Thursday, June 25, 2009

"I Don't Feel Like I Gave Up a Lot"

Lidia Schaefer was born in a large village in northern Ethiopia and moved to the United States in the mid-1970’s when civil war broke out at home. She settled into American life, became a manicurist, and labored with the challenges of raising her two children while working 12-hour days, six days a week.

But a return trip to her native village in the 1990’s troubled her. She saw children walking three hours each way to attend classes held under a tree because there was no school building. In 1998 she learned that one of the girls she had met – Medhine – had been attacked and killed by a hyena after falling behind during the long trek home from school.

Schaefer decided she had to do something. She began setting aside a third of her salary and all of her tips while lobbying the Ethiopian government to donate land for a school. She enlisted help from clients and co-workers, who held raffles and made contributions. But after four years without reaching nearly the sum needed, Schaefer decided it was time to do something drastic. She gave up her symbols of the American dream, selling her house and car. It was a sacrifice that still stuns her colleagues and friends. “I couldn’t believe it,” remembers her salon manager. “I don’t feel like I gave up a lot,” Schaefer responds. “I want the children to learn, to get something out of their life.”

She ultimately raised more than $250,000 for the school, which was completed in 2006. Today, nearly 1,500 students are educated there; the campus boasts eight buildings with 16 classrooms, a science lab and a library. Schaefer is still setting aside much of her own money and raising funds ( “They need computers so they can talk to the whole world,” she says. When she went back home for the school dedication, she was honored with an elaborate procession through the village. “I was so happy, I can’t even describe it.” Initially she wanted to name the school after the little girl killed by the hyena, but the government insisted on naming it after her so that “more people will be like you.” Ethiopian communities around the United States, hearing about Schaefer’s efforts, launched plans and raised money to build twelve more schools in that region, which are due to be completed next month.

I don’t know about you, but when I hear stories like this I often feel simultaneously inspired by the sheer goodness and sacrifice of some people and its multiplying effects on others, and deflated by my own comparative selfishness. Schaefer’s efforts bring to mind what the apostle Paul says about the Macedonians and his collection for the struggling Judean churches, “… their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability.” (II Corinthians 9:2-3, NIV)

With about one-millionth of the sacrifice of Lidia Schaefer, I am dedicating the profits from the sale at West Houston of my first book to the Mission Lazarus medical fund as a way to help continue the initial free-will contribution West Houston members made in 2006. These funds provide for little Nancy Osorto’s growth hormone shots and the myriad of medical treatments needed by children in this area of Honduras. I invite you to participate as the Lord leads you. After all, hyenas come in many forms.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Across Broken Glass

I love being a Dad. I’ll just say that right at the start. When I think of the roles in my life, being a father and a husband are the top two. Often those two roles are so intertwined that I see them as two sides of the same coin. When my first child was born in 1991 I grew up about a decade in one hour. It was time to put away my youth and be a man. (Some people had been telling me that for years.)

When I was doing a phone interview in 1994 with the Culver Palms congregation in Los Angeles, for whom I eventually preached, a search team member asked me, “What has being a father taught you about God?” Don’t you hate interview questions like that?! I don’t remember what I said in response, but with fifteen more years of fatherhood under my belt I would say that the opposite has been the case: the more I learn about God the more I want to conform my fathering to that image.

This week on Father’s Day I am finishing a series on the Parable of the Prodigal Son by talking about “The Risk-Taking Father.” The father in the parable is passionate and, some would say, reckless. Why does he give the inheritance to the younger son upon request? Doesn’t this adversely affect the family’s reputation, material well-being, and future provision? Why does he welcome back the younger son whole-heartedly and without reservation, indeed with complete self-giving? These are not “prudent” actions.

I was having lunch with my daughter after I preached on the Elder Son and she asked, “Dad, doesn’t the Elder Son have a point? Shouldn’t the Father have given him back his privileges and his standing in stages, as he proved his change of heart?” Good point! This is where we should all wrestle with the parable. If we don’t engage with this, if we aren’t at least somewhat disturbed by this, then we aren’t comprehending the scandal, the offense, of God’s grace.

I’m pretty sure Jesus isn’t trying to give a seminar on parenting. He’s trying to get through to his oh-so-religious listeners about the height, width, and depth of God’s grace and mercy. And withal, God’s passion for his children. That’s the lesson I take from God about being a father: having a passion for my children and their well-being, and seeing it as part of my service to God to love, cherish, nurture, discipline, guide, teach, and sacrifice for them.

Remember when the little Cuban boy Elian Gonzalez left Cuba with his mother to flee to Florida? Their boat floundered in a storm and his mother and ten other people died. Elian and two others were picked up by the Coast Guard and brought to Florida, where he was taken in by distant relatives. A battle ensued about whether Elian should be returned to his father in Cuba (who had not known the mother was fleeing with him) or given asylum in America. Two of Elian’s grandmothers from Cuba came on a much-publicized visit to lobby for his return. But his father never came. He never came! One radio talk show host marveled at this, saying, “If I were the father, I would personally swim to Florida to rescue my son. I would crawl across broken glass to be re-united with him.”

I want to be the kind of father who crawls across broken glass for my children. And that is the Father in the parable. That is the God we serve. Prudence is fine. Passion changes lives.

