Wednesday, December 28, 2011

15 Minutes

   I saw a commercial recently which informed me that I could have a rock hard 6-pack of abs if I was willing to devote just 15 minutes per day........Wow..........A rock hard 6-pack, huh? In just 15 minutes per day? Really? Sounds like a small investment for such a huge benefit.
   I saw another one that said I could learn a whole new language.........and speak it fluently.....with the same time commitment.
   I saw another that said I could have a "beach-body.".........I'm assuming that they didn't mean a "beached whale body."..........Or a manatee........Because somehow I think that might be worse.
   Then there were the ones that told me I could learn to cook like a master chef, improve my comprehension by 75%, save 50% on my monthly groceries, or earn a degree in robotics while sitting in my underwear by my computer without ever having to leave the comfort of my own home.
   I could thicken my thinning hair..........remove all that gray.........and wipe away the wrinkles on my face and the bags under my eyes.
   I was trying to put all of this together, and it occured to me that if I devoted about 2 hours per day to all of these things.........I'd be incredible...........I'd hot and incredibly intelligent.
   We've all seen the infomercials, right? Sometimes we're tempted to bite on the offers. Come on......Don't lie.....You know you've been tempted. But what do we all know in the back of our minds? There's just no way that spending only 15 minutes per day will give us the body of a supermodel, the complexion of a 12 year-old, or a brilliant mind.
   Of course, now that I've perked up the cynical mind within all of you, I'm going to throw my own little sales pitch at you..........No, I'm not selling Amway.
   What if I told you that if you dedicated just 15 minutes per day doing what I tell you to do, you can change everything in your life. and possibly even change the world? Crazy, huh? Worse than crazy........completely insane, right? Well, just hear me out.
   I don't know what your daily schedule is. I don't know how hectic your job or home life is. But this much I know: We all have 15 minutes somewhere in our day that we can devote to what I'm going to say. How do I know this? Don't question me..........I just know, ok?
   But here's the best part. It won't require you to buy anything, it won't require any workout gear. It won't even require a change of clothes. The only thing it will take is for you to just stop whatever you're doing. That's right........just stop everything for 15 minutes.
   Once you've stopped..........and everything is to God. Tell Him what's on your mind. Tell Him what you're afraid of, tell Him what's hurting you, tell Him as honestly as you can what your thoughts are about Him, about your life, about how you see yourself, about whatever circumstances you may be facing at this time. It's ok to be absolutely honest with Him because, well, He's God. He already knows the truth. If you try to sugarcoat it or minimize it, He'll know.
   Before you're done, ask Him to speak to you. Ask Him to show you how to deal with whatever it is that you're facing at this time. Ask Him to simply show you who He is, and how He feels about you. Ask Him what He would ask of you and of your life.
   With all of the insane New Year's resolutions that we all make every year, nothing with go further in changing your life than doing that. It's so very simple it might sound insane. But I assure you it's not. We're not talking about a salesman or any televangelist you've ever seen on tv. We're not talking about me. We're talking about God Himself. The maker and creator of all things. The one who knows you far better than you could ever wish to know yourself. The one who see's not only your situation, but who also see's countless other people and situations that He can turn and change in ways that will directly impact whatever you're facing in ways you've never even dreamed possible. The possibilities are endless.
   Begin the New Year by doing this. By simply making a commitment to take just 15 minutes out of your day, every day, to just talk to God. I promise you that you will never regret that decision.

Happy New Year, everyone.    

Monday, December 19, 2011

Just a touch of hope

   It's Christmas Eve, just after 8:00pm. A mother huddles with her children around an open stove, which is the only source of heat in their small, empty apartment. It doesn't feel like Christmas Eve to them. As far as they can see, it's been just another day in a long line of days they have gone through with very little to eat, if anything at all.
   During this entire week, they had walked the streets past colorful Christmas displays in store windows. They'd seen happy, well fed families wearing beautiful clothes, strolling down the sidewalks with smiles on their faces and joy in their hearts. After all, the spirit of Christmas was everywhere.
   They'd heard people talk about Jesus being born on this day, Christmas gifts, delicious Christmas dinners and even how Santa Claus was to visit every home and leave beautiful gifts under their Christmas tree.
   But they have no Christmas tree, they have no Christmas dinner, and they have no reason to feel hope or joy in anything. All they have is each other. They stay up as late as they can, huddled around the stove, then go to bed hungry, all of them laying on a single mattress, huddled close to stay warm through the night.
   When morning arrives, their mother gets them dressed, and takes them to church. After all, you almost have to go to church on Christmas morning, don't you? That's just what people do.
   They sit in church and listen to the pastor preach about the joy and hope of Christmas. and how Jesus is the center of that joy and hope. But his seemingly empty words fall softly to the ground for these small children because they've never had the experience of feeling the joy of having any of their hopes fulfilled. To them, Christmas holds no extraordinary sense of joy or hope. It's just another day, full of hunger and cold dispair.
   They leave the church and walk home, planning to spend the day in their empty apartment. As they open the front door, they can't believe their eyes. In the middle of their living room, there now stands a big Christmas tree, loaded with lights and tinsel. Under the tree are gifts for all of the children. The children squeal with excitement as they run toward the tree. Their mother, stunned by this unexpected development, stands in the doorway and scans the room. Her gaze becomes fixed on the kitchen counter, where someone had placed a beautiful Christmas dinner with all the trimmings.
   In that very moment, with the blink of an eye, an entire family suddenly believes in joy. They believe in hope. They believe that the words spoken by the pastor that Sunday morning can actually become true. They weren't just words after all.
   This is not a fictional story. This is a true story that happened in the life of a dear friend of mine back in the late 1960's. As she tells it, the nuns from their local church had learned about their situation, and asked the landlord to let them into the apartment while her family was at church so they could leave them..............hope. As it turns out, all of these children, now grown adults, are mature Christians who all involved in their local churches.
   This past Sunday, Pastor Len talked about having "Extra Ordinary Hope." He talked about Mary and Joseph, and the hope they were given with the birth of Jesus. That hope encouraged them to go above and beyond what might be expected of anyone to accomplish great things that we read about to this very day. But it all began with faith, hope, and love.
   I would ask all of you to look around during this week before Christmas, and find someone, anyone, who might be given a sense of this "Extra Ordinary Hope" from just one small gesture of kindness. It doesn't have to be anything as elaborate as what my friend and her family experienced. Maybe it's something as small as a phone call, a word of encouragement, or even setting another place at the table to invite someone who will otherwise spend this Christmas alone. It might just give that person the very sense of hope they needed at that very moment, and we have no idea how far God can take just a sliver of hope.

Merry Christmas to all 

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

I got a huge inheritance!!!!

