finish line

Running with Coleman; 2016 Bedlam Run 10K; Tulsa, Oklahoma

Uphill.  Downhill.  Level Ground.

That pretty much covers it.  There are variables to be sure.  It could be a smooth road, a rocky trail, or a muddy track.  But, regardless of the surface, the grade is either uphill, downhill, or level ground.  Just those three.  That’s all.  That’s enough!

So it is when we walk, run, ride, and drive.  So it is with life.  So it is with following Jesus.

Recently, I’ve become more highly sensitized to the significance and impact of the grade of the ground.  In 2016, I’ve done more running, by far, than in any year since 1985.  Why have the entries in my running log multiplied and the distances grown?  It’s not because I’m getting younger.  It’s not because running is getting any easier.  It’s not that my knees don’t ache and periodically swell.

It’s because I have a new motivation: Coleman!

About a year and a half ago, we purchased a jogging stroller so that we could get Coleman outside more, for longer periods of time, and in places where a wheelchair is less practical or functional.  While Coleman is ambulatory, he wears over-the-calf AFOs (ankle-foot orthoses) on both legs.  He fatigues very quickly, which makes long walks difficult and extended excursions an impossibility for him.

The jogging stroller has far exceeded our hopes and expectations regarding the level of enjoyment that it brings Coleman to be outside and on the move in the fresh air and warm sunshine.  Mind you, this isn’t your average jogging stroller.  It is a specialized push chair designed for older children and small adults with disabilities, engineered to accommodate an individual weighing up to 200 lbs.  The stroller has been worth every single penny we spent on it, and is one of the best investments we have ever made.

How can I be certain that a non-verbal, developmentally disabled, autistic, 23 year-old young man actually enjoys riding in the stroller?  It constitutes crystal clear communication when Coleman goes to the garage, stands beside the stroller, and repeatedly points to it.  Ditto, when he sets out my running shoes and a running shirt.  While riding, he sits perfectly still and beautifully contented, moving only to periodically sign “bird” or “train” or whatever other sounds he hears in the great outdoors.

Long walks with Coleman in his stroller turned into short jogs.  Short jogs gradually morphed into longer runs.  An average week now involves two solo training runs (my creaky knees don’t allow me to run every day) and an outing with Coleman in the stroller on Saturdays.  In addition to our regular Saturday jaunts, we’ve recently competed in three official 5K road races.  We upped our game a couple of weekends ago with our first 10K.

Back to the subject of uphill, downhill, and level ground.

The Challenge of Uphill

 Uphill is hard.  Uphill hurts.  Uphill is a beating.  Uphill makes you want to quit.

All of us experience uphill challenges in life.  It may have been growing up in a dysfunctional family or a broken home.  It may have been academic struggles as a child, social awkwardness, or frequently being the target of bullies or mean-spirited classmates or neighbors who took sadistic delight in tormenting you.  Perhaps it was the deeply scarring trauma of being physically, sexually, or psychologically abused as a child or as an adult.  The heartbreak of rejection by someone you love.  The loss of employment.  The end of a marriage.  The death of a child.  A diagnosis of cancer.  Bankruptcy.  A shattered dream or an abandoned vision.  Questioning your faith; not just the common “unanswerable questions” that most people grapple with at one time or another, but seriously doubting the core tenets of your belief system, including the very existence of God.

Life has lots of uphill.  But, it’s not forever.  Every hill has a summit.  Uphill is seasonal.  Uphill is survivable.

Before I started pushing Coleman in his stroller, I would have sworn that most streets that I frequent were almost entirely flat.  Deception!  Trickery!  It’s a lie!

The stroller is so well designed and constructed that pushing Coleman on level ground is not too much of a challenge.   However, since he weighs 170 lbs. and the stroller 30 lbs., even the slightest uphill stretch is immediately apparent.  On steep grades, you become painfully aware of the gravity of 200 lbs. pushing back in the other direction, naturally wanting to go back down the hill.

Uphill calls for adjustments.  Gone are the days when I could simply charge a hill, frenetically grind it out, and get it over with as quickly as possible.  Now, I have to slow my pace and dramatically shorten my stride, or I’ll be fully spent long before I reach the summit.

Uphill is time to focus.  Uphill is time to pray.  Uphill is time to dig deep.  Uphill is time for positive self-talk.  Uphill is a reminder that extraneous things really don’t matter.  Uphill is minimalist.  Uphill is simple; a simple, singular struggle.  Uphill is time to channel Dory with a bit of terrestrial, poetic license, “Just keep running, running, running…”

Coleman keeps me from quitting.  He doesn’t say anything.  Quite literally, he doesn’t say a word.  But, he’s there, and he’s why I keep running.  “We’ve got this Coleman!  We’ve got this!  Almost there.   Almost to the top.  Almost over.  We’re not going to stop.”

Whatever form your uphill is taking right now, don’t give up.  Don’t pack it in.  Don’t quit.  Don’t bail.  Don’t stop.  I know it’s hard.  I know it hurts.  I wish it were different.  It will be different.  It will be better.  I don’t know when, but it will be.

Until then, remember who (or Who) you’re running for.  Others are counting on you.  They love you.  They’re pulling for you.  They believe in you.  They are with you.  You’ve got this!  Uphill makes you stronger!

