Happiness

The green pine branches rock in random circles.  The breeze is blowing through winter trees.  They bow and bend within the boundaries of their blueprint.  The only one who knows the path of the wind that moves them is the one who plans my path to happiness.  

“Happiness” was the most searched for term in 2020 according to one source.  Go figure!  Happiness may be dismissed as if it were optional; but the search for it lingers as a desire that will not be ignored. The pilgrims who hunt happiness have sometimes defined it so that they can say they have it; but their definitions turn out to be counterfeits of the treasure that is sought.  Others have redefined it so that it is unimportant.  But whatever you call it, it is searched for on Google and on the globe, over long treaded trails deep with ruts worn by repetitive motion. 

An ancient king of the Jews put it to the test (Ecclesiastes 1-3).  He walked the trodden path of pleasure on the way to happiness; but at the end it was just an addiction and its promise was a lie.  He raced down the track of ambition on the way to happiness only to earn temporary gains.  He accumulated gold and goods; but that rainbow was hollow in its rendition and the song was not the sought for treasure.  It turned out to be the Memphis blues.

Jesus said to a man named Nicodemus, a scholar of the scriptures, “The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8 NASB95).  The wind blows wherever it wishes; it is not controlled by the pilgrims on a path to happiness.  If pleasure is the goal it takes control.  Ambition is in control if you are building an empire.  If it’s gold your seeking, it controls you.  But if you are born of God and as you mature in spiritual growth on pilgrimage with Jesus, you are no longer subjected to the control of empty promises.   As you yield to God’s control, you are now out of control to the guiding Spirit that leads to a life that flourishes with true happiness.  (Read the Gospel of John in the Bible.  It is a map for pilgrims on a search for happiness.)

Stephen Williams

What in the World!

“I wonder what in the world I am going to do!” my grandmother said.  And it was jest.  She was not going to do anything.  She was looking at the mess of paper clippings heaped up in humps of graffiti all over the floor.  I loved to cut up paper when I was little and the Sears catalog suffered its demise in my small hands and rounded scissors.  Small wonder I did not get scolded!  But instead of trouble, the small offense brought the wonderful pleasure that takes charge when an act of destruction is deemed precious because of granny love.  “Love covers all offenses.”

Love caused a contradictory response to my mischief by my grandmother.  It was contradictory to what might be deserved when one intentionally makes a mess.  But it is more difficult to respond to someone who intentionally makes mischief especially if it includes violence against you!  

“The words of the faithful are a life-giving fountain but the words of the wicked cover up their own intended mischief” (my paraphrase v11).  “Hatred stirs up conflicts, but love covers all offenses”  (Proverbs 10:12 CSB).

Loving my grand-baby is easy; but loving my enemies is unimaginable!  It feels wrong when Jesus says, “Love your enemies”.  I confess I do not know how to do that; and complicating any effort to try — my feelings get in the way every time I feel threatened.  But because I believe in Jesus, what I believe about this is this: to love a soul would be to weep in my heart at my enemies mischief; and it would transform what I would say and how I would say it in response.  It would be like a fountain of life.  But “I wonder what in the world I am really going to do!”

On one occasion the disciples wondered out loud about not being able to cast out a demon (Mark 9:28).  They wondered why they couldn’t do it!  Jesus answered, “This kind cannot come out by anything but prayer” (Mark 9:29 NASB95).  It is not too farfetched to reckon that the violence of an enemy compares to a real demon.  I guess I better do a lot of praying these days before I say anything.

Matthew 5:43–45 (NASB95): “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven….”

 Stephen Williams

Note: (“Mischief” is deemed to be the best translation of the word in Proverbs 10:11 by The Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, a 17 volume Hebrew dictionary; and “violence” is a common translation).  

Mirror Mirror on the Wall

The one who wanted to be the “fairest of them all” would ask her magical mirror, and in that children’s tale, the mirror would always be truthful.  Words bare the honest resemblance of their author.  I think this is the reason the author James wrote so strongly about our use of words in his book in the New Testament.  He wanted to remind us how important it is to take a good look at the syllables that role off our tongues and the sentences we press out with our finger tips.  James says that we reveal our maturity by the scrutiny with which we chose our words.  “For we all stumble in many ways. If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is mature, able also to control the whole body” (4:2).  

But even more is at stake.  Paul writes in Colossians 4:6,  “Let your conversation be attractive” (NLT).  He builds on our natural desire to be pleasant to be with.  We want to be attractive.  When we look into the mirror with vanity, we want to be admired; but when we look in the mirror with charity, we want to beautify the experience of others.  Either way we want to be attractive.  But the purposes we have to choose from on the way to winning the beauty pageant are dramatically different.  

