He Is There

Buffalo Bills football player Damar Hamlin suffered a heart attack during a game. Millions of TV viewers and stadium fans were shocked at the scene as emergency medical staff rushed in. Players gathered on the field in a circle weeping and praying while Bills trainer Denny Kellington performed CPR.

ESPN personality Dan Orlovsky prayed on live TV. “We want answers, but some things are unanswerable,” he said. “We just want to pray, truly come to You and pray…for Damar.” Later he posted on Twitter, “Where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst” (Matt. 18:20).

The automatic response appealing to God to intervene is not uncommon. Remember the surge in church attendance after 911? What does this tell us? The secular worldview is not large enough to encompass the human experience. An awareness of God’s existence and even His proximity erupt into your consciousness even if you are not believing or seeking. Helplessness and desperation will test your worldview. I know of an avowed atheist who kept pleading “Oh God” at the scene of his serious car accident. The philosophers can debate if there really is such a thing as an atheist. Nietzsche argued, “God is Dead.” He also went insane while holding that thought.

The Bible says, “That which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them” (Rom. 1:19). It cannot be easy to suppress that internal knowledge since evidence for God abounds. It will not be suppressed when helpless millions watch a young man dying on a football field.

Humans are hard-wired to know there is Someone beyond ourselves. That doesn’t mean prayer comes naturally, but it can incite curiosity. Norman Rockwell captured that curiosity in his painting, “Saying Grace.” The grandmother and child pray at the diner while fellow patrons stare at them.

But make no mistake. A curiosity about God and prayer, an awareness of God, even a prayer in crisis are not enough. That same God has revealed Himself through nature, in the written word, and by stepping into human history. He has a high moral standard, which you cannot meet. But all is not lost, because He died on the cross to make you blameless, even holy. By faith in Christ you receive forgiveness and new life. “With the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness” (Rom. 10:10).

Jesus once explained that a man was born blind “so that the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 9:3). That’s not easy to contemplate. But as Damar Hamlin is now at home recovering after over a week in the hospital, he can fairly claim that same result. God is there and is at work in the world, and in you.

Restoration

People are attracted to restoration stories. That explains the popular TV shows about old houses, junk (“collectible”) pickers, and pawn shops. They appeal to a human delight with recovering and renewing value. They may even connect with a deep, personal hope that all is not lost.

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s niece Aveda King carries on the family legacy in her own way, advocating civil rights for unborn children and support for their parents. Her work grew out of her very personal loss. “I prayed often for deliverance from the pain caused by my decision to abort my baby. I suffered the threat of cervical and breast cancer and experienced the pain of empty arms after the baby was gone. And truly, for me, and countless abortive mothers, nothing on earth can fully restore what has been lost; only Jesus can.”

What did she mean by that? She experienced the restorative power of God’s forgiveness. Peace and a renewed sense of purpose replaced her regret and pain. This life transformation began when she came to faith in Christ in 1983.

Joni Eareckson Tada experienced her own restoration. At age 17, she was paralyzed in a diving accident. Since 1967 she has lived as a quadriplegic. Once, I saw her point to her wheelchair. “I thank God for this wheelchair,” she said, “because without it I would never have come to know and love Him so.” After decades of life and ministry she said, “I’m so focused on God’s calling on my life, which is to share His love with special needs families and to promote a biblical worldview on disability globally.” That’s what her restored life looks like.

Jesus’ early disciples were concerned about what they might lose by choosing to follow Him. He didn’t offer empty promises but pointed to the big picture. “Everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or farms for My name’s sake, will receive many times as much, and will inherit eternal life” (Matt. 19:29). He offered them, and you, a restoration to something far better.

Dan Reeves

In the grand scheme of things, it was a small act of defiance.  A “first world problem” as some would say. But it speaks volumes about Dan Reeves.

Reeves was a native Georgian, raised in Americus. He spent 38 years in the National Football League as player and coach, including a stint with the Atlanta Falcons. His participation in nine Super Bowls speaks to his success. But football was not his highest priority in life.

