Monday, June 29, 2020

Equipping the Called, Not Calling the Equipped

Years ago I heard the statement for the first time, “If you want to get something done, find a busy person to do it.” Meaning that people who are “doers” are most likely to throw themselves into new projects, even if they already have a full plate of projects and goals.


The contrast to this would be that if someone’s not busy, it’s probably because they’re undependable and unlikely to get that important matter accomplished.


In the work world, this might have some credence. People who are workaholics – or whatever we choose to call them these days – seem to thrive when there’s more and more to be done. “So what if Bill is already putting in 70-hour weeks. He can handle one or two more projects.” So what if he might be neglecting his family, his health and personal well-being in the process. All that matters is that we get accomplished whatever we so desperately want to get done.


Interestingly, that’s not how God seems to work. When it comes to matters of greatest importance, He often chooses those who might have been labeled as “most unlikely to succeed” in their high school yearbooks. The Scriptures are chock full of examples. 


Moses was the infant son of a Jewish woman who was raised in a royal Egyptian home. Then, after he had intervened to save the life of an Israelite slave, the one-time adopted prince had to flee for his life. Add the fact that he wasn’t a gifted orator. Yet it was this same Moses whom God chose to lead the Israelites out of bondage after more than 400 years, taking them to the Promised Land. 


After King Saul proved to be a total bust as Israel’s first king, God didn’t decide to replace him with the cover guy on Hebrew Man Monthly. He opted for David, a humble shepherd boy who was nothing more than an after-thought even for his father, Jesse. However, this was the fellow who would successfully defeat the giant Goliath, lead the nation of Israel to greatness, and for good measure, personally write the lion’s share of the Psalms.


When Jesus was choosing key followers to carry on His spiritual mission, He didn’t select prominent religious leaders or members of the Jewish high society. Instead, the Lord handpicked the likes of Peter and Andrew, James and John – lowly fishermen. Also among his 12 closest disciples was a detestable tax collector named Matthew.


It was another Saul, to be renamed Paul, who turned from zealous persecutor of Christians into a courageous, unwavering spokesman for the gospel of Jesus Christ. This phenomenal transformation belonged in the “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” of his day.


Why is this? Why does God seem to take such pleasure in designating misfits and the unqualified for His eternal, kingdom work? Because, as I heard someone recently describe it, He equips the called. He doesn’t call the equipped.


Paul summarized this well in his first letter to believers in ancient Corinth: “I was with you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling. And my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God” (1 Corinthians 2:3-5).


The apostle reaffirmed this in another letter, declaring, “For we do not preach ourselves but Christ Jesus the Lord, and ourselves your bondservants for Jesus’ sake…. But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us” (2 Corinthians 4:5-7).


Throughout church history, some of the most fruitful servants of God have been people dealing with various physical maladies, depression, and other limitations which from a human perspective should have rendered them unsuitable for their holy callings. But God has had a different view.


I remember my first trip to Brazil in 1999 on behalf of CBMC International, a marketplace ministry I was working with at the time. When my boss insisted I make the journey, I thought he was crazy. I couldn’t speak Portuguese; I was a writer and editor, not a ministry developer; and I knew absolutely no one in that huge, cosmopolitan nation. Just boarding the plane for the 10-hour flight there was an act of faith, trusting God would have someone to meet me and serve as my guide for my time there.


Thankfully, I had embraced two central truths about the Christian life, teachings I’d need to rely on for such a broad step outside my comfort zone. In Jesus 15:5, Jesus had told His followers, “without Me you can do nothing.” I already understood from experience that was true. The other precept was Paul’s confident assertion, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13).


As I embarked on my flight to Sao Paulo, and then on to other Brazilian cities, I had one consuming thought: “Lord, I’m willing, but you’re going to have to do it – You will have to accomplish whatever you want through me!” And that’s exactly what He did. More than 20 years later, I still maintain friendships with several of the men I met, an enduring bond we share in Christ. As Ephesians 3:20 promises, God “is able to do exceedingly abundantly beyond all we ask or think.”


Has the Lord ever impressed upon you to do something for which you felt totally unsuited, utterly unqualified? Perhaps He’s doing that right now – or will do so sometime in the future. In any case, keep in mind: God equips the called; He doesn’t call the equipped.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

We Have Seen the Light – But It’s Leaving Us

By now you’re probably aware of the bad news: All of us in the Northern Hemisphere, after enjoying longer days with more daylight, are entering the downside of that annual curve. Our longest “day,” in terms of sunlight, passed several days ago, propelling us toward fall and the dark, dismal days of winter.

