Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Seasons of Change

My perception of God and His ways has changed dramatically over the years.

This shouldn't come as a great surprise. God is infinite, we are not. All we can know of Him is what He chooses to reveal. So the question, "Where did God come from?" is not one that we can answer, because He hasn't told us. God's Word tells us He has always existed (Isaiah 43:13) and that He alone is God, for now and eternity. (Isaiah 43:10) And the Bible clearly states in numerous places that God never changes; actually, He cannot change with respect to His being, attributes, purpose, or promises. (Malachi 3:6 and James 1:17, to name a couple.)

But wait a minute! What about those places where the Bible says God changed His mind? If He's all knowing and all powerful, why would He say one thing and then do another? For example, that little golden calf incident in the wilderness. (Exodus 32:9-14)

Moses had just spent 40 days and nights on the mountaintop with God, communing with Him and receiving His laws for the Israelites. Meanwhile, the people down below thought he was never returning and pressured his brother Aaron, the high priest, to make a representation of their God for them to worship. They donated a bunch of gold jewelry and Aaron fashioned a golden calf to which they bowed down and offered sacrifices. They then indulged in pagan revelry, probably mimicking the kind of idolatrous worship they'd seen in Egypt.

God informed Moses about what was going on, and said He was going to destroy them all and make Moses' descendants into a great nation. Moses immediately interceded on behalf of the Israelites, imploring God not to annihilate them. And the Bible says God changed His mind.

How do we reconcile passages like this with the character of an unchanging God? This has been the source of much debate over the centuries, and I won't pretend to be the fount of all wisdom. God is still pretty much incomprehensible to mortals, and is not required to explain Himself unless He chooses to do so. But there are a couple of things I can note about this example.

God doesn't change in His being or attributes. He remains constantly who He is. His promises don't change - what He has said, He will accomplish. He doesn't change His purpose - what He desires will come to pass. But the specific way His plans are fulfilled can vary at times.

He has chosen to bring about His will on the earth with the participation of imperfect human beings. Sometimes we fail to carry out His directions, and miss out on His blessing. But the purpose of God is still accomplished despite our failures. That's why Romans 8:28 says "God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to His purpose for them." (NLT)

In this particular instance, God could have carried out His threat to annihilate the Israelites and start over with Moses without violating His purpose or His promise. His promise to Abraham to create a great nation and eventually produce the Savior of the world from his descendants would still have been valid, since Moses was from the line of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. But such wholesale slaughter certainly wouldn't have reflected well on a God who is "slow to anger and filled with unfailing love." (Exodus 34:6) Moses used his knowledge of God's character to convince Him not to take such a drastic action.

I believe this conversation was also a test of Moses' character. Who wouldn't be tempted to grab at the offer of being the father of a great nation? Moses passed the test, showing his love for his people by pleading for their forgiveness. He was more concerned about God's glory than his own. He wanted the whole world to know that the one true living God was rich in mercy and compassion.

Studying His Word helps us know God better. The Bible reveals His character and attributes, what He likes and what He hates, and His plan for mankind and for future ages. Jesus clearly indicated that a personal relationship with the Father is not only possible, but required if we want to live with Him forever. (Matthew 7:21-23) We need to know Him, not just know about Him. When we do, our actions will follow our faith. We'll want to do His will because of our love and gratitude.

My theology and my understanding of God and His ways have changed considerably over the years. When I first began serving Christ, I was taught a lot of Scriptural principles and traditions of the church. As I have studied the Bible, I've discovered that some things I have believed for a long time are not exactly correct. Many of these things are not critical to salvation - end times theology, the nature of good and evil, grace vs. works. But wrong understanding can lead to wrong actions. This may not cost me eternal life, but I might behave in ways that don't please God, hindering others from finding Him.

God wants us to know Him. His plan is for us to develop and demonstrate the character of His Son in our lives. (Romans 8:29) The rewards of knowing Him come to those who diligently seek Him. (Hebrews 11:6) I want to really know Him, to draw near to Him and learn of His ways. As I pursue God, He's refining my understanding of what it means to be a follower of Christ. I still have plenty of failings and character flaws, but I am becoming more Christlike with His help.

