A Test of Character

In the movie Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, there’s a scene where a lieutenant is talking to Admiral James T. Kirk, after the young officer had just had a disastrous outcome on a simulated mission known as “The Kobayashi Maru.” When she asks the admiral about the right way to solve the problem, he says, “It’s a no-win scenario – there is no ‘right’ solution. It’s a test of character.”

I like that answer.

The idea of good character – what it means, how it reveals itself – is something that I’ve thought about a lot. Someone has said, “Character is who you are when no one is watching.” Character, or the lack thereof, is demonstrated by how we behave in our unguarded moments. It rises to the top during times of crisis and shows itself in ways large and small in our everyday actions.

And it has nothing to do with politics or religion. I’m sorry to say that many of our national leaders – as well as a lot of ministers that I have known personally over the years – show themselves to be sniveling cowards who will absolutely collapse like a house of cards during difficult times and sell their souls for the sake of trying to gain power or hold on to popularity. And others rise above the chaos and tumult to show unbreakable, unshakeable, strong character – “tested and approved,” as the scriptures say. Telling the truth, doing the right thing, standing up and speaking out on behalf of the marginalized, the downtrodden, the forgotten. Where are the people who will speak up for them?

I was doing some reading about this the other day, and I ran across an interesting column online somewhere; unfortunately, I did not write down the author’s name, and I haven’t been able to find it again. But I think this writer really catches the essence of what it means to be a person of good character through some unusual questions, and I wanted to pass it along to you. Now, as I say, this self-test is a little different, but if you ask yourself these questions and are honest about your answers, it may reveal something about your character.

1. How do you treat wait staff in restaurants and others who work in the hospitality industry?

Three of our four kids have or still are working in coffee shops, restaurants, bars, etc. The horror stories they tell about how they have been treated are absolutely shameful. And the worst perpetrators always seem to be the good, church-going folk with all the “I love Jesus” and “Follow me to church” bumper stickers on their cars, but who curse at the drive-through staff and are so unbelievably abusive and rude. A restaurant manager once told my son that it was almost impossible to staff the Sunday lunch schedule, because nobody wanted to work the after-church shift. They were rude and demanding, and absolutely terrible tippers. But they were perfectly happy to leave a tract about grace on the table, instead of an actual tip. Character is seen in how we treat the people who are serving us.

2. How do you relate to children?

Jesus told his followers, “Allow the little children to come to me and don’t forbid them, because the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to them.” This shocked to the disciples, because children are powerless. They can’t feed themselves. They can’t take care of themselves. They are dependent on their parents for everything. Kind of like us and God, actually. People of good character are those who will put an arm around a little shoulder and tell a kid, “You matter to me. You can do this. I believe in you.”

3. How do you relate to animals?

Proverbs 12:10 says, “Good people take care of their animals but the wicked are cruel to theirs.” How we care for critters reveals a lot about our relative levels of selfishness versus character. That’s especially true for animals that we don’t own and don’t plan to have for lunch. It’s true that God feeds the sparrows. But sometimes, we get to help.

4. How do you deal with shopping carts?

Okay, I grant you, this is a very strange question, but think about it – how do you handle shopping carts in the parking lot? I mean, there’s no penalty for not bringing the cart back to the door or not putting it in the cart corral, and there’s no bonus for returning the cart. The only reason for doing it, is because you care about someone else. You don’t want the cart that you just used to be in someone else’s way while they’re trying to park, or you don’t want the kid who’s gathering up all the abandoned carts to have to walk an extra mile to retrieve them. What we do with our shopping carts after we’re done with them is a real gauge of how concerned we are for and about other people.

And that’s a proper test of character.

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.

Battling Against Fear

It seems that everywhere we look these days, every television program, every elected official, every news broadcast, even every sermon we hear, is all about being afraid. We are told to fear other people, fear other ideas, fear what is different, fear the known and fear the unknown, fear the future.

Be afraid of crime. Be afraid of immigrants. Be afraid of inflation. Be afraid.

We are a nation drowning in a sea of fear.