This march toward less light saddens me. I’m not an outdoorsy kind of guy, but I enjoy light, whether it’s in nature or indoors. Whenever I enter a living room that’s relatively dark because the windows don’t capture much light, my mood moves downward a notch or two. 


On the other hand, walking into a brightly lit area – a supermarket, a mall with sunlight streaming in from overhead, or a well-illuminated kitchen – perks up my mood considerably. Walking along a bright, sun-drenched beach, as I did recently, is the ultimate.


To crave the light is as it should be; that’s how it’s been from the beginning of days. God’s first recorded words are, “Let there be light” (Genesis 1:3). What an explosion of illumination that must have been! And that has been His will ever since. In fact, Jesus boldly declared, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).


In science classes, I learned there are three primary properties of light: luminiferous (illuminating things); actinic (bringing about chemical reactions, such as photosynthesis); and calorific (creating heat). But in a broader sense, the greatest thing light does is bring life. 


Try to grow a plant in perpetual dark. Good luck with that. One common – and simple – cure for newborn babies with jaundice is to expose them to light. When it’s dark, most of us feel tired and go to bed; in the morning, once the sun has risen, we spring out of bed (or crawl) and prepare for a new day of life.


Darkness is also often associated with bad things. In the dark, many people behave in ways they would never consider doing in the light. When my wife and I watch a Hallmark mystery movie, or an episode of a show like “NCIS,” the opening scenes typically take place in the dark. Uh-oh! That signals nefarious individuals lurking in the shadows, poised to perform heinous deeds.


These are among the reasons God in His Word speaks so frequently and eloquently about light. As 1 John 1:5-7 tells us, “God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.”


That’s pretty convicting. Are we walking in the light, in close fellowship with God? Or do we feel a tug from darkness, pulling us away from thoughts and actions that honor and glorify Him?


Another thing about light and darkness: They can’t tolerate each other. They can’t co-exist. Walk into a darkened room and turn on a light, and darkness flees – perhaps hiding behind a chair where light doesn’t penetrate. Even there, if you shine a flashlight, the darkness disappears.


This offers one explanation for the increasing enmity Christianity is facing in our nation. This antagonism is well-established in other parts of the world. Early in the gospel of John we read about Jesus, “In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it” (John 1:4-5).


The darkness “has not understood it.” Wow! Have you ever experienced frustration in trying to explain truth from the Bible to someone who doesn’t believe it, even rejects it? When living in darkness, it’s hard to comprehend light.


This, ultimately, is why Jesus took on human form and entered this world. He came to pay the penalty for our sins – for anyone who will turn to Him for forgiveness and receive the gift of eternal life. He also came to bring light to a world enshrouded in darkness. Jesus told His disciples, “As long as it is day, we must do the work of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world” (John 9:4-5).


This is interesting, because we know that after His resurrection and spending 40 more days with His followers, Jesus ascended back to heaven. He’s no longer a part of the world in a physical sense, although He remains here through His Spirit. So, who’s supposed to supply the light? The Scriptures answer that question very clearly. We are:

“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:14-16).


Every day, it seems darkness is seeking to take a stronger foothold in our world. Perhaps the daily decline of sunlight until late December is symbolic of that. That doesn’t mean the light isn’t necessary. We should still make every effort to expel the darkness by shining the light – the light of Christ – into a world that says it wants nothing to do with Him.


One of the best ways for revealing the light of Jesus is by demonstrating the love of Jesus. As yet another passage from 1 John states: 

“…I am writing you a new command; its truth is seen in him and you, because the darkness is passing and the true light is already shining. Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates his brother is still in the darkness. Whoever loves his brother lives in the light, and there is nothing in him to make him stumble” (1 John 2:8-10).


In a time of such discord, hatred and rancor between factions of people, the light of Jesus Christ is needed more than ever.

Monday, June 22, 2020

What Things Do You Find Difficult to Say?

My wife and I sometimes watch reruns of the long-running “Family Feud” TV game show. For this game, the studio audience is asked a series of questions, and then contestants try to guess which were the most common responses.