Reeves professed faith in Christ at an early age. He found a way to express that faith through the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA). “In 1965, when I was a rookie for the Dallas Cowboys,” he said, “Coach (Tom) Landry was one that helped start FCA. Since he was involved with it, I started doing some things with the FCA.” FCA President Shane Williamson acknowledged Reeves’ participation over the years, calling him “a man of integrity, an amazing coach, committed husband and father and a great partner and friend to FCA. Generations of players are better men, husbands, fathers and leaders due to the influence Coach Reeves has had on their lives.”

Now let’s go behind the scenes to the night before Super Bowl XXII between Denver and Washington. Head coaches Reeves and Joe Gibbs planned to lead a Christian devotional for both teams’ players interested in attending. NFL commissioner Tagliabue found out about it. “You can’t do that,” he said. “It just doesn’t look right, with two teams that are going to play in the Super Bowl having a devotional the night before the game.” Reeves defied Tagliabue. “We were Christians before the Super Bowl,” he explained later, “so we went ahead and did it. You still compete and go out and play as hard as you can the next day.”

Reeves lived by and spoke about his priorities in life. “Jesus Christ is first, others are second, I am third.” You can trace this to Jesus’ words, “Seek first His kingdom and His righteousness” (Matt. 6:33). This is a call to prioritize faith in Christ as the only way to enjoy a right standing with God. Another Reeves saying was, “You can tell the character of a man by how he treats those who can do nothing for him.” That Christian ethic is rooted in this: “With humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves. Do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others” (Phil. 2:3-4).

Reeves enjoyed pointing out that his greatest achievement in high school was getting a freshman cheerleader, Pam White, to go on a date with him. In 2022 after 57 years of marriage, she watched him slip away from the land of the dying into the land of the living. He was 77.

Best Days Ahead

I recently traveled to Boone, NC. As part of my activities there, I heard Irena Creek tell her story.  With an early childhood like hers, it was no small miracle that she came to believe her future would be any better.

She was born in a former Soviet Union country. Her parents were alcoholics. One evening while her father was out drinking, her mother left and never returned. The village placed Irena and her sister in a military-style orphanage. She felt alone, unloved, and abandoned. One day in the midst of despair, a new thought challenged her to stop looking at everything that was wrong. She should look forward with hope. She began to believe her best days lay ahead.

Soon they moved the girls to a more compassionate orphanage. It was there she heard that God knows and loves her. The cross of Christ took on new meaning as she placed her faith in Him. At 10 years old she finally felt secure, unburdened. She realized that it had been God’s voice urging her toward hope. And it was God who arranged for a Christian family in America to adopt Irena and her sister. Today, Irena serves with Operation Christmas Child, the same ministry that shared God’s love with her as an orphan.

Thinking that your best days are ahead does not require you to believe in the mystical powers of positive thinking. Optimism about tomorrow is well-founded. These three truths show you what I mean.

(1) Every morning you awake to the compassions of God. Even in the context of a book of laments the writer notes, “The Lord’s…compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness” (Lam. 3:22-23). Awake tomorrow knowing that with God, all things are possible.

(2) God is always at work in your life. “He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.” You experience this as a “partaker of grace” (Phil. 1:6-7). Tomorrow’s work in you brings more love, knowledge, and discernment.

(3) Yesterday’s sufferings do not diminish your ongoing purpose. Paul had considerable trials in his past yet he wrote, “Forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:13-14). Tomorrow is a better day when you hear the upward call and continue your mission to love God and neighbor.

The believer has reason to be a joyful optimist! You can see it in Irena’s life story. You can see it in your own faith journey. And if no other reason, the promise of eternity is reason enough to rejoice that your best days are ahead.

A Lighter Burden

What will the new year hold? One thing is for sure – it will be different than the past year. I don’t know about you, but I’d like to travel lighter this coming year.

Let’s stipulate that 2022 delivered dispiriting events on the national and world scene. If those burdens weren’t enough, you have your own freight to carry. Life can make you feel deserted, hurt, lonely, or hopeless. Your burdens intensify if you have marginalized the God of the universe. Life’s burdens are evidence for this piece of theology: This is a fallen world, enslaved to corruption (Rom. 8:21). The good news is that you can travel lighter.

