Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Living With Peace and Hope in Dangerous and Uncertain Times

Can you remember the message of joy and peace that emanated from the Christmas Season less than a week ago? You're surely familiar with the message - "Peace on earth, good will to men"? It seems to have been doused almost overnight. On Christmas Day this year,over 8 years after the terror of 9-11, air safety dominated the news as a man attempted to blow up an aircraft landing in Detroit. As troubling as that event was, the man boasted that he is not alone and that a virtual army of men just like him await the right opportunities to rain fear and death on travellers around the world. On top of that, the H1N1 virus seems to be running rampant. My sister-in-law informed me that in parts of Vancouver, BC, Canada, people are wearing masks in fear of contracting the disease which is spreading among the population there at a troubling rate with no one being certain of how severe its damage will be. And, if that weren't enough to disturb one's sleep, if the Mayans, Nostradamus and the History Channel are correct, we only have a little less than 2 years to "enjoy" our time on this planet anyway, since according to "prophecies" the world is going to end on December 21, 2012! Happy New Year, right?

The world is certainly filled with trouble and problems that can dash the hopes of even the most optimistic souls. When one's optimism is based on circumstantial evidence, disappointment is bound to occur and hopes are destined to be destroyed. When I reflect on last year's hopes for a Happy New Year, I cannot help but remember the untimely passing of two friends and good men, Jeff White and Paul Sorce, whose deaths remind me that tomorrow is not promised and even the highest of hopes can be laid low by the crushing realities of life. Nevertheless, even in the face of such loss mixed together with the sober perils of a fallen and mixed up world, I do have great hope and inner peace. How is this possible? The Bible abounds with answers. In one of the great Christmas verses not often associated with Christmas, the Heralding Angel informs Mary that the Lord is with her in her coming trials and that "...nothing is impossible with God" (Luke 1:33). Jesus reminded the disciples that the world is full of tribulation but not to live timidly when facing life's dangers. He said, "In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). He further encouraged them to understand and distinguish God's Peace from man's peace. In John 14:27 Jesus said, "Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid." With God, it possible to achieve the impossible - peace of mind and spirit though the storms of life rage about us!

The apostle Paul offered a tremendous reminder of where our peace lies and what our attitude should be as we are beset with life's troubles:
2 Corinthians 4:7ff
But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing greatness of the power may be of God and not from ourselves;we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed...Therefore, we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison,
18. while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.

As a Christian, I am called to spend myself to make this fallen world a better place, to champion peace, to spread hope and to defend the helpless in every way that I can as long as I have breath. Nevertheless, the reality is that evil exists, death doesn't sleep, and tragic setbacks riddle our everyday lives with pain and suffering. But, I won't give up or cease to try to do good and neither should you. Why not? Because, as the apostle Paul said, this is not all there is. We are more than visible flesh and life is more than tangible experience. There is an eternal and loving God Who cares for us, even as we have rebelled in our freedom against Him, and Who continues to reach out to us as the folly of our ways and the inadequacies of our wisdom play themselves out time and time again as history marches on. There is an eternity that will be inherited and for which each of us must be prepared. The great news is that God through His Son has made The Way for us, so that no matter what we experience today or might experience tomorrow - good or bad - We can have peace and hope knowing that His Power can be shown in our suffering and His love can be realized through our refusal to be ruled by our circumstances.

With the future totally unpredictable, but with God firmly established on His throne and completely reliable, I wish you His peace, His love and His joy knowing that with Him all things are possible and through my faith in Jesus, I can truly extend to you real hope for a truly "Happy New Year!" Keeping the faith and keeping true hope alive, until next time...


Monday, December 14, 2009

How do I know she was THE ONE? Reflecting on 20 years of knowing Luz

As Luz and I approach our twentieth anniversary, I find myself reflecting on just how we came to be a couple. Though I obviously know our story through and through, I still have to think about just how it all happened! It's an important process to consider, as in my duties as a pastor, I am frequently approached by individuals who feel they may have met, "The ONE", and want to know just HOW I knew when I met Luz? What was it that distinguished her from any other woman I had met and what made me so sure that SHE was the woman for whom I had been destined?

