Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Lord Teach Me to Putt

In golf the old saying is, “You drive for show, you putt for dough.” The drive is the glamour shot. You stand on the tee box with your longest and biggest club and you smash it down the fairway. It is the farthest you hit the golf ball with any club. It is glorious (when it goes well). There is a lot of prestige to hitting it far, particularly among men. “Grip it and rip it,” men say. Most of the time we rip it into the trees, but nevertheless…

The fact is, though, that only fifteen of your seventy to one hundred shots in a golf round are with the driver. The club you use most on a golf course is the putter, the smallest, most delicate and unusual club in your bag. Even the best golfers putt over twenty times per round, and most amateurs putt over thirty times. So it stands to reason that the quickest way to improve your game is to work on your putting.

But watch the activity at any driving range and most golfers will spend far more time on the tee smashing drives and working with their other clubs than on the green practicing their putting. Part of the reason for this is the glamour of the drive, and part is the difficulty of the putt. Putting is frustrating. It is very hard to ever feel like you have mastered it. Putting humbles and frightens you. Professional golfers develop the “yips,” in which their hands tremble and twitch when they try to putt, so scared are they of missing makeable putts. Some players dread walking onto the green and having to putt. Amateurs routinely three-putt and sometimes four-putt on a given hole. It’s ugly. And that’s just my game.

A recent article in the Houston Chronicle (“Taking Dread Out of Putting”, Richard Dean, 11/22/08), tells about Rick Wright, a putting instructor who helps people develop their putting skills, which improves both their joy and their score at playing golf. He uses a laser device and other technical aids. He demonstrates how strong putting begins with proper set-up and alignment and includes putter length and ball position. He teaches drills that help practice mechanics and tempo. “If you can do these drills for two or three weeks, the brain starts giving you this feel and this will become second nature,” Wright confidently declares.

When I think of golf as a metaphor of the Christian life, which I do unapologetically, it seems to me that prayer most closely approximates putting. Prayer is not a glamorous activity. Schedule a prayer night at the church and most of the pews will be empty. Many Christians get the “yips” when they try to pray: they can’t bring themselves to start, or focus, or maintain any consistency. It never becomes second nature. Prayer is so mysterious and sacred and intimate that we would rather practice our other spiritual shots. Most Christians I know, including myself many times, will tell you that if they could change one thing about their spiritual life it would be that they prayed better and more often.

“Lord, teach us to pray,” the disciples implore Jesus (Luke 11:1), and he teaches them the Lord’s Prayer. Just as golfers putt for dough, Christians pray for grow. It is the single most important and catalytic spiritual activity we can do to grow closer to God and open ourselves to His transforming work within us and through us. I’ll write about this more next week. In the meantime, let’s commit to practicing our praying. And maybe I’ll see you on the golf course. I’ll be the one praying over my putts.

Friday, November 21, 2008


I was saddened and a bit disgusted to read this week that, the phenomenally successful online relationship service, settled a lawsuit brought by a gay man who accused the company of discriminating because its vaunted software only measured heterosexual compatibility. eHarmony agreed to set up an additional service, Compatible Partners, that will be visibly associated with eHarmony and will provide compatibility matching for gays and lesbians.

I was saddened by this news because in the game of chicken that is litigation, by settling before trial the company blinked first and now set a precedent which will be used as a wedge by gay activists to pry open new “rights” (though eHarmony did not admit “fault”). I was disgusted because there is a shakedown going on and I do not like bullying.

Earlier this year I wrote three essays on the import of the California Supreme Court decision to strike down a voter-approved ban on same-sex marriages. I expressed my deep misgivings about this decision and suggested that it would have far-reaching negative social implications. I said that gay activists began by asking society for tolerance, then for acceptance, and now are demanding normalization. I expressed this opinion in the context of my empathy and compassion for gay individuals and the predicament in which they find themselves.

The “shakedown” is in the use of civil-rights language to advance this demand for normalization. When people in California, in response to the Supreme Court’s decision, put together Proposition 8 to permanently amend the state’s constitution to define marriage as man-woman, opponents likened Prop 8 to “hate” and vilified its supporters. If you treat gay people with kindness and dignity and support laws allowing civil unions and its associated protections, but support Prop 8, then you are full of hate, just like whites in the Jim Crow era. See how it works?

