Tuesday, September 1, 2015

In Season and out of Season

Did you ever put up Christmas decorations in late November or early December when it was still unseasonably warm outside? Do you find it hard to even think about decorating for Christmas in early September? I only bring this up because earlier this summer I was writing the Advent/Christmas devotions for Lutheran Hour Ministries, and it was pretty tough getting into the Christmas spirit when the thermostat's in the high 90s.

It did help to remember I'm not the only one working out of season though. Casts from our favorite TV programs are months out of season shooting Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas episodes.

This all made me think about Paul's words to Timothy -- and to us, "Preach the Word; be ready in season and out of season" (2 Timothy 4:2a). Like wiping sweat from your brow while you're writing about baby Jesus in the manger, there are certainly times and situations where it seems odd to bring up the subject of Jesus Christ with a friend, neighbor, family member, or co-worker. Maybe it just doesn't seem natural to the flow of the conversation, or maybe you've only recently patched together a friendship with someone you value. Or it could be you're afraid the mere mention of your relationship with Christ will cause you to lose the ground you've gained, and you'll be left in an awkward silence, wishing you hadn't said anything at all.

Probably the best thing to do is to take our lead from Jesus and the way He talked to the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4. He didn't jump in with the spiritual question: "What if you died tonight?" He started by asking her for a drink of water. But once they started talking He didn't sit back and let the conversation ramble along whatever course it would take. He was intentional. He looked for connections that could easily transition over to spiritual matters. It wasn't a huge stretch to shift their conversation from bodily thirst to spiritual thirst.

I think we can learn a lesson here. Good, faithful witnessing requires us to be attentive listeners. We have to really care about the people we are talking to, really want to get to know them. When we show genuine concern for them, a door quickly opens. And we don't have to spend the whole time listening for those connections. We just ask God to open our minds to hear and notice them when they arise.

Practice is always helpful. And where better to practice than at home with our families? Or how about when we're with a group at church? During our conversations we can hone our skills at making reasonable connections between worldly matters and spiritual things.

When talking to a Christian it might seem out of season to speak about spiritual things, even more so when we're talking to a person who does not yet know Jesus Christ. After all, there never seems to be a good time, does there?

God knows our reluctance to speak to others about Him. We should remember, however, that He has empowered us to be His mouthpieces in any and every circumstance -- no matter how tall the order might appear at the time.

Knowing that doesn't make it any easier, but it does encourage us to press on, sharing the Good News, whenever we can, wherever we can.

Do you have a witness tip or two to offer?

If so, you can do this by clicking here and sharing your thoughts.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Conquering Life's Hardships

How do you handle the hardships and setbacks you encounter in life? When you fight against constant opposition, nagging problems, and frequent hindrances do you find your encouragement and optimism drying up as pessimism and spiritual exhaustion takes their place?

I thought this week's broadcast of The Lutheran Hour proved really helpful. Rev. Gregory Seltz revisited a 1931 sermon from the first Lutheran Hour Speaker, Walter A. Maier:

"Remember,--and I am speaking especially to those of you who may feel in human bitterness that God has dealt unkindly with you, you who linger on weary beds of sickness, you whose life has brought one crushed hope after another, you who live on under the blight of some consuming sorrow that gnaws away incessantly at your happiness and peace of mind ..."

Who of us hasn't been there? Who hasn't experienced dark times when we wonder where God is -- and why He isn't stepping in to help us out. Dr. Maier reminds us it is precisely in those struggles that the Lord is at work in us and for us:

"... Remember that, if God is for you through Jesus Christ, all of these thwarted purposes and shattered hopes will only promote the growth of your inner life."

Then he gives us some perspective, some encouraging perspective:

"The purest gold is the metal that has been refined in the hottest flame. Steel that is tempered in the blazing crucible gains in strength and value. The diamond must be cut and ground and polished to sparkle in its fiery radiance. And in your own spiritual lives there must be conflict and resistance to strengthen your Christian character and to bring out those qualities which mark the victorious life that lives in Jesus."

I like that -- no, not the pain and suffering -- but the reminder that God has a purpose for permitting me to go through these tough times of life. I like to think of it like a spiritual workout.

When I drag my old body to the gym for a workout, that weight and resistance is breaking down my muscles so they can rebuild to be stronger than they were. I don't always get excited about going to the gym, but I always feel better afterwards.

In the same way, life's struggles and hardships break down my spirit and drive me to our Savior -- so He can rebuild me with more spiritual strength, power, perseverance -- and perspective.

