Claymore on display at Edinburgh Castle, Edinburgh, Scotland

Friends make each other better

When you run into an obstacle in your path, what happens? Everyone encounters obstacles, but some people give up and others press on. Why is that? Granted, there are a number of reasons, and many of those reasons depend on how many other obstacles you’ve encountered previously. But I truly believe one of the most important factors for those people who press forward are their friends. And they don’t even have to be close friends. Even an acquaintance can help someone make the decision to keep going when without them they might have given up.

Claymore on display at Edinburgh Castle, Edinburgh, Scotland

Claymore on display at Edinburgh Castle, Edinburgh, Scotland

Today’s verse is Proverbs 27:17.

As iron sharpens iron,
    so a friend sharpens a friend.

I’ve always loved this verse. I love the symbolism of it. Iron sharpens iron. The thing about it that’s so cool is that if you try to sharpen iron with a metal that’s softer than it is, not only will you destroy the softer material, you’ll dull the iron too. Not saying you can’t have friends who aren’t the same kind of iron, because diversity in our friendships is important too. But a friend who doesn’t challenge you, a friend who doesn’t encourage you won’t help you much.

And I really think that’s what it comes down to most of the time–encouragement. What is encouragement? See many people hear encouragement and think it means you have to love. And that’s not untrue. A lot of encouragement is love. In fact, encouraging someone is pretty difficult if you don’t love them, but love is only a tiny part of what encouragement actually does. Some people hear encouragement and think that means they have to make allowances for people’s failures and accept people where they are with no question. And that’s also good. Part of real love is making allowances for people’s’ faults and meeting them where they are. But just because we’re supposed to love people that way doesn’t mean we need to help them stay there.

Encouragement is building others up. Think about the word itself. It means to give courage. And you don’t give someone courage by giving them a reason to sit on the bench.

Encouragement isn’t easy. No, it’s the farthest thing from easy. It’s so much easier just to pat someone on the back and let them roll around in their insecurities and their failures and their insufficiencies. It’s so much easier to just listen while they want to give up, to stand by while they make terrible decisions, to remain silent when they start down a path that will ultimately lead to trouble.

I’ve been there and done that. I’ve been that friend who was too afraid to encourage someone to make the right choice, and I’ve been that friend who tried to help them pick up the pieces afterward. I don’t ever want to be that kind of friend again.

I have so many friends in my life who have encouraged me–really encouraged me. Yes, I have many who have loved me and who still do (miraculously). But the ones who have encouraged me stand apart because in the moments of my life when I was ready to give up, they wouldn’t let me. In the times when I was on the verge of letting go of my dreams, they helped me find the courage to hold on. When I was facing insurmountable obstacles, they stood beside me.

Do you have those kinds of friends in your life? Do your friends make you better? Or do they just love you from a distance? Maybe they don’t actively tear you down but they aren’t doing anything to build you up either.

Sharpening isn’t really a pleasant experience. To me it feels like pruning. But the stronger we get, the more we can accomplish, the more God can use us, the more people we can help. And iron can’t sharpen itself. Left on its own, it rusts. Without sharpening, it will become dull. The same is true with us. Friends will keep us sharp, and the sharpest friends are the ones who encourage us, even though it may not be fun at the time. The best friends are the ones who never let you give up. The best friends are the ones who tell you the truth in love and respect. The best friends jump into the trenches with you.

If you’ve got those friends, thank God for them. They’re priceless. If you don’t, don’t give up till you find some. You’ll be better off with friends like that in your life. Maybe the people you know now are good at patting you on the back and congratulating you for mediocrity or even when you give up. But I wouldn’t call them friends. Friends accept each other, yes, but they also make each other better.

Bust of Pericles in the British Museum, London, England

How a ride on an elevated train reminded me of heaven

In June and July of this year, I got to go to Scotland and England. I can tell you it was one of the most surreal experiences of my life. I’m a history buff. Always have been. And it was so strange to walk around a corner in the British Museum and come face to face with a sculpture I read about in a history textbook in junior high. But to a certain extent, I expected that in the United Kingdom. I had prepared myself for facing the reality of Scotland and England, grasping that what I had only read about and seen photos of was actually real.

I didn’t expect to experience the same sensation in Chicago.

That’s where I am as I write this blog post this morning, Chicago. Downtown in a swanky hotel. I’m here for the week for a media event for work. I’ve never been to Chicago before, unless you count the airport, and thus far I really like it. It’s a beautiful city, even though most drivers seem to be a little horn-happy. But as I was riding the Blue Line into downtown from O’Hare, I sat in my seat and realized something.

