God’s affection at Christmas shows up in July

Hollywood would recast the Christmas story … A civilized person would sanitize it. No person, however poor, should be born in a cow stall. Hay on the floor. Animals on the hay. Don’t place the baby in a feed trough; the donkey’s nose has been there. Don’t wrap the newborn in rags. They smell like sheep. Speaking of smells, watch where you step.

“Because of Bethlehem Love is Born, Hope is Here” by Max Lucado, page 131

 

This describes my workplace. Perfectly.

I work with developmentally disabled adults. Some of them are not sanitary, and make it difficult for the rest of us to be sanitary. I won’t get too specific, except this one example: I drive some of these individuals in a wheelchair-accessible van. One individual I drive wets himself, through his clothes and adult Depends, and the bench seat where he sits. He does this a couple of times a week, at least.

It smells in there. I’m constantly cleaning it and spraying Lysol.

I can’t keep a full roll of paper towels in the van; he takes it apart and puts his hands all over it.

Jesus was born in a place like that.

Messy. Unsanitary. Possibly even unsafe.

At the day program where I work, washing my hands is not a simple chore.

This is real life. Some of these folks don’t know any better.

And I stay.

God came to me – and you – in a place just like this. He didn’t arrive in a climate-controlled hospital room like our three sons did, surrounded by nurses and doctors who made sure each was healthy before they sent him home.

Thank God for hospitals.

But Jesus never saw one, and I don’t work in one either.

 

lucado

You, like Joseph, knocked on the innkeeper’s door. But you were too late. Or too old, sick, dull, damaged, poor, or peculiar. You know the sound of a slamming door. So here you are in the grotto, always on the outskirts of activity, it seems.

Page 133

 

I’ve been fired twice, relocated once (I quit first, though), and downsized once, all in the past 10 years. I’m hardly unique. Nobody works in the same job for an entire career anymore: My two oldest sons also have seen their jobs phased out – and neither is 30 years old yet.

Both have landed on their feet. One has landed his dream job; the other has a decent position, but still isn’t where he wants to be.

Both make more than they spend.

Because my wife has a good job, we do too. I provided for our family of five as our sons grew up, but those days are long gone.

I knocked on the innkeeper’s door, but I don’t have the passion, drive and self-promotion to thrive in today’s job market. Nor am I willing to relocate again. AARP asks me all the time about age-related job discrimination. Maybe that plays into it, or maybe it’s just me.

Old, dull, damaged, peculiar … especially peculiar. I don’t have the “presence” that employers are looking for. I don’t come across as enthusiastic with all these great ideas on how to improve your company.

I was a copy editor, for heaven’s sake. Behind the scenes. Making you look good. It’s never been about me.

Even newspaper executives don’t get that anymore, if they ever did.

So, my newspaper career is done.

And I’m in a smelly, unsanitary day program for developmentally disabled adults.

I’m glad I’m there.

Because, hopefully, I can make a difference.

 

You do your best to make the best of it, but try as you might, the roof still leaks, and the winter wind still sneaks through the holes you just can’t seem to fix. You’ve shivered through your share of cold nights.

And you wonder if God has a place for a person like you.

Find your answer in the Bethlehem stable.

Page 133

 

I was looking for something to read the other day and found this Max Lucado book on the shelf. We received it as a gift for a monetary donation we made, obviously around the holidays, to a radio station we listen to.

I’m reading a Christmas book when it’s literally 90 degrees outside.

The timing is perfect.

Fifteen years ago, I didn’t dream about being where I am now. I had a great job in a wonderful town with great friends and plenty of community involvement.

Life happens, as we all know. Society has changed a lot in the past 15 years.

For all of us.

And not always for the better. Right?

Depends how you look at it.

I’ve met many wonderful people in the past decade or so since my life got bumpy. I’ve joined Facebook and LinkedIn, meeting new people and reconnecting with long-ago friends. I’m in a job that tests my patience sometimes, but that’s how I learn patience.

 

It really comes down to that: God loves us. The story of Christmas is the story of God’s relentless love for us.

Let him love you. If God was willing to wrap himself in rags and drink from a mother’s breast, then all questions about his love for you are off the table. You might question his actions, decisions, or declarations. But you can never, ever question his zany, stunning, unquenchable affection.

Pages 134-5

 

This thought is timeless, for all people, for all seasons.

It’s why I get up a few minutes early every morning and spend a little time with God, just me and Him, before the day begins. Get right with God before punching in at work, before reading all your Facebook emotions, before doing yardwork or exercise or whatever else I’ll do today.

Start the day right, and the rest of the day has a better chance of turning out well.

Whatever that means. When something goes awry, there’s a lesson to be learned, a trial to endure or patience to reveal. God’s affection never wavers.

That’s the point of Christmas. And we don’t have to wait until December to experience it.

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Prepare before the battle comes

O Lord, there is no difference for you between helping the mighty and the weak. Help us, O Lord our God, for we rely on you.

2 Chronicles 14:11

 

This verse caught my attention this morning during my quiet time. Judah’s king, Asa, was facing a major battle with Zerah of Ethiopia, who had an army of 1 million men. Asa’s army was about half that size.

Asa had several options:

  1. He could have relied on his own wit to try to out-maneuver the stronger Ethiopian army.
  2. He could have raised a white flag and quit before he started.
  3. He could have asked God to fight the battle for him.

Asa chose option 3.

It worked. “… the Lord defeated the Ethiopians before Asa and before Judah, and the Ethiopians fled.” (verse 12)

Asa didn’t ask God to play a genie’s role – come save me from my crisis, then I’ll go on my merry way. I know some people who treat God like that.

I wonder if that offends God.

Instead, Asa rallied Judah to follow God – all the time.

