COVID-19, Lent offer same message

Is it I, Lord?

I participated in a dramatic reading many years ago in our church of the Last Supper. Jesus’ 12 apostles were seated in the Upper Room, and Jesus had just announced that one of the 12 was going to betray him.

In turn, they all asked Jesus: Is it I, Lord?

I was assigned the role of James the son of Alphaeus, sometimes called James the Lesser. Hardly anything is known about him, so the paragraph I had to memorize was short.

Yes, it is I

The fact that the announcement troubled most – all but one – of the apostles proved that it was not them. But they asked the question anyway, sincerely.

They gave their lives for him. They gave up their careers for him – some of them permanently. (Once Matthew walked away from his tax collector job, there was no going back.) They listened, feared, walked on water, found food to feed 5,000 people, asked questions and learned.

After three years, it came down to this:

Is it I, Lord?

Jesus gave them the answer right away. No, it’s not you. It’s Judas.

A few hours later, they all fled during Jesus’ biggest hour of need.

Yes, it is I.

A time of reflection

As Christians, we are in the period known as Lent, which takes place for about six weeks before Easter.

Lent is a time of reflection. Christians often give up material things as a sign of penance in preparation for Maundy Thursday, when Christians remember the Upper Room scene. Some fast. Some give up meat. Some forego sweets. Or other things.

This year, everyone around the world, Christian or not, is being forced to give up a lot more than a Friday night steak. I don’t think it’s coincidence that COVID-19 struck during Lent.

What truly matters in life? We are doing without sports and entertainment. As with Lent, these sacrifices will be temporary. It’s not the new normal. We don’t know the end date, but there will be one.

Perhaps we will see a new normal. When sports and entertainment return, will we get caught up in them the way we did for so long? Or will they be as they are intended, an escape from “real life,” a chance to relax and unwind?

Temporary suffering

The Last Supper was not truly so for the apostles, of course. It was for Jesus. The apostles would continue the tradition later as communion, which Christians still celebrate today.

We remember what happened on that night.

The night that changed everything.

The night when Jesus transformed the Passover seder into communion, with his body and blood symbolized by the bread and wine.

We’re upset that our jobs are suspended, temporarily. And that does hurt (even with unemployment benefits). Our favorite concert halls, movie theaters, sports arenas and stadiums are dark and empty, temporarily.

Jesus gave his life. His Father gave it back to him on Easter Sunday, giving us the hope of forgiveness of sins at the same time. That’s why Christians view Easter as the most holy – and happy – day of the entire year.

But first, Lent came. Loss. Suffering. Anguish. Fear. Sleepiness. Anxiety.

Lent and COVID-19 serve the same purpose

Today, all of us, worldwide, get to share in that. Whether we want to or not.

We decide for ourselves how to respond to COVID-19. There are public responses which we are asked to support – stay-in-place, go to the store only when necessary. The virus spreads very rapidly. People are dying from it. The curve has not flattened yet, at least not in the United States.

The worst likely is yet to come.

Will we submit to our leaders?

That’s what Lent is all about. Submitting to a higher authority, the living God.

Today, all of us get to do that.

This life is not about us. Some of us are having a difficult time grasping, or accepting, this.

But it’s true. The world existed before any of us was born, and it will continue after all of us depart this Earth.

Is it I, Lord?

Yes, Lord, it is I.

Lent is a time of reflection, of self-sacrifice. To what end? To understand Jesus’ sacrifice for us.

COVID-19 sacrifices are temporary, except for those who die. That’s why we must sacrifice – so we can keep those deaths to a minimum.

It’s not about me. It’s not about you.

This is the message of Lent, and this is the message of COVID-19.

Sacrifice – and hope

What are we doing with the extra time we have, thanks to social distancing? Are we giving thanks for what we still have? Or do we complain about what we’ve lost?

What have we lost? Nearly all of you reading this blog don’t have to worry about where your next meal is coming from, even with stay-in-place orders. We aren’t facing life-changing consequences, unless we get the virus.

When the social restrictions are lifted, and they will be eventually, we will return to some semblance of normalcy.

Will we be changed? Will we be more grateful for the blessings we’ve had all along? Will we appreciate more the things we’ve had to give up during our enforced Lenten season?

Time will tell.

Until that day, we will live in Lent. A period of sacrifice, waiting, suffering – and hope.

Easter is coming. Whether the pandemic ends on April 12, Easter Sunday, or not – I rather doubt it – Easter will come.

That’s a promise. Let’s get ready.

Mixed signals

Weeds can ruin a beautiful garden or farm field.

A tiny mustard seed can grow into a big tree.

A little yeast can make bread rise – or can contaminate it, if it’s bad.

Hidden treasure is a good thing, if it’s discovered.

A fishing net nabs good fish and rotten ones at the same time. They must be sorted.