   Imagine for a moment that a very kind, wealthy man lived in your neighborhood. You'd heard about him from other neighbors. You'd seen evidence of the good things he had done for the community. But you'd never met the man personally. What you didn't know was that while you were only remotely aware of his existence, he knew everything about you. He knew where you were raised, he knew your parents, he saw you sitting on the curb as a young child, crying because you had fallen off your bike and skinned your knees. He'd seen you when you were devastated over the loss of a good friend or family member, and his heart went out to you.
   He had actually been very interested in meeting you for quite some time, but he saw that you always seemed so busy, rushing here and there, taking care of whatever seemed most important to you at the time.
   A few years went by, and he passed away unexpectedly, at a relatively young age, having never met you. A few days later, you received a letter in the mail from a presigious law firm, informng you that he had named you as a beneficiary in his will. Perplexed by the news, but cautiously excited, you drive to their office for the reading of his will.
   To your complete and utter shock, you learn that this man who had never met you left you his entire fortune. It was all yours...........everything. All you had to do was sign for it.
   As you stepped back and looked at the list of all that was available to you, it became clear that you would never again have to worry about your future. Every single need you might ever have for the remainder of your life would be met. As you begin to learn more about this man, you find that he earned every penny he had ever made through hard work, discipline, and a determination to do what was right no matter the cost. His life was not an easy one. And yet, he left all of that to you. "Why would he do something like that?" you think to yourself. "I don't deserve this."
   You accept what was left to you, and go on your way. As the years pass, you become comfortable with all that you have. You eventually all but forget about this man. I mean, sure, you think about him every now and then. You believe that he was a good man, and that he was good to you. But you rarely if ever speak about him or even truly allow yourself to give him much thought.
   After a few more years, the people of your town look at the little memorials that had been built to him for being such a positive force in the lives of the people he had touched. They never knew this man, and they wonder why these memorials should remain. After all, there are hundreds of them. They clutter the sidewalks and mark the scenery. People begin to become offended that everywhere they go, they have to see these things.
   You know that this was a very good man who was worthy of these small tokens of rememberance, but you stand by silently as the townspeople begin to tear them down one by one. Before long, there is no memory of this man.
   Shortly after this, the town faces an enormous financial crisis. The leaders within this town break the news that the town will not survive unless some sort of miracle occurs. Everything they have will be lost.
   Upon hearing the news, this man's father, who was still alive, incredibly wealthy, and who knew of his son's love for the people of this town, arranged to stop by for a visit. Upon arriving there, he saw how every last memory of his son had been removed because people found those memorials offensive.
   Would you expect this man to open his arms to the people and graciously offer to help them through their dire circumstances? Or would you expect him to walk away?
   If you answered this the way I would expect you to, then why do we sit by silently as we watch nativity scenes being removed from public property because a select few are offended by them? Why do we say nothing as we learn that the name of Jesus cannot be spoken in our public schools, our courtrooms, our brought up by our political leaders? Why do we allow corporations like Wal-Mart to insist that their employees, many of whom share our faith, do not speak the words "Merry Christmas," instead replacing those words with "Happy Holidays?"
   In Luke 9:26, Jesus said the following:

"Whoever is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels."

   I don't know about you, but I am not ashamed of my faith. When I leave Wal-Mart and hear the words "Happy Holidays," I will respond with "No, Merry Christmas..........and thank you." Christmas is the day we mark to celebrate the greatest gift we've ever been given. And just like the story about about the man who left all of his riches to an undeserving man, who never knew him when he passed away, we can all share in an inheritance we have in no way earned.
   If that offends some in our society who refuse to accept that inheritance, I will offer no apologies, nor will I keep silent about how great that inheritance is

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Embrace the unexpected

   We all love the classic "underdog story," don't we? We see a report or read an article about someone who rose out of the depths of obscurity, with all odds against them, who then ended up doing something that changed everyone around them in a positive way, and we can't help but to feel warmth in our hearts and smiles come across our faces.
   Maybe their day in the limelight only lasts a few moments, maybe it lasts months or even years, but for that period of time, however short it may be, we cheer them on and we feel encouraged to see something go right for a change in this world that constantly throws more and more bad news at us.
   Maybe it's a homeless person who makes the most of an opportunity and rises to be the CEO of a major company. Maybe it's the kid who rises from the ashes of poverty to become multi-millionaire pro athlete. Maybe it's the family on "Extreme Makeover - Home Edition" that has gone through horrific circumstances while fighting to change their community for the better. I know that, if you've watched that program, you've felt your eyes well up at some point as you've seen these families blessed in incredible ways by complete strangers. We all have our favorite stories along those lines, and I'm sure that you could fill in the blanks here and remember a success story that really touched your heart at some point.
   In just a few weeks, most of us will be celebrating such a story. A child born in a manger. Two parents who had no idea what they were getting into, but who simply followed God's direction and trusted Him with the results. This was not a wealthy family. The weren't royalty. They didn't have "connections." They were, before the birth of their son, just average, everyday people just like you and I who were chosen by God Himself to play a role in a moment of time that would forever change the history of the entire world.
   I believe with all my heart that if either of them came back to this world right now and discussed what was going through their minds at the time, they would tell us a few things about how God works in the lives of ordinary people who are just trying their best, with no expectations of fame or greatness, to accomplish His plans for the world.
   They would humbly admit that they didn't feel worthy of such a profound mission. They would tell you stories of unthinkable pain and absolute confusion. They would tell you about how many times they considered giving up, but in their hearts, they knew that they had to keep pushing forward and trusting God.
   And after God had spoken to them, telling them what was to come, they witnessed what Matthew 2:9-11 tells us in regard to the magi, or 3 wise men as some of us know them:

After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

   As we all know, Herod ordered them to return to him and tell him where this child was so that he might kill him. But as we also know, when God has plans, nobody can stop them. Not even the king.
   So here they were, in a stable, on the road, away from home and family, with a brand new baby, and three men appear out of nowhere.............."to worship Him."
   As we also know, this child was none other than Jesus Christ, who would go on to change the history of the entire world, and his parents, who had no idea what to even think of all of this, would have their story told to every generation from then on.
   What do you believe about yourself that stops you from believing God could use you to change your family, your neighborhood, your workplace, your town, your state, your country, or even the entire world?
   The next time you doubt what God can do through you if you just trust Him, remember Mary and Joseph, and how God used them to change........well..........everything.

Friday, December 2, 2011

True Perspective

A boy is born into an exceptionally wealthy family. His father loves him very much, and plans to share all of his wealth with this boy. Everything that's available to him would be available to his son at the proper time in his life. He builds him a beautiful home where they could live together, sharing a bond that can only be shared between a father and his son. As the boy grows older, he looks around and see's what stands before his eyes. He see's nice things, beautiful things, but he's oblivious to the riches that lay in wait for him beyond what he can see.
   In time, he grows accustomed to what he's always known. What once gave him a sense of wide-eyed wonder gradually becomes commonplace. What was once a deep sense of appreciation grows into a sense of entitlement.
   Over time, he begins to understand that his many brothers and sisters are also given nice things. His father begins to teach him that it is important that he share with his brothers and sisters, to look out for their best interest, and just as his father had done for him. To put their needs before his own when called upon to do so.
   The boy doesn't like this idea. He has worked hard to take good care of his things, and after all, these are his things, not theirs. He begins to hide what he has from the other children, ensuring that he will be able to keep it to himself. He also begins to look at what they've been given, becoming jealous of some of the nicer things they have. He wonders why he wasn't given those things too. He falls into the belief that the more he has, the more valuable he himself becomes. What he fails to realize is that his true value doesn't come from what he has been given. His true value comes from how his father, who is far wealthier and generous than he could possibly imagine, see's him. What his father tries repeatedly to teach him, and what he fails to understand, is that the more generous he is with what he's been given, the more his father would give him in return. After all, as long as he lives in his father's house, everything he has ultimately belongs to his father anyway. It was never really his to begin with.
   In the world today, especially here in the U.S., haven't we fallen into a sense of entitlement? Do we ever really sit back and consider the fact that we have been blessed financially far more than many other people in the world? If we look at the rest of the world, and even here in our own back yard, it won't take long for us to find vast numbers of people who live at or below the poverty level. And for many of these people, it's not a matter of whether or not they've made good decisions with what they have. Poverty is all they've ever known. The were born into it, and they remain in it.
   Last week, I heard a story about a man who had traveled to a poverty stricken country. He had grown up here in the U.S., always clothed, always fed, and always with a roof over his head. As he stood watching a 4 year-old boy, crying at his mother's bedside, suffering from starvation, as his mother lay dying from circumstances we rarely see in this country, it occured to him that neither he nor this boy had any choice in where they would be born. They had simply been born where they had been born, by no choice of their own. It occurred to him at that very moment that while he had experienced a life of comfort and abundance, this young boy had been born into a life of hunger and sickness. Is this boy not one of God's children just as much as we are? Does God not love this boy as much as He loves us?
   So, what is my point? Are we to give up all that we have and travel to some far away, poverty-stricken nation to suffer along with him? No. What I'm saying is this: We've all been blessed far beyond what much of the world has ever known. But just like the boy I wrote about earlier in this story, all that we have ultimately belongs to our Father in heaven anyway. He's blessed us with it, and He can take it all away without a moment's notice.
   What I also know is this: In Luke 6:38, Jesus said the following:

"Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”

  I know that there are people out there who are trying to promote a "prosperity gospel" which claims that if we trust God, we will become rich. That is nothing short of heresy. God never promised that He would make us rich, and that's not what this verse means. What He has said is that He has given to us freely, and as such, we should do the same for others. He has also given us His word that whatever we give up for Him, we will be rewarded for in far greater measure.
   It may be in this life, or it may be in the life to come, but God has given us His word on this. All that we need is the faith to believe that and act upon it. God will decide how, when and where we will be rewarded for our acts of generosity.
   It all begins with that first small step. Maybe it's some pocket change for a homeless man, maybe it's a small donation to a local food pantry, maybe you've been blessed enough to do far more. But take that first step, then stand back and be amazed at what God does with that small act of kindness. After all, just like the boy earlier in this story, we have no idea how many riches await us in our Father's house.     

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Dead branches

   I have to begin this week’s blog by sharing a personal story. Some of you know my story, some of you don’t. For the sake of keeping this from becoming a novel, (Which I’m always capable of doing) I will only say that for the vast majority of my childhood, I always felt completely abandoned by both of my parents. I don’t say this to whine or complain or to make anyone feel sorry for me. I say this because it’s true, and looking back throughout my life, I can clearly see how God has used that abandonment  to shape me into a man who can, and is, being used by Him.

   As a child, I learned that being alone was not always a bad thing. It allowed me to focus all of my attention on things I truly enjoyed. Writing and playing music were two things that always lifted me and inspired me. I wouldn’t learn until much later in life that these were the areas where God had gifted me from birth. I can’t remember the first time I picked up an instrument, or sat with a pad of paper to express my thoughts and emotions. I just know that I was always able to do both very easily. They just came naturally to me. In fact, I remember being shocked when I first learned that not everyone could do this.

   As I grew older, the pain I felt from feeling alone and abandoned led me to pursue things that ended up being incredibly self-destructive. I turned to drugs, alcohol, relationships, possessions, and countless other pursuits in an attempt to fill the void left within me. None of them worked. In fact, all of them led to heartbreaking consequences.  Every time I felt some sense of fulfillment from these things, they were seemingly removed from my life, leaving an even greater hole within.

   I remember sitting back a number of years ago, thinking that I must be cursed somehow. You see, it was never a lack of effort on my part that led to my many heartbreaks. I know without a doubt that I worked harder at these things than most people I knew.  All the while, I watched as those around me who seemingly worked far less had far more success in their lives. It was as though God was angry at me, refusing to give me the peace, love and security that others seemed to be enjoying.

   This week, Bob spoke on John 15. The key verses that struck me were John 15:1-4:

  “I am the vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit, He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit, He prunes so that it will bear more fruit. You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you. Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me.”

   What struck me through Bob’s message today was this: I was created by God, gifted in areas that He designed to do His work. If I attempted to use those gifts to do my  work, to build myself up, to give myself worth or value, He would frustrate my efforts, stopping me dead in my tracks. These are, and always have been, His gifts, given to me for His glory, not my own.

   Just as Jesus spoke of being the vine, and the Father being the vinedresser, and just as the vinedresser prunes the vine to make the areas where fruit is produced more productive, God has been there throughout my life, cutting away the areas of my life that weren’t productive in bearing His fruit.

   The evidence of this can be found in where I find myself at this point in my life. Once again, I am alone. But what is the most important asset for anyone who wants to write or play an instrument?............ Time spent alone to focus and concentrate on the work they need to accomplish. And what has been the result of this? For the first time in my life, I see God working through me in ways I never thought possible before now. Why is that? Why now? What’s so different? You see, for the first time in my life, I’m not looking to fill that void with anything except  focusing  upon God and His word, spending time in prayer and study, asking Him for guidance on a daily basis, and then asking Him to show me where I might best use my gifts to bear His fruit. In other words,  “Abiding in Him.”

  God didn’t make me feel abandoned as a child because He was angry with me. He wasn’t being cruel. He wasn't punishing me. He wasn’t being indifferent to my pain. He simply knew that it would drive me to seek Him, and to pour myself into the areas where He had already gifted me.

    Look back upon your own life. Where are you gifted? Where are you being asked to bear fruit? What’s holding you back, and where can you see God’s hand “pruning” you so that you will be more productive in that. Don’t fight that process. While it may be painful, the rewards are eternal  

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

True Thankfulness

  A young boy wakes up on Christmas morning, so excited he can hardly contain himself. Within a second of his eyes opening up, he jumps out of bed and runs to the living room where a bounty of gifts awaits him under the tree. He scans the enormous pile of gifts, looking for the one package that might be the gift he'd been hoping for all year.
  "Maybe it's in here!" he thinks to himself as he picks up one of the packages and shakes it. "No, that's too light. It can't be this one." He picks up another and gives it a shake. No, it couldn't be that one either.
   He runs to his parent's bedroom and jumps on the bed. "Mom!! Dad!!! Can I open my presents now??!?" he shouts.
   His parents, tired as they are, are happy to see his excitement. They were excited too. They climb out of bed and follow him into the living room, smiling widely. They had put a lot of thought into every gift they purchased, each one being absolutely perfect for a boy his age. They were certain that he would be thrilled with everything.
   As the boy tore through the pile of gifts, his face drew more and more downcast. He didn't see the one gift he had wanted more than anything, and with every gift he opened, the odds were more and more against him that it was there. He opened the last gift, hardly even paying attention to what it was. He got up slowly and began to walk away from the pile of presents.
   "Wait a minute!!" he thought. "I'll bet Dad hid it in the garage to trick me!!" Excitement filled his face as he ran to the garage and looked inside. Nothing there but the family car. "Wait!! The closets!! I'll check the closets!!" he thought. He ran back inside and rushed to every closet, throwing the doors open hoping to see it there. After searching everywhere, it was clear to him that he hadn't received the one gift he had dreamed of. He walked back to the living room, picked up his presents, and brought them to his room. Over the course of the next month, he never played with any of them, completely discouraged that he didn't get what he really wanted. What he didn't know was that his parents had considered buying him the gift, but they knew deep down inside that he simply wasn't ready for it. Had they given it to him now, it would've been misused and not appreciated for it's fully intended purpose.
   You might read this and think "What a spoiled little dweeb." But how often do we do the same thing to God?
   If any of us look around us, we will find countless things to be thankful for. Gifts from God in every area of our lives, given to us because they are perfect for us right here and right now. But how often do we look at the one thing we don't have and allow the lack of it to blind us to all that we already have? How many gifts do we have that sit in the bedroom closets of our minds, completely unused and unappreciated? How often do we instead search endlessly for the gifts we haven't been given, looking in closets, in the garage, under the bed, assuming that there must be some kind of mistake?
   Just like the boy in this story, what if we were to sit with our Father and allow Him to show us not only the beauty of each gift, but also how we could use it to the best of our ability? How would that change our lives? How would that change our perspective?
   As Nate taught this week, Jesus said:

"If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you." - John 15:7

  Does this mean that we'll get whatever we want, whenever we want it? No. The key to this verse is the very beginning. "If you remain in me, and my words remain in you......"
  If that's where we are, then our hearts and minds will be in harmony with God's, leaving us to ask what we truly believe is His will. If we ask for what we know is within God's will for our lives, then anything we ask for will already be ours. Not only that, but He waill also show us the beauty of what we already have, and how best to use those gifts.
   Knowing that we are living out God's will in our lives will give us the truest sense of peace, joy, and comfort that we could ever possibly experience, no matter what our circumstances may be. That is something to be truly thankful for not only this Thanksgiving, but for every day of our lives.  

