The Elephant in Our Daily Lives

“It’s the elephant in the room.” The familiar phrase prompts an interesting image, an elephant taking up most of the space in a room. Elephants are big, they can throw their weight around, and they can be noisy as well; if an elephant were in the room it would be difficult to ignore! The phrase is used when referring to a subject that no one wants to talk about because it’s uncomfortable, hard to deal with or controversial, but it’s a subject that’s impossible to ignore.

Lots of topics could be a candidate as the elephant in the room, depending on the people involved and the circumstances being faced. I’m thinking, however, that there’s one subject that beats out all others as being the supreme example of the elephant in the room. That subject is God.

The universe is absolutely huge! There are billions of galaxies with billions of stars in each. The known universe extends over 13 billion light years in size! If God made it all and keeps it all going then He is bigger than it all! In other words there is no bigger subject in the universe than God!

Consider then, too, the fact that God has made us as intelligent beings who are not only self-aware and aware of others, but we’re capable of being aware of Him! Obviously, God has unique plans for us, the pinnacle of His creation.

It doesn’t take, then, a whole lot of thought to come to the conclusion that God matters most, and should matter most to us, for without Him nothing would be that is, including us! Follow the line of logic a bit further and doesn’t it seem to make sense that we should be orienting our lives around Him, if He’s the biggest subject in the universe?

What’s amazing is how we can spend so little of our day thinking about Him and living in response to Him. He’s the ultimate elephant in the room. He doesn’t have to be and shouldn’t be ignored!

“For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.” Romans 1:20

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Second Sunday in Advent

This is the second week in Advent. Most of us are making preparations for Christmas. We wouldn’t expect gifts to appear magically under the tree without shopping for those gifts and having them wrapped, nor would we expect a Christmas party to come together without the significant work of preparation.

Then why would we expect Christmas to impact us in a profoundly spiritual way without preparation? Let’s be thinking about the Christmas story as we drive here, there, and back again. Let’s reflect on the miracle of it all when we hear the traditional Christmas carols. When we wrap gifts for others or anticipate opening our gifts may it prompt us to think of God’s great gift He unwrapped for us in Jesus’ birth from the womb into the world.

Over the remaining weeks leading up to Christmas may we be led into a deeper appreciation of what’s behind all of the hoopla. May we see the holy hoopla of it all!

First Sunday in Advent

Today begins the first week in Advent. These four weeks leading up to Christmas are to be a time of preparation for being able to fully embrace Christmas, taking it to a level far beyond that of Santa, presents, parties, decorations, etc. Pray with me that with all of the meaningful, nostalgic , and also hectic aspects of this special season that we can take it to the highest level.  This level is where the focus is on Jesus, who was born among us, is the source of this season and the One who can make this season of Christmas all that it’s meant to be!

Better Than Self-Help

“Pull yourself up by your bootstraps” is a phrase that’s been around a long time. My take on the phrase is that you’ve got to succeed and make something of yourself by your own effort.

Of course it really doesn’t work, to lift yourself off the ground by reaching down and pulling on the top of your boots or shoes. So the phrase, though it sounds good, really isn’t true in a literal sense.

Even in a metaphorical sense the principle to “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” is a fallacy. We all need the help of others. No one’s truly a self-made man or a self-made woman. The old African proverb that “it takes a village to raise a child” is true not only of children but adults too! To succeed at life is a group effort. In this way we are no different than the ant or the bee; both are social insects, dependent on the colony and hive. There’s no such thing as an ant or a bee thriving on its own.

We all stand on the shoulders of others, and others must stand on our shoulders. It’s shoulders all the way up and all the way down! We’re to look beyond ourself, look around us, doing a horizontal scan of 360 and see how we are all to be there for each other.

But we humans are not only designed for horizontal relationships with each other but also for a vertical relationship with God. Much of what we need to succeed in life is to come from above.

