Footprints

A very popular poem in the past several decades titled, Footprints,” and sometimes titled Footprints in the Sands,” has been attributed to three different authors with three slightly different versions of the same poem. The first poem appeared in 1936 and it was written by Mary Stevenson (1922-1999); the second version of the poem appeared in 1963 and it was written by Carolyn Joyce Carty; and the third version of the poem was published in 1964 by Margaret Fishback Powers (b. 1943). (Source including all three versions is available at this link.)

For the purposes of this blog post, I will be referring to the version of the poem by Margaret Fishback Powers since I found another book published by her in 1998 (republished in 2006) titled, Footprints: Scripture with Reflections Inspired by the Best-Loved Poem by Margaret Fishback Powers,” at a used bookstore yesterday, and there are a few quotes from that book that I also want to include in this blog post. Her version of the poem is as follows (found on page 2 of the above mentioned book):

FOOTPRINTS

One night I dreamed a dream.
I was walking along the beach with my Lord.
Across the dark sky flashed scenes from my life.
For each scene, I noticed two sets of footprints in the sand,
one belonging to me
and one to my Lord.

When the last scene of my life shot before me
I looked back at the footprints in the sand
and to my surprise
I noticed that many times along the path of my life
There was only one set of footprints.

I realized that this was at the lowest
and saddest times of my life.
This always bothered me
and I questioned the Lord
about my dilemma.

“Lord, You told me when I decided to follow You,
You would walk and talk with me all the way.
But I’m aware that during the most troublesome times
of my life there is only one set of footprints.
I just don’t understand why, when I need You most,
You leave me.”

He whispered, “My precious child,
I love you and will never leave you,
never, ever, during your trials and testings.
When you saw only one set of footprints,
it was then that I carried you.”
(Quote source: “Footprints: Scripture with Reflections,” page 2.)

Many people have received inspiration from the words of this poem (or similar versions) over the years since it was first published. The book mentioned above takes each line of the poem and makes a chapter out of it that includes several verses from the Bible that refer to that particular line. The line I am highlighting from that poem above is found in a chapter titled, “God Is With Us… When We Need Direction” (pp. 67-72). Here is that chapter including the line from the poem above that it refers to:

“And I questioned the Lord about my dilemma.” (A line from the poem above.)

When a transit strike brought our recently purchased business to a standstill, I found myself wondering if we had made the right decision to get into this new business. The choice had seemed to be the right one at the time, but then, I wasn’t so sure. How was I supposed to sort out what we should do next? When we face questions of this kind, we need to get our arms around God’s wisdom… [Note: Scripture references below are from NIV, 1984]

If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.James 1:5

I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go;
    I will counsel you and watch over you, [says the LORD.]Psalm 32:8

Trust in the Lord with all your heart
    and lean not on your own understanding;
In all your ways acknowledge him,
    and he will make your paths straight.Proverbs 3:5-6

For the Lord gives wisdom;
    from his mouth come knowledge and understanding.Proverbs 2:6

Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, “This is the way; walk in it.”Isaiah 30:21

But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come.John 16:13

Show me your ways, O Lord,
    teach me your paths.
Guide me in your truth and teach me,
    for you are God my Savior,
    and my hope is in you all day long.Psalm 25:4-5

This is what the Lord says—
    your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel:
“I am the Lord your God,
    who teaches you what is best for you,
    who directs you in the way you should go.”Isaiah 48:17

God doesn’t mind our questions when we come to him with a seeking heart. God is bigger than any question we can ask. And he often will give us the answers we seek in his Word.

Your word is a lamp for my feet,
    a light for my path.Psalm 119:105

For this command is a lamp,
    this teaching is a light,
and correction and instruction
    are the way to life.Proverbs 6:23

Do not let this Book of the Law depart from your mouth; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful.Joshua 1:8

Pay attention and listen to the sayings of the wise…
for it is pleasing when you keep them in your heart

    and have all of them ready on your lips.
So that your trust may be in the Lord
.Proverbs 22:17-19

When we find ourselves questioning God’s reason for allowing certain things to happen, we must stop, remember God’s faithfulness, and depend upon his grace. Whatever our questions, whatever our circumstances, God is still in control.

The Lord delights in a man’s way,
    he makes his steps firm;
though he may stumble, he will not fall,

    for the Lord upholds him with his hand.Psalm 37:23-24

Since you are my rock and my fortress,
    for the sake of your name lead and guide me, [O Lord.]Psalm 31:3

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.Romans 8:28

The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me;
    your love, O Lord, endures forever—
    do not abandon the works of your hands.Psalm 138:8

Let us acknowledge the Lord;
    let us press on to acknowledge him.
As surely as the sun rises,
    he will appear;
he will come to us like the winter rains,
    like the spring rains that water the earth.Hosea 6:3

For this God is our God for ever and ever;
    he will be our guide even to the end.Psalm 48:14

When we need direction, we must trust that the Lord will take our faith, limited as it is, and make something of lasting value out of it. God has a plan for us. He cares about our dilemmas, hears our heartfelt cries, and will answer us in ways that will astonish us and fill our hearts with songs of joy.

For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”Jeremiah 29:11 (Quote source: “Footprints: Scripture with Reflections,” pp. 67-72.)

I can’t think of any time in a Christian’s life when it is not wise to seek direction from the Lord, not only in difficult times, but also when things seem to be going smoothly as that is when we tend to let our guard down.

In an article published on June 11, 2014 on Proverbs 31 Ministries titled Lord, I Don’t Know What To Do,” by Leah DiPascal, speaker, writer, and communicator with Proverbs 31 Ministries, she writes:

“Show me the right path, O LORD; point out the road for me to follow.”Psalm 25:4 (NLT)

Do you ever feel like you’re going in circles and not making any progress? At least not the kind of progress you were expecting.

Are the constant appeals of our world pulling you in a million different ways, causing you to question if you’re headed in the right direction?

If you’re like me, you have plans and dreams you want to fulfill. But life is confusing at times. And most days it seems like you’re just surviving instead of living out those dreams or accomplishing your goals.

Numerous distractions.

Too many choices.

Endless interruptions.

There have been days I’ve felt like one foot was fixed to the floor, while my other foot scurried in every direction. Expending a lot of energy and mental fatigue, but going nowhere. Can you relate?

Wouldn’t it be awesome to wake up every morning and be assured you’re on the right path towards your goals? To know with certainty that you’re headed in the right direction? To feel confident with each step, without constantly questioning yourself?

Too many times I’ve second-guessed a decision I was confident about. I want so desperately to follow God’s will that I’ll pray, but then feel uncertain, not wanting to make a wrong move. I wonder: “Maybe this isn’t what I’m supposed to be doing. Maybe this isn’t part of God’s plan for my life.”

As I’ve wrestled with indecision and insecurity, I’ve sought God’s Word for help. A few months ago, I found a priceless nugget of truth in the Bible. It addresses our desire for guidance and shows us what to do when we need clear direction.

King David composed these words in a beautiful psalm, tucked within the pages of the Old Testament:

“Show me the right path, O LORD; point out the road for me to follow. Lead me by your truth and teach me, for you are the God who saves me. All day long I put my hope in you” (Psalm 25:4-5).

These verses reveal David’s humble and teachable heart. He wanted to be guided by God and led by His truth. David knew God was his Savior and placed all his hope in the One who created the right path for him.

We find the answers to David’s request for guidance only a few short passages away. Promises we can claim for our own lives:

“The LORD is good and does what is right; he shows the proper path to those who go astray. He leads the humble in doing right, teaching them his way. The LORD leads with unfailing love and faithfulness all who keep his covenant and obey his demands” (Psalm 25:8-10, NLT).

Based on these verses, when our hearts are humble and truly seeking God’s will, we can be confident of this:

1. God will always show us what is right for us.

2. When we get sidetracked, God will direct us back to the right path.

3. We are not alone. God leads and teaches us along the way.

4. God leads those who obey Him with unfailing love and faithfulness.

If you’re unsure about some things in your life, don’t wait another day to figure it out on your own. Ensure your heart is in the right place of humility, and then ask God to help you. Once you’ve asked, trust that God is directing you.

If you know you’ve gotten on the wrong path, seek God for direction instead of looking to the world for answers. As you take steps to follow and obey God’s voice, He will lovingly show you the way.

Months ago I asked the Lord to etch these verses onto my heart and mind, so I’d always have them with me—especially on days when I feel like I’m going in circles and lacking direction.

Today, I’m praying these verses over you.

Truth For Today:

Psalm 32:8, “The LORD says, ‘I will guide you along the best pathway for your life. I will advise you and watch over you.'” (NLT)

Psalm 90:17, “Let the favor of the LORD our God be upon us, and establish the work of our hands upon us; yes, establish the work of our hands!” (ESV) (Article and quote source available here.)

I’ll end this post with this great reminder from Proverbs 3:5-6 (NIV): Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him…

And He will make . . .

Your paths . . .

Straight . . . .

YouTube Video: “God Will Make A Way” by Acapella–Christian Vineyard Music:

Photo #1 credit here
Photo #2 credit here

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The Sound of Silence

Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881) served as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

“Christian truth is about as welcome in today’s culture as a wet shaggy dog shaking himself at the Miss America Pageant.” That’s the opening sentence of Chapter 3 titled, “The Sound of Silence,” in a brand new book titled, Talk the Walk: How to Be Right Without Being Insufferable,” by Steve Brown, radio broadcaster and Founder of Key Life Network, Professor Emeritus at Reformed Theological Seminary, Visiting Professor of Practical Theology at Knox Theological Seminary and Westminster Theological Seminary, host on the radio talk show, Steve Brown, Etc.”, Bible teacher, keynote speaker, author of over a dozen books, a former pastor, and, yes, even a former disk jockey. He is also a personal friend of mine, and I’ve written posts on a couple of his previous books (see here and here).

Steve’s wealth of knowledge and wonderful sense of humor never fails to amaze me with each book I’ve read that he has written and published. If you personally know Steve, you know he’s truly “one of a kind.” His latest book (linked above at Key Life and also available on Amazon.com at this link) is exceptionally timely given all of the rapid changes going on in our society today.

The book is specifically written with a Christian audience in mind; however, skeptics of Christianity might find it interesting to read, too. I want to back up just a bit from that sentence quoted above that opens Chapter 3 with the following from Chapter 2 titled, “The Gift of Truth.” Steve writes:

There is the old joke about a businessman interviewing applicants for a position in his company. He asked each of them a simple question, “What is two plus two?” He got a variety of answers, including, “I don’t know, but I’m glad for the opportunity to discuss the issue,” and a lawyer who referenced case law where two plus two was proven to be four. The final applicant got up from this chair, closed the door and the blinds, sat back down, leaned over the desk, and then whispered, “What do you want it to be?”

He got the job.

So often today, truth is whatever “you want it to be.” Whatever you want it to be includes religion, gender, morals, marriage, race, and political truth. Not only that, but anybody who questions the freedom to make truth what one wants it to be is labeled intolerant, bigoted, or worse.

Have you ever had anyone say to you, when you have expressed a deeply held conviction or a truth that had changed your life, “I’m glad it’s true for you”? What? I do not know anything that makes me spit and cuss more than someone speaking that kind of drivel. Frankly, I do not want to fly with a pilot, be treated by a doctor, or have a mechanic work on my car, who is that cavalier about aeronautical, medical, or mechanical truth.

So here at the beginning, let me make two statements that are quite controversial to a whole lot of people: there is true truth, and the Christian faith is true truth.

First, believe it or not, there is truth, and that truth is true apart from my perception or anyone’s opinion. Winston Churchill is often quoted as saying that “The truth is incontrovertible. Malice may attack it, ignorance may deride it, but in the end, there it is.” “True truth” (as my late friend and Christian apologist Francis Schaeffer called it) is not adjustable. I may not know that truth, I may miss it, and I may be wrong about it. But truth is there, and it is there aside from what anybody believes about it. For instance, God is personal, or he is not; you are forgiven, or you are not; I am loved by God, or I am not…. (Quote source: “Talk the Walk,” Chapter 2, pp. 13-14).

Now I don’t want to leave you hanging at this point–Steve does go on to write in Chapter 2 titled, “The Gift of Truth,” that there are five truths that the book covers: (1) There really is a God; (2) God had not remained silent; (3) God’s love is unreasonable; (4) Christians aren’t called to be fixers; and (5) Truths 1-4 are the main thing (a brief explanation of those five points is covered in Chapter 2).

Returning to the sentence at the start of this blog post and it is also the first sentence in Chapter 3 titled, “The Sound of Silence,”  Steve continues with the following:

Christian truth is about as welcome in today’s culture as a wet shaggy dog shaking himself at the Miss America Pageant. Truth does not matter, but intolerance does. If the subject is salvation, Christian truth suggests that there are those who are saved and those who are not. If the truth is about sin, than some things are right and others are wrong. If it is about hell and heaven, it means that one place is hot and the other place is not. If it is about forgiveness, then some are forgiven and others are not. Truth feels intolerant–and frankly, when I speak Christian truth, it sometimes feels that way to me.

Truth, by its very nature, divides and offends. That is what Jesus meant when he made the startling statement that he had not come to bring peace but to set children against parents and to create enemies of one’s own household (Matthew 10:35-36).

The presupposition of this book is that Christians are called to speak truth and, much of the time, to speak it to people who do not want to hear it. And they are constrained to do so. Paul said in 1 Corinthians 9:16, “For if I preach the gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting. For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” Paul was saying that he could not keep quiet.

Jeremiah the prophet had the same experience, “If I say, ‘I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,’ there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot” (Jeremiah 20:9). This is the normal experience of every Christian who knows the truth.

But with all of that being said, we Christians must be careful in what we say, how we say it, and even if we are to say it at all. Jesus cautioned that we should “not give dogs what is holy” nor “throw your pearls before pigs lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you” (Matthew 7:6). The truth we have is precious, dangerous, and explosively powerful in the way it can heal or hurt.

There are times when silence really is golden….

Silence, for instance, is better than saying too much that would be confusing and unduly irritating. A young seminary student was once asked to preach in a small country church. There was a major snowstorm, and only one farmer showed up for the service. The young preacher asked the farmer what he should do. The farmer told him that when only one of his cows showed at meantime, he fed this cow.

The preacher–with only the one farmer in attendance–went through the entire service and preached the entire sermon. When the service was over, the student asked the farmer how he had done. “Son,” said the farmer, “when one cow shows, I feed him… but I don’t give him the whole load.”

