Thursday, June 27, 2019

Offering a Cure for the Proud, Petulant and Pouting

In my last post, I addressed how God can take His children going through times of brokenness and employ His own divine “Kintsugi” repair program. We don’t like the process of becoming broken, but it’s a part of the Lord’s plan for each one of us, shaping and molding us into the people He intends for us to become. And He often fills in the broken places and cracks with “glue” more precious than gold or silver.

I thought I’d revisit this briefly because it raises a good question: Why is brokenness so important to God?

For an answer, we can consider an excellent biblical example – Jonah in the Old Testament. Nestled between the books of Obadiah and Micah, the story of Jonah is a curious one. In that short book we read about the Lord’s call for Jonah to go to the prosperous, pagan city of Nineveh, inhabited by the Assyrians. He becomes the most reluctant of prophets, first attempting to flee in the opposite direction to Tarshish, spurning the call to lead a revival among the Ninevites.

Illustration courtesy of
God foils his flight by sending a severe storm on his Tarshish-bound ship. This results in Jonah being tossed overboard but, instead of drowning, being swallowed by a huge fish that became his “home” for three days and three nights.

Humbled and broken, helpless to change his circumstances, Jonah utters a prayer of repentance: “In my distress I called to the Lord, and he answered me. From the depths of the grave I called for help, and you listened to my cry…. When my life was ebbing away, I remembered you, Lord, and my prayer rose to you, to your holy temple…. But I, with a song of thanksgiving, will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed I will make good. Salvation comes from the Lord” (Jonah 2:2-9).

Alas, we quickly discover that even after times of brokenness, we often fall back on our attempts to fix ourselves. The huge fish spits Jonah out and he does go to Nineveh with his message, “Repent. The end is near.” To his dismay, the despised Ninevites, led by their king, humble themselves and confess their sins, turning back to God. Jonah becomes a petulant prophet, pouting because of God’s compassion.

“O Lord, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity" (Jonah 4:2).

Apparently the prophet thought it was all right for him to turn back to God in repentance, but for a huge city of people he hated – not so much. It seems more breaking was in order for Jonah.

This is a cautionary tale for us all. Perhaps you, as it was for me, discovered your desperate need for God during a time of feeling broken and helpless. It’s often said, when there’s nowhere else to turn, look up. However, we remain a headstrong people and quickly can forget all the Lord has done for us. 

When the chaos has turned to calm, we recapture our smug, “I can do it myself” attitude. More than once, perhaps not in so many words, I’ve thought, “Thanks, Lord. I’ll take it from here. If I need any more help, I’ll let you know.” When we take that attitude, God politely removes His hand of protection and waits. “Let Me know how that works for you, My child!”

For a time things might go smoothly, but then we find ourselves back at the end of our self-sufficiency. So we have to enroll in the School of Brokenness again. And again. And again.

Thankfully, as Jonah said, we worship and serve a God who is “gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love.” When we again declare our independence and spurn the Lord’s kind offers to intervene, He’ll let us return to brokenness school for a refresher course. 

Some of us are slow to learn, but our God is a patient teacher. When we finally reach a point of surrender, as King David did in the following prayer, He’s ready to welcome His “students” with open arms of grace and mercy:
“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from Your presence, and do not take Your Holy Spirit from me. 
Restore to me the joy of Your salvation, and uphold me with Your generous Spirit.”
         – Psalm 51:10-12

Monday, June 24, 2019

Blessings from Brokenness

Hand-built and hand-painted ceramic bowl broken
during the firing process, repaired by Kintsugi.
Created by Ruthann Hurwitz, The Village Potter.
(photo from Wikipedia)
Have you heard of Kintsugi? Also known as Kintsukuroi, which means “golden repair,” it’s a centuries-old Japanese art of restoring broken pottery with lacquer dusted or mixed with precious metal, such as gold, silver or platinum. This process is founded in a philosophy that treats breakage and repair as part of the valued object’s history, rather than as something to be disguised.

