We Will Never Pass This Way Again

In the 27th chapter of Acts, we find Paul sailing on a ship with a group of prisoners, on their way to stand trial in Rome. The other prisoners were thieves and political rebels, but Paul was different. And while most prisoners would dread standing before Caesar, Paul actually relished the opportunity. As a Roman citizen, he had the right to be heard. Paul wanted to plead his case, of course, but he especially wanted a chance to share the the good news of Jesus with the world’s most powerful man at the time.
As the ship set out to sea, sailing had already become dangerous and “Paul warned them, ‘Men, I can see that our voyage is going to be disastrous and bring great loss to ship and cargo, and to our own lives also.’ But the centurion, instead of listening to what Paul said, followed the advice of the pilot and of the owner of the ship” (Acts 27:9-11). I imagine Paul looking one last time at the safety of the harbor, knowing he was sailing on a ship that would never return.
Our lives on this earth are similar to Paul’s journey. We travel from one place to another and our lives never pass the same place at the same time ever again. Each moment happens exactly once. We can’t afford to waste a single minute. The specific opportunities of today come only today.
Like the ship on which Paul sailed, our lives face raging storms and shipwrecks. But to paraphrase Glenn Procopio, storms are part of the process and shipwrecks reveal the miracle of God’s sustaining power. The storms do the work of unsettling us until we realize that the hand of God has never left us.
Notice what Paul said after everyone on the ship had gone a long time without food: “Men, you should have taken my advice not to sail from Crete; then you would have spared yourselves this damage and loss. But now I urge you to keep up your courage, because not one of you will be lost; only the ship will be destroyed. Last night an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I serve stood beside me and said, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul. You must stand trial before Caesar; and God has graciously given you the lives of all who sail with you’” (Acts 27:21-24).
Could it be that every time we face a storm, someone is ready to help, to give us a message of hope and encouragement? (Or perhaps we’re the ones helping others?) Even if your ship breaks apart, isn’t there a plank with your name on it, ready to carry you to safety? And since we’re sailing on ships that will never return, could it be that the ones you help rescue today—by sharing the good news of Jesus—will be the very ones pulling survivors from the sea tomorrow?
Troy Burns

Nah, That’s Too Easy

People who remain positive in the face of terrible circumstances impress me. A former coworker of mine grew up in the housing projects of a big city, lived in constant fear, and was chased and beaten up nearly everyday after school. And I’ve never worked with a more positive, upbeat person in my life. How can that be? Maybe the alternative was just too easy.
My best friend in high school was continually optimistic, to the point of annoying me; I wanted to whine and gripe and focus on the negative aspects of life. I asked him one day, “How come you never get down and complain about the bad things that happen to you and other people in the world?” He just shook his head and said, “Nah, that’s too easy.” Boy, did I admire him for that answer. I had always assumed he was oblivious to the pain and suffering in the world, but his response revealed something different. He knew very well why he should feel down and discouraged, but he wouldn’t allow it. He remained upbeat even when life gave him little reason to smile and treat people kindly.
Although my outlook is now more positive, I still struggle to come anywhere close to the optimism of my friend and former coworker. This truth causes me a little pain and shame since I belong to Jesus and should feel happy and hopeful all the time. Right? Well, David was a man after God’s heart and he said things like this: “My soul is in deep anguish. How long, Lord, how long? I am worn out from my groaning. All night long I flood my bed with weeping and drench my couch with tears” (Psalm 6:3, 6). To struggle and deal with a sense of despair is normal. But I don’t want it to shape my life, and I suspect you don’t either.
Maybe God’s Word can help us focus on the positive, and even experience His peace: “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you” (Philippians 4:8-9).
If that sounds like a tall order, do it anyway. At least that’s what I’m telling myself. And if people ask you why you never get down and complain about the bad things that happen to you and other people in the world, just shake your head and say, “Nah, that’s too easy.”
Troy Burns

The Meaning of a Meaningless Life

In Shakespeare’s great tragedy, Macbeth, the title character speaks in response to the news that his wife has died:
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.
“Meaningless” might be a one-word summary of Macbeth’s soliloquy. And it’s quite understandable from a worldly perspective, but what about the thoughts of a real-life, mature Christian man who loses his spouse? When the wife of C.S. Lewis died from cancer, he wrote this in his journal:
Meanwhile, where is God? This is one of the most disquieting symptoms. When you are happy, so happy that you have no sense of needing Him, so happy that you are tempted to feel His claims upon you as an interruption, if you remember yourself and turn to Him with gratitude and praise, you will be — or so it feels — welcomed with open arms. But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence. You may as well turn away. The longer you wait, the more emphatic the silence will become.
If I were to lose my wife, I suspect I would respond in much the same way. But that’s life in this world. Even the Bible shares hopeless words when it comes to our life on earth. Solomon, the likely author of Ecclesiastes, was incredibly wise and wealthy and enjoyed all of the physical pleasures and comforts that anyone could possibly desire, and then some. He even said, “I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure” (Eccl. 2:10). Despite all of this, he said, “Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun” (Eccl. 2:10). With this realization in mind, by the end of Ecclesiastes, he says, “Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man” (Eccl. 12:13).
I need God. Perhaps the most important reason I need Him is that He provides me with the only meaning in an otherwise meaningless world. Without God, death would be the end and life would signify nothing. Without God, anything and everything I do would amount to exactly zero. But for all that seems meaningless and hopeless, I’m learning to rest and trust in the fact that God will always be there and He wants me to join Him forever. I’m not sure I’ll ever understand the difficulties of this life, but I believe that someday it will all be worth it, just like it was for Jesus, who “for the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2).
Troy Burns

