Archive for February, 2020

When the Lights Go Out: Part 2

Posted: February 29, 2020 in Meditations


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“Disappointment, things should be better than they are: people should be better than they are, my job should be better than it is, my finances should be better, my health should be better. ” Pastor Russ Walker paused, then continued, “Why don’t I feel better? I can’t find my way out. Courtney, my wife, was likewise crushed in this painful depression. We sought help, we desperately needed help. How bad was it? Courtney said, ‘I haven’t felt this bad in forty-two years since I took the noose off of my mother’s neck.’ ” The church went absolutely silent. Russ fought to keep his composure. “How did we get here?”

Life happens. A beautiful young man named Ryan enters the terrifying realm of voices and paranoia at age 17. At age 20, Mama finds him dangling at the end of a cinched belt in their basement. Jeannie and her children lived a prosperous life, her husband a generous philanthropist and successful businessman. The law exposes her husband as a scam artist, a predator, a small version of Bernie Madoff. He goes to prison, Jeannie and the kids settle into a rental, she finds work and a new life must rise from the ashes. My grandmother held two different children in her arms, lifeless. Addictions, immorality, violent abuse: the list is endless. Every one of us has been touched by this violent sinful world, some of us brutally overwhelmed by it. “What then?”

In 2005, I fell 26 feet off of a roof gable, landed on the back of my shoulders and head. Twelve staples closed up the superficial wound. The real damage grew within my brain. Five years into a downward spiral, I laid in my bed, tears trickled down my cheeks. I prayed, “Lord let my life get a little bit bigger than it was yesterday.” That was my version of Job’s cry, “Though you slay me, yet will I hope in you.” The fall robbed me of my work and my health. The brain injury destroyed my ability to sleep, perhaps the worst nightmare of all. Neurologists mixed drug cocktails to bring relief. Stupors, seizures, paranoid delusions attacked my life sphere. My wife, my kids: all were traumatized. ‘Is Dad dying?”

“He who unites himself with the Lord is one with the Spirit.”  1Corinthians 6:17  In my darkest hour, I always knew one thing, God is real and he is here. Depression, for me at its worst, left me dead to my emotions. Pain was a dull shroud that walled me off from hope and joy, clouded my judgment, prevented any clarity of reason. I clung to the basics, created by and for God. I never stopped praying. I felt great shame with others. Asides and retorts hurt deeply. Friends of my wife told her, “Leave him.” Was I worthless, was I a weight on the well-being of my family? Were others better off without me? I met with a psychiatrist every month, I took antidepressants. I lost confidence in myself, I didn’t trust myself. The delusions took advantage of my religious fervor. How could I go forward not knowing if I was insane or sane at any given moment? “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.”  Psam 23:4  I repeated that verse over and over again. But I clung to that last verse of that Psalm most of all, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.  Psalm 23:6  “You are not your own; you were bought with a price.”  1 Corinthians 6:20  No matter what, I belonged to God. If I lost family, my friends, my sanity – one thing remained, I belonged to God.

I will continue my story next essay. Folks, with God all things are possible, no matter what. With God, I offer hope, joy, peace, real freedom. Don’t give up, don’t ever give up. Desperate faith is an awesome act. When Jesus is all you have, Jesus is all you need. “Be strong and of a good courage, fear not, nor be afraid of them: for the Lord thy God, he it is that doth go with thee; he will not fail thee, nor forsake thee.”  Deuteronomy 31:6  God is faithful. Be bold, in the end, Christ is all that matters.

When The Light Goes Out: Part 1

Posted: February 25, 2020 in Meditations
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I sat on a hill looking down upon a glistening lake, stunning cliffs of the box canyon enveloped it. It was summer, children squealed with delight in the shallows. Parents prepared picnic lunches. Lost and alone, death coursed my veins. Twenty-six years old, a new wife, a baby on the way, depression strangled me, I quit. Nobody knew where I was save for my sweet wife who sat next to me. Responsibilities at work, appointments, coworkers – they meant nothing to me in that moment. I couldn’t cry, couldn’t laugh, couldn’t do anything but sit and grieve wishing the world away.  I understood right from wrong, no crisis of faith, but I wallowed in brokenness not understanding how or why I now sat drowning in hopelessness. I needed help, I needed a miracle.

Thirty-nine years later, I sat in a cafe an hour before Sunday church services. I opened my journal and pulled out my phone to read Scripture. The app refused to open, no reception. I picked up my pen and prayed, “Lord give me a word. Speak through my pen in this journal” I began to write, “The pain of loneliness and depression attacks with the subtlety of a vice, the pressure builds, it never lets up. How do we deal with it? When and how do we break under the relentless onslaught of dread? Who knows the dark night of your soul? Where do we go to stem the pain? How do we recognize relief? What truly stands, that which is real, behind the cloud of emotion? What voices do you trust? What voices ring true? Please hear this, grab hold and do not let go. God is always here, no matter what. I am never alone; you are never alone. His angels assist, they protect and intervene. We have each other – will we risk full disclosure with a brother or a sister? Will we cry for help or suffer alone? None of us were created for isolation. Each of us is designed for relationship, created by and for God.” My food came, I set my journal aside. Time to eat and get myself to church.

