The Focus of Faith

Someone posted a black and white image on facebook that looks like an ink blot. Stare at it, though, for 30 seconds, then look up at the ceiling or at a plain wall and you see the face of Jesus! Okay, I know we don’t know what Jesus looked like, but the image represents a traditional portrayal of Him.

The ink blot, turned to image of Jesus, reminded me that what we fixate on often leaves a lasting impression. Such impressions can influence our thinking, speech, and behavior. Even when we’re not focusing on what habitually has our attention we can still be influenced by it.

We sometimes tell ourselves that what we look at or listen to, especially if it isn’t of a positive nature, doesn’t really have a significant negative impact on us. We lie to ourselves!

Every day we face numerous choices of input from television, radio, the internet, books, the movies, magazines, billboards, and other manifestations of mass media all around us. We can choose to continue receiving that input or turn it off or turn away from it. Obviously, this includes that which is immoral, but it can also include that which isn’t bad but isn’t the best for us to be focusing on. For instance, if I have no good reason to buy a new car, then I shouldn’t be looking at car ads or stopping by car showrooms; I’m wasting time and I’m tempting myself.

There are a lot of good things to focus on, but the ink blot turned to the image of Jesus is a good reminder of what I should seek to focus on most of all. I don’t need a specially designed ink blot to always keep God in the forefront of my thinking! Better than looking at a Jesus-like ink blot is to look at God’s beautiful creation, look at the inspiring good actions of others, look at God’s Word, and look at Him by consciously trying to think about Him very often, even several times an hour.

Looking at the ink blot that helps me see an image of Jesus is interesting. What’s really helpful, however, is to keep a faith fixated on Him at all times in all places and in every way!

“Turn my eyes from looking at worthless things; and give me life in your ways.” Psalm 119:37

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Sowing and Reaping

We have a paper-mache sculpture in our living room of a Mexican farmer holding a basket brimming full with grain. I can’t decide if the farmer is going to sow the seed or if he has just harvested the seed. Farmers do both.

At first I was dissatisfied with not knowing whether the farmer sculpture represented sowing or harvesting. I’ve since come to a peace about not knowing. Depending on how I feel on a given day, or even hour, I can take it whichever way I find most helpful to me at the time. Sometimes I need to be motivated to sow the seed of something good; at other times I need to be thankful for something good that’s come my way. Gumption to sow or gratitude in reaping, I need both in my life.

In fact, I usually need to be sowing and reaping at the same time. There are some areas of my life, we could call them fields, where I need to be sowing something good in what seems to be a barren landscape, those areas of life where not much good, if any, seems to be happening. Usually, if I look carefully, I can see an area, another field of my experience, where there is something good that can fill a basket of gratitude. I may not be seeing results in a certain facet of my life, and so I need to persevere at planting something good while at the same time I can see I’m harvesting the blessings of encouragement from someone close to me or seeing some positive results in another area of my life.

Yes, I like my statue of a Mexican farmer who is sowing, or is he reaping? His silent words are loudly spoken; I need to be always sowing in hope and reaping with gratitude!

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: … a time to plant and a time to pluck up what is planted…” Ecclesiastess 3:1 & 2b

What a Little Bird Revealed To Me

It was a sunny warm morning as I paused on my walk to sit on a rock to rest. The farmland on both sides of the path was parched for it was the dry season in Mexico. But there in the middle of the brown grasses, weeds, and corn stalks was a bright spot of red capping the head of an otherwise brown bird. If it were not for the red cap on his head the otherwise drab looking bird would have blended in perfectly with the equally drab looking landscape, and would have remained unseen by me, drabness camouflaged in drabness.

I’m sure the bird had no idea he was adding a splash of color to a brown world; he couldn’t see the red feathers his genetics had put upon his head. Even if he were to glance in a mirror his birdbrain would not be able to reflect on how he added color and beauty wherever he perched. Then I heard the song of another nearby bird, adding beautiful audio to the already beautiful visual scene. Again, I reflected, the singing bird was protecting its territory or attempting to attract a mate, motivated by instinct, and likely not at all aware of the beautiful melody of its song.

God’s creatures express amazing and beautiful characteristics, but they do so unknowingly. We humans, on the other hand, also creatures of God’s making, are different! We can bring beauty and good to the world and glory to God, and we do so by choice! For us, this does not happen instinctively, at least not most of the time. In fact, being born with a fallen and sinful nature, we instinctively act selfishly and in wrong ways more often than we would care to admit!

Yes, we have the God-given ability to choose to do that which is good and beautiful! There is drabness all around and a drought of good, but you and I can be, by the grace of God, a bright spot in it all, going about doing good! That’s what a little bird with a red cap taught me!

