Tuesday, September 23, 2014

A Little Perspective, Please

I was planning to write about a sideline incident at the Rams/Cowboys game last Sunday. It seemed like a good reminder of pulling together in tough situations rather than letting adversity drive us apart. But I just came back from an informational meeting and somehow an NFL sideline issue doesn't seem quite so important anymore.

The Men's NetWork's parent organization, Lutheran Hour Ministries, has many international ministry centers. Yesterday, (Monday) the director of our Lebanon ministry center gave a report on the plight of Syrian and Iraqi refugees. Before the war, Lebanon had a population of 4.4 million. Then between 2012 and 2014 about 1 million Syrian refugees crossed the Lebanese border to flee atrocities by Bashar al-Assad's Syrian government. With this year's sudden rise of the even more brutal Islamic State (also known as ISIS and ISIL), another 400,000 refugees from Syria and Iraq have crossed the border into Lebanon. Adding 1.4 million refugees to a country of 4.4 million has been overwhelming for Lebanon.

Sunday night I watched a 60 Minutes report on ISIS that kicked off the new season. It spoke of a village of Christians where men were separated from the women and children; the men were trucked off to a nearby mass grave, lined up, and shot with multiple weapons. The interview included two wounded brothers who crawled out of that grave when a plane flew overhead and scared off the Islamic State soldiers.

This morning we saw a slide of a house in Mosul, Iraq. In the middle of the night ISIS had painted the Arabic letter "nun" (its shape is essentially a rounded "u" with a dot over its center) on the wall. It's equivalent to our letter "n" and stands for Nazarene, referring to Jesus -- of Nazareth. It notified the Christians inside they had 48 hours to make a choice: convert to ISIS' oppressive brand of Islam, pay an exorbitant war tax on each individual in the house, or face barbaric execution for the men and enslavement for the women. Defying this choice, most Christians flee. A few days later a second announcement was spray painted on that wall: "Property of the Islamic State."

I couldn't help thinking of the victims of Nazi Germany in World War II. The Star of David was painted on the homes of Jews, and their possessions confiscated by the government. Stories circulated about terrible atrocities and genocide, but they were unbelievable -- even when reports spread from Soviet soldiers coming across places like Auschwitz, as they drove through Poland toward Germany. How many memorials have we built so the world will never see another holocaust like that one? God give wisdom to the leaders of our nation and the world, and guide their considerations!

Of course, Christians aren't the only people fleeing ISIS. Refugees include anyone who is not willing to join the Islamic State such as Shi'a and Sunni Muslims, and other ethnic minorities. Now more than a million refugees are living in tent cities scattered across Lebanon. Hundreds of thousands of children are living without adequate food, hygiene, education or the prospect of a future.

If there is a bright light, it is the brave staff of our Lebanon ministry center. They are going into those camps, sitting down with these displaced families, learning their stories, and addressing individual needs that organizations like the UN and the International Red Cross are unable to meet (medication, diapers, baby formula, etc.). And most importantly, our ministry center personnel are sharing the victorious love of Jesus Christ with people who are homeless, hurting, and in desperate need.

This week I was going to write about a sideline incident in the NFL, but in the big scheme of things it's just that: a sideline incident. I'd encourage you to keep up with the Lebanon story by going to its blog. Click here to read!

Please keep the victims, those who help them, and the entire Middle East in your prayers. If you'd like to learn how you can help fund our Lebanon ministry center's individual care for families, you can do that here.

Reach out to victims of ISIS persecution in Syria and Iraq: Click here!

Your comments on the Men's NetWork blog are always welcome. To tell us what you think, click here!

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

It Was Never Our Intention

Urban Outfitters had a great idea: sell college sweatshirts from the '70s in a sun-faded vintage collection. But it didn't work out so well when it came to the Kent State University sweatshirt.

Had Kent State chosen blue or green as its school color it wouldn't have been a big deal. But Kent State chose red. When you take a dark red sweatshirt and fade it down, there are spots of dark red that remain -- and oddly -- they look a lot like blood stains. The vintage collection also wants to build in the wear and tear of 45 years, so they added holes that look -- again, strangely -- like bullet holes.

It was eerily reminiscent of the Kent State massacre in 1970 when four unarmed students were shot and killed by the Ohio National Guard in a Vietnam War protest. You can only imagine the PR disaster that resulted. Urban Outfitters immediately removed the sweatshirt from its website.

