Tag Archives: Life changes

Looking at Life in the Rear-view Mirror

You can’t drive by looking only in the rear-view mirror of your car. Likewise, you can’t go through life looking only through the rear-view mirror.   If we live only in the past we miss the joy and blessings of the present and the opportunity to plan for the future.  After all, the present is the only time we really have.   The past can’t be changed and there is no guarantee we will have a future on earth!

That’s not to say that we never should look at our past life through the rear-view mirror.   We have to know where we’ve been to understand where we are and to plan for where we’d like to be.   The beginning of this new year, 2014,  is a time when it might be good to take a few glances in the “rear-view mirror of the past year”as we steer our lives into the future.  

I’ve never been much for making “new year’s resolutions”.   But I do think it is a good idea to assess the past year in order that we may value our accomplishments, be cognizant of our failures, and thus make adjustments for our goals for a new year based on what we have learned from both accomplishments and failures.  And we need to seek to discern God’s hand in both the accomplishments and failures.

I would propose we ask ourselves several very personal and important questions.    They should be answered honestly and as fully as possible.   The questions are:

  •   What have I accomplished this year, as a child of God, that was worthwhile and noteworthy?   How many of these accomplishments do I think God holds as worthwhile and noteworthy?  Why do I think that?   How has my life made a difference for those whom I have touched in some way?   How has my own life changed because of these accomplishments?  Where do I see God’s hand in my accomplishments?
  • Where have I failed to be what I should and can be as a human being and a child of God?    What do I wish I could change and how can I make those changes with God’s help?
  • What have I learned from both my failures and successes?    How would I describe the different person I should strive to be in the coming year in the light of lessons learned from failures and successes?
  • Based on the above questions, what goals should I have for this current year that lies before me?

I would suggest that not only are these good questions for individuals to ask, but are very important for churches to ask as they begin a new year.

We all are going to die!

Socrates said:   “All men are mortal.   I am a man.  Therefore I am mortal.”    What that means to you and I is that we are all going to die someday.   No exceptions!

I look at obituaries in the newspaper  every day to make sure some of the people from   churches I’ve served are not listed there.   One of the things I notice in the obituaries is that my age shows up often (mid-70’s to mid-80’s).   My concern about my mortality was preying on my thoughts last week, probably because I attended my 60th high school reunion the weekend before and remembered the lengthy list of classmates that have passed from this life—almost half of the class of 1953!

This past week, not knowing of my concern about my mortality, my wife printed the words below, source unknown, and left the print-out  on the computer desk as she was going to send it to someone.    God has wondrous ways of communicating just what we need to hear!   These words were what I needed to hear and I’d like to share ithem with all of you….

“Do not look forward to what may happen tomorrow.  The same everlasting Father who cares for you today will take care of you tomorrow and every day.   Either He will shield you from suffering, or He will give you unfailing strength to bear it.  Be at peace then.  Put aside all anxious thoughts and imaginations, and say continually, ‘The Lord is my strength and my shield.  My heart has trusted in Him and I am helped.  He is not only with me, but in me and I in Him.’  Lord I need you today.

Let’s live today in God’s love and grace that He shows us today.   Trusting in God removes the worry about tomorrow for God is always there for us, whether tomorrow is the next day or eternity. 

“Fake It Til You Make It!”

“The deepest and most important spiritual lessons I ever learned came from a circle of drunks, fighting desperately not to drink today, whom I initially viewed as “low-life losers”, and who ultimately came to be for me the “oracles of God”.

This is a statement from a graduate of an evangelical college and seminary, who feels he never really understood the Christian faith until he went through the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous.   He writes:

“I experienced the gospel of Jesus Christ in dramatic ways.   I learned that God is wildly at work in healing, redemptive, saving ways that were way outside the confines of the evangelical church.”

He continued:   “The 12 Steps in no way diminished my appreciation for the gospel of Jesus Christ—quite the contrary—I am more convinced than ever of the reality of the gospel story.

