Thursday, January 30, 2020

Water – the Wonder We Take for Granted

Longtime residents of our city still remember the “Snowstorm of ’93,” when a severe overnight snowstorm dumped more than two feet of snow across much of our region. Frigid temperatures kept the snow from melting for days. With many of the local roads traversing rolling hills, transportation was almost impossible for anyone without four-wheel drive or all-terrain vehicles.

Power lines fell in many areas, knocking out power. Sub-freezing temperatures, combined with the snow and ice, turned even commonplace sights into the proverbial “winter wonderland.” One of the serious consequences was the loss of water for many residents. The simple acts of drawing water from a faucet, or flushing a toilet, became impossible until power could be restored to thaw frozen pipes.

For many of us, easy accessibility of
water leads us to take it for granted.
This hardship, however, came into perspective later as we pondered the plight of many that live in Third World countries. The idea of a “water company” for people in those nations is unheard of. It’s not unusual for men and women to walk for hours to retrieve small amounts of water, and even then there are no guarantees against impure, unsanitary water.

So the interruption in water service we experienced in 1993 was little more than a very temporary glimpse into the reality that countless millions of people around the world endure on a daily basis. It’s so easy to take water for granted. But it’s essential for life, and we dearly miss it when we don’t have access to it.

But this isn’t the only kind of water we desperately need. The Scriptures speak of it often, in both the Old and New Testaments. As the Israelites were wandering in the wilderness, we read in Genesis 17 that they complained to their leader Moses about the lack of water. “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst?” they cried out. God miraculously provided water for the huge throng by directing Moses to strike a specific rock with his staff.

But this was no ordinary rock. It’s explained in 1 Corinthians 10:3-4, They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ." This isn’t the only time, however, that Jesus is associated with life-giving water. Several times He used the term for Himself.

Passing through the town of Sychar in Samaria one day, Jesus encountered a disreputable woman who had come in the heat of the day to draw water from an ancient well. When Jesus unexpectedly asked the woman for a drink of water, she replied, You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?" (John 4:9). She posed this question because in those days, Jews did not associate with Samaritans, and for a man even to address a woman like her was totally against cultural mores.

Jesus responded, If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water" (John 4:10). Then, referring to the well’s water, He added, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:13-14).

Later, on the final day of the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles, Jesus made a similar reference. In rebuking the chief priests and Pharisees who so vehemently opposed Him, He declared, “'Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.’ By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive” (John 7:38-39).

We’re presently in the middle of winter, often huddled in near-hibernation in our heated homes. But soon warm weather will return and we’ll resume outdoor activities, sometimes working up a sweat and building up a thirst. At those times we’ll be eager to grab a bottle of water, or find the nearest water fountain.

I wonder: Do we have such a thirst for the Living Water, the same eagerness to drink from what we could term the Fountain of Life, about which Jesus declared, “Whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst…will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life”? Do we, as He expressed it, "hunger and thirst after righteousness" (Matthew 5:6)?

Monday, January 27, 2020

When a Gift Ceases to Be a Gift

By now, Christmas has become a distant memory. What were those gifts we received, anyway? Some of us have moved on, already starting to compile a new list of wants for next Christmas. We all enjoy receiving gifts, don’t we? The more the merrier!

But have you ever considered what a gift really is? Or what could possibly happen so that a gift would cease to be a gift?

Some TV talk show hosts, like Oprah Winfrey, Ellen DeGeneres and others, are known for being gift givers. Recipients might be people confronting difficult circumstances; their gifts intended to help them overcome their adversity. Others receiving gifts might be folks engaged in noble causes, working with limited resources to assist people in need. And sometimes, the studio audiences are the beneficiaries, receiving free books, cosmetics, small appliances and, on rare occasions, more extravagant gifts.

But what if an intended recipient, for whatever reason, declined or refused to accept the gift? Would it still be a gift?

One thing is certain: If not accepted, the intent of the gift will never be fulfilled. Why is this important? Because the Scriptures repeatedly refer to salvation – which includes receiving forgiveness for sins and gaining the assurance of eternal life – as a “gift.” 

Case in point: After presenting the bad news, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), the apostle Paul provides the good news: “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23).

After explaining how what the Bible calls our “sin nature” became a universal part of mankind’s spiritual heredity because of Adam’s disobedience, Paul writes about the impact of Jesus’ atoning sacrifice on the cross and His resurrection: “But the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man (Adam), how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow for the many!” (Romans 5:15).

