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The One Best Word For God

The One Best Word for God

If asked to choose a single word out of all the words you know that best describes God, which would you choose?

You know many words.  So do I.  Deciding on only one may prove difficult because God has so many traits, and all of them are good.  As a Christ-follower, our personal experiences with Him probably influence to some degree our choice of words.  We see Him in light of His dealings in our lives.

Words that could describe God would certainly include these:  truthful and forgiving, righteous and unchanging, just to name a few.  Some responding to my query may base their choice on a particular experience with God in which He met a personal need, provided guidance at a critical moment, or revealed himself in a fresh, exciting way.  For example, an individual who has found forgiveness and restoration after committing a grievous sin might choose the word merciful, or perhaps forgiving.

Let’s frame the question differently:  Suppose you are speaking to someone who has never heard the claim there is a God who exists.  He or she has no spiritual background, no familiar religious jargon with which you can connect and begin to communicate.  You are attempting to describe God, knowing He cannot be touched, seen, or heard.   Our five senses are useless.  But you know from personal experience that God really is “there.”  What one word—what attribute, trait, or virtue—would you pick that best describes Him?

As I think about friends I know, I can usually with a little effort decide on a word that, more than others, sums up the person’s life, that comes to mind when I hear the person’s name called.  One best word rises to the surface just like air bubbles trapped in water.

Remembering my father, only one word perfectly describes him:  goodness.  He was incredibly kind and generous with the poor, the ignorant, the marginalized, and the forgotten of the earth.  In that sense, he was more like Jesus than any person I have ever known, of whom it was simply said:  “He went about doing good.”

Every individual, I believe, carries a unique “life message,” a predominant character trait that edges out all other traits that might be mentioned.  That one trait, that “life message,” will find expression more often and more forcefully than any other. It may be a very good trait, or one that is terrible and destructive.  So, of one person we may say that he or she is “a very loving individual” while of another we may say he or she is “a very angry and bitter person.”

The protracted influence of our “life message,” remembered long after we are gone, is a staggering thing to consider.  Our influence may prove to be beneficial or destructive, cherished or loathed.   Some feel the influence Abraham Lincoln has had on American democracy and values is far stronger now than ever during his lifetime.  If the idea of fairness was Lincoln’s “life message,” then consider the role his influence has played on civil rights and the fair treatment of all people over the past 151 years.

A person’s influence doesn’t stop when he or she dies.  It goes on and on, and is inextricably tied to this word we call his “life’s message,” the one best word that describes him.

What is your best word for God in light of your personal experience with him and your understanding of how he disclosed himself through the Bible?

It recently struck me how many verses from the Psalms I had memorized which contain the word “lovingkindness,” and how vague was my understanding of the word.  My search for its significance began that moment.

Here is my “take” on what I have come to believe is the one best word for God, at least in the Old Testament.

When the writer of Psalms reached for the highest, grandest, and most noble word he could find to describe God, more often than not he used the Hebrew word, Chesed.  It is used 240 times in the Old Testament, and was variously translated as mercy, goodness, or favor to describe God’s attitude toward man.[1]  But 30 of those times it was translated lovingkindness when it referred specifically to God’s love for his people, Israel.[2]

Lovingkindness does not appear in the New Testament, but finds its nearest counterpart in the Greek word for grace, Charis.  Lovingkindness can be defined as “the kindly way in which God treats, or may be expected to treat, His people, because he loves them.[3]

The hyphenated double word “loving-kindness” was coined by Myles Coverdale when he published the first complete English Bible in 1535.[4]  The King James Bible of 1611 followed closely Coverdale’s use of the phrase in its Old Testament translation of Chesed, so that lovingkindness appears 30 times, mostly in the Psalms.  For example,

Psalm 26:3  “For this lovingkindness is before mine eyes. . .”

Psalm 36:7  “How excellent is thy lovingkindness, O God! . . .”

Psalm 119:149  “Hear my voice according to thy lovingkindness. . .”

Some modern translators of the Bible understandably choose words other than lovingkindness to use in light of the current meaning of the word: “tender and benevolent affection.”[5]  Lovingkindness is not considered archaic, but neither is it used in everyday language and may not be understood by many.  For example, where “lovingkindness” appears in Psalm 26:3 (KJV, NASB), it occurs in more recent translations as “love” (NIV, NCV), “steadfast love” (NRS), and “constant love “(TEV, NEB).

Lovingkindness tends to combine the elements of loyalty and love.  It is more than God’s love for man, which Coverdale translated as mercy, goodness, or favor.  One dictionary says, “The word stands for the wonder of his unfailing love for the people of his choice, and the solving of the problem of the relation between his righteousness and his loving-kindness passes beyond human comprehension.”[6]

Chesed acts as the centerpiece of God’s self-disclosure of his attitude toward His people:   “It combines the ideas of love, commitment, duty, and care. It is explicitly linked with ‘truth’—i.e., a being true to oneself, truthfulness, reliability—and so there is a stress on the loyalty with which love acts.  Taking the whole evidence of the Old Testament, Chesed holds together the ideas of love and loyalty with a strong emphasis on the practical more than the emotional sides of these ideas.  It is the loyal love that is displayed when there is no other motive to action except love and loyalty.”[7]

And when God shows his “loyal love,” especially as we are loveless and altogether unlovable, we call that grace.

What lovingkindness is to the Old Testament, grace (God unmerited favor) is to the New Testament.

A man might be able to show kindness, or perhaps mercy, to another man without an ounce of love in his heart.  But this could never be said of God.  The kindness and mercy He shows invariably springs from sincere, steadfast love.  And that is what the word lovingkindness attempts to communicate.

Lovingkindness grows out of the divine nature, a patient and inexhaustible trait that leads Him to redeem His people.  It is how the Lord feels and acts toward His people.  As a result, God’s people should act in the same way toward Him, and follow His example in the way they treat others.

Lovingkindness—what an expansive, rich, illustrative word it is!  I lament the fact we do not use it more today, especially to describe God.  It’s too bad it has fallen into disuse.  “Grace” will have to do!

The day is coming when believers will be able to effortlessly love God with the love with which He loves us.  There will be no impediment of sin; our sinful nature will be no more.  We will truly have a new heart, a renewed mind that can think only good and noble thoughts, as well as a transformed body with a mouth capable of speaking only pure and gracious words.

In heaven, it will come to pass that the one great word to describe the people of God will be “lovingkindness.”  We will live perfectly, in perfect community with others, and in perfect fellowship and service with God.  And for the first time, we will love perfectly.

The writer, John, got it right:  “How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called the children of God. . .we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as He is.”  (I John 3:1-2, NIV)

Lovingkindness.

What a great word.

What a great God!

 

Don M. Hull   ©2016

 

 

 

[1] Vine, W.E., Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Nashville:  Thomas Nelson Publishing) 1985, Pg. 142-143

[2] Tenney, Merrill C., ed., The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia Of The Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House) 1976, P. 996

[3] Miller, M. S. and J. L., Harper’s Bible Dictionary (New York: Harper and Brothers) 1961. PO. 402

[4] Tenney, op.cit., P. 996

[5] Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary (Springfield, MA: G. & C. Merriam, Co.)  l976, p. 682

[6] Richardson, Alan, A Theological Word Book Of The Bible (New York: Macmillan Company), 1950 P. 137

[7] Douglas, J.D. and Tenney, M. C., The New International Dictionary Of The Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishers) 1987, P. 603

Benediction

Benediction

          The day before she died, my 90 year-old mother confronted me with a question that startled me.

She asked, “Have you become the person in life you wanted to become?”

We had been carrying on lighthearted conversation in the lobby of her assisted living center and exchanging good-natured barbs.  Then, out of the blue, she fired at point blank range this probing question at me.

As I now reflect back on that moment, her question seems to relate more to her life than to mine, as if she was asking the question of herself.  It is evident she was thinking back over her life in sweet reflection.  She was pondering her own long journey, how fulfilling it had been.  And how fortunate she had been to reach so many goals in life which, to her, were sure evidence of how good and faithful God had been through the changing seasons of her life.

There were the stressful college years in the late 1930s when she worked as a café waitress, scrimping and saving every penny, hoping to eke out enough to go just one more semester.  Then she married my father, and together they shared three decades of teaching in public schools, side by side.  My dad’s early death placed my mother in a 32-year widowhood in which she served as an elected county school official, a community volunteer and church worker, and many years as a first-rate grandmother.

She had a huge inventory of cherished memories spanning 45 years that impacted thousands of Oklahoma youngsters going to school.  She could recall those special kids she taught and helped along the way to become in life what they wanted to become.

