Thursday, November 16, 2017

Compassion – or ‘Catch and Release’?

I’m not a fisherman. Three times in my life I’ve taken fishing rod in hand, and caught nary a thing. If survival were based on my fishing skills, my family and I would have perished . I went deep-sea fishing once in Florida. Apparently, I fed a lot of fish because my bait kept disappearing, but didn’t catch any.

As a result, I’ve never engaged in “catch and release.” In case you’ve not heard of it – which means you’re also not a fisher-person – it’s when a fish is caught, reeled in, admired (maybe with a souvenir photo), and then tossed back into the water, whether it’s a pond, river, sea or ocean. A humane practice, I’m told: the fisherman experiences the thrill of the catch, and the fish lives to swim another day.

Film presents powerful lessons
about "catch and release."
Catch-and-release may be humane – unless those being released are humans. This came to my mind while viewing the excellent film, “Same Kind of Different as Me.” It presents several compelling story lines – including healing a broken marriage, rebuilding a strained father-son relationship, and an affluent couple’s decision to serve homeless people at an inner-city shelter.

Based on a true story, the couple in the film (Ron and Debbie Hall) meet a homeless black man, nicknamed “Suicide.” True to his moniker, with ball bat in hand he appears a dangerous individual, but the husband and wife attempt to befriend him nonetheless.

One evening Ron invites the man, whose real name is Denver Moore, to dinner. Over the meal, Denver weighs whether he wants to be Ron’s friend. He observes, “You white folk do something you call ‘catch and release,’” acknowledging the practice seems curious to him. Growing up as an orphan and raised by poor relatives working as sharecroppers, Denver recalls times he went fishing with his brother. When they would catch a fish, the last thing they wanted to do was let it go.

Then he asks Ron if that’s what he intends to do if they become friends. Would Denver become a hobby of sorts for a time, then released when something else comes along to catch Ron’s attention?

This is a profound question, particularly when serving others in the name of Jesus Christ. It’s easy to make a brief foray into ministry, whether it’s working with children, doing a project for an elderly person, discipling a younger believer, mentoring someone, or even a short-term mission trip. We feel good about our deeds, but then we “catch and release,” moving onto something that seems more interesting.

A friend calls this “mercy tourism.” We spend a little time with people, maybe talking with them about Jesus or performing some benevolent acts, and then we leave, never to return. It’s not to say this is wrong, but most of the time long-term effects of our service are minimal. People are still poor, still homeless, still living in desperate circumstances after we retreat to our comfortable lives.

Real, transformational spiritual impact in the lives of others requires more than a cameo appearance. Perhaps that’s why the book of Proverbs offers several admonitions about true friendship. For instance, it states, “A friend loves for all times, and a brother is born for adversity” (Proverbs 17:17). No bailing when the going turns tough.

Another verse, Proverbs 27:10, states, Do not forsake your friend or a friend of your family… better a neighbor nearby than a relative far away.” Proverbs 18:24 adds, “One who has unreliable friends soon comes to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.”

Throughout the Scriptures we see examples of enduring, devoted friendships – David and Jonathan; Barnabas and Saul/Paul; Paul and Timothy; and of course, Jesus and His closest disciples. Even with fishermen like Peter, Andrew, James and John, the Lord never demonstrated a “catch and release” mindset.

We might argue, “But I only have so much time and energy!” That’s true for all of us. Which puts a premium on where we make our commitments, and with whom. As my favorite devotional writer, Oswald Chambers, points out, a need does not constitute a call. But when God calls us – to an endeavor, or person – He expects us to hang in there. Real compassion means not catching and releasing.

Monday, November 13, 2017

The Meaning – and Purpose – of Life

“What is the meaning of life?” If there’s a more profound, more perplexing question, I haven’t heard it. Everyone has an opinion about it, but it’s difficult to find a consensus on an answer. How would you respond?

Simplistic thinkers might react with something like, “To have a good time, man!” Or reply, ”Just to get through the day.” But neither really addresses the quintessential meaning of life. Shouldn’t life, its meaning and purpose be more than merely existing, or enjoying some fleeting, sensory thrills?

More seriously considered ideas have been suggested, but one I came across recently caught my attention: "The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away." It’s uncertain who originated this view. It has been attributed to both William Shakespeare and Pablo Picasso the artist. Regardless of who said it first, it’s worth considering.

One clarification: With Christmas fast approaching, “Will” and/or Pablo weren’t referring to gifts we find under the tree on Dec. 25. They were thinking about innate talents, skills and passions, the things that inspire and motivate us – and in the process, fill our lives with meaning and purpose.

Even proficiency at climbing and 
cutting trees can be a gift 
to offer others.
I don’t fully concur with the assertion, because I’m in agreement with the Westminster Shorter Catechism which states, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” If we believe God created us and has a unique plan for each of our lives, that’s supplies ample meaning and purpose. But recognizing our gifts – innate talents, skills and passions – and then determining to use them productively, also can go a long way in giving meaning and purpose to our everyday lives.

The apostle Paul seemed to concur, presenting this advice to Timothy, his younger protégé: “I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands…. He has saved us and called us to a holy life – not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace(2 Timothy 1:6-9).

