Category Archives: Attitude

When Circumstances Eclipse Our View of God

 MAIN THOUGHT:  We should not allow the circumstances of life to obscure our view of God’s power and goodness.

The Old Astronomer, by the British poet Sarah Williams: “Though my soul may set in darkness, it will rise in perfect light; I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.”

Monday, August 21, 2017 will mark an event that most of us will never again experience in our lifetime, a total eclipse of the sun – even though it will only be about a 90% eclipse in our viewing range. This has not occurred across such a large part of the USA in more than 100 years. And it will not happen again on our planet until 2020 in South America.

A total solar eclipse occurs when the moon is in the correct daytime position to completely block our view of the sun, leaving us in a shadow of darkness. Here’s the deal – the moon is not very big, in comparison to earth. In fact, the earth dwarfs the moon in size, as it would take more than 80 objects the size of our moon to fill the mass of planet earth. So compared to the size of our sun, the moon is tiny, almost like comparing the head of a pin to a mountain. Our sun is so large, that it could easily contain a million planets the size of earth.  Thus, it could contain 80 million objects the size of our moon.

Yet tomorrow morning around 9 a.m., our moon, that comparatively tiny object, will completely eclipse the light of the sun, an object 80 million times larger than itself. It will do so because of perspective. From where we stand, it will appear to be dark, but that is only because we will be in the shadow of the moon, and it will only last about 2.5 minutes at its longest duration in the USA.

Many stories exist in history of people panicking in terror when a solar eclipse suddenly brought darkness upon their part of the world. Ancient people thought that perhaps a dragon was eating the sun and they made loud noises to try and scare it away. Eclipse events became fodder for legends and myths sparking fear and panic about disaster and death.

One time in history when we know the exact date of a solar eclipse was May 28, 585 BC, when two Greek armies, the Medes and the Lydians, were fighting a battle. Suddenly a complete solar eclipse turned day into night, and the stars appeared. The armies immediately stopped fighting, and taking it as a sign that the gods wanted them to lay down their arms, they declared a truce. Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone took the eclipse tomorrow as a sign that we should stop fighting each other on planet earth, and we did?

What we will all experience tomorrow is a metaphor for what often happens in life, when circumstances suddenly remove the light, causing us to lose vision and clarity that robs us of courage and plunges us into a pit of darkness and fear. How do we respond when the lights go out and shadows eclipse our vision of God and rob us of hope?

2 Kings 6:8-23 tells a story about the prophet Elisha and a time when circumstances seemed to block the vision of God’s providence and protection.

8  Now the king of Aram was at war with Israel. After conferring with his officers, he said, “I will set up my camp in such and such a place.”
9 The man of God sent word to the king of Israel: “Beware of passing that place, because the Arameans are going down there.”
10 So the king of Israel checked on the place indicated by the man of God. Time and again Elisha warned the king, so that he was on his guard in such places.
11 This enraged the king of Aram. He summoned his officers and demanded of them, “Tell me! Which of us is on the side of the king of Israel?”
12 “None of us, my lord the king,” said one of his officers, “but Elisha, the prophet who is in Israel, tells the king of Israel the very words you speak in your bedroom.”
13 “Go, find out where he is,” the king ordered, “so I can send men and capture him.” The report came back: “He is in Dothan.”
14 Then he sent horses and chariots and a strong force there. They went by night and surrounded the city.
15 When the servant of the man of God got up and went out early the next morning, an army with horses and chariots had surrounded the city. “Oh no, my lord! What shall we do?” the servant asked.
16 “Don’t be afraid,” the prophet answered. “Those who are with us are more than those who are with them.”
17 And Elisha prayed, “Open his eyes, LORD, so that he may see.” Then the LORD opened the servant’s eyes, and he looked and saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.
18 As the enemy came down toward him, Elisha prayed to the LORD, “Strike this army with blindness.” So he struck them with blindness, as Elisha had asked.
19 Elisha told them, “This is not the road and this is not the city. Follow me, and I will lead you to the man you are looking for.” And he led them to Samaria.
20 After they entered the city, Elisha said, “LORD, open the eyes of these men so they can see.” Then the LORD opened their eyes and they looked, and there they were, inside Samaria.
21 When the king of Israel saw them, he asked Elisha, “Shall I kill them, my father? Shall I kill them?”
22 “Do not kill them,” he answered. “Would you kill those you have captured with your own sword or bow? Set food and water before them so that they may eat and drink and then go back to their master.”
6:23 So he prepared a great feast for them, and after they had finished eating and drinking, he sent them away, and they returned to their master. So the bands from Aram stopped raiding Israel’s territory.

What do we learn from this story?

  1. God knows the plans of the enemy and regardless, He can provide for us and protect us.
  2. We do not always see everything – the eyes of faith are required to see how God is working on our behalf behind the scenes.
  3. When we have opportunity, we should show mercy to those who mean to harm us.
  4. When we choose to believe, God can change our circumstances.

Never doubt in the darkness what God has told you in the light. Even if your circumstances seem to eclipse your vision of God’s provision or protection, keep believing in the light and choosing the path of light until you break free of the darkness. God has a bigger plan to thwart the works of darkness to accomplish His will and purposes. So don’t allow unbelief or circumstances to eclipse your vision of God.

