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Archive for November, 2016

Thomas Gaddis’s book, The Birdman of Alcatraz, is a biography of the convicted criminal and two-time murderer, Robert Stroud. Stroud spent most of his seventy years behind bars and in solitary confinement in the prison known as Alcatraz. During his first twenty years of confinement, he became increasingly withdrawn, bitter, and harder to handle. Needless to say, he was considered to be a maximum-security risk.

However, something happened that drastically changed Stroud’s life. During one of the prison courtyard exercise periods, a tiny sparrow fell from its nest during a storm. Stroud found the sparrow, and initially had the impulse to snuff out the little bird’s life just as he had snuffed out the lives of two human beings – but he didn’t! Instead, he carried the sparrow to his cell and nursed it back to health.

His interest had been aroused, and he read everything he could on the subject of birds. Other prisoners began sending their ill canaries to him. When encountering diseases that had no known cure, he would experiment and often find a cure. Little by little he was changed from an incorrigible prisoner to a quiet, serious, able authority on birds.

One day Stroud asked his guard, a man with whom he had previously refused to speak, for the orange crate on which he was sitting, that he might make a cage for his sparrow. “For twenty years I’ve tried to get through to you and be nice to you,” the guard said, “but you have never given me the time of day.” After a few minutes of silence, however, the guard had a change of heart and slipped the orange crate into the cell. When Stroud noticed it, he mumbled two words he had probably never said before: “Thank you!”

Robert Stroud’s rehabilitation began the moment he learned to say, “Thank you,” and mean it. Only then did he begin to understand himself. He began to realize that he was not the isolated, self-sufficient, independent character he had so long pretended to be. In the same way, it is only when we can say: “Thank you,” and mean it, that we begin to understand ourselves for what we are – creatures rather than creators, receivers who can learn to become givers. Paul Tillich spoke wisely when he said: “A man who is able to give thanks seriously accepts that he is a creature and acknowledges his finitude.”

It is only by being grateful that we can recognize how dependent we are – upon God first of all, and also upon others, for our very being. It is always a tragedy when we forget who we are and why we are here. This is what the ancient writer of Deuteronomy meant when he said, “Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God, failing to observe his commands, his laws and his decrees that I am giving you this day. Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 8:10-14a NIV).

Is this not an accurate picture of what is happening in our country today? When we forget to give thanks, or refuse to give thanks, we forget who we are – creatures of the living God, dependent upon Him for our very being. There are basically three reasons why we need to have the spirit of thanksgiving in our lives: (1) to teach us who we are, (2) to remind us that we belong to God, and (3) to make us aware of the countless ways we are blessed by God and by others.

He who forgets the language of gratitude can never be on speaking terms with happiness.

 

 

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Running on empty

Jackson Browne introduced a song in 1977 called “Running on Empty.” That is what too many of us in today’s world try to do. We run and run, and do and do, until we can’t run and can’t do any longer. Running on empty is a formula for disaster. It is just one of the reasons we sometimes fail to reach our goals.

Frequently a few laps before the end of a NASCAR race the caution flag comes out and the drivers slow down and follow the pace car. Usually at this point several drivers pull off the track to add gasoline, but sometimes the driver who is leading the race stays out on the track. Then the green flag comes out and the race begins at full speed again. The lead driver who didn’t stop for fuel crosses his fingers, and hopes his car will keep going. But, on the final lap his carburetor sputters and several drivers behind him speed by. No NASCAR driver ever won a race when his tank was empty. What is true in racing is even truer in life.

The depressing part of this scenario is that we can easily prevent the disasters we encounter when we try to run on empty. We are in at least one sense like an automobile. Our bodies are vessels that need to be filled, oiled, and maintained on a regular basis. If we neglect to refill our spiritual tank, we run out of gas.

