How (and why) God works

With Christmas activities taking place every day, it’s easy to forget “the reason for the season.”

I find three ways to connect, learn and grow closer to Jesus, for whom the holiday was named.

All three are crucial.

Year round. Including in December.

Personal quiet time

I’m a morning person, the first one up in my household. Always have been. When our kids were young, my job started before they got up for school. Even today, I’m up before 6:30 a.m. – without an alarm.

I start the coffee. I feed the cats. I pour a cup of the morning brew. I sit down in my living room chair, the cup in one hand, the Bible in the other, and often a cat on my lap.

That’s the best part of my entire day. It’s dark. It’s quiet. It’s warm (thanks to the cat).

God often speaks to me there.

Today I read the first three chapters of 1 Peter. “Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit …” (1 Peter 3:8) In church yesterday our pastor talked about the deepest longings of our hearts. A magazine did a survey on that recently, he said, and the most common longings were happiness, money, a relationship, peace and joy.

My deepest longing, however, didn’t appear on the magazine’s list: unity. I wish with all my heart that we as Americans and as citizens of the world would learn to get along with each other. I’ve written about this many times.

Most of our deepest longings are selfish. Mine is for unity among all people. That’s selfish too, I suppose; I wish to be understood as well as I wish to understand you.

These thoughts ran through my mind in my quiet time this morning.

This happens frequently. A verse I read resonates, and my mind probes into it. What does it mean? What would it look like if we (I) truly lived this out?

Unity among believers is the last thing Jesus prayed for in the Garden of Gethsemane before He was crucified (John 17:20-24). Unity mattered to Jesus, too.

Many of you discredit the Christian faith because we Christians can’t get along with each other, much less with you. Our message to you is fragmented. Some so-called Christians mis-lead you.

This is why we must read the Bible for ourselves. What’s in there? I’m a journalist; I’m a cynic by nature. I’m not going to take your word for it. I will double-check you.

I will read it for myself.

Small group

Having said that, I can learn from you, and you from me. The best churches are organized with small groups of a dozen or so people who get together on a regular basis. My wife and I also attended Sunday School classes for many years. And we participate in Wednesday night men’s and women’s groups to study the Bible and issues of the day, with a Biblical perspective.

I have plenty to learn from you. You have insights into life that I don’t have. I’ve experienced things that I can share with you as well. As we get to know each other better, we discover that we aren’t as different as we thought we were.

We also can support each other through our struggles and trials of life. When someone in our group has a dying relative, others understand because they’ve been there. When someone new joins the group because he and his family just moved here, I can relate right away, because that’s my experience too. When someone talks Browns-Steelers … well, I have ties to both cities, actually.

All these issues can unify us. We connect at this level in a group setting.

The best groups challenge me to learn something new about myself, to step out in faith and do something, to help me understand a truth about God in a different or deeper way. It’s a safe place to be vulnerable. For guys, that’s not normal. And even in a couple of men’s groups I’m in, that doesn’t come easy.

But it’s necessary. I can learn things from you that I cannot learn on my own.

Preaching

Uh oh, here it comes. Yes, there’s a reason to attend a Sunday morning service every week.

The pastor, if he (or she) is inspired by the living God, has done his homework on his message for the day. As a general rule, the pastor dives deep into a verse or small section of the Bible. He offers insights and background that his training and study have taught him. And then he gives practical applications on how we can live out the truths that he is teaching us.

If this is the only Bible learning we do each week, we miss so much. Even if you hear one sermon a week for your entire life, you’ll miss reading most of the Bible. That’s why we must read the Bible on our own, and study it in small groups. We learn truths in different ways, and at different levels.

Real-world application

Does God speak to you when you are alone? Does He speak in your small groups? Is He speaking through your pastor?

I daresay that most of you who are critical of God or the church aren’t participating in it at all, but are criticizing as outsiders. We in America are good at that. We Christians are good at criticizing you too.

All of us would do so much better if we got to know each other better. Find out what makes each of us tick. How each of us thinks.

On Facebook I follow a prominent expert on poverty, who travels the country seeking to alleviate or even end poverty. She commented recently about a library forgiving fines.

Are library fines a poverty issue? Yes. She explained how she grew up in a home with more than 20 relatives. She avoided libraries because if she took a book home, it would get lost in such a crowded place. She missed out on all a library offers – chances to discover new ideas, improve reading skills, learn history and other subjects from those who have lived it – because she was afraid of getting punished for using a library.

I had no idea.

The point of a personal quiet time, small groups and weekly preaching is to learn and grow closer to God and to each other. Is poverty a God issue? Absolutely, yes. It’s easy to judge people who don’t pay their library fines as lazy or thieves – until we understand why.

Unity. My deepest longing. Which I realized in a sermon. Then meditated on in a personal quiet time. And read about online.

I’m trying to live it out. It’s a worthy goal.

This is how God works. Alone, in groups and in church. With real-world applications. It’s all good.

