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On Being Useful

An hour glass and glass vase/planter purchased on garage sales that I thought were useful

I like going to garage sales. You never know what great buy you’ll come upon. As I hold the object, delighted at the low price on the sticker, I ask myself a question: “Do I need this?” “Is it useful?”

Being useful is important to me, not just when reflecting on garage sale items but also when it comes to me. Am I useful? Best selling author Robert Fulghum asks a question on his web site/blog, “Why do I continue to write?” He then answers his own question, “To be useful.”

I can relate to Fulghum. I too write to be useful. I hope you find these writings of mine useful. I’m certain that Fulghum and Claassen aren’t the only ones who want to be useful. I’m certain you want to count yourself among us.

Fulghum writes these encouraging words, “Often, without realizing it, we fill important places in other’s lives. It’s that way with the guy at the corner grocery, the mechanic at the local garage, the family doctor, teachers, co-workers, and neighbors.”

It’s a good feeling to know we’re useful. It’s a yucky feeling to feel useless. Sometimes we feel yucky!

The truth is that we all have people within our sphere of influence. When we doubt this, all we need to do is think of how many people over whom we have the power to ruin their day by being selfish, judgmental, intolerant, or just generally obnoxious. The opposite, then, is also true. We have the power to make their day!

Being useful often requires being intentional, pro-active about connecting with others in positive ways. Who can we connect with through a face-to-face encounter, a letter, a phone call, or even texting and messaging today or maybe tomorrow?

What personally motivates me to be useful to others is that first and foremost I’m under the conviction that God wants me to be useful to Him. I find that when I decide to be useful to Him it almost always involves being useful to others; it’s just the way He’s designed it.

I can recall it being said on more than one occasion by one person to another, usually by a person who’s working to a person nearby who’s not working, “Here, make yourself useful,” as they hand them a broom, shovel, or some other tool. The challenge is there for each of us, a challenge worth accepting, for it’s what makes life meaningful, “Make yourself useful!”

Whoever brings blessing will be enriched, and one who waters will himself be watered.” (Proverbs 11:25, English Standard Version)

Letters and Gifts Retrieved

Cards and letters we sent to my wife Diann’s parents who are in heaven, cards and letters we have now taken back, many of which we have discarded

Diann and I are at that stage of life where we no longer have our parents with us. We, with our siblings, faced the task of sorting through our parents’ earthly possessions. Digging through drawers and storage bins we recovered letters and cards we had sent to our parents over the years. We also had to decide what to do with items we had given them as gifts.

It was strange taking back what we had lovingly given them, but it could only be theirs until they left this earth. As a pastor I stood before many a casket. Some of them had little drawers in which you could place items dear to the deceased. I get it, there may be some comfort in the practice, but I’ll admit, I found it a bit strange; we really can’t take it with us.

I knew this, that we can’t take it with us. I often preached the truth as a pastor, stating on more than one occasion, “I’ve never seen a hearse pulling a U-Haul trailer.” Still, it’s a truth that struck with greater force when we sorted through our parents’ possessions.

It’s good to be reminded of this truth while we’re in the midst of living this life. For one thing, Diann and I have been prompted to de-clutter while we’re alive so that our children will have less to dispose of when we’re gone. Although, I’m going to need my toothbrush and a few other items up until close to the end.

But it goes deeper than trying to get rid of some of our “stuff” before the kids are forced to do so. We should be living with the end in view. Not in a morbid way but in a realistic way, in a way that helps us prioritize what is really important.

It doesn’t much matter what we do with the letters, cards, and gifts we gave to our parents; these items did their job! The delight the items gave and the love they communicated is, in the end, what’s important.

That should be the purpose of life, to add value to the lives of those within our sphere of influence and also to give delight to God who gives us this life to live. The two great commandments, which Jesus identified, make this clear: to love God with all we’ve got and to love others like we so lovingly look out for ourselves. The most important things we leave our loved ones can’t be put into boxes to be sorted out later!

Jesus said, “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)

On Being Available

Matthew the tax collector being call by Jesus

I like watching a television network news broadcast most evenings, which airs live at 6:30 in the eastern time zone. However, I either record it or watch it later on YouTube because I want to watch it when it’s convenient for me, which is usually not at 6:30. Our modern culture has spoiled me, offering so much on-demand, including a lot of TV shows and movies. The Cambridge on-line dictionary defines on-demand as “providing services when a customer wants or asks for them.”

Providing on-demand products or services is not only a successful business practice, it’s also an important concept in personal relationships, both with others and with God. It’s called being available.

A parent needs to be available for the child, a mate for their mate, a friend for a friend. Relationships, if they are truly loving and giving, mean that not everything happens on our schedule or when it’s most convenient for us. We have to bend, yield, make allowances, adapt, or often change our plans, adjusting our schedule to better meet the needs of the other person. We have to make ourselves available.

