From My Journal

As I was preparing to write this week’s blog post, I came across something I wrote several years ago, soon after we moved back to the US from London. This so spoke to me that I felt I should share it with you today. At the time I wrote this, we were living in the Central Oregon woods, about 30 miles south of Bend, Oregon. I hope this is as helpful and refreshing to you as I was to me when I read it this morning.

Here it is:

It started snowing again this morning about 7:30. It’s the 15th of March and I have been hoping and praying that the snow would be over soon. Since we returned from Uganda two weeks ago, much of the snow has melted and the two miles of dirt road has gone through the stages of deep water, ice, and soupy mud. With the warm days and cold nights we’ve been having, it looked as if we were about finished with the daily road adventures. Now it’s snowing and we are in a white world – all the bare spots on the drive and the roof are covered again and it looks like we’re back to square one.

I took a few minutes during my quiet time this morning to read some of the entries in my daily Journal from January and February this year. I was so interested in what I read that I got some earlier journals from 1999 and 2000 off the shelf and read some of the entries in them as well. I’d like to tell you some of what I found and what I learned about myself in the process.

By the way, my daily journal is not filled exclusively with page after page of great spiritual revelations and insights. Hopefully there is some of that, but my journal tends to be a sort of combination daily diary, an account of what’s happening. Then I write about significant events of the preceding day, things I expect, dread, or hope for today, ups and downs of how I’m feeling, and what I’m thinking about or struggling to understand or decide. Then I write prayers in which I give over my concerns to my Father and ask him a lot of questions that he sometimes answers and sometimes doesn’t.

There are several things that really stood out to me from my time of rereading my journals this morning:

First, I was appalled at how bad my hand writing is and how difficult it is to decipher some of what I wrote. Do you think it’s too late for me to improve my penmanship?

Second, I was surprised at how much I had put in my journal about how I was feeling about issues and situations. It was good to realize that many of those situations about which I expressed serious concern have responded to prayer, have worked themselves out, and are no longer matters for concern. Some haven’t changed and remain prayer concerns today. Some haven’t changed but I have found grace to accept them as they are.

I was also surprised that I don’t remember the intensity with which I was “feeling” about many of those situations. It is obvious from my journal entries that many of these seemed at the time to be earth-shaking situations and that I was certain I would never forget them because of their seriousness or intensity. Yet in reading about them from this distance, they don’t seem very serious at all. In some cases I’ve forgotten all about them.

Another thing that really got my attention is that on some of the issues I had prayed about – crisis issues that I felt had to be resolved immediately for life to continue –  I find that months later, even a year later, they remain unanswered prayers and unresolved issues and life does go on in spite of that. Perhaps God is a better judge than I of what is major and what is minor and when action should be taken!

I also discovered that many prayers I had prayed / written to my Father in times of deep concern and uncertainty have been answered perfectly, but completely unpredictably! The answers that he has given are so much different and so much better than any scenario I could possibly have imagined. And my journal is evidence that I often attempted to sketch out for him how he should at least consider working these things out. I’m so glad he didn’t take my advice on every one of these matters!

There is an interesting recurring theme of asking him what comes next after our very busy and fruitful almost two decades of living and ministering outside the US in Jamaica and the UK and in travels to Africa and Central America. God graciously provided this mountain hideaway and place of rest and restoration for us. He directed us to a great church to attend for worship and God’s word. We had a great small group for fellowship and mutual encouragement. Our travel to minister in the UK and East Africa continued. Our relationships with people in our small group continued to grow. But what comes next, Lord?

In January 2000, only a few months after we left London and came to Central Oregon, during my daily Bible reading the Lord had quickened a scripture to me from Genesis 50:24 “God will surely come for you…He will bring you back to the land He vowed to give to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” (Gen 50:24 NLT). I was fully confident that God had spoken that to us and that this was his personal promise to us. I was praying for the fulfillment of his promise. I was trying to imagine the possible ways he could bring it to pass. I was trying to figure out whether we needed to be actively seeking ways “back to the land..” or whether we should be passively waiting for Him to “…come for us.”

In mid-October 2000, just one day after our return from one of our most fruitful times of ministry in Uganda, and just one year and one day since coming to Bend from London, God “came for us!” Ken Johnson, pastor of Westside Church in Bend, where we had been so refreshed and renewed for nearly a year phoned and asked me to consider becoming part of the pastoral team at Westside and to lead and serve the pastors of Adult Discipleship, Pastoral Care, and Small Group ministry. What a perfect fit for us! Being part of a team serving in the local church and being able to continue the development, translation, and distribution of the Foundation for Christian Service course in Africa and the training and equipping of pastors and leaders in East Africa with the FFCS course for Lay Leadership Training. Have you ever noticed how we usually think God’s answer to prayer has to be “either – or” and he often shows us an answer that is “both this and that?”

Looking back at my journal and seeing how small and limited my ideas often are and how faithless and sort of “whiney” some of my prayers were, I am again amazed at his Amazing Grace!

The most redeeming thing I find in my prayers and questions to my Father over the past year is a continuing pattern of submission to his will. I can’t seem to get to the point yet of leaving everything in His hands from the outset. I still have to try to plan and reason and suggest possible solutions or outcomes. But as I read through the entries in my journal, I find that I consistently (eventually) submit it all to him; to his wisdom, to his care; to his timing; to his power and love.

If there is anything I can recommend to you from my reading today in past volumes of my daily journal it would be this:

    • Be consistent in your quiet time or daily devotional time.
    • Be honest in your daily communication with God – how you feel, what you’re struggling with, what you’re hoping for.
    • Keep a journal. Write your thoughts, concerns, prayers, hopes, and dreams. (Recording the daily temperature and snowfall is optional!)
    • Make sure that your journal is representative of you and not simply patterned after someone else’s journal.
    • Take a little time every few months to look back. Reread some of your journal entries.
      • Look for answered prayers.
      • Look for positive patterns to be reinforced.
      • Look for negative patterns to be worked on for change.
      • Look for the fingerprints of Grace where God’s hand has touched your life.

