What Others Say

Exceptional column. I think...inspired. Thank you for writing it.
- Diana M., Ranger, Texas

Monday, September 16, 2019

Escape From the Frenzy


We live in a time-crunched world where life is lived on the run. Millions pull out of their driveways in the pre-dawn dark, grab a last-minute breakfast burrito and merge onto freeways while listening to the morning news and traffic reports between cell phone calls. It is a frenzied start to a frenzied day.

Weary from long hours at work, the same drivers re-enter the stream of traffic making their way home past memorized billboards. Weekends are filled with errands, second jobs, T-ball, soccer, football. Church is squeezed into an already full schedule that has no margins.

Richard Foster analyzed it like this: "We are trapped in a rat race, not just of acquiring money, but also of meeting family and business obligations. We pant through an endless series of appointments and duties. This problem is especially acute for those who want to do what is right. With frantic fidelity we respond to all calls to service, distressingly unable to distinguish the voice of Christ from that of human manipulators." We are increasingly depressed and suicidal. We have turned to alcohol and drugs in a desperate effort to cope. We know deep down that something isn’t working. There must be a better way.

Most people recognize the Ten Commandments as foundational to human conduct and life. But somewhere along the way we reduced the Ten Commandments to nine. We eliminated the fourth commandment as irrelevant and archaic: “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.” A half-century ago, businesses were closed on Sunday and sporting events recognized Sunday as a day for worship. All that has changed. Today our calendars are filled up to a 24/7 frenzy.

When Jesus said that man was not made for the Sabbath but the Sabbath was made for man, he affirmed the need for the Sabbath in our lives. He underscored the importance of the Sabbath to all of us for mental, emotional, spiritual and physical health.

In his book, Living the Sabbath, Discovering the Rhythms of Rest and Delight, Norman Wirzba writes, “Put simply, Sabbath discipline introduces us to God’s own ways of joy and delight. … When our work and our play, our exertion and our rest flow seamlessly from this deep desire to give thanks to God, the totality of our living --- cooking, eating, cleaning, preaching, parenting, building, repairing, healing, creating --- becomes one sustained and ever expanding act of worship.”

Sabbath requires time for rest, silence, solitude and worship, but it is more than a day of rest. It is a way of life that is filled with wonder, worship, awe and delight. When Jesus declared himself the Lord of the Sabbath, he offered to us a better way. He said, “Come unto me all you who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn of me, for I am gentle and humble in heart and you will find rest to your souls.”

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Changing the Rules


It is always important to know the rules in anything we do.  We have rules at school, rules at work and rules at home. We establish laws to govern traffic: speed limits, stop signs, turn lanes and signals.  We pass laws for family, marriage, commerce and civil conduct.  We spend billions of dollars to employ law enforcement officials, judges and lawyers to make sure the rules are obeyed.

Some rules are unwritten. We assume we know them from birth. They are common to every culture on earth.  They are simple rules:  love your family and your friends.  Do good things for them.  Love your country.  If someone hits you, hit them back.  Don’t break in line. Lend only to those who will pay you back with interest. Look out for “number one.”  Protect your property. Defend yourself. If someone wrongs you, get even.  Sometimes we follow these rules even when they conflict with the law.  They are the stuff of most movies and novels.  They are the rules by which we live our lives.

We even have rules for play. Every sport has its rules with umpires and referees to insure that the rules are enforced.  We have added instant replay to make sure their rulings are fair and objective.  Still, arguments erupt and tempers flare when either side believes it has been unfairly judged. New Orleans fans are still miffed about the pass interference no-call last January.  And, the NFL has changed the rules.  For the first time, following the Saints play-off fiasco, coaches can challenge a pass interference play.  

When Jesus came, he changed all the rules.  His words sound strange when compared to our natural assumptions about how life is supposed to work. "But I say to you who hear, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. Whoever hits you on the cheek, offer him the other also; and whoever takes away your coat, do not withhold your shirt from him either. Give to everyone who asks of you, and whoever takes away what is yours, do not demand it back. Treat others the same way you want them to treat you. If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners in order to receive back the same amount. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for He Himself is kind to ungrateful and evil men. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” (Luke 6:27-36).