Getting ready

Previous kings had set up worship centers to foreign gods. God’s chosen people had rejected Him and worshiped gods that didn’t exist, or a golden calf or wooden idols that couldn’t do anything.

Asa destroyed all of those.

Then, he built fortified cities that included protective walls around them that enemy armies couldn’t penetrate.

He prepared for battle before the battle came.

When the Ethiopians attacked, Asa was ready. He didn’t know ahead of time that the battle was coming from that particular army, but he knew he would face a battle from somewhere. So, he prepared for it.

He built fortified cities and talked with the true God who actually answers prayers.

If we want to defeat the temptations and sins that threaten to overtake us, we have to prepare ahead of time and be ready for battle, as Asa did. This isn’t an easy lesson to learn.

Missing the message

In 2000, I had a great job, a wife and three growing children, and vibrant church and community involvement. I could not ask for anything better than the life God had given me at that point.

My job as a copy editor at The Saginaw (Mich.) News was wonderful. Great co-workers, great bosses even, a salary that paid for the lifestyle our family of five enjoyed, and a job pledge.

Yes, a job pledge.

The pledge – which the company mailed to us every year in January, in writing – said that as long as The News published seven days a week, we had a job for life. The company retained the right to change our job descriptions, of course, as needs changed, but they promised us jobs until we reached retirement age.

Talk about blessed. I’m sure many of you, even if you have a great job, don’t have a pledge like that.

But in 2000. I received a surprise. God put a bug in my ear.

At the height of our prosperity, He told me that I was trusting that job pledge more than I was trusting Him. I was too comfortable, and my faith wasn’t as passionate as it should have been.

That startled me.

Really, God? You’ve given me so many blessings, so many ways I can serve You … so what’s up with this?

God persisted, so eventually I prayed this prayer:
“Okay God, I give the job pledge to You. I trust you more than I trust the job pledge.”

God knew something I didn’t.

The battle arrives

The newspaper industry, which had thrived for decades, was going to crash in the near future.

God was trying to prepare me for that moment.

When The News cut back to three days a week in 2009, the job pledge went out the window. I got downsized, as did many of my co-workers.

Even though God gave me a heads-up years earlier, I still didn’t handle it well. I sat around home for nearly a year and didn’t do much of anything. My wife didn’t appreciate that. I made no effort to re-train for a different career or to seek any job.

The News offered a nice buyout that continued my salary for a time. I should have taken advantage of that by preparing for my future, but I didn’t.

Unlike Asa, I hadn’t built my defenses up and prepared for battle.

When the battle came, I didn’t know how to handle it.

I didn’t prepare my family, either. I internalize things, which means I don’t talk things out with other people. Including my wife.

Learning the lesson

We attended a marriage retreat a few months ago – in 2018, nine years after the buyout – and talked about some things we should have begun talking about 10 years ago.

We worship a God of second chances, so the Ethiopians in my life don’t have to defeat me, even if I don’t prepare well for them. I’m sure I made it harder on us than it should have been.

Sometimes we bring pain on ourselves. That is not God’s will, nor is it His fault.

Unlike Asa, I tried option 1: to figure out my career plans on my own. That didn’t work out too well.

My newspaper career is done now, for several reasons. We’re here in Elyria, Ohio, doing other things. My wife has a very good job that she enjoys, and I have meaningful work where I can build relationships with people who need that.

My job has its frustrations, but I try not to focus on those (too much). I’m trying to rely on the living God for my job and for our future, like Asa did.

Temptations are much easier to defeat with this mindset, with this way of living.

Thanks, Asa, for reminding me to rely on God.

It makes no difference whether I’m strong or weak. If God fights the battle for me, I’ll win.

How to apologize

Public apologies are just that.

Public.

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

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

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

Whatever.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“None of your damn business.”

Seriously.

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

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

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

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

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

Then, apologize.

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

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

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

The right way to apologize

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

 

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

2 Chronicles 7:14

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our part

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God’s part

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

Does that matter?

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

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

I can’t wrap my mind around that.

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

Yesterday’s sins are gone too.

That’s what forgiveness is.

Is it possible to live like that?

Yes.

I’m still working on it.

Once our sins are forgiven, then healing comes.

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

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

On a deep, deep level.

Changed hearts, changed lives.

That’s what an apology is all about.

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

 

Majoring in minor issues

My outlook on life is changing a little bit these days.

I’m much more detached when reading or watching the news. Politics, especially at the national level, doesn’t interest me much anymore.

I’d rather deal in real life.

Politics

For those of you who live and die by what the Democrats and/or Republicans do, I’m sure you won’t understand.

As a newspaper journalist for about three decades, I followed politics closely, because it sold papers.

Does it still?

Perhaps that’s one reason why what newspapers print isn’t the talk of the town anymore. Their editorial pages, as they have always done, focus on politics and not much else.

Not even government. Politics.

There’s a difference.

I rarely read any editorial page columns. They are so predictable. They say the same thing every day, using the issue of the day to promote their agenda.

Most of them these days slam President Trump. I get that.

But how many times do you have to say it?

Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un seemed to have an actual discourse leading to a summit, where they would talk about nuclear weapons, among other things.

The summit apparently fell through.

That was interesting, though.

But decades of mistrust can’t end in a few short weeks.

Maybe someday.

For the most part, the national discourse majors in minor issues.

Is kneeling during the National Anthem before NFL games really an issue worth dividing the country over?

Are school shootings really about gun control, or is something deeper at work there?

Do thoughts and prayers actually work? Do they change our outlook on life?

Sex

What’s the point of the #metoo movement, actually? Is it women’s rights, or is there something bigger at work there as well?

We are a sex-crazed society. We are massively messed up, and we all know it.

