Sample Chapters

Chapter 21 – Facing the Facts on a Fishing Trip

My wife and I were taking a short vacation in Destin, Florida, and the emerald waters of the Gulf of Mexico enticed us to want to go deep-sea fishing. We got up that morning at four to depart from shore at five for a day-long fishing trip on a commercial party boat. Thirty other turistas joined us as we all joyfully headed into the deep waters of the gulf at sunrise with dreams of catching a big one.

My Type-A personality really shows whenever I go fishing. I work so extremely hard to try to catch everything I can as if my very life depended on it. After a few hours I am always the dirtiest, slimiest, bloodiest person on the boat! People learn to stay out of my way. This wouldn’t be so ridiculous if I was good at it, but I am not. By mid-day I had a string of small snapper and a few other odd fish. I was still working in hopes of landing at least one fish that was larger than three pounds.

I’ll never forget what happened next on that beautiful day. A young lady who was on the boat with us, in contrast to the rest of us, wore a nice dress with a matching white hat and white gloves. She enjoyed the ride on the boat but didn’t fish at all, simply exclaiming, “I don’t want to mess up my nails that I just had done!”

I rolled my eyes and thought to myself, “Oh brother! Why in the world did she come on this all-day-long fishing adventure if she didn’t want to fish?” It was the most absurd thing I had seen on the entire trip. A little later I heard her soft feminine voice say, “Well, I guess I need to fish a little bit. I just hope I don’t get my nails dirty.” I laughed to myself as I pulled in a one-pound snapper. “She will never catch anything! What a joke!”

Within just a few minutes, however, I heard a loud squeal from where the lady was fishing. My jaw dropped as I actually saw her pull in a huge, beautiful forty-pound grouper! It was the biggest fish anybody caught that day and much larger than any fish I had ever caught in my life! The lady was thrilled beyond belief. The entire crew cheered and applauded. Her nails and her clothes were still clean. Everybody was smiling and laughing.

Everybody but me.

From the moment I saw that grouper I began to develop what some people call a “slow burn.” I continued to fish for a short while, but jealousy and resentment gradually took over my attitude until it showed on my face. I was no longer having fun. My wife could see it, and wisely said not a word.

Snatching the rod and reel from the water, I walked away and stumbled up to the sundeck of the boat. Looking up into the sky, bitter and bloody and exhausted, I shouted angrily into the heavens. “WHY? WHY? WHY!! God, you KNOW I work so hard to catch fish, and you have NEVER let me catch a fish like that! And this girl didn’t even try, and you gave her a bigger fish than I have ever had! WHY?”

I think that getting some kind of an answer from God has very little to do with the piety of our lives, but much to do with how desperate we are to hear. Such was the case that day on the boat. I didn’t like the answer at first — actually I hated it. But in the midst of my selfish demand for an answer, I know what I heard. What I heard was… laughter!

Across the blue Florida skies, coming straight to my heart, when I asked for God to explain his reasons for not giving me the big fish, my only answer had been a hearty laugh! By that, I knew that He was saying, “It’s my ocean, son, and they are my fish. I can do what I want with them, and you’ll just have to deal with it.”

No matter how much I cursed the whole situation and spit in the ocean and kicked the boat, He was, of course, right. I could complain that it just wasn’t fair, and I could pout and say that I would never go fishing again. That would really show Him! But in the end I had to learn to deal with it.

Looking back now, I realize that I learned two valuable lessons that day. Both of them are clearly taught in Scripture, but learning it from the Book and learning it from life are not always the same.

The first lesson was the truth of Matthew Chapter twenty, where the owner of a farm decided to pay the same amount to those who worked for one hour as he paid to those who worked all day long. Essentially, he said, “I can do what I want to with what is mine, and you don’t get a vote.” It is a lesson in sovereignty. He owns it and runs it, and I don’t. There is only one God, and I’m not it. Being God, He can give his big fish to a young lady and not to me, if that’s what he wants to do.

