Bring on January

When you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.

Matthew 6:3

 

I saw this meme making the rounds the other day, and it’s a good one. It seemed a little out of place on Giving Tuesday, however.

My response to one friend who posted that verse:

 

In other words, do in January what you do in December.

 

We Americans love to be generous around the holidays. We give thanks on Thanksgiving. For Christmas, we buy presents our relatives don’t need or probably even want, often with money we don’t have, just because that’s what the holiday is all about.

On Giving Tuesday – one day a year – we are reminded that there are other people in the world besides us. So, we are encouraged to throw money at them.

Can you tell that December is not my favorite time of the year?

I’m jaded.

Motive

It’s great that we give alms to the poor around the holidays. But what’s our motive? Is it to salve our conscience? Is it to keep up with the Joneses in a giving kind of way?

Or, is it that we’re doing something that we know deep in our hearts that we should do more often than once a year?

Many people have needs this time of year, certainly. The food pantry where I volunteer saw its busiest week of the year right before Thanksgiving. A couple of people asked if we were giving away turkeys (we weren’t, but we did give away extra meat, thanks to the generosity of our director.)

Many of us are lonely this time of year. We’ve lost loved ones, and we miss them during family times over the holidays. For them, some of the gifts we offer this month should be spiritual or even physical – our presence, I mean, even more than a present.

Everyone in my immediate family, including my parents, is still among us, so I have yet to experience this up close. But many of you understand this deeply.

Many agencies and companies are collecting toys and gifts for the needy for Christmas. That’s a good thing. I don’t want to downplay that.

I’m not one to jump on a bandwagon, that’s all. If the rest of you are donating to a cause, the cause doesn’t need my gifts too.

Like I said, I’m jaded.

In the dark

I just might wait until January, when most of you have put all this generosity behind you.

January is cold and dark. Winter has arrived in full force. Sub-freezing temperatures are the norm. There are no major holidays to look forward to. It’s back to the daily grind. Vacations are over.

And the needy are forgotten.

Hunger is not a once-a-year phenomenon. Neither is loneliness. Memories of our loved ones don’t fade after the calendar turns and we view December through the rear-view mirror.

Indeed, my mother-in-law’s birthday was in January. She passed away quite a few years ago. We don’t talk about that at home, but maybe we should. My in-laws’ photo still hangs on the dining room wall with other family photos, and it will remain there forever.

When Jesus talked about not letting your left hand know what your right hand is doing, I think this is what He meant. When the bright lights of publicity are gone and no one is looking, will we continue to serve the needy in our communities then?

When January comes

The quote from Jesus at the beginning of this blog is an action statement from Jesus. In the same breath, He talks about motive.

Whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.

Matthew 6:2

 

What is their reward? Praise by others. That’s all they get.

Praise by others lasts a day or two, and then we move on to another issue. That’s the way life on this Earth rolls.

 

… so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

Matthew 6:4

 

This is why we give in January, as well as in December. It’s dark. We’ve moved on. No one is watching anymore.

But the living God sees. He knows what we’re up to. We can’t hide from Him. He knows the motive in our hearts.

Even in December, God knows what motivates us. Are we real, or are we just doing what we’re supposed to be doing?

I can’t answer that, because I can’t see your heart.

I volunteer occasionally with the American Red Cross. We don’t have to follow God to serve there. Motives vary among volunteers, I’m sure. The Red Cross is just glad when volunteers care enough to assist.

Rewards

Where does our reward come from, though? Is it from the Red Cross, or is it from the living God?

Our motive provides that answer.

Jesus said elsewhere in the Bible to store up treasures in heaven, and not on Earth. God is holding those rewards for us in heaven, even the secret rewards, and He will give them to us when we get there.

But we don’t have to wait for heaven to receive rewards from the living God. When I give in secret, God gives me a blessing right here, right now. Many of you understand this.

We give gifts because the living God gave us the best gift of all – Jesus, born on Christmas Day. It’s our feeble response to the gift of life and meaning that we have received.

That’s what Christmas is all about. Or supposed to be all about.

Where is your heart today?