That is why setting aside Sunday, the Christian Sabbath, is so important. God made us in such a way that every seventh day we need to rest from labor so we can refill our spiritual tank. Joining others at church in the act of corporate worship gives us the opportunity to reflect on where we have been and where we need to go. In addition to attending church to worship God, Sunday also gives us the time to rest physically in order to rejuvenate both body and spirit.

Trying to fill our days with more than we can do is not just a temptation that lay persons face. I have known several pastors who possessed great gifts for ministry who were used by God in powerful ways. But they did not take the time to regularly refill their physical and spiritual energy tanks, and they dropped out of the ministry. Literally no one is immune to the dangers that result from “running on empty.”

Let me share my personal testimony: Years ago I would periodically keep a log for two weeks of the time I spent preparing sermons, studying to teach, visiting the sick, counseling, attending meetings, dealing with administrative details, and doing other ministry tasks. I told no one that I was doing this. It was simply my way of evaluating what I was doing. My commitments averaged between 70 and 75 hours per week.

During a particularly busy time I arrived home one day for lunch and found a note on my chair that contained a long list of the things that consumed my time. At the top of the list, of course, was “church.” Next was the civic club of which I was a member and an officer. Then, the girl’s home where I was a charter member on the board of directors, then other organizations and involvements which occupied some of my time and energy. Finally, in last place was this word: “FAMILY.” The list was in my wife’s handwriting. She spoke not one word of complaint for all my activities, for she was as committed to Christian ministry as I am. No pastor ever had a more dedicated and faithful wife. She went home to be with the Lord on April 5th.

It was the most powerful sermon I ever heard preached, and it found its target — me! I took the list, went into the living room by myself, and had a talk with the Lord. I was so heavily involved that I had not been home with my family a single night in three months. I went into the kitchen and gave the list to my wife upside down with the activities that didn’t involve ministry marked out. My family was now at the top of the list.

My problem: I was “running on empty.” I was leaving little time for what was most important. I decided not to do it anymore! If you are too busy and are running on empty, why not decide to do what I decided to do?

 

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If you were asked to select one of the aspects of God’s character as His crowning attribute, what would you select? Would it be His love, mercy, or goodness? Or would it be His sovereignty, omnipotence (all-powerful), or omniscience (all-knowing)?

All of these attributes describe God’s nature. I believe, however, that God has an even greater attribute than these: His faithfulness. All of the other attributes of God, as great as they are, would set us up for total disappointment if it were not for His faithfulness, His constancy and consistency, His dependability. Paul affirms this view in writing to the Christians in Corinth: “God, who has called you into fellowship with His Son Jesus Christ our Lord, is faithful” (I Corinthians 1:9).

We humans are not always faithful, are we? People who stand at God’s altar to be married, and who promise to faithful to the vows they make “until death parts us” often break those vows. Politicians often make promises that are ignored or forgotten. People in business are not always faithful to do the things or provide the services they have advertised. People, even those we think can be trusted, are not always faithful. But God’s faithfulness never wavers.

What if God only loved us some of the time? Imagine what life would be like if God were gracious only under certain conditions? What if His goodness vacillated from time to time or according to circumstance? What if He were moody, given to playing favorites, or if He compromised His righteousness and justice? Life would be an absolute madhouse, wouldn’t it?

Because God is faithful we can sing with Henry F. Lyte, “Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day; Earth’s joys grow dim, its glories pass away; Change and decay in all around I see, O Thou who changest not abide with me.”

And God definitely does abide with us. He never acts out of character, never ceases to extend grace, and never contradicts His own nature. He will always love us. He stands by the covenant He has made with those who trust Him. We can always count on His promises being kept. The dominant note of the Bible is His faithfulness. He is always faithful to His own nature – and to us.

God’s faithfulness is rooted in His holiness. He is the one fixed point in a world that is in a constant state of change. “He is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). He can be counted on – always!

“Always” is a very long time. In the midst of the calamities so often present in our fallen world God relentlessly seeks to bring us into relationship with Him. Only He can say without the possibility of contradiction, “I will always love you!”