In Timothy’s case, the gift involved channeling his faith into pastoral ministry. Paul exhorted him to “fan it into flame” so others would receive full benefit from it. Most of us aren’t called to preach, or to engage in pastoral ministry. But like Timothy, as stewards of the gifts, passions and callings God has provided, we’re urged to fan those into flame as well.

The Bible speaks specifically about spiritual gifts such as leadership, teaching, prophecy, mercy, service, encouragement, and others. But thinking in terms of recognizing our gift and then giving it away, as the Shakespeare/Picasso quote proposes, we can broaden the meaning to those things we’re especially good at that can be used to enhance the lives of others.

For some, this is teaching. As I’ve written before, the impact a gifted, dedicated teacher can have is immeasurable. I marvel too at those who have a special affinity for certain groups of people, whether they be small children, the disabled, the elderly and infirm, or those who demonstrate compassion and selfless care to those suffering with severe, often terminal illnesses.

Just the other day we had a couple of guys come out and cut down a couple of troublesome trees in our yard. Watching them clamber across those limbs, sometimes swaying in the wind, amazed me. When I asked one, “Are you having fun yet?” he replied, “If I wasn’t having fun, I wouldn’t be up here!” That, I believe, is the definition of a person who has found his gift.

For me, recognizing my gift – a love and facility for working with words – has resulted in a very fulfilling career as a writer and editor. There might be some who disagree, but I would like to think my work as an editor of newspapers and magazines, journalist, book writer/editor, devotional writer and blogger has been of benefit for some who have read my work.

My love for photography also has enabled me to capture the wonders of God’s creation, whether in nature, things people have fashioned with the creativity the Lord has infused into them, and the people themselves. And I’ve been able to share this with family members and friends.

That’s why years ago I adopted Psalm 45:1 as my “career verse.” It states, “My heart is overflowing with a good theme, I recite my composition concerning the King. My tongue is the pen of a ready writer.” It’s even served as the basis for my one-person writing and editing enterprise, ReadyWriter Ink.

Are you still trying to figure out the meaning and purpose of your life? If not, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to start by finding your gift – and then resolving to give it away.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Following Jesus – Not a Leisurely Pursuit

True story: Some guy bought a motorhome for traveling across the USA. At some point during his trip, the fellow put the vehicle in cruise control – and then proceeded to walk toward the back to visit the bathroom. While it was still moving! Predictably, a wreck soon ensued, although he somehow survived his own stupidity.

A fruitful life can't be operated by cruise control.
While some of us are waiting with bated breath for driverless cars to become the standard (or maybe, with bad breath?), for now cruise control means we can take our foot off the gas pedal, but still must steer and use the brake whenever necessary.

I mention this because I’ve observed people that seem to have hit the “cruise control” button for their spiritual life. We read Ephesians 2:8-9, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.” Then, for confirmation, we read a passage like Titus 3:5, “he saved us, not because of righteous things we have done, but because of his mercy….” It’s easy to conclude, “It’s all done. God’s taken care of everything, so it’s smooth sailing from here on.”

Yes, believers in Christ are saved by faith, recipients of His love, mercy and grace. None of which is earned or deserved. But that’s no rationale for taking our shoes off, leaning back in our spiritual recliners, and spending out the rest of our lives clicking a spiritual remote control. If we look seriously at the Scriptures, we find the so-called “Christian life” anything but a leisurely pursuit.

We get a clear sense of this when we read the apostle Paul’s admonitions to his protégé, Timothy. For instance, Paul writes to young Tim, “Endure hardship with us like a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No one serving as a soldier gets involved in civilian affairs – he wants to please his commanding officer. Similarly, if any one competes as an athlete, he does not receive the victor’s crown unless he competes according to the rules. The hardworking farmer should be the first to receive a share of the crops” (2 Timothy 3:3-6).

Think about these examples Paul cites. When was the last time you saw a soldier casually swaying back and forth in a hammock? Any athlete serious about his or her sport devotes countless hours to training, expending sweat – and sometimes, blood – to ensure victory when it’s time for competition. And farmers don’t just dream about growing lots of corn, soy beans, watermelons or whatever crop they have in mind. Much of the year is spent preparing the ground, sowing seed, and nurturing the crop, all for one day reaping a bountiful harvest.

We can’t excel, as a soldier, athlete, farmer – or teacher, business owner, scientist, law enforcement officer, or salesperson – without hard work and determination. In a similar way, God doesn’t intend for His children to don T-shirts declaring, “Once saved, always saved,” and then cruise through the remainder of their lives.

If you’re not certain about that, consider what else Paul wrote to Timothy: “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15).

Paul specifically calls Timothy “a workman.” It’s as if he’s saying, “There’s no place for slackers in the kingdom of God.” For this reason the apostle wrote, to a different audience, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving” (Colossians 3:23-24).

It’s clear Jesus’ followers don’t work for their salvation. The recent observance of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation affirmed that. But a desire to work and to serve, being committed to participating in the advancement of God’s purposes on earth, is a natural – and necessary – byproduct of His transformational work in our lives.

This is why another apostle, James, the half-brother of Jesus, wrote, “What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? ...faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” (James 2:14-17).

It’s a worthwhile question to ask ourselves: Have I put my spiritual life on cruise control? If I have, it’s probably time to put my foot back on the gas.