Monthly Archives: October 2015

Lesson from a Trunk

It was a gray Wednesday but forecast to clear.

I had just walked from the hotel in Houston to my rental car parked in back.

I had calculated the extra time I’d need in Houston traffic to arrive on time for my luncheon meeting. Everything was going just as planned.

I popped the trunk and placed my luggage -including an open bag – inside. Then I pushed the trunk down.

It didn’t shut.

Instead, it popped back up. Surprised by this defiant malfunction, I pressed the lid down again – harder. Up it bounced. Oblivious to any possible onlooker’s amusement and increasingly irritated at this lack of mechanical cooperation, I pushed the trunk lid even harder – several times in rapid succession.

This was a contest of wills. My impatience quickly devolved into frustration, then anger, and finally practical concern. I pictured myself driving down I-10 with the trunk cover flopping in the air.

That would make it hard to see out the back window, I reasoned. What would I tell the police officer who stopped me? How would I get to this appointment? More importantly, how would I explain to my boss that a demon-possessed trunk lid ruined this trip – after I spent company money on a hotel room?

Why, I seethed, is this happening to me? Why can’t I have a car that works? What’s the problem here?

What’s wrong? This car is brand new. It’s even made in Japan for goodness sake!

Realizing that playing Jack in the Box wasn’t working, I looked to see if perhaps something was blocking the trunk’s latch. Peering inside, I saw them.

The car keys.

Somehow, they had fallen out of my hand right into the open bag.

Well, what do you know?

I smiled. I suddenly realized that this car was specifically designed to protect idiots like me against our own carelessness and inattention. Had that trunk lid shut, I would have been finished. That was the only set of keys I had.

Instead of being dumb and broken, the car was very smart – and working just fine.

I may have muttered some apology to the vehicle, I can’t remember. I did thank God. And felt a bit chagrined before him. If the inanimate had suddenly become animated, I’m sure the car would have had something to say:

“OK, dummy, do you get it now?”

Technology is amazing! What a great idea! And a wonderful safety feature.

But I didn’t know that at first – only after my discovery did it become clear.

On the way to my appointment, I marveled again and shuddered to think what would have happened to me if I had gotten my way; if I had closed that trunk on those keys.

I didn’t know what I was doing. The car was programmed to prevent me from having my own way – for my own good.

We don’t always know what’s good for us. We ask God for things and we don’t really know what we’re asking for. We say we seek his will, but it’s so often ours we want. Then we become frustrated and discouraged and wonder why God hasn’t answered our repeated prayers.

But maybe he has.

Some of God’s most loving answers are denials of our will and our way.

When we pray, “Thy will be done” are we truly willing to embrace that – in all its difficult and uncertain implications?

Perhaps he’s doing something that will later, in his appointed time, amaze and thrill us.

Only God knows and he asks you and me to trust him with the things we don’t understand – and sometimes with the things we think we understand but really don’t.

Through the prophet Isaiah God assures the people of Israel:

“And I will bring the blind by a way that they knew not; I will lead them in paths that they have not known: I will make darkness light before them, and crooked things straight. These things will I do unto them, and not forsake them” (Isaiah 42:16, KJV).

It’s a beautiful verse, filed with promise, provision and protection.

It’s a fearful and perhaps frustrating thing to be led in unfamiliar paths. The unknown scares us but to the God who tenderly leads us, there is no unknown.  To God alone is the end known from the beginning.

God knows the keys are in the trunk.

“Ah, now I see”.

Still, being only human, we so often strain against the difficulty. We keep trying to shut the trunk.

C.S. Lewis used the example of a dog being walked by its master and getting its leash wrapped around a street lamp. The more the dog strains, the tighter the leash becomes. Only by letting its master bring the dog in the opposite direction from its intention is the leash unwrapped and the dog set free. Then they can go forward together.

A very wise man gives us good advice:

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not unto your own understanding” (Proverbs 3: 5).

Here are two successive and mutually exclusive commands. We cannot trust God with all our heart if we continue to depend on our own understanding. It is only when we cease relying on our own judgment that we are able to trust God with all our heart.

