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Hop In!

The last thing everyone does is the last thing most of us want to do.

Die.

The poet Emily Dickinson famously wrote:

“Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
And Immortality.

We slowly drove, he knew no haste,
And I had put away
My labor, and my leisure too,
For his civility.”

Most of us would rather not “stop for Death.” We don’t even slow down. We don’t think about death, we don’t talk about it and we don’t much prepare for it. And so Death will always stop for us. Usually when we least expect the visit.

We’ll step into the carriage and we’ll be chaperoned by Immortality out of this world. Ready or not, we’ll “put away” our labor, and our leisure too.

Dickinson expressed but one of countless interpretations of this great universal event. Thomas H. Johnson called Death “one of the great characters of literature.” Shortly after his beloved son Quentin died in World War I, Theodore Roosevelt said that “life and death are part of the same great adventure.”

I’ve always liked that view.

The following year, TR passed away quietly in his sleep. Vice President Marshall commented that “death had to catch him sleeping. If he had been awake, there would have been a fight.”

One man who waged a long and courageous fight against death was the iconic high-tech inventor and entrepreneur Steve Jobs. Jobs, who abandoned Christianity in his youth and became a Buddhist, lost his battle with cancer at the age of 56.

He said concerning death:

“Death is very likely the single best invention of life. Almost everything, all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure: these things just fall away in the face of death.”

Every cemetery, in its quiet solemnity, reminds us that death is the great equalizer.

The Bible describes death as an appointment: “It is appointed to men once to die” (Hebrews 9:27, KJV).

Death isn’t just a definitive, transformative event – it’s a scheduled one.

The last thing Jobs told his biographer Walter Isaacson was that he would beat the cancer that had ravaged him. But even Steve Jobs wasn’t strong enough, wealthy enough, resourceful enough or smart enough to reschedule his appointment with eternity. The great business leader, like all before him, had to put away his labor, and his leisure too.

The Bible pulls no punches about the great matters of life and death. And its wisdom is the wisdom of God.

“Lord,” the psalmist writes, “remind me how brief my time on earth will be. Remind me that my days are numbered – how fleeting my life is…My entire lifetime is just a moment to you; at best, each of us is but a breath.” David adds perspective to all our plans and hopes; our dreams and schemes:

“We are merely moving shadows, and all our busy rushing ends in nothing.” [Psalm 39: 5-6, NLT].

Steve Jobs was right: “these things just fall away in the face of death.”

The biblical metaphors of life and death speak of brevity and certainty. The Bible teaches us to value life as a precious but fleeting gift. The scriptures don’t dodge death, or minimize it; they confront it.

For the person who has placed his or her faith in Jesus Christ, all fear of death has been removed. This spiritual reality has enormous implications. When Christ rose from the dead, his resurrection changed everything forever.

Jesus defanged and defeated death. Alluding to the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 25:8), the apostle Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians, taunted death:

“Death is swallowed up in victory.

O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” (I Corinthians 15:54-55, KJV).

Then Paul tells us the massive eternal difference it all makes:

“But thank God! He gives us victory over sin and death through our Lord Jesus Christ” (verse 57, NLT).

We stand at every grave triumphant.

For the Christian, “life and death are part of the same great adventure.”

In death, we will be more alive than ever before.

Instead of being a fearsome “grim reaper”, Death is now a kindly and civil escort who will guide us to a new and glorious life of which this life, for all its beauty and joy, is but the momentary prelude. We’ll be happy to “put away” our labor, and our leisure too.

We’re going home.

We cannot postpone the appointment. Instead, we’ll welcome it.

In the face of the sober truth of mortality, David rhetorically asked:

“And so, Lord, where do I put my hope? My only hope is in you.” [Psalm 39: 7, NLT].

It is more than enough.

We need not fear the summons. Heaven will be opened before us.

Afraid? I can hardly wait! I’m going to hop into that carriage.

It’s the difference Christ makes.

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A Letter to Ruth

He detested typewriters.

He wrote all his personal correspondence – and it was extensive – with a pen. He believed the noise of a typewriter interfered with the flow of creative thought.

His brother later typed his letters, being the only one who could decipher the scrawled penmanship.

