Sunday, January 25, 2009

Bernie...and His Gift.

As he sits on the stool on the platform, he looks like a weight lifter...his massive shoulders, chest and biceps stretching his shirt to its limits. His eyes sparkle as he turns and smiles at the keyboard player and picks up his microphone. As the music starts, he struggles to stand to his feet and he looks out over the congregation. And then it happens...the sanctuary is filled with a most beautiful sound! The voice that is projected from this middle aged Hispanic man is not what I expected. I have heard a lot of worship singers over the past 20 years, but I'm not sure I've ever heard a voice as anointed of God as this one is. His passion for his worship can't be hidden and impacts every person in the room.

As the praise and worship time comes to a close, one of the pastors walks up the three steps to the platform and helps Bernie down to the pews. It is then that you can see the bottom of the brace that supports his polio impacted legs. Without the braces or crutches, this gifted man wouldn't be able to get onto the stage and lead the worship service. It makes you wonder why a man who loves God so much and has dedicated his life to praising and worshiping Him would be so physically afflicted.

I had a chance to hear his testimony this morning and he spoke directly into my heart. He was born in Mexico to his mom who birthed eleven children. Two of the children, both sons, died at a very early age from fever. When Bernie was diagnosed with Polio at the age of one, his mom didn't think that she could survive the loss of another child. A Christian woman, she prayed to God a prayer similar to Hannah's in the book of 1Samuel. She told God that if He would spare this young boy, she would give him into God's service. Bernie survived the Polio with a crippled left leg and his mom kept her promise and he practically lived in the church house.

Gifted with a beautiful voice and an ear for music, Bernie found himself leading worship in his local church before he turned 10 years old. At first, he led from the front pew near the guitar players, but soon found himself on the platform in front of the congregation. He never learned to read music, but he could learn a song by listening to it once and could begin singing in nearly any key as soon as he heard the first note played.

Although raised in the church and clearly anointed by God, the enemy still managed to find Bernie's ear and whisper his poisonous lies.

"Your still crippled because your not good enough to be healed", the voice spoke to him. Bernie would not only hear the silent voice, but church members began to murmur that if he was holy enough, surely God would have healed him by now. It was definitely Bernie's fault that he was still a cripple.

Even though he had been prayed for literally thousands of times for a miraculous healing, the leg remained weak and crippled. And before long, Bernie began to believe the voice that would whisper to him in the morning as he would struggle to strap his brace on so that he could stand. Though he loved God and believed in the miracles of Jesus, Bernie believed that there was something wrong with him that was so bad that God wouldn't answer his prayers for healing.

I've been where Bernie was during that season of his life...a time when I believed that I was not worthy enough in God's eyes for him to answer my prayers. Though I wasn't praying for a physical miracle like he was, nonetheless, I was still lifting my prayers to God for deliverance from the sin in my life. And I know others were praying as well. Why wasn't God answering? Why weren't the demons leaving me? Why did I have to continue to live like this? The author of the same lies that spoke to Bernie were talking to me as well.

"God won't free you because you have failed to many times", the voice would say. "You will never be good enough and God will never accept you." And I began to believe the voice because as hard as I tried, I would continue to find myself back in my sin, seemingly deeper than I was before.

Even with the self-blame that he felt, Bernie continued to sing and lead worship. Week after week, he would struggle to get up the steps onto the platform of whatever church he might be in that weekend. At times, his brace was broken and he would find himself using his crutches to slowly move himself into position. Having to use his crutches instead of a hidden brace deepened his sense of guilt. "Surely everyone must think I'm an evil sinner if I'm still crippled and God hasn't healed me", echoed through his mind on more than one occasion.

But as God always seems to do, He revealed to Bernie through a young man who saw Bernie praising and worshipping, even through his disability, that God can and will use anyone. The young man gave his life to Jesus one night after watching Bernie lead the worship service in his church. Shortly after that, a man of God shared with Bernie a word of prophesy concerning his condition.

"God could have healed you at any time, Bernie", he said. "But you are much more valuable to Him in your current condition."

As Bernie shared that part of his story today, I paused and thought about that prophesy and God spoke into my own heart at that moment.

I've wondered over the past five years why I had to fall as deep and hard as I did. Why did I have to lose everything? God has since released me from the bondage that I struggled with for so many years, so I know that He could have done it years ago. I heard the answer today.

I was a very good teacher and an outstanding school administrator. I loved what I did and believe that I was impacting a lot of people in a very positive way. I would have been more than satisfied to spend my 35 years in public education, retire and find a way to continue to work in the profession. But, "you are more valuable to Him in your current condition." echoes in my mind this afternoon.