I recall seeing a statement on a yardstick that was a gift to a customer. The statement read something like this, “You are not an interruption to our business, you are the reason for our business.” Our business, both with others and God, is to be interruptible, to be available. Almost all of Jesus’ miracles resulted because He was interrupted by people who needed a miracle.

Much of the good we can do in life can’t be scheduled, the opportunities just show up. We can have the words of encouragement someone needs, the help someone could use, or just be the one to come alongside in a time of need, but if we don’t make ourselves available it won’t happen.

Being available isn’t only important in our human relationships, it’s also important in our relationship with God that we make ourselves available to Him. God doesn’t need us to be the smartest, most talented, or the most gifted person around. He doesn’t need the most qualified person; He will qualify the one He calls. We just have to be available!

As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. ‘Follow me,’ he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him.” (Matthew 9:9)

“Life Requires Maintenance”

I hauled three garbage cans of yard waste to the curb for the county to pick up. It seems that every week we have up to four garbage cans filled with weeds, clippings, and twigs to haul to the curb. Where in the world does all this stuff come from? Our yard isn’t large! Of course, we’ve just returned from living near Julie in Mexico for a couple of months, so we’re catching up with no maintenance having been done for the two months.

We’ve covered a significant part of the front and back yards with bark and pine mulch in an effort to create a “minimum maintenance” yard. The problem is that leaves and twigs fall on the mulch, which require picking them up, and weeds still poke through it, which require pulling or spraying. So our “minimum maintenance” yard still needs maintenance!

I shouldn’t be surprised. Yards require maintenance, so does the house sitting in the middle of our small lot, so does the car parked in the garage.

What also requires maintenance is the relationship of the two people who live in the house (Diann and me). Then too, what both of us consider to be the most important relationship in our lives, our relationship with God, also requires maintenance.

All of life is a spinning top and needs regular attention to keep it spinning, to keep it from slowing, wobbling, and eventually coming to a stop. The temptation is to let things go, let things drift, let things slide.

Regular maintenance on any aspect of life takes vigilance. We can easily miss the slow but persistent deterioration from the way things were before. Regular maintenance also requires effort, it’s rarely easy.

Maintenance on the material like a yard, house, car, etc. is important but shouldn’t be the highest priority; all of this is replaceable. The two highest priorities should be the maintaining and nurturing of our relationship with God and with those within our sphere of influence. When we also regularly examine ourselves we are in a good place to do both.

Our yard is looking better, it just took some maintenance. Now, about those parts of life that are more important than the yard…

Jesus to the Christians at Ephesus, “Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first. Consider how far you have fallen!” (Revelation 2:4-5a).

“Guided by God”

Dan Harrison was one of two passengers on a Cessna single engine plane, returning from a fishing trip to the Bahamas. The pilot informed the two that he wasn’t feeling well, then passed out. Harrison, who had no flying experience, quickly moved forward to the cockpit. The plane was in a nosedive heading toward the ocean. Harrison leaned over the non-responsive pilot and pulled up on the stick. He and the other passenger moved the pilot to the back and Harrison sat in the pilot’s seat.

He grabbed a headset and called out to the tower. A flight controller, who also happened to be a part-time flight instructor, gave Harrison step-by-step instructions. Amazingly, Harrison landed the plane on the airport runway without incident!

Once the plane safely came to a stop Harrison said he gave a “thankful prayer for the safety and everything that had happened. But the last part of the prayer and the strongest part was for the guy in the back because I knew it was not a good situation.” Along with the miracle of the plane landing safely was the miraculous recovery of the pilot, the doctor stating that 50% of patients with such a heart condition never make it to the hospital and of those who do 50% don’t survive the next 24 hours.

When Harrison was asked how he managed to stay so calm and focused, he said, “God.” He added, “The hand of God was on that plane… there’s no other explanation for it.”

Most of us are like Harrison in that we can’t fly a plane either. He said in an interview that he had often wondered what would happen if he were on a small plane and the pilot was incapacitated. He found out! Most of us don’t want to find out if we could land a plane or not. We want to leave the flying to a healthy pilot.

Flying a plane is complicated, but so is navigating life in general. Why do we think we can make it through life without someone there with us talking us through it, leading us through it, when we wouldn’t think of trying to fly a plane by ourselves? Life’s far more complex than any plane.

The air traffic controller guided Harrison. God wants to do this for us, help us navigate through the complexities and difficulties of life, on His flight path for us, the best of all paths. The question is, will we let Him?

“Guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my Savior, and my hope is in you all day long.” (Psalm 25:5)

“A Successful Failure”

A recent visit to Cape Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Center in Florida reminded me of the life and death drama that unfolded during the flight of Apollo 13 to the moon in April 1970. The lunar landing was aborted when an oxygen tank exploded two days into the mission.