This particular letter on this day required thoughtful attention. It was the reply to a young girl named Ruth Broady. Ruth had written to say how much she enjoyed his books.

He smiled at the affirmation. He loved children as much as he hated typewriters. Taking pen carefully in hand, he wrote the date in the upper corner: 26 October, 1963.

“Many thanks for your kind letter, and it was very good of you to write and tell me that you like my books; and what a very good letter you write for your age!”

He paused for just a moment. Then he wrote:

“If you continue to love Jesus, nothing much can go wrong with you, and I hope you may always do so.”

Then he paused again. This next part would be interesting:

“I’m so thankful that you realized the ‘hidden story’ in the Narnian books. It is odd, children nearly always do, grownups hardly ever”.

The Chronicles of Narnia, one of the greatest pieces of children’s literature ever written, was sometimes attacked by academics as racist. Others assailed it as sexist. Everyone had an opinion; everyone had an interpretation. The scholars thought they knew. This work of allegorical fantasy was examined and analyzed from various perspectives and prejudicial mindsets in search of supposed underlying cultural themes.

In the end, CS Lewis knew that children would get it.

They would embrace it in its purity and creative beauty. They would accept it and enjoy it for the wonderful and imaginative story it was.

Children would cast no cynical judgment on the work nor offer any smug critiques. They would perceive “the hidden story” that “grownups hardly ever” recognized.

What Lewis appreciated about children is what Jesus also celebrated.

Jesus attached great importance to child-like faith.

When his disciples got into an argument about who would be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven – a childish preoccupation typical of adults – Jesus stopped them and startled them.

“And Jesus called a little child unto him, and set him in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:2, KJV). Jesus didn’t want these arguing grownups to miss “the hidden story” and so he brought it center stage.

Jesus looked at the little boy and smiled. He caressed the lad’s tousled hair. And he held him tenderly in his arms.

Then Jesus looked at his disciples – the men who would be the first leaders of his church.

“Except ye be converted and become as little children,” he told them, “ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3, KJV).

How often have men and women missed the profound simplicity of the Gospel because they’ve refused to believe it could be that uncomplicated? They’ve wanted to add to it, analyze it and work for it. Anything but simply accept it as God’s free gift.

That’s too easy. Nothing this important could be that simple.

So many people remain blinded by their sophistication and cynicism; by their success, their money and their power; by their intellect, the approval of their peers or political correctness.

Saddled by skepticism, they miss the “hidden story” of God’s great love. They fail to “become as little children” and so never enter the kingdom of heaven.

They miss it.

When the disciples scolded parents for bringing their children to Jesus to be blessed by him because they thought it was a distraction, Jesus brought them up short.

“When Jesus saw what was happening, he was angry with his disciples” (Mark 10:14, New Living Translation).

These men had a lot to learn about children and the Kingdom of God and this was another teachable moment.

“Let the children come to me,” Jesus told them. “Don’t stop them! For the Kingdom of God belongs to those who are like these children” (vs. 14, emphasis added).

Then Jesus said:

“I tell you the truth, anyone who doesn’t receive the Kingdom of God like a child will never enter it” (vs. 15, emphasis added).

Then Jesus gathered these little boys and girls lovingly into his arms; he hugged them and put his hands on their heads and he blessed them.

Children are humble, transparent, trusting, affectionate and unaffected. Many lose these qualities as adults. And when they do, the kingdom of God grows more distant.

The true Christian is one who has not lost the child’s heart.

Pray that you may always be child-like in your love and faith.

“I’m afraid the Narnian series has come to an end,” Lewis wrote in closing his letter to Ruth Broady, “and am sorry to tell you that you can expect no more.

God bless you”.

Less than a month later, CS Lewis, who never lost his child’s heart and never stopped loving Jesus, walked through the Gates of Splendor into a heavenly kingdom more glorious, more beautiful, more colorful and more creative than even he could ever have imagined.

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Answering TIME

It was very controversial.

The red border set off even more boldly the bold red type.

As did the plain black background.

The magazine had never produced a cover with no image. Ever, in its long illustrative history.

The large letters spelled three single-syllable words – all that appeared on this cover, except for the name:

Is God Dead?