The psalmist said, “I will sing of the mercies of the Lord forever; with my mouth will I make known your faithfulness to all generations” (Psalm 89:1). The word “faithfulness” is used at least six times in this psalm.

Even when Jerusalem was overrun by enemies the prophet Jeremiah would not give up his dogged belief in the faithfulness of God, “This I will call to mind, therefore I have hope. Through the Lord’s mercies we are not consumed, because His compassions fail not. They are new every morning; great is His faithfulness” (Lamentations 3:21-23).

It is at the foot of Calvary’s cross that God’s faithfulness can most supremely be seen. This never ceased to amaze the apostle Paul. We see this in the words he used to encourage young Timothy, “If we remain faithless, He (God) remains faithful; He cannot deny Himself” (2 Timothy 2:13).

This is possibly the best definition of God’s faithfulness in the entire Bible: “He cannot deny Himself.” He will always be who He is – always! It is because He is faithful that all the other aspects of His nature are true and will never fail. You can depend on Him – always!

 

 

 

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Throughout our lives we are nourished and sustained by communities. They supply our yearning for support, solidarity, and meaning. They provide the context within which we can grow and flourish as long as we live. We would not be the persons we are without the impact that the people have made on our lives in the communities in where we have lived.

Our experience of community begins with our childhood friends – classmates, teammates, neighbors — who give us the affirmation we seek and need outside our immediate family. It is where we continue to learn how to interrelate with others in meaningful and productive ways.

At schools and universities we expand our horizons in communities of learning. We pick up valuable information about justice, vision and imagination. In our chosen careers we learn to listen to each other and to nurture one another. Back home in our neighborhoods we learn how to connect with and become involved with still others.

Many of us turn to a support group of one kind or another in order to deal with problems or challenges. Or we may band together with others to fight for a worthy cause. These special communities give us a trusting environment where we can feel totally free to express our feelings, share our stories, and try to make a difference.

The advances of modern technology have created new communities. They enable us to share ideas and exchange information via the print media, radio, television, and the Internet with multiple kinds of communities in every country on earth. Those who lived two or three generations ago would not have believed the kind of advances that have been made possible by modern technology. These advances provide us with many benefits, but they also give us new and difficult challenges.

Memberships in men’s and women’s groups, civic clubs, fraternities and sororities, or other types of groups help satisfy our need for fellowship with others. Then there are ad hoc communities which arise spontaneously out of crises – wars, natural disasters, accidents and personal traumas – which draw us together into community because we share a common experience or need.

This is not the end of the communities to which we belong. Many people continue to maintain ethnic or nationalistic ties which are expressed in various kinds of activities. Also, in the twenty-first century as in no previous one we are part of a global community. The world is smaller than it has ever been, and it is getting smaller every single day.

Last but not least, we have the opportunity through churches and synagogues to experience the value of faith, the meaning of grace, the power of joy, and the opportunity to serve the needs of others. We experience the community of our ancestors – which Christians often call “the communion of saints.” We stand on their shoulders. All that we are and have has been provided through them, and we must pass all of this on to those who follow us.

Ever since God saw how lonely Adam was in the Garden of Eden, and created Eve to meet his needs, humans have been embedded in communities both large and small. We are both different and alike, and we need each other. We may not always realize that, but we do. When walls are built rather than bridges, unity is lost, trouble begins, arguments are created, and wars are fought.

In one of his ecological treatises, scientist Gregory Bateson asked, “What pattern connects the crab to the lobster and the orchid to the primrose and all four of them to me? And who connects me to you? It is a good question, and the answer is, ‘God did!’”

The Guardian of the Galaxies created us to live in community – with Him and with one another. It is how life was designed and is best lived! Join me in celebrating both the communities in past years that have made us who and what we are and those in which we are currently involved.

Communities are worth celebrating. Without them we would be very lonely.

 

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