One of the questions on a particular episode concerned things people find difficult to say. This wasn’t referring to words hard to pronounce, but phrases people struggle to utter. For instance, three simple words – “I love you” – are very hard to some folks to say. There are probably many reasons for this: fear of making a commitment, reluctance to express inner feelings, previous bad experiences, or maybe, never having heard those words themselves growing up.

Ironically, some of the things people struggle to say consist of only two words. Here’s an example: “I’m sorry.” Even if they are deserved, apologies aren’t always easy to give. Along the same lines, and perhaps even more difficult, is “Forgive me.” Admitting wrongs – and also acknowledging the pain our wrongdoing or wrong-saying might have inflicted – for some is as easy as swallowing a stump.

Then there’s the phrase of ultimate commitment: “I do.” Being willing to walk down an aisle, or even stand before a justice of the peace, to get married can be a daunting prospect. Definitely not one to be taken lightly. Of course, there are some we know for whom “I do” hasn’t been hard to say at all. In fact, they’ve said it multiple times – to multiple people.

Early in life, many of us are introduced to a two-word phrase that can mean a lot, but it too is commonly forgotten: “Thank you.” ”Now, what do you say, Johnny?” For whatever reason, some people find verbalizing those words quite the challenge. 

Personally, I’m fond of these words – both saying them and hearing them. And think of how versatile they are. We can say “thank you” to someone who has just held the door for us, sacked our groceries, given us directions, fixed something broken in our home, presented us with a generous gift, or saved our life.

Which brings to mind what God has done for each of us. Romans 5:8 declares, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” In fact, Christ died for us before we became sinners. How many sins had you actually ommitted when He died on the cross about 2,000 years ago?

And yet, another passage tells us, “But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves to God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:22-23). These are truths we shouldn’t gloss over quickly. If we believe what they say, we’ve been freed from the enslavement of sin; have been given the opportunity – and power – to pursuit holy, right living; and have been promised eternal life.

When was the last time you said “thank you” to God for that? Just a couple hours before writing this, I got a haircut and thanked my stylist. Yet what she did took only 15 minutes or so. It required no personal sacrifice or pain on her part, but I still expressed my appreciation to her.

On the cross, Jesus gave everything He had. He withstood pain and suffering none of us can fully imagine or understand. He willingly endured separation from His heavenly Father. Despite His perfect divinity, He encountered undeserved mocking and ridicule without complaint.

Have we told the Lord how thankful we are for what He did? Do we make a point, every day, of saying “thank you” for what is rightly termed his “unspeakable gift”?

For some, the first step in saying “thank you” is being willing to humbly receive the free gift Jesus offers. John 1:12 states, “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name.” And Romans 10:9-11 assures us:
“That if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved. As the Scripture says, ‘’Anyone who trusts in him will never be put to shame.’”

Admitting we have sinned – missed the mark – and have fallen far short of God’s perfect standard is another of the hard things to say. But if we will do what the passage above says, it will launch us on an unforgettable, lifelong adventure. Then we will discover, as Ephesians 3:20 promises, He is “able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us.”

Once we grasp that truth, that precious, unfailing guarantee, we can’t help saying to the Lord, “Thank you!” It won’t be difficult, and we’ll never stop – even when our days on this earth have ended.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

In Appreciation to All the Fathers Who Are Present

Here we are, approaching another parental holiday that’s almost an afterthought with all the headlines screaming at us. Mother’s Day was overshadowed by the pandemic crisis and restrictions, and as I write this, rioters and terrorists (I don’t think you can regard them as anything but that) have turned justifiable, peaceful protests into all manner of mayhem. So, Father’s Day will probably sneak up on folks without the usual commercial fanfare.

But I for one don’t want to forget fathers, or to neglect giving mention to the priceless contributions many of them make, not only for their children but also on society as a whole.

There’s a very sad note to this observance, however. Thousands upon thousands of young people are growing up without the joy and privilege of knowing their biological fathers, whether because they refused to accept responsibility for them, abandoned their families, or just have chosen not to be actively involved in their children’s lives. It’s reported that in the 1960s, for example, the father was present in 75 percent of African-American homes. Today, that number is about 25 percent, making father-absence one of the greatest problems facing the black community.

