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LondonmapOne of the worst travel mistakes I ever made was to rent a car instead of using public transportation.  Whether you are traveling for pleasure, for missions, or for business, one of the big questions you must solve is whether to depend on local transportation–tuktuks, taxis, buses, subways, trains–or to be independent and drive yourself in a rented vehicle.  Let me give you a few things to think about to help you make the right decision.

Don’t try to save money at the expense of safety or the completion of your mission. This was my big mistake in London.  It was 1979, and we were a family of five, forced to fly through London on our way from Germany to the US. Not only did we have to spend the night, but we had to change airports. At that time, all of the flights from Europe landed at London Heathrow and all of the flights to the States departed from London Gatwick.

We had always flown directly to and from Frankfurt before, so this was our first time to fly through London. Even though we had lived in Europe for eight years, London was very much a foreign country to us.  About all I knew was that the two airports were about 30 miles apart–so how difficult could it be to move from one to the other?

I made two bad decisions and they were both in an attempt to save money!  The first was to book a hotel about 10 miles away from Gatwick. Airport hotels for a family of five are always expensive–sometimes outrageous!  I had found a nice country hotel in a small village south of Gatwick that was quite reasonable, but, of course, it did not offer an airport shuttle or any other convenient way for a family with three small children and their luggage to get back and forth.

The decision to rent a car was confirmed when I found out how much it cost to take the bus from Heathrow to Gatwick. To rent a car was about half the price–and that would solve the problem of getting from the country hotel to Gatwick as well.  Easy decision!

We landed at Heathrow in the late afternoon and our misadventure began with the discovery that the car rental place was off airport, so we had to move the family and luggage by bus anyway to where the cars were.  (But think of all the money we were saving!!)  Then we got the car and discovered that it was about two sizes smaller than I had expected–and was a hatchback instead of a station wagon. Fortunately, these were the days before car seats were required, or we never would have made it. We literally had to load into the back seat and have the children sit on top of the suitcases to get all of us and the luggage in.

Did I forget to tell you that they drive on the wrong side of the road in England?? I did know that and just decided it couldn’t be that hard.  But did you know they also put the steering wheel, the gear shift, and the rearview mirror on the wrong side of the car too?  Yes, of course, it’s a stick shift! I’m sure it made the car rental a lot cheaper!!

So with Sherrylee navigating with a map–pre GPS times–from the left front seat, the kids having a great time climbing around on luggage in the back seat, and me about as tense as I ever get, off we go from Heathrow to our hotel near Gatwick.

Within two minutes, because of not being able to accurately estimate where the left front corner of the car was, I nicked an innocently parked car’s bumper.  I stopped and left my phone number on the car window, but it really was just a small scuff mark on the bumper, so I never heard from the owner.

Nonetheless, it scared me–maybe scarred me– but what choice did I have but to go on.  No one had told me about traffic in the evening on the Motorway around London!  So what was just a 30-mile trip took a couple of hours, with us often standing still because of rush hour traffic.

Well, I don’t remember anything else from that trip, but it did teach me some things about travel in foreign countries that I can share with you to make your trip easier.

  • Don’t save money in the wrong places. Both your own safety and successfully getting from one place to another is worth a lot of money. I have made that trip between Heathrow and Gatwick many times now and have never rented a car to do it again.
  • Use public transportation if it meets your needs. That’s not always the case. Sometimes you have to move around faster than buses or subways can, but if you are not in a hurry and if you don’t have lots of luggage to manage, then it might be an option.
  • Don’t forget to think about safety issues when traveling. In many countries it can be dangerous to you to have an accident involving someone’s livestock, much less a person. If you rent, know what to do for your own safety in case of any kind of accident.  If you choose public transportation, especially buses and subways–then you have to be concerned with petty crime–pickpockets, bus thieves, etc.–seldom life threatening, but certainly disconcerting and something to be avoided.
  • Taxis –know their company’s reputation before you assume that they are reputable and safe. Some countries taxis are cheap and safe and by far the best choice. Other countries, only certain taxis are safe. You should almost always know what the cost of your trip will be before you get in the taxi.
  • Alternatives–we have often found that private car services are good options. I’m not talking about traveling in limousines, rather just a private car service with your own driver. You can sometimes rent them for the day, but often we just book a trip to the airport or wherever we need to go. This is an especially good option in places where taxis are not particularly trustworthy.
  • Car rental – Renting your own car still makes sense in places where  you feel you can drive safely with confidence, where traffic is predictable, where you have to travel long distances, or you need a car for a longer period of time–if you have taken all my other points into consideration.  I would also stick to the major car rental companies. The smaller ones are fine if everything goes right, but if anything goes wrong, you’ll be happier with the big companies.

