We’ve learned the wrong lesson from 9/11

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

So said George Santayana, a Spanish-born American author, in 1905.

Perhaps that’s why my wife and I, during a long weekend in New York for a wedding, took a train and subway ride into the Big Apple to see the 9/11 memorial.

As a friend told us, that’s something you do only once. It’s a sober reminder of what happened on one particular day 18 years ago.

Once is enough for a powerful reminder like that.

Cannot forget

If you were old enough to remember that day, those two airplanes crashing into the iconic World Trade Center towers provided memories you’ll never forget. I was a newspaper copy editor in Michigan at the time, watching the surreal events unfold on deadline.

newspapers 7

Our daily newspaper published several editions that day, because the news happened so fast. Our first edition didn’t even mention the attack. The last edition – literally a stop-the-presses moment – reported the panic and shock of a nation-defining tragedy.

Since that day, our society has changed permanently, and not necessarily for the better. We no longer trust each other, not in airports – security is tighter than it’s ever been – or even on the sidewalk, where we stare at our phones or listen to our music, oblivious to the world around us.

Burned-out fire trucks and ambulances. Twisted steel of the north and south towers. Charred pieces of the airplanes-turned-weapons. Snippets from the morning TV talk shows, interrupted by updates from Ground Zero. Smoke billowing in New York, at the Pentagon and in western Pennsylvania.

memorial 9

The memorial captures all of it. And much more.

As if we could ever forget.

Fear replaces trust

It struck me that people in other parts of the world face these fears every day. Imagine the Kurds in Syria right now. Will they be alive tomorrow?

We lived through that once.

Just once.

We have the capability to prevent such attacks, for the most part anyway, by stepping up security. Cameras watch us everywhere – not just at airports, but at businesses, street corners and even some private homes.

We don’t trust anyone anymore.

Why is there so much evil in the world today? Because that’s what we expect of each other.

We act out our fears.

If, instead, we would look for the good in the world, we’d see it. I discovered that as we raised our three sons. Give them a little age-appropriate responsibility, and they’ll step up. A little alone time because Mom and Dad both need to run a short errand. Then, our oldest driving to an out-of-town event with his best friend as a teenager. Eventually, all three of our sons went away to college.

We trusted them, because we’d prepared them. And they passed with flying colors.

Perhaps that works at home, but society no longer operates that way.

Unity, for a brief moment

If your skin color is different, if your nationality or religious beliefs are different, you are not to be trusted. That didn’t start on Sept. 11, 2001, of course, but it sure increased after that date.

Immediately after 9/11, this nation unified like I’d never seen it do before. That lasted about three weeks. Then people stopped going to church and praying for each other, seeking solace in the unity that comes from a shared experience.

memorial 8

In a sense, we’ve forgotten the past already. We’ve forgotten what unifies us.

We care only about what divides us. Our politics, our religion, our nationality, our social values, our language. We build walls, literal ones and figurative ones in our hearts.

Every one of us, including me, does this.

When our sons were learning to drive, I told them not to trust any other driver on the road. Act as if all of them are idiots, so that when another driver does something stupid, you won’t be surprised. And you’ll be ready to react.

That’s good advice on the road. Unfortunately, we live all of our lives that way, don’t we?

We prove ourselves untrustworthy. Every time I drive on a highway – every single time – I get passed by drivers going 15 mph or more over the speed limit. So do you, unless you’re the speeder. There aren’t enough police cars out there to prevent this.

Identity theft. Robo calls. Inferior products (we don’t build things the way we used to; I could write a column just about this). I’m renting a tux for an upcoming wedding; the company doesn’t want me to pick it up early, and they want it back on Sunday, the day after the wedding. They don’t trust me to keep it even one extra day, even though I’m paying more than $200 for the privilege of holding onto that tux for, like, four days. Not five.

The new normal

Why do we remember 9/11? Is it to point fingers at the bad guys?

Is that all we learned?

Have we forgotten what unifies us?

memorial 23

Every one of us is the bad guy, actually. Each of us, including you and me, is an enemy to someone. If you call yourself a Republican or a Democrat, you’re an enemy. If you’re white or black or Middle Eastern, you’re an enemy to someone. If you’re a Christian or a Muslim, you’re Satan personified to someone.

We have more in common than we think we do. 9/11 proved that, if only for three weeks.

The fallout proves how much we’ve forgotten.

Why visit the 9/11 memorial in New York?

How do we prevent such a tragedy from happening again? While we haven’t had an attack of that scale on our soil since, we have mass shootings all the time. Most of them are internal, not from outside terrorists.

memorial 27

We no longer trust each other. We put up walls and stockpile weapons to protect ourselves. The spiral deepens.

I went for a jog through the neighborhood shortly after we bought our house two years ago. I left the front door open, since I wasn’t planning to be gone long. My neighbor noticed and said I shouldn’t do that, because there’s teenagers around who will steal stuff.

Even in suburban America, this is the world we live in. We’re hardly safe even in our own homes.

The world has come to our front porch. We’ve slammed the door, and locked it out.

This is our 9/11 legacy. I’m afraid we’ve missed the lesson we needed to learn.

The nation’s answer

Change comes from the inside out

Where are You, Lord?

It’s hard to see You sometimes. We just had a weekend with two – count ’em, two – mass shootings. As usual, emotions flared on both sides. Control guns. Improve mental health.

Where are You, Lord?

When we focus on our own issues and point words at each other, we miss You. We scream and yell. We blame. We get angry.

We despair, because we’ve seen it before.

Yet mass shootings are like plane crashes, aren’t they, Lord? They are few and far between, but they are dramatic and deadly, so they get the headlines.

Vehicle crashes happen far more often. People commit suicide far more often. People even kill each other, one-on-one, far more often.

Those situations may get a mention in the media, or they may not. They often are not front-page news.

Yet vehicle crashes and suicide affect far more people than mass shootings do.

I personally knew two people who committed suicide, one a few years ago and one about three decades ago. What if I had said something … if I only knew … perhaps …

Are You there, Lord?

