shutterstock_cocaine-2For several years, I transcribed police reports for the Ottawa County Sheriff’s Department in West Michigan. A vivid memory from that period is the day a stranger asked me to arrest her.

It was a sunny spring day, so I was eating my sack lunch at a picnic table behind the sheriff’s office when a car pulled into the parking lot and a smartly dressed young woman got out. She approached me and asked, “Would you arrest me?”

I explained that I was a member of the clerical staff, not an officer, so I didn’t have the authority to arrest anyone. “Well, I need someone to arrest me because I’m on my way to a crack house,” she said.

I called my sergeant, who came outside to hear her story with me. She lived in a fashionable suburban home not far from our office. In fact, she was hosting a Tupperware party that morning, so a couple dozen ladies were in her living room at that moment. She had excused herself to buy refreshments at the local grocery, but the truth was that she wanted a “hit” of cocaine. She was en route to her dealer’s house in a seedy part of Grand Rapids with enough money in her purse to buy what she needed. “I can’t help myself,” she told us. “Please lock me up so I don’t do this.”

My sergeant asked a series of questions. Did she have any drugs or drug paraphernalia in her possession? No. Was she “high” on drugs at the moment? No. Was the money stolen? No. “Then I’m sorry, but I can’t arrest you,” he said. “I have no legal reason to detain you.”

She broke down and wept.

Sgt. Van Beek was my supervisor, but there was another reason I’d called him. He was studying for the pastoral ministry through a correspondence program of Moody Bible Institute, so together we could offer assistance of a different kind. We joined hands around the picnic table and prayed for her. Then the sergeant called a pastor friend to meet and counsel with her that afternoon.

I don’t know the rest of her story, though I certainly hope God enabled her to break out of the addiction that was destroying her life. But I will never forget the desperate look in the eyes of that attractive woman who asked, “Would you arrest me?”


shutterstock_238020544Friends and I who are now called “seniors” take two distinctly different approaches to risk. Some of us feel more willing than ever to try new things. Our motto might be, “What have I got to lose?” Others are so fearful of making foolish decisions that they live in a state of paralysis. If they ever dare to entertain the question, “What have I got to lose?” their immediate response is, “Everything!

These two views largely determine the outcome of our decisions, as well as the level of angst we experience when we make decisions.

I’ve seen some friends spend their “golden years” trying to save enough, insure enough, and hedge enough bets to reduce their risk to zero. By the time they cover every conceivable contingency, life has passed them by. I feel a deep sadness when I peer into their coffins.

We need to admit that risk a fact of life, even at the end of it. So let’s keep a few essential realities in mind when we make decisions now:

  • Physical death is a sure thing. Physical life is not.
  • Financial failure can be guaranteed. Financial success cannot.
  • Sorrow will come looking for you. Happiness will not.
  • Do nothing risky and you will receive the inevitable rewards of inaction.
  • But act with faith in the providence of God and–while you may lose things familiar and secure–the rewards can be far greater.

Worth remembering on this day when financial markets are in turmoil and the Dow Jones has fallen more than 600 points.



Sarcasm is corrosive, like acid rain falling downwind of a power plant that burns high-sulfur coal. It seems benign and gentle, as raindrops rolling off the marble statue of a revered hero in the city square, yet it sculpts the identity of its victim into a grotesque caricature whose character is no longer recognizable.

I have seen what sarcasm can do. I watched the marriages of two couples, close to my heart at the beginning, melt under the constant dripping of sarcasm. Eventually, I could recognize neither partner in these matches. Neither could they. So they went their separate ways, feeling deeply wronged and bitter.

American political discourse has become a simmering vat of sarcasm. Supporters align with the politician they feel has the sharpest wit or inflicts a more poisonous sting than her opponents. They vote for the candidate who handles himself most adroitly in the arena of character assassins. (I wonder, does this mean we will choose the most deadly character assassin as our next President?)

Whether it’s a deceptively gentle drip or a roiling vat of concentrated acid, sarcasm can destroy us all. We may be better prepared to deal with it if we recognize some common patterns of a sarcastic relationship:

  • The person who feels at the greatest disadvantage is often the first to use sarcasm in a relationship. This person hopes to take refuge behind its apparent humor. If the dominant individual strikes back, a sarcastic wit can say,”I was only kidding!”
  • At first, the other person is not likely to “fight fire with fire” but be perplexed or bemused by the sarcasm. The first response may be silence.
  • When the sarcasm cuts deeply enough into the victim’s self-esteem, a sarcastic response is often made. Then the tit-for-tat escalates until both individuals have a relationship of mutual disdain. Sniping becomes their normal way of communicating with one another.

If a person’s poor self-image precipitates sarcasm toward others, how might we stop this corrosive cycle after it has begun? How could God’s high esteem for an individual change this situation?


2016-04-22 Pine Needles

Rain-Swept Pine Needles

THIS WEEK’S READING:  Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, by Marcus Borg; “Pigeon Feathers,” short story by John Updike; “The Death of a Traveling Salesman,” short story by Eudora Welty.

THIS WEEK’S WRITING:  Short story, “The Sensible Thing”

THIS WEEK’S QUOTE: “Tomorrow is not promised, so I’d better do what I can today.”–Lin-Manuel Miranda (age 38), lyricist, composer, and lead performer of Pulitzer-winning Broadway musical, “Hamilton”

Sunday – First anniversary of Judy’s cancer diagnosis. Randy Spleth’s sermon on Ps. 23 ended with this illustration: A minister taught a dying boy to remember the Psalm’s emphasis on God’s personal love by having him grasp his fourth (ring) finger and repeating, “The Lord is MY…” Randy had us do the same. I’ll never forget it because of the anniversary.