The AA practices of self-awareness, honesty, forgiveness, and reconciliation led this person to find a new life in Christ.   In other words, practices transformed him.

Diana Butler Bass, who recounts the above story of a college classmate of hers in her book A People’s History of Christianity, remarks:   “Alcoholics Anonymous  teaches addicts to “fake it until you make it.”   “Translating this insight,” Bass says, “into Christian spirituality,  if you act like a Christian you might just become one.”    (p. 297, A People’s History of Christianity)

Long ago, in the 16th century, a man by the name of Menno-Simons, the founder of the Mennonite and Amish forms of Christianity, wrote:

True evangelical faith cannot lie dormant.

It clothes the naked.

It feeds the hungry.

It comforts the sorrowful.

It shelters the destitute.

It serves those that harm it.

It binds up that which is wounded.

It has become all things to all people.

When It Is Out of Your Control

It is the things you cannot do anything about, and the things that you cannot do anything with that do something to you:   (Rohr & Ebert, Enneagram, p. xx)

This is a very hard lesson for we Americans in the U.S. to learn.   One of the virtues in our culture of individualism is self-reliance.  “Pulling oneself up by one’s own bootstraps” is something to brag about in the good old USA.  Frank Sinatra sang to our applause “I Did It My Way”.

But there will come a time, sooner for some and later for others when all of us will have to deal with things that we cannot do anything about and yet they will greatly affect us.   E.g.  we lose a job at the height of our career and cannot, despite our fervent efforts, find anoother one.   We lose a spouse to death and nothing we can do will bring them back to life.   We are in an accident and lose a leg or are paralyzed and nothing anyone can do can change that.   To put it as one of my grosser friends often stated:   “Shit Happens!”   And it happens to all of us!

It is at that time we realize we are not the sole ones in control of our lives.   We realize that others control our lives in various ways and we can’t do anything about that.   We realize, finally, that God is ultimately in control of our lives.   God and others do things that we “cannot do anything about and things we cannot do anything with…”   They are beyond our individual control.  

Perhaps we then will need to remember the words of Jesus:   “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”  (Luke 10:27)

At those times both God and neighbor give us the support we need to cope with the things we cannot change.

‘Till I’m Too Old to Die Young…

There is an old country-wester song called “Too Old to Die Young” that says:  “Please don’t let the cold wind blow, till I’m too old to die young!”

Being 77 years old, I am more and more appreciative of that phrase because I have entered a new phase of life that is both scary and yet satisfying.

Fransciscan Friar, Richard Rohr, describes  two phases of life in his book “Falling Upward.”   His thesis is that you only enter the second phase of life when you suffer some tragedy in your life such as the death of a mate, a divorce, a job loss.  The first phase is occupied with striving to build a reputation, an identity, a career, etc.   It is something we try to do for ourselves..   The second Phase is much different.     For me, the second phase began with the death of my wife of 54 years, Dorene, suddenly and within a week.      For the first time in my life I felt I had no control over events.  I could only turn to God and cry out:   “Help me, I can’t go through this alone!”    Each time I cried out  a peace came upon me and I knew that God heard me and responded and that I was God’s child and He would get me through this “dark valley.”   I can testify that He did and I am now on the other side of the valley, back in the sunlight, but changed forever by the experience!

This second  phase of life is both scary and satisfyingscary because I am much more aware of my mortality.   The inexorable effects of living 77 years  remind me that my body is mortal.   The stresses and strains of living multiply  as we live longer and we realize that our bodies just can’t perform what we’d like them to do anymore.   For example, on a recent trip to visit my son and daughter-in-law in Rochester, NY, we went to Niagara Falls and I found myself—the father who took care of my son for many years—now being taken care of by my son.   On the visit to Niagara Falls it was not me carrying my son,  as I did often when he was young, but now it was him pushing me in a wheelchair so I could experience a ride on the Maid of the Mists boat at the Falls.   But it was satisfying in that I have lived “to see my children grow and see what they become” as the song goes.   Both of my children are kind, caring, responsible human beings who express their love for me, their mother,  and my present wife in unmistakable ways.    Truly, I think  that my children are the crowning achievement of my life, although I have achieved much.   Not that my wife and I did not make a lot of mistakes in raising them, but we always loved them and tried to be there for them, and now what we did is coming back to me in great measure!

