Thursday, February 25, 2021

Who Will Thank You When All Has Been Said and Done?

Are you familiar with the song, “Thank You,” by Ray Boltz? This soft, simple tune from 1988 lacks the amped-up instrumentation and energetic vocals of much of today’s Christian rock music, but it packs a powerful message of hope and inspiration.


The lyrics tell about a person who dies, goes to heaven and discovers the impact of his life he had never known. He encounters a boy who met Jesus Christ while he was teaching a Sunday school class; another who came to faith through a missionary he supported, and then a slew of other people whose lives he had touched in other ways without being aware of it.

 In our society we tend to pay homage to the popular preachers, best-selling authors and celebrated singers, but as “Thank You” teaches, the greatest difference for the kingdom of God can be made by ordinary folks going about their ordinary lives. It reminds me of the theme from the iconic Christmas film, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” in which George Bailey is rescued from the depth of despair when he learns how the selflessness and sacrifices made during his life had positively affected so many other people.


Jesus taught this principle to the disciples in His parable about separating the sheep from the goats. In the story, the King tells His true followers – the sheep – to prepare for receiving their rightful inheritance:

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger and you invited me in. I needed clothes and you clothed me. I was sick and you looked after me. I was in prison and you came to visit me.”


When they ask when they had done these things for the King, He replies, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:31-40). Then He compares them to the “goats,” who had done none of these acts of kindness and compassion – and instead of eternal rewards, would receive eternal punishment.


This particular parable could be examined in different ways, but what’s most interesting to me is that the people being commended in this story didn’t even remember having done these kind deeds. I can think of several folks to whom I have had the opportunity to express my appreciation for what they added to my life, and in most instances they had no idea of the impact they had made.


In His Great Commission, recounted in Matthew 28:19-20, Jesus told His followers, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations….” A possibly better translation of the opening phrase would be, “As you are going, make disciples.” In a similar way, as we grow in our faith, seeking to serve the Lord and His people, we’re to do this as we are going. There’s a place for planning special events and undertaking major projects, but I believe that from God’s perspective, our best work is accomplished simply as we are going along in our lives.


It's not a matter of what we must do for God, but rather, as we yield ourselves to Him as “instruments of righteousness” (Romans 6:13), it’s what we allow Him to do through us – even things of which we are totally unaware.

Monday, February 22, 2021

Winning the Ongoing Battle for the Mind

“A mind is a terrible thing to waste.” That popular advertising slogan of years past still rings true today. What we think, how we think, and the things that fill our minds make a tremendous difference in how we conduct our lives and what we experience: Our successes, failures, and attitudes.


I’ve heard many experts make reference to a “battle for the mind,” and there’s little doubt such a mental tug-of-war exists. Consider the potential influences: We have social media like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and new entries almost every week. Then we have TV – network, cable and the many streaming services that are emerging – not only the news and commentaries, but also the “entertainment” that shapes our culture and worldviews.

We have a plethora of print media, not only local and national newspapers, but also magazines designed to appeal to any interest and taste. A casual glance at any of them can reveal the values and biases they espouse. Even video games, literally at our fingertips, can have a significant impact on our minds.


The political scene has become so sharply divided it’s often hard to believe opposing parties are talking about the same things. It seems increasingly difficult to find common ground for civil discourse. And in many of our colleges and universities, the curricula for many disciplines are infused with political ideology. So yes, we’re engaged in a fierce battle for the mind.


What are we to do? Attempting to debate or reason on social media seems pointless. We can protest in different ways, but even how those are understood and reported can be distorted. I sometimes write letters to the editor, but I’ve yet to hear anyone say, “Wow, after reading what you said, I’ve changed my thinking entirely.”


I’ve concluded that even though I can’t control the way the world thinks, I can prevent it from controlling and molding the way I think. I like what the late Indian leader and human rights activist Mohandas Gandhi used to say: “I will not let anyone walk through my mind with their dirty feet.” What a vivid image!


The Scriptures have much to say about what we allow to influence our minds. Romans 12:1-2 speaks powerfully to this: “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind….” I like the wording from one paraphrase of this passage: “Don’t let the world press you into its mold.”


Years ago I became convicted about the types of books I was reading. Some were in the genre of horror fiction, and while I found those entertaining, I had to admit they were taking my mind into realms of the occult and evil that were not healthy. When I asked my pastor about them, he wisely replied, “Well, when you read those books, are they pointing you toward the Lord – or away from Him?”