It’s still snowing. But this too will pass!

As always, I’d love to hear from you and I welcome your comments and questions. If you’re reading on the blog, leave a comment below. If you’re reading from the email, click “Reply” and tell me what you’re thinking.

 

In Everything…

Hey Everybody! It’s Thanksgiving week if you’re reading this in the USA, as many of my readers are. Thursday, November 25, 2021 is a national Thanksgiving Holiday in the USA. However, I’m afraid it’s recently almost been eclipsed by the next day, Black Friday, in which we are all encouraged to go shopping and celebrate our dissatisfaction with what we have and our greed for more! Anyhow, Happy Thanksgiving!

In May and June I wrote a series of Blog Posts on Gratitude and Thankfulness. (I’d be happy to send you the links to those posts. If you’d like them, just reply to this post and I’ll email them to you.) Today, I’m adding one more thought about Thankfulness to the already overflowing pot, but I don’t think this will waste your time. This is not another “should do” emphasis to make you feel guilty if you’re not overflowing with Gratitude today! Please don’t let my words add to your burden! What I’m writing about here is one thing that I’m learning about Thankfulness and I think it will be a good thing for us all to think about this week.

In everything give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you. (1 Thessalonians 5:18 KJV)

I’m learning that you can be thankful IN everything, without being thankful FOR everything!

Every one of us is somewhere on a spectrum that ranges from “It doesn’t get any better than this!” to “This really sucks and I just don’t think I can take it any more!”

In our family two of the “In Everythings” are Cancer and COVID: Cancer, first for Stephanie (Latest tests are looking good!) and then for me. Latest tests show my treatment is holding back the cancer’s growth and we now have a date (February 2, 2022) for a Stem Cell Transplant! Then COVID for the limitations, cancellations, frustrations, delays, losses, and for the separations and divisions it has brought among extended family, friends, and churches. But these are our “In Everythings” at present.

I know you’ve got your own set of “In Everythings” and you’re dealing with them the best you can!

In everything give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you. (1 Thessalonians 5:18 KJV)

Remember, it’s not “FOR” everything give thanks. It’s “IN” everything give thanks.

It’s not being false and hyper-spiritual and saying silly stuff. It’s looking for the good in the bad, the beautiful in the ugly. And then intentionally, and sometimes with great effort and determination, focusing on the good and the beautiful. And being thankful for the good in the midst of a situation that includes things that are not good.

When I look back over the years the most thankful things I remember have not always been the easiest things! The greatest challenges have resulted in the greatest progress in my maturity, attitude, and character! The greatest challenges have resulted in the greatest Gratitude to God! I love it when things go smoothly, but when I face challenges and God comes through, sometimes the Gratitude is almost overwhelming!

In the midst of a situation that includes pain, loss, uncertainty, and confusion we can choose to focus on the good: The kind words of others, the kind and caring actions of others, things that we still have, things that offer a glimpse of hope. We can focus on good readings on the lab work, rather than on the fact we have the disease. We can focus on the energy we have rather than on the energy we’ve lost.

It’s not “FOR” everything give thanks. It’s “IN” everything give thanks.

I’m learning. I don’t have all this stuff worked out so that there’s never a moment of angst or fear or loss. I’m learning. And I’m well aware that I haven’t faced all my “In Everythings” yet. There may come an “In Everything” that’s way beyond my pay grade. But I’m learning. I’m getting ready for the “In Everythings” that are still ahead by practicing my “Giving Thanks” in the ones that come along.

Practical stuff:

There is an element of “Well, it could be worse!” and some “Glass half full or glass half empty” thinking in all of this. But one thing I’ve learned about Thankfulness is that it has to be expressed in some way. When we look for the thankful things amongst the “In Everythings” of life, when we search for them, identify them, then we can call them out by saying “Thank you” to God, to other people, to our own anxious souls, something powerful and transformational happens.

This comes more naturally to some of us than to others, but I recommend you make a conscious decision to “In Everything Give Thanks”. Then start to do it…

    • Look for the thankful things.
    • Identify them when you find them. Name them. Call them out.
    • Express your Thankfulness. Say thanks. Thank God. Thank people.

Let your giving of thanks in your present situation prepare you for the giving of thanks “In Everything”. You and the people you love and influence will not regret it!

As always, I’d love to hear from you and I welcome your comments and questions. If you’re reading on the blog, leave a comment below. If you’re reading from the email, click “Reply” and tell me what you’re thinking.

How Does He Do That?

Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. (Philippians 4:6 NLT)

I worry. I have not made it a secret that I worry about things. I get anxious. I experience stress. I’m not boasting about it, but I’m learning to accept that it’s part of who I am and how my brain works. And more recently, during the past six months as I’ve been doing cancer treatment, I’ve discovered that one of the drugs I take to help combat my cancer causes emotional ups and downs that can result in anxiety, depression, and entire nights of anxious insomnia. It’s complicated!

I’ve written about worry and anxiety. I was going to include half a dozen links to articles and devotionals I’ve written about dealing with worry and anxiety. If you’d like to see them, send me a reply/request and I’ll forward them to you. I’ve told God-stories about how God has brought me peace of mind and heart. But worry and anxiety is still a reality I must deal with.

God has helped me a great deal through the years to learn to trust more and worry less, to have peace of mind and heart and not anxiety. I’m thankful! And I’m also thankful that I don’t get as discouraged and condemned when well-meaning people quote scripture to me that says, “Don’t worry, don’t be anxious!”

A Day in Miami in 1984

In the summer of 1984, Jean and I resigned as pastors of Grace Bible Fellowship in Medford, OR, and with our daughters Stephanie and Melissa, began the process of moving to Linstead, St Catherine, Jamaica to serve as missionary pastors of Bread of Life Church. The move involved getting rid of all our furniture, most of our personal possessions, and putting our house on the market. Then we borrowed a van, traveled to Springfield, MO, and began to travel in the Midwest and South to visit churches, build relationships, and raise financial support for our mission. It was a summer of adventures and of stretching our faith and our horizons.

