True love changes us

Love people just as they are.

Yes and no.

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

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

Love people just as they are.

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

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

 

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

Matthew 16: 24-26

 

And this:

 

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

Mark 1:14-15

 

Deny themselves? Take up their cross? Repent?

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

Deny themselves

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

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

It’s not easy, certainly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s a column for another day.

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

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

Take up their cross

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, sin is breaking God’s laws.

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

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

So, sin is breaking God’s laws.

What are God’s laws?

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

How do we do that?

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

Repent

Gotquestions.org has a good explanation of repentance:

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

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

Why change?

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

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

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

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

This is what true love is.

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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?

Change inevitable

Some change is forced on us.

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

Some changes we choose.

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

Some change is inevitable.

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

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

Moment by moment, we change

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Change changes us

Hearts and minds change too, sometimes dramatically.

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

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

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

Choices.

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

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

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

Fighting change, or embracing it

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

Same scenario, different choices.

Different results.

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

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

The cycle continues.

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

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

We can fight change.

Or we can embrace it.

Even that is a choice.

The one constant

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

Only one.

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever.

Hebrews 13:8

 

That’s it.

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

Jesus speaking, in Matthew 7:24-25

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s your sanctuary in the storms of life.

About vines and branches

Many of you offered your thoughts on my most recent post, in which I said that life does not revolve around us. God created us, so God gets to set the rules and guidelines for us to flourish as human beings. Your thoughts and comments were enlightening and wonderful.

https://billcornishwordpresscom.wordpress.com/2019/02/27/a-united-methodist-divide/

In that vein, I’d like to show you what I mean.

God speaks to us in many ways – most directly through His Word. We can interact with it, but we can’t explain it away.

In that vein, here’s one discourse from Jesus to his disciples on the night before he was crucified. He describes what it means to be a Christian, using an illustration that’s easy to understand.

My pastor preached for 2.5 years on the book of John, so there’s all kinds of commentary on these few words. I’ve given you just a few thoughts that I’ve learned along the way. Here goes:

 

From John 15, Jesus speaking (I speak in italics):

 

I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower. (v. 1)

 

God is the one who gives the tree life. I do not. As we’ll see in a minute, you and I are small but significant parts of the tree, but we depend on God for sustenance – not the other way around.

Also, Jesus calls himself the “true” vine. He said in the previous chapter that he is the only way to God, because he is God. If you call yourself a Christian, this is not open for discussion.

 

He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. (v. 2)

 

My Father does what a father should do: He disciplines me. Even as an adult.

If there’s a branch in my life that’s dead, God prunes it. He gets rid of it. That leaves the branches that are growing, alive, thriving – so they can flourish.

I’m not a green thumb but I am a homeowner. I’m not afraid to take my pruning shears to a plant or tree in the yard with dead stalks or branches. This gets rid of ugly dead stuff, and allows the leafy or budding limbs to grow fuller.

This process works in nature, and it works with humans, too.

Pruning is painful by definition, but in the long run, it improves my health, as it improves the life of a plant or tree in nature.

Therefore, I submit to the process. Most of the time, anyway.

 

You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. (v. 3)

 

A footnote in my Bible says that “the same Greek root (word) refers to pruning and cleansing.” So, when God prunes me, that means he is cleansing me as well. Washing me clean. Purifying me. Improving my condition, inside and out.

 

Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. (v. 4)

 

Ah, here’s the heart of John 15 – which is Jesus’ heart. According to my Webster’s dictionary, “abide” has a couple of meanings:

  • To endure without yielding, to bear patiently, to accept without objection
  • To remain stable; to continue in a place, sojourn

I may not understand God’s discipline, his pruning, but I accept it. I don’t fight God. I continue in his presence; I don’t leave him behind.

This is hard. I know people who have left the church, and others who have compromised their Christian values, because abiding in God is very hard.

I’m in an Old Testament Bible study at the moment where we’re studying the life of David. Despite all the ups and downs of his life – and there were many of both – David finished his life well. He finally got the parenting thing right after a lifetime of screwups by preparing Solomon for his upcoming reign. David finished his life on a high note.

This is what it means to abide. He kept at it. He reached the finish line bloodied and bruised, literally, but by remaining in the vine, his branch bore much fruit.

David is a good example to follow. Not for his parenting skills, but for his perseverance and faith in the living God.

