Thursday, August 17, 2017

Abundant Living

“I can do all things through him [Christ] who strengthens me.” 
Philippians 4:13

I love to take pictures of flowers. Fields of wildflowers, gardens of carefully cultivated flowers, big and bold flowers, simple and plain flowers – wherever I find them, I love to take pictures of flowers.

Most of the time I find flowers where one would expect them to be: in the garden, or in a pot, or in a field, or in the forest. But every once in a while I come across flowers in the most peculiar places. I’ve found flowers growing in the cracks in sidewalks; I’ve found flowers growing in the rain gutters along our roof; I’ve found flowers growing where there is very little oxygen, high up in the alpine tundra.

When Carol and I traveled to Scotland, I saw flowers growing in the rock walls on the side of the roads. People had not planted the flowers; the seeds had just blown (or maybe they were “deposited” by the birds) into the cracks and crevasses of the centuries-old walls. Somehow, though, the flowers grew – flourished, even.

Similarly, when we were hiking in Colorado, I looked off to my left and noticed a bed of flowers growing right on top of a boulder. There were only a few inches of forest compost to serve as soil, but it was enough for the flowers to grow – to flourish, even.

I mention these peculiar places where I have discovered flowers because I know that many times we might find ourselves in less-than-ideal situations or circumstances in our lives. Circumstances that wouldn’t ordinarily be suitable for flourishing. Situations you don’t normally think of when you hear the term, “abundant life.”

And yet.

And yet, abundant life is precisely what we discover with Jesus. Jesus said, “I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10. I’ll let you in on a secret: the “they” in that verse refers to you and me!)

I don’t want to pretend to promise that everything is rosy (excuse the pun) with Jesus. We still will experience some of those challenging times in our lives. We will experience difficulties and trials. But when we experience the trials and difficulties with the assurance of Christ’s love and kindness and presence, then I am convinced that the quality of life is different for us. Even in the midst of struggles and challenges, we can thrive, not simply survive.

I have seen different people confronted by the same traumatic experience; and at times I have seen totally different outcomes. Some may come out on the other side embittered by their struggles, ready to give up. Others may come out filled with hope and peace, and even made stronger as a result. Those who come out stronger and more hope-filled invariably owe their strength and hope and peace to their relationship with the Lord. As they have struggled and grieved and cried out, they have found One who comes to them and nourishes them with his love, his grace, his peace.

I am aware that what I am claiming here may be an over-simplification. That is one of the downfalls of trying to address profound truths in brief blog entries. I am fully aware that the struggles many people face are more dire than I will ever know. And I am aware that conditions like depression or anxiety can’t simply be alleviated by saying, “You just need Jesus, and it will all be better.”

I know that it’s not that simple.

But I also know that, no matter the situation in which we find ourselves, we can experience abundant life. Because, Jesus. Because Jesus offers us strength, and courage. Because Jesus introduces hope, and gives us his peace. Because Jesus shines light into our darkness, to dispel and overcome the darkness.

The apostle Paul wasn’t speaking empty, pithy words when he said, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” In fact, he was writing those words from a prison cell into which he had been unjustly sent. He had seen success in his ministry, but he had also experienced rejection and persecution, even bodily harm. But the trials and the difficulties he faced were different when he viewed them from the perspective of Christ’s presence and grace.

He knew that abundance wasn’t so much a matter of circumstance, as it was a matter of Who was with him in the midst of the circumstances. That’s why he said, “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all things through [Christ] who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:12-13)

If flowers can grow – flourish, even – between a rock and a hard place, don’t you think it’s possible for you and me to do the same? 

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

The Definitive Word

Let everything that breathes praise the Lord! Praise the Lord! (Psalm 150:6)

Those are the final words of the book of Psalms in the Bible: “Let everything that breathes praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!”

I know that, because I have just completed the task of writing the psalms by hand, as my morning quiet time spiritual discipline. (Before you think that sounds impressive or that I must be super disciplined, you need to know that I started this a couple of years ago, then got sidetracked with another spiritual discipline, and finally started it again this year.) I have enjoyed this exercise, because it makes me digest Scripture a few verses at a time. Every morning, some phrase or image comes to light in a way that it might not have otherwise come to light if I was just reading.

