What Others Say

My wife and I make it a point to read your column every Saturday. You write with columns that are solidly based in Scripture but never wielded as a weapon. Your understanding of the culture and how to convey the love of God in a loving way are outstanding. - Mark and Sue S. - Kitsap, Washington

Monday, November 23, 2015

Evil and Grace

We are witnessing an increase of evil in the world with senseless killings and brutal beheadings.  The persecution of Christians is at an all-time high.  But where evil increases, God’s grace increases all the more. In spite of the violence and persecution, more people are discovering faith in Christ from all over the world than ever before.

For the last two years we have hosted a Bible study in our home for international grad students at Baylor.  They have come from China, Indonesia, South Korea, South Africa, Zambia, Ghana Viet Nam and Poland.  Many of them have become like family to us.  We had a similar experience a few years ago when I served as pastor of an English speaking church in Nuremberg, Germany. Most of those attending the church were young adults from Germany, Ireland, England, Romania, Ukraine, China, Cameroon, India, Sweden, Austria, Japan and South Africa.

These young believers remind me that Jesus Christ was sent for all people of every nation in every age. When God called Abraham He promised to make him a blessing to all the nations. Isaiah said, “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him, and he will bring justice to the nations.” (Isa. 42:1) And again, “The Lord will lay bare his holy arm in the sight of all the nations, and all the ends of the earth will see the salvation of our God.” (Isa. 52:10) Those promises are fulfilled in Jesus.

The world is experiencing the greatest population migration in history.  The United Nations Refugee Service estimates more than 55 million people have been displaced.  Christian groups are responding to offer shelter, food and the good news of God’s grace. According to a recent study by Lousanne World Pulse, Christianity as a whole is growing faster than the global population with the fastest growth in Asia, Eastern Europe and the global south.

Wherever we are, every believer needs to reach out to internationals around them, to welcome them, to love them, and to share with them the life-changing difference found in Jesus Christ. God wants people from every nation to experience His salvation in Jesus Christ.

When John described his vision of Christ in Revelation, he declared, “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.  And they cried out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.” (Rev. 7:9).

Monday, November 16, 2015

A Call for Renewal

For decades the horrors of the holocaust shocked us. We wondered how people could be so cruel to other humans. But today we witness genocide, murder and slaughter on an unprecedented global scale. The atrocities of ISIL threaten to spread like a cancer.  Over four million people have fled Syria, seeking safety in Turkey, Europe and the West.  Our hearts and our prayers go out to the people of France, the latest victims in what is becoming an increasingly violent century.

The violence is more widespread than ISIL.  In June a young white man gunned down the pastor and eight other members of the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC after being welcomed to their church for Bible study. In Oregon police called for as many ambulances as possible after a 26-year-old man opened fire at a community college killing nine.

In Houston a law officer was murdered in cold blood while filling his car with gas.  As of this writing, 109 law enforcement personnel have been killed in the line of duty in 2015. 

We are experiencing racial unrest in the U.S. not seen since the 1960s.  Charges of police brutality have resulted in race riots in Baltimore, MD and Ferguson, MO.  Protests broke out in Waller, TX following the jail-cell death of Sandra Bland.  University of Missouri students forced their President to resign charging him with racial insensitivity.

The Russian writer and Nobel prize winner, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn once wrote: "But the fight for our planet, physical and spiritual, a fight of cosmic proportions, is not a vague matter of the future; it has already started. The forces of Evil have begun their decisive offensive.”

Twenty years ago David Aikman, former senior correspondent for Time magazine, said, “I don't think the country can be changed through politics ... it can be changed by the kind of awakening or revival that has such a dramatic effect that politics is merely an outflow, the kind of awakening spiritually that this country has seen on at least two previous occasions, and the place to start is among Christians. Their lives must reflect a serious cultural difference from the rest of a pagan society."  The spiritual awakening Aikman envisioned has not occurred.  Instead, our world seems to be sinking into the dark waters of fear, suspicion, prejudice, deceit, immorality and violence.

But the tide can be stemmed.  The world can be a place of goodness, grace, forgiveness, love and beauty.  We can refuse to give in to the cultural currents that seek to destroy us. We can rise above them.  The Bible promises, If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” (2 Chronicles 7:14).  

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Biker Believers

This weekend almost half a million bikers will show up in Galveston for the Lone Star Rally. They come from all walks of life with a shared love for the road, the wind and the machine.  Many of them might be like the young man I met years ago in Kansas City, a disciple of Jesus Christ disguised as a biker. 

I have always liked bikes.  I got my first motor scooter when I was 13.  Two years later, my first motorcycle.  It wasn’t much.  I didn’t have much money, only a 175 cc engine.  It would only do 45 mph, that is until I took the engine apart and cleaned out the exhaust ports.  Then it would do 75.  Great fun! 

After I became a pastor, I found myself serving a church where many of the members had motorcycles.  I bought a Yamaha.  Again, not much of a bike because, again, I didn’t have much money.  But my wife rode with me and I was able to go on some bike rides with my deacons.  I took my son on a ride and toured the Pea Ridge Civil War battlefield in northwest Arkansas.

