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Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Miracle of Life

 All of the debate about in vitro-fertilization has made us question again, “What is human life?  When does it begin?” We know that each of us is the result of a single egg from our mother being fertilized by a single sperm from our father. The basis of our existence is amazingly mysterious and beautiful.  

 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 had 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 that doctor’s question when I rocked her to sleep and felt the weight of her slumbering body  against my shoulder. 

 Our daughter is now thirty-seven. Fifteen 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, our fourth grandchild.  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 as she grew 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 to have a better future.  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 of life by which children are born into the world, the more I stand in awe. 

 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. 

Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Alexei Navalny

Alexei Navalny’s death in Russia’s maximum-security prison in the Arctic Circle reminds us that this generation is like all those that preceded it.  Always there have been despots and regimes willing to commit murder, even genocide, to secure their power. Putin’s chief rival joins a long line of potential adversaries who have met an untimely death.

 The public reaction in Russia is muted.  Everyone knows the dangers of resistance.  According to news sources about 400 people in 8 cities were arrested by state Russian police when they attempted to attend vigils or lay flowers in tribute to Navalny.  A priest was arrested for planning a public prayer vigil. Russia is not the United States.  Freedom of speech and public assembly is not protected.

 I visited Moscow shortly after the Soviet Union dissolved.  It was a bleak place  I viewed the corpse in Lenin’s tomb and descended into the depths of the subway system, the deepest subway in the world, built to serve as bomb shelters during the cold war. 

 Navalny’s death reminds us of events almost a century ago, June 30 through July 2, 1934 when Adolf Hitler consolidated his power by killing adversaries who would oppose him, an event that would come to be known as the Night of the Long Knives.

 A few years ago, my wife and I spent the summer in Nuremberg, Germany.  While there, we toured the Dokuzentrum, the Document Center that was constructed in post WW II Germany at the Nazi rally site that drew millions during Hitler’s rule.  The Center was built to document the atrocities of Nazi Germany, including the Holocaust.  We must not forget the depths to which governments can sink and the need for every generation to protect human rights and freedom.

 The Cross of Jesus Christ casts a dark shadow across the landscape of human history. The Cross bears witness to the depths of human depravity, the injustices to which individuals and governments can sink.  Bound up in the Cross is the innocent suffering in every generation.  All of our sins are there, in the darkness that descended upon Golgotha.

 The Resurrection of Jesus dispels that darkness.  The eye-witness accounts of those who saw Jesus, who spoke with him, ate with him and touched him after he rose from the dead bear witness. Life overcomes death. Righteousness triumphs over evil.  Two thousand years of testimony by believers in every age and every nation affirm this truth. 

 As Isaiah wrote, “Do you not know? Have you not heard? Has it not been declared to you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? It is He who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers, who stretches out the heavens like a curtain and spreads them out like a tent to dwell in.  He it is who reduces rulers to nothing, who makes the judges of the earth meaningless. Scarcely have they been planted, scarcely have they been sown, scarcely has their stock taken root in the earth, but He merely blows on them, and they wither, and the storm carries them away like stubble. ... Yet those who wait for the Lord will gain new strength; they will mount up with wings like eagles, they will run and not get tired. They will walk and not become weary,” (Isaiah 40). 

Tuesday, February 13, 2024

Why So Lonely?

More people live in the world today than at any other time in history, more than 8 billion with another 200,000 added daily.  More people live in the United States today than at any other time in history, over 335 million with 80% living in cities.  We are more connected than ever before, by cell phone, text, email and social media. And, despite all this, we are lonely.

 A recent headline in USA Today,  proclaimed, “Americans are lonely and it’s killing them. ”The article went on to say, “ America has a new epidemic. It cannot be treated using traditional therapies even though it has debilitating even deadly consequences. The problem seeping in at the corners of our communities is loneliness.

 Perhaps our drive to gather in huge numbers is a symptom of our loneliness.  Stadiums and sports venues are overflowing.  The Taylor Swift Eras tour has packed out stadiums worldwide, averaging 72,000 per concert in the US. Swift jetted home from Tokyo to join more than 61,000 at the Super Bowl in Las Vegas, while more than 200,000 packed the Waste Management golf tournament in Phoenix.

 At one time or another we all feel lonely. Even though we are surrounded by other people.  Sometimes it stems from a feeling that no one seems to understand, that no one knows who we really are “inside.”  Sometimes it stems from having no one in whom we can confide. 

 Sometimes we feel like we just don’t fit in.  This can be especially acute for teenagers trying to find their way, searching for their own identity.  The urge to dress alike, look alike, talk alike and act alike can be overwhelming and leave us with a feeling that, for all our efforts to be accepted, we don’t belong.

 At other times, loneliness is the result of isolation. This can be especially true for the home-bound, the disabled and the elderly, widows and widowers.  Days may pass without having a visitor or someone with whom to talk. 

 So, how do we respond in this age of loneliness.  There are several simple starting places. 

