“His Word My Hope Secures”

Do you have a favorite hymn? Hymns may not be as popular as they once were – there’s been some wonderful new worship music written in the last 25 years or so – but the old familiar standards are still very popular. “How Great Thou Art,” “Holy, Holy, Holy,” “It is Well,” “Blessed Assurance,” and other old favorites are always in the “Top Ten” of the most loved church songs.

And, of course, “Amazing Grace.” How that hymn came into being and who wrote it, as well as how it has been transmitted down to us, make for a fascinating story.

The song was written by the former captain of a slave ship, John Newton. He was born in London on July 24, 1725, the son of a ship’s captain and a Puritan mother. Unfortunately, his mother died when John was only seven years old. His father, who was gone much of the time, remarried, and left John in the care of a stepmother who pretty much let him do whatever he wanted to do. When he was eleven, he went to sea with his father. Later, he was pressed into duty aboard a British warship as a junior midshipman. He deserted, was captured, publicly flogged, and demoted from officer to a common seaman.

John Newton (1725-1807) was a former slave ship captain, and later, a minister in the Church of England and a prolific songwriter of many hymns, including “Amazing Grace.”

Later he became a servant to the captain of a slave ship and was engaged in the “Triangular Trade.” This was the common practice of cargo ships that would sail from England to West Africa, carrying manufactured goods. They would offload those items and take aboard freshly captured slaves, then sail to America. There, they would sell the slaves and load up with sugar, rum, and spices, for the trip back to England, where the whole process would start over. By his own admission, John was a very rough customer – his language was known to be so vulgar and coarse that even the other sailors were embarrassed. Eventually he became captain of his own vessel.

He became a Christian in 1748, after one particularly violent storm in the North Atlantic when it looked as if the ship would be lost with all hands. They managed to survive, and John became a believer. He continued in the slave trade for a while, but later, he became convinced that it was evil and morally reprehensible; how could he, as a believer in God and a follower of Jesus, be part of a system that treated others, also created in the Image of God, in such a brutal and inhuman fashion? He was ordained as a minister in the Church of England, and eventually became good friends with a young Member of Parliament, William Wilberforce. The two men began working together to abolish the slave trade.

Newton had always been a prolific writer, so with the help of a friend, William Cowper, they began writing new hymns for use in their congregation. They averaged writing a song every week, and so it was, for the first service of the new year 1773, 250 years ago this month, Newton published these words:

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now I’m found,
Was blind but now I see.

‘Twas Grace that taught my heart to fear,
And Grace, my fears relieved!
How precious did that Grace appear,
The hour I first believed.

Through many dangers, toils, and snares,
I have already come.
‘Tis Grace that brought me safe thus far,
And Grace will lead me home.

The Lord has promised good to me,
His word my hope secures.
He will my shield and portion be,
As long as life endures.

Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease,
I shall possess within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.

The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
The sun forbear to shine;
But God who call’d me here below,
Will be forever mine.

Originally there was no specific tune for the song. That was not unusual; in those days, it was common for lyrics to be written to a particular meter, and any one of several different tunes that fit that meter could be used. But a generation later, the words came to this country and became popular in Virginia, Georgia, and elsewhere in the South. No one is completely sure when, but it is believed that churches began using a popular melody that had originally been from a song sung by slaves. This is the tune that we still sing today. Also in the early 1800s, the song picked up several new verses, including these familiar lines:

When we've been there ten thousand years,
   Bright shining as the sun,
We've no less days to sing God's praise,
   Than when we'd first begun.

Newton lived long enough to see his friend Wilberforce get a bill passed in Parliament on May 1, 1807, that was the first step towards outlawing the slave trade in England. John Newton died just a few months later. If the familiar melody that we know was indeed originally from a tune used by slaves, it is truly a demonstration of God’s grace, that the words written by a former slave trader should be combined with a melody from enslaved people, to become the hymn that we still know and love.

