Life After Sailing into the Sunset

In the closing scene of a good number of movies the hero sails off into the sunset with the beautiful woman he’s rescued. When the credits of the movie start to scroll I wonder what happens to them next? Do they get married? I hope so. A week into the marriage do they have to decide how to distribute the domestic duties, for instance, who buys the groceries, who does the laundry, and who cleans the bathroom?

Novels, TV shows, and movies have to have endings. However, life’s not a novel, a TV show, or a movie. Life goes on and on, day after day, week after week, year after year, until we die. There’s not the “and they lived happily ever after” ending to life as there is in fairy tales.

Life is so daily, and that increases the temptation to fantasize about an imaginary world where there’s constant excitement, adventure, romance, passion, epic battles that are won, and happy endings. Add to this daily routine the challenges of far from ideal events intruding on many of those days, and we can become even more discontented with the daily grind. What are we to do?

Jesus teaches us in His Lord’s Prayer to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.” He’s not talking about just food but the essential things we need to get through each day. We can embrace each day, one day at a time, when we seek to walk with God each day, one day at a time, even when the days are difficult. Stephanie Whitson wrote on her facebook page of the influence of missionary/writer Elizabeth Elliot on her life. “When I was facing widowhood, the simplicity of her “Do the next thing” got me through many a dark day.”

Yes, so many of our days are routine, often with a significant measure of difficulty to make them extra challenging. But so much of our lives are made up of these kinds of days that if we don’t embrace them, seeking to discover God’s presence and working in them, we’re going to miss most of what this God-given life can offer!

One time Jesus healed a man along the shore of the Sea of Galilee. When Jesus and His disciples were getting back into their boat the healed man asked to go with them. No wonder! He now thought the world of Jesus and wanted to be with Him. And it wasn’t going to be easy living down his reputation in his home town area of having been a wild and crazy man. But Jesus told him to stay and live out his life where he was. He did and he brought great honor to Jesus.

Living out each of our days where God has called us can be good. It’s the best way for us to write our own story!

“As Jesus was getting into the boat, the man who had been demon-possessed begged to go with him. Jesus did not let him, but said, ‘Go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you and how he has had mercy on you.'” Mark 5:18-19

Small Object, Big Shadow

Actual beetle I saw, and photographed.

I saw a beetle crawling across my path. The sun was just up, to the beetle’s back, casting a long shadow in front of him, about two of the beetle’s body lengths. He was a good sized beetle as beetles go, but still a small object; I could have inadvertently stepped on him. We think of shadows being cast by big objects like clouds, trees, and buildings, but comparatively speaking, here was a big shadow being cast by a bug.

You can’t have a shadow without light. Light also happens to be a very important metaphor in the Bible. God is described as brilliant light. Jesus called Himself the light of the world and invited His listeners to walk in His light. We, too, are invited to draw near to the light of God, walk in His light, and in the light of His Word.

Back to the little object of a beetle casting a shadow bigger than himself. It’s all because of the angle of light in which he basks.

Shadows, of course, have no substance, no weight, no texture, and are one dimensional. They come and go and shift location with the movement of the light that casts them. Yet they can be helpful. Then we give them another name, shade, a good place to stand when it’s hot and sunny.

Here’s the life-principle I’m finding in all of this. No matter how small, insignificant, or unimportant we sometimes feel, when we draw near to God, the light of His presence means we cast a larger shadow of influence than we ever thought possible. We’re not big and important in and of ourselves, but the light of His presence makes us so!

Life is tough; all people in one way or another find themselves in a hot, dry, and thirsty land. Some of these folks are within our sphere of influence. When we walk close to God it’s as if His light casts a large portion of shade from us that can provide rest, comfort, and renewal for them. When we are blessed by God’s presence we can then be a blessing to others!