I never owned a Harley, but a few years ago I visited the Harley Davidson plant in Kansas City with a group of church leaders interested in Harley Davidson.  I listened as a young man introduced himself as a disciple of Jesus Christ disguised as a Harley Davidson executive.

Later, I served as coach to a pastor who was starting Biker Church, a church for people who served their community and shared their faith as biker enthusiasts.  The church met on Thursday nights for worship and participated in biker rides and rallies on the weekend. They raised money for those in need and started a Bible-base ministry for substance abuse.

I bought a Kawasaki, again a used bike, but by far the best and fastest bike I ever owned.  I went down on it at 60 mph but my full-face helmet and the Lord saved my life.   I survived with only a couple of broken ribs and road rash.  I still love bikes.

If the Apostle Peter lived today, perhaps he would be a biker.  After all he was a rough fisherman when Jesus met him and he was prone to jump out of boats.  Jesus loved him and made him the leader of his followers.  When I think about Jesus, the places he went, the people he befriended, it makes sense that He would love bikers. 

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Nearing Home

Next Saturday is Billy Graham’s 97th birthday.  No individual has had a greater impact in shaping our spiritual landscape in the last century. In 2014, he was named to the Gallup Poll’s list of men Americans most admire for the 58th time.

He first rose to prominence in 1949 when he preached an evangelistic crusade in Los Angeles, California that was extended for eight weeks. That event launched a career that spanned more than half a century with Crusades in more than 150 countries. More than three million professed faith in Christ in Graham Crusades, but they are only a fraction of the number impacted by his messages via radio, television, books and movies.

I first heard Billy Graham preach in 1971 at Texas Stadium in Irving, the Dallas Cowboys’ famous open roofed structure. Tom Landry, the legendary coach for the Cowboys, gave his testimony that night quoting Augustine, “Our hearts are restless indeed, O God, until they find their rest in thee.”

Billy Graham’s life has been more than remarkable. He served as a spiritual confidant for every president since Harry S. Truman. He took bold stands as a leader for integration during the civil rights movement and was close friends with Martin Luther King, Jr.  Unlike many “televangelists,” he had himself placed on a salary early in his career to avoid any hint of scandal. He and his wife, Ruth, had an exemplary marriage for sixty-three years before her death in June, 2007.

In 2012 the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association met in Chicago and chose Billy Graham’s book Nearing Home as the “Best Christian Book of the Year.”  Dr. Graham’s book is filled with hope and inspiration while taking an honest look at the challenges of old age. He writes, “I can’t truthfully say that I have liked growing older. At times I wish I could still do everything I once did – but I can’t. I wish I didn’t have to face the infirmities and uncertainties that seem to be part of this stage of life – but I do.” He asks the important question, “Is old age only a cruel burden that grows heavier and heavier as the years go by, with nothing to look forward to but death? Or can it be something more?”

In his book, he says, “Growing old has been the greatest surprise of my life. … When granted many years of life, growing old in age is natural, but growing old in grace is a choice. Growing older with grace is possible to all who set their hearts and minds on the Giver of grace, the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Writing recently in Decision magazine, Dr. Graham said, “The only way that we can have our lives changed and find peace, joy and the fulfillment of life; the only way to have sin forgiven; the only way to know that you are going to Heaven, is to receive Christ as your Lord, Savior and Master. “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name” (John 1:12). 

Monday, October 26, 2015

The Essential Element for Successful Marriage and Family

The University of Georgia recently conducted a study to find the essential ingredients for successful marriage.  The study, published in the journal of Personal Relationships, discovered one primary factor in marriages that were healthy and happy.  In every case, those marriages included gratitude.  According to their findings, gratitude was the “most consistent significant predictor” of a happy marriage.

Allen Barton, lead author of the study, said, “It goes to show the power of ‘thank you.’” Associate professor and study co-author Ted Futris stated, “Feeling appreciated and believing that your spouse values you directly influences how you feel about your marriage, how committed you are to it, and your belief that it will last.”

Each bride and groom stands at the marriage altar beaming with gratitude for the “love of their life.” And, it is easy to remain thankful for each other as long as things go well. 

But all married couples will face difficult demands. Hard times will come. Many will experience financial stress, competing demands from in-laws, professional pressure from their jobs, exhausting schedules that leave little time for rest. Most will experience the stress of parenting: sleepless nights with newborns, the constant attention required by preschoolers and the complicated schedules of school, sports and activities as children grow.

It is especially during these stressful periods of life that gratitude matters.  Many marriages crumble under the pressure, choosing to play the “blame-game”, creating a downward spiral that ends in disaster.  Others choose gratitude, building one another up with appreciation and thankfulness under trying circumstances.  These marriages prosper and survive.  According to Allen Barton, “Even if a couple is experiencing distress and difficulty in other areas, gratitude in the relationship can help promote positive marital outcomes."

What Barton and Futris found regarding marriage can also apply to the family.  Strong families are created when parents express gratitude to their children and children are grateful to their parents. Gratitude in the family starts with the marriage.  Children learn to be grateful by watching their parents. 