The Psalms are wonderful windows into which we can glimpse what authentic and real relationships with God look like. It’s not as neat and tidy as one may expect. The Psalms capture the wide range of human thoughts and emotions. In the Psalms you will find expressions of joy and gladness juxtaposed with expressions of frustration, or fear, or even anger. The honesty of the psalmist is both refreshing and startling.

When you start at the beginning of the psalter, you find a beautiful declaration of blessedness for those who delight in living according to the law of God:
“Blessed are they
     who do not walk in the counsel of the wicked
or stand in the way of sinners
     or sit in the seat of mockers.
But their delight is in the Law of the Lord,
     and on God’s law they meditate day and night. They are like a tree planted by streams of water,
     which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither.
     Whatever they do prospers.” (Psalm 1:1-3)

And from that point on, we are taken on a roller-coaster journey of faith that moves us to cling steadfastly to God in joy and hope, while simultaneously allowing us to wrestle with God in regard to the troubles and afflictions we face in life. In the Psalms we will vacillate between desperation and hope, between gladness and sadness, between rejoicing and grief, between comfort and restlessness, between lament and praise.

Truly, one of the more beautiful aspects of the Psalms is how genuinely human they are. Because you and I can relate, can’t we?

We can relate to the awe and wonder that fills us when we consider God’s handiwork in creation.

We can relate to the profound sadness that we experience at the sudden and tragic and inexplicable loss of a loved one.

We can relate to the joy and gladness overflow our hearts when we are assured of God’s steadfast and unconditional love.

We can relate to the guilt of unconfessed sin, but also to the liberating relief of forgiveness.

We can relate to the frustration that overwhelms us when unjust and evil people seem to prevail; and we can relate to the peace that calms our hearts when we know that God’s justice and righteousness will prevail.

The Psalms are beautiful, because the speak to virtually every emotion and feeling of our hearts. Through it all, we are assured that God is with us, and that God is for us.

When you come to the end of a story, you usually have some sense of closure (though people also find ways to leave us hanging so we will buy the sequel later on). Often it is a “happily ever after” sentiment. Or maybe it is a logical conclusion to the plot.

The Psalms, I believe, end with the definitive word for us: Praise.

Let everything that breathes praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!

As I penned that final phrase in my journal, I was struck by how appropriate it is, that the final, definitive word of the psalter is a word of praise. It certainly makes sense, when you think about it. Because when we realize that through the peaks and valleys of our lives – through the valley of the shadow of death and beside still waters – God is there, with us and for us. And when we realize that God is with us in his goodness and mercy and grace, then the only logical response is praise.

Praise the Lord. Because ultimately, it is God’s goodness and mercy that carries us through every day.

Every. Day.

So, praise the Lord!

Let everything that breathes praise the Lord!

Praise the Lord!

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Cherish Each Day, Each Moment

Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes”James 4:14

On one of our trips to Colorado, we got up early to go into Rocky Mountain National Park to take some pictures before breakfast. It was a clear morning, with the sun shining brightly as we entered the park. We were driving along a road that would eventually wind its way to one of our favorite lakes for a quick walk. As we rounded a curve that overlooked a valley, we were treated to an amazing sight. The moisture and temperature were just right for a thermal inversion – covering the valley in a fog-like mist, while the sky above was crisp, clean and blue. We pulled over and took in the view for a few minutes – never in our 20 years of trips to Colorado had we seen anything like this.

It made for some hauntingly beautiful photos.

We drove that same road later that day, and of course the mist had evaporated. Gone.

In my life as a pastor, I know that there is profound truth in what James teaches about our years on earth: “You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” James is merely echoing truth that is gleaned from other places in Scripture:

- “Remember, O God, that my life is but a breath...” (Job 7:7) 
- “Everyone is but a breath, even those who seem secure.” (Psalm 39:5) 
- “For my days vanish like smoke...” (Psalm 102:3)

Part of me wants to apologize because that really sounds harsh. But I think it's important to keep it real. Because the truth is, no matter how healthy we are, no matter how well everything seems to be going, the only certainty that we have is this very moment.

