Conversation Starters

On a back road in Southern Illinois, heading home for a Memorial Day visit, I saw these words on a church sign in Thompsonville, Illinois:

Jesus is God’s selfie.

I love clever church signs as much as the next guy. And I understand the desire to engage the culture “where it’s at.”

As long as we don’t allow the discussion about Jesus to end there.

A selfie is just a representation of a person. And every selfie I’ve ever taken is a bad representation of me, at that.

But Jesus wasn’t just a flat, one-dimensional image of God. In a way, mankind more closely fills that role, since Genesis 1 says that we were made in God’s image.

But Jesus was so much more. It’s the hardest thing for our limited human minds to grasp, this concept of Jesus as fully man, but also fully God. Yet it’s the most important thing to remember when we consider what Jesus came to earth to do.

He was fully man, to taste the full scope of human experience. Hunger and thirst. Fatigue. Temptation. Danger. Joy at a wedding in Cana. Sorrow at a close friend’s death.

He was also fully God, to meet the needs of His people that only He can meet. Of course, some of those needs were physical, like food for the hungry and healing for the sick. More often, He answered the unspoken questions of the heart. Questions like, “Who is God, really?

In the end, he did what only God could do. He took the sins of all mankind, past, present, and future, on himself. He willingly laid down his own human life.

And then, he took it back up again.

That is some kind of selfie.

We have a great God.

So kudos to you, Mr. Church Sign Writer, for yet another pithy phrase that captures the imagination of our tech-distracted world.

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

Working Out

Though God in his threefold revelation has provided answers to our questions concerning Him, the answers by no means lie on the surface. They must be sought by prayer, by long meditation on the written Word, and by earnest and well-disciplined labor. However brightly the light may shine, it can be seen only by those who are spiritually prepared to receive it.

A.W. Tozer, Knowledge of the Holy

This is not just another rant on how people should slow down, simplify their lives, etc. Those things are probably true, at least for most people. But my message on this Sunday morning is for the church.

Attending Sunday morning worship is imperative. It’s specifically mentioned in Scripture, it’s transformative, and it keeps you connected as a member of the Body of Christ.

But if you leave the church feeling empty, or if the rest of your week isn’t filled with joy, don’t blame the preacher, elders, deacons, worship team, the guy running the videos, or your teen’s youth pastor.

It’s not their fault.

When A.W. Tozer wrote these words toward the end of his life more than 50 years ago, he wasn’t saying anything new. Paul called it “working out your salvation” (Philipians 2:12), which is ironic in 2016 given our society’s obsession with personal fitness. (I wonder if there’s an Aramaic or Latin translation for “working out?”)

Here’s another 2016 metaphor for the same thing: Investing. People invest in things they believe in, things they care about. Jesus even told parables about servants investing their masters’ money (Matthew 25:14 and following is a great example).

Tozer’s point? God has given each of us a priceless gift, the gift of time on this Earth. If you’re reading these words today, you are a recipient of that gift, as I am. But if your desire is to know God in this lifetime, and not just in the next, then give that gift of time back to God, invest it, in study of His Word, in community with fellow Christians, in worship, and in service to others.

C’mon, man, time to work out.

Close Calls

Ordinarily, we want our children to obey authority, right? Well, there was one time when it almost didn’t work out so well….

During a family trip to Washington DC one Spring Break many moons ago, we came to a stop on the Metro near the Smithsonian Museums, and our entire 8-person group started the processional of filing out the train, with my son with Down syndrome bringing up the rear. That was usually not a problem, except just as the person in front of him stepped off the train, a very authoritative female voice came over the PA system and said, “Step back! Doors are closing.” Stephen, ever the dutiful oldest child, stopped in his tracks, took a step back, and waited.

“Stephen, come on!” We all yelled the same words, almost like a chorus in an ancient Greek tragedy, aware that if he didn’t get off that train now, we might have to pick him up in Baltimore.  Still totally confused, Stephen still didn’t move. The doors started to close.

That’s when the “Dad instincts” kicked in.

