How can I please God?

Have you ever wondered whether God is happy with you? One could respond by saying that we can never please God and that is why our relationship to him is based on grace and not upon performance. While that is true, Paul counsels us to try and discern what pleases God (Eph 5:18) and challenges us to live in such a way that pleases him (1 Thess 4:1). Grace does not produce half-hearted performance, but a heart full of gratitude that simply wants to make our Father happy.

Haven’t you had such thoughts about others that you love? How can I make my kids happy today? How can I encourage my wife by doing something that I know will please her? Why does it seem performance-based when we want to do the same thing for God who has done so much for us?

So, what are the things that please God? Discerning the answer to that question will yield depth to our relationship with him. Here are some of the ways that I have found to please him: (I will list them for you but comment on the few that are especially meaningful to me.)

…Trusting in him (Hebrews 11:6) – God loves to be trusted. Over and over again in the Bible we see him responding to faith. Everyday there is something for me to trust him for and to remove from my worry list. Remember that the opposite of fear is not courage, but faith. Thus the areas of fear in our lives often highlight the areas in which we are not trusting our Heavenly Father.

…Spiritual Mindedness (Rom 8:8) – I don’t think this means having a daily beatific vision. Perhaps what we are doing right now describes it best—thinking how to please God, being concerned with what we know concerns him, being awed by him, being angry with the foolishness of people in power who think they are “tall poppies” (Australian for proud), and being sad when when God is not honored or when people of faith are ridiculed.

…Obedience to his commands (1 John 3:22)

…Doing good and sharing what you have (Heb 13:16) – My wife is recovering from knee replacement surgery and I’m on chemo and we don’t have a church community because of Covid. However, the Christians neighbors around us (who we don’t know very well because we moved here 9 months ago) have banded together and are providing meals for us. Something as simple as that pleases God (and me too).

…God’s people give him pleasure (Ps 149:4)

…He takes joy in those who reverence him, those who expect him to be loving and kind (Ps 147:11) – The force of this seems to indicate that he not only is happy but is worshipped when we have the expectation that he will be loving and good in whatever he does for us. In other words, we don’t deal with him like a tribal god who must be placated before he/she/it works on our behalf. We should not believe for an instant that we are bothering God with our request or must arouse his attention to our dilemma. We do not have a God who is unsympathetic to our pain but are encouraged to enter boldly into his presence and find grace and mercy in times of need. Why? Because he takes pleasure in his people, in their trust in him, and by their expectation of his love and kindness.

…A broken and contrite heart he will not despise (Ps 51:16, 17) – wherever we see genuine repentance evidenced, even in those who least deserve it (like King Manasseh), we see God responding in mercy and forgiveness. It almost seems that God has a default setting towards repentance. Whenever he sees it and in whomever he sees it, he responds in mercy.

…He is pleased with Jesus, and so those who follow Jesus please him as well (Matt 17:5)

…He is pleased when we praise the name of the Lord with a song and magnify him with thanksgiving (Ps 69:30, 31)

…He is pleased when we ask for wisdom and discernment and not power and riches (1 Kings 3:10)

…He is pleased with those who show mercy and kindness, just like he does (Matt 9:13)

…He is pleased when we live a godly life in our own household (1 Tim 5:3-5)

…He is pleased when we give cheerfully (2 Col 9:7) – He may take pleasure in our generosity but he LOVES a cheerful giver. Does it excite you to give your money away or do wish you had a rubber band on it so it would snap back to you? As for me, the offering is the most exciting part of a church service and that is why giving online or in a basket at the back takes away a very meaningful and vital part of worship. I’ve always loved the image of the little boy who did not have any money when the offering basket was passed, so he put it on the floor in front of him and stood in the basket. Perhaps that is why he loves a cheerful giver because the cheerful giver says, “here I am Lord, use me”. So as someone once said (I think it was me), “get in the basket before they put you in the casket.”

…He is pleased most by his work in us (Phil 2:11, 12) – Since it is God who works in us both to will and to do of his good pleasure, whenever we want to do his will and whatever we do to please him flows out of his marvelous grace in our hearts. The very fact that we are having this conversation right now must make our Father so happy, because apart from his work in our lives we wouldn’t give a rip (wouldn’t even care) about him.

Just a few thoughts on making our Father happy…hope they are helpful.

The Most Pivotal Election in US History?

Is this election the most important one in our lifetime? We have been told it is, but when you have lived as long as me, you have heard that phrase many times. In fact, if you did a study of presidential elections in American history you would hear this same phrase repeated in almost every election.

