The Best of Times – The Worst of Times: The Sequel

“Joe Newman is 107 years-old. He has survived two World Wars, the 1918 Flu Pandemic, and the Great Depression. His advice after reflecting on all he has lived through? ‘Always look on the bright side. Don’t spend time worrying about what’s going to happen, since what will happen, will happen.’”  Anita Sampson, who recently celebrated her 100th birthday, is Joe’s fiancée.  “Joe says the coronavirus is just another event in his life. He believes we should look forward to whatever time we have, be it years, weeks, or just days, ‘and then hope for another on.’”

Maybe work on those wedding plans – or not. (I’m not sure if this is true, but, Anita has reportedly demanded a “Promise” ring by Tuesday or she’s moving to her own rocker!) But, for now, it’s nap time.

Since there are now so many American Centenarians there have been many studies regarding these 100+ year-old folks. They all have survived so much. They have lived through misery, hunger and job loss, financial ruin, the loss of loved ones, and every imaginable heartache along the way.  But, that’s not the whole story. There is much beauty and blessing intermingled with the suffering.

The most common and inspiring thread was just as I suspected (and, no, it has nothing to do with great sex or alcohol, so get your mind out of the gutter!) During the Depression, people learned to support and care for each other. They were generous with a few extra dollars, food from their gardens, and emotional support. Many discovered a deep well of strength and optimism that have carried them beyond those tough times. They had a shared sense of gratitude, kindness toward others and even a feeling of being blessed in the midst of unimaginable hardships. They learned acceptance of circumstances you cannot control. And hope – always hope. Happiness and fulfillment come from helping others; having a positive and optimistic attitude. Most have a strong faith and a deep commitment and passion for a cause beyond themselves.

I’m not close to 100, except for those achy things that are the bane of my existence. But in my seventy-one years, I have learned so much about the ugliness and beauty of the human condition; about reality and resilience. I have experienced joy and sorrow, loss and pain and grief and epic moments of delight and wonder and unexplainable joy. I hate and love, horde and give generously, fear and throw caution to the wind. One moment I close in on myself and another I can open up with compassion and empathy for the brokenness that surrounds me. I’m a mixed bag of pride and humility. I can be your biggest fan or your most vocal adversary. I can be quiet and reflective or noisy and blow things up. I’m confusing, even to myself! I think that makes me human, albeit a very messy, bewildering human, like everyone else – if everyone else were honest. Anne Lamott says it beautifully, “Everyone is screwed up, broken, clingy, and scared. So there’s no sense wanting to be differently screwed up than you already are.”

I believe those wise Centenarians still hanging around and those of us who have not simply survived, but against all odds, have thrived during this screwed up mess called human life, are not finished yet. We have a calling, a responsibility actually, to share those experiences with younger generations in these desperate, seemingly hopeless times. We owe it to them. We have a treasure trove of stories I believe they are hungry for.

What we are dealing with today: a failing economy, children going to bed hungry, job losses, covid, wild fires, hurricanes, racial tensions, protests, and violence in the streets is nothing new. But, all at once? Good Lord! Think about all those younger than us that have not lived long enough to feel any sense of hope for their future because they have not had much of a past to draw that hope from. I believe we are in the midst of our collective dark night of the soul and there’s a double whammy for those younger generations that have not found religion, or even God, to be relevant. They have rejected a religion based on duty and obligation. No thanks.

But, that’s like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. “Religion” as we have come to know it since the first century has always been top-down and authoritarian. But, that is not God’s way. He sent Jesus on a mission, not the likes of Herod the power-hungry king, to show his steadfast, dogged, unwavering love to the lost and broken. I have openly admitted that I have given up on the Institutional church, but I have not given up on God or my faith which is couched in awe and wonder at the marvels of all of creation.

Jesus didn’t wander the streets playing whack-a-mole with anyone who didn’t follow the rules, memorize rote prayers, or tithe 10%. He was a hands-on guy. When he said, “follow me” he didn’t mean act virtuous, he meant be virtuous; be kind and gentle and caring for your brothers and sisters that suffer life’s cruelties. Consider these verses: Jesus touched the blind man (Mark 8:22), he touched the deaf and mute man (Mark 7:33), he touched a leper (Matthew 8:3). The gentle, compassionate, loving touch of someone who cares that is what we are called to. I’m not gonna lie, it can be scary! Reaching out will require some risk and could result in ridicule or rejection from others. Hum…isn’t that what Jesus accepted to his death? Do you think for one moment that Jesus or the countless martyrs throughout history went to their deaths for a bargain basement god? Would you?

Surely God put wisdom and gray hair together for a reason. I believe, like Esther, we were made for such a time as this. People are scared and hurting. We have been there and have experienced the love and healing power of God. Every life has a story and those are stories that must be told. If your story begins and ends with you we all lose a bit of God’s glory. So, what is your story? How have you overcome hurt and pain? How have you hurt others? How have you prevailed over life’s disappointments? How do you find joy and peace in these trying times? I Peter 3:15 tells us to “always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope.” Are youready?