That’s what Tennyson expressed with these verses: “Ring out the old, ring in the new. Ring, happy bells, across the snow; the year is going, let him go. Ring out the false, ring in the true. Ring out false pride in place and blood, the civic slander and the spite. Ring in the love of truth and right. Ring in the common love of good.” These sentiments from 1850 express the cry of our hearts today.

People who travel heavy with burdens rightly yearn for the new, the good, the true. It’s true that that life is less about what happens and more about how you react to it. You can manage the burdens you carry. To that end I offer three truths, actually blessings, which will help you travel lighter in the new year.

  1. You are valuable to God. He made you in His image and renews you by faith in Christ Jesus. It is, as C. S. Lewis wrote, “almost incredible and only possible by the work of Christ, that any of us who really chooses, shall find approval, shall please God. (You are) loved by God…delighted in as an artist delights in his work”! If God is for you, who can be against you (Rom. 8:31)?
  2. Your life has meaning. Having a central organizing purpose for life is your reason to stand strong. The highest and most sublime purpose is not to possess things, but to know God. “I count all things as loss,” Paul wrote, “in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ” (Phil. 3:8). To know God is to have everything.
  3. You are created for community. Poet John Donne tells us “no man is an island.” There’s a reason the Bible emphasizes loving your neighbor. Shared burdens are lighter. With whom are you living life? Are you sharing the journey with other travelers?

Prepare for the new year by embracing what’s right and true. Lighten your burden by receiving these blessings from God. As Isaac Watts wrote, “No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground. He comes to make His blessings flow far as the curse is found.”

The Nativity

Two figures, bundled against the stiff cold, shuffle past the streetlight. “Only college students go out on a night like this for coffee,” Joan said, glancing at her friend Kara. “Well, only college students are crazy enough,” Kara said, “to wait to the last minute to finish their assignments, then need a java to make the final push!”

The young ladies laugh, hoping the distracting moment of truth would help ward off the cold. There’s another bit of chill, which they have been avoiding. Joan brought her Christian faith with her to college. She had invited Kara to the Christmas program at her church the weekend before finals. “That’s the last thing on my mind. No thanks!” Kara had said. She was content to leave any thoughts about God back home.

Joan still felt the sting of Kara’s rejection. She also had other things on her mind, not uncommon for a first-year student. Was she at the right school, in the right major? Would the student loan debt be worth it? Would she fit in? Would her classmates dismiss her small-town ways as quaint? Those are the thoughts that can push childhood traditions aside. But Joan knew her faith had something to say about her future and who she would be, now that she is on her own. That’s why she found being with fellow believers in church comforting, familiar. Why wouldn’t she share that with her new friend?

They continued along the downtown sidewalk in silence, anxious to huddle over a steamy brew and a warm blueberry scone. They were approaching that church near the coffee shop, the one with the tiny front yard squeezed between two old, red brick store buildings. Kara remembered Joan’s invitation. “You know, I’m sorry I responded that way when you brought up the Christmas program. It’s just that, well, I don’t know what I believe anymore. I just want to focus on finishing the semester.”

“I understand,” Joan said. “I just thought it would be a welcome break for you. Besides, if I care, I should want the best for you, not just in academics, right?” Kara felt a bit put upon, but she knew Joan was sincere.

“I’ll be honest with you,” Kara said. “I don’t know if God is really there. I mean there’s so much pain and darkness in the world. If he is there, why doesn’t he do something about it?” Joan wasn’t prepared to answer that, so she prayed for insight. To hear such transparency from her friend was a gift.

They neared the church. It was hard not to notice. The church had placed a simple nativity scene in the yard, well-lit by floodlamps. Joan caught Kara’s hand and stopped. “There’s your answer!” She pointed to the child in the manger. “He did do something about it.”

True Light

We who never suffered blindness take sunsets, children’s faces, and everyday tasks for granted. Imagine living in darkness, then having the surgical bandages removed.

