Happy Birthday America!

In a few weeks I will be traveling outside the United States on a mission trip to Nicaragua. As is often the case, as I am preparing to leave, my thoughts wander. Have I taken care of everything here? Do I have everything I need to take there? Very typical thoughts when we are traveling; but lately, I have been asking myself about America. I love to travel, mainly because I love people; yet, what I love the most about traveling is coming home.

The question I have been considering is: Why do I love America?

Times have changed. It isn’t the same America I once knew – the America of my childhood. Americans themselves are different. The way we think and act do not line-up with what my father and mother taught me. People in America are disillusioned and tired and frustrated. So, I ask myself, “Why do I love this country?”

My wife Connie is not the same person I married. The Connie I married was young and beautiful. She was fun and vivacious. She was carefree and ready for anything. And everyday that we’ve been married, she has changed.

The Connie I am married to today is older and even more beautiful. She’s intelligent and witty. She’s lived through many experiences, and I want nothing more than to spend the rest of my life loving her.

The one constant in life other than Jesus Christ is CHANGE. It happens to everyone and everything. Leave a room, reenter it, and something about it has changed.

America has changed – but I still love my country deeply. To answer my own question, I wanted to remind myself and all of you why we should love America.

1. I am free. I can go to church, work, have a home, educate myself and children, go to ballgames, read what I want, and live in peace.

2. Our country is divinely appointed. We were founded on religious principles; people came to America longing to worship God freely without governmental restrictions.

3. I love how we exchange governmental power. Even when my presidential candidate doesn’t win, I love the inauguration. I love the swearing-in of the new president. I love that our country isn’t “overthrown” every time someone new becomes president.

4. I love the Grand Canyon, the fields of grain, the sandy beaches, and the city lights.

5. I love hotdogs, fireworks, and warm apple pie with vanilla ice-cream on top.

6. I love the Preamble of the Constitution: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed, by their Creator, with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

7. I love that someone who opposes my opinion can stand beside me and shout as loud a he wants to shout; and I can stand beside him and voice my opinion as loud as I want to voice it; and neither one of us is breaking the law. We respect one another and our differences.

8. I love the people of the United States. We are volunteers. We are helpers. We are hard workers. We are motivated. We care what happens in the world.

9. I love that we sing the National Anthem before ballgames and men still remove their hats.

10. I love that we are “ONE NATION UNDER GOD” and it is “IN GOD WE TRUST”

Today is the Fourth of July – the birthday of this great nation. Take some time to remember what makes America great and celebrate the love you have for our country.

Happy Birthday, America!

 

 

Popping your mind

The apostle Paul tells us in Philippians 2:5, “In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus…”

Paul was talking about our attitudes toward others.

If you have ever been to a chiropractor, you know how great it feels to have an adjustment. I actually call it “popping my bones”; but, when my spine is aligned, my entire body moves and works better. It is no different with our attitudes, and some of us may need an attitude adjustment.

As a teenager, I would often hear my mom tell me, “Michael, you need to straighten up that attitude!” It was usually during a time when I thought I was the smartest guy in the world and had all the answers. Some of you may know exactly what I am talking about. I’ve yet to meet a teenager who at some point in their young life didn’t think this way.

As adults, we tend to focus on so many other things that we forget our attitudes; but, it is something that needs our attention.

Paul tells us we are to have an “attitude” like Christ:

Who, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross!”

Ahhhh, there’s that word again – humility.

To have an attitude like Christ, we must humble ourselves before others. We must become servants. A servant can’t have a bad attitude, if they are properly serving others.

Maybe today you need to have an attitude adjustment – a “popping your mind” adjustment.  Look to Christ as an example and be the person He asks us to be.

Look UP!

Discouragement is inevitable. It isn’t about IF you will experience discouragement, it is about WHEN you will experience discouragement. Discouragement comes when what we EXPECT is different from what we EXPERIENCE.

Discouragement comes in all shapes and sizes. It does not distinguish between people who are intelligent and those that are not so intelligent; or people who are wealthy and those whose pockets are empty. It doesn’t bypass the most athletic or musically talented or most beautiful.

Discouragement is for everybody.

All of us have EXPECTED something that didn’t turn out the way we thought it should.

What do you do when discouragement creeps up on you? What do you do when you just don’t feel you are going to get “through” the day? What do you do when staying in bed seems to be the better answer?

Look UP!

God is not surprised by the struggles in our lives – He knew about them before they ever surfaced and He has already worked out an answer for you. Ask Him!

Jeremiah 32:27, “I am the LORD, the God of all mankind. Is anything too hard for me?”

We all have been discouraged by people – maybe your spouse has let you down; or your son or daughter; maybe your parents or a friend or a co-worker. When we place our trust in people, we will get discouraged because they will let us down. It is human nature.

