Making A Life of Difference

George served on the mission team in the church I belonged to before I became a pastor. Deeply concerned about world hunger, George wanted to do something that would help people get out of that entrenched poverty which leads to malnutrition. An engineer in the food industry by trade, he started asking, how he could use his knowledge and expertise to export technology to third world countries. I’m pretty sure George was the one who started the conversation with his friends, though he would never take credit for it.

There were some false starts, but eventually he and his friends discovered that grinders would bring about significant change in rural areas of Africa and Central America. Grinders for grains and grinders for peanuts. Women were empowered and became small business owners while, students in engineering classes back home were mentored into caring. When George died a few weeks ago it was noted that in one project alone he had helped save the lives of 120,000 children. He never took a break from volunteering, either with the organization he helped found, or in simple neighborly tasks. He was a person who lived his faith.

Not all of us are gifted quite so much, but each of us can make a difference. Our lives are richer when we use the gifts and talents God has given us in service to others. Oh, there will be times we may feel a bit used. We will meet people who could do for themselves without our help. But then one day we will be surprised by the power of a simple gift. What we thought was nothing, meant everything. A few years ago, a young man I’d never seen before stopped by my office. He said he needed gas so he could get to a job interview. Fresh out of cash, all I had to give him was an almost used gas card and a prayer. A few days later he stopped by to thank me. He’d gotten the job. He came again to thank me. Then once more. Each time he told me how the gift I had given him had changed his life. I thought of the eight dollars left on that gas card and I knew that it wasn’t I who had given him a gift. It was he who had gifted me. He had reminded me what a blessing it is to make a difference in another person’s life.

Hoping in God in the Midst of Discouragement

“Why art thou cast down, O my soul? Why art thou disquieted within me?” These words have often come to me in moments of discouragement. I don’t remember ever committing them to memory, though I must have learned the verse in some early Sunday School class. My memory is set in the old King James Version of the Bible. The quotation, which is found in both the 42nd and 43rd chapters of Psalms, ends the question with this statement, “Hope in God, for I shall again praise God, my help and my God.” Discouragement may be a temporary condition, but when we are down, it is simply hard to remember better moments. We forget about the path God opened for us in an earlier day. We fail to remember that God has prepared a way for us on the other side of despair in previous eras of our lives.

Discouragement is a natural condition of the human spirit which is explored in several books of the Bible. The book of Job examines the question of suffering through the eyes of Job, who has lost everything – almost. His children, his homes, his cattle, his health and his place in society. Job is in such distress he asks God why he had been allowed to be born, if it was only to face the depth of suffering and heartache that was his. So vocal was he, in his complaints to God, that friends accused him of blasphemy. But God doesn’t. God understands his pain, his sorrow and his loss. God knows his broken and suffering spirit. God holds Job in hands of love and compassion. Eventually, Job discovers that God will not leave him in his suffering. He will never understand the why of pain, but he will learn that God is with him in the midst of it. There will come a day when joy fills his heart again.

So it is in our times of discouragement. You may be wondering if you will ever see light in the dark place you have landed in. You may be questioning today, the why of a difficult situation. You may be agonizing over a friend or family member. Know this . . . On the other side of despair lives joy. For now the words of the psalmist give wisdom. “Why art thou cast down, O my soul? Why art thou disquieted within me? Hope in God, for I shall again praise God. My help and my God.” Psalm 42:11

Jonah and God’s Too Persistent Call

The prophet Jonah has a tough time dealing with God’s love for his enemies. The book of Jonah takes everything that a good Israelite knew to be true and turns it upside down. Jonah hated the Ninevites. If he had his way, the city would be destroyed and Israel would be the better for it. But, God is God, and sometimes God asks us to do what we really don’t want to do. For Jonah, the call came to go to Nineveh, to cry out against it and to warn the residents of impending destruction. They would be overthrown and their way of life radically changed, should they survive.

Jonah fled, as those whom God calls are prone to do. He fled as far as he could away from God’s voice. He left thinking that if he went far enough away, God would find someone else to go to Nineveh. At first it looked like Jonah may have succeeded. He was able to head in the opposite direction, finding a boat that was setting sail to Tarshish. He reckoned however, without the persistent call of God. A storm rises up. It is a deadly storm. All the sailors cry out to their collective and independent gods. But the storm continues. They throw cargo overboard. By now they have nothing else they can do, so the crew casts lots in hopes of finding out who has brought the evil upon them. When the lot lands on Jonah, he doesn’t hesitate to take responsibility. He knows whom he is fleeing. It is his first discovery that one cannot run away from God or God’s call. Believing himself to blame, he tells the crew to toss him into the sea. Much to his surprise he finds himself in an unlikely rescue. Swallowed by a large fish, he lives in its belly, fervently praying. Rescued once more when the fish spews him onto dry land, again he hears the call of God to go to Nineveh. Fresh from being rescued, Jonah reluctantly goes. To his dismay, the people take to heart his words. The king even issues a decree that all must fast and pray, wearing sackcloth as a sign of repentance.

