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


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


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!

How does a sparsely populated island nation with no standing army have access to 8 million soldiers and the world’s largest military?

Two weeks ago, on September 3, President Obama delivered a speech in Tallinn, Estonia, just ahead of an extremely important NATO Summit in Cardiff, Wales.  It was a very timely message, especially for NATO Allies who share a border with Russia.

In this age of fleeting sound bites, flashes of video images, and ever-decreasing attention spans, I don’t hold out much hope that many readers will bother to click on this link (Obama’s Speech in Tallinn) and read the President’s address in its entirety.  That’s a shame, because the speech traces the inspiring story of freedom, after years of foreign oppression, in Estonia and the other Baltic states, addresses and condemns Russia’s aggressive meddling and subterfuge in the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine, and reaffirms NATO’s commitment to defend its member states.

Notice, in particular, the following brief excerpts:

As free peoples, as an Alliance, we will stand firm and united to meet the test of this moment, and here’s how. 

First, we will defend our NATO Allies, and that means every Ally.  In this Alliance, there are no old members or new members, no junior partners or senior partners — there are just Allies, pure and simple.  And we will defend the territorial integrity of every single Ally. 

During the long Soviet occupation, the great Estonian poet, Marie Under, wrote a poem in which she cried to the world: “Who’ll come to help?  Right here, at present, now!”  And I say to the people of Estonia and the people of the Baltics, today we are bound by our treaty Alliance.  We have a solemn duty to each other.  Article 5 is crystal clear: An attack on one is an attack on all. 

This renewed pledge of defense for all NATO member states piqued my curiosity about the military strength of the various nations which comprise the Alliance.

It was no surprise to me that the United States overwhelmingly contributes the largest percentage of NATO’s military resources with approximately 1.5 million active military personnel and another 1.5 million reservists.  I didn’t expect, however, that Turkey would be second among NATO member states with just over 600,000 active military.  France is third on the list with 220,000.  In total, NATO has a combined active and reserve military of nearly 8 million.

Now, about Iceland…

Iceland is one of NATO’s 12 founding member states.  Yet, just as was the case when it joined the Alliance in 1949, Iceland has no standing army.  You will notice on a listing of NATO military strength that Iceland has 210 active military personnel and 170 reservists.  However, nearly all of them serve in the nation’s Coast Guard which operates three ships and four aircraft.

How can Icelanders sleep so peacefully at night with nary a worry about invasion or occupation by a foreign power?  They’ve got a treaty!  They are in a covenant.  They are part of an Alliance!  If the need arose, Iceland could call upon the resources of 8 million military personnel to protect its population of 325,000.  That’s 25 soldiers per citizen.  I think I would sleep well and feel adequately protected too!

I am Iceland.  I’m an island surrounded by oceans of uncertainty, self-doubt, discouragement, temptation, spiritual push back, regrets, and failures, both past and present.  To say that I feel insecure and inadequate at times is the mother of all understatements.  Storms constantly lash at the shoreline.  There is always the potential threat of invasion by sickness, financial hardship, broken relationships, grief, and loss.

So, how does a person like me sleep at night?  I’ve got a treaty.  I’m in a covenant.  I’m part of an Alliance.

God is faithful.  He keeps covenant.  He has never broken a promise.

“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.  Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change and though the mountains slip into the heart of the sea.  The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold.”  (Psalm 46:1-2, 11)

“He Himself has said, ‘I will never desert you, nor will I ever forsake you,’ so that we may confidently say, ‘The Lord is my helper, I will not be afraid.  What will man do to me?'”  (Hebrews 13:5-6)

“Then Elisha prayed and said, ‘O Lord, I pray, open his eyes that he may see.’  And the Lord opened the servant’s eyes and he saw; and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.”  (II Kings 6:17)

“Greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world.”  (I John 4:4)

“Not that we are adequate in ourselves to think of anything as coming from ourselves, but our adequacy is from God.”  (II Corinthians 3:5)

“And He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.’  Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me  Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong.”  (II Corinthians 12:9-10)

“And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it.”  (I Corinthians 12:27)

Yes, indeed!  It’s good to be Iceland!

Navarre Beach 2014, exactly two years after our extension on life.

Two years ago, my son and I had a brush with death that significantly changed my perspective on the past, the present, and the future.

It was Thursday, August 16, 2012.  My family and I were vacationing in Navarre Beach, Florida, a favorite destination and an annual end-of-summer “family tradition” that we have been blessed to enjoy for several years.  The previous night, after everyone else had gone to bed, I sat up late and worked on the draft of a blog post.  Three months earlier in mid-May, our special needs son, Coleman, and I took our first ever “Man Trip.”  It was just the two of us on a father/son excursion to St. Louis.  It was an incredible journey for us, but I had never gotten around to sharing the experience on my blog.  I finished the rough draft that night, went to bed for several hours of deep, beach-fatigue sleep, and arose early Thursday morning to proofread, edit, and post it on my blog (see “Man Trip”).  I ended the post with these words:

“Thanks, Coleman!  I couldn’t be prouder of you or more grateful to have shared this “man trip.”  I hope and pray that there will be many more to come.”  

