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Monday, August 26, 2013

Labor Day

Next Monday we will celebrate Labor Day, one of the great holidays of the year. The scorching heat of summer has broken. The air is light with the first hint of fall.  The lakes are still warm enough to ski and the fishing is good. The NFL season is starting up and the baseball pennant races are heating up. Kids are back in school.  High school football teams and marching bands are ready to take the field under the glare of Friday night lights. Friends and family gather in parks where Frisbees fly while hamburgers sizzle on the grill. 

Beneath all this lies the significance of the day, a time to step back and celebrate the importance of labor.  It is the core of our culture: the value of hard work, perseverance and discipline.  Most of the time we fawn over celebrities.  But on this day, the common worker takes the stage.

I think of my father, a blue collar worker who started out trimming grass around telephone poles and worked thirty-five years for Bell Telephone before his death at age fifty three. His example of honesty, generosity and hard work inspired me.  I think of Jesus, who chose to spend most of his adult life working in a simple carpenter’s shop in Nazareth.  Jesus’ life elevated the role of laborers and craftsmen for eternity.

In recent years many have taken jobs that were not their first choice.  Some who trained and studied for years to launch a professional career have been forced to accept jobs that differ from their dreams.  It is important that whatever job we find, that we give our best.  The Bible says, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.” (Colossians 3:23-24).

Alexis de Toqueville visited America in the 1830’s in search of the secret that enabled the young democracy to succeed.  At its root, he discovered what would come to be known as the American work ethic founded upon Christian faith. It was not, he observed, merely hard work that made American Democracy successful.  It was the other values along with it that made work meaningful: honesty, integrity and generosity. 

Many Americans are discovering, after decades dominated by greed and materialism, that the value of labor is never truly measured in monetary return.  The way we choose to invest the labor of our minds, our hands, our hearts and our energy will produce fulfillment when the object is not our own self gratification but the service of others. Jesus said, “Whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant … just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:28).

Monday, August 19, 2013

Out of Egypt

I visited Egypt nine years ago, long before “Arab Spring” swept across the political landscape of the Middle East.  Like so many other trips I have made, it was not a place I ever expected to see.  I was invited to accompany a group of Christian leaders to meet with government officials and the Grand Imam.  It was a fascinating visit.

When we met with the Governor of Cairo, we discovered that he was a graduate of the University of Minnesota. Having lived in Minnesota for eight years, I talked with him about Minnesota’s long winters and the stark climate contrast with the Nile Delta.  At the time, the United States was engaged in the early stages of the Iraq war.  While he disagreed with what our nation was doing in the Middle East, he reassured us that Egyptians liked Americans and wanted to foster business relationships with our country.

We visited the Pyramids in the Giza desert.  I stood at the foot of the Pyramid of Cheops, constructed almost five thousand years ago.  It is the only one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World still in existence. Time seemed to collapse in the shadow of its towering presence.  Abraham saw this same Pyramid in its polished glory when he first visited Egypt with his wife, Sarah.  His great-grandson, Joseph, visited it as the prime minister of Egypt.  Moses looked on this pyramid when he was growing up in Pharaoh’s court.  This pyramid formed the skyline for those who labored in bondage prior to the Exodus. 

I visited the place where the Coptic Christians believe Joseph and Mary lived with their infant son, Jesus when they fled Herod’s soldiers.  It was from this place that Joseph and Mary returned to their native home in Nazareth fulfilling the prophecy, “Out of Egypt I called my Son.“ 

We traveled to Alexandria, the seaport city on the Mediterranean that became the first center for Christian learning. The early church theologians Didymus, Clement and Origen, taught here.  I stood at the modern library overlooking the deep blue waters that lapped at the shore, then walked through the catacombs where first century Christians hid from Roman persecution.    

Coptic Christians make up approximately ten percent of the Egyptian population and trace their origins to the evangelistic efforts of Mark, author of the first gospel written about Jesus. Christianity rapidly spread across Egypt in the early centuries and was embraced by the vast majority of Egyptians until 1000 AD. In recent years our home church in Texas fostered a partnership with an Evangelical Church in Egypt that reaches out to thousands and proclaims the message of Christ to the Middle Eastern world.

In the twentieth century Egypt was often a stabilizing force in the Arab world. But today it is racked with riots and unrest.  Over 800 people died last week following the government crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood who had targeted Christian homes and churches for persecution after their leader Mohammad Morsi was removed from power.  Last weekend the police arrested the brother of al-Qaida chief Ayman al-Zawahri.  Egypt’s future hangs in the balance.