I hope these tips help you in your travels.  My hope is  you won’t be waking up in a cold sweat 35 years later when you dream of your car rental experiences.

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extreme prayer If we were playing Family Feud, and the word to play was PRAYER,  I would guess that one of the top responses from the audience would be POWER.  Have you read the Christian end times books that have the heavenly hosts completely handcuffed in their last battle against Satan, bound in helplessness until they are released by the prayers of the faithful on Earth?

I read one of those books once and found myself wondering if we are not turning prayer into a power tool that we wield rather than kneeling humbly and letting our requests be made known to Almighty God.

 Asking, knocking, crying out, seeking, supplicating, longing, beseeching, calling out, these don’t sound like power words to me; rather, they sound like words of neediness.

But we don’t want to be needy; we want to make things happen, so we Christians want to turn acts of worship, of submission and surrender into acts that compel or instigate or change.

Greg Pruett has written a wonderful book Extreme Prayer: The Impossible Prayers God Promises to Answer, published by Tyndale House, and available through Amazon.com.

Greg is the president of Pioneer Bible Translators in Dallas, Texas, but before that he and his wife Rebecca, along with their three children, served as Bible translators in West Africa for over twelve years.  I met Greg a few years ago, but we had never really had much time to talk until the North American Christian Convention in Indianapolis earlier this month.

At the end of our time together, Greg gave me a copy of his new book, which I began to read on the plane home, and it captured me with the opening pages.

He begins with a dark time in his ministry, his faith, and his marriage. One of the characteristics of liturgical churches that I wish our churches would imitate is that their liturgy often begins with, but in every case includes, a confession of our own sinfulness and our need for the grace of God before one more song is sung or one more prayer is spoken.  And so it seemed to me a wonderful thing that a book on prayer begins with a confession of unworthiness even to be in the presence of God—which in turn makes His gracious gift of prayer even more precious.

Drawing from many of his experiences in West Africa, Greg teaches us to pray. “This book is centered on . . . extreme prayer—the discipline of maximizing Jesus’ promises about prayer. Each of the following chapters unveils a different kind o prayer that Jesus backs with a blank-check promise (“whatever you ask”—mw). “

I might have been a little nervous about the book still to this point, but then Greg really reveals his message:  “But watch out! Don’t read this book to get your own wishes out of prayer.  God wants something so much bigger than that.

Greg makes prayer about God and not about me!  And that’s the way it should be, but often isn’t.

He teaches us what it means to pray “in the Name of Jesus.”  He teaches us to pray in “faith and faithfulness,“  not making the answer to our prayer the condition of our faith.  Even his shorter chapter on what he calls “shameless” prayer teaches us that persistence is not from entitlement but from the humble acknowledgment of our total dependency on God.

As the small book draws to its close, the writing becomes more specific, more concrete.  We need that kind of instruction, not just the inspirational.

Extreme Prayer taught me about prayer in a way that has grown my understanding of and my faith in Almighty God.  If you read this book—which I highly recommend–you may not hear exactly the same message because it is full of words of Truth, but you will hear the Word, and you will be changed because of it.

Lyles familyIt’s early Saturday morning—cloudy and cool—which is very unusual for Texas in the summer, but the quiet kind of morning that is perfect for waking up slowly with a cup of coffee in my Munich Starbucks souvenir mug and my computer in my lap.

