What Others Say

Just a note to thank you for your wonderful weekly columns in the Galveston Paper.
To open a newspaper and see references to God, Scriptures, Kindness, Peace, Loving one another is what our whole world needs now more than ever. -John D. Galveston, Texas

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Imagine

If this New Year’s Celebration at Times Square follows the pattern set since 2005, just before the ball drops and we turn our calendars forward, someone will sing John Lennon’s classic song, Imagine. It is a good thing to close out the past and look to the future by imagining the world as it could be. 

 John Lennon sat down at his piano in Berkshire, England one morning in early 1971 and composed the song that became his most popular single.  The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation named it the greatest song of the last 100 years.  Australians chose “Imagine” as the greatest song of all time. But for many of us, there is a greater vision of how the world could be.

Every time we quote the Lord’s Prayer we are invited to imagine the world as it is meant to be.  Jesus taught us to pray, “Our Father who art in Heaven, Hallowed be Thy name.  Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven …” What would the world look like if that prayer were answered?  How would the world differ from the world we know? 

If God’s will were done on earth, there would be no more crime. Theft, violence and murder would end. Prisons would empty.  Neighbor would no longer sue neighbor.  Court dockets would be empty.

Employers would forego extravagant profits in order to pay higher wages to their workers.   No child would go to bed hungry or unsheltered.  Those who possess the food and resources of the world would share with those who have none.

Corruption, graft and greed would disappear. Wars would cease. Politicians would serve the best interest of others with honesty and integrity.  Fairness, kindness, forgiveness and generosity would prevail between neighbors. 

Husbands would love their wives seeking what is best for them and striving to please them.  Wives would love and respect their husbands, building them up and encouraging them. Children would honor their parents and obey them, trusting them in the knowledge that they want what is best for them.

Racial, cultural and sexual prejudices would vanish.  Discrimination would disappear. Every human being would treat every other human being with respect.  The strong would help the weak.

None of us are in the position to affect such a whole scale change for the world in which we live.  But we are each able to change our little corner of the world.  We can put into practice the answer to the prayer Jesus taught us to pray. His Kingdom can come and His will can be done in us and through us. 

In 2014 we can be a part of the answer to the prayer that has been prayed for more than 2,000 years.  His kingdom can come and His will can be done. Just imagine!

Monday, December 23, 2013

Sunrise From On High

This last week my wife and I drove to the coast to celebrate our forty-fifth anniversary.  Something seemed to draw us to the beach, to the crashing waves that wash upon the shore, to the endless horizon of the sea.  Perhaps it was because we were married on the coast 45 years ago.

I think it was something more.  There is something mystical about the ocean. Across the years I have felt it on the beaches of Florida, California, Hawaii, Brazil, Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia and North Africa. The ocean touches every continent of the globe, sleeping a deep sleep, slumbering an eternal slumber and waking with irresistible power. Its currents control the weather.  By all accounts it is the cradle of life.  It contains the mystery that makes the third planet from the Sun unique in the galaxies of space.

Last week I rose before daylight, loaded my backpack and walked to the beach, about a quarter of a mile from our condo.  As the dawn approached, the eastern sky was ablaze with splashes of crimson and gold. But thick clouds low on the horizon hid the sun as it crept above the earth’s rim.  The crimson and gold colors faded.  Suddenly the rising sun found an opening in the clouds and lit the sky and sea. It reflected off the cresting waves and streaked the sand with shadows.

I was reminded of what Zacharias said when his son, John was born.  Having been told by an angel that his child would be the forerunner for the Messiah, he had been stricken mute for the nine months of his wife’s pregnancy.  But when the baby was born, his tongue was loosed. The miracle and the wonder that he had harbored in silence burst from his breast, and he sang:

“And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
For you will go on before the Lord to prepare His ways;
To give to His people the knowledge of salvation
By the forgiveness of their sins,
Because of the tender mercy of our God,
With which the Sunrise from on high will visit us,
To shine upon those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death,
To guide our feet into the way of peace.”(Luke 1:76-79).

Christmas is like that, like the sunrise. The Creator chose to enter into His creation in the form of a baby so that we might see His glory. He broke through the clouds of gloom and dispelled the darkness of despair.  He lights the world with His beauty and give us hope. The sunrise from on high has visited us!

Monday, December 16, 2013

A Soul Full Christmas

We don’t talk much about the soul.  Other generations did, but not ours.  We are far more focused on our bodies and our money.  This is apparent in our approach to Christmas with our lists of what we want and our search for the perfect gift at the deepest discount.  It seems that we have abandoned discussions about the soul to practitioners of New Age and metaphysics. 

We cannot perform a “soul-ectomy.”  The soul is not an organ that can be removed, placed on a laboratory table and analyzed.  We all sense that there is something within us that is more than the sum of our parts, the substance of our being where we make decisions that affect the health of our bodies, our mind and our emotions.  This is our soul. It is the substance and the essence of who we are, especially in relationship to God and to each other.  When the body withers and dies, the soul remains.

Jesus emphasized the importance of the soul.  Regarding the soul in comparison to the body, he said, “Do not be afraid of those who can kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”   With respect to money, Jesus said, “What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?”   He told a story of a rich man who was focused on his wealth and amassed greater fortunes. ' But God said to him, 'You fool! This very night your soul is required of you; and now who will own what you have prepared?'

