Tuesday, May 24, 2016

A Nation Remembers

As we approach this Memorial Day weekend, I wonder how many of you are like me. I never served in the military, nor did any of my brothers -- or my cousins, nephews or nieces. That was my parents' generation.

All but one of my mom's brothers served in the military (he had TB and couldn't serve); my dad and all his brothers served in WW II and Korea. We even lost one in battle. My dad's brother Roland died from wounds he suffered on Iwo Jima in February 1945. Dad learned about it the night before his confirmation.

I remember walking into my grandma's living room and seeing the row of pictures on her wall. All six of her sons in their dress uniforms. It made a huge impression on me. I also remember she had a kind of shrine in place for Roland. Looking at his picture as a kid, I thought he was so grown up and old. But in reality he was around 20 years old when he died: the same age my son is now.

That's why Memorial Day always makes me pause for a moment and remember how this special day has a somber edge to it. I can't think of it as just the weekend that kicks off summer.

If Memorial Day doesn't have that kind of personal connection to you, then just consider world events which show how important it is that young men and women are willing to answer the call to protect our country. In so doing they sacrifice their precious time, their strength, and sometimes even their lives to defend us.

It would be nice if it didn't have to be that way. It would be great if young men and women didn't have to leave their families to fight for us, to suffer physical, emotional and mental trauma that can last a lifetime. It would be wonderful if none of them had to give the final sacrifice and never come home. But evil is real, and there are definitely people who want to attack our way of life.

That's why this Memorial Day needs to hit home. We need to remember and honor those who made great sacrifices so we can live free. To honor them we need to make our lives count; we need to make sure their sacrifices weren't in vain.

Of course, this honor due is even more important in the case of our Savior: the One who made the ultimate sacrifice for us all. The deaths of the men and women we will honor this coming Monday protected our earthly freedom, but Jesus laid down His life to protect our eternal liberty, to pay the price for our sins, to guarantee us eternal life in a perfect world where sin, crime and the ravages of war will be no more.

What's Memorial Day mean to you? Are there those you know who've paid heavily for their acceptance of the call to serve in the military? Are you one of them?

This coming Monday, Memorial Day, our nation honors the men and women who have served in the Armed Forces of the United States of America. May God bless them richly.

Take a moment and join us on the Men's NetWork blog. You can do so by clicking here.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

A Compassionate Judge

Twenty-five hearings ago the defendant had been charged with driving under the influence. Now he stands before Judge Lou Olivera as he confesses he had lied about a recent urine test. This same judge has been tracking this man's progress in a veteran's treatment court program. Up to now he has been lenient, but now he has no choice.

The sentence is 24 hours in jail. But this isn't just an ordinary defendant. He is Sgt. Joseph Serna, a former Special Forces soldier who served four combat tours in Afghanistan. He was almost killed three times. One was a roadside bomb; another was suicide bomber. In 2008 his armored truck left a narrow dirt road and ended up in a canal.

As his vehicle filled with water Serna struggled to free himself but was unable. He recalls: "I felt a hand come down and unfasten my seat belt and release my body armor. Sgt. James Treber picked me up and moved me to a small pocket of air. He knew there was not enough room for both of us to breathe so he went under water to find another pocket of air." Sgt. Treber was unable to find that air pocket. Serna was the sole survivor.

A decorated Green Beret, Sgt. Serna was awarded three Purple Hearts and numerous military awards, but found adjusting to civilian life difficult. He turned to alcohol and now, in addition to battling PTSD, he struggles to stay sober.

After the hearing Sgt. Serna is led to a waiting car. To his surprise the driver is Judge Olivera himself. Afraid the night and day in jail will trigger Sgt. Serna's PTSD, the judge personally drives him to the jail, comes into his cell, and sits down on his cot. The whole night they sit together, talking about their experiences in the military. Later, Sgt. Serna described it as "more of a father-son conversation. It was personal."

Judge Olivera commented about Sgt. Serna and the veterans in his program: "They have worn the uniform, and we know they can be contributing members of society. We just want to get them back there."

Reminds me of our divine Judge who set aside His royal robes, came into our world, and spent a lifetime with us. He accepted our verdict as His own and took our place on the cross. Jesus' blood has purified us from our sins and He sent His Spirit to restore us, to make us contributing members of His church, to be a blessing to the people into whose lives He sends us. He promised to never leave us nor forsake us, "Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age" (Matthew 28:20b).

