Monday, March 27, 2017

What All of Us Need, But Usually Don’t Want

Do you know the difference between talented people and accomplished people? We could suggest several factors, but one of the most important can be summed up in one 10-letter word: Discipline.

Talent prompts people to dabble in an activity from time to time, whether it’s artwork, craftsmanship, athletic pursuits, making investments, public speaking, or whatever else you can think of. Discipline is what enables people to take innate talents and develop them into abilities that enable them to excel far beyond their peers.

The phenomenon we call “March Madness” is a good example. Across the country are many college basketball teams with talented players. These athletes can dribble, slam-dunk, and soar through the air with astounding dexterity. And yet, their teams fall short on the scoreboard again and again; for many of them, the closest they’ll get to “the Big Dance” this year is a widescreen TV. It’s because, despite their collective talents, they’ve not learned – through the powers of discipline – how to refine those skills and become a cohesive team that’s greater than the sum of its parts.

To grow properly and fruitfully, even tomato
plants need "discipline."
Think of acclaimed musicians, or celebrated dancers: They may have been born with natural talent, an inherent knack - evident from their very first attempt – most of us could only dream of having. However, that talent won’t amount to much without the discipline to work on and master the fundamentals of their craft, learning through time and repetition to perform flawlessly even without conscious thought.

It’s not much different in everyday living. If we expect to experience joyful, fulfilling lives, it’s going to require considerable discipline. I thought about this recently while reading a wonderful chapter in the Bible, Hebrews 12, which speaks about God’s discipline of His children:
“’My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves…. Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father. If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons…. Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:5-11).

This passage could serve as the focus for numerous sermons. But the key point is God, in a demonstration of His love, disciplines His children – not to harm or frustrate us, but to train us to become everything He intends for us to be.

We live in a time when many people have forgotten, or never learned, the virtues of discipline. Children, even as toddlers, are encouraged to do whatever they choose. Many teenagers aren’t fettered by curfews or other parental controls. Young people entering the workplace are taken aback when superiors place rigid expectations on them, or require them to carry out their jobs according to specific guidelines. They fail to appreciate how discipline can enable them to grow and flourish as individuals – discipline exerted by more experienced people that have learned to distinguish the right ways from the wrong ways.

The Scriptures tell us even Jesus understood the importance of discipline. We’re admonished, “let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:1-2).

Imagine a rosebush, or a tomato plant, trying to grow without the “discipline” of a trellis or stake to keep it growing upright. It wouldn’t be very pretty, or fruitful. In like manner, God knows if we’re to realize our full potential, we must accept His discipline. It keeps us on the right path, enables us to learn dependence on Him, and prepares us for a life of service that exceeds anything we could have imagined or hoped for.

The apostle James points out, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:2-4). As the writer of Hebrews assures us, “God disciplines us for our good.”

Thursday, March 23, 2017

What We Can Learn from ‘Simon Says’

When was the last time you played the game, “Simon Says”? I’m not referring to the musical reality show judge Simon Cowell, or even the legendary vocalist Paul Simon. I mean the kids’ game when the leader tells us “Simon says” and gives instructions on what the participants need to do.

There are two requirements to succeed at “Simon Says.” If Simon says you need to do something, like standing on one foot, doing jumping jacks, or patting your head and rubbing your tummy at the same time, you better do it or you’re out of the competition. And if the leader gives a command, but Simon doesn’t say to do it, you better refrain or…you’re out of the competition.

I never figured out who “Simon” was, or why he wasn’t called Clyde, or Hilda for that matter, but we all knew that whenever Simon said something, we better pay close attention. If only we did so well in heeding what God tells us to do.

Francis Chan, a popular preacher and author on the West Coast, addressed this reality in a video. He noted that while the children’s game teaches us to be vigilant in obeying Simon’s instructions, too often we don’t feel obligated to do what the Lord says.

Many of us regularly read the Bible, all the while nodding our affirmation for what Jesus taught. We might pause to meditate on His message for a while, even memorize some verses that particularly resonate. But put it into practice? Not so fast! As Chan observed, “If Jesus says something, you don’t have to do it. You just have to memorize it.”

He quipped, it’s like telling a child to clean his or her room. Hours later, nothing has been picked up or straightened. When challenged, the child responds with a big smile: “I liked what you said. I memorized it – I can even say it in Greek!”

Alas, that’s not what God expects. As we’re told in James 1:22, Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.” It’s easy to declare, “I love the Lord,” but is there evidence of that? We’re instructed in 1 John 5:3, “In fact, this is love for God: to keep his commands. And his commands are not burdensome.”

