow your ball cap off if the wind is right. But here’s the thing: The Legend is greatly loved, even if old, slow and low. Impressive stats make headlines, but legends link generations.

This year park officials demonstrated their commitment to The Legend old or not. Portions of track were replaced at a cost of $250,000. The ride will be smoother and a little faster. But as one reporter concluded, “She’ll still have just enough clickety-clack.” We could use more “clickety-clack” in our lives. We need to ride (or scream or laugh…or for that matter, worship) where our grandparents did. Thrills come in assorted flavors. The best are oldies but goodies.

Recently, a church workshop took me to Chicago. There I sat under the teaching of William Taylor, Rector of an Anglican Parish in London. Taylor was a fascinating bloke. But what really captivated me was the fellowship he serves. St. Helen’s Bishopsgate was birthed as a church and priory in 1210. The place was already a legend in the 1590s when one William Shakespeare was a communicant there. St. Helen’s is still going strong. The squat stone artifice is nestled in London’s financial district. From there the winsome rector and his congregants boldly proclaim the legendary love of God in Christ to urban financiers. The best and most enduring gifts sometimes come in the least ostentatious of packages.

As we enter another summer season in Iowa’s Great Lakes, our little tourist heaven, it’s good to remember the lesson of The Legend. Boats, bikes, and bars can offer a certain thrill. A little vacation merriment is a good thing. But life only finds full meaning when rooted deeply in ancient and eternal Truth. This is found in Jesus Christ alone, revealed in the Bible and alive in His bride, the Church. I recently worshipped in a church with ancient roots. Some of the branches of that group have grown brittle, but for this believer, it was rich to draw from the deep history, tradition, and generational bequest of Christian Truth they bear.

Nearly 30 Christian churches in our small county proclaim Christ as Savior in deed and word. I serve the beloved old summer camp meeting, the Okoboji Bible Conference. That place still has its clickety-clack after nearly 80 years here. On our campus, we regularly pray for the safety and Divine blessing of all our summer visitors. While enjoying every healthy diversion the area has to offer, it is good to remember that some old school Christian assemblies can still be doorways to new life in Christ. Transformations like this are the stuff of legends and they’ve been happening for a long, long time.


Winks, Whispers and Wonders

The world is a garish, noisy neighborhood. Decibels and pixels abound. The phone in my pocket spews more information in hours than I can assimilate in years. I’m reminded of my college speech prof who counseled tongue-in-cheek, “Shout louder if your argument is weak.” There’s a whole lot of shouting these days.

The prophet Elijah lived in distracted times. Faith in Israel’s God was at low ebb. People were frantically worshiping other things. Power structures were arrayed against Elijah to silence his invitation to passionate faith in the One True God. In the chaos, Elijah wanted to hear The Voice. So he sought a quiet place and waited. A contemporary Bible version records, “A hurricane wind ripped through the mountains and shattered the rocks before God, but God wasn’t to be found in the wind; after the wind an earthquake, but God wasn’t in the earthquake; and after the earthquake fire, but God wasn’t in the fire; and after the fire a gentle and quiet whisper.”

Even today, hurricanes, earthquakes, and fires add noise to news. Whispers are intimate treasures easily lost in the hub-bub. God was in the whisper.

Sometimes God speaks up. C. S. Lewis wrote that He shouts in our pain. Psalm 19 declares that He “pours forth speech” by way of the universe. The book of Hebrews says in the past He spoke through prophets but nowadays has uttered Himself through Jesus. Jesus said we don’t live by bread alone but by Words from God’s mouth. Jesus also said He would send the invisible person of God, the Holy Spirit to “guide us into all truth” by speaking to us.

It seems that God is verbal, but, like a good a teacher, He lowers His voice to invite attention. He is the human whisperer. When we slow down, get away, or are laid up for a time, His whispers may be heard as shouts. It’s all relative. Like the ticking clock unheard except in solitude, God is always speaking. He shows up, winking His love and inviting us on an eternal adventure. We dare not settle for cheap noise lest we miss The Voice.

Elizabeth Barret Browning described this in visual terms. “Earth’s crammed with heaven, And every common bush afire with God; But only he who sees, takes off his shoes. The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.”

