The Value of Friends

If you could throw your suitcase into the car and take a whirlwind, 5-day vacation, where would you go? 

I recently had that opportunity. First, I considered driving south to the Gulf of Mexico, where I could get relax in a Bed & Breakfast and spend time writing beside the ocean. Instead, I headed north to Indianapolis, where I stayed in one of the apartments maintained by the Christian mission where I worked for years. There, I performed some volunteer labor for the mission and visited local friends, including a Ukrainian couple who, in God’s timing, were visiting the U.S. on behalf of the ministry. 

Next, I headed to Michigan, where I stayed in Dad’s house (and picked up more of my clothing to bring back to Alabama) and visited with him. On my way back south, I swung through Indiana once more, where I enjoyed breakfast with another longtime friend. In Tennessee I paused and enjoyed supper and fellowship with another Ukrainian family I hadn’t seen in years. 

Along the way, I saw plenty of scenery and listened to tons of music and interesting podcasts. But the best part of this trip? Simply spending time with friends and family. In our lives, people come and go. Many of those we call “friends” are actually only acquaintances. But genuine, longtime friends sweeten our lives. We help each other when needed, and we simply take delight in each other, staying in touch despite distance. True friends make this journey through life better, richer. 

Is there a longtime friend or relative you haven’t seen lately? If you can’t go in person, maybe it’s time to drop a card into the mail or to make a phone call. You need not say much. Even a simple, “I just wanted to let you know I’m thinking of you” is appreciated and worth the time to express it!

“I’m Never Coming Back!”

Picture Joe, a man who realizes he has some sort of problem. Despite drugstore medicines, he isn’t able to cure himself. So, he drops by the local hospital to see if they can help. But after touring the facility, Joe is appalled.

“I don’t want to stay here. Every single patient has a problem. Viruses, appendicitis, broken bones, cancer, diseases, failing kidneys… I don’t want to be like these people. I’m never coming back!”

Instead, Joe signs up for a local gym membership. Maybe exercise will help? However, on his first visit, Joe studies other gym members. He races to the check-in desk.

“I want my money back. I heard this was a good gym. Now I see it’s not.”

“What do you mean?” asks the trainer on duty.

“Just look! All of your members have serious shortcomings. That woman doing leg extensions has flabby arms. The guy on the bench press has a beer belly. And check out those people on the treadmills. Every one is huffing and puffing. From what I’d heard, I thought this gym was full of perfect specimens. I don’t want to be like these people. I’m never coming back!”

As a last resort, Joe visits the local church. Maybe a little religion will help. At first, he’s pleased with the atmosphere. Yet, as time passes, he notices… One man got defensive after a minor criticism. Pride, eh? A woman sitting behind him let slip an unkind remark about another woman. A gossip – in church? And during the service, a couple people had the gall to fall asleep. Wouldn’t they stay awake if they sincerely valued the sermon? 

“I expected these church people to be perfect. But they’re not. I’m never coming back!” 

Dear friend, no reasonable person would imitate the fictional Joe’s reactions to a hospital or a gym. But some people do copy his reaction to church. The truth is, no matter which people you scrutinize, you’ll find flaws. Yep, even in church. But, thank God, He doesn’t require people to become perfect before they worship in His house. In fact, the Bible reveals that “all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). God is perfect. People definitely aren’t. (By the way, not everyone who attends church is actually a born-again child of God. We know they’re among us, and we pray for God to open their eyes to their spiritual need.) 

But the cool truth is that Jesus Christ died to take the punishment for the sins of all people. Placing your faith in Christ won’t suddenly make you faultless. But trusting Christ brings God’s forgiveness of sins and a new relationship with Him. He adopts us into His family. Then, as we worship God and learn more of Him, bit by bit He irons the wrinkles from our lives and makes us more like Himself. Some learn faster than others, but no Christian is 100% flawless. 

So, if you step into church and find a bunch of imperfect people—stick around! There’s room for one more. After all, we gather to worship HIM, not other people.

“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).

“But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12-13).

“But grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and for ever. Amen” (2 Peter 3:18).

Delicious Poisons

Years ago, before cell phones (yes, ancient history), I joined a church group on a two-week camping & mountain-climbing trip in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of Colorado. After days of hiking, one teen guy discovered some mushrooms. He collected them, fried them, and he and his girlfriend ate them.

When our outdoorsman guide found out, he was appalled. Many mushrooms in Colorado aren’t edible, he reminded. 

“But they tasted good,” objected the boy.

The guide looked him in the eye. “Some of the most poisonous mushrooms in the world taste delicious.” Then, to the rest of us he said, “Please, don’t anybody eat anything you find without checking with me.”

For the rest of that afternoon, we waited to see if that teen guy and girl got sick. (Even if they had, there was no way to summon help so deep in the mountains.) Fortunately, nothing happened. On this occasion, ignorance didn’t prove fatal.