Exhorting believers in the church at Philippi, the apostle Paul expressed his concern that they also needed vigilantly keep their minds focused in the right direction: “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 – thing about such things”(Philippians 4:8).


This doesn’t suggest adopting a Pollyanna attitude, ignoring negative influences around us, but making certain we don’t let them dominate our thinking. As an old friend of mind used to say, “I can’t stop the birds from flying overhead, but I can keep them from building a nest in my hair.”


Perhaps King David shared this concern about the “battle for the mind,” because in one of his psalms he asked and answered his own question: “How can a young man keep his way pure? By living according to your word. I seek you with all my heart; do not let me stray from your commands. I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you” (Psalm 119:9-11).


Another resource the Lord gives to ensure our thinking is clear and right is the counsel of other trusted friends and colleagues. Proverbs 19:20 says, “Listen to advice and accept instruction, and in the end you will be wise.” And if we don’t? Another verse offers this warning: “Stop listening to instruction, my son, and you will stray from the words of knowledge” (Proverbs 19:27).


The battle for our minds is real; it will continue, whether we like it or not. But God has given us the means for remaining on the victorious side. We just need to take full advantage of them. 

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Four H’s for Forming Strong Relationships

Growing up as a suburban kid, I heard about something called 4-H Clubs. All I knew was it had something to do with young people raising farm animals and competing at state fairs. Later I learned the 4 H’s stand for Head, Heart, Hands, and Health, things that should concern all of us. But recently I read about a head coach in the NFL who has a different kind of “4H club.”


Kevin Stefanski, who guided the Cleveland Browns to its best season in decades, builds teamwork and camaraderie using the four H’s of history, heartbreak, heroes, and hopes. Judging from the fact his team posted a winning record and reached the playoffs – a feat last achieved long before some current fans were even born – Stefanski’s approach must be working.


Drawing from experience in mentoring and discipling men, I can see how this can be very effective. In fact, these H’s could be utilized in many ways for building relationships and fostering better understanding among friends, work associates, church members, even people from different ethnicities and social backgrounds. Consider:


History is not only a personal chronology, but also can reveal important information about our backgrounds and life experiences. Each of us has known heartbreak in our lives; some of it we sweep under the rug or put in the rearview mirror as we move on, but other painful experiences linger and need to be addressed. Some heroes are just individuals we admire, but others inspire us, helping to provide vision and goals for our own lives. And without hope, any of us can easily fall victim to discouragement and despair.


One of our problems in society, I’m convinced, is we really don’t know each other. Relationships are superficial at best, fulfilling a certain function but little more than that. What difference could it make with your coworkers, neighbors, fellow church members, folks in your small group, or the person you meet with occasionally for coffee, if you started learning about his or her history, heartbreak, heroes, and hopes?


Within the Christian tradition, the personal testimony can address these areas. We can describe our lives before and after giving ourselves to Jesus Christ; pain we’ve endured and how faith has helped to bring healing; persons we’ve regarded as heroes, models helping to point the way in our faith journey; and the hopes and dreams we have for our future, especially as we follow Jesus.


Several times in the book of Acts, the apostle Paul provided examples of how to do this, explaining his miraculous transformation from zealous persecutor of Christ’s followers into one of the Lord’s most ardent advocates. He told about encountering Jesus on the road to Damascus, temporarily blinded by a brilliant light so he could finally see the truth. 


He reflected on his life before Christ, how he participated in the imprisonments and beatings of many believers, including Stephen, one of the first Christian martyrs. Speaking to Roman officials Felix, Festus and Agrippa, Paul recounted key events in his life, including numerous tribulations and his firsthand experience of what it’s like to be persecuted for his beliefs. They could hear about the difference Jesus had made in his life, turning a one-time enemy of “The Way” into an itinerant missionary who declared, “For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2).


On one particular occasion, the apostle spoke of the calling God had made on his life, underscoring his passion for introducing others to Jesus. When King Agrippa said, “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?”, Paul replied, “Short time or long – I pray that not only you but all who are listening to me today may become what I am, except for these chains” (Acts. 26:28-29).


A friend of mine would frequently ask people he was meeting with, “What’s your story?” Because we all have a story. And if we’re seeking to follow Christ, it’s actually God’s story in us. What if someone were to ask you, “What’s your story?” How would you respond? What history would you recount? What are the heartbreaks you might share? Who are your heroes – and why? And what hopes do you have?