The house smells of brisket.  Sherrylee put 7-8 pounds of trimmed brisket into the oven last night before we went to bed, so that it would be ready by noon today for the Lyles family reunion.

I say the Lyles family reunion, but there will be very few people named Lyles at the reunion.  These gatherings started when my grandmother Mary Dooley Lyles was still living. She had been widowed since about 1938, when her husband Willis E. Lyles was killed in a wagon accident on the family farm near Justin, Texas.  He left her with nine living children, two other sons having died in infancy and another very young.

I don’t know when she moved to Denton, but that’s all I remember. As a boy growing up in Fort Worth, we would go there often.  Seems like Thanksgiving was the most common gathering time.  With so many aunts and uncles, Grandma Lyles’s little house was overfilled with relatives, so we cousins had to stay outside and play. Those were still the days when the grown-ups ate first and the children came later.  Things have changed, haven’t they!

Irby was the oldest—some fifteen years older than my mother—so we didn’t really know him as well, but he always seemed like a kind man. Then came Uncle Bud. He was a banker and had no children, but he used to make us believe his nose made a strange cracking sound if you moved it.  Woodrow was next in line, born in 1912. He was quiet, but we all knew he had been in WWII. Grandma had his picture in uniform sitting on the old black upright piano in her house.

Uncle Dock was a bachelor most of his life, living with Grandma until he married quite late in life, a marriage which did not go well, so he finished his life a bachelor as well.

Next came the first daughter Aunt Mary—we have lots of Marys in our family, so she was known as “Mary V.”  Perhaps because my mom is the youngest sister, we always seemed closer to our aunts’ families than our uncles. Or maybe it was just that the sisters were closer in age, so their children were our nearest cousins in age.

Aunt Ruth was the next sister. She married her high school sweetheart Frank, who became blind within the first year of their marriage, still they had four children and ran a dairy farm with 50+ cows, sometimes sheep, and probably a lot more that I have no idea about.  Uncle Frank taught me how to make coke floats one summer while I was staying with them—totally the city boy on the farm!!

Another son slipped into the family at the number 10 spot J.P. Lyles. According to my mom, his parents couldn’t agree on his name, so he was just given the initials– which is what they could agree upon.  We grew up quite close to his family; in fact, we still go to church with one of his daughters.

Mom (Daisy) was next, followed by Uncle Gene, the last of the Lyles clan.  Gene lived near us also, so we saw his family a lot, but Gene went his own way. He became a preacher and preached almost until the day he died.

Gene died last October; Aunt Ruth died April 14th of this year—the day before Mom’s 91st birthday.  She’s the last of her immediate family—including all the spouses of her siblings.

Today will be a family reunion of cousins, cousins and their families—and Mom. Mom has organized this reunion for many years now, but today will be the first time when she is alone at the table where “the older generation” has always sat. Lots of us will have our pictures made with her–the little kids reluctantly because old people are a little scary!

And then we will all go home, wondering if there will be a family reunion next summer! 

And at the very moment that each of us has that thought, I hope and pray that our first thoughts will be:  well, if not, there will be a wonderful day when we are all together again—the whole family—singing hymns of praise, just like we used to at Grandma Lyles’s house on Thanksgiving Day.

One of the great honors of my life was to serve on the faculty at Oklahoma Christian with Dr. Stafford North—who is still teaching there, by the way.  One of the things he taught me by example was to continue leading the succeeding generations of your family toward God so that the Big Family Reunion is complete.  He told us that as they parted after visits or trips together, one of the things he has always said is “Be there!”

That’s all. “Be there” was his way of reminding his children, grandchildren, and now great grandchildren, I’m sure, to live such lives that they will always be together and no one will be missing “when the roll is called up yonder.”

I believe all of the Lyleses were people of faith. They were a family sometimes of few words, but the legacy that has been passed down is one of faith. That’s the legacy I want to leave for our grandchildren as well.

Perhaps there ought to be posters or banners on the walls at every family reunion that simply say, “Be there!”