Today, John Newton is recognized for the enduring hymn that he gave us, and for one other piece of wisdom. Very late in his life, he remarked, “My memory is fading, but two things I remember very clearly: I was a great sinner, and Christ is a great Savior.”

The Most Neglected Fruit of the Spirit

About a year ago, I wrote an article about the lost art of being kind to others. Since then, it seems that kindness has become even more rare. There is a large (and apparently growing) branch of Christianity that has decided that being considerate of other people is too “woke” for them to be bothered by trying to live it out.

Is “mean-spirited-ness” a real word? Probably not, but it ought to be, because that seems to be the guiding principle that so many are living by these days. Far too many of our political leaders are engaged in vilifying others to score cheap points with their “base.” It has become all about winning and gaining political power, to the extent that showing concern for others – demonstrating kindness and compassion – is now considered “weak” or “unmasculine” or somehow wrong.

Jesus told us – very plainly – that it was how we demonstrated love to one another, that would be the hallmark to tell the world that we were His disciples (John 13:35). The Apostle Paul said in Galatians 6:10, “Therefore, let us be kind to everyone, especially those in the household of faith.” And earlier in that same letter, when the apostle was listing the nine qualities of the Fruit of the Spirit, he listed “kindness” as one of those things. Don’t take my word for it; you can look it up – Galatians 5:22-23.

This call to kindness isn’t limited to the New Testament. Hundreds of years before Jesus lived, the prophet Micah said, “Practice justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.”

Thinking about Paul’s list of the Fruit of the Spirit helps me realize this is not necessarily a new problem. The nine characteristics that he mentions – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control – have never been easy. Yet many church-goers today seem perfectly content to simply ignore these qualities of true Christian maturity and behavior, while they’re engaged in the very kind of legalism and judgmental attitudes that Jesus so often condemned.

Kindness means being willing to be inconvenienced for the sake of others. One of the most famous stories that Jesus ever told was the Parable of the Good Samaritan. To really “get” that story, you have to understand how much the good, religious people of Jesus’ day HATED the Samaritans. The Samaritans were the bad guys. They were the ones who robbed and cheated others. They were the villains. Yet when Jesus was asked to explain what does love for neighbors really look like, it was not the religious leaders in the story who showed kindness to the wounded traveler – it was the Samaritan.

In other words, Jesus was saying, look around you. Who needs to see some kindness? Then He commands, “Go and do that.” It seems to me that He went out of His way to tell us that we should be kind to others, and not merely to those we already know or love, and especially not only to those who are able to pay us back. He told us specifically to invite to dinner those who COULDN’T pay us back. He calls us to set an example of kindness and grace to everyone.

The problem with showing kindness is that, by its very nature, it doesn’t call attention to itself; it’s more concerned with serving others than in tooting its own horn. And in our self-promoting, selfie-obsessed culture, most of us simply don’t think of how to serve others. We’re too busy, or they’re too different. Maybe they don’t look like us; maybe they don’t talk like us. Maybe they have made some mistakes or are living a lifestyle that we don’t agree with. But they are still neighbors, created in the image of God, and still in need of kindness.

Caring about others – putting the needs of others first – is a learned behavior, and contrary to human nature. It’s an act of discipleship that follows in the self-sacrificing steps of our Lord. Maybe that’s why it’s so rare. But it’s how we show kindness to the helpless, to the weak, to the marginalized, and the disenfranchised, that really counts. Jesus is still looking for disciples who will walk as He walked, and live as He lived. That includes showing kindness to all. Especially those who don’t deserve it.

My Favorite Month

I love October! It’s absolutely my favorite month of the year, for several reasons. It means the holiday season of Thanksgiving and Christmas is not far away, with great family times and all the familiar sights and sounds of that festive time of year. And as an added bonus, my birthday falls this month, so that’s a little extra.

October in North Carolina brings out the best in Fall Foilage.

