Peaceful Fruit

Deion Sanders is the only athlete who has played in a World Series and a Super Bowl.  To what did that success lead him?  Attempted suicide.

Sanders played in the 1992 World Series (Braves).  He is a two-time Super Bowl champion (1994-49ers; 1995-Cowboys).  Despite fame and fortune, in 1997 he drove his car off a 40-foot cliff. Intentionally. He writes in his biography, “I was going through the trials of life.  I was empty, no peace, no joy.”  His soul warred with the fruitlessness of his life.

With Sanders, did God almost drop the ball?  Is it his job to ensure you have a nice life while you try to be a moral and successful person?  That sounds religious, but it isn’t Christianity.  The Christian worldview makes sense of life as you experience it, and trials are part of everyone’s experience.  But trials do not tell your whole story.

Good can come from suffering.  By it we can experience God’s comfort and grace.  Theologian J. I. Packer explains that the purpose of troubles and perplexities of life “is to ensure that we shall learn to hold Him fast.  When we are caught in rough country in the dark, with a storm getting up and our strength spent, and someone takes our arm to help us, we shall thankfully lean on him.”  When suffering finds you, walk it to the foot of the cross.  There you’ll meet the One who knows about suffering and gives you peace despite the human experience. That’s the rest of the story.

“It is through many tribulations that we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22).  Suffering teaches you to accept God’s rule in your life.  Chuck Colson, who spent time in prison after Watergate, agrees.  “God uses the thorns and thistles that have infested creation since the Fall to teach, chastise, sanctify, and transform us, making us ready for that new heaven and earth.  The greatest blessings in my life have emerged from suffering.  God’s purposes are the context that give suffering meaning and significance.”

Meaninglessness tortured Deion Sanders.  But then he experienced this truth: “He disciplines us for our good, so that we may share His holiness. For the moment, all discipline seems not to be pleasant, but painful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterward it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness” (Heb. 12:10-11).  He said after the suicide attempt, “I finally just got on my knees and gave it all to the Lord. My faith is everything.  It’s the air that provokes me to live.”

Now Sanders coaches young men at Jackson State University.  He partners with Stand Together in Dallas to eradicate poverty and youth violence.  Through the way of suffering, he has found the peaceful fruit of righteousness and offers it to others. Let that be your story, too.

Boldly and Joyously

I have questions.  Strange and unusual events lead me to this basic question, how now shall we live?

First, some current events questions I don’t presume to answer.  COVID emerged amid shocking warnings that it could be bad.  Are economic shutdowns and personal isolation as bad as the disease?  Cities in the USA burned while authorities allowed lawless autonomous zones.  Will that kind of territorial lawlessness reappear again or elsewhere?

Persistent claims of fraud challenge previous elections.  Will Americans ever trust another election?  When people stormed the capitol last week, did they really think anything good would come of it?  Will Big Tech censor my speech if they disagree?  Mr. Biden promised to sign the Equality Act in his first 100 days.  Will this Act make people of faith less equal because we believe a disordered view of humanity should not be forced on citizens?

Jesus’ fisherman friend wrote to believers scattered in a culture that discriminated against them for their faith (1 Peter).  From that letter, here are five ways you can live boldly and joyously in today’s world.

  1. Love people. If you are obedient to the truth of Christ, then your soul has a new capacity to love people. Racism, envy, and strife are selfishness, not love.  To “fervently love” one another is to boldly proclaim Jesus, who even said to love your enemy! (1:22)
  2. Remember who you are. You are an “alien and stranger,” just passing through this world. Feeling anxious and disenfranchised comes from a desire for control, a worldly lust that wages war against the soul. An eternal perspective brings joy. (2:11)
  3. Live an honorable life. If someone slanders you as evil because you fear God and apply his truth to life, respond boldly with “good deeds” and “excellent behavior.” People notice that, and it glorifies God. (2:12)
  4. Speak truth. Align your faith, deeds, and words by setting up Christ Jesus as Lord in your heart. As you live with the joy and hope you have in Christ, people will notice.  Be prepared to boldly “give an account” but with gentleness and reverence.  Jesus said whoever believes in him will have eternal life. (3:15)
  5. Endure suffering with purpose. Do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that tests and strengthens your faith. Jesus said you are blessed when this happens. “If you patiently endure it, this finds favor with God.”  Consider it all joy when you encounter various trials. (4:12, 2:20)

Chuck Colson’s answer to the question, “How now shall we live?” is found in his book by that title.  He writes, “By embracing God’s truth, understanding the physical and moral order he has created, lovingly contenting for that truth with our neighbors, then having the courage to live it out in every walk of life.  Boldly and, yes. Joyously.”