The loss of oxygen threatened the survival of the three astronauts. The three moved from the command module to the lunar lander. Attached to the nose of the command module, the lunar lander became something of a lifeboat. With much help from the ground crew, the three astronauts used available materials in the command module and lunar module to jerry-build systems. They needed a four day supply of oxygen to make it to the moon, slingshot around it, and return to earth. It was a long four days with a lack of electric power, cold conditions, and a lack of water, but they made it safely back to earth.

The mission never landed on the moon as originally planned. However, under very difficult circumstances, they were able to return to earth. The mission was declared “a successful failure” by NASA.

We don’t get through life without some failures. The failures may be different for each of us, but each of us faces them. The fact that we can look back on having failed means that we’ve survived those failures, at least enough to be able to look back upon them! Now what do we do? How should we view our failures?

Having been a student of the Bible for a lifetime and a proclaimer of its message for a good part of that, I’m confident in saying the so-called heroes of the Bible failed on many occasions. The list includes Adam, Abraham, Moses, David, and Peter. Yet, God used them all in mighty ways!

God never intends for failure to be final! There’s always a good option after failure. If the failure is in part or entirely our fault, we can admit it, always a good first step. Failure is often a humbling experience, and an increase in humility is always good! We can learn from the failure. Think of Thomas Edison and the thousands of failures he experienced in finding the right filament for the light bulb. Learning from our failures certainly fits under the heading of failing forward. Most important of all is to remember that God knew about our failures before they happened, and He has a plan! He can have good come out of any failure. In other words, like Apollo 13, we can have a successful failure!

Joseph said to his brothers when they came to him in Egypt for food after having failed badly as brothers years earlier by selling him to slave traders, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” (Genesis 50:20)

God’s In Total Control!

Corrie Ten Boom and her sister Betsy were incarcerated in a Nazi concentration camp during WW II for hiding Jews. The conditions in the camp were horrible, including an infestation of fleas in their barracks that made life close to unbearable. In spite of the conditions, Corrie, Betsy and some other women had times of Bible study and prayer together.

During one of these prayer/study times they decided to find reasons for which they could give thanks. Betsy gave thanks for the fleas! Corrie couldn’t believe for what Betsy had given thanks. Betsy said she did so because the Bible says to “give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thessalonians 5:18) and the fleas were part of their circumstances.

It turned out that the fleas were a blessing in disguise. The guards left them alone much of the time because they didn’t want to deal with the fleas!

Our lives are filled with much that we’d rather not be part of our lives. We pray to God to change things, give us things, or take away things. It’s not an exaggeration to suggest that life often seems to be out of control. Where is God in all of this, we want to know.

Corrie Ten Boom discovered in the flea situation that even in the mist of that which strikes us as not at all good, that good can come from it. God had His reason for the fleas.

In spite of appearances, God’s in control of everything. Nothing happens without His action or His approval. He’s sovereign, directing everything to fulfill His purposes. Even as I write this, what I know to be the truth as expressed time and time again in the Bible, I find it a challenge to believe. Looking back on my own lifetime I find the way some things have turned out to be inexplicable, making little or no sense out of it.

What I do know is that belief in the sovereignty of God requires a significant amount of faith, faith for which we can, and should, ask for from God Himself, because we can’t conjure it up on our own. We shouldn’t expect to understand all that God is doing, particularly with the painful, nasty, bad parts of our lives. God’s ways are way beyond our understanding. The sovereignty of God is impossible to fully understand, but it must be fully embraced!

Whatever the fleas in our life might be, we need to have faith in the face of the fleas, trusting God as to what He’s doing. When we do so, such trust in the sovereign working of God makes for a soft pillow upon which to sleep!

“In peace I will lie down and sleep, for you alone, Lord, make me dwell in safety.” (Psalm 4:8)

God All Wise!

There was a problem at one of Henry Ford’s factories, so he asked Nikola Tesla to have a look and see if he could fix it. Tesla walked up to a boiler plate at the factory, made a small X in chalk identifying where the problem was, and it was fixed. Tesla sent Ford an invoice for $10,000. Ford was furious and asked for a breakdown of the bill. Tesla sent another invoice indicating a $1 charge for marking the wall with the X, and $9,999 for knowing where to mark the X.

Knowledge is very important, but not enough. Wisdom to rightly apply knowledge is also needed. There’s no shortage of smart people who act foolishly. They have an abundance of knowledge but lack the wisdom to apply it.

