Monday, June 28, 2021

The Deceptive Danger of Dabbling With Sin

The other day as I was driving, I drew near another car that seemed a bit unsteady on its course. As I passed it – as quickly as legally possible – I noticed a young woman with her eyes looking downward, obviously engaged in texting. Too bad her driving was interfering with her texting, right?


We’ve had laws for some time to prohibit texting while driving – they say it can impair drivers as much as driving while drunk – but this woman apparently didn’t think those restrictions should apply to her. She might have rationalized, “I’ve never had an accident while texting!” If so, we might respond, “Not yet!”


This could be a metaphor for any of us who’ve flirted with sin in whatever form. We start by tiptoeing around it, kind of like sticking a finger inside a cage inhabited by an angry dog, convinced we can remove the finger in time. In a similar manner, we might try dabbling with the sin – just a bit. We reason, where’s the harm in that? We try a little more; still, nothing bad happens. 

Then one day, surprise! The sin that seemed so harmless smacks us in the face. Perhaps the texting person has a sudden encounter with the bumper of the vehicle ahead. The individual who found lying to be a convenient option is shocked when a serious deception is uncovered. The guy who “innocently” submitted to a seductive photo online, then gazed at a few more, finds himself ensnared by pornography.


Sin will take you farther than you want to go, keep you longer than you want to stay, and cost you more than you want to pay.” Ironically – and sadly – one Christian leader credited for making this statement on numerous occasions was, after his death, scandalously exposed for not heeding his own warnings. I’ll not mention his name, but he failed to recognize the danger of dabbling with a sin that apparently became his consuming vice.


Without question, the enticements of sin are all around us. They’re like the woman in Proverbs 9:13-18, described as, “loud…undisciplined and without knowledge. She sits at the door of her house, on a seat at the highest point of the city calling out to those who pass by…. ‘Let all who are simple come in here!,’ she said to those who lack judgment….”


Whenever I think of the power of sin, the first biblical passage that comes to mind offers this assurance: “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).


I remember the friend who admitted that despite his diabetic condition, driving past the Krispy Kreme donut shop presented a constant temptation. His “way out,” or “way of escape” as another translation phrases it, was simply to keep driving straight ahead rather than turning into the Krispy Kreme parking lot.


As someone has said, “If sin wasn’t fun, we wouldn’t want to do it,” so in the absence of consequences, we’re inclined to flirt with sin even more. Even until it becomes a habit. James 1:14-15 ominously declares, “But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed. Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death.”


The remedy, therefore, is to take preventive steps before sin results in serious, even tragic consequences. As James writes later in his letter, “Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and He will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded…. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and He will lift you up” (James 4:7-10).


We have a choice. We can be like the woman texting in her car while driving, presuming that since she’s not had any mishaps thus far, everything will be okay. Or we can recognize the deceptive dangers clamoring for our attention, quit dabbling in them, and turn to God for the strength to do what we know is right. “So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!” (1 Corinthians 10:12). 

Thursday, June 24, 2021

Drawing Straight Lines With Crooked Sticks

Reviewing the paths that many of our lives have taken, you could probably summarize them by saying, “You can’t get there from here. You have to go somewhere else first.”


Looking at my own life, it seems a lot like a traveler whose GPS has gone haywire. Born overseas while my father was serving in the U.S. Army, I spent most of my childhood in New Jersey. My college years took me first to Texas, and then Ohio. My career as a journalist also followed a somewhat erratic path, beginning in Ohio, followed by a brief sojourn in Pennsylvania, back to Ohio, then Texas, and finally, Tennessee.


If plotted on a map, this would resemble an extremely crooked stick. And my spiritual pilgrimage has been just as “crooked” as my life’s path. But from the God’s point of view, I believe it looks pretty much like a straight path, proceeding exactly as He planned. 