My dad, circa 1970.
Another discouraging aspect is how the value of the father has been diminished by our society over the years. On TV and movies, sitcoms and dramas portray women doing perfectly fine in raising their children without the husband/father present, or if there is a father, he’s typically depicted as a buffoon, weak, or both. Single moms are celebrated. But how about fathers? Who needs a dad, right?

Yet, often-ignored statistics show otherwise. Numerous scholarly studies have shown father absence, regardless of race, often has negative consequences on adolescent development. These include lower self-esteem; engaging in sexual activity at an earlier age; more behavioral problems; lower academic achievement; poorer psychological well-being; more likelihood of being raised in poverty; greater risk of alcohol and chemical dependency, and increased likelihood of criminal activity – and imprisonment.

This by no means devalues or undervalues the oft-heroic efforts of single mothers. One person trying to do parental work that God designed for two is incredibly difficult. Kudos to all who attempt to do what often might feel like mission impossible. As Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 says so clearly, “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their works. If one falls down, his friend can help him up….”

In Genesis 2:18, after God created the universe, the earth, and the first man, He determined, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” And while it does not say so explicitly, it could be inferred that He also meant it is not good for the woman to be alone – especially when trying to handle the challenges of raising children.

As I’ve mentioned in the past, if you ever want to draw emotion out of a man – even tears – just ask him to tell you about his father. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve witnessed men weep as they talked about their dads, whether circumstances with them were good, terrible, or somewhere in between.

This is as God intended for it to be, I’m convinced. Fathers should be a necessary part of the equation, even though it’s not politically correct to make that assertion. Not that fathers are perfect. I certainly haven’t been anywhere near perfect with our children, although I do believe I was doing the best I knew to do at the time. And I’m still trying to do the best I can with my grown children and now, our grandchildren.

Guys love their moms. They’re the ones who make home “home.” But there’s nothing to compare with the loving, masculine bond forged between a father and son that many men have been privileged to enjoy. For those fellows, losing their dad to death is like losing a part of their physical selves. It seems like a bottomless void that can never be filled – at least this side of eternity.

My dad certainly wasn’t perfect. I wish he had been more relational, more patient with me, more of a person that I could go to for a good ole man-to-man conversation. But he was a product of his generation, and he too, I’m sure, was doing the best he knew to do at the time. And as I think of “father,” I can’t help but remember my Uncle Joe, who became like a second father to me, providing much love, a positive example, and encouragement during my first year in college, and later while I was in Houston, Texas working to advance my career as a journalist.

In the Scriptures, we see numerous examples of mothers going to bat for their sons – Rebecca, Rachel, Sarah, and Jesus’ earthly mom, Mary, among them. But God gave the primary responsibility for leading and teaching children to the father. In Deuteronomy 6:6-7, the Lord commands, “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.”

After the apostle Paul reminds children of God’s exhortation, “’Honor your father and mother’ – which is the first commandment with a promise, ‘that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on earth’” (Ephesians 6:2-3), in the very next verse his focus shifts: “Fathers, do not exasperate your children, instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4). This doesn’t mean moms shouldn’t be involved as well, but the apostle directs this mandate to the fathers. Maybe it’s because we’re not smart enough to figure it out without very specific instructions, I don’t know.

All this to say, I hope on this Father’s Day – despite the societal turmoil and distractions – that dads everywhere receive the respect and recognition they deserve. It’s a tough job. Most of us have to learn some hard lessons as we go. And let’s face it, most moms have a nine-month head start in parenting, carrying the little folks in their wombs. 

So if you’re a dad reading this, happy Father’s Day! Should you find yourself struggling in your role from time to time, take heart. You’re not alone. Let’s all seek the wisdom, experience and encouragement of one another. And of the Lord. Not one of us is as smart – or wise – as all of us together!

Monday, June 15, 2020

What the Bible – and Jesus – Say About Prejudice

As I write this, I feel incredibly sad. After months of relentless reporting about COVID-19, the news took a startling turn. And not a good one.


Videos surfaced of an African-American man, George Floyd, who died as a result of excessive force exerted by a white police officer while several other officers stood by without any attempt to intervene. They did not have their hands physically on Mr. Floyd, but the videos show no attempt to help as he pleaded, “I can’t breathe!”


For any person to die in this way is beyond excuse, unjustifiable. If there’s any way it could be even more tragic, it’s that Mr. Floyd, according to multiple reports, had extricated himself from a troubled past and was actively striving to make a positive difference in the lives of others.