The “L” really does exist. And it looks exactly like it does in The Fugitive. That movie, starring Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones, was one of my favorites growing up, and I realized that the elevated train I was riding in really reminded me of the one where the shoot out takes place between Dr. Richard Kimball and the one-armed man who killed his wife toward the end of the movie. Maybe it’s a silly revelation, but getting to ride on that train solidified in my brain that what happened in that movie wasn’t all a figment of Hollywood’s imagination. Why? Because I experienced it for myself. I didn’t just take the movie’s word for it. I rode an elevated train myself.

And as I rocked along in my seat on the way to downtown Chicago this afternoon, I couldn’t help but rejoice in eager anticipation of another day that’s coming soon, where I won’t have to rely on my imagination anymore.

Bust of Pericles in the British Museum, London, England

Bust of Pericles in the British Museum, London, England

Today’s verse is 1 Corinthians 13:12.

Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity.

If you’re a follower of Christ, you believe in the bigger picture. You know God has a plan. You know He’s working everything out for our good. You know that this world isn’t our home, and we’re just passing through. Right? You know all those things. But there’s a big difference between knowing them and seeing them, between hearing about them and experiencing them for yourself. Someone can tell you over and over and over again that heaven exists, that there will be no sorrow, that there will be no pain, but how are we supposed to grasp something like that without experiencing it? How are we supposed to wrap our heads around what heaven is when we can’t even wrap our heads around the fact that God loved us enough to let us in for free?

This isn’t what I really planned to post today, but I couldn’t get it out of my head. In this world right now, we don’t see things they way they were meant to be seen. We don’t see God the way He was meant to be seen. The dirt and dust and muck of the world blinds us and makes it difficult to see. But a day is coming when all of that will be cleared away and we won’t have trouble seeing anymore. And all the whys and hows won’t matter because we’ll understand exactly what their purpose was.

It wasn’t yesterday, but it might be today. And if it’s not then, it might be tomorrow. You never know, but God has promised that the day is coming, and God always keeps His promises.  

So, yes, right now our promised eternal life doesn’t make sense. It’s like watching Harrison Ford shoot at a one-armed man on an elevated train in Chicago. We’re just taking the filmmaker’s word that elevated trains really look like that, really move like that, really have people in them like that. But one day, when you get to go to Chicago, you’ll see for yourself that elevated trains really do look exactly like that.

The day is coming when we won’t have to take God’s word on what heaven is like.  On that day, we’ll get to experience it for ourselves. And that’s enough to make me smile this morning.

My brother and our guide Torleif walking along Hadrian's Wall, Northern England

Give friendship a chance

Have you ever had a close friend in your life? I’m not talking about just a casual acquaintance. I mean a friend who you spend time with on purpose. A friend whose house you visit just because. A friend who you’re perfectly fine with tossing in your car and driving hours beside. In comparison to the many many many people I know, I can count on two hands the friends who fit in this category. But I’m an introvert. Close friends are difficult for me to make because it takes me a long time to open up.

But if you’ve never had this kind of a friend, you’re missing out.

My brother and our guide Torleif walking along Hadrian's Wall, Northern England

My brother and our guide Torleif walking along Hadrian’s Wall, Northern England

Today’s verses are Ecclesiastes 4:9-12.

Two people are better off than one, for they can help each other succeed. If one person falls, the other can reach out and help. But someone who falls alone is in real trouble. Likewise, two people lying close together can keep each other warm. But how can one be warm alone? A person standing alone can be attacked and defeated, but two can stand back-to-back and conquer. Three are even better, for a triple-braided cord is not easily broken.

I’m sure I’ve blogged on these verses before, but when I think about the friendships in my life that have shaped me and helped me become the person I am today, this is the passage that comes to mind. Like I said yesterday, I enjoy my quiet time, but while being alone isn’t necessarily bad, being lonely is. And being lonely isn’t just depressing, it’s dangerous. You can get into trouble when you’re always alone, and then what happens? Sometimes you can fall into a pit so deep you can’t climb out on your own. That’s why you need friends.

I’ve been fortunate–blessed, really–to have many close friends over the years, friends who have loved me in spite of my flaws and quirks, of which there are many. And I’m doubly blessed to be able to say that in many instances the friends I had 10 and even 20 years ago are the same friends I have today. But on the other hand, some of my closest friends I’ve only known for half that time, if that.

Friendship can be tricky. It’s absolutely risky. Any time you open your heart to someone else, you’re taking a chance. Any time you are open and honest with another person, you’re risking that they will turn on you. And I’m not going to beat around the bush. That’s happened with me on a number of occasions, and in some specific circumstances, it was damaging–more damaging than I care to admit. I’m praying about how honest I should be about that time in my life on here. We’ll see. But without going into the gory details, I can tell you I came out of that time not wanting friends at all.