The other lesson is the truth of the elder brother of the prodigal son in Luke 15. On the boat that day, I was just like him. He had worked so hard for so long. He had done all the right things. When his wayward, undeserving brother got a big “welcome home” party, he resented it, and instead of enjoying the party he stood outside with a scowl. If he had been on a boat, he would have retreated to the sun deck! The fact that he had never been honored with a big celebration just ate him up. “Why him, and not me?” But the Father rejoices at the return of the prodigal! This great story, of course, is a beautiful lesson of grace; a grace that could not be the reward of hard work, but is a great and wonderful gift to the undeserving, the unqualified, the unrighteous, who know that they could never ever pay for it unless it was absolutely free.

I still wish that I had been the one to pull in the big one that day. But if I had, I would probably be boasting about what a great fisherman I am. I’m sure that He knew best, and would rather that I learn these lessons instead of catching a huge grouper.

But, Lord, isn’t there some way I could have learned this stuff and still got the fish too? (I think I might hear more laughter.)

As the little song goes, “He’s got the whole world in His hands.” That includes the oceans, and the fishes, and you, and me.

Chapter 22 – Forgiveness In My Family

My father grew up in an impoverished area in northern Alabama, and he used to tell me a lot of stories about his childhood. None of his family had ever finished high school. All of them knew a lot about how to work and somehow get by on a few potatoes and not much else.

Part of their culture was to escape their misery by finding a cheap way to get drunk on alcohol. Dad struggled to get away from that. When he was old enough to get a job in the city and away from the coal mines, that is just what he did. He got a job as a hospital security guard where he met a switchboard operator, fell in love, and got married at the age of twenty-two.

He joined the U.S. Army shortly after I was born, and after his discharge from the Army he got a job in the steel mills of Birmingham where he worked for forty-two years. He was so proud to have this job. I remember him showing me one of his first “paycheck stubs” and the amount of take-home pay he earned for two weeks’ work. He had made a total of twenty-one dollars.

But growing up as a small boy in Birmingham, son of a steelworker and a “full-time” mother, life did not seem bad at all. Of course, we had very little money. There were four of us boys, and I think I was nine when our family got its first automobile, a used-up 1948 Plymouth that had been a taxicab. Later in this book is a story about that car.

We fought over the “good” groceries early in the month, but toward the end of the month until payday when even the Spam was gone, we ate butter beans and potatoes, and for meat there was something called beef tripe. If you don’t know what that is, you don’t want to know! But life then was really not so bad. Dad was doing all he could to provide for us faithfully. We never missed air conditioning or television, because we had never had them.

Many fond family memories, however, are clouded by a dark shadow that hung over our household. It was never spoken of, but it was there. I didn’t know what it was or what had caused it, until one time when my father drank too much. Suddenly I saw a twisted agony on his face as he sank to the floor in the corner of our living room. He began to cry and to scream words that came as an unforgettable shock to my little ears. “I’m going to kill him! I’m going to kill him! Oh God, please let me kill him!”

“Kill who, Daddy?” I asked. Everything got quiet, my mother pulled me away, and I was left to wonder what this was all about.

This kind of thing would happen again occasionally, maybe once or twice a year. One night, when I was still a small child, my parents finally told me about something that had happened back before I was born. At the time, my father had a brother named Terry, less than two years older than he was. They were very close.

But then, on one awful day when my father was only sixteen, somebody came running up to him and said, “If you ever want to see your brother alive again, you better run down to the café!”

When my dad ran inside, Terry was lying on the floor dead. He had been carelessly murdered by a man he didn’t know and never even saw. Terry had been eating a sandwich at the lunch counter and was stabbed in the back by a man who was showing off his new knife.

Of course, my dad’s heart had been broken, and for many years now my sweet, gentle and hard-working father had carried a lot of anger, and when he dreamed, he dreamed of revenge.

Though this was always on my father’s mind, we never discussed or even mentioned this horrible event. But one time I did ask him the name of the man who had murdered Terry, and I will never forget the icy cold tone of voice that he had when for the only time in his life I heard him speak this man’s name.

Dad constantly harbored thoughts of even committing a crime just to get in prison to get at the man who had taken his brother’s life. He tried to keep it all inside, and it was slowly destroying him. He learned not to open up, not to show his emotions, not to talk about his pain. Stomach ulcers, caused and aggravated by these suppressed feelings, were a constant problem to him, sometimes even sending him to the hospital.

