Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Our Sense of Worth

It was a windy, autumn afternoon 23 years ago. I was raking up sycamore leaves with my dad in the backyard. He was already feeling the effects of a cancerous tumor in his left shoulder. Lightning bolts of pain streaked down his arm, making it hang useless at his side. With his good arm he pulled a lawn chair up alongside the pile I was raking together, sat down, and held out a trash bag. He held one side with his good hand. I held the other side and tried to dump the rake-full of leaves into the bag, but they tumbled down both sides of the bag, instead of going in. Dad got really frustrated and went inside.

I finished up and came in a few minutes later. I found him sitting on the stairs, crying in frustration. Now understand, my dad was German -- more like a German Vulcan. He never showed emotion. But this time he glanced up at me, shook his head, and growled, "I'm no good for anything! I can't even hold a trash bag open!"

Since that afternoon I have encountered many men who felt the same way. These are guys who spent their whole lives taking care of their home, their yard, their work, their family -- but because of sickness or age they were no longer able -- and felt utterly useless, imposing a terrible burden on their wife and family.

I especially remember Percy. He was looking out the window, shaking his head as he watched his wife, struggling with the big feed bags for the handful of cattle they still had left. He was suffering from heart disease, and the doctor told him he couldn't lift anything heavier than a pair of shoes.

We discussed how Jesus grew too weak to carry His cross, and how He received the help of a strong, young man named Simon of Cyrene. We talked about how Jesus died in weakness, but was raised in power -- just as Percy and my father's bodies will be raised in glory and power when Jesus comes again -- never to grow old, weak and frail again.

In two months we'll be holding our third annual Men's NetWork WORK DAY. Over the last two years, guys have told us how good it felt to make a difference for neighborhood widows and single mothers -- women who needed simple chores done but couldn't afford to pay for them or manage the work themselves.

But I'd also encourage you not to forget the elderly guys in your community, maybe even your next-door neighbor, who silently despises himself and feels utterly worthless because he's too frail or too sick to take care of things around the house or yard. Many such guys have things they can still do -- but only if a stronger, younger guy can give them some help first. Maybe you know a guy who can plant, cultivate and harvest a garden -- but only if someone will run a tiller through it first.

It's not too late to register for the WORK DAY. Not only will you get the satisfaction of helping someone -- just like Simon helped Jesus -- you may even get the chance to share the comfort of Jesus' suffering, death and resurrection with them.

And that would be a good thing indeed.

Any thoughts on what it means to grow older and, perhaps, less able than you used to be? If so, take a minute and share your thoughts by clicking here.

To see what the Men's NetWork WORK DAY is all about, click here to get the details.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Snow Plow

A couple days ago we finally had our first big snowfall in St. Louis. In an average winter we get a decent number of snows. By this time of year, drivers have pretty much gotten used to it. But not with this unusually late start of the season. I expected drivers to be somewhat erratic, and St. Louis did not disappoint.

On the news they showed a gang plow rolling down the highway. It is a group of snow plows spaced out across the lanes of an interstate. (If you're unfamiliar with this formation, the lead plow throws the snow from the inside lane to the middle lane; a second plow throws it to the next lane, until the last one flings it out past the shoulder.)

Sure enough, drivers weren't very happy with the speed the plows were going. Before long the camera caught a few pickups and SUVs swinging out and weaving through the gang plows. It worked for the first few, but one unlucky soul clipped his back bumper on the snow plow, and ended up in a nasty wreck.

Thankfully, neither driver was hurt.

That sort of impatience afflicts all of us. We have to get somewhere, or we want something -- now. We don't want anyone or anything slowing us down or getting in our way.

The trouble is that thinking is short-sighted. Whatever destination that driver couldn't wait to get to would now take even longer to get to. Impatience and foolhardiness won out over patiently falling in behind the plows, and biding his time. Instead, he got a much longer delay, as well as the extra time, expense and hassle of getting his car repaired.

Had he been the only one affected by his impatience that would have been one thing. But he wasn't the only one. The cars behind those plows suddenly found themselves stopped, and those coming up on the scene could now enjoy a long traffic jam. Even worse, the snow plow was out of operation for a few hours, time that could have been spent clearing off roadways -- all this because one driver couldn't wait for the plows.

