Blog Posts

Valuing Life – A Pastor’s Perspective

I have always valued life – or so I thought.  I remember from my teen years on how I believed the Bible when it said that I was made in the image and likeness of God.  I was thankful that I was “fearfully and wonderfully made” by my heavenly Father and that He had “formed and covered me in my mother’s womb.”  I worked for a time at a ministry in Texas called “Last Days Ministries,” which had a branch of the ministry called “Americans Against Abortion.”   I served in the print shop there, and one of the most popular tracts that we printed was called, “Children – Things We Throw Away.”  Later, when I became a pastor, I faithfully ordered bulletin inserts for “Sanctity of Life Sunday” and preached how as God is the giver of life, He alone decides when our lives should end.  I was a hospital and nursing home chaplain and served on the ethics committee of our local hospital, and often had to help the sick and suffering see that even their lives had great value and that to end their lives prematurely would be a tragedy.  Yet, none of this prepared me for that trip to my wife’s OB-GYN.

We were expecting our second child.  Our Rebekah Hope was 2 at the time, and we had waited 5 years for her to be born.  We went to our 20 week appointment and looked forward to seeing our little one on the ultrasound.  As the nurse midwife viewed the screen, I noticed that she didn’t respond to my wife’s jokes and that her face turned very pale.  She excused herself and ran out of the room.  A few minutes later, she returned with the doctor, an immigrant from Czechoslovakia who was always smiling and pleasant.  He, too, was serious and silent – until he worked up the courage to tell us the news.  They couldn’t find any kidneys in our baby.  As such, the amniotic fluid would not be replenished once it was used up.  Without amniotic fluid, the lungs wouldn’t develop, as the lungs are strengthened when the baby in the womb breathes that life-sustaining liquid in and breathes it out.  He immediately set up an appointment for us at the Ohio State Medical Center.

On our first appointment, we met with two doctors who both assumed we were coming in to set up a time to abort.  They were shocked to hear my wife, Leah, explain that she believed that the same God who gave her baby life could heal her baby, but that even if he didn’t, it was not her right to end a life that He had given.  They explained to her that the baby would probably be carried close to full term but would die soon after birth and that each time she felt the baby kick, she would be reminded that she was carrying a baby with a death sentence.  “Why go through the heartache?” they asked her.  “Why risk your own health?  Why not end it now and try again?”  They introduced us to a geneticist who would “test” fetuses in future pregnancies and could tell us when to abort until we could get one that was healthy.  My wife stood firm.  Over what seemed to be never-ending visits to many different doctors, the professionals realized that they couldn’t change my wife’s mind.  Her courage amazed me.  Her faith humbled me.  We soon became a “teaching” case because of this rare disease.  I looked forward to the hours of ultrasounds, realizing that seeing my daughter on the screen might be the only chance for me to get to know her.

Our little Christina Joy lived one hour after the delivery.  She peacefully stopped breathing in our arms not long after we heard the hospital sound system play the bells that celebrated the birth of a child.  We put her tiny casket in the trunk of our car and drove her ourselves to Wisconsin, where she was buried next to my own brother, who had also died in infancy.  Not knowing if we would be able to have more children, God has since blessed us with Victoria Grace and Maria Faith.  O, how I value their precious lives!  And how I value the courage of people like my wife, Leah, who have the faith and strength to live out their convictions and who stand up and let their voices be heard.

 

Compassion Fatigue

The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. (Lamentations 3:22-23 ESV)

I first came upon the idea of “compassion fatigue” when I was working at a rescue mission.  Many times, those who begin serving the poor, marginalized, and wounded because of a true desire to help, after a time become cynical, suspicious, and hardened.  Sometimes dealing with difficult situations involves dealing with difficult people.  Not all those you deal with are difficult, but there are enough out there to make even the most caring grow cold.  Trying to help those truly needy means that others will take advantage of you.  It is easy to justify this “fatigue.”  After all, aren’t we told not to cast our “pearls before swine”?  Aren’t we to be “wise stewards” of our Lord’s resources?