I don't say this to be a downer, or to rain on your parade. I say this because every moment we have breath is precious. Every moment our heart beats is to be cherished.

The truth is, every day is a gift. A sheer, undeserved, glorious gift. Don't let it go unappreciated. Give thanks to God for the gift of life, while you and those you love have it. Don't wait until tomorrow, because tomorrow might not come – for you, or for me, or for those you love.

Parents, tell your children how precious they are, and how much you love them.

Spouses, tell your husband or wife that your love is stronger today than the day you married.

Children, tell your parents what is on your hearts – we love you unconditionally.

Everyone: forgive, and seek forgiveness; love, and let others love you; encourage one another; treat one another with compassion and mercy and grace.

When you go to sleep tonight, give thanks to God, for God brought you through another day.

And tomorrow, when you wake up, give thanks to God, for God has given you another day.

Every day is precious. 

Friday, July 21, 2017

Walking the Level Path

“Teach me to do your will, for you are my God; may your good Spirit lead me on level ground.”(Psalm 143:10)

Carol and I went on a quick vacation to Colorado recently. I love the mountains – the cool, thin air; the ever-changing horizon; the awe-inspiring vistas at every turn of the road or trail. One of our favorite destinations is the Rocky Mountain National Park. There are dozens of trails with hundreds of miles of exhilarating and breath-taking sights.

On our fourth day at the park, we were driving along the Trail Ridge Road (the highest continuously paved highway in the U.S.). This year we had Carol's sister and brother-in-law, and a good friend from Texas with us. As we were beginning to make our way down the road back to our cabin, I turned to Bill (my brother-in-law) and said, “You know, there's a trail up ahead that I've always wanted to hike. It will take us all the way down into the park, and Carol can come pick us up in a couple of hours.” Bill said, “Sounds like a good idea to me.”

So we pulled over at the Ute Trail trailhead, and Bill and I got out of the car. We put a couple of water bottles in a backpack, a rain jacket, and at the last minute I grabbed the hat that Carol had put in the back of the car. We told the women good-bye. Then I knocked on the car window, and when Carol rolled the window down, I told her in my most serious dramatic voice, “If anything happens to us, know that I love you.” Carol laughed and said, “Be careful. I love you too.” Then I grinned, turned around, and Bill and I began our six and a half mile hike.

The Ute Trail starts above tree line. For the first two miles of our hike, we were treated to beautiful mountain views on our right, and left, in front of us and behind us. Above tree line, plants and animals have to scrap for life; the fierce winds and the long winters make for harsh living conditions. Nevertheless, we saw some beautiful wildflowers, some of them growing in lush green grass, some of them growing in the shelter of big boulders.

The trail at that point was relatively flat, and was well-worn. For the first two miles, Bill and I were able to walk at a nice pace, given the high altitude (about 11,500 feet above sea level). After a little more than an hour, we could see that the trail would begin to descend at a crest just beyond an outcropping of rock. Then, as the saying goes, it would be all downhill from there.

A picture of me. Just before my trip
Notice that the trail is not flat.
And there are lots of rocks.
Photo credit: Bill Hays

At the outcropping of rock, the trail became less distinct. I was in the lead, with the backpack on my back and my camera hanging around my neck. As I was walking along, I looked to the left and to the right, trying to discern the trail. I should've been looking straight ahead and down at my feet, because I tripped on a rock. I don't really know what happened, but I know that I stumbled a couple of times and then I was propelled head first into a sizable rock on the ground.

Life lesson: When your foot hits a rock that is firmly embedded in the ground, the rock wins. Every. Time. And when your head is propelled into a rock that is firmly embedded in the ground, the rock wins. Every. Time.

There I was, on all fours, at 11,500 feet. I let out some sort of guttural noise (maybe even a few choice words), and grabbed my hand. I knew right away that I had cut my head. Poor Bill, he saw the whole thing, and he got to me just as I took off my hat and exposed my wound.