The target date for actually making the move to Jamaica was October 1984, and there was a lot to do! We had to make all the applications for a work permit to allow us to stay in the country, we had to coordinate with the people we would be working with in Linstead, we had to prepare the curricula for the ministry training program we would be offering at Bread of Life Church (our plan was to be in Jamaica for 18 months to train leaders for the church and a small network of area churches and then come back to the US). And we had to try to figure out what we would do for Melissa’s schooling (She was starting 8th grade). Stephanie’s plan was to stay with us in Jamaica for a few months and then return to Missouri to attend college.

As the summer wore on toward fall, the pace quickened and the pressure mounted! I traveled to Jamaica to work on the visas and work permit, Jean traveled from Springfield to Miami to purchase a used car to import to Jamaica as there were no cars available in Jamaica to purchase at that time. I returned to Miami to meet Jean and to drive together to Springfield in our newly purchased 1981 Ford Escort Station Wagon. It was an interesting 1350 mile shakedown trip for the car!

We had been shipping suitcases and boxes to a couple we had met in Miami. They would keep the items for us until we were ready to go, would take us to the airport for the flight to Kingston, and would ship our car to us in Jamaica when we had acquired the necessary import license and documents. The four of us had just made the 1350 mile trip from Springfield to Miami. We were staying overnight at the home of the people who had stored our “luggage” and would take us to the airport the next day. By the way, doing this sort of stuff makes a lot more sense when you’re 41 as we were then rather than 78 as we are now! Just sayin’!

Anyhow, for the purpose of getting to the point, let’s shift to the day of departure from Miami for Kingston. Our hosts had left for work for the day. They wouldn’t be able to take us to the airport, but a friend of theirs would come by to get us and drive us the eight miles to the airport to check in for our flight. We were four people with a total of 22 pieces of “luggage.” Our luggage consisted of suitcases, boxes of books, household items that we knew would not be readily available in Linstead, and pretty much every sort of thing but the kitchen sink! Also, this was October 1984 and the internet didn’t exist and cell phones were still somewhere off in the future. So there was no email, no text messages, and no way for us to communicate with anyone. Can you remember when life was actually like that? I know, right?

So there we sat! In a strange house, in a strange city, waiting for some promised but to us unknown person who would come for us at the appointed time and whisk us and our twenty two pieces of luggage to the Miami airport to fly off to our new life in an even stranger land. Here’s what was going on in my brain, in no particular order:

    • What if our ride doesn’t show up?
    • What kind of vehicle can take the four of us, on a 94 degree hot Miami afternoon, on eight miles of Miami freeway, along with our 22 pieces of luggage, and get us to the airport on time?
    • If it’s a van, it could take us but not all our luggage.
    • If it’s a pickup, it could take our luggage but two people would have to ride in back. In the heat. On the freeway.
    • If it’s anything else, it’s not going to work anyhow!
    • What if our ride doesn’t show up? (oh yeah, I already did that one didn’t I?)

I was so anxious and stressed it seems like I can still feel it. It’s a good thing we were only 41 then. Any older and I’d probably have had a stroke or a heart attack!

And then our ride pulled up in the driveway! It was a full-size four-door, crew cab Ford pickup! I know, four door pickups are everywhere now. If I walk down to the mailbox at the end of the street, I’ll pass four or five of them. But this was 1984 and crew cab pickups were rarer than unicorns! How does God do that stuff?

We loaded up our stuff, got in the truck, rode to the airport, and checked in at the curb for Air Jamaica to Kingston. Our 22 pieces of luggage (that’s 14 pieces of excess baggage) cost $200. And we got on our flight a couple of hours later, flew to Kingston, were picked up by our Jamaican friends in a caravan of vehicles, rode to Linstead, and lived happily ever after! How does God do that stuff?

Okay, what’s the lesson here? Don’t worry? Trust God? It’s gonna be alright?

Maybe. Maybe that’s the lesson in this story. But as I think back through the experience and the many experiences since that time when I was stressed and anxious and struggling, that’s not the lesson that comes to mind.

The lesson I learned that day, that I’m learning day by day, and anxious moment by anxious moment is in two parts. One part was brought to my attention in a message by Evan Earwicker at Westside Church this weekend. It’s in these words from John 6:6, “…Jesus already knew what he was going to do.”

The other part of the lesson for me in this experience is in these words from Hebrews 4:15-16: This High Priest of ours understands our weaknesses, for he faced all of the same testings we do, yet he did not sin. So let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most. (Hebrews 4:15-16 NLT)

It’s true, friends! Let’s not worry, let’s not be anxious, let’s not get stressed out by things we can’t control. I’m working on that and I’m sure you are, too. But in the meantime, in the real world, when we get overwhelmed by stuff…

1) Let’s remember that God already knows what he’s going to do.

2) Let’s remember that he understands our weaknesses, is gracious in his love and care for us, and he’s there to help us where and when we need it most!

As always, I’d love to hear from you and I welcome your comments and questions. If you’re reading on the blog, leave a comment below. If you’re reading from the email, click “Reply” and tell me what you’re thinking.

Friends and Family

I’ve just posted a current health update here. Jean and I had a very good discussion with my oncologist on Thursday and I’m happy to be able to share a really good update with you! Thanks for your care and prayer!

Last week I wrote about my brother Skip Stephens and some mild regret I have that we didn’t spend more time together. I’ve also written in other posts about family history questions that have come up, especially since Jean and I moved back to the US at the end of 1999. Many of these questions have been prompted by dozens of black and white photos, taken in the first half of the 20th century, then stored away with no names on the back! There are so many questions we both wish we had asked our Dads and Moms when they were still with us!