Now my mother was asking herself the question:  “Have I become the person in life I wanted to become?”  “Am I there?”

The roots of that question can be traced back more than 60 years to a vow she made to God in a very dark hour.

I contracted a life-threatening case of pneumonia in the fall of 1940 when I was less than a month old.  I had great difficulty breathing and the doctors told my mother is was “touch and go” whether I would survive.  Three weeks passed before the crisis subsided and I was finally allowed to go home.

My mother told me several times—always in carefully-guarded, calculated language so as not to put any expectation on me—about her spiritual struggle with God during those desperate hours.  How she pleaded with God to intervene, to spare my life which had barely begun.  How she promised God that, if she could keep me, she would faithfully raise me for His glory.

Through all my growing-up years she was cautious never to communicate any sense of my being obligated to God, or implying any sense of debt I had to pay for my life being spared.  But she did about everything else to raise me in the best possible spiritual environment.  As an irresponsible teenager, there were countless times I was escorted to church under protest.  But, despite all my growling, my mother did her job, and kept that commitment as well as anyone could.

All through college and doctoral studies. . .into marriage. . .through the years of raising my children who now have their own families. . .and  finally as I engage the senior years. . .I have felt her gentle hand of influence.  She never stopped encouraging and exhorting me toward faithfulness in prayer, excellence in Christian service (which was my choice), and trying to raise her grandchildren in the fear of the Lord.  In a soft, relentless, positive kind of way, she set through her personal influence the bar very high to live right and do right.

I think her question to me about whether I had “become the person I wanted to become” was really her way of asking if I thought I could now make it on my own without her help.  This is a 90 year-old asking a 60+ year-old if he still needs help!   She seemed to ask:  “Is my vow fulfilled?  Do I have permission to lay the burden down?  Can I put you down now?”

I paused a moment to think, then answered with confidence, “I have.  I’m not completely there yet, but I’m close.  Just need a little more time.”  And then I had the presence of mind to turn the question on her:  “What about you?”   With no hesitation she replied, “Oh, yes.”

I pursued:  “What does that mean?”

She replied simply, “Well, I wanted to marry Hull (my dad), and I got to do that.  I wanted to have a child, and I got to do that.”   I waited for more.  There was no more.

All the troubles of this life. . .45 years of teaching countless kids. . .loss of friends and independent living and her own vitality. . .all dropped away as effortlessly as a tree sheds its leaves.  She distilled a storied lifetime spanning nine decades down to two people, my father and me.

I kissed her and left.  Our conversation had come to an end.

The next day her life came to an end.

She just slipped away, as quietly and gently as a snowflake falls.  She died in her sleep, with no evidence of struggle, and with the slightest smile left on her lips.  In sublime peace.

Mission accomplished.  Vow fulfilled.  Promise kept.

I think she found in my answer the release and freedom she sought to her question.  Though I had no way of knowing it at the moment, my answer represented closure on a vow she had made a lifetime earlier.  In surpassing beauty, I now see a picture of a tired, worn-out, but victorious old saint gently laying down the task she had carried more than six decades.

When God steps in to lift the weight of the last care and the last burden off the human spirit, what is left for it to do but stretch its wings and fly?

Home.

In some mysterious and precious way I wonder if my mother did not have some premonition about how eminent was her spiritual graduation day.  There had been no hint of foreboding, no dread, no melancholy.  She seemed to sense the final sentences of her storied life were being written.

There were no “loose ends” to tie up.  No fractured relationships to repair.  No longings of any kind to be fulfilled.  No last-minute moralizing, teaching, or exhortation.  No final rush to do or say anything at all.  When it came time to die, all she had to do was die.

The pull of heaven overcame the pull of earth and her spirit took its flight.

My mother’s question now seems like a benediction on her life:  “Have you become the person in life you wanted to become?”  And without actually saying the words, her life message was like a prayer of blessing that concluded with, “I have.”

All we need to do now is say, “Amen.”

 

Don M. Hull     © 2016

One more time: What Makes a Leader?

One more time:   What Makes a Leader?

. . . Benefitting from the work of Dr. Daniel Goleman

Over the past 15 years I’ve read more than my share of articles and books on Leadership, Management, and Entrepreneurship.  I’m also aware there now have been about 10,000 different studies into the definition and implications of leadership, not to mention a mind-bending number of articles and case studies that highlight one of more characteristics of what it means to be a leader.

One article that takes on greater and greater value for me each year is that of Daniel Goleman, “What Makes a Leader,” found in the November-December, 1998 issue of Harvard Business Review.  The ideas in the article come largely from the groundbreaking work by Goleman published in 1995 under the title, Emotional Intelligence.

This is one of those few pieces of writing that I keep coming back to over and over to help me recalibrate where I am in terms of understanding what it really means to effectively lead people.  I am only one of what must be a countless number of leaders, managers, academicians, or plain ordinary folks who have benefitted enormously from his penetrating insights.

As vital as IQ (Intelligence Quotient) and technical skills are to leadership, Goleman showed that Emotional Intelligence (EI) was and still is the sine quo non (‘without which, not’) of leadership.  He correctly and convincingly pointed out that a person can have the best training in the world, be gifted with an incisive, analytical mind, have an endless supply of brilliant, innovative ideas, and still not make a great leader.

In Goleman’s research, EI proved to be twice as important to leadership as technical skills and cognitive skills combined—-where purely technical skills would include abilities such as accounting and planning, and cognitive skills would include proficiencies such as analytical reasoning and critical thinking (particularly big-picture thinking and long-term vision).

Further, Goleman showed “the higher the rank of a person considered to be a star performer, the more emotional intelligence capabilities showed up as the reason for his or her effectiveness.”  In other words, as one moves up toward the highest levels of leadership within an organization, the more EI capabilities showed up as the single most important driver of effectiveness in leadership.

Rather than having a carefully-worded, formal definition of Emotional Intelligence, we might better understand it by looking at what it does, and how it expresses itself at work, on the job.

Goleman’s construct of EI had five components.  The first three are about self-management skills, and the remaining two concern a person’s ability to manage relationships with others:

Self-Awareness means having an ability to assess oneself realistically and candidly.  This leads self-aware people to have an understanding of their strengths and weaknesses, emotions, needs and drives, and be honest and realistic about them.  People with a high degree of self-awareness recognize how their feelings affect themselves, other people, and performance on the job.  Self-aware people tend to know where they are going, and why.  They have a growing understanding of their values and goals, and try to make decisions that are consistent with them.  Self-aware people tend to be secure and self-confident, to the point they can invite constructive criticism, as well as ask for help when it is needed.  Hallmarks of a self-aware person will include self-confidence, realistic self-assessment, and a self-deprecating sense of humor.  People who can assess themselves honestly and accurately will be ideally suited to do the same for the organizations they lead.

Self-Regulation means being in control of one’s feelings and impulses (being “reasonable”) as opposed to being held captive by them.  This ability has been compared to having an ongoing inner conversation with oneself that fosters the ability to control or redirect disruptive impulses and moods, to think before acting.  Self-regulation enables one to suspend judgment, seek out information, ask questions, and form intelligent, informed decisions.  Self-regulation enables a leader to create an environment of trust and fairness, as well as one that can adjust rapidly to frequent, unsettling changes.  Hallmarks of self-regulated people include trustworthiness and integrity, being comfortable with ambiguity, and openness to change.

Motivation means having a drive to achieve beyond expectations, either self-expectations or those imposed by others.   Motivation suggests a deeply embedded desire to achieve for the sake of achievement in contrast to received rewards for achievement.  Traits of motivated people usually include four things: (1) a passion for the work itself; (2) forever raising the bar on performance; (3) a love for keeping score to track progress and measure performance; and, (4) a deep commitment to the organization.  Hallmarks of motivated people include a strong desire to achieve, optimism even in the face of failure, and organizational commitment.

Empathy means “thoughtfully considering employees’ feelings—along with other factors—in the process of making intelligent decisions.”  Empathy involves an ability to understand the emotional makeup of other people, then skillfully treating them according to their emotional reactions to given circumstances.  Strangely, the word “empathy” has a sort of un-businesslike like sound, as if it is misplaced in the business community.  For that and other reasons, empathy tends not to be recognized, praised, or appropriately rewarded.   Empathy fosters the ability to manage relationships with other people.  Hallmarks of people who demonstrate high levels of empathy include expertise in building and retaining talent, cross-cultural sensitivity, and service to clients and customer.

