The Greatest Generation

On Independence Day Eve, I had the privilege of officiating at a service for a man who served in World War 2. As you no doubt know, there are fewer and fewer of these folks left.

They are often called the Greatest Generation. It isn’t date of birth that makes a person a part of this special group; it’s much more than that.

More than about when a person was born, The Greatest Generation is about a way-of-living. It’s about learning the value of hard work, of a hard-earned dollar, and appreciating both. It’s about facing the challenges of the Great Depression, and coming through it, in tact, on the other end. It’s about rising to the occasion when the world’s peace was falling apart. It’s about making commitments and sticking to them. It’s about being faithful to your family, to your wife and children — year, after year, after year.

All of these traits were seen in Eugene, the man whose funeral was held the day before July 4. But like so many of his generation, Eugene didn’t talk much about his service in Belgium and Germany during the war.

One of the reasons Eugene didn’t talk much about his past is probably because he didn’t think it was all that dramatic. He would have felt that what he did was just what was called for. And so, many of the Greatest Generation don’t feel like they’ve done something great, but that they simply were doing what was necessary. They were simply doing the basic things.

But that’s exactly why Eugene, and others like him, are a part of the Greatest Generation. In a world where so many don’t step up and won’t step out – Eugene did. And what is greatness? – other than knowing what matters, what is central, and doing it faithfully.

Not only would Eugene not have claimed the title of ‘greatness’, like so many others of his generation, he was not one to talk about his accomplishments. In his mind, they simply weren’t great. But I beg to differ.

Living a life of love for your spouse and your kids and grandkids – for 62 years – this is a demonstration of the kind of love that does not come and go; is not based on the feelings of the moment – but is the greatness of committed love that is in it for the long haul.

Reclaiming each inch of Europe may not have felt all that majestic in the moment – but it was a collective act of greatness that preserved the freedom of the world.

Living an honorable, God-fearing life may not feel all that special — but it’s rarity makes it all the more notable.

So, thanks, Eugene for being a member of the Greatest Generation. Not by birth, but by life. May those of us who’ve come after, learn from you, and emulate, in our way, the greatness of a faithful life.

Blogging the Bible – Esther, God, & Syrian Refugees

Quick quiz: what two Old Testament books don’t mention God? Give it some thought; I’ll wait.

Okay; got your answers? One is Song of Solomon, and the other is Esther. The Song, we get. It’s about love. Oh, is it about love.

But Esther? That’s kind of surprising, especially when you know the story. The Jews, in exile, are in deep trouble. Haman, their nemesis, has gotten the Persian king to agree to their annihilation. But the Jewish people have one trump card (who happens to be a lot better looking than Trump 2015, and a lot wiser). Her name is Esther, and she’s the queen. The only catch is: she has to go in to the king and ask for her people to be saved; but she has to go in, uninvited. In that culture, that’s either a ticket to getting the ear of the king, or death. Apparently, no in-between.

So Esther, wisely, questions her Uncle Mordecai when he tells her she needs to go see the king. She balks. And Mordecai responds: Well, yeah, it might be messy for you. You might even lose your life. Even so, “who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” (Esther 4.14). So Esther goes in to the king, and, long-story-short, the Jews are saved (but Haman, is not).

This story, and especially this verse (Esther 4.14), have been used repeatedly by preachers and teachers to say: Use what position you have for the glory of God. Take whatever role you’ve got in life, and situation, and let God work through you in the midst of it. And I agree with that challenge. Sometimes we choose our place in life, and God uses us in it. But sometimes, life seems to choose us for our place in it, and we have to decide: Am I going to let God use me? Here? Now? Even though it may be messy? Difficult? Even, possibly, deadly?

But, as I mentioned at the beginning of this blog: God is nowhere mentioned in the story of Esther. This doesn’t mean He isn’t seen on the edges of the story, but this notable lack of God’s mention reminds us of another key point: Sometimes we aren’t clear how this whole thing will play out. Sometimes, you see, God’s glory and guidance aren’t as clear as we would like. And maybe, just maybe, we act — not being sure how it will all turn out.

In other words, like Esther, we have to trust God when we do God-things in God’s world — trusting that God will be present. Even if it’s less like a blinding presence, and more like a flickering candle.

Which leads me to an issue in the news the past two weeks: Syrian refugees. Politicians are pontificating, and commentators are commentating on what we should be doing. In other words, they are doing what they always do.

So where is the Church? Shouldn’t we be doing what WE always do? Which is to say: trusting that, even when we have unanswered questions, God just might have put us where we are for such a time as this?

Years ago, I was at a missions conference where I met a missionary, Randy, who works in Germany. I haven’t seen him for over 20 years. But today, as I was going through my email, I came across a message this missionary had sent regarding the Syrian refugees that are streaming into his country. Here is some of what he had to say:

“The biggest event in our lives right now is that we have gone through an organization and have taken on 4 young Syrian men as sponsors to help them adjust to Germany. Three are from the same city in Syria. We met them first last Sunday. Yesterday we helped them with some papers they received and with where things are in the city. They are in the limbo asylum-seekers status. That means their cases are being considered by the government office for immigration.

