Thankful for one who kept it simple

Some critics looked down upon Billy Graham’s preaching as too simplistic. In a way they were right. He did keep it simple. He kept preaching about Jesus and the cross. He knew everybody needed to believe in Jesus as Lord and Savior. He kept the focus on Christ, crucified and risen again.

Often when Billy came to the closing service of a crusade, he would tell people, “If there’s only one thing you remember from these meetings, remember this: God loves you.” Pretty simple – and also powerful and life-changing.

Billy believed there was great power in simply and clearly telling people what Jesus had done. When he and his wife received the Congressional Gold Medal, he had the chance to speak before those considered movers and shakers in Washington. Instead of political pronouncements he proclaimed the good news of Jesus and the cross and the resurrection. He knew that was what Washington needed to hear.

After many years of prayer, Billy had the opportunity to preach in the former Soviet Union. A lot of Soviet police attended the services to spy on what was going on. When asked about it, Billy said he was thankful the spies were there. He believed the simple gospel had the power to change the heart of the hardest Soviet spy.

In the 1950s blacks and whites were forced to sit in separate parts of stadiums in the South. That was not how it was to be at Billy Graham Crusades. At an early crusade Billy himself took down the ropes the ushers had put up to keep the blacks out of the white section. White segregationists were furious when he invited Martin Luther King, Jr. to pray at his 1957 New York City crusade. Billy’s life was threatened when he had a crusade in Alabama at which white and black people sat together. But Billy believed the simple gospel was for all people and that “God does not show favoritism” (Acts 10:34-35).

When I was about 10 years old I went to a movie produced by the Billy Graham Association. The end of the movie was a scene where Billy gave an invitation for people to come to Jesus. I began a relationship with Jesus when I was baptized as an infant, but I felt led by God to go forward that evening and recommit my life to Christ. Billy had made it simple enough for my 10-year-old mind to understand. I had sinned but Jesus loved me and He died on the cross for my sins and He wanted to come into my life.

My mother was in a hospital room and a Billy Graham Crusade came on TV. I left to have dinner, not thinking it would be the last time I saw her. I soon got the call that she had died. I thought it was a gracious gift from God that she went to be with the Lord while listening to Billy Graham preach. Only God knows how many others were also ready to meet Jesus, because they heard the simple gospel that Billy preached.

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A wild and crazy love story

If there had been a Jerusalem Post in 700 B.C. imagine the headline: “Prophet Marries Prostitute. Says God Told Him To.” What a scandal!

Even without a newspaper or social media broadcasting the news, it still must have been shocking when the word got around about what Hosea, a prophet of God, had done. Out of all the women he could have married, he married Gomer. Gomer sure wasn’t the type of person people thought would make a good prophet’s wife. The main thing we’re told about her is that she was “adulterous” (Hosea 1:2).

People were probably talking and wondering what Hosea was thinking. They didn’t expect it would go well, and it didn’t. In Hosea 3 it says, “The Lord said to me, ‘Go, show your love to your wife again, though she is loved by another and is an adulteress. …’ Then I told her, ‘You are to live with me many days; you must not be a prostitute or be intimate with any man, and I will live with you.’”

Now the crowd knew for sure there was something wrong with Hosea. They had questioned his sanity and what kind of man of God he was when he married Gomer. Then she continued to live the life of a prostitute and cheated on him and loved other men. Now Hosea, instead of wising up and getting out of this messed up situation, runs after Gomer. Before Gomer gives any indication of changing her ways, Hosea shows love to her, encourages her to change, and promises to be her faithful husband.

People probably thought this crazy stuff Hosea was doing must be offensive to God, but Hosea said it was actually God’s idea. The Lord told him to love Gomer to serve as a lesson in how God loves people. “Love her as the Lord loves the Israelites, though they turn to other gods” (Hosea 3:1).

Could this story of Hosea really be true? Did God really tell a prophet to marry a prostitute? The Bible says it really happened.  We have a difficult time believing the story of Hosea and Gomer is true because we have a difficult time appreciating the incredible nature of God’s grace and love. We’re guilty of spiritual adultery. We have loved other things more than we have loved God. We deserve judgment. It would make sense if God wanted nothing more to do with us. But He doesn’t do what the world would consider sensible. He still loves us. He still wants us. He pursues us, even when we run away from Him.

It is tempting to make the story of Hosea into a “deadly be” story: “Be like Hosea.” Yes, we should love like Hosea. We wish we were more like him, but the main point of the story is: we are like Gomer. And yet while we were spiritual prostitutes, Jesus loved us and went to the cross for us.

The story of Jesus’ love for us is even more shocking than the story of Hosea and Gomer. But we rejoice that, as wild and crazy as it is, it is totally true.

