Joy and Pain

It was a frigidly cold winter day when he came to stay. His fur and flesh were stretched tight over his ribs and spine. He was barely able to walk. Abandoned, he was looking to survive. I wasn’t sure he’d live. I pulled the garage door up enough for him to come in and out, put down a blanket, set out some food and water, and went to town for de-wormer and rabies shots. He didn’t leave that blanket often during those first few winter weeks. The boys and I visited him regularly. We became his family. Slowly he gained strength and weight and by spring he was healthy, fleshy, and fast – running in ridiculously happy circles in the yard, eliciting laughter from the boys.

We named him Cain, short for Canine. “Dog” didn’t have the right sound. He wasn’t a perfect dog. One 4th of July we came home after a short trip to visit family. We planned on harvesting the sweet corn from our garden but discovered Cain had pulled every stock up by the roots and eaten the best part of every ear. Who knew dogs liked corn? Not perfect but close.

When we moved to the city, I couldn’t bear to take Cain away from the country life he loved. I gave him to my friend Tim. Several weeks later I called Tim. Tim said he was having to tie Cain up on Sundays. Somehow, he knew when Sunday rolled around and he made the three-mile trek to church and sat on the porch like he did every Sunday when I was there. But when the preaching started, Cain would start howling. I guess he missed me.

I was reminded of Cain a while back. Marty, George, Michael, and I were on a bike ride. A dog came out and started running alongside us. In my experience, when chasing cyclists most dogs don’t have good intentions. They are dangerous. Bites and crashes are no fun. But this dog wasn’t chasing he was joining, running alongside whoever was out front. Marty sped up to try and wear him down. It didn’t work. I took a turn. This dog and I went side-by-side for about a mile. He reminded me of Cain who used to go with me when I jogged. Cain would with me and occasionally his Labrador Retriever blood would kick in and he would run off to a pond to swim, catching me later down the road.

This dog wasn’t quitting so I stopped. He walked up beside me and I pet his head. While looking down I noticed drops of blood all around the front of my bike. My first thought was, “What did I do to myself this time?” Then the dog put his paw up on my shoe. More blood. That’s when I saw it. He had run so hard and so far, his pad was torn and bleeding. I said, as if he could understand, “Why did you keep going? You should have stopped long ago. Now you’re hurt.”

I thought about it later and realized he kept going because the joy was greater than the pain. And the joy wasn’t possible without the pain. Joy and pain are not mutually exclusive. They are, at times, dependent on each other, so intertwined in our experience, one cannot be felt unless the other is endured. The journey of life is not a choice between joy or pain.

It is said of Jesus, “for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame…” Therefore, we are to “fix our eyes on him,” (Hebrews 12:2), and follow him who knew that the greatest joys are often the fruit of the most difficult suffering.

How to Become a Thankful Person

Thank the LORD! Praise his name! Tell the nations what he has done. Let them know how mighty he is! Sing to the LORD, for he has done wonderful things. Make known his praise around the world. (Isaiah 12:4,5)

Chicken or egg question: Does thankfulness begin in the heart or on the lips? Is it first spoken or first felt? The logical, gut reaction answer is it is first felt and then spoken. I’m not certain that’s completely true. The Scriptures consistently, both Old and New Testaments, exhort the believer to “give thanks,” and not “feel thankful.”

It is, after all, hard to command feelings. And we aren’t told to wait until we feel grateful before we give thanks. Are we, then, being encouraged to be hypocritical? It would be hypocritical if you had no desire to be happy and thankful. But that’s not what we are talking about here. Not at all. We are being helped by these commands to give thanks. Speaking words of praise and gratitude – expressing thanksgiving is the key to feeling thankful.

Once we commit to speaking thanks, we have to think of reasons to be thankful. These thoughts of gratitude have the effect of shifting your thinking. Your focus moves from problems and pains to blessings and gains. You aren’t thinking as much about what is wrong and more about what is right. Your orientation starts leaning more toward grace – all the undeserved gifts of God, the ways that God has shown you favor. Then, speaking it confirms it and solidifies it. And that affects and shapes your heart.