And it’s all necessary.

Thankful for the big picture

Public praise, private critique.

Perhaps that’s a New Year’s resolution. Oops, wrong holiday.

But maybe not. Thanksgiving is a good time for public praise.

(Private critique will remain that. Social media aficionados, take note. Chill out and be more positive. End of rant.)

In my first full year of retirement from paid work, I jumped into three significant volunteer projects. All three are worth a little public praise.

After-school basketball

First – and no doubt, the toughest – is an after-school basketball ministry organized by the youth director at our church’s new Lorain, Ohio, campus (which hasn’t even opened yet).

boys pray

In the spring, Joe sought volunteers to help him reach neighborhood youth through basketball. I’ve played pickup ball – never in a league – and our three sons all played recreation basketball as children, so I’ve been around the game for a long time. I try to keep myself in somewhat decent shape, so I decided to give it a shot.

The church building is an old YMCA that is still being transformed into a church, but we’ve been using the big gym all along. We enter through a side door now while the rest of the building is under renovation.

Sometimes, I wonder why I’m there. How does a retired white guy from the suburbs connect with inner-city kids of multiple races and ethnicities?

The answer: Slowly.

As the weather turns cold, I’ve been taking one or several of them home after the hoops is done. That might be where “ministry” is beginning to form. I’m seeing a window into their lives outside of the formal basketball program.

Some of them are hungry. Some of them have broken families. Some have values that I’m not comfortable with.

I don’t judge. I’m just listening at this point. Not probing too much – I’m not aggressive that way.

But I’m thankful to connect with these young men (and the occasional woman who comes with them).

This is a long-term ministry. Hearts don’t change overnight. First, we have to connect. That’s not in my comfort zone. But this is the kind of thing that the living God is doing.

I don’t have to do this. Yet here I am. Thank you, Lord, for this opportunity to serve You.

Food pantry

wcws 2

Also this spring, I began volunteering at a food pantry in South Lorain. I’ve always had a soft heart for hunger issues – I’ve never been hungry in my life, literally. I’ve never had to worry about where my next meal is coming from. Many people can’t say that.

crop walk logo

In Saginaw, Mich., I was treasurer and off-and-on coordinator for the Saginaw CROP Hunger Walk, an annual walk that raises funds and awareness of hunger issues, for more than 20 years. We lived in Rockford, Ill., for a little over a year and I connected with the CROP Walk folks there too. Here in Elyria, the CROP Walk leaders have no passion for the ministry and I wasn’t up to the effort of trying to fire them up, so I looked for other opportunities.

Enter We Care We Share, a 12-year-old food pantry on a shoestring budget that serves thousands of needy residents every year.

The pantry’s volunteer coordinator attends the same church I do. He invited me (and others) to participate, since more volunteers were (and still are) needed.

He didn’t tell me he was going on vacation, so one Tuesday I just showed up. Didn’t know anyone there. Told them who I was and why I was there. They invited me to stay, so I did – for four hours that afternoon. Then, they invited me back.

So I came back. And I’ve been coming back, two afternoons a week, ever since.

We’re family. We laugh, pray together, rib each other, volunteer together, serve together, pitch in wherever needed. We’re on the front lines of fighting hunger. We hand out dozens of food boxes each day – non-perishable goods, meat, bread, fruits and vegetables – whatever Second Harvest Food Bank of Northeast Ohio delivers to us on Monday afternoons.

Young families just getting started. Senior citizens in poor health who can’t even carry their food box to their vehicle. Many adults with kids and grandkids in their household. Some say, “I wish they’d leave” – not to be mean, but to get out on their own and learn to support themselves, and to give the older adult a little peace. We are there during the transition.

Residents get evicted, and frequently change addresses. A few are homeless.

We serve them all, face to face.

As with the basketball kids, I can’t relate. I don’t have to do this.

I never want to take the material things of life for granted. God has given me a heart to serve folks down on life, struggling to make it.

There’s no quick fixes here, either.

All we can do is serve. And pray.

So that’s what we do.

I’m grateful for this opportunity.

Bible study group leader

Third, I was asked to be a group leader this fall for Bible Study Fellowship, an international in-depth Bible study that this year is studying Acts in the New Testament. I attended the 30-week class for the previous two years, and the leadership there thought enough of me to invite me to step up my involvement.

bsf photo

As with basketball and We Care We Share, BSF is a major time commitment. There is “homework” for each class member to do before we meet on Tuesday evenings.

I’m at a satellite class in Avon, Ohio – one of three satellites around the main program in Parma Heights, just past Cleveland International Airport from where I live.

The leaders of all four areas – about 40 of us total – gather at 6:30 a.m. Saturdays to go over the upcoming week’s lesson, and to receive leadership training. I set my alarm at 5 a.m. to ensure I get there on time.

I wouldn’t miss it for the world. We begin our time literally on our knees in prayer.

