Unshakable Hope

“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you will abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 15:13)

Archive for the tag “Love”

A Great Inheritance

Wouldn’t it be great to inherit millions of dollars from a distant relative that you’ve never even met?
Unfortunately, this rarely happens, but I did get an email from Nigeria…


When I was fifteen years old, a great uncle, who I was named after, passed away and left me a gold-plated pocket watch with his/my name engraved on the back and a thousand dollars. I had never met this man, but he instantly became my favorite uncle. I was determined to be responsible with my newfound fortune so I opened a savings account and deposited the check. A few months later I turned 16, got my drivers license, and crashed into a tree in my sister’s car. I had to say goodbye to my great inheritance.

I thought a lot about material wealth while watching horrible images on TV of hurricane’s Harvey and Irma destroying homes and businesses in Texas, Florida, and other states. And, as I’m typing this blog post, I’m glancing at the TV and seeing more horrible images caused by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, and a powerful earthquake in Mexico City. It’s heartbreaking.

We live in Southeast Texas, and we’ve seen the destructive power of these storms. So many people we know were flooded out of their homes from Hurricane Harvey. Thankfully, we were not among them.

A week after Hurricane Harvey destroyed so many homes and businesses in our area, my visiting nurse, Rebecca, came to our home. She visits me every month to confirm that I am still alive. Rebecca is a Christian and a single mother of three young boys. She told us that she and her boys had to flee their rental home as the floodwaters began to creep in. There was no time to move furniture and other valued possessions upstairs. The muddy water quickly engulfed the whole first floor, ruining everything it swallowed up.

Nine years ago, Hurricane Ike swept through Southeast Texas. Even though we live 80+ miles from the coast, we still had hurricane-strength winds at our home. The strong winds left our area without electricity and, because we have a water well, without running water, for seven days. We and most of our neighbors have generators because we’re prone to natural disasters and occasional power outages. My friend, and then next-door neighbor, Les, set up a little window air conditioner in our bedroom and kept our generator running 24/7.

Mary and I were sound asleep in our cool bedroom, while poor Les was yelling for us to call 911; their house was on fire! By the time we made it outside, their beautiful home was fully engulfed in flames; there was little the firefighters could do. We later learned that the cause of the fire was a faulty extension cord running from his generator to a fan in his home. Something so small, took so much. Thankfully, Les’s wife and kids were staying with relatives so everyone, except the family dog, escaped the flames.


How quickly our earthly treasures can be taken from us.

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust (earthquakes, floods and fire) destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. “But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:19-21)

Where is your heart today?

Jesus gave the Apostle Paul, the disciples, and all followers of Christ our marching orders:

“…open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the dominion of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who have been sanctified by faith in Me.” (Acts 26:18)     

Jesus wants all people to trust and hope in the inheritance that He suffered, died, and was resurrected to secure for everyone who “calls on His name.” This is the Great Inheritance, it’s an eternal inheritance.

We are living in uncertain times, our wealth, and, as I learned 21 years ago, our health, and even our very lives, can be taken from us In a moment.

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to obtain an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven for you…” (1 Peter 1:3-5)

The Bible tells us that everything we see can, and will, be shaken. Only by putting our faith in Christ will we have Unshakable Hope.

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The Man In The Mirror

Can you imagine going a whole month without seeing yourself in a mirror?

If you’re a follower of my blog, you know that I’ve had ALS for almost 21 years, and that I’m totally paralyzed and home-bound. In addition to an excellent nurse visiting me once a month to confirm that I’m still alive, a very nice lady also comes to our home once a month to cut my hair. She came the other day to cut my hair so Mary maneuvered my wheelchair into the bathroom in front of the dreaded mirror (mirrors don’t lie). “Who is that guy with gray hair and big bags under his eyes?” I asked myself.

You see, unless I ask Mary or my caregiver to place me in front of the mirror, which, for obvious reasons, I rarely do, haircut time is the only time I have to face this 56 year old man in a wheelchair (a really disturbing experience).