The late Keith Green reminded us that the only way to never be taken advantage of is to never help anyone at all.  Daily, I try to ask the Lord to help my heart stay soft as I deal with people, or I fear I, too, could develop “compassion fatigue.”  And as I pray for my own heart, I am reminded that my compassionate Lord never grows tired of me.

I don’t deserve God’s grace.  When I ask for His help, it is sometimes because I got into trouble because of things I did wrong.  Maybe I didn’t act wisely.  Perhaps I made a serious mistake.  Possibly I am suffering because I sinned against the very God I am asking for rescue.  Yet He hears my cry and redeems.  I don’t receive His aid because I deserve it.  I receive it because He is longsuffering, good, kind, and merciful.

Is it a good (or even spiritual) thing to refuse to help people because they have proven they are not worthy of help?  I can hear the thoughts of some as they read these words.  “We need to be careful to give people what they need, not just what they want or are asking for.”  “If I give this person money, they will spend it on drugs.”  “Maybe this person needs to suffer the consequences of their poor choices so that they learn a lesson.”  These things can be true, and remind us that we need to help wisely.  We need to help them in a way that truly helps them.  Yet, we need to help them – not give up because we may possibly be taken advantage of.

There is even another level to this.  Let’s say that someone is trying to take advantage of you.  Let’s say they will spend what you give them on drugs.  Maybe they are hopelessly addicted because of poor choices and sin.  Do we then not help them?  Do we let them starve?

What if our judgment about them is wrong?  What if like Job’s friends, we see their suffering through the lens of our own faulty experience?  What if they are actually suffering because they are more righteous than we are?

As a pastor, I observed this problem in the church.  Often those who are needy are “put up with” impatiently by the people of God.  Sometimes needy people are helped for a time, but when they don’t experience “instant sanctification” those who are helping grow weary.  When helpers grow weary it is easy to grow distant.  They don’t make phone calls as often to check up on their “friend.”  After a while, the phone calls stop as they focus instead on people and projects that yield quicker results.  We are rightly told to focus on our strengths and not just our weaknesses if we are to accomplish more for God.  Doesn’t this also mean that we should focus on people experiencing success rather than failure?  After all, needy people drain us and take up all our time, and when we share their stories during testimony time or in our latest newsletter, it is not very impressive.  So, we ignore and then forget those who are needy.  And they silently stop attending our churches, and no one even notices.

Similarly, lately I have been contacted by pastors who were in the licensing/ordination process in various denominations.  Because they were dealing with personal or church-related problems, or even when they were faithful but were not experiencing impressive results, their mentors and leaders shifted focus to those charismatic, type-A pastors who were seen as being quite successful.  My now ex-pastor friends stopped receiving phone calls from their mentors.  They faded into the woodwork and seemingly disappeared.  And no one in their denomination/association even noticed them disappear.

I often fail God.  I often live Romans 7: “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out.  For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.”  And what does God do?  Every morning, after I failed the day previously, He reminds me of Romans 8: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”  Why does He do this?  It is because Lamentations is true: “The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.”  Should I not extend this same undeserved compassion that I received from God to others?

 

Thoughts About My Prayer Life

Many of you know that the past 18 months have been a bit challenging for me, as I lost the calling/career that I loved for 30 years.  In addition, I have been unsuccessful in trying to find new employment.  I spend most of my time looking for work.  When I am not seeking a job, I pray.  That pretty much summarizes my life right now.

My prayer life has gone through a few changes these past months.  Here are a few things I observed:

  1. Prayer is truly a conversation. In fact, it is the conversational part of the most important relationship I have.
  2. I don’t ask for much anymore. I still ask, but most of the time is just spent in conversation.
  3. I pray a lot more, but I say a lot less. I spend most of the time listening.
  4. When I do talk, I mostly pray Scripture. Most of the words I use now are not very original.
  5. When I am not praying Scripture, if I am talking, I normally ask questions.
  6. While I ask a lot of questions, God does not give me many answers.
  7. When Jesus does give a response to my questions, He normally answers with another question. As I read the gospels, this is what He often did.  It is amazing how often Jesus does not answer people’s questions, but instead answers with a question of His own.  Sometimes He just changes the subject to talk about what is really important.