I’m shepherding a dozen guys in my class every week. I keep in touch when they miss. Some have health issues of their own or of family members, and some travel for work. We pray for each other.

This week, three guys attended who had missed two to four weeks each for various reasons, and all three said they missed our discussions. They want to come every week. Circumstances sometimes prevent that. Life happens.

Again, relationships take time. As a leader, I have to be pro-active. I’m learning as I go.

The big picture

2019 has been a year of beginnings for me, changes and challenges. The honeymoon periods soon will be over, if they aren’t already.

That’s when ministry will begin.

Time to take the next step. Next steps, actually.

Hope you’re as thankful for the big picture of your life as I am of mine.

All mind, no heart

If you don’t oppose abortion, you can’t join the Republican Party.

If you don’t support the LGBTQ community, you can’t join the Democratic Party.

That, right there, is why this nation is so divided these days.

Both political parties have become one-issue parties. They may say otherwise (or they may not), but that’s the bottom line.

No one asks about the root causes of either issue, because no one wants to dig deep for truth in our shallow, social media-centered society.

Root causes

Why do women want an abortion in the first place? All we hear about is rape victims, but I’m guessing the issue is far more widespread – and complicated – than that.

Why are LGBTQ people not attracted to people of the opposite gender? They’ll say, publicly anyway, they were born that way. I’m not buying that. What, gay or lesbian, in your past caused you to reject intimacy from a person of the opposite sex?

In my unprofessional opinion, both issues have the same root cause: the breakdown of the nuclear family.

We are looking for love and acceptance in places that don’t give us, deep down, what we truly need.

We live life through our minds, and not through our hearts. Or vice versa.

We either bury our hearts deep inside our psyche (this is what I do), or we expose our hearts in unhealthy ways on social media.

Some issues are not meant for public consumption. We need to deal with them at home or in a counselor’s office.

Democrats and Republicans have seized on different parts of our sex-saturated society and turned abortion and same-sex relationships into political issues. Where can we compromise on either issue, that is, find common ground?

By pursuing the root causes.

By digging deeper than our culture permits these days.

Meaningless, but pretty

So far, this is a shallow post, and that’s my point. It’s easy to sit in my La-Z-Boy and point fingers at people who hold different views than I do.

Before we bought our house two years ago, I noticed there’s a star prominently placed on the front. I did a little research on that to make sure it wasn’t making a statement on an issue I couldn’t support. It’s not. It’s harmless.

barnstar4

According to Wikipedia, a barnstar (or barn star, primitive star, or Pennsylvania star) is a painted object or image, often in the shape of a five-pointed star … used to decorate a barn in some parts of the United States, and many rural homes in Canada. … They are especially common in Pennsylvania and frequently seen in German-American farming communities. … Barnstars remain a popular form of decoration, and modern houses are sometimes decorated with simple, metal, five-pointed stars which the makers describe as “barn-star.”

I’m glad the star didn’t have a subliminal meaning. It’s just pretty.

We are pressed to construct our lives that way, too. Meaningless, but pretty.

Don’t offend anyone. Don’t get involved.

If you want to show your courage, join a political party. Just not a church. That’s off-limits, because churches are narrow-minded and judgmental. Except the ones that aren’t.

Actually, both political parties are more narrow-minded than any church is. Did you know that? No, because your mind is already made up.

Exactly.

Both parties want one-issue voters. That’s as narrow as you can get.

News flash: There’s more to life than sex.

But maybe not. As a friend is describing in short social media posts, pornography is pervasive, especially in the United States. It’s also a silent sin. We can, and do, hide it very well.

Sex and intimacy should go together. But often they don’t. That, in my opinion, is why pornography is so prevalent. We’re looking for intimacy in the wrong places.

And we aren’t finding it.

In response, we hurt ourselves and others. In many ways. Deeply.

We retreat or lash out

To protect ourselves, we stay shallow. We bury our hearts. We don’t risk emotional pain.

Either that, or we go too far the other way – put our emotional pain out there for all to see.

It’s numbing.

I’d rather hide. The #metoo movement just confirms for me that women are unapproachable, that they don’t want a deep relationship with a man. Women have been burned too many times, so they push us away.

As men, we either retreat or lash out. Neither response is healthy, but those are our options.

I’m oversimplifying, of course, but maybe not by much.

How do we reconcile? How do we overcome our differences, as men and women, introverts and extroverts, Democrats, Republicans and independents?

I listen to a lot of contemporary Christian music, and while the tunes are catchy, most of it is pop psychology and not true faith. It’s shallow.

Dear Abby and Ask Amy are shallow.

Social media is shallow. Does our president even know this? Why does he get so bent out of shape by what he sees there?

Where do we find true meaning in life? Is there a way to pursue root causes, to seek our purpose, without consequences that hurt other people?

I know the answer to that question, but that doesn’t mean I’ve found it yet.

The answer is the living God. Not your God or my God, or what passes for God in our culture (or any other culture). Truth is truth, whether anyone believes it or not.