In some ways, my journey with ALS almost seems like a bad dream, a really long bad dream, even more so when I don’t see myself in the mirror for long periods of time.

Except for the constant reminders of the wheelchair I’m sitting on and the eye-tracking (Look Ma, no hands) computer I’m using, I could close my eyes and almost imagine that I am still the healthy 36 year old man that I was before being diagnosed with this stinkin’ disease.

Then I look in the mirror…

“…we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.” (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)

Can you imagine someone picking out the clothes you wear every day – for 20 years? On occasion, when we’re having company, Mary will bring out three shirts and ask me which one I’d like to wear. But, other than those rare occasions, Mary or Sharlene, my caregiver and good friend for the last ten years, pick out the clothes I’m going to wear without any input from me.

As I was writing this post, I thought about an old black & white movie I’ve seen, titled “The Picture of Dorian Gray.” It’s about a narcissistic man, Dorian Gray, that, while examining his just-completed portrait, basically makes a pact with the devil that his physical appearance would remain just as it is in the portrait.

Over the period of several years, all of his friends age naturally, but Dorians appearance remains the same as it was the day that he collaborated with evil. However, his now-hidden portrait reflects his soul, and this portrait becomes more hideous with every evil act he commits.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0037988/

If there was such a thing as a mirror that reflected our soul, what would your reflection look like? (I have probably asked myself this question a thousand times since making a commitment to follow Christ some 35 years ago).

When looking into a mirror, we can see our physical imperfections, but for those who call themselves Christians, the Bible is the mirror of our soul. If we’re open to making changes to our spiritual imperfections (if we have “eyes to see and ears to hear”) the Bible will transform us.

But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his natural face in a mirror; for once he has looked at himself and gone away, he has immediately forgotten what kind of person he was. But one who looks intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty, and abides by it, not having become a forgetful hearer but an effectual doer, this man will be blessed in what he does.”(James1:22-25)

“But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:18)

Are you being transformed by the Mirror of your Soul?

If not, I hope and pray you’ll begin doing so today.

TGIF

I was thinking about Good Friday when I woke up early yesterday morning. Then I thought about people using the phrase “Thank God It’s Friday” to celebrate the end of a work week and the start of the weekend.

Even though I haven’t worked in over 19 years, I remember that feeling of being so glad a work week was over as I was sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic on a Friday evening or landing at the airport after being gone all week on a business trip.

Then I thought about the darkest Friday of my life.

After three days of grueling tests, which included cutting muscle samples out of my thigh without any anesthetic and a spinal tap that left me with a debilitating headache for three days, the neurologist, flanked by a group of interns, told to Mary and I that I had ALS. He went on to say that I would continually get weaker, be confined to a wheelchair, lose my ability to speak, and that I would die in three to five years.

That was not a Friday I was thanking God for.

Do you think when the disciples were staring up at Jesus dying on the cross they called that day “Good Friday?”

Yeah, I don’t think so either.

I’m sure there was a lot of confusion and crying on that dark day. Maybe they were like Mary and I on the long drive home from the medical center that Friday evening; not even looking at one another for fear of dissolving into tears.

Like Mary and I, I’m sure they were thinking, “This isn’t the way it was supposed to be.”

To add insult to injury, Jesus and the disciples were surrounded by people that were mocking and celebrating His crucifixion.

For the disciples, this day was anything but TGIF.

Jesus knew differently.

…for the joy set before Him (Jesus) endured the cross…” (Hebrews 12:2)

It was “for the joy set before Him” that Jesus was able to endure the insults, the flogging, the beatings, and being nailed to the cross.

It wasn’t until Sunday morning that the disciples understood that God’s plan was so much bigger and better than they could have imagined:

…let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who (like Jesus) for the joy set before Him endured the cross…” (Hebrews 12:1-2)

We can endure the cross we have to bear, no matter how heavy it might be, if we “fix our eyes on Jesus” and focus on “the joy set before us” – eternal life with the One who suffered and died for us.