Darkness is always temporary. The solar eclipse will result in less than 3 minutes of total darkness. Remember, He is working through your dark circumstances and the light is still shining somewhere, ready to burst through the shadows into a bright future.

Dealing With Life’s Most Persistent Question: Part 12 – The Top 10 Most Persistent Questions

Mt St Helens 7-9-11 PSYou don’t know what you don’t know. And you will never know exactly how another person feels or the depth of their personal suffering. I’ve spent almost 40 years of my life as a pastor and counselor. During those years I’ve empathetically listened as people have poured out their hearts and told me their stories. Some are horrific, catastrophic, or tragic beyond belief. All are filled with emotions from violent anger to shocked bewilderment. While the people and stories are all unique, the questions articulated remain very similar and all are a variation of what I’ve been calling life’s most persistent question, “Why?”

“God wants to build character in our lives,” I once mused to a young father with three children who was mourning the loss of his wife from cancer.

“I don’t need any more character,” he shouted at me. “I need my wife back!”

Ouch! His explosion reminded me of the then-recent eruption of Mt. St. Helens (pictured above almost 35 years after the explosion).  I was a young pastor and just trying to make sense myself out of his tragic circumstances. Parroting what I truly believed, but without any comprehension of his own incredible grief, my words, that were intended to soothe and answer, simply applied salt to his wounded heart. I’ve learned a few things about suffering myself since then and would never make such a statement under similar circumstances today.

Based upon many such encounters with grieving souls, I’ve compiled a list of the top 10 most persistent questions. Much has been written about them, and I seriously doubt what I might say will shed any additional light on the topic. But by their very nature, they persistently remain the questions that cross generational, societal, and geographical boundaries. They are universal questions, asked by all people in all places at all times. And in one way or another, they are also questions considered by the ancients and recorded in the pages of the Bible.

While there are personalized versions of every one of these, the general questions are universal.  And when asked in a real-life situation, every one of them are typically accompanied by a pretext. For example, “If God is all powerful, why doesn’t God prevent tragedy?” or “God answers prayers for other people, why doesn’t God answer my prayers? Here are my top 10:

10.   Why would a loving God send someone to hell?

9.     Why doesn’t God prevent corrupt leaders from coming into power?

8.     Why doesn’t God put an end to all suffering?

7.    Why does God allow innocent children to be victimized and harmed?

6.    Why doesn’t God heal everyone who asks?

5.    Why doesn’t God prevent tragedy?

4.    Why does God allow evil?

3.    Why doesn’t God answer my prayers?

2.    Why do evil people prosper?

1.    Why do the righteous suffer?

Before you quickly attempt to provide pat answers to these questions, consider the fact that these questions are consistently universal and ubiquitous—they appear everywhere at all times. If our philosophical and theological answers were adequate to explain the human condition on a level beyond the intellect, wouldn’t people stop asking them, and have stopped doing so years ago?

And please remember that they are posed in the midst of great turmoil of soul and spirit, typically generated by circumstances that have destroyed the fabric of human decency and order. They are not questions that inquire or call for a philosophical or even theological dialogue, although that sometimes occurs and may be profitable. No, these questions are more like a rhetorical shotgun blast, an interrogation generated by an internal explosion of angst and turmoil of the soul—triggered by external circumstances beyond our control.

These are questions that at the same time demand an answer, while not really expecting any single answer to sufficiently explain the catastrophe of a broken life and heart. So, how do we respond? How should we respond? And what do you think about the questions themselves? Are there other questions you would add to the top 10? I’d love to hear what you think, and I’ll share my thoughts in a later post. I will tell you this, Mt. St. Helens is proof that time may bring beauty out of the most explosive of circumstances. It takes time, but time alone does not heal all wounds. Ultimately, only Jesus does that.

Dealing With Life’s Most Persistent Question: Part 10

Highway to sunset Farm Road Springfield MO 5-2-15On the road to Emmaus, Jesus took the time to offer an explanation to his two questioning friends who were searching for an explanation, for a reason behind all the events they had experienced. He understood the sorrow and disappointment they felt, the loss that had blinded their eyes with tears and dampened their hearts with grief.

“Jesus quoted passages from the writings of Moses and all the prophets, explaining what all the Scriptures said about himself” (Luke 24:27, nlt).

Jesus is a gentleman. He patiently listened and explained. They had an engaging conversation. As they walked, they approached their destination. He did not invite himself in for dinner. He will not force himself on anyone. He will respond to an invitation, though. He waits patiently for each of us to invite him into our heart. He says, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock,” (Revelation 3:20, nkjv).

Cleopas and his friend invited Jesus in and he joined them for a meal. Jesus wants fellowship with us. He wasn’t angry with them. He loved them and was concerned for them. As Jesus blessed the dinner bread, they suddenly understood. Their eyes were opened and they immediately knew who he was.

Along with that revelation came something unexpected. God is always doing things we don’t expect. He vanished out of their sight. But even though they couldn’t see him with their physical sight, their spiritual eyes were opened. That is what happens when we journey with Jesus; we walk by faith, not by sight.

An encounter with Jesus changes everything. They had seen the Lord and their emotions went from confused sadness to elated gladness. Excitedly, they told each other how their hearts had felt strangely warm as he explained the Scriptures to them as they walked down the road.

