Love is the key to service

In the classic film “Hold Back the Dawn”, Georges Iscovescu (Charles Boyer) is a Romanian man who is trying to get into the United States from Mexico. In order to get a visa, he marries Emmy Brown (Olivia de Havilland), a school teacher who knows nothing of his plot.

Iscovescu’s plan begins to unravel, however, when Inspector Hammock, a US immigration agent looking for cons like him, suspects that the Romanian is not on the up and up. To escape the agent,  Iscovescu takes his new wife on an excursion to a small Mexican village, where he unexpectedly begins to fall for her.

hold-back-the-dawn-2

In “Hold Back the Dawn”, Georges Iscovescu wrestles with his love for Emmy Brown because it will interfere with his own selfish agenda.

The strategy to cross the border into the US with Emmy falls apart completely when it is exposed by another woman who is in love with Iscovescu.  Even though Emmy does not turn her husband over to Hammock, she returns to America without him.

On the way to California, the upset Emmy wrecks her car and is seriously injured. When Georges learns of this, he crashes a car through the border crossing and heads to Los Angeles, where Emmy lays dying in a hospital.

Georges enters her hospital room and in a moving scene, tells Emmy he is there. His presence and words of encouragement draw Emmy out of her coma.

Iscovescu  can’t stay, however. He has to flee the police.   He heads back to Mexico.

Eventually Georges is allowed back into the United States legally. Hammock has understood what the former con man has done for Emmy and arranged a visa.

Hammock meets Georges at the border and tells him of his good fortune. Not only that, but Emmy is also standing on the other side, healthy and waiting to welcome him.

While insincere when he said it, Georges was right when he told Emmy at the time of her meeting that they were like two trains at a station. He said, “We can’t change our course anymore than we can hold back the dawn.”

The Bible tells a similar story of men staging a dangerous border crossing to aid a person risk.

In this narrative, David has to flee Israel’s King Saul. He dwells in the wilderness as an outlaw.

However, he has warriors, whom the Bible calls “mighty men”, who come to join him in the fight against Saul. They swim across the Jordan River at flood stage in order to be with David.

David is suspicious. Like David, they were once loyal servants to King Saul.  They could just as easily be spies than supporters.

J. Vernon McGee in his account of the incident suggests the men are wet and out of breath as David confronts them.

David tells them:

“If you have come to me in peace to help me, I am ready for you to join me. But if you have come to betray me to my enemies when my hands are free from violence, may the God of our ancestors see it and judge you.”

The mighty men respond to their reluctant general:

“We are yours, David!
We are with you, son of Jesse!
Success, success to you,
and success to those who help you,
for your God will help you.”

Mighty Men

These men have good reason to commit themselves to David. They know that David is God’s choice to be the king of Israel in place of Saul. He was anointed by the prophet Samuel as a boy when God decided that he had had enough of the rebellious Saul.

The warriors risked it all to cross a risky boundary to fight with an even riskier leader. If Saul defeated them, they would probably be killed.

Sometimes we have to leap over legal and natural obstacles to do what God wants us to do. The Mighty Men knew this. The once wicked but now repentant Georges Iscovescu knew this.

Despite opposition, possible arrest and even death, they were willing to cross over the Jordan River to follow their king.

What motivated Georges Iscovescu and David’s Mighty Men was love. They were willing to endure much to serve the people they cared for.

In some recent reflections on areas of my life, I determined that I have been weak in serving both God and man. I ascertained that I have gained a clear view of self and an understanding of what my skills are. However, my usefulness to God and my benefit to others have not been what they could be.

There are reasons for this. For instance, I have been juggling quite a few changes in my life and just trying to keep my own head above water. When this is happening, it is easy to become depleted and not be too focused on the needs and agendas of others.

I have seen through the above stories that the most important ingredient has been lacking in my ability to serve God and other people. I am talking about love for them.

McGee  says, “The secret to service is love.”  If I don’t love God, I won’t serve Him. If I don’t love other people, I won’t serve them.

However, I have seen recently that if I love someone I will do plenty. I have been more willing to travel over hill and dale to be with certain people because I love them.

I have also learned that the reason I am willing to do things that I would otherwise find boring, mundane and even distasteful for people is because I love them.

McGee poses a good question when he asks, “Do you really love Jesus?” I have pondered the answer to that question for years.

I think I do love Him, but sometimes I’m not so sure. I fear that past service to God has been motivated by selfish ambition, and my lack of active work for Him these days makes me unclear as to how much I DO love Jesus.

The answer to that question is the key to unlocking my service for Him. If I love Jesus, I will cross my own Jordan and offer my services to Him.

One question I have answered is whether or not I belong to Jesus. This I can answer in the affirmative. This is what makes me believe that I DO love Him.

Like Georges and Emmy, our courses are tightly bound to each other. I am His and He is mine.

This, says McGee, is more important than service to Him. If I can assure myself of this on a daily basis, the service to Jesus will come.

 

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Jesus Men

The film “Monuments Men” opens with Frank Stokes seeking to persuade President Franklin D. Roosevelt that the works of  the great European masters are worth salvaging from the destruction and chaos of World War 2.

As part of his rhetoric, he refers to the magnificent sculptures, paintings and artistic displays of the continent as “the greatest historical achievements known to man”. Further, Stokes tells the president, “While we must and we will wind this war, we should also remember the high price that will be paid if the very foundation of modern society is destroyed.”

Stokes argument wins over Roosevelt. He authorizes the formation of a team charged with finding and saving priceless works of art stolen by the Nazis.