Interesting, isn’t it? Rather than trying to conceal the breakage, or even discarding the damaged object, the broken areas are effectively celebrated by filling them in with gold or silver or platinum. Rather than looking at it and saying or thinking, “What a mess!” we can see how it has been cherished, even to the point of restoration along “fault lines.”

After learning about the Kintsugi tradition, I marveled at how similarly God handles our brokenness and flaws. Each one of us has had experiences that in one way or another have resulted in brokenness. Soldiers returning from war, as well as people who have experienced great trauma, may suffer from PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). But even those of us who haven’t encountered such extreme events know how it feels to be broken. 

Coming from dysfunctional families (which includes all of us, in one sense or another); divorce; betrayal; abuse; times of great failure; shattered dreams. The list could go on, but not one of us gets through this life intact and undamaged by life’s challenges and storms. Yet so often those become the times when God grabs our attention and does some of His best work.

One of my favorite verses in the Bible, Psalm 51:17, in which a beleaguered King David wrote with humility, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, You will not despise.” We typically think of “sacrifice” in terms of giving up something, or perhaps making an extravagant material gift. But here it says the sacrifice the Lord values most is “a broken spirit.”

This theme occurs over and over in the Scriptures, examples of people whose pride – we might call it bravado, hubris or even “chutzpah” – has become shattered when circumstances spiraled out of their control. They come to the end of themselves, and in so doing discover they have finally arrived at the beginning of God. Many of God’s prophets acknowledged this truth. 

Samuel declared, Does the LORD delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, obedience is better than sacrifice, and attentiveness is better than the fat of rams” (1 Samuel 15:22).The prophet Isaiah said, For thus says the One who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: "I dwell in a high and holy place, and with the oppressed and humble of spirit, to restore the spirit of the lowly and revive the heart of the contrite” (Isaiah 57:15).

The prophet Joel asserted, “So rend your hearts and not your garments, and return to the LORD your God. For He is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, and abounding in loving devotion” (Joel 2:13). Many other examples could be cited.

Our culture values self-sufficiency, the proverbial “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” approach. God doesn’t value that. Jesus emphasized it when He declared, “I am the vine, you are the branches…apart from Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). And the apostle Paul acknowledged this when he said, “I can do everything through him (Jesus) who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:13).

“Do it yourself” shouldn’t be part of a follower of Christ’s vocabulary. Rather, we should remember – from the moment we awaken each day to the moment we return to bed – that our secret to a successful life as His ambassadors is “do it through Jesus.”

As for the many times we’ve experienced brokenness, struggles and pain, remember God is always at work in applying His own version of the Kintsugi process, filling in the gaps and cracks with His truth and promises, “flawless, like silver refined in a furnace, like gold purified sevenfold” (Psalm 12:6).

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Hating to Exercise, Loving to Have Exercised

Weights can't help to make us stronger until we pick them up.
More than 20 years ago, after my first trip to Europe where I walked for miles every day, I decided to continue my new habit by power-walking several times a week. Then, after my open-heart surgery in 2006, I resolved that if I came through the operation successfully, I would do everything my doctors recommended for recovery, including exercise.

Ever since, I’ve been engaging in regular cardio exercise and weight training programs, three to five times a week for at least 30 minutes each time. But I’ll let you in on a little secret: I hate to exercise! From the minute I arrive, I’m looking forward to the moment I can stop. However, one other thing: I love to have exercised! (Yes, past tense.)

Some of the people I see working out at the Y seem to enjoy what they’re doing. But very few. And I have real concerns about their mental health. Most of us go about our workout routines somewhat grudgingly, knowing it’s good for us but convinced it’s even better when it’s over. Going through it is hard work, even a bit of a pain. But the sense of satisfaction in being able to say, “I exercised today,” and knowing it’s been beneficial physically, mentally and emotionally is substantial.

It's kind of the same with spiritual exercise – having to exercise our faith. Most of the time we don’t relish circumstances that necessitate having to put our faith into practice, but in retrospect we can see the benefits of having done so. Often, it’s through the eyes of faith in the midst of trials that we can best see the power, love, grace, mercy and faithfulness of God at work in our lives.