When we can’t clearly see the road ahead because our vision is blocked by tears or by the tangled web of weedy circumstances, we must focus on Jesus. Once we see him, he gives us vision for the road ahead and shows us the way. He can turn our “Why?” into “Why not!”

I don’t know which lonely Emmaus Road you may be traveling. But I am sure that Jesus is with you, even if you don’t see him or recognize his presence. And when Jesus accompanies us on the road less traveled, it makes all the difference.

 

Dealing With Life’s Most Persistent Question – Part 3

Eagle soaring closeup Skagit County 3-26-15“Those who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”       -Isaiah 40:31

Wait. How we hate to wait! The word may spark anxiety in your heart, but the grieving process takes time. And that flies in the face of our “why wait?” culture and personal orientation when it comes to relief from pressure, anxiety, or desire of any kind.

Whenever you suffer a significant loss, you grieve. And the loss may seem insignificant to others or inconsequential in the big scheme of things. But if it was a big deal to you, if it made your heart feel pain, if it left you anxious and afraid, then you are facing grief. And working through the stages of grief takes time. You will get better. I know, you’ve heard it before. But you will get better. YOU WILL GET BETTER!

Denial. Anger. Bargaining.  Depression. Acceptance. How this process of grief plays out, and the length of each stage differs from person to person. It takes time–you just don’t know how much time. But you will get better. YOU WILL GET BETTER!

If you have read this far, you might think I am over-simplifying things, and if you are grieving your mind may have already circled back to the “Why?” question again. Well, you’ve come this far.  Why stop now? There, I did it–found another use for that most persistent question. And how about another?  Why not? Why not, indeed?

Why not learn from a fellow traveler on the road of suffering who had his share of disappointment–both giving it and receiving it. His name was Peter – and yes he is the one who cursed and denied that he had ever heard of Jesus (after promising that he would never do such a thing) at the moment Jesus needed him the most. Ouch!  Like I said, he understood disappointment. The Bible tells us that following that stellar performance, Peter went out and “wept bitterly.” This was such a big deal that both Matthew and Luke reported his bitter tears in their Gospels (Matthew 26:75; Luke 22:62).

When Peter speaks about suffering and disappointment, perhaps we should listen. Many years past that painful event, Peter, who had been transformed by Pentecost and the working of the Spirit in his life over time, shares some advice for fellow pilgrims who wonder, “Why me?”

Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.  If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler. However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name. For it is time for judgment to begin with the family of God; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And, “If it is hard for the righteous to be saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?” So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good.  (1 Peter 4:12-19 NIV)

So did you catch what Peter said? I understand that he was writing to first century Christians who may have been facing persecution and even martyrdom for their faith–unlike anything most westerners are likely to face today. However his words provide meaning to all people in all places for all time.

  • Don’t be surprised by suffering.
  • Rejoice in your relationship with Christ.
  • Don’t think you are suffering for Christ if you are just being a jerk.
  • You may be suffering, “according to God’s will” despite those who theorize that God always wants you to be happy.
  • Commit yourself to our Faithful God.
  • Continue to do good.

This begs the question, “Why is it so difficult to apply this to my life?” Let’s begin with baby steps:

  1. What surprises you about your situation? The word “incredulity” means, “I can’t believe this happened to me!” What would it take for you to get over your shock that it did happen?
  2. What blessing can you discover to rejoice about today?
  3. What can you do to commit your ways to God? I like to pray and personalize these verses from Psalm 37:3-5 “Trust in the LORD and do good; dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture. Delight yourself in the LORD and he will give you the desires of your heart. Commit your way to the LORD; trust in him and he will do this.” (NIV)
  4. What is one good thing that you can do right now as a next step toward “continuing to do good”? Go for it. You can do this!

And always remember:  When you think you won’t, YOU WILL GET BETTER! Have a great weekend. After all, why not? More about life’s persistent question and another relevant story about Peter next week.

On the Verge: Finding Your Tipping Point – Part 3 “Perspective”

Clock magnifying glass Face value. That has to do with perspective. At first glance, all we see is what is visible at the moment, and from that particular point of view. We may assume or make a value judgment from that perspective, concluding that what we just observed tells the whole story—all there is to it. That can be a big mistake. In fact it can be a blind spot to us, because if we took the time to discover a different point of view, it might make all the difference.

I have more than a hundred old clocks, all more than a century old, and of all shapes and sizes. All have mechanical movements of some kind. Some are weight driven, some are spring driven. Some use a pendulum, and some use a balance wheel to maintain momentum. The mechanics are different in each, but the dynamic part is similar – they keep the clockworks moving.

What is the purpose in all this mumbo jumbo about clocks?  Regardless of how they operate, all clocks have the same major purpose:  to tell the accurate time of day. When you look at the face of the clock, you expect to see the correct time. Clocks line the tops of the bookshelves in my office. I seldom keep them all running—they are just for decoration and display. So they all register a different time of day. I often tell people when they look at the clocks and ask which clocksone is telling the correct time, “They are all correct, twice a day!”

To go beyond the face value, you have to take a second glance. Beyond the face, there may reside a complex system of machinery. This is true not only for clocks, but for people, and organizations, and families, and neighbors, and even cultures. To rightly understand anything requires closer examination beyond a casual glance and quick summation.

