Failing or Forging

Do the fires in your life forge you into greatness, or do you fail in the heat?

The Navy Exchange at the base in Rhode Island had a plaque which read, “Some people are lost in the fires, other people are forged in them – Marines.” The finest swords are heated again and again to burn and melt away impurities that weaken the steel, making it brittle, prone to shatter, and worthless for war.

Life is full of fires, including everything from health to money to relationships. The flames of suffering burn throughout every life, waxing and waning as the days pass. No moment is completely free of pain. Ultimately, these fires will consume the mortal coil of every one of us.

During our earthly walk, some people are damaged or are even destroyed by their fires, while others grow stronger. Some fail while others are forged. A few become truly great. What makes the difference? Four factors characterize those who are forged in their infernos.

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The Gray Life

Despite our modern conveniences and unparalleled wealth, life in the world is often gray. God wants more from us and more for us. Following Him is the path to color, joy, love, and the abundant life.

“My eyes are dull, my mind is numb, my strength is weak, my heart beats slowly, and my love runs cold. I can neither laugh nor cry. I am neither asleep nor awake. I am not here, at least in my attention, but I am not somewhere else either. Everyone around me looks at their cell phones, absorbed in texting people who are not here, watching videos that may amuse them, playing games to pass the time, or reading articles about topics that they find mildly interesting. Pleasures become less pleasurable. Hours grind by with me sitting alone watching an endless cycle of movies, games, and amusements in which others do things that I wish that I was doing. I am too afraid to act, lest I hurt my body and spirit. More and more, I use alcohol and drugs to help me feel what I no longer feel without them.”

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Reviving the Saints

Life is exhausting, and ministry sometimes makes it worse. How can Christians be revived on our life’s journey?

Followers of Christ grow weary and sometimes fall away:

  1. Normal ups and downs of life and ministry – To be human is to encounter sickness, injury, and disappointment. Things break, opportunities vanish, relationships wither, and hopes fade. In ministry, people we love and serve angrily resist and reject. We labor for years with seemingly little effect.
  2. Major hurtful events and people in our lives – Sometimes even friends and loved ones succumb to the pressure of the world and reject us and our faith. Sometimes they end their own lives.
  3. Discrimination against and persecution of Christians in the United States (academic, political, economic) – We lose our jobs and other opportunities due to the practice of our faith. Christian schools are threatened with loss of accreditation, and Christians are seen as unfit for political office because of their beliefs.[1] Christians have become criminals simply for reading a Bible passage or saying something that others don’t like.[2] For example, H.R.5 – Equality Act 2019 – LGBTQ rights states “The Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (42 U.S.C. 2000bb et seq.) shall not provide a claim concerning, or a defense to a claim under, a covered title, or provide a basis for challenging the application or enforcement of a covered title.” Whatever one thinks about LGBTQ rights, religious beliefs would be no defense to prosecution (and persecution). Christians who believe what the Bible states about LGBTQ issues are specifically targeted.

Non-Christians encounter issues one and two, but increasingly Christians are facing problem three as well. It is so easy to despair. Amidst these challenges, how can believers in Jesus Christ be revived?

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Good Friday

God transforms our hardest days, our “Good Fridays,” into the glorious victories of Easter. But He does so in His time and way, and we must trust Him.

“How was your day?” Nancy asked as I trudged in the door from work.

“Good,” I replied, with drawn face, slumped shoulders, and a shuffling gait.

Nancy frowned, “You look like it was awful.”

“No,” I said, “Every day above ground is a good day.”

“Mark, I am your wife. You need to tell me the truth – not just lies that you think that I want to hear.”

“Today was good, in the same way that Good Friday was good. Jesus died a horrific death, but God worked wondrous acts and eternal salvation from it,” I answered.

Nancy gave up the questions and followed me to the bedroom. I changed my clothes and laid on the bed where she gave me a back rub. Finally in a safe place with people who cared, the tension rolled out of my muscles. The gates to my heart, shut tight at work since I had to be, or at least appear to be, the perfect doctor and leader, cracked open. Soon Nancy brought love into my dark castle, and we began to heal.

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Deep Roots

We need deep roots in faith, family, and friends, to allow us to weather the storms of life. Otherwise, we will fall. 

On Thursday, November 15, a ferocious ice storm hit southern West Virginia, downing trees, knocking out power, and causing major property damage across several counties. Our family lost power for over 30 hours, and six large trees came down in our yard. The children were cross, sitting in a cold, dark house and unable to get on the internet. More importantly, they were unsettled. To them, electrical power is a fundamental fact of life. It is always there – you flip a switch and…shazam! When you need power, it is suddenly there. They could not imagine living like my grandmother, raised in rural southern Arkansas, whose only power was fire in candles, oil lamps, and stoves… or sunlight.

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Sticks and Stones

The world tells us that we are helpless against the insults of others. It insists that every hardship leaves a wound that will never heal. Our forebears thought differently, and better. 