Events in our lives can discourage us too. A job offer you thought you had; the closing of your business; a rejection letter from the college of your choice; a foreclosure notice; or health issues. When we place our trust in occurrences, we will get discouraged because things do not always work-out as we planned.

Sometimes discouragements are so big, people don’t even know how we are standing; sometimes discouragements are so small, no one even notices; but, you do.

Tim Irwin in his book IMPACT writes about the false beliefs we put in our minds – those voices that we hear in our heads. He tells us “Having an early-warning system can keep false beliefs from lodging in our core.”

Discouragement is the voice inside our heads that tells us WE ARE HOPELESS.

God is the voice inside our hearts that tells us HE IS HOPE and because of HIM we are not “less” but “MORE”.

If you are feeling discouraged today, know that God is the answer.

Psalm 54:4, “Surely God is my help; the Lord is the one who sustains me“.

 

The Season of Giving?

I’ve always been fascinated by the television crews who go out on the street and ask every day people, living every day lives, questions. I don’t know, I guess I’ve always wanted to do it too. So, I decided to go into areas where people do not know me and propose this question, What does the Season of Giving actually mean?

My first stop, Race Track in Gainesville, Georgia; perfect spot to find an answer to my question. I pulled up next to a guy in an F250 and started filling up my tank. “Sir, could I ask you a question?” I began. (It didn’t seem as smooth as the television guys, but it was my first shot.)

“Sure,” he responded, spitting tobacco juice to the side of his truck.

“What does the Season of Giving actually mean?”

“Christmas,” he said, quickly and a matter-of-factly.

I realized I needed to rephrase my question. “Can you give me an example of what the season of giving means?”

“Santa Claus,” he answered.

I decided to drive further up the road to a McDonalds off I-85. There were two older ladies having lunch, and they seemed please to answer anything I asked. “Can you ladies give me an example of what the season of giving means?”

“Gifts. Every year I bake cookies for families in my neighborhood and church,” one answered.

“For me,” the taller, more serious looking woman responded, “It’s time with my grandchildren.”

At The Home Depot, a man answered, “Jewelry for my wife. She expects it every Christmas and I work for it all year-long.”

In the Mall parking lot I heard:

“I don’t really think about needy people being necessarily poor. Like, needy people could be people who need attention. So, I try to spend time with lonely people.”

“Time when you focus on others and not yourself.”

“The season of giving is about finding the joy of the holiday.”

“Getting toys and lots of them…”

“I’m not really into Christmas, but if I were Christian, it would be about giving to other people and not about getting from other people. That’s why I’m not really into Christmas.”

“I’ve been hoping all month my parents get me PlayStation 4! Yeah! That will definitely be the true season of giving.”

“Christmas parties, family gatherings, greeting cards, and packages.”

“It’s the season FOR GIVING. Get it? Forgiving others.”

There were some workers – a construction crew – taking a lunch break just outside of downtown Atlanta. “In Mexico, in our village, we used to go from house to house. We would bring food and our neighbors would offer food. It was a time of celebration for Mother Mary and the Christ child.”

“It’s about remembering why Christ came to earth and thanking Him for coming.”

And my favorite answer, which came from a little girl at Chic-fil-A, “‘For God so loved the world, that He GAVE His only Son…’ That’s it! That’s Christmas in a package, tied up with a bow.”

So, what does “the Season of Giving” mean to you? Maybe we all need to stop and think about it and start implementing what it means to us.

 

Sometimes it’s just about giving

There is a man in the church I am privileged to serve. I haven’t seen him this week. He is in California at The Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Hospital. Several years ago, his brother died of leukemia, leaving behind five boys. His brother’s wife eventually remarried and within a year, her new husband’s kidneys failed. Not wanting to have his nephews lose another father, this man asked to be tested and matched perfectly. Because his blood pressures were border lined elevated, the doctors preferred he not go through with being the donor. He decided to lower his blood pressures and lost about 20 pounds by running and eating healthy. It paid off.

I spoke with his family this week. His wife described the surgery as “amazing.” The surgeon told her he’d never had it go so well and the kidney her husband donated, when connected to the recipient, started working immediately.

There are times in life when we are asked to give something of tremendous value for someone else, with no expectations of any return. Isn’t that exactly what God did for us when He gave us His Son? How could we possibly ever repay Him for suffering on the cross to save us from death and destruction.

This is the season of giving. It is the time to look at someone else and take our eyes off ourselves. Today, consider what you have to offer sacrificially for another person. How can you show the love of Jesus Christ to someone in need?

