A memorial of sorts…

tombstoneEven if you’re not a sports fan, hear me out on this one.   I’m a little windier than normal.  Sorry.

Yesterday, a relic of my past was posthumously inducted into pro football Hall of Fame.   Junior Seau was one of two iconic sports figures that represented the very best of my home town, San Diego.  The other was Tony Gwynn, the beloved San Diego Padre and representative of everything that is good about baseball.

They made being from San Diego important.  With their play and personalities, they galvanized a city, unlike anything most sports fans have ever seen, or will see again.  They gave San Diego homers genuine reasons to be loyal to our teams that consistently came up short.  Their work ethics were unmatched.  Their integrity and example as leaders fueled hope in teammates and fans, alike.

I never taught my boys that their sports heroes were to be their personal role models for life, but these two men always showed the best of what sports could be and I never worried they would teach lessons I would need to undo, as a parent.

Well..almost.

They both died young.  Way too young.  Junior Seau committed suicide with a gunshot wound to the chest in 2012 at the age of 43. Later, medical studies concluded he suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a type of chronic brain damage that has also been found in other deceased former NFL players.

Tony Gwynn died in 2014, due to salivary gland cancer, at the age of 54.  Even though there are still questions that remain, TG , along with most others, was convinced his 16-year battle with cancer in his mouth was due to his dipping tobacco habit he started early in his baseball career.

No matter how great these men were as players, teammates, fathers, husbands, friends and civic leaders, they were not perfect.  Even though they represented some of the best of humanity…loyalty, commitment, discipline, focus, determination, humility, generosity, kindness and genuine love (as everyone who has ever remembered them could attest), they fell short.

And no matter what your theology, they both played a significant role in their own deaths.  Junior Seau sold out to football.  He played with a recklessness that most players only dream about.  His motor never stopped, even when his body was telling him something was wrong.  His brain was ravaged by the game he loved.  He died in chronic pain, with brain that no longer functioned properly.

Tony Gwynn had an addiction to both tobacco and food.  At the end, he weighed well over 300 pounds.  Multiple surgeries had robbed him of his ability to talk, or even smile.  The man who became one of the best pure hitters the game had ever seen, died, at least in part, because he couldn’t master his demons with the same discipline and commitment he mastered hitting a baseball.

I wish they were still alive.  I wish they were still the faces of San Diego, instead of distant memories.  Here’s the lesson:

I have no clue where my two sports heroes are right now.  I know nothing of their relationship to eternity.  Seau was raised in a family of deep faith from his Samoan heritage.  Gwynn spoke often of God and family and the spiritual principles he was raised by.  But past that, I have no clue whether either one of these good men were right with God.

And, honestly, the same is true with the majority of people I know.

If people are holding on to a prayer they made at some point in their life, or a formulaic confession they repeated when the preacher phrased it for them, or the moment they were dunked in water…as the insurance plan for making it to the “good” destination, rather than the fiery lake…at best, I would say they have some serious misunderstandings of what it means to be a son or daughter of God.

And if a person is holding on to the idea that “goodness” matters to our eternal destiny…like, the personal kind of goodness we saw in the lives of Tony Gwynn and Junior Seau…kindness, humility, commitment, generosity, love, and the like…then that person has another thing coming.  Nobody is good enough.  That’s not the story I see unfolded in the pages of the Bible.

Nope.  The only thing that matters is if you have touched grace, or been touched by it (depending on your Bible interpretation!).  This is the grace we see flowing out of the heart and life of Jesus.  Everything else is a distant second.

None of us are perfect.  Not even close.  We all have demons.  We are all broken in some way.  It’s probably not concussions or dipping.  It may be pride.  Or ego.  Or self-centeredness.  Or letting the “stuff of life” rule our hearts.  No matter what, we are all in the same boat.

I’m grateful my sports heroes lived in such a way that my memories of them are good and they made a lasting imprint on those who knew them and saw them play.  That’s a great legacy.

But it’s not enough.  Not nearly enough.

