Jesus in Disguise

While I was pastoring our church in Toledo, Ohio, Bill started attending the church. Bill lived alone, down the street, in a small ten foot wide mobile home that most would refer to as a trailer. Bill’s social skills were limited. He was a nice man, but, admittedly, not the type of person people would naturally be attracted to. Bill had this habit of suddenly inhaling a breath of air, sniffing every few seconds. Being the preacher up front, it could be distracting. One week my wife made him an apple pie, having packed it in a flat cardboard box. Bill expressed his gratitude, took the boxed pie, turned it on its edge, then tucked it under his arm, and started walking toward home. We’ve always wondered about the condition of the pie once he unpacked it at home.

Over the years of pastoring we’ve had other folks come to our church who were a lot like Bill, often with marginal social skills, sometimes having grooming habits that would be considered substandard by most others. I figured out what God was doing, so I determined to see these dear folks as Jesus in disguise.

We’re going to come across people different from us in ways that make them less appealing. They may be a relative, a neighbor, a co-worker, or even a fellow church attender. I’ve often said there are people I wouldn’t mind being holed up in a barn with during a snowstorm for an extended time, and there are others I would not want to be stuck with during a snowstorm. It’s those folks that I’d rather they find their own barn that I’m referring to.

God calls me to love all people, even those I don’t like, or at least don’t like as much as others. It’s those I would not like spending much time with that I’ve come to see as Jesus in disguise! I’ll be honest with you, over nearly 40 years of ministry, Jesus showed up disguised as quite a number of people!

We all have people we’re naturally attracted to, people with whom we have much in common, those who are in many ways like us. Then there are those to whom we’re not naturally drawn. We have to recognize what God is up to here. As sure as the sun will rise tomorrow He will put people near us who we’d rather not be near!

As a Christian I’ve come to see that this is a test! It’s an opportunity for spiritual growth. These folks I’d rather not be stuck in a snowstorm with are Jesus in disguise. He cares a lot for them, and how I treat these folks is how Jesus sees me treating Him; He takes it personally!

Jesus told a story to an expert in religious law about a man who was mugged along a road. Two religious guys, a priest and a Levite, passed by the injured man, but a Samaritan (Samaritans and the Jewish population had, at best, a strained relationship) helped the injured man who was Jewish, a man to whom he would not have been naturally drawn.

Jesus asked the expert in religious law, “’Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?’ The expert in the law replied, ‘The one who had mercy on him.’ Jesus told him, ‘Go and do likewise.’” (Luke 10:36-37)

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Ordinary Days

God must love ordinary days, for He’s made so many of them! True, we all have days that include a mountaintop-type experience, and we all have days that are a valley-type experience. We may even have a string of such days. But for most of us a majority of our days are rather ordinary.

Annie Dillard wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” So, how can we better spend our many ordinary days so they add up to an extraordinary life?

Well, first of all, even ordinary days are intruded by the beautiful and amazing if we but take notice. Pause to reflect on the multitude of colors in soapy suds that bring God’s sky-hung rainbow into our kitchen or bathroom sink. Consider how a butterfly with its paper-thin broad wings navigates from flower to flower effortlessly in a stiff wind. Gaze closely at the frost on a window that spreads out in delicate, lace-like, swirling patterns. Savor that first taste of tea, coffee, or juice in the morning. Tune the ear to the song of the bird that’s nearly, but not quite, drowned out by the sound of the traffic. Blessings of the beautiful and amazing abound in every day!

Each day is saturated with the spectacular! We can magnify the delight of it all by being grateful to God for the extraordinary input we’re receiving in such an ordinary day!

Then, too, we can always identify something extraordinary to do in an ordinary day. Mitch Albom wrote, “You can find something truly important in an ordinary minute.” Opportunities abound for us to add value to someone’s day, if we but look for them. It doesn’t have to be something big and spectacular. Louisa May Alcott wrote, “The humblest tasks get beautiful if loving hands do them.” It just takes a minute to give a few words of encouragement. If we can spare a few minutes we can offer a person tangible assistance that will help them with their day. And, again, we can magnify the delight by doing it primarily to please God, who’s put us in such a position to make a difference!

