Thursday, August 30, 2018

Conflict and Clashing Cymbals

Have you ever noticed in the Bible how God used dreams to reveal Himself and communicate His will to others? 

There was Jacob, dreaming of angels ascending and descending a ladder to Heaven. Joseph was freed from prison in Egypt when God enabled Him to correctly interpreted a series of dreams. Daniel rose to a position of high authority in Babylon after interpreting a troubling dream the king had. Mary’s husband, Joseph, was told in a dream not to divorce her even though she was pregnant with God’s Son. And Peter received the revelation through a dream that the gospel of Christ was for gentiles as well as Jews/

God doesn’t often speak to me directly, but recently I awoke in the middle of the night with a brief message I believe was from Him. I don’t know if it was a dream, or just a thought, but what He said was simple.

I had been interacting with a friend, a fellow believer on a theological matter and had sent him a lengthy email about it, citing chapter and verse to support why what I believe is true. What our disagreement concerned doesn’t matter here, but what the Lord spoke to me about it consisted of just two words: “Clanging cymbal.”

In 1 Corinthians 13:1 it says, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.” It goes on to say, “If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing….”

To me, this says that from God’s perspective, it’s not just what we say – however true it may be – but also how we say it, and why. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ” (Ephesians 4:15).

My natural communication style is to be direct and forthright. The problem with that is, even if what I say is on point, I can offend or hurt someone if I fail to cushion what I say without also communicating the genuine love and concern I have for them. Too often I’ve done just that. So I sent my friend a follow-up email, asking his forgiveness for insensitivity and lack of Christlike love I might have conveyed earlier. His or my rightness or wrongness wasn’t important.

In 1 John 4:16 we’re told, “God is love,” and I’ve thought a lot about that and what it means in an everyday, practical sense. I plan to do even more thinking about it. But one manifestation of it – if it’s true, as the Bible tells us, “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20) – is that whether it’s our speech, thoughts toward others, or actions, all should be guided according to the love of Jesus working in us and through us. 

Hence, even if we’re exactly correct in what we’re saying – and I’m not arguing or defending the point I was trying to make with my friend – if we don’t do it with sincere, Christ-centered love toward the other person(s), it’s all for naught.

Today’s society encourages people to vent their feelings, frustrations and fears. “Just let it out.” But much – probably most – of it is rooted in hatred, antagonism and animosity. There’s no love being shown, no desire for reconciliation or working toward mutual accord. This, perhaps more than in any other way, is where followers of Jesus can distinguish ourselves from everyone else. (And if you think I’m pointing a finger at you, keep in mind I’m pointing the other fingers back at me!)

In John 13:35, Jesus said, By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another." He also said we’re to “love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44, Luke 6:27,35). Why such a big deal about love? Why all this schmaltzy stuff Jesus is talking about, if we’re to win the day, exert our influence, and right the wrongs?

Years ago, a wise man put it this way: “People don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.” That’s good advice as we go into the day, governing how we think about others, speak to them and act toward them. Are we speaking and acting with grace, as Colossians 4:6 instructs us, or do we come across as resounding gongs or clanging cymbals?

Crashing cymbals might be useful for marching bands and rock groups, but not for building relationships or creating harmony and unity.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Digging to Uncover the Real Root Causes

Whenever someone attempts to present simplistic solutions to incredibly complex problems, the best justification is naivete. The worst is absolute stupidity. But it seems when considering the conundrums confronting our society – and the world – some causes and solutions aren’t even being given factored into the equation. 

Whether it’s gun violence, or poverty, or racism, I’m of the conviction that at the root of all is our determination to disregard the truths and principles God provided for us in the Bible, His inspired Word. Sorry for sounding like a simpleton, but in my view, it all boils down to a matter of choice: Doing things God’s way – or doing them the wrong way. 

I rarely venture into the realm of politics in my posts (at least directly), but sometimes solutions are not so much political as they are spiritual. Let me offer some examples:

Children being raised in poverty is a legitimate problem. But studies have shown the vast majority of children in poverty are being raised in single-parent homes, most headed by females. Single moms do incredible work, and deserve great admiration and respect. But they’re attempting to do a job no single person was ever intended to do.