Still Jonah hopes to see the destruction of the city. He waits for God to act. When God doesn’t overthrow the city, Jonah gets upset. One of Jonah’s problems with God is the he thinks God is too compassionate. He complains to God, that he fled in the first place, because he just knew that God would show mercy and he does not want mercy shown. “That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” (Jonah 4:2-3) Jonah has a hard time with compassion. He has a difficult time with love for people who are not like him. He reeks of prejudice. God chooses mercy. Jonah chooses hate. God chooses compassion, Jonah waits for destruction.

As we inhibit this planet called earth, we have choices in how we respond to each other. We can let our hearts harden into hate, or we can learn how our differences enrich us. We already know where God is. God is on the side of mercy. God is on the side of compassion. God is also on the side of those whom God calls, reaching out and pulling us back into God’s compassionate love, even or especially when we run away.

Are You Listening to Screwtape or Listening to God?

In C.S. Lewis’s book, The Screwtape Letters, Lewis presents the correspondence between a Senior Devil . . . Screwtape and his nephew Wormwood. It is Screwtape’s role to guide the young Wormwood in his task to lead a young man away from his new-found faith in God. Through the course of the book, we find Screwtape giving advice to Wormwood about the young Christian. Wormwood is to “work hard on disappointment . . . keep him from praying . . . get him to take offense at petty irritations of family life.” Wormwood is told to cause despair, or a long period of chronic suffering. When his charge goes to church, Wormwood is to get the man to think that he is better than the other people and to think that the rest of the people are hypocrites.

“Let him be disappointed in people. Remind him of the prayers that aren’t answered with the speed and in the way that he expects. Try to get his anger up – get him disillusioned, the long dull monotonous years of middle-aged prosperity or middle-aged adversity are excellent campaigning weather. You see,” Screwtape writes, “it is so hard for these creatures to persevere . . . the inarticulate resentment with which we teach them to respond to it all . . . this provides admirable opportunities of wearing out a soul.”

Screwtape knows that most often, it is not the big things that happen to us which wear away at our faith. Rather, little frustrations, hurts, pains and disappointments whittle at our spirit. We grow cynical or bitter. We forget about God or are tempted to believe that God doesn’t have anything to do with our day-to-day world. We begin to wonder if our faithfulness makes a difference.

Most of all, we forget that God loves and cares for us. The Apostle Paul has a remedy for us. You’ll find it in the 6th chapter of the book of Ephesians, “Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of God’s power. Put on the whole armor of God . . . so you may be able to withstand on that evil day and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith . . . take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit which is the word of God. Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication.”

Today may be frustrating or painful, but the love we are held in is eternal. This love never ends. It will be here today, tomorrow and in all of our other tomorrows. For we are God’s children and our destiny is already set. Thanks be to God.

Pope Francis and the Environment

Pope Francis has set off a wave of controversy in the past week. His fresh Vatican perspective comes as an energizing breath of air to those of us who have wished that Roman Catholicism was more focused on the concerns of Jesus and less on the church. So, I’ve applauded his recent comments on both the economy and on the environment.

The writer of Genesis made a point of telling us in the creation narratives that we are stewards of the earth. God calls the creation good. The earth and the sky, birds and fish, water and sun, animals and humans, flowers and trees – it’s all good. God then puts the care of creation into our hands. We are to have dominion over it. Which is not a license to use and abuse the earth, but to be responsible for it. The choice has always been ours. For centuries we have recognized the human contribution to our environment. We have had to reclaim the call to manage and care for the earth, to keep our waters’ fresh and our air pure. Late in the 13th century burning of sea-coal so polluted England’s air that King Edward penalized anyone caught burning it. Lead poisoning in public water supplies was recognized in Julius Caesar’s time.

I grew up in a home that valued the environment. Just as our farm neighbor’s were dependent upon the rain and the sun for the health of their crops and their livelihood, our fishing resort was also dependent upon an adequate supply of rain. Without it, lake levels dropped, fish froze out in the winter and worry about getting the mortgage paid colored our days. We learned about conservation. We were schooled in its importance. Today we have a much more global understanding of the impact of industry and energy policies on the earth.

