Love Is…..

A spring break trip to Waco, Texas last month landed us at the Magnolia Market, the home of the design and decor empire founded by HGTV’s Chip and Joanna Gaines. We were well aware of the Gaines’ Christian faith before we arrived. And true to form,  beautiful items of home decor incorporating Bible verses into their designs surrounded us as we toured the store and grounds.

The sign in the picture above took me back to our wedding, on a muggy June day in 1985. It’s a complete rendering of 1 Corinthians 13:4-8, known as the “Love Chapter.” And it’s beautiful.

Back in the mid-1980s, I didn’t know much about the verses in 1 Corinthians 13. I knew it was trendy to read those verses in Christian weddings, but that was about it. At the time, I’d been a Christian for only about 10 years. I was just 22, and hadn’t even begun to spiritually mature. Reading these verses at my wedding just made sense.

Now, after 34 years of marriage and a whole lot of living, it’s clear to me that these verses aren’t just for weddings.

“What’s love got to do with it?” Tina Turner asked in her iconic 1980s hit. And this question could easily represent our culture’s approach to life. Other than romantic love, which today is mixed up in so many ways, what does “love” have to do with business? With life? Consider this:

Who gets better results, the doctor with a terrible bedside manner, or the caring professional?

The secret of the care of the patient is caring for the patient. — Francis W. Peabody, M.D., 1925

Love is patient, love is kind.  – 1 Cor. 13:4

Which leader gets better results, the one who claims all the glory for himself, or the one who involves and gives credit to his team?

Love does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking. – 1 Cor. 13:4-5

Which police officer provides better public safety, the one who sees his beat as “just a job,” or the dedicated public servant who truly cares about the welfare of the community he serves?

Love always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. – 1 Cor. 13:7

Which teacher’s students perform better, the teacher who loathes spending time with children, or the one who cherishes the young lives he or she is entrusted with and wants to guide them on the path toward becoming strong, functioning adults?

And for you ladies, which hairsylist do you look forward to seeing again every four weeks, the one who only cares about collecting your fee, or the one who makes you feel beautiful just because of the time you spent with her?

And finally, who has the happier life, the one who holds on to perceived slights, or the one who freely forgives others?

Holding a grudge is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die. – Saint Augustine

Love keeps no record of wrongs. – 1 Cor. 13:5

So, as Tina asked, what does love have to do with it?  Only this:

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. – 1 Cor. 1-3

Without love, whatever I say means nothing.

Without love, regardless of what I can do, I am nothing.

Without love, I gain nothing.

The bottom line? Love is…everything.

It’s All Right to be Little Bitty

Fame.

In 2019’s social-media driven world, it’s all about being famous.

Today’s American culture considers entertainers, sports stars and “influencers” as the only people who are really important. That’s why the simple, plaintive words of the old country song “It’s All Right to be Little Bitty” speak so loudly to me, because they stand in such stark contrast. How appropriate that these words were written by Tom T. Hall, a man known in country music circles as “The Storyteller,” for they tell a story that everyone should hear, and take to heart.

It’s all right to be little bitty,

From a little hometown or a big ol’ city.

Might as well share, Might as well smile,

Life goes on for a little bitty while.

Tom T. Hall, 1996

This is not a condemnation of all social media. After all, I’m using social media to get this message out, and make others aware of it. But my heart, and I believe God’s heart, grieves the negative influence social media has when it leads readers to compare their lives with the non-reality often presented there. I’m not immune to this, either.

More than ever, it’s important for believers to “take their thoughts captive” in order to not fall prey to the “comparison flu.” And while they’re not scriptural, the lyrics of this song, at least for me, redirect my thinking away from what I don’t have, and who I’m not, to what is real, and what is true.

What is “little bitty?”

No one’s life is “small.” There’s at least one person out there, and more likely many people, to whom each person alive is a “big deal.” Are kids are a big deal to their parents? Uh, yeah. And even though many teenagers will deny it, parents aren’t “little bitty” to their kids, either. Wait until you lose one, like I did this last October.

To use an example from the work world, think about the people who live on a garbage collector’s route. To them, that garbage collector is a very big deal.

