I attended a pop concert this week and realized firsthand the great influence an eighteen-year-old boy has over hundreds of thousands (possibly even millions) of young girls and teenagers. Once back home, my husband Bill and I learned about Ken Neller’s death, a friend, minister and Bible professor. As with the rest of our community, we ached for his wife’s great loss, his sons, parents and all of ours in the community, church and university he served with a servant’s heart.
I surmised, “To live a life of influence is one thing. To live a life of eternal influence is the thing.” This bi-monthly post is in hopes of helping us figure it out, figure us out, and ultimately rejoice in God’s plan for man and woman.
So how is it that my granddaughter Elizabeth–almost seven–only asked Santa for one thing . . . tickets to the Justin Bieber concert! E is one persistent child, nature and nurture have both embedded into her small frame. Those tickets were the only thing she wanted for Christmas, making mention of nothing else when she wrote her letter to Santa.
Then in mid-December Elizabeth received an official face-to-face video sent from the North Pole, featuring Santa himself. My daughter Ari sent me the link, and I also watched this true to form Santa in action. With a heavy white beard that covered his lips, Santa used Elizabeth’s name throughout his conversation. He even walked into his library and pointed to a leather bound book with her name trailing down the spine. According to this book, E. was on the good list. Her eyes widened.
Ending in his workshop, Santa pulled up a green tablecloth on the workbench, peeked under it and then smiled into the camera. In his deep rich but gentle voice, he said, “Elizabeth, you will not be disappointed.”
When E. heard this, she gasped and excitedly said, “Mom! Santa said I’m getting Justin Bieber tickets!”
Ari was confused. “Did Santa say that?”
“Yes, Mom. He said, ‘You will not be disappointed.’”
And so it goes with a child and her faith.
That next Saturday, they went to a Christmas party with what had to be the real Santa in attendance. Powdery face, rosy cheeks, and pounds of perception, Santa had every child convinced except for one.
“So Santa, why don’t you have your reindeers with you?” the boy asked.
“Why would I! It’s deer season in these parts!” Santa answered. Everyone agreed, validating the man in the red suit’s authenticity.
When Ari set her sleeping seven-month old in Santa’s arms, Santa too fell asleep momentarily for a perfect picture of peace.
Next when Elizabeth sat in his lap, Santa looked at her with concern and asked, “Are you feeling okay?”
“Yes, why?” E asked.
“It looks like you might have a little fever . . . Beiber Fever.”
E.’s head jerked around and with wide eyes, she looked into his.
He nodded and E knew her request for tickets to the Justin Bieber concert would be under the tree Christmas morning.
Before Santa told the children good-bye, he reminded them that Christmas wasn’t about him or the gifts they received. Christmas was all about Jesus and his birth, life and death. (See the key/ gift, he gave them with the poem*.)
Sure enough, on Christmas morning four tickets were under the tree. E called me to tell me and then asked if I’d join her with her mother and eleven-year-old brother, W.C.
I was honored, but should I mention I don’t know one Justin Bieber song? All I knew was JB was a good kid who was idolized by girls, young and old. And many of those girls were at the Verizon Arena in masses Thursday night. Smattered about in our section I counted three fathers, one brave boyfriend an aisle over and E’s brother, WC. And for all concerned, the economy looked rock solid with hordes of girls and women buying $3 KitKats and $35 t-shirts.
I learned a lot that night, mostly being that Justin Bieber is a surprisingly multi-talented young man. He plays the guitar, drums and piano and can dance up a storm.
“No wonder he stays so skinny,” Ari shouted over the kids to me. Yes, he could even lead some fitness classes–a twenty-first century Richard Simmons perhaps when his songs run-out.
And yet, even with all the dazzle of lights, choreography and upbeat music, JB had a message that corresponded with his Believe Tour: be yourself and work hard to make your dreams come true. He said it several times in case the screaming girls weren’t really hearing him.
And I’m sure it was only heard by those who had ears to hear.
Throughout his performance, Elizabeth sang a few of his songs and then rested in my lap and onto her mother’s. E seemed content watching her JB light beamer change colors in the dark.
And certainly it was an event for both E and W.C. and one even Ari and I will remember–maybe more so about the pizza before, figuring out the parking and which long line to stand in, resulting in the time we all spent together.
Elizabeth has figured Santa proved to give her what she asked.
Consequently, she did raise a perceptive question to her mother recently.
“Mom, are all those mall Santas for real?”
“No, they’re just Santa’s helpers since he can’t be everywhere before the holidays.”
“I didn’t think so. Because in every picture with Santa, he looks different.”
Persistent and perceptive.