Ordinary days can end up being something special, even extraordinary. We just have to be intentional about making it happen!

Blessed are those who have learned to acclaim you, who walk in the light of your presence, Lord. They rejoice in your name all day long; they celebrate your righteousness.” Psalm 89:15-16

Life Lesson from a Grandchild

We have over 20 grandchildren so there’s lots of interaction between the grandchildren and Grandpa and Grandma. We hope we influence them in positive ways. I also hope our interactions affect Grandpa and Grandma in positive ways too, like such an interaction did on one particular occasion.

We had been on a day-long excursion with one of our granddaughters. It had been a wonderful day. The weather had been perfect, and we had seen and done most of what we wanted to see and do. However, on the drive back home our granddaughter, sitting in the back seat, lamented that she wasn’t able to get a stuffed animal at a souvenir shop. Grandma and I had denied her request because the small stuffed creatures were priced excessively high. You’d think they had been stuffed with dollar bills! She also was sorry that we had to miss one event because of her desire to attend another event at the same time. She also commented on a couple of other aspects of the day that hadn’t quite gone as she would have liked.

Grandma and I encouraged her to think about the many events and experiences of the day that were wonderful and to focus on these. It seemed she took our advice seriously for the tone of her sharing about the day changed to being more positive.

I felt good about how we had sought to help her choose to process the day’s experiences in a more positive way. It was a good life lesson. Then, hours later, it hit me, much like the proverbial ton of bricks; I still need to learn that same life lesson all over again!

It’s so easy to grasp on to something to grumble about. I can be blessed by God in many ways and yet fixate on that which I wish were different. This fixation takes the focus off the good in my life and is dishonoring to God, who gives all good things.

True, some circumstances that aren’t the way we’d like them to be can be changed, and many should be; there’s a place for discontent if it can be productive and lead to positive results. On the other hand, much discontent is counter-productive and only keeps us from living life well.

How do we change how we look at situations and respond to them? What Grandma and I suggested to our granddaughter is that we can choose what we keep going over in our mind. This God-given power of choice is a wonderful gift from God! We have the capacity to think about what we think about, how we think about it, and to think differently! It’s also crucial we ask God for His help in doing this.

It was easy for me to see how my grandchild’s focus was not at all helpful to her well-being. Not so easy is seeing that my focus is often misdirected. My granddaughter, sitting in the back seat of our car, reminded me of this!

How abundant are the good things that you have stored up for those who fear you, that you bestow in the sight of all, on those who take refuge in you.” Psalm 31:19

The Ultimate Unlimited Warranty

Warranty for our new shingles

We just had our roof re-shingled. It cost a lot, but it should last a long time, and it came with a warranty. Our car has a warranty as well. The lawnmower I purchased last year also has a warranty. In fact, most of the stuff we’ve bought new has a warranty. There’s a comfort in knowing that if something goes wrong with the product the warranty will cover it, sometimes. One characteristic of all these warranties, whether it be the roof, the car, or even our toaster, is that they’re limited. They limit what they cover, and they limit the time they’ll cover it.

One reason warranties are limited is that nothing can last forever. Everything eventually wears out, gets broken, or can be stolen. Even relationships, the most important part of life, don’t come with an unlimited warranty. Relationships are broken. If nothing else breaks a relationship death will. Even in a marriage a couple makes a limited warranty with each other, “till death do us part” we promise. I can think of only one unlimited warranty that I possess, and that warranty comes from the ultimate manufacturer and creator, God.

That warranty from our Maker, part of the covenant He wants to make with us, essentially states that if we let Him get hold of us in a relationship, asking for His forgiveness and putting Him in the number one position in our lives, then He will never let go of us. We’re guaranteed a relationship with Him throughout this life and on into eternity, forever! The great preacher/writer of a previous generation, C. H. Spurgeon, stated, “We could see the ruin of everything earthly and still rejoice in the God of our salvation!”

