Thursday, September 3, 2015


The following passage from Eric Metaxas’ massive biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer shows how Bonhoeffer’s obedience to God was forward-oriented and zealous and free. At the age of 72, I find much to contemplate in Bonhoeffer’s reflections.

“In recent years we have become increasingly familiar with the thought of death. We surprise ourselves by the calmness with which we hear of the death of one of our contemporaries. We cannot hate it as we used to for we have discovered some good in it, and have almost come to terms with it. Fundamentally we feel that we really belong to death already, and that every new day is a miracle. It would probably not be true to say that we welcome death (although we all know that weariness which we ought to avoid like the plague), we are too inquisitive for that—or, to put it more seriously, we should like to see something more of the meaning of our life’s broken fragments. . . . We still love life, but I do not think that death can take us by surprise now. After what we have been through during the war, we hardly dare admit that we should like death to come to us, not accidentally and suddenly through some trivial cause, but in the fullness of life and with everything at stake. It is we ourselves, and not outward circumstances, who make death what it can be: a death freely and voluntarily accepted.”

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The Good Samaritan Test

I recently posted about a boy we discovered while driving through our new neighborhood. The boy had been locked in an animal cage by his brother and left by the road across the street from their house. We set him free, but we didn’t get the full story. Yesterday the boy from the cage and one of his friends came by after school to visit our grandson. Soon both of the mothers of the visiting boys came by for a visit as well. We finally got the full story, and it turns out that things weren’t as they appeared.

The boy and his brother actually had been collaborating in an experiment to see how people would react to a child locked in a cage on the side of a road. (Sounds similar to Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, doesn’t it?) While we were told that the older brother had locked his brother in the cage and left him beside the road, actually the boys had collaborated in the stunt. The younger boy got in the cage, and the older boy hid across the street and watched to see what would happen.

When their mother learned that the new neighbors (us) had been drawn into this stunt and thought that it was a real dispute between the brothers, she was embarrassed. She knew that the stunt was real enough to allow people to misjudge her family life. On the other hand, the mom seemed proud of the boy’s “test” of their neighbors. She talked in particular about an older man who walked right by and hardly gave the caged child a notice.

Obviously we passed “the test” because we stopped and set the boy “free.” The test was a “charade,” but it was realistic enough to make us think that the situation was one of real need.

“Tricks” like this probably don’t advance people’s willingness to take a risk and offer help to people in need. On the other hand, is it not better to offer help even if the situation is a hoax than to turn aside and leave a true victim lying by the road in need of help?

Our society often is short in addressing obvious needs because we have a hard time assessing genuine needs. We faced this dilemma frequently in the benevolence ministry of our church in Jefferson City, TN. We met on Tuesday mornings and generally had 3-5 interviews with people who had asked for assistance from the church. They needed help with paying utility bills, buying food, getting transportation to a doctor’s office, or some similar kind of need. We found a few hucksters along the way, and we marked them off the list of those whom we had helped who seemed to have genuine needs. We may have judged unfairly occasionally, but we still provided well over $20,000 of assistance each year.

The old saying, “It is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all” might be a way of applying the “Good Samaritan Test” in many situations. I’d rather be a fool for Christ’s sake in helping a few who might be exploiting the system so that many with genuine needs might be helped.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Mike’s Seven Steps to a Stable Financial Future

1. Give away 10% of you total income each month. In the church, this 10% is called a “tithe”; but you can call it “contributions,” “gifts,” “donations,” or whatever you like. The reality is that giving sets in motion a plan for looking at your entire financial, social, and spiritual life. Most people “waste” 10% or more of their income already on frivolous, superficial, and unnecessary things. When you give away the first 10% of your income, you are better prepared to eliminate the superfluous expenditures and will more carefully utilize the 90% you have as operational funds.

2. Establish a small “splurge fund” as part of your budget. Pull out no more than 5% of your income at the beginning of each month and stash these funds in a coin purse. Use these funds in any way that you wish during the month; but when the splurge fund is depleted, cut off all unbudgeted expenditures for the remainder of the month.

3. Pay all of your ongoing and regular expenses at the time of purchase or immediately when billed. This is a hard rule for most people to follow, but it provides the initial discipline necessary to get your finances in order. Interest rates, late-payment penalties, and other extra charges take large portions out of your operating income and end up reducing your buying power. If you cannot pay these ongoing and regular expenses each month, you are living beyond your means. You will need to develop a budget that focuses on necessities and reduces your other expenses.

