It has been a rather dreary day: heavily overcast and, while not cold by any stretch of the imagination, it has been a little on the cool-ish side, which just seemed to add to the misery.  (BTW, if you woke up feeling giddy, have had an exceptionally stellar day, and everything just kept coming up rainbows, butterflies, and unicorns for you, please kindly disregard this message; there’s no need to bring you down this late in the day!)

Anyway, by mid-afternoon, in an effort to beat the tightening grip of a serious case of the “blahs,” Coleman and I escaped the claustrophobic clutches of the house for a long, four-hour drive.  We never succeeded in outrunning the overcast skies, but at least the scenery changed frequently.  Two cups of coffee, 5 CDs, and a bag of McDonald’s & Diet Dr. Pepper (for Coleman) later, we were nearing home again when suddenly there was brilliant orangy-red light on the horizon.  A clear break in the cloud line had become visible just above the limits of the western sky.  I’ve attached a photo.  Yes, of course I was driving when I took it!  I love how even Coleman seems drawn to the light, welcoming it back like a long lost friend.  

I wanted to send the photo this evening in case you happened to miss the “just-under-the-wire” appearance of the sun today, and if, like me, you were seriously missing it.  It was a reminder to me that the sun had been blazing in the sky all day long; it had just been obscured and hidden by things that were more closely located overhead.  And, while the sun was setting here, day was breaking in Bangladesh and other places along that longitudinal line. I hope that the people in those locations were welcoming the sun into a clear blue sky!

I don’t know what kind of clouds you may have been dealing with in your life today.  They come in a multitude of manifestations, shapes, and sizes.  Some days they can pretty much dominate our skies.  Whatever form the clouds in your life may have taken today, and however it might have discouraged or disheartened you, I’m very sorry that you’re experiencing those things right now. 

Hang in there!  Storms pass, clouds dissipate, and skies clear.  Just look out the window with Coleman!

Throughout my years in ministry, there have been regular instances when some sort of enlightenment occurred; a light bulb moment; an epiphany; a connection made between certain Scriptures or ideas that I had never pondered before; the realization of an analogy or parallel that could be drawn between some mundane, earthly thing and a spiritual reality; a seed thought for a sermon or article.  Historically, a significantly high percentage of these moments have come while in the shower or while pushing or riding a lawn mower.  I’m not necessarily proud of that fact, and I have no real explanation for it.  It just is what it is.     

Early one morning last week, while rinsing the shampoo out of my hair, I detected the sound of Coleman coming up the stairs.  Mind you, I heard this through a wall and above the sound of pressurized water hitting the top of my head.  When Coleman ascends the stairs, even barefoot, he does so with a definitive, wall-penetrating “thump, thump, thump.”  He had apparently gotten out of bed while I was in the shower and had made a trip downstairs, which he does with much more stealth than he does coming up.  To my relief, Kim had heard him leave his room and had gotten up to check on him.  It’s not that I was concerned about his safety.  He just needs assistance with his meals, and he has this little habit of leaving the refrigerator door open and/or the milk container on the countertop when he’s foraging for food or something to drink, or he leaves the garage refrigerator open when he absconds with a can of Diet Dr. Pepper.  Kim tended to his needs, prevented the appliances from defrosting, and sent Coleman happily stomping back up the stairs.      

That’s when it hit me:  Coleman is never alone, and he never has been.  In his 27 years of life, he has never been without the presence of another person.  Although he sleeps in his own room (most of the time anyway!), we sleep in the adjacent room with the door open so that we can hear his door if it opens in the middle of the night.  He regularly plays on his computer and on his iPad in his room, but someone is always just downstairs.  He has never been left alone… anywhere… ever… not even for a second.  If he is not with one or both of us, he is with someone we know and trust, someone who loves him and cares about him.

Then, what had hit me once hit me again:  None of us are ever alone.  Even when we might think we are.  Even when there are no other humans near us.  Even in those seemingly solitary moments when we might feel isolated, or lonely, or forgotten.  Our faithful, loving Father, who cannot lie, has promised, “I will never leave you; I will always be by your side,” (Hebrews 13:5).