We can never do both.

And we’ll then discover the keys in the trunk – and realize our heavenly Father always knew best when we clearly did not.

It was a valuable reminder from the trunk of a car.

May God bless you and your family.

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Charlie’s Zeal

Charlie was a devout man.

He professed his love of God and Jesus Christ everywhere he went.

Nobody was more zealous. He was a servant in the church.

No man appeared more sincere. He wished to be a blessing and a help.  His passion for God was genuine.

No person could be more courageous. He defended the truth of God to all comers.

It’s safe to say that Charlie was a very religious man.

And he was also very theological. He studied the scriptures. He wrote many articles and sermons. He published a book called The Truth. It contained chapters on Paul the Apostle, Christ’s Second Coming, Christianity Reviewed since AD 70, Hades and the Final Judgment and A Reply to Attacks on the Bible.

 It was all pretty impressive.

Charlie could have submitted this as a thesis toward his Master of Divinity degree. He would have probably been accepted as a student at most seminaries, been an active church member and perhaps taught Sunday school or led a men’s group.

Some churches might even have invited Charlie to be their minister. After all he presented himself as a preacher. He even went on tour.

One might have described Charlie as sound as a dollar – serious, zealous, committed, with a love for God’s Word – a true champion of the Christian faith.

While living in Chicago, Charlie attended meetings conducted by renowned evangelist D.L. Moody. He often volunteered as an usher.

Charlie didn’t smoke or drink and he took pride in his neat appearance.

More than anything else, Charlie wanted to be used of God for a great purpose. His single-minded zeal fired a passion within him for destiny. After going to bed one night “greatly depressed in mind and spirit”, he suddenly discovered that God had given him his answer – his purpose and the destiny that had seemed to elude him time and again. Now, “like a flash” Charlie later recounted, he knew he would set about the achievement of God’s will.

Zeal is good in a worthy cause and the Bible commends it.

It also warns us against a misplaced enthusiasm.

Paul told Timothy to stay away from those who had a “form of godliness” while denying its power and reality (II Timothy 5:5, emphasis added). Jesus conducted a running debate with the most religious people of his day, constantly challenging the Pharisees and Sadducees over their injustice, hypocrisy and self-righteous pride and intolerance.  James described “pure and undefiled religion” as caring for widows and orphans and living “unspotted from the world” (James 1:27, KJV).

Yes, Charlie was sincere and he was zealous. Zeal in defense of truth is noble. Zeal in pursuit of falsehood is a tragedy. Religious zeal has left millions of victims in the path of its passionate intensity throughout history – so much death and destruction; so much heartache and brokenness inflicted in the name of a misplaced faith; committed in the name of truth; perpetrated in the name of Christianity and of Christ himself.

And other religions are hardly exempt or excused. Indeed, it is the very nature of religion – and its constant danger – to run aground on its own earnest convictions.

“The weakness of human nature,” observed the 18th century New England preacher and theologian Jonathan Edwards, “has always appeared in times of great revivals of religion, by a disposition to run into extremes, especially in these three things: enthusiasm, superstition, and intemperate zeal”.

This is no less a threat in the twenty-first century. Religious hatred is virulent in its attack on body and soul. It is the enemy of liberty and justice.

The former Jewish legalist Paul wrote to the Romans that he had a deep heart for Israel: “I know what enthusiasm they have for God, but it is misdirected zeal” (Romans 10:2, NLT). “It is good to be zealously affected,” the apostle told the Galatians, but “always in a good thing” (Galatians 4:18, KJV).

In these contentious and divided times, marked so often by self-justified vitriol and self-righteous certitude, it would be wise for you and me to calm our spirits, tamp our emotions and search our hearts. Are we so certain of our position? Do we recognize the difference between truth and a lie? Do we have the courage and humility to see any question from the other person’s viewpoint?

Compassion and conviction need not be mutually exclusive.

Let us join the psalmist in his humble prayer:

“Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts: And see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Psalm 139:23-24, KJV).

From God’s viewpoint, introspection must precede condemnation.

Who knows whether Charlie ever prayed that prayer, or read that psalm or felt that need? He was on a mission from God.