I am praying for Egypt, its leaders and its people that God’s hand will rest on this historic nation to establish peace, freedom and a future.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Crayons, Construction Paper and Glue

Just when summer starts to sizzle, it is almost over.  The aisles at Walmart and Target are already filled with crayons, construction paper and glue.  Nothing is more inspiring than the unspoiled thrill of children gathering their supplies to go back to school.  When my wife was a child she spent days organizing her supplies in her backpack anticipating the first day back at her desk.  When she became a kindergarten teacher, she faced the greater challenge of organizing children armed with crayons and markers in a room with freshly painted walls.

It will soon be time to put away the lazy days of sleeping late, tv, video games, camp and vacations to wake before sunrise and wait for the bus.  Going back to school forms the rhythm of our lives, as surely as the first crisp scent of fall and the turning of green leaves to gold.  We will soon wake up to the echo of school bands, coaches’ whistles and the smack of shoulder pads practicing for the big game.  

Going back to school is an international event.  In Latvia children of all ages, whether starting first grade or a Masters degree, celebrate the start of school with flowers on September 1.  In Ghana, Liberia and Guinea grinning children, eager with anticipation, line up to learn.  Teaching and learning is essential to the human experience, filling the mind with hope and dreams for the future.

Jesus said “The student is not above the teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like their teacher.” Who we follow as our teacher matters. 

Perhaps many find Christianity  boring and meaningless because they have never discovered the joy of following the Master Teacher and learning from Him daily. Jesus’ invitation to follow Him is an invitation to each of us to go “back to school” with all the child-like enthusiasm and wonder of children skipping expectantly onto the school yard.   That is the meaning of the word, disciple. 

I was visiting with my best friend’s seven-year-old granddaughter, a very bright girl entering second grade.  I said, “You are very smart. But it is important as you grow up to be wise.” I asked, “Do you know the difference between being smart and being wise?”  “Sure,” she said, “smart is knowing that 3 + 3 equals 6.  Wise is doing the right thing.”  I think she nailed it.

No person ever lived that was as wise as Jesus.  Jesus concludes the Sermon on the Mount by telling the story of two men who built houses, one on the sand and one on rock.  When the storm came, the house on the sand crumbled and the house built on rock survived.  “Everyone who hears these words of mine and acts on them,” Jesus said, “may be compared to the wise man who built his house upon the rock.”

Monday, August 5, 2013

The Reunion

Summers offer opportunity for families to gather for the annual reunion: aunts, uncles and cousins, some twice removed, and, to complicate things, some twice or thrice married.  

Some find familiar faces that frame the memories of their youth, and plunge into stories passed down through the years, embellished with each cycle of telling.  “Do you remember when …?”  The stories don’t even require a complete telling.  Laughter fills the circle before the story can be told because everyone who is listening has either heard it or told it countless times. 

Others hang back along the fringe, looking puzzled, trying to figure out who these people are and how they might be remotely related to them. The young and the newly added “in-laws” are usually in this number.  Sometimes they seek each other out to share the common bond of amnesia regarding the inside jokes and familiar references to names not present.

The reunion has a strange mix of sorrow and laughter. Significant people are missing.  Voices that once echoed at the tables of past reunions are silent.  Over the years, the same people who gather for the reunion have gathered and wept at the funerals for those who no longer come.  Their memories are like the deep colors that form the background for vivid paintings or the rich bass tones of the cello and the french horn that enrich the orchestra.  At the same time, these sorrows are offset by giggling children who appear like bright colors that dance on the canvass, whose laughter picks up future melodies like the flute.

We somehow have confidence that Heaven is about reunions. We all look forward to seeing those we loved and those who loved us when we get to Heaven. Somehow, this earthly reunion helps us look forward to that day.  We don’t know exactly how it will happen or how God could manage all the intertwined family relationships when we get to Heaven, but, somehow, family reunions portend the Heavenly event.  When I was a child we sang, “Will the circle be unbroken?”  It was a way to ask the question together and look forward to something more perfect that God has planned for us.

Jesus did not shy away from using this image to help us look forward to a more perfect day.  He said, “In my Father’s House are many mansions.  If it were not so, I would have told you.  I go and prepare a place for you that where I am, there you may be also.”  The book of Hebrews uses this metaphor to spur us on to better living: “Seeing that we are surrounded by so great a host of witnesses, let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the originator and the finisher of the race.”  It seems to me that God takes pleasure in our reunions, just as He takes pleasure in reuniting Himself with us through His Son.