 

Boy with menacing shadowHave you read Malcolm Gladwell’s book David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants?  Gladwell has been one of my favorite authors since Tipping Point was published in 2000.  Having said that, I would say, however,  that you can’t read his books uncritically. He typically takes either statistics or limited studies, draws unusual conclusions from them, then illustrates those conclusions with selected anecdotes.

The scope of his conclusions are broader than the evidence that he gives to support them, BUT what makes his writing so captivating is that while small samples don’t always prove large truths, sometimes they do.  Much of what Gladwell writes rings true and has proven itself true for some people—hence, its appeal.

While the “David and Goliath” story has taken on archetypal qualities, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Gladwell does more than just borrow the metaphor.  The first section of the book actually explores the biblical story and offers some unique insights without being purely imaginative.

For instance, Gladwell goes into the story and speculates (as have many) that Goliath may have suffered from acromegaly, a disease related to giantism, which is quite common in people of excessive height.  One of the symptoms is poor vision, sometimes double vision.  For Gladwell, a vision disorder explains why Goliath seems to need to be led by someone else and why he at first seems a bit slow to recognize that David is not a fully-armed warrior.  You can hear Gladwell tell the story himself at this Ted talk from 2013 http://www.ted.com/talks/malcolm_gladwell_the_unheard_story_of_david_and_goliath .

In addition, Gladwell argues that “slingers” were a part of ancient armies in the same category with archers. He maintains that a rock in a slinger’s sling traveled at such velocity that it would have about the same effect as a 45mm handgun and that they were accurate up to 200 yards.

Gladwell is not trying to debunk the biblical story at all. His point is that David, an experienced slinger (remember the bear and the lion), was not a total underdog when he went up against the visually-impaired giant.  With what he believes is a better understanding of the story, Gladwell is trying to make the point that there are reasons to expect victories even in the face of what appear to be overwhelming circumstances.

Gladwell would like for his audience to rethink the David and Goliath story and come away with two important points:

  • For people who think they are strong:  “the same qualities that appear to give them strength are often the sources of great weakness.”
  • For people who think of themselves as weak or underdogs:  “the act of facing overwhelming odds produces greatness and beauty.”  

Don’t Christians often feel like underdogs in the post-Christian world we live in?  Don’t individual Christians often feel defeated by the gigantic evil in their lives?  Don’t we all wonder where the promised victory is when we look at the trends in the world around us?

If you were to place yourself in the story of David and Goliath, who would you be?  Would you be the person who relies on size and armor, and those you surround yourself with?  Are you the one who relies on experience and previous success and who scorns those smaller than you, those who are beneath you, those you can so easily defeat?

Or perhaps you are just a soldier, standing on the hillside far removed from where the big battle will take place, unwilling to be tested, hoping that someone else will win the battle for you, perfectly willing to wait passively and just hope you are on the right side at the outcome?

Or are you a little young or a little inexperienced for the big battle, but you have some skills and gifts that you know can be decisive.  You don’t really have all the right gear—but sometimes the right gear is a hindrance, so you think you can do without it.  You don’t really have a following; people like you, but they think you are a bit foolhardy.  But your confidence causes you to step out and take on challenges that nobody else seems to want to do?  And that confidence comes from great trust won from great experiences with a God who is never defeated!

Who are you in the story of David and Goliath?

Malcolm Gladwell is certainly not categorically a “Christian” author , but in writing this book, he was changed.   In an interview with Religious News Service, he described a rediscovery of faith:

I had drifted away a little bit. This book has brought me back into the fold. I was so incredibly struck in writing these stories by the incredible power faith had in people’s lives; it has made a profound impact on me in my belief. That’s been the completely unexpected effect of writing this book. I am in the process of rediscovering my own faith again.

We are surprised by the power of God and His Word like we are by David’s victory over Goliath.

Gladwell’s book is about why improbable victories might be more probable than we think.  God’s book is about why victory is certain! 

