Tuesday, December 31, 2013

When the Game is Over

                The end of a year is always a time to pause and reflect upon the journey that we are taking. As we look back, we can evaluate our progress or lack thereof. As we look ahead, we can plan our strategy for the future. But there is a time coming for every one of us when our journey will end and the game will be over. The final score will be tallied and it will be determined if we were winners or losers in life.

                This time of the year is the culmination of the college football season. For many teams, their season has already ended, but for a few, what happens in the next week or so will define their whole season. Throughout the season, the coach has made innumerable decisions, some good and some bad. Each decision has changed the outlook of the game and the season. As long as there is one more game to play, there is still a chance to have a positive impact on the outcome. When the final game is over, there is no going back and changing the outcome. So it is in life.

                God placed me in another uncomfortable place recently. I was called to the hospital to sit with a family as they waited the outcome of their loved one’s battle for life. I tried to give as much comfort as I could, but mostly I listened as the family talked about their loved one. They reflected upon the journey he had taken and the decisions he had made. They pleaded for a little more time to be put on the clock. I left with the outcome still hanging in the balances. As the patient was whisked away on a medical helicopter, I met the doctor in the hall. “I don’t think he will make it.”

                On my way home, I reflected on my experience. I was unable to give that family any lasting hope, because, as far as I could determine, they had chosen to play the game without God on the sidelines. In football, if the game is close at the end, there is always the chance for a Hail Mary pass and a spectacular catch in the end zone to turn defeat into victory. Unfortunately, there are very, very few Hail Mary passes at the end of life. As the final seconds tick off the clock, the cumulative decisions of a lifetime determine the final score.

                Many people begin asking the most important life questions at the very time when it is too late to act upon them. Many people live their lives without conscious thought about God, then wonder where He is when the end of the journey looms large in front of them. Some do find that the door of life is still open to them, but many more sink into overwhelming doom; the weight of their life decisions pulling them away from God instead of toward Him.

                The hope that Christ offers us needs to be embraced now, in the present. It is not a safety net that we leave unused until the end of the game. True hope for the future is shaped and formed by the multitude of positive decisions we make throughout the entire game. It is not something that can be grasped in desperation in the final seconds.

                Jesus is holding out hope for all who will receive it. But a person must take advantage of the opportunity before them. They cannot put off their decision, expecting to get another chance later. In a football game, there are only a limited number of opportunities to score. A good team makes the most of every opportunity. They may not get another one. So it is in life. Isaiah made that clear in Isaiah 55.

                Seek the Lord while he may be found; call on him while he is near. Let the wicked forsake his way and the evil man his thoughts. Let him turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will freely pardon. Isaiah 55:6-7

                The Apostle Paul picks up the urgency of Isaiah’s words in 2 Corinthians 6:1-2. As God's fellow workers we urge you not to receive God's grace in vain. For he says, "In the time of my favor I heard you, and in the day of salvation I helped you." I tell you, now is the time of God's favor, now is the day of salvation.

                In a football game there is a limited number of plays to be called. Each decision combines to determine the final score of the game. So it is in life. Each of us has a limited number of decisions that we can make. Each decision shapes us for our eternal destiny, each one plays a part in the final score. For when the game is over, there is no going back to change things.

                We are therefore Christ's ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ's behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. 2 Corinthians 5:20-21

                As we move into this new year I want to challenge you to ask yourself the question, who is calling the plans in my life? None of us knows what this next year will bring, but we can face it with confidence, if we have put our faith and trust in Jesus Christ. The clock is ticking, the game is winding down. If we have put our faith in Christ, the outcome is not in question. We have already won.

                For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. 2 Corinthians 4:17-18

Sunday, December 22, 2013


                The first Christmas was a confusing, bewildering, exciting, amazing time. The known world was thrust into frantic activity by the decree of Caesar to take a census. It would have been easy enough except everyone had to travel to their ancestral home. The Jews are very clannish, like the Scots. To make the census more palatable to the Jews, the authorities tapped into their ancient loyalty to their patriarchal tribes. So it was that Joseph and Mary had to travel, at a most inconvenient time, to the town of Bethlehem.

