There are two words that send a shudder through almost everyone who is either in school or was ever in school, because you remember the fear that goes with these words. And if you're currently a student, you don't have to remember them at all; you're living with them. The words - final exam!
In our town, Dr. Jennings was one of the most feared teachers in the school system. She taught music, and she began a new year in elementary school one year with a tirade that dumped all over one poor little boy who happened to raise his hand and say, "Mrs. Jennings..." At which she totally exploded and said, "Dr. Jennings, and don't you forget it!" And I want to tell you, that was only the beginning of what she said. You'd better call her Doctor. You get the distinct impression she really needs that title for her identity. But then, have you ever watched high school football players? I've worked with them a lot, and it's kind of fun to watch them, because in a sense, they're seldom seen in public without their letter jacket. You've got to have your jacket to kind of have your identity. Right? Who am I without my letter jacket?
I think my brief visit to Israel has to be one of the richest memories of my life. I'm not selling Holy Land tours; I'm not going to have a Ron Hutchcraft Holy Land Tour that I'm promoting. I'm just remembering with you in my company, some especially golden moments. One of those was in this dark, damp, cobblestone basement of what is now a church on the Via Dolorosa. Two thousand years ago it wasn't that church; it was part of the palace of Pontius Pilate, the Governor. And I realized that I was standing on stones where Jesus was humiliated in front of a howling mob by some hardened Roman soldiers. And I can't forget the feelings of that. The guide showed us some markings that were scratched into the stones there; probably by some Roman soldiers. He said, "This was a board for a crude game. They called it The Game of The King, and the soldiers loved to play it. In fact, they may have played it with Jesus on those very stones. And you know what, that game is still being played today.
The events of September 11, 2001, changed a lot of things, including our definition of the word "hero." Because we saw what real heroes look like - those police and firefighters we'll never forget. The ones who went into those burning towers, knowing they might not come out alive. But there were people to rescue. Immediately, professional football and baseball players began to speak out, telling the world they aren't the heroes. The people who risk their lives to save others are. By that definition, the rescue swimmers of the United States Coast Guard more than qualify. We saw them in action after Hurricane Katrina submerged much of New Orleans. They were the men dangling from helicopters, scooping desperate people off rooftops. That was easy compared to some of their rescues, like plunging from a hovering chopper into an angry sea to save a life. There was a movie not too long ago that told the story of these heroes and portrayed how they lived out their motto, "So others may live." The seasoned veteran who is training a class of rookies shows them the depth of a rescuer's life-saving commitment. It's all about grabbing the hand of that person who's about to die and making a promise: "I won't let go." And they don't.
When we were raising our kids, a lot of the time their mother and I weren't quite sure of how we were doing. Were we giving them enough love in the ways they needed it? Were we giving them enough discipline? Were we giving them the right kind of discipline? Were we spending enough time with them? What do you do? Well, you pray! You do your best and you try to live by your priorities and then you wait to see what crop comes up years later. Now one of my particular challenges was to try to balance the extreme demands and busyness of my ministry with the kids' need for a dad, who wasn't a stranger or a visitor in their life. At one point our oldest son was reminiscing about some of his growing up, and by the way, he has a way of doing this. He really "bottom lined" it in a couple of sentences. Here's what he said: "I have two impressions of my childhood. First, my dad was busy a lot." I've got to tell you, my heart sank at that point, because I knew that was all too true. Then he said something that made me want to yell, "Thank You, Lord!" He said, "My dad was busy a lot, but secondly, my dad was with me a lot!"
They called it the "perfect storm." The remains of a hurricane combined with some storm fronts over New England to create a weather monster. The movie, The Perfect Storm, tells the story of one fishing crew's heroic but unsuccessful battle to survive that storm. Author Peter Hiett tells of another battle for survival that took place to the south, just off the New Jersey shore. John had taken his six-year-old daughter sailing that same day, but he didn't check the weather report. Six miles out, he found himself suddenly in trouble as a major storm seemed to come from nowhere. It wasn't long before their boat capsized, and John and his daughter were in the water and their life preservers were swept out to sea with their boat.
It's pretty amusing to look back at your wedding pictures. At least it is for me. I can't believe my wife married that kid in the tuxedo, but I'm sure glad she did! That hour in that church began what has been a lot of years of wonderful love and partnership. I remember standing up at the front of that church feeling like a penguin in my tuxedo. The bridesmaids marched down the aisle and they looked so beautiful, but I didn't want to spend my life with any of them. Nope! The organ trumpeted the beginning of the bridal march and there stood my queen! A few minutes later, at the altar, that wonderful woman made some very special promises to me about her love, her commitment, her loyalty, and the permanence of our relationship. And I did the same to her. I had no idea what the future would hold, but I made a life-changing choice that day. I decided to base everything on a promise.
It was a big youth event. And, one of the top contemporary Christian bands was performing that night in a major arena, and I was part of the program, too. I offered to be a backup singer, but apparently they had that covered. I'm actually a good backup singer. I mean, when I sing, people back up! Actually, I was there to speak that night, and not to do comedy, obviously, and it's a good thing. And I had some Native young people from our summer team there with me. One of them was accompanying me as we tried to connect with some of the team at another entrance. We went through the tunnels that connect the backstage part of the arena, and everywhere we went, we met those big, beefy security guys. They'd look at my all-access security pass and they'd wave me on. But they weren't quite as friendly to the young team member who was with me. They stopped her and asked her if she had a pass. She didn't. None of the team members did because they weren't on the program. And that's where the magic words came in. They worked for the girl who was with me; they worked every time for the young people who joined me. I would just say, "She's with me. He's with me."
It might be the dirtiest car I've ever driven. Someone asked me if I wanted to take a picture of our filthy chariot, and I said, "No, I don't want to remember him this way." We had spent weeks on drought-dry back roads. It was never a secret we were coming. You could see the dust long before you could see our car. It was, in the Bible's words, our own "pillar of cloud." Anywhere you rubbed against this car you picked up dirt from it. I wish more people had rubbed against it! Our car had been driven by several drivers during our summer outreach to reservations, and somewhere along the way, the rubber gasket around our trunk lid had been ripped out. One day I opened my trunk to get something, and I was greeted with a lovely blanket of chalky, white dust over everything. By the time we got to a city with a car wash, the automatic windows wouldn't even open. We wondered if their mechanism could be choked with dust. By the way, I don't usually open my windows at car washes. But anyway, we managed to find a car wash that used these words to advertise their services - high-powered, and they weren't lying. No, the water from their hoses could be used in building demolition I think or riot control! They had this soapy spray that seemed to penetrate every filthy crevice of my "dirt mobile." When we drove out, there was no trace anywhere of the dirt that had covered everything only moments before. Oh, P.S. - the windows were working, too!
Our daughter might still be sucking on her binky if we hadn't negotiated a deal. She was very attached to that pacifier, long after she really didn't need it anymore. Then my wife struck that bargain - the doll that our girl really wanted in exchange for her binky. From that day on, the binky was no more. I kept it in a drawer for my tough days. Not long ago, our son and daughter-in-law had a similar crossroads moment with our granddaughter. She could not imagine life without her binky, until Mommy and Daddy announced her Bye-Bye Binky Party. Did you ever go to one of those? On that day, she would surrender her binky and there would be a party in her honor with cake, decorations and even little presents. And suddenly, she didn't need her binky anymore!