I wish I had kept count of all the cars I’ve owned over my half a century of driving; it’s got to be more than 30 vehicles. Most of them are in a junkyard someplace or recycled into soup cans or ten thousand other metal objects. I’ve also lost track of how many computers I’ve had over the years. Our retirement funds are in low risk instead of high risk accounts, but even these aren’t guaranteed; some catastrophic financial event could occur to wipe it all out. My relationships, of course, are most important, but some of these have been severed by death, and all the other relationships will eventually be severed, either by their death or mine. I’m not trying to be morbid, just realistic. Nothing in life comes with an unlimited warranty except for the warranty God offers us!

“’Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor my covenant of peace be removed,’ says the Lord, who has compassion on you.” Isaiah 54:10

Listening to God

The new home for the basketball hoop

We’ve had a portable basketball hoop, stand, and base setting unused in our backyard for about two years so decided to give it away. I had plans of pulling it out to the curb and putting a “free” sign on it. When I’ve done that in the past with various items they’ve usually disappeared rather quickly.

Before I had a chance to do so, however, I walked past a boy in the neighborhood waiting for the school bus. I was prompted to stop and ask him, “Do you have a basketball hoop?” He said he didn’t. When I asked him if he would like a free one he said he would, and that he would ask his mom when he got home from school, that maybe they could pick it up later that day.

I was looking for him and his mother to stop by that afternoon, but they didn’t. I figured they decided they didn’t want it, so I told Diann that I was thinking of pulling it out to the curb with a “free” sign on it. She didn’t think that was a good idea, they might still show up. I listened to her and didn’t put it out.

Sure enough, when it was dark the doorbell rang and there was the student, his mother waiting out in the car along our curb. He was there to pick up the basketball hoop. I helped him pull it on its two small wheels down the sidewalk to his home on the next street. I was thankful I had listened to Diann. If I had put it out on the street it would likely have been gone by the time the student and his mom came by.

I had experienced what I believe was a prompting of the Lord to stop and ask the boy if he could use a basketball hoop. He was really excited and very appreciative about getting ours. It almost didn’t happen, however, if I would have given in to my impatience at wanting to get rid of it instead of listening to my wife to give them a little more time to show up.

It’s good to go through each day intentionally being open to God’s leading through the still small voice of an inner prompting. That’s, I believe, what happened when I stopped and asked the boy if he could use a basketball hoop. But that wasn’t enough. As it turned out, I also needed to be led of the Lord through my wife’s suggestion to wait before putting it out to the curb. I’d rather take direction from the Lord God Almighty than from my wife! But, in this instance, God chose to speak through my wife.

God can speak to us through an inner prompting and wants to do so more times than we give Him opportunity to do so. But He also wants to give us direction, correction, or an insight through another person. I’ll be the first to admit it requires far greater humility to be open to God speaking through another person, especially your wife, than it does to be open to hearing from God directly. I’d rather tell people, “God spoke to me…” than, “My wife suggested that I…” And, I suspect that’s one reason why God often chooses to speak through others rather than directly Himself!

“Listen to advice and accept instruction, that you may gain wisdom in the future.” Proverbs 19:20

A Needle in a Haystack Christmas — a short, short story

Max Furgenson was an old farmer who still farmed 40 acres of land a mile outside town. It would be his last Christmas, his doctor had said as much, given the illness he had. Max wanted to make a difference this Christmas. He’d loved God as long as he could remember, and always sought to do what he figured God would like him to do. Max, however, didn’t see himself as a very good talker, most people saw him as a quiet guy. But now, this being what he figured to be his last Christmas, he wanted the townspeople to know what was on his mind and heart.

He got the idea in late October. The town counsel had given him permission in their November meeting. On the afternoon of the first Sunday in Advent he stood in front of the huge haystack he had hired a couple of men to bring from his farm to the center of the town square, 64 bales of hay ripped apart and piled high. He was pleased with the large gathering, probably a couple of hundred townsfolk he estimated, all curious as to what he was up to.

