A humble leader

His mother taught him not to brag about himself. President George H.W. Bush took his mother’s lesson to heart. After his recent passing, friends and people who worked for him talked about his humility, his gentleness and his kindness.

After the Berlin Wall came down aides wanted Bush to go to Berlin and celebrate winning the Cold War. Some thought it would be good to go and let the Soviets know, “We beat you.” Most politicians would have relished the opportunity to declare victory and show superiority. Bush said no. He wasn’t interested in showing off and soaking up applause from crowds.

After the Gulf War victory a parade was held in New York City. Bush was encouraged to go but he said the moment belonged to the troops. He wanted them to get the applause and praise. Other times in his administration Bush used the pronoun “I” when talking about mistakes that were made. He used the pronoun “we” when talking about accomplishments. He shared praise but not blame.

During a press conference while president, Bush called the reporter Susan Page “Ann.” His mistake was pointed out to him later and the next day Page received a handwritten note from the president, apologizing for calling her by the wrong name and asking for her forgiveness. What a contrast from politicians who call reporters names like “stupid” and “loser” and other names that are not fit to repeat.

Bush may have occasionally forgotten a reporter’s name or called them by the wrong name, but people who worked at the White House told about how he took the time and made the effort to learn the names of the people who worked there, including the cleaning staff and those providing security. No matter their job, they were people of significance who have a name.

We often don’t look for humility when it comes to choosing leaders, but we should. The truly great leaders in history – Abraham Lincoln for example – showed remarkable humility that had been learned through trials and failures. Lincoln’s humility was demonstrated by his ability to laugh at himself. Bush did that as well. Dana Carvey got a lot of laughs on Saturday Night Live for his impressions of Bush. Instead of attacking him, President Bush invited Carvey to the White House and they became friends.medium_2018-12-02-ca885d986b

Humility is a fundamental Christian virtue. If God has done a work in a life, than some growth in humility should be evident. “Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. … God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. … Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up” (James 3:13, 4:6, 10).

In his 1988 campaign for president, Bush said he hoped for “a kinder and gentler nation.” Some mocked that expression then and recently it was mocked again. But I still hope and pray for more kindness and gentleness, especially among those who call themselves followers of Jesus. He gave the greatest example of kindness and gentleness when He hung on the cross and gave His life for us. “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience” (Colossians 3:12). We strive to be kinder and gentler because we have received such gracious kindness and gentleness from Jesus.

 

Advertisements

Content whatever the circumstances

Saturday mornings during Sept. and Oct. are busy at the soccer complex in our area. Ten fields of nicely mowed grass are full all morning with kids of various ages playing. Soccer balls are everywhere. The number of kids on each team is limited so that everybody can get a chance to play. It’s a quite different situation than the soccer game I watched when I was in South Africa.

Once a week some missionaries bring a couple soccer balls to an area in the community where they serve. It’s a field of dirt with more gravel than grass. There were two goals but neither goal had any netting. There was only one field so there was only one game. Whatever kids showed up were welcome to play. The day I was there each team had 25 kids. Even though they were running on and falling on dirt and gravel, none of the kids had shin pads or the other protective gear American kids so often have. The two 25-member teams played for about an hour and then the missionaries got them together in a circle and shared Jesus with them and prayed with them. Most of the kids went away with a smile on their face. It was maybe one of the highlights of their week.

I wonder how many U.S. kids and parents would be smiling if they were told they were going to play on dirt and gravel with 25 kids on a team. Unfortunately, even though they get to play in conditions considered luxurious by many in the world, some aren’t smiling much. Some playing on grass are joyful and content, and some aren’t; just like some playing on dirt have joy and contentment and some don’t. Whether a person is joyful, peaceful and content is not determined by whether you get to play on nice grass fields or on dirt. It is not determined by how much money is in your bank account or how big your house is or how nice a car you drive.

The apostle Paul said, “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want” (Philippians 4:11-12). Whatever the circumstances, whether in plenty or in need, whether playing soccer on nice grass or rough dirt, contentment can be found. It is not determined by our circumstances. True contentment comes from knowing God and His goodness and grace.

Thankfulness is key to contentment. Whether we are enjoying the best conditions or dealing with tough challenges, we can find something to complain about and also reason to be thankful. The question is: what are we looking for and what are we focused on? “Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior” (Habakkuk 3:17-18). Times were hard for the prophet Habakkuk, but he knew the love of God. He focused on God’s good promises, and in those promises he found joy and contentment.

Sometimes we’re playing on grass and sometimes on dirt. Sometimes things are going along pretty well and other times life can be really hard. But through it all we can keep rejoicing and be at peace because God is good and His love endures forever.

