Captain Sully, a Savior

On January 15, 2009, Captain “Sully” Sullenberger successfully landed US Airway flight 1549 in the Hudson River after a flock of geese disabled the aircraft, leaving it without power. All 155 of the crew and passengers survived, thanks to the skill of Captain Sullenberger.

A reunion of crew and passengers was held later at which there was loud applause as Captain Sullenberger and his crew entered the room filled with the passengers of flight 1549. There were many hugs and expressions of deep and profound gratitude for the crew, but especially for Captain Sullenberger. One woman exclaimed, “Thanks for saving my life.”

Those of us who have followed this story admire Captain Sullenberger, but not as much as those passengers and crew saved by his skillful landing of the plane on the Hudson. He is their savior, not ours.

This distinction helps clarify what, for me, is an authentic faith in God. I can believe in God’s existence, that He is all wise, powerful, and good. I can even believe He can be of help to me in life. This, however, is not enough for me to fully embrace a deeply profound relationship with Him. This requires that I am able to say to Him as the passenger did to Captain Sullenberger, “You saved my life.”

Jesus is my Captain Sullenberger, my “miracle on the Hudson” is the “miracle of the cross,” and I have been saved from something far more disastrous than a plane crash. I have been saved from that which would keep me forever from God (my own sin).

Like Captain Sully’s passengers I am overflowing with a deep and profound sense of gratitude toward my Savior. Such gratitude, I’ve discovered, is one of the most important aspects of a deep faith in God. It’s what gives me a deepening love for God, motivates me to serve Him, and gives me the hope of being with Him eternally in His heaven.

Captain Sullenberger told his crew and passengers at the reunion, “We will be joined forever because of January 15th in our hearts and in our minds.” They will never forget that day. I never want to forget that day some 2,000 plus years ago when Christ went to a cross for me so that I can be joined forever with Him. For that event I will be profoundly and eternally grateful!

“I will give you thanks, for you answered me; you have become my salvation.” (Psalm 118:21)

The Good Shepherd Is Near

I was taking my daily walk on the path I frequently use while living at Refuge Ranch in Mexico. It was the dry season, with little grass anywhere and most of the fields barren of any crops. Walking past a field I noticed a dozen or so sheep grazing on what little remained of last year’s crop.

It occurred to me that where there were sheep there would be a shepherd; with no fences to contain the sheep a shepherd had to be nearby. Sure enough, there, under the shade of a nearby tree, stood the shepherd watching over his flock. As I continued walking it occurred to me that there was an application in what I had just seen, but I had neglected to take a picture. My usual hiking route looped back this way so I was ready with my camera phone when I came alongside the field. The shepherd had moved out into the field making for an even better picture than when he was partially concealed under the tree, and that’s the photo that you see accompanying this photovotional.

The application? We may find ourselves in far from ideal circumstances. Within our field of vision all may appear barren of any significant blessings. Where is God? At such times He can seem so far, far away.

The Bible frequently refers to God’s people as sheep and to God as their shepherd, their Good Shepherd. Where there are sheep the shepherd is nearby – where God’s people are, the Good Shepherd is nearby! God wants to consider each one of us a precious sheep under His care. If we’re willing to let Him be our Good Shepherd, He will be, and He will always be near!

“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” (Psalm 23:1)

Painting a Door

I recently painted two doors in our home, but I have to confess I didn’t paint the top or bottom edges. The way I see it, no one ever sees those edges! To do the top edge I would have had to get a stepping stool; too much work. To do the bottom edge I would have had to remove the door; way too much work. Only the flies will see the top edge and only the crickets will see the bottom edge, and as far as I can tell they don’t have any aesthetic sense anyway.

I will admit I feel a bit guilty over the unpainted edges. I have a faint recollection of the famous painter/sculptor Michelangelo’s response to someone asking him why he was working so hard on a part of a painting or sculpture (don’t remember which) that no one would ever see. He is reported to have said, “I see it and God sees it.” Ouch!

Okay, so it doesn’t really matter if I paint the top and bottom edges of the doors or not. There are times, however, many times, when it is important to give attention to the hidden parts of life.