Right Side of History

A U.S. physician became alarmed by his elderly mother’s observations.  She spoke from her experience resisting communism’s early advances and as a political prisoner in Eastern Europe.  Rod Dreher recounts the story in his book, Live Not By Lies.  Recent stories of “cancel culture” in the U.S. alarmed the lady and recalled her history.   Similar to that 20th C. movement, a damaging ideology is pitched today as something good, even in a religious way. Don’t get caught in that net.

Dreher describes it like this: “It masquerades as kindness, demonizing dissenters and disfavored demographic groups to protect the feelings of victims in order to bring about social justice.  The contemporary cult of social justice identifies members of certain social groups as victimizers, as scapegoats, and calls for their suppression as a matter of righteousness.”  Unless you are one of the oppressed classes, you may not speak.  It’s about levers of power and redistribution of wealth. It even brands religious freedom as bigotry.

You cannot dismiss this as campus wokeness.  It does exist in education, but also in politics, business, and the media. It brooks no dissent and divides people into two classes: oppressed and oppressor.  It affirms its adherents in anything they feel or believe, even if it is self-destructive.  It knows nothing of repentance and reconciliation, only retribution.  It self-defines righteousness.  It rejects the basis of equality, that all people are created in God’s image. Can such defects yield true justice?  The prophet Habakkuk wrote about this some 2600 years ago.  “Strife exists and contention arises. Therefore the law is ignored, and justice is never upheld. For the wicked surround the righteous; therefore justice comes out confused” (Hab. 1:3-4).

So how do Christians face any ideology that denies truth? Christianity is more than a set of beliefs and behaviors.  It is more than a worldview.  It is a relationship with the Creator who forms your new identity in Christ.  We are people who love God and neighbor, as Jesus said.  So trust God’s Providence to accomplish his purposes regardless of people who live as though he doesn’t.  “The righteous will live by his faith” (Hab. 2:4), not by hate, fear, or coercion.  Offer refuge and truth to those damaged by cultural lies. Forgive those who would cancel you because you do not live by those same lies.  “I will rejoice in the God of my salvation (not in this rising ideology.) The Lord God is my strength” (Hab. 3:18-19).

When enough people demanded truth and liberation in Eastern Europe, communism collapsed. History shows that the followers of Christ and his gospel outlasted it.  As history reveals, the dark secrets of any modern ideology cannot remain hidden from the light of God’s revealed truth.  Side with your Creator and you will be on the right side of history.

No More Time

Each December when World Magazine recaps the year, I turn to the list of deaths.  Reading what people did or how they died reminds me I still have time.  It also raises questions about the finite human experience.

I noticed a few entries on the list.  NBA All-Star Kobe Bryant died in a helicopter crash. Actor Robert Conrad did his own stunts. Kenny Rogers is “The Gambler” no more.  Ken Osmond played Eddie Haskell on “Leave It to Beaver.”  John Lewis marched with Martin Luther King Jr.  Herman Cain died with COVID. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was known by her initials.  Eddie Van Halen was a Rock and Roll guitarist.

The passing of time and people increases the stream of probing thoughts that demand some bandwidth. I’ll borrow the questions that Leo Tolstoy said nearly drove him to suicide.  “What will become of what I do today or tomorrow?  Why do I live? Why do I wish for anything or do anything?  Is there any meaning in my life that will not be annihilated by the inevitability of death?”

An awareness of the passing of time is a defining and sometimes alarming feature of the human experience. The year changes. A life passes.  The mirror startles.  An intrusive thought emerges that time never stops ticking along. You can’t stop it or even slow it down.  What you can do is make the most of your appointed time, however uncertain its boundaries may be. How? The One through whom all things came into being, the One who is life and light (John 1:4) is the source of transcendent and timeless human meaning.  God created humans to know and glorify him. That has unique meaning for your life.

After his Resurrection, Jesus walked with two friends toward Emmaus.  They didn’t recognize him.  As they approached the village, “they urged him, saying, ‘Stay with us, for it is getting toward evening and the day is now nearly over.’  So he went in to stay with them” (Luke 24:29).  While with them he revealed truth in a life-changing way. He infused their lives with clarity, meaning, and destiny because they had seen the One who died yet lives, the One who made time yet releases you from its restraints.

