“I’m a Video, not a Snapshot”

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Too often our opinion of a person gets “frozen” in time, especially when there’s been a conflict. We allow one negative experience to become the defining factor in our view of that person. Because of that “snapshot” image of the person, we get stuck in our expectations and perceptions. We may even withdraw from them and avoid them. This hurts our relationships, especially in the community of God’s people.

Russ, an elder in one of the congregations I served, taught me a key principle about people and change.

We were meeting for prayer together before a Sunday service and began by reviewing the service assignments. There was a definite ‘contemporary’ (a reference my Presbyterian readers understand!) tone to the services that Sunday, and I had heard that Russ ‘hated the drums.’

“Russ, I imagine this service may be a challenge for you,” I said.

“Really? Why’s that?” he responded with genuine surprise.

“Because of the drums. I heard that you weren’t really a fan of them.”

“Oh, I used to make a pretty big deal about that, but I’ve changed over the years. Worship needs to connect with all God’s people, not just us ‘traditional’ types. I’m not a snapshot, I’m a video.”

That really hit me: a video, not a snapshot. A continually changing image, not a static one. We are not wise when we lock our perception of a person or group of people into one position, as if they are frozen in time, like a snapshot. We need to expect that many will continue to work through their ideas and preferences and make changes. People, especially those actively pursuing growth in Christ, are dynamic, changing, growing and learning.

Paul describes our transformation in Christ as a process of changing “from one degree of glory to another,” as the Revised Standard Version translates the following verse.

“Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:17-18 Revised Standard Version).

I appreciate that image of degree-by-degree, step by step; and most often it’s baby step by baby step.

The stimulus for change comes as we break free from the limited and limiting perspective of this world. We learn to view everything with the eyes of faith. Another way to say this is that we are learning to see life from the aspect of eternity. We are gaining perspective and a sense of proportion by viewing life as if we were seated with Christ in heaven.

“But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:4-7 English Standard Version).

This is a staggering concept with countless implications for every aspect of life: our values, priorities, relationships, commitments and so on. For now, let it remind us that we need to give each other grace to grow. Instead of getting stuck with a negative impression of a person and their ideas, check to see how they have changed with time and experience.

 

Peace from a Heart Sunk Deep

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Huntington Beach Pier, California

We will never experience peace if we depend on outward circumstances. There’s always something going on in the world around us to stir anxiety: political turmoil, gun violence against students, international conflicts, terrorist threats, economic disruptions like sky-rocketing gases prices, and the everyday problems and tensions in our lives and relationships.

Yet Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:27 NIV).

How do we experience that peace? It’s helped me to realize peace is a product of our heart-attachment. If my heart is attached to worldly comfort and calm, peace will elude me. If my heart is grounded in the love and gracious character of our Triune (Trinitarian) God, however, peace will endure like a firm foundation in the midst of life’s craziness.

Think of the difference between a boat on the ocean and a pier coming off the shore. A boat on the water is fun, no doubt! But it is extremely vulnerable to the ocean conditions. Calm water is one thing, but seven-to-ten foot swells of waves and strong currents are quite another.

In contrast, a pier is a fixed structure not nearly as vulnerable to oceanic conditions. I live near a number of piers on the Pacific Ocean and one of my favorites is Huntington Beach Pier. It measures 1,850 feet in length and is one of the longest piers on the West Coast.  (The longest is Oceanside Pier at 1,942 feet). The pier is 100 feet above sea level. It was built with concrete and reinforced steel, coated with epoxy, to protect it from the corrosive effect of the damp salt air. Huntington Pier was engineered to withstand 31-foot waves or a 7.0 magnitude earthquake. Its stability comes from the fact that 1/3 the length of each piling is driven into the earth, with 2/3’s above the surface. The key to stability is to be “sunk deep.”

A boat or a pier: how would you describe your experience of peace (or lack thereof) right now?

Peace is our “birthright” our “inheritance” in Christ. Just before his crucifixion, Jesus twice bestowed peace on his disciples. One is the John 14:27 verse quoted above. The other is John 16:33 “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (NIV).