One of the ways God refines our character is by increasing our understanding of His ways. Jesus is our example of a life lived through the power of God. He always did the will of God because He was connected to His Father every day. (John 5:19) And when we stay connected to the Lord through prayer and study of His Word, our very lives change and we begin to demonstrate the love of Christ in this world through our actions.

God is very patient. He'll take a lifetime to draw us close, with the ultimate goal being eternity in perfect communion with Him. I'm thankful that He never gives up and never fails. And He's promised we'll find Him when we seek Him with all our hearts. (Jeremiah 29:13)

Friday, May 18, 2012

35 Years

This past week my wife Patricia and I celebrated our 35th wedding anniversary.

35 years seems like such a long time. I've been married nearly twice as long as I was single.
But it also seems as if the years have just flown by. There have been good times and bad times, sorrow and joy.

I was 19 years old when we first married, and knew everything. You didn't even have to ask me - just being around me, you'd figure out that I "knew it all". But underneath that bluster, I was really a scared, insecure kid. I thought I knew how to love my wife. I didn't even know what love was! 
(More thoughts on love here.)

Here's our engagement picture. See, I had hair once!

When we were married, our relationship was established on a close friendship. We didn't start out that way. When we were dating, everything we did publicly was "Christian" - church services, Bible studies, Christian concerts, youth group meetings. But when we were alone, let's just say we didn't exactly devote ourselves to pursuing God, or even to getting to know each other as friends. We jumped right into the boyfriend/girlfriend thing, based on physical attraction. This is not the way to develop a lasting relationship.

My parents could see we were making some poor choices, and thank God my father made a wise decision for me. He sent me off to college 60 miles from home, without my car. And God took care of the rest by putting me into a traveling singing group, effectively filling nearly every weekend with rehearsals and performance. (That story is here.)

35 years ago, there were no cell phones. And long distance phone calls were very expensive, and only used for emergencies. There was no Internet, no e-mail, no easy way to quickly communicate. (We did have ham radio, but my Morse code abilities were pitiful.)

Usually, when a couple whose relationship is built on physical attraction is separated for an extended time, their relationship withers and dies. In our case, we genuinely felt God had put us together and we desired to stay true to each other. So, we kept in touch by writing letters. A lot of letters. Mushy letters, at least some of the time. And we talked of our hopes and dreams, and our plans for the future. We became real friends, building our relationship on solid values with faith in God as our foundation.

At the end of my sophomore year in college, we were married. We chose the weekend before finals, so all our college friends would be able to attend. After a honeymoon weekend in Omaha (romance capital of the Midwest - you didn't know that?) we were back at school Monday morning so I could take finals.

There have been lots of trials and difficulties - everybody has them. Some people didn't think our marriage would last. But we were determined to make it work. Divorce was never an option, not even a consideration. And over time, we learned to love, really love each other.

We discovered that love is an action, not a feeling. And we've slowly developed the character qualities manifested in love - you know, patience, kindness, not jealous, not seeking one's own way, all those 1 Corinthians 13 principles. According to verse 8 of that chapter, love never fails. We're not there yet; we've failed lots of times. But through forgiveness and love, we keep going.

God blessed our union with three children, one of the great joys of our life. They've all grown to be responsible adults, and we're eagerly anticipating grandchildren as the next phase of our life. Katie married a great guy 2 years ago, and Melody's wedding is coming in September. Lowell lived his life to the fullest before he left this earth 3 years ago. I miss him every day, but take comfort in the knowledge we'll be together again in eternity. (More on that story here.)

Our last Christmas all together. A very rare shot of me clean-shaven.

I am so thankful for my wife. She's a blessing and a joy, my closest friend and companion. She challenges me and keeps me active and engaged. She's my greatest cheerleader, and gladly puts up with my crazy ideas. (Okay, maybe not always so gladly...)