The self-help industry of writers and speakers would have us believe we can unleash the greatness within us in order to be great and do great things. When I look within myself I don’t see everything as being good, not at all. When I watch children play in a nursery, a day care, or on the playground I don’t see perfection, I see very flawed little people who don’t always play fair, and they grow up to be very flawed people, like you and me! English journalist Malcolm Muggeridge stated that “the depravity of man is at once the most empirically verifiable reality, but at the same time most intellectually resisted fact.”

Looking within ourselves to become self-actualized is doomed to failure. The answer is to look above us and receive the love, forgiveness, and ever present help and guidance of the God who made us, sustains us, and redeems us!

No, we can’t pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, and that’s okay. There’s a far better way to become more of who we were meant to be. Far better than looking within ourselves we’re to reach out and help each other and reach up for the help of God!

“I lift up eyes to the mountains – where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.” Psalm 121:1-2

What Can Be Gained from Pain

The late Fred Rogers, known as Mr. Rogers to millions of children, met a 14-year-old boy with cerebral palsy. Mr. Rogers asked the boy to pray for him. The boy was shocked! People had offered to pray for him, but no one had ever asked him to pray for them. He said he would try; since Mr. Rogers was close to God he figured it would be okay.

Tom Junod, doing a profile on Mr. Rogers for Esquire magazine, complimented Mr. Rogers on seeking to build the boy’s self-esteem by requesting prayer. Mr. Rogers replied, “Oh, heavens no, Tom! I didn’t ask him for his prayers for him; I asked for me. I asked him because I think that anyone who has gone through challenges like that must be very close to God. I asked him because I wanted his intercession.” (from an article in the Tampa Bay Times by David Brooks, July 8, 2018)

One of the possible positive ramifications of pain in our lives is that it can deepen our faith, drawing us closer to God, that is, if we choose to let it. I recall a woman named Jane in the church I served in Toledo, Ohio, who went through a lot of pain during her life. Her husband had suffered from a debilitating stroke for years until he died. Her adult son was fighting substance abuse and losing. Jane herself had been diagnosed with cancer and was dying. Yet, as I visited her, I found her to be full of peace and joy! I had come to encourage her, but she encouraged me! This was because she was close to God, not in spite of her pain, but in large measure because of her pain!

No one likes going through a painful experience, you’d be a masochist if you did. Most of us have to admit, however, that going through bad times does often teach us lessons we don’t easily learn during good times.

Painful experiences can make us a bitter person or a better person. One of the ways it can make us a better person is to let it draw us closer to God. We have a choice.

How we respond to God during a painful time is a choice. We can decide to be mad at God, disappointed in Him, or accept the notion that He doesn’t care. Or, we can choose to cry out to God, to reach out to Him, and to trust Him. The journey through problems and pain can take us, as Fred Rogers said, “very close to God.”

“But as for me, afflicted and in pain – may your salvation, God, protect me.” (Psalm 69:29)

Limitations Don’t Have to Limit

While Diann and I were hiking a trail in a national park out west we met an older couple also hiking the trail. I can’t recall if I was catching my breath and told him and his wife to pass or how we ended up standing there in a short conversation with them. Turns out he was 81 years old. He walked with a cane, but it certainly didn’t slow him down. Said he had both knees replaced and a hip replacement. He’d had a leg brace for many years. A while later, at the end of the path, I saw him head toward the bathrooms. One was marked “Handicapped,” but he didn’t use it; he entered the regular bathroom.

What a guy, I thought! He had all these physical issues, used a leg brace, and a cane but didn’t see himself as being handicapped! I want to be like him when I grow up to be 81 years old! (Just a note here: Handicap restrooms are vital and necessary for many people who would have a difficult time using a regular facility. I suspect this gentleman, during his recovery from his different health issues also used handicap restrooms. It’s just that, by God’s grace, he apparently no longer needed the special facilities.)

This elderly hiker with the cane and leg brace reminded me of the great truth that limitations don’t have to limit us! We can’t always control what happens to us, but we can always control how we respond to what happens to us! The degree to which limitations impact us has far more to do with our attitude than with the circumstances themselves!