Even more important, where will your heart be in January, when all the Christmas decorations have been put away for another year?

Does the Christmas spirit live on in you, year-round?

Just a thought.

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.

Sunshine brings out the best in everyone

Sunshine and blue skies.

That’s a big deal.

When you’re attending a professional tennis tournament, rain is Enemy No. 1. A couple of drops and the white lines get slippery, halting play.

The past two years, my oldest son and I saw as much rain as we did good tennis at the Western & Southern Open in Mason, Ohio, just north of Cincinnati. Indeed, the Thursday evening session got rained out two years in a row.

Not this year.

We saw just a few white puffy clouds – and lots of sunshine. No raindrops at all.

Wonderful surprise

Best of all, my middle son surprised me by flying in from Denver to join us for the event. He and my oldest son worked out the arrangements shortly after last year’s tournament ended, and kept the surprise until last week.

Both of them played varsity tennis in high school, so that peaked our interest in the sport.

kontaveit-barty 1

This was our fourth year attending the Western & Southern Open, which many of the top men’s and women’s players in the world use as a tune-up for the U.S. Open, a “grand slam” event in early September in New York City.

Cincinnati is a lot closer to our homes than New York is, and a heck of a lot cheaper. We gain close access to the world’s best without spending an arm and a leg to do it.

Cheap probably isn’t the right word, though.

Gotta eat

While the price of admission is much less than for the U.S. Open, the motel we stayed at jacked up the price for the week, because they know they can do that and still sell out. Capitalism at its finest.

And food costs a lot more on the grounds of the Lindner Family Tennis Center than it does outside the venue. We bought four meals there – lunch and dinner on Thursday and Friday (the motel provided breakfast, such as it was). A basic hamburger cost $9. We also got pizza and calzones one time.

The other meals were specialties of the house. Skyline Chili is a Cincinnati thing. It comes three-way, four-way or five-way: spaghetti topped with chili and cheese are the first three items. Four and five are beans and onions, either or both. It’s delicious.

We also ate “brisket mac and cheese.” For 15 bucks, we get a container of macaroni and cheese – the good stuff, not the boxed “dinner” you get at the grocery store for less than a dollar – topped with BBQ-flavored brisket. While expensive, it was very good.

We also bought a 20-ounce soft drink – for $4.50 – and refilled the bottle with water all afternoon and evening. Since the sun shone bright and temperatures reached the 80s both days, we got some sun and stayed as hydrated as we could.

u.s. pta hof induction

We ate one of our meals in Center Court in between matches. We sat in on a U.S. Professional Tennis Association Midwest Division Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Two people were inducted – one of whom, to my surprise, is from Avon Lake, Ohio, near where I live.

Among other things, Mary Herrick “has developed a number of accomplished tennis players including state champions, Division I collegiate athletes, and two National AAU Junior Olympic Gold Medal Teams. She previously served as a coach for nationally ranked players for the United States Tennis Association (USTA).”

https://yellowballtennis.com/tennis-professionals/mary-herrick/

That was cool.

The women

venus 4

Between the white lines, we saw many new players in the two days we attended of the week-long event. We also saw several superstars – including Venus Williams for the first time. Her sister, Serena Williams, dropped out before her first match with back issues. We still haven’t seen her play (but we saw her in the stands watching Venus play; in the photo above, she’s in the corner, first row).

On Thursday, we saw Venus defeat Donna Vekic of Croatia in three sets. Venus struggled early, then kicked it into gear and won the match.

barty 1

We saw the No. 1 seed, Ashleigh Barty (left) of Australia, twice – on Thursday and Friday. She didn’t impress us, really. Barty should have lost on Thursday to Anett Kontaveit (right) of Estonia.

kontaveit 1

Barty survived 4-6, 7-5, 7-5. On Friday she did a little better, defeating Maria Sakkari of Greece, 5-7, 6-2, 6-0. (She got crushed in the semi-final on Saturday after we left for home.)