Social Skill represents a culmination of the preceding four components of EI, and means “friendliness with a purpose,” friendliness that includes the ability to move people in the direction you desire.  Socially-skilled leaders are particularly adept at managing teams and are expert in the art of persuasion.  They have a knack for finding common ground with people of all kinds, for building effective rapport with them.  Socially-skilled leaders know that, if a task is to be done, it will only be done through people, frequently through teams of people.  Hallmarks of socially-skilled people include effectiveness in leading change, persuasiveness in the best sense of the word, and expertise in building and leading teams.

It has been shown repeatedly that the lack of Emotional Intelligence, as evidenced by the inability to build and maintain an effective team of people, is the number one cause of leadership and management “derailment” on the part of promising, rapidly-advancing executives.  This lack of EI accounts for more executive derailment than all other forms of failure combined.

Who among us, at one time or another, has not encountered people (a boss, a fellow worker) with low emotional intelligence?   It is not unusual to hear them described as self-absorbed and self-promoting, insensitive and uncaring, arrogant and egotistical, even cruel and mean-spirited.

The good news is that with a good amount of personal desire and concerted effort, together with the help of peers, coaches, and possibly a mentor, Emotional Intelligence can be learned.  The process is not easy; it takes considerable time and a deep commitment to break up old nonproductive behavioral patterns and adopt new, effective ones.

Question:   One more time, Daniel Goleman:  What Makes a Leader?

Likely Answer:   More than any other prerequisite, a high level of Emotional Intelligence.  And, in addition, a lot of good, old-fashioned IQ and technical ability.

 

Sources:   (1) Goleman, Daniel (1998, November-December) What Makes A Leader?  Harvard

                       Business Review, 35-43

(2) Goleman, Daniel (1995) Emotional Intelligence.  New York:  Bantam Books

 

Don M. Hull

 

 

“Managing the Invisibles”

“Managing The Invisibles”

The Article:

Zweig, David (2014, May) Managing the “Invisibles”.  Harvard

                 Business Review, 96-103

Based on the book:  Zweig, David (2014, 2015) Invisibles: Celebrating the

          Unsung Heroes of the Workplace.  New York: Portfolio/Penguin

There’s something about this concept that resonates with me quickly and strongly.  Perhaps it’s because I think I may be one of them—the “Invisibles.” Or at least I tilt heavily in that direction as a worker, as a person.

“Invisibles” have gained that label because they are viewed as “extremely capable and committed professionals who could easily succeed in high-profile careers but instead gravitate to work that is outside the spotlight.”   Invisibles are all over the place and in every field of endeavor.  Included in their traits is disdaining personal attention and refusing to spend any time or effort on self-promotion.

Invisibles are perfectly content to be anonymous, to live and work without recognition, which flies in the face of our culture known for its aggressive self-absorption and its self-seeking credit and recognition.  If our age is known for anything, it is about seeking the limelight, making sure we are known and appreciated, and that our interests are served,  preferably first.

This presents a real challenge for those of us in leadership and management.  The “Invisibles” in our organization, so critical to innovation and professional excellence, are likely to go unnoticed altogether.  The irony is that this anonymity is what Invisibles prefer as their personal default position.   But “Invisibles” are still people, and our failure to recognize that they, too, have real needs is the fatal first step to taking them completely for granted, thus running the high risk of losing them altogether and the extraordinary value they can bring to our organization.

Zweig cites three traits that describe an “Invisible.”  They are:

  1. Ambivalence toward recognition.   Herein lies one of the greatest paradoxes of an Invisible:  the better you are at what you do, the more you tend to just go “poof” and disappear off organizational radar.  Anything that is self-aggrandizing, that requires courting personal praise, fame, and recognition, is a grievous, colossal waste of time that could have been spent doing significant work.

The better and happier an Invisible becomes at what they do is inversely proportional to the recognition and attention they want, the kind most people crave with sometimes sickening zeal.  What seems to gratify the Invisible most is the work itself.

  1. Meticulousness.  Deeply embedded in the work ethic of the Invisible is an extraordinary attention to detail, an unyielding commitment to the highest level of excellence, and being methodical, meticulous, and punctilious sometimes to the extreme of seeming petulant and “fussy.”  The Invisible is committed to nothing less than the best—an unbending, non-negotiable, unyielding resolve that holds him and his work to the highest possible standard of quality and excellence, yet without becoming a “perfectionist” in an unhealthy or destructive sense.
  2. Savoring of responsibility.   Another paradox (or is it irony?) about the Invisible:  when they do their jobs perfectly, they are rarely or never thought of.  It’s only in the rare case when something goes wrong is attention ever directed toward them.  Zweig observes, “Invisibles show us that power and visibility are not always aligned.  We might think that the person at the top of the pyramid, the front of the stage, or the head of the boardroom table is the one with all the responsibility, but it’s often someone unknown to the public who bears much of the weight.”

Leaders and managers today are more likely than ever to overlook the “Invisibles” in their organization as well as neglect their needs.   This is because we have created a culture of personal horn tooting that leaves us drowning in what the author calls “A Culture of Noise.”   We struggle to discern any quiet signals of actual quality and achievement, to separate the hype, the “buzz,” or the “spin” something is given from what may be authentic.

Our amped up era of self-promotion and self-advancement makes the Invisible even more difficult to see and hear, and, almost ironically, increasingly more valuable to us.   This is true whether one’s organization is a church, civic organization, government agency, educational institution, a high profile business, or a non-profit doing noble work.   The advent of social media has only enabled and amplified the growing, and sometimes seemingly desperate, attempts to attract attention to self, to one’s causes, to one’s special interests.   Some observers draw the comparison between addictions and personal use of social media.  The desire for more and more ever increases, yet is never satisfying or capable of making one happy or content.  The cure offered for the problems noise creates is simply to turn up the volume and create more channels to gain personal recognition.

The quiet sense of self and overriding commitment to one’s work found in the Invisible, and the happiness produced by it, is what makes him or her so antithetical to our present work culture.   The work ethic and style of many Invisibles could not be at greater odds, or run more “cross-grain” with that of our work climate.  Yet, for many organizations, the quiet Invisible simply going about his or her work in a spirit of professionalism and excellence is the very antidote needed to cure some of the noise.

Though Invisibles will assert that they do not want attention and praise, wise leaders and managers will still appropriately acknowledge them as leaders, role models, as the best of what it means to be a member of a team.  This is to ensure their satisfaction on the job, to assign value to their important work, and raise the overall engagement and performance of all other employees across the board.

Zweig has three specific suggestions for leaders and managers at the point of Invisibles: (1) simply recognize who their Invisibles are within the organization, (2) decide if you want more Invisibles on your team to provide a “bigger dose of their enviable work ethic and quest for excellence,” and (3) appropriately and fairly reward them for their work, despite how hard they may attempt to keep you from doing exactly that.

According to Invisibles, what does more than anything else to motivate them or “light their fire,” is (1) an opportunity to develop their craft, (2) to work in an environment that enables them to focus on what they do best, and (3) to see that their work matters, that they are making a difference.

 *  *  *

Personal Reflections:   This insightful article was not written from a Christian perspective, nor was it written for a Christian audience.  I get tremendous benefit from this article just the way it was designed and written, and deeply appreciate it for what it is.

Yet it strikes me that the word “Invisible” speaks volumes about how the maturing Christian ought to live, work, and serve.  To selfishly call attention to one’s work for the purpose of self-promotion or to seek the praise of others is to work at cross-grain with everything it means to live and work in the style of a “servant.”   Jesus spoke about this:  “Let him who would be great among you, be your servant.”  Again, “I came not to be served, but to serve.”

The Old Testament prophet, Jeremiah, warned:  “Seekest thou great things for thyself?  Seek them not. . . .” (45:4)

The phrase “do good and disappear” has taken on new meaning for me as a result of reading this article.

DMH

The Ministry of Refreshment

The Ministry of Refreshment

          Onesiphorus:   A 1st Century Challenge for 21st Century Christ-Followers

 

You didn’t misread the title of this article. It really is Ministry of Refreshment, not Encouragement. The two are different.

The Apostle Paul received encouragement from many people over the course of two decades of service for the Lord. But he mentions being “refreshed” by only one: Onesiphorus, whose name meant “bringer of profit”:

May the Lord show mercy to the household of Onesiphorus, because he

            often refreshed me and was not ashamed of my chains.” II Tim. 1:16, NIV

Paul carefully chose the word he used to describe how Onesiphorus helped him. It is the Greek word ANAPSUCHO and means “to cool down.” Onesiphorus cooled down Paul’s spirit.

Overheating can happen anywhere, to anything. Engines. People. Economies. Even worlds, as in “global warming.” Things simply get too hot.