From the start, God designed life – and family – to be a team undertaking.“…The Lord God said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.… Then the Lord God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man…. For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united with his wife” (Genesis 2:18-24)

Elsewhere, in a broader context, the Bible speaks of the value of partnership: “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their work. If one falls down, his friend can help him up. But pity the man who falls and has not one to help him up!” (Ecclesiastes 4:9-10).

Our society over the past five decades has increasingly promoted the idea of single parenthood, often including the notion that men (fathers) are unnecessary in the family scenario. I fully understand that many times single moms are not that by choice. But doesn’t it make sense that having two adults working together, rather than one struggling alone, is preferable, whether for spending time with their children, handling household responsibilities, paying bills, or making difficult decisions?

Violence – with guns or otherwise. No question, violence is a perplexing and fearful problem in our society. When it comes to gun violence, our tendency is to place the blame primarily on access to weapons. But with well over 40,000 people dying annually in motor vehicle accidents, do we blame the cars and trucks? 

In the 1960s, the U.S. Supreme Court saw fit to redefine “separation of church and state,” interpreting it as the twain shall not meet between things civic and things of faith. As a result, the Bible, prayer and all references to such as the Ten Commandments have been removed from most public schools. It happens that one of those commandments is “thou shalt not kill” (Exodus 20:13) – literally, you shall not murder. As I was growing up, I and my fellow classmates had no fear of someone coming into our school armed to create mayhem and death. But we also were reminded daily of commandments such as thou shalt not kill, or steal, or lie. Knowing those things were wrong became a no-brainer.

At the same time, our culture has dramatically ratcheted up the violence quotient of theatrical films, TV programming, computer and video games, even comic books. Billions of dollars are spent each year to produce advertising and commercials to encourage consumers to buy products ranging from groceries to restaurant food to cars to skin cream. Yet some argue to the contrary that violent programming has no effect on the human psyche. That’s ludicrous.

Racism also is a problem that has plagued not only the United States but also people throughout the world. Yet the passage of laws hasn’t succeeded in eradicating it. Changing hearts regarding prejudice and bigotry is as much a spiritual matter as a legal one. 

In the gospels, Jesus dealt with racism. The parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) must have horrified many of His hearers and caused quite the scandal. The hero of the story – a Samaritan who was the only one to offer mercy and compassion on a battered traveler – was a member of a race despised by the people of Israel, especially its high and mighty religious leaders. How dare Jesus use him as an example of what it means to “love your neighbor”?

Similarly, when Jesus encountered the “woman at the well” (John 4:1-42), conversing openly with her, He was addressing both racism and sexism. The culture of the time dictated that men would not openly acknowledge women in public who were not members of their family. Not only that, but the woman was a Samaritan; even worse, she was a woman of ill repute. Yet Jesus treated her with dignity, sensitivity and understanding.

I’ve experienced in my own life how God has opened doors for building strong, caring relationships with people different from me, whether in ethnicity, background or beliefs. However, it was not my doing – it was His work in and through my life. Laws could not have forced me to do that.

So as our esteemed public officials posture and pontificate about these and other pressing concerns, I’m convinced that until we accept that the root causes are as much spiritual as they are social and political, they will not go away. They will only intensify until we recognize that unwilling to do things God’s way, knowingly or not, we’re insisting on doing them the wrong way.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Tackling the Time Conundrum

As I write this – a couple of weeks ago – it was one month after my wife and I were just arriving in Rome for our 12-day group tour of Italy, and one week since I was getting prepared for a heart valve replacement. I remember looking ahead to both of these events, along with the wedding of our granddaughter in Ohio several weeks earlier. Now, all three have come and gone, with new things to anticipate. And our lives go on.

Time is a funny thing. Science tells us it’s constant, that a minute is always a minute long, that a day is always 24 hours, and a year is always 365 days – except for leap year, when it’s 366. But have you ever had the thought, “This has been the longest day!” and then heard someone say the same thing? Conversely, occasionally we say, “This day has flown by,” and another person responds, “It sure has!” So, is time really all that constant?

