Friday, September 24, 2010

Spanish Blessings

As I ordered a cortadito of Cuban Coffee (one part espresso, two parts steamed milk and twenty-five parts sugar) in Miami a few weeks ago, the corner cafeteria informed me that they did not have any pastelitos de carne.

I was shocked and dismayed. You see, fresh pastelitos de carne are comfort food to me. Imagine a flaky round croissant that has a little pocket of ground beef, garlic, onions and Caribbean spices. Now picture that pastry brushed with sticky and sugary syrup. As you bite down into it, the flaky sticky sweetness melts into the savory goodness. As each morsel goes down, you feel warmth radiate through your whole being.

It’s a little taste of heaven on earth.

I was in Miami for my Mom’s 70th birthday party. Now, my mother is very hard to shop for, but I needn’t have worried; my eldest sister had concocted a “gift” for my mother that she couldn’t refuse.

“Seventy Desserts for Seventy Years”

We had a VERY light dinner followed by a free-for-all at the dessert table. Everything there was a sweet of one kind or another.

Except for one item...

My sister included a few pastelitos de carne for her youngest brother. She really does love me!

Back to my shocking morning.

I had just discovered that there were no meat pastries for me at the cafeteria. With a heavy (yet rapidly-beating thanks to the cortadito) heart, I walked back home. Defeated in my quest for pastelitos, I settled for cereal that morning for breakfast.

Later on at Publix (the best grocery store chain in existence), I got a few odds and ends that I can’t find in Culpeper. A Miami Dolphins reusable shopping bag (much to the chagrin of my Buffalo Bills buddy, Justin), O-rings for my Cuban Coffee maker, tiny Styrofoam espresso cups, Cuban bread, and YES a pastelito de carne.

As the cashier and bagger (of indeterminable Hispanic origins) rang me up and placed the goodies in my new shopping bag, I paused as they were finishing and thanked them.

“Gracias. Que Dios te Bendiga.”

They stopped, looked up at me in surprise, smiled and replied in unison.


I had literally said, “Thank you. May God bless you.” Those simple words made an impact that I couldn’t have predicted. It reminded me of the power of blessing.

You see, you don’t hear too many blessings on the streets of South Florida.

You know the expression, “If you don’t like my driving, stay off the sidewalk!” Well, I had to jump out of the way one morning when a car turned left ONTO THE SIDEWALK, possibly heading towards the cafeteria I just came from.

I guess they needed their Cuban Coffee too…

Life is so hectic down there. Everybody seems to be in a hurry to get somewhere; then they’re in a hurry to get back. It took me about half a day to get back into “Miami Driver Mode.” In MDM, you realize that traffic signals and stop signs exist only to be obeyed by OTHER drivers. Maybe it’s the heat and humidity, maybe it’s the congestion, maybe it’s the fact that nobody obeys uses his or her own turn signals, but people tend to say and do nasty things on the road. I saw one driver stomp out of his car and verbally accost the person in front of him because their car just died.

“If your car isn’t running, you shouldn’t be in the middle of the $^$% road!”

I just wasn’t feeling the love.

What is it about the power of words to elevate or knock down people?

Proverbs 18:21 says “The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit.” (NIV)

We have been given the marvelous gift of language, but it can wring curses on others as well. How do we go about learning to bless others rather than curse them? What is to be gained by a life of blessing? Who needs to hear a genuine and heartfelt blessing from you this week?



Related Verses
Luke 6:27-36 (NLTse)

“But to you who are willing to listen, I say, love your enemies! Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who hurt you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, offer the other cheek also. If someone demands your coat, offer your shirt also. Give to anyone who asks; and when things are taken away from you, don’t try to get them back. Do to others as you would like them to do to you.

“If you love only those who love you, why should you get credit for that? Even sinners love those who love them! And if you do good only to those who do good to you, why should you get credit? Even sinners do that much! And if you lend money only to those who can repay you, why should you get credit? Even sinners will lend to other sinners for a full return.
“Love your enemies! Do good to them. Lend to them without expecting to be repaid. Then your reward from heaven will be very great, and you will truly be acting as children of the Most High, for he is kind to those who are unthankful and wicked. You must be compassionate, just as your Father is compassionate.

