Honest about our hurts

The other night I took a break from what I was doing and watched some of the Pro Football Hall of Fame induction ceremony. At the ceremony those who are inducted are given the opportunity to give a speech. It was interesting and enjoyable to hear what these successful athletes had to say at this significant moment in their life.

During a couple of the speeches it seemed like they were almost ready to sing a hymn and give an altar call. Some of the players gave strong and powerful testimonies about their faith in the Lord. They wanted people to know they didn’t achieve this honor on their own. They gave thanks to God and told about times of struggle and how the Lord Jesus had helped them through the challenges.

A couple of them told about growing up as sons of single moms. They were poor, living in tough, dangerous neighborhoods. Most people would have looked at their situation and said there was no chance they would turn out well. But they had a mom and a grandmother who prayed. That made a world of difference.

They admitted mistakes they had made and told of times when they were headed down the wrong path. They expressed appreciation for how God brought people into their life who helped them get going in a different direction. It was refreshing and encouraging to hear their honesty about things they had done wrong and their humble admission that they needed others.

Brian Dawkins told about a time early in his career when he was struggling with depression and contemplated suicide. He gave thanks to God and people who watched over him, encouraged him and helped him get on a path to healing. He encouraged others who were going through similar struggles to look at his life and find hope that God can help you get through the hard times.

At a Hall of Fame induction ceremony you expect players to talk about how great they were and tell stories about their success. You don’t expect someone to show such transparency and talk about his battle with depression.

We expect a happy face. When we ask someone how they’re doing we expect a quick “Great.” We expect boasting, but in a subtle, humble way of course. We get scared to do like Dawkins did and admit our struggles. We worry about what people might think of us.

I have been blessed that I haven’t struggled with depression like many others have, but I did have a period when sadness was camping out a lot in my life. I don’t know if I would have been considered depressed at the time, but I was pretty down for quite a while. Your pride doesn’t want to admit you’re hurting. You want to be a poster boy for “This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it” (Psalm 118:24). So you try to fake it. I found out I’m not as good at faking it as I thought I was. I’m thankful for good friends who asked, “Something’s wrong. What is it?”

That’s how it ought to be in a congregation and with friends in Christ. We don’t need to fake that we’re fine. We have freedom to ask our friends how they’re doing and share with our friends how we’re really doing. We can do like Paul did with the Thessalonians: “Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well” (I Thessalonians 2:8). God’s love enables us to find hope and strength as we share our lives with one another.

I appreciate how Brian Dawkins courageously and humbly shared his life. His speech can be found on YouTube. It’s worth a listen.djzg5eux4aeack

 

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The meek win?

During his campaign for president 30 years ago the first President George Bush spoke of a longing for a kinder and gentler nation. He also described those who volunteer and serve others as being like a thousand points of light, with service shining bright in the midst of a dark world.

The call for a kinder, gentler nation was mocked by many 30 years ago. It still sounds strange today in our society that is so often mean, cruel and violent and going the opposite direction of kinder and gentler. Kindness and gentleness is too often looked down upon instead of being valued and encouraged.

The vision of a multitude of humble servants shining like a thousand points of light was a confusing concept to some 30 years ago. Recently it was described again as not making sense. Kindness, gentleness and humble, sacrificial service doesn’t make sense to the world. The world understands putting yourself first; looking out for your own interests and not the interests of others. The world understands promoting yourself and boasting about what you have done. The world understands being assertive and going for what you want, even if it means knocking others down to get it.

Gentleness and kindness seem strange to the world. Meekness appears to be weakness. It is that way now and was also that way in Jesus’ day. At first His own brothers didn’t understand His humble service and why He would do great deeds but not want to draw attention to Himself. “Since you are doing these things, show yourself to the world” (John 7:4). Letting people know how great you are – that makes sense to the world. But that’s not Jesus’ way.