“Blessed are those who have learned to acclaim you, who walk in the light of your presence, Lord.” Psalm 89:15

Slow U-Turn

Actual slug I photographed

I saw a slug on the sidewalk. He had slowly, ever so slowly, started his trek across the concrete divide between green grass and green grass. Why did the slug cross the sidewalk? Okay, I digress; I’ll file that question away under “C” for chicken and the question as to why it crossed the road.

This slug decided, for whatever reason, midway across the sidewalk, to go back from whence he came. I pulled out my smart phone, got down on my knees and elbows on the sidewalk and took a picture of the slug making his U-turn.

If anybody had been walking by they’d wonder about an old guy on his knees and elbows taking a picture of a slug. But I had my reason. The slug’s body language certainly communicated he was making a U-turn, his slimy body being pretty much in the shape of the letter U. Of course his turning around was slow like everything else a slug does, and that is what got me to thinking. It got me to thinking that the slug is not the only one who’s slow at making U-turns!

U-turns are part of any authentic spiritual journey. Following God often involves a turning from the direction we are going or want to go and yielding to God’s different direction for us. The word the Bible uses for such a personal U-turn is the word repent. Jesus is recorded in the Gospel of Luke of having spoken of repentance a dozen times, so it’s not a concept we should take lightly.

The word “repent” strikes most of us as a negative word, but it’s not; it’s really a very positive concept! I recall discovering on a trip that I was going the wrong way on the interstate. Yes, I was frustrated. However, I knew the only proper recourse was to get off at the next exit and turn around. It took some time to get to that next exit and make the U-turn, but I had to do it and I did. The frustration of going the wrong way finally dissipated as I continued putting on miles in the right direction. Making a U-turn when we’re going the wrong way and repenting when we’re headed the wrong direction: both eventually lead us to a better place.

Changing direction from what we want and moving in the direction of what God wants is rarely instantaneous. Bad habits don’t often break quickly or easily, nor do addictions usually give up their hold without a fight. We’ll need to constantly count on God’s help, be open to the help of others, and determine to keep turning. I’m glad I came upon the slug on the sidewalk making his slow U-turn, because he got me to thinking about this.

“Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord.” Acts 3:19

Beyond a “Selfie” Mindset

A selfie we took while visiting several national parks out west

Visiting several national parks a few years ago, including the Grand Canyon, I took lots of pictures. Others were doing the same. What I noticed was that a great many people were getting in the way of their own pictures! They were taking “selfies” as they’ve come to be called. The idea is that you find a beautiful scene, turn your back to the scene, stretch out your hand that holds your camera, focus the camera on yourself with a bit of the background visible behind you and take the picture.

Yes, my wife and I also took a few pictures with ourselves in the scene. You want a few record shots giving proof that you were there.

But these days selfies seem to be the norm rather than the exception. For most of my life I’ve been a serious photographer and never really thought about photo bombing my own pictures. In fact, I don’t recall people getting in the way of their own picture taking until recently. This made me curious. When did the idea of the selfie come about? Quick research revealed that the word “selfie” was designated the word of the year by the Oxford Dictionaries in 2013. In 2014 Time Magazine named the selfie stick one of the top inventions of the year. So it turns out the selfie is a recent development.

What does that say about us? What does it say about us when we want to be the main subject in a photo of the Grand Canyon?

Actually, I’m not surprised by the popularity of the selfie. Having been a life-long student of the Bible, a pastor for 40 years, and attempting to see myself honestly, I know that it’s part of our sinful human nature to be self-centered.

Even though you and I may not take many selfies, that doesn’t mean we don’t put the focus on ourselves. Want proof? When we view a group photo of which we’re a part, who’s the first person we look for in the photo? No, we may not shoot many selfies, but whatever circumstances frame our day we tend to put our self front and center in the picture.

Ironically, and this I also know from a life-long study of the Bible, from pastoring, and from personal experience, life is most fulfilling when we keep the focus off ourselves and on God and the people He’s put around us. Tim Keller gives good advice on this subject, “I stop connecting every experience, every conversation, with myself. In fact, I stop thinking about myself. The freedom of self-forgetfulness.” (The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness)

Let’s get out of our own way! Picture life as something other than a selfie!

