Lord, please forgive my sins. And do it quick, because I’m heading straight for hell until You do.

               I would like to open up about a spiritual impulse that came into my soul many years ago regarding the miracle of God’s forgiveness. So often in our prayers we ask God to forgive us for our sins and shortcomings, and of course, that’s directly from I John 1:9. “Lord, please forgive us.” “Yes, My child. I do. You are forgiven.”

               But here is what developed into a dilemma for me as a child and even young adult. I became convinced that each time I sinned, I entered into an unforgiven state – even a “lost” state – until I had opportunity to say that quick prayer of supplication. Every slip-up, every moment of temper, had me feeling the chill of heaven’s abandonment until I could repent and get back into God’s good graces. One dilemma was that I was such a frequent offender that the I’m-sorry prayers became increasingly rote and despairing.

               I think I was at PUC before I encountered “The Assurance of Salvation,” a wonderful little book by the late Richard NIes. He suggested, with a host of biblical evidence, that when even a fragile believer enters into a saving Calvary relationship with Jesus Christ, that person is then in an ABIDING and constant state of forgiveness. He or she is forgiven before even the moment of asking. There is no on-again, off-again fragility to the grace relationship.

               This doesn’t negate the importance of coming to God on our knees with tears of repentance. We do need to be aware of our sins and their toxicity, that we are not fully respecting the sanctity of the relationship. But it is hurtful, Nies suggested, to think that God is up in heaven, waiting, delaying, withholding the blessing and relief of forgiveness, until we have opportunity to come to Him.

               To illustrate, I still remember as a kid way back in our Thailand missionary days, lying in bed and feeling some childish guilt over a little naughty thing. Do I go tell Mom and Dad? Do I confess this? Well, I can’t sleep till I do! Plus . . . am I kind of “lost” until I make a confession? So I would trundle over to the master bedroom, wake them up, blurt out the little whatever, and Mom would say: “Oh, honey, of course we forgive you. Go back to sleep.” But the reality, of course, is that I was always forgiven, and always still her son. That was never once in jeopardy. It was an error to think I was in outer darkness until I clumped up the stairs to their throne of mercy.

This wonderful perspective, of course, entirely eliminates the fearsome idea of “what if you sin and then are hit by a bus?” Or what if something happens before you get the chance to repent? Would an arbitrary God consign unlucky Christian to lostness just due to unlucky timing? No.

               So I try to imagine expressing a request for forgiveness under the generous perspective Dr. Nies opened up. Something like this, I guess. “Lord, You know how each of us has fallen. We’re fragile and we’re weak, and at such times what a comfort it is to know You still love us, and that we are always and forever Your children. Thank you for the gift of Your Son Jesus, which lets us abide in the ocean of Your forgiveness and grace. We know we’re forgiven even before we ask . . . but we still DO ask because we want to have repentant hearts. We want to grow into Your mature children, Your ever-more-faithful ambassadors. Make us sensitive to sin and appreciative of holiness.”

               But how wonderful to know that the light bulb of salvation always burns brightly with Calvary love. It never flickers or goes out.

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How About Them Cowboys

               It’s a bittersweet transition when grandkids graduate away from the “little kid” status you’ve enjoyed for so long. I had a Christmas Day phone visit with Miles – he just turned 11 – and he informed me that he and Dad were watching NFL games together.

               “Wonderful!” I said. “So you’re liking football?”

               “Yeah. It’s fun watching.”

               I asked him what teams he liked, and was pleased when Miles denounced the San Francisco Forty-Niners. “Good boy,” I told him. But decided to say nothing when he said he and Dad were rooting for the Packers to get into the playoffs.

               Then “Papa” proceeded to give him a brief phone quiz. “All right, smart-o. You’re the quarterback. It’s third and eight. What are you gonna do?”

               To my surprise, he equivocated. “Um, well, it depends.”

               “Depends on what?”

               “Well, what did we do on the first two downs? Run or pass? If I already passed on second down, I wouldn’t pass again.”

