Fear, Faith and Foreboding; a Pandemic

Where does one begin in light of the current worldwide pandemic of this little virus COVID-19?  I, like many of you, am holed up in our condo, partly out of caution of the unknown and partly because there are few places left to go.  As I write this, all schools in my city are closed indefinitely; Major casinos are closing their doors tonight at midnight.  Gyms, bars, many restaurants are dark and gatherings of more than 50 are discouraged.  We are in a time unprecedented for most of us.  Store shelves are empty and fights are shown on video over a package of everyday toilet paper. Last night my grocery store had armed police force at the entrance. Many workers have been laid off suddenly and without notice.  Every industry sector shows signs of an uncertain future and stocks are plummeting after the Feds dropped the prime interest rate to zero!  We are living in a strange time and fear has gripped a nation with a strangle hold reminiscent of an old sleeper hold by a brutal professional wrestler.  The panic is more pandemic than the virus.

I am no expert in this or any other topic on which I write.  Many of my readers don’t always agree with my words, which is ok.  These are just my observations and contributions, as I face the same uncertainty we all do.  Fear and overreactions are nothing new, even if the causes of those fears are.  And fear strikes the hearts of even the most faithful people.  I am reminded of an old song our band performed back in the 70’s by both Dolly Parton and Don Francisco, called He’s Alive. The very first verse paints a picture of sheer terror:

The gates and doors were barred and all the windows fastened down                                        I spent the night in sleeplessness and rose at every sound                                                           Half in hopeless sorrow, half in fear the day                                                                                    Would find the soldiers breaking through to drag us all away

This is a description of the fear experienced by, of all people, the eleven remaining disciples of Jesus.  Some of them had just witnessed the horrible death by crucifixion of Christ and reported back to the brothers who had gathered in hiding.  Fear left them feeling orphaned.  Think about it for a moment.  These eleven men had ministered with Jesus for three years.  They did life together, sitting under his direct and intimate teachings, witnessing first-hand his miracles, from water to wine to life from death.  Moreover, they had performed similar miracles themselves by the authority Christ had imparted to them in their ministry missions.  We read in awe the words of Christ when he says “I am the Life”, “I and my Father are one”, “if you have seen me you have seen the father”.  But these men had heard with their own ears these words coming from the lips of the Messiah.  No one on earth knew Jesus more intimately than his own disciples.  And yet when the shepherd was struck, the flock panicked. And even when Peter and John ran into the empty tomb, they had forgotten the words of the Master when he said he would rise again from the dead and they returned to their hideout and to their fears.  It was only after Jesus appeared to them in the flesh that they remembered His words and believed once again.  If the disciples of the Savior upon whom the foundations of the early church were laid struggled with fear and doubt, it is no small wonder that fear and panic are so rampant today, even within the body of Christ.

I get it, this is new and unfamiliar territory.  Pensions and retirement funds are losing value daily; parents forced to decide whether to work or stay home with their children because of school closures; the faithful torn between attending local churches or being responsible and bowing instead to science and health experts.  And what makes these situations even worse is the divisions caused when one group condemns another over their chosen response to this new outbreak.  And yet from a merely scientific and medically proven research, the stress and anxiety caused by fear has more of an impact and deadly potential on the body through elevated blood pressure and coronary stress than the bug itself, and could potentially kill more when said and done than any virus.

It is vital in times of uncertainty when we are tempted to react emotionally that we rather respond with what we know to be true.  God’s Word has never let me down even in the darkest of times. The words “fear not” or “don’t be afraid” are listed 365 times throughout scripture, a true sign God wanted us to be reminded daily of his faithfulness.

John 14, “Don’t let your hearts be troubled and don’t be afraid”

Joshua 1, “Be strong and courageous, and not afraid”

Matthew 6, “Don’t worry about tomorrow”

Psalm 23, “I will fear no evil for you are with me”

Psalm 34, “I sought the Lord and he delivered me from my fears”

1 Peter 5, “Lay your fears on Him because He cares for you”

2 Timothy 1, “We are not given a spirit of fear but of power”

Isaiah 41, “Don’t fear, I am with you, don’t be dismayed for I am (still) your God.  I will strengthen you and hold you up with my strong, mighty and righteous right hand”

Romans 8, “If our God is for us, who can possibly come against us”

God imparts to all who ask, a measure of wisdom and discretion to be used in such matters.  We don’t test God or go against sound and conventional wisdom.  We don’t smoke because we know it can lead to respiratory illness or death; we don’t eat fried foods everyday because science has shown us what fats do to our heart and arteries; we adhere to the medical advice given by experts.  But in these cases our decisions and responses must be dictated by sound advice and precautions, not fear.  Fear is often a liar.  Fear says you can’t accomplish something, faith says I can do all things through Christ; fear says the medical prognosis is bad, faith says I am the Lord who can heal you; fear says the situation is hopeless but faith says all things are possible through Christ; fear says isolate and hide out but faith says let your light shine to a darkened world who needs to see your hope in Christ.

With my current health condition I would be considered at risk if I were to contract COVID-19, so I will be taking the necessary precautions to avoid exposure whenever possible.  And to be honest, like the disciples, I am concerned with what may be next, how much worse things could get, what impact this will have on my family and friends.  But I will not be driven by fear or guided by panic.  If this is an extended visit to the valley, I will enjoy the shade and quiet time.  But fear will not be welcomed here.  Love, faith and fear are strange bed fellows; love casts out all fear.  Over the next few weeks I would highly encourage you to turn off FOX, CNN, and all other news outlets who profit highly off sensationalism driven by fear, and pick up a good book or take a hike instead.  Use this time to reconnect with friends and family and look for ways where you can be a positive influence on a world who doesn’t need us hiding in fear right now.  God bless you and your families now and as we pass through this fire, remembering that there’s another in the fire with us and we will not be burned!  Peace.

 

 

 

My Weakness; His Strength

My sincere apologies to my followers for the length of time from my last post in August.  I needed to take some time off to deal with a little curve ball called cancer thrown my way unexpectedly.  I am grateful to report that through modern medical technology, more love from friends and family than I deserve, and a host of prayers sent on my behalf, I am cancer free and on the mend.  It has been quite the journey.

I learned, or was at least reminded of some things through the process that proved invaluable to me, and I wanted to share them with you.  First I learned that disease does not discriminate. You can be doing everything right and get that dreaded medical report or you can be doing everything harmful and live forever.  We have no vote on who suffers certain diseases or who escapes them.  God alone knows in advance who will become sick, and I’m convinced He always has a purpose for who he allows to go through these dark journeys, and He equips them well beforehand.

I learned that when you are going through illness, there is nothing on earth as important as your circle of support.  They are there to hold your hand, to lift you up, to help keep your spirit positive, to simply be that source of strength when you may be at your weakest.  God knew I was about to encounter this journey and He loaned me one of His angels to be at my side before, through and after the walk through the valley of shadows.  She spent the night with me in the hospital, kept me strong and positive, would not allow me to entertain the negative what-ifs that are commonly associated with illness.  She and my son were at my side from beginning through recovery. She was also the prize that awaited me that kept me moving forward and I could not have gone down this path with the success I had without her and my family.

I was reminded that I serve and follow a Bigger-than God!  He proved himself to be bigger than cancer, bigger than the initial diagnosis and so far, bigger than the anticipated recovery time for the radical procedure I had.  What was said to take up to one year to achieve I have achieved in a matter of weeks!  My God is bigger than cancer!  There is nothing impossible with God.  As the Apostle Paul wrote in the New Testament, His strength in made perfect in my weakness.  God and faith are just my crutch, you’re damn straight!  He tells us numerous times that he wants us to lean on Him, to put our full weight on Him and to trust Him for anything, to test Him if you will and see just how great He can show off for us!

I learned already that He uses our success over trials to help others who may be about to embark on the same or similar journeys.  Just this week I was called on by an old school friend who was just diagnosed with the same cancer, and I was able to briefly share my experience with his wife so that they would know this isn’t a death sentence, just a hurdle.  I have some unsightly scars remaining from my ordeal, but those scars testify to my survival and are a sign of hope to anyone on the same journey, and an opening to share of God’s grace and goodness.

I am so humbled and grateful for this journey.  No, I would never have chosen it on my own, and I would never wish it on anyone else.  But God works all things out for our good and for His purpose.  If I’m to be an instrument by example of going through the fire and coming out unharmed, then I am among all men blessed!  There are always positives in any situation if you look for them.  Here’s an example; while some will be scrambling for that perfect Halloween costume in a couple weeks, I will simply take off my shirt!  No fake scars or glued-on wounds for this boy; no, mine are real!

God bless you all.

Is the 1 as Important as the 99?

There is a popular worship song sung in many churches today about the overwhelming, never ending, reckless love of God, that he would leave the ninety-nine to search for the one, based on an example Jesus uses in Matthew 18.  From that story, is very easy to draw a correlation to grieving the loss of the one.  According to another passage in 2nd. Peter, it’s not God’s plan that any person should perish, mortally or eternally.

This has been yet another violent week of senseless homicides.  Three more mass shootings, bringing the year-to-date total of such shootings to nearly 250, depending on your definition of “mass”.  And as is usually the case after senseless and unexplainable tragedies like this, social media begins to buzz about all the culprits, bad guns, bad video games, bad drugs, bad parenting, etc., etc..  Gun control advocates bang the drum for tighter gun laws while gun owners defend their rights to possess anti-aircraft weaponry.  Left-wing vs. right wing, race against race, all claiming a stake at the expense of the yet-to-be-buried victims.  It is an unfortunate scene that plays out continually with no solution, just a lot of divisional blame.

These mass shooting victims are given much publicity, perhaps rightly so.  Seems like in each case we are given the names of all involved, their photos so we can put a face with a name, and even their background stories.  I know this to be true as I reside in Las Vegas and I visited the numerous memorials after the mass shooting here on 1 October that claimed 58 lives at a music festival. Anytime multiple deaths occur in a violent or tragic act,  media is quick to cover the story and sensationalize it for ratings or for certain social or political agendas.  But what about the everyday homicides that go largely unreported nationally whose names and images are never shown?  Are they any less important because they died alone and not with many?

In 2018 there were in the U.S. approximate 40,000 deaths due to guns.  Nearly two thirds were victims of suicide while about 15,000 were victims of homicide.  A drug deal gone bad, a home invasion, a road rage incident.  The same year about 350 people were victims of mass shootings, defined as three or  more victims of one incident.   For that year mass murder victims represented only a little over 2% of all murder victims by gunfire.  The more recent shootings are being described as Hate crimes.  But in essence, aren’t all murders considered hate crimes?  Why else would a person be so compelled to snuff out the life of another for any reason other than hate?  I’m quite certain that my assessment will be misinterpreted unfairly, but each and every victim of violence is a mother or a father, a spouse, a child, a relative who leaves behind a grieving family whose hearts have been ripped out by senseless cowardice, hate and evil.  It matters little whether they lost their loved ones in a lone act or a mass shooting.  The pain is the same, the loss is immeasurable and the tears, though not seen on a national platform are just as real.

Jesus gave us a glimpse into his humanity as he stood at the grave of his good friend Lazarus.  In the shortest recorded verse in the Bible, we are told Jesus Wept.  He knew that through his Father he had the power of life and death in his hands and at his command, and he delayed his visit just so he could put that power on display when he raised Lazarus from days of death.  And yet he wept.  It is recorded that many were there at the grave mourning, including his friends Mary and Martha.  Jesus saw their tears and was deeply moved with sorrow and compassion for them.  In my days working for a mortuary in Indiana I can tell you that when you are with people who are grieving, it is very easy to feel moved yourself, even though you never knew their loved one, simply because you can feel their pain.  Jesus, in his humanity, must have felt the same.  If then, we believe that he never changes, surely he is just as moved at the death of a sole teen in Chicago as he is with the 23 in in a Walmart.  In our bickering, our blame throwing and our side-taking after such events, we must not lose sight of that fact.  Surely God mourns the one as much as he does the ninety-nine.

We live in a world where hate exists.  It can’t be denied or ignored.  Whether that hate is motivated by race or theology or ideology or social status, innocent bystanders on all sides are going to be lumped into subgroups, being deemed guilty by association, having their individual uniqueness totally disregarded.  There is a heavy spirit of unrest in our country as factions always present before, become more agitated and aggressive.  It is in these times that we in the faith must be careful not to get caught up in this era of hate, but instead put into practice love, peace, and inclusiveness.  If the body of Christ becomes divided or splintered over differences to the point that individual character is no longer considered or defended, then the great falling away described in scripture will be a much easier tack for the dark spiritual forces playing us like grand puppeteers.  We must cut the strings of hate that control us and allow God’s love, hope and peace to be forefront in our lives, our communities and yes, even our churches.  Don’t get so caught up arguing over 2% and totally disregard the 98% unmentioned but who bring the same tears to our Heavenly Father.  It’s not his will that even one should die.

Just to Feel the Sun Again

This week much of the United States will be experiencing dangerously cold temperatures, with some forecasts of wind chills near 50 degrees below zero!  Most will not be able to see any sign of the sun, let alone bask in its heat.  Depending on which part of the country some reside, these Winters can last from one month to six months.  Some may wonder if the cold will ever end or if they will ever see the sun or feel its warmth on their skin.  I live in Las Vegas and it was sunny and warm enough here yesterday that I sat on my patio sans shirt and simply relished the heat as it hit my face after a few chilly months of being indoors.  Whether it’s the first day after a long Winter or those first steps onto your favorite beach, there is something very healing in being exposed to warmth after a prolonged period of being kept in the cold and the dark of a Winter season.

For many, life can seem like a bitter cold and extended Winter season void of sunlight, leaving them desperate and begging for some relief in the way of sunbeams and a warming heat.  It’s been so long since they basked in the glow of the sun that they may wonder if they will ever feel or see it again.  I know this all too well.  There is an agonizing cry out to God for any relief, any comfort, any sign that he is aware of your situation and is listening to prayers you feel are bouncing off the ceiling.  Many of the world’s most successful leaders endured seasons of cold and darkness that left them questioning everything, including their own faith.  As recent as yesterday I read the horrific stories of two prominent pastors of megachurches committing suicide because they were in such a dark place that even their faith in God was overwhelmed by the severity and chill of their circumstances.  A verse in Matthew chapter six says that if the light within you has turned to darkness, how great and massive that darkness can be.  If the cold temperatures and the dead of Life’s Winter months are so great that even studied church leaders can not escape its cold grip, we must all be on alert to protect the light and heat placed within each of us as God’s children.

One of my favorite places to be, my happy place, if you will, is on the beach.  Besides just being overwhelmed by the sheer beauty and majesty of a mighty ocean being reduced to gentle waves kissing the sandy shore where I’m laying, there is also a physical relaxation of soaking up the sun and being warmed from the inside out by its heat.  In that small period of restoration there is such a healing peace and natural euphoria that is hard to put into words.  All life’s stress and issues seem to melt away, at least for the duration of my time in the sun, and the long Winter months become a distant memory.  Perhaps your Winter is one of a serious illness or a less than adequate employment situation.  Maybe its a strained relationship with certain family members or friends.  Or if like me, it is just the pain of being alone when your best life would be one shared with a special someone.  Whatever the source of your sunless days, they can and often do seem like an eternity as you beg God for his mercy in your situation while you seek any comfort or shelter from the elements, like being left out in the cold with no source of heat to warm your face.

But….there is good news!  God may take us places we would never choose to go on our own, but He will never leave us there too long.  When Job was exposed to the harshness of a cold Winter that left him with nothing but frostbite in the form of death, destruction and even physical disease, he begged God to take his life and put him out of his misery.  But God in his never-ending mercy and compassion restored Job to a level even higher than the one from which he was removed, and reimbursed him many times over for his losses.  I can share with you from recent experience that when God looks down and says “Ok child, I guess you’ve had enough.  Sit back and watch what I’m about to do for you!”, and you once again feel the warmth of the sun and the Son on your face as it warms your entire being, the healing restorative power is indescribable. In a very real sense, it is the bitter chill of sunless days that cause you to fully appreciate the restoration of the Son’s rays!  And you find in that warming heat love, joy, peace, fullness and rest from life’s challenging seasons.  There is simply nothing in all the world like being brought back to life by the warmth of God’s compassion and love. Malachi 4:2 read like this;

“For those of you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings”.  And Ecclesiastes says that it is pleasant for the eyes to see the sun.

So today I pray that my readers, whatever part of the world they may live in or however cold it may be there, can hold on until they can once again experience the heatwave they seek and can shake the chills of life’s bitter cold temps as they anticipate the end of their Winter season.  Blessings to each of you.

 

Christmas Means Nothing if Not True

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It’s that time of year again when the whole world will cease from their labors to ponder and celebrate this thing we refer to as Christmas.  It is of all days of the year, a most honored and sacred tradition, especially for those who still consider the wonder of the first Christmas and the significant history changing impact it had on a world, and individually to all who choose to believe.  Sadly, however, there are still those who refute the story and indeed the entirety of Scripture as wholly fictitious, a collection of handed down fables and legends, if you will, with no credible evidence or factual basis.  While each of us are guaranteed the right to our beliefs, or lack thereof, it is sad to consider how many are missing out on something so wonderful and life changing simply because they refuse to accept the preponderance of evidence that exists to the contrary.