This is why Jesus takes our talk so seriously.  He said, “For the mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart. The good man brings out of his good treasure what is good; and the evil man brings out of his evil treasure what is evil. But I tell you that every careless word that people speak, they shall give an accounting for it in the day of judgment. For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”  Jesus is making it a matter of judgement!

Why are the consequences so severe?  Paul makes the point.  “Live wisely among those who are not believers, and make the most of every opportunity.  Let your conversation be gracious and attractive so that you will have the right response for everyone” (4:5-6 NLT).  The point is that our words — our conversation — embody the substantial impression of ourselves that will mirror Christ and make him attractive or will instead mar up the image so that people can not see through us a reflection of the beauty of Jesus. 

We create our voice in the world the same way God created our face: with words.  Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness….. So God created man in his own image; he created him in the image of God; he created them male and female” (Genesis 1:26-27).  The world around will learn to recognize our faces when they come to know who we are.  They will come to know our hearts when they come to expect what we will say when we start talking.  And they will come to recognize Jesus if our conversation matches our purposeful intent to shed light on the solution to all the problems that plague our society. Jesus is that solution.

Stephen Williams

I Know the Way

If you are headed somewhere it is really important that you know the way; or else, you are not going to get there.  When Janine and I were in London doing some sight seeing a few years ago, we found ourselves in Piccadilly Circus, London.  That night our path went in circles and I am not sure how we found it or how we found our way back to the hotel.  I know I did something I used to be too proud to do most of the time.  I asked for directions.  

When I was a young Christian and a young man, I often opened my Bible to Psalm 42.  It is identified as a Psalm of Korah in the Bible.  As I recall, it says, “As the dear longs for water brooks so longs my soul for you oh God.”  The refrain is, “Why are you cast down oh my soul… Hope in God who is the health of my smile” (my paraphrase).  If I was struggling with something, this psalm gave me words to pray and the encouragement that I would be smiling again.  

Later in life I began to pay attention to another Psalm of Korah, Psalm 84.  Here the psalmist delights in the temple.  If only he could be one of the birds that built nests in that ancient court so that he could be in God’s presence all the time.  Speaking of being at temple was a way of speaking about being with God — in his presence, with everything we really need to be happy and therefore to wear a natural smile.  I have found the most penetrating and enveloping encouragement in verse 5.  It captures the movement of the psalm from home to temple through dry places to oasis, from standing against enemies alone to standing with the armies of God.  

The New American Standard Bible (95) translates it with these words, “How blessed is the man whose strength is in You, In whose heart are the highways to Zion!”  The image is that of a familiar road to God  imprinted on the heart.  There is no more aimlessly wandering around.  I know exactly how to get there.  The imprinted highway on my heart is not just a map; it’s the actual journey from beginning to end.  I am that bird with a nest in the corner of where God sits on his throne.  God is always with me.

Stephen Williams  — January 26, 2021

The movie “I Still Believe”

Late last night, Janine and I watched the movie “I Still Believe”, the movie that came out last March about the Christian singer, Jeremy Camp.  Man! What a great story!  The movie focuses on several life situations and gives a good model as to how to traverse them: for example, how Jeremy meets his wife Melissa and their seeking God’s leadership in their relationship.  It reminded me of my own prayers for my wife, Janine, before I met her, and how God lead me to her.  Seeing this good relationship portrayed in the movie reminded me of the love, strength and support I get from Janine and how blessed I am as a result of our marriage.  The movie is a love story, but the main focus is on the way God helped Jeremy and Melissa Camp journey through a life threatening medical crises and overcome it first through a miracle of healing.  But the movie goes on to show how effectively the Camps dealt with finding God’s purpose and guidance in situations where God answered their prayers the way they had hoped and also in situations when God answered their prayers in different ways than they had hoped.  I recommend it!  The movie presents very well, the path to finding God’s purpose in both life’s joys and disappointments.  

Here is a website that compares the movie with the actual events. Although the advice given by the actor Gary Sinise playing Jeremy’s father, in a “scene in Camp’s boyhood bedroom is fictional, Camp said it is ’almost like all the things that my dad did and said, it is all summed up in that moment.’“ (WAY Nation). This summary statement is a great statement about how “our life is full because of difficulty” (quoted from the movie as I remember it). https://www.historyvshollywood.com/reelfaces/i-still-believe/
Stephen Williams

The Wonder of It All

Psalm 143:5 (NASB):  I remember the days of old; I meditate on all Your doings; I muse on the work of Your hands.