For each of us, there is only the territory – the family, work, and other relationships – given to you or to me by God. Whether God chooses to expand your or my territory, as prayed by Jabez in 1 Chronicles 4:9-10, is strictly God’s decision. And yes, God definitely cares how well each of us cares for the territory he’s given to us, both relationally and in our work.

Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive an inherticance as your reward.  – Colossians 3:23-24 (ESV)

I bet Martin Luther King Jr. had this verse in mind when he said these words:

If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michaelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.’

What is success?

To a world that doesn’t understand God, “success” equates to income, power and position. But does God see success that way? When answering this question, I’m reminded of the scene in Steven Spielberg’s great animated movie, “Prince of Egypt,” when after rescuing Jethro’s daughters from bandits at a desert well, Moses objects to Jethro throwing a feast for him because “I’ve done nothing worthy of honor.” In response, Jethro wisely says, “It seems you do not know what is worthy of honor.”

Perhaps 21st century America doesn’t know what really defines success.

Honoring your promises to the spouse of your youth. Knowing your kids, being known by them, and being the kind of parent they should follow. Not taking the easy way out, like drugs, alcohol, and divorce, when things get tough. Taking care of your parents when they’re older and unable to take care of themselves.

Those aren’t my definitions of success.  They’re in the Bible. Check ‘em out. In fact, Colossians 3 in the New Testament (the entire chapter) is a great place to start.

Called to be “little bitty”

But most importantly, John the Baptist, as he talked about Jesus Christ, set the ultimate standard for success on earth.

            He must increase, but I must decrease. – John 3:30

So to “decrease,” do I need to disappear? To withdraw from life, to cease to exist? Not unless God calls me home, because otherwise the people God gave me to reach won’t hear about Him.

For me to decrease in my own life, Jesus Christ must increase.

He must increase in my thoughts, in my speech, in my deeds. He must increase in my dependence on Him. And my love for Him must increase.

When those things happen, the focus on myself naturally decreases, and the power of my witness for Him will increase.

No, I won’t go away. But I will become “little bitty.”

Because what I want others to see when they see me…is Him.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Where There is Mourning, There is Love

We spent some of the waning hours of 2018 saying goodbye to one of my best friends’ 95-year-old father. In 2018, I was privileged to join in the celebration of home-going for the fathers of two of our dearest friends. I also said a final goodbye to my own dad.

My friend had the God-given strength to give the message at the funeral service himself.

He described his dad as a “giant of the faith,” and I could not more wholeheartedly agree. His father was a missionary to the African Congo for eight years, a Bible college professor, a pastor, and in later years, an assistant funeral director. He was always serving others.

And as God usually does, He chose to teach me at this funeral with just a single verse. This is not a verse for lightweights, so you won’t hear it at most funerals.

It was perfect for this one.

It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of everyone; the living should take this to heart. – Ecclesiastes 7:2

For many, this verse is a painful reminder of one of life’s certainties. But it also begs the question: Why is it better to mourn than to feast? The answer came quickly, as I set there in the pew:

Where there is mourning, there is love.

I’ll admit, most feasts I attend are with people who love each other. But it’s not a requirement. People can (and often do) feast with total strangers for all types of reasons. I just don’t get around enough to attend those feasts.

But you can’t truly mourn without a deep, abiding love.

Mourning a loss brings people together in a way nothing else can. Some, like his direct family or close friends, deeply loved my friend’s father. Others may not have known him, but deeply love his family and friends, and mourned their loss with them. My family is blessed to love both the man, and his family.

Still others were loved by this giant of the faith. Many at that funeral mourned simply because my friend’s father loved them. And countless others, many living in the remotest parts of Africa, would have also honored him at his funeral, had they known of his passing and had the means to get there.

I’m eternally grateful to say that my friend’s father also loved me.

These days, we have the Internet, the “world-wide web” as it is called, with Internet addresses even starting with the initials “www.” The funeral is available to be seen around the world using this modern communication tool.

