Tag Archive: grace


I have not run a marathon.  I haven’t even run a half marathon.  There have been no 5k’s either.  It’s been over a year since I’ve done any hiking.  While I love kayaking, my kidney issues eliminated that for most of last year.  Yes, I walk the dog twice a day and put in about 3 to 4 miles a day, but that is about it.  I go to bed early and get decent sleep.  

I’m tired. 

Some people worry I do too much.  Funny.  I think I do less than I ever have before.  Sometimes it’s not easy to put together three lessons a week, write this column, and perform my normal chaplain duties with the police department.  But, it’s not like I’m on overload.  Teaching double studies on Wednesday can strain the energy reserves, but it’s not all that bad.  Yes, Saturday night service and then again on Sunday morning is my most tiring venture, but ,then again, it’s not like I’m working a construction or roofing job.  

I’m just tired.  

Maybe I’m getting older and I’m starting to slow down.  The right knee is a little bit of a problem, and I’m sure there is some arthritis hanging around.  My family has been plagued with the big A through the generations.  I limp sometimes, but, as the doctor told me a few months ago, other than carrying a few extra pounds, I’m in good health.  

I’m tired in my brain.

I’m tired of death.  I actually prayed that this past Sunday during our prayer time in church.  I was honest with God.  I heard an affirming mumbling in the crowd.  It’s been one of those seasons.  Today I got word that a friend’s son died from an accidental overdose yesterday.  That will make the 18th person I have been associated with in some way who has died since three days before Thanksgiving.  That is 18 in 45 days.  I have had to face death once every 2 and a half days, and I’m sick and tired of it.  

Most of the people who have gone before us have been believers in Jesus Christ.  Yes, there is a great hope associated with people of the faith.  But, it still stings.  Jesus understood that sting.  In the beginning of his ministry he blessed those who mourn.  He connected with all of us in the loss of those we love.  Jesus understands and affirms our humanity and its relative limitations.  Later on, he wept at the death of Lazarus.  We don’t know why he wept, but his emotions came pouring out of him.  If Christ can weep so can I, and so can you.  

Tears display great love.  We don’t cry over those we don’t love (most of the time).  A friend of mine recently suffered the loss of his wife who battled cancer for years.  Even having time to prepare he said, “I don’t know where all the tears come from.”  I do!  They come from the heart.  

I’m tired of crying.

I got shocked yesterday.  I was looking at the obituaries from my mother’s funeral home and a local one as well.  I was shocked at the amount of young people who are dying in our communities.  I expected the old ones like me.  There were more than I expected in their 30’s and early 40’s.  Death has no respect of age or position.  

I’m tired of losing my friends and family.

A friend contacted me when my mom died.  He put it the best.  He said, “John, you know all the platitudes, and you can quote all the right verses.  However, death still sucks.”  I could have kissed him right there.  It does.  It’s the result of the curse, and the curse is Genesis 3 comes from sin.  I know all the facts.  It doesn’t make it any better.

There is only one answer.  Maybe I have crossed a line in my life where I will start to stare at the obituaries, looking for friends from long ago like my dad did.  Or maybe, I’m more aware than ever that there is an answer.  The only answer for the plague of death is for Jesus to return and redeem this world as he has said in the book of Revelation.  I used to think only the crazy people said things like, “Come quickly, Lord Jesus.”  Now I see that they aren’t crazy.  They are the realists.  

Come Lord Jesus.  I’m tired.  

Brooks Robinson dove to his right across the third base line.  He stood quickly and threw the batter out at first base.  He might not have the best bat in the history of third basemen, but his glove did more than any other I know.  He did get the hit the team needed at the right time.  I grew up wanting to emulate Brooks Robinson come every spring.  He was not only a great third baseman, he was a nice guy as well.  

When fall came, it was Johnny Unitas and Raymond Berry in my backyard.  Johnny Unitas was the great quarterback for the then Baltimore Colts.  He was great as well.  Raymond Berry was his wide receiver who wasn’t the fastest man in the world, but he sure could catch the ball.  I met Johnny Unitas before his death.  He was a nice guy as well.  In our backyard games, I tried to throw the ball like Johnny Unitas ,but it wasn’t going to happen.  But catch the ball I come by my middle name honestly.  My parents being avid Colt fans named me John Unitas Raymond Berry Ring.  Only by the grace of God and my mother’s huge handwriting it was shortened to John Raymond.   

These were my heroes.  No one ever worried about their behavior.  They gave their best on the field and were well worth naming your kids after.  My kids grew up with Cal Ripken, another Baltimore boy who gave his best and was a nice guy.  I didn’t think about naming my son Cal only because he was born on my birthday.  I do think there were plenty of others with that name running the streets of old B’more.  

All four of the men mentioned above are in the Hall of Fame.  They deserved it.  

There was a day I wanted to be a baseball player.  I knew I was never going to be able to play football.  My body wouldn’t take it.  But baseball, that was a different story.  I had soft hands, knew how to pitch and understood the game.  I wanted to be at bat with 2 outs in the ninth inning, and the bases loaded with a 3 – 2 count, game seven of the World Series.  I dreamed of it.  Just like Brooks Robinson, I might not have the best bat, but, on this one, it was going over the fence.  