I recently developed a working definition of peace. I invite you to consider this and develop one that works for you.

Doug’s Working Definition of Peace: Peace is a multi-faceted fruit of the Spirit that includes reconciliation with God, healthy relationships with others and serenity within ourselves. Peace’s restfulness and calm arise from our confidence in God’s care for us, positively influencing our attitude and our efforts in our relationships.

Peace is a result of our heart-attachment. It will elude us if we’re floating on the waves of life without a firm anchor in faith. Let’s go back to the pier: its stability comes from the fact that 1/3 the length of each piling is driven into the earth. So what helps you drive “deep pilings” into the shores of faith? I hope you’ll journal on this question. Let me suggest two things:

The first is remembering that peace is the “natural condition” of those who believe in Jesus. “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God” (Romans 5:1-2 NIV). Be still and embrace this promise until you experience it.

We also “sink deeply” through our intentional experiences of both worship with God’s people and personal time daily with the Lord. Knowing and glorifying God anchors in his love.

 

Hurricane Downgrade

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Hurricane Charley near peak intensity shortly before landfall in Florida on August 13, 2004

Hurricanes are serious business. When I initially drafted this post in August 2017, Hurricane Harvey slammed into the Gulf Coast of Texas. The storm made landfall on Friday August 24 with 130 mph winds — the first Category 4 storm to hit the United States since Charley in 2004. It reminded me that my wife’s parents, Wayne and Marian, experienced Hurricane Charley on Friday August 13, 2004. They lived in Punta Gorda (a town near Port Charlotte on the west coast of Florida) where wind speeds reached 140+ miles per hour. They lived on the second story of a three-story condo complex where the roof was severely damaged. Damage to the state of Florida from Charley was over $13 billion. The devastation to Wayne and Marian’s condo and surrounding area was so significant that they left Florida and moved in with us in Kansas City, where we were living at the time. They never moved back to Florida.

So I know hurricanes are serious business. But not all hurricanes make landfall; not all cause the damage initially predicted. In August 2016, Sarah and I were on the Big Island of Hawaii when we got emergency bulletins that we were in for the possible historic event of two concurrent hurricanes, Madeline and Lester, bearing down on our island nearly simultaneously. It could be a real disaster. A number of individuals and families on the island cancelled their plans and flew back to the mainland rather than chance the consequences and dangers of the hurricanes. We decided to stay.

The day the hurricanes were scheduled to make landfall, we woke up in Kailua Kona, on the west coast of Hawaii, to the typical morning of sunny skies and no evidence of rain. Hilo, as usual, got the worst of the rain, but Madeline had been downgrade to a tropical storm. Then we learned that Lester was also on the downgrade ramp. From category 4 hurricanes, both were downgraded to tropical storms. Still fairly serious, but not devastating. We were grateful for the mercy and enjoyed the rest of our vacation.

Whenever I hear of hurricanes now, I reflect on the hurricane level of anxiety I often experience as I anticipate problems. True, some problems do have incredibly destructive results. I’ve been through my own Category 4 or Category 5 times, to be sure. But over the years I have learned that by the time they actually have to be dealt with, most problems are often downgraded in intensity. Many of my problems have, mercifully, been much less stormy than their initial potential.

You likely expected me to quote this fundamental advice from Philippians 4:4-7

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! 5 Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. 6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus (NIV).

That is priceless counsel. But keep reading Philippians 4:8-9 because there we read some of the best advice for preparing our hearts to stay calm as we anticipate whatever is coming our way.

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. 9 Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you (NIV).

Spiritually speaking, storms and even hurricane-level events will come. What do we do? Prepare. Watch. Hope. And live in the moment, without fear. You’ll be ready to endure the tough one if it comes. And keep track of the downgrades to remind yourself to lower your worry-reactivity.

 

The Fun Cut

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I rode my bike with two of our sons, Matthew and Peter, to a park near us for our own version of spring training. We had a great time hitting and throwing the baseball. Yes, there were a few touchy moments, like when one threw the ball at the other’s head — not on purpose, of course… But we had a good time.