It is often enough to say, “Jesus loves you, and I do, too.” Other people do not always need to know the differences between Reformed and Arminian theology, the intricacies of the biblical view of law and grace, the Christian disagreements about biblical interpretation, or a Christian critique of politics and culture.

I recently was asked to visit an older man who, after a lifetime of atheism, was thinking about the Christian faith. He had started asking questions, and had even attempted to read the Bible each morning. We spent most of the morning talking about his questions. None of them had to do with theology, hermeneutics, culture, or disagreements within the Christian church–not one. Answering questions that are not asked, defining issues that are not raised, and going places that are not presently important is offensive and a waste of time. It is better that Christians remain silent.

Silence is also appropriate when a Christian has not been given permission to speak. Christians should not shilly-shally about who they are, and should at least give an indication of what they believe. But more information requires permission, and that permission is often given in the questions that are asked. If there are not questions and if no interest is expressed, it is wise to remain silent.

My friend Jake Luhrs, the front man for the Grammy-nominated metal band August Burns Red, is a Christian. Jake wrote a devotional book,Mountains,” and in it he writes [on page 6]:

I never thought I’d write a book, let alone a devotional. To be honest, I didn’t think the day would come when I would share some of my proudest (and not so proud) moments with an audience who might even care to listen…. If you know anything about me you know that I don’t push “religion.” I don’t want to promote a religion. But I do want people to have the same relationship I have with Jesus. I want them to feel loved and understood. When they’re scared, I want them to see him as the ultimate source of love, hope, help, strength and forgiveness.

Why did Jake write his book? He did it because so many of his fans had questions. In fact, he formed a nonprofit community called HeartSupport that touches 70,000 people each month with counseling, help, and acceptance. He started that community and wrote the devotional book because so many people granted permission. Jake told me that when he was on tour, there were so many who wanted to know about his faith, but because of the tour and the necessity of moving quickly to the next city, he simply did not have the time to say what needed to be said and to answer the questions that had been asked.

Christians do not have to give others the whole load. When asked, Christians can say, “Yeah, I am a believer, and it’s the most important thing in my life. If you ever want to hear about it, just ask and I’ll tell you.” Or in my case as a religious professional, when I am asked what I do, I sometimes answer, “I tell people ‘who want to hear’ about Jesus.” Or perhaps when Christians think they have a message that will help someone in trouble, they can say, “If you want me to, I’ll be glad to share it with you.” Permission opens the door to speaking truth. If permission is not given, silence is good practice. Silence is also a wise practice when spoken truth is spoken for the wrong reasons. (Quote source: “Talk the Walk,” Chapter 3, pp. 21-25).

Chapter 3 continues at this point with the topics of “Speaking truth from guilt” (i.e., as in feeling guilty about not speaking up), “Speaking truth to get power” (i.e., looking for power over others by being right), “Speaking truth from self-interest” (i.e., speaking with an agenda of self-interest), “Speaking truth from ignorance” (i.e., not being informed about the nature of the truth they speak), “Speaking truth to help God out” (i.e., God does not need anyone), and “Speaking truth with silence” (i.e., sometimes it is best to be silent and to let love, freedom, and joy do the talking).

Obviously, I have not even scratched the surface of all that is contained in this book, or even the two chapters mentioned above. Steve ended Chapter 3 with the following paragraphs written under the title  of “Speaking Truth with Silence”:

Sometimes it is best to be silent and to let love, freedom, and joy do the talking. There are some things Christians cannot say without words, but there are other matters that are only confused by words. My wife, who is a musician, has often said to me that music is the universal language. Sometimes it is best to remain silent and hear the language of music. Just so, sometimes it is best to speak the language of silence.

It is a cliché, but nevertheless there is some truth to believing that Christians are the only Bible unbelievers ever read. However, with due respect to that point of view, let me say that most of us sin so much, betray our principles so often, and fail so obviously in our Christian walk that the message is mixed and muddled.

But what if we remained silent by not defending ourselves? What if we remained silent when others are condemning those whose lifestyles, politics, or religious views are deemed unacceptable? What if we remained silent and refused to be the social, political, and religious critics of every opinion that wasn’t our own? What if we remained silent in the face of rejection? What if we refused to share the secrets we’ve been told or tell the stories we’ve overheard? What if we remain silent and overlook the foibles of others? What if we looked at the pain of our neighbor and just loved him or her, instead of trying to fix the unfixable? What if our response to confusion, fear, and guilt was simply, “I know”?

There is a powerful witness in that kind of silence. (Quote source: “Talk the Walk,” Chapter 3, pp. 30-31).

As I mentioned above, the book contains so much more information then just the few quotes I’ve posted above. In fact, I still have the last ten chapters to read. But there was just something about Chapter 3, “The Sound of Silence,” that struck a chord with me as I read it. Maybe it will with you, too. Silence can be a powerful witness.

I hope this post has whetted your appetite to read more of Steve’s new book, Talk the Walk,” which can be purchased at Key Life and it is also available on Amazon.com at this link.

Ecclesiastes 3 opens with “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven” and it includes a long list of items starting with “a time to be born and a time to die.” In verse 7 we find in the second half of that verse, “a time to keep silent, and a time to speak.” May we pray for wisdom…

To know when . . .

Is the right time . . .

To be silent . . . .

YouTube Video: “The Sound of Silence” by Pentatonix:

Photo #1 credit here
Photo #2 credit here

Our Shepherd

I purchased a book at a very inexpensive price at the Half Price Bookstore at the end of June that was originally published back in 2001. It was written by Max Lucado and it is titled, Traveling Light.” It’s been republished since then but this particular copy is an original hardcover copy from 2001 (and it’s new, too). I’ve owned this book before but it is currently stored in a box in a storage unit in another state that at this point in time I wonder if I’ll ever see that stuff again since it has been in storage for over five years now. Of course, when I put my stuff in that storage unit over five years ago that came from the last apartment I lived in back then, I never dreamed it would be still be in storage five years later. I figured at the time it might be in storage for six months, max. Guess it falls under the category of Life happens.”

If you’ve read my blog posts lately you’ll know that my almost 96-year-old father died on June 22, 2019 (see blog posts titled, A Eulogy for Dad,” published on June 22, 2019, and Remembering Dad,” published in July 23, 2019). I purchased the book mentioned above on June 30, 2019. I drove to Iowa on July 10th (a 2000-mile round trip drive) to the state where my father lived to attend his visitation and funeral that was held on July 13, 2019, and I spent a week there (July 11-17). And I drove back to the city and state where I’ve been living for the past three years arriving back on July 18th.

I’m glad I went back home for that week. I got to see family members and others who are scattered around in several states who also returned for Dad’s funeral, and I learned about estate sale pickers–a term and occupation I was totally unaware of until Dad’s death (and there is something sort of vulture-like about that particular occupation). I’ve now been back where I’ve been living for about a week and a half, and it’s been over two weeks since the funeral was held on July 13th. I’m still sorting through the mix of emotions I’ve gone through since I first heard Dad was dying in early June, and from being back in my hometown for that week to attend his funeral.

On the list of top ten major stresses in life, death of a loved one (in my case, Dad’s death) holds the #1 spot (source here). Add in other stresses that naturally occur in one’s life, and I’ve been on overload since returning from Dad’s funeral. Being primarily a positive type of person, I’ve found it hard to get back into that positive mode as the grief can still be overwhelming when it hits, and I have a few other challenges right now that add to it but they are things that come up in one form or another in everyone’s life from time to time.

As I was thinking about how to find a way to get out from under this “funk” (grief does take a long time to process), I came across that book I purchased on June 30th mentioned above by Max Lucado titled, Traveling Light.” The subtitle is “Releasing the Burdens You Were Never Meant to Bear,” and that certainly describes my situation right now. I feel buried under a major burden compounded by other “stuff,” and I need a release from it. The book is based on Psalm 23, and here are the words to that psalm:

The LORD is my shepherd;
I shall not want.
He makes me to lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside the still waters.
He restores my soul;
He leads me in the paths of righteousness
For His name’s sake.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil;
For You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
You anoint my head with oil;
My cup runs over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
All the days of my life;
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord
Forever.

Before I quote a story found in the book, Traveling Light, let’s take a look at what is meant by the phrase, The LORD is my Shepherd.” GotQuestions.org gives us the following answer:

The clause “the LORD is my shepherd” comes from one of the most beloved of all passages of Scripture, the 23rd Psalm. In this passage and throughout the New Testament we learn that the Lord is our Shepherd in two ways. First, as the Good Shepherd, He laid down His life for His sheep and, second, His sheep know His voice and follow Him (John 10:1114).

In Psalm 23, God is using the analogy of sheep and their nature to describe us. Sheep have a natural tendency to wander off and get lost. As believers, we tend to do the same thing. It’s as Isaiah has said: “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way” (Isaiah 53:6). When sheep go astray, they are in danger of getting lost, being attacked, even killing themselves by drowning or falling off cliffs.

Likewise, within our own nature there is a strong tendency to go astray (Romans 7:58:8), following the lusts of our flesh and eyes and pursuing the pride of life (1 John 2:16). As such, we are like sheep wandering away from the Shepherd through our own futile self-remedies and attempts at self-righteousness. It is our nature to drift away (Hebrews 2:1), to reject God, and to break His commandments. When we do this, we run the risk of getting lost, even forgetting the way back to God. Furthermore, when we turn away from the Lord, we soon find ourselves confronting one enemy after another who will attack us in numerous ways.

Sheep are basically helpless creatures who cannot survive long without a shepherd, upon whose care they are totally dependent. Likewise, like sheep, we are totally dependent upon the Lord to shepherd, protect, and care for us. Sheep are essentially dumb animals that do not learn well and are extremely difficult to train. They do not have good eyesight, nor do they hear well. They are very slow animals who cannot escape predators; they have no camouflage and no weapons for defense such as claws, sharp hooves, or powerful jaws.

Furthermore, sheep are easily frightened and become easily confused. In fact, they have been known to plunge blindly off a cliff following one after another. Shepherds in Bible times faced incredible dangers in caring for their sheep, putting their own lives at risk by battling wild animals such as wolves and lions who threatened the flock. David was just such a shepherd (1 Samuel 17:34–35). In order to be good shepherds, they had to be willing to lay down their lives for the sheep.

Jesus declared that He is our Shepherd and demonstrated it by giving His life for us. “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28). Through His willing sacrifice, the Lord made salvation possible for all who come to Him in faith (John 3:16). In proclaiming that He is the good shepherd, Jesus speaks of “laying down” His life for His sheep (John 10:1517–18).

Like sheep, we, too, need a shepherd. Men are spiritually blind and lost in their sin. This is why Jesus spoke of the parable of the lost sheep (Luke 15:4–6). He is the Good Shepherd who laid down His life for us. He searches for us when we’re lost, to save us and to show us the way to eternal life (Luke 19:10). We tend to be like sheep, consumed with worry and fear, following after one another. By not following or listening to the Shepherd’s voice (John 10:27), we can be easily led astray by others to our own destruction. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, warns those who do not believe and listen to Him: “I did tell you, but you do not believe . . . you do not believe because you are not my sheep. My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:25–28).

Psalm 23:1–3 tells us that the shepherd meets the sheep’s every need: food, water, rest, safety, and direction. When we as believers follow our Shepherd, we, too, know that we will have all we need. We will not lack the necessities of life, for He knows exactly what we need (Luke 12:22–30).

Sheep will not lie down when they are hungry, nor will they drink from fast-flowing streams. Sometimes the shepherd will temporarily dam up a stream so the sheep can quench their thirst. Psalm 23:2 speaks of leading the sheep “beside the quiet [stilled] waters.” The shepherd must lead his sheep because they cannot be driven. Instead, the sheep hear the voice of their shepherd and follow him—just as we listen to our Shepherd, Jesus Christ—in His Word and follow Him (John 10:3–51627). And if a sheep does wander off, the shepherd will leave the flock in charge of his helpers and search for the lost animal (Matthew 9:3618:12–14Luke 15:3–7).

In Psalm 23:3, the Hebrew word translated “paths” means “well-worn paths or ruts.” In other words, when sheep wander onto a new path, they start to explore it, which invariably leads them into trouble. This passage is closely akin to the warning in Hebrews 13:9: “Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings.” The apostle Paul also alludes to this idea in Ephesians 4:14.

Finally, the shepherd cares for the sheep because he loves them and wants to maintain his own good reputation as a faithful shepherd. As we’ve seen in Psalm 23, the analogy of the Lord as the Good Shepherd was also applied by Jesus in John chapter 10. In declaring that He is the shepherd of the sheep, Jesus is confirming that He is God. The Eternal God is our Shepherd. And we would not want it any other way. (Quote source here.)

In Chapter 4 titled, “The Prison of Want: The Burden of Discontent,” in the book, Traveling Light,” on pp. 32-34, is this reflection:

Are you hoping that a change in circumstances will bring a change in your attitude? If so, you are in prison, and you need to learn a secret of traveling light. What you have in your Shepherd is greater than what you don’t have in life.

May I meddle for a moment? What is the one thing separating you from joy? How do your fill in this blank: “I will be happy when ________________”? When I am healed. When I am promoted. When I am married. When I am single. When I am rich. How would you finish that statement?

Now, with your answer firmly in mind, answer this. If your ship never comes in, if your dream never comes true, if the situation never changes, could you be happy? If not, then you are sleeping in the cold cell of discontent. You are in prison. And you need to know what you have in your Shepherd.

You have a God who hears you, the power of love behind you, the Holy Spirit within you, and all of heaven ahead of you. If you have the Shepherd, you have grace for every sin, direction for every turn, a candle for every corner, and an anchor for every storm. You have everything you need.

And who can take it from you? Can leukemia infect your salvation? Can bankruptcy impoverish your prayers? A tornado might take your earthly house, but will it touch your heavenly home?

And look at your position. Why clamor for prestige and power? Are you not already privileged to be part of the greatest work in history?

According to Russ Blowers (1924-2007), we are. He [was] a minister in Indianapolis. Knowing he would be asked about his profession at a Rotary Club meeting, he resolved to say more than, “I’m a preacher.”

Instead he explained, “Hi, I’m Russ Blowers. I’m with a global enterprise. We have branches in every country in the world. We have representatives in nearly every parliament and boardroom on earth. We’re into motivation and behavior alternation. We run hospitals, feeding stations, crisis-pregnancy centers, universities, publishing houses, and nursing homes. We care for our clients from birth to death. We are into life insurance and fire insurance. We perform spiritual heart transplants. Our original Organizer owns all the real estate on earth plus and assortment of galaxies and constellations. He knows everything and lives everywhere. Our product is free for the asking. (There’s not enough money to buy it.) Our CEO was born in a hick town, worked as a carpenter, didn’t own a home, was misunderstood by his family and hated by his enemies, walked on water, was condemned to death without a trial, and arose from the dead. I talk with him every day.”