“He went about doing good…” (The apostle Peter speaking of Jesus, Acts 10:38)

While We Wait

I write this as my wife Diann and I spend hours each day sitting in a hospital room where Diann’s mother is being treated for an infected leg. We spend a lot of time doing much of nothing. We sit and watch her mother doze in her hospital bed or, for variety, doze in the recliner beside her bed. When she wakens we talk, though she’s short of breath so these are not extended conversations.

I take a break and roam the hospital halls. I read. I write (including this piece). I go back to my mother-in-law’s room and sit again. We take a break and get lunch or dinner, then back to her hospital room to sit some more.

By most ways of measuring productivity we’re not scoring very high. Any “to do” list has been scrapped for the time being. Our main purpose is to simply be here, to be with Diann’s mother, the work of being present. It is the work of waiting, waiting for my mother-in-law’s leg to heal some more, waiting for her to regain some strength, waiting for whatever is to be.

I’ve come to believe, from both personal experience and from the study of God’s Word, that waiting is one of God’s most effective methods for getting us to be more like Him and to more likely do His will. In what ways, you ask?

First, waiting drives us deeper into a humble and profound dependence on Him. We wait for Him to act. The busyness of unbelief, going into action ourselves because we believe God is not, has been forcibly taken from us. Waiting either drives us toward increasing frustration or deepening faith, the choice is ours. And so in our waiting God also waits, on us, to yield to waiting on Him.

Second, waiting almost always gives us opportunity to draw nearer to others who are in the waiting room of the experience with us. Maybe they wait with us, maybe we wait on them to get better or to change. How well we wait usually impacts those around us. Waiting during those times when we don’t see much of anything happening is intended by God to have positive things happen with those relationships.

Waiting, ironically, can be hard work! However, God will be with us in our waiting and will work in our waiting for it to be for the good. Just wait and see!

“Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord.” Psalm 27:14

Tourist or Citizen of the Best Kingdom Ever?

No, I did not run over this man! He’s changing oil in my car along the street in Mexico.

When I mention to someone that we live part of the year in Mexico the frequent response is, “Oh, I’ve been to Mexico.” I usually respond something to the effect, “Oh, really? Where in Mexico?” Almost always they list one of the proverbial touristy areas of Mexico. While smiling and being civil on the outside, inwardly I’m thinking, “No, you’ve really not ‘been’ to Mexico, you’ve not experienced the real Mexico. You’ve experienced a Mexican resort.”

Tourists relate to Mexicans who are familiar with Americans, who know at least a little English, and whose job it is to give tourists a good time and/or sell them souvenirs. It’s a very limited and narrow way of experiencing Mexico; living in Mexico is something entirely different! Really, experiencing Mexico means shopping in a Truper hardware store, grocery shopping at a tianguis (an outdoor market), buying a car in Mexico the speedometer of which measures your speed in kilometers per hour and not miles per hour, getting your car’s oil changed on the street, and building a house with a contractor who doesn’t speak English. Yes, there’s a big difference between being a tourist in a country and being a resident!

My wife and I divide our time between living in Mexico (to be near our daughter and her family) and in Florida (to be near our son and his family). But we also live in a third country, full-time, (to be near God). It’s a country without borders, a country not of this world. Jesus talked a lot about this country, it’s called the Kingdom of God or the Kingdom of Heaven, where God is the king, the ruler. When it comes to His kingdom we can sign either citizenship papers or a tourist visa.

A tourist approach to experiencing God’s kingdom means we want to experience the highlights of God – a few inspiring worship services, especially around the holidays, answers to occasional desperate prayers, and comfort from Him in those times when we’re at our whit’s end. Our citizenship is with the Kingdom of Selfdom, where we can live our own way, ruled by King Self or Queen Self.

On the other hand, being a citizen of God’s Kingdom means we put Him in charge; He’s on the throne of our life. We yield to His wishes instead of to our whims, allowing Him to dominate everything we think, say, and do. This all seems very sacrificial, and it is, but there are also tremendous benefits to being part of His kingdom! We experience a growing personal relationship with the King of the universe Himself and have the satisfaction of living an ultimately purposeful life with access to such highly desired benefits from Him as peace, joy, and love.

“Your kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Jesus, in His “Lord’s Prayer”

A Little Kindness in a Garbage Can

Sometimes you find expressions of kindness in the strangest places, even in a garbage can, as I did! I was taking my morning walk near our home in Brandon, Florida. It was garbage day so I passed many a garbage can. Some were yard waste containers and were to be picked up by a separate city truck crew. One such yard waste container caught my eye as I walked past. It had a cardboard sign propped on top of the branches with the scrawled words, “Caution…Thorns.”