This week I was privy to such opinions as expressed on social media.  The overwhelming number of original copies of Scripture and many archeological finds show sound support for many of the stories recorded in the Bible, too many to blindly disregard if one is truly being objective.  First, let’s measure the accuracy and legitimacy of the Bible based solely on literary standards accepted by scholars who define historic credibility.  Homer’s Iliad, long recognized as an accurate and accepted historic document, can only produce a little over 600 original copies, with the amount of time between the original writing and the first known copy being well over 1,000 years.  Much of the original Iliad is filled in because of missing original texts.  In contrast, there exists today over 6,300 original copies of the Bible, with the amount of time between the original writing and the first known copy being not 1,000 years, but a mere 60!  In addition, out of 31,103 original verses that make up the Bible, all but 11 are accounted for!  This then  makes the Bible 99.965% complete! So by any literary standard, secular or otherwise, the credibility of the Bible and it’s stories can not be challenged.

In addition to the staggering number of copies available, there are also non-biblical references made to the stories by early and recognized historians.  From Tacitus in the first century:

Nero fastened the guilt . . . on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of . . . Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome. .

From Pliny the Younger in 112 AD:

They were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verses a hymn to Christ, as to a god, and bound themselves by a solemn oath, not to any wicked deeds, but never to commit any fraud, theft or adultery, never to falsify their word, nor deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up; after which it was their custom to separate, and then reassemble to partake of food–but food of an ordinary and innocent kind.

From Josephus’s writings, Jewish Antiquities:

About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he . . . wrought surprising feats. . . . He was the Christ. When Pilate . . .condemned him to be crucified, those who had . . . come to love him did not give up their affection for him. On the third day he appeared . . . restored to life. . . . And the tribe of Christians . . . has . . . not disappeared.

So you can see just from these three examples that Jesus and his life and movement have nonbiblical documentation by accepted historians.  There are many more such nonbiblical recordings available for review and accepted as accurate. But let’s go further and examine some key archeological finds that support Biblical stories.

In 1968 in Jerusalem contractors discovered an ossuary (bone box) containing the remains of a man aged between 24-28. A spike was discovered driven through his left heel with  piece of the olive wood cross still attached.  To date this is the only evidence found that supports the Roman crucifixion as described in the New Testament, and proof that criminals were not left to rot on the cross but buried, just as scripture indicates took place with Jesus.

In 1986 a severe drought caused the Sea of Galilee to drop to record lows, revealing the remains of a well-preserved 27′ fishing boat buried in the mud, dating back to the days of Jesus. It was discovered near Migdal, or Magdaline in ancient times, from where mary Magdaline was from. Pots and pans found next to the boat, along with radiocarbon dating confirm its age.  The boat easily holds 15 grown men, which would be enough for Jesus and his 12 disciples.

In 2004 near Hezekiah’s water tunnel near Jerusalem archeologists discovered the lost Pool of Siloam mentioned in the recording of one of the many miracles of Jesus. Coins found intact within the pool walls date the pool to years immediately before and after Christ.

In 2009 archeologists found the first and only known housing structure from the ancient city of Nazareth, a city some suggest never existed because there is so little mention of it in historic documents outside of the Christmas story.

In 2012 the Israeli Antiquities Society announced the find of a 2700 year old bulla in the city of Jerusalem.  A bulla was a clay stamp used to seal a document or container.  On this bulla was stamped the insignia for the town of Bethlehem, the first known discovery from the city of Jesus’s birth, again significant because so little is known or recorded in history about Bethlehem outside of the Bible story.

Biblical archeology is fascinating and there are many finds, too many to list here, that support stories, cities, and people described within the Bible.  So, we have discussed accepted literary standards supporting scripture, nonbiblical records of its stories and tangible, hold-in-your-hands archeological finds-all evidence of the credibility of scripture and the Christmas story.  But is there more?  Only if you choose to believe.

It is hard for a believer to adequately explain to an unbeliever that undeniable sensation that wells up within the heart and soul when we see the miracles of love, of restoration, of release from the guilt of a sinful life-the joy and tears of singing a song of worship with other believers.  It’s hard to describe the peace when going through life’s most difficult moments or the true hope of all Christians of being reunited with beloved family members who have passed on.  These things require faith in things not seen, not recorded, not found in digs.  And yet, this is the magic and wonder of Christmas!  It remains a time when all the world,  regardless of religion, race, creed or nationality, feels at the same time, the charitable expressions of love, peace and goodwill, a day, if you please, when God opens up heaven to remind us all, believers or not, that he and all he stands for and represents, is real, that his Son existed and exists, and that the hope of the message of God With Us, Emmanuel, is wrapped up in this one very special, very sacred and holy day we celebrate, Christmas!

I want to wish each of my followers a very Merry and Blessed Christmas this year.  It has and will always be a pleasure writing for you and I am truly honored and humbled that you choose to follow me from literally across the globe.  My books, My Soul Cries Out and Sex Begins in the Kitchen are available on Amazon.  Christmas love to you all!

 

Finding Gratitude at Thanksgiving

In just a couple of days we will once again be gathering with friends and family to celebrate a day of Thanksgiving, an annual tradition.  For many this is merely the first official day of the Christmas season, but for more traditionalists, it is its own unique and timeless holiday.  It should be a time when we reflect on all we have, and to be grateful for our provisions and blessings.  But we live in a culture of hurt, brokenness and loneliness, and even with the most gracious of attitudes, can find it difficult to count the positives in our lives when weighed against the negatives.  For those who have lost loved ones though the year, this may be the first holiday without their presence and they may be revisited by the grief they thought had been fully processed.  Some may find themselves alone after failed relationships.  Many will have difficulty preparing enough food or the family due to loss of income or jobs.  The weight we place on the hardships in our lives will often overwhelm the positive in ways that make it challenging to recognize our blessings.

As I grow older I have developed an appreciation for the older hymns we sang in church and the timeless integrity of sound doctrine they contain.  One of those hymns is appropriate for Thanksgiving as it addresses the state of the human condition some of us deal with, but yet gives encouragement that there is always good and hope to be found in every situation.  The hymn is Count Your Blessings and the lyrics follow:

When upon life’s billows you are tempest tossed,
When you are discouraged, thinking all is lost,
Count your many blessings, name them one by one,
And it will surprise you what the Lord hath done.

Refrain:
Count your blessings, name them one by one;
Count your blessings, see what God hath done;
Count your blessings, name them one by one;
Count your many blessings, see what God hath done.

Are you ever burdened with a load of care?
Does the cross seem heavy you are called to bear?
Count your many blessings, every doubt will fly,
And you will be singing as the days go by. (Refrain)

When you look at others with their lands and gold,
Think that Christ has promised you His wealth untold;
Count your many blessings, money cannot buy
Your reward in heaven, nor your home on high. (Refrain)

So, amid the conflict, whether great or small,
Do not be discouraged, God is over all;
Count your many blessings, angels will attend,
Help and comfort give you to your journey’s end.

It’s easy to fall for the mind games our adversary likes to use against us, because unless you are narcissistic you always question your worth.  I know this well.  But if you really want to, you can turn this game into a tennis match where the last volley wins, something like this:

I wish I had more money/I’m grateful I can buy those things I need when I need them.

I wish I owned a home/I’m grateful for shelter, a warm bed and a controlled climate.

I wish I weren’t so heavy/I’m grateful to live where there is plenty of food and I never go to bed hungry.

I wish my car was newer/I’m grateful for transportation to come and go as I please.

I wish I wasn’t in pain all the time/I’m grateful for mobility and agility and that I’m not confined to a wheel chair.

I wish I had a companion/I’m grateful to have known love and that I have good friends who watch out for me.

I’m sure you get the idea here.  None of us have perfect lives, and few of us have the lives we thought we would in our advanced age.  Life is full of detours, road closures and washed out bridges.  When the easy paved road we were on disappears, we need to learn how to four-wheel our way through the rough until we find the road again.  This can only happen with a determination to remain grateful and find blessings among the trials.  If you are reading this blog, then things could always be worse!  There is always hope within despair.  Count your blessings even in the rain.

If you find my writing encouraging and would like to read more, please consider buying my book, My Soul Cries Out, available on Amazon and Kindle.  You will find many very transparent articles about holding fast to hope and faith in the midst of life’s darkest hours.  And if you do buy my book, reviews on Amazon are always appreciated!  Happy Thanksgiving.

 

The Real Haunts of Halloween

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October 31st, Halloween; a season of scary ghost stories, freakish costume parties, timeless horror movie classics, culminated with the annual tradition of trick-or-treating with our kids or grandchildren.  Whether you are a willing participant and victim of the many haunts waiting for you at local Haunted houses or you are more likely to turn off the lights and refrain from the chaos, it is a holiday hard to escape from.  But after tonight the costumes will be put away for another year, the houses of horrors will close their doors and the candy will be devoured to assure job security for all dieticians for another year.  Halloween will go back to its resting place only to be reincarnated next October.

However, for many people Halloween is nothing compared to the constant haunting from the ghosts, the memories, the regrets, the voices inside each head that are inescapable.  Unlike costumes which can be put on and taken off at our whim, the real haunts inside us never give us any relief and they are much more real than any Hollywood production with all their special effects.  The night terrors that come in our sleep, the monsters under our bed or hiding in the closet don’t go away simply by turning the lights on.  In a twist of irony, these haunts become the real person hiding behind our everyday masks or costumes of normalcy. They can be entirely overwhelming.

Each year we hear of successful, intelligent, enlightened  and even spiritual people who are driven to the unspeakable act of ending their own lives.  We scratch our heads as from all appearances the person had everything going for them that we deem stable-wealth, power, fame, success.  But we were never allowed into their world of haunts and torment and are shocked to learn only after the fact that they faced severe bouts of depression, addictions and suicidal tendencies. Their silent tears and painted on smiles hide the most authentic of haunted houses, the prison of the brain victimized by false voices of condemnation, self-worth and inadequacies.  It can be more gory than any Halloween tradition.

Just last night I viewed a movie on Russ Taff, a Christian Music legend.  His credits are unmatched-18 Dove Music awards, 6 Grammys, a three-time inductee into Christian Music’s Hall of Fame and beloved by anyone who has ever heard him or had the privilege of performing with him on stage.  And yet at the pinnacle of his success, he was haunted by the voices in his head telling him the awards meant nothing, that he was a phony, that he deserved the physical abuse he suffered as a child, that he would never be good enough to merit his father’ approval.  He would leave the Grammys and fall immediately back into the haunted house of his mind even while clutching his latest award in his hand.  The voices drove him to drink because only when intoxicated did he find silence from the voices in his head.  It was a downward spiral that nearly cost him his marriage, his family, his career and his life.  He hid it well until he lost all control and appeared on a Christian music show completely and obviously intoxicated.  He hit the bottom.

Truth be told, many of us are confronted by similar haunts or voices.  In fact, I would suggest that the stronger you think you are the more vicious the attacks and schemes of our internal warfare.  And the attacks are relentless! You are where you are because of your own inadequacy.  You are broke because you are a poor employee and no one values your contributions.  You are unhealthy because you are lazy and a slob.  You lost your business because you didn’t have the business savvy it took to succeed.  You failed at marriage because the real you wasn’t worth loving.  You are single because you are not attractive to anyone and no one sees any value in a relationship with you.  You never hear from your kids because they still think you were a lousy parent and you can’t ever change that.  You are so flawed that even God can’t look upon you without disgust and contempt.  Night and day the voices inside your head terrify you.  There is no secret door to escape the room, no safe passage or panic switch to stop the ride-you are powerless to the suggestions of failure, of worthlessness, of insignificance that abuse you mentally without relief.

Sometimes the severity of these mental disorders require professional treatment.  Surrendering to seeking help is not a sign of weakness but in fact the first step to recovery.  For others, it may be a matter of reprogramming your brain, or resetting it to the original default spiritual setting through a therapy of scriptural reminders, of which there are plenty.  Christ was no stranger to the tricks and schemes of the enemy of the mind.  He was taunted in every way and we should expect no less.  However he fought back with the knowledge of scripture as his weapon.  It seems too simplistic to assert that quoting Bible verses can reprogram a haunted mind, but it remains our most effective defense.

Romans 12-be transformed by renewing our minds;

Philippians 4-think about things that are true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable;

2 Timothy 1-the Spirit gives us power and a sound mind;

Proverbs 4-guard your heart and mind;

Ephesians 4-be made new in your mental attitude;

2 Corinthians 10-take captive every thought and make it obedient to Christ;

Colossians 3-set your mind on things above, not earthly things;

Psalm 46-be still and remember that I am God.

Hauntings can be fun when we know the blood is fake and the chainsaw is just a prop, or that we can clearly see the escape doors for the faint of heart.  But the haunts of the mind play for keeps and the prize is our soul, our very lives.  There is not a single person walking this planet who has nothing of worth to offer another. Even a recovering alcoholic who has lost everything to the battle of the bottle can be a sponsor to another addict upon their own recovery and sobriety.  Regardless of what the voices in your head want you to believe, we all have value in God’s eyes-we can all contribute something to someone-we can all find love, purpose, meaning to our existence.  We don’t have to succumb to the numbing through intoxication, the escape that a high offers, the relief that suicides seduces us with.  Through prayer, through grace and through retaking control of our thought processes we can expose these mental haunts for what they really are-a fake scary costume that we can take off and put away like any other Halloween costume.  The only thing more relentless than the haunts of the enemy is the relentless love of Christ which chases us down the darkest of alleys and surrounds us in protective layers of his mercy and compassion. When that happens and we can put on the cloak of Christ, we become the haunts to the dark forces who now run from us.

Finding Your Place After Falling From the List

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A local Las Vegas magazine publishes each year The List.  The List identifies celebrities, entertainers and other influencers whose contributions to the city or to charitable works made an impact for the previous year-it is quite the honor to be selected.  In 2013, as an up and coming business owner who donated much free print to charitable causes, I was one of the year’s honorees.  As shown in the image, I was listed just above the likes of Carrie Underwood and further down on the list, Eddie Griffin.  Admittedly it was quite a shock.  And of course the cover and the list are framed and hang proudly in my office as a reminder of something and someone I used to be, past tense. Perhaps if I had been a bit less charitable, my business would still be in existence, who knows.

There is an old cliché, and hit song, “What Have You Done for me Lately”.  We tend to be defined not so much by past achievements or contribution as much as what we did last week.  While The List or any other designation recognizes deeds, it also implies status, and sadly status is relative and ever changing.  Many people who were once touted now find themselves in obscurity, having gone through challenges that most certainly knocked them off the mountain, but more importantly, left them lost and struggling to find their place when everything familiar has been removed.  It is a tough place to be.

Those of us who are a bit older will recall road trips when a paper map or Atlas was needed to navigate the course.  We didn’t have google maps or GPS, and if we didn’t know how to navigate a map, or if the map was outdated, it would be easy to get lost and end up way off course.  There is nothing more frustrating than being miles from anywhere at night, low on gas, hungry from the trip and having no idea where you are at or where you are going.  It is a lonely isolating feeling to not know your surroundings or recognize and markers. Such is life for those who fall from status through their own bad choices or as innocent bystanders who are blindsided by life.

When jobs change, relationships end, family ties are unexpectedly severed, the fall from status is hard and impactful.  Those who suffer from depression face each day trying to find their place, their role, their purpose.  The current number of suicides each year by celebrities, business moguls and even clergy illustrate this fact.  It doesn’t matter sometimes how the world sees you-if you feel you have lost your way you are in a vacuum of despair trying to fit in like a game of musical chairs in the dark.  And even we as believers can lose our way or sense of purpose or worth when faced with some of life’s toughest challenges, especially when God leaves us to our own devices as an unwelcomed test.  No one welcomes this kind of testing.

Truth be known, each of us have our own version of The List, a group of people who are held in high esteem in our lives because of their genuine love, concern and guidance.  A list of celebrities may be framed and forgotten but a list comprised in the heart is a living document that endures.  And while each of us have such a list, each of us would also be found on someone else’s list.  We all matter to someone, even on days when we don’t believe it.  Our lives are always under a microscope, especially when you profess a Christian faith.  Our sphere of influence may not be obvious to us during darker times but is exists all the same.  The approach we take to hardship, our response to loss or change, are always being reviewed, and those reviews determine whose lists we end up on, and our consistency determines if we stay on those lists or are easily blocked or removed like social media connections as in Unfriended, Unfollowed or Unlisted.  Our goal should be to constantly have positive influence on someone daily, even if it is as simple as mentioning someone in prayer. A published list distributed by the world may be a cool honor, but a heart-created list of influence by friends and family is enduring.  My prayer would be that each of us find our place, our purpose, our worth in our circle of friends and family, and our name on their list.

 

What Will Be Said About Me?

This morning I watched one of the memorial services for one of our great Patriots and Sons.  One by one dignitaries stepped up to the podium to deliver heartfelt sentiments and recollections of a man they loved and served with.  The tributes were moving to say the least.  As I often do when watching this type of service, my imagination began to spin as I contemplated my own eventual mortality.  It is a reality that no one escapes from.  Young or old, rich or poor famous or obscure, we will all face death.  And the question has once again come back to me like a distant relative, exactly what will be said over me and my life when I reach the end?