People today, especially young people, are living out of fear instead of the abundance of life God has promised each of us. What we fail to understand is that it isn’t God being the mean, authoritarian father that is holding back on us. It’s us holding back. It’s us not believing he’s worth the effort. I truly believe this is a remarkable time for us old folks to still be hanging around and to get ourselves off our rockers and into the fray. Why should we bother? Do they even want to hear from us? Well, you decide:

Let’s focus in on what young adults (ages 18-25) are dealing with in this frightening and uncertain time:

First, a recent article by CNN:

Jeffrey Arnett, a psychologist at Clark University says, “The pandemic struck students at a particularly vulnerable age.” He explains that this is “a time of life when many different directions remain possible, when little about the future has been decided for certain, when the scope of independent exploration of life’s possibilities is greater for most people than it will be at any other period of the life course.”


https://www.cnn.com/2020/06/25/opinions/coronavirus-pandemic-racism-generation-resilient-fredrick/index.html

So, picture these young people that have likely never experienced even one of the many crises we’re facing today. They have had their certainties about life jerked out from under them without any warning.

The article continues:

Since the pandemic, the percentage of Americans, especially younger ones, dealing with mental health issues has increased at an alarming rate. Over a six-day period in early June, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, 41% of 18-34-year-olds showed clinically significant symptoms of an anxiety disorder, 35.1% experienced a major depressive disorder and 47.5% reported anxiety and/or depression.

There’s much more in this article that sheds light on what they’re dealing with: a government they feel they can no longer rely on, constant news coverage of injustice and violence, the tragedy of years of denial of climate change, loss of a sense of security and hope for their future.

Perhaps here is a glimmer of hope:

In (one) study, young people said they were “empowered by forming connections, but they admitted they did not always know how to form them. Psychologists at the University of Manchester have found another factor critical to young adults’ resiliency — the strength of their social bonds able to provide them with the support needed to weather the worst storms.

https://www.cnn.com/2020/06/25/opinions/coronavirus-pandemic-racism-generation-resilient-fredrick/index.html

Check this out for inspiration: https://www.nunsandnones.org/

So, as their lives seem to be falling apart and the government can no longer be trusted to shore up confidence in their future, or that they will even have one, that leaves a huge gap to be filled, a gap between their current reality and hope. And that’s where God can use us to step in because dancing in the midst of tragedy is our specialty. There, of course, is a hurdle to jump first (not that God isn’t the world’s best hurdle jumper!). They don’t think much of religion or God or the pain of Judgment Day…..Ohhhh, don’t get me started on “God’s gonna-take-you-to-the-woodshed on Judgment Day”!  Let’s quickly move on…

Here is a great article from National Catholic Reporter: “…the Study asks: Why are young Catholics going, going, gone?” Since we know it’s not just Catholics that have left their faith, this is very telling for all young adults that feel disenfranchised and left to their own devices to find their own way.

“Whether it’s feelings of being judged by religious leaders who don’t know or understand them, or being forced by their parents to attend church, or witnessing the sexual abuse scandal and the hypocrisy of church hierarchy, young people are expressing a desire both to break free from organized religion and to be part of a community. As emerging adults continue to navigate a difficult period, it is crucially important that they are able to maintain wellbeing and seek support where needed from those around them.”


https://www.ncronline.org/news/parish/study-asks-why-are-young-catholics-going-going-gon

Then there’s this from Springtide Research Institute:

Springtide Research Institute is committed to understanding the distinct ways new generations experience and express community, identity, and meaning. We exist at the intersection of religious and human experience in the lives of young people.

Our newest research found today’s young people are the most lonely and isolated generation that has ever existed. One in three young people feel completely alone much of the time. The good news though? You’re the solution (my emphasis).

What would it look like for belonging to come before believing?

One of the fundamental truths about communities is that belonging comes before believing. As our research demonstrates, we often get that equation backward, especially when it comes to young people. The traditional institutional tools for engaging with young people are no longer effective as trust erodes across all institutional sectors.

Young people are facing epidemic levels of isolation and loneliness.

Young people are struggling to connect with each other and the adults who care about them. Nearly 40% of young people feel at times they have no one to talk to and attending religious groups or gatherings does not have any effect, unless they have a relationship with an adult who cares.


https://www.springtideresearch.org/belonging/

“Belonging before believing” may be the key in all of this! The Institutional church teaches “rules” necessary to live as a “good” person of faith is expected to. That rigid voice has become old and tiresome; void of meaning and purpose. It cannot address the deepest longing of a soul that knows deep down it belongs to something bigger; something more. Where do we see in any of Jesus’ teachings to the masses gathered everywhere he went that he stopped mid-sermon for an alter call? “Look guys, we know you’re hungry after walking for miles and sitting here in the heat for hours. The food trucks won’t be coming any time soon…BUT…we’ve got fish! Come on up and get yourselves saved and you get some!” Years ago, when I was a youth minister one of the most basic truths that I grew to understand about human longing and relationship came from one statement, “I don’t care how much you know, until I know how much you care.”

I didn’t have any idea what I was doing when I first got some teens in our church together to start a youth group. Truth be told, I was probably needier than they were, but I sincerely wanted to give them a place to gather, safely question anything about their faith (when Father wasn’t within ear shot), serve the community, and have fun. Granted, I suffered the pains of having an A.D.D. brain that called into question my “fly by the seat of your pants” leadership style. More than one parent informed me how unorganized I was – thank you very much. Of course, they were too busy to help.

But, here’s the thing: not one of the kids walked away because a teaching was rescheduled due to a bit of forgetfulness by one flighty adult. Not one kid complained when said flighty adult was the only one who thought an ice breaker consisting of sticking life savers on someone’s face was funny. I still think that one’s funny! But, oh well. (Note to self: teenager = insecurity. Got it.) They forgave my every misstep as we all learned together. Why? Because they knew I loved them. That’s it. That’s all that mattered…well…except that I made some badass cookies!