Our kids organized a costume party last fall.
We went as Mary Poppins & Bert the chimney sweep.

35 years is a long time...but it's only the start of a lifelong commitment. I love Patricia more now than ever. We've enjoyed a good life, and with God's help we'll overcome the challenges and make our way to the finish in victory. The best is yet to come!

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Unfinished Business

I like making lists.

Lists help me plan and prioritize my activities. I'm much less likely to forget something if I add it to a list. I make packing lists, organizational lists, and to-do lists. I find great pleasure in completing a task and then crossing it off the list. (I have been known to add something to my list >after< finishing the job, just so I can cross it off. My children find this quite amusing.)

I also really like things to be organized. I prefer to have a place for everything, and everything in its place. This is because I tend to be absent-minded and forget where I have put stuff. As long as I put things back where they belong, I can find them the next time they're needed. This is a great relief - I've spent countless hours in my life searching for my glasses, car keys, Bible, and various tools. So I work hard at putting things back in their place.

However, I have an embarrassing tolerance for clutter. Don't get me wrong, it annoys me. It seems that every horizontal surface in my house is a magnet for mounds of paper, and I hate it. But not enough to really do something about it. Oh, I go through various stacks now and then, but I never seem to get all the way to the bottom. I sift through piles of laundry, but some things never get touched. I clean cat boxes and sweep the floor, but there's always more stuff on the ground.

I have heard it said, "What you can tolerate you will never change." I have certainly found this to be true in my life. And it's not just clutter. There are many things which I have simply learned to put up with, rather than fixing them. For example, when it was particularly frigid outside, the cold water pipe that feeds my tub and shower cracked and started spraying water everywhere. Fortunately there was a shutoff to that individual pipe, so my basement wasn't completely flooded. But rather than repairing it right away, I just turned down the water heater a bit and learned to shower with only the hot.

This incident did not happen this past winter, because it was very mild. It was the year before - so I have been living with no cold water in the bathtub for a year and a half! Clearly, it's time to do something about it. And I intend to... someday. But there always seems to be something else more pressing to do. Like checking Facebook or watching a baseball game. Sigh...

Recently I've been challenged to consider unfinished projects in my life. The voice of God spoke to me; well actually, it was my daughter Katie - but she spoke with the knowledge and authority of God. She knows me as well as just about anyone, probably better than I know myself. And she's not shy about pointing out blind spots in me, and areas that need work.

Sometimes my response is, "I don't know what you're talking about. I don't see that in me at all!" Well, duh! It's a BLIND SPOT - of course I can't see it. Anyway, she stated her opinion that I have a lot of unfinished stuff in my life. She pointed out that I often start a project with vigor, then lose interest halfway through and never pick it up again. After blustering a bit (as usual) I conceded there might be some truth in what she said. And as I drove home, I ruminated a bit more about it, and decided to take action.

I knew just what to do - make a LIST! (Yes - shocking, I know...) So I sat down and started writing out all the unfinished business I could think of. In a matter of minutes, I had filled a 14-inch legal sheet from top to bottom. And the list didn't include regular chores like laundry and mowing. I wasn't exactly amazed - I've considered joining the National Procrastination Union, but have never got around to it. I was mildly disturbed that I filled the list so quickly, and resolved to do something about it. Something more than making the list, folding it up and putting it into my Bible.

The list, sitting on top of parts of two unfinished projects

Some things on the list have been waiting a long time, some are relatively recent. Some are stalled for lack of money to invest, some for lack of interest on my part. There are a few things I've been avoiding because I dread the whole project, and some, like the cold water in the bathtub, I have just learned to tolerate and therefore get by without fixing. Some things are reasonably small cost in terms of time or money; others are major commitments. A few things will require help, but most of the items are things I can do myself.

If I cross one item a week off the list, I could have every project completed in under a year. Now, a few ot these items are such a major commitment of time and money that they will not all be done this year, especially with my daughter Melody getting married at the end of the summer. But a lot of this stuff can actually be accomplished, if I set my mind to it. It would be great to make a major dent in the list by year's end.

