Monthly Archives: May 2015

Bread on the Waters

Chris Bires, 41, was on his way to work.

He walked this street in downtown Chicago every day, Monday thru Friday. It was routinely uneventful.

Until that day.

When Chris spotted a man playing his saxophone on the street and the empty can next to him, he decided he’d do a good deed. Reaching into his pocket he pulled out all his coins and emptied them into the can. The bearded young saxophonist smiled at the clean-shaven executive and thanked him.

When he got to work, Chris discovered that he was missing his wedding ring. The ring fit a little loose and he had been planning to have it re-sized. He must have somehow accidently handed it over to the street musician when he gave him his money. His heart sunk. Chris raced back to where the saxophonist had been but he was gone.

As he walked back to his office, Chris wondered how he would explain this to his wife. And then he thought, “If only I hadn’t given that guy my money”. Chris ruefully sneered to himself. “I guess it’s like they say, no good deed goes unpunished.”

Weeks went by.

Then one day, walking to work, Chris was anxiously intercepted by a smiling middle-aged woman. She reached into her handbag and pulled something out. When she opened her hand to Chris, there was his lost ring.

Chris couldn’t believe it.

Bonita Franks, a panhandler, had seen Chris return that day telling someone about the man with the saxophone and his lost ring. She remembered it when she later spotted the sax player. And she took it upon herself to get the ring back, as only a street- savvy panhandler could do.

Bonita didn’t know if she’d ever see Chris Bires on that crowded city street again but she vowed to watch and when she did, she couldn’t wait to return to him his lost treasure. And there, on that busy Chicago street, surrounded by all manner of greed, apathy and selfish striving, two unlikely people hugged, brought together by their kindness and generosity.

We’ve all been tempted to feel that in this world, sooner or later, idealism gets brutally mugged; that good deeds are unrequited and, as often as not, punished. Our age breeds cynicism and contempt and the headlines blare it.

We shake our heads. “That figures. They should have known better.”

God, faith and the Bible go boldly against this rough and hardened grain. They beckon us to a higher standard, a softer heart and a more hopeful disposition.

There is an ancient Hebrew saying found in the Old Testament: “Cast your bread upon the waters, for after many days you will find it again” (Ecclesiastes 11:1-2, NIV).

What does this mean?

Give generously, with no thought to your own interests, and, no matter what may happen in the meanwhile, your kindness will not go unnoticed or unrewarded. The blessing may be immediate or it may be delayed but it will never be abandoned or overlooked by a God who sees all and cares deeply.

How do we know this?

Because God will be a debtor to no one. We cannot out-give him. God is the ultimate Giver. He has given us His only Son and our greatest gift, eternal life. Daily God blesses us beyond all measure and in so many ways we fail to count or recall. As the poet wrote, “he giveth and giveth and giveth again.” God is unbelievably and extravagantly generous.

He gave all this to us when we had nothing, could do nothing and were nothing.

We cannot pay God back.

In a world and a culture that’s all about taking and getting, everything about Christianity involves giving. As Jesus prepared to send out the disciples to perform all manner of good deeds, He reminded them:

“Freely you have received, freely give” (Matthew 10:9, NKJV). Their receipt was the basis of their giving.

So is ours.

“Give”, Jesus tells us, “and it will be given to you: good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over will be put into your bosom. For with the same measure you use, it will be measured back to you” (Luke 6:38, NKJV).

“Give away your life; you’ll find life given back, but not merely given back – given back with bonus and blessing. Giving, not getting, is the way. Generosity begets generosity” (Luke 6:38, The Message).

The poet Edwin Markham expressed this spiritual truth when he wrote:

“There is a destiny which makes us brothers; none goes his way alone. All that we send into the lives of others comes back into our own.”

Chris Bires and Bonita Franks would smile, fist-bump and say, “Back at ya!”

Give away your life to others and you’ll discover life giving back to you.

When was the last time you cast your bread on the waters?

May God bless you and your family.

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Where Poppies Grow

John McCrae stood staring at the simple wooden coffin.

It contained the remains of his dear friend Alexis Helmer.