Hardships and struggles in life aren't pleasant, but with the comfort, support and encouragement of God's Word we can push through and conquer them for Jesus' sake.

Fiery are the ordeals life can put us through. Do you know of someone close who's experienced something supremely difficult and emerged on the other end better because of it? Is that someone you?

If so, take a few minutes and let us know what the situation was -- and how it helped transform -- like purifying gold -- that person into someone more equipped to handle the challenges of life.

You can do this by clicking here and sharing your thoughts.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Rites of Passage

Tomorrow it will finally come -- the day I've both anticipated and dreaded for years. Tomorrow we take our son, our only child, off to college. Today we load up and head to Chicago. Tomorrow we move him into his dorm.

I anticipate it because I know we're putting him into good hands. We know two of the professors who will have the biggest part in molding him in the next four years, and we couldn't ask for better men of God. I'm ecstatic about his future and watching him stretch his wings and soar in the years to come. God's given him some incredible gifts, and I'm so very proud of the way he has been working earnestly to develop them. I can't wait to see the man he will become.

But deep in my heart I dread his leaving. I know he has to go: God's calling him, but I'm going to miss him too. Mom won't be the only one fighting back a tear on the long ride home tomorrow night.

I know I'm not the first dad who's been here, and I certainly won't be the last. But it's one of those moments in life where I have to stop and see the bigger picture, remembering the reason God placed him into our lives nearly 19 years ago.

Our Heavenly Father didn't give us this baby to nurture and shelter forever. He's here to find and fill his niche in his Creator's world. One day, Lord willing, he'll join his life with a wonderful woman of faith, and they'll raise a family of their own. Through his vocation I'm confident our Lord will touch many lives. After all, that's why He put him here.

That's why tomorrow is a huge rite of passage for him -- but not just for him -- for his father too. After all, that's why God put me here -- to be his support, and cheerleader, to share his excitement, and encourage his dreams. To keep him looking forward and striving to be all that God made him to be.

Life will certainly be different as we start the next chapter. But we know our Father will continue to faithfully provide all his needs; the blood of Jesus Christ will cover all his sins and failures, and the mighty Spirit will guard and strengthen his faith.

You know, tomorrow's looking like a pretty wonderful day!

College goodbyes are tough on parents -- and their kids. The world awaits these young people, but as parents we wish it wasn't quite so daunting and, definitely, not so far from home. Have you sent a son or daughter off to school? Have you found yourself grappling with emotions and a sense of loss at their departure? If so, share your thoughts for the many dads out there who might be going through the same thing, even this week.

You can do this by clicking here and telling us what you think.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Don't Try This at Home!

On Tuesday, July 21, two men jumped from St. Louis' Eads Bridge into the Mississippi River. They weren't depressed or suicidal; they weren't drunk or high. No, they described themselves as adrenaline junkies, who just wanted to jump off the bridge "for fun."

And they did have fun. A friend who stood watching said they made their jump at about 9:30 p.m., then quickly surfaced. "They were whooping and hollering, having the time of their life. They were like two little kids at Disneyland for the first time. They were having fun."

But they miscalculated the danger of their stunt. It wasn't the landing from the bridge that proved most deadly; it was the unpredictable power of the mighty Mississippi. Their bodies eventually washed ashore, one 35 miles south of St. Louis.

I like to watch America's Got Talent, but I wonder about the adrenaline junkies and daredevils who try out for the show. One contestant dove out of an airplane, waiting for the last possible instant before pulling his chute. Another jumped into an airbag from hundreds of feet in the air, on an aerial tower that was shaking violently in the wind. Still another sat in a car as it was rocked by explosives.

Each round that goes by, contestants look for ways to make their acts more dangerous -- more death-defying -- to keep their audience on the edge of its seat, holding its breath. And, of course, all the time, we are warned not to try this at home.

How reckless were you in your childhood? How long were you content to use the swings, merry-go-round, or slide the "safe" way? How about your bike, skateboard, pogo stick, or even your car? What is it about risks and danger that appeal to us?

And one last question before I open it up to you: how do you think God feels about these behaviors and the drive behind them? Does risk-taking reside only in our sinful natures -- or is there something intrinsically risky about faith as well?

