Gotta love giraffes

I know a giraffe who knows Kristen Bell.

In this video clip from the Tonight Show, our giraffe friend shows his affection for actress Kristen Bell.

Giraffe Manor, Nairobi Kenya

Justice or Mercy? What if You Had to Pick One?

Last night Jay and I watched a Dateline program about Brooks Douglass, the son of a Baptist preacher, and his long road to forgiveness. Douglass has produced a movie about the journey that started with the murder of his parents and near-fatal injuries inflicted on him and his sister.

The title of the movie, "Heaven's Rain," is taken from one of my favorite passages of Shakespeare, a section from "Merchant of Venice," a play that is seldom studied or performed because some consider it anti-Semitic.
The quality of mercy is not strain'd,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
'T is mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway,
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God's,
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That in the course of justice none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy.
When I was searching for the Shakespeare quotation on my computer, I came across an article written shortly after 9/11. I am using the quote without attribution because some consider the author to be anti-Islamic.* In it he says,
Judaism integrates the qualities of strict justice and mercy, in harmony and in proper measure. Christianity took only the quality of mercy while Islam took the quality of strict justice.
I am a Christian, yet I do not consider the comment anti-Christian. I don't take offense at it because it's a position worth considering. Is it true? Is he correct? Is this what Christians have done? Is this what Christians should do?

He's right in claiming that Judaism requires both justice and mercy:
Execute true justice, Show mercy and compassion. (Zechariah 7:9)
But is he right in claiming that Christians practice only mercy?

I have trouble finding evidence to support that.

But how about the question, Should Christians always choose mercy?

This question leads to one of my favorite Bible verses. In the words of the half-brother of Jesus,
[J]udgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment! (James 2:13)
According to this, mercy does have a superior position in the Christian faith. But the Christian Bible does not negate the importance of justice. Jesus said,
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. (Matthew 23:23)
The truth is, none of us can practice our faith perfectly, but I can't imagine anyone surviving in a "pick-one" society. To separate justice from mercy is like using the sword on the baby brought to Solomon's court. Death is the only possible outcome.

Justice or mercy? Perhaps the problem is not that we practice one and not the other but that we have a warped concept of both and thus practice neither one well.

To figure out the proper balance, we can't rely on either emotion or intelligence. Only as we increase in love for God (with heart, soul, mind, and strength) and for one another will we gain the wisdom to balance mercy and justice.


*Those who want to know the author's identity should be able to find it easily enough. I just don't want certain other things he has said to detract from this statement, which I think raises a question worth considering.

A Prayer for Clarity and Quietness

Greeting the New Year

The old year melted away with fog and rain and thunder. The new year slipped in quietly and clearly.

Lord, please make 2011 a year of clarity and quietness.

2011 Bible Reading Schedule

The new Bible reading schedule begins Sunday, 2 January 2011. I'd love to have you join me. 

2011 Bible Reading Schedule

Dangerous Distortion

This is an amazing map. If you watch it long enough you will see light and darkness move across the face of the earth.

And if you look at it closely, you will see the problem cartographers face when they try to convey the round shape of the earth on the flat surface of a map. Since there is no perfect way to do this, the size of the continents is distorted. Some world maps show Greenland as being larger than Australia.

When we try to understand the spiritual realm within the limitations of the physical world a similar kind of distortion occurs, and it causes us to exaggerate minor things and minimize important things.

The New Testament addresses the conflict and confusion that result when the ideas of certain teachers become more important than what God says is important. God’s purpose is “love from a pure heart, from a good conscience, and from sincere faith” (1 Timothy 1:5). Sound teaching does not distort God’s word or divide the church. It unites believers and builds up the body of Christ to do the work of God in the world (1 Corinthians 12:25).

All human attempts to explain God are inadequate. Though well intended, some can “flatten” our understanding of the spiritual life and thereby distort our priorities, confuse our thinking, and cause conflict and division.

Perhaps that is what we see happening in Florida. A man who calls himself a pastor is making his agenda (burning copies of the Muslim holy book) more important than the desire and purpose of Christ, who said very clearly that the most important commandment is this: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength,” and the second is this: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” To emphasize, he added: “There is no commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:30-31).

To keep from distorting truth, we must simply believe what God says rather than twist his words to fit our political agenda.

Adapted from Our Daily Bread, 3 October 2009.

Briers and Buttercups

Last spring, the buttercups in our backyard were unusually bright and beautiful due to the generous amount of spring rain God sent our way. I wanted to take some pictures of them before they faded, but I had trouble getting close enough because they were growing in a very soggy wetland. One sunny afternoon, I pulled on a pair of boots and trudged through briers and brambles toward buttercup bog. Before I got any pictures, I got muddy feet, multiple scratches, and numerous bug bites. But seeing the buttercups made my temporary discomfort worthwhile.