“Let each of you look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.” Philippians 2:4

The Right Tool

My new lopper tool

I had a lot of branches to trim, including palm fronds from a couple of small palm trees. I’d tried using a saw, but it was a lot of work. “I need the right tool,” I told my wife, Diann. She’s a good wife, never arguing with me as to whether or not I really need a certain tool when I say I do. Working in my favor is that I do try to be conservative in the tool acquisition department. After all, when you buy a tool you’re buying yourself some work!

I headed to my favorite big box store and found what I needed. I’ll be honest with you, I didn’t know it was called a lopper. I guess that’s because you can lop off large branches with it. It’s similar in function to hand-held pruning shears, except it is much bigger and has two long handles you grasp and push together so you have lots of leverage and can slice through a thick branch.

Wow! Did it work! I showed my wife the pile of branches on the ground I had lopped off in a short period of time. I told her, “I just needed the right tool.” I said this to reinforce the concept, so the next time I have to bring up the subject she’ll be accommodating.

It’s true, of course, I am not making this up just to get more tools; the right tool makes all the difference. Tools are designed for certain tasks, and that’s why they make those tasks easier and more efficient.

Use a substitute tool, a tool not designed for the task at hand, and you run into trouble. In fact, when I do so I sometimes run into trouble with my wife. Case in point, I’ve learned NOT to grab a table knife when what I need is a screwdriver.

One of the great truths of how God works with us in life is that we’re to be like a tool in His hands. Because He’s God and always smart and wise, He’s designed each of us to be exactly the type of tool He wants to use specifically in the set of life’s circumstances in which we find ourselves.

This means, of course, that we can’t do everything we want to do, can’t do everything others can do, and can’t be an expert and talented at everything. Each of us is uniquely made and has a unique calling from God.

The key is to believe we’re made by God for the purposes for which He’s called us, for the set of life’s circumstances we’re having to face. Then we’re to yield to Him, to let Him get His hands on us so He can use us for His good and His glory. It’s the way to finding the greatest peace, fulfillment, and satisfaction in life!

“Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from what is dishonorable, he will be a vessel for honorable use, set apart as holy, useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work.” 2 Timothy 2:21 (ESV)

A Theology from Cut Hair

Barber pole in front of a barber shop in Mexico

My hair turned gray quite a few years ago. Genetics has blessed me with a full head of it. I’ve heard it said that God only created so many perfect heads among men, and the rest He covered with hair. This idea is nowhere to be found in the Bible; some hair-impaired guy probably made this up!

I get about half of my hair cuts in Mexico, where we live part of the time to be near our daughter and her family. My cut hair, gray as it is, stands in stark contrast to the majority of black hair on the Mexican barber’s floor.

Over the past months I’ve washed, combed, and sprayed that hair numerous times, the hair that ended up on the barber’s floor. Previously, the cut hair was a growing part of my appearance for months, but I unceremoniously walk out of the barber shop, leaving that hairy part of me behind for good and move on with my day.

Eventually our entire bodies go the way of the hair on our heads. Nothing of our bodies lasts forever. As a pastor I’ve led hundreds of graveside services where tearful goodbyes are said to a loved one as we commit the person’s body to the earth.

I don’t want to get morbid here, just the opposite. I believe God wants us to keep a hopeful perspective on these fleshly bodies we temporarily inhabit while here on earth.

One of the points I’ve made at all the funeral and memorial services I’ve conducted is that God’s plan for our existence isn’t to be limited to the years we spend on earth in these physical bodies. His Good News, the Gospel, is that we can live forever with Him. For the person who wishes to spend forever with God and accepts God’s free offer to do so, the death of the physical body isn’t the end.

Here’s how I look at it. When I finish my haircut I walk out of the barber shop, leave the clippings behind and go on to what’s next for me. When I die I’ll leave behind this body and go on to what’s next for me!