I am not sure what this says about my prayer life, but it reminds me that Jesus values the health of my soul more than the things I normally ask for.

Envy

Rob Reimer, in his wonderful book, Soul Care, writes, “Envy starts with the question, ‘What about me?’ and ends with the accusation, ‘God isn’t fair.'”

Do you struggle with this self-centered question that then leads to the ultimate false accusation?  Note how envy is completely selfish.  It is all about what you think you deserve and how unfair God is to you because you feel He should give you more (or at least “different”).  You look at how God is blessing others and you think you deserve better than they are receiving.

Of course, the key to being set free from envy is to understand God’s amazing grace.  Grace is God’s “unmerited favor.”  It is when He doesn’t give you what you deserve (separation from Himself because of your sin), but instead lavishes upon you blessings you would never deserve (life forever with Him).  This is the Christian gospel – the God of this universe who should punish all of us because of our rebellion and sin, instead becomes a man like us to live the perfect life we could never live and die the death we deserved to die.  “For our sake, he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”  2 Corinthians 5:21 ESV

When we truly understand what we deserve, and what God offers instead (based on what Jesus has done for us), envy disappears.  We no longer demand justice from God.  Instead, we thank Him that He doesn’t give us what we deserve.

The Scriptures tell us a lot about envy:

A tranquil heart gives life to the flesh, but envy makes the bones rot.  Proverbs 14:30 ESV.  How many of you have experienced this?

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant…  1 Corinthians 13:4 ESV.  Note how this passage about God’s self-giving love implies that envy is anything but self-giving.

Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.  Galatians 5:19-23 ESV.  Again, the life of selfish men is contrasted with the life of God, which is completely self-giving.  Which category is “envy” in?

Here are a few tips to help you deal with envy:

  1. Be thankful! Always be thankful to God.  Express your thanksgiving aloud.  Thank Him for all He does for you.
  2. Be thankful – for the things you see in other’s lives that make you envious. Thank God, again aloud, for how He is blessing them.
  3. Pray for more of God’s blessings to be given to those you are envious of. If we are to pray for enemies, and bless those who persecute us, certainly we can bless those we are envious of.  In our own selfishness we struggle with this, but as we are filled by the Spirit, His fruit and His life will enable us to be and do what we could never be and do on our own.

Figs

On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. And seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see if he could find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. And he said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it. 

As they passed by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. And Peter remembered and said to him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.”   Mark 11:12‭-‬14‭, ‬20‭-‬22 ESV

Earlier, we explored the story of Jesus cleansing the temple during the “passion week.”  An interesting story story takes place before and after that account.  It takes place on the mountain ridge road overseeing the Kidron Valley, which Jesus  walked many times that last week as He entered Jerusalem during the day but stayed on mountain at night.  In addition to the Mount of Olives, this ridge was also home to two villages.  Bethany was the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus.  Bethphage was very close to Bethany.  Interestingly, both of these villages mean “house of figs.”  Bethany refers to figs that are ready to eat.  Bethphage refers to figs that are not yet ripe.

As Jesus was walking from Bethany into Jerusalem on the Monday after “Palm Sunday,” He became hungry and noticed a fig tree.  He saw that it had leaves, but found no fruit.  Even though Mark explains, “it was not the season for figs,” Jesus curses the tree by saying, “May no one ever eat from you again.”  

On the next day, Jesus and His disciples again passed by that tree.  The disciples noticed that the tree was “withered away to its roots.”  Did Jesus unfairly judge the tree?  Did  He in anger kill the tree because He was hungry?

This story makes sense when we understand that fig trees in this part of the world begin to have early, somewhat smaller figs that would grow from the previous year’s sprouts each spring.  These early figs and leaves would fall off, giving way to another set of leaves and figs, which would come in abundance (usually after August) and would then be harvested.  The smaller figs were not much good for harvest, but were sometimes used to give the poor some sustenance as they traveled.  This tree had its spring leaves suggesting it had these early figs, but was fruitless.  Jesus cursed the tree for its hypocrisy.  It looked like it was fruitful, but was not. 