What we think and do when we we are reasonably certain no one will find out reveals our true nature and character. So, does it really matter? Certainly, and for a couple of reasons.

First of all, a lot which was to remain hidden, doesn’t! How many tragic headlines of a person’s moral failing started out as a thought or hidden set of actions by the person!

Secondly, as Michelangelo reportedly said, God sees it! Even though no one can read our thoughts, and even though no one may be around to see our actions, God is inside our head and is our audience of One.

I’m okay with not painting the top or bottom edge of a door. When it comes to other areas of my life, however, those are another story!

“For there is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, and nothing concealed that will not be known or brought out into the open.” (Luke 8:17)

The Hand in the Glove

I’ve been thinking about gloves and how different they are (this is what the mind does once you’re retired, reflecting on non-important to bizarre subjects). Humor me. Some gloves are designed to keep you warm and tend to be made of soft, fuzzy, insulating material. Then there’s work gloves. They’re made out of tough material, like leather, that’s resistant to wear and are designed to protect the hands. Gardening gloves let you dig in the dirt without getting your hands dirty. There’s rubber gloves that protect from the caustic nature of household chemicals when doing serious housecleaning. Then too, there’s vinyl or latex gloves used in medical procedures that protect the patient from infections.

Though gloves are made from different materials and serve a variety of purposes they all have one thing in common: they are limp and useless until a hand is slipped into the glove. The hand is what animates the glove; the hand is what brings talent to the glove. (You wouldn’t want my hands in surgeon’s gloves operating on you, you’d want a real surgeon’s hands!)

I see in the glove an analogy of how God wants to work with us. Much of what He wants to do in this world is to be done in partnership with us. When we’re willing to let Him dwell within us He animates us, helping us to do amazing things for Him. Like a hand in a glove, this is to be our relationship with Him.

Just as there’s a variety of gloves for different purposes, so God’s made us all different for the different purposes He wants to accomplish. We save ourselves a lot of grief, envy, and jealousy when we understand this.

When we let Him get His hands on us (or better yet, let Him slip inside our minds and hearts) we become who we were meant to be and are able to do what we were meant to do. Contemplating the hand of God working in this world is an awesome thought; realizing we are to be the glove to His hand is even more amazing!

“Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time.” (1 Peter 5:6)

From a Bucket List to a Washbowl List

In a doctor’s waiting room author Ann Voskamp read an article which promoted the value of having a bucket list. A bucket list is a collection of achievements or experiences that the list-builder hopes to accomplish before dying. “What’s Even Better than a Bucket List” is the title of a chapter in Voskamp’s book, The Broken Way, her response to the article.

I never considered the negative ramifications of having a bucket list, but I’ve given it a second thought since reading Voskamp’s reflections on the subject. My summary of her point? What’s even better than filling the bucket of life with personal experiences and achievements is emptying the bucket of one’s life in serving others!

No, there’s nothing inherently wrong with seeking new experiences or achievements. As Ann Voskamp points out, however, this approach can tend to be self-centered. A better way is to collect experiences and achievements of helping and serving others! I recall someone saying that the smallest package is a person all wrapped up in himself.

Jesus didn’t suggest a bucket list for self-actualization but a bowl and towel approach of self-giving, serving, and self-sacrifice. Jesus illustrated this in a beautiful and powerful way when, near the end of His time on earth, He took up a bowl and towel and washed His disciples’ feet.

The tendency, of course, is to want to look out for our own interests first. However, the irony is that we serve ourselves best when we serve others (though this shouldn’t be our primary motive for doing so, it just turns out that way). Yes, we find our life by giving it away. There is something better than a bucket list; it’s a wash bowl list!

…He [Jesus] poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him… [Jesus said] ‘I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.’” (John 13:5,15)

Two Roads

On my daily walk while living in rural Mexico I frequently come to a point in the path where it diverges into two paths. Because I can’t head off in both directions at the same time I have to choose one or the other.

On the path of our journey of life we’re always coming to places where the path splits into two, sometimes three or more directions. We call these decisions. Each day we face many forks in the road, most of them seemingly small. Few of them, however, are completely inconsequential. The big picture of how life turns out for us is almost always the accumulation of how we decide to play out the little scenes in our lives.