God has full knowledge of everything, but He’s also all wise and applies that knowledge perfectly. Creation illustrates this. Scientists have identified a number of “just right” conditions in our universe that make it possible for everything to be here. For instance, if gravity were slightly weaker the planets and stars could not have formed. If gravity were a bit stronger the stars would quickly burn up. If the electromagnetic force were even slightly stronger or weaker we wouldn’t have stable chemical bonds. There are many more examples which illustrate the “fine tuning” of our universe. The psalmist declared, “How many are your works, Lord! In wisdom you made them all…” (Psalm104:24a)

Wayne Grudem, in his book on theology, writes, “God’s wisdom means that God always chooses the right goals and the best means to those goals.” What this means for us personally is that God always acts wisely on our behalf.

We can come up with a long list of how we wish events in our lives and those we love would have unfolded differently. Looking back on my own life of over 70 years I can easily come up with such a list for myself.

It’s at this point, bewildered by how God has allowed or caused circumstances to unfold in a way not to our liking, that we have to make a conscious decision to trust in God’s wisdom. I like how A. W. Tozer puts it in his book, The Knowledge of the Holy. “The testimony of faith is that, no matter how things look in this fallen world, all God’s acts are wrought in perfect wisdom.” Yes, in this wild and whacky world we can do no better than to focus on the wisdom of God, that He is making wise use of all that’s going on, that it will be ultimately for good, including our good!

“Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!” (Romans 11:33)

God All Knowing!

Kimmy with the sparrow

Our granddaughter Kimmy came to me with a small sparrow nestled in a piece of cloth. She had found it on the ground, beneath the nest out of which it had fallen. I found a ladder and replaced the baby bird that had left its nest prematurely. I hope it stayed put until old enough to fly from the nest instead of falling from it!

The little bird’s fall reminded me of Jesus’ statement that a sparrow does not fall without God noticing. Kimmy saw the fallen sparrow, but so did God, who also sees everything else and knows everything about everything.

Because we are more important to God than sparrows (we are made in His image, they are not) we can rest assured that God always has His eye on us and that we are always on His mind. I know, there are over 7 billion people in the world, so how can each of us be the center of God’s attention?

The fact is, God knows where every subatomic particle is at every nanosecond in every atom in the cosmos. Certainly God has no trouble keeping track of a few billion people. He’s the ultimate at multitasking! A. W. Pink writes, “For an infinite Mind is as capable of paying the same attention to millions of people as if we were the only human being on planet earth.”

The reality that God knows everything about us should both convict and comfort us. It should convict us in the sense that God sees the wrong, the sin, that we think we keep hidden from everyone. God sees what we do behind closed doors, what we view on a smartphone, tablet, or computer when no one is looking over our shoulder, what we’re thinking, and our true motives when even we don’t know what’s motivating us. This amazing truth of God knowing everything should prompt us to repent and to seek His help in sinning no more.

But the reality that God knows everything can also be a great comfort. He understands us better than anyone else does, better than we understand ourselves! We are not alone with our hurt, our fears, our depression, our discouragement. He totally understands; He’s the ultimate counselor!

I was reminded that God sees all and knows all, that He’s omniscient. I was reminded because a little bird told me!

“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” Matthew 10:29-31

God All Places Present!

My wife Diann and I have two homes, one in Florida to be near our son and his family and one in Mexico to be near our daughter and her family. We divide our year fairly equally between our two homes. It’s great to live near both of our children and their children, but we can only be one place at a time. Events take place with each of the families that we have to miss while we’re living near the other family. We’ve managed to establish two homes to be near both the children and their families, but we haven’t managed to be at both places at the same time!

One of the limitations we all face all the time is that we can only be one place at a time. An amazing attribute of God is that He does not have this limitation. God is all places present at the same time! The fancy theological word for this is that God is omnipresent.

Before God created the universe there was no space, and yet He existed. God exists outside of space and is not limited by it. God is present 13.4 billion light years from earth, sustaining the galaxies that are far, far away, and He is very much present with you right now as you read this!

The fact that God is everywhere present, including with you and me, makes it prudent for us to do what the ancient spiritual divine, Brother Lawrence, did – “practice the presence of God.” This means we never have to feel we’re alone, we just have to remember He’s with us, practice remembering His presence. It also means He is near those we love who we can’t be near at the time. When we pray for them God is with us to hear our prayers and at the same moment with our distant loved one to answer our prayer in accord with His good, wise will.

This wonderful truth of God being all places present, however, does not mean He is all places present in the same way. This is why we can be close to or far from God. He’s with everyone in the sense of sustaining their existence, like He does everything else that exists. But, relationally speaking, we can draw near to God, drift from God, or even run from Him.

The best approach is to realize God is all places present at the same time, including with you and me, and for us to make the most of it! Think about a person you really enjoy being with, and how things are not the same when they’re not around. God’s always around! Being aware of His constant presence and responding in a positive way to this truth makes every step part of a holy pilgrimage and every destination a holy place!

Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.” (Psalm 139:7-10)