At this point, I need to say a word of thanks to my Mom. Mom taught me a long time ago to keep a handkerchief in my pocket. So I took my hanky out of my pocket and pressed it on my head wound to stop the bleeding. It worked like a charm.

Bill and I sat there for a few minutes. I know my adrenalin was pumping, and I think Bill's was too. I took stock of my state – no broken bones, no bruised knees or twisted ankles. Just a gash on my head, and that was under control. So I said to Bill, “I think we can make it all the way down to the trailhead where Carol will be waiting for us. Let's go.”

We didn't have any first aid stuff with us (another life lesson, I suppose). So I took off my sweatshirt and tied it around my head to keep the handkerchief on the wound.

Another picture of me. After my trip.
Photo credit: Bill Hays

Dorky, but effective.

Fast forward to the end (because I know you don't want to hear about the entire hike): We met up with Carol a couple of hours later; she took me to the ER in Estes Park (shout out to the fine people there!), where I was in and out in less than an hour. My souvenir for the trip: seven staples in my head, and a throbbing headache. We were back on the trail the next day.

After our return to South Carolina, I found myself at my desk at home during my quiet time one morning. These words of the psalmist jumped out at me:

“Teach me to do your will, for you are my God; may your good Spirit lead me on level ground.”Psalm 143:10

Hint: it's the part about “level ground” that really struck a chord with me. I have learned that level ground is much easier to navigate. It's also easier to stay vertical on level ground.

What is true regarding the paths our feet tread is also true regarding the path we choose to follow in life. You see, if we veer from the way God leads us, we will find ourselves on rocky soil. And we'll trip and fall. And probably get hurt.

God has shown us the way we should go. He has given us his word, the Bible. 

“Your word is a lamp for my feet, and a light for my path.” (Psalm 119:105) “How can a young person stay on the path of purity? By living according to your word.” (Psalm 119:9)

Even more, God has given us his Word, Jesus Christ. “Follow me,” he says. “Come to me, and I will give you rest.”

Look, I'm not narrowing God's word down to a bunch of rules that say “thou shalt,” and “thou shalt not.” To be sure, those are in the Bible, and we need to heed them. But really, I'm talking about the life-giving nature of God's word. Because the more our lives are informed by God's word, the more we will discover God's love, God's righteousness, God's truth. And God's truth is life. Abundant, everlasting life. Choose the level path that God has made for you.

I learned a little bit about level paths while I was in Colorado. But I also learned of the goodness of God, who delivered me. Even though I stumbled and fell, God got me up and he delivered me to safety. From now on, I'm going to be more careful about the paths I choose to hike.

Listen, I know that sometimes we make wrong choices, and we take the wrong path. And we stumble and fall. But God is gracious and compassionate, and he will pick us up and give us the opportunity to get on the right path again. 

And again. 

And again. 

That's the kind of God we have. His love is everlasting.

“Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Jeremiah 6:16)  

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Pollinating for Jesus

“How are they to hear without someone to proclaim Christ? And how are they to proclaim unless they are sent?” - Romans 10:14b-15

If you've followed me on Instagram (@RevSHW) or you are one of my Facebook friends, you know that I love to take pictures of moths and butterflies. It started out as a fascination with the intricate design and detail you can see on these amazing insects, when you take time to look at them. 

I'm blown away by God's artistry in creating these beautiful (though sometimes bothersome) winged creatures. But recently I've also taken an interest in their function, not just their form. You see, we have always had mediocre results in our vegetable garden in years past. This year, though, we decided to plant more flowers than vegetables – because the flowers are beautiful, but also because we have had better success with the flowers. As it turns out, the flowers have benefitted our vegetables, because the flowers attract bees, butterflies, and moths that help pollinate the vegetable plants. So this year, we're enjoying success on both fronts.

When we bought our plants for our garden, the owner of the nursery suggested we buy a special variety of basil that not only would provide wonderful flavor to our cooking, but even more because she said that this particular variety of basil is great for attracting the much-needed pollinators. So we put the plant right alongside our vegetables, and the results have been wonderful.