Much of life is about “getting through” the trials and troubles that are inevitable in our sinful world. One of these trials is persecution. The disciples certainly found this to be true. They knew the good things that Jesus has ready for those who follow Him, but they met harsh resistance when they tried to tell others (Acts 14:5).

Those of us who have chosen God’s way, and who know from experience that it’s “a more excellent way” (1 Cor. 12:31), will persevere even when we have to go through danger and difficulty. By doing so, we show others a beautiful picture of God’s peace, mercy, and forgiveness. The joy that awaits will make our temporary discomfort worthwhile.

(adapted from Briers and Buttercups)
NOTE: I got the idea for this ODB last year between sessions of the RBC/ODB readers’ event held at Sunshine Church here in Grand Rapids in early May. I was on a panel of ODB authors, and one of the questions was “Where do you get ideas for ODBs.” After the first session, I had a meeting at church with the head of women’s ministry. During our conversation, I used my woodland adventure as an example of having to go through adversity to get to beauty. As I was talking to Lorie, I was saying to myself, “Hmm, this would make a good ODB article.” I told the story at the evening session and asked people in the audience to suggest Scripture passages that illustrate the concept. It was a fun way to engage readers.

A Steward of Grace

Last week I had several opportunities to show grace. I wasn’t perfect, but I was pleased with the way I handled one situation in particular. Instead of getting angry at someone's incompetence, I said, “I understand how that could have happened. I’ve certainly made my share of mistakes,” and I left it at that.

According to my own grading scale, I deserved a high score. Not perfect, but close. Lurking in the back of my mind (I hate to admit) was the thought that maybe by being gracious I could expect to be treated that way at some future date.

The following Sunday morning, as our congregation was singing “Amazing Grace,” the audacity of my attitude hit me like the clang of a cymbal. When we came to the words, “Amazing grace! How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me,” it was as if God was saying to me, “What in the world were you thinking, Julie?! The grace you show to others is not your own. The only reason you can ‘give’ grace to anyone is because I have given it to you. You can pass along only that which you have received from me.”

Humbled, I realized that I am simply a steward of God’s grace and goodness. I don’t manufacture it and benevolently distribute it according to my determination of who should have it. As a good steward of God's grace, I simply look for opportunities to pass along to others what I have received from the Lord: “the manifold grace of God” (1 Peter 4:10).

(adapted from A Steward of Grace)

Easter at Parkside

Our friend and former worship pastor, George Ohman, led the worship service on Easter Sunday at Parkside Church in Chagrin Falls, Ohio. Click here to watch the video.

March Madness

Every spring, as sports fans get caught up in the annual college basketball frenzy called “March Madness,” I start wondering, Are sports in our society doing more harm than good?

I am not against sports. I enjoy watching my favorite teams play, and I hope my alma mater, Michigan State, wins the NCAA championship. But I do wonder how many social and political problems are exacerbated by the prevailing mindset that defines nearly everything from business to politics in terms of winners or losers.

For centuries, athletics has been upheld as a way to build character and promote teamwork. But these days, those who uphold the virtue of playing fair even if it means losing sound na├»ve and old-fashioned. Instead of hearing about coaches and parents who comfort players and children with the phrase, “It’s not whether we win or lose that counts, it’s how we play the game,” we are more likely to read about parents behaving badly on the sidelines.

Let’s be honest, the primary goal of competitive sports is not physical or moral fitness; it’s superiority, an attitude that has no place in Christian thinking. Our attitude is to be that of Christ himself, who made himself nothing and took on the nature of a servant (Philippians 2:5-7).

By coincidence, we are also witnessing this weekend one of the most divisive political battles in my memory. If predictions are correct, one side will “win” by a very narrow margin. But what kind of a win will it be? And what will it prove? That the winner is right? No. That the winner is better? No. Only that the “winner,” at least for the moment, is more powerful. All the “winner” will really win is bragging rights. And I don't know of anyone who thinks we need politicians on either side feeling even more superior than they already do. That's the problem with most of them already.

As I witness the increasing polarization of our culture, the church included, I'm concerned that our favorite pastime—with its emphasis on winning at all costs—is pulling us ever further into a moral morass rather than strengthening us to rise above it. It seems as if our obsession with sports and its "winner-loser" way of thinking is causing us to think of others as evil just because they disagree with us. I do not see how that fits with the biblical instruction to “do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3).

