Tuesday, June 12, 2018

When Right Now Seems Like All There Is

In his youth there wasn't much room for God. He was far too busy thinking about this life -- his goals, dreams, and aspirations. He was preoccupied with getting ahead. That didn't leave much room for sympathy either. It's pretty hard to put yourself in someone else's shoes if all you can think of is yourself. He brashly did whatever came to mind, without giving any thought to the fallout that would result.

I could be talking about many young men -- myself included. But I'm thinking of Jacob from the Bible. When his older brother Esau was famished from his work in the fields, Jacob saw his chance to steal the birthright: i.e. all the rights and privileges that belonged to the firstborn. For a bowl of stew, he tricked Esau out of that precious birthright. (Of course, that shows Esau didn't give much thought to the future, thoughtlessly trading away the honor of carrying on the line that would lead to the promised Savior, Jesus Christ.) But hey, when you're hungry, you're hungry.

Some time passed, and Jacob and Esau's dad Isaac thought he was going to die. So he sent Esau, his favorite, to hunt and prepare a special meal. Afterwards, he would pass on his blessing to his son. The problem was he didn't realize his wife Rebekah was listening in. She knew God had chosen Jacob, so she told Jacob to dress as Esau and trick his nearly blind father to get the blessing instead. Jacob was a natural-born deceiver, but he was also shrewd, too. Sure, he had a lot to gain if he could secure that blessing, but if Isaac saw through the deception he'd earn a curse, instead of a blessing. Mom insisted, however, and Jacob went along.

The problem was neither of them was thinking things through. The trickery might work in that moment, but eventually Esau was going to come in with the meal. Soon enough Isaac would learn he had been duped by Jacob. But mom Rebekah insists, and Jacob gets his father's blessing, with the reward of having to flee for his life when Esau is furious enough to kill him. This ends with Jacob spending 20 years away from his family as a result, during which time his mother dies.

How often do we shipwreck our lives with foolish decisions, rash words, or perverse actions when we're young? God dedicated the much of the book of Proverbs in the Bible to young men, warning us of the many booby traps, snares, and pitfalls our youthful desires can lead us into. Wise is the young man who trusts God's Word and resists those lusts and passions with God's help.

But the story of Jacob (Genesis 25-49) is the story of God's renewal, even when we have shipwrecked our lives. Jacob was in the middle of his flight from Esau when God appeared to him in a dream. Suddenly, the God he had never given much thought to was important to him. As Jacob became the victim of dishonesty and selfish deception from his Uncle Laban, with whom he spent those 20 years, he learned God was the only One he could rely on. He was Jacob's only help and rescue when 20 years later he returned to his brother Esau.

God created us to love and serve Him as we care for one another. Our sin makes us selfish, faithless, and reckless, but God faithfully, persistently, seeks us out, offering forgiveness and complete restoration. Through the perfect obedience of Jesus, our Lord, which included suffering the punishment for all our sins on the cross, we have a new life waiting for us.

What is the story of your life? Have you seen God's hand in it through the years? Have you been able to dodge a few disasters by leaning on His Word -- trusting and being patient when all your senses urged you to go rushing forward?

You can click here and share your experience and reflections.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Default Thinking

I was thinking about all the tiffs between people that, seemingly, have no end. Sometimes even finding the origin of the dispute is an exercise in futility. What happens at the human micro-level, of course, plays out between groups of people and extends even to the hostilities shared between nations. It reminds me of a bit of dialogue fashioned a while back by that American master, Samuel Langhorne Clemens, aka Mark Twain. In it he relays a bit of homespun conversation between Huck Finn and Buck Grangerford in his timeless classic, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The gist of it is Huck trying to ascertain how the long-running blood feud between the Grangerfords and the Sheperdsons all started -- and why it keeps going.

Huck begins the conversation:

"Did you want to kill him, Buck?"

"Well, I bet I did."

"What did he do to you?"