Time magazine took a lot heat for its provocative April 8, 1966 issue, not only for the inside story posited by the question, but for the stark cover itself.

The Los Angeles Times, in a 2008 story, named the Is God Dead? cover one of “10 magazine covers that shook the world”.

The wording was taken from renowned German atheist Friedrich Nietzsche’s oft – quoted assertion that “God is dead” (German: ‘Gott ist tot’).

Given the cultural and moral disintegration of the 1960s, Time dared to ask the question.

Since 1966, we’ve come to see in America – and throughout the globe – that, to paraphrase Mark Twain, rumors of God’s death are “greatly exaggerated.”

Despite all that may assail it in the modern era, faith in God persists.

God’s not only alive and well; he’s active, loving, guiding and in full control of the universe, moral and otherwise. Nothing God has purposed is diminished by the declining belief in him, nor has he yet chosen to curtail humankind’s freedom to mock and minimize him – and to dismiss his worshipers as dangerous and superstitious threats to progress.

God remains patient and longsuffering – a Creator of infinite mercy and unfathomable grace.

There is, however, a price to be paid for man’s desire to be free of God.

Exactly 51 years after its infamous cover, on April 3, 2017, Time magazine produced another cover story. It was identical in every way to the one that asked Is God Dead?

There was the same red bold type and black background.

Is Truth Dead?

It makes tragic sense that a half century of redefining, debating and readjusting our relationship to God – of distancing ourselves from him in our national life – would lead us to this place. As society has marginalized the supernatural, we’ve lost our belief in – and appeal to – moral absolutes; inviolate principles rooted in transcendent truth.

Perhaps we like being on our own.

Last year, American voters, in what might be described as moral poetic justice, made a choice between two deeply flawed candidates.

Today in our nation’s capital confusion reigns. We are besieged by “alternative facts” and “fake news.” Dueling cable networks report opposing realities. Everybody shouts, nobody listens. Political daggers are permanently unsheathed amidst a torrent of angry recriminations.

Seldom has our nation seemed so unmoored from a unifying belief.

Departing from our Guide, who is all truth, we wander in a thickening dark forest of contradictory subjective truths, driven not by purpose but pettiness and passion.

We’re sitting in a crowded, rambunctious classroom and the Teacher’s just walked out.

Of ancient Israel, the prophet Isaiah drew a depressing and eerily familiar picture of national life:

“No one cares about being fair and honest … so there is no justice among us, and we know nothing about right living. We look for light but find only darkness. We look for bright skies but walk in gloom. We grope like the blind along a wall, feeling our way like people without eyes.

Even at brightest noontime, we stumble as though it were dark. Among the living, we are like the dead … we look for justice, but it never comes. We look for rescue, but it is far away from us” (Isaiah 59: 4, 9-11, NLT).

The “next election” ends up being a mirage – the ultimate collective self-deception.

What is the source of this national malaise? This anger, hatred, and deep division?

“We know we have rebelled and have denied the Lord. We have turned our backs on our God” (Isaiah 59: 13, NLT).

In the wake of the proud and willful defiance of our once cherished values, what becomes of our integrity?

“Truth stumbles in the streets, and honesty has been outlawed. Yes, truth is gone and anyone who renounces evil is attacked” (verse 14-15, NLT).

The history of western civilization has made the pattern clear and unmistakable.

What of Christians in our current culture?

Understanding the times must leave us neither helpless nor despaired. While we may mourn change we must also joyfully embrace the change we can be as followers of the risen Christ.

We have been placed in this generation not to conform or dismay but to hold forth the bright light of his countenance; to “shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16, KJV).

We are the voice, the hands and the feet of him who proclaimed himself “the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6, KJV).

We answer Time for all time:

Is God Dead?

No, he lives and reigns forever.

Is Truth Dead?

No, through Jesus Christ we can and will know the truth – and that is a very liberating experience.

What an exciting opportunity!

“That ye may be blameless and harmless, the sons of God, without rebuke, in the midst of a crooked and perverse nation, among whom ye shine as lights in the world” (Philippians 2:15, KJV).

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Celebrate!

He did it every day.