And writing to believers in ancient Corinth, reminding them about “the surpassing grace God has given…,” Paul enthusiastically declares, Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!” (2 Corinthians 9:14-15).

Other passages speak more about this gift, but two truths about gifts must be recognized, especially God’s gift of eternal life: First, a gift isn’t earned; it’s given freely, not based on merit or performance. As Titus 3:5 states, “[Jesus] saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy….” And second, the gift must be received. “Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12).

Even the most well-known verse in the Bible affirms this: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). This passage doesn’t say that everyone is guaranteed eternal life, even though God “gave.” It makes clear this gift applies to “whoever believes in [Christ].” In other words, for those who don’t believe – or refuse to believe – the gift is null and void.

Does this sound exclusive? Perhaps. But consider who is doing the “excluding.” A TV talk show guest, or a member of the studio audience, might correctly state he or she didn’t go home with a gift from the show. But that would only be because they chose not to accept – or receive – the gift. They determined to exclude themselves from the gift.

As I understand it, this is true as well for the ultimate gift – that of eternal life. The gift has been offered, but it still must be received. So the question we must all ask ourselves – or should ask ourselves – is, “Have I received this gift? And if not, why not?”

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Who Are Your Heroes?

When I was growing up in New Jersey, if someone talked about a “hero,” more often than not they were referring to a sandwich, aka “submarine” or “torpedo.” But sometimes I think a sign should appear in the window of someone’s deli that reads: “A real hero is not a sandwich.” Because what our world needs isn’t more sandwiches, but more people whose lives are worth emulating and honoring. Bona fide heroes.

Who comes to mind when you think about a hero? 

These days, “heroes” come in all shapes and sizes. We make heroes of movie and TV stars, even though their achievements – besides being extraordinarily attractive (usually) – mostly consist of being paid lots of money for skills at pretending to be people they’re not, who exist only in fantasy worlds. These same folks keep gossip tabloids in business.

We might choose heroes from athletes renowned for being able to run fast, jump high, tackle hard, throw a ball through a hoop, hit a different kind of ball over a wall, or drive race cars fast around an oval for three or four hours. Even though we know very little about them personally, such as how they act when they’re not competing in their sport, many of us still accord these folks with hero status.

Some of us find heroes among politicians, singers and musicians, best-selling authors, even folks whose videos go viral and become Internet sensations. But just because people become famous for being famous, does that make them genuine heroes? 

This might be one reason “superheroes” have become huge box-office draws – film characters captured from the pages of comic books. We’ve got Superman, Ant Man, Wonder Woman, the Incredible Hulk, Captain America, Batman, Spiderman, Thor, and many other make-believe personalities with “super powers.” Sadly, since they’re all figments of someone’s imagination. 

More than 2,400 years ago, Greek philosopher Plato offered a perspective on heroes that still resonates today: True heroes, he said, are not the rich and famous, but people characterized by humility, wisdom, and a heart for serving others. 

I think Plato had it right. Aren’t we all drawn to individuals who possess humility, manifest wisdom, and display readiness to serve others when needed? In my lifetime, I’ve been fortunate to encounter a handful of people who fit this description. The most interesting thing about them, though, was common disinterest in being anyone’s hero. They were just going through life, seeking to become the kind of men and women they believed God wanted them to be.

Many of these were committed followers of Jesus, persons whose lives were transformed through their relationship with Him. The Scriptures speak a lot about this. For instance, Proverbs 11:2 declares, “When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom.” Proverbs 15:33 gives a similar view: “The fear of the Lord teaches a man wisdom, and humility comes before honor.”

The Bible presents us with a collection of individuals we might regard as heroes – Noah, Moses, Samson, David the Goliath killer, apostles Peter and Paul. But when we look at each one closely, we find they all possessed proverbial feet of clay, flawed people whom God used in spite of their shortcomings.

So in our search for heroes, we needn’t look for perfection. If we do, we’ll discover there are no heroes to be found. The folks who have impressed me most through the years have recognized their imperfections. This awareness increased their reliance upon Jesus Christ as their Savior and Lord.

The apostle Paul, for instance, never forgot his past sins and acknowledged his weaknesses. But those didn’t stop him from pursuing his God-given calling with zeal. He wrote, “…there was given me a thorn in the flesh…. Three times I pleased with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me…. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).