Never alone.

I’m sure you remember the scene well.  For those of you with small children, the vividness of the scenario may be due to the fact that it just happened this morning or sometime within the last few days.  Even for those of us whose children have long since reached adulthood, the passing of the years hasn’t diminished our clear recollection of such occasions.

Your child is running, then takes an unexpected tumble, and hits the ground with an audible thud.  Or they round a corner and bump their head on something hard, or sharp, or both.  I’m sure you recall the brief moment of silence that precedes the wail; the slight pause in which a breath is quickly drawn and their brain processes at microchip speed what has just happened.  And somehow, in an instant, in that thinnest of margins of time, with superhuman speed and reflexes you scoop them up, cradle them, stroke their face, and kiss their injured little noggin just before they unleash that soul-piercing scream.  It still amazes me how lungs that small can create a sound so disproportionately loud and strong!

As a parent, you immediately respond even before they cry out.  You move toward them before they even fully realize that they need you.  You answer before they ask.

Close friends and family members have the ability to anticipate your question or your need and respond before you even ask them.  They hand you a napkin, or a fork, or a pen, or your car keys, or a cup of coffee (that’s the best!).  They tell you where to find the thing that you’re looking for, even though you haven’t yet told them what you’ve misplaced.  It’s usually your phone!

How much more intimately does God know us?  How much more rapidly does our Almighty Father respond to the needs of his children, sometimes even before we know enough to ask?  Jesus assured us that our heavenly Father indeed knows what we need before we ask him (Matthew 5:8).  “Even before there is a word on my tongue, behold, O Lord, you know it all,” (Psalm 139:4).

We always have God’s full attention.  We don’t have to shout to be heard.  We can whisper a prayer, and he listens.  We can breathe a prayer, sigh a prayer, or feel a prayer, and God hears.   He listens to our hearts.

So, God is already at work answering prayers that haven’t yet been prayed.  He’s working on solutions to problems about which we may still be unaware.  God has provided answers in His word to questions we haven’t even thought to ask yet.  Millennia ago, he preloaded Scripture with wisdom, counsel, guidance, and direction for issues, challenges, burdens, pains, and sorrows that we may just now be realizing and experiencing.  I know that you, like me, have had countless experiences of reading Scripture and having a text speak directly into the precise circumstances that you are in, or tap into the exact emotions that you are experiencing at that moment.  “It is the most amazing feeling to know how deeply You know me, inside and out; the realization of it is so great that I cannot comprehend it,” (Psalm 139:6 – The Voice).

“Before they call, I will answer; while they are still speaking I will hear,” (Isaiah 65:24).

Call me Habakkuk.  Overwhelmed.  Stunned.  Saddened.  Dismayed.  Disturbed.  Heartbroken.  More questions than answers.  A loss for words.

That’s the way prophet Habakkuk felt 2,600 years ago as he observed what was going on in the culture of the kingdom of Judah.  All around him he saw endless heart-wrenching examples of inequity, inhumanity, and the miscarriage of justice; mistreatment and murder of those who bore God’s own image; robbery of one’s fellow man of all dignity, respect, and regard.  Just as sadly and disturbingly, he saw senseless violence, wanton destruction, and a blatant disregard for the rule of law, both God’s and man’s.  Threaded through all of it was deep-seated conflict and strife.

You would have thought that, rather than being a man of 2.6 millennia ago, Habakkuk had been sitting beside me on the sofa watching the evening news over the last several days.

Thus, Habakkuk begins his prophecy:

How long, Lord, must I call for help,
but you do not listen?
Or cry out to you, “Violence!”
but you do not save?

Why do you make me look at injustice?
Why do you tolerate wrongdoing?
Destruction and violence are before me;
there is strife, and conflict abounds.