His name is Jesus

While visiting a friend’s daughter at a children’s hospital in Atlanta, a nurse stopped me as I passed the front desk. A young girl in the oncology ward was dying and her pastor was stuck in traffic. Could I help? I followed her to the patient’s room, passing cartoon murals along the way: Linus, Lucy, Charlie Brown and Snoopy; elephants, giraffes, zebras, and monkeys. The halls seemed thick with dreams; good ones, I hoped.

The lightly dimmed room felt peaceful and warm. A young mother with old-looking eyes greeted me. Her daughter had battled a rare form of leukemia for two years. The doctor felt she would die within a few hours. At the age of six, her memories of life had revolved around poking and prodding; vomiting and immense pain.

I thought of my daughter with pigtails and red tennis shoes. I saw her running to greet me when I came home from work. My mind floated to her swim meets, graduations, and now a student in medical school, as a confident young woman. No parent should out live his or her child. It just didn’t seem natural; and yet, I knew it happened.

She held a tattered doll, bald, and worn. The doll had been through all that she had been through for he always went first. The many injections, the bone marrow tests, the radiation and chemo, her doll always went before she did. I smiled listening to her mother’s description; we laughed when she told of how many times the doll has been through the spin cycle on the washing machine. “But she loves that doll,” her mother said; her voice choking back the tears she wanted to release.

The little girl’s big brown eyes opened on a face sunken and pale. She had no hair and sores all over her body. Her mom immediately explained who I was and why I would be there until their pastor could come. Slowly, she handed me her doll, “Bless him, please?” Her voice was soft and difficult to understand.

“Of course, ” I answered, lifting the doll into my arms, “What is his name?”

“Jesus,” she replied assuredly.

As hard as I tried, I couldn’t force the lump in my throat down. Her mom began to cry as I prayed over her doll and then her. Sitting beside her bed, I told her as many stories of Jesus as I could, in simple, child-like language, until her eyes slowly shut again. Several nurses came in and out. It wouldn’t be long now. Her pastor arrived just as the gates of Heaven opened for the little girl who held baby Jesus next to her heart.

There are times when being a pastor is difficult; yet, always a privilege. This is one such time. For in the grief of her mother and the precious simplicity of a little girl and her doll, I renewed in my heart the “true” meaning of Christmas.

A bird’s eye view

Yesterday the mall was crowded with Christmas shoppers: moms with strollers; teenage girls dressed in the latest fashion; couples walking hand in hand; people of all shapes, sizes, and colors. I tried to imagine what God must think of all the commotion for the Birthday of His Son. Blinking lights adorned the trees and images of elves and Santa lined the long corridors leading from store to store. Giant oversized wreaths hung on every pole and snowflakes hovered above my head, swaying gently as I took it all in.

What happened in Bethlehem the night of Christ’s birth was quite different. A young, ordinary girl from an ordinary family housed the Savior of the world in her body. A humble carpenter, her husband, would be the King of all king’s earthly father. It doesn’t seem to fit the purpose of His birth, does it? Bethlehem, unaware of the ordinary girl, her carpenter husband, and infant son, slept while the Lord of life; the Lord of all came into the world. Born in a stable, with animals on a bed of straw, He came to be with us; to relate to us; to save us from death’s grip.

Angels announced the glorious moment to shepherds, men who lived isolated from society with sheep in fields. Men who wreaked of animal smells witnessed the Heavenly host singing, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom He is pleased!” Luke 2:14.

How differently we celebrate the birth today in comparison to the night that changed the world forever.

As I hitched a ride on an extremely tall escalator, my bird’s eye view scanned the wonder of all the decorations. How glorious it all looked from above. Reaching the top, I noticed an older man in a wheel chair, slumped over sleeping. His legs were covered with a worn but comfortable looking quilt. One of his slippers peaked out from under the bottom of the blanket, and a lady dressed in a snowman Christmas sweater sat beside him, chatting about all the splendor of the day. At first I thought she was on the cell phone, but as I observed further, I realized she was talking to him. Occasionally, she grabbed his hand as she described all that was around him. She wiped the droll from his mouth with a handkerchief she took from her bag. He shifted slightly and tilted his head back and she gently kissed his forehead.

As I approached her, her steel blue eyes caught mine. I took the chair next to her and learned her husband had a degenerative disease that left him incapable of moving, even speaking, but his cognitive brain was fully functioning. Talking with her almost seemed rude because I knew he could understand fully. She described how much he loved Christmas but the nerves in his eyes no longer aloud him to see. I gave her a break and started to detail all that was around us. Her lips curled up in a thankful smile. I told him of the decorations, the people walking by, children laughing, some protesting from too much stimulation, packages piled high in the arms of people, and the different faces that I saw. I described a father with a young boy on his shoulders eating a gooey cinnamon roll. When I glanced over to look at him, I realized tears flowed down his face. His wife quickly explained their only son died many years ago in Vietnam, at Christmas; and yet, it was the couple’s favorite time of year.