 

I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. (v. 5)

 

This is how nature works, and this is how God works. When the branches remain connected to their food source, they thrive. When they are removed by pruning (or in a storm, ie, the storms of life), they die.

 

Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. (v. 6)

 

After every windstorm, I walk through my yard and pick up dead branches and twigs. They go in the yard waste bin, to be thrown away.

Without connection to our source of life, we die. Our source of life is Jesus Christ. He said so himself, right here.

 

If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. (v. 7)

 

The Bible does not teach a “prosperity gospel.” God will not grant our wishes unless our wishes line up with God’s wishes. We learn what those are by abiding in him – that is, spending time with him, sojourning with him.

 

My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. (v. 8)

 

Here are three results of abiding in the vine: God the Father is glorified, we bear fruit, and we become Jesus’ disciples. These three results go together.

Over time, our branches will flourish. These results are not one-time events. Branches grow slowly. Leaves die, and are renewed every spring. The branch grows larger and stronger, with more leaves and fruit.

When trees come to life this time of year, we get excited. We love new life. We all do. God wants this for us too. Are we not worth more than nature?

 

As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. (v. 9)

 

This is what love is. Pruning. Abiding. Nourishing. Growing. Showing fruit. All of it. We can’t circumvent the process.

 

If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. (v. 10)

 

You and I have some responsibility here. We have to make an effort to keep Jesus’ commandments – all of them. If our hearts are pursuing Jesus, we will abide in his love. Jesus showed us how to do this by the way he loved his Father while living on Earth.

 

I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. (v. 11)

 

Joy is a gift from God when we abide in him. Joy isn’t the same as happiness, which is a feeling that comes and goes depending on our circumstances. Joy remains. It’s constant. It’s an inner peace that comes from knowing God intimately. And it’s available to anyone who asks for it – if we are willing to abide in his love.

 

This is what it means to be a Christian. It’s unpredictable, it’s an adventure, it’s never dull. My life is very different than it was even six months ago.

It’s never too late to connect, or re-connect, to the vine. This is exciting stuff! I hope and pray that you are, and will remain, connected to the one true vine.

Going home

Very few of us can time our deaths the way our births are timed.

Nine months from conception, there’s a due date. With a natural birth, that’s a pretty good ballpark estimate. For a Cesarean section, the parents get to choose the specific date of birth.

Rarely does that happen on the other side of life.

Every death is sudden, even if it’s expected.

The guarantee

In the span of two days last weekend, five friends or acquaintances breathed their last breath.

They ranged in age from 81 to 43. Four of them had long-term conditions; two were in such severe pain, I’m sure their loved ones saw their passing as relief.

But still.

The fifth friend shocked everybody. He was healthy, to my knowledge – no one saw his death coming. He was 62. (I’m 58; he’s my generation.)

Two of them lived in Northeast Ohio, the other three in mid-Michigan (my old stomping grounds).

Death is guaranteed for each of us.

Later rather than sooner, we hope.

Unexpected deaths are the ones that make the news – traffic fatalities, drug overdoses, crime victims, that sort of thing. Most of us won’t leave Earth like that, thankfully, but there’s no guarantees about that, either.

Another friend’s granddaughter died about two weeks ago. She suffered numerous health issues from the day she was born. She was 21.

No one ever said life was fair.

Homegoing

Sometimes, those who suffer have the best dispositions. They are thankful for the blessings they have, even if good health isn’t one of them. Our 81-year-old friend was like that. He had debilitating headaches his entire adult life, but he looked on the bright side every day.

His strong faith allowed him to do that.

He is in heaven now with his savior, Jesus. He knows that with certainty. So does his wife. They were married 61 years.

We visited her yesterday afternoon to offer our condolences. She said she’s not planning a funeral for him, but a homegoing. We knew what she meant.

Funerals are sad. We mourn the loss of our loved one. Rightfully so. But that’s where the focus remains.

With a homegoing, family members and friends know that death is temporary – just a transition to a better life. Healing is promised in heaven. Physical, emotional and every other kind of healing that each of us needs.

The end of time

We mourn the loss of our loved one here on Earth and we miss him or her terribly, but we know we will see him or her again.

Earth is a temporary home, full of pain and struggle, as well as joy and laughter. We know this. Good vs. evil. Unconditional love vs. selfishness. Right vs. wrong.