Therefore the law is paralyzed,
and justice never prevails.
The wicked hem in the righteous,
so that justice is perverted.  (Hab. 1:2-4)


Your eyes are too pure to look on evil;
you cannot tolerate wrongdoing.
Why then do you tolerate the treacherous?
Why are you silent while the wicked
swallow up those more righteous than themselves?  (Hab. 1:13)

Translation: “God, where are you?  Sovereign LORD, do you not see; do you not know?  Where are you in all of this?  How long will you let this go on?  Do something!”

Habakkuk will go on to say, “God, I’m going to keep asking these questions until I get an answer.  I’m not going anywhere until I hear back from you on this!”

I will stand at my watch
and station myself on the ramparts;
I will look to see what he will say to me,
and what answer I am to give to this complaint.  (Hab. 2:1)

God’s initial response was one of firm affirmation that he was neither unaware nor inactive.  He was at work in ways that were imperceptible and unfathomable to man.  Just as he had always acted in righteousness and mercy, so God would act again.

Look at the nations and watch—
and be utterly amazed.
For I am going to do something in your days
that you would not believe,
even if you were told.  (Hab. 1:5)

Habakkuk indeed believed that God had acted mightily in the past, and the prophet was able to recall many of the details of his wonderful deeds in ages gone by.  “Just do it again, LORD!  Please do it now!”

Lord, I have heard of your fame;
I stand in awe of your deeds, Lord.
Repeat them in our day,

in our time make them known;
in wrath remember mercy.  (Hab. 3:1)

In the meantime, as I too, like Habakkuk, await an answer from Lord, I join with the ancient prophet’s spirit of underlying confidence in God which transcends even the most dire of circumstances.

Though the fig tree does not bud
and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
and no cattle in the stalls,

yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
I will be joyful in God my Savior.

The Sovereign Lord is my strength;
he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
he enables me to tread on the heights.  (Hab. 3:17-19)

Today, I find myself struggling and fervently praying for insight into how to best speak a word from the Lord into the tumult and tempest gripping our nation.  I share the shock, outrage, and heartbreak over the malicious killing of George Floyd, yet another unarmed, subdued African American who died needlessly, senselessly, and tragically, and yet again at the hands of those sworn to protect and serve.  It also deeply saddens and disturbs me when this righteous call for justice and equality through impassioned, peaceful protest is diluted, derailed, and drowned out by those simply bent on mindless violence, destruction, and mayhem.

I suppose you can call me Solomon as well; not the wise king of renown, but the overwhelmed child of a man.

“LORD, my God, I am only a little child and do not know how to carry out my duties. Your servant is here among the people you have chosen, a great people, too numerous to count or number. So give your servant a discerning heart.”  (I Kings 3:7-9)

Please join me in that prayer for wisdom.

Hagar must have felt extremely fearful and very much alone.  She was pregnant.  Abram’s unwise and unfortunate counsel for his wife Sarai to do “whatever she thought best,” had resulted in Hagar being mistreated by her jealous mistress.  Whether that mistreatment was verbal, emotional, physical, or all of the above, the abuse became so unbearable that Hagar ran away.  At a spring in the desert where she had sheltered, the angel of the LORD appeared to her and asked, “Where have you come from, and where are you going?”  Hagar only answered the first question, probably because there was no answer she could give to the second.  She didn’t know.  There was no plan.  She couldn’t see a path forward.  She had no idea what the future might look like.  There had just been fear, pain, panic, and a response of self-preservation for herself and her unborn child.  She knew what she was running from, just not what she was running to.  When the angel, representing God himself, provided her with a message of comfort and confidence, Hagar spoke directly in response to the LORD.  She gave him the name, El Roi, meaning, “the God who sees.”  Hagar went on to say, “I have now seen the One who sees me.”  Hagar was apart, but she was not alone.  She had fled beyond the sight of any other human, but not outside the gaze of God.

