Heaven is often pictured as having pearly gates at the entrance and upon arrival there, one must enter the gates. Indeed the Bible describes it as such, “twelve gates were twelve pearls: each individual gate was of one pearl” (Revelation 21:21). What happens when a person arrives at the gates of heaven and they are not opened? Are the angels in charge of gates, on vacation? Is it possible to arrive during an angelic shift change? Could one arrive before their heavenly dwelling place was ready for them to occupy. (John 14:2). Such may have been the case with my brother, Bob (affectionately known in the Gospel Music world as “Breakfast Bob”). Two months ago, he was preparing for knee replacement surgery, when tests revealed multiple heart valves clogged. Heart surgery was scheduled. Due to his age and weight, plus the degree of blockage, there was some concern by the medical staff that he might not survive the surgery. So strong was this belief, that Bob scheduled a meeting with his Pastor to discuss funeral details, set out to write his own obituary, and called me to be present during the surgery (even though we live several hundred miles apart). Bob not only survived the surgery, but was doing exceptionally well in his recovery. Someone joked by saying, “I guess his heavenly mansion wasn’t ready yet.” Then last week, while he was walking with his dog, Bob took a nasty fall, landing on concrete, face-first. Surgery was scheduled with the Surgeon saying there was a chance he would not make it through the night. He did. In the days following, he was upgraded to a 50/50 chance of survival, before being downgraded again. Then the decision was made to remove all the tubes, and turn off all the machines. Once again, I was called to be present. It was not an easy experience. Musical friends sang songs about heaven at the bedside. Others came by to bid Bob good-bye. However, as of this writing, Bob is still with us. He is not alert. He is no longer squeezing our hand or opening his eyes, but he is alive. He is breathing on his own, without difficulty. His heart is healthy. His pulse is strong. He may well leave us today, but we have repeatedly sung and talked him all the way to heaven, only to wait with him at the gate. Sometimes, it is just not yet time.
Because I fly many miles, I occasionally get an upgrade to first class. Such was the case last week on both outbound and return flights. Because it was a birthday trip for my wife, I switched seats with her, allowing her to sit in first class, while I took her seat in the coach area of the airplane. Seeing empty seats in first class, Joanne asked the flight attendant if I could come up and sit by her. Stephanie came to my coach seat and politely asked if I would like to join my wife in first class. Her positive attitude and willingness to accommodate made for a wonderful three-hour flight. Surprisingly, I was also upgraded to first class on the return flight. Once again, I switched seats with my wife, allowing her to sit in first class. With an empty seat next to her, my wife, again asked if I could be moved up to sit with her. This time the flight attendant, Gineska, was so rude in telling my wife that I could not move up, that Joanne spent much of the flight crying. Furthermore, Gineska, came to my coach seat to inform me that our switch was against all rules, since this was an international flight, and in addition, she had “written up” our seat switch, and reported it to the Captain. Since she had made my wife cry, I was told I could go to first class just long enough to console her, but I could not sit down beside her. I really wanted to visit with Gineska again to quote Ephesians 4:2 to her, “with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love” or at least quote Winston Churchill, “Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference.” We understand the need for rules, and appreciate the fact that rules were enforced. However, there is a proper, professional way to be an enforcer, and an improper, unprofessional way. One flight attendant made our day, another made our day miserable.
As much as we would like to change things, some things are just unchangeably real, and there’s not much we can do about it. To say that in a popular way, “It is what it is.” Jesus does not change. The writer of Hebrews proclaims, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). Even while society changes, human nature does not change. Reality is real. Hanging on my wall as I grew through my teen-age years, was a plaque containing the words of American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, entitled “The Serenity Prayer” – “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” More recently, I have come across a line from American Author Byron Katie, “If you want reality to be different than it is, you might as well try to teach a cat to bark.” I have prayed Niebuhr’s prayer again this week and decided to cease trying to teach cats to bark. I have also asked God for wisdom to change the things I can.
