Tender twigs

“Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near.”  Mark 13:28

Seventeen years ago, our son Patrick went off to The Citadel, the military college in Charleston, SC. Freshmen start with Hell Week. Like basic training, it’s tough; they cut off your hair and yell at you. But Patrick quit before the week was over and came home.

Jana and I were crushed.

But then Patrick learned there are worse things than being a freshman at The Citadel. Like feeling sorry for yourself. Like not having a reason to get up in the morning.  The next summer Patrick decided to try again. But this time, the upperclassman would know that he’d quit. Things would be even harder.

When the day came to go back to The Citadel, Patrick was so scared that he was sick. As we drove along, we passed a Huddle House restaurant in a small town. It had a sign which read, “Be still and know that I am God.” None of us said anything, but Patrick had seen it. He later told us that right then, he was at peace. During Hell Week and beyond, when he was scared or lonely, he remembered that verse, and he made it through.

Hope came for our son when he was most vulnerable.

That’s Jesus’ point in Mark 13:28. In the spring when the twigs of a tree are tender, that’s when leaves emerge. But that’s also when the tree is most vulnerable to a killing freeze.

We spend our lives trying to show that we’re successful, confident, and in-charge. The problem with that is, who can tell you that you need a savior? Jesus says that hope comes to us, not when we’re pulled together, but when we’re vulnerable.

And so, hope comes to us at Christmas through a tiny baby, the most vulnerable thing in God’s creation

Whistling past the graveyard

George was a member of our church for 77 years. Anytime the subject of church came up, no matter where he was or who he was with, George would say “First Church is my church.” At a time when most people are afraid to speak about their faith, George proclaimed it proudly, joyfully.

George passed away last week. I will miss him and his bragging about our church very much.

At his memorial service, his family asked me to include a reading by English pastor Henry Scott Holland called “Death is nothing at all.” Holland’s words have comforted many people for over 100 years.

The thing is, if death is really “nothing at all,” why does it hurt so much to lose someone we love? For many people, telling themselves that death is nothing is whistling past the graveyard.

But the Christian hope is infinitely more than ignoring reality, putting on a happy face, or insisting that everything will turn out fine in the end. Christian hope is not like betting on the lottery, on the one-in-a-million chance that we might win.

Christian hope is grounded in the reality of a God who is utterly reliable. It is based on the fact that God stepped into the world in the person of the God-man, Jesus Christ,  who experienced poverty, suffering, loss, abandonment, and death.

Jesus hated death so much than he came from heaven to earth to defeat it. Henry Scott Holland knew that death is not nothing. But he also knew that because of Jesus, death is on the way out. Because of Jesus, we will see our loved ones again.

I’m looking forward to hearing George brag about our church.

Finding the extraordinary in us

“The puzzle is why so many people live so badly. Not so wickedly, but so inanely. Not so cruelly, but so stupidly.”

So says Eugene Peterson, in his book Run with the Horses. Peterson says we fail to live the full life we were created for. We do this “because we are convinced that we are plain and ordinary.” Our lives, our friends, the neighborhood where we grew up, all seem “undramatic.” “We see no way to find significance in such settings.”

Peterson has captured the problem in the 2015 movie, McFarland, USA, the story of a below-average football coach named Jim White, played by Kevin Costner. White keeps getting fired from coaching jobs for losing his temper. The only place he can find work is as a high school PE teacher in the poor farm town of McFarland, California.

White is a coach with no hope in a town with no hope.

White’s students are Hispanic kids who work in the fields before and after school every day. Their families need their labor just to survive, so the idea that the kids could be part of an athletic team, or one day go to college, is an impossible dream.

Yet the people of McFarland welcome White and give him a chance. He in turn sees something in them they had never noticed in themselves. Somehow they redeem each other.

McFarland, USA helps remind us that God has put the extraordinary in each of us, and he delights when we discover it.