Pilate couldn’t understand Jesus failing to fight back and defend Himself when He was attacked. “‘Aren’t you going to answer? See how many things they are accusing you of.’ But Jesus still made no reply, and Pilate was amazed” (Mark 15:4-5). The world’s way is stand up for yourself and return insult for insult. If somebody posts something that appears to be an attack and a slam, you better slam them back. That’s what the world thinks. Jesus’ way of silence and meekly letting them nail Him to the cross amazes and confuses people. But it brings salvation and hope to those who trust Him.

First Timothy 6:11 says to “pursue … gentleness.” Are you pursuing gentleness or running from it? We can pursue gentleness because we are chosen and loved by God. “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience” (Colossians 3:12).

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5).The world doesn’t think so, but the meek are the ones who are going to come out ahead. “I will remove from you your arrogant boasters. … But I will leave within you the meek and humble” (Zephaniah 3:11-12). Arrogant boasters can intimidate at times and deceive people into thinking they are far more impressive and important than they really are. The arrogant boasters of this world are not to be feared for they have no future. It is the meek and the humble who trust in the Lord who will win in the end. They are the ones who can look forward to a victorious and glorious future.

God doesn’t have a favorite color

Little kids ask, “What is your favorite color?” Some like blue, some purple, some pink. We have favorite colors when it comes to shirts we wear or cars we drive, but God doesn’t have a favorite color when it comes to people’s skin. He makes some dark, some light and some in between. He likes all the colors equally.IMG_0196

I met these two beautiful little girls in South Africa. One has a darker skin color than the other, but they are both dearly loved by God; both a special creation of His with immeasurable value. Both like to laugh and play and eat candy. It was fun to watch them play together. Their different skin colors didn’t seem to matter to them.

South Africa, like the United States, has some very sad chapters in its history regarding race relations. The evil of slavery is part of the history of the United States. South Africa suffered under the wickedness of apartheid for nearly 50 years. Under apartheid, the whites, even though they were only 15 percent of the population, controlled the government and owned the land, often by taking it away from blacks. The ruling whites passed laws forbidding the races from things such as living in the same neighborhoods, sitting together at public events and going to the same schools. It was a miraculous and gracious work of God that apartheid ended in the 1990s without massive bloodshed and the exacting of revenge.

In the United States it was only after the terrible bloodshed of the Civil War that slavery became illegal throughout the land. Even after the war the wickedness of segregation continued as many tried to prevent blacks from doing things such as eating in the same restaurants as whites, drinking from the same water fountains, and playing on the same baseball fields.

Some claim blacks didn’t have it that bad during slavery, segregation and apartheid. Blacks who had loved ones lynched, who suffered oppression and were treated as less than human don’t say that. The claim that it wasn’t that bad possibly comes from an unwillingness to admit our ancestors did some wicked things.

Conflict between different ethnic groups was a major challenge faced by the New Testament church. Most people thought it was impossible for Jews and non-Jews to ever get along and live in true peace. But the Bible declares that peace is possible when there is faith in Jesus. “For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility … His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility” (Ephesians 2:14-16).

Along with the two sweet little girls, in South Africa I also met some families where white parents have adopted black children and blacks and whites are living together in one house as one family. It was an encouraging picture of what the family of God should look like and how Jesus can make peace. God’s family should be full of a diversity of colors because God loves all colors and doesn’t have a favorite. We give thanks for the beautiful peace that is possible in Jesus.

 

Bench time

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This bench in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park seems to have an unproductive purpose. You don’t do much on the bench except sit and look at the creek and the waterfalls. People probably don’t get a lot checked off their to-do list when they are sitting there.

The whole idea of national parks seems unproductive to some people. A lot of valuable land has been set aside. One of the main things that happens in the parks is people doing what I did recently when I was at the Great Smoky Mountains: they go for hikes and enjoy the artistry of what God has made.

As I spent a day driving and hiking in the woods and looking at creeks and waterfalls, I was thankful this land had been set aside for people to enjoy its beauty. It is possible God made some places not for us to build on or grow food on or extract metals from but just for us to look at and enjoy.