I wonder, remembering the compassion of our merciful Judge, how can we not find courage and motivation to keep up the good fight against sin? And in wonder and gratitude for His great sacrifice, how can we but spread the story of His love to our family, friends, co-workers, neighbors and acquaintances?

We have been given so much. Yet we often pay only the slightest attention to what we possess, to what He's done, to who we are supposed to be in Him. Perhaps we value God's grace too lightly. Maybe we don't value it at all. Would it do us good to remember the sentence we were under, and how we are saved only because of the willing Substitute we have in Jesus, who took our place for us.

Are you emancipated? We hope so. You can share your thoughts on the Men's NetWork blog by clicking here.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Changes

Last week our son finished his first year in college. The experience has changed him. He's more independent, more mature, more articulate -- and as my wife and I discovered when helping clear out his dorm room -- a little more determined that cleanliness is not next to godliness.

But his first year of college definitely changed him just as his high school years changed him, and grade school before that, and preschool before that. But I have to confess his year at college changed me too. It made me realize how precious my time is with him and my wife; it made me revisit my past -- and reexamine where I am today -- and where I am going. It made me more resolute to do more to serve the Lord and the people He has brought to me.

Looking back over my life, I realize every situation and every person I've encountered has changed something about me: my perspective, my understanding, and my empathy towards what other people go through. Hopefully, each experience has drawn me closer to the Lord and made me a little wiser. But part of that wisdom is grasping how little I really know and understand.

Come to think of it, this process of changing is basic to being human. But God describes Himself in a very different way:

* "I the Lord do not change" (Malachi 3:6a).

* "God is not man, that He should lie, or a son of man, that He should change His mind. Has He said, and will He not do it? Or has He spoken, and will He not fulfill it?" (Numbers 23:19).

* "You remain the same, and Your years will never end" (Psalm 102:27).

* "Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows" (James 1:17).

I find this very humbling. I change because I am a lowly, limited creature. I am surrounded by great mysteries that I seek to grasp, but the harder I try the more I realize how much is beyond my puny mind's abilities. But there are no mysteries for God. He knows all things, perceives all things, understands all things. What a vast difference between God and mankind. When it comes to intelligence, perception and foresight, I'm a whole lot closer to a chimpanzee, a sheep, or a dog than I am to God.

Yet most of the time I don't keep that healthy perspective about my true place in the universe. Instead, I'm terribly arrogant. I think I know what is best for me and for the people around me. I'm still reaching for the forbidden fruit like Eve, my mother. I'm trying to be like God -- instead of being content to be the creature He made me be -- a creature made to trust Him with all his heart, soul, mind and strength!

That's what I see around me: people who dare to sit in judgment on God and condemn Him to justify themselves. Listen to this quote from Richard Dawkins; it's from his book The God Delusion:

"The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously, malevolent bully."

How arrogant and foolish! But that's the same thing Job did throughout his book. He thought he had his problems all figured out. If he could just have a face-to-face with God, he would be able to enlighten the Lord, and God would quickly see His mistake and make things right. It was only when Job glimpsed a tiny bit of God's vast wisdom in the whirlwind that he got snapped back down into his place as a lowly creature.

* "I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. ... therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes" (Job 42:3, 6).

Job was reminded of his origins -- something God had to remind Adam of when he ate the forbidden fruit: "You are dust, and to dust you shall return" (Genesis 3:19b).

The wonder is that God still cares about arrogant lowly creatures like us. He loved us enough to send His Son as our Savior.

Yes, I am changing. I find great peace when I quiet my mind and realize I am God's humble creature, and He is my magnificent Lord, Creator, God, and Father. It is changing my prayers too. Instead of thinking I'm smart enough to know exactly what God needs to do to straighten out my life and the lives of the people I care about, I admit I don't have a clue what is best. I can present our challenges and struggles to Him, and thank Him for His promise to love us, provide for us, heal us, and guide all things for our good.

Yes, change is good for us humans. And it's even better for us that God doesn't need to change.

