Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Not Feeling Very Thankful?

Some Thanksgivings arrive during life's good times, finding us in the middle of exciting new relationships or new jobs, or we may be enjoying restored health or some newfound prosperity. In other years the tide may have turned. That's when financial struggles, unemployment, underemployment, health issues, broken relationships, or the loss of a loved one may be the norm. To be sure these difficulties can make holidays tough. And of all the holidays, it may well be that Thanksgiving is worst of all, especially when it feels like there's nothing to be thankful for.

If that's the case for you this year, I invite you to step back in time, to October 3, 1863, to be exact. Welcome to the Civil War. Here, delivered midstream in that bloody conflict, are the words of President Abraham Lincoln:

"The year that is drawing toward its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever-watchful providence of Almighty God.

"In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign states to invite and provoke their aggressions, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere, except in the theater of military conflict; while that theater has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union.

"Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defense have not arrested the plow, the shuttle, or the ship; the ax has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege, and the battlefield, and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom.

"No human counsel hath devised, nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.

"It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American people. I do, therefore, invite my fellow-citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a Day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens. And I recommend to them that, while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation, and to restore it, as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes, to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and union.

"In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the seal of the United Stated States to be affixed.

"Done at the city of Washington, this third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the Independence of the United States the eighty-eighth."

Abraham Lincoln

Thankfulness and humility before "our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens" -- now those are words to remember. What are your thoughts on President Lincoln's establishment of a national day of "thanksgiving and praise"? You can tell us by clicking here!

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Happily Ever After?

I enjoyed fairy tales when I was young. I don't think I'm alone on that because those same stories continue to be passed on from generation to generation -- even turned into TV shows and feature films. Why so popular? Because in the end they all live happily ever after. But experience teaches us that's not how real life works. Throughout our lives we will continue to struggle with various problems: sorrow and heartbreak, financial struggles, relationship problems, sickness and, finally, death. Whatever we may have thought as kids, fairy tales don't come true.

Or do they?

When I was a senior in high school, there was a popular book entitled, Is there Life after High School? Though I never read it, I did ponder the question. I thought life after high school would be golden, filled with loads of good stuff, you know, happily ever after stuff. I'd have no more homework, no more class schedules, no more curfews.

But I discovered life after high school was work, and rush-hour traffic, and uncertainties. Then came college and a whole new set of hurdles to jump. Each time I've crossed a threshold from one phase to another, I've found the new phase was never quite as golden as I thought it would be. Finishing college, taking my first job, watching my bride walk down the aisle, sitting in the birthing suite and hearing the doctor say the baby is on his way -- those new phases are full of promise and joy, but they aren't happily ever after.

I expect the same thing will be true in the remaining phases of my life, as in when my son goes off to college next fall and -- if God is willing -- I see retirement, and the closing years of my life. Each phase will have plenty of troubles, trials, tears and frustrations of its own.

So, the fairy-tale ending is not realistic, at least not for this life. But what if we step back and look at the broader picture? What happens after death?

In a week and a half we'll be into another Advent season, and then Christmas. We'll talk about a young virgin girl named Mary, and Joseph, her betrothed. It was during this betrothal separation that Joseph discovered Mary was pregnant, and learned in an angelic dream the baby was none other than God's own Son.

Centuries ago, betrothals were different than our contemporary engagements. A betrothal was a binding, legal commitment. It was more like a wedding than an engagement. The husband and wife remained apart, living with their parents until the wedding feast. During that period of separation, the husband established his career and prepared a home for his bride. Finally, when everything was ready, he came for her. They celebrated a lavish marriage feast, and he took her to live with him in their new home.

The night before Jesus died, He made a fairy-tale promise that picked up this betrothal language. "In My Father's house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to Myself, that where I am you may be also" (John 14:2-3).

This betrothal language dovetails very nicely into the fairy tales I enjoyed as a child. God the Father is our Heavenly King. Jesus Christ is His Son, our Prince Charming. All of us as believers are the Cinderellas He raises from the dust to live with Him in His Kingdom.

On Judgment Day Jesus will return to take us home, and then, with glorified bodies, we will live happily ever after in our Heavenly Father's house.

So, when you think about it, your life really is a fairy tale; we just won't get to that "happily ever after" part until Jesus returns to take us home. I think Paul had that fairy-tale ending in mind when he wrote, "I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us" (Romans 8:18).

A fairy-tale ending, that's not quite what we expect from this life, is it? You can tell us what you think by clicking here!