He cleared his throat and began. “This is going to be a different kind of Christmas for our town, at least if I have my way. Hidden in this haystack is a needle. You’re invited to search for the needle in the haystack. There’s a reward, $10,000 for the finder. It’s going to be organized. I’ve asked our town clerk to schedule 10 of you at a time to search an hour for the needle. The hay you sift through goes in one of those baskets over there, and when you’re done with your hour of sifting, you add it to a discard pile by that post over there. You can sign up for your hour now or at city hall during the hours they’re open.”

Max held up his hand, sweeping it around at the crowd, “And don’t get any ideas about bringing your own needle! I’ve had a jeweler etch a tiny little mark on the needle so that I’ll know it’s the real thing. Henry, our head cop, and his deputies will be making regular rounds past here, 24/7, to make sure it’s all going smoothly. The last hour anyone will be assigned to find the needle in the haystack is Christmas Eve day at noon, or sooner, if the haystack’s been all sifted through. I’m asking the finder to keep it a secret, coming out to my farm and informing me when you’ve found it. The big reveal will be Christmas Eve day at 3:00 pm, right here, where I’ll announce the winner and hand the person the $10,000 check.”

It was an enthusiastic response by the townspeople, the stack was sifted through by several hundred people, 10 per hour. Three days before Christmas Eve Max let it be known that the needle had been found. Anticipation ran high, and about 500 people were gathered on Christmas Eve at 3:00 pm.

Max looked around at the crowd, then slowly held up the needle between his thumb and index finger. “Here it is! The winner is Jeff Higgins.” Jeff stepped forward with a big grin, took the check from Max and shook Max’s hand.

Max looked out over the crowd, paused, took a deep breath and started to give his prepared, short speech. “This universe is a big place. They say there are billions of galaxies with billions of stars in each. From way out there, a gazillion miles away, to find earth would be like looking for a needle in a haystack. Some feel this makes us on this little white, blue, and brown speck of cosmic dust we call earth insignificant. The opposite is true. Christmas is all about God coming to earth, being born as one of us, God in human flesh. He came to save us, to be our Savior. Out of this huge universe God came here to earth. He found the needle in the haystack. He found us! And of the 8 billion people on the earth He knows about you, again, like finding a needle in a haystack. I want us to remember this Christmas as a needle in the haystack Christmas. This Christmas let yourself be found by Him!”

Max concluded, “So I leave you with the most famous verse in the Bible, John 3:16. Take it personally! “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

Unstringing a Prelit Christmas Tree

The lights referenced in this post

I thought it was a good idea to buy a prelit Christmas tree a couple of years ago. This Christmas season I came to the conclusion that it wasn’t such a bright idea (pun intended).

Some of the lights stopped working. It was going to be difficult to match a new string of lights with the existing lights that came with the tree and still worked. We made the decision to remove all of the lights so they wouldn’t clutter up the tree. If the first bad idea was buying the prelit tree in the first place, the second bad idea was trying to remove all the factory installed strings of lights.

I don’t much enjoy stringing lights on a tree, but do so out of love for my wife, who puts on the decorations (a division of labor upon which we agree), and grudging compliance to the tradition of decorating a Christmas tree. I enjoy even less the removal of the lights after Christmas. There was no enjoyment at all in trying to remove the factory installed lights!

If the Christmas tree factory worked as hard at making sure the lights last for years as they do in making sure they are firmly affixed to the tree, then we wouldn’t have had to deal with this whole issue in the first place. It took over an hour to remove the strings of lights. What a pile of lights and wires we ended up with on the floor! Who would have thought there were THAT many lights!

A frequent lament of mine at Christmas time is that, try as we do, we never have a perfect Christmas as is portrayed in Christmas programs, TV Christmas commercials and in Currier and Ives Christmas prints. If I start the list of reasons for experiencing an imperfect Christmas with my unstringing of the prelit tree, I’m sure you can quickly add several items to the list, as can I.

I try to follow my laments about Christmas not being perfect with the reminder to myself that Christmas is no different than other times of the year, times which are also filled with imperfections. Why should Christmas be any different? In fact, the origin of Christmas was God’s act of countering an imperfect, sinful world by sending His Son into the world to deal with the problem by being the Savior.