The best women’s match we saw, up there with Barty-Kontaveit, was American Madison Keys – who would go on to win the tournament – defeat Simona Halep of Romania in the standing-room-only Grandstand. Keys won 6-1, 3-6, 7-5.

halep 1

Halep (left and below, playing Keys), a former world No. 1 player, has a strong following, even playing against an American in Cincinnati. While most of the crowd roared for Keys, we heard chants of “Simona … Simona …” once or twice as well.

keys-halep 2

The men

rublev 1

On the men’s side, the star of the tournament was a young Russian we weren’t familiar with. Andrey Rublev (right), only 21 years old, turned heads by defeating Roger Federer in a jam-packed Center Court, 6-3, 6-4 (the main photo). Federer (below) did not play badly; Rublev just played better.

federer 5

That’s what the tournament is all about.

Did we see a coming-out party for the newest star in professional tennis? Time will tell, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we did.

Rublev lost on Friday to eventual men’s champion Daniil Medvedev, another Russian, who is one of the world’s top 10 players. Medvedev, on Saturday after we left, shocked Novak Djokovic by defeating him in a three-set match.

We saw Djokovic (below), the defending champion, defeat Pablo Carreno Busta of Spain in straight sets on Thursday.

On Friday, in addition to seeing Medvedev defeat Rublev, we saw Richard Gasquet of France defeat Roberto Bautista Agut of Spain in three sets.

djokovic 4

Worth the trip

Our local newspaper gave little to no coverage of the Western & Southern Open, so professional tennis must not be very big in Northeast Ohio. The paper covers youth tennis (and other youth sports) extremely well. But this is a football town, and the Browns are in the headlines every day, even though the NFL is still in its preseason.

Even professional golf and motorsports get more ink than professional tennis does.

But there are other ways to enjoy the sport. The best is to see it in person.

With family.

What an awesome two days.

(Madison keys being interviewed after defeating Halep; Medvedev, taken by The Associated Press.)

Not always the leader

I’m not ready to feel old. I keep telling myself that.

But maybe I am.

We decided to renew our passports, since we don’t have those newfangled enhanced driver’s licenses yet. We got our licenses literally two months before that law was enacted, so we’ve got the “old” ones and they don’t expire until 2021. We won’t be able to travel, even domestically, starting next year without doing something.

Therefore, we showed up at the AAA office to get our passport photos taken. I’d forgotten that they’d require me to take off my glasses for the photo.

They won’t get an accurate photo of me, I thought, but whatever.

Then, they said: Don’t smile.

They really don’t want reality.

When the lady who took my photo showed me what she developed, I thought, well, that’s what the government wants.

mug 2

I look old.

See the wrinkles. Gray hair on the side.

Up against the wall.

Maybe that is reality.

Those wrinkles aren’t fake. Neither is the gray hair.

Not feeling old

My health is excellent, so I’m not ready to feel old.

I try to exercise, work up a good sweat, once or twice a week.

In addition, I volunteer with a group of high school and early 20s young men at an after-school basketball program our church youth director hosts. Only a few showed up last week, so I got to play.

We played three-on-three half-court, so we weren’t sprinting, but it’s in a gym with no air circulation on an 80-plus-degree day, so all of us needed water breaks. I actually made a basket or two. That’s about it, but I didn’t embarrass myself. Too much.

I’m not ready to feel old yet.

At least I was out there.

Hills and valleys

A few days later, I felt old again. I had a mountaintop experience on Saturday with several hundred leaders of an international Bible study. I’ll be a group leader this year. I met many wonderful people I’ll be serving with, heard several great speakers and participated in some great worship.

The 75-minute drive there and back was easy.

Unfortunately we can’t live on mountaintops. Daily life often takes place in the valleys.

Monday was a “valley” day.

I’m learning a lot about perseverance and the steadfast love of God this summer. Some days, we just press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:14).

Press on, whether I feel like it or not.

One step forward, two steps back, sometimes.

But keep going.

Our youngest son visited us last weekend. He left for home Monday morning. Tonight, I’ll see our other two sons. Our oldest son and I have attended an annual event in the Cincinnati area for several years, and they surprised me a couple of days ago by letting me know our middle son will fly in from Denver to join us.

Very cool. Another mountaintop experience awaits.

In between, there’s a valley.