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

From the ashes.....

   In the heart of the city, a homeless man sits on the sidewalk, his back leaning against a cold brick wall. Everything he owns rests beside him in a plastic bag, the contents of which would be useless to any of us, but to him it means everything.
   He watches silently as the important people of the world, the movers and the shakers, the business men in their fine suits, hurry about. The talk into their cell phones, oblivious to their surroundings.
   With dirty, weatherbeaten hands, he reaches into his bag and pulls out a stale crust of bread he had saved for this moment. People who have never experienced the depths of sadness or hoplessness this man has seen look upon him with pity or disgust as he brings the bread to his mouth and savors each bite.
   They don't know his story. They don't know how he ended up here. Most of them don't even care. They just go about their business, trying not to get too close. Trying not to make eye contact in fear that he may ask them for something like a small amount of pocket change they could easily spare, but don't want to be bothered to stop for just a second to reach into their pockets and hand it to him.
   The reasons they feel this way are fairly common. Maybe they think he's here due to his own bad choices. Maybe they think he'll just spend it on drugs or alcohol, so they're doing him a favor by not giving him anything. It is from this perspective that they can easily justify their refusal to help.
   Although they'd never admit to such, maybe they view him as being somehow less than human, unworthy of even the slightest bit of common courtesy...............But they don't know his story.
   When speaking of mental illness among the homeless, a very good friend of mine once said to me "Maybe they are crazy........but just because they're crazy doesn't mean they deserve to live like this."

   This Sunday, we heard Katie Hansen share her story about being addicted to drugs, homeless, and forced into prostitution due to her drug addiction. If we didn't know her, how many of us would've walked right past her during those days, viewing her as less than human, refusing to help, and feeling very justified in doing so?
   Much of what Katie said on Sunday rang in my ears. You see, just like Katie, I have been addicted to drugs. I have been homeless and penniless. It was a very long time ago, but I remember how that felt as if it were yesterday. I know others who have been in similar situations, all of whom are now people I am proud to call my friends. People I love and respect very deeply.
   Are we more valuable now then we were at our lowest point? Not at all. When we were at our worst, God still loved us just as much as He does now.
   In Matthew 25:34-40, Jesus said:
   "Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.
    The next time you see a man or a woman who is homeless, or hungry, or in need, please remember Katie's story. You know her, love her and respect her now because you don't look at her that way anymore. But the next person you see in that situation could be the next Katie - and could possibly be one kind act away from having their entire life changed for good, and in return they may eventually go back to the streets to help many others.  

Friday, November 11, 2011

A dog's life

    Imagine, if you will, that your neighbor disappears without any notice. Being concerned, you enter his home to look around. Once inside, you find his dog cowering under the dining room table. This doesn't surpirse you, because you've seen how your neighbor has treated his dog over the past several years. There was no real love for the animal as far as you could see. Maybe he threw it a bone every now and then just to keep it loyal. Maybe he'd take it to the vet if it was very ill, but you never noticed what you would describe as genuine care, love, concern and affection. There may have even been times when you saw this, but had a gut feeling that it was all for show.
   Over the years, you had a feeling that he had abused his dog. Maybe you were certain of it. Maybe you thought about calling someone to report this abuse, but you didn't want to get involved. After all, you kinda got along with your neighbor, and you weren't really sure how bad things were for the dog. Besides, you didn't really want to cause problems for him.
   As you gather inside the home with other neighbors, the stories begin to come out about just how bad the abuse was. You hear about how the dog was forced to stay under the table at all times. If it came out, it would be beaten. You hear that the only food the dog ate was the scraps that fell from the table. If the dog ever attempted to get to where the real food was, it would again be beaten. This had apparently gone on for many years.
   As you hear these things, you look over at this poor animal. It refuses to come out from under the table. It's eyes are downcast. It's shaking. It's ears are hanging low, and it's tail is between it's legs. It's terrified.
   You walk over to it and take a knee beside it, trying to coax it out from under the table. But it refuses to come out. It instead backs into a corner. What would you feel in your heart as you witnessed this? What would you do? Would you reach under the table, grab it by it's neck, and drag it out? Would you scream at it in frustration? Would you wonder what the dog had done to deserve this kind of treatment? Would you write the dog off, thinking to yourself that it brought this treatment upon itself for not running away when it had the chance?
   I think it's safe to say that none of us would do any of that. I think we'd feel sincere compassion for it. I think most of us would probably sit a safe distance from the table, maybe with a few treats in our hand, and gently coax it out from under the table. If it did come out, we would probably begin to pet it, letting it know that it's safe and loved. But we would wait until the dog was ready to come out. Am I right?
   If this is true, then I need to ask all of you a question. Why is it that we would treat a dog better than we would treat a woman who has spent years in an abusive relationship?
   You see, much like this poor dog, a woman who has spent many years being physically, sexually, or emotionally abused is kept within that relationship for one reason alone.......... Fear...........And as I've said before, the type of abuse means nothing. Abuse is abuse, and the psychological effects on the abused are the same, no matter the type of abuse involved.
   "Oh, wait a minute" you might say. "You're comparing apples to oranges here. A woman can think things through. She can see that there are other options. She can go for help." That's very true. But being able to think things through and consider other options can also lead to even more fear. A dog can know it doesn't like being abused, and run for safety without having to consider where it will live, how it will feed itself, what will happen to it's children, it's family, it's reputation, etc..
   When you hear of a woman who's being abused in any of these ways, don't allow the first question to be "Why does she stay?" or "Why did she even get into that relationship?" Make your first question "Why do men abuse the women who love them, and how can we put an end to it." Then come alongside her, love her, comfort her, be patient with her, and make sure that she knows that she is exceptionally valuable, and did nothing to deserve to be treated this way.
   Abusive relationships rarely begin that way. If they did, there would be far less abusive relationships. They usually begin with a man doting over his woman, taking care of her in every way, making her feel like the center of his universe. Saying that it's her own fault for staying in that relationship once it gradually becomes more and more abusive only solidifies what her abuser has been telling her for years.............that she deserves the abuse.  