First of all, I prayed about it. When I was a little boy, it was clear to me that my mom was a very special woman and that my dad was very fortunate man. I asked my mom, "How did daddy find you and how can I find a great wife for myself?" Not that I understood all the dynamics, but I had observed enough from my parents and others to know that not all marriages were the same and that something that important couldn't just "happen". Mom's answer was instant and easy to understand. She said, "Pray Son, that the Lord will first develop the character within you to appreciate and know how to love a good woman, and then that He will give you the wisdom to recognize her when He brings you across her path. Also ask Him to give you the patience to wait as you will encounter many women that you could marry but shouldn't, because some of them will be great women, but not the right one for you or you the right man for them to consider for marriage." That was a lot for a youngster to digest, but I understood the praying part and just asked the Lord to help me with all the stuff I didn't understand.

Time passed, I got older and experienced some of what felt like the most jarring crushes in the history of mankind. Hormones surged, emotions ran high, and on a few occasions I was smitten to an extent that seemed to be beyond human endurance. Nevertheless, I was fortunate to have been surrounded by my parents and mature friends who gave me perspective and encouraged me time had not yet come and I needed to wait. I asked again, in frustration, "How do you know when the time is right?" "Keep praying" I was told "...and keep waiting!"

What was I praying for? To a great extent, I was praying for an understanding of my own heart. My mentors made it clear that I needed to understand who I was and what I was about before I took the step to join my life to someone else. I needed to grow, develop and mature into the kind of man who could walk through life side by side with an amazing woman and be the kind of man to face not only the good times, but the hardest times life would have to offer and not abandon my spouse in the process. I also needed to be patient enough to allow the Lord to develop and mold me into such a person and wait for His decision on when I was ready for such a journey, without leaping out of my own passions or desperation.

Of course, I was also praying for the type of woman I felt I wanted, along with a list of characteristics and traits that I felt were "essential". That list went through endless changes until I reached a point of saying, "Lord, you know me inside and out. Rather than me telling you what I want, give me the wisdom to know spiritually, intellectually, and emotionally when you have answered my prayer." The Bible describes our human hearts as having an amazing capacity for deception and wickedness even when our overall intentions are good. I know Sam and know that left to myself, my ability to make stupid choices for stupid reasons knows no bounds. For this most important of choices, I needed to have my mind clear, my heart cleansed and my will surrendered to what God had planned for me. That meant spending more time considering a woman's character than her curves and being a student of a woman's way in her walk with Jesus rather than studying her way of wiggling when she walked. By God's power and with the encouragement of many friends who held me accountable, I endured.

By the time I arrived in the Philippines 20 years ago, I knew that I wanted someone, but also knew that I was clueless in understanding just the someone I needed. I also knew that Scripture promised that if a person seeks God's Kingdom and His righteousness before all else, everything else that is needed will be added . With that in mind, I traveled to a place I didn't know much about, to serve in a ministry I didn't exactly understand, to be introduced to a woman I didn't know I had been praying for my entire life. How did I know that? Well, my prayer had been for God to let me know spiritually, intellectually and emotionally. I'm not sure it was exactly in that order, because in the words of the Beatles's tune "I Saw Her Standing There" "My heart went BOOM when I crossed that room!" Nevertheless, once my pulse returned to normal and I was able to get to know her and what God had done for her and what she was doing for Him, her character was undeniable. Furthermore, her love for people and her desire to minister in the most difficult places so that would know God's love were clear indicators of her devotion to the Lord and her unwavering commitment to serve Him with her life and not just her lips. After I was convinced that by some miracle she was also interested in me, and that the Lord was performing something special between us, we began to act on the informed opinion that we had each met "The One" and that the Lord had a plan for us to be joined in marriage.

Has our journey been nothing but roses and candy? Hardly. I am convinced that when we are seeking out a life partner, we are often seeking a companion for a pleasure cruise, when we ought to be praying for a shipmate for a war at sea. Fortunately, when the Lord guides the decision, He ensures that you have the right crew, ready, willing and able to fight alongside you through all the battles of life. Luz and I have walked together through the death of a parent, the death of a child, adventures in parenting, misunderstandings, firings, miracle babies, triumphs of justice and miracles all around. I know that we face many, many more challenges in the years ahead. Nevertheless, I have great confidence that the same God who brought us together will see our union through to its proper end when one of us or both of us, goes Home in death to be with Him. How do I know? I've seen what He has done in us and for us through so many of life's ups and downs and in the lives of others who have trusted Him, I have no doubt of what He will do in the future. His Word says it. By faith we're living it. I've also seen it in the lives of so many others and that's how I know! Until next time...


Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Ichabod! - What Tiger's Fall Says About Us

One of the ugliest words I have ever heard is Icahbod - used in 1 Samuel to commemorate the capture of the Ark of the Covenant of the nation of Israel and meaning "The Glory has Departed!" This word came to mind as I was reading my friend Daniel Yang's Facebook reflections on Tiger Woods' recent problems. He warned, "Samson wasn't strong enough, David wasn't holy enough, Solomon wasn't smart enough & Tiger wasn't rich enough. Fellas, be humbled & beware." I am troubled by the contemporary trend of treating celebrity's personal problems as entertainment. We seem comforted by the notion that those who appear mightier than we are have severe issues that regularly bring them down a peg or two, exposing their vulnerabilities and humanity. While I believe it is important to recognize the limitations of fame and fortune, I believe it is more important to consider what celebrity problems say about our society as a whole and the implications their troubles have for "ordinary folks".

We have to acknowledge that no one is surprised that Tiger is apparently committing adultery. It's what sports figures do. In his book "Out of Bounds" Jim Brown, one of the greatest running backs in NFL history boldly proclaimed that the general public shouldn't be surprised by celebrity excesses and vices because the unwritten rules of life make it crystal clear that "Special people deserve special treatment." In the circles in which Tiger travels, adultery and an undisciplined sexual lifestyle are the norm - consider one of his prime personal mentors was Michael Jordan, a man whose unfaithfulness towards his wife ultimately cost him his marriage and much much more. It appears that Tiger's alleged escapades may prove costly to him in what may be the most damaging area of all - his reputation.

This issue of costs is what links us with the celebrity world. Sin costs. We can pretend that our actions don't have an impact on the lives of others, but they always do. A casual sexual lifestyle as a youth, can sew the seeds of irresponsible and unfaithful behavior in my adulthood. A "devil may care" attitude towards personal integrity as long as I am "good at my job" may seem to make sense when I want to party all the time, but the reality that my life outside of work has an effect on my life inside of work will eventually catch up to me and exact a painful price I am not really prepared to pay in relationships, health and wealth.

It's not my desire to get "preachy" here but simply to make the point that our celebrities are celebrities because they reflect values we hold dear enough to pay for at astounding costs. Tiger makes his living because we place great value on what he does and the image he presents, not necessarily who he really is. It's the same with any celebrity you see in the tabloids today from "Brangelina" to "J-Lo" we don't really care about who they are, what's going on with them, or what they truly represent, we just want to be entertained! Why can't we name the top 10 teachers in the nation? Why don't we know the names of service personnel who have distinguished themselves in service to the nation in the War on Terror? Why do the most helpful organizations in the world have to beg us to send $20 a month while their staff members often live in on the edge of poverty while we'll pay a celebrity $50 just for an autographed picture - A picture that we had to buy in advance which will only take the celebrity a few seconds to sign at a convention where he will probably have a "love connection" with someone other than his spouse? The problem is us. We value superficial human abilities more than meaningful human character.

Humanity has wrestled with this problem since the beginning of time. The prophet Jeremiah challenges us to adopt a different set of standards:

This is what the LORD says: "Let not the wise man boast of his WISDOM
or the strong man boast of his STRENGTH
or the rich man boast of his RICHES,
but let him who boasts boast about this:
that he UNDERSTANDS AND KNOWS ME, that I am the LORD, who exercises kindness,
justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight...(Jeremiah 9:23,24)

Jeremiah challenges us to idolize God and God alone and to spend ourselves to know Him and to commit whatever gifts we have to be about His business rather than being caught up in our own transient abilities. How can we be about His business rather than caught up in ourselves? By using our intellect, strength and wealth to show kindness, exercise justice and demonstrate righteousness everyday of our lives. Later in his challenge, Jeremiah calls people to "spend" themselves to the service of others leaving nothing behind - 100% of what we have for God's glory and others' benefit! (Just imagine, for example, if Wilt Chamberlain's boast had not been that he'd slept with 10,000 women but that he had mentored 10,000 people who had no hope before his intervention. That's spending yourself for a worthwhile cause!) If this challenge was our focus as a people, it might change the kind of people we lift up and encourage them to step up as the role models their amazing talents enable them to be.

So, with Jeremiah's words in mind and as Tiger's story unfolds, remember that his ascension to prominence is a reflection of our own values and his fall is a cause for prayer not celebration. As you pray for him and other celebrities (nationally and in your own community) whose falls are to come, make a commitment for yourself to step up Jeremiah's challenge and seek to influence others to not glory in abilities that wane, but to use whatever abilities you have been given to grow in character that lasts and can live on to produce fruit long after the "glory days" are gone. Until Next Time...