Even though Stokes suggests finding young artists and sculptors to make up the unit, Roosevelt notes that all of them are already serving in the battles of the war. Thus, the president calls on Stokes to head up the search for qualified men.

As a result, he contacts aging architects, curators, designers, artists and sculptors to form his group. After he finds them, he holds a meeting.

“You’ve been selected because we need your knowledge and skills,” he tells the men. “We’ve been tasked to find and protect buildings, monuments and art.”

Stokes needed experts who could identify such great pieces as Michelangelo’s Madonna of Bruges and The Ghent Altarpiece. Further, he desired men with trained eyes capable of differentiating between the genuine and the phony.

Monuments Men

Monuments Men had to be experts in the works of the Great Masters of Europe

Throughout the film, the necessity of saving these works is questioned. Roosevelt proffers the idea that their loss is just the price of fighting a war. Commanders refuse to risk their men to help the unit save art. President Truman asks at the end of the war if the loss of two of his men was worth the effort to rescue the five million works his group DID save.

The questioning is legitimate. It’s important to ask what is worth giving your life to and for.

Author and life coach Brendon Burchard says that not every mountain is worth climbing. We need to walk around some.

While Frank Stokes argument for saving great works of art at the cost of lost lives can be questioned, he was able to convince the person who mattered most that they were.  He persuaded the president of the United States that they were monuments to civilization which were worth fighting for.

Most of us don’t take on great tasks of the kind that Frank Stokes tackled. He felt a personal responsibility for giving himself to the work because he thought these monuments were important.

Each of us has to determine for ourselves what we deem worth giving our lives to or fighting for. Some, for example, believe that TEARING DOWN monuments is what is important.

Stuart Briscoe writes that there are some charismatic men who start movements to accomplish a task they believe is of great significance or value. Briscoe notes that these movements die out when their founders pass on, and their work become monuments to the glory which once was. Unlike artistic memorials, these monuments are devoid of their original power.

Briscoe describes one founder and his movement which do live on.

There is no denying that Christianity has in some instances degenerated into a monument, and its places of worship into museums. But it is equally true that, where ordinary men and women in the power of the Spirit have proclaimed the Good News of Christ’s saving grace, the church has continued to grow and thrive. When this happens, there is no man-movement-monument syndrome. The Man, Christ Jesus, is still at work through the Holy Spirit, doing what only he can do–and doing it well!

I personally believe that the work of Jesus is worth giving my life to and worth fighting for. In order to be a part of His work, I need to know Him. Like the Monuments Men, I ought to be an expert in Jesus if I want to be one of his people.

This means I should also be around folks that can also recognize Jesus. Not all of His alleged followers can.

Vernon McGee says that when Judas took a mob to the Garden of Gethsemane in order to arrest Jesus, he could not identify the man he spent three years with as one of his disciples. McGee believes this was because Jesus was displaying his divine glory at this time.

Judas did not have the acumen to distinguish characteristics of his Master which at that point could only be spiritually discerned.  He was a fraudulent expert.

Judas was a phony Jesus Man. He could not identify the Real McCoy.

This year I want to become a Jesus Man, i.e. an  expert in Jesus. I want to be able to identify the genuine article for myself and others.

This won’t be easy. The Apostle Paul wrote that gaining true spiritual knowledge in this life is similar to looking in a dim mirror. We can only make out some aspects of the real image.

Further, as in Jesus’s day there are religious and political leaders who attempt to either reject Him or coopt Him for their own purposes. Behind them lurks the enemy of Christ, Satan the Devil.

He isn’t going to be happy about my desire to get involved in the deserving work of searching for and elevating Jesus in my own life and in the lives of others. Just as the Monuments Men had to fight with Nazis and Russians to save great masterpieces, I will have to battle the minions of the Evil One.

But to me searching for and making known the true Jesus is worth the effort. The job is worth giving my life to and worth fighting for.

Like Frank Stokes, I need to be around some other men who are qualified  and willing to get into the war. Finding these Jesus Men will also be my goal.

Finding Jesus is a dangerous job. I’ll need the other Jesus Men to help me, perhaps even save me, in order to get it done.

Coming to their aid should also be part of my expectation as a Jesus Man.

Monuments men 2

Monuments Men found they needed each other. For instance, one stepped on a land mine. The others worked to keep him from setting it off. They refused to leave their buddy in peril.

Being one of the Jesus Men is a noble goal.

 

 

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It’s a Wonderful Life: the main thing to keep it going in 2018

This morning, New Year’s Eve, I was down in the dumps.

As I entered the latter part of 2017 I had been filled with some hope for the future. But circumstances of late have not bode well for these hopes coming to fruition in 2018.

I took my usual morning walk. As I passed by the local Chinese church I took a picture of the cross emblazoned on its wall, which faces the road.

Chinese church

In the midst of my pity party I remembered a phrase I had picked up from life coach and author Brendon Burchard, attributed to Steven Covey: “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”

I walked a few more steps and saw another cross, this one rising from the dashboard of a car parked on the street. I was taking its picture when I heard a gruff voice ask,”You like my cross?”

Cross car

I turned around. In front of me stood a burly middle-aged guy, sporting a baseball cap and a T-shirt.

I told him about my picture of the church cross and the Covey quote. “Man, gives me goose bumps,” he said. “Look at this.” He showed me a bumper sticker on the rear of his vehicle that read “Jesus is the answer.”

We introduced ourselves. Then he said, “Give me a hug.” We embraced warmly and went on our way.

Pity party, general and specific, over. I swear, I began to think I met an angel.

It occurred to me, “Man, God DOES love me, this reprobate, to do that for me right on time.” I actually shed tears.