That is why I have rephrased the question to ask what was the most pivotal election in US history? You can do your own study and arrive at your own conclusion, but for me, I believe that the most pivotal and divisive presidential election in American history took place in 1860. John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry a year earlier had brought the great American debate over slavery to a breaking point.

Four candidates were nominated. The Republican Party, which fielded its first candidate in 1856, was opposed to the expansion of slavery. Abraham Lincoln, the party’s nominee in 1860, was seen as a moderate on slavery, but Southerners feared that his election would lead to its demise, and vowed to leave the Union if he was elected. The Democratic Party split during their April convention, and the Southern delegation walked out in protest against the party’s failure to endorse a federal slave code for western territories. Northern Democrats reconvened in Baltimore, where they nominated Stephen Douglas, while the Southern faction of the party held their own convention in Richmond and nominated Vice President John Breckinridge for president. The Constitutional Union Party, a moderate party composed of former Whigs and remnants of the Know-Nothings and other groups in the South, organized just before the election of 1860 and nominated John Bell.

Bell carried Virginia and Breckinridge had the most votes in western Virginia. Lincoln won the election without carrying a single Southern state, the limited support he received in Virginia coming almost exclusively in the Northern panhandle. Almost immediately following his election, Southern states began withdrawing from the Union, setting the stage for a civil war and the creation of a new state.

Notice the above map – with four candidates in the field, Lincoln received only 40% of the popular vote but a significant 180 electoral votes (59%). This meant that 60% of the voters selected someone other than Lincoln. The next time you complain about the electoral college just think of this election as an example of its wisdom. With the results tallied, the question was, would the South accept the outcome? A few weeks after the election, South Carolina seceded from the Union. Since the North had a larger population than the South, it therefore had control of the Electoral College. Lincoln dominated the Northern states but didn’t carry a single Southern state. 

Douglas received some Northern support—12 electoral votes—but not nearly enough to offer a serious challenge to Lincoln. The Southern vote was split between Breckenridge who won 72 electoral votes and Bell who won 39 electoral votes. The split prevented either candidate from gaining enough votes to win the election. The election of 1860 also firmly established the Democratic and Republican parties as the majority parties in the United States. It also confirmed deep-seated views on slavery and states’ rights between the North and South. 

The night after all the results came in and it was clear that Lincoln had won, he went home only to find his wife, Mary, already asleep. He gently touched her shoulder and whispered her name, to which she made no answer. Then, as Lincoln recounted: “I spoke again, a little louder, saying ‘Mary, Mary! we are elected!‘ ” Minutes before, the final words his friends heard him utter that night were: “God help me, God help me.” (The Smithsonian Magazine)

Before Lincoln’s inauguration, eleven Southern states had seceded from the Union. Weeks after his swearing-in, the Confederate Army fired on Fort Sumter and started the Civil War. I would say the election of 1860 was the most pivotal in US history.

The most contentious election in US history?

Presidential elections are not nice. They are very IMPORTANT, but not nice. By the way, make sure you vote—I already have by absentee ballot.

One of the most contentious presidential election in US history was the election of 1800 between the incumbent John Adams and “frenemy” (they were friends and enemies at the same time) Thomas Jefferson. The main cast of characters in this election—Adams, Jefferson, Burr, Hamilton all had a mutual level of disgust for one another. In fact, just 4 years later the election, Aaron Burr (who was Jefferson’s Vice President), killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel. You can do your own research on this election, but I thought this brief video would an interesting watch. I wonder what things would have looked like back then with TV adds and Twitter?

Learning about African American History… 4

This is the fourth in a series of blogs of what I have been learning about African American History that I never learned in school.

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The period of 1820-1860 was one of great reform in the nation. Many White and Black philosophers, ministers, writers, orators, and editors spoke out for justice for the oppressed. It paralleled a world-wide interest in reform. It also coincided with the on-going (1820-1870) religious revival known as the Second Great Awakening which led to such social changes as asylum and penal reform, temperance, women’s rights, reforms in public education, and the abolitionist movement to end slavery.

From the beginning of the Civil War, President Lincoln made it clear that his main motive was to preserve the Union. Whatever he did against slavery and for Black people it was to preserve the United States. In 1862, he wrote, “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it.” And to prevent slavery from becoming an issue, the president ordered Union generals to turn away slaves coming to their lines for safety or to serve in the Army.