The living God has our best interests in mind. And in heart.

God sees the big picture, which we do not. Many of us refuse to accept this. We want the big picture too. But we can’t have it. If we could, then we would be gods controlling the universe. But we aren’t, and we can’t.

We don’t want to admit this, so we stay shallow. We won’t seek truth because we don’t think we’ll like what we’ll find there.

Truth hurts. My heart has been bleeding for a long time now. I keep my deep thoughts private, so I won’t give you details. God promises healing, but am I willing to open myself up to that?

It’s not a simple question. It’s a very deep question, actually.

Maybe someday, I’ll have an answer.

Some of you have found the answer, and are living it. Most of us have not.

This is the struggle our world gives us.

One day …

The solution for a bleak world

Why me?

I ask this question every so often, in a positive tone.

We like to portray God as a cosmic king who sits on his throne and judges the world. Actually, he’s just the opposite.

Why me?

It’s easy to find fault with anyone and everyone, including me. We’re all guilty of something, actually lots of things. God doesn’t need to judge us. We’re very good at doing that ourselves.

No, God’s specialty is not judgment, but mercy. Despite the fact that we’re all guilty of lots of things, God chooses to save some of us, even though not one of us deserves it.

Why me? That’s why I ask this question.

Real life encouragement

Mercy is receiving something we don’t deserve.

It’s a Bible word, but it works in “real life,” too.

One of the youth directors at our church offers a three-times-a-week after-school basketball program for inner-city high school students. Sometimes, two dozen of them show up.

Joe doesn’t have to do that. But he does, because he wants to give these young men something they don’t have.

Hope. Encouragement. A safe place to play ball (this is not as easy as it sounds). A father figure. An introduction to the living God.

Most of these young men have no church background. They might be experiencing this side of “real life” for the first time.

Mercy lets us look up, and look beyond ourselves.

The apostle Paul wishes mercy for Timothy, a young pastor he mentored. Paul wrote two letters to Timothy that are included in the New Testament, one detailing the qualifications of church leaders, the other a personal letter of encouragement.

The best gifts

Paul wished two other things for Timothy as well: grace and peace (1 Timothy 1:2, 2 Timothy 1:2).

Indeed, Paul wrote more than a dozen letters to New Testament audiences (and to us), and in all of them he wished his readers grace and peace (Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, Titus and Philemon).

Some of these letters were written to churches, others to specific individuals. He prayed for grace and peace for all of them. Those themes are repeated throughout his letters.

Grace, mercy and peace are gifts to us from God. We cannot give any of them back to God. If we give grace, mercy or peace to each other, we learn how to do that from God.

‘We cannot remain insensitive’

We need those desperately in our world today.  We don’t have to attend church to see that.

In today’s local newspaper, there are several articles – just today – that bear this out.

In one article, Associated Press writer Ted Anthony summed up the world scene this way:

 

There are those mornings when you come into work and everyone seems cranky. That’s how it felt at the United Nations this past week during the annual gathering of world leaders. Speech after gloomy speech by leaders from all corners of the planet pointed toward one bleaker-than-thou condition: Humanity clearly needs a spa day.

 

A spa day. Actually, the world needs more than that. It needs a new direction. Grace, mercy and peace would go a long way toward the world’s people – ie, you and I – learning how to get along with each other. Just saying.

In another article, Pope Francis offered this take on the world:

Vatican Pope Migrants

“We cannot be indifferent to the tragedy of old and new forms of poverty, to the bleak isolation, contempt and discrimination experienced by those who do not belong to ‘our group.’ We cannot remain insensitive, our hearts deadened, before the misery of so many innocent people. We must not fail to weep. We must not fail to respond.”

 

Is the Pope correct? Why do we reject the Scriptures, when they have the answers to what the world is longing for? We learn to not be indifferent to poverty and other struggles of fellow human beings because God placed a caring heart inside each of us. Are we listening?

The issues of life on Earth are that basic and universal.

A third article offers this assessment:

Afghanistan Elections

The latest election seems unlikely to bring the peace sought by Afghans tired of an increasingly brutal war, or an easy exit for the United States, seeking to end its longest military engagement.

 

Many of these issues don’t have easy solutions. Fighting in Afghanistan has gone on for what seems like forever.

The only game plan that works

Where is peace? When will we understand that the benefits of peace far outweigh the disadvantages?

When we submit to God, that’s when. No human being or government can bring lasting peace.

We’ve tried in our own country, and done pretty well at it over the past two centuries, actually.

But look at us now. Even the U.S. Constitution can’t guarantee peace.

If we can’t get along with our neighbors, how can we possibly get along with the rest of the world? If our own families are in disarray, how can we promote peace elsewhere?

By returning to God, that’s how. The God of the Old and New Testaments has the game plan for grace and peace, not just in the next life, but right here, right now.

The key is not judgment, but mercy. Every one of us is guilty. We need to look beyond ourselves and seek a higher truth, since none of us – no, not one – has the ultimate truth in and of ourselves.