My son wanted to be a pro golfer.  He was pretty good.  At 6 foot 3 inches tall he could hit the ball a ton.  His short game was better than worthy.  He could putt with anybody.  As the number one golfer on the golf team, he usually won.  If things aligned well, there was the possibility.  Honestly, I’m glad it didn’t happen, and I’m glad I was not blessed with the physical ability to do so as well.  

Here I sit watching the first round of the NFL playoffs.  These guys are talented for sure.  There are plenty of decent guys on the field, I’m sure.  It’s not the players of the game that cause my fear.  It’s not the game or the state of the game that is the problem.  It’s the critical world in which we live. If a player has one bad game or one bad play they are branded.  

Now I am not a New England Patriot fan.  However, Tom Brady has had a tremendous career.  They lost yesterday.  He’s playing into his 40’s, winning all along the way and now the critics get their chance to chastise him.  They lost.  He threw an interception.  One bad play, for some reason in our world, wipes out all the good ones.  

Miss a putt, drop a pass, strike out or throw a wild pitch, and suddenly it opens the gates to critical analysis that is unending.  I don’t know how these guys handle the pressure.  I’m not sure some do.  Last time I checked, they are human.  Give Tom Brady a break.  Give ‘em all a break.  

I’m so glad faith in Jesus Christ is not dependent upon my performance.  At least I hope we and your church understand that.  Our hope is not a works-based, performance-driven hope.  The Apostle Paul told us, “By grace we are saved, through faith, not by works…”. We don’t have to live to make Jesus smile.  We live for Christ because he has us covered.  His blood was enough.  Yes, we have our warts, wrinkles, scars and sin.  Yes, we are to live worthy of the gospel (Philippians 1:27).  But in the end of the day, if we miss a pass, strike out on three pitches, drop the ball like Bill Buckner (see 1986 World Series) or fumble on the one yard line of life, I’m loved.  That makes Jesus smile.  

Here we go!  Another decade is behind us and on to 2020 we go.  Ready or not!  If anyone has been reading this column for the past few years (amazing), you know I am not one for New Year’s Resolutions.  Statistics support my stand.  I will not go all out explaining my reluctance to put one iota of credence behind such resolutions.  I don’t want to bore you.  For the few that by this time next year can look back and credit your resolve, congratulations.  You are the less than 25% that made it.  For the other 75% plus…we have to find another way.

Most New Year’s Resolutions are trying to eliminate a negative aspect of our lives.  For many it’s a weight issue or a health problem.  I will admit, this year I ate more than I should have on Christmas Day.  My family went all out to fatten me up.  Like I need help?  

Others resolve to mend a relationship, get a new job, or make a change in their lives to improve their situation.  Often the midnight vow is forced upon the unsuspecting and the suspecting by those around him or her. Good intentions are not called into question.  Resolve.  That’s a different subject.

The biggest problem is most of our issues define who we are.  I have wrestled with my weight since I became an adult.  It has stabilized in the last 15 years, but it is still a struggle.  At one point, I went to the doctor and asked him for some medication to take the pounds off.  He let me in on a secret that most don’t want to hear.  He began to ask me the body shapes of my living relatives.  After a few minutes, we figured out I am the skinniest of them all.  Mom, Dad, 2 sisters and 1 brother have or had bigger weight issues than I do.  He looked me in the eye and said, “I hate to inform you, but most weight issues are hereditary in nature.”  What?  He went on, “You can diet, exercise, and get the pounds off however, the day you stop you will return to your current weight if not more.”  I knew it all along.  It’s in the genes and not the Levi type.  It’s who we are.  

Yes, we can exercise great self-control.  Yes, we can put the issues high on our priority list on a daily basis.  Yes, we can get some help, counseling, therapy and more.  However, in the end of the day, we might change the outside, but the identity still lingers within us.

I have high respect for the alcoholic who goes to weekly meetings on a continual basis.  A friend of mine has been sober and attending AA meetings for over 30 years.  Each day is still a victory of great worth to him.  Ask him why he still goes to meetings and I know what you will hear.  “I have to,” will be the reply.  Why?  It’s who he is.  You might not see it.  He knows.  He knows like we all know.  We don’t tell anybody.  

So how does a person change?  Some would say a traumatic event has to happen to wake an individual up.  Others would say, “You have to hit bottom.”  A nihilist might say, “We can’t so don’t try.”  There is a good part of me that agrees with the nihilist.  I’ve been counseling people for over 17 years now.  I have seen over 1,000 people in that time.  I’ve heard story after story.  I’m not sure very many if any actually change.  I feel they adapt.  Doesn’t sound very hopeful, does it?  

For me, that is where Jesus comes in.  I have no faith in man to make himself better no matter what the humanists say.  Something or someone has to change us.  The Apostle Paul wrote that “we are a new creature, old things are passed away, all has become new.”  In Luke 6, the good doctor wrote that Jesus said, “no good tree bears bad fruit and no bad tree bears good fruit.”  So what makes the difference?

