Have faith. Have faith.

John Leavy LockeRamblings from my head – from January 22, 2016, the day that would have been John Leavy Locke’s 43rd birthday.

When I was 4, I used to sit on the sidewalk in front of my house & watch the 3 boys across the street play in their front yard. And I thought they were so lucky because they had brothers that were old enough to play with. And all I had was a 1-year old little brother, Johnny, that wasn’t good for much except crying & refusing to eat his peas & carrots. One day, my dad came out & sat next to me on the curb while I watched the neighbors playing, again, & he told me, “Before you know it, Johnny will be big & he’ll be able to play & you guys will have so much fun. And he will grow up to be your best friend.” I can remember thinking in my head, “Maybe. But that time is SO FAR away…”

But it happened. Johnny grew up. And we DID become best friends – we spent our childhood playing baseball & football from dawn til dusk in the backyard. One of my favorite things was to teach Johnny how to do something – we had a baseball tee in the backyard, & he was trying to hit the ball off the tee, without success. He said, “Help me Louie!?” And I did. And I loved it.

Sometimes the games carried into the house, with the predictable destructive results to the house – & also to Johnny – I remember trying to teach him what form tackling was in the living room. I was on my knees to make it fair – & he ran the football towards the end zone (aka the fireplace) & I launched myself at him & sent him sprawling. I was so proud of my form tackle that I didn’t notice him get up & run as fast as he could to the back of the house. I yelled at him, “Come back here you chicken. You have to tackle me now.” He didn’t come back… turns out when he fell he hit his forearm on a screw sticking out of an open door – & his forearm was sliced open, clean as a whistle, no blood at all, from his wrist to his elbow. Good times.

We did everything together – early morning paper routes, collecting baseball cards, cheering for the hapless SF Giants, feeding the dogs & chickens… although somehow he found ways to be missing when it was time to clean the chicken coops. Johnny was a great athlete, probably the best out of the four of us boys, & worked incredibly hard at everything he did. When I was 12, my Little League manager pulled Johnny up from the Farm division & promoted him to Majors. We got to play ½ a season together… & it was obvious that while I still had the upper hand, he was going to be much, much better than I was at baseball. I remember one of my teammates asking me if I was mad that my brother was on our team now… I said, “Nope. He’s good.”

The older we got, the better friends we became…And the more intense our fights got. I’d wake him up in the morning & he’d welcome me with a baseball aimed at my head. We’d wrestle & somehow I’d end up with a bloody nose because Johnny had ‘accidentally” kneed or elbowed me in the face… again. Our conversations shifted towards topics fitting our teen years… Sports. Girls. Music. His interest in “New Wave” fashion – he was a fashion-ista & rocked board shorts, surfer t-shirt & black/white/red Air Jordans as easily as he did cool pegged jeans, top-siders, & pastel button ups. Goodness, he was confident – so sure of himself, much more so than I ever was. I appreciated his strength, his sarcasm, his ability to show compassion, his loyalty, as well as the killer instinct on a football/baseball field. He was my best friend.

The memories whirl around me like I’m in the eye of a hurricane, & they’re flying around me, so vividly faint that I feel overcome… & I don’t want them to stop.


When Johnny was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma, everything in our family got turned upside down. My strong, independent brother became fragile & dependent on others for the most basic of tasks. He spent quite a bit of his last months in San Francisco receiving experimental treatments in the hope that his body would rebound. I didn’t know how to deal with the hurt, pain, grief, & other negative emotions I felt, so I did what I knew: I poured myself into work, hoping beyond hope that when I finally lifted my nose off the grindstone, everything would be back to normal. It never happened.

And through it all, I watched my little brother Johnny grow as he experienced the closeness of a God who would never leave or forsake him, even when he was walking through the Valley of the shadow of death. In many ways, my faith in Christ had been theoretical – never before tested; then, right in front of my eyes, I got to see what it looked like to persevere in the face of adversity, to find joy & peace in times of despair & chaos. I got to see & hear the response of a 17 year old who was asked, “So, do you want to die in the hospital or at home?” He said, “I’m going home. And if I die, I will bring God glory. And if I live, I will bring Him glory. Either way, I win.” And he meant it.