So, this second phase of life is scary, but it is also very satisfying.   Richard Rohr, in his book Immortal Diamond says that our “true self” emerges in this second phase.   The first phase is occupied, of necessity, with building ourfalse self”, which is our identity that we create for ourselves, our reputation, inherently needy and fragile, our careers, etc.  It is the self that changes and dies.  The “false self” is not bad or even “false” as much as it is passing and self-built based on our constant striving.     On the other hand, our “true self” is who we really are as a child of God, created in his image, immortall; it is our souls, our absolute identity as a child of God.   The many things that bothered the “false self” are no longer our concerns.  There is no need to compete, no need to strive,  but we are free to live and let live according to God’s plan.   I feel at peace with God and his creation and feel a contentment that has not been mine as I was  striving to build the “false self” of my identity.

I am thankful every day that “the cold wind” of death has not blown on me “until I’m too old to die young!

Are Christians different?

Jesus challenged the political, economic and religious establishment of his time with his views and teachings that were radically different.  In my July 17 blog I told how the early followers of Jesus—the early church—were radically different in the way they lived, and how people who knew them observed how radically different their way of life was from the rest of society.

I left you with this question:  Can it be said about today’s Christians that we are different and stand out as Christians in the eyes of our society?

Jesus summed up all the law and the prophets and his own teaching about the way God wants us to live in these words we find in Matthew’s gospel in answer to the question “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?   Jesus replied, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind’,  this is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it:  ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”  (Matthew 22:3-40)

We seldom think how radical that second commandment is—and Jesus places it on an equal basis with the first one!   As Jim Wallis puts it:  “We are asked to care for our neighbor’s as ourselves, and our neighbors children as our children.  This is an ethic that would (and could) transform the world.”   (On God’s Side, p. 6)

Wallis further points out this fundamental teaching flies in the face of the  “selfish personal and political ethics that put myself always before all others; my concerns first, my rights first, my freedoms first, my interest first, my tribe first, and even my country first—ahead of everybody else.   Self-concern is the personal and political ethic that dominates our world today, but the kingdom of God says that our neighbor’s concerns, rights, interests, freedoms, and well-being are as important as our own.

Our inability to live the way these two “great commandments” instruct us is why the question “are we perceived as Christians to be different today?” must be answered negatively.

Listen to what Wallis says of this:  “We live in one of the most self-centered cultures in history.  Our economic system is the social rationalization of personal selfishness.  Self-fulfillment and individual advancement have become our chief goals.   The leading question of the times is, “How can I be happy and satisfied?”

“Not surprisingly, our self-centered culture has produced a self-centered religion.  Preoccupation with self dominates the spirit of the age and shapes the character of religion.   ….The common question in evangelism today is, “What can Jesus do for me?”  In other words, the question is how Jesus can help us make it in the present order, not how we can respond to the new order.   Potential converts are told that Jesus can make them happier, more self-satisfied, better adjusted, and more prosperous.  Jesus quickly becomes the supreme product, attractively packaged and aggressively sold to a consuming public.  Complete with billboards, buttons, and bumper stickers, modern evangelistic campaigns advertise Jesus in a competitive market.  Even better than Coca-Cola, Jesus is ‘the Real Thing'”.