Underscoring his dependence upon Christ for living out his faith, regardless of his circumstances, Paul also wrote, “I can do everything through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13).

Ultimately, only Jesus Himself is deserving of being called a hero, having shown us not only how to live – but also how to die. And how to experience new life through His Spirit. If we desire to make a lasting difference through our lives, an eternal difference, we should cultivate the same reliance that Paul did. Because, as Jesus said, “apart from Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).

In our search for heroes, the best candidates are those who understand this.

Monday, January 20, 2020

What If We All Could See 20:20 in 2020?

Whenever we have our eyes examined, 20:20 is the standard. Basically, 20:20 vision means we can see clearly at 20 feet what should normally be seen at that distance. If the second number is higher, such as 20:40, it means one’s eyes probably need corrective lenses for being able to see what the average person can see unaided from 20 feet away. 

Is seeing 20:20 in 2020 an impossible dream?
With this year being 2020, I’ve been thinking how nice if we all could see life with 20:20 vision rather than the skewed, even distorted, vision that seems to afflict so many. “Consensus” these days has become more the exception than the rule. Two people can look at exactly the same thing – or issue – and see something entirely different, not only physically but also politically, ethically, morally or spiritually.

This is why the term “worldview” has become so important in understanding the disparity of values that people hold. How we view the world shapes how we think, how we act, and how we interact. One person’s “20:20” seems like 20:200 to someone else.

What would it be like if we all could see 20:20 in 2020? 

To even ask such a question seems ludicrous. Basically it would mean that everyone should see things the way I do, or you do, or someone else does. It’s like comparing a person who can discern the full range of colors accurately with someone that’s colorblind. Even among those who are colorblind, there are some who see only black, white and shades of gray; others can recognize some colors, but within a much narrower range.

So the notion of everyone enjoying 20:20 vision in terms of beliefs, philosophy and values seems unlikely, maybe even a flat-out impossibility.

I would have to agree. After all, if we all thought exactly alike, wouldn’t that be boring? Many of us would be unnecessary. At the same time, I’d like to believe the chasm between convictions that we find so accentuated these days needn’t be so broad.

Even within the local church, we find significant differences: sacraments like baptism and communion, worship styles, types of music used during services, even which versions of the Bible to use. But as the Scriptures point out, there also should be common ground, areas where we all can see 20:20.

It was C.S. Lewis who wisely observed, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” I’ve referred to this statement before, and love it because it encapsulates how we as followers of Jesus Christ should approach whatever we encounter during the course of a day.

The apostle Paul, writing to believers in the ancient city of Corinth, expressed a similar view when he declared, "For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). Rather than “majoring in the minors,” debating non-essential aspects of doctrine and practice, Paul was telling his readers that Jesus had to be central – foundational to everything he said, everything he did.

Elsewhere the apostle Paul wrote, "As for me, may I never boast about anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. Because of that cross, my interest in this world has been crucified, and the world’s interest in me has also died” (Galatians 6:14, New Living Translation). Recognizing the many distractions that surround us, the many temptations that can get us off track, Paul had determined to focus his 20:20 vision on what mattered most – Jesus Christ, who He was, what He did, and our need to respond to the precious, priceless gift He offered to everyone who would believe in Him.

So, can we all have “20:20 vision” on everything, seeing all things the same way? No. And we shouldn’t. But the Bible does assert, to paraphrase what Lewis wrote, that to be a Christian – a genuine disciple of Christ – we should constantly strive to see things through His eyes, from His divine, perfect perspective. 

Alas, even then, 20:20 vision spiritually will remain beyond our grasp. At least in this life. “Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely" (1 Corinthians 13:12, NLT).

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Doing and Listening – Striking the Delicate Balance

There are all kinds of people in this world: Tall, short and somewhere in between; skinny and uh, not so skinny; of various colors and hues, ethnicities, interests and beliefs; loud and quiet; and, it seems, an ever-increasing number of other classifications.

But two primary groups span all of the other differences – those who do things and get things done, and those who spend most of their time talking about what should be done or what they intend to do.

In the Bible, we find those two distinctive types depicted vividly. For instance, we see the “Proverbs 31 woman,” an incredibly industrious person. Starting with the 10th verse in the last chapter of Proverbs, this woman is described as, “a wife of noble character…worth far more than rubies.” 