He even changed the rules about heaven.  Most assume they will earn their way to heaven by their good efforts , hoping in the end that their good will outweigh the bad.  But Jesus canned all that. Instead “God demonstrates His love for us in this: while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). “Whoever lives and believes in me,” Jesus said, “will never die.” (John 11:26). 

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

The Power of an Optimistic Outlook


Since this column reflects on current events and life experience, I am constantly searching the news for information.  It is a daunting task.  The headlines alone are depressing, let alone the blow-by-blow accounts of murder, theft, graft, rape, sexual abuse, prejudice, hatred, scams, suicide, mass shootings, political corruption and a looming recession.  Sometimes the news seems like a black hole that drags every ray of light into its dark abyss.  I spent some time this morning reading about the victims in last weekend’s senseless shooting in Midland-Odessa, Texas.

It is difficult not to become a pessimist from this constant onslaught. But we must not give in.  We must resist the darkness and cling to the light.  We must not surrender to the pessimism that surrounds us.

A new study released August 26 by the Boston University School of Medicine concludes that people who are more optimistic live 11 to 15 percent longer and are 50 to 70 percent more likely to reach age 85. But how do we remain optimistic in a world filled with pessimism? 

It seems to me that we do so by looking for the moments that renew our faith in each other.  Like the tender moment when Naomi Osaka embraced 15-year-old Coco Gauf after soundly defeating her in the round of 16 at the U.S. Open and persuading her to share the post-game interview with her.

We can remain optimistic by focusing on obscure moments like the first day of second grade reported by WIVB News in Wichita, Kansas. Eight year old Christian, who is African American, saw eight year old Conner, who is white, standing alone crying while they waited for the school to open.  Quietly, Christian reached out and took Conner’s hand. Conner stopped crying and the two of them walked into their classroom together, hand-in-hand.  Conner is autistic.  

We are surrounded by little acts of kindness, some demonstrated on the grand stage like Osaka and Gauf, others in obscure corners like Christian and Conner.   And we are sustained by a faith that overcomes darkness and despair.  Love overcomes hate. Forgiveness wipes away resentment and guilt. Resurrection conquers death.  Our God who is the Father of Lights is the source of all good things.

The Bible is the most realistic and most optimistic book ever written. It clearly exposes man’s sin and consistently demonstrates God’s righteous redemption. It embraces the Cross with all of its pain and despair and proclaims the resurrection in all of its glory.

The Bible always offsets our struggle with discouragement and despair with the hope of faith and the unchangeable goodness of God.  Three times the Scripture asks, “Why are you in despair O my soul? And why have you become disturbed in me? Hope in God, for I shall again praise Him for the help of His presence” (Psalm 42:5, 11; 43:5).

The Apostle Paul wrote, “We were burdened excessively, beyond our strength, so that we despaired even of life; indeed we had the sentence of death within ourselves so that we would not trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead” (2 Cor. 1:8-9).

Jesus said, “I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have trouble.  But take heart!  I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

Monday, August 26, 2019

Back To School


Children and youth have returned to school.  Summer vacations are over. Silent buildings and empty playgrounds echo with classroom lectures and children’s laughter. It is a time to put away the lazy days of sleeping late, TV, video games and camp, to wake before sunrise and wait for the bus. The rumble of yellow buses mark an annual rite of passage along with the smells of erasers, crayons, markers and freshly painted classrooms.  It forms the rhythm of our lives, as surely as the first crisp scent of fall and the turning of green leaves to gold.  We wake up to the echo of school bands, coaches’ whistles and the smack of shoulder pads getting ready for the big game soon to come.  

It is a time filled with conflicting currents of freedom and fear, opportunity and obstacles.  Younger children are finally old enough to follow older brothers and sisters off to school with their own backpack of books.  College freshmen are finally off on their own, away from home, their heads spinning with dreams and doubt.  

Houses that vibrated with teen-age noise surrender to the silence of an empty nest.  And college freshmen are shocked with stabs of homesickness.  It is, of course, the stuff of life: joy and sorrow, celebration and challenge, learning and growing.