This is not the first time we have had to face this. In his 1933 Inaugural Address, incoming President Franklin Roosevelt – at the height of the Great Depression – said, “The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself.” During the 1950s – a time of extreme fear and suspicion – newsman Edward R. Murrow (a personal hero of mine) said,

We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our own history and our doctrine and remember that we are not descended from fearful men. Not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate, and to defend causes that were, for the moment, unpopular…. There is no way for a citizen of the Republic to abdicate his responsibility.

As a lover of God and a follower of Jesus, I am especially moved by how many times the Bible tells us, “Do not fear.” By some counts, the phrase appears 365 times in the scriptures; that’s enough for one a day for an entire year! It’s clear from these verses that while fear may be common and understandable, it doesn’t have to rule our lives. Consider –

  • God did not give us a spirit of fear but of power and love and self-control. (2 Tim. 1:7)
  • 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. (Isa. 41:10)
  • He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.” For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence. He will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler. You will not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day, … (Psa. 91:1-5)
  • The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? (Psa. 27:1)

It’s natural and normal – even healthy – to have a certain level of fear about the unknown, about new situations, or unfamiliar circumstances, but we cannot let that fear paralyze us into inaction, nor should we just retreat into the past and lash out against “the other.” When we are making a decision about something, we need to evaluate that choice, consider the pros and cons, seek the counsel of wise friends, and pray – but we must not let fear make the choice for us.

Meanwhile, there are things we can do to overcome fear –

Turn off the TV news. That may seem like a strange thing for a news guy to say, but so much of the national media is just mental poison, designed to hype up fear and hatred, and along the way, sell you whatever junk they’re peddling. Choose not to participate.

Focus on the positive. Computer programmers used to have a saying: Garbage in, garbage out. That applies to our heads and our hearts, as well. If all we’re feeding on is more and more fear, then it will dominate our thoughts and our feelings. Let’s do something different and fill our minds with things that are positive, encouraging, and uplifting. Read a book, listen to some good music, take a walk, reach out to an old friend.

Vote your values. We all know there is an election coming up, so here’s an idea: Don’t vote for a party. Listen to the candidates, and if all they’re offering is more fear and suspicion, then tell them “NO.” Instead, vote for whoever is offering the best ideas for how to move forward.

Let us not be dominated by fear, doubt, or suspicion. Let us overcome with faith, hope, and love.

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.

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.

Remembering Brother Ronnie

In my days at Dallas Christian College, back in the 1970s, I was blessed to have a number of excellent professors. Some were great thinkers. Some were excellent students of the word. But I never knew a better man of God than Ronnie Hanna.

Brother Ronnie, as we called him, served 18 years at DCC, sometimes as a professor, sometimes also as an administrator. But his real talent was as a man who loved people. He had one of the most amazing memories I have ever seen for remembering names and faces. On more than one occasion, I saw him – without any notes – go around a room of a hundred people or more, from all across Texas, and introduce every one of them, telling something interesting about each person. He genuinely loved people, and more than that, he genuinely loved the Lord’s church. In his time at DCC, he toured extensively throughout Texas and the Southwest on behalf of the college, and I think once he met someone, he never forgot.

And he told the corniest, goofiest dad jokes you have ever heard.

During my four years there, I was blessed to get to travel with him a lot, visiting different churches, so I heard all those jokes many, MANY times. Driving down the road, he would point to a field of fresh-cut grass and say, “Hay!” If there was a period of silence in the van, he would say, “Look! What’s that up there in the road — a head?” He would pull up to a railroad crossing and announce, “I believe a train was just by here.” When some gullible freshman would ask, “How can you tell?”, he would say, “It left behind its tracks.”

Ronnie & Janet Hanna

Sometimes he would say, “Don’t be bitter – reconsider!” I never knew exactly what that meant, but he said it a lot.

By his own admission, Ronnie was sometimes, shall we say, directionally challenged. He generally knew – approximately – in what part of town a given church building was located, and he would get in the right area, but then he’d have to drive around a while to find the exact location. Once we got there, he would just chuckle in his good-natured way, and say that he had known where he was all along, and that he was taking us to our destination via a “scenic tour.”