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

In Through the Out Door

  A few years ago, I was sitting home watching "America's Dumbest Criminals." I guess that I was bored and I wanted to feel better about myself and the various decisions I've made, so it made perfect sense to watch live videos of people who get caught doing really dumb things.
   In this episode, they played a security camera video of a bank robber somewhere out west. He did everything right at first. He disguised his face, walked up to the teller, demanded cash, grabbed the money, and headed out of the bank lobby into a glass vestibule leading to the outside world. The police hadn't yet arrived, and he was on his way to freedom. For all intents and purposes, he had pulled off the perfect crime and was about to get away with it.
   Then it happened. He pushed on the glass door leading outside, and it wouldn't open. He pushed harder. He kicked it. He lowered his shoulder into it. Still nothng. In his frustration, he began to slam his body against the door, assuming that the bank employees had locked him in the vestibule. Having no luck, he went to the door leading back into the bank lobby and began pushing on that door. It wouldn't open either. For the next few minutes, he became like a crazy person, beating on the glass with his fists, then running a few steps and launching his body into the glass, trying to break out of the trap he now found himself in. He eventually just gave up, accepting the fact that he had been outsmarted by the tellers who had apparently locked him inside of this glass cage with no way to escape. He walked to a corner, sat down, and waited for the police to arrive, knowing that he had no other choice.
   When the police arrived, the first officer on the scene drew his weapon. Then, to everyone's amazement, he simply pushed the door open from the outside. As it turned out, the doors were never locked. The bank robber had simply failed to notice the sign by the handle that said "Pull."
   Laugh if you will, but how many times do we all do the very same things in our lives? We find ourselves in situations where we feel trapped. We see circumstances that we want changed. Although we are powerless to change them. For days, weeks, months, and even years, we throw our bodies against those circumstances that have become doors and walls placed in our way. Just as the robber did, we look out through the glass and see what it is that we want, or where we want to be. Our vision becomes locked upon what we see instead of what we're being shown. Sometimes the answer is to just look at the signs that have been placed in front of us to guide us. A simple "push" or "pull"  sign that, while it looks very simple from the outside, does us no good if we refuse to see it.
   Sometimes all it takes is to calm down, take a deep breath, and look around for these signs. Other times, we have no choice but to sit back, rest, and wait for God to step up and open the doors for us.
   While we all become impatient at times, having faith that God knows what He's doing and that He is the only one who has the power to open those doors is the difference between feeling trapped and feeling free. Between feeling frustrated and exhausted, or feeling a sense of confidence that we are where we are for a reason. 

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

One last chance

   I experienced something last week that proved to me further that God's timing is always absolutely perfect, and how He works all things together, even when they make no sense to us with our limited vision and perspective.
   My step-sister Debbie passed away early Sunday evening. I have no doubt that, as I write this, she is in the presence of God Himself, living in a paradise that none of us could possibly imagine, and one that she could never adequately describe to us if she were given the chance. I'll explain why I believe this later on, but for now, I need to give you a little history of our relationship.
   In 1979, I was a teen-aged runaway with no posessions to speak of. I was an incredibly rebellious stoner and high school dropout. I had an attitude a mile deep and ten miles wide, and nobody was going to tell me what I could or couldn't do. Whatever type of drugs or alcohol you would put in front of me at that time, I'd take both until they were gone. I felt incredibly depressed, abandoned, and worthless.
   Debbie was 29 at the time, 12 years older than me. She had issues of her own that were just as destructive, if not more. She was struggling with severe alcoholism - a battle that would take her 2 trips through detox to finally overcome. She was also in the midst of a horribly disfunctional relationship with her boyfriend.
   We decided to rent an apartment together in Edison Park, on the far northwest side of Chicago. During the year that would follow, we would become both the best thing for each other as well as the worst thing for each other. We absolutely believed in each other. We saw each other as incredibly intelligent, witty, kind, attractive, and valuable to a world around us that we believed saw both of us as far less. At the same time, we not only fed each other's addictions, we actually cheered each other on in them, both of us deciding that nobody had the right to tell us what to do.
   That year ended with me looking at the madness around me and deciding that I needed to get away from it. I enlisted in the Navy and moved to San Diego. What I found out is that we can never move away from the madness that we create within ourselves. My addictions only grew worse with time.
   By the time I came back to the Chicago area, I had beaten my addictions and was clean and sober. Debbie had also beaten hers. She was also clean and sober, was married to Ray, one of the nicest men I've ever known, and had two step-sons who were also great people.
   As the years went on, our paths went very different ways. Whenever I would see her, there was a bond I felt with her that nobody else could relate to or understand. You see, we loved, respected, and encouraged each other during some of the darkest days of our lives. It was a feeling similar to going to war with someone, and coming out knowing that they always had your back. It was a mutual respect that couldn't be put into words.
   Because of my own decisions, we didn't see each other for about 15 years, until I attended her husband's funeral last year. About a year and a half earlier, I had fully commited my life to Christ and felt almost immediately that God was telling me to go back and restore my relationships with her and her family. I did so gradually, not overwehlming anyone with my sudden re-appearance into their lives, but by simply being there from time to time.
   Debbie had called me out of the blue during this time, saying that she believed she was dying, and that she just wanted to talk to me before she left this world. That call truly took me by surprise. I don't know that I fully believed her. I mean, nobody wants to believe that someone is going to die. What made my skepticism worse was that she couldn't give me a clear reason why she believed this, other than to say that she felt as though her body was just giving up the fight.
   So, there I was last Tuesday, sitting by her bedside as she lay very still. She could no longer speak, but she would hold the hand of whomever sat by her side, giving an occassional squeeze.
   I knew I was going to see her for a couple of days before I went. I was aware of her condition. I knew that I had a lot to say, but I wasn't sure how to say it. I prayed for two solid days, asking God to give me the words, and the courage to speak them.
   I sat by her bedside, took her hand, and in so many words, said the following to her:
   "Hey Debs........It's me, Steve. I have some things that I need to say to you, but I'm not really sure how to say them, so please bear with me, ok? Fisrt of all, I love you, and I've always loved you. I've always had an incredible amount of respect for you. I want to ask you to forgive me for walking away so many years ago. That was wrong of me, and I'm very sorry.
   Debs, you know me like few others have ever known me. You've seen me at my very worst, and I've seen you at yours. I could never lie to you or feed you a line of crap. You'd see right through that. I know that since I've come back around, you've seen something very different in me. I'm not the same person anymore. I've changed. Maybe you've wondered what caused that change in me. I need to tell you that it's the faith I now have in God. It's changed everything for me.
   I know that you know you're very sick. Maybe, as you lie here, you've been thinking about God, and where you stand with him. I'm sure that thought has crossed your mind. I know that being in your position can completely change a person's perspective on these things and suddenly give them more importance than ever before.
   I ask you to just consider this: That maybe, after all of these years, God brought me here to your bedside for this reason alone. This is more than likely a conversation that you and I could never have had under different circumstances. But here we are, and here it is.
   Debs, whatever you've done with your life up to this point doesn't matter. Whatever mistakes you've made don't matter either. God wants a relationship with you, and it's never too late to start that relationship. If you want to be sure of you're relationship with God, and to absolutely ensure where you will spend eternity, I know how you can do that. I'm going to pray with you, and if you want to, just pray the same words I speak to you right now.
   Lord. I come before you, admitting that I'm a sinner. I thank you for sending your son to die for me that I might be forgiven of my sins. I know that I am in need of that forgiveness, and right now, I'm asking for that forgiveness. Lord, I want to know you, I want you to know me, and I want to spend eternity with you. I give you my life, and I ask that you would send your Spirit to live within me. In Jesus' name I pray these things. Amen."
   I opened my eyes and sat back, thinking for a minute. I then leaned in and said "Debs, if you just prayed that prayer, it might not happen today, it might not happen tomorrow, but one day you will fall asleep here, and wake up in paradise."
   What happened next was remarkable. I stood up and told her that I was going to leave. With that, she opened her hand and began to wiggle all of her fingers, similar to what a small child might do when reaching for a toy his parent was holding. As I watched her hand, she didn't stop. Her fingers kept moving more than I had seen then move at any point since I had arrived. I said "Oh, you don't want me to leave. Ok." and I sat back down and took her hand again. The whole time I was holding her hand, she continually rubbed my fingers back and forth with her thumb. About a half hour later, I really had to leave, so I got up, kissed her head and said "I love you, Debs. I gotta go now."With that, she let out a moan. It was the first time I had heard that since being there, and I know that she wanted to say something to me, but couldn't.
   A few days later, my sister was driving down from Michigan to see her. She prayed all morning, asking God to give her the right words to say to her. When she finally got her answer, it was this: "Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for the Lord is with me."
   Why is that so very important, and why does that give me an incredible sense of peace, closure, and a certainty that she is now in paradise? Because if she wasn't going to be welcomed into the arms of God after leaving this world, God wouldn't have told my sister that she had nothing to fear.
   The moral of the story is this: God's timing is absolutely perfect. He brought me to her side after all these years, to say those very words to her at the very moment she was open to hearing them, and it was the incredibly disfunctional years of our past, which made no sense to us at the time, that created the bond between us that gave me the right to be heard by her. That, my friends, is a miracle of biblical proportions that took an entire lifetime to accomplish. But I can take absolutely no credit for any of it, because it wasn't I who accomplished it. It was all God from day one.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Coming to life

