Thursday, May 28, 2015

We’ll Make That Change…Pretty Soon


From time to time companies declare they’re making significant changes to their products. Recently, for example, a prominent restaurant chain announced, “By the end of 2016, we’re removing all artificial preservatives, colors, sweeteners and flavors from our food.” Other eateries have affirmed similar steps to eliminate potentially harmful ingredients from their menus.

Commendable decisions, without doubt. Whether due to consumer pressure, good public relations, or corporate conviction after research and due diligence, businesses decide it’s in the best interests of their customers to start doing things differently. Eventually.

The question is, why the wait? We’re in the middle of 2015, and the unnamed restaurants will have dubious, if not outright harmful, additives removed within about 18 months. In the meantime, they’re suggesting we keep patronizing their stores, even though some contents of their food will remain undesirable.

Change often takes time. New procedures need to be formulated and implemented, as well as new ingredients found to ensure the desired flavor, texture and quality. The alternative would be to shutter the stores until newly developed products are ready. Rome wasn’t built in a day – and menus aren’t either, apparently.

Changes in menus, and in our lives,
sometimes take longer than desired.
My intent is not to criticize these establishments. It’s not as if their current products contain lethal poisons or disease-causing bacteria. If that were the case, waiting up to a year and a half for changes would be unacceptable. They’ve recognized a need for changes and are going about making them in a deliberate, well-thought-out manner.

But doesn’t this mirror how most of us approach life? We realize some important changes are necessary in our lives and resolve to make them – soon. “I’ll do it later, but not right now.” Maybe it’s learning to eat healthier, or to eat less. Perhaps it’s taking steps needed to overcome some type of addictive or controlling behavior. Or we might want to start something beneficial, such as learning to play a musical instrument, taking art classes, spending more time with books and less time in front of the TV, or even…reading the Bible on a regular basis.

There’s an interesting little episode in the Scriptures when action was required, but not as quickly as we might have imagined. Moses had approached the pharaoh to ask him to free the Israelites to leave Egypt and worship God. The stubborn Egyptian king repeatedly refused, resulting in a total of 10 plagues of increasing gravity descending upon the nation.

The second plague was an infestation of frogs. No one in Egypt could escape being surrounded by hopping, croaking critters. In frustration, Pharaoh summoned Moses and his brother, Aaron, saying, “Pray to the Lord to take the frogs away from me and my people, and I will let your people go to offer sacrifices…” (Exodus 8:8). Who wouldn’t want to get rid of the pesky amphibians?

Then comes the crazy part. Probably shouting above the din of countless croaks, Moses said, “I leave to you the honor of setting the time for me to pray for you…that you and your houses may be rid of the frogs…” To which Pharaoh, the preeminent, most revered man in all of Egypt, replied, “Tomorrow” (Exodus 8:9-10).

What? Unable to take a single step without stomping on a frog, with frogs filling every open space whether in bedrooms or hallways, even ovens and feeding troughs, Pharaoh told Moses to have the frogs evicted tomorrow! If the conversation had been in Spanish, the Egyptian monarch would have specified, “MaƱana.”

Apparently Mr. Pharaoh possessed the first Round Tuit – in other words, “Whenever you can get around to it, Moses.”

Knowing our human tendency to delay doing what we know we should do immediately, God tells us in Proverbs 3:28, Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, When it is in your power to do it. Do not say to your neighbor, ‘Go, and come back, and tomorrow I will give it,’ when you have it with you.”

He is saying when important change is in order, it’s best not to postpone for later what we can accomplish sooner. In 2 Timothy 4:2 we’re told, “Be ready in season and out of season.” Writer Oswald Chambers explains, “we should ‘be ready’ whether we feel like it or not…. The proof that our relationship is right with God is that we do our best whether we feel inspired or not.”

If you’re running a restaurant that needs to revamp ingredients for menu items, change might come more slowly than we’d like. But whenever we recognize a need for change, or to step up and take action, ASAP might be a good time frame.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Deserving of Remembrance


Again on this Memorial Day, thoughts turn to the countless thousands of Americans through the years who have lost their lives defending our nation and paying the highest possible price for the freedom we enjoy – even with its flaws. We also think of the flag that represents our country, the banner that has flown over many of those who suffered death or grave injury to protect many of us who have never seen a real battlefield.

Recently I saw a video of how patriotic Americans quashed a planned flag-burning by students staging a protest at a prominent university in the South. Not only was the intended igniting of the American flag averted, but a soldier in uniform also shamed one of the protestors, shouting at him, “My brother died (in battle) for you!”