How we hear or see God is likely as diverse as our styles and personalities. But we best begin in quietude. If you really want to hear Him and know Him, let the chaos of contemporary life settle. Listen for the whisper. Watch for the wink. Your faith will be encouraged and your life enriched. We dare not lose the best of forever in the noise of now.

Light at the Intersections

Rural highways are often dark. Night journeys in the country are illuminated only by the reach of the headlights. The exceptions are the primary intersections. There are often streetlights at the intersections. Special awareness is needed and provided at such points.

This past summer, our family journeyed with my wife’s dad as he concluded his days on earth. We walked with him, bearing him to and “through the valley of the shadow of death.” After long months of seeing only what was immediately ahead, we came into the additional light to be found at the corner of “what is” and “what is to be” where this life meets the life to come.

Some of that light shined from caring persons in our community. Their performance was stellar, their compassion brilliant. Our family is grateful for the caring professionals and care-givers staff who were light on the valley way.

But the greater light dawned as death neared. Some of it is the stuff of the spiritual and mysterious. He was a man of great faith, specifically faith in the finished work of Jesus Christ, the light of the world, to provide life now and forever for all who believe and receive. Dad’s deathbed was a happy-sad farewell, part comedy routine, part church service, part family reunion.

One of the bright lights at the crossroads of forever was the giving and receiving of blessing. Death did not come as a thief. We had time to say goodbye and we did so with gusto. Whatever the failures of family living across the better part of a century, they were put to rest with confession, forgiveness, and affection in word and touch. Grieving got all mixed up with blessing. Tears of joy and of sorrow mingled on our cheeks.  

Perhaps the zenith there on Zenith Avenue was when Grandpa called a very pregnant granddaughter to him. He said, “I want to bless your baby.” She approached. The light at the intersection intensified as he gently touched her belly, speaking/praying for the health and good of the child he would never meet in this life. As death’s darkness encroached, generational blessing lighted the room and the way forward. It was bright and beautiful.

In the Bible book of Hebrews, Chapter 11, the faithful of the ages are listed. In a contemporary version, Hebrews 11:20 reads this way: “By an act of faith, Isaac reached into the future as he blessed [emphasis mine] Jacob and Esau.” When we help and care and love, and especially when we bless, (that is, declare a future filled with “shalom”) we stand at bright intersections, reaching into uncertain futures, changing them for good. 

Papa lighted our futures with blessing as he departed. If blessing is good for the intersection, it is probably better for the dark road. Don’t wait too long to shine blessing on all who cross your path today.

Come Forth

Madison County, south of Des Moines, is my ancestral home. It’s far enough off I-35 that a visit requires either intentionality or spontaneity. For me it was the latter. Whim and memory coaxed me toward the exit less taken. As I approached the town of Truro, I saw the cemetery on a hill to my left, marked by one large evergreen. The plot was mercifully small. It took little time to locate the graves of my great grandparents and grandparents.

The solitary moments brought tears, not so much in grief over the long-departed but rather for the human condition generally, mine and yours. Life is brief. Our days, as the Psalmist says, are as grass. They flourish then wither. Lives once vibrant and productive are so soon marked by weathered stones in unkempt graveyards.

In the several days before his own death, Jesus visited a tomb. The stone was not a monument but a doorway, an entry that was about to become an exit. Lazarus had been dead four days. Jesus would soon resuscitate his friend, thereby putting death on notice as to its own terminal condition. In Christ, death is not the last word. Tombstones are stepping stones.

In raising Lazarus, Jesus was fomenting a confrontation with the religious and political establishments that would soon lead to His own death. He was also foreshadowing His resurrection and those of all who believe in Him. Before speaking life back into Lazarus, He comforted the grieving sisters by saying, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.”

In a loud voice Jesus called Lazarus forth. Lazarus could not raise himself. No, it took the Divine Presence and Word to raise him. But, after his decaying, stinking, grave-cloth-bound body was quickened in that cave, he did somehow squirm to his feet, stumbling to daylight. Jesus instructed the astonished crowd to “Unbind him and let him go.”

Each year, billions around the world will gather to observe the death and celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. That’s a good thing. I hope you joined them to walk the way of the cross and empty tomb again. Be reminded that the resurrection means that all of this is more than ancient history and more than annual ritual. It is not just an invitation to an old graveyard, but also to a new life. We celebrate the resurrection because Jesus has spoken “come forth” over us too.

