Thursday, May 31, 2007

Citizen Observer

Recently I was invited by a Houston police officer to ride with him as a citizen observer on his 3 – 11 p.m. shift. His patrol zone is in the area bordered by Beltway 8, Little York, I-610 and I-10. Here’s what I saw:

Twenty minutes into our shift the officer pulled over a car with no front plates and a cracked windshield (this often signifies a stolen car). The driver had no driver’s license, insurance, or registration. She had an identification card issued by the Mexican consulate and was clearly an illegal immigrant. The tow truck arrived within minutes (they listen to the police radio) and the tow truck driver translated.

Here were the choices the officer faced: 1) Let her go with a warning to get a driver’s license and insurance and register her car, which she can’t do without legal documentation, so this would be a charade; 2) write her a citation but release her, and tow the car. 3) Arrest her and tow the car. He chose the middle option, neither fully lenient nor fully punitive. He told me she would probably pay to get the car out of storage and continue to take her chances. If he had arrested her, the amount of time expended to take her to the station, process the arrest, and then show up in court the next day would have been excessive. It was a decision based on the wisest use of his resources (time patrolling in his zone) and a dollop of mercy.

As she walked away from the scene, talking on her cell phone, I couldn’t help but wonder: was she a mother with children to feed, needing the car to get to a daily job? How much ripple in Houston’s social-labor pool did this little encounter create? I asked the officer, “Could you basically spend your whole evening making these kind of stops (illegal immigrants driving illegally)?” “Oh yes,” he said. “I could do this all night.” Immigration will be a big issue in the 2008 presidential elections. It’s a huge mess, with no easy answers. Compassion vies for primacy with the rule of law. I appreciated seeing it from a police officer’s perspective and experiencing his frustration with the futility of the situation at street level.

But we had other work to do… like responding to idiotic calls from citizens. Folks, 9-1-1 is for “life-threatening emergencies.” Not to report children riding their bikes in traffic, or teenagers swimming in an apartment complex pool without living there, or a man denting a neighbor’s front fender with his rear trailer hitch in their apartment parking lot, all of which we “investigated.” Officers have to respond to ALL these calls. The officer made an interesting observation: He said these days peoples’ first reflex is to call the police to resolve petty disputes that people used to resolve themselves. Hmmm.

My officer really wanted me to experience some more “action,” but it was a pretty routine evening, which was fine with me. I read the newspaper daily. I know how broken and desperate the world is. Seeing it from the inside of a police car simply brought it home more clearly, and helped me appreciate the work of law enforcement officers all the more.

Monday, May 21, 2007

The Father Behind the Cross

Rudyard Kipling, the great British author who became famous for “The Jungle Book” and “Just So Stories,” adored his children. When his son, John, was twelve, Kipling penned some thoughts for him to live by. The result was a poem called “If,” which would inspire millions. It ends:

“If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue, Or walk with Kings--nor lose the common touch, If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you, If all men count with you, but none too much; If you can fill the unforgiving minute, With sixty seconds worth of distance run, Your is the Earth and everything that's in it, And--what is more--you'll be a Man, my son!”

John Kipling did grow up to be a man. In 1915, with war raging in Europe, he was eager to serve. But he was only 17 and required parental consent. Rudyard Kipling faced a difficult choice. He'd visited the front; he'd written about the fighting; he didn't want his son to have to go into that carnage. And yet everything he'd taught the boy about duty and never shirking responsibility was moving John in that direction. So Kipling gave his consent. On August 15, John waved good-by from the railing of a ship, with a tip of his officer's cap. His mother thought he looked "very smart and straight and brave." It was the last time his family would ever see him. Six weeks later a telegram from the War Office reported--John Kipling, Missing in Action. He was never found. Rudyard Kipling was heartbroken. Later, he would try to deal with his grief by working with the Imperial War Graves Commission. He proposed that a Stone of Sacrifice be erected at each cemetery honoring the war dead. It would represent soldiers whose bodies were never identified, and would be inscribed with these words: "Known But Unto God." The memorial was a father's anguished hope that God did know about that lost son, that God did understand.

During the dark days of the war, Kipling began to wonder if the death of his son had any meaning. Had it made any difference? The fighting dragged on and on. One day he received a rumpled, brown-paper package in the mail, with a red box inside containing the translation of his novel “Kim.” The book had been pierced by a bullet hole--that stopped at the last 20 pages. A string had been tied through the hole, and dangling from it was the Maltese cross, France's medal for bravery in war. It belonged to a young French soldier named Maurice. He explained in a letter that Kipling's book had saved his life. Had it not been in his pocket when he went into battle, the bullet would have pierced his heart. Maurice asked Kipling to accept the book and the medal as tokens of his gratitude.

Rudyard Kipling had received many honors as a celebrated British author. He'd even won a Nobel Prize for literature. But no honor moved him as much as this one. God had made him a part of sparing someone's life. Maybe there was a meaning to it all. Maybe there was a point to all the sacrifice.

Kipling and Maurice kept up a correspondence over the years and developed a friendship that helped Kipling deal with the loss of his own son. One day Maurice wrote that his wife had given birth to a boy. Would Kipling consent to be the godfather? Kipling realized that no memorial would do more justice to his brave son's memory than this tiny infant, full of promise. He delightedly accepted. Maurice named his son Jean, French for John. And Kipling presented the infant with a gift, the book with the bullet hole in it and the Maltese cross.

Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed on us, that we should be called children of God (I John 3:1).

[My thanks to Steven Mosley, who sent me this essay, which I have re-worded in some parts and abridged to fit this space. – Matt Soper]

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Veterans and Youngsters

This is a story based on golf but ultimately about life, so if you (inexplicably) are not a golf fan, you should refrain from rolling your eyes and muttering under your breath about preachers and golf. Last Sunday at the Tournament Players Championship, two players vied neck and neck for the win on the final day, in the final pairing. One is thirty-six, has over thirty wins, and is considered the second best player in the world. The other is twenty-four, has one tour win, and is considered a future top ten player.

They entered the second-to-last hole with the veteran, Phil Mickelson, two strokes ahead of the youngster, Sean O’Hair. A two-stroke lead with two holes to play is not easily surmountable (or lost), so O’Hair aggressively “went for the pin” on the water-surrounded 17th and put his shot in the water. After taking a stroke penalty, he went for it again and put the second one in the water. By the time he finished the hole, he had made a quadruple bogey and dropped from 2nd to 11th place, which cost him over $600,000 in prize money. It was mesmerizing, like watching a teenager parallel park or Joe Biden give a speech.

O’Hair handled himself with class and dignity afterwards, Mickelson was gracious in affirming his aggressive will to win (instead of settling for 2nd place), and many commentators have lauded O’Hair’s courage. Be that as it may, I saw this played out as a generational tale.

Consider the veteran commentator in his late fifties, Johnny Miller, who kept exclaiming on the air before the shot that O’Hair was using too much club and might go into the water. Consider the cool veteran, Mickelson, who used to be called “Phil-a-thrill” because he took so many reckless chances on the course, occasionally costing him a victory. What would they have said to the fiery youngster as he teed up the ball?

It occurred to me how often this scene plays itself out in one form or another, the youngster with the fire and ambition but the lack of experience and judgment, and the cool veteran who could offer so much wisdom from his experience if he were ever asked.

And don’t think this is about age. Each of us is a youngster in some ways and a veteran in others. I know of a man who is 93 years old and mentors people in their 70’s. You’re never too old to learn. And you’re never too young to mentor.

So here’s a suggestion: Find people in your life whose wisdom and experience you can learn from, and actively solicit it. And find people in your life who are walking a few steps behind you on the journey, and actively befriend and help them. What a beautiful symmetry that creates in our own life and in the lives of others.

I think particularly of the church, and of the men in the church, who could learn from and bless one another so much. “Veteran, behold your youngster. Youngster, behold your veteran.” The hardest overture is to offer your wisdom, not to ask for it. So youngsters, let’s ASK older men for their wisdom. Likewise, it’s hardest to ask for friendship, easiest to offer it. So veterans, let’s OFFER our friendship to younger men. That way, everybody wins and no one ends up in the water.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Encounter Through Scripture

I have been teaching a chapel class this quarter on the history of Churches of Christ, using the excellent book by Gary Holloway and Doug Foster, “Renewing God’s People: A Concise History of Churches of Christ.” Many people in the class have expressed appreciation for learning more about our heritage, and I too have been blessed to learn more as I teach.

In chapter 10, “1906-1941: A Distinctive Church Takes Shape,” the authors note that a three-part hermeneutic (method of biblical interpretation) arose in the late 19th century and came to dominate Churches of Christ in the 20th century. This hermeneutic held that Biblical authorization came only through “direct command, approved example, or necessary inference;” anything else was prohibited. Concurrent with the rise of this hermeneutic, and at least partly due to it, was a certain contentiousness of spirit. “We were a debating people. Our ministers debated Baptists over the order of Baptism and salvation, Christian Churches over instrumental music, premillennialists over the millennium, and numerous other groups over a variety of issues. As a result, much of our theology in Churches of Christ was formed in controversy” (p. 112).

I am going to speak generally here and perhaps a bit simplistically, but I believe my observation has the ring of truth. Because of this hermeneutic, we tended to read the Scriptures in order to take positions, find authorization, or establish practices. And of course to increase our “Bible knowledge.” But even the latter was seen as an end in itself, not as a means to something else, namely to know God through Jesus Christ in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit and be in deeper relationship with him.

As a result, in the last fifteen years or so many in our fellowship have pursued a spirituality focusing more on prayer, service, and community and less on reading the Bible. There is tremendous interest in the spiritual disciplines and various expressions of discipleship. This is great! But when I read a survey disclosing that 87% of evangelical Christians don’t read their Bible other than in church on Sunday, I am inclined to believe that reflects people in the Churches of Christ too. We seem to have been in a “between time” in which we stopped reading the Scriptures simply to acquire Bible knowledge or take positions but did not find a more pleasing reason to read the Scriptures.

I would suggest that the Scriptures are beckoning to us to meet God there. Not only there, but certainly there. Not to establish our doctrinal positions (though the Scriptures do that), and not to become walking encyclopedias of Bible knowledge, but to know the heart of God. To know the story of God and his people. To be swept up and integrated into a life that is often very different from and calls into question the life around us.

I have begun working through a workbook called “Becoming Disciples Through Bible Study,” and one of its statements intrigues me: “The Scriptures have power to bring about an encounter between God and the one who reads Scripture.” That is an encounter I am eager to have. Continually.