I can’t imagine what it must be like to have a loved one’s life taken on the field of battle. My father was wounded twice during World War II, but returned home after the war alive and intact. If he hadn’t, I certainly wouldn’t be writing this blog post today. A friend of mine was not as fortunate – he never knew his biological father, who died during a battle in that war. My friend’s pain of loss may have dulled, but has never disappeared.

So as we pause for this annual commemoration, I respect the right of people to protest how our country is being run. However, I believe that to burn or desecrate the flag in any way is a heinous act of disrespect – not only to the nation it represents, but also to the lives that were cut short in preserving that right to express protests.

Like most people, I wish there was no war. I wish there had never been any wars. In any form, war seems so senseless, but wishful thinking has yet to make war go away.

So it seems the prudent, compassionate strategy is to strive for peace – praying for it, seeking non-violent resolutions to conflicts, and hoping the loss of lives due to war in the future will be minimal. At the same time, it’s also fitting to recognize and honor the lives of those many who bravely and nobly sacrificed themselves so that people like you and me could live, work, play, and yes, even protest.

In John 15:13, Jesus said, Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends.” This applies to every soldier and sailor, male and female, that has not returned from a field of battle, whether in Europe, Asia, Africa or the Middle East. And of course, Jesus was also referring to Himself, as He prepared to singlehandedly engage in the greatest war of all, the war against sin and the powers of evil.

His “battlefield” was unique, a cross atop a lonely hill that seemed so stark and obscure at the time. Two thousand years later that cross, that hill, and that life are hardly obscure or forgotten. This event has become the linchpin that serves to link – and divide – all of humanity today. The battle against sin continues, but the war has been won once and for all. Jesus declared such when He said just before breathing His last, “It is finished” (John 19:30).

So it seems fitting that as we honor and memorialize the countless American lives that have been lost from the Revolutionary War to the present, it would be proper also to ponder the death of the one called the “King of kings.” We should call to remembrance the Christian “soldiers” who have defended the faith all around the world, including missionaries and martyrs who have stood firm in the face of persecution and oppression.

These lives were not lost in vain. In Acts 10:4 a devout Roman centurion was told, “Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God.” In the same way, all who live for the Lord and serve Him are not forgotten but remembered forever.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Dancing With the Scars?


Life has its way of leaving scars, doesn’t it? My first physical scar showed up in my 20’s. I was lugging a large box out of a retail store and scraped the top of my right hand against a metal door. It wasn’t a deep gash, but to this day I bear a “souvenir” of the incident. Years later I managed to cut myself in nearly the same spot on my other hand, so I’m still fairly symmetrical. (You know what “symmetry” is? In the South, it’s where they take the body after it leaves the funeral home.)

My most prominent scar came nearly nine years ago when I underwent open-heart surgery to have four bypasses and have my aorta replaced. I became an unofficial member of “the zipper club,” because that’s kind of what it looks like after they stitch you back up. My “zipper” is less pronounced now, but the scar lingers.

I’ve been thinking about scars because of a comment made by a young lady I met about six years ago. Like me, she had an aortic aneurysm and required an open-heart procedure to correct it. Since we had the same cardiothoracic surgeon, he suggested I meet with her and her family to discuss my surgery experience and the recovery process.

The young woman, who also has fared well since her surgery, said on social media recently her only regret is the scar that remains quite visible. This is understandable, especially given the emphasis our society places on external appearance. And some people have the insensitivity to stare whenever they observe something even slightly out of the ordinary.

I responded to her post, noting the scar proudly represents the surgery that has allowed her to pursue her life’s dreams, get married, and enjoy countless mornings filled with opportunity. Rather than a flaw, her scar can be viewed as a gift from God.

The world is filled with individuals who appear flawless on the outside. Who they are on the inside, however, can be a very different story. I’ve met some people like that. The gossip magazines and tabloid talk shows introduce us to many more of them.

This is why the Bible reveals God is far more concerned with what how we look on the inside than on the outside. In fact, 1 Samuel 16:7 tells us, “God sees not as man sees. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”

And Jesus wasn’t trying to win friends and influence people when He denounced the preeminent religious leaders of the day: Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men's bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness” (Matthew 23:27-28).

He wasn’t saying people shouldn’t have any concern about looking their best, but we should give greater attention to our inner person: “All a man’s ways seem right to him, but the Lord weighs the heart” (Proverbs 21:2).

Of course, not all scars are visible. They can be emotional or psychological, the remnants of cruel, damaging words as well as physical abuse in its many despicable forms. They may be easier to conceal than a surgical scar, but there just the same.

The key, I believe, is learning to get past them and the pain they represent – dancing with the scars, so to speak.