During the eight years we lived in the UK, the phone company, British Telecom, developed a billing discount program and named it “Friends and Family.” The plan allowed us to choose ten numbers that we called frequently and receive a 10% discount on calls to those numbers. Within that list of ten phone numbers we could choose one number and designate it “Best Friend” and receive a 25% discount on calls to that number. (It should be noted that at the time all phone calls in the UK, local and long distance, were toll calls, charged by the minute.) It was interesting and revealing when we signed up for the “Friends and Family” program to actually make the list of most frequently called numbers. The list included pastors, people who assisted us with the Bible Training Centres, and friends. “Family” wasn’t on our list as all our family members lived in other countries! My “Best Friend” (most called) number was CompuServe, my dial up Internet Service Provider!

As Jean and I moved from country to country and place to place during the 80’s and 90’s, we found that we had fewer and fewer possessions and “family heirlooms.” We found that God always provided the things we needed in each place, but the emotional or sentimental attachment to those things grew less and less. The things we came to value most in terms of “attachment” were photographs of family and friends and the things that were given us as gifts by those people we love and serve.

Because the material things we value most are things that link us to the people we care about, I have realized that to live in a way that is consistent with my values, I need to invest more in my relationships with those people. Jesus said, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  (Matthew 6:21 NIV)

Friends and Family…

My father died in 1988 while we were establishing the Bible Training Centre in Kingston, Jamaica. My mother died in 1992 while we were living in London, UK, establishing East London Bible Training Centre. My next younger brother, Skip, died in 1996 when we were still in the UK developing the Bible Training Centres and beginning to minister in Africa. In our immediate family, that leaves just me, the oldest, and my brother Bill, ten years younger than me.

It had been two and a half years since I had seen my father when he died. We lived in Jamaica and he and my mother were in Oregon. We didn’t know there was a health problem. He was working regularly as a carpenter, still strong at 69 years. We were planning a trip to the US only two months later and we would see him and my mother then, and suddenly he was gone! I received a phone call from my brother Skip and suddenly I was the oldest man in the family. By God’s grace and with the help of a good travel agent, I made it to the funeral. As I stood beside the casket looking at Dad’s body, him in heaven and me in Oregon, I began to think of things I would like to have talked with him about. There were things I never told him and questions I never asked him.

I have ever since regretted that I let him go without talking about things. The fact that I left things undone and unsaid has not ruined my life. But I regret this as something that I cannot change. I wish I had made the effort to see him more often. I wish I had spent more time with Dad while he was still alive. Just a slight shift in my priorities involving “ministry” and “relationships” could have made a big difference!

We traveled from Jamaica to the US a couple of months later and spent time with my mother and my two brothers. Then we made another trip to see Mom before we left for London in 1992. This visit was very timely because she died just five months after we moved to London. Once again, by God’s grace and with the help of a very creative travel agent I made it to her funeral. This time I was able to stand by the casket her body was in, her in heaven and me in Washington, without feeling such a sense of unfinished business. But even though we made the effort to see her, to talk about things, there is so much we didn’t ask and say. Now there is no one to ask about family history and the things I’d like to know as I get older.

Friends and Family… Investing in Relationships

    • Maintaining and keeping relationships alive requires investment. It may cost you time. It may cost you money. It may cost quite a lot of both if the people you need to develop relationship with are far away.
    • Cultivating and developing new relationships requires investment. This may involve schedule changes. It may involve stopping some things you are doing and learning to do some new things.
    • This is not primarily a personality issue. This is a values thing that involves caring about people and valuing relationships. Values determine actions.
    • How much do you invest in building relationships? If you’re too busy to invest in and work on relationships, then you’re too busy. You need to do something about this. (Friends, this is me, preaching to me!)

Friends and Family… Here are some ideas and suggestions to consider:

Our daughter Melissa and her family have established some practices to help them stay in touch with her husband Colin’s family in New Zealand. Every week they have a chat with Mum on Sunday nights. Each of the boys chats with her and then she prays for each of them and they pray for her. After the “chats”, it’s game time and they play online games for a while. They use tablets for the chats and games so they have both audio and video. They’ve been doing this for several years and it really does help keep the relationships fresh and growing. It’s such a good idea and effective practice! Stephanie’s husband Philip has been helping his Mom who lives in Georgia with the sale of her house, a recent move into a retirement home, and with managing her personal finances. Technology makes it possible, but intention and initiative makes it happen!

You can…

    •  Write, email, phone, visit, invite. Don’t wait for a reason or an occasion. Just do it!
    • Get birth dates and special anniversaries of friends and family members, put them in your calendar and phone, text, email, Facebook message, or even send a card at the appropriate time.
    • Make a list of questions that only they know the answers to and ask the questions before it’s too late to get the answers!

As fully as you are able, embrace the importance of developing deep relationships with Friends and Family.

    • Pray regularly for the people who are your “Friends and Family” group.
    • Be willing to pay the price in time and money to develop and maintain relationships with your “Friends and Family.”
    • Develop some practices, patterns, and connection traditions that work well for you and your Friends and Family.
    • Take the initiative. Don’t wait for “them” to take the first (or even the second) step. You make the effort to add value to the relationship.

Prayer:

Father, I don’t want to just keep harping on this, but I’m so aware of how important it is and how much better I could have done I’d realized that the opportunities to grow and strengthen these relationships won’t always be there. I pray for my friends and me to be stirred to take the initiative and to do what we can while we can. In Jesus’ Name!

As always, I’d love to hear from you and I welcome your comments and questions. If you’re reading on the blog, leave a comment below. If you’re reading from the email, click “Reply” and tell me what you’re thinking.

 

Skip Stephens

My next younger brother, Skip Stephens, was born November 1, 1949 in Brownwood TX. We lived there for four years in the late 1940’s while my Dad attended Howard Payne College. When Skip was about 2 years old and I was 8, we moved to Tillamook, Oregon where Dad pastored a small Baptist Church.

