Archive for May, 2013

An English publication offered a prize for the best definition of a friend. Thousands of answers were received, but the one that received first prize was this: “A friend is the one who comes in when the whole world has gone out.” If you have no friends who fit this definition, and would like to develop some, the most logical place to begin is to examine your own life. Genuine introspection dares to ask you to give up personality traits that make it difficult to develop and maintain lasting friendships – take, for example, the following:

  1. Your need to always be right. Some people can’t stand the idea of being wrong – even at the risk of ending meaningful relationships. Is your ego that big? Every time you feel the urgent need to win an argument, ask yourself this question, “Would I rather be right, or would I rather be kind?”
  2. Your need to be in control. If you have an insatiable need to be in control of everything around you, you will find it difficult to make and keep friends. Whether this involves family, neighbors, coworkers, classmates, or someone you just met – allow them to be themselves. Those who try to control every conversation and every activity push people away.
  3. Your need to blame others. It is easy to blame others for what you have or do not have, and for what you feel and do not feel. Politicians generally find it very easy to blame others for anything that goes wrong, but they definitely do not have a monopoly on the practice.
  4. Your pessimism.  If you lack confidence in what you can do, or of what is possible, you will be left stuck in the place where you are. Pessimists don’t attract many friends. Eckhart Tolle wisely said, “The mind is a superb instrument if used rightly. Used wrongly, however, it becomes destructive.”
  5. Your need to constantly complain.  If you perpetually complain about everything – people, situations, events that make you unhappy, the weather, etc. – you will not only become miserable, but you will also make everyone around you miserable. Situations and circumstances, even difficult ones, do not trigger your desire to complain; it is your attitude toward situations and circumstances.
  6. Your tendency to criticize. Constantly criticizing people, things, or events will make it difficult for you to develop and maintain friendships. Expressing a negative attitude to or about those who do things differently than you do them will build walls rather than bridges. Those who can – do; those who can’t – criticize. The best place to criticize is when you stand in front of a mirror. The critic who begins with himself will be too busy to take on outside contracts.
  7. Your need to impress others. Trying to be something that you are not just to impress others will not work. Take off your mask and be yourself, and others will more easily accept and embrace you.
  8. Your resistance to change. Change is good, for it will help you move from A to B. Change just for the sake of change is not good, but change that is positive and leads to personal growth is healthy.
  9. Your tendency to live in the past.  The past is history, the future is a mystery, and today is God’s gift. That is why it is called the “present.” Those who are stuck in their yesterdays find it difficult to become productively involved in today’s opportunities or accept challenges that lead toward tomorrow.
  10. Your excuses. Pack them up and send them away. You no longer need them. Those who constantly offer excuses not only fail to grow, but soon discover that potential friends have moved away.
  11. Your tendency to live by the expectations of others. To live a life that is not yours, to try always to please others will make you less than genuine. Friendship is based on genuineness.
  12. Your fears. Fear is just an illusion. It doesn’t exist – you created it in your mind. Correct what is inside you and everything on the outside will fall into place. Ralph Waldo Emerson, in Nature, Addresses, and Lectures: The American Scholar, said: “Fear always springs from ignorance.” To be ruled by fear is to lack the kind of sincerity and emotional stability on which friendships are built.

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The porcupine, a member of the rodent family, has around 30,000 quills attached to his body. Each quill, when driven into an enemy, becomes firmly embedded and hard to remove. The wounds can become infected, which causes great pain, affecting vital organs, and can be fatal. Porcupines are not normally thought of as friendly animals. Should you meet one, you would be wise to give him lots of room.

Books and movies celebrate almost every conceivable animal – not just dogs and cats and horses. Take, for example: pigs (“Babe”, from the TV show Green Acres); spiders (Charlotte’s Web); dolphins (Flipper); bears (Gentle Ben); and killer whales (Free Willy). Even skunks have the cartoon character, Pepe Le Pew. If there are any famous porcupines, I haven’t heard about them. I don’t know of any parent who would want their children to have a porcupine for a pet. They are solitary animals. They travel alone.