With a shout of “NO!” I sprinted the 30 feet back to the train, pried the almost-closed doors back open, and pulled Stephen off the train. To hear my kids tell this story (and they do), I exerted Hercluean effort to open those doors. In reality, as soon as the automatic doors sensed my resistance, they reopened with no effort from me at all.

After a few minutes to catch our breath (first, I was really out of shape, and second, we were all scared to death) after that close call, we realized that we had been given a highly teachable moment.  There was absolutely no way we could be angry with Stephen. He simply followed what, in most cases, were reliable directions from a trustworthy source. The more important lesson for Stephen, and for the other three kids as well, was to pick wisely which authoritative voice you obey. Is it the automated voice on the train? Or is it Mom and Dad yelling, “Get off the train!”?

The Word of God warns us many times of false teachers and messages the world will ask us to believe. In fact, a 2013 article on Bible.org by Stephen Cole (find it here) states that warning against false teachings is emphasized more than anything else in the New Testament. So, what this near-catastrophe allowed us to share with our kids is what Paul shared with the early Church in Romans 16:19: “For the report of your obedience has reached to all; therefore I am rejoicing over you, but I want you to be wise in what is good and innocent in what is evil.” In other words, knowing which voice teaches good and which voice teaches evil requires wisdom, and wisdom comes from God.

Today, almost 10 years later, I think that lesson sunk in. Praise God.

Together, With a Capital “T”

While we’re on the theme of grandparents…..

What does a seven-year-old like better then a ride around town with Grandpa in his pickup truck on a Saturday afternoon? Not much, especially when that drive includes a stop at Dairy Queen for ice cream or McDonald’s for some fries. So it was for me on a chilly, overcast day in the fall of 1969. There wasn’t a lot of foot traffic in that small southern Illinois town that day, but just at the intersection of Sloan St. and Webster St., we passed a man walking on the sidewalk who was about my grandpa’s age at the time (mid-60s). At just that moment, Grandpa made several funny gestures with his left hand. And, to my seven-year-old amazement, the man on the sidewalk did exactly the same thing with his left hand!

I was scared to death to ask my grandpa what had just happened, so I waited until my Mom  (his daughter) was with us. Turns out that Grandpa and the gentleman were both members of the local chapter of a national fraternal organization. Those secret hand signs helped members feel the bond of belonging to a common group.

The need to belong is universal to mankind. “Belonging” leads to feeling accepted, valued and loved. The times of the greatest unhappiness in my life, whether in a job, with my family, or in any circumstance, came when I’ve felt like I’m on the outside.

My son Stephen is the undisputed family leader when it comes to bringing others into our lives. Anytime we’re planning an event or activity, regardless of what it is, Stephen suggests that we invite our friends to join us. To him, it’s not about what we’re doing. Chances are he’s been to that restaurant, movie theater, baseball game, etc. countless times before. No, it’s about enjoying the experience with them. Stephen longs for the experience of togetherness.

As is often the case, Stephen has it right.

God’s design for the Church is the we do life together. But that’s “Together,” with a capital “T.” You see, the Bible tells us that it’s not God’s will that anyone should perish, but that all should repent and be saved through Jesus Christ. John 3:16, that famous passage, says that God so loved the world that he gave his Son, that whoever believes in him would not die but have everlasting life. It doesn’t say that God so loved only part of the world, or that he loved only those who loved him back. Christ’s Great Commission? Go to the ends of the earth and make disciples of all nations.

Satan would like nothing better than for Christians to treat their faith like an exclusive club. Keep it to yourself, he says. Speak only in terms that other Christians understand.

Because I know Jesus and want to show him my love by obeying His commands, I can’t keep His story to myself. But how do I share Him? For starters, wouldn’t it be great for those who follow Jesus Christ not to speak only in “Christianese” and have secret handshakes? Shouldn’t I bring the message of Jesus’ love and redemption for our sins to those who haven’t heard of Him using terms and cultural context that they understand? Shouldn’t I want to help others see how Jesus is meaningful to them in their lives, right where they are, not just how he is meaningful to me in mine?