Calm

Apple’s choice for the iPhone app of 2017 was an app called Calm. According to a news article the app has relaxing visuals and sounds that are designed to help a person unwind, de-stress and calm down. It also includes some bedtime stories read by various storytellers. I hope parents aren’t giving their kids a phone with the app thinking that can replace them reading bedtime stories to their kids.

It is understandable an app titled Calm would be popular. Calm and peace are things we long for, but in this world so full of noise, conflict and tension, calm seems to be in short supply. This app appears to help some people, but it does sound like another time when people look to technology to do what only God can truly do.

“Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). We’re invited to be still, calm down, rest in the truth that God is on the throne. The world is often chaotic, but the Lord is still in control. Be still and know that God loves you. Be still and know that God will keep His promise to faithfully care for you.

“The Lord your God is with you, he is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing” (Zephaniah 3:17). Rest in knowing God is with us. He delights in those who have faith in Him. God’s gracious love brings quiet and calm to our restless, troubled souls.

I was with my dad in his fishing boat crossing the Columbia River Bar and it seemed we were bouncing around quite a bit. I wasn’t concerned because my dad was a very experienced and capable fisherman and I had total confidence in him. After we crossed the bar and got into a little calmer waters my dad said, in his typical low-key manner, “It’s a good thing we hit the bar when it was calm.”

People have different definitions of what is calm. My dad had gone through a lot rougher seas than what we faced that night, so to him it was calm. When we face trials trusting in the Lord, we can remain calm, no matter how rough it gets. Jesus took on the cross and emerged victorious. He can handle whatever storm comes our way.

Jesus and His disciples were in a boat when a storm hit. The disciples were anything but calm. They were sure they were going to drown. But Jesus wasn’t stressed. He was sleeping. (This is one of my favorite stories in the Bible. Maybe because I’m a fisherman’s son who can sleep through most anything.) They woke Jesus up and He told the waves, “‘Quiet! Be still!’ Then the wind died down and it was completely calm” (Mark 4:39).

Like Jesus brought calm to that stormy sea, He can bring calm to your life. And He can do it more effectively than any app. He can calm our fears and worries and bring a restful, quiet peace to our soul.

 

Dreams that keep you awake

“A million dreams are keeping me awake. I think of what the world could be.” These words are sung by P.T. Barnum in the movie The Greatest Showman. Barnum had a tough childhood, but he didn’t let his past or his challenges stop him from dreaming. He dreamed of entertaining people in a whole new way and went on to develop the modern-day circus.

In another song Barnum talks about coming alive and “dreaming with eyes wide open.” Sadly a lot of people aren’t doing much dreaming and, in a way, they are not doing much real living. They are frustrated with how things are, but they haven’t been inspired by God’s grace to dream of how it can be.

Last May I was in Cuba and I met some Christians there who kept on dreaming, even during years of persecution and struggles. They dreamed of one day being able to worship the Lord in freedom. They still deal with some restrictions, but compared to how it used to be, many of their dreams have come true.

In July I visited places where great dreamers walked 500 years ago. I was with a group that toured sites that were significant in the history of the Protestant Reformation and the life of Martin Luther. Luther and the Reformers dreamed of a church where people were not deceived into thinking good works could get them right with God. They dreamed of people being able to read the Bible in a language they could understand. They dreamed of a church where leaders served people instead of manipulating and using them. They dreamed of people hearing the good news that you can find forgiveness and get right with God by faith in Jesus. Those big dreams changed the world.

Do you have any dreams or have you let the trials of life and broken dreams of the past cause you to give up dreaming? In Acts 2, on the day we call the birth of the New Testament Church, it says, “… your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.” The Spirit of God has come and set the church free to dream.

Sometimes the only dreams people have are of making more money and getting more stuff. Those are small dreams. Because of God’s amazing grace we can dream big dreams. We can dream of broken relationships being healed; people plagued by anxiety finding peace; those enslaved by addictions being set free; those who are apart from God coming to know Jesus and finding new life.

Pray that God gives you a dream “of what the world could be;” a “come alive” kind of dream; a dream big enough that it wakes you up in the morning, inspired by the thought of seeing the dream come true and witnessing what God can do.

The last dinner?

We didn’t know it was going to be our family’s last dinner together when we celebrated my sister’s birthday on this date 22 years ago. We had no idea she was going to die of a heart attack three days later.

Like your family, our family wasn’t perfect and not every family dinner we had was peaceful. But the last one was. I remember being thankful that evening for the pleasant time we had. My thankfulness increased after my sister’s death. I’m so grateful the last memories are good ones.

I was leading a Bible study at church after dinner that evening. There were other times when I thought I needed to do more work and more preparation and I didn’t think I had time for dinner with the family. I’m thankful that night I didn’t put work above relationships. I’ve certainly been guilty of doing that plenty of other times. It would have been a shame to have missed out on that dinner because I thought I needed to work a little more.