Exhibit A: #metoo.

Exhibit B: The divorce rate.

Exhibit C: Sex outside of marriage, including among teens, is not only normal, it is expected.

Exhibit D: Pornography is out of control in this country.

Exhibit E: Rape, sexual bondage, date rape …

Exhibit F: Clothing choices. How much cleavage is too much? Only for women, of course.

Exhibit G: Gender identity. Just the fact that we’re talking about this means we don’t know who we are anymore.

I don’t even have to quote statistics. You understand all of this because you experience it, or you know people who do.

But we won’t talk about it.

Not in a way that actually solves anything.

How do we expect to resolve the #metoo movement without talking about the role of sex in society? If sex outside of marriage is normal, why are we surprised when many men (and women) push the limits?

Nearly every song on the radio is about sex, some more blatantly than others. That’s been true for decades. I frequently listen to an oldies’ station that plays songs from my teen years. Talk about politically incorrect …

And yet we still play them. And listen.

Escape

Why are video games so popular? And illegal drugs? And porn?

Those are escapes from real life.

Real life is full of anxiety and stress. We don’t know how to solve real issues. Relationships. School. Jobs.

I’ve done the whole job search thing, and it’s not designed to bring out the best in anyone. It’s not even designed to connect passions with talent with careers. It’s all about being in the right place at the right time.

Some people say there’s no jobs out there. I see “now hiring” and “drivers wanted” and “positions available, all shifts” signs all over the place.

On the other end of the spectrum, highly technical jobs go unfilled because not enough of us are trained for them.

Most of us would prefer a job/career somewhere in the middle, something more than minimum wage and something that doesn’t require an advanced degree that we don’t have time for or can’t afford to get.

Are most of us left behind?

Dreams

I mentored a fourth-grade student in inner-city Cleveland this spring. He has no concept of a long-term future. All he thinks about is getting dissed by a classmate, for which he gets in trouble. He lives with his grandfather. His mother and two older sisters also are in Cleveland, but he doesn’t see them often. His dad is in Arizona, and my student hopes to move out there with him this summer. Cleveland is too violent, he says.

People are people wherever you go, I told him.

If he leaves Cleveland, will his life magically get better?

I doubt it.

How does arguing about President Trump’s tweets solve my fourth-grader’s lack of focus and maturity? How can he learn not to respond in anger when things don’t go his way?
His family is broken. His school is trying, but isn’t reaching him. His teacher can do only so much.

He got suspended recently for cussing out the school principal. Seriously.

Seriously?

A good friend of mine is a Big Brother to a teenager in another nearby city. That teen also lives in a broken home. Some days, he doesn’t feel like going to school, so he doesn’t.

Is there no big picture in this life?

No goals to aspire to?

No dreams?

Respect

In the mentoring program I’m involved in, we’re not allowed to talk about politics or religion. Too divisive. Yes, they are.

But is that how we solve problems, by saying that certain subjects are off-limits?

I thought democracy meant all issues are on the table. By discussing, even debating, issues, we understand what’s too radical and what actually works.

We don’t know how to talk issues without talking personality. How can we talk about sex without condemning those who practice sex differently than we do? Can we disagree and still respect each other?

That’s what we’ve lost in this country. Respect.

For teachers. For parents. For the boss. For the mayor. For the police.

For ourselves.

I’m right. You’re wrong. The world revolves around me. I can set whatever rules for my life that I want.

And we wonder why we’re so messed up.

A motorcyclist passed me the other day in a right-turn lane. Another vehicle and I were stopped, waiting for traffic to clear before proceeding on to state Route 57, a 45 mph highway at that point. The motorcyclist passed us in the turn lane and roared onto Route 57 before the other driver and I could move.

So much for “look out for motorcycles.” It goes both ways, you know.

Or, I wish you knew.

Faith

So, what is the big picture? How is my outlook changing?

While I can’t talk about my faith in school (unless my student brings it up first, of course), that’s where the answer lies. Not in your perception of faith, or mine, but in real faith.

In a God who wrote the big picture. Who wants the best for us.

Discipline is good, sometimes. My student doesn’t understand that. Most adults don’t either.

Good parents do understand that. Children need boundaries. If you’ve had children, you know this.

So, why do we think that we don’t need boundaries as adults?

Political boundaries change all the time. You and I think differently, so the boundaries I set may not work for you, and vice versa.

If we don’t like them, we can change them.

Why will we not look up? Put the video games down, look away from the porn, turn off the music. LeBron James and Steven Spielberg make far more money than you and I will ever see, but are they the best role models? Do they have all the answers?

When I talk about faith, I don’t even mean in a pastor or the Pope. Their interpretations of faith aren’t always right, either.

The best role model? Jesus Himself. And we killed Him.

If Jesus walked the Earth in the flesh today, we’d kill Him again. I’m sure of it.

We still don’t get it.

We’re searching for love in all the wrong places.

Haven’t heard that song in awhile.

Am I good enough?

I am not good enough.

“The Lord is with you, mighty warrior.”

I am the least in my family.

“I will be with you.”

This is the story of Gideon, starting in Judges 6.

It also is my story.

If I choose to believe it.

An angel of the Lord called Gideon into battle. Instead, he found excuses. He hid. He wanted the angel to choose someone else, I’m sure.

Satan has told me this same lie for years, and I believed it. I’m not good enough. No one cares what I think. No one is listening, so why barge in?

Send someone else, God.

My thoughts don’t matter.

No one has ever actually told me that.

Why do I believe it’s true, then?

Because very few people try to draw me out, to seek my thoughts on an issue. It’s easy to remain unnoticed.

Sometimes, I don’t have anything to say. (I pick my battles, far fewer than many people do.)