This does not mean that we have to abandon our hopes and dreams for this life – far from it. God wants to bless us in this life too.

But, making a commitment to follow Christ is the only Unshakable Hope that God offers for this life and the next.

Today is a great day to make this commitment or to renew your commitment.

The Will To Live

I almost made it through a whole year without being hospitalized or having any additional health problems. Almost. Then, with just a few days left in 2016, I caught a cold. The “common cold” is not much more than an annoyance for otherwise healthy people, but for someone like me with weakened breathing muscles and only 30% of my lungs functioning, the common cold is much more than an annoyance.

On the morning of the last day of the year, I was having an extremely difficult time breathing even wearing my breathing mask. In addition to that, I couldn’t keep anything down. I was a mess, more than usual. Mary and I both assumed it was pneumonia again so she called 911 and within minutes we were in an ambulance en route to the hospital. ALS has brought us one adventure after another over the last 20 years.

We waited in a small emergency room for twelve hours while waiting for a room to open so I could be admitted. It was during this time that I began thinking about the will to live. I was thinking, “if I didn’t have a sense that God still had a purpose for even a broken down mess like me or if I was an atheist or adhered to some other fatalistic worldview, I would have wanted a doctor to give me a shot that would have ended this suffering. It was as if my opposition to euthanasia was being tested.

Billygraham.org
If you are convinced you’re going to heaven, where the Bible says there will be no more pain, suffering and tears…, why continue to go on fighting to live?

Apart from the fact that the Bible teaches that life, including our own life, isn’t ours to take, it’s a very logical question; a question I’ve pondered at length over the last 20 years.

It’s a question that really confuses atheists.

Years ago I was watching a Barbara Walters special on heaven. She interviewed representatives of many different faiths to get their take on the after life. For some reason her last interview was with an atheist. I remember so vividly the closing sentence of this atheist: (If we believed in a heaven) “we’d all be killing ourselves now.”

But the reverse puzzles me: if atheists believe that this short life is all that there is, why do studies on assisted suicide show that atheists are the most likely to choose that option when facing a terminal illness?

Last year, Mary and I watched a movie titled “Me Before You.” It was a fictional “love story” about a wealthy self-centered 33 year old playboy in England that becomes a quadriplegic after a tragic accident. He’s obviously depressed and becomes a recluse in his parents mansion. He begins researching assisted suicide and finds a beautiful facility in Switzerland that provides “death with dignity” for wealthy people from all over the world (unfortunately, this facility really exists).

I’m obviously not a movie reviewer so let me wrap this summary up: his pretty young caregiver convinces him to travel to many exotic locations and they fall in love, but he still goes through with his plan to end their travels at the Switzerland death clinic. Not a very happy ending.

While watching this “love story,” my mind began to wander. I began thinking about a woman I admire so much. Fifty years ago, this woman was a beautiful and carefree 17 year old swimming with friends in the Chesapeake Bay. She dove into shallow water and hit bottom. This tragic accident resulted in her becoming a quadriplegic, virtually the exact same injury as the man depicted in the movie. Like him, she became depressed, reclusive and also had suicidal thoughts, but…

Joni Eareckson Tada had made a commitment to follow Christ three years earlier while attending a Christian summer camp. It was a renewal of this commitment and the support of family and friends that gave her life new purpose. For 50 years she’s been serving others all over the world while confined to a wheelchair. She shares the Gospel on TV and radio, hosts summer camps for mentally and physically disabled youth and, a ministry that is so needed, she provides wheelchairs to the disabled in third-world countries, like the boy below in Haiti. Her ministry has given away over 150,000 wheelchairs so far.

wheelchair-haiti
It’s really amazing what God can do with broken (humbled) vessels, regardless of our physical state. This year, give God permission to use you – this is the ultimate expression of His gift of a freewill. We are Christ’s hands to help a hurting world.

And, as the Apostle Paul wrote, when we’re done fulfilling God’s purpose for us in this life, it gets so much better:

“For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” (Philippians 1:21)

aim-at-heaven
No matter how depressed you might be over your current circumstances, please don’t give up, your story doesn’t have to have a sad ending.

