Sing Anyway

The other day I stopped at a Goodwill Store and I looked over the large selection of used books found in many of their stores. Being a “bookaholic,” I am immediately drawn to the book area of any store that has a book area in it. It’s like I have a book magnet living inside of me… 🙂

I happened to find an old copy of a Baptist Hymnal (copyright 1956) with “Rockwood Baptist Church” printed at the bottom on the front cover, and it was well used and exactly like the hymnal pictured here, and I purchased it for 50 cents. It took me back to my childhood and teen years growing up in a small nondenominational church that I was raised in that primarily hired Baptist ministers.

Before going to bed that night, I turned every page in that hymnal until the very last page (over 500 hymns are in it), and I sang the first line and chorus of at least two dozen of the songs that I remembered singing years ago before going to sleep. It brought back many memories of those years gone by. Back in my younger years I sang in the church choir (alto), and I also sang in some of their musical productions, too.

The church I grew up in was a typical neighborhood church in the Midwest that eventually grew into one of the first of what are now called megachurches after it moved to a much larger facility. I haven’t attended there since my early 30’s, and the church has changed it’s name and moved to yet another location since then. I left that state a few years later when I accepted a doctoral fellowship at a private university in a another state.

Over the years since that time, modern worship music has taken the place of, and in some cases is used alongside, the older hymns that most older folks in our generations today remember singing. I really like the newer modern worship music, too, but I’m old enough to remember the older hymns, many of which are still very popular today (think of Amazing Grace and Great is Thy Faithfulness and, of course, many of the Christmas songs we still sing today, like Hark the Herald Angels Sing and Silent Night).

In an article titled, I Will Sing! Yesterday, Today, and Always!” by Victory Enyioke, wife, mother, and graduate student at SWBTS, she writes:

My recollection of Christian, congregational singing from my childhood and youth days is a repertoire of hymns either from the “Broadman Hymnal,” “Baptist Hymnal” or the “Sacred Songs and Solos” by Sankey. These songs etched in my mind and heart and continue to be my source of musical inspiration, encouragement and help in times of need. These hymns are loaded with spiritual lyrics and most times tied to Scripture.

Growing up, congregational singing was characterized by us holding hymn books by hand and connecting with the words of the song in a very special way. Families had hymn books at home and during devotional times we would pull out those hymn books and sing most times in parts because the songs were at our fingertips. This is a tradition we are trying to pass down to our children even though it is a challenge to match the contest that the sing-along trend of contemporary music poses. The technology of projector screens makes us lazy singers as we wait for the screen to spit out the next phase of the song without which we mumble and fumble.

My experience in recent years is one of bewilderment as I struggle to remember sometimes the very songs that were song in a morning worship service. Mind you, a lot of the songs are spiritual and melodious but not always memorable. And unless you are the type of person who is determined to take the extra time to go back and learn the songs, they fly by like the wind that brushes your face nicely and passes away swiftly. Not to misunderstand me, I do enjoy these new songs, they are Spirit filled and a lot of times are wonderful for worship. However, their life span is short because worship leaders are in a hurry to introduce the next new song.

Today, many reasons are responsible for why church folks no longer sing as the Church used to sing. These range from not knowing the songs to general apathy due to high pitches, complicated melodies and sometimes over repetition. Even though a lot of the modernized songs have rich theological content, worshipers generally have short attention spans and lack the patience to learn complicated musical pieces. Truth be told, most of these songs are designed for the choir and not for the congregation. While the younger generation try their best to follow along, older folks just cannot cope with the singing. While church music most ‘evolve in sorts’ and should not be static, we must not throw away the old as archaic and unusable. Reminds me of the old song that says, “Give Me that Old Time Religion, It’s good enough for Me. It was good enough for Paul and Silas, It’s good enough for me.” (Gospel Folklore)

My worship should glorify God. It is not about my likes nor dislike. Therefore, I should not pick and choose which songs to sing in church. However, worship leaders should strive to balance congregational music between the old and the new. The old folks should be able to sing for as long as their vocal chords can produce sound. While the young should be free to shout in Praise as their strength enables. What I want to be able to do is sing and sing and sing until eternity comes. (Quote source here.)

I agree with what the author above has written. Worship wars have been going on in churches for several decades now ever since modern worship music arrived on the scene. In an article titled, 5 Ways to Battle the Never-Ending Worship Wars,” by Carey Nieuwhof, a former lawyer and the founding pastor of Connexus Church, he writes:

So let me guess: someone recently complained about the music at your church.

It doesn’t matter what style of music your church features or how traditional or edgy your music is; complaining about music is almost a universal phenomenon in the church today.

Some of that is generated by church shoppers (I outlined 5 characteristics of church shoppers here), but the problem is more pervasive than hearing from a few church shoppers.

