All Other Things Seem Small…

Daylight Savings Time won’t be a problem today. I don’t have to worry about over-sleeping in the morning, because I am already up at 4:52am (formerly 3:52am pre-DST). In fact, I’ve been awake since around 3:00am. It wasn’t the plan, but it is the reality.

After rearranging myself and the covers and the pillow a few times, I finally resolved that I was awake. Then came the inner griping – after all, griping out loud would only wake Nancy up. There was no need for both us to be awake. After my little pity party, my mind drifted northward – to my sister and her husband.

My brother-in-law Keith is in critical condition after he suffered head trauma in an accident on Friday night. His skull is fractured and he has bleeding on his brain. My sister Susan is by his side, weeping, praying, and hoping that he’ll pull through this. I can’t imagine the heartache she is experiencing now, but I put my little gripe session on hold to join her in her prayers. I invite you to do the same.

Events like this are not-so-gentle reminders that the things that bother us so much one moment become infinitely insignificant in light of life and death situations. As I continued to pray for Keith, Susan, and the family, the Lord brought to mind others who are hurting. I took the time to lift up prayers for them, as well.

Here’s the bottom line – Life is filled with little annoyances and major heartaches… AND life is filled with moments of pure joy and times of incredible peace. Through both, God is faithful, He is near, He cares, and He joins us in both our joys and sorrows. He has also given us people to bring a loving physical touch to us.

I hated waking up way too early on Sunday morning, but it’s a small thing… and it became an opportunity to pray for God to intervene in the lives of the hurting, the grieving, the hopeless, the struggling, and the lost.

We would be wise to spend some time each day reflecting on those things that are most important, telling the people in our lives how much we love them, and confessing how self-centered we can too often become. Life is precious, death is certain, grief hurts, and eternity is a long time. Let’s live as if we actually believe those things are true.

For I Know the Plans I Have for You…

I am grateful for the comfort that Scripture brings – especially on those days I feel especially broken or when life seems to have gone off the rails. In those times, I can remind myself of what it true and solid. Verses like…

“When I am afraid, I will trust in You.” (Psalm 56:3)

“Even when I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and staff, they comfort me.” (Psalm 23:4)

“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in time of trouble.” (Psalm 46:1)

“The name of the Lord is a strong tower; the righteous man runs into it and is safe.” (Proverbs 18:10)

And, of course, this verse is one that I frequently repeat to myself in times of confusion or when facing conflict – “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (Jeremiah 29:11)

All of these verses are true. All bring comfort. Each one is worthy of being committed to memory so that it will be present the next time we have “one of those days.”

Sometimes a verse from God’s Word is exactly what we need to pull us out of the ditch and put our feet back on the path, but we’d do well to consider the context in which these verses were written. In other words, the Scripture may speak to us in our moment of need, but it also spoke to a person or a group of people in the time which it was written. Knowing that context may help us understand God and His ways better.

For instance, consider Jeremiah 29:11. If we take time to read the chapter, we’ll see that those words are part of a letter that the prophet Jeremiah wrote from Jerusalem to his fellow Jews exiled in Babylon. The exile followed the conquest of Judah and the destruction of Jerusalem by the world’s super-power at that time. And that super power had carted off many of Judah’s citizens to its own land. A great number of Jews were now living in enemy territory.

Jeremiah gives his exiled countrymen words of hope. God had not forgotten them. All was not lost. They would come home. But these words are nestled within a stark reality – they would be in exile for 70 years before returning. This meant that nearly every Jew then living in Babylon would die in Babylon, never seeing their home country again. It wasn’t exactly the word they were hoping God would give them.

Jeremiah goes so far as to tell them to settle in for the long haul. Build your houses. Plant your gardens. Let your children marry. Get a job or start a business. Pray for the place where you’re living and work for its betterment. You’re going to be there a while. And Jeremiah warned them not to listen to those who were saying that their stay was only temporary, that any day they’d pack their bags and go back home – that just wasn’t reality.

This is not what the people would have wanted to hear. They had been led off to foreign soil, to a different culture, among a people who spoke an unknown language. They had abandoned their home and many of their possessions, and they longed to return and get back to life as usual.

Jeremiah’s message would not have been welcomed, but in the midst of the gloom and doom, he speaks hope – “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Despite how it may feel, God has not forgotten you. God has a plan. You have a future.

We tend to want a quick fix – just like those Jewish men and women in exile. We become impatient with God. We want to escape the desert. We want to get out of our storm. We shout, “If God’s got a plan, then let Him get on with it. Doesn’t he see I’m struggling here? Doesn’t He care?” Yes, He does see. Yes, He does care. He has a purpose. He has a plan. It’s true that His thoughts and our thoughts don’t always mesh. His ways are sometimes so much higher than ours that there is no way we can understand what’s happening.

