Instinctively Going Positive

I went for a bike ride today on a local trail, I was a few miles from home when I saw a guy who had pulled off the trail and dismounted his bike.  That’s common operating procedure.  I often do it myself to answer a call or text, take pictures, or to just get a drink and stretch.  As I got closer, I could see that this guy had a different reason.  He had apparently pulled off the trail for a smoke break.  At least that is what he was doing.

(Photo is not the guy I saw. It’s a stock photo of a 1920 Tour de France rider.)

My instinct kicked in and I was immediately critical.  Doesn’t he see the irony?  Smoking is so counterproductive to cycling?  How could he be so stupid?  (I confess. Yes, that harsh question entered my mind.)  When I got home, I actually started composing a critical post about it to a Facebook cycling group I frequent. 

Then it happened:  Good old-fashioned spiritual conviction!  It was like God was asking me, “Why was your first thought, ‘That’s terrible that cyclist is smoking?’  Shouldn’t it have been, ‘It’s awesome that that smoker is out riding his bike!’”   Then, in keeping with Jesus’ words about the splinter and the plank in the eyes, God pointed out me that the smoker could have been justifiably thinking, “That cyclist ought to lose weight.” (Though he should have been thinking, “It’s great that that overweight guy is out cycling!”)

I fear this example is not the exception but the rule. It is indicative of our world’s default bent toward instinctively going negative instead of instinctively going positive.  Doing so is just all too common. In me, I discovered. Perhaps in you?   It is just all too easy to be critical rather than affirming.  Criticism rather than approval or affirmation is standard operating procedure for this world.

In the Bible, the Apostle Paul wrote, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. (Romans 12:2)”   In another place, Philippians 4:8, he wrote, “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.”

I brought those two passages together because they fit together well.  Living out the Philippians passage is only possible via practicing the Romans passage.  In other words, thinking (noticing and focusing on) the positive, excellent, praiseworthy things isn’t natural.  It is only possible through the renewing of the mind.  But how do we renew our minds?  Ultimately we can’t.  God does it in us when we ask him and when we let him.  Notice that right before the instruction to not conform to the pattern of this world but to be transformed by the renewing of our minds, Paul instructed us to give ourselves fully (be a “living sacrifice”) to God.  When we do that, God works in us and with us to transform us and to renew our minds.  It is through a renewed mind, that our instinct shifts to going positive rather than negative.

It doesn’t happen all at once.  It takes time as we grow toward Christian maturity.   Be patient, but not too patient.  That is, you shouldn’t feel defeated when you discover your shortcoming but neither should you complacently accept the status quo.  You should be improving all the time.  So when you find yourself falling short—like if God questions you about criticizing a cyclist for smoking rather than praising a smoker for cycling—pray about it and ask God to transform you and to renew your mind. Resolve, with God’s help, to think about things that are excellent or praiseworthy!

Surviving or Living?

Two years ago, I read a novel by Emily St. John Mandel, titled, Station Eleven.  Actually, I did more than just read it.  I immersed myself in it through discussion and participation in various special activities via Kenosha’s participation in the, National Endowment for the Arts’ Big Read.   (For more information see, )

Station Eleven, is all based on a global pandemic!  The pandemic was labeled the Georgian Flu, and it was way worse than COVID-19.  Way, way worse!  The book explores, in words directly from the book, “the flu that exploded like a neutron bomb over the face of the earth and the shock of the collapse that followed.” 

The, “collapse that followed,”  refers to the fact that so many died, it left the world in a dystopian future.  The novel gives a partial description:

“No more diving into pools of chlorinated water lit green from below.  No more ball games played under floodlights…  No more trains running under the surface of cities on the dazzling power of the electric third rail. No more cities… No more pharmaceuticals.  No more certainty of surviving a scratch on one’s hand, a cut on a finger while chopping vegetables for dinner, a dog bite.  No more flight…   No more countries, all borders unmanned.   No more fire departments, no more police.  No more road maintenance or garbage pickup…  No more Internet…”

This collapse was all due to the fact that so many died there just wasn’t enough people alive to facilitate all those things.  Survivors went searching for areas that were still normal and soon learned there were no such places.  Consequently, they began to settle into, “an archipelago of small towns.”  The word “town” having been redefined to even include, “four or five families living together in a former truck stop.”  