In his last days, Johnny received assurances from heaven in the form of dreams. He didn’t go into a whole lot of detail about them, but there was a calm, a peace, a sort of anticipation present in his eyes & his countenance. He was in & out of consciousness quite a bit – one of the last things he said to my parents was, “Have faith. Have faith.” And he meant it.

Saturday night, June 16, 1990, Joni & I visited my parents home & Johnny in the downstairs – he was mostly out of it, but we hung out for a while & talked to him. We got up to leave & I told him I loved him. As I walked up the stairs, I can remember him faintly saying, “Love you Louie.”

We got a call from my mom early the next morning – Johnny had gone to be with Jesus at 4:34 a.m. Sunday, June 17, 1990. Father’s Day. His last words: “Help me Louie!?”

I’m still trying to “help him” everyday…


Within this last year, my two sons have gotten married; myWeez, my little princess, got engaged. So many things like this I wish I could share with my brother. So many things I wish my kids would have gotten to know about him, & having him involved in their lives. I feel like his physcial presence would more readily explain the passion with which my son Johnny attacks life; the fiercely compassionate temperament of my son Joey; the wit, sense of humor, & smile of theWeez. They’re a lot like him & don’t even know it.

I see Johnny in each of them, & I’m so glad that these parts of Johnny living on into the next generation.

So, in his honor, & to the glory of God I say to you today, “Have faith. Have faith.”

Happy birthday Johnny.

Through the valley…in the fire…

Yesterday I had the privilege of sitting with dear friends, a couple that’s been married over 50 years. The wife is recovering from cancer surgery… recovering well. We’ve believed for a good prognosis & post-surgery update. It turns out the doctor’s report said the cancer they went in to get was “got…” but… There were other cancer cells that they found somewhere else. And they weren’t contained. And the doctors were in the process of putting together a plan of attack, a plan for treatment. The room swam in front of us.

My friends are faith-filled. Hopeful. Tired. Sad. The whole gamut of emotions. Wanting to hear what the doctors will say, & at the same time knowing that the doctor’s prognosis isn’t the final word.


I had a flashback. Cancer. My brother Johnny – he had an (at the time) experimental treatment in the attempt to eradicate the non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma that had ravaged his body… the bone marrow transplant. I remember hearing the all-too-simple sum up of what this procedure entailed: 1st, the docs harvest the bone marrow from the hip; 2nd they bombard him with enough chemo to kill the cancer & hopefully not him; 3rd, they reintroduce the bone marrow & hope that it acts like a ‘reset button’ allowing him to recover & heal, sans the cancer. Post-procedure, the news came in… it didn’t work. And there were more cancer cells, in other places. Not contained. One nurse callously asked him, “So, you want to die here or at home?” I could’ve punched her.

Johnny & I talked once about this upon his arrival at home – I asked him what he was thinking, especially about the prognosis he’d been given. He said, “I feel like Shadrach, Meshach, & Abednego. You know when they were threatened with the fiery furnace if they didn’t worship the golden image (you can read the story HERE.) This is my fiery furnace… & just like they said, ‘my God is able to deliver me from this… but even if He doesn’t, I’m still not gonna bow down.’”


That was the same general feeling/spirit in my office yesterday – no matter what, we will hold onto the fact that God is in charge, & that He is the one with the final say on our lives & when we go home to be with Him. And in the meantime, we will live with determination, persevering in our trust in Christ. With the knowledge that this faith in Christ really shines in the midst of our difficult times. He’s our Rock. Fortress. Deliverer. Healer. Salvation. The One who is with us, even as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death.

 

Sanctuary Guy & other musings…

One of my favorite things about my job is getting to know the kids that attend our preschool, Little Lites, during the week. I love going into their classes during lunch time & talking with them – & hearing how their days are going & what they’re thinking about. Because my now-grandson is in the preschool, most of the kids have taken to calling me what he does – “Pop-Pop Louie” or “Poppy Louie.”

There is one exception – one little 3 year old boy calls me “Sanctuary Guy.”

It comes from the times that I would lead worship for the preschoolers in the sanctuary – & for some reason, this little guy decided that “Sanctuary Guy” was the name he would call me. It’s always made me laugh, especially when he talks about me to his parents.