If the Lord tarries, your name and a brief description of your life could appear in a publication.  People may read and learn a little about you.  Your loved ones will remember you.  Will they know that you enjoyed walking with Jesus even as the evening time approaches?  Did you travel this sod with God-given purpose? When the day is over and you no longer journey in the land of the dying, by faith in the Lord Jesus you will stay with him in the land of the living where time is no more.

 

The Life Giver

The wrapping paper’s on the floor.
That moment of giving is no more.
This year’s Christmas is now gone past.
What now remains is the gift that lasts.

The movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” became a classic Christmas film.  Christmastime is the setting at the beginning and end.  But it’s not about Christmas presents though it is about giving.

George Bailey (played by Jimmy Stewart) learned about life from his father, Peter, who ran the town building and loan. In contrast to the rich and miserly Potter who owned the bank and abused the townsfolk, Peter told George, “I feel that in a small way we are doing something important.  It’s deep in the race for a man to want his own roof, and we’re helping get those things in our shabby little office.”

After Peter passed unexpectedly, Potter insulted the man while arguing to close the building and loan.  George responded, “In the twenty-five years since he and Uncle Billy started this thing, he never once thought of himself. He didn’t save enough money to send Harry to school, let alone me. But he did help a few people get out of your slums, Mr. Potter.”

To keep the family business open, George assumed his father’s position.  It cost him his lifelong dream of hearing anchor chains, plane motors, and train whistles, and building airfields, skyscrapers, and bridges. He stayed home while Harry went to college.

In one scene the flirty Violet, a lifelong friend, needed a new start in life.  George helped her with the means to go to New York.  Her response? “I’m glad I know you, George Bailey.”

Near the end of the movie, George found himself in a crisis not of his making.  While contemplating a leap off the bridge, he realized how many lives he had touched in Bedford Falls.  With renewed enthusiasm for life, he returned to his family.  When news spread that George was in crisis, his friends rushed to help.

Jesus said, “Give that which is within as a charitable gift” (Luke 11:41).  As portrayed by George Bailey, that means humility, service, and putting others before self.  It means authentic friendships.  That’s far more than seasonal Christmas giving.  That is being a life giver, someone people are glad to know.  By faith, you are especially equipped with something to offer.  “Those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:17).

Christmas is a celebration of God’s great gift.  “The gracious gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23).  Join with the saints in saying, “Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift” (2 Cor. 9:15).  This gift of life in Christ, the gift that lasts, equips you as a life giver.

Peace to You

“In Me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world.” – Jesus

Last week, I gained a new appreciation for Christmas and all it means.  It happened in the middle of the night.  I had traveled to another state, and was asleep in a nice hotel room.  But nice can change in a twinkling, even around 1 a.m.  I awoke with a start.  A couple yelled at each other just outside my door.  Expletives and accusations flew. Should I call the front desk, or 911? Mercifully, after a few long minutes a slammed door ended the chaos.

How sad.  What could cause such torment that this couple would forfeit any consideration for each other, and the people around them?  The contrast with Christmas was startling. They had punctuated this season of love and giving with selfishness and dissension.

Shepherds were minding their business in a nice pasture.  In a twinkling, an angel and a multitude of the heavenly host pierced the night.  Their announcement was short.  “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”  Of all the transcendent meaning packed into that, it also offers a reason not to scream in a hotel hallway.  Peace on earth means peace to you for whatever your circumstances might be.

“Long lay the world in sin and error pining,” the carol says.  To that world the angels announced the birth of Jesus who was the embodiment of peace.  One Bible word for peace is “shalom,” which means to be whole, at rest, tranquil.  As a man, that is what Jesus displayed and offered to His followers even though He knew crucifixion awaited Him the next day.  He said, “Peace I leave you; My peace I give you” (John 14:27).  After His death He visited them saying, “Peace with you” (John 20:19).  Jesus clearly understood that you need peace, especially with God. In fact, “He Himself is our peace” (Eph. 2:14).

What does Christmas mean to you?  By faith, do you know the peace of Christ?  If you do, then you have a peace that can displace the angst of elections, fears of COVID, and the loneliness of memories.  You have a deep pool of resources to help you recall the past with tranquility and face the future with confidence.  The world offers much tribulation.  But when you, friend, find your place in the Peace of Christmas, it changes your outlook in this life because your soul is reconciled to its Creator for eternity.  Isn’t that merry?