In spite of this collapsed world, and the time and energy devoted to food and shelter, one of the features of life is the occasional appearance of a traveling troupe performing a concert or a dramatic presentation.  One of these troupes had a sign that said, “Because survival is insufficient.”  One of the main characters has the same slogan tattooed on her arm.

The meaning and implications of, “because survival is insufficient,” is one of the themes of the novel.  An online literary guide site called LitCharts (“From the creators of SparkNotes”) says, “The novel argues that humans, to be human, must do more than just survive; they must live.”  The book displays survivors engaging in art, creativity, acts of kindness, and religion (in some cases bad religion) as they become people who not just surviving, but also people who are living.

As I alluded to above, COVID-19 is miniscule compared to the fictitious Georgian Flu of the novel.  Nevertheless, for some, COVID-19 has driven us mentally into survival mode.  It makes us feel like we’ve put, “living,” on hold while we simply survive.  I say “Don’t!”  Instead, embrace the philosophy that survival is insufficient. 

Currently, it is temporarily true that you can’t live the life you’ve been living in the same way you been living it but that doesn’t mean you can’t live.  No, you can’t go and dine out in your favorite restaurant but you could experiment with a new recipe at home.  You can’t host a party in your home but you could host some friends or family in a Zoom meeting.  (That’s right.  The same Zoom you use for church, school, or work, you can use with your family and friends.  “But I don’t know how,” you say.  What better time to learn than right now!)   Many libraries are currently closed but if you are like me, you have books on shelves in your house that you planned to read but never got around to.  You can’t go visiting, but you can make old-fashioned phone calls or even write older-fashioned letters.  Or maybe there’s a subject you want to research; the internet didn’t go away.  Now is not a good time to join a gym but it’s an excellent time to develop a habit of walking (or running or cycling).  This list could go on…

And of course, there’s spirituality.  You can spend more time than normal reading your Bible and praying.  Also, a vast number of churches have sermons and Bible lessons available on line, way more than ever before.  Remember, being, “stuck at home,” isn’t nearly as extreme as spending forty days fasting in the wilderness as Jesus did.  And there is no way that Jesus wasted that time.   He emerged strengthened and ready for his mission which he then began in earnest.  Perhaps in like manner you can use this time praying, reflecting, and discerning for a variation of a New Year’s Resolution. That is, what might God want you to resolve to do differently once this is over?  That’s something to prayerfully explore with God.

Regardless of how COVID-19 is impacting you, remember that, “survival is insufficient.” Resolve to really live.  Even now!

COVID-19 & the Serenity Prayer

Most of us are familiar with the Serenity Prayer.  Reinhold Niebuhr penned the prayer that went through several similar versions but is perhaps most well-known as:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

I want to relate this prayer to our current situation with COVID-19. 

First of all, because most of us do not have access to a DMC DeLorean Time Machine there is nothing we can do about where we currently are with this.  That is, while we can learn from our mistakes in order to be wiser in the future, it is not otherwise productive for us to focus on mistakes made and searching for whom to blame.  Instead, we should be asking God for the serenity to accept that we are where we are.

Secondly, we do have the ability to change the future, if we have the courage!  COVID-19 is creating extreme circumstances which call for extreme measures. Top medical professionals have explained that extreme measures (the right extreme meastures) can dramatically impact the speed at which this virus spreads.   The goal, as illustrated in this chart, is to “flatten the curve.”

What this illustrative graph demonstrates is that without protective measures, COVID-19 spreads very rapidly with the vast numbers getting virus at the same time.  With protective measures being taken, the spread of virus slows down and fewer people have the virus at the same time.  This is important because, as the dashed line illustrates, if vast numbers get it at the same time, our healthcare system will not be able to handle it.  That is, there won’t be enough ICU beds, ventilators, etc., to go around.  If we take protective measures and slow the spread of the virus, even if the same number of people end up getting it, our healthcare system will have the capacity to treat them.

Every year we face the flu season.  A lot of people die.  It is certainly true that we can and should do better with preventative measures but once people have the flu, some are going to die despite our best efforts.  That is tragic.  With COVID-19, the situation corresponds in some ways but is very different in other ways.  For example, like the flu, once it has spread, some patients are going to die even after we’ve put them in ICU and placed them on a ventilator, etc.  Unlike our encounter with the annual flu, however, a lot of patients could die due to a shortage of ICU beds and ventilator.  That would be tragic at a completely different level.

