In a moment, life changes forever…

A couple of weeks ago I was driving from Annapolis, Maryland to Strasburg, Pennsylvania—before sunrise. It was a beautiful drive once I got around the Baltimore Beltway into the countryside and onto the serpentine roads of northern MD and southern PA. As the sun was starting to bulge over the horizon, some of the houses were still mostly dark with just a light or two flickering on as people were getting up for work or school. A new day was dawning. I’m sure that most thought it was just going to be another day of doing the same old thing—at least it was Friday, relief was in sight.

I mused that for some, however, something might take place today that would change life forever. Life would never be the same. Someone might die or receive a diagnosis of a terminal disease. Someone might discover a spousal affair or get divorced. Someone might get fired or go bankrupt; whatever the event, everything would change. Life would be dominated by it—nothing would be able to contend with its significance, not only to an individual but to an entire family. How does one ever prepare for such a thing? How does one cope once it happens?

It brought to mind the lives of two of our next door neighbors. One was an older lady who had cancer and was one day being picked up by a friend for a chemo treatment. There was no answer when the friend knocked on the door or tried to call on her cell phone. I was in the yard, packing the car for a vacation trip. The friend saw me and asked if I would go into the house and see why the neighbor was not answering her door or phone. I went in, calling her name and heard a muffled “help” coming from the basement. Apparently, our dear neighbor had fallen down the cellar stairs and was lying on the cold cement floor. She was conscious but very weak. She said she had been there since the night before and could not move. I covered her up with more blankets, called 911, and prayed with her until the paramedics came and took her to the hospital. When we returned from our vacation 2 weeks later, we found out the she had died. Life suddenly changed for her entire family.

A second neighbor, a good man in his late 50’s early 60’s, also fell down his basement steps less than two months ago. His adult sons estimate he had been lying at the bottom of the stairs unconscious for 2 days before they found him. He never fully regained consciousness. I visited him in the hospital as did some of our neighbors. It was determined that he had injured his brain in the fall and would never regain the use of his limbs. When his organs began shutting down, they brought him home under Hospice care. He died last week and we had a very meaningful celebration of life service for him hosted by his sons. My neighbor and I had talked a few times about eternal things—one time being just after I received my cancer diagnosis. He was open and receptive. I pray that he continued to move towards God. Life has suddenly and radically changed for his family.

I am sure that you can think of more examples of how life suddenly changed for some of your neighbors, friends, and their families—in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye. First there was light . . . then came the night. Maybe you have had such an experience.

So, as we turn the lights on every morning wondering if this will be the day life will change, we can do so in one of three ways:

  • We can take life for granted and believe that things like this happen to others and not to us—anyway, the weekend is coming.
  • We can fear life and what it might bring to the extent we take no risks, close our hearts to others, and never enjoy the adventure of our journey.
  • We can embrace life in all its richness by daily entrusting ourselves into the care of a loving and sovereign God who will not allow anything to come into our lives that has not first passed through his Fatherly hand. A God who loves us more than we know and gave himself to us in his Son, Jesus Christ.

In the darkness and uncertainty of WWII, Pastor Helmut Thielicke wrote a small book titled, “The Silence of God.” In it there is a sentence that has helped me face my own fear and uncertainty about tomorrow. He said, “If the last hour belongs to God, we do not need to fear the next moment.”

Thoughts on Racism…

There was an article in the Daily Herald (Chicago) this week about a group of 18 mostly African-Americans being asked to change tables at a local Buffalo Wild Wings because some regular “white” customers didn’t want the group to sit near them. This blatant racist behavior was reported and 2 managers were fired; some people were calling for a boycott of BWW until safeguards such as sensitivity training, etc. were put in place.

It is true that we don’t know the whole story, which doesn’t call the incident into question, but it does raise the question of why such a thing continues to happen over and over again after so much publicity and media attention. Racism is defined as “prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race/ethnicity based upon the belief that one’s own race is superior.” I think that this is too narrow a definition. While such feelings of racial superiority can be part of the mix, I believe that the underlying causes for racism are far more complex and deceitful.

In Numbers 12, there is an account of an older sister, Miriam, and a younger brother, Aaron, criticizing their brother Moses for marrying a Cushite woman. Cush was a region of southern Ethiopia, where black-skinned people lived. “Can an Ethiopian (same word translated “Cushite”) change his skin or a leopard his spots? Then also you can [not] do good who are accustomed to evil” (Jeremiah 13:23). As an aside: Moses had married a Midianite woman, Zipporah, 40 years earlier whom he had met in the Sinai region after his escape from Pharaoh. The Midianites were originally from northern Arabia, but many had migrated to Sinai. Reading between the lines, there is a good chance that Zipporah had died, or that she had left him again like she did in Ex 4:18-20, and was living with her father’s family back in the Sinai. Either way, Moses’ new wife was not Zipporah. I doubt that Miriam and Aaron would have complained about her after 40 years.

So the sibs criticized Moses for marrying a black woman, who was not an Israelite. The text implies that Miriam took the lead in this family dispute. We would call this racism, but it wasn’t racial superiority that prompted the slur. The underlying cause for this racism was jealousy (especially Miriam’s) of Moses’ leadership position and the belief that she could totally do a better job (note the “plague-gate” quail issue in Numbers 11). God punished Miriam severely by striking her with leprosy that turned her skin “white.” John Piper suggests that in Numbers 12:10 God is in effect saying, “you like being light-skinned Miriam? I’ll make you white as snow.” She was not punished for being a racist but, because she was jealous of Moses and criticized the leadership of someone whom God had appointed. Aaron confessed his sin and wasn’t punished, while Moses prayed for his sister’s healing and was heard.