Those almost became the last words I ever wrote.  

After posting the new blog entry, I took a load of chairs and umbrellas down to the beach, then returned to the condo for another cup of morning coffee.  Coleman and my wife, Kim, were now awake.  Our daughter, Hannah, decided to sleep in that morning.  As always, I was anxious to get down to the water.  As I was slathering myself and Coleman with sunscreen, Kim stated that she needed to go to Walmart to pick up a few things.  I remember that we argued.  About what, I cannot recall.  I’m sure it was something trivial and ultimately inconsequential, the very kind of thing about which husbands and wives often find themselves arguing.  But, I do remember that we were both angry when we parted company.

Coleman and I went to down to the water, walking quite a distance down the beach to where I had set up our camp for the day.  The sky was very overcast and gray, the surf was quite rough, and hardly anyone had ventured out onto the beach because of the threatening looking weather.  As we sat there in the chairs, a new beach friend, John from Houston, stopped by to chat for a minute.  He had his fishing gear with him and said that he was heading out to the sandbar which lay about 100 yards offshore, beyond the channel that normally was only about chest-deep.  Even though the water rather choppy, I figured that we could follow John and turn back if it proved unsafe for Coleman.

Coleman doesn’t know how to swim.  However, Coleman doesn’t know that he doesn’t know how to swim, and he has absolutely no fear of the water.  Countless times before, we had simply carried Coleman through the deepest part of the channel, suspending him under his arms, until we reached the waist-deep waters on the sandbar.   As we followed John that morning, the waves began washing over my shoulders.  I found myself questioning the wisdom of carrying Coleman through such deep, rough water, and experienced a couple of anxious moments before we safely reached the shallower depths of the sandbar.

We stayed out on the sandbar for about 30 minutes.  I talked with John as he repeatedly cast his line out into the Gulf, keeping an ever-watchful eye on Coleman as he played in the shallow water, jumping and flapping his arms each time a wave rolled in.  There is always another wave!   John talked about how Coleman exuded such joy, what a special young man he was, and how he loved to see our family playing together on the beach.  I told him about our trip to St. Louis and the blog entry that I had posted earlier that morning.

I prolonged our time on the sandbar in hopes that the tide would go out a bit.  I expressed my concerns about the water depth to John, and he suggested that we wade along the sandbar about 50 yards where he thought the channel might be shallower.  I took his advice and headed back in toward the shore with Coleman.

Much sooner than expected, we were back in water that was up to my shoulders.  I had a firm grip on Coleman underneath his armpits, but I was having to push off from the bottom to keep our heads above the passing waves.  A big wave pushed us forward, and suddenly we were in water significantly over my head.

We had never been in this situation before.  I was struggling hard to keep Coleman above the water, catching a breath whenever I could.  It is amazing how quickly I fatigued trying to keep him afloat.  Within a very short period of time, I was physically spent and simply couldn’t struggle any longer.  I slowly exhaled, waiting for another opportunity to catch a breath, but it didn’t come.  After fighting it as long as I could, I instinctively inhaled, aspirating nothing but sea water.

At that moment, I realized I was drowning.  I didn’t feel panicked.  Coleman was still in my grip.  I just felt suspended underneath the surface of the water.  It was completely silent.  Small breaks in the clouds were allowing a few bright shafts of sunlight to pierce through the water.  I felt surprisingly peaceful as I processed and accepted the thought, “So, this is how I’m going to die.”

The thought of death didn’t frighten me.  I knew that Jesus had saved me and that He had a place prepared for me in the presence of God.  Coleman had always had a reserved spot at the heavenly banquet table.  It was okay!

But, then, I started to think about what this would mean for my family:  the horror of the discovery of our death, the shock, the emotional trauma.

It’s incredible how time seemed to completely come to standstill.  I ran through entire scenarios in my mind.  My death would mean that Kim would be left to care for Coleman by herself.  But, no, he was going with me.  So, it would be better this way, right?  I wasn’t sure, and, just that quickly, I didn’t feel as much at peace.  I wondered if Hannah had awakened and was witnessing this from the 7th floor balcony or from the beach.  That was particularly gut-wrenching.  Was Kim with her?  I had taken off my wedding band and another ring Kim had given me and had left them on the kitchen counter in the condo to avoid the risk of losing them on the beach.  Would she think it was because we had argued?