William, a Liberian man, is a husband and father of four. He suffered blindness for three years and was unable to provide for his family. When he heard of a Samaritan’s Purse surgical team in Monrovia, “I was filled with hope for the future,” he said. The procedure worked. “I can read again!” he exclaimed. “I can begin to fish again and send my daughters to school.” With bandages off, he had new life.

Stories and metaphors of seeing and light are a well-trodden path to discerning the things of God. Centuries before Christ the prophet wrote, “The people who walk in darkness will see a great light” (Isa. 9:2). Darkness yet looms because evil persists in our world. But we have hope! History confirms the prophet’s words. “The true Light which, coming into the world, enlightens every man. He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him” (John 1:9-10). The Light is the Creator, entering His creation lying in a manger.

The world suffers with (a sometimes willing) blindness. But people, even the physically blind, are enlightened by the truth about Jesus. As that great theologian Hank Williams crooned, “I wandered so aimless, life filled with sin. I wouldn’t let my dear Savior in. Then Jesus came like a stranger in the night. Praise the Lord, I saw the light!” The bandages are off!

To believe in the true Light is to reflect it. “Every Christian is part of the dust-laden air which shall radiate the glowing epiphany of God, catch and reflect his golden Light,” writes Evelyn Underhill. “Ye are the light of the world – but only because you are enkindled, made radiant by the one Light of the world. And being kindled, we have got to get on with it, be useful.” Your light is not meant to be hidden under a bushel, Jesus said. “Let your light shine before men” (Matt. 5:16).

Each Christmas we celebrate the Light that pushes back the darkness. It’s our annual reminder that wars, hurricanes, and pandemics do not have the last say. It’s your reminder that whatever darkness this year has wrought in your life, the true Light appeared in your world to forgive and give life.

That makes Advent a season of hope and anticipation. To celebrate the coming of the Christ Child long ago is to anticipate His return. As surely as the prophet Isaiah got it right, Jesus will fulfill His own promise to return. Until that second Advent, we rejoice because we see eternity just over the horizon. Look! I see that wondrous glow in the eastern sky even now!

Advent Vulnerability

The CDC issued a Level 2 Alert about a new outbreak of Ebola in Uganda. You may recall the Ebola plague of 2014 in Liberia. During that outbreak, Dr. Kent Brantly was serving in a hospital in Liberia with Samaritan’s Purse. Because of his love and dedication, he chose to stay and face the risk of treating infected people. Despite his meticulous attention to safety protocols, he contracted the disease. He received an experimental treatment and eventually recovered at Emory Hospital in Atlanta. To Dr. Brantly, love meant being vulnerable.

Vulnerability is not the same as weakness.  “The world does not understand vulnerability,” writes Brennan Manning.  “Neediness is rejected as incompetence and compassion is dismissed as unprofitable. The great deception is that being poor, vulnerable and weak is unattractive.” In fact, it takes courage and sacrifice to be vulnerable, whether it means facing risk, admitting need, or telling the truth.

Christmas recalls the historical moment when God became as vulnerable as a baby. The Word became flesh and embraced the risk of the human condition, but not just to reveal truth. He made Himself vulnerable to death on the cross to pay the penalty for your sin. Why do that? “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16). Love moved God to become vulnerable.

For you, being vulnerable may never mean fighting Ebola in Africa. It does mean loving someone enough to own your mistakes, to admit your contribution to the situation. It means loving God enough to confess your need. In “It’s A Wonderful Life” George Bailey prayed, “Dear Father in heaven. I’m at the end of my rope. Show me the way.” That is raw vulnerability. What happened next changed his life. Then he prayed, “Please God. Let me live again!”

In a mysterious, joyful moment, our Savior who is Christ the Lord, was born for you. Your response is to trust Him for what you need most – forgiveness and a renewed life. Could you be so vulnerable?

Politics and Religion

I’m old enough to remember when politics was a season, returning from time to time to disabuse us of our comfortable obliviousness. Now, primary, general, and runoff elections link local, state, presidential, and mid-term elections in a continuous stream of consciousness polluted by fear narratives.