Other times, I’ve thought about speaking up. Occasionally, I actually do.

But that’s why I write. It’s easier for me to share my thoughts with a keyboard than verbally.

My thoughts frequently are off the wall anyway. They would make you uncomfortable. I’m sure of it.

Iron sharpens iron, they say. But iron is hard. It hurts if someone gets hit with it.

So, like Gideon, I make excuses.

But sometimes, God speaks to me too, as He did to Gideon.

No more excuses, Gideon. I’ve got a plan for you.

Go do it.

“I will be with you.” (Judges 6:16)

Does God have a plan for me?

He does.

God talked with me over the weekend, several times. I attended a men’s retreat with about 40 men from our church.

Actually, it wasn’t a retreat. Our leader called it an “advance.” Men don’t retreat. We move forward.

We advance.

Like Gideon did, despite his low self-esteem.

At one point during the weekend, I watched a Canada goose for 40 minutes. The goose swam peacefully on a small lake for awhile, then came ashore to find some breakfast.

Until one of our men walked past. As he approached, the goose sensed danger and retreated to the safety of the water. When the man continued on and the perceived danger was removed, the goose returned to the shore in search of breakfast.

This happened three times, as three men passed by, one by one.

Men are not supposed to retreat like this goose did. If we perceive danger, we are to face it.

Perhaps the danger is real. Perhaps not.

None of these men had any intention of harming the goose. In fact, all of them ignored it. Didn’t even notice what the goose was doing.

The goose didn’t understand that. It perceived danger, and removed itself.

We are men. God gave us minds and hearts to make sense of the world around us.

We are to live in the moment, not retreat from it.

We are to engage. We just might learn something. Or solve a problem.

Perhaps I might get hurt.

Or, possibly, a man and the goose might help each other. Companionship. Assistance finding breakfast, for example.

How do we know unless we engage?

At another point during the “advance,” God told me I need to change my heart towards two people in particular. A specific challenge.

With one person, I’m not good enough. I misunderstand and I’m misunderstood, because I don’t share my thoughts and feelings nearly enough.

I need to engage much more than I have done.

With the other person – who has developmental disabilities than make him unable to understand life the way I do – I need patience and love. He is an adult physically but not mentally. I should not expect him to respond as an adult should.

It’s hard to treat an adult with respect when he acts like a child. He is a child in an adult’s body.

Patience.

Getting angry hasn’t solved anything yet. Frustration doesn’t work either.

Patience.

One of our “advance” speakers challenged us to say yes to God, even when He asks us to do impossible things. And God will ask us to do impossible things because we are men, and we are given opportunities to glorify God – because we are worth that much to Him.

We are good enough, our speaker said. We are capable of so much more than we give ourselves credit for.

Despite our failures in the past.

This is the God we worship.

“I will be with you.”

On Saturday afternoon, seven of us men descended a couple of hundred steps (I didn’t count them, I’m guessing here) to the top of a beautiful waterfall that emptied into a gorge. We saw some flat rocks in the gorge that we could stand on, so we bushwhacked down the hill to reach them.

No steps or path there. It had rained the day before, so the leaf-covered hill was damp and a little muddy.

And steep.

And slippery.

We descended anyway.

Once the first couple of guys started down the hill, the rest of us followed.

The waterfall was beautiful from down there. We hung out for a little while, enjoying nature’s beauty.

Eventually, we had to climb up. We joked about calling for a helicopter to rescue us, but that was a joke.

Grab a tree branch here and hope it holds my weight. Pull myself up. There’s a big root over there; I grabbed that next. My shoes got muddy and I got a scratch or two, but I made it up to the stairs.

All seven of us did.

It took us a minute to catch our breaths.

On my own, there’s no way I would have trekked that hill. Such a thought never would have crossed my mind. When the steps and the path ended, well, that’s where I stop.

See what men can do when we work together? Encourage each other? Push each other, even?

I’m not good enough.

Oh, yes I am.

Now that the “advance” is over, I need to live the rest of my life that way.

Those men won’t be with me day by day, but the living God is.

“I will be with you.”

I need to say yes to God.

Today. Moment by moment.

Let the adventure begin.

 

Only one source for peace

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.

John 14:27

 

We all long for peace, but it’s elusive.

Why? Because most of the time, we don’t know what peace is. It’s so much more than the absence of war. People can hate each other and not fight, if they think their enemy is too strong.

We can’t legislate peace with a treaty. Treaties, like most rules, are made to be broken. So it seems.

Peace comes from relationship with the living God, and from nowhere else. Look around you if you don’t believe me. Where else do you see peace?

Jesus said, “My peace I give you.” Peace is a gift from God. We can’t earn it; we can’t find it with willpower or by trying harder to attain it. Peace doesn’t come that way.

It’s a gift.

We must receive it.

That’s the only way we will find peace in this world.

My pastor, the Rev. Jim Mindling, senior pastor of Church of the Open Door in Elyria, Ohio, put it this way:

“Before there can be peace, there must be grace.”

Grace is a relationship with the living God. Because Jesus Christ is God, He not only teaches us but shows us by example what relationship is. Grace means God gives us gifts we don’t deserve, starting with salvation.

After that, other gifts, including peace, follow.

So, what is peace?

Shalom

The most common Hebrew word for peace in the Old Testament is “shalom,” which refers to relationships between people (Genesis 34:21), nations (1 Kings 5:12) and God with men (Psalm 85:8). It’s a traditional Jewish greeting for hello and goodbye.

The most common Greek word for peace in the New Testament is “eirene,” which means rest and tranquility. These also are attributes of peace.

https://www.gotquestions.org/Bible-peace.html

Peacemakers

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

Matthew 5:9

 

In this verse, Jesus is not referring to mediators or political negotiators, but to those who carry an inward sense of the fullness and safety that is available only through son-ship with God. In the biblical Hebrew understanding of shalom, there is a point at which you have so much shalom that it spills out from you, and is repaid or rendered to others.