But that guide’s words stick with me. Even things that are tasty can poison us. Recognizing the danger in advance should help us avoid swallowing questionable foods. But do we exercise the same caution concerning things that we allow into our eyes and ears?

Whenever anyone starts gossiping or criticizing someone else, one pastor I know interrupts to ask, “Is this a prayer request?” He will not stomach gossip and trash talk. With a simple question, he shuts it down.

What about the books and magazines we read, the TV shows and movies we watch, or the Internet sites we click to visit? Do we refuse to allow unwholesome sights and sounds into our brain? There’s a battle raging for your mind. Even a spell-binding story can dress up evil as good, can deliver carefully crafted immorality in a way that makes it look enticing, tantalizing…

The Bible agrees there is pleasure in sin—but only “for a season” (Hebrews 11:25). Satan knows how to make sin look slick and enjoyable. But he doesn’t show you the flip side—the damaged relationships, the broken homes, the emotional baggage, venereal diseases… The list goes on.

“I know it’s wrong, but it feels so right,” some object.

Sure, it does. Just like the tastiest mushrooms can be deadly.

“Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength, and my redeemer.” Psalm 19:14

“I will set no wicked thing before mine eyes: I hate the work of them that turn aside; it shall not cleave to me.” Psalm 101:3

“Wherewithal shall a young man cleanse his way? by taking heed thereto according to thy word. With my whole heart have I sought thee: O let me not wander from thy commandments.” Psalm 119:9-10

The Conversations that Count Most

Warning: When you and a friend chat in a restaurant, a writer might be listening. It’s not that writers are nosey. The problem is that writers of fiction must constantly come up with fresh tidbits to sprinkle into their pages. When we find ourselves in public places, our antennae are up. Interesting snippets might get jotted down for later consideration.

But have you ever noticed that most conversations are less than gripping? While writing in coffee shops, I’ve often paused to listen to chatty neighbors. People discuss their pets, their pet peeves, their jobs, Aunt Mildred’s gall bladder, their classes… Few conversations touch truly vital topics. Yet, we as human beings are social creatures. We long to share thoughts with others. Short of capital punishment, one of the worst penalties is solitary confinement—isolation from fellow humans.

No wonder we long to connect. God Himself placed that quality inside humans. The Bible tells reveals that God created humans in His own image. He used to talk with Adam and Eve in the garden. As Alex and Stephen Kendrick point out in their Defined Bible study, “All human beings from Adam and Eve onward are created to know and relate to God.”* That was our meaning for existence, to know and enjoy a relationship with God. But the first couple rebelled against God’s one taboo and became sinners. They broke that close fellowship with the Creator. 

We could not restore the fellowship on our own. The barrier of sin in each life is too tall and thick for us to remove. So, God manifested Jesus Christ in the womb of a virgin, to live a sinless life and to voluntarily die, taking upon Himself the penalty for the sins of all who will accept His ultimate sacrifice. Faith in Christ provides forgiveness of sin and restoration to fellowship with Him. Accepting Christ actually transfers us into the family of God! 

As the apostle Paul described it in Galatians 4:4-5, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.” Wow. Adopted by GOD into His family.

What a privilege believers have, but too often take for granted—the ability to fellowship with our Creator, our Heavenly Father, in prayer. He, too, doesn’t require us to bring earth-shaking topics to the table. But He enjoys hearing from us, His children, with whatever is on our hearts.

As Jesus said, “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” Matthew 6:5-6

Do you know God? Have you talked with Him today? If the answer to either question is No, He’d love to hear from you!

*Defined. Nashville: Lifeway Press, 2019, p. 17.

Defending Friends in Need

In September of 1940, Nazi bombers and fighter planes regularly appeared over England. One day, Kathleen Rainer was working in a field in Sussex when enemy planes appeared. Fascinated, Kathleen watched as British fighters raced to engage the enemy. British Spitfires and German airplanes battled back and forth in deadly dogfights. Then, as Kathleen watched, a British plane took a deadly hit. The pilot bailed out. Kathleen sighed in relief when the parachute billowed open. Her countryman was safe. But then some German planes did the unthinkable – they flew straight at the dangling man, attempting to machine gun him as he hung defenseless in his harness! But moments later, Kathleen’s horror transformed into admiration:

“The other Spitfires began to circle the parachute, protecting the pilot from the German attack. As the pilot descended down, the rest of his squadron would spiral down with him, guiding him to the ground and protecting him.” *

World War II is long over, but life is still full of attacks. In this struggle, we can take “hits” from attackers, whether at work, on the ball court, even in the home. There are two ways to respond. We can live by the motto, “Every man for himself,” or we can imitate those brave Spitfire pilots who saw their sinking friend and rallied to his aid, even though they themselves became more vulnerable.