               “Wrong!” I shouted. “Wrong! If it’s third down and you need eight yards for a first, don’t you have to pass? Isn’t that kind of automatic?”

               (GRANDPA NOTE: pretty much true unless you’re leading in the fourth quarter and are just trying to run out the clock. Then running on every play is standard NFL dogma.)

               “Um, I don’t know.”

               I was sensing a sports-talk rift building between us, and hastened to mend bridges. “So you like the Packers and don’t like San Francisco. Any other teams you cheer for?”

               His answer was crisp. “Well, Dad and I totally hate the Dallas Cowboys.”

               It took me a few seconds to find my voice and when I did so my eyes were brimming with tears. “I love you so much, Miles,” I choked. “You’re a wonderful grandson.”

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Rock-and-Roll “Silent Night”

I fully agree with my pastor friend Doug Mace, who asserts that bingeing on Christmas carols can begin in early October. Most holiday music is luscious and creates an ambience of gently falling snow, although I do have a wonderfully thumping version of “Little Drummer Boy” performed by the incomparable rock group Chicago. And “Let It Snow” with a blazing horn section and Gloria Estefan.

But for sure, “Silent Night,” we think, should be nothing but lush strings and flickering candles. Maybe a flute solo. My creaking iPod has ten renditions, and sometimes I go for a long December walk and play them all in a row, usually getting back home in tears and ready for a hug from Lisa.

You won’t believe this, but there’s actually a full-bore rock-and-roll version of Franz Gruber’s signature carol, performed by Elvin Bishop. Wailing guitars, bass, percussion, back-up chicks, everything. It’s totally hot. Don’t believe me, check it out on Youtube. There’s something wonderfully incongruous about cranking up the car stereo to a ten when a song title begins with the word “Silent.”

I was doing my Sunday morning vacuuming last weekend, already bopping along in accord with the Doug Mace rule, when this edgy “Silent Night” came on. So help me, I found myself gyrating and hip-shaking (that’s Adventistspeak for “dancing”) as I hoovered the carpet. (See Robin Williams in “Mrs. Doubtfire” for tips on doing household chores while shaking that groove thing.)

What made this a precarious moment was that I was vacuuming the stairs, and teetering on the edge of catastrophe as I bellowed out the lyrics and encouraged my booty to keep time with Mr. Bishop’s drummer.

Now please join me in meditating about this. We think of “Silent Night” as a reverent moment of divine praise, and it most surely is that. “Christ the Savior is born” is an announcement that drives me to my knees in prayer and gratitude; it truly does. This is our precious gospel message.

But at the same time, it’s also the entire heavenly host, the full battalion, in full party mode and announcing our impending redemption with trumpets and the clash of cymbals. Jesus is coming! Okay, as a Babe in the manger, but it’s Him. He will win our release! This is the dawn of redeeming grace!

So I say this. “Turn up the amps! Play a blistering Fender guitar solo that takes the roof off our houses and even our staid sanctuaries. With the angels let us sing, ‘Alleluia to our King.’”

               And dance, baby. Watch your footing on the landing and don’t get your feet tangled up in the vacuum cleaner cord, but dance away.

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Wiped Out!

Maybe I occasionally embellish Facebook tales – especially with an all-important topic such as “Cheating Grandchildren.” But folks, this photo is absolutely untouched. During Christmas break I sat down to play Sorry with Audrey, and ran into a string of bad luck that defies all mathematical odds. Not only did I get Sorried a zillion times, but my little yellow warriors just kept getting bumped back to oblivion. This is absolutely true: she won the game AND I STILL HAD ALL FOUR MEN IN START! I wasn’t even two squares down the street! This is like losing a World Series game 200 to nothing.

Is this even statistically possible – all four men still in Start? I honestly thought about sending this picture in to the Guinness World Records people, but am not sure I want to be known just for this level of ignominy. At the very least, can I get some pity from my fellow persecuted grandpas?

P.S. The photo above was taken during happier times; right now we’re not speaking.