When a clock stops keeping accurate time, the problem seldom lies within the face. Something deeper is causing the problem, and requires more careful inspection. It may be something as difficult to detect as a speck of dust in the wrong place or as obvious as a broken spring. It may be the result of an overzealous owner drowning the works with a well-intentioned baptism of WD-40 that has gummed up the works. Whatever the cause, the clock is stopped and as Newton reminds us, an object at rest tends to stay at rest. Until some outside force repairs the problem, the clock will not start ticking again on its own.

What is keeping you from getting off the verge and moving ahead? Have you just accepted at face value your own analysis? Self-examination is generally a good thing, as is self-awareness. But self-diagnosis is often a tricky business, and may lead to disastrous conclusions. Some things are better done with assistance to help us see ourselves as others do, and examine our blind spots. While you might attempt to brush your hair without a mirror, shaving without one could result in some nasty nicks on your face. It may be time to get a second opinion, to let someone else take a closer look.

Whether you choose collaboration, consultation, counseling or coaching, soliciting another opinion can help you gain perspective, and get you off the verge. How difficult is it to admit and say, “I am stuck”? What is keeping you from doing so? Whatever it is, your answer to the previous question may be the one thing keeping you from moving forward or the catalyst for your healing.

James instructs us, “Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The earnest prayer of a righteous person has great power and produces wonderful results.” (James 5:16 NLT) If confession of sin is a key to healing, perhaps confession of our other failures or frustrations may do the same by providing a different point of view as we open up and become vulnerable to another person. Their perspective could be just the thing to get you off the verge and start ticking away into your preferred future.

Abraham Lincoln: Humble and Meek

Abraham Lincoln Statue

Abraham Lincoln Statue

Today we celebrate the 206th birthday of my favorite president, Abraham Lincoln. Born in a humble Kentucky log cabin, humility characterized the life of the tall, lanky, awkward-looking man. Yet perhaps meekness, often defined as “strength under control,” is a better word to describe his character. He leveraged his strength as a wrestler and a fighter by channeling those energies into educating himself and becoming a successful attorney. Legal battles turned to political battles and as President he had to battle the personal demons of self-doubt and clouds of depression, while being demonized by a hostile press and political enemies who loathed the backwoods country lawyer.

He led our nation during its greatest crisis to overcome our greatest national shame. Though a fighter, he led in his characteristic humble and meek style, enlisting his political adversaries into a “team of rivals” to win them over and help save the Union. Rather than taking a swing at those who opposed him or his ideas, he resolved to stand firm in his convictions, while listening to and engaging his opponents in dialogue. He once said, “Be sure you put your feet in the right place, then stand firm.” While standing firm, his self-effacing humor and ability to spin a yarn broke down defenses and built bridges.

One of my favorite Lincoln quotes is from the final paragraph of his Second Inaugural Address, delivered a few days before his tragic assassination: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

We can only imagine how much faster the process of healing our nation and reconstruction of The South might have taken place had Lincoln been able to serve out his second term of office. Perhaps we might have been spared some of the long and agonizing delays in the process of racial reconciliation and civil rights that continues in our nation and around the world to this very day.

But one thing is certain. Lincoln left his mark and made a difference in this world that is still recognized and appreciated today. His legacy is felt by all who work toward achieving and cherishing, “a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

Echoes of Lincoln’s hundred and fifty year old words are heard whenever a voice is raised to oppose injustice, whenever the chains are released from a soul rescued from human trafficking, whenever the lever is raised on a water pump to improve the health of a community, whenever a door of opportunity opens for a child born in poverty, and wherever freedom reigns so people have the right to lift their voice in praise to their Creator.  Quite an accomplishment for such a meek and humble man!

Thanksgiving Table Set 11-26-14I love the Thanksgiving holiday that we celebrate in America on the last Thursday in November. Jodi sets a magnificent table and our children gather with their children. Food, family, and football are the usual American components to celebrate the day.

In addition, it marks a time to reflect on our blessings over the past year which includes giving thanks for the good things provided, and giving thanks for the bad things that we have been spared from. It is also a time to consider ways to help our neighbors and share with those less fortunate in our community and around the world.

I love Thanksgiving, but  sad to say, I am not always thankful. It seems like a cliché, yet pausing to count our blessings and reflect on the gifts provided is one of our greatest privileges as humans in a life well lived. The author G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936) said, “When it comes to life, the critical thing is whether you take things for granted or take them with gratitude.”

The Bible has a lot to say about thanksgiving, mentioning it nearly 140 times.  In the book of Psalms alone, we are told over 30 times to “be thankful” and “give thanks unto the Lord.”  Psalm 92:1 says, “It is good to give thanks to the LORD, And to sing praises to Your name, O Most High.”  Nineteen out of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament mention the need for thanksgiving.   1 Thessalonians 5:18 says “In everything give thanks, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.”

Regardless of the hardships we may face in life, we can be thankful for the good things God provides. And it is always helpful for me to consider the circumstances of the Pilgrims when they celebrated the event we now call “Thanksgiving.” When we think of that first thanksgiving celebrated by the Pilgrims, we might assume it occurred during the first year of their residency here after their arrival in 1620. In fact, we know they did have a 3-day feast in the fall of 1621 where wild fowl and venison were served.  A letter by Edward Winslow is the only surviving description of the event itself.[1]  The hard winter months that followed brought extraordinary suffering and even more deaths to the small band of Pilgrims.