I recently saw a driver stopped on an interstate with his hood raised. Clouds of steam spewed out. The cooling system had overheated, making his car momentarily useless.

There are similar times in our lives when our spiritual systems overheat. We know when we physically feel bad. Spiritual overheating results in feeling bad spiritually. We’re out of fellowship with God and we sense it, but getting spiritually healthy again can prove difficult.

Sometimes we don’t think clearly. We get out of touch with reality and respond inappropriately with our emotions. With our will, we make faulty decisions. We are likely to find ourselves on the side of life’s road virtually immobile, unable to go any farther, or do any more, until first we cool down. The unrelenting pressure and flow of daily life makes us feel overwhelmed, like we are being washed downstream out of control. Events in our lives, the influence of difficult people, tragedies, losses, and reversals can stress us out.   We overheat spiritually and emotionally, and can’t function as the Christ-follower we yearn to be.

Christians with overheated spiritual systems? Yes!   Prolonged strain can take a massive toll on us. Disappointment, personal failure and the failure of others, and increasing, unrelenting pressure from any source can make us look like an over-inflated balloon. We need relief.

If “encouragement” means to pour in courage, to inspire and hearten, comfort and empower, then “refreshment” means to make fresh, or freshen by wetting or cooling, much like sprinkling refreshes flowers. Refreshment means to replenish, restore, and revive the spirit of a person, especially following depression or fatigue.

What refreshes you when the gears of your life are grinding and your spirit is running hot? Cold lemonade? A short nap? Or the unexpected call or visit of a friend when your back is against the wall?

Paul said Onesiphorus refreshed him as no one else had, that he “fleshed out” the Ministry of Refreshment. In Paul’s life, Barnabas unquestionably served as the Encourager, but Onesiphorus would have been the Refresher. Am I suggesting the great Apostle faced times of depression and extreme fatigue? Yes.

Try putting yourself in Paul’s sandals. It’s summer, 66 A.D. You are the prisoner of Rome for a second time, awaiting your fate, and manacled to a Roman soldier 24/7. You are treated as a common felon, convicted of political crimes, and probably kept in the terrifying Mamertine dungeon. The next soldier entering might carry the parchment ordering your life to be snuffed out.   Consider these excerpts from Paul’s letters:

“For I am already being poured out. . .the time has come for my departure. I

            have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”

                                                                                                II Tim. 4:6-7, NIV

“You know that everyone in the province of Asia has deserted me, including

            Phygelus and Hermogenes.”                                      II Tim. 1:15, NIV

“Demas, because he loved this world, has deserted me . . .only Luke is with me.”

                                                                                                II Tim. 4:10-11, NIV

“At my first defense, no one came to my support, but everyone deserted me.”

                                                                                                II Tim. 4:17, NIV

Onesiphorus’ greatest usefulness seems to come very late in Paul’s life. All the powerful sermons had been preached. The high popularity and great crowds have gone. His followers and supporters have deserted him. He is old and out of favor with the leaders of the churches of Asia. In prison. In chains. Soon to die. Alone and seemingly forgotten, except for Dr. Luke. Paul was not on the way up, but on the way out. I believe he was in grave danger. For understandable reasons, his spiritual system had overheated during this time of reversals. It was a low water mark in Paul’s life.

Then came word that someone from Asia was there trying to connect with him.   A man called Onesiphorus, who told the guards Paul would know him.

His appearance must have refreshed Paul like a glass of cold water slakes the thirst of a man parched by the merciless sun. He had come from home, Ephesus. Paul had not sent for him, and had no idea he was coming.

We are not told Onesiphorus said anything profound, clever, or quotable. None of his words or deeds are recorded. He was just “there” for Paul at this perilous hour, not for what he could gain, but what he could give.

Maybe it happed, as some suggest[i] , that Onesiphorus’ visit to Paul was a side line, that he was in Rome anyway on a business trip. Yet he found time to locate him in a city brimming with a million people. The suggestion is strong he had considerable difficulty locating him. One writer has drawn a vivid picture of his search:

“We seem to catch glimpses of one purposeful face in a drifting crowd, and follow

with quickening interest this stranger from the far coasts of the Aegean, as he

threads the maze of unfamiliar streets, knocking at many doors, following up on

every clue, warned of the risks he is taking, but not to be turned from his quest;

till in some obscure prison-house a known voice greets him, and he discovers

Paul chained to a Roman soldier.”[ii]

Others suggest that, in the course of seeking, finding, and aiding Paul, Onesiphorus hazarded and even lost his own life.[iii]   Anyone wanting to talk to a felon convicted of political crimes would become highly suspect.

Paul remembers the three years he had spent at Ephesus (Acts 19:1-20:1)   He would have been Onesiphorus’ pastor, and Onesiphorus would have been a leader. He was probably with the elders who came hurriedly to meet Paul at Miletus for a tearful farewell (Acts 20:17-38) and heard Paul plaintively remark, “You will see my face no more.”

That three year period at Ephesus included a time in which Paul was emotionally and mentally at the lowest point in his life, a time he “descended into a spiritual valley in which his soul endured stresses that nearly shattered him.”[iv]   If John Pollock is correct in his interpretation of what happened at Ephesus during late 54 A.D. to spring 55 A.D.,[v] Paul endured a time of mental and spiritual affliction, which he described as:

“. . .the hardships we suffered in the province of Asia. We were under great

            pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life.

            Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death.” II Cor. 1:8, NIV

In this time of terror, Onesiphorus was there to repeatedly refresh him, long before he came to Rome.

What an admirable character is Onesiphorus! How rarely we find one like him whose mantra is “just do it.” He probably had a wife and family to support. . .an occupation or business. . .his church at Ephesus. . .community responsibilities. . .a busy person, like most of us. . .yet he makes time for this incredibly important ministry.

Jail is a bad place for bad people, the last spot on earth many Christians would want to go. But Onesiphorus was there. By himself; representing no one. The place, the people of the place, the danger of going there—none of these things deter him.

Onesiphorus is our model, our mentor, in the Ministry of Refreshment. He gets past all the theory and theology, the debate and religious talk, the trappings of church, including endless meetings. He just blows on past all of these and gives a cup of cold water to a thirsty man.

There was no struggle, no complicated decision to make about whether to help or not. No pros and cons to be weighed; no impact studies or risk assessments to be done. Leave all that for others. Onesiphorus is booking passage to Rome while the church study committees are in session figuring out how to distance themselves from Paul. He is a helper, and that’s all there is to it. He acts out of who he is. Naturally. Effortlessly. “This is Christianity in shoe leather.”[vi]

What about you? And me? In whose life can we bring cooling refreshment and cheer today? Who is the man or woman, boy or girl, you can refresh today? In whose life can you be like a breath of fresh air, or cup of cold water?

When a friend goes down. . .when a believer makes a train wreck of his life or family. . .when someone crashes due to sin, or whatever. . .go to him or her immediately. Proactively seek them out. Help them if you can. Bring them “profit.” Never be ashamed, as the Asian Christians were of Paul, of a fellow believer who has fallen into what some would call a disgrace. Refresh them in their failure, personal tragedy, or crisis, in whatever “jail” they manage to get themselves into. Chains of sorrow and affliction may be the awful penalty of sins found out.

How can we perform it, this “Ministry of Refreshment”? Paul’s cameo of Onesiphorus tells us:

—“he often showed me kindness

            —(he often) ministered to my needs, comforting and reviving and bracing me

               like fresh air

            —he was not ashamed of my chains and imprisonment (for Christ’s sake)

            —he searched diligently and eagerly for me

            —he found me

            —what a help he was at Ephesus.”                     II Tim. 1:16-18, Amplified Bible

Look around your circle of influence today. What friend, what brother or sister in Christ, is spiritually and emotionally overheating? About to drop out of the race? What would it take for you to refresh and cool them down so they can function again? A surprise visit or call? A kind word? A delicious, unexpected prepared meal? Caring for a child or aged parent to give a breather to an exhausted caregiver? An errand you could run or a detail you could handle?

Warren Wiersbe says the qualities found in Onesiphorus, three of them, are as vital and valid as they were twenty-one centuries ago for any Christian who seeks to share this ministry:

“The essentials for a successful ministry have not changed: courageous enthusiasm, shameless suffering, and spiritual loyalty.”