The angels announced it.  The shepherds witnessed it.  “O night divine, O night when Christ was born!”  The world would never be the same, for in that first Christmas God stepped into the world He created to bring His Peace to you.

Abiding Joy

Joy is a theme of Christmas.  “Joy to the World” the carol proclaims!  But why is it that joy can seem so elusive?

We pine for happier times.  The COVID virus and the economic shutdown have affected so many families.  Some are avoiding traditional family gatherings this year.  Even worse, this may be your first Christmas without a loved one.  Life happens, and can steal your joy.  Or not!  I submit to you that happiness and joy are different.  Suffering hides happiness, but joy abides in sadness.

British theologian Jo Vitale writes, “What sets joy apart is, whereas happiness is dependent upon our circumstances, biblical joy is experienced in defiance of the circumstances.”  The Psalmist thanked God saying, “You have turned my mourning into dancing for me. You have untied my sackcloth and encircled me with joy” (Psa. 30:11).  Jesus’ followers experienced this, too.  After a flogging for speaking about Jesus, they went on their way “rejoicing that they had been considered worthy to suffer shame for His name. And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not stop teaching and preaching the good news of Jesus as the Christ” (Acts 5:41-32).  That is the abiding joy that keeps you living with purpose.

You have reason to live with joy despite your circumstances.  Jesus said, “Rejoice that your names are recorded in heaven” (Luke 10:20).  Sadness doesn’t change the joy that is yours by faith.  Peter writes, “Though you do not see Him now but believe in Him you greatly rejoice with joy inexpressible (1 Pet. 1:8).

Jesus changed the circumstances of the world, and in your life.  In the words of Tolkien’s character Sam Gamgee, “Gandalf! I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself. Is everything sad going to come untrue? What’s happened to the world?” “A great shadow has departed,” Gandalf said, and then he laughed.  If there’s a sadness that has become untrue, it is the hopelessness of evil and separation from God.  Jesus overcame those so that joy may abide in you.

How can you have this joy?  C. S. Lewis wrote, “Joy is the serious business of heaven.”  Abiding joy is what God offers.  It does not exist apart from Him. Then consider this:  Jesus “has come to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10).  So if joy comes from the Lord and He seeks you, then it follows that you don’t have to pursue happiness because a greater Joy is in pursuit of you!  Respond to the cry of the carol, “Let every heart prepare him room”!

Joy isn’t elusive when you realize it’s not an emotion, but a Person.  By faith, Christ Jesus lives in you (Gal. 2:20).  His Christmas gift to you is Himself, your Abiding Joy.

Coming of Age

That year, I felt bold enough to make a trip to Santa’s chair – on my own.  Under the watchful eye of my parents I had already presented Santa my predetermined list.  But as I roamed the department store, my eyes landed on a battery powered airplane.  I powered my way back to Santa.  I petitioned for a revision to our pending transaction.  “OK, but you need to make sure you tell your Mom what you just told me!”  To be “good,” I had to do what he said, but I left wondering why she needed to know.  And so began a line of inquiry that hastened my coming of age.

The birth of Jesus and the appearance of Santa Claus are linked by tradition.  With tender care, a parent can tease apart truth and myth when a child raises an inquiry into these things.  To some, God will always be the one who makes a list and checks it twice, who knows if you’ve been naughty or nice. So if you’re good nice things happen. That might be the transactional myth of Santa Claus, but it is an errant caricature of Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Consider four differences.  (1) Santa comes by stealth after dark.  Jesus is “the true Light which, coming into the world, enlightens every man” (John 1:9).  He meant to be seen and heard. (2) Santa only shows up once a year.  Jesus said, “I am with you always” (Matt. 28:20).  (3) Some children are warned that Santa gives a lump of coal if they’ve been bad.  We are all bad, so one wonders by what standard Santa judges badness.  Jesus said, “God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but so that the world might be saved through Him” (John 3:17).  (4) Children are encouraged to focus on what Santa brings, not Santa himself.  Jesus offers friendship with God, “who reconciled us to Himself through Christ” (2 Cor. 5:18).

As a child, I didn’t question the transactional nature of my dealings with Santa.    Santa gives earned rewards, not gifts.  Big difference!  Our Father offers a transformational gift.  “The gracious gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 6:23).  When you receive that gift by faith, the Light of Christmas fills your life and you are not the same.  C. S. Lewis said, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”

Just a few years after my enlightenment about Santa, that true Light cast the shadows from my soul.  I believed in the Christ of Christmas and Calvary.  That was the coming of age that mattered.