                The trip would have been an ordeal. It would normally take 3-4 days to walk to Bethlehem from Nazareth, but with Mary being very pregnant it took longer. Like all expectant fathers, I’m sure that Joseph didn't want Mary to overdo it. So they made their way, slowly, to Bethlehem because Joseph came from the line of David, the King.

                Joseph may have puzzled over the irony of his connection to Bethlehem. He was anything but the son of a king. A simple carpenter, living in a small, obscure village on the fringe of the nation. He was a man who worked with his hands, not one who gave orders and ruled a nation. Of the line of David. A more unreal thought couldn't have passed through his mind.

                When they finally arrived, Bethlehem was bedlam; there were people everywhere. It had not been designed for this influx of humanity. Every available accommodation was taken; occupied by some weary traveler, anxious to get registered and go home. The atmosphere was not festive, it was tense. Nerves were on edge, tempers were short. Roman soldiers roamed the streets adding to the uncomfortable feeling in the air. A young couple, arriving late, were viewed as a nuisance, an inconvenience, an unwanted burden.

                They found shelter in a stable. It was probably a cave that had been enlarged, with a fence and gate to keep the animals in. Like most caves, it would have been musty, slightly damp and dirty. The stale air, mixed with the aroma of the animals, would have made for a pungent atmosphere. But near the back of the stable, the young couple would have a measure of privacy. Privacy that they dearly needed, for the time for the baby had arrived. Had they been accommodated in the inn, they would have been crowded in with other guests, exposed to the curious stares of strangers. In a strange way, God provided a private room for his son to be born into our world. Possibly shielded by the oblivious animals, Mary gave birth to the son of God. 

                In the villages of Israel, the birth of a child was a major event. The whole village would be in anticipation of the arrival. When the baby entered the world, it was customary for some local musicians to gather outside of the house and herald the birth with music. Soon the whole village would be informed and a collective celebration would take place.

                There were no mistrals waiting to announce Jesus’ birth. But God was not going to let His son’s birth go unnoticed. He sent His messenger to a group of Temple shepherds who were staying with the flock out in the field. The sky blazed with the glory of God and one or two of these hardened men may have wet their tunics. We know that they were not just startled, they were terrified. The message the angel gave was one of comfort and joy. Don’t be afraid, God has just fulfilled his promise to send the Messiah into the world. Here is the really good news. You marginalized, blue collar laborers are included. The Messiah has come, not for the religious elite, but for the common people; for all the people! He is just over there in Bethlehem. You can find him, wrapped tight in swaddling clothes and placed in a manger.

                At that moment the sky exploded with the praise of heaven. If one angel is enough to terrify a person, consider what a whole army of angels would do. God sent his angelic army to celebrate the most amazing miracle that has ever happened, that will ever happen. God invaded our world in the form of a vulnerable baby.

                The shepherds were stunned and amazed. As the night sky returned to its normal appearance, the shepherds were moved to do something they would never even consider doing. They left the flock, unattended in the field, and rushed to town. They searched every cave, stable and barn looking for the baby. When they found him they were stunned into silence. At the sight of the baby, they knew it was all true. Their silence was broken with uncontrollable praise. They left the bewildered young family, and raced through the sleepy streets proclaiming the good news. Although everyone who heard the news was amazed, there is no record that they went to check it out for themselves. The morning was dawning. The busy day was ahead of them. The census demanded all of their attention. So they forgot what they had heard and went on with life.

                God chose a very unlikely cast of characters to participate in this monumental event. A young girl, a rough carpenter, a group of smelly shepherds. He didn't choose the elite, the informed, the upper crust. He chose common people, and he still does.

                Paul reminds us that none of us have a claim on God’s gift because of our social status or reputation. We are recipients of the gift because of His great love. Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things--and the things that are not--to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God--that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: "Let him who boasts boast in the Lord.1 Corinthians 1:26-31

                The Christ of Christmas is our Savior purely as an unmerited gift from God. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith--and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God-- not by works, so that no one can boastEphesians 2:8-9

            You have heard the story, you have been invited into the story. How will you respond? Will you respond like the people of Bethlehem, and go on with life as usual? Or will you take your place with Mary, Joseph and the shepherds? 