David was intimately aware of his soul and referred to the soul often in the Psalms. He gave us clues as to how we can nurture and shape our soul. He said, “The law of the Lord is perfect, refreshing the soul.”  And “Then my soul will rejoice in the Lord and delight in His salvation.” (Ps. 19:7; 35:9).

In some way, the Christmas season reveals the condition of our soul.  If we focus on satisfying ourselves and others with possessions and self-gratification, Christmas becomes a season of stress, leaving us disappointed, exhausted and empty.  But, when we approach Christmas in faith, our soul is stirred.  When we focus on the goodness of God who sent His Son and when we seek opportunities for generosity and comfort to others, we discover joy and gladness.  Our soul resonates with Mary, the mother of Jesus who sang, “My soul exalts the Lord and my spirit has rejoiced in God my savior. For he has had regard for the humble state of his bondslave; for behold from this time on, all generations will count me blessed.  For the Mighty One has done great things for me and holy is His name. And his mercy is upon generation after generation toward those who fear Him. He has done mighty deeds with  his arm; He has scattered those who were proud in the thoughts of their heart.  He has brought down rulers from their thrones, and has exalted those who were humble.  He has filled the hungry with good things; and sent the rich away empty handed.”

Monday, December 9, 2013

Lessons from Mandela

This week President Obama and former presidents George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter made their way to South Africa to honor the memory of Nelson Mandela.  The entire world paused to pay homage to this remarkable individual who led his nation out of apartheid.

As a young black lawyer in South Africa, Mandela became the leader in the movement to eliminate apartheid, the South African set of laws that discriminated against Blacks and Asians.  When his influence became a threat to those in power, he was imprisoned for 27 years. Mandela emerged from prison unbroken, taking up his earlier mantra to live for freedom or to die for it.  He was swept to power as President of South Africa four years after his release.

Mandela’s story would be remarkable simply because he was able to rise from rural obscurity to national and international prominence.  It is more remarkable given his election as President of South Africa after spending 27 years in prison as an enemy of the government.  But it is most remarkable because when he was bestowed with power as President, he chose forgiveness and reconciliation instead of retaliation.

How did he come to this position?  How did he rise above the natural passions of vengeance, hatred and corruption that control most men, especially those who come to power?

In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela states that he early became a member of the Methodist church, like his mother, and started his education in a Methodist school run by missionaries.  Later, when he was a young man he “became a member of the Students Christian Association and taught Bible classes on Sundays in neighboring villages.”  Perhaps in those early beginnings the seeds of his ultimate success were sown. In his autobiography, Mandela wrote, “ I saw that virtually all of the achievements of Africans seemed to have come about through the missionary work of the Church."

But the record of Christian influence in South Africa, as elsewhere, has its issues. In South Africa as in the American pre-Civil War South, the systems of racial subjugation and prejudice found support in the churches.  Speaking of Apartheid, Mandela wrote, “The policy was supported by the Dutch Reformed Church, which furnished apartheid with its religious underpinnings … In the Afrikaner’s worldview, apartheid and the church went hand in hand.” 

Many who profess faith in Christ are prone to adopt the world’s systems with its prejudices and presumptions rather than follow the teachings of Christ. It is, in the end, the degree that we implement the teachings of Jesus, regardless of denomination or affiliation, that makes the greatest difference. Jesus set the example by which we are to forgive as we have been forgiven, to love our enemies and do good for them.

In 1994, Mandela addressed an Easter conference and spoke of "… the Good News borne by our risen Messiah who chose not one race, who chose not one country, who chose not one language, who chose not one tribe, who chose all of humankind!”

Nelson Mandela is a reminder that when one man is willing to put into practice the radical teaching of Jesus, he can change the world.  In our families, our jobs, our schools and our communities, we can, every one of us, practice forgiveness, acceptance, respect and faith that transforms the world.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Rescued

Every year I write at least one column about my dog, Buddy, a tri-color Pembroke Corgi that found his way into our home four years ago.   Animal Control picked him up off the streets of Fort Worth, skinny and sick.  They called Corgi Rescue and they called us.   When we met him it was love at first sight. We adopted him, kennel cough and all.  He was more of a puppy then, less than two years old, I think.  Now he is approaching middle age in dog years. He is not as fast as he once was, though our daughter’s poodle could always run rings around him, and he carries a little more weight in his mid-section.

Buddy has a way of teaching me things about God if I take the time to listen and watch and reflect on our relationship.  Shortly after we adopted him, he told me his story: how he got lost on the streets of Fort Worth, was befriended by Barney the Bloodhound and ended up in “dog jail” when the “dog police” caught up with them.  I wrote it down for my grandchildren and published it as an e-book on Amazon, Buddy the Floppy Ear Corgi.  Our next door neighbor read it to his ten-year-old daughter who took it to school where the teacher read it to her class.  “One boy cried,” she said.  In his story, Buddy encourages animal rescue and teaches us to accept ourselves and others just the way God made us.