But “world-wide webs” aren’t new. Jesus started one when he told his disciples, after his resurrection, that they would be witnesses of the Gospel to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to “the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). The life of my friend’s father is further proof. A life lived for others, through the love of Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit, will create a web of love around the world. Not everyone’s web will reach quite as far as my my friend’s father’s does, but you will be surprised how far your web of love will go.

Better to be in a house of mourning, indeed.

 

God’s Daily Reboot

When a computer malfunctions, how often is the answer as simple as turning the computer off, and then turning it back on?

In my experience, usually the computer starts right back up again, working just fine. Whatever went wrong before disappears.

Our lives have a God-designed reboot button as well. It’s called night.

As I drove to work this morning, I noticed the marked difference between the landscape in the early morning sun on a clear day, and how it looks in the evening as I’m driving home. The clean and bright baby blue and yellow hues of morning give way to the muted oranges and reds of the evening. Even though the sun is at the same angle, just in the west instead of the east, the evening sun’s light strikes the landscape differently. The day just feels older.

In fact, on a clear day I’m confident that I could still tell whether it was morning or evening, even if I didn’t know the time or what direction the sun was coming from, just by stepping outside.

Jeremiah, the likely author of the book of Lamentations in the Old Testament, knew just what I’m talking about:

The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. — Lamentations 3:22-23 (ESV)

Like the sun striking the countryside after dawn, life’s struggles look a little different in the newness of each day. I’ve heard it said that God‘s economy allows for “do overs,” which Jesus Christ made possible through His death on the cross and His resurrection. Whatever happened in the past is irrelevant, if our faith is in Him. No, lost time won’t magically reappear. The consequences of past sin remain very real. And the coming day won’t be perfect. But the opportunity to make the best of life, by living for Jesus, starts anew each morning.

The morning light is a picture of God‘s daily renewal. The Bible’s description of Jesus as “the bright and morning star” takes on a whole new meaning. Now comes the hard part:

I have to choose it.

Electing to view the problems and sorrows of life the same way as before follows that old saying, “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.” Others might even think of the definition of “insanity:” Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results each time.

Accepting Jesus Christ’s free offer of salvation and renewal can break the cycle of despair, and allow God to renew your life as he promises to do. Someone very close to me once said that he thought he was too far gone for this life-changing grace to reach him. What better time than in the morning, when minds are fresh, to meet with God and let his Word show you how Jesus Christ makes all things new, including you, and that no one is out of reach of His grace and mercy.

And I’ll never look at rebooting a computer the same way.

 

 

 

 

 

The Water, The Bowl, and the Teachable Moment

For my #ThrowbackThursday offering, here’s a Maundy Thursday post, originally published last year.  This lesson is one all Christians, and especially Christian leaders, need today more than ever.  May you all have a blessed Easter!

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Jesus had a lot of opportunities to teach his disciples while on Earth. Object lessons, lessons that couldn’t be learned in any way other than being in his presence. Like Peter walking on the water, but then sinking when he took his eyes off Jesus. There were miraculous creations of wine and food, healings, and raising others from the dead. And oh yes, the sermons.

And yet, he saved one of his greatest lessons on leadership for one of his final teaching opportunities, that Last Supper night more than 2000 years ago.

Jesus — the only begotten Son, the Creator, who in just three days would defeat death and Hell itself — took on the garb of a servant and washed his disciples dirty, dusty feet.

So why did Jesus wait until the end of his ministry to wash his disciples feet? Why wait until his time on Earth with his disciples was almost over to drive home the point that leaders serve, and aren’t just served? He had talked with the disciples about this before (see Mark 10:43-44).  So why deliver this message in such a powerful way at the end?

We don’t know for sure, because the Bible doesn’t say. One thing we do know: This message was important to Jesus.

Peter, if I don’t wash your feet, you have no part with me. – John 13:8

Maybe it’s because the disciples took the opportunity in the Upper Room to squabble about which of them would be greater in the Kingdom (see Luke 22:24-30). Maybe it was clear that the lessons Jesus taught earlier just hadn’t sunk in.

And perhaps there was yet another reason, one based on simple human nature.

Modern educators often reference the principle of “primacy and recency.” Learners tend to remember best what they heard first, and what they heard last. 