It got me to thinking about the wonder of pollination, and how a vegetable plant is able to bear fruit. Now, I'm not a botanist by any measure, but I do know just a little bit about pollination. Before I 'splain what I know, though, you need to make sure that no young children are reading this because, well, pollination is a subject for mature audiences only. So please make sure any children are looking the other way.

Ok, here goes. Pollination is when the pollen from a male flower is transferred to a female flower.

Makes me blush just thinking about it.

In all seriousness, most plants need help in pollination. They need the assistance of insects or wind to transfer pollen. In most cases, pollination doesn't happen on its own. Pollen has to be shared in order to bear fruit.

I see a parallel in the Christian faith (Of course I see a parallel. I don't just write these things without also showing some relevance to faith, you know). Here's the deal: Good news doesn't share itself. Good news has to be shared. Just like there has to be some way to share pollen between plants in order to bear fruit, so does there have to be some form of transmission of the Good News of Jesus Christ in order for the gospel to bear fruit.

In his letter to the Romans, Paul has this to say about sharing the gospel:

“...if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, then you will be saved... The scripture says, 'No one who believes in him will be put to shame'... for 'Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.'” (Romans 10:9-13)

So Paul establishes the centrality of believing in Jesus and calling on his name. But doesn't someone have to know about Jesus and his love before believing in him and calling on his name and following him? Of course they do. That's why Paul continues his teaching with this series of rhetorical questions:

“But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? 
(Romans 10:14-15)

You see, someone has to tell about the Good News before it can be heard. Someone has to demonstrate what the love of Jesus is like before it can be experienced and understood.

If the gospel is going to spread and bear fruit, Jesus needs some pollinators to do the work of taking the gospel person to person.

Back in 1978, one of the predecessor Presbyterian bodies of my current Presbyterian denomination affirmed a threefold definition of evangelism (or gospel pollination, if you will): The General Assembly of that body affirmed that 
  • “The proclamation of the Kingdom of God is Evangelism; 
  • the love of Christians one for another in the fellowship of the Christian community is Evangelism; 
  • and the life style of the Christian person and the Christian community in radical obedience to the biblical mandates of the Kingdom of God in the world is Evangelism.” (Presbyterian Church U.S., 1978 General Assembly)

In other words, if we are going to pollinate the gospel around the world, we need to share the gospel by proclaiming the salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, and we need to demonstrate the transforming power of the gospel by loving one another in the Christian fellowship in the same way that Jesus has loved us, and we need to live in obedience and faithfulness to the demands of the gospel as given to us by Jesus in his life, his teaching, and his word.

There's an old poem that puts it well. It's kinda cheesy, but still it makes the point:

You are writing a gospel, a chapter each day 
By the things that you do and the words that you say, 
Folks read what you write, whether faithless or true, 
Say, what is the gospel according to you?

Do folks read His truth and His love in your life, 
Or has yours been too full of malice and strife? 
Does your life speak of evil, or does it ring true? 
Say, what is the gospel according to you?

In the end, we pollinate the gospel by rubbing shoulders with our fellow human being, telling them of God's love for them, and showing the world what God's love, mercy, and truth look like.

I think we can do that. I know we can do that.

What is the gospel according to you?

Monday, June 19, 2017

Cats and Dogs, Wolves and Lambs, Donkeys and Elephants

“The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat,...They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain...”
Isaiah 11:6, 9

I have a confession to make: I'm not a cat person. That might surprise those who visit our house, because we do have three cats (only one of which is an “indoor” cat). So, you can imagine my demeanor after Carol and Ben came home recently with... a kitten.

Granted, she is adorable, but still... She's a cat. And I'm not a cat person.

It turns out that we're only kitty-sitting while the kitten's owners are out of town for a couple of weeks. That makes it more bearable. I can enjoy the adorable-ness of the kitten, all the while remembering that the frequent feedings and supervised explorations of the family room will soon be a memory.