The risk of sharing such personal aspects of our lives is just that: getting personal, willing to become vulnerable to others. In 1 Corinthians 12:12-26 we see a wonderful metaphor of the physical body and the body of Christ, the Church:

“The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts, and though all its parts are many, they form one body…. But God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.”


Too often we remain aloof from one another, keeping each other at an arm’s length. But by using the four H’s of history, heartbreak, heroes and hopes, we can tear down unnecessary barriers and draw closer to one another as fellow members of Jesus Christ’s “team.” As it says in Galatians 6:2, Carry each other's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”


Someone might ask, “When should we start?” How about right now? 

Monday, February 15, 2021

Building on the Rock to Avoid Hard Places

Seems to me that when you stop learning, you effectively stop living. It’s more than breathing and keeping your heart beating; learning should be a lifelong pursuit. Just about every day I’ve learned something new, and I don’t plan to quit doing so anytime soon. It might not always be an “aha” moment, but it’s fun being say, “I didn’t know that!”

One of my most recent insights involves a long-standing Christian tradition. If someone were to ask you, “What was Jesus’ profession?”, how would you answer? Most likely you’d respond, “Everyone knows He was a carpenter.” Oh, yeah? As sports commentator Lee Corso liked to say, “Not so fast, my friend.”


I’ve been reading a book called, The Rock, the Road, and the Rabbi by Kathie Lee Gifford with Rabbi Jason Sobol. It introduces readers to well-known biblical sites, but also debunks some widely accepted facts – including the vocation of Jesus.


Yes, we’ve all heard that Jesus grew up as a carpenter, a trade he learned from his earthly father, Joseph. In fact, an excellent little evangelistic book by Josh McDowell is called More Than a Carpenter. However, Sobol points out that “tekton” – the Greek word often translated as “carpenter” – also can be translated “stonemason,” “builder” or “architect.” 


Before you shrug and say, “So what?”, this is significant for a number of reasons. First of all, although Jesus as a craftsman might have done some work with wood, most of the construction in His day was with stones and rocks. Trees were not very plentiful, so modern-day visitors to Israel quickly observe most of the buildings there consist primarily of stone, not wood.


This becomes even more significant when we consider many of Jesus’ teachings. In the “sermon on the mount,” which launched His three-year public ministry, He offered the parable of the wise and foolish builders: 

“Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock” (Matthew 7:24-25).


He immediately contrasts this man to one who builds a house on unstable sand, unable to withstand the ferocity of a severe storm. Jesus was obviously drawing from His years of personal experience in building with stones, and also offering an illustration His hearers could relate to readily.


Some of them might also have connected this teaching with the prophecy in Isaiah 28:16, So this is what the Sovereign Lord says: ‘See, I lay a stone in Zion, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone for a sure foundation; the one who trusts [in him] will never be dismayed.’”


In Mark 6:2-3, we read about how skeptics in Jesus’ hometown responded to His amazing teachings: “’Where did this man get these thing?’ they asked. ‘What’s this wisdom that has been given him, that he even does miracles! Isn’t this the [tekton]?...’ And they took offense at him.” Many translations use the word “carpenter,” but builder or stonemason are probably more accurate.


Earlier in His famous sermon, Jesus made another reference drawn from His craft: “Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone?... If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask Him?” (Matthew 7:9-11). He used the analogy of a stone, not a piece of wood.


We could look at many other passages, but one in particular stands out. In his first epistle, the apostle Peter writes, “As you come to him, the living Stone – rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him – you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood” (1 Peter 2:4-5). 


After Peter cites the passage above from Isaiah, he then quotes from Psalm 118:22, “The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone,” and Isaiah 8:14, “A stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall.”


Much more could be said, but isn’t it interesting that we have been called to build our life – and faith – on the solid foundation of what the old hymn calls, “the solid Rock,” the One who chose to make His earthly profession that of a stonemason?


Houses made of wood can burn. Those built on poor foundations or on hillsides may fall in a terrible storm or landslide. But those built of stone are typically much more stable and secure. The question is, on what have we built our lives? Wood? Ever-shifting sand? Or are we trusting in and building our lives on the one true, unchanging, Living Stone?


There’s the cliché about being stuck between “a rock and a hard place.” Scriptures teach us that in Jesus, we are being offered the Rock as the way to avoid lots of hard places. 

