Monthly Archives: July 2015

Karl’s Cards

The attic, like any other, smelled musty.

And like any other attic, there was stuff piled everywhere – dusty, musty junk. Anyone who‘s ever been up there knows the smell and the sight.  You look around and you don’t know where to begin. It is an experience of overwhelming fascination. Or perhaps just overwhelming.

For Karl Kissner, the journey to his late grandfather’s home in Defiance, Ohio was both sentimental and necessary. The old house was bulging with a hundred years of accumulated clutter.

As Karl stood in the old attic, surveying the task before him, he spied a small cardboard box in a corner. Opening it, he was startled. The box was filled with old baseball cards, all of them in pristine condition. Staring up at Karl were the virile, robust images of long-departed legends.

There was Ty Cobb, “the Georgia Peach”, who spent twenty-two amazing seasons with the Detroit Tigers. There was Cy Young, the gifted pitcher who played for five teams during his career, compiling a record 511 wins. And Karl found a Honus Wagner card too. Known as “The Flying Dutchman” for his incredible speed, Wagner is considered by most baseball historians as the greatest shortstop who ever took the diamond.  These men were among the first players to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in the 1930s.

Karl Kissner counted seven hundred perfectly preserved baseball cards that day in his grandfather’s musty attic.

He did what anyone would do after making such a discovery. Karl located an expert. It turned out that Karl’s grandfather had owned one of the rarest collections of baseball cards ever found – a long-lost series that had been issued around 1910.

It’s estimated value? Three million dollars.

Karl couldn’t believe it. “It’s like finding the Mona Lisa in the attic,” he enthused.

Or perhaps it’s a lot like finding a treasure hidden in a field or discovering a rare pearl in an open market. You don’t expect to find it. You’re not looking for it. In fact, just like Karl Kissner standing in that old attic, it’s probably the very last thing you thought you’d ever find. But you’ll never forget the day you found it.

When Jesus went down to the sea, a large crowd, eager to hear him, gathered so intently that Jesus had to get in a boat, push it slightly off shore, and speak from there. According to Matthew, he shared with the crowd seven parables that day. All seven of these stories Jesus told illustrated the Kingdom of Heaven. (Matthew 13: 1-52).

Two of them spoke to the supreme value of spiritual discovery.

“The Kingdom of Heaven,” Jesus told them, “is like a treasure that a man discovered hidden in a field.” (Matthew 13: 44, NLT). The man, likely poor, is plowing this field for someone else. He expects nothing for his labor except dirt, sweat and a modest payment.  Instead, Jesus says, the man discovers “a treasure” hidden in the field.

And what does this poor man do? He does just what Karl Kissner did. He immediately recognizes that this surprising discovery is of such great value that it could change his life forever.

He must have this treasure.

Jesus said that “In his excitement, he hid it again and sold everything he owned to get enough money to buy the field.” (Matthew 13: 44, NLT, emphasis added).

This man, making his unexpected discovery, instantly knew the value of what he had found hidden in the ground. He wanted this treasure more than he wanted anything else in life. And so the man gave up everything else in order to have this one great thing. He discovered, then he decided, he acted, he sacrificed and he gained what mattered most to him.

And so it was also with the merchant seeking “choice pearls.” Finding the one “pearl of great price”, the shrewd merchant recognizes the true value of his discovery. Jesus says “he sold everything he owned and bought it!” (Matthew 13: 45-46, KJV, NLT).

Very different in background and life experience, both the plowman and the merchant understood the true value of things. They wanted what mattered most. And they willingly gave up everything else in order to get it.

To Jesus – and to those who would be his followers – this means the Kingdom of Heaven. It means eternal life. It means possessing Jesus himself, being his disciple and putting him first in our hearts and in our lives. It means, as Paul told the Philippians, giving up all that the world  holds dear but cannot keep in order to gain all that truly matters and can never be lost.

Living for Jesus – discovering in him our greatest need and greatest treasure –  is worth more than anything else.

Even a box of old baseball cards gathering dust in an attic.

May God bless you and your family.

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Pliable

The two men walked together down the pleasant shaded road.

This was going to be a nice trip – a journey one man knew of and the other wondered about.

The one carried a sack on his back. He looked determined.