Martin Luther said, “God can draw straight lines with crooked sticks.” Indeed He does. There are myriad examples we could choose from, but among those that come to my mind are two of the world’s greatest mass evangelists, Billy Sunday and Billy Graham. During the 1880s, Sunday compiled a reasonably successful eight-year major league baseball career; for most of that time he wouldn’t have been voted “most likely to become known as a winner of souls for God.” 


But then the Lord got a hold of him. Several years after committing his life to Jesus Christ, Sunday left baseball and began a career as a itinerant evangelist, long before the advent of electronic sound systems. His much-celebrated career spanned about four decades, touching countless lives.


Graham was considered Sunday’s successor, although well into his young adulthood such an idea never crossed his mind. In fact, the story is told that when Graham was about 12 years old, a group of Christian businessmen gathered at the farm of his father, William Franklin Graham, to pray for God to “raise up a man who would take the Gospel to all the world and turn people in far places to Christ.” 


Upon hearing of the men who had assembled, young Graham reportedly said, “I wonder what those fanatics are doing here.” And yet, as a young man he had a life-changing encounter with Jesus and he became one of “those fanatics.” During his lifetime Graham spoke the saving message of Christ to millions around the globe – in person, over the radio and on TV.


The Bible, in its unvarnished candor, presents dozens of examples of “crooked sticks” the Lord has used to accomplish grand things. One of them was Jacob (later renamed Israel), who despite being a schemer and a conniver became patriarch for the nation of people named after him. Jonah, a petulant prophet, was called to preach to people in the pagan city of Nineveh. However, he chose instead to flee and found his means of transportation shifting from a ship to a huge fish. In time, the Ninevites did get the message from the reluctant evangelist and a citywide revival resulted.  


King David, described as “a man after God’s own heart” in the Scriptures, had more than his share of sinful detours. Yet he has been intimately identified with the Jews through the centuries, and from his pen we have a wonderful collection of writings in the Psalms. His son, Solomon, started his reign as king in a most humble manner, and his wisdom was unparalleled. He contributed much to the books of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Song of Solomon, but his path became more crooked as time went on and he failed to finish particularly well.


In the New Testament we meet a number of other “crooked sticks. There’s Simon, whom Jesus renamed Peter; despite his impulsive nature he became a pillar of the early Church, even writing two of the Bible’s epistles. Matthew, who had betrayed his fellow Jews as a tax collector, also was selected to be one of Christ’s unlikely disciples. What we know most about Matthew’s life after becoming a follower of Jesus is that God chose him to be the author of one of the four gospels. 


And we can’t overlook Saul, the zealous Pharisee and persecutor of followers of Jesus, fully convinced that what he was doing was right. After his Damascus road encounter with the Lord, however, Saul was given a new name, Paul, and spent the remainder of his life proclaiming Christ to anyone who would listen, despite many hardships. All amazing stories of how God through the centuries has used some very curious, crooked-path people to accomplish His purposes.


Personal experience, along with learning the faith stories of many other people, have taught me the course God has for us is rarely a direct one. Maybe that’s why Proverbs 3:5-6 admonishes us, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.” 


Have you ever found yourself wondering why your life has taken an unexpected detour? Maybe more than a few? They’re often God’s way of saying, “Don’t try to figure it out. The course I’ve put you on will take you exactly where I want you to go.”


The key for us, as crooked, broken people trying to find our way through lives of uncertainty, is simply to trust rather than wearing ourselves out trying to comprehend what the Lord is doing or why He’s taking us where He chooses. As we’re promised in another passage from Proverbs, "I will guide you in the way of wisdom and lead you along straight paths. When you walk, your steps will not be hampered; when you run, you will not stumble" (Proverbs 4:11-12). He knows the way.

Monday, June 21, 2021

It’s Who You’re With That Really Matters

Have you noticed those giant scoreboards that dominate many athletic stadiums and arenas? Equipped with a multitude of high-tech innovations, they command the spectators’ attention during lulls in the action. And in case folks get distracted from the game, they offer replays of every play. How did the sports world ever do without them?