As followers of Christ, when we stare at our scars and declare, “God, you don’t understand,” we can hear His reply, “Yes, child, I do understand.” As Isaiah 53:5 reminds us, “He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.”

Jesus suffered on our behalf, and the Bible says even today He bears the scars of His atoning sacrifice for our sins. Because of that, we truly have the privilege of dancing with our scars. “You turned my wailing into dancing; you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy” (Psalm 30:11).

Monday, May 18, 2015

Previews of Coming Attractions


When my wife and I go to a movie, she hates sitting through the “coming attractions,” but I enjoy them. They offer a good clue as to whether I’d want to see an upcoming film. To me, they’re as much a part of the experience as popcorn.

When I was a boy, long before the advent of cable TV, DVDs and the Internet, my friends and I would go to the movies frequently, always certain to arrive in time for the “previews,” as we called them back then. Now they call them "trailers" for some reason, although I can't figure out how they can "trail" when they come before the feature film. Nevertheless, I remember the anticipation we felt upon learning some new western, sci-fi or adventure film, or Disney production was coming soon. Those early glimpses were almost worth the price of admission.

Of course, we experience the thrill of coming attractions in other ways: perusing a travel brochure and discovering what we might find in visiting a new city or country; hearing the announcement of a new technological innovation (as I write this, many people have been counting the days until they can buy their first Apple watch); hearing about an exciting new automobile about to come off the assembly line; or seeing an ad or commercial about a favorite musical group coming to town.

TV series offer previews at the end of each episode to motivate us to tune in again next week. Radio talk shows give “teasers” at the close of every segment to keep us listening through the commercials. Even newspapers (if you still read them) and magazines use previews to get readers to look forward to the next issue.

One reason previews of coming attractions are so appealing is because of past experience. Encouraged by the preview, we went to the event, watched the show or bought the product and enjoyed it. Our anticipation was justified, so we trust future previews will be just as accurate in alerting us about what’s to come.

Maybe that’s the Bible also offers “previews of coming attractions.” Jesus used them often with His followers. For instance, He declared, In My Father's house are many dwelling places; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you. If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself, that where I am, there you may be also” (John 14:2-3). It was His way of assuring them of a bright, eternal future.

Jesus used that assurance to help His disciples in clarifying what their priorities should be and where to focus their efforts: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:19-21).

The Old Testament is filled with previews – referred to as prophesies. Hundreds of them point to the coming Messiah, which were fulfilled by Jesus Christ’s birth, life, death and resurrection. Nowhere in the Scriptures, however, are “previews of coming attractions” more plentiful than the Book of Revelation.

It describes in vivid detail what Heaven will be like, some of the events that will take place there, and what those who have been “redeemed by the blood of the Lamb” can expect. It talks of “a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away…. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God…. Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God” (Revelation 21:1-3).

We currently live in a world often filled with pain and sorrow. The world to come, the passage continues, promises an end to that. “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:5). Can you imagine that?

That’s why, the way I see it, the Bible offers hope – confident assurance – for both the present and the infinite future. It teaches us how to live in this life, and also assures us of a glorious existence on what I like to call “the other side of eternity,” one that we can’t even imagine.

But ever since I became a follower of Christ, the previews of coming attractions I’ve read about have proved to be as good as promised, often even better. So based on past and present experience, I’m excited by the previews I’ve seen about the life to come. They’re like God is saying, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!” 

Thursday, May 14, 2015

We Don’t Reap What We Sow


Have you noticed some of the old sayings we commonly embrace aren’t true? For instance, “No news is good news.” Especially today with cell phones and instant communication, if you’re worried about a loved one’s well-being, not receiving news isn’t good news at all. When the phone rings (chimes or chirps), or we receive a text confirming they’re OK, that is good news.

We’ve all heard, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” Most of us have felt wounds inflicted by someone’s unkind words, and often those take much longer to heal than physical injuries. Just ask a child scarred by a parent’s constant ridicule – or a cyber-bullying victim.

We not only reap what we sow, good or bad,
but reap even more of it.
And then there’s the beloved adage that tells us, “You reap what you sow.” Actually, this one’s half-true. If you sow tomato seeds, you’re not going to grow watermelons or rutabagas. But in reality, we reap MORE than we sow. As the Bible states in Hosea 8:7, “They sow the wind and reap the whirlwind.”

Would you consider sowing a kernel of corn to grow…a single kernel of corn? Of course not. We sow some seeds of something, like green beans or lettuce or carrots, expecting eventually to reap lots of vegetables. Hopefully enough to give away to friends and family members.

We see this reality of reaping more than we sow in virtually every phase of life. We sow acts of kindness, and in return not only see people benefiting from our care but also receive the joy of having helped others. We might even gain new friends in the process.