Skip was born Sterling Clark Stephens, named after our maternal and paternal grandfathers, but from the very beginning, I don’t think anyone ever called him Sterling. Mom called him “Skippy”, and that was really a great name for him! He was active, outgoing, and had a tendency toward unpredictability. And I know that at some point, Skippy wanted to be called Skip. Just as his big brother, who was always called Jimmy, wanted to be called Jim. Actually, I’m pretty sure that at some point, Skip officially changed his name to Skip and probably was never called Sterling in his life!

We were six years apart in age, so we didn’t try to occupy the same place in the family and we weren’t going through the same growing up processes at the same time. I left home right after high school at age 18 and Skip was not quite a teenager yet at age 12. Another thing is that we were so different in personality that we didn’t conflict in ways we might have if we’d been trying to be like each other or to outdo each other.

Skip was an adventurer, a trier of new things, a breaker of molds. He was very physical and active. In high school, he did tumbling and trampolining. Instead of playing sports, he joined the cheerleading squad, not exactly the norm for a boy in a small high school in a farming community. But Skip definitely marched to his own drumbeat! He continued cheerleading through high school and college and I think he helped change some attitudes in the process.

He graduated from high school in Connell Washington, and that fall he bought a new Honda CL350 motorcycle when he left home for college in California. He rode it to school and when it eventually needed major repair, he and his friends took it apart to fix it. It remained “apart” in boxes until at some point I traded him an old car for it. I rebuilt the engine, did a lacquer paint job on the tank and trim, and learned to ride motorcycles myself. I can’t remember if motorcycles remained part of Skip’s life after that. I think that’s about when he switched to airplanes! But from that time on, I always had an old motorcycle or two around except when we lived overseas.

Skip joined Air Force ROTC in college, and got serious about learning to fly. (Sometimes he even used airplanes!) After college he enlisted in the Air Force and served as an officer and a jet fighter pilot instructor in the T38 Talon supersonic trainer jet, affectionately called the “White Rocket”.  His main responsibility was training foreign US allies pilots in the use of US Air Craft provided to their nations by the US military, and for several years Skip trained mostly Kuwaiti pilots. It was a mark of honor for pilots to survive being trained by Lt Skip Stephens. And of course, Skip had a Corvette, as Air Force fighter pilots often do!

When he got out of the Air Force, he flew for general aviation companies, mostly out of Tri-Cities Washington. He had jobs at various times as a corporate pilot for businesses and movers and shakers. But Skip loved teaching as well as flying, so he did a lot of both. In addition to his flying, he was a sought after flight instructor in SE Washington. He died in a fiery crash of a King Air twin engine aircraft on July 27, 1996 while training the owner of the plane. I don’t know the details.

Skip was a devoted Christian. He led worship at his church and served faithfully. Skip and I both loved thinking, questioning and experimenting with theology. We had some great conversations through the years, often by phone and occasionally in person when I was visiting the US. Who knows? If we had lived on the same continent all those years we might have started a whole new faith movement!

This afternoon, I remembered an incident that took place during a time when we were both living in the Tri-Cities, WA before Jean and I moved overseas to serve as missionaries. One hot summer day, Skip and I flew from the general aviation airport in Richland, WA to Ontario, in southeastern Oregon. My daughter Stephanie, probably about nine years old at the time flew with us. We were in a single engine high wing plane, maybe a Piper or Cessna or something like that. Skip was in the pilot seat, I was in the other front seat and Stephanie was in the back. On the way back from Ontario, we encountered some weather, a summer pop-up thunderstorm, and the flying got pretty bumpy. Stephanie got messily airsick! Skip told me to take the controls and keep the wings level in the indicator on the dash and to keep the nose level while he climbed over the seat to help Stephanie clean up the “mess.”

It got pretty bumpy and more than once I asked Skip if we were doing okay. He would glance at the gauges and say, “Yep, we’re fine! Just keep the nose level and the wings level and we’ll do great!” Hail was rattling off the wings and the windscreen and for a while there was nothing to see but grey clouds rushing past.

In a little while we bounced our way out of the storm into sunshine and calm air again and Skip climbed back over the seat and took us home. It wasn’t until some years later a friend told me that Skip had told him the story of that afternoon and said, “That was a pretty wild ride! I wasn’t sure if we were going to make it!” But it was pretty much a walk in the park (or a flight in the sky) for me, because Skip kept saying, “Yep, we’re fine! Just keep the nose level and the wings level and we’ll do great!”

That incident, and other things that I’ve experienced since, taught me that I tend to have confidence in people who know more about something than I do. And I like that. I like to be able to have confidence in the wisdom and knowledge of others and not have to know everything myself! Lazy? No, I just don’t need to be an expert on everything.

Anyhow, I’m glad for this opportunity to think about my brother Skip today on what would have been his 72nd birthday. And I’ve thought about how I regret not having spent more time with Skip after we grew up and took our lives in very different directions. It’s an interesting thing how I’ve been thinking about this today. I do regret not having more time with Skip. And I regret that we don’t get to sit around together in our 70’s and have long conversations about whatever we’d talk about if we could.

But I’m not regretting in an “Oh that’s so terrible and I feel so bad and if I had it to do over again, I’d sure do it differently!” kind of way. Because we probably wouldn’t have done things much differently at all! We did what we did and what mattered to us and were both true to who God made us to be. So it’s more of a mild sort of “It would have been nice” kind of regret. You know what I mean?

Anyhow, this blog post has been refreshing for me to think through and write and it makes me appreciate my brother Skip more than ever. And I’m thinking about some things that I want to share with you in next week’s post about how we can maximize our opportunities with Family and Friends.

As always, I’d love to hear from you and I welcome your comments and questions. If you’re reading on the blog, leave a comment below. If you’re reading from the email, click “Reply” and tell me what you’re thinking.