 First, know that God knows you. He knows you better than you know yourself. “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you,” (Jeremiah 1:5).  “Lord, you have searched me and known me.  You know when I sit down and when I get up; you understand my thought from far away.  You scrutinize my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways, (Psalm 139:1-3).  “

 Second, seek out a faith community.  Go to church.  Participate in a small group where you can be known and loved.  “Not abandoning our own meeting together but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the day approaching,” (Hebrews 10:25).   

 Third, be there for someone else.  Seek out the isolated, the ostracized and the rejected.  Be a friend to someone else.  Visit the homebound.  Pick up the phone. Call someone. 

 God never intended that we should be alone or feel lonely. From the outset of creation God saw that “It is not good for man to be alone,” (Genesis 2:18).  A father of the fatherless and a judge for the widows, Is God in His holy dwelling.  God makes a home for the lonely,” (Psalm 68:5-6).

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Tuesday, February 6, 2024

Accepting One Another

 Most of us know what it is to lose a pet: cats, dogs, birds, hamsters, others.  They are all short lived compared to our own life expectancy.  In our lifetime we will likely experience the emotions of burying one or more of our furry and feathered friends.  Two years ago we laid down our tri-color Corgi, Buddy.  We never forget these special friends who share portions of our life-journey.

 When we found Buddy at Corgi rescue, he had been picked up off the streets.  He was skinny and sick. They called him, “Tex.”  But he quickly informed us that his real name was “Buddy.”  In fact he has a children’s book, Buddy the Floppy Ear Corgi that tells his whole story, not just about his name, but how he was lost, picked up by the “dog police” and rescued.  I wrote it “just the way he told it to me.” According to the story, he learned to accept himself and others just the way God made them. Throughout his life, he continued to teach me lessons.  Those lessons included trust, patience, and perseverance.

 But one of his most important lessons, however,  was “acceptance.”  In an era when humans are increasingly aware of their differences in race, language, culture and national origin, Buddy ignored all of those.  He just saw people, and he accepted them all.

 I took him for a walk through the park.  An entire group of teenagers interrupted their volley ball game and rushed over to greet Buddy.  They surrounded him, laughing and smiling as they stroked his Corgi coat.  We went to Estes Park.  Four times in the space of two blocks, teens, children and adults asked to pet him.  We passed a homeless person. Buddy stopped and waited until a smile spread across the person’s face as they patted his head.

 It didn’t matter to Buddy.  He just grinned his Corgi grin, and accepted them all.  Young, old, white, brown, black, homeless, handicapped, straight or gay.  He didn’t care. It is a lesson humans have to work at.  We tend to look for people like ourselves and suspect those who differ.

 Like the rest of us, the disciple Peter grew up with his own prejudices.  He was a fisherman and a Jew from Capernaum.  After he left his nets to follow Jesus he was constantly having his prejudices challenged.  He followed Jesus through Samaria, a region he had been taught to avoid as a Jew.   He watched Him visit with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well near Sychar.   He saw him touch and heal the lepers, the blind, the lame and beggars. 

 It took a miraculous vision and a visit to a Roman’s home in Caesarea for Peter to finally understand the lessons Jesus sought to teach him along the way.  Peter concluded, “I most certainly understand now that God is not one to show partiality, but in every nation the man who fears Him and does what is right is welcome to Him” (Acts 10:34-35).

Tuesday, January 30, 2024

Heaven - What Is It Like?

 Some time ago, I  assisted in the funeral for a close friend.  He was older by almost twenty years, and became my mentor more than thirty years ago.  He was a take-charge kind of guy and I always imagined him going out like John Wayne in The Shootist.  Consistent with his personality, he left specific instructions for his funeral, including the passage he wanted the pastor to preach and the three points he wanted him to make.  To his friends he wrote, “I want there to be more laughter than tears.  After all, I will be in Heaven.”

 I watched him age like I have watched others, the same process I am beginning to see in myself.  As he entered his eighties his strength and vigor began to slip.  The last time we went out to eat he needed a walker to make his way to the table.  Aging is an inescapable experience for all of us who live long.  But in the end, in the “twinkling of an eye … we shall all be changed.”  (1 Corinthians 15:52).

 When my mother was young she was a beauty and a fast runner who won ribbons in track meets.  But in her last years she was feeble and almost blind.  When she was 89 years old and dying, we talked about what it would be like when she woke up in Heaven, able once again to run through the meadow as she did in her youth.  Her body once again characterized by energy, strength, beauty and grace. 

 I have often thought about Heaven and what it might be like.  Someone once said that we might think of everything that is beautiful and good on this earth and multiply it by two.  That of course is a small number, but anything more defies imagination.  I like to think about the sun rising in the east, its light filtering through the leaves warming my face on a cool morning; the birds calling to one another as the day dawns; the scent of freshly cut grass and new turned earth; the fragrance of lilacs in spring and roses in summer; the laughter of children on the playground; the crack of a baseball bat and the smack of a ball in the glove; the weight of a sleeping baby in my arms.  On this earth and in this world, they are enough.  But multiplied by two, or a thousand?  Incomprehensible!

 Jesus said, “I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, so that where I am, there you may be also.”  (John 14:3). “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die.” (John 11:25-26).