“Tell me more,” the younger man asked eagerly. “What will it be like, I mean when we get there?”

The man carrying the sack explained what he had read in the book he held firmly in his hand.

It all sounded so wonderful to the young companion.

“Wow! That’s amazing,” he enthused. “Come on, let’s walk faster. I can’t wait to get there!”

This was the zeal of a new beginning. Hope always abounds at the start.

But we find soon enough that when Christian, with that load on his back, and Pliable, his spirited but untried fellow traveler, fall into the Slough of Despond, it suddenly becomes an entirely different story.

Neither saw it coming.

As the two men thrash desperately, sinking deeper into the mire that represents the trials of life and the adversity to faith, Pliable asks, “Christian, where are we now?”

Christian didn’t know.

Pliable becomes indignant and worried.

“Is this the happiness you told me about?” he cries to Christian.  “If it’s like this now, at the beginning, when we’ve gone only this short way, what is there still ahead of us?”

Struggling in the murky swamp, Pliable finally gets to the bank that is closest to his home.

Crawling out, he turns to Christian, still flailing in the swamp, and announces, “You will have to take the far country without me – I’m going back!”

And back he went.

Back to his old home, his security, his friends and his comforts. John Bunyan tells us in this early episode of The Pilgrim’s Progress, that of Pliable, “Christian saw him no more.”

Christian is pulled from the Swamp of Despondence by a man named Help. Christian chooses, despite this early adversity, to continue his journey. He loses his burden of sin at the cross, encounters many a deceitful and powerful foe along the way but finally crosses the river and enters that beautiful far country that will be his eternal home.

Christian never gave up.

He also never saw Pliable again.

In The Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan gave the world the greatest single book of Christian faith and doctrine since the Bible. When he began writing it he was in jail because he refused to stop preaching the Gospel. He spent twelve long years in that Bedford prison.

He suffered for his faith and his conscience.

Bunyan knew adversity and understood the importance of Christian perseverance.

Do we?

For the remainder of our lives on earth you and I will live in a world increasingly alien and hostile to Christianity. Our faith and our determination to live it will be tested in new and different ways in the years ahead.

In his story of the sower and the seeds, Jesus tells us that 75% of the spiritual seeds never grew to fruition. The various trials, distractions and temptations of this life deprived them of taking root in the heart and bearing a crop in the soul. The conditions and pressures were various but each of the three cases ended in the same wasted tragedy.

In each instance, there was a lack of perseverance – the failure of determination to stick with it and remain faithful despite the circumstances and opposition. Every time, the situation triumphed over the promise.

The Bible speaks extensively of the urgent need to persevere and The Perseverance of the Saints is a gloriously recurring and integrated theme throughout scripture and throughout the history of Christ’s Church. In Nave’s Topical Bible, the entry for Perseverance runs more than four pages, with biblical references from Genesis through Revelation.

And what is the entry just before Perseverance in this venerated reference work?

Persecution (six and a half pages).

 Over and over again, we read that we shall prevail in our struggles of faith and life, “if we hold fast the confidence and the rejoicing of the hope firm unto the end” (Hebrews 3:6, KJV, emphasis added).

The writer says that you and I are “partakers of Christ”, sharing in his life and glory, “if we hold the beginning of our confidence steadfast to the end” (Hebrews 3:14, KJV, emphasis added).

If we trust God “just as firmly as when we first believed” (NLT) – when faith was fresh, the sky was blue and the prospects for our journey glorious – before our first struggle in the swamp of temptation and despair.

Hard times come. They are part and parcel of the authentic Christian experience.

“If you follow Christ” wrote Charles Spurgeon, “you shall have all the dogs of the world yelping at your heels.”

You and I will not need more perseverance than the saints of old needed, but we may need more than we have needed until now.

The Christian has always had to endure “many dangers, toils and snares”.

Let us therefore remain “steadfast, unmovable” (I Corinthians 15:58, KJV).

Let us remember and avoid the tragedy of Pliable.  And know that the grace that has led us thus far will take us to that far country – and our eternal home.

May God bless you and your family.

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The Insightful Mr. Brooks

He’s a Jew.

He’s a highly intelligent and sophisticated journalist and commentator.