Your truth may not work for me. My truth likely won’t work for you. We argue on this level all the time.

We’re missing the point. Neither of us has a truth worth defending.

God does.

Men and women struggle to implement God’s truths. We screw it up. That doesn’t mean God, or His truths, are wrong. It means we humans are messed up. That’s all.

News flash: We’re all messed up. We’re all messed up.

Grace, mercy and peace are possible. They are available to us, today.

We have to ask the God of the Bible for them, because none of us is capable of offering grace, mercy and peace to anyone.

It’s not about us. We can’t earn grace, mercy and peace. The other world religions – all of them – do not understand this. That’s why Jesus said, in no uncertain terms, that His way is the only way to meet God.

One person at a time.

 

Speech after gloomy speech … We cannot be indifferent … seems unlikely to bring the peace …

 

The need is obvious, is it not?

So is the solution.

The futility of trying to explain the unexplainable

A woman comforts a man who cries after discovering his shattered house and not knowing anything about his 8 relatives who lived in the house, missing in the aftermath of hurricane Dorian, in High Rock, Grand Bahama, Bahamas, on Sept. 5, 2019. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)

 

Why would an all-powerful God allow hurricane Dorian to decimate the Bahamas?

An excellent question.

A friend posted that question, and got various responses. Here’s my comment:

 

Would you rather God be a robot? The fact that we don’t understand why things happen proves that God is God. He is much bigger than the human mind. Perhaps that is the point.

 

That didn’t change my friend’s viewpoint, or anyone else’s, for that matter.

But sometimes, as Christians, we try to explain the unexplainable.

It confuses people – including ourselves – when we do that.

Why does a hurricane act the way it does? Even more to the point, why did Dorian destroy the Bahamas and then bypass Florida?

Did our prayers to protect Florida get answered? If so, does that mean no one prayed for the Bahamas, or that God didn’t hear anyone who did?

No one can answer these questions. So, why do we even try?

Let’s acknowledge that God is God. We don’t understand everything He does. We don’t see the big picture of life the way the living God sees it.

We just don’t.

A family’s tragedies

A guy in his 50s at the church I attend died about a month ago. He was a strong Christian. He left a wife and four children, none of whom have a strong faith. He was their witness, their example, their leader in so many ways.

Why would God take him?

Then, I found out this week that one of his children, who had medical issues, also died.

What must the wife/mother be going through at this moment?

Where is God in this family’s situation?

Perhaps here is an opportunity for our church to be the church for this family. But is that really an adequate answer?

Perhaps we truly do not know why two family members died suddenly within a month of each other. But we try to explain the unexplainable.

This hurts our faith, and our witness.

Lifting up our hands

We think there’s an explanation for everything, don’t we? We can’t admit that we don’t know. That we can’t know. That God might allow something to happen for reasons we can’t fathom.

If there is an explanation for everything, then why believe in God?

We are our own gods, if we can wrap our minds around everything that happens in the world.

Yes, God gave us curious minds to learn new things. We discover new ideas and ways to live all the time.

By studying hurricanes, perhaps one day we will understand how and why they move, and be better prepared to survive them.

But will we ever have the capability to actually guide a 185-mph hurricane away from land and into the ocean, preventing severe flooding and loss of life and property?

Why do some parts of the world see more hurricanes, while others face tornadoes and still others severe earthquakes? And while we know where these weather catastrophes often hit, we still choose to live in those places. Is that God’s fault?

We love our tropical islands and beaches, sure. Nothing wrong with that. We live in New Orleans, even though it’s below sea level on a coastline. We live in Houston even though it’s solid concrete, and then wonder why it floods so badly during severe storms.

Our fault

Were severe storms part of God’s original plan for Earth? I don’t think so, actually. The Garden of Eden was a perfect place in every sense of the word. Adam and Eve didn’t even need to wear clothes to live there. Temperatures and the climate were that comfortable.

Except for that wily serpent, who spoiled the party.

The serpent forced Adam and Eve to make a choice.

The choice they made got Adam and Eve kicked out of Eden. There were consequences. Man was forced to work hard. Woman was given pain in childbirth. The serpent was forced to the ground, and to be trod underfoot. Many other bad things followed.

Why did God allow so many bad things to happen? Because that is what we – Adam, in particular – wanted. God said, Fine. Have it your way.

Seriously.

All the bad stuff in the world is our fault, not God’s.

That’s a simplistic explanation, I know. There are spiritual forces at work that we cannot see. Very strong spiritual forces. For good and for evil.

And we can’t fix it. As humans, we don’t have the power to get rid of all the bad stuff that happens in the world, much less the spiritual world.

We try. We legislate morality, whatever that is.

We have no answers

We can’t even agree on what good and evil are, so there’s no way we can do anything about them.

That’s why some of us believe in Jesus Christ.