Women have contributed some of the greatest hymns of the Church.  In our circles, many would be able to name Fanny J. Crosby as a writer of many familiar hymns—and rightly so. Look at this short list of some of her songs that are still sung in churches that sing hymns:

All the Way My Savior Leads Me

Blessed Assurance

A Wonderful Savior

I Am Thine, O Lord

Jesus Is Tenderly Calling You Home

Safe In the Arms of Jesus

Tell Me the Story of Jesus

To God Be the Glory

But there are many lesser-known women who have given God’s people great hymns.  One of my favorite hymns since my college years is The Sands of Time, a hymn written by Anne Ross Cousin.  

Mrs. Cousin was born in 1824 in Scotland as the only child of Dr. David Cordell, who had served at the Battle of Waterloo.  She married a Presbyterian minister named William Cousin, had six children with him, and wrote many hymns to be used in the services conducted by her husband.

The Sands of Time was written in 1854 and, according to Mrs. Cousin, was inspired by the dying words of Samuel Rutherford, one of the highest regarded and prolific religious figures in Scotland during the early 19th century. The epitaph on his tomb includes the words “Acquainted with Immanuel’s song.”  Cousin composed a poem of nineteen stanzas around the idea of Immanuel’s land, using this prophetic name for Jesus as the central motif.  The lyrics were set to the music of a French tune by Chretien D’Urhan and arranged by Edward Rimbault in 1867 into the hymn, usually with only four or five verses, with which we are familiar.

Here is a beautiful rendition of the song on Youtube you will enjoy hearing:

 

The sands of time are sinking, the dawn of Heaven breaks;
The summer morn I’ve sighed for—the fair, sweet morn awakes:
Dark, dark hath been the midnight, but dayspring is at hand,
And glory, glory dwelleth in Immanuel’s land.

O Christ, He is the fountain, the deep, sweet well of love!
The streams of earth I’ve tasted more deep I’ll drink above:
There to an ocean fullness His mercy doth expand,
And glory, glory dwelleth in Immanuel’s land.

The King there in His beauty, without a veil is seen:
It were a well spent journey, though seven deaths lay between:
The Lamb with His fair army, doth on Mount Zion stand,
And glory—glory dwelleth in Immanuel’s land.

With mercy and with judgment my web of time He wove,
And aye, the dews of sorrow were lustered with His love;
I’ll bless the hand that guided, I’ll bless the heart that planned
When throned where glory dwelleth in Immanuel’s land.

O I am my Beloved’s and my Beloved’s mine!
He brings a poor vile sinner into His “house of wine.”
I stand upon His merit—I know no other stand,
Not even where glory dwelleth in Immanuel’s land.

If you would like to read all nineteen verses of the original poem, you can find it at this site.

edgeoftomorrow Perhaps it’s the threat of random terror and/or the post-modern lack of confidence that anyone has the answers to anything anymore, but something is stealing our vision and hope of a future—and our films are the popular expression of our general anxiety.

Two of the big summer movies currently in the theaters deal with time travel issues.  The first Edge of Tomorrow, starring Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt, is a military thriller, but really it is about what it would mean if we could really start all over again every time we mess up badly—and that’s appealing at a certain level, isn’t it!

X-Men: Days of Future Past, delivering the usual ensemble of stars, but focusing on Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), tests the idea of whether going back in time and manipulating historical events can change the future.

Both films play with the threat of total annihilation of the race.  Seems like we are getting more and more films like this, that is, films like the 1950s movies about the invasion of aliens and/or the mutants from atomic wars overrunning the earth, all of which expressed the newly feasible, but very real existential fear of atomic destruction.

Edge of Tomorrowsets up a scenario where a reluctant soldier (Tom Cruise) repeats the same day over and over again, resetting to that day every time he is killed.  When he realizes what has happened to him, he tries to learn from each lethal experience in order to save the world.

Through hundreds of iterations of the same day, he finally figures out what to do and what not to do in order to win the war against the aliens—at which point he has to start the NEW day over again and try again from the beginning to win the girl.

Fortunately, the director and editors of this film spare the audience the boredom of watching the same events happening over and over again, all which would have to be repeated so carefully because even one forgotten detail could result in needing to reset all over again.