Proverbs 18:7-8 (NIV)
A fool's mouth is his undoing, and his lips are a snare to his soul. The words of a gossip are like choice morsels; they go down to a man's inmost parts.

Proverbs 18:21 (NIV)
The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit.

Proverbs 27:14 (NIV)
If a man loudly blesses his neighbor early in the morning, it will be taken as a curse.

James 3:9-12 (NLTse)
People can tame all kinds of animals, birds, reptiles, and fish, but no one can tame the tongue. It is restless and evil, full of deadly poison. Sometimes it praises our Lord and Father, and sometimes it curses those who have been made in the image of God. And so blessing and cursing come pouring out of the same mouth. Surely, my brothers and sisters, this is not right! Does a spring of water bubble out with both fresh water and bitter water? Does a fig tree produce olives, or a grapevine produce figs? No, and you can’t draw fresh water from a salty spring.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Nerd Fight

Seventh grade seemed like a cruel joke played on young teens by school officials who had either blocked out their own memories of these tumultuous years, or perhaps relished the opportunity to get some kicks by watching a new generation squirm their way through puberty.

After many years of denial, I can now freely admit it.

I … I was a nerd.

Many of you who are reading this are now laughing to yourselves, “What does Joe mean he “WAS” a nerd.”

That’s beside the point.

I was a prototypical nerd. Thick framed glasses, an inability to play any sport, all honors classes, listening to oldies, and a wardrobe consisting of slacks and t-shirts. Sears had three size categories for boys: slim, regular, and husky. I was a husky boy.

Spending my off time reading encyclopedias didn’t help much either.

I did my best to look cool to no avail. I started listening to Def Leppard, I asked for a different haircut from our family barber and carried my papers in a Trapper Keeper binder. No one noticed. Wearing a t-shirt that kinda looked like a football jersey over my navy blue slacks (the closest thing to jeans that I owned at the time) only got me branded a “slacker” in the locker room before gym class.

Ah, gym class…

Gym class was where the real disparity between those who were cool and those who were not became apparent. Yes, yes, we all wore the same hideous gym uniforms, but confidence is something that transcends clothing.

It was at gym where I first got to know “Donald”, or should I say, tried NOT TO get to know Donald. Donald was a fellow nerd; cut from the same nerd fabric as myself. The only real difference between the two of us was that he wore braces and clunky orthopedic boots.

Deep down inside, I knew he reminded myself of … me. And I despised him for it.
So naturally, I took every opportunity to join in piling on the insults. I took guilty pleasure in being part of the crowd; finding safety in being counted among the aggressors.

One day he finally had enough and called me out on it. Since we were in no shape at all to deal physical blows with each other, we decided on a war of insults the next day. Each of us would have a coach and an impartial judge would decide the winner.

The next twenty-four hours, word spread about the “nerd fight”.

We met again the next day at gym class and walked across the Phys-Ed field to a secluded dugout by a softball diamond.

There were no winners that day. The person who penned, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me,” never experienced seventh grade gym class.

All we learned was to verbally kick and claw each other to the point where our already low self-esteem sank to new depths.

Why do we delight in attacking those who remind us of what we don’t like about ourselves? Why do we repay evil for evil, blow for blow and insult for insult?

This is not how we were created to live.

Who needs to hear encouragement from us? When do we need to hold our tongues and stay silent? How can this week be different for us and (consequentially) those around us?


Related Verses
Proverbs 18:7-8 (NIV)

A fool's mouth is his undoing, and his lips are a snare to his soul. The words of a gossip are like choice morsels; they go down to a man's inmost parts.

James 3
Dear brothers and sisters, not many of you should become teachers in the church, for we who teach will be judged more strictly. Indeed, we all make many mistakes. For if we could control our tongues, we would be perfect and could also control ourselves in every other way.