This last week, I was on my way to run errands & this little guy was standing in line waiting for lunchtime recess. I heard him yell my name, “Hey Sanctuary Guy!” I responded, “What’s up?” And he said, “Sanctuary Guy, my parents got in an argument this morning, & it made me feel really sad & I’m scared.”

I immediately knelt down to look him in the eye & asked him if I could pray for him – he said yes. I prayed for peace & joy, & for his parents to get along… At the end of the prayer, he said that it helped.  I got up to leave & almost made it out the door when he said, “Hey Sanctuary Guy! If my dad needs to talk to you from his work, would you talk to him?” I said, “Absolutely I would talk to your dad. I’d talk to your mom too if she wanted.” And he said, “Nope. My mom doesn’t need any help.”


 

Today marks the beginning of week 3 since we’ve been back from our sabbatical… still getting used to the routine of work & life again… slowly adjusting to wearing real shoes…  The thing I miss most about our time away is the uninterrupted days with theBean. No distractions. No work to do. Nothing but each other & whatever fun we wanted to fill the day with. I’m trying to find ways to capture some of that in the middle of life’s hecticness – to remind myself (& theBean) of the great gift God has given to me in her. I love that woman.


 

A birthday ode, to theBean…

I love to hold theBean’s hand. Love it. I can remember the first time I ever did – it was August 21, 1988 & we were walking across the Florence Avenue Church parking lot, & I used the excuse of wanting to “keep her safe & close” in case there were any runaway vehicles. In the parking lot. She didn’t let go. (Point of order: we had actually touched hands accidentally on August 12, downstairs at my parents house – I was watching baseball… go figure –  but once I realized what was happening, I tried to play like I didn’t know our fingers were touching. And of course I left my hand there. But I digress.)


A little background:

TheBean was headed into her Senior year at Sonora Union High, & was preparing to go to UCDavis & study medicine. To become an osteopathic physician. She’d served as a trainer for the Varsity football team & loved it, & figured a career in medicine would be just the thing for a girl that A) didn’t want/need a man to support her & B) didn’t want kids. She even worked at a local eatery in her spare time (looking back: where she found the time, I have no idea, between school, cheerleading, training, etc… She always has been good at doing  a lot & doing it well.)

And then there was an US.

We both realized at the same time that this was the person we wanted to spend the rest of our lives with – we didn’t tell each other that we KNEW what the other was thinking… I think it was the first time that we’d read each others face with a glance, the first of thousands.  This lightning bolt changed everything for both of us, but mostly for theBean. I remember the day she told me, “Where you go, I’ll go. Where you live, I’ll live.” I was taken aback by the commitment, by the fierceness of her statement, so I asked her, “What about UCDavis & becoming a doctor?” Her answer? “Now that I have you, what I really want is to be a team with you, in what you do… to support you. To support US.”  I know that I did not at that moment understand the enormity of the decision she made, the incredible tidal wave of love that choice brought with it, nor the cost she would pay (willingly) to follow through on it.


So instead of pursuing medicine, theBean pursued US. We got married July 1, 1989.  Instead of pursuing school, she picked up a food service job, the first of a few she would work in Reno/Carson over an almost 25 year period: El Charro Avitia, Carson Station Grille/Rotisserie, Pinocchio’s, & Starbucks.) In each job, theBean found herself rising to the top, a valued employee, skilled in customer service, the best at hospitality. A person  loved by management & her fellow employees. (Sound familar? :)

I’ve never worked food service, so I didn’t know one of the downsides of the job is that your hands are always in bleach water/sanitizer. And the constant exposure to this wreaks havoc on your hands, drying them out to the point where they get cracked, rough, & raw.  I don’t think I ever really noticed theBean’s hands being rough, but she did. (Remember, I love holding her hand.) She was self-conscious about the state of her hands, & often when I’d take her hand she’d make a comment about how dry they were or how bad of shape they were in. I didn’t really pay attention to that. I just wanted to hold her hand.


Nevada’s dry climate + 25 years of exposure to bleach water/santizer DID make theBean’s hands perpetually dry, & I know she still battles the self-consciousness of how her hands must feel to me. I’ll tell you what I think:

When I hold mytheBean’s hand, I feel the hand of the woman who traded in the pursuit of her solo dream to hitch herself to the idea of an even better dream in her eyes, the dream of US.