So many words have already been said and written about this – reasonable and inflammatory. But perhaps it might help to consider what the Scriptures and Jesus have to say about racism and prejudice.


In the Old Testament, we see that God very specifically wanted the people of Israel – His “chosen people” – to remain separate from other peoples. The Lord’s purpose was not to discriminate, but to ensure those He had chosen remained faithful to Him as the one true God, and not be influenced to worship false deities of other nations or stray from the laws He had established.


Discussion of ethnicity in the New Testament takes on a very different perspective. It’s often overlooked when we read and discuss the stories, but the parable of the Good Samaritan and the account of Jesus’ encounter with the woman at a well in Samaria both have racial or ethnic elements to them. The Samaritans were a people group despised by the Jews; interaction with them was a social taboo. So Jesus’ very intentional association with and reference to Samaritans was radical for His day.


Most of us are familiar with the story about the Good Samaritan. In this parable, a man on the way from Jerusalem to Jericho is beaten by robbers and left for dead. A Jewish priest traveling the same road, and then a Levite, pass the man by without stopping to offer aid, but a Samaritan does stop to help by attending to the man’s wounds and then finding an inn where he can stay while he recovers.


When I read this account and try to apply it to the present day, I envision a known racist as the victim. A clergyman and then a politician pass by, ignoring the injured individual’s plight. But then an African-American comes by, takes pity on the person, calls for emergency assistance and then finds a place for him to receive care until he is well again. Can you see the irony – and the extreme example of mercy demonstrated by the black man?  


We also have the account of Jesus’ meeting with a woman of disrepute going to a well to draw water at midday, when she could avoid the accusatory glances of other women. “Now he had to go through Samaria. So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar…. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well…. When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, ‘Will you give me a drink?’… The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?’ (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans)” (John 4:4-42).


Jesus proceeded to shift the conversation to “living water,” how this women with a painful past could experience new life through Him, the promised Messiah. When she excitedly ran back to her town to tell about this incredible stranger, many went to see Him and also became believers.


Again, Jesus’ actions were radical, unprecedented for those times. He broke every cultural guideline of the day, but paid no heed to the woman’s ethnicity, nor her immoral background. He perceived her only a person deserving of unconditional love and compassion, someone who needed some truly Good News to break into her broken existence.


We find that after Jesus’ ascension to heaven, His followers continued the example He had shown of disregarding cultural barriers. In Acts 8:25 it says, “When they had testified and proclaimed the word of the Lord, Peter and John returned to Jerusalem, preaching the gospel in many Samaritan villages.” The Samaritans hadn’t suddenly been welcomed into the Jewish family, yet the disciples knew they needed to hear the truth of Jesus Christ as much as anyone. 


Lastly, I think of what the Paul the apostle wrote, saying that in God’s sight, there is no distinction of race, gender, class or ethnicity: There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).


Some progress has been made in the realm of race relations in recent decades. But much more remains to be made. I firmly believe the ultimate answer is not in the writing and enactment of more laws, or the establishment of more regulations, but in the changing of hearts. And that is only possible through the transforming life and power of Jesus Christ.


I’m thankful for my African-American friends. We enjoy each other’s company, and I believe we have learned from one another. More than anything, we share a bond in Christ that transcends any differences of color or culture. I pray – in the most literal sense – that through Him, the walls of hate, prejudice, distrust and suspicion can finally be torn down.

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Biblical Do’s and Don’ts – Fear Is Among Them

We live in fearful times. That’s not news. It’s not even recent. This has always been the case throughout human history, but months of continuous pandemic news has spiked our fear quotient. There are many other concerns we could add to the list as well. Something new seems to be added every day. So we exist in near-constant states of stress, our adrenalin levels pushed to the max.

Which has led me to ponder what the Scriptures say about fear. Skeptics would protest that the Bible is nothing more than a compilation of do’s and don’ts. I would disagree with such a narrow view. It’s far more than that. However, in truth, the Word of God shows and tells us much about what we should do – and not do – about fear.

The Lord makes very clear what we should fear. We’re commanded, “Fear the Lord your God, serve him only and take your oaths in His name. Do not follow other gods, the gods of the people around you, for the Lord your God, who is among you, is a jealous God and His anger will burn against you…” (Deuteronomy 6:13-15).