But in the midst of the struggles and pain and confusion, God speaks to remind us – “I am here. I do care. I have a plan to bring good from bad, the best from the worst.” And He invites us to trust Him…

Go Deeper…

“Great weather today, huh?”
“Did you catch that game last night?”
“Have a good weekend?

Small talk usually starts with small questions. It’s not that we should never converse about the weather, sports, or weekend plans, but too often that’s as far as we go. Sometimes it’s necessary to keep the conversation light. We don’t want to seem like we’re prying. Sometimes we don’t have the time for a lengthy conversation. And there are times when it’s just out of place to probe into issues that are too personal. But if our conversations always stay surface level, especially with those to whom we are closest, we lose out.

When time permits (or when you make the time) consider asking questions like these –

What has the Lord been teaching you lately?
What burdens are you taking to God in prayer?
What’s really challenging your patience lately?
How are you seeing God at work in your family?
What book are you reading right now?
What podcasts are you listening to lately?
What has you excited about life?
Is there something going on in your life that I can pray about?
How has your life changed in the past year?
What brings the the biggest joy in life?
What is one thing you’d really like to do in the next five years?
How have you seen God work in your family?
What is your greatest challenge at work/school?
If you could have dinner with three people (living or dead), who would they be? Why?
What individual has had the greatest impact on your life?
What book (other that the Bible) has been most impactful in your life?
What is your favorite movie? Why?
What social cause are you most passionate about?

I’m not suggesting that these are questions to ask when you’ve just met someone, but if you truly want to get to know people then at some point you’ll need to ask deeper questions – and be willing to answer questions like these. I wouldn’t suggest asking them all at one sitting, but as you spend time with an older child, a parent or grandparent, a spouse, a good friend, a prayer partner, a mature believer, etc., make sure you’re asking questions that lead to deeper conversations. You’ll very likely be amazed at what you learn about the person sitting across from you. You may even gain some wisdom and insight that makes you better.

Admittedly, these are only a few options. Questions need to be tailored to the relationship and situation. As you get to know someone better, you may find that you’re asking questions about their life decisions and what consequences they have faced. An answered question may lead to a follow-up question that reveals even more truth. The reality is – if you want a deeper connection eventually you’ll have to ask deeper questions.

Before you begin, however, take time to ask yourself these same questions. If you’re unwilling to open up with yourself, then you’ll find it very hard to get someone else to open up to you – or to even be concerned at that other person at all.

“As iron sharpens iron, so a friend sharpens a friend.”
(Proverbs 27:17)

A Rolling Stop…

I got my driver’s license on July 3, 1978. If you check my driving record, you’ll find it to be squeaky clean. I’ve received one parking ticket at the University of North Carolina, but I challenged it and won – I must admit, it was on a technicality, but it saved me $150! In over 40 years, I’ve never gotten a ticket for a moving violation – I will confess, however, that I have been pulled over three times for speeding (twice in high school and once a few years ago while traveling to a funeral in Savannah). In other words, I could have been cited, but the officers were merciful to me and just told me to slow down.

I’ll admit that my biggest challenge is slowing down – perhaps I have a bit of NASCAR in me. I’ve been pretty good about the new hands-free law, so far, though it appears I may be in the minority. There are certain traffic laws, however, that I obey to the letter.

When it comes to school zone speed limits and stopped school buses, kids are way to precious to take any chances. When it comes to handicapped spaces, I’d walk a mile in the rain before parking my car in one of those spaces. I started buckling up in college before that even became a law. At stop signs I come to a complete stop. If I ever get ticketed for a rolling stop, you’ll know it was a set up!

“Rolling stop” is the official term for slowing way down at a stop sign but not fully stopping before continuing on your way. You kinda stop but not really. It seems safe enough. I saves you maybe half a second in your day, but a rolling stop isn’t consistent with the sign’s intent.

For some strange reasons, I woke up thinking about rolling stops this morning, but not the ones that can occur while driving. I was thinking about our spiritual rolling stops. God reminds us to “be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). Too often, it seems we are in too much of a hurry to stop. We may slow down a bit from time to time. We may even come close to stopping, but our lives are so hurried and our schedules so filled that stopping seems like an impossibility.

The phrase “be still” is translated in the NASB as “cease striving.” The Hebrew phrase means to “relax” or “to let your hands drop.” In a rolling stop, we keep our hands on the wheel, strain left and right to see if there is oncoming traffic, and have our foot ready to shift instantly to the gas. That’s often what we do with our devotional or quiet times. We’re so eager to get going, the we don’t stop, relax, drop our hands, and focus for a few moments on the One who truly holds the steering wheel to our lives.