The right extreme measures are all about, “social distancing.”  We need to take drastic steps to reduce instances of physical proximity to one another.  That means mass numbers of cancelations and closures.  It means staying home when we’d rather go out or go away!  Concerts, sporting events, schools, theaters, restaurants, special events, travel, and even church services need to be sacrificed.  (As a pastor, I confess that cancelling church gatherings was especially hard to me!  )   This is where having, “the courage to change the things I can,” comes into play.  It takes courage to face the inconvenience and financial hardships that the recommended actions will cause.  Given the sacrifice and level of difficulty these actions take it seems awfully wise that we should pray to God for the courage to make these hard decisions and to follow through with them. Without God-given courage, we are likely to fail to have the resolve.

It is true we don’t need to live in fear. But we need to remember that taking extreme measures, if they are wise measures, doesn’t mean we are living in fear. I wear a helmet when I ride my bike. Not because I live in fear, but because it is the safe thing to do. Avoiding social contacts during a pandemic doesn’t mean we live in fear, we do it because it is the safe thing to do. And truthfully, for the majority of you, it’s more about the safety of a minority you come in contact with (those with compromised immune system) than about yourselves.

It is also true that we don’t need to panic and go crazy like we’ve seen with a run on certain commodities at the grocery store. We are facing an extreme situation which calls for extreme measures. Some extreme measures, like social distancing, are wise. Some extreme measures, like hoarding supplies to the hurt of others, are not wise. Let’s add a line to the Serenity Prayer. Besides praying that we would know the difference between the things we can’t change and the things we can, let’s also pray we would know the difference between wise extreme measures and unwise extreme measures.

How I Prayed for the Impeachment Trial

I have Christian friends who prayed that President Trump would be acquitted by the Senate.  I also have Christian friends who prayed that President Trump would be removed from office by the Senate.  Which way did I pray?  Neither!

I think both of those prayers were misguided.  Brash statement, I know, but stay with me. You see, I believe those prayers were theologically misguided, Let me explain: One of the foundational truths of the Bible is what we call, free will.  That is, God has gifted to every human being the ability to make choices. 

This teaching begins in Genesis 2 when God created Adam and placed him in the Garden of Eden.  Verse 19 says, “Now the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name.”  That is the first recorded instance of a human getting to make choices.   In my own mind, I can picture God nodding his approval at some choices… and laughing at others.  I believe he enjoyed watching the pinnacle of his creation exercising the gift of free will!

But this gift of free will was intended to extend far beyond such relatively trivial topics. Free will also extended to moral choices.  In Genesis 2:16-17, God had said, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.”  In Genesis 3:6 we read, “When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.”  They ate from the very tree from which they had been told not to eat.   The All-powerful Creator of the Universe who had forbidden they eat from that tree, certainly could have stopped them from eating from that tree.  But he didn’t.  He could have placed an invisible force field.  Or, more in line with our topic, he could have made them choose not to!  But he didn’t. 

God gave to humanity the gift of free will.  There is no Biblical reason to believe he ever withdrew that gift.  Time and time again we read of God giving commands only to have them disobeyed.  He simply does not make humans do what he wants.  It is true that he sometimes makes it hard to disobey; just read the story of Jonah or the story of Paul on the road to Damascus in Acts 9.  But he doesn’t manipulate minds to force conformity to his will. 

Here’s my point:  To pray that the Senate acquit the President or remove the President was to pray that God would make them vote a particular way.  It would in essence be to pray that God would override their free will.  I think that is misguided praying. 

So how did I pray?  I prayed in keeping with my belief in free will.  I prayed that God would give each senator wisdom, clarity of thought and mind, and that the Spirit would impress upon each of them clear direction as to how they ought to vote. 

When it was time to vote, what they did with that wisdom, clarity of thought and mind, and Spirit-given direction was entirely up to them.  God designed it that way. 

A Call for a Christlike Immigration Policy

For over a century, at the base of the Statue of Liberty, we have proudly exhibited the historic principle upon which we have become who we are: 

“Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me…”

As a nation, we are now implementing a new immigration policy that flies in the face of that historic principle.  The new policy is aimed at screening out the less fortunate and only welcoming the healthier, wealthier, higher educated, higher skilled, and those from the “right” countries.

In a twisted application of President Kennedy’s revered words, the new policy asks not what we can do for others but asks what others can do for us.  In short, the new policy is a self-seeking, selfish policy of prioritizing our own needs while ignoring the needs of those around us.