You are.

People have reasons for doing things, good and evil.

Taking away the gun may prevent the mass shooting, but would it save the man’s soul? Would it change the trajectory of his life?

Are You there, Lord?

Is there a bigger picture here?

Can we change what we have become?

We can’t legislate that, can we, Lord? That’s what we want to do. Gun control. Improve access to mental health treatment. Let someone else fix it. Create a program that people can avail themselves of to improve their lives.

That will solve the problem, right?

Many mass shooters are loners, quiet people with few friends who stay in the background of life, exploding at the worst possible moment. I saw a report that 26 of the last 27 mass shooters were fatherless.

Is that the trigger, Lord?

We’re all about personal rights now, individuality, non-conformity, breaking the rules, love (my way) … we don’t hold each other accountable anymore.

Not even in our families.

Our broken families.

Or our churches, many of which are no different than society at large.

Where are You, Lord?

If following You doesn’t change us, what’s the point?

If I can believe whatever I want, then why believe anything?

Is there no right and wrong, Lord?

If mass murder is wrong, then what else is wrong?

Who decides?

That’s why we can’t agree on anything, Lord. We have no foundation in our lives anymore. No good vs. evil. That’s all fairy tales.

Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf. Cinderella and the Evil Stepsisters. Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote.

Fairy tales.

No respect for authority. No respect for people of a color or ethnicity different than us. No respect for people not born here.

We’re all just visitors on Planet Earth, aren’t we, Lord? We’re not as different as we think we are.

We say hi to our neighbors but we don’t take time to know them.  Some of us move around more than others, so we have to work harder to meet people.

We’d rather do our own thing.

And then we wonder why we can’t get along with each other.

Even if we follow You, Lord, that doesn’t guarantee that we will get it right.

Reading the book of Acts, the early church had just as many issues as the church in America does today. They had to call their leaders together to hash out some very divisive issues.

But they did it, Lord.

And the church grew because they followed You and Your Scriptures. They rejected the belief that “they have to do it our way.”

Why can’t we get this right, Lord?

In Your last prayer on Earth, You prayed for unity among the believers. You knew how crucial that was, and still is.

We blew it, Lord. Again.

Both sides think they have the right answer, but neither does.

Only You do.

Unconditional love is a phrase we don’t hear very often. Not love (my way). Unconditional love.

What You want.

What the other person wants.

Not my will be done …

Who prays that anymore? Truly prays that?

I’ve been involved with a Tuesday morning prayer group for a year now. (See photo above, taken by Jason Russ. Used by permission.) Not that I’m a “prayer warrior” or anything. But we cry out to You.

Imperfectly, because we are imperfect human beings. But we pray.

We ask forgiveness.

We have our wants and needs, and we pray for those, too.

We pray for healing. Our own healing. Our city’s healing. Our nation’s healing.

Again, we pray imperfectly.

But we pray.

Prayer changes not only our city and nation; it also changes us.

One person at a time.

Where are You, Lord?

That’s where You are.

You are just waiting for us, that’s all.

Waiting for us to pray to You.

To seek Your will.

Not my will, but Thy will be done.

On Earth as it is in heaven.

Oh, how we need You now, Lord.

We are lost as a nation. We can’t save ourselves.

We don’t need You as a policymaker, Lord.

We need Your unconditional love.

We know You love each of us that way.

Help us to love each other that way too, to follow Your example.

Nothing else works. We’ve tried.

Oh, how we’ve tried.

I can’t go to Dayton or El Paso and make everything right.

But I can do something right here, right now, right where I live.

Show me, Lord.

Lead me.

What my neighbor does is up to him (or her).

This isn’t rocket science, Lord, but it is radical.

Unconditional love.

Only You, Lord, know what that truly looks like.

Show us, Lord.

Because that’s the only answer than will work in the long run.

True love changes us

Love people just as they are.

Yes and no.

Yes, all people are created in the image of God and have specific gifts, talents and abilities. Even more than that, each of us has a purpose here on Earth.

I accepted Christ as my savior as a teenager mainly because counselors and other campers at a church camp I attended accepted me for who I was, even though I did nothing to earn their love. I wanted what they had, and it was Jesus.

Love people just as they are.

No. God loves us too much to leave us there. Accepting Jesus as my savior was the starting point, not the final destination. The road of life needs to be re-paved; the old one eventually will wear out.

If we claim to follow Jesus, we must grapple with this:

 

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? On what will they give in return for their life?”

Matthew 16: 24-26

 

And this:

 

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

Mark 1:14-15

 

Deny themselves? Take up their cross? Repent?

No wonder Jesus said the way of life is narrow and few will find it (Matthew 7:14).

Deny themselves

I’ve written about this several times recently, and gotten some push-back from it – not surprisingly. It’s not about me. It’s not about you. The world doesn’t revolve around me. Or you.

The church I attend has a term for this: Live surrendered.

It’s not easy, certainly.

I do not have this life (or the next life, for that matter) all figured out. There’s plenty I don’t know. Am I willing to learn?

We all know how difficult justice is to find in our court systems. Lawyers gather as much evidence as they can, for and against, and the jury weighs the evidence and makes a decision. That’s the best we can do.

Yet sometimes innocent people are convicted, and occasionally guilty people go free. It happens. We know this.

Is there a better way? Is there such a thing as true justice?

Yes, there is. But we might not get it until the next life.

At that point, when we see what justice really looks like, we might wish we didn’t have to face it. Because all of us will have to face it.

That’s a column for another day.

The point is: I don’t have all the answers. I know someone who does. That someone is the One who created me. Sometimes God will tell me what the answers to my questions are, sometimes He will not. I follow Him anyway. This is called trust.

I trust that God’s way is better than my way. (Sorry, Frank Sinatra.) That’s what denying ourselves means.

Take up their cross

Yikes. The cross is an instrument of death. We wear it around our necks as jewelry, build them alongside highways and hang beautiful ones inside our churches.