Saturday, December 7, 2013


                As an Associate Chaplain at a hospital, I have sat with many people during times of stress and crisis. I have listened to many cries for help; many cries of desperation. A loved one’s life is hanging in the balance and the distraught relative intones over and over again, O God, O God, O God. A family is given bad news and they respond in anger. “Where is God when we need Him?” Because God created us with an innate desire to be in relationship with Him, when we are at our lowest and all of our human resources are depleted, something within us cries for God. It may be a cry for help or a cry of anger, but it is almost universally there.

                I have encountered many people who live their lives independent of a relationship with God. As long as everything is going well, they have no place for God in their lives. The name of God, if it is used at all, is used as a mindless form of profanity. Then the bottom drops out and they  blame God for abandoning them. For them, God is not a friend and companion, but a benevolent stranger who is supposed to be there for them when they need him. He is the spiritual rescue squad who is supposed to be on call, ready to respond to their emergency.

                The Bible makes it clear that we have a choice in the way we live our lives. We can live in relationship with God, through Jesus Christ, or we can live without God being an active part of our lives. It is wrong to say that God is absent, because he is always, everywhere present. But we can live as if he does not exist, or at least as if he has no place in our everyday lives. There will come a time when every human being will stand before God and give an account of their life. It will either be a time of terror or a time of welcome home. The determining factor will be if Jesus was our friend or a stranger.

                There is a challenging passage of scripture found in Matthew 25. Jesus describes that time when all of humanity will stand before Jesus’ throne. The people of the world will be divided into two groups; one on His right and one on His left. Jesus will turn to the people on his right and extend a hand of welcome. “Welcome home friend. I have been looking forward to this day. You have lived life well, you have served with honor, so now come and celebrate with me.”

                Then Jesus will turn to those on his left and he will say the most chilling thing that any human can hear. “You lived your life as a stranger to me. You had no thought of me and lived as if I did not exist.  Depart from me. I never knew you.”

                Right now the door is open to anyone who will come to Jesus. The invitation to be Jesus’ intimate friend is there for the taking. Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me. Revelation 3:20 Jesus desires to have a meaningful relationship with us, but he will not barge his way into our lives. He is the ultimate gentleman. He patiently waits for us to open the door and invite Him in.

                Today I will perform a funeral. It is a solemn reminder that our life on earth is short. One day the clock will run out for us all. When that time comes, will Jesus be standing there welcoming us home as a dearly loved friend, or will He still be a stranger?

Friday, December 6, 2013

Physician, Heal Thyself

                I sat with my friend and talked about my apprehension. Looming before me were two significant encounters that I felt inadequate to handle. Both of the encounters had been hanging over my head for days, and I had become very anxious. I expressed my feelings of inadequacy to my friend, as he patiently listened. After I had unloaded my stuff, he paused for a moment, as he often does, before responding.

                “Dave, you may not feel adequate for the task, but that is not the way others perceive you. You do have the ability to convey compassion in a genuine way. God has placed you into these situations because He wants to use you. Someone else could have been called up to fill this role, but they weren’t. God has called you to be in this place.”

                As I walked to my car, in the crisp morning air, I felt encouraged, but not entirely anxiety free. For several days, I had asked people to pray for me concerning these situations. I asked for prayer again, as our staff gathered for our weekly prayer time.

                I walked into the first encounter, still with a high level of apprehension. As I faced the person I came to meet, I expected bitterness, anger and resentment. What I saw was peace, acceptance and a big smile. I immediately relaxed and we had a great visit. I read a couple of passages of scripture that I had selected in advance. We prayed together, and I returned to my car with a sense of relief.

                As I got in my car, the words of Paul, in Philippians 4:6-7, came flooding into my mind. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.  And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. How often had I encouraged others to take those words to heart, yet I was failing to do it myself. I was allowing anxiety to take over my heart. As I continued to reflect on this, I was reminded (with just a little amusement) of some of the verses I had just read; verses intended to comfort another person. Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting. Psalm 139:23-24 This morning, as I knelt before God, I confessed my anxious heart and asked for His forgiveness.

                My second encounter is still before me. I will be walking into an uncomfortable setting for me. I will be seeking to speak God’s words of comfort to a group of people who may not be sympathetic to those words. I would like to say that all of the anxiety is gone; but it is not. On the other hand, I have a sense of peace about it. I am trusting God to give me the right words to say that will accomplish His purposes. The results are in His hands, not mine.