An entrepreneur makes a big investment – time, money, sweat equity – pursuing a dream, not just to recoup what’s been put into it, but to develop it and receive much in return. Parents happily dote on their children, providing for their needs, intending for them not only to survive but also thrive and grow into mature, productive adults. Aspiring pianists spend countless hours repeating scales and enduring mind-numbing practice, not to develop excellence at practicing but to one day become stellar musicians. 

I bring this up because there’s also a downside to reaping more than we sow. Our society seems to be experiencing the fruits of its “labors,” reaping a lot more than it has sown – and not always in a good way. Here are a few examples.

During the 1960’s, many in my generation, the “Baby Boomers,” decided traditional sexual mores were “puritanical” and aggressively espoused “free love.” Sounded harmless at the time, but the sowing of this libertine approach to physical intimacy has reaped, among other things: an epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases; cheapening of the God-created gift of sex, making it seem as inconsequential as a handshake or going to the bathroom; widespread use of abortion as a form of birth control; and devaluing of family relationships and commitment.

The old “shoot ‘em ups” of the early days of TV and the movies were deemed unrealistic, so Hollywood makeup artists and special effects engineers resolved to create more realistic killing. They did extremely well. Now mayhem, not only on TV crime shows and films but also in video games and the Internet, has spawned glorification of violence and an obsession with blood and gore. I can’t help believing this has contributed significantly to our increasingly violent culture.

And consider the decision, in the name of “enlightenment” and “tolerance,” to eliminate references to religion and the spiritual from the school day. No need to offend those who either believe differently, or don’t believe at all. Interpretations of the so-called “separation of church and state” have redefined freedom of religion to mean freedom from religion. As a result, the 10 Commandments, which prescribe wholesome guidelines for living – unless you’re a politician or an attorney, perhaps – were declared taboo within the halls of public learning.

The Pledge of Allegiance, which served as a daily reminder of being citizens of our proud nation, has also been excised from most schools. It seems saying “one nation under God” through the decades has scarred countless millions of students irreversibly.

In the years since – and I don’t believe it’s coincidental – the central problems in our schools have ceased being things like chewing gum, running in the halls, passing notes during class, and throwing spitballs, which were the key issues of decades past. Instead, today we rightfully fret over pervasive drug abuse, violence with guns and knives, sexual promiscuity, and classrooms out of control.

Proverbs 29:18 states, “Where there is no (prophetic) revelation, the people cast off restraint.” Or as another translation puts it, “Where there is no vision (of God), the people run wild.” I’m not advocating the forcible imposition of Christian beliefs. But as someone has wisely quipped, if we stand for nothing we’ll fall for anything.

As the verse from Hosea points out, we’ve effectively “sown the wind” and are now “reaping the whirlwind.” Earlier in the same passage God states, “the people have broken my covenant and rebelled against my law…. With their silver and gold they make idols for themselves to their own destruction.”

We need to be careful what we’re sowing. We might just reap a whole lot more of it – much more than we ever imagined.

Monday, May 11, 2015

No Reason to Smile?


My friend Jim, a professional photographer, is an expert at restoring vintage photos that have become damaged or faded with the passage of years. He’s often asked why people usually aren’t smiling in old photos, a question I’ve wondered as well.

No one knows for certain, Jim says, but there are three theories: First, because camera shutter and film speeds were so slow, people had to hold their poses for a number of seconds. If they smiled and then stopped, their mouths would have appeared blurred in the photo. It was easier not to smile.

Another explanation suggests that because dental hygiene wasn’t very advanced back then, people were reluctant to smile and show the bad condition of their teeth. That reason’s not as likely, my friend suspects.

If my mother was
supposed to smile
in this photo from
her 20's, she didn't
get the memo.
A third reason seems most plausible: To smile in a photo was considered socially unacceptable. Jean-Baptiste De LaSalle, writing in The Rules of Christian Decorum and Civility, stated in 1703, “There are some people who raise their upper lip so high…that their teeth are almost entirely visible. This is entirely contradictory to decorum, which forbids you to allow your teeth to be uncovered, since nature gave us lips to conceal them.”

More than 300 years later, that’s obviously not in issue for our times. We live in the age of the “selfie,” when countless smart phone owners turn self-portraits into instant art. Some people lacking in good judgment purportedly (I’ve never been an eyewitness of this) send out photos of themselves wearing nothing more than a smile. Thankfully, that’s still frowned upon even in our increasingly licentious society.