The Deception of Downhill

Downhill comes as such a relief.  Downhill lets you breathe.  Downhill makes you want to extend your stride, pick up your pace, and make up for lost time.  Downhill makes you feel like you could run all day.  Downhill makes you feel younger, lighter, and fresher.  Except, I’m not.  I’m older, heavier, and have logged 53 years already.  53 isn’t fresh by any definition!

Downhill is where I’m tempted to get a bit (or a whole lot) overconfident. The ease of downhill can make me cocky, complacent, and inattentive.  Going downhill, it’s all too easy to turn an ankle or allow a stroller wheel to drop off the edge of a paved trail.

Downhill is where I have the urge to stretch out my stride so that I don’t appear to have such an “old man gait.”  Therein lies a serious problem.  My particular knee ailment (owing to surgery on both of them in the ‘90s and sundry injurious tweaks to them in the two decades since) is made much worse by not keeping a short running stride.  I don’t understand all of the biomechanics, kinesiology, and physiology of it, but downhill is much harder on my knees than uphill.

So, I’ve got to keep it slow, short, and steady on the downhill slopes.  Thankfully, Coleman’s stroller is equipped with a handbrake, connected to the front wheel, that keeps me from being pulled downhill too fast by the 200 lbs. in front of me.

I imagine that running downhill slowly and methodically appears rather odd to some other runners, especially those who are younger, stronger, faster, and who breeze past us with ease.  That’s okay.  When tempted to join their accelerated romp, I audibly repeat to Coleman, “Our race, our pace, buddy!  Our race, our pace!”

Don’t measure yourself in comparison to anyone else, regardless of who they are.  They’re not living your life.  They’re not where you are.  They may be opinionated about the circumstances of your life, but they’re not responsible for it.  It’s not their load to carry.  Let them run their race.  You run yours.  When I asked a young friend as to how I could best pray for him, he answered, “Just pray that I’ll be best version of me that I can be!”  Keen insight and wise counsel!  Your race, your pace!

Downhill is temporary too.  There’s a bottom to every hill, beyond which may either be level ground or an immediate steep incline that will suck the wind right out of your lungs.  Don’t lose your focus.  Don’t assume it will always be this easy.  Enjoy it while it lasts.  Keep it real!

Doubling Down on Level Ground

The challenge of uphill and the deception of downhill has caused me to really relish, embrace, celebrate, and maximize those stretches of level ground.

Level ground is an opportunity to reestablish my pace, restore my running rhythm, regulate my breathing, and get into a groove again.  Normalcy is relative, but whatever normal is for you, that’s your level ground.

Double down on level ground!

Take advantage of the relative calm to become more disciplined, more tenacious, more resolute, and more zealously committed.  In terms of discipleship in Jesus, utilize times of level ground to restore the rhythms of spiritual discipline in your life through regular times of prayer, mediation on the Word, silence, and service to others.  Allow the wind of the Spirit to refresh you, equip you, and strengthen you.  You’re going to need it for the next hill.  There’s ALWAYS another hill!

target store

I needed to purchase a few household items on Tuesday, and I just happened to be driving past the SuperTarget store that is near our home. I was vaguely aware of Target’s recent policy statement regarding the use of their restrooms by transgender individuals, and I had also seen an online headline or two about the American Family Association’s initiation of a petition to boycott the retailer. If you find it hard to believe that I wasn’t thoroughly steeped in all the sordid details of the “outrage du jour” among some conservative Christians, trust me when I tell you that my father’s death and funeral last week have kept me from being overly concerned about this latest skirmish in our nation’s culture wars.

So, I walked into Target on Tuesday and… everything seemed so perfectly normal. The people looked perfectly normal. Well, normalcy is relative; everyone at least looked “big box department store normal.” Things were just like they were the last time I was in Target, and just like I expect they will be the next time I’m there.

Ironically, I found myself in need of a restroom while at Target this week. To the best of my knowledge and remembrance, I have never used the bathroom facilities in this or any other Target. Ever! That’s just not why I go to Target, or to any other store for that matter. If the need does arise when I’m traveling or out shopping, I, like many other Americans, generally seek out the facilities of the nearest Cracker Barrel. That’s why they’re conveniently located near interstate highway exits. Surely my family can’t be the only ones who do this!

I don’t know if there was something at work in my subconscious on Tuesday, or if it was just my two morning cups of coffee, but I headed to the restroom immediately upon entering the store. The entrances to the restrooms were clearly marked “Men” and “Women.” Signage also identified a more private Family Restroom. I was grateful not to encounter any protesters, anyone asking me to sign a petition, or anyone demanding to see my birth certificate on my way into the men’s room.

Other than the obvious, my brief visit to the restroom at Target was uneventful. I had the place all to myself; I didn’t see another living soul. In the event that someone else had been in there, I’m certain that I would have avoided eye contact (as usual) and would have refrained from striking up a conversation; no small talk about the weather, the NBA playoffs, or the first few weeks of the MLB season. I certainly wouldn’t have dreamed of questioning a total stranger about their sense of gender identity. “Yeah, this is some weather we’re having, isn’t it? By the way…”

So, about the current controversy…

If you don’t want to shop at Target (for any reason, or no reason at all), then please don’t. Maybe you don’t like their restroom use policy as it relates to transgender individuals, or the values that you think this policy reflects, or perceived dangers you think the policy poses for unsuspecting women and children. That’s fine! Maybe you don’t like the presence of Starbucks in their stores. Remember the Great Starbucks Christmas Cup Controversy of 2015? Plain red cups! Gasp! It’s a miracle that the national economy didn’t crumble or that there’s a shred of morality left in the country after such an egregious assault on Christian faith! Maybe the Target logo naturally reminds you of a target, which reminds you of guns, which reminds you of hunting, which reminds you of the senseless slaughter of animals. Okay! Maybe you’re just a Walmart person at heart. Lovely! Whatever your reasons, take your business elsewhere. I really don’t mind at all, and I will respect your retail values and decisions, regardless of what drives them.