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Judgment Day Is Near

Tension is building in St. Louis. Shop owners in Ferguson are boarding up their stores. People across the county are stocking up on essentials. Schools and businesses are making plans to minimize damage. Commuters are checking alternate routes in case the interstates are shut down. I've heard one rumor the Missouri National Guard has reserved a hundred hotel rooms downtown. On social media pages people have posted pictures of National Guard helicopter formations flying up from the south and tanks sitting on trailers in fast food parking lots. It feels like Judgment Day is drawing near.

What's all the fretting about? The grand jury in the shooting death of Michael Brown is nearing a decision on whether to charge Darren Wilson, the police officer, with a crime or not. Many expect the officer will be acquitted, and that could launch another wave of protests, possibly violent. I've heard law enforcement officers are moving their families out of town, and there are even rumors that attempts will be made to ambush law enforcement officers.

It reminds one of Matthew 25:13, where Jesus warns, "Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour." We don't know what day or hour the grand jury's decision will be released, and we certainly don't know what day or hour our Lord will return.

While we await the grand jury's decision, many people in St. Louis are working hard to be peacemakers. They are encouraging protestors to remain peaceful, to find non-violent ways to express their opinions. They want to avoid the looting, gunfire, fire bombs, and other malicious acts that characterized the first days of the Michael Brown protests in August. Sad to say, the shooting and the tumultuous aftermath have made the town of Ferguson a household name around the world.

It seems to me that is what Jesus was doing the last days before His death on the cross. He was warning of God's coming judgment, alluding to the angel armies that would come to subdue all opposition to God and bring each sinner before God for judgment. Jesus and His church are busy warning us of that day, pleading with us to turn from our sins and selfishness, and recognize God's righteous judgment. He is inviting us to find salvation by trusting in His promise of forgiveness for Jesus' sake. That's why I give thanks for God's peacemakers, especially His Son Jesus Christ and all who share the good news of what He has done for us all.

So, in St. Louis, we'll spend these days praying and trying to encourage peace as we await the grand jury response. But here and all around the world we have another Judgment Day to prepare for. May we be busy warning others of God's pending judgment, and encouraging everyone to find peace with God through Jesus Christ our Savior.

The situation in Ferguson and greater St. Louis is a touchy one. You can share your thoughts on this matter by clicking here!

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The Campaign Season

I shuddered when I wrote that title. I'd much rather write about children trick or treating, or the beautiful autumn leaves blowing across the highway outside my window. The best thing I can say is it's all over, at least for the next few months. Of course, with 2016 comes a presidential election, so I'm afraid our respite will be short-lived indeed. Before long, new candidates will be popping up, and the frenzy of campaigning and media coverage will start all over again.

I find it depressing to think of modern campaign tactics: all the negativity, the politics of fear, the misinformation, and half-truths. Back in the '60s when I was a kid (that's right, back when we walked to school, uphill, both ways; no, we weren't the ones who had to wear trash bags over our feet; that was our parents), politics seemed a more noble game, a little more civil. Candidates spoke more eloquently about the positive changes they would make; they showed respect for their adversaries. Throwing mud at other candidates was classless, a sign of desperation.

Sure, it was all probably naïve, contrived and artificial. But at least I had the impression I didn't have to hold my nose to vote, reluctantly pulling the lever for the lesser of two or three evils. Campaign seasons -- and the elections that follow -- now give me the impression we're just putting a new crop of horrible, self-interested people in office because, well, that's all we have to choose from.

I wonder if that's why the U.S. Congress typically has such low public approval ratings. Maybe that's why government comes across as a necessary evil.

The apostle Paul once wrote a letter to the believers in the Washington D.C. of his time. In Romans 13 we read, "Rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer" (Romans 13:3-4).

I love that phrase: "He is God's servant for your good."

In this month where we pause to give thanks for God's gifts to a broken world, I want to start by giving Him thanks for our government. No, it isn't perfect. We have imperfect people doing imperfect jobs --just like me trying to do mine. But God has a very important purpose for our government: maintain law and order and thwart those who would bring disorder, crime and chaos. A government for the people can offer its citizens the chance to live peaceable lives, a society where they can follow their beliefs freely in a society without restriction.

I'll enjoy our short respite from campaign ads, and give thanks for all God does for us through our government. And I encourage you to join my prayers that God will uphold our leaders, guide them to just decisions, protect them from vanity and deception, and give them clarity and purpose.

Please share your thoughts about our government and the election process. You can post your thoughts here: click here!

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

I Have Not Lived In Vain

Life is often described as a long walk. To reach your ultimate goal, you need to stay on the main path. But all along the road there are enticing little trails that lead off to the wilds, and we get curious where they go. Before you know it, you can waste days, weeks, months, years -- even decades of your life -- in a winding, dead-end trail. The last thing we want to do is get to the end of our lives and realize all our work, our efforts, our life have been in vain.

