Ode To A Father

Posted: February 19, 2020 in Meditations
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A great man passed away this morning: a faithful son, a devoted husband, a steady father, a loving grandfather, a towering servant to the rest of us. Robert Spence will be duly lauded by impressive people in the coming days. He was my college president and what he did in that servant’s role remains unprecedented. Dr. Spence was 39 when I first met him. I remember a couple of little boys running around outside his office. I had no way of knowing one of those boys, Steve Spence, would one day marry my kid sister, Sandi. I had the privilege to enjoy the man behind the public face, the father who framed the character of my brother-in-law. I pay tribute to that man whose legacy vests itself in the treasured Spence branch of my family.

I’m the oldest child of five and am the only boy. I admit to being a wary judgmental older brother. I viewed every suitor of my sisters as proverbial foxes in the hen house. The blunt truth, I didn’t like Steve when I met him. I saw a strutting peacock who had a lot of growing up to do. “Sandi, put him in the rear view mirror. You can do a lot better.” My dad intervened and said, “Shut up!” And I did, but poor Steve had his work cut out for him. Over time Steve would prove himself a worthy husband and today I love that man with a whole heart. I discovered what I refused to see from the beginning, the Godly steadfast nurture of Robert and Ann Spence.

Every time I hung out with Dad Spence, I could count on several things. Kindness: he never spoke ill of any man or situation. He remained a builder of people in private. In 40 years of leadership, imagine what this man had to deal with? People are people, often at their sinful worst, yet Dr. Spence never once spoke ill of anyone in my presence. Everyone I brought up by name, his eyes brightened. He always had a wonderful story that elevated that individual. Wisdom: Dad Spence didn’t preach, he exuded the wisdom of God in an unassuming way, he lived it. Gracious: Dad never dominated a gathering and he refused to carry a heavy hand in Steve’s life. But Dad was always there. When Steve called, he was there. When Steve asked for advice, he gave it. He granted Steve the freedom to forge his own unique partnership with God.

I watched Steve grow as a man through the years. No one I know pursues God with a greater intensity in my life sphere. I’ve witnessed the refining power of the Holy Spirit in his life. We all fail, Steve is no exception. But he has a heart that repents, a hunger to be a better man. And who was a constant throughout this awesome spiritual journey? A devoted father who knew the voice of God, his name is Robert Spence. Steve will miss those calls to Dad. Death is harsh to the living. But Steve houses five decades of lessons in his heart. Those lessons get taught to his children through word and deed. We receive that legacy as family everyday. Steve’s church gets fed from that legacy every week. If I understood back then, when Steve proposed to my sister, what I understand now, I could have saved myself the opportunity to make a fool of myself.

Robert Spence, I will always miss you and I will always remember you. I will forever thank you for the gift of your son to my family, to my sister. You stand in a pantheon of men I deeply admire and look to for wisdom. Say hello to Max and Audrey Ephraim for me. Welcome home.

Words of Life

Posted: February 14, 2020 in Meditations
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36 years ago I sat in a local diner with a group of men in a small Missouri River town. Banter flew, boys being boys. I was 29, married with a two year old son. Times were tough, the country strained in the midst of a recession. Interest rates hovered at 17%, farms got auctioned off monthly in this rural county. I cracked a joke about my wife, a cheap laugh at her expense. I got the reflex response I wanted, that is, until my pastor, Brian Guy, spoke up. I’ll never forgot the terse inflection of his voice, “Phil, don’t ever talk about your wife that way. You’re a better man than that.” My heart froze, I knew he was right. I apologized to everyone at the counter. I felt two inches tall. I’m sure my face flushed red. I knew I sinned against my wife.

“Let a righteous man strike me – it is a kindness; let him rebuke me – it is oil on my head. My head will not refuse it.”  Psalm 141:5  I didn’t like being called out. I still feel the pain of my embarrassment. Yet I received it as truth to my heart and I knew Brian loved me. That rebuke instantly became a life lesson, it changed me in an important way. I chose to honor my wife. Have I violated this precept since then? To my shame, yes I have. But I know it and immediately sense conviction and repent. Lord, open my heart always to the rebuke of a righteous man; don’t let me skate on my sin and ignorance.

Back in 2012, I was dying, the final stages of the debilitating effects of traumatic brain injury incurred from a 26 foot fall from a roof in 2005. God intervened through a series of providential events. I got novel treatment from the one doctor in the world who could address my condition. Three months of therapy gave me a new lease on life. My doctor asked me to solicit friends with influence to promote his clinic. I never felt comfortable with the prospect of soliciting people of means, it felt dirty. But I stood healed, and what about the other desperate individuals who needed healing too? I wrestled with this quandary for a week. I made the call via the internet.