Fast forward 2,100 years.  With the guidance of John the Baptist’s teaching, Andrew became convinced that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah, and he went and found his brother Simon and brought him to Jesus.  Like those brothers, a fellow native of Bethsaida named Philip similarly accepted Jesus as the Christ and sought out his friend Nathanael with whom to share the exciting news.  Nathanael was quite dismissive and highly skeptical of the notion.  “Nazareth!  Can anything good come from there?”  His mind and heart turned on a dime, however, when he was approaching Jesus and the Lord said to him, “Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.”  “How do you know me?” Nathanael asked.  Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.”  Nathanael declared, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God, you are the king of Israel.”  I have no idea what Nathanael was doing under the fig tree.  I don’t know whether Jesus’ words filled him with extreme comfort or with a searing sense of shame, but the result was the firm conviction that only God or God’s Anointed One could have known where he was.  Nathanael had mistakenly thought he was alone.  He came to realize, however, that, though he may have been apart from other people under the fig tree, God’s unseen presence meant that he was never truly alone.

Fast forward another 2,000 years.  I don’t know exactly what your fig tree looks like today, but it has most likely been defined and determined by “shelter in place” and “safer at home” orders as we continue to navigate our way through the coronavirus pandemic.  Many of you are working from home today in your makeshift home office.  Others of you, as medical professionals, are on the job right now, working on the front lines of the treatment of COVID-19 and meeting other serious and urgent medical needs.  Some of you are at work today in other fields as essential workers who are ensuring that these challenging days are made more bearable for the rest of us.  Some of you are continuing the homeschooling routines of your children.  Other parents are assisting their children as they adapt to distance learning through online classes, from the elementary school level to those taking college courses.  Some of you are sewing masks today.  Others of you are cooking meals for individuals and families in need.  Some of you are making phone calls and sending text messages to friends, family members, and members of your church family in order to stay connected, check on their welfare, and inquire about any needs they have.  Some of you are doing these things while physically by yourself in your home or apartment.

Regardless of what your fig tree consists of today, even if it involves being apart from others, be assured that you are not alone.  We are blessed to be in relationship and fellowship with El Roi, “the God who sees,” the God who has promised, “I will never leave you or forsake you.”  We abide in Jesus who assured us, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”  We are sanctuaries of God, indwelled by his Holy Spirit, from whom it is wonderfully and blessedly impossible to be apart.

Psalm 139:7-12 

Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,”
Even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you.

It happened 10 years ago today.  It doesn’t seem possible that so many years could have passed since then.  Apparently, a tenth of a century flies by in the blink of an eye.  It was Wednesday, November 25, 2009, the day before Thanksgiving.  I was thinking about my Mom and Dad in Cullman, Alabama.  We had originally planned to be at their house for Thanksgiving, but opted to wait and make the trip just after Christmas.  My sister and her family from Louisiana decided to delay their trip as well so that we could all be there at the same time.  This meant that my parents were going to be “home alone” for the holiday.  Both of them had been in poor health.  I knew that neither of them was going to feel like preparing much food.  What could I do this late in the game to make sure that they had a nice Thanksgiving dinner?

I called the Cullman Chamber of Commerce and asked the pleasant young lady who answered the phone if she knew of any restaurants with delivery service that might be open on Thanksgiving Day.  She told me that practically everything in town would be closed, but she knew of one place that could possibly be of assistance and gave me the phone number for Truffles.

Truffles turned out to be a catering business located in downtown Cullman.  I shared with Amy, one of the co-owners, what I was wanting to do.  As I feared, Truffles was going to be closed on Thanksgiving.  However, since they did make deliveries, I asked Amy if there was any way that she could get some food over to Mom and Dad’s house on Wednesday afternoon so that they could eat the meal on Thursday.  I told her that anything she had on hand would be fine.  Amy hesitated a couple of times during the conversation, and I told her that I completely understood if it just wasn’t going to be possible on such short notice.

What Amy said next totally blew me away.  I’m paraphrasing here, but she said, “I’m hesitating because I’m trying to think of a way that I can make this work.  The business will be closed tomorrow, but I’m going to be cooking for my family anyway, and I really want to make this special for your Mom and Dad.  I would like to deliver a couple of meals to them on Thursday from what I am preparing for my family’s Thanksgiving dinner.”  I could hardly believe what she was proposing to do.  As they say in the Deep South, “This lady didn’t know me from Adam’s house cat!”  She didn’t know my parents.  Thanksgiving Day was a day off from her demanding job and a day to spend with her family.  Yet, she was concerned about making it a special day for my family.  This was so incredibly above and beyond what I ever expected; “second mile” service that far exceeded what I could have imagined.  Dad called me about 2:30 the next afternoon to tell me that Amy had just delivered turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes, green beans, rolls, and pumpkin pie.  It would prove to be Mom’s last Thanksgiving dinner.  She passed away on September 16 the following year.