But the first real extended thanksgiving celebration took place a full three years after their arrival in 1620.  Those three years were filled with much hardship, toil and suffering.  Their days were spent combating sickness, drought, inner conflicts, and the elements.  But it wasn’t all bad news.  The Native Americans had taught the settlers how to plant corn, fish for cod, hunt for game, and skin beavers for coats.   They had planted gardens, built a blockhouse for their protection, houses for their own comfort, and a meetinghouse to worship God.

Just when things seemed to take a turn for the better, they again got worse.  In the summer of 1623, a drought threatened to destroy their vital crops.  So the colonists prayed and fasted for relief.  When the rains came a few days later, disaster was averted, and their crops were saved. Not long after, Captain Miles Standish arrived with staples and news that a Dutch supply ship was on its way.  Because of all these blessings and answered prayers, the Pilgrims held a day of thanksgiving and praise.  This 1623 event appears to have been the origin of our Thanksgiving Day because it combined a religious and social celebration.[2]  It was a time for expressing gratitude to God and sharing with their Indian neighbors.  Governor Bradford made the following proclamation:

“Inasmuch as the great Father has given us this year an abundant harvest of Indian corn, wheat, peas, beans, squashes, and garden vegetables, and has made the forests to abound with game and the sea with fish and clams, and inasmuch as He has protected us from the ravages of the savages, has spared us from pestilence and disease, has granted us freedom to worship God according to the dictates of our own conscience.

 Now I, your magistrate, do proclaim that all ye Pilgrims, with your wives and ye little ones, do gather at ye meetinghouse, on ye hill, between the hours of 9 and 12 in the day time, on Thursday, November 29th, of the year of our Lord one thousand six hundred and twenty three and the third year since ye Pilgrims landed on ye Pilgrim Rock, there to listen to ye pastor and render thanksgiving to ye Almighty God for all His blessings.”[3]

The provisions for that thanksgiving feast included:  “twelve tasty venisons, besides others, pieces of roasted venison, fruit pies, roasted wild turkeys, plums, nuts, grapes, corn, popcorn, vegetables of all types, fish, roast pork, etc.  But before all this, the first course was served:  on an empty plate in front of each person were five kernels of corn. . .lest anyone should forget” (the hardship of the previous winters.)[4]

“Lest anyone should forget.” Like Chesterton said, “the critical thing in life is whether we take things for granted, or with gratitude.” Happy Thanksgiving!

[1] http://www.plimoth.org/Library/Thanksgiving/afirst.htm

[2] http://www.si.edu/resource/faq/nmah/thanks.htm

[3]Federer, William J.  “America’s God and Country Encyclopedia of Quotations.”  Coppell, TX:  Fame Publishing, 1994, p. 66-67.

[4]Marshall, Peter and Manuel, David “The Light and the Glory.”  Old Tappan, NJ:  Revell, 1977, p. 144.

At the Intersection of Our Hopes and Fears

At the intersection of our hopes and fears“The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Thee tonight.”

We exist in a contradiction of emotions. Moments of great faith and courage. Moments of great fear and trembling. But between those extreme moments, we often swim in a sea of ambivalence. Tumultuous waves of fear, doubt, hate, anger, self-loathing, and cynicism threaten to drown our hopes, dreams, faith, love and peace. We search for a life preserver to keep us afloat long enough to survive.

We must face negative realities in order to survive, but focus on positive ones to thrive. What if we could find solid footing to maintain serenity in the midst of a storm of adversity? What if we could remain peaceful and calm when the waves of despair threaten to capsize our vessel? What if we could hold onto virtue during moments of weakness when tempted to compromise our values? What if there really was a life preserver to keep us from drowning in that sea of ambivalence? What if we could overcome our fears with hope?

At the intersection of our hopes and fears we find the babe of Bethlehem. During his human lifetime, that baby grew into a man who would calm storms, stop angry waves, offer the tender touch of healing and forgiveness. He would provide courage to a widowed mother, sight to a blinded beggar, a place at the table for the hungry, downtrodden and oppressed, freedom to one enslaved by the chains of demons, and tender mercy to a woman caught in adultery. Ask any one of them. Ask any one of the countless others named and unnamed in the Gospels. They will tell you. Jesus Christ met them at a moment when they were about to go under, capsized by fear. But his touch, his glance, his word made the difference. Hope.

Heaven and earth intersected in Bethlehem more than 2,000 years ago. God came down to human level to show us his heart and compassion. Hope met fear. And hope won.

It’s not about Bethlehem. It’s about that baby boy who spans the centuries and more. He spans eternity. And his love spans the chasm between our sea of ambivalence and the solid ground of his destiny. That’s why pastor Phillips Brooks penned those words more than a century ago. We hear them sung today in shopping malls and sanctuaries: “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Thee tonight.”   ©2013 Don Detrick

A Thanksgiving Story

a thanksgiving story 3Ten men huddle around an open fire on a chilly evening.  Their eyes are hungry with anticipation as they study the meager contents of a simmering pot, their only meal for the day.  These are hard times, and food is scarce – especially for them.