And so, as you make others peaceful and inwardly complete, that makes you a peacemaker.

Jesus said these peacemakers will be called sons of God. Jesus was called the Son of God. By sharing God’s uncontainable peace with others, we become just like Jesus.

http://firm.org.il/learn/the-meaning-of-shalom/

Losing peace

“There is no peace,” says the Lord, “for the wicked.”

Isaiah 48:22

 

With evil in our hearts, we cannot know peace – inner peace (in our hearts) or outer peace (in the community). This is true moment by moment, as well as our overall view of life.

Some of us argue constantly. We don’t have to physically fight to be “wicked.” Our general nature is confrontational. We don’t get along well with others, because we don’t get along well with our inner self. That happens because we don’t get along with the living God.

Even those of us who do know Jesus as our Lord and Savior, who have relationship with Him, can get frustrated or angry at other people, losing our peaceful hearts in that moment. When that happens, we need to ask forgiveness and re-center our hearts on God.

I face this struggle constantly, many times a day in fact. On the road. At the office. With family, sometimes. Even at church. It’s easy to lose peace just about anywhere, if I take my eyes off of Jesus.

So yes, I can be “wicked” too, in the moment.

Like my pastor said earlier, grace comes before peace. This is what he was talking about.

Heart and mind

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests by made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

Philippians 4:4-9

 

Rejoice.

Gentleness.

The Lord is near.

Prayer.

Thanksgiving.

Peace of God.

Hearts.

Minds.

Christ Jesus.

All of these ideas are connected. The peace of God is not just a heart thing; it’s not just a state of mind. It involves both, completely.

It involves rejoicing. How can we be angry at someone if we are rejoicing?

It involves gentleness. Righteous anger is a thing, but that should not be our lifestyle. We should be known as a gentle people. In today’s America, we Christians should stand out because of this. You know what I mean.

If peace involves relationship, it involves prayer, which is nothing more than communicating with God – both ways, talking and listening. I confess that I do not pray nearly as much as I should. My relationship with Him can be so much better. So can my peaceful lifestyle.

Instead of complaining about what we do not have, we should be thankful for what we do have. Many years ago I saw Third World poverty in southern Mexico. Each of us should take a trip like that at least once in our lifetime. I met people who don’t have running water in their homes. I saw people living in shacks on the side of inner-city buildings, or on top of inner-city buildings. Many didn’t have electricity. (I was surprised how many such people had televisions, even if they did not have a refrigerator. Everyone needs some form of entertainment, I guess.)

Our tap water is good. I can take a shower or wash the dishes whenever I want. We have a solid roof over our heads. We have money in the bank. I have good health.

I never want to take any of these things for granted. Like Job learned, all of those things are temporary and all can be taken away from me at any moment. When I die, I won’t be able to take any of that stuff with me to the next life anyway.

So, what is my priority?

Relationship with the living God. That will continue in the next life.

That also will give me peace in this life, right now. As long as I keep my eyes on Jesus.

The reason to live

President Trump and North Korea leader Kim Jong-un recently traded barbs about who had the largest “nuclear button.”

Soon after, an emergency missile alert accidentally went out to everyone in Hawaii, sparking panic as thousands of people, assuming they had only minutes to live, scrambled to seek shelter and say their final goodbyes to loved ones.

Mudslides in southern California killed at least 20 people.

And there was a fatal school shooting in Kentucky.

Lots of fear. Life at times flashes before us, unexpectedly.

Which leads me to this question: Are we ready to die?

What if one such emergency visited your neighborhood?

No guarantees …

We aren’t guaranteed tomorrow. None of us is.

We know this.

We eat nutritious foods, exercise and live a healthy lifestyle to try to prolong a happy, healthy time on Earth. Often it works.

I’ve been blessed with a healthy body, which I don’t take for granted. I enjoy ice cream or a chocolate chip cookie as much as anyone, but I don’t overindulge in them. I try to get some exercise once or twice a week.

All things in moderation.

It’s worth the effort. I rarely call in sick to work. I don’t sit on the sidelines because my body won’t let me do what I enjoy doing. I know many of you can’t say this. Each of us does our best with what we’ve been given.

… except death

But even in the best of situations, it won’t last forever. Our bodies eventually will wear out. It’s inevitable.

I am ready to die today. I’m not hoping to die or expecting to die; I’m not fatalistic about it.

But I’m ready.

It might not happen for another 40 years. That’s great, too. I’ll serve God on this Earth for as long as I’m here.

We all think about what might happen in the next life. We’re wired that way. We know we’re mortal. Some of us try to suppress those thoughts, but we all have them.

Especially as death nears, so I’ve heard.

Preparing for forever

Why wait until then to address the issue? There are things we can do now to prepare for forever.

I will be with Jesus Christ in heaven when I die. This I know. Whether it’s today or 40 years from now, it will happen.

The God of the Bible is not the same as the gods of any other religion or belief system. We do not have our own truth. Sorry, Oprah. There’s a bigger picture here, one that men and women must adhere to. (Men who abuse women will not be excused in the next life, that is certain. Even if justice isn’t served on Earth, it will be in heaven.)

The God of the Bible is the only god who cares about our welfare – on Earth as well as in the next life. That’s why we should look at this issue now, before we reach our deathbed.

 

God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners, Christ died for us.

Romans 5:8

 

We don’t have to follow a list of rules before God will accept us. He takes us just as we are. Christians aren’t perfect people – far from it. We don’t have our act together, necessarily.