However, so many Black men, women, and children sought safety with the Northern troops that, unofficially, attitudes began to change. Slaves served as guerrillas fighting against the Confederates. They also passed valuable information on to the Union army. In May 1862, an African American boat pilot actually stole a Confederate gunboat with an all African American crew of slaves and surrendered it to Union fleet. The boat pilot, Robert Smalls, and his crew were recognized by Congress for their exploit, and Smalls was invited to Washington to meet with “Uncle Abe” as he was called by many Blacks. Thus before the year 1862 was half over and before the Emancipation Proclamation (Jan 1, 1863), Lincoln changed his tune and his policy. He told a member of his cabinet that the war was a military necessity and it was “absolutely necessary for the salvation of the nation, that he must free the slaves.

Before the end of the war, over 200,000 African American served in the Union army and navy. Black troops liberated Charleston, Petersburg, Richmond, and Wilmington, NC. Without these Black troops Lincoln said, “we would be compelled to abandon the war in three week.” The success of the African American soldier was all the more amazing considering they were usually placed under white officers who were often prejudice, they were sent into battle with less training and inferior weapons, and their medical facilities were worse and their doctors fewer. They also were paid half as much as White soldiers. In fact, many of them refused pay until it was made equal—they continued to fight anyway.

Black women along with White women served behind the lines in relief agencies and in medical facilities. A freed slave, Susie King, was one of many Black nurses who worked alongside Clara Barton tending the sick and wounded.

Col. Thomas Wentworth wrote about his experience as the commander of the first official regiment of ex-slaves: “They had more to fight for than the White soldiers. Besides the flag and the Union, they had home, wife, and children. They fought with ropes around their necks [metaphorically], and when orders were issued that the officers of colored troops should be put to death upon capture, they took a grim satisfaction. It helped their sprit de corps immensely.”

Thanks The war emboldened Black demands for equality in the North. Illinois and California dropped their “Black Laws” that denied equal rights. Congress voted to allow African Americans to testify in court and approved the hiring of Black mail carriers. But not everyone in the North was in favor of such equality. In New York City, many poor Whites (many of them recent Irish immigrants) blamed Blacks for the war and for taking all the available jobs. Roving bands of these poor Whites would attack and lynch African American men, women, and children (a Black orphanage was burned to the ground). This took place in the North, mind you. And to add insult to injury, when Abraham Lincoln’s funeral took place in Washington, African American troops were left out of vast array of White soldiers who followed the casket.

I close this brief lesson in learning things I did not know about African American history with the words of Ellen Watkins Harper, a widely known Black poet, who wrote a letter a few days after Lincoln’s assassination: “Oh what a terrible lesson does this event read to us . . . Well, it may be in the providence of God this blow was needed to intensify this nation’s hatred of slavery, to show the utter fallacy of basing national reconstruction upon the votes of returned rebels and rejecting loyal black men . . . . Mr. Lincoln has led us up to another Red Sea to the table-land of triumphant victory, and God has seen fit to summon for the new era another man. Let the whole nation resolve that the whole virus shall be eliminated from its body; that in the future slavery will only be remembered as a thing of the past that shall never have the faintest hope of resurrection.”

Coming soon, Church History 101: Take a journey with me through the first 500 years of the history of the Christian Church. More info to follow…

I will not die, but live…

“I will not die, but I shall live and recount the deeds of the Lord.” Psalm 118:17

It was not that the writer of this Psalm believed he would never die, but that God would deliver him from his present crisis so he could recount the Lord’s goodness and mercy. Martin Luther had this verse written on the wall of his study. In the face of an uncertain future, he believed that this word provided a firm conviction that he was perfectly safe until his work was done. The application to my own life is along the same lines as the psalmist and Luther.

I am entering a new phase in my journey with pancreatic cancer. A recent CAT scan revealed that the cancer, which is still confined to a few nodules in my lungs, has begun to grow again. The more moderate form of chemo that I have been on since February is no longer effective. Today, I have started a more powerful regimen of chemo—Folfiri, which I have been on before. I have also started interviewing at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore and University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia for available clinical trials. I would appreciate your prayers for wisdom in this search—that the trial maybe effective in my treatment as well as paving the way for others.

And so as I sit in the hospital receiving chemo, it is with the calm assurance that I will not die before I have completed the work the Lord has for me to do. I do not know what that work is; certainly not as earth-shattering as that of Luther’s. Perhaps my work is that of encouraging the faith of my children, grandchildren, and friends who still look to me as a pastor, mentor, and friend. I know that God does not need my help in exalting him or making him known to my limited world. However, I do believe the small pieces of my life are part of a great mosaic by which God is being glorified in the extended world today. I am thankful to be alive on earth in order to serve him and share in reflecting his glory.

Some closing thoughts that form my confession of faith and may help in building your own assurance; taken from the first question of the Heidelberg Catechism.

Q1:What is your only comfort in life and death?