Back in 1977, I rented a trailer home with a young man named Kevin Compton. We parted ways but I kept in contact with his sister. Kevin went on to an incredible career, a unicorn on the national scene. Perhaps Kevin could help and see opportunity to bring this approach to brain trauma to the world. We emailed back and forth. Kevin could not have been more gracious, more blunt, more concise, “Phil, what do you want me to do? I get solicitations all the time for revolutionary treatments of concussion injuries (Kevin led an investment group that owned the NHL San Jose Sharks). I’ve learned through my own experience to stay out of businesses that are not in my wheelhouse. I did an investigation into this clinic and am not impressed.” Ouch, right? But this is exactly what I needed to hear. Kevin, a righteous man, spoke life to my heart. What I couldn’t discern, Kevin could. Eight years have passed and you know what? Kevin was right. I still feel bad that I called him but that is my problem. Kevin resolved my conflict with a very healthy “no”.

“Teach me to do your will, for you are my God; may your good Spirit lead me on level ground.”  Psalm 143:10  Stay humble. I ask the Lord to speak to my heart through the Scriptures, through prayer, through my wife and kids, through the voice of others. “My son, keep your father’s commands and do not forsake your mother’s teachings. Bind them upon your heart forever.” Never forget the treasure of wisdom that has been invested in your life. Take confidence in those lessons, pass them on. Finally, thank God for those individuals who did the right thing, who spoke words into your life that weren’t easy. Thank you Brian, thank you Kevin, thank you Mom and Dad. A special shout out to my wife, Lynn, thank you for pushing me to be a better man. Finally, thank you, Holy Spirit, you never let me go. Because of you, I know, in the end, Christ is all that matters.

Hi Dad

Posted: February 8, 2020 in Meditations
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This past week I scrolled through the twitter feed. Trump had just delivered his State of the Union address. Tweet after tweet focused on  political themes. Then I saw this, “Hi Dad.” I saw a picture of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo milling with dignitaries on the House floor. My eyes shifted to the tweet source. I saw a handsome smiling young man, his name, Nick Pompeo. A proud son gave a shout out to Dad. Hundreds of people had already acknowledged the tweet and I was about to keep scrolling when a thought crossed my mind. I wrote back, “Nick, those words mean more to your dad than any plaudits from the world. Live for the Lord he loves. That’s the greatest gift you can give him.” I added a heart emoji. Within minutes he responded with the same emoji. Nothing can adequately describe the heartfelt bond between a dad and his kids. You can be Mike Pompeo or Phil Brown, the wonder of those words carry the power of common humanity.

I have four children, all unique, each with special gifts. I don’t measure their worth on their accomplishments, their talents, or the temper of our personal relationships. A love unfurled in this father’s heart the moment I held each child in the palm of my hand. I buried my face in the nape of their necks and breathed deep. I smelled them, caressed their tiny heads and stuck my finger in the palm of their hands. That instinctual clasp of fingers around my finger plugged me into their hearts, a bond forged for life. “Hi Dad” is and always will be the clarion call of four individuals to my heart. From their first breath to my last breath, I am ‘Dad’ and they are ‘Son” and “Daughter”.

As much as I know each of my children, that familiarity and goodwill pales to that of our Heavenly Father. Our real birth begins with him. God chose to use the vehicle of the love of a man and woman to bring his child into this earthly existence. “Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.”  Psalm 139:16  We are created by and for God. We are purposed and loved by him. We are not accidents of nature and we are treasured  as unique individuals. “O Lord, you have searched me and you know me.”  Psalm 139:1  “You are familiar with all my ways.”  Psalm 139:3b  Not only does he know us intimately, God is always there. We will never fully grasp this reality on earth but God will respond 24-7 in time. “Where can I flee from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?”  Psalm 139:7 God knows us, the good and the bad, God knows.

“Hi Dad”, fills our Heavenly Father with joy unspeakable and full of glory. Our lives are sacred  to him. Why does God hate the killing of babies, the abuse of innocents, the sin of man? He loves us, we are created for relationship, our worth cannot be measured in silver and gold. “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”  Psalm 139:23,24  Every one of us is designed to love and serve God.  We are children of the Most High God whose worth cannot be measured on the scales of men.