Worship captured my heart immediately, hope in God, victory in battle, the way-maker through life’s challenges. Pastor Kevin wasn’t here this morning, Our old pastor, Russ Walker spoke. Russ left us after sixteen years to go to Texas five years ago. We all get excited when he comes back and today was no exception. “Life happens. Too often life exposes gaps between our expectations and what happens. We call that disappointment and sometimes that disappointment crushes us.” Russ paused, I could see him fight to smother sobs. He whispered, “2019 was the toughest year of my twenty-nine years of ministry.” I couldn’t believe I was hearing this. My journal entry encompassed the sermon that began to spill out of Pastor Russ’s mouth. Welcome to the transcendent world of the Christ follower.

Every one of us knows the press of disappointment. Some of us handle the vagaries of life better than others. But every one of you made a personal connection to my first paragraph. Your own painful memory flashed, a moment of disappointment, a season of depression. When my children voiced fears to their mother, Lynn quoted from Psalm 56:3, “When I am afraid, I will trust in you.” Each of my four children memorized that verse and spoke it often. Godly mothers are a treasure. Job cried out, “Though you slay me, yet will I trust in you.”  Job 13:15  David wrote, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, For you are with me.”  Psalm 23:4  We have hope when all seems hopeless and we have a God who never leaves us nor forsakes us. Desperate faith, that’s all he needs. I will continue our story with Russ’s message in “When The Light Goes Out: Part 2”.


Ode To A Father

Posted: February 19, 2020 in Meditations
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A great man passed away this morning: a faithful son, a devoted husband, a steady father, a loving grandfather, a towering servant to the rest of us. Robert Spence will be duly lauded by impressive people in the coming days. He was my college president and what he did in that servant’s role remains unprecedented. Dr. Spence was 39 when I first met him. I remember a couple of little boys running around outside his office. I had no way of knowing one of those boys, Steve Spence, would one day marry my kid sister, Sandi. I had the privilege to enjoy the man behind the public face, the father who framed the character of my brother-in-law. I pay tribute to that man whose legacy vests itself in the treasured Spence branch of my family.

I’m the oldest child of five and am the only boy. I admit to being a wary judgmental older brother. I viewed every suitor of my sisters as proverbial foxes in the hen house. The blunt truth, I didn’t like Steve when I met him. I saw a strutting peacock who had a lot of growing up to do. “Sandi, put him in the rear view mirror. You can do a lot better.” My dad intervened and said, “Shut up!” And I did, but poor Steve had his work cut out for him. Over time Steve would prove himself a worthy husband and today I love that man with a whole heart. I discovered what I refused to see from the beginning, the Godly steadfast nurture of Robert and Ann Spence.

Every time I hung out with Dad Spence, I could count on several things. Kindness: he never spoke ill of any man or situation. He remained a builder of people in private. In 40 years of leadership, imagine what this man had to deal with? People are people, often at their sinful worst, yet Dr. Spence never once spoke ill of anyone in my presence. Everyone I brought up by name, his eyes brightened. He always had a wonderful story that elevated that individual. Wisdom: Dad Spence didn’t preach, he exuded the wisdom of God in an unassuming way, he lived it. Gracious: Dad never dominated a gathering and he refused to carry a heavy hand in Steve’s life. But Dad was always there. When Steve called, he was there. When Steve asked for advice, he gave it. He granted Steve the freedom to forge his own unique partnership with God.

I watched Steve grow as a man through the years. No one I know pursues God with a greater intensity in my life sphere. I’ve witnessed the refining power of the Holy Spirit in his life. We all fail, Steve is no exception. But he has a heart that repents, a hunger to be a better man. And who was a constant throughout this awesome spiritual journey? A devoted father who knew the voice of God, his name is Robert Spence. Steve will miss those calls to Dad. Death is harsh to the living. But Steve houses five decades of lessons in his heart. Those lessons get taught to his children through word and deed. We receive that legacy as family everyday. Steve’s church gets fed from that legacy every week. If I understood back then, when Steve proposed to my sister, what I understand now, I could have saved myself the opportunity to make a fool of myself.

Robert Spence, I will always miss you and I will always remember you. I will forever thank you for the gift of your son to my family, to my sister. You stand in a pantheon of men I deeply admire and look to for wisdom. Say hello to Max and Audrey Ephraim for me. Welcome home.