In ancient Greece, home of the Olympic games, supremacy over others through athletic prowess was highly esteemed. In a letter to people living there, the apostle Paul made clear that his goal was not to win races but to win hearts and minds for Christ. To illustrate, he used a metaphor they all understood—sports. But he didn’t equate it with Christianity; he used it to show the foolishness of expending so much energy on something temporal.
Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. (1 Corinthians 9:25)

The madness of this March weekend is shouting at us to look beyond the basketball court, beyond Washington, and to see the harm being done to our souls when we think of everything in terms of winners and losers, and my side versus the other side. After all, Christianity is not about defeating our opponents; it’s about getting them to join our team—not by force but by love.

Week Seven 2010 Bible Reading Links

Sunday Psalms 18-20
Monday Exodus 37-40; Proverbs 15:12-21
Tuesday Leviticus 1-3; Proverbs 15:22-33
Wednesday Leviticus 4-7; Proverbs 16:1-11
Thursday Leviticus 8-10; Proverbs 16:12-21
Friday Mark 1-2; Proverbs 16:22-33
Saturday Mark 3-5; Proverbs 17:1-14

Click here to see the complete one-year schedule.

Week Six 2010 Bible Reading Links

Sunday Psalms 15-17
Monday Exodus 22-25; Proverbs 13:1-12
Tuesday Exodus 26-28; Proverbs 13:13-25
Wednesday Exodus 29-32; Proverbs 14:1-11
Thursday Exodus 33-36; Proverbs 14:12-24
Friday Matthew 25-26; Proverbs 14:25-35
Saturday Matthew 27-28; Proverbs 15:1-11

Click here to see the complete one-year schedule.

Week Five 2010 Bible Reading Links

Sunday Psalms 12-14
Monday Exodus 8-11; Proverbs 10:22-32
Tuesday Exodus 12-14; Proverbs 11:1-11
Wednesday Exodus 15-18; Proverbs 11:12-21
Thursday Exodus 19-21; Proverbs 11:22-31
Friday Matthew 21-22; Proverbs 12:1-14
Saturday Matthew 23-24; Proverbs 12:15-28

Click here to see the complete one-year schedule.

Week Four 2010 Bible Reading Links

Sunday Psalms 9-11
Monday Genesis 43-46; Proverbs 8:12-31
Tuesday Genesis 47-50; Proverbs 8:32-36
Wednesday Exodus 1-4; Proverbs 9:12-9
Thursday Exodus 5-7; Proverbs 9:10-18
Friday Matthew 16-17; Proverbs 10:1-11
Saturday Matthew 18-20; Proverbs 10:12-21

Click here to see the complete one-year schedule.

Week Three 2010 Bible Reading Links

Sunday Psalms 6-8
Monday Genesis 29-32; Proverbs 6:1-11
Tuesday Genesis 33-35; Proverbs 6:12-19
Wednesday Genesis 36-39; Proverbs 6:20-35
Thursday Genesis 40-42; Proverbs 7:1-5
Friday Matthew 11-12; Proverbs 7:6-27
Saturday Matthew 13-15; Proverbs 8:1-11

Click here to see the complete one-year schedule.

Week Two 2010 Bible Reading Links

Sunday Psalms 3-5
Monday Genesis 15-18; Proverbs 3:11-26
Tuesday Genesis 19-21; Proverbs 3:27-35
Wednesday Genesis 22-25; Proverbs 4:1-17
Thursday Genesis 26-28; Proverbs 4:18-27
Friday Matthew 6-7; Proverbs 5:1-14
Saturday Matthew 8-10; Proverbs 5:15-23

Click here to see the complete one-year schedule.

2010 Bible Reading Schedule

Features of this schedule:
• Read Psalms every Sunday.
• Read Proverbs every day.
• Read the Old Testament Monday through Thursday.
• Read the New Testament Friday and Saturday.

Click the image below to see a larger version.

Thankful for Someone to Thank

Last night my brother asked this question on Facebook:
Who do people thank who don't have a saving faith in Christ?

His question brought to mind an ODB (Our Daily Bread) that I wrote back in 2005, but which (to my knowledge) was never published. That year I was just finishing chemotherapy and was about to begin radiation. I was extremely thankful to all the friends, family, and physicians who had given me so much attention. But at the top of the list was God, who had equipped all of those people with gifts of compassion and the knowledge to treat deadly diseases.

My devotional doesn't answer Jim's question, but it does address the same subject . . .

Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above. —James 1:17

Read: James 1

Magician Penn Jillette believes there is no god and claims that his life is better for it. Not believing in God is good, he says, because he has to “treat people right the first time around” since he can’t be forgiven.

Of course it’s good to treat people right, but his conclusion doesn’t address inevitable failures. What do we do with our guilt? Jillette doesn’t offer an answer. Instead he implies that believers are beggars.

“I'm not greedy,” says Gillette. “I have love, blue skies, rainbows and Hallmark cards, and that has to be enough. . . . It seems just rude to beg the invisible for more.”