McCrae was many things: a physician, author, artist and a poet. And now he was also a soldier. When England declared war on Germany, McCrae’s native Canada, a dominion of the British Empire, entered the war too.

From a hastily dug 8 foot by 8 foot bunker, McCrae treated wounded soldiers. It was during the Second Battle of Ypres in Belgium. The fighting had been fierce. There were many casualties.

On this day, May 2, 1915, during the second year of World War I, Alexis Helmer joined the dead.

Alex and John had been close friends from the time they signed up in the Canadian Expeditionary Force at the outbreak of the war. Together, the men had traveled far from home and family to fight for freedom and for the empire. In a letter written to his mother, John described the battle at Ypres as a “nightmare.”

“In all that time while I was awake, gunfire and rifle fire never ceased for sixty seconds … And behind it all was the constant background of the sights of the dead, the wounded, the maimed, and a terrible anxiety lest the line should give way.”

John McCrae could have enlisted in the medical corps, given his training, background and his age – he was 41. Instead, he volunteered for a fighting unit as a gunner and medical officer. His father had been a military leader and had taught young John the importance of duty and of defending his country.

Now Alex was dead.

Lieutenant Colonel McCrae, filling in for the chaplain who had been called away, conducted the funeral of his friend. He remembered Alex, just so recently pulsating with life, courage and determination. A good and loyal friend he was. Now, suddenly, he was gone.

John was crushed with grief, even as he was filled with pride.

Later that evening, May 3, John sat in the back of an ambulance and wondered about what Alex and all the others who had fallen might say to those who would live after them. He composed a poem but was so disappointed in his effort that he discarded it.

Soldiers retrieved McCrae’s poem and persuaded him to submit it. It made its way into publication – and immortality. One hundred years later, it remains a hauntingly beautiful tribute to the fallen dead of every battlefield – and a poignant reminder to us all.

Flanders fields stretched east and west across the far-flung battle line. For many years, it had been noted that red poppies would often grow over soldiers’ graves. Because of the torn and heavily-limed soil, the poppy was one of the few plants that could grow on a battlefield. In 1855, British historian Lord Macaulay wrote about a battle near Ypres in Belgium in 1693:

“The next summer the soil, fertilized by twenty thousand corpses, broke forth into millions of poppies. The traveler who … saw that vast sheet of rich scarlet … could hardly help fancying that the figurative prediction of the Hebrew prophet was literally accomplished, that the earth was disclosing her blood – and refusing to cover the slain.” (Isaiah 26: 21).

McCrae made mention of this phenomenon in the memorable first line of his war poem:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow Between the crosses, row on row, That mark our place; and in the sky The larks, still bravely singing, fly Scarce heard amid the guns below.

 It may be, as some witnessed, that McCrae looked at the grave of his friend before he wrote the second stanza about the loved and the lost: We are the Dead. Short days ago We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, Loved and were loved, and now we lie In Flanders fields. McCrae writes of the legacy of the fallen dead and the duty of every succeeding generation to keep faith:

 Take up our quarrel with the foe: To you from failing hands we throw The torch; be yours to hold it high. If ye break faith with us who die We shall not sleep, though poppies grow In Flanders fields.

 Presidential candidates – even the brother of the president who waged it – have recently been scrambling to say that, “knowing what we know now”, the war in Iraq was “a mistake.”

That may or may not be true. History will judge.

For the 4,491 young Americans who fought and died in Iraq – those who once “lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow” and who “loved and were loved” – laying down their lives for their country was not “a mistake”. It was their “last full measure of devotion.”

Jesus said there is no greater proof of love than the sacrifice of one’s life for others.

The men and women who died in Iraq – and the more than 2,200 who have died in Afghanistan – are no less heroes worthy of our remembrance than are John McCrae and Alexis Helmer.

To you and me, from “failing hands”, the torch of freedom has been passed. May we always “hold it high.” May we never forget those who carried it bravely into battle – for us and for our children.

The fields where “poppies grow” remind us.

John McCrae died in 1918, just as World War I ended. He was 45.

May God bless you and your family.

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The Indispensable Presence

It was a conversation between friends.

One was pleading with the other.

It’s not the first time – nor the last.