It isn’t enough for a Christian to just do no wrong. He is to intentionally, proactively do what is right. And doing right includes caring for the people God loves:

“Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ . . .

as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong

to the family of believers.”                                                     Gal. 6:2, 10 NIV

Refreshment is never an easy ministry, and performing it may cost us dearly. It could involve taking risks and exposure to difficulties. Onesiphorus could have piled reason on top of reason why he shouldn’t make the dangerous, costly trip from Ephesus to Rome. He came anyway. When we imitate his service, we are entering the rarified air of God’s choicest servants. There are few in the Company of Refreshers.

Thank you, friend Onesiphorus, for your gentle reminder today.

[i] Barnes, Albert. Notes on the New Testament, Vol 12 (Grand Rapids: Baker Book Hour) Reprinted from the l884-1885 edition, Pg. 219

[ii] Harrison, P. N., Cited in Barclay, William, The Letters to Timothy, Titus and Philemon (Philadelphia: Westminster Press) 1960, p. 178

[iii] Barclay, ibid., P. 179

[iv] Pollock, John, The Apostle (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company) 1969, p. 164

[v] Pollock, ibid., See Chapter 27, “Affliction in Asia” (pages 161-169)

[vi] Foster, Robert D. The Challenge Newsletter (Colorado Springs, CO) June 15, 1974

The Amazing Healing Power of Memory

The Amazing Healing Power of Memory

Reflections on Psalm 77

A popular commercial once asked, “How do you spell relief?” then proceeded to answer by carefully spelling the brand name of a product.  One could hardly miss the intended message: that’s the product you are to use at the first sign of discomfort.

But when your soul is sick, how do you spell relief?  Psalm 77 in the Bible suggests you spell it: MEMORY.  Memory.  And through the wise use of it, spiritual wellness can once again be yours.

Bodies get sick.  We catch colds, contact diseases, and suffer much pain if we mistreat our bodies.  Souls get sick, too.  We can allow ourselves to get emotionally and spiritually exhausted.  Prolonged depression can cripple us to the point we are paralyzed and nonproductive.  With our minds we think unclearly.  With our emotions we respond in ways not completely appropriate.  And with our will, we make faulty choices.  Sometimes unconfessed sin and disobedience lead to misery and terrible unhappiness. Destructive emotions, such as anger, can make us sick of heart.

Psalm 77 is the story of a man who is all but crushed by a load of undisclosed problems far too heavy to bear.

Life has made him sick   Soul sick.  In the anguish of trying to survive, he cries out to God, then discovers the answer to his needs lies in the wise use of his memory.

The writer, a poet, has become completely self-absorbed with all his problems, misery, and woes, oblivious to the needs of others.  He feels he can hardly help himself, much less others.  His view of life has shrunk during his time of self-pity to the point there is no room for anyone else in his world.

Seventeen times in six short verses he uses the personal pronouns ”I,” “me,” and “my” to show how badly beaten down he is:

“I cried out to God for help; I cried out to God to hear me.  When I was

            in distress, I sought the Lord; at night I stretched out untiring hands and my

            soul refused to be comforted.  I remembered you, O God, and I groaned; I

            mused, and my spirit grew faint.  You kept my eyes from closing; I was too

            troubled to speak.  I thought about the former days, the years of long ago;   I

remembered my songs in the night.  My heart mused and my spirit inquired.”

                                                                        Psalm 77:1-6, NIV

Without pausing to take a breath, the poet speaks of the anguish of his heart and the despair he feels creeping in.  The pressure of his situation has overwhelmed him:  “I was too troubled to speak.”   But he does anyway.  There will be no “suffering in silence” for this saint.  Without waiting for any kind of response to his problem, the poet pours out six questions:

“Will the Lord reject forever?  Will he never show his favor again?  Has his

            unfailing love vanished forever?  Has his promise failed for all time?  Has

            God forgotten to be merciful?  Has he in anger withheld his compassion?”                                                                                                              Psalm 77:7-9, NIV

He asks three questions about God, not of God, because it appears He isn’t listening anyway.  Why should he expect any answer from Him?

It is devastating to be overwhelmed by problems while crying out to a God whom you feel isn’t listening to a word you say.  Our poet in Psalm 77 feels just that way.  Isolated.  Beyond help and hopeless. Left alone to suffer his fate.

He needs relief, but relief won’t come.  Or, at least it hasn’t thus far.  And he needs it so badly, if for nothing more than to get one good night’s sleep.  Anxiety over unresolved issues has robbed him of rest.  He is completely wrapped up in how bad he has it: “I cried . . . I was in distress . . . I sought . . .I thought. . .I remembered.”

Memory—the ability to form, retain, and recall memories—is one of God’s greatest gifts to the individual.  Without it, most of what we experience in life simply would not be possible.  But like almost everything else in life, there is a right way to utilize memory as well as a wrong way.  Remembering can be helpful as well as harmful, delightful as well as damaging.

Memory as a Menace

In Psalm 77, the poet has misused the power of memory.  In his troubles, he has focused on the wrong things, on reliving “the good old days” which never were that good:  “I thought about the former days, the years of long ago.” (vs. 5)   He wanted to re-live the past.  It seemed safer as he faced his present troubles.   The past was known and could be handled.  It was the awful present and the uncertain future that caused him such anxiety.  The safety of the past is the escape many use in order to avoid the reality of life today.

The past can act like a prison.  Some people get stuck in it, particularly in a period that was especially happy and trouble-free.  Though the calendar pages keep turning, the chapters of life don’t.  The attempt is made to live and re-live the same experience over and over, which becomes idealized.  We are like a little child that wants the same story told to him over and over.

The problems of the Psalmist have grown so deep he has shifted from wondering why God won’t move and answer his needs (vs. 1-6) to wondering if God can at all (vs. 7-9).  Has God’s hand changed?  The writer has been using the capacity to remember in a damaging way:  “I remembered you, O God, and I groaned.” (vs. 3a)

This is amazing!  The writer says he remembered God, and it made him unhappy.  God wasn’t acting like he wanted Him to act, or doing what he wanted Him to do.  The next step wasn’t far away:  I complained, and my spirit was overwhelmed.”  (vs. 3b)

This kind of remembering sent the Psalmist to the bottom in anguish and despair.  He had remembered the days, the years, the dates, the events . . . but not the God of them.  It is the same old problem that has always plagued believers:  we want the experience rather than the Lord of the experience.

Out poet has taken his eyes off God, and his memory does the rest.  What is lost is the sense of God’s presence in his life.  This is the misuse of memory.

It’s acceptable to be rooted in the past so long as we are reaching for the future.  Some cling to the past and become paralyzed, but this is not what God intends for our lives.  We are to honor the past, but then move on, using it as inspiration for the future.

The past is a great place to drive down spiritual markers in our memory to which we return in the future to draw fresh courage and inspiration.  These former times would include experiences when God proved Himself especially faithful, or we came to a new understanding of His goodness and providential care.  Memory can invigorate us and lead to spiritual renewal.  This is the wise use of memory.  It is to be used for fruitful, productive purposes, not to foster gloom, sorrow, and self-pity.

Memory as a Ministry

Faith takes a long view of God, not a short one.  One must never formulate his idea of God based on present difficulties.  Faith reaches back into the past and reflects on God’s track record of faithfulness.  It forces the believer to bring his thinking into line with the truth about God.

Controlling how we use memory is critically important.  What we choose to remember can drive us deeper into hopelessness and despair, or point the way out of the swamp.  With the right memories we can convince ourselves there is a way out of the present difficulties through hope re-born and faith re-vitalized.

The Psalmist chooses not to remain under the heavy burden of his sorrow, but to throw it off and find God’s way out.  He shakes himself and makes himself face his own self-inflicted unhappiness:  “And I said, this is my infirmity. . .” (vs. 10a)  The answer that would heal him emotionally came in a threefold repetition of resolve:  “I will remember the years of the right hand of the most high. . .” (vs. 10b)   “I will remember the words of the Lord. . .I will remember the wonders of old.” (vs. 11)

Our poet corrects his own error, and gets his mind and memory rightfully back on God.  With the same memory, now used properly, he greatly encourages himself.  His faith is refreshed and strengthened, and his endurance fortified:

“I recall the many miracles he did for me so long ago.”  (vs. 11)

“I will meditate on all your works and consider all your mighty deeds.” (vs. 12)

“What God is so great as our God?” (vs. 13b)

“You are the God who works wonders.”  (vs. 14a)

The Psalmist’s memory is now an instrument, a channel, of ministry to his own heart, a wonderful friend and ally.

Memory as a Miracle

In Psalm 77, the wrong use of memory made our writer sick, while the right use of memory made him well, restoring him to spiritual health and strength.  The same memory did both.

Seeking after experiences made the poet’s soul sick; seeking after the God of those experiences made him well again.