There’s story after story in the Bible of people hitting up against difficulties of one kind or another. Part of each of these stories is about how God had a plan through it all for each of these Biblical characters in spite of those difficulties. As long as they kept faith in Him they saw God work things out for the good. It didn’t always mean it worked out the way the person wanted, but it worked out for the best, God’s greater good. The good news is that God calls us to unfold His unlimited possibilities within that which limits us!

“I have learned that everything has limits; but Your ways have limitless possibilities.” (Psalm 119:96, my paraphrase)

Resume or Eulogy

As we go about living our lives one day at a time, are we striving to build a resume or providing material for our own eulogy? David Brooks, a New York Times columnist, wrote, “It occurred to me that there were two sets of virtues, the resume virtues and the eulogy virtues. The resume virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral — whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful. Were you capable of deep love?” The Moral Bucket List, NEW YORK TIMES web site, April 11, 2015.

I’ve conducted probably some 500 funerals, and the great funerals were those where family and friends reflected on how the person had impacted their lives, a real eulogy. The darker funerals were those where the best that could be said was where the person lived, worked, what sports they loved, and what they achieved, more like a resume.

Retiring in my 40th year of pastoring the Mayfair-Plymouth Church, the parishioners hosted a retirement/going away celebration for us. What was interesting in people’s personal reflections of our ministry together was the lack of focus on any achievements that were, at the time, so important to me. What the reflections focused on were the times we went through things together, often tough times, but many good times as well. They remembered words I said in an attempt to be comforting or encouraging, most of the conversations of which I had no recollection. It was very little of the resume type stuff and a lot of what might be said at my funeral, except I was present to enjoy it!

We would do well to focus less on resume building, on achieving and accomplishing things, and more on relating to people in positive and loving ways, seeking to make a difference in their lives so that they will have ample material for a eulogy at our funeral. Morbid? I don’t think so. It’s just that, as David Brooks wrote, it’s better to aim for eulogy virtues than resume virtues.

“…if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.” 1 Corinthians 13:2b-3

God’s Perfect Timing

My wife Diann was looking at greeting cards in a store. She saw one that was funny, but also had an encouraging message. Nevertheless, she walked on to look at other things in the store. She couldn’t get the card of her mind, however, thinking it would be a good card to send to our daughter Julie who lives in Mexico. She went back and purchased the card and mailed it to Julie on June 27.

We know it takes next to forever to send mail from the U.S. to Mexico. You do NOT want to send time sensitive material, only time insensitive material! We wondered how long it would take to reach our daughter. Diann prayed that it would come on the right day for Julie. It did!

The mailman on the motorcycle delivered the card up the hill to Refuge Ranch. The person at the Ranch who met the mailman put the card on the kitchen table, and it was a few hours before Julie noticed it. She opened and read the card, then called her Mom. She said it was PERFECT timing, even the reading of it hours after its tardy delivery on that difficult day. The date? August 15, seven weeks after it had been mailed!

God’s timing is not always our timing, but His timing is always perfect! This means His delays are not denials. It’s in waiting that His good will is often best carried out. Sometimes we, or someone else, needs to be in a different place for God’s actions to be most effective. Perhaps we have lessons to learn in the waiting. God uses time as a tool, and it seems to be one of His favorite tools!

Many times God’s timing is a mystery. You could say that He waits until His divine ducks are all lined up in a row, and the problem is that the divine ducks are invisible to us! Thankfully, once in a while, we see how God’s timing works things out for the best, as with the seven week delay on Julie receiving her card. Such instances can bolster our faith for all the times when God’s timing remains a mystery, that He is at work in His own mysterious ways! Part of a strong faith in God is accepting His timing, His perfect timing.