We can make a large horse go wherever we want by means of a small bit in its mouth. And a small rudder makes a huge ship turn wherever the pilot chooses to go, even though the winds are strong. In the same way, the tongue is a small thing that makes grand speeches.

But a tiny spark can set a great forest on fire. And the tongue is a flame of fire. It is a whole world of wickedness, corrupting your entire body. It can set your whole life on fire, for it is set on fire by hell itself.

People can tame all kinds of animals, birds, reptiles, and fish, but no one can tame the tongue. It is restless and evil, full of deadly poison. Sometimes it praises our Lord and Father, and sometimes it curses those who have been made in the image of God. And so blessing and cursing come pouring out of the same mouth. Surely, my brothers and sisters, this is not right! Does a spring of water bubble out with both fresh water and bitter water? Does a fig tree produce olives, or a grapevine produce figs? No, and you can’t draw fresh water from a salty spring.

If you are wise and understand God’s ways, prove it by living an honorable life, doing good works with the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you are bitterly jealous and there is selfish ambition in your heart, don’t cover up the truth with boasting and lying. For jealousy and selfishness are not God’s kind of wisdom. Such things are earthly, unspiritual, and demonic. For wherever there is jealousy and selfish ambition, there you will find disorder and evil of every kind.

But the wisdom from above is first of all pure. It is also peace loving, gentle at all times, and willing to yield to others. It is full of mercy and good deeds. It shows no favoritism and is always sincere. And those who are peacemakers will plant seeds of peace and reap a harvest of righteousness.


Thursday, September 9, 2010

How to Milk a Bear

Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, TX had a faculty full of characters when I was a student there. There was one professor whose archeological digs in Palestine, as well as his penchant for riding a Harley, earned him the affectionate nickname “Indiana Jones”. Another professor, while absolutely brilliant, had a penchant for pronouncing some words in a decidedly offbeat manner (eg: ad-VER-tiz-ment instead of adverTISEment). We loved him anyways. Then there was a professor who didn’t give us a final exam one semester; he took us down to the snack bar and bought us ice cream instead (we REALLY loved him).

Then there was Dr. William Tolar. Dr. Tolar had been a fixture in the Southwestern Theology Department for the past few decades. His super-sharp intelligence would occasionally draw out a heckler among us who would try to match wits with him. Whenever someone would foolishly try to cross swords with the elder professor, the rest of us would gleefully await his quick comeback.

Derek Gentle shares the following tale involving him.

Dr. William Tolar tells the story how when he was teaching a college religion course, one young man raised his hand to ridicule the passage where Jesus told us that if our hand causes us to sin that we are to cut it off. Dr. Tolar replied, "Young man, do you believe that Jesus could have used figures of speech when He taught?" "Sure," came the reply. "Then could you give the definition of a simile?" "Yes, a simile is when you say one thing is like another thing." "Fine, now can you give me the definition of a metaphor?" "A metaphor is when you compare one thing to another without using the word like." "Thank you, now can you define for me the term hyperbole?" "Sure, hyperbole is when you exaggerate to make... a... point..."

My favorite story told by Tolar, however, was about a young man who had felt God’s call to preach one Sunday morning resulting in him being selected to teach the church that SAME evening in their Sunday Night Bible Study. Hey, if God tells you to preach, you might as well start now, right? So he goes to teach that evening and asks the gathering if there is anything that someone has a question about regarding the scriptures.

A little old lady raises her hand and confesses, “There’s one thing that has never made any sense to me.”

“Let me at it,” the young man responds confidently.

“Well, in the book of Genesis it says ‘These eight did milk a bear.’ I never got that.”

The young man thinks it over for a moment, then launches into a three-part sermon.

A. To milk a bear takes courage.
B. To milk a bear takes strength.
C. To milk a bear takes teamwork.

And that’s where the story ends, with the following epilogue: NOWHERE in scripture can you find one man (let alone EIGHT) milking a bear.

Genesis 22:23 states plainly (in the American Standard Version of the Bible), “And Bethuel begat Rebekah. These eight did Milcah bear to Nahor, Abraham's brother.”