Brother Ronnie taught “Life of Christ,” which was a freshman-level class. One of the first things he covered was to define for us, exactly what Jesus was talking about when he described the Kingdom of Heaven / Kingdom of God – “The reign and rule of God in the hearts and lives of men and women.” To this day, I’ve never heard a better explanation, and I’ve used it, without exception, every time I have ever taught on the Kingdom. It’s not a place, it’s not just something in the future – God’s Kingdom is here and now, and it’s made up of all those who humble themselves before the living God to let Him rule in their hearts.

The other thing I remember about his Life of Christ class was that he had us read “The Cost of Discipleship” by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, with its famous quotation, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” Great stuff, life-changing stuff.

I had Ronnie for other classes, and he taught me other things, but if for only those two things, I will always be grateful to have been his student.

After he left Dallas, Ronnie and his beloved wife Janet moved to Colorado, where he ministered for many years. They moved back to the Dallas-area after his retirement. He passed away about ten years ago. But I remember him with genuine fondness and respect. He was a decent, good and gentle man, who loved his God and loved his family. And he loved the Lord’s church and spent his life ministering before the Lord and training others who would do the same.

Thanks for everything, Brother Ronnie. It was an honor to know you. And I bet you didn’t take a “scenic tour” on your way to heaven!

Lessons from Saint Patrick

One of my favorite days of the year, March 17 – St. Patrick’s Day – is almost here. It’s one of my favorites not because I especially love wearing green, but because there really was a man named Patrick who deserves to be remembered.

Patrick was not Irish by birth but was actually born in England or Wales in the late 300s. By his own account, he was NOT a Christian as a young man. At 16, he was kidnapped by Irish pirates and taken as a slave to Ireland, where he stayed for six years. He spent much of that time tending sheep, and he also became a believer. Eventually he managed to escape his captors and return to Britain, but after studying for the priesthood, he had a vision of the people of Ireland begging him to return to their island and bring them the gospel.

Ireland at the time was a coarse, pagan land – tribal chieftains competing for power, constant battles, the people worshiping various pagan gods and goddesses, widespread kidnapping and slavery. Patrick brought his faith, and in one generation, Ireland was at peace and slavery had been abolished.

How he brought about such a great social change is too long a story to relate here, but part of it involved Patrick selecting a group of young disciples and pouring himself into them. He would spend about three years, teaching them and showing them how to walk out their faith – then he would send them on their way to put their Christianity into practice. Some of them would become farmers, some shepherds, some craftsmen – and some would become pastors and begin gathering followers of their own. Meanwhile, he would gather up another group of a dozen or so, and start over.

Their influence spread, and it changed the entire culture. For Patrick and his students, Christianity was not a set of doctrines to be studied – it was a way of life to be followed. The message of the gospel wasn’t just about saving people’s souls – it was about making a real difference, improving people’s lives in the here and now. Celtic Christianity wasn’t about going to church to find God – it was about recognizing that God shows Himself in every sunrise and sunset, every blade of grass and mountain stream, and we can see Him through His creation, if we will just look.

This style of cross is known as a “Celtic Cross,” pronounced with a hard “k” sound at the beginning – “KEL-tic.” The circle represents eternity, and the beautifully engraved knotwork symbolizes a bond that cannot be broken. The three steps remind us of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and that God is always with us – past, present, and future.

There are many legends about Patrick; one says that he used the three-leafed shamrock (already a sacred plant in Irish life) to teach the people the doctrine of the Holy Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. If that’s true, it certainly fits with what we know of Patrick’s teaching that we should never worship creation, but that the creation points us to the Creator, and it is the Creator we must worship.

One of my favorite things about Saint Patrick is a prayer attributed to him, known as “St. Patrick’s Breastplate,” and also as “The Cry of the Deer.” It expresses a prayer that is very close to my heart, and says in part –

God’s might to uphold me,
God’s wisdom to guide me,
God’s eye to look before me,
God’s ear to hear me,
God’s word to speak for me,
God’s hand to guard me,
God’s way to lie before me,
God’s shield to protect me
.

And another part says,

Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in the eye of everyone who sees me,
Christ in the ear of everyone who hears me.

If you want to learn more about Patrick, I suggest How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill. I think it’s one of the most entertaining history books ever written.