What makes us different?

We are forgiven. That’s all.

 

If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.

Romans 10:9

 

That’s it. There’s no magic formula or ritual that must be followed.

Living forever

Of course, living that out isn’t easy. That’s why we attend church every week, and why we should participate in Sunday school or a small group for support and encouragement. It’s why we should read the Bible often – every day, if possible – to learn what’s in there.

Even Bible scholars, which I am not, have plenty of things to learn about God.

Does that turn you off?

It should excite you.

God is bigger than we can possibly imagine. At the same time, He is smaller than the tiniest detail of our lives.

He cares. To the point of death. His death. Our deaths.

His life. And our lives.

Am I weak or ignorant if I say that there are things I know about God, but there’s plenty I don’t know?

“Salvation” is knowable. That’s one thing we can be certain about.

Why does God save some and not others? That we will never know on this Earth.

All of us are sinners. No one deserves “salvation.” No one earns it.

Why God saves some, why He shows mercy, proves that He loves us and wants the best for us.

Including you.

Instead of asking why bad things happen to good people, we should ask:

Why do good things happen to bad people?

All of us, every single one of us, is “bad.” You can find fault with me rather easily, and a few of you do. I could find fault with you as well if I wanted to look at you that way.

How do we break that cycle?

Only by following God’s example.

He sees the good in each of us, and wants to draw that out. He offers “salvation” as a gift.

But it’s not a gift until we accept it.

I can offer you a Christmas present, but if you return it to the store, you’ve rejected it. So, it’s not a gift.

God doesn’t do that. He offers us “salvation” even though we don’t deserve it.

Then, we spend the rest of our lives getting to know Him better.

It’s worth the effort.

Righteousness, a study

Be prepared.

That theme came to me twice in two days this week.

I led a men’s Bible study on the breastplate of righteousness. Why wear a breastplate? Be prepared for enemy attacks.

The next day, I attended a first aid and CPR recertification class. The purpose of first aid? Be prepared for a potential emergency. Our instructor made sure we knew that before starting the class.

To help us prepare for life’s battles, here’s a summary of my notes from the breastplate discussion.

 

Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you maybe able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness.

Ephesians 6:13-14

 

The breastplate worn by Roman soldiers was generally made of iron, though some wealthier soldiers may have worn a bronze breastplate (which is lighter than iron). It consisted of overlapping pieces of metal with connecting front and back sections. There were rounded pieces connecting the shoulders and the breastplate usually rested on the soldier’s hips so the entire weight wasn’t carried on the shoulders. The overlapping pieces allowed for more flexibility of movement.

www.gotquestions.org

 

What’s the purpose of the breastplate?

It protects the soldier in battle. The breastplate covers the heart and other vital organs. The shield wards off enemy blows that we see, but the breastplate provides protection from unexpected directions or overwhelming numbers.

If the soldier gets ambushed from behind or attacked from multiple sources, he has protection.

 

What happens when armor is not worn correctly, or not worn at all?

1 Peter 5:8 – the devil looks for someone to devour.

Hebrews 3:12 – unbelief.

Romans 6:1-2 – we abuse grace by making excuses for sin.

Hebrews 4:5-7 – disobedience, hardening your heart.

2 Corinthians 2:10-11 – we do not want Satan to outwit us.

 

Why do we wear God’s armor?

The example of Job. Satan tested him severely, but God gave him parameters. First, don’t touch his body. Then, don’t kill him. Job faced two back-to-back unexpected tragedies, without knowing why or how long they would last.

If Job wasn’t wearing his “armor,” how could he have possibly survived?

Eventually, God restored to him his family and possessions – more than he had to begin with.

 

Satan realizes that if he can get our minds and emotions, that will affect our worship and our obedience to God. That’s why he always works to implant wrong teachings and lies into our minds through books, music, TV and conversation. Our minds affect our walk – how we live. But Satan also wants to get our emotions. Many Christians are emotionally all over the place, and part of that is a result of spiritual warfare. Satan stirs up people to criticize and condemn. He sirs up little romances with the opposite sex to distract us from focusing on God. He works to make believers worry and fret about the future so that they lose their joy. The enemy is cunning and keen. Therefore, we must guard our hearts above all else.

www.bible.org

 

Here’s another Bible verse on the breastplate:

1 Thessalonians 5:8 – put on the breastplate of faith and love.

What’s the connection between faith, love and righteousness?

Abraham provides a great example.

Hebrews 11:8-12 – Abraham’s faith in the impossible – numerous descendants who will live in a promised land. (He and his wife both were too old to have children when God gave him those promises.) Read about the promises in Genesis 15.

Romans 4:18-22 – Abraham’s faith was reckoned to him as righteousness.

Did Abraham see either of those promises come to pass?

No. Yet he never doubted God’s plan. He didn’t let his mind or emotions sway him from God’s promises. Why should he care what happens after he’s gone from this Earth? But he did care. And he believed God. Which was reckoned to him as righteousness.

Becoming righteous

  1. Isaiah 64:6What is our righteousness like? Our human righteousness is like a filthy rag.
  1. Isaiah 59:15-17Who put on righteousness like a breastplate? Why? God Himself put on righteousness like a breastplate. Israel needed rescuing, as do we.
  1. Matthew 6:33 – we seek God’s righteousness first, and “all these things” will be added to us. What things will be given to us as well? This is part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Read the rest of the sermon for that answer.
  2. Psalm 119:172 – all God’s commands are right (righteousness). Pretty self-explanatory. However, we need to read the entire Bible to understand ALL of God’s commands.
  3. Proverbs 8:20 – we are to walk in righteousness. Righteousness and justice are choices. They don’t just happen. They take effort.
  4. Proverbs 11:4-6 – great rewards for righteousness: delivered from death, keeps our ways straight, saved.
  5. 2 Corinthians 5:21 – Christ became sin to give us His righteousness.
  6. 2 Corinthians 10:35 – taking every thought captive.
  7. Jeremiah 23:5-6who does this passage refer to? (Jesus) The righteous Branch is coming: The Lord is our righteousness.