 

I Have Thought Deeply…

I have thought deeply about all that goes on here in the world, where people have the power to hurt each other. (Ecclesiastes 8:9 NLT)

It’s kind of a running joke in my family that I overthink things. I think deeply, I think broadly, and there’s no doubt that I think too much about things that don’t matter as much as I “think” they matter. And I think way too much about things that I have no control over. And I think… Anyhow, I can relate to Solomon (the author of Ecclesiastes) in terms of thinking deeply about all that goes on here in the world! I can’t really relate to his wealth and power, and I certainly can’t relate to his harem of somewhere around a thousand wives. But the “thinking deeply”, yes, I can relate to that!

Solomon’s very thoughtful writing in Proverbs and Ecclesiastes is sprinkled with priceless gems of wisdom about values and behavior…

    • Wisdom is better than folly.
    • Good is better than evil.
    • Enjoy life as and while you can.
    • Think seriously about the meanings and consequences of the things people do and the things you see.

But Solomon sees the world as a place “where people have the power to hurt each other.”

Solomon is approaching his thinking from the perspective that “What you see is what you get!” At least at this point in his philosophical and theological process, he thinks that there is neither reward or punishment beyond death. He has no present hope of eternity and so his conclusions often contain the word “meaningless!”

At the time he is writing, Solomon is one of the most powerful, and certainly one of the richest, men of his time. By his own admission, he has denied himself no pleasure that ever occurred to him to desire. His world is totally in his control and he is able to satisfy his every wish or whim. Yet when he “thinks deeply,” his conclusions are that the world is primarily a place where people have the power to hurt each other and that life is meaningless and without hope.

There is an amazing contrast between Solomon’s perspective on the world as a place “where people have the power to hurt each other” (He’s not wrong about this, but it’s not a very joyful point of view) and the perspective the Apostle Paul has as he writes in Ephesians chapter 4! Paul, who is writing from a prison cell, not a king’s palace, writes from the perspective of a man who has voluntarily given up wealth and power and has suffered great persecution for his faith, and yet his writings are full of challenge and encouragement and hope. Listen to these words from Ephesians 4:1-7, 32…

1 Therefore I, a prisoner for serving the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of your calling, for you have been called by God. 2 Be humble and gentle. Be patient with each other, making allowance for each other’s faults because of your love. 3 Always keep yourselves united in the Holy Spirit, and bind yourselves together with peace. 4 We are all one body, we have the same Spirit, and we have all been called to the same glorious future. 5 There is only one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 and there is only one God and Father, who is over us all and in us all and living through us all. 7 However, he has given each one of us a special gift according to the generosity of Christ. 32 …be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you. (Ephesians 4:1-7, 32 NLT)

Instead of viewing the world as a place where “people have the power to hurt each other,” Paul’s perspective is that the world is a place where people are learning to be kind to each other, to serve each other, to make allowances for each other’s faults, and to become unified for a common purpose. It’s a purpose that involves neither wealth, pleasure, comfort, nor power, but is simply the purpose of being Christ’s body doing Christ’s work on earth.

Sometimes when I “think deeply” I get discouraged and find myself thinking like Solomon. I may begin to think, “What’s the point in all the things I try to do to help? Does it really matter? Does anyone notice? Is what I do making any difference at all?”

Or I may think, “Is there really a reward for serving and sacrificing and giving? Wouldn’t it be better to focus my energy and attention on taking care of myself and just let others take care of themselves?”

Or I may think, “Do people really care about each other? Do people want to help and heal and encourage, or do they only want to hurt each other?”

Here’s an example of my overthinking: Do I get discouraged because I am thinking like Solomon or am I thinking like Solomon because I’m discouraged? I don’t know. I do know that line of thinking burrows me deeper and deeper into self-pity and self-centeredness.

I do know that I want to think more like Paul. I want to judge not by outward appearance and external circumstance and short-term results, but to think in the light of eternal purposes and eternity with Christ. Here’s more from Paul:

9 So don’t get tired of doing what is good. Don’t get discouraged and give up, for we will reap a harvest of blessing at the appropriate time. 10 Whenever we have the opportunity, we should do good to everyone, especially to our Christian brothers and sisters. (Galatians 6:9-10 NLT)

Prayer:

Father, today I purpose to not be short-sighted and self-centered in my thinking and my attitude. I purpose to live in the light of eternity and see the world not as a place “where people have the power to hurt each other,” but as a place where Jesus has given us the power to hear each other, to help each other, and to heal each other. In Jesus’ Name!

As always, I’d love to hear from you and I welcome your comments and questions. If you’re reading on the blog, leave a comment below. If you’re reading from the email, click “Reply” and tell me what you’re thinking.

What Good Are All Your Blessings?

But Abram replied, “O Sovereign LORD, what good are all your blessings when I don’t even have a son? Since I don’t have a son, Eliezer of Damascus, a servant in my household, will inherit all my wealth.”  (Genesis 15:2 NLT)

What good are all your blessings? This seems almost—what? Sacrilegious?  Blasphemous? Or is it simply heartfelt honesty with God?

There have been times when I’ve felt like Abram did.

There was something he wanted so much that all the other blessings God had poured out on him seemed worthless to him. It wasn’t that he didn’t appreciate God’s goodness to him, it wasn’t that these things were simply poor in comparison to his greatest desire, it was that as long as he was still without the one thing he desired supremely, he quite honestly felt, “What good is all this?”

There have been times when I, too, have felt: “What good are all your blessings?”

    • Sometimes the pain makes the promise hard to see.
    • Sometimes the need makes the provision seem like not enough.
    • Sometimes the waiting seems too long and the longing too strong to look forward in expectant faith.

Has that ever been true for you?

I think Abram was right to be honest with God about how he felt. God didn’t rebuke or reject him. In fact, God used this encounter with Abram as an opportunity to add new promises to the covenant he had already made with Abram and to allow Abram to grow his faith even stronger.