As I write this, a pop song is playing in the coffee shop where I am planted. Bruce Springsteen is wailing, “Everybody’s got a hungry heart.” The man speaks truth. I know I do.

He tells the story of a man who leaves a wife and kids in Baltimore (my hometown incidentally), takes a wrong turn somewhere, and has a relationship with a woman which was doomed from the start. Springsteen continues:

“Everybody needs a place to rest
Everybody wants to have a home
Don’t make no difference what nobody says
Ain’t nobody like to be alone.”

George Bailey, the main character in the holiday film “It’s a Wonderful Life”, has discovered how important his home and family are.

He learns this in the midst of a crisis. George is about to be arrested for embezzlement through no fault of his own. He tells his guardian angel Clarence that he wished he had never been born.

His own sentiments of the worthlessness of his life have been echoed by his enemy, Harry F. Potter. “You are worth more dead than alive,” Potter tells Bailey, who has come to him for financial help.

After Clarence shows George what his town of Bedford Falls and its people would have been like if he had never been born, he turns to God and asks to be returned to his wife and kids.

George doesn’t care about his dire circumstances anymore. He just wants his relationships with his loved ones back.

George not only gets his family back, but he is also rescued from the financial pit he has fallen into due to the loss of thousands of dollars. “It’s a Wonderful Life” ends with George and his friends singing “Auld Lang Syne” around a Christmas scene. The song is a tribute to friendships.

But having viewed the film twice in the last week, I have been wondering what George will do in the days ahead. He still is immersed in a life he didn’t want.

George has been keeping a financial institution he loathes afloat for the sake of others. He never has gotten to travel the world like he dreamed.

George isn’t even financially successful. In “It’s a Wonderful Life”, he dodges a bullet when his friends come through for him, but he still lives in an ancient home and drives a beat up car. He still has to compare his life to his best friend’s and his brother’s, both whom have become big deals. In the days after Christmas he has to be wondering if his ship will ever come in.

Wonderful-Life

In “It’s a Wonderful Life” George Bailey is a happy man after he is rescued from disaster at Christmas. But how does he keep his joy going when he has to return to business as usual?

As he faces the year ahead, it would behoove George to take a look at the life of Jeremiah. Virginia pastor Aubrey Spears recently spoke of this prophet and how he dealt with a lifetime of apparent failure.

Spears notes how Jeremiah, like George, had an unbearable job. The prophet wasn’t a success at it, just as George isn’t, at least for his own benefit. Furthermore, Jeremiah had his own Harry F. Potters to battle.

George is still a young man, so his suffering, while acute, is nothing like that of Jeremiah. This Old Testament man endured incurable wounds for 41 years, says Spears.

As he presses on with the rest of his life, George would be wise to imitate Jeremiah. He should learn to pray as the prophet learned to pray. Spears says this was the secret to his life.

The pastor relates how Jeremiah poured out his despondency to God day after overwhelming and boring day.  He endured his days through prayer.

George began to pour out his supplications to God when he reached the end of his rope. But this should only be the beginning for him. If his life is to be truly wonderful, he will have to become a true friend of God.

Another pastor, J. Vernon McGee, once explained that many claim to be a friend of Jesus, but that their expression is only sentimentality. Any real friend of Jesus obeys him, says McGee.

A friendship with Jesus is different than most earthly kinds. We don’t have to obey our buddies, but Jesus is more than our friend. He is our Lord.

George has hung in with the building and loan and with the hick town of Bedford Falls for the sake of others. If he wants to do more than just endure, he will need to pray and he will need to bring himself and his friends into a deeper relationship with God.

“The world does not need more of you,” says Spears. “It needs more of God. Your friends don’t need more of you. They need more of God. YOU don’t even need more of you. You need more of God.”

George Bailey is off to a good start in beginning a relationship with God. He now knows he can pray and get results.

Ongoing, persistent and fervent prayer is the key to getting more of Him. Getting more of Him will be my main thing in 2018.

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Interceding friends make life wonderful

No man is a failure who has friends.-Mark Twain (quoted by the angel Clarence in the film”It’s a Wonderful Life”)

As I write this the world is about ready to ring in a new year. Every time the calendar approaches January 1, hopes and dreams arise in the hearts of men.

Many of us look forward to either a continuation of the good times from the previous 12 months or for massive redirection away from the calamities we have faced. Regardless of our circumstances, at this time a lot of us have a flicker of hope in our hearts for what is to come.

In the film “It’s a Wonderful Life”, George Bailey has no such hope. He has reached the end of his tether.

As I explained in my last post, his self-sacrificing choices  have led to his own seeming demise. Having lost all perspective, he is ready to throw himself into a river and end it all on Christmas Eve.

But someone beats him to it. George’s guardian angel, a fellow named Clarence, jumps in ahead of him. As the story develops, the bumbling cherub leads George to see what life would have been like for the people of his town of Bedford Falls if he had not been born.

Guardian angel Clarence and George Bailey

Clarence and George talk about matters in “It’s a Wonderful Life”

George learns that his absence from the lives of his friends and family would have led to grief and misery for them. His brother Harry would have died at the age of nine because George was not around to save him from drowning. In a chain reaction cause and effect, the lives of hundreds of men also would have been lost during World War 2 because Harry was not there to rescue them.

Further, George’s Uncle Billy would have lost his mind because the family business would have gone under without George’s leadership. George’s  wife would have become a frumpy old maid because the man of her dreams didn’t exist.

George learns that it is not only individuals who would suffer from his absence. Since he would not be there to fight him, the entire town would have fallen into the hands of the evil financier Harry F. Potter. As a result, the prosperous Bedford Falls he helped to create would have become a seedy skid row known as Pottersville.