My purpose is not to debate or conjecture the space-time continuum. I prefer to stick with things I know about. But what do we have that’s more precious than time? We might say it’s money, but for most of us, there are always ways of making or generating more money, whether it’s working more or selling stuff. However, we can’t generate more time – and we can’t really save it. You can’t put it into a safety deposit box, or stash it into a self-storage unit. It comes and goes, whether we’re ready for it or not. Today turns into yesterday in a flash, and tomorrow transforms into today before we know it.

When I was young, I remember summer vacations seemed to go on forever. But as I got older, those idyllic breaks in the educational process started moving faster and faster, until the summer seemed little more than a eye’s blink. As they say, time takes wings when you’re having fun.

As an adult in the business world, I attended classes on “time management.” If there’s ever been anything less accurately named, I can’t think of it. Because we can’t “manage” time. We can only use it as it comes and try not to waste the moments before they flee.

Not that we must squeeze every possible ounce of activity and productivity out of every minute. In Italy, it was interesting to see many shops and even restaurants close during the midday to give workers a couple of hours to rest. The Spanish call it a “siesta.” As I’ve written before, we Americans can become enslaved to the tyranny of the urgent.

At the same time, the Scriptures admonish us to “redeem the time for the days are evil” (Ephesians 5:16). In other words, missed opportunities won’t return to give us a second shot at them. Sometimes this means working in earnest to meet an important deadline; sometimes it means savoring the opportunity to enjoy the company of loved ones and friends, even when speaking words isn’t necessary.

As Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 reminds us, “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot…a time to tear down and a time to build…a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them, a time to embrace and a time to refrain…a time to be silent and a time to speak….”

There’s one other time reference that immediately comes to mind when I consider the Scriptures. It’s when God gives us time to interact with others about eternal, spiritual truths. As Colossians 4:5 states, “Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity.” Is there a moment when you can encourage another believer in his or her spiritual pilgrimage? Do it now. Do you encounter a non-believer who seems receptive to talking about Jesus? Speak with them now. 

And if God presents you with a situation where you can demonstrate His love and kindness to someone else, don’t hesitate: Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers”(Galatians 6:10). Remember, time flies!

Monday, August 20, 2018

Picture the Universe. Now, Put Yourself in the Picture

Imagine walking into a huge hall, the largest room you’ve ever seen. Now picture this room containing an (obviously) miniaturized but accurate map of the universe. Within this map, try to find the Milky Way galaxy, in which our solar system resides. You’ll have to look hard – it’s only a speck. Next, search for our solar system. Good luck – in comparison to it, the speck would appear humongous. 

Suppose, with an electron mega-microscope or something, you finally find the solar system and the planets revolving around our sun. Now, attempt to find the earth. Even with the ultra-powerful microscope, not an easy task. But okay, let’s assume you can find it. Can you find the Grand Canyon? Lastly, try to find your house – and yourself in it.

A silly, impossible exercise, of course. But think about it: Comparing any one of us, and our tiny, finite brains, with the vastness, grandeur and complexity of the universe as we know it. (At least, as we believe we know it.) Even with myriad synapses, neurons and atoms, the human brain is woefully inadequate for attempting to fathom the scope of the universe. If we even try, it’s incredibly frustrating. Can’t be done. By contrast, it would be a snap for a flea to comprehend the totality of the Pacific Ocean.

Left out in this scenario is the God who created the universe. It’s even more mind-blowing to ponder the immensity of the universe – and then that it had a Creator. I think this is one motivation for skepticism. Despite how infinitesimally small we are in the grand scheme of things, it’s a blow to our egos to consider there is One who far surpasses anything we could ever comprehend. We’re inclined to reduce things to a level we can understand – or insist one day will be capable of understanding.

But if our finite minds can’t grasp the vast expanse of the universe, how could we possibly grasp the One who created it?

That’s where faith comes in. It’s not a matter of believing in something that isn’t, but rather trusting in what we can’t control, manage, or even fully comprehend. King David, in composing his psalms, wrestled with this, finally opting to accept vision via the eyes of faith rather than sight. He wrote, “When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?” (Psalm 8:3-4).

Later we find the poetic king writing his trust that despite the vastness of all creation, we can be assured of God’s constant presence and care: “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there…” (Psalm 139:7-8).

In another Old Testament book, after listening to the lengthy discourse between Job and his friends concerning his apparently pointless suffering and loss, God responds: “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!...” (Job 38-41). Talk about putting someone in their place!