“I heard he’s coming tomorrow,” one of the ten, a rabbi, states.

“You mean the Galilean, the one they call Jesus of Nazareth?” asks another.  The questioner is from Samaria, a sandalmaker by trade.  Samaritans are a common enough sight in this border town between Galilee and Samaria.

“Yes, he’s the one” answers the rabbi.

A small gust of wind fans the flames to illuminate the face of the man next to the Samaritan.  His visage is scarred, almost grotesque.  His nose, or what was once his nose, is now a protruding ulcer.  He struggles to breathe through his mouth. Large spots of raw flesh randomly appear between patches of beard.  He speaks next, with some difficulty.   “I’ve heard of him.  They say he is a miracle-worker.   I believe in miracles, although I can’t say I’ve ever seen one myself.  We Pharisees have always believed in miracles.  Why, the Scriptures abound with stories about miracles and angels and the like.  I remember the stimulating discussion on the subject I had with a Sadducee in Jerusalem a few years ago.  But that was before . . . .” his voice trails off as another begins to speak.

“Well, that’s easy enough for you to say.  After all, you’ve always had a smooth life – up until now anyway.  But I’ve always had to earn a living by the sweat of my brow.  Nobody could ever say that this Galilean potter wasn’t a hard worker.  The only miracle I’ve ever seen was one I made with my own two hands.”  He holds up his hands and in the glow of the fire one wonders how those hands could ever have produced anything of beauty or value.   They are deformed and ugly – worthless for any meaningful work.  Only one finger is recognizable on one hand, two on the other.  In silent anguish, he lowers them to his side, despising their uselessness.

A break in the clouds reveals a full moon and for a moment a clear picture of the ten shadowy figures appears.  It is not a sight for the weak-stomached.  For each one seems to be a victim of some great physical disaster.  Perhaps a terrible accident, or a fire, maybe they are war veterans – it’s not clear at the moment.

“The soup’s almost ready, and I’m ready to stop this discussion about miracles” another states, a note of sarcasm in his voice.  “Like my potter friend here, I’m from up north near Bethsaida.  I once had a thriving business in the marketplace there.  Over the years I’ve met a number of folks from Nazareth.  But that was before this happened to me.  Anyway, like I was saying everybody knows nothing good could ever come out of Nazareth.  If this Jesus is from there, he’s no miracle worker.”

Another speaks, his voice cracking with age.  Yet the men listen to him with a respect reserved for one who speaks with the wisdom of many years.  “Yesterday people in town said Jesus of Nazareth recently visited Jerusalem and there he healed a crippled woman and a man who could not walk.  He had a condition the physicians call dropsy.  He healed that man on the Sabbath day and created quite a stir.”

“Yes, but what about us?”  The old man was interrupted by another.   “We’re all in this thing together.  I’m only thirty years old.  I have a wife and children, and was ready to go into business for myself as a tentmaker.  But now my wife and family have returned to the home of her father.  I may never see them again.  I’m forced to spend my days begging and my nights with you vagabonds.  I think I could still work with my hands and make the best tents ever, but who would buy them?  Nobody would even touch them.  ‘Unclean!’ they would say.  What about us?  Could this Jesus heal lepers like us?”

“I’ve been told by a reliable source” the old man continued, “that Jesus healed a Galilean not long ago of leprosy.  In fact, some say that this man is traveling around bearing witness to his healing and telling people that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah.”  The eyes of the men are all on the old man now.  A glimmer of hope has made the soup seem unimportant for the moment.

“Do you believe it’s true?” the young tentmaker asks.

“It could be” states the elder.  “I don’t really care if Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah or not.  I’ll let the experts decide that.  But if this Jesus can heal, I must see him.  I’m an old man and may never have a chance like this again.  I dread the thought of dying as a leper, an untouchable.  Why, no one would even give me a proper burial.  I don’t know about you, but tomorrow when Jesus of Nazareth comes, I’m going to be waiting, within shouting distance of him.  If this Jesus is as kind and merciful as they say he is, I intend to get his attention.  And then I’m going to ask him to heal me.”

“What have we got to lose?” asks the rabbi.  “Let’s go with him.  Surely a group of ten men together will have a better chance to get His attention.”

So one by one each agrees to go in the morning and join their voices with the voice of the old man.  They eat their soup in silence, each deep his own thoughts.  Some are skeptical, with a cynicism borne by years of bitter suffering and rejection.  Others finish their gruel and drift into sleep with dreams of love and family, employment and full stomachs.  Others lay awake, for the first time in many days looking forward to tomorrow and wondering what it will bring forth.

The morning dawns as bright as the expectation of what life could have been for these ten if it were not for leprosy.  Leprosy!  How they despise the word!  Leprosy!  To them the word means isolation and ridicule, poverty and vagrancy, hunger and despair.

Most of all, the word means unclean.  They did not ask for this curse, it just happened.  Oh, at first each tried to hide it.  But you cannot hide something like this for long.  And then came the inquisition, and then the meeting with the priests and finally the pronouncement of that vile word “unclean!”

As wretched as their wounds, even more wretched is their destiny.  Forced into isolation from healthy people, the leper is required to warn all who approach by calling out “unclean, unclean.”  Even the most spirited individual is soon beaten down in such a condition.