I remember getting caught in a freezing rain more than 20 years ago. It was a nerve-wracking drive, crawling around every curve and hill, trying to stay on the road. Then I saw flashing yellow lights up ahead and chemically treated pavement. The treacherous sheet of ice was replaced by sweet, wet roadway. And no, the plow wasn't travelling at highway speeds, but that was perfectly fine. Had I grown impatient and tried to pass him I would have been right back in that ice again. It felt incredibly comforting to stay behind him.

This Wednesday we begin the season of Lent, a time when we fall in behind Jesus and walk with Him to the cross. It is a somber, difficult path, one that calls for a lot of soul-searching and sorrow over our sins. It can seem long at times, but there is no better road to travel. In the end, the joy of traveling in His company -- safe in His resurrection victory -- is the only way to go.

We've all jumped the gun and regretted it later. If you've got a story to share we can learn from, click here and illumine us.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Coachability

I was listening to a sports show on my way into work on Monday. They were discussing the legacy of legendary University of North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith. One of the things that struck me was his personally typed letter to his star player Michael Jordan. Jordan had just finished his sophomore season and was widely recognized as one of the most-skilled collegiate players. Coach Smith wrote the following to him:

Dear Michael:

I am writing to list areas of basketball on which you should seek improvement this summer. In our last conversation in the office, we discussed these but thought it would be best to put them down in writing.

1. Shoot the ball the same way each time, the same arc.

2. Get your ritual on the foul shot: up on toes and extending. Don't fade back with your body.

3. In pick-up games, try to be a point guard, working on your dribbling and starting the ball low. Also, try to have more assists than turnovers.

4. Work on quick ball fakes and then bounce pass inside.

5. Work on busting out on the dribble from a rebound and making the play from the other end.

6. Continue work on the correct pivot foot.

7. Defensively keep working on the habits you now have and you will get even better.

8. Don't always reach for the ball but contain your man. You can't steal the ball all the time!

Michael, if you do improve on these items we mentioned, you will be a much better basketball player and, consequently, our team should be better and have a chance to win it all in Seattle next year. In your daydreaming, picture us winning it all in Seattle!

Warmest regards.

These days I'm not sure how many coaches could get away with talking to their star player this way, even more once a player has turned pro. I looked back at Dean Smith's college basketball career: he played for a national championship team, but spent the vast majority of the tournament on the bench. Michael Jordan could have blown off the suggestions of a coach who wasn't as physically talented as he was, but Jordan was humble enough to be coachable. His attention to these details transformed a great NBA career to an exceptional one.

It's tough to be coachable. We have to swallow that arrogant pride that says, "Don't lecture me. I know it all." It's doubly tough when that counsel comes from unexpected people -- sometimes even our own children or grandchildren. But no matter where it comes from, good advice is good advice.

Of course, we have the greatest "coach" of all in God. He cared enough to send His Son; He gives us His Spirit and a whole Book to coach us through life. The question is, are we humble enough to live by His teachings?

Have you had an influential coach in your life -- somebody who gave you advice so good it's still making a difference in your life today?

If so, let us know by clicking here and sharing your thoughts.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The Ravages of Time

Most Super Bowls in my experience have been sleepers, one team dominating the other. But Super Bowl XLIX was a pleasant exception. It stayed thrilling right down to the last 20 seconds of the game. Just when it looked like one team was going to put the game away, the other came roaring back. The final interception was so unpredictable, so unexpected, especially when it seemed Seattle was destined to win it all.

I didn't have a dog in this race. I admired both teams, but didn't really care who won. So I focused instead on the two quarterbacks -- and the passing of the torch from one generation to the next. Who was going to do better: Tom Brady, the 37-year-old veteran and future Hall of Famer, or the brilliant, young Russell Wilson?

It was fun comparing the two. Wilson has the physical edge with his youth, agility and speed. Just when a defender broke loose from the offensive line and came charging in for a certain tackle, Wilson calmly slipped to the side and in a flash was making his way down a wide, open field.