 

The possible and the impossible

fullsizeoutput_db3After about a six-hour journey we arrived at Darkhan, a city in northern Mongolia. A church of the Mongolian Evangelical Lutheran Church worships there in a building that used to be the barracks and offices of soldiers of the Soviet Union army back in the days when the communists of the U.S.S.R. dominated Mongolia. It would have seemed impossible back then to think a church would be praising the Lord in that building but now that is the case. In rooms where Soviet soldiers used to hang out, children are hearing the good news of Jesus while surrounded by beautiful art work, as seen in the picture above.

fullsizeoutput_dd3

We got to meet some of the people of the church. Some years ago one of them was facing challenges that seemed impossible to overcome. He had gone to Russia looking for work but couldn’t find any. He was homeless and the weather was turning dangerously cold. He wanted to return home to Mongolia but there didn’t seem to be any way. Some months before somebody had tried to share the good news of Jesus with him but he had no interest. Now in his desperation he cried out to God for help. Through a variety of miraculous events, God worked things out for him to get back to Mongolia. Eventually he came to the Lord and is now a very inventive, talented man who, with his wife, helps manage a factory that makes high-end felt slippers that are sold in Norway. The factory is in a building next to the church and is a fruit of the ministry of the Norwegian Lutheran Mission.

It’s impossible to imagine how a family that had a 6-year-old son die could find any comfort. A family in the church in Ulan Bator suffered that kind of tragic loss recently. The funeral for their little boy took place one of the days we were in Mongolia. We visited their home with the pastor and a number of family members and spent time in prayer for them. The family was at the worship service on Sunday. At their home and at the worship service it was encouraging to see the congregation come around the grieving family to offer comfort and support.

The mom shared briefly during the testimony portion of the worship service. She was crying and much of the congregation was crying as well. They were living out the Bible’s call to “mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15). It also seemed like, when the mom was sharing about the pain of losing her son, some of the other moms in the congregation held their little ones a little bit closer. Tragedies like this can remind us that life is fragile and precious and a treasure to cherish.

fullsizeoutput_dfb

A long bus ride and an unreached town

IMG_0705We visited a 29-year-old man in his apartment that also serves as the meeting place of a congregation he is serving. His mother lives there as well and his sister lives nearby. The mother is also involved in trying to share the good news of Jesus with their community here in Mongolia. She recently finished two years of training at the Lutheran church’s Bible school. They have a small apartment but a big heart for Jesus and their community.  They shared about some of the different ways they’re involved in trying to develop relationships and reach people, including things like a book club and playing basketball.

The day after we met with him, the young church leader was going to ride a bus for 13 hours to another community in Mongolia that doesn’t have any church. He and the church body are looking to see if relationships can be developed that can lead to the good news of Jesus being shared in that community and eventually a new congregation begun there. The young man makes that 13-hours-one-way bus ride once a month. Pray for him and these two Mongolian communities he enthusiastically and joyfully serves.

Pastors being used by God in Mongolia

One man was a “good atheist” during his teenage years, as he grew up under the Communist indoctrination that dominated Mongolia for 70 years. He hadn’t heard anything about the good news of Jesus until he was 20 years old. The other man struggled with alcohol problems that threatened to ruin his life and his relations with his family. He saw 32 of his “drinking buddies” die of alcohol-related causes over the years. Now both of these men rejoice in having found new life in Jesus and they serve as pastors in the Lutheran church in Mongolia.

The former atheist is now convinced of the truth of God’s Word and he is teaching it, pastoring and giving leadership to the church body. The former slave to alcohol is now helping others to find the freedom Jesus brought to his life. He pastors four congregations and leads a ministry to help those struggling with alcohol problems. Both of them are great testimonies of how God can change lives. It was an enjoyable privilege to visit with them as my trip to Mongolia with Pastor Lyndon Korhonen has begun.

Crazy grace

IMG_0589

I recently had the chance to see the musical Les Miserables. The music is excellent but the message of the play is even better.

As the play begins we’re introduced to Jean Valjean. He did 19 years of hard labor in prison, simply because he stole a loaf of bread to help feed his starving family. He gets out but he has to carry around a piece of paper that identifies him as a convict. No one will hire him. A priest takes him in and gives him dinner and a place to stay for a night. During the night Valjean steals silver from the priest and tries to run but is quickly caught. The police bring Valjean back to the priest, refusing to believe Valjean’s claim that the silver was given to him. The priest says he did give him the silver but he forgot the candlesticks. After the police release Valjean and go on their way, the priest tells Valjean he has claimed his soul for God and he is now to live as a changed man. And that is what happens. The rest of the play is about Valjean living a new life of service to others, all because of the kindness and grace he was shown by the priest.

Who gives expensive candlesticks to somebody who eats their food and steals from them? Even more so, who gives their Son to die for rebellious, undeserving sinners like us? It doesn’t make sense, but that’s the nature of grace. It’s crazy. It gives gifts to thieves. It suffers and dies for ungrateful sinners.