It all boils down to faith, as described in Hebrews 11:1, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” One day, however, in the words of the old hymn, “It Is Well With My Soul,” we have the confidence that our “faith shall become sight.” That’s good enough for me. 

Thursday, August 16, 2018

A Good Wife: One of God’s Greatest Blessings

This troubadour, accompanied on accordion, provided a wonderful gondola serenade.
"He who finds a wife finds a good thing and obtains favor from the Lord.”

This statement from Proverbs 18:22 was written by King Solomon of Israel, one of the Bible’s most interesting characters. He is called the wisest man who ever lived. In 1 Kings 10:6-8, the queen of Sheba declared, The report was true that I heard in my own land of your words and of your wisdom, but I did not believe the reports until I came and my own eyes had seen it. And behold, the half was not told me. Your wisdom and prosperity surpass the report that I heard. Happy are your men! Happy are your servants, who continually stand before you and hear your wisdom!”

Despite his acclaim, it seems at times Solomon failed to take his own advice. For instance, the Scriptures tell us he amassed 1,000 wives and concubines during the course of his reign. In most cases, “being in love” wasn’t the issue. He wasn’t a multiple times guest on “The Bachelor.” These were political alliances, even though elsewhere in the Scriptures, God made clear His warning against acquiring numerous wives. Deuteronomy 17:17 says, “(the king) must not take many wives for himself, lest his heart go astray.” Which is exactly what happened to King Solomon, especially during his later years.

Nevertheless, Solomon held high the virtues of a strong, loving marriage. In writing Song of Solomon, the king authored a tribute to romantic love and devotion. And in Proverbs 5:18-19, he exhorted his male readers, May your fountain be blessed, and may you rejoice in the wife of your youth…may you ever be intoxicated with her love.”

He could just as easily have written, “She who finds a husband finds a good thing.” But of course, Solomon was writing from the standpoint of his experience and perspective as a husband – albeit many times over.

The isle of Capri was one of our favorite stops.
As I read passages such as these, I can’t help but think of how blessed I have been. And how I can identify with the opening verse above. My wife, Sally, and I recently observed our 44thwedding anniversary. We were in Venice, Italy, and on the eve of our anniversary we had the thrill of being able to celebrate with a gondola ride in the city of canals, serenaded by a talented local singer who was accompanied by a friend on the accordion. 

When I reflect over my teenage and young adult years, wondering who would become my wife, I could not have imagined a better mate. It’s been far more than a four decades-plus love affair. She’s been my best friend, companion, partner and supporter. Sally has followed me around the countryside as I pursued vocational opportunities, put up with my faults and foibles, and patiently let me strive to be the spiritual leader God has called me to be, even at those times when I failed or didn’t successfully communicate the what’s and why’s of decisions I made.

We’ve gone through tough times. Raising a family, wrestling with financial issues, coping with career changes, facing health struggles, and just the challenge of dealing with everyday life all make tough times a given. But I firmly believe it’s those times that have cemented our relationship, causing it to grow much stronger as a result.

In Romans 5:3-5 it states,“…but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.” I suspect that many marriages fail because one or both parties give up too soon – they fail to understand or appreciate the benefits of perseverance, how hanging in during those times when going gets tough can help in forging a relationship that can endure any storm. 

So yes, as Solomon wrote, I have found favor from the Lord in finding a good wife. And, if He’s willing, I look forward to continuing to enjoy this favor He has provided for years to come. Because we serve a God “who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20).

Monday, August 13, 2018

Matter of the Heart, Part II

Since I write my blog posts about two weeks in advance, this one is a bit “anticipatory.” Last week I was scheduled to undergo a second heart procedure, and my prayer is that as you read this, I’m already well along in my recovery process.

If you’ve been reading my blog over the years, at least once a year I’ve reflected on my open-heart surgery in December 2006, when I underwent an ARR (aortic root replacement) – having my entire ascending aorta replaced, including the aortic valve, along with four arterial bypass grafts. (Don’t I sound medical?) Anyway, my surgeon was up front from the start, pointing out that perhaps 10-12 years down the road, I’d need to have the aortic valve replaced. Apparently, replacement valves don’t come with lifetime guarantees.