 

An in-depth study of all the scriptures concerning righteousness (there are 301 in the New King James Version) reveals that servants of God in the Bible who had righteousness all had it because they followed God’s way. Though it may seem a sweeping statement, it is through a continuing and dedicated adherence to both the letter and spirit of God’s law that we can defend ourselves with His righteousness.

www.freebiblestudy.org

 

Ezekiel 33:12-17 – Righteousness is not a one-time event. We must keep wearing it. Our past righteous deeds aren’t good enough, and our past sins do not prevent us from receiving God’s righteousness.

Job was attacked twice. Paul was attacked repeatedly. If they took off their armor even for a moment, they would have been defeated.

Philippians 4:8-9 – whatever is true, whatever is noble … think about such things. This is a good way to put on the breastplate of righteousness.

Isaiah 32:17 – The results of righteousness: peace, quietness and trust forever. Was this true for Job? Abraham?

Job did not get bent out of shape over his circumstances. Peace, quiet and trust were his hallmarks.

Abraham’s faith also gave him a life of peace, quietness and trust.

Still learning a 2,600-year-old lesson

Thus says the LORD: Do not let the wise boast in their wisdom, do not let the mighty boast in their might, do not let the wealthy boast in their wealth; but let those who boast boast in this, that they understand and know me, that I am the LORD; I act with steadfast love, justice and righteousness in the earth, for in these things I delight, says the LORD.

(Jeremiah 9:23-24, emphasis added)

 

Wisdom, might, wealth.

Love, justice, righteousness.

Two lists, separated by God.

Wisdom, might and wealth are human gains.

Love, justice and righteousness belong to God.

That explains a lot about our country right there.

What do we pursue the most? Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We search for those things in our wisdom, might and wealth.

Wisdom

Wisdom, according to Merriam-Webster, is the ability to discern inner qualities and relationships; good sense; generally accepted belief; and accumulated philosophical or scientific learning.

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/wisdom

We gain wisdom as we learn things. Wisdom is never complete; we never see the entire picture.

For centuries, “generally accepted belief” and “scientific learning” told us that Earth was flat. As we gained more wisdom, we learned otherwise.

That’s why trusting entirely in science is not enough. There’s so much we don’t know yet. All the tiny details of how atoms work, how to cure cancer, what’s on the far reaches of outer space. We know a lot, certainly, but wisdom comes in bits and pieces, sometimes by excellent research, sometimes by good luck, sometimes by trial and error.

Wisdom is what we’ve learned. And since some of my experiences differ from yours, my “good sense” and “generally accepted belief” might be different than yours. My wisdom is not your wisdom, necessarily.

Wisdom is good, but only to a point. It’s not conclusive.

Might

Why do we glorify physical strength? The reason so many NFL players get hurt these days – ie, nearly all of them – is specifically because they all are so big and strong. (And when they retire, what happens to their bodies without the exercise? We never hear about that.)

I weigh 140 pounds. I’m on the low end or off the scale of every height-weight chart I’ve seen. I’ll never win a weight-lifting competition. If might is the goal, I have no chance.

The Winter Olympics is coming up, when athletes will show tremendous feats of strength and agility. Once the Olympics is over, we won’t hear from most of those athletes again. How fleeting life is in the public eye.

We glorify might, but it doesn’t last. Our bodies wear out eventually.

Wealth

Wealth is power. You have to be rich (and either a Republican or a Democrat) to run for political office. Money talks in the business world. Entertainers and athletes make big money. (Teachers don’t, comparatively.) The largest public employee salary in many states belongs not to the governor, but to a college football or basketball coach.

As with might, money doesn’t last. When we spend it, it’s gone. And when we die, we can’t take it with us.

Most people across the world don’t have near the wealth that the average American has. Even our poor are wealthy by the world’s standards.

It’s easy to get greedy and envious. There’s always someone who has more than I do. (There’s always someone who has less as well, but most of us aren’t looking in that direction.)

Wealth is either inherited or earned.

And it can disappear overnight. Those of us invested in the stock market in 2008 can attest to that.

Are wisdom, might and wealth the highest goals we can attain?

Love

Love has many definitions, of course. The purest love wants the best for the other person.

It’s not about me. It’s about you. Me serving you. God serving us both.

This kind of love does not come from us. We are selfish by nature, every one of us. True love originates with God.

This is not debatable.

Again, there are many types of love. Husband-wife, parent-child, friends. All of them are (or should be) other-person-centered.

Others-centered love does not come naturally. If it did, our divorce rate would not be between 40 percent and 50 percent (higher for subsequent marriages – we aren’t learning the lesson the first time around). Our violent crime rates wouldn’t be so high. We wouldn’t be searching for love in all the wrong places – illegal drugs, prostitution and pornography, fancy clothes or cars or houses or (fill in the blank), climbing the corporate ladder, a bigger salary … and on and on.

God shows us the love we need. All we have to do is accept it, then give it away.

It really is that simple.

In theory, at least.

Justice

Justice, according to Merriam-Webster, is “the impartial adjustment of conflicting claims,” the administration of law, and the quality of being just, impartial and fair.

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/justice

How well is all of that working out in our nation?

When we impart justice on human terms, it changes all the time. Jim Crow laws. Same-sex marriage. Legalization of marijuana (which is coming eventually nationwide).

What is murder, anyway? Self-defense? Insanity plea?