If you can say the same, don’t you have reason to be content?…

What will you gain with contentment? You may gain your marriage. You may gain precious hours with your children. You may gain your self-respect. You may gain joy. You may gain the faith to say, “The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.”

Try saying it slowly. “The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.”

Again, “The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.”

Again, “The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.”

Shhhhhhh. Did you hear something? I think I did. I’m not sure… but I think I heard the opening of a jail door. (Quote source: “Traveling Light,” pp. 32-34.)

So go to the Shepherd. He’s the only One who can release you from your burdens.

The LORD . . .

Is my shepherd . . .

I shall not want . . .

YouTube video: “I Just Need U” by TobyMac:

Photo #1 credit here
Photo #2 credit here

Forever Changed

It’s been two weeks since I’ve been on my laptop as I’ve been a little busy. I spent eight days between July 10-18, 2019 going back home (and driving 2000 miles round trip) to my hometown in Iowa to attend my father’s funeral that was held on July 13, 2019. Dad actually died on June 22, 2019, just one month shy of his 96th birthday, and I wrote a eulogy for him on that day on my other blog titled, A Eulogy for Dad.”

Dad had a hand in putting together his own funeral service before he died, and he made new friends before his passing with the people at the funeral home. His mind and sense of humor were sharp right up until he drew his last breath. He even included three songs in his funeral service that tells a story in song of his life. The first song was Unforgettable; the second song was Amazing Grace”; and the last song was Joy to the World/Jeremiah was a Bullfrog by Three Dog Night.

Vintage T-6 Texan from 1944

Dad enlisted in the US Navy in 1943 during WWII, and he received his Gold Wings as a Naval Aviator during the war and remained in the Naval Reserves for a total of 21 years. During that time, he flew 19 different WWII Navy fighter planes up to and including swept wing jets. He loved to fly whenever he could and flew 37 different aircraft (including the T-6 Texan pictured here during WWII), both military and civilian throughout his life. He was extremely proud of his military service and career. (Source here.) More history about Dad is written in his obituary at Resthaven Funeral Home.

Dad’s funeral service was a tribute and celebration of a life well lived. His graveside service included a 21-gun salute, a “fly-over” by a T-6 Texan aircraft that circled the graveside a couple of times, and two sailors in dress uniform–one sailor who presented the flag draped over Dad’s coffin to my niece, and the other sailor who played Taps.” Not many folks make it to almost 96 years of age, and he was one of those who did. We were fortunate to have had him in our lives for so long, but even with him being around for that many years, his death is hard to bear. As my older brother said during his eulogy for Dad during Dad’s funeral service, we thought he would be around forever since he had been around for so long.

But no one lives forever, at least not on this earth. We all die someday, but this is not to be seen as a grim reality. A reality it is, but “grim” is only a choice if we choose to make it so. My two brothers and I lost our mother back in 1983 when she was only 54 (from health issues that started with adult onset diabetes that she was diagnosed with shortly after my parents divorced in the mid-1960’s when I was 12). I was 30 at the time of Mom’s death, and it propelled me into a new direction in life that I had never previously thought about taking. Within five months of her death, I ended up cancelling the wedding I had planned shortly after her death before I made what would have been a huge mistake by marrying that particular guy; and I enrolled at a state university to finish the last two years of my bachelor’s degree that I had started in 1977 when I completed a two-year associate’s degree in 1979. I quit the job I had for several years at a hospital, and I found an editorial secretary job at that state university that worked around my class schedule. Two years later I received my bachelor’s degree, and eventually I went on to earn a master’s degree, and shortly after that I was awarded a one-year doctoral fellowship in the area of higher education administration and adult education.

With Dad’s death, I am now 67–over twice as old as I was when Mom died. There is far less “future” at this age for me then there was at 30, but no one knows how long they will live (not even those who are young). Since Dad’s funeral was just eight days ago as of this writing, I am still in the process of getting my equilibrium back as to what the future will hold now that both of my parents have died (and also my very significant stepmother who died in 2011). It’s an odd feeling to no longer have a parent around, even at a distance. Parents–whether good, bad, or indifferent or any combination of the three (or any other combination to add) are our “anchors” in life. If it were not for them, we would not exist.

In a January 19, 2018 article in the LA Times titled, What the death of a parent can teach us, if we’re willing to learn,” by Alene Dawson, freelance writer and journalist, and LA Times contributor, she writes:

“We tend to think of ourselves as ‘children’ until we lose our parents. It is only then that we are on the front line of mortality,” said Debra J. Umberson, professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin and author of the bookDeath of a Parent: Transition to a New Adult Identity.” “This gives us a very different perspective on our own lifespans and where we fit in terms of generations.”

David Kesslerfounder of grief.com and co-author with Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross of the influential bookOn Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief Through the Five Stages of Loss,” said many adults — regardless of age — struggle with feeling like an orphan after a parent dies. “I try to remind them that you still stay connected with that person even in death.”

An era gone by

“Our parents are our first relationship… So when a parent dies, it is your anchor being taken away,” Kessler said. Los Angeles resident Abbe Andersen took care of her mother, who had Alzheimer’s, and when she died at 88, Andersen felt her point of life reference had died, too. “It’s a lost feeling,” she said. But it also allowed her to rethink and reshift personal priorities: “What’s important are your connections… dear friends and family.”

Rituals can help

“Having a place that reminds the child of the parent and going to that place to talk things through with the parent can be very comforting,” Umberson said. Planting a tree, or assembling a special photo album or scrapbook can also help.

Grieving what never was

Some are perplexed to find themselves mourning a parent with whom they’ve had a bad relationship. “We believe we only grieve people we love but that actually isn’t true,” Kessler said. “My definition of grief is a reflection of a connection we have lost… Sometimes we have to grieve for what never was, for that ideal parent we never had.”

For some, a new freedom

Jeanne Safer, author ofDeath Benefits: How Losing a Parent Can Change an Adult’s Life – for the Better— the book cover is a birdcage with an open door — says that after a parent dies, many people feel more free to marry outside their religion or ethnicity, “people come out [as gay], people leave religion, people come to religion, people get divorces – all kinds of things – it’s fascinating.” And it’s nothing to feel ashamed of.

Kessler pointed to an example of a client who was grieving his abusive father’s death. But as time passed, the man felt a safety in the world he hadn’t felt before. “We think a parent ideally will enrich us but some people do have parents that diminish them,” Kessler said.

Take a psychological inventory

Safer advised taking some time to think about your parent’s legacy, and your own: “Four questions to ask yourself about your parent’s character are: ‘What did I get from my parent that I want to keep? What do I regret not getting? What did I get that I want to discard? What did I need that my parent couldn’t provide?’

“What you didn’t get but needed, go out and get from other people or yourself,” Safer added.

The first two weeks… then a lifetime

When you lose your parent as an adult, there’s often much to do, such as contacting relatives, planning the memorial and funeral and sorting through possessions. “The reality is you are swept up in the busy-ness and then in about three months to a year it really hits… And it’s usually about that time where their support has moved on,” Kessler said. Then family traditions change as first holidays and birthdays without them pass. “The second year is the year we realize they’re never coming back, we’re never seeing them again–this is us now.”

Reach out for support

“Time does not heal all wounds but the pain of loss does lessen with time. My main advice is to not expect yourself to quickly recover and to not feel there is anything abnormal about intense feelings of grief,” Umberson said, adding that it can be comforting spending time with others who’ve gone through a similar loss, whether it’s friends or strangers in a support group. “Seeking this kind of contact is a concrete thing people can do to help them move forward.”

Kessler says sharing your grief online can also help. “Posting a photo of your mother on the anniversary of her death can connect you with friends and family who are also grieving. You can also find a closed Facebook group where people unite on the type of grief they have,” Kessler said. “We have a primal need for our grief to be witnessed. Our psyche doesn’t want us to be an island of grief. We need each other and grief is a universal connector.”

To read this article in Spanish, click here. (Quote source here.)

In another article titled When a Parent Dies,” by Le Anne Schreiber on Oprah.com, she writes:

It’s always a shock. But grieving grown-up children may be surprised to find that despite the sorrow, the life changes following loss are often positive….

…What I have learned from my friends is that a single death can transform your life, especially if the death is that of your mother or father. And it doesn’t matter whether that parent was beloved or resented, whether the relationship was close or distant, warm or cold, harmonious or hotly conflictual. It doesn’t even matter how old you are, or how old your parent was at the time of death. For most people, the death of a parent, particularly when the parent is of the same sex, is life altering.

Anyone who has lost a mother or father knows this, and yet there is little social recognition of parental death as a milestone of adult life. Even more remarkable is the near total vacuum of professional research on this subject. There is an enormous, burgeoning field of psychology called bereavement studies, but in the 814 pages of the Handbook of Bereavement Research, the bible of the field, only four are devoted to the subject of an adult child’s loss of a parent.

Miriam Moss, one of the few researchers who have studied the impact of parental death, suspects that ageism is largely responsible for this neglect. “Old people are not valued in this culture,” says Moss, senior research scientist at the School of Public Health at Drexel University. “The loss of an elderly parent is not seen as particularly important.” What reinforces that ageism, Moss adds, is the fact that “it’s normative, expected. The attitude is, Oh well, she was old. How old was she? Seventy-eight? Oh, I’m sorry. What else is new?”

Disenfranchised grief is the term for mourning whose death is not socially recognized, and it has a silencing effect on the griever. It also, says Miriam Moss, has distorted and trivialized our understanding of the loss of a parent. “A parent’s death,” she says, “has a very strong impact, and it’s not just emotional. The whole meaning of who you are is very much attached to this person.”

Most of Moss’s research has looked at the effect of parental loss within the first six months to a year after the death, when grief is keenest. But it is often in the following years, when a new emotional equilibrium has been achieved, that many people register the deeper, more lasting consequences of being motherless or fatherless. And about these unfolding long-term changes, there is virtually no professional research. There is, however, a growing body of anecdotal evidence, written and oral, arising from Baby Boomers, myself included, who have never been prone to silence about anything on their collective mind.

With the goal of further opening up this subject, I conducted interviews with a small sample of women, ages 46 to 66, about how their lives had been affected by the death of a parent. Although the stories they told, and the parent-child relationships they described, were highly individual, a remarkable consistency began to emerge. Without exception these women described profound changes, both internal and external, which they directly attributed to their parents’ deaths. Most surprisingly, they characterized the changes as positive. That, in fact, is why they seldom, if ever, had talked in detail about their reactions to becoming motherless or fatherless. They were afraid that speaking of the good that had followed would be unseemly, disrespectful, too easily misunderstood as being glad that a parent had died. And that indeed would be a misunderstanding.

“I wish my mother could see me now” was a commonly expressed sentiment—paired with the complex irony that “if she could see me, I wouldn’t be anything like I now am.” (Quote source and the rest of the lengthy article is available at this link.)

David wrote in Psalm 68:5-6 that God is A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows is God in his holy dwelling. God sets the lonely in families, and he leads out the prisoners with singing”…. For those who believe in God, he is the source of the greatest strength and comfort and guidance in hard times and times of grief for anyone who genuinely seeks Him. He is the God of all comfort (2 Corinthians 1:3-5). He makes crooked paths straight (Proverbs 3:5-6), and Psalm 34:18 states, The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” And he is always there when no one else is around (see Hebrews 13:5-6).

I’ll end this post with these words from Father to the Fatherless: A Call to Worship from Psalm 68

This is God . . .

Father to the fatherless . . .

Defender of the desolate . . .

YouTube Video: “Amazing Grace” (Live) by Il Divo:

Photo #1 credit here
Photo #2 credit–family photo
Photo #3 credit here
Photo #4 credit here

Rules of Engagement

There is no more favorite place for a book lover to be than in a used bookstore. It’s almost like finding hidden treasure. I can spend hours looking around at all the books, CDs, DVDs, and other stuff found in them. And they don’t just sell used stuff. They have new stuff in there, too. I’m referring to a particular chain of bookstores known as Half Price Books. They have over 120 stores in Arizona, California, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Texas (their flagship store is in Dallas), Washington, and Wisconsin.  And, there are several in the area where I live, too (in Texas).

The other day I was in one of their bookstores looking at their clearance section which has fabulous prices. I’ve picked up a number of books, DVD’s and CD’s for $2-$3 dollars each in the clearance section, and the other day was no exception. They’ve given me fodder for more than just a few blog posts, too. This last time around I picked up a book titled, Rules of Engagement: Finding Faith and Purpose in a Disconnected World (2010), by Chad Hennings, a former American football defensive tackle for the Air Force Academy Falcons, and a member of the team that won three Super Bowls in his nine years with the Dallas Cowboys, among other accomplishments.

I didn’t realize when I looked at the book that it was written specifically for men. It is an autographed copy of the book to a woman named Rochelle and signed by Hennings, and it is in excellent condition. I opened the book in the store and read a brief section in the opening chapter titled, “Crafting Character and Casting a Vision,” and I decided to buy it for $3. Once I got back home I made the discovery that it was a book written specifically for men, so I decided, well, at least I could learn more about men by reading it… 🙂

It was the title of the book that caught my attention–“Rules of Engagement.” His subtitle of “Finding Faith and Purpose in a Disconnected World” was intriguing, too. It’s not easy navigating our way through life and it doesn’t get any easier with age, either.

As Christians, we can too often get into an “Us verses Them” mentality when engaging with our society and the various cultures that exist all around us. We too often reflect a “my way or the highway” viewpoint without realizing how we might be coming off to others, or really listening to what others have to say, or understanding another cultural context besides our own which is too often insulated behind our church walls.

In an article published in May 2015 titled The Rules of Engagement,” by Martin Saunders, deputy CEO of Youthscape, a contributor to Premier Youthwork and Premier Christianity, and a host at the annual Youthwork Summit, he states the following:

I have, by the grace of God and three different editors, been writing this column for five years now. I’ve written at least 60 articles in this slot, on subjects as diverse as dieting and Internet porn, “Game of Thrones” and “Mr. Tumble.” I’ve used the words ‘vital challenge to the Church’ more often than I should have, and suggested a ‘third way response’ enough times to have reasonably expected a lawsuit from “Third Way” magazine. In that time I’ve also significantly changed my approach to engaging with culture.