Crucifixion is one of the most horrific forms of death man has ever devised. The purpose – the only purpose – of a cross is to kill someone.

Jesus had a cross. We know that. But he said that followers should take up their cross. Do we have to die too?

In a sense, yes, we do. For the wages of sin is death … (Romans 6:23)

We earn wages. Sin has a price. It’s death.

What is sin? Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. (1 John 3:4)

So, sin is breaking God’s laws.

For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. (James 2:10)

If we think this through, we know this is true. If I’m guilty of theft, I’m not necessarily guilty of murder, but I’m still guilty of breaking the law and I have to serve a sentence for the theft I committed. Right?

So, sin is breaking God’s laws.

What are God’s laws?

“ ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40)

How do we do that?

On one level those words are easy to understand. But it takes a lifetime to fully know how to love God and love people. (Quick note: Do we love God with ALL our heart, soul and mind – or just with the parts of our heart, soul and mind we want to give to God? We aren’t allowed to interpret the Bible the way we’d like. We either follow it, or we don’t.)

Repent

Gotquestions.org has a good explanation of repentance:

In the Bible, the word repent means “to change one’s mind.” The Bible also tells us that true repentance will result in a change of actions (Luke 3:8-14, Acts 3:19). In summarizing his ministry, Paul declares, “I preached that they should repent and turn to God and demonstrate their repentance by their deeds” (Acts 26:20). The full biblical definition of repentance is a change of mind that results in a change of action.

Love them as they are? Yes. But that’s only the starting point.

Why change?

“No slave can serve two masters … You cannot serve God and wealth.” (Luke 16:13)

“They (my followers) do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.” (Jesus, in John 17:16)

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)

Denying oneself. Taking up our cross. Repenting. And following Jesus.

This is what true love is.

Change inevitable

Some change is forced on us.

I was downsized from a job I held for 24 years. I was given a choice: Accept a buyout or a 40 percent pay cut along with an increased workload. My job was eliminated.

Some changes we choose.

I volunteer with an organization called We Care We Share in Lorain, Ohio. It offers a food pantry two afternoons a week. I learned from a friend that volunteers were needed there, so I showed up one day and began volunteering. I didn’t have to do that, but I chose to.

Some change is inevitable.

Some of the hairs on my head are turning gray. My eyes also change over time; I’m due for another check-up one of these days. I’ll probably need a new eyeglasses prescription. The joys of aging.

If there’s one constant in life, it’s that there’s nothing constant in life.

Moment by moment, we change

No two days are exactly alike. Change is the name of the game.

The car I drive is 23 years old. It’s still running pretty well, but the mechanic recommended $1,600 in repairs to keep it up to speed. I’m not sure the car is worth that, so we’ll probably replace it in the near future.

I’ve attended three funerals in the past two months. All were for senior citizens, thankfully, but still: People wear out, just like cars do.

There’s no anti-aging pill that lasts forever, much as science has tried to find one.

We make choices literally every minute of every day. To get up in the morning, or not. What to eat for breakfast. Or not. Whether to show up for work or an appointment on time. Or not. Whether to look for a new job, a new relationship, a new residence (including a new location sometimes) …

We bought a house a year and a half ago, after renting for 3.5 years. We did some remodeling in the kitchen last fall because my wife wanted to put her touch on our home. That’s certainly a good thing. But what to remodel and how to do it were choices we had to make – and you’d do it differently, I’m sure.

I won’t even get into politics. We all know the contrasts between our current president and the previous one.

Think big picture. We change presidents every four or eight years. Change is inevitable.

The U.S. Constitution is more than 200 years old, but even that has been expanded. And new laws are passed all the time, federally, at the state level and locally.

Change changes us

Hearts and minds change too, sometimes dramatically.

At my last job, I worked with adults with developmental disabilities. Some of those folks were born with their disabilities, but others received their mental and/or physical disabilities through trauma. One guy fell off a roof. Another was abused terribly as a child.

Even those born with disabilities can learn to overcome them, to a degree. Those folks can accomplish a lot more than we often give them credit for. Even if they can’t communicate well, they often see and understand quite a lot. And they can communicate – with sign language, facial expressions, nodding yes or no, and in other ways.

I left there because not all change is good. And some changes I felt were necessary weren’t happening.

Choices.

Some people quit smoking. Some people conquer a drug or alcohol addiction. These things aren’t easy, but they can be done.

It’s easier if we make the choice to avoid those substances before we even start. But we need strong grown-ups to lead their children away from those temptations, don’t we, since most addictions start when we are young.

Addictions are not inevitable. Broken families are not inevitable. Some of us are exposed to these things earlier than others of us are, but each of us is responsible for our own choices.

Fighting change, or embracing it

If life doesn’t go the way we’d like it to – and it won’t, sooner or later – we have choices to make. Dozens of my former co-workers got downsized at the same time I did. A few got jobs in other career fields right away, or a short time later. A couple of them retired. Some stayed with the company, with new responsibilities – and in some cases, a new location. I took the buyout and sat on my hands and knees for awhile until the buyout ended, then took a $9 an hour job while I figured out what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.

Same scenario, different choices.

Different results.

Many of my former co-workers are still in the same city. Some of us aren’t.

Here in northeast Ohio, Republic Steel and U.S. Steel factories are idle, the result of layoffs. One of those plants may resume production soon on a limited basis. General Motors Corp. just closed a factory in Lordstown, a little more than an hour’s drive from here, putting 1,435 workers in the unemployment line.

The cycle continues.

Change is inevitable. Sometimes we choose it, sometimes we don’t.

How we respond to change determines the course our lives will take.

We can fight change.

Or we can embrace it.

Even that is a choice.

The one constant

Are there any constants in life, besides change? Any at all?

Only one.

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever.

Hebrews 13:8

 

That’s it.

Whoever hears these sayings of mine and does them, I will liken him to a wise man who built his house on the rock: and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it did not fall, for it was founded on the rock.

Jesus speaking, in Matthew 7:24-25

 

No foundation on Earth lasts like that. All of them will eventually crumble, whether a physical building or a moral or spiritual truth that we base our lives upon.