Jesus went on to say it was a heart issue.  Our inside determines what goes on outside.  Jesus came to save his people from their sin.  Our sin is the net result of our active hearts.  Most think that when Jesus saves us from our sin it makes us good people.  Well, not quite.  The old man still wars with the new heart.  Often the old man wins.  One of the reasons he wins is we think being a good moral person is the goal.  Not so.

Jesus, in John 17, defined a changed person.  He did not say that person was a law keeper.  He did not say that person gets it all right.  He said we will be known by our love.  He went on to define that love as being between believer to believer.  It was to be so amazing people would stop and pay attention.  The church was to be a place where we lay down our lives for one another not a place where we sing some songs, pray a few prayers and listen to the preacher for 20 minutes.  It was to be a place where we don’t run from our issues but to them.  Jesus talked more about grace and love than he did about the law.  Why?  He knew who we are and knew we couldn’t go it alone.  Yes, the battle rages but when Jesus brings change, love wins.  How is your church known?  How are you known by others?  In 2020, I want God to continue to change my heart.  Join me.  If enough can get together and lay their lives down for each other we might not be a church but w will be the church.  Happy New Year!

We were driving to Maryland a few weeks back.  Since the family doesn’t care for my eclectic choice of music, I put the ear buds in and turned them up.  A few minutes in, one of my favorite groups, Carbon Leaf, was shuffled in.  It was “Life Less Ordinary.”  I sat back in the seat and enjoyed the ballad.  

Suddenly, my eyes popped open.  The line “live a life less ordinary, live a life extraordinary with me,” woke me from my long journey funk. While the song is talking about a human relationship, this line was like God was speaking.  

Often we as Christians try to figure out how to live a life with the least amount of disruption possible.  We kind of drag God along with us.  After a while of “ordinary” life, we begin to doubt the greatness of our God.  This allows thoughts and philosophies of this world to invade not only our daily function but our practical theology as well.  It ends up being an ordinary life that happens to hope Jesus is for real.

Open the Bible.  Seriously.  Open the Bible.  Every time God shows up there is no such thing as an ordinary life.  It’s full of crazy stories where man is always getting himself in trouble.  Why?  We weren’t made to be ordinary, and when God isn’t in our life, we will do all sorts of things seeking the extraordinary.  Did you catch the last word of the last sentence?  It’s the combination of two words, extra and ordinary.  We are made for the fantastic, wonderful, and not-so- predictable life with God. 

How ordinary was it for God to walk with Adam and Eve in the garden?  How ordinary was it for Abraham to abandon the security of family and, by God’s command, travel (not by car, bus or plane) to what we now know as Israel?  How ordinary was it for a young David to pick up a few stones and slay Goliath as he boasted his invincibility?  Was it ordinary for Joseph to go from shepherd boy to 2nd in command of Egypt and then forgive his abusive brothers to redeem his family?  Let’s go fast forward.  Was it ordinary for the disciples to drop their nets and life to follow Jesus?  Was it ordinary for Paul to abandon his beliefs to follow Jesus after he got knocked off his ride?  Was it ordinary as the women came to the tomb to find it empty?  Every time God shows up, life immediately goes to extraordinary!  An exclamation point doesn’t do the word justice.  

Here we are entering 2020.  I meet so many fellow believers who have no plans at all, even for an ordinary life.  They are struggling to survive the day, and others are waiting to leave this world since th- cultural shift has left them feeling disconnected.  They fear.  They live disappointed dream busted lives.  There is a lessening sense of purpose and hope.  The ordinary is swallowing them.  

We recently celebrated Christmas.  In Luke chapter 1 we have the angel Gabriel coming to the virgin Mary and announcing she would give birth to Jesus.  How ordinary was that one?  She questioned Gabriel as we all would have.  Gabriel gives her a response that remains true to this day.  He said, “Nothing is impossible.”  Hold on for a minute.  That is not Gabriel’s total response.  He actually said, “Nothing is impossible with God.”  

Ordinary leaves us thinking, believing, and functioning without the amazing.  We pray with no power. We wake up dreading the day.  The past holds us in it’s clutches, telling us there is no extraordinary and impossible.  Live a life for Christ?  Why?  

We tend to not have a life less ordinary as we cling to the ordinary.  As believers, we aren’t made for the hum drum anymore.   The vanilla, gray, mediocre life is for those who are not called by God to not just believe but to follow.  It gets scary to follow.  The ordinary talks to us.  We all hear it.  “God wouldn’t call me to do that?”  “You can’t.”  “God wants you to be comfortable.”  “It’s too late.”  “You are not skilled, talented or educated enough.”  “Live a life ordinary.”