Not only did He tell us what good and evil are – I came not to abolish the law (the Old Testament), but to fulfill it, He said – He showed us what good and evil are by the life He lived.

And died.

However, even Jesus Himself, while He could explain the unexplainable, couldn’t bring it about in His own life. He died a horrible, painful death on a cross, and that would have been it.

Except that the living God, His Father, kept the story going. He resurrected Jesus, not only with a physical resurrection, but with a spiritual one. That allows Jesus to forgive our sins and mistakes.

If only we will accept that gift of forgiveness from Him.

This just might be the best explanation we get about how God works in this world.

But even that is above our comprehension. How do we explain death and resurrection? How is forgiveness of sins rational? Why can none of us find meaning in life unless we understand the reasons Jesus lived, died and lives again?

Even my friend who questions why an all-powerful God would allow a hurricane to devastate a country doesn’t have an answer for how the world works. He can’t explain it any more than I can.

Perhaps it’s time for us to acknowledge what’s real. How does the world work? That question doesn’t have a complete answer that we can know.

Our Florida friends are grateful, certainly. And they should be. Our friends in the Bahamas need help starting over.

Life happens. We can find God everywhere. Our responses to God, and to each other, are different in Florida and the Bahamas this week.

Because we worship a God who is bigger than we are. Much bigger. Sometimes we have to trust Him, because there’s no other way to understand Him.

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.

Why faith matters, and the reason it often doesn’t

From right, Ren Dejun, Liao Qiang, Peng Ran and Ren Ruiting follow a hymnbook during a Sunday church service in Taipei, Taiwan.

That day (when Stephen was martyred) a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria … Now those who were scattered went from place to place, proclaiming the word.

Acts 8:1,4

 

A few minutes after I read those words in my morning devotion, I opened the local newspaper I subscribe to. I was stunned to read an article on religious persecution happening as we speak, and another article from this country explaining that most Americans don’t care about faith issues.

“Christian family details crackdown on church in China,” the Page A2 headline read.

Liao Qiang, 49, had to flee China with five family members, including his 23-year-old daughter, Ren Ruiting, after “living under constant surveillance for the past seven months after authorities detained them and dozens of other members of their prominent but not government-sanctioned church in December.”

China’s ruling Communist Party has carried out a widespread crackdown on all religious institutions in recent years – not just Christian churches, but institutions of all faiths. It has bulldozed churches and mosques, the article states, and incarcerated more than 1 million members of Islamic ethnic minorities in what are termed “re-education centers.”

Qiang and his family fled to nearby Taiwan, where they are free to worship as they choose. They attended a public worship service this week for the first time in seven months.

Persecution forces church growth

In the book of Acts and in China, persecution forced the church to scatter.

While the government leaders in both circumstances were trying to suppress faith, and especially Christianity (in Acts), the opposite happened. Faith spread.

Sometimes it takes persecution to grow our faith.

We often ask why bad things happen to good people. We wonder why we struggle in various parts of our lives. We wonder whether God has abandoned us.

Actually, God may be drawing us closer to Him through our struggles. We don’t really know what persecution is in this country – not to the point where believers are martyred or active churches are bulldozed.

Perhaps that day is coming.

Apathy kills the church

The other article I read in the local paper? On Page A5: “Poll: Americans tend to go it alone (Most don’t seek clerical advice)”

That poll blames technology for many Americans’ choice not to seek advice. Since we can Google information on literally any subject, this article says, we don’t see the need to seek advice from clergy (or anyone else, for that matter).

The poll also blames the sex abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church for reducing clergy interaction with that institution.

“At the same time,” the article concludes, “more Americans describe religion as unimportant in their lives, and church membership and service attendance have declined. Gallup polling shows about half of Americans said they attended religious services within the past week in the mid-1950s, while just about a third say they did now.”

Our response

What does faith mean, anyway? Is it worth dying for, as Stephen did? Is it worth being forced from home to parts unknown, as happened to the early New Testament Church and is still happening in China and other parts of the world today?

For U.S. residents, faith in God costs very little. Perhaps that’s the main reason why it doesn’t mean much to most of us.

Every so often I ask myself, “Do I have to hit rock bottom before I can find God?”

I’ve never done drugs or been arrested. I grew up in a stable home. I’ve always had at least a little money in the bank. I’ve always been healthy.

And yet …

When our family made an out-of-state move before my ninth-grade year, I discovered that I was missing something emotionally. I had a low self-esteem and nothing to lean on.

Eventually, I discovered that Jesus Christ could – and did – fill that void in my life.

So, in a sense, yes, I did hit rock bottom. Not outwardly, not materially, but spiritually, I did.

As with the early disciples and the family in China, I was forced to make a decision. My physical life wasn’t at stake, but my spiritual life was.

If something important to you is forcibly taken away, how would you respond?

When a loved one dies or an emergency strikes, how do you respond?

Do you blame God, or do you turn to Him?

That’s not a theoretical question.