Recently I was part of a small group talking about this. We were looking at what the apostle James wrote, exhorting us, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:2-4). Two words stuck out in our discussion: “joy” and “perseverance.”

Cardio equipment looks nice, but won't do us much
good if we don't actually use it.
We agreed joy is a very good thing. The more of it, the merrier. Except when it’s connected to adversity, struggles and suffering. Then, we’re inclined to wonder, where’s the joy in that? And yet the Scriptures tell us to consider it “pure joy” when we encounter all kinds of trials. Maybe it’s a misprint, or mistranslation?

Sorry, but no. Because we see the same teaching expressed in similar terms elsewhere in the Bible. For instance, 1 Peter 1:6-7, penned by another apostle, offers this view: “In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith – of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire – may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.” Many kinds of trials, intended to prove the genuineness of our faith – what’s up with that?

And then we have the words of a third apostle, Paul, sent to believers in ancient Rome: “Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope” (Romans 5:3-4). Paul not only urges us to rejoice when we’re going through times of suffering, but also to recognize why – to develop perseverance, character, and hope.

Thinking back over my life, I recall a number of trials we didn’t really appreciate at the moment – a house that took months to sell after we had committed to buy another one (without a contingency); searching for new job opportunities when it became apparent it was time for me to move on from the old one; stressful medical diagnoses and treatment; times when we had too much month left at the end of our pay.

In the midst of those and other trials, it wasn’t fun. Just like going through a rigorous workout session. Grunting and groaning all the way, waiting expectantly for it to be over. Yet, with the glorious, perfect vision of hindsight, we could see how God graciously used those challenges for our good. To strengthen our faith. Teach us to persevere even when the end of the tunnel seemed dark. Enable us to learn more profoundly and deeply what it means to truly trust in the Lord with all our heart, without leaning on our own understanding (Proverbs 3:5-6).

So I’ve learned that while I might not like situations that require me to exercise my faith and put it to the test, I do love the outcome. Greater confidence in my Shepherd and Provider; ability to view future trials with greater hope and expectation, and an ever-growing body of evidence that proves indeed, the Lord will never leave me nor forsake me, as we’re assured in Hebrews 13:5. 

At the gym or YMCA, just looking at the exercise equipment and weights won’t get us into shape. We have to move into action. In a similar way, how can we truly understand what faith is all about until we’re forced to live it out in practical ways?

Monday, June 17, 2019

What Are Laws Good For, Anyway?

We’re a nation of laws. There are laws for almost everything. Consider, for instance, laws just for travel: from speed limits on our streets and highways to jaywalking; to the use of smartphones to talk and text while driving; to operating a vehicle while impaired, to where we can park and for how long. We have laws for traveling by air, water, even by bicycle, scooter and skateboard. 

We also have laws concerning the food we eat; things we drink; medicines we take; stuff to smoke if we wish to do so. There are laws about buying, selling and trading. Copyright and trademark laws for what we can copy or replicate. We’ve got laws to regulate hiring, firing, employment and compensation, vacations and leaves of absence. Laws tell us how to enforce contractual agreements.

Then we have the basic laws for common sense things, like not killing or injuring people, stealing things that aren’t ours, telling the truth (or not), borrowing, renting and leasing. When people are accused of breaking one or more laws, we even have laws directing how we’re to prosecute alleged lawbreakers. And laws for what to do with them if convicted. When someone says, “There ought to be a law,” lawmakers eagerly respond, “Okay!”

But what good are laws anyway? Speed limits, clearly visible on most roadways, don’t stop people from speeding. Every state has laws against driving under the influence, but some folks do it anyway. We have laws against shoplifting, but it still happens. Laws against murder, robbery, kidnapping, spousal abuse and every other wrong thing we can imagine have been enacted; yet those heinous crimes continue. 