I'm slowly coming to understand that this life is not all about me. At times, it has been a very painful and confusing lesson. All through life, it seems that we're told to look out for "number one". That doesn't mean that we step on people to get to the top, but our society puts a great deal of focus on getting ahead. But that is not necessarily always God's plan. If we allow him to , He will use our circumstances of failure, whether physical or otherwise, and use them to impact this world we occupy in ways we could never imagine.

Like Bernie, God has gifted me. It wasn't with the voice of an angel like Bernie has it. It was with a spirit of obedience and a willingness to accept what His will is for my life. Like Bernie, some days my crutches are visible, and at other times, I'm braced by God's power in my life. And like Bernie, I no longer listen to the voice that speaks shame, but instead listen to the Voice the gives life.

Photos from Flickr

Saturday, January 17, 2009

The "Pledge"...

"I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America,

and to the Republic for which it stands:

one Nation under God, indivisible,

With Liberty and Justice for all."

Today was a momentous day in American that the media and all of the political pundits have been hyping since November 4. An African-American man was sworn in as the 44th president of the United States. As I watched the inauguration as it was streamed on the Internet while at work today, it caused me to pause and reflect on this country that we live in.

Each morning, one of the local Christian radio stations invites an elementary school classroom to recite the "Pledge of Allegiance" and they broadcast it on the air. As you can imagine, the voices are loud...and seemingling proud, as they children share these words with the listeners. At times, it's difficult to know exactly what all of the words are as they struggle with the correct pronunciations and tend to run some of the words together.

The combination of the kids reciting the pledge and the plethora of "red, white and blue" that were so prevalent today made me think about those words that I memorized as a young child and have recited myself so many times over the past 40 plus years. I'm not certain that as I learned the words to this short series of words that I ever really took the time to think about what they really mean.

"I Pledge allegiance" - do we really understand what those three words mean? No word is wasted in that short introduction. I am proclaiming that "I" as an individual am taking an action. It's not up to the next guy...or the guy down the street...or the gal in front of me at the latte stand. "I" am the one stating "my" involvement. Webster defines "pledge" as a "binding promise or agreement to do". I wonder how many of us really take that word literally as we numbly go through motions of reciting the pledge. The "obligation, devotion and loyalty" that we are promising are all too often simply an empty promise.

"to the flag, of the United States of America" - the flag...the symbol of this country that we live in. Some people take the word "flag" here too literally. I don't believe that the pledge is referring to the red, white and blue rectangular piece of fabric. We are pledge our allegiance to a symbol that represents our country. We are a group of people within the boundaries of North America that share something in common.

"and to the republic, for which it stands" - This "republican" form of government that we live in is a unique form of government, but certainly not invented by Americans. Rome was a republic...until the Caesars took control. There are countries that call themselves "Republics" that fall far short of the definition. In this country, we are a republic because we vote for those people that lead us. Today was a celebration of that process as a new president was sworn into office to lead us for the next four years. The flag that we stare at as we make the pledge represents this great country that we live in. A country that could never have elected a black man president fifty years ago because of the deep seeds of racism that permeated our society.

"One nation under God, indivisible" - There are times when it seems that we are so different as a country that to use the phrase "one nation" seems a stretch of the truth. But that's what we are, and always have been. This country was created by uniting a group of thirteen colonies made up of peoples of different nationalities and cultures. While predominantly Christian, the people were not all of the same church. But they were alike enough to put their difference behind them and unite together in a common cause...freedom. While the phrase "under God" was added to the pledge about 55 years ago, the history of this nation definitely demonstrates that God has always held a central position for the people. Our history is also full of examples that even with all of the differences that we find across the continent that we call home, we will not allow anyone, or anything, divide this country. Whether it is a difference in belief related to slavery, or attacks by enemies who live outside our nation's boundaries, the country has not allowed itself to be broken apart.

"with liberty" - simply said, liberty is freedom. It is the foundation of why we are a country...why we fought against England in the Revolutionary War and the single word that defines us as a country. Sometimes, we forget that freedom has boundaries...that freedom doesn't mean that we can exercise our freedom at the expense of someone else's. It is a word that elicits strong emotions when someone threatens to take it away from us in any form...whether it's our freedom to own a firearm or freedom to talk on our cell phone while driving our car. We don't easily part with the "freedoms" that we have.

