Friday, December 23, 2016

Merry Christmas

In the Bible, 1 Corinthians 13 is known as the “love chapter.” Someone has created a special Christmas version (author unknown) of this chapter. I share it here, as it provides practical insight into how we can love, specifically at Christmastime.

If I decorate my house perfectly with plaid bows, strands of twinkling lights and shiny ornaments, but do not show love to my family, I’m just a decorator.

If I slave away in the kitchen, baking dozens of Christmas cookies, preparing gourmet meals and arranging a beautifully adorned table at mealtime, but do not show love to my family, I’m just another cook.

If I work at the soup kitchen, carol in the nursing home and give all that I have to charity, but do not show love to my family, it profits me nothing.

If I trim the tree with shimmering angels and crocheted snowflakes, attend a myriad of holiday parties and sing in the choir’s cantata but do not focus on my love for family, I have missed the point.

Love stops the cooking to hug the child. Love sets aside the decorating to kiss the husband. Love is kind, though harried and tired. Love doesn’t envy another’s home that has coordinated Christmas china and table linens.

Love doesn’t yell at the kids to get out of the way, but is thankful they are there to be in the way. Love doesn’t give only to those who are able to give in return but rejoices in giving to those who can’t.

Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails. Video games will break, pearl necklaces will be lost, golf clubs will rust, but giving the gift of love will endure.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Under the Sun

I’ve been in a small group Bible study the last few months and we’ve been reading through and discussing the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes.  I’ll tell you this, it’s not a pick-me-up read.  In fact, when you read through it you may be surprised that this stuff is even in the Bible.  Ecclesiastes has a very pessimistic approach to life as characterized by a couple of repetitive phrases found throughout the book.

“Vanity of vanities,” is one of those phrases.  The word “vanity” is found over 35 times!  That’s a lot given the length of the text.  Vanity is not a word we use all that often, so some translations have chosen other encouraging synonyms like, “meaningless”, or “useless” or one of my favorites, “nothing but smoke”.  To add to that, another popular phrase the author uses to describe life is “chasing after the wind.”  Have you ever tried to chase the wind?  Take my word for it, you’ll never catch it.

One verse that pretty much sums up the theme of Ecclesiastes is this one: “I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind” (Ecclesiastes 1:14, NIV).  Doesn’t that put a smile on your face?  Who let this crazy talk into the Bible?

We’ve tried to make sense of this enigmatic book and have found that the key to understanding this less than enthusiastic approach to life is found in yet another repeating phrase found in the book.  It’s right there in the verse just referenced.  Perhaps it stood out to you. If you miss it then Ecclesiastes is a one-way trip to depression and despair, and I’m pretty confident that’s not God’s destination for us.

The key phrase is “under the sun”.  It’s found almost as often as the word “vanity.”  So, what is the author getting at with that phrase “under the sun”?

I think the phrase calls us to consider our approach to this world.  It causes us to wonder what the meaning of life is if there is nothing but this “under the sun” existence.  Now, of course, we know that there are lots of things above the sun – innumerable stars, other galaxies, planets, and who knows what else – but since Ecclesiastes is in the Bible it’s best for us to think of some spiritual interpretation of “under the sun.”

We’ve concluded that this key phrase is calling us to consider life’s meaning if what we see and touch and hear is all that there is.  It’s an approach to life that believes there’s nothing more to life than atoms, and molecules, and DNA.  It’s asking us what the meaning of life is if there is nothing above the sun – not stars, galaxies, and planets, but God and eternity.  If “under the sun” is all there is then don’t we all have to agree that life is meaningless, a chasing after the wind. 

Ecclesiastes is primarily a description of life without God.  It leads us to despair only to point us to a better way of life.  A life lived in awareness of things we cannot see.  A life of hope and meaning because there’s more to this world than what’s “under the sun.”  Ecclesiastes whets our appetite for what is real and eternal -  the above-the-sun God who turns meaninglessness into meaning and despair into hope.

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

The Repentant Repo-man

Repo Man Helps Pay Off Bill for Elderly Couple's Repossessed Car (ABC News)
I’ve never had anything repossessed but I imagine it must be quite a dispiriting event.  For whatever reason, an elderly couple in Illinois, Stan and Pat Kippling, recently had their car repossessed by Illini Asset Recovery co-owner Jim Ford.  I’ve never had to repossess anything either, and that is not a job I envy.  The repo-man is not the man you want to see knocking on your door.  But this repo-man added a surprising twist to what usually is a sad story.