   Today I'll be celebrating my 49th birthday. This is a very special birthday for me, but not for the reasons you might think. Sure, it will be the last birthday I'll experience still being in my 40's. There comes along with that all of the usual worries and concerns we face when we realize that the road ahead of us is far shorter than the one we've left behind. I'm in no way immune to those thoughts. But this is a significant birthday for me for another reason, and one which is quite profound for me.
   You see, about 6 or 7 months after celebrating his 49th birthday, my father was diagnosed with terminal cancer. By the time he was diagnosed, it had spread through his body to the point where there was no hope of survival. He passed away shortly after his 50th birthday.
   I was just 22 at the time. For some reason, in the back of my mind, I believed from that point forward that I would probably meet the same fate. After all, genetics are genetics. In my young mind, that seemed like it was a very long way off. Not so much anymore.  
   What my father missed is extraordinarily significant. Since he passed away, I've raised two children who I'm exceptionally proud of. I now have two grandchildren who I love dearly. He never met any of them. While that hurts to think about, this is not a sad story.
   You see, as I sit here this morning, I see something very different about our lives, and these are differences I feel extremely blessed by. I think about what my father might have been looking forward to at this stage of his life, and I compare that to what I'm looking forward to. I think about how he lived the last few years of his life, and I look at how I have lived the last few years of mine.
   Over the past 3 years, I have witnessed absolute miracles in my life. I have been blessed by God in ways I never dreamed possible in virtually every area of my life. On a personal level, the past 3-5 years have been the most difficult years I've ever experienced. But at the same time, in the midst of the storms, I have witnessed first hand the way that God can reach down into someone's life, raising them up from the trash heap, and give their lives true significance. I can see many people around me who have seen my trials and struggles, who have heard my words during these times, and who have been left with no doubt that God Himself has moved in my life.
   I'm in no way comparing myself to my father and believing that I'm somehow better than he was. I'm every bit as human as he was. Just as he had his flaws and weaknesses, I also have mine. I'm more aware of those flaws and weaknesses than any of you will ever be. The single significant difference between who he was then and who I am now is this: Within all of my faults and failures, I look to Christ every day, living my life with the hope and faith that tells me that nothing is impossible. There are no dreams that are too big for God, and with every single day that passes, there comes one more day that could result in my seeing the impossible unfold before my very eyes, not because I'm anything special, but because God is with me.
   It could very well be that what I believed when I was just 22 will come to pass. Maybe God will take me home just after my 50th birthday too. But if He does, I will go knowing beyond a doubt that I will spend eternity with Him. That fact, in and of itself, makes our stories polar opposites. My father's passing was a story of great sadness. It was one of watching an incredibly large, physically strong man being reduced to a mere shell of what he once was, with no hope, no faith, and incredible feelings of loss by everyone who loved him and wished that somehow he would've been able to beat his illness, turn his life around and become what we all knew he could be if he just allowed himself to.
   My story will be one of how God reached down into the life of a simple man, with a multitude of faults and failures, and decided to do great things through his life, eventually leading him not to death, but to eternal life.
   You see, at this point in his life, my father was preparing to die. I, on the other hand, am just beginning to live.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Satisfaction Guaranteed

   If there has ever been a phrase that has been used far too many times, and which has led to a larger percentage of people who believed it to regret taking action once they heard it, this is it. Satisfaction Guaranteed. It's been used to sell everything from "Pocket Fisherman" to laundry detergent to vacation destinations. Some companies even take it one step further in declaring that if you're not "Completely Satisfied," you can return the item for a full refund.
   They'd have a tough sale with me on that one. I don't know about you, but I don't think I've ever been "completely satisfied" by anything I've purchased. I mean, sure, if my laundry detergent cleaned my clothes so well they all looked brand new, that would be great. But I wouldn't be completely satisfied. If it could also take my laundry downstairs, put it in the machine, then throw it in the dryer with a Bounce sheet, fold it nicely when it's dry, and have it waiting in my closet neatly pressed, we'd be getting closer to my being completely satisfied. If it then washed my dishes, cleaned my car and paid my bills, then yeah, I'd be good with that. But would I be "completely satisfied?" Probably not.
   But what if that were true? What if you saw a commercial on tv, and the salesman said "If you buy this, I will personally guarantee that if you use this product as intended, it will not only do exactly what we claim it will, but it will also do things for you that, while they might seem completely unrelated, they will all work together in a way that will guarantee you "true" success in whatever you do in the time you have left here on earth? What if he went on to say "Even when you believe you have failed from this point forward, this product will take those failures and turn them into success in the long term?" What if you were skeptical at first, but then saw people you know and trust who bought this product, and who swore that every word, every promise, was not only true, but that this product delivered far more than the commercial ever suggested? How quickly would you buy that product, no matter the cost?
   What we saw at church last sunday, and what we will see this coming sunday, are perfect examples of what I'm talking about here. Ben and Kristin Choitz (Mostly Kristin, of course) spoke of something they have bought into that comes with "Satisfaction Guaranteed." They want to permanently relocate to Africa to follow what they know with all of their hearts they have been called to do by God Himself.
   This coming sunday, we will hear Len DiCicco speak of what he believes with all of his heart that God has called him to do.
   In taking these leaps of faith, are they all experiencing moments of doubt? Fear? Lack of faith in their own abilities? Will they continue to experience those moments even after thay have taken these steps? Absolutely. Without question. Will they encounter moments when they believe they have failed? There's no doubt.
   But here's what we need to ask ourselves: What are they buying into here? What is this "thing" inside of them that is driving them to do things that very few of us would ever consider doing in our own lives? What is this "product?" It's a calling that they know without question God has placed in their hearts. That calling is different for each of us, but we all have one. And here's the beauty of it: The purpose for which they were called to do these things will not fail. How do I know this? Because God doesn't call people to fail. He calls people to be used by Him to accomplish His purpose, and in doing so, to experience a wealth of emotions intended to draw us more near to Him, as well as to draw others to Him by what they see of Him in us. Failure is impossible, because God does not fail.
   In the end, if we trust in Christ and follow where we are called, our lives will be more successful than we would ever have imagined. When our time here is over, and we meet our Lord face to face, we will be "completely satisfied."
   The best part about this product? It's absolutely free. All we have to do is ask for it.     