Thursday, June 11, 2009


I do not like the Lottery, do not play it, and would joyfully vote to discontinue it, but if someone is going to win it I am glad when it is a person like Neal Wanless, the 23-year old down-on-his-luck cowboy living with his parents in a trailer (the house is in foreclosure) on their 320-acre South Dakota ranch in the seventh poorest area of the country. Wanless bought his $15 worth of tickets in the nearby town of Winner (oh, irony!) during a trip to buy livestock feed. He will take home $88.5 million in a lump sum payment after taxes are deducted.

“Just a very humble, kind and considerate kid,” remembers his high school math teacher. “Neal never gave up trying. That’s what I liked about him” says his cross-country coach. Warner’s father had been eking out a living buying and selling scrap metal, but even that was drying up. A neighbor expressed what seems to be a common sentiment: “They’ve been real short on finances for a long time. They are from real meager means. I am happy the family won’t have to worry about money anymore.”

Well, not so fast. The fact is that lottery winners develop a bunch of worries very quickly. Consider: One in two Winners winds up in financial calamity. Indeed, an entire industry has sprung up to buy future payouts at a discount from Winners so they can pay off the debts they have rolled up. But why do so many get underwater so quickly? There are a number of reasons:

1) Many have lived paycheck to paycheck for so long that they cannot handle having money in hand; their only experience has been spending all they have until the next paycheck. After they hit the lottery jackpot, they do that with their annual payout, and borrow against it too.

2) They are besieged by people asking for help. As one winner recalled about all the relatives who contacted him, “They seemed to come back from the dead. All of them said that the Lord had told them I was their last hope. They just had a way of finding me. I got mail from all over the world, hundreds of letters every day. I had to pay somebody to just read it. At work they had to put in another telephone operator just to handle the calls coming in for me.”

3) They are preyed on by unscrupulous “financial advisors.”

And this is all in addition to the social cost. Lottery winners are always… “Lottery Winners”. People think they are rich and expect them to pay for things that used to be shared expenses. Many family members, friends, and co-workers burn with envy and resentment. At a party once with his wife, a Winner heard someone say in an ugly tone, “There go those lottery people.” In short, because Winners did not “earn” their money, people resent them for having it and expect to be given a share of it. One Winner’s vehicle, business and home were broken into repeatedly. Someone even drugged his drink and stole his briefcase!

All this is simply to say, when you think of the ideal scenario of good fortune smiling upon you, don’t think of winning the lottery. Jesus warns his followers about the power of money because it often brings unforeseen difficulties and temptations into our life. There is a spiritual quality to money for good or ill. Surely we can do better than “winning the lottery” when we envision the ultimate blessing from God.

In closing, say a little prayer for the good-kid cowboy and his parents. They will need it.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Hold That Thought

I recently bought a new carrying “holster” for my Blackberry which makes it difficult to answer the phone or read emails while I am driving. The roads are no doubt a bit safer in northwest Houston these days, but I am definitely frustrated. It is amazing how hard it is to resist the little buzz sound that signals a new message of some sort. I feel like Pavlov’s dog being tempted by he laboratory bell. [Hold that thought while I check this…]

Apparently more and more people, especially teenagers, have thoroughly succumbed to the Pavlovian conditioning. A recent Houston Chronicle article piqued my curiosity and made me swallow hard (“Texting may be taking toll on teens” Katie Hafner, 5/31/09). Let me say first that I am not a big fan of these “Warning: Danger” type news items. I think they are often overblown. Still, this one struck a chord.

[Hold on, let me just tell this person I’ll text him back in a minute.] According to the Nielsen Co., American teenagers in 2008 received an average of 80 text messages a day, more than double the average of a year earlier. Parents of teens who are used to seeing their beloved child with his nose in the phone 24/7 may think this number is on the low side. But it equates to 5 received texts per waking hour, and of course that doesn’t include responding to the messages. And wait! Why limit it to waking hours? Many teenagers leave their phone on at night and eagerly jolt awake to the sound of an incoming text. Hafner notes, “The phenomenon is beginning to worry physicians and psychologists, who say it is leading to anxiety, distraction in school (Gee, ya think?), falling grades, repetitive stress injury and sleep deprivation.” [Excuse me just a second. I apologize but I have to take this call.] At any rate, apparently one of the things driving this behavior among teenagers, according to psychotherapist Michael Hausauer of Oakland, CA., is that “they have a terrific interest in knowing what’s going on in the lives of their peers, coupled with a terrific anxiety about being out of the loop.” One teenage girl whose parents finally reacted when she racked up 14,528 received texts in a month (30 per waking hour!) felt there was an element of hypocrisy in her parents’ punishment, declaring defiantly with hurt puzzlement in the way only a teenage girl can do, “My mother is always on her iPhone.”

I must say I see plenty of adult men and women at the gym carrying around their cell phones; they do a short exercise, check their phone, do another exercise, check their phone, etc. I wonder sometimes how they even manage to take a shower. [Let me just respond to this email quickly.] Okay, where was I? Oh yeah, so this isn’t as much a teenage issue as it is a people issue. What does this kind of all all-the-time, all encompassing technology do to the way we relate, converse, think, ponder, reflect, pray, relax, rest? What happens to the quality of our lives when we devolve to the attention span of a gerbil?

[Excuse me while I get this.] I for one decry this bondage to technological innovation and pledge that I will not succumb to this sad and silly status quo [bing, bing]. And I am worried [buzz, buzz] about our teenage children’s future [Hey honey, can I hit you back?] But I am glad I have prophetically sounded the alarm to you. And even a little proud that I managed to write this while driving. [Hello, Officer.]