Jesus invites us from death to life now and forever. The death pall of our sin gives way to the dance of life He offers. The unsealed grave seals the deal. The tears are for joy. There’s likely not a Christian or a Christian church in your town that won’t introduce you to this new life. They’ll take you, grave clothes and all. Is Jesus shouting into your tomb? There is no better time to “come forth.”

A Smokin’ Hot Book

Bibles are everywhere. Following centuries of painstaking hand copy-work, Gutenberg’s press began to churn them out around 1456. Since then, the most published book in human history has been distributed in 7.5 billion copies and counting.

Thanks to the Gideons there’s one in your hotel room. You may own a few old Bibles passed down by a parent or grandparent. Perhaps there’s a BIG family Bible. Random versions from who-knows-where likely reside on your shelves. The average household holds three or four.

Nowadays “there’s an app for that” and a great website called Biblegateway.com displays any version in your choice of language, searchable and on demand.

The Bible’s attestations to its own value and veracity often fall on skeptical ears. Its human authors say they were “carried along by the Holy Spirit,” calling the contents “God-breathed” and enduring. Compelling support to the power and truth of the Judeo-Christian scriptures is seen in their longevity, stewarded and refined across 5 millenia. Add to that their unequaled distribution, with portions in 2,400 languages touching 90% of the world’s readers.

But, the real proof is in the changed life, re-directed, restored, and saved by the power of the Good News. Seven hundred years before Christ the prophet Isaiah believed that God personally gave Him this statement about “the Word of God:”

So shall My word be that goes forth from My mouth;
It shall not return to Me void,
But it shall accomplish what I please,
And it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it.

Some time ago, a man was distributing Bibles in Zimbabwe when he received an antagonistic response. “If you give me that New Testament, I will roll the pages and use them to make cigarettes!” “I understand that,” the book bearer replied. “But at least promise to read the page before you smoke it.” The man agreed and took the New Testament.

Years later, that man who had given the New Testament was attending a church convention in Zimbabwe. The speaker on the platform suddenly spotted him, pointed him out to the audience, and said, “This man doesn’t remember me, but fifteen years ago he tried to sell me a New Testament. When I refused to buy it, he gave it to me, even though I told him I would use the pages as cigarette paper. I smoked Matthew and I smoked Mark and I smoked Luke. But when I got to John 3:16, I couldn’t smoke anymore. My life was changed from that moment!”

The Lenten season is upon us. Christian’s often give something up for Lent. This year, let me suggest that you also pick something up for Lent, a Bible, in a readable version. Unlike cigarettes, it doesn’t have a warning label but perhaps it should: “CAUTION: It has been determined that this book will be beneficial to your health…forever. Handle with care.”

A Time to Tear Down

Tearing down yesterday can be difficult. No matter the quality of yesterday, we have the capacity to form it to the comfort of an old shoe. That is not a bad thing. In the worst of times it’s a coping skill and in the best of times, an ability to perpetuate all that makes life worth living. The downside is that holding yesterday too close can keep tomorrow at bay.

Just now, I find myself in a demolition process. The old cottages at the Okoboji Bible Conference on Broadway at 71 in Arnolds Park are going away. There they’ve sat for more than 100 years. They’ve been added too, taken from, covered up, re-roofed, and held together by thick paint for a long time. They came to the Conference when the property was purchased in 1945 and are the only original buildings on that parcel. Prior to that, they were rental cottages. One presumes that their walls hold the secrets of a century of weekend getaways to Arnolds Park. Perhaps they were once upscale. But in the last many years they’ve become a community eyesore. It’s time for yesterday to go.

The inhibitions to this change were many: tradition, economy, uncertainty about the future. But the sneaky one was emotion. Those cottages may have been junk, but they were our junk. Our older leaders, of which I am now one, remembered much joy in those buildings. For some, it was the joy of family memories. For me, the cottages were a delicious escape from interminable sermons to play cards and eat pizza with the director’s kids. Ahh…but, there I go again, savoring yesterday.

The proclaimer of the wisdom of the Bible book of Ecclesiastes said it quite plainly: “There is a time to build and time to tear down.” Even when applied to rickety, century-old structures, that can be a tough call. But applied to feelings and relationships and habits and wounds and grievances, it feels nigh impossible. What areas of my life are not worthy of the high privilege of life going forward? Is there anything destructive or hurtful to me or others with which I have become comfortable?