The Waiting Room

The waiting roomI visit hospital waiting rooms more than most people.

(Somewhere along the line, visiting people in the hospital got rolled into the job description of the minister.  There are probably some good reasons for this.  There is also some really faulty thinking, both theological and practical, associated with this practice.  I’ll leave that discussion for another time.)

I’m camped out in a hospital waiting room again this morning.  It’s packed with people waiting to hear news about their loved ones.  I’m sitting next to a man about my age.  His wife is having some pretty serious surgery and he’s scared.  I can see it in his body language and I can hear it in his voice.  He’s been on the phone to another family member most of the time we’ve been here.  Maybe we’ll talk later.

There’s another familywife, kids, both sets of grandparentswaiting on news about their husband/dad/son.  They are masking their concern with lots of “family” conversation.  The kids are buried in their computers with headphones on.  I wonder what’s really going on in their hearts.

There’s lots of hugging and soft words.  Nervous laughter and stretching and yawning and pacing back and forth to the coffee machine.  Waiting room hosts try to make it feel like home.  Nice try.

All who are here share one thing in common:

We are all completely out of control.  Sitting in hospital waiting rooms, family can do nothing.  And they know it.  Their loved ones are in God’s handsor doctor’s hands…depending on how you look at it.  Some are praying.  Some are trying to think positive thoughts.  Some are avoiding thinking at all.

Hospital waiting rooms are where people are forced to face what they believe.  About God.  About death.  About hope.  About fear.  About the future.  For some, the waiting room is embraced.  The wait is good and the unknown is not the enemy.  For others, the wait is dark and lonelyeven if they are surrounded by friends and family.

The hospital waiting room exposes people.  Maybe not to those who are sharing the space with you, but you are exposed none-the-less.  Your fears are laid bare.  Your powerlessness is magnified.  There is nothing you can do butwait.  Oh, you can pray and read or write, but more than anything else, you are left to be reminded about what you believe and where you place your trustwhile you wait.

That’s why it’s called a waiting room.

Going to hell…again.

hellknowing that most of you don’t linger on my blog to read many of the comments, i thought i’d share with you my response to two really good ones…comments that challenged me to work hard… not just to be clear in my response… but to be clear in my thinking and understanding.

i’m really grateful when people care enough to question or even disagree.  it’s the only way iron is sharpened.

the first comment asked me to give my understanding of one of jesus’ most difficult teachings in luke 16:19-31.  you might want to take a few minutes and read the passage before you read my response.  here it is:

Here’s my short response (realizing that all parts of it can, and should be, challenged). First, although there are some who believe Luke 16:19-31 is an accounting of an actual historical event, I believe this story falls into the category of a parable…Jesus’ primary method of teaching in the NT. I have always taught (and been taught) to be very careful to avoid ascribing literal meaning to every detail of a parable, but to look for the over-arching meaning. This parable appears to me to be about the deceitfulness and deadliness of making riches your god, rather than seeing the parable as the description of what hell is going to look like.

Second, even if we agreed this parable gave a “real”, rather than a “figurative” description, the problem is with what it is describing. It is not describing the final judgment or the final destination of the wicked…it’s describing what goes on in Hades. Trust me, I am no expert on this! But in my limited study of Hades (and its OT counterpart, Sheol), I’ve always understood it to be a temporary place…the place that the dead go to wait the final judgment. For the righteous dead, it’s a good place. For the unrighteous dead, it’s a bad place. Some even believe its a place where the unrighteous might even get a second chance. (I’m not sure I buy that, but many believers through the ages have). Either way, it seems obvious to me that this story has nothing to do with the final judgment. Its a story that speaks of the torment that would take place for the wicked during that temporary, in-between time before final end is played out. To me, it does not speak of eternal, unending torment.

the second was a comment regarding the definition of words translated “hell” in the new testament…as well as the nature and extent of god’s judgment.  here’s my response:

I appreciate your struggle with my interpretation and position on this matter. None of us are able to come up with definitions and interpretations completely on our own. Years ago, I submitted myself to a set of scholars, Bible interpreters, pastors and theologians who helped frame my understanding of Scripture on this matter. I understand fully that people do not all see the Bible alike, nor do they always come to the same conclusions and understanding of Biblical definitions. We all subject ourselves to sources of information and wisdom and have to do our best to pick and choose those we trust for the most accurate rendering of truth. I am no different from anyone else on this. I read, study, compare, criticize, question and ultimately choose who and what I believe.