“For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands.”  2 Corinthians 5:1

Ask for Help and Give Away Banana Bread

Photo by Anfal Shamsudeen on Unsplash

Rudy Holloman was a senior member of the church I served in Toledo, Ohio. He was a widower, lived alone, and was legally blind. His family was supportive and helpful, but there were times when they weren’t available to take Rudy to church or a doctor’s appointment. This is where his church family came in.

To Rudy’s credit he wasn’t afraid to ask for a ride from those in his church. As far as I know, Rudy remained quite mobile, because people rarely turned down his request for a ride; he got to where he had to go, and even where he wanted to go. They loved taking Rudy places, because Rudy was a fun person to be around! He was joyful, humorous, and he always gave a freshly baked loaf of banana bread as a thank you gift to those who took him places.

So often we’re frustrated when we need to ask for help and hesitant to do so. It’s usually easier for us to give help than to receive help!

We don’t want to ask for help, because we don’t want to be a burden. But, ironically, we actually add to the burden on the person helping us by being so apologetic or depressed about needing help that we’re no fun at all to be around. We can even go so far as being short tempered around our helper. That’s when we become a real burden, the very thing we don’t want to be!

We need to straighten out our thinking on this. If it’s more blessed to give than to receive, as Jesus said, then we sometimes need to let others give to us and help us so they can be blessed!

Sure, it’s humbling to ask for help and to be helped. Bingo! Guess what attribute God wants us to develop? Humility! It’s part of God’s divine plan that we let ourselves be helped as well as being a helper.

Yes, it’s important to serve and help others joyfully. However, equally important is to joyfully let others help and serve us! That’s the lesson I learned from Rudy Holloman, who asked for help and gave away banana bread!

The apostle Paul, grateful for the financial help of the Christians at Philippi, wrote, “Yet it was kind of you to share my trouble.” Philippians 4:14

“You Got Caught!”

Fulton J. Sheen

The late Archbishop Fulton Sheen was visiting a maximum-security prison. In his message to the inmates he stated, “The only difference between you and me is that you got caught.”

This must have startled the criminal crowd, the Archbishop standing before them, putting himself in the same league with them. The message he conveyed is one of the key concepts anyone seeking to be a Christian, a follower of Christ, has to adopt: we’re all sinful people in need of God’s forgiveness and restoration.

The tendency for us, however, is to soften this reality by comparing ourselves to those who we believe have acted far more badly than we have. We’re selective in this comparison game, careful to identify real scoundrels with which to compare ourselves.

The problem with this approach is that it denies us a meaningful and dynamic relationship with God and healthy relationships with others. The right course of action is to move from prideful self-deception to a humble awareness of our true condition.

Much of popular thinking, including much self-help literature, tells us we’re inherently good. It’s not true; our natural tendency is to be selfish and want our own way at the expense of others. The good news is that we can have the boldness to ‘fess up to our own sinful nature and actions because we’re guaranteed God will forgive us. There’s no risk in confessing to God; His gracious nature means He’s willing to forgive.

I remember when our son was a little boy. When he did something wrong he would resist confessing his wrongdoing. He would be in a fowl mood, was cool toward me and his mother, and life with his sister didn’t go very well either. After some time he would eventually admit his wrongdoing, sometimes with gentle and loving coaching from his parents. There was sometimes a form of punishment, but there was also forgiveness on the part of his mother and me. Having been freshly forgiven, he was in an exuberant and joyful mood, willing to relate to his parents again, go about his play with delight, and even enjoy playtime with his older sister.

It seems counter-intuitive, but the way to experience life in its fullness is to admit to our own sinfulness. We’re then in a position to let God carry out His wonderful plan of forgiveness and restoration!

“If we confess our sins he [God] is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” 1 John 1:9

What’s Really Valuable in Life

I’m reading the classic novel Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe, the story about a man who is shipwrecked alone on an island for years. After he’s washed ashore and recuperated, he builds a raft to go back out to the shipwreck that’s stuck on a sandbar to rescue what he can from the ship to help him survive.