You can share your thoughts on the Men's NetWork blog by clicking here.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Our Truth and God's Truth

Thanks to Christina Aguilera, I finally figured out one possible way to bridge the generation gap between my generation and the next.

Monday night on The Voice she told two of her singers, "You need to find a way to bring out 'your truth.'" In our culture, truth is relative, personal and individual. Like Aguilera says, each person has their own truth. Maybe that helps explain our cultural confusion over things that seem so obvious to me, especially what to do with public restrooms and transgender people.

And that is where the generation gap comes in for me. I have to admit this relative truth makes no sense to a dinosaur like me. I'm a Boomer, and I picked up the "modern" perspective of my parents. For me right and wrong is absolute, it doesn't change because a number of years have gone by and our culture has blurred the lines on what is truth and what is falsehood.

I could be wrong, but it seems to me that Jesus claimed pretty much the same thing, "I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life" (John 14:6a). If He is the Truth, then anything different than what He says is falsehood. Again, in the Sermon on the Mount He asserted, "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5:17-19).

That's why I find myself getting so aggravated when I hear people try to legislate a new morality -- in direct contradiction to the morality God has laid out in the Bible. But that's my generation gap. And it won't help me witness to my child's generation if I stubbornly hold to my absolute truth and try to convince them of their absolute mistake.

Aguilera helped me realize something. She is right. Everyone has his or her own truth: she does, I do, and God does. If there is any such thing as "absolute truth," it is only a valid concept because it is God's truth, and He is the Creator and Sovereign Ruler of this universe who never changes. And that is where I was mistaken in my understanding of absolute truth. For some reason I thought I could separate absolute right and wrong from God. But apart from God, there is no truth. His unchanging truth is determinative of what actual truth and falsehood is. He created us humans in incredible wisdom and undeniable love. He knows how we tick. He knows what is good for us and what will harm us. He did not set forth His Commandments, or rules, or guidelines to limit our self-expression, but rather to protect us from self-delusion and self-destruction.

I can acknowledge that each person has his or her own definition of truth and falsehood. But the only real question is this: Whose truth really matters in the end? I can tell you it isn't the opinion of a group of people, or a generation. It isn't the thinking of a circuit court of appeals, or a state supreme court, or even the United States Supreme Court. It is the will of the Creator and Sovereign Ruler of the entire universe. We will all have to stand before Him one day and give an account of our lives. And then our own simplistic thoughts of right and wrong will all melt away, and only His will stand supreme over all creatures.

But there I go with my absolutes again.

Maybe I don't have to force the next generation to admit my viewpoint is right and theirs is wrong. Instead, I can talk about individual truth in a nonjudgmental way, then share God's truth with them.

Truth. Do you find truth to be a moving target in your life? What's your basis for determining if something is true or not? Does it require physical evidence, some sort of verification? Is taking God at His Word sufficient -- the old "God said it. I believe it. That settles it" frame of mind.

Any thoughts on the matter? You can share them by clicking here and letting us know.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Prayer, Care, Share

There are many different ways to think about sharing the Gospel with others. Last week at our Lutheran Hour Ministries chapel service I was introduced to "Prayer, Care and Share" by Rev. Joe Sullivan, from Pacific, Missouri. No, it's not a revolutionary or earth-shattering idea, but it is a neat way to center our thinking on fulfilling this command Jesus gave us: to make disciples of all nations.

Let's face it. The sharing part is pretty intimidating for most of us. None of us wants to face rejection or drive someone away when sharing our faith. But it helps me to remember the share part comes last.

Prayer is first.

What could be easier than praying for someone in your life who needs to know God's love the way you do. (And what if you can't think of any non-Christians? Pray for God to show you someone He wants you to reach.) Then pray for that person or those people, over and over and over again.

And that brings up a really cool part of this whole thing. Normally you might think of people at work, school, or your next-door neighbors. But what if you have absolutely nothing in common with them? If that's the case, then your hobbies and interests, things you really have a passion for, can be your guide.

For instance, if you're an outdoors kind of person, you don't have to suddenly go to a really uncomfortable place like an art gallery to find someone to witness to. You can talk to your buddy at the state park, or the lake, or the campground. If, on the other hand, you get hives thinking of the great outdoors and you enjoy dance class; then there are plenty of people who share that passion too.