Thursday, September 22, 2011

A tree is a tree

Somewhere in the deep woods, far away from human eyes, a seed falls to the ground. It's shell breaks open and tiny roots begin to work their way downward into the earth. A small shoot sprouts upward toward the sky. It appears to be rather insignificant when compared to the large trees surrounding it, but it grows just the same. It doesn't compare itself to others. It simply does what it's supposed to do. It grows.
   Over the course of many years, it becomes a mighty tree. Within it, countless creatures find a home. The birds of the air build their nests on it's branches. Spiders build their webs in the dark corners. Storms come and go. Some are exceedingly violent, others bring nothing more than a gentle, refreshing rain. Whatever the case, the creatures that have made this tree their home find comfort, safety and shelter in it.
   After living and growing strong for 75 years, a storm much stronger than the tree uproots it and sends it crashing to the ground. One might think that it's story is over at this point, but it's not. It's stature and position at this point have changed dramatically, but it's purpose remains the same. It becomes a place of shelter and safety for different types of animals, all of which prefer to live in shelter at ground level. As it rots and sinks into the ground, coutless insects feed off of it. These insects are fed by it's rotting wood and bark. Many of these insects eventually become food for larger creatures, who then become food for even larger ones.
   Even beyond it's death, the tree lives on within these creatures. It's contribution to the world around it can be traced throughout eternity as one creature who benifitted from it's existence becomes of some benefit to the next generation of creatures that follows.
   In the movie "The Lion King," Disney's writers called this the circle of life. But in reality, this is God's sovreignty. Nothing is useless. Nothing is wasted. Everything serves it's purpose, and no matter how insignificant that purpose may appear to others, it has purpose nonetheless.
   As Bob has been speaking on Psalm 121, a major theme he was following is that our lives begin the day we are born, and continue throughout eternity. The amount of time we spend here on earth does not determine the extent of the contribution we will make to the world around us. We will all make some sort of a contribution, be it intentiional or not.
   We will all pass from this earth at some point, but we will also live on for all eternity. While we're here on earth, the most valuable thing we can do is to keep an eternal perspective. To live for the God who gave us life, knowing full well that if we know Him, we will spend eternity with Him. The beauty of this is that if we keep this perspective, the memories of who we were while on this earth will also live on forever. Just like the tree in the above example, those who never knew of us will benefit from our being here. What we say to others and what we do for others can literally change the course of their lives. We can feed them, shelter them, and protect them from the storms in their lives. In doing so, we can cause them to also gain an eternal perspective, within which they will do the same for others.
   It's hard for us to see to whole picture when looking at our lives. Just like the tree, we see the sun rise and we see the sun set every day. We reach to the sky, wanting to grow as much as possible. We dig our roots deep into what we know will give us stability. But God see's the entire picture from start to finish. From the moment the seed falls to the ground until the last living creature is fed after it's falling, He knows it's purpose. From the moment we take our first breath until the last person alive benefits from what we've done here, God knows our purpose as well. He has placed each and every one of us on this earth for His purpose. His purpose is that we might know Him and spend eternity with Him, while living our lives in ways that cause those around us to see Him through us, and know Him also.
   Living our lives with this type of eternal perspective changes how we look at everything, and free's us up to live life to it's fullest, with no fear of how soon we might be called away. To live life abundantly, with a hope that doesn't die with our earthly bodies, but which instead lives on for all etenity.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

An Eye For an Eye

   Eye problems can be very annoying. A friend of mine told me recently that she was having a problem with her left eye. Everything was becoming increasingly blurry in that eye. She did all of the normal things we all do when our vision becomes blurry. She rubbed it, she closed one eye at a time and looked through each one individually, she used eye drops, etc.. Nothing seemed to help. After stressing out about her situation, assuming the worst, while still hoping the problem would just go away for a few weeks, she finally broke down and made an appointment with her eye doctor.
   The doctor had her sit in a chair, then leaned in closely and began to examine her eyes. He would occasionally let out a "Mmmm-Hmmm," or a "Huh." After a brief, but thorough examination, he stepped back and said "Well, I've discovered the problem." Expecting to hear some bad news, she quietly asked him what it was. He sat back in his chair with his arms folded across his chest, broke into a slight smile, and said "You put your contacts in the wrong eyes. The contact in your right eye was ok, because the contact in it was a stronger prescription. But your left eye didn't have a strong enough prescription in it, so it was blurry."
   Although she was quite embarrassed by this, she was also quite relieved to find out that nothing was seriously wrong with her eye. Of course, now that her contacts are being used properly, she can no longer burn holes in objects by simply staring at them with the "over-prescribed" eye. But taking the good with the bad, all is well in her world again.
   Last Sunday, Bob spoke on a fictional story by Max Lucado about a group of people who would go around placing "star" stickers on others who impressed them, while placing "dot" stickers on people who appeared to be less worthy. In the story, these people would walk around with either dots or stars on them, and in their own minds, the amount of dots or stars stuck on them would determine their value in society. The moral of the story was that it doesn't matter what others think of us, but what God thinks of us. Bob finished his discussion with what I thought was a great line. "It doesn't matter what others think of me, because God made me the way that I am, and God doesn't make junk."
   While I thought this over during the past few days, a very different side of that story occurred to me. While it's true that we tend to allow what others think about us to stick to us and shape our self-worth, we also tend to walk around with a bit of an eye problem when we look at others. None of us liked to be judged harshly or unfairly by others, but how often do we do that to them due to our own eye problems? How do our own "eye problems" shape our view of people we don't even take the time to know? How do they shape our view of our own towns, cities, states, country, our even our world?
   Maybe, just like my friend in this story, we have our contacts in the wrong eyes. Maybe we have "spots" on our eyes that cause us to view everyone with a sense of harshness or critical judgement that has no basis in truth whatsoever, but is instead based upon our own bad vision.
   Bob was right. God doesn't make junk. You are exceptionally valuable in God's eyes. But so is every single person your eyes will come across every single day of your life. Maybe the best thing we can do is to go to the "eye doctor," and ask God to show us the people around us "through His eyes"  instead of looking at them through our own critical eyes. If we can do that, we will go a long way toward being "God's people" in this world, not judging others unfairly, but instead giving them value they may have never even believed they have.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Don't Tell Dad!!!