This week we begin a new year and a new decade.  Maybe you are thinking about goals to achieve in the next 365 days.  Maybe you are thinking about the next decade and what there is to achieve in the next 10 years.  They will come plenty fast enough.  Join me.  I don’t want to spend the next 365 to 3,650 living a life defined by the ordinary.  I thirst for the impossible.  The only way to shake out of the ordinary is to have the response Mary gave Gabriel.  She said, “Behold I am a servant of the Lord….”  Her life was not so ordinary after she placed herself in position to serve the Lord God Almighty.  Interested?  I’am.  

As we grow older, we dread those night time phones calls.  The ones that are so out of the normal everyone knows it cannot be good news.  As a police and fire department chaplain, I get used to them.  That is until it comes from your own family.  

Last night, the phone rang, and I quickly noticed it was my sister.  I knew what it was before I ever hit the button.  My mother succumbed to her long battle with dementia and passed on to be with her Lord.  The journey was over.  I was not surprised.  It left me with a weird feeling.  The safety net was now officially gone.  I am an orphan.  

As I walked the dog today, I thought a lot about my mom.  She did not hold any lifetime achievement awards, unless one wants to count raising 4 kids during the sixties and seventies.  She was not a nurse, didn’t serve in the military.  She was a normal, everyday mom.  

Often at funerals, and I’ve been to too many, we try to elevate the deceased to hero status.  It is as if we are trying to make their life have value.  I’ve heard funny stories that honestly aren’t all that funny except to the one telling the story.  I’ve heard serious stories that leave many in tears.  I’ve heard all sorts of things at funerals.  So, here I sit thinking about what to say about my mom.  

My mom did not have an easy life.  Her mid-life was full of ill health.  It seemed that she was in the hospital more than she was out.  Those were the days they actually cut you open, and every surgery was a major one.  Eventually, she had to take these green pills.  We called them her “good humor” pills.  If she forgot to take them, hide.  Most of the family is amazed she lived to be 90.    

Many of mom’s dreams were never realized.  Her sister died at the age of 2 on Christmas Eve.  Another of her brother’s disappeared for years, only to return a few years ago to say goodbye before his cancer took him.  Mom wanted to travel but Dad ran his own small business.  Small business owners do not travel.  They did pretty good but not nearly as much as mom wanted.  

The greatness trait my mother held was her loyalty.  If you were her friend or loved one, she had your back.  Don’t worry, she would tell you what she thought almost to a fault, but she would not run at the first sign of discouragement.  

So, what can I say about my mom?  I got it.

As I aged into my forties, I realized we (my brother and sisters) did not really know my mom.  We reacted to mom and did not understand her.  We did not know her story.  Mom had some tough days.  She was not the easiest person to live with at times.  So we all learned to deal with it.  Some good and some bad.  But, as I realized we were entering the time when our parents leave this world, I didn’t want to lose her and not know her story.  

I got my siblings together and we talked about it.  They agreed.  We needed to talk with mom.  It wasn’t about changing mom.  It was about understanding her.  So we did it.  It did not go over all that well at first.  Mom was quite angry as we spoke honestly with her about her moods and dark days.  Things settled down when we asked her to just tell us the story of her family and how Jesus impacted her life.  

We learned a lot in a few hours.  Her sister died on Christmas Eve, and it changed her family’s view of Christmas from that day on.  My mother became a Christmas fanatic.  It’s how she dealt with her pain.  She said her mother and father switched personalities that day.  Looking back, I’m not sure her dad ever recovered.  It happened before there were counselors and shrinks.  They had to make the journey alone.  

She revealed the days when my dad was a drunk.  She talked about keeping things together as dad often came home drunk before Jesus changed his life.  

Eventually the topic went to her dislike for my sister Joan.  For the first time in her life, at the age of 70, mom admitted struggling with Joan.  Joan could have been a twin for her dead sister.  Looking at her own daughter brought up years of horrid memories.  One never knows how we will process tragedy.  It has a hard hour.  However, it was cathartic.  

Mom didn’t necessarily change that day.  We did.  We did because now we knew her story.  We knew how to apply God’s grace, love, and mercy to her in places we didn’t know existed.  Instead of fighting her over the Griswald family Christmas decorations, we helped her.  We understood her distaste for drinking any alcohol, and the family refrained.  My sister, Joan was able to forgive her, and amazingly in mom’s final two years, she was the one to give mom exceptionally good care.  I don’t know with her dementia if mom knew it was Joan, her sister, or Joan, her daughter, who was caring for her.  It doesn’t matter.  Grace won.  

As a footnote, I think there are things about the spiritual world of which we have no idea.  Mom talked about seeing my Dad and talking to him the last two weeks of her life.  Did she?  Was it her brain or more of God’s grace?  I don’t know.  Again it doesn’t matter.  I’m glad we asked her story.  Don’t assume if you have a loved one that they are safe in your relationship.  Tell your stories.  It’s the only way God’s grace can permeate the pain of our hearts.  

Mom, you will have your first Christmas with Jesus this month.  We will be behind you in a short time.  You might not have been a super hero.  You were just “mom” and that was good enough. 

As a boy I lived almost literally on the Pennsylvania Railroad tracks headed in and out of Baltimore. Our back yard came to an end where there was an open field maybe 40 yards deep that met the 6 track railroad that lead into Baltimore.  

