What Others Say

Every time I read one of your columns, I am always always touched and moved in some way. Your heart and spirit come through clearly in your words. It's an oasis of comfort and serenity in a time when everything is so chaotic and unsettling.
- M Gardner, Deputy Managing Editor, Galveston Daily News

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Courage and Confidence During Covid

 

Last week the number of deaths from Covid-19 surpassed 200,000.  Experts predict that this number could double by the end of the year. Had we known these numbers in the spring we would have been staggered.  But now, more than six months into the Caronivirus pandemic, we have become numb.  Most of us read the reports as statistics, a way of keeping score.  Some have even concluded that the number of deaths is “acceptable,” a relatively small percentage of our population, even though it is equivalent to 1,000 airline crashes with 200 fatalities each in the span of 7 months.  But for those 200,000 families and their friends, it is personal.  Each has a story.  Each feels the loss.

 Last week a young couple from Minnesota with their three small children spent four days in our home in Colorado so they could visit his mother who lives nearby and is dying of cancer.  Knowing her cancer is terminal, she has chosen not to pursue additional treatment.  Instead, she has been assigned to hospice care in her home. They stayed with us so they could give her space while spending the best parts of the day loving and caring for her.  They comforted one another while facing death with courage and confidence, the children and grandchildren gathering around her in her final days.

 Whether it is Covid, cancer, or some other means, death will come to us all.  We try to avoid it, try to not think about it. But it comes to everyone, to the obscure and the famous, the rich and the poor, all nations, all races and all cultures. Every generation must learn how to deal with death.

 Psalm 90 recorded this prayer from Moses: “You turn men back into dust and say, ‘Return O children of men.’ For a thousand years in Your sight are like yesterday when it passes by, or as a watch in the night.  You have swept them away like a flood, they fall asleep; in the morning they are like grass that sprouts anew. ... toward evening it fades and withers away. … We have finished our years like a sigh. … So teach us to number our days that we may present to You a heart of wisdom. … O satisfy us in the morning with Your lovingkindness, that we may sing for joy and be glad all our days” (Psalm 90:3-14).

 The song, Ten Thousand Reasons, has become one of my favorites.  It contains these stanzas:

 “The sun comes up there’s a new day dawning,

It’s time to sing your song again.

Whatever may pass and whatever lies before me,

May I be singing when the evening comes.

 

And on that day, when my strength is failing,

The end draws near and my time has come,

Still my soul will sing your praise unending,

Ten thousand years and then forever more.”

 During this pandemic year may we discover the lovingkindness and comfort that comes from the One who holds eternity in His hands.  “Everyone who lives and believes in Me,” Jesus said, “shall never die”  (John 11:26).

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Character and Leadership

 

The political cauldron is beginning to boil.  Presidential and congressional candidates are in full campaign mode.

 Each candidate tries to persuade us they can guide us through the multiple storms of the pandemic, social unrest, climate crises and economic recovery.  Some cite their business success and financial achievements. Others tout their political experience.  But the most important element for effective leadership might be the most difficult to discern.  In his book, Return on Character:  The Real Reason Leaders and Their Companies Win, Fred Kiel concluded that the most important trait for successful leadership is character.

 According to the Harvard Business Review, “In this groundbreaking book, respected leadership researcher, adviser, and author Fred Kiel offers that evidence-solid data that demonstrates the connection between character, leadership excellence, and organizational results.”

 Kiel identifies four basic traits that set effective leaders apart:  integrity, responsibility, forgiveness and compassion.  Leaders with character tell the truth and own up to their mistakes.  Most importantly, they care about people.

 By contrast, those with weak character demonstrate a negative view of human nature. Their behavior is fear based.  “They assume that they know better than anybody else what people should be doing.”  They are judgmental, quick to place blame on others.

 3The positive and negative traits identified by Fred Kiel are consistent with the Bible.  Among the negative “deeds of the flesh,” the Bible lists “enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions.”  The positive fruits of the Spirit are “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” (Galatians 5:19-23).   

 In 1908, Leo Tolstoy identified Abraham Lincoln’s greatness when he wrote, “Why was Lincoln so great that he over-shadows all other national heroes?  He really was not a great general like Napoleon or Wahington; he was not such a skillful statesman as Gladstone or Frederick the Great; but his supremacy expresses itself altogether in his peculiar moral power and in the greatness of his character.”