Nothing cultivates a heart of gratitude better than faith in Christ. When we experience God’s love in Christ, we become more thankful for others.  In Colossians, the Apostle Paul writes, “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.” (Colossians 3:15). 

And again, “So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness. (Colossians 2:6-7).  “Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” (1 Thessalonians 5:18)

We all enjoy being around people who are grateful and thankful. They cheer us up. They give us energy. They encourage us.  List the aspects of your spouse for which you are genuinely thankful and express your gratitude.  Cultivate a heart of faith that is genuinely grateful in all circumstances. 

Saturday, October 17, 2015

"When I'm 64" - Now What?

This weekend my high school class of 1965 will gather for its fiftieth class reunion.  How did this happen?  Half a century since we walked across the stage and tossed our tassels?  Can this be possible?  When I was growing up we thought sixty-four was ancient, and now we will soon be seventy.

Paul McCartney wrote the song, “When I’m 64” at the age of 16 and later recorded it in 1966.  I have listened to it most of my life. I remember reciting the lyrics in my youth, thinking of the inconceivably ancient age of sixty-four. I assumed by then I would be in a nursing home or dead. “Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m sixty-four?” Well, I blew past 64 four years ago and, strangely, I don’t feel old or anywhere near incapacitated.

Every year I spend several days with some of my childhood friends. We are all past sixty-four. Several of us were in first grade together in1953. We have the photo to prove it. While we don’t feel old, and think of ourselves as we once were in our youth, others apparently think we are old. When we went out to a restaurant together for dinner, the owner took pity on us and gave us a free dessert.

But, I realize something when I am with my childhood friends. I realize we are all still on the journey. We started this journey together as children in post-World War II. We were the first baby boomers. We didn’t know what that meant. We just knew there were lots of us. We have journeyed through the Sixties, Viet Nam, Flower Power, the Moon landing, Watergate, Floppy Disks, the World Wide Web, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Desert Storm, the Dot Com Bust, 9/11, Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Great Recession.

Our individual journeys have taken different turns and twists. A couple entered the military graduating from West Point and the Air Force Academy, one became a physician, two entered business, one became an educator, one became an Episcopal priest, another a Baptist minister. We have different political, economic and religious opinions. But we are still together on the journey.

It reminds me of the words Jesus first spoke to his followers. “Come and follow me.” God always invites us to a journey. His invitation is to all of us and His invitation is life-long. The journey never stops. It has valleys and mountaintops. It leads through sorrow and celebration. It encompasses wonder, worship and war. It includes pain, poverty and prosperity.

Now that I am past 64, the age our generation has sung about since youth, I am grateful for the journey. I am grateful for the companions God has given me to travel with. And I am grateful for the One who invited me to follow Him when I was young and still leads me when I am old.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Character: The Most Important Trait For A Successful Leader

The political pot is already simmering, even though we won’t go to the polls to elect a new President for more than a year.   Presidential hopefuls continue to jockey for position as pollsters and pundits assess the field. 

Each candidate tries to persuade us they can guide our nation through the complex waters looming ahead.  Some cite their business success and financial achievement. Others tout their political experience.  But the most important element for effective leadership might be the most difficult to discern.   

In his recent book, Return on Character:  The Real Reason Leaders and Their Companies Win, Fred Kiel concluded that the most important trait for successful leadership is character.

According to the Harvard Business Review, “Now, in this groundbreaking book, respected leadership researcher, adviser, and author Fred Kiel offers that evidence-solid data that demonstrates the connection between character, leadership excellence, and organizational results.”

Kiel identifies four basic traits that set effective leaders apart:  integrity, responsibility, forgiveness and compassion.  Leaders with character tell the truth and own up to their mistakes.  Most importantly, they care about people.

By contrast, those with weak character demonstrate a negative view of human nature. Their behavior is fear based.  “They assume that they know better than anybody else what people should be doing.”  They are judgmental, quick to place blame on others.

The positive and negative traits identified by Fred Kiel are consistent with the Bible.  Among the negative “deeds of the flesh,” the Bible lists “enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions.”  The positive fruits of the Spirit are “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” (Galatians 5:19-23). Proverbs says, “He who walks in integrity walks securely, but he who perverts his ways will be found out.” (Proverbs 10:9).

In 1908, Leo Tolstoy identified Abraham Lincoln’s greatness when wrote, “Why was Lincoln so great that he over-shadows all other national heroes?  He really was not a great general like Napoleon or Wahington; he was not such a skillful statesman as Gladstone or Frederick the Great; but his supremacy expresses itself altogether in his peculiar moral power and in the greatness of his character.”

King David had his flaws. His shortcomings are clearly laid out in Scripture. But He remains one of the great leaders of history. The Bible says of David, “He chose David his servant and took him from the sheep pens; from tending the sheep he brought him to be the shepherd of his people Jacob, of Israel his inheritance. And David shepherded them with integrity of heart; with skillful hands he led them. (Psalm 78:70-72).

For each of us, and especially for our leaders, the path to a prosperous future is always the path of integrity, honesty, compassion and forgiveness.