During World War II, General Douglas MacArthur was Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in the Southwest Pacific. Early in the war, the Japanese crippled the American Navy in their daring attack on Pearl Harbor. That enabled the Japanese to run freely through the Pacific. The American military was overrun, and MacArthur was driven from the Philippines. As he left, he made his famous promise: "I will return."

But before he could keep that momentous promise, he had to relocate his headquarters in Australia and wait for America to rebuild its Pacific Navy. That is where he wrote the following prayer for his only son, Arthur.

"Build me a son, O Lord, who will be strong enough to know when he is weak and brave enough to face himself when he is afraid; one who will be proud and unbending in honest defeat, and humble and gentle in victory.

"Build me a son whose wishes will not take the place of deeds; a son who will know Thee -- and that to know himself is the foundation stone of knowledge.

"Lead him, I pray, not in the path of ease and comfort, but under the stress and spur of difficulties and challenge. Here let him learn to stand up in the storm; here let him learn compassion for those who fail.

"Build me a son whose heart will be clear, whose goal will be high; a son who will master himself before he seeks to master other men; one who will reach into the future, yet never forget the past.

"And after all these things are his, add, I pray, enough of a sense of humor, so that he may always be serious, yet never take himself too seriously. Give him humility, so that he may always remember the simplicity of true greatness, the open mind of true wisdom, and the weakness of true strength.

"Then I, his father will dare to whisper, 'I have not lived in vain.'"

This last line really stopped me dead in my tracks. General MacArthur is famous for keeping his promise, for leading the Marines to victory in the Philippines and across the Pacific Theater. But look at his priorities: for him raising a mature, godly son, was more important than making a name for himself by his military exploits.

This is a good day to stop and examine our motives, and the course of our lives. When you stand at the end of your life and look back, what would make you say, "I have not lived in vain"?

You can share your thoughts here: click here!

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

No, I'm not talking about Christmas, even though Christmas decorations are up in most every store already. I'm talking about the most exciting time for a sports fan: the World Series for baseball, mid-season for the NFL and college football, early season for the NHL, and just another week before the NBA kicks off. It's a wonderful time to be a sports fan.

My favorite things about spectator sports are the distractions they provide, the lessons they teach, and the ways they pull us together.

Sometimes we all need a good distraction. Life in this world gets really heavy at times. When the daily news, along with our own personal and professional struggles weigh us down, sports gives us that moment to rest our minds, drink a brew or two, recharge and laugh with friends.

Sports also teach great life lessons like when I'm tempted to give up because times are hard. That's when I see an offensive or defensive line getting mauled, a baseball team getting shut out at the plate, a hockey team's fourth line getting trapped on the ice with the other team's first line, or an NBA team trying to beat a suffocating defense. These situations remind me to simplify things, keep chugging away, and don't stop believing.

But the thing I love most about sports is how they tie boyhood and manhood together. When you boil down each of these sports, they're all about hitting a ball or a puck, or carrying a ball, while others try to get it from you or knock you down. How great is that? Think about it. A football play isn't over until the guy carrying the ball gets knocked down to the ground, steps out of bounds, or crosses the goal line. That is so cool, especially in the mud and snow! That's what takes me back to my boyhood. I can still remember the "Ice Bowl" between the Packers and the Cowboys on a frigid Lambeau Field on New Year's Eve 1967. Talk about a test of grit and mettle!

At the same time, they are grown-up sports because of all the strategy, cunning and, when necessary, deceit. Brilliant coaches come up with disguised blitz packages; pulling guards and punt return misdirections; bunts and pick-off throws; breakaways and one-timers; picks and block outs.

Does that make sports the most important part of life? Of course not. In the big scheme of things it doesn't matter if my team wins the World Series, the NFL championship, the NBA title, or the Stanley Cup this season, because next year we'll start 0-0 and have to do it all over again. Meanwhile, there will still be problems and struggles in my family, community, and at work. But that brief hour or three helps me regain my focus, getting rejuvenated to put my shoulder to the load and press on.

Actually, everything I've written about sports above applies to my time with God too, everything that is, except the part about God not being the most important part of life. Every encounter I have with God -- whether at worship, Bible class, devotions, personal Bible reading, or prayer time -- is God pulling me out of the daily grind and reminding me of greater things that await at the end of the road. He reminds me that this life and all its accompanying problems won't last forever. A day will come when Jesus Christ will call us to a new, different and better life. When that happens all those problems dragging us down today will be gone forever.

Now that's something to cheer about!

I'll always love this time of year in sports, but I love my time with God even more.