True, sometimes life forces us down a certain path. However, even when we have no choice as to what happens to us or what others do to us we still have the choice of how we will respond to it.

Then sometimes, too, we try to put off making a choice. The truth is that making no choice is a choice in and of itself and has ramifications!

The diverging paths I come upon on my daily walks often remind me of the famous poem by Robert Frost. He also came upon a path that diverged into two and wrote a poem about it titled “The Road Not Taken.” The concluding lines of the poem go like this:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.”

Jesus talked about the choice between taking the wide way or the narrow way. In other words, we can follow the whims and wishes of our heart’s desire and that leaves us with many options, a wide way to go. Jesus, on the other hand, frequently gave the invitation to people He met along the way, “Follow me.” Following His will definitely narrows our options considerably! I decided years ago to follow His way and not my own. Although I’ve done so very imperfectly, by His grace I can say that doing so “has made all the difference.”

“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” (Matthew 7:13-14)

Amazing Living Is Giving More Than Taking

I grew up on an Iowa farm. Now that I live in rural Mexico part of the year I have a real interest in the cornfields I pass on my daily walk. What I’ve noticed is that the local Mexican farmers usually remove every part of the corn plant from the field, not just the ears. The dried stalks are piled up and later hauled off to feed their animals. Growing up on our Iowa farm, I helped plow under the corn stalks, thus providing nutrients for next year’s crop.

I’m no agricultural expert, but I know enough to see the problem with taking everything the land produces but giving nothing back. The soil loses much of its precious nutrients and becomes less productive. There needs to be good stewardship of the land, because there is no more land to replace it.

In a way, life is like a field. Will we take more than we give or give more than we take? I’m sure we can think of a person or two who takes out of relationships more than they give. I’m sure we can also identify a person or two who gives more to their relationships than they take.

I’ve conducted over 300 funerals in my years as a pastor. Some funerals lamented a tragic life while other funerals celebrated a triumphant life. At the funerals which had more celebrating than lamenting it was often said of the person whose life was being remembered that they left the world a better place than they found it.

What a goal: to leave our little corner of the world a better place than we found it! By God’s grace we can be givers more than we are takers!

“It is more blessed to give than to receive.” (Jesus, quoted in Acts 20:35)

When Broken and Weak

The tortilla delivery man rode his motorcycle up the steep road to Refuge Ranch. Alejandra, a cook here at Refuge Ranch, had come out of the kitchen and was buying a stack of tortillas from him. I watched from the bench in the small garden by the house. Recovering from some kind of virus, I was tired and weak and so I just sat and watched this microcosm of Mexican economic activity unfold.

I had been sitting on the bench reading a book, The Broken Way, by Ann Voskamp. The book’s message was very applicable in my present condition of broken health. My wife Diann was dealing with the same illness and was toughing it out teaching the children in the school room nearby. The virus had gone viral here at Refuge Ranch with many of the children taking turns getting sick. I reflected on how brokenness and weakness seemed to be all around. Just an hour earlier, at breakfast, our daughter Julie shared, with tear filled eyes, some major struggles and issues she was facing with the family. She then told her mother and me that she had to focus on the immediate demands of the day. Soon there would be over twenty women arriving at the ranch from a nearby church, and Julie was expected to share something of God’s Word and truth with them.

Chilled by the morning air, I left the park bench and made my way up to the flat concrete roof of the warehouse and laid on my back. Covering my eyes with my arm, I absorbed the morning sun. Some of the women had now arrived and I could hear Julie’s laugh as she conversed with them. I knew it was a struggle for her to rise to this challenge of ministering to these women, given all that she was dealing with, and so I prayed. Lying there on my back in physical weakness I prayed for Julie’s brokenness and weakness, that the good Lord could use her in some mighty way with these women who were also broken and weakened by life’s struggles. As it turned out, the Lord did use her.

So often people picture missionaries in far off places doing God’s work because they are strong people who have their act together. Not so! All missionary work, including the work at Refuge Ranch, is most often done out of human weakness, not strength.