“Therefore we do not lose heart (don’t give up). Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.” (2 Corinthians 4:16)

think-of-heaven

Becoming Perfect

I’ve learned so much about following Christ over the almost twenty years that I’ve been dealing with this frustrating disease known as ALS. It’s been a long and, in every sense, a painful road to travel. But, from a Christian perspective, it’s these difficult trials that are supposed to shape and perfect us:

Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” (James 1:2-4)

One word stands out to me when I read the above passage – perfect.

Perfect: being entirely without fault or defect: flawless b: satisfying all requirements: accurate.

Jesus did say that His followers were to be perfect (Matthew 5:48). That’s a tough standard; the toughest of all standards. It’s kind of funny to think about now, but before making a commitment to follow Christ, back when I was still committed to following myself, Matthew was the first book I read; I’m kind of surprised I didn’t throw that Gideon Bible across the hotel room when I came to that part about being perfect.

I was so far from perfect back then, but I’m still so far away; “perfect” seems as far from me as a tiny star in the darkest of nights. But it was a tiny star that led the kings of east across the wilderness to Jesus. Like that tiny star, “Perfect” is unattainable for even the best of Christ’s followers, but it should always be our focus. I think that’s what Jesus meant.

Even late in his life, after suffering through many difficult trials, the Apostle Paul knew that he still wasn’t perfect, but he still had perfection as his goal:

“Not that I have already obtained it or have already become perfect, but I press on so that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus. Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead…” (Philippians 3:12-13)

If I asked for some examples of spiritual imperfections, most of us would give examples like gossiping, angry outbursts, impatience and so many other faults of our words and/or actions.

One would think, as I once naively thought, that if a person was unable to speak or move, it would be easier for him or her to become spirituality perfect. As someone who can’t speak or move, I now know this isn’t the case.

Religion is all about right and wrong actions, but Christianity is a lifelong journey of perfecting the spirit and the soul (mind, will and emotions) of man. Actions are important, of course, but only if done with the proper motives.

“But the fruit of the Spirit (Godly character) is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” (Galatians 5:22-23)

Before ALS paralyzed my body and silenced my voice, I wrongly believed the above passage only applied to our actions. Now I know different. ALS (not being able to move or speak) has forced me to focus on my spirit and thought-patterns. This can be a frightening process, like confronting long-entrenched demons. But, on the road to becoming perfect, this is a process that we all must go through, and it shouldn’t take a terminal diagnosis to force us into it.

Over these difficult years of struggling with this dreadful disease, I’ve discovered that the fruit of the Spirit, or lack thereof, is more about our inner man. Good actions can just be an act.

How do you know if your actions are directed from godly (perfect) motives?

The first and most important thing is to determine whether you’re doing the act to please God or man.

A people-pleaser will never be viewed as perfect in the eyes of God. Christians motivated by a desire to please God will be viewed as perfect in His eyes. But, their words and actions will not be viewed favorably by all men. Jesus is proof of this.

Jesus is the only perfect (flawless, sinless, righteous…) being that’s ever stepped foot on earth. He was despised by both secular and religious people. Keep that in mind when you’re standing up for what you believe; this is the greatest and most difficult action of all.

“For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 1:6)

Trials Can Make Us Stronger

makes us stronger
I never thought that I would be using a quote from the atheist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche in one of my blog posts, but…

This quote came to my mind the other day and I began thinking about it and the man that wrote it. I spent most of February sick or recovering from the flu and other health issues. What little strength and energy I had before the illness has finally returned in the last few days. I’m definitely not physically stronger than I was before the illness. But I do feel spiritually stronger than I was before my battle with “that which did not kill me.”

As an atheist, Nietzsche only believed in the physical world so I can only assume that this quote was referring to trials making people (himself) physically and/or emotionally stronger. I wonder if he still believed those words while lying helpless and suffering from the effects of Syphilis for the last eleven years of his life.