My understanding of the word gehenna does not include the word “unending” in it…though I do agree it appears to refer to the “final” judgment. In my study, there seems to be a rich Jewish history to the word that is somewhat complicated and very specific to the Jews in Bible times. I have come to understand gehenna to refer to a “smoldering dump” where trash and refuse was sent to burn. But my understanding of trash burning is that though a pile of trash may smolder and burn indefinitely, it will only keep burning because new trash is thrown on…the original trash eventually burns up and is no more.

As far as “the lights just going out” not being enough punishment for those who don’t know or experience the love of God through Christ…I just have to disagree. To get to the end of 50-60-70 years of painful, disappointing, unpredictable, up and down human existence… and then miss out on an unending, limitless, eternal and everlasting perfection in the presence of our Creator…well, that seems like over-the-top justice to me. My mind simply cannot comprehend…nor has my study of Scripture presented me with a God who needs to inflict unending torture and suffering on top of the most heinous punishment I could imagine: to be left out.

To me, justice is fully served by God cutting off his relationship with his unbelieving and unrepentant creation forever. And just like when the door of the ark closed, I believe the unredeemed will know they have missed out on the Great Banquet as their last experience of consciousness. How much worse does it need to be?

my hope is that this dialogue has motivated you to take your study of god’s word…and his command to be salt and light in a dark world…more seriously.  remember, if you want to dig deeper into this topic, i gave you some pretty good resources in the previous post to begin your journey.

Going to hell

hellmy early church upbringing had a singular focus:  death.

now that’s not quite as morbid as it sounds.  but it’s still reality.  oh…we had our potlucks and vacation bible schools and choir practice and church work days and prayer meetings and fellowship nights.  we still did lots of church stuff in church ways and much of  it was formative and laid the foundation for my faith to grow.

but make no mistake.  our focus was on death.

to be fair, the focus was really on what was going to happen after we died.  in comparison to all of eternity, these measly 72.3 years we get to live on earth seems pretty short.  the real issue was always whether i would make it to heaven when i died or whether i would exist in eternal and unrelenting pain and torture after death.

talk about scaring the hell out of a young kid!

this discussion deserves a lot more than i am going to give today, but here’s the simple version:  in spite of its popularity… and apparent biblical justification…i haven’t believed in the concept of a literal “lake of fire” or endless, conscious suffering for those who don’t know the grace of god through faith in jesus, for over thirty years.

i do, however, take the words of john 3:16 (and many, many others like it), quite literally.

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

i believe that those who die without believing in jesus perish.  perish means to cease from existence.  i believe in eternal life, but not eternal death.  in spite of the passages that have traditionally been used to teach that hell is not really death, but an eternal life of conscious punishment,  i have come to believe that those who die without experiencing the life god intends will simply die forever.

But sinners shall be altogether destroyed;  the future of the wicked shall be cut off.  Psalm 37:38

i realize this position is not without controversy, especially because it is not consistent with the popular view presented in the church and society.  but i am not alone in this conversation.  if you are interested in further study, here is a good link to a paper written by dr. glenn peoples.  also, here is an awesome book written by edward fudge (probably the foremost modern apologist for this position).  finally, here is a link to a great website on rethinking the whole concept of hell.  these are pretty cool resources.

i hope this whets your appetite for study.  don’t be afraid to rethink this.  it could change your whole outlook on being a follower of christ.

for the better.