Was it an honest mistake, or was the company intentionally pushing the envelope to increase sales? Urban Outfitters wrote, "It was never our intention to allude to the tragic events that took place at Kent State in 1970 and we are extremely saddened that this item was perceived as such." Click here to see the sweatshirt!

This brings to mind the whole matter of giving and taking offense. Growing up in the 1960s I was taught to hold a door open for a lady, but by the 1980s I was told that was offensive and chauvinistic. I got my degree in elementary education in the late 1980s and was warned about putting my hand on a child's shoulder or giving a hug. To do so was fine for a female teacher, but not a male teacher. People's perceptions were changing, and they became increasingly suspicious of a man that would want to be a teacher of young children.

Over the years the lines have only become more blurry. If we want to avoid being bombarded by criticism -- especially online -- we have to walk a narrow tightrope of people's perceptions.

The reason for this is we can't read each other's minds. Therefore, we have to guess at the hidden motives of the heart as they are demonstrated in the words, deeds and attitudes of those with whom we interact. And they have to do the same with us.

That's why we can do and say things with the best of intentions, yet be attacked by someone who took offense at our words or actions. Jesus was quite familiar with that.

But there is only One who perfectly knows what was in the heart of the folks at Urban Outfitters ... and what is in your heart and mine. Our God alone completely perceives our intentions, our thoughts, and desires. Of course, that's a scary thought when we realize our sin lies bare before His eyes. But that is why He sent His Son Jesus to pay for our sins of thought, desire, word and deed.

As we move forward in His forgiveness, we have to remember the message of the cross is offensive in and of itself. We don't need to add to it by our careless words or behavior. Just like Jesus in His earthly life, we strive to be as loving, pure and winsome as possible (see Matthew 5:48; 18:6-9; 1 Corinthians 8). But knowing the power of sin and temptation, we know we will be misperceived just as Jesus was. Just keep one thing in mind: in the end, the only perception that really matters is His.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

When the Other Shoe Drops

Last February, video was released showing Baltimore Raven Ray Rice dragging his unconscious fiancée from a casino elevator. The NFL saw the tape and suspended Rice for the first two games of the 2014 NFL season.

Now the other shoe has dropped.

Early Monday morning TMZ released security video footage from inside that elevator. All that morning "Ray Rice" was trending number one on Twitter. Most tweets were calling for the Ravens to release Rice. Others wondered why everyone was so shocked by the violence on the video; there must have been a reason she was unconscious when he dragged her out from behind the closed doors of the elevator.

But seeing the deed on video somehow made it more damning. Staring down that video evidence the Ravens had no choice but to release Rice Monday afternoon; the NFL commissioner had no choice but to suspend him indefinitely; every other NFL team considers him radioactive; and now Rice faces the very distinct possibility he has played his last NFL football game a month before he took his fiancée to that casino.

But what if you stood in Rice's place? Each of us has done shameful things "behind closed doors." How would you feel if your darkest deeds were somehow secretly recorded and then shown to the whole world? Makes me real glad I'm not a celebrity.

The trouble is there actually is Someone who knows every dark, shameful thing I've ever done or said, even behind closed doors. What's more, His record doesn't just include the things I've done and said; it shows the very thoughts, desires and attitudes that were lying behind those deeds and sayings. I may shudder to think of the world's shock and outrage if it could look into my heart and mind, but what about standing face to face with my Creator and God and facing His wrath and rage?

We can bury our head in the sand and convince ourselves there is no Creator and Judge. We can deceive ourselves into thinking we are here by chance or the coincidences of evolution. It's easy to bury our deep, dark secrets and convince ourselves they will never see the light of day. Maybe that's what Ray Rice thought: two games' suspension and it would all be over. But that tape was still out there, and no wishful thinking could make it go away -- just like God's knowledge of our sins.

That's the toughest part of confession: to stand before our God in honesty, our sins exposed, our hands stained with blood. But the incredible thing is God's answer. It isn't shock and outrage. It isn't God calling for our heads. That's because 2,000 years ago Jesus took Ray Rice's place, your place, and my place, and suffered God's wrath on the cross -- for us. Now God's answer is forgiveness, peace, restoration.