The negative, unhappy person who only and always speaks about all that’s wrong is only hardening their own heart in miserable ingratitude. The person who speaks joyfully and thankfully is taking up the plow and turning over the soil of their heart and planting good seeds of gratitude and soon will reap the fruit of feelings of gratitude.

It becomes cyclical. The more we speak words of praise and thanks, the more our hearts are affected and the more thankful we feel. The more thankful we feel the more we speak words of gratitude and praise. Then, the grateful heart starts moving outward, inviting others into its joy. It is infectious and it blesses.

Therefore, give thanks. Sing praise unto the Lord. Become a thankful person by being a thankful person.

Social Media & Public Virtue

“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people…that [you] may be seen by others.” (Matthew 6:1,16)

I have watched several videos of people giving money to pizza delivery drivers, postal carriers, and other such service workers. The gist of the narrative is typically the homeowner holds out a series of envelopes. The service worker is asked questions and with each correct answer, they are given an envelope which contains varying amounts of cash. Most of the videos I watched, end with the service worker getting all the envelopes. These have become contagious and viral. The viral feeds the contagion. The more likes and views one video receives, the more other “influencers” do their own videos.

Virtue signaling, defined as doing or saying something to demonstrate one’s good character and moral correctness, at least as goodness and morality is defined by contemporary culture, is as old as Cain’s offering. The problem with virtue signaling is and always has been the same. It’s got the wrong audience in view. It is theatre. Theatre is what Jesus was warning against. “Seen by others,” is a Greek word from which we derive our word theatre.

The problem with social media is not social media. It is the human heart. It is the heart that wants to be seen and praised. It is the heart that longs for likes, retweets, and shares. It is the bent human heart that can’t quietly, secretly, without any audience hand someone an envelope of money without making a production (literally) out of the act of giving.

Therefore, take heed. It is good to do good. But listen to Jesus. To rephrase the age-old question: “If a person does a good deed and there is no one there to post a video, did a good deed actually happen?” God sees, and God rewards unless you do it to be seen by others.

In the End

Abraham breathed his last and died in a good old age, an old man, and full of years, and was gathered to his people.  (Genesis 25:8)

On both my father’s and mother’s side of the family, there is a history of longevity. Even if, God willing, I inherited this genetic trait, turning 60 this year means that there are more years in my past than there are in my future. It’s not morbid to admit that and contemplate how I want to finish this pilgrimage. I believe I would like to finish like Abraham.

I want that, not because Abraham lived a long time, but because in the end, he was “full of years.” In Hebrew “of years” isn’t there. The idea is “full” or “satisfied.” Abraham had sat down at the table prepared by the Lord (Psalm 23:5), and now full/satisfied, pushed his chair back and rose to walk calmly through the valley of the shadow of death (Psalm 23:4), to emerge on the other side, gathered with his people.

Abraham was not a man fed up, full of regret, disappointed and depressed, and, therefore, wishing for death to deliver him from a miserable life. Neither was he what Alexander McClaren described as, “godless old men cynical and sour, pleased with nothing, grumbling, or feebly complaining about everything, dissatisfied with all that life has thus far yielded them, and yet clinging desperately to it, and afraid to go.”

He was, instead, calm, and peaceful. He was satisfied, not with himself, but with God and the way that God had led him. He had come to know that all things had worked together for good (Romans 8:28). He was at rest, not because he had walked perfectly, but because God had walked with him throughout his imperfect pilgrimage.

By God’s grace, I want to finish full, neither desperately clinging to this life, nor bitterly desiring to leave it behind. Rather content with what has been here and ready for what awaits us there.

When We Were gods

Not long-ago popular blogger Tim Challies’ son tragically died. He was a young man, a seminary student, and his death was sudden and unexpected. Challies is Canadian and his son died in the US. After the family made the trip to the States and returned home they were required to quarantine for 14 days. The days when they most needed ministry face-to-face, to receive hugs, to have their hands held, and deal with their son and brother’s death in a normal fashion, they were locked away, isolated, and suffering alone.

The Challies family is only one of the multitudes that have similarly suffered through the draconian measures used to try and contain the Covid virus. The elderly and infirm are isolated and alone, wondering why their families and friends no longer visit them. Hospitals are filled with people who, when they most need the love and care and help of family, are told no one can visit or stay with them.