“Sticks and stones will break my bones but words can never hurt me.” I am old enough to remember a time when parents taught this pithy little rhyme to their children, and society at large believed it. We live in a new day, in which many Americans consider emotional injury as deadly, and more enduring, than physical injury. News accounts of emotional abuse, cyber bullying, and their mental health consequences such as depression, anxiety, and even suicide, pull at our heart strings. Girls, the lonely, and the young are at greater risk. Colleges, including those which my children attend, have safe spaces, trigger warnings, and strict rules against insensitivity and inflicting emotional trauma.

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When Crisis Comes

What do we do when crisis comes? What should we do? How can others help?

Carolyn, a friend in her 90s, approached me at church after the morning worship service a few Sundays ago. She and her husband Alan had had a terrible week. The previous Tuesday she was hit by another car while driving, destroying her vehicle but leaving her mercifully with only a few bumps and bruises. On Friday there had been an electrical fire in her house. She and her husband were safe but their home was badly damaged. They were living in a nearby hotel and needed prayer. The couple, another friend and I prayed together immediately, and my family has lifted them up before the Lord several times in the past few weeks.

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Christianity as Portrayed by the World

How do leaders and influential groups in the world portray Christians? How do Christians view themselves? How does God view His people?

As a leader, a seminary teacher, and a medical professional, I keep abreast of events throughout the world. To do so, I review news on many websites every day (see the Virtual Business and Intelligence Center), and read the Economist, a highly regarded British news magazine, every week. The 18 September 2015 cover story was an article entitled “Two Mexicos”, but what struck me was the cover image, contrasting the two Mexicos. The upper half of the image showed a man playing a guitar, three cactuses, a well-appointed factory, and a smiling statue. The lower half of the image showed a man holding a rifle, three crosses, a ramshackle house, and a frowning statue.

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The Hand of God When We Are Suffering

Tragedy and suffering are inevitable parts of life in this world. Justice is always delayed, and is never perfect in this world. We have pain in this world, but take heart, Christ has overcome the world.

America has been riveted by the trial of George Zimmerman for the 26 Feb 2012 murder of Trayvon Martin. Race, Zimmerman is a white Hispanic and Martin was black, has played a major role. The all female jury rendered a final verdict of “not guilty” on all charges, which ranged from second degree murder to manslaughter. Some people are elated and others are furious, as is inevitable in such a highly charged case.

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Suffering and the Book of Job

We all suffer, and many of us suffer most of the time. How can we live despite the pain?

The Background of the Book of Job

Uz was the first born of Nahor, brother of Abram (Genesis 22:20-21). Since Terah, the father of Abram, Nahor and Haran, lived near Ur of the Chaldeans, it is likely that Uz did as well. Job was probably a child of Uz, living in the lands of his father. Alternatively, the “Land of Uz” could have been near ancient Edom in modern day Jordan. Notably, Genesis 31:53 refers to God as “the God of Abraham and the God of Nahor.” Since Job was not a child of Abraham he was by definition a Gentile, and the Book of Job is therefore the only Gentile book in the Old Testament. Given the timing it is likely that Job was a contemporary of Jacob, Abraham’s grandson.

Some argue that Job is not history but rather a fable. Bible writers treat Job as history (Ezekiel 14:14, James 5:11) and there is no reason for modern readers to behave differently. Job may have been written by Job in his later years. If so, it is the only Old Testament book written by a Gentile.

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Encouragement When Nothing Seems Right

Nearing the end of a career can be heart-wrenching. Have I done anything worth doing? What am I going to do now? Why did I do so much wrong?

Last week one of the women who works for me was despondent. She is approaching retirement and has worked on a major project for many years, but some people in another organization seem to oppose it at every turn. “It has become hard to come to work” she said, “and it is hard not to think that most of my efforts for the past five years in this area have been in vain.” This woman is a true professional and her discouragement was palpable. I replied with one of the most encouraging passages in Scripture, “Let us not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap.” I reminded her of the good she was doing and her personal excellence in doing it. Nonetheless, she found it hard to be encouraged. “How can you be so sure,” she demanded, “that this will turn out alright and that my work has not been for nothing?” I replied with a favorite story of mine that demonstrates how tiny causes, given the right timing and conditions, turn out to have huge effects.

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Earthquakes, Hurricanes, Epidemics, and other Misfortunes

Misfortunes and even disasters are part of life. Are they natural phenomena, are they judgments from God, or are they both?  

Hurricane Sandy has just swept through the east coast of the US, killing at least 100, leaving six million without power and causing at least $3 billion dollars in damages. In March 2011, an earthquake (magnitude 9.3), tsunami and radiation accident in Japan killed 15,870 and caused $235 billion in damages. In January 2010, a magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck Leogane in Haiti, killing at least 316,000. Disease epidemics relentlessly cycle through populations. Such catastrophes occur constantly somewhere in the world, and terrible suffering and loss is an inevitable result.

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We the Rebels, the Traitors, the Despised and the Beloved

Jesus said that the world will hate those we follow Him. He said that Christians are in the world but not of the world. What does that mean?

Our class had an interesting discussion during Sunday School yesterday. We begin in a large assembly and share announcements and prayer requests. The department includes young and middle aged adults, and one prayer request was a delight; a recently married couple will be having their first child in the spring. Many of the other requests were sad; women with breast cancer, aging and dying parents, and trouble with marriages and children. No one is immune to the disappointments and tragedies of life.

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