Finding Joy in Life’s Mixed Bag

Life’s a mixed bag, no doubt about it. This creates a dilemma for us; how can we find any joy in life when a part of our life is anything but joyful?

Maybe it’s the big “C” word, cancer, that seems to have been shouted into an otherwise quiet life. Perhaps it’s financial distress that distracts from seeing the wealth of good that still exists around us. A recent major failure can keep us transfixed on the past, preventing us from looking forward with hope. There may be a family member who’s going though some dark experience, the long shadows of which takes the vibrant color out of our own life; we feel guilty for any pleasure that does come our way when our loved one is in such pain. We even experience life as a mixed bag when reading or watching tragic news via some media source while sipping a cup of coffee or eating a bowl of ice cream.

Embracing the good that’s in life while at the same time experiencing the bad and tragic of life is tough. Searching the Bible for perspective, I found three approaches to dealing with life as a mixed bag of good and bad. There may be more, but I’m working on these three.

DO WHAT WE CAN! We can’t do everything, but God calls us to do what we can, whether it’s taking just a small, but positive, step with our own problem or helping someone with theirs. When it comes to others it may mean something as simple as providing a meal for the hurting family next door or making a donation to the Red Cross to help others across the country. “Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, ‘Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it?” (James 2:15-16)

PRAY! Praying for our own needs and problems and for others for whom our hearts hurt unleashes God’s good actions in this fallen, hurting world. Believing this, we can take our burdens to the Lord and leave them with Him! “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.” (1 Peter 5:7)

GIVE THANKS. Giving thanks that God can help us with our trouble and the troubled person for whom we’re concerned is helpful. Also helpful is giving thanks for all the good that still is all around us. Practicing thanksgiving helps us see beyond burdens to blessings! “Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” (1 Thessalonians 5:18)

Yes, life’s a mixed bag. God is aware of the mixed contents and has His plans for it all!

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Electricity, Me, and Humility

There was the time when I tried to help do some electrical work in our church’s sanctuary. Yep! You just know this isn’t going to turn out well, don’t you?

The center light in one of the fixtures in the sanctuary wasn’t working. A man from our church, Tim, was high up on a step ladder, having just replaced the bulb. It still didn’t work. I said to Tim, “Tim, I wonder if that little tab in the center of the socket isn’t making contact with the center of the light bulb. I think you need to reach in there and pull that down a bit. Don’t worry,” I said, “I turned off the lights.” In my defense, I had made certain I had pushed the switch to the off position.

Tim proceeded to stick his finger in the socket. Now, this is where I learned an important lesson about electrical wiring. Apparently when you have two sets of on and off switches, as our church sanctuary did, the power to the socket is not necessarily off when the one switch is turned off. I did not know this. Tim quickly pulled his hand back with a yelp. I was shocked!

What I learned from this is that you have to know your limits! The shocking truth is that I’m no electrician!

It was a reminder to me that we can’t know everything and do everything. Humility is the operative word here. No one likes to be around a “know it all” person. It’s the humble who have true friends.

Even God can’t be close to someone who isn’t humble before Him. To have God be significant in our lives requires that we humbly know our limits. This opens us up to God’s help, direction, forgiveness and all the other amazing things only He can ultimately provide.

The book of Proverbs states that “when pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom.” (Proverbs 11:2) The apostle Peter, who early on as a follower of Jesus was a sort of “know it all” kind of guy, wrote, and it’s in our Bibles, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time.” (1 Peter 5:5b-6)

Pokemon and Faith

I recently played chauffeur to my ten-year-old grandson Casey and eight-year-old granddaughter Sienna as they played Pokemon Go. We searched out locations where they could do battle with Pokemons. Pokemons, for those who are uninformed, as I was until my chauffeuring gig with my grandchildren, are virtual creatures (meaning they only exist in the computer world). Players use their mobile devices and GPS to locate and fight these virtual creatures.

The grandchildren, sitting in the back seat of my vehicle, gazing at their tablet, gave me directions as to where to find the Pokemon with whom they wanted to do battle. I followed their bidding.

A heads up: if you see a small cluster of people, all staring at their mobile devices, standing out in a field, or in a parking lot, or in some other location where crowds do not usually gather, there’s probably a Pokemon nearby. This is what happened to us. My grandchildren and I were soon joined by five or six other people, complete strangers, who were doing battle with us against a Pokemon. What I discovered is that you can work with other players, and together you can better conquer the Pokemon.

I had never realized as I drove around town taking care of my “to do” list that there were Pokemons all around! The virtual Pokemon world that overlaps the real world is a good reminder for me of the spiritual world which is another dimension overlapping with our three dimensional world.