Moses talked with God with a greater familiarity than most.

Inside the so-called Tent of Meeting is where God and Moses would come together and hash things out. In that sacred place of divine intimacy, “the Lord would speak with Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend” (Exodus 33:11, NLT). It was a holy intimacy that we observe throughout the Old Testament – an intimacy of smoke and fire and clouds and wind – an intimacy rooted in awe. This was quite unlike the easy familiarity found in too many worship services today.

Moses appears before God seeking divine reassurance in the midst of yet another crisis.

God has had it up to here with his chosen people.

He’s fed up.

It’s no wonder.

After liberating, leading and miraculously protecting the people of Israel, God has seen their response: a rollercoaster of broken promises to trust and obey. Once safely on the other shore of the Red Sea, as soon as Moses ascends Sinai to receive God’s commandments, the people decide to make their own god in the form of a golden calf.

Then they party.

“Moses? We don’t know what became of him”, they cry as they dance half naked in a celebration of unrestrained compulsion.

God decides to wipe Israel off the face of the earth for their rebellion. Unfaithful, unthankful and unrepentant, they’ve pushed God too far.

Only when Moses appeals to God’s promise to the nation, and to God’s integrity and his reputation should he go back on that covenant, does God change his mind. Only a leader who knew God and had a close relationship with him would have dared or been able to make such a national intercession.

Now God tells Moses to lead Israel to the Promised Land. “Get going,” God tells him, “you and the people you brought up from the land of Egypt” (Exodus 33:1, NLT, emphasis added).

When God’s angry with the people, they belong to Moses. When Moses pleads for mercy on their behalf, the people are God’s.

Not once but twice, God refuses to go with them. “I will not travel among you,” God tells Moses to tell the Israelites, “for you are a stubborn and rebellious people. If I did, I would surely destroy you along the way … If I were to travel with you for even a moment, I would destroy you” (Exodus 33: 3, 5, NLT, emphasis added).

God’s hot!

This is more than a mere divine annoyance or even a divine separation – this is the threat of divine annihilation. God can’t be held responsible for what he might do.

God tells Moses: Go – and take these sorry people with you. But don’t expect me to go along.

I’ve had it.

You’re on your own – and good luck! I’ll send an angel along to guide you.

But now Moses, the leader God chose out of the burning bush and commissioned to set an enslaved people free, has come before God to re-visit the issue.

Moses reminds God of God’s favor upon him – and of the consistently intimate relationship they’ve enjoyed through all these ups and downs of leading a great but wayward people.

For Moses, the guiding angel is not enough.

Moses wants God himself to go with them – and no one else. He must have the divine presence.

“If you don’t personally go with us,” Moses pleads, “don’t make us leave this place” (Exodus 33:15, NLT).

We’d rather dwell in this wilderness desert until we die than try and enter the Promised Land without you.

God’s presence is more than desirable – it is indispensable to the child of God. With God, his people may go to the uttermost parts of the world. Without him, we dare not venture across the street. The enabling power of the Great Commission is found in the unchanging promise and presence of Jesus Christ: “And, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world” (Matthew 28:20, KJV).

“How will anyone know that you look favorably on me – on me and on your people,” Moses argues to God, “if you don’t go with us? For your presence among us sets your people and me apart from all other people on the earth” (Exodus 33:16, NLT).

God changes his mind – once again. Moses persuades him. God agrees to go. His holiness and justice find balance with his mercy and love.

And Israel gets to the Promised Land and becomes – and remains to this day – a great nation.

God’s presence is as indispensable for his people today as it was the day Moses pleaded for it.

His presence sets you apart.

Every day that you rise from your bed; with every mile you travel; with every problem, challenge or decision you face, and every heartache, illness or setback you may suffer, the God of Moses whispers to your heart, “Fear not, for I am with you … I will strengthen you, yes, I will help you”(Isaiah 41:10,NKJV).

God’s indispensable presence is your strength.

He’ll never leave you.

May God bless you and your family.

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Then, Now and Forever

It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon.

A cool, gentle breeze ruffled the tree branches overhead.

Beth and I were at our daughter’s home. We had just finished lunch and were enjoying sitting in the spacious backyard watching our grandchildren play.