The perfect Christmas carol for properly celebrating an imperfect Christmas is “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” particularly verses 3 and 4. “And in despair I bowed my head: ‘There is no peace on earth,’ I said, ‘For hate is strong, and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men.’ Yet pealed the bells more loud and deep: ‘God is not dead, nor doth He sleep; the wrong shall fail, the right prevail, with peace on earth, good will to men.’” The words ring true!

The imperfections of our Christmas celebrations can be a sacramental-type experience, frustrating but sacred reminders that Christmas is all about God coming to a broken, far from perfect, sinful world to make things right. When I was gathering up and throwing away the huge pile of prelit lights from our Christmas tree I needed to remember this!

A prophecy fulfilled of Jesus coming into the world: “The people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.” (Matthew 4:16)

Choosing Gratitude Over Grumbling

The sign along Highway 3 in Iowa identifying the nearby town of Readlyn states, “READLYN 857 friendly PEOPLE & one old GRUMP.” The legend has been a part of the town’s history for years of a hobo who got off the train and eventually decided to settle there. His demeanor prompted people to refer to him as “the Old Grump.”

Yes, there are old grumps, but there are also young grumps and middle-aged grumps. Being grumpy comes naturally to many of us. That’s why the holiday of Thanksgiving is so important. We can use an annual reminder of the importance of expressing gratitude instead of giving in to grumbling.

The reality is that I have plenty of things to grumble about; don’t get me started! You have plenty of things to grumble about; don’t get yourself started! Instead, this Thanksgiving let’s choose gratitude over grumbling!

Reasons to grumble seem to shout at us; reasons to give thanks often are but a whisper. The burdens of life are obvious; the blessings of life often are overlooked. There are always reasons enough for which to give thanks, we just need to be intentional about identifying those reasons.

We’re created by our Creator to be creatures of gratitude, not grumbling. Like cars that run better on high grade gas than low grade gas, so we run better on gratitude than grumbling. Wishing someone Happy Thanksgiving makes total sense, for we’re usually happy when we give thanks. No one ever wishes another person happy grumbling; it makes no sense, for we’re not happy when grumbling.

The Bible describes God’s people, led by Moses, who escaped from bondage in Egypt and journeyed through the wilderness until they reached their promised land. God miraculously provided them with manna to eat during their journey through the wilderness. Instead of being grateful they grumbled that there wasn’t more variety in their diet. Somebody among them should have come up with a cookbook on 100 Ways to Use Manna. But, no, instead they grumbled. Then they grumbled because a report came back from ten of the 12 men who were sent to spy out their promised land that it was inhabited by a giant people, making for a formidable opposition. Because of their grumbling, God extended their journey to the promised land from what should have been a few weeks to 40 years! This allowed for the grumbling generation to die off and be replaced by the younger generations to enter the promised land.

Grumbling is not good! What’s far better is to choose gratitude!

“I will give thanks to you, Lord, with all my heart; I will tell of all your wonderful deeds.” (Psalm 9:1)

Wanting a Just World

I had just finished preaching at our Mexico church (with our daughter Julie translating). A man and his wife came up to me indicating they wanted me to pray for them. I found our grandson Caleb and asked him to translate for us. The couple explained that they were owed back pay from a company for whom he had recently worked. I prayed, asking God to set right the injustice of the man’s former employer, that he would get what was due him. A couple of weeks later the couple came up to me and, again, with the help of a translator, the husband indicated that he had received what was owed him. We rejoiced together at justice being done!

We humans have an inherent desire for fairness and justice. We expect people to play fairly when it comes to games. We want businesses to treat us fairly. We expect law enforcement agencies and judicial systems to act justly. We want the world to be a just world and are greatly, and often, frustrated that it’s not!

It’s a curious phenomenon, then, that we often feel uncomfortable with the idea of God being a just God and judging people, acting on His righteousness and handing out justice. We want to quickly pivot to God being forgiving, tolerant, loving, gracious, and merciful. These, too, are His attributes, but if we want a comprehensive and fully dimensional understanding of God and a maturing and deepening relationship with Him, then all of His attributes must be embraced, including the fact that He’s a just God.