Thursday, February 11, 2021

‘I Love You”: The Familiar Phrase With So Many Meanings

“I love you.” When you hear that, what comes to your mind? When you say it, what do you mean?


In a few days we’ll be celebrating Valentine’s Day, the annual event dedicated to love. (In the case of retailers, it’s the love of money – the result of increased sales of flowers, candies, jewelry, and anything else someone can think of that represents their affection for another.) We see commercials with the Valentine’s theme, and the Hallmark channels use it as an excuse for more of what they do – show movies about schmaltzy, sentimental love.

However, thanks to the multi-tasking nature of the English language, when someone says, “I love you,” we almost need to ask, “What do you mean by that?”


Because expressions of love can mean just about anything. We can love our dog, our car, our job, our favorite TV show, a warm, sunny day, or our favorite sports team. Each use of love carries very different meaning. We can love our spouse (or significant other), and love our children – our love can be just as intense, but it doesn’t mean the same and the way we demonstrate it is different. And love for God has a meaning all its own.


We read a lot about love in the Bible, but the ancient Greeks had numerous words for love that covered a broad range of meaning. “Philia” refers to affectionate regard, or friendship. The city of Philadelphia got its name from this word. “Storge” refers to affection, particularly between parents and children. “Eros” was the word for sexual passion; we get the word “erotic” from this. But most commonly used is “agape,” which typically refers to selfless, sacrificial, unconditional love.


The latter usage is the focus of 1 Corinthians 13, that favored passage often inserted into marriage ceremonies, sometimes with serious intent and other times to confer a sanctified tone. But it says: 

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking; it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”


After declaring that, “Love never fails,” this passage concludes, “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:4-13).


We often hear the phrase, “What the world needs now is love.” And so it does. But what it – and we – need is not the warm, fuzzy, mushy kind of love, but the kind described above, that intentionally and determinedly puts others first, setting personal agendas aside.


As for Valentine’s Day, which is the best kind of love to have? Friendship, affection, sexual passion, or sacrificial, unconditional love? How about all of them? They’re all important, invaluable parts of the whole, one being incomplete without all of the others. Sealed with love for God and His love for us, they cannot be conquered.


After all, as John 3:16 emphatically declares, “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.” Imagine divine love so deep, and so wide, that even the outstretched arms and hands of Jesus Christ – on a crude, cruel cross on a desolate hillside in Jerusalem – couldn’t begin to contain its measure! 

Monday, February 8, 2021

Major Improvement, Or Absolute Transformation?

Have you ever watched any of those home improvement shows lately? I occasionally join my wife in viewing some of them. Besides the “drama” of these so-called reality shows, there’s actually a lot you can learn from them.


If you’ve never struggled with being envious or coveting, but have wondered what those vices are like, I highly recommend catching one of these shows. Invariably, the designers and craftspeople do things with home renovations and remodeling that make you think, “Wow, I wish our house looked like that!”

 If you’ve been praying, “Lord, lead me not into temptation,” maybe it would be best if you don’t watch. But if you feel confident it wouldn’t do much harm to your personal contentment scale, you might want to give it a try. The open floor plans with stunning hardwoods, immaculate “en suite” bathrooms, state-of-the-art kitchens and elaborate man-caves are wonders to behold.


The thing I like best about these shows is how they illustrate something God does every day: taking broken things and turning them into things of beauty. Recently we viewed a show in which the client wanted the craftsman/designer couple to refurbish his late father’s old, rundown cabin. 


Since I’ll never be mistaken for a handyman, seeing the mess the fellow wanted them to bring back to life, I was skeptical. If they’d asked me which tool to start the project with, I would have suggested a bulldozer. Or a wrecking ball. Of course, they chose neither of those options. Instead, they turned the rickety, broken structure, practically rubble, into a cozy, safe, beautiful testament to the fine art of home renovation.


Similarly – but in a far more profound sense – God does this every day. Genesis 1 tells us about His work of creation; the rest of the Bible recounts the Lord’s continual work of re-creating. Taking broken, sinful individuals and turning them into “new creations,” as 2 Corinthians 5:17 states. This is hardly rare. I’ve met thousands of men and women whose lives have been changed for all of eternity after their encounters with Jesus Christ.


They range from the battle-scarred Marine, who now devotes his life to helping military vets struggling with PTSD and other issues, to the business executive whose life’s passion once was profits but now is pointing others to purpose and meaning through the Lord. 