I stopped and gazed at the can in amazement, then took a picture with my cell phone to capture the act of kindness. The homeowner had taken the time to tear off a flap from a cardboard box, find a marker, and write the warning for the garbage collectors. I wonder how the garbage collectors reacted? I hope they appreciated the gesture, that someone cared enough that they not get stuck by a thorn.

This little kindness expressed in the garbage can got me to thinking about how little kindnesses can, and should, pop up all over the place, and how they’re such an important part of relationships at home, at work, at church, or at play. It seems to me that it’s often easy to do the right thing when it’s a big thing, a huge deal, a real crisis, or a great opportunity. People are watching, or they’ll find out through someone who is. The seriousness of the situation puts us on alert. We’d have to be really clueless to miss the opportunity to do the right thing. On the other hand, it’s the small thing, the seemingly inconsequential situation, the mini opportunity that’s gone in a flash, or that ordinary moment when no one’s paying much attention that tests the kind of person we really are.

Life is made up of just a few watershed moments that are epic in nature but is crammed full of ordinary moments. Many of these ordinary moments are shared with other people – a mate, family members, friends, co-workers, and a host of people we briefly meet in passing. Each such “ordinary” moment is an opportunity to extend a little kindness.

Life is a thorny endeavor. Everyone needs to be shown a little kindness. That’s the reminder I was given by the sign in the garbage can.

“Whoever pursues righteousness and kindness will find life, righteousness and honor.” Proverbs 21:21

The Power of Words

Former President Carter, age 93 as of this writing, is the longest living president after leaving the White House. Regardless of political opinions regarding Jimmy Carter, there can be no doubt that he has done a world of good since losing his bid for a second term as president.

After his presidency he was facing “an altogether new, unwanted and potentially empty life,” as he put it. While awake in the middle of the night he had the revelation that his presidential library could serve as a center for conflict resolution. The Carter Center has become world renowned as a source of hope for many developing countries. Conquering diseases has become a major focus. The Guinea worm disease afflicted 3.5 million people in 1986. The Carter Center, working with other organizations, has made the disease almost non-existent with only 30 documented cases. The Carter Center has also helped resolve disputes around the world. Jimmy Carter has also been highly involved in Habitat for Humanity with his yearly Carter Work projects which often have him swinging a hammer, helping to build the houses. He’s also authored 31 books and still teaches an adult Sunday School class at his Plains, Georgia, church. He was the first president to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Carter credits a high school teacher of his, Julia Coleman, who gave him a piece of advice that he quoted in his presidential inaugural address and which has guided him all these many years since. “We must adjust to changing times and still hold to unchanging principles.”

Julia Coleman had no idea the impact and influence her words would have, particularly on a kid named Jimmy! The same is true for us; we can’t know the impact our words might have on others!

I recall the encouraging words of a college professor’s assistant, a gal probably only three years older than myself. It was a speech class, I had just delivered mine, and she critiqued it. I don’t remember the speech or anything of the critique except for her words, “I felt like you were talking just to me.” Those words have echoed through my 40 years of preaching and teaching. I’m not sure how many other people who’ve listened to me would say the same, but I do know I have sought to preach and teach so that they might. This teaching assistant has no idea how she influenced me!

Words are incredibly powerful; they can ruin or make a day. What a difference words can make!

Unless you’re reading this just before bedtime, there’s a good chance you’ll have an opportunity to say a nice word, an encouraging word, a word of affirmation, thanks, or praise to someone within the hour. It may be through a phone conversation, someone walking through the door, you walking up to someone, a text, or an e-mail. What an opportunity we have to make life better for someone else, and for us too!

A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver.” Proverbs 25:11

What Zoo Animals Don’t Know

Zoo animals are, as far as we can tell, clueless about being in a zoo. They go about eating, sleeping, pacing back and forth, pro-creating, grooming, etc., with no awareness that they are part of a big enterprise called a zoo where people pay to come and view them, delight in them, be educated about them, and be amazed by them. Their view is so narrow and limited; they don’t see the big picture.

Are we humans viewing our own lives in a similar fashion? We go about eating, sleeping, going here and there, working, grooming, pro-creating, entertaining ourselves, etc., but do we see that life is much bigger than this?

There are two fundamental ways of looking at life. We can take a naturalistic view that existence consists of what we can experience with our five senses, that there’s no spirit world, no God, and no life after this life. The other view is that everything that exists is here on purpose, by design, by a creator/sustainer and that He, God, has His grand purpose for it all.

