Thankful for the big picture

Public praise, private critique.

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

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

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

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

After-school basketball

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

boys pray

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

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

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

The answer: Slowly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Food pantry

wcws 2

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

crop walk logo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We serve them all, face to face.

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

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

There’s no quick fixes here, either.

All we can do is serve. And pray.

So that’s what we do.

I’m grateful for this opportunity.

Bible study group leader

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

bsf photo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The big picture

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

That’s when ministry will begin.

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

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

The elusive meaning of life

What is the purpose of life? Solomon figured it out in the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes – too late for his own good, but hopefully not for ours:

Life never stops

All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they continue to flow. (1:7)

If we focus our attention only on the world’s issues, we will see no redemption, no solutions, no ending point – except our own death, which we don’t want to face.

The struggles of life never end. Our friends and relatives get sick or injured. People we know die too soon. We marry and divorce, have children and raise them, work and go out on Friday nights. We give thanks and buy Christmas presents – then do it again next year.

Nothing is permanent.

Rinse, repeat. There is nothing new under the sun.

It’s a mad, mad world

I applied my mind to know wisdom AND to know madness and folly … (1:17, emphasis mine)

How can we know wisdom AND folly? Doesn’t wisdom avoid folly? What is wisdom, if it’s not to seek the best this life (and the next) has to offer? Are madness and folly worthy pursuits? Seriously?

Madness and folly are destructive. Perhaps meaningless, perhaps worse than that. If I’m mad in this sense, I’m acting without thinking. I don’t consider consequences. Anger is the same, but I think madness in this context refers to being crazy. Bad crazy.

Folly means lack of good sense, or foolishness. How can that parallel wisdom? How can one pursue both?

This is why Solomon failed at life. He wanted to have it all. But even Adam and Eve knew better than that. When they sinned, they hid from God. Solomon flaunted his madness and folly. How can that possibly be a wise thing to do?

Gone in a moment

Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them; I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil. Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and again, all was vanity and a chasing after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun. (2:10-11)

He wanted girls, he had girls. He wanted business success, he built cities. He wanted wealth, he taxed his subjects – heavily. Because he was the king, he received everything he asked for.

henry ford 9

Business success and wealth are not bad pursuits in themselves, but they aren’t the end – only the means to a different end.

Solomon never understood this. What’s the big-picture purpose of life? Money, sex, wealth … once the act is done, the pleasure ends.

Rinse, repeat. There is nothing new under the sun.

That’s why Solomon was never satisfied. He pursued things that can never satisfy. They give pleasure for a moment, and then it’s gone.

Priorities …

For everything there is a season …

A time to kill, and a time to heal …

A time to seek, and a time to lose …

A time to tear, and a time to sew …

A time for war, and a time for peace. (3:1, 3, 6, 7, 8)

What are we pursuing, anyway? Life is a series of contrasts. There is a time to kill, and a different time to heal. That takes wisdom, to know when to do which. Perhaps we need to kill our madness and folly. Perhaps wisdom provides healing from that.

memorial 28

What are we to lose or tear? When are we to pursue war? When wisdom opposes folly, does that cause a fight? Do we have to choose one or the other? Do we tear ourselves away from madness, and sew our hearts into wisdom’s coat of many colors? I have friends who pursue peace at all costs. Is there a time to say, wait a minute, we need to stand up for what we believe in, even if we will suffer for it?

Madness and folly cannot produce healing or peace. We must fight madness and folly. We must kill them.

This is wisdom, too.

God creates, we discover

… (God) has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. … then I saw all the work of God, that no one can find out what is happening under the sun. However much they may toil in seeking, they will not find it out; even though those who are wise claim to know, they cannot find it out. (3:11, 8:17)

Oh, here is madness defined. We play God. We think we can understand everything. We understand plenty and we discover new truths all the time, but that’s all we can do. We cannot create anything. We can only discover what already is.

There is nothing new under the sun.

Computers didn’t exist in Biblical times, you say, so mankind does create things. The technology is new, that is true; but the scientific principles on which the technology is based are not new. They’ve always been there. We invent the technology, but we do not create the science.

God created the science back in the day. All we can do is discover it.

I dream of …

Dreams come with many cares, and a fool’s voice with many words. With many dreams come vanities and a multitude of words; but fear God. (5:3, 7)

What do we dream of? A nice family, a house on the lake, a fulfilling job that pays all the bills, athletic, musical or acting ability that gives us fame … To what end? We can’t take any of those things, wonderful as they are, with us into the next life.