Recently Buddy and I went fishing in my flat bottom fishing boat.  The front of the boat is his.  He stands in the front and sniffs the wind to locate the fish.  He is good at it.  Bored with my inability to catch the fish that he knew were there, he decided to jump to a nearby log and fell in.  Corgis aren’t built for water. Their stubby legs don’t give much traction for swimming. He coughed, sputtered, went under and splashed for all he was worth until I grabbed him by the collar and hauled him back into the boat, soaked and shivering.

It reminded me of Peter’s experience when he leapt from the fishing boat to meet Jesus on the Sea of Galilee.  I expect Peter was a better swimmer than Buddy, but there he was splashing and floundering around in the sea, helpless, until Jesus reached out, lifted him up and hauled him back into the boat.

God is always doing that for me, many times and many ways. Across the years I have fallen out of the boat financially, unable to sleep at night worrying about how to make ends meet.  I have fallen over my head in work, overwhelmed by responsibilities and challenges I felt I could not meet.  I have found myself drowning in grief with the loss of someone I love. It is comforting to know that whenever I fall out of the boat, God is there. 

Every time I have fallen into waters over my head, He has pulled me up and hauled me back into the boat. He is strong enough to save me and He will not let me drown in the circumstances that threaten to overwhelm me. 

Jesus said, “In the world you have tribulation, but be of good courage, I have overcome the world.”  Jesus’ followers said, “What kind of man is this that even the winds and the sea obey Him?”

Monday, November 25, 2013

Giving Thanks

I like Thanksgiving. I like the sounds of family and friends laughing around the table. I like to see children splashing through multi-colored leaves.  I like the crisp mornings and the smell of turkey baking in the oven.  And I like what goes with it: cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, green beans, salad and pie (any kind of pie).  But, most of all, I like dressing.  Turkeys come and turkeys go, but my wife’s corn bread dressing is to die for.  She learned the recipe from her mother: corn bread, celery, onions, chopped boiled eggs, broth, butter and other ingredients I will never know.   With giblet gravy, it is a meal in itself.

After missing the third quarter of the Thanksgiving ball game we regain consciousness enough to stumble into the kitchen for leftovers.  We load up again, and sleep the sound sleep of a thankful soul.  By Friday the tryptophan and carbohydrates have worn off,   and we are ready to get on with the real business of the American holiday season: shopping!

Our pilgrim fathers knew nothing of this.  They hunted and harvested and cleaned and cooked, but they never stood in lines in front of glass doors waiting for the opening bell. They never rushed through aisles searching for treasures.  They never stood in check out lines that stretched to the back of the store.  They had it easy.

Black Friday seems to symbolize our rush through life, our efforts to get the best deal, to be first in line.  It seems to represent the commercialization of Christmas and threatens to turn Thanksgiving into a season of “thanks getting.”  Don’t get me wrong.  I like a good deal and deep discounts.  I want the American economy to thrive.  But, along the way, I hope we cultivate a thankful heart and grateful spirit that is not measured by the sum of what we can get at the cheapest price.

Of course the real substance of Thanksgiving isn’t the turkey and gravy, or even the pie. Nor is it the best discount or our economic prosperity.  We are prone to relate gratitude to the circumstances in which we find ourselves. But favorable and unfavorable circumstances come to us all. God sends his rain on the just and the unjust.  When Jesus met ten lepers he cleansed them all, but only one returned with a thankful heart.

Over the years I have seen, time and again, that the most thankful people are often found among those who have the least and have suffered the most.  Somehow prosperity seems to beget arrogance and the fear of losing what we know we cannot keep, whether it is fortune, fame or health. The best gifts come to us from the Father of Lights wrapped in love and thoughtfulness, in the faces of family and friends who belong to one another. I hope this Thanksgiving season is, for you, deep and meaningful and lasting.

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.” (Colossians 3:15).

Monday, November 18, 2013

What Became of Thanksgiving

If the Devil looked about and saw a nation setting aside an entire day in which family and friends gathered to celebrated love for one another, to feed the poor and to give thanks to God, what would he think?  I assume he would be filled with fury. He would probably call together his minions for counsel and develop a plan to destroy such a day.

Perhaps he would look into his arsenal and pull out his glittering weapon, greed, knowing that all men are susceptible to its poison and power. But the weapon must not appear sinister and evil.   It must be disguised as something that seemed good. Perhaps the weapon could be camouflaged within the traditions of Christmas shopping. 

 It would not be necessary to implement the plan in one fell swoop.  It could be introduced gradually, by degrees, until the odious day of giving thanks was erased from the calendar.

The commercial launch of shopping for Christmas could be moved ever closer to the day of giving thanks. Then, on the day after Thanksgiving, corporations could offer deeper discounts to lure the masses into their stores before sunrise. It would be a brilliant stroke of genius. The minds of the people would be lured away from giving thanks and enjoying fellowship to planning strategies for the big day of shopping! 

The Devil could sit back and let human nature take its course.  In time, the day after would not be enough, and the honored day would begin to yield.  Stores would open late on the day of giving thanks, and, once this was done the rest of the day would quickly fall.

After a few years the Evil One could look across the nation's landscape and gloat.  The day of giving thanks would have been obliterated by the commercial and corporate god of greed.  Families would no longer assemble happily around tables for a feast of giving thanks. The mothers whose hands once prepared Thanksgiving meals would be working at Walmart.  The fathers who once sat at the head of the table to lead in prayer would be on the job at Kroger. Teenagers and the marginally employed would be busy stocking the aisles at Kmart or checking out customers at the Gap. Others would wolf down a hurried meal and leave the dirty dishes behind so that they could elbow their way down department store aisles in search of the best buy.