And so it was that on the sunny warm Saturday morning of July 2, 1881, Charles J. Guiteau walked into the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station.

He got his shoes shined.

Then a few minutes later he quietly raised the British Bulldog revolver with the white ivory handle he had purchased with borrowed money and fired two shots into the back of the President of the United States.

“Search me, O God …”

May God bless you and your family.

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Good Medicine

You wouldn’t think it would make a difference.

To Lilly Gillon it may have made a life and death difference.

Lilly is a British two year – old who suffers from a rare form of cancer.  When she received life-saving medical help at a hospital in Oklahoma City, Lilly’s parents were impressed with the warm hospitality of the people in the Sooner State. Lilly’s spirits seemed good.  When she returned to England, however, she didn’t appear quite so happy.

Back in Oklahoma for a vacation with his little girl, Lilly’s dad noticed a marked improvement in her responsiveness. The more the folksy Oklahomans made over her, the more cheerful Lilly became. “They were just so nice,” Graham Gillon remarked. In fact, the people in Oklahoma were so nice – so kind and friendly toward the whole Gillon family –  that the Gillons are seriously considering moving there in order to speed Lilly’s recovery.

Is there a connection between kindness and healing?

The Bible tells us that “a cheerful heart is good medicine, but a broken spirit saps a person’s strength.” [Proverbs 17:22, NLT]. While “a merry heart” is good for our health, sadness “drieth the bones” (KJV).

What about somebody else’s cheerfulness? What about another person’s strength? Can our kindness make a difference? Does it impact others?

Perhaps more than we might think.

We influence people’s dispositions – their attitudes, their spirits, even their health – in so many subtle ways.  A warm smile, a firm handshake, a hug or a tender word of thanks or encouragement can make all the difference in how somebody else gets through her day.

A simple and sincere compliment can offer hope in ways you may never realize. In our preoccupied and hectic lives we can sometimes overlook this.

We seldom know what’s inside another person’s heart or mind. The burdens people carry – their worries and concerns; their loneliness or heartache – are often known but to them and to God. This is especially true of the many strangers we briefly encounter along life’s busy pathway.

“All the lonely people,” the Beatles sang, “where do they all come from?”

There’s a whole lot of hurt in this world that you and I don’t know about.

Broken spirits are mended by cheerful hearts.  When we dispense kindness – especially to a stranger – we share some good medicine.  And we show the love of Christ better than any sermon ever could.

God instructed the Israelites to show kindness to foreigners: “But the stranger who lives among you shall be unto you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself.” God then reminded his people that “you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” [Leviticus 19: 34, NKJV].

When someone’s far from home, and all that is familiar, the kindness of a stranger means a lot. The writer of Hebrews tells us: “Don’t forget to show hospitality to strangers, for some who have done this have entertained angels without realizing it.” [Hebrews 13:2, NLT].

“Without realizing it”. There’s the key – the part we too easily forget.

Francis Bacon observed: “If a man be gracious and courteous to strangers, it shows he is a citizen of the world, and that his heart is no island cut off from other lands, but a continent that joins them.”

It costs us little to be kind – it is an inexpensive medicine. “If you give even a cup of cold water to one of the least of my followers,” Jesus said, “you will surely be rewarded.” [Matthew 10:42, NLT].

Of course, reward was not on the minds of the friendly people in Oklahoma when they reached out to precious Lilly Gillon and “loved on her”. Their motive was not to gain but to give. Lilly and her family will not remember many of the folks who showed their kindness to them while they were strangers in a foreign land. Their paths may never again cross this side of eternity. But every word of cheer and encouragement, every smile and every act of kindness was noticed – and it was recorded by the angels in glory. Perhaps the people of Oklahoma entertained one of those angels without realizing it.

The poet Edwin Markham 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.”

As followers of Jesus Christ, that’s worth remembering – and worth practicing.

Carry kindness with you every day. As God opens an opportunity, share some with others. It may not seem like much but it may make someone else feel a whole lot better.

Kindness is good medicine.

May God bless you and your family.

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Donald, Francis and the Warhorse

Who would have thought it?