God added new promises to the covenant…     

5 Then the LORD brought Abram outside beneath the night sky and told him, “Look up into the heavens and count the stars if you can. Your descendants will be like that—too many to count!” 6 And Abram believed the LORD, and the LORD declared him righteous because of his faith. 7 Then the LORD told him, “I am the LORD who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land.”  (Genesis 15:5-7 NLT)

God added new challenges to Abram’s faith…

13 Then the LORD told Abram, “You can be sure that your descendants will be strangers in a foreign land, and they will be oppressed as slaves for four hundred years. 14 But I will punish the nation that enslaves them, and in the end they will come away with great wealth. 15 (But you will die in peace, at a ripe old age.) 16 After four generations your descendants will return here to this land, when the sin of the Amorites has run its course.”  (Genesis 15:13-16 NLT)

God’s new covenant promise to Abram was a double-edged sword. God gave Abram a word of covenant promise that contained both the welcome promise of blessing, and the honest declaration that there would be difficult passages to be traveled to get from the promise to the fulfillment.

And then there is the “wild card” statement that there was another determining factor in the timing of the fulfillment. God said that “the sin of the Amorites had to run its course.” This is a reminder that it’s not all and only about me. Even in God’s covenant blessing and promise for the future, there are factors he is working with that I have no idea about.

If this was true of Abram then, I believe it’s true of me now. There are factors to the equation I am completely unaware of. So my place is simply to believe and trust.

There are two edges to God’s plan and purpose for my life, and to God’s purpose for your life too. There’s the promise of blessing and the promise that there are challenges to be faced along the way.

    • Are we willing to hear the hard part as well as the easy part?
    • Will we accept the cost as well as the blessing?

Is there something you are facing right now that makes you feel, “Lord, what good are all your blessings when the single greatest desire of my heart remains unfulfilled?”

Are you looking forward in faith to the promise God has made to you, but like Abram, you also see the pain and challenge this promise involves?

I invite you to pray this “Look up” and “Look around” prayer with me…

Father, Just as you took Abram out under the night sky and said, “Look up!” and just as on another occasion you took him up on a high ridge and said, “Look around,” please help me to look up and to look around and to realize that your promise is as good as your word and that your grace is sufficient for the challenges I will face on the journey. I believe your promise and I trust your goodness and your wisdom for my life. Amen!

As always, I’d love to hear from you and I welcome your comments and questions. If you’re reading on the blog, leave a comment below. If you’re reading from the email, click “Reply” and tell me what you’re thinking.

 

 

Watching Buddy Run!

…For the joy of the Lord is your strength. (Nehemiah 8:10)

Long before Jake the Desert Bone Dog came to be part of our family in 2015, there was another dog who spent his life from about one year of age until he crossed the rainbow bridge in 2014 bringing a wonderful quality of the very best kind of “dogginess” to our extended family. Buddy was a rescue dog, a Cocker Spaniel mix. He never told us what the other elements of his “mix” consisted of, but Buddy was a great dog! And after his passing, I didn’t think there could ever be another dog as great as Buddy, but that was before I met Jake! If you read my stuff for any significant period or follow me on Facebook or Instagram, you’ll read plenty about Jake! But this story is about Buddy the Dog.

One crisp, sunny winter afternoon I walked along an old track in the Juniper forest east of my Central Oregon home and watched my dog Buddy run. Buddy’s no greyhound, but he really loves to run! He runs with such abandon, long ears flapping, dodging sagebrush, leaping over weather-bleached juniper logs, chasing imaginary rabbits and deer!

Sometimes, watching Buddy run, I just had to laugh out loud! I could see the joy in him, joy that comes from doing what God created him to do. Because I loved that old dog, I felt joy when I watched him doing what he loved to do.

Buddy loved to run because that’s what God created him to do. I believe that because God is so good, and loves us so much, he made us to have the same joy in doing what he created us to do that my dog Buddy had in running through the forest and the fields.

Here are a few things we know about ourselves:

    • We do best what we care most deeply about.
    • We do best what comes from deep inside us.
    • We do best what we do with greatest passion.
    • We do best what gives us joy.

Eric Liddell, the Scottish distance runner featured in the 1981 movie “Chariots of Fire,” is quoted: “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.”

Why does it often seem so hard to know what God created us to do and to experience the simple, profound joy in doing it? Do we get stuck in the routines of merely “getting the job done”? Have we become trapped by the expectations of others? Are we too busy to take a deep breath and ask a couple of honest questions?

If these questions resonate with you, here are some ideas you could try:

    • Take time to take stock. What gives you pure, simple joy? Have an honest think about when you’re most joyful, most fulfilled.
    • Talk to those who know you best and care about you most. Ask honest questions: “When do you see me most joyful, most energized?”
    • Talk to your Creator about what you were made for.

I’m certainly not minimizing the importance of discipline, of doing what must be done, of fulfilling our commitments. This isn’t about only doing things that make you feel good. This isn’t about shirking responsibilities or duties. This is about being honest, being brave, and being willing to step out of your “must do” zone into your joyful “get to” zone!

And one thing more. You’re an influencer of others. You are, at some level, in some relationships, a leader and influencer. So think about—be aware of—what gives joy to those you influence most.

What if we parents and teachers and managers and bosses and other influencers looked carefully and caringly at those we influence and helped each of them discover just what God created them to do? What if we made it our pleasure to create opportunities for each person we love and influence to do the things that they were created for—the things that give them joy? What if we did that?

Just as I often took Buddy to the Juniper forest or the desert to create an opportunity for him to run, I believe God loves to create opportunities for people like you and me to “run!” And I believe that when we are simply doing what God created us to do, he rejoices – he feels the pleasure and joy of it with us!

Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but when dreams come true, there is life and joy. (Proverbs 13:12 NLT)

 What do you think?

 As always, I’d love to hear from you and I welcome your comments and questions. If you’re reading on the blog, leave a comment below. If you’re reading from the email, click “Reply” and tell me what you’re thinking.

