Monthly Archives: April 2016

Harnessing the Flame

She didn’t intend for this to happen.

Catherine O’Leary was just a poor Irish immigrant milking her cow in the barn.

Nobody knows for sure – in the end it was speculation.

Some folks think it was a group of men gambling. Others accused Daniel “Pegleg” Sullivan. He was the first to say anything about it and some insisted that he caused it while trying to steal milk in the barn.

The most common account though centers on Mrs. O’Leary and her cow.

Just as she was finishing her milking, the cow kicked over the lantern.

It was around 9:00 PM on Sunday evening, October 8, 1871, at 137 DeKoven Street.

The shed next to Mrs. O’Leary’s barn was the first building to go up. Three days later, on early Tuesday morning, October 10, the thick smoke finally began to clear.

The city had been devastated.

The Great Fire of 1871 had destroyed more than four square miles of Chicago, Illinois. More than 100,000 people were homeless. Another 300 were dead, casualties of the horrific blaze.

The conflagration had engulfed more than 2,000 acres of the city, destroyed more than 73 miles of roads, 120 miles of sidewalks, 2,000 lampposts, 17,500 buildings and $222 million in property – about one third of the city’s total valuation.

The wind, drought and dry timbers in Chicago had conspired to make this one of deadliest and most destructive fires in American history.

It all started when a cow kicked over a small lantern in a barn.

The anguished residents of Chicago were reminded of what man learned when he first discovered fire: it is a humble servant but a fearful master.

Fire warms, comforts, enlightens and guides. Out of control, it kills and destroys.

Words are compared to fire in the Bible, especially in the Book of James. The brother of Jesus was blunt in much of what he wrote in his epistle. This includes what he wrote about “the tongue”.

The forthright James can think of no better metaphor for human speech than fire.

The tongue may a small member of the body but “behold, how great a matter a little fire kindleth,” he writes (James 3:5, KJV). Mrs. O’Leary would have vouched for that.

Just like an obscure lantern in a barn, words may start small enough but carried along by the winds of slander and exaggeration, the embers of maliciousness fall on the dry wood of envy and gossip. Soon they become a howling blaze of destruction.

It may not be what anyone intended but it gets out of control.

“In the beginning was the Word,” John writes in the prologue of his gospel (John 1:1).

Words have great power – for good and for evil. “Death and life are in the power of the tongue,” wrote the wise man of Proverbs (Proverbs 18:21, KJV).

Thomas Jefferson helped to forge a new nation with his eloquence in the Declaration of Independence. Of Winston Churchill’s stirring orations, President Kennedy said:

“In the dark days and darker nights when England stood alone – and most men save Englishmen despaired of England’s life – he mobilized the English language and sent it into battle.”

But in the mouth of an evil man words are “a burning fire” (Proverbs 16:27).

While Churchill galvanized England, Adolph Hitler used his fiery demagoguery to fuel the passions of hate and lead his nation into self-destruction and world war.

Sticks and stones may break our bones but words can also hurt us.

They can be beautiful or ugly. They can wound or heal. Words can build us up or tear us down. Words can unify or divide; give us hope or cause despair. Like fire, words can offer warmth and comfort or they can consume and destroy a life.

Jesus tells us that our words don’t just determine our character – they reveal it.

“For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks,” he explains (Matthew 12:34, NKJV).

“A good person produces good words from a good heart, and an evil person produces evil words from an evil heart” (Matthew 12:35, NLT).

That’s simple enough – cause and effect.

Words matter – tremendously. They change lives, families, churches, nations and the world.

Sometimes in an instant.

When he uses analogies like taming a horse and sailing a ship, James has this one thing in mind: control.

You and I must control what we say – and how we say it.

The stakes are high, the dangers real.

“It only takes a spark,” James warns us, “to set off a forest fire. A careless or wrongly placed word out of your mouth can do that. By our speech we can ruin the world, turn harmony into chaos, throw mud on a reputation, send the whole world up in smoke and go up in smoke with it, smoke right from the pit of hell” (James 3: 5-6, The Message).

Out of control, our words can be “the very world of iniquity … set on fire by hell” (James 3:6, NKJV).