Whatever passion God gave you, that is a natural door to prayer, care and share.

Next, is the caring part.

That's not nearly as intimidating as the sharing part, and it's absolutely vital before we start to share. If a total stranger walks up to me and starts telling me the world is flat, I'll just think he's a wacko and go on my way. His advice or thoughts are worth about two cents to me. But if it's my tried-and-true friend telling it to me, then I'll be willing to really listen and reexamine what I always thought was true.

Caring is the investment that increases the value of the faith you have to share. Even more, when they see the difference that faith, trust and peace brings to your life -- especially in the rough stretches of your life -- they may be begging you to let them in on your secret. Getting to that level of friendship takes time, time spent together, a personal investment of hours.

And then finally, there is the sharing.

Sharing just sounds intimidating, doesn't it? It usually means pushing across a barrier or boundary you haven't crossed with that friend before. That's frightening because you don't know what's on the other side. What if your friend disagrees? It's okay. You don't have to keep pushing; you don't have to give a 15-minute speech or a half-hour lecture on the Gospel. Pray for God to open your eyes to chances to share what Jesus means to you, how He's helped you through life's rough patches.

That leads you right back to prayer and care again. Bring to God the new things you learned about your friend in the time you spent together. Pray about their concerns, their struggles, their worries. Think about similar situations in your life, and how your faith helped -- or how it would have helped if you hadn't tried to carry it by yourself.

Prayer, care, share. It's a pretty good way to knock some of the intimidation out of telling others about Jesus.

Talking to others about Jesus can be a challenge. Then again, we probably make it tougher than it is by thinking it's all about our eloquence, our encyclopedic knowledge, our personality. It's really not about us, except in how we can be a mouthpiece for Him. He will lead. He will empower, if only we will listen.

What do you think about sharing your faith? Tell us by clicking here and letting us know.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

I Feel Old When ...

This past Monday morning one of the trending topics on Twitter was #IFeelOldWhen ....

Some of the tweets were pretty good:

#IFeelOldWhen "I still think of the 90s as 10 years ago."

#IFeelOldWhen "My teenager says 'nice outfit' and rolls her eyes."

#IFeelOldWhen "I realized The Simpsons came out over 26 years ago."

#IFeelOldWhen "It's time to pay my mortgage, car payment, insurance, electric bill, cell bill, Internet bill, water bill, etc."

#IFeelOldWhen "I see my old friends, and they are all married with kids."

These last two tweets appear to come from people in their 20s or 30s, which makes it rather obvious we start feeling the passage of time when we're still quite young. Elite athletes probably feel it more acutely than those of us who aren't. But eventually the relentless march of time becomes obvious to each of us.

One tweet that struck me was from an M.D.:

#IFeelOldWhen "I get to work and all the corpses to autopsy are younger than me. Boy, does that make me sad."

We Americans go to war against time and aging, throwing billions of dollars a year into anti-aging creams and plastic surgeries, but sooner or later we all have to admit it's a losing battle. Sure, we can slow our body's aging a bit with good nutrition, rest and exercise. And that is very good. It gives us more energy and, hopefully, healthy years to serve God by serving our family and neighbors. But ultimately when enough years roll along we too will grow frail and finally lose the battle.

"... You are dust, and to dust you shall return" (Genesis 3:19b). That's what Adam and Eve's disobedience won for all of us. But that's what makes the recently completed Easter season so wonderful. Jesus' perfect obedience has won for us a glorious future, even as He is risen from the dead and lives to all eternity. One day all of us who trust His great salvation and look forward to His return will stand before Him in glorious bodies of our own. It will be a perfect, immortal body that will never wear out, grow old, get sick, or die.

I wish I would have reminded my dad of that when cancer was returning his body to the dust. He was a man of faith who knew death wouldn't have the final say, but when he felt so weak, spent and useless, I wish I would have reminded him of his glorious future when that same weary body will be raised in glory: forever powerful, vibrant, radiant, filled with strength, skill and energy.

Sure, from time to time in this lifetime all of us will feel old when .... But take heart, that feeling won't last forever.

Someone once said that youth is wasted on the young. It kind of seems like it is too, but that doesn't mean there are not remarkable things left for us to do -- no matter what our age. Certainly, one of the most important things is remembering we have a God who will renew these old bones when He calls His children home to eternity.