Over the next 21 verses, the passage proceeds to list her activities and accomplishments. She “selects wool and flax…works with eager hands…. She gets up while it is still dark; she provides food for her family and portions for her servant girls.She considers a field and buys it…plants a vineyard. She sets about her work vigorously…sees that her trading is profitable, and her lamp does not go out at night…. She opens her arms to the poor and extends her hands to the needy.” It says everyone in her household is “clothed in scarlet. She makes coverings for her bed, she is clothed in fine linen and purple.” Whew!

More is said about this woman, possibly a specific individual or maybe a composite of what a godly, hard-working, determined person should be like. Entire books have been written about “Mrs. Proverbs 31” and her virtuous traits. But the passage then contrasts this woman with her spouse: “Her husband…respected at the city gate, where he takes his seat among the elders of the land” (Proverbs 31:23). 

I wouldn’t say my wife and I match the two types perfectly – not hardly – but she’s a lot like “#31,” while I’m like the elders at the gate, sitting around, talking with great intensity, seeking to solve the problems of the world. While guys like this expend copious amounts of words, perhaps accomplishing little, the gals say in essence, “Enough of the talking already. Let’s do something.”

We see another example in the Scriptures of “do vs. talk about doing” personalities. Luke 10:38-41 introduces us to two sisters, Mary and Martha, during an impromptu visit they receive from Jesus. Mary, it says, sits at Jesus’ feet, listening intently to what He has to say. “Busy bee” Martha, however, becomes “distracted by all the preparations that made to be made.” 

Finally, in frustration Martha goes to Jesus and asks, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” In other words, she’s saying, “What’s up with this? While Mary’s chilling, absorbing Your pearls of wisdom, Lord, somebody’s got to make sure everyone has a nice hot meal. Help!”

Who can blame her? Think back to Mrs. Proverbs 31, who knew something had to get done. Rather than sitting around trying to figure out who should be doing it, she went ahead and did it. That fit Martha to a T. And Ecclesiastes 4:9 does say, “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor.”

But then Jesus has a strange response. He says, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken from her” (Luke 10:41). That’s it. End of story. If Martha has a comeback in this little conversation, the Bible doesn’t enlighten us on what she says.

So, what are we to make of all this? Seems to me the Scriptures are telling us there is a place for both types – at the proper time. In the business world, we find executives who plan meetings to discuss future meetings. In politics, we see many elected officials who wax eloquent with words, but aren't so abundant with their deeds. When all is said and done, they’ve said a whole lot more than they’ve done.

But as we read in Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven…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 be silent and a time to speak.” Just as we can err in devoting too much time to talking and listening, and not enough to working to accomplish things, other times we need to hit the “Pause” button, to “cease striving” as Psalm 46:10 says, and just listen, think and meditate. 

Especially when it comes to discerning what God is telling us and what He wants us to be doing. In its entirety, Psalm 46:10 says, “Cease striving and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.” Other translations put it, “Be still, and know that I am God.” We may be well-intended, but we can become so busy try to do for God that we impede what He wants to do in us and through us – all for His glory. 

We need to remember, He created and sustains the universe. The Lord doesn’t need our help. But He graciously allows us to participate in His work. The question for us is, “What is the work God has for us to participate in?” There’s a time to be a Martha. But there’s also a time for being a Mary. Our challenge is to have the wisdom, as Jesus said, to choose which is better for the moment.

Monday, January 13, 2020

Four P’s of Physical – and Spiritual - Recovery

In 2007, marking the one-year anniversary of my open-heart surgery, I returned to the hospital where the procedure was performed. Thankful I had come through the surgery successfully, I wanted to visit the Surgical ICU where I had begun my recovery.

During that impromptu visit, a hospital staff person invited me to become a “cardiac volunteer,” visiting patients who had just undergone surgeries similar to mine. I didn’t have to ponder this opportunity for long. I remembered the questions I had lying in a hospital bed, feeling post-surgical pain and soreness, and wondering if this was how it was supposed to be. Medical staff, I discovered, are reluctant to be definitive about how you’ll feel, how quickly you’ll recover, etc.

I also thought of the passage in the Scriptures that talks of “…the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4). God had indeed comforted me before and after my surgery, and it seemed only right to make myself available to encourage others, sharing my own story and giving them hope that their current pain would only be temporary.