Got it?

In Matthew 13, Jesus runs through a bunch of parables, includes most of these, with his disciples.

“Have you understood all this?” he asked them in verse 51.

They answered, “Yes.”

I wonder if they really did.

Parables

At the beginning of the chapter, Jesus told them the parable of the four soils, which the disciples then asked him to explain. Jesus did that, in detail.

The four soils describe people who aren’t listening to God, those who turn away from God when bad things happen, those who get distracted by the things of this world, and those who follow God completely.

Jesus also explained the parable of the weeds, pointing to the coming Judgment Day when God will send angels to “collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire …” (verse 41).

Jesus didn’t explain the other parables.

Contrasts

In Matthew 13:33, Jesus told his disciples that a little yeast leavens an entire loaf of bread. Soon after, in Matthew 16:6, Jesus said, “Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” In other words, a little false or deceptive teaching can ruin good theology.

We shouldn’t mix good and evil. Nowhere in the Bible does God allow a middle path. Follow the narrow path of salvation, or we’re on the wide path of destruction. There’s no third path (Matthew 7:13-14).

Good and evil. Heaven and hell. Male and female. Obey God or disobey God. Grain or weeds. Life and death. Light and darkness.

Whenever I read the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), I see that every person Jesus encountered was forced to make a choice about him. Follow, or walk away. You’re with me, or you’re against me (Matthew 12:30).

Many walked away.

Jesus did not pursue those who rejected him. Do you notice that? He let them go.

Mixed signals

But everyone who met Jesus changed, and that still happens today. There are ramifications either way. We reap what we sew (Galatians 6:7-9).

If we don’t want God in our lives, God will honor that. He’s not an arm-twister. But as with every decision we make, there are consequences, good or bad.

This life often sends us mixed signals. Go or stop? Depends which way we are going.

lights 1

Soon after moving to Elyria six years ago, a policeman stopped me at this traffic light at 1:15 in the morning. I was weaving between lanes in my big white Grand Marquis. New to town, I didn’t know immediately which lane I wanted to be in.

The officer thought I was drunk. He engaged me in conversation and quickly discovered that I wasn’t under the influence of anything; I was just confused. After giving me a warning, he sent me on my way. (I turned left at this intersection, by the way.)

Life shouldn’t be this difficult to navigate, but often it is, isn’t it?

Almost 11 years ago, I got downsized from a job I enjoyed for more than two decades. What was my next step? It wasn’t clear. Indeed, I didn’t do much of anything for a long time after that. Lesson learned: Doing nothing is not a good next step.

Eventually, I took a job out-of-state. Many changes and consequences followed. Unexpectedly, the job didn’t last. Another out-of-state job relocation took place. That job didn’t last either.

If only every signal was either a red light or a green arrow.

I thought I saw green arrows, but the light changed. Frequently.

Everything changes on this earth. We all know this. We graduate, then have to do something with our lives. We get sick. We grow old. Many of us marry, and have children. They grow up. Spring follows winter. (Not all change is bad, right?)

Green light go

With that backdrop, I read this: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8).

There are days I literally have nothing else to hold on to. Change is the one constant. I’ve seen plenty of it, especially in the past decade: New jobs. Getting fired. New friends. New volunteer opportunities; some of those don’t last either. Our church opened a satellite campus last week, so I’m worshipping in an entirely new place now, leaving behind (but not forever) some very good friends.

When we moved to Rockford, Illinois, we did not know a soul. When we moved to Elyria, Ohio, less than a year and a half later, we did not know hardly a soul here, either (my aunt lives 20 minutes away, so that was cool).

But because Jesus is the same yesterday and today and forever, once we found Bible-believing churches in both locations, we had instant friends. The path might be narrow, but there are quite a few people on it. Really.

Anyone is welcome to travel the narrow path, but only a few find it. That’s what Jesus said.

That narrow path extends to just about every place where people live. I find great comfort in that. While life changes all around me, there’s one constant: Jesus Christ. He is the solid foundation, which remains in place even as the storms of life rock it (Matthew 7:24-27).

That’s why I’m a Christian.

Choices

The Bible makes sense. It fits together. Its signals are not mixed.

That’s why so many of you have trouble with Jesus. He forces a decision on you. Yea or nay. No third option, much as we try.

For those of us who follow Jesus every day, his singular love for us helps us keep on track, and he brings us back when we fall off track – which happens often. We shouldn’t, but we do.

Yeast works both ways. Ugh.

I want the good yeast in my life, not the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.

If only I could keep my eyes on the green light all the time.

Sometimes the old stuff is still relevant

I believe in God the Father almighty,
maker of heaven and earth.

I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.
He was conceived by the Holy Spirit
and born of the virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended into hell.
On the third day he rose again.
He ascended into heaven,
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
Thence he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of the saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.