Are You There, God?

I was maybe a second grader when it was released, but I’m aware of an Elton John song with the following lyrics: “If there’s a God in heaven / What’s he waiting for?” It seems like many people ask the question, in one form or another, “Where’s God?” Of course spiritual skeptics ask this, but even longtime believers wonder about the same thing. As preacher and author Brian Jones writes, based on many years of experience dealing with hurting people, “I’ve never met an atheist who didn’t have a good reason for being one.”
I have to agree with these words. There are plenty of reasons to doubt God or even deny His existence. I know that sounds like blasphemy, but I must admit honestly that I don’t fully understand things like earthquakes claiming thousands of lives, criminals hurting and killing other people, drunk drivers destroying families through a terrible decision, babies being abandoned, and children dealing with cancer, just to name a few. I truly believe that God exists and that He is good, but sometimes I struggle to make much sense out of life in this world.
Some people have better “spiritual eyes” than I do; they know personally the power of prayer and they see what’s really going on in the face of unbelievably difficult times. As one example, my son’s friend is a 19-year-old young man who suffered through cancer a couple of years ago, who fought it and beat it at that time, only to have it return. This young man’s mother wrote an update on the situation:
“Micah is sleeping through his last day of high dose chemo. His counts are down so we are being very careful (masks, sanitizing everything, etc). Next comes two days of “rest” then stem cells on Tuesday. He still has a great attitude but there are not as many smiles right now as he doesn’t feel good. We are waiting for increased side effects but have not seen the bad ones yet (thanks to God for answering prayers on that).”
Now read this next part of what Micah’s mom wrote, and remember that she’s a mother who is watching her son endure this horrible, exhausting, painful experience of battling a scary, life-threatening disease: “It’s something else to be on this side of receiving prayer support. I know we will not fully understand the spiritual realm that happens here on earth until we enter the presence of our Father, but there is something unexplainable about feeling peace while walking this path. We all have our own journey that we experience alone (and for believers, experience with Christ), but to actually feel your prayers makes us able to step into another day with confidence that He has a plan that is greater than ours. All to say, thank you for praying for Micah and our family…we feel it and we are grateful.”
I want to be like Micah’s mom when I grow up (I’m 50 years old, but I have a lot of maturing to do). I want that kind of perspective to get me through the things I just don’t understand in this life. And I want to live with the sincere trust that something much better is still to come.
As God reminds us in His Word: “For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all” (2 Corinthians 4:17). I find comfort in these words from God, not because my troubles seem at all “light” or “momentary,” but because the eternal glory will make my troubles seem minor and insignificant by comparison.
As I navigate my days on this earth in the meantime, I need to hold on to the thoughts that Thomas Merton put into words better than I can myself: “You will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”
Troy Burns

It Will Get Better (I Hope)

I recently read about self-made millionaire Eugene Lang, who significantly impacted the lives of some sixth-grade students in East Harlem. Lang was invited to speak to a class of 59 students and he wondered what he could say to inspire these young people, most of whom were likely to drop out of school. He wasn’t even sure how to get these underprivileged children to look at him, let alone listen to him. Instead of using his notes, he spoke from his heart and said, “Stay in school, and I’ll help pay the college tuition for every one of you.” The lives of these students were changed in an instant because, for the first time, they had hope. One of the students remarked, “I had something to look forward to, something waiting for me. It was a golden feeling.” As it turned out nearly 90 percent of that class went on to graduate from high school.
As I look around the world, even in my own city, I’m discouraged by the way things are going. It seems like everything is getting worse and nothing will ever get better. But hope is powerful. And I don’t mean wishful, unlikely dreams such as, “I hope I win the lottery,” or “I hope I don’t owe any money with my tax return this year.” No, the powerful, meaningful type of hope is for something we know will happen, but it’s still in the future. This is the hope of those sixth graders in East Harlem: they didn’t just wish they could go to college someday; they knew their tuition was paid if they graduated from high school. They knew things would get better.
In a similar, but even more important way, we have a hope in Jesus that is not wishful thinking or dreaming. It’s a hope of something we know is true, but it’s still in the future. We know things will get better, in this life and especially in the life to come. Our genuine faith gives us this knowledge. As we read in Hebrews 11:1, “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” On a foundational level, God’s Word, the Bible, provides this hope. Romans 15:4 tells us, “For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope.” I hope things get better; I know things will get better.
Troy Burns

