Illusions of Immortality

Twenty-eight year old Natalie went into the hospital last week with a stomach bug. She died a few days later. Walking with her and her family through unimaginable heartache and unexpected loss gave me time to reflect on life.

What do you do when faced with tragedy? Most try to find reasons, things or people they can blame. Questions emerge. Were there drugs involved? What did she do? Did the doctors make a mistake? How could this happen?

This time, there is no one and nothing to blame. Natalie was a likeable person. She was young. She was an over-achiever. Not just smart, she was a valedictorian. She worked her way through nursing school, graduated without debt and owned her own home while most of her peers were still trying to figure out which bills to pay first.

No, she wasn’t perfect. Yes, she had her share of challenges. But there simply is no easy way to explain away her “untimely” passing.

Tragedies such as this are why many of Natalie’s peers have embraced fatalistic and narcissistic attitudes and behaviors. What’s the point of working hard or trying to get ahead in a world where things like this can happen to anybody?!? “Live for today, for tomorrow may never come…” Right?

Well, if this life were it, I suppose that line of thought could be right. The reality is, there is much more to this life than meets the eye. We have much more at stake and much more to live for than we could dare imagine.

You see, Natalie is much more alive than most could fathom. During her life, she had received life that transcends this life. She had been, and still is, connected to the Giver of all life because God had chosen Natalie to be His own dear daughter.

There are many, whose hearts are still beating, who are so busy living for today, who are already dead. They’re dead in sin. They lead lives of selfishness. Even though they may not see it, others who have life, can see how spiritual death affects the lives, choices, and relationships of those who don’t know God.

It often isn’t until someone physically dies, especially a peer, close friend or family member, that those who are spiritually dead stop to consider their lives. Sometimes they even come to terms with an emptiness they’d either never recognized or brushed aside.

Most people today live with, what I like to call, “illusions of immortality.” Few would dare dream that human beings will actually cure death. But just as damaging (and even damning for some) is the thought that we can postpone the inevitable, inevitably.

Some think they can exercise themselves into good health forever. Others think it possible to will themselves to be healthy. Some have supplement regimens that promise to stave off all manner of ill health. Still more live close enough to the hospital that the doctors will be able to fix whatever ails them when they become ill. There are even Christian preachers preaching such non-sense in the Name of Jesus!

Most are so focused on today that they never pause long enough to consider the future, let alone eternity. Thankfully, Natalie lived her life in light of eternity. She knew the love of God and life that only He can give. When she stumbled, He caught her. When she fell, He lifted her up. We hear the hope Natalie possessed expressed well by the prophet Isaiah:

He gives power to the faint,

Since ancient times, the eagle has been a symbol of grace and strength. What great hope comes from knowing the grace and strength of the Almighty God! Courtesy Logos Media Resources.

Since ancient times, the eagle has been a symbol of grace and strength. What great hope comes from knowing the grace and strength of the Almighty God! Courtesy Logos Media Resources.

and to him who has no might he increases strength.

Even youths shall faint and be weary,

and young men shall fall exhausted;

but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength;

they shall mount up with wings like eagles;

they shall run and not be weary;

they shall walk and not faint. (Isaiah 40:29-31 ESV)

God proved, once and for all, that even death won’t take life from His children. When Jesus died on the cross, all sin was forgiven and heaven was opened to all who believe. We, who know God’s Son, and live in His love, will never die! By the power of His resurrection, we to will rise and live a new life!!

Natalie’s family takes great comfort in this fact. As her mother told me, “Natalie is happy, while we are sad. Natalie is healed.”

We don’t have to wait until our earthly life end’s to know the life that Christ can give. We have been given access to that life through faith, faith which God’s Holy Spirit gives. Eyes opened to eternity, we get to live now and forever!

Consider your life. In what have you placed your hope? From where does your strength come? Are you living in the hopes that you may not die? Or have you died in Christ, so that you may live?

 

When Life Isn’t Fun.

Today wasn’t going incredibly well for me. Now, I’m not complaining. Simply stating a fact.

I can’t complain because God is good, I love my family and get to do what I love every day. I live in a free country. I am materially blessed far more than I could ever deserve.

And yet, today I found myself down. Even though I was doing something that I love, it was harder than I expected. My brain hurt. Words wouldn’t flow. Pressing needs were stacking up against me quicker than I could make time for.

Recent failures on my part were also looming in my mind. They had managed to creep from the back burner to the foreground of my thoughts. I couldn’t escape them. They were crowding out my joy and even my ability to concentrate on the task at hand.