If you want to continue shopping at Target, but choose not to use their restrooms, that’s fine as well, since most shoppers never do. I’ve now made one such visit in the last 30 years, and may well reach the end of my earthly journey without a second visit. If the need does arise, and you’ve got some personal discomfort or concern for the safety of your wife or child, then use the Family Restroom and lock the door behind you.

But, please, please, please…. don’t question or condemn the faith, commitment, or morality of those of us who refuse to panic, who refrain from joining you in screaming that the sky is falling, who won’t stoop to fear-mongering, who aren’t interested in signing your petition, who continue shopping at Target, and may even sip a cup of Starbucks coffee while doing so.

I’ve already seen Christian friends on Facebook who have posted links to fabricated news stories about atrocities that have allegedly taken place in Target’s restrooms since the announcement of their policy. Such things severely weaken our witness as followers of Jesus Christ. Whatever truth you are seeking to defend, don’t discredit it, and the name of Jesus, with falsehood. Check it out on Snopes.com before sharing a link; the story may contain some truth, a smidgeon of truth, or no truth at all.

Can public restrooms be dangerous places and potential targets (no pun intended) for voyeurs, exhibitionists, and pedophiles? Yes! But, that’s always been the case, long before Target’s policy announcement. Vigilance, caution, and common sense have always been advisable. You shouldn’t need policies or laws to convince you of that.

What are the chances that you’re going to encounter a transgender individual in a restroom at Target? Infinitesimally small! What are the chances that this individual will pose some threat to you or a member of your family? Even smaller. What are the chances and likelihood of women and children being victimized, traumatized, harmed, or abused within communities of faith at the hands of trusted individuals whom they believe are sincerely serving the Christ that they claim to follow? Sadly, tragically, and damnably far greater.

A few months ago, we were having Sunday lunch with friends at a restaurant after morning church services. Our nonverbal, 23 year-old special needs son signed to me that he needed to go the restroom. We excused ourselves, walked to the restroom, and I claimed the handicapped accessible stall, as always, simply because there is more room for me to assist him. After our arrival, someone occupied the stall next to us. As we exited the stall to head to the sink, the door next to us swung open simultaneously. The fingers that were wrapped around the adjoining door’s edge were beautifully manicured, with nails brightly adorned in candy apple red polish. Uh-oh!!! As my eyes met with the owner of those distinctly feminine hands, I immediately began apologizing. “I am so, so sorry! We’re in the wrong restroom.” She spotted Coleman, smiled pleasantly and without alarm, and said, “Well, it could be me who’s in the wrong bathroom.” She stepped to the door, opened it, glanced at the sign on the outside, and said, “No, it’s definitely you!!!” We all washed our hands at the double sink, dried them, chuckled again with nervous embarrassment, and headed out the door together. I offered a final, parting apology, and silently prayed that I wouldn’t see her sitting among our guests at church as I preached the next Sunday morning!

Had this circumstance happened in Oxford, Alabama, this week, and if the woman had doubted our intentions in being in the women’s restroom, she could have called in a complaint to the police department, signed a warrant, and I could be facing a $500 fine or six months in jail. We would not be covered by the exceptions to Oxford’s new city ordinance. Though Coleman is my child, he is older than 12, and though considered disabled, the exception would only cover Kim assisting him in a restroom, not two males in a women’s restroom. Such are the inevitable consequences of knee-jerk legislation.

I’ve never struggled with my sexual identity or questioned my gender identity. It’s always been crystal clear to me. So, I obviously don’t understand what it’s like to be conflicted or confused about those issues. However, as a Christian, I can compassionately show civility, love, and respect to those who do. I can’t imagine what it’s like to honestly and sincerely be emotionally torn about which restroom to use; I simply can’t imagine. This doesn’t mean that my understanding of Scripture has changed one bit. It just means that I can and will treat people, all people, as individuals who have been created in the image of God and as those for whom Jesus died. It also means that I refuse to panic, and I refuse to peddle fear.

I spent a lot of time this week at Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where my father had aortic valve replacement surgery on Wednesday.  As I sat with him in his room, spent time in waiting rooms, and walked the corridors of this sprawling medical center, I was struck by just how many different physicians, nurses, and various kinds of technicians I encountered around every single corner on every hallway of every floor.

Cardiologists, pulmonologists, endocrinologists, pediatricians, neurologists, OB/GYNs, anesthesiologists, surgeons, oncologists, pathologists, radiologists, psychiatrists, geneticists, orthopedic specialists, ENTs, gastroenterologists, ER doctors, and on and on the list could go; all of them supported and assisted by countless nurses, techs, and other staff. And that was just one hospital in one city. Multiply that by all of the hospitals in Baton Rouge, and in places like Dallas, Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Houston, and Atlanta. Add to that all of the family practitioners in every town of any size at all across the country. Multiply that by all of the countries around the world.

Why so many medical professionals? Why do they stay scheduled and booked for weeks, sometimes months, in advance? Why do they have such incredible job security? Because there is an incalculable amount of sickness, pain, disease, injury, discomfort, debilitation, and disability in this world.