 King David had his flaws. His shortcomings are clearly laid out in Scripture. But He remains one of the great leaders of history. The Bible says of David, “He chose David his servant and took him from the sheep pens; from tending the sheep he brought him to be the shepherd of his people Jacob, of Israel his inheritance. And David shepherded them with integrity of heart; with skillful hands he led them. (Psalm 78:70-72).

 The way forward through this painful and challenging year will ultimately be determined by the character of our leaders, our nation and ourselves.  As the Scripture says, “We know that suffering produces perseverance, perseverance, character; and character, hope.  And hope does not put us to shame, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts” (Romans 5:3-5).

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

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.  We desire healing from a deadly disease, comfort from the loss of someone we love, a job and a paycheck. More often, our prayers 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, our favorite team in the playoffs.  Most of our prayers are filled with the things that we want God to do for us.

 But sometimes 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.

 Maybe He wants music. Perhaps God wants classical music like Ode to Joy, or Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring.  Or, maybe he prefers contemporary music: amplifiers, electric guitars, drums, drums and more drums.  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.

 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).

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Jesus Communities During Covid

We have been dodging the Caronavirus for more than six months.  In the early days, when we first came to grips with the pandemic sweeping our world, we literally shut down our cities and our neighborhoods.  At first, we hunkered in our houses refusing to venture outside except for the bare necessities.  Some stood in line for toilet paper.  Our brave grocery store staff continued to work, stocking shelves, cheerfully shuttling grocery orders to the parking lots where they loaded food into the trunk of our car.  Drive-through and fast-food restaurants remained open with masks and gloves.  Other “essential services” kept us afloat. Churches closed their doors and learned to stream on Facebook and the Web.  We zoomed in until we were zoomed out.

 For the last month or more, we have been cautiously re-opening and re-connecting.  Restaurants have learned how to isolate and distance their tables.  Wait staff have learned how to “smile through a mask.”  Outside dining has been expanded into sidewalks and streets.  Shops are re-opening. Masked students are re-entering classrooms.  We are even starting to move about the country, albeit cautiously and slowly.

 Churches have started to re-convene, attempting to refrain from impulsive hugs and handshakes that are integral to Christian fellowship.  Some, who have the option, are choosing to meet inside, scattered six feet apart among empty chairs and open pews.  Others are meeting in the open air as long as weather permits.

 Since my wife and I are in the high-risk group, we have chosen the open-air option for worship, taking advantage of the opportunity to visit different churches that are meeting in open space.  We take our folding chairs, look for shade, or open an umbrella against the sun’s rays and find a space at least six feet apart from other families.  I have found my heart warmed by these “Jesus communities,” as I like to call them, gathering in parks, parking lots and open spaces for worship.  I love to see small children running barefoot through the grass; families gathered in the shade where children play on blankets while their parents sing songs of praise and the preacher preaches.

 It reminds me of the first century when Jesus walked in Galilee and people sought him in the open fields, when churches sprang up without buildings and places to meet.  Surely God is up to something through all the global suffering, heartache and struggle in 2020.  Surely, He wants to draw us to Himself for comfort, encouragement, healing and a reminder that we are all his children.  We were all created in His image and His greatest desire is that we love one another regardless of our racial, cultural or national differences. 

 As the Scripture says, “May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward one another that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you” (Romans 15:5-7).

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Labor Day 2020


This weekend is Labor Day.  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. As usual, friends and family will gather in parks for volleyball, football and frisbees while hamburgers sizzle on the grill. 

But the pandemic has changed things.  School classrooms and hallways that normally burst with energy at this time of year host students nervously muted with masks. Some schools remain empty and closed.  Early mornings that normally echo with the thud and smack of football practice  and the distant rhythm of marching bands remain eerily silent.  In many places “Friday night lights” are dark.  Stadiums should be packed with fans cheering their teams on to the World Series and kick off for the NFL.  But this year they remain empty.   

All of this makes Labor Day even more significant.  The laborers and minimum wage workers are the heroes. They are the ones who are carrying us through this dark valley. On this weekend, we celebrate those who have kept our grocery stores open with shelves stocked, those who deliver our drive-through and carry-out orders along with restaurant staff who prepare and serve us at distanced tables.  We honor the postal workers who deliver our packages and mail, the first responders and hospital staff who care for the sick.  Most of the time we fawn over celebrities.  But on this day, the common worker takes the stage. And, in 2020 we recognize their essential importance.

On Labor Day 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 53.  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 elevated the role of laborers and craftsmen for eternity.

This year many are being forced to take jobs that are not their first choice.  Some who trained and studied for years to launch a professional career are accepting 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).

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).