The problem with the Internet is that it never forgets. In 2001, I wrote my first ever piece of Christian cultural commentary for the Premier Christian Radio website. Entitled “Is Harry Potter a moving staircase too far?” (shudder), it raised grave concerns about the “grey areas” in the first film depicting JK Rowling’s schoolboy wizard. It even included the line: “Harry Potter is a large doorway to the occult, and if we lead children to it, there’s a possibility they may nudge it open.” Nearly 15 years later, that article still regularly comes back to bite me, and while I’ve mellowed significantly, one can only imagine what my 22-year-old self would have made of “Fifty Shades of Grey.”

For many Christians, however, this is still a semi-accurate caricature of what cultural engagement looks like. We’re naturally suspicious of film, television and video games; visual media with the power to ‘corrupt’. We worry about the world views espoused in music and literature, and displayed by the flawed role models who fill our newspapers. There’s the Church, and there’s the world, and the one should be very nervous of the other, only making raiding runs into enemy territory to grab gospel-affirming movie clips or song lyrics to spice up a flat sermon.

Even for those of us who unashamedly love movies, music and all of the arts, Christian cultural engagement usually means one of two things. Either we pull out lines, scenes, images or quotes to affirm our world view or, at the other extreme, we suggest a sort of gentle (or not so gentle) boycott of the things that don’t. So “Rev.” gets two thumbs up (until the protagonist starts to veer off the rails, at least), and “Jerry Springer: The Opera” draws a disapproving glare, or even a protest. I’ve suggested both of these responses in previous culture columns, of course.

All of which is fine, I suppose, if we want to hold to that old Christian saying (a heavy rewrite of John 17:16- 18) that we’re to be ‘in the world but not of it’. But the longer I’ve been writing this column, the more I’ve started to believe that taking such an arms-length view of the culture around us can seriously undermine our attempts at mission.

Why Cultural Engagement Matters

Good evangelism starts with listening. We don’t launch into telling people our story before we’ve given them a chance to tell us their own. Otherwise we come across as religious zealots, convinced of our particular version of God, and determined to force him upon anyone who will listen. I believe that part of that listening process should include listening to the cultural context in which the people we’re trying to talk to live their lives.

There’s an oft-quoted biblical precedent for that, too. In Acts 17, Paul famously speaks in the meeting of the Athenian Areopagus, and demonstrates his knowledge and understanding of Greek culture: their cultural story. And that’s not all. He uses it to connect with the story that he’s come to tell them, seamlessly weaving together the words of Greek poets and his own gospel presentation. And, as verse 34 tells us: ‘Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed.’

This is of course the standard set text on cultural engagement, yet perhaps its familiarity causes us to overlook it. At first glance, Paul appears to take a quote (it might as well be a video clip) from Greek poetry, and use it in his sermon as an illustration. In fact, Paul had precisely the right quote, from the right poem, at his fingertips and he used it in connection with a sculpture–another work of art–that he had observed while walking around Athens. It seems to me that far from picking out a couple of cultural proof texts, Paul soaked himself in Athenian culture in the hope of finding points of connection with the gospel he sought to share.

Affirming Truth

In his references to both poetry and sculpture, Paul is actually very affirming of their creators. He points out where he believes the Athenian artists have already got it right and builds on this platform. Their altar ‘TO AN UNKNOWN GOD’ gives him a perfect platform to speak in a language the people understand, and on a subject that they find interesting. He demonstrates that he has listened to their story, and agrees that there is truth and wisdom in it.

I think this should also be our starting point for cultural engagement. When we think about modern culture, we might naturally gravitate towards some of its ‘evils’ (more on this in a moment), but there is so much good to point out. Whether it’s the on-the-nose Christian allegory of the “Narnia” stories, “Thor” or the final chapters of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” the spiritual themes of “The Shawshank Redemption,” “Selma,” and “Les Misérables,” or the songs of “U2” and “Mumford & Sons,” there is so much that is actually complementary to the Christian narrative.

Beyond those specifically Christian-affirming examples, add “Frozen,” “Life of Pi” (both the book and film) and “The Help,” all of which are brimming with wisdom and truth that are entirely complementary to the gospel.

There are also stories in culture that paint a bleak picture of humanity, and which clearly illustrate the need for God and his grace; the modern equivalent perhaps of that Athenian altar. Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel “The Road” is one good example, in which God is noticeable by his absence. It is as if God checked out when the apocalypse happened (Tom Perrotta’s post-rapture book “The Leftovers” does the same thing in a different way) and has left behind a world entirely bereft of hope.

In a very different genre, Liam Neeson’s recent ultra-violent action flick “Run All Night” shows the emptiness of a world view without grace, as members of New York’s Irish mob retaliate following one another’s deaths until they are all annihilated. We can use these stories as evidence for our need for God: a bigger picture way of thinking about them, which allows us not to get too hung up on the swearing and violence they might contain.

Critiquing What Doesn’t Work

I’m not suggesting, however, that we should wholeheartedly embrace the culture around us. As people who are called to “seek justice” (Isaiah 1:17), it is only right that we speak out when something in our culture promotes the opposite. We shouldn’t stay silent about “Fifty Shades of Grey,” a book that seems to promote and glorify violent, unloving sexual relationships.

Sexually explicit or violent lyrics, video games that glorify killing and films like “Saw” and all its sequels, which ask consumers to enjoy the creative destruction of human beings, should be critiqued. Junk food culture like this doesn’t do us any good as individuals or as a society, and Christians should feel able to point that out.

People of faith are most famous for taking offence when culture goes a step further and decides to critique or poke fun at us. I think God is probably big enough to deal with that without us needing to leap to his defense. Most mentions of blasphemy in the Bible are either aimed at God’s own people or found in accusations leveled at Jesus himself. In fact, I think we’re much better served saving our critiques for when culture totally misses the point.

In Athens, Paul twice comments on the ignorance of his contemporary culture’s great and good. He calls them ignorant for not knowing who God is (v. 23), and again for thinking that the true God can be manufactured by human hands (vv. 29-30), like some sort of superhero for people to look up to. So, as we read, watch, listen to and absorb our culture, we can follow Paul’s example when God is glaringly absent.

Christopher Nolan’s recent film “Interstellar” is a good example of this. The film pushes humankind to the furthest reaches of the universe, then performs gymnastic leaps of logic, which manage to make humanity its own savior and prove ultimately unsatisfying. “The Hunger Games” trilogy does a similar thing, and likewise suffers from an almost hopeless conclusion.

I believe that when we point to these kinds of stories, whether in the context of a sermon or a conversation down at the pub, then our perspective–that the absence of mystery and divinity in these stories makes them weaker–will resonate.

Knowledge, Not Assumptions

Being able to talk with some authority about our culture’s stories requires us to invest in that culture. A conversation on a film, TV show or book we have never seen will always have limited depth. That’s why I believe that, like Paul, we should get to know and understand the culture around us in some detail. That might not always mean visiting the cinema to see the latest 18-certificate movie (“Fifty Shades” being a pertinent example), but it could mean reading around it and taking time to listen to the perspectives of Christians who have.

When we have listened to those stories and found elements within them that we can either affirm or critique, there are lots of creative ways of building bridges to the story we want to share. Rather than using a clip from a film to make a point (cinema’s version of the proof text), how about watching an entire film together as a congregation or small group and using this as a springboard for discussion? Instead of referring to a song lyric, how about using the whole song in an act of worship?

Once we’re engaged in listening properly to culture’s story, and to affirming, redeeming and constructively critiquing it, those creative methods of engagement will surely flow. As they do, however, we should never lose sight of why we’re doing this. Our mission as Christians is to follow Jesus and to help others do likewise. That’s why it is vital that we understand the culture in which we’re ministering, and the stories with which we seek to connect our own. To simply consume culture without seeking to interpret it is, for me at least, still a moving staircase too far. (Quote source here.)

I’ll end this post with Paul’s wise words found in Romans 12:18If it is possible…

As far as it depends on you . . .

Live at peace . . .

With everyone . . . .

YouTube Video: “Speak Life” by TobyMac:

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Photo #2 credit here

A Story of Faith

I read an interesting story this morning from a book titled, When God Winks on Love: Let the Power of Coincidence Lead You to Love,” (2004) by SQuire Rushnell (and, yes, the “Q” is capitalized in his name), a popular speaker and New York Times bestselling author who coined the term Godwink,” now in mainstream usage.

The story is found in a chapter titled, “Meant To Be,” with a subtitle of “Jeannette & Meyer: A Story of Faith,” on pp. 177-185. Here is that story:

In the following story, Jennette and Meyer had to endure more than ever should be expected of two human beings living in a civilized society. Yet, as I suspect you will agree, they were intended for each other.

“Oh, Meyer, I do love you,” whispered eighteen-year-old Jennette on her wedding day.

Her love for Meyer was growing everyday. He was older, stronger, and made her feel safe. he was a kind man who loved talking about having children and a family. And, she admired how he had helped so many others, smuggling them across borders, escaping death.

Jennette and Meyer said their marriage vows in Budapest, Hungary, a safe haven–they thought–from the atrocities that were happening to other Jewish citizens in their native Poland and other countries occupied by the Nazis.

It was 1943.

While still in Poland, Jennette was narrowly sent, on several occasions, to Auschwitz, a notorious concentration camp where over two million people perished. But each time, the buses filled up, and by coincidental timing, she was left behind.

Jennette then fled to Hungary where she met and fell in love with Meyer Ehrlich.

Only weeks after their marriage, Jennette was able to tell her husband the joyful news that she had felt the stirrings of a baby inside her body. Anxious to father a child, Meyer was thrilled.

But Hungary was not safe.

The Germans ominously moved into the country and assumed control without firing a single shot. Again, Jewish people were being rounded up and taken away.

Several months into her pregnancy, Jennette and Meyer were dining one night in a restaurant. Hungarian police marched in and ordered identification from various customers. Jennette’s heart stopped as they demanded to look at Meyer’s papers.

“He may be an underground terrorist,” said on officer.

“Take them in,” commanded another.

At the police station, it was determined that Meyer would be sent to Munich to be put on “trial”–which everyone knew was only for show–and that his fate almost certainly meant that he would be sent to another horrid concentration camp, Dachau, where most prisoners were put to death.

Noticing that Jennette was pregnant, the police ordered her to remain behind for “questioning.” Jennette was terrified. Yet, from the moment she saw her husband being jostled away by authorities, she never doubted that he would survive.

She prayed. And she had faith.

Meyer had told her about his earlier survival, before they had met, from his incarceration in Auschwitz, and subsequently at another labor camp; how he and a group of others had been shot in their escape, and how he was able to get away despite a bullet wound to the neck.

He would survive, she believed.

Jennette saw an opportunity to sneak away from the jail.

She ran.

In Budapest she was able to make contact with someone who said they could help her get to Romania. Now, at nearly full-term pregnancy, she was smuggled across the border with a small group of others. In Romania they felt great relief when they saw a Jewish name on a house.

They knocked.

“Quickly–come in,” said the owner, looking in both directions.

Leading them inside, he said, “Make yourself comfortable. Take a bath and have something to eat. I must go out. I will be back with more food.”

Within the hour police burst through the door and arrested them. To protect himself, the owner had betrayed them.

Jennette was taken to a camp.

Again, she saw a way to escape.

Again, she ran.

She encountered a lady taxi driver who offered to take her to the docks.

“Someone will help you,” she was assured. “They will take you secretly aboard a livestock ship to Constanta.”

The ship would take her to the Romanian seaport through mine fields in the Black Sea.

As the ship sliced through dark waters, Jennette could see the shattered remains and debris from an earlier ship that had detonated a mine, spilling its passengers into the cold depths of the Black Sea.

She began to feel labor pains.

Ill-equipped to assist in the birth of a baby, the captain sent out a coded signal. Another boat came alongside, and took Jennette ashore in Turkey. There, because she was Jewish, she was made to sign papers that when the baby was born it would not be identified as a Turkish citizen. At a nursing home, she gave birth to a boy. His name was Charles.

Told she could remain in Turkey for only one month without a visa, Jennette made her way back to Israel. She took training and became a nurse.

A few months later her hopes soared when a small box came in the mail. But when she opened it, her dreams plummeted. Inside were Meyer’s personal effects…and ashes.

“He is dead,” said a friend of Jennette’s. “No one escapes Dachau.”

“No. He is a survivor,” said Jennette, with conviction, while choking back tears, “I do not believe those are his ashes. I believe he is still alive.”

Nearly two years passed.

Another man who had once been with Jennette in one of the small groups smuggled to safety had also found his way to Israel. He name was Bernard Teichtal. Long attracted to her, Bernard now professed that he had fallen in love with her.

“Will you marry me, Jennette?” asked Bernard.

She declined.

Later, Bernard repeated his request.

Jennette’s friends were insistent.

“Jennette, your intuition is wrong. Meyer is gone. You are being foolish. Bernard is a good man. He loves you. Marry him.”

Reluctantly, she said she’d consider it.

Jennette suggested that Bernard find an apartment, and used other excuses to delay a decision. Deep in her heart she believed–she hoped–that it was her friends who were wrong, not her. For, every time she looking into the eyes of her twenty-two-month-old baby, she could see the face of her husband.

When her friends became relentless, Jennette finally accepted Barnard’s proposal and set a date for the wedding.

Four weeks before the ceremony, Jennette was waiting at the bus stop on her way to work. She noticed a Red Cross flyer that was posted there. Written in Hebrew, it said the Allies had freed the prisoners of Dachau and listed notices of people who had been separated from their loved ones.

Jennette’s mouth dropped as she read: “Meyer Ehrlich, Munich, looking for his wife.”

She fainted.

People at the bus stop rushed to her aide: “Poor thing. She hasn’t had breakfast–look how thin she is,” they said.

Jennette came to.

She looked at the poster again.

She fainted again.

It was almost beyond belief–her faith that her husband Meyer was still alive was rewarded!

“I am so happy!” she said.

Jennette quickly contacted her fiancé Bernard and told him that she was sorry, but the wedding had to be called off. She told her friends that she had to find a way to get to Munich.

She packed her bags, bundled up baby Charles, and made her way to Paris. There she was told that there was one train that could take her to Munich. She bought tickets.

But the train failed to stop in Munich. There was no way to get off. Like it or not, Jennette was bound for Vienna.

Options raced through her mind. She had endured so much. To be so close to her beloved husband, and not to succeed in reaching him, simply wasn’t an option.

She was determined.