Even the clouds rolled in on Monday, hiding the sun’s brightness.

I had things to do to keep busy, but some days it’s hard to get motivated.

Not “doing” life

Reading a book isn’t a cop-out, is it?

I’ve spent a fair amount of time reading this summer. I love the English language. In addition to writing it, I enjoy reading it. Novels. History. Sports. Current events in the local newspaper.

I’m not contributing to society when I read a book. I’m not “doing” anything.

In our high-achieving society, I’m an anomaly, I guess. There are days when I’ll just watch the world go by, let you all change the world and I’ll just wait my turn.

I read social media, but I don’t post nearly as much as many of you do. I’m not obsessed that way. I don’t do memes. I especially don’t share memes. Don’t try the “I bet I won’t get one share” crap with me. I see those literally every day, and yes, I scroll right past them.

Can I get an Amen?

I’ll wager a lot of those memes are fake anyway.

I will decide myself where to volunteer my time, what to post and what to comment on, thank you.

I’m not about emotion.

Background music

So, maybe that passport photo is accurate, then.

Or, maybe I do feel emotion, but I just don’t share it. Not worth the effort.

I pick my battles, and not too many of them.

Even at home. Especially at home.

There’s one chapter left in the book I’m reading now. Maybe I’ll finish it here in a minute.

Sometimes I put on some soft music when I read; other times, I read in silence. Music relaxes me.

I grew up listening to background music. Classical. Mom and Dad still play classical music, either on the radio or on some of the many albums they have, all the time.

In high school choir, we sang Handel’s Messiah. In a public school. That’s the best music ever written.

Those were the days.

What do they sing in school choirs now? I have no idea. Haven’t been to a high school concert in a long time. Should find an excuse to do that this year.

In the meantime, I’ll read in my spare time. I have a few events to prepare for, some imminent and some long-term. I’ll take my time and try to prepare well.

Until next time. Enjoy your mountaintops and get through your valleys.

Neither lasts forever.

Good thing, right?

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.

The story continues

Tell me your story.

Such a simple thing, really.

Actually, it’s not.

But instead of me trying to tell you how to live your life, I’ll just listen.

Tell me your story.

Don’t give me your politics. I want to hear your story.

Your real life.

This isn’t about immigration, unless you are one. This isn’t about Washington, unless you live there. This isn’t about race relations, about what other people did or didn’t do to you.

Just tell me your story.

Could you do that?

I’m a private person in many ways. There are some parts of my story I won’t tell you. Thoughts I have, things I’ve said or done (or not said or not done that I should have).

When I was job-searching as an older adult, I had trouble with this. I didn’t come across well, or maybe my story wasn’t what a prospective employer wanted to hear.

There were times I was passed over for a job when I said to myself, “I could have done that job. I’m more qualified than the person they hired – and I’d have stayed longer than that person did.”

I’ve never felt comfortable tooting my own horn. Look at me, how special I am.

That’s not my story.

So, what is my story?

The secular and the divine

I’m a child of the living God.

That underscores everything I am. Employers don’t care about that, but that affects my mindset, the way I think, the way I work, the way I relate to people, the way I live my life.

Some days, like today, I’m home alone for a good chunk of the day. I’m OK with that. In fact, I like that. I don’t mind being alone for long periods of time.

I went for a jog this morning. Finished a Bible study lesson for tomorrow night. Had lunch. Am writing this blog now. May read a book or magazine later this afternoon.

That’s a good day for me.

As a child of the living God, I have time these days to read and meditate on things that matter. I do things that are meaningful. Not always, of course, but that’s the goal.

What else is my story about?

I’m a husband and father. And a son – my parents live about 2.5 hours away from here, and since they aren’t getting any younger, I need to make an effort to see them every so often. We saw them two weekends ago.

I’m a journalist. Even though I’m not working in the profession any more, I still think like one. And I write – just not for a specific publication. I am my own editor. I learned how to do that during my working days.

I try not to judge you. I have opinions, of course, as you do, but I try to respect you, whether I agree with your stances or not.

You won’t catch me using derogatory language in reference to anyone. If I ever do, I hope you’ll let me know.