It is Clarence that plays the hero for George. He performs the task that any angel or servant of the Lord should aspire to—he leads George to surrender his life to God.

When he asks Clarence why he is seeing all these strange things in the alternate reality the angel has arranged, he reminds George that he has never been born. Indeed, he has no identity.

When he hears this George searches his pockets for his driver’s license and other identity papers, but he finds nothing.

He pleads with Clarence to get him back to his own life. “I don’t care what happens to me,” George says.” Just get me back to my wife and kids.

“Clarence, please I want to live again.” There is no answer from Clarence, so as he stands on the bridge where he first met the angel, George begins to say the same thing to God:

“I want to live again. I want to live again. Please, God, let me live again.”

George has now found his genuine identity. He has become a true child of God.

Clarence did not just appear by chance to lead George out of his morass. The angel was an answer to the prayers of George’s friends and family.

“It’s a Wonderful Life” opens with the people of Bedford Falls praying for George:

Mr. Gower, the boss and pharmacist who George kept from accidentally killing someone with poisoned medicine, is praying for him.

Martini, the restaurateur whom George helped own his own home and escape the slums of Potter, is praying for him.

His best friends Bert and Ernie are praying for him. His wife and children are praying for him.

George’s mother is praying for him.

Clarence’s arrival is also the answer to a desperate prayer of George early in the film. After fleeing his family on Christmas Eve, he ends up at Martini’s restaurant to drink.

He prays, “God…God…Dear Father in Heaven, I’m not a praying man, but if you’re up there and you can hear me, show me the way. I’m at the end of my rope. Show me the way, God.”

When the husband of a teacher George has chewed out gives him a bloody lip at Martini’s, he jokes both at the bar and later with Clarence that this injury is the answer to his prayer.

“Oh, no, no, no,” says Clarence.” I am the answer to your prayer.”

When George prayed his first prayer, he admittedly had no relationship with God. However, by the end of his ordeal it is clear he is ready to follow Him. His second prayer is hearfelt and sincere.

George was a good person before his crisis, but his personal virtue didn’t get him through it. In fact, his character began to decline.

George went to the corrupt Potter to get relief, only to be turned away. In his overwhelm and anguish, he also lambasted his family and an innocent teacher on the phone.

His prior goodness wasn’t totally irrelevant, however. It did make him friends, and these friends provided spiritual and practical help that gave relief in his difficulty.

George also made new friends as a result of his dilemma. First, he was introduced to his guardian angel Clarence, who led him to God.

Another new friend was God Himself. It is God Incarnate, Jesus Christ, whose birth we just celebrated this week.

It would behoove all of us to make the kinds of friends George made in the film “It’s a Wonderful Life” in the coming year.We all should have friends who intercede for us in prayer and offer hands-on assistance when needed.

More crucial is that we become intimate with Jesus. We should especially consider how we intend to do this as part of our New Year’s goal setting.

Both earthly and heavenly friends are vital if we hope to have a successful future.

I will discuss more about this in my next post.

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When life isn’t so wonderful: is it fate, or the result of our choices?

George Bailey’s dreams have gone up in smoke.

In the classic Christmas favorite “It’s a Wonderful Life”, George is a small-town chairman of a small financial concern called a “building and loan.” Working at this job is not what the man had planned for his life.

Even as a boy George has big objectives. He is going to travel the world.  George is  going to leave the rinky dink village of Bedford Falls in the dust.

Then life happens.

The original plan is for George to go to Europe, then go to college for four years. His younger  brother Harry would work to help him. After that, George would repay the favor.

But their father, who founded the building and loan, has a stroke and dies. The next thing he knows, George is stuck in Bedford Falls running his father’s business.

George is supposed to catch a train, but he realizes that if he doesn’t stay and run the building and loan, townspeople will suffer at the hands of evil financier and landlord Harry F. Potter.

He also falls in love with a girl he has known all his life. George discovers how much he cares for Mary Hatch when he shows up at her house one night.

While he acts nonchalant about the visit, pretending that he is just strolling by, it becomes clear that George is crazy about Mary. His  first expression of love is typical of George: he says the wrong thing but does the right one.

He passionately kisses and embraces Mary, while at the same time telling her that he doesn’t intend to settle down and marry anyone.

In the next scene, we see Mary and George at their wedding.

George Bailey and Mr. Potter

George Bailey confronts the evil Harry F. Potter in “It’s a Wonderful Life”

But his wanderlust remains.  He carries it into his honeymoon.

George intends to spend his nest egg of $2,000 to take Mary on a fantastic trip. However, there is a run on the Bedford Falls bank and the building and loan as well. As a result, George and Mary stay in town, spending all their money to save the business from insolvency.

They spend their honeymoon in a rundown, formerly abandoned home. George’s friends decorate it with travel brochures and one acts as a European valet to simulate the reality he had hoped to see.

Harry has gone to college instead of George, and surprisingly returns home with a wife. The new bride tells George that her father has offered Harry a plum job with his firm.

Despite Harry’s assurance to George that he will fulfill his part of the original bargain, the latter knows after talking to the former’s new wife that not taking the job would be a bad idea. This puts a damper on the agreed-upon plan for Harry to take over the building and loan.

World War II takes Harry away anyway. George has to stay at home because he lost his hearing in one ear. It was damaged when he saved 9-year old Harry from drowning in an icy pond. Instead of going into combat, George fights the “battle of Bedford Falls”, serving as an air raid warden and participating in fund raising affairs to support the war effort.

Furthermore, George and Mary begin to have children. This finally obliterates George’s intention to flee Bedford Falls for good.