Usually it was late in the afternoon, around sunset.

He would gaze at the fence gate.

It was here he had fastened his hope and his faithful prayers.

It was here where his heart had been broken and where now it mourned. Through this gate he had watched the determined silhouette of his younger son disappear over the horizon.

This father never stopped looking. He never stopped loving.

He held deep in his broken heart a quiet confidence that in time – if nothing had happened to him – his son would again walk through that gate at the end of the road.

Some of you know this man’s feelings. You’ve had them yourself. Perhaps you still do.

Jesus says simply of the young man, “And he arose and came to his father” (Luke 15:20, KJV).

He wasted no time once his mind was made up. The road back was slow and painful. He was hungry, tattered and torn; exhausted by lack of sleep. He was unshaven, unclean and smelly.

He’d lost 20 pounds. His bare feet burned with blisters.

He rehearsed his speech to himself.

“Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you … I am not worthy …make me a hired hand”.

On this day, the father looked across the horizon. His eyes stopped at the gate. He sat for a few minutes staring at it, lost in thought, and then rose to leave.

He’d walked just a few steps when one his servants cried out excitedly.

“Look!” he exclaimed, pointing at the gate.

Could it be? Yes, it he was him! The father’s heart leaped. Though it was at a distance in the setting sun, his dad recognized the undeniable gait and form of his boy.

How does Jesus describe this father’s reaction to seeing his wayward son? Did the father hesitate? Did he indicate any reluctance or foreboding at this unexpected sight?

“But when he was still a great way off, his father saw him …

… and had compassion …” (Luke 15:20, NKJV, emphasis added).

Not anger or bitterness or condemnation or dread – compassion.

He loved his son – at this very moment maybe more than ever. This was what he immediately felt when he first saw him, thin as a reed, slowly walking through the open gate. Sadness mixed with regret at the frail shadow he witnessed, but love more than anything else.

Jesus tells us that this dignified man of prominence and wealth – respected by all as one of town’s leading lights – ran down the road toward his son.

“Filled with love and compassion, he ran to his son, embraced him, and kissed him” (verse 20, NLT, emphasis added).

Surprised by joy, the dad engulfed his son in love.

The father took pity on the son’s obviously wretched condition. The boy was ready with his well-practiced speech. The father listened – at first.

“Father,” the son slowly and deliberately began, “I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and am no longer worthy to be called your son” (verse 21, NKJV).

The father had heard the most important part of this.

“I have sinned … and am no longer worthy …”

He gently raised his hand. The father had heard enough.

There was no time to spare. What must now be done must be done quickly – without a moment’s hesitation or doubt.

The whole town would know. Good!

The father turned to his servants, out of breath after running behind their master.

“Quick! Bring forth the best robe!” The son’s soiled rags would be exchanged for the robe of honor.

“Put a ring on his hand!” Nothing has changed the fact that this is still his son.

“Put sandals on his feet!” He may be willing to be a hired farm hand but they don’t wear shoes.

“Now quick, take this lad and clean him up! He smells like a pigpen!”

The son looked at his father in stupefied disbelief. The father smiled broadly. Both men had tears.

“Oh, and that fatted calf we’ve been keeping for a very special occasion? Kill him! We’re having a big party tonight!” (Luke 15: 21-23).

He grabbed his son with a strong hand on each shoulder and looked at the boy’s harrowed and scruffy face with tenderness. Tears streamed down the dad’s cheeks.

“For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost and is found”.

“My son”.

Here is the climax of Jesus’ story. This is why we love it more than any other.

It’s about us.

This is God our Father, seeing us in the distance of our sinful alienation, running to tenderly embrace us as his own children. He takes away the filthy rags of our self-reliance and clothes us with the robe of his righteousness. He gives us the ring of divine possession and places on our feet the sandals of peace.

Then God invites us to his banquet celebration and raises over our heads his banner of unconditional love (Song of Solomon 2:4).

And the angels rejoice.

What is our story? This is our story.

Once you and I were dead and we are alive again. We were lost and now in Jesus Christ we are found.

That calls for a celebration of eternal praise.

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Epiphany in a Pig Pen

The day dawned gray.

His stomach groaned with the now familiar pain.