At his age, Brady doesn't have that elusive speed; maybe he never did. No, Brady wasn't going to be able to use his feet to escape the onrushing defensemen. But what the wily, old veteran lacked in physical speed he more than made up in savvy, brains and experience. His performance against the "Legion of Boom" in the fourth quarter was simply brilliant.

But he's 37, and time keeps marching on. How many more productive years are left in his NFL career, or those of his generation of quarterbacks? I read Monday that Drew Brees at 36 is showing signs of decline, and I fear we've seen the last great run for Peyton Manning. How many more excellent years can we expect from Tom Brady, before the sun finally sets on his career?

These two Super Bowl quarterbacks demonstrate our journey through this life. In our youth we're like Russell Wilson: boundless opportunities, full of dreams, hopes and aspirations. As we pass through our 20s, 30s, and 40s, we see our physical ability begin its gradual decline. But at least we can find some consolation in our increase in wisdom and experience. Eventually, however, even that experience and mental power will fade away, if God grants us enough years. The physical and mental decline we all experience is the stark, terrible price sin exacts from each of us.

That's where God's promise offers such hope and comfort. Jesus Christ took that sin upon Himself and died on the cross to remove sin's curse from us. His resurrection guarantees our own resurrection -- and an endless life where He will permanently and eternally restore our youthful vim and vigor, and make our minds sharp, young and new forever.
That's why the movie Field of Dreams has a special place in my heart. It reminds me that when Jesus returns, resurrects my body, and restores it perfectly, I'll be able to run, hop and play for all eternity, without time's ravaging effects.

Take a moment to click here and share your thoughts.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Judgmental to a Fault

Recently, we asked unchurched people about the greatest barrier to going to church. Their most popular response was, "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 all 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 about 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 show God's unbound, unlimited grace to others while not neglecting the fact that Jesus came to save us from something, for something?

Please click here and share your suggestions.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

A Man's Life

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.)

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 majority 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? How did God make His presence real in your life, and how can we learn the joy of God's way of life, without first having to shipwreck our own? Please click here and share your suggestions.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

WORK DAY Number Three Is on the Horizon

Saturday, April 25, is a day that will go down in history; at least it should. For the third time in as many years, Men's NetWork groups across the country will pull out their work gloves, hammers, saws, rakes, paint brushes, and ladders to help make a difference in their neighborhoods and communities. We realize calling it the Men's NetWork WORK DAY is probably not the most original name we could have come up with, but it's short and to the point. Last year 794 men from 47 different Men's NetWork groups in 18 states participated.

WORK DAY has slowly morphed over the last two years -- in a good way. In year one most of groups pretty much reserved their work for their churches and schools. They painted classrooms, cleared gutters, and spruced up flowerbeds. That being said, there were a few adventurous groups that went beyond church property to help shut-in members or single mothers.

In both years quite a few groups in Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan and Georgia traveled to Lutheran and other summer camps in their area to help with maintenance, spring cleaning, and getting the camps ready for the upcoming season.

But last year something else happened: several groups reached out to their communities, beyond church property. A Nebraska group spent the day building houses with Habitat for Humanity. One Illinois group cleaned the tree line along a community bike path. Another Illinois group volunteered at the Special Olympics spring games. A Washington group cleaned up litter in the Adopt-A-Road program. A California grouped supported foster children. One Colorado group did spring cleaning for six Bethesda Lutheran Communities homes for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Another Colorado group helped a neighbor fill and level out his yard, after an irrigation pipe broke.

If you live far enough north, April 25 may not be a suitable date. That's okay. One of our Canadian groups was forced to wait until summer, but when it finally warmed up they offered to do odd jobs too small for local contractors such as trimming a tree, fixing a doorstep, or replacing a light bulb in a high place difficult to reach. They publicized their availability locally and did the work for free. Many of their neighbors insisted on donating, so they were able to use those donations to sponsor two youth to go to the National Youth Gathering.

Guys in the Men's NetWork enjoy getting together for breakfast, a cookout, or an evening Bible study. But there's nothing quite as satisfying as getting out, working side by side, and doing something great for the community, or for those who can't help themselves. If your group would like to participate this year, click here to see the details.

If you don't belong to a group but would like to see if there is one nearby, click here.

Do you have ideas for projects you'd like to pass along? If so, we'd like to hear from you. Please click here to share your suggestions.