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Charity Began at Home

"Dear children, let us stop just saying we love each other; let us really show it by our actions."

John 3:18 NLT

My mom dropped a dollar in the collection plate at church each week. But this was not the total of her giving. Before the offering began, she rifled through the spare change at the bottom of her purse in order to let the three kids in on the act. A quarter for the oldest, a dime for me, and a nickel for the youngest.

Even at a young age, I could understand the wisdom of this investment. So much for so little—the three-story cathedral, ornate altar, numerous employees, an unlimited supply of doughnuts in the fellowship hall after service. All this for a buck-forty a week.

It was magical, mysterious, and mystical—just like church was supposed to be. When the lesson came around about Jesus pulling the coin from the fish's mouth, it made me feel downright biblical. (Mom's purse was even shaped a little like a fish.) We never held out much hope for seeing a bona fide miracle happen in our midst, but this multiplication of the coins and dollars was good enough.

Not that our family could not have afforded to be more charitable. We lived in the suburbs and Dad had a professional career. He wasn't a church-goer, so maybe Mom thought that she shouldn't rob Dad to pay St. Paul's. Or maybe it just didn't seem necessary. Somehow the church continued its mission, the community food pantry remained well-stocked, and the doughnut supply never dwindled.

It was that childhood perspective that made me appreciate the radical change in my parents after they committed their lives to Jesus. But it went well beyond the money that they now generously gave in response to needs.

Mom developed the habit of becoming friends with some very down-and-out women, paying their bills, taking them to church, even inviting them to live in her home for months at a time. In many cases there was little payback for her investment—one committed suicide, another returned to witchcraft. But to this day, at age 84, she still recieves letters from a lady who claims that her life was eternally changed by my mom's kindness.

Dad became a frequent sight at several area youth ministry houses, rewiring electrical circuits, repairing washing machines, and even teaching other young guys tricks of the trade. When he became bed-ridden with cancer, he would frequently ask about the health of his former work associates, so we could pray at his bedside for people he felt were more needy.

It's the picture of their later years that has given me the best glimpse into what Mathew 8:10 should look like in the church. "Freely you have received, freely give."

I know the American church has seriously dropped the ball in this area in recent years. But I find it difficult to point my finger or complain. I have received too freely from God to accuse or to accumulate. Now is the time to give.

Posted December 31, 2004
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Lights of My Life

Merry Christmas from the Raymond'sI thought I would have fewer lights this year.

For the past several years I would take advantage of the after-Christmas near give-away deals to add to our indoor and outdoor lighting inventory. Only when the next season rolled around did I feel a tinge of regret as the time required to wire and decorate expanded to more than I bargained for.

This year I pulled the plug. Well, some of the plugs.

When Katy and I finished our pared-down displays, youngest son Kevin walked in and nodded with approval.

"I love it just like this."

The lights from the single string over the mantel reflected in his baby-blue eyes in a way that made his face glow brighter than the tree across the room.

Daughter Carrie arrived home from college and along with the usual multiple bags of laundry and God-knows how many pairs of shoes, the joy in her smile made her look like the Christmas star itself had parked over her head.

Oldest son Scott called to say he and his new bride would come early on Christmas Eve so we could have a little more time to hang out before the extended family arrived. I have never seen a kid so lit up as the day he married our new daughter-in-law Brooke. She has that mix of outward beauty and inward warmth that eliminates the need for a fireplace on a cold winters day.

I looked at Katy and realized that she has never once pared-down her love and devotion toward me and our family. She has lit a fire in my heart that still grows brighter every day that we're together.

I thought I would have fewer lights this year. I was wrong.

I love it just like this.

Posted December 23, 2004
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"Tug on anything at all and you'll find it connected to everything else in the universe."

John Muir

Except for my computer.

Living outside the city limits creates the need to look for alternatives to connectivity, since cable modems or DSL are not among the options. (Actually, it creates the need to look for alternatives to the fire trucks and ambulances, but I'll get back to that.) We tried an ISDN line for a while, but on more than one occasion the connection box at the street was mowed down by an over-zealous county employee.

In an attempt to upgrade, we had an MCI technician come out to test our location for their cool, wireless broadband service, but it required a 30 mile line-of-site to a tower in downtown Kansas City, and, well, there was a tree or two in the way.

The final option was the satellite dish we currently use—or at least try to use when the sky is not too cloudy, or sunspots are not too active, or snow hasn't piled up on the dish, or other customers aren't actually trying to connect at the same time. If our marriage was anything like our internet connection, we would need to re-introduce ourselves every time we spoke.