May this be our prayer:

“Set a guard over my mouth, LORD; keep watch over the door of my lips” (Psalm 141:3, NIV).

Let’s harness the flame.

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Anticipation

You remember the famous scene.

Who could forget it?

Not our daughters who stared transfixed while the black -hooded, sharp-beaked and hunch-backed hag slowly disappeared onto the floor.

Dorothy had just thrown a pail of water on the scarecrow who was on fire. The water splashed on the Wicked Witch of the West – a villain if ever there was one.

As the Wizard later observed, the Wicked Witch was “liquidated”.

As she began her descent, the witch cries, “I’m melting! Melting! Oh, what a world! What a world!”

Those are among her final faint words as she meets her highly justified demise.

“What a world!”

Yes it is. And sometimes you and I feel like we’re melting.

It’s hard not to feel a bit burdened, a little anxious, and even slightly discouraged by this present world.

None of us lives on Walden Pond – isolated in an oasis of natural calm. We are here, in this world as it is and there is no reasonable escape from the human condition, long for it as we often do.

Instant global communication puts all of us in a kind of echo chamber. You and I get more news more quickly from more sources than at any time in history.

Most of this news isn’t good. It impacts us. And we often think, “What a world!”

What we witness daily is the desperate groaning of an earth yearning to be set free from the oppressive and corrupting curse of sin. The violence, injustice, hatred and deep divisions on every side join in a cacophony of despair. The prophet says “the earth is utterly broken down, the earth is clean dissolved, the earth is moved exceedingly” (Isaiah 24:19, KJV).

And in these last days, Isaiah adds, “The earth shall reel to and fro like a drunkard” (verse 20, KJV).

Is this not what is happening?

Even in our well-ordered American democracy, this year’s presidential campaign has reflected the angry coarsening of our culture. If it is true that Americans get the leaders they deserve, what does the current spectacle tell us about ourselves?

Would any thoughtful citizen not agree that this bombastic and shallow carnival has been beneath the dignity of a great republic? And before we hasten to blame the candidates, let’s remember that our politicians do not create the mood or tone or the values of our country – they reflect them.

The American people have been betrayed by their parties, their government and their leaders. They have become distrustful and cynical. That’s because too many – including Christians – have placed their ultimate trust in the princes of this world and not in the almighty Ruler of the nations.

Disillusionment was inevitable.

The Apostle Paul describes the world’s current situation in his letter to the Romans.

“Against its will, all creation was subjected to God’s curse … all creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time” (Romans 8: 20, 22, NLT).

Sin is the fatal virus that infected the whole human race and explains the self-destructive path that has so often over-powered man’s most noble pursuits; that has led to man’s inhumanity to man and fueled his darkest passions.

We wrestle, we struggle, we hope and we sigh. So many hearts are heavy with a grief and despair that seem never to lift.

Jesus spoke to his disciples on the night of his betrayal and told them that he wished for them to “have peace”.

And then he said:

“In this world you shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33, NKJV).

Jesus said that trials and difficulties and the swirling controversies of the world would be an ever-present reality. They would affect us “in this world” (emphasis added).

Then Jesus pivots.

“…but be of good cheer …”

On this conjunctive hinge swings the bright door of hope.

In the face of this challenging and disturbing reality – and in spite of it – Jesus tells us to “take courage, be confident, certain, undaunted” (The Amplified Bible).

How in the world can we do that?

Because there is a far greater reality.

“I have overcome the world”.

Jesus has defeated the devil. He has conquered the grave. He reigns triumphant. He’s coming again.

He has won! For all eternity, he has won!

This world is temporarily under the sway of Satan, its evil prince. But you and I as Christians rejoice that Jesus Christ came to “destroy the works of the devil” (I John 3:8) and to “deliver us from this present evil world” (Galatians 1:4).

How then must we live?

We must “live soberly, righteously, and godly in this present world” (Titus 2:12, KJV).

Where do we find the strength to do that?

In the promise of his return.

“Looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Savior Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13, KJV).

All of fallen creation shares with us the exciting anticipation of his coming.

“But with eager hope, the creation looks forward to the day when it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay” (Romans 8: 20, NLT).

What a day that will be.

Anticipation.