Even as the winds of life  blow – and they certainly will – we have a foundation to fall back on.

That’s why I’m a Christian. When the storms of life threaten to carry me away (you know what I mean), I have a home base that will protect me.

I change, certainly. I learn and grow, hopefully. I am not the person I was 10 years ago, when I was downsized. Or even last year.

But even as my job situation fluctuated and my location changed, the God I worship did not change. He supports me when all else fails me.

Sometimes, we don’t discover how much we need a rock until change threatens to destroy us.

Climb on the rock. You’re never far from it, no matter who or where you are.

That’s your sanctuary in the storms of life.

Around the bend, a waterfall

Power. Beauty. Change, often slowly. Calm, eventually.

A meandering stream, gentle and pure. Strength and sound as the river transforms into a waterfall. Then, a peaceful near silence as the river continues on.

Each waterfall is different. Some are wider, some taller, some roar, some are gentle.

As different as we are as people.

A river follows the path of least resistance, heading downhill, away from its source. Sometimes over an unexpected waterfall.

It never remains in the same place.

A big splash

The river of my life flowed smooth for many years. A great job, a healthy family with three growing boys, purpose in life, community involvement, some recreation and exercise … it seemed too good to be true. It was easy, too easy, to just coast through life, engaging but only to a point, then pulling back before wounds were exposed.

cascade park 2

Until a huge waterfall changed the course of my river.

Losing a job I’d had for 24 years will do that.

I’ve written about that before, several times. We’re coming up on the 10-year anniversary of that event this spring. It feels like a lifetime ago, with the river of my life twisting and turning repeatedly. Many of you experienced this as well, in varying degrees.

My life sometimes feels out of control, emotionally anyway, heading downstream to an eternal destination that features “the river of the water of life” (Rev. 22:1). It’s easy to get caught up in the struggles of this world and lose sight of what it’s all about.

Shortly before we left Rockford, Ill., I visited the Anderson Japanese Gardens there. It was peaceful, with meandering streams and soothing water formations that the Japanese love. It provided a momentary calm in the months before we moved to Elyria, Ohio, during the last polar vortex five years ago.

In Elyria the stream of my life has taken a couple more abrupt turns. After my 24-year job ended, I never held a job more than 2.5 years (twice). One job lasted eight weeks. I’m now retired, although it still seems funny to say that because I’m “only” 58 years old. (My dad retired younger than that, actually, so maybe it’s not so unusual.)

Hard to see the future

days dam 2

I took one waterfall photo through trees.  I should have known the camera would focus on the branches and leave the waterfall blurry. I thought about going back there and re-taking the photo, but decided not to.

Sometimes the storms of life are blurry, aren’t they? We don’t see them coming. We don’t know why. We feel the fall, then the hard splash of the river as it crashes into the pool at the base of the waterfall.

We submerge, and wonder if we will ever resurface.

We eventually do, don’t we?

But we resurface in a new place, a different place. We are changed.

We didn’t ask for change, but it came anyway.

Some changes are exciting. Some are not. Some are big and powerful. Others are more languid.

Each of us experiences the wide range of powerful and calm, the river always moving, always going somewhere, never static, never staying in the same place.

Some of us travel farther than others do, but all of us travel.

That’s what rivers do.

Can any of us see where we are going? Really see?

I don’t think so.

The greatest adventure

mill stream run 1

Yes, we see heaven, for those of us headed that way. (It’s a destination worth pursuing for everyone.)

But on Earth, the journey to get there … we often can’t see around the next bend.

I hear sermons and speeches sometimes that say the Christian journey should be the most exciting path to travel.

It should be. Jesus offers adventure like no one else does. Serve orphans and widows. Take our faith to different lands, or to the next-door neighbor. Meet the needs of others. Pray. Worship. Don’t accumulate worldly possessions for their own sake, but to share with others. And so on.

So often the waterfalls in our lives aren’t those types of adventures. We tend to fall over them, rather than willingly jump into them. If we would jump into a waterfall of our own volition, perhaps it wouldn’t be such a tall one, with such a painful landing.

How prepared are we for life’s falls, twists and turns? They’re inevitable, so why does no one help us navigate them?

O but the Bible does. It’s all in there, really.

I still fall hard because my faith isn’t what it should be. Just because I read the Bible doesn’t mean I’m prepared for life’s waterfalls, big or small, clear or blurry. What do I do with the information I learn? In the words of a preacher, how do I apply it?

During this week’s polar vortex here in Ohio, a friend who has school-age children collected food for dozens of children who might otherwise go hungry because they get their best meal of the day in school. She organized that food collection in her kitchen spur-of-the-moment, and gave groceries to more than a dozen families as well. Not for her own self-satisfaction, but because she saw a need and decided to fill it.

That’s adventure. That’s faith in action.

If the world saw more Christians doing stuff like that, perhaps we’d be more likable, more believable, more like a river worth jumping into.

Even in the middle of winter.

‘That is the whole duty of everyone’

The end of the matter: all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil.

Ecclesiastes 12:13

 

So says the wisest person who ever lived, king Solomon. He tried everything: wine, women and song; working hard; seeking pleasure and riches. Nothing satisfied him.

At the end of his days, after he experienced all that life has to offer, he drew the conclusion in this quote.

We still don’t get it, do we?

Solomon doesn’t say that fearing God is the whole duty of the religious, or of a certain nationality or group. No. Every one of us, no matter who we are, must fear God and keep his commandments.

We will be judged. Not by the U.S. Supreme Court, by a fractured Congress or by the court of public opinion. We can argue with our political opponents until we’re all blue in the face, and it means nothing.

Really.

Fear God, and keep his commandments.

That’s it.

That’s what life is all about.

Of course, fleshing that out isn’t as simple as it sounds.

So, how do we do that?

Only one person, in fact, has figured that out.

Since Solomon didn’t get it until it was (almost) too late, let’s look at the life of the one person who understood it right from the start.