I was really getting into the Dad thing, so I suggested we ride to Thrifty Drug Store for ice cream cones. We each had two scoops — I am one generous dad, you know — and then started to ride home. Peter, age 7 or 8 , was leading us and started to turn down a street that would take us a long way home.

“Peter, where are you going?” I call out. “That’s not a short-cut.”

“I know, Dad,” he said, “It’s a fun-cut!”

I stopped pedaling. A fun-cut! What a concept! I laughed out loud. It changed the whole ride home. Suddenly, my focus wasn’t on the destination, but the joy of riding with my boys. Sound corny? I mean it: I took time to look around at the houses and chat with the guys instead of racing home to the next activity.

Looking for short-cuts is a hazard in our hurried lives. As we try to cram more activities into each day, we shorten the time and attention given to any one of them. Those afflicted with this malady of “compulsive short-cut-itis” find themselves thinking of the next thing, instead of the thing they’re doing. We’re not present in the present.

Not all short-cuts are negative, of course, but there are some shadow sides to them. For example, if I do only those activities that come quickly, I miss the joy of hard-won victories. If I do only the familiar, I miss the joy of adventure. If I do only that which is comfortable, I miss the joy of discovering I can push myself to endure and give more than I imagined. If I rush, I fail to savor the experience.

Among other things, a fun-cut means taking time to add elements like creativity and caring touches. One family showed me this recently. Joanie, the wife, came home and found her husband, Gary, very upset. He’d lost his money clip that held a significant amount of cash from a bank withdrawal he’d just made. They scoured the house, turned his pants’ pockets inside-out, checked chair cushions and car seats. They retraced his steps. He’d just gone to the grocery, and heaven forbid if it had fallen out of his pocket in the check-out line or parking lot.

“Just call the manager,” Joanie urged. After initial resistance, Gary finally called. When he described the money-clip, the manager said, “I found it and took it home for safe-keeping. I will get it and have it here for you in ten minutes.” What a relief!

Here’s the fun-cut. Gary offered the manager a reward, but the manager refused to accept it. They could have just walked away in gratitude, but this couple got a gift certificate to a local restaurant and took it to the manager the next day. “We wanted to thank you again for your honesty. We’re letting others know about the integrity of the person managing this grocery. Please enjoy a great dinner on us.”

What a great way to affirm someone! It took a little creativity, time, and expense. But you can’t match the joy!

The Bible calls us to “redeem the time, for the days are evil” (Ephesians 5:15). I used to think this meant living efficiently with diligent time management. Now I affirm the wise stewardship of time, and believe it also includes living in a redemptive way. That means appreciating the fact that a bit of extra effort, a bit of “wasted time,” even a bit of indulgence, may have far more impact than just getting more tasks completed.

Ecclesiastes 3:1-12 is the most well-known passage on time in the Bible. Consider these verses as an invitation to take fun cuts even in the midst of life’s most difficult times.

There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:…
…. a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
… 12 I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. (Ecclesiastes 3:1-12 New International Version)

Shortcuts may get us somewhere more quickly, but they may not be worth the cost in creativity, enjoyment and a more relaxed pace.

 

Bucket Theory: What happens when you hit your limit?

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When my wife, Sarah, was working as a nurse in an allergist’s office, one of the common questions was about the “sudden” onset of an allergy in a person who had not previously been bothered. This physician said there was no definitive explanation, but that one theory seemed quite possible. It’s called the “bucket theory.” According to this theory, even as a bucket has the capacity to hold a certain volume of liquid, our bodies have a certain capacity to resist reacting to certain substances. Once that capacity is hit, however, like the bucket, it begins to “overflow” with various reactions. Our bodies can resist for a while, depending on the capacity of our “allergy-resisting bucket,” but then we start to react.

I see a message here. It seems to me this provides a framework for assessing the well-being and reactivity of our emotional and spiritual lives. Have you ever noticed that you “suddenly” have a problem with anger, impatience, or working on a project? Perhaps this is an indication that you’re hitting your limit in a certain area. The onset of “symptoms” is more about the condition of your heart, mind and soul than it is about the particular symptom.