This spiritual world is also a realm in which we do battle, but far more serious than the Pokemon world, and with very real and eternal ramifications. In this unseen battle we can join forces with God, seeking to live for Him, to please Him, and to serve Him, or we can yield to “the other side” which is ruled by Satan. I know this can all seem a bit bizarre, until you remember that there are radio waves, sound waves, infrared waves, sub atomic particles and countless other invisible things that are a very real part of our world that we don’t experience with our five senses.

Yes, there’s more going on in our lives than what meets the eye! That’s why I find I need to regularly re-calibrate how I measure what is important in my life, determine I’m going to practice the presence of God in my daily living, and in many other ways seek to be in a personal and cooperative relationship with God.

“So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” (2 Corinthians 4:18)

What Lasts and What Doesn’t Last

I was browsing in a Barnes and Noble bookstore when I came upon a table of books with this sign, “Bargain Priced – Former Bestsellers – Starting at $5.98.” Many of those books originally sold for $25 and up when they were best sellers! It was a reminder that most best selling books aren’t best selling books for very long! Books and their authors have a limited shelf life.

When I started my pastoral ministry over 40 years ago I read several books by a best-selling author and mega church pastor. (This was when there were very few mega churches.) His name was Charles Allen. You ask, “Who’s Charles Allen?” My point exactly.

Years ago the late Hugh O’Brien starred in the popular TV western Wyatt Earp. When he was being interviewed in his later years, he said he had gone through different stages in his acting career. At first people said, “Who’s Hugh O’Brien?” Then, “Get me Hugh O’Brien.” Then, “Get me a younger Hugh O’Brien type.” And finally, “Who’s Hugh O’Brien?” Some who are reading this (those who are younger readers) are thinking just that, “Who’s Hugh O’Brien?” My point exactly, and Mr. O’Brien’s too.

The irony is that everything that is tangible, touchable, seeable, etc. is going to wear out, rust, decay, get lost or stolen or in some other process is going to go away. That which is popular and in style now will be unpopular and out of style before long. Those who break a world record will, sooner or later, have their own record broken by someone else.

On the other hand, religious faith affirms that that which is spiritual, which we can’t see or touch, will last forever. How ironic; that which is solid and so real now will not last, while that which takes faith to believe it even exists will last forever!

This doesn’t mean that the “real world” of what we can see and touch isn’t important, it is. God has made us flesh and blood creatures that need food, clothing, housing. We also enjoy cars, boats, crafts, golf clubs, cameras, cell phones, etc, etc. We’re pleased with an achievement. We feel good about putting away some money in savings. All of this is well and good, when we can keep it all in a proper perspective, which is realizing that it won’t last. I, for one, want to put the major focus of my life on that which will last and last, for an eternity. This is why I want to make a relationship with God my top priority. I recall a line from an old poem that states, “Only one life, ’twill soon be past, only what’s done for Christ will last.”

Jesus put it this way: Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:19-21)

Total Eclipse of the Soul

In August of 2017 much of the United States experienced a solar eclipse. For those along a narrow band that stretched across the country it was a total eclipse of the sun. Where we live in Florida about 80% of the sun was covered by the moon, enough to dim the sun’s light and diminish the August heat.

The solar eclipse mesmerized the nation. People were gazing upward at the sky instead of downward at their cell phones. Few people were pointing their cell phones at themselves for “selfies” and many were pointing them toward the infinite sky. There were exclamations of amazement, ooohs and aaahs, and applause. Strangers gathered in open places and celebrated together. For one day the heavenly spectacle distracted from the troublesome issues that plague this fallen world. It was good to look beyond ourselves.

The solar eclipse celebration was a reminder that we yearn for transcendence. We want to be amazed by something that’s truly amazing. Brother sun and sister moon provided a few such transcendent moments in their sibling rivalry of a race across the sky.

Solar eclipses happen very infrequently, but that doesn’t mean we have to forsake an upward, transcendent gaze on a daily basis. We humans are so horizontally oriented; we need to go vertical more often! We spend so much time looking around at our problematic situations and looking down at other people that it’s no wonder life isn’t very joyous. How about a more frequent gaze upward?

Up is the direction we look to see the sun, moon, stars, sky, and clouds, but it’s also the metaphorical direction for focusing on the ultimately transcendent: God. Unfortunately, we’re so focused on all that’s dark and wrong and not right with our lives that our view of God is obscured resulting in a near total eclipse of the soul.