He calls himself a conservative but takes liberal views on several social issues, including abortion and gay marriage. He writes for The New York Times as a columnist. He has been a regular on National Public Radio.

He greatly admires John McCain, and is a Republican who says the party must move beyond Goldwater/Reagan ideas of limited government. However, he has worked for such conservative publications as National Review, The Wall Street Journal and The Weekly Standard.

He’s suspected by both the Right and the Left – which means he’s unpredictable in his views.

Some would say conflicted.

Yes, I’ll admit it, I like David Brooks. Not because I always agree with him but because I know he’s thoughtful and insightful – and worth reading and listening to.

Brooks has written a few books. The last one, just published, is entitled The Road to Character.

 Mr. Brooks shares studies of several historical figures from Augustine to Eisenhower and analyzes how they developed their character.

 “I wrote this book not sure I could follow the road to character,” Brooks says, “but I wanted at least to know what the road looks like and how other people have trodden it.”

Ironically, Brooks takes a Christian view.

Followers of Jesus Christ, especially those in leadership, would do well to consider the profoundly orthodox biblical perspective offered by this unorthodox political commentator and cultural Jew. Brooks is a breath of fresh air – bracing perhaps but a wonderful antidote to our pervasive shallowness.

In his closing chapter, The Big Me, Brooks takes direct aim at the arrogance and superficiality that threaten American Christianity.

He enumerates a Humility Code which he argues is central to walking the road to character.

“We don’t live for happiness, we live for holiness” Brooks writes.

“But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do”, Peter insists, “for it is written: ‘Be holy, because I am holy’” (I Peter 1:15, NIV).

Pursuing happiness may be viewed as a semi-constitutional right, but God places a much higher priority on being holy. Peter traces the divine command back to Leviticus. David Brooks is familiar with the scriptures and the ancient Jewish law. And he understands that the singular desire for personal satisfaction breeds selfishness and entitlement.

Holiness breeds character.

Some of this country’s biggest and fastest growing churches feed on greed, envy and headlong ambition.  Materialism has replaced spirituality – in fact, it has been falsely represented as spirituality.

“God wants you to be happy!”

But an ancient writer called that pursuit “chasing the wind” (Ecclesiastes 2:11).

When Robert E. Lee handed a small child back to his parents he told them, “Teach him to deny himself.”  Here was honest and simple wisdom spoken by a man of greatness who had walked, through adversity, the road to character.

Jesus tells us to take up our cross.

“We are flawed creatures,” Brooks reminds us. This is the key to grasping the crisis of our time with peace and discernment.  Man’s inhumanity; his cruelty and oppression; his audacious immorality and his fearsome capacity for unmitigated evil are all rooted in this fundamental truth about the world and our place in it.

Calvinists call this “the total depravity of man”. They are right. In the face of recorded history and in the moral rebellion and turmoil of our new century, even the most incurable optimist must concede this central truth.

“Humility is the greatest virtue,” Brooks points out, and “pride is the central vice.”

CS Lewis agreed, adding that in the sin of pride, all other sins find their true origin. Pride makes us entitled – to success, health and wealth. Pride makes us too easily and irreverently familiar with a sovereign and awesome God, too unwilling to bow before him, too quick to judge others and too independent to stand in the need of grace.

Pride was the cause of humankind’s original fall and it continues to cause heartbreaking disasters. The narcissism that infects our culture is the result of defiant pride.

Humility is the path to true greatness and the only road to character. Proverbs and the psalms reflect it, Paul and Peter exhorted it and Jesus modeled it.  Every one of the lives Brooks studied and wrote about was marked by humility. It may be an elusive virtue but it is an essential one and well worth cultivating.

Humility makes us indebted – to God for his mercy and to others because of it.

“The struggle against sin and for virtue is the central drama of life,” Brooks asserts, and “character is built in the course of your inner confrontation.”

That struggle lasts a lifetime. It’s called perseverance.

As great as he was, the apostle Paul mourned over his too often defeated battle against his sinful nature. In wrestling with my own flesh, I have often drawn comfort from Paul’s inner conflict.

“No person can achieve self-mastery on his or her own,” Brooks concludes, and so “we are all ultimately saved by grace.”

Indeed we are Mr. Brooks.