What's your favorite time of the year? Go here to tell us what you think: click here!

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Silenced by Stories

Brittany Maynard plans to die November 1. Her story is sad and devastating. She is 29 years old, newly married, with absolutely no hope for the future. An inoperable tumor is growing out of control in her brain. So she has moved to Oregon where she can take medicines to die with dignity rather than dragging her family and herself through the devastation of the slow, painful death doctors predict.

I think Brittany is making a huge mistake. I think she should lean on God's greater wisdom and His loving will rather than her own understanding. But that probably sounds presumptuous of me since I don't share her diagnosis. I can even hear someone saying, "You have no right to speak about something you've never faced."

How can I speak to someone else's story that I don't share? One way is to look at the stories of Christians who face the same problems. For instance, Maggie Karner shares Brittany Maynard's bitter diagnosis of stage-four gliobastoma multiforme brain tumor. But Maggie has a radically different outlook:

"Death sucks. And while this leads many to attempt to calm their fears by grasping for personal control over the situation, as a Christian with a Savior who loves me dearly and who has redeemed me from a dying world, I have a higher calling. God wants me to be comfortable in my dependence on Him and others, to live with Him in peace and comfort no matter what comes my way. As for my cancer journey, circumstances out of my control are not the worst thing that can happen to me. The worst thing would be losing faith, refusing to trust in God's purpose in my life and trying to grab that control myself."

You can read a piece Maggie wrote about her circumstances by clicking here.

But there is an even bigger issue that Brittany Maynard is working towards. She firmly refuses to call what she is planning to do "suicide." She wants us to think of it as "death with dignity" instead. She wants to use her story to reposition the way we think about death at one's own hand.

That's my problem with such powerful, personal stories. They are so compelling, so tragic, and heart-rending that they become larger than life. They make the victim seem the absolute authority instead of God. The stories make us lose perspective and objectivity. They keep us from stepping back and seeing the big picture in life -- from seeing our Creator's view of this life.

Maybe I'm wrong, but it seems to me the idea of living and dying on our own terms is an illusion. I had no say on who my mother and father would be, or how they would raise me. I had no control of where we lived, or whether I would grow up rich, poor or middle class. I couldn't control my height or my talents -- only what I did with them. I can't control the weather, or the economy, or the success of my favorite sports team. Why should I expect to be able to control my death?

Even if I had such control, would I really know what to do? If I was trying to wrap my head around the devastating diagnosis Brittany and Maggie and their families are trying to grasp, could I think straight and make the right decision? I'd be experiencing incredible emotional turmoil on the inside, and dealing with the high drama swirling outside of me. Do I really think I would have the insight, the wisdom, and the perspective to see things clearly and make the right decision?

On October 15, 1946, Hermann Goering's world was crashing down around him. The Nazi war criminal was sentenced to death in the post-war Nuremburg trials. Instead of facing the hangman's noose, Goering chose to die on his own terms. He killed himself by biting down on a cyanide capsule he had hidden somewhere in his clothing or on his person.

Contrast Goering to a criminal two thousand years before. Instead of a quick death by hanging from a rope, this criminal faced a slow, agonizing death by hanging on a cross. Perhaps, given the opportunity, he too would have killed himself before the soldiers dragged him out of his cell, but he had no such choice. Instead, he was hung next to Jesus.

Despite the indignity and the horrendous suffering he endured -- I'm tempted to say because of it -- that criminal heard Jesus' words of forgiveness. He took a long, hard look inside, confessed his sin, and pleaded with Jesus, "Remember me when You come into Your Kingdom." And he received the assurance from Jesus Himself, "Today, you will be with Me in paradise" (see Luke 23:42-43).

When I hear Brittany talk about her diagnosis, her story is powerful and convincing. She makes a compelling argument that perhaps we should stop calling it "suicide" and call it "death with dignity" instead. But why should I give Brittany more authority than God Himself? In the Bible the Lord forbids killing -- whether it is ending someone else's life or our own. That might sound cold, outdated, narrow-minded, even hate-filled. But we need to stop and remember who is speaking here. It is our Creator who knows us better than we know ourselves. It is the God who holds all time in His hands, who knows our greatest needs and how to satisfy them. It is the God who loves us enough to send His Son as our Savior.

People tell us powerful stories, but the Bible tells us the greatest, most compelling story of all: the selfless love of God's Son, Jesus Christ, who gave Himself to the indignity of flogging, crucifixion, death and a borrowed grave to guarantee that all of us who believe in Him will inherit a glorious, eternal life in heaven.

How do these strong, personal, compelling stories affect you? Go here to tell us what you think: click here!