Loneliness riveted his soul.

On the crowded city streets he wandered as a solitary vagabond desperate and despondent.

In just a fortnight his fortunes had reversed. He had then played with an abundance of easy money and a house full of happy friends and hangers on who knew where the action was.

The parties lasted until the wee hours.

Now it was all gone. The final faint sounds of laughter and clanging bottles echoed through the house and then vanished into the haunting stillness.

Severe famine had spread depression to the countryside and swept away hope.

“And when he had spent all, there arose a mighty famine in that land; and he began to be in want” (Luke 15:14, KJV).

That’s how Jesus put it in his story.

Suddenly the happy and confident young man who had it all had nothing.

No money. No friends. No food.

He came across a pig farm and pleaded with the owner to give him a job. He must have looked pretty pathetic because the gruff guy relented and sent him into the fields to feed the swine.

The kid who had lived high off the hog was now slopping them.

Engulfed in stench and muck, he was so desperately hungry he would have eaten the pods he was feeding the pigs but those belonged to them and this was business. He dared not touch the farmer’s supply.

Jesus goes out of his way to emphasize the often selfish cruelty of a disinterested world. As destitute as this young man was, Jesus says that “no one gave him anything” (Luke 15: 16, NLT).

He looked hopefully into the faces of passersby but found not a glance of compassion or sympathy.

The world can be a cold place; a fickle friend.

“Reproach hath broken my heart,” cried the psalmist, “and I am full of heaviness: and I looked for some to take pity, but there was none; and for comforters, but I found none” (Psalm 69:20, KJV).

Once valued for what he had and could give, he was of no consequence in a famine-riven land.

“Look and see, there is no one at my right hand; no one is concerned for me. I have no refuge; no one cares for my life” (Psalm 142:4, NIV, emphasis added).

Yet hope is not quite gone. Jesus turns a page in his story.

He tells us that this young man has what many might call an epiphany. Triggered by some memory of happier days and a sudden longing for home, “he came to himself” (verse 17, KJV).

He returns to his senses. He is touched by logic. He is enlightened by sound reason.

Paul writes in Ephesians that the unsaved mind is “hopelessly confused” and its “understanding darkened” (Ephesians 4:17, 18, NLT, KJV). When the mind is touched by the Spirit of God, the life is transformed because the mind is spiritually renewed (Romans 12:1).

So it is with us. So it is with this young man. He comes to himself when he has come to the end of himself.

It suddenly dawns on him that back home the hired hands and servants he once ridiculed and dismissed are living far better than he is.

“And here I am dying of hunger!” (Luke 15: 17, NLT).

There is an irony in this.

After all, these hired workers are “my father’s” (verse 17, KJV).

He turns his heart toward home. But what will he do? What will he say to the one he hurt and offended so profoundly?

“I will go home to my father and say, ‘Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, and I am no longer worthy of being called your son. Please take me on as a hired servant” (verse 19, NLT).

Assuming the young man’s sincerity, which Jesus implies, this is the meaning of repentance. It is the model of repentance.

Since returning to his senses, the son has thought about this. It hasn’t been easy.

He remembers that day he asked for his share from a startled father. He remembers the day he left a grieving father. He remembers his self-will and arrogance. He remembers the good times and the parties – and when it all went away.

He looks at himself now in the pig pen. He knows one thing for certain – above all else.

He’s been wrong. Undeniably wrong.

He’s made a mess of his life worse than the one he’s standing in. He weeps softly the bitter tears of remorse. His heart is broken. So is his proud spirit.

We find here no excuses or justifications; no rationalizations.

We find no pride or defiance.

We find no plans for bargaining or negotiation.

Instead we find plain and open confession. We find contriteness. We find candor.

We see a different young man.

He has recited to himself the simple but profound facts of his life as he knows them to be. He knows what he’ll tell his father.

“Father, I have sinned…”

“…against heaven and against you …”

“I am no longer worthy…”

The young man has taken stock of his life. His is an honest introspection.

This is our need.

This is our prayer.

This is our story.

We know this.

When we come to our senses.

When we come to our God.

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Everywhere

It was a major miscalculation.

It was made out of ignorance.