As someone who has relied on caregivers for even longer than Nietzsche had to (ALS, not Syphilis), I empathize with the helpless, the suffering and their caregivers. But I feel great sympathy for those that do not place their hope and strength in Christ, regardless of the state of their health. I feel sympathy because, like Nietzsche, the “strength” and “hope” that they derive from physical/temporal pleasures do not provide genuine and lasting joy or peace. As King Solomon concluded, it’s “all vanity.”

I am convinced that the following is the only strength that can be gained from “that which does not kill us”:

“…we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed (strengthened) day by day. For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.” (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)

There are so many great earthly pleasures and blessings, but not even the best of them deserve our hope. If Christ is our hope, the pleasures we enjoy on earth will be so much more enjoyable because we’ll have our priorities in order and we won’t have to rely on the physical/temporal things for happiness.

aim at heaven
“For in hope we have been saved, but hope that is seen is not hope; for who hopes for what he already sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, with perseverance we wait eagerly for it.” (Romans 8:24-25)

A Lesson We Learned From Our Honeymoon

Last Saturday (11/2) Mary and I celebrated our 28th wedding anniversary. Recently we were telling someone about our crazy honeymoon and I thought my blog friends might find interesting too.

I suppose to varying degrees all marriages have a mix of the good and the bad; memories you cherish and other times you wish you could forget. Our honeymoon was some of both also.

We bought our first home three months before our wedding and I moved in and began fixing it up. Buying a home and fixing it up turned out to be more expensive than we anticipated so our honeymoon plans had to be drastically scaled back.

I found a good deal for a week at a resort in a popular destination south of the border (for reasons that will become clear, I won’t name the location). The first four days of the trip were great; beautiful weather, great food and fun activities like snorkeling, parasailing and other fun things honeymooning couples do, but then came day five…

After a nice breakfast by the pool, we wandered into the hotel lobby and began browsing through the rack of activity brochures. Most of the local activities were either too expensive for our limited budget or uninteresting to us. But then we saw a brochure that interested both of us; a four hour guided horseback riding trip up a mountain trail along a beautiful flowing creek. The trip even included lunch at a picturesque mountain-top restaurant before turning around for the trip back down the mountain.

We handed the brochure to the concierge and asked him to book us. He made a call and informed us that activity was already sold-out for that day, but he knew of another guide that could take us up the mountain to the same restaurant shown in the brochure. Without asking questions, we told him to call and book us.

We became a little concerned when we arrived at the “stables” and saw that the location was a long way from the scenic mountain trail located behind the large stable featured in the brochure. We became more concerned when our “tour guide” turned out to be a skinny teenager that didn’t speak English. And we became even more concerned when we realized that we were the only people going on the trip with our young guide.

Pushing aside the cautionary voices in our heads, we mounted our docile horses. Our guide’s horse wasn’t as cooperative as our horses were; it moved from side-to-side and bucked as he was trying to get on.

After finally getting on his horse, our guide led us along the shoulder of the busy street, away from the entrance to the mountain trail. After waiting for a lull in the traffic and galloping across the street, we started up a dirt road. It quickly became clear to us that this was not going to be anything like the romantic horseback ride shown in the glossy brochure. The dirt road didn’t lead to a trail, it was the trail; a switchback road weaving by shack after shack. We had never seen such poverty.

About halfway up the mountain, we passed a dead and very bloated cow with a mangy dog chewing on its head (Mary hates when I tell that gruesome part). Our guide pointed to the cow as if his hand was a gun and shouted, “BANDITOS” and began nervously looking around and then picked up the pace.

After finally arriving at the restaurant, we saw a large group of people briskly crossing a footbridge; the footbridge that was strung across the stream we never saw on our way up the mountain. They were all American tourists like us; the horseback riding group we originally wanted to go with. It turns out that it was a good thing we didn’t join them because they were robbed at gunpoint by bandits just minutes before arriving at the restaurant. The robbers took all their jewelry and money; one older man had to be led by the hand because the thieves even stole their glasses.

