A More Innocent Time

This past weekend I attended my 60th high school class reunion in Mason City, Iowa.  Mason City is a town of about 30,000 in northern Iowa, known mostly for being the model for River City in Meredith Wilson’s musical, Music Man.

Out of a class of 340, one hundred ten of us showed up from California to Virginia and Texas to Idaho.  We came to catch up with old friends, become reacquainted with others we didn’t know so well and relive memories from long ago.

What was noteworthy about our gathering was that everyone had a genuine interest in one another.  There were no agendas.  There was no competition in the sharing about family or what was going on in people’s lives.  People shared more about family than careers or past accomplishments.  There was no discussion involving politics, the public arena or world affairs.

We reminisced about a more innocent time when as children we could walk several blocks to our elementary schools without our parents and concerns for safety.  We could ride our bikes to any part of town at any time of day or night without worry of being mugged or molested.

We still said the pledge of allegiance in our schools “as one nation under God,” and we sang Christmas carols at Christmas concerts.   God was not banned from the public square and the Christmas crèche still appeared in the town’s Central Park.

We said grace at our Saturday evening dinner, and remembered the 95 members of our class who have passed from this life to the next in a beautiful slide show.

We parted Saturday evening with lots of hugs and well wishes, realizing that for those of us who came from quite a distance, it might be the last time we will see one another.

In reflecting on the weekend, what struck me was that everyone present had worked hard all their lives at whatever their occupation was, raised and loved their families to the third, and in one case, even the fourth generation.  Whatever their religious faith or background, they evidenced a belief in God.  They experienced the challenges and blessings of life, but were still motivated to do the right thing.

As the psalmist said, “You have given me the heritage of those who fear your name.” (Psalm 61:4)

St. Paul may have described the situation even better when he said, “Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.  So we fix our eyes on not what is seen, but on what is unseen.  For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”  (1 Corinthians 4:16, 18)

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Erroneous Presumptions

How often do we sell God short?  How often do we presume that he can’t or won’t act in a given situation?

In the Gospel of Mark, this happened with the friends of Jairus, a synagogue ruler whose twelve-year-old daughter was dying.  Jairus had come to Jesus pleading for him to come and lay hands on his daughter and heal her.  Shortly thereafter, Jairus’ friends who had been at his house came to say, “Your daughter is dead.  Why bother the teacher anymore?”

Jesus ignored the friends and said to Jairus, “Don’t be afraid; just believe.”  Jesus then went with Jairus to his house, and found people crying and wailing loudly.  He said, “Why all this commotion and wailing?  The child is not dead but asleep.”  But they laughed at him.  He put everyone out of the house, except for Jairus, his wife, Peter, James and John.  He went to where the daughter was, took her hand, and said, “Little girl, I say to you get!” Immediately the daughter stood up and everyone was completely astonished. (Mark 5:45-56)

Like the friends of Jairus, we too, may sell God short and presume that he can’t do something or won’t act in response to our prayers.  Therefore, we forgo praying for a loved one with a serious or terminal illness; we observe the actions of a friend and presume that our prayers for conversion will have no effect; we refrain from praying that God will change the heart of an adversary, or the course of a hurricane; we neglect to ask God to give us the right words to diffuse a controversy. 

Dr. Sheri Donaldson, who specializes in physical therapy at an outpatient rehabilitation center in Phoenix, tells the following story of Ashley, a co-worker.  Ashley has to have an MRI every two years in connection with brain tumor surgery she had a few years ago.  It is always a time of anxiety for her because there was a piece of the tumor that could not be reached in the surgery and continues to be seen on the MRI.  She always fears that a new MRI may show the tumor growing.

When the time came for Ashley to have another MRI, Sheri asked a small group of women that she meets with every Wednesday to pray in the name of Jesus that the tumor would be gone.  It just so happened that Sheri got to see Ashley just before she left for her appointment.  “I kept asking the Lord,” Sheri said, “if the he really wanted me to share our prayer with her and literally put my hand on her forehead.  I didn’t want to hurt her with an incorrect word.  Well, there she was, all by herself, telling me it was time and looking very nervous.  I shared with her that our group had prayed that the MRI would show that the tumor would be gone.  Then I placed my hand on her forehead and blessed her. She gave me a hug and went out the door.