My "heart pillow," a fond
souvenir from 2006.
The procedure I was to have is called a TAVR (Transcatheter Aortic Valve Replacement). This was determined after I had a TEE (Transesophageal Echocardiogram) administered several weeks earlier. (Now your medical alphabet is as good as mine!) This test showed my 11½-year old valve wasn’t working properly and had to be replaced. Actually, a bovine valve (consisting of cow tissue) was to be inserted inside the old one. If I seem more mooooo-dy these days, or develop an insatiable craving for milkshakes, that’s probably the reason.

So I’m calling this post, “Matter of the Heart, Part II.” Interestingly, my hospital wasn’t even doing the TAVR procedure until 2011, five years after my original surgery. Praise the Lord for advances in medical science and cardiac care!

Going in, the cardiologists and surgeons told me that given my overall physical shape, and relatively young age (this procedure is most commonly performed on people in their late 70s and 80s), I had a very good chance of coming through it with the proverbial “flying colors.” That’s my hope, even if I still can’t leap tall buildings in a single bound. But whether you’re having heart surgery or getting your tonsils out, there’s always some risk factor.

Prior to my first surgery, while pondering my then-uncertain future and reading my Bible, God directed me to Psalm 41:3, which read, “I will raise him from his sickbed and heal him of his disease.” I remember at the time it seemed as if this verse were printed in neon lights. From that moment, I felt “the peace that passes all understanding” (Philippians 4:7), even though I knew the Lord had every right to choose to take me from this earthly life if He so willed.

This time I saw no message in neon, but over the course of my reading came across Psalm 27, which included the following passages that seemed encouraging: 
“The Lord is my light and my salvation – whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life – of whom shall I be afraid?.... Though an army besiege me, my heart will not fear; though war break out against me, even then I will be confident…. [God’s] heart says of you, ‘Seek my face!’ Your face, Lord, I will seek…. Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord.”

As I’ve mentioned before, the Scriptures say a lot about the heart, even though most of the time it’s in reference to emotions and motivations. But in my experience, and in the years I served as a volunteer visiting patients who had just undergone open-heart surgery, I can’t help but believe God built a spiritual component into the organ whose primary role is to keep blood consistently coursing through the body. It’s a daunting, humbling feeling to know you’ve approached death’s door during heart surgery, yet haven’t passed through it. 

Proverbs 3:5-6 tells us to “Trust in the Lord with all your heart,” and in Psalm 51:10, King David prayed, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” Repeatedly, the foremost challenge for all who follow Jesus Christ is to keep their heart right.

As I write this, trusting I’ve come through my surgery well, I have two “desires of the heart”: To do all I can to keep my physical heart strong to serve my God, family, friends and everyone I encounter, and to keep my heart (my thoughts and motives) right with the Lord that I might live faithfully for Him and speak His truth for anyone who wishes to know more about Him. And may I say, as we hear so often in the South, “Bless your heart!”

Thursday, August 9, 2018

‘Pasta-Tense’ Perspectives on Italy

The Roman Colosseum, a vast amphitheater of historic lore,
remains a visual wonder to this day.
Do you have any idea how much old stuff they have in Italy?

In the United States, a building 25 years or older becomes a prime candidate for being razed, to be replaced by something shinier, sleeker and, well, newer. Not in Italy, or much of Europe for that matter, as I had the pleasant opportunity to observe. One reason for my recent blog “sabbatical” was that my wife and I had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to join a group tour of Italy. As a result, I can now attest there’s a lot of old stuff there – REALLY old stuff.

Unlike in the USA, where we’re quick to demolish domed stadiums, retail stores, hotels and all sorts of other structures the moment they start to exhibit the first signs of age, things in “the old country” were built to last. Perhaps, even as they were being constructed, architects and builders were considering how these grand facilities would present themselves years later in what we could term, the “pasta tense.”

Take the Roman Colosseum, for example. The revered amphitheater was built in the first century A.D. Even though it has taken a beating over the years, it remains a stately icon of history. No one’s booking the Colosseum for sporting events these days, but neither is anyone in Rome contemplating tearing it down and replacing it with a shopping mall or condominiums.