After repossessing the car, Mr. Ford decided to call the bank to see if he could somehow pay off the couple’s debt.  What tug at his heart-strings was that the elderly couple reminded him of his late grandparents.  He knew their financial struggles with their increasing medical expenses and a fixed income, and assumed that this sweet couple was handed the same fate.  Repo-man set up an online fundraiser and in less than eight hours he had enough money to pay the car off. 

Many of us have had that sinking feeling when we’ve gotten in too deep.  We open the bills and wonder how we’re going to make the next payment. Imagine having a bill you had no possible way to pay off?  If you’re having trouble thinking of one, let me remind you that all of us are in that exact situation.  All of us have incurred a spiritual debt that we can never pay off.  All of us are on the repo-man’s list.  All of us deserve to have him knocking on our door. 

All of us deserve that, but then again this story of ours has an even more surprising twist.  Our compassionate God has decided to pay off our debt through the blood of His one and only Son.  Deserving of death, he has given us life.  Lost in despair, he has given us hope.

The Bible uses many words to describe what God has done for us, and one of those words is “redeemed.”  It essentially means that God has paid a ransom on us, or has lifted a debt we owed.  We have been released from a debt that we have incurred and that we could never repay.  The repo-man has come but God has intervened to come to our rescue.

The apostle Paul knew what it was like to be in serious debt.  He was a persecutor of Christians and even oversaw the execution of the first Christian martyr Stephen.  After he converted to Christianity he wrote extensively about redemption and grace and forgiveness.  And even though his sins may have been more obvious and despicable than many others, he also knew that all of us were in the same boat – waiting on the knock on the door from repo-man.  That is until God stepped in.

In one of Paul’s letters Paul reminds Christians of our good fortune and gives thanks for God’s compassion.  He wrote, “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us.” (Ephesians 1:7-8a, NIV)

God has paid our debt and no debt is too great for Him.

When repo-man turned philanthropist Mr. Ford returned the car to its owner, Mr. Kippling, he replied it was “just like hitting the lottery.”  Imagine the relief Mr. Kippling felt.  Imagine the joy.  Imagine the gratitude.  That’s what Paul felt as well, and that’s what all of us can feel knowing that the debt has been paid.

Friday, November 04, 2016

Fly the 'W'

I’m not a Cubs fan but I am a baseball fan and watching the Cubs finally win it all was quite a site!  The celebration on the field after the final out of the final game is priceless.  Watching the celebration in the clubhouse as the trophy emblematic of the World Series Championship is presented to the team is remarkable.  But perhaps what’s most moving to me is seeing all the fans, young and old, celebrate in the streets of that great city.  It’s the defintition of pure joy.  Cubs win! Cubs win!  Cubs win!

And I love the “Fly the ‘W’” mantra.  After each Cubs win a white flag with a bold “W” is hoisted above the old and venerable playing field called Wrigley.  It serves as a reminder that the beloved Cubbies are winners and this time the “W” will fly with even more meaning.  Fly the ‘W’ Cubs fans and fly it with joy!

I’m not a Cubs fan but I am Christan and seeing the “W” fly reminds me of the victory we have in Jesus.  It reminds me that one day a joy and a celebration far greater than any other known in this world will be enjoyed by all of us who for years, decades, and even generations have longed to experience victory.

Today every Cubs fan will say the frustrations and failures of years of futility were all worth it.  They wouldn’t trade benig a Cubs fan for any other fandom on the planet.  Perhaps even the long wait has made this ‘W’ even sweeter.

What happened Wednesday night on a diamond in Cleveland that set off a celebration in Chicago and in the hearts of every Cub’s fan is just a preview of the great celebration to come.  Some Cub’s fans may have doubted that they would live to see the day when the “W” would fly after Game 7 of the World Series. But we have no doubt.  The “W” will fly and on that day we will have no regrets, just joy.  Pure and endless joy!

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

The Value of a Good Set of Brakes

Years ago as a ministry student in college a friend and I had a semester-long internship at a church about an hour away from campus.  Each Sunday we would make the scenic drive from the suburbs of Philadelphia northwest to the more rural Pennsylvania city of Allentown. Art, my friend and cohort, had the car, so he would drive his blue Ford Maverick and I would navigate. I have many fond memories of our Sunday drives and our time spent up in Allentown, but I will never forget one particular Sunday morning trip.

We were coasting along one beautiful Fall Sunday morning, and as navigator I instructed Art to make the next left turn.  But instead of turning, he just sailed by.  As we missed our turn I asked Art what the problem was and his reply went something like this - "My brakes aren't working well."   Not exactly what I wanted to hear!  Panic shot through my soul.  I'm no mechanic but even I know that brakes are fairly important!  Somehow he managed to get the car stopped (I think he may have had to use the parking brake) and we made it to church on time and, somewhat miraculously, we made it back to campus that evening.  This is a story I never told my mother!