I thought about family and how blessed we are. Beth’s parents had joined us for lunch. They’re in great health at 83. I considered the beauty and joy of four generations together in a backyard on a perfect Sunday.

These gatherings are always special.

Family’s great. And family’s important.

In recent times the American family has changed – a lot.

The redefinition of “family” has been moving forward with breakneck speed.

This spring, as Americans traditionally celebrate Motherhood and Fatherhood, five men and three women, sitting on an unelected United States Supreme Court, are on the verge of morally re-aligning civilization. These justices will decide if the covenant institution of marriage will be expanded to include gay men and women. They have been asked to sanction homosexual union as a constitutional right.

Much of the argument before the Court, on both sides, has invoked children and the role of procreation in advancing society. This pending decision has as much to do about family as it does about marriage.

They are inextricably linked.

Marriage cannot be redefined without changing the meaning of being a mother. And what it means to be a father.

Our founders could appeal to “the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God” in making their eloquent case for fundamental human dignity and freedom. In a western culture now steeped in moral relativism and spiritual rebellion, the case for gay marriage appeals to neither. Instead, it defies both.

The advocates of this unnatural alteration have public opinion squarely on their side. Never in American history has the tide turned so swiftly and dramatically. With a politically shrewd strategy and a sympathetic media, proponents have outmaneuvered, out-talked and out-hustled their adversaries. They have intimidated the voices of traditional morality into incoherence and ultimately silence.

They have won. And we’ve all seen this coming for some time.

Our churches often seem at a loss to address the central moral and spiritual issues at stake. They too have been intimidated – cowered by the harangues against “intolerance” and “bigotry” – and too anxious to sell their spiritual birthright for a hot bowl of popular cultural stew.

Who wants to be a religious Neanderthal?

The present famine of God’s Word has made us drink the sand of a moral desert.

Still, might doesn’t always make right.

In fact, history shows us the frequent fallacy of shifting opinion and political totalitarianism – and the undeniable consequences of moral decline.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, who is, after all, supposed to be a judicious arbiter and not a strident ideologue, pondered the serious implications of the court’s decision during oral arguments.

Not least of all because he may cast the deciding vote.

“This definition (of traditional marriage) has been with us for millennia,” Kennedy observed. “And it’s very difficult for the court to say, “Oh well, we know better.’”

That reluctance was previously echoed by a lower court judge:

“A dose of humility makes us hesitant to condemn as unconstitutionally irrational a view of marriage shared not long ago by every society in the world.”

Yet without a vision of God, “the people cast off restraint”(Proverbs 29:18, NIV).

I’m not sure what Justice Kennedy had in mind when he spoke of “millennia”, but the first book of the Bible describes the arrangement that he and his black-robed colleagues may soon overturn:

“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them” (Genesis 1:27, KJV, emphasis added). Later, when the Book of Beginnings describes the creation of woman, it says:

“This explains why a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one” (Genesis 2:24, NLT, emphasis added).

Jesus quotes this directly as God’s plan “from the beginning” (Matthew 19:4-5) and the apostle Paul also endorses it explicitly in his letter to the Ephesians (5:31).

Gay marriage or the Bible: they can’t both be right.

And while some insist God got this wrong, I’ll take my chances.

Rabbi Daniel Lapin, in an article titled Saving Civilization, writes:

“When a man and woman make a lifetime commitment to one another they each benefit from the resulting stability, sensuality, and happiness. When a wife revels in her femininity and her husband submits his masculinity to the silken bonds of matrimony, the couple and children they create form a cocoon of security and joy.”

That’s why today, on our National Day of Prayer, I will pray for mothers and fathers and children and families. And it’s also why this Sunday I will rejoice in the celebration of womanhood and motherhood. I’ll thank God for my beautiful wife and three lovely daughters, two of whom are also mothers. I’ll offer praise for the women and mothers who guided history and have helped to change the world.

And, along with millions of my fellow Americans who will never surrender, I’ll thank God for the greatest institution, next to the Church, in the history of the earth:

The God-ordained family. Then, now and forever.

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When God Knocked on My Door

I had been trying to process the news about Nepal.