One can’t really expect others to understand a disease they are not afflicted with.  Most associate the plague with the person.  So lepers take their place in society as less than second class citizens.  In fact, they are treated worse than dogs by most.

There is not a moment of the day that these men are not keenly aware of what this disease has done to them – and what it has taken from them.  Leprosy!

There is not a day that goes by that each doesn’t ask the inevitable question:  “Why me?”  Obsessed by those words, they repeat them over and over.  “Why me?  Why me?”  But the answer never comes.  The silence echoes through their minds, constantly haunting their vacant souls.  Only a rational defense can break the silent spell.  Each one reasons:  “Surely I’ve never done anything to deserve this.”   Or worse, “Maybe I do deserve this.”

Thus finding no meaningful purpose for their plight, their tormented minds ponder another question.  A question that at least tends to soothe their wounds with the balm of fantasy:  “What if?”

  • “What if I were still a successful businessman?  I would never again take for granted my position.  I would give more than a paltry sum when alms for the poor were received.  Yes, I’d be more compassionate to the downtrodden and the needy.”
  •  “What if I were still able to live at home with my wife and children?  I’d never again resent having to feed those extra mouths.  I’d smile when the children needed new clothes, thankful for the ability to provide for a growing family.”
  •  “What if I were an esteemed teacher in Israel?  I had such a promising future.  My mentor said he had never taught a student with such insight into the Scriptures.   He once said I had a gift for teaching that would make my name prominent in Jerusalem, and I would be sure to use that gift to the best of my ability for God’s glory.  I would still have a home of my own.  I would be welcome in any synagogue.  And whenever I saw a leper, I would consider:  ‘There, but for the grace of God, go I.”

But as always, the stark realities of their existence soon terminates their brief respite of fantasy.  As diverse as they once were, they are now welded together by the white hot fires of suffering.  Leprosy, an unwelcome guest which suddenly invaded their lives, has thrown them together as surely as it cast them out of society and away from family and friends.

But today is different as the ten shuffle off together toward town.  Today there is hope.  Together they have formed a plan, tied to an incredible possibility.  Surely they have little to lose.  Their fate is already sealed anyway.  Why not believe the impossible?  Onward they proceed as faith replaces their fears.

They position themselves on the side of a road, the road by which Jesus is coming this day.  A crowd is already gathering in the early morning chill.  Soon the crowd becomes a multitude and some say “You lepers, get out of the way.  We don’t want you here.  Make room for us.”

If only one leper had been there, he could have been persuaded to move.  But ten, together, had formed a determined defense.  They had lost much.  They had nothing more to lose.  They made up their minds.  They would not move.  And they would not be moved by force of hand, for no one dared touch them, or even come close for fear of the curse.  So they held their ground.

Soon the noise of the multitude reached a fervent pitch in the ears of the ten lepers.  “It’s him.  It’s Jesus!” they hear.

A thousand questions race through their minds.  “Will he come our way?  Will he hear us?  Will he care?   Could he heal us?  Will he heal me?”  Now they see the object of the crowd’s attention.  They see Jesus of Nazareth.

“Yes it is him,” they agree.  “Now is our chance, we must act!”   Over the tumult of the crowd, with one mighty effort they raise their collective voices in a great shout of “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.”  The multitude grows silent.  Jesus turns, and spots the ten.

No one needs to offer an explanation.  Daylight reveals the obvious about these men.  Still, the embarrassed leader of the local synagogue speaks up, “Jesus, those ten lepers are vagrants.  Just beggars and not at all like the fine citizens of our community.”  But Jesus does not even acknowledge the man.  The ten lepers now have his full attention.

“What will he do?  How will Jesus respond?  Will he wave us away so he can visit with the “respectable” citizens of the community?” the lepers wonder.

With their eyes riveted on him, they hear Jesus say “Go, show yourselves unto the priest.”

“What kind of a command was that?  Doesn’t he know that it was the priests who pronounced us as ‘unclean’ in the first place?” they ask.   As they look at each other, they see nothing that would change the priest’s diagnosis of their condition.

“But there was something compelling about the way he spoke,” replies the former Pharisee.  Once again their gaze moves from each other back to Jesus.  “Yes, and there is something about the way he looks at us.  His smile is not a smile of mockery, but a smile of compassion,” says the sandalmaker.

One by one, in obedience to his voice, they proceed.  They are off to find the nearest priest.    Whether they believed before or not, as they walk along, each experiences a miracle of transformation.  Leprosy, the despised disease will plague them no longer.  Every man is healed and given a new lease on life.  Gone are the scars, the deformities, and the open sores.  Gone also are the stares of people as even missing extremities are replaced with new ones covered with skin as smooth as a baby’s.

Running and jumping, shouting with ecstasy, they proceed to their destination.  Along the way, the Samaritan ponders “Why should I go to a Jewish priest? I won’t be accepted by him.”  He remembers the stinging pain of rejection even before leprosy had afflicted him.  “You fellows go on ahead, perhaps I’ll see you later” he says.  “I’ve got some unfinished business.”

tenlepersThe other nine don’t seem to mind that he left the group.  In fact, now that they are all normal, it just doesn’t seem right for them to be associating with a Samaritan anyway.