During that time in my life, I conveniently ignored this passage because I didn’t need friends. I didn’t need people. I was sufficient on my own, and having friends wasn’t worth the pain they would eventually cause. I lived that way for a number of years, holding people at arm’s length, refusing to allow anyone to get close, burying myself in details and busyness. Staying busy wasn’t a problem. It never was.

But a few people broke through my barriers and walls I’d put up, some forcefully, some naturally, and before I knew what was happening, I had friends again. Not just people I knew. Not just people I went to church with. Friends, who I loved and trusted and wanted to spend time with. Friends who I could be myself with, who loved me for me, who didn’t need me to perform, who thought I was pretty cool. And I hadn’t had that in so long, I’d forgotten what it felt like to be loved by choice.

Without the close friends in my life who have invested in me and believed in me and prayed for me and kept loving me in those times when I wasn’t such a good friend in return, I wouldn’t be where I am. I wouldn’t who I am. And I most certainly wouldn’t know God the way I do. Most of them actually read this blog, and if you guys are reading this morning, you know exactly who you are.

All this to say that if you’re in that place today, where people have hurt you, I know how that feels. And actually probably most everyone around you knows how you feel. One of Satan’s great lies is that nobody gets you. That nobody understands you. That no one around you could possibly identify with the struggles you’ve been through. And that’s a huge lie. You have more people around you who “get” you than you know, and you won’t know until you give them the chance.

It’s a risk, yes. People are people. Nobody’s perfect. Everyone screws up. And people will hurt you. Guess what? You will hurt others too. So extend the grace you hope to receive in those moments to others. And give friends a chance.

Sunrise at Safe Haven Farm, Haven, KS

Instructions for facing the end of the world

If the world were going to end today, what would your life look like? If you knew that this was your last day on earth, how would your life change from what it is now? Would you rush out and spend all the money you could? Would you quit your job and spend your last 24 hours in relative relaxation? Would you do that one thing you’ve always been too scared to try?

Well, I hate to be the bearer of bad news (or good news, depending on how you look at it), but the world is going to end a lot sooner than anybody thinks. And knowing that, shouldn’t that affect the way we live? Shouldn’t that affect our priorities?

Sunrise at Safe Haven Farm, Haven, KS

Sunrise at Safe Haven Farm, Haven, KS

Today’s verses are 1 Peter 4:7-8.

The end of the world is coming soon. Therefore, be earnest and disciplined in your prayers. Most important of all, continue to show deep love for each other, for love covers a multitude of sins.

The Bible is full of examples talking about the end times and what they will look like, and I’m of the school of thought that says we’re living in the end times. I’m sure there are many who would dispute it, and I’m certain those who would dispute have evidence to point to. But whether we’re actually living in the end times or not, there are enough verses throughout scripture that warn of the end coming soon it’s something to pay attention to.

The end of the world has always been a topic of discussion in books and movies. For a while, Hollywood went through this phase where every other movie that came out dealt with the end of the world in some way, shape, or form. Like 2012 or The Day After Tomorrow or other movies of that genre. Of course, then there’s the zombie movie genre, like 28 Days Later and Resident Evil, or the postapocalyptic movies like I Am Legend and other movies like that, which don’t really use nature as the enemy but a disease. But the concept is still there. The concept of the world ending has always fascinated people because it’s something we can’t stop. Unless you’re a fan of superhero movies (guilty), and then the fate of the world rests on the hero’s shoulders. But people like stories, and story is conflict. And there’s no great conflict than the catastrophe we can’t stop. That’s what makes those movies so interesting. People can’t stop their impending doom. All they can do is the best they can to survive, to keep living, to retain whatever they can of what used to be.

The Bible is many things, but among its vast repertoire of possible blurbs for back cover copy, it’s an instruction manual on how to live. And I find it very interesting that the two instructions it gives for facing the end of the world are prayer and love. Prayer and love? Is that really all you need to face the end? Don’t you need a generator? Don’t you need a chemical toilet? Don’t you need to invest all your finances in gold or in unperishables? Well, according to the Bible, what you need is to pray and to love each other. And it says that even between those two, love is more important.

And we’re not talking just passive love. If you check out verse 8 in the Amplified Version, this is what it says:

Above all things have intense and unfailing love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins [forgives and disregards the offenses of others].

So what does this mean for us today? Well, I don’t know about you, but I struggle with loving people on good days. I have a hard time extending grace to people who don’t live up to my expectations. And that’s not love. I need to have an intense and unfailing love for my brothers and sisters in Christ because we are rapidly approaching the end and we’re all struggling. And the thing about this kind of love is that it’s not something that just happens. It’s something you have to choose.