Interestingly, black people do not seem to buy into this idea that “gay is the new black.” Seventy-three percent voted in favor of Prop 8, which passed 52-48%. Perhaps blacks are offended by the comparison, which they should be, since no gay people are being forced to sit in the backs of buses or eat at separate restaurants.

But in the aftermath of Prop 8’s passing in California, gay activists in California published on the internet an “Anti-Gay Blacklist” of Prop 8 donors and began recriminations. The artistic director of the California Musical Theatre in Sacramento was forced to resign for his $1000 donation to Prop 8. A Los Angeles restaurant whose manager made a small donation was harassed nightly by groups of protesters. Anti-Prop 8 organizers targeted Mormon, Catholic and evangelical churches for demonstrations and name-calling. All in the name of tolerance, of course.

As the noted columnist Thomas Sowell, a black man, observes, “When the majority of the people become like sheep who will tolerate intolerance rather than make a fuss, then there is no limit to how far any group will go.”

I do not want any of this to sound hateful, but I do not mind if it sounds angry. The Christian faith is personal but not private. We are not politically oriented but we must be socially engaged, “wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16). I am not hateful, and I do not like shakedowns.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Two Men

I was contacted separately in the last two weeks by two men whom I baptized in Los Angeles in the 1990’s. Each is doing very well, which was a joy to hear. They are as different as night and day.

Jeff came to the Culver Palms congregation in his mid-40’s with a history of drug and alcohol addiction, estranged from his highly successful father and family, newly sober and barely hanging on. He managed to stick to the worshiping life of the church long enough to be discipled and was eagerly baptized in 1998. He remained sober and stayed connected to the church, working odd jobs and scraping together a living, but left after a few years to move north in search of better work. I was sad to see him go.

Bob came to church in his early 30’s with a lady he was dating who was a member. I was struck by how accomplished, confident and friendly he was. At a Singles group barbecue at my house, when everybody else brought a hamburger patty for the grill, he brought a steak. (Can you believe I still remember that?) But that’s Bob; he has a little Pierce Brosnan in him. He immediately showed a strong hunger for the Christian faith and life and in the Bible studies we had together was very receptive. Within weeks of his baptism I was calling on him to lead prayers or read scripture in the worship assembly. But he was commuting a long way, and when the dating relationship ended he decided to find a church closer to home. I was sad to see him go.

Jeff called me two weeks ago and left a voice mail message out of the blue. He just wanted me to know he was doing great, the best he’d ever felt, and was reflecting on his ten years as a Christ-follower. I was deeply touched. When we finally talked on the phone I found out that he has been working as a self-employed contractor in the central coast area, is still clean and sober, and has grown deeply in his faith. He will always be an independent, non-conformist, free spirited guy not fully at home in a mainstream church. He is happy and hopeful in his life and committed to his walk with Christ.

Bob is one of those guys who radiates confidence and competence. He left his large company a decade ago to launch a new venture with two partners. Recently he left that company to strike out on his own. He has kept me on his email list so I hear about his moves that way; when I respond electronically we share a little family news and wish each other well. He is at the top of his game, running his own firm, happily married, and very involved in his church.

Jeff and Bob are each faithful followers of Jesus. This is one of the great things about being a preacher, seeing all types of people respond to the love of Christ. Bob is part of a megachurch in his upscale area. Jeff worships in a more charismatic church with a strong recovery emphasis. Two very different churches. Two very different men. Same Lord.

“All over the world this gospel is bearing fruit and growing, just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and understood God’s grace in all its truth. (Ephesians 1:6)

It is a beautiful thing.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

My Good Will

It is hard to write about anything this week other than the elections, so I hope you will excuse me for mixing politics-and-religion.

The candidate I supported for president did not win, but I found myself genuinely moved the next morning by the jubilation among black Americans in response to Barack Obama’s victory. This is a legitimate historical milestone in that regard for our country and a welcome one of which I am proud.