Filled with a riot of emotions, the Samaritan tries to clear his mind as he formulates a plan.  “I will go show myself to a priest who won’t reject me because of my ancestry or birth.  I will present myself to a priest who seems to understand, and be touched by the way I feel.”

He makes his way back to the crowd, back to where Jesus is.  Cleansed of his disease, he falls prostrate at the feet of the One who made it possible.  His hands, once deformed by leprosy, now clutch the feet of Jesus.  He cries with a joy known only to one who has experienced sudden freedom after escaping from the prison of deep suffering and rejection.

Overcome with emotion, and struggling to form the proper words he speaks:  “Thank you, Jesus.  Thank you.  I was as good as dead.  Now I live again.  Thank you.”  But mere words seem inadequate to express the appreciation he feels.  From his inner soul he sobs deeply as tears of joy fall on the feet of Jesus, his real High Priest.  There is no pretense, no show.  His gratitude is sincere.

“Were not all ten cleansed?” Jesus asks.  “Where are the other nine?  Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”  Jesus was addressing the crowd, not the man at his feet.  Looking tenderly at the healed man he said “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.”  (Luke 17:17 NIV)

Only one returned to give thanks.  Ninety percent went on their way, more enthralled with the gift than the giver.  Jesus healed them anyway, “for He is kind unto the unthankful and to the evil.”  (Luke 6:35 KJV)  It is this great kindness of the Savior which ought to make us want to offer thanks.

The Samaritan leper knew what he had been saved from.  For this he expressed thanks to the One who made it possible.  Jesus became not only his healer, but his Savior.

What would your life be like today if you were still being eaten alive by the leprosy of an unchanged sin nature?  What parts of your life would be missing?  How much would be broken, ugly and scarred?  Do you remember what it’s like to feel absolutely hopeless, knowing that even those who love you best are powerless to meet your deepest needs?  Can you recall when you looked to Jesus and He healed the leprosy of your sin, forgiving and removing the ugliness?  How you wondered in amazement at how He is restoring the missing and broken parts of your life as you go on your way?  How long since you’ve returned to your High Priest, to fall at His feet and express your highest gratitude?

Like the leper who returned to give thanks, may we also be grateful not only for what Jesus has done for us, but for what He has spared us from.   “Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift!”  (II Cor. 9:15 NIV).

(Story based on Luke 17; ©2013 Don Detrick)

Moments of Mystery – Part 1

Moments of MysteryYou’ve heard it before, “Inquiring minds need to know.”  Does that describe you? Do you collect bits of trivia because you never know when the information gleaned might come in handy, like when you are a contestant on Jeopardy and need to formulate a question to the answer, “The leading cause of toenail fungus in Southern Hemisphere sloths.” Have you developed skills, such as eavesdropping or jumping to conclusions just because you are intrigued by what you don’t know? Do you love a mystery and enjoy speculating about whodunit before that information is fully revealed?

Maybe you are on the other end of the spectrum, and don’t feel a compulsion for speculation.  When others drone on about personal details you did not ask for, you are not embarrassed to say, “TMI, that is more than I want to know about that subject!” You believe that life’s perplexing questions block your path often enough, without intentionally trying to stumble upon more of them.

Most of us probably fall somewhere in between the two extremes, striking a balance between being inquisitive and being contented to mind our own business. Yet there is something to be said about a sense of wonder and mystery. A four year old’s constant barrage of questions about who and what and why and where and when may reach the point of annoyance, but you can’t help admiring their quest for understanding. The world is opening up to them and their mind is beginning to grasp for answers, thus their questions pepper us with pleas for an explanation to all things observed in their environment.

In the age of information, we expect instant answers to every inquiry and problem. Knowledge our parents might have spent hours gleaning from searching card catalogs and library shelves we discover only a click or swipe away. If Google doesn’t know, Bing might, and Siri will be glad to answer, even if she provides nothing more than comic relief. “How far is to Lincoln?” you may ask while driving a Nebraska highway.

“There are four restaurants nearby that serve ling cod,” she replies to your question. Grrr…

To solve a really perplexing puzzle takes time. Gleaning valuable skills and insight requires years of intensive study and practice. You can’t become a board certified brain surgeon by taking a three week online class or watching a couple of YouTube videos. The same is true for any worthwhile pursuit. So why do we sometimes expect our journey with Christ will only lead us on happy trails filled with light and road signs every mile or so explaining our precise location and the exact conditions ahead?

Is it possible that the road of suffering might provide moments of mystery for our benefit? Could those dark shadows from the threatening storm cause us to cling ever closer to Jesus? Might our faith muscles stretch and develop through the twists and turns of an uphill climb when we don’t know exactly what lies around the next bend? Could the mystery of those moments cause us to speak with a little less certainty about our own ability and instead trust more fully in God’s? And is it possible that we are better for those mysterious moments because we can now encourage fellow travelers to keep climbing, keep pursuing, and keep moving forward because we have felt the hand of the Good Shepherd leading us through the darkness of the valley of the shadow of death?

Inquiring minds need to know, yet there are times when no easy answer comes. Ask Jesus. His plea, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” was met with silence on earth. Yet you can be sure it was heard in heaven. He understands the moments of mystery you face. And you don’t have to face them alone.