I really enjoy the changing seasons. Now granted, in our part of the world, the weather doesn’t really “feel” like four distinct seasons. As most of us know, in Texas, it feels like we only have two seasons – summer and not-summer. But still, the days will finally begin to cool off a little and the nights have at least the hint of a chill in the air. Summer is not completely over – we’ve all seen triple-digit heat in October – but sooner or later, the cool will arrive. I’m ready to make a big pot of chili and enjoy. Or maybe head to the back porch and fire up the chiminea. Anyone for s’mores?

I think the changing seasons have a lot to teach us about God, His grace, and His many blessings. There’s a familiarity about it that is very comforting: summer always follows spring; autumn always follows summer. And yet, no two autumns are ever exactly the same. Some years, we have an early freeze, and some years, it’s very wet. So in some ways, they’re the same, but in other ways, each is unique. I like that.

Here’s something else: as I have often expressed, I love baseball! October means that the MLB post-season is here, and the World Series is not far off. There’s a reason they call it “The Fall Classic.” I have been a Texas Rangers fan, through and through, for 45 years now, but since the boys in Arlington rarely make the playoffs, I usually pick a team to root for through the post-season and into the Series. As has been often said, big players make big plays in big games. I’m ready to see if there will be a “Cinderella” team this year, or if one of the familiar squads will bring home the trophy. (But please, please, PLEASE, anybody EXCEPT the Yankees!)

Another point: This month is a reminder that each day is a precious gift, and we shouldn’t waste even one. The Bible points out that the number of our days is established by God before we are even born. If autumn is here, that means winter is not far away. If there are things we need to do to get our homes or vehicles ready for cold weather, now would be a good time.

Even as the trees are shedding old leaves and dropping their dead stuff, remember that sometimes, we need to do the same. If there are things in our personal lives that we need to let go of – past regrets, self-condemnation, old grudges – NOW is a good time for that, too. Let bygones be bygones and forgive. Remember, we forgive, not because others deserve it, but because WE do. As long as we’re holding onto that pain, we’re giving the offender the power to keep hurting us. When we forgive, their power over us is destroyed. So forgive. And forgive yourself, as well.

We should remember that autumn in Texas doesn’t last long; winter will soon be here. We need to appreciate the blessings that God gives us while they last. As C.S. Lewis once observed, “The settled happiness and security which we all desire, God withholds from us by the very nature of the world: but joy, pleasure, and merriment, He has scattered broadcast. We are never safe, but we have plenty of fun, and some ecstasy. It is not hard to see why. The security we crave would teach us to rest our hearts in this world and pose an obstacle to our return to God: a few moments of happy love, a landscape, a symphony, a merry meeting with our friends, a bath or a football match, have no such tendency. Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.”

In other words, enjoy the blessings that God gives, but realize they are never permanent. And Happy October.

My One Thing

The late, great Christian singer Rich Mullins once wrote a song about the need to have right priorities. It begins, “Everybody I know says they need just one thing; what they really mean is they need just one thing more.” The song celebrates following Jesus and what it looks like when we make pursuing Him the highest priority of our lives. The title of the song is, “My One Thing.”

In thinking about that song and its title, I did some checking, and discovered that there are five times in the scriptures where the phrase “one thing” is used. It’s instructive, I think, to look at those and see what we can learn from them.

Psalm 27:4 – One thing I ask from the Lord, this only do I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze on the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple. King David is dealing with powerful and unnamed enemies who are threatening his life in this psalm, yet it opens with “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” He goes on to proclaim his unshakeable faith in the goodness of God and his supreme confidence that God is always with him. And so, for David, his “one thing” is to keep his heart fixed on God, rather than being focused on military power or political intrigue.

Mark 10:21 – Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” This is from Mark’s account of the rich young ruler who came to see Jesus. As we learn from the full story, this young man had scrupulously obeyed the law his entire life, yet he knew something was lacking – a heart that loved God more than things, money, or possessions. If we would truly follow Jesus, we must be willing to sacrifice anything and everything that is in the way of being completely devoted to Him.