This text is not only a study of how a leader handles criticism with humility and restraint, but also shows that there are deeper reasons for the sin of racism than just the belief of “racial supremacy.” There could be lurking a heart of jealousy, of fear, of inferiority, or of just going along with the crowd in order to be accepted. As we have seen in the case of the Holocaust, Hitler made the Jewish race a scapegoat for the problems of the nation. There could be that same blame-shifting mentality among some people who see law and order disrupted by the “foreign element” and people who don’t “look like” they belong here. A case in point is the story of the 61 yr. old white man in Milwaukee who was arrested over this past weekend for throwing battery acid in the face of an Hispanic man while shouting, “why did you come here and invade my country?”

Sins of the heart cannot be punished by human law, but it is fairly obvious that ignoring the deeper issues of racism yields little fruit. In fact, racism is a growing problem not a lessening one that can’t be treated as mere ignorance dealt with by prison time, lawsuits, sensitivity training, and politically correct language. In fact, such “antidotes” tend to inflame the sinful heart instead of being a remedy. Certainly a society must bring law into the picture in order to protect racial and ethnic minorities from oppression and hate crimes, but, at the same time, it cannot ignore the place of faith as a part of the solution for the racial divide because it is the function of religion (not law) to address issues of the heart. Thus instead of criticizing religion, society should encourage the practices of religious communities to challenge their membership to live out their faith and not in contradiction to it—especially as it relates to racial issues.

Jesus said, “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander” (Matt. 15:19). He also told his disciples that you’ll be able to recognize the true and the false adherents to religion by their fruits, because a healthy tree cannot produce bad fruit and a bad tree cannot produce the good. (Matthew 7:15–20)

I believe that only a person in whose heart God has worked through the miracle of new birth, because of faith in Jesus Christ, can be changed from a racist to a “gracist.” This change does not usually occur overnight, but there should be an awareness of its existence in heart and attitude and a repentance that ultimately will lead to change. This repentance along with a humility to learn from and be in relationship with those of different ethnicities, brings healing of those deeper issues of the heart which often cause racial conflict, which Miriam and Aaron so vividly exemplified.

As faith communities we must continue to preach repentance and the new birth through faith in Jesus. We must also continue to examine our own hearts as well as challenge those who call themselves followers of Jesus “to put up or shut up”—to act like him, to love like him, or else they might prove to be false followers and filled with self-deceit. Jesus said, “When that day comes, many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, cast out devils in your name, and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them to their face, ‘I never knew you: out of my sight, you and your wicked ways!'” (Matthew 7:22, 23 NEB)

I am weak, but…

I want to share a page from my journal, which I write in almost every day as a discipline. The practice has helped me track my life and to hold myself more accountable for my own thoughts, attitudes, and behavior. It also helps me to remember people I am praying for, the things that I have read in the Scripture, and the new discoveries of God’s truth that I do not want to forget. So many of my sermons and blogs have flowed out this journaling practice. Finally, the practice of journaling has also helped me sift through my feelings and emotions, as well as keeping track of my “progress” with pancreatic cancer, which has been a dominating force in my life since April, 2017.

Sunday, October 20, Day 13 (after my 8th (out of 12) chemo treatment):

Woke up with the hymn “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah” running through my mind. Listened to it on YouTube. I really do feel like a “pilgrim through this barren land. I am weak but Thou art mighty, guide me with Thy powerful hand . . . Bread of Heaven, feed me till I want no more.” Chemo sometimes makes me weepy, but this hymn brought tears to my eyes. I also listened to “It is Well with My Soul,” “Crown Him with Many Crowns,” and “I’m No Longer a Slave to Fear.” An encouraging time of worship for my sad heart—to bask in the realization of a good and powerful God, who is my Deliverer.

This reminds me, once again, how my heart responds most to songs, hymns, Scripture that magnify God and describe his greatness and power. I feel safe, like he is my Rock and Fortress; I also feel cared for because he is my strong Father. I remember when ________ (one of my sons) lost a toy down a storm drain in front of our house. The drain was covered by a very heavy metal grate that I had to dead lift in order for my boy to quickly retrieve his toy. As I was putting the grate back into position, I caught my finger underneath it and yelled in pain as I finally pulled it out. Wow, did that hurt! My boy, who was watching all of this was horrified—and ran away. He couldn’t handle seeing is strong dad, hurt.

Another memory comes to mind about how my dad and me used to wrestle when I was a kid. I always admired him for his strength and that he never used it to hurt me. I eventually joined the wrestling team in high school and started to develop physically. The day came when I realized that I could take my dad, but I continued to let him win when we wrestled. I distinctly remember the thought that I needed my dad to be stronger than me.

I will never have to worry about my Heavenly Father losing strength; I am weak, but he is mighty. . . . He is the majestic, all-powerful Creator of the Universe, and he is in control of all things. He is my “Abba,” Dad. He will never use his great strength to hurt me and nothing will ever be able to separate me from his love. My heart overflows with worship . . .

Crown Him the Lord of Years, The Potentate of Time, Creator of the rolling spheres, Ineffably sublime. All Hail, Redeemer, Hail! For Thou hast died for me; Thy praise shall never, never fail Throughout eternity! (Matthew Bridges, 1845)