But you might not appreciate how massive the scoreboards really are. Years ago I was in Columbus, Ohio and a friend – a fellow Buckeye fan – asked if I wanted to visit Ohio Stadium, where the Scarlet and Gray play, to see the renovations that were going on at the time. Always game for anything Buckeye, I jumped at the opportunity. My friend knew the man serving as project manager, so we were given firsthand access few others had.

The stadium’s new scoreboard was the centerpiece of the stadium tour. It looked huge from the outside, but then came a surprise: The project manager asked if we’d like to go inside the scoreboard. Inside? Who knew you could do that? Talk about big! I discovered you could not only see its interior, but if you were so inclined, you could actually take up residence there. 


There’s a TV show called, “You Live in That?” I fully expect that one day there will be a segment about somebody who has actually set up housekeeping inside one of those gigantic scoreboards. The one at Ohio Stadium could easily have accommodated enough furnishings for living comfortably.


Why do I write about this? Simply because that experience was possible only because I knew – through my friend – someone that had access. I couldn’t have walked up to the stadium gates and shouted, “Hey, let me in – I want to tour the scoreboard!” No, I needed to be with someone; that is, I needed someone who was willing to say, “It’s okay. He’s with me.”


There’s an important spiritual parallel here. In Mark 3:13-14 it says, “Jesus went up on a mountainside and called to him those he wanted, and they came to him. He appointed twelve – designating them apostles – that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach and to have authority to drive out demons.” Then the passage specifies those Jesus personally selected to be “with Him.”


During Jesus’ early ministry there were many who followed Him, eager to witness His miracles and hear what He had to say. But the Lord hand-picked certain people to be with Him full-time, and He imparted to them special powers do perform work on His behalf. He’s still doing that today, asking to us to serve as “Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us” (2 Corinthians 5:20).


But there’s an even more important element to being “with Christ.” One day our days on earth will come to an end. The Bible tells us then “We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad” (2 Corinthians 5:10). What will happen then?


We’d like to think that on balance, our good deeds will outweigh the bad, prompting God to declare, “Well, you haven’t been too bad. Come into My heaven.” Unfortunately, that’s not how it works, according to the Scriptures. Romans 3:10-12 bluntly states, “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God…there is no one who does good, not even one.” And a bit later we’re told, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).


We’ve heard about the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ. But that sounds like bad news. Very bad news. What can we do? The Bible declares that no matter how hard we try, we’re not good enough. We’ll never measure up. God’s standard isn’t good works vs. bad, but rather, absolute perfection. Whoa!


This is where the good news comes in, the part about being “with Christ.” We also find it in the New Testament book of Romans. The apostle Paul, after acknowledging his ongoing struggles with not doing the things he knows he should be doing, and doing the things he knows he shouldn’t, offers the solution to his – and our – problem.


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


The day will come when each of us stands before the God of all eternity, and perhaps we’ll be asked on what basis we deserve to become part of His eternal kingdom. The reality will be that we don’t deserve it, not at all. But then, because of what Jesus has done for us, we can say something like, “I’m with Him.” Or better yet, Jesus will say, “He (or she) is with Me.” That tops being invited to go inside a fancy football stadium scoreboard any day! 

Thursday, June 17, 2021

Maybe It’s Time for the Real Fathers to Stand Up

We don’t see it as much these days, but there was a time when cameras would roam the sidelines of college football games and athletes sitting on the bench would turn, wave and smile and say, “Hi, Mom!” I noticed, however, they rarely said, “Hi, Dad!” Maybe because moms are inclined to beam and say, “That’s my boy!” while dads are more likely to respond, “Suck it up, son. Get tough and play ball!”


All the attention for mothers is well-deserved, as I’ve noted many times. It’s a shame, however, that we tend to underestimate the importance of the father. We hear much about single moms sacrificing, doing whatever they can to provide for their children, but not nearly as much about dads.

There seems to be a concerted effort in some quarters to even discount the need for fathers. Sadly, in too many scenarios, men have failed to step up and accept parental responsibilities. One search showed that in 2020, there were 11 million single-parent homes, and 8.5 million of them were headed by women. 