These battles are fought in the human heart and mind, aren’t they?

We play them out in society, but the real battles take places inside each of us.

When eternity comes, those struggles will end. For better or worse.

We’ll either stand with God in heaven, or we’ll spend forever without Him. The Bible talks about a lake of fire. I wonder also if hell will be a lonely place. We may not see our friends and family any more. Ever again.

I can’t imagine a worse fate than that.

My choice, your choice

We get to choose where we live forever. We determine our own fate, really.

I can’t choose for you, and you can’t choose for me. This is personal, and it’s individual. I can give you chapter and verse, but you must decide whether to accept the gift of life forever or not.

Life is a gift.

Life on Earth is a gift. Each of us must thank our parents, both mother and father, for giving us life. You and I had nothing to do with it.

Life forever is a similar principle. There won’t be marriage in heaven, but we will have a Father. He’s the one who offers us that gift of life eternal.

Most of my friends who just died will receive a homegoing, a celebration of life on Earth and the promise of a wonderful, perfect forever future in heaven.

We can’t wrap our minds around forever. The end of time. No more alarm clocks or deadlnes.

Nor can we fathom perfection. Beauty for beauty’s sake. No hidden agendas. No secrets. No pain or suffering, of any type. No getting tired at night. Never a cold or fever, much less any other sickness or injury.

Mental illness? No such thing any more.

The big picture

One day, we will see the big picture of life. We don’t now. Each of us sees only our small part in this big universe. There’s so much of life I can’t see or understand. I write to try to make sense of it all, but as the Bible says, now I see in a mirror dimly, but then (in heaven) face to face.

I have strong views on certain subjects, and you may have a differing viewpoint on those same subjects. We both might be right, because we see the issue from different perspectives. Neither of us understands the big picture. We try, but we just cannot.

That’s why we need to talk, to listen, to respect each other, to learn from each other.

One day, all the issues we wrestle with will come together. The God of the universe, the One who created us and everything else in it, will reveal all to us.

For now, God has given us earthly minds to learn and grow. None of us can know everything about life.

We desperately need this perspective today.

We need each other.

We NEED each other.

We can’t make this life work without each other. Even though we try.

Oh, we try.

The more I learn, the more I discover how much I don’t know. Keep teaching me, each one of you. I’ll do the same for you.

Meanwhile, as we do that, I’m ready for my homegoing, when all will be well. I’m not expecting it any time soon – I’m still relatively young and in excellent health, if I can say that. No guarantees, of course, except that I will die one day. But whenever the day comes, I hope you’ll celebrate it with me.

And I’d love to celebrate yours, too.

Just not for awhile.

In the meantime, let’s celebrate this life on Earth together. And remember with gratitude those who are already home.

Around the bend, a waterfall

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

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

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

As different as we are as people.

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

It never remains in the same place.

A big splash

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

cascade park 2

Until a huge waterfall changed the course of my river.

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

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

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

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

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

Hard to see the future

days dam 2

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

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

We submerge, and wonder if we will ever resurface.

We eventually do, don’t we?

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

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

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

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

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

That’s what rivers do.

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

I don’t think so.

The greatest adventure

mill stream run 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Even in the middle of winter.

‘That is the whole duty of everyone’

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

Ecclesiastes 12:13

 

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

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

We still don’t get it, do we?

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

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

Really.

Fear God, and keep his commandments.

That’s it.

That’s what life is all about.

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

So, how do we do that?

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

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

One life at a time

That would be Jesus, the sinless one.

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

A new command I give you …

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

Why follow Jesus?

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

Why death and resurrection?

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

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

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

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

We need to learn what Solomon learned.

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

We need that today.

 

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

Ecclesiastes 12:13

 

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.

 

Perspective with the wild ride

The stock market took a ride this week worthy of Cedar Point’s “Steel Vengeance,” its newest roller coaster opening this year.

For the week, the Dow Jones Industrial Average closed down 5.2 percent, marking its largest weekly decline since January 2016, reported Market Watch, a financial information website that is a subsidiary of Dow Jones & Co.

Twice during the week, the stock market dropped more than 1,000 points in a single day.

According to the Washington Post, investors lost $3 trillion – with a “T” – in stock market value in one week.

A little bit of that lost value belongs to me.