Over the next five years or so, I visited hundreds of fellow open-heart survivors typically feeling, as I had, like a pickup truck had hit them in the chest – then backed up and hit them again. I don’t recommend the experience if you can avoid it. Nevertheless, I could serve as evidence that better days lie ahead.

During these visits I often shared what I called “the 4 P’s of Recovery”: Patience, Perseverance, Positive attitude, and Prayer. Something simple to leave with them as they began their slow and sometimes painful journey toward renewed health and full strength.

Patience is because after any major surgery, healing takes time; it’s a while before you even begin approaching 100 percent again. No sense becoming impatient when you don’t bounce back as quickly as you’d like. Perseverance because during the process, there are things you must do, such as: Taking medications regularly as prescribed. Following the physicians’ counsel regarding physical activity. Engaging in rehabilitation – exercises and therapy – and in most cases, this will continue for weeks, even months.

There’s the need for a Positive attitude – studies have shown that maintaining a positive, optimistic attitude is a key, intangible ingredient for experiencing full recovery. Reminding ourselves that even in the midst of pain and weakness, better days lie ahead. And finally, Prayer – prayer for yourself, as well as having family, friends and other caring folks praying for you. When I’ve had my surgeries, God impressed upon hundreds of people to keep me in their prayers. You can’t quantify this, but there’s no doubting the value of prayers lifted up to God – and His eagerness to answer them.

It occurred to me that at one time or another, many of us must go through another kind of recovery – spiritual – and these same 4 P’s of Recovery apply just as well to our spiritual well-being and progress.

Patience is listed among the “fruit of the Spirit” in Galatians 5:22-23. And the apostle Paul, after describing some of the adversity he had faced as an ardent follower of Jesus Christ, said he was able to endure, in purity, understanding, patience and kindness; in the Holy Spirit and in sincere love” (2 Corinthians 6:6). As with huge redwoods, spiritual giants are not grown overnight – it takes an entire lifetime.

Perseverance is critical, because anyone can start well. Tragically, comparatively few finish well. And one reason for this is they are unwilling to persevere, to hold fast to their resolve when the inevitable trials, testing and hardships come. This is why Paul wrote, “…we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope” (Romans 5:3-4). The apostle James seconded the motion, admonishing us to “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you have 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).

The impact of a Positive attitude cannot be overstated, for both physical and spiritual recovery and maintenance. Rather than focusing on the gathering darkness and chaos around us, we can be “fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2). To avoid lapsing into negativity and despair, we can heed Paul’s advice: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things” (Philippians 4:8). “Accentuating the positive,” so to speak, enables us to avoid dwelling on the negative.

Finally, Prayer is simply talking to God – sharing from our hearts, but also taking the time to listen to Him, whether in reading His Word, hearing a strong, Bible-based message, or listening to wise counsel from a trusted friend who also is a believer.

The apostle Paul actually asked people to pray for him, can you believe it? “Pray also for me, that whenever I open my mouth, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel…. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should” (Ephesians 6:19-20).

We are not asked, but commanded, to uphold one another in prayer: “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective” (James 5:16). 

In the final hours before His kangaroo court trial and crucifixion, even Jesus wanted others to pray with Him. Confronting His sleepy disciples after going off to pray alone, Jesus said to Peter, “Could you men not keep watch with me for one hour?... Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the body is weak” (Matthew 26:40-41).

There you have it – if you want to experience healing and growth, both physically and spiritually, be patient, persevere, remain positive, and pray. These are key ingredients in God’s recipe for an abundant, fruitful life.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Faithful vs. Fearful: It Matters Who’s Victorious

2003 photo of "Old Faithful," by Phil 
Konstantin, via Wikipedia.
When you hear the word “faithful," what comes to mind? A loyal pooch – maybe even a service dog – that’s always there when needed, no matter what? A spouse who has never strayed, even in times when their own trust was put to the test? Or perhaps, an employee who has worked for a company without fail, even in periods of great adversity? The geyser, “Old Faithful,” in Yellowstone Park that spouts off predictably every day?

I’m tempted to think in those terms as well, but at its heart, faithful means to be “full of, or filled with faith.” This faith, in turn, might be the single-most factor that enables a canine to be there whenever needed, a spouse to remain true to his or her wedding vows, or a worker to continue to carry out job responsibilities even during tough times.

As we read the Scriptures, we find the term “faithful” used somewhat differently, however. For instance, in one of my favorite verses, 2 Timothy 2:2, the apostle Paul admonishes, “And the things you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, these entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” Okay, you might be thinking, but what does Paul mean by “faithful”?