I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.  John 10:10

The undignified reality

death-and-lifeif you have recently lost a loved one… or if you are walking the end-of-life journey with someone right now,  this post might come across a little insensitive.  i’m sorry.  the last thing in the world i would ever want to do is make your struggle more difficult.   it definitely won’t hurt my feelings if you skip reading this today.  we’re friends.  i’ll get over it.

i have had the honor of being near a number of people as they walked through death’s door.   it happened again this week, as i lost a good friend.  he was 70 years old.  his two wives had already preceded him in death.   i’m sure he had outlived most of his friends.  pretty sure that’s what happens when you reach a great old age.

as it nearly always is,  the moment of death was difficult for the family that was present…especially the ones who were younger.  the instant when the last breath is taken can never be fully prepared for.   no matter how many times i witness it,  there are no words to adequately describe the feelings.  it is overwhelming.

i’ve read about…and even personally shared…in the end-of-life experience in another culture.  i think many of them do it better than we do.  most of the deaths i have shared here in our culture are strangely awkward.  and horribly undignified.   this person who was once full of personality and emotion and life, is reduced to a shell…sometimes barely hanging on for days or weeks or even longer.

the tent that once housed purpose and vision and love and faith is now empty and void.  it is often very ugly.  sometimes the person appears grotesque and looks nothing like what we remember.   some will say there is a quiet beauty found in the passing of life to death.  i’m probably not one of those.

so many times i have reminded family and friends their loved one is no longer there.  the essence of what made them human is gone…the body has been drained of its intention.  the soul and the spirit has gone to its final destination.   and that moment…that realization…is shocking.

some run from the moment.  they shut down.  they close off.  they move quickly to another place where the feelings can be suppressed or denied.  they will tell you that things are ok, but you they are not.  these folks need kindness and patience and room.

others emote uncontrollably.  the shock and sadness is almost too much to bear.  for some, IT IS too much and it takes years and years to reconcile their loss…if they ever do.

still others seem to move comfortably through the various stages of grief and go on about life in a healthy way.

no matter what our feelings and response to the death moment,  it is screaming for us to take notice.   for the one who has died, there is no more time to make changes.  there is no chance to make amends.  life and opportunities and potentials are over.  whatever was done and however life was lived,  eternity’s possibilities are now closed.

but not for the living.

as long as there is breath, there is time.  time to make things right.  time to answer questions and face doubts.  time to wrestle with issues of faith and reason.  time to decide if life is nothing more than a superficial crapshoot or a reality that is potentially full of purpose and design and worth and fulfillment that flows from the heart of a creator.

when we are teenagers, death is what happens in the movies or on video games (unless we are shocked into reality by an untimely passing).  when we are in our 20s, 30s and even our 40s,  we live as if we are invincible.  work and family demand nearly everything our puny hearts can muster.  death is simply not an option (unless, again, we are shocked into reality by an untimely passing).

when you get into your 50s and beyond, death cannot be ignored.  for crying out loud, people younger than me are dying all the time these days.  and though it is sometimes a surprise,  nobody is ever really shocked.  58 year-old guys die all the time.

i’m 59, btw.

death will never be my friend.  when it comes, i hope i look like i have a little dignity left.  or at least i’m still listening to some rock and roll in my earphones.  but the reality is,  if i hold on long enough, i probably won’t have much control over what i look like or what i’m doing.   (chris and corey…accept my apologies now.)

but i have no fear.  my confidence is in god’s word and his promises that have proved true time and time again over the course of my life.   there is no doubt that jesus came to give me life.  death will merely be a change of venue.   how cool is that?

so what about you?  if you’re reading this,  you’ve still got time to make things right.  what’s stopping you?