I also was confronted with a situation that is far less than desirable for one of my sheep whom I love. I was processing all sorts of emotions, most of which were negative. What do you do when life isn’t fun?

Usually, I’d push through it. Pretend all is well and keep on truckin’. “Turn that frown upside-down,” the saying goes.

Easier said than done. Now normally, my exert-enough-effort-and-things-will-get-better mentality works. Not this time. By late morning, I had spiraled downward enough that I was simply wasting my time being unproductive.

I had planned on working through lunch, so I went down to the lunchroom. One of the perks of working at a church with a school is school lunch. For many, school lunch is a byword. But I love it! So I went down to get some chips, artificial cheese, taco meat in something the size of a medicine cup, frozen strawberries and two, count them two, packets of carrots. (We have a great lunch lady.)

Better yet, my timing collided with the lunch of one of my children.

Instead of turning right to take my lunch back to the office and eat it alone so I could power through my darkness, I turned left to eat lunch with my son whom I love. My problems didn’t miraculously vanish. Nor did my work magically get done. Neither did the problems I had been wrestling with in my mind go away, but everything changed.

Love is a powerful force. It is impossible to predict. We can’t control it. And yet, it changes everything.

To the outside observer, all that happened was a pastor having lunch with a table full of first grade boys. They made ridiculous jokes. One offered me some sunflower seeds. Another made faces at me the entire time. My son was mostly silent, sipping on a chocolate milk, content to be with his dad. What mattered was that we were together.Kids don't have to be taught how to love.

I was reminded of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in Life Together. “Only in the fellowship do we learn to be rightly alone and only in aloneness do we learn to live rightly in the fellowship.” My inner feeling of darkness, or “aloneness” if you prefer, had prepared me to cherish this moment of fellowship with my son.

In his presence, I felt the gentle restoration of my soul. In a way I couldn’t have forecast (and would have completely missed had I ate lunch alone in my office with my work) my joy returned.

I remembered that this is why I do what I do. Love for and the love of my family and my church family make the difficulties all worthwhile. Love doesn’t remove my moments of darkness. My love for my people actually makes some of the hard stuff of being a father and pastor harder. Honestly, in some clinical and professional way, my job would be much “easier” if I didn’t love the people under my care.

But life without love would be meaningless, “a chasing after wind,” as the writer of Ecclesiastes states. (Ecclesiastes 1 & 2) In a quiet moment of togetherness, my joy in who I am as God’s child returned.

Along with the return of joy came an epiphany. Maybe, in some small way, I’ve felt just a little of what Christ feels for me.

This is love.His earthly life wasn’t always fun. Both as a human being, but also as God. He became weak for me. He was even made sin for me. He died a most painful death for me. That most certainly wasn’t fun.

Why did He choose to live a life that wasn’t always fun? The wisdom of the world says that you should have as much fun as you can while you can because you never know what the future holds. Jesus’ life and death teaches us something different. Love > fun.

Jesus lived a life that wasn’t always fun because He loves me and wants to be with me. He wants me to know and experienced Him and His love. He died and rose again so that I can live every day of this life certain of His love. His love makes this life worth living.

Even better yet, His love never ends! When I love others and go through times of darkness, He uses me to show them His love. When my joy is rekindled because of a lunch with someone I love, He uses that person to show me His love. And because He has destroyed death by the power of His resurrection, I know that when He returns, I will rise to live in His love forever! Heaven will be filled with His people doing what makes life worth living—receiving God’s love and sharing love with each other. What a joy it is to live in His love!

Maybe you’ve read this because your life isn’t always fun. Welcome to the club. My prayer for you is not that God keeps you from experiencing moments of darkness in your life. But rather, that God uses those moments of darkness to reveal a new measure of His love to you!

“We rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.” (Romans 5:2b-11 ESV)

On Our Origins blog 2014 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for my blog. Want to see who and how many checked it out this year? See below.

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 6,200 times in 2014. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 5 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Pain and Hope-A Pilgrimage and then a Mission

My adventure in Africa began on a pilgrimage with my fellow Wabash Pastors in South Africa. While there, we studied a troubled history of many peoples whose story is punctuated by rivalries, conquest, defeat and victory. This nation is still haunted by sins of her past, yet a new generation, born free, seeks to write a new history of hope.
After parting ways with my colleagues, I traveled alone to Kenya, to survey for myself the work being done at Point of Grace Academy. This was my first visit to 4 Kenya’s Kids, the mission I lead stateside. This part of my trip was truly a blessed opportunity for me to live with my brothers and sisters in Christ, whom I’ve heard so much about. As with my experience in South Africa, my journey began with some disappointments and concluded with renewed hope for the African continent.