My Dad, in his mid eighties, grabbed my hand and looked me straight in the eyes. He choked back tears, “Son, you are a good man.”  That is the highest praise Dad could give me. I had in effect given my Dad the best gift I could give him, I serve the God he loves. Because my life is dedicated to Christ, I am transformed day by day into the image of Christ. I live out the life of a good man. I treasure every moment I have to say, “Hi Dad”.  Soon I will only have memories of the precious unique friendship we share. Dad introduced me to the ways of God. He loved me in spite of my failings, in spite of my bullheadedness. He never forgot he was the trustee of God’s child.  Together we cry out to our Heavenly Father, “Hi Dad”. Together we proclaim, “In the end, Christ is all that matters.”

Hopes And Dreams

Posted: February 3, 2020 in Meditations
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Donna gave me a thermos of coffee, Bill opened the door, I headed to my car in the pitch of night. My wife called less than an hour earlier. She went into labor and would meet me at the hospital. My mind whirred with excitement, this was our fourth child and my first girl. In less than twenty-four hours I would say hello to my daughter for the first time. I’m one of five siblings, the only boy. I watched firsthand the unique precious bond that exists between a girl and her daddy. Now I had the opportunity to nurture that unique bond between a daughter and her father. “Lord, help me to be the dad I need to be, the dad she deserves to have.” That prayer was real. I wanted to be the best dad, I wanted to measure up, I just wasn’t confident on the execution. One thing I did have, I had hopes and dreams for every one of my kids and I was willing to do most anything to make that happen.

Twenty years later, my little baby is now a young woman with a thirst for life. She has been to Japan, Germany, and just returned from two weeks in Uganda. Each time she leaves, I pray, “Make her world a little bigger. Give her your eyes, Lord. Give her your heart.” My daughter is bright and alive, she harbors great dreams in medicine. Daddy sees a beautiful swan growing into her destiny. The world is her oyster. Again, I pray, “Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.”  Proverbs 4:23  This world is violent, filled with evil treachery. “My daughter, preserve sound judgment and discernment, do not let them out of your sight; they will be life to you.”  Proverbs 3:21,22  Lord , may she seek your face, may she abide in your word. Let this prayer roll from her lips, “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,  and in his word I put my hope.”  Psalm 130:5  I place my daughter on the altar of the Most High God. As much as I love her, I am a trustee, God must be her first love.

I may be a trustee, but I have hopes, hopes and desires for my children that surely cross the line. God knows. One of my sons is a lawyer, a brilliant mind with a silver tongue. Others see a successful partner in a prestigious law firm. I see a preacher, evangelist, a powerful apologist for the Gospel. Another son is marketing maven. I see an elder in the church who took no shortcuts in life and now mentors young men and guides churches to the glory of God. My oldest son drives a passion that few understand in the field of medicine. I see missions, urban health, an extension of God’s hand of grace to the powerless. My daughter wants to see the world; I want to send her to the world with global health initiatives immersed in the cause of Christ. These are wonderful dreams, my Lord hears them all the time from me. But they belong to God. His hopes, his dreams for my children are what matter.

“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”  Romans 8:28  God has specific hopes and dreams for each one of my children. It unfolds in their lives as it unfolds in mine, day by day, moment by moment. “Unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labor in vain.”  Psalm 127:1  Our purpose is found in surrender, our mandates are given in faithfulness, our peace and joy are experienced in obedience. Confidence, boldness, fearlessness issue from the new life within. We know that we know, we exist to build God’s kingdom, we exist to express the gifts he has endowed us with, we live to spread the gospel in word and deed. Paul said, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith.'”  Romans 1:16,17  To my sons and daughter, pursue God with a whole heart. He is the source of your hopes and dreams. Be bold, in the end, Christ is all that matters.

Face to Face

Posted: January 31, 2020 in Meditations

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A young military boy worked alone in a darkened photography studio. The son of a Pentecostal preacher, the oldest of eleven siblings: he stood at a crossroads in his life. He asked himself the fundamental question, “Is the God of my childhood real? God, are you really here? I need a sign. Show me who you are.” In that moment, a presence made itself known. The hair stood up on the young man’s neck. He felt the press of something other- than on his entire being. The presence intensified. He feared for his life. “Back off, God. Enough. I can’t take anymore.” The presence lifted. He knew in that moment he had just come face to face with the essence of God, the essence theologians call, “Holiness.” Glen Brown’s life changed forever.