Over time his responsibilities in the town increase. He continues to work at helping others better themselves, mainly  by rescuing them from the clutches of dastardly Potter.

George does this by beginning  to help people own their own homes. He starts a housing project called Bailey’s Crossing, delighting folks who otherwise would have to pay exorbitant rents to Potter for awful tenement housing.

Despite the success of the building and loan, George himself is not enriched. He and Mary live very modestly.

While George appears to slave away in obscurity, Harry wins the Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroics as a naval aviator in the war. But as the town prepares to welcome his brother home, George himself experiences disaster.

His Uncle Billy misplaces an $8,000 deposit at the bank.

Unfortunately, it is found by Henry F. Potter, who has been trying to drive the building and loan out of business for years. Potter sees his opportunity to do it and ruin his enemy George Bailey at the same time. George will even go to jail if Potter has his way.

The event crushes the usually never-may-care George. He loses his normal self control.

First, he loses his temper. George rants at his family while they prepare for Christmas in the family home. He calls his uncle an old fool.

George also reams out his daughter’s teacher on the phone, blaming her for allowing the girl to get sick. The teacher’s husband gets on the line and threatens him.

Finally, even his longsuffering and loving wife gets upset with George. He runs off from the house.

George also drowns his sorrows in alcohol. He sits in a bar bemoaning his fate and getting slugged by the teacher’s husband, who happens to learn of Bailey’s presence.

He then slams his car into an ancient town tree.

Standing on a nearby bridge in the dark and snow on Christmas Eve, he is thinking of ending it all when he hears a splash in the river. His guardian angel, an old carefree man named Clarence, has created a distraction by throwing himself in the water.

As they warm up in the guardhouse of the bridge, George tells Clarence he wishes that he has never been born.

In “It’s a Wonderful Life”, it just seems poor George can’t catch a break. He can’t even kill himself successfully.

The man is clearly a victim of circumstances and the foibles of other humans. Or is he?

My original take on the dilemmas faced by George was that he did indeed suffer unjustly. But after umpteen viewings of “It’s a Wonderful Life”, I have changed my opinion.

As I see it now, George made choices that led to the end of his original dreams. For instance, He chose to wed Mary and start a family for one.

Furthermore, he could have let the building and loan go to pot, but he chose to keep it afloat in order to oppose the abuses of Potter and benefit the townspeople.

George didn’t have to stay and do this. Even his father had told him to get an education and get out of Bedford Falls. He warned George that if he stayed, he would be under the thumb of Potter.

George could also have fired the absent-minded and hard drinking Uncle Billy. The careless loss of the deposit could have been predicted. But it obviously never crossed George’s mind. After all, George was family.

Lately I have been somewhat contemptuous of Americans’ penchant to emphasize individual responsibility. We are the “land of choice.”

I love freedom. However, sometimes having so much liberty can be overwhelming.

I recall coming back to the States after some years abroad and being confronted by a broken dam of selection by a cashier at a Waffle House. “Do you want cream with your coffee? Do you want decaf? How would you like your eggs? Would you like your bread toasted? I panicked inside.

I am not the only one to experience this American passion for preference. One former expat I know was so overwrought by the number of options in a grocery store that she broke down and wept.

Even Christians have bought into the demand that we focus on our “druthers”. Rick Warren, known as “America’s pastor”, wrote the following in his best-selling book “The Purpose Driven Life”.

“You are as close to God as you choose to be,” he writes at the beginning of one chapter. Warren instructs the reader to engage in personal confrontation regarding their relationship to God:

“I must choose to be honest with God. I must choose to obey God in faith. I must choose to value what God values.  I must desire friendship with God more than anything else.”

Warren tends to be too “pop culture” for my taste. But every time I read him, I have to admit that he is probably right on a lot of things.

It’s not that I practice what I have preached above about the over-emphasis on personal responsibility. As a teacher I have emphasized personal choice to my students. When they have screwed up, I have always let them know that they “chose not to do their homework” or “chose not to come to class.”

It’s only when “I” suffer that I tend to assign the cause of my problems to others’ actions, or to “the sovereignty of God”, or to just plain bad luck.

In this respect, I am more like the stereotypical Millennial. Nothing ever seems to be their fault.

They seem to believe that the government, or their parents, or some other outside force is responsible for taking care of them or for dealing with the infirmities in their lives.

Perhaps this generation will ring in a new era of fatalism in America. The shrug may become the new national craze.

I hope not, though. As the story of George Bailey shows, taking responsibility for what happens to ourselves and others can do a lot of good and ward off evil.

God did not create us as automatons or robots. Any decent Christian theologian will tell you He gave us a free will to choose.

I personally do not believe I had a lot to do with choosing to follow God. I think He engineered things so that I would, mostly.

But in the end I do believe I still had to make a choice. I believe God does not force us to follow Him. He respects our choices.

Every time I watch “It’s a Wonderful Life” my admiration for the film increases. One thing I learned this time is that what seems like personal disaster can actually turn out to benefit not only us, but others.

Seeming reversals in life, even severe ones, can come from God. In my view, God is involved in all our losses. He is not the author of evil, but he can turn evil to good.

The apostle Paul wrote that “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, those who are called according to His purpose.”

But George was not some inert bystander. He chose to do good even when it ruined his own life.

God’s good work  in the life of George Bailey and his response to Him is the understated story of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” I’ll write more on this next time.

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Merry Christmas to all in the pit

The Major is in unknown territory.  In Five Characters in Search of an Exit, an episode of the 1960s science fiction program “The Twilight Zone”, he has just awoken in a barren room. He begins poking at the walls, trying to find a way out.