Words of Life

Posted: February 14, 2020 in Meditations
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36 years ago I sat in a local diner with a group of men in a small Missouri River town. Banter flew, boys being boys. I was 29, married with a two year old son. Times were tough, the country strained in the midst of a recession. Interest rates hovered at 17%, farms got auctioned off monthly in this rural county. I cracked a joke about my wife, a cheap laugh at her expense. I got the reflex response I wanted, that is, until my pastor, Brian Guy, spoke up. I’ll never forgot the terse inflection of his voice, “Phil, don’t ever talk about your wife that way. You’re a better man than that.” My heart froze, I knew he was right. I apologized to everyone at the counter. I felt two inches tall. I’m sure my face flushed red. I knew I sinned against my wife.

“Let a righteous man strike me – it is a kindness; let him rebuke me – it is oil on my head. My head will not refuse it.”  Psalm 141:5  I didn’t like being called out. I still feel the pain of my embarrassment. Yet I received it as truth to my heart and I knew Brian loved me. That rebuke instantly became a life lesson, it changed me in an important way. I chose to honor my wife. Have I violated this precept since then? To my shame, yes I have. But I know it and immediately sense conviction and repent. Lord, open my heart always to the rebuke of a righteous man; don’t let me skate on my sin and ignorance.

Back in 2012, I was dying, the final stages of the debilitating effects of traumatic brain injury incurred from a 26 foot fall from a roof in 2005. God intervened through a series of providential events. I got novel treatment from the one doctor in the world who could address my condition. Three months of therapy gave me a new lease on life. My doctor asked me to solicit friends with influence to promote his clinic. I never felt comfortable with the prospect of soliciting people of means, it felt dirty. But I stood healed, and what about the other desperate individuals who needed healing too? I wrestled with this quandary for a week. I made the call via the internet.

Back in 1977, I rented a trailer home with a young man named Kevin Compton. We parted ways but I kept in contact with his sister. Kevin went on to an incredible career, a unicorn on the national scene. Perhaps Kevin could help and see opportunity to bring this approach to brain trauma to the world. We emailed back and forth. Kevin could not have been more gracious, more blunt, more concise, “Phil, what do you want me to do? I get solicitations all the time for revolutionary treatments of concussion injuries (Kevin led an investment group that owned the NHL San Jose Sharks). I’ve learned through my own experience to stay out of businesses that are not in my wheelhouse. I did an investigation into this clinic and am not impressed.” Ouch, right? But this is exactly what I needed to hear. Kevin, a righteous man, spoke life to my heart. What I couldn’t discern, Kevin could. Eight years have passed and you know what? Kevin was right. I still feel bad that I called him but that is my problem. Kevin resolved my conflict with a very healthy “no”.

“Teach me to do your will, for you are my God; may your good Spirit lead me on level ground.”  Psalm 143:10  Stay humble. I ask the Lord to speak to my heart through the Scriptures, through prayer, through my wife and kids, through the voice of others. “My son, keep your father’s commands and do not forsake your mother’s teachings. Bind them upon your heart forever.” Never forget the treasure of wisdom that has been invested in your life. Take confidence in those lessons, pass them on. Finally, thank God for those individuals who did the right thing, who spoke words into your life that weren’t easy. Thank you Brian, thank you Kevin, thank you Mom and Dad. A special shout out to my wife, Lynn, thank you for pushing me to be a better man. Finally, thank you, Holy Spirit, you never let me go. Because of you, I know, in the end, Christ is all that matters.

Hi Dad

Posted: February 8, 2020 in Meditations
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This past week I scrolled through the twitter feed. Trump had just delivered his State of the Union address. Tweet after tweet focused on  political themes. Then I saw this, “Hi Dad.” I saw a picture of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo milling with dignitaries on the House floor. My eyes shifted to the tweet source. I saw a handsome smiling young man, his name, Nick Pompeo. A proud son gave a shout out to Dad. Hundreds of people had already acknowledged the tweet and I was about to keep scrolling when a thought crossed my mind. I wrote back, “Nick, those words mean more to your dad than any plaudits from the world. Live for the Lord he loves. That’s the greatest gift you can give him.” I added a heart emoji. Within minutes he responded with the same emoji. Nothing can adequately describe the heartfelt bond between a dad and his kids. You can be Mike Pompeo or Phil Brown, the wonder of those words carry the power of common humanity.

I have four children, all unique, each with special gifts. I don’t measure their worth on their accomplishments, their talents, or the temper of our personal relationships. A love unfurled in this father’s heart the moment I held each child in the palm of my hand. I buried my face in the nape of their necks and breathed deep. I smelled them, caressed their tiny heads and stuck my finger in the palm of their hands. That instinctual clasp of fingers around my finger plugged me into their hearts, a bond forged for life. “Hi Dad” is and always will be the clarion call of four individuals to my heart. From their first breath to my last breath, I am ‘Dad’ and they are ‘Son” and “Daughter”.