Luke 10:41-42 – But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.” In this well-known story, Jesus is visiting in the home of His friends Mary and Martha, in the village of Bethany, near Jerusalem. (Their brother Lazarus is not mentioned in this story.) Martha is hard at work in the kitchen, getting everything ready to feed all the guests, when she becomes angry that she is doing it all by herself. When she interrupts Jesus and asks Him to order Mary to help her, Jesus gently reminds her to examine her own priorities. It’s not that wanting to fix a nice meal is bad, but rather that staying fully focused on Jesus is better. For many of us, remembering that must be our “one thing,” especially amid the distractions and the “busy-ness” of our numerous church activities.

John 9:25 – He replied, “Whether he is a sinner or not, I don’t know. One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!” This is from the story about the man who had been born blind and who was healed by Jesus. The religious leaders were going crazy because their hatred for Jesus was so intense, they refused to even acknowledge that a wonderful miracle had occurred. For this man, though, the evidence was overwhelming. As far as he was concerned, this was his “one thing” – recognizing what Jesus had done and responding with gratitude. Those are good questions for each of us: what has Jesus done in my life, and how am I living out my thanksgiving before God and others?

Philippians 3:12- 14 – Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. In this letter from prison, the Apostle Paul reminds his friends in Philippi that they should not spend too much time enjoying past accomplishments or worrying about past failures; instead, they should “keep their eyes on the prize,” and stay focused on the ultimate goal of becoming like Jesus in every way. That should be the true “one thing” for each of us that claims to follow Him.

May God give us the grace to make that our highest priority.

An Anchor for the Soul

It’s always been interesting to me how we can read and be familiar with a given scripture verse, but then, an event will come along in our lives that gives us a whole new appreciation for that passage. For me, Hebrews 6:19 is just such a text.

The anchor, rather than the cross, was the most commonly-used symbol for Christianity up through about the fourth century. That symbolism is based on Hebrews 6:19.

Let me tell you a story.

Almost exactly five years ago – August 2017 – I was living with my elderly dad in Southeast Texas, as his caregiver and chief cook, driver, prescription sorter, and pretty much anything else he needed. Now, you have to realize that dad couldn’t walk – neuropathy had left him confined to a wheelchair, without the use of his legs and only limited use of his hands. Also, you need to understand that our little corner of the upper Texas Gulf Coast is prone to hurricanes, and sure enough, late that August, Hurricane Harvey hit, and it started raining. Over a four-day period beginning August 25, we received about 30 inches of rain. And then it got bad, averaging over an inch of rain per hour. For over two days. Dad had a rain gauge that could hold ten inches, and I was having to empty it twice a day. For real. We woke up at 3:30 am on August 31 with water in the house, ankle-deep and rising. It would get much higher.

It was a two-day process getting evacuated out of the area, first to a neighbor’s house, then a dry patch along a canal levee, then to a temporary shelter in a school cafetorium. The Nevada Air National Guard finally flew us out (God bless the High Rollers!), and we spent the next 13 months getting dad’s house cleaned out and rebuilt while he lived in a nursing home. The story ends well, but there’s one moment in particular that I remember and that’s where this scripture comes into focus.

There was one point where dad, his German Shepherd, and I were all in an airboat operated by a wonderful guy from Louisiana, part of the (unofficial) Cajun Navy. He carried us a couple of miles away to a farm to market road, where we were met by a giant big wheel pickup truck. The highway was flooded, too, but that truck was tall enough to go through anyway.

So I’m standing there, in water over my waist, carrying the dog and putting her in the back of the truck, then several of us lifted dad in his wheelchair, and loaded him in the truck. Just for comparison, a nearby four-strand barbed wire fence had only the tops of the fenceposts still showing. I climbed in, and we took off (slowly) to the shelter.