Places where faith grows

Perhaps that’s why most people who accept Christ as their Lord and Savior do so as children. Young people – age 15 and younger – are still searching for meaning in life. Their values aren’t set yet. If you grow up in a Christian home you have a better chance to accept that faith yourself. There are exceptions, of course. And if you didn’t grow up in a Christian home, you can find such a faith in other places as well.

Perhaps a catastrophic event will force your hand. Perhaps that’s what it must take.

That’s why Christianity’s growth is explosive in China and Africa, but not the United States.

 

Christianity’s ‘explosive growth’ in China – and the official pushback

https://www.inkstonenews.com/china/christianity-protestant-church/article/2133812

Christianity is not illegal in China, but it has faced a long history of suppression and official distrust ever since missionaries began arriving with European and American merchants hundreds of years ago.

 

Christianity’s future lies in Africa

https://sojo.net/articles/christianitys-future-lies-africa

The continent (Africa) has become the epicenter in the fight against extreme poverty and inequality, housing over half of the world’s people who are living in the quicksand of extreme poverty. Conflict, corruption, illicit financial flows, gender-based violence, exploitation, the impacts of climate change, among other challenges, have long stunted Africa’s growth and suffocated human flourishing …

Less than 20 percent of evangelical pastors have received seminary training, which poses both a challenge and an opportunity … But a revitalized and more vibrant evangelical church that is increasingly committed to both evangelism and holistic transformation will be an essential force in overcoming these and other challenges.

Our impersonal, judgmental lives

Is the United States becoming a Third-World country? Extreme poverty, conflict, corruption, illicit financial flows, gender-based violence, exploitation, climate change … These topics dominate discussion boards today, don’t they?

But how much of these discussions are personal? We talk in the third person all the time. Most of us don’t know what extreme poverty looks like. Corruption: have we experienced it personally? Climate change? Illicit financial flows?

These issues matter, of course, but until they become personal, they remain debate topics and nothing more.

After all, Americans prefer to live alone. We can take care of ourselves, thank you very much.

Just don’t ask me to think deeply about any subject.

Repentance is a practice, and other truths

 

Nuggets of truth I learned in a year-long study through several Old Testament books:

 

  • God’s definition of success is to be faithful, and we do that by meditating on His word.
  • We are on God’s team. He is not on our team.
  • Sometimes, we don’t understand God’s directions. But He sees the big picture.
  • The Christian life is a marathon. Jesus has already finished the race, and returned to help us through it.
  • What are my gods? Where do I spend my time? What do I think about during the day, and at night? What do I worry about?
  • God sometimes empties us before He can fill us.
  • Kindness leads people to repentance.
  • Christ redeems us, even if we are foreigners (as Boaz did for Ruth).
  • What do we do with our idols when they don’t work? We often prop them up, and keep using them – to our destruction.
  • Repentance: Turn away from sin, turn to God.
  • We have to ask for deliverance continually. This is sanctification.
  • I need to lead with confidence where God has given me influence.
  • The Psalms are like a waterfall. Singular verses are good, but they aren’t a waterfall.
  • The Psalms have the power to realign our hearts to God. They are cracking the vault of my buried emotions.
  • God used both success and trouble to shape David’s life.
  • Do I want to let God write my story, or do I want to write it for Him?
  • Hopelessness is pervasive today. We look in all the wrong places for hope.
  • Am I looking for relief, or relationship?
  • David inquired of the Lord …
  • I don’t know God’s timing.
  • We are living our lives in the middle of God’s throne room. We get to join God in what He is doing.
  • Win or lose, I should worship God.
  • Do I reflect on how merciful God is in my life? What do I dream about? Probably about me, not God. He rested on the seventh day to reflect on what He’d created.
  • Israel is a great nation because it has a great God.
  • Am I willing to trade my plan for His, even if I don’t see it fulfilled?
  • Many of our battles are internal – lust, greed, pride, self-centeredness. But the victory has already been won.
  • Repentance is a practice. I have to get rid of sin. Otherwise, the pain stays.
  • Obedience brings blessing. Disobedience brings judgment.
  • Church attendance isn’t enough. A personal encounter with God changes lives.
  • Israel trusted in the ark of God, instead of the God of the ark.
  • God will not be mocked. He expects His people to live differently than everyone else does.
  • God intends us to build each other up, even if others hurt us – the way David respected Saul.
  • God rested on the seventh day – not just to rest, but to reflect on what He’d done.
  • When a prophet shows up, usually there’s a reason and it doesn’t go well.
  • We can choose to sin, but we cannot choose the consequences. Stop before it starts. The longer we wait, the harder it gets.
  • God is just. We blow off sin. God does not. (For example, when David took a census of Israel toward the end of his life, he wanted to celebrate Israel’s size, not God’s power. God’s judgment for that cost 70,000 people their lives.)
  • God limited places of worship to keep pagan practices out, but Solomon worshiped at high places of pagan gods.
  • The focus is not what I need, but who I need.
  • God’s gifts do not ensure that we use them wisely.
  • We do not create wisdom. We discover it.
  • Learn from the mistakes of others. We don’t have to experience everything to learn lessons.
  • Even when we are distant from God, we can call out to Him for forgiveness.
  • The central Temple building is no longer needed. Our bodies are God’s temple.
  • Solomon fulfilled the Temple obligation; that was not devotion.
  • Leaders are to execute justice and righteousness.
  • Each day presents new opportunities to trust God or go our own way.
  • Not all adversity is because of sin, but if we face adversity, a heart check is a good idea.
  • Pleasure is only for a moment. God is forever.