It has been a couple of weeks since I made the list. So, how am I doing?
I have managed to fold the list and store it in my Bible. YES!

And, I have crossed exactly two items off the list, so I'm right on schedule. I had hoped to make a bit more headway, but things came up. (Hard to believe, but you know how it is....) One finished project was to finally get all the Christmas decorations boxed up and put away. It's spring, for goodness sake! Thankful to finally have that one crossed off.

And in my yard is a small grove of trees we refer to as "Melody's forest." Years ago, when she was just a little girl, she staged a tree-hugging protest because I announced I was going to clear that area. So the woods were spared and have been designated as her forest. The second thing crossed off my list was cleaning out the brush and briars and road detritus and trimming the trees of Melody's forest.

 Melody's Forest

I also trimmed the bushes and the magnolia tree in front of my house, as they were threatening to cover up the front walk and keep our mail carrier from being able to deliver the mail. But that was on my regular to-do list, so it doesn't count as unfinished business. Too bad...

 The front approach to my house. Yes, this is AFTER trimming. More to do here...

A blossom from our magnolia tree, 'cause my mom loves flowers.

Another item on the list is to build and plant a second garden bed. I have purchased the materials necessary for this project, but that's as far as it's gone. "Get materials" is crossed off the list (woo-hoo!) but I don't think I can ethically count that as a finished item, as the project is still incomplete. And I won't be able to work on it this weekend. I'm hoping to get to it on Monday. We'll see...

My existing garden bed, filled with tomatoes. Bed #2 will have peppers.

So what's the point? I'm convinced we are not doomed to keep plodding along, never changing or growing. I believe old dogs CAN learn new tricks, or at least modify their undesirable behavior. And this old dog really does want to change. I'm publicly acknowledging my weakness and failings, even though I hate doing so. I have my pride, you know (and that's not a good thing.)

Since I really do believe God is nudging me to improve this area of my character, I fully expect the Holy Spirit to aid me as I actually do something. But if I do nothing, I can't really expect His help. Faith is demonstrated through action. And God has said His power is perfected in our weakness. (2 Corinthians 12:9) That verse also says that when we admit our weakness, Christ's power can rest on us.

The wall around Jerusalem had been destroyed when the Babylonians conquered the city. It was rebuilt many years later when the Jews, led by Nehemiah, put their faith into action. It would have never happened if they hadn't resisted their enemies who opposed the project. They continued working, with a sword in one hand and tools in the other. (Nehemiah 4:17)

Lethargy and procrastination are the enemies which have kept my unfinished project list long and growing. It's time to fight the battle, to chip away at the list one item at a time. I intend to hold myself accountable by posting regular unfinished business updates. I'll keep you posted.

Thursday, May 3, 2012


May 2, 2009 - the hardest day of my life.

It started out as a typical Saturday. Trish and I had errands to run, and so did our two older children, Katie and Lowell. After lunch, Lowell dropped Katie off at the hairdressers and drove to several stores to buy supplies for a special dinner he was planning to cook for the family that night.

A few hours later, we got a call from Katie. She was done with her hair appointment and wanted a ride home. Lowell hadn't showed up to get her and wasn't answering his phone. We didn't think a lot about it, just picked her up and went home.

As the afternoon went by, we began to wonder what was going on with Lowell. Then the phone rang, and we figured it was him. But it was the call you never want to receive. "Mr. Vawser? Your son has been in a serious auto accident. You need to come to the hospital right away."

As we drove to the hospital, I called my pastors and asked for prayer. When we got there, Patricia and I were called into a side room, where we were informed our son had not survived the accident. Devastation! We were taken to a room to identify the body, then Patricia went back to the waiting room to tell the girls while I made organ donor arrangements. I heard their screams and wails through several closed doors.

When I got back out to the waiting room, our pastors and some other church friends were already there, offering what help they could. They suggested we go to the church for a while. We numbly agreed. At the church, more than a hundred people were waiting for us. I remember being gratified by their love and support, but I have no idea what anyone said or did that evening. My only son had died, and I was crushed!