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To be perfectly honest, my first day in Kenya was quite difficult. Snafu’s at the airport leading to half a day lost reclaiming a bag at the airport was an inconvenient beginning. Being confronted with thousands of people who live in conditions that would be totally unacceptable in the states was a shock to the system. Crippling poverty was accented by crumbling infrastructure due to inept (at best) or corrupt (at worst) contractors failing to fulfill their obligations to the public. All this before I even got to the mission of Pastor and Deaconess Meeker for the children at Point of Grace.

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At Point of Grace, I was introduced to, and unconditionally loved, by more than 400 of my best friends. Some were born with HIV. Many are orphans. Most of the students I met are at least partial orphans. All have been given a new lease on life at Point of Grace.

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Pastor is here counseling a boy we literally rescued from the streets just a year ago. Already, Meshack is one of our brightest students.

At our school, these children receive a topnotch education. Even though we seek out the destitute and have a disproportionately high number of children with family, social and economic troubles, Point of Grace was ranked in the top 1/3 of primary schools in our area. Education=hope in Kenya, and the schooling these children receive promises to break the cycle of poverty for many families.
These children are fed, clothed, cared for and loved by a diligent staff who labors day and night for the kids. St. James challenged his readers by saying, “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” (James 2:18b, ESV) Watching our teachers and staff work, even though none of them would say so themselves, was, to me, watching God Himself care for his children.

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This entire ministry is the love of Christ in action! The school was built, the ministry founded and is being sustained by the Savior who loves these children enough to give up His own life for theirs. As His people give of themselves for these little ones, be they teachers, supporters or prayer partners, He is present in our midst!

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As I sit in an airport terminal prepared to depart from Kenya, more than ready to see my own wife and children,  I am torn. I don’t know whether to weep or rejoice for these children. I want to weep for the struggles they face. I rejoice for the richness of faith they possess, which I surmise far surpasses my own. I weep because I can’t save them from their distress. I rejoice because God already has.

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I don’t know how best to serve these children, but I am convinced I need to do more for them. Not for my own sake, but for theirs. Not for the love of Christ, but because of the love of Christ.
Will you join me? Has God called you, through the gentle tug on your heart and whisper of His Spirit, to do what you can to give them hope for today and a glorious future? What are you going to do about it?

Bloom Where You’re Planted- Cape of Good Hope Baboons

“WARNING! Don’t feed the baboons.” As per usual for this trip, our journey to the end of the world turned out to be something completely different than I expected. I was excited about and proud to say I’ve walked to the end of the world. I can also say that I climbed to the top of the highest point of rock at the end of the Cape.
What I didn’t expect was being captivated by baboons. Along the path to the Cape there were dense bushes and thick grass, which I figured would well conceal them. I was intently peering into the bushes on both sides, hoping to catch a glimpse of the supposedly “reclusive” creatures.
My friend Michael and I went a bit below the main path to get a picture together in front of the Cape. I wondered if our chances of spotting a baboon might be a little better off the beaten path. No such luck.

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We went back up to the main path and I asked him to take a picture of me in front of the Cape, seated on a rock wall. Below are pictures of what happened next.

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Me sitting on the wall.

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A baboon climbing up on the wall where I had been seated. She didn’t ask for permission. No. Instead, while Michael was taking pictures, she came straight up to me, nearly climbing into my lap. I was slightly frightened by the overt friendliness of this particular baboon.

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The baboon sitting where I had been seated. She apparently wanted her picture taken where I had my picture taken. Maybe it was because she liked my spot. Maybe because she wanted to show me how silly me getting my picture in front of the Cape appeared to the baboons.

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The baboon becoming friends with Bill, Clarinda, myself and many of the people in my group. We didn’t feed her anything. We just watched her enjoying my perch for a while. Or maybe I had been enjoying her perch for a while.
We counted ourselves blessed by seeing one of these purportedly reclusive creatures in the wild. We regouped and began the ascent to the light house. That was when the rest of her clan showed up.

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Mom baboon carrying a juvenile under her belly.

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Baboons wrestling.

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Baboons where I’d mistakenly assumed baboons would be, out in the bush.
There were so many baboons that we actually kinda wanted to get away from them. Michael was particularly of this opinion when one of the baboons lunged at him, bearing its teeth. I’d love to say it made a roar or barked or something. It didn’t. But it did make Michael jump, which amused the rest of us for a while.
We climbed up to the light house and snapped our pictures. Heading back down, we almost wanted to try to avoid the baboons. We couldn’t.  They were everywhere.
We learned that baboons go wherever baboons want to go. They have no notion of personal space. Rather, I think they like popping personal space bubbles.
But the baboons did have a nice surprise for us on our way down. About half way down the hill, a mother baboon plopped down and started grooming her baby right in front of me.