I am in wonder when I see the monarch, knowing that it was just a worm on the wood.  I am in wonder when startled by the beauty of a sunset even though I have witnessed many evening colors.  I am in wonder at the mountains though I know their sights and am familiar with the roads that lead there.  I am in wonder at the forceful ocean waves, though they have washed over my feet over many a mile of walking beaches.  I am in wonder at the vastness of the bad lands which are endless in their emptiness.  I am still in wonder of the branches of a bare winter tree skirted in fall leaves.  As I recall these pleasures of delight, I am in wonder that there were a million more.

I am in wonder when I witness an unexpected kind deed, though kind people have been doing them forever.  I am in wonder at the unending mercy of God who never ceases in his wish to offer lovingkindness.  I am in wonder at the graciousness of Christ who was twenty steps ahead of me, laying down what was needed.  I am in wonder when I look up into the starry shy though I have stared into them since I was a young boy laying in green grass and dreaming of the future of my life.  I am in wonder now in the later years that the dreamed of future was a mere shadow of all that God has granted.  As I recall these gifts of generosity, I am in wonder that there were a million more.

Stephen Williams, 01/23/2021

Evidence and Faith

“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”  Hebrews 11:1 (KJV)

“The heavens declare the glory of God, and the expanse proclaims the work of his hands” Psalm 19:1 (CSB).

An understanding of social science research as practiced by practitioners in the fields of psychology, sociology, history, and religious studies offer support for belief in God.  Many good examples of this can be found in publications such as in The Psychology of Ultimate Concerns: Motivation and Spirituality in Personality by Robert Emmons.

Another good example is Professor Craig Keener’s two volume work, Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts.  Keener interviewed people across multiple continents collecting contemporary miracle accounts as a way of disputing philosopher David Hume’s long accepted position that one can conclude that miracles do not happen because miracles are not commonly reported.  Keener’s 1250 pages give sample after sample of contemporary miracle stories from around the world showing that miracles are indeed commonly reported, thus disputing the assumption that Hume’s conclusion is based on.  Therefore, the research proposes that since accounts of miracles are common around the world, it is reasonable to believe that miracles sometimes happen.  Because of Keener’s research, there is a reasonable alternative to philosopher Hume’s belief.  Miracles do happen.

Scientific research rarely “proves” beyond any doubt; it substantiates the evidence that supports a reasonable conclusion.  It shows probabilities.  When one does social science research, such as for certain kinds of doctoral degrees, one must follow processes that have come to be trusted to produce reliable results through disciplined approaches and methodologies that have been tested time and time again by being reapplied and analyzed.  Usually there are educational institutions that stand behind these methodologies and have given oversight to their use by researchers.  Through multiple studies all adhering to tested methodologies reviewed or examined by experts in the field of study, the results come to be accepted.

Even in the physical sciences, much of what we accept as fact is built on supporting evidence; and from this, theories are developed.  In the history of scientific studies, pages are filled with examples of theories that were accepted as fully representative of reality for decades and sometimes even centuries,  only to have been eventually disproven as more evidence was gained through further research.  Relatively recent examples of this can be found in the fields of nuclear physics and quantum mechanics.  

Some scientific theories support belief in God and some do not.  Volumes of research support the conclusion that believing in Christ is a reasonable alternative to other possibilities when the possibilities contradict.  Ultimately faith is a response to God’s revelation of himself and the evidence is in our experience with God after faith is expressed; but there is supporting scientific evidence that is available as a result of disciplined research.  

Stephen Williams, January 22, 2021

The Parable of the Cultural Jacuzzi

The water was just right.  The bubbles were crawling up my arms.  The steam was surrounding my face and  dispersing the cold air over my forehead and through my hair.  The jets were soothing to my joints.  But I did not notice the malfunction.  The temperature was rising incrementally.  The harm came slowly and the destruction was irreversible.  I couldn’t even see what was happening to me.

The temperature of distaste eases into distrust.  The temperament of disgust erupts into outrage.  The words of disagreement become shouts of indignation.  The freedom to say my piece turns to shouting down those who disagree.  And then like a frog in a kettle, I do not see what is happening to me.  The chance to care has been lost forever.  The one I am shouting down is the same one that Jesus has sent me here to be gracious to, show loving kindness to, and speak quietly with about more important things, ultimate things, and eternal things.

“Take care what you listen to” (Mark 4:24).  

“But we proved to be gentle among you, as a nursing mother tenderly cares for her own children. Having so fond an affection for you, we were well-pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become very dear to us” (1 Thessalonians 2:7-8).

“This you know, my beloved brethren. But everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger; for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God” (James 1:19-20).

Written by Stephen Williams, 01/21/2021

Life Defining Moments

When you think about it, it is odd, in comparison to the long and numerous years that map the length of a human life, that what sometimes happens to us in a moment in time defines who we are for the rest of our lives.  I have had more than my share of life defining moments.  Each one is a treasure to me.