I share this to encourage us all, yes to encourage us! We can get the idea that because of some lack in our life, some past mistakes, some current messed up part of life, or just a general sense of not having our act together, that we are of little value to God. Not so! No great Bible character (other than Jesus) was perfect,and often they’re shown to be far from perfect, but God still loved them, forgave them, and used them!

God doesn’t disqualify us from being His person and being able to do something great for Him, we disqualify ourselves! All you and I need to do is turn over our sinful, imperfect, broken and weak selves to what little we feel we know and understand of God, and He will take it from there. As it turns out, God is really good at embracing broken and weak people who He will gladly help to carry out His wonderful will!

“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (Jesus to the apostle Paul, in 2 Corinthians 12:9)

Being Good Stewards of Our Pain

Well-known minister and writer Frederick Buechner shared with a small group a portion of a piece of fiction he had written. It became clear to his listeners that, though fictional, the story revealed something of the deep hurt Buechner himself had experienced being raised in a home with an alcoholic and abusive father. After the reading a man in the group came up to him, deeply moved, and told Buechner, “You have a good deal of pain in your life, and you have been a good steward of it.” (from Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons by Frederick Buechner)

I wonder, are we good stewards of our pain? As a preacher for 40 years I often taught or preached on being good stewards of the time, talent, and treasure the Lord has given us. I now see I should have added a fourth “t” to the list: troubles.

What does that mean, that we can be a good steward of our troubles and pain? As a pastor of God’s people over these many years I’ve identified several ways I’ve seen how people have profited from their pain that we can apply to our own lives.

First, troubles can drive us to God. Looking back on my ministry I don’t recall a single person who started attending church and stated as the reason, “Life is going so well for me that I just had to better connect with God who has blessed me so.” On the other hand, countless were the people who showed up for the first time at church and shared with me, “Something terrible has happened in my life and I needed to reach out to God.”

Second, troubles can make us a better person instead of a bitter person; the choice is ours. I have known many people who have had multiple serious troubles in their lives and yet, in spite of all the pain, were beautiful, joyful, enthusiastic, and gracious.

Third, troubles that God has helped us cope and deal with give us the compassion and resources necessary to come alongside and help someone else going through similar troubles. Our troubled past can be of help to someone’s troubled present.

I know, when we’re in the midst of some troubling situation it’s hard to see how any good can come of it, but this is one place where faith has to come into play, believing God has a purpose in it all. Yes, it’s God’s will and His plan for us that we not only be good stewards of our time, talent, and treasure, but also of our troubles!

“Though you have made me see troubles, many and bitter, you will restore my life again; from the depths of the earth you will again bring me up.” (Psalm 71:20)

Miscalculating Life’s Mission

The owners of a large motor home had placed a sign on their dashboard. It was leaning against the windshield, facing outward for all to read, “If there’s anything left when we’re both gone, we miscalculated!”

Apparently the owners of the motor home realize they can’t take it with them when they die, so they’re determined to use it all up before they go. They win at the game of life if they can squeeze every pleasure and delight out of what they possess, leaving a balance near zero when they depart.

The motor home sign prompts some serious reflection on the mission and purpose of life. One could argue that the motor home owners’ goal makes sense if there is no God and no life beyond the grave; grab all the gusto you can while you can. But if there is a God and an after-life, then this philosophy might just be misdirected and short-sighted!

As a Christian who has read the Bible with some degree of intentionality and regularity, I can confidently state that living for one’s self is not the purpose for which God created us. Most of us, even those who don’t take God very seriously, realize this. In fact, we admire those who have sacrificed personal gain for the benefit of others.

Another way it’s been put is to leave this world a better place than you found it. It’s difficult to imagine how a person can do so if one lives only for the benefit of self.

Life is a gift from God. We are all given good things of one kind or another and an unknown number of days to use all we’ve been given for God’s good purposes. This means we’re to be wise stewards of our lives! For me, a good prayer to pray is, “Lord, guide me to the right use of the time, talent, and treasure You’ve given me. Amen.

Jesus stated, “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)