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?

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Using Your Talents to the Utmost

Did you watch the Giants beat the Bills 17-13 in the Hall of Fame Game Sunday night? I enjoy seeing the NFL kick off another preseason. But I must admit, as a fan, I find it hard to get too excited about the scores or the results. After all, the teams are using these games for purposes other than victory. Instead, they're often testing new coaching schemes, running new plays, determining how the units are gelling together and, of course, trying to sort out which players to keep and which to cut in the weeks ahead.

A while back I came across an article about training camp from Ryan Riddle. It sounds like players think very differently about the NFL preseason than do the fans:

"After the first week of camp, the body has been smashed, tossed and bent so much that you can no longer discern between bruised and normal tissue. Every muscle throughout your entire body is so incredibly sore that the short walk from hotel to practice field is no easy feat.

"Every year around this time, my feet would develop massive blisters on the big toes that were terribly painful. But when you need to prove yourself to the coaches and organization, you do whatever it takes to carry on."

It's amazing to think what a man will sacrifice for his goals -- and how much of himself he will invest to attain them. But you don't just see that incredible sacrifice among professional athletes, you see it in members of our armed forces, police, firefighters, and EMTs. You see it in doctors, lawyers, accountants, salesmen -- all jobs that require dedication, skill, hard work, and persistence.

That's why our occupations are so essential to human society. They may not all be lucrative, or glamorous, or held in high esteem. But as Mike Rowe pointed out in his series Dirty Jobs, our civilization would not survive without men and women who were willing to roll up their sleeves and get dirty.

How does your occupation fit into the "bigger picture" of your community? How is God using your gifts, talents, time, dedication, and energy to make this world a better place to live for your spouse, your children, your neighbors and your friends?