Through a translator, our tour guide told us that the authorities were sending a truck to pick up the terrified people, but he felt that we’d be safe riding our horses back the same way we came up. When he saw the panicked look on our face, he shouted “Banditos go” and then pointed up at the mountains. The translator told us that our guide thought the bandits were probably hiding out in the mountains so he believed we’d be safe riding back down.

Nervously, but quickly we mounted our horses for the steep descent down the dirty switchback road. The ride up took about two hours, but we were going to make it down a lot faster than that, or so we thought.

We were making good time down the steep and winding road, but about a third of the way down, our tour guide was thrown violently from his temperamental horse. We heard a loud “SNAP” as he hit the ground and screamed out. He was one tough kid because he immediately stood up and began calmly examining his broken arm. It was bad, the bone was sticking out of his forearm and he was bleeding profusely. I quickly got down off of my horse to see if I could help him.

He began motioning for me to grab his hand and yank his arm to reset the broken bone. I didn’t think this was a good idea because the bone was clearly shattered and wasn’t going to simply go back into place. But he insisted so I planted my feet and began pulling as hard as I could on the poor guy’s arm. He screamed louder than I’ve ever heard someone scream and for an instant I wondered if I had misunderstood what he had motioned for me to do. But he insisted we give it another try and this time he screamed even louder. If the banditos were taking a siesta in their mountain hideaway, I was sure our screaming tour guide had woken them up.

For all we knew this kid was in shock and wasn’t thinking straight so I decided to take charge of the situation. We had to get him down off of the mountain and to a doctor right away. I wrapped his arm with a cloth and helped him get on the back of Mary’s horse. I pulled his unpredictable horse behind me.

After a long slow trek down the mountain we finally arrived back at the busy street. We tried repeatedly to flag down a car to take him to a doctor, but there were no Good Samaritans on the road that day. He finally motioned for us to bring him back to the stable, which we did. I insisted on giving him some cash to help pay his medical expenses, but he refused to take my money.

We were hot, exhausted and extremely thirsty when we finally arrived back to our hotel room. Because the cost was so outrageous, we had agreed not to eat or drink anything from the mini fridge in our room, but we decided to make this one exception. I quickly grabbed a bottle of Sprite and we took several large gulps. When the bottle was almost gone, Mary stopped me as I went to take another drink – the bottle was full of tiny bugs, hundreds of them. Obviously the bottle washing machine was broken the day this bottle was filled.

We decided to put our crazy morning and afternoon behind us and make the most of that night. We made reservations at a casual restaurant that the concierge, the same concierge, had recommended.

After a shower and a short nap, we were surprisingly rested and refreshed when the cab picked us up to take us to the restaurant. The drive up to the oceanfront restaurant was beautiful with the tree-lined mountains on one side and the sun setting over the ocean on the other side. Finally something that qualified as romantic on our honeymoon, but it was short-lived…

honeymoon pic 2We forgot to bring Mary’s good camera on the trip, but even with the cheap camera we picked up at a drug store, you can see from the picture that the view from the restaurant was spectacular. The food was as good as the view, but taste and appearances can be deceptive…

By the time Mary and I arrived at our hotel room, we were violently ill; it was obviously a severe case of food poisoning. From then on out, the only contact we had with each other was brushing by one another as we exchanged places in the bathroom. It was horrible; we were like Protestants visiting a Catholic Church – we didn’t know whether to kneel or sit.

I was somewhat better the following morning, but Mary was getting worse. I booked us on the next flight home and took Mary straight to the hospital. After a 24 hours in the hospital on an IV and antibiotics, she was finally well enough to go home.

Our honeymoon turned out to be a kind of a metaphor for the years that followed; there have been good times, but also some difficult mountain climbs.

Life is so unpredictable; it’s like a switchback road, you never know what will greet you around the next turn. But, if Christ is our guide, He’ll give us the grace we need to deal with any and everything that awaits us.

“Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? …in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us.” (Romans 8:35-37)

 

The Greatest Christian I Know

Who is the greatest Christian you know?