It’s endemic to human nature and to our consumer driven culture that basically says everything revolves around me. While I think consumer Christianity will die in the future (here’s why), we’re not there yet.

Before we get started, please know this isn’t a slam against any particular style of music in the church.

In fact, I admire all churches that are innovating to become more effective in their mission.

But here’s the challenge.

Many leaders have almost spilled blood getting their church to change in the area of music (or making sure their church doesn’t change).

And yet, despite the battles fought over music, many churches are still not much further ahead in reaching people because of it.

Why is that?

There are five problems I see church leaders struggle with when navigating the sensitive and emotional issue of worship style in church.

(1) You become so focused on pleasing the people you have that you lose sight of the people you’re trying to reach.

Whatever your music style, many church leaders are overly worried about how ‘their people’ will handle the change.

Being aware of the concerns of the congregation is healthy. Leaders who don’t care how their congregation thinks eventually end up leading nobody.

But it’s also a trap. When people’s reactions become an overriding fear, the mission shifts away from reaching new people to keeping the people you have happy.

As a result, leaders:

Abandon change to keep people happy.

Compromise vision to try to satisfy the discontent.

Stop innovating to try to placate people.

These attempts at making people happy virtually never work (I wrote about the problems people-pleasing leaders face here).

What To Do

So what do you do to combat your people pleasing focus?

Focus on whom you’re trying to reach rather than on whom you’re trying to keep.

And when you’re communicating a change to your congregation, focus on why you’re making the change (to reach people) and far more people will accept what you’re trying to do (changing the style of worship).

If you want more on this subject, I’ve written more on leading change here.

2. You define ‘contemporary’ relative to how you used to worship.

Let me name the elephant in the room. Most of what passes for ‘contemporary’ worship isn’t that contemporary at all.

Sure, the church has changed. And there may have been some battles over the change.

But walk into many self-described ‘contemporary’ churches and it feels like 2004, or 1994, or even 1984. The church isn’t actually ‘contemporary’ (contemporary means ‘occurring in the present’).

Tony Morgan makes a great point in The New Traditional Church: If most churches truly wanted to be contemporary, Sunday would have a lot more hip-hop and R&B (have you listened to the Top 40 lately?).

But most church leaders don’t like that style of music or are afraid their church wouldn’t.

What To Do

Be honest. Don’t call yourself contemporary if you’re some paler version of it. Self-awareness and honesty actually matter if you’re trying to reach unchurched people.

Sadly, well-meaning self-deception runs rampant in church leadership today.

Be truthful about what you’re doing. If you are, it might just make you frustrated enough to make you change again.

In the meantime, realize that despite all the change, you might still be miles away from being relevant to the people living around you.

3. You’ve become stuck in “No Man’s Land.”

I learned about No Man’s Land in churches from James Emery White.

It’s a term that describes churches too contemporary to please the traditionalists and too traditional to reach people who connect with a contemporary approach.

I have no desire to ignite a furious debate about ‘blended worship’ (a combination of traditional and contemporary styles).

Can it work? I’m sure it can, done right.

But you don’t have to get too far into the conversation with most church leaders who are in a blended format to realize it’s not an overriding passion to reach the outsider that fuels the change, it’s fear that if they go too much further there will be an apocalypse.

What’s the bottom line? Most blended worship happens because leaders are afraid to go further, not because leaders think it’s the best option.

The attempt to make everyone happy usually makes no one happy.

In my view, the last 10 percent of change is the hardest. When we transitioned from traditional to blended to full-out ‘contemporary’ music a decade ago, the last 10 percent of the change was harder than the first 90 percent. I think that’s how leaders get stuck.

Again, I’m not saying blended services are a bad thing (we’ve chosen to not embrace that strategy at Connexus for very specific reasons). I’m just saying if you end up there, make sure that’s where you want to be because you believe it’s the most effective way to accomplish your mission.

What To Do

Don’t get stuck somewhere you’re not called to be.

Finish the change or make sure where you’re at is honestly the very best way to fulfill your mission.

4. Style has become an end in itself, not a means to an end.

Your style of music and service should serve the mission. It is not the mission.

Once again, this nails all of us: traditionalists, innovators and everyone in between.

Our goal is not to arrive at a particular worship style. It’s to accomplish the mission Christ has given us.

I love how our church does music.

But 40 years from now, I don’t want to be sitting around in a retirement home with my friends complaining that young people today don’t sing enough Hillsong “Young and Free,” play cover tunes at church or make pour-over coffee.

The church should always change, and it needs to change on your watch.

How do you address this? 

Be committed to constant change. Don’t rest.

Your style as church helps you achieve the mission. It is not the mission.

5. Older leaders make decision that belong to younger leaders.

Far too often in the church, I have seen older leaders make decisions that rightly belong to younger leaders.