It’s happened before

I’m one of the fortunate people who has a 401(k) from 24 years working at one company. It’s still 100 percent vested in stock mutual funds, a very aggressive plan, especially for someone my age (57). My wife and I have other, more conservative, investments as well, so I’m OK with a risk-taking 401(k).

In 2017, the Dow Jones Industrial Average rose 25 percent for the year, its best showing since 2013, said cnn.com.

Neither this week’s big decline nor last year’s big gains were unique. Both scenarios have happened before, and relatively recently, too.

Investors, who set a monthly record for sinking money into the stock market in January, pulled their money out at a record pace in the week ended Feb. 7, reported EPFR, a Cambridge, Mass., data firm.

Yikes. Too many investors bought high and sold low.

Take a deep breath, everyone. We’ve been here before, and survived.

Investing for the long term

I opened my 401(k) in the mid-1980s when I was in my mid-20s, and contributed to it for more than two decades. A small company match certainly helped. So did a wonderful stock run-up throughout the 1990s. Easy money, I thought.

I can live only in the moment, but if I live only for the moment I will miss so much.

Then the stock market crashed in September 2008, losing more than half its value by March 2009. My 401(k) lost about 40 percent of its value.

It took several years, but my 401(k) did recover, and his since grown much higher.

It’s a retirement account. I’m in it for the long term. In 2008, I knew I wasn’t going to start cashing it in for another 15 years or so, at least. So, the losses were only on paper.

That $3 trillion in value lost this week is on paper also. If you’re living off of that money, you probably should be preserving capital in more conservative investments. The stock market is for long-term growth, in general. (Some stocks are more volatile than others, of course, which is why every financial adviser will say we should diversify our portfolios.)

I haven’t checked my 401(k) balance recently. Neither has my wife (she’s more on top of it than I am). I’m sure it lost value this week.

But I’m not ready to start cashing it in yet. So I’ll just ride the wave.

Risk tolerance

Part of this equation is risk tolerance. Did I lose sleep this week when the stock market got volatile? No. I have a fairly high risk tolerance.

If you’re an investor and you did lose sleep – or you pulled a lot of money out of the market this week – then you probably are investing too aggressively. There’s nothing wrong with being a conservative investor. You won’t make the big gains in a boom market, but you won’t lose big during a correction or recession, either.

Each of us needs to determine our own risk tolerance. And also determine what the money we’re investing is for. Retirement? A nice vacation? Christmas gifts? Something else? It’s all good.

With the stock market, we need to take the long-term view.

Bigger rewards later

That goes against today’s instant gratification mindset.

We’d rather spend the money we make, all of it, rather than save some for a rainy day. We buy the latest technology – does every child, much less adult, need the latest smartphone every time a new one comes out? And I know people who buy lunch at a fast-food restaurant every day. A brown bag lunch is much more nutritious and costs a lot less. Eating out every so often is great – we do need to treat ourselves – but every day is an extravagance many of us can’t really afford.

Of course, if everyone acted like this, the economy would slow down because we wouldn’t be spending so much money. But we’d have more savings to spend on more meaningful, and possibly bigger, things. Saving money for a nice vacation or a new vehicle takes time and effort, but the rewards are so worth it.

Not going into debt for those things is one of the biggest benefits.

The future will come

Life in general is a lot like the stock market. It has its ups and downs, successes and failures. I’ve had great jobs and been fired. I’ve had emotional highs and lows (although I don’t often show them publicly). I’ve had great health, but I know I won’t live forever.

How do we handle the “life is not fair” moments, as well as the good times?

My retirement is much closer now than it was 30 years ago when I began investing. Starting to plan for my retirement when I was in my 20s will have a huge payoff very soon.

A big-picture outlook on life is so worth it. I can live only in the moment, but if I live only for the moment I will miss so much.

Take a deep breath. Plan ahead. Think long-term.

On average, Americans can expect to live 78.6 years, according to 2016 data published by the National Center for Health Statistics. Women can expect to live five years longer than men: 81.1 years vs. 76.1 years.

People who die young make the news, but chances are good that you and I both will reach retirement age. We should plan for it.

If we do that well, the roller-coaster ride of the stock market won’t cause us to lose sleep.

Not too much, anyway.

 

A psalm of my life

Praise You, O God,

For your goodness though all the Earth.

Your steadfast love has endured through all generations

From the beginning of time until now.