Anger and bitterness were taking a heavy toll on this man I knew as “Daddy.” Though I was just a boy, I could see he was hurting a lot, and I was helpless to do anything about it. Several years passed, and things stayed about the same, until one day something happened that turned everything around.

It was a cold and rainy Sunday, and we had all gone to church that morning. When we returned home, my father wasn’t with us. It rained heavily all that afternoon, and my brothers and my mother and I stayed inside, but he was gone.

I didn’t know where Dad was or when he would be back. Then, sometime around four o’clock that afternoon, we heard the front door open.

It was still raining as my father quietly stepped inside, took off his coat and hat, and closed his umbrella. He stood in the doorway, not moving.

Looking across the room at my mother, he spoke very softly. Tears were in his eyes. A look of peacefulness was on his face. With a trembling voice he began to cry as he spoke.

“Kate, I’m free! I’m free!”

What had happened was that my father had spent the afternoon with the church pastor. He had poured out his heart to God, and had finally, after twenty long years, forgiven the man who killed his brother! For over half of his life, my father had let what that man had done rob him of rest, plague him with bitterness, destroy his nerves, and ulcerate his stomach. Now, he had finally put it behind him. Later he explained to me that, as the pastor had told him, forgiveness doesn’t mean you approve of, nor do you agree with, a wrong that was done.

It doesn’t mean that wrong is right.

It doesn’t mean that it doesn’t still hurt.

It just means you decide to turn it loose, so it can turn you loose.

Dad had finally, simply, let it go. At long last he was free — free to love, to laugh, to enjoy his family, to get on with this wonderful gift that we call life. After that, my father lived nearly thirty more years.

What I am hoping to relate to you in this story is this simple but profound truth: when my father was angry and bitter, he was not hurting the man who had killed his brother. That man was in prison somewhere, totally unaware of what my father was thinking or feeling. No, my father was only hurting himself and those of us who loved him. And when he forgave, it was himself who was set free!

The most tragic thing is not what someone says or does to hurt us, as bad as that might be. But the worse thing is what we do to hurt ourselves when we don’t forgive.

Have you ever heard somebody say something like, “I will never forget what she said to me?” How long did it take for her to say it? Maybe four seconds? And, yet, we remember it for days, or months, or years, before finally we see how warped that is. Forgiveness is required of all of us if we are to keep any sanity at all.

When we are honest about it, we know that we ourselves are often in the wrong and need to be forgiven by God and by others. Likewise, we all have also been hurt by somebody. Maybe it was careless or unintentional. Or maybe it was deliberate and mean. It doesn’t matter. He commands that we forgive others who have wronged us. And He commands this, not just for them, but for us, so that we can be free.

The thought occurs to me that since God has indeed forgiven me for all that I have done, and since my father could forgive the man who had hurt him so much, I should have no problem forgiving anybody who ever hurt me– anybody, any time, anywhere, in any way.

One more thought. If you do forgive… or if you don’t… you don’t even have to say anything.

Your children will know.

Chapter 30 – Jim, Tammy Faye, Larry King and You

I saw the slow and agonizing decline of Tammy Faye, as many of you did. This once-beautiful lady slowly succumbed to the ravages of cancer, but even as her physical appearance declined, her spirit got stronger.

I was not a big fan, and Tammy would be the first to admit that she was comically flaky, but I never questioned her sincerity. So I watched the coverage that was given on television when it was announced that Tammy Faye Messner, Jim Bakker’s former wife, had finally died.

What impressed me most was a re-run of an earlier broadcast of the Larry King TV show which I had never seen before.

Tammy had just done another interview on the show the week of her death, which showed how cancer had so horribly destroyed her body. But this particular program I am talking about had been from a couple of years back. There on this show were Jim and Tammy, along with their son and their daughter. Tammy still looked healthy at the time. It had been recorded years after they had both remarried, after Jim had been released from prison, and several years after the PTL empire had fallen in what people call disgrace.

