Thursday, December 20, 2012

Whistling Tea Kettles and Popcorn

It was June of 1986. I was a high school graduate. My future was brighter than ever, and I was ready to take on the world. I was eighteen years old, and I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to be a music teacher. I was intelligent, motivated, and had all the makings of a true success story. “Local tuba student plays Carnegie Hall!” I had a PLAN! MY plan! It was a brilliant plan. I couldn’t wait for fall to arrive so I could begin my studies at the University of South Carolina, which I was attending on, ahem, a FULL music scholarship.

Fast forward one year. It is now 1987. I no longer want to be a music teacher. I dropped out of college, lost all scholarship funding, and began taking classes at the local Technical College (where, ironically, I now teach). Twelve years, three kids, two states, and three colleges later, I earned my Bachelors Degree in Biblical Studies from Southeastern Baptist College in Wake Forest, NC. My plan, which was doomed from the start, became God’s plan, and worked out far better. I still had much to learn…much, much more to learn. I have since pastored three churches, rediscovered a passion for writing, watched my children grow up, finally became a teacher, married the love of my life, and somehow made it to 45! It was not an easy journey, me being stiff-necked and all, but it is a huge milestone for me.
Even though I still have much to learn, I believe I have learned (the hard way) a few life lessons I would like to share.  These are all born out of mistakes, poor choices, and total flops on my part, lest you think I fancy myself a guru or so called “life coach.” I am neither. Here goes:
Lesson One: God’s Grace is built into everything!
That sounds like an obvious statement. It is. When you have lived a solid, well-balanced life, you may not see grace as clearly as someone like me. I have messed up pretty badly over the years. In Luke 7:40-43, Jesus tells of two men who owed debts. One owed five-hundred denarii (five hundred days pay), and the other owed fifty. When both men were completely forgiven their respective debts, Jesus asked, “Which one loved the moneylender more?” The obvious answer was the one who had the largest debt forgiven. That's me! Some sing “Amazing Grace” out of habit, while others of us sing it through tears. The reason? At our very worst moments, God’s grace is there, and it is always sufficient. It didn’t always feel like it, to be sure. There were times when I was convinced that God had long given up on me. I was wrong. Over the years, I have seen our gracious God love me when no one else would or could. Maybe you have been there, too. On the authority of God’s word, I assure you that no matter how dark your life has been or might be right now, there is no place on this earth where God’s grace cannot reach you! That’s why we call it “amazing;” grace is built in to everything God does or says. If only we would learn to treat one another that way!
Lesson Two: True ministry begins at home
Like most young pastors, I had aspirations of building a great church, serving as President of the SBC, and maybe having a theme park named for me. In my quest to change the world for Christ, I often neglected the spiritual growth and nurture of my family. That is not to say I didn’t have family devotionals and say prayers with the kids every night. I did that much. What I didn’t do is far worse.
This is hard to admit, but, the man I was at home and the man I was at church were not often the same person. I talked the talk, but failed to walk the walk at home where it mattered most. After a long day of putting on my pastor face for the rest of the world, I was too tired to shepherd my very own flesh and blood flock. The church had my best, and my family had what was left. There is so much I wish I could do differently, but Dr. Jay Strack once reminded me that, “It’s not how you start, but how you finish that counts.” It is never too late to start doing things God’s way.
Lesson Three: The Little Things Really Do Matter
A smile; a card; a letter (yes…snail mail); a phone call; a text; being on time; doing what you say you will do; holding the car door for your spouse; eating dinner together; showing affection; saying “I love you;” meeting for coffee; walking in the park; watching the sun rise/set; compliments freely given; spending quality time; snuggling; tickling; laughing out loud; playing board games; talking about deeper subjects; remembering loved ones; the list could go on and on. The bottom line is that the little things in life really do matter.
I am not the world’s best at this one. I am a “big picture” thinker. I look at life in terms of the bigger cause and effect of it all. I don’t sweat the small stuff. My wife Laura is diametrically opposite. I find myself amazed at the little things that excite her. The whistling of the tea kettle always makes her smile, for example. She also lights up at the popcorn popping out of our air popper. Little things. They matter. I will admit that I don’t see the excitement of the popcorn popper and tea kettle. I sure do love to watch Laura take it all in, though. A pastor friend once encouraged me to, “celebrate the small things!” Pop some popcorn and watch it pop. Make some tea. Call someone you haven’t talked to in awhile. Then celebrate! Yes, celebrate it! 
Lesson Four: You Don’t Have to Have All the Answers
One week ago today, a gunman walked into an elementary school in Newtown, CT and murdered children and adults before taking his own life. Tragedies like this one cause us to pause and reflect and try to sort it out and answer the ever-elusive, “Why?” People also like to use the aftermath of calamity to champion their various opinions and causes. When the dust settles, we still don’t know anymore than we did. That’s okay. We don’t have to. We are not meant to. The Bible spells this out clearly, “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways,” declares the Lord. “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:8-9 NASB)” I don’t know about you, but it is quite a relief off of my shoulders that I really don’t have to have all the answers, all the time.
I once ministered to a family whose thirteen year old daughter was killed in an auto accident. She was the only one of four in the car who was sober and wearing a seatbelt. She was also the only one who died. I went to the family after hearing the news. On the way there, I prayed that God would give me something to say to encourage them. He gave me the same scripture verse many have been using in light of the Connecticut tragedy, Psalm 34:18, “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted.” Sounded good to me. I went in, armed and ready to comfort the family.
Then the hard questions began to fly. “Why did this have to happen?” “What is God’s purpose for taking our daughter?” No doubt we have all been asking the same questions this week thinking of twenty children gunned down by a murderer. I had to look these grieving folks in the eye and say, “I just don’t know.” I didn’t know then, and I really don’t know now. I just know what God’s word tells me. The rest is not for me (or you) to know just yet. We must face the truth that on this side of eternity, we will not have all the answers. The good news is that this is okay. The family was grateful to me for just being there and loving them. Sometimes that is all we have to offer, and it is enough.
How about a cup of tea and some popcorn?
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