Another analogy for this is “saturation.” Like dry ground soaking up water, we can absorb a great of activity and pressure—until we hit the saturation point. Then we become overwhelmed, resulting in reactions like shutting down, withdrawing, or stressing out.

In his book Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives, Richard A. Swenson, M.D. writes,

Often we do not feel overload sneaking up on us. We instead feel energized by the rapidity of events and the challenge of our full days. Then one day we find it difficult to get out of bed. Life has become a weight… What happened to change our enthusiasm to pain, and why did the change come upon us so unexpectedly? Not all threshold limits are appreciated as we near them, and it is only in exceeding them that we suddenly feel the breakdown.

According to electronic systems expert Roberto Vacca [writing in The Coming Dark Age], the development of many modern systems exhibit “the character of continuous and exponential growth, and their variation obeys a well-known mathematical law, the law of the phenomenon of growth in the presence of limiting factors [my emphasis]. At first the effect of these limiting factors is hardly noticeable, but there comes a time when they begin to predominate and to produce the phenomenon known as ‘saturation’… Often the effect of the limiting factors is not felt gradually: it may be felt all of a sudden.”

We are all human, with inherent limiting factors. This is not an excuse, but a reality to which we must pay attention. Maybe this is what happened to Moses in Numbers 20, when, instead of speaking to rock to bring forth water in the wilderness, he struck the rock in anger.

Maybe this helps us understand (not excuse) David’s vulnerability to seeing Bathsheba bathing.

Maybe this is a clue to Paul’s impatience with John Mark in Acts 15.

I love to push life to the limit, experiencing all God has for me and giving my best in God’s service. But I have learned (often the hard way) I have capacity limits that cannot be ignored. Even good and great things can become too much. Again and again I come back to Paul’s wisdom in 2 Corinthians 4:7 (NIV), “But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.”

 

PAIN CHECK Part 2: When pain stops – it’s not back to normal.

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What does it take to get your attention? What does it take to motivate change? What’s your wake-up call?

I left myself in pain at the conclusion of my last blog, so let me briefly share the second chapter of the “Pain Check.”

The back spasms continued through the weekend. I preached three services Easter morning and crawled into my bed-sheet grave as soon as I got home. The next morning, I sent a text to an orthopedic surgeon in our congregation. He put me in touch with the “spine guy” in his group. By God’s grace, I saw him Tuesday morning. The course of treatment included a shot and a round of medication over the next six days. Within a few hours, the relief was amazing. Oh, thank the Lord! After 8 and a-half days of dreading every movement, I could walk, sit and move with minimal discomfort. So, off I went, doing a few projects that had been on hold… (You can see where this is going, right?).

That night, feeling so much better, I was getting ready for bed and moved my leg just the wrong way and– Wham!–that familiar shot of pain went up my back and took my breath away. I cannot express the fear, the anxiety, the regret that overwhelmed me: How could I be so careless? Had I just undone all the relief the initial dose of medication had provided? (More “Pain Check” questions).

I went to bed, fuming at myself for my carelessness, and prayed and prayed.

The next morning there was a measure of relief again. Mercy! I got a call from one of our sons, Peter, who is a Doctor of Physical Therapy, asking how I was doing. I shared the story of the relief and the relapse. And that’s when he “corrected me gently” (1 Timothy 5:1) as only an adult child can do with a parent. “Dad, he treated the pain so you could rest and get relief,” Peter said, “not so you could just ‘go back to normal.’ You need to begin to rebuild your foundation with core-strengthening exercise and learning proper body mechanics so this will be less likely to happen again.”

So now I’m in the process of developing a “new normal.” I don’t want to go back to the way things were. I don’t want to be sidelined by pain and immobility again.

Pain is most often the body’s warning system. In many cases, it signals a need for attention, and often a need for change. For a “new normal:” like proper body mechanics in movement, or a healthier diet, rest, and exercise. And that’s where I make the connection to soul distress. Soul pain is often a signal to pay attention to God, to my inner life, my priorities and perspective. It’s often a call to pursue a “new normal” spiritually.