Taking time to enjoy God’s beautiful artwork can teach us about God and ourselves and bring renewal to our soul. “When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?” (Psalm 8:3-4). David took some time and sat on his version of a park bench and considered the work of God’s fingers. Contemplating the majesty of what God had made spoke to him about the greatness of God, his smallness in comparison and the wonder that the God of creation cared for him. What a wonder it is that the God of creation loves us and came to save us.

The waterfalls make some noise but the message of God’s creation is much greater than simply water flowing over rocks. “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge” (Psalm 19:1-2). The mountains, the ocean, the creeks, the trees, the waterfalls; they declare the wisdom of God, the power of God, the skillfulness of God, the creativity of God. It is good to go for a hike or sit on a bench and pray for ears of faith that can hear what God’s artwork has to say to us.

Some of us feel guilty if we take time to sit on a bench and look at some waterfalls. We have so much we think we have to do. People may think we’re lazy if we just sit on a bench and enjoy the beauty in front of us. We need to spend more time thinking about God’s great work and less time worrying about what people may think. It is okay to have some time when we’re not doing but instead thinking about what the Lord has done. Time spent looking at some of God’s beautiful artwork and reflecting on what it teaches us isn’t wasted time. It can be very productive time as it can deepen our understanding and refresh our soul. Take some bench time this summer and find rest and renewal in the beauty of what God has made.

Trust not try

“You suck. Try harder.” That was the main message Jim Belcher heard in church growing up. After reading that recently, it has been much on my mind. That is probably because I know Jim is not the only one who grew up thinking that is the main teaching of Christianity. “You suck. Try harder” is the basic message a lot of people hear in churches and youth groups and at home. I’ve been to Christian events that were basically an hour of being told to try harder. I’ve left discouraged because I knew I wasn’t doing well, but I didn’t know how I could try any harder.

Many people are trying hard. Some are trying hard because they feel guilty. They hope they can do enough good to make up for the bad they have done. Some are trying hard because they are worried about what people think, and they long to make a good impression. Some are trying hard because, like the Galatians in the New Testament, they say they believe a person starts a relationship with God by faith, but they seem to think staying with him, growing in Him and serving Him is all about how hard you work. “After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort? … Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law, or because you believe what you heard?” (Galatians 3:3, 5).

The call is not to try harder but to trust more. Trust the promises of God’s Word more. Trust God when He says your sins are forgiven because of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. Trust the Lord when He promises to take care of you and keep you safe. Trust God when He says He loves you and wants you to be with Him forever.

It is humbling to have to admit our best efforts at trying harder are never going to be good enough to meet the demands of God’s perfect law. We keep falling short. What Paul said about himself is true for us: “For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out” (Romans 7:18). We can’t try hard enough, but the wonderful good news is Jesus did enough at the cross for us.

I came home once from a conference where the theme was mostly, “You suck. Try harder.” I wasn’t motivated to try harder. Instead I felt like giving up. But then God reminded me of the good news of Jesus. God’s love for us isn’t based on how well we do. He loves us and wants us even though we keep falling short. Our sin has been paid for by the perfect sacrifice of Christ. My salvation is secure because of Jesus. We try to serve Him, but we won’t always get it right. But we can always trust in the mercy and grace of God.

Jud Wilhite wrote, “… conquering our idols and habitual sins is ultimately a matter of being swept up by His love rather than gritting our teeth and trying harder.” Instead of gritting your teeth, open your heart and get swept up by God’s amazing love.

100 years ago today

One hundred years ago today, in Luverne, Minnesota, Sven and Marta Larsen gave birth to a baby girl who ended up becoming my mom. One hundred years ago childhood diseases that are treatable now could be fatal. My mom got one of those scary illnesses, but, obviously, she survived.