We saw all sorts of things on those tracks.  Robert Kennedy’s funeral train went down those tracks.  That might have been the most memorable moment for me  as a child.  Standing there watching the crowds it was bipolar at best.  There was an energy and a somberness at the same time that was hard to understand.  It was interesting times to say the least.  People were putting coins on the track.  As the train went by, it flattened them.  Everybody was quiet as the train went by, but then, all of a sudden, it was a mad dash to find the coins as they flipped away under the weight of the train wheels.  A riot almost ensued.  So much for etiquette and respect.

We saw trains derail.  Now that is a scary moment.  The one I remember was a day we were playing under the Halethorpe bridge.  That bridge allowed us to play wall ball since it was so high.  As a train went under the bridge, it unhooked and went off the track.  It scared us to death.  The noise was the loudest I have ever experienced.  Chaos ensued.  Let’s just say we found a new place to play wall ball after that one.  

We saw all sorts of animals become “train” kill.  When anyone or anything meets up with a moving locomotive, the locomotive will always win.  Hands down.  Mom would always warn us to stay away from the tracks.  That was like an open invitation to at least go look.  Train tracks are dirty. They have a certain smell that uniquely stinks.  Most of the rocks and ties turn black over time.  It kind of smells and looks like death.  

Other than the funeral train, the other big event was the beginning of the Amtrak fast trains that went from Washington to New York.  I forget what they called it.  Today it would be the Acela Express non-stop 150 miles per hour model.  I might have this wrong, but I think it was called the Metroliner.  The Metroliner scared us.  It was fast.  Very fast.  Many were concerned that it would increase accidents at crossings and death to people who could not judge the speed of an oncoming train. 

I can remember crossing those tracks a few times against my mother’s wishes and instruction.  There was one day we (friends) crossed the tracks and got distracted by something (probably dead) lying in the gully.  I remember looking down the tracks and not seeing any sign of a train.  Then, all of a sudden in no time flat, a passenger train went whizzing by.  It was that day I decided  to cross via the bridge from then on.  No wonder many were worried about the fast trains dedicated to getting people to D.C. or New York in under three hours.  

We learned to live with the fast monsters rolling through town at all hours of the day and night.  It was funny at times when someone would visit us from out of town.  They would complain in the morning about the trains going back and forth all night.  We would look at them and ask with a grin, “What trains?”  We slept through them.  

The only other thing I can remember about the trains was the slow moving freight trains.  We had some crazy teenagers who would jump on to them and ride down to the Patapsco Valley State Park.  It was a fast way to get there.  As for me, no way.  They would jump on right around the Halethorpe bridge and jump off at the Thomas Viaduct bridge.  Then they would spend the day at the park (skipping school usually) and hope a slow one was coming into town.  It was the luck of the draw.  

Here we are in the middle of the holiday season and the life train is running much faster than the Amtrak Metroliner.  We were probably on Metroliner speed before the holidays.  With the demands all over the place with the Christmas pace, many are holding on for dear life, much like I’m sure some of those teenagers did hitching a ride to the park.  As a side note, Christmas doesn’t feel much like the song we sing every Christmas, Silent Night.  It is more like the sound of the derailed train.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the squeeze this year.  Instead of making my house look like Clark Griswald’s ,fewer lights will prevail.  Instead of having the house look like a show house, a small tree with some keenly placed mistletoe will suffice.  I’m sorry if you are looking for a Christmas card this year.  Let’s be honest, a few days later it ends up in the trash.  

It was so relaxing to have my adult kids agree to not buy Christmas presents for the adults this year.  We are getting off the train.  Maybe now we can enjoy one another instead of the pre-planned moments that last just a few seconds.  Like Thanksgiving night.  The television was off, and my granddaughter brought out old photos.  Boy, did we laugh.  At one point, I looked around the table and saw a couple of those gathered staring off.  They were remembering and enjoying our family moments.  What did we decide?  To get out the huge tub of pictures for Christmas.  This sounds like fun.  All we had to do was get off the train.  It was moving way too fast.  

We all go through things in life that are often unpleasant.  It is kind of strange.  There seems to be a growing sentiment even among the Christian community who think if they live a certain way, they can avoid various traumas.  It is not so much a bad theology but a lifting of man over God.  This has been going on forever.  Remember the story about the Tower of Babel way back in Genesis.  The best way to avoid submission to God is to elevate ourselves.  The more we can claim ,the less we are dependent upon our Maker.  God as our protector is not nearly as prevalent since we have security, cameras, safety systems and plenty of other practices that make man the protector instead of God.  

I admit I was feeling pretty strong and safe.  I used to boast about my good health and fortune.  When things are going very well, we think we can conquer the world, or at least the part of it upon which our feet travel.  Let’s not be falsely humble.  The more we gain in life the less we tend to credit God.  When is the last time we thanked God for our automobiles or indoor plumbing?  How about television and the Internet?  We complain about many things that make our life comfortable but about which much of the world knows very little.  Instead of being gracious our nature makes us want more.  