It’s God’s matchless and amazing grace that gives us the strength, joy and confidence to travel our own road to character.

May God bless you and your family.

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Dad’s Coleman

It was quite an experience for a thirteen year-old boy.

My dad, who took hunting, fishing and the great outdoors with a seriousness of purpose and joy of heart fit for Field & Stream, had arranged for my brother and me to join him on a three-day fishing trip to northern Maine.

We would fly – the whole way.

It was July and the summer still reminds me of my incredible journey.

I’d never been on a plane. We flew from Harford, Connecticut to Bangor, Maine. Then we jumped on a small plane in Orono, home to the University of Maine, and flew about twenty minutes to a town called Millinocket. But our plane rides weren’t over and my dad had saved the best for last.

We boarded a pontoon plane for the final leg of our journey. I watched the water churn white with foam as the floats glided us across the lake and we mounted up for the clear, picturesque flight over the green wilderness. We had been in the air for nearly an hour when we touched down on Henderson Pond.

It’s important to know that the word “pond” in Maine is not so much a metaphor as it is a misnomer. This was a good-sized lake.

The only way into Henderson was by sea plane. There were no roads, no homes, no stores – and no power. It was a beautiful and tranquil place and the stillness you heard was the majesty of creation.

We unpacked and got settled.  As darkness began to envelop our small cabin that first night, Dad took charge. After all, if you were going to be in the middle of nowhere, our dad was the guy you wanted to be with. From a carefully packed box Dad removed the magic that would transform our tiny sanctuary.

It was a forest green Coleman lantern.

As he pumped the small knob to prepare the kerosene for ignition, my brother and I watched in anticipation. The small glow grew bigger and soon the Coleman was shedding its warm light across the room. Then Dad took the lantern and carefully hung it high above the table. It lighted the whole cabin. Each night was the same – out came the Coleman and behold, there was light.

Had it not been for that Coleman lantern, those three nights in the Maine wilderness would have been pretty dark. But Dad had come prepared and he had brought the light.

When Jesus prayed for his disciples on another dark night in an upper room in Jerusalem, he asked his heavenly Father for light. And his prayer wasn’t just for the men in that room who shared his ministry and would lead his church. Jesus prayed for his church throughout time. He prayed for you and for me and for all those who would be his true followers.

“Sanctify them through thy truth,” Jesus prayed. “Thy word is truth.” (John17:17, KJV).

Jesus did not ask the Father to sanctify – that is to consecrate and make holy – his followers through emotion or experience; or politics, popularity or fads; or subjective reasoning and relevant argument. Holiness, Jesus knew, comes through the truth and nothing but the truth.

Jesus also knew the sole repository of all truth was the word of God. And so he inextricably linked them as cause and effect, as a hand slips into a glove. God’s truth is the only source of spiritual awareness, wisdom and progress. And God’s word not only contains that truth – it is God’s truth. And truth is what ultimately matters – not our opinions or feelings or our latest ideas.

Polls and supreme courts can never alter God’s purpose, his mind or his will. It cannot abrogate his truth. Not even slightly. God doesn’t change his mind about his law; he only grieves in his heart at man’s defiance.

God’s word is our light in the darkness.

This is the foundation of Christian faith. Though it is lashed today by the torrents of post – modern cynicism, it stands firm. Peter reminds us that though heaven and earth shall fade away, God’s word shall forever remain.

It is the assault upon the possibility of absolute truth – and the fear and embarrassment of defending God’s word to a culture in wholesale rebellion to it – that has led the Christian church to a slippery accommodation with the world.  Paul, who commanded Timothy to “preach the word”, laid down the gauntlet to believers living in pagan Rome: “Let God be true and every man a liar.” (Romans 3:4, KJV).This must still be our standard and the moral line Christians draw in the shifting sand of public opinion.

Now more than ever, you and I must follow the light of God’s holy and unchanging word.

“We only progress in sound living,” said English preacher Charles Spurgeon, “as we progress in sound understanding.”

Only God’s word can enlighten and instruct our minds and convict and comfort our hearts. Only his word can show us the way.

The psalmist exclaimed in awestruck gratitude:

Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path” (Psalm 119:105, KJV).