It was a costly mistake.

In a battle one can never afford to underestimate or misjudge one’s enemy – it can be fatal.

But the Syrians did just that. It proved their undoing.

How and why it happened is fascinating and its lessons timeless.

Israel was, it seems, always under siege and outnumbered by its adversaries. Not much has changed since those Old Testament times of danger and conflict. In I Kings 20, we see a spineless King Ahab giving in to the demands of a Syrian king named Ben-hadad.

Appeasement seldom works well for the country doing it and this was no exception.

After Ben-hadad seized Israel’s women, “the best” of its children and its silver and gold without resistance, he came back for even more. But men made of sterner stuff put an abrupt halt to the policy of appeasement.

“Don’t give in to any more demands,” they told Ahab (I Kings 20:8, NLT).

When the Syrians learned that Israel was done appeasing, they decided to attack. Ben-hadad, literally drunk with greed and hubris, made loud threats about turning Samaria into rubble.

King Ahab warned him:

“A warrior putting on his sword for battle should not boast like a warrior who has already won” (I Kings 20:11, NLT). That’s good advice for candidates just before an election, as well as for kings and generals.

Fighting bravely in the mountains of Samaria, Israel routed Syria, just as an unnamed prophet had promised it would. Then the prophet told Ahab, “Get ready for another attack”; Ben-hadad and his powerful army would be back in the spring (verse 22, NLT).

Licking their wounds in humiliation and dissecting their defeat, the Syrian generals counseled their King:

“Their gods are gods of the hills,” they explained to Ben-hadad, “therefore they were stronger than we; but let us fight against them in the plain, and surely we shall be stronger than they”(I Kings 20:23, KJV).

The Syrians didn’t know God.

They had no understanding of Jehovah. They only knew their own gods – idols constructed out of man’s fear and superstition. The Syrian gods were limited by time and space. The generals assumed Israel had similar ineffectual deities.

King Ben-hadad agreed with his officers and so the battle plans were made. They would meet Israel – and its gods – in the spring on the plain.

Israel was, as usual, vastly outnumbered. Its army “looked like two little flocks of goats” compared to the Syrian forces “that filled the countryside” (verse 26, NLT).

Then the prophet came once again to King Ahab with this word from God:

“Because the Syrians have said, The Lord is God of the hills, but he is not God of the valleys, therefore will I deliver all this great multitude into thine hand …”

And the prophet added this divine postscript for good measure:

“…and ye shall know that I am the Lord.” (verse 28, KJV, emphasis added).

Why would God do this?

Because man had in his ignorance and pride limited God. He had underestimated Jehovah’s power and misjudged his ways. Ben-hadad got God wrong. That’s a serious thing to do. And God was about to correct that misunderstanding. He would not share his glory with the puny impotent deities devised by carnal imagination.

The worst mistake we can make about God is to limit him.

The psalmist declares that “the Lord is a great God, and a great King above all gods” (Psalm 95:3,KJV).

God Jehovah alone is to be praised and feared “above all gods. For all the gods of the nations are idols: but the Lord made the heavens” (Psalm 96:4-5,KJV).

God gloriously and powerfully transcends and supersedes all human boundaries. He doesn’t live only in the hills or only on the plains. He inhabits and rules over every fiber of the universe he himself created.

David beautifully describes the omnipresence of God in the 139th psalm.

“Whither shall I go from thy spirit? Or whither shall I flee from thy presence?” (Psalm 139:7,KJV).

God is everywhere all the time. He is, in the wonderful title of theologian Paul Tillich’s book, The Eternal Now.

God is not only in every place. He’s also present in every situation.
When his wife died of cancer, C.S. Lewis grieved not only her loss but the supposed strange inexplicable absence of God in his grief. “Meanwhile, where is God?” Lewis wrote in A Grief Observed.

Lewis was wrong, as he later confessed.

But many of us have felt that way.

We make Ben-hadad’s mistake.

God is with you not only on your mountaintops of joy but also in your dark valleys of sadness, perplexity and pain. He goes with you through every emotion you experience.

He never leaves you and he will never forsake you.