So again – what good are laws? We find an answer in the book of Romans. Speaking of the Ten Commandments as well as all other laws, the apostle Paul writes, “for before the law was given, sin was in the world. But sin is not taken into account where there is no law” (Romans 5:13). He’s saying even before formal laws were established, people were doing wrong – and they knew they were doing wrong.

Consider this analogy: A heavily traveled road in our part of town has a legal, posted speed limit of 40 miles per hour. Signs are visible at various intervals, and if a law enforcement officer catches you driving above that limit, you risk receiving a citation (or worse, depending on how fast you’re traveling).

One might say that if signs weren’t present and a speed limit hadn’t been set, we could drive the road 100 miles an hour or faster. But that’s not true. With the high density of traffic, along with the concentration of businesses and homes, it doesn’t take genius to realize driving 100 mph there is neither safe nor wise.

In this case the law serves as a reminder that driving well in excess of 40 mph puts ourselves and everyone around us at risk. Yes, had the laws not been created and signs posted, we couldn’t be prosecuted for breaking them. But common sense would still tell us, “Hey, stupid, it’s really not safe driving this fast.”

When God handed the Ten Commandments to Moses on Mt. Sinai – in the process originating the phrase, “Take two tablets and call Me in the morning” – the Lord was putting into writing what deep down mankind already knew: We shouldn’t murder. We shouldn’t steal. We shouldn’t be dishonest. We shouldn’t have sexual relations with someone we’re not married to. We shouldn’t covet or be envious of other people’s stuff. 

Paul stated it this way: “…when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness…” (Romans 2:14-15). Somehow it seems, from the moment of birth or even before, the understanding of what’s right and what’s wrong has already been impressed indelibly on our hearts.

The other benefit of God’s laws, from a spiritual perspective, is they point us to Him. The first four Commandments presented in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5, for example, speak directly of our relationship with the Lord: We’re not to worship other gods; not to create and worship idols of false gods; not to use God’s name in a disrespectful or blasphemous way; and we’re to set apart a Sabbath day for worship and refraining from our usual work.

Knowing God’s laws also enables us to arrive at a profound realization. Being born with what we might term the “sin gene,” a natural inclination toward rebellion against the Lord, we discover it’s impossible to “clean up our own act” and make ourselves right with Him. No matter how hard we try, we always fall short – missing the mark of God’s perfect standard.

I can identify with Paul when he wrote, “So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law, but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within [me]. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:21-24).

Almost immediately, however, Paul tells us “who” can rescue him – and us: “Thanks be to God – through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:25). Elsewhere he writes that we have a choice; we don’t have to break the law, just as we don’t have to break the speed limit. “…count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus…. Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness. For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace” (Romans 6:11-14).

No matter how many laws are written and enforced, amended and reinforced, they can’t force us to abide by the law if we choose not to do so. But through God’s provision, we not only recognize Him as the ultimate Lawgiver, but He also provides us the capacity for willingly and joyfully keeping His laws.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Undervalued, Underappreciated, Under Attack?

Do you know the difference between a right and a privilege? 

We often get the two confused, and in doing some research on these two terms, I’m not certain the confusion was fully resolved. However, a right is usually described as something inherent, fundamental, related to the notion of natural or God-given law. A privilege, on the other hand, is something that is given and possibly could be altered or revoked by the person or entity granting said privilege.

Our U.S. Constitution includes the Bill of Rights, guaranteeing our rights to certain things like voting, free speech, religion, assembly, bearing arms, and others. Increasingly, it seems, some of these rights are being treated as privileges, to be granted or withheld by governing bodies.

I raise the question of rights vs. privileges because as Father’s Day approaches, I’m struck by the great privilege it has been – and continues to be – to be a father, grandfather, and now a great-grandfather. I don’t see fatherhood at all as a “right,” because being a father entails a whole lot more than being on site at the moment of conception.

At the same time, I think the role of father in our society has become greatly undervalued, underappreciated – and dare I say, under attack. As I’ve said in other posts, I have nothing but admiration and respect for single moms. They’re basically trying to do a nearly impossible job, one person fulfilling the work and responsibilities of two. In Ecclesiastes 4:9 it says, “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their work,” and I believe this applies as much to parenting as any other endeavor that comes to mind.