‘The gospel message has been molded to suit an increasingly narcissistic culture.  Conversion is proclaimed as the road to self-realization….the role of religion is presented as a way to help us uncover our human potential—our potential for personal, social, and business success that is.  Modern conversion brings Jesus into our lives rather than bringing us into his…..Conversion is just for ourselves, not for the world.  We ask how Jesus can fulfiill  our lives, not how we might serve his kingdom.”  (Call to Conversion, p. 22-23)

These are strong words?   I wish I could disagree with them, but I can’t—can you?   If so, do so!!

They are words that show a credibility gap between the way of Jesus and the way of our churches today.    We are not living “the way of Jesus”, we are living the “way of the world today.”

I hope to discuss in Part Three some of the results of the above indictment,  as we confront two central challenges we face today:  The increasingly lop-sided  division of our world into rich and poor and the fear of violence this raises.

Jesus was a Radical….are you?

I have been reading a couple of books by Jim Wallis that have challenged me a great deal.   They are The Call to Conversion, 1981 (revised 2005), and On God’s Side, 2013.   In my next several blogs, I would like to pass on to you some of the challenges that these books have made to me.   While these are not new ideas to me and I have preached many a sermon on them, yet the way that Wallis puts it all together is compelling for me and I hope it will be for my readers.

In The Call to Conversion, Wallis begins with the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7; Luke 6) as a description of the core values that Jesus taught his followers about life in the Kingdom of God that he came to inaugurate.   He says that it is “the charter of the new order.  It describes the character, priorities, values, and norms of the New Age that Jesus came to inaugurate.   The early church took it to be basic teaching and used it to instruct new converts in the faith.”  (p.11, Call to Conversion).

In the Sermon on the Mount as with Jesus’ other teachings and actions, Jesus speaks of basic stuff of human existence.   He speaks of money, possessions, power, violence, sexuality, faith and the law, security, true and false religion, treatment of neighbors and treatment of enemies.   As Wallis says:  These are the basic questions that every man and woman must come to terms with and make choices about.”  (p. 12, Call to Conversion.)

The Kingdom of God is pictured as a radical reversal of both Jewish and Roman culture during Jesus’ day and also today.   For Romans popularity, ambition, aggrandizement, competition, wealth, and violence were all key virtues and goals to strive toward.   The Sermon on the Mount turns everything on its head and advocates for just the opposite of Roman and today’s values.

Because early christians strove to follow these teachings and took them to heart, they were viewed by their society as “different” and as a challenge to the power of the status quo.  Therefore, as Wallis says,Early Christians “became well known as a caring, sharing, and open community that was especially sensitive to the poor and the outcast.   Their love for God, for one another, and for the oppressed was central to their reputation.   Their refusal to kill, to recognize racial distinctions, or to bow down before the imperial deities was a matter of public knowledge.”  (Call to Conversion, p. 15)

We see that public knowledge in the description of Christians sent to the Emperor Hadrain by Aristides, a Roman official:   “They love one another.  They never fail to help widows; they save orphans from those who would hurt them.  If they have something they give freely to the man who has nothing; if they see a stranger, they take him home, and are happy as though he were a real brother.  They don’t consider themselves brothers in the usual sense, but brothers instead through the Spirit, in God.”

Early Christians were known in society of their time not just by what they believed but especially by the way they lived.  As Wallis says:  “The message of the kingdom became more than an idea.  A new human society had sprung up, and it looked very much like the new order to which the evangelists pointed.   Here love was given daily expression; reconciliation was actually occurring.  People were no longer divided into Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female.   In this community the weak were protected, the stranger welcomed.  People were healed, and the poor and dispossessed were cared for and found justice.  Everything was shared, joy abounded, and ordinary lives were filled with praise.   Something was happening among these Christians that no one could deny.  it was very exciting.   According to Tertullian (an early christian writer), people looked at the early Christians and exclaimed:  “See how they love one another!”  (Call to Conversion, p. 17)

I leave you with a challenging question:   Can the above be said about our churches today?  Do we stand out as Christians in the eyes of our society?   That will be the subject of my next blog post!