Artwork that defies description can be
seen everywhere in the Vatican.
The Sistine Chapel in Vatican City, known best for Michelangelo’s wondrous ceiling paintings, is young by comparison, dating back only to the 15thcentury. But more than 600 years later, it still mesmerizes many thousands of visitors daily, not only for its artistic beauty but also for the compelling spiritual messages captured by each work of art. The imagery – and truths – throughout the Vatican have endured the passing of time.

This “built to last” philosophy was evident everywhere we went, whether it was ancient Assisi, birthplace of St. Francis; the ruins of Pompeii, reminders of the once-prospering Roman city buried by the 79 A.D. eruption of Vesuvius; the hillside city of Montefiascone, or picturesque seaside communities like Positano and Sorrento.

Rock formations off coastal communities
like Capri command a sense of awe.
The imposing “faraglioni” rock formations off the island of Capri, which have adorned travelogues as well as theatrical films set in that area, leave their own lasting impressions – not of human imagination and construction, but of natural wonder.

During our 12-day travels across what the natives know as Italia, I found much to take note of and ponder. But the enduring qualities of what we saw firsthand ranked right at the top of the list.

Pride of workmanship, perseverance and creativity were represented in each, but in many cases, we could see another quality on display: devotion to the Creator God. In my view, it was a manifestation of the admonition from Colossians 3:23-24, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward.”

Renaissance painters, not only Michelangelo but also masters like Sandro Botticelli, Pietro Perugino, Pinturicchio, Domenico Ghirlandaio and Cosimo Roselli, labored countless hours on frescos and draperies to create scenes that depicted biblical characters and stories. Even if these artists were commissioned and compensated for their work, there is something exquisite and timeless about their work that could only have come through labors of love for their God.

Michelangelo's famed Pieta in St. Peter's Basilica.
Everywhere we visited in Italy we found churches and chapels boasting a level of craftsmanship rarely seen in our contemporary world. In fact, you might say in some respects they have an otherworldly quality to them, work undertken as a form of worship.

I suspect undergirding some of these projects was King Solomon’s declaration in Ecclesiastes 9:10, Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the realm of the dead, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.” If only we could see more people pursuing their work with that sort of passion and motivation today.

Monday, August 6, 2018

Adoption: A Most Delightful Word

One of the kindest, happiest words in the English language is adoption – particularly because it’s something we do voluntarily.

We have pet adoption centers, where lost and abandoned animals can find new homes and loving owners. You can “adopt” a highway, contributing financially to support its ongoing maintenance. Churches sometimes adopt a neighboring community, setting out a strategy for serving and ministering to its residents. Cities sometimes adopt a “sister city” in another country, using that connection to conduct meaningful social and cultural exchanges.

And you can adopt a child, whether an adolescent from a troubled home who has been shuttled around the foster care system, an orphan, or an infant whose biological parents either do not wish to raise it or are incapable of doing so.

Cam had his "day in court" last week.
Our family has been the delighted beneficiary of the latter on two occasions – seven years ago when we welcomed Mac into our clan, and just last week, having little Cam legally declared Mac’s adoptive brother after the requisite waiting period. To say they are a blessing would be among the greatest of understatements.

In both cases, the birth moms made the courageous and caring decisions not to pursue abortions to end their unwanted pregnancies. Instead, they determined to find a loving couple to take on the permanent responsibilities of parenting, nurturing and providing for their babies. That couple, in God’s providence, was our youngest daughter and her husband.

The interesting thing about adoption is that while the boys do not carry their parents’ DNA, they are every bit as much their sons as if they had been biological offspring. Our family regards them the same as the grandkids that do carry our genetic imprint. We can’t imagine life without them in our family.

It’s noteworthy that the concept of “adoption” is also important in God’s grand scheme of things, since it’s cited in numerous passages of the Scriptures, particularly the New Testament. It serves as a descriptive for how we become part of His family. 

Cam is one happy little boy.
In Romans 8:15 we’re told, “For you did not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the spirit of adoption by whom we cry out, ‘Abba, Father.’ The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” That term, “Abba,” best translated as “daddy,” showing the tender, intimate relationship we can enjoy with God as chosen members of His eternal family.