God is there in the joyful celebration of new birth. He’s also there when your child is diagnosed with leukemia. And he’s there when you learn he’s in remission. God is with you when you get hired but he’s also just as present when you get let go.

God is with you in the good times and in the tough ones.

On the mountains of your lives – and in your valleys.

No, you’re never alone. Not ever. Thank God for his presence always.

He’s everywhere.

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Finding His Hand

The tall, slender and dignified man dressed in the Admiral’s uniform sat at the table staring at the two microphones in front of him. He nervously reached out and adjusted one of them, moving it slightly closer.

Then he stared some more.

They represented an intimidation, these two microphones. They symbolized the great obstacle he had, with persevering struggle, learned to overcome: a life-long impediment of speech – stuttering.

And now, on this momentous occasion, King George VI prepared to address the English people. All the ears of the Commonwealth were attentive to this live radio broadcast.

It was Christmas Day, 1939.

Three months earlier, Adolph Hitler had invaded Czechoslovakia and World War II had begun. Fear and uncertainty gripped the civilized world – and especially England, which stood alone, directly in the path of powerful Nazi aggression. To this once stuttering king fell the duty to both comfort and rally one of the great nations of history in its hour of maximum danger.

King George spoke in a clear and measured tone. There was deliberation but no hesitation in the strength of his voice. He praised England’s “gallant and faithful allies” for their determination to defend the “cause of Christian civilization. On no other basis can a true civilization be built. Let us remember this through the dark times ahead of us.”

Then the King, with a simple and direct eloquence, beckoned his people to look toward the darkness of a grim and unknown future – and in fact to see beyond it:

“A new year is at hand. We cannot tell what it will bring. If it brings peace, how thankful we all shall be. If it brings us continued struggle we shall remain undaunted.”

Then the King closed his flawlessly-delivered broadcast by quoting the words of a poem, written by a retired lecturer at the London School of Economics, Miss Minnie Louise Haskins, in 1908:

“And I said to the man who stood at the Gate of the Year: ‘Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.’ And he replied:

‘Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.’”

Once again, “a new year is at hand. We cannot tell what it will bring.”

Apocalyptical events – natural disasters, increasing violence, extreme weather – have led some folks to talk about the end of the world like there’s no tomorrow. It’s coming but Jesus warned us plainly against the temptation of date-setting.

Yes, it’s a safe bet that the coming year will bring more trials and difficulties for our world.

There will be no spiritual revival in America in 2016 – our cultural slide, marked by banal entertainments and moral nihilism, will continue. Our economic challenges will mount. The Middle East will remain a tinderbox of violence and upheaval.

Terrorism and racial tensions are not going away.

All these things must first come to pass.

So, for the follower of Jesus Christ, is there any good news? Is there any hope?

Yes, the most important news of all is great!

The wise counsel of a fearless king is steeped in scripture:

“Put your hand into the hand of God.”

No matter what happens to us – politically, economically, internationally, or personally – God is still on his throne. He has a perfect plan that he is working in his perfect way, time and circumstance. Nothing that happens in this coming year will catch God off guard nor will he ever be out of control.

He’s had this coming year mapped out in every detail from before he created the heavens and the earth.

No matter what happens in 2016, this fact alone should give us hope to face the unknown future.

Nor shall God ever stop caring for you, guiding you or loving you.

Not ever.

That should make every year happy for the Christian.

“I have cared for you since you were born,” God tells Israel. “Yes, I carried you before you were born. I will be your God throughout your lifetime – until your hair is white with age. I made you, and I will care for you. I will carry you along and save you.” (Isaiah 46: 3-4, NLT).

“For that is what God is like,” the psalmist reminds us. “He is our God forever and ever, and he will guide us until we die.” (Psalm 48:14, NLT).

God alone has been our help in ages past. He alone is our hope for all the years to come.

“When the country goes temporarily to the dogs,” wrote Garrison Keillor, “cats must learn to be circumspect, walk on fences, sleep in trees, and have faith that all this woofing is not the last word.”

If this coming year “brings us continued struggle we shall remain undaunted.”

Forget what is behind, Paul says. Instead, let us face the future with confidence and, looking unto Jesus, let us “press on!” (Philippians 3: 13-14).