I also recall a young pastor we had, new out of seminary. He came to a meeting one night and later complained that there were only ten kids there. So, why did we bother? I didn’t see that one coming and had no reply for him until a few days later. I invited a therapist to come speak to the kids about suicide: how to recognize it and what to do if they suspected a friend was at risk. One of the kids at that meeting called me a couple of days later to thank me – like sobbing thanking me – for having her there. He got her phone number afterwards and called her because he was contemplating suicide. They began therapy sessions with his mom. I still get teary when I think about that.

Another day, that same priest was talking to me and a girl in our youth group. She told him she hated her mom and he immediately cut her off telling her she could not hate her mom, that her mom was a wonderful person. I knew why she said that and knew she was suffering a lot of pain in their relationship. I could not share that with him, but I did “share” the fact that he managed to shut her down and she would never confide in him the pain for which she needed help and healing. I could go on, but I won’t, except to say that I have so many great memories of those times and am still in contact with some of the teens that are now parents themselves.

We all have life’s most critical and basic questions that need to be answered if we are to live fully the lives we were meant to live. Who am I? Why am I here? What is God’s purpose for me? Are you someone that can help young people answer those questions? You can, you know, just by being present to them, listening to them, and trusting God. Knowing he has already given you all the tools you need to fulfill your own destiny – you can now help them do the same. And I will tell you this without the slightest hesitation – they will do just as much, if not more, for you!

One final note: if you are considering forming a relationship with young adults it would behoove you to know that they will see right through any hidden motive to “straighten them out and save them from hell and damnation. Don’t do that. Okay? Here’s one final example of someone wanting to do just that. An “older” woman in our parish called me and wanted to “help” with the kids. I invited her to come to our next meeting just to observe. In that particular meeting we were going to watch a new T.V. show….ready?…”Married with Children”. I wasn’t concerned about exposing them to something distasteful because they were already mindlessly watching it at home. I wanted us to watch it together and talk about it. Hopefully they would make a more informed decision about watching it. It shouldn’t surprise you that my “older” friend only lasted about five minutes into the show when she walked out in a huff and never returned.  But, at the end of that meeting, the kids were upset about the content of it. As a result they all wrote letters to the companies that sponsored it! How cool is that?!

The Fruits of the Spirit

LOVE

I Said I Loved You, But I Lied

Often the words, ‘I love you” are just that – words.  If I am married I feel obligated to tell my spouse. If I have children or parents, I should tell them, at least sometimes, maybe Christmas is enough, or Christmas and birthdays. Maybe I could just send a card or an email or text.

Can I beat my child or abuse my spouse out of “love”, for their own good? Can I excuse any action or negative comments by throwing in an occasional, “I love you”?  Many of us carry scars of past pain and hurt that play out in our lives today. I swore I would never be like my mother, does that sound familiar?

I recall one time in my life when my mother told me she loved me. It was in this context, “Now you know I love you or I wouldn’t ask you this question.” I never heard her say it before or after, and I was twenty-two at the time.

Any time love is attached to something; when it is conditional, it is worldly; shallow and indifferent. It mixes easily with abuse and can excuse the worst of actions inflicted on others. No one said loving others would be easy. If that were the case, Jesus would have either not come at all, or would have lived to a ripe old age. He showed us how to love by His own life, death, and resurrection. His immense grace can help us love those that we find it humanly impossible to love – even ourselves sometimes.

Now here’s the key: I can learn to love only when I have accepted God’s love myself. Scripture says we love because He first loved us. I can’t give something I don’t have to give. I had nothing to give most of my life because it was only recently that I have grown to accept God’s love for me.

Know the Difference

Worldly love wears the sheep skin of an “if it feels good” mentality over the wolf that devours childhood innocence, destroys relationships, makes compassion a burden, and muddies the pure waters of selfless love that was created by God.

The love God created, “…suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely; does not rejoice in iniquity; but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Cor. 13:4-8)

Consider this; there is a void in every life that can only be filled by God. We often don’t recognize that fact and in desperation try to fill it by worldly means; some obvious: drugs, alcohol, food, permissive sex, pornography. Some not so obvious: climbing the corporate ladder, when family suffers, obsessive exercise, gambling, etc.. But all have the same purpose – to fill the emptiness. For me, that didn’t change until I was able to accept that God’s love for me was unconditional; that my sins, no matter how unbearable they were for me to accept, God had already forgiven on the cross, “while I was still a sinner.” May you too know the depth of that love.

JOY

“Shout joyfully to the Lord, all the earth; break forth in song, rejoice, and sing praises.” Psalm 98:4

“Shut up! Joy is the noise made by fools who don’t have a clue what is going on in the world, in our communities, and in our own homes! Have you missed the constant killing of innocent people in our own communities? Wild fires, tornados, and floods.  Have you been in a coma and have no idea that genocide is a daily occurrence in Syria?  What about famine, AIDS, or child abuse in our own country? Am I finished, or are you still stupid!?”

All right, fair enough (no need to call me names). I actually do know about the horrors that have visited this world since the beginning of time. I also know about a man who suffered an indescribable death at the hands of those who wrongly accused him of a crime. He was beaten, tortured, spit on, mocked, and made to carry his own cross to a hilltop. Then he was nailed to that cross as many watched him slowly suffocate and die.