A 2019 Pew Research Center study revealed nearly one-quarter (23%) of children under the age of 18 were living with one parent, more than three times the average of 130 countries and territories around the world. Moms bearing by themselves the burden of raising children deserve all the credit in the world, but it would make life easier for them – and their kids – if the dad were present to share in the work, and the blessings, of parenthood.


I often think about Ecclesiastes 4:9-10, which speaks of the power and synergy of people teaming up to achieve commonly shared goals: “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their work. If one falls down, his friend can help him up. But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up.” This can certainly be applied to parenting in many ways – spending time with the children, both quality and quantity; handling household chores; earning a livelihood for the family; providing discipline when needed, and many other aspects of parent-child relationships.


The National Center for Fathering estimates nearly 25 million children live absent from their biological fathers. The ramifications of this are many, ranging from a greatly increased likelihood of young people growing up in poverty, experiencing developmental difficulties, and heightened risk for becoming involved in criminal activities.


We hear much about young people joining gangs and getting caught up in waves of gun violence. The majority of these are young men, and I believe one reason for this is a deep-seated desire for a father figure, even if it’s a gang leader. Ephesians 6:4 admonishes, “Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.” The absence of a father can’t help but exasperate a child and his or her instinctive desire for the love and attention, nurturing and training of both a mom and a dad.


My own father was far from perfect – as I’ve also proved to be with my own family. But becoming a father and a grandfather has been among the greatest privileges of my life. The thing is, my dad was there, he was hard-working, he was faithful to my mom, he was a man of integrity, and I knew he loved me. These were priceless gifts to me, demonstrating what a real man was like and helping to mold me into the man that one day I would become. Sadly, far too many children never experience this, and I have no doubt our society is the worse for it.


The Bible has much to say about the roles and responsibilities of fathers, not diminishing the importance of mothers, but affirming God’s design for a family to consist of both a dad and a mom. It says the father is to serve as the spiritual leader, modeling what it means and looks like to live for God. 


Deuteronomy 6:5-7 addresses both parents, exhorting, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.”


Many of us share a concern for the path our nation is on today, and I think here we find keys for making changes in the right direction: To reaffirm the value and significance of the father in the home, and for fathers to stand up, reassuming their God-given duties to raise, teach and nurture their children to know right from wrong, and to live accordingly.


An old hymn we rarely hear anymore is “Faith of Our Fathers,” written by Frederick William Faber in 1849. It hearkens to the enduring faith of those who have gone before, including many who were martyred for not renouncing their trust in Jesus Christ. This Father’s Day, we need to review and recapture its repeating refrain: “Faith of our Fathers! Holy Faith! We will be true to thee till death.” And God willing, fathers will lead the way.

Monday, June 14, 2021

The Problem With Taking Things for Granted

Quite a few years ago, before the shattering of the Iron Curtain and the disunifying of the Soviet Union, a friend in Atlanta hosted two Russian visitors. As hosts often do when people come to visit from out of town, my friend wanted to introduce his guests to some of the local sites. One of the destinations was a huge, indoor shopping mall.


“Who doesn’t like a trip to the mall?” he thought. Well, he found out. The Russians, accustomed to long food lines and sparse store shelves in their home country during Communist rule, went out of curiosity but quickly experienced sensory overload.


After about five minutes, the visitors rushed up to their hosts and insisted, “We must go now.” “But we’ve just gotten here,” my friend protested. “No,” one of the men repeated, “We must go. Too much – too much!” Trying to comprehend the material abundance everywhere they looked had overwhelmed them.

I was reminded of this while viewing a video produced by PragerU, a conservative non-profit devoted to teaching about the values that make America great. In the video, an immigrant from Cuba goes to Walmart  for the first time. In the grocery section, he’s amazed at both the array and size of the fresh produce. He picks up an onion about the size of a baseball in disbelief.