I recently attended the service of a friend and neighbor, who also happened to be a war veteran.  There was no minister to deliver a eulogy, no family cared to share any thoughts, no friends reminiscing old stories.  When asked if anyone had anything to share, not a single person stepped forward.  There was such an overwhelming sense of sadness that no one had anything to offer in celebration and remembrance of this life.  I have attended similar services where ten or twelve people bothered to show up, and mostly family, and wondered how this long life could have impacted so few.  The mere thought that it might be the same for me someday is sobering.

How did I live my life?  Did I leave any signs behind that  I was there?  How many lives did I affect or impact?  Was such impact more positive or negative?  Was I a good friend to anyone who needed one?  Was I a good neighbor?  Will I be fondly remembered and revered as a good father or could I have done more to teach and influence my children?  Did I make being a grandparent look like the joy that it is?  Do all my grandchildren realize I would without hesitation give my life to save theirs?  Will I be recalled for having a pleasant demeanor or for being a bit of a drag?  Did I do my best to have fun in life or did I let life steal from me my joy?  Will I be known for having fought courageously through every trial I faced in a way that encouraged others and gave them hope, or was my pain and resentment too obvious to ignore?  Did I truly love others as commanded or was it a façade? Did I go out of my way to touch the lives of people put in my path or did I sidestep them and leave them for someone else to minister to?  Did I give when I could? Did I leave anything behind in spoken or written words that will continue to encourage others?  Did I instill enough of my beliefs and values into my kids that they can navigate their lives with more hope and confidence or did I let them down by not walking what I was talking?  And perhaps more important than anything else, did I leave behind enough evidence of my convictions in Christ?

These are tough questions because I’m not sure I can answer them the way I want to, nor am I sure how others would answer the same on my behalf when my time comes to leave.  In a very real sense, it goes back the age old question, how would your life change if you knew you had but one week left to live.  It is so easy to get bogged down with the affairs, the circumstances, the unsolicited challenges we all face in life.  Some are capable of easily rising above anything that intrudes their comfort while others take on water and sink quickly into oblivion.  A wise man once wrote that a life is comprised of 10% of life events and 90% of how you respond to them. It should cause the most influential of men to pause and take inventory on a regular basis.  Another writer said that it isn’t the dates on a tombstone that are vital but rather it’s the dash between them; what does the dash signify?  How was the dash spent or exploited? Is the dash indicative of a life well lived or simply a flatline with no significance?

When the turbulence in the water comes to be still, the ripples it created roll on indefinitely.  God how I pray that my life creates ripples, how my words immortalize hope and love and how my eventual death inspires others to fully live. It’s been a rough few years but it’s never to late to make a ripple.  I don’t want to leave anything on the table when I go.  I want to be able to say I went all-in on every hand and that I won a few along the way.  My greatest fear is that few will step up to the podium when asked to share; My greatest desire when looking down on my own memorial is that I will be able to hear, he laughed loudly, he danced unashamedly, he loved deeply, he gave generously, he lived fully and he inspired continuously.  Guess I still have some work to do.  Peace.

Why Wasn’t the Queen of Soul Healed?

This morning the world awoke to news that Aretha Franklin, The Diva, The Queen of Soul had succumbed to her illness with her family at her side. This is in spite of the numerous prayer vigils and intercessions on her behalf for a miraculous healing by leaders many would consider righteous.  The resulting question common when a loved one dies from any illness is this-why didn’t God heal them, or more specifically, why does God heal some in ways that leave doctors scratching their heads but allows others to pass into an eternal life removed from our presence?

As I research this common question my stomach turns at the answers given by some who claim expertise in this area.  They tout numerous reasons, all having to do with the person who is sick or those praying on their behalf.  Those reasons would be a lack of faith, some unconfessed sin in their life, not getting along with their spouse and therefore unqualified, and on and on.  However, there is only one answer to this age old question, and it’s not a popular one-WE SIMPLY DON’T KNOW!

It seems like a grand copout to assert this thing called Sovereignty when trying in vain to explain how or why God chooses to respond to certain prayerful petitions and not others.  It’s difficult to tell a parent that God is in control when their child is slowly fading away from cancer, or to tell a grieving widow that her husband isn’t suffering anymore because he died prematurely.  But the truth, as hard as it is to accept, is that God has a plan, a purpose and a number of days for each life, and that while he may not dictate every illness, everything is ultimately under his custody and control, and at his will.

The Apostle Paul is an often cited example of God’s sovereignty.  He was miraculously healed of a poisonous snake bite that should have claimed his life in one chapter, but denied healing from a vision condition, or a thorn in his flesh in another chapter.  God’s answer was simply that his grace was sufficient for Paul to endure without healing. In another event Paul’s closest helper Timothy was afflicted with a stomach issue.  Paul didn’t lay hands on him to heal him but instead recommended some wine to ease the symptoms.  Paul was a man of faith who didn’t always heal and wasn’t always healed!

I am inspired by two stories of uncanny faith and endurance in the midst of terminal illnesses.  The first is that of Tommy Paino III, a third generation pastor from a family in the Midwest many regard as evangelistic royalty.  Tommy was diagnosed with ALS not long into his Sr. Pastor status of a church in Indiana.  This Pentecostal-influenced family believed and practice healing and witnessed many miracles in their ministry.  But all prayers for Tommy’s healing went unanswered, as we define earthly healing.  Tommy continued to minister even after he was confined to a wheel chair.  He wanted his congregation to see that healed or not, God’s grace allowed him to function, but not before he wrestled with his own questions, anxiety, anger, fear and even faith.  When he could no longer speak his wife kept a journal on his behalf.  You can read his story in a book entitled Welcome Home Tommy by Marilyn Ryerson.  Tommy went on to be with the Lord in 1999 without receiving his earthly healing but many lives were changed as a result of them seeing what God’s grace looks like in the darkest of times.

There is another story a little closer to home.  Stephanie was the daughter and granddaughter of dear friends of mine. She had recently married, was an elementary school teacher and was excited at the prospect of her new life when the news came that no one ever wants to hear.  Cancer.  It was at first limited to her ovaries but over time it seemed elusive and would eventually ravage most of her young body, spreading to her brain and eventually her stomach .  We prayed, we fasted, we interceded on her behalf, anointed her, confessed deliverance, all the faith things we are taught to do at such a time, but those prayers went unanswered.  Like Tommy Paino, Steph kept a journal of her ordeal as well, and it was every bit as inspiring. The following is one of her last journal entries:

“Good morning! First I’d like to thank God for giving me this opportunity to share the

beautiful love story he is writing through my life. Words can not express my complete

wonder of the unconditional love he has for me.”

That doesn’t sound like someone facing the reality of her own pending mortality.  This sounds like Paul or Peter, full of boldness and grace, fighting the fight of faith against the worst of odds. But wait, there’s more.  She sent the following text to some ladies in her church, again displaying unimaginable grace considering her circumstances:

“Hi ladies! Believe it or not my life is coming to an end. Could be end of this

week, next, who knows, Ry knows more. I’m in i.c.u. and was unable to get

the tube yesterday because my abdomen is full of cancer. We are calling

home hospice in. I have a will and power of attorney. I’ve decided to not do

the Palm thing, but be cremated and do a celebration of life at Hope and

then spread my ashes near the Hotel Del in San Diego. Can only have family

at i.c.u., but will see you when I get home. God has a plan, and it’s a good

plan! I love you!”

She went on to her reward about a week later.  She never received her healing even though thousands were interceding on her behalf.  Could God have healed her-of course, with God all things are possible.  Did he? No. Why? We simply don’t know, but we do know lives were changed as they witnessed her fearless and triumphant entry into eternity.

Perhaps the most difficult aspect to this challenging question is the evidence you witness personally.  We had an extended family member who was given the devastating news that she didn’t have long due to a terminal illness.  I did what we are instructed to do, that is lay hands on her and pray for her healing.  Miraculously one week later she attended my birthday party and went on to live a couple more years.  When you experience God’s healing power first-hand and then see other times when that power is withheld for reasons only known to God, it does cause you to question aspects of faith.  We can quote every healing scripture recorded and still not witness earthly miracles.  It can be crippling if you choose to engage in the mental torment for any extended period of time. But, God’s grace is truly sufficient.  Tommy and Stephanie would both say the same if they could.

One thing we do know for sure; in Heaven there will be no pain, no tears, no heartache, no sickness, no cancer no ALS, no premature death!  We will be ultimately and eternally healed from all earthly afflictions.  It is our eternal hope and the reason we press forward when nothing else makes sense.  I am facing my own physical challenge and the future for me is anything but certain. But God…  Rest in the knowledge of His unlimited grace and mercy-rejoice in the hope of eternal reunions, continue to believe in a God of miracles but don’t lose heart when those miracles aren’t clear to us in this life.

 

 

Asking God Questions Doesn’t Make You Weak

My last blog dealt with the hard truth about God’s occasional silence and apparent disengagement in some of the darkest times of life.  While many replied with their appreciation for letting them know they were not alone in their frustration in some vain attempt to discern the mysterious ways in which God operates, some voiced concerns that I had lost my religion or was turning from the faith.  This is one of the problems I have with the modern evangelical approach, the raised-brow responses because some don’t walk around humming Oceans all day long.

If you are a serious student of the Bible, digging deeper than just jotting down notes from the weekend sermon, you should be able to name a few men we consider Biblical heroes who, at some time in their journey, questioned God.  For those who get their religion from television, let me name them for you.  You will see that when I ask God questions to which I know I will not receive answers, I am in good company.

We all know about Job, described as the most holy man on earth in his time.  Job never neglected God and offered sacrifices for his family so that God would favor and forgive them.  And yet God allowed every one of his children to perish as a test of faith.  Job had questions in the midst of his trials.  His ultimate response to God, “It would have been better if I had not been born“.  I don’t hear him singing Good Good Father in that moment.

David, described as a man after God’s own heart, was forced to flee for his life and live in desert caves.  He had been told he was the anointed one to succeed Saul, but wondered if he would live long enough to see it come to pass.  His response, “Why have you abandoned me?  Why have you hidden your face from me?”  Of course God was with him, but David didn’t sense it-he could only respond to the reality of the eminent danger he was facing at the moment.  No Relentless Love playing in the background of this scene.

Jonah ran from God because he didn’t want to be the prophet to tell Nineveh they were going to die for their wicked ways.  After coming to his senses and being regurgitated onto a beach along with the entire stomach contents he had lived in for three days, he obeyed and prophesied to Nineveh, only to see God have compassion and change his mind.  Jonah felt he had been tricked and used and that his credibility as a prophet was now tarnished.  His response, “I’m so angry I wish I were dead“.

Elijah was chased into the desert by Jezebel who wanted him dead.  Elijah, who would live to see God do amazing things through him ended up in the desert under a tree, wondering why he was being so severely tested after he had been nothing but obedient.  His response, “I’ve had enough-I give up God, just take my life.”  I don’t think he was sensing the double portion in the desert.

Joseph, my namesake, was sold into slavery by his own brothers.  He ended up a servant in Potiphar’s estate.  When Potiphar’s adulterous wife threw herself at Joseph and begged him to give it to her good, Joseph literally fled the devil and ran from temptation only to be falsely accused of rape and ended up in prison.  A prisoner for 13 years when he had done nothing wrong.  I’m sure Chain Breaker was not the first song on his lips.

And then there is Jesus, God’s only Son, perfect and blameless, sent to fulfill a mission no one else would ever be qualified to fulfill.  And yet, He sweat drops of blood in Gethsemane asking God to relieve him from his duties.  His ultimate response, hanging from the cross, our Lord and Savior, our eternal hope, our namesake, asked his Father, “Where are you?  Why have you forgotten about me and left me alone?” 

Like I stated, I am in good company!

While it’s true that believers should be role models for faithful living, the life of living from mountaintop to mountaintop that is portrayed by several leaders, with anything less being a sign of something in our spiritual lives that has gone awry, is quite simply a mischaracterization and gross misinterpretation of the Christian life.  In many ways being and remaining Christian is a much tougher road than that of a nonbeliever. We are promised that if we want God’s best, we will have troubles, we will be sorely tested and challenged, we will be refined by fire itself and some will have their lives turned upside down.  Who in their sanity would ever truly welcome that kind of a life?  The beloved 23rd Psalm states that we will walk through, not over and not around, the valley of shadows and death.  It also makes no mention of how many times we will find ourselves there or how long we will be forced to journey through it each time.  If someone in their raw transparency asks the tough questions of God when they are in their own valley, they should not be looked down upon as being weak-they should not have people sending them the latest videos of salvation sermons du jour or be added to the local prayer chains over their backslidden status.

God designed us all as free moral agents so that we would choose to love and worship him.  That comes with the compulsion to ask God questions we want answered, even knowing we may never ever see the purpose or the good that results from being allowed to face difficult life-changing situations.  Sometimes when we look back we can connect the dots, sometimes their is no clear connection or pattern and we just have to carry on.  That doesn’t make us bad or weak or even ineffective-it makes us wholly real!  I have already resigned myself to the fact that I won’t know the answers to my questions until the day comes when the answers will no longer be important.  Until then, I hope to let people know it’s okay to have serious questions.  And yes, lest someone beat me to it, all the examples of men I cited above eventually came to their spiritual senses and were restored, but not before their words and doubts were recorded for us.  Now if they were all such bold men, why do you think the scribes of the Bible were inspired to include their times of questioning?  Something to ponder.

Fighting the Urge to Just Sink

In better (younger) days I was quite the swimmer.  It would be nothing for me to try to swim across a small pond or river.  I can remember even being in great shape, there was always the point at which your muscles started to quiver a bit and exhaustion would set in while you were in the deepest part of the water and you had to stop for a moment to catch your breath and regain your strength.  You knew what you had to do, and how to do it-you needed to put your head back in the water and start stroking again.  You had no other options except to stop swimming and drown. But your body was so tired of the challenge and its weight conspired with gravity to work against your will and stamina.

I would guess in life we have all been there at some point-faced with yet another trial or challenge, you keep doing what you know to do because there are no other options and the choice is either sink or swim.  None of us are guaranteed to breeze by without certain life-altering situations that require stamina and resolve, but some of us tend to get safely across the river only to find it opens up into another large body of water, and the swim seems daunting and endless.  I often refer to this as the Job effect.  The character from the Old Testament lost everything he had through a series of catastrophes, one after the other, although in his mind he had done nothing to “deserve” such cruel and unusual punishment.  While according to the story, he was restored to great wealth and position, it came at the price of his own children, and his life was never the same.

I’m certain that Job must have asked himself how he was chosen to be challenged to the point of death-why was he the lucky candidate. If honest, all of us who go through similar experiences will ask God why he allows such painful, and seemingly never-ending life lessons.  Have we not yet proven our mettle or faith?  Are we being punished for something, and if so, why just us and not everyone else?  Do some escape life’s trials because they are better people or more deserving servants?  Does God’s grace and mercy apply to everyone in unlimited measure—–except us? These are honest responses from those who live large portions of their life in the “valley of the shadows of death”. We are swimming to that spot of land in the distance but we never seem to get any closer to it no matter how long or hard we swim.

And if I had to be brutally honest, even Holy Scriptures sometimes feel more like clichés. And yet for a believer, they are the only reasonable facsimile to a life preserver that we can cling to while we catch our next breath. Verses that assure us that God is always with us-that he is an ever-present helper in tumultuous times, that if he sees the tiniest of sparrows, he surely is tuned into our plight and that nothing escapes his glance.  I’ve spent a lifetime trying to figure out his ways as they pertain to my life.  The only thing I know for sure is that I will simply never know!  I can’t tell you why some believers and followers have a life that goes from blessing to blessing while others like myself watch with envy while treading the next body of water.  All I know is that we have to keep swimming even when every muscle in our body is screaming obscenities at us because sinking, while easier, is no real option.

 God, who can guess your ways or challenge you methods of testing or who escapes your sovereignty.  I ask you today on behalf of all who are reading this and swimming for their lives, that you would grant mercy and strength to continue the fight in anticipation of eventually reaching dry ground, so that your Son can be glorified in our triumphs. Encourage us today by your Holy Spirit to consider all that is waiting for us when we endure and conquer these challenges so that we can rely upon a supernatural reserve of energy and resolve to keep fighting when it would be so easy to just sink.

Don’t Let Your Left hand Know What Your Right Hand is Doing

I have learned from experience and unwelcomed life changes recently that discouragement is a portal into a false realm of the twisted perception of self-worth and purpose, even causing one to ask the meaning of their existence.  When life as you knew it suddenly seems to have left you behind, stranded on the side of the road of life, it takes a supernatural resolve to pull yourself up and get back on the road.  Only those who have a grasp of the eternal picture can successfully resume the journey.

All of us want to feel as if our lives matter, that our existence counts for something, that our mere presence means something to someone.  But like an illusionist making a plane disappear, discouragement and depression act as a magician’s cloak rendering us invisible.  It’s a sad place to be and a horrible place to stay.  Activities you once enjoyed with others bring little joy now; people who played such big roles in your life have left you behind like an old photo of something from times past.  And your mind becomes your worst enemy as it replays over and over memories going back decades of things that will never be again, tricking you into accepting a false narrative of your significance and contribution to your realm of influence.

Some will attempt to get involved in causes, take up social activism, donate time to local nonprofit groups, all while wondering if anyone is watching, if anyone notices.  Our motivation is one less about making a difference and more about being praised so that we can reclaim some self-worth.  The irony in this is that the only one who sees all, the only one we truly need to serve, is the one who already has the highest opinion of us.  We give, we donate, we help out-all to be seen and accepted in an attempt at our own self-redemption, completely disregarding the fact that God in his love and mercy already redeemed us, already sees us, already has our names tattooed in the palm of his hand.