Truth be told, our dogs have had a much harder time than I have with the adjustment. I'm not sure you know this, but dogs and cats aren't natural friends; in fact, dogs have been known to act a bit aggressively toward cats. Our dogs were not happy when the kitten came to reside with us. The dogs don't understand when we tell them, “It's only for a couple of weeks.”

I have to give some credit to one of our dogs, Bella. Bella has been more curious than aggressive toward Kitty-Kitty (I am not giving the kitten a name, lest she become ours). Carol and/or I are always close by when Kitty-Kitty and Bella are in the same room. Kitty-Kitty prances around, climbing on the furniture, scampering underneath the couch, and pouncing on ribbons, toys, shoes, and anything else we leave out for her. Bella, for her part, follows closely everywhere Kitty-Kitty goes, her ears perking up in that “something strange is going on” way that dogs have about them. Occasionally, Bella will lick her lips, which makes us worry that maybe she wants to eat Kitty-Kitty, a fate even a non-cat-person such as I would not wish upon the cute little ball of fur.

After a week and a half, Bella got up on the same chair where Kitty-Kitty was playing. They both kind of froze in place and stared each other down for a few moments. Then Bella settled down, and before we knew it, Kitty-Kitty had laid herself down right on top of Bella.

The Peaceable Kingdom
Alright, even I let out an audible “Awwwww”. I mean, who wouldn't? Look how cute they are together!

It is a cute picture, indeed. But it is also, at another level, profoundly meaningful.

Almost immediately my mind went to a familiar passage in the Old Testament book of Isaiah. In the 11th chapter we find a prophecy of the coming of the Messiah from the line of King David. In that chapter there is a description of the kind of kingdom the Messiah will usher in:

“The spirit of the Lord will rest on him (the Messiah) –
     the Spirit of wisdom and understanding,
     the Spirit of counsel and might,
     the Spirit of the knowledge and the fear of the Lord...

“...with righteousness he will judge the needy,
     with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth...
...Righteousness will be his belt
     and faithfulness the sash around his waist.

“The wolf will live with the lamb,
     the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
     and a little child will lead them...
...they will neither harm nor destroy
     on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord
     as the waters cover the sea.”

Isn't that a beautiful picture of what our world will be like in the kingdom of God?! Can you imagine a world where all is good and equitable for everyone? A world where natural enemies actually come together in peace and harmony?

Come to think of it, I like to think that we have the opportunity to move toward that reality even now. We don't have to wait until the ultimate arrival of the Kingdom, for the truth is we are called to live into kingdom reality even now. I truly believe that Christ has already begun an amazing transformation in the hearts of all who believe in him. It is a transformation that empowers us to overcome the hostilities of our world and work for reconciliation, and peace. Even a superficial reading of the New Testament will draw us to conclude that, in Christ, the things that separate and divide and create hostility between people are no match for the grace, mercy, and forgiveness that are ours in Christ (see, for example, Ephesians 2:11-20, Galatians 3:26-29, 2 Corinthians 5:16-21, Colossians 3:12-17, Matthew 6:9-15, Matthew 5:9, Acts 9).

I say this because my heart is heavy over the spirit of violence, vengeance, and enmity that is pervasive in nearly every area of life and in our world. Just last week a man opened fire on a group of Republican members of congress practicing for a baseball game, wounding five people before being killed by heroic action from the Capitol Police. In the aftermath people from both sides of the political aisle noted that the vitriolic rhetoric we hear 24/7 coming from politicians, activists, protesters, and alternative news outlets probably fed into the hatred of the man who pulled the trigger on the politicians. I just read a story on the internet (which means it must be true), that cited a Pew research poll indicating that "78 million Americans actually hate the other political party."* 

As followers of the Prince of Peace in whom the vision of Isaiah is fulfilled, we should expect better than the current political climate, especially as we claim a Judeo-Christian influence on our country's great history. Enmity and divisiveness should not be the default in our society. It's okay to disagree. Passionate people will disagree. Christ-followers of good conscience will disagree on any number of important issues.