 

 

 

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.

An unexpected blessing

You have a story. So do I.

Our pastor began his Easter Sunday sermon by saying that.

Jesus has a story, he said. The apostle Peter also has a story.

I won’t re-tell his sermon. It’s excellent. You can listen to it here, if you’d like:

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?list=PLHjQKzbevhK_vJCFUmIKGdsdIoyrmQ2b3&v=-hH6-6wxwWM

 

Our youth pastor recently began an after-school basketball ministry on Thursday afternoons, and I’ve been helping him with that. Not that I’m any great shakes at basketball – I’ve never played in any kind of organized league – but it’s fun.

After playing for a bit and working up a sweat, our youth pastor, Joe, stops the games for a breather and a devotion. He asked me to lead the devotion last week.

Rather than give a Bible lesson or (even worse) a sermon to a group of teens and early 20s ballplayers, I decided to tell a story. Because we all have stories.

My wife and I had just joined a church in Saginaw, Mich., and when I discovered they had a slow-pitch softball team, I decided to sign up. Baseball is my favorite sport, so I thought I’d give softball a shot.

My very first game turned out memorable. As the new guy who few people knew, I played right field. Our church fielded two teams that year, and the first game was against our church’s other team. So just about everybody knew each other.

Early in the game, a batter on the other team hit a short fly ball to right-center field. I can catch this, I thought, so I went running in towards the ball.

Slow-pitch teams field four outfielders. Our fourth outfielder was a high school tennis player, a good athlete with a strong body. He was playing behind second base a little toward left field. He raced after the ball too.

Not knowing each other’s skills, we didn’t account for each other. Both of us ran as fast as we could toward the fly ball. Joel caught it. I crashed into his body, hard, and crumpled to the ground. I didn’t get up.

My teammates quickly gathered around me and realized I needed to visit the emergency room. I was loaded into the van of one of the players on the other team (who remains a good friend to this day), and John transported me to the ER.

I had a broken wrist and a fractured cheekbone.

Nurses placed me on a hard table in the emergency room. Since it was after hours, they had to call an orthopedic surgeon from home to treat me.

It took some time for the surgeon to arrive. My pregnant wife was handling the paperwork for my unexpected visit. For a few minutes, I was left alone on the table, in more pain than I’d ever felt before.

At that moment I felt an unnatural calm come over me. I knew other people were praying for me but I didn’t know who they were. I knew that I would be all right.

I discovered later that at that moment, one of my teammates had put me on our church’s prayer chain. That’s a group of people, mostly elderly ladies, whose primary mission is to pray for people who have an immediate need. Even though I was new to the church and most of them didn’t know who I was, they prayed for me anyway.

I felt their prayers. For real, I did.

God works like this. In my most painful moment, God showed up, because people on Earth asked God to show up.

The surgeon arrived and after a few painful X-rays, he put my wrist in a cast and scheduled an appointment at his office in 10 days to check on progress. Thankfully no bones were displaced in my face, so he just authorized some pain medication and let my cheekbone heal on its own. I had quite the black eye and the pain in my face lasted a couple of weeks before it healed.

My wrist didn’t heal quite so smoothly. I eventually had surgery on it.

Needless to say, these injuries put me on the disabled list for the rest of the summer. I still attended as many games as I could. I went out for the team the next year – indeed, I played for about 25 years, and have many wonderful memories of the people I played with.

My only concession? I shy away from contact to this day, especially around my head. One injury like that was enough for me.

But even in that unexpected, painful moment, God showed up and did something special, something that I still remember and will continue to remember for the rest of my life.

When those ladies prayed for me, God could have healed me miraculously, but He didn’t. Instead, God gave me the strength to get through the pain – and the healing process, including the boring rehab.

God frequently doesn’t take away our pain, suffering or sorrow. Instead, He gives us the strength and whatever else we need to endure it.

This builds our character – and gives us stories we can share with others who might be enduring a similar struggle.

When we are in our darkest moments – when the storms of life are coming on strong – that just might be when the living God shows up. When I was hurting the most in the emergency room, that’s when God gave me assurance that I would be all right.

As long as the living God is my guide and I follow His direction, I’ll be fine. There may be more pain and heartaches along the way – I’ve attended several funerals already this spring, for example – but God will give me what I need to get through it.

As He will you.