It might take more time to share Jesus this way. I might have to listen more to learn about the lives of those who don’t yet know Him. But like Stephen, I long to experience the love and redemptive power of Jesus Christ with them.

People-Watching

Don’t lie, you love to do this too.

Sitting in a coffee shop on a Saturday morning writing this blog post, I’m taking in everything that’s going on around me.  Couples are enjoying each other’s company.  Young families are grabbing some breakfast before their youth sports game of choice (baseball and soccer seem to be the favorites today). There’s a business meeting happening at the table beside me. Tables of 8-10 friends are meeting for whatever reason.  And then there are the guys like me plunking away on computers typing who knows what.

At 53, I’m not the oldest person here.  Still, I’ve lived long enough to be in the position of each and every person here, at least once. I’ve held several business meetings, met friends, joined in group Bible studies. I could swear I saw a younger version of myself when a young dad in a baseball cap walked by carrying his 2-year-old daughter in his arms.

This post is not just a walk down memory lane, as fun as that is.  It’s about contentment. My contentment issues have rarely been associated with material things. No, I’ve always struggled with, as Paul so aptly puts it, the “pride of life.” In other words, I’ve most often been discontent about who I am. Position, prestige, how others viewed me.

I won’t bore you with a roller-coaster account of my contentment issues.  But what people-watching in this coffee shop has shown me today is that I’ve lived a really full life, even at the young age of 53. I certainly hope to live a much longer life, but in the end, I’ve experienced just about everything that a 53-year-old man should experience.  And, thank God, I’ve not yet experienced many of the bad things that others my age have already gone through.

As with almost everything in life, contentment is a choice. So many times, I chose not to see the good that God had given me. Instead, I longed to be somebody God didn’t make me to be, or to be someone I wasn’t ready to be. Those have been the unhappiest times of my life. And, I’m sure I’ll always struggle with that.

But today, after people-watching in a coffee shop, it’s a little easier to choose contentment.

 

Lessons From a Broken Gas Gauge

In the early 1980s, summers in Kansas City were wonderful. More fountains than Paris, beautiful flowers and foliage, and at the time, pretty good baseball too (we had this guy on the Royals named George Brett — you might want to look him up). One of the oldest and largest parks in Kansas City, Swope Park, housed a beautiful outdoor theater known as Starlight Theater. On a glorious Saturday night in July 1984, my fiance and I decided to take in a show there. I don’t know what we saw, but I can guarantee it was excellent.

I was just 21, about to graduate from college, and engaged to my high school sweetheart. At the time, I drove a school-bus yellow Oldsmobile Omega, and even though the car was only three years old, it already had a broken gas gauge. At any given time, I really didn’t have any idea how much gas I had in the tank. So we dressed up, me in a nice suit and my fiance in a dress, and we took off in the Omega for Starlight. I chose not to put gas in the car that night, believing I had enough to make it to the park and get her home.

I was very wrong.

When the car finally ran out of gas, it was on a street in a relatively safe area of Kansas City Missouri, and thankfully just a couple of blocks from a gas station. Knowing my issues with the gas gauge, at least I had the forethought to keep an empty gas can in the car. So, my fiance and I walked to the gas station, filled the can, and began the three-block walk back to the car.

About a block away from the car, a older man pulled up alongside us as we walked on the sidewalk. He drove the car slowly beside us, matching the pace of our walk, watching us intently the entire time. I looked over at him once, but I didn’t acknowledge his stare.  I told my fiance to just keep walking. After about 20 seconds of tracking us step for step, he pulled away.

I don’t know what his intentions were. I’m hoping that he just wanted to help, but, seeing that I was carrying a gas can and walking away from the station, he assumed we were fine. Still, the very real possibility exists that his thoughts were far from honorable.