I am a fan of public schools.  I like the fact that, in our imperfect system, every child has a chance to learn. I love movies about public school teachers and the difference they make in students’ lives, like Freedom Writers or Mr. Holland’s Opus.  My wife is a career public school teacher.  Across the years she taught high school, third grade and kindergarten. 

Even though schools take summer breaks, school is never out.  Children and youth are always learning, and sometimes the most important lessons they learn are the moments when parents and adults are least aware.  They learn honesty, generosity, courtesy and faith by watching us in check-out lines, by observing how we react in rush hour traffic and by listening to our conversations at home.  They are always watching and always learning, even when we think they are tuned out.

Churches and schools, public or private, cannot replace the important role parents play in teaching their children. That is why the Bible says, “Tell to the generation to come the praises of the Lord, and His strength and His wondrous works that He has done.  For He established a testimony in Jacob and appointed a law in Israel, which He commanded our fathers that they should teach them to their children, that the generation to come might know, even the children yet to be born, that they may arise and tell them to their children, That they should put their confidence in God” (Psalm 78:4-6).
 
To the children, the Bible says, “My son, observe the commandment of your father And do not forsake the teaching of your mother; bind them continually on your heart; tie them around your neck. When you walk about, they will guide you; when you sleep, they will watch over you; and when you awake, they will talk to you” (Proverbs 6:20-22)

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Are You Listening?


My wife is a great listener.  That is one of the reasons I married her.  She listens intently, not just to me, but also to anyone speaking to her. I once watched a total stranger stop her on the street in New York and spill out their life story.  I have witnessed the same thing on subways, in train stations and shopping centers in the U.S. and Europe.  You can see it in her eyes.  She focuses.  She doesn’t glance around the room wondering if there is someone else she should speak to. She doesn’t look beyond you.  Her eyes don’t glaze over in a fixed stare that pretends to listen while she thinks about something else. 

I lose focus.  One word can trigger any number of divergent thoughts causing my mind to race off in pursuit like a dog chasing cats.  At other times I leap ahead, thinking about what I want to say rather than listening to what is being said.  I have to discipline myself to re-focus on what is being said, sometimes scrambling to piece together the gaps that I missed during my mental lapses. 

My wife knows this. She can see it in my eyes.  Sometimes she will stop talking and the silence will awaken me from my temporary daydream.  “You’re not listening,” she says.  Of course she is right.  But occasionally I am lucky enough to be able to repeat the last sentence that she spoke, retrieving it from some kind of digital recording in my head, even though its meaning was not being registered in my brain.

Listening is a powerful gift. It is transformational. When someone listens to us without judgment or accusation, we hear and see ourselves differently. Somehow the act of having someone truly listen enables us to sort through our emotions and confusions to reach better conclusions.  Feelings of isolation and loneliness dissolve and melt away when someone listens to us. The listener, by listening, has the ability to heal.

Most of us are far more intent on being heard than hearing. When we pretend to listen, we are, more often simply waiting for a gap, a chance in the conversation to insert our already preconceived conclusions. We interrupt one another with conversations that often are running on different tracks.

How many times have we injured someone, or simply failed to help someone, because we were too quick to speak?  How different our world would be if parents listened to their children; if bosses listened to their employees; if businesses listened to their customers; if politicians listened to the people; if persons in power listened to each other?  Maybe if we were better at listening to one another, we might be better at listening to God.

The Bible says, “Everyone must be quick to hear and slow to speak.”  (James 1:19).  God says, “Listen carefully to Me, and eat what is good, and delight yourself in abundance. Incline your ear and come to Me. Listen, that you may live.” (Isaiah 55:2-3).

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Miracle of Life


My daughter was born the year I turned forty.  With two sons already thirteen and eight, we were not expecting another child.  In fact, the doctors told us that having more children was impossible.  But, the impossible happened.  The doctor’s first question was, “Do you want to terminate this pregnancy?”  We were stunned.  Such a consideration never entered our minds.  Nine months later my wife gave birth to a beautiful little girl who has blessed our lives immeasurably. I often thought of the doctor’s question when I rocked her to sleep and felt the weight of her slumbering body against my shoulder. 