It’s the biggest surprise of the political season.

He has defied all logic and every law of gravity. Every rule in the book has been brazenly broken without consequence except for greater support.

Donald Trump has amazed and amused us for the past four months. For political observers, it has been a summer of fascinating fun. While the press has had a field day, gorging itself on Trump interviews, twitters and outlandish personal attacks, the rest of us have sat back and enjoyed the show.

Pundits have long predicted The Donald’s demise but the most recent polls have him riding higher than ever, actually leading office-holding rivals in their own home states.

The American people – including most evangelical Christians – are frustrated and angry with politics and politicians. They overwhelmingly believe this nation is headed in the wrong direction and they are convinced that Washington is not the answer – it’s the problem.

This has created the perfect storm that is Donald Trump.

The audacious billionaire, with all his braggadocio and exaggeration, comes across as a strong, forthright and independent leader who will bow to no one including, apparently, God. He infamously answered one questioner by saying that he’d seek God’s forgiveness – if he ever needed it.

Many Christians support Trump – polls show him more than holding his own with evangelicals.

While this unorthodox candidate made his unique case in his unique style, the Pope came to America. No leader could be as far apart from Trump in temperament and manner as Pope Francis. He met with the President at the White House, and then became the first religious leader in history to address Congress. He spoke about the need to be compassionate and inclusive and caring. He urged unity on immigration and climate change, arguing for a wise stewardship of the planet. He words were kind and careful. The Pope spoke softly and deliberately in broken English.

He took no sides, offered no policies and ruffled no feathers.

Pope Francis, wildly popular everywhere, was well-received of course. Though some in the Congress listening to the Pope’s speech may have felt a bit like Mrs. McCready after Sunday mass in Boston.

“T ‘was a fine sermon the Father delivered on marriage”, her friend remarked. “T ‘was indeed,” replied the mother of eight. “I only wish I knew as little about the subject as he does.”

The Pope has been criticized for not knowing enough about the topics upon which he “pontificates”. The Pope may speak for God “on matters of faith and morals,” editorialized The Wall Street Journal, but “his infallibility does not extend to economics or environmentalism.”

We look to leaders and institutions more than we should. We place more faith in the “strong man” than we ought to.

Christian voters love their country and are anguished by its moral waywardness. We seek wise and courageous leaders. We believe if we can just find them, if we can convince ourselves that they hold the key to national renewal; and if we can elect them we are sure they will do the right thing and all will be well.

We want to believe. We want to trust.

The candidates know this.

They know how anxious to believe we really are. What else could explain the worldly, thrice-married and arrogant Donald Trump brandishing his childhood Bible before an audience of Christian activists?

When I was a young idealist entering public service, my wise friend Jack reminded me, more than once, that I was placing too much faith in politics. He told me that only God could do what politics could never do: change the individual human heart. It took me a few years and a lot of bumps and bruises to fully realize how right Jack was.

As we embark upon yet another presidential election season – one in which we will choose a new president – we would do well to remember the limitations of politics and the failures and fallibility of mere mortals.

We need to disillusion ourselves about politics. That is, we need to set aside our illusion about what it promises and what it can deliver.

We need to be spiritually realistic.

We must set our expectations of politics – and even of revered global religious leaders -intentionally low.

The political machinations and energies of our government – even of our powerful military – cannot, in the end, be the resting place of our ultimate trust.

“Don’t count on your warhorse to give you victory – for all its strength it cannot save you” (Psalm 33: 17, NLT).

Only God can do that.  We must have very high expectations of our Sovereign Creator and the Ruler of all nations.

Our expectations of God must be sky high.

“Whom have I in heaven but you?” (Psalm 73:25, KJV).

When you listen and watch and consider the candidates and their promises:

“Put not your trust in princes, nor in the son of man, in whom there is no help …Happy is he that hath the God of Jacob for his help, whose hope is in the Lord his God” (Psalm 146: 3-15, KJV).

Politics is important and even entertaining but it will never save us.

May God bless you and your family.

In God alone let us trust.

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A Crazy Thing to Do

It was scary.