After Paris and the cancellation of the soccer game in Hanover last night because of a bomb scare, many people are concerned when they hear that we are meeting with Syrians. Many Americans are very concerned/fearful about terrorism coming with refugees. We have seen some very strong comments in the social media from Christians. Fear is the natural reaction – think about Ananias in Acts 9 as he was to go to that Christian Killer – Saul/Paul. But love conquers fear and Ananias goes to Saul and ends up baptizing him. Who would have thought?

A couple of weeks ago I preached on Esther and a couple of thoughts from her story come to mind. Mordecai to Esther: ‘And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?’ Esther to Mordecai: ‘Fast for me. I will go to the king. And if I perish, I perish’ (Esther 4:12-16). We Christians can hide from them and hope they do not overtake our land or we can reach out to them. ‘As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord’ (Joshua 24:15).”

I believe Randy is right. For 2000 years, the Church has not looked at opportunity with fear — but faith. Trusting that even when things aren’t clear, and may even get a little messy, God is at work. Bringing people in need to us. And our call is clear: reach out, with the love of Jesus. Because, after all, who knows that you aren’t where you are — right now — for such a time as this?

Blogging the Bible: Genesis 1-11

This week, I hope you are joining me as we begin to read through the story of the Bible. We are starting at the beginning (a very good place to start), in the book of Genesis. It starts with a familiar story – Creation!

But right off the bat, something jumps out. Two verses in, we read that a formless void exists when God begins His creative work. In short, God makes Something out of Formless Nothingness. Before God – chaos and meaningless. When God begins to work – purpose and beauty. And Genesis 1 then unfolds that beauty.

There are a lot of arguments about how to understand Genesis 1; how to interpret the seven days of creation; and the means by which God created. But the most important thing to remember is that God is behind all that is meaningful. In fact, when God steps in is precisely when it takes on meaning. The purpose of Genesis 1 isn’t to give us science, or answer 21st century questions. The purpose of Genesis 1 is to give us faith, and answer timeless questions: Where did we come from? And why? And what are we supposed to do?

And what we are supposed to do is live a purpose-filled life in relationship with our Creator and with each other. That was the invitation to Adam & Eve. But they decided that reaching for what they should not have was more important than receiving the gifts God had given them. In other words, they used their freedom to do wrong – wrong that harmed them, and their relationship with God.

So they leave the garden, and find that life on their terms isn’t as exciting as they thought it would be. And they have a son named Cain who follows in their footsteps. And he takes his freedom even further – and kills his brother. He asks, Am I my brother’s keeper? Well, he should have been; as should all of us, though it is much easier to blame our brother, or God, or circumstances, for what is wrong with us and our world.

So, to this point, the first humans use freedom to fracture their relationship with God and with each other. But along comes Noah; surely he will make things right. You know, the ark, animals, rainbows, and all that. But did you notice the part of the story that we often overlook – the part that never makes it into the children’s Bibles? It’s the part where he gets drunk – naked and unashamed of his misuse of God’s good creation. Even though God has restarted everything with Noah, he still fails – just as his ancestors did.

And then, one more story in Genesis 1-11 stands out: the Tower of Babel. In this story, we see people coming together to stand up to God; deciding that they can reach God on their own. In essence, they say to themselves, We can make our way to God on our terms, and by the work of our hands.

Where have I heard that before? Only in every commercial and in most every promise made by the makers of whatever gadget will save us now. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks puts it, the Babel-onians try to reach God based on their technological ability, not their moral character. It’s not that God is opposed to our technology and creativity; it’s that we so often get things backward. Our technology doesn’t lead us UP to God; instead, our accomplishments must be rooted in the life we have IN God. For the folks of Babel, they sought salvation by self-styled accomplishment, rather than by self-sacrificial surrender.

So, here’s the scenario, according to Sacks: Adam & Eve lose Eden; Cain is left to wander; Noah descends into drunkenness; the tower goes unfinished. Other than that, everything looks great!

Perhaps in all of this is the reminder that the human condition hasn’t changed. We still misuse our freedom and thus fracture our relationship with our Creator. We still ask, skeptically, Am I really my brother’s keeper? And we still seek to build a spiritual life on our own accomplishments.

The Bible is nothing if not realistic. And it begins, in its very first chapters, addressing the stark reality of the human condition. Even so, we have a God who does not give up on us. After Noah’s flood, God makes a covenant. A promise for life. God says, “I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants, and with every living creature…” to never again destroy the world. The rainbow will be a sign of the promise that I have made this “everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.”

The Bible tells us the reality of our situation, which goes all the way back to the beginning. But it also tells us that, even more real still, is the faithfulness and mercy of our God. So, remember that truth. When you see a rainbow. (And when you don’t.) And allow that faithfulness to transform you, helping you to use the freedom you’ve been given to love God and to love others.