In one, it was as if I sat on the precipice of what would seem to be an inconsequential decision — totally ordinary in significance.  But it turned out to be the driving force that motivated me from then on.  It took up permanent residence in my heart.  From then on that experience and what followed would assemble the vision that I would chase and still chase, sometimes consciously and always subconsciously, as my goal for the accumulation of my working days.  

I am thinking about a moment in time in my young adulthood (if I was really an adult yet) when I was trying to commit to what I would aim for in the decades of working days still yet to come.  After I committed to the ministry, stymied by a locked in lostness as to what to do next, I followed what some would call an intuition, to a group meeting of peers.  I was inhibited by shyness and the awkwardness of the moment; yet I felt the weight of knowing I had to do something. It seemed to me that my very existence depended on my doing this something.  I remember it so vividly even though it was 1973 and now it is 2021.  What I knew I had to do was simply to say something about my immediate experience with Jesus.

In that group of youth called a “share group”, on a Monday night, others had talked about their various thoughts about Jesus during the preceding week.  I do not remember any of those things which were said.  I was too preoccupied with hanging onto that cliff — without really knowing how but knowing that all the experiences ahead of me somehow depended on my opening up and testifying that night.  After the time for sharing was concluded and the transitional prayer was being offered, I blurted out something and began to cry.

That was it!  But what happened next taught me what I needed to know to be a minister of the Gospel.  I was immediately surrounded by pats on the shoulders and hugs.  It was not the comfort that I received,  but validated over the next six months before going on to college at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee, it was the sharing about what Jesus was doing in our lives during the week out of a sense of being led by the Holy Spirit.  Week after week, we met to talk about our times with Jesus, our encounters with the divine, our growing understanding of things that cannot be understood without the Spirit of God moving among us.  Everything I have been about in my ministry since then as I guide the gathering of the followers of Jesus was what I learned when I leaped off that bluff of silence with my comrades of youth each sharing their own hearts.  When I stopped holding back and leaned into the community of those who share with each other, my understanding of what I would be doing and have been doing in the ministry was envisioned like a light that would guide my way.  For me, it is the clearest picture of the discipleship that I continue to long to see developed and experienced among those that call me pastor, mentor, or brother.  When the words that describe our walk with Jesus are talked out loud with the sounds of our unique voices, between our fellow Christians, the Holy Spirit creates a shared life among ordinary believers — the life of the church as I understand it.  It is sometimes as if Jesus is sitting in the chair across from you.  The joy is congealed and the substance of the Trinity is present.

“What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have observed and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life — that life was revealed, and we have seen it and we testify and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us — what we have seen and heard we also declare to you, so that you may also have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete” 1 John 1:1-4

Stephen Williams, January 19, 2020

A Change of Mood

You have noticed that moods of different sorts sometimes come over you.  It is as if the body’s sensory abilities pick up changes in the direction of the mood-winds which press against us mentally.  If you do not catch yourself, you will loose your balance.  You will move from a good mood to a bad mood. 

Jesus prepared his disciples for his great exit from planet earth at the time of his resurrection from a tomb three days after his death by Roman capital punishment.  One of the key statements he made to them was, “I will not leave you as orphans; I am coming to you” (John 14:18).  Jesus, like a parent departing this earth, left us a replacement.  

A couple sentences earlier, Jesus uses a descriptor for the One who comes after He leaves.  “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever” (Christian Standard Version of the Bible).  The word for “counselor” in the language the recorder of this conversation used meant “one who comes along side to help.”  Sometimes it is translated “Helper” (New American Standard Bible).  The word carries the idea of “advocate”.  Jesus made it clear that he was talking about the Holy Spirit which is Jesus coming along side of us — sometimes described as entering in us (v17, 20, 26).  

There is therefore a Spirit of peace and stability within us in the person of Jesus.  If we turn our focus away from the outside stimuli that would unsettle us and onto the Spirit of Jesus within us then we will catch our bearing.  Relying on Jesus is like being stabilized by strong tent lines leading to solidly grounded stakes in a firm foundation of earth.  Nothing can come of this change in mood.  Peace flows like a river settling our nerves and calming our body.  Then the ill wind dies down and the closeness of our dear Friend Jesus with his warm presence overshadows the unsettling messages we sometimes get from our imagination.  

“This is what the LORD, your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel says:

‘I am the LORD your God,

who teaches you for your benefit,

who leads you in the way you should go.

If only you had paid attention….

Then your peace would have been like a river,

and your righteousness like the waves of the sea’”.

(Isaiah 48:17-18)

Stephen Williams, January 18, 2021