I like the way one conservative radio talk-show host put it on Wednesday (I’m paraphrasing): “My candidate did not win but I am not despondent. The American people have voted and I accept it. I love this country and I now have a new president. I will support him when I can and oppose him honorably when I must. But he is my president and he deserves my respect and good will.”

Of course, if your candidate did win and you feel elated, you have my congratulations and my good will as well.

The apostle Paul instructs Christians in I Timothy 2:1-3: “I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone – for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.” Christians count our citizenship to be in heaven (Philippians 3:20), but that does not relieve us of the responsibility and the privilege of serving and striving to help our country thrive. In Jeremiah 29, God tells the Israelites in exile in Babylon to “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city into which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, for if it prospers, you too will prosper” (29:7). We are aliens and exiles away from our heavenly home (I Peter 2:11), AND we seek the peace and prosperity of our country. Patriotism (love for and devotion to one’s country) is a good and godly thing as long as it does not devolve into jingoism (extreme nationalism) or xenophobia (fear or hatred of foreigners).

I was thinking about President Bush and wondering why two-term American presidents of the last 65 years have had such tough second terms: Truman had the frustrating stalemate of the Korean War, Nixon the Watergate debacle, Reagan the Iran/Contra controversy, Clinton the Whitewater/Lewinsky embarrassment, and now Bush the protracted wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the economic implosion in his 11th hour. It is a classic Catch-22: you can make a much more significant historical impact if you serve two terms, but you run the increased risk of a scandal or impasse that overshadows the impact you make.

This is why it takes some historical distance to fairly assess a presidency. Harry Truman left office with a low approval rating, but is now regarded with respect and affection. Indeed, he attained the third highest approval rating (since such ratings began in 1937) -- 65% after WWII -- in office and the second lowest -- 22% during the Korean War. George W. Bush has earned both the highest approval rating -- 92% after the terrorist attacks on 9/11/01-- and the lowest-- 19% both during the Iraqi insurgency in early 2008 and after a bad economic week last month.

The U.S. Presidency is a tremendously demanding job. For this and many other reasons, American presidents deserve our respect, good will, accountability, fair-minded support or opposition, and prayers. Barack Obama will get all these from me.

The Twin Challenges

James Michener’s book, The Source, is a historical novel surveying the history of the Jewish people and the land of Israel. Chapter 7 is particularly gripping. It chronicles five years in the second century B.C., when Palestine is ruled by the Syrian emperor Antiochus IV.

In 171 B.C. Antiochus decrees that all citizens must acknowledge that the god Zeus has come to earth in the person of … Antiochus! (He thereby is referred to as Antiochus Epiphanes, “God-made-manifest”). The government assures Jewish residents that those who prefer to worship in their synagogue are not affected by this law, “for our great emperor has no wish to offend any man so long as his deity is acknowledged.”

In 170 the government announces a law requiring all citizens to present themselves four times a year to pay formal homage to Antiochus Epiphanes. The four days happen to fall on the Jewish Sabbath. When Jews protest, the government decides that Greeks will pay homage during the daylight hours and Jews in the evening after their Sabbath has ended.

In 169 the government announces that “in order to halt the perpetuation of differences among the peoples of this great empire, Antiochus Epiphanes has decided that Jews shall no longer circumcise their male children.” Many Jews protest vigorously, but some say that the Greek view of the human body as a temple that is not to be desecrated should be respected. Thus the Jews cannot unite in protest. Many devout Jews continue circumcising their sons on the eighth day as their religion commands, but many others acquiesce to the new law.

In 168 the government announces that the worship of Antiochus Epiphanes henceforth should be the one and official religion of all the people. “But after a man has paid proper homage to Antiochus he shall be free to worship his old gods as his second and private religion.” The quarterly offering at the temple, however, must now be a pig.

In 167 the government announces that thereafter any Jew who refuses to accept Antiochus Epiphanes as the sole god, supplanting all others, including the god Yahweh, and any Jew who persists in following the law of Moses, and/or circumcises his son, or refuses to offer a swine as sacrifice, shall be scourged, have his skin torn off while still alive, be chopped to pieces and his body fed to the dogs. This is the final straw that leads to a bloody Jewish rebellion (known as the Maccabean Revolt) which drives the Syrians out of the land over the next twenty-five years.