The fig tree in the Scriptures was often a symbol for Israel.  During Jesus’ day the Jewish people claimed to be living for God, but in fact were living lives of hypocrisy.  Their lives bore no spiritual fruit, even though they “looked good” on the outside.  Luke tells us that at this same time, Jesus wept over the people of Jerusalem, mourning their lack of spiritual life and prophesying about​ their upcoming destruction. 

I pray that my own life is not all leaves but no fruit!  May we not be hypocrites, but bear fruit for God’s glory. 

House of Prayer

And they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold and those who bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. And he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. And he was teaching them and saying to them, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.” And the chief priests and the scribes heard it and were seeking a way to destroy him, for they feared him, because all the crowd was astonished at his teaching. And when evening came they went out of the city. (Mark 11:15-19 ESV)

Every year during the Passover feast, thousands of Jews traveled to Jerusalem to offer the sacrifice of a Passover Lamb, along with other sacrifices, at the Jewish temple.  They were joined by God-fearers – Gentiles who while not Jewish, worshiped the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  Rather than bring the animals for sacrifice the many miles they had to journey, these pilgrims often found it more convenient to purchase animals in Jerusalem.  It just so happened that the high priestly family had a bazaar set up in the Court of the Gentiles at the temple, where they would sell you preapproved animals.  They also had “booths of approval” set up where they would see if the animals the worshippers brought with them on their journey were “good enough” for sacrifice, and just in case they weren’t, they could point you to their booth of preapproved sacrifices.  The high priestly family also was aware of the many coming from far-off lands who had images of graven images like the bust of Caesar on their coins.  Knowing that these were blasphemous and could never be used in the temple courts, they conveniently set up tables for currency exchange.  Of course, these “services” were provided with substantial fees attached.

Imagine a Jewish family entering the temple courts after a long, exhausting journey, intent on celebrating the deliverance God gives His people, and they were greeted by this.  What would they think the worship of God looked like?  Picture the Gentile family who travelled mile-after-mile at great expense, knowing they would only get as close to God’s throne as the outer Court of the Gentiles, but did so anyway because their hearts were intent on communing with the true God.  How could they meet with God surrounded by those intent on making money off God’s holy Name?

No wonder the gospel writers share the story of Jesus rightly and angrily shaking things up!  The temple was supposed to be a place where people could meet with God (a “house of prayer for all the nations”).  The priests, those who were supposed to help people draw near to God, set up a system that filled their pockets but actually kept people from meeting God!  My prayer has always been, “Lord, may what I do in your Name (and may what my church sets up as our system of worship) NEVER keep people from you, but always help people find you.”

Remember, John the Baptist proclaimed that Jesus was “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”  Jesus is the Lamb, preapproved by the Father as being perfect and suitable as a sacrifice that frees us from death.  Him we proclaim this Easter season!  May we never do things or set up religious systems that benefit us in some way, but keep others from God.  May our homes and churches truly be “houses of prayer” where people of all nations can come to meet with Him.

Come

1 “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.  2 Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.  3 Incline your ear, and come to me; hear, that your soul may live; and I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David.  4 Behold, I made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander for the peoples.  5 Behold, you shall call a nation that you do not know, and a nation that did not know you shall run to you, because of the LORD your God, and of the Holy One of Israel, for he has glorified you.  6 “Seek the LORD while he may be found; call upon him while he is near;  7 let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.   – Isaiah 55:1-7

Four times in the first verse of Isaiah 55 alone, the Creator of the Univese invites His fallen creation to “come” to Him so they can enjoy a relationship with Him, free of charge.  God, Himself has paid the price necessary for the relationship to be restored (see Isaiah 53).  Even though no better offer could ever be extended or received, man in his foolishness still spends all of his resources trying to purchase things that he thinks will fill his empty heart, which God alone can fill.  Oh, that we would listen to the invitation to come!  It is in God that we find that which delights and satisfies.  Only in Him can we find an eternal covenant of blessing and steadfast love.  Why don’t we come?  Why don’t we run to HIm to accept such an offer?  Could it be that we do not want to forsake our wicked ways and unrighteous thoughts?  Could it be that we love our fallen selves and our sin more than the One who offers comassion and pardon?  How foolish can we be!