Anyway, during that whole operation, at times standing in water up to my chest or deeper, with so much of my life under the floodwaters of Hurricane Harvey, in my mind I was thinking about several scripture verses that seemed to apply. “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you,” God says in Isaiah 43:2. And Psalm 29:3 – “The voice of the LORD is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the LORD thunders over the mighty waters.” In Matthew 7, Jesus said that everyone who hears His teaching and puts it into practice is like a builder who constructed his house on a solid foundation, so that when “the rains came, and the floods rose, and the winds blew and beat against the house, the house stood firm.” But it was Hebrews 6:19 that really spoke to me: We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure…

Right then, I needed to be reminded of our hope. I had a garbage bag with a change of socks, some prescription meds, my wallet and cell phone – that and the clothes on my back was about all I had that I could count on. And to tell you the truth, right about then I was running pretty low on hope.

But you see, in Christ, we do indeed have this hope that cannot be shaken. Hope in the One who doesn’t change with the times. Hope in the One who is greater than ourselves. Hope in His unshakeable power and limitless grace. Hope that never fails. Hope in His constant presence and abiding love. Hope, because we know that God truly is above the thunderstorm, and hope because we know that we have built our lives on Christ, so that when the winds rage and the floodwaters rise, we are on the Solid Rock, and we can stand because of Him.

The writer of Hebrews was right: this hope is indeed an anchor for our souls, firm and secure. And the anchor holds.

“Do You Trust Me?”

(Thanks to Max Lucado and His book God Came Near for helpful insight on this passage.)

All of us are faced every day with many questions – what to wear, what to eat, etc. But there are questions, and then there are questions. And in John 11, Jesus asks Martha a question that is definitely in that second category.

The chapter opens with Jesus learning that Lazarus, His friend, was sick – but mysteriously, Jesus does NOT immediately head for Bethany where Lazarus lives. Instead, Jesus delays for a couple of days before leaving. The disciples are just as puzzled as we are by His behavior.

Jesus arrives to find Lazarus has been dead for four days. Lazarus’ sister, Martha, goes out to meet Jesus on the road, and she immediately begins with the accusations. “If only you had been here, my brother would not have died!”

We have to understand some of the cultural forces at work here. With their brother dead, Martha and her sister Mary didn’t have a lot of economic options. It wasn’t like they were getting a big life insurance check when Lazarus died. And you certainly don’t get the impression that they were financially wealthy – after all, they lived in Bethany, which means, “House of the Poor.” You wouldn’t expect to find a lot of money in a place called “Poor-town.”

So Martha, ever the practical one, was probably looking past her grief, already wondering how she and Mary were going to get by. There weren’t very many jobs available for women.

“If only You’d been here, my brother would not have died.” It’s a sentiment that many of us have wanted to shout at God at one time or another. Where is God when a loved one is suffering from cancer, or our business goes under, or a child is killed in a car wreck? Where is God when it hurts?

So when Martha confronts Jesus for apparently being AWOL when He was needed most, Jesus doesn’t flinch. He says, somewhat cryptically, “Your brother will rise again.”

Martha thinks Jesus is talking about something off in the future and says, “Yes, I know he will rise again in the resurrection in the last day.” (As if to say, “That’s not going to be of much help now.”)

But Jesus stuns her (and us) when He says, “I AM the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me will live, even though he dies. And whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” But then He asked her this question: “Do you trust me?”

Now, your Bible for that verse probably says something like, “Do you believe this?,” but I don’t think that does justice to what Jesus is really saying. You see, for many people, believing is a matter of intellectual agreement, something that takes place only in the mind. Yes, I believe I should watch my diet and exercise more. Yes, I believe that wearing seat belts is good. Yes, I believe that Jesus is the Son of God.

We say we believe those things, but we may or may not actually DO anything about them. That’s because in our language, BELIEVING something doesn’t necessarily mean ACTING on it.