“The next time we saw each other, I was walking down the hallway past her office when she yelled, ‘Sheri, the tumor is gone!’”

Sheri concludes, “This experience has also had an impact on me.  I am much more alert to whether the Lord wants me to reach out to others and be available to talk with them and to pray with them if the need arises. (Hope for the Workplace, p.105-106)

“Don’t be afraid,” Jesus says. “Just believe.”

Light Piercing Darkness

Jay's Evacuation,IMG_8523For more than a week we have been seeing pictures out of Houston of a veritable flotilla of flat bottom boats rescuing people stranded in their homes by the rising waters of Hurricane Harvey.

This became personal to me when I learned last week that my brother, Jay and his wife Sharon, were among those that needed to be rescued from their home in the suburb of Kingwood.  What made this particularly challenging is that my brother is wheel chair bound with a serious heart condition and a medical pack continuously delivering medication to his heart, further complicated by a broken hip. 

Through a remarkable set of circumstances it appears that God’s protective arm was always close at hand.  Fortunately, my brother’s daughter, Chris was at their house as the waters started to rise and approach the front doorstep.  She happened to look out the front of the house and saw a man in a boat proceeding down their street.  She hailed him down and said she needed help in evacuating her parents.  She explained that my brother could not get out of his wheel chair, and somehow had to be lifted into the boat, wheel chair and all.

She was told not to worry, that he would go get help.  He returned with three other men who lifted my brother and his wheel chair into the boat.  They then walked the boat through a swift current to higher ground quite some distance away.

God’s provision for Jay and Sharon did not end with the rescue.  Friends from their church took them in and gave up their first floor master bedroom.  A co-worker of their daughter referred them to a contractor who specializes in flood cleanup and restoration whom they were able to hire immediately instead of ending up on some other contractor’s waiting list.

The water reached five feet in their first floor, destroying nearly all furniture, appliances, personal possessions, and their car.  The furniture and other items tumbled from room to room.  Almost nothing was found in the room in which it had been placed.  Yesterday as the workmen and their daughters were cleaning up, someone brought a large bucket with the label, “The Blessing Bucket from God’s Pit Crew” with the following message, “We pray that the contents will bless you.”  Among the contents was a new NIV Bible, the very kind of Bible Sharon lost in the flood.

One final vignette…Sharon  had a couple of electronic candles on high book shelves beside the fire place that could be turned on by a remote control.  As the workmen were cleaning up yesterday, a couple of the candles came on and started to flicker.  The remote was nowhere to be found.  No one knows how they came on.   Sharon thought the candles were letting the workmen know that in spite of all that has happened, the light of Christ was still present.  The number of volunteers and circumstances would seem to confirm his presence.

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat; I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink; I was a stranger and you invited me in; I needed clothes and you clothed me; I was sick and you looked after me.” (Matthew  25:35-36)

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Peace — God’s Elusive Gift

In Jesus’ last dialogue with his disciples, he says, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you.”  (John 14:27)

Yet, ongoing peace is difficult for us to attain on both an individual and collective basis.  On a collective basis, if you add the Cold War to the shooting wars beginning with World War II, there have been less than ten years in which the U. S. has been at peace over the last seventy-five years.

On an individual basis, the kind of peace that St. Paul describes as passing all understanding is similarly difficult to attain.

Thomas A Kempis in his book, Imitation of Christ, says, “Our peace consists in humble bearing of suffering and contradictions, not in being free of them, for we cannot live in this world without adversity.  He who can best suffer will enjoy the most peace, for such a person is master of himself, a lord of the world, has Christ for his friend, and heaven is his reward.” 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran minister was arrested and imprisoned by the Nazis in 1943 and executed just days before the war’s end in April, 1945.  His Gestapo prison cell was eight by five feet and underground.  Eric Mataxas, in his biography of Bonhoeffer, says that he brought peace and calm to his fellow prisoners.  “His strength was borrowed from God and lent to others,” said Mataxas.

On the day of his execution, the prison doctor observed, “I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer kneeling on the floor praying fervently to his God.  I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain God heard his prayer.  At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer, and then climbed the steps to the gallows, brave and composed.  I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.”