There is a passage in scripture where the just are receiving their reward for deeds done on earth. The master tells them to enter into their rest because they clothed the naked, fed the hungry, visited the sick and imprisoned, all the while unaware that these unseen things they did for the least, were done and received by a God who valued them highly even at what felt like the lowest times. Another passage in Matthew 6 says that we should not blow a horn to announce the good deeds we are doing for the praise of others, but that instead we should not allow our left hand know what our right hand is up to.  Things done seemingly in secret are never hidden from God and he will reward us in grand fashion.  Our deeds and the motives behind them, good or bad, are never hidden from an all-knowing God.

Let’s be real-sometimes life stinks. Some make mistakes but seem to get a pass while others make bad decisions or lead less than perfect lives and pay heavily for it.  There appears to be  a very inequitable sense of fairness when we compare our lives to others. We work hard but still lose our jobs; we eat right and exercise but still receive that negative medical report; we love well but end up alone.  The eternal question with no answer is why bad things happen to good people, and why bad people get all the breaks in life.  We wonder what atrocities we committed to be punished so; if this were true, if we were beat up for every mistake, who among us would survive God’s wrath. As Job discovered in the Old Testament story, some questions will never be answered on Earth.  We will never be able to get everyone’s approval and unlike the movie, we don’t have any magical remote control that allows us to go back in time and change things for better outcomes. All any of us have is today.  Today will soon be yesterday.  Will you be okay with what you did yesterday?  Can you make today better? There is a profound sense of worth in living externally, seeing others and their needs, finding purpose in being a solution, even when no one is watching.  Living everyday discouraged, pining for things to be the way they were, knowing they never will be, is a tragic existence.  The heart will forever hold precious the memories of things that were, but has an enormous and unlimited capacity to receive and store new treasures going forward. If you must, hold onto the good of the past with your left hand while reaching for new opportunities with your right.  Healing and purpose will come only when you rise up from the ashes.  Those who know you best will be witnesses to how your handle life’s critical moments.  There are always people watching!

The Attempted Robbery of Your Esteem

One of the cruelest tricks opposing forces uses against us when we are facing some of life’s toughest battles is to try to steal our self-worth or esteem.  You went out on a limb and started that business you just knew would change your future, only to be left in ruins after its demise.  Or maybe you decided to give it one more try and risk being vulnerable enough to start a new relationship, knowing the risk, and eventually feeling yet again the sting when the relationship fails.

If you are alive, you have failed at something in your life.  Some failures are more devastating than others, and the responses may vary depending on the mental toughness of the victim, but no one can walk through life unscathed by some sort of failure or set-back that left you with doubts and questions.  We all face opposing forces that are keenly tuned into our thoughts, looking for any signs of weakness or openings suitable for an attack on what’s left of our esteem.  And sadly, too often we become willing parties unaware of the schemes and pitfalls laid before us.

Most of us bear more than one title during our existence.  I can hold the titles of father, husband, employee, student, Christian, son, etc., and so can most of you.  These titles should be viewed as separate descriptions of the numerous levels and roles we play.  In a perfect world, when one of those titles changes or is taken from us, the other titles remain effective and unaltered.  If fired from a job, I’m still a father; if a dropout of college, still a son, and so on and so forth. But for some, and admittedly at times for me, when we suffer failures that shake our core in one are of our life, we start to question our worth over our entire universe.  If I failed as a husband, I must not be a very good father either; if I can’t run a successful business, I’m surely a poor employee for anyone else.  If I’m not the best parent, I’m probably not a very good friend.  The cycle is vicious and spins out of control until such a time that we lose our complete identity because of a single collapse in just one area of our universe.  The enemy seizes onto this like a drowning person to a life preserver.

It is in times like these that a handful of strong friends can be vital, if we are transparent enough to communicate our issues with them.  Men are not good at this, even when they have friends like brothers.  We view it as a sign of weakness to admit our fears with each other.  The war on our esteem begins in our mind.  There is a scripture that compels is to hold each thought captive.  Too many times our feelings overide our intellect-we easily disregard what we know to be true in our minds because we allow the heart to dictate the filtering process of our knowledge.  Feelings are often a poor indicator of reality!

Prayer and times of quiet reflection can be great remedies and defenses against attacks on our mind, but there are also other tools available to us.  A hobby or special interest can be a welcomed distraction; volunteering for a local charity will give you back a sense of worth and purpose.  I’ve been blessed somewhat with an ability to write.  In tough times writing has been my therapy.  And the transparency in real time of my challenges has been an encouragement to those who have opted to follow this blog.  The point to be made is that in your weakest moments, your times of fear and doubt, you still have much to contribute!  And dare I suggest that for the believer, the trials are meant as a vehicle for you to use to make an impact on others, much like an AA sponsor does with womeone seeking sobriety.  You are never as worthless as you allow youself to believe; the stripping of one title doees not eliminate or alter all the others.

In exercise, strength and muscle gain are only achieved when those muscles are tessted beyond their strength.  Life for most is just one long exercise with our weaknesses being strained for new growth.  Don’t become your own worst enemy in the growth process.  Hold fat to what is true and use it to propel yourself to new titles, bringing a few who need your encouragement allong for the ride!  Blessings on your journey.

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And Just Like That-My 2017 Story

Our beautiful Beagle boy finally laid calm in my arms after a 30-minute full Grand Mal seizure. He had been in our family since his birth nine years earlier. An injection of valium calmed him down long enough for what was about to come. The cancer had spread to his brain and the seizures he was having daily were unbearable to witness-it had to end today.  I cradled him like a baby one last time.  The vet asked us if we were ready.  Of course not!  But out of love and mercy I nodded to proceed.  The injection worked quickly, and just like that, this once full of life furry friend lay motionless in my arms as his life came to a merciful end.  I sobbed like  little boy and continued to hold him until the vet finally took him from me and carried him out of the room.  Thus 2017 was ushered in.

In January and then again in February I was served with two different lawsuits stemming from a business I was forced to close through foreclosure in 2014.  I thought that chapter had been closed but aggressive attorneys thought otherwise. The amounts of the lawsuits coupled with the legal fee estimates to defend them were staggering.  I had received nothing from the business when it closed and had lost my entire savings that I had invested when it closed down.  These unexpected court actions left me with little recourse.  My finances and credit were now in shambles.  And just like that a lifetime of perfect credit history was now, well, history.

The following March, thinking things could get no worse, things got much worse. The love of my life asked for a divorce after a twenty year relationship.  What began as a Hallmark fairytale romance that others envied had now been reduced to a signature on a legal document.  To save money, with vision blurred by tears, I drafted the legal documents that would terminate my own marriage.  Upon their completion and our signatures, I proceeded to the courthouse and waited in line for what seemed like an eternity waiting to file them.  Upon the clerk’s stamp, I took them up to the Judge’s inbox and deposited them for final signature, which took just one day.  And just like that the air I breathed for twenty years was taken from me. I felt abandoned, unloved and alone.

The following May I was scheduled for my quarterly check-up with my nephrologist.  I suffer from Polycystic kidney disease for which there is no cure.  I was advised by someone close that with the year I had experience thus far perhaps I should cancel-I should have listened.  I was informed the disease had now progressed to stage Four and I was nearing the need for dialysis.  And just like that an otherwise health-minded man was forced to consider life-altering choices and my own mortality.

In a mere span of just five months every aspect of my entire being had come under severe attack.  I had lost a dear friend, I lost my financial security, I  lost my health and most tragic, I lost the love of my life and best friend.  I was, and in many ways, still am quite the mess.  Any one of these life-changing events would be enough to take down the strongest of men.  But seriously , all in one year?  I was left alone in a 2000 square foot house with empty rooms having nothing but the haunts of the past as a companion.  Funny thing-I never realized that quietness could echo!  Few knew of the numerous challenges I faced this year.  More than one person, perhaps not fully disclosed, reprimanded me for wallowing in self-pity.  My closer friends shared concerns over what I might do.  After all, many have pulled the trigger for much less.

It would be at this point in the story that some, just like friends of Job, would ask how I could still trust in a God who had allowed such destruction to overcome me.  I will confess that God and I had some serious “come to Jesus” conversations as I wrestled for answers or purpose.  If this is what perseverance looks like, I wanted no part of it. But as a long-time believer I knew that faith was not based on feelings or emotions but on knowledge and trust.  My heart wasn’t in it, but I forced myself to find words of hope within the Psalms.  David and I became close friends. He could cry out and lament to God over his turmoil in one breath and confess his hope and faith in the very next breath.  David always went back to what he KNEW to be true even when he was hiding for his life. In a twisted irony He who allowed these things to invade my 2017 was the One who I had to turn to and lean on in order to survive them.  I have surely walked this year through the valley of shadows but Christ has been my comfort and His spirit has been my  lifeline when I had little sense or worth, purpose or direction.

I can now see some light as I enter 2018.  The demise of my marriage prompted me to write a book that has already made an impact in other couples’ marriages.  Claiming a promise of healing, my last check-up on my kidneys revealed the progression of the disease had halted for now-I am claiming a miracle.  The Christmas and holiday season which had left me with old familiar and painful memories of years past was spent with my children, all alive, healthy and well.  And my first gift, the announcement of a new grandchild’s arrival this coming Summer, brought tears of joy, the first in a long while.  My faith sustained me through an impossible year and I now see some sense of purpose and a restored reason to continue the race the Apostle Paul describes. I know I am not alone.  Many this year suffered tragic and heart-wrenching losses-death of spouses or loved ones, serious illnesses, broken relationships, unemployment and the list is long.  When you are shut in by the surrounding thickness of storm clouds it is challenging to see the sun or feel its warmth, but yet it remains.  I want to encourage-no, implore you to seek shelter in the hope and promises of God’s Word and the comfort of His Son, Jesus.  David understood it while hiding in caves-the Apostle Paul got it while singing songs in prison chains.  I’m no David or Paul, but I get it too.

May the hope, the comfort and the love of our Father bring you into a glorious, prosperous and healthy new 2018.  May His will and purpose be revealed in your spirit and inspire you to do great things this year!  May you find in Him the strength and courage to boldly face and navigate the storms that may pop up out of nowhere with full knowledge that the Son is always there!  Happy New Year!

Navigating Life’s Devastating Losses

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The date was April 14, 1994.  I had only been at the office for about an hour when I received a call from a neighbor.  “You need to come home quickly. Your residence is on fire!”  We jumped in the car and sped home to asses the situation.  We couldn’t get close because of the number of fire engines on the scene.  We got out of the car and ran toward what was once our home.  I was devastated to see that there was nothing left but smoldering timbers and a burnt out shell.  We were left with nothing except the clothes we were wearing.

I’ll never forget the feeling of loss when the fire crews escorted us back to the scene to see if there was anything we could salvage under their close supervision for our safety. “Things”, as people suggest, can be replaced. But photos of the kids in various stages of their lives, parties, family heirlooms passed down, one-of-a-kind keepsakes-all gone in an instant. Thirty five years of history and collections reduced to ashes.  Grateful to be alive, of course, but the loss was real and the mourning genuine.

This week as we witnessed the destruction of Hurricane Harvey and the flooding that is still wreaking havoc, my heart goes out to the victims because I know exactly how they feel and the challenges they face financially and emotionally as they begin the slow process of rebuilding. Some of these victims were already displaced by Hurricane Katrina.  It does my heart good to see how the Texas community has already come together to offer shelter, aide and whatever assistance is necessary to assure the best possible outcome to the neighbors they have never before met.  In a world of social media wars and disingenuous outrage over issues of little significance in comparison, the things that matter most quickly rise to the surface when such tragedies occur. Our thoughts and prayers will be for the people of South Texas as they begin the rebuilding process.

However, burnt timbers and flooded homes are not the only signs of a devastating loss.  For some, life may have seemed to be going fairly smooth when suddenly everything they held dear was stripped away and they are left sitting in a pile of rubble no less devastating as the aftermath of a powerful natural disaster. Through the death of loved ones, broken relationships, divorce and other emotional tragedies, one can find themselves sifting through the rubble trying to find anything they can salvage from life as they knew it.  The stress and psychological effect can be paralyzing, the will to move on temporarily nonexistent and the realization of the losses traumatic.

I would offer up that it may in fact be easier to replace shelter and bedding and clothing than it is to replace the overwhelming loss of the infrastructure that makes up one’s life and the broken hearts that are left with no real consolation. Time may heal all wounds, but how much time is always the question, as is the real level of recovery expected. It is in these times of loss that God’s grace is the only remedy and hope one can cling to without being disappointed or let down. God is close to the brokenhearted and collects our tears as His gems.  Only those who have suffered the loss of everything they own can fully relate to the sense of loss others in similar situations experience.  And only those who have lost all they hold precious and dear can fully appreciate the feeling of hopelessness as they somehow try to muster the strength and courage to regroup, rebuild and recover.

The best source of hope we all have in dire circumstances can be found in scripture.  They may for some ring a bit hollow at first, but through repetition and eventual adaptation, they become our strength:

From Job 5, “He sets on high all who are lowly and lifts those who mourn to safety”

From Isaiah 41, “Don’t be afraid for I am with you. Don’t be dismayed for I am still your God. I will strengthen and help you and hold you in the palm of my mighty right hand”

From Matthew 11, “Come to me, all of you who are weary with heavy burdens (and broken hearts), and I will give you relief.”

However devastating our losses may be, whether material or emotional, our Father is not oblivious.  There is noting hidden from His view, nothing that catches Him off guard and nothing too big for Him to resolve.  I tell myself this everyday-I have to.  May it be so for you as well.

 

One is the Loneliest Number…

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When God created Adam and placed him in paradise, He is recorded as saying that it was not a good thing for man to be alone.  Up until that 6th day everything He had created, He called Good. Loneliness was the very first thing God labeled as Not so good.  This was not an oversight on God’s part, or heaven forbid a divine epiphany-we’re talking about God here.  It was always the plant to create a mate for Adam to share life with, and for the most part it has remained thus through the ages. Maybe God knew that Adam needed someone to press his fig leaves or dress the wild catch of the day for dinner.  Or perhaps, He simply knew that human connection was an integral part of the grand design.

We live in a society of lonely people.  They are all around us in plain sight yet hidden from us.  They may hide behind smiles and activity, bar-hopping, social media and yes, even church involvement.  But truth be known at the end of the day these go home to a cold and lonely dwelling where the only voices are heard over their airwaves of the television.  Because of the stigma of admitting loneliness, especially among men, they choose to remain silent and battle solitude while those closest to them are completely unaware.  Loneliness is a major factor in depression.  Feelings of irrelevance, isolation, despair, worthlessness-all symptoms and results of one who suddenly finds themselves alone.

Many in bad relationships long for the day they could have total freedom without answering to anyone-the ultimate bachelor.  But even those who relish the thought and through unexpected circumstances get their wish, find that the novelty wears off when they go to bed night after night by themselves and wake to mornings the same way.  It can be a vicious cycle and get old very quickly.

I find it ironic that in an age of social media where people are connecting with friends they haven’t seen in years, social media plays such a large role in loneliness.  Even with FaceTime and Skype, personal interaction is becoming a lost art.  Business calls are replaced with emails.  Sales meetings have been replaced with much cheaper video conferences.  Even dating clubs for singles have fallen to sites like Match, Christian Mingle or OurTime.  Land lines are now obsolete-greeting cards requiring thought and postage are slowly being phased out by e-cards. I even have to check  my own groceries at most stores where clerks are now computer kiosks. And dare I even suggest that church attendance is now a choice of getting up and going to a gathering place or watching a live stream from the convenience of your own living room. We are being systematically screwed by a technical age that is turning us all into mindless loners with no social skills or personal interaction.  I may have introverted tendencies but being alone is not my preferred way to live life.

Right about here is where I would normally list scriptures that give us hope and encouragement for the topic of the post, and with this topic there is certainly much the Bible has to offer. But sometimes a Bible verse is not the best remedy.  Yes, I know, Amy Grant caught hell for saying that back in the day, but she was right.  Even the Word asks us what good it does to tell a person to be well without meeting their need.  I must have ten different versions of Bibles at my disposal but the human element is not present.

When I was younger the news of a house fire had little impact on me.  However in 1994 I learned first hand the meaning of empathy when I lost everything in a fire.  Now when I see news of a fire my heart goes out because I’ve been there.  If you’ve ever been alone you know how others feel, the despondency and everything associated with isolation. It is through empathy that we connect and offer healing to those who travel where our feet have been previously.  You don’t have to look far to find lonely people-bars, nursing homes, orphanages, even Facebook. A visit, a beer, a baseball game, a phone call goes a long way in helping others who would otherwise have little or no connection to a real person.  Yes, in Christ we have “a friend who sticks closer to us than a brother“, but flesh and bones are preferred. Ask God to allow you to see others as He does so that you can be aware of those you can help.

my soul cries out

The High Price Paid for our Worthlessness

We have entered Holy Week, those days approaching our Easter or Pascha remembrance and celebration of the events that have become the foundation of our faith and belief in Christ.  It is a somber time of reflection as we recall the written words depicting as best as mere words can the horror and excruciating pain suffered by our Lord on our behalf for the remediation of a sinful world. Even Hollywood with its special effects could never accurately capture in film the physical brutality of a suffering Christ.