Real Life Show and Tell

A Facebook friend posted an article summarizing what non-Christians really think about Christians. Based on numerous interviews with unchurched individuals, here are the most common types of responses received:
  • Christians are against more things than they are for.
  • I would like to develop a friendship with a Christian.
  • I would like to learn about the Bible from a Christian.
  • I don’t see much difference in the way Christians live compared to others.
  • I wish I could learn to be a better husband (or wife or dad or mom) from a Christian.
  • Some Christians try to act like they have no problems.
  • I wish a Christian would take me to his or her church.

My two big “takeaways” from these comments: 1) Unchurched people actually want to have a relationship with me; and 2) They want me to be real (I need to live what I believe). Should I be surprised by this?

Isn’t this the message from Jesus in Matthew 5:14-16? 14 “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden.15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”
And isn’t this what we’re taught in 1 Peter 3:15? “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.”
If I’m a real Christian who actually lives out his beliefs, people will be drawn to God, the true source of light in this dark world. And once people know that I’m for real, and that I love them and care about them no matter what (even if they never decide to follow God), I’ll earn the right to be heard and share the reason for the hope that I have. It’s sort of a grown-up, real-life “Show and Tell” where I have to demonstrate something through my life before I can talk about it. People are watching; what will my life show them?
Troy Burns

If You Want to Win, Give Up

Norman Wright compares forgiveness to the tug-of-war game many of us played as children. Here’s what he wrote: “As long as the parties on each end of the rope are tugging, you have a ‘war.’ But when someone lets go, the war is over. When you forgive…, you are letting go of your end of the rope…. If you have released your end, the war is over for you.” I’ve long understood forgiveness to be a “sending away,” or a “letting go,” but the words of Mr. Wright paint a helpful picture when it comes to the endeavor of forgiving others. In the game of tug-of-war, you lose when you give up and drop the rope; in the “game” of life, you win when you let go and let God heal your wounded heart.
Of course, many of us know firsthand that letting go of our end of the rope is a challenge. One of my favorite passages in the Bible, Philippians 4:6-7, actually sheds some light on this: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” This passage helps us deal with anxiety, of course, but I was surprised when it was pointed out to me that these words actually speak less about anxiety than they do about forgiveness and the emotions we experience when we’ve been hurt and don’t want to let go of the pain. The context for the passage is that two women in the church at Philippi (Euodia and Syntyche) who were in conflict with one another. In verse 2, Paul pleads with them to be of the same mind, which requires forgiveness.
Since forgiveness is primarily a spiritual problem, it requires a spiritual solution. In many cases, and especially in overcoming the deepest of our wounds, we may never reach a place of forgiveness were it not for a power beyond our own efforts. When we’re angry with someone who has hurt us, the best thing we can do is pray. We must connect with God, allow His thoughts to fill our minds, and ask for His peace to guard our hearts. When we let go of anxiety and give it all to God in prayer, He hears our requests and gives us the peace we need to let go of the things that have hurt us so deeply, thereby making forgiveness possible. God enables us to let go of our end of the rope and allow Him to heal us.
Troy Burns

He’s Not So Bad, and I’m Not So Good

What’s one of the few things that all Christians have in common? Perfect theology? Worship music preferences? Conservative political beliefs? We know the answer to those questions, but there is something we all have in common: we are sinners. In fact, we cannot even call ourselves Christians if we have not admitted our sinfulness and changed our minds to move from a self-focused life to one that is surrendered to God.
I must admit, however, that when someone hurts me (or, worse, hurts one of my family members), the first thing I do is forget about my own sinfulness. At that point, I seem to focus only on the other person’s faults. When I’m hurt, it’s not a bad thing to step back, evaluate the situation, and decide how to respond. But I can’t live in that place, and neither can you. Not if you want God’s best for your life.
If I only focus on my own pain and the other person’s faults, I forget about my sins and struggles and weaknesses and failures. You could say it’s easy for me to look better to myself than I really am. Even if I commit the same sin as another person, it doesn’t seem quite as bad when I do it. But here’s the deal: even if I’m more “right,” and even if the other person hurt me deeply and is completely at fault for causing my pain, I am not more moral than that person. Romans 3:23 makes this clear: “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” As much as I don’t like to admit it sometimes, especially when someone hurts me or my family, I am part of the “all” who have sinned.
A key factor in my genuine repentance is acknowledging that I’m no better than anyone else. I have to admit who I really am in the eyes of God. I tend to compare myself to other people; sometimes I look pretty good. But other people are not the standard; God is. Of course I seem more moral than the person who hurt me or my family, but the standard of moral comparison is the not the person who hurt me; it’s God Himself.
What I really must do is forgive and show kindness to the people who hurt me, because it forces me to remember that they don’t deserve it, but neither do I. It helps me realize that person is not as bad as I make him out to be, and I’m not as good as I make myself out to be. The “worst” person on the face of the earth shares my humanity and needs the same Savior I need. With all of this in mind, I may even reach the point of forgiving that other person. Isn’t that what the second part of Colossians 3:13 is all about? “Forgive as the Lord forgave you.”
Troy Burns