There is something very relevant about this 3,000 year-old Psalm.  I meet believers today who know Christ as their personal Savior.  They have a home in heaven when they die.  Their future is all secure.  But the present is a mess.  They feel no sense of the reality of God in their everyday lives, and they feel deep disappointment in their Christian experience.

Like the Psalmist, they seek:  “I cried out to God for help . . . to hear me . . . I sought the Lord.”  And like the Psalmist they ask:  “Has God forgotten to be merciful?”  The past is taken care of.  Their sins are forgiven.  The future is secure.  They have a home in heaven when they die.  But in the present, God seems as if He is light years away taking care of some distant galaxy.  Their prayers seem to go unanswered, as if He isn’t listening.  And their faith doesn’t seem to work, making no real difference in the way they live Monday through Saturday.  On Sunday, the ‘game face’ is installed and off they go to church.  They seek, then ask, but they have not found.

Somehow believers forget that the same risen Christ who takes care of man’s sin problem through His saving death is also the same Christ who gives victory in the present life of the believer through His saving life.  We forget that the grace that provides for our forgiveness and salvation is the same grace that provides the strength to live the Christian life.  So many followers of Christ take off on their own, attempting to live the Christian life through their own wit, determination, and strength.  And experience nothing but failure, followed by guilt.  There is also such a tendency to go chasing off after the last fad or “experience”. . .the latest book, the hottest speaker, the latest Conference, the newest DVDs or study guides. . .in hopes of finding something that satisfies.   But they don’t.

The great need for many believers today is to remember that Christ is the source of everything he demands, the source of the life we most desire.  We need once again to discover that the life that satisfies in not one of experiences, but the Christ of those experiences. It is the simple rediscovery of the presence of the Living Christ in one’s everyday life.

How is it with you today?  Soul sick?  Are you wanting to get spiritually well and happy in the Lord once again?  Then you need to use your memory properly.

Would you prefer to suffer a spiritual relapse, or enjoy a revival that propels you to higher levels of discipleship and usefulness?  The choice you make about the way you use your ability to remember will decide.  You’ll feel relief in a hurry as you get your focus back on God instead of on your troubles.

Don M. Hull   © 2015

God: The 24/7 Caregiver

God: The 24/7 Caregiver

The neurologist broke the unexpected news to me as compassionately as anyone could, but his brutal honesty hit me hard.

“Your mother has Alzheimer’s disease, with advancing dementia.”  I sat thunderstruck as I listened to the diagnosis.

Some of the tests she had been asked to perform were embarrassingly simple.  I gasped in disbelief when I saw her inability to handle basic short-term memory tests, like being told the words cat, door, moon and asked a few moments later to recount them in that order.  But if asked about something that happened 50 to 60 years ago, she could give you a stunningly accurate account.

I cried later when I was alone because I knew that Alzheimer’s means the agonizingly slow death, not of the body, but of the mind.  I felt heartbreak as I knew it would be my task, as her only child, to preside over her descent into oblivion should the disease follow its normal course.

To provide for her needs, we immediately moved her into an apartment in my city, 100 miles from her friends and home.  In a matter of days, another health crisis occurred; and we tried unsuccessfully to have her live in our home.  As her needs increased, we eventually moved her to a nearby assisted-living center.  Three relocations in three months—packing and unpacking, loading and unloading—were like a recurring bad dream.

I Can’t Believe This!

I allowed my heart to believe my mother was untouchable by something like Alzheimer’s.  I never doubted should would die; I just reasoned that life would never treat her this way.  After all, she was a fun-loving, godly woman who had taught thousands of Oklahoma kids over a 45-year period and had taught Sunday school to age 87.  Until he died, she was my dad’s lifelong sweetheart.  Behind the naïve notion that God owes a Christian a better deal was my error of belief we can obligate God by earning his favor. (Ephesians 2:8-9, NIV)

In my head I knew better.  We are all fallen people in a fallen world, trying to live in a broken system in which evil and the wrong choices of men seem to have the upper hand much of the time (Romans 3:23; 6:23).

Looking at life through the eyes of faith, I see that bad things happen to believers and unbelievers alike.  They just do, and God isn’t to blame.  A harsh dose of reality is all that is needed to blow away unrealistic and unbiblical expectations like mine.

Do I Own This?

I was startled by how quickly caregiving was thrust upon me by family necessity.  The “day” that I thought was years away came.  And stayed.  I became one of more than 50 million Americans, many between ages 30 and 50, who provide some level of care for a family member or friend.  Not that statistics matter.   You are the caregiver.  Almost 45 percent of us are men.

After the initial crisis subsides, and you settle into your new role, you begin to take over bits and pieces of the person’s life, and lose a corresponding amount of control over your own life.  It starts in a deceptively simple way:  paying bills, trips to the doctor, and so forth.  But it continues until you are virtually responsible for your loved one’s life.  You weren’t aware you signed on for all this.  And there is no place to resign, not that you would.  But the thought crosses your mind because you didn’t ask for any of this.  Tragically, some shirk the role.

A provider’s role takes many shapes, depending on your relationship to the needy person for whom you assume responsibility.  You may find yourself occupying the parent role with your own parent, as I have, while she becomes increasingly childlike.  Or, you may face a different situation.

I’ll Do It but Not Own It

The caregiving role bullied its way into my already over-committed life.  It’s normal to feel resentment toward such intrusions.  I did, and then felt surprise and guilt that, as a Christian, I was capable of such feelings.   Exhausting, prolonged caregiving has proved an embarrassing way of bring out the worst in me.

I first attempted to provide care by multi-tasking it along with everything else.  It was with a glad heart and no resentment because I loved my mother, honored my father, and wanted to obey the commandment about parents (Exodus 20:12).  But I carefully refused to “own” it.  I would let this new role run parallel with my “real” life but hold it at bay.  I foolishly reasoned that someday the role would end, and I could get back to my so-called “real” life in which I am a serious disciple and want very much to grow and please God.

I’ll Own It and Do It Myself

Because I refused to embrace caregiving, I slipped into handling it myself as a necessary duty.  I acted as if I believe God and discipleship weren’t involved, as if this new role was unrelated to spiritual transformation.

Caregiving made such stressful demands on my time, emotional energy, and state of mind that I felt completely overwhelmed, as if being drowned by the person I was attempting to rescue.  Emotions ricocheted off the walls of my heart like a bullet.

One week I jotted down every erratic emotion I felt as I drove away from each visit with my mother.  I was startled by the crazy moods—almost twenty of them—I was trying to manage:

Grief. . .ongoing sorrow that Alzheimer’s was insidiously stealing her memories one by one, those wonderful souvenirs of yesterday.

Gratitude. . .to be the son of this incredibly gifted woman whose life has meant so much to so many.

Helplessness. . .that, as a lifelong “fixer” of things, I found myself facing something I couldn’t fix.

Anger. . .that there are cruel things like birth defects, cancer, and Alzheimer’s that destroy the people I love.

Intense love. . .resolve. . .depression. . .soaring hope. . .despair. . .loneliness. . .Attempting to provide care in my own strength just about sank me after a few months.  You can already guess this drove me to cry out to God for help.

Okay, God.  I’ll Do It if you’ll Help

Frederick Buechner wrote, “There is no event so commonplace but that God is present within it, always hiddenly, always leaving you room to recognize him or not to recognize him. . .”

The Holy Spirit brought to my mind Scriptures to help me see that refusing to “own” caregiving was also denying God opportunity to be involved.  In my prideful thinking, I was as shortsighted as Peter when he refused having his feet washed by Jesus.  Peter protested, “No.  You shall never wash my feet.” Jesus replied, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.”  Peter repented, “Then, Lord, not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!” (John 13:8-9, NIV)

I began to see caregiving, not as an unwanted part of life, but as my life . . . as “real” as every other part, and of as much concern to God.  Where did I get the idea God wouldn’t care about this part?  Like Peter, I repented.

But God wasn’t content to merely “help” me.  I’ve never heard God’s voice, but it was as if he was saying through the Scriptures:  “I don’t want you to own this burden.  I want to own it.  Will you release it and let me be God?  Will you exchange your failing strength for my unfailing strength? (Isaiah 40:31)

Okay, God.  You Own It

Gary Thomas writes, “Life can call us into places where we feel as though we’re being poured out on behalf of others.  If we don’t build a spirit of surrender and sacrifice, we’re liable to grow resentful and bitter during such seasons.”