Later in the same Old Testament book we read, “You are to fear the Lord your God and serve Him. Hold fast to Him and take your oaths in His name” (Deuteronomy 10:20). This admonition, however, is not the kind of cowering fear an animal might feel toward an owner that mistreats it, or a dreaded suspicion that the Lord is staring down from heaven, ready to pounce the moment we step out of line. Instead, biblical fear of God speaks about love, devotion and reverence, a profound sense of awe in approaching the Creator of all that is, ever was, and ever will be.

And there are benefits from “doing” this prescription to fear the one true God. “If you fear the Lord and serve and obey Him and do not rebel against His commands, and if you and the king who reigns over you follow the Lord your God – good!” (1 Samuel 12:14). Psalm 34:9 adds, “Fear the Lord, you His saints, for those who fear Him lack nothing.”

At the same time, the Scriptures clearly instruct that we are not to be overcome by fear – because of our trust and confidence in an all-loving, all-knowing, all-powerful God. “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?” (Psalm 27:1).

This command not to fear is borne out of deep, abiding personal relationship, knowing God not as distant and disinterested, but closer than our skin. One of my favorite verses offers this assurance: “So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with My righteous right hand” (Isaiah 41:10). He is present with us, no matter what our circumstances might be, and will provide whatever we need to get through them.

The New Testament gives similar assurances: In preparing to send His 12 closest disciples on their first mission without Him, Jesus warned them of inevitable opposition: “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell…. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father…. So do not be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows” (Matthew 10:28-31).

Another passage many of us know gives us more “do’s and don’ts”: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7). I don’t know about you, but fear and anxious thoughts can come easily. The next steps – praying and expressing my concerns to God, along with thanking Him in advance for how He’s going to address my circumstances – do not.

That’s what faith is all about: Trusting the Lord in everything, even when – and especially when – we can’t see any way He can work through them for His good and perfect purposes, as He promises in Romans 8:28. But as 2 Corinthians 5:7 says, “We walk by faith, not by sight.”

Whether it’s a pandemic, social unrest, unemployment, or financial struggles, we have our marching orders. Fear God, but do not let fear generated by the situations we find ourselves in overwhelm us. We’re to choose faith, not fear.

Monday, June 8, 2020

The Overwhelming Curse of Feeling Unloved

A tune from an old musical asks, “What’s the problem with kids today?” That question has many possible answers, but according to research, feeling unloved is definitely one of them.

Recently I heard of a study in which nearly 80 percent of Christian young people responded that they felt unloved. This was Christian young people – apparently those being raised in homes where Jesus Christ is professed and the family regularly attends church. How can this be?

On the face of it, the findings seem like a mistake. After all, these kids probably learned “Jesus Loves Me” as children. They probably heard the biblical declaration that “God is love” (1 John 4:16) many times. And they learned that “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son” for our sins (John 3:16). And yet, they claimed to feel unloved.

The long-term consequences of lacking the comfort and security of feeling loved are devastating. They include despair and hopelessness, which can lead to chemical abuse, seeking love from illegitimate sources, and even suicide. And sadly, a large percentage of young people abandon the faith after leaving their family homes.

Feeling unloved, despite being raised in a Christian environment, might not be as strange as we’d think. Because expressing love involves more than merely verbalizing the words, “I love you.” And sometimes, even in upstanding homes, that doesn’t happen much. Love is best expressed – and felt – when it’s not just said, but also demonstrated. Through time, touch, and talk.

It was my generation, the Baby Boomers, who came up with the term, “quality time,” to justify spending just minutes, rather than hours, with their children. “We don’t spend a lot of quantity time with the kids, but when we are together, it’s quality time!” Too often, however – when we’re not sequestered due to pandemic restrictions – that “time” consists of chauffeuring them to and from school, as well as myriad activities. But true, one-on-one time for any extended period is rare. 

Hopefully, stay-at-home orders prompted some to revive the tradition, but the family dinner table has fallen victim to modern living. TV, which often serves as the great American anesthetic, makes a poor substitute for direct parent-child interaction. And how often have you seen an entire family sitting at a restaurant table, everyone zoned in on their smartphones?