The past few weeks my view got readjusted.  Big strong me couldn’t get out of bed, couldn’t stay up long without needing a nap.  A long nap.  Instead of being independent, I became dependent.  I hated every moment of it.  I kind of look at it with the idea that I needed to learn something or somethings.  So what have I learned, and it doesn’t have to be overly spiritual. We like to do that.  

I learned that getting old is really not easy.  The old body starts to die.  It really does.  I had an internal issue with it being calcified.  That’s death of an important part.  Sure my knees have hurt for some time, and I don’t dare run anywhere, but when the inner part starts failing, it is a new ballgame.  

I learned that life is not really meant to be lived alone.  I write a lot about it.  I learned it big time.  We are fooled to think we don’t need others.  If nothing else, having others care lifts the spirit.  I spent a lot of time alone unable to function.  One of the most important gifts others bring is the ability to laugh.  I often think about Jesus laughing.  I wish we had it in the Word.  I’m sure he laughed.  He had to. The only other option was to cry for surely he was not an emotionless robot.  We do know he cried.  If he cried, he laughed.  It hurt when people made me laugh.  But, oh, it felt so good.

One of the biggest lessons I learned is that we should never stop learning.  It’s like giving.  We should never stop giving.  When we stop giving or learning we begin to die at a much faster rate.  I’m not talking about taking a class, even though that can be beneficial.  It has to deal more with continuing to read, explore beyond our fears, and being willing to extend beyond the limits I have made.  When Jesus said he came to give us life, he didn’t put any boundaries on it.  Life is about growing, stepping back ,and growing again, over and over again.  

Without any question I discovered there is very little of value on television anymore.  No wonder streaming movies is so popular.  If anyone is lucky to find anything of value, it has enough commercials to allow a nap in the middle of the show.  No wonder actual television use is declining.  I wonder which one is faster, declining church attendance or television viewing?  Anybody got the answer?

I learned a lot of things in my two-week plus ordeal.  Some of these issues you would laugh.  I didn’t laugh at times; I wanted to cry.  Honestly, I’ve broken bones, shattered my wrist, severely damaged my ankle, had knee surgery and other health related issues.  None of them left me in more anguish than my kidney issues.  I traveled roads I have never traveled before.  It’s not so much I learned this last lesson, but I was reminded how true it is.  I was reminded that no matter how you feel, no matter what our depraved minds are telling us, and no matter what is going on, treat others with great grace, for they are human too.

It is not about getting something you normally wouldn’t get.  It is not about smoking anyone.  It’s about living the same way Jesus extends his grace to us.  I’m sure there are things we do that should demand a lack of God’s unmerited favor.  But no, he does not withhold it.  It sort of goes with Thanksgiving.  Instead of complaining, be thankful.  Instead of being demanding, be gracious.  I have figured it out.  It is a choice.  Having kidney stones the size of the Titanic and suffering complications of an old body is not a choice.  How we deal with it is.  It also reveals who we are.  The Apostle Paul said we are a new person.  The old is gone.  The new is here.  It is so much more than being a good guy.  It’s about being like Jesus.  He did not utter bad feeling towards his persecutors.  Instead, he asked for them to be forgiven.  It’s a way of life.  Live it.  

The young man looked exhausted.  I asked him if he was carrying all the weight of the world on his shoulders.  Like most of us, he said he was ok and tried to change the subject.  Later, as we talked over lunch, he talked about issues he faces at work as well as the struggle raising five kids all under the age of seven.  

More and more people, especially in expensive areas like the Hilton Head/Bluffton region, are working hard to keep their nose above the water line.  The stress in our fast-paced, highly divided, and critical world is growing daily.  I remember when computers were coming on the scene.  They were supposed to make life easier.  It was a lie.  

Everywhere I go, I am meeting tired and worn out people.  As a Baby Boomer, I believe we are unaware of the current social pressures on young families.  In our day, we could roam the neighborhood and play outside.  If something happened to us, it was our fault.  Today, parents can’t let their kids roam because if something happens DSS is going to be called.  That is stress and pressure of immense proportions.  

This past week I have been slowed to a stop with kidney complications.  One simple procedure turned into two procedures and other issues.  I won’t bore you with the details.  So, I went back to work yesterday.  I worked till about noon.  I went home at lunch-time and fell asleep for three hours.  Sound asleep.  The same thing happened today.  I am running on fumes.  It’s a horrible place to be.  The body doesn’t feel good.  The brain is muddy, and the spirit is defeated.  At least I have a reason that most would give me grace.  Many I meet don’t want to share like my friend since few understand the issues of “successful” living today.

We can take hours debating the issues.  Are people living above their means?  Probably.  Have decisions been made that have had unseen consequences?  Sure.  Are we spoiled?  Without question.  

The biggest issue in all of this is a sense of loneliness.  In an upper crust culture, we aren’t supposed to ask for help, and we aren’t supposed to state our struggles.  This causes us to go into a shell.  It’s even part of our culture.  Our greeting is “How you doing?”  What is the normal response?  “Fine.”  Fine actually means frustrated, ignored, negative and exhausted.  But don’t  tell the truth to anyone.  They will run for the hills.