There are several images for this in spiritual formation. One is “putting off” the old nature and “putting on” our new nature in Christ, as we read in Colossians 3:5-10:

5 So put to death the sinful, earthly things lurking within you… 10 Put on your new nature, and be renewed as you learn to know your Creator and become like him. (NLT)

A second metaphor is moving out of bondage/ slavery into freedom, as we read in Galatians 5:1-13.

So Christ has truly set us free. Now make sure that you stay free, and don’t get tied up again in slavery to the law… 13 For you have been called to live in freedom, my brothers and sisters. But don’t use your freedom to satisfy your sinful nature. (NLT)

When pain comes, be ready to consider the possibility that it is signaling a call to a “new normal.” Put on the new thing– and be free!

 

Pain Check

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It felt like I’d been stabbed or cut across my back. Searing pain and a shot of burning that, literally, took my breath away. Like when I fell off the Monkey Bars in elementary school—that knocked-the-wind-out-of-you feeling. The word ‘excruciating’ seemed to be the best description—and this on the day after Palm Sunday, heading into Good Friday.

I had been reaching for a basket of dirty shirts from a small pantry off our laundry room, and that’s when the back spasm hit and wouldn’t let go. Ridiculous, right? Not a very brag-able injury…but it’s what happened.

And then something else happened. It’s what I’m calling the “Pain Check.” I became aware of an almost-instantaneous eruption of questions, concerns, fears, and anxieties that so often cluster around significant pain and illness. Pain triggers strong emotional dynamics. In addition to hurting the body, it can tear a hole in your soul—and it can offer opportunities for clarity and growth.

I’ll give my Pain Check List in a moment, but you might want to stop and make your own list. What do you tell yourself or ask yourself when you’re sick or hurting?

So here’s my basic list:

“What have I done to myself? How could I be so careless?”

“Is this my fault? Is there some reason this is happening to me?”

“Am I going to get better? Is this going to change my life big-time?”

“Lord, why did you let this happen? Especially now?!” (In this case, the back spasms continued unabated through Easter. I got through the Holy Week services with prayer, over-the-counter medication, rest, and adrenaline. Finally, I saw an orthopedic specialist—but that’s a story for the next blog).

And then there’s the “If only… If only… If only…”

You get the idea.

The “Pain Check” begins as a negative experience of self-accusation and usually moves into God-accusation. The physical pain often makes us turn against ourselves and even against God. But it doesn’t get stuck there.

We aren’t powerless. We don’t have to be victims or victimize ourselves. C. S. Lewis offered his famous insight into pain that “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to us in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world” (C. S. Lewis, in The Problem of Pain). We can use these experiences to identify and challenge our negative self-talk. We can “freeze” the eruption of questions and respond to them in ways that make us stronger, in ways that are more reasonable and accurate. One way to think of this process is to frame it as a conversation with a dear friend or loved one. How would you respond to a friend who asked these questions?

“What have I done to myself? How could I be so careless?”

My initial response can be pretty self-depreciating as I castigate myself for being inept, careless, thoughtless and so on. Actually, I wasn’t careless. I was simply doing something I needed to do and this happened. Things happen. No need wasting energy on self-blame. A more helpful response is: ‘I haven’t deliberately done anything to myself. This sort of thing happens. I need to use my energy figuring out how to cope and get better.’

“Is this my fault? Is there some reason this is happening to me?”

Now that’s a complex question! The “Why? Question” doesn’t help much because a particular problem can be the direct consequence of an action, and/or the indirect consequence of an action, and/or simply the consequence of living a fallen world with a failing, mortal body. And even if we could answer the question, that would not change our current predicament.

“Am I going to get better? Is this going to change my life big-time?”

Many of us tend to “catastrophize,” (as cognitive therapists call it) plunging into ‘worst-case scenario’ mode and forecasting a bleak future. In the vast majority of situations the phrase, “This, too, will pass,” may seem small solace, but can spark hope and perspective.

“Lord, why did you let this happen? Especially now?!”

I am just going to say that God gets far, far too much blame for what happens. We live in a world that has rejected God and surrendered to the powers of the world, the flesh and the forces of evil. God is not the source of the problem, but God is the key to the solution.

