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.

Define the terms, and then …

Define the terms.

I met the father of our church’s new worship leader last weekend, visiting from out of town. As we chatted for a few minutes, I mentioned that I write a blog. “What about?” he asked. “Issues of the day, and my faith, mostly,” I said.

“Define the terms,” he said.

I knew exactly what he meant.

It’s why I don’t often engage in your conversations, preferring to carefully avoid most of those terms.

Love.

Hate.

Inclusion.

Discrimination.

Racism.

Believe.

Faith.

Freedom.

Addiction.

The economy.

Right vs. wrong.

Rights.

This list is hardly exhaustive.

Every one of these words means different things to different people. That’s why Facebook memes are so inflammatory. You post something to make a point, and someone else interprets it entirely differently.

Even worse, most of you have no intention of discussing the issue, but only in preaching to your choir.

A poll

Case in point:

“Do you think Trump is a racist? Simple yes or no.”

Depends who you ask.

Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes.

No. No. No. No.

Never the twain shall meet in this online poll currently making the rounds. Neither side has any intention of discussing the issue.

“Intelligent discussion” is an oxymoron.

Love, hate

What is “love?”

That word has a myriad of definitions and meanings. Each of us defines it slightly differently, from our own perspective.

Indeed, we define all these hot-button words from our own perspective.

“Hate.” Is there really as much hate out there as we say there is?

What is hate, anyway?

Some of you define “hate” as any stance different than yours. I’m not exaggerating.

How do you expect to get along with anyone while throwing that word around? You’ve marginalized yourself.

The economy

Is “the economy” doing great? Depends who you ask.

If the stock market is your indicator, then yes. If finding a good job that pays the bills is your indicator, then no. There are lots of jobs out there, but many of them are outsourced or lower-paying service jobs, with fewer well-paying manufacturing and management careers than there used to be. We don’t like to talk about that.

Inclusion, discrimination

“Inclusion.” Oooh, there’s a good word. Of course all should be welcome just about anywhere. But that’s not what inclusion means in today’s America. A certain sector of society has taken over that word, and politicized it.

Even inclusive people exclude those who don’t think like they do.

Let that sink in (I don’t like this phrase, but it fits here).

“Discrimination” is another often misunderstood word. I’m a member of AARP, and I get emails and Facebook posts almost daily talking about “age discrimination.”

When I say discrimination, that’s not what most of you think about, is it? But it’s very real. I switched jobs several times in my 50s, and I’m sure I experienced age discrimination to some degree while job searching.

Most of you put “discrimination” and “racism” in the same sentence. And you should. Because racism is very real as well.

But again, what is it? To those of you who have experienced racism: Do you have any interest at all in ending it? I’m serious. Because I’m a white male, I’m often guilty by association.

Many white males are racist. I am not defending them. But if you look down on me only because of the color of my skin, you’re racist too. By definition. I can change my attitude, but I cannot change the color of my skin.

Can we have an intelligent discussion about that?

Probably not, because there’s another issue at work here besides defining the terms.

Getting personal

I’ll explain this by quoting an article in the Aug. 20 edition of the (Elyria, Ohio) Chronicle-Telegram. The Avon Lake City Council was prepared to enact a law increasing the penalties for drivers passing a stopped school bus – until a resident, who’s also an attorney, objected, calling the local law unconstitutional. He claimed it was an attempt to supersede state law.

Well, OK. The attorney has a right to say that.

A city councilman didn’t think so. He said the local law had been reviewed by Avon Lake’s law director, then added, “I’m sure everyone is very familiar with his reputation,” referring to the attorney.

The attorney responded, “That’s a personal attack on me. I want him sanctioned. Discipline him, chair – or don’t you have the guts?”

Then this: (The attorney) spoke out several times at Monday’s meeting, talking over council members to the point police officers were called to keep the meeting civil. Following the meeting he was escorted out of Council chambers by police.

That’s the problem with civil discourse today. We can’t discuss issues without getting personal. Neither side can.

We must stick to the issues, and agree to disagree at times. There are ways to oppose a law without name-calling.

Rights

Perhaps we need to tone down the social rhetoric in public, and focus on issues of real government (federal, state and local):

  • Paying for and improving public schools.
  • Maintaining roads and bridges.
  • Balancing the budget.
  • Ensuring trash pickup.
  • Improving water quality, both in our homes and in our lakes and rivers.

These issues get lost behind abortion, gay rights, women’s rights, gun rights and other rights.

Right?

Who decides what rights are right?

Are certain issues topics of right vs. wrong? Which ones?

We answer that question differently, so we aren’t seeing eye-to-eye on much these days.

Here’s a thought. Let parents teach their children whatever social values they choose. In school, all children matter – because all children belong there. Teach them reading, writing and arithmetic.

Can we start with that?