Touch, particularly by a father, also is a valuable way of showing love. Men have always found it more difficult to indulge in hugs and kisses, but that doesn’t mean they’re not important. Especially when children are small. With so many families suffering from absentee fathers, children grow up lacking a healthy hug, even an encouraging pat on the back. Studies have shown that almost from the moment they’re born, infants need physical touch to thrive. They need that from mom – and dad.

Then there’s talk – on a meaningful, personal level. The Bible offers numerous examples of the impact of intentionally planned spoken words. In Genesis 27, we see the example of Jacob being the beneficiary of his father Isaac’s blessing – which with the help of his mother, Rebekah, he had finagled from his twin brother, Esau. Then one chapter later, Isaac blesses Jacob again, saying, “May God almighty bless you and make you fruitful and increase your numbers until you become a community of peoples. May He give you and your descendants the blessing given to Abraham…” (Genesis 28:3-4).

Can you imagine how much it must have meant for Jacob (later renamed Israel) to hear those words? Then, in Genesis 49, we read about Jacob continuing the tradition by giving individual blessings to his sons – although not always the most affirming declarations.

The demonstration of God-centered love in all of its forms seems described in Deuteronomy 6:6-7, after Moses had concluded giving the Israelites the Ten Commandments and a special corporate blessing. He said, “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.” 

In an age when segments of society would seek to eliminate all mention of our loving, all-knowing, eternal God, what better way to display our love for Him and our children than to live out our faith before them and take every opportunity to tell them about Him? Time, touch and talk – three remedies for a young person feeling unloved. Offering each is a blessing; to withhold them can constitute a curse.

Thursday, June 4, 2020

We Have All Failed the ‘Toddler Challenge’

Have you seen the latest social media fad, moms and dads posting videos of their little ones taking “The Toddler Challenge”? It’s pretty simple, but incredibly cute and funny. 

Here’s the idea, if you haven’t seen it: Mom (or dad) sets the smart phone or tablet on video, then sits a little one – between the ages of 2 and 4 – at a table and puts a plate of sweet treats in front of him or her. It might consist of chocolate chips, M&Ms, a donut, jelly beans. Something like that. 

But before little Joey or Lulu can dig in, the parent says they need to leave the room for a minute, and not to touch the candy, cookies, or whatever until they return. Can you imagine what must go through the mind of a toddler? That “minute” probably seems like an eternity. I’ve seen several of these videos, including two of our grandkids, and they are hilarious.

They stare at the sweet treats, do a bit of self-talk – “Mommy’s coming right back” – lean in, or turn away, start to touch them and then, summoning all their willpower, withdraw their hands. One child bent over some chocolate chips and said, “Wow!” then leaned back before temptation got the best of her. Seconds later, when the parent returned, she was praised and then given permission to eat them.

Not all of the toddlers “won” this challenge. One stealthily snatched a couple of jelly beans and then, as soon as her mom returned, grabbed the rest, stuffed them into her mouth and scampered out of view.

Watching these videos, two thoughts came to mind. First, I’m waiting to hear of someone claiming this is child abuse, forcing little children to withstand the temptation to enjoy the sweets until the parent returns. In these crazy times, that wouldn’t surprise me at all. For the record, I don’t see it as abuse or meanness in any way – it’s a revealing exercise in discipline.

The second thought was that in one way or another, everyone one of us has fumbled the “toddler challenge.” In fact, even as adults we sometimes face temptation and then, perhaps after a struggle of the will, yield to it and fall into sin. As has been said many times, “if sin wasn’t fun, we wouldn’t want to do it.”

This is hardly a new problem. It’s as old as humankind. We can find the very first “toddler challenge” in chapter 3 of Genesis. God had placed the first man, Adam, in the garden of Eden, filled with wonders of His creation. Then we read, “And the Lord commanded the man, ‘You are free to eat from any tree in the garden, but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil…’” (Genesis 2:16-17).

After creating the first woman, Eve, to be Adam’s companion and helpmate, the Lord left them for a while. In his absence, Satan in the form of a serpent appeared and confronted the first couple. “He said to the woman, ‘Did God really say, “You must not eat of any tree in the garden?”’ The woman said to the serpent, ‘We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, “You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die”’ (Genesis 3:1-3).

We all know how that turned out. The serpent told them God’s taboo wasn’t a big deal, and they should go ahead and sample the fruit anyway. We don’t know how long Adam and Eve pondered that possibility. Maybe they were like the toddlers, eyeing the fruit, then stepping back and saying, “God is coming right back.” Then moving a bit closer until finally, the temptation became more than they cared to resist.