It is so easy in this life with its trials and disappointments to lose sight of not only the heavy price paid, but the reason Christ endured our just punishment. Life sometimes is simply not fair, at least as we view fairness.  We work hard but are still laid off or our position eliminated, we take care of our bodies but still receive the negative medical report, we give it our best but our relationships still end.  The normal human response is to measure the obvious against the given standards of success and feel a sense of worthlessness as we recall a trail of failures. I know because I do this constantly.  Do I measure up?  Am I leaving anything of worth behind in my wake? Are people who come in contact with me left better or worse for the encounter?  While self-examination can be a motivating tool, it can also cause great harm if our measurements aren’t true because of corrupt criteria.  And to continue in our false sense of worthlessness is to completely diminish the work done by Christ on the cross on our behalf.  And therein lies the error of this line of thought process.

It is in these times that we are compelled to recall those verses we have all heard and grown up with but failed to apply on personal levels. This is what Holy Scripture has to say about our worth and value in God’s eyes:

Matthew 10:29; Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them fall to the ground without the Father seeing it? But even the hairs of your head are numbered! You are of more value than many sparrows.

Isaiah 49:15; Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she would have no compassion for him? Yet these may forget but I will not forget you. See, I have engraved your name on the palms of my hands-you are continually on my mind.

We are a people of emotional responses and triggers; we love passionately; we grieve over painful losses; we fear uncertain situations. But the journey of faith can be easily hijacked by our emotions.  In times of despair when all seems hopeless we have to hold fast to our knowledge of the written Word as our plumb line and not the false indicators of human response. We may or may not be moved by the verses above and others like them when we are at our lowest, but we have to hold them to be irrevocable truths that emotions can’t alter.

Our Lord would not have endured the cross for losers, failures, those deemed worthless.  In fact the opposite is true.  It was us who need hope, who need forgiveness and restoration that He is most compassionate toward and He proved it on that Good Friday as the world and all creation went dark while He took His last breath and temporarily surrendered to death. And it was all for love, a love we could never comprehend, and certainly never merit. Again, reflect of these undeniable truths:

Romans 8:35; Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation or distress, or persecution or famine, or nakedness or danger or sword?…For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels or demons, neither the present or future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

1 John 4:9; In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent His only Son into the world so that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.

Ephesians 2:44; But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our sins, made us alive together with Christ.

The death of Christ once and forever tore and removed the veil that separated sinful man from a Holy perfect God in that we are now made perfect having our sin removed from us as far as the East is from the West, and we are encouraged to boldly approach a God as His children and siblings of his Holy Son.  There is nothing we could ever achieve on earth, no title given, no award of prestige we could ever claim that has more value than being referred to as Children of God. While this designation should be grasped with humility and reverence, it should never be tarnished by the deceit of human feelings during trying times. He Who knew us before we were born died a horrible death so that we could be forever united with Him in a kingdom yet to come. He would not have done so had he shared the same appraisal of us that we accept as true.

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my soul cries out

Job’s Story: Restored But Scarred

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I am convinced that the unknown author of the Biblical book of Job simply got the name wrong; surely it’s the Book of Joe. The similarities are to striking to be coincidental, the lessons taught touching nerves that cause us to wince.  Perhaps you can relate. Maybe you believe it should be the Book of Steve or the Book of Cathy because you know too well the pain of living from one calamity to another, waiting on answers that never come, believing for miracles that never come to fruition.

The recording of Job is one of the great mysteries of the faith and one that most of us if honest really struggle with.  It’s tantamount to asking your dad “why” only to hear him respond, “because I said so”.  We in our selfish nature want to attach to this story our understanding of justice and fairness.  Our finite comprehension of God wants to ask the same questions Job’s friends did.  We who read carefully want to inquire of God why it is the He pointed out Job to satan and why He removed His hand of protection from a man that the Bible describes as the most righteous man in all the earth at the time. Surely if Job was not spared what chance do we stand who would hardly be labeled as righteous?  Why must rain fall on both the just and the unjust? Aren’t we supposed to be blessed as believers-to be highly favored and to prosper in all we do?  Isn’t the Word of God unchanging and His promises unbreakable? Or is the hedge of protection around us only so high?  Why must believers suffer great losses here on earth if we are attempting to walk upright before God?  Age-old and still unanswered questions that have always been and will always be.

The story of Job is one that most of us have heard or read so many times that we feel we could tell it ourselves.  It is always preached the same as if the sermon is simply a boilerplate template from Sermons Du Jour that any seminary grad student has access to. But there are aspects to this story when digging deeper that you never hear taught from the pulpit.  One is simply an oversight, that of Job’s wife.  Those who mention her do so with contempt as the devil’s advocate without considering her plight.  For instance, the ten children Job lost, she bore, and a mother’s grief is unbearable. She shared in Job’s wealth so she too suffered in his losses. And when she had lost all her children and her financial stability she alone was left to take care of a husband who was sick and helpless.  Yes she spoke out in anger at a low point in her life, and so have I-many times.  But she remained and endured and is seldom credited for her faithfulness to her husband “in sickness and health, good times and bad”. Much more could be written in her defense.

But while reading the story again, as I often find myself doing during those times when I can relate, I saw something I missed the first hundred times I read the story, something obvious but not noticed before. When Job’s life is preached we usually hear the same outline, Job good, satan bad, Job loses everything, Job repents, God restores Job double for his losses.  The implication is that faithfulness in God always pays off in the end and that everything lost will be restored many times over.  It makes for a feel good Osteen-esque sermon, even though we still can’t get past the human response to question God’s purpose in picking on such a godly man. But this is what I missed and what I want to share in case you missed it as well. Job did not emerge from this fierce Heavenly tug of war without serious permanent scars and painful reminders of his season of loss and torment. First there is the consideration of his physical affliction.  Scripture says that upon satan’s appeal God allowed him to attack Job’s body.  It is recorded that Job was suffering from painful boils from the soles of his feet to the crown of his head.  It also says that Job tried to escape the agony by scraping these boils.  I would never interject what the Bible leaves out, but we do have knowledge of boils through modern medicine and from this we can deduce that these boils, just as they do now, left permanent scars, especially given the fact that Job scraped these, a definite no-no in any modern medical journal because doing so increases scarring. In reading of God’s restoration of Job in chapter 42, no mention is made of Job’s physical healing.  We can assume in time his health was restored but the Bible is silent so we can only apply what we know of these boils now-painful with permanent scarring.  If so, every time Job looked in a mirror he would have been reminded of his epic battle with satan. And if like me many of the same feelings and questions would have surfaced and Job would have to remind himself each and every time of God’s faithfulness.

While Job’s physical state is left somewhat to speculation, there is something else I noticed that is right there as plain as day-something else that would have served as a painful memorial to Job’s battle.  Scripture records that everything Job lost was restored two fold, and that he was even blessed with ten more children, the daughters being described as beautiful beyond belief. But Job is recorded as living another one hundred and forty years after his season of testing.  Here is what I missed.

Everyday for one hundred and forty years Job had to walk past the graves of his first ten children.

We are given a glimpse as to how dearly Job loved his kids.  We know they were adults so Job was a part of their lives for many years and they were a big part of his. We know Job considered their welfare so much that he offered up sacrifices for their sins so God would have mercy upon them in case they stepped out of line with Him. As we read how the story unfolds each messenger comes and relays to Job how his oxen and donkeys were stolen and his servants killed, how his sheep were wiped out by a fire from heaven, how his camels were stolen and those servants also killed, all with  no response from Job. It is only after the last messenger tells Job that his children all perished when their house caved in on them that we read Job became distraught, tore his robe, shaved his head and fell to the ground in grief. It is apparent that Job’s greatest and most unbearable loss was the death of his sons and daughters.

Decorating the graves of our loved ones is a tradition.  Even knowing our loved one is with the Lord we are compelled to visit the place where we laid the shell to rest and to remember the life and reflect on the earthly absence in somber remembrance. Most likely Job’s children were all buried on his property with stone markers that would be evident from a long distance and I would imagine Job would have been compelled to visit, decorate and remember, just as we do today.  Yes Job was restored and his faithful wife was blessed to give birth to ten more children (blessed? that would make 20 natural births). But those who have lost children or spouses are painfully aware that no number of children or any blessing of a new mate will ever erase the memory of those you loved and lost. Through photos, memories and grave stones they exist forever.

Job’s earthly restoration was miraculous and generous, but not complete. He was left with scars, battle wounds and constant reminders of his testing and lived with them for another one hundred and forty years. To be honest I have never liked the story of Job, primarily because I have a hard time getting past my selfish arrogance in questioning God’s fairness and purpose with my finite comprehension. I don’t like or relish the thought of being the battleground God uses to prove a point to satan.  I want to grow in the knowledge of Christ but without the pain that accompanies the testing and refining process. I don’t want my friends looking upon me with pity.  I want to be the one who raises other’s spirits, the life of the party, the happy-go-lucky person with the Teflon persona that nothing sticks to. My desire is to be that person who is blessed on earth by a wealthy God who spoils me with goodness that the preacher describes in his false teaching of prosperity by works. But that is not my life and it’s probably not yours either.

Scripture is clear that we will each be rewarded in a heavenly kingdom.  We are told to lay up for ourselves treasure in Heaven.  We are told that our good deeds are credited to a heavenly account. All indications are that we must live life and endure trials, hardships and losses here on earth without any guarantee of a Job like restoration. We will go through periods, seasons and for some lifetimes of silence from a God we have to trust in the darkest of times and the fiercest of storms. We sometimes have to navigate life when we can’t see our hand in front of our face and can only take one step forward at a time when the winds are blowing directly against us. We have to pray when there are no words, study when there is little desire and believe when all indicators suggest not to. If there was a magic potion or spell to make this process we all face easier, I’d own the world. God knows our doubts, sees our struggles with faith, hears our non-verbal prayers and feels our distress. I wish I couldn’t write these words from personal trials and seasons of my own doubt, but I can and I do. When tears no longer come, when the pain is so intense it causes numbness, when all hope and light seems to have vanquished from your world, God remains.

Just one more observation from this story, one which supports the notion of a heavenly reward and eternal afterlife. Job received back double for all his losses, except his children.  He lost ten but was only blessed with ten, not twenty.  Did God oops?  No. Job realized that portion of his restoration when he was reunited with them in paradise.  God didn’t forget or short change Job, and He won’t forget us even when we are tempted to give in to our own disbelief. We have no other recourse. It has to be so.

 

 

 

 

My Fig Leaves

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Now that I have your attention…in publishing my blog my objective has always been to be transparent in confessing personal faults, failures, challenges, etc. so that maybe one or two readers might be spared the pain of learning lessons others have already benefited from. Some weeks are more difficult to post than others depending on the subject matter or the freshness of the wounds or hurt.  This may be one of those weeks.

We all have heard the story countless times.  God tells Adam to stay away from just one tree but instead he yields to a tempting Eve and disobeys a directive meant for his benefit.  Genesis 3 reads that Adam and Eve became aware of their nakedness and sewed together fig leaves to cover their exposure.  But then something deeper happens that we often overlook.  When God is calling Adam out of the garden Adam’s reply is that they were afraid and hid so that God would not see that they were naked.  However, Adam and Eve had already created and were in fact wearing their fig garments when they heard God’s voice.  So we must ask if Adam was afraid of exposing his genitalia or was he hiding something much deeper?

The fig leaf has always been used figuratively as symbolic of covering something up that may be distasteful or embarrassing. In more recent times the fig leaf is used metaphorically as an attempt to cover up something that is only a token gesture as the object being covered is still obvious and for the most part exposed. Fig leaves can be as long as ten inches and as wide as six inches.  However when they are cut from the tree they exude a sticky gel like substance that can be quite uncomfortable when coming in direct contact with skin.  To go to the lengths of covering up one’s “nakedness” with something so uncomfortable must somehow relay the desperation of attempting to hide something really ugly or shameful.

I am a shirt guy.  I buy shirts like women buy shoes. I have easily 200 shirts in various closets.  I’m a shirt whore. But I also have some fig leaves that I wear in certain situations so that my faults and failures are not overly exposed.  Allow me to explain. The mother of my sons and I divorced in 1996.  Say what you may about the reasons that led up to that painful decision, the divorce for me represented a failure-something I lost control of and did not cultivate enough to save.  It was perhaps my first fig leaf.

I have been blessed with three young men as sons who are unique and individual whom I love dearly.  But I was not a great father. I worked too much, I was absent for certain events, I didn’t spend nearly enough quality time with them, and I could go on.

Three fig leaves.

I was blessed with an opportunity to own my own business but in less than two years was forced to give it back to the creditors because of fierce industry competition and mismanagement on my part.  I am still paying the price for that failure and increasing my fig leaf wardrobe. Through obstacles and life challenges I have not handled well I have developed or rather allowed to surface a deep resentment, a sometimes bitter attitude, an unexplainable anger and deep feelings of frustration and doubt even when trying to rely on my faith in God’s grace and strength as my only recourse. Yet another fig leaf.  I could relay many similar stories of past mistakes, miscues and missteps that have added to my hidden fig leaf closet. I have much to hide, much that I fear admitting to the world and much I am ashamed of for fear of being exposed. My loins, my legs and most of my torso are covered in unseen fig leaves.

When God called out to Adam He knew exactly where he was hiding and why.  And as Adam had tasted of the tree of he Knowledge of Good and Evil, he most likely knew God was on to him.  Any attempt to cover his nakedness before God was futile.  It was just a token gesture of modesty before a God who sees everything beneath.

Jeremiah 23:24; “Can a man hide himself in hiding places so I don’t see him?  Do I not fill the heavens and the earth?”

Hebrews 4:13: “There is no creature hidden from His sight but all things are open and laid bare to the eyes of Him with whom we have to do.”

God knows us inside and out, our fears, our lusts, our hurts, our doubts-nothing remains hidden from Him.  Any attempt to cover ourselves is futile.  But perhaps what is more significant is the thought process or reasoning behind our fear of being exposed to Him. Through the sacrifice of His Son and the dispensation of unending grace through our belief in the same we are set free from the chains of guilt and shame of our shortcomings.  While our approach should be one of humble reverence and confession, our lifestyle should not resemble sackcloth and ashes, or sticky fig leaves.

“Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God”…Romans 5:1

“My grace is sufficient for you and my power made perfect in your weakness. Therefore I will boast all the more gladly (and not hide behind fig leaves) about my weakness so that Christ’s power may rest on me”. 2 Corinthians 12:9.

Some of us may be in a season where we are not only covered in fig leaves but are hiding in the belly of a dark cave.  We may be facing questions with no answers, situations with no solutions and a future where we can’t see any ray of light because of present darkness. The tears may be uncontrollable, or you may have few left. The intangible faith in an unseen God may be a real struggle for some, but the hope and the promises of a loving and merciful God can not be withheld from us even when we hide.  Clothing  trends may come and go but fig leaves have never been fashionable.  Be clothed instead in grace and mercy, an ensemble that all believers share and is never out of style.

 

 

 

New Beginnings from Old Endings

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It’s one week into the New Year and I’m guessing many of us have already broken at least one of our resolutions. Typically the new year signals the start of new beginnings, change of habits, a renewed focus on things we prioritize as important in self-improvement.  New Years and birthdays are good opportunities to reflect on the past, take inventory of our lives and make adjustments as we move into the future. For many these are exciting times, but for others, they are unwelcomed detours.

A wise philosopher is quoted as saying that new beginnings often come disguised as troubled endings.  You may be embarking on a new job but only because you were unceremoniously dismissed or laid off from the one you loved. Perhaps you are starting the year off debt free but only because your prior financial situation resulted in bankruptcy. Maybe you are in a new relationship but only because of a recent heart wrenching separation or divorce. Indeed some new beginnings are only a result of painful endings.

New is described as recently originated or produced, not seen before.  We love the idea of driving a new car or moving into a new model home.  But new is also defined as unaccustomed or unfamiliar.  New can be intimidating or scary. New can be unwelcomed and dreaded requiring changes which were not of our choosing. The world turns, our environment and circumstances shift, we adapt and prepare to move forward but it is not without trepidation. Fear of the unknown and not being able to see the path before you is only welcomed for haunted house adventurers, not everyday people.

In the original new beginning God made everything new and perfect-man was a new creature, the earth he inhabited was new, the sun, moon and stars all new and good.  Then man did what he does best, he inserted his own will into the equation and messed everything up and became separated from God. So God came up with a New Covenant through His son Jesus, the best New we could possibly welcome.  The Word as always has much to say about newness and starting over from the past and should serve as words of hope and encouragement when read.

Jeremiah 29:11; I know the plans I have for you, plans for your welfare and a future and a hope.

2 Corinthians 5:17; Anyone in Christ is a new creation. Old things are no more and the new things have come.

Isaiah 43:19; Look, I am doing something new and it springing forth even now, do you not see it?

Lamentations 4:22; The steadfast love of the Lord never ends! His mercies are new every morning.

Ephesians 4:22; Put away your old self, your old former self with its corruption and evil desires, and be renewed and put on the new self created in the likeness of God.

Job 8:7; Your beginning my have been small but your new latter days will be great.

Isaiah 40:331; Those who wait for the Lord will be given new strength.

Ezekiel 36:26; I will give you a new heart and I’ll put a new spirit within you.