The common thread in most of those movies where the world is ending is that the characters who make it out alive are the ones who focus on what matters. Those people who get caught up in the minor details and the unimportant things are the ones who get eaten or smashed or whatever. And as strange as this sounds, I think that’s where we need to be. Yes, the details are important. Yes, the differences are important too. But above all else, brothers and sisters, we need to love each other. If we have Christ in common, we’re family.

Stay focused on what matters. God will help us sort out our differences if we cling to Him. Pray and love and let the end of the world come.

Lions relaxing in the sun at the Sedgwick County Zoo, Wichita, KS

A little love goes a long way

All this week, I’ve been focusing on friends, but what about the people in your life who aren’t your friends? What about those folks you have to spend time with who don’t like you? If you spend any time in the Psalms, you will realize that David talked a lot about people who hated him. He mourned how many enemies he had. And (just being honest), sometimes I wonder if the Psalms are always applicable to me because I don’t really have enemies.

I was looking for this one clip off of my new favorite television show, BBC’s Sherlock, where John Watson and Sherlock Holmes are talking about arch-enemies, but I couldn’t find it. Watson points out that people don’t have arch-enemies in real life. They have friends. They have people they like, people they don’t like, etc. And that’s how I feel about enemies mostly, at least when it comes to flesh and blood humans.

And I’m positive that there are people in my life who don’t like me. There have to be. I just choose not to think about them, because I’m such a people pleaser that if I start focusing on the people who don’t like me, I’m going to lose my mind. And I won’t be very useful to the people who do like me. But as nice as it would be, you can’t avoid people who dislike you forever. And even though it would be great to be the kind of person who everyone likes unconditionally, life doesn’t work that way. And if you’re going to stand for anything that matters, people will dislike you. Eventually, you’ll stumble across someone who is diametrically opposed to everything you believe in, maybe passively, maybe aggressively.

So how do you handle people like that?

Lions relaxing in the sun at the Sedgwick County Zoo, Wichita, KS

Lions relaxing in the sun at the Sedgwick County Zoo, Wichita, KS

Today’s verses are Romans 12:17-21.

Never pay back evil with more evil. Do things in such a way that everyone can see you are honorable. Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone. Dear friends, never take revenge. Leave that to the righteous anger of God. For the Scriptures say, “I will take revenge; I will pay them back,” says the Lord. Instead, “If your enemies are hungry, feed them. If they are thirsty, give them something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals of shame on their heads.” Don’t let evil conquer you, but conquer evil by doing good.

This is a difficult one to keep to. It’s so much easier to reciprocate when someone hurts you. It’s natural to want to hurt them back. And, of course, sometimes reciprocation is necessary. Sometimes for justice’s sake, people need to pay for what they’ve done. But that’s a legal issue. That’s a law issue. And I’m not a law enforcement officer. I’m not involved in legal matters in any way. And I don’t have the right to dole out punishments to people around me.

So what do I do when someone turns against me? How do I treat them when they purposefully set out to hurt me or hinder me or discourage me? I’ve been very fortunate in my life to have few influences like this. Most everyone I’ve met has always been an encourager, but there have been times when people I thought were friends turned against me. And, yes, my first response is to strike back, to make them feel what I feel. But that’s not how we’re supposed to respond.

We are to respond to the negative influences in our lives with love. If they hurt us, we love them in return. If they hate us, we love them in return. If they seek to destroy us, we love them in return. See the pattern? And I’m not talking about the fake smiles that hide the sneers behind people’s backs. Showing “love” to someone with the only intention of hurting them in the end isn’t love, and that’s not what this verse is talking about. When we’re supposed to respond in love, it means real love. It means the kind of love that only God can help us show.

And it doesn’t matter what they do to us. It says never return evil for evil. Not sometimes it’s okay. Not usually. Never. Never seek revenge. Never take matters into your own hands. That’s not your job. That’s God’s business. It’s our responsibility to live the way we’re supposed to, and God will take care of the rest.

But it’s not easy, especially when we have so many means at our disposal to hurt each other. That’s why we need God’s help. We need Him to move in our hearts and help us love the unlovable in a real way. One of the gifts the Holy Spirit gives us is love, and not just love for those who believe the way we do but love for everyone, no matter who they are or what they’ve done. That’s the love we need to ask for. That’s the love we need to show the world, because it’s that kind of love that makes us different.

So when you run into someone who doesn’t like you today, remember to show them love. Granted, don’t go out of your way to track them down and shower them with compliments. I mean, you can if you want, but that might make the situation worse. But if you can’t avoid them, if you have to see them, be kind to them when they are cruel. Thank them for their help when they treat you like dirt. Encourage them when they discourage you. It’s not easy, but God will help you do it. And who knows what might happen? You never know how God can work in someone else’s heart. Maybe all it will take is a little love.