Furthermore, for those interested in the idea of the United States being a nation with a foundation of Christian values and principles, this new policy not only flies in the face of our historical principle as stated above but also flies in the face of Jesus’ teaching.  Consider Jesus’ words in these two passages:

 “Then Jesus said to his host, ‘When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid.  But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind,and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.’” (Luke 14:12-14, NIV)

 “And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.  Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”  (Luke 6:33-36, NIV)

In these passages, Jesus was concerned about more than financial planning or dinner parties.  Jesus was giving us a life principle:  As his followers, we should love—and show it through kindness and generosity— to those unable or even unwilling (Jesus spoke of our “enemies”) to reciprocate.  As he himself summed it up, he was teaching us to, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” 

The Apostle Paul reiterated and affirmed this principle in Philippians 2:3-4, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.”

While that might sound ideal and look good on paper, isn’t it risky?  Dangerous? Unsafe? Costly? 

Yes, it is risky, dangerous, unsafe, and costly.  Jesus’ life led to his death and the truth is, living like him is risky and costly.  As Jesus said, “Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” (Matthew 10:38)  And he repeated the principle, “Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’” (Matthew 16:24)

The question we need to cerebrate (“think deeply, ponder, turn over in your mind”), and pray about, is this: Is our position on this issue being formed more by our own logic and natural desire for comfort and security or by the teachings and example of Jesus?

A Sermon Echo from Sunday, January 19th

(A “Sermon Echo” is a short reminder or elaboration of something I preached or heard on a previous Sunday.)

One hundred years ago we began a new decade that came to be known as, The Roaring Twenties! It was so named due to the tumultuous nature of that decade.

Thinking about the decade that lies before us, I suggest that with intentionality we strive to make it our own personal, Soaring Twenties!

Isaiah 40:28-31 says,

Do you not know?
    Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
    the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary,
    and his understanding no one can fathom.
He gives strength to the weary
    and increases the power of the weak.
Even youths grow tired and weary,
    and young men stumble and fall;
but those who hope in the Lord
    will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
    they will run and not grow weary,
    they will walk and not be faint.

Too often on our spiritual journey we grow tired and weary and we stumble and fall. Wouldn’t it be great if instead we could SOAR on wings like eagles? Run and not grow weary? Walk and not be faint? To say that would be great would be an understatement.

The good news is, is that it is entirely possible! Isaiah gives the key: “Put your hope in the Lord!”

This passage has also been translated as, “wait up on the Lord.” The term translated as hope or wait comes from a family of synonyms that also include the ideas believe in, trust, long for, and faith. Dr. John Hartley said the meaning is, “Enduring patiently in confident hope that God will decisively act for the salvation of his people.”

To restate it: No matter what else this potentially tumultuous decade may hold, endure patiently, hoping, believing, and waiting for God to decisively act! If you do that, for you, this will be the SOARING TWENTIES!

A Sermon Echo from Sunday, January 6th

(A “Sermon Echo” is a short reminder or elaboration of something I preached or heard on a previous Sunday.)

This special edition, devotional, Sermon Echo is based on Pastor Chelsie’s Epiphany Sunday message.

Epiphany is a day on the Christian calendar set aside to commemorate the visit of the Magi (the Wise Men). The word, epiphany, means revealing or revelation. It’s use in this case is based on the idea that the Magi’s visit to revealed that Jesus was Lord to the whole world,

The Jews had long expected the Messiah or the Christ. His advent (arrival) was a great event. But notice that all involved were Jews, It’s what one would expect for a Jewish Savior.

But Jesus wasn’t supposed to be the Savior for just the Jews. As far back as Genesis 3, when Abraham, the father of the Jewish people, was first chosen and called, God had promised that all peoples on earth would be blessed through him. The angel that visited the shepherds proclaimed that Jesus’ birth was good news that would bring great joy to all the people.

Jesus was a Jew, he entered the world through the Jewish nation in a Jewish setting and was surrounded by Jews. Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, Simeon, Anna; all Jews. But Jesus hadn’t come for the Jews alone. The visit of the Magi helped to reveal that all important truth!

A Savior for the Jews would have been big news. But the visit of the Magi revealed the true scope and scale of what God was doing. Jesus was the Savior of the whole world. That isn’t just big, it’s ENORMOUSLY HUGE!

Let this remind of two things:

First, since most of my readers are Gentiles (not Jews), celebrate and be thankful that Jesus is YOUR Savior, not just the Jews’ Savior.