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Audiobook Review: “Covenant Child”


             I was halfway through this audiobook before I abruptly realized something: this is the parable of the Prodigal Son. At least in this case, that completely changes the Amazon rating system.

               Blackstock is a superb writer, but frankly, if this is just a straight-up story of two orphan girls reclaiming the family fortune, it would get 3½ stars. The drama’s good, the dialogue’s all right, the settings are vintage small-town Mississippi. But every conceivable trailer-trash metaphor is thrown into the soup here: the selfish bumpkin grandparents who blow the kids’ inheritance in all-night-every-night binges in a local casino. Both girls drop out of high school at 15 (is that even legal?) and get jobs hustling tips at a truck stop diner. They sneak out to meet boys at the county fair; Kara gets pregnant and has a painful abortion. Kara’s smooth-talking boyfriend is out on parole for manslaughter. So no, this is not a subtle tale of woe.

               But as a modern-day retelling of Luke 15’s runaway child, what Blackstock offers us, either deliberately or accidentally, is utterly brilliant. Jesus’ parable, after all, is actually not about the lost wayward child, but the overflowing “prodigal” love of the anxious parent. In this tale, stepmom Amanda Holbrook is that mother. She has an estate worth billions; she has title to a mansion and wealth and comfort and corporate influence. And one more thing: she holds in her heart a loving blueprint of what she wants to bequeath to her treasured but long-lost stepdaughters.

               So all through the second half as the drama builds, no, she will not simply settle out of court and give Kara and Lizzie $50 million each. Because fancy clothes and booze and casino chips are not part of the Paradise life she wants to share with them. She wants to be both their mom and their mentor, their faithful guide. Her love for them includes the entirety of a new life away from the seedy selfishness and ruin of the trailer park.

               The early story is tinged by what often affects Christian fiction: a twinkly, faux cheerfulness where good-looking Christian men meet pretty girls and there’s a whole lot of winking and chuckling and aren’t-all-God’s-people-just-adorable saccharine. But Blackstock makes up for it with superb writing as Kara is inexorably drawn away from 13 bitter years of teen delusion, e.g. “Amanda’s nothing but a lying thief who stole our fortune.” A beautiful retelling of Jesus’ most stirring parable.

               By the way, actress Kirsten Potter performs this audiobook, and does a superb job. She and Tonya Foster Yancey are two of my favorite narrators, and this is an excellent effort.

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We told stories that spilled such fun

Bringing joy to everyone

Sneetches, Cats, even a Who

Don’t forget Thing One, Thing Two!

So you laughed, and sometimes sighed

Best of all, you always tried

To know what other people feel

When they slip on a banana peel

Then you grew up and had kids too

And shared our stories as they grew

But times had changed; our hearts grew too

So we said: “What shall we do?”

For sure we have to keep the Grinch

But if a story starts to pinch

And make a child feel rather small

Or not as super, not as tall

Or smart and special

On the ball

We’ll tuck that story in a drawer

And not forget what stories are for

To help us think and make us kinder

Dream up a friend, and then go find her!

New friends of every lovely shade

In all the colors God has made

We carry on with no excuse

So keep on reading Dr. Seuss!

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Do Your Duty

One of the most poignant, despairing moments in American cinema is when lawyer Atticus Finch delivers his closing plea to twelve racist jurors in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” He fully realizes these men are locked into their biases; the vote outcome is already guaranteed to preserve the evil poison of prejudice. Gregory Peck can say whatever he wants; he can be as lofty and eloquent as MLK on the Mall. And it won’t make a dime’s worth of difference; these guys don’t care. All they want is to cling to things the way they already are.

So Finch lays out the inescapable facts once more, how Tom Robinson absolutely did not, could not commit this rape; he was incapable of it. Beyond that, how our nation’s only hope is for the legal system to function fairly, for even a black man to be equal in the eyes of the law when he steps into the dock. That when twelve men put their hand on the Bible and swear before God to do justice, that pledge ought to mean something.

And he closes with eight words that bring tears to the eyes of moviegoers: “IN THE NAME OF GOD, DO YOUR DUTY.”