When the weekend was over, the populace would no longer be refreshed by the peaceful gathering with loved ones, nor would they be renewed by the giving of thanks to God.  Instead they would stumble off to their jobs on Monday exhausted and weary. And, of course, even better yet, the thrill of shopping would be replaced with financial worries, bloated credit cards and family arguments over money.

It was a superb plan.  The Devil sat back and grinned.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Remembering November 22

November 22, 1963 is one of those watershed moments when the world changed.  In less than two weeks we will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the John F. Kennedy assassination.

For those who are younger than fifty, it is a date memorized from history books.  For those who are older, it is a moment frozen in time.  Each one who experienced it remembers where they were and what they were doing when they heard the announcement that President Kennedy had been killed.

But something else happened on that date that the world little noticed. On the same day, November 22, 1963, C. S. Lewis collapsed at 5:30 PM in the bedroom of his Oxford home and died one week before his sixty-fifth birthday.  Fifty years later, C. S. Lewis’ death is little noted.  But his writings may be more popular and more widely read than ever.  Both events marked by November 22 continue to shape our world: the traumatic assassination of our President and the writings of C.S. Lewis.

An avowed atheist in his youth, C.S. Lewis came to faith in Christ in 1931, partially influenced by his friend and colleague, J.R.R. Tolkien.  By some estimates he became the most widely read Christian writer in history.  He is perhaps best known today for The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, a Christian allegory written for children in 1950.  

I expect both Lewis and Tolkien would be shocked to discover their fantasies, The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings have become blockbuster movies in the twenty-first century. And, I expect C.S. Lewis would be even more surprised to learn that he is one of the most quoted authors on Twitter and Pinterest.  Here are a few of his most famous quotes:

“A man can no more diminish God's glory by refusing to worship Him than a lunatic can put out the sun by scribbling the word 'darkness' on the walls of his cell.”

"Relying on God has to begin all over again every day as if nothing had yet been done."

"God has infinite attention to spare for each one of us. You are as much alone with him as if you were the only being he had ever created."

 "When Christ died, he died for you individually just as much as if you had been the only person in the world."

Millions who have struggled with doubt and disbelief have found a path to faith through his best known book, Mere Christianity.  I first read Mere Christianity when I was a college student at Baylor University 45 years ago, along with The Screwtape Letters and The Four Loves.  Later I added his science fiction books, Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra and That Hideous Strength.  Like many others my faith and my thinking have been shaped by  Lewis’ writings.

As the world pauses to reflect on that fateful day in Dallas fifty years ago, we are afforded opportunity to reflect on faith in Christ, as described so beautifully by C. S. Lewis. A faith that can carry us through any crisis, global or personal and conform us into the image of God’s Son.  

Monday, November 4, 2013

Children of the Kingdom

I like watching children play. I remember taking my daughter to school in Minnesota, watching her run across the playground in her pink jacket and snow boots, her pig tails swinging as she ran.  Now I look forward each week to watching her daughter, our two-year-old, Grace,  playing in her sandbox and on the swing I hung in a tree behind our Texas home. 

Jesus loved children too. When he sought an image to help us understand what it meant to be truly  “religious,” he took a little child, stood her in front of his disciples and said, “Except you become as a little child, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

When we think of people who are religious, many imagine old men with long gray beards, black capes and stooped shoulders.  Some think of ascetic monks living in desert regions, emaciated and starving, bleary eyed and anti-social.  Others picture nuns robed in their habits whispering prayers as they finger their rosaries.  But when Jesus wanted to forge an image in the mind of his followers, he chose a child. Why would he do this?

We can all speculate about the lesson he wanted to teach by choosing a child. Jesus left the answer to that question up to us.   Here are a few characteristics that stand out to me when I think about children and the reason he chose a child to illustrate the nature God looks for in Kingdom people. 

Children live in the moment.  They are not worried about the future.  They are not burdened with guilt about the past. Watch children playing on a playground.  They have little awareness of time. They wear no watches.

Children become friends fast. Most children have not learned to be hesitant and shy.    They greet one another as if they have already met.  “Want to play?”  And the game is on.

Children laugh. I love listening to children on the school playground and in the park. Anywhere children gather, the air is filled with laughter.  It is their nature to laugh.

Children do not know prejudice.  I’m not sure when we learn racial and cultural prejudice, but young children have not learned this lesson.  They readily accept each other as equals regardless of skin color or clothing.  If they notice a difference between them, they do not hesitate to ask about it.  And, once the difference is recognized and addressed, they move on.

Children trust.  With their father’s extended arms and a little encouragement they will fling their bodies into open space fully confident they will be caught. 

Children are awed by God’s creation.   They are mesmerized by grasshoppers, caterpillars, lizards, butterflies and flowers. They stop and take time to watch an ant wrestle a crumb of bread across the ground.  They notice the spots on a lady bug.

Children have great imaginations. Give a child a sandbox, a stick, or a can and they will construct unbelievable creations. I watched children recently playing in the sand.  They were digging a hole.  When I asked what it was, they looked at me with a puzzled look, as if I was the only one who did not recognize the obvious.  They patiently explained that it was a grasshopper sanctuary.