In this Christmas season, someone you know may be under attack by enemies. Sickness, loneliness, and heartbreak can hurt even more during holidays. Rather than shutting our eyes to enjoy our own holly jolly season, let’s be on the alert for those are sinking in silence. Your encouragement might be exactly what they need to survive!

*Kathleen Rainer, “Downed Pilots in Sussex,” www.bbc.co.uk.

Keep Looking Up!

In the city of Pontiac, Michigan (where I was born), the tallest building since 1929 was once called the Pontiac State Bank Building. Since construction, various banks have purchased it, and now a private investor owns it. Its new name is Oakland Towne Center, but a lot of us still call it “the old Pontiac State Bank Building.”

Not so long ago, I was reminiscing with friends about that building and I mentioned the statues on top of it. 

“What statues?” replied one. “I don’t remember any statues up there.”

Other friends questioned my memory, too, because they didn’t recall any statues on it, either. 

“You know—the statues of Chief Pontiac and other Indians.”

They thought I was nuts. However, a quick Internet search pulled up photographic evidence of my sanity. The designer of the building graced the top with Gothic artwork of Native Americans in tribute to the Ottawa tribe and to Chief Pontiac, the 1700s leader for whom the city was named. (No, the city was not named after an automobile!) 

The reactions from my friends surprised me. “Well, what do you know!” “All these years, and I never even noticed those!”

How fascinating that the images of Native Americans have looked down from on high for 90 years, and even local people are sometimes unaware of them. Perhaps, in people’s day to day lives, many never bother to raise their eyes higher than the first few floors, assuming there isn’t anything worth seeing up higher. 

Reflecting on this exchange reminded me of God. The Creator of Heaven and earth is ever present, and He takes an interest in the earth 24/7. “The eyes of the Lord are in every place, beholding the evil and the good” (Proverbs 15:3). Yet, many residents of earth—even those who know His name—rarely pause to look up or think about Him. Of course, that’s a pity, because unlike the statuary in Pontiac, God is alive. When we leave this earth, He is the One who determines where our soul will spend eternity. For those who have accepted His plan of salvation through Jesus Christ, this is a blessed truth and not fearful at all. 

Do you know Him? If so, keep looking up! Your God is watching over you and looking forward to spending eternity with you. But if you don’t know Him, then start looking up. It’s time to realize He exists, He’s alive, and He wants you to join His family through faith in Jesus! 

“But to all who did receive him [Christ], who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” (John 1:12-13)

“Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.'” John 14:6

The “Wrong” Place Can Be the Right Place

Ever get perturbed when your carefully laid plans don’t go the way you wanted? In World War II, that happened to Captain Alvin Carlson in a dramatic way. Carlson served as chaplain to the 134th Infantry Regiment of the 35th Division in Europe. He wrote…

“One Sunday evening about sundown I had gathered with a large group of replacements (later called reinforcements) in our marshaling area, which was approximately six miles from the front lines. We had assembled in an orchard well protected by apple trees and other foliage. The service of worship was in progress when, without warning, ‘Bed-check Charlie’ started to strafe and hurl bombs at us. One of the men, detecting the first plane, shouted, ‘Enemy planes!’ and we ran for the foxholes. A short time before this I had dug a special foxhole which I could use when I remained in the area overnight, but I could not reach it. I jumped into another hole which was near. Suddenly someone shouted, ‘They got the chaplain.’ I rushed out of my foxhole and shouted, ‘No, here I am!’ A bomb had fallen in my hole – but no one was in it.” 

Friend, you may lay your plans, and God might allow those plans to work as you hope, and He might not. But for those who love the Lord, even the “wrong” place – the unplanned place – can be the right place to be when God is working behind the scenes.

Source: He Is Able, by Chaplain Alvin O. Carlson (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1945), pp. 35-36.

The Blessings We Overlook…

Photo by Kiy Turk

A friend named Larry worked in a store. Larry enjoyed the job, and in general he liked his coworkers. But one coworker always sounded depressed. The man regularly complained about one thing or another. To listen to him, Larry said, you would think absolutely nothing ever went right in the man’s life.

So, Larry decided to offer the coworker some advice. “Don’t always focus on the negative things. You’ll be happier if you count your blessings.”

“Blessings?” the coworker replied. “What blessings? I don’t have any!”

“Oh, no? Come with me.” Larry led the coworker to the large window at the front of the store. “Look out there. Tell me what you see.”

The man frowned but did as Larry asked. “I don’t see anything special. Just a parking lot. Cars. People walking. Buildings. The sky. And that airplane.”

“Exactly,” Larry replied. “Those things may not be special, but do you have any idea how many people in the world would give anything to see what you see? But they never will, because they’re blind.”

That negative-mind coworker rejected the advice with a “Bah” and walked away.