Back to the Baby Boomer answers.  We would say, “Keep your issues in your own home.”  That’s fine if the home is sound and safe.  It’s a fine answer if the home extends beyond the kids.  More and more, especially in retirement areas and the booming south, most people don’t have family generations to call upon.  They moved for a better job and don’t have deep relationships to call upon.  

Our family didn’t move here till we had already raised our kids.  We had not only both sets of parents around but brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts and both sets of grandparents around to lean upon.  Fewer and fewer families in our very mobile society have these support systems.  Add divorce to a family and it doesn’t take long for the rats to win the rat race.  The divorce rate in America right now is 50%.  That means half the people we run into have a fractured family system.  Divorce causes emotional and psychological damage that is often hard to get over.  

If I may take a moment and point something out.  Many single moms are the waitresses in our local restaurants.  They are running on empty.  Instead of demanding service one only gets at a 5 star restaurant, treat them with grace.  Speak kindly.  Be gentle.  Encourage them.  Give them a big tip.  Get to know their name.  Ask them how you can pray for them.  You will start to hear their story.  Don’t forget to pray.  

The modern day church can change the exodus in no time flat.  We all know church attendance is diminishing yearly.  We hear statistics about how many churches are closing their doors.  So what did we do?  We bought systems to attract people, make them happy and entertain them.  We bought the social construct that says give ‘em what they want instead of what they need.  We also only tend to focus on Sunday mornings.  We look for leadership that makes one hour a week interesting.  

We can turn the tide.  It’s easy.  No, let me change that, it’s not easy.  It’s fulfilling.  The early church was in the same situation.  Families came to believe in Jesus and were excommunicated from their families and their jobs.  So, what did they do?  They hired the best worship team and sought the high ways and by-ways for the best story-teller.  Nope, they sure didn’t.  They banded together and took care of each other.  They practiced grace to the max.  They put a new definition of love out there, and the world took notice.  It was costly.  But the gospel grew.  In Philippians, the Apostle Paul writes, “Whatever happens, live a life worthy of the gospel of Christ.” Did he mean just be a good boy or girl?  No, not at all.  He followed up in chapter 2 by talking about being like the humble Jesus and thinking of others better than ourselves.  In other words, their love was to be full of gracious acts, laying their lives down for others.  

Expensive, but priceless.  

Being down for a few days after kidney stone removal, I got a chance to catch up on reading and movie watching.  I was able to devour two books and numerous movies.  I didn’t finish any of the books I began, but that will happen soon.

Movies on the other hand are a lot faster than reading the book.  Rewatching “Band of Brothers” made me cry.  The first time I watched it I was caught up in the story.  The second time I looked deeply at the people.  The men who suffered beyond what any man should suffer were people just like you and me.  What makes some rise and do incredible things and what makes some curl up in a ball and scream is totally unknown.  I am reminded what an old mentor friend told me a long time ago, “Everybody has a breaking point.  No-one knows what or where it is.”  

The “Peanut Butter Falcon” made me laugh.   A strange story about a Downs Syndrome young man running away from being institutionalized who caught up with a man running from his past.  They found each other, and the story might be, as another friend of mine said, “the best wholesome movie he has ever seen.”  It’s a bit slow at times.  It’s not a top of the line flick, but it is well worth the time.  

 “Hobbs and Shaw” was a total waste of time.  Nothing more to be said.

There was one movie that caught my attention.  “Concussion” is the story of the battle between Dr. Bennett Omahu and the National Football League over his research on the long-term effects of concussions on football players.  It is not an action flick.  It’s a story with Will Smith playing the doctor.  Again, well worth the time.  After watching this one, I am so glad nobody in my family wanted to play football.  I thought of a friend of mine who is suffering from CTE.  He told me once he suffered so many concussions playing pee-wee football through college he couldn’t count them.  

What really caught my attention in this one was a line in the middle of the movie.  Dr. Cyril Wecht was quoted as saying “The NFL owns a day of the week.  The same day the Church used to own.  Now it’s theirs.”  Wow!  It made me rush to the statistics.  There are different research organizations that report weekly church attendance in America to be between 22 to 37% of the population.  While we are on numbers, do you know the state that has the most weekly attenders?  It’s Alabama.  The state with the least amount of its population attending church is Vermont.  South Carolina ranks in the top 5.  

With about 329 million people in the United States that means about 72 million to 122 million attend church on a regular basis.  Now that is a lot of people.  How does the NFL stack up?

On any given football Sunday, a little over 2 million attend a game.  Last year 15.8 million people watched at least one game every Sunday.  That is 17.8 million people combined.  As far as I can tell, the NFL does not come close to owning Sunday.  My simple math has the church leading in attendance or viewership by about 311 million.  If we were playing football, that would be a blowout.

As I sat and thought about the statistics and the quote, I began to think more about it.  Are there more than just attendance issues?  I began to think about my discussions during the week.  How many times did I talk about my favorite team or spectacular play?  How many times did I talk about Jesus?  Better yet, how much do I promote my church?