As I write this on Mother’s Day almost 32 years after that night, I am so thankful that God didn’t allow the consequences of my poor choices to have tragic effects. Because of his mercy toward us, my then fiance (now my wife) can celebrate this Mother’s Day as the mom of four grown children, the mother-in-law of one (so far), and the daughter of one of the finest mothers on the planet.

We will make bad choices. We’re human, there’s no way around it. And while Jesus chose to die on the cross so that we can be forgiven of our bad choices (sin) and not have to endure eternal consequences, the fact remains that our bad choices have consequences here on earth that can’t always be avoided.

My real problem on that Saturday in July 1984 was that I allowed one bad choice to be followed by another.  First, I had chosen not to have the gas gauge repaired.  I followed the first bad choice with a second one, choosing not to top off the gas tank before we left. Those choices, compounded together, could have led my life, and the life of my fiance, to places we definitely didn’t want to go.

There is a way to avoid compounding bad choices.  First, take advantage of the free gift of forgiveness of sins that Jesus Christ offers.  Then, learn from Him how to see where choices made today will lead in the future. It takes only a small correction to get back on the right path after just one bad choice. But after several unwise choices in a row, well, it’s a much longer and more difficult road.

It was a hot, humid, muggy Kansas City Monday morning in July 1984, as I was driving my yellow Omega to the service department at our local Oldsmobile dealer…..

In our Bible study a couple of weeks before Easter, we started looking at the first chapter of Genesis. While this was not the focus of the study, my mind started to consider how the story of the Creation itself — the first six days outlined in Genesis 1 — relates to the redemption of man through Jesus Christ’s death on the cross and his resurrection. So what does the Creation story really have to do with Easter?  There are clear pictures of Christ’s victory over Satan later in Genesis (God’s proclamation to the serpent in Genesis 3:15 that Eve’s offspring will crush its head), but in Genesis 1, the pictures of God’s redemptive plan are less well-defined.  Still, they’re there. Here are some of the observations from our group’s discussion.

1.  Abundant Majesty.  First, think about existing forever, from this moment on until eternity. (That’s your destiny, you know — existing forever, either in heaven with God, or in hell, eternally separated from God.)  Now, try to imagine something or someone that has always existed, in the forever that preceded today.  That’s even harder to grasp.  But it illustrates the majesty of God, majesty that existed for the eternity before anything else, and dominion without limits.  And the New Testament, where Jesus is also referred to as the Word, tells us that Jesus was there, too.  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1)

2.  Awesome Power.  Once you’ve tried to wrap your mind around God’s this aspect of his majesty (there are countless others), then think about an eternally preexisting God using materials that were “formless” and “void” and turning them into the heavens and the earth just by saying so.  Does this sound like a God who has the power to cause a virgin to give birth to his only son, give that son as a sacrifice for the world’s sins, and raise that son from the dead on the third day after his death? To quote famous Alaska politician Sarah Palin, you betcha.

3.  Absolute Holiness.  God Is a God of order.  God’s creation of the Earth and the heavens happened exactly in the order it needed to happen for the next day’s creation to survive. First, God separated the waters from the heavens (day two).  He then separated the waters from dry land and made plants for food (day three). He filled the waters with fish (day 4), made land animals (day five), and finally, man (day 6).  And on day 7, he rested.

God’s precision in ordering Creation reminds me of his absolute holiness.  Like his Creation, God’s redemption plan also has an “order” that must be followed — the shedding of blood — for the remission of sins.  Ever since the Passover in Egypt, the Israelites understood that this “order” for the forgiveness of sin involved shedding the blood of a spotless, blemishless, perfect lamb.  His ultimate plan, the one sacrifice for all and for all time, was for the shedding of the blood of the perfect lamb.  As John the Baptist testified, this perfect lamb was Jesus Christ, “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29).  Just as God’s creation of the world and man was in perfect order, so was man’s redemption in perfect order, and in God’s perfect time.