"Him? He never done nothing to me."

"Well, then, what did you want to kill him for?"

"Why, nothing -- only it's on account of the feud."

"What's a feud?"

"Why, where was you raised? Don't you know what a feud is?"

"Never heard of it before -- tell me about it."

"Well," says Buck, "a feud is this way: A man has a quarrel with another man, and kills him; then that other man's brother kills him; then the other brothers, on both sides, goes for one another; then the cousins chip in -- and by and by everybody's killed off, and there ain't no more feud. But it's kind of slow, and takes a long time."

"Has this one been going on long, Buck?"

"Well, I should reckon! It started thirty year ago, or som'ers along there. There was trouble 'bout something, and then a lawsuit to settle it; and the suit went agin one of the men, and so he up and shot the man that won the suit -- which he would naturally do, of course. Anybody would."

"What was the trouble about, Buck? -- land?"

"I reckon maybe -- I don't know."

"Well, who done the shooting? Was it a Grangerford or a Shepherdson?"

"Laws, how do I know? It was so long ago."

"Don't anybody know?"

"Oh, yes, pa knows, I reckon, and some of the other old people; but they don't know now what the row was about in the first place."

Hmmm. While our mental defaults might not be as entrenched -- or trigger-happy -- as that of Buck Grangerford, it's still easy to go through life with a preset frame of mind.

We all have predispositions toward things that we've inherited along the way. When do you know you're defaulting back to those kinds of ideas in your own life?

How do you try to "neutralize" that thinking to keep your mind open and ready for new ideas?

You can let us know by clicking here.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

The Sensible Art of Ambulation

I don't know if it's age or routine or what, but I don't get outside to walk quite often enough these days. I remember periods in my life when going for a walk just to go for a walk was an anticipated and almost daily occurrence. The chance to brush off the cobwebs in the open air was a welcome respite from the stale oxygen of closed spaces. And there was always a feeling of rejuvenation at the end of my trek, with a renewed focus on whatever the day held next.

I might add too that the particular peregrination of which I speak is unaccompanied. Absent are cell phone, headphones and a playlist of jams, and/or any other device that distracts or preoccupies my thoughts.

Rest assured, you can do without them for a while.

Evidently, not a few creative types have found walking a healthy pursuit, with a dedicated allegiance coming from those who write for a living. Authors from Dickens and Thoreau to Orwell and Nabokov were fond of practicing the simple art of ambulation in their quest to vent their minds and inspire their creativity.

"There is something about the pace of walking and the pace of thinking that goes together," said Geoff Nicholson, author of The Lost Art of Walking, in a BBC interview. "Walking requires a certain amount of attention, but it leaves great parts of the time open to thinking. I do believe once you get the blood flowing through the brain it does start working more creatively. Your senses are sharpened. As a writer, I also use it as a form of problem solving. I'm far more likely to find a solution by going for a walk than sitting at my desk and thinking."

So, do you ever feel like your brain's not firing on all cylinders? Is your thinking sometimes dull and uninspired?

If so, put on your favorite pair of kicks and see where you end up. You may find the fresh air and open spaces therapeutic in ways you never imagined. (And remember, leave the gadgets at home.)

Do you have any favorite treks you make to clear your head and sort out your thinking? You can share your thoughts here: click here!

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Right Under Our Noses

While our taste in literature or music or movies is often deeply personal, it's also governed in many respects by the trends and cultural sway of society. We get caught up in a craze of sorts, and we're off and running, watching episode after episode of some TV program or reading in rapid succession all the books we can find in a certain sci-fi or period-piece series.

If we try to disengage from the current and the wildly popular, we may have to dig pretty deep to get back to some of the earliest stuff we experienced under the banner of "media" -- long before the word was a catchall for every kind of human expression.