Secondly, in somewhat of a reversal, now that you know he is your Savior, remember that he is not just your Savior but EVERYONE’S Savior. Your Christian friends, of course, but not just them. Also, your non-Christian family, neighbors and co-workers. Also, all those of other races from you, other nationalities from you, even other religions from you. Of course, many of them either haven’t head the good news or they haven’t accepted the good news. He came to be their Savior too. Those of us who have heard and accepted this good news have the responsibility to help tell and persuade those who haven’t.

Epiphany doesn’t get the attention it should!

On the Twelfth Day of Christmas

Yesterday we looked at an encounter between the Mary, Joseph, the infant Jesus and Simeon.  Right after that meeting, the trio met another person. 

“There was also a prophet, Anna… She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying. Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.” (Luke 2:36-38)

There was a Jewish principle from the Old Testament that, “every matter must be established by two or three witnesses.”  At one point, Jesus even quoted that principle.   Anna, following Simeon, makes witness number two! 

To what was she a witness?  Notice that speaking to people, “who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem,” Anna, “spoke about the child to them.”  Think about the implication of that:  Like Simeon, Anna also somehow knew that this infant was no ordinary infant, but a Savior.  She had connected the dots between this child and redemption and she witnessed to that truth.

But how was she able to connect the dots?  I think it was her devotion.  Broadcast signals are all around us nonstop but you need a receiver tuned to the right frequency to get those signals.  Anna was spiritually, “tuned in,” to what God was doing.  How does one tune in?  Spiritual disciplines!  Anna’s example includes things like prayer, fasting, giving thanks and worship. 

God is still on the move.  Keep yourself spiritually in a place where you’ll recognize it.

On the Eleventh Day of Christmas

We call the things we want to do before we, “kick the bucket,” our bucket list.  My bucket list includes things like, “visit all fifty states.”   Simeon was an old man by the time Joseph and Mary made their trip to Bethlehem.  His bucket list was short but huge!  That is, there was apparently only one item, but it was a massive item.  Thinking about it makes me think my own list is too shallow and ought to be reconsidered. 

Luke puts it this way, “Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel…” (Luke 2:25)  It was a dark and distressing time for Simeon’s people, brought low by sinfulness. Simeon wanted to see that reversed.  

I don’t know if I’ll make it to all fifty states or not.  For Simeon it was different.  “It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.” (Luke 2:26)  There’s an important implication there.  Specifically, it was the coming of the Messiah (Hebrew version of Christ) that would bring the consolation of Israel.  To wait for one, was to wait for the other.

The rest of the story: 

“Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying:  ‘Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace.  For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:  a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.’”

Simeon’s bucket list was complete!  At God’s urging through the Spirit he had crossed paths with Mary, Joseph, and Jesus.  He realized (I believe God revealed it to him) that this infant was the Messiah he had been waiting for.  Apparently, holding the divine infant flipped on another light switch in his mind.  He had been waiting for God to send necessary help for his own people Israel but now seemed to understand that the Messiah was bringing salvation not just for Israel but for the Gentiles (everyone else) too.

Think of Simeon’s faith to believe that little helpless infant he held in his arms was the Savior for the whole world!   When you think about the birth of Jesus, don’t forget just how incredible and profound that is. 

On the Tenth Day of Christmas

Yesterday’s devotional talked about the shepherds giving us an example to follow because they took action and went to Bethlehem. That’s not the only good example they gave us.  Consider three more.

“When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child…  The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.” (Luke 2:17-20)

First, notice the words, “they spread the word.”  Good news is to be shared.  The shepherds seemed to have done so spontaneously.  They just automatically began telling their story. As Christians we are specifically commissioned (ordered) to spread the word. 

Secondly, notice the words, “the shepherds returned.”  This seems rather elementary but after any spiritual encounter, we should return!  Back to our ordinary lives.  Back to our family.  Back to our jobs.  The vast, vast majority of Christians are not called to cloister themselves away in a chapel somewhere.  We are called to return to the world.

Thirdly, notice the words, “glorifying and praising God…”  I suspect that too often we take blessings for granted and forget to give credit where credit is due.  We don’t have to be literally singing all the time but we ought always to be glorifying and praising God.

At Christmas we often talk about the shepherds AND the wise men.  The truth is, the shepherds were wise men and we’d be wise to follow their example.