There is a role for middle-aged leaders and older leaders. They bring wisdom to the table and a seasoned viewpoint almost impossible to find in someone who is starting out.

I’m not slamming others. I am almost the oldest person on our staff team.

Even though I’m fairly up to date on culture, music, and technology, I’m no longer the guy who should be calling the music, design or cultural shots at our church.

I’m not sure most leaders over 40 should be. Not if you want to impact the next generation.

Sitting around the table at our service programming meetings are leaders who are 10-30 years younger than I am (we almost always have a teenager in the mix).

I trust their judgment more than mine when it comes to how our services will connect with the people we’re trying to reach.

I have just seen too many leaders in their 40s, 50s and 60s make decisions that alienate younger generations and then sit around and ask where all the young people went.

Don’t be that leader.

What To Do

Ensure you have younger leaders around your leadership table and empower them to make the decisions that drive your organization.

It’s really not more complicated than that. (Quote source here.)

I love all kinds of music from old time rock and roll, to rhythm and blues, Motown, jazz, contemporary (80’s and 90’s and today), country–especially country rock–you name it and I probably like it (well, I must admit that I am not a fan of opera, but there’s still time to for me to acquire a taste for it). And in church I love both the old hymns and the modern worship music. In fact, I even sometimes sing in the shower to get my day started. That’s how much I love music.

So let us not go to war when it comes to worship music. Let’s just sing and enjoy it! I’ll end this post with the words from Isaiah 42:10

Sing to the Lord a new song . . .

And His praise . . .

From the ends of the earth . . . .

YouTube Video: “Amazing Grace” (1779)  by Il Divo:

YouTube Video: “Freedom” (2018) by Jesus Culture:

YouTube Video: “Moving Forward” (2008) by Israel Houghton and Lakewood Church (this song is a personal favorite of mine):

Photo #1 credit here
Photo #2 credit here
Photo #3 credit here

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Going the Extra Mile

Three weeks ago I published a blog post titled, Loving Our Enemies.” It was Jesus who told us to love our enemies in his Sermon on the Mount found in Matthew 5-7. Jesus also had a lot of other things to say about personal relationships which are found in a section of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:21-48. Here are those verses from The Message Bible (MSG):

Murder

You’re familiar with the command to the ancients, ‘Do not murder.’ I’m telling you that anyone who is so much as angry with a brother or sister is guilty of murder. Carelessly call a brother ‘idiot!’ and you just might find yourself hauled into court. Thoughtlessly yell ‘stupid!’ at a sister and you are on the brink of hellfire. The simple moral fact is that words kill.

This is how I want you to conduct yourself in these matters. If you enter your place of worship and, about to make an offering, you suddenly remember a grudge a friend has against you, abandon your offering, leave immediately, go to this friend and make things right. Then and only then, come back and work things out with God.

Or say you’re out on the street and an old enemy accosts you. Don’t lose a minute. Make the first move; make things right with him. After all, if you leave the first move to him, knowing his track record, you’re likely to end up in court, maybe even jail. If that happens, you won’t get out without a stiff fine.

Adultery and Divorce

You know the next commandment pretty well, too: ‘Don’t go to bed with another’s spouse.’ But don’t think you’ve preserved your virtue simply by staying out of bed. Your heart can be corrupted by lust even quicker than your body. Those leering looks you think nobody notices—they also corrupt.

“Let’s not pretend this is easier than it really is. If you want to live a morally pure life, here’s what you have to do: You have to blind your right eye the moment you catch it in a lustful leer. You have to choose to live one-eyed or else be dumped on a moral trash pile. And you have to chop off your right hand the moment you notice it raised threateningly. Better a bloody stump than your entire being discarded for good in the dump.

Remember the Scripture that says, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him do it legally, giving her divorce papers and her legal rights’. Too many of you are using that as a cover for selfishness and whim, pretending to be righteous just because you are ‘legal.’ Please, no more pretending. If you divorce your wife, you’re responsible for making her an adulteress (unless she has already made herself that by sexual promiscuity). And if you marry such a divorced adulteress, you’re automatically an adulterer yourself. You can’t use legal cover to mask a moral failure.

Empty Promises

And don’t say anything you don’t mean. This counsel is embedded deep in our traditions. You only make things worse when you lay down a smoke screen of pious talk, saying, ‘I’ll pray for you,’ and never doing it, or saying, ‘God be with you,’ and not meaning it. You don’t make your words true by embellishing them with religious lace. In making your speech sound more religious, it becomes less true. Just say ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ When you manipulate words to get your own way, you go wrong.