Take poetry, for instance. Remember studying poems in grade school? All those flowery rhythms and rhymes and extravagant ideas never seemed to do the trick for me. On the other hand, consider Alfred Lord Tennyson's stirring description of a British cavalry unit that is ordered to cross a valley to capture Russian cannons at the other end.

The Charge of the Light Brigade

"Forward, the Light Brigade!"
Was there a man dismayed?
Not though the soldier knew
Someone had blundered.
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die.
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

Poetry has the power to move us, to motivate us, to open our eyes. It's often closer than we think, too, like the hymnbook. I know it's tough for men to sing. Some of us never got beyond that cracking-voice thing that happened in junior high or middle school, but if you don't sing -- or at least read the words while others are singing -- you can miss a lot. As an example, read this hymn text slowly; think about the imagery, and you might get a sense of how Jesus overcame Thomas' unbelief:

These Things Did Thomas Count as Real

These things did Thomas count as real:
The warmth of blood, the chill of steel,
The grain of wood, the heft of stone,
The last frail twitch of flesh and bone.
The vision of his skeptic mind
Was keen enough to make him blind
To any unexpected act
Too large for his small world of fact.

His reasoned certainties denied
That one could live when one had died,
Until his fingers read like Braille
The marking of the spear and nail.
May we, O God, by grace believe
And thus the risen Christ receive,
Whose raw imprinted palms reached out
And beckoned Thomas from his doubt.

Poetry. Its power is undeniable, but for many of us it's an acquired taste. Without a melody to hum along and carry the words, it's easy to dismiss the subtle attention to detail of a well-wrought poem or a tightly constructed hymn.

Sometimes great poetry -- and the meaning it conveys -- is closer than we think, like in the pew, right under our noses

What are you reading or watching or listening to these days? Does it beat the standard fare media companies are offering the masses?

Click here and let us know.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Come Together

The vibe that's in the air ~ that unmistakable feeling that something huge is going to happen ~ is the nationwide sensation that the Men's NetWork WORK DAY is coming very, very soon. On Saturday, April 28, guys from around the country will chip in, help out, and bless lives in ways that truly show the spirit of Jesus' love in action. You can be a part of this wonderful event by signing up and registering here.

We're going to keep this section short and to the point. If your men's group has an urge to go out and do something really good on the last Saturday of April, there's still time to sign up for this year's big service event. There's more than 500 guys on board already, and they're set to do all kinds of beneficial jobs in their neighborhoods and communities.

You and the guys in your men's group can join them, too. Registration details and sign-up pages are available here. You can access them by clicking here.

Any last-minute words of encouragement to those men's groups that haven't signed up yet? You can pass them along by click here and leaving a note.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Purging

There's a sense of optimism that goes with having a garage sale. Shedding boxes of assorted items that no longer make sense to hang on to is both satisfying and liberating. Having moved a time or two, I am quite familiar with the process of getting rid of boxes of stuff that live under the stairs, in the basement, and in the space over the garage. It seems I can store three boxes of clothes, and the next thing I know there are seven for me to remove. It's amazing how we accumulate stuff.

Recently, I was helping a friend set up for a garage sale. He and his wife are planning to sell their house, so the couple wanted to dig in and deplete all the stuff they don't need any more.

Now having three kids under the age of five meant they had piles of clothes these young ones would never wear again. He asked me if I would help him price the items.

So with the season opener on the air, we were off and running -- well, sort of.

The first three boxes were full of newborn boy's outfits. We spent the first couple of innings examining each piece for condition, frayed edges and, most of all, stains. Each piece was held up, critiqued, and priced to sell at anywhere from $3 to $.25. At this rate, I figured we'd be done by the end of the game.

Then his wife began hauling in other boxes of clothing -- 25 total -- in all sizes, boys and girls.

Yikes!

At this onslaught, either the game would be a record-setting extra-inning affair going into the wee hours, or we'd have to drastically change our pricing technique. Undeterred by this tsunami of kids' clothing, we stepped into high tide and got into the flow of things: pants were all $1, shirts were 25 cents and, if something looked really good, they went for 50 cents.

