Monday, December 5, 2016

Ye Faithful, Are You Coming?

Now that we’re fully immersed in the Christmas season, turkey cadavers successfuly transferred to our trash cans, it’s time for hearing lots of familiar holiday tunes. We’ll all be “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.” We’ll feel sad if we learn “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.” And we’ll go to sleep “Dreaming of a White Christmas.”

But we’ll also listen to more traditional music that points to the real focus of Christmas, the birth of Jesus Christ. One of those is the revered hymn, “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” The words and melody will echo in churches across the land, but what do we really mean by “faithful”?

This book by Dr. Jimmy Ray Lee tells
about God's faithfulness - and ours.
It’s a word that frequently appears in the Bible, sometimes to describe God’s people and other times regarding God Himself. Recently I was part of a small group of men and women discussing what it means to be faithful. Synonyms suggested included being steadfast, reliable, persevering, devoted, and demonstrating unswerving commitment.

The Scriptures offer God’s perspective on how He perceives faithfulness. In Luke 16:10, Jesus declared, “He who is faithful in little will also be faithful in much.” He made a similar statement in Matthew 25:21-23, in a parable describing shrewd stewardship: “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things….”

In both instances, Jesus seems to be saying that faithfulness means more than regularly attending worship services, or learning how to speak and act in prescribed ways. It’s being faithful even in little things, whether it involves responsibilities, resources, or whatever God chooses to entrust to us.

The tiny book of Philemon says this applies even to spiritual growth. “I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ” (Philemon 6). As I understand it, this is telling us that if we are faithful to share what God has taught us with others, whether in an evangelistic or discipling setting, He then will give us more. Conversely, if we’re not willing to pass along what He’s already given to us, why should He entrust us with more?

At the same time, faithfulness is not something we muster up on our own. Our source is from God alone. For instance, the apostle Paul admonished his young disciple, Timothy, “if we are faithless, (God) remains faithful, for He cannot deny Himself” (2 Timothy 2:13). Writing to members of the early Church, Paul offered this encouragement: May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it” (1 Thessalonians 5:23-24).

My friend, Dr. Jimmy Ray Lee, has compiled a book called Faithful, No Matter What. In it he presents more than 40 captivating stories about how God manifested His faithfulness in the lives of men and women, sometimes in miraculous ways, and sometimes in an ordinary but very timely manner. Many of these accounts also tell of how these individuals in turn have endeavored to respond to God’s faithfulness by being faithful to Him – no matter what the circumstances might have been.

Indeed, we can be faithful to God only because of our faith in Him, our trust in His faithfulness. So this season, as we hear the familiar refrains of “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” let’s remember that we can come to Him only because of the great things the Lord has already done for us.All Ye Faithful,” let’s remember that we can come to Him only because of the great things the Lord has already done for us.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Encouragement: Priceless Gift That Costs Little

Have you gotten over election campaign fatigue yet? Shortly before the Presidential election, a retailer told me sales were markedly down – seems the American public was simply worn out by the overwhelmingly negative campaigning. Feelings of widespread discouragement had set it, to the extent that people lacked even the initiative to go out and buy stuff!

But it doesn’t take rancorous rhetoric, or even the media’s fixation on accentuating the negative, to feel discouraged. Challenges at work can drag us down. Financial pressures – particularly at a time when TV commercials are urging us to give lavishly during the Christmas season – can easily keep our smiles turned upside-down. Sometimes we feel like the person working out on a treadmill or exercise bike who’s going no place really fast.

So as we’re pondering our Christmas lists, wondering what’s the best gift for Aunt Susie, Uncle George or cherished friends, perhaps we should consider giving a gift that’s priceless, yet in reality would cost us very little: Encouragement.

One of my favorite people in the Bible is Barnabas, whom we meet for the first time in Acts 4. We’re told about “Joses, who was also named Barnabas by the apostles (which is translated Son of Encouragement)…having land, sold it, and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet” (Acts 4:36-37).

It doesn’t take long to discover why this fellow deserved the “Son of Encouragement” nickname. As the previous passage points out, he was generous, a wholehearted giver who was eager to support the early Church.

Later we learn that after the conversion of Saul, the formerly zealous persecutor of Jesus’ followers, it was Barnabas who took the risk of coming alongside the Pharisee who had literally seen the light. Barnabas became a mentor for Saul, whose name was later changed to Paul, and they joined in several miraculous missionary journeys.

When they parted ways, it actually was because Barnabas was continuing to encourage. This time it was his nephew, John Mark, whom Paul had written off after the young man had deserted their mission, perhaps struggling with a case of homesickness. Years later, without mentioning Barnabas and his resolve to give his relative the benefit of the doubt, Paul wrote to his own protégé, Timothy, Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry” (2 Timothy 4:11).

Can you imagine the impact it had, first on Saul and much later John Mark, to hear Barnabas say, despite evidence to the contrary, “I believe in you”?

We don’t have to be mind-readers or equipped with extraordinary powers of observation to recognize that many people around us are weighed down by discouragement. Whether it’s the widespread malaise that seems to afflict the world around us, or very personal struggles, lots of folks are discouraged. Do they need to go to professional counselors, or make a series of appointments with psychologists? Or get prescriptions for mood-shifting medications?

For some, that might be the case. But for most of us, simple words of encouragement or kind gestures that say “I care” and “I’m here for you” are enough to lift spirits and enable them to recapture the “merry” usually associated with this Christmas season.

With email, texting and instant messaging, few people actually write notes anymore. So why not send one to someone who could use a lift? Not only will they become heartened to know they’re not alone, but also might be so shocked to receive an old-fashioned pen-to-paper note that they’ll even forget what had them so discouraged.

Perhaps as you’re looking past Christmas and pondering goals or resolutions for