It was nothing any sane person would ever think of trying.

It wasn’t safe.

No practical, reasonable, and thoughtful man or woman would dare do it. It made absolutely no sense. Had studies existed on such an attempt, they would have been clear in their consensus.

It wasn’t prudent – not by a long shot.

You just don’t get out of a boat in the middle of the sea in the midst of a storm. And try to walk on water. Besides, it was dark.

Peter, what in the world were you thinking?

Matthew tells us about this in his gospel account; Mark omits it. At around 3:00AM, Jesus was coming toward the disciples, walking on the water. Understandably terrified by what they thought was a ghost, the men heard a familiar voice. Jesus told them three things immediately (Matthew 14: 27, NLT):

“Don’t be afraid.”

“Take courage.”

“I am here.”

Banish fear, buck up, you know who I am. That wasn’t quite enough for Peter – nor probably for his comrades, who sat soaked and cold, shivering in their sandals.

“Then Peter called to him, ‘Lord, if it’s really you, tell me to come to you, walking on the water.’” (Matthew 14: 28, NLT).

“Lord, if…”

Doubt often precedes faith and, by its contrast, defines it. Without comparing it to doubt, how would we know what real faith was? So Peter begins with some skepticism, as we all must. Jesus accepts Peter’s wager with one word:

“Come”

Was it an invitation – or a challenge? Peter had doubts, Jesus had none. Peter didn’t know for sure what he would do, he didn’t know for sure who Jesus was and he didn’t know for sure what would happen if  he got out of the boat.

Jesus knew – for sure.

We start with doubt. Then Jesus invites us to do something. He challenges us to trust him and to act on that trust. What he tells us to do may be just as improbable, just as impractical and just as fearful as asking a man to get out of a boat and start walking on water in the middle of a violent storm.

Peter obeyed.

His friends looked at each other. “He’s crazy!”

He left the security of the boat, stepped out onto the troubled Sea of Galilee and began to walk toward Jesus. Peter began well and we’re proud of him. But almost immediately the winds whiplashed Peter’s faith. He had seen Jesus but now “he saw the wind boisterous” (vs.30, KJV).  Circumstances, not Christ, became his focus.

“He saw the wind…”

All Peter could see was what surrounded him – “the strong wind and the waves” – and “he was terrified and began to sink. ‘Save me, Lord!’ he cried.” (vs. 29-30, NLT). Jesus reached out his hand and pulled Peter up. He might have smiled and gently shaken his head when he said to Peter, “You have so little faith, why did you doubt me?” (vs. 31).

Have the circumstances of your life ever undermined the moorings of your faith and cast you into a churning sea of doubt? Have you ever felt like you were sinking beneath the waves of a bleak uncertainty? Have you ever cried out to God at 3:00 AM and shouted “Save me, Lord”?

If life has ever seemed less than serene, then perhaps you can identify with Peter.

As followers of Christ, we sometimes feel as though we’re in a little boat tossed upon the wide, uncertain sea of life.  The howling winds of adversity blow against us and the angry waves of circumstance break upon us. We are confused and frightened. It’s dark and we can’t see much. Then we see Jesus and he bids us “come.”

He invites us to get out of the boat. To let go of whatever we’re clutching in a false security.

In that moment we must choose between fear and trust.  They argue within our soul.

Fear says, “Stay in.” Trust says, “Step out.”

Fear says, “Why?” Trust says, “Why not?”

Fear says, “I’m on my own.” Trust says, “I’m in God’s hands.”

Fear asks, “What if…?” Trust answers, “So what?”

Fear says, “Impossible!” Trust answers, “Not with God!”

Two choices. Two attitudes. Two ways of living. Jesus tells us, “Come.” And even when we do and even when we doubt and even when we look around and begin to sink, Jesus reaches out his hand of grace and lifts us up again to himself. And he smiles at us and says, “Why did you doubt me?”

Only two men in recorded history have ever walked on water. One was God, the other was a man called Peter. But before he did – and before he could – Peter had to get out of the boat. So do you.

It may be a crazy thing to do but sometimes faith is like that.

May God bless you and your family.

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