I’m grateful for so many things in life, including people with servant hearts and a love for strangers.

When I see or hear references to Vanderbilt University in Nashville, it conjures up a variety of memories and connections for me.  In the 1950s, my father took education classes at the George Peabody College for Teachers, now a part of the Vanderbilt University system.  While an undergrad at Lipscomb University across town, friends and I would attend music and film events on VU’s campus.  When I lived and ministered in Middle Tennessee, I frequently availed myself of Vanderbilt’s Divinity Library for study and research.  I saw LSU junior Shaquille O’Neal take on Vandy on their home court.  I attended a week-long Residency in Cancer for Clergy at VU’s Medical Center.  It was a caring team of physicians at VUMC who diagnosed five month-old Coleman with Dubowitz Syndrome and chronic neutropenia and referred us on to NIH for further study and treatment.  However, there is one thing that I have never associated with Vanderbilt: a winning college football program.

ESPN is currently in the midst of a five-month, 150-day commemoration and celebration of 150 years of college football with numerous documentaries, interviews, testimonials, and vignettes.  A few days ago, I saw a brief “My Story” segment featuring Mike MacIntyre whose father, George, coached Vanderbilt’s football team from 1979 to 1985.  He shared an incredible story involving his father and Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant.

In 1982, the Vanderbilt Commodores were coming off of several all-too-familiar dismal seasons in which they had suffered 33 consecutive losses to SEC opponents.  They began the ‘82 campaign 1-1 against non-conference schools before heading to Tuscaloosa for the conference opener against the Crimson Tide, ranked 4th in the nation at the time.  It was a surprisingly close, hard-fought game.  Vandy had a legitimate chance at an upset victory late in the game, but fell just short as time expired, losing to Bama 24-21.

Coach MacIntyre ran across the field for the post-game handshake and was quite surprised when Coach Bryant asked, “After I talk to my team, do you mind if I come in your locker room and talk to the Vanderbilt team?”  MacIntyre graciously accepted the unusual request.  Silence fell over the Commodore locker room as Coach Bryant walked in.  Bryant addressed the players and said, “You should have beaten our guys today.  You’re an excellent Vanderbilt football team, and I guarantee you, you won’t lose another game for the rest of the year.”  MacIntyre’s son, who was in the locker room with his dad, recalled, “There’s nobody better than Bear Bryant to walk into your locker room and say, ‘Hey, you’re going to be successful.’  That gave them that extra little click to go on and so something special.”  Bryant nearly proved himself to be a prophet as Vandy went 7-1 over the remainder of the regular season before losing their bowl game for a final 8-4 record.  I know many of you are thinking, “8-4?  What’s so great about an 8-4 season?”  But, you’ve got to remember, we’re talking about Vanderbilt football!  They wouldn’t have another winning season for the next 25 years.

Never underestimate the power and lasting impact of your words of encouragement to others as they pursue their goals, dreams, and aspirations.  Don’t stop believing!


What is your saddest Christmas memory?  My apologies if this question caught you off guard or if you were expecting an opening line that was significantly more “merry and bright” on the day before Christmas.  But, I seriously want you to stop reading for a moment and think about it.  What is the saddest memory that you associate with Christmas?

Maybe you just now thought about something that happened many, many Decembers ago, so long ago that it almost seems like it happened in another lifetime, or someone else’s lifetime.  It might be that you have experienced several Christmases that could competitively vie for the title of “worst ever.”  Perhaps you would identity the Christmas that is coming tomorrow, because of what is currently burdening your heart, troubling your thoughts, and causing pain in the depths of your soul.