When the train slowed to a stop ten miles outside of Munich to take on water, Jennette seized her opportunity. Tightly holding her baby, she slipped unnoticed from the train, leaving all her belongings behind.

For several hours she dodged oncoming trains, and stumbled on rocks and railroad ties.

“Momma,” said little Charlie, “I would like to have a piece of bread.”

“Just a little further, my baby, and you will have all the bread you want.”

Darkness was falling as Jennette and little Charlie made it into Munich. Someone directed her to the home of Meyer’s brother, only to receive another disappointment: Meyer–in his search for her–had gone to Paris.

His brother immediately sent Meyer a telegram.

In a matter of days, her prayers came to pass. Jennette, her baby, and Meyer were back in each other’s arms. And that is where they remained for many happy years to come.

Jennette and Meyer moved to America, had two more children–a brother and sister for Charles.

Still speaking with a slight accent, Jennette says, “I love this country. Every day I say a prayer to God to say thank you.”

In 1990, twenty years after relocating to America, Meyer died.

Seven years later Jennette saw Bernard Teichtal, the man she left at the altar. It was a brief conversation. He was dying of cancer.

“I always loved you,” Bernard told her. “I never married. And, because I was with you during your pregnancy, I always thought of Charlie as my own child.”

It was a bittersweet closing to another chapter in Jennette’s life. But, more heartfelt then most, she can attest to the power of Godwinks that arise from a deep and and determined faith.

Jennette never doubted that she and Meyer were bashert–intended for each other. (Bashert is a Yiddish word that means “destiny”. It is often used in the context of one’s divinely predestined spouse or soulmate. It can also be used to express the seeming destiny of an auspicious or important event, friendship, or happening. In modern usage, Jewish singles will say that they are looking for their bashert, meaning they are looking for that person who will complement them perfectly, and whom they will complement perfectly. Quote source here.) (Story quote source: “When God Winks on Love,” pp. 177-185.)

In Matthew 17:20, Jesus told his disciples, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” That is the kind of faith Jennette had in the story above. And it is the kind of faith we can have, too, if we will only believe and not doubt or give up.

So what exactly is “mustard seed” faith? GotQuestions.org gives us the answer:

Faith is so vital to the Christian life that Scripture tells us that, without it, it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6). Yet faith is such a powerful gift from God (Ephesians 2:8–9) Christ told His disciples that, with just a tiny measure of it, the size of a mustard seed, they could move mountains. So, what does it mean to have “mustard seed faith”?

We see the reference to “mustard seed faith” twice in Scripture. First, in Matthew 17:14–20, we see Christ’s disciples unable to exorcise a demon from a young boy, even though Jesus had previously given them the authority to do this very thing (Matthew 10:1). When they inquired of Jesus why they were not able to drive the demon out, the Master replied, “Because you have so little faith. I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘move from here to there’ and it will move; Nothing will be impossible for you” (Matthew 17:14–20). Next, in Luke 17:6, Jesus tells His disciples, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you.” By using the uncommonly small mustard seed as an example, Jesus is speaking figuratively about the incalculable power of God when unleashed in the lives of those with true faith.

We know that this statement about moving mountains and uprooting trees by faith is not to be taken literally. The key to understanding the passages is the nature of faith, which is a gift from God. The power of faith reflects the omnipotent nature of the God who bestows faith on His own. The mustard seed is one of the tiniest seeds found in the Middle East, so the conclusion is that the amount of faith needed to do great things is very small indeed. Just as in the parable of the mustard seed (Matthew 13:31–32), Jesus uses rhetorical hyperbole to make the point that little is much when it comes from God. The mustard seed in the parable grows to be a huge tree, representing the tiny beginnings of Christianity when just a few disciples began to preach and teach the gospel. Eventually, the kingdom grew to huge proportions, encompassing the entire world and spreading over centuries.

So, too, does the tiniest bit of faith, when it is true faith from God, grow to immense proportions in the lives of believers and spreading out to influence all they come into contact with. One has only to read histories of the great men of the faith, such as Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, to know that superhuman feats were performed by those whose faith was, at one time, only the size of a mustard seed. (Quote source here.)

I’ll end this post with these two reminders: First, from Hebrews 11:6And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him. And second, from the words of Jesus found in Matthew 21:21-22, Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree (see vv. 18-20), but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done. If you believe…

You will receive . . .

Whatever you ask for . . .

In prayer . . . .

YouTube Video: “Miracle” by Unspoken:

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Photo #3 credit here

And Life Goes On

This past week I read an interesting article on longevity in a bi-monthly email publication titled, Nehemiah Notes,” by Blaine Smith,  an ordained Presbyterian minister who retired a decade ago as Director of Nehemiah Ministries, Inc., which ceased operation shortly after he retired. He is also the author of several books as well as his bi-monthly online publication mentioned above.

The article I read is titled, Moving Ahead After the Letdown: Finding the Heart to Make New Beginnings, and here is an excerpt from that article:

One of the most helpful insights we gain from studies of longevity is the importance of resilience. Centenarians, and others with exceptional life spans, are often those who are best able to accept loss and make new beginnings. Not that they don’t feel the pain of major disappointments and grieve them profoundly. Still, the point comes when they are able to put the past behind them and move on. And they are remarkably adept at making fresh starts, even at unlikely points in life.

Jeanne Calment was a stunning example of this resilience. By the time she died in 1997 at 122, this Frenchwoman held the title of being the world’s oldest living person with a documented birth date–a record still unbroken. Yet Calment suffered many misfortunes during her extraordinary lifetime. Pleurisy claimed her only child at 36, her husband died from eating tainted cherries at 72, and her only grandchild perished in a car accident at 36. After each crisis, though, she was able to regain her hope and “turn the page.”

At 110 she gave up independent living and moved to a nursing home, where she continued to make new friends and adjust well to her new lifestyle. She never lost her positive outlook, even in her final years–or her sense of humor. On her 120th birthday a reporter asked what sort of future she envisioned. “A very brief one,” Calment replied.

Genetics and lifestyle obviously played a role in Calment’s unusual longevity. Yet her outlook on life was a critical factor as well.

During our own lifetime, we each experience a multitude of disappointments and setbacks. They range from minor aggravations (a friend forgets a lunch date, your favorite restaurant closes) to major unwelcome turns of fate (the breakup of a cherished relationship, the death of a loved one). The experience of loss is universal–none of us escapes it. Yet the way we respond to it varies greatly among us, and radically affects our quality of life.

Some people never fully recuperate from a major loss. They feel its pain for years or decades, and carry continual sorrow over the relationship that didn’t work, the loved one who died unexpectedly, the dream that never succeeded. They had banked their hopes so strongly on this one area that life no longer has meaning without it. Grief for them becomes chronic.

At the other extreme are those with an uncanny ability to bounce back from disappointment. They may feel the pain of a loss acutely at first. But in time they always conclude that life still has important new horizons for them. They aren’t afraid to chance a new relationship or risk a new dream, and often succeed in forming deeply meaningful new attachments to people and goals. Over time their life even becomes richer because of their loss, for it deepens them in important ways.

The example of such people is so encouraging, for it helps us see that it’s possible to start over when life has knocked us flat, and inspires us to try. We should reflect on the experience of these people often, for their optimism is contagious….

Some people are natural optimists. Their ability to see the bright side of a dark situation and reset their sights after disappointment is mystifying to the rest of us, who are flattened by the same misfortune. Most of us have to work at being optimistic. We have to take decisive steps to break the spell of moods that can hold us captive for long periods. The challenge is greatest when we experience a serious loss. It can cast a dark shadow over our life from that point on, and forever color our perception of God’s possibilities for us.

In reality, we are much more capable of rebounding from major setbacks than we normally imagine. And we have much greater control over the healing process than we typically think. (Quote source here.)

In an article on the subject of grief published on January 6, 2016, titled, The Stages of Grief and How to Cope,” by Amy Jacobs, a freelance writer, on LifeWay.com, she writes:

Daddy died on Dec. 4th, and I haven’t been home since.

I’ve been hiding out three hours from his house, hoping that I could gain the courage to eventually drive home. It’s been four months. I don’t stare blankly at the wall as much as I did in the beginning.

I can now focus on assignments as I write. But every once in awhile, when I think I’m doing alright, grief sneaks up and reminds me that I’m not where I think I am—that loss isn’t OK, and neither am I.

What Is This Feeling? What Is Grief?

Even though I was there when he died, my dad’s death isn’t entirely real to me. I was with him for two weeks prior to his passing and helped care for him on weekends during the 10 months he battled cancer. But today, sitting in my cozy Nashville, Tenn., living room, the only pieces of evidence I have of his death are the legal documents I received in the mail and the nagging urge I have to call home.

Every now and then reality bounces through my head, and I’m stunned by the truth that my father died. It’s not just that I haven’t seen him in a while—it’s that he’s gone. When these moments come, I have to pick myself up and grieve again.

You may have never experienced the death of a parent, but that doesn’t mean you’ve never felt this kind of grief. Grief isn’t just related to death. Grief is an emotional and physical reaction to any traumatic or stressful loss: divorce of parents, loss of friendships, break ups, academic failures, injuries and illnesses, to name a few.

Regardless of the trauma, reactions to jarring circumstances are similar.

The 5 Stages of Grief

Psychiatrist and author Elisabeth Kübler-Ross defined five stages of grief in her groundbreaking book, “On Death and Dying.” But just like me, Kübler-Ross must have known that grief is tricky because these stages have no set order.

In fact, one may or may not experience all the stages, but everyone who grieves will most likely experience at least two. Here‘s a brief description of the five stages:

    1. Denial: This is a conscious or unconscious refusal to accept the situation at hand. It’s a defense mechanism and is perfectly natural.
    2. Anger: People dealing with emotional upset can be angry with themselves and/or with others, especially those close to them.
    3. Bargaining: When you face a loss you can’t imagine bearing, you might become more willing to do anything to negotiate another way. But bargaining isn’t just for matters of life and death. Right before a break up, somebody usually says, “Can we still be friends?”
    4. Depression: When reality sets in, depression is soon to follow. Routine tasks become drudgery and emotions are exaggerated. Apathy, lethargy and sorrow are common feelings associated with depression.
    5. Acceptance: This has everything to do with learning to deal with the situation at hand. It’s most evidenced as individuals move forward and embrace life on it’s new terms. Although the grief stages may occur in any order, acceptance usually marks the end of the grieving process.

When You Feel Alone in a Crowd

In “The Little Prince,” Antoine de Sainte Exupéry wrote, “It is such a secret place, the land of tears.”

He nailed it—grief is personal and private.

After my father’s death, I found myself in a room full of people I love, yet I was thinking, I’ve got to get out of here. I can’t be here anymore. I don’t want to be near these people. I need to be alone.

The people you love most in this world will want to help you grieve, but they might not know how. The best thing you can do is communicate what you need—this is appropriate and helpful. Don’t hesitate to say something like, “I need you to be here with me, but I don’t need advice or clichés. Just be here.”

Such a statement might actually relieve some of the tension and awkwardness that often accompanies condolences.

The Physical Toll of Grief

When you’re grieving, your emotions are jacked up—that’s obvious and expected. But are you dizzy, fatigued or short of breath?

Grief is such a big deal that it impacts you behaviorally, physically and psychologically. When it comes to behavior, you may find that you care a bit less about hygiene and organization, but you may care much more about waiting in lines or finding a parking spot—it’s common for irritability to be at an all-time high.

Physically, you may experience aches and pains, headaches, nausea or even hives. Psychologically, the expressions of grief may vary from feeling sad to feeling guilty. Your dreams might change, your concept of time might be loose and it’s quite common for everything to seem surreal.

For a season, you may not be able to absorb much of anything. I felt as if I swallowed the sea. I had so many emotions to work through—lots of feelings clanging around in my heart and mind‚ and I couldn’t put anything on top of it.

I had no emotional room to process. I couldn’t watch movies or TV. I couldn’t focus to read and I didn’t have the energy to think. Instead, I stared at the wall. In fact, I felt good about staring at the wall.

What the Bible Says About Grief

Today, the world says hard things are to be passed over as quickly as possible and should be avoided at all cost. But the Bible encourages us otherwise. The promises are these: Grief brings wisdom (Ecclesiastes 7:4); God is near (Psalm 46:1; 147:3); and comfort can be found (Matthew 5:4; 2 Corinthians 1:3-4).

Here’s what I know for sure: Grief will show you what you’re made of, and it will show you what God’s made of—stuff that doesn’t change, leave or die. Grief has the potential to transform your life for the better. In her book “Blessings,” Mary Craig writes:

“The value of suffering does not lie in the pain of it, …but in what the sufferer makes of it…. It is in sorrow that we discover the things which really matter; in sorrow that we discover ourselves.”

Today, I’m beginning to see the gifts that grief has given me. I wear my heart on my sleeve, and I’m now more transparent. I’ve come to like myself more when I’m broken than when I’m put together—turns out I’m truer and kinder this way.

I’ve learned to live with contradictions. I’m both terribly sorry and grateful about the same experience. Awful has become awfully good. Living my faith in the midst of layers of grief and a season of heartbreak has been the most challenging experience of my life with God and I can say that grief is good and is a gift, continually driving me to God who brings peace and binds up my broken heart. That makes grief and all of his friends easier to live with.

How to Help a Friend Who’s Grieving

    1. Acknowledge the situation and express concern.
    2. Offer practical help—run errands, buy groceries, do the laundry.
    3. Practice the ministry of presence. Just be there. That’s all you can do.
    4. Understand that grieving is a long process. Just because your friend looks fine, doesn’t mean he or she is fine. (Quote source here.)

In an article published on June 6, 2018, titled, Bible Verses for Overcoming Grief,” compiled and edited by the BibleStudyTools.com staff, they write:

Nothing in life can prepare us for the death of a loved one. Whether death results from a sudden accident or a sustained illness, it always catches us off-guard. Death is so deeply personal and stunningly final, nothing can emotionally prepare us for its arrival. With every death, there is a loss. And with every loss, there will be grief.

Grief doesn’t come and go in an orderly, confined time frame. Just when we think the pangs of anguish have stolen their last breath, another wave sweeps in and we are forced to revisit the memories, the pain, the fear. Sometimes we try to resist the demands of grieving. We long to avoid this fierce, yet holy pilgrimage. We fight against the currents, terrified of being overwhelmed, of being discovered, of becoming lost in our brokenness.

Culture tells us to move past this process quickly. Take a few days, weeks perhaps, to grieve, but don’t stay there too long. Grieving can make those around us uncomfortable. Friends sometimes don’t know what to do with our pain. Loved ones struggle to find adequate words to comfort our aching wounds.