Love Your Enemies

Here’s another old saying that deserves a second look: ‘Eye for eye, tooth for tooth.’ Is that going to get us anywhere? Here’s what I propose: ‘Don’t hit back at all.’ If someone strikes you, stand there and take it. If someone drags you into court and sues for the shirt off your back, gift-wrap your best coat and make a present of it. And if someone takes unfair advantage of you, use the occasion to practice the servant life. No more tit-for-tat stuff. Live generously.

You’re familiar with the old written law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’ I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves. This is what God does. He gives his best—the sun to warm and the rain to nourish—to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty. If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that. If you simply say hello to those who greet you, do you expect a medal? Any run-of-the-mill sinner does that.

In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.

We live in a very different world today then we lived in even three or four decades ago. Morals and values have drastically changed across the landscape of America, and there is a concerted effort to “silence” the voices of those who don’t “go along for the ride” of the current tide in our society today. And it’s not just a war against Christians in general, or other religious folks. It’s roots go much deeper and involve the history of the United States.

This backlash is very reminiscent of the days leading up to World War II in Germany when Hitler was in control, and continued in East Germany after the war during the Cold War years (1950-1990) in the form of the Stasi. Those who were part of the Stasi made a concerted effort at manipulating the masses and getting rid of those who didn’t “fit in.” The Germans sent them to concentration camps during the war. After the war the Stasi ruined the lives of many German citizens through deception, manipulation, intimidation, surveillance, coercion, serious breaches of privacy, and they operated “above the law” (source here). The following are a couple of quotes from two articles on the Stasi:

Living in East Germany during the Cold War (1950-1990) meant being watched. By your government. By your neighbors. And even, at times, by your own family. The East German secret police, one of the most intrusive and oppressive spying operations ever assembled, collected millions of files on people it suspected of being enemies of the state. (Quote source here.)

The Stasi (modeled along the lines of the Soviet KGB) became a highly effective secret police organization. Within East Germany it sought to infiltrate every institution of society and every aspect of daily life, including even intimate personal and familial relationships. It accomplished this goal both through its official apparatus and through a vast network of informants and unofficial collaborators, who spied on and denounced colleagues, friends, neighbors, and even family members. By 1989 the Stasi relied on 500,000 to 2,000,000 collaborators as well as 100,000 regular employees, and it maintained files on approximately 6,000,000 East German citizens—more than one-third of the population. (Quote source here.)

We have enemies in this life that we are not even aware of most of the time, which makes Jesus’ statement regarding enemies and how to deal with them even more important. How we live our lives and interact with others we come into contact with on a daily basis is crucial because, as you can see from the statements above, you never really know where they lurk in your life. That is not to say that we should become obsessed over who might be an enemy (they rarely show themselves for who they really are at least until after the damage is done, and even then they remain or at least try to remain well hidden). For the most part, we won’t recognize them. That is how the Stasi operated, and the stuff of the Stasi has existed down through the ages, too, and it is found in the history of other nations as well as the same tactics which are still being used today–covertly, of course, just like it has always been.

As an example, it’s might be easy to spot a colleague who is trying to get our job (especially if they verbally told us they wanted it), but it’s often not easy to spot the reason why we were fired if we had done nothing wrong regardless of that employee who wanted our job (and who might have gotten it after we were fired). Workplace bullying (see links here and here) is rampant with this type of stuff going on, and there is usually a concerted effort by other staff that is going on behind the scenes, too.

This life is so much bigger then just our own individual lives. There are always bigger agendas going on around us that we know nothing about. We like to think that we are in control, but the fact is that we have very little control over anything but own our attitudes and reactions to people and what they do to us whether it is good, bad or indifferent.

Jesus showed us how to live in order to navigate this world and our relationships with others in the midst of battles that are often unseen (e.g., and that are other people’s agendas), yet they go on behind the scenes of our lives and directly affect us. This does not mean from the world’s perspective that we will always “win” according to the world’s definition of “winning.” Martyrs down through the ages are a clear indication that “winning” as the world views winning is not always the case for believers. It’s about perseverance, endurance, and genuine love for others including those who have done us great harm, and who couldn’t care less about how we feel about what they did to us or how it damaged us. That’s a hard pill to swallow but it’s a reality about this world in which we live.

I visited a church this past weekend, and there was one song that they sang at the beginning of the service and again at the end of the service with a chorus that states, “There is Power in the Name of Jesus” (the song is titled Break Every Chain). The world laughs at stuff like that but for those of us who truly believe, there is power in the name of Jesus. So when Jesus makes statements like he did in his Sermon on the Mount, we should pay attention. He’s not trying to be a “killjoy” in life; he’s telling us to live this way for our own protection and for the benefit of others, too.

When I was growing up there was a lot more talk in the church about this world being a battleground. The Bible in both the Old and the New Testaments state that fact very clearly, yet so often in the past several decades we treat this life like it is a playground. We rationalize the way we live by saying things like, “God wants me happy.” Or we tell God what we want him to do for us and ask him for his blessing. And we don’t pay much attention to the Sermon on the Mount or anything else he has stated in how we should live, but we expect his guidance and protection anyway. In John 14:15-18, Jesus said:

If you love me, keep my commands. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever—the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.