I was reminded this week about how much of life revolves around sickness. It is everywhere. It is relentless. No family is exempt. No individual is immune.

Such is life. Such is this life. But, such is not the life to come.

The apostle John was granted an apocalyptic glimpse and vision of our perfected existence beyond the brokenness and imperfections of this life. Beside the river of life, he saw the tree of life, the leaves of which brought healing to the nations. No more curse. No more sorrow. No more pain. No more suffering. No more parting. No more tears. No more death.

Nothing, not a single thing, for doctors to do.

I can’t wait!

“So I get the bottle open, but something’s hit a nerve. And I’m looking in the mirror at the face that I deserve.”

These lyrics are from Mark Knopfler’s tune, “River Towns,” which appears on his latest album, Tracker. The song centers on an itinerant tugboat and barge worker who finds himself friendless at Christmastime in a small town along the Ohio River. A chance liaison with a young woman provides only momentary physical companionship, a shallow and ultimately meaningless substitute for what is truly missing in his life. He is left alone in a cheap hotel room with a bottle of alcohol and his own sad reflection in the mirror, a weathered, weary, and worn face staring back at him. “The face that I deserve” strikes me as such a tragic phrase, one that is overflowing with disappointment, regret, guilt, loneliness, lostness, grief over shattered dreams and aspirations, and a sense of hopelessness.

It is truly an unfathomable blessing that, through salvation in Jesus Christ, we are able to see ourselves, not as the world might think us to be or even as we once may have viewed ourselves, but as God sees us. What the Father beholds when He looks upon me as a son is not the face that I deserve, but the face of a child whose innocence and purity have been reclaimed and restored. The spiritual stains of transgression and the moral marring of iniquity have all been removed. The imperfections, wounds, and scars that sin so brutally inflicts upon our visage are entirely erased.

Where there was the sight of scarlet, there is now a blinding, snowy white; the reddest crimson now has the appearance of the whitest of wool. This is no mere surface transformation. It’s not just the creative retouching of our spiritual profile picture. It isn’t cosmetic, it’s intrinsic! Our very nature and essence have been changed. Through the grace and mercy of God extended through the sacrifice of Jesus His Son, God looks upon me just as I look upon Coleman; pure, innocent, whole, and guileless through the continual cleansing of the blood of Jesus.

“He does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him. As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.” (Psalm 103:10-12)

“And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.” (II Corinthians 3:18)

The transformation is still in progress, and I’m still seeing the image in the mirror rather dimly. But, one day, face to face!

The face I don’t deserve.

I have shared these three brief reminders with our high school graduates in recent years.  They may similarly provide reassurance and comfort to anyone of any age who may be going through transitions in life, hardships, doubts, loneliness, or fears.

Always remember….

You are loved.  God created you in His very own image.  He loves you immeasurably; so much that He allowed His Son to die for you so that you could be saved from sin and live with Him eternally.  You are precious to Him. He loves you unconditionally, not based on what you do or don’t do, but because of who He is and because of who you are as His child.  It is impossible for God to love you any more or any less than He does this very minute.  You may disappoint Him, but you can never do anything that will cause God to stop loving you.  I know that you are going to do some great things in your life and that you will accomplish much.  I also know that you are going to make some mistakes, a lot of little bitty goofy ones, and probably a few major ones if you’re like everyone else.  But, because of God’s love for us and the grace and forgiveness that He offers us through Jesus Christ, we don’t have to be burdened by, shackled by, or defined by our mistakes.  Don’t ever let anything in this life convince you that God doesn’t love you anymore.  That’s a lie from Satan intended to fill your heart with fear and doubt.  You are loved!  Always!

You are never alone.  God has promised, “I will never leave you, nor will I ever forsake you.”  Jesus said, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”  Scripture affirms that “you are a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own.”  Where you go, God goes.  Your trust in His abiding presence will free you to live life to the full.  It will free you from the fear of failure and rejection.  It frees you to aim high and take chances.  It frees you to be unconventional and think outside the box.  Hope frees you to be a risk-taker.  Don’t be shaped, formed, and molded by the expectations of the world around you.  Have the confidence to live your life the way that God wants you to live it.  You are never alone!  Never!

God will always welcome you home.  Life’s challenges, hardships, and disappointments in the years ahead will take some of you, if not all of you to some degree, on a path that may lead you away from where God wants you to be and where you know you need to be.  You may find yourself away from a close relationship with Jesus and a close relationship with His church. Never forget that God will always welcome you home.  There is no spiritual country that is too far away and no sin that is too deep and dark for God not to run to meet you and welcome you back into His arms.  Satan will try to get inside your head and tell you, “You can’t go home. You’ve wandered too far away.  There’s no path back from where you are.”  Satan’s a liar; don’t listen to him.  God will always welcome you home!  Always!

“The Lord bless you, and keep you.  The Lord make His face shine on you, and be gracious to you.  The Lord lift up His countenance upon you, and give you peace.” (Numbers 6:24-26)

I am not a movie critic, nor am I the son of a movie critic (with apologies to Amos 7:14).