Yet grief, as painful a season as it is, is a necessary part of our healing. To run from grief is to run from the very thing that can quell the pain of our loss. English poet and hymnodist, William Cowper, described grief itself as medicine. Grief cleanses the anguish from our souls and sets us back up on the path of life so we can dance. Grieving is the process God uses to bring us to a place of wholeness. Grieving is His great gift to us. It is a necessary part of our journey and healing.

Grieving can be the most difficult time trying to balance the feelings of pain and loss while going forward with your everyday life. Give yourself space and time, be honest with your emotions, don’t grieve alone, and don’t lose hope. With this collection of Bible verses, we can turn to God’s word for ease and comfort as we look to overcoming grief: Revelation 21:4; Psalm 34:18; Psalm 147:3; Matthew 5:1-3; Psalm 73:26. (Quote source here.)

In an article published on June 23, 2015,  titled, 4 Things You Need to Know About ‘Moving On’ from Grief,” by Emily Long, LPC, on GoodTherapy.com, she writes:

The phrase “moving on” is common in the grief and loss world, but it isn’t very well understood or, frankly, all that helpful.

What does it mean? What does moving on look like? How does one actually do it?

Unfortunately, there isn’t a clear answer to those questions.

However, there are things it can be helpful to know about “moving on” after the death of a loved one, divorce, or other painful life event.

1. You are not responsible for how others feel about your grief process

Typically, it feels like what those around us mean by “moving on” is for us to stop hurting, stop talking about it, stop remembering, stop crying, and just stop grieving. They talk about wishing we would stop dwelling on the hurt and encourage us to just let go and accept what happened.

The truth is, what they actually want is for us to stop making them uncomfortable about our pain. Let’s face it—being with someone who is in pain and grieving isn’t the easiest of experiences. It’s difficult to watch someone we love hurting so deeply.

But other people’s discomfort with your grief is their business, not yours. You are not responsible for making them feel more comfortable.

2. Moving on doesn’t mean forgetting

I suspect that the primary difficulty many of us have with the phrase “moving on” is that it often feels as if we’re being told to forget our loved one or the relationship we once had.

That’s not what moving on means. Moving on is more about learning to live what I call a both/and life rather than an either/or life. It’s not about grieving or forgetting, happy or sad, black or white. It’s shades of gray.

It’s about learning to live a full and happy life even as you miss and long for what you have lost. It’s about remembering and honoring the one you loved while also embracing the beauty and fullness of the life you still get to live. It’s about the brilliance of your love and the shadow of your loss coexisting in this complex and expansive experience we call living.

3. Moving on doesn’t mean the end of grief, either

Moving on from grief doesn’t mean a static end. It doesn’t mean suddenly we’re done grieving and will never hurt again. Moving on is more about moving forward than being done.

Grief and loss are complex, multifaceted, and multilayered. Loss and our experience of grief are integrated into our lives, not things we get rid of. Grief changes and morphs over time. We get stronger as we carry it, the edges of it round and dull, and with time it begins to take up less space in our lives. It doesn’t simply disappear. Grief can (and will) continue to remind us of our loss throughout our lifetimes, in different ways and at different times.

We move forward with life, embracing the fullness of it, even as our loss becomes part of who we now are.

4. Ultimately, you get to define “Moving On” for yourself

People will have all kinds of advice and well-meaning intentions about how you should move on, when you should do it, and what it should look like. They, however, cannot determine that for you.

There are no timelines or rules to the grieving process. You will move through it at your unique pace and not one minute faster. The process of grieving is unique to each of us. No amount of pressure from others can make us move through our process any faster, not in any kind of healthy way.

Only you can know when you are ready to move forward after your loss. Only you can decide what it means to let go or accept the loss you experienced. Only you can truly decide what it means to move on and move forward.

Whatever that looks like for you, it is perfect and right. (Quote source here.)

I’ll end this post with a verse from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount taken from The Beatitudes found in Matthew 5:4

Blessed . . .

Are those who mourn . . .

For they will be comforted . . . .

NOTE: I had a reason for writing this blog post, and you can read it on a blog post I published three days later on my other blog titled, A Eulogy for Dad.”

YouTube Video: “Talladega” by Eric Church (“Talladega” video makes a visual out of a song that is about a lot more than racing. The clip spans one man’s entire lifetime while he lays in a hospital bed, reminiscing before his death–longer explanation available at this link):

Photo #1 credit here
Photo #2 credit here

The Age of Outrage

It’s all over social media, on TV and in movies, and in other media outlets, too. It’s on our streets and in our homes, and let’s not even talk about the political arena. It even infest our communications with each other on a regular basis.

Outrage…. It’s seems to be everywhere today. Has it become the “new” normal?

I remember back in 1990-91 when I was a graduate student at a state university that the hot topic of the day was incivility as it seemed to be taking over our society. Fast forward almost thirty years now and what we called “incivility” back then is nothing compared to the outrage of today.

In the opening to a blog post published on January 15, 2019, titled, Addicted to Outrage: A Theory On How We Got Here,” by Brian Dainsberg, Lead Pastor of Alliance Bible Church, he states:

We are addicted to outrage! There are days when I feel like I’m living in a foreign land. I scan the comments’ section or social media feed of a news outlet (yes, even this blog) and I’m jerked awake stunned over the intensity of rage that can result from the slightest provocation. How did we become such an angry culture? (Quote source here.)

Indeed, how did we become such an angry culture? Ed Stetzer, Ph.D., author, speaker, researcher, pastor, church planter, Christian missiologist, and Distinguished Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College and Executive Director of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College, has written a book on the subject titled, Christians in the Age of Outrage: How to Bring Our Best When the World is at It’s Worst (2018). He opens his book in the Introduction titled, “Welcome to the Age of Outrage,” with the following story (pp. xi-xiv):

“You’re a liar.”

“No, you are.”

Billy is a jerk. Billy and I grew up on the same street in Levittown, New York, and I remember this thought flying through my head just before he and I got into another one of our countless fights. I’ve edited out the expletives–it was New York, after all–but every fight always ended the same: with each of us yelling at the other and storming off. We were friends because we were neighbors, but mostly we fought. As kids, that’s how most arguments go. Yelling. Fighting. Insults. Running away.

Eventually I lost touch with Billy. If I saw him today, we might still fight, but I imagine there would be fewer expletives and tears. After all, we’ve both grown up. But when I look around at the way our world deals with conflict today, I realize culture has not.

Suddenly the go-to move of politicians and journalists has become “You’re a liar,” following by the rejoinder “No, you are.” We’re bombarded with this level of discourse every day.

And it’s filtered down (or maybe filtered up) throughout the culture. Facebook is a cesspool of conspiracy theories, straw-man arguments, and schoolyard bullying. We have reached the point where the comment sections of major newspapers are a greater testament to the depravity of man than all the theology of the Reformers put together. Many publishers have removed comments from below their online articles so the vitriol will end.

These arguments have a cumulative effect, with each successive interaction ratcheting up the outrage. Even those rare instances of well-intentioned and reasonable discussion eventually fall victim to misunderstanding and offense. In these cases, I often remember Godwin’s Law: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Hitler approaches one.” In other words, people eventually start comparing others to Hitler. And just like that, we are off to the races of anger, insults, and division. 

Lest we get on our high horses about all those bad, angry people out there, we need to recognize that outrage often comes from Christians [at this point Stetzer mentions the 2015 Starbucks Red Cup controversy as an example]…. Stetzer goes on to state the following.

These kinds of controversies are so frustrating! This is a foolish fight on a nonsensical issue. When outraged Christians feed media outlets with stories that make Christians look foolish, that hurts the gospel. It adds to the perception that Christians are rage-addicted snowflakes and, more important, distracts Christians from their mission. That’s what fake controversies and unwarranted anger do…. [so] don’t get outraged at things that don’t matter.

Yet outrage can just as easily be directed towards Christians by a hostile world intent on shaming and attacking rather then engaging . [At this point, Stetzer gives an example involving a publication that occurred in early 2018 which shows that this publication clearly had a bias against five Christian organizations, and the publication] made no attempts at dialogue, gave no empathy or consideration as to why these [Christian] views are important or nuanced–just blanket insults aimed at provoking division.

Outrage has no time for dialogue, and it won’t be distracted by nuance or even truth….

This is a book about outrage. It’s an acknowledgement that our world, or at least our part of it, seems awash in anger, division, and hostility. Outrage is all around, so we have to decide how to walk through this. (Quote source: “Christians in the Age of Outrage,” Introduction, pp. xi-xiv.) 

In an article titled, How Can We Stay Civil in the Age of Outrage? Here are Three Ideas,”  by Sheridan Voysey, writer, speaker and broadcaster on faith and spirituality, and the author of seven books, he writes:

In 2016 I found myself in the United States at the time of the Presidential election. Heading to Nashville airport one morning, my taxi driver told me he was thinking of voting for Donald Trump and asked me what I thought. An hour of lively but friendly debate followed. As we pulled into the airport he said sadly, “I wish we could keep driving, because I can’t have conversations like this with my fellow Americans anymore. We’re so busy shouting at each other we’ve stopped listening to one another.”

His words ring true far beyond the United States. In this moment of political polarization and escalating aggression, how can we maintain a civility that keeps us talking despite our differences? I shared three ideas on this with Chris Evans on BBC Radio 2’s Pause for Thought segment recently, and have expanded them below.

Cultivating a Culture of Civility

When my taxi driver friend uttered his lament, I empathized. In previous months we’d seen the Brexit referendum bring its own measure of division to the UK, creating rifts even within families. A few months later I watched friends become enemies during Australia’s intense debate about marriage. Political antagonism is growing in Europe and other regions. Some have called this culturally polarized time the ‘age of outrage’. In taking a stand for our chosen cause, we’re losing civility in the process.

How can we stay neighborly in times of disagreement? After pondering that Nashville conversation, here are some commitments I want to make to pursue civility:

Treat Others With Respect, Not Contempt

First, I want to treat others with respect, not contempt. That means no name calling or insulting those I disagree with, no trying to silence them with derogatory labels or demonizing them in any way. It means:

    • Refusing to share ridiculing memes about them on social media (like Trump Baby or Sadiq Khan Baby). While there’s a place for satire, it’s best done from ‘within’ a group rather than directed at those ‘without’.
    • Checking our ideologies. Left unchecked, our political leanings can assign heroes and villains to news stories before time (notice how some on the Right ridiculed Christine Blasey Ford during the US Supreme Court saga before she’d told her story, while some on the Left judged Brett Kavanaugh guilty before he’d had a chance to defend himself). When we find ourselves quickly declaring someone a villain, it could be our conservatism, liberalism, feminism or other ideology speaking rather than facts. That doesn’t respect anyone.
    • Refusing to label others as ‘fascist’, ‘racist’, ‘Marxist’, ‘liberal’ or whatever other label works to silence their message before it’s heard.
    • Keeping any critiques of public leaders to verified behavior, not rumor.

Treat Other Viewpoints Fairly, Not Maliciously

I also want to treat other viewpoints fairly, not maliciously. That means taking time to understand them, refusing to spread half-truths about them, and acknowledging their merits, even if they don’t in total convince me. It means:

Disagree Thoughtfully, Not Defensively

And I want to disagree thoughtfully, not defensively. Some words, actions and policies should be opposed – and opposed firmly. But when passion runs hot, rashness can follow. I want to speak from a clear head. That means:

    • Staying out of the Twitter wars. As I’ve mentioned before, social media works ‘best’ when it is emotionally charged. Angry posts get more reaction, retweets and shares, but don’t necessarily foster greater clarity or civility. I don’t want to get dragged into the dysfunctional aspects of that system.
    • Stating our positions with confidence and humility, keeping open the possibility we could be wrong.

My model for all this is Jesus, who could be found having dinner with his opponents and whose nickname ‘a friend of sinners’ suggests he hung around people who broke his own moral rules. Jesus remained neighborly to those he disagreed with.

We’re in a time of important change. Stands need to be taken. But when history looks back may it also be said that we took a stand for civility too. (Quote source here.)

In a final article published on July 10, 2018, titled, Outrage is America’s Deepest Core Value. It Shouldn’t Be,” by Dylan Gallimore, writer, raconteur, creative director and content strategist | τετέλεσται, he states:

A debate is raging in America today over what role, if any, incivility should have in American culture, politics, and public life.

Many offer the argument that incivility and outrage should reign; that those on the wrong side of certain issues should be subjected to public shaming, harassment, and humiliation.

This debate is trivial, however, as the larger issue has already been decided: Americans have spent the last few years, both consciously and subconsciously, fixing moral outrage at the very center of society.

Incivility is merely an outgrowth of outrage culture, and today, outrage culture dominates everything.

As human beings go about defining and expressing our values, our values have a funny way of, in turn, defining us. C. S. Lewis put it this way: “we are what we believe we are.” If observing how a culture behaves enables us to discern and interpret its values, it is inescapable that, in recent years, moral outrage has stealthily but authoritatively emerged as America’s newest and most central core value.

As this phenomenon has become more and more apparent, commentators have taken their fair share of stabs at defining it. They labeled 2017the year that launched our addiction to outrage,” and asked,When did outrage become the national pastime?” Psychologists have increasingly warned ofthe dangerous pleasures of outrage,” and asked,Is our political outrage addictive?” While these are all significant and meaningful questions, they ignore a key detail: Outrage hasn’t just become an American hobby or addiction — it has become a value, as the dictionary defines the word: a principle, a standard of behavior, a judgment of what is important in life.

The point here isn’t a political one; this is an essay about American culture. If outrage, as a value, is now entrenched at the center of the American heart — and there’s a good case to be made that it is — it’s because we have put it there.

Given the pride of place we have given moral outrage, it only makes sense to explore the concept with more depth.

On its face, moral outrage appears to reflectan underlying concern with justice,” and it often does. Sending a harshly worded tweet, calling out perceived racism — these are behaviors suggestive of a strong sense of morality and an unwillingness to put up with injustice.

Yet psychologists have observed that threats to one’s moral self-image, unpleasant feelings of guilt, and a desire to restore a positive view of oneself also play roles in motivating outrage. Additionally, outrage is a social emotion; it compels individuals to express their outrage publicly in search of validation and solidarity. Which means that while outrage remains a response to perceived injustice, it can also be a self-serving emotional defense mechanism deployed to alleviate guilt, “buffer threats to one’s moral identity” and portray oneself as avery good personin the eyes of one’s peers.