We have all known people who have some porcupine DNA. If you to get close to them, they raise their quills. They fear being hurt, or of losing their freedom, if they get too close to others. Thus, they withdraw into their own little world. They have experienced pain or rejection somewhere along the way – in their family, or in one or more of their other relationships. If you try to get too close to them, they will attack. They have difficulty living in community with others, but they have specific needs that only others can meet.

Though porcupines are solitary animals, there are times when they do not want to be alone. Otherwise there would never be another generation of little porcupines. In late autumn the thoughts of young porcupines turn to love. But love can be a difficult emotion to express if you happen to be carrying 30,000 quills with you everywhere you go. Thus, the porcupine’s dilemma: How do you get close without getting hurt?

This is our dilemma also: How do we get close to others without being hurt? Our barbs have names like rejection, condemnation, resentment, anger, arrogance, selfishness, envy and contempt. A young man and a young woman fall in love and decide to get married. But following the wedding, perhaps years later, they drift apart and move in different directions. Problems develop because they do not continue to develop the kind of closeness that enables their love to become mature. Their quills are raised and they shoot them at each other. What began in unity ends in bitterness and divorce. The happiness they originally wanted is lost.

The same thing happens in churches, for church members are human. Every human has some porcupine DNA. Some people have a lot more than others. When church members lose their ability and desire to love one another, they violate the one great commandment Jesus gave His followers. Loving one another is the way the world knows that we are Christians.

Relationships do happen – even for porcupines. Naturalists tell us that males and females may remain together for some days before mating. They may touch paws and even walk on their hind feet in the so-called “dance of the porcupines.” Only God could have thought up two porcupines fox-trotting paw-to-paw. They pull in their quills and learn to dance. It is how the next generation of porcupines comes into being.

God’s dream for the church is that it be an ideal community — and He has not given up on that dream. It is also His dream that the church bring into being a new generation of believers. Every church has a role to play in helping God’s dream become a reality. However, the only way that can happen in any church is for personal differences to be laid aside and a unified commitment be given to the task at hand.

In other words, we must follow the example of porcupines: pull in our quills and start dancing!

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Lewis Smedes has said, “When you forgive someone, you are dancing to the rhythm of the divine heartbeat . . . God invented forgiveness as the only way to keep His romance with the human race alive.” What Smedes is saying is that we are most like God when we offer forgiveness to those who need it. Nowhere is this truer than in the marriage relationship. Multitudes of marriages fail every year because husbands and wives are unwilling to forgive.

Today’s country music demonstrates this. For example, here are just three typical song titles: “How Can I Miss You If You Won’t Go Away?”; “I Bought The Shoes That Just Walked Out On Me”; and “She Got The Gold Mine, I Got The Shaft.” These titles explain why the songs in country music are called “Somebody done somebody wrong songs.” They describe marriages that might have been saved if forgiveness had been part of the equation.

So, what is forgiveness? To understand what forgiveness is, we must first understand what forgiveness is not:

Forgiving is not the same thing as excusing. We excuse others when we consider extenuating circumstances for their behavior. We excuse an expectant father for driving too fast if he is carrying his wife to the hospital when she is in labor. Forgiving does not mean tolerating bad behavior or pretending that what someone did was not so bad. Excusing is an end run around having a willingness to forgive. When an action is excusable, it doesn’t require forgiveness.

Forgiving is not the same thing as forgetting. All that forgetting requires is a bad memory. We forget phone numbers, where we parked our car, where we put our keys, or what someone’s name is. The Bible speaks of times when God forgets our sin, but this doesn’t mean that He has a memory retrieval problem. It means that He loves us so much that our past sins are irrelevant to His dealing with us. Forgiving is what is required when we can’t forget.