I offer the Pain Check as a modest remedy for your soul. The Pain Check is the practice of naming your questions, fears and anxieties so you can address them with a renewed mind.

“Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ… 3 Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:1-5 NLT).

Please understand I am not addressing the dynamics of chronic pain, nor the psychological depths of our reactions in crisis. It will often help to have the support of a wise, caring friend and even a skilled counselor and/ or spiritual director to relieve the soul distress in the midst of physical pain. But I hope the Pain Check can be a significant step to coping.

 

 

 

 

A Prayer to Make Easter Real in Our Lives Now

Garden Tomb
The traditional Garden Tomb in Jerusalem

For Jesus’ followers, Easter is the defining moment in the history of the world and in our personal history. But it is so easy to lose sight of the Easter Reality. Scottish preacher James Stewart spoke truth when he said we too often live on the wrong side of Easter.

Too often in our churches we are still on the wrong side of Easter. We are like the groping, fumbling disciples between Good Friday and the Resurrection. How our congregations would worship, with what joy and eagerness and abandon the sacrifice of praise would rise to God, if all worshipers knew themselves in very truth to be sons and daughters of the Resurrection! (from his book Heralds of God, pp.92-93).

An Easter spirituality means living in the unwavering confidence that Life, not death (in all its manifestations), has the last word.  The Apostle Paul calls us to see life through what I call “resurrection eyes.”

But God is so rich in mercy, and he loved us so much, that even though we were dead because of our sins, he gave us life when he raised Christ from the dead. (It is only by God’s grace that you have been saved!) For he raised us from the dead along with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms because we are united with Christ Jesus (Ephesians 2:4-6 NLT).

To help me live into the right side of Easter and to see life with “resurrection eyes,” I have written a number of prayers in my journal. Here’s one that I’ve written and am praying daily now. (By the way, this prayer is titled to reflect the new life we have in Christ now as we await the consummation of history and the bodily resurrection from death promised to all who believe. The best is yet to be!).

AN EASTER PRAYER: We are risen!

Lord, I believe you are risen!
Make me alive in you!
Strike down the guards of this world who try to keep me in the grave of lifeless worldliness.
Lift me up from the stone slab of this world’s false comforts and deceptive promises.
Unwrap me from the grave clothes of my past failures,
from the bondage of regret,
from all that keeps me from you.
Roll away the stone others have put over my life,
sealing me in the darkness of loneliness.
Lord, set me free, and let me shout, ‘Hallelujah!’
Christ is risen!
He is risen Indeed!
Christ is risen,
and I am risen with Him — Today!

Mr. Benson and the Empty Cross

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When I went to 5th grade Sunday School, my teacher was Mr. Benson. One experience with him left a powerful impression on me. We had recently moved to Cincinnati and many of my new friends were Catholics. They had crucifixes in their home and even their bedrooms. I asked Mr. Benson why our cross, as Presbyterians, was empty.

Mr. Benson told me that we were both Christians, but emphasized different points about the gospel. The Catholics, he said, want their people to remember always Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. That God loves us so much that he gave his son as the sacrifice for our sins. Presbyterians and Protestants, he said, emphasize Jesus’ resurrection and new life. We focus on his victory over death and the promise of his coming again.

Even as a 5th grader I “got it.” I saw the value of both the crucifix and the empty cross. It’s not a matter of “right or wrong,” or “better or worse.” It’s a matter of emphasis. Both together convey God’s love in sending Jesus to take our place in death so that he could defeat death and be present with us now and forever.

The empty cross testifies to God’s death-breaking, life-changing power. In Christ, the cross transformed:

Humiliation into glory

Pain into the prize of eternal life

Denial into unwavering devotion

The worst of human deeds into the greatest of God’s wonders

Which expression means the most to you at this time?

Maybe you appreciate the message of the crucifix: that there’s no limit to God’s love. It is the sign we can trust God to care for us in every way.

What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? (Romans 8:31-32 NIV)

Or maybe you appreciate the promise of the empty cross representing God’s resurrection power at work in every challenge and opportunity in life.