So Happy St. Patrick’s Day. And Erin Go Bragh!

Worth the Read

In previous columns, I have written about different books that I like and recommend. With your kind permission, I would like to suggest a book that is turning 25 years old, and still very much worth the time to read, or to re-read. It’s What’s So Amazing About Grace? by Philip Yancey.

What’s So Amazing About Grace is my favorite book by Philip Yancey. It has been in print now for 25 years.

By his own admission, Philip Yancey has had a difficult road of faith. Born in Atlanta in 1949, he grew up in a very rigid, fundamentalist church. When he was still a child, Yancey’s father contracted polio and had to be placed in an iron lung so he could breathe. Then he died from complications of the disease after church members told him he needed to “turn off the machines” so that God could heal him.

Yancey’s journey of faith was a long road back from that.

He went on to become the editor of Christianity Today magazine (now retired) and has authored a number of outstanding books. The first thing of his I ever read was Disappointment with God – I love the honesty of that title. I’ve also read The Bible Jesus Read, Where is God When It Hurts?, and The Jesus I Never Knew, but I think his best work is the one I’m suggesting for you, this book on grace.

Early on in the book, he acknowledges the difficulty in writing about the subject of grace.

As I look back on my pilgrimage, marked by wanderings, detours, and dead ends, I see now that what pulled me along was my search of grace. I rejected the church for a time because I found so little grace there. I returned because I found grace nowhere else.

I have barely tasted of grace myself, have rendered less than I have received, and am in no wise an “expert” on grace. These are, in fact, the very reasons that impelled me to write. I want to know more, to understand more, to experience more grace.

In this book, Yancey describes examples of grace and forgiveness that are so lovely they will make your heart ache and your spirit soar. He points to soul-crushing examples of what he calls “ungrace” – attitudes of pettiness and meanness that we see all around us, and too often, still within ourselves. He tells stories of grace extended that will absolutely make you weep until you cry out with joy – my favorite is chapter four, “Lovesick Father.” And I will not spoil it by saying more than that.

In a later chapter, Yancey writes –

Jesus’ images portray the kingdom as a kind of secret force. Sheep among wolves, treasure hidden in a field, the tiniest seed in the garden, wheat growing among weeds, a pinch of yeast worked into bread dough, a sprinkling of salt on meat – all these hint at a movement that works within society, changing it from the inside out. You do not need a shovelful of salt to preserve a slab of ham: a dusting will suffice.

Jesus did not leave an organized host of followers, for he knew that a handful of salt would gradually work its way through the mightiest empire in the world. Against all odds, the great institutions of Rome – the law code, libraries, the Senate, Roman legions, roads, aqueducts, public monuments – gradually crumbled, but the little band to whom Jesus gave these images prevailed and continues on today.

Søren Kierkegaard described himself as a spy, and indeed Christians behave like spies, living in one world while our deepest allegiance belongs to another. We are resident aliens, or sojourners, to use a biblical phrase.

He goes on to say,

The Christian knows to serve the weak not because they deserve it but because God extended his love to us when we deserved the opposite. Christ came down from heaven, and whenever his disciples entertained dreams of prestige and power he reminded them that the greatest is the one who serves. The ladder of power reaches up; the ladder of grace reaches down.

Amazing.

Try a Little Kindness

When I was growing up in the 1960s, my favorite singer was Glen Campbell. Among the many other records of his that I had was a song entitled, Try a Little Kindness

If you see your brother standing by the road
With a heavy load from the seeds he’s sowed
And if you see your sister falling by the way
Just stop and say, you’re going the wrong way

You’ve got to try a little kindness
Yes show a little kindness
Just shine your light for everyone to see
And if you try a little kindness
Then you’ll overlook the blindness
Of narrow-minded people on the narrow-minded streets

Don’t walk around, the down and out
Lend a helping hand instead of doubt
And the kindness that you show every day
Will help someone along their way

It’s a message I’ve been thinking about lately.

A couple of years ago, the Marriott Hotel chain began running a series of TV ads based on the theme of “The Golden Rule” – they even had their own hashtag, #GoldenRule. Part of the commercial includes the question, “What if all of mankind were made up of kind women and kind men?” The ads show Marriott employees – and others – performing simple acts of kindness to help others.