A1: That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death— to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sin with his precious blood, and set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven: in fact, all things must work together for my salvation. Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready for now on to live for him.

May God bless you with spiritual blessings and earthly joys!

Coming soon: a free course that I will put up on my website—Church History 101.

Learning about African American History… 3

The is the third in a series of blogs regarding what I am learning about African Americans in U.S. history that I never learned in school.

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“King Cotton” began to rule in the South and slavery flourished instead of fading., as the founding fathers had expected. Between 1820-1850, the number of slaves in this country doubled to 3 million even though slavery had been officially banned since 1808. The increase was due to slaves being smuggled into the country and existing slaves having children.

In 1819, the Missouri Territory petitioned for statehood. At that time the nation had 11 free states and 11 slave states. Northern congressmen protested and moved to ban slavery from Missouri which elicited a great reaction from Southern congressmen. Henry Clay of Kentucky proposed that Missouri be allowed to enter the Union as a slave state and Maine, which had just broken away from Massachusetts, to enter as a free state. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 also divided the newly purchased Louisiana Territory at 36.30 degrees, so that all territories north and west of the line would be free, the rest slave. Again, all of this after the Constitution banned slavery after 1808.

Elaborate theories were developed to justify the slave labor system. Alexander Stephens of Georgia said that “equality of the races is fundamentally wrong. . . . the great truth [is] that the Negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery—subordination to a superior race—is his natural and normal condition.” John C Calhoon of Soth Carolina claimed that slaveholders took “low, degraded, and savage” Africans and “civilized” and “improved” them. George Fitzhugh of Virginia said that slaves were “perhaps the happiest and freest people n the world.” The groundless and baseless theories were used to create the myth of superior and inferior people based upon race. Even though poor whites in the south were economically hurt by competition with slave labor, they believed this myth of superiority because of their white skin. Very few poor whites helped slaves escape north, but many were on the nightly slave patrols hunting runways slaves for rewards.

Speaking of elaborate theories that sinful people can create in order to justify their racist way of life, Dr. Samuel Cartwright of New Orleans, a respected Southern medical doctor, was convinced that African Americans suffered from special diseases. He called on dysaethesia aethiopica and claimed that it caused Blacks to “break, waste, and destroy everything they handle.” His other discovery was “drapetomania, or the disease causing negroes to run away.” This “disease of the mind” was sometimes cured by “whipping the devil out of them.” These crazy scientific theories coincided with the other non-sensical myth that slavery was a naturally happy life.

A quarter of a million free people of color lived in the South by 1860. In spite of many restrictions that limited their advancement in society, several achieved outstanding success. Norbert Rillieux of New Orleans perfected a vacuum pan that revolutionized the sugar refining industry in Europe and America. Dr. Charles Brown, of the US Department of Agriculture, said “Rillieux’s invention is the greatest in the history of American chemical engineering…”

Daniel Payne, a free Black of Charleston, opened his first school in 1829. He taught 3 children during the day and 3 adult slaves at night. Each pupil paid 50 cents a month to attend. As his expenses mounted, he became discouraged and quit. Then a white man told him that the difference between a master and a slave was “nothing but superior knowledge.” Payne decided to reopen his school which increased in numbers to the extent that he had to move into a larger space. Payne became a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and one of the founders of Wilberforce University in Ohio, becoming its president in 1863—the first African American college president in America.

There is a fascinating story about of a slave who mailed himself to freedom. Henry “Box” Brown of Richmond, Virginia, (1849) had a white friend help “Fed-Ex” him in a wooden box to Philadelphia. The box was 3 ft 1 in long by 2 ft 6 deep by 2 ft wide; 3 small holes for air. It was nailed shut and tied with straps. Brown had a small flask of water and a few biscuits. His friend (Samuel Smith) delivered box to the express office and sent a telegraph to friends in Philadelphia who would retrieve it. Brown was transported to steamboat by train, often having to withstand being upside down even though the box had written upon it, “this side up with care.” He arrived in Washington where he thrown on a wagon, head down again, but when more mail was added to the wagon the box was bounced right side up. The whole trip took 27 hrs. His abolitionist friends received the box gladly. It is said that when the box was opened Brown exclaimed “How do you do, gentlemen!” and sang a song based upon Psalm 40, “I waited patiently on the Lord and he heard my prayer.” Apparently, Brown believed that freedom was worth the risk. He became a well-known speaker for the Anti-Slavery Society. He eventually moved to England where he became an actor, magician, and mesmerist. (I was unable to find out how tall Brown was, but I doubt he was the size of LeBron James.)

More to come…