As much as I know each of my children, that familiarity and goodwill pales to that of our Heavenly Father. Our real birth begins with him. God chose to use the vehicle of the love of a man and woman to bring his child into this earthly existence. “Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.”  Psalm 139:16  We are created by and for God. We are purposed and loved by him. We are not accidents of nature and we are treasured  as unique individuals. “O Lord, you have searched me and you know me.”  Psalm 139:1  “You are familiar with all my ways.”  Psalm 139:3b  Not only does he know us intimately, God is always there. We will never fully grasp this reality on earth but God will respond 24-7 in time. “Where can I flee from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?”  Psalm 139:7 God knows us, the good and the bad, God knows.

“Hi Dad”, fills our Heavenly Father with joy unspeakable and full of glory. Our lives are sacred  to him. Why does God hate the killing of babies, the abuse of innocents, the sin of man? He loves us, we are created for relationship, our worth cannot be measured in silver and gold. “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”  Psalm 139:23,24  Every one of us is designed to love and serve God.  We are children of the Most High God whose worth cannot be measured on the scales of men.

My Dad, in his mid eighties, grabbed my hand and looked me straight in the eyes. He choked back tears, “Son, you are a good man.”  That is the highest praise Dad could give me. I had in effect given my Dad the best gift I could give him, I serve the God he loves. Because my life is dedicated to Christ, I am transformed day by day into the image of Christ. I live out the life of a good man. I treasure every moment I have to say, “Hi Dad”.  Soon I will only have memories of the precious unique friendship we share. Dad introduced me to the ways of God. He loved me in spite of my failings, in spite of my bullheadedness. He never forgot he was the trustee of God’s child.  Together we cry out to our Heavenly Father, “Hi Dad”. Together we proclaim, “In the end, Christ is all that matters.”

Hopes And Dreams

Posted: February 3, 2020 in Meditations
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Donna gave me a thermos of coffee, Bill opened the door, I headed to my car in the pitch of night. My wife called less than an hour earlier. She went into labor and would meet me at the hospital. My mind whirred with excitement, this was our fourth child and my first girl. In less than twenty-four hours I would say hello to my daughter for the first time. I’m one of five siblings, the only boy. I watched firsthand the unique precious bond that exists between a girl and her daddy. Now I had the opportunity to nurture that unique bond between a daughter and her father. “Lord, help me to be the dad I need to be, the dad she deserves to have.” That prayer was real. I wanted to be the best dad, I wanted to measure up, I just wasn’t confident on the execution. One thing I did have, I had hopes and dreams for every one of my kids and I was willing to do most anything to make that happen.

Twenty years later, my little baby is now a young woman with a thirst for life. She has been to Japan, Germany, and just returned from two weeks in Uganda. Each time she leaves, I pray, “Make her world a little bigger. Give her your eyes, Lord. Give her your heart.” My daughter is bright and alive, she harbors great dreams in medicine. Daddy sees a beautiful swan growing into her destiny. The world is her oyster. Again, I pray, “Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.”  Proverbs 4:23  This world is violent, filled with evil treachery. “My daughter, preserve sound judgment and discernment, do not let them out of your sight; they will be life to you.”  Proverbs 3:21,22  Lord , may she seek your face, may she abide in your word. Let this prayer roll from her lips, “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,  and in his word I put my hope.”  Psalm 130:5  I place my daughter on the altar of the Most High God. As much as I love her, I am a trustee, God must be her first love.

I may be a trustee, but I have hopes, hopes and desires for my children that surely cross the line. God knows. One of my sons is a lawyer, a brilliant mind with a silver tongue. Others see a successful partner in a prestigious law firm. I see a preacher, evangelist, a powerful apologist for the Gospel. Another son is marketing maven. I see an elder in the church who took no shortcuts in life and now mentors young men and guides churches to the glory of God. My oldest son drives a passion that few understand in the field of medicine. I see missions, urban health, an extension of God’s hand of grace to the powerless. My daughter wants to see the world; I want to send her to the world with global health initiatives immersed in the cause of Christ. These are wonderful dreams, my Lord hears them all the time from me. But they belong to God. His hopes, his dreams for my children are what matter.

“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”  Romans 8:28  God has specific hopes and dreams for each one of my children. It unfolds in their lives as it unfolds in mine, day by day, moment by moment. “Unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labor in vain.”  Psalm 127:1  Our purpose is found in surrender, our mandates are given in faithfulness, our peace and joy are experienced in obedience. Confidence, boldness, fearlessness issue from the new life within. We know that we know, we exist to build God’s kingdom, we exist to express the gifts he has endowed us with, we live to spread the gospel in word and deed. Paul said, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith.'”  Romans 1:16,17  To my sons and daughter, pursue God with a whole heart. He is the source of your hopes and dreams. Be bold, in the end, Christ is all that matters.