   While I can assure you that, without question, I took "stupid" to a whole new level with some of my stunts growing up, I also witnessed some amazing feats being accomplished by my siblings. The apple never falling too far from the tree, I'm quite certain that my parents went to bed on many nights wondering if there was something in the water that had severely damaged the thought process in the minds of their children.
   One such event took place when I was about 4 years old. My sister (Who will remain nameless in order to protect her identity.......After all, she's much smarter now) became very upset with my father. So upset, in fact, that she decided she was going to run away from home to teach him a lesson. She was just 5 years old at the time, it was in the middle of winter, and it was already dark outside. I'm not sure where she thought she might be going, or how long she could stay outside before she came back home to warm up, but darn it, she was going to teach him a lesson!!!
   She told me of her plan, then put some clothes in a bag, put her jacket on, and climbed on her dresser so she could reach the casement window in her bedroom. She cranked the window open as far as it would go with the crank handle, then looked back at me with a glare as she threw one leg over the window sill, saying "Don't tell Dad!!!" I could see that her facial expression changed a bit once she was sitting on the window sill with both feet hanging outside. She suddenly looked less sure of herself. Maybe it was the 6 foot drop into the snow below. Maybe it was the cold air. I can't be too sure. As the moment of truth arrived, she threw her bag of clothes out the window, then placed both hands on the sill and shoved herself off into the darkness.
   From my angle of view, it was clear that something had gone horribly wrong with her plan. I could hear grunting, and an occassional thud on the outside of the wall. I ran over and climbed up on her dresser to see what had happened. As it turned out, once she taken her leap of faith, the hood on her jacket had snagged itself on the crank handle of the casement window, and she had literally just hung herself. I poked my head out of the window to see if she was ok. Her little arms were flailing back and forth, and her body was bouncing off of the siding as she tried desperately to free herself, but her attempts to this point were fruitless. In her defiance (and I must admit that to this very day I still respect her commitment to the plan) she looked back at me and growled "Don't tell Dad!!"
   Of course, as much as I wanted to obey her wishes, I could see that if she was left to her own resources at this point, she was going to end up dead, or frozen to the siding, or both. It was clear to me that I had to do something quick. I ran and got my dad, who got up from his place on the sofa, walked into her room, reached out throught the window, and pulled her to safety, using just one of his giant arms. What I knew was that, no matter what I attempted to do to help her, my dad had both the knowledge and strength to rescue her in a second. All I had to do was ask.
   As Len was speaking last Sunday, he spoke about 1 Timothy 4:13-16, which was Paul's charge to Timothy, encouraging him to, above all, focus on the word and on his dedication to teaching the word.
   He also talked about our role in this, which was found in Hebrews 13:7-8. The NASB says: "Remember those who led you, who spoke the word of God to you; and considering the result of their conduct, imitate their faith."
   What is one way we can "Remember" them? I believe that the greatest thing we can do for the pastors in our churches is to pray for them, that they would be allowed to do as 1 Timothy 4:13-16 says. To focus on the word, and upon their clear teaching of the word. When they stand before us every Sunday morning, they are doing so in the faith that what has been revealed to them by God, through His word as they prepared the lesson they are teaching, will be used by God to inspire us and draw us more near to Him.
   On our part, we can 'imitate their faith" by praying for them during the week, as they're preparing the lesson they are going to teach, asking God to keep them focused and to reveal His truth to them, so that we might be taught also.
   I doubt that either Len or Bob with accidentally hang themselves attempting to climb out of a window. But they will struggle at times. Many times, the very best thing we can do for them is to "Tell Dad." After all, as they're trying to tie together the various loose ends of their lessons, there may be moments when they feel as though they're hanging from the casement window, not sure how to accomplish what they had set out to do. For all we know, it might be at that very moment that God hears our prayers for them, reaches out with His enormous arm, and puts their feet safely on solid ground.     

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

A boat is a boat

   I have a boat sitting in my garage. In my eyes, it's a very nice boat. It's not a big boat, being only 18 feet in length. It's not one of those beautiful, sleek racing boats. It's not a fishing boat, loaded with all of the latest electronic gadgets that will not only lead me to fish, but which would also put them on my line, drag them into the boat, then fillet and cook them up for me.
   I purchased this boat for a very specific reason. I had things that I wanted a boat to do. I didn't need it to take me out on the ocean, or even Lake Michigan for that matter. I didn't need it to be anything other than what it is. I didn't need it to do anything other than what it does. It fits me perfectly in being exactly what it was designed to be, because that's exactly what I wanted.
   So, what makes this boat what it is? It's a collection of very specific parts. It has a hull, a motor, seats, a windshield, carpeting, electrical wiring, lights, a horn, etc. All of these items were designed to be on this specific boat, and to contribute to the function of the boat as a whole. But looking at more specific detail, the seats are perfect in size and function. They're secured to the floor with bolts and nuts. They're stitched together at various locations by thread. The electrical system includes wire of various lengths and colors, gauges that tell me how the boat is operating, lights of differing colors that not only show other boaters I'm on the water at night, but also which way I'm facing.
   Some of the parts of this boat are plain to see, while others are hidden. But for the boat to operate as it should, and to be what it was designed to be, all of these parts need to do what they were designed to do. If some of them don't work, the boat would still function to an extent, but never to it's intended level of performance.
   As Pastor Len continues to speak on the various roles that each of us play within our church, he's speaking of the exact same idea. We're all part of this church. We all need to not only know what we were designed to do, but also who we were designed to be. God has built this church, just as the builders at Sea Ray built my boat. He knew every part He was going to place within it, what that part was designed to do, and how He wanted each part to work in contributing to the funtion of our church as a whole.
   His design of our church fits perfectly within His purpose for our church. It's not missing any parts. Sure, He might add parts from time to time as He asks us to do different things. But for this time and place, and for the calling our church has received on this day, we are whole and complete. It's simply a matter of the parts knowing what they are called to be and do within the church, and to step up in doing so.
   I don't say these things to make anyone feel guilty about not contributing. Quite the contrary. I say these things to invite each and every one of you to experience the true joy that comes from knowing beyond a doubt that God is using you, along with your own beautiful gifts, talents, and abilities, to further His purpose within the church, the community, the world, and in your own lives. Seeing Him work through you in these ways will forever change the way you look at yourselves, and it will be beautiful. 

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Who are we?

   My son stopped by my house over the weekend. I had invited him over because there was some work I needed to get done around the house. There was nothing to do that I couldn't have done myself, but I wanted to teach him how to do these things so he might use these newfound skills in his own life. After all, as a father, one of my jobs is to pass what I know on to my children.
   First, I wanted him to paint my bathroom. Before he had arrived, I gathered all of the tools he might need to accomplish this task and placed them in the center of the garage.
   He got out of his car, said hello to me, then walked right past the pile of tools as if they weren't even there and headed for the bathroom.
   "This is where you want me to paint?" He asked.
   "Yes, son. This is it." I replied.
   With that, he opened the can of paint, then stepped out of the room. A few seconds later, he returned with an oscillating fan, plugged it in, and placed it in the center of the room.
   "Son, don't you think you might want to......." I began to say before I was interrupted
   "I got this, Dad. Don't worry." He said confidently
   He then grabbed the can of paint and poured it directly into the turning fan, spraying paint all over the room.
   "Ok, the bathroom is painted!" He said with a smile. "What's next?"
   Sounds like a crazy story, doesn't it? But isn't that exactly what we sometimes do in relation to the tasks that God places before us? We feel as though we want to accompish something for God. We want to help out our church. We want to help others. We want to do good works. We want to feel as though we're involved somehow. But sadly, we either move ahead without any knowledge of the tools we have available to us, or we sit it out because we don't know how we would ever accomplish anything since we don't have the tools that others appear to have. Sometimes we even try to use the wrong tools for the task at hand. They may be very good tools, but they're not the right tools for our job.
   Here's the good news: Every single one of us already has within us every tool we will ever need to accomplish whatever it is that God has asked of us. In connection with the topic that Len spoke on last Sunday, take a look at the following:

"7 However, he has given each one of us a special gift[a] through the generosity of Christ. 8 That is why the Scriptures say,
   “When he ascended to the heights,
      he led a crowd of captives
      and gave gifts to his people.”[b]

 9 Notice that it says “he ascended.” This clearly means that Christ also descended to our lowly world.[c] 10 And the same one who descended is the one who ascended higher than all the heavens, so that he might fill the entire universe with himself.
 11 Now these are the gifts Christ gave to the church: the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors and teachers. 12 Their responsibility is to equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ. 13 This will continue until we all come to such unity in our faith and knowledge of God’s Son that we will be mature in the Lord, measuring up to the full and complete standard of Christ." Ephesians 4:7-13
   Notice that this says "He has given." That's very important for all of us to see. We have all been given spiritual gifts, or tools, to be used in doing God's work, and in building up the church. It doesn't matter what your specific gifts are. None are more important or effective than others, because they are all needed if we are to be "One body." They all work together, but they work together best when they're all being used by each of us in accordance with His will for our lives and for our church.
   I'm going to challenge all of you to discover the spiritual gifts you've been given. Dedicate yourself to praying over this. Ask God to reveal these things to you. Just as I, being the father in the story above, wanted my son to use the tools he'd been given, God wants every one of us to discover and use the tools He's given each of us. I promise you that if you do so, and begin to search out ways to use those gifts within the church, it will never feel like work, because you will begin to witness firsthand the incredible blessing of seeing God take those efforts and use them is ways you never dreamed possible.