I know about men and women who followed him because they believed in him even though they knew they would suffer their own trials and the same fate: Jail, stoning, torture and death. Do you think for one moment they would have signed up for that if they were following a fool? If you spend time listening to them you will find a common thread in all of their writings and teachings: Joy – sheer unadulterated joy in all their circumstances. Why? Good question. Here’s the answer….

They knew that the only way to bring nonbelievers to Christ was to live their lives in the joy of knowing that this life is temporary and Jesus was waiting for them in their eternal home. They lived joyfully because no idiot would follow someone who spewed bad news on a regular basis. Cynicism is the devil’s tool to keep unbelievers away from Salvation’s door. It was the Good News of salvation that brought others to the foot of the cross.

We are called to go and make disciples. How would that be possible if our minds and hearts are focused on ourselves and our misery, and not on Christ? Suffering has a purpose and when you discover that truth for yourself, as I did after so very many years, you will have arrived at a place where you can shout for joy and share the Good News with others. But if you live according to the flesh and have your mind set on things of the flesh, you will be a “clanging cymbal” (1Cor. 13:1) to those around you who will see Christianity as a joke. Why would any nonbeliever come to Christ if Christians are as miserable as they are? What have they got to gain? And what have they got to lose by staying right where they are?

Joy Is…The oasis of laughter in the desert of loneliness. It is a caring touch coming through the locked door of a broken heart. It is peering through tear-stained eyes into an empty tomb. Pain and suffering are temporary. Joy is eternal.

PEACE

  “Do you want to be made well?”

Can you imagine a doctor asking a sick patient that question?  “So, from all of our tests it looks like you are gravely ill. Do you want to be made well?” Is this a trick question? Was it when Jesus asked it of the man who had an infirmity 38 years? (John 5:5-6)  No, and Jesus was serious when He asked me the same question. What was He really asking?  Was I tired of shallow attempts and continual backsliding? Because if I was, then I would have to do it his way, not mine—and it wasn’t going to be easy.

If I wanted true peace in my life, I would have to let go of the anger and lashing out. I would have to recognize the part I played in my misery and I would have to release the people who were on the receiving end of all the pain and hurt that was bottled up inside of me. In public I was the picture of calm and peace; in private my life was out-of-control. It is important to understand that anger is not the underlying emotion; it is the outward expression of unmet needs.

The Antithesis of Peace

The Israelites were a perfect picture of what peace and contentment are not. Moses got them out of Egypt where they were being persecuted. Do you think they were singing, “Free at last, free at last” as they were escaping the brutality they experienced at the hands of the Egyptians? Or possibly praising God? No way. They whined and complained about everything – and when they did, God responded. No water? God sent it.  No food? God sent it. Egyptians closing in all around them and God does that little parting of the sea. But, they continued to bellyache. Moses was beside himself trying to keep them happy. How embarrassing it must have been for him to continually have to take their complaints to God. “Um…excuse me Lord, I’m sorry to bother you again…”

I look back and wonder how difficult it must have been for others to live with my bellyaching and complaining. I wonder if some heads were shaking and eyes were rolling in silence. Did I turn some people away from God because there was no peace in my life?  If I only turned one person away may God have mercy on me.

Yet, peace and contentment are not out of our reach. Granted it is not easy. Just as a splinter is painful when it is embedded into the skin, it is also painful when it is removed.  But removed it must be for healing to take place. You would think there would be nothing pleasant about the journey God brought me through as He was revealing my sins and healing my pain. When in actuality, I am blessed for all of those experiences that brought me closer to God and showed me a peace I could never have realized any other way.

Not the World’s Version of Peace

As Jesus was preparing His disciples for His impending death at the Last Supper He said to them, “Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you.”  The world has never been at peace, and what passes for peace one moment changes the next. Look around you. Have you known someone in your life that just radiates peace?  Someone that you seem to gravitate towards because they almost take on the appearance of something supernatural?  You can be pretty sure that person is walking in the Spirit – not flying high on drugs!  They are in a relationship with God, not a relationship with a string of lovers. They are consumed with desire for Jesus, not desire to ascend to the top of a crowded corporate ladder. And if you are wise, you will do everything, short of stalking them, to be in their company to glimpse through them the very nature and essence of God, which is the very essence of peace. And then claim it for yourself!

PATIENCE

Today patience is a dinosaur, and if perseverance doesn’t come in a pill form, we aren’t interested. I want it now! I don’t want to feel it, I don’t want to deal with it. Give me another credit card, a pill, or a bus ticket out of here. A display of patience we might tolerate would be something like a gentle nudging to wait your turn; wait for your elderly grandmother to catch up; wait in traffic; wait for a phone call, and so on.  Just a small interruption in our daily routine.

But for such a small interruption, haven’t we seen people handle it as though it were a major life-altering event? A sales clerk puts you on hold. When she returns you blast her with, “It’s about time. I’ve been hold for 20 minutes!” Have you really? Most likely it was about 3 minutes, tops. Think of the times just in the past few days that you have been impatient with someone. Was it really a major setback for you? Really?

Wanna know the original meaning of the word? It was likened to the suffering of Christ. It literally means to suffer and endure. If that is true then how much more would we react to the events in our lives that call for patience? How much more would be required to be in relationship with someone who is unbearable or endure intolerable circumstances? But that is exactly what God requires when he calls us to patience; to suffer and bear the burdens of life as He bore them.

In Scripture there is no better illustration of patience, or lack of it, than Matthew 18:23-35. The story of a servant who owed his king a great deal of money and the king decided it was time for him to repay. The servant begged him for mercy, as he could not repay the debt. The first instinct of the king was to throw him and all of his family into jail until the debt was paid, but in an unbelievable act of mercy he forgave the entire debt and let the servant go.