This is the journalist and the Christian converging in me, the secular and the divine.

“Separation of church and state” is impossible. Oops – I made a political statement, which I said we shouldn’t do. But the divine influences the secular in a multitude of ways.

You know this is true.

I am a journalist and a Christian. I cannot separate them. This is who I am.

I’m not an expert in either role, but I’m learning. Still. I’ve been at it for awhile now. I worked as a journalist for about 30 years, and I asked Christ into my heart as a teenager, more than 40 years ago.

Am I tooting my own horn?

Something new

I’m not afraid to try new things.

When my long-term job at The Saginaw News ended, I took a job at Morley Companies in Saginaw, Mich. Morley, among many other things, contracts with various companies and governments to operate call centers.

I hate the telephone. I have to interrupt whatever I’m doing to answer it. I’m an introvert, so I’m not big on talking anyway.

Therefore, I worked in a call center, wearing a headset for eight hours a day. For two and a half years.

That forced me out of my comfort zone. I had to learn how to talk, at least a little bit.

A couple of months ago, I decided to volunteer with a local food pantry. One day I just showed up. A friend volunteers there but he wasn’t present that day. So I spent four hours with about a dozen people whom I’d never met before.

Introverts don’t do things like that. But I did. And I enjoyed it.

I serve there twice a week now. I guess they like me – they even made me a name tag. And I’m taking an online class to learn new skills that hopefully will help the organization in other ways.

But I’m not interested in padding the resume. It’s not like I do things just to do them.

During my working days, I enjoyed getting up in the morning. I liked my job. A lot. I was part of a team, and we got along very well together. We put out a great product, every day. Subscribers bought the newspaper, and interacted with it.

These days, I also enjoy getting up in the morning, but for different reasons. Many days I schedule activities to keep me busy and interacting with people. Since I’m an introvert and my stamina isn’t always strong (I had pneumonia a long time ago and I tire easily), I don’t mind the occasional day of rest. Sometimes more than occasional.

Attending a funeral of a family member recently, I talked with a cousin who lives in Washington state. I don’t see him very often. He asked me what I’m up to, and I told him I’m retired and enjoying being a volunteer.

“I’m tired of the rat race,” I said.

“I enjoy the rat race,” my cousin told me.

That’s cool, I said. And I meant it. He does enjoy the “rat race,” and he’s good at it. He owns a business that is thriving.

That’s his story.

And that’s mine.

We’re wired differently, even though we are related.

It’s all good.

The story continues.

What’s your story?

Giving thanks

O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good;

his steadfast love endures forever!

Psalm 118:1

 

As Thanksgiving approaches, it’s a good time to remind ourselves what we’re thankful for. Some years I make a list. It gets long, including family, good health, friends, plenty of comforts of life, and many other things.

I am thankful for all of that. I never want to take any of those people, including you, and things for granted.

This Bible verse gives a slightly different take on thanksgiving. It reminds us where all of our blessings come from.

So often we keep our eyes on things of this world. That’s a downer for me. It’s easy to see the divisions, crimes, political correctness (in every area of life, including sports) and self-centeredness that dominate American culture.

Children and teens abuse cell phones. The internet features judgmentalism and pornography. Television shows off plenty of flesh and violence. So do the movies, adding cussing as routine language far too often.

But phones, computers, TVs and movie screens are inanimate objects. Technology itself is neither bad nor good.

What we do with them determines their usefulness to us.

Can we be thankful for our technology?

I’m thankful for my laptop, because that’s how I connect with many of you. I value your friendship, even if it’s primarily online.

I don’t have to agree with you politically or in other ways to keep you as a friend. I look for common ground, even if we see life differently.

How can I do that? Because the God of the universe created us both. You are my brother or sister, really. We have the same Father, even as we have different fathers.

I am thankful for that this holiday season. More unites us than separates us, if we choose to see life that way.

Every one of us entered this world the same way, and each of us will return to dust. We do many things to prolong our lives, but the end is inevitable.

That’s not morbid. That’s fact. Indeed, that’s a good thing, from my perspective. I often see this world as a downer; heaven is the opposite. I’m excited to get there one day.