What are we willing to sacrifice for these dreams? Are the sacrifices worth it?

Intoxication

The lover of money will not be satisfied with money; nor the lover of wealth, with gain. This also is vanity. … All human toil is for the mouth, yet the appetite is not satisfied. (5:10, 6:7)

Appetites are for the moment. We are satisfied, but we get hungry again very quickly. If our bank account is heavy, the intoxication of wealth urges us to continue on. When we reach our goal, then what? We need a new goal. We need more.

We understand this. We know it’s true, yet we do it anyway. This is madness and folly.

True friends

It is better to hear the rebuke of the wise than to hear the song of fools. (7:5)

Will we accept rebuke from anyone? My ways are set: Don’t tell me what to do, how to think, how to live.

Go ahead, live Frank Sinatra-style: I Did It My Way. See how that goes. (Wise people have your best interests at heart, fools do not. Wise people see things you are blind to. Fools don’t care.)

Deception

See, this alone I found, that God made human beings straightforward, but they have devised many schemes. (7:29)

Wisdom is God’s design. Madness and folly are our fault.

Nothing new

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. (12:13-14)

This is Solomon’s conclusion, but I’m not sure he believed it. He wrote it, but he didn’t live it.

The fact that he wrote Ecclesiastes is wisdom. The fact that we ignore it and are doing the same things Solomon warned us about is madness and folly.

There is nothing new under the sun.

All mind, no heart

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

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

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

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

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

Root causes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By pursuing the root causes.

By digging deeper than our culture permits these days.

Meaningless, but pretty

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

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

barnstar4

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exactly.

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

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

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

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

And we aren’t finding it.

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

We retreat or lash out

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

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

It’s numbing.

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

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

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

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

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

Dear Abby and Ask Amy are shallow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe someday, I’ll have an answer.

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

This is the struggle our world gives us.

One day …

The reason we’re here: To touch a life

I scroll past the vast majority of memes I see online because they are shallow and often untrue. They are easily misunderstood. I speak from experience; I comment on them occasionally, and have been told I missed the point.

But this one caught my attention. For one, I hadn’t seen it before. For two, I like the message it presents.

I actually like it.

… touch the past, touch a rock

My wife and I recently spent a weekend at the Ark Encounter and Creation Museum in northern Kentucky. We touched rocks, and other things.

creation 5

Both attractions were designed and built by Answers in Genesis, an organization that “advocates Young Earth creationism on the basis of its literal, historical-grammatical interpretation of the Book of Genesis,” according to Wikipedia. While there, I bought a book, “A Flood of Evidence; 40 reasons Noah and the Ark still matter” by Ken Ham, who founded Answers in Genesis in 1994, and Bodie Hodge, his son-in-law.

They use the Bible to prove itself.

If you believe the Bible is the inspired Word of God, which I do, that’s fine, but I don’t see this book convincing anyone of its truths who doesn’t accept the Bible’s inerrancy. That eliminates most Americans.

The book, the Ark and especially the Creation Museum use rocks to explain how fossils formed quickly when plants (mostly) and animals died. Plants and animals that die naturally don’t fossilize; they decay. It took a quick catastrophic event, such as Noah’s Flood, to bury plants and animals in a hurry, allowing them to fossilize.

Noah’s Flood also formed the Grand Canyon. That masterpiece of God’s creation was not formed over millions of years by a tiny river. The book and museum discuss this too.

And they mention Mount St. Helens which, when it erupted in 1980 and again in 1982, made rock formations in hours and days that scientists previously thought took millions of years.

Rocks, as this meme indicates, are a window to the past. We interpret the rocks differently, depending on what we’re looking for.

But the past is gone. We can’t change it. We interpret it and try to re-interpret it (are some people truly trying to say the Holocaust never existed, or that man never walked on the moon?). We study the past to learn how best to live today. Or, that should be why we study the past.

… touch the present, touch a flower

I’ve been on a weeding kick recently. Our yard and gardens are full of them, unfortunately. It seems like it’s a never-ending battle. Weeds choke off plants and flowers.

flowers

I’m not an expert on flowers, but I see them bloom for a time, then disappear. Annuals bloom for one season, then die. Perennials bloom year after year, going dormant during the winter, then re-emerging in all their beauty in the spring.

I think this is what the meme is trying to say. Flowers are beautiful today. We enjoy them in the present. We’d better, because tomorrow they’re gone.