The newcomer to the U.S.A. next goes to the small appliance section, and then the toy department where he marvels at the many dolls on display. How would his daughter react if she saw this, he wonders. As the Cuban speaks on the video, you can see astonishment in his eyes. There was nothing like this in his homeland.


By comparison, how do lifelong Americans react in similar circumstances? We’re more likely to respond with a shrug, oblivious to the abundance all around us. I’ve actually felt a bit annoyed at times by having some many choices: Going into a paint store and discovering hundreds of different shades of…white, or blue, or green. Or walking down a grocery store aisle and encountering 55 varieties of baked beans – in sizes ranging from single-serving to “big enough to feed an army.” Why so many?


Remember the great toilet paper panic of 2020? (Who can forget, right?) In two blinks of an eye, the shelves went from stacks and stacks of TP to absolutely bare, causing some to consider subscribing again to the daily newspaper – just in case they ran out and needed an alternative. The crisis got so urgent that Mr. Whipple nearly came out of retirement to hawk his hoarded supplies of Charmin.


Such is the blessing – and the curse – of living in a prosperous nation. We can easily grow complacent, taking for granted our access to goods that people in many other countries can find only in their dreams. 


Maybe that’s why one of the virtues so rare in our society is contentment. Our desire for more seems limitless. Too much is never enough. Meanwhile, folks from other nations who visit – or just watch American programs on TV – find such abundance unfathomable.


I’m not suggesting we should go on a collective guilt trip, but maybe it’s time we started to gain some perspective. In a letter of exhortation to his young protégé, Timothy, the apostle Paul wrote, “godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that” (1 Timothy 6:6-8).


In this same passage we read, “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” (1 Timothy 6:10). Some have incorrectly quoted this as “the love of money is the root of all evil,” which it doesn’t say at all. But as Paul concludes his thought, “Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.”


Perhaps the greatest problem with material abundance – excess – is that it deceives us into trusting our own self-sufficiency. Which in turn diminishes our sense of dependence upon God. Jesus spoke about this, chiding His hearers for worrying about their daily needs:  

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?... For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:25-33).


In one sense, it’s wonderful to know we live in a society where we typically don’t have to worry about whether we’ll find a loaf of bread to buy when we go to the store. But it might be good to occasionally see things as folks visiting from other less “blessed” lands. Wouldn’t it be something to go to a mall and suddenly decide, “Too much!” and return home, happily content with what we have and not feeling an urge to acquire more? 

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Sound Suggestions for Living Our Everyday Lives

At my granddaughter’s recent high school graduation, the keynote speaker, Dr. Paul Conn, chancellor of Lee University in Collegedale, Tenn., offered some succinct, simple, yet profound suggestions on how the students should begin living their post-high school years. As he stated at the start, “My goal is to stop speaking before you stop listening.”


Conn challenged them to “live your life as a statement,” and then described how not to live their lives: “Don’t live your life as an apology…. Don’t live your life as a whimper…. Don’t live your life as an echo.” Since I was attending the event as a proud grandpa, and not as a reporter, I didn’t capture all the veteran educator said, but I’ll share the gist of his meaning.


Let’s start with his don’ts. By not living life “as an apology,” Conn explained he meant not having to apologize for or give an excuse for being male or female; a specific race or ethnicity; having certain interests, hobbies or passions; or even having certain physical characteristics. As Psalm 139:14 declares, we each are “fearfully and wonderfully made,” so we need not offer any apologies for how God created or wired us.


By not living one’s life “as a whimper,” the longtime college administrator and author urged the students not to muster up complaints or grumble about life circumstances, especially when they don’t always go in one’s favor. My take on what he said was rather than focusing on why one can’t do a certain thing, pointing to obstacles or factors that might stand in the way, concentrate on ways to overcome those hurdles just as many great people have done through the centuries. In the words of Ecclesiastes 9:10, “Whatever your hands find to do, do it with all your might….”


When Conn exhorted the students not to live “as an echo,” he was encouraging them to not parrot the views and perspectives of those around them, whether they are friends, college professors, the media, even parents. “Learn to think for yourself,” he said, “don’t blindly agree or disagree, or let others do the thinking for you.” 