 

I had to memorize this before I joined a church for the first time in high school. It’s an ancient statement of Christian beliefs called the Apostles’ Creed.

I grew up in formal Protestant churches that were liturgical. We recited the Apostles’ Creed frequently. It’s not a perfect statement of faith, but it’s pretty good. There’s a lot of excellent theology in it.

I attend a non-liturgical church now. We don’t recite the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer or any other liturgical statement, ever. Well, hardly ever.

I miss it. We want to be all modern and new, but sometimes the old stuff is still relevant.

What is a Christian supposed to believe, anyway? Do we even know any more? Every denomination, every church (whether denominational or not), every group of believers of all types, issues a statement of beliefs. Based on what?

Let’s go back to the beginning. Well, OK. The Apostles’ Creed wasn’t around at the beginning. The first version was written about 390 AD. It’s old, but not quite Bible-times old.

Is the Apostles’ Creed worth remembering today?

I think it is. There’s plenty of good Biblical truth in there that often gets lost in 21st century America.

 

I believe in God the Father almighty,
maker of heaven and earth.

 

Can we agree on the opening line? Do all Christians believe God made Heaven and Earth? The Bible begins, in the first words of Genesis, with this truth. If we disregard this, we disregard everything that follows it – both in the Bible and in the creed.

Did God create the Earth in six literal days, or did those six days represent a longer timeline? We weren’t around then, so we have to study evidence we discover about the Creation. Whatever your interpretation, God created Earth – and all that’s in it, including us. That’s ground zero.

 

I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.

 

Yes or no. Is Jesus God’s only Son, and is He our Lord – which means we serve Him with our daily lives?

 

He was conceived by the Holy Spirit
and born of the virgin Mary.

 

Was Jesus both God and man? If he was conceived by the Holy Spirit, then the living God is his father. If he was born of Mary, then he was a man, a human being.

This is an impossible concept to fully grasp, and yet it’s true. God himself came to Earth to connect with us on our level, as one of us.

 

He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended into hell.

 

Many versions of the Apostles’ Creed omit that last line, because it’s controversial. How could the living God descend into hell?

Here’s the best explanation of that I’ve heard (I don’t remember where I heard this first):

In Heaven, we are fully with God. In Hell, we are completely separated from God. (We experience parts of both on Earth, which is why we have such a struggle between good and evil.) When Jesus took our sins, yours and mine, on his shoulders on the cross, God the Father abandoned his Son there – because God cannot even look at sin, much less accept it in any form. Jesus’ cry, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46, quoting Psalm 22:1), was a literal question. At that instant, when the Father and Son were separated, Jesus descended into hell.

Of course, that’s not the end of the story.

 

On the third day he rose again.
He ascended into heaven,
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
Thence he will come to judge the living and the dead.

 

God the Father forgave all the sin that Jesus had become on our behalf – and by extension, God has forgiven us of all the sins we have committed, are committing and will commit. This is mind-blowing, life-changing, and absolutely true.

This is the definition of unconditional love.

zoo lights 8

All we have to do is accept it, and our sins are forgiven. We can’t earn forgiveness. It’s a gift. We have to say yes, and thank you.

And one day, Jesus will judge us, not for all the good or bad we’ve done or not done, but only on whether we’ve accepted the gift of his forgiveness or not.

Our present and future lives should reflect our thanks to God for this gift. The Apostles’ Creed doesn’t talk about this, but if we think we have encountered the living God and our lives don’t change at all because of it, then we haven’t encountered the living God.

This is basic Christianity.

 

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of the saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.

 

The creed ends with several theological statements:

  • The Holy Spirit lives in each believer. The Spirit is God, giving us insight into the Father and Son. Again, this is impossible to fully understand, but we will one day.
  • The holy catholic Church refers to all believers around the world. “Catholic” is lowercase; it does not refer to the Roman Catholic Church.
  • Communion of saints refers to the universal salvation of all believers past, present and future. We are all brothers and sisters, “saints,” in Christ.
  • God forgives sins. He does not excuse or ignore them. Forgiveness requires a huge cost: the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ.
  • Our bodies will be resurrected one day – as perfect heavenly bodies. Again, I can’t explain how this will happen, but the Bible says it will, and Christians look forward to it.
  • Everlasting means forever. We have a beginning, but no end. Earthly death is a temporary thing, a transition to a better life that will be everlasting. This is our hope. Death is hard, especially on those of us remaining on Earth, but we all will face it one day. No exceptions. Are we ready?
  • Amen means “so be it.”

With all kinds of ideas out there about what it means to be a Christian, sometimes it’s good to go back to the basics. The Apostles’ Creed is based on the Bible itself.

It’s a good refresher. Hope this encourages you.

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.