Our God reigns! And trusting him is “safer than a known way”.

“So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night. And He led me towards the hills and the breaking of day in the lone East.”

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Rankin’s Reward

 Rankin Paynter is a businessman. He lives in Winchester, Kentucky.

Mr. Paynter is shrewd, practical and wise. He’d been successful and he knew a good business venture when he saw one. He had taken advantage of plenty of great opportunities over his 77 years. So when a local Kmart closed its doors, Paynter bought up the store’s entire inventory faster than you could say “smart move.”

As an investment, it represented a small gold mine of merchandise he could market and re-sell.

But something happened to Rankin Paynter on the way to the bank.

Paynter caught a vision – and it wouldn’t let him go.

The more he thought, the more he felt – and the more he felt, the more he thought. His mind and his heart were having a conversation and his heart was making a persuasive argument.

In the end, Rankin Paynter’s heart won out.

Paynter decided he would donate the entire Kmart inventory – worth $200,000 – to local charity. One of the community agencies estimated that his donation would help to clothe every struggling family in the area through next winter.

Mr. Paynter reflected on his gift. “We’ve all been put on this earth to help each other through,” he observed. “If I can help people through, I’m happy.”

So is God. Giving matters to him.

Of the 36 parables Jesus told, 17 of them were about property and stewardship. They were about giving and receiving. They were also about investing.

In his story of the talents, Jesus spoke of the man who before he went away on a long trip “called together his servants and entrusted his money to them while he was gone” (Matthew 25: 14, NLT). Two of the servants made sound investments with multiplied lasting results. They were men of vision and commitment.

This the owner commended.

The third servant thought he’d done the prudent and wise thing when he buried his money in the ground for safe keeping.  This is the man who never caught a vision, never took a risk, never showed faith and never invested in the kingdom of God. It turns out that what this man thought made sense was not what the owner had wanted or expected of him. Instead of being commended for his supposed prudence, this servant was condemned for his lack of faith.

Philanthropy has changed this nation – and the world – in some impressive ways.

Every year billions of private dollars are invested in trying to make this nation and the world a better place. Vote seekers who find the rich a convenient punching bag never seem to grasp or appreciate this central fact of the American economy. Men and women of wealth, along with those of more moderate income, have generously tackled social problems in ways the government can’t.

It’s worth noting too that politicians who are the most generous with other people’s money are often the least generous with their own.

Before he died in 1919, Andrew Carnegie gave away 330 million dollars of his wealth. Today, that would be in the billions. “A man who dies rich,” Carnegie once said, “dies disgraced.”  Men like Carnegie – men who worked hard to build – and profit from – America’s free enterprise system also built hospitals, schools, libraries and churches. Their generosity and vision made an indelible mark upon the quality of life in this country long after their own lives ended.

They knew it would – that’s why they gave.

Godly men of wealth understand this better than many. Their faith gives motive and meaning to their generosity.

G. Le Tourneau, a devout Christian who made a fortune manufacturing earth-moving equipment, was once asked how it was possible that he could give away 90% of his income to Christian ministry and still become amazingly rich. ‘”Well,” LeTourneau mused, “I guess I had a shovel – but God had a bigger one”.

“Give,” Jesus tells us, “and you will receive. Your gift will return to you in full …” (Luke 6: 38, NLT).

It’s   true – you cannot out-give God.

“For we brought nothing into this world,” Paul writes to Timothy, “and it is certain we can carry nothing out” (I Timothy 6:7, KJV). This may rank as one of the most self-evident truths ever neglected.

In God’s divine economy, wealth is not a reward; it’s a test. It’s not an end in itself – it’s an exciting means to a far greater and more glorious end. The accumulation of money does not buy our security – that comes only from God. Instead, wealth is our opportunity to make a difference in the lives of others.

When you and I give we express our gratitude for what we’ve been given.

To be able to give a “transformational gift” – one that changes the equation for all time – is one of God’s greatest gifts. To have the opportunity to leave a lasting legacy – to give a gift that outlives the giver – is one of life’s greatest blessings and a rare privilege afforded to very few.

It really is more blessed to give than to receive.

Rankin Paynter could tell you.

May God bless you and your family.

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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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