“But I trust in you, Lord; I say, ‘You are my God.’ My times are in your hands.”  Psalm 31:14-15a

The Maintenance of Relationships

I sometimes wonder if I’ll ever get caught up on all the home repairs and home improvements. I see so much that needs to be done; my wife sees even more! I dream of the day when the “Honey Do” list is no more. I imagine myself asking my wife, “Hon, is there anything that needs to be fixed, repaired, or updated around the house?” A look of concentration comes over her face, then, after pondering long and hard, she replies, “No, I can’t think of a single thing.” Okay, only in my dreams!

On my daily morning walk here in Florida I pass several empty houses that are in disrepair. They must be owned by somebody, but that somebody isn’t doing much, if any, maintenance on their property. It’s going to take a great deal of effort and a lot of money to get those homes in a habitable, let alone attractive, condition.

After many years of preaching and writing I’m conditioned to see a spiritual application to almost anything I experience or see. On walking past one of these decrepit houses I recall thinking that a lack of maintenance not only ruins a house but also a life. Our relationships, the most important part of life, need regular maintenance, like our homes.

If we don’t pay attention to our relationships, including our relationship with God, they’re going to deteriorate. The tyranny of the urgent, perplexing problems, the attraction of the attractive, and just the day to day grind of life can all result in our neglecting the nurturing of our relationships with people and with God.

I find that to keep my house and property in good shape I need to see what needs fixing or improving, and then I need to spend the time, effort, and money to make it happen. I’ve also discovered that when I do a little maintenance on a regular basis I don’t have as many big issues to deal with.

The same goes with maintaining and improving human relationships. It requires the work of spending time with the person, encouraging, being painfully honest, forgiving, and cutting some slack with the individual. A relationship with God isn’t all that different. We build a relationship with God by “practicing His presence” as Brother Lawrence wrote centuries ago which means thinking about Him a lot and believing He is very near. It also involves listening to Him by reading His Word and talking to Him, which we call prayer.

Our relationships with others and with God are like a house in that they will fall into disrepair if they aren’t maintained. Walking past that old decrepit house reminded me of this.

“Jesus replied, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.’” Matthew 22:37-39

The Games of LIfe

Some of the games in our home

My wife is rather frugal, for which I’m very grateful, except on my birthday. But one area where she can go crazy spending money is on games for the grandchildren. We already have a large collection of all kinds of games, but that’s not enough. There’s always a new game to buy and play. I’ve never been big on games, but I’m being converted! I have to admit that we have lots of fun playing games with our grandchildren.

It really doesn’t matter what the game is (okay, not Candy Land, Candy Land puts me to sleep). What does matter is that I’m playing the game with my grandchildren and grandma. What also matters is that the kids aren’t fighting over the game and that Grandma and I aren’t fighting over the game. While we shuffle the cards, roll the dice, or spin the dial Grandma and I are hoping the kids are having a good time, are learning lessons about fair play and how to both win and lose graciously, and are creating fond memories.

Eventually the game is over and goes back in the box. It’s good to keep the game in perspective, that it’s just a game and that what is important are the relationships with those with whom we play the game.

It occurred to me that God has us, His children, playing all sorts of games. He participates with us to the degree we let Him, and we play these games with others. There’s the game of our job or career, the game of unemployment and the game of retirement. There’s the game of being a parent, a mate, or being single. There’s the game of illness and the game of accident. There’s the game of extended family and the game of friends. Most of us are playing a number of these games at the same time.

Here’s what I’ve come to realize. It doesn’t matter so much to God what games we’re playing or if we’re doing better or worse than someone else. What matters most to God is that we’re enjoying being close to God while we’re playing the games of life, that we’re playing well with others, and that, winning or losing, we do so graciously.

Author John Ortberg wrote a book with the title, When the Game is Over, It all Goes Back in the Box. What doesn’t go back in the box are the relationships between the participants. Hopefully those relationships are closer and better after having played the game.

All that we accumulate, work at, and deal with in life eventually goes back in the box. In the end what we will have are the relationships, with God and God’s people. In the middle of playing the games of life it seems advisable to remember this!

“‘Martha, Martha,’ the Lord answered, ‘you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed – or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.’” (Jesus in conversation with Martha and Mary, Luke 10:41-42)