I realize that expressions of kindness towards others have often been in short supply, but it seems that lately such acts of kindness are even more rare than ever, and it makes me sad for our society. When did simply being nice to another person become so rare and remarkable that it makes the national news?

This may come as a shock to some of our younger readers, but there was a time in this country when politics “ended at the shore,” when political parties would not criticize a president (even from the other party) about the way he handled foreign policy; a time when we could disagree about political issues without assuming the other side was evil and out to destroy the country; and a time when we could discuss politics without the conversation degenerating into shouting match on the level of, “You’re stupid!” “No, you’re stupid!” We were willing to recognize the humanity and basic decency of others, and to acknowledge that a political opponent was a fine person, even if we had different ideas about what was best for the country.

It seems to me that Jesus 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.

He’s not the only one. The prophet Micah told us to “practice justice, love kindness, and walk humbly before our God” (Micah 6:8). The Apostle Paul lists “kindness” along with the other fruit of God’s Spirit. And that list is not a buffet – we don’t get to pick & choose which items we want. “Yes, I’ll take some love and a little peace, please, but no thanks on the self-control.” If God’s Spirit is alive and active inside of us, He will be producing all of those qualities in us.

The problem with 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.

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.

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.

Running into the Darkness

People run OUT of burning buildings. That’s simple human self-preservation, to get as far away from danger as possible. Yet we know there are those who run INTO burning buildings. We call them firefighters. We also call them heroes.

Normal human reaction is to get away from gunfire, especially if you’re unarmed. But soldiers and law enforcement officers routinely run TOWARDS gunfire, especially when a buddy is in trouble. And medics will do this, even though they are unarmed, to save a life. Heroes in action.

These are examples of physical courage in the face of danger. But there is another kind of courage, just as rare, and just as worthy of celebrating. It is the kind of moral courage that runs into the darkness where another person is trapped.

As humans, we were meant to live in relationship with others – family members, co-workers, neighbors. We were meant to live in community, to provide mutual support and encouragement. But relationships are messy. If we want to enjoy truly mutual relationships with others, that requires that we make ourselves vulnerable. It also requires that we allow others to be vulnerable to us.

And there’s the problem: most of us want to keep our emotional distance. Oh, we’re fine with relationships as long as they’re on the surface, or as long as it doesn’t require too much of a commitment from us. But when a neighbor or a co-worker needs someone who is willing to listen, to “weep with those who weep,” as the scripture says, to be willing to just make an investment of time – are we willing to be that person?

So I come back to our opening thoughts. We admire the courage, the loyalty, the selflessness of a firefighter who would charge into a burning building, or a medic who races into a combat situation, to save a life. Are we willing to do the same thing for someone who needs a friend?

The world is desperate to see the love of God. The world is aching to see Christians who will live out what they say they believe. Are you willing to be that person? Am I?

Are you willing to be the one who goes to the old man who lives down the street, and has no one to talk to? Would you spend an hour a week, just sitting with him and listening?

Or how about that single mom at work? Will you be the one who reaches out to her and offers to babysit for a little while, just so she can go buy groceries without the kids? Or maybe even, let her go get her hair done, without having to worry about the little ones?

When Jesus said He would build His church and the gates of hell would not “prevail” against it, what did He mean? That hell would attack the church, but that the church would never fall to those attacks? Well, that’s certainly true, but I think that interpretation misses the point.

I mean, think about it. Have you ever been attacked by a gate? No, gates are for DEFENSE! When Jesus said the “gates of hell” would not stop us, He is telling us that we need to break down those hellish gates and seek for those who are trapped inside, in their own private, spiritual hell. Storm the gates! Rescue the prisoners! Find those who sit in darkness and bring them out. As Isaiah 61:1-3 says,

The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion. (emphasis added)

Somebody cared enough about you and me to go get us; now we need to go get someone else. This is what the Kingdom of God looks like. Each one matters. Each one is important. And no one gets left behind.

Be a friend to the friendless. Be a neighbor to the lonely. Be a brother or a sister to the one needing a family. Be the hands and feet of Christ, reaching out to care for the least of these.