Yesterday I received an email from a friend in a foreign country. They’re locked down. He isn’t allowed to work. I’ve been in his home. He lives on the fourth floor of a building in what we in American might call “the projects.” They are poor. They don’t have a reserve from which to draw. He, his wife, and his little girl live hand-to-mouth, as does almost everyone in the city where they reside. To keep them from dying from Covid, they are being starved to death.

They aren’t alone. 10,000 children a month are dying from what UNICEF calls Covid related starvation. Another 550,000 are experiencing “wasting” (spindly limbs and distended stomachs) due to the consequences of Coronavirus impositions on economic activity. You can read more detail HERE.

A recent report found that 73,000 US small businesses that closed due to Covid restrictions will never reopen. That represents 73,000 men and women whose livelihoods have been crushed, not because they were bad at business, but because they have to do business to have a business.

What are we to make of this?

Mainly this…We are not good at being gods. 

When we without reservation or hesitation proclaim, “We know what works,” when we act like we know what we don’t know, when we think we can control our destiny if we can control everyone else’s decisions, when we decide the only kind of death that matters is covid-related, we prove we are not good gods.

When a handful of bureaucrats impose upon the world their way of keeping us safe from one thing (the virus), while simultaneously creating a catastrophic mess (starvation, malnutrition, economic collapse, depression, etc.) it ought to convince us that men are bad gods. Let me be clear about what I am not saying: I am not saying the virus isn’t real. I’m not saying do nothing. I’m saying when we were gods, we were really bad ones.

Strings Attached

I knew a woman once who insisted on buying me a new suit every year. She was also adamant it be a nice suit, expensive and tailored. Knowing my propensity to go cheap, she made me promise not to buy off-the-rack, discount stuff. Naively I believed she did this because she cared about me and wanted her pastor to look nice, and she knew with my salary and four sons I would never purchase these for myself.

She, on the other hand, had other ideas. She was, in her view, tying strings to my hands and legs, preparing me to dance to her tune as she pulled the strings. That became clear when she invited me over one afternoon for coffee and a visit. According to her, she knew exactly what kind of music God most enjoyed and it coincidentally coincided exactly with her preferred musical tastes. After I explained that I wouldn’t be following her “suggestions,” she reminded me of her “gifts,” thereby revealing her true motives. That didn’t sway me, and I grew wiser.

When the King of Sodom offered Abraham the spoils of war, Abraham refused, saying, “I would not take a thread or sandal strap or anything that is yours, lest you should say, ‘I have made Abraham rich.’” Later, after Sarah had died and Abraham was looking for a burial plot, he again refused to receive something for nothing. Despite the Hittites’ entreaties to take it freely, Abraham paid the fair market value for Sarah’s gravesite.

Be wary of people bearing gifts. Free stuff is rarely free.

Love, Liberty, Tyranny and Anarchy

Ten years ago or so, when her adult children or grandchildren would mention something about Facebook, with a sigh of disgust mom would comment, “That Myface thing is evil.” Out of respect, we would decline to respond. We would just roll our collective eyes. She, after all, carried a $25 flip phone, was incapable of texting, had no computer or internet service, and didn’t know Google from grapefruit. She was a technological Luddite. One we loved, for sure, but a Luddite nonetheless, or so we thought.

Now, I’m wondering if mom was a prophet, stepping out of the wilderness of a forgotten past, seeing the present danger with clear eyes, and trying to call off us back from the broad road of destruction. The tech geeks are taking over. They aren’t alone, but they’ve taken over the theatre. They’ve written the script. They decide on whom the spotlight shines, who stands on the stage, and who holds the mics. The narrative will be theirs’ alone. They’ll decide what the audience sees and hears.

If by chance some disapproved voice, some rebel who wants to tell a different story, should interrupt the play, should someone sing a different song, the mobs of mad minions will grab their verbal pitchforks and beat and bully them from the stage and silence the dissenting voice. It takes a lion-hearted man to depart from the approved narrative in today’s world.

A new tyranny is rising, following in the iniquitous tradition of the Red Guard and the Brown Shirts. There is no interest in winning an argument with superior ideas. They want submission and they want it now. Views that oppose the narrative aren’t allowed. Think for yourself? You are bigoted, racist, or anti-science.