Hopes and Fears

“Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint” (Isa. 40:31).

Michael Suderman, a minister in Washington D.C. has occasion to chat with and encourage elected officials.  One member of Congress was frustrated with her constituents because their expectations were impossible.  “Politicians aren’t superheroes!” she told him.  Win or lose, emotions run high after elections and this year those flood waters are churning.  That indicates that voters could have impossible expectations or unaddressed fears. If America hopes to find the high ground of honesty, decency, and peace, politics won’t take us there.

The word “expect” is so closely linked to “hope” that the Spanish verb “esperar” captures both ideas.  Let’s separate them a bit. We might expect government leaders to do their jobs, but to say we put our hope in them is perilous.  The ancient people God chose to bring forth the Messiah were as prone to that mistake as we are.  The prophet promised a child to be born, “and the government will rest on His shoulders” (Isa. 9:6).  So, during the Roman occupation, their expectations hardly extended beyond a political solution.

They missed the big picture.  Paul quoted another ancient prophecy to them: “The Root of Jesse will spring up, one who will arise to rule over the nations. In him the Gentiles will hope” (Rom. 15:12).  Jesse was the father of kings, yet the original source of this family would mysteriously appear later.  This person wouldn’t be a national leader but would rule nations and offer hope to all people.  That’s a far loftier expectation than overthrowing Roman rule or winning an election.  History witnessed that hope fulfilled by Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, His death on Calvary’s cross, and His resurrection from the tomb. Jesus is our hope for peace with God, and His Providence is unfazed by any political outcome.

Humans seek reasons to hope.  We yearn for a better day.  Maybe that’s because of trouble, uncertainty, and fear.  Maybe we are hard-wired to hope for abiding joy and lasting peace not realized in this life. Even when life is good, our souls are stirred with the haunting hope of a paradise already sensed but not yet seen.  Whatever the reason, we hope for life that is more sublime and transcendent than what we have experienced thus far.

Isn’t that the idea reflected in the familiar carol? “O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie!  The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”  Yes, you may have nagging fears.  Yet you soar on wings of hope in the Lord, and none other.

With Gratitude

Gratitude is good for you.  So says Amy Morin, author and therapist.  In a Forbes magazine article, she cites scientific research to make her point.

Morin reports that gratitude isn’t just good manners.  Gratitude shows you value the contributions of others, and that improves your relationships.  One study showed that grateful people are healthier.  Gratitude tamps down the toxic emotions of envy, resentment, frustration, and regret.  It even helps you sleep better!  In other words, these research results agree with the Bible that thanksgiving is vital to the human experience.  “Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thes. 5:16).  This is yet another example of God revealing truth in the Bible for your good, long before scientists arrived.

Should you thank God when it was your friend who did you a favor?  Consider this: “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father” (James 1:17).  So, sure, thank your friend.  Thank God for your friend and tell your friend as much.  Joseph Addison (18th C. British essayist) wrote, “If gratitude is due from man to man, how much more from man to his Maker?  The Supreme Being does not only confer upon us those bounties which proceed more immediately from His hand, but even those benefits which are conveyed to us by others.”

Most people aren’t looking for gratitude, hence the response, “It was nothing” (Spanish – “de nada”; French – “de rien”).  But leave it out, and it is uncomfortably obvious.  Once, Jesus was walking toward a village.  Ten men with skin disease saw Him, but maintained their social distance. “Have pity on us!” they cried.  He told them to go to the authorities to end their quarantine.  As they went, they were healed.  One rushed back to thank Jesus and praise God.  Jesus said, “Where are the other nine? Has no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner?” (Luke 17).  This encounter is a cautionary tale about how easy it is to omit gratitude.

Gratitude to God is the natural response when you contemplate His gifts: the beauty and complexity of the universe and our world; the provisions necessary for human existence and flourishing; the ability to think, love, and create.  As you survey God’s gifts, remember His forgiveness, purpose, and hope available to you through Christ Jesus.  Joseph Addison penned verses for a hymn about this: “When all thy mercies, O my God, my rising soul surveys, transported with the view, I’m lost in wonder, love, and praise.”

Consider British writer G. K. Chesterton’s challenge: “When it comes to life the critical thing is whether you take things for granted or take them with gratitude.”  Raise your soul and your quality of life by living with gratitude.