But Larry’s point is on target. If you live on the planet earth, it’s absolutely guaranteed some things in life aren’t the way you wish. Yet, if we focus on the negative, we totally miss a world of blessings, starting with eyes that see, ears that hear, a brain that functions, a warm bed with a soft pillow… All of these are blessings that not everyone has.

There’s a temptation to look at others and wish we had what they have. Don’t. After all, even the rich and famous get depressed. Some people own so much—but end up committing suicide. So, instead of focusing on what we don’t have or on how we wish life were different, let’s give thanks for the blessings we do have, no matter how simple.

That one decision can transform Thanksgiving into more than a once-a-year holiday. We can make it a lifestyle.

“Praise ye the Lord. O give thanks unto the Lord; for he is good: his mercy endureth forever.” Psalm 106:1 

 “In everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.” 1 Thessalonians 5:18

Schools of Life

Photo by Nils Stahl

Students rejoice when – at last! – they graduate and leave school days behind. But even if we don’t attend college, trade school, or a military academy, life has a way of forcing us through other schools.

These other schools aren’t made of brick and mortar. They’re seasons of life that teach us lessons we don’t learn in a classroom. 

For instance, years ago I knew a particular man. Truth be told, I sometimes avoided him. Not because he was bad, but because he held opinions that struck me as nutty, and he enjoyed sharing those opinions whether you wanted to listen or not. We were friends, but I didn’t highly value the friendship. Then came a summer when I needed to reroof the house. To save money, I put out a call for friends to lend a hand on Saturday. Many came! We didn’t bang out the whole job, but we made good progress. However, because I had to leave the country on Monday for a ministry trip, I needed to finish the roof on Sunday afternoon. Out of all my friends, guess which man showed up to help that second day—the one I had appreciated the least. The experience humbled me. God taught me that even people I hadn’t highly valued could be the very ones He sends to bless. 

For several years I’ve been in another season of life—caregiver to aging parents. This “school” has taught me about Medicare, Power of Attorney, etc. Just as important, I’ve had to learn lessons in patience, self-sacrifice and understanding. Caregiving even teaches that you don’t need to correct a person who firmly believes something that’s not true. (Just try to convince someone with dementia that a dream never actually happened!) 

This season of schooling has stretched me in ways I didn’t want to be stretched. Yet, through it all, God is there. He knows my situation. He knows where I’d rather be. But, as someone once noted, we usually pray for God to change our situation when God is wanting to change us. I guess my progress shows, since a family member says I’ve become kinder and gentler.

This year, a good friend shared this fact: “Happiness is a choice.” It’s true. Life might not turn out the way we want. We can find ourselves in seasons we’d rather skip. But rather than blame God or let circumstances rob our joy, we can rise above circumstances, focus on blessings, and choose to be happy anyway. 

That’s a lesson from life worth learning.

“Thank you for coming”

Photo by Cristian Newman

Last night, something totally unspectacular happened. Our church is one of several that visits a local nursing home to hold a little church service for the residents. The youngest resident is a 27-year-old man who receives oxygen through a nasal canula. The eldest is a little lady in a wheelchair who is now 101 and has a mind full of memories. 

Typically, our services aren’t long. We sing a couple hymns to the accompaniment of a piano. Then anyone who has a prayer request can share it with the group. One of us visitors (anywhere from 6-12) will pray, and then one of us will share a 20-minute message from the Bible. 

At the conclusion, we linger a little and chat with the residents, getting to know each other and sharing a little humor or tidbits from our daily lives. Nothing earth-shaking. 

Last night, I wasn’t the one who had shared from God’s Word (I take my turn, but not last night). I was only one of several who had gone to be part of the group. So, when a little gray-haired woman in a wheelchair shook my hand and said, “Thank you for coming,” her words left a special imprint.

What had I done? Not much. I came, sang, listened, chatted, and slipped in a comment or two that sparked smiles. The investment of time hadn’t been huge. So, for what was she thankful? First, we remembered them. The old saying declares, “Out of sight, out of mind,” and I suppose nursing home residents know the feeling of being forgotten. Yet, when our group from church arrives and greets them with smiles and holds a humble church service for them, they not only enjoy the fresh faces of visitors, but they receive proof that they aren’t forgotten. Also, we treat them with respect, like peers, not as patients. Our simple conversations allow them to feel plugged in to the outside world, not just passing time inside the same walls. 

True, any observer would declare nothing spectacular happened. Nothing worthy of a Hollywood movie. Nothing a journalist would write up for the local newspaper. Yet, we shared the love of God and brightened the evening of a group of people whose days on earth are winding down. And they say, “Thank you for coming.”

To make a positive difference in this world, you don’t need to pack enormous stadiums with people. You don’t need to be rich, famous, good-looking, or active in politics. If you’re willing to care for people, treat them with respect, and shine a little light into their lives, those small gestures have an impact. And that is pretty spectacular.