However, I do know what I enjoy and what I don’t. My taste in films sometimes coincides with the accolades that accompany “critical acclaim,” but very often it does not. I know what ambushes my emotions, thrusts a lance through my heart, and sends tears cascading down my cheeks. I know what challenges my thinking and exposes my prejudices. I know what triggers my moral indignation, sometimes only to discover that I have been baited into revealing my own hypocrisy and double standards. I also know what I simply cannot stomach in regard to sheer inanity, coarseness, bloodbaths, senseless strings of profanity that are passed off as a script, and soft (and not so soft) porn that masquerades as a mainstream film. I enjoy the quirkiness of independent films, the often unlikely subject matters of documentaries, and the occasional no-brainer escapism of a good science fiction or superhero flick.

So, do I see a lot of movies? Not really; not anymore. When my wife, Kim, lamented a couple of weeks ago that Fifty Shades of Grey was invading nearly every screen in town on Valentine’s Day, my response was “What’s Fifty Shades of Grey?” I am so out of the cultural loop that, not only had I not heard any of the hype and controversy surrounding the film, I had no idea that there was a trilogy of best-selling erotic romance novels that gave rise to this first film adaptation, with a sequel planned for release in 2016. Oh, joy!

With Kim out-of-town for a few days visiting friends in Dallas, she suggested that I see a movie on Thursday, my usual day out of the office each week. The prospects weren’t very promising. Scouring the options on a movie date the previous week, we had quickly narrowed the possibilities down to one movie, Still Alice, which features an Academy Award-winning performance by Julianne Moore, who brilliantly portrays the title character in this story about early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. It is a great film, but one that provides a solid emotional kick to the gut.

In my discouraging online cinematic search on Thursday, I failed to notice that McFarland, USA was playing. Inspirational, feel-good movies about underdog athletes constitute a can’t-miss genre for me! I’ll likely be seeing it soon.

Just as I was about to abandon a trip to the theater for a much more needful visit to the gym, I spotted Old Fashioned. It was rated PG-13, and the synopsis read:

A romantic-drama, “Old Fashioned” centers on Clay Walsh, a former frat boy who gives up his reckless carousing and now runs an antique shop in a small Midwestern college town. There, he has become notorious for his lofty and outdated theories on love and romance. When Amber Hewson, a free-spirited young woman with a restless soul, drifts into the area and rents the apartment above his shop, she finds herself surprisingly drawn to his noble ideas, which are new and intriguing to her.  And Clay, though he tries to fight and deny it, simply cannot resist being attracted to her spontaneous and passionate embrace of life. Ultimately, Clay must step out from behind his relational theories and Amber must overcome her own fears and deep wounds as the two of them, together, attempt the impossible: an “old-fashioned” courtship in contemporary America.

The title and synopsis of the film were enough to draw me to the theater, probably because I consider myself rather old-fashioned in many ways and an archaic, naïve romantic. As I sat alone in the theater watching the previews, I seriously thought I had managed a private matinée screening. Four more patrons ultimately took their seats before the movie started. It was apparent that no box office records were going to be shattered that day.

I won’t rehearse the entire storyline for you. You can read numerous reviews online, replete with reader comments, from both secular and religious sources. As you might imagine, mainstream film critics largely panned the film, while audiences generally loved it. The Rotten Tomatoes website reflects a critics’ score of 21% and an audience rating of 94% on its Tomatometer. This reflects the usual ratings chasm that is created by faith-based films. See rogerebert.com for an even-handed secular review and Plugged In (thanks, Jeff!) for a thorough Christian review.

While I know the international film community is not holding its collective breath to find out what Tim Pyles thought about Old Fashioned, I found it to be a refreshingly sweet, endearing, affirming, redemptive love story, so desperately needed in a world that is enamored and obsessed by a Fifty Shades philosophy of love and sexuality.

Was it painfully slow in places? Yes. Could writer and director Rik Swartzwelder have found an actor other than himself to play the role of Clay a little less broodingly? Yes. Was there an awkward “corn” and “cheese” factor in places? Yes, but quite bearably so.

On the positive side of the ledger, Old Fashioned was beautifully and creatively filmed. Again, I know nothing about cinematography, but other faith-based films I have seen have had an amateurish, B movie look and feel to them. Not this one.

There was an unexpected thematic edginess to the film, a reflection of Swartzwelder’s willingness to deal with real world issues, temptations, and challenges to Christian faith. Nothing is graphically portrayed, but such realities were not naively ignored. The lead characters both acknowledge having sexual histories, and each faces an intense moment of sexual temptation. The pain and tragedy of domestic abuse, demeaning attitudes toward women, cultural attitudes about cohabitation and promiscuity, alcohol use (both moderate and excessive), attitudes about Christians: all of these factor into the story. There is no profanity at all in the film, unless you prudishly consider “crap” and “Good Lord” to be beyond the pale.

The film’s spiritual message and underpinnings (belief in God, salvation in Jesus, Scripture, true love, abstinence, grace, repentance, redemption) are evident enough, but never overplayed in heavy-handed fashion. There is a sense that real truth exists, but the characters occupy various places in their conception of it in their own journey of faith. Again unexpectedly, the film offers insights into how Christian faith and efforts for personal morality are often perceived to be (and sometimes actually are) nothing more than pietistic self-righteousness.

Near the end of the film, Aunt Zella’s brief, loving, and convicting sermon to Clay about grace, forgiveness, and our failed attempts at goodness proved to be worth the price of the ticket.

Clay and Amber’s love story reminds us that love and sexuality can be driven and directed by a standard that is higher and holier than that of our fallen, confused, and hurting world; not perfectly, but with passion, boundaries, and conviction.