Art Markman, a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas-Austin, explained it this way:

Outrage is an emotion that has three components. First, it has negative affect. That is, it is a bad feeling. Second, it has high arousal. That is, it is a strong and powerful emotion. Third, it occurs when people experience a violation of a moral boundary.

Posting politically charged content to Facebook, chastising family members who harbor differing political opinions, participating in large-scale protests— on some occasions, these expressions of moral outrage do far more to signal tribal solidarity than to actually accomplish meaningful change. And although participants can be well-intentioned and deeply motivated, the channeling of their commitment toward these ends is having an adverse effect on our national psyche.

Because of the social, reactionary, and defensive qualities of outrage as an emotion, our fealty to it as a value drives tribalism and many of the other “isms” of our time. When faced with a person or idea one perceives as threatening or different, a way to recover a sense of safety, a way to alleviate the discomfort, is by expressing moral outrage alongside those in agreement. Outrage is addictive, and functions to propel individuals toward each other in search of solidarity and validation. Thus, any group of individuals who share a common outrage target are highly susceptible to constructing echo chambers and value system — what we have called “bubbles” — dedicated to protecting the very things that the objects of outrage would seek to defile.

Today, bubbles have taken over mass media in the form of Twitter, Facebook, and cable news; our latent desires to constantly feel aligned with those moral voices with whom we agree dictates how we consume information. Anyone who looks will find an outlet for outrage, the ever-present incentive to indulge in it; they’ll find that the real product of cable news isn’t coverage of the day’s issues that aims to accurately capture what really took place, but a narrative that exports outrage as a means of harnessing political action and, most importantly, high ratings.

Chamath Palihapitiya, one of Facebook’s earliest hires, now considers social media websitesshort-term dopamine-driven feedback loops that…are destroying how society works.” The dominant attraction of posting politically or culturally charged content to social media isn’t the opportunity to engage in a healthy and meaningful conversation with others; it’s the chance that someone will engage with it and validate or challenge the poster’s outrage. That’s what drives clicks and likes and stimulates our brains’ pleasure centers. More and more, the real point of social media debates isn’t to hash out the issues, but to provide a platform for the psychologically rewarding expression of outrage, to “trigger” one’s opponents, to “troll” one’s rivals in order to embarrass them before a watching public, and to signal one’s intensity and commitment to the cause. Our technologies are facilitating these things.

This is a serious problem, since those who embrace and revel in outrage culture eventually develop a dependence toward its emotional benefits.

A few months ago, a white high-school-age girl in Salt Lake City wore a Chinese-themed dress to her prom, and subsequently incurred the wrath of thousands of Twitter users who chided her for the sin of “cultural appropriation.”

Did she violate anyone’s rights? Did she denigrate the culture she was “appropriating”? This is how outrage culture disarms one’s critical faculties — there is only room for anger; there is no room for careful or nuanced reflection on our cultural practices. At no point in the rush to condemn or defend the allegedly harmful appropriation did any of the loud voices stop to differentiate between culture-positive appropriations and culture-negative ones. In other words, was this action inherently injurious to the culture being “appropriated”? And, if so, what does criticizing the young woman on Twitter actually do about it?

Outrage culture left no room for these questions — it only left room to designate her worthy of public humiliation and the unbridled scorn of thousands of strangers.

This is, of course, absurd. Even if you happen to feel ill at ease over instances in which a member of a dominant economic or racial class avails herself of the customs and traditions of less-privileged cultures, we can agree that the moral outrage hurled at Keziah Daum on social media was wildly out of proportion to what her “crime” merited.

The reason for this disproportionate response? Because this type of moral outrage is reactionary, defensive, and socially instrumental; it is not generated in order to right any meaningful wrong, but either to solidify the status of the disapprovers within their in-groups, or to satisfy their sense of moral injury.

Twitter user Jeremy Lam identified a moment to express his moral outrage, have it validated by others, and enjoy the dopamine spike that accompanied the entire spectacle, all while contributing to the upkeep of outrage culture. He famously tweeted at Daum,My culture is NOT your goddamn prom dress,” and with that, the cultural outrage ritual was complete. His tweet went viral, as was likely his wish (if not his expectation), and thousands of others joined him in expressing their outrage and signaling their supposedly high and nuanced moral standards to one another. Obviously, 177,000 Twitter users can’t be wrong. The outrage has the backing of the social-media-dwelling masses.

That this example of outrage culture centers on two basically anonymous, random individuals is precisely why it’s instructive. Keziah Daum and Jeremy Lam are not celebrities or public figures. They don’t have audiences to entertain or votes to chase. The only incentive for random individuals to chime in and express their outrage, in this and in countless other cases, is to secure the benefits of the outrage itself.

The Daum-Lam exchange and countless others like it also reveal how outrage culture has warped the ways Americans speak to and think of one another: increasingly, we treat each other less as individual human beings and more as symbolic representations of political concepts, useful only as cultural objects worthy of praise or fury. For some, the inherent dignity, humanity, and individualism of their fellow citizens have been reduced to a trivial afterthought at best.

Not a word here is an attempt to downplay the importance of morality or the vitality of a deeply-felt emotion such as outrage. Moral outrage does have a crucial role to play in a healthy society, as some things are genuinely morally outrageous and demand that we approach them with a sense of ethical revulsion.

Without the value of moral outrage — for which Martin Luther King, Jr. had tremendous appreciation and respect — the civil rights movement likely would have failed, or at least languished. Without a strong and clear moral vision, the courage to express it, and the willingness to die for it, slavery may have persisted in America for far longer than it did. Without a healthy sense of what’s morally agreeable and what’s morally reprehensible, progress of any kind is likely impossible.

So the point here isn’t that we ought to embrace moral relativism, indifference, or lethargy, but to challenge the position that moral outrage should take its place as a core value in American society.

By elevating outrage to such a high position, we have all but guaranteed that, eventually, a purely performative — and permanent — reactionary outrage will pervade society. That is what Twitter has become. It’s what will be on tonight, and tomorrow, and the next day, on cable news networks during prime time hours.

The saying that we’re seeing a lot of recently, “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention,” equates being informed with an obligation to be outraged, turning an emotion into a moral imperative. The dangers that face a culture that lives by this rule cannot be understated; equating being engaged with an obligation to be outraged is an easy way to guarantee a permanent culture war and a miserable future, as — perhaps unsurprisingly — the emotional costs of living in a furious society are high. After all, anger has been shown to negatively impact health, and it would be unsurprising if outrage culture turns out to be similarly impacting America’s rising suicide rates, its opioid crisis, and its epidemic of depression.

To combat outrage culture, columnist David Von Drehle encourages readers to “switch away from the televised outrage orgies that masquerade as news. Resist the urge to get worked up about stupid stuff that knuckleheads say. Spend more time among reasonable people doing healthy things.” Writer Trent Eady argues for more humility, for treating people as individuals and not as political symbols or representatives of their perceived identity groups, for being diplomatic and strategic in pursuit of the change one wishes to make. Recently at the Munk Debates in Toronto, Stephen Fry evoked the spirit of Bertrand Russell, and urged Western civilization “not to be too earnest, too pompous, too serious [or]…too certain” and to “let doubt prevail.”

Any combination of these suggestions would do well to begin the process of dethroning the value of moral outrage. But, like with any epidemic, the first step must be widespread awareness. The more Americans grasp that their moral sensibilities are being manipulated by a set of mutually-intensifying and degrading processes, the more our culture will begin to shake itself from our numbness and our permanent state of anger.

Our national discussion is the story we tell ourselves about ourselves, and right now, it’s poisoned with fury. We are telling each other a needlessly outrageous story in an effort to maintain a dysfunctional and harmful core value. If we are to live in harmony with one another and pursue a peaceful future, that has to change. After all, we are what we believe we are. (Quote source here.)

I’ll end this post with these words found in James 1:19 (NLT)–Understand this, my dear brothers and sisters: You must all be…

Quick to listen . . .

Slow to speak . . .

And slow to get angry . . . .

YouTube Video: “Speak Life” by TobyMac:

Photo #1 credit here
Photo #2 credit here

The Ultimate Comeback

In the opening pages of Chapter 1 in his book, Christians in the Age of Outrage: How to Bring Our Best When the World is at It’s Worst (2018), Ed Stetzer, PhD, author, speaker, researcher, pastor, church planter, Christian missiologist, and the Billy Graham Distinguished Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College, and Executive Director of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College, states the following:

Baseball great Yogi Berra used to say, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

America did. So did Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia. The majority of people in these nations were once vaguely Christian, but for years, those with loosely held religious beliefs have been dropping them, and as a result, the entire English-speaking Western world is becoming more secular.

Focusing on the United States for a moment may help, though similar trends are taking place across the English-speaking Western world. Most Americans, who identify loosely as Christians, are becoming less so–they are more frequently choosing “none of the above” rather then “Christian” when surveyed about their beliefs. In fact, each year about an additional one percent of Americans no longer identify as Christian.

Put another way, the nominals are becoming the nones. And as they become nones, their mind-set is more aligned with secular-minded people and they have less affinity with the avowedly religious. At the same time, the percentage of the devout has remained relatively stable.

The effect of this trend is that American culture is incrementally polarizing along religious lines. People are either becoming more secular or staying devout, though the biggest group is becoming more secular. This is where we meet the fork in the road: How do we engage with our faith in a culture now polarized along faith lines rather than being at least nominally Christian? (Quote source, “Christians in the Age of Outrage,” pp. 7-8.)

Stetzer identifies three types of Christians–“cultural, congregational, and convictional.” Cultural Christians are Christians in name only because they identify as being born in a historically Christian country but that is pretty much the extent of their beliefs; Congregational Christians, are those who may identify with a particular church and show up at Christmas or Easter, but rarely at other times (e.g., it has little impact on their daily lives); and Convictional Christians are those who attend church regularly and live values aligned with Christianity. The first two groups are growing (as in less and less identifying with Christianity), and he states that the third group is remaining relatively stable.

As Stetzer states:

The percentage of Convictional Christians in the U.S. population has remained generally stable. What has changed are the number and beliefs of Cultural and Congregational Christians. As a result, the collapse of mainline Protestantism and the growth of secularism, Convictional Christianity has incrementally moved outside the American cultural mainstream. In fact, as I explained in the Washington Post, as the numbers of Cultural and Congregational Christians decrease [ for example, read “Pew Study: More Americans Reject Religion, but Believers Firm in Faith”], the worldview and values of these Americans have shifted towards the secular stream and away from that of Convictional Christians. (Quote source, “Christians in the Age of Outrage,” pp. 9-10.)

As Stetzer wrote in his 2015 article titled, Nominal Christians are becoming more secular, and that’s a startling change for the U.S.,” in the Washington Post (mentioned above):

America is undergoing a religious polarization.

With more adults shedding their religious affiliations, as evidenced in the latest from the Pew Research Center, the country is becoming more secular. In the past seven years, using the new Pew data, Americans who identify with a religion declined six percentage points. Overall, belief in God, praying daily and religious service attendance have all dropped since 2007.

Today’s America is losing much of the general religious ethos that dominated the U.S. for hundreds of years. (Quote source and complete article available here.)

Both cultural and congregational Christians (and even some active church goers or members) fall under the category of nominal Christians. GotQuestions.org provides a definition of what nominal Christianity looks like:

Nominal Christians are church-goers or otherwise religious people whose “faith” does not go beyond being identified with a church, Christian group, or denomination. They are Christians in name only; Christ has no bearing in their lives. Nominal Christians may attend church and Christian functions, and they self-identify as “Christians,” but it is just a label. They view religion primarily as a social construct, and they do not allow it to require much of them in terms of morality or responsibility. Nominalists take a minimalist approach to their faith.

Nominalism is of concern to many pastors, preachers, and Christian theologians, as it appears to be on the rise today. Many identify themselves as Christians, but the overall impact of Christianity in the West is not what it once was. But what causes nominalism? Why do people prefer a nominal or in-name-only type of Christianity? One possible reason is that nominal religion is easy. It does not require a changed life. A nominal Christian can point to membership in a church as evidence of his salvation. Church attendance and participation in routines, activities, and programs become the measuring stick rather than a changed life, a new heart, a love for God, and obedience to the Word (see 2 Corinthians 5:17John 14:23).

Another cause of nominal Christianity is the habit of declaring oneself a Christian because of custom or culture. Whole countries, including Costa Rica, Norway, Denmark, and England, have a form of Christianity as the official state religion. This allows a Norwegian, for example, to culturally identify as a Christian—he is a member of the Church of Norway by default, having been registered in infancy when he was baptized. Even in countries with no state religion, such as the United States, cultural Christianity can lead to nominalism. Someone who was reared in a Christian family, attended church all his life, was baptized, lives in the Bible Belt, etc., often claims allegiance to the Christian faith, in spite of evidence in his life to the contrary.

Another cause of nominalism within the church is legalism, the attempt to transform oneself (or others) inwardly by working on the outward behavior. Some people, especially those raised in the church, conform to standards imposed upon them by parents, other Christians, or the church hierarchy without the inner transformation that can only be produced by the Spirit through the Word (Galatians 6:15). Legalists substitute good deeds for saving faith and compliance for conversion. This naturally leads to nominal Christianity, as church-goers and rule-keepers claim the label “Christian” but have no relationship with Christ.

Jesus dealt with nominal Christianity in one of His letters to the churches. The church in Sardis wore a Christian label, but Jesus saw the truth behind the label: “To the angel of the church in Sardis write: These are the words of him who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead” (Revelation 3:1). Or, as the KJV says, “Thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead.” God is not interested in the labels we tag ourselves with. Having a “name” that we belong to Christ is not enough. Nominal faith is not faith. (Quote source here.)

Christianity, at it’s core, is not about the stuff we do, but who we believe in. In a book titled, The Comeback: It’s Not Too Late and You’re Never Too Far (2015), by Louie Giglio, Global Pastor, Visionary Architect and Director of the Passion Movement, comprised of Passion Conferences, Passion City Church, Passion Publishing, Passion Resources, and sixstepsrecords, and the founder of Passion Global Institute, he writes the following in a chapter (12) titled, “The Ultimate Comeback”:

People often wonder: Why do Christians think their way is the best way to believe? How come Jesus is the answer? What about every other faith leader? Aren’t their religions just as good?

It’s a valid question, one that indicates a person is doing some soul-searching and wants to discover the truth. Eventually, I hope to lean them to the crux of our faith, the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

This single event defines our hope and sets our faith apart from every other religious point of view. Our teacher is not dead. Our leader is not in the grave. Jesus is alive and on this our future rests.