The LORD is good, the verse from Psalm 118 says. Many of us don’t believe that, but I do. When looking solely at this world, we can’t trust anyone anymore, can we? No one is good.

But the living God is.

How do I know? Because his steadfast love endures forever. That wonderful sentence is repeated throughout the Psalms.

Steadfast: Not subject to change.

Love: Strong affection for another arising out of kinship or personal ties.

Endures: To remain firm under suffering or misfortune without yielding.

Forever: For a limitless time.

Aren’t those definitions worth giving thanks for? They came from the Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, copyright 1991.

The sentence came from God, the definitions from a secular dictionary. They go together, don’t they? That’s the way God works.

Steadfast

With people, change is good – because we know we have messed up our lives. Even if we won’t admit it to each other, we know it’s true. To worship a God who never – never – messes up is beyond our comprehension, really.

No temptation affects Him. No anger forces Him to lose His temper. Judgment, yes; condemnation, no.

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.

Hebrews 13:8

Jesus was around before time began (John 1:1), and He will be around after time ends (read the book of Revelation). As our creator, He knows our deepest needs and wants to meet them – if we let Him.

Love

Love takes many forms, of course – most of them selfish. We give hoping or expecting to receive something in return. That’s why we hurt each other; there’s no way another person can meet our deepest needs and desires.

That’s why we need to look up. I give thanks to the God who loves me the way I need to be loved.

And because His love is steadfast, it’s there even when I don’t feel it.

“Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

Jesus, in Mark 3:35

Kinship is bestowed on those of us who do what God wants us to do. As kin, we will receive an inheritance one day.

For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ …

Romans 8:15-17

We are adopted children. Parents who adopt choose to do so; in the same way, God has chosen us. The inheritance He offers us is far better than anything our parents can bestow on us, because material things won’t last forever. Neither will we, on Earth.

We know this, don’t we?

Endures

The dictionary definition of endure is eye-opening: “To remain firm under suffering or misfortune without yielding.”

It’s not keeping the same job for 40 years, or the same marriage for 50. Endurance requires suffering.

A good friend has had debilitating headaches since he was 14. He’s in his early 80s now. Several of you endure chronic pain with no end in sight. I cannot imagine that kind of endurance.

When Jesus Christ suffered taunting, a crown of thorns, 40 lashes and death by crucifixion, He suffered in ways we can’t begin to understand.

“Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.”

Jesus, in Luke 22:42

To willingly accept suffering on our behalf, even when He knew it would kill Him, is steadfast love that endures.

Forever

We don’t think of the afterlife this way, but we should. Our time on Earth is finite; again, we know this, if we’ll stop and think about it.

Then what?

Is this all there is? Really?

Such a downer that would be.

There is more. So much more.

“… he will wipe every tear from their eyes.

Death will be no more;

mourning and crying and pain will be no more,

for the first things have passed away.”

John, in Revelation 21:4

This is only the beginning of what heaven will be like. It’s a pretty good start, isn’t it?

O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good;

his steadfast love endures forever!

This is what I’m thankful for this week.

Bonus: I’m now ready for Christmas.

Beauty and power, in all forms

Early-afternoon thunderstorms frequently pop up in the Rocky Mountains, they said.

Last year when we visited our middle son in the Denver area, we drove up – literally, up – to the Alpine Visitors Center in Rocky Mountain National Park first thing in the morning. After a respite there at nearly 12,000 feet above sea level, we started down the mountain, and heard a thunderstorm up there. We never saw rain, but we knew the mountaintop got it.

We weren’t so lucky this year.

There are several roads to reach the Alpine Visitors Center. A year ago we took the narrow Old Fall River Road. This time we went through Grand Lake.

Grand Lake, population 495, has a pretty waterfall that’s a popular tourist destination. As we returned to our rental car from the waterfall around lunchtime, we heard the obligatory thunder.

grand lake storm 3

We watched the storm roll in. Grand Lake didn’t get the worst of it – more on that in a minute. But Grand Lake did get hail. We watched it bounce off the roof of our rental car.

grand lake storm 4 (hail)

That’s not unusual, several locals told us.