Brakes are important.  When you buy a car brakes are not an accessory.  The salesperson never asks if you'd like to have brakes with that new car you're buying.  They come standard.  When your car is inspected they don’t check if the radio works, but they will check if the brakes are functioning. No one in their right mind drives a car without brakes!

Some people criticize the Bible because of all the "thou shalt not's."  All those rules and regulations have the tendency to turn people off.  We want to be free to do whatever we want to do.  But I like to think of all those commands as God's braking system for humanity.  Maybe he's not trying to keep us from having fun, maybe he's trying to keep us from crashing.  Just as brakes are important to a car, prohibitions are important in our lives.  They keep us safe.  They keep us from totaling our lives.  They prevent disastrous accidents.

It's useful for all of us to occasionally look at our lives and consider if there are actions that we need to put the brakes on. Is there something in your life that if you don’t stop you could end up in a ditch?  Maybe it's alcohol, or drugs, or sex, or overspending, or anger.  There are hundreds of behaviors that left unchecked could end up in disaster.   And maybe you're just cruising along oblivious to the danger, living pedal to the metal just enjoying the ride.  You may need to tap the brakes before it's too late.

When you think about it, even a car without brakes will eventually stop, but usually that's not real pretty.  You find yourself wrapped around a tree or in some other car's backseat.  If you’re lucky enough you'll be able to look at the wreckage and wonder why you didn’t use your brakes.

A life without brakes will eventually stop too, but that's usually not pretty either.  No one in their right mind lives a life without brakes!

A wise man fears the Lord and shuns evil, but a fool is hotheaded and reckless.
Proverbs 14:16

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Perspective Matters

I recently went to see the movie Sully and really liked it.  Perhaps, because of his ties to Denison, I am biased as are most of us who live in Texoma.  Putting that aside, I think I would have liked the movie anyway.  Sully comes across as a prepared, honest, hard-working, honorable character, and the story is just a feel-good tale of how people worked together to turn what could have been a disastrous tragedy into an inspiring story of preparedness and heroism.

I particularly noted that whenever the event was referred to as a "crash", Sully would offer correction calling the event a "controlled water landing."  Two very different perspectives on the same event.  One perspective seeing the event as only an accident destined to end badly.  The other perspective seeing it as a heroic response to an unforeseeable and unfortunate turn of events.

Sully's response reminded me that perspective matters.

I suppose that none of us will ever be put in the exact same situation Sully faced, but, truth be told, many of us find ourselves in similar albeit less dramatic situations.  One moment everything is going well then all of a sudden a flock of geese flies into our engines and we start a rapid descent.  A critical factor that will determine our outcome is our perspective.  Do we see tragedies, misfortunes, unforeseen events solely as accidents inevitably resulting in fatal crashes or will we take control and land safely?  Will we see ourselves as victims or will we rise above our circumstances and turn our tragedy into an inspiring story?

One of the most endearing passages in Scripture is Romans 8:28 - And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.  Among other things, this verse calls us to live life with a unique perspective - that God can take any situation a Christian faces and turn it into something good.  Let me note that this passage does not teach that God causes bad things to happen to us but that he is able to take a life that is going down and, instead of the story ending in a crash landing, can turn it into some kind of controlled landing that will inspire us and others.

Sully believed that a crash landing wasn't inevitable.  And because of that belief he acted in such a way that turned disaster into heroism.

God can do the same thing in your life.  I know because I've seen it over and over in the lives of believers.  I've seen dozens of Sully's who have been dealt a bad hand and somehow managed to avoid crash landing.  I've seen people who have experienced tragedy, sometimes even of their own making, and allow God to do what he said he could do - work it out for good.  It's this very perspective that's often the difference between a crash landing and a controlled landing.

We Christians can live our lives knowing that our God specializes in turning disaster into triumph.  How our story ends depends crucially on our perspective.  The Miracle on the Hudson is not just Sully's story - it’s the story of everyone who confidently believes that crash landings are not inevitable. 

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Life in Enemy Territory

Recently there seems to be so much complaining and arguing about the spiritual condition of our country.  I tend to agree that Christian values and  Biblical teachings are being challenged and rejected more now than ever before in our lifetime, but the despair and negativity has really been getting to me.  Some Christians are resorting to name-calling and behavior that borders on down-right hatred.  The anger and frustration I can understand, but one reaction that no Christian should be experiencing in these times, or in any times, is surprise. 