Sometimes it really doesn’t make that much difference how one trial comes out. Because no matter how some cynical jurors may vote, millions of people around the globe are all watching the movie.

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“There Was A Sudden, Sharp, Shattering Sound”

Every Nov. 22 I feel a stab of pain emanating from Dallas. Even though I was just an eight-year-old kid, and even though we were in Bangkok, the news still shocked our secluded mission community. Most of us were just coming out of church (Sabbath morning, 17 time zones later) when the news began to spread across our hospital compound.

               Years ago I read the definitive Manchester book, “The Death of a President.” Things are going well; JFK and Jackie are glamorous and popular. The motorcade is gliding through the downtown area with cheering crowds. Then on page 229 is this one sentence: THERE WAS A SUDDEN, SHARP, SHATTERING SOUND.

               There are a million wrenching, poignant nuggets in this towering book. One that breaks my heart is where a Kennedy aide was arriving home later that night, his heart in a million pieces. A little neighbor kid paused on the sidewalk and said to him: “I’m sorry your President died.” Even in his grief, the aide paused right there. “Son, he was your President too. He was every American’s President.”

               The kid shrugged. “No, he wasn’t. My parents didn’t vote for him. Kennedy was nothing to us.” Just that story reminds me of what it means to be a citizen and to respect the framework of government our founders laid out for our lasting success.

               Back in 2003, I penned a series of VOP radio shows marking the 50th anniversary of the assassination. You can access it on Amazon for a dollar if you’re interested. Here’s the link:


               I also have to recommend Stephen King’s brilliant time-travel novel, 11-22-63, about a man who tries to go back through a wormhole in order to prevent Oswald from gunning down the President. If that story piques your interest, I did a similar vignette in The Time Portal, where a high school kid named Jordan Wickam is taken back to 1865 and is sitting in Ford’s Theater the night Abe Lincoln is shot.

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Mom! You Can’t Use That Word!

               It’s over. The last barrier shattered. Apparently the thirst for victory trumps all scruples around here. As of this moment in the moral universe, the Smith family stands for . . . absolutely nothing.

               Let me explain. Mom and I were playing our weekly Scrabble game and I had a slight lead. But the board’s triple-word square was suddenly in play and it was her turn.

               She scanned her tiles, murmuring to herself through her mask, and then brightened. “This is a word, right?” She laid down her choices and began counting up: “Four plus one one one; that’s seven. Times three – I get 21!”

               I gaped at her, blushing right down to my toenails. “Mom! You can’t use the word FART!”

               I’m not kidding you. Sometimes I do exaggerate, but this is a true story, folks. My flesh-and-blood mother, who led me in childhood prayers and who served as a missionary to Thailand for 17 years, had spelled out the scarlet word forever on the General Conference Banned List. But now she was the childlike picture of innocence. “Why not?”

               “‘Cause it’s evil! It’s nasty!” I pulled out of the cobwebbed family archives my departed dad’s blanket condemnation of all words with scatological overtones.

               Now, the fact is that any family with four red-blooded American sons, no daughters, is going to vibrate with the daily reality of flatulence. Some days that’s about all we did. We had nights around the dinner table that rivaled that gassy scene in Mel Brooks’ irreverent movie spoof, “Blazing Saddles.” We sang “Beans, Beans, the Musical Fruit” in bilingual harmony. We often exchanged the 1965 version of fist bumps for exceptional rumbles: “Good one, Danny!” “Oh, man. Who cut the cheese?” “Yow, that’s a stinker!” (This was all said with machismo admiration but always feigned as pious indignation.)

               The reality though, was that the above-mentioned word (it still makes me blush to even type it) was the ultimate F-bomb in our house, in more ways than one. We didn’t actually verbalize the word F-RT, because we had access to forty zillion Thai euphemisms for the same social transgression. I’m not going to reveal them here because my brothers and I still take mission trips over to Chiang Mai, and I want to retain some credibility with my Asian friends. But believe me, people in Bangkok know full well how to describe a pungent toot.