In Genesis 32, Jacob returns to his home country many years after a personal treachery. He stole his brother’s rightful birthright, the blessing of a sick blind father intended for his twin brother Esau. His own name, “deceiver”, betrays his character. And the mighty brother Esau awaits. He asks himself, “Will he kill me? He is coming to meet me with four hundred men.” Jacob sends the others across the river. That night he camps alone. He confronts a man and they struggle through the night, neither can subdue the other. The stranger touches Jacob’s hip and throws it out of joint, still Jacob will not let go. “I will not let you go until you bless me.” The stranger replies, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome.” Jacob knew what he didn’t know early that night. “So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, ‘It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.’ ” Jacob’s life changed forever.

Glen pursued God with a whole heart. He is forever my father’s hero. You see, Glen is my uncle. He served God as a pastor, a Navy Chaplain, a missionary, a philanthropist. Most important to me, he loved me. He invested in me best he knew how and that wasn’t the easiest. I was a gifted young man with elusive deficits. Some of us require a longer journey upon the road of sanctification. But he loved me, never condemned me, and he taught me so much by his disciplined example. I rarely open a commentary or my Greek Testament without the image flashing in my brain of my uncle at his desk. I often check in with the memories of my uncle when I confront sin. Glen was fearless without being mean. Glen passed away at the age of 89. I listened to him say goodbye to his sisters the day before he died. Death interrupted another missionary journey to the Ukraine. He taught me my most important lesson in death, service to the Great God never ends.

“But now you have been set free from sin and become slaves to God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life.”  Romans 6:22  Holiness is much more than a collection of good deeds. It connotes communion with the divine presence of Almighty God.  God’s essence, the Holy Spirit, abides in and with us. This, my friends, is our first taste of heaven. Do you know this intimacy, have you sensed the holiness of presence? It forever changed my uncle’s life. It marked a new defining chapter in Jacob’s life. That presence continues to transform my life. I am consumed with my sense of service to God. I thrill to be his slave. A life well lived leaves a legacy, a forward momentum that cannot be fully appreciated until heaven welcomes us. Glen’s legacy lives in my heart. That life changing face to face with God in a darkened photography studio changed my life as well. So again, be bold, seek his face. In the end, Christ is all that matters.

Kobe: Redemption, Purpose

Posted: January 28, 2020 in Meditations

 

“No man has the power over the wind to contain it; so no one has the power over the day of his death.”   Ecclesiastes 8:8

Sunday, January 26, 2020, Kobe Bryant died in a helicopter crash, nine dead, no survivors. A text, moments before our annual church business meeting, broke the news, my heart froze. I looked around, nobody knew, but I did. I silently prayed for the victims’ families. “No one can comprehend what goes on under the sun. Despite all his efforts to search it out, man cannot discover its meaning.”  Ecclesiastes 8:17  I shuddered at images of unimaginable grief and all I could say was, “Holy Spirit, love them. Angels of heaven, gather round them. Family and friends, hold them.”

The world grieved. The internet exploded with condolences and tributes. Tragedy has a peculiar way with our hearts and minds when it visits our immortals. Time freezes, every nuance of our surroundings in that moment forever etched in our memory. My mind wanders to the second floor hallway at Roosevelt Elementary School. I was in the fourth grade, November 22, 1963. Jimmy Wojahn went home for lunch that day and as soon as he saw me he said, “President Kennedy got shot.” Within the hour, Principal Bremburger announced, “President Kennedy is dead.”  Most of us live life like we are never going to die. Alan Alda once joked, “I know I’m going to die, just not in my lifetime.” At 41 years old, Kobe reigned at the peak of his powers. An icon on the court, Kobe now plied his genius to a multi billion dollar business empire. Great parents, four daughters and a beautiful wife graced his life. Future horizons shined bright. No fear, no limits: who dared to doubt Kobe’s will to win? And now he is gone. If death snatched the great Kobe Bryant, what of us?

” ‘Meaningless! Meaningless!’ says the Teacher. ‘Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.’ ”  Ecclesiastes 1:2

Kobe, at the age of 25, ruled the basketball world. The athleticism, the work ethic, the will to win, the thirst to dominate: Kobe Bryant stood upon an Olympus of his own making. Only Kobe can speak to his heart at the moment secret sin exploded upon a very public world. The consequences of sin detonated everything Kobe held sacred. In that moment, Kobe faced the loss of integrity, the loss of his marriage. He stood alone, scared out of his mind, 25 years in prison as a sex offender loomed as a real threat. By his own admission, he had walked away from God. In desperation, he now ran to the cross. He never looked back. With God’s help, he rebuilt his relationships, reconciled with his wife. Kobe opened his heart, his time, and his pocketbook to the service of others. He found favor in the eyes of God.

“Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.”  Ecclesiastes 12;13

Life is meaningless without God. That is the message of Ecclesiastes. Kobe’s death rocked all of our worlds. He lived life with an intensity few of us will ever know. And now he is gone, but we live. How will we respond to life on this day, in this moment? Have you fallen asleep at the wheel of life? Have you forgotten the God who created you, who loves you, who desires relationship with you? Jesus said to John in a vision, “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.”  Revelation 3:20  Kobe Bryant confessed his sin in the darkest hour and found redemption. “Naked a man comes from his mother’s womb, and as he comes, so he departs.”  Ecclesiastes 5:15

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There are no second class citizens in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus extends his hand, “Come.” He offers redemption. Be bold, do the right thing. In the end, Christ is all that matters.

The Face of God

Posted: January 26, 2020 in Meditations
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Sixty years ago a young boy scratched out his school lessons in the red dirt of equatorial Africa. His home was a rural town, the tribe’s pride and identity exuded from the elephants that roamed their land. Its people worked hard, their loyalty to each other ran deep. Mom and Dad had nominal educations but harbored big dreams for their children. The young boy grew into a young man’s body. He was bright, at sixteen he carried ambition and dreams. “Father, I’ve been offered a good job in the big city. I can work and go to the community college.” Father paused, “No, son, wait. As long as you have a chance at going to the national university, wait.” In a country of over 40 million people, only 1000 students got accepted into the university each year, most with connections to privilege. The young man’s chances were slim at best yet Dad said, “Wait”. This simple family knew one important detail, the God of the Bible makes the impossible possible.

Years of hard work and a precocious mind paid off. A young man from hard scrabble town received an acceptance letter from the university. His scores, prodigious by any standard, were forwarded to the best universities in America. He got offers from Yale, Harvard, Stanford, and Johns Hopkins. He chose Johns Hopkins. Today, this father of six is one of the foremost medical research scientists in the world. Many of our genetic breakthroughs originated from his research in his laboratories. Who knew? God knew.

Last year I sat at a large dinner celebration for a wedding. A young lady was wheeled in by her parents and parked at the adjoining table. I knew immediately that this precious daughter had never walked and never talked. She seemed oblivious to her surroundings, the eyes vacant. The Holy Spirit grabbed hold of my heart. I did not see a severely disabled child, I saw the face of God. I saw the sacredness of life, I felt the accountability for my own life, a life breathed into existence to glorify my creator, the Great God, Infinite Goodness. I saw in this young girl my future. I prayed this prayer, “Lord, someday, when this child and myself serve you in heaven, let me do an assignment with this girl and let her lead the way.” I saw what God sees. No matter how we are compromised in the eyes of man, we are never compromised in the eyes of God.

“Philip went to look for Nathaniel and told him, ‘We have found the very person Moses and the prophets wrote about! His name is Jesus, the son of Joseph from Nazareth.’ ‘Nazareth!’ exclaimed Nathaniel. ‘Can anything good come from Nazareth?’ ”  John 1:45,46  Nathaniel is no different from us. We judge others all the time. You went to Yale? You must be a smarty. Grew up in the slums of Baltimore, the backwater of equatorial Africa? Nobody of note is going to know your name. You have a child with profound challenges? Glad I’m not you. You get the point. We make snap judgments about the worth of individuals everyday. Jesus got “Nazareth” and “the carpenter’s son” label hung on him day in and day out. Jesus shared a parable in which the righteous were given their reward. The righteous were a bit confused and asked, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go visit you?” The King answered, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”  Matthew 25:37-40

Every individual is sacred unto God. I recently talked to a seventeen year old Hispanic girl who has been verbally abused. I said, “Love in our hearts is so crucial. Never surrender your heart to hate. Sometimes it is so difficult to see the face of God in others because of the warp of evil. ” Apart from God’s work in our heart, we will fail to see beyond the warp of evil, whether it be our heart or their heart. John wrote, “Dear friends, since God loved us, we  also ought to love one another.”  1 John 4:11  Jesus showed us the way, he affirmed the face of God in all of us. He loved us, he died for us. Now love others. Don’t measure worth, don’t give in to prejudice and hurt. Love, affirm, invest, all to the glory of God. Be bold, in the end, Christ is all that matters.