The resurrection of Jesus is the pillar of the Christian faith. If we don’t have this truth, then we are just another religion, with leaders who head a movement and maybe teach a few good things and attract a lot of followers. But when those leaders die, they stay dead.

To get up out of your coffin and smile at the folks gathered for your funeral, that’s the ultimate comeback. Or–switching to first-century cultural patterns–to walk out of a tomb, living and breathing, smiling and holding out your hands to friends so they can check your scars to make sure it’s really you, looking not at all pale and sickly but better than the best version of yourself that there’s ever been, that’s the ultimate comeback.

Think about it. A human body is lying there dead–grave clothes wrapped around the corpse, embalming done, stone rolled across the entry and sealed–on a stone bench. Suddenly blood begins to course through the veins again. The body takes a breath, stretches, stands up, comes out, walks around for everyone to see. And this body has lost any capacity to die again.

You see, all our comebacks are swallowed up by this ultimate comeback. Because Jesus is alive again, we can come back from anything the world throws at us:

    • The deepest kind of sin
    • The devastation of crumbling relationships
    • The rejection of job loss and failure
    • The general disappointment of life
    • The pain of bereavement
    • The hammer of betrayal
    • Whatever, you name it

Jesus’ ultimate comeback trumps all our comebacks, but it also makes it possible in a general sense for us to come back from anything, from anywhere, at any time. The secret is in how Jesus’ resurrection life infuses our ordinary lives with the same kind of power (see 1 Corinthians 15). (Quote source: “The Comeback,” pp. 203-205.)

In answer to one final question for this blog post, “Is Christianity a religion or a relationship?” GotQuestions.org answers:

Religion is “the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods.” In that respect, Christianity can be classified as a religion. However, practically speaking, Christianity has a key difference that separates it from other belief systems that are considered religions. That difference is relationship.

Most religion, theistic or otherwise, is man-centered. Any relationship with God is based on man’s works. A theistic religion, such as Judaism or Islam, holds to the belief in a supreme God or gods; while non-theistic religions, such as Buddhism and Hinduism, focus on metaphysical thought patterns and spiritual “energies.” But most religions are similar in that they are built upon the concept that man can reach a higher power or state of being through his own efforts. In most religions, man is the aggressor and the deity is the beneficiary of man’s efforts, sacrifices, or good deeds. Paradise, nirvana, or some higher state of being is man’s reward for his strict adherence to whatever tenets that religion prescribes.

In that regard, Christianity is not a religion; it is a relationship that God has established with His children. In Christianity, God is the aggressor and man is the beneficiary (Romans 8:3). The Bible states clearly that there is nothing man can do to make himself right with God (Isaiah 53:664:6Romans 3:236:23). According to Christianity, God did for us what we cannot do for ourselves (Colossians 2:132 Corinthians 5:21). Our sin separates us from His presence, and sin must be punished (Romans 6:23Matthew 10:2823:33). But, because God loves us, He took our punishment upon Himself. All we must do is accept God’s gift of salvation through faith (Ephesians 2:8–92 Corinthians 5:21). Grace is God’s blessing on the undeserving.

The grace-based relationship between God and man is the foundation of Christianity and the antithesis of religion. Established religion was one of the staunchest opponents of Jesus during His earthly ministry. When God gave His Law to the Israelites, His desire was that they “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” (Deuteronomy 6:5Matthew 22:37). “Love” speaks of relationship. Obedience to all the other commands had to stem from a love for God. We are able to love Him “because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19). However, by Jesustime, the Jewish leaders had made a religion out of God’s desire to live in a love relationship with them (1 Timothy 1:8Romans 7:12). Over the years, they had perverted God’s Law into a works-based religion that alienated people from Him (Matthew 23:13–15Luke 11:42). Then they added many of their own rules to make it even more cumbersome (Isaiah 29:13Matthew 15:9). They prided themselves on their ability to keep the Law—at least outwardly—and lorded their authority over the common people who could never keep such strenuous rules. The Pharisees, as adept as they were at rule-keeping, failed to recognize God Himself when He was standing right in front of them (John 8:19). They had chosen religion over relationship.

Just as the Jewish leaders made a religion out of a relationship with God, many people do the same with Christianity. Entire denominations have followed the way of the Pharisees in creating rules not found in Scripture. Some who profess to follow Christ are actually following man-made religion in the name of Jesus. While claiming to believe Scripture, they are often plagued with fear and doubt that they may not be good enough to earn salvation or that God will not accept them if they don’t perform to a certain standard. This is religion masquerading as Christianity, and it is one of Satan’s favorite tricks. Jesus addressed this in Matthew 23:1–7 when He rebuked the Pharisees. Instead of pointing people to heaven, these religious leaders were keeping people out of the kingdom of God.

Holiness and obedience to Scripture are important, but they are evidences of a transformed heart, not a means to attain it. God desires that we be holy as He is holy (1 Peter 1:16). He wants us to grow in grace and knowledge of Him (2 Peter 3:18). But we do these things because we are His children and want to be like Him, not in order to earn His love.

Christianity is not about signing up for a religion. Christianity is about being born into the family of God (John 3:3). It is a relationship. Just as an adopted child has no power to create an adoption, we have no power to join the family of God by our own efforts. We can only accept His invitation to know Him as Father through adoption (Ephesians 1:5Romans 8:15). When we join His family through faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus, the Holy Spirit comes to live inside our hearts (1 Corinthians 6:19Luke 11:132 Corinthians 1:21–22). He then empowers us to live like children of the King. He does not ask us to try to attain holiness by our own strength, as religion does. He asks that our old self be crucified with Him so that His power can live through us (Galatians 2:20Romans 6:6). God wants us to know Him, to draw near to Him, to pray to Him, and love Him above everything. That is not religion; that is a relationship. (Quote source here.)

I’ll end this post with the words from John 3:16: For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son [Jesus Christ]…

That whoever believes in him . . .

Should not perish . . .

But have eternal life . . . .

YouTube Video: “Greatness of Our God” by Newsboys:

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Seeing What’s Right

Yesterday when I was at a bookstore that is closing, I came across a book I had purchased when it first came out back in 1999, but I lost that book when I lost my job ten years ago and I had to move back to the state I came from previous to taking that job seven months earlier.

When I saw a copy of that book yesterday, I discovered that it has been revised in 2008 with a new cover but with the same title that attracted me to the book the first time I purchased it. The title of the book is, Just Enough Light for the Step I’m On,” by Stormie Omartian, a bestselling Christian author who has written many books since that time.

The title is a reminder to all of us that nobody knows what the future holds, and all that we are given at any point in time is the moment we are currently occupying. We can make plans and be totally convinced that something we want to happen might happen, and sometimes it does work out, and sometimes it doesn’t.

As I opened the book to take a look at the table of contents, I came across a chapter titled, “Seeing What’s Right with This Picture” (Chapter 8). It opens with the following paragraph on page 73:

Have you ever found yourself angry, upset, or devastated when things didn’t turn out as you’d hoped or planned? Next time that happens, look deeply into the situation and ask God to give you a new perspective. (Quote source: “Just Enough Light for the Step I’m On,” p. 73.)

In this chapter Stormie Omartian states that we don’t always see the whole truth of what has happened to us, but she suggests that we look at the situation and ask, “What’s right with this picture?” She gives an example in her daughter’s life when she was sixteen, and the daughter came up with several positive things that came from a very negative situation. Omartian states the following on pages 74-75 in response:

This is not just positive thinking or trying to make good things happen with your thoughts. This is seeing things from God’s perspective and letting Him show you the truth. That means finding the light in what seem to be a dark situation. It’s knowing that, because you have invited God into every step of your life, you can find His light there no matter how dark it seems.

“Embracing the moment” is embracing God and finding Him in the moment. “Seeing what’s right with this picture,” on the other hand, is searching for the truth and seeing reality from God’s perspective. It’s being willing to let go of our determination to see things through our own tunnel vision.

Have you ever known people who are so set on believing something bad about another person that they refuse to hear anything good? They make a case against that person and everything that person says or does is twisted to support the case. Nothing will change their minds. Not reason. Not God. This is the same kind of hard-nosed narrow-mindedness that feeds prejudice, gossip, jealousy, and hatred. Seeing what’s right with this picture counteracts that tendency. It may be a lighthearted way of approaching a very dark-spirited issue, but it’s a good place to start. (Quote source: “Just Enough Light for the Step I’m On,” pp. 74-75.)

We’ve all been guilty of judging other people because of something bad we might have heard about them, and then refusing to hear or consider anything good about them. And we can become hard-nosed, narrow-minded, and it does feed into prejudice, gossip, jealousy, and hatred. That is why she states that it is so important to look at “what’s right about the person/situation” to counteract that tendency in all of us.

She goes on to give a couple of examples of finding what’s right in a bad situation on page 76-78:

A friend of ours named Jonathan was laid off from work and was initially feeling very defeated about it. But instead of letting his frustration turn into bitterness, he looked to see what was right with this picture. Jonathan gradually recognized it as an opportunity to help his wife, Lisa, establish a new business she had been wanting to start now that their children were grown. Instead of falling into depression, he worked hard for her. The business soon took off and became one of the most successful companies of its kind in town. Lisa would never have been able to do what she did without Jonathan’s help. What seemed like a disaster at first actually was a blessing. What appeared to be a dark time because a time flooded with light. If Jonathan had complained and blamed God, refusing to see the situation from His perspective, things probably would have turned out quite differently.

This may be a big shock to you–I know it was to me–but often when we think something unfortunate is happening to us, it’s actually an answer to a prayer we have prayed. Only the answer didn’t manifest the way we thought it should, so we failed to recognize it. That’s why seeing what’s right is entirely a matter of having God’s perspective.

Jennifer had been praying faithfully for her troubled relationship with her husband, David. When the company David had been working for was downsized, he found himself without employment for what turned out to be ten months. This kind of a turn could have destroyed an already ailing marriage. But instead of sinking into despair, Jennifer asked God to show her the truth about the situation. God revealed it was not true that her husband’s career, as well as their marriage, was finished as they had both feared. The truth was that God had a great path ahead for them, but they couldn’t walk it if they were crippled by a broken marriage. God was giving them time together to repair it.

Instead of letting this situation become a disaster that ripped them apart, David and Jennifer wisely took advantage of the opportunity to seek Christian counsel, be with godly friends, and spend time together doing the things they never had time to do before. Their marriage was healed miraculously, and David eventually found more fulfilling work than he ever had before.

Often we pray for something and don’t even recognize the answer to our own prayers when we receive it because it does not happen the way we thought it would. 

When I read about God leading the Israelites out of Egypt after many unmistakable miracles, I was amazed at how they continually grumbled and complained and failed to see how God was taking care of them.

“What is the matter with these people that they can’t see the answers to their own prayers?” I thought.

Then I realized we are all just like them. God is in the middle of doing something great for us and, because we are not as comfortable as we’d like to be, we don’t recognize the good things He has put in our lap. “Eyes they have, but they do not see” (Psalm 115:5).

How many blessings must we have forfeited because we resisted God when we should have been thanking Him? 

Look at your life right now. Is there anything that worries or upsets you? If so, say, “Lord, show me what’s right with this picture. What is the truth in this moment? Help me to see it from Your perspective.” You’ll be amazed at what God reveals.

If your attitude is one of gratefully searching for God’s truth and goodness in any situation, it will change your life. You’ll never see things the same way again. No matter what happens, you’ll be able to say, “This  was the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes” (Psalm 118:23). What we’re really talking about here is an issue of trust. It’s basically believing that God is good and he desires the best for you. “Oh taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the man who trusts in Him!” (Psalm 34:8). Give God the benefit of your trust and you’ll see that you are standing in more light then you ever dreamed possible. (Quote source: “Just Enough Light for the Step I’m On,” pp. 76-78.)

This book is filled with information that is helpful to anyone who finds themselves stuck in a bad or trying situation. The above is just a small piece of the whole picture in the book regarding dealing with tough situations. I found it particularly helpful in dealing with my own feelings that still surface occasionally regarding a few people who were involved in what happened to me ten years ago when I lost that job; and after a major job search of several years I never found another job in my field. Also, as a Christian, I know that God is sovereign over every situation and He has an ultimate purpose in everything that happens.

As I looked to find “what’s right about this situation” regarding what happened to me back then, several things came to mind. My perspective on life has broadened in both knowledge and understanding of what is going on in the world today. This most likely would not have happened if I had continued working as I never would have been able to travel and do that things I’ve done over the past ten years that has lead to this knowledge and understanding.

Another major plus includes the stretching of my faith beyond anything I had previously experienced. This may not be obvious in looking at my current set of circumstances as they do not fit in with the typical “success stories” we like to hear that usually contain elements of prosperity, materialism, and outward success that we place a high value on in our society and, yes, even in Christian circles. We do tend to look at the outward appearance and judge accordingly (see I Samuel 16:7). However, God does not show favoritism between rich or poor, educated or illiterate, heads of states or common folks, as we tend to do, and God is no respecter of persons (see Romans 2:11, Acts 10:34); God looks at our heart attitudes (again, see I Samuel 16:7) and our faith in him (see Hebrews 11:6).

The toughest part for me in “seeing what’s right” has been dealing with my feelings regarding the few people directly involved in what happened to me that caused me to lose that job back then. As I mentioned above, I have gained both knowledge and understanding regarding our world today that goes beyond anything I knew at the time I lost that job. Because of this awareness, even though I sometimes still get a bit angry about what happened to me when I think back on it, I am far more willing now to cut them some slack as I don’t know their side of the story or where they fit into the total picture. So it has softened my feelings towards them over time.

Also, I have never wished them any harm or ill will even though what happened to me left me unemployed and financially devastated, and it changed the course of my life. We should never judge a bad situation by what it looks like on the surface as there is much still going behind the scenes that we may never know about. And that is where trust in God is essential. We have to leave it with God to deal with in His way, and our responsibility is to give God each day as it unfolds in our own lives (for those of us who believe in him). And we have to leave even our enemies (and I don’t consider anyone involved in what happened to me ten years ago as an enemy) in God hands, too.

There is a lot of good stuff in this book, Just Enough Light for the Step I’m On.” Of course, the source of all wisdom is found in the Bible. As King David stated in Psalm 119:105, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” Nothing can replace the Bible as the source for the guidance we need in this life. Proverbs 3:5-7 states, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths. Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord and depart from evil.”

And that . . .

Is very good . . .

Advice . . . .

YouTube Video: “Beyond Me” by TobyMac:

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