I feel the hand of a woman who has worked hard – enduring the demands of being on her feet all day/evening; who endured stupid, rude, & inappropriately flirty demanding customers; who survived on not enough sleep; who sacrificed for me, for US, & for our family.

I feel the hand of a woman who has contended for us to be a team in life & work, even through my own stubborn pig-headed meanness, selfishness, & times I didn’t treat her right.

I feel the hand of a woman who has never, ever, once given up on me or held a grudge, & has extended grace, mercy, & forgiveness through dark & stormy days & nights.

I feel the hand of a woman who could have chosen to do whatever she wanted to do in this life, a woman who is beautiful, intelligent, hospitable, hard-working, driven, a visionary… the kind of woman I’m proud that theWeez has become, the kind of woman that I have prayed that my sons would have the privilege of marrying someday.

When I hold mytheBean’s hand, I feel the evidence of her lifetime of love & devotion. It doesn’t feel rough to me – it feels as beautiful as the first time we touched. She has been, is, & will continue to be the girl of my dreams (the good ones, not the bad ones,) myOne, myOwn, myLover.

Happy birthday Bean. You are loved. You are IT for me. And will be. As long as we both shall live… 

Thanksgiving weekend & stuff…

At Hillside, we believe that one of our main purposes as a church is to help people find, understand, & follow God’s plan for their lives. This means moving people towards self-discovery, helping them uncover & develop their God-given gifts, & talents, exploring their hopes & dreams, & hearing God’s direction & moving towards it.

This Sunday, we welcome our friends Anthony & Ally Siwajian back to Hillside for a visit. They were a part of Hillside for several years until moving to Los Angeles almost 2 years ago to pursue their dreams. Currently, Ally is working at the Foursquare Headquarters in the Communications department, & Anthony is writing the next great fantasy novel. (True story – I’ve read some of the rough draft.)

These are two people who are gifted, articulate, authentic, sincere, compassionate, invested in Isaiah 58-style social justice, & they are even nerdy like me (they met in a Literature class at UNR on the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien.)  I miss them terribly, especially Anthony’s distinctive laugh. At the same time,   I also know that sometimes when people have found, understood, & begun to follow God’s plan for their lives, it takes them on a journey of a lifetime…. A journey out of Reno. These 2 are living well, & I am incredibly proud of them & the steps of faith they are taking daily.

We have 2 choices…

After having spent the last several months reading, studying, & now teaching through the Sermon on the Mount, I have drawn a couple of conclusions for myself that I don’t think I had before (or at least hadn’t identified.)

In this passage of Scripture, Christ defines exactly what it means to be His disciples:

  • in how we relate to & obey God & His commandments.
  • In establishing our priorities & values from which we live our lives.
  • in how we worship Him, not merely with our outward actions, but from the bottom of our hearts, with all that we have.
  • In how we interact with & care for other people.

Matthew 7 concludes with Jesus telling His disciples they have 2 choices: follow Him & walk in His ways, on His terms, or do anything else. He does this comparing:

  • 2 gates, the narrow and the wide. The narrow gate leads to life; the wide to destruction.
  • 2 types of trees, good & diseased, the good, which produces good fruit, the diseased which brings forth bad fruit.
  • 2 types of disciples – the ones He knows (those who do the will of the Father,) & those He doesn’t know, regardless of what they think they’ve done in His Name.
  • 2 foundations – Rock & sand, with the foundation of rock representing the person who hears & puts into practice His words; sand is the life foundation of the person who has heard His words, yet ignores them.

To me, the entirety of Matthew 5-7 can be summed up in Matthew 7:13,14 – the only way to experience God’s life & purpose is to enter through the narrow gate (Jesus) & to walk the hard road of obedience to God’s word, humbly choosing to do His will over our own. After re-reading this over & over, what stands out to me is that I cannot “self-define” where & how I will be Christ’s disciple. He’s already done that, & my choice is to embrace that & start walking with Him, or to choose the lesser (& easier) wide gate through which I can do what I’d like, how I like it… sifting through Christ’s commands & picking up those that are palatable, while leaving behind those that I deem are not.