One of the surprises in beginning the demolition was how tough those old cottages were. It was as if they did not want to go away. They seemed to know that their roots were deeper than their foundations. God loves to do new things in and through people. To do so, He may ask us to give up some old things. It’s not easy, but He offers to help. The Apostle Paul wrote, “Now we look inside, and what we see is that anyone united with the Messiah gets a fresh start, is created new. The old life is gone; a new life burgeons!”

There is a time to build and time to tear down. Sometimes the tearing down must precede the building. The razing prepares for the raising. But we will have to let go of some of what is to experience what can be.

Ragged Endings and Nagging Hope

There is a strange raggedness in it all. Dear friends have recently lost a granddaughter at birth. Conceived in love and hope, this little one grew in the security of the womb, albeit bearing impairments that threatened hope for health and life. All did their best to keep the faith but instead faith now keeps them. The tiny life seed came to shattering death and loss and grief. The sure hope of life beyond is the only hope now. Thankfully it is enough. It has to be.

In a much less troublesome development, I prayed that a bare area on the campgrounds where I work might have some mature trees. It was admittedly a whiny prayer, “O God, why do I have to settle for saplings? I want shade now!” Within seconds of the prayer God answered with a phone call from local arborist friend inquiring as to whether I could use three 12-foot firs. I tingled. Immediate answered prayer and a whiny prayer at that! PTL!! God is good! I feel the Spirit!

The trees, now one year transplanted, are struggling for life. “Winter burn” the man calls it. We’ve watered, fertilized, and prayed (God gave us trees, He should heal them…right?). The trees hang in the balance, more everbrown than evergreen. I’m embarrassed that I shared the “miracle” in the first place. I’m a hope-a-dope…but I just can’t stop hoping.  

Stories with ragged endings and smashed dreams attract me. Not because they feel good. They don’t. In fact, I feel anger. They fascinate because they make life life. An adventure without risk or surprise endings or dead-ends would be no adventure at all. So I grudgingly accept the disappointments and the pains as something unfinished, awaiting a tidy ending somewhere, sometime. Redemption will come and just maybe the thorns will become a crown. While splitting the firs into firewood someone will deliver an entire nursery. “We were closing down and thought you could use a bazillion trees!” Or maybe it will be less spectacular, like needing the firewood more than trees anyhow.

The lifeless baby will be quickened, toddling with open arms up to her family in the age to come. My friend will hear “Papa” from that voice for the first time. Meanwhile, there will be megatuplets to keep the household alive, loving and crazy busy until then. The pain will never go away, but it will be bandaged with lots of happiness. Or, maybe this family will just have much deeper resources to help other families face terrible loss. I don’t have answers. I just have hope. No matter how many times the endings are ragged, I cannot stop hoping.

I lay much of the blame for this challenged but unflagging hope on the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is the story that keeps on giving in literature, film and life. One human breaks the pattern of death and destruction as the inevitable sad ending and all humans ever since keep hope alive. Celebration gave way to accusation and crucifixion. The Palm Sunday parade terminated at a tomb. The song of the children became a dirge. The throngs went home. Friends scattered. But…

“On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb…” “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen!’” (Luke 24:1,2,5 & 6)

An unfaithful friend of Jesus was later an eyewitness to the empty tomb, and then hung out with the resurrected Christ. Peter wrote something that explains our nagging hope:

What a God we have! And how fortunate we are to have him, this Father of our Master Jesus! Because Jesus was raised from the dead, we’ve been given a brand-new life and have everything to live for, including a future in heaven—and the future starts now! God is keeping careful watch over us and the future. The Day is coming when you’ll have it all—life healed and whole. (1 Peter 1:1-3, The Message)

Hope won’t let go and neither should we. There’s good reason that “hope springs eternal.” I don’t think we really need to “keep hope alive.” It’s like Jesus. It won’t die. Let’s twist the phrase to its proper shape: “HOPE…keep us alive!!”

Haunting Echoes

Have your words ever come back to haunt you? You threw out a random opinion or vented an emotion at some time in the murky past. Later, like an echo across a valley, the words returned. You did not remember you said it. But the hearer remembered.