If circumstances past or present have you in a state of mind and emotion that simply makes it impossible for you to feel overly excited or enthusiastic about feasting and festivities, ribbons and bows, trees and wreaths, tinsel and toys, please keep reading.  Christmas is precisely for you.

My saddest Christmas came in 1984 when my grandfather passed away unexpectedly on December 25 from a heart attack, just as our family was gathering at his home.  It wasn’t just sad, but shockingly so, and Christmas Day would never be the same again.  One of the two Christmases that I spent in Australia was the most melancholy and disappointing that I ever experienced because a much-anticipated holiday visit from a friend from the U.S. didn’t happen.

At this time eight years ago, Dad was in St. Francis Hospital in Tulsa following another heart attack and MRSA infection, all of which seriously negated the recovery he had made since the massive heart failure he suffered two hours after Mom’s death on September 16 of that year.  I was asked to leave his hospital room while a PICC line was being put in his upper arm, so I headed to the lobby to wait for Kim and Hannah to arrive for a shift change.  I stood alone on the stairs above the lobby and listened as a choir of Amish teenagers sang, “O Come, All Ye Faithful” and “Silent Night.”  Tears began to flow.  There was not an ounce of happiness lurking anywhere in my body at that moment, but my grief, sadness, and emotional wounds were being bound up and dressed with the oil and wine of hope, expressed in the words of those hymns of faith in Jesus Christ as God’s Son, Immanuel, “God with us,” a Savior, the hope of the nations, love’s pure light.

Christmas is a season for every emotion.  Christmas affirms our faith that Jesus came into this world to bring light into our darkness (John 8:12), to provide sympathetic mercy and comfort for our sorrows (Isaiah 53:3-4; Heb. 4:15-16), to offer gentle nurture and loving protection for the bruised reeds and flickering candles of our hearts (Isaiah 42:1-3), to compassionately bind up the wounds of the brokenhearted (Isaiah 61:1), and to bring reassuring calm into our chaos as the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6).

Far beyond a mere wish, my sincere prayer for you this Christmas is this: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit,” (Romans 15:13).

Almighty God, our heavenly Father,

We praise you for your majesty and greatness. We exalt your high and holy name. We thank you for your grace and mercy that you have abundantly poured out upon us through your Son Jesus. We glorify our Savior who willingly laid down his life for us and suffered so cruelly that we might be freed from the penalty of our sins. We thank you for your constant abiding presence through your Holy Spirit who dwells in us and supplies strength and help in the very depths of our souls.

Father, in all our distress we turn to you. In all our troubles we cry out to you. In you, we find shelter from the storms of life. In your presence there is calm and stillness; there is respite from the battering winds of uncertainty, and peace in the midst of life’s relentless anxieties. In you, we have a haven, a refuge of safety from those who would seek to do us harm. You are our fortress against the powers of darkness, our stronghold against the forces of evil, and our sure and steadfast rock in a desert of shifting sand.

Father of mercies and God of all comfort, protect us, as a father defends his children. Embrace us and wrap us in your presence, as a mother cradles and comforts her child. Heal our wounds. Soothe our sorrows. Wipe away our tears. Bring joy and laughter to our hearts. Cast out our fears. Sustain us through our confusion and questioning. Give clarity to our thinking. Grant us confidence and boldness in doing right.

Be our strength when we are weak. In your slowness to anger, be patient with us when we fall. In your covenant love and endless compassion, blot out our transgressions, keep us washed clean in the blood of your Son, and make us as white as snow. Guide us. Make the road clear before us. Show us the way. When the way is darkened by evil or overshadowed by our own doubts and fears, may the brilliance of your glory dispel the darkness and the light of your countenance brighten our path. Let us feel the prodding and correction of your staff and rod. Order our lives according to the truth of your word.

Our hope is in your goodness and righteousness, and not our own. We trust and listen to your voice as our Shepherd. We bow before you and submit to your will as our King. We accept your instruction and your discipline as our Father.