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This was certainly one of the neatest moments on my trip thus far. To see a baboon mother caring so gently for her infant was precious! I haven’t used that word on my blog for a while now, but it fits.
Reflecting on the unexpected blessing these baboons were to me, I offer you some questions to reflect upon. What has God done for you that deserves your praise? How can your praise become more than something you say or do for him? What would a life of praise look like, were you to praise God with all that you are?
“Open my lips, O Lord, and my mouth will declare your praise.” Psalm 51:15

Bloom Where You’re Planted-Penguins! Real. Wild. Free.

I came to touch a penguin. The penguins touched me instead. One of the final announcements that I made at church before leaving for South Africa was that I wanted to touch a penguin. That was tops on my list of things to do while here.

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But when I got to Simonstown and ventured down to Boulder Beach, I couldn’t bring myself to touch a penguin. They got to me first. The more I learned about the penguins, watched them, and enjoyed my time with them, the more special they became. I couldn’t bring myself to even try touching a penguin (even though I was most certainly close enough to do so) because every reason I had to try was a better reason not to touch them.
First, penguins are vulnerable. While out to sea, penguins can be attacked by killer whales, sharks and seals. On shore, there are many enemies including domestic dogs, cats and the occassional tourists (who mean no harm, I promise), who hurt penguins by interfering with them. Besides natural predators, they also contend with commercial fisherman for food. When one considers that of the millions of penguins once living, the penguins of Boulder Beach only number a couple of thousand, they’re even more vulnerable.

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Second, penguins are resilient. Despite their challenges, they have proven to be a species that responds well to human cooperation. The colony I visited is the offspring of only two penguin pairs, who were used to plant the colony back in the 1980’s. Changes in fishing techniques and protective laws have allowed the penguins to flourish in Simonstown. They are survivors, telling a wonderful story of hope for other species that are endangered or threatened.

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Third, penguins are faithful. A pair of penguins mate for life. For this, they have much more sense than many humans. It is refreshing to see that even in the animal kingdom, some are faithful to the end. When a penguin pair says, “til death do us part,” they mean it!

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Fourth, penguins are loving. They take care of each other. Mom and dad penguins take turns caring for their young for the four months their babies need to stay on land after being hatched. When they are molting (as they were when I visited them), they prune each other’s feathers, gently caressing each other.

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You see, there’s lots to love about penguins! Penguins-small, cute and innocent as are, exemplify many aspects of our life in Christ. They are living examples of many values we cherish as Christians.
We are vulnerable, but God loves us enough to meet our every need in His Son Jesus Christ. Just as the mom and dad penguins take good care of their babies, God loves and cares deeply for us. Their faithfulness to each other is a reminder that Jesus was faithful, even to dying on a cross so that we can forever know HIs love and forgiveness. Following His lead, we seek to be faithful to our friends, family and neighbors. God gave us penguins because He loves us and loves filling our hearts with joy in many ways, even by simply spending time with penguins on a South African beach.

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“And this shall be to me a name of joy, a praise and a glory before all the nations of the earth who shall hear of all the good that I do for them. They shall fear and tremble because of all of the good and all the prosperity I provide for it.” Jeremiah 33:9, ESV
Yesterday, much joy came into my heart from penguins. Where does your joy come from? Is it a truly lasting joy? If a penguin can give me such joy, what joy can God give you, both now and forever? 

Bloom Where You’re Planted – South Africa Flowers

I was quite surprised when I learned South Africa boasted her own floral kingdom. Honestly, I thought to myself, “just because Darwin stopped off for a while on his trip around the world isn’t reason enough for a place to have its own floral kingdom. Especially when one considers there are only six such kingdoms world wide.
But in my time here, I’ve seen why such a high honor is deserved by this place. Below are a select few reasons why I’ve changed my mind.

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One of over 200 varieties of Protea.

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Wall flowers.

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There’s a hummingbird perched above these flowers, in front of the aloe tree.

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Beauty in an unlikely place atop Table Mountain.

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At Stellan Bosch University campus.

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I don’t even know what these are, but they’re everywhere! Let me know what they are and I’ll send you a copy of my book.

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More orange beauties.

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The King Protea, national flower.

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Crane flower.

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More proteas.

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Calla Lily in a slum.

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An Anglican rose.

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Bird of Paradise.

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“The grass withers, the flower fades, but the Word of our God will stand forever!” Isaiah 40:8 ESV.