Religious people throughout history have been challenged in two particular directions: to resist assimilating further into the competing values of the surrounding culture, and to resist governmental restrictions on their religious practices. The temptation to avoid resisting is so strong because seldom do these challenges come in strong doses; assimilation and acquiescence occur inch by inch, small compromise by small compromise. American Christians face these twin challenges continually. Michener’s fictionalized but historically based depiction of the Jews’ predicament in second century Palestine under Syrian rule and amidst Greek culture is particularly instructive both for individual Christians in our repeated temptations to compromise our faith convictions, and for the church in the face of an ever-growing and increasingly intrusive government.


Last week on my vacation Angela and I spent a few days in New Orleans where she attended a conference and we visited with my father and stepmother. With plenty of time on my hands during the day, I walked the short distance to the Garden District Book Store and enjoyed browsing the many selections. I never know what will grab my attention when I step into a bookstore; this time I found myself purchasing a book on meditation (Finding the Still Point by John Loori). Over the past week I have spent about fifteen minutes each morning practicing meditative stillness consisting of patterned breathing and attentive posture. The purpose of meditation is to empty and still yourself for the purpose of being fully aware of the present and, for Christians, to listen for the Spirit of God.

To this end, each morning I have chosen one word to meditate on and help to open my heart and mind, words like hope, love, and confidence (This doesn’t follow the book’s recommendations, which are strictly for Zen meditation, but I’m improvising). And so I have repeated to myself phrases like “I have hope in God. I have hope for my wife and children. I am filled with hope for the future. I live with hope through Jesus.” And so on with whatever word I have chosen for that day.

I don’t plan which word I am going to meditate on. When I sit down and start breathing I just use the first non-sports or food related word that comes to mind (which, ahem, can take a few minutes). This morning the word was “security.” I meditated on security and repeated phrases like “I am secure in God.” I am secure in my family’s love.” I have security in Christ.” “I am secure through life’s turmoil,” etc.

I don’t think it was random that the idea of security was on the forefront of my mind. In Houston last month we experienced the insecurity brought on by Hurricane Ike. This month we are all experiencing the insecurity brought on by the financial crisis. Early next month we face a presidential election which by its sheer magnitude and importance probably arouses some feelings of insecurity. All of this forces Christians to consider in what and whom we will find our security. Listen, none of the above is insignificant or trivial; the hurricane, financial collapse, and election SHOULD be taking up much of our attention! But attention is not the same as anxiety. And therein lies our challenge.

To decide “I will do my best to deal with such and such while resting secure in the hope I have through Jesus Christ” is a biblical and faithful sentiment. The Bible doesn’t tell us to stick our heads in the sand or be blasé about circumstances and conditions. Rather, the scriptures instruct us to remember who is ultimately in control and what is of ultimate importance.

“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7). This is a tremendously powerful and liberating truth!

It’s worth meditating on. With or without the patterned breathing.

The Warm Air Felt Stuffy

I recently began reading Gary Haugen’s book, “Just Courage: God’s Great Expedition for the Restless Christian.” Haugen is president and C.E.O. of International Justice Mission, a human rights agency that secures justice for victims of slavery, sexual exploitation, and other forms of violent oppression (see It is a tremendously impressive and inspiring organization whose mission is founded on the Christian call to justice articulated in the Bible (Isaiah 1:17): Seek justice, protect the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.

In his book, Haugen relates that IJM’s mission is so overwhelming, and the forces arrayed against it so powerful and prevalent, that he and his co-workers are continually reminded of the improbability of their success without God. “God has called us into a battle with violence and aggressive evil that, every day, my colleagues and I know we cannot win without the specific intervention of God. … And we have found him to be real -- and his hand to be true and strong -- in a way we would never have experienced strapped into our own safety harness.”