Sadly, there have been countless instances of absent fathers, neglectful fathers, abusive fathers and preoccupied fathers. Many of us have failed miserably in fulfilling this God-given privilege of serving our children. I know I did at times, especially early in my working career, putting job responsibilities and opportunities ahead of spending both quality and quantity time with our children.

One psalm writer recognizes this when he candidly prays, “Do not hold against us the sins of the fathers; may your mercy come quickly to meet us, for we are in desperate need” (Psalm 79:8). And in Exodus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, we read about how the wrongs of the fathers have the potential for having an impact on even the third and fourth generations of those who come after them.

Examples of failed fathers, however, don’t diminish the importance of the father to the family. If anything, these failures – and the consequences that have resulted in many cases – underscore the vital importance of training and preparing devoted dads for raising healthy, stable, well-adjusted and productive young people.

In Deuteronomy 6:5-7, God directs parents – and especially fathers – to be diligent to teach their children, imparting not only knowledge but also wisdom and faith: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.” Of course, this underscores the necessity for fathers to be present and attentive, not distracted by their jobs, TV programming, smartphones, computer games or other hobbies.

The apostle Paul, in writing to followers of Christ in the Greek city of Thessaloniki, described the role of a good father: “For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory” (1 Thessalonians 2:11-12).

To members of the church at Ephesus, Paul addressed specifically what a father should not do: “Fathers, do not exasperate your children, instead bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4). How can we as earthly fathers – If we cause conflict and angst among our children – effectively teach them about our loving heavenly Father?

So with Father’s Day just a few days away, I’m reminded that just as God instituted marriage between a man and a woman, to become “one flesh,” He also designed the family to be made up ideally of two parents, a father and mother who both carry their fair share of the parental burden – as well as its joys.

We don’t need to attack the institution of fatherhood. We do need to train, support and encourage fathers to fulfill the great privilege they’ve been given, not dismiss or discredit them because of those who have failed to embrace that unique and sacred privilege.

Monday, June 10, 2019

Failure is Not an Option – Or Is it?

Midway through the 20thcentury, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) captured the fascination of Americans. It was during the Cold War with the Soviet Union, and the so-called “space race” was well underway. The Russians had scored the first major victory, successfully launching cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin into space, and the United States was scrambling to catch up and surpass their international rivals.

During that time NASA adopted the motto, “Failure is not an option.” It served NASA well: success of Apollo 11’s first manned lunar landing; the safe return of three astronauts when, prior to the third moon landing attempt, multiple issues arose that ultimately aborted Apollo 13; and numerous other missions.

Of course, option or not, failures did mar NASA’s march toward success. Some launches had to be scrubbed, even shortly before lift-off. Others fell short of their objectives. The most horrific failure was the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986, in which seven crew members perished, including five astronauts, a civilian school teacher, and a payload specialist.

Despite the failures, success for the space program was more the norm. And today we’re all benefiting not only from scientific knowledge but also from technological advances that brought devices we so casually use today, from computers and smartphones to digital TVs and GPS navigational tools.

Tracing progress by anyone of noteworthy achievement, we will find pathways to success littered with potholes of failure, whether they’re scientists, inventors, musicians, artists or statesmen. For them, failure was not just an option, it was a necessary stepping stone toward success.

The same is true spiritually. In fact, Ecclesiastes 11:6 offers this advice: “Sow your seed in the morning, and at evening let not your hands be idle, for you do not know which will succeed, whether this or that, or whether both will do equally well.” In other words, don’t put all your eggs – or seeds – all into one basket. Some things will work out as expected, but others won’t. Failures will be mixed with successes.

In a real sense, it’s failure in attempting to live out this complicated pursuit we call everyday life that points us to ultimate success – a life-changing, eternal relationship with God.