"and justice for all." - I've learned a lot about justice over the past five years...and in some cases injustice. But the pledge is a reminder to me that the goal is that everyone in our country is to be afforded justice, regardless of who we are and what we've done. Unfortunately, emotions tend to get in the way of that lofty goal at times. It seems that some "violations" become "causes" and those causes can steam-roll the justice that our pledge proclaims...for all.

In the future, as I place my hand over my heart and recite the pledge, I hope that I take the time to reflect on the words instead of simply blindly speaking them. I hope that others around me do the same...and that as a country, we move back toward the lofty goals that this simple pledge proclaims.

Photo by Flickr

Monday, January 12, 2009

Finding the Rainbow.

I didn't recognize it and I have to admit, that bothers me some. My sister did..but I just thought that I was tired. It had been a long week and I hadn't been sleeping well. But after plenty of rest on Saturday and Sunday, I still felt the same way. That was when I started to do a little bit of self-reflection and realized what was wrong.

I'm fortunate in the fact that I don't often suffer from depression. When I think about my life, there are a lot of things to be depressed about, and in retrospect, there always have been. Maybe it's because I have always simply buried any feeling before they had a chance to become depressing...I'm not certain. I've found that the more I allow my feelings to emerge...or at least come close to the surface, the more often I fight the feelings of fatigue and loneliness.

It didn't take me too long to figure out the source of my depression over the weekend. I had talked to Paula on Friday night...another very good talk, and she shared that she had decided to invest in a "memory" for the grandkids as a Christmas gift. She is taking them all (and our kids) to Great Wolf Lodge for a weekend later this winter. I was (and still am) really excited for her and the kids. We had done a similar thing when AJ and KaLee were between 1 & 2 years old at a hotel in Seattle. It was so great to be with the grandbabies in the pool and simply watch them have fun...and have fun with them.

Things have obviously changed a lot since then. This time, I won't be along for the trip. That bothered me some...and I'm sure maybe initially triggered the depression. But what kept me there is the knowledge that even if I were invited, I couldn't go. I'm simply not allowed to have that kind of contact with kids and it breaks my heart. I dread the day that little AJ asks me to go fishing or golfing with him...or to go watch one of his football or baseball games and I have to tell him that grandpa can't go because of the trouble I got into five years ago. He knows I went to prison, so he will understand (I hope), but it will still be so hard if I ever get invited back into the kid's lives to have to say "no".

I think a lot about why I even dream of wanting to re-establish the relationships with my family. Am I simply being selfish? Wouldn't it just make their lives more difficult if I was back in their lives? Would they all just be happier if I wasn't around? I know these thoughts are bred in the depths of depression, but nonetheless, they are there sometimes.

Right now, my future is a big unknown. But I am fortunate because I trust in the One who knows my future. It may not end up being all that I dream about, but I know that it will be good because He says it will be. He has never lied to me yet, and I don't expect Him to start now. We all live in a time where there is great uncertainty about almost everything. Jobs. Finances. Peace/war. Relationships. But even with all the uncertainty, I know that He is always there with me...watching over me and guiding me if I keep my ears open to His voice.

Today was a better day. Just knowing why I was feeling the way I was made it better. I'm slowly learning that become transparent...not only with others, but with myself too, is helping me to become a better and healthier person. Like the rainbow that emerges through the mist as you look at the sun, I just need to remember to look into myself for the truth when I feel the storm brewing within me.

Monday, January 5, 2009


The lone figure hurriedly shuffled up the wind-swept street, the snow and wind swirling around him. The street was deserted...everyone nestled inside by their fires. He moved past the Long Branch Saloon, dragging his lame leg as quickly as he could. His head was tilted forward for protection from the harsh, bitterly cold wind. He barely noticed the General Store as he quickly moved along, finally coming to the boardwalk that ran in front of his destination.

Inside, the Marshall was sitting at his desk, looking through the latest "wanted" posters that had arrived in the weekly mail. He heard him before he saw him...the 'clunk-drag, clunk-drag' as he came closer to the door. Before he had a chance to get out of his chair, the front door to the jail burst open, letting in the bitter cold from outside. Standing in the doorway was a man...slim in build, snow falling from his hat as he lifted it from his head. His eyes red and watery...were they tears or was it from the weather, the Marshall couldn't tell.

"Marshall Dillon! Marshall Dillon!" the man stammered as he stood in the doorway, unaware that he had failed to close it behind him.

"Close the door and come in Chester before you let all this heat out", the Marshall said as he walked over to the pot-belly stove to fill a tattered and dented cup with steaming coffee from the ever-present coffee pot of the top of the stove. "What brings you out in this storm tonight, Chester? "

Chester struggled to find the words, choking back his tears. His voice barely audible over the howling wind outside.