We get a clue in the 11th chapter of Hebrews, the so-called “hall of faith,” which presents an impressive list of people who exhibited extraordinary faith throughout biblical history. This list begins with Abel, who died at the hands of his envious brother, Cain, and proceeds to cite people like Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Gideon, Samson, David, Samuel the prophet, even a prostitute named Rahab.

So, what was it that singled them out as faithful people? I think there’s a simple answer to that: They weren’t fearful. Or to state it another way, they weren’t filled with fear.

Each of these men and women, if you study their stories in the Scriptures, could have found many reasons to be fearful. Instead, they chose to remain faithful – to the God they believed in and served, and to the unique callings the Lord had placed on their lives.

We might argue, “Yes, but that was centuries, even thousands of years ago. What does that have to do with us?” Times may have changed, technology may have revolutionized ways in which we live, but the nature of humanity isn’t very different from what it was back in their day.

Look at it this way: If you find yourself out of work, or employed but in a job you detest, are you faithful – filled with faith – or fearful? Should you (or a loved one) receive a frightening diagnosis from a doctor, are you faithful or fearful? When you encounter financial challenges of one kind or another, and can’t see a way to resolve them, are you faithful or fearful? When the “happily ever after” you anticipated when you exchanged wedding vows with your spouse hasn’t materialized as expected, are you faithful or fearful?

How we respond in these and other circumstances – which prevails in the perpetual battle of faithful vs. fearful – makes all the difference in the quality and fruitfulness of our walk with Jesus Christ. 

As the Hebrews faith chapter concludes, “These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect” (Hebrews 11:39-40). Whenever we find ourselves in the spiritual shopping aisle, confronted with the choice of Faithful or Fearful, it’s proven: Faithful is always better.

Monday, January 6, 2020

Moneychangers – and Making Room

This marks a first for me and for my “Just Thinking” blog: Since I started it in 2008, the content has been solely a product of what I happened to be, appropriately enough, just thinking. But recently I came across a brief devotional message by my longtime friend, Mike Connor, that impressed me so much I wanted to share it with all those – many or few – who kindly read my writings. It was part of a collection of reflections his church, St. John’s Lutheran in Salisbury, N.C. and a sister church in Bethlehem, Israel, Christmas Lutheran, compiled for the Advent season. Here is Mike’s meditation, and I’ll follow it with a few comments of my own:

“Jesus went straight to the Temple and threw out everyone who had set up shop, buying and selling…. Now there was room for the blind and crippled to get in. They came to Jesus and he healed them” (Matthew 21:12,14).

“As a child, I was quite impressed with ‘The Cleansing of the Temple’ account. I imagined Jesus standing up to the bad guys, very similar to the inevitable saloon fights depicted in old TV westerns. Even now, I still focus on Jesus banishing the bad elements from the temple and concluding with His scripture, ‘My house was designated a house of prayer; You have made it a hangout for thieves.’ We understand these merchants and money changers were personally profiting and thereby detracting from Temple’s true purpose, but their removal is not the end of the story. This bold action of Jesus makes room for those who were being excluded. At that time, the blind and other individuals with disabilities were marginalized. Many believed that personal disabilities were a result of sin and a sign of God’s disfavor. The compassion of Jesus is radically counter-cultural.

A St. John’s friend recently encouraged me to consider how this scripture relates to us as the Temple of the Holy Spirit. What is taking up space in my life and impeding spiritual growth? I have to confess that I live a privileged life and would like it to stay that way. I also want this for loved ones. It is natural to desire good health and a problem-free life, but when I’m not careful this focus takes up too much space in my spiritual walk. I’m open to God’s direction, as long as it doesn’t disturb my plans. 

When I admit my brokenness and seek healing, I’m making more room for the Holy Spirit. These experiences occur in both personal contemplation and intimate fellowship with others. It’s a true blessing to be in relationship with people of faith who are open about their brokenness. I’ve had the privilege to experience this with loved ones, including Palestinians living in the West Bank. Jesus calls us to be selfless and compassionate, but we need not consider it a command or something we “should do.” Rather, we find our true soul when we relinquish our selfish egos. We create space for the Holy Spirit to work both in ourselves and throughout our community. 