None of us knows if it will be the last dinner. We assume we will have many more opportunities to mend broken relationships, to share an encouraging word with a hurting friend, to create a pleasant memory, to let a friend know how much they mean to us. The Bible says, “Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes” (James 4:14).

God gives great opportunities today to live and love and serve. None of us knows what opportunities there will be tomorrow. Since we are not sure about tomorrow, have that dinner with a friend or relative today and put work on hold for awhile. Play with those kids and grandkids when you have the chance. Call that friend when the opportunity arises. God graciously gives us this special gift of today, and He is willing to help us use and enjoy the gift to the fullest.

Going forward without fear

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In an old comic strip Non Sequitur, three men are on a jungle journey and they come upon two skulls on top of poles. Also on the poles are arrows that point deeper into the jungle. One of the men cheerfully says, “Well, my guess is, it means, ‘Welcome Stranger!’” The caption to the strip is: “Why cynics outlive optimists.”

To some, being optimistic may seem rather foolish. Some think you live longer if you’re cynical and cautious. They believe the way to keep safe is to watch for danger and worry a lot. They enter the new year fearful, expecting trouble is lurking around the corner.

God doesn’t want us to be naïve and think every sign is welcoming. But He does invite us to live full of hope and free from fear being the cruel dictator ruling our lives. He wants us to go forward into the new year, expecting that good things await.

Some approach the new year as a student about to take a test for which they don’t think they’ve studied enough. They worry they are not prepared. They’re fearful about how difficult the test might be. “How will I ever be able to pass?”

The new year will undoubtedly involve some trials and testing, but the ultimate test has already been given. Jesus passed. He took the test for us. He achieved a perfect score. He lived the perfect life and presented His life as the perfect sacrifice that made complete and sufficient payment for all of our sins. Our hope and our salvation does not depend on whether we can pass the tests that will come our way in this new year. Our hope is based on the good news that Jesus passed the test for us.

Because of what Christ has done and because of God’s grace, we approach the new year not as a student fearfully taking a test, but as a child opening a gift. We are full of eager anticipation that the gift is going to be good. It comes from our loving Father. In Matthew 7:11 Jesus speaks of how earthly fathers know how to give good gifts to their children. “… how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!”

The world isn’t always welcoming and the signs the world puts up are scary. But the Lord welcomes us into the new year with comforting and encouraging promises. He invites us to unwrap the new year and find the good gifts He has for us and the good things He wants to do in us and through us.

We don’t need to worry so much about whether we are ready for the new year. Instead we humbly admit we aren’t ready. We don’t know what is coming. We can’t interpret signs correctly. But we rest in the promise that Jesus is ready. “For I am the Lord, your God, who takes hold of your right hand and says to you, Do not fear; I will help you” (Isaiah 41:13). The Lord invites you to hold on to Him and enter the new year full of hope in His abundant grace.

God is with us when Christmas isn’t merry

Recently as I went by a building that used to be a hospital in Astoria I remembered being there 40 years ago this month. My mom had fallen and thought she ought to go to the emergency room to get checked out. We found out she had a broken hip.

My dad was battling cancer at the time; a battle that took his life a few months later. A few days after my mom broke her hip I came down with chicken pox. During that time even our cat got sick. It wasn’t the best December ever for our family.

I’ve also been remembering December 20 years ago. The first Christmas since my brother, sister and mother had died was coming, and I wasn’t looking forward to it. One of my favorite musicians, Michael Card, was doing a concert in Portland and I went. He sang the song, Immanuel. “Immanuel, our God is with us. And if God is with us, who can stand against us? Our God is with us, Immanuel.”

Those were just the words I needed to hear. I needed to be reminded of the promise: “… they will call him Immanuel – which means ‘God with us'” (Matthew 1:23). I felt pretty alone when I went to that concert. It was so good to hear the wonderful good news that I wasn’t alone. God is with us, even when others aren’t any longer. He is with us during the tough times. He is with us to give strength and encouragement when the trials of life are too much for us to handle. He has moved into our neighborhood and “made His dwelling among us” (John 1:14).

Maybe for you this Christmas isn’t feeling all that merry. Maybe your life right now doesn’t exactly resemble a cheerful Hallmark Christmas card. Just because your days don’t feel “merry and bright” it doesn’t mean you’re a failure. It’s a reminder you’re like the rest of us: a human being who needs a Savior. The Savior has come. He didn’t come to reward those who have it all together. He came to save those who humble themselves and admit their sin and need. He came to help those who are honest about their struggles and weaknesses. He came to walk through the hard times with us. He came to be Immanuel – God with us.