But Jesus is not asking Martha if she understands His words intellectually. He’s asking, “Do you trust me?” And it’s the same question He asks us today. He wants to know, even when we don’t understand what is happening or why – do we still trust Him?

  • Do we trust Him in the hospital waiting room?
  • Do we trust Him in the police station and the courthouse?
  • Do we trust Him when our most cherished dreams come crashing down?
  • Do we trust Him at the cemetery?

The fact is, it’s easy to trust him when life is going well and everyone is healthy and there’s plenty of money in the bank. But what about when “things fall apart, and the center does not hold?” Do we still trust Him then?

Now of course, we know the end of this story. We know that Jesus went to the cemetery and called out Lazarus and there is a great happy ending. But Martha didn’t know that any of those things were about to happen. All she knew was that the brother that she loved was dead and her world was upside down. She had no idea what was coming in the future, but here stands Jesus in front of her, asking her to trust Him.

Martha gives the answer for eternity. “Yes, Lord. I believe that You are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.”

Good words, but more than that. It’s the response of a broken but trusting heart.

It’s still the response He’s looking for today.

Reflections on the Fruit of the Spirit

One of my favorite things about summer is the amazing variety of sweet and delicious fruit that becomes readily available during these long hot days. Cantaloupes and watermelons, peaches, plums – even cherries and fresh summer apples – they’re so refreshing and delectable, and such a wonderful treat. A very special memory from when I was a child was stopping at a roadside fruit stand on a family vacation and eating a peach as big as a softball, with the wonderful, sweet, sticky juice running down my arm. What a delight!

With that in mind, it’s probably not surprising to learn that one of my favorite Bible passages is Galatians 5:22-23, where the Apostle Paul lists the nine qualities that he describes as the “Fruit of the Spirit.” Now, there is no shortage of devotional material on this text, but in my opinion, much of it misses the main point.

Throughout Galatians, Paul has been listing the large number of contrasts believers must face: works vs. faith; law vs. grace; children of Hagar vs. children of Sarah; human divisiveness vs. the oneness of God; slavery vs. freedom. The contrast he makes most frequently – and most eloquently – is flesh vs. Spirit. By the time he gets to chapter five, he is talking about the acts of the flesh – uncleanness of all sorts – versus the Fruit of the Spirit.

Specifically, he says, “The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.” (Gal. 5:19-21) Please read that list again. “Hatred – discord – jealousy – fits of rage – selfish ambition.” Sounds like it was taken from today’s national news.

But then please notice the organic nature of growing fruit contrasted against the ceaseless striving of works; the produce of God’s Spirit, vs. the products of our own efforts; the life-giving and life-affirming qualities that bless others, compared to the selfish and destructive practices of a me-centered existence.

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against such things there is no law.” (Gal. 5:22-23) The apostle makes it clear that if we are Jesus-followers, if God’s Holy Spirit is living and working within us, then these nine qualities will be evident in our lives. These must be the things that others see in us.

Note that it’s the WORKS – plural – of the flesh versus the FRUIT – singular – of the Spirit. There is only one fruit. We should not speak of the “fruits” of the Spirit. There is one fruit, and it manifests itself in various ways, depending on the specific needs and situation. Sometimes the Holy Spirit reveals Himself through patience, sometimes though kindness, always through love.

Another thing: This is not a buffet! We mustn’t think we can say, “Well, I’ll have some love and joy, but I don’t want any gentleness or self-control.” If the Spirit is present in our lives – if God is moving within us – then HE will be growing ALL these things within us at the same time. Certainly, our spirits can and should cooperate with His Spirit, and we must be intentional about looking for ways to demonstrate these characteristics, but we don’t become more loving, or more patient, or whatever, simply by trying to counterfeit that quality.