In his journal he writes, “And it was after long searching that I found out the carpenter’s chest, which was, indeed, a very useful prize to me, and much more valuable than a shipload of gold would have been at the time.”

He makes sense, of course. What good would a boatload of gold do if you were marooned on a deserted island? Far more valuable would be a carpenter’s chest filled with all kinds of useful tools. If he were back in civilization he would likely opt for the gold. Given his present circumstances the chest of tools is far more valuable. It all depends on how you view your current situation.

What do we consider most valuable? It all depends on how we view our current situation. If this life is all there is then you could reasonably be expected to focus on grabbing all the gusto you can in the here and now, wealth, pleasures, personal experiences. You could even convince yourself to do this at the expense of the happiness of others, because a hundred years from now it wouldn’t matter to anyone presently alive.

On the other hand, if there’s more to life than this life then that reality should impact how we view what we consider important in the here and now. The here and now should take a back seat to the there and then.

We try to teach children the benefit of delayed gratification, to do the sacrificial now, for a greater benefit later on. Financial advisers encourage us to sacrifice, save and invest now for a greater return later on. Isn’t the ultimately wise perspective, then, one that has us live to reap the benefits a thousand years from now, and beyond, instead of what will benefit us during this short sojourn on earth?

Robinson Crusoe embraced a realistic perspective of his situation and went for the tools, forsaking the gold. The argument can be made that the realistic perspective for us in this life is to embrace the eternal perspective, going for God and not the material. This life will soon be past. Only what’s done for God 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

The Keys of Life

The keys referenced in this blog post

We have a container full of useless keys. Usually you lose a key that you need to unlock something; the contents of this container represent the opposite of that. These keys go with lost objects, sold objects, worn out objects, all of which we no longer possess. There are car keys, house keys, padlock keys, and many keys I have no idea what kind of possession we had that they unlocked. I’m not sure why we’ve kept them and keep adding to them, other than the fact that it goes against one’s nature to throw a key in the trash.

It got me to thinking about the current keys on my key ring. Because I’m retired it consists only of a key to our Jeep, a house key, and keys to our camper trailer, not like my days as a pastor when my pocket jingled with the responsibility of a number of church facility keys and keys to a second vehicle we had back then. It’s a sobering thought to realize that in the not too distant future the Jeep will be in the auto graveyard, its key useless. The camper keys will be in the pocket of a younger generation of campers seated around a campfire. The house key will belong to someone else, because Diann and I will have taken up residence in heaven.

I realize that all these keys I’ve described, both those in the container and the ones in my pocket, are the keys of life, letting me, but no one else, gain access to the things I temporarily own. I may not have lost the keys, but I’ve lost most of what they unlock. Though they may be the keys of my life, I’ve determined that they are not to be the key to my life!

The key to my life is not something of material value: all of that stuff wears out, rusts through, breaks down or breaks up, gets lost, is stolen, or I simply lose interest in it. The key to my life is not a concept or a principle, though there are many good concepts and principles by which to live; they unlock a part of life, sort of, but not all of life.

The key to unlocking everything is God, God come to us, God with us, God for us, God our hope, God getting very personal in Jesus. He’s my key to life.

God is the key to unlocking a purpose for living, because He made me for His purposes. God is the key to the doorway to peace, because there is nothing better than being on good terms with Him. God is the key to finding joy, because He is the Ultimate Being and delights in me. God is the key to holding on to hope, because He ultimately has only good in store for me. In summary, God is the key to everything, because He rules over everything! My container of keys and the keys in my pocket remind me that there are many keys in life, but I’m convinced there’s only one key to life and God is it!

“He [the Lord] will be the sure foundation for your times, a rich store of salvation and wisdom and knowledge; the fear of the Lord is the key to this treasure.”  Isaiah 33:6