There’s no better way to live in this world.

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Jackson’s Daisies

To a boy of three the world’s a wonder.

Wrapped in mystery, gilded with discovery and glistening with delight, every step is an adventure.

I was reminded of this joyful innocence when I went for an Easter afternoon walk in a park with my two grandsons.

Finley, two and making a remarkable recovery from his leukemia to the point where it’s hard to believe he’s still got it – or ever had it – decided to sit down on the sidewalk and summarily remove his shoes and socks.

Grampy gently put them back on – thankful that this only happened once and nothing else came off.

Soon a little voice shouted behind me. I turned to see Finley’s older brother Jackson running with his arm held out.

A big grin crossed his handsome face.

“Grampy, take these. I want to give them to Mommy.”

He opened his little hand.

There was a loose clump of daisies. Some of the petals had fallen off and several of the stems were bent.

It was a pretty sorry bouquet.

“Jackson, these are beautiful!” I told him. “Mommy will be so excited to get them!”

I held onto to the flowers as if they were prize-winning marigolds. I knew his mom would be happy, thank him profusely and give him a big hug. She’d tell him how wonderful these haggard-looking daises were.

And for that moment little Jackson would be on cloud nine, so proud that he had done this extraordinary thing for his mother and given her this precious gift.

When I had emergency surgery a year ago, Jackson and his older sister Ava made get-well cards for me. Jackson’s had random indecipherable lines scrawled all over it. Ava’s had a note inside:

“What did they do to you? I want to see you after you get home.”

The cards still sit on my desk – symbols of something wonderfully and beautifully indescribable.

I don’t love the cards. I love the little people who loved me enough to do that for me, though they hardly knew how. That’s why I can’t part with those simple, awkwardly scrawled, little messages.

I accept the frailties because I know the heart. I know and understand the pure intention and I’m moved by the desire.

Jackson’s daisies may never have made it into a vase but they entered a mother’s soul.

Anyone who has ever loved a child knows exactly what I’m talking about.

Trinkets and scribbles become priceless emblems of an affection that cannot be defined – a tenderness that will never be rejected.

This is how God sees us. It’s how he knows us. It’s how he loves us.

He loves us in spite of ourselves, not because of ourselves. He loves and accepts us in our weakness not in our strength; in our ignorance not in our knowledge. Just like a little child, we can’t bring much to God. He knows that and loves us just the same.

This is the profundity of God’s grace.

This is the incalculable dimension of his love.

If we as parents love our kids that much imagine how much more our heavenly Father loves us.

The prophet Isaiah writes of God’s tender-hearted care – of his divine sensitivity:

“A bruised reed shall he not break, and the smoking flax shall he not quench: he shall bring forth judgment unto truth” (Isaiah 42:3, KJV).

“He will not crush the weakest reed or put out a flickering candle. He will bring justice to all who have been wronged” (NLT).

The life that is bruised in heartache, sin and defeat will not be broken by the God who knows and cares. The soul that is just barely flickering in the cold despair of the lonely night God will never snuff out.

A man or woman may be down. With God they are never out.

The stems of Jackson’s daisies may have been bent, the petals falling off, but his mom readily accepted them – and gently embraced the boy who had done all he could.

She would get other gifts – and nicer flowers – in the years to come. But for now this was more than enough to make her heart dance with joy to the rhythms of her love.

“The Lord is compassionate and merciful,” David wrote, “slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love. He will not constantly accuse us, nor remain angry forever” (Psalm 103: 8-9, NLT).

David would have known this. More than once, as did Moses, the apostles and great saints through the ages, the shepherd king revealed his altogether too human frailty. And so he could tell us:

“The Lord is like a father to his children, tender and compassionate to those who fear him” (vs. 13).

Why does God treat us so patiently and with such compassion and forgiveness?

“For he knows how weak we are; he remembers we are only dust” (vs. 14).

To God we are like a three – year old bringing him crumpled daisies.

The poet Whittier put it well:

“All sin and wrong, Compassion which forgives
To the uttermost, and Justice whose clear eyes
Through lapse and failure look to the intent,
And judge our frailty by the life we meant.”

This is God’s love.

He accepts our bent daisies. To him they are more than enough.

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