This list isn’t complete.  You can add others, I am sure.  Somewhere within us all is buried the child we once were.  Perhaps if we could re-connect with the child-like simplicity within us, we might take our first steps toward becoming Kingdom citizens as Jesus described it. 

Monday, October 28, 2013

The Journey

I grew up in a small town in north-central Texas.  Our family never traveled far.  I sometimes tell people that my first visit to a foreign country was across the Red River into Oklahoma. But when I was eighteen, I started a journey that has taken me to places I never imagined: the Opera House at Sydney Harbor, the coast of New Zealand, fishing for piranha on the Amazon, volcanoes in Guatemala, the lighthouse at Banda Aceh, Indonesia, the pyramids of Egypt, Mozart’s home in Salzburg, the Docu Zentrum in Nuremberg, the Pantheon in Rome, Lennin’s Tomb and the Kremlin in Moscow, to name a few.

Something about the human spirit is always drawn to the journey.  Maybe that is why On the Road Again remains one of Willie Nelson’s most popular songs. We are mesmerized by the expeditions of Marco Polo, Columbus, Magellan, Lewis and Clark, Lindbergh, John Glenn and Neil Armstrong. We are drawn to the imaginary journeys of Hobbits seeking Mount Doom and Star Trek’s quest to go where no man has gone before.  Journeys, both real and imagined, change the world and they change us.

God chooses to reveal himself through our journeys.  Redemption starts with God’s call to Abraham to leave the country of his fathers and launch out on a journey to places he had never seen.  Moses’ famous journey out of Egypt resulted in the Ten Commandments which provide the basis for all moral understanding.  No journey was ever more life changing for human history than the journey Jesus set out upon when he left Nazareth and gathered his band of twelve men to follow him.  Their travels on foot through the regions of Galilee, Judea and Samaria changed the world.  The stories of their encounters with the lame, the blind, the rich, the poor, prostitutes and priests provide us the framework for understanding God and ourselves.

We are all on a journey.  The journeys we choose, where we go, how we get there and who goes with us will shape us and change us for the better or the worse.  Sometimes our journeys lead us to distant places, sometimes close to home. The most important decisions about any journey is how we trust in God and how we treat others along the way.

We like to think we are all going to the same place, that we will all arrive at the same destination no matter what we believe, what we do or how we live.  But the fact of the matter is that different roads lead to different places.  Jesus said “broad is the way and wide is the gate that leads to destruction and there are many who enter through it.  For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life and there are few who find it.” (Matthew 7:13-14)   He alone knows the way that leads to life and He continually invites us to join the journey that leads us there saying, “Come, follow me.”

Monday, October 21, 2013

When Bad Things Happen

We all experience moments when it seems like nothing good can come of the misfortune that has befallen us. Bad things happen to all of us: the death of someone close to us, whether family or friend. We get sick, sometimes fighting life-threatening diseases. We are mortal and life sometimes seems fragile.  But God has a way of taking the worst that can befall us and giving us opportunity to use it for good.

On July 30, 1967 Joni Eareckson dove into the waters of Chesapeake Bay.  She was eighteen years old.  It was the last time she would be able to use her arms or legs. Striking her head in the shallow waters, she suffered a broken neck that left her a permanent quadriplegic. According to her story in Joni, she sank deeper into anger, depression, suicidal thoughts and spiritual doubt.  But, over time, she emerged with a faith that inspired others and created change for the handicapped world-wide. 

Controlling a brush with her teeth, she became an accomplished artist, wrote forty books, and recorded several music albums.  In 1979 she founded Joni and Friends, a Christian ministry to the disabled throughout the world. Her organization, Wheels for the World, collects wheel chairs that are refurbished by prison inmates and distributed to disabled children and adults in developing countries.

Rachel Scott was seventeen when she was gunned down as the first murder victim at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999.  Rachel’s Christian witness and her vision for acts of kindness that can make a difference inspired Rachel’s Challenge, a movement in her memory.  Rachel’s Challenge has reportedly touched more than twenty million students worldwide in an effort to reduce violence and teen suicide.

According to the Bible, Joseph was thrown into the well by his brothers and sold by them as a slave into Egypt.  Years later he become Prime Minister in Egypt and was able to rescue his family during a widespread famine.  Confronted by his brothers who sold him into slavery, Joseph said, "As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive." (Genesis 50:20)

Peter recognized that all of us experience difficulty and pain.  In his letter he wrote, "Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13 But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed." (1 Peter 4:12-13)

The Apostle Paul wrote, "And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us." (Romans 5:3-5).

We each must work through our own suffering and pain, trusting God to give us strength to discover the good that He wants to bring into our lives. Sometimes it takes many years for this to come into focus.  Sometimes, we never see it.  At those times we can only live by faith.  When something terrible and confusing happens to us we always have a choice, to turn inward in disappointment and disillusionment, or to turn outward and look upward in faith and hope.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Center of the Universe

For thousands of years we assumed the earth was the center of the universe. When Galileo advanced the proposition that the earth revolved around the sun and was, in fact, only one of many planets that did so, he was tried by the Inquisition and placed under house arrest for the remainder of his life.  More recent investigations, along with Voyager’s  first foray beyond our solar system, have verified that the earth is a very small speck of dust in the galaxies -- nowhere near the center of the cosmic creation.