Most of us are not likely to experience the challenges that Dietrich Bonhoeffer did, but as Thomas A Kempis says, we cannot live in this world without adversity – sickness, unemployment, estrangement from loved ones, a difficult boss, caring for a disabled relative – the list is endless.  Are we able to handle these challenges with the kind of peace that Jesus is talking about?

In the prime of my career as an attorney for a large international oil company I declined a promotion to avoid a relocation that my wife and I believed would have adversely affected our family which included three teenage daughters at the time.   For a couple of years I was not very peaceful, as I was asked to take an assignment I held once before and saw people who used to work for me be promoted over me.  Through prayer and God’s grace, I eventually regained my peace.

Then our company had an incident at one of its facilities for which I was responsible for overseeing legal services.  We had several lawsuits, regulatory actions, a legislative effort to outlaw our operations and even a criminal action against our management.  We overcame all of these actions and it turned out to be the most challenging and rewarding legal work of my career.

In Jesus’ closing moments with the disciples before his arrest, he is explaining  all that will happen to him, and what they can expect, and he says, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace.  In this world you will have trouble.  But take heart!  I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

Pride Resisting God’s Desire for Us

How often do we let our pride get in the way of something God wants to do for us or with us?

This almost happened to Naaman, commander of the army of Aram in the Old Testament.  He had leprosy.  He heard from a young girl from Israel, about the prophet, Elisha, and how he could cure Naaman’s leprosy.   After receiving a letter of introduction from his king and taking ten talents of silver and six thousand shekels of gold, he set off to see Elisha.

Instead of coming out to greet him and praying over him, Elisha sent a messenger to Naaman telling him to “go wash yourself seven times in the Jordan.”  “But Naaman went away angry and said, ‘I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, wave his hand over the spot and cure me of my leprosy.’” (2 Kings 5:11)

Naaman’s pride was wounded.  He was commander of the army of Aram and had a letter of introduction from his king.  He had gold and silver for an offering and a retinue with chariots.  He expected Elisha to personally pray over him.  He certainly wasn’t expecting to hear from a mere messenger and be asked to do something as silly as washing himself seven times in the Jordan River.

Fortunately for Naaman, his servants prevailed upon him to do as Elisha’s messenger instructed, “And his flesh was restored and became clean like that of young boy.”

Too often we let our pride resist the help God sends our way through others: in assisting us in some task or in praying with us for some need or healing; in helping us to forgive someone who has offended us instead of holding onto resentment.  Here is a story of the latter example.

Jim headed up a software development team for IBM comprised of approximately 75 employees and a few subcontractors on a Homeland Security contract.  The job and working environment involved many challenges and Jim was working to transform the work of the team to meet the goals of the contract.

At one point Jim called a subcontractor of long experience to follow up on a critical task he had been asked to perform.  When the subcontractor answered his cell phone, he mistook Jim for another member of the team and he began to describe how much he disliked Jim, insulting both him and his work.  Because of a bad cell connection, Jim was unable to get the person’s attention and finally decided to just hang up.

Later the subcontractor realized he had been talking to Jim and became quite concerned, asking Jim’s colleagues what he should do.  When he met with Jim the following day and before he had a chance to say anything, Jim put out his hand and said, “I forgive you.  The contractor apologized profusely and was glad Jim did not take action against his behavior.  Jim told him that he had no hard feelings and hoped that he would see Jim’s reaction as a catalyst for improving their working relationship and getting the job done.  

In contrast to Naaman, Jim did not let his pride give way to anger and resentment, but instead offered his forgiveness, and his team went on to successfully complete the work of the contract.  Jim was following the example of Jesus.  “Learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart.”  (Mt. 11:29)  

 

True Grit

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Andrew, 3rd row, 5th from left

Persevering and not giving up is a character trait honored in and out of the Bible. 