4. Pay down your debt as quickly as you can.  Every dollar that you borrow costs you that dollar plus the interest that you have to pay—and the interest costs are applied every single month until the debt is paid. Every dollar that you pay against your debts reduces your future interest payments and allows you to pay off your debts more quickly. Generally you should focus on paying off the debts with the highest interest rates first. Your goal should be DEBT FREE! Another way of eliminating debt is to focus on your smallest debts first. Pay extra each month on that small debt until you have eliminated that debt. After one debt is eliminated, take what you had been paying on the eliminated debt and add that amount as an extra payment on the next smallest debt. Continue to use the eliminated debt payments on remaining debts until you are debt free.

5.  If you can’t pay for it now, maybe you can’t afford it. Most of us have “things” that we feel like we must have or we can’t be happy. We have a difficult time separating our “needs” from our “wants.” It’s the “wants” that give us the most problems financially. You should never borrow or over-extend your budget for “wants.”

6. Borrow wisely and only when absolutely necessary. Most people will have to borrow to pay for large purchases like a home or a car, but everything else that you buy should be paid in full at the time of purchase. If you use a credit card, you should pay the full amount due every month. Interest rates on credit card debt are very high. If you can’t pay off your credit card balance each month, shred your credit cards (or removed them from your wallet or purse) and operate on a “cash only” plan. Your goal should be to pay-as-you-go for all your ordinary expenses.

7. Plan for the long-term. The biggest problem in most people’s financial planning is the failure to plan ahead. Major expenditures like buying a car or home or paying college tuition for your children require long-term consideration. Preparing for retirement is important as well. If you postpone planning for these kinds of expenses, you will have to go deeper in debt somewhere down the road. On the other hand, if you save money in a savings account, invest in stocks or mutual funds, or add to your retirement plan, you will be better prepared when major expenses come along. Even just a little bit put in savings or investments regularly over a long period of time will create a resource that will help you over the big humps in life and will sustain you in good times and bad.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Bonhoeffer on the Bible

I have been slowly making my way through Eric Metaxas’ biography Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy: A Righteous Gentile vs. the Third Reich (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010). I was especially touched by a letter the conservative Bonhoeffer wrote to his theologically liberal brother-in-law in 1936.

“First of all I will confess quite simply—I believe that the Bible alone is the answer to all our questions, and that we need only to ask repeatedly and a little humbly, in order to receive this answer. One cannot simply read the Bible, like other books. One must be prepared really to enquire of it. Only thus will it reveal itself. Only if we expect from it the ultimate answer, shall we receive it. That is because in the Bible God speaks to us. And one cannot simply think about God in one’s own strength, one has to enquire of him. Only if we seek him, will he answer us. Of course, it is also possible to read the Bible like any other book, that is to say from the point of view of textual criticism, etc.; there is nothing to be said against that. Only that that is not the method which will reveal to us the heart of the Bible, but only the surface, just as we do not grasp the words of someone we love by talking them to bits, but by simply receiving them, so that for days they go on lingering in our minds, simply because they are the words of a person we love; and just as these words reveal more and more of the person who said them as we go on, like Mary, “pondering them in our heart,” so it will be with the words of the Bible. Only if we will venture to enter into the words of the Bible, as though in them this God were speaking to us who loves us and does not will to leave us alone with our questions, only so shall we learn to rejoice in the Bible.”

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

An Offertory Prayer

Oh God, our help in ages past and our hope for years to come, I voice today the gratitude of this congregation, which has been blessed by Your presence, challenged by Your Great Commission, and supported by Your daily guidance in good times and in bad.

While we often struggle and are anxious about today and tomorrow, we know in our hearts that You are with us, blessing us with bounty that most people in our world cannot begin to envision, yet always comforting us by Your presence in good times and in bad.

We ask again today the question raised by the hymn writer, “What can I give to Jesus who gave His life for me?” While we are about to give our tithes and our offerings, we are reminded by the hymn writer that these tithes and offerings are but symbols of greater gifts of ourselves: our hearts, our minds, our time—each and all are aspects of offerings. May we not just put coins and bills in the offering plate, but may we offer our hearts, our minds, and our time to You in deep devotion, because without these, our monetary contributions are more like a payoff than a sincere and dedicated gift. But the vision of our gifts is not just between You, our God, and each of us. It represents a vision of a sinful and needy world that needs Your presence and Your hope. May our gifts become a channel of hope for all who stand in need  of You and of the abundant life You offer all.

In Jesus’ names we pray. Amen.