Critical thinking skills seem to be discouraged in many quarters these days, with authorities on any and every topic more than willing to inform us on what we should believe. Romans 12:2 speaks powerfully to this, admonishing, “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” A popular paraphrase states it this way: “Don’t let the world shape you into its mold.” The passage proceeds to add, “Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.”


But it was Conn’s positive exhortation that stood out most strongly: “Live your life as a statement.” He challenged them in several ways, such as, “Can you dream?” “Can you commit?” He also told them to seek their own answers to the question, “For you to live is…?” Ultimately, Conn proposed, our lives should be a statement of faith – not only in God and His revealed truth in the Scriptures, but also in what we believe He has called and uniquely equipped each of us to do.


I’ve always admired the words of the apostle Paul, who unwavering declared, “For in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). The apostle was certain about his calling and the purpose God had prepared for him, and pursued it with relentless zeal – even more enthusiastically than he had pursued and persecuted followers of Jesus as a Pharisee prior to his life-changing encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus.


Often commencement messages are filled with lofty, ethereal ideals, kind of a feel-good hurrah for those eagerly waiting to grab their diplomas and embark on their next stage of life. But Conn, the savvy, seasoned educator that he is, packed his brief message with wisdom that hopefully will resonate in the advancing students’ minds for many years to come.


Would that we all would embrace his advice, refusing to let our lives become an apology, a whimper or an echo, but resolving for them to be clearly conceived, resolute statements enabling us to become true difference-makers, rather than difference-experiencers.

Monday, June 7, 2021

Overcoming the Greatest Problem in Poverty

The problem of poverty is both perplexing and perpetual. It’s plagued humanity since the beginning of time, and despite the posturing and protests, lacks simple solutions.


Years ago I had the opportunity to visit an inner city ministry in Atlanta, Ga. on several occasions, observing firsthand how leaders there were striving to help equip down-and-outers to one day become up-and-outers. In the process of gathering information for articles I wrote about this work for various publications, I gained some unexpected insights. 

I’ll never forget, for instance, touring a ministry-supported home goods store. Merchandise at the store had been donated, so it could be sold at greatly discounted prices to low-income residents of the community. I met a young man who had been working there for a few weeks, carrying out whatever responsibilities he was assigned. Having been told it was his first-ever job, I asked him what he had learned. His response caught me off guard: “I learned how to use a ruler, and that I need to show up on time.”


As I thought about it, however, what he said shouldn’t have been so surprising. Think about it: If you don’t have much, there’s no need to measure it. And if you have nowhere that you must be, what difference does it make what time you get there? This helped me to realize that lifting folks from poverty involves more than telling them, “Get a job.” Because lacking basic life and job skills, in many cases not even knowing how to fill out a job application or conduct oneself in a job interview, many hurdles stand in the way of being able to obtain suitable employment.


But perhaps my greatest insight into the broad and complex dilemma of helping the poor was an observation from Bob, the ministry leader. He said simply, “The greatest poverty is the inability to give.” He had seen this vividly during the Christmas holidays in the ministry’s initial years, when they would go to different homes and bring gifts for the children. Their motivation, of course, was to ensure that the kids wouldn’t wake up on Christmas morning without any presents to open.


The moms were always receptive and appreciative, but dads were rarely seen. For them, having someone bring gifts for their children was a painful reminder of their own failure to provide for the material needs of their families. Unwittingly, generosity from others only intensified the awareness of their poverty.


Wisely, the ministry changed its strategies and developed many ways for enabling the disadvantaged to effectively help themselves and protect their dignity in the process.


Ironically, studies have shown that increase in material wealth does not result in a corresponding increase in willingness to give. In fact, one study of giving patterns revealed that proportionately, the poor were inclined to give 44 percent more of what they had, than wealthy people. So keenly aware of their own poverty, they were typically more highly motivated to help when they saw others in need.