 The Bible says, “It does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when He shall appear, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.” (1 John 3:2). “If we have been united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of his resurrection.”  (Romans 6:5).

Tuesday, January 23, 2024

Teach Us To Pray

 In the Academy Award winning movie, Gravity, astronaut Ryan Stone, played by Sandra Bullock, has found her way aboard the Soyuz space craft.  The sole survivor of her mission, she is marooned in space without hope of survival.  Having lost radio contact with her command center, she scans the frequencies seeking someone with whom she might make contact.

 The only person she is able to reach is an Eskimo in the remote tundra who speaks no English.  But the sound of his dogs and the crying of his baby touch her emotions.  She cries. And she cries out in desperation to him, “Say a prayer for me. Maybe I should say a prayer for myself.  But I have never prayed.  No one ever taught me.” 

 How much does the character Ryan Stone represent the present generation?  The world seems to be spinning out of control. Evil is rampant.  Death is certain.  Will no one pray for us?  Will no one teach us to pray?  Centuries ago, another generation felt the same way.  Jesus’ disciples approached him with desperation in their voice and asked, “Lord, teach us to pray.”  And He did. 

 Jesus taught us that prayer does not need to be a memorized formula.  There are no words that are better than any others to address God.  Prayer is a matter of the heart. Jesus told of two men who once prayed. One was very religious and knew all the right words. The other had made a wreck of his life. He was irreligious and broken-hearted about his sin. The first prayed long and eloquent prayers that everyone could hear.  The second, feeling unworthy to lift his eyes to Heaven prayed, “Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Jesus said the prayer of the second man was the prayer God heard.

 When we pray with a broken and contrite heart, God hears.

 Chuck Colson, special counsel to President Richard Nixon from 1969-1973, earned the reputation as Nixon’s “hatchet man.”  If there was anything cruel and dirty that needed doing, Colson could do it.  At the pinnacle of power, Colson was convicted for his Watergate crimes and sent to prison. His world crumbling around him, he sat alone in his parked car and cried out to God.  He didn’t know how to pray. He just knew he needed God to save him. 

 God answered Colson’s prayers.  When he emerged from prison, he was a changed man.  God used him to launch Prison Fellowship and later, Prison Fellowship International.  He spent the rest of his life proclaiming the saving grace of God through Jesus Christ.

 It is never too late to pray.  It is never too late to believe.  Our problems are never too many or too big for God. When we pray our Father who is in Heaven will hear our prayer and will reward us openly. (Matthew 6:5-8).

Monday, January 15, 2024

God of All Comfort

 Six years ago, two weeks before Christmas, our daughter-in-law was diagnosed with a very aggressive breast cancer.  Her children were all still at home.  She endured the chemo treatments with courage, determination, optimism and faith. Her family and friends gathered around her with encouragement, support, and love. Her faith and marriage with our son grew deeper and stronger. 

 After achieving remission, she returned to work, and, as our grandchildren left for college, she returned to school.  In May of last year, she graduated with a Doctor of Nursing Practice degree.  But, again, shortly before the holidays, the cancer was back.  She opted for a double mastectomy and underwent surgery two days after our family gathered to celebrate Christmas. Knowing that there are many who are entering this new year facing personal challenges, I thought you would appreciate, as I do, what she wrote last week:

 All is good. Except for that evening call from the oncology surgeon. Plans are derailed, and emotions are high because now it is back to battle. Plans are different this time, previous options are not acceptable; double mastectomy surgery planned in 2024 so that the holidays with family won’t be disrupted. The family! How to tell them that the silent nagging worry was real again?

 Internal reserves are just not available to care for the emotional needs of others. It all feels like too much, even to answer a text or leave the house. This time it will be a quiet battle. It is hard, but with prayer and support it is going to be okay. Attempts at normalcy: meaningful work, a long-planned trip to paradise with loved ones, and preparations for precious family time. My grandfather, the family patriarch, hero of so many over his 103 years of life, passes away leaving an emptiness felt by all.

 Then the call that the battle will begin December 19th. That gives less than a week to completely rearrange life yet again! Now the battle must be shared with others so that life can move forward with additional support. The love and acceptance, willingness to accommodate unexpected needs, complete assurance that worries from home would be attended to without a second thought lifts and humbles. Holidays are celebrated early and joyfully cherished. Everything is okay.

 Weakness and new battle scars received. Rest and recovery are all that can be done now. Wheeling down the halls of the battleground, looking into the eyes of those just inducted into the battle, praying for peace as they learn their battle plans. Seeing those already in the battle, praying for comfort and strength as they endure the daily trauma. Searching the faces of those with shared battle scars, praying for hope and health. The atrium is just ahead, and glorious sunshine is pouring in. Eyes closed, face lifted to the light like a sunflower, kaleidoscopic shapes of yellow and orange dance beneath eyelids while warming rays saturate skin. A wave of peace and assurance that God is in complete control washes over this space. All is well!”

 As I read these words from my daughter-in-law I thought of 2 Corinthians 1:3-4,  “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in ]any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.”