Even perennials don’t live forever. They have to be replaced with other flowers eventually, if you want to keep your garden colorful.

A sunset. A rainbow. Sparkling ripples on a slow-moving lake or river. A fall color tour. A gentle breeze.

Such beauty. Nature can be so wonderful.

Then, it changes. The beauty is gone.

Night. The storm that precedes the rainbow. Crashing waves. A frigid winter snow. No breeze at all in 90-degree heat.

We endure, hoping for the touch of a flower once again.

… touch the future, touch a life

People matter. We so often forget this.

If you’ve read this far, hopefully I have touched you at some level.

But touching a life involves so much more than words on a printed page.

wcws 2

I volunteer at a food pantry twice a week. I’ve met an 18-year-old girl who is head of household for her family of six. Her mother passed away a year ago, and now she’s in charge at home. At 18.

We at the food pantry can help her for a day or two. What then?

I also volunteer at a once-a-week after-school pick-up basketball ministry that our church youth director organizes. After playing for a couple of hours on a recent Thursday, one of the young men told us how he’s trying to build a life for himself and lead his teenage brother down the right path, even though both of their parents – who are separated – are drug addicts.

Can we make a difference in the lives of either of these families? Are we touching the future when we connect with young people at these events?

I come home to a nice house in a decent neighborhood. No one is forcing me to touch a life.

Actually, that’s not true.

Since I call myself a Christian, and since I try to live by the Bible, God Himself commands in that Bible that I must connect with other people at some level.

You are watching. I know you are. If I call myself a Christian, what do you see?

I must serve.

Far too many “Christians” use the Bible to try to justify sinful lifestyles. Jesus was crucified for saying exactly this. The apostle Paul was stoned, flogged and beaten for saying exactly this.

What does it mean to touch a life?

It’s not about me, trying to justify myself at all. That’s an easy way to identify “fake Christians.” What’s our motive? Is it to serve others? Is it to touch a life?

This will be our legacy. If we want to touch the future, we MUST touch a life. That life will continue on after I’m gone.

Already, I’ve lived in South Euclid, Ohio; Bloomfield Hills, Mich.; New Kensington, Pa.; East Lansing, Mich.; Ridgewood, N.J.; Pickford, St. Ignace and Saginaw, Mich.; Rockford, Ill.; and Elyria, Ohio.

I touch people, and I’m gone. You touch me, and I leave. I take part of you with me wherever I go.

Because you have touched my life.

Thank you.

I hope I am worthy of your time. I hope I have helped you get just a little closer to God because I was there.

Don’t be too hard on me when I let you down. I try not to criticize when I see others fall. We’re in this life together.

The future will change because both of us are here in the present. That’s a given.

How will the future change? For good or evil?

May the rock and the flower guide us as we learn how to touch a life. No matter where our lives take us.

We cannot escape

O Lord, you have searched me and known me.

You know when I sit down and when I rise up;

you discern my thoughts from far away.

You search out my path and my lying down,

and are acquainted with all my ways.

Even before a word is on my tongue,

O Lord, you know it completely.

You hem me in, behind and before,

and lay your hand upon me.

Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;

it is so high that I cannot attain it.

 

Where can I go from your spirit?

Or where can I flee from your presence?

If I ascend to heaven, you are there;

if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.

If I take the wings of the morning

and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,

even there your hand shall lead me,

and your right hand shall hold me fast.

If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,

and the light around me become night,”

even the darkness is not dark to you;

the night is as bright as the day,

for darkness is as light to you.

 

For it was you who formed my inward parts;

you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.

baby-growing

Wonderful are your works;

that I know very well.

My frame was not hidden from you,

when I was being made in secret,

intricately woven in the depths of the earth.

Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.

In your book were written

all the days that were formed for me,

when none of them as yet existed.

How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!

How vast is the sum of them!

I try to count them – they are more than the sand;

I come to the end – I am still with you.

 

osr 4

O that you would kill the wicked, O God,

and that the bloodthirsty would depart from me –

those who speak of you maliciously,

and lift themselves up against you for evil!

Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord?

And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?
I hate them with perfect hatred;

I count them my enemies.

Search me, O God, and know my heart;

test me and know my thoughts.

See if there is any wicked way in me,

and lead me in the way everlasting.

 

Psalm 139

The good stuff is coming, oh yes

Are there rewards for following Jesus Christ with your whole heart?

Oh, yes.