See Old Fashioned if you have the opportunity. As an independent film in limited release, it may not be “in a theater near you,” so you may have to wait until the DVD is available. Take your teenage children to see it with you. They already think you are embarrassingly uncool, and dragging them along with you ultimately won’t make that fact any worse. They may groan in a few places (as may you), but it will give them a refreshingly different vision of what God intends for them, and it may help them set their sights much higher than the lowest common denominator, cultural standards of love and sexuality.

Do you ever get the feeling that someone has been talking about you?  I’m sure that all of us have experienced that unsettling sense that you have been the topic of someone else’s conversation, and an unflattering one at that.  Maybe it’s the way he seemed to avoid eye contact with you when you passed him in the hallway, or the way she appeared to change directions in order to keep from crossing paths with you.  Perhaps someone has shared a totally out-of-left-field comment with you on a personal subject matter that you know you have never discussed with them, and you immediately begin to conclude that someone else has.  It’s not a very comfort-inducing or confidence-enhancing feeling!

Well, you should know that it’s true.  Someone has indeed been talking about you…. today.  I’m absolutely sure of it.  You were mentioned by name, and more than once.  It’s been going on for quite some time now.  But, please don’t let this disturb you or cause you any emotional distress.

Jesus has been talking about you.  As your heavenly advocate and high priest, He has been confessing your name before the Father as one of His disciples who walks in His Light and is covered by the sin-cleansing, guilt-removing, hope-restoring power of His atoning sacrifice (Matt. 10:32; I John 1:7 – 2:2).  Jesus has been explaining your situation: the hardships and temptations that you face, the height of your joy, the depth of your despair, the fear, the frustration, the anger, the disappointment, the laughter, the tears… all of it.

Jesus has described this to the Father with precision and complete accuracy because He truly does know exactly how you feel.  Since Jesus shared our nature (John 1:14; Heb. 2:14,17), He can come to our sympathetic aid.  He precedes us in drawing near to the throne of God so that we may confidently follow Him there to receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need (Heb. 4:14-16).  Since the living Jesus is our “forever priest,” He never ceases to speak to the Father on our behalf (Heb. 7:23-25). While it’s true that Jesus cannot personally identify with the guilt and shame that come as a result of our sin, there is no need to worry.  He does something far better than relate to it; He provides the remedy for it.

Oh, it gets “worse”; others have been talking to God about you as well (Eph. 6:18; James 5:16).  The Holy Spirit even joined in with them in bringing your name before the Father (Rom. 8:26).

Sometimes it’s really nice to be talked about!

Advent and Christmas have focused millions of hearts and minds around the world on the story of Jesus’ birth as it is recorded in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.  Gabriel, Zechariah, Elizabeth, Mary, the Magnificat, the birth of John, Nazareth, the census, Bethlehem, the birth of Jesus, Immanuel, shepherds, jubilant angelic messengers, Jerusalem, the Temple, Simeon, Anna, a star, magi, Herod, the slaughter of the innocents, the flight to Egypt, the return to Nazareth; all of these people and places are woven into the tapestry of a timeless story that rests at the very foundation of our faith and at the heart of who we believe Jesus Christ to be.

Intentionally omitted (just to see if you would notice!) from the foregoing list of individuals who are integral to the narrative of the Savior’s birth is someone who is present at nearly every turn in the story… Joseph of Nazareth.

It is somewhat surprising to discover just how little is revealed about Joseph in the Gospels.  He is not mentioned at all in Mark, and is only mentioned in passing in the Fourth Gospel, where twice John records that people referred to Jesus as “the son of Joseph.”  Matthew and Luke, then, serve as our sole sources of information, limited though it is.  For example, what is accepted as common knowledge about Joseph’s occupation as a carpenter rests on a lone reference in Matthew 13:55.  Still, the things which are revealed about him offer powerful insights into Joseph’s faith and character and the vital role that he played in the unfolding drama of God ushering in salvation through Jesus Christ.

Carpentry would have demanded significant physical strength.  The birth narratives similarly bear witness to Joseph’s great strength of faith and character.

But, why refer to Joseph as the “silent type?”  Because nothing from his lips is recorded in the Biblical text; nothing; not a word!  We don’t have a single, solitary quotation of anything Joseph said to Mary, the angelic messengers in his dreams, the shepherds, Simeon, Anna, or the magi.  What we do have, however, is a vivid portrait of love, faith, and commitment in action.

At whatever point Joseph learned of Mary’s pregnancy, he simply could not accept her explanation of how there came to be an unborn child in her womb.  What man would have believed her?  In addition to her presumed guilt of sexual sin and her unfaithfulness to her betrothed, she was now compounding her iniquity with lies of the most outrageous and imaginative sort.

If Joseph were like every other man, then he was hurt, he was devastated, and he was angry.  He felt completely betrayed by Mary.  This had to be a deal breaker; he could not and would not marry her.  Still, he loved her.  Oh, how he loved her!  He couldn’t bear the thought of other people looking at her the way he now did.  He couldn’t expose Mary’s pregnancy in such a way that would make her the object of scandal, accusation, condemnation, derision, and perhaps even punishment.  He would annul their betrothal and send Mary away underneath the radar of public scrutiny and scorn.

An angel appeared to Joseph in a dream, verified Mary’s account of her pregnancy, and instructed him to name the child Jesus when this son, Immanuel, was born (Matt 1:18-25).