Revelation 21:5; He who was seated on the throne said “Look, I am making all things new”.

I like many of you know the joy of being given a new opportunity because of something I worked hard to achieve. And I also know the pain of a new beginning due to a less than perfect ending. I write from a first person point of view because in most cases I am the first person, reporting from inside the storm.  Some of the most encouraging words we have to live by today were written by an Apostle while he was in chains and sharing his sleeping quarters with rats. It is only through the Word that we can embrace new beginnings with a renewed sense of hope that a sovereign God will see us through our new surroundings as we eagerly await the ending of this life on earth in exchange for a new home in a new kingdom where everyday is a new and refreshing beginning that will never have a painful ending.  Happy New Year.

 

 

 

 

Giving Thanks When Feeling Not So Grateful

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How does one offer thanks when they are in the midst of less than thankful circumstances?  How can someone sing praise when everything inside them screams for help?  Tomorrow across America most families will come together in what has largely become the first day of the Season of Consumerism, yet some still set it aside as a day to reflect on the many blessings they have received.  For believers it is just one more occasion to acknowledge the never ending provisions we are granted as children of God.  But for many it may be difficult to find a grateful heart due to personal situations or circumstances for which they are anything but thankful.

It’s hard to gather around a table that first time when one chair sits conspicuously empty due to a recent death.  It’s difficult to act gracious when the latest medical report was anything but positive. It’s hard to enjoy the day when you are wondering how you are going to get your bills paid, let alone shop for Christmas presents.  It’s hard being single for the first time around friends and family after a broken relationship.  We are falsely led to believe by some that Christians should give thanks for any and all of their circumstances like zombies on an acid trip as if nothing can touch us because of our faith when in fact most would be shocked to know the pains and concerns our Christian siblings harbor secretly.

1 Thessalonians 5 tells us to give thanks in all circumstances, not for all circumstances. To this day I cringe whenever I hear someone say that everything happens for a reason. That is simply not true!  God is not the author of disease, calamity, broken hearts, unemployment or loneliness.  It is His desire that we avoid these things when possible.  And yet it is correct to say that He can make magic from a mess, wholeness from brokenness.  Only He can truly turn our sorrows into dances of joy but our approach to God has to be one of a grateful heart.  Sounds a bit contradictory.

The heart of gratitude is something that goes much deeper than the surface circumstances. In one of my favorite movies, National Treasure there was a map on the back of the Constitution that was not visible on the surface but could be seen with a special pair of reading glasses.  Those who successfully maintain a grateful heart have learned how to read the whole of their lives with special glasses that see and understand things hidden from all outward appearances.  They understand the old but proven cliché that bad times don’t last but good people do. They know the meaning of “count it all joy” when considering present situations in light of the much bigger eternal picture.  They realize the temporal nature of this earthly life and set their minds on a much higher reward.  I can’t say that I am quite there yet, but I know how to get there.

This Thanksgiving Day I want to offer words of hope, comfort and encouragement to those who are struggling to find any spirit of gratitude. This may come across as a bit lecture-ish but as you gather tomorrow, consider the food that thousands of others only dream about. Look across the table and see the smiling faces of your kids, grandchildren and family and be grateful for their presence and safety. As you bless the gathering, take a moment to consider where you might be if not for a loving Father who provides all that we could ever need if we sincerely seek and acknowledge Him. Consider the dwelling you are gathered at in light of the thousands of homeless families with children right in your own communities. I know, it sounds easier than it really is, but there is a peace that comes from an earnest attempt to come before God with a heart and a spirit of Thanksgiving even in the midst of life’s troubles.

The following is just a compilation of various Psalms written by a man named David even as he was in the desert running for his life.  His comfort was his knowledge and recollection of God’s goodness.

“I will give thanks to the Lord due to His righteousness and I will sing praises to the name of the Lord most high”.

“I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart; I will recount his wonderful deeds”.

“I will praise the name of God with a song; I will magnify Him with thanksgiving”.

“Let us come into His presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise to Him with songs of praise”.

“And let them offer sacrifices of thanksgiving and tell of His deeds in songs of joy”.

“Give thanks unto the Lord for He is good.  His mercies are everlasting”

I hope and pray each of you have a wonderful, meaningful and grateful Thanksgiving Day.

 

 

 

 

Just a Vapor in the Wind

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Once again we were recently reminded of the fragility of life and of the uncertainty of days as we said goodbye to another legend long before their three score and ten years were up. We have witnessed an alarming number of deaths just this year of those we were not expecting who seemed to be immortal just by virtue of their contributions that were woven into our mainstream lives.  These are just a few who are gone too early:

Prince, age 57; Chyna, age 46; Gary Shandling, age 67; Joey Feek, age 41; Vanity, age 57; Glen Frey, age 67; David Bowie, age 69; Natalie Cole, age 65.

The most recent mortality tables for the U.S. puts the average life expectancy at 78.8 years and yet we hear daily of tragedies of the not-so-popular people killed by violent acts, auto accidents or heath related issues that never get close to their allotted seventy years of life. As a fifty-four year old man with a few health issues, I am paying attention and considering the fact that I may live to see eighty or I may die on the golf course before I reach sixty.  No one knows for sure save God.

Where do we believers get the three score and ten years idea from?  The Psalmist David says in Psalm 90:10 that “our days may come to three score and ten, or fourscore for some”, score representing twenty years.  But he adds that “the best of them (years) are but trouble and sorrow for they quickly pass and we fly away”.  The older I get the more I can testify as to how quickly the years have gone by.  Through social media I keep in touch with many of my childhood and school friends and I am confounded as to how we can be discussing our grandkids. Time indeed flies.

There was a very popular song written by Kansas called Dust in the Wind which captures this essence.  The first line says “I close my eyes, only for a moment and the moment’s gone.”.  How true.  The author of this song was Kerry Livgren, a Christian who took this right out of the Word.  We read the following in James 4:14:

“Yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring.  What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes”.

Some argue that our days are predestined and that nothing we do can take from or add to the years of our life.  While it may be true that God knows our life expectancy, there are verses left for us that indicate we can play a role in our life span. In 1 Kings we are told that “if we walk in obedience and keep his commands we will be given long life”. and again in Exodus 20, we should honor our father and mother so that we may live long”. The mystery of all mysteries is the shortened lives of those we view as righteous. We are simply called to a life of humility and obedience and service as we await. There is a parable in the New Testament about 5 wise virgins and 5 foolish virgins waiting for the groom to come for them. The wise virgins, not knowing for sure how long they may wait were smart enough to buy enough oil for their lamps should the wait be extended.  The foolish virgins, thinking they had more than enough time found that their lamps burned out too soon and they missed the groom when he came because they had to leave and buy more oil at the wrong time. There is a lesson for us here.  We can’t assume the time we have because of our own false sense of immortality-we can’t wait until tomorrow to be reconciled to God through Christ because we are only in our twenties, thirties or fifties.

So what should my response be when I read of unexpected deaths and consider my own pending mortality?  First I should rest in the knowledge that this life, although it is all I know with my human understanding, is but a short precursor to my REAL life which starts when I begin eternity with my savior, Christ.  We are reminded in the Word that we are just aliens here on this earth waiting for our eternal home. Second, this realization should compel me to make every moment of every day count for something bigger than me.  My kids need to know how much I love them.  They also need to be aware of my faith and my desire that they too be reconciled to Christ while there is time to do so, not knowing for sure what tomorrow brings. Third, I need to find joy in life even when life seems to be amused at my constant struggles.  This is a hard one for me as there are times when I feel like the poor mole in the arcade game Whack a Mole; every time I pop my head up someone is waiting there with a hammer to knock me back down. On these days I must find comfort in uplifting music, charitable work, leisurely activities-anything to keep me occupied so as not to dwell on current circumstances. This chapter may not be going the way I would have written it, but I still know how the story ends-I have to find peace in that knowledge.

The point is simple-look around, read the news, consider your own close circle of friends and acknowledge that no one is guaranteed another day, that no amount of fame or fortune will buy you another minute and that in a split second you or those close to you may be gone from this life. Embrace your mortality and use it as exhortation to live every moment to the fullest and leave no regrets.  Try to find happiness during deep times of sorrow and be conscious off those around you who need your encouragement and your love so they too can overcome their trials.  If the wind blows out your candle, light a bigger one. Be a friend, a mentor, and a road sign that leads to Christ in all you do, say and yes, post. Live life abundantly as to overflow onto others and go out with a bang!  At least that’s my ultimate plan.

 

 

 

Finding Hope in Times of Great Loss

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None of us are shielded from unexpected events that rattle our lives like an erupting volcano or a major earthquake.  The strongest among us can be brought to our knees when faced with certain life events or painful losses-the loss of a child, the loss of a home, the loss of a job or a business, the loss of a spouse due to death or divorce.  All of us will eventually face one or more of these events or know of some who have and can bear witness to the long term damaging effects it can have on an individual’s attitude, their outlook on the future and their quality of life.  And all of us who have already been visited by any of these can attest to the resulting sense of hopelessness and isolation.

Besides the obvious impact these losses or changes can have on the emotional or mental health of a person, these events can also alter the physical health as well.  In 1967 two psychiatrists, Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe examined the medical records of more than 5000 patients to see if there was any correlation between some life events and eventual major illness.  Their findings have been confirmed by subsequent independent studies and the results are the same, and not at all surprising.  Based on their data they developed the famous Holmes and Rahe Scale, used to determine the chances of a person suffering major illnesses in the future.  Each event was given a numerical value in line with the severity of the event.  Here is what the scale looks like with events and numeric values listed:

Holmes-Rahe-Stress-Inventory

When you begin to take inventory and add up the numbers, especially if you are older, the results can be scary in light of the rating scale based on your score. The things that happen in our lives have a measurable impact on our mental and physical health-there is simply no disputing this.

But before you add up your score and head for your garage to start the car and close the garage door, take heart-there is a disclaimer!  These studies are based on the normal conditions and responses of the normal person.  There is no allowance or consideration given for the person who has overcome or survived these events due to the hope they have through their faith in Christ. Upon our conversion we are promised that we become “new” creatures, that is with clean slates, having all old things and events “pass away”.  That is certainly not to say we don’t suffer the same pain or agony when faced with any of these major life-changing events-we do, believe me. However it is to say that we have the promise and the assurance, the Hope that even though we walk through these dark places (not over or around as some suggest) that God is with us to provide comfort and courage and strength to endure.  We may not sense His presence during these trials in life but we rely on the knowledge through the Holy Spirit that His word is true and that He is faithful and completely incapable of breaking His promise or His covenant with us when we need Him the most. The great disclaimer to the Holmes Rahe Scale is Christ. He is or can be the great equalizer to those with high risk factors and scale totals-He is the unaccounted for variant in the numeric scale.  You may score high, but Christ…

Holy Scriptures are alive with resounding promises of hope, too many to list.

You may have lost a loved one but you can “lie down and sleep and wake again because the Lord sustains you”. You may have lost a job or a business but “you have never seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging for food”. You may feel abandoned or that God has overlooked you, but in your heart you remember “Has he said and will He not do it or has He spoken and will not fulfill it?”  You may have lost the person closest to you but you can hold fast to the words “Fear not, I’m with you; don’t be dismayed for I’m your God and will strengthen you and hold you steady with my righteous right hand.”

Some of us have faced the events measured on this scale more than once. In fact if not for the disclaimer mentioned some of us may not have lived to tell about it.  But hope is like a skin graft that offers immediate healing and comfort and eventually manifests itself in new growth so that hardly a scar remains.  And by the way, these aren’t just shallow words but first hand testimony that is continuing to be rewritten.  I added up my scores, assuming just one time per episode although I have faced several of these events more than once.  My score….931!  But Christ.

 

The Hope That Heals All Christmas Pain

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Its almost time for Christmas, one of the holiest days of the year

The world for a moment stops spinning to send tidings of love and cheer

But for some this day’s a challenge as they try to find some gladness

For each one has a story that for them gives way to sadness

Seems everywhere they cast their glance they’re reminded of the reasons

Why they just can’t find the simple joy of this yearly Holy season

For some a dated ornament, the first Christmas spent together

A love to last the storms of life the two of them would weather

But one storm showed no mercy as it tore the two apart

Leaving nothing good of Christmas and instead, a broken heart

For others there’s and empty chair a loved one used to fill

Though gone, they’re not forgotten and their seat is empty still

They spent their lives united, gave their all to one another

But failing health and extended years claimed one but left the other

Some approach the season just a few weeks unemployed

And find it hard to celebrate being robbed of all their joy

They can’t afford the usual gifts that bring their children laughter

Feeling like they’ve failed again with no prospect of work hereafter

While for some there sits a present wrapped in true anticipation

Of the joy when finally opened at the family’s celebration

But something unexpected, a life so quickly taken

Leaves a family asking questions and the day completely shaken

There’s bitterness and anger as we wrestle with God’s purpose

Trying hard to hide the obvious pain that lies beneath the surface

Why now, why me, what good can come from allowing us these tests

And how do we now reconcile that God still knows what’s best

Yet, in the corner, hardly noticed, a nativity scene displayed

In the center lies the Child of peace, born that Christmas day

His entrance ushered hope and peace for all who would believe

A hope that heals the deepest wounds when to Him we humbly cleave

He understands how hard it is for some to find their cheer

And offers us eternal hope that will last beyond our tears

The cure for all that ails us entered earth that Christmas night

It’s His hope that brings a lasting peace and His love that sets things right

It heals all wounds, fills all voids, brings comfort to ease our pain

And chases tears and sorrows so that love alone remains

We all have things we’d wish to change to make our lives more pleasant

And questions we would pose to God if He stood within our presence

But He knew our pains before our birth and addressed them from above

When He sent His Son to heal all hurts in the ultimate show of love

So we’ll gather on this Christmas day to commemorate His birth

The Christ child come to soothe our pain, the greatest cure on earth

It comforts loss and covers scars if we’ll but humbly kneel

To worship Him who heals our hearts with a peace we each can feel.

 

He Stepped Into Our Globe

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The young woman stared intently at the scene in the globe. Ravished by the scars of recent events in her life and desperate for some solace and relief, she found comfort in the simplicity and safety of the images depicted and encapsulated within the safety of the globe.  As she rotated the globe she watched as the winter scene unfolded. The homes were all lit up and looked warm and inviting, their chimneys showing evidence of logs on the fire.  She could almost smell the aroma escaping their kitchens as they prepared their holiday meals.  The children were playing outside in the snow in a safe and protected environment. The church doors were open and she could imagine hearing the hymns as the old organ bellowed out sweet melodies of traditional seasonal music. There was no traffic, no rush, no sirens-just a fresh falling snow that covered the village in a security blanket of white. Everything she held as ideal was captured in the globe she held in her hands, and just for a moment she longed for the ability to step into the world she was viewing and find refuge within the confines of this artificial creation.

I would imagine we have all done this at least once-perhaps like this young woman, it was a snow globe that captured our attention, or maybe a peaceful Thomas Kincade painting or even a man-made Hollywood setting depicted in a favorite Christmas movie.  The thought of stepping out of our world into a different one is not a concept foreign to many of us.  We long to escape the burdens and cares of a crime riddled, hateful, unloving planet in favor of a peaceful euphoric existence, even if within the limited dimensions of a painting or a plastic figurine within a snow globe.

Christmas is upon us, a time of joy, nostalgia and charity. Yet each year so many get caught up in the hustle and busyness of the holiday that we forget that it is for believers, a Holy day. It is best signified with the limited realization that 2000 or so years ago, God the Son, held His creation, his Earth globe if you will, in His hands.  However it wasn’t a Kincade scene He was viewing but rather one of brokenness, of sin and despair, in need of healing and reconciliation through means only He could deliver. It wasn’t a man-made world He beheld-He was the creator, but the world had turned away from Him and all the simplicity, the tranquility, the beauty He originally intended. The globe He held in His hands was neither peaceful nor inviting.

So, He did what only He could do-He stepped out of His heavenly kingdom and entered the globe He created. He entered not through some easy means but through the painful delivery of human birth that first Christmas. It was vital to the plan that He become the very flesh He had created and experience the frailty of humanity in every way. John 1:1 says that the Word became human and moved into His globe (my paraphrase) and we witnessed His beauty and unique glory.  Romans 8:3 explains it this way:

For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the flesh, God did. By sending His own Son in the form of humanity, He condemned sin by being incarnate (flesh).

There was nothing picturesque about His mission. We celebrate and depict a peaceful entry with shepherds, livestock and a star, and I’m quite certain the entire earth stopped spinning at the moment of His birth, but the objective was clear and anything but tranquil. He entered His globe that first Christmas morning on a path that would lead to Easter-the lamb that was born would be the eternal lamb to be slain so that through grace and forgiveness we could be reconciled to our original relationship with Him.

The songs, the spirit, the love and if you will, the magic of Christmas, comes alive each year in a very supernatural way to the believer who takes the time to ponder the great mystery of the incarnation of God to His people, His creation, His globe. So the next time you hold one in your hand and imagine what it would be like to insert yourself as a figure in the glass dome, remember God already did, and we call it Christmas.