Unfortunately, emergency services in our neighborhood are alot like our internet connection. When our neighbors Ron and Becky were building their house, Becky fell nearly two stories from an extension ladder and landed on her back in the front yard. Without a phone line or another house within shouting distance, Ron ran quite a ways to use a neighbor's phone and request an ambulance ASAP. Becky was on the ground for forty-five minutes with broken bones and a punctured lung before the paramedics arrived.

This could have been related to the fact that while, technically, our street has a name, there are no street signs to reveal it, and that recently the county decided to renumber the addresses, and actually assigned the numbers out of sequence. Becky was fine, but the lower property taxes have lost some of their appeal.

The concept of "connected" did not originate with the digital age of course, and technology creates disconnects at least as often as it brings together. If God built connectivity into the universe, then man has done more to pull the plug than to expand the network.

Years ago, one of the fist successful online communities, known as The Well, collectively decided that they should try to meet in real life to expand their relationships. The gathering occurred, but a number of computers were in the room, and gradually the event devolved into small groups of people crowded around each computer monitor, describing the event to other members of the community.

Digital connections are never uncomfortable, and rarely deep. Real connections are sometimes uncomfortable, but give God a place to be present. Networks will never replace God's work in bringing us together.

Case in point: our daughter called yesterday on her cell phone to let us know when she was coming home for the holidays. She was saying something about how great it will be for the whole family to be together, but we lost the connection.

Posted December 16, 2004
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Story Time

"Most people want to wake up in the morning with a general at the foot of their bed saying 'Go do this.' The problem is there's somebody at the foot of their bed saying, 'Once upon a time.'"
N.T. Wright

A long time ago, in a theater far, far away, Katy and I stood in line waiting to see the original Star Wars movie. A young boy was acting out a space-chase scene a little too energetically, when his parents demanded that he cool his jets. He fired back, "This is Star Wars, man! Get your imagination going!"

For some reason, the phrase stuck, and made its way into many of our family conversations, substituting whatever the event of the moment is for "Star Wars."

"This is a snow day, man! Get your imagination going!"

Imagination, at least for grown-ups, takes prodding, nurturing, permission to enter our to-do list lives. But it takes even more than that to enter our spiritual lives. Even the phrase "Once upon a time" sounds doctrinally scandalous. We're comfortable when it's applied to fiction or myth, but not to history, and certainly not to Scripture. But what if it is applied to the today?

Maybe I've gotten my days and nights mixed up. Last thing at night is when I finally stop to think, to read, to listen, to write, without the demands of the day interrupting. Sometimes I even take time to imagine. I wouldn't trade this time for anything, but the trouble is that the day is over.

When tomorrow starts, it masquerades as already full. Plans, obligations, deadlines—or even fun, family, and friends. But still full. No space for the unknown, untried, or unsung. No permission to explore, experiment, or examine more closely what seemed like God's still, small voice the night before.

Maybe it's the past and the future I've gotten mixed up. The past is written, published, and archived, and that's good. I can build on it. I can learn from it. But the future is empty. Empty in the good sense, like when the house you want to buy is vacant, or your favorite chair at Starbucks is unoccupied.

The future is available, spacious, inviting, alluring. Yours. There is nothing more irrevocable than the past, and nothing more evocative than the future.

This is life, man. Get your imagination going.

Posted December 6, 2004
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The Art of Creation

"It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. The repetition in Nature may not be a mere recurrence; it may be a theatrical encore."

G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

I read a lot of science books, including writers from agnostic as well as Christian perspectives. Making that distinction seems odd because you would think that science is science from any perspective. But philosophy is often not far under the surface.

For instance, many writers imply that each scientific discovery, natural explanation, and uncovered cause erodes the need for a Creator. That somehow the things that we understand shorten the list of things for which we must give God credit. I think just the opposite is true. Knowledge does not cancel wonder, and wonder does not require ignorance.

Henry Drummond coined the concept of the "God of the Gaps," or, the lack of scientific explanation used as evidence for God. Lack of understanding is evidence only of my own weakness. I am much more interested in the "God of the Facts." The heavens (and everything under them) declare the glory of God, and every insight we gain into the inner workings of creation tells God's story in a way that's hard to find elsewhere.

As Drummond said, "Nature is God's handwriting. It can only tell the truth."

Why did God create stars that no human will ever see, and reaches of space that no human will ever perceive? This is so impractical and unnecessary. I have no idea why, but the facts reveal much about God's over-the-top love and abundant grace.

Sometimes you just have to gasp in wonder or even laugh out loud at God's awesome creation. I don't want to ask, "Should I be amazed, or is there a good scientific reason for this?" I am amazed and there is good scientific reason for this. Scientists my be among the world's best evangelists. Every fact that science uncovers makes man more humble and God more glorified.

Don't forget to stop and smell the daisies.

Posted December 1, 2004
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