                Before I became a Pastor, I was a Medical Laboratory Technician. I routinely stuck other people with needles. I always assured them that I would do it with a minimum of pain. Many people were anxious about the procedure, but I assured them and “plunged” forward. Yet, in all of my training and beyond, I was never able to stick myself.

                As a pastor, it is my role to share God’s truth with others. At times that truth seems painful and hard, but I assure people that it is for their good and God’s glory. But I still have a hard time “sticking” myself. So this week, I clearly heard God’s message to me. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.  And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. It is time for me to put those words into action in my own life. “Physician, heal thyself.”

Wednesday, December 4, 2013


                When a crisis comes crashing into our lives, our whole world stops. Whatever the crisis is, it becomes the most important thing in life. Everything else is put on hold. All of our energy is used to deal with the attack on our well-being. When we are in the midst of such an overwhelming crisis, it is easy to think that others don’t care. They seem to go on with their lives, unaffected by the deep hurt that we cannot escape. Although we may not say it out loud, we are thinking, what’s wrong with these people? Don’t they understand how hard this is? I know the reality of this; I have walked in those shoes.

                Shift your perspective 180 degrees. Over the past year, I have had a number of people in my fellowship who have been faced with significant crisis. For each of them, their crisis is the most important issue in the world. For me, as a pastor and a friend, I am being asked to carry each crisis as my own. The problem is that there isn’t one crisis to focus on; there are several, all of which are demanding my full attention.

                When I was in college, my fellow students and I often complained that our professors acted as if their class was the only one that we were taking. We had the impression that each professor thought his or her class was the most important and therefore had the right to command all of our time. And so it is when people are in crisis. Because the crisis is so overwhelming to them, they want everyone else to give it their full attention. But, as with my class load in college, we have other things that also demand our attention.

                Paul makes a powerful statement about exercising compassion in Galatians 6:1-5. Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. If anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself. Each one should test his own actions. Then he can take pride in himself, without comparing himself to somebody else, for each one should carry his own load.

                Before I go any further, I want to point out that Paul is talking about helping someone who has fallen into sin, but the principles he gives us apply to the broader context. So for now I want you to replace (temporarily) the word sin with the word crisis. There are a number of principles that can help us to find the right balance of compassion at a time of crisis.

                Don’t assume that you have the answer for the person in crisis. Some of us have a strong need to fix things. Someone comes to us with a problem or a crisis and immediately we begin designing a plan for how to fix it. Stop! Only God can fix whatever the real issues are. Our role is to come along side of the other person and walk with them.     

                Beware of losing your perspective. When a person is in crisis, their perspective becomes distorted. They tend to see things through a gloomy fog, which makes everything look bad. Our role, as the compassionate helper, is it keep our perspective and help the person in crisis see things differently. When Paul says watch yourself or you may also be tempted, he is warning us about buying into a negative attitude. It is common, in our attempts to comfort another, to reinforce their negative feelings. Instead, we need to point the person back to Christ and his loving care.

                Get close enough to share the burden. Many people instinctively distance themselves from people in crisis. We all have struggles in life, and we are not eager to add to the list. As followers of Christ, we need to put away our fear and get close enough to care for the person in crisis. The key word here is share. Many people in crisis want someone else to take responsibility for their situation. That is unhealthy. We can support and encourage, but we cannot take responsibility for the other person’s journey.

                Stay on course personally. I mentioned earlier that people in crisis think others don’t care because they don’t put the rest of their lives on hold to “be with” the person in crisis. In truth, that is the last thing the person in crisis needs. What they need from others is their strength. That strength only comes when the person maintains a healthy life. Each person needs to know their limits. They need to balance compassion with caring for their own needs. A physician we contracts all the diseases of his patients is of little help to them. The only way we can truly be of help to others is by carrying our own burden well. This means that we cannot put our life on hold for the sake of the other person.

                There is a phenomena that has emerged in our world. It is called compassion fatigue. When some crisis hits, there is an initial outpouring of help, which then diminishes over time. When numerous crises hit, one after another, the outpouring of help begins to dry up. People just don’t have anything left to give. Whether we are in crisis or coming along someone in crisis, we need to practice compassion compromise. Those who can offer help need to step up and give what they can. Those in crisis need to allow others to continue to live life, so that they can draw from their strength.