Don’t get me wrong. Politics matters. Do your duty and vote! Support your candidate and your cause! It’s a citizen’s responsibility in our democratic republic. That said, let’s touch the third rail and mix politics and religion.

If you think about it, both politics and religion address change – what should or should not change. Political consultants and modern media use fear of the wrong kind of change to get more eyeballs, clicks, or votes. Here is my caution: Do not give in to political fear or go all in for political hope.

French philosopher Jacques Ellul warned denizens of the 20th century about politics becoming the ultimate source of power, hope, and change. Anyone who disagrees “is the true heretic of our day,” he writes. “And society excommunicates him as the medieval church excommunicated the sorcerer…This shows us that man in his entirety is being judged today in relation to political affairs, which are invested with ultimate value.” Today the culture still values political identity, but also looks for an “intersectionality” of multiple identities all used to measure your worth.

For the believer, the totality of your identity is Christ. “It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:20). That is something that does not change. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Heb. 13:8). The cultural and political ground may move beneath you, but “on Christ the solid rock I stand” the hymn says.

Remember the providence of God and His eternal perspective. “You, Lord, in the beginning laid the foundation of the earth, and the heavens are the works of your hands. They will perish but you remain” (Heb. 1:10-11). Our hope is in God who accomplishes His eternal purposes for this world and its nations, despite elections. “The king’s heart is like channels of water in the hand of the Lord. He turns it wherever He wishes” (Prov. 21:1).

Jesus said you are in the world, but not of the world (John 17:11,14). You are a citizen of heaven, so you have no reason to fear the outcome of earthly politics. “The Lord is my light and my salvation; Whom shall I fear?” (Psa. 27:1). Elections happen and you might be stunned at what’s changed, but the Lord is neither surprised nor deterred.

There you have it – politics and religion. Elections matter, but heaven’s citizens have other ways to catalyze change. Now join me in praying, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Amen.

Thanks for Everything

“In everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thes. 5:18).

The “Reader’s Digest” chronicles the stories of random people who shared a life-changing experience.  Holly Winter was planning a reunion trip with some of her friends. They planned to surprise a college classmate in his office. But Holly’s mom decided to visit her on the same day, disrupting Holly’s plans. Crystal Brown-Tatum was engaged and accepted a job in her fiance’s city. When things took a turn, she broke the engagement and decided not to move.

George Keith’s story is about his car, which was too new to have transmission trouble. He made an appointment at the dealer for the next morning. After waiting for an hour for a simple repair, he rushed toward the office hoping not to be late for his morning meeting. At least he had a job. Laura Gelman lost hers. Her usual morning commute would have taken her through a certain subway station, but not on this day.

All four of these people would have been in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. That is the life-changing experience they share. They live to be thankful for an imposing mom, a broken engagement, new car troubles, and a lost job. It’s sobering to realize that life’s disruptions can actually be a blessing, though we may never know how. But that is one reason to practice what the Bible says, “In everything give thanks.”

Consider some of Jesus’ encounters with people. From the perspective of eternity, the one leper from the ten is thankful for the disease because he experienced Jesus’ saving power. The man blind from birth is thankful because the works of God was displayed in him. Lazarus is thankful that he endured death because many witnessed and believe in the Resurrection and the Life. And there we are at the foot of the cross, witnesses to the horror and injustice of Jesus’s death, with hands raised in gratitude because it means “that we would be holy and blameless before Him” (Eph. 1:4).

“The giving of thanks to God for all His blessings should be one of the most distinctive marks of the believer in Jesus Christ,” writes Billy Graham. “We must not allow a spirit of ingratitude to harden our heart and chill our relationship with God and with others.” For the believer, life’s disruptions cannot change the ultimate truth that we are meant for another place, which Jesus went to prepare for us.  And we know the Way. That thought chases away the spirit of ingratitude.

You have much to be thankful for, including eternal life by faith in Christ. Knowing this world is not all of reality is the eternal perspective that makes giving thanks in everything our distinct privilege.