The Scriptures are filled with examples of miraculously changed lives, including Abraham, whom God promised would become the father of many nations; David, who rose from a caretaker of sheep to the king of Israel; Nehemiah, a king’s cupbearer who directed the rebuilding of Jerusalem; impetuous Peter, becoming one of the primary leaders of the first-century Church; and Paul, who transformed from persecutor of Christians to a fearless preacher of the Gospel.


One difference, however, between the HGTV-style productions and God’s work is that instead of trying to fix and improve upon the original, the Lord starts all over, building new creations from scratch spiritually. Romans 6:4 declares that as we receive Christ and identify with His atoning sacrifice on the cross, “just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” 


Several verses later, the apostle Paul, writer of the letter to the church in Rome, says, “The death [Jesus] died, he died to sin once and for all, but the life he lives, he lives to God. In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 6:10-11). God’s call on our lives is not to work harder and try to do better, but to live out the new life graciously given to us through Christ.


New and absolutely transformed – these are God’s specialties. Even in the Old Testament, God said, “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up, do you not perceive it?” (Isaiah 43:18-19).


His work of transformation, replacing the old and broken, continues throughout the Bible, including its last book, Revelation: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away…. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband…. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:1-4). Sounds like a whole lot more than a home makeover! 

Thursday, February 4, 2021

I Wouldn’t Mind Waiting – If It Didn’t Take So Long!

You’ve probably heard about the guy who prayed, “God, give me patience. How about right now!” We probably can all relate to that. Whether it’s sitting at a red light that seems reluctant to turn green, awaiting good news such as after a job interview, or just sitting in a doctor’s waiting room, being patient isn’t a strong suit for many of us. (Is being a “patient-patient” an oxymoron?)


So many things in life require waiting. We should be used to it by now. But if waiting is an art, most of us aren’t “artists.” For about a year, we’ve been waiting for this thing called the coronavirus pandemic to just go away. More times than I could count, I’ve said and heard others say, “I’m over it!” We’ve grown tired of masks, social distancing, not being able to go wherever we want to go, whenever we want to go there.

 And yet, despite our aversion to it, waiting can make many experiences more enjoyable. Years ago this was illustrated by the ketchup commercial that used the lyrics from the Carly Simon song, “Anticipation.” The pourer waited and waited for the ketchup finally to emerge from the bottle while the song’s lyrics repeated, “Anticipation…anticipation.” Finally, success! The condiment flowed onto the still-steaming hamburger, demonstrating that the wait was worthwhile.


I can still remember the weeks – even months – of anticipation I felt as a boy, waiting for the arrival of Christmas. I had studied the catalogs, shown my parents the things I would like when we went to department stores, and could hardly wait to see what I’d discover under the tree.


Sadly, we’ve become spoiled. We’ve grown worse at waiting than ever. Immediate gratification, we believe, must be written somewhere in the Bill of Rights. We want what we want, and we want it immediately. Later is not an option. 


We see evidence of this everywhere we go. Just the other day I was stopped at an intersection for a light and heard a siren. Fast approaching was a firetruck, so as the law prescribes, when the light turned green I waited to proceed until the emergency vehicle had passed. A driver behind me, obviously convinced of his self-importance, honked his horn at me and as he passed, made a gesture to display his impatience. Actually, I think the gesture was to indicate his IQ level.


Like it or not, time and experience have taught me that waiting is an integral, indispensable part of spiritual growth. Many times, whether waiting for a house to sell, for a new job opportunity to open up, for a financial crisis to be resolved, or for a health diagnosis and course of treatment to be determined, my awareness of how much I need and must trust in the Lord has heightened.


Many times in the Bible we find examples of the benefits of waiting – and the consequences of not doing so: Joseph waiting in prison until he was freed to interpret Pharaoh’s dream. The Israelites, when Moses tarried while meeting with God on Mt. Sinai, fashioning a golden calf to worship. David, after years as a lowly shepherd boy, becoming God’s anointed to become king of Israel. Judas Iscariot, losing patience when Jesus didn’t confront the Roman establishment, betraying Him for 30 silver coins. Obviously, those who waited were the wiser.


The virtues of waiting are extolled throughout the Scriptures, but nowhere more strongly than in Psalms. Written by King David, it admonishes, “Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him; do not fret when men succeed in their ways, when they carry out their wicked schemes” (Psalm 37:7). Wow! Sounds like excellent advice for us in the 21st century, even though these words were written thousands of years ago. 