I knew five men who served as President of my seminary – one while I was a student, three while I was on the faculty, and one who was Interim President between two Presidents. While they were very diverse, each had his strengths, and each made lasting contributions to the school. Each impacted the lives of future ministers. I considered each to be my friend. I learned from all of them. One took the first Chapel of each semester to welcome the new students and pronounce them, “Southwesterners . . . You’d rather die than dishonor the name!” He was so punctual that one day he went to the pulpit while a long-winded Chapel speaker was continuing past his time, put his arm around the man, and said, “Excuse me brother, but I’m going to go ahead and lead our closing prayer while you finish your sermon.” I loved him. He taught me to honor the clock. Another was loved by everyone on campus. He would enter the Auditorium from a side door, three minutes before the beginning of Chapel, index card in hand, shake hands with whoever was praying that day and be on the platform by the top of the hour, in time to begin. He modeled proper time management for me. Another President would enter the auditorium for Chapel from the back door, work his way down the aisle, shaking hands, speaking to everyone within sound range, calling some by name. He never applied to be President. When asked in the interview why he wanted to be President, he is reported to have replied, “I’m not sure I want to. You invited me. Why do you want me?” Love it. He taught me not to be afraid of honest answers. Still another President, entered the auditorium for Chapel from the back door, shaking hands with a few, calling fewer by name, some incorrectly (such as Dr. Don Crawford), taking the platform to be in charge, often commenting on the sermon, after the day’s preacher had finished. He was always gracious with me, even when we disagreed, which we did on several occasions. He taught me how to disagree without being disagreeable. One Interim President and I shared a three-office suite, only he took up two of the three, so as to have room for all his slides of the Holy Land, that he showed in class and in dozens of churches. I enjoyed watching students enter his office to discuss a bad grade on a test, likely made because they dropped their pen and missed getting a thousand years of history in their notes. Most came out weeping. They learned that while they were saved by grace, they had to pass by works. Even though we differed considerably in age, he taught me how to be a colleague. I’ve learned that one does not always get to choose with whom he works, but one can always work with respect and honor, whomever are his associates.
It happened again last week – another mass shooting, this time at the Santa Fe High School in southeast Texas. Previously, this High School was perhaps best known for its role in the fight against school prayer in the 1990s. In 2000, the Supreme Court struck down the school’s long-standing tradition of prayer before football games, ruling that prayer over the stadium’s public-address system violated the separation of church and state. Ironically, last Friday, a member of the school’s football team, killed eight classmates, and two teachers, and wounded thirteen others. And once again, many in the media showed their complete lack of understanding of the role of prayer in a time of tragedy. National and local news commentators read the names of the ten victims of the shooting, and concluded with, “remember to keep these victims in your prayers,” or something similar. Forgive this old professor’s attempt to respond to a “teachable moment,” but I have been praying for the families of the victims, the students who were injured, the officer who was injured, the students who will have a hard time living with the images of last Friday morning, the families who will remember where they were when they got a message from their frightened child, for school personnel who must now finish the semester, for the shooter and his family, for the community, for the state, for politicians who always rush to the scene, and seem to get on camera, but do nothing to prevent a reoccurrence of the tragedy. I’ve even prayed for our country. While I grieve for the victims, they are now beyond the reach of my prayer. I have been praying that their death might finally cause someone, somewhere, to do something to prevent this from happening again. And maybe I should pray that the news media take a crash course in prayer. Just three months ago, I posted “Thoughts and Prayers and More” following the school shooting in Parkland, Florida. I attempted to say then, that while “sending thoughts and prayers your way” was meant for good, it was misdirected and incorrect. Prayer should only be directed to God. I also said then, and I repeat now, prayer is appropriate, needed, and good, but it is not enough. Since then, reasonable suggestions that would make mass shootings less frequent, have been made, but little to nothing has been done. A Parkland student pleaded a response to the Santa Fe shooting, “This is the 22nd shooting just this year. DO SOMETHING!” I agree and repeat my scripture from my February 26 post – “To him who knows to do good and does not do it, to him it is sin” (James 4:17).
In our early years, both my wife and I were taught that divorce was wrong, and less than God’s best. At our wedding we were given grandparental advice, “Don’t ever go to bed mad at each other,” and “Remove the word ‘divorce’ from your vocabulary.” We have lived within those early teachings for more than fifty years and tried to model its truth for our family. Then came the Saturday morning phone call from our daughter, asking me to pick her up and take her to the Emergency Room. Needing no explanation, I quickly drove to her house. When I asked why she was wearing sun glasses on a cloudy day, she removed them to reveal two swollen eyes. Then I noticed the bruise on her cheek. The trip to the ER also reveled cracked ribs. Her husband had physically abused her. On the way to the ER, I reviewed in my mind all the scripture verses that seemed to prevent divorce. Then I weighed them against Ephesians 5:25, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church.” It was the second half of the verse that got me. In my ministry, I had seen a few abused churches, but the abuse had never been by Jesus. He loved them all. I can only speak for myself (with respect for the differing opinions of others), but everything changed for me that Saturday morning. Within a few hours of leaving the ER, my daughter and I were sitting in an Attorney’s office discussing what would eventually be divorce from her abusive husband. Much is being written and said these days about abused wives never filing for divorce, but simply praying for their abusive husbands. While I am a strong believer in prayer on any occasion, I’m curious as to how those who are so strong in their expressions of this abused-but-not-divorced idea would feel if the abused were their own flesh and blood. Just wondering, that’s all. (I use my daughter’s story with her permission. In her words, “I hope it helps someone.” I hope so too.)