I will give my answer to that question at the end of this post.

I realize that questions such as this could be classified by some as judging others. But the Bible does tell us to “test ourselves” (2 Corinthians 13:5) and to test spiritual claims and people (1 John 4:1 & Revelation 2:2). The Bible also gives us attributes to look for when conducting these examinations of ourselves and others.

Here are some of the attributes (of great Christians) that I’ve found in the Bible:

  • Compassionate, Kind, Humble, Gentle, Patient, Bearing the burdens of others and Forgiving (Colossians 3:12-13)
  • Encouraging and Building-up others (1 Thessalonians 5:11).
  • A reader and a “doer” of God’s word (James 1:22).
  • Hospitable, Sensible, Just, Devout and Self-controlled (Titus 1:8).
  • Loving, Joyful, Peaceful, Faithful (Galatians 5:22)
  • Prayerful, Thankful (to God and others) and Hopeful (Colossians 1:3-5).

If you tested yourself by the above criteria and concluded that you deserve an A+ on every one these virtues, you’re either delusional or off-the-charts self-righteous. Everyone, even the person I chose as “The Greatest Christian I Know,” struggle with some of these.

But, according to Jesus, a truly great Christian possesses one quality that sets them apart; “But the greatest among you shall be your servant.” (Matthew 23:11)

“True greatness, true leadership, is achieved not by reducing [people] to one’s service, but by giving up oneself in selfless service to them.” Oswald Chambers

“True greatness, true leadership, is achieved not by reducing [people] to one’s service, but by giving up oneself in selfless service to them.” Oswald Chambers

When I read passages like the following, I think of caregivers; “For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me…to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least [most helpless] of them, you did it to Me.” (Matthew 25:35-40)

I think of people like my sister and her husband who care for their 18 year-old severely Autistic son. People like my mother-in-law who took care of her ill husband until he recently passed away. And even paid caregivers, like the woman that helps Mary take care of me, qualify as “Great” in my book.

But the Greatest all-around Christian I know is Mary, my wife and best friend of 28 years. Since being diagnosed with ALS years-ago, she’s also been my full-time caregiver. She is the best example I know of a truly selfless servant.

And, no, I didn’t just choose her as the greatest Christian out of fear that she’d stop feeding and clothing me.

“…whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve…” (Matthew 20:26-28)

Prioritizing Our Hopes

When you go through a trial, especially an extended trial that disrupts or even destroys your earthly hopes and dreams, you either learn to focus and depend more on your eternal hope or slide further into despair.

I imagine that every Christian that has gone through an extended trial will remember coming to this difficult crossroad and facing this choice. In truth, seek firstit’s a decision we should have made when we committed to follow Christ – whether or not we were going through a trial at the time. By definition, a Christian is someone whose primary hope is an eternal hope in Christ.

“…we who have taken refuge would have strong encouragement to take hold of the hope set before us. This hope we have as an anchor of the soul, a hope both sure and steadfast…” (Hebrews 6:18-20)

I know that God wants us to have hopes in and for this life, but, for the Christian, those hopes must be secondary to our heavenly hope. Our heavenly hope must govern our earthly hopes. This is the only formula that leads to the “Abundant life” that the Bible talks about. If Jesus is not the Christian’s primary hope, he or she will have a really difficult time when (not if) a trial comes. Even when everything is going great (by the world’s standards), the Christian that does not have his or her hopes in order will not be experiencing the inner joy and peace that the Bible tells us we should have.

Unfortunately I speak from experience. If asked, I probably would have said that eternity was my primary hope before being diagnosed with ALS, but aim at heavenlooking back now I really don’t think it was. It’s so easy to get caught up in our career, our marriage, raising kids, our homes and so many other things involved in day-to-day life that, without even realizing it, our earthly hopes and dreams can become our primary focus.