I like that. In fact, I'm not thinking I'm quite so old anymore.

Any thoughts on this whole aging thing we go through? If so, click here and share them with your brothers out there.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Thank God for Thomas

Eight days. Eight long, maddening days. Over and over the 10 apostles told their story, "We saw Jesus! He's alive!" Still no matter what they said, their fellow apostle Thomas refused to believe. Nothing was enough: empty grave cloths, angel words, detailed stories from the women, Peter's own personal visit from Jesus that Sunday afternoon, two trusted followers walking with Christ to Emmaus, 10 of the 12 gathered in the upper room as Jesus appears to them. Nothing. In fact, it seems the more details they shared, the more Thomas dug in his heels.

Toward the end Thomas was to the point of embarrassing himself. Perhaps it was anger, hurt and pride, but he clung to his unbelief: "Unless I see in His hands the mark of the nails and put my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into His side, I will never believe" (see John 20: 24-29).

Do you have a Thomas in your life? -- a husband or wife, fiancé, girlfriend or boyfriend who doesn't believe? -- a child who has wandered from the faith? -- a brother or sister who has made up their mind? -- someone at work? -- a close friend? Do you find the more you talk the more adamant they become against what you're saying? How do you reach someone who refuses to be reached? What do you do with a Thomas?

Thank God for Thomas' unbelief -- no, not the unbelief itself -- but for what that unbelief teaches us about sharing the Good News with others.

Have you ever shared the faith, only to see that doing so seemed to make that person even more resistant to Jesus' message? Did you feel like a failure? Did you conclude it would have been better off if you had shared it one time, then let it go? -- or maybe never shared it at all?

The other disciples teach us not to give up. They kept sharing. Perhaps, they even reminded Thomas of all the experiences they had shared together in Jesus' presence as well as all the miracles they had seen. There were all the blind who received their sight, the lame who walked, the deaf who heard, the lepers who were cleansed. Together they had seen Jesus multiply bread and fish. They could remind him of that fearful time on the Sea of Galilee when they thought the boat would sink and they would all drown, only to have Jesus wake up and speak a word, stopping the winds, stilling the sea, and bringing calm to the storm. They could remind Thomas (as if he would need reminding) of Jesus walking on the water to them.

They might have said, "What about those times we watched Jesus square off against death and defeat it? There was that young daughter of Jairus, the synagogue ruler. She had just died when Jesus raised her. Then when we entered the town of Nain and met the funeral procession carrying the widow's son out to burial -- and Jesus raised him hours after his death. And how can we forget Lazarus, dead and buried four days, and yet Jesus was able to overcome death and restore him to life? Is it really that big a stretch to think Jesus Himself could rise from the dead?"

When our friends reject the faith we share, we don't reject them. We keep strengthening the bonds of our friendship, watching and praying for the best time to share our faith again.

I always wondered why Jesus waited a whole week: eight long days to show Himself. Maybe it was to teach us it is not our job to convince or persuade someone to believe. After all, if it was in the apostles' power to make someone believe, shouldn't eight days have been enough for Thomas? Luther had it right: "I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord, or come to Him." And we cannot by our own reason or strength lead someone else to believe in Him.

All the disciples could do was to faithfully share what they knew. All we can do is faithfully share what we know. Be patient, kind, gentle. Build up that relationship and shake off frustration. Also, don't badger them as if it was up to us and our efforts to bring them to faith.

It was in God the Father's good time that Jesus finally came back to that upper room on the eighth day. No disciple could bring Thomas to believe. It was Jesus' visit and the power of the Holy Spirit that finally shattered his unbelief. "Thomas -- put your finger in My hand, stretch out your hand and put it into My side. Stop doubting -- no, stop refusing to believe -- and believe!"

Finally, the truth sunk in. "My Lord and my God!"

It was Jesus' visit that worked faith in Thomas, and it is His visit to our friends, co-workers, family and loved ones through the Gospel we share that will shatter their unbelief as the Holy Spirit works saving faith.

Thank God for Thomas' unbelief -- but far more for his repentant belief.

Do you have any stories from the road that deal with witnessing to the faith within you? If you do, click here and tell us about them.