The very word “disciple” means “follower.” The disciples had been followers of Jesus for three years. And they had heard a lot of messages from Jesus up until that point.

But this time was different.  Jesus knew the time for His arrest, trial, crucifixion, and resurrection was near.  And, the disciples’ time for merely following was nearly over. Their time to lead was about to begin. And a refresher of what it meant to be a leader was in order.

In a span of just a few weeks, these men would cease being just “disciples” and become “Apostles.” Message carriers. Holy Spirit bearers. Called by Jesus Himself to take the good news of His Gospel to the ends of the Earth, and to show the infant church by example what it really means to follow Jesus.

Perhaps Jesus saved this lesson for the end because this time, it really needed to stick. The young church would face enough obstacles to its survival for its leaders to act superior to its members.

Leaders of today, no matter who you lead, pay heed. Serving those who follow you is your leadership.

 

May I Have This Dance

Has the weight of just a thought ever taken your breath away?

Happened to me just this morning.

Maybe it’s the fact that my daughter’s wedding is now less than two months away, and she was in town this past weekend for her first bridal shower. Maybe it’s this fact that this afternoon, my wife and I are attending a funeral for a long-time family friend who lost her battle with cancer. Her two kids are the same age as my middle two kids.

No matter the reason, here’s the thought that left me struggling to breathe:

A husband and wife, in their 80s, dancing cheek-to-cheek in their kitchen.

It’s so easy to say, “Aren’t they cute? They still love each other, after all these years.” But have you thought about what that dance really represents?

  • Millions of miles together in the same car.
  • Tens of thousands of nights together in the same bed.
  • Depending on how many kids they had, thousands, or tens of thousands, of diaper changes.
  • Countless ER visits, late nights with sick kids, and broken hearts.
  • Graduations, weddings, births, and then round two of graduations, weddings, and births.
  • Deaths of their grandparents, their parents, their siblings, and occasionally, their children and even grandchildren.
  • Several major health scares, surgeries, and treatments.

Those of you who have lived it know that this list isn’t even close to exhaustive. And to top it all off, society has changed so extensively, and so rapidly, that the elderly couple can be left wondering if they’re even still relevant.

As my thoughts sunk in, a physical weight rested on my chest. The sheer magnitude of two lifetimes, lived together and for each other, was more than I could bear.

Anyone looking for miracles in the modern age need look no farther than the couple celebrating an anniversary of 50 years or more.  God’s design for marriage, and God himself, for those who choose Him, make it possible to complete the journey.

Even to your old age and gray hairs I am he, I am he who will sustain you. I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you. – Isaiah 46.4

And for another post: What the elderly still have to give to their families and communities. Here’s a hint: They’re not only still relevant, they’re the missing link to sustaining our society.

I’ll never look at an elderly couple dancing the same way again.

Courage

What does real courage look like to you?

To me, right now, it looks like a sister-in-law who is going through cancer treatment for a second time in 10 years.

It’s knowing the suffering she’s sure to face during the treatments, and choosing to go through them anyway, because the desired result is the best for those she loves.

Even though she’s near the end of her chemo treatment, the suffering is still real.  And intense.

Where does courage like that come from? Knowing her deep, abiding faith in Jesus Christ, the easy Sunday-school answer is readily apparent.

But that’s only part of the story.

For faith to mean anything in our lives, we have to allow our faith to move us to a conviction to act.

Once that belief becomes a deep conviction, things begin to happen. — Muhammad Ali

It’s on us to incorporate our faith into our lives. And the conviction that grows out of living out our faith — that we’re doing the right thing — leads to courage.

I can do all things through Jesus Christ, who strengthens me.  — Phillipians 4:13

My sister-in-law is living this out beautifully, today, right now.

By the way, haven’t we heard another story about someone who knew the suffering he would face, and yet chose to endure that suffering because the end result was the best for those he loves?

Yeah, I thought so.

 

Real Power

“We’re moving your daughter back to the ICU.”

What?!? Why?

The call on my cell phone shattered our somewhat peaceful dinner at the Med Center’s cafeteria with dear friends. We ran back to her hospital room as quickly as we could.