The Major soon finds himself in conversation with an annoying clown who comes complete with makeup, goofy attire and a snarky attitude. What’s worse, The Major doesn’t know who he is. Not only that, he also wonders about the identity of this nutty jester whom he discovered upon gaining consciousness..

“Wait a minute. Who are YOU? Is there a circus around here somewhere?,” The Major asks The Clown.

Laughing, The Clown responds,”Yeah. A clown. A circus. (Pointing at the major) An officer. A war. That’s logic, isn’t it? But it doesn’t figure at all.”

“Not at all?” The Major replies. “Why not?”

“Because there is no circus and there is no war.  You’re just like the rest of us,” says The Clown.

“The rest of us?” The Major asks. The Clown, sitting against a wall, points his foot out and three other characters appear: a hobo, a ballerina and a bagpipe player.

As they prance by in single file to a bagpipe tune,The Major freaks out. “What’s going on here?”, he bellows. ”Where are we?  Who are we? What are we?”

As the others stare at him blankly, The Ballerina replies, “None of us knows Major. We don’t know who we are. We don’t know where we are.  Each of us woke up one moment, and here we were in the darkness.”

“How could that happen?” The Major says with a look of astonishment on his face.

“That’s the question we asked ourselves,” The Ballerina says. “A question with no answer, Major.”

She describes their predicament succinctly. “We’re nameless things with no memory,” The Ballerina explains.”No knowledge of what went before. No understanding of what is now. No knowledge of what will be.”

“How long will we be here?” asks The Major incredulously.

“That’s a good question,” proclaims The Clown. “That’s the best question of all. But nobody knows the answer.”

“Twilight Zone” host Rod Serling calls the five  characters “a collection of question marks–improbable entities stuck together in a pit of darkness: no logic, no reason, no explanation. Just a prolonged nightmare in which fear, loneliness and the unexplainable walk hand in hand in the shadows.”

There are times when some of us wake up to find ourselves in our own pit of darkness, our own nightmare. We wonder how we got here. There is no rhyme nor reason to what has happened to us. We have lost our identity. Never in our wildest dreams would we have thought we would ever be in such a situation.

What galls is that many of us enter the Christmas season in such a state. The vexing part is that The Holidays are supposed to be a time of joy, excitement, romance and fantasy.

Instead of we are weighed down by extreme fear, terror, torment, anxiety, guilt and shame.

In the midst of our own horror story we find that all our societal, cultural and personal markers are askew.  The things that had once given life meaning are gone. The bottom has dropped out. We have a tons of questions but no answers. In sum, we are lost and have no idea where or who we are.

For this happen at Christmas causes excruciating pain, for others seem to be faring so wonderfully.

People all react differently when their world turns upside down like this. This is exemplified In Five Characters in Search of an Exit. 

The episode shows how some pour themselves into coming up with practical solutions to their problems, while others laze about in resignation. For instance, The Major is keen on finding a way out of the pit he is in.

However, his companions in the pit have been in this dreadful environment so long that they have given up. The Clown is so bereft of hope that he just wants to wallow in any amusement he can come up with. As he seeks to frolic he mocks the Major, whom He thinks is wasting time. He calls him an idiot for even trying to find a method to escape .

When caught in our personal hell, many of us also try to explain our circumstances away. The “Twilight Zone” characters are no different.

For instance, some of us turn to theology or fantasy to make sense of our environment. In Five Characters in Search of an Exit, The Major determines that they are in Hell. On the other hand, the Ballerina muses that perhaps that they on a spaceship or on another planet. “Or maybe we are all insane or this is a mirage or an illusion,” she adds.

The Hobo chimes in, too. “We’re dead. This is Limbo.”

We sympathize with these characters in this dungeon. They are just trying to cope.

The Major reiterates that whatever the explanation, their situation is indeed a nightmare. It is he that tries to find a silver lining in their horror, suggesting that someone must be aware of their existence and cares for them.

In a statement that brings to mind the existential angst of modern Millennials, who have recently been pictured in the media as people screaming at the heavens, The Major asks the others if they have shouted or pounded on the walls.

The Hobo responds by saying that they have tried The Major’s ideas but that they came to the conclusion that for all intents and purposes the little room was their universe. His inference is that they have determined that they are stuck in their bad dream and there is no way out.

Those in severe depression, especially during The Holidays, may also have given up, resigning themselves to spending Christmas in pain or dulling their emotions with addictions.

But a clanging noise, which The Ballerina suggests is a bell, provides evidence that the Major may be right. There in fact may be someone outside their “universe” in charge of things. He begins to shout at this “being”.

The Major screams, “LET US OUT OF HERE!”

When we are suffering, we not only get mocked or subjected to the ignorant suppositions of our acquaintances , but we also meet up with kind, sincere souls who will try to assuage our pain. In Five Characters The Ballerina tries to comfort The Major. “Don’t be afraid Major. It gets easier.”

She attempts the “misery loves company” approach. The Ballerina suggests that they aren’t alone in their nightmare. There has to be other “dungeons” for the unloved where their kind also have to suffer.

The Major responds emotionally to the Ballerina’s ideas. “We must have names,” he exclaims. “Someone must care for us,” he yells. This hope motivates him to press on.

“Somewhere, somehow, we have a life that has been cut away from us. We’ve got to get it back!,” says The Major.

He then begins to  try to dig a tunnel into the impervious floor.

SPOILER ALERT

The Major finally convinces his fellow inmates to try to help him escape. He emphasizes that if he can do so, he will come back to rescue them.