This physical truth gives rise to a more personal question for each of us.  “What is the center of my universe?”  For most of us, the answer to that question is a very small two-letter word,  “me.”  Everything revolves around us and our interests. This is the reason we are prone to become angry with God.  Sooner or later the evidence begins to pile up that, like planet earth in the cosmos, we are not the center.  Everything is not ordered for our personal gratification, pleasure and benefit. 

Paul started his life like most of us, focused on his own ambitions.  He went so far as to arrest Christians, both men and women, and throw them into prison to advance his own agenda.  But, after he met Christ everything changed. He discovered that the Christ whom he persecuted was, in fact, the center of all creation.  He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” (Colossians 1:15-17).

In the last few years, billboards have sprung up proclaiming, “I am second.”  They are part of a movement to proclaim what Paul discovered.  We are not number one.  God is.  And when we make Christ the center of our universe, everything else comes into focus.  According to the web site, “I Am Second is a movement meant to inspire people of all kinds to live for God and for others.”  I Am Second testimonies include people like Jason Witten, Colt McCoy, Josh Hamilton, Eric Metaxus, Tony Dungy, Joe Gibbs, Anne Rice and many others.  They include the rich and famous as well as those who have been addicted, abused, molested and imprisoned.  The number ultimately includes all of us. You can check it out at www.iamsecond.com.  

When Jesus Christ becomes the center of our universe everything changes.  All the petty resentments and disappointments disappear.  Scripture begins to make sense. For instance, in an effort to comfort others, many people quote the Bible when tragedy strikes saying “All things work together for good.”  What the Bible actually says is, “All things work together for good for those who love the Lord, for those who are called according to His purpose.”  This is entirely different. All things don’t work together for my good when I am the center of my own universe.  They only work together for good when I recognize that God is the center of the universe and I am created for his glory.

Monday, October 7, 2013

The Power of Encouragement

The length of every football field is 100 yards. Every pitcher’s rubber is sixty feet six inches from home plate. The bases are ninety feet apart. Every basketball hoop is ten feet high and every free throw line is fifteen feet from the backboard.  But when the game is played, one thing is different.  One athlete is playing before the home crowd and the other isn’t.  The cheers of encouragement that fill the stadiums for the home team make a difference. We have all seen it, the power of encouragement.  It is what sports calls the “home field advantage.” 

We also know the ravages of discouragement.  Discouragement can paralyze and make it impossible to act. It can steal our confidence and throw us into a deadly downward spiral.  We see it in athletes on the golf course, tennis court and in the faces of the losing team in the waning moments of the game. Some remarkable people have the ability to resist discouragement and retain their focus.  The great athletes learn to fight through discouragement. But all of us are vulnerable to the voices of discouragement from within and from without. 

The Adversary whispers into our ear words of discouragement and doubt.  But God’s voice is always the voice of encouragement. God is our constant encourager.  He believes in us.  He has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Joshua 1:5, Hebrews 13:5).  When a broken hearted father received the devastating news that his daughter was dead, Jesus said, “Stop fearing, only believe!” He then proceeded to the man’s home and, in the privacy of their bedroom, gently raised his daughter to life.  (Mark 5:36).  

Heather Herschap was born with cerebral palsy.  She is confined to a wheel chair with limited use of one arm.  I first met her nine years ago after she had completed a college degree in psychology and was working on a Masters in Divinity. 

She says the turning point in her life came when she arrived on campus as a freshman and was alone in the dorm for the first time. Her body became hopelessly stuck between the bed and the wall, and, with her paralysis, she could not work herself free. After hours of crying out for help to no avail she heard a voice, clear and audible, “Don’t give up.”  That experience led her to faith in Christ.

A few year later, aware that her prayers were focused on her own problems, she began to pray for others and God whispered in her ear, “India.”  If you meet Heather you will know that India is her passion.  Her eyes sparkle, her face lights up and her body stiffens in excitement when she speaks of India. She has been to India three times counseling outcasts like herself who are handicapped, encouraging them and giving them hope.

Every day we need encouragement.  And every day we encounter people who need to be encouraged: the clerk in the Walmart checkout line, the waitress working two jobs to feed her kids, the aging aunt confined by her infirmity to a nursing home.  Perhaps the most spiritual thing you can do today is to encourage someone.  It might be the most important thing you ever do.

Monday, September 30, 2013

What Does God Want?

When I listen to myself pray, and when I listen to others pray, it seems that most of what we say to God revolves around what we want.  Sometimes our lists are heart-rending: healing from a deadly disease, comfort from the death of someone we love, rescue for a marriage on the rocks.  More often,   they are day-to-day: a passing grade on the exam, strength to get through another day at work, safe travel.  Sometimes they are trivial:  a victory on the football field, the Texas Rangers in the playoffs.  Sometimes the list is long.  Sometimes it is repetitive. But most of our prayers are filled with the things that we want God to do for us.

I wonder, what does God want?

Maybe he wants a great cathedral constructed in His honor, a building that rises out of the concrete and towers over the city with majestic spires and stained glass windows. Perhaps he wants a more modern structure that resembles the headquarters of a major corporation or a shopping mall. Something designed to make a statement to the world that God is important and you better not forget it.