Yes, He has given us laws and commands to obey, but as the verse above points out, they aren’t burdensome – they’re not intended to make our lives miserable. In fact, their purpose is just the opposite. They enable us to experience the peace, joy and fulfillment God promises, and they also enable us to grow closer to Him in the process.

Eric Liddell, the central figure in the film of years ago, “Chariots of Fire,” was a world-class athlete who stood firm on his convictions about keeping the Sabbath holy, even when it cost him the opportunity to compete in an Olympic event he was favored to win.

Liddell’s motives were not self-righteousness or unbending legalism, but a desire to enjoy an intimate relationship with his Lord. As he wrote in The Disciplines of the Christian Life, “You will know as much of God, and only as much of God, as you are willing to put into practice.”

Years ago, I came across a verse that underscores this truth. The apostle Paul wrote, “I pray that you will be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ” (Philemon 6). My personal paraphrase is that when we put into practice what God has given us, He will give us more knowledge and understanding; conversely, if we’re not eager to use what we already have, why should He entrust us with more?

The Amplified Translation expresses this even more powerfully: “(And I pray) that the participation in and sharing of your faith may produce and promote full recognition and appreciation and understanding and precise knowledge of every good (thing) that is ours in (our identification with) Christ Jesus – and unto (His glory).”

When God tells us to do something, we can trust it’s for our good – and for His honor and glory. So just as we enthusiastically used to do what Simon said, we should be even more willing to do what Jesus says – because it’s not just a game. It’s real life, the life God intends for us.

Monday, March 20, 2017

‘Trophies! Trophies! Get Your Trophies Here!’

Can you remember receiving a trophy for the first time? I played two years of Little League baseball, but don’t recall ever getting a trophy. I wasn’t a very good player – and my team wasn’t particularly good, either. They didn’t present trophies for mediocre.

I think my first official trophy came when I was in a Saturday morning youth bowling league. I was 13 or 14. I had bowled a high game of about 160, and with my handicap, it was the best for anyone that day. Other than that, I don’t recall winning many trophies during my pre-adult years.

These days, of course, trophies are standard equipment for any and every kids’ sport. They call them “participation trophies.” Doesn’t matter how good you are – or if you’re good at all. You get a trophy just the same; just keep breathing and showing up for the competitions. Maybe they should hand out all the trophies on the first day and get it over with: “Trophies, trophies! Get your trophies here!” It sure could save parents a lot of time and money.

I’ll not debate the pros and cons of the everybody-gets-a-trophy philosophy. But thinking about trophies, what comes to mind is how excited we feel when we receive them, and how quickly the thrill subsides. In fact, that bowling trophy I mentioned? I have no idea where it is. I suspect my mother tossed it in the trash one day while I was away at college. Something to do in her “spare” time, I suppose.

During my career, I’ve received several plaques representing recognition for a magazine I was editing or articles I wrote. But I don’t know where those are, either. If I’d won a Pulitzer Prize, a Nobel Prize, or something of similar magnitude, I probably could locate that. But I didn’t, so that’s not a “problem” for me. Even though professional or personal honors are nice, life goes on and awards eventually become relegated to the increasingly distant past.

The Bible offers a different perspective, however. It speaks in terms of “trophies” we receive not in this life, but the next. In His “sermon on the mount,” Jesus didn’t use the term trophies, but easily could have when He said, “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” (Matthew 6:19-20). In the next verse, He explained why: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Competition was a metaphor the apostle Paul often used in writing to Jesus followers in various cities. In a letter to the church in Philippi, he stated, “…I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me…. One thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:12-14). Paul had a “trophy” in mind, but not one some human “academy” would award.

Later, addressing his protégé, Timothy, Paul again employed a sports analogy in summing his life and ministry. “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award me on that day – and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing” (2 Timothy 4:7-8). The “trophy” Paul envisioned was of far greater value and importance than any Nobel or Pulitzer, Oscar or Emmy.

These passages urge us to keep a heavenly, eternal perspective as well. Whether we’re young or old, accolades and achievements of this life will fade, often as quickly as they appeared. “Moths” and “rust” will tarnish them over time. Even being commended for serving God and His people, while gratifying, will pale in comparison to what we will see and hear when standing before our Lord at “trophy time.”

On that day, Jesus said, diligent and selfless devotion and service will be acknowledged when God tells us, Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master's happiness!” (Matthew 25:21). That will be something worth cherishing in our eternal trophy case!