The Best

we need each otherhow do you move from being selfish to unselfish?  what does it take to become a person who willingly and compassionately puts the needs and interests of others above your own?

why is the path from self-centeredness and self-absorption such a perilous journey that ends in failure for so many?  i don’t know.  what will inspire us to invest in each other for the good of the kingdom and the world?

i know that authentic servanthood is a gift from god.  we can’t simply “will” our way to genuine love and gracious living.  left to our own determination, we will fall miserably short.  nothing but a complete change of heart that comes from the presence of god’s spirit taking up residence inside us will do.

but the words of others help.  a lot.

there is a book that i have read and re-read faithfully for over 35 years.  it’s a book that i turn to for inspiration and to be reminded of the way i need to live my life.  it is one of the five most important books i have ever read.  it’s called “we really do need each other”, by reuben welch, a church of the nazarene pastor and scholar.

the book is amazing.  it’s powerful and life-giving.  the author paints a picture of a life fully surrendered.  it’s a book you should buy and begin reading once a year for the rest of your life.  you will not be the same person after reading it.

here’s the short excerpt that read at the end of the teaching time this past sunday.  be moved.

sometimes i wonder what are we saving ourselves for.  now i don’t like this anymore than you do…it’s just that i happen to believe the bible means what it says about some of these things, even though we don’t like them.

i’m thinking of a man who all his life long saved and saved and saved and held back…you know…don’t loan and don’t borrow.  that’s the life slogan:  don’t loan, save, take care.  and all of his life he worked and saved and i guess he made it.

and do you know what he did when he was about sixty-four?  yeah…he up and died…that’s what he did.  and all of the saving, keeping, holding, making, making, keeping, holding and saving of his life was down the tubes forever.

now i’m not talking about economics.  i’m talking about a lifestyle that seeks to preserve and save and keep for what?

i hate to tell you this, but i found out over in the computer science department that according to the latest statistics, the death average is one hundred percent!  and you know, we are going to die…we’re just going to die.  i thought i’d leave you with that cheerful word.  we’re just gonna die.

you know, we want to save ourselves and keep ourselves and hold ourselves back…as though the highest goal in life would be to look good in our caskets.

it’s no special blessing to come to the end of life with love unshared and selves ungiven and activities unactivated and deeds undone and emotions unextended.

it’s not an encouraging thought…especially at my age in life…but i have the feeling that when a person is middle-aged, he ought to be about half used up.  and when i read this passage (that jesus gave his life away for us), i keep asking myself this question:  “what am i saving myself for?  isn’t it god’s intention that when we come to the end of the line, we’re just about used up?”

words to live by.

Marriage Tuesday

Marriage Tuesdaythere’s an awful lot of hate and judgment out there these days.

i love that we live in a land where freedom of speech is a treasured value.  i really do.  even though i might violently disagree with political pundits and radio shock jocks and newscasters and facebook pontificators and editorialists and joe-bloggers of all types, i defend their right to express their opinions.

sometimes, i just wish they wouldn’t.  like today.

i’m pretty sure most everybody has heard of the young pro football player who killed his girlfriend (and mother of their baby daughter) and then shot and killed himself this past weekend.  the horror of this tragedy is nearly unspeakable.

apparently, except for a bunch of unbridled venom being directed at the young man .  but i’m not hopping on that bandwagon.  i’m not feeling much like giving my sanctimonious condemnation of his sin.  i’ll leave that to god.  i have enough trouble with my own sin…

but here’s the “darkness” we need to expose:  nobody knew what was going on inside this guy’s head.  how messed up does someone need to be to kill another person?   how dark does a person’s soul need to be to reach the hopelessness and despair necessary to commit suicide?

it doesn’t have to end in death, but depression and anxiety and anger and grief and futility and fear and panic…can leave anybody messed up and prone to shipwrecking their life and the lives of those the love.

so what’s this got to do with marriage?

simple.  the greatest gift you can offer your spouse…and your marriage… is your own spiritual, emotional and physical well-being.

in that order.

sooooo…are you developing a deeper spiritual life?  are you facing your inner demons?  are you committed to change in the areas where you are falling short?  are you inviting others into your life journey…to help, to give wise counsel, to provide accountability, to give good example?

are you offering your wife/husband the very best of who you are?

maybe you can make a clean start today.