4.  Amazing Love.  In Genesis 1:26-28, God said that man was to fill the earth, subdue his creation, and rule over it.  In other words, God entrusted His creation to man! I don’t know about you, but I won’t turn over the keys to a creation of mine unless I’m really fond of the person to whom I’ve giving that control. Turns out, that’s exactly how God feels about man, except that his “fondness” — his amazing love — was so great that he sent his Son to die on a cross.  “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, so that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.” John 3:16.

The final question that we ask in our Bible study each week is this: “What are you going to do about what we learned this week, and who are you going to tell?”  My mind drifted, thinking of the actions I could take, the people I could witness to, the things I would say. (I settled on writing this blog article.)  But one dear woman in our group had an even better idea: “I’m going to plant a flower.” A simple act that communicates the beauty and creativity of God to the world.  Wish I’d thought of that.

 

 

 

Go to the Land I Will Show You

Forty-five minutes in the car to work each way, every day. Forty-five minutes.  For those of you in America’s largest cities, that may be a common commute, but in Kansas, that was a long time.  And with four kids under the age of 8, it had to stop. So, my wife and I decided to move away from the small college town we loved and started looking for a plot of land on which to build our home in the city where my job was located.  After a lot of prayer and research, we had narrowed down our choices to two neighborhoods under construction, and one bright spring morning in 1999, we drove the entire family to the sales office of the development on the top of our list.

In my experience, it was rare for God to intervene in our lives in such a significant way on a single day.  The last time that had happened, to my memory, was eight years earlier when our oldest son Stephen was born with Down Syndrome (that’s a story for another blog post!).

But on that day, God abruptly changed the direction of our lives, forever.

As we excitedly entered the sales office, we cheerfully announced to the salesperson, “We’re here to buy a lot in your development today!” “I’m sorry, sir,” the sales person said.  “Our development company was just purchased by another company, and we’re unable to sell you a lot for at least two weeks.” And if that wasn’t enough, the salesperson then dropped this lead balloon: “Oh, and when the lots go back on the market, they will cost about $20,000 more.”  That increase would have nearly doubled the price of the lot!

When we got back to our minivan (didn’t every young family have a minivan back in 1999?), my wife and I knew exactly what had just happened.  God had just closed a door, and he had done so in a very big way.  However, we still felt God’s leading to move closer to my work, so we headed to the second development on our list.  We entered the sales office, less confidently this time, and said, “We’re interested in looking at some lots in your development.”

God wasn’t done leading us, again in a very big way, and on that very same day.

The salesperson smiled. “Good thing you stopped by today.  I have only one lot left, and it’s in the culdesac across the street from the new elementary school.” As our kids’ ages ranged from preschool to 3rd grade, that location was music to our ears.  And the lot was the same price as the lots in the first development, before the price increase.

It’s easy to doubt that God has plans for even our lives’ smallest details.  And believe me, on that spring day in 1999, the words of Jeremiah 29:11 were far from our minds: “I know the plans, I have for you, declares the Lord; plans to prosper you and not to harm you; plans for a hope and a future.”  When we should have been rejoicing that God was revealing his plan to us in concrete ways right before our eyes, instead we felt disappointment and uncertainty. We couldn’t possibly see where God was leading us.  As it turns out, God had just pushed over the first domino in the string of dominoes he set out for us.

We stayed on that culdesac for five years.  We made lifelong friends there.  One of the families there introduced us to the church we now attend, which over time has led to several more friends who are now like family to us. In 1999, that culdesac had 13 young families and more than 30 kids under the age of 13.  We had Memorial Day picnics, movie nights on a neighbor’s patio, Father’s Day talent shows, more basketball games than I could possibly count, street hockey, and football games.  There were also some tears, broken windows, hurt feelings, and misunderstandings.  But most of all, there was a whole lot of love for each other. And, even though we left that culdesac eight years ago for an older, less expensive home in the same town, our lives today are still very much impacted by the fact that God, on a single day in the spring of 1999, showed us exactly where he wanted us to build our home.

Yes, God had plans for us.  Big plans.  God has plans for you, too.  And his plans are good.

How has God led you in the past? Enter your comments below and tell how God has shown himself to you and your family.