Nearly 5,000 dead.

Then there was the avalanche on Mt. Everest caused by the earthquake.

More rapid death.

And last night, in the middle of another downpour of badly needed rain, I was watching Baltimore burn.

Hatred, violence, looting, destruction. That’s all I saw.

We’d be more encouraged if we never watched the news perhaps. Yet I can’t help it. I’ve been a news hound since the age of twelve. And so I watch and read. I learn of natural catastrophes around the world, 7.8 earthquakes, mounting death tolls, and massive avalanches.

And social and cultural seismic shifts just as great.

I stare at the banner headlines:

Race to stop ISIL in USA

 Baltimore Burning

 “Destroyed by thugs”

Hope crumbling in quake’s aftermath

 High court split on gay marriage

 Are these current events or is this divine judgment?

“The earth is violently broken, The earth is split open, The earth is shaken exceedingly. The earth shall reel to and fro like a drunkard,And shall totter like a hut;Its transgression shall be heavy upon it,And it will fall, and not rise again” (Isaiah 24:19-20, NKJV).

It’s a somber indictment from an ancient prophet.

As I sat there I also thought about the past three months of my own life.

Walking pneumonia led to severe coughing which led to a broken vertebra which led to too much pain medicine which led to a perforated ulcer, emergency surgery and a week in the hospital far from home.

The day after I arrived back in Dallas, my younger brother told me he’d been diagnosed with stage four esophageal cancer. It had spreads to his liver. Beth and I went to Ohio to visit Allen and Marianne.

Allen and I went fishing like we had as kids – out in a boat, just the two of us. Remembering, laughing, and mimicking those stalwarts from our youth who are now long gone. We relished the time. I yearned for it to stand still.

We caught two bass and threw them back.

In his aging blue Ford pickup I saw an old campaign button pinned to the visor. I Back Jack. Sibling loyalty.

It was a good and necessary visit. I wanted to be with him before he started chemo. He would soon have to surrender to a miserable poison injected to save his life.

I had told Allen when he first called I’d gladly trade places with him if I could. I had prayed with him on the phone. I didn’t make it to the amen. Allen’s a believer. He’s trusting God.

So for me it hasn’t been the easiest time, or the best of days.

The earth was reeling. Sometimes so was I.

Just as I was watching a senior citizen center burning to the ground in Baltimore, I got a text from Rob Veal. Rob is the associate pastor of our church. He’s a neighbor of ours, a great guy and a great worship leader.

“Jack”, he wrote, “step outside your door and look up to the east … one day he will come from there … think about it!”

As I got up from the couch I noticed it had stopped raining. Rays of sunlight sliced through retreating clouds. I walked out my door and to the end of my sidewalk and looked up.

A beautiful rainbow graced the eastern sky.

I stared at it and felt an unexpected tear. I swallowed.

It was such a sudden and clarifying juxtaposition – the angry turmoil on television and the silent beauty in the sky.

As I stood gazing, I thought of God and his covenant. He had observed the world he had made and “the extent of human wickedness on the earth, and he saw that everything they thought or imagined was consistently and totally evil.” (Genesis 6:5, NLT).

Then it says in verse seven that “the Lord was sorry he had ever made them and put them on the earth. It broke his heart” (NLT).

He had pronounced everything “very good” five chapters earlier upon the completion of his creation. Now “it grieved him at his heart” (KJV).

But after he destroyed the human race and spared Noah, God placed a sign of his love in the sky. It was “the token of the covenant which I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for perpetual generations” (Genesis 9:12, KJV).

God called it “my bow in the cloud” (verse 13, KJV). “I will look upon it, that I may remember the everlasting covenant…” (verse 16, KJV).

We remember too when we look at the rainbow.

God still reigns in the midst of man’s rebellion. He loves us and we are in his hands. So are our loved ones. He can destroy, yes. But he can heal too. And he does. He is the God of might and miracles; of grace and mercy and comfort.

Someday his Son will split the eastern sky in triumphant return.

This is still his world. You and I are still his children.

Don’t ever forget that. No matter what happens to you or the ones you care about.

I remembered – when God knocked on my door.

May God bless you and your family.

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