“Keep my commands” isn’t an option. We can’t excuse off the way we live if we are trying to get over on someone else by spreading gossip about them, seeking revenge, or trying to destroy them in any way, and then expect Jesus to give us the Spirit of truth as we’ve already rejected the truth by our actions. It is the antithesis of Christianity to live like that.

There is one particular verse from the verses quoted at the beginning of this post that I want to focus on, and that is  Matthew 5:41. Here is that verse from the NIV:

If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.

The following information is taken from an article posted on March 29, 2016, on Linkedin on the topic of Matthew 5:41 titled, The actual meaning of walking the extra mile and what I learned from it,” written by James D. Anand, Associate Dean, Media & Entertainment, Business Design at WESchool (in India):

Walk the extra mile. That’s an expression I have heard the most in academics and realm of management, I think. It is usually meant to go beyond one’s ability or to make a special effort to accomplish. As they say, stretch oneself. Walk the extra mile is not just to walk more than required.

 It is a biblical expression. Biblically, Jesus is believed to have used it during his sermons as per the book of Matthew 5:41, “whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two.” Scholarly versions of this verse refer to a practice of impressment by the Roman law on Jews. Any Roman soldier could order a Jewish civilian on the way to carry his baggage, mainly containing armory, for one Roman mile. A Roman mile is roughly 1.45 kilometers. This was a painful task, as the poor unlucky fellow would carry 40-50 kilograms of weight [between 88-110 lbs]. Once the mile is over, the servant could drop it and get relieved. I guess a protest might have lingered over this rule by many. This surely was of a concern to the Jewish community and that’s the reference of Jesus in the context of teachings on human behavior.

In the process of disambiguation of this expression, I learned 3 things.

Lesson 1

Even if others treat you unfairly, how you behave is more important. Treat them generously is the message. We could walk with the soldier one more time, one more mile, generously.

Lesson 2

This walk would result in a rapport with the soldier who is actually a servant of the people. Walking that extra mile with implied patience would let us know about him more. One could walk conversationally. This is more useful in personal life.

Lesson 3

It’s one of the very impressive management learning. The extra mile would be the walk of a business designer with his customer. Walk of a consultant with the client. Walk of a designer with the user. It is the customer service. It is user study. It is unconditional. This is the building block of a star.

To walk the extra mile is not exactly to walk extra. It is actually more than an extra mile’s walk. Generously. Conversationally. Unconditionally. (Quote source here.)

And, it is during that second mile that we might be able to turn an enemy into a friend. The result is not up to us, but if we act generously, conversationally, and unconditionally with an enemy, who knows but that it could turn around the relationship. And even if it doesn’t, we have done our part according to how Jesus would want us to interact with any enemy; in fact, with anyone.

So, let’s be people who are willing to go that extra mile…

Generously . . .

Conversationally . . .

Unconditionally . . . .

YouTube Video: “Break Every Chain” by Jesus Culture:

Photo #1 credit here
Photo #2 credit here

Let Freedom Ring

I read a brief devotion two days ago that got me to thinking about the topic of freedom. The devotion is taking from Our Daily Bread and it is titled, Tight Circles,” by Mike Wittmer:

Tight Circles

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.Galatians 5:1
Today’s Scripture Insight:Galatians 5:1, 4–14

A classmate gave my family a registered collie that had become too old to breed puppies. We soon learned this beautiful dog had, sadly, spent much of her life inside a small pen. She would only walk in tight circles. She couldn’t fetch or run in a straight line. And even with a large yard in which to play, she thought she was fenced in.

The first Christians, many who were Jews, were used to being fenced in by the Mosaic law. Though the law was good and had been given by God to convict them of sin and lead them to Jesus (Galatians 3:19–25), it was time to live out their new faith based in God’s grace and the freedom of Christ. They hesitated. After all this time, were they really free?

We may have the same problem. Perhaps we grew up in churches with rigid rules that fenced us in. Or we were raised in permissive homes and are now desperate for the security of rules. Either way, it’s time to embrace our freedom in Christ (Galatians 5:1). Jesus has freed us to obey Him out of love (John 14:21) and to “serve one another humbly in love” (Galatians 5:13). An entire field of joy and love is open for those who realize “if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36). (Quote source here.)

After being confined in a small pen for years and only able to walk around in small circles, the poor collie described above had no idea what to do once she was freed from that small pen and given a large yard in which to play. She continued to walk in tight circles and she had no concept of how to play, and she continued to live as if she was still fenced in.