Monday – Our outdoor temperature reached 80 degrees for the first time this year, so I treated GCC friend Shirley Wells and her grandson Michael to ice cream at Good’s Candy Shop. Michael’s an energetic, talkative little boy who loves blue sprinkles because they turn his tongue blue. Fun to see a candy store through the eyes of a 3-year-old!

Tuesday—Heard the farewell chapel sermon of Dr. John H. Aukerman, one of my college roommates who retires from teaching at the AU School of Theology this month. His theme was “Come Before Winter,” based on 2 Tim. 4. Before service / Joe: “This had better be good.” John: “It’ll be good enough for YOU.” And it was–exceptional.

Wednesday—Spent a couple of hours at GCC Mud Creek campus with Myrna Mullins, planning the Bible 101 series we begin co-teaching next Tuesday night. Talked in depth about how our own understandings of Bible myth and history have changed over the years. As usual, Myrna got me pumped for teaching!

Thursday— Started watching Dr. Andrew Newberg’s “Great Courses” lectures on “The Spiritual Brain,” on loan from Myrna. Mid-afternoon coffee at Panera’s with Cal Bloom, Judy’s cousin and my seminary roommate. Discussed life, death, parenting adult offspring, neuro-theology, and “When can we go fishing again?”

Friday—Arrived at 10:30 for a cardiologist’s consult, half an hour late. I’d written the right time in my calendar but misread it, so had to reschedule 2 weeks out. I often pray, “Lord, bless my mistakes today,” so I’ll trust this one turns out well.

Saturday—Heard Willie Nelson’s rendition of, “It’s a Wonderful World.” It reminded me that the natural world, which evokes gratitude in some people and prompts them to speak to God, simply evokes awe in others and prompts them to speak to…themselves! “I see skies of blue and clouds of white/Bright blessed day and dark sacred night/And I think to myself, What a wonderful world!”

Blooming snowdrops flowers covered by snow

Photo by Guzowski

An icy mix of rain, sleet, and snow was falling when I entered my dentist’s office. The hygienist greeted me with a cheery, “April showers bring May flowers!”

“Even snow showers?” I asked.

“Well, maybe global warming will do away with the snow,” she said.

I pondered how my home state of Indiana would look without snow. Seems to me that the changing seasons bring us various kinds of beauty–including snow!–that I don’t want to be deprived of, even if I have to shovel my sidewalk now and then. I accept the fact that seasons change, as do many other aspects of our world, and I’ve learned that change can be a good thing. In fact, it can be a divinely blessed thing.

When foreign invaders crushed Jerusalem and carried God’s people into slavery, the prophet Daniel prayed:

Praise be to the name of God for ever and ever;
             wisdom and power are his.
He changes times and seasons;
             he deposes kings and raises up others (Dan. 2:20-21).

God used the years of Exile to draw his people back to himself and strengthen their faith for the future. That renewal was worthy of praise!

Some say that God does not cause change, whether it’s seasonal change or regime change. I don’t know. However, I believe the most radical change cannot thwart God’s intentions and often expedites them. Change can bring us fresh perspectives and force us to try solutions we might have ignored if everything “stayed put.”

So I don’t wish that things will never change. They will anyway—and God may bless us more as a result.

Geoffery Chaucer begins the classic Canterbury Tales with this observation:

When April with its sweet showers

has pierced the drought of March to the root

and bathed every rootlet in the liquid

by which the flower is engendered…

people have a strong desire to go on pilgrimages.[i]

When the change of seasons inspires wanderlust, many of us do want to return to the site of a special event in our past: our first home, an old school building, a church we once attended, etc. In Chaucer’s day, these pilgrimages had an overtly religious purpose. People returned to special sites to thank God for what happened there or visited the tomb of a venerated saint who inspired their faith. We don’t see many pilgrims doing that today.

Or do we? Perhaps we don’t go as part of a formal religious ritual, but such trips can have a deeply spiritual purpose for us.

We think we return to a favorite haunt to see how it has changed, but our real purpose is to see how we have changed. Does the place still evoke a sense of divine awe within us? Does it rekindle our fervor for God? Does it renew our confidence in God’s providence and guidance? If not, it’s not because our private shrine has changed. We have changed.

lydgatepilgrimsIn Chaucer’s day, spring pilgrims thanked God for enabling them to survive another winter, especially if it had brought life-threatening disease. Now each spring reminds us that change and growth are normal rhythms of life, so we don’t need to remain as we are, even if we are spiritually diseased or anemic. We can pause, reflect, pray, and resolve to change.

Had a good pilgrimage lately?

[1]Modernized version by Michael Murphy, accessed at

Winter TreeSince my wife Judy’s death, I am attracted to beauty in all its forms–beautiful music, art, literature, scenes of nature. I’ve attended more concerts in the past two months than I have in the past two years. On daily walks, I notice subtle changes of the seasons that I would have missed before. This keen hunger for beauty seems to be more than idle contemplation or a sublimation of grief. I have come to realize that beautiful things connect me with the eternal purpose of God.

Bishop N.T. Wright warns me not to jump to the conclusion that beautiful things are God, or that admiring beauty is a way of worshiping God (Simply Christian, chap. 4). As the familiar hymn says, “All things bright and beautiful…the Lord God made them.” There is a vast difference between the divine Maker and things divinely made, even more between God and things beautifully fashioned by human artists.

Yet I am drawn to beauty, even more since the loss of my wife. Why is this? Here Wright is helpful again. He writes:

The beauty we glimpse in creation can best be understood as one part of a larger whole, and…the larger whole is what will be accomplished when God renews heaven and earth…(p. 234)

Wright would say that I enjoy beautiful things because they provide a glimpse of God’s restored and completed Creation. A piano concerto by Sabelius does that; so does a storm painting by Winslow Homer; so did my beautiful life partner.