I watched and listened carefully as they discussed the shame, the scandals, the divorces, the new spouses, the imprisonment, the former drug habits and rebellion of their son Jay, and the cancer that was then just beginning to attack Tammy Faye. Many would think, after all that had happened, that some of the people in this broken family would be on the defensive. I watched to see if anybody was cynical or bitter. I wondered if somebody would show anger, or if the Bakkers or the Messners or the children would blame someone else, or each other.

Amazingly, not once throughout the program did anyone hurl an accusation or try to place blame, or seek to justify themselves or their own actions! I saw no hatred. I heard no name-calling. Nobody showed disrespect to any other person. There were no pot-shots, no cynical comments, nothing said at all that might even have had an edge to it.

Larry King asked how Jim felt toward Tammy’s husband Roe Messner. Jim smiled and said that he was a wonderful man and a dear friend, and he sincerely wished for them to be happy. The children (now young adults) echoed the sentiment.

Likewise, when Larry King asked Tammy Faye and the kids about Jim Bakker’s current wife, they enthusiastically expressed a genuine admiration and respect, and warm affection for her.

Now I understand that it would be pretty hard to fool a seasoned interviewer such as Mr. King, but the Bakkers didn’t try to fool anybody. They were genuinely open, honest, humble, peaceful, and kind.

Perhaps the tabloid writers would have been disappointed, but for the rest of us it was refreshingly sweet, wholesome, and even loving. You don’t see that every day!

The program closed with King’s sincere comments on what a wonderful family he thought they were and how much respect he had for all of them.

Somewhere around that time it occurred to me that I could be standing on holy ground!

In my imagination I began to think back to a time long ago… a time when perhaps a young Bible school couple must have talked together about their dream of a worldwide Christian program on television. I wondered if they had even envisioned a park, or hotels, or conferences. Undoubtedly, they had great hopes to succeed in their ventures, and, probably beyond their wildest expectations, they actually did!

Of course, it is obvious that they never thought they would fall as they did. It probably never occurred to them that they would fail morally and spiritually. But somewhere along the way, they let the fame and the money and the success compromise their character, and it all came tumbling down… and the crash of it was heard all over the world.

I am sure that if they had known of all the things that would happen, they would never have “signed on for the trip.”

No doubt there were times they would much rather have remained unknown than to become a long-running joke on the Tonight Show. I believe that the pain of their failures had for years outweighed the happiness of their successes.

As William Cowper wrote, God really does work “in mysterious ways, His wonders to perform!”

Something totally different, something Jim and Tammy never thought would happen, must have been on God’s mind from the very beginning! And through all of it, He never stopped loving them, and was never taken by surprise at anything they did.

Does God cause people to sin? Of course not! But He is never perplexed as to what He intends to do about it, and He is never without a plan to make it work out for good.

I’m aware that there are many people who think that any Christian who fails is an embarrassment to the cause of the gospel. If I were to agree with a person who believed that… well, we would both be wrong!

Some people just don’t yet understand that it really is entirely a message of grace! It’s not about our always doing it right, but about love and acceptance and forgiveness, about restoration and redemption after we have made a total wreck of our lives.

Concerning God’s grace, the fact is that we don’t even know what we are talking about until we have fallen hard enough and often enough that we are no longer shocked at the depth of our own sinfulness.

Religion without grace can only focus on the rules we must keep and the commands we must obey. It gives us a pat on the back and makes us feel good that we have never done anything “really bad” like some others have done. But the powerful reality of true grace shines brightest only when we see that we have sinned, and sinned greatly.

If you are one of the people who has “never done much wrong,” I can only recommend an honest and humble look within. If you still see yourself as a really good person, you have permission to look down on the rest of us.

But if you have really sinned — if you have tumbled off the pedestal — if you have been to the wrong places, done the wrong things, and got caught before you got around to repenting…

If you have lost your temper, fallen off the wagon, or wrecked your marriage, or anything that made you feel so ashamed…

If you have repeatedly needed forgiveness, and even now you can’t seem to get your life together without messing up something… well… welcome to the human race! And welcome to amazing grace! The kingdom of God was made for people like you!

Everybody doesn’t “get it,” but Jim and Tammy do. No, it wasn’t in their plan… but it was in His.