I spent a great deal of time with this couple. Their lives were not ideal; but, even in his agony or her daily sacrificial care, they found joy in the season. They found hope in the lights. They found faith in the meaning.

I challenge you to do the same. For some of you, this time of year brings wonderful memories; for others, it is a struggle to get through each day. God came in human form, not in the grandeur of what He deserved; but humbly, so that we might all find purpose and meaning in the day of His birth.

The Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving

I don’t think a Thanksgiving has passed in our home that Norman Rockwell’s famous Thanksgiving dinner print doesn’t cross my mind:  the perfect turkey, moist and seasoned; the table filled with friendly faces, laughing and agreeable; no stress; no dysfunction; everyone under one roof; just pure unadulterated joy. It is what we all hope for, but it never quite turns out that way. The reality of the Norman Rockwell picture is although we strive for the perfection of the day, it really isn’t what Thanksgiving is all about.

A few years ago a pastor/friend of mine called to wish me a Happy Thanksgiving. He started to tell me of his day. Because his wife had passed away that year and he had no other family, he invited a group of “misfits” to dinner. These were people who had no where else to go for Thanksgiving. (Some were divorced, some estranged from family, and some never had anyone in their lives to begin with). As he described the gathering, the day for him sounded the most like the Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving picture that I’d ever heard.

When I told him what I thought, he laughed and explained to me why I might feel that way, “You know, Mike, the one statement I heard the most throughout the day was ‘I’m so grateful not to be alone today.'”

His words brought tears to my eyes. So many of us spend our time concerned with who is at our table; or how we appear to others; or who has treated whom a certain way; or why this person has done this; we forget to be thankful we aren’t alone. What would our table look like if no one was there but us?

I want to encourage you today, as you gather with family and friends, to be thankful that you are not alone today. Be thankful for the diversity of personalities and appearances of those around you. Set aside your conflicts. Celebrate the lives of those who sit at your table.

When we choose to be grateful for one another, animosity leaves; disappointment vanishes; anger exits; and love surfaces.

Happy Thanksgiving to all of you.

The hole in the fence

When I was a little boy, my mom and dad took my sister and me to the Christmas parade. It was crowded with people and being as we were late in arriving, it was difficult to find a parking spot. The parade had already started, and I just knew we were going to miss seeing Santa, the marching band, the floats, and the girls twirling fire. Finally, we found a spot on the parade route behind a fence. “It is the best we can do, Michael,” my mom reminded me. There was a hole in the fence, just the perfect height and width for me. I pressed my forehead against the wooden edge and like a pair of binoculars, I could see the action in front of me. But only in front of me through the hole in the fence.

I often think about that parade day when I feel uncertain about my future. We see life like I saw that parade. We have a limited view of what’s out there for us. God, on the other hand, sees the whole parade route. He isn’t limited by the hole in the fence. He knows just what is needed to get where He is taking us. He knows the next step.

2 Corinthians 4:16-18, “Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. 17 For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. 18 So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”

Today, put your trust in Him. He knows where you are going – He’s already been there! Rely on Him to teach you what you need to know to get there. Don’t fret. Just do what you know to do today and give the rest to Him.

The Anxiety Counterattack

Psalm 20: “May the Lord answer you when you are in distress; may the name of the God of Jacob protect you. May He send you help from the sanctuary and grant you support from Zion. May He remember all your sacrifices and accept your burnt offerings. May He give you the desire of your heart and make all your plans succeed. May we shout for joy over your victory and lift up our banners in the name of our God.

May the Lord grant all your requests.

Now this I know:     The Lord gives victory to his anointed. He answers him from his heavenly sanctuary with the victorious power of His right hand. Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God. They are brought to their knees and fall, but we rise up and stand firm. Lord, give victory to the king!  Answer us when we call!

Anxiety hits all of us at some point in our lives. Some of us have learned to handle it better than others. God does not want us to be anxious about anything. When we find ourselves in distress, Psalm 20 can bring us the comfort we need. I used to have a friend who carried this Psalm around in his wallet. I often saw him pull it out before football games. The greatest part of this scripture is found in verse 7.

Some of us trust our cars more than God. Some of us trust our jobs more than God. Some of us trust our homes, our education, our friends, our looks or our money. We are putting our faith in the wrong things. None of those things can save you!

God tells us the way to attack anxiety is to trust in the name of the Lord our God. It is that simple.

Today, reflect on Psalm 20. Outwardly speak the words of affirmations – “I do not trust in chariots or horses…NO! I trust in the name of the Lord my God.” Try it the next time you feel worried. See what a difference it can make.