But when our disagreements result in the demonization of those who disagree with us, we have crossed a line. No longer are we being driven by the spirit of Christ, which calls for understanding and reconciliation and mutual respect; instead, we have succumbed to a spirit far beneath the spirit of Christ. Enmity and divisiveness are deeds of the flesh (to put it in Paul's terms), not the spirit of Christ.

Leadership from both the Democrats and Republicans called for a more civil discourse. I hope and pray that their words are not empty.

Folks, if a dog and a cat can learn to get along (it is a learned behavior, an intentional act of the heart), then don't you think the elephants and donkeys can find a way to get along? I think we can. In Christ, we have the wherewithal to break down divisions and barriers instead of erecting them; we have the means by which to set aside enmity, and foster peace. 

Learn a lesson from Bella and Kitty-Kitty. Find a way to overcome the urge to hate and hurt. Find a way to come together, in peace, forgiveness, and mercy. 

That is, after all, the vision of the world where Jesus Christ reigns.


Thursday, June 8, 2017

Relationship Goals

Love never fails...(1 Corinthians 13:14)

Last month I had a really cool opportunity. One of our church members is the activities director at a nearby retirement community, and she asked if I would officiate a vow renewal ceremony. Five couples assembled in a lovely courtyard in front of a fountain, as about 25 family members and other residents gathered to witness the renewal of their marriage vows.

Before the ceremony, the couples gathered in the hallway leading to the courtyard. Even though they had all been married well over 50 years, they were giddy with excitement as they processed to the fountain. When we reached the part of the ceremony where they renewed their vows, I went to each couple individually, had them look each other in the eye and repeat after me:

I, (Fred, etc.), embrace you, (Diana, etc.), as a gift from the hand of God;
and I reaffirm my promise,
before God and these witnesses,
to be your loving and faithful husband (wife);
in plenty and in want,
in joy and in sorrow,
in sickness and in health,
so long as we both shall live.

It was a beautiful thing to see grown men and women choke up and their eyes well up with tears, even after 50, 60, or more years of marriage. What a joyful evening it was! Of course, it was over at 7:30 – can't let something like a vow renewal ceremony make them late for bed...

I left the evening uplifted, encouraged, and hopeful. I thought to myself, “I want Carol and me to be that way in our 80s.”

Later on realized that I didn't need to attend a vow renewal like that in order for me to be inspired; I have my own parents and Carol's parents to serve as wonderful “relationship goals” for our marriage. In fact, as I post this on my blog, it is my parents' 60th anniversary.

Happy Anniversary, 
Sidney and Kaye!

60 years. What an amazing example of steadfast, persevering love. 

Carol's parents are about to celebrate 62 years of marriage.

I am, truly, inspired.

As I think about the secret to longevity in marriage, my mind immediately focuses on love. (If you know me, you will know that love is pretty much the secret to everything!) But the kind of love that will fuel a marriage through the years is more than a warm, mushy feeling inside you. The kind of love that marriage requires that self-interest diminish, and the welfare of the other increase. Paul describes this kind of love in his words found in 1 Corinthians 13:

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices in truth. Love always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails...

I think about the people who have been married for so many years (like my parents, Carol's parents, and the folks at the retirement community). I realize that they have gone through seasons of great happiness; but they have also faced tremendous challenges together that were anything but happy. They have had to forgive, and ask for forgiveness. They have been rich, poor, sick, and healthy. They have made sacrifices for their spouse and family.

And through it all, love. In Colossians, Paul lists a number of noble character traits that followers of Christ should manifest in our lives. You know, things like compassion, kindness, gentleness, humility, forgiveness, patience. Words that most of us would want to be used in describing ourselves. After listing these noble character traits, Paul says this: “And over all these virtues, put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.” (Colossians 3:14)

All this, to say that if we want to reach relationship goals like my parents, we have to love. I am forever grateful to my parents for demonstrating this to me, every day.

Love. It really is that simple.

Not easy. But simple. And mandatory.

Now these three remain: Faith, hope, and love.

And the greatest of these, is love.*

*Paul's words, not mine. But I wholeheartedly agree with Paul on this one!