Ironically we found the alignment of sun and moon in the solar eclipse to be overwhelming, while we can so easily find God, who created the sun and moon and everything else in the cosmos to be underwhelming. We need to look upward again, but in a different way, focusing on the Creator rather than on that which has been created. Oh, and we can forgo the solar glasses when looking to God (they would provide absolutely no protection from the blinding glory of God, if He would choose to reveal Himself in such a tangible way). More than lifting eyes upward we need to turn our minds, imaginations, hearts, and souls upward, toward Him. Focusing on the solar eclipse was amazing but keeping our primary focus on God is even more amazing, changing our perspective on everything!

“I, Nebuchadnezzar, raised my eyes toward heaven, and my sanity was restored.” (Daniel 4:34)

The Amazing Opportunities in Our Sphere of Influence

Philip Yancey is a best selling author who happens to be one of my favorite authors. Someone posted a note to Philip on his web site stating, “My two young children were killed in a horrible car crash 25 years ago. I lost my faith. Thanks to Philip’s [book] Disappointment with God I found my way back and here remain. Thank you, Lord.”

Philip Yancey replied, “If you were my only reader, all my work would be worthwhile.”

Yancey’s remarkable reply is a reminder that it’s not about big numbers. He has hundreds of thousands of readers of his many best selling books, but he would be happy with just one reader whose life was impacted by his writing in a big way!

We can easily discount our value in this world if we buy into society’s focus on big numbers, big crowds, and big results. Our sphere of influence may be small and our achievements less than spectacular compared to some, but we can make a big difference in that small sphere!

This can be illustrated in a negative way. Think of a few really nasty insulting phrases you could deliver, and imagine saying them to the people you know, the people you’ll come in contact with just in the next week: family, friends, co-workers, neighbors. You would ruin their day, to say nothing of your relationship with them! Enough of the negative. In contrast, you can have an amazingly positive influence on those same people just through loving and helpful words and actions! They may not seem like a big deal at the time, but little words and acts of kindness add up!

I remember from my college days, 47 or so years ago, a compliment a professor’s assistant made about a speech I had delivered in speech class. After a lifetime of giving speeches (we call them sermons in the church world) I still recall her comment and believe it’s impacted my public speaking all of these many years since.

There’s no sense lamenting over the seeming lack of opportunities to do great things for God or to influence a great number of people; it gets us nowhere. Instead, we can do a great deal of good by embracing the opportunities at hand to give an encouraging word, a helping hand, or in some other way add value to the lives of those within our sphere of influence.

“Love your neighbor [that’s the person within your sphere of influence] as yourself. (Luke 10:27)

Going Bananas in Relationships

BananaVAfter 45 years of marriage I found out something new about my wife: she peels a banana the wrong way! I made this astonishing discovery while we were on a trip in the car. We decided to snack on a couple of bananas. I glanced at her when she started to peel hers. “You’re peeling that the wrong way,” I said. I’m usually not this abrupt in correcting my wife, but the situation demanded it. It turns out she always peels it from the non-stem end.

I just assumed everyone peeled a banana from the stem end – isn’t that why God put the stem there? My wife, however, argued that it’s part of the handle you hold on to when you eat it, so you peel the other end.

Sensitized to this new issue that potentially can divide people, I pursued the rumor that monkeys peel a banana from the non-stem end. Of course this assumes that monkeys are the experts on eating a banana, but I checked into it anyway. A primate expert says most monkeys don’t eat bananas in the wild and that they don’t have any certain way to peel one. I then watched numerous youtube videos of monkeys peeling bananas (what lengths I go to in order to do serious research). Most videos showed the monkeys sort of attacking the banana any which way, often mangling it more than peeling it. It’s a myth that monkeys have a set way to peel a banana; no help here.

I will admit that when checking out a variety of web sites most say the correct way is to do it my wife’s way, peeling the banana from the non-stem end. My wife edits all my writing so, Hon, this is my way of admitting to you that you’re right. (In spite of the banana split in our relationship I still find her appealing!)

The banana episode is a good reminder that we all see things differently and do things differently and that’s okay. Many times what others do that annoys us or even hurts us is not because they are doing something wrong or being sinful; they’re just being different, being themselves.

I’m not saying there’s no right and wrong to our actions and behaviors, there is. We do sin. Sometimes we do need to ask for forgiveness and offer forgiveness. It’s just that quite often our conflict with another person isn’t about right and wrong but about differences and preferences. There’s more than one way to peel a banana, and to do a lot of other things too!

“Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.” (Colossians 3:12)

Message from a Mattress Along the Road

MattressHDRSmallWhile living in Florida I usually take a morning walk where I end up on a little-used street behind a plot of palm trees. On this one particular morning I came upon an old mattress and box spring set that someone had discarded. Whoever did this, undoubtedly after dark, took littering to a new level!