“And Joseph awoke from his sleep and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him…” That’s Joseph’s M.O.  Three more times (Matt. 2:13-14, 19-21, 22-23) God will communicate to Joseph via dreams and angels.  Three more times Joseph will do precisely as the Lord directed him.   He believes in the God of His fathers, He trusts the voice of the Lord, and submits his own wishes to the Divine will.

Joseph is just an all around stand-up guy: a hard worker, a generous provider, faithful, committed, protective, compassionate, etc.  As a subject of Rome, it is Joseph’s compliance with the requirements of the census that takes him and a very expectant Mary on what must have been an arduous journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem.  In keeping with the covenant of his fathers, He has Jesus circumcised on the eighth day (Luke 2:21), and gives him the name Jesus, just as Gabriel had instructed Mary and as he himself had been celestially directed in his dream.  Also in keeping with the requirements of the Law of God, Joseph offered sacrifices at the Temple in the Jerusalem when Mary’s postpartum purification had been completed (Luke 2:22-38).

After protecting his family in Egypt and ultimately returning to Nazareth, Joseph led his family (which including four sons and at least two daughters subsequently born to him and Mary) in devotion to God.  He taught his trade of carpentry to Jesus (Mark 6:3).  Joseph ensured that the entire family made an annual pilgrimage from Galilee to Jerusalem for Passover (Luke 2:41).  As an adult, Jesus’ custom of being in the synagogue every Sabbath (Luke 4:16) surely could be traced back to the way he and the rest of his earthly family had been led in habits of faith by Nazareth’s resident carpenter.

What did Joseph say to Mary when he learned of her pregnancy?  How did he humbly and profusely apologize to her after the truth of Mary’s story was confirmed by the angel?  What words and instruction did he routinely impart while raising Someone Else’s son in such a way that he grew in strength, stature, wisdom, the grace of God, and both divine and human favor?  Perhaps one day we will know.

Though somewhat overlooked because he is not granted a speaking part in the inspired Christmas pageant, Joseph most certainly occupies a prominent place in the cloud of witnesses who have preceded us in faith, known not for what he said, but for what he so consistently and faithfully did.

Joseph provides an example of faith that I desire to follow.  If God communicated with me through an angel in a dream and told me what He desired for me to do, I would like to believe that I, like Joseph, would immediately respond as directed.  What if God just wrote it down for me?

resolved 2

As this new year begins, let us all commit ourselves to:

Walk with God more devotedly

Love Him more dearly

Trust Him more deeply

Receive His grace more freely

Praise Him more adoringly

Talk with Him more intimately

Feed on His Word more regularly

Obey Him more consistently

Follow Jesus more closely

Listen to Him more carefully

Accept His promises more trustingly

Share our faith in Him more courageously

Sense the Spirit’s presence and power more keenly

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As a result, may we:

Treat one another more kindly

Speak to one another more graciously

Listen to one another more attentively

Respond to one another more compassionately

Serve one another more humbly

Bear with one another more patiently

Forgive one another more readily

Defend one another more valiantly

Give to one another more willingly   

Trust one another more implicitly

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Lord, let it begin with me!

“There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends,” (John 15:13).

Our familiarity with this verse may mask the rather surprising choice of words employed by Jesus to capture and express the essence of sacrificial love for others.

One’s friends?  What about a husband laying down his life, giving himself up, for his wife?  Granted, Paul will declare that such a commitment to one’s spouse reflects Christ’s ultimate love for His bride, the church, but Jesus doesn’t use the husband and wife picture here.  What about a parent, a father or mother, risking his or her life or taking a fatal blow so that their child may be spared?  Again, while this is an undeniably definitive expression of agape love, Jesus passes over it in favor of one’s friends.

Why did Jesus choose to focus on friendship?   Is it because not all people are married or will marry?  Is it because not everyone has or will have children?  Is it because every single one of us needs to value and treasure the blessings of friendship?  Jesus wasn’t married, and He didn’t have children.  But, He had friends: a wide circle, an inner circle, tax collector and sinner friends, beloved friends like Martha, Mary, and Lazarus (John 11:5, 11), and, for a time, a best friend named John (John 3:28-30).

The cover of the September issue of Christianity Today asks the question, “Why Can’t Men Be Friends?”  This question is explored by two feature articles, “’Til Death Do Us Part” by Wesley Hill and “I Didn’t Marry My Best Friend” by Kate Shellnut.  Both authors shed significant light and offer unique perspectives on the subject of the deep need for friendship among Christians, even, and perhaps especially, among believers who are married.

Kate Shellnut tackles the ubiquitous matrimonial mantra, “I married my best friend,” a phrase “now so standard in romantic rhetoric that we forget it’s not part of the traditional [wedding] ceremony.”

Here are a few notable nuggets from Shellnut’s pushback against this common expression of conventional wisdom and popular sentimentality.

Marrying your best friend is enough of a cultural expectation that if I admit I didn’t, people might pity me.  But here’s the secret: I’m actually the lucky one.  I have a husband who isn’t my best friend.  And I have a best friend whom I’m not married to.  They play different roles in my life and I need them both.

The phrase implies that, since married people have each other, they don’t have best friends anymore and don’t need them.  And it exaggerates the risks young couples already face: setting up unhealthy expectations, looking to each other as the sole source of fulfillment.  It also relegates best friends to the realm of singleness.

Even if couples don’t announce that they’re marrying their best friend, many newlyweds live out this philosophy, dropping out of the friend-making game once they have a ring on their finger.  Sociologists find that these days, we typically form our most meaningful friendships prior to age 28.  Not coincidentally, that’s also the average age we get married.