It’s a little clearer in the New International Version, “Bethuel became the father of Rebekah. Milcah bore these eight sons to Abraham's brother Nahor.”

This lady was apparently familiar with the Bible; but may have never studied it to find the answers she sought.

Twisted interpretations of the Bible have wreaked havoc throughout the years. It has been misquoted to propagate hate, it has been misapplied to justify oppression, and misused to justify personal and national agendas.

But God is above all that.

In Bob Dylan’s song “When He returns,” he sings:
“Of every earthly plan that be known to man, He is unconcerned
He’s got plans of His own to set up His throne
When He returns”

Those who choose to follow in the footsteps of Jesus are not expected to be perfect. They are, however, expected to be seekers. To seek out God, to seek out His path for us and to seek out truth.

Are there aspects about God revealed in the Bible that make us uncomfortable? Are there questions we have about Him (or us!) that we’ve never really explored? Are we afraid of where these answers might lead us?

May we boldly seek what God would tell us through His Word.


Related Scriptures
Joshua 1:1-9

After the death of Moses the LORD’s servant, the LORD spoke to Joshua son of Nun, Moses’ assistant. He said, “Moses my servant is dead. Therefore, the time has come for you to lead these people, the Israelites, across the Jordan River into the land I am giving them. I promise you what I promised Moses: ‘Wherever you set foot, you will be on land I have given you— from the Negev wilderness in the south to the Lebanon mountains in the north, from the Euphrates River in the east to the Mediterranean Sea in the west, including all the land of the Hittites.’ No one will be able to stand against you as long as you live. For I will be with you as I was with Moses. I will not fail you or abandon you.

“Be strong and courageous, for you are the one who will lead these people to possess all the land I swore to their ancestors I would give them. Be strong and very courageous. Be careful to obey all the instructions Moses gave you. Do not deviate from them, turning either to the right or to the left. Then you will be successful in everything you do. Study this Book of Instruction continually. Meditate on it day and night so you will be sure to obey everything written in it. Only then will you prosper and succeed in all you do. This is my command—be strong and courageous! Do not be afraid or discouraged. For the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.”

2 Timothy 2:15-26
Work hard so you can present yourself to God and receive his approval. Be a good worker, one who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly explains the word of truth. Avoid worthless, foolish talk that only leads to more godless behavior. This kind of talk spreads like cancer, as in the case of Hymenaeus and Philetus. They have left the path of truth, claiming that the resurrection of the dead has already occurred; in this way, they have turned some people away from the faith.

But God’s truth stands firm like a foundation stone with this inscription: “The LORD knows those who are his,” and “All who belong to the LORD must turn away from evil.”

In a wealthy home some utensils are made of gold and silver, and some are made of wood and clay. The expensive utensils are used for special occasions, and the cheap ones are for everyday use. If you keep yourself pure, you will be a special utensil for honorable use. Your life will be clean, and you will be ready for the Master to use you for every good work.

Run from anything that stimulates youthful lusts. Instead, pursue righteous living, faithfulness, love, and peace. Enjoy the companionship of those who call on the Lord with pure hearts.

Again I say, don’t get involved in foolish, ignorant arguments that only start fights. A servant of the Lord must not quarrel but must be kind to everyone, be able to teach, and be patient with difficult people. Gently instruct those who oppose the truth. Perhaps God will change those people’s hearts, and they will learn the truth. Then they will come to their senses and escape from the devil’s trap. For they have been held captive by him to do whatever he wants.


Friday, September 3, 2010

What's Your Name?

I flew down to Miami, Florida this week to help celebrate my mom’s 70th birthday. So, as is my routine when I’m at my mom’s house, I walked down Miller Road to get my daily dose of Cuban coffee in the early morning hours. As the traffic built up, I kept an unhurried pace. The store wasn’t going anywhere, so why run? I also was still breaking in my orthotics (or should I say, they were breaking ME in), so running was out of the question.

As I reached the halfway point, I felt a few drops of rain.


I looked further ahead toward my destination and saw a curtain of water heading straight for me.