But getting back to the unsmiling subjects in photos from bygone eras, today photos of people not smiling seem equally uncommon. To “say cheese” is not only accepted – it’s expected. That is, unless the photo being taken of you is for a police mug shot, in which case smiling seems weird. Most of us would agree revealing our pearly whites shows us at our best, making us appear to be the nicest, friendliest person ever. (Even if we’re not.)

Out of curiosity, I looked to see what the Bible says about smiling. It says…absolutely nothing. The word “smile” does not appear in the original translations even once.

Not that the Bible – or God – have anything against smiling. The words “laugh,” “laughing” and “laughter” are used in the Scriptures at least 40 times. And if there was laughing going on, we can presume smiles were happening, too. Try laughing without smiling – your face will explode.

But in a biblical sense, laughing isn’t always presented in a happy way. Speaking about people conspiring to rebel against God, Psalm 2:4 states, “The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord scoffs at them.”  When aging Sarah received the promise from God that she would at last bear a child, Abraham’s wife laughed but in disbelief.

Later, however, her laughter was justified and no doubt accompanied by one of the biggest smiles in history. After their son, Isaac, was born, Sarah said, “God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me” (Genesis 21:6). Isaac, in Hebrew, means “laughter” or “he who laughs.”

Most often the Bible speaks not of happiness but joy, which we could define as “smiling on the inside,” even when things happening around us are unpleasant or even distressful. James 1:3 says, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”

So we can smile inwardly, even in adversity, trusting the times of difficulty will be used for our ultimate good, helping to shape us into the people God intends for us to be. And that’s nothing to sneer at.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

The Truly Oldest Profession


Throughout the year we celebrate a variety of holidays: Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving, New Year’s, Memorial Day, the 4th of July. But one fails to receive its just due – Mother’s Day.

Sure, we see ads and commercials about buying Mom flowers and candy, jewelry, maybe taking her out to dinner. But for some segments of our society, being a mom apparently isn’t all that cool. As if the calling to nurture children through the various stages of pre-adulthood isn’t enough anymore to prove a woman’s worth. The test of a real woman, we’re being told, is succeeding in the world traditionally dominated by men. If you want to add kids to the equation, that’s OK, too.

Now before I raise feminist hackles, I’m all in favor of women in the workplace pursuing whatever careers they choose. We have several daughters who, along with raising children, are actively engaged in the workplace. My wife spent more than 20 years working outside the home once our kids were in school. My mother had several part-time jobs after my sister and I were in school. But it’s demeaning when a woman is described as “just” a mother. Because in reality, motherhood is truly the oldest profession.

It goes all the way back to Eve – and Adam. Some people believe their narrative is a fable, or allegorical. I happen to believe it’s true. Eve literally became the first person to raise Cain, followed by Abel. Sadly, the account of those boys didn’t end happily, but Eve did have another son, Seth, though not as celebrated as his infamous siblings.

The Scriptures are replete with stories of women who served nobly as mothers. There’s Sarah, Abraham’s wife, who after many childless years rejoiced upon becoming the mom of Isaac. Then there’s Isaac’s wife, Rebekah, who became mother to Jacob, through whom God established the nation of Israel. Many years later, Hannah also was barren until she became mother to Samuel, who went on to be the prophet who identified David to succeed Saul as king of Israel.

Probably most famous is Mary, whom God chose to become the earthly mother of Jesus Christ. Upon realizing her divine calling, Mary responded, “My soul glorifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed…” (Luke 1:46-55). She recognized the honor of becoming a mother, a very special one indeed.

Mary was not only a direct participant in the birth of the One who would become known as the Messiah, but also was there as He died on the cross to atone for the sins of mankind. Who can imagine the myriad thoughts and emotions that she experienced?

The beauty of Mother’s Day is honoring the women who give so sacrificially of themselves to care for the next generation – and often beyond that.

I never cease to admire moms with multiple kids in tow, at the mall or in a restaurant. The other day we saw a young mother with three children – one in a stroller – and a dog as well. Not a father in sight to help out. Sadly, more than 40% of children across our country today are born to single moms. Shame on the dads. Kudos to the courageous moms.

And motherhood doesn’t end when the children leave the nest. In today’s world they often return – I call them boomerang kids, living again with mom and dad until they can afford to live on their own after college or getting started on their careers. And even when the children have their own homes, many moms “graduate” to become grandmothers, serving as free babysitters as needed.

Even the apostle Paul, who obviously never experienced motherhood firsthand, appreciated the importance of that role. Writing to followers of Jesus in Thessalonica, he said, “we were gentle among you, like a mother caring for her little children. We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well, because you had become so dear to us” (1 Thessalonians 2:7-8).

So to all the moms out there, Happy Mother’s Day. Thanks for all you do!