In this context, I think it’s fair to say that hope and love are synonymous. If Christ isn’t our primary hope, He is not what the Bible calls “our first (most important) love” either. I remember when I began reading the Bible, I had a real hard time with the following verse: “He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me.” (Matthew 10:37)

Probably because I didn’t understand Christ’s nature at that time, His demand seemed harsh and even narcissistic. After reading the whole New Testament and getting a better understanding of His selfless nature, I realized that His demand had nothing to do with harshness or ego; it is a simple matter of priorities. It’s only by loving Christ more than anyone or anything that we are able to demonstrate His unconditional love to and for others. Likewise, it’s only when Christ is our greatest hope that we are able to fully appreciate and enjoy our earthly hopes. And, it’s only when Christ is our primary hope that we will know if our secondary hopes are also God’s hopes for us.

Learning To Empathize

As I begin typing this post, Ann, one of Mary’s oldest and closest friends, is having surgery to remove cancer from her body. Later she’ll have to go through radiation and chemotherapy treatments. In faith we are praying and believing that, like my friend Dabney in my last post, this friend will fully recover—she “will not die, but live, And tell of the works of the LORD.” (Psalm 118:17)

Ann is a great example of a Christian that demonstrates true empathy. She doesn’t merely feel sympathy for those going through difficult times; she walks through the difficult time with them. One of the many ways that she demonstrates empathy is by cooking and delivering meals to fellow church members, friends and family that are ill or otherwise going through difficult times.

What’s the difference between empathy and sympathy?

To feel for the person going through a trial is sympathy. To feel with a person going through a trial is empathy. Sympathy is merely a feeling that may or may not result in productive action. And, as in the case of giving money to an addict for instance, sympathy can result in actions that are counter-productive.

I think most people are born with a capacity to feel sympathy, but I believe that empathy, in the Christian sense of the word, is something we learn through the humbling effects that come through life’s many challenges and difficult trials.

“I do not ask the wounded person how he feels; I myself become the wounded person.”
Walt Whitman

Before being diagnosed with ALS almost seventeen years ago, I was one of those that thought empathy and sympathy were basically synonymous, just like the thesaurus tells us they are. But, through the humbling of this trial and through people showing us genuine Christ-like empathy, I now know the difference between sympathy and empathy. (It’s been a tough grammar lesson).

“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.” (Hebrews 4:15)

empathy pic

As I said, from a Christian viewpoint, I no longer believe that empathy and sympathy are synonymous. But I found another word that I believe should be a synonym for empathy—Grace. When I began thinking about writing a post on empathy, I was trying to think of Biblical examples (of empathy) that I could use. Before even opening my Bible program to start searching, example after example began flooding my mind; so many examples that I had to quickly open a Word document to type them out before I forgot.

I guess I never saw it this way before, but the New Testament is a book about empathy; Jesus came to demonstrate God’s empathy for man and to teach us how to empathize with one another. His mission of empathy can be summed-up by two of the most well-known verses; John 3:16 (“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.”), which demonstrates God’s love and empathy for man, and the so-called “Golden Rule” (“…treat people the same way you want them to treat you…” Matthew 7:12), which tells us to empathize with one another.

But Jesus knew that the best way to teach, especially to children and to a simpleton like me, is through telling stories; no story teaches empathy better than the Parable of The Good Samaritan:

“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among robbers, and they stripped him and beat him, and went away leaving him half dead. And by chance a priest was going down on that road, and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. Likewise a Levite also, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, who was on a journey, came upon him; and when he saw him, he felt compassion, and came to him and bandaged up his wounds, pouring oil and wine on them; and he put him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn and took care of him. On the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper and said, “Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I return I will repay you.”

Which of these three do you think proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell into the robbers’ hands? And he said, “The one who showed mercy toward him.” Then Jesus said to him, “Go and do the same.” (Luke 10:30-37)

Obviously we don’t know what was in the minds of the two men who saw this “half dead” man and purposely avoided him. I have to assume that even these self-righteous religious leaders felt some sympathy for the poor guy, but only the Samaritan felt and acted on empathy.

Compassion is empathy in action; sympathy is merely a feeling.

“No one cares how much you know, until they know how much you care”
Theodore Roosevelt

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