Dear Lord, we thank you for your Son’s compassion. We confess the many times we hold onto our selfish desires and block your Holy Spirit’s creative power. Help us focus on selflessness so that we may grow in our relationship with you and further your kingdom. Amen.” 
– Mike Connor 

Frankly, what impressed me first about my friend’s meditation was the rendition of Matthew 21:12,14. It’s taken from The Message, a Bible paraphrase by Eugene H. Peterson. It says that once Jesus evicted the profiteers – other translations term them “money changers” – then “there was room for the blind and crippled to get in. Then they came to Jesus and he healed them.” I had never seen this passage phrased in this way before, and it struck me like the proverbial ton of bricks.

Although we weren’t there when Jesus did chased out the Temple retailers, I suspect we’ve all experienced something similar, both in our personal lives and in our congregations. Getting so caught up in self and our wants can hinder us from advancing spiritually. As Mike wrote, “I’m open to God’s direction, as long as it doesn’t disturb my plans.”

And our churches, many of them featuring slick media presentations, high-tech musical equipment, and carefully crafted worship formats: Have we become so professional, so well-programmed that we leave no room for “the least of these,” as Jesus described the hungry, the thirsty, the poor and needy, the sick and those in prison (Matthew 25:34-46)?

Are you thinking this doesn’t apply to you or your situation? Well, how do you respond when God sees fit to disturb your plans? Or how would people in your congregation react if, midway through a worship service, a group of homeless people walked in, a heavily tattooed addict stumbled toward the altar, or a prostitute sat down next to you? As I write this, I find myself convicted. Is there room for the crippled and blind to get in? 

Thursday, January 2, 2020

Nestled in the Hollow of His Hand

“My life is in your hands!” “My fate is in your hands!” I remember seeing reruns of some old-timey movies in which one of these hackneyed phrases was repeated. Often it was the plea of some poor, helpless “damsel in distress.” Whether that was good or bad depended upon whether the person she addressed was the conquering hero, or the dastardly villain. 

Those cliché-riddled films were fantasy, and silly at that, but how would you like to look at someone and be thinking the same thing: “My life is in your hands”?

And yet, in many respects, this is very much like how the Scriptures describe our relationship with God. In particular, many passages in Psalms talk about the hands of God, and how He uses them to provide for us, protect us and guide us. Psalm 95:7, for example, says, “For He is our God, and we are the people of His pasture and the sheep of His hand.”

Another, Psalm 20:6, declares, “Now I know that the Lord saves his anointed; he answers him from his holy heaven with saving power in his right hand. Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God” (Psalm 20:6-7).

One of the great verses in the Bible that offers assurance to followers of Jesus Christ is John 10:29, in which He says, “My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of My Father’s hand.”

But then there are those who don’t care to have the Lord involved in their lives. Like the feisty rebel in an old film, they resist: “Unhand me, kind sir!” But a risk comes with that: “Since they show no regard for the works of the Lord and what his hands have done, he will tear them down and never build them again” (Psalm 28:5).

So, what’s it like, this being held in God’s hands? Recently I came across a statement by the late Jean Vanier, a Canadian philosopher, theologian and humanitarian, that captured it better than I could. While stretching out his arm and cupping his hand as if holding a little, wounded bird, Vanier asked:
“What will happen if I open my hand fully? We say, ‘The bird will try to flutter its wings, and it will fall and die.’ But what if I close my hand? We say, ‘The bird will be crushed and die.’” Then he smiled and said, “An intimate place is like my cupped hand, neither totally open nor totally closed. It is the space where growth takes place.”

This is how our loving Heavenly Father holds us; not so loosely that we might fall and suffer greater harm, nor so tightly as to crush us to death. Whether we’re facing a dire crisis, as I did several weeks ago in undergoing unexpected, emergency brain surgery, or just struggling somewhere along our spiritual journey, we remain in His caring, protective, providential hands.

And when our last breath in this life is about to be taken, His hands will be there to welcome into our eternal home. I’m not a tattoo person, but some weeks ago Sam, son of a delightful man I had the privilege of mentoring for a number of years, got a tattoo uniquely designed as a tribute to his dad after his passing: It’s an image of someone walking through the gates of Heaven about to be received by the hands of God. Probably for the first time in my life I thought, “Now that is one beautiful tattoo!”

So as we step into another calendar year, not knowing what the future may hold, we can do so with confidence, knowing we’re being held in the all-powerful, yet loving hands of the Lord.