The four other characters follow The Major’s instructions. They stand on each others’ shoulders, forming a human tower so that one of them can reach the cusp of the pit. They all writhe in pain as the weight bears down on their shoulders. The Ballerina is injured when they collapse on the floor, but they try again, and the Major is able to climb out of the room.

After he does so, he screams and falls into what appears to be snow. Is he dead?

No. The viewer learns that he is in fact an inanimate doll. A woman is shown minding a Christmas donation barrel on a city street on a winter night, collecting donated dolls for an orphanage. She is clanging a bell to draw attention, a common Yuletide scene.

Meanwhile, in the pit, hearing the Major’s scream, The Clown tells the others that The Major may have been correct. They are in Hell. He predicts that The Major may indeed return, but not as a savior.

A child finds The Major in the snow. She shows him to the woman, who tells her to toss him back in the barrel. We then see all the characters all as lifeless dolls lying in their pit, staring into space.

Rod Serling concludes the episode with what he calls “one hopeful note.” As the camera shows the dolls in the barrel he says, “Perhaps they are unloved only for the moment. In the arms of children their can be nothing but love.”

Serling is on to something. There is hope  for those of us who are suffering.

We can indeed experience love that will give us life.  Someone does love us. This love could  come from children, or friends, or family. But we can’t count on it.

Humans are frail, fickle creatures. Like these dolls, we are made of plaster. We can just as easily break and turn on each other as we can provide assistance and love.

There is One, however, who is not a brittle doll or a weak facsimile of the human race. Jesus is as human as you and I, but also the all-powerful and omniscient God, and He loves us.

How do I know? Jesus took our form and actually entered our pit to save the human race. He suffered like we do, and even more so.

Jesus died for our sins.  The term “sin” is a foreign concept today. Yet, our sins are as real as the morning sun.

In biblical terms, “sin” is defined as rebellion against God. This rebellion deserves judgement from Him.

Yet, God Himself took our punishment.

The Good News is that He didn’t stay dead. He didn’t lay buried in the metaphorical snow life a lifeless doll. Jesus rose from the dead and returned to heaven.

Unlike  The Major, He will not return to participate in our ongoing Hell. He one day is coming back to our pit to reclaim both it and us. Then, Jesus will make all things new.

Five Characters in Search of an Exit reveals the futility of our own attempts at salvation. We can’t release ourselves from the pain.

Our intellect won’t save us. Theology, fantasy, philosophy or technology aren’t the answers to our personal nightmares. Our fellow humans, even friends and loved ones, aren’t the way out of our suffering. In fact, they may even become adversaries.

Charles Weigl learned this in his own horrific experience.

He was an effective 19th century Christian evangelist and hymn writer. Thousands came to faith in Jesus from his work.

But his loved ones turned on him.

“Adversaries are typical,” says Cox, “but the kind that Weigl would endure are the kind that try men’s souls.”

His wife came under the influence of family members who rejected Weigl’s ministry. He was accused of abandoning his family for it. Eventually his wife left him to seek after the pleasures of the world.

Weigl was devastated. Cox tells how his ministry apparently suffered because church’s were not too fond of a divorced preacher. Even so, God did not give up on Weigl. He began to heal him.

One day in Florida Weigl was so sorrowful that he was considering taking his life. But he recalled his own experience of putting his faith in Jesus when he was in his late teens. He heard a voice say, “Charlie. I care about you. I haven’t forgotten you. Let not your heart be troubled.”

He remembered that there is indeed Someone who cared about Him.

Weigl clearly heard the voice of Jesus. It may not have been audible, but the form of His voice doesn’t matter. Out of this experience he wrote a well known hymn: “No One Ever Cared for Me Like Jesus.”

J. Vernon McGee notes how the Scriptures describe Jesus’s voice as similar to running water, the kind one hears from a stream or waterfall.

McGee was once hiking in Yosemite Park in California when he heard his own name being spoken from a waterfall there. He said that people might think him crazy, but he believes the water was calling his name. “Try it some time,” he said.

McGee told this tale in the context of explaining how those who belong to Jesus recognize His voice. In his message the pastor said that believers in Jesus are described in the Bible as “sheep.” As this animal knows the voice of its shepherd, so those who belong to Jesus know His voice.

The Psalmist writes of the importance of listening to God’s voice in the midst of suffering.  He spoke to the people of ancient Israel, whom God had just delivered from awful slavery in Egypt:

Hear me, my people, and I will warn you—
    if you would only listen to me, Israel!
You shall have no foreign god among you;
    you shall not worship any god other than me.
I am the Lord your God,
    who brought you up out of Egypt.
Open wide your mouth and I will fill it

God WANTS to give us abundance in this life. It may or may not be of the material kind, but we can count on Him to define this abundance, and sculpt it just to fit us.

In the same passage the Psalmist writes of how God had removed the burden from His people’s shoulders. It was not necessary for them to bear a crushing weight anymore. Yet, Israel did indeed continue to rebel against God.

The Psalmist’s warnings rings just as true as the bell of the woman collecting dolls. It’s ringing for us now.

We may be doing everything we can to cope with our personal pit, just as The Major did. In some ways, he is an admirable figure.

He figured that the horror he and his colleagues were experiencing was not reality. The truth lay outside of their own heads and beyond their own efforts.

Their pit was not their final destination. These dolls were meant for loving arms to hold during the Christmas season.

My prayer is that those who belong to Jesus as I do will hear His voice while immersed in the cultural noise around them during this season and be comforted.

For those who do not hear His voice, I would relay the teaching of McGee. He told his listeners that that a person who was deaf to the voice of Jesus did not belong to Him.

The way out of YOUR pit begins with putting your trust in Him to deliver you from it. I There’s no need to stay there.