So many gray areas in our laws. Loopholes and exceptions. How do we know which of these are just?

Depends who you ask.

Do impartiality and fairness even exist?

We need to try, certainly.

But ultimately, justice belongs to God alone. He sees the big picture. He understands the human heart, because He created it, so He understands motive. We try to figure it out, and we don’t always get it right, do we?

The Ten Commandments were given to us for a reason. For our own benefit. No human court of law or body of legislators has ever improved upon it.

Righteousness

Righteousness, again quoting Merriam-Webster, is acting in accord with divine or moral law; morally right or justifiable.

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/righteousness

We don’t hear much about righteousness in the news, because it’s about “divine law.” We’ll stick with our own “morally right or justifiable” laws, thank you.

Even though those laws change depending on who has the wisdom, might and wealth at the moment.

Is there a “moral law” greater than the human mind can come up with?

We’re doomed if there isn’t.

As we enter 2018, if we can’t figure out how to get along with each other – love in its most basic form – we won’t have much of a future as a nation.

The prophet Jeremiah warned us about this 2,600 years ago. We still haven’t learned the lesson.

Will we ever?

Happiness and joy: synonyms?

What’s the difference between happiness and joy?

That question crossed my mind recently, as I wonder how happy I am and whether I can do anything about it.

Happiness is a choice, many people believe. I’ve seen posts and books about that, and heard people say it.

I’m not sure I buy it.

Happiness, the way I see it, is the result of doing something that makes us happy.

We can choose to do something that makes us happy, but we can’t choose to be happy all by itself.

Maybe that’s splitting hairs.

According to a couple of official sources, it is splitting hairs.

Merriam-Webster defines “joy” this way:

 

1.a : the emotion evoked by well-being, success, or good fortune or by the prospect of possessing what one desires : delight

b : the expression or exhibition of such emotion : gaiety

2: a state of happiness or felicity : bliss

3: a source or cause of delight

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/joy

 

The dictionary calls joy an emotion, and basically a synonym for happiness. It also says the first known use of the word came in the 13th century.

Really? It’s in the Bible, written hundreds – if not thousands – of years before the 13th century.

So, I checked another source I go to sometimes, especially with questions about the Bible, gotquestions.org. In its discussion of “Is there a difference between joy and happiness?” are these statements:

 

 

It is common today to hear believers speak of a difference between joy and happiness. The teaching usually makes the following points: 1) Happiness is a feeling, but joy is not. 2) Happiness is fleeting, but joy is everlasting. 3) Happiness depends on circumstances or other people, but joy is a gift from God. 4) Happiness is worldly, but joy is divine. But there is no such distinction made in Scripture, and forcing a distinction between two words that are so obviously close in meaning is unnecessary …

There is nothing in the Bible that suggests we divorce joy from happiness. The two are equal.

Of course, there are different types of joy and happiness. There is a joy that comes from the world, such as “the fleeting pleasures of sin” spoken of in Hebrews 11:25. There is a joy that is part of the fruit of the Spirit (Galations 5:22). There is a temporary happiness and an eternal happiness, but we can call both “happiness.” We don’t need to split hairs between the meaning of joy and happiness. We just need to decide where our joy comes from. Are we happy in the Lord, or are we content with the happiness the world affords?

https://www.gotquestions.org/joy-happiness.html

 

 

So, I guess I am splitting hairs.

I’ve had all four of those thoughts listed in the gotquestions.org explanation. If they aren’t true, then where do those ideas come from?

I do not consider myself a “happy” person. I laugh, but not very often, and never in the routines of life. I don’t get excited or enthusiastic. I can encourage others and hopefully make them feel good about themselves, but I have a hard time doing that for myself.

Emotions are fleeting. They come and go. Happiness follows that track.

If happiness and joy are so closely related, does that mean joy comes and goes, too?

 

James 1:2 says, “Consider it all joy, my brothers, when you encounter various trials.” Christians can be happy, even in the midst of difficulties, because we know “the testing of our faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (verses 3-4). As we persevere through trials, with God’s help, our faith strengthens and matures. By God’s grace we can be happy despite our circumstances.

 

Gotquestions.org includes this paragraph on joy while suffering. Can we really be happy in the midst of difficulties?

Perhaps this is what we Americans are missing today. Many of us do have difficulties. We certainly are angry about a lot of things. We get upset when things don’t go our way.

Even more than that, “good people” suffer, too. People get sick and/or sometimes die far too young. Or God calls home a leader who has influenced many people, and we wonder why, when other people whom we don’t respect as much continue living.

We think like that all the time, don’t we?

God sees the big picture. All of us will die at some point. That’s a guarantee. Very few of us know when death will claim us.

Sometimes, people suffer before they die. Why? I can’t answer that.

Can suffering people be happy? Can suffering people find joy?

I work with almost two dozen adults with developmental disabilities. None of them can live on their own or take care of themselves. All of them have physical and/or mental disabilities that prevent them from living a life that you and I can enjoy.

Yet, I see happiness in my workplace every day. They laugh. They have fun when doing activities they enjoy. When I communicate with a non-verbal individual and we understand each other, both of us feel a joy, a connection, that’s hard to explain.

When two people connect, there’s joy. Friendship deepens. When one person holds back from communicating (that’s usually me), joy does not come.

Perhaps that’s why happiness often eludes me. A great communicator, I’m not.

So, where does my joy come from? As a Christian, I should be “happy in the Lord” all the time. That doesn’t mean I’m oblivious to suffering or to the real issues facing our family, city, nation, world, etc. I should have a joy that helps me see the bigger picture, to help me get through those issues.

Can I be joyful without being happy?

Perhaps not.

Perhaps I do need to choose joy/happiness.