Short memory that guy! Or maybe he thought he deserved mercy.  He strikes out at another servant who owned him. What I find very sad about that story is the insignificance of what the second servant owed him compared to what he owed God. It would be the same as if I owed you a million dollars that you forgave, but then I had someone who owed me five dollars thrown in jail because he couldn’t repay it.

We excuse ourselves when we fail to be Christ-like to others and yet we expect God to be all-loving, all-forgiving, all-patient with us. “Well, God’s a bigger man than I am.”  So, you’re comfortable with that excuse are you? You feel you’re gonna get a pass when you are standing toe-to-toe with God and explaining yourself? None of us will escape that day, and not one of us, no matter how cleaver we think we are, is going to get a pass on things that God is very specific about.

Here, go ahead, water this one down:

“And do you think this, O man, you who judge those practicing such things, and doing the same, that you will escape the judgment of God?  Or do you despise the riches of His goodness, forbearance, and longsuffering (patience), not knowing that the goodness of God leads you to repentance?  But in accordance with your hardness and your impenitent heart you are treasuring up for yourself wrath in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, who will render to each one according to his deeds.”  (Romans 2:3-6)

There you go. You can spin it, dance around it, ignore it, whatever – but you will not escape it. Truth is truth no matter how much we disagree with it because it doesn’t suit us.

But hold on, I have some good news for you. God doesn’t demand anything of us that he will not give us the power, his power, to achieve. So why is God so patient with us?  If he were not, we would likely be afraid of him and not trust him. God longs for us to trust in him. He longs to shower us with blessings and guide us through all the obstacles this world presents to us.

When I first began my walk with God I often found it very difficult to accept that he could be so patient. That wasn’t what I was used to and I continually failed him.  I found it hard to turn to him because I was sure of what would be waiting for me when I went to him: The disapproval, the cursing, the spanking, the reminder that I was “bad”. But that was my experience with my mother. It should not reflect my beliefs about God, but it did – and often – still does.

Over the years, I had erected a wall that would keep others away from my heart. I didn’t trust anyone. Little by little I tested God’s assurances and found him to be loving and trustworthy. Whenever I hesitated I simply reminded myself of all the times he was faithful to his Word. That didn’t mean it was easy to change or to stand before him when I had sinned. But it did mean that I could trust him. His love was steadfast.

Am I a Stumbling Block to Others?

Patience is not a weakness or an excuse to sit back and proclaim that we are waiting on God. Persistence is the activity of patience; to be diligently at the work of changing for the sake of others; to be ever in prayer for the grace and strength of God to endure our struggles with other people and circumstances, knowing that they are in our lives for a reason. We are ultimately strengthened by our acceptance of whatever and whomever he brings into our lives.

KINDNESS & GENTLENESS

“Will you look at the way she struts around in that disgraceful outfit!”

“You idiot! Get out of my way!”

“I will never forgive you for that!”

What are the prejudices and injustices we perpetrate on others because of our pride, pious attitudes, and our forgetfulness of just how imperfect we are? I don’t like looking at so much of my ignorance in such a small space but I have a story to share!  I call it…“The Blessings We Miss.”

Several years ago, I went to a funeral service for a dear friend’s father (I will call her Judy and him Bill). I knew the story. I knew enough that I even distanced myself from him when he was at Judy’s house.

Bill and his wife were long-divorced and his relationship with his daughters was strained at best. Some of them wanted nothing to do with him. Although Judy seemed to deal with it well, I knew he had hurt her and that was cause enough for me to dislike him. On any occasion that we were together I usually avoided him, except for a bit of shallow and meaningless conversation. Why should I bother?  It wasn’t like it mattered. But sadly, I would discover on the day of his funeral, that I was the one who was the loser. I missed a blessing.

After the funeral everyone was invited to a luncheon. I couldn’t stay long so Judy and I decided to meet the next morning. As I was leaving the cafeteria, I found myself going against a stream of people. Who were they that they even stayed for the luncheon? Didn’t they have better things to do?

The next morning Judy and I met.  I asked how the luncheon went. Tears began to flow down her face as she related one story after another. It seems she opened the floodgates when she thanked everyone for coming and encouraged anyone who was willing, to share stories about her dad. Well, they did. One stranger after another. The stories seemed endless of his concern for them and their problems. He was a good listener. He cared.

Wait a minute. If he cared so much, why was his relationship with his daughters so bad? If he cared so much why didn’t we know that? There is an explanation and it is a huge part of the human condition. If we thought about it we could all probably call to mind at least one person in our lives right now whom we have distanced ourselves from because of struggles in our relationship. That person may be as close as our living room couch.

Or it could be a parent a few miles away, who was abusive or distant. It hurts and we are determined to stay focused on that hurt as long as it takes to make that person suffer. We are determined not to let them off the hook. But, you know what? That person is a child of God just like we are. That person is broken just like we are. That person struggles within just like we do. Am I better, more perfect, without fault? No. The sooner I realize that, the sooner I can get beyond the hurt. If I never do that, then one day, perhaps it will be me standing at the funeral. It will be me hearing stories from strangers about this person I never knew because I would not allow him to be anything other than the person who abused me as a child, who cheated on me, who stole something valuable from me, probably so long ago I quit trying to recall the source of my pain. But I haven’t quit hating him, or her, for it. Isn’t it sad that we cannot get beyond the hurt to experience the joy of our loved ones?  How many times do we miss a blessing because we refuse to forgive?

“Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind” Brad Meltzer

GOODNESS

Everyone feels benevolent if nothing happens to be annoying him at the moment.” C. S. Lewis

What is your definition of “good”?

  • One who hides behind the mask of “goodness”?
  • One who get the “Saint of the Year” award.

And while we’re at it, let’s think about where we fit in this mix. I think I fell into the first category most of the time, as long as you would not surprise me by showing up at my house unannounced!

I learned a few tricks from my mother who was the master of masking. She was from the old school of, “what would the neighbors think?” When you walked out the door, you left the dark family secrets behind and played the game in public. She got caught one time though. I know, because I was there. I was a teenager and our family went to the home of friends for a BBQ.  The man hosting the party was a youth minister and loved to engage people in conversations about family dynamics He was very straightforward. He looked at my mother and me and asked, “Do you have a good relationship?” My mother’s rapid-fire response was, “yes”, and mine was, “no.”  I just walked away mumbling under my breath, “SWEET”.  Of course, I caught hell for it later and it didn’t have a life-changing affect on our relationship, but I savored the moment.

Now I can also tell you that if that same man were to show up at a BBQ at my home twenty years later, and present that same question to me and my kids, the answers might be the same, my “yes”, their “no.” Not so sweet. Oh, the games we play; the lies we tell – the risks we take with our salvation, to live the lie. But the real tragedy, I believe, is that we really believe we are faultless, even though our sins tell a different story. Goodness really doesn’t seem to be on the same scale as holiness, does it?  I think I could rationalize myself into the category of good, but I would have a tough time comparing myself to Mother Theresa, although I tried once…

I have to tell you this story. This is really pathetic and I shouldn’t, but here it goes. Many years ago, I went to a banquet. It was an annual event honoring the “Person of the Year”. As the evening began, first with dinner, then speeches, I secretly (this is really bad!) wondered if I was the nominee. Then came the time for the award. I was hoping I didn’t have spinach in my teeth or a run in my stocking (yes, we wore those!). The anticipation was building! The President of the organization stepped up to the podium and began speaking about the honoree. But, as she revealed, bit by bit, the litany of selfless acts and humility of this person, she was, at the same time, revealing my pride and arrogance. And the reality of it slapped me a good one! I really don’t recall all that she said, but I half-expect Mother Theresa to walk up and take the award, then thumb her nose at me on the way back to her seat. And I would have deserved it! God can humble us in the most profound ways.

How easy it is for us to consider ourselves good people, just because we exist. Maybe in the eyes of the world it will do, but not if we call ourselves Christians. There is a different standard of goodness for Christians that does not allow an occasional good deed to cancel out the bad we do.

As Christians most of us really want to do good, but we are constantly in a battle. That battle is described in Galatians 5:17, “The flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh, and these are contrary one against the other so that you cannot do the things that you would.” The key to goodness is the involvement of the Spirit. It is a virtue that is constantly maintained and not changeable by influences of the world. The old English word “good” evolved out of the word for “God.”  Therefore, true goodness is virtue that comes from God alone and is only possible through God.

Galatians 6:9 says, “Don’t grow weary doing good.” People who are superficially good do grow weary because the game is a lot of work. Our true character is who we are when no one is looking. David Morsey once said, “The occasional good deed of the unbeliever no more reflects the Spirit of Christ than the occasional bad deed of the believer reflects the spirit of Satan.” It isn’t difficult to be good to people who are good to us. It is when we are good to people who are not worthy that true goodness is apparent. God calls us to that kind of goodness in Matthew 5:43-46, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy’ (easy enough).  But, I say to you (uh-oh, here it comes) love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust.” Ouch.

So the litmus test for goodness is how you treat that nosy neighbor, that crotchety checker at the grocery store…that you encounter every single day, when you are tired and grumpy yourself. How about that mother-in-law of yours or the boss who is a direct descendant of Attila the Hun? I could go on, but you get it. Now comes the proverbial question, “Why should I?”  And the answer is?  Being good, especially to our enemies, can bring far greater reward than treating them the way they deserve to be treated.  Our returning good for evil may just bring that person to repentance. There is a quote from Shakespeare that goes like this, “There is a daily beauty in his life that makes me ugly.”  We are not talking about random acts here; we are talking about a daily, purposeful, and guided life of goodness. And if you still need convincing go back to the Cross for a reminder of what loving your enemy looks like. Now, go love that jerk  (oops…child of God).

FAITHFULNESS

 “Examine yourselves to see if you are in the faith; test yourselves.” (2 Cor. 13:5)

God’s faithfulness is steadfast, but what about ours? I will not tell you that I possess all wisdom and have vast theological knowledge, because I don’t. So why would you care what I have to say about this subject of faithfulness? I can only relate to you what has brought me to a place where I know faithfulness means far more than I was ever willing to admit. That didn’t happen as a result of one miraculous event. No burning bush, no parting of the sea, no Lazarus-like miracle. Just a journey–a very long journey, to a patient and loving God.

Jesus relied on his Father for everything. His strength and his purpose flowed from their relationship and from a sense of knowing that he could do absolutely nothing outside that relationship. Do we have any idea what a relationship like that requires?  Do we care?