The Static Nature of Change-Lessons From the Chameleon

Cape Dwarf Chamaeleon

The ability to adapt to an ever changing environment is never so evident as when observing certain species of chameleons. As seen in the image above they can change to camouflage their appearance to avoid detection by would be predators. However they can also change to signal to others of their species as in flirtation or simply to display their current mood. It was long thought that process was achieved due to numerous pigments beneath the skin but studies as late as 2014 proved this to be false. Instead they found that some species actually have a sub layer lattice of nanocrystals that can be manipulated by the chameleon to affect the way wavelengths of light are reflected or absorbed to create various colors. As for mood swings highly agitated chameleons will appear as red, dark or even black while calm, relaxed or non-threatened ones will appears in the softer blue and green shades.  So in essence it is possible to know the mood of your pet lizard just by observing their color.

There is at least one thing about life that never changes, and that is that life will always change!  Change does not discriminate-it comes to us all.  Many times those changes are welcomed and embraced-you get that promotion you worked for-you meet that special someone-you recover form an illness-you move to that location you always dreamed about-you attend the wedding of your child-you escape an abusive relationship-you change your hairstyle.

And then there are the unwelcomed and unsolicited changes we dread-you become unemployed-your spouse asks for a divorce-you receive bad news from your doctor-your financial and credit status take a major hit-you fall off that trail you’ve navigate before in a foreign country and shatter your leg-you lose your hair. Like it or not, good or bad, a change is a comin’.

Much of the Christian world has been in a panic over recent decisions by our courts that are contrary to our belief system. They feel the church is heading for disaster or even that our standard, God’s word has been compromised or forcefully changed. Nothing could be further from the truth. We have an assurance from Christ Himself that His words would never change or pass away.  The Gospel is an absolute static truth.  What will change is how we effectively use it as a weapon of defense in these trying times.  The face of our enemy will change-the strategy against the family unit and the church will change-the effective polarization of the church will change-the increasing test of our resolve and relationship with Christ will change. Like our chameleon friend, we have to be ready and able to adapt to our new surroundings, and we have to determine how that change needs to take place.

There is a passage familiar to many in the Book of Habakuk, chapter 3 which reads like this:

Though the fig tree does not bud  and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls,
18 yet I will rejoice in the LordI will be joyful in God my Savior.

Many use this passage as an affirmation of faithfulness and devotion to God, and rightly so. But when I read a bit closer, I see an assertion that faith will remain in spite of the pending season of change.  In fact the verse preceding this one eludes to pending calamity. Just for my benefit, this scripture carries much more meaning when I read it as when the tree doesn’t bud and when there are no grapes and when the crops fail and there is little food. Why? Because few of us will escape this world of troubles without facing these seasons of change. Season by definition eludes to something different than the now. If indeed there is a season for everything as written in Ecclesiastes 3, then our expected norm should be the expectation of change, or the change of life’s seasons. If we live our lives prepared for the possibility of change, then change can’t possibly come when we least expect it.

God in His sovereignty is the source of much change in the life of a growing and maturing believer. In every area of life where we ascribe for something higher, whether a higher degree, a higher job title, a higher belt or certification, there is a time of testing that is required to see if we have satisfied the requirements to obtain that higher level. As faithful followers of Christ we should expect nothing different. I have never gone through so great a season of testing than when I asked God to take me to a higher level-a season of spiritual change. I’m not sure I’d do it again, but the change was for my good. Be careful the sincerity of what you ask for!

Thank God for the NEVER changing Word that we an fall back on in our EVER changing lives. And thank God for lessons from the most unusual of His creation. I wonder what it would be like to be purple for a day.

Stories Behind the Songs We Love

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I have always loved the progression of Contemporary Christian Music and the impact it has had on sharing our faith with music that appeals to the younger crowd.  Just this past weekend I attended a Worship Experience here with Tenth Avenue North and Chris Tomlin, the Bill Gaither of our generation and had an amazing time of praise and worship. However, I grew up on the Hymns of the church and they are ingrained into my memory as much as the multiplication tables I learned in school.  While I may never relinquish my love for Contemporary Christian music, I am finding that the older I get the more I love and appreciate the hymns from my past.  It’s funny how I can be going about my daily business and out of nowhere an old hymn that I haven’t sung since I was a kid will start playing in my mind as if I had been singing it over the past weekend. Some would call that dementia; I call it wisdom.

There is a purity and an integrity in the lyrics of songs written before our days that is hard to find in their modern successors.  You can almost hear the intensity and the depth of the relationships these authors had with their God, one that is envious to me.  But even beyond the depth of their faith are the stories and the tragedies behind some of the most popular hymns that make the songs even more inspiring if possible.  I wanted to share a couple with you on this post.

Horatio Spafford was a wealthy Chicago Attorney with a successful practice in the mid to late 1800’s. He was a devout Christian and counted among his friends Dwight Moody. But money doesn’t protect one from tragedy.  Early on he and his wife Anna lost their young son, devastating to the most faithful of men. Shortly thereafter in the Great Chicago fire of 1871 Spafford suffered a great financial loss when most all of his real estate investments went up in smoke.

In 1873 Spafford scheduled a boat trip to Europe for his wife and four remaining daughters where they could relax and recover from their recent losses. Spafford would be joining them and then helping Moody with an evangelistic campaign but last minute business detained him in Chicago. About 4 days into the trip the Ville du Harve collided with a Scottish Iron vessel and within 12 minutes the ship sank into the deep Atlantic taking 226 passenger down with her, including all of Horatio’s daughters.  A fishing boat near the scene spotted a woman clinging to some boards.  It was Spafford’s wife Anna-she had survived. She sent a wire to Spafford which simply said “I alone survived.  What shall I do?”

Devastated and in mourning Spafford boarded a ship to meet his wife in Wales.  About 4 days into the trip the Captain of the ship came to Spafford’s cabin to tell him they were over the area where the Ville du Harve had sunk. Spafford went to the deck to view the spot and reflect on his loss. It is there and at that moment that Horatio Spafford penned these words:

When peace like a river attendeth my way,

When sorrows like sea billows roll,

Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,

It is well, it is well with my soul.

Though Satan should buffet and trials should come

Let this blessed assurance control

That Christ hath regarded my helpless estate

And has shed His own blood for my soul

Chorus:

It is well with my soul,

It is well, it is well with my soul

It would be the only hymn Spafford would ever write but one that brings hope to everyone who hears it haunting but beautiful lyrics. What an amazing and incomprehensible testament to the faith of a truly Godly man, to compose such a timeless classic in the midst of the most horrific tragedy.  This is the purity and integrity of lyrics to which I referred.

Louisa Stead was born in 1850. At a very young age Louisa felt a call to ministry but she suffered from frail health and was unable to go into the mission field. At age 25 Louisa married the love of her life and later gave birth to their daughter Lilly. But just a few short years later her beloved husband was attempting to save the life of a drowning child and in his attempt lost his own life.  Louisa was devastated beyond grief.  It was in her sorrow that she penned these now famous words:

‘Tis so sweet to trust in Jesus,
And to take Him at His Word;
Just to rest upon His promise,
And to know, ‘Thus says the Lord!’

I’m so glad I learned to trust Thee,
Precious Jesus, Savior, Friend;
And I know that Thou art with me,
Wilt be with me to the end.

Chorus

Jesus, Jesus, how I trust Him!
How I’ve proved Him o’er and o’er
Jesus, Jesus, precious Jesus!
O for grace to trust Him more!

Who was the “wretch” in Amazing Grace? John Newton, born in 1725 grew up with no religious training or conviction and was often in trouble.  he was forced involuntarily into the military and the service of the Royal Navy where he learned his navigational skills. After leaving the Royal Navy he became a major figure in the Atlantic Slave Trading business.  During one of his trip his ship was hit with a violent storm off the coast of Ireland that battered his boat so severely he instinctively cried out to God for rescue. It is while his boat was being repaired that he penned the first verse to this Anthem of the Faith;

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound

That saved a wretch like me

I once was lost but now I’m found

Was blind but now I see

In 1755 Newton gave up slave trading and entered Seminary. He went on to a vocation of Christian ministry and completed the song Amazing Grace.  It is estimated that this tune is sung more than ten million times annually in churches across America yet today. It’s a story of redemption from past sins, of hope for the lowliest of creatures and of our future glory, When We’ve Been There Ten Thousand Years.  It has truly become one of if not the most recognizable hymns in history.

There are so many more stories like these of the circumstances behind the hymns we love-not all of them as tragic but just as inspiring. They say the greatest love songs ever written come from a broken heart.  It can truly be said that the most inspiring hymns of the church today come from tragedy and broken spirits.  But oh how we are the benefactors of the situations that birthed these awesome anthems that we relish and still sing today.  I’m not getting rid of any of my contemporary CD’s just yet, but When the Roll is Called Up Yonder and With a Thousand Tongues to Tell we sing Holy Holy Holy and How Great Thou Art to our Fairest Lord Jesus, I’m not sure how I’ll be able to contain the overwhelming joy and gratitude, or express any better our adoration to Him than these and others have already done decades ago.  The older I get, the more precious these hymns.

State of the Church Union

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Last night the President gave his State of the union address.  When not used as a campaign platform this address is a disclosure speech to inform us of the current state of the things that matter to most of us, the economy, jobs creation, tax reform and the like.  Going back through the history of the address it tends to be more of a pep rally than a reality check.  If you really want to know how the country is doing you have to do some research beyond the political rhetoric.

So in keeping with the theme of the week I thought it appropriate to offer my version of the State of the Church address.  The health of the eternal church hits much more close to home with me than the state of a temporal country. I don’t wish to go into denominational statistics here but rather offer some general observations referencing some research data easily confirmed by personal research. The church is sick. Recent surveys (Gallup and Barna) show that 40% of People in the US claim to attend church, but when questioned further the truth is only 18% actually attend church at least two times per month, leaving over 80% as non or hardly ever church attenders. Further studies show that in recent years one thousand churches are planted in the U.S. but four thousand will close in the same amount of time for a net of 3000 less churches per year. Why is that?  Why are the faithful not being, well, faithful? The following are just my thoughts and not intended to be all inclusive as to some possible reasons church attendance is dropping.

TECHNOLOGY

With the advances of the smart phones, the Tablets and streaming services, many prefer to “get their religion” in the comfort of their home. If you miss a message you can always download it from the church website as if you were there. Some even make their worship services available online which is great for being able to listen, record and play over again, but does little for the encouraging and exhortation that results from personal fellowship with your sibling believers. Can the Lord bless through technology? Of course He can, but He designed us for fellowship and encourages us through Paul to “not forsake” the opportunity to gather.  It’s just not the same.

Radical Acceptance

In today’s society, this is huge. While the church teaches unconditional love, is it always expressed by those in the church or felt by those who desire it most? Does the man who struggles with attractions to other men feel at ease in any evangelical congregation? Is the young mother who is feeling the guilt and pain of a recent abortion ashamed to be seen in her community church?  Do people still whisper when a racially mixed couple comes through their doors?  While the church is founded on the tenets of sound and unwavering Biblical doctrine, we sometimes forget that the greatest commandment is to love one another even as Christ loves us!  If the church is to be a true refuge or hospital for the sick, as Christ eluded to, then we have to not only welcome but embrace those who are sick and love them to Christ.

Competing for our Time

Let’s be honest, especially us men-there are always things we would prefer to be doing on any Any Given Sunday than go to churchFootball or other televised sports, fishing, concerts, the all-you-can-eat- breakfast bar that closes at 11:00 AM-you get the picture. Even moms appreciate a day when they don’t have to bathe and dress the little ones and get them out early on Sunday morning.  Compared to many of our European counterparts American work entirely too many hours in a week, some 60 to 70 or more.  Sunday may be the one day to catch your breath or take a nap and get recharged.  It’s entirely understandable.  The informed churches make other weekly service times available for those who have alternative work schedules common to the times.

Lack of Man Time

Speaking of us men, it is no secret that the local church has somewhat forgotten about us-let me clarify. It is great for churches to sponsor men’s prayer breakfasts or Men’s fellowships like Promise Keepers attempted to do-opportunities for men to grow spiritually, to practice the art of iron sharpening iron.  But many men feel they have to check their man card when they come to church.  Sometime Christian men just want to go play golf together, or basketball or maybe enjoy a camping weekend or attend a sports event, and just kick back and, dare I say it, enjoy a beer or a good cigar with other Christian men being men.  The effemination of Christian men not only tends to isolate some from becoming or remaining regular church attenders-it does little to attract new men into the church.  Ladies I love you but we men need to fulfill our godly roles in our churches and the church needs to recognize ways to encourage fellowship without turning in our man cards.

Contemporary Church

I know this will get stick as many of us, me included, attend the local large contemporary church as shown in the image above. Again, technology has allowed us to create a modern interactive church experience complete with large screens, special lighting effects and yes, even fog.  While we embrace the freedom to worship God in this manner, for many it has the appearance of little more than your typical rock concert, void of any resemblance of a traditional church atmosphere. I participate in a Worship team on such a stage and I relish each week I’m privileged to be one of the Lead Worshippers.  That said, I am still in awe when I enter a traditional church with pews, stained glass windows, a cross, divine images and other things that resemble church. I can’t fully explain it but when I enter a chapel or a cathedral or hear a majestic pipe organ with a choir or chanters there is a feeling of humility and smallness before God that I don’t always sense in a contemporary sanctuary. In our attempt to reach out to a modern world we have in some cases left every visual reminder behind in our efforts, and the seeker looking for something other than what they find in the world doesn’t sense that they have entered into a holy place when they see the coffee shop before they see the doors to the sanctuary. Again, this is just my personal observation and experience.

Marketing

Yes, marketing. I’ve been in business for a long time and I know first hand from unfortunate experiences that if you don’t market yourself or your product you will fail and close up shop very quickly. Let’s be honest-some see this as commercialization and contend that the church having a marketing strategy equates to little more than being in the church business.  What a glaring misconception of the role and purpose of marketing!  What better “product” can one offer than Jesus? What more can the local church consumer be offered than forgiveness and hope and eternal life in Christ? We have something that no one else can offer-there is no competition for our product-no one can beat or undercut our price-no one else offers a legitimate Lifetime Guarantee that can compare to the message of salvation available each week in the local church. In the story of the marriage supper the servants were encouraged to go out into the highways and byways and to compel them to come in-MARKETING 101!  If no one knows your church exists, if no one knows what your church offers, if they haven’t been fully sold on the benefits of your product and retained as a local attender and participating contributor, your church will ultimately fail.

I’m sure there are other contributing factors to why church attendance is decreasing each year-who can fully know all the reasons many choose to stay home on the weekends. I’m certainly not the expert on the subject, just an observant bystander wanting to see a healthy local church and a healthy universal church. It should be of concern to all of us who see the empty seats and pews each week.  It shouldn’t take another 9/11 to get people in our churches if we are doing all we can to attract them through our lifestyle, to compel them through our marketing and to retain them through proper acknowledgement of individual and demographic needs and expectations.  I pray that we as the body of Christ seize the opportunities to reach and embrace our world in a time when they need us more than they might realize.

God help us to be Christ to the lost, love to the hurting and a beacon of light to those searching through darkness.

The Heart is Compelled to Celebrate Christmas

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In just a few days the world will pause to remember the day when God the Son laid aside His Heavenly Kingship and entered into the world He created to set into motion the divine plan of redemption and reconciliation conceived from the beginning.  But sadly too many will get caught up in the wrappings of the holiday through business, through commercialization and even through religious debates as to the validity of our commemoration, and will completely miss out on the heart and the reasons we pause. Defense over “Merry Christmas” vs. “Happy Holidays” will stir indignation and false piety; the worn argument over leaving Christ in Christmas opposed to those who use Xmas; the ever aging debate over the pagan roots of the holiday and why like Halloween, “Real” Christians would never participate in such secular distractions.  I’m confident Christ is pleased at how diligently we defend Him and promote the model of love He displayed by coming into our world to save us from, well, us.

Christmas brings back so many joyful memories for me from my younger years, and most all of them center around the central figure of Christmas, the Christ Child. I can’t tell you the number of times I played Joseph in the annual church Christmas play.  I recall being part of a multi-level living Christmas Tree set up outside in the cold parking lot of an Indiana mall as we sang carols about none other than Jesus in near zero temps.  I remember as a teen in our youth group taking part in a Madrigal Dinner performance complete with costumes and yes, even tights (because back then I made tights fashionable for men).  I did the Santa thing with our kids and enjoyed every minute and memory made.  The snow, the songs, the plays, the animated Christmas displays downtown, the lights-all part of Christmas memories no one can take from me or diminish through theological orations of gross holiness infractions served up by some who are guilty of brutality through overbearing policing. We get through deeper study that the birth was most likely not a December event.  We understand that the shepherds being outside with the flock indicate a season other than Winter.  We know the timing of the Census and the calendar of Jewish festivals create doubt for a December nativity.  But are these things really essential on our choice and reasoning to remember?