The whole next week was a blur. We made funeral arrangements and dealt with the influx of family and friends. My co-workers pulled together video clips of Lowell and we sifted through hundreds of photos. We scheduled the visitation at our church starting at 5 pm. That night, thousands of people showed up. We stood and spoke with a nonstop line of people for six hours straight. Only God's grace gave me the strength to get through.

The next day, May 8, dawned bright and sunny. My house was filled with dozens of family members helping us get ready for the afternoon memorial service. Around noon, the sky got dark and the wind came up. 120-mile an hour winds blasted through the region, toppling trees, destroying power lines and damaging hundreds of homes. It was an amazing storm, really once in a lifetime. (I remember saying, "Lowell, we'd have remembered this day without this.") Somehow we made it to the church and went on with the service by candlelight. And we laid our son to rest.

Lowell was an unusual young man. He had quirks and failings (who doesn't?), but he was a delight.

Riding horsies with his sister Katie

Birthday cakes with his sister Melody

He knew who he was at a very young age, and pursued his destiny with vigor. At age 4 he made a genuine commitment to Jesus Christ as his Lord. 

Lowell's baptism

At age 7 he told me he wanted to be a missionary, and started going on No Greater Love mission trips with me. (More about NGL here.) Lowell and I went on multiple trips to the Kentucky Derby, Indy 500, New Orleans Mardi Gras, and several others. With the help of NGL brothers, he learned to share his faith and developed godly character.

Passing tracts across the street from Churchill Downs

Lowell's favorite gate - the Kentucky Derby infield, where all the rowdies were

Carrying the cross at the Indianapolis 500

He spent his 14th birthday in Central America, sharing the love of Christ with poverty-stricken children. He was the featured speaker at his high school baccalaureate service.  After his graduation, he went to Suriname, South America for a while to work as a missionary. His time there helped him realize he needed further training and preparation to be ready for full time overseas mission work. 

In Honduras at age 14

Typical Lowell - showing love to kids in Honduras

Back in the USA, he ended up working a while in Kansas City and attending the International House of Prayer. While there, he worked with the Hispanic and Korean communities - he loved unusual food and learning about other cultures.

His next stop was the southeast Missouri bootheel, where he worked at a Christian radio station, sharing the gospel using contemporary music and daily on-air Bible teaching. After a couple of years of that, he found out about a missionary college in Minnesota and moved home to work and save money for the necessary tuition. Lowell worked at a couple of different factory jobs over the next year or two. He was within a few months of saving enough money to go on to school when the accident happened.

Philmont High Adventure backpacking with the Boy Scouts

I don't really understand why Lowell was taken from us so soon, just a few weeks shy of his 25th birthday. I miss him every day. But I take great comfort in knowing that Lowell didn't waste his time here on earth. He loved people, and affected hundreds of lives through his actions and uncompromising witness for Jesus Christ. One of the last things he said to me was, "Dad, I'm a missionary every day." And he demonstrated that commitment by the love he showed to his family, friends and factory co-workers. He didn't just talk - he lived what he said he believed.

Our last Mardi Gras together

And my greatest comfort comes from the knowledge that this life isn't all there is. A genuine relationship with Jesus Christ not only gives us joy, purpose and a life worth living here on earth.
Knowing Him also brings the promise of eternal life in heaven. I'm certain Lowell is celebrating with the angels right now, and I expect to join him in the not so distant future. (What's a few decades compared to eternity?) Knowing that this life isn't all there is gives me peace and comfort - it's what the Bible calls the blessed hope of the saints. (see Colossians 1:27)

I can't say I'm happy about losing my son. Can't even say I understand it. But I am at peace. 
This is just a temporary separation. And Lowell didn't waste his life - he used his time to help people and to make the world a better place. 

None of us is guaranteed tomorrow. I pray we all learn to make the most of each day, using the time we are given to help change this world.

"Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us."  
Philippians 3:13-14