Forgiving is not the same thing as reconciling. You can forgive someone for an action without reconciling with them. A wife can forgive her husband for his physically abusive behavior, but this does not mean that she has to move back in with the brute. By forgiving his bad behavior she is able to let go of bad memories and move forward. Forgiveness can lead to reconciliation, and often does, but forgiveness and reconciliation are two separate things. Forgiveness takes place in the heart of one person; reconciliation requires the conscious and deliberate action of two persons. Forgiveness can be granted even if the offending person does not request it.

Forgiveness is required when excusing or condoning or tolerating or accepting is not big enough to do the job. The first stage of forgiveness is the decision not to try to inflict a reciprocal amount of pain on the person or persons who have caused us pain or difficulty. When you forgive someone, you give up the right to hurt them back. You suspend the law of vengeance. You voluntarily give up the right of retaliation.

Forgiveness begins the very moment you give up the quest to get even. This, of course, isn’t an easy thing to do, but for your own peace of mind it is the best thing do. Only one thing costs more than forgiving someone – not forgiving them. Fredrick Buechner in one of his books says, “Of all the deadly sins, resentment appears to be the most fun. To lick your wounds and savor the pain you will give back is in many ways a feast fit for a king. But then it turns out that what you are eating at the banquet of bitterness is your own heart. The skeleton at the feast is you. You start out by holding a grudge, but in the end the grudge holds you.”

When you refuse to forgive, your anger will become your burden. The grudge you nurse will grow both larger and stronger. Bit by bit the joy of living will disappear from your life. All that will be left of what was once a whole and happy person will be bitterness and hate. And that bitterness will spread until it dominates everything you do.

Is there anyone whom you need to forgive? If so, you have a choice to make. Will it be vengeance or mercy? Prison or freedom? Hatred or grace? Life or death? Please choose wisely! Your happiness depends on it!

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My wife and I were in a store in Wilmington several months ago shopping for supplies when we came upon a lady we did not know who was talking on her cell phone. It was obvious from the tone of her voice and the expression on her face that something was very wrong. Suddenly the conversation ended and she began sobbing. Tears were flowing down her cheeks. For this to happen in such a public place, it was obvious that she had heard something very difficult to handle. We went over to her, told her who we were, and asked if there was something we could do to help.

She told us that her mother, who lived in another North Carolina city, had just died. After we learned more of the details causing her emotion, we assured her that God knew her need at that very moment, and that He stood ready to provide the comfort and strength she needed. The death of a loved one is just one of many things that can be difficult for us. Suffering, tragedy, pain, and other kinds of difficulties, can also initiate heartbreak and cause our tears to flow.

Suppose I had said to the lady, “Don’t cry, for we all have to die sooner or later. Maybe it was just your mother’s time to come to the end of her journey. Try to accept it and put your mind on something else. Go out to Wrightsville Beach and walk on the beach. Listen to the splashing of the waves. It will give you a sense of peace.”

Do you think that would have helped her? Absolutely not! Her pain at the moment was normal and very real. With our arms around her, we encouraged her to go ahead and cry. God created us with tear glands. He knew there would be times when sorrow or tragedy would run over us like a runaway freight train. The ability to cry provides a safety valve, and we encouraged her to use it. Then, with people all around, we prayed with her.

Ernie Pyle, the famous war correspondent, wrote a wonderful story of the time he walked on the beaches of Normandy after that invasion. The sand was strewn with the personal effects of the boys who lay fallen in battle – snapshots, letters, books, and other things. By the side of one young soldier there was a guitar. Near another he saw a Bible half buried in the sand. He picked the Bible up and walked on down the beach. When he had gone a good distance, he turned around, went back, and laid the Bible beside the young soldier where he had found it.