I’ve thought about that collie over and over again in the past couple of days. How often do we feel “fenced in” by circumstances beyond our control that, for example, might be partially caused because they depend on the good graces of others in order to move forward. My own personal search for affordable senior housing is an example. Repeatedly, for several years now, no matter what affordable (as in low income) senior housing complex I’ve shown up at or inquired about online or by email and/or phone, I get told that there is a long waiting list, and even when I get put on a waiting list, I never hear back from anyone. Ever. And even when I do call to inquire where I am on the waiting list a year or two years later I get no response (usually I get voicemail, leave a message, and no one returns my call).

That’s a cause for feeling pretty “fenced in,” don’t you think? While I haven’t been offered a “large yard” like the collie in the above story, I certainly understand her plight when she was finally given a large yard; however, after years of being conditioned to living in a small pen, one doesn’t just change their habits overnight (even if one is a collie).

Some fences we build ourselves, but this particular fence is controlled by others who never call back and offer me an affordable senior apartment in an affordable senior apartment complex, and I’m still stuck living in “limbo land” as I have been for five years now. It’s frustrating with a capital “F” (and I’m not referring to that four-letter word, either).

I want to break out from being fenced in for five years now. Unfortunately, like the collie above, I feel like I’m walking around in tight circles in a big world with housing all around me wherever I go. However, most of it I can’t afford especially long term unless I die really soon (and that’s not in my plans at this point in time).

I ran across an article published in 2010 titled, Feeling Fenced In?” (perhaps you can see from the title why it piqued my interest) by Tiffany StuartTeaWithTiffany.  Here is what she wrote:

Sometimes I feel fenced in, like I’m in some tall, invisible cage. I want out! I can’t explain it well, but there’s a sense that I’m being held back from the greater things of life.

Are you there? Do you feel fenced in?

If so, you are not alone. I understand the battle all too well, and I believe God does too.

There are times when being confined is good for our souls. There behind the fence, we wrestle out our emotions and hand over our dreams to the One who created us. In that small space, God reveals Himself to us in a deeper way. We learn to be content in Him all over again. We feel His compassion and love. It’s a good thing.

Other times, the fence needs to be knocked down and destroyed. The fence is only in our minds and it stops us from experiencing joy. We doubt we have permission to live differently. We feel unworthy of more. We question what life would be like outside our fence. And if we were honest, we’d have to admit we fear what’s on the other side.

The truth is God is calling us to live life to the full. Today! Read John 10:10 which means all make-believe fences must go. We have full permission to open His gate of grace and walk out. [John 10:10–words from Jesus–states: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”]

Take comfort in these words (see below) from the Apostle Paul. If I read this correctly, this means no more fences. Starting now!

You are free, friend. It’s time to walk. . . He’s got you.

“Dear, dear Corinthians, I can’t tell you how much I long for you to enter this wide-open, spacious life. We didn’t fence you in. The smallness you feel comes from within you. Your lives aren’t small, but you’re living them in a small way. I’m speaking as plainly as I can and with great affection. Open up your lives. Live openly and expansively!” 2 Corinthians 6:11-13 (MSG). (Quote source here.)

This article refers to “internal” fences we create within ourselves, but the point about fences in general that confine us is well made. Behind the fence we do wrestle with our emotions and, in my case, also our circumstances, and eventually we hand over our dreams to God, and we learn a contentment in God’s provision that we often can’t learn in any other way. However, there comes a time when the fence needs to be knocked down and destroyed.

This post isn’t long, but it’s long enough. I’ll end it with these words from John 8:36:

So if the Son sets you free . . .

You will be free . . .

Indeed . . . .

YouTube Video: “Let Freedom Ring” by Abby Anderson: 

Photo #1 credit here
Photo #2 credit here

 

Loving Our Enemies

For the past several decades, the Church culture in America has focused the topic of our enemies as coming mainly from within ourselves, keeping the focus on our own sins, our own failures, our own weaknesses, and our self-esteem. This coincides with the culture at large when the subject of “self-esteem” became a hot topic back in the 1980’s and 1990’s (see article published in 2017 titled, How the Self Esteem Craze Took Over America and Why the Hype is Irresistible,” at this link). However, when dealing with the subject of our enemies, there is more involved then our own internal focus on ourselves and our self-esteem.

In a series of articles and video teachings titled, The World, the Flesh, and the Devil,published by Bridgetown Church in Portland, OR, the article opens with the following statement:

For millennia, apprentices of Jesus have spoken of the “three enemies of the soul” – the world, the flesh, and the devil. But all three have dropped out of the conversation in the modern, western church. So often [as] we struggle to experience the life God has for us and our world, there’s a sense of opposition and push back and even violence, from within and without. This ancient paradigm has the potential to unlock a new sense of victory and freedom and growth in our life. (Quote source and list of series of videos and teachings at this link.)