If you get caught failing to come to a complete stop at a stop sign, it can cost you a little. When you fail to come to a complete stop before the Lord and neglect spending some time focusing on Him, the cost to your life, your peace, and your joy is much higher.

When I Am Afraid…

Security – we all want it. We are told that building walls will bring more security, that government programs will give us more security, that finding the perfect man or woman will make us feel more secure; yet that sense of feeling secure and being at peace still eludes us. Perhaps we seeking our security in the wrong place.

Fear – we all seem to have it. Fear pounces on us when we feel insecure. Fear robs us of peace. Fear causes us to make decisions based on desperation. We desperately want to feel secure but things like finances, relationships, or circumstances beyond our control rob us of that sense of security. When faced with fear, we often resort to a fight or flight response.

When we go the “fight” route, we assume we have to take some drastic action to immediately fix our situation. If you do not have that special someone in your life and everyone else seems to have found their “soul mate,” you may rush into a relationship just to have someone there for you. I have seen women and men make incredibly bad relationship decisions – some do it over and over again. Their fear is being alone, so they are willing to do nearly anything to have the “security” of a special person in their lives.

When we default to the “flight” mode, we try to hide from the circumstances that make us insecure. If you are struggling with finances, you may simply choose to ignore that the bills piling up and the bank account that is running precariously low, and make decisions to make yourself feel more secure in the moment. I have seen people whose finances are a real mess choosing to go on online shopping sprees or head to the nearest Target for some retail therapy. It’s a band-aid approach that only hides the problem for the moment- and, in the long term, makes it worse.

I find it interesting how many times God reminds people to not be afraid. I have heard it said that the Bible contains 365 “do not fear” verses, one for every day of the year. Well… I’m not sure who came up with that number. It sounds wonderful and encouraging, but the problem is that it isn’t true. If you search or “fear not” or “do not be afraid” on an online Bible, you’ll probably get around 30 results, more or less depending on the translation. If you counted up all the verses in the Bible that could be see as God encouraging people not be afraid, you may get a little over 100. In other words, you’d have to do some major rewriting of Scripture to get anywhere close to 365.

That being said, there is no doubt that God speaks directly and forcefully to the issue of fear in our lives. Fear is incompatible with faith in an Almighty, all-loving God. We fear because of our insecurity, but God has made some precious declarations that can defuse our fears and bring real security to our hearts and minds. Here is just a taste –

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
(Psalm 23:4)

…fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God;
I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.
(Isaiah 41:10)

Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.
(Joshua 1:9)

The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold[a] of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?
(Psalm 27:1)

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.
(John 14:27)

There is no fear in love, but perfectlove casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.
(1 John 4:18)

Are you insecure? Are you afraid? There is a God who promises to be your source of security. He is a rock, a fortress, a stronghold, an ever present help in time of trouble. He is not far off; He is near. Call on Him. Cast your cares on Him knowing that He cares for you. Here’s one more verse that we’d all do well to memorize and repeat to ourselves over and over…

When I am afraid, I put my trust in you.
(Psalm 56:3)

Thoughts on New York’s “Reproductive Health Act”…

“Today we are taking a giant step forward in the hard-fought battle to ensure a woman’s right to make her own decisions about her own personal health, including the ability to access an abortion. With the signing of this bill, we are sending a clear message that whatever happens in Washington, women in New York will always have the fundamental right to control their own body.” These are the words of Governor Andrew Cuomo after signing New York’s Reproductive Health Act on Tuesday night, January 22.

The bill not only assured access to abortion, it also removed restrictions for abortions after 24 weeks. It is now permissible for a woman to abort her child at any time in her pregnancy including the third trimester. The abortion can be performed if the child is not considered viable or under a non-existent definition of risk to the health of the mother. In addition, an abortion will not have to be performed by a doctor. Physician’s assistants, nurse practitioners, and midwives are also allowed to perform abortions.

I cannot say that I am surprised at this decision, but I was deeply saddened to see the cheering that took place in the New York State Senate after the bill passed. Seriously – there was a standing ovation at the passing of this bill. I am pained over the spiritual blindness of these men and women. In the guise or protecting the health of women, they applaud the intentional deaths of little girls (and boys).

I grieve over this decision. I am angered over it. In the guise of protecting the rights of women, New York has passed the most aggressive abortion law in the nation, not just entrenching the Roe v. Wade decision but expanding it. In a state where lethal injection for convicted murderers is banned, the lethal injection of an innocent child in the womb is not only permitted but celebrated. Of course, not all New Yorkers supported this bill, but the majority of their elected state leaders did.

Because I am a man, there are those who would say that I should have no voice in the abortion debate. It’s true that I have never been faced with an unplanned pregnancy, but I am not commenting as a man; I comment as a human. I am concerned for the soon-to-be mother, and I believe we should do all we can to support her in the pregnancy and afterward, but there is an innocent party who has no voice for himself or herself. Someone needs to speak up for the unborn baby who does not yet have a voice of her or his own.