The book of Romans makes this abundantly clear. For instance, we read, “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one” (Romans 3:10-12), and “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). 

To state it in other terms, we’ve all failed miserably in trying to live up to God’s perfect standard of holiness and righteousness. That’s the bad news. But the good news – the really Good News – is that the Lord has more than compensated for each and every one of our failures through His sacrifice on the cross. In fact, it’s usually recognition of our failure that leads us to Christ.

The apostle Paul expressed this so well when he wrote, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God – through Jesus Christ our Lord!... Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death” (Romans 7:24-8:2).

Success in the spiritual life requires seeing and understanding things from an upside-down perspective. To win we must lose; to succeed we first must fail; to live we must die. Galatians 2:20 states it well: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

This verse assures us that what we could not do – no matter how hard we try, how desperately we want to – Jesus did on our behalf. "He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Corinthians 5:21). As devotional writer Oswald Chambers expresses it, “Out of the wreck I rise.”

In the Christian life, failure can sometimes be our greatest teacher. So if we desire to grow, to consistently become more conformed to the likeness of Jesus, failure must be an option. It serves to remind us, as John the Baptist declared,“He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Things Are Different Today, But What Changed?

Once upon a time, things weren’t like they are today. In some respects, that’s very good. When I was growing up, polio hadn’t been eradicated. And the open-heart surgery I underwent more than 12 years ago probably hadn’t even been envisioned. TVs had only three channels; to select you had to manually change with a dial on the set – no remotes back then. “Late night TV” after midnight was a test pattern.

Telephones had handsets cradled on bases. Many of us shared “party lines” (which had nothing to do with festive events). The notion of phones to take with you in the car seemed like science-fiction.

Air conditioning was a luxury most people didn’t have. Front porches were popular – it was too hot to stay indoors. And people flocked to a new restaurant called “McDonald’s” to buy hamburgers, French fries and milkshakes without having to wait for five minutes. But believe it or not, dinosaurs weren’t still living.

The list could go on and on, but without question things were very different back then. As a whole, western society had made many strides. But not all have been good.

Take, for example, our schools. When I was in elementary school (we called it “grammar school”), we started each day with the Pledge of Allegiance, a brief reading of a Bible passage (usually from the Psalms), and a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. Today this happens only in parochial and private schools. 

I even recall participating in a classroom discussion with our teacher about God, but don’t remember anyone suffering emotional distress. I doubt that exchange left psychological scars on anyone.

In the mid-1960s, however, our U.S. Supreme Court deemed it necessary to evict such things as Bible reading and prayer from public schools, reasoning those were violations of the so-called separation of church and state. Freedom of religion was redefined to mean “freedom from religion” by the Left-leaning judiciary.

Although it wasn’t a one-for-one exchange, the most besetting problems in classrooms of the ‘60s – running in hallways, chewing gum, and throwing harmless paper spitballs – have been replaced by violence in many forms, drug use and abuse, and often chaotic environments where students, not teachers, seem in control.

This academic anarchy has advanced to the highest levels of education, again very unlike what I experienced at a public university during the late 1960s and early ‘70s. Yes, there was campus unrest, but all-out rebellion remained decades in the future.

Gun violence in schoolhouses or college campuses were virtually unheard of in the days when mentioning God wasn’t deemed illegal or counter-cultural. Things were far from perfect, without question, but evil seemed to be held at bay.

I don’t need to recite a litany of societal woes, but the breakdown of traditional family structures and the advent of an “anything goes” perspective on life seem at the heart of these problems. Many centuries ago the Scriptures addressed such circumstances for those times as well as ours today. 

Proverbs 29:18 asserts, Where there is no [prophetic] revelation, people cast off restraint (run wild); but blessed is the one who heeds wisdom's instruction.” I generally prefer more modern translations that express the Scriptures in contemporary language, but I’ve always liked how the King James Version states it: “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”

It seems that beginning with the 1960s, our nation systematically turned its back on the foundational values and principles that helped to establish the most prosperous society in the history of the world. We clung to the material prosperity and strived to expand it, but snubbed the God who enabled our country to flourish. We became like the people described twice in the Old Testament book of Judges: “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 17:6, 21:25).