To receive all the grace God wants to give us, we must surrender to him the “ownership” of burdens we become aware of.  This does not mean we become passive, shirk responsibility, or fail those who depend on us.  It does mean we let God rule and reign over our lives, and we draw the strength we need from him.  Peter advised, “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you” (I Peter 5:7, NIV).

As I care for my mother, one of the most delightful experiences of serendipity is happening.  I am discovering God as my caregiver. . .the 24/7 kind. . .twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.  I sleep with a cell phone near my pillow, on call 24/7.  I do not face this task alone—God is listening for my call, 24/7.

Providing care is becoming more strenuous as the months pass. But every part of this ordeal is an opportunity, a door, through which I can receive massive doses of grace.  The endless trips to the doctor and the twice-daily trips to the care facility are just more ways God demonstrates his wonderful care of me.

Am I grieving?  God has Psalm 23 for my weary heart.

Am I despairing?  He uses my Christian brothers, Jim and John, to encourage me when we meet each week (2 Corinthians 1:4).

The past months have brought two precious truths into my life:

First, with the possible exception of parenting, caregiving is the most spiritually formative experience in my Christian journey thus far.  Character and virtue are not best formed in the calm and ease of life, but rather in life’s great difficulties and struggles in which we must contend.  I have found no better verse to describe this principle than Romans 5:3 (NIV):  “We also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.”

Caregiving became a sacred experience when I realized I needed care from God as much as my mother needed my care.  I finally “got it” that God wants to transform me as I face these difficulties.  If we will cooperate with him, God will use any new role or difficult life situation we face to bring about our spiritual transformation.

The second insight comes from watching my mother become more innocent, childlike, and dependent on me with advancing age.  It’s as if God is whispering in my ear, “Don’t you get it, Don?  That’s exactly how I want you to relate to me.”

“Let the little children come to me. . .the kingdom of God belongs to such as thee” (Luke 18:16, NIV).

Don M. Hull   © 2004, 2015

The Good Samaritan Revisited

The Good Samaritan Revisited

Jesus on Compassion:  Still, “Just Do It!”

Twenty-one centuries after telling the greatly loved story of The Good Samaritan, Jesus’ final word to his followers about showing compassion is still, Just do it! Or, in his words, “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:30-37, NIV)

You know the story. The Good Samaritan (hereafter referred to as “Sam”) chooses to stop, show compassion, and rescue a dying traveler after two others have refused.

Would you have stopped? Really?

Some may think the point of the story is no more significant than the simple question, “If I see a woman with children stranded in a disabled car on the Interstate, should I stop and help?”

The story goes much further. It’s about what you do with your feelings when confronted by human need.

Jesus never said Sam was merely a character in a parable. I think somewhere in Jesus’ rich background there really was an incident involving Sam that resurfaces in his teaching. What story ever told surpasses it in warmth and tenderness?

The narrow fifteen mile road from Jerusalem to Jericho was a perfect place for thieves to ambush a traveler in a lightning fast attack, then escape undetected. The unescorted could be easy prey, so many traveled in convoys or alongside a caravan.

Falling behind to help someone could be dangerous. The thieves might reappear or might use the wounded man as a decoy to lure others.

Could the injured man even be saved?   It’s doubtful Sam was carrying the needed tools or medicines, or even possessed the training to give aid. The thought today of a liability suit for negligence still sends chills down your spine, despite our so-called “Good Samaritan” laws.

If the man died and Sam was caught with the body, he could be implicated.

It’s easy for a potential caregiver to get “trapped” in his service. In our present culture, there are many people who can contrive a need for whatever you’re willing to give. Many are perfectly willing for you and me to assume responsibility for them by taking charge of their lives. They want us to eliminate all their exposure and danger, feed, house, and transport them, and make their decisions for them.

There are so many reasons not to help that sound so right. So we leave kindness for others to do.

The officious Levite did just that. After moving in for a closer look, he deserts the gravely wounded man and leaves him to die. This passing worship leader of Israel would be like someone going home after church. He had heard the sermon, sung the songs, and prayed his prayers—yet his heart remained a stone.

The reluctant Priest, who was around God all the time, handled holy things all day long, spoke for men to God, and for God to men. But what this man was inside was very different from what he was outside. If he touched this perishing man it would restrict his duty in the temple for seven days, so he puts ceremonial service above love and concern for a man in pain.

It’s amazing that a pitiful and dying man did not soften the hearts of these two. No level of pain or tragedy can pry compassion out of their hearts.

It took a plain, ordinary man with character to make any difference.

How Did ‘Sam’ Get That Way?

Duty calls and character answers.

Sam did what he did because of who he was, and not for any other reason. What others do or refuse to do is irrelevant. Sam chooses to act in a way consistent with his character. The Scriptures simply don’t provide answers to a hundred questions that tug at our minds about what Sam was like. But it’s my personal feeling there were three elements of Sam’s character tragically missing in the Levite and Priest.

Compassion. The word means to “suffer with. Sam possessed that God-like quality that enables one to empathize with another, to enter into their pain. He didn’t merely observe the man, he identified with him, became part of him.

Sam asked nothing and expected nothing, most of all recognition, thanks, or repayment. There was no hesitation on his part. Nothing to debate or deliberate. There was no attempt to seek counsel or refer the need to someone else passing by. Here was a gravely injured man who doubtless would die if not helped. That was all there was to it.

Courage. Lots of it! There was danger in what Sam chose to do. But he disdained it when another human life was on the line. It took courage to care, and more to act. The others were afraid of anything strange or challenging, fearful of getting involved, and horrified the robbers might come back. Sam pushed those anxieties back and helped a complete stranger, a broken one at that, who would never be able to repay.

There is something strong, noble, and wonderfully uncomplicated about Sam. What a tenderness and gentleness there is in the care he gives, the fruit of great personal strength and depth of character.

Habit. This is no isolated incident in the life of Sam. It is just one more out of many times he had helped. There would be others in the future. Sam didn’t become like that overnight. Over the years, the habit of responding bravely to the needs of others became deeply ingrained. And always at personal cost: money, time, energy. But with great reward.

It’s difficult to conclude who benefits the most: the one helped, or the helper. Some feel compassion is the most healing of all emotions, capable of transforming an entire world.

Compassion, pity, mercy—in the Bible the words are virtually interchangeable and describe the essence of God. Sam has, by choice, taken upon himself the very character of God.

How Do We Get That Way?

If we take Christ seriously, it is through obedience to his words, “Go and do likewise.”

Becoming compassionate will not come through drastic self-discipline, heroic sacrifice, or other well-meaning shortcuts. We should not expect to change quickly. Sam probably didn’t. It will become part of our character through the endless repetition of small efforts as we feel the inward prompting of God’s Holy Spirit and obediently respond when he has providentially placed us in a situation where we can do great good. It is giving a person in trouble a helping hand when it is within our power. Going the “second mile” when there is opportunity. Getting involved in our community and church to make a difference.

What is excellence if not habit? And what is excellence of character if not the predictable habit of behaving every time in a splendid way and expressing the noblest virtues?

Day by day. . .deed by deed. . .the Godly trait of compassion is layered into our lives, and we find our arrogant selfish nature pushed off the throne. We discover new liberty to effortlessly respond to the needs of others. And we become in character, in a larger measure, like the great God we worship.

But, as with Sam, compassion will require of us empathy to feel, courage to care, and a developed habit of responding.

“Just Do It!”

It costs to care, to be compassionate. And it may put us at risk and make us vulnerable as we choose to intervene in the lives of others. Saving the souls of sinful men and women cost God the death of His Son. Compassion always places the highest possible value on the life of another. To be a Good Samaritan is to care as God cares, to be like Him in thought and action.

Feeling sorry for another is not enough. No doubt the Priest and Levite felt a stab of pity as they looked at the man, but they saw him as a nuisance to be avoided. Sam saw him as a neighbor to love, and undertook his care.

Following this incident, Sam probably resumes his life, and never told anyone what he did. But his story is immortal. In every century, think how many across our wide world have been inspired by him to offer a cup of cold water in Christ’s name.

What a high compliment it would be to have the Lord say to others about you and me: “Go, and be just like him.”

Don M. Hull      (©2015)

Forks In The Road

Forks in the Road

  • The Value of Spending a Day With God

Becoming spiritually skilled at making decisions is crucial to every growth-minded Christ-follower. Making right choices is the essence of becoming a mature disciple. Every decision, great or routine, has the potential of moving us toward or away from Christ-likeness.   One can’t simply follow the immortal wisdom of Yogi Berra: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

We call them “forks in the road”—those all too familiar experiences when the path along which we are moving diverges into right and left. These choices impose themselves on every believer, often unanticipated, unwanted, and unwelcomed.