Church in our era grows for one reason.  It grows because its members tell others they need to check out their church. Here I am telling you to check out a few movies and let one go.  Why?  I was attracted to them.  I wanted other people to enjoy them.  This would be no different than anything we experience in life.  We want others to have the same joy or happiness.  We want them to enter our journey, so we can walk it together.  

The NFL did not want to hear the truth about player concussions. But as the Doctor said, “They have to know.”  Sometimes, church leadership doesn’t want to hear the truth.  But, they have to seek it.  We have more at stake than a lot of money.  We have the gospel truth at stake.  Jesus talked a lot about a faith that bore fruit.  It was contagious.  Before there was a Bible, before there was a worship team, before there was live streaming, there was a story.  It was the story of a man named Jesus who proclaimed to be God.  We as believers find his claims to be true.  If it indeed is true we have the responsibility to let them know.  Dr. Omahu wanted to quit.  He had a lot at stake.  But, he didn’t.  Why?  He knew the truth.  So do we.

Everybody likes a good story.  Sometimes it doesn’t even have to be a good story.  We like to hear them and we like to tell them.  Everybody has a friend who can tell a story in a succinct way, keeping our attention to the end.  Others can drag out a good story long enough that somebody better order dinner since you are going to be there a while.  Fryodor Dostoevsky said, “But how could you live and have no story to tell.”  We have stories that define us, and we generally want to tell them for sure.

The stories we remember, generally, are important elements that have made their mark on us.  There are places we have been, events we have experienced, and people we have met that have made their impression on us.  Sometimes they are great stories that tell our world/life view, and, at times, they tell our dreams, hopes, and desires.  

Some stories have left an impression on us that reveal the dark side of life.  They tell our fears, hurts, and suffering.  We tend to reserve those stories for the people we can trust since each one is often very personal.

Currently, I’m re-watching the HBO mini-series Band of Brothers.  It’s a story.  It tells the events of Easy Company during and after the Normandy Invasion that turned World War II around.  It has it’s victories and its defeats.  It is one of those types of stories no one can walk away from.  Today many stories are turned not only into novels but also, movies.  Personally, I like the book form.  The books take the time to develop themes, story-lines, and side stories that are often missed in the visual version.

If we pause long enough we can remember stories in more ways than words.  We can remember smells, sounds and colors.  Sitting here I remember the day I knew as a businessman I was called to ministry.  It was a dark night in the mountains near Mandeville, Jamaica.  I can see the stars to this day.  There were more stars visible then I had ever seen before.  It was about 74 degrees with a haze just rising from the wet ground. Down below the kids on the missions trip were laughing and having a time of relaxation before we would get ready for bed.  I was looking up at the stars and out of nowhere (that I was aware of) a lady comes over the hill from my right.  She is wearing a white top and green long pants.  I remember it odd on such a nice night that she was wearing long pants that looked hot.  She walked up to me and said, “Follow your heart.”  She turned around and walked down the hill.  Once she went over the ridge I had no idea where she went.  I stood there about 15 minutes in shock.  That is all I remember.  I don’t remember walking back down.  I don’t remember what happened the rest of the night.  That was it.  I knew that moment where my heart was. I had no idea how she knew.  True story.

I have not only stories of my own I’ve heard many stories.  That’s what one does when they talk with others for a living.  Listening is the main part of a conversation.  Without paying attention there is no story.

 It’s important to listen to people’s stories.  They tell us a lot about them.  Yes, we learn events of their lives.  But most tales reveal much more.  They can reveal value systems and belief systems.  They can tell our likes and dislikes.  The words that come together bring to life issues we have a hard time letting go of. 

Pastors are encouraged to add good and relevant stories to their sermons.  The stories relate the Bible to real life.  They bring home the point we are trying to make.  Those anecdotes are often remembered better than the facts and figures of theology.  They bring to life words from thousands of years ago.   

As I think this morning about the value of a story (good or bad), my mind wanders to the disciples.  Their life was changed the day Jesus walked up to them and said, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.”  It changed their stories.  

Without the calling from Jesus, they would have had a life full of fish stories.  I can hear one now.  “Hey, James,” Peter would have called out, “did I ever tell you about the biggest haul we ever had only to lose them to the hole that was in our net?”  James would have shook his head and replied, “Yeah, Peter, if you have told that one once you have told it one hundred times.”  That would have been the life of the disciples.  Fish stories would have abounded.  My bet is that their fish stories would have been the same as fish stories through the years, which have never really changed..  They would have been stories about the biggest fish and how it got away.  

Instead, they told stories about a man named Jesus who healed the sick, made the blind see and the lame walk.  They told about Lazarus being raised from the dead and thousands of people being fed by a few fish and loaves.  Peter told about taking a few steps on the water.  They also told the stories Jesus told.  Stories about sheep and shepherds, kings forgiving, and a widow’s coin, as well as a rebellious son being welcomed home by his loving father.  Their stories would change the world.  One heart at a time.

What stories do we have today?