We laid out eight tables of kids clothes and arranged the other miscellaneous stuff in an attractive setting. Then we waited.

Three days later, he had $700 firmly in hand, mostly by selling 25-cent outfits. Now that was a lot of clothes!

My friend announced the staggering good news to his wife with the admonition, "Let's not accumulate that much -- ever again."

And with that I say, gentlemen, that's good advice for us all.

You see, each one of us carries around boxes of "stuff." Some are filled to overflowing with regrets; some are marked as "bad decisions." Others say, "Stuff I don't feel good about." Maybe it's time we check out those boxes, and drag them (along with their contents) to the curb. After all, there's nothing there to be passed on or resold in them, it's purely garbage. We need to let go of this stuff and give ourselves a fresh start, with the resolution we will not accumulate that many items, ever again.

Good luck getting rid of some dead weight this week.

It's easy to hang on to all sorts of things that weigh us down. Getting rid of life's outworn physical objects is simple compared to some of the stuff that drags us down inside.

Anything bogging you down? Anything you've had good success in pitching to the curb? Any words of advice to others who may be burdened with things they need to unload?

You can pass along your words of wisdom by clicking here and telling us about it.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Rapid-Fire Judgments

Not too long ago, we asked unchurched people about the greatest barrier to going to church. Their most popular response was that "Christians are too judgmental."

Hearing that made me stop and take a good, hard look at myself. What do I think when I see someone living a different lifestyle than mine? What's my reaction to a person covered in tattoos or piercings? It might be my age, but I have to fight my gut reaction when I see someone who stands out from the conventional. I'm forced to remind myself that jewelry, tattoos, clothing, hairstyles, etc. are a matter of personal taste -- and not everyone needs to dress the way I do.

I wonder if I took a moment to sit down with that person, to look past all the surface stuff, to look him or her deep in the eye, what kind of person would I see. Isn't that what Jesus did? When other Jews saw a leper moving even vaguely in their direction, they hurled stones to drive them away; Jesus, on the other hand, walked up to them and touched them. The Judeans couldn't pass a tax collector sitting in his booth without spitting in disgust; Jesus talked and ate with them. He saw them for what they were, children of men who mattered to God.

Even when Jesus saw people who were clearly disobeying God's will like prostitutes, He acted differently. He didn't come at them in smug superiority. Instead, He came with dignity, with meekness, with kindness. After engaging them as people beloved of the Lord, He demonstrated His love and concern, forgave their sins, and sent them away with the words, "Go in peace, and sin no more."

Surely, Jesus didn't come to make people feel good about themselves and their sinful, rebellious lifestyles. If that was the case, why did He go to the cross? Why did He give His life as a ransom for sin? Why does the Bible call Him our "Savior," if there was nothing to save us from?

But that is precisely how Jesus wants to be known -- as our merciful Savior, rather than our stern Judge. When a woman was caught in the act of adultery, Jesus said, "'Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.' When they all turned and left, He asked, 'Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?' She replied, 'No one, Lord.' Then Jesus said, 'Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more'" (John 8:7b-11).

My question is how can I more closely model Jesus Christ in my life? Is it first by recognizing the sinner in me? Is it seeing how incredibly patient, gracious, and merciful my God has been to me? Is it recognizing who I am, before I start considering who others are? Or maybe it's recognizing that on the Last Day Jesus will transform every believer to His own perfect image -- forever banishing the sinful nature from us so that we can be the perfect, delightful children God created us to be -- before Adam and Eve's first act of disobedience.

How can we now, especially during the season of Lent, show God's unbound, unlimited grace to others while not neglecting the fact that Jesus came to save us from something, for something?

How do you overcome any gut instinct you may have to shun those who appear different or weird and, instead, try to connect with them, even in the smallest ways?

Your insights matter. Please click here and share your suggestions.