One life at a time

That would be Jesus, the sinless one.

His life is explained in the four “gospels” at the beginning of the New Testament. Here’s an overview of Jesus’ adult life as recorded by Matthew, one of his original 12 disciples.

Jesus’ first act was to begin calling future disciples to follow him. He preached to the masses, yes, but he specifically trained a group of only 12 people. Those dozen later changed the world.

As his disciples watched, Jesus preached his most famous message, the Sermon on the Mount, to a big crowd. For example:

 

  • “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”
  • “… everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
  • “… Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you …”
  • “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.”
  • “… store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal.”
  • “For with the judgment you make you will be judged …”
  • “Beware of false prophets … you will know them by their fruits.”

 

Jesus stepped up our game. Murder is wrong, of course, but so is anger. Adultery is wrong, but so is lust. Stuff like that. Jesus knows our motives, what we think about. That’s where the rubber meets the road.

Next, Jesus proved his authenticity by healing people – a man with leprosy, two demon-possessed men, a paralyzed man, and others.

He spent time with Matthew and his friends. This was a big deal, because Matthew was a hated tax collector. Imagine inviting over your favorite IRS agent who not only collected your taxes but bribed you, taking more than you owe.

Jesus spent more time training his 12 disciples, then sent them out to do cool stuff themselves. He also warned them that they will face persecution because some powerful, influential people will not appreciate them elevating the poor and sick.

If Jesus walked across the United States in the flesh today, he’d give us a similar message, would he not?

A new command I give you …

Then, Jesus talked about the kingdom of God, rest for the soul and the meaning of Sunday (the Sabbath, actually).

Now, Jesus had crossed a line. When he taught that Sabbath is not about following a host of man-made rules, “the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him” (Mat. 12:14).

Next come a few parables, stories that Jesus told with a moral. He talked about different types of soil, weeds, a mustard seed, yeast, hidden treasure, a pearl and a fishing net. He used these illustrations to describe the kingdom of heaven and its value.

Then Jesus did a series of miracles – he fed 5,000 men, besides women and children, with five loaves of bread and two fish, then walked on water, then healed many people of their illnesses.

Soon after that, three disciples – Peter, James and John – saw Jesus “transfigured” on a mountain, with his glowing heavenly body next to the heavenly bodies of Moses and Elijah. Jesus was a man, yes, but we can’t forget his divinity as well.

In keeping with his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus then taught about several other subjects:

 

  • Marrying a divorced woman is adultery, except for unchastity. (The point: No one is perfect, including a spouse. Understand what that means.)
  • “Let the little children come to me …”
  • “If you are rich, sell your possessions and give the money to the poor; then come, follow me.” (The riches themselves aren’t sin, unless they supersede God, which they did in this particular exchange.)
  • “… whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant.”

 

The world doesn’t think like this, much less live like this. Christians are to live differently than the world does.

Why follow Jesus?

Next came Palm Sunday, when Jesus orchestrated his own parade and entered Jerusalem on a donkey. He taught lessons for a few more days, then was arrested, crucified, buried and resurrected.

Why death and resurrection?

Because Jesus knew we couldn’t keep his commandments, as Solomon discovered. Jesus said so in his Sermon on the Mount, too: “Be perfect, even as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).

Only when we follow Jesus can our hearts be changed to “fear God and keep his commandments.”

This is a daily struggle, as those of us who follow Jesus know.

That’s what forgiveness is all about. As God forgives us each day, we learn how to forgive each other.

We need to learn what Solomon learned.

But let’s not wait until the end of our lives to figure this out. A changed life equals a changed heart equals a changed society. We need that, certainly.

We need that today.

 

The end of the matter: all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil.

Ecclesiastes 12:13

 

A solid vision in a changing world

Each of us has hopes and dreams.

Congregations do, too.

It’s neat when a group of people come together with a common vision. There’s power when many people pursue a plan with one voice.

A rural church near Oberlin, Ohio, had dreamed and prayed for a new home for almost 20 years, since their decades-old site no longer served them well.

Eventually, their prayers were answered.

The 50-member Christian and Missionary Alliance Church congregation purchased a 5,000-square-foot empty former private home “in a serene place tucked away from the machinations of modern-day life,” according to the Chronicle-Telegram of Elyria, Ohio.

“It was the very church they’d dreamed of all those years.”

A new church, of sorts

In a similar way, the much larger, multi-campus church my wife and I attend has dreamed for many years of opening a campus in Lorain, Ohio. The Church of the Open Door operates campuses in Elyria, Avon Lake (where we attend) and Vermilion. The three sites surround Lorain. (If you’re checking my geography, Sheffield and Sheffield Lake stand between Lorain and Avon Lake to the east, and Lake Erie is the fourth boundary, to the north.)

It’s finally happening.

The church hired a Lorain campus pastor earlier this year. Prayer teams, small groups and community outreach have already begun, even before the Lorain building opens.

Unlike the Oberlin church’s dream, our Lorain campus vision is urban.

Our senior pastor offered this explanation for the Lorain vision:

 

Jesus said to the followers, “Let us go to the towns near here so I can preach there also. That is why I came.”

Mark 1:38

 

When the Lorain pastor shared his vision for a multi-ethnic, multi-racial congregation that serves the city, including the immediate community around the new building, I – and several dozen others – caught the vision.

In a way, I’ve been down this road before.

Reality re-shapes a vision

We raised our three sons in Saginaw, Michigan. We were active at Ames United Methodist Church, an inner-city church in the middle of a West Side neighborhood.

One day, when our children still were very young, the denomination did some census-type research for us, and we discovered the average church member was a 65-year-old woman. This was not unusual for a mainline church that had thrived in its community for more than a century.

We were faced with some crucial decisions. We could continue as is, which many churches choose to do. When that 65-year-old woman dies in the next couple of decades or so, the church would fade into history, as many churches have done.

Or, we could take some specific, intentional steps to not only survive, but thrive.