One last thing to notice is that every aspect of this fruit is seen in terms of our relationships with God and one another. It’s how we treat other people – our relationships with one another – that reveal the true nature of our relationship with God. Our faith is not lived out in a vacuum.

May the Spirit produce in us that which is pleasing in His sight.

Iron Sharpening Iron

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately rereading the Old Testament Book of Proverbs and let me tell you something – ol’ Solomon was a pretty sharp dude. Now granted, he was a long way from perfect, and as he grew older, he made the mistake of letting his many wives draw his heart away from the Lord, but when he was good, he was very, very good. And he is good in Proverbs.

A favorite verse of mine is Proverbs 27:17 – “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” One of the things I appreciate about this verse is that it reminds us that we are called to live in community, and it is through this community that we grow in our wisdom and maturity. As another favorite verse, Proverbs 13:20, teaches us, “Those who walk with the wise grow wise.” When our friends are people of godly character, they will challenge us to grow in our faith and hold us accountable for areas in which we fail. And they will expect us to do the same for them.

One of the ways that we cheat ourselves out of this blessing is by only associating with people who agree with us on everything and who tell us what we want to hear. Another way is by reading only books and articles that simply confirm what we already think. If we get all our news from a network that only reinforces our own prejudices and presuppositions, then how can we grow? How is our character being “sharpened,” to use the language of Proverbs?

When we stick our heads into the echo chamber of social media, we usually hear lots of our own opinions and points of view coming back to us, and it makes us feel good about ourselves. But it’s not making us any sharper. In the runup to the American Civil War, many churches in both the North and the South stopped communicating with congregations on the other side and would only listen to voices that confirmed what they already thought. As a result, their own beliefs on secular matters grew more entrenched and inflexible, and they saw anyone who disagreed with them on politics or anything else, not merely as someone with a different point of view, but as someone who was evil and stupid.

When I was helping lead a neighborhood program in North Abilene, one of my favorite annual activities we did was called “Abilene Dinner Table.” Different individuals would host a dinner in their home, for however many folks they could comfortably seat. In our case, we had room for about a dozen guests, I think. Those interested in participating would register with our office, and then our administrative staff would randomly assign people to a particular group. Then they would furnish some questions for the attendees to discuss during and after their meal. It was a wonderful time for everyone to come together, enjoy a good meal, meet some new people, and hear a lot of different opinions on various subjects. I remember that I learned a lot about people of different races, religions, and backgrounds, and it challenged some of the stereotypes that I had cherished.

It sharpened me.

There is a growing movement in this country, and particularly in this state, to ban certain books from school libraries. Some churches have even held “book burning” parties. The justification is that they disagree with the author’s point of view, or the book deals with a subject that they would rather not discuss. That’s unfortunate, because some of the books that they’re wanting to eliminate are some of the giants of American literature. Huckleberry Finn. To Kill a Mockingbird. The Grapes of Wrath. Even Fahrenheit 451, which is pretty ironic if you think about it, because that’s a book about – wait for it – burning books.

These books have helped mold and shape generations of young students, myself included. They have challenged us. They have made us think and sharpened us. And the fact that the author challenges our presuppositions or teaches us about a dark chapter in our nation’s history or causes us to think about things that make us “uncomfortable” in some way – that’s not a bad thing. It’s part of what education is supposed to do.

Iron sharpening iron.

Loving God with my Mind

Several years ago, a mainline American denomination put out a series of publicity posters that I liked very much. One said, “Just because you’ve been baptized doesn’t mean you’ve been brainwashed.” Another went, “The only problem with groups that have all the answers, is that they don’t allow any questions.”

My favorite was “Jesus came to take away your sins. Not your mind.”

Many Christians have seemed confused over the years as to the proper relationship between reason and faith. Are we supposed to check our brains at the door and “just believe”? Is science automatically and irreversibly opposed to faith? Can a thinking person hold on to his or her intellectual integrity AND be a person of faith at the same time?