Believing in God and living out your faith is risky in this world. Christ-followers are aliens here. Can you relate any times when living your faith made things awkward for you? Dangerous? If so, you can let us know by clicking here and sharing your thoughts with us.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Fishing for Men

We changed up our Men's NetWork fishing tournament this year. In the Lutheran Hour Ministries' spirit of equipping Christians to share their faith, we have been encouraging participants to take an unchurched buddy along when they go fishing. Our incentive includes three nice gift certificates for monthly stories that fit the bill. But it seems like it's harder than it sounds to ask an unchurched guy to go fishing.

Then we got the following submission from one of our faithful participants, John Nail:

"I have a story I'd like to share with you and request prayer for this young man. I know this does not qualify for anything, and I'm certainly OK with that. Our God is an awesome God and desires that none should perish.

"My wife (Sherlyn) and I camped at a Missouri State Park just 20 miles from our home. A get-away before school things take over my life. After having some friends stop by to eat and chat on Friday night, we had a relaxing day Saturday. Going to church at 5:30 p.m. and then back to the park.

"I arose at 5:30 a.m. on Sunday morning and biked down to the little lake in the park. Caught a few fish. My thoughts were on the LHM men's fishing contest and how they are working at getting fishermen to think about inviting a neighbor or co-worker along. I remember praying, 'Lord, help me remember to think about asking someone to go fishing that is not in our church family and doesn't have a church home.' I know very few outside the circle of church and school families. It seems like a logical excuse. The Lord understands. I get back to the campsite and clean up the catfish and crappie I had caught, and my wife and I were thinking of taking a bike ride as soon as we ate breakfast. It was 10 a.m. and we had not eaten.

"As we finished cleaning up after breakfast, we had a young man, named Ryan, stop by with a display of bugs mounted in a display case. He worked summers for the State Parks Department and wondered if he could show them to us. We, being active learners, agreed, and he proceeded to tell us about several of the specimens.

"We discovered he was from our home town and knew one of the families very well that had a child in our Lutheran school. He said he was working on his masters in biology. We were discussing, very politely, the differences in evolution and creation theories. He soon disclosed his father was a Lutheran, and he had graduated from a Catholic high school, but he would have to call himself an agnostic. The college professors made sense to him that we have a spirit, but it is a form of energy, and it cannot be created or destroyed (first law of thermodynamics). When we die, he believed, we just become part of the great cosmos energy field.

"The conversation then shifted to faith issues and the two world views. The God-less world view (evolution) and the Creator God world view (creation). We spent several minutes on the faith issue. Ryan made a comment about how there were so many translations how do you know which one to believe. I assured him the original languages had not changed since they were 'dead' languages. Our language changes frequently and so translations keep coming to try to explain the original languages.

"Since my wife and I had visited Petersburg, Kentucky, earlier this summer (Creation Museum) she had a pamphlet about the Bible that she offered Ryan. He thanked us for the cordial conversation and asked what time the services were at our church. We told him, and told him he would be welcome.

"I was amazed that here we were in a state park on Sunday with virtually all the weekend campers already gone or packing up to leave, and we get a visit from a young man from our home town who knew about our school and who engages us in a spiritual conversation.

"Our God truly does not want any to perish.

"We need to keep our eyes and ears open whether we are fishing or not and whether it is intentional or not. He is the One using us. To Him belongs the glory and honor!"

John Nail

John didn't think he was going to win. After all, he hadn't asked this guy to go fishing with him; he wasn't even in the process of fishing when he shared his faith with the young man in question. But this is exactly what this season's twist is all about. Look at the passions in your life: fishing, camping, sports, the arts, collecting stamps, whatever. It's like John said. If we keep our eyes open, chances are strong to great we'll see opportunities where God is opening doors for us to share our faith.

Reaching out to somebody else with the Good News God has given us is a surprisingly difficult thing sometimes. Do you have any anecdotes to relate when you've spoken to others about God or, perhaps, invited somebody to church? If so, do tell. You can let us know by clicking here and sharing your thoughts.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Things Left Unsaid

When reading through the Gospels, it's striking how few words are used to describe Jesus' actual physical sufferings. The brutal flogging and savage nailing to the cross are both mentioned only in passing, as the evangelist (Gospel-writer) moves toward his main point:

"Then he (Pilate) released for them Barabbas, and having scourged Jesus, delivered Him to be crucified" (Matthew 27:26).

"And when they had crucified Him, they divided His garments among them by casting lots" (Matthew 27:35).

I often wondered why Jesus' physical sufferings weren't described in more detail. Why don't we see the things we read in a doctor's analysis of flogging and crucifixion, or what we see in Mel Gibson's, The Passion of the Christ?