As a pastor, I have counseled with women who made the choice to end a pregnancy. At the time, it seemed to be the only choice they had. I’m sure there are exceptions out there, but each of these women look back on that decision with regret and grief. Many of them are still working through that grief, and I am relieved that our local crisis pregnancy center and our recovery ministry provide resources for them. There is hope. There is healing.

There are a great many factors that have led to a culture that dismisses and devalues life – too many to list. But I am grateful for those who speak up and stand up for the vulnerable, whether they are babies in the womb, senior adults in nursing homes, severely disabled children, teenagers being sexually trafficked, young women being kidnapped from villages in Africa by radical Muslim groups, Syrian children being gassed in an uncivil civil war, undocumented immigrants facing horrific work conditions, or innocents being gunned down in the crossfire of gang turf wars. It would be easy to put our heads in the sand, but as followers of Jesus that is just not an option.

Compassion compels us to act. That may mean you join with hundreds of thousands in a march for life. It may mean you volunteer or support a local crisis pregnancy center. It may mean you donate to or volunteer at a local food pantry. You could visit a local nursing home to encourage a resident, volunteer to read to children in a low-performing school, write emails or make phone calls to your senator or representative, run for office yourself — the list of possibilities is endless.

In all this, remember that our fight for life on each front is not hopeless. A recent Marist poll indicated that regardless of whether a person considered herself or himself pro-choice or pro-life, only 15% believed that abortion should be legal for any reason at any point during a woman’s pregnancy. In other words, the action by the state of New York is out of step with the mood of the country at large. And even though an Iowa judge blocked the implementation of the law, last year that state’s legislature passed and Governor Kim Reynolds signed a law making it illegal to perform an abortion once the child’s heartbeat has been detected. In other words, efforts are being made to honor life by restricting access to abortion. Both the number of abortion clinics and the numbered of recorded abortions has been on a slow decline the last several years.

So, what should our approach be. I offer a few suggestions:
(1) PRAY. It is by far the most impactful thing you can do.
(2) VOTE. Know where the candidates stand when it comes to valuing life.
(3) SUPPORT. Give to and support organizations that promote and protect life.
(4) VOLUNTEER. Give some of your time through your church or other groups that respect life at every stage.
(5) SPEAK OUT. Don’t be silent. Be firm and persistent, but be as respectful as you are able to elected officials and people in general.

Today…Our Daughter Gets Married

It was just a year and a half ago that I had the joyous honor of performing the ceremony for my son and his wife. They began their new life in a whirlwind of new jobs, a new home, and new pets (I refuse to call them my “grandchildren” – even with quotation marks). Only a year and half, and yet it’s hard to think of them in any other way than as a couple. I pray for Jay and Lacie, and I am at peace.

Today is a bit surreal. On this day, our first born, our only daughter becomes a wife. I will have the privilege of both walking her down the aisle and performing the ceremony. The swirl of emotions are a bit overwhelming. If I close my eyes, the images come and go like waves washing up on a beach. In all of this, remarkably, I am at peace. I know God holds both Jackie and Jonathan in His more than able hands.

I expect tears will fall. They started yesterday as I viewed the video at the rehearsal dinner. And, yes, that means I made it through the rehearsal itself unscathed! I won’t be crying because I’m losing a daughter. I won’t be crying because I’m dissatisfied with her choice of a husband. I won’t even be crying because of the cost of the wedding – those tears come later. I will be crying tears of remembrance and of joy as my curly-haired princess joins her life with soon-to-be rocket scientist husband.

For a few days in the hotel, Jackie’s wedding dress hung on a command hook beside the bed. It was the first thing I saw when I woke up each morning. In just a little while, she’ll be wearing that very same dress as we start our short trek down the center aisle toward a waiting and anxious groom. Boom! It’s all getting very real now.

I am grateful for the Lord’s guidance in Jackie’s life. I am grateful for the experiences both positive and negative that helped to shape her into the woman she had become. I am grateful for the people God has placed in her life all along the way from Bethel to Isle of Hope to Greensboro to Birmingham. God used each of these to help mold her into the person she is. Jonathan, too, has had events and people shape him – for that, too, I am grateful. Today, I’m the guy gets to say, “I now pronounce you are husband and wife,” but I am confident that the Lord had this planned all along… so I can say once again, I am at peace.

So, let it begin. Let the music play. Let the tears flow. Let the vows and rings be exchanged. Let there be both a communion and a kiss. That precious little girl that I held in my arms on the day of her birth, I am ready (I think) to hold her in my arms as we dance to Stevie Wonder’s “Isn’t She Lovely.” I can say from a grateful heart – I am at peace.