Ray Rice is paying a huge price for what he did in that elevator, and that penalty may well follow him throughout his earthly life. But Jesus Christ paid the greater price for him. The risen Lord offers him forgiveness and the certainty that our Heavenly Father will never reject him or cut him loose, but receive him into an eternal home far more glorious than anything the NFL could ever offer.

That offer stands for you and me as well.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

My Favorite Season

Ah, it's here again. Labor Day is past and football season is back. High school games began a couple of weeks ago; college pre-conference season games are underway, and the NFL kicks off with a big game as the Seahawks and Packers meet Thursday night.

I always wanted to play football when I was a kid. I dreamed of being the star running back on the team, my name echoing out over the loud speakers as I ran for touchdown after touchdown. But there was one problem: I was too thin and scrawny. I ended up on the sidelines, playing tuba in the marching band. Only later did I learn that for every glorious minute on the field the football team spent grueling hours practicing and working out.

The guys on the football team and those of us in the marching band took our separate paths. Each day we practiced, and so did they. But every Friday night we came together, each ready to take the field in our own time, and bring glory to our school. Even now, on Friday nights when I drive by a high school and see the stadium lights and hear the drums pounding, it takes me back.

Life seems cyclical, isn't it? These days I find myself in a similar situation with my son. He's started his senior year at high school, eager to graduate and head off to college next year. I'd love to be out there with him, enjoying all his experiences -- the struggles as well as the triumphs. But both of us have a different path to take: I'm off to work each day, while he's at school preparing to succeed at college and forge ahead with his career.

Like the marching band and the football team, we'll end up doing our stuff apart. But I can encourage him from the sidelines with my thoughts and prayers. I'll look forward to those "game times" when I can take my place on the sidelines, and cheer him on.
The other day the thought finally sank in that odds are I won't be there to watch his whole game. After all, my dad died the day before my game began -- the day I was ordained into the ministry.

Thinking of my son, it's likely I'll miss many, if not most, of the greatest accomplishments in his life. But if I can be around for the first quarter or even the first half, I'll be a very grateful man.

How do you feel as you watch your children "spring up" before your very eyes? Do you have any special or innovative ways of staying a part of their lives, especially as they move beyond your household?

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

A Special Witness

"Will you suffer all, even death, rather than ...?" That was a troubling question I was asked when I stood before my congregation as a 14-year-old to confirm the faith God created in me at my Baptism. What if I was put on the spot -- what if my very life was on the line -- would I hold to my public confession that Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior?

Last week the world was shocked and outraged by the beheading of American journalist James Foley by his Muslim captors from Islamic State. (This extremist Muslim group has also gone by the names ISI (Islamic State of Iraq), ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), and ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant -- another name for the region bordering the eastern Mediterranean Sea, which includes Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria).

What I haven't heard very often is that James Foley was a devout Christian.

I came across a USA Today article by David McKay Wilson titled, "James Foley: beheading victim had deep faith." Wilson shared his recollections of a 2011 interview after Foley's release from his 45-day captivity by the Libyan government of Muammar Gaddafi. He described Foley as "a devout Christian, who, unlike most journalists I've known during my almost four decades in the field, was unapologetic about his heart for social justice and the inspiration he found for his beliefs in the New Testament." During his first imprisonment, Foley had prayed frequently and listened to a fellow prisoner read from the Gospel of Matthew daily. He credited God with his rescue back then.

A year later Foley's faith drove him to enter Syria and expose the suffering from the civil war, which still rages there. On Thanksgiving Day 2012 he was captured and held for two years before being executed.

Wilson closed his article with these words: "This time, God did not answer James Foley's prayers. This time, James Foley was not delivered from evil."

To all earthly appearances Wilson is correct. It looks like God stood by disinterestedly while Foley and hundreds -- perhaps thousands -- of His children are being executed for their faith.

But Wilson is wrong. God did answer their prayers, granting James Foley and each of them a final, complete deliverance from evil as He took them out of this world of tears and suffering and brought them into the glorious splendor of His presence.

The tragic thing is that not only Christians are being executed at the hands of the Islamic State, different ethnic groups, and other Muslims who don't know the Savior are being killed as well.

While we wait for the world's leaders to take action, there are two things we can do to help those suffering at ISIS' hands. Consider helping our Lebanon ministry center reach out with the Good News of God's love in Jesus Christ through radio broadcasts and care packages to refugees, and pray fervently -- as James Foley did -- for our Christian brothers and sisters, for the non-Christians who are being persecuted and killed, and for the members of ISIS who have been blinded by hate.