Okay, so we’re fine with God acting justly in the lives of others; it seems to us that they often need straightening out. But us? We’re not so quick to want God to act justly toward us, especially if we have a realistic view of our own nature and actions as often being far from good. I find a greater willingness to admit I don’t even come close to measuring up to God’s perfectly just standards when I also embrace the aforementioned attributes of His being forgiving, tolerant, loving, gracious, and merciful. The message of the Gospel (which means good news) is that God took care of both His need to be just and also to be loving through the person and work of Jesus. But that’s a message that’ll require a separate piece of writing.

I find that my recognition of God being a just and righteous God gives me the additional motivation to seek, with His help, to do that which aligns with His own nature, to be just and fair to others. Love, both for God and those around me, should be motivation enough, but being the far from perfect person that I am, the additional incentive of not wanting to displease God frequently helps me be more the person I should be.

We use this approach in all of our relationships. Ideally, for instance, sibling children should treat each other with love, respect, and fairness because they love each other. An additional motivation, however, is that they don’t want to get in trouble with their parents, who want their children to treat each other fairly! The same proves true in the family of God’s children.

The Bible makes it clear that, in the end, God will judge all that has gone on in this world and make it all right and that justice will reign supreme. In the meantime we’re to act justly in response to our God being a just God!

“This is what the Lord says: ‘Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom or the strong man boast of his strength or the rich man boast of his riches, but let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight,’ declares the Lord.” (Jeremiah 9:23-24)

Perfection in an Imperfect World

For one reason or another we slid the refrigerator out from the wall. A great deal of dust had accumulated under the refrigerator so we cleaned it up. We thought we had done a good job of keeping the kitchen floor in good shape since installing it years earlier, until we compared it to the newly cleaned piece of the floor that had been hidden under the refrigerator. What a contrast! The rest of the kitchen floor now looked drab and scuffed compared to the new looking piece of floor that had been protected from daily wear under the refrigerator.

We live in a very imperfect, broken world. The Bible refers to it as a fallen world, a sinful world. It’s not just the world around us that’s scuffed and marred with sin, it’s also the world within. We too are far from perfect (if in doubt, we only need ask those who know us best). But we’ve become so accustomed to everything being imperfect and sinful that it’s difficult to comprehend anything being anything but this way.

This is why we largely lack a comprehension of how good, pure, and moral God is. We figure He’s better than us by a ways and leave it at that. In fact, most of us have wished God would appear to us in a vivid way, sort of like meeting a famous person. Meeting God face to face, for lack of a better phrase, would really bolster our faith, we figure. The fact is, most of us have a misconception of how such an encounter would go!

There are historical accounts of God making Himself vividly present before people and how the people reacted to such an encounter. One example is in the Old Testament of the Bible, the account of God appearing before Isaiah the prophet (Isaiah 6:1-3). Another example is in the New Testament of the Bible, the account of God appearing before the Apostle John (Revelation 1:9-17). Both Isaiah and John thought their encounter with God would prove fatal, God was so overwhelmingly holy! By God’s grace they lived to tell about the encounters. By God’s grace we too can draw near to such a holy God without it proving fatal, but only by His grace.

We’re familiar with the word holy, but what does it really mean, and what does it mean that God is holy? According to theologians, who study such things, it means to be totally good, pure, and moral. It’s being without any evil or sin. There’s nothing like that in our day to day experience of living. God’s the only thing in all of existence that’s truly holy. This is really important to know. In fact, of all of God’s attributes, this is the only one that’s repeated three times in the Bible, “holy, holy, holy,” for emphasis.

Living in such a messed up, sinful world, it’s good to know that something is holy, and that’s God. It’s also good to know that this holy God still wants a relationship with us in spite of us being very unholy! It’s possible because God entered into this broken world, incarnated Himself as one of us being born as a baby, died on a cross, and erupted alive from a tomb. To think we can be embraced by this holy God with all of our brokenness and sin now and forever is truly amazing!

The apostle John’s account of the vision God gave him of heaven involving four angelic beings: “Day and night they never stop saying, ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come.’” Revelation 4:8