In the same psalm, perhaps for emphasis, David writes, “Wait for the Lord and keep his way. He will exalt you to inherit the land; when the wicked are cut off, you will see it” (Psalm 37:34). Again, seems like good counsel for today’s times.


A few psalms later we read, “I waited patiently for the Lord; He turned to me and heard my cry – He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; He set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand. He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God. Many will see and fear and put their trust in the Lord” (Psalm 40:1-3). Are you noticing a recurring theme?


Yet another psalm underscores the importance of waiting: “Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth” (Psalm 46:10). I’ve discovered that in those times when we’re frenetically moving, desperately determined to make things happen, it’s easy to lose sight of the Lord. In times of chaos and uncertainty, rather than adding to the frenzy, it’s usually best to do as the psalm suggests, just to “be still and know” that He is God – and we’re not.

Monday, February 1, 2021

The Lost Art of Learning About People Through Their Letters

Technological advances have changed our lives dramatically, including how we communicate. We have social media, email, voicemail, texting and messaging. We Zoom in to connect with groups of people, and use apps like FaceTime and Skype to see folks we’re talking with. 


Cable TV offers a programming expanse unimaginable a generation ago, and information moves instantly around the world online, including this blog. Who knows what the digital wizards will dream up next?


We’d like to say, “it’s all good,” but in reality, it’s not. (And I’m not referring to misinformation and social media abuses.) Some once-cherished communication forms are being lost, or underused. One that few people are talking about is the time-honored art of letter writing.

Is that so bad? Writing letters takes time. That’s exactly the point. Handwritten letters show someone has taken care, consideration, energy and time to write them. Unlike hastily written emails that don’t require much time and – as some have ruefully discovered – can be executed without careful thought.


More than that, letters reveal what a person’s like, who they are and what they think about. I’ve been fascinated by documentaries that told about thoughtful letters soldiers have written to loved ones during wartime. The depth of emotion, the transparency they show, touch the heart.


When I was in high school, for a year or more I corresponded with a “girlfriend” I had met in another state. Those days predated cell phones, so my parents wouldn’t let me call her on our home telephone. Long distance calls were costly back then. So Jeanne and I relied on letter writing, telling each other about our lives, our joys and our struggles.


Our correspondence eventually came to an end, but I still remember the excitement of receiving one of her letters, which generally went on for several pages. An email from an old friend might create a similar sensation, but there’s no comparison to letters of paper and ink, sometimes even smudged a bit, and the idea that someone took the time to write it.


I often feel the same way when I read passages from the Word of God. To me, the Scriptures comprise the Lord’s love letters to humankind, not just telling us what He wants us to do and not do, but also revealing to us much of His character and His nature.


They don’t come to us in handwritten form today, but the 66 books we call the Bible originally were composed with paper and ink, then passed down through the centuries. As 2 Timothy 3:16 tells us, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” 


And 2 Peter 1:19-21 explains, We also have the word of the prophets as confirmed beyond doubt. And you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture comes from one’s own interpretation. For no such prophecy was ever brought forth by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.


What these passages affirm is the Word of God is reliable and directly inspired by Him to communicate Himself and His truth to us. We can see this throughout the Scriptures. Starting with the first chapter of Genesis, we learn about what the Lord has done – and why He did it. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth…. God saw all that he had made, and it was very good…” (Genesis 1:1-31).


In the Old Testament, the Lord not only sets His standards and gives His commandments, but also shows His utter hatred of sin – man’s willful, conscious rebellion against God. As Psalm 7:11 says, God is a righteous judge, and a God who feels indignation every day.”


At the same time, we also read about His mercy and forgiveness. “Your righteousness reaches to the skies, O God, you who have done great things. Who, O God, is like you? Though you have made me see troubles, many and bitter, you will restore my life again; from the depths of the earth you will again bring me up” (Psalm 71:19-20).


This is encapsulated in the familiar words of John 3:16-17, “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. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”


If there is any doubt that the Bible is God’s love letter to His people, consider these words from Jeremiah, hardly the most uplifting of the books: The LORD appeared to us in the past, saying: ‘I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with unfailing kindness’” (Jeremiah 31:3).


What is God like? What does it mean to be “Christlike”? All we have to do is open this holiest of books, turn to any page, and read what He has provided for us, priceless and exquisite words He desires for us to ponder, meditate upon and digest. He’s written a very long, comprehensive, amazingly personal letter. He wants us to read it. Over and over again.