Maybe He wants music. Perhaps God wants classical music like Ode to Joy, or Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring, or Handel’s Messiah with its Hallelujah Chorus.  Or, maybe he prefers contemporary music: amplifiers, electric guitars, drums, drums and more drums. Perhaps He wants dancing including African and Native American chants.  Maybe God prefers Blue Grass or Country.  Who knows?  I sometimes wonder what we will sing in heaven?

Maybe God likes His own sounds: thunder in the heavens, the whisper of wind in the wings of a bird, echoes in a canyon, a babbling brook or the powerful rush of Niagara Falls.

Of course the Bible gives some pretty good clues about what God wants. 

In Isaiah’s day, God made it clear that He was fed up with efforts to impress Him with religious behavior. He said, “When you come to appear before Me, who requires of you this trampling of My courts? Bring your worthless offerings no longer. … Cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, reprove the ruthless, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.  Come now, and let us reason together,” Says the Lord, “Though your sins are as scarlet, they will be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they will be like wool.” (Isaiah 1:12-18).

When I think about how I feel as a parent, this makes perfect sense.  I am happiest as a parent when my children are together, when I hear them laughing, when they enjoy one another and go out of their way to help each other.  Of course I want them to love me.  But somehow I feel like they love me best when they are loving each other.

Many people assume that God measures our love for Him by how religious we become.  But John set us straight when he wrote, “One who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen.”  (1 John 4:20).

The bottom line is this:  God wants us to get along with each other.  He wants people to be kind to each other, to do good things and help each other. Jesus said,  “If you love me you will keep my commandments.  … This is my commandment.  That you love one another, just as I have loved you.”  (John 14:15;15:12)

Monday, September 23, 2013

When We All Run

When I was a kid, Little League Baseball wasn’t much more than a sandlot game. Most of us played football as a pickup game on any vacant lot, tackle without pads.  I am sure the controlled collisions on Friday nights were safer. We referred to golf as “pasture pool” since the fairways were mowed clumps of grass between the bald spots.  The greens were so hard that the ball bounced as high in the air as it descended.  

But, somehow, I got hooked on sports.

A few weeks ago, I watched Serena Williams claim her third US Open and her seventeenth major championship, placing her one behind Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova on the all-time list.  Rafael Nadal triumphed with the same grit, determination and shear strength that has brought him 13 Grand Slam titles.

I enjoyed watching the 20-year-old rookie from Dallas, Jordan Spieth, who won the John Deere Classic and shot 64 in the final round  of the Tour Championship last week to finish second.  But my favorite golf event of the year was played in Scotland where Phil Mickelson come from nowhere to claim "The Open" title.  I understood his caddy’s emotions when he wept as the final putt rattled into the cup. 

What is it that attracts us to sports?  Why are we willing to pay so much to watch the talented and gifted athletes compete? 

For me, it is the drama, the human stories, the display of excellence, talent, discipline, perseverance and character. I am inspired by athletes who overcome setbacks, slumps and discouragements.  We all face these challenges.

The Bible uses athletic metaphors to speak about the life of faith.  The Apostle Paul wrote, “Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win. Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable.  Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air;  but I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified.

In the Academy Award winning movie, Chariots of Fire, the gifted Olympic runner Harold Abrams is sitting in an empty stadium with his fiancĂ© after losing for the first time to Eric Liddell.  His fiancĂ© is attempting to comfort him when he suddenly snaps at her, “You don’t understand.  If I can’t win, I won’t run!”  Momentarily taken aback, she responds with that unique wisdom women seem to have, “Well,” she says, “if you don’t run, you can’t win.” 

This is what the apostle Paul is getting at when he says, “Do you not know that they who run in a race all run?”  We all have a race to run. We all have challenges to face.  We all need discipline, perseverance, character and faith so that we might “run to win.” 

Monday, September 16, 2013

Raising Children

No occupation is as challenging as parenting.  Children have no on-off button.  They cannot be put in the closet like clothes, turned off and parked like cars or placed in a kennel for the night like pets.  They are on a constant quest, poking, prodding, pushing, pulling and climbing. 

When our children were little, as soon as they got in the car they looked for buttons to push and knobs to twist.  When I turned on the key the blinkers blinked, windshield wipers wiped and the radio blared. The same was true for our bedroom and kitchen.

They grew up to be responsible adults.  But the path wasn’t easy.  Every passage brought new challenges: the first day of school, a move from familiar neighborhoods to a new city, puberty, a driver’s license, dating, computer games and technology.  Parents are on  a constant learning curve, even after children are grown and on their own.  Relationships constantly change and adjust. Every year offers new and unfamiliar territory.

I found across the years that there is no “fix it” book for parenting, no “cure-all,” “read this,” or “do this” simple solution.  Every child is different and every parenting situation has its unique challenges.  But there are some essential tools that make the difference: patience, consistency, authenticity, trust, love, faith and a listening ear.  Most of us don’t come naturally equipped with these essential tools to be successful parents.  Most of us have to learn them and acquire them while we are on the job. And all of us have room for improvement.

Years ago I visited a young mother in her home who was caring for several pre-school children. I was amazed at her patience and attention with the children and commented on it.  She responded by telling me that this had not always been the case.  Before she trusted Christ, she said, she had no patience with children, but after she gave her heart to Christ, He gave her a gift of patience, not only for her own children, but for others.