In a world growing darker by the day, that’s even better than Dad’s Coleman.

May God bless you and your family.

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Mourning in America

It was quite a sight.

The White House, historic icon and symbol of national leadership, was seen now in a new light.

The executive mansion, home of our presidents, over which its first occupant, John Adams,

had solemnly prayed, “May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof,” was suddenly bathed in the rainbow colors of homosexual triumph and pride.

This desecration of an American symbol was ordered by an enthusiastic president who, with nothing to risk politically, is clearly out of the closet on this issue.

President Obama, who has been described as America’s first “gay president”, called the gay-colored White House “pretty cool” and “a good thing.”

It was part of a national celebration.

Earlier that day, the United States Supreme Court, in a 5-4 split decision, declared homosexual marriage legal in all fifty states. It is now, said the court, a constitutional right that all Americans are duty bound to recognize, respect and support.

In his vigorous dissent, Chief Justice John Roberts asked, “Who do we think we are?”

The Court, in declaring homosexuality socially normative, legally protected and morally permissible – as the law of the land – has inverted right and wrong. Dismissing the legislative process and the millennia-long collective wisdom of civilization, the court not only re-defined the institution of marriage – it sanctioned and speeded America’s path toward the moral abyss.

The rainbow symbol suddenly was everywhere. Major corporations began marketing it to show that they too believed in love and tolerance.  Gay Pride parades were held in New York, San Francisco and Chicago. Thousands in the streets cheered, danced and hugged.

But for millions of other Americans it was a day for mourning.

This is a time of sadness that a great republic we all love has gone so far astray from God’s moral law. Truths deemed self-evident by our nation’s founders as derived from Nature and Nature’s God have been defied in the celebration of unnatural acts.

“Jerusalem staggers,” wrote the prophet Isaiah. “Judah is falling; their words and deeds are against the Lord, defying his glorious presence.”

The arrogance and pride of the people are manifest in their open and shameless rebellion.

The look on their faces testifies against them; they parade their sin like Sodom; they do not hide it. Woe to them! They have brought disaster upon themselves” (Isaiah 3:8-9, NIV).

Nor does corrupt and compromising leadership – both religious and civic – escape the divine judgment.

“Your leaders mislead you; they send you down the wrong path” (Isaiah 3:12, NLT).

The foundations of morality and faith in God which emboldened 13 wilderness colonies to challenge the greatest power on earth are crumbling. The current of culture is strong and fast-moving.

So, how should Christians live?

Redemptively.

We must not apologize, we must not compromise, and we must not temporize.  Nothing for the follower of Jesus Christ has changed with the court’s decision.

Because we worship an immutable God, nothing ever will.

We grieve because we love America. We know that the most strenuous dissent often goes hand in hand with the deepest patriotism. So our sadness is the broken heart of a wounded lover. Because we cherish all that this country stands for – and our noble heritage – we mourn this marked departure from the ancient and good paths.

This is not a time for panic or fear.

This is a time for choosing.

Being a prophetic minority will strengthen our faith and hope in God. It will make us more courageous Christians, prepared to stand for our beliefs or it will condemn us to a quisling accommodation with the world.

The day for straddling is over.

It is time to acknowledge the yawning chasm between legality and morality.

“Here I stand,” declared Martin Luther to a corrupt world, “I can do no other.”

Every American pastor worthy of that honor needs to be preaching God’s whole counsel and declaring his Christian conscience on the moral issues of our day. The godly pulpit ought to be the last place to try and hide. Christians need thoughtful, informed and principled leadership from their shepherds.

We must pray for our beloved America. That God may yet shed his grace on our land, knowing that spiritual revival and healing is still possible.

We must not only defend biblical marriage, we must resolve to be more devoted and loving husbands, wives and parents.

We must also love and respect our gay neighbor. He has not been created gay but he is still created in God’s divine image, no less than any Christian. The world knows the follower of Christ by his love. Let’s always remember and practice that truth.

In another moral crisis, the outcome of which we celebrate this weekend, Thomas Paine reminded his fellow citizens:

“Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly.”

Let us remain soldiers of the cross and followers of the Lamb. May you and I never fear to own his cause or blush to speak his name.

And let us say a prayer for our country.

May God bless you and your family.

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