That boredom and the tyranny of details when trying to change history were better demonstrated in Stephen King’s recent book 11/22/63: A Novel about a time traveler’s attempt to change history by preventing the assassination of President Kennedy.  Although the time travel and resetting is quite similar, because the novelist has more than two hours to tell his story, the difficulty and tedium of using repetition to get everything right are much more pronounced.  In fact, it proves to be almost impossible.

X-Men: Days of Future Past is the better film, primarily because the complexity of the characters plays a larger role in the outcome of the film.  In spite of political, racial, and philosophical oppositions, the key for saving the world becomes hope!  That hope is essential to the survival of humanity rings true, doesn’t it!Xmen

A cousin of mine is a hospital chaplain. He has told me that his main job is to offer people in his care hope, that when a patient loses hope, death becomes more probable.  He says that if he can just help them hope for tomorrow or next week,that they often rally.

Ultimately, time-travel films are terribly inconsistent, sometimes inconsequent, because no cause-and-effect event can be ignored, not even the smallest, without downstream consequences.  That is the great comfort Christians take in being in the hands of the Great I AM.

Our hope rests on the sole First Cause, in the hands of the Beginning and the End, in the Author and the Finisher.  Our hope is not in ourselves or dependent on our tomorrow; our hope is not in learning all we need to learn to achieve perfection or in getting it all right. So Christians can live without that existential fear that lies behind films like these because we have been given true hope.

May the God of hope fill you with joy and peace in your faith, that by the power of the Holy Spirit, your whole life and outlook may be radiant with hope” (Romans 15:13, Phillips).

The fault in our starsIf the new releaseThe Fault In Our Stars, starring Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort, could talk, it would tell you that it unashamedly intends to play on your most maudlin emotions and will use all of the film clichés about death and dying to do so, BUT if a good cry does you good, then you’ll love this film.

I agree with the film—if it could talk!

Two teenagers with cancer meet at a support group, one with an attitude and one with—well, another attitude!  They both are coping with their terminal illnesses within their own understandings about life and death.  One of my favorite scenes and a scene that really demonstrates the quality of the actors is their first meeting at the support group meeting when Gus is just looking and smiling at Hazel and she is trying first to ignore him, then warn him off—both of them speaking volumes without words.

Such a script demands a wide range of emotions from both Woodley and Elgort. Woodley does a remarkable job as the terminal teen, mildly depressed and mildly bitter about her fate.  Ansel Elgort’s performance is equally believable—but only when he is in his relatively idealistic mode; he is less convincing with his dark side.

With no more information than I have given you, you can probably finish the rest of the plot with at least 90% accuracy, that is, the story is quite predictable.  So what makes the film worth seeing?

Here is why I can be positive about the film—as long as you know you are going to need your tissues!

Hazel and Augustus each have very real questions about death and dying for which they hope to discover an answer before they die. 

Hazel Grace wants to know if the lives of her loved ones will be ruined by her death? She is afraid her mother will lose her motherhood, that when she dies they will lose their purpose in life because all she knows of them is that they have spent all of her life focused on her and her illness.

Augustus wants to leave this life having made an impact, being remembered forever, leaving his mark on the world! But what if he doesn’t? What if he sees the end before he has time to live remarkably.

The drama of the film is not about whether they live or die, but whether they find the answers to their questions, whether they are able to find not only love but peace and a measure of understanding.

I hate the title and I hate the way religion is portrayed in the film.  If you are a Christian, then you will also hate the portrayal of the “heart of Jesus” support group which is a caricature of the worst of pastoral care in the name of Jesus.  The film would have been a better film with more realistic and sympathetic people of faith.

With regard to the title The Fault Is Our Stars, there is a disconnect for me between the title and the film script.  Perhaps the title came from the book’s author or the publisher and is appropriate for the book, but the prevailing philosophy in the film is optimistic, not fatalistic, one of hope for something other than oblivion.

Finally, don’t take young teenagers or pre-teens to this film; they will leave thinking it is all about love. And they will remember the obligatory sex scene as much more important than it is.

 

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