               Anyway, back to Scrabble. I’m serious; Mom was adamant that she wanted her 21 points and that F-RT was suddenly an innocent cache of points. I hissed at her: “Mom, what if your friends here at The Villa see this? You’re still a pastor’s wife; you’ve got to set an example!” (I can’t believe I said that.)

               Sure enough. At that exact moment three of her girlfriends rolled over with their walkers-on-wheels and stared at our playing board. It took them a second to absorb the naughty euphemism and then all three of them tittered. “Jean, did your son play that?”

               “I did not play it!” I yelped. “That’s her word! See, that’s mine over there.” I pointed to the word “sanctify,” which had me using up all seven of my tiles. (Okay, I made that part up.)

               One of Mom’s senior citizen friends cackled out loud with a sudden stab of memory. “Who’s that man who always takes the extra enchiladas? He has a bit of a problem there.” They all guffawed, and I suddenly realized times have changed.

               It makes me think of the senior citizen who admitted to the doctor, “I’ve got a serious problem with silent gas, doc. Every few minutes a tiny cloud slips out. Like just now. Can you give me some pills?”

               The M.D. nods, grateful for his surgical mask. “I think so. But first we’ve really got to get you a hearing test.”

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The Scrabble Queen

            I’ve taken to playing outdoor Scrabble games with my mom, who’s a spritely 91 and a bit of a troublemaker at The Villa. The slightly Christian part of me has as a mantra: “Okay, she’s old; let her win.” Truth be told, though, after the last couple of games I’m ashamed to admit my own cutthroat instincts have jumped right back.

            We’re wearing masks and trying to sit six feet apart, tossing the letter bag back and forth across the playing board. And since I don’t lug a dictionary over to the retirement home, it’s hard to challenge Mom on words. The Holy Spirit (at least I think it’s Him) whispers to me: “Just let her have it.” But last week she innocently asked if “zee” was a word. I didn’t think so (turns out it is!), but acquiesced. She plopped the tiles down and I reluctantly gave her something like 24 points.

            On the very next play, she wanted to add a single “S” to it. ‘Cause if “zee” is a word, well, then I suppose an English teacher could have 40 or 50 “zees.” Tragically, the “S” took the entire word onto a triple-word premium, and she racked up 62 more points. All at once the game was out of reach! I kept a smile on my face underneath the mask, but swore revenge all the way home.

            This past weekend the literary piracy escalated. She peered at her seven letters. “Is ‘da’ a word?”

            “Just ‘da’?”

            “Uh huh.”

            “Mom, that’s Russian!” I yelped. “Are we allowing foreign words now?” Several choice Thai epithets popped into my brain and I eyed my own rack of letters.

            A few minutes later she drew a “y” and was anxious to put it in play. “How about ‘toey’? Is that a word?”

            I gave my standard rejoinder. “Use it in a sentence.”

            She thought hard. “Cousin Mildred was born with six toes on each foot. She’s very toey.”

            Lord, help me here. She’s my mom. I don’t want to make a scene and fling all my letters in the grass.

            The other thing that makes these games hard is that all her friends gather around to cheer . . . and never on my behalf. “You’ve got him on the ropes, Jean. Good one!” “Sure, ‘toey’ is a word!” One of them waved her cane menacingly and I visibly flinched.

            So I lost a couple of Scrabble games. I comfort myself with this bit of reminiscing. Back in ’57 I was a two-year-old toddler still in diapers when the five Smiths boarded the Steel Admiral headed for Thailand. Six weeks in two crowded staterooms on a diesel freighter. Mom and Dad would play marching games and follow-the-leader with Danny and me on the deck of the ship, feed us supper, give us our baths, say prayers with us, and then tuck us away for the night, the waves of the Pacific Ocean a gentle lullaby.

            Then she and Dad would get out the Scrabble game and have a nightly contest, enjoying the idyllic pleasure of a game with your very favorite person. With the rice paddies and the challenges of foreign mission service just over the watery horizon.

            So okay, maybe Mom deserves to win a few games. After all, she’s kind of the queen.

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