I didn’t marry my best friend.  Instead, I married my husband, with all of my best friends beside me to celebrate.  It was the happiest day of my life.  I got – and still get – to have both.

Wesley Hill opens his case for Christian friendship by appealing to a statement from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, expressed in a letter from prison to a treasured friend.  Bonhoeffer wrote that, unlike marriage and kinship, friendship “has no generally recognized rights, and therefore depends entirely on its own inherent quality.”  Hill describes how intimate friendships, so important in our youth, decline as people, particularly men, grow older.  “Afraid of being perceived as gay or feminine,” men often withdraw from close friendships with other men, and “afraid of crossing boundaries of propriety,” many never develop meaningful friendships with those of the opposite sex.

Hill identifies himself as a gay, single, celibate Christian, who is committed to the traditional Biblical understanding that marriage is a union between a man and a woman.  He writes, “When I contemplate a lifetime of celibacy, I know I want committed friends who will walk beside me on the journey.”  How much easier would that journey be for Hill with the love, support, and encouragement of numerous devoted Christian friends, both men and women, married and single?

My heart was touched as Hill wrote:

I need people who know what time my plane lands, who will worry about me when I don’t show up when I say I will.  I need people I can call and tell about that funny thing that happened in the hallway after class.  I need to know that, come hell or high water, a few people will stay with me, loving me in spite of my faults and caring for me when I’m down.  More, I need people for whom I can care.  As a friend of mine put it, you want someone for whom you can make soup when she’s sick, not just someone who will make soup for you when you’re sick.”

I have been blessed throughout my life with incredible friends, both male and female.  I have great memories of grade school friends in Louisville and Richmond, Kentucky, with a missionary stint in Monrovia, Liberia, sandwiched in between the two.  I had wonderful high school friends in Lewisburg, Tennessee, and Montgomery, Alabama.  Thanks largely to Facebook, I am still in contact with several college friends, both from Faulkner University (formerly Alabama Christian College) and Lipscomb University, including my roommate from Lipscomb with whom I have been blessed to visit annually for the last few years.

In the 26 years since my marriage to Kim, our lives have been greatly enriched by our relationships with friends (some hers, some mine, and some ours) in Tennessee, Hawaii, Alabama, Texas, and now Oklahoma.  I am grateful that our commitment to our marriage has not required that we close off our hearts and lives to others through meaningful and needful friendships.

During our nine years with the McDermott Road church in Plano, Texas, my heart became closely knit together with several brothers in Christ.  These relationships were forged in the context and crucible of a rapidly growing church plant, with all the attendant excitement, sense of mission, constant adjustments, and periodic challenges along the way.  Our time together was both extensive and intensive, resulting in close, intimate friendship.

I have been similarly blessed with friendships over the last five years of my life, especially in developing relationships with some men who are several years younger than myself.  It took me a while to accept that, now in my early 50s, I can be an encouraging older brother/mentor/friend/confidant to those whose lives are at points a decade or two or three behind my own.

Among my friends, there is none closer or dearer to me than Jeff Watson.  If I’ve ever had “a friend who sticks closer than a brother” (Proverbs 18:24), it is Jeff.  In 2009, although he had only known me for three months, he took a day off from work to help me move into our new home in Tulsa.  When Mom passed away in 2010, Jeff drove Kim and the kids from Tulsa to Alabama, stayed for the funeral, and then drove my car back to Oklahoma for me.  He has taken care of my lawn and garden on numerous occasions when I’ve been out of town.  He has ridden shotgun with me on distant speaking engagements, just to provide company and encouragement.

Jeff and I took a quick “man trip” to Tennessee a few weeks ago, visiting a few family members and friends, attending the Diana Singing (a subject matter worthy of its own post sometime in the future), and taking in several sites on a “Pyles family history and nostalgia tour.”  As I droned on and on about relatives, ancestors, farms, memories, cemeteries, and other places of significance to me, Jeff not only listened carefully and patiently, he asked follow-up questions just to make sure he had the facts and stories straight.  Who does that?  Who cares enough to even want to remember such things?  A true friend!

Friends like Jeff and Deanna Watson are not just like family to us; they are family.  They have blessed our lives in immeasurable and incomparable ways, not because of the duty of blood, but because of the choice of friendship and the gift of love.

Among the places Jeff and I visited was Ebenezer Hollow in the extreme southern portion of Marshall County.  Non-existent as a community for decades now, Ebenezer was the place to which my Pyles family forbears migrated from North Carolina nearly 200 years ago in the early 1820s.  Ebenezer is a special place to me; rugged and remote; wooded hills; a peaceful place of connection for me to people I never knew, but whose blood runs through my veins.

Ebenezer means “stone of help” (I Samuel 7:12).  Samuel, the priest of Israel, set up a memorial stone, commemorating the Lord’s faithfulness and deliverance, and named the stone Ebenezer, saying, “Thus far the Lord has helped us.”

Today I raise a memorial stone to friendship.  Like Samuel, I call it Ebenezer, “stone of help.”

To my friends, old and new, far and near:  I would not be where I am or who I am without your help, your encouragement, your love, your compassion, your kindness, and your forgiveness!  Thank you!

Make sure your friends know how you feel about them!  Celebrate them!  Praise them!  Encourage them!  Support them!  Journey with them!  Be there for them!  Laugh and cry with them!  Tell them that you love them!

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