Throwing off the wrappings, the controversy and the distractions, let us merely examine the wonder and the reason of the Incarnation of the Christ child on that Holy night. Jesus, the Word and creator of all things made according to John 1, saw His creation in turmoil. Mankind had perverted everything good about life.  Sin had separated us from Him and there was not enough time or livestock available for the continuing of sacrifices required according to Jewish custom to atone for our sinful ways. A promise had been made to never destroy the population as in the days of Noah, so a new covenant had to be established, one that was final, all inclusive and everlasting, and yet still meet the requirements of bloodshed. Enter Jesus-literally! The time was right and the need never greater. God’s entry into our planet was done in the most unusual, abnormal and uncharacteristic way possible.  He didn’t come into existence suddenly in the synagogue-He didn’t just appear before Kings and religious leaders. He picked a young teen aged girl from a city of poverty and disease and a man who had many of the same struggles we do today, fear, doubt, jealousy, weakness, to be the earthly vessel and parents of His Son. The news of his birth was not proclaimed to the rabbis in the temple-it was proclaimed to the shepherds, the outcasts of society, the indispensable protectors of flocks from wild predators who had little family or means.  Jesus didn’t come with prenatal care in a lavish facility worthy of  king’s birth, but rather a holding stable for animals-the local kennel if you will for all the visiting guests from other countries who had converged on Bethlehem that night. But in that blessed event is the fulfillment of all the carols we sing to this day recalling His birth. “Long lay the world in sin and error pining til He appeared”. “Peace on earth and mercy mild-God and sinner reconciled”. “Come and behold Him, born the king of ages”. “Whom angels greet with anthems sweet while shepherds watch are keeping”. The plan was set into motion.

While we rejoiced, God the Father was broken, knowing that in the blink of an eye this baby boy so innocently portrayed in a manger would be maliciously beaten and scourged and left to die on the Roman cross of crucifixion. In order for the perpetual sacrifice to be made for us, God had to become one of us-the Word becomes flesh and lives among us. The Lamb of God was born only to die. The virgin birth secured His separation from all things sinful so that He who knew no sin, could become the flawless sacrifice-the lamb without any blemish, to die blameless just as he was born. There was no other way for us to be restored to our creator because of our sin, than through the death and blood of one of us who was perfect-Jesus the Christ child. It was truly a cradle to the grave implementation of a divine plan by which we would be forgiven, redeemed, restored and made spotless before Him who made us.  At last we who were made in His image could once again appear like Him, reconciled into the lineage of Christ. We sing “Glory to the newborn king” so that we can sing “my sin, oh the joy of this glorious thought-my sin not in part but the whole, is nailed to the cross and I bear it no more”! This my friends is Christmas!

I am a wretched man, like Joseph, who struggles with pride, impatience, temptation-living everyday in a sinful world. The message of Christmas is that He who knew me before I was conceived made provisions for my shortcomings and afforded me forgiveness, salvation and everlasting life with Him in a kingdom yet to come, and it all started on that first Christmas morning 2000 years or so ago in Bethlehem, whatever night it was. You’re damn right I’m going to celebrate it-I’m going to sing songs about it-I’m going to enjoy a special church service to reflect on it-I’m going to have my family over and share in a great feast and offer up prayers in remembrance of it and even exchange gifts, remembering that the greatest gift of all was given freely on that first Holy night to all who choose to receive it. There are lights on my house, angels on my tree, a nativity in our family room, and Christmas shows on the TV. I will live according to the book of Romans knowing that some keep certain days as more holy than others but all being acceptable when done to the glory of God.  My only regret is that we only mark one day each year to remember the essence of our faith.  If it were left to me the lights would never come down, the carols would never cease and the magic and joy felt in December would never diminish in January. “For unto us a savior is born-unto us a Son is given, and He is called Jesus”.

It is my heartfelt wish and fervent prayer that my family, my kids, my grand kids and friends find in their hearts this season the wonder and the joy and the core of all things Christmas, and that they make merry in full acknowledgement of the hope born to us on that special night.

Merry Christmas to all!

Oh Holy Night-an Unlikely Composition Makes History

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All who know me know that Christmas is my absolute favorite time of the year. Being a native of the snowy mid-western state of Indiana I cherish the memories and traditions of Christmas past and have tried my best to create similar memories for our family in Las Vegas, sans the snow and cold temps. For me Christmas was always ushered in by the seasonal carols-I knew the holiday was close when the radio began playing Joy to the World, White Christmas, Silver Bells, Silent Night, and all the carols that have survived through the decades.  But no carol moves me to this day more so than Oh Holy Night. Of all the carols this song does more to transport me back to what must have been a magical night all over the earth as God the Son and Creator became flesh to dwell among us. This carol has been covered by the best voices in the world, each adding their own touch, from Celine to Groban to Crosby, and my favorite, Transiberian Orchestra.  There is no carol that sets the mood for Christmas among believers more than Oh Holy Night.

What many people don’t know is how God orchestrated the most unlikely characters and unusual circumstances in the composition of this song.  The lyrics were written by a man who would later walk away from the church to join the socialist party, and the music by a Jewish man who did not believe in Jesus the Messiah.  I was fascinated when I first read this story.

Placide Cappeau was a well known poet and commissioner of wines in France but not so well known as a church attender.  It was in 1847 that the priest of his parish asked him to compose a poem of religious origin that would be appropriate for Christmas Mass. Cappeau relied on texts from the Gospel of Luke and his imagination of what that blessed night must have been like and penned the words to Cantique de Noel on a stage coach ride to Paris. Upon its completion, Cappeau was so moved by his own composition that he decided these words should be put to music but music was not his strength.  So he called upon his good friend Adolphe Charles Adam, equally well known for his musical compositions.  Adolphe was Jewish. It was miraculous how the words to Cappeau’s poem moved Adam so much that he composed perhaps the most beloved and recognizable hymn about an event he did’t celebrate and personally didn’t believe in. Oh Holy Night, words by a socialist and music by a Jew!

The score was performed for Mass just three weeks later and quickly accepted across France.  However its fame was short lived as Cappeau joined the Socialist Party and the Catholic Church discovered that a Jew composed the music.  Oh Holy Night was banned for lack of content and musical taste for decades after, that is until John Sullivan Dwight, a struggling Unitarian minister and publisher of Dwight’s Journal of Music found the words and was moved by the composition.  You see, Dwight was an abolitionist and when he saw the lyrics, “for the slave is our brother”, he was inspired. It was Dwight who translated the lyrics into English and first introduced it to America.  But wait, there’s more!

In 1906, six decades after the song was composed by the most unlikely sources, another miracle was about to take place. The alternator-trasmitter had recently been developed allowing voice to be transmitted to ships and newspaper publishers by radio waves produced as a result of the high spinning alternator. Radio pioneer Reginald Fessenden, a former employee for Thomas Edison, first tested this new radio device by reading the first few verses from the Christmas story as recorded in the Gospel of Luke chapter two. Fessenden, also a musician, then picked up his violin and played Cantique de Noel, Oh Holy Night!  This beloved Christmas carol made history and is acknowledged as the very first song ever broadcast over radio, and all at the hands of a socialist, a Jew, a failed Unitarian minister and an Anglican through the orchestration of events by an all inclusive God!  Awe inspiring and yet, not at all surprising-He is after all, God!

Christmas is all about inclusion, and in light of recent events revolving around police actions and injustices, what a better time to reflect on the commonalities of our races and status and not the differences. Dwight, being a witness to the evils of slavery, fell in love with the lyric “change shall He bring for the slave is our brother, and in His name all oppression shall cease“. Paul would write in Galatians that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for we are all one in Christ”.  You see, if you read the story carefully you will see that the young are represented by Mary, thought to be no more than fourteen years old when she gave birth, and the old are represented by Simeon, who would die shortly after seeing his Messiah. The rich are represented by the Wise men from the east bearing gifts for the Savior, and the poor by Jesus own parents who could barely afford doves for their sacrifice at the temple. The women are represented by the Theotokos, Mary, the bearer of God and her cousin Elizabeth who bore John the Baptist, while the men are represented by Joseph, a hard working everyday man chosen by God to be the earthly father of Jesus. And the outcast are represented by the shepherds, the lowest of the low deemed indispensable enough to guard the flocks against bears and other predators. This was God’s plan all along-unity through love and a common hope and equal inheritance.  We are to blame for creating the racial, societal and even the religious divisions among us. God’s gift of His son was to unite us and reconcile all of us, each different but all the same in Christ, to Him.

So this Christmas season, when you hear or sing this beautiful and beloved hymn Oh Holy Night, I want to challenge you to consider each other as you sing, the poor, the homeless, the black or the white, the Republican or Democrat, the Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant and Atheist, the immigrant-those who would never come to mind normally, and imagine a time and a place two thousand years ago when the world for one night was at peace and as one as they ushered in with great celebration and Holy awe the creator of us all, the Christ child Jesus.  Surely, it must have been one holy night!  When you do, I can promise you that the spirit of Christmas past present and to come will dwell richly within you and the world around you will seem just a little less hostile, and each other a little less different.  God Bless you and Merry Christmas.

For These and All Thy Blessings…

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It is sad to me that the traditions and celebrations of Thanksgiving have been folded into the Christmas holiday and has lost its uniqueness in many aspects. We are all guilty.  Each year I debate over whether or not to have the Christmas tree up and the house decorated in time for the Thanksgiving gathering.  We use the occasion to discuss the details of Christmas, who’s hosting, who’s buying gifts for who, what the menu should be, etc. Don’t get me wrong-I absolutely LOVE Christmas and all it means to me, and am an advocate of making Christmas last all year.  But the beauty of Christmas begins with an appreciation and an understanding of the incarnation of Christ, and that epiphany should be ushered in with great Thanksgiving and rejoicing rather than Black Thursday shopping deals.

Perhaps the older I get the more reflective I become. Or maybe it’s a maturity of faith that sheds a greater light on just how blessed we are as a people and as a church, that with all our faults we can be referred to as Children of God. In the midst of all our struggles, in view of all our differences, in spite of the divisions and barriers of our own making, we still have more to be grateful for than we could ever express in the short time allotted us here on earth. This is the week we look back on where we’ve been, what we’ve endured and what we are left with, and raise our voices to say Thanks God. So in the spirit of the day, I have a list of my own. I trust you do as well.

*I don’t have perfect health-I’m out of shape and maybe just a little overweight, yet God has granted  my fifty three years of a good life. 

*I experienced a painful divorce long ago but God blessed me with an angel that I’ve been with now  for eighteen years.

*Our kids aren’t perfect-they are all alive and doing well and a blessing to our family.

*Our grand kids are perfect! They can’t comprehend how precious they and their love is to us. 

*I lost a business this year-painful, but ended up in a perfect situation orchestrated by God alone. 

*Our house needs repair and updating but our home is strong and blessed and welcoming.

*We have to drive twenty miles to and from work. In twenty two years in Las Vegas we’ve never been      involved in any serious accidents. 

*Our church isn’t perfect because we attend there. But we found a home where we can mature and be a  blessing as we grow up in our faith and salvation.

*Our country is not what it used to be but we are still free to disagree, free to pursue happiness, free  to worship as we please, free to peacefully demonstrate and free to move about in relative safety.

*I’m not wealthy by the world’s standards, but I couldn’t ask for anything more than I have. What price  can a man give in exchange for his soul?

I love  Psalm 103 taken from the Message Bible.  It drives home the point, lest we forget, of just how truly blessed we are by God.

 O my soul, bless God.
    From head to toe, I’ll bless his holy name!
O my soul, bless God,
    don’t forget a single blessing!

 He forgives your sins—every one.
    He heals your diseases—every one.
    He redeems you from hell—saves your life!
    He crowns you with love and mercy—a paradise crown.
    He wraps you in goodness—beauty eternal.
    He renews your youth—you’re always young in his presence.

As high as heaven is over the earth,
    so strong is his love to those who fear him.
And as far as sunrise is from sunset,
    he has separated us from our sins.
As parents feel for their children,
    God feels for those who fear him.

What can anyone add to that?  What more can we ask for in order to be grateful-we already have it all!

There is just one more thing I’m grateful for this year. Since I was a young kid in school I’ve always loved to write.  Now through the technology of social media I am a blogger, writing each week about my experiences as a man striving, sometimes unsuccessfully, to live the Christian faith. The greatest praise one can receive is for another to want to hear what you have to say.  I am but one of countless millions of internet bloggers contributing to the ever growing blogosphere each week. If five of you wanted to follow me and my posts, I’d be truly blessed and would feel like I was making a positive contribution to your state. However I have a few more than five.  To have your posts read by those in countries like the UK and Italy and the Netherlands is humbling beyond words. I am thankful for each of you who have chosen to follow papaswords.com since its onset, and for those who have shared the posts and offered comments and critique. My prayer is that you find commonality in our struggles, our doubts, our fears and our victories as we live out our faith in a world unfriendly and sometimes even hostile toward the Gospel. You are among my greatest blessings-a heartfelt Thank You. May God bless you and your family with joy, laughter, memories and a revelation of these and all thy blessings!

Papa Joe

Realness of Despair, Remedy of hope

“For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”  Eph. 6:12

Girl standing in rain

 

This has been a tough week for many as the death of the world’s funniest man, Robin Williams, has revealed the truth of one the world’s toughest battles, depression. Many have been the commentaries on the subject, varying from a coward’s choice to a weakness of faith to a legitimate mental disease.  Some have carefully approached the subject with compassion while others have breached it with judgement and vile. While I am not an authority on the correct diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders, I am familiar with depression-he is an unwelcome friend always lurking on the other side of the door.  These are my observations and experiences regarding depression.

Depression does not discriminate and most certainly does not prey solely on those of weak minds.  I did some research yesterday and was alarmed to find that many of the world’s most intelligent people have suffered from depression. Among them are Abe Lincoln, Charles Dickens, Isaac Newton, Winston Churchill, Sigmund Freud, Charles Darwin, Mark Twain, O’Keefe, Tolstoy and even Beethoven-all arguably people of extraordinary intellect and yet all victims of the darkness of the mind. I was further stunned to learn that the suicide rate of Christians is nearly the same as those who profess no particular faith, and that even ministers of the Gospel have fallen victim to suicide. If even clergy who have applied themselves  to advanced study of the Bible to be spiritual leaders are subjected to the fatality of depression, then we have little option but to recognize the scope of the battle many of us deal with in our minds.

Many who know me would describe me as a laid back, cool, easy going personality with a teflon approach to life.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  I keep locked in my mind a demon that is very real and always looking for ways to escape.  Few have seen me in the heat of these battles except my wife.  Miraculously she is still with me.  I have often accused God of toying with me for His amusement.  Don’t get me wrong, God certainly takes pleasure in testing me, sometimes without a chance to catch my breath, but the war that rages in me is not God sent but mentally seeded and exploited by those forces who would seek my eternal destruction.  And they are real.

The church has done a great disservice to many parishioners who have come to them for help in fighting depression. Many clergy mistakenly dismiss depression as just a bad perception of reality and in turn dismiss the legitimacy of the parishioner’s cries for help.  Others, feeling it’s strictly a spiritual matter, throw some oil on them and quote a Bible verse or two and send them home.  And then there are those who make their member feel completely shamed by “reminding” them of all the good things in their life, suggesting they have nothing to be depressed about, adding to their depression the burden of guilt.  As a result there has been a stigma placed on mental illness in the church that has left many people feeling isolated in their fight and ashamed to openly seek help from even their own Christian siblings. If one came to a pastor requesting prayer for lumps in the breast or chest pains the pastor would not hesitate to refer them to medical experts. Why should disorders of the mind be treated so differently?

And yet with all sickness there is hope. We must never be so disillusioned as to forget the magnitude of the God we profess and His ability to heal any disease. Even in the grips of our deepest despair nothing is to great for God to resolve.  We must also cling to the healing properties of hope, and do all that is within our power to find, recall, strain for and acquire the assurance that each of us who are in Christ possesses, the blessed hope of eternal life beyond the battles of our earthly existence. My bouts with depression are never so severe that a grandchild in my lap can’t bring a smile and reminder of God’s love for me.  But that is only possible with constant contact.  If I were ever left alone for long periods of time during these battles, with no one checking on me or simply being with me, who knows that I may a sad statistic. Depression requires comfort and comfort comes from the strong presence of peers, unlike the peers of Job as he struggled, who implied his troubles were his own doing and that he should just shake it off an move on.  Dealing with loved ones who are depressed requires love, patience and in some cases a tight lip.  It never requires judgment ridicule, guilt or shame.

Corrie Ten Boom, author of the best selling The Hiding Place, battled deep depression while she was in the German concentration camps.  I had the unique privilege of hearing her speak in person about the book and her ordeals in the midst of unimaginable circumstances.  This is an excerpt from one of her stories:

The Ten Booms, all devout Christians, had provided a hiding place in their home for persecuted Jews during World War II. Corrie, who was fifty-nine at the time of her arrest, was placed in an isolation cell for the first few weeks of her imprisonment. Depression and the struggle to maintain a sense of hope consumed her.

“Only to those who have been in prison does freedom have such great meaning. When you are dying – when you stand at the gate of eternity – you see things from a different perspective than when you think you may live for a long time. I [stood] at the gate for many months, living in Barracks 28 in the shadow of the crematorium.

Corrie lived within the smell and cries of the cremation chamber where many of her friends died.  Surely she felt isolated and depressed. and yet she clung to all she had, the hope of eventual salvation through Christ, and he miraculously restored her and allowed her story to touch the hearts of millions around the world.  She was imprisoned at the hands of the Nazis and by the chains of her mind, but the realness of the hope she held helped her survive.  We have the same hope within us.  Love those who are battling-hug those who are depressed-comfort them with compassion and if need be, help them seek treatment from those trained in the area of mental stress disorders.  Pray for them but don’t dismiss them as weak or immature in their faith journey.  No one but God knows the intensity of the battles being fought in a person’s mind.  No one but God can shed light on the healing hope in the darkness of warfare.