Our daughter is now grown. Ten years ago I walked her down the aisle.  I then performed their wedding ceremony and danced with her at the reception, one of the highlights of my life. Three years later, they came home and excitedly told us they were expecting a baby.  When they gave us the news of her pregnancy, her baby was no bigger than a small marble. We listened to the baby’s heartbeat and watched her dancing in the womb.  She now dances around the room with her little sister and brother.

Before retirement, my wife worked with pregnant and parenting teens in the public schools.  She constantly sought to help them have a healthy pregnancy, healthy birth, learn how to become a good parent, and stay in school in order to have a future.  Her girls achieved a 96% graduation rate.

With children and grandchildren of our own and my wife’s occupation, you would think that the process of pregnancy and birth would have become commonplace. But it hasn’t.  In fact, it is quite the opposite.  The more I witness the miracle by which children are birthed into the world, the more I stand in awe. 

When my daughter was eight we took her to see the original Lion King movie.  Last week we took her daughter, our granddaughter, who is now eight, to see the new Lion King.  The advance in digital animation is astounding.  But the story about the miracle of life is the same.

David expressed it best in Psalm 139:  “For you formed my inward parts; you wove me in my mother's womb. I will give thanks to you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; wonderful are your works, and my soul knows it very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was made in secret, and skillfully wrought in the depths of the earth; Your eyes have seen my unformed substance; and in your book were all written the days that were ordained for me, when as yet there was not one of them.” To the prophet Jeremiah, God said, “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.”  (Jeremiah 1:5).

Every birth, every child and every person is a miracle of God.  We are all more than mere flesh and blood, brain, bone and sinew.  We are made in His likeness, with the awesome freedom to choose good and evil, to bless others or to curse them. We have infinite possibilities and an immortal soul that will one day depart this mortal body. We are eternal beings living in a miraculous universe that astounds our senses. 

Monday, August 5, 2019

Violence


Who among us is not appalled at the insane violence that stalks our land?  Even a casual shopping day for school supplies at a local Walmart can turn deadly.  Twenty people killed Saturday in El Paso. Nine more gunned down on Sunday in Dayton, Ohio.

There is no pattern.  Each horrific scene seems random, illogical and insane, whether it is a gay bar in Orlando, Florida, a concert in Las Vegas, a movie theater in Colorado, a Baptist church in Sutherland Springs, Texas or 22 school shootings this year.  The only things they seem to have in common are guns and grief. Agonizing grief that lasts a lifetime.  According to CBS, there have been 251 mass shootings in the U.S. in only 216 days this year.   As Lester Holt stated in the aftermath of this weekend’s killings, “This is not normal.”

The news soon moves on to the next topic, briefly, until returning to report another crime scene where innocent children, mothers, fathers and grandparents lay in blood stained aisles, hallways and classrooms. When will it stop?  Why does it happen?

It only takes a generation to lose our moral moorings. As faith diminishes in the marketplace, as children grow to adulthood without the values taught in our churches, we are all likely to become victims.  We have drifted away from the teachings of the Bible and lost our value for human life. Increasingly we judge one another by the color of our skin, our language, accent, dress and culture.

Jesus turned the tide in a violent generation 2,000 years ago.  He did so by turning conventional wisdom on its head:  “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you” (Luke 6:27-28).  He did so by teaching us to value every human life: “You have heard that that the ancients were told, ‘You shall not commit murder.’ And ‘Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother is guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother ‘You good-for-nothing,’  shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell” (Matt. 5:21-22).  He did so by embracing the outcast, loving the unlovely and accepting the unacceptable.  He turned the tide of violence by entrusting himself into the violent hands of his accusers and suffering innocent death on the Cross.   

Every generation must turn the tide of violence.  Every generation must relearn the lessons Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount.  We are in desperate need of something we have lost from generations who have gone before.  We must rediscover a faith that transcends prejudice, fear, hatred and violence.  In every home, every school, every market place, we must practice and teach the truth of Christ.