What are we to make of this? We should look at the root to understand the fruit. Jesus is often and accurately quoted as saying, “The truth shall set you free.” Paul, taking his lead from Jesus, said, “For freedom Christ has set us free,” (Galatians 5:1). Christ, through His death, burial, and resurrection, has set his people free from the dominion of sin. Therefore, we can live as free people. There is no need to tyrannize people who walk in the Spirit. They practice love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no need to control someone who can control themselves (Galatians 5:22-24). After all, they are using their freedom, not as an opportunity to indulge sinful urges, but to serve others through love (Galatians 5:13).

Turn a rabid Pit Bull lose and someone is going to get hurt. Release a well-trained, gentle German Shepherd and someone is going to get slobbered on and feel loved. One, because of its nature, requires a cage and a chain. The other, because of its nature, can be trusted to freely roam.

The further people move from Christ, the more tyrannical their world will become. When people can’t rule themselves, they will be ruled by others. When a culture isn’t being lifted by love it will be crushed by hate. The silencing and censorship, the demands for less – not more – freedom of speech, the coercive bullying of dissenting voices, these are all symptoms of a deeper problem. Tyranny indicates an abdication of truth. If freedom is birthed by truth, tyranny is a fruit of treachery. 

Pride and Praise

When my son Daniel was four or five I took him fishing at a pond near our house. I baited the hook, cast the line, caught the fish, and then handed the pole to Daniel so he could reel in the fish. After he got it to the bank, I pulled the line up and took the hook out of the fish’s mouth, and then released it back into the water. Then we did it all over again. After about ten fish, Daniel looked up at me, grinned, and proudly proclaimed, “I’m catching all the fish and you ain’t catching nothing!”

David’s ascendancy to the throne of Israel was not a straight or easy path. Although God had already made it clear that David was to be King of Israel, Saul wasn’t handing the crown over without a fight. David was forced to flee. He had hidden among the Philistines for a while, convincing them he was insane and no threat. He resisted the temptation to remove Saul himself when he had more than one opportunity to kill him. He had to deal with his wife’s betrayal, bring together a loyal band of warriors, and win the hearts of the Jewish people.

David’s leadership, character, and wisdom excelled at every turn. Yet, when finally, David’s enemies were subdued and his kingship established, David claims no credit for himself. He writes Psalm 18 (also found in 2 Samuel 22) to reflect on what had transpired. In that song, he credits every victory and accomplishment to God. He sees the battles in spiritual terms and his strength as being a divine gift. He doesn’t say, “I’m catching all the fish and you ain’t catching nothing!” He recognizes that if he jumped over a wall (Psalm 18:29) it was by God’s power. If he escaped from his enemies’ hands it was because God rescued him (Psalm 18:16-19).

When we look back and reflect on whatever successes we had in life we would do well to follow David’s example. Certainly, we played a part. We had to get up and get after it. We had to study and learn and work. I’m not denying that. Neither is God. He will be the One who will say, “Well done, you good and faithful servant.” But for our part, we should turn our eyes upward and recognize whatever strength, wisdom, and abilities we have are gifts from God. God made you big, or smart, or creative, or talented. Offer to God a sacrifice of praise, the fruit of our lips that acknowledge his name. (Hebrews 13:15)

Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid

Unless it was Henny Youngman’s inspiration for his classic one-liner, “Take my wife…Please” no one is fist bumping Abraham for the way he handled his fear of Abimelech (Genesis 20:1-18). As appalling as Abraham’s act of handing his wife over to Abimelech was, his reasoning was solid. It went something like this:

  • These people don’t fear God
  • Therefore, there is nothing to restrain them from killing me to take Sarah
  • So, I’ll save myself and sacrifice Sarah

When a people no longer have any fear of God, to quote Geena Davis, “Be afraid. Be very afraid.” (The Fly, 1986). After taking three chapters to detail for us what happens when a people reject the knowledge of God, Paul caps it off with a string of six Old Testament quotations that end with Psalm 36:1, “there is no fear of God before their eyes.”

That’s a problem. A big problem. Abraham saw that. His strategy was flawed and faithless – Surrender my wife to save my skin – even if his reasons were reasonable. In his case, God spared him and delivered him from his foolishness. God intended to and did fulfill his purposes through Abraham. Nevertheless, Abraham is a warning.