More research revealed that the vast majority of members – including my family – commuted to the inner-city church from the suburbs. When Ames was built in the 1870s, everyone walked. Over time, adjacent houses were torn down and a parking lot was built. The church grew and thrived, topping 1,000 attendees in the early 1960s. By the time my family arrived, attendance was more like 350 to 400 at two Sunday services.

The neighborhood changed; so must the church

And the congregation was aging.

  • Our first decision was the most crucial: Do we move the church to a suburb where many members lived, or do we continue in the city?

God could have used the church either place, but what did He want us to do?

The vote was more divisive than we anticipated: 55 percent to 45 percent. We voted to stay in the city, but not for the right reason. Many longtime members wanted to continue “church” as is. In a world of rapid change, the church was the one solid foundation that stayed the same.

But it couldn’t.

The church would eventually die.

That wasn’t an option.

Even though the vote was close, our pastor at the time took the decision as a mandate to re-connect with our neighborhood. We did a door-to-door survey to assess needs (my wife participated in that).

  • We hired a full-time youth director, even though we had very few active youths at the time.

Why hire a staff person when we didn’t have hardly any young people to attend?

That’s why, actually.

We hired a man to build a youth program from scratch, reaching “church” kids and “neighborhood” kids. In general, the “church” kids had a basic understanding of the Bible, while many “neighborhood” kids did not. That made for – and still makes for – a unique opportunity for ministry, with many successes and failures.

  • We changed the church leadership structure to emphasize ministry and evangelism, and not so much sitting around tables debating issues.
  • We did one more thing that proved to be the most controversial decision of all: We changed the traditional 11 a.m. worship service to a contemporary service. With drums and guitars.

A drum set on the altar is sacrilege to some folks. When you’ve used a hymnbook and organ your entire life, that’s what you’re comfortable with. We kept the 9 a.m. service traditional for them, but some older folks had trouble getting going that early in the morning.

We lost some members over that.

Changing the style, not the message

While the worship style changed, we made one thing clear: The message of the church would not change.

Jon M. Dennis, a pastor in Chicago who helped lead a conference on urban ministry I attended recently, puts it this way:

 

When urban churches are not flexible (usually ending up in decline or closing), it’s often because we’ve confused that which is permanent with that which is transient …

One thing that absolutely doesn’t change is the person and work of our Savior and Lord, for “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Heb. 13:8).

Christ + City, p. 178

 

Most of our elderly members bought the vision. They understood that if the church was to survive and even thrive, we had to change our style. We had to connect with a younger crowd. We had to reach out to the transient, lower-economic, multi-ethnic neighborhood that surrounded our building.

The contemporary service worked. The goal wasn’t to bring 1,000 people into the pews, but to do ministry that matters, to develop relationships and connect with people.

Committed to the vision

Some time later, a predominately African-American church in our denomination in Saginaw closed its doors – and merged with ours. Overnight, our congregation became multi-racial as well as multi-ethnic. We welcomed them, not only as members, but as leaders. Several African-Americans took leadership positions in the church. They brought their gospel choir with them, and the Sunday morning music program was greatly enriched as it rotated with the chancel choir and the bell choir (plus the children’s choir).

Sure, there were bumps. Our pastor was 100 percent committed to the merger, and many of us on all sides bought in.

Some didn’t. We couldn’t get discouraged. Those who stayed were committed.

These things happened a decade or two ago. Ames continues to evolve, seeking God’s will in the neighborhood. People have left (including us, due to a job move) and new folks continue to come in.

When our Lorain church opens its doors sometime this spring, we will have the backing of a multi-campus congregation. But Elyria and Avon Lake attendees won’t determine whether the Lorain campus thrives or not.

How committed are we to our neighborhood, to the city?

At least a dozen of us pray on Tuesday mornings for the new church and for people connected with it. That’s just one thing that we’re doing.

We’re off to a great start, even before the building opens.

Urban ministry gets messy, but it also can be extremely rewarding. We’ll see where God leads us.

The circle of life in one day

A young couple I know announced their first pregnancy.

A (slightly) older couple celebrated their anniversary.

A friend’s son is hoping to get into an addiction detox center.

Another friend’s younger brother died from complications of a stroke.

I received word of all four events on the same day.

The circle of life.

Birth, anniversary, struggle, death.

I received word of those events in that order, ironically.

The first two were announcements of joy.

Birth

New life is a miracle. It happens the same way every time, but it’s still a miracle. One cell becomes two, then four, then … a living, soon-to-be-breathing human being.

I still remember the birth of our first son. I held a camera in my hands to take photos of the new arrival.

I was so in awe of the moment of David’s birth, I froze. The nurse shaped her hands like a camera and pantomimed taking a picture. I snapped out of my reverie and took a few frames.

Our lives changed forever.

New birth does that.

Anniversary

Anniversaries are special, too, as the couple celebrates thriving through the inevitable ups and downs of marriage – hopefully more ups.

Long-lasting marriages tend to stand out in today’s society, don’t they?

Marriage is not easy, and involves plenty of compromises. But if husband and wife are both committed to the relationship, it grows and deepens.

That’s the ideal, anyway.

The second two events were presented as prayer requests.

Struggle

My friend has prayed for years that her son would overcome his addiction. Apparently, the severe side effects have finally forced him to seek help.

Sometimes we have to hit rock bottom before we can get better.

I’ve thought about that every so often over the years. Do I have to hit rock bottom before my life can truly change? Why else would I ask Jesus Christ to change me, if I didn’t realize I needed changing?

I’ve never had a chemical dependency (except for the caffeine in coffee, I admit it) or faced a crisis for which I see no way out.

Or, have I?

When my family moved out of state before my ninth-grade year, I was afraid. Since I knew no one in my new school on the first day of class, I searched for something or someone to lean on – and found nothing. The following summer, I was introduced to Jesus in a very personal way, and that began a lifelong process of getting to know Him as my Lord as well as my Savior.

In a sense, then, I did hit rock bottom. I reached a point where I knew I needed something I didn’t have. This is not envy or jealousy. No material possession was going to answer my deepest need.