When I heard Gillette’s essay just before Thanksgiving in 2005, I thought, yes, he has all these things, but one thing is still missing: He has no one to thank for all this goodness. He doesn’t even have an explanation for goodness. “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights” (James 1:17).

I feel sorry for people who think that the only reason for believing in God is so we can beg Him for more. Believers aren’t beggars; we’re worshipers. We believe in God not because we want more, but because we’re grateful for everything He has provided—especially forgiveness. —Julie Ackerman Link

Greetings from Africa

This is my first Internet connection since my brief connection at the airport in Grand Rapids. I was too cheap to pay the fee to connect for a such a short time at Detroit or Amsterdam.

Here is a rundown of our trip so far. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll use Grand Rapids time:

Friday, 30 October
1:30 pm | Leave Grand Rapids
2:30 pm | Arrive Detroit
5:00 pm | Leave Detroit
Saturday, 31 October
12:30 am | Arrive Amsterdam (5:30 am local time)
5:20 am | Leave Amsterdam
1:00 pm | Arrive Nairobi (8:00 pm local time)

After arriving in Nairobi, we spent approximately one hour waiting in line for our Visas. Then, after retrieving our luggage, we found our MAI greeters at the airport entrance. Our driver took us to the van, where we were later joined by three more people who had come in our flight (Jeanette Windell, Esther Zimmerman, and Ian Darke). We then waited for the 9:30 flight coming in from London. A few of us were just about ready to go back to the airport for a drink of water and a potty break when Alice Lawhead arrived. After rearranging the luggage so everything would fit, we headed for Brackenhurst. We drove through Nairobi, but by now it was nearly 11 pm local time, so the city was quiet. We headed “upland” through much fog, which, because of the elevation, may have been clouds (I’m still not sure which it was).

After a few wrong turns, which took us down some very deserted roads, and a few phone calls, we finally found Brackenhurst. We drove into the complex and found the reception area, which was totally dark. However, this was the place where the driver was told to drop us off, so he unloaded our luggage and told us that someone would come to show us to our rooms. So there we were, the six of us and our luggage, standing in complete darkness waiting for someone to show up. A short time later, four people appeared out of the darkness and let us into the reception hall. One of them gave us keys to our rooms and told us to follow the other three to our rooms. The person Jay and I and Alice were to follow was bundled from head to toe in heavy clothes and had a thick red scarf wrapped around his neck and head. The temperature probably wasn’t lower than 60, but apparently it was cold for him.

We hauled our luggage up a hill along flagstone walkways, then along a grass-covered driveway, up some flagstone steps, along another flagstone walkway, and finally to our room.

We didn’t waste any time getting settled into our room. Although it was only 6:30 pm Michigan time, we hadn’t had any real sleep since getting up the day before at 6:30 am.

Getting from the airport to our room took 5 ½ hours. If my math is correct, that’s only 2 hours less than it took to get from Detroit to Amsterdam.

We slept until about 11:00 Sunday morning, and got up just in time to get ready for lunch, which was delicious and plentiful. After lunch, Jay went to an afternoon session, and I went back to the room to work on my workshop for the next day. I had somehow managed to leave at home the copy on which I had made my last-minute changes, so I had to try to remember what they were. I finished in time for supper.

At the Sunday night session, a band from a Presbyterian church in Nairobi led worship. They were excellent. Very talented and very enthusiastic. Nothing can compare to an international worship experience. The keynote speaker Sunday night was Kenyan Ambassador Bethuel A. Kiplagat. What an amazing person. I’ll have to write more about this later. I’m in a hurry to finish so I can get online and get this uploaded.

Sunday night when we got back to our room, the power was off. We’d been warned that Kenya has temporary power outages, so we had flashlights. We set our alarm clocks and went to sleep hoping the power would be back on in the morning. It was, but only temporarily. Before the water heated up, it went off again. So we had to take luke warm showers. The power was on briefly when Jay dried his hair, but it went off again before I got to use the hair dryer. So I had to show up for breakfast with a wet head.

Oh, well, it’s an adventure.

Jay was supposed to visit a couple of sites with an organization located nearby, but they couldn’t go because the roads were closed due to so much rain. I forgot to mention that part of the story. Apparently this is the rainy season. Thankfully it was raining in Grand Rapids when we left, so I have my raincoat with me. Everyone here is jealous.

If we have power in our room tonight maybe I will upload some of the pictures I took today when it wasn't raining.
 Oh, my workshop today went well. Thanks to everyone for your prayers. I think Jay said there were 16 people there. Of course, he was one of them. I was honored also to have Alice Lawhead and Nicholas Gray attend.
 That’s all for now. It’s almost time for supper.