And we, along with all of the rest of Adam and Eve’s descendants through the ages, have been doing the same. Being instructed by God, or someone else, not to do something we’d like to do, and then deciding to do it anyway.

In the toddler challenge, parents aren’t trying to be unkind. They’re just giving their children a lesson in self-control – and curious to see how well their kids will do during the moments they’re away. Similarly, God doesn’t present us with His commandments seeking to be a divine spoilsport or to deprive us of something good. What He does is test us, desiring to teach and train us in right living. 

The Scriptures explain, “When tempted, no one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death” (James 1:13-15).

Rather than tempting us, or leaving us to our own devices when confronted by temptation in any of its countless forms, the Lord graciously supplies the remedy: “No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it” (1 Corinthians 10:13).

We can’t give the excuse, “The devil made me do it!” The enemy can offer tempting suggestions, and they might seem like such a good idea, we act upon them. But God promises He will always provide what another translation calls “the way of escape,” if we’re willing to take it. So we can say, “I won the Toddler Challenge!”

Monday, June 1, 2020

In an Infinite Galaxy, Is It Bad to Be Just One Star?

If you haven’t seen the film, “I Still Believe,” I heartily recommend that you view it soon. Especially if you remain cooped up in your house or apartment due to pandemic restrictions. We all can use an uplifting message during times like these. 

It’s one of those “based on a true story” movies, about Jeremy Camp, who would become one of today’s better-known Christian praise singers and songwriters. I mention this not to promote the movie, but to recount one poignant moment in it. Camp and his soon-to-be girlfriend, then fiancĂ© and wife, Melissa, are in a museum, staring at an illuminated depiction of the universe on the ceiling 

“I’m just one star in an infinite galaxy,” Melissa says in quiet humility. Then the love-struck Jeremy replies, “But some stars shine brighter than others.” (And everybody said, “Awwww!”) Seriously, there’s wisdom in both comments, something worth thinking about.

Because realistically, few of us are ever going to become household names, the kind of folks whose autographs we clamor for, or whose names frequently appear in magazines and maybe even history books. Out of billions of people in the world, we’re each just one of them. But that doesn’t mean we’re not important, that we don’t matter. 

Because when John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life,” that means you – and me. And God taking on human form – “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14) – not only to teach and live as an example, but also to die for our sins, is no insignificant act.

To continue the astronomy metaphor, our sun is a star, although according to astronomers and other scientists who study the universe, it’s not a very big one. Yet without the sun, life on this earth would be impossible. The galaxies outside of our own may contain much larger and more powerful stars, but the star at the center of our solar system is indispensable.

And yes, some stars do seem to shine brighter than others. In the world of science, for instance, there are Galileo, Copernicus, Newton, Kepler and a host of others whose discoveries proved world-changing. In business, invention and industry, we have Ford, Carnegie, Edison, Tesla, up to visionaries like Jobs and Gates. In the spiritual realm we have folks like Moses, David, the apostle Paul – and of course, Jesus.

But that doesn’t mean the rest of us, stars who don’t shine as brightly, aren’t valuable. Behind every bright, bursting star there are lesser stars that have served as guides, teachers, mentors, supporters and models to assist the brighter ones to excel. 

Anyone who has any familiarity of the Bible knows the apostle Paul, the one-time Christian persecutor who surrendered his life to Jesus and became a leader of the early Church. He also wrote much of the New Testament. But how many people know much about Barnabas? “Mr. B” was the one who sought out Saul after his conversion, became his mentor, and partnered with the apostle on several missionary journeys. Then, when they had a harsh disagreement over John Mark, Barnabas left Paul to become mentor to his nephew. Mark became the fellow who wrote the gospel by the same name.

I hardly consider myself a “bright star,” but I’m thankful for the people who served as stars in my life, including teachers who encouraged me to further my education and become a writer; employers who took chances on me when I had little experience to bring to the job; and many who had a profound impact on my life spiritually, through their living examples, biblical teaching, discipling and writings.

Do you regard yourself as a star – or at least, a moon reflecting the light of Christ? You should, because as Philippians 2:15 declares, “so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe as you hold out the word of life….” Whose life can you help to shine brighter?