She survived growing up in the Depression. She survived having a brother who was a prisoner of war in World War 2. She survived when her husband wanted them to leave the only town she had ever lived in to go out west to be a fisherman. Being married to a commercial fisherman means being separated from your husband for long periods of time while he is out at sea, involved in what is often considered the most dangerous profession. Mom survived.

She survived caring for both of her parents during their battles with cancer. She survived the challenges of being a mom and the trials of having loved ones who struggled with addiction issues. She survived when, much to her surprise at age 44, more than 20 years after her last baby, she became pregnant again. She survived a serious heart attack when she was 50 years old and the death of her dearly loved husband when she was 60.

My mom was kind of little and not all that strong physically, but she was strong willed, strong when it came to being disciplined, and strong when it came to showing enduring, sacrificial love. She was strong in spirit, strong in her convictions and strong in her faith in the Lord. She was an example of how God can give us strength that is beyond ourselves.

When she came to the end of her life she was dying but in a way she was still surviving and living. The day before she died somebody from church visited her in the hospital and encouraged her to hold on, “Craig needs you.” Mom’s reply was, “No, Craig doesn’t need me. God will be with him. He’ll be fine.” The next day some other people from church were visiting her in the hospital and I was there as well. They said they’d come by and see her the next day. Her calm, confident response was, “I don’t think I’ll be here.” Three hours later she died.

“Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from he Lord. We live by faith, not by sight” (II Corinthians 5:6-7). By faith in Christ, because of God’s amazing grace, we survive, we thrive, we overcome. We live with hope and confidence because of the promises of God. I’m thankful for the one who was born 100 years ago today who survived by trusting the promises of God, and passed on the good news of the promises to me.

Time for more than work

A pastor found a response card at his church had been filled out by his son, who marked down that he would like a visit from the pastor. Dad thought his young son was just having some fun, but he soon figured out his son was serious. He thought asking for a visit from the pastor might be the only way he could get to spend time with his dad. With his words dad said his son mattered more to him than work, but his actions gave a different message.

Recently a Calvin and Hobbes comic strip was posted online. In it Calvin’s dad took a break from work to play with his son. He finished up his work later, after Calvin went to bed. The message of the strip was to take time to play with your kids. Some responded to it expressing concern that their kids would like them to play all day, but they have work to do. It is true, there is work that has to be done, and maybe some people spend more time than they should playing with their kids. More common in my experience is my pastor-friend who got the response card from his son asking for a visit. Many of us from our earliest days have been taught the importance of hard work. It is easy, however, for things to get out of balance and that strong work ethic can so dominate our lives that it becomes an idol that causes trouble in our relationships.

It is good to work hard when it is done out of love for Jesus and a desire to serve Him and others. It is sad when the hard work is done because a person is trying to earn God’s favor. It is sad when hard work happens out of a fear of what others may think or a longing to gain the approval of people. Some, sadly, are knocking themselves out to get more money and stuff that isn’t going to last. God’s grace enables us to work as ones who are not slaves to work but ones who have been set free to serve.

It is not just parents with kids at home who ought to wrestle with the issue of how much time to spend at work and how much time with family and friends. We all have people God has brought into our lives. It is easy to neglect those relationships and get so busy with work that there is no time for coffee with a friend or calling a relative or playing a game with a kid. Do your friends and family envy the people you work with and your business associates because they figure those people get the best of your energy and attention?

The early Christians were busy with all kinds of responsibilities, but they knew the importance of taking time for one another. They knew taking time to keep their relationships strong was crucial to their very survival. “Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts” (Acts 2:46).

In the Gospels we never see Jesus too busy for people. He took time to have dinner with Matthew and his tax collector friends. He took time to talk with the Samaritan women by a well. He took time to go to Zacchaeus’ home. He took time for people then and He has time for you today. Sometimes we’re the one who is too busy for others, but other times we’re like the son who filled out the card, wishing somebody had time for us. God has time to turn His ear to you and listen when you pray. He has time to speak through His Word and encourage you. Jesus took time to come to this earth to save us. He is graciously willing each day to take time to care for us.