Lord, through the intercession of the Holy Spirit, we ask that you receive our praise, accept our thanks, hear our confessions, and grant our petitions. We ask all of this with bold confidence in the name of our Savior Jesus Christ.


I’ve long marveled at the timeless relevance of the Sermon on the Mount.  The passing of nearly 2,000 years has not diminished in the slightest the power, potency, or truth of Jesus’ message.  On the contrary, these words are infused with a divinely uncanny ability to speak directly into our hearts and lives, no matter what stage or circumstances of life we find ourselves in or where we are on our walk of faith in Christ.  For that reason, we can never read or hear this sermon exactly the same way twice, because we always encounter it (and it encounters us) at a different place on our journey.  It never fails to speak to the needs of the moment, whether that is comfort, encouragement, conviction, or correction.  This message of Jesus, brief though it is, will seek us out and find us wherever we are.  It will expose our deepest longings and hurts, bringing comfort and assurance.  It will sometimes ambush us with convicting rebuke in an area of life in which we may have been negligent, blinded, or in denial.  It was the latter of these that I experienced several months ago.

Last December, I enjoyed a sabbatical week in the form of a silent retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani, a Cistercian monastery near Bardstown, Kentucky, about 45 minutes south of Louisville.  This was my fifth consecutive year to “unplug” there for the purpose of reading, prayer, meditation, and rest within a context of silence.  It’s impossible for me to quantify or adequately express the spiritual, emotional, and physical benefits that I gain from these sabbatical weeks away from regular responsibilities and the distractions of media and electronics.

My flight back home was on Friday afternoon.  I was among the last to board, and my seat was nearly at the back of the plane.  I found an overhead storage space for my backpack, and then apologetically informed the woman sitting on the aisle that I had the window seat.  As she stood up and stepped out to let me in, she said, “Thank you for being a normal sized person,” which sort of stunned me.  All I could think of to say in response was, “You’re welcome!”

It was a great flight.  I read an entire issue of TIME magazine that I had purchased in the airport terminal.  My “next door neighbor” slept through most of the two-hour flight.  She woke up as we started the descent into DFW, and we chatted long enough for me to learn that she was a special education administrator in the Louisville-Jefferson County School System.  We talked about Coleman and the road races we’ve run together, special education, and the Abbey of Gethsemani.  We exchanged parting pleasantries as we deplaned.  “Nice talking with you!”  “Safe travels!”  I should have known that the “odds of air travel” demanded that the flight from Dallas to Tulsa would not be that good.

What does this have to do with the Sermon on the Mount?  We’re almost there.

On the Dallas-to-Tulsa flight, I was the guy sitting on the aisle with nearly everyone on board, and the window seat next to me was still unoccupied.   It looked like it was going to be a full flight, but could I possibly be fortunate enough not to have a traveling companion?  No!  The last person (the absolute last one) to enter the plane was a tall, long-legged, broad-shouldered young man with ear buds in both ears.  He stopped beside me, tossed his big leather coat and sizeable man purse into the empty seat, and grunted, “I’ve got the window, but I’m going to the bathroom first.”

It was really close to flight time.  We had started to taxi out, and he still hadn’t returned to his seat.  Finally, he reappeared.  I unbuckled my seat belt and stepped out so that he could get in.  Standing next to him, I realized that he was even taller and broader than I first thought.  Since he was in his seat before I was back in mine, he quickly claimed his territory, positioning his long legs out at 45-degree angles from center, which put his right knee significantly beyond the internationally recognized border that exists between airline seats.

Peaceful, calming sabbatical or not, I was in no mood to surrender without a fight.  Even with my leg positioned straight out, my left knee pressed firmly against his illegally invasive right knee.  I kept my knee in firm contact with his, hoping that the awkwardness and discomfort would serve as a hint.  It didn’t.  Neither of us was going to blink.

The young man unplugged his earbuds from his cell phone to make a quick call just before we took off.  Then, back in his ears they went as he watched what I gathered from the corner of my eye were music videos.  The volume from his earbuds was so loud that I could hear it over the engine noise.  He would periodically minimize the video so that he could tap out messages on his phone.  I could only hope that his phone was in airplane mode and that he was using the plane’s Wi-Fi, but I wasn’t about to ask him.  He sneezed.  I turned and said, “Bless you!”  He never uttered a word.  This was going to be long 40-minute flight.  My week’s worth of peace and tranquility were disappearing fast.