Which got me thinking about God and how we perceive Him. Some envision God as Poseidon-like, the Greek god of the sea, usually illustrated as an older male with silver hair and beard who easily angered blows death-defying waves into the paths of whomever he pleases. Many friends and loved ones grew up believing God to be more of a dictator with a pointing finger, waiting just to pounce the minute they did something wrong. And I don’t believe those many mall gods are considered God’s helpers. They’re more like detractors. And shouldn’t we know that?
I have mostly envisioned God as a loving father, extending His arms about me and encouraging me forward.
But sometimes I’ve wondered.
Like after I got back into town from the concert last week, Bill and I were shocked to hear that a greatly loved and respected friend, minister and Bible scholar had died of a massive heart attack. I ached fiercely for his wife Barbara, his high school sweet heart and wife of 38 years. Being my age, they still seemed so young, too young.
And so it is with the ending of a life, the end of a Believe Tour per se, not only do we question God, but we also question about God and why some die of cancer and some don’t, why children are abused, why many die before their lives are complete. And how does He decide complete?
In this case, it had us wondering why a man like Ken who had spent his adult life devoted to serving the Lord as a minister and a professor, as a husband, a father and a grandfather not live to be 80 or 90? It’s not like he’d been sick. He was playing racquetball at the time. He was fit and disciplined, and ultimately his gain in heaven left huge holes here on earth.
Having been saved as a teenager as a result of neighborhood canvassing and someone stopping at his door, Ken used his intelligence to obtain his doctorate at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. As a result, Ken has left a legacy of changing hearts and minds through his sermons at Downtown Church and lectures at HU. We have to love that his former students have shared recently how Dr. Neller set an example that the essential qualities of their studies shouldn’t result in hefty words of academia. Dr Neller filtered it through his humble spirit into relevance and simplicity for all to hear the Gospel of Christ.
After his funeral Sunday, as Bill and I absorbed the impact of his loss for his family and community, Bill remarked, “I think there will be a better heaven for Ken than for me.”
Upon some thought he added, “I don’t know how I’ll even know that. For the blessing of being in heaven will be all-encompassing. How can I envy someone else’s mansion? I’m in heaven.”
Mostly this week what we are reminded of is the fragility of our lives, even as we ask, ” How is it we can best honor God for all He has blessed us with and in whatever arena we are placed?”
It all circles back to where our eyes should be focused: not on this life, but on His eternal life. And doesn’t Ken’s life, as well as others who we miss, exemplify the beauty of living each day to the fullest, to the delight of the Father? In turn, with hearts purified we offer our days, not in doing good works to build points for the best mansion in heaven, but because we love being a good child to an amazing Father who created us with design and purpose. It’s ultimately about our deepening relationship with Him.
Somewhere, somehow, even in our purpose and passion, we can get off track thinking it’s in our strength.
The night we learned of Ken’s passing, I had a dream. In it I was at a convention with two friends, Amy and Linda. Somehow I found out there was going to be a special painting workshop for artists, and so the three of us started getting ready to attend it. When they announced the workshop was by special invitation only, they then announced Amy’s and Linda’s names, but not mine.
When I awoke, I reflected on it, thinking maybe I wasn’t worthy enough to be asked, dedicated enough. Or maybe I was unprepared (like the virgins and the lamp oil). Or maybe it simply wasn’t my season.
I emailed Amy and Linda and asked them their thoughts. Amy responded with “I’m not a big art fan, so I’d probably give you my ticket. ;-)”
I laughed when I first read her response. Then I thought, “But I couldn’t take her ticket because I didn’t earn it.” That’s when I had an ah-ha moment, realizing that idea of our continually earning that acceptance into heaven.
It might have been while we were obtaining a strong work ethic, we learned to respect our “earning power” for everything.
Maybe that’s why it is only by His Spirit and His Word we can actually fathom “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God–not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Ephesians 2: 8-10)
We each have a plan and a purpose, and many of us saw that plan lived out in Ken’s life of love for the Lord. God’s Word promises “You have made known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.” (Be sure to read Psalm 16 in its entirety and its personal message for you.)
Envision God with a gentle smile, seeing your name written in the Lamb’s Book of Life. With twinkling eyes delighting in those who live for Him and unto Him, hear Him say, “You will not be disappointed.”
This Heavy Hurts page “Are you being heard? Am I listening? ” encourages us to slow down and value one another by listening.
*Santa gave the children at the party a key to hang on the front door with the words that invited Santa in: Thank you for coming to our house tonight. We are celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ. Thank you, Santa, for the gifts you bring. Thank you, Lord Jesus, for Everything!