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me (Galatians 2:20 NIV).

Never lose sight of Jesus’ cross. No other symbol conveys God’s love and power more clearly.

“For the Cross means that even when things are at their worst, even when life does not bear thinking about, God is master of the situation still, and nothing can spoil His final pattern or defeat His purpose of love” (James Stewart, Heralds of God, p. 78).

Thank you, Mr. Benson!

 

The Paradox of Power

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Eugene was a big man who towered over me. He put one hand on my left shoulder, one on my right, looked me straight in the eye and said in a resonant voice that was heard throughout the room, “In my country, when they make you a king, they make you a slave.”

I had just been installed as senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Fairfield, Connecticut, and was at the reception following the service. In that congregation there was a wonderful extended family from Ghana in West Africa. Eugene was “head” of the family. He was a former officer in the Ghanaian army, and still stood straight and had a commanding presence.

His words echoed in my ears and went straight to my heart, “In my country, when they make you a king, they make you a slave.” Eugene continued his loving exhortation by saying that people need a leader who protects, provides and cares for them. “The good leader knows,” he said, “that the welfare of the people means his own security and well-being, too.”

I imagine you may find it a bit jarring to compare a pastor to a king, or hear an African speak openly about slavery. But Eugene’s point is clearly consistent with Jesus’ message. In John 13, just hours before his betrayal, trial and crucifixion, Jesus showed his disciples the way of power in God’s Kingdom.

After washing their feet, he put on his robe again and sat down and asked, “Do you understand what I was doing? You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and you are right, because that’s what I am. And since I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash each other’s feet. I have given you an example to follow. Do as I have done to you. I tell you the truth, slaves are not greater than their master. Nor is the messenger more important than the one who sends the message. Now that you know these things, God will bless you for doing them” (John 13:12-17 New Living Translation).

Leaders need to understand the nature of power. Power is framed differently in God’s Kingdom as opposed to the world. In the world, power is a sign of prestige; in God’s Kingdom, power is vested in servants. In the world, power is a tool for self-gratification; in God’s Kingdom, power is a means to show love. In the world, power is often exercised through personal intimidation; in God’s Kingdom, power is dying to self.

A number of years ago, I developed the book TouchPoints for Leaders as part of the Tyndale House Publishers TouchPoints  series. It contains over 150 topics with Scriptures and comments I wrote applicable to leadership issues. Don’t let that word ‘leader’ throw you if you think, “I’m not a leader.” Leaders are, most simply, people with influence. This influence can be formal (like a teacher or a coach) or, more likely, informal (as in the influence you have with friends, colleagues, and family members). Here’s what I wrote as one of the entries under “Power:”

Leaders have the ability to influence others, to mobilize resources, and to get the attention of significant people or groups of people in society. They can make things happen– or keep things from happening. In short, they have power to control. This is the most seductive aspect of leadership– but is also at the heart of effectiveness. Ultimately, however, leaders in all walks of life are dependent on God’s power.

Many passages in Scripture remind us that us we are stewards, not originators, of power.

“…’It is not by force nor by strength, but by my Spirit,’ says the LORD Almighty” (Zechariah 4:6 NLT).

“…He [the Lord] did it so you would never think that it was your own strength and energy that made you wealthy. Always remember that it is the LORD your God who gives you power to become rich” (Deuteronomy 8:17-18 NLT).

“…For apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5 NLT).

“And who is adequate for such a task as this? . . . It is not that we think we can do anything of lasting value by ourselves. Our only power and success come from God” (2 Corinthians 2:16, 3:5 NLT).

“There are no ‘self-made’ people who have power in and of themselves. They cannot claim responsibility for their birth, their genetic makeup, nor the political, economic and social circumstances and times into which they were born. God allows us to live at the time and place of his choosing. Wise leaders continually remember where their power comes from so that they use it in accordance with God’s values and will.” (TouchPoints for Leaders, Wheaton, IL, Tyndale House Publishers, 2004, page 181).

The more you use power for self-advancement, the less you really have. Power used in selfless ways grows giving glory to God and blessing to others.