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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!”

 

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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.

 

fatherHappy Father’s Day to all of you fellow dads! One of the moments I enjoy the most is sharing the postings of new fathers to Facebook.  The scores of pictures of that unique little baby, almost always wrapped around gushy, sometimes tearful, praises for the amazing woman who made you a father!  I’m not making fun of you guys because I was exactly the same way on three wonderful days in 1974, 1976, and 1978.  And, honestly, I have re-lived all of those emotions  when our nine grandchildren were born, watching our sons (including Tim) become fathers!

The strangest thing happened to me after my father’s death twenty-five years ago this week.  For a period of time after his death, I found myself talking to him in my prayers.  It was not anything mystical or intentional. I would be talking to my Father in heaven and conversation would just merge into talking to my dad.  I don’t really have a theology that supports praying to saints, so at first I was a little shocked and felt slightly guilty to realize what I was doing, but the phenomenon didn’t last long.

As you can tell, however, I’ve remembered this vividly for twenty-five years and have actually come to believe even more strongly that God has always intended for earthly fatherhood to be a first experience for both fathers and children of His relationship to us. If He has bound His Fatherhood and ours so closely together, then perhaps it is not so unique or unnatural for our hearts and minds to merge the two.

God as Father was a gift from Jesus His Son. Yes, there are a handful of references to “Israel my son” (Ex. 4:22) and David “my son” (2 Sam. 7:14), for instance, but such references are extraordinarily rare in the Old Testament.  On the other hand, God is called Father over 160 times in just the Gospels. In his letters, Paul talks of the fatherhood of God over forty times. Peter and John also use the same word they had been taught to use by the Lord. That Jesus taught his followers to understand God as father is special and uniquely Christian.

I have a sweet story to tell you to illustrate this point.

Sherrylee and I were in north Africa in a predominantly Muslim country. One night we met for prayer with a group of Christians, and there was one young woman present who told us this story.  She had been raised in a Muslim family, having no contact with Christians. One night, however, as a young girl, she had a dream about God. She dreamed that God appeared to her and told her that He was going to do something special for her. He was going to allow her to call him “Father.”  She treasured this dream in her heart and in her own prayers and meditations, she secretly and silently called God “father,” thinking she was the only one with this privilege.

Years later, as a young woman she traveled to a western country where she made friends with another young woman who was a Christian.  At some point they were talking about God and the young Christian woman said something about God, calling him  “my Father ” The Muslim woman was shocked—not because her friend had blasphemed or disrespected Allah, but because she had used the Muslim girl’s most special, secret words as if they were her own.  The Muslim girl asked her friend why she had called God father and thereby discovered the special relationship that all Christians have with God. It was not long until she too was adopted as His child, and her dream became reality.

And for those who have had abusive, troubled, unfaithful, sick fathers, I can only imagine that it is extremely difficult to relate to God as Father. Someday all that is broken in this world, including fatherhood, will be made right again.  The first taste of this perfection is allowing God the Father to renew you, to re-birth you, to adopt you into His family. Your pain is real, but God’s willingness to be a loving Father to you is real too!

Today is Father’s Day!  Our gathered family is going to grill and talk and watch the World Cup today in celebration.  But first we are all going to spend time in praise and prayer to God, thanking Him for being our Father.

Our Father, who is in heaven, holy is your name!”  

loyaltyIn our daily staff devotional at the Let’s Start Talking office a few days ago, the Psalm was read from a more modern version and, as is often the case, the new words for the ancient expressions caught me off guard.

Specifically, this particular Psalm praised the loyalty of God.  I don’t think this was the chapter but Psalm 100:5 would be representative of the word usage that tripped me up:  “The Lord is good. His love is forever, and his loyalty goes on and on” (NCV).

More familiar versions of this verse use faithfulness or steadfast love.  Is loyalty the same as faithfulness?  That’s what has been puzzling me!

From what I have read, the root idea, at least the initial idea behind loyalty would have to do with the Latin word lex, meaning law.   If you were loyal, you kept the law.  That basic idea grew into a slightly bigger idea relating to the power behind the law.  If you kept the law of the king or your feudal lord or whoever your master was, then you were loyal.

This understanding of loyalty expanded to include the master of your house—probably the husband, also the Father—and so the concept of loyalty to the family and/or clan emerged.

One of the primary uses of the word loyalty in modern times, I would argue, is in association with nationalism and patriotism.  Another synonym might be allegiance.

The dissonance for me was to use the word loyalty in place of faithfulness when talking about God’s relationship to His people.  Yes, the words point in the same direction; in fact, the word faithful is often used in dictionaries to help define the idea of loyalty. Nevertheless, . . . .something feels wrong!

Perhaps my discomfort grows from using the word about God! 

Loyalty is something that is earned, while God is faithful because He is God, not because we have earned His faithfulness.

Loyalties are generally either deserved or demanded.  Who could demand God’s faithfulness?  Who could deserve God’s faithfulness?

Loyalties may shift with circumstances; you may be loyal to the country of your birth, but change your citizenship and swear loyalty to another country for reasons of your own choosing. God is not whimsical or capricious; God is faithful.

Loyalty can have degrees. I am loyal to my country, but only to the point that it does not conflict with greater loyalties, such as God and family.  God, on the other hand, is absolutely faithful. His faithfulness will never be superseded by a greater Good or a greater Love.

Semantical arguments always seem a bit petty; however, words not only express our thoughts, but our choice of words can also change our thinking!  I would not feud over the word loyalty, but I do think it is a smaller word and that it makes God smaller—and that I don’t like.

I like the words the Spirit wrote in Lamentations 3:22-24 (NIV)

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.  “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.”    

 

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