 

I’ll Take Care of It

My friend Rick went to get his hair cut early one morning. On his way home, he stopped at the AM/PM station for gas. As Rick waited inside to pay, he couldn’t help noticing a young woman at the counter holding an 18 month old child, trying to make her debit card work. The card was refused three times, but she just kept rubbing the magnetic strip and asking the cashier, “Please try it one more time.”

Rick thought to himself, “Look how she’s dressed. She doesn’t look responsible enough to be taking care of herself, much less raising a child. No surprise she hasn’t got anything in her account to cover what she just spent.”

By now there was quite a line of people waiting to pay for their gas or buy their morning coffee. Finally the cashier called for another cashier to come and help as several customers were beginning to show signs of impatience! The young woman put her child down and took out her wallet and then just stood there at the counter holding her empty wallet in both hands. The cashier stood on her side of the counter, not making eye contact with the girl, and said, “You’ll have to call somebody to come and pay for this. Have you got someone you can call?” The girl just shook her head. Impasse.

Rick’s truck was ready and his pump number was called by the other cashier who had come out to help. He stepped up to the counter right beside the young woman. He swiped his debit card in the machine and punched in his PIN and the screen read “Approved.” The cashier handed him his receipt and said, “Have a nice day.”

Rick suddenly thought, “I could pay her bill. How much could it be? Even if it’s forty bucks, I could pay it.” Instead of thinking of all the reasons not to do it, Rick just said to the other cashier, “How much is it?” She looked at him and asked, “What did you say?” Rick said, “How much is it? How much is her bill?” The cashier looked at the register and said, “$20.00” Rick said, “I’ll take care of it” and took a twenty out of his wallet and handed it to the cashier. As she took the twenty Rick handed her, she asked, “You want a receipt?” Rick smiled and shook his head.

The girl looked so surprised – kind of embarrassed and surprised. She said, “Thank you so much!” She smiled and picked up her child and busied herself getting ready to go out the door, looking at the child to avoid eye contact with the other customers. Embarrassed, relieved, surprised. Rick just said, “Sure. Glad I could help.” They both went out the door together and the girl said, “Thanks so much!” again as she hurried toward her car. Rick said, “Sure. No problem.”

Then Rick got in his truck and started for home and being the amateur philosopher-theologian he is, couldn’t stop thinking about what had just happened.

First he prayed, “Thanks, Father, that I’m not broke at this point in my life. Thanks that I had the money in my pocket to do that. I remember times not too long ago when I was nearly in the spot that young girl was in. Thanks.”

Then he thought about the message his pastor had preached the previous weekend on being sensitive and willing to do “simple acts of kindness.”

Then later he thought, “Did I do that because I’m a Christian? I didn’t say, ‘God bless you,’ or ‘Jesus Loves you!’ I didn’t even invite her to church next weekend.”

As he thought about it a little more, he decided this:

    • If I did it because I’m a Christian and it seemed at that moment that it’s what a Christian should do, that’s a good thing!
    • If I did it because I just simply wanted at that moment to help a young girl who couldn’t pay for her gas, then maybe I did it because Jesus actually lives in me and I’m actually learning more to let him call the shots. That might even be a better thing!

Rick thought, “I hope I did it for the second reason more than the first one. Anyhow I’m glad it happened and it sure felt good to be able to do it. I hope next time something like that happens it doesn’t take me so long to actually do something to help!”

Like I said, Rick is only an amateur philosopher-theologian, but it seems like his conclusion about the incident and his response makes a lot of sense.

What do you think?

As always, I’d love to hear from you and I welcome your comments and questions. If you’re reading on the blog, leave a comment below. If you’re reading from the email, click “Reply” and tell me what you’re thinking.

 

Self Defense

Special Note: I’ve just posted an update on my health and treatment here. It’s a moving target, so I’ll post a follow up in about two days with more news.

Now here’s this weeks post –  Self Defense

Recently I received an email from someone I felt had judged me unfairly—misjudging both my actions and my motives. There was an initial flare-up of defensiveness and self-justification, but in the busyness of the day, I soon forgot the email and just got on with the things I had to do.

A few days later I started thinking again about how unfair the emailer’s judgment was and how I really needed to defend myself against this obvious attack on my character and my motives.

I turned on my laptop to write the rebuttal email that I was putting together in my mind and could hardly wait the few seconds for it to boot up! My emotional state was mildly ramping up and I can tell you that the email I was about to write had at least one “…and another thing!” in it! I would certainly vindicate myself and give the emailer reason to think twice before judging me again!

As I waited for my computer to start, I went into the kitchen to get the coffee carafe to fill Jean’s coffee cup. As I poured her coffee, I mentioned the recent “critical” email and my noble plan to set things straight.

Jean asked me what I would be accomplishing by my self-justification-motivated, resentment-fueled email. As I thought about Jean’s question—about what I would really be accomplishing—I came up with this list:

    1. I’ll say some self-righteous, self-justifying things that don’t really need to be said.
    2. I’ll push the emailer toward anger and self-justification.
    3. I’ll drive a wedge between myself and the emailer and between myself and Jesus, who loves both me and the emailer a lot.
    4. My self-justifying email will provide the opportunity for misunderstanding, discord, and separation to spread in ways I can’t even imagine!
    5. My loving Father will, after the dust settles, ask me why I responded out of my old ego self instead of my new nature, my Christ nature. To which I’ll reply that it’s very likely because I’m an idiot and I’m sorry and please forgive me! (and He will!)

I didn’t write the email! Instead, I prayed God’s blessing on the writer of the email and then on everyone else I could think of toward whom felt the slightest negative attitude. Thankfully, it was a very short list!

I’m thankful for Jean’s wisdom and grace. I’m thankful for God’s grace and unconditional love for me and for the people on the other side of each big or little issue that comes up in my big or little life!

So how’s your week been so far?

 As always, I’d love to hear from you and I welcome your comments and questions. If you’re reading on the blog, leave a comment below. If you’re reading from the email, click “Reply” and tell me what you’re thinking.