Can we set up an educational system where every child has a chance to succeed, no matter who he or she is or what their background is?

It can be done, if all of us start with that question.

Believe

“Believe.”

Believe what? Everyone believes something. Everyone believes lots of things. We believe the sun will come up tomorrow, for example.

What do you believe in? Why?

Let’s talk. Not argue or curse, but actually talk.

Which requires two listening ears. By both of us.

Peace in the midst of injustice

If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.

Romans 12:18

 

Such a simple statement, and yet so profound. You’d think everyone would want to live peaceably.

If it is possible …

The apostle Paul wrote this statement in a letter to a specific group of Christians. He didn’t write it to a nation or a government. He wrote it to us. We aren’t to point fingers at others with this sentiment – or any other sentiment in the Bible, for that matter.

Paul was writing to me. And to you.

I am not to take revenge. Ever. That only escalates any situation, and hurts me as well as the other person.

Road rage

Example: road rage. Just yesterday, I was driving the company van at 20 mph through a school zone. Slightly ahead of me in the right lane was another van. Without warning, the driver of the other van jerked into my lane. Had I not slammed on the brakes (and hit the horn), he would have sideswiped me.

He continued on as if nothing happened. Then, a couple of minutes later, he did it again, swerving unexpectedly into the left lane (thankfully, there wasn’t anyone beside him then).

I let him go. I could have flashed my lights at him, honked repeatedly or pulled up beside him, rolled down my window and yelled at him. Right?

Then what? He might have apologized. He might have given me the finger and cut me off again.

To what end? Likely a crash involving him, me or both.

Because I drive for a living, such an incident would probably cost me my job. That’s a steep price to pay for getting angry in the heat of a moment.

So far as it depends on you …

Facebook anger

Example: political thinking. I’ve been ostracized by a close relative whose political views differ from mine. She wouldn’t let up on my Facebook posts after I asked her to chill out, so last fall I had to de-friend her. She blames me for rejecting her. That feeling of rejection goes back much farther than last year, by the way (and is not justified, in my opinion).

How do I respect someone who thinks differently than I do, and is not shy about saying so? In the short term, we need a cooling-off period, I think. I’m not adverse to a respectful conversation at all.

If it is possible …

I’ve apologized a couple of times for offending her, and she has not accepted my apologies. In real life, she’s a much nicer person than she is on Facebook (she’s not the only one I know who fits that profile). We live in different states so we don’t see each other often. Perhaps a face-to-face is in order. I’ll have to think about that.

False accusation

Example: Joseph in the Old Testament. If anyone has ever understood injustice, it’s Joseph.

After getting sold to a trader by his brothers, he was bought by Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh in Egypt. Potiphar’s wife wanted to have an affair with him, but Joseph said no – because he respected Potiphar and he followed the principles of the living God. As a result, the revengeful wife of Potiphar falsely accused him of rape. Potiphar, without asking Joseph his side of the story, had him tossed in prison.

Then forgot about him. For two years.

So far as it depends on you …

Joseph never complained. He wasn’t happy about it, but he tried to make the best of a bad situation. Eventually, he got out of prison and served Pharaoh very well. Read about these events in Genesis 39-41.

Joseph also eventually forgave his brothers for selling him years earlier, when he could have turned the tables and had them thrown in prison, or worse. Read about that in Genesis 43-45.

Joseph’s attitude?

“Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good.”

Genesis 50:20

If it is possible …

Defending truth

Example: Stephen in the New Testament. Stephen is one of my heroes. We first hear about him when he, “a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit,” is appointed with six others to meet the physical needs of people so the 12 apostles could spend all of their time preaching. He was a behind-the-scenes servant.

And yet, he “did great wonders and signs among the people.” Some of the religious leaders of his day didn’t appreciate that – nor could they defend themselves against Stephen’s wisdom.

As with Joseph, Stephen was falsely accused, Stephen of blaspheming against the temple and the law. In response, Stephen gave a phenomenal history lesson to the leaders who should have already known what he was saying. But instead of understanding their own history, they stoned him.

As Stephen was dying a painful death, he “cried out in a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them’.” Read his story in Acts 6-7.

So far as it depends on you …

Remaining true

Sometimes, when we try to live peaceably, there are consequences. Just ask Joseph and Stephen. Both paid a huge price for their faithfulness to peace and to the living God – Stephen with his life.

In the end, I’m sure both would say that living a peaceable life was worth the cost. Other people benefited greatly from their peace-loving ways.

Even if they didn’t understand why they had to suffer, they trusted the God they worshipped for the results of their peace-loving ways.

Joseph saw those results: restored relationships with his brothers, for one. Stephen did not. He became the first martyr to the Christian cause. The results came later.

That was good enough for Stephen.

Wow.

This life often is not very peaceful. What can you and I do to help make it more so?