Could you use a little help and encouragement today as you face a troublesome decision?

What’s the dilemma you now face?   A new job or career change? Beginning or ending a relationship. Moving your family? Going back to school?

These aren’t the countless decisions we casually make every day—where to have lunch, what to wear, etc. Rather, they are weighty decisions that may define us, or set new directions and have far-reaching consequences.

We can improve our decision-making by learning from one of the most admired people in the Bible: Paul. Here’s my “take” on a page from his life and how he faced a critically important “fork” in his road.

Try putting yourself into his sandals for a few moments as you read in your Bible the 20th chapter of Acts.

Imagine it is late March, and you have spent the cold winter of 56-57 A.D. in Corinth where you have penned a monumental letter of the New Testament, the one we call Romans. You arrived at Corinth having spent the previous year trying to evangelize the large area north of Greece known to us today as war-shattered Bosnia, Croatia, and Sarajevo.

You are age 57. Twenty years have passed since you became a Christian. Behind are years of arduous labor and hardship, founding and nurturing churches, and missionary treks covering thousands of miles. You’ve had immense evangelistic success in places like Asia and Macedonia, and so little among your own Jewish people. The vast West awaits you: Spain, Europe, and Britain.

When the sailing season of the spring of 56 A.D. opens, your plans to sail to Syria are interrupted by the discovery of a plot to assassinate you on the ship. You decide to travel overland and send your companions on to Troas by ship to wait for you there as you make your journey on foot.

As you travel from city to city—Thessalonica, Phillipi, and Troas—believers with the prophetic gift in every church have sounded warnings about Jerusalem. No one has expressly said, “Don’t go!”, but each has sensed in his spirit a foreboding of great danger and possible harm awaiting you there.

The masterpiece you’ve crafted to the Christians at Rome reveals that your heart aches for your Jewish countrymen who, as a whole, have rejected Christ and the gospel of salvation:

“. . .my heart’s desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is

that they might be saved.”       Romans 10:1, NIV

But you have another heartache, one for the lands where the gospel of Christ has not been taken. You are resolved to go west, to Spain, Europe, and perhaps Britain:

“It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ

was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else’s

foundation.”                               Romans 15:20, NIV

You arrive at Troas and rejoin your travelling companions—Timothy and Gaius from Galatia; from Thessalonica, Aristarchus and Secundus; from Berea, Sopater; and from Asia, Trophimus and Tychicus. And, of course, Dr. Luke.

A crisis has surfaced in your life, and the time for decision has come. The choice is agonizingly simple. Should you complete your mission to Jerusalem despite repeated warnings from trustworthy people if you do? Or, should you book passage on the next ship headed for Rome, and send your trusted associates to Jerusalem with the offering, a mission they are perfectly capable of competing with no help from you?

On the one hand, there is the strong pull, the challenge and adventure, to take the message of Christ to people who have never heard. On the other, maybe this time, despite all the disasters of the past, you will be heard in Jerusalem and win large numbers of your countrymen to Christ. Maybe.

Both are worthy choices, reasonable and right. It seems plausible God would be pleased with either. Both involve risk and danger. There have been only warnings about going to Jerusalem, not prohibitions.

Luke records in one terse statement Paul’s next movements from which we can gain much insight:

“We went on ahead to the ship and sailed for Assos, where we were

going to take Paul aboard. He had made this arrangement because he

was going there on foot.”             Acts 20:13, NIV

A ship bound for Syria had been secured. In an unusual move, Paul urged his companions to board it for a one-day voyage around the cape to Assos, a town approximately thirty miles south of Troas, where he would rejoin them toward nightfall. Paul proceeded alone, on foot, for this one-day walk, probably overriding the protests of his well-meaning friends.

No doubt his mind was overwhelmed with conflicting information and feelings about what he should do. He had heeded the warnings about going to Jerusalem, yet he was strangely drawn there. The West and its un-evangelized hordes beckoned to him.

What to do? Simple. Take a step back to gain perspective. Get alone with God and sort things out. And he did.

As Paul faced the future, what he needed more than anything else was time to get focused and understand the mind of God if he could.

At this personal crisis point—at this “fork” in his road—Paul checked in with his Master for the direction he must have. What Paul needed, God had. So there were no “opinion polls” taken among his friends. No counsel sought. No urgent meeting at the church. No all-night prayer vigil or period of fasting. Just a simple one-day walk through the countryside, alone and undisturbed, where he could position himself to be wholly at God’s disposal.

He chose to slow the pace, disconnect from the pressure of busyness, allow his heart to cool down, and his mind to sort out the future. He gave God an unhurried opportunity to speak. He got his heart quiet so God’s whispers to his soul could be heard above the clamor of daily life. If this were me, a major disconnect would be needed. I would need to turn off my cell phone, stop all the incoming inane text messages, and intentionally decide not to be available 24/7 to everyone who wants me.

It was probably a glorious spring day. The road was his, with nothing to distract except maybe a passing caravan, or the bleating of nearby sheep accompanied by the hauntingly beautiful tinkling of their bells. The heavens hailed his heart. The earth was alive with flowers watered by the gentle spring showers. The birds offered their song. He was alone with his thoughts as he walked. His companionable companion was solitude. And God.

Was there a dream? A vision? A personal appearance by the risen Christ? We are told of none. Luke tells us nothing of what Paul said when he rejoined the group, what his decision was, or how he was feeling about things.

In the quietness of this day—as Paul thought, weighed matters, prayed, meditated on the Scriptures, considered God’s leading in the past and His promises for the future, and sang praise songs—God spoke to his heart in an unmistakable way. There was likely no audible voice, but only the calm, unshakeable confidence that sweeps over a person when God presses the rightness of a matter on his heart. A smile breaks across Paul’s face, because now he knows. His pace quickens and he briskly walks down to the bay to the waiting ship where his uneasy companions are anxious to get him on board. The course is set for Jerusalem.

“And now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not

knowing what will happen to me there.”   Romans 20:22, NIV

In this simple story are the elements for spiritually facing a significant decision. It’s about spending a day with God to get His mind, and the direction you need to move ahead.

There is nothing mystical, magical, or obtruse about the story. There is no guarantee God will necessarily do again for you what He did for Paul if you duplicate his actions. God is under no obligation to anything we expect or think. But we can take the vital steps to place ourselves under the guiding hand of God exactly as Paul

Here is what Paul did—what you and I can do—to humbly spend time in God’s presence, and see if it is the time when He will graciously reveal His will:

  • Get focused. Pick a specific time, a full day if possible, to intentionally and singularly engage the fellowship and companionship of God
  • Get alone. Separate yourself from normal routines. Get away from work, cell phones and text messaging, family and friends. Take the obvious: water, light food, your Bible, pen and paper.
  • Get quiet. This day is about solitude, reflection, reading your Bible, praying often, and maybe singing. Most of all, it is about listening. To God. And getting in touch with your deepest thoughts and desires.
  • Get a word. Humbly leave it to God how, when, or even if He will speak. Contrive nothing. God’s leading may be the strong impression of a thought. Or a compelling verse from the Bible. Maybe something you’ve heard or read will be quickened by the Holy Spirit. You seek a word from Him.
  • Get going.   Act immediately on what you sense is His way. Pursue it single-mindedly until you are led differently. Frequently our problem is not that we don’t know what to do, but doing what we already know to do.

No wonder so many of us are filled with anxiety when we face a “fork in the road,” especially if we are fearful and face undetermined risks or consequences. Maybe we lack information, have had poor role models from whom to learn in the past, or bear past scars from decisions poorly made.

Next time you face a difficult question and feel intense pressure to make a decision, try following Paul’s practice of spending a day with God and see how He will direct you.

I have done so. Many times, and always with great profit.

Once, as a college senior about one hundred years ago, I faced in very late spring a tough decision that had far-reaching implications. So I set aside a day (one I really didn’t have, or so I thought) to genuinely seek God’s will in the matter.

Now, a lifetime later, I am still following the trajectory set for my life on that day now almost 55 years ago. Wrapped up in that one decision was a vocation, a calling to which I responded. With God’s guidance I happily took the right fork, and never looked back. Half a century later I can give you the report: God’s promise is true, the one found in Psalm 32:8 (KJV):

”I will instruct thee and teach thee in the way which thou shalt go. I will guide thee with my eye.”

Don M. Hull (© 2015)

 

 

A Great Quote

“If you are going to achieve excellence in big things, you develop the habit in little matters.  Excellence is not an exception, it is a prevailing attitude.”

Colin Powell,  American Statesman and Retired Four-Star General