Ah, the safety harness. Haugen urges Christians to find a passionate pursuit in service to God that takes us out of our safety and comfort. He tells the story of the time he, his father and his two older brothers were preparing to hike partway up Mount Rainier outside Seattle. Haugen balked. The strenuousness of the impending climb scared and unnerved him. He persuaded his father to let him spend the afternoon in the visitor center.

“The visitor’s center was warm and comfortable, with lots of interesting things to watch and read. I devoured the information and explored every corner, and judging by the crowd, it was clearly the place to be. As the afternoon stretched on, however, the massive visitor’s center started to feel awfully small. The warm air felt stuffy, and the stuffed wild animals started to seem just – dead. The inspiring loop videos about extraordinary people who climbed the mountain weren’t as interesting the sixth and seventh times, and they made me wish I could be one of those actually climbing the mountain instead of reading about it. I felt bored, sleepy and small – and I missed my dad. I was totally stuck. Totally safe -- but totally stuck.

“After the longest afternoon of my ten-year old life, Dad and my brothers returned flushed with their triumph. Their faces were red from the cold and their eyes clear with delight. They were wet from the snow, famished, dehydrated and nursing scrapes from the rocks and ice, but on the long drive home they had something else. My brothers had stories and an unforgettable day with their dad on a great mountain.”

Many Christians are in the visitor’s center. We watch the video loops of the heroic exploits of the people of old. We feel a vague, or maybe even a profound, sense of restlessness. The air inside is stuffy and still. But the mountains are steep and the air cold. What to do?

Friends, step out the door and start walking in the direction your heart points. Don’t worry about how far you will climb. Just start climbing. Aren’t you tired of looking at stuffed animals? How much hot chocolate do you need? The mountains beckon.

This is what WHCC’s Faith Challenge 2013 is about. (10/5/08)

The Glasses

This morning for our devotional, the staff and I watched a You Tube video called “Get Service,” a four-minute clip produced by Fellowship Bible Church in Little Rock, Arkansas for one of their worship services, I would imagine. We all felt it was a moving and thoughtful reminder of the way in which our attitude determines how we see people, and I want to expound on its message further.

But first, you know it is the 21st century when a ministry staff watches a You Tube video for their devotional together. It would be scary if it weren’t so much fun.

The clip depicts a thirty-something man leaving for work one morning in his car. He has to stop suddenly to avoid a bike-riding boy in his neighborhood. Traffic is backed up at a big intersection and his commute is delayed. A lady scoots her car in front of his to take the last parking spot in front of the coffee shop. The coffee shop line of customers is long. The service is excruciatingly slow, meaning it takes him a whole four minutes to reach the counter. He gets increasingly exasperated at each of these occurrences and mutters angrily under his breath at all these inconsiderate people who deter the smooth progress of his day.

At this point a mystery man appears in front of him and gives him a pair of special glasses. These glasses allow him to see the inner predicament of each person he looks at. The boy on the bike is lonely and needs someone to care. The lady next to him at the coffee shop avoids relationships for fear of pain. The coffee barista is fighting an addiction. The mother with small children works two jobs to provide for them alone. The teenager leaning against an awning ran away from home three days before. The woman talking on her cell phone is grieving the loss of her best friend. The businessman with his small son just lost his job. The lady who took his parking spot, well, she’s just obnoxious.

The man is sobered and humbled by how self-absorbed and oblivious he has been, viewing people as objects instead of fellow pilgrims on the often-difficult and painful journey of life. The name of Jesus is never mentioned but the mystery man who gives him the glasses is the Christ-figure who says, in effect, “Spend a little time seeing people the way I do.”

Henry Thoreau famously said that, “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.” In my better moments as a friend of Jesus, I try to remember that most people have a bit of quiet desperation in their lives and could use a helping of kindness. Can anyone get too much kindness? Jesus tells us that the way we treat the least of people is a measure of our faith and devotion to him. But wait! He goes even further, saying that the way we treat “the least of these brothers of mine” (the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the sick) is in some way the way we have treated him (Matthew 25:31-46). To put this positively, the way we treat people can be an offering of worship, a consecration of faith, a service to Christ, while at the same time manifesting the love of Christ from us to others. Friends, this stuff is powerful.

People look beautiful wearing these glasses.