Galatians 4:5 states Jesus came, “to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons.” And Ephesians 1:4-5 declares, “just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love, having predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to himself.”

These and similar passages affirm becoming children of God is not automatic, but a gracious, intentional choice by the Lord, welcoming us into His fold. Even when we don’t feel like members of His family – or if a time should come when we don’t want to be – we remain adopted according to His perfect, unchanging will.

In Christian circles we sometimes hear discussions about the “security of the believer.” Can we mess up so badly that we lose our salvation? Is it like pulling petals off a daisy, “He loves me…He loves me not”? Knowing we have been adopted by God should quell such fears.

Just as our two adoptive grandsons were chosen to join our family, and by court decree can do nothing to undo that, we too have the everlasting assurance of being members of God’s family according to His holy, perfect decree. What the Lord has done, we can’t undo.

As Titus 3:5-7 affirms, “he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.” That, my friends, is what we call “Good News.”

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Love Your Neighbor. But Which Ones?

When considering God’s commands for mankind, we typically think about the “do-nots,” especially those specified in Exodus 20, Deuteronomy 5, and elsewhere. These include: Do not worship other gods; do not profane the name of God; do not murder; do not commit adultery; do not steal; do not lie; do not covet what others have.

But “don’t” commandments like these are relatively easy to observe. We would know if we murdered someone, or committed adultery, or stole something. If we’re told not to do something, and then we do it, we’d have to be in denial not to realize we’ve broken the command from God. The more difficult commandments are the ones framed in the positive, things the Lord said we should do.

Maybe that’s why, when a religious leader asked Jesus which is the greatest of all commandments – as recounted in Matthew 22 and Mark 12 – He didn’t offer a lists of don’ts. Instead, Jesus summarized the intent of all the commandments by stating two “simple” things to do: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There are no commandments greater than these” (Mark 12:30-31).

Sounds easy, right? Not really. How do we know when – and if – we’ve fully observed either one? The greatest commandment – to love God with all that we are and all we have – has been the subject of countless sermons, and many more to come. For now, I’d like to look at the second great commandment: to love our neighbor as ourselves. 

To underscore just how hard “loving your neighbor” can be, one time Jesus told another leader – called “an expert in the law” – that to inherit eternal life, he also should love God, and “love your neighbor as yourself.” Seeking clarification, this official inquired, “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29). Maybe this question was sincere; maybe the guy was just looking for some kind of exception. You can’t really love everyone, can you?  Regardless, it was a good question. One we each should ask of ourselves.

It applies to the ongoing debate about immigration on the southern borders of the United States. Opinions and positions are strong, and in many respects, polarized on this question. But I think it applies just as much – or perhaps more – to “neighbors” who without question reside legally within our national borders. 

Obviously, our “neighbor” could be someone who lives in the house or apartment next door, or across the street. It could be a person, couple or family we meet at church, whether we know them well or not. The “neighbor” Jesus is talking about could be the individual in the next office, or cubicle, or a person we meet on a sales call.

If we broaden the description, we might find our “neighbor” is the homeless person begging for cash downtown, or living in a makeshift tent under a bridge we drive over every day. Our neighbor could be a military veteran, homeless or not, who has returned from a field of battle bearing injuries and scars, some we can readily see – and some that we can’t. Most times, mental and emotional damages aren’t as evident or easy to identify. Are we as individuals, and as a nation, doing all we can to help these “neighbors,” not only to meet their immediate needs, but also so they can return to productive living?

One group of “neighbors” too often overlooked consists of native Americans, men, women and children who live on reservations, often in extreme poverty. Many of us have no idea of the plight they endure every day, or that the rates of suicide and alcoholism among American Indians far exceed the national average for all segments of society. How well are we loving these “neighbors”?

So while our elected officials continue to wrangle over questions surrounding immigrants who seek – legally or not – to cross our borders in hopes of becoming beneficiaries of the so-called “American dream,” we’d be remiss not to search our own hearts and ask how well we’re loving and tending to our “neighbors” who are already here.

Because, as 1 Timothy 5:8 tells us, But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” 

And, as we seek to become more diligent in loving our neighbors as ourselves, we find ourselves drawing closer to loving God the way we should. Because as Jesus said,whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40).