Your love, as you promised,

Will continue to the end of time.

 

I’ve seen your glory

And felt your love

From the day of my birth.

You blessed me with a strong family,

A prosperous home

With parents who gave and a sister who cared.

Mom and Dad continue strong,

57 years of marriage and counting.

 

You touched me at camp as a teenager,

Revealing yourself in a special way

Through the unconditional love of counselors and, especially, other campers.

You entered my heart as Savior

And I’ve been learning ever since what it means to call you Lord.

 

At college I learned the ways of the world;

You opened my eyes to new ideas and thoughts.

You introduced me to my future spouse there,

And other friendships that have lasted a lifetime.

 

Off to the working world you sent me,

Young and naïve, but willing to learn.

You revealed my passion,

Then led me to a job where I could use it

For more than two decades.

 

We raised a family, three boys,

Our pride and joys.

Good health you blessed us all with,

A home of our own

Where we could lead a strong family.

 

You gave us servant’s hearts

Through our church and community,

Where we could love others

And praise you.

 

O Lord, why did it not last?

We could have served you forever there.

But life was too easy, was it not?

You had lessons to teach us,

New people to meet,

New opportunities to pursue.

 

Out-of-state moves, two of them, Lord.

I have no home on this Earth.

Like your son, I wander,

Seeking to do your will

Wherever you take me.
You lead us to brothers and sisters

Wherever we land,

Those who love you, Father,

Whom we can worship with side by side.

 

We see you everywhere.

Even in the struggles, Lord,

And those are many.

If all is sunshine, where is the rainbow?

 

But Adam and Eve knew good, and only good.

It wasn’t enough for them.

The serpent tricked them.

Their gain? They learned evil.

 

I know evil too, Lord, see it firsthand every day.

It’s easy to see it in your people, God,

But I see evil in my own heart as well.

I cannot place blame

Because I am not innocent.

 

In the midst of this you came to Earth, Lord:

To offer a return path to goodness,

A road to your heart.

I am not a worthy traveler, Father,

And yet you invite me along.

Who am I that you hold my hand?

 

I stumble and fall, bruise my knees, every day.

My hands are bloodied with sin.

And yet you wipe them clean

With your own blood.

 

I still seek my place on this Earth, Lord,

Still pursue you.

On Sundays and Wednesdays, yes,

In gatherings of your people,

I find rest in you.

 

But I seek more, Father,

Because you want me to seek more.

Are you among the tax collectors and sinners?

That’s where you live most days, Jesus.

Outside the walls of the church,

Where the people who need you reside.

 

You send me there, Lord, so that’s where I go.

Good health you’ve blessed me with

So I’ll use it for your glory.

I’ll serve you in the morning when I wake up

And find ways to serve throughout the day.

Not because I’m anything special, Father,

But because you deserve it.

Thank you, Lord, for saving my sins,

Even my sins.

 

It’s easy to get pessimistic in this life, Lord,

Looking only at worldly pleasures

And worldly troubles

In my own life and in the news.

So much to complain about, isn’t there, Father,

And yet what do you say?

 

Rejoice always, and again I say, rejoice.

That’s what you say, Lord.

Can I do that? Is it possible?

It’s a choice, isn’t it, Lord,

I can see life through my eyes or through yours.

 

Your eyes are beautiful, Father.

You see the good in all people

All have sinned, and yet you desire mercy for each one of us.

You said that too, Father.

 

I’d rather sit at your judgment seat than in the defendant’s chair on Earth.

You know my deepest heart, Lord,

While man knows me only a little.

You’ve given me acting skills, Lord,

That I can hide behind.

I tell others what they want to hear, and no one questions me.

No one.

But you know me, Father. You know my secrets. I cannot hide them from you.

 

I fall before you, Father, a broken man,

Sinful, weak and impure.

Yet I carry on.

This life is a marathon, not a dash; your road is long,

Longer for some than others.

I’m ready to get off now, Father,

To fall into your arms.

If today is the day …

But if tomorrow comes, I will rise and serve you again.

Such as I am

Because of who you are.

Until you call me home, Lord,

I will rise and serve you again.

 

You give life meaning, Father;

Why else should I awake in the morning?

This day will pass,

But your steadfast love lives forever.

Even for this sinner,

Your steadfast love lives forever.

Praise you, Father.

It’s why I live.