He later said, “I don’t know why I picked it up, or why I put it back.” Maybe he was thinking he would send it to the boy’s parents. It would have been a comfort to them. Maybe he put it back, feeling that since the soldier had died with his Bible, it should remain beside his body. It is obvious that the young man carried his Bible with him into battle because he believed it contained the answers he needed as he faced the possibility of dying. Indeed, he did die, and when the news reached his parents back home in this country, they shed many tears just as the lady did that we met in the store.

When your heart is broken and tears fill your eyes, your first inclination may be to go to bed, to give up and surrender. But if you will turn in God’s direction and exercise faith in Him, His power will flow into you, and give you a power that will demand expression. And as you keep going, you will become able to handle the ache in your heart. You may remember the popular song, “Singing in the Rain.” When the rain comes into your life and everything seems dark and dreary, keep walking – don’t stop – and as you walk, begin to sing. You can’t prevent the rain from coming. But through faith in God, and with His power working within you, He will enable you to sing in the rain.

While incarcerated in a dungeon on the isle of Patmos, the apostle John saw a vision of a time in the future when “God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain, for the former things will have passed away” (Revelation 21:4). It is one of God’s greatest promises, and it has brought comfort to millions of people when their tears were flowing.

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One of the greatest tragedies in Christian history took place in 1271 AD. In that year Niccolo and Matteo Polo, the father and uncle of Marco Polo, visited Kubla Khan, who was considered at the time to be the ruler of the world. He had authority over all of China, all of India, and the entire East.

The Kubla Khan was attracted to the story of Christianity as Niccolo and Matteo shared it with him. He said to them, “You shall go to your high priest and tell him on my behalf to send me a hundred men skilled in your religion, and I shall be baptized. And when I am baptized all my barons and great men will be baptized, and their subjects will receive baptism, too. So, there will be more Christians here than there are in the part of the world from which you come.”

Wow! What a fantastic opportunity! At no time in Christian history had such a tremendous opportunity been presented to the followers of Jesus Christ. The tragedy lies in the fact that almost nothing was done in response to what the Kubla Khan had requested. Even after thirty years had passed only a handful of missionaries were sent – it was far too few and much too late to take advantage of a marvelous open door to share the good news of the gospel. That door on such a grand scale would never be opened again.

Can you imagine what a tremendous impact might have been made nearly eight centuries ago on that part of the world if Christians had had the vision to see the entire East won to Jesus Christ? The mind boggles at the thought of how the history of the entire world could have been changed if thirteenth-century China, India, and the other areas of the Orient had been converted to Christianity.

Lost opportunities are very often lost forever. We may regret and obsess over them, but it does not alter the fact that they are lost. The important thing is that we learn from lost opportunities. As Franklin Field wisely said, “Poor eyes limit your sight; poor vision limits your deeds.” I believe that vision is the Aladdin’s lamp of the soul. It is the capacity to create a compelling picture of the desired state of affairs in a way that inspires people to respond. It is that which is worthy – that which could be, should be, and is attainable.

A vision without a task is a dream. A task without a vision is drudgery. A vision and a task combined is the hope of the world. If you or your church lacks vision, ask God for it. Vision is the ability to understand the history, the present condition, and the potential of a church, and to conceive a plan for action that will maximize its ministry potential.

Vision is the result of having spent much time absorbing the facts about your community, knowing the resources upon which the church can call – people, funding, facilities, equipment, etc. – and devising sound but creative strategies for moving forward. Vision always entails progress; it is never satisfied with the status quo. Too many churches today are totally satisfied with the status quo.

As we reflect on the opportunity that was lost in 1271 AD, it is important that we ask ourselves these questions: “What opportunities to share my faith in Christ with others have I missed for lack of vision? Are there persons within my current circle of influence to whom I could share what Christ means to me?” And if there are such persons: “When might I set aside a specific time to do precisely that?” If you will first talk to God about those you know who aren’t Christians, you will be better prepared to talk to them about God.

“Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18). It was true in 1271 AD. It is also true today when Christians and/or churches fail to accept and meet opportunities for lack of vision.

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