My solution, with my knee still pressed against his, was that I would focus my mind on the Sermon on the Mount.  I had committed it to memory over 25 years ago, and I periodically rehearse and recite it (silently or aloud) in order to keep it current and fresh in my mind.  It takes about 15 minutes to recite.  Perhaps I could review it in my mind twice before we touched down in Tulsa.  It would be spiritually beneficial to me and would help pass the agonizing minutes ahead.

The following are a few excerpts of how Jesus’ words located me with pinpoint accuracy on the plane that night.

I closed my eyes and thought…

“When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and after He sat down, His disciples came to Him.  He opened His mouth and began to teach them, saying…

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth.

Oh, yeah!  That!  Gentleness.  Okay.  But, certainly, demanding the legroom that I had bought and paid for could not be considered a failure to be gentle.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteous…

That’s what I’m trying to do here, Lord!

Blessed are the merciful…

Ouch!  That one hit much closer to home.  I relaxed my leg a little.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.

Wow!  I remembered what I have preached and taught over the years about what it means to be a peacemaker; not just a peace-preferrer or a peace-wisher, but a peacemaker; a peace initiator; someone who works for peace; sacrifices for the sake of peace; yields and forfeits for the sake of peace.

I straightened my leg, placing my foot under the seat in front of me, so that my knee was positioned below his and wouldn’t contact it.  It was plenty comfortable; not a problem at all; not really all that much to give up.

You are the salt of the earth…

You are the light of the world; a city set on a hill cannot be hidden, nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house (or on the plane).  Let your light shine before others in such a way that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven.

His elbow nearly clocked me in the face as he pulled his laptop out of his man purse.  I flinched, but he didn’t make contact.  He typed frantically for a while, then slammed the laptop shut.  We had another near miss when he put it back in his bag.  Still… no harm, no foul!

You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth,” but I say to you, “Do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.  If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also.  Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two.  Give to him to asks of you and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you.”

You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy,” but I say to you, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your father who is in heaven.”

Did I mention that this young man was Middle Eastern, with a heavy, close cut beard?  Oh, yeah!  He was.  I’m ashamed to admit where I had let my thoughts run.  The long stay in the bathroom; the quick phone call before takeoff; the text messages; the laptop.  I had played out the entire scenario.  I had Criminal Mind-ed this guy.  I caught myself (or God did) in shame and embarrassment over allowing myself to fall prey to fear, suspicion, stereotyping, prejudice, profiling, and a whole lot of other things that my better self would like to believe have no place in my mind and don’t exist in my heart.  Apparently, however, they do!

Do not judge, so that you will not be judged.  For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you.

In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you, for this is the Law and the Prophets.

I handed him his drink (apple juice, I think) from the flight attendant.  He said nothing.  Given the short flight and the fact that we were at the back of the plane, it wasn’t long at all before they were collecting the trash.  I tilted my empty cup over toward his and said, “I’ll take your cup for you.”  He put his empty cup inside mine and said, “Thank you.”  A small response, yes, but an adequately kind one.

So, the rest of the story is that, later that night, this guy confessed his faith in Jesus and was baptized, right?

No.  That’s not the moral of the story.

The moral of the story is that it doesn’t matter how or even if other people respond, or whether they ever acknowledge or appreciate our actions.  That’s their call, their choice, and their responsibility.  My responsibility as a disciple of Jesus is to listen to the words of my Teacher, write them on my heart, and live them out in my life in daily circumstances as I seek to walk in His steps.

Therefore, everyone who hears these words of mine and acts on them, may be compared to a wise man who built his house on the rock.  And the rain fell and floods came and the winds blew and slammed against that house, and yet it did not fall, for it had been founded upon the rock.  Everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand.  The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and it fell – and great was its fall.


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October 2020