Be Careful What You Wish For

I believe I’ve shared in the past that the problem with trying to raise children into strong, confident, independent adults is that they become just that! For example, I’ve heard it said that if your grown children are willing to move far away from you, then you’ve done something right in raising them. My kids have demonstrated this willingness, and I’m not sure how I feel about it.
My 19-year-old son is finishing up his second year at a university in Arizona, 1,400 miles away from me and his mom and his sisters. But he practiced leaving us before he ever left for college. He spent a week in Anaheim as part of his team in the Future Business Leaders of America (FBLA). He also left us to play in weekend basketball tournaments in Seattle and Portland, not to mention the weeks he spent in Las Vegas and Anaheim for more basketball tournaments. Right now, it’s not enough for him to live in Phoenix; he’s actually heading to Los Angeles next weekend to play in yet another basketball tournament at UCLA.
Then there’s my older daughter. Thanks to the generosity of our church and our friends and family members, she has raised $2,500 for the mission trip she’s taking to the Dominican Republic in just a few weeks. She has also let us know, in no uncertain terms, that she will not be staying close to home when she goes to college. Even our younger daughter (formerly known as our baby) is getting in on the act. She will leave this month for a trip to Portland with her youth group, and she will head out again next month for a trip to Seattle with her 7th grade class at school. What in the world? Just because my wife and I want our kids to become strong, independent adults, does that mean they have to prepare so much? Must they practice leaving us, seemingly whenever they get the chance?
I know the answer to these questions, I just don’t want to admit it. God has spoken on this matter: “Train up a child in the way he should go / Even when he is old he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6). Of course, these words address our need to raise children the right way, but they also highlight the fact that training is involved in bringing up our kids. What we do over and over as parents, and what our kids do over and over as they grow up, comes to be the “curriculum” for this training. My kids are practicing, again and again, to leave their parents who love them so much.
What I really don’t like to admit is that having kids who are willing to move far away actually makes me happy for them and proud of them, despite the fact that I miss them terribly each day they are gone. If I’m being honest, I would much rather have things this way than to have them live close by simply because they lacked the courage to move elsewhere. And my heart would ache constantly if they became so homesick that they were miserable wherever they lived. The truth is that I want things to be the way they are, I just don’t like it sometimes.
Troy Burns

My Princess at the Ball

The song, “Cinderella” by Steven Curtis Chapman always tugs at my heartstrings (at a minimum) or makes me break down and bawl like a baby (more often than not). I’ve been blessed with many opportunities to live out this song, being the dad of two daughters that I am.
As the story goes, the girl asks her father to dance with her: “Dad, I need you / There’s a ball at the castle / And I’ve been invited / And I need to practice my dancing / Oh, please, Daddy, please.” And dad responds with: “So I will dance with Cinderella / While she is here in my arms / ‘Cause I know something the prince never knew / Oh, I will dance with Cinderella / I don’t wanna miss even one song / ‘Cause all too soon the clock will strike midnight / And she’ll be gone.”
Whew! I can hardly even read the words without starting to cry. This past Friday offered me my latest chance to dance with Cinderella; I was able to join one of my girls at the “Dad-Daughter Dance” at her school. She was a princess at the ball and, at least for one night, I was her prince. I love that she’s still here in my arms, and I dread that all too soon the clock will strike midnight. I understand, unfortunately, how quickly the time goes by, since my son is already completing his second year of college in Arizona. Just yesterday, he was a little boy asking me to play catch and teach him how to ride his bike.
My experience only confirms what God’s Word has always taught: “Lord, what are human beings that you care for them, mere mortals that you think of them? They are like a breath; their days are like a fleeting shadow” (Psalm 144:3-4). God also reminds me that “My days are like the evening shadow; I wither away like grass” (Psalm 102:11). Nowhere is the fleeting nature of life more evident than when I try to watch my kids grow up, and then I blink, and then I see them as young adults in what took only a moment in my mind.
So, I’ll dance with Cinderella every chance I get, because the next time I blink, I’ll open my eyes to watch my girl dance with her husband on her wedding day. I don’t even want to think about that right now, so I’ll hold my girl tight and hope it lasts longer than I know it will.
Troy Burns