The biggest problem we face today is not political. It is spiritual. Increasingly, “there is no fear of God before their eyes.” This is Abe…Abe surrendered his wife…Don’t be like Abe. Don’t seek to save your life, you will end up losing it. Instead, pray, be faithful, do what is right and, most of all, for Jesus’ sake, die to yourself.   

The Magic Loogie

The Magic Loogie” Seinfeld episode is a hilarious parody of Oliver Stone’s “JFK.” That was produced back in the day when comedy could still poke fun and be offensive. Watch it. You’ll laugh and get the point. Since the assassination of President Kennedy, theories have persisted about CIA plots and multiple shooters. Panels and studies and movies have delved into these theories. It isn’t the only major event that has attracted alternate theories of explanation. Some people still insist man never walked on the moon. Others claim the evidence of alien life is being secretly hidden at Area 51 in the Nevada desert.

These ideas have come to be known as “conspiracy theories.” A conspiracy theory is an attempt to explain an event as a secret, and often nefarious plot, usually carried out by a powerful group of people or an organization. The term itself now has an accusatory ring to it. To be charged with advancing a conspiracy theory is to be accused of being a tin-foil-hat wearing lunatic who has paranoid delusions and is probably an end-times survivalist prepper.

While that caricature may fit some people, “conspiracy theory” is also used as a thought-blocking term. You don’t have to think about it because it is a “conspiracy theory.” Use those words and you shut down discussion, you don’t have to present counter arguments or refuting evidence because, well, they’re simply crazy loons who don’t deserve a response. Even worse, more sinister, dangerous, and counter-productive, is the way media and tech giants have taken it upon themselves to be the arbiters of truth and the gateways of information. They have been aggressively censoring ideas and narratives with which they disagree and damming up the free flow of ideas.

You can argue whether or not that is within their rights to do so and that is a fair argument to have. My point is not whether it is their right, but whether it is wise and good. My argument is that these actions undermine the American principle of freedom of speech (and powerful people are openly saying the first amendment is flawed – ironically, that is something they are free to say because the first amendment protects their right to say it).

I would also argue that these acts belie an underlying contempt for the American public. It suggests that people aren’t smart enough to weigh the evidence and come to a commonsense verdict. When you block the free exchange of ideas, you are saying that you don’t trust people.

Further, this kind of thing is counterproductive. It fosters the very thing it is trying to stop. When Twitter blocks tweets and shadow bans people, when Facebook puts people in “Facebook jail,” when WordPress deplatforms groups it only makes people wonder, “what are they trying to hide?” Suspicion and distrust grows as a result. It ends up promoting the very thing they are trying to keep people from reading about. I knew nothing about QAnon until someone recently accused me of being a QAnon believer. After checking into it to see what I was accused of I can say I’m not a subscriber to QAnon, but by their accusation, they inadvertently spread that which they were opposing.

Let people have their say. Don’t silence them. If you disagree, present your counter arguments and evidence to the contrary. People are smart. They’ll figure it out. And transparency will build trust. Will some people still insist that the world is flat and 9-11 was a false flag event? Yes. But the vast majority of people will follow the evidence to a reasonable conclusion.

Giving a conspiracy theory a platform has a real potential benefit. It can force those who oppose it to strengthen their arguments and be clear about the reasons not to believe the theory. Just condescendingly saying, “that’s a conspiracy theory” is not a valid argument. It is a dismissive, unhelpful, name-calling exercise.

After Jesus’ resurrection, the Chief Priests quickly came up with a conspiracy theory of their own: “Tell the people his disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.” Years after the fact, while Matthew was writing his Gospel, he said, “this story [conspiracy theory] has been spread among the Jews to this day.” (Matthew 28:13-15). Thank God for it. Because of that and other conspiracy theories surrounding the resurrection of Jesus, a lot of good work in apologetics has been done to defend and present evidence for the resurrection of Christ. Great books like, “Who Moved the Stone,” and “Evidence that Demands a Verdict” have been written.

So, lean on the side of liberty. Let people speak. If you want to win the argument, win the argument with truth, logic, and reason and not censorship, condescension, and bullying.

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