The storm

 

After the rain and hail stopped, we continued into the mountains. We drove past a visitors center to the Rocky Mountain National Park entrance, where we would begin the Trail Ridge Road drive up to the Alpine Visitors Center, almost 4,000 feet higher than Grand Lake.

But wait. We saw a “road closed” sign.

The park employee at the entrance booth told us the storm caused accidents on Trail Ridge Road, so the park closed the road for cleanup and to ensure that it was safe for passage. He gave us no details on when the road might reopen.

We turned around and poked into the visitor’s center. A parks employee there was on the phone seeking details. None were forthcoming. “The road might reopen later this afternoon or it might be tomorrow morning,” he said. “You might want to wait a couple of hours and check back.” He gave us a phone number for recorded road updates.

After watching a 23-minute film about the park, my wife, son and I retreated to our rental car, where we played several card games while we decided what to do. We called the number a couple of times.

Finally, after nearly two hours there, the road opened. We learned that a motorcyclist lost control in the rain and sleet, but he was not seriously injured. Once the wreck was cleaned up, park officials waited until the weather cleared to reopen the road.

alpine visitors center rainbow

 

We were glad we waited.

Once we reached the Alpine Visitors Center, we saw a rainbow between the mountains below us.

The drive down the other side of the mountain to Estes Park was beautiful. At one point, we saw a little snow on the side of the road.

When we reached our motel in Estes Park, we saw air dryers on full blast in the lobby. Rain from the storm had flooded it.

We left humid 90-degree weather in northeast Ohio to make this trip. After the storm, the temperature dropped to about 40, with little humidity.

As we left Estes Park the next morning, we stopped at a miniature golf course we enjoyed last year. It was closed this time – due to a lightning strike from the storm.

The storm came up fast and didn’t last long, but packed a powerful punch.

Since this was the third year in a row we’d visited the Denver area, we didn’t do as much sightseeing this time. We hung out with our son and played board and card games. We took the one overnight into Rocky Mountain National Park and Estes Park.

Baseball

rockies2

On Labor Day, we attended a Colorado Rockies baseball game against the San Francisco Giants. The Rockies are in the midst of a heated playoff race, so we thought we’d see a good game.

We did. In the first inning, the first four Rockies scored – single, home run, double, home run. We saw six home runs in the thin mile-high air, three by each team – including two by Rockies shortstop Trevor Story, good for 5 runs batted in off of Giants starter Madison Bumgarner. (In the photo, Story hits this first-inning pitch from Bumgarner into the left-field seats.)

But it almost wasn’t enough.

In the top of the eighth inning, the Giants did something I’d never seen before: They hit back-to-back pinch-hit home runs to turn a 7-5 deficit into an 8-7 Giants lead.

In the bottom of the eighth, Rockies pinch-hitter Noel Cuevas hit a two-run single to give the Rockies the lead again. After closer Wade Davis struck out the side in the ninth, the Rockies won, 9-8.

Thrilling game.

Denver Botanic Gardens

A couple of days later, we visited the Denver Botanic Gardens, which we had done once before. It’s beautiful. It’s nestled on 24 acres between an upscale neighborhood, a park and apartment buildings. It’s a peaceful, soothing place to enjoy nature and see plants from around the world.

We closed our vacation by watching our son play in an Ultimate Frisbee tournament. That’s one of his passions, and he’s very good at it.

We are thankful for family and God’s creation, both of which we enjoyed on this trip.