Then I came across the following question on Quora: What are some of the war secrets or experiences soldiers don't want to talk about after getting back from a war?

The answer was striking: "My father was in Korea and never talked about anything related to combat that involved him. Any war stories he told that were combat-related started with, 'I knew this guy ....' My father was a tough man, ex-boxer, and I never saw him cry while growing up, even when his mother died.

"When I joined the military while still in high school, on delayed enlistment, he wasn't pleased, but he did say, 'It's better than being drafted.' When I later volunteered for duty in Vietnam he was furious, and we never talked about it when I returned, which suited me since I didn't want to talk about it. There were awkward silences between us when something would be on TV about Vietnam, especially when it fell.

"Then one day we went saltwater fishing with my cousin. We all had some beer, and things were light and easy. My cousin and I were fishing off the back of the boat, and my dad off the side. Maybe it was the beer, maybe it was because I'd always been at ease with my cousin, but when he asked me if I'd seen anything really bad over there I told him something I will never mention again.

"I didn't figure out till sometime later my dad must have asked him to get me to open up and that he was listening intently while turned the other way, pretending to be focused on fishing.

"Anyway, after a long silence, my cousin said, 'Well, at least you didn't die over there.'

"And I said, 'Yes, I did.'

"When I looked around, I saw my father's shoulders moving; I could tell the man I'd never seen cry before was crying now."

Could this man's reply explain in part why the Bible focuses on what Jesus accomplished by His agony, sufferings and sacrifice and not on the sufferings themselves? Was it because He was thinking of the people who love Him?

Do you have any thoughts on the matter? You can share them with us by clicking here and passing them along.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

End of an Era

I have to cross one vacation destination off my bucket list. Last Wednesday the FAO Schwarz toy store in New York closed for good. It was the oldest toy store in the country. You can see it in movies like Tom Hanks' Big; Woody Allen's Mighty Aphrodite; and the movie, The Smurfs.

I never went there and I know I never would have built a vacation around it, but if I had happened to find myself in New York City with an extra hour or so, I think it would have been fun to stop by.

It's a little like watching A Christmas Story; it takes me back to a nostalgic time when the thought of spending hours in a huge store filled with nothing but toys was a boy's dream.

That got me thinking. What was my favorite toy from my childhood? I had a bunch of good ones. There was the G.I. Joe with the brown beard, orange jumpsuit, and manly scar on his right cheek.

That guy went everywhere and did everything, including being drug behind my bike on a rope. But still, through all that, he never revealed his secrets to his captors.

One year for Christmas I got the Airfix Super Flight Deck with Power Launcher. That' right. I was livin' the dream.

It was an aircraft carrier with a joystick with a long fishing line attached to its deck. The other end of the line was attached to a pole that clamped onto a piece of furniture across the room. You launched your plane with a rubber band-powered catapult (Warning: "THE LAUNCHING CATAPULT IS VERY POWERFUL AND SHOULD NOT BE RELEASED UNLESS THE AIRCRAFT IS IN POSITION. KEEP FINGERS AWAY FROM THE CATAPULT.")

It flew up the line, slowed and spun around, then came back down the line toward the carrier, picking up speed as it descended. You had to have a pretty steady hand on the joystick to bring it in for the perfect landing on the deck.

Probably my favorite toy was one I got on vacation when I was eight or nine. It was a plastic, battery-powered boat: a Boaterific -- the "Atlas" Harbour Tug. It came complete with a lighthouse and string.

The next day I ran down to the beach, put the lighthouse on a mound of sand, then dug a circular moat that filled with water from the lake. I watched the boat go round and round and thought that was the most fantastic thing in the world.

It had a simple rudder to turn it to port or starboard or steer dead ahead. It even had a bailer that would shoot water out of the stern. It really looked cool back home when I used the bubble bath in the tub. Alas, that sweet boat is long gone.

But it makes me think of the little stool in the corner of the bathroom of the cottage on Lake Erie where we spent one weekend every summer. It said, "The only difference between men and boys is the price of their toys."

I guess I didn't really outgrow the thrill of my boyhood. I just directed it to other places: my family, my hobbies, and my faith.

What was your favorite childhood toy? Think hard. Did you have one that stands head and shoulders above the rest? Did you have (do you still have) a collection of any kind: Matchbox cars? G.I. Joes? A train set? HO-scale slot cars?

You can enlighten us on what was cool back when you were a kid by clicking here and giving us the update.