While in prison Valjean suffers under the cruel hand of Inspector Javert. Javert continues to pursue Valjean after his release, and tries to throw him back into prison. In one confrontation Valjean pleads for mercy, telling Javert of people he is helping and how he has changed. Javert dismisses the idea and tells Valjean, “Men like you can never change.”

Late in the play Valjean has the chance to get revenge on Javert and kill him, but he doesn’t and he lets him go. Javert is furious and can’t understand it. “Who is this man? What sort of devil is he, to have caught me in a trap and choose to let me go free? … I’ll spit his pity right back in his face. There is nothing on earth that we share. It is either Valjean or Javert!”

It is either Valjean or Javert. It is either grace or law. Many view life like Javert. They think life is all about keeping rules. Grace angers them like it did Javert. It doesn’t seem right for criminals to receive forgiveness. Good things should only come to those who keep the rules. Punishment comes when you break them. There is no mercy or possibility of people changing.

Thankfully, because of Jesus, we can live like Valjean rather than Javert. Change is possible. God is merciful and forgiving. He longs to give His gracious gift of salvation to undeserving sinners like us. We rejoice in “the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:7). We give thanks for the amazing, crazy, doesn’t-make-any-sense grace of God.

Fantine is a lady in Les Miserables who is treated terribly and suffers much painful humiliation. She finally gets some help from Valjean. She looks at the misery of her life and with sorrow sings, “There was a time when men were kind. When their voices were soft and their words inviting. … I dreamed a dream in times gone by; when hope was high and life worth living. I dreamed that love would never die. I dreamed that God would be forgiving.”

The good news of Jesus proclaims that those dreams come true, because of God’s grace. Jesus is kind and gentle and His words are inviting. His love for us never dies. Because of Jesus and the cross, God is forgiving. His grace is not a dream. It’s real.

The song in Les Miserables that moves me the most is “On My Own” sung by the young lady Eponine. She loves a young man who loves somebody else. From the despair of her heart she cries out: “On my own, pretending he’s beside me. … I know it’s only in my mind, that I’m talking to myself and not to him. … I love him, but when the night is over, he is gone. … Without me, his world will go on turning; a world that’s full of happiness that I have never known. … I love him, but only on my own.”

Many struggle with that kind of sadness. What helps the most is the good news that God really does love you. You don’t have to pretend He is with you. Prayer is not pretending you’re talking to Him. He is real, He hears us and He won’t be gone when the night is over. “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good. His love endures forever” (Psalm 136:1). When we know His grace and love, we’re never on our own.

 

The power of encouraging words

At a school in Dubai an experiment was conducted to see if words had an effect on plants. A recording was made of students insulting plants and another was made of compliments. The recording of put downs like, “You look ugly” and “Are you even alive?” was played to some plants on a loop for 30 days. Another recording of positive comments such as, “I like the way you look” was played to other plants for 30 days. The plants that were continually insulted withered, while the ones that heard positive comments remained healthy.

It may seem strange to think plants respond to what they hear and the science may be questioned, but it would fit with how the Creator has ordered His world. It is not surprising if plants wither if all they hear are insults and negativity. That is what happens with people.

“A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. … The soothing tongue is a tree of life, but a perverse tongue crushes the spirit” (Proverbs 15:1, 4). We can’t be exactly sure how it affects plants whether the words spoken to them are gentle or harsh, but we do know how it affects people. Harsh words, spoken in anger, lead to more anger. Mean, nasty put-downs cause much discouragement. Constant criticism with no encouragement crushes a person’s spirit and makes them want to give up.

Gentle words bring peace and ease tension. A soothing tongue and loving encouragement can inspire a person to keep going and not give up.

Words can knock a person down or lift a person up. They can cause deep hurt or bring gracious healing to wounded souls. “The words of the reckless pierce like swords, but the tongue of the wise brings healing. … Anxiety weighs down the heart, but a kind word cheers it up” (Proverbs 12:18, 25).

In our hi-tech world with email, Facebook, texting and Twitter, words are constantly being spread around the world. Many of them are negative and critical, focused on failure, expressing anger and knocking people down. Those kinds of words cause relationships and spirits to wither.

Words of blessing and encouragement, words that describe the beauty and grace of God, words that give thanks for good things God is doing are words that build up and give life. “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (Ephesians 4:29). Some words that are shared are truthful but not beneficial. The person sharing them may feel good about “getting it off their chest,” but they aren’t words that help the listener or build them up.

We give thanks for God’s loving, gracious Word that builds us up. In this world full of words that wither souls, we give thanks we can turn to Christ and find the gentle words we need to hear and the encouraging words that give life.