Three times, God encouraged Joshua to “to be strong and courageous” when commanding him to lead the people of Israel across the Jordon River and into the land he was about to give them. (Joshua 1:6-9)  God blessed Job in the latter part of his life more than the first after Job persevered through the loss of his family, his possessions and a painful illness at the hands of Satan. (Job 1:12-20; 2:7; 42:12)

Jesus told his disciples the parable of the persistent widow to show how “they should always pray and not give up.” (Luke 18:1-8)  He praised the Church of Ephesus for their perseverance and enduring hardships for his name. (Rev. 2:3)

Life is full of challenges and hardships that try our perseverance – a lingering illness, prolonged unemployment, an unbelieving spouse, an alienated adult child, a difficult boss or colleague, training for various athletic undertakings, practicing for excellence with a musical instrument, pursuing the mysteries of science and other fields of learning, fighting in battle and war to victory, enduring persecution for justice and righteousness, and so many other examples.

This past Saturday, our grandson, Andrew, 20, completed a 3720 mile bicycle tour from the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco to the Capitol in Washington, D. C. with other Pi Kappa Phi fraternity brothers from across the country to raise awareness and money for people with disabilities.  Their tour is called Journey of Hope. 

They rode over mountains, climbing as much as 10,000 feet in a day, through valleys, across the Great Plains, around the Great Lakes, over the Appalachians and finally reaching Washington sixty-three days later.

They rode through pouring rain, snow in the mountains, sweltering days in the 90’s, lightening and even an episode of swarming bees.  Each morning they would rise at 5:30 am, have breakfast and take off for the day, riding on average 70 miles, and as much as 125 miles and eight and half hours on their longest day.

Many of their afternoons and evenings were taken up with approximately forty “friendship visits” with various groups of people with physical and intellectual disabilities.  They played wheelchair baseball, danced at Special Olympics dances, and engaged in a variety of activities with children and young adults with disabilities.

The challenges were many – sore, cramping and strained muscles, varied sleeping conditions, physical and mental fatigue, even boredom on long  days through the desert, potholes and equipment failure.  Andrew went through eight tire tubes.  But he and his team persevered. No one gave up.  They showed true grit. 

“Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those that love him.”  (James 1:12)

 

Revealing Our Father

In Jesus’ last prayer before he was arrested, he is praying to the Father about his disciples.  He is asking for the Father to protect them and observes, “I have revealed you to the ones you gave me out of the world.” (John 17:6)  Jesus revealed the Father to the disciples through his teaching, his miracles and the example of his life.  He tells Phillip, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:9)

Just as Jesus saw his responsibility to reveal the Father to his disciples, so too should we take the responsibility to reveal the Father to the people God puts in our lives. 

This certainly includes our spouse and children for whom we have a special responsibility, but it also includes friends and colleagues.  With respect to our children, we have a teaching responsibility similar to Jesus.  The Church assists us in this effort through religious education, Sunday school and sermons from the pulpit.

With respect to our spouse, friends and colleagues, our primary way of revealing the Father is through the example of our lives and in our actions of love and service.  

This past week, a former supervisor, colleague and friend passed from this life to the next.  Tom was General Counsel of Mobil’s worldwide marketing and refining operations.  I reported to him in various assignments over eleven years.

Without ever mentioning the words God or Jesus, Tom revealed the presence of the Father in his life by his example.  While a practicing Christian, he didn’t talk much about his faith, but he lived it in the daily actions of his life.  While demanding the highest quality of legal services from the lawyers and staff he oversaw, he was always fair and truthful in dealing with people and in responding to various personnel issues.  He always sought what was best for his people in their career development and training.

He never winced from speaking the truth to management on controversial legal issues. Once he was convinced that the legal work or counsel of his staff was correct, he fully supported that work with senior management.  Tom’s leadership of our legal group reflected integrity, excellence and a special respect for all people.   

When we think of Jesus’ words about revealing the Father to his disciples, and the example of Tom’s life, we might be prompted to reflect on whether our actions and words have been revealing the Father to the people God has put in our lives.  We might even look on it as a matter of stewardship.

In the parable of the talents, we see that God expects us to be good stewards of the talents, time, money and possessions he entrusts to us. (Matthew 25:14-30) Similarly, he expects us to be good stewards of the people he entrusts to us as well. 

Richard Blackaby in his book, Spiritual Leadership, says the primary goal of spiritual leadership is “taking people from where they are to where God wants them to be.”

Are we helping the people in our lives come to know the Father and be where he wants them to be?