Even with as much confidence as I had that Coleman and I were going on to be with the Lord, I began to think of the mess of difficulties and the tangle of loose ends that I would leave behind.  Would Kim have to sell the house?  Would she have to move?  Would Hannah be emotionally able to begin her nursing clinicals in just a couple of weeks?  I thought about my extended family members.  I thought about dear friends that I wouldn’t see again, at least not on this shoreline of eternity.  I thought about my church family.  Never free from analytical thoughts about my ministry responsibilities, I honestly remember thinking that I wouldn’t be emailing in my bulletin article the next morning.

Then, out of nowhere, my feet were touching the sand.  The water was still above my head, but my feet were on the bottom.  I was still hanging on to Coleman.  I have no idea where the burst of energy came from (adrenaline?  angels?  angels administering adrenaline?), but I immediately started driving with my legs and my feet as hard as I could, like hitting a blocking sled in football practice.  I just kept pushing.  A wave washed over, and my head emerged above the surface.  I began coughing up water and gasping for air.  I stood there in chin-deep water for what seemed like 10 minutes or more before I could begin to breathe with some semblance of normalcy and stop coughing constantly.  I slowly began trudging toward the beach, with a vice grip underneath Coleman’s armpits.

It was a few minutes before I could fully assess Coleman’s condition.  He had remained still and completely calm through the entire ordeal.  Had he panicked or begun to struggle, neither of us would have made it, because I would not have let go of him!  He was coughing, but fine.  My baseball cap was long since gone.  Coleman’s was remarkably still on, and the very top of the crown was dry; miraculously dry.  Somehow, his head never completely submerged.  We slogged our way back onto the beach and collapsed in the chairs.  John never saw what happened.  He had just kept fishing, his back turned to us, assuming that we were fine.

Hannah came down to our beach camp about 30 minutes later.  I was seriously shaken and had to tell someone what had happened.  I made her promise not to tell Kim, knowing that it would result in an immediate forced removal from the beach and a lifetime ban from ever taking Coleman within two states of open water.  We would be banished from Florida forever!

I was in daze for much of the rest of the day.  Kim asked me several times as she caught me staring blankly into the distance, “What is wrong with you?”  I could barely sleep for the next couple of nights.  Every time I closed my eyes, Coleman and I were back in the water.  I cried.  Not that I feared death.  I just cried.

As one’s children are prone to do, especially adult ones, Hannah eventually told Kim what had happened a few months later.  Sometime after that, Kim told me that she knew.

The rest of the trip was uneventful.  I promised myself (and Hannah and Kim later) that I would never take another chance or risk with Coleman in the water.  No trips to the sandbar with him if the water was more than chest deep on the rest of us.  Yes, we’ve been back out on the sandbar with him since then, but only when the conditions have been safe.

The only lingering ill effect was that I quickly developed an asthma-like wheeze and cough, which worsened each night after lying in bed for a few hours.  It continued to grow worse after we returned home.  It became more difficult to sleep and harder for my breathing to clear in the mornings.  Online reading about the aftermath of near-drowning incidents caused me to take it seriously enough to visit my doctor.  A chest x-ray confirmed that I had pneumonia as a result of aspirating so much water.  A round of potent antibiotics cleared it up, with no recurring problems.

Lessons Learned:

Never leave mad.  Whether you’re just leaving for work for the day or going on a business trip, don’t leave the house or part company with your loved ones when in a state of anger.  Don’t risk that being the memory of your last moments together.  Stay long enough to calm your voice, temper your tone, and affirm your love for one another, even if you are still in disagreement.  The same thing goes for your church family.  Don’t leave an assembly angry at someone.  Granted, none of us would ever leave our places of worship if agreement with everyone were a prerequisite for departure, but make sure they know that your love for them trumps whatever your little snit was about.

Regularly tell people how you feel about them.  You never know when your last opportunity will be.  I didn’t expect that to happen on August 16 two years ago.  No one ever does.  I have since gone to great lengths to regularly communicate in as many ways as I can to family members, friends, and other loved ones how much they mean to me.

Don’t be held in bondage by the past.  I experienced some extreme difficulties in 2008 in my physical and emotional health, my family, and my ministry.  Although I have remained grateful for the blessings of the present in the years that have followed, I continued to be burdened and haunted by unanswered questions and unresolved issues.  To a large degree,  I was still looking over my shoulder at the past with regret, confusion, and disappointment, and it hampered my ability to fully live and invest in the present.  God cured me of that on August 16, 2012.  I made some vows to the Lord that day.  These weren’t bargains made with God while Coleman and I were still in the water, but promises to God from the safety of the beach after I knew that our lives had been spared.  By the power and strength of the Lord, I have been able to keep them.

“Forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:13-14)

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February 2023