We had watched her get sicker all day long, with no idea why. Extreme lethargy, no appetite, and then vomiting.  It was less than a week after her traumatic brain injury, and it was imperative to keep her calm and quiet, to reduce the risk of further brain bleeds.

After the bout of vomiting, when she was again calm and resting, we took the opportunity to get something to eat in preparation for yet another long night.

While we were gone, the nephrologist (kidney doctor) made her rounds, took one look at our daughter’s lab results over the course of the day, and ordered an immediate transfer back to ICU. My phone rang at dinner with the news.

Praise God for excellent doctors. That doctor saved her life that night.

It’s common for head injury patients to experience a “sodium crash,” where the body’s sodium (i.e., salt) levels drop to where the body can’t function. Too little sodium, and like my daughter, you get really sick.

Brain seizure-type sick. Had that happened, she likely would have died.

And all because her bloodstream had slightly less salt than normal. Things can start happening even with a small drop out of the normal range.

Now that’s power. Like a single candle illuminates an entire dark room, just a little salt can determine life and death.

As the Creator of the Universe, Jesus knew this. But the science of his day didn’t yet fully understand the role of salt in the human bloodstream, so I’m not surprised that he didn’t use this medical analogy when talking about salt in Luke 14:34. Would’ve gone right over their heads.

But as a 21st Century father whose child has experienced a “sodium crash,” the point is not lost on me.

Just like salt, followers of Jesus Christ can have a big impact everywhere God has placed them. But, if they let the world take away their witness, the impact is lost, and the world is a little sicker for it.

Of course, getting my daughter’s sodium levels back to normal wasn’t as simple as feeding her more salt. After a complex medical procedure and the infusion of more powerful saline solution directly into her bloodstream, in a couple of hours she was much better, alert and calm.

And best of all, hungry.

The Day After Christmas

Twas the day after Christmas

And all through my brain

I can’t help but wonder

What happened yesterday?


Perhaps it’s the excess

Of food in my belly

That’s turned all my thoughts

Into bowls full of jelly.


Or maybe the fact

That just a moment ago

The floor was covered with presents –

Where did they all go?


 But my biggest concern –

Did Christ receive glory?

Was His father pleased?

Did we remember His story?


 And now, a day later

Are we different than before?

Do we praise ourselves less?

Do we love others more?


 So, my prayer for all of us

This late Christmas season –

We’ll use His birth as a springboard

His life as the reason


To take Him to the world

Like the drummer boy drumming

Be the light we’re called to be —

 ‘Cause it’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming.


Perspective, Promise and Presence

There are just two things I want to know when I start hiking a trail.

Where does it go?

And how hard will it be?

For me, the trail is a metaphor for life. For the passage of time. For choices made and not made.

I’m also fascinated by the fact that inverting just two letters in the word “trail” creates a word that is completely different and yet so closely related.

You see, it’s always during the times of trial in my life that the trail of my life is the most obscure. You know, those times when life throws a curve. In my case, it was the birth of a son with Down syndrome. Then, the loss of a career job. And later, a traumatic brain injury to my youngest daughter. For others, it’s a catastrophic illness, or the disintegration of a family.

Perspective

The Bible teaches that God’s perspective on trials is 180 degrees from the world’s view.

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.  Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. — James 1:2-4

How can James possibly expect us to rejoice in our trials? During times of trial, even the next single step is uncertain.

Promise

I’ve always loved the quote from Michelango when he said, as he was staring at a plain rectangular block of marble:

The sculpture is already complete within the marble block, before I start my work. It is already there, I just have to chisel away the superfluous material.

The same is true for each life’s trail, when faced with the apparently impassable jungle of a trial. The trail is already there; it’s been there since the beginning of time. No, it isn’t marked, at least not that you can see; but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been set out for you by God.

Presence

It’s during the times of trial that God allows us to participate in finding the trail where none appears to exist.  So even though you don’t have a paper map, and the GPS on your phone doesn’t have what it takes, lean on and lean into God. He, through his Word, is your map.

I gain understanding from your precepts; therefore I hate every wrong path. Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path. – Psalm 119:104-105