For the purpose of this blog post, I won’t address all “three enemies of the soul” listed above. The focus will be on the fact that we do have real enemies in this world (and not just the internal kind mentioned above). For example, while King David had internal enemies of his own that got him into real trouble (just think of what he did with Bathsheba when, as King, he should have been out on the battlefield with his soldiers–see 2 Samuel 11), he also had real external enemies that he had to battle constantly, too.

In an article published in 2002 titled, Ten Truths About Enemies,” by Richard A. Kauffman, Mennonite pastor and author of An American in Persia: A Pilgrimage to Iran” (2010), he writes the following ten truths about enemies:

  1. Everyone has enemies.
    The Bible takes enemies seriously. King David and Jesus had enemies. If having enemies weren’t a part of life, Jesus wouldn’t have had to tell his disciples to love their enemies. Matthew 5:43-44
  2. We either fight or run from them.
    Humans often respond to enemies in two ways: we either fight back or flee. Both are natural responses—our instinct is self-preservation. However, when we flee from our enemies, we can still carry them inside us. When we fight back, we take on the character of our enemies. If we strike back at our enemies, we might set off a downward spiral of attack and counterattack that quickly gets out of control.
  3. We want to curse our enemies.
    Many psalms that deal with enemies make Christians uncomfortable. The psalmist didn’t just pray for them or for his own protection. He often cursed his enemies, seeking bloodthirsty revenge. Instead of dismissing these psalms, we can use them as God-given words for dealing with our own feelings of fear and anger toward enemies. If we pray these words, we release our hate and hostility to God. Then we don’t need to act on our feelings of vulnerability and hostility. Then we can trust God to protect us from our enemies. Psalms 55-59; 137:7-9
  4. God loves them.
    Jesus taught us that God loves enemies and treats them justly: God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” God “is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.” Therefore, we too should “be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” Matthew 5:45b; Luke 6:35-36
  5. Jesus makes peace possible.
    Jesus didn’t just teach his disciples the way of peace. Jesus is our peace. The apostle Paul said that while we were warring against God, Christ died to make peace with us. Although we sinful human beings were at odds with God, God took initiative to make peace with us—through the life, death, and resurrection of his Son. Jesus has reconciled us to God in order to stop our warring madness with God and with each other. Romans 5:6-11; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21; Ephesians 2:14, 17-18; Colossians 1:20
  6. God’s family makes peace.
    If God makes peace with enemies, then so do God’s children. As Jesus said in the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” Peacemaking is a family trait in God’s family. When God’s children work for peace, they are demonstrating a family likeness, just as children in human families show traits of their parents. Matthew 5:9
  7. We disarm our enemies.
    Jesus taught his disciples to respond to enemies in unexpected ways—ways that sometimes “disarm” them. “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.” Jesus’ disciples respond in concrete ways to their enemies. They do not retaliate or seek revenge. They pray for their enemies. They do good to those who want to harm them. Matthew 5:39-41; Matthew 5:44; Luke 6:27; Romans 12:17-21
  8. Enemies can hurt us.
    “Disarming” actions do not guarantee that Christian disciples will win over enemies. In fact, Christians are still persecuted and even killed by their enemies. It is not an accident that Jesus linked the Beatitude about peacemakers with the one about persecution. But Jesus’ disciples believe there are worse things than dying. We would rather die than take another’s life, since we have hope for eternal life. Matthew 5:9-12; Matthew 10:28; 1 Corinthians 15; Philippians 1:21
  9. We “arm” ourselves against the real enemy.
    Christians are not fighting against flesh and blood. We are not struggling with Adolf Hitler or the latest terrorist, but with principalities and powers, dark and evil spiritual forces. Our weapons are not worldly ones but spiritual ones: truth, righteousness, the gospel of peace, faith, salvation, the Spirit, and the word of God. Ephesians 6:10-17
  10. We can learn from our enemies.
    Sometimes our enemies do us a service. Friends tend to accept or overlook our weaknesses, but enemies reflect back to us aspects of our personalities we don’t like. So we ought to listen to our enemies. What are they saying to us about who we are? What can we learn from them about ourselves? Can they make us better people? We cannot be reconciled with our enemies unless we’re able to see the situation from their perspective. (Quote source here.)

So much in our society tells us to seek revenge when we’ve been wronged, or to try to get even when we are insulted and/or persecuted. Lying and deception is the name of the game today (and it always has been). It’s a very human response. However, Jesus makes it quite clear that the way of “the world” (as in our culture) is not the way for his followers to respond. Yet, too often, we witness those claiming to follow after Jesus in regard to how they treat their enemies trying to get even or get back at them, and too often we, ourselves, do the very same thing. We even do it with each other (Christian to Christian).