Reach Out to Victims of ISIS Persecution in Syria and Iraq: Click here!

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

We're All in This Together

America was shocked last week when it learned that Robin Williams had died. We were even more shocked to learn his death came by his own hand. My first thought was how happy and upbeat he always seemed to be. But as the week went by Williams' struggles came to light: persistent financial stress, a cancelled television series, smaller movie roles, open-heart surgery, bouts of severe depression and, to top it all off, Parkinson's disease. Each of these stressors played a part in creating the dark, swirling despair that pressed down upon him.

As is often the case, there were signs that Williams was struggling -- and losing -- that battle. Comedian and friend Rick Overton noticed, "He started to disconnect. He wasn't returning calls as much. He would send texts and things like that, but they would get shorter and shorter." Another comedian and lifelong friend, Steven Pearl, said, "You could just tell something was off. He seemed detached. It's hard to explain. He didn't seem like his usual self. My fiancée and I were like 'Is he okay?' I didn't know it would get this dark."

Have you ever seen these warning signs from a friend or acquaintance? You're tempted to say something, but end up convincing yourself to mind your own business. After all, it will likely pass anyway. Tragically, sometimes those friends or acquaintances take their own lives as Robin Williams did.

Since this sad story broke we've heard a lot of talk about the difficulty men have dealing with depression and the suicidal thoughts that result. We can find it very hard to open up to our friends, to share our emotional struggles, to find someone who can bring us the strength and encouragement to get us through our dark times.

It may seem intimidating to try to help a friend struggling with depression. Often we feel unqualified, feeling as if we have to be a trained counselor or psychiatrist to offer help. But that's often not the case. If someone hasn't sunk into the pit of despair, it's often a matter of showing interest, being willing to listen to someone's problems, sharing a promise of God. Often bringing those dark thoughts out into the light of day is all that is needed to restore that person's perspective.

This is one of the goals of Men's NetWork Bible studies. Many of the discussions that arise from these studies are intended to help users build a close-knit network of good friends. Ideally, these individuals will possess some similar circumstances in their lives, which can then help establish a common ground where it's safe to be open and honest. Here guys not only receive a pat on the back, but also get the chance to give one to another guy who's struggling.

Living in God's strength, power and joy through Jesus Christ, we can be those friends who see the warning signs -- and act on them in Spirit-given compassion, strength and courage.

Is there anyone in your circle of influence who might benefit from a kind word today?

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Picking up Shattered Dreams

David Wilson had the same dream many of us had as children: he dreamed of playing running back in the National Football League. Unlike most of us, his hard work and dedication, coupled with his God-given talents, made that dream came true. The New York Giants drafted him as running back in 2012. "At a young age I had a dream to play in the NFL. And I did that. I played in the NFL, and I scored touchdowns, and I broke tackles, and I broke and set records."

In just his second season in the NFL, however, his dream came into jeopardy. Wilson suffered a serious neck injury in October 2013. But that didn't diminish his drive to continue in the NFL. He worked all the harder to recovery, regain his strength and stamina, and return to his life's dream.

Just two weeks ago Wilson was out on the Giant's practice field doing just that when he aggravated his injury. After consulting with doctors he announced last week that he must set aside his dream and retire from the NFL. His lifelong dream died at the age of 23.

Every one of us faces that sort of setback in our life at one point or another. Deeply cherished dreams die, timetables get broken, jobs are lost, marriages crumble, and friends go their separate ways. For some of us midlife hits us with the realization our life will never go the way we thought it would, and like Solomon we conclude, "All is vanity. What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?" (See Ecclesiastes 1:2-3.)

What do you do when your dreams lie shattered at your feet? We can learn a lot from a 23- year-old. David Wilson didn't sit and pity himself; instead, he kept his head up and began looking to see where he could go from here. He said, "Don't for a second do you all think that I'm pitying myself or sad because I got to live my dream. I'll set another dream and be great at that because I always look at trying to be great at whatever I do."

First, he expressed thankfulness to God for the time He gave him to do the thing he loved the most, and then he opened his eyes to see what new path God was placing in front of him. Wilson advises us, "Even if one dream seems to fade away, set another goal, set another dream, and try to reach that."

What great disappointments have you faced? What new path(s) did God open for you? How have you responded to this change of direction?