The Bible says that John came to introduce Jesus to the world by turning the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to righteousness.  Every generation has to struggle against the natural desires of the flesh that result in envy, jealousy, resentment, anger and self indulgence. These attitudes destroy the family. When we put our trust and faith in Jesus Christ He gives us a new heart.  He produces in us the fruits of the Spirit that equip us to be the person that we long to be:  “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control.”  All of these, the Bible says, are the fruit of the Spirit. 

When our hearts are right with God so that we are producing these fruits, we will be good parents.  Then we will be able to fulfill the Scripture’s instruction, “Do not exasperate your children, instead, bring them up in the teaching and instruction of the Lord.” (Ephesians 6:4).

Monday, September 9, 2013

Every Nation, Tribe and Tongue

Last week we hosted an International Student Bible study in our home in Waco, Texas.  It wasn’t a large group. It was small enough that everyone could quickly learn and remember everyone else’s name.  They came from Zambia, South Africa, Viet Nam, Brazil, China and the U.S. All of them are students at Baylor University. It reminded me of the song we used to sing when I was a child, “Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight.  Jesus loves the little children of the world.”

We had a similar experience last summer when we served a church in Nuremberg, Germany.  Each week we gathered in our little apartment in the altstadt, the old city within the ancient walls that once protected the Nuremberg castle.  They came from the Ukraine, Ireland, U.K, China, India, Cameroon, Sweden, Austria, Germany and, oh yes, the United States.  Most of them were recent graduates from universities starting their careers in this ancient city where their lives were intersecting. 

In neither case did there appear to be any awareness of color or race. In both instances, the evening was filled with laughter, kindness and joy.  When they opened their Bibles, they shared honest questions and probing insights about God’s love and His presence. Sometimes, at the most tender moments, they confessed, prayed and wept with one another.

I wonder why the world at large can’t be more like that. Why is it that on a global scale we stare at each other across distant borders fearful and skeptical of one another?

In 1987 I stood at the harbor in Sydney, Australia watching as a cruise liner from the Soviet Union prepared to launch for its return trip home.  I listened to the passengers singing lusty Russian choruses that echoed in the air.  A Soviet cruise liner was something I had never seen in an American port, and the sounds of the singing made me wish we could know one another.  I felt, if we did, we would probably like one another.

Years later, after the Soviet Union dissolved, I visited Moscow and sat at a table with Russian believers.  We visited through an interpreter and we prayed together, especially for the people of Siberia where we hoped to serve.  I discovered my premonition was right. I did like these people. In fact, I loved them.

I have discovered the same experience in Indonesia, Korea, Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, and Egypt. Wherever and whenever I have met believers in Christ from foreign countries with foreign cultures and languages, I have found an instant bond.  The faith that is in Christ immediately bridges differences in ethnicity, culture and language.

Our international Student Bible Study seems to me a preview of what the Bible describes in Heaven. John wrote, “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. … And they cried out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.” (Revelation 7:9-10)

Surely God takes special pleasure when his children from different nations worship Him in unity and love.  It is the way it will be one day when all sin is removed and we gather in His presence.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Fort Hood Verdict

Last week the jury made its decision and sentenced the Fort Hood killer to death. It has been four long years since the United States Medical Corps officer opened fire on those he had sworn to protect, killing fourteen, including Francheska Valez and her unborn baby.  He claims to see himself as a mujahedeen, an Islamic holy warrior, and claims to have killed the innocent soldiers at Fort Hood to protect the Taliban. 

Apparently he wants to die, thinking, in his warped way, that this will make him a martyr. Since the military has not executed anyone since 1961, it is more likely that he will spend the next decades wasting away as a paralytic in a forgotten prison cell on death row.

When I wrote about the incident in 2009, I chose to focus on those who are the true heroes in this tragic atrocity. I will continue to remember Kimberly Munley, the Fort Hood police officer who sought out the killer and stood her ground exchanging gunfire with him to end the slaughter.

I will remember nineteen-year-old Amber Bahr from Wisconsin who, after being shot herself helped drag her buddies to safety and tore up her jacket as a makeshift tourniquet to save a fellow soldier. These women are truly heroic because their first thoughts were for the safety and welfare of others.

I will focus upon those who gave their lives, the others who were wounded and the thousands, both military and civilian, whose bravery and unselfish sacrifices go unknown and unreported every day, those who choose goodness and grace in obscure places without thought of reward.

There will always be these appalling events, when a soldier loses touch with reason and murders innocent victims, whether My Lai, the Afghan massacre or Fort Hood.   But for every attacker whose name is recorded as a footnote in history, there are a hundred unreported and unremembered heroes who do what is right and good for their fellow man.

I will choose to believe the Bible’s promise that goodness and grace ultimately overcome hatred and violence. I will believe this because God has not only declared it to be true; He has demonstrated it by the death and resurrection of His Son, Jesus.

As the Scripture says, “I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened, so that you will know … what is the surpassing greatness of His power toward us who believe. These are in accordance with the working of the strength of His might which He brought about in Christ, when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come.” (Ephesians 1:18-21).

Because of this, I will seek to follow His instruction, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:20).