In our culture today, our “superheros” are those who can completely and totally annihilate their enemies. How often do we turn on the TV or go see a movie where revenge and deception and violence are key components to the story. It’s everywhere. And we’ve been conditioned to believe that this kind of behavior is okay; that it is our “right” to get even or “settle a score” or get back at someone we think has done an injustice to us; and that it is our right to destroy someone who doesn’t think like we think; or act in ways that are acceptable to us.

Is it tempting to act like that? It is… and how often is that our first reaction? But it’s not the way Jesus taught us to treat our enemies. In fact, it is the exact opposite of what he taught us to do.

In an article published on April 5, 2018, titled, How to Love Our Enemies,” by Kathy Ferguson Litton, leader of a national ministry for pastors and planters wives at the North American Mission Board (an entity of the Southern Baptist Convention), and she developed and manages a website for pastor’s wives called Flourish at flourish.me, she writes:

“Love your enemies” — Jesus

Perhaps this is among Jesus’ most revolutionary statements — and certainly most humanly counterintuitive. We already were struggling to “love our neighbor,” and then He throws this at us. Seriously, Jesus? Our enemies?

He did have plenty. And even a frenemy or two. Yet in His Sermon on the Mount, He shockingly resets what people and their lives should look like in the Kingdom of God:

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the tax collectors do so? Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.’ (Matt. 5:43-48)

Jesus even defines enemy for us:

    • He means people who oppose us, try to hurt us.
    • People who have harmful intentions and clear hostility toward us.
    • Those who literally persecute us.

Then He points out what we should do:

    • Love them.
    • Bless them.
    • Do good toward them.
    • Pray for them.

I don’t know about you, but this is what I do for my family, not my enemy. Our enemies run the spectrum from mild hurt, to a serious offense, to one who devastated our lives permanently. Our enemies may attack us physically or merely gossip about us. They may even persecute us because of our beliefs. In our highly charged religious and political climate, our enemies may be in the Middle East or just on the opposite pole of current American politics. Racial and ethnic tensions are very high, creating battlefields and enemies in communities and hearts. Ironically, churches themselves have people who powerfully oppose each other — and some even have harmful intentions.

Jesus tells us we have to respond counter to our hearts and counter to our culture. He says plainly, “Don’t just love those who love you, love your enemy.” He says we then will be true sons of our Father in heaven. In other words, we would be treating them like He treats us…. (Quote source here.)

In her article she also mentions the following story:

Martin Luther King Jr. in his sermon, Loving Your Enemies, delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church Montgomery, Alabama, Nov. 17, 1957 [stated]:

Another way that you love your enemy is this: When the opportunity presents itself for you to defeat your enemy, that is the time which you must not do it. There will come a time, in many instances, when the person who hates you most, the person who has misused you most, the person who has gossiped about you most, the person who has spread false rumors about you most, there will come a time when you will have an opportunity to defeat that person. It might be in terms of a recommendation for a job; it might be in terms of helping that person to make some move in life. That’s the time you must not do it. That is the meaning of love. In the final analysis, love is not this sentimental something that we talk about. It’s not merely an emotional something. Love is creative, understanding goodwill for all men. It is the refusal to defeat any individual. When you rise to the level of love, of its great beauty and power, you seek only to defeat evil systems. Individuals who happen to be caught up in that system, you love, but you seek to defeat the system.

Keep in mind the very volatile context. The hate was strong against him and his movement. His followers being struck, hosed with water, fire bombed, killed, etc. This is not a small moment, but a highly charged one. And eventually King was killed by an enemy.

I love Martin Luther King’s language in these thoughts:

When you rise to the level of love, of its great beauty and power, you seek only to defeat evil systems. Individuals who happen to be caught up in that system, you love, but you seek to defeat the system.

Reading this helped me see how very slowly God has changed my perspective toward my enemies. When I thought of my enemies as “bad” people, they remained my enemy. They were just like me–living in an evil system of sin. But in time I began to see my enemies through a gospel lens. I saw them as sinners who are deceived by sin.

I am caught in the same system of sin. My enemies really aren’t the issue; sin is. Diverting my attention from them to sin and deception has gone a long way in helping me love as Matthew 5 suggests. When I readily relate my enemies to the idea of sin and being deceived, I am more prone to dispense love and grace — as my Father dispensed to me. This is the beautiful, powerful love MLK called for. And modeled by Jesus Himself: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:24) Let’s be countercultural and love our enemies. (Quote source here.)

It is Jesus who has the final word on how we should treat our enemies (Matthew 5:44)… But I tell you…

Love your enemies . . .

And pray for those . . .

Who persecute you . . . .

YouTube Video: “Bleed the Same” by Mandisa, TobyMac, Kirk Franklin:

Photo #1 credit here
Photo #2 credit here

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

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

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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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):

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Photo #2 credit here