This was always a topic of special, personal importance to me. Expressing emotion was difficult for me growing up, but logic – ah, now you’re speaking my language. As a fan of the original “Star Trek” (don’t you roll your eyes at me!), my favorite character was, of course, Mr. Spock, who was totally cool, totally in control, totally logical.

The problem came when I tried to reconcile my fascination with logic, with what I was learning at church. I had questions but I learned pretty quickly that there are some questions you’re not supposed to ask. Logically, I thought I should be able to ask a simple question, but it’s not as simple as that. So you learn to keep your questions to yourself.

(Typical exchange – Me: “How do we know we can trust the Bible? Is it reliable?” Answer: “Yes, because the Bible says so.” Not exactly helpful.)

Perhaps without meaning to, pastors have often made the situation worse. You may know that I served as a pastor for nearly 40 years, so trust me when I tell you that pastors have their own questions and doubts, which they keep buried deep. Whenever they hear or read some skeptic raise the same questions they have, they become even more defensive, and think the answer is to “just believe” more. As if you could put enough coats of paint on a broken fence to cover up the break.

Some Christians will hear an “expert” on the Discovery Channel or History Channel make unproven, unchallenged claims about the Bible, or the life of Jesus, or some other matter of faith, and a believer who doesn’t know any better will think that there isn’t an answer, because they’ve never heard their preacher talk about it. And they may think that the skeptics have “beaten” faith, or that Christianity must somehow go begging in the marketplace of ideas. But our God is not the Author of confusion. He is the Giver of Truth. ALL truth. There are answers to these questions, even the tough ones. (By the way – “Where did Cain get his wife?” is NOT one of the tough questions. Trust me.) God is bigger than our questions. And there is not one question you can come up with that will stump Him.

Rather than commanding us to reject reason, over and over the scripture makes it clear that God has established order and logical thinking, and that these bear witness to Him. The fact is, Jesus INVITES us to love God with our MINDS – look at Matthew 22:37. After the resurrection, He appeared to His followers and gave them “many convincing proofs” that He was alive – Acts 1:3. Peter instructs believers to “always be prepared to give the reason for the hope” that we have – 1 Peter 3:15.

As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 10:5, our purpose is to “demolish arguments” and to “take captive every thought” in order to bring it in submission to Christ. That DOESN’T mean faith is opposed to logic or reason. It means that our logic and reason have to be “transformed by the renewing of our MINDS” (Romans 12:2), and in this way, we worship God with our intellect, as surely as we also worship Him with our emotion and passion.

The Most Important Words

Proverbs 25:11 says, “A word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver.” In other words, just as the right frame can beautifully add to a painting or photograph, so the right word at just the right time can make a big difference to someone who needs to hear it.

Additionally, James 3:9-10 reminds us, “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be.” All of us can think of people in our lives who have had a big influence over us, who always seemed to be able to say just the right thing at the right time. We can also remember times when we have been wounded by the careless words of someone whose opinion mattered to us.

The old saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” is very mistaken. We need to remember that the words we use make a big difference to those who hear them – sometimes with the power to build up, but other times with a terrible power to hurt or tear down. And along those lines, remember St. Paul’s instructions to us from Romans 12: “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.”

In the 1960s, there was a document being circulated and shared called “A Short Course in Human Relations,” author unknown. It was a list of what the writer considered the most important words and phrases that we can use in dealing with other people. At some point in the 1980s, it became a popular poster. After some consideration on this, here is my version of the list – suggestions for the most important words we can say to each other: 

  • Please.
  • I’m sorry.
  • I love you.
  • Thank you.
  • Let me help.
  • You can do it!
  • I made a mistake.
  • What do you think?
  • You did a good job.
  • I don’t know, but I’ll find out.
  • We (As opposed to I, me, my or mine)

May we all be known as people who build up others with words of encouragement. God’s richest blessings on you and yours for a prosperous, safe, and happy 2022.