What is the result of prayer? Does it make the pray-er feel better? Yes, but it does more than that. Does it fulfill biblical instructions? Yes, but it does more than that. Does it follow the model of Jesus? Yes, but it does more than that. Prayer opens heaven. Jesus lived with an open heaven. At His baptism, “When all the people were baptized, it came to pass that Jesus also was baptized; and while He prayed, the heaven was opened” (Luke 3:21). In the midst of His ministry, Jesus encountered one who was deaf, and seeking power from heaven, the Scripture records, “Then, looking up to heaven, He sighed, and said to him, ‘Ephphatha,’ that is, ‘Be opened.’” (Mark 7:34). Neither was this experience limited to Jesus. An open heaven was experienced by Stephen (Acts 7:54-55), Paul (Acts 9:5), Peter (Acts 10), and John (Revelation 4:1-2). When heaven opens, God does what God alone can do. Have you ever prayed for a miracle? For revival? For renewal? How about for a mighty spiritual movement? These are things we can’t provide on our own. But God can. When heaven opens, we have access to that which only God can provide, To “pray without ceasing,” as instructed in 1 Thessalonians 5:17, allows us to live under an open heaven. Need supernatural strength? Need godly wisdom? Need divine favor? Pray till heaven opens.
I don’t have many known enemies, an enemy being one “who is actively opposed or hostile to someone.” As a matter of fact, I may have more unknown enemies than known ones. Part of the reason may be because I basically like people – even those with whom I disagree. I find it easier to accept one with whom I disagree, than to reject someone because of a disagreement. Thus, I have friends with whom I disagree, and obviously friends who disagree with me. I try hard not to allow hatred into a relationship. Admittedly, they do bother me, irritate me, disturb me – these friends who could easily become enemies – and while I confess to hating some of the things they do or say, I am determined not to let them have any control over my life. Dale Carnegie was an American writer and lecturer and the developer of famous courses in self-improvement. His words are appropriate here: “When we hate our enemies, we are giving them power over us: power over our sleep, our appetites, our blood pressure, our health, and our happiness. Our enemies would dance with joy if only they knew how they were worrying us, lacerating us, and getting even with us! Our hate is not hurting them at all, but our hate is turning our own days and nights into a hellish turmoil.” Long before Carnegie, Jesus said to His disciples, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you.” (Matthew 5:43-44). If you have a known enemy, try praying for them this week.
In recent years I have posted serious prayer requests on social media – twice for my wife’s surgeries, related to her fractured pelvis, and hip replacement, and once for my brother’s multiple bypass surgery. Friends replied in large numbers, many with encouraging, and supportive comments. Some however, simply responded with the word, ‘praying.” Perhaps I’m the only one who feels a bit empty when these one-word replies appear. If so, attribute it to twenty plus years of trying to teach seminary student want-to-be pastors, ministers, and missionaries how to pray effectively and how to teach others to do the same. More specific response would be better. Praying for who – me, my wife or brother, the doctors, the nurses? Praying when – now, tomorrow, next Sunday, once, ongoing? Praying for what – healing, recovery, comfort, support? Please don’t misunderstand. I am appreciative and grateful for every person who took the time to read my request, and then click “Like” or responded with a praying hands emoji, or simply said “Praying.” I just wish for a bit more expression of payer support. When Paul was praying for the believers in Corinth, he added a phrase in his prayer that might be appropriate here – “and this also we pray . . .” (2 Corinthians 13:9). Next time you respond to a social media prayer request, how about taking a few more seconds, and make your reply specific.
Imagine this. The children of Israel wandering about in the wilderness, thinking back to the Egyptian food they missed. “We remember the fish which we ate freely in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic” (Numbers 11:5). What if someone had delivered this bit of news to them — “University researchers have discovered that eating Egyptian food, especially leeks and onions, may cause cancer!” Nothing they could do about it now. All those years of enjoying Egyptian food may have put cancer cells in their bodies. Life in the promised land would now be cancer ridden. If you can imagine this, you can know how I felt when I read the following headline in last week’s newspaper – “Eating out may raise your risk of cancer.” Oh no! Say it isn’t so. All those years of double meat & cheese burgers, pizza buffets, all-you-can-eat breakfast bars, Bar B. Q. and beans, Chinese take-out? From fast food places to sit-down restaurants, I was doomed. The article went on to explain that it was the “potentially harmful chemicals called phthalate … which are often used as plastics . . . in packaging, takeout boxes, and gloves.” I’ve been so careful – no lung cancer from smoking; no stomach cancer from alcohol consumption, but now it’s restaurant plastic that gives me cancer, not to mention all those plastic bags in which my mother wrapped my school sandwiches. I can envision my arrival in heaven. “And how did you get here, Mr. Crawford?” Well, I was eating at Smokey Joe’s Café when . . .”