Saturday, July 25, 2015


We had a busy day, unloading a third truck of furnishing from our two previous households into the new home where we are now residing with our youngest daughter and her family. We decided to eat out for supper; and on the way back to the house, we thought we would drive through our new neighborhood. One of our concerns in the move has been to find some neighborhood children with whom our two grandchildren might connect.

As we drove by a home around the corner from our house, we saw a strange phenomenon—a young boy, who appeared to be about our grandson’s age, was scrunched up in an animal cage right between the road and the sidewalk. Although this looked strange and we thought we heard a soft cry coming from the boy, we thought, “Here’s a neighbor who appears to be about our grandson’s age, and he probably is just playing around. Maybe he will be our grandson’s first neighborhood friend.” We drove home, parked the car, and set out to walk to the caged boy and perhaps meet our grandson’s first neighbor about his age.

When we got to the caged boy, we discovered that he was indeed caged. Our grandson, Clay, undid the latch and set the boy free. Climbing out of the cage awkwardly, the boy under questioning told his story. He actually lived across the street from where he was caged. His older brother, who obviously was fed up with him (or perhaps is a regular bully) had forced him into the cage and latched it. No mention was made of parents to intervene in the brothers’ dispute. The homeowner on whose property the boy had been caged had not appeared on the scene to set him free. Other cars driving by had ignored the caged boy, probably thinking like we did that the cage was not locked and the boy could crawl out whenever he wanted to.

I don’t know how long the boy had been in the cage. I don’t know whether he had been crying out for help and no one had responded. Maybe he was embarrassed and didn’t want to call attention to his situation. Maybe he was hopeless from the regular absence of parents and the bullying of an older brother. He wasn’t very forthcoming with information, even under questioning. We did discover that the boy is a year older than our grandson and that he goes to an elite private school nearby. In his embarrassment, he didn’t reveal much more information—nothing about the abuse of his older brother, nothing about his absent parents, nothing about any stability in his life.

We set the boy free physically from the cage, but we don’t know what other “cages” imprison him. In my subsequent reflections I thought of the phrase of the old Gospel song about “a soul set free,” and I realized that it is a lot easier to set a body free than it is to set a soul free. Now the question is, “How do we become a neighbor in Jesus’ sense of neighbor?"

Wednesday, July 23, 2014


I’ve had an iPhone for several years now, and that has been a revolutionary experience for me. My iPhone is not just a mobile phone—it is a comprehensive aid in organizing my life. Yes, I use it to make phone calls; but it also is a device through which I can send and receive electronic messages, record upcoming events, and be reminded when those events are approaching. I can store contact information about my family and friends and engage in video conversations with those same family members and friends.

Of course, I’ve discovered that the expanse of the iPhones’ utility is found in the multitude of “apps” (applications) that are available, each of which will allow you to do some particular interaction or exchange through the phone. I can check the weather locally or for some other location of interest. I can check traffic conditions, stock market activity, gasoline prices, and the best places to eat. I can read books, play games, learn foreign languages, listen to music, or view videos. My iPhone can even act as a flashlight whenever I need one. Whenever an app caught my attention, I added it to my iPhone.

As an iPhone user, I found myself reading articles about how to get the most out of my phone. One of the things I have discovered is that each application that is running on my iPhone is drawing power from the phone’s battery. The more active applications I have on my phone, the greater the drain on the phone’s battery—and the more often I have to connect my phone to an electrical outlet to recharge the phone’s battery. My phone almost needed a daily recharge.

A recent article on extending battery life caught my attention. The writer suggested that many of the apps on my iPhone were drawing battery power even though I was not using those apps regularly. The writer guided me in deciding which apps were most important to me, which apps I wanted to respond quickly, and which apps I only used occasionally and could be called up only when I needed that particular application. Following the writer’s advice, I deactivated some of apps that I did not use regularly, I turned off some of the “always on” information sources, and I even deleted some apps that had appeared appealing when I downloaded them but which I rarely used. This appraisal and pruning of apps provided a tripling of my phone’s battery life!

I think there is a life lesson in my iPhone experience. By failing to focus on the most important things in our lives, we drain a lot of our psychic energy. The lack of focus diffuses our energy and lessens our productivity. Failing to focus on the most important issues and areas of our lives allows the inconsequential to overrun the significant. We can become unproductive, frustrated, and purposeless. What inconsequential things are draining your attention, energy, and purpose away from the things that really count? Maybe it is time to turn off some “apps” in our lives and focus on the things that really count.