My friend’s son is at that point too, whether he realizes it or not. If he eventually comes clean from his addiction, that would be a wonderful answer to prayer. But then what? How would he fill that vacuum in his life? The answer to that would determine whether he relapses or not.

That’s down the road for him. Life is a process, not a one-time-decision-live-happily-ever-after moment.

Our pastor, in his current sermon series, calls this “discipleship.” It’s the lifelong process of growing ever closer to God after making the decision to follow Him.

We find our purpose in life through that process. The end game is very real, but so is the journey.

Where are we going?

Addictions are extremely difficult to break. You and I both have seen this over and over.

Experience is not always the best teacher. Not all experiences are worth having. Why can’t we learn from the mistakes of others?

Death

Eventually, we all die. It’s inevitable. Our bodies will wear out sooner or later, unless something unforeseen takes our lives suddenly.

Strokes happen to many people, but that doesn’t make it any easier to accept. My father-in-law suffered a heart attack followed by a stroke in his mid-50s that incapacitated him. For a man who owned a business and was a leader in his field, that was a difficult pill for him to swallow. He lived for about 15 years after that.

My friend’s brother survived only a couple of days after his stroke.

Either way, life is not fair, is it?

Every one of us can lament something. Perhaps it’s physical health, a relationship that didn’t work out or is causing us pain, a job loss, family issues … something traumatic and/or something chronic. Each of us can identify something that we’re lamenting.

Choices

How do we handle such struggles? With grace and optimism, or with anger and blame?

Do we seek help when necessary? Or do we fight through it, unwilling to even admit our issues? Frequently this is my problem. I am not good at asking for assistance, even though there are a number of people in my life I could turn to if I truly needed them.

But it’s hard to admit need, isn’t it?

Which brings us back to the baby our friends are expecting next summer.

So pure, so beautiful, so dependent … that’s what babies are.

What kind of a world will he or she be born into? Will that baby know joy, or sorrow?

Probably both. The soon-to-be parents know Jesus as their Savior and Lord, so their child will get off to a great start. He or she will be loved and will learn to love in the deepest sense of that word.

As the child grows, he or she will learn the struggles of life, and hopefully how to overcome them.

There will be anniversaries, and eventually death.

The circle of life continues.

Is your circle bright, or is it gray like the rain – or worse, black?

The night is blackest as it nears dawn. Sunrise is coming.

Eventually, the rain will stop, the clouds will disappear and the sun will shine brightly.

In these days of partial sun and plenty of clouds and rain, I’m preparing for full sunshine. Are you?

Finding passion in the midst of constant change

Nothing lasts on Earth. Nothing at all.

Is that a good thing?

Depends on your outlook.

If you are adventurous, you like doing new things all the time. You create change. Things that last probably bore you.

If you prefer security, commitment and long-term involvement, then change gets in the way. You might even fear it.

What if change comes, and you wish it wouldn’t?

I’m finding it hard to remain committed to much of anything these days. Maybe I have some secret anger, a restlessness, an insecurity, an impatience with something that keeps me from things that last.

Perhaps it’s none of those things. Perhaps this is just the way life is.

Short-term volunteering

For example, I enjoy mentoring elementary-age students through local schools. Many children these days need a good male role model. If I can help, I enjoy doing that.

Our church in Saginaw, Mich., partnered with the elementary school across the street, and that’s where I first got involved. I showed up at lunchtime and played games with the student, ate lunch with him, and gave him encouragement. Sometimes I helped him with homework that he didn’t finish in the morning.

That lasted a couple of years, until we moved to Rockford, Ill. A month or two after we moved there, I found a reading program through Rockford Public Schools. That winter/spring and the following fall, I spent an hour in a classroom, reading with four students whom the teacher sent to me in 15-minute segments. I assisted them with words they had trouble pronouncing, and I helped with their comprehension – do you understand what you are reading?

We moved away after a year to Elyria, Ohio. I found a lunchtime mentoring program at Midview Schools in nearby Grafton. After a year, that program disappeared and I never heard from the school district again.

So I connected with Greater Cleveland Volunteers, which introduced me to My Mentor My Friend, a lunchtime mentoring program at four elementaries in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District.  I picked the school on the west side of Cleveland (the other three schools all were on the east side), and mentored three students there in a little more than a year.

Trying to make a difference

My first student there moved away in the summer. My second student, probably a loner like me, seemed uncomfortable with the one-on-one attention and dropped out of the program. My third student also moved away this summer.

That’s the lifestyle of the typical low-income inner-city student. Many live with one parent, or in the case of one of my students, with Grandpa. The parent often rents and moves across town frequently. My last student told me his dad got a job in Arizona, and he was planning to move out there to be with him. Dad said Cleveland was too violent. The student had anger management issues and it wasn’t unusual for him to be on suspension when I showed up to mentor.

Did I make a difference? Only God knows. I will never see the long-term results of any student I have mentored thus far, in any district in any state.

That’s just the way it is.

And now, My Mentor My Friend lost its United Way funding and has ended.

The Cleveland school district might keep the mentoring program going on its own. We’ll see. I’m also looking into another mentoring program in Lorain, which is nearer to my home. Either way, it’s another new start.

Elyria City Schools doesn’t have a mentoring program, a teacher there told me recently, because of the work involved to set up and administer such a program. I get that. When a man wants to work with children, red flags go up, don’t they?

At each school district, I had to pass a background check. In Cleveland, I also faced two interviews, fingerprinting and had to provide references – as intensive as any job interview I’ve had.

A year and a half later, is it all for naught?

Where’s the passion?

I’ve had trouble keeping jobs long-term as well. I had one job that lasted eight weeks. The job in Rockford lasted 14 months. My first job here in Elyria lasted 13 months. My next job lasted 2.5 years, but I got burned out. Without going into details, that job is over too.

I enjoy volunteering in the community. Mentoring, yes, but doing other things as well.

It’s me and God now. I no longer answer to a supervisor.