"It's Festus", he whispered. "Miss Kitty just helped me take him yonder over to Doc's office. I'm a feared he's really bad Marshall."

Immediately the Marshall straightened up and reached to the wall to grab his hat. Pulling on his oilskin coat, he looked at his friend standing in front of him...seemingly lost.

"What's wrong with him?", the Marshall asked. "Did he get shot or throwed from his horse?"

"That's jes it Marshall. I dunno...and Miss Kitty don't neither."

Bracing the cold wind, the Marshall and Chester pass back out into the dark winter night. They lean into the wind as they make their way back up the path Chester had made only moments before. His bootprints barely visible as the blowing snow seemed to erase any evidence that he had been there. As he approached the stairs leading up to Doc's office, the Marshall paused.

"What if he don't make it this time?", he wondered to himself. Festus had made many trips to old Doc Adam's office over the years he had served as his deputy. But something in his gut told him this time might be a little different. He slowly made his way up the wooded stairs, Chester following a few steps behind him. As he opened the door, Miss Kitty was in the outer room staring at the closed door of the room in the back.

She turned as she heard the men enter the room.

"Oh, Matt!", she cried as she leaned into him, burying her face in the hard fabric of his oil-skin jacket. "I've never seen Festus look this bad. He's bleeding in places he shouldn't be. Doc's in with him right now." As she looked up into the Marshall's face, tears slowly streaked down her face, leaving winding trails through her make-up.

Suddenly, all eyes moved to the door in the back of the room as it opened. The white-haired Doc emerged from the room, his face haggard and tired. He rubbed his hand over his face and down over his day-old whiskers.

"How is he Doc?", the Marshall asked. The room was as quiet as a mausoleum as the Doc slowly walked over and sat down. He looked up at the Marshall and then shifted his gaze, first to Miss Kitty and then to Chester.

"I'm pretty sure he's gonna make it...this time", the Doc said. "He seems to be messed up inside some, I dunno for sure...but I don't think it's cancer. I think maybe the bleeding's cuz he's been spending too much time sitting in his saddle."

The entire room seemed to let out its collective breath as the Doc's words sunk in. Festus was going to be least for now.

Growing up with only one channel on a black and white TV set that we first got when I was almost eight years old, the classic Western "Gunsmoke" was a weekly tradition in our home. Over the years, the characters on the program became almost as familiar as our own family. Among those characters was a scraggly-faced deputy sheriff named Festus. He wasn't my favorite character and he definitely was NOT attractive. And other than the Festus that we find in the Book of Acts in the Bible, he was the only one I ever knew who bore that name. That is...until I met MY Festus.

Festus is a beautiful cat who lives with my younger brother. Like his name-sake on Gunsmoke, I think Festus could have been on a "commercial actor". He has a face that belongs on a can of Friskie's cat food or some other product designed for felines. If there was such a thing as a "cat agent", Festus should have had one. He'd be a millionaire cat by now.

He's getting quite old...I'm not sure how many years, but I believe he's more than 15 years old. He is beginning to show his age...he moves slowly. He can't jump as high...either up or down. Just this past weekend, he tried to jump up on the desk as I was working on the computer...and he didn't make it. His pride was definitely hurt as he pretended that it was no big deal that he landed back on the floor instead of the desk top, slowly walking around the office as if nothing had happened. But we both knew. I gently reached down and picked him up and set him on the desk next to me where he likes to sit and watch as I read and write on the computer.

He did go to the doctor this week. He had been passing blood in his stool and my brother's wife was concerned that it might be cancer. He had seemed pretty lethargic all weekend and appeared to be in some kind of pain. While the tests weren't conclusive, it appeared that Festus is least for now.

I know that one of these times when I go to visit Geoff, my favorite cat isn't going to be there. Like the tears in Miss Kitty's eyes, I suspect that Lynn will have tears in her own eyes as she has to tell me that Festus is gone. And when that happens, I know a little part of me will be gone as well. I know that he is only a cat...but he is a cat who loves. That's not a trait readily found in cats.

The Marshall and Chester slowly walk back through the deserted streets toward the Marshall's office. They had just dropped Miss Kitty off at the Long Branch and as they reached the board-walk in front of the office, Chester turned to the Marshall.

"I wonder what it would be like if we lost Festus, Marshall? I dunno what I'd do."

What will it be like?
Gunsmoke pictures from Flickr
Festus the Cat picture by me.