I found it ironic that the reason I left THAT morning for my walk was that we were supposed to have good weather. If it had started raining 10 minutes earlier, I wouldn’t have gone out.

I couldn’t run, and I was going to get wet if I turned back anyways, so I shrugged my shoulders and resignedly kept plodding forward as the warm mist enveloped me. It was a surprisingly soft rain. The drops quickly darkened my shirt and shorts. I occasionally walked from tree to tree, but that did not serve to do much more than wet my shoes on the lush grass by the roadside.

I have never deliberately walked in the rain without something to “protect” me from getting wet. I imagined the motorists in their safe little air-conditioned habitats were looking at this moron walking in a driving rain and thought, “That guy’s too dumb to come in out of the rain.” That thought made me smile. I smiled because I knew something that they didn’t; that this was a soft rain. That I actually felt comfortable walking as warm drops splattered all over me.

And I thought, “I should write about this.”

We all have a calling in life. A “name”, if you will. This calling has little (if anything) to do with what we do for a living, but it helps define who we are.

On October 10th, 2007, I was hiking the White Oak Canyon Trail in Shenandoah National Park with a good friend. Mike Keith and I had spent the morning on the trail when I came to the realization that God wanted me to write more. That I was a “Writer”.

You see, for a long time I had seen myself as a “Tour Guide”. Someone who tries to notice and share the little details about this journey of life with God and others. Writing it turns out would become my main medium for this. I guess you could say I’m a “Travel Writer”.

Seeking and finding your name is important because it helps you to focus on what you were put on this earth to do. And we have ALL been gifted in some way.

I had dinner with my old friend Glenn a few nights ago. As soon as we made the plans, he informed me that there was someone we had to see; a college buddy named Raul who I hadn’t seen in over a dozen years. I last heard that he was out of the country, but to my delight it turned out he was back in South Florida. He was tending bar at a billiards club near Ft. Lauderdale.

As we sat and reminisced about the crazy things we did in our early twenties together, he occasionally would help a patron. My friend Raul has always been an “old soul”, wise well beyond his years. Throughout our conversation, he’d introduce us to various patrons and they’d gush about Raul and his amazing advice.

One patron beamed at him, “I told Raul that I was going to end it all and slit my wrists!”

Raul, always ready was a dry rejoinder, interrupted, “I told him he needed to use that razor for shaving instead.”

“He saved my life!”

Raul shook his head and smiled.

Raul, you see, is not a bartender, he’s a “Caretaker.”

What do you do that truly makes you feel alive and complete? What do people compliment about you that makes you glow? What have you dreamed of doing, but have put aside because it’s not “practical”?

What’s your name?


Our Vision Part 5
What’s your name? We believe there is so much more to our identity than a jumble of letters assigned to us at birth. That’s why we are focused on discovering God’s name for us. Who are we really? What drives us? What are our passions? How are we gifted? How do we go from feeling like just another member of the human race to finding out who we were created to be? This isn't about what you do to get a paycheck; it's about your calling in life. As we discover our calling, we find ourselves walking alongside other people who share our passion and talents. Artists and Poets, Storytellers and Musicians, Dancers and Singers, etcetera, all find communities where they can connect with others. This quest for identity is a journey we cherish and celebrate.

Related Verses
Genesis 17:1-6

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to him and said, “I am El-Shaddai—‘God Almighty.’ Serve me faithfully and live a blameless life. I will make a covenant with you, by which I will guarantee to give you countless descendants.”

At this, Abram fell face down on the ground. Then God said to him, “This is my covenant with you: I will make you the father of a multitude of nations! What’s more, I am changing your name. It will no longer be Abram. Instead, you will be called Abraham, for you will be the father of many nations. I will make you extremely fruitful. Your descendants will become many nations, and kings will be among them!

Revelations 2:17
“Anyone with ears to hear must listen to the Spirit and understand what he is saying to the churches. To everyone who is victorious I will give some of the manna that has been hidden away in heaven. And I will give to each one a white stone, and on the stone will be engraved a new name that no one understands except the one who receives it.