Will I find work again? Perhaps, but perhaps not. Financially, we are doing well.

And, as I said, I’m burned out. Impatient. Perhaps angry.

I have no home on Earth. I’ve felt that way for a long time.

The Rev. Doug Mater, who is the current pastor of a former church where we worshipped and served, wrote the following in a church newsletter earlier this year:

 

How often do we let our God-given strengths go to waste? We spend so much time trying to overcome our limitations by doing things we are not equipped to do. On the contrary, we should consider our special talents for ministry and focus on doing these things better, asking ourselves if we are trying to do something that we are not equipped to do, just for the sake of thinking I need to be different. …

We must continue to be the best we can at these talents so that others will see us as Christians who care about others and want them to share in the joy that we have in Jesus Christ. So, I ask you to look at your talents and keep practicing them. … Let us excel for God with the talents He has given us for his glory.

 

That’s a great message. Often we focus on our weaknesses and try to get better. Or take a job, any job, just to meet the budget.

Instead, we should emphasize our strengths and do them with passion.

What am I “equipped to do?” Do I have any “special talents?” How can I “excel for God?”

As I face yet another transition in my life, this is a good time to ponder such questions.

The journey continues.

How to apologize

Public apologies are just that.

Public.

Celebrities apologize only when they get caught. Which means they aren’t sincere.

Samantha Bee apologized for cussing out Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter. Roseanne Barr wrote a racist tweet about former Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett.

Roseanne’s show was canceled by ABC. Samantha’s show was not canceled by TBS.

Whatever.

The apologies themselves took place only because public outcries forced both celebrities to do so.

If Samantha and Roseanne were sincere, they would have measured their words in the first place. Instead, they revealed their true hearts.

Even former president Bill Clinton was interviewed harshly the other day on whether he apologized to Monica Lewinsky for their sexual encounters 20 years ago.

If Bill would have said yes, I did apologize, that would have satisfied the reporter, but would it have satisfied Monica?

Instead, Clinton beat around the bush and wouldn’t answer the question.

He should have, in my opinion, given a direct – and crass – answer:

“None of your damn business.”

Seriously.

That’s between him and Monica. The reporter was out of line for even asking.

On a different level, I’ve always wondered why parents sometimes force their children to apologize for doing something bad. I suppose it depends on the situation.

If a young boy hits another boy or girl, for example, should he be forced to apologize?

First, he needs a lesson on how to treat other people. He needs to be taught that people – and animals and other living things, for that matter – deserve respect. He needs to learn WHY it’s wrong to hit someone else.

Don’t assume the obvious. Many adults haven’t learned this lesson yet, either.

Then, apologize.

And hopefully, there won’t be a next time.

“I’m sorry” means nothing if no behavior change follows.

If I truly am sorry, I won’t commit that act again. I know it was wrong, and I feel bad for doing it. Enough so that I won’t do it again.

The right way to apologize

I read a Bible verse recently that offers a great formula for how and why to apologize. The verse often isn’t used in that context, but it works:

 

“… if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.”

2 Chronicles 7:14

 

We have four responsibilities. If we do all four, then God will follow up in three ways.

Our responsibilities, and I think they are in this order for a reason:

  1. Humble ourselves.
  2. Pray.
  3. Seek God’s face.
  4. Turn from our wicked ways.

If we do those things, God promises that He will:

  1. Hear from heaven.
  2. Forgive our sin.
  3. Heal our land.

This is what an apology is all about, isn’t it?

Our part

First, we humble ourselves. We discover that we screwed up. We aren’t happy about it, and we don’t blow it off. We admit our mistake.

We pray. We ask God for forgiveness. When we hurt another person, we also hurt the God who made him or her. That’s what sin is: Doing things that God hates.

I understand this to some degree. My mind goes places it shouldn’t. I say something or do things that I know are wrong. Temptation is not sin, but if I don’t dismiss it immediately, then it becomes sin. Because I won’t let it go.

God gets hurt when I do that. So do other people.

So, I pray. I ask God for a change of heart.

The third responsibility might be the hardest one for me: Seek God’s face.

I know God is pure, holy and perfect, and I know that I am not. How can I seek God’s face? How can I stand before Him, guilty of evil thoughts and/or actions literally every single day?

This is the God we worship. His promises make this possible. More on that in a minute.

Once we encounter the living God, it should not be difficult to turn from our wicked ways. We want to be like Him – pure, holy and perfect. Our hearts change.

Because we live in a fallen world, we have to ask forgiveness repeatedly. A changed heart does this. We turn from our wicked ways, and keep turning. It’s a process.

We mature and do the right thing more often as we get to know God better.

If we truly do humble ourselves, pray, seek God’s face, and turn from our wicked ways, we become more like Him.

We should live differently than the rest of the world does. And not be afraid to apologize – from the heart – when it’s warranted. It’s a process, after all.

If the people I interact with can’t tell whether I’m a Christian or not, then my apology is no better than Roseanne’s or Samantha’s. What’s the point of being a Christian if it doesn’t change me?

Salvation is a worthy goal, yes, but God promises immediate results hear on Earth too.

God’s part

If we do our part, God will hear from heaven. Our prayers and changed hearts will be noticed. Even if other humans don’t see an immediate change in us, the God who created us sees it.

Does that matter?

Oh, yes. This is huge. God promises to forgive our sin, and to heal our land. Whoa.

Forgiving our sins means He doesn’t see them anymore. He knows us as perfect human beings. He sees only the best in us, because He’s forgiven everything else.

I can’t wrap my mind around that.

God doesn’t bring up sins we committed 20 years ago and say, “What about that?” It’s gone. Erased from His memory.

Yesterday’s sins are gone too.

That’s what forgiveness is.

Is it possible to live like that?

Yes.

I’m still working on it.

Once our sins are forgiven, then healing comes.

Between people. Between nations too, according to this Bible verse.

“Heal our land.” And all that is in it.

On a deep, deep level.

Changed hearts, changed lives.

That’s what an apology is all about.

And that’s what it means to live as a Christian.