This week a friend sent me an unsolicited Email. I had not heard from him for a while.

In this Email he warned me to not succumb to “Christmas-induced depression.” This kind of message from my pal was not typical of him, so my ears perked up.

I believe his exhortation was God speaking. I was in bed at the time, feeling miserable. Right then and there I determined to fight my malaise.

Merry Christmas to all  in the pit. May Jesus enter your realm and comfort and deliver you during this difficult time.

 

 

 

 

 

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My Guts; His glory: living an authentic life that is pleasing to God

In “Guts and Glory: Profiles in Courage from TV and Film”, I highlighted the motivations of two fictional characters which propelled them to take risks and pursue their passions, goals and dreams.

My foundation for such a quest seems out of place in this modern world. The chasing of personal goals is subsumed in a greater ambition: pleasing God. This means in practice I must listen to Him. The first thing I learned as a kid was that the Jesus portrayed in the Bible was not a fictional character, but the one true God.

In this day and age, when even prayer is mocked in the public domain, I fear that listening to God’s voice and making decisions on this basis might require courage of the kind these TV and film personalities displayed.  Like them,  I may have to risk being humiliated to actually seek answers from Him and do what He says.

Perhaps my trepidation is an exercise in overthinking. Ours is a time when people do what is right in their own eyes anyhow, so I may be worrying in vain about how people see me when I go against their grain. On the other hand, everything seems to be permissible today EXCEPT being a follower of Jesus, so I may indeed have a cause for concern.

What I have come to partially understand is the nature of how God  works in His dealings with humans. When He speaks, He is not a dictator. From what I grasp of Him, He is rarely loud nor does he yell. God’s voice is one that is of a kind that mainly whispers.

Furthermore, when he desires to accomplish His work through me, He does so through a man he created in His image, one He made with a certain distinctiveness.  God has no intention of violating my uniqueness. Indeed, he wants to form me from within and honor and set apart my motives, thoughts, plans and ideas in such a way that I am a real and authentic person

Despite the buzz I hear from others, I realize in my mind that opposition to the pursuit of this genuine “me” should not even be an issue with secular folks ? Historically, going after our human originality has been totally valid. For instance, the 16th century William Shakespeare called it being true to yourself.

The rub in modern society may be that I am chasing the honest “me” on the basis of what may seem like an  ethereal relationship with and obedience to a Supreme Being it knows little about. Our modern world doesn’t seem to have much use for the God portrayed in the Bible. Of the the billions of people inhabiting this planet, it is my perception that a relatively small percentage search out the truths found in this book.

The words from His Scriptures have been my foundation for living for a long time. They speak to my purpose in this world and how that is to play out for me as an individual personality. In fact, I began following Jesus in high school BECAUSE I discovered that my true purpose was found in Him.

American pastor and teacher J. Vernon McGee cites the following text from the Bible to support his teaching that God desires to work through His people so that they are normal and natural and not some automatons:
Stop assuming an outward expression that does not come from within you and is not representative of what you are in your inner being but is patterned after this age; but change your outward expression to one that comes from within and is representative of your inner being, by the renewing of your mind, resulting in your putting to the test what is the will of God, the good and well- pleasing and complete will, and having found that it meets specifications, place your approval upon it. (Romans 12:2 Wuest Expanded Translation).

In some fashion, I believe this passage says that God’s will must suit ME! The Bible actually tells me to approve His specs for me. Working with God to shape my life is not life having an autocrat for a boss.

Shakespeare likened humans to actors playing a part on the stage of this world. The director gives the players the script and they’re to recite it. McGee disagrees with the learned bard.

“This is not true of the believer,” he said. “He must be genuine because (God the) Holy Spirit is working from within.”

McGee indicates that I would actually be working at cross purposes with God and my own personhood if I do not remain true to myself.

“The minute you and I assume a pose, to be something we are not, it will be impossible to determine the will of God for our lives,” he said. “The will of God becomes good and fits the will of the believer exactly.”

Knowing how to ascertain and implement the plan of God for my life has not been easy over the course of my life. I have been confused at times and in retrospect, made mistakes.

This could be because I have acted like a participant in a game who tries to win without knowing much about the rules or how to play. As an avid board gamer in my youth, I know it’s important to understand the instructions.

Pleasing centers around two words that sound strange in this culture of independence..

One of these terms is ‘worship’. I was created for a relationship with Jesus, one that involves devoting myself wholly to Him. The term ‘worship’ should not astound us. After all ,we “worship” girlfriends, boyfriends and rock stars. Why not “worship”Jesus.

Another word that is bizarre for us but is crucial in following Jesus is the term ‘surrender’. Pastor Rick Warren in his best selling book “The Purpose Driven Life” reveals that surrendering to Jesus is at the heart of the worship of Him.

He explains that when a believer in Jesus comprehends the true meaning of “surrender”, they can be in a place to relinquish the fear, pride and confusion that can sometimes accompany following Him. In defining “surrender, Warren writes  that the term does not mean “passive resignation, fatalism, or an excuse for laziness.”

Warren notes:

“It may mean the exact opposite: sacrificing your life or suffering in order to change what needs to be changed. Surrendering is not for cowards or doormats.”

The people who I wrote about last time were definitely not cowards or doormats. But stories I watched said nothing about the roots of the courage they revealed in pursuing their hopes  and dreams. They only spoke of what those passions were. But they at least exemplified a brave pursuit of their fulfillment.

What I have learned from these fictional folks is that I need to determine what my current passions and hopes are. What should follow is to take what I learn to God with open arms and let Him help me live them out in a way that pleases Him.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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