The experience can be painful. The Bible letter from James says “the tongue is a fire.” Words get released, they spread, sometimes wildly, and they can do real damage.

In our image-driven culture, words still abound. One assumes that over-supply will decrease their relative value. But over-supply also increases fuel for a “tongue-flagration.” Contemporary communication is instant. We lose float time, the delay necessary to get the brain engaged before the tongue. The odds are good that we’ll say something bad and then wish for a say-over.

Texters and Tweeters and Facebook friends engage one another far more regularly and superficially than ever before. Although telephone conversations are declining, words still pour in from many sources. Marshall McCluhan observed that we do not have “ear-lids.” We cannot close our ears as we close our eyes. We hear and are heard.

The other day some of my words bounced back. Thankfully they were constructive. My niece and family serve in Haiti in a Christian ministry of compassion. They reminded me of something I wrote as they prepared to return to Haiti after time in the States post-earthquake. At that time they shared their unsettledness about returning. In my response I threw out this paragraph, intended as an encouraging summation to my email: “So smack a mosquito for me. Dodge the cholera. Love grandly and having counted the cost of going back, now discount it. This is the adventure that you are living. There is heaven in it all.”

I remembered neither the words nor the sending of them. There is some good advice there. But that’s not really my point. The point is this: We never know what a little encouragement will mean. Similarly, we cannot comprehend the reverberating damage of critical and discouraging words. My niece says she recalls this encouragement often, and always with a smile.

Plainly I’ve shared a positive example rather than recounting my shame at the pains inflicted by my fiery tongue. I needn’t make this my confessional. There is too much to confess. The Bible’s book of wise sound-bites called Proverbs says this: “Words kill, words give life; they’re either poison or fruit—you choose.” (Proverbs 18:21, The Message)

We choose words continually, often in the heat of moment and certainly in a flood of communication. Choose life-giving words. Offer fruit. Hide the poison. Life-giving words will never haunt and the echoes are beautiful.

Grace to Grow

A church responsibility has drawn me to re-explore the 7 Churches of Revelation and Jesus’ words to them through John the beloved. Though interpreted differently, it seems that these churches represent all churches at all times in all places. In the letters, we see how Jesus Christ loves His bride in both tough and tender ways.

What has most captured me is the fact that in spite of all of their problems, Jesus is still revealing Himself to and through the aged Apostle for the purpose of encouraging and correcting these assemblies. Jesus could have bolted, but He is still walking among the lampstands. He could have given them the silent treatment but He’s still speaking, still affirming and confronting. He has not abandoned them. His love persists through it all.

It’s easy to lose the balance. My nature is to home in on Jesus’ corrections for the churches, preaching them (too) loudly and vigorously. Clean up your act! All the while, there are parts of my act that aren’t all that clean. But that part of me nurtured by the tree of the knowledge of good and evil likes to keep company with those I can judge. It’s the same reason I watch “Biggest Loser.” In the case of these churches, I can even appeal to the Lord Himself. Jesus agrees with me. However, a steady diet of correction does not build up the church but rather tears it down with discouragement. Church feels bad. We continually come up short. Why try?

The opposite response would be to focus only on the commendations. This is “feel good” church. When I parachute in for a single Sunday with a church, I tend to tilt this direction in the pulpit. Make ‘em feel good. Maybe they’ll invite me back. I can hammer them next time. Lighten up. Make church comfy. Let’s just overlook those shortcomings, backslidings, and sins. Sadly, this results in a mixed and weak church that falls far short of the noble privilege of our God-created, Christ-redeemed, Spirit-empowered humanity.

Jesus finds the sweet spot. He commends every church and corrects most of them. He walks among them with both a carrot and a stick, embracing and prodding. Both stances are correct and true, for He is righteous, just, and true. He commends and corrects because He cares in ways beyond my comprehension.

Max Lucado captured that beautiful balance of grace for growth with these words: “It’s dangerous to sum up grand truths in one statement, but I’m going to try. If a sentence or two could capture God’s desire for each of us, it might read like this: God loves you just the way you are, but he refuses to leave you that way. He wants you to be just like Jesus.”

Thanks Max. I want to be like Jesus. Thank you Jesus, for prodding and hugging me on the way. Thank you for grace to grow.