Consider this from a “Study in Romans”, by Ray C. Stedman, titled, America’s Spiritual Decline, “Pollster George Gallup has described America as richly religious but ethically impoverished. In an interview with Reformed Theological Seminary Journal he said:

Religious belief is remarkably high-certainly the highest of any developed nation in the world. At the same time, American religious life is characterized by a series of gaps. First, an “ethics gap” exists between Americans’ expressed beliefs and the state of the society they shape. While religion is highly popular in America, it is to a large extent superficial; it does not change peoples’ lives to the degree one would expect from their level of professed faith. In ethical behavior, there is very little difference between the churched and the unchurched.  

In Luke’s Gospel (22:42-44) Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Father if it is Your will, take this cup away from Me; nevertheless not My will, but Yours, be done.  Then an angel appeared to Him from heaven, strengthening Him.  And being in agony He prayed more earnestly. Then His sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground.”  Why is it that we just can’t seem to feel the intensity and magnitude of what was happening?  Perhaps in our humanness we just can’t seem to grasp the fact that Jesus really suffered.

Could Jesus have avoided suffering? You bet. Do you think for a moment God was in His heaven frantically pacing about and wringing His hands trying to figure out how to save His precious Son?  As for those who murdered Him, God could have zapped every one of them, turned them to stone, fried them where they stood, but He didn’t. And what about Mary? (I remember a time when some kids were picking on my son; I was ready to tear them apart. Don’t mess with my kids!)  But she was silent.

How do we rationalize our indifference to the horror of what took place at Calvary?  Could it be that we trivialize Jesus’ suffering to make our meager sacrifices appear to be significant and our sins acceptable? Thus Jesus becomes a warm fuzzy and we are off the hook.

 “Take up your cross and follow Me.” (Mark 8:34) Oh boy, here we go. This is where we disconnect. Suffering just isn’t in our vocabulary. There is a resounding, “Why me Lord?” every time we encounter difficulty on our happy trails to sainthood. It stands to reason that if we refuse to accept suffering ourselves then we would naturally refuse to believe that Jesus suffered. If he really loved us, why would God allow suffering in the first place?

We know the kind of men the apostles were before Jesus died. They were a bunch of misfits. They couldn’t understand his teachings, they argued for a coveted spot next to him when he ruled. They doubted, they questioned. They fell asleep when he asked them to pray with him and they ran away when he was taken to be hanged. The eleven may have scattered but even from a distance they all knew what was happening. They knew he was being tortured and crucified, and they knew they screwed up big time!

Just think of a time when you did something that you regretted. We all have. You replay everything you did over and over again. You know there is no way to justify it and the shame is too much to bear. You will never be able to face your spouse, your parents, your boss, again. You can’t do it over, you can’t change it. You just want to die.

A Second Chance

Now here they are in the Upper Room after Jesus is buried, eleven men lost in confusion and grappling with their weakness; their denial. We only think of Judas betraying Christ, but they were all guilty of betraying the One they once said they would follow to their deaths. But alas, he walks right through the wall of that room and stands in their presence. Yes Thomas, it’s really him!

Can you imagine the look on their faces?  The look of dread and fear is all over them. They’re gonna get it now. But what are his first words?  “Peace to you.” (Luke 24:36)  There stood before them what they could no longer question, a God who truly loved them.  Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit into them, and commissioned them to, “Go and make disciples of all nations”. It was then that they were filled with understanding and joy. When Jesus said, “Anyone who wants to take up his cross and follow Me, anyone who wants to suffer the same fate as Me, step forward.”  They did. All of them. There would be no turning back now, no running, no denying. The cock could crow till the cows came home and not one would falter, not this time. Why? What was different?

They had time to contemplate his incredible act of submission to the will of God. They were firsthand witnesses to the immensity of God’s love for them, and for a moment they were afraid they would never have another chance to make it right.

Afraid you will be asked to do the same; to “prove it”?  Some are, but most of us are not called to martyrdom. We are called though, to die to our own selfish, self-centered ways.  We are called to be different, and we are called to suffer, as our suffering is the most powerful witness we can give to the reality of the risen Christ and to a faithfulness that accepts anything that comes our way in his name. We must stop asking, “Why me Lord” and accept our trials with a faith and trust that God is right there with us to turn our sorrows to joy. Because true people of faith know life is full of injustices and sorrows that are the result of a natural course of events or a free-will gone wrong, not of an unloving, uncaring God.

We obsess over rock stars, sports stars, and movie stars—when our obsession should be over Jesus’ scars.

SELF-CONTROL

Everything that Satan is behind—those worldly things that we call pleasure, are really his skillfully disguised handiwork. That piece of chocolate cake that you couldn’t resist, the neighbors wife you couldn’t resist, the new outfit you couldn’t resist? Even though the credit cards are maxed out and you have no way to pay the bills. He has convinced you that you will win at the casino this time, that you can try the drugs just once, that it won’t hurt anyone to just watch that x-rated movie. What about those tiny indiscretions? What happens is that each time we justify the smallest sin, we become insensitive to the fact that it actually is sin.

If you think for a moment that Hollywood is not doing the happy dance over our acceptance of the filth in the media, here is a lovely quote – Actor Julian McMahon of the most sexually explicit, profane, and violent television programs in the history of American television. ‘I’d like to be even more brutal and more weird…I’d like to go even further.” Still not convinced? What if you were watching these shows and Jesus walked up and sat next to you, would you feel just a wee bit uncomfortable? Would you be scrambling for the remote? Please God, I hope so.

Does Jesus speak to us about such things?  You bet He does. Here are just a few Scripture verses, though there are many that speak to the issue (all italics mine):

Romans: 14:21, “It is good neither to eat meat nor drink wine nor do anything by which your brother stumbles or is offended or is made weak.”