Giving thanks, every day

Things I am thankful for today:

 

Good health

The ability to donate blood (most of the time) www.lifeshare.cc

A good job with a supportive supervisor, a great staff and flexible hours

Hector, the student I mentor in Cleveland

Monopoly, his favorite game (and Robert’s at the center where I work)

Greater Cleveland Volunteers http://www.greaterclevelandvolunteers.org/

The American Red Cross www.redcross.org

Interstate 90 (I spend a lot of time on it)

Interstate 480 (a great connector to places I go)

Good friends, locally and across the country

My wife

Our three sons

My parents, who are still doing well in their 80s

My sister

Good health throughout my family

 

Jesus Christ

The Bible

Discernment

Insight

Silence

Quiet time nearly every morning for decades

Pittsburgh-based Summers Best Two Weeks, a summer camp where I gave my life to Christ in 1975 www.sb2w.org/

 

Our two cats

Our previous cat, Paws

Coffee in the morning

The ability to write

The ability to edit, including my own copy

LinkedIn www.linkedin.com

Facebook www.facebook.com

The Christian Blog Collection

An Internet hearts game https://cardgames.io/hearts/

A good book (I’m reading Hamilton, which the Broadway musical is based on)

Re-connecting with high school classmates

Seeing some classmates at a picnic last summer for the first time in more than 35 years

 

Food on the table, something I never take for granted

A place to call home

Money in my wallet

My 401(k), future pension (I hope), future Social Security (I expect), as secure a financial future as I could wish for

Ability to tithe

Ability to be financially generous at times

Going out to dinner with my wife every Sunday after church

 

Time to walk/jog once or twice a week

Jogging in a warm spring or summer rain

Working up a good sweat

Colorful fall leaves

Cold winter air on my face

Good balance on an icy bridge

Buds on trees in the spring

Deer

Birds overhead

Occasional turkeys on the property at work

 

The lawn mower we bought in 1988 that still runs

The 21-year-old car I drive

The Chevette I drove for 18 years

My work van, which has 193,000 miles on it

A sweater my grandmother made for me that I still occasionally wear in winter. Grandma died in 1980

Our nearly 33-year marriage

July 24, 1975: The day I gave my life to Jesus

The red Schwinn bicycle I rode as a child (I still have it) www.schwinnbikes.com/

An indestructible hand-crank pencil sharpener that sits on my bedside table

My Indian Guides vest (it’s a tight fit, but I can still put it on, sort of)

Our card table, which was our first dining room table back in the day

 

Michigan State University https://msu.edu/

Classes that challenged me to think

The Magic Johnson-led basketball team that won the NCAA championship my freshman year

The beauty of the campus

University Reformed Church, where I met and married my wife https://www.universityreformedchurch.org/

Bailey Hall, the dorm where I lived all four years at MSU

 

Ames United Methodist Church, where we raised our children http://ameschurch.org/

The Ames softball team

Playing on that team with all three of my sons

The opportunity for my wife and I to both be leaders in that church

The youth directors who taught our sons so much

Sunday School classes

The 12-week membership class, which I helped lead for awhile

Small groups, one a couples group and the other a men’s group

A summer Bible study or two

Monday night basketball in the church gym

The structure and accountability of the United Methodist Church http://www.umc.org/

The chance to serve on a couple of statewide committees through the church

 

The Saginaw County CROP Hunger Walk, which continues to raise thousands of dollars to feed hungry people locally and worldwide https://www.crophungerwalk.org/saginawmi

Ultimate Frisbee on Saturday mornings

The annual Thanksgiving morning Ultimate game

Playing Ultimate in 8 inches of virgin snow

Mom’s Thanksgiving dinner (no matter how the Lions did)

 

The Saginaw News, where I worked for 24 years http://www.mlive.com/saginaw/#/0

Accountability, with respect

Proofreading to keep mistakes out of the newspaper

Participating with News employees in the federal summer lunch program, thanks to the leadership of one of the reporters

A clear mind on deadline

 

The beauty of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula http://www.michigan.org/hot-spots/upper-peninsula

Snowplows in winter to keep the roads clear

An engine heater in my Chevette on sub-zero January mornings

Pickford, my first home after college http://www.hsmichigan.org/pickford/

The Wallis family for frequently inviting this single guy over for Sunday dinner

Learning to drive in a region with no traffic lights and only a few blinker lights

 

Friends everywhere I’ve lived

Brothers and sisters in Christ everywhere I’ve lived

Wonderful co-workers at all of my jobs

Opportunities to volunteer in the communities where I’ve lived

The future hope of Heaven https://www.gotquestions.org/heaven-like.html

 

I could update this list every day. What are you thankful for today?