The Christian life is no picnic on Earth. Great things happen, but suffering does too. We know this.

As Christians, however, we look beyond Earth. We’re here 70 or 80 years, give or take, and then we die. Guaranteed.

What then?

That’s when it gets good.

I’m studying the book of Revelation – the last book of the Bible – with three friends this summer. Near the beginning of the book, Jesus gives seven messages to various churches. Each discourse includes good things the church has done, bad things the church has done, a warning if the church doesn’t get its act together, and a reward if the church does change.

Without getting too theological, those messages apply to Christians today as well. If we “conquer,” as my translation (New Revised Standard) puts it, we will receive some awesome rewards.

Let’s look beyond ourselves, beyond Earth even, to see what’s in store for us.

 

“To everyone who conquers, I will give permission to eat from the tree of life that is in the paradise of God.”

Rev. 2:7

 

This is stunning. We first see the tree of life in the Garden of Eden, along with the tree of knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 2:9). After Adam and Eve ate from the tree of knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 3:6), God kicked the sinning couple out of the garden. Why? Then the Lord God said, “See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever” … (Gen. 3:22)

The tree of life would have allowed Adam and Eve to never die. This is the way we were created, to live forever. But because we rebelled against the living God, our lives were shortened.

Until the very end of time. Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they will have the right to the tree of life and may enter the city by the gates.” (Rev. 22:14)

Once we enter the city of God, we will live forever in paradise.

 

“Whoever conquers will not be harmed by the second death.”

Rev. 2:11

 

All of us will be harmed by the “first death,” which is the death of our physical bodies on this Earth. What is the second death? But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, the murderers, the fornicators, the sorcerers, the idolaters, and all liars, their place will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death. (Rev. 21:8)

The second death, then, is separation from God. Permanently. We get to choose which “spiritual death” we will face – living in paradise with God, or separation from Him in the lake of fire.

There’s no third option, by the way.

 

“I will give a white stone, and on the white store is written a new name that no one knows except the one who receives it.”

Rev. 2:17

 

Whoa. A new name. Given to each of us by the living God. That name will define who we are. We can only guess what this means, however. Gotquestions.org offers this explanation:

The best theory regarding the meaning of the white stone probably has to do with the ancient Roman custom of awarding white stones to the victors of athletic games. The winner of a contest was awarded a white stone with his name inscribed on it. This served as his “ticket” to a special awards banquet. According to this view, Jesus promises the overcomers entrance to the eternal victory celebration in heaven. The “new name” most likely refers to the Holy Spirit’s work of conforming believers to the holiness of Christ (see Romans 8:29; Colossians 3:10).

 

“To the one who conquers I will also give the morning star.”

Rev. 2:26

 

Who or what is the morning star? It’s Jesus Himself. “It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.” (Rev. 22:16)

We will live with Jesus Christ, the morning star, forever.

 

“If you conquer, you will be clothed like them in white robes, and I will not blot your name out of the book of life; I will confess your name before my Father and before his angels.”

Rev. 3:5

 

What is the book of life? This, along with books that describe our lives on Earth, will be opened on the Judgment Day. What happens if our names are not in the book of life? I saw the dead great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Also another book was opened, the book of life. And the dead were judged according to their works, as recorded in the books. Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire. (Rev. 20:12, 15)

Instead, Jesus will confess our names before his Father and his angels. Our works aren’t good enough to stand on their own; we need Jesus to advocate for us on our Judgment Day.

He promised that He will do that for us. If we conquer.

 

“If you conquer, I will make you a pillar in the temple of my God; you will never go out of it. I will write on you the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem that comes down from my God out of heaven, and my own new name.”

Rev. 3:12

 

A pillar in the temple of God could refer to eternal life. The city of God is the “new Jerusalem,” which is described in Rev. 21:9-26. It will be a huge city, and beautiful beyond description. But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life. (Rev. 21:26)

These rewards are all related. And they are only for those of us who conquer.

 

“To the one who conquers I will give a place with me on my throne, just as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne.”

Rev. 3:21

 

We will enjoy royal status. We will not be subjects, employees, homeless, malnourished or mistreated in any way. We will be forgiven, pure, holy and one with God.

The older I get, the closer I am to this day. When I get discouraged with the way things are going on Earth, all I have to do is look up. A better day is coming.

A day worth waiting for.

A day worth dying for.

A celebration for conquering.

 

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.

Romans 8:18-19

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.

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.