What kind of person would do this? That’s what I wondered. I hope they have some restless nights on their new mattress dealing with a guilty conscience of how they disposed of their old one!

I find myself regularly shaking my head, figuratively if not literally, in bewilderment at what some people will do or even say. In fact, being critical of others is really easy for me to do!

I don’t want to be critical (okay, maybe I do), but I’ve noticed that most of us have trouble with being critical. Please humor me.

What I’m trying to say is that none of us is perfect, including this writer. We may not litter the roadway with our old mattress, maybe not even with a gum wrapper, but I have it on good report (the Bible) that we all litter life with wrong words and actions and even wrong thoughts.

It makes little sense for me to make it my life’s goal to straighten out other people. The only one I have any say in changing is me!

Does this mean we can’t be honest with others when we feel they’re in the wrong or have hurt us or others? No, there’s a need for honesty and openness in relationships if they’re to thrive. On the other hand, we can enjoy being critical of and correcting others too much while at the same time ignoring where we ourselves could use some change for the better.

It’s been said that the unexamined life is not worth living. The next time I see the roadside trash of an extreme litterbug I’m still going to allow myself a few moments of astonishment mixed with anger. But then I’m going to let it remind me that there’s still some cleaning up to do in my own life.

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” (Luke 6:41)

 

The Old and Slow Way with Bread, Ice Cream, Popcorn, and Life

OldWaysSmall

I like using our bread machine, ice cream maker, and stove top/crank popcorn popper. They’re the old fashioned way of making bread, ice cream, and popcorn, and that’s part of their charm.

Okay, I’ll admit bread machines are not really old fashioned, they’re electric and do a lot of the work on their own. I’ve made bread the really old fashioned way, from scratch, kneading the dough by hand so, yes, the bread machine is a compromise between a handmade loaf and a loaf purchased in a store.

The ice cream maker isn’t an antique either, it’s also electric, so it does the turning and churning of the cream. We had an old fashioned crank ice cream maker when I was a child, and I didn’t want to go back to cranking for an hour to get my ice cream so, yes, another compromise.

The popcorn popper, though a recent gift to me by my wife, is really old fashioned. It heats the popcorn on the stove, and you have to crank it when the popcorn starts popping.

The use of these older methods requires more time and effort than taking the modern short cuts of buying bread and ice cream and microwaving the popcorn. I would argue, however, that there’s something pleasurable about occasionally taking the extra time and effort to do things the old fashioned way.

An added benefit for me in using these older, time consuming methods is that in doing so I model how God often works. Am I saying God is old fashioned? Well, He is older than dirt; in fact, He made dirt. God never changes; He’s the same today as He was a billion years ago so, in a sense, I guess you could say He’s old fashioned.

Throughout the historical record of God dealing with human beings, the Bible, it’s clear that God often does take considerable time to unfold His will. He also involves the inefficient participation of people.

There are few short cuts to carrying out God’s plans for us. Time and effort, that’s what it usually takes to fulfill God’s purposes and claim His promises.

“The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness.” (2 Peter 3:9)

 

Cowboy Ten Commandments


I recently came across the cowboy’s version of the Ten Commandments. Here they are.

1. Just one God.
2. Put nothin’ before God.
3. Watch yer mouth.
4. Git yourself to Sunday meetin’.
5. Honor yer Ma ‘n Pa.
6. No killin’.
7. No foolin’ around with another feller’s gal.
8. Don’t take what ain’t yers.
9. No tellin’ tales or gossipin’.
10. Don’t be hankerin’ for yer buddy’s stuff.

There are all kinds of natural laws we don’t debate whether to obey or not, we just do. We know that the law of gravity will pull us to earth really fast and that the quick stop can injure or kill, so we don’t jump from high places. We know that standing out in an open field during a lightning storm is not wise, because a lightning bolt hitting us would likely be more than just a shocking experience.

God, because He cares a great deal for us, long ago gave us some laws that deal with relationships, both with Him and with each other. When we follow these relational laws life goes better, and when we don’t the result is deep hurt for us, for others and alienation from God. It’s amazing that we don’t usually deliberate about obeying natural laws, but we’re tempted to ignore the most famous laws of all, the Ten Commandments.

What we need to remember is that God has our best interest at heart. His commandments aren’t intended to limit life but to allow life to be lived at its best.

Moses said to God’s people, “Acknowledge and take to heart this day that the Lord is God in heaven above and on the earth below. There is no other. Keep his decrees and commands, which I am giving you today, so that it may go well with you and your children after you…” (Deuteronomy 4:39-40a)