I’ve been convinced by the numerous scientific studies which have warned that we are entering a major change in climate if we do not act in responsible ways now. Trends obvious in the scientific community in the 50’s and 60’s are escalating today. I think what Pope Francis wants us to realize is that we have a limited period of time to turn around in the way we are caring for the earth, before cataclysmic change occurs. In the book of Jonah, we find a man who doesn’t want to go to Nineveh warning the people that they will be destroyed if they do not change as a people. Maybe it was because the Ninevites could figure out that Jonah had no desire to be in their city, warning them of impending disaster, that they took to heart his words. The city changed. They repented, which means they turned around. They changed direction. The city was saved. I wonder as I read that scripture today, if it wasn’t so much that God chose not to destroy the city, as they were saved by changing from their self-destructive actions which would have brought about their inevitable end.

The prophetic word to change comes to us through ordinary people who have been given a word by God. Sometimes they are shepherds like Amos and other times they are religious figures like Martin Luther King Jr. Most often we have stoned the prophets, or tried mocking them into silence. But God’s truth will not be silenced. God’s love for all of creation is evident in the scriptures. One day we will look back at this time either as one when the world figured out we needed to work together to save the earth, or with regret that we didn’t act when we could. May all of our eyes be opened to God’s truth and may we act accordingly.

God’s Limits or Ours?

There was a time in my life when I had God pretty well figured out. I knew the limits of God’s love. I was exceptionally clear on who was on the inside and who belonged on the outside. I had a clear idea of the boundaries of God’s grace. All of that crashed when life did not go the way I expected it to. The world I inhabited was shattered. Everything changed. I scrambled to make sense of the unexpected place I now lived, rebuilding my life from ground up.

I was forced to rethink my understanding of who God is, how God loves and all those limits I’d set. In retrospect, I realize that my sudden falling was good for my soul. At the time, I was more distressed than wise enough to see which of my values and beliefs needed to change. I needed a larger vision of God, a more grace filled knowledge of God. I needed to stop assuming the limits of God’s love were set by me.

Our judging others has a way of coming back to us. Criticize some parents for the way they are raising their children, and a few days later you’re reminded of your own imperfect parenting skill. Complain about a person’s lack of work ethic, only to find your own employment status change. The passing of time and a healthy dose of life experience alter our perspective. Jesus spoke to our condition when he told us to “Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgement you pronounce you will be judged.” (Matthew 7:1-2 RSV) Eugene Peterson’s The Message Bible uses this phrase, “That critical spirit has a way of boomeranging.” I have landed in that unwelcome boomeranging spot more often that I would like to admit.

But, still there is grace. Grace comes in growing compassion for people who face challenges that we have never faced. Grace is born in an awareness of the blessings we have been given, which have empowered us where others have had difficulty. Grace is given, when we step outside our judging and reach out to a person who needs our love. For where would we be, if others had not reached out to us in our own moments of falling?

God Knows Our Name

A few weeks before my father entered a long term care facility, he had reached into his billfold and handed me two five-dollar bills. Then he had said, “I wish I could do more.” I was struggling financially at the time, but was taken completely by surprise at the unexpected gesture of love and concern. My father was dealing with an entirely different issue. Diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease six years earlier, the illness had not only affected his body, but also his mind. Ten days later I would hardly recognize him as the disease ravaged his body. It was one of the last lucid conversations I had with him. I have treasured it ever since. Whenever I try to tell someone the story, tears will spring to my eyes.

Knowing that someone cares about you can have a profound impact on a life. We do best in life, when we are surrounded by loving care. God speaks through the prophet Isaiah saying, “I have called you by name, you are mine.” Isaiah 43:1 (NRSV)

The wonder of it all is that God not only knows our name, but claims us. Our own lives can be completely messed up. People who should care about us may be in so much distress they cannot see our need. I’ve heard too many painful stories of family stresses, parents who can’t connect to their children and spouses who have forgotten how to love. I’ve left counseling sessions bewildered by the strange way we treat people who are closest and dearest to us. I have been appalled at the lack of compassion or concern by family members when a heartache has occurred. I’ve heard stories that break my heart when I cannot comprehend how a parent can be so indifferent.

The scripture tells us that even when those who ought to be expected to care for us fail, God will never stop loving us.“Though my father and my mother forsake me, the Lord will take me into his care.” Psalm 27:10 (REV) God is one who is always near, who always cares and to whom we can always turn.