Ephesians 4:17-23, “This I say, therefore, and testify in the Lord, that you should no longer walk as the rest of the Gentiles walk, in futility of their minds, having their understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their hearts; who, being past feeling, have given themselves over to lewdness, to work all uncleanness with greediness.”

Ephesians 5:8-11, “For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light, finding out what is acceptable to the Lord. And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather expose them.”

1 Peter 2:8-12, “They stumble, being disobedient to the Word, to which they also were appointed. But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; who once were not a people of God; who had not obtained mercy but now have obtained mercy….having your conduct honorable among the Gentiles, that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may, by your good works which they observe, glorify God in the day of visitation.”

1 John 2:15, “Do not love the world or the things in the world.  If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.  For all that is in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—is not of the Father but is of the world.”

For all those who have been deceived into believing that there is such an excusable thing as a “tiny indiscretion” when we are speaking of being Christians, those are the lies of Satan and the lies I lived most of my life that kept me out of relationship with God.

While we are on the subject, you would do well to look at all areas that we excuse but God does not:

“Gossip isn’t murder”…unless you consider you are killing the dignity of that person you are talking about.

“Flirting isn’t adultery”…When you flirt you are not only tempting yourself, you are tempting the other person. It is dishonest and misleading. There is a very fine line between flirting and adultery. You just don’t want to go there.

“Everyone tells a little lie sometimes. Everyone cheats, it isn’t hurting anyone. Everyone steals something, usually something small that no one would miss; it’s not like you’re robbing a bank.” The bottom line is that all three of these acts are about deceit. They are sins against God and they foster mistrust among those closest to us.

James Phillips, in an article in Youth Update, speaks of a time many years ago when he lied to his father. “They are words and acts of deception that separate us from the people we love and from the person each of us knows he or she is really meant to be.”

How do we get so confused as Christians when we can call evil “good”? I believe that we are confounded by what we see all around us. We have been lulled into a belief that there is nothing wrong with what we are doing. What has happened to our consciences. What has changed from the time when these sins we engage in daily would have been shocking in the past? Leo Tolstoy, in his essay, The Lion and the Honeycomb, Why Do Men Stupefy Themselves? explains: “What people most want is not that their consciousness should work correctly; it is that their actions should appear to them to be just.” Clearly it is easy for us to justify tiny sins. The problem is that larger ones will soon seem small and therefore justifiable – and on it goes. That also explains why we look the other way and condone the sins of others. If we condemn them we will quite naturally have to condemn ourselves. So we overlook it, chalk it up to being human, and write it off to a mushy God who will also overlook it. Are you sure? Sure enough to risk your place in heaven?

What if I’m wrong? Ok, for arguments sake, let’s assume that I am wrong about everything that I have just said. Let’s say God really is a “warm fuzzy” and everyone gets a free pass to heaven.  After all, how could a loving God not allow us all in, right?  Well, if I am wrong, so be it, what have I got to lose by living a life that is perceived by some people as boring and uneventful? In the end I really have nothing to lose.

Now, my friend, take some serious time to consider this – what if you’re wrong? When you’re standing at the gate…it’s a little late!

Now let’s say you have determined that right this moment you are going to live the life God has called you to. You don’t care what your friends say or what other people think; you are turning over a new leaf. You ask him to forgive you and you are on your way to sainthood, right? Not so fast. We make God promises that we can’t keep, we’re convinced it’s because we are weak. Then we hate ourselves and are convinced that God hates us too. We have no control, no will power, and no clue. It may seem I have just rained on your parade, but bear with me for a moment. I am hoping that I can save you some precious time and heartache.

Is your heart in a place where you don’t want to hear those awful words (after your bags are packed and you thought you had your ticket “Home”), of Matthew 7:21-23? “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven…and I will then declare to them; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.”

Well then, consider these words when you step on that path:

If you have run the gamut as I have, you would have amassed some serious battle scars trying to change, and failing repeatedly. You will have thrown up your hands, thrown out the white flag of defeat, and thrown faith to the wind as you settled back into the life you recognize as comfortable. You have found it easier to live the life you are familiar with. Holiness is for saints, I guess it wasn’t for me. It looks like the perpetual Monday morning diet doesn’t it? How can God say in 1 John 5:3, “For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome.” Seriously? They seem awfully burdensome to us, don’t they? Why? Well, it’s really simple. When I tell you, you are going to smack your head and say, “Duh, why didn’t I think of that?”

Self-control is not self-alone! Granted, as Christians we are called to be disciplined in our lives. Until we can give everything to God; until we can come to a place where we are “seeking the Kingdom of God first” (Matthew 6:33), we will repeatedly fail. Have you smacked yourself yet?

PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER

Following Christ does take a great amount of discipline, and it is only possible through him. To everyone who is battle-scarred; whether those battles of life have only been skirmishes or if they have been “all-out, fight-to-the-death, take-no-prisoners” wars take heed. This is not a once-and-done deal. We don’t make a one-time – this is it – I surrender – commitment, and then throw ourselves a party.

Reality check: Living life as a committed follower of Christ, is a day-to-day, sometimes moment-to-moment surrender. If you think all your sinfulness will instantly be eradicated, you’re gonna fall hard, smack your loser head, and go join the circus.

Come back here. Don’t do that. Just fall on your bruised knees, seek forgiveness from a merciful and loving God, and start over.  You can do this! God created you and equipped you to do this.