Both views are a statement of belief, a step of faith. Many of us hold to the latter view, that there is more going on in this universe than meets the eye or can be known by the other four senses. But even though we believe there’s a grand scheme to things, we can still live each day as if we don’t really believe it! Like the zoo animals we, too, can take a zootopian view, failing to act in a way that takes into account God’s grand scheme He’s unfolding.

For me, it helps to keep asking some probing questions as I go through each day. “God, what are you trying to show me or teach me through this?” “Lord, help me handle this situation in a way that will fulfill your purposes for me.”

Zoo animals have no clue how they play a part in making the zoological gardens a wonderful place. We, unlike them, don’t have to go through life being clueless. When we realize that God has a great plan for us that’s a part of His grand scheme of things, then life becomes the rich experience He meant it to be!

“But, as it is written, What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God.” (1 Corinthians 2:9-10)

Enjoying God Most of All

A boy was asked by his Sunday School teacher, “What has a shell, moves slowly, and lives in ponds?”

The boy answered, “I want to say turtle, but we’re in Sunday School so the answer must be Jesus.”

If you’ve been reading my writings for awhile then you know what the right answer is when I ask the question, “What should be the greatest source of satisfaction in life?”

Yes, you’re right. God is the answer. What I’ve discovered, however, is that knowing the right answer is one thing, but applying that right answer is often quite another.

We know how to eat healthy, but we don’t necessarily do so. We know some ways on how to handle our money in a responsible way, but we don’t always carry through on implementing those principles. Similarly, we may know that our greatest satisfaction in life should be God, but that doesn’t necessarily make it so.

We can find great satisfaction in many ways: good food, making money, spending money, sports, movies, friends, gardening, hunting, boating, crocheting, family, career advancement, travel, and countless other ways. These can be good, especially when we’re grateful to God for them. They can be good, but they aren’t to be the best!

I’m reading a book by Wayne Grudem in which he states of God, To be in his presence, to enjoy fellowship with him, is a greater blessing than anything that can be imagined.” (Systematic Theology, p. 441) When you really stop and think about it, how can we view God as boring or irrelevant? He is, by very definition, infinitely powerful, wise, loving, beautiful, and a host of other infinite attributes. What could be more amazing and awesome than God?

I’ve determined to be intentional about thinking of God a lot every day, reaching out to Him in prayer many times throughout each day, and depending upon His help and direction every step of the way. Yes, I want to enjoy the good things life can offer, but my goal is to delight in God most of all. You too?

You make known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.” (Psalm 16:11) “Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you.(Psalm 73:25)

I Am the Washing Machine Repairman, Sort of

The agitator on our washing machine was broken, which really agitated me. One part was supposed to swish both ways and one part was to swish one way. The one-way swishing part wasn’t swishing. I am no washing machine repairman, but I was determined to give it a try rather than pay a pro many dollars to fix it.

I did what any self-respecting man does when the decision is made to fix something yourself; I went to YouTube on the internet to watch videos of how it should be done. I was shocked to see how popular videos about washing machine agitators are! Two videos had a quarter of a million views each, and another had a million views!

I went to an appliance supply store and bought the $3.50 replacement parts. I then positioned my laptop on the dryer next to the washer and watched and re-watched and re-watched again the videos. My wife Diann assisted me, with a few more suggestions than I felt were necessary; these kind of fix-it projects, when they become a couples’ project, can test a marriage. I can now report that both the washing machine and marriage are doing fine.

The repair project reminded me of the need to be humble enough to know you need help, in this case from some YouTube videos and, yes, from my wife too! If this is true concerning a broken washing machine, then how much more should it be true of our lives in general, which are also broken? We have brokenness all over the place: in our relationships with people and God, in our attitudes, in our bodies, in creation itself with hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes, droughts, floods, etc. with which we have to cope.

What we need are some good input and direction, and the ultimate source for that is, of course, God. Where to get God’s guidance? Yes, we can even get good Godly advice from YouTube, you just have to be discerning about who you watch and what they say. Teaching and preaching in churches is another good source, as is counsel from wise friends or family (discernment is needed when getting input from any human, for everyone is broken). Direct reading from God’s Word is undoubtedly the best place to go for input and direction. Asking God’s Holy Spirit to clue us in on what we should understand is another good angle to pursue.

It has been said that he who doctors himself has a fool for a patient. We move from foolishness to wisdom when we seek direction from outside ourselves. The best source for this is none other than God and all the avenues He offers us to access His input.

“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