We see a powerful example of this in the Scriptures: “Jesus sat down opposite the place where offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents. Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything – all she had to live on’” (Mark 12:41-44).


If anyone had an excuse for not giving, it was this widow. She gave all she had, as meager as it was - some translations call it the "widow's mite" - not holding back even a single cent. And yet, it’s likely she did not feel any pangs of regret. Despite her impoverishment, she was a “cheerful giver,” as 2 Corinthians 9:7 describes it.


This is not the only biblical illustration of poor people displaying extravagant giving. Earlier in his letter to the church in Corinth, the apostle Paul points to “the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches. Out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the saints…they gave themselves first to the Lord and then to us in keeping with God’s will” (2 Corinthians 8:2-5).


We tend to perceive poverty as the inability to acquire “stuff,” whatever and whenever we want. But could it be that, as my friend Bob said years ago, the greatest poverty indeed is the inability to give? And as we participate in helping the poor to one day help themselves, we’re enabling them to escape this most profound, most painful aspect of poverty? 

Thursday, June 3, 2021

Darkness Only Makes the Stars Shine Brighter

“Night is when the stars come out.” How many times have you heard people say that? Seems right, doesn’t it? But if it’s true, where have the stars been? If they’ve just come out, where have they come from?


Of course, we know the stars are there all the time. It’s just because of the brightness and comparative proximity of our sun, they can’t be seen during the day. That is, unless we’re using a powerful telescope or, better yet, board a NASA or SpaceX rocket and venture beyond our atmosphere. Then, away from the illumination of our sun, we would have the opportunity to get a better glimpse of the countless stars – much larger “suns” – that populate our vast universe.

This may seem like one of those “duh!” observations, but it came to mind when a lead character in one of my favorite TV shows noted, “Darkness only makes the stars shine brighter.”


Why does this matter? Why this concentration on the constellations? Because it seems we’re surrounded by darkness these days – the ongoing impact of the pandemic; economic turmoil; social unrest; global conflict; violence, gloom and doom at every turn. We sure could use some stars to dispel the darkness.


This is significant, because in the Scriptures, God’s people are compared to stars. For instance, in the Old Testament the prophet Daniel stated, “Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever” (Daniel 12:3).


A New Testament verse makes a similar statement. In one of his letters, the apostle Paul exhorted his readers,  “…so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like the stars in the universe” (Philippians 2:15).


What does that mean for us? It certainly doesn’t suggest that we ourselves are stars. Both passages say we’re to be “like stars.” In a powerful metaphor, the Bible declares that once we were wandering in darkness ourselves, apart from God. But then, in a literal, spiritual sense, we “saw the light,” as the prophet Isaiah declared, “The people walking in the darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the darkness a light has dawned” (Isaiah 9:2).


That “great light” is Jesus Christ, who announced, “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, 9:5). We ourselves are not the stars generating our own light, but we can reflect the light of Christ – just as the moon reflects the sun – and we can point others to that life-changing, transforming light.


This is why Jesus said in Matthew 5:14, “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.” We ourselves are not the light-generators, but ones called to present the source of illumination to others. Just as the prophets did during Old Testament times: “And we have the word of the prophets made more certain, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts” (2 Peter 1:19).


But how are we to go about doing this? Do we run around telling people, “Hey, we’ve got the light. Come and see!”? That’s definitely one approach. One of Jesus’ disciples, Philip, did that with his friend, Nathanael. He told him, “‘We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote – Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.’ ‘Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?’ Nathanael asked. ‘Come and see,’ said Philip’” (John 1:44-46).


But there’s another strategy that’s just as effective, maybe even better. Conducting our lives in such a way that the light of Christ shines through us, so that people can’t help but notice. Yes, we’re told to proclaim the truth, but usually it’s after we’ve earned the right to be heard. 


I like how Oswald Chambers expresses it in his devotional book, My Utmost for His Highest: “The people who influence us the most are not those who detain us with their continual talk, but those who live their lives like the stars of the sky…simply and unaffectedly.” It’s dark out there. Are you ready to shine?