Following Christ is hard – Jesus said it would be, because it involves denying our own selfish ambition, picking up Jesus’ way, & moving forward WITH Him.

Don’t be a judger…

“Judge not, that you not be judged. ”

When Jesus made the statement quoted above, what did He mean?  The following verses give us much clearer understanding – they say, in essence:

“In the same way & with the same measure you judge others, you will be judged. Before you try to take the speck of sawdust out of someone else’s eye, take the 2×4 out of your own.

Jesus challenges His disciples not to take a harsh, critical, nitpicking attitude towards others, especially if they haven’t first examined themselves to address & repent from the sin, wrong attitudes, & behaviors in their own lives.  And if the time comes to address an issue of wrong in someone else’s life, it has to be done in a manner that reflects Christ: with great love, compassion, humility, & mercy.

Something else that can help us get what Jesus meant when He said, “Don’t judge” is a better understanding of what “passing judgment” means: Passing judgment involves making a final pronouncement of “guilty” on another individual/group – think: a judge in a courtroom smashing his gavel down while saying “GUILTY”. In that situation, it’s over. It’s done.  All that’s left is the sentencing.  That role, ultimately, belongs to God (see Revelation 20) & “Judgment Day” isn’t here yet – now is the time for healing, restoration & salvation (2Corinthians 6).  So, if  we pass judgment on someone, we are, in essence, writing them off as hopeless cases. That’s not how God sees them (or us).

Jesus on $ MONEY $

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus challenged those that wanted to follow Him to recognize that God’s peoples’ priorities, values, thought processes, & actions run completely counter to those of the prevailing culture. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in the passage we’ll be exploring this week, Matthew 6:19-34.

Here’s what I mean. The desire to acquire MORE – money, possessions, & stuff is a part of the human condition. From the time we’re toddlers we learn that MORE is better. Jesus, however, encouraged His disciples to consider a new type of value system. He said:

“Don’t hoard treasure down here where it gets eaten by moths and corroded by rust or—worse!—stolen by burglars. Stockpile treasure in heaven, where it’s safe from moth and rust and burglars. It’s obvious, isn’t it? The place where your treasure is, is the place you will most want to be, and end up being.

In essence, He is reminding His followers to remember that we’re living in a different way by different values – rather than investing ourselves in acquiring treasure here on earth, treasure we could only have temporarily – by following His example & applying His way of thinking/acting, we can do something that will have an eternal impact.

I’m challenged to continually review my own priorities & values (especially in this area) & to ask the Holy Spirit to help me discern where I’m on/off track so that I can realign myself with Jesus’ way.

Jesus & the hypocrites…

Have you ever heard this (or a version of it)? “Hypocrites. I don’t go to church because of the hypocrites. You know, the people who say they’re Christians, but who don’t live it out.”  I don’t buy that definition – to me any follower of Christ could then be called a hypocrite, because even though we don’t want to sin, to do wrong, &/or miss the mark, we DO. That doesn’t make us hypocrites, it makes us humans in process. And rather than beat ourselves up over our failures, the response of a Christ-follower is to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, repent (turn from our wrong thinking & actions & turn to God) & relentlessly continue our relationship with God, through Christ, confident that we’re forgiven & He’s at work in our lives.

So what is a hypocrite? In Jesus’ day, the word “hypocrite” meant “actor; one who plays a role in the theater.” In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus called the religious leaders hypocrites, because their very loud & very public displays of devotion to God were merely an attempt to draw attention to themselves & make other people think they were “all that” – pious, devoted followers of God.

The religious hypocrites made sure EVERYONE knew when they were giving to a charity or making a donation to help a person in need. They’d actually have someone blow a trumpet as they gave in a way of saying “Hey! Look at me! I’m Awesome!.”

Their prayers were long & loud, delivered eloquently in public, with many flowery, spiritual sounding words. When they fasted (going without food for a predetermined period of time,) they made sure EVERYONE knew it by putting ashes on their heads, wearing a burlap sack, & wandering around with pained, hungry looks on their faces. The message their actions & words put forward was, “this is what it looks like to be spiritual.”  And all the while, they were secretly plotting Christ’s death.

So what DOES it look like to be spiritual? What kind of instructions did Christ give His followers about giving, prayer, & fasting?