God wasn’t “forced” from our schools and the public square. But when we as a people made it clear He was no longer welcomed there, He graciously withdrew. Now perhaps the Lord is asking, “So, how’s that working out for you?”

This is why the promise of 2 Chronicles 7:14 is crucial for our future, maybe more than ever: “if My people, who are called by My name, will humble themselves and pray and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”

Are we willing to do this? We wring our hands, bemoaning the many evils and ills that afflict our homes, our communities, our nation and our world. It’s time to humble ourselves, pray, seek the Lord, and reject our rebellious, sinful ways. Maybe it’s not too late.

Monday, June 3, 2019

Escaping The Prison of Unforgiveness

The story is told about the couple that decided they needed to get a divorce. Counseling with their pastor, the husband was asked, “Why do you want a divorce? Does your wife beat you up?” “No way,” he responded. “I’m always up at least half an hour before her.” “Well,” continued the perplexed pastor, “do you have a grudge?” “Yeah,” he said, “it’s big enough for two cars, but what’s that got to do with this?” Exasperated, the clergyman finally said, “So what’s the problem?” With arms folded, the husband smugly replied, “We just can’t seem to communicate!”

Unfortunately, when it comes to conflict and divisions, many people do trace it to grudges they hold toward others. Like ships passing in the night, they harbor those grudges.

It’s truly unfortunate, especially because in many instances, the most grievous victim of grudges – the unwillingness to forgive – is the individual clutching the grudge in a death grip. Speaking recently on the topic, author and pastor Alistair Begg observed, “Forgiveness is setting a prisoner free – when it turns out that prisoner is you.”

 Putting it into another metaphor, holding onto a grudge or refusing to forgive another person is like drinking poison and expecting the person you’re mad at to die.

Although I don’t there’s been a scientific study done to prove it, I suspect much of the hostility we witness in the world around us is due at least in part to unforgiven wrongs, grudges that have been nursed for a long time. The musical, “The Sound of Music,” taught that a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, but just a drop or two of bitterness can kill even the healthiest of relationships. 

Hebrews 12:15 speaks to that directly, admonishing, See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.” And this word,defile,” offers another vivid image for the negative and often long-lasting effects of unforgiveness.

Forgiveness doesn’t mean condoning wrongs that have been committed, whether in deed or in word. Nor does it mean we must force ourselves to forget those wrongs. Forgiving, however, does mean refusing to let anger and animosity imprison us, or “defile” our spirits, not only toward the offending party but also to many others we encounter from day to day. 

There’s a second important reason for doing what might seem impossible by extending forgiveness to someone who doesn’t deserve it. As the apostle Paul exhorted his readers, “Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you” (Colossians 3:13). Keep in mind, forgiveness is something that none of us deserves.

How did the Lord forgive each of us? He stretched out His arms, allowing His hands and feet to be impaled on a cross, and declared, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). At that moment He might have been referring specifically to those responsible for putting Him on the cross, but if we’re honest, we must acknowledge we each shared in that responsibility. 

So when we forgive, we’re in effect freeing ourselves from the prison of pain, anger and negativity. We’re recognizing that no one could wrong us as much as we have wronged the God who has provided us with His forgiveness. 

And there’s one more reason for consciously resolving to forgive others even when it seems impossible. If our goal is to become more and more Christlike, more “godly,” then forgiveness can’t be excluded from the equation. As a wise man has stated, “We’re most like beasts when we kill each other; we’re most like men when we judge each other; we’re most like God when we forgive each other.”

If we bring up the excuse, “Well, I just can’t do that,” Jesus understands. He told His followers, “Apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). But as Paul wrote, drawing from much personal experience, “I can do everything through him (Christ) who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:13). 

As the Lord has shown me more times than I could ever remember, whenever I decide “I can’t!” He’s quick to respond, “Yes, I know – but I can. Through you.”