This summer I organized a trip to Globe Life Park for a group from our church to see a Texas Rangers game.  Having been born and raised just north of Boston, I am an unashamed Red Sox fan, so when this game happened to be against the Red Sox no one was shocked.

I'm one of those obnoxious fans who wears the shirts and hats of the opposing team and have no qualms with cheering for the visitors.  Because of that I get dirty looks.  I stand and cheer when most are somber and seated.  I grimace when the home team scores. When most are cheering I am not.  When I am cheering most are not.

 In this particular game a Red Sox player hit a homerun and I turned to a friend sitting next to me, who happens to be a die-hard Ranger fan, and sarcastically asked him why the fireworks didn’t go off. He reminded me that no celebrations are in order when the opponent succeeds.  Of course, I knew that.  I know that when I'm in enemy territory the crowd cheers for my demise, not for my success. I might get frustrated and even a little angry, but I am not surprised. 

Christian, we are in enemy territory.  Jesus himself told us that the world will hate us just as it hated him.  We shouldn’t  be taken by surprise when the world celebrates those thing that we despise.  John, one of Jesus' apostles and closest friends, wrote to Christians years after Jesus' life telling them, "Do not be surprised, my brothers and sisters, if the world hates you."  

Jesus once told a parable (a story from everyday life that has a spiritual meaning) about a field where wheat and weeds were growing together.  The workers in the story wanted to pull up the weeds but the owner of the field told them not to.  The owner said the wheat and the weeds will grow together until the harvest at which point the wheat and weeds would be distinguished.  The wheat would be put in the master's barn and the weeds would be bundled up and burned.   

I think Jesus was telling that story to teach us not to be surprised by all the weeds in this world.  Until he comes back, there will always be evil and it might be frustrating, but we shouldn't be surprised and we shouldn’t give into despair.  We shouldn't be discouraged nor should we be obsessed by all the evil around us to the point that we stop being wheat.

In troubled times we sometimes become weed-pullers and stop being seed-planters, and that's not a good thing.

The Rangers beat the Red Sox that warm summer day.  As I left the stadium everyone was all smiles congratulating one another for the victory.  I wasn't happy but I wasn't surprised.  That's how life goes when you're in enemy territory.  

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Heaven's Highlight Reel

Recently I went to my 10-year-old nephew's youth baseball game in Arlington.  They live in south Texas so this was the first time I got to see him in action as his team was in the Metroplex for a tournament.  He was playing left field in a close 1-0 game when a line drive was sharply hit to the left-center field gap.  It was looking like a sure extra base hit and a potential game changer when my nephew darted to his left and snagged the ball as he fell to his knees.  Great catch.  Cue the ESPN theme music.

As he trotted in toward the dugout to the delight of his teammates I thought to myself that this was one of those plays that he will remember all his life.  I know I have a catalogue of similar moments that are etched in my memory.  Not that I was ever a great athlete, but I did have my moments.  Nice catches, key base hits, timely tackles, critical baskets, decisive goals. Years have passed but the memories are as clear as if they had happened yesterday.

Sometimes I wish I had a highlight reel of my impressive accomplishments.  Wouldn’t it be great to have all those recorded on a single video.  That way I could delete all the errors, the missed opportunities, the poor decisions, the near misses.  Just one big highlight reel of my life.

That will never happen but in some way I believe that God has done that for me, and for all Christians.  The Bible makes several reassuring statements about how our sins are remembered no more, that they are as far as the east is from the west, that our sins has been made as white as snow.  All reminders that God has this unique ability to see a highlight reel of our lives while all the mistakes, blunders, slip-ups, and lapses have been permanently deleted.

When my daughter was choosing colleges one consideration was playing collegiate tennis. To help her out I volunteered to put together a video of her to send to one of the interested coaches.  I brought the video camera to a few of her matches, collected hours of video, and then sat at my computer and went about editing out all the bad shots, all the missed serves, all the unforced errors.  In the end we were able to submit a video where she never missed a shot and always was hitting winners.  That edited video made her look like the perfect athlete!

Thanks to his sacrificial death on the cross Jesus is able to do the same thing for us.  All our sins have been edited out.  Savior Jesus is able to present to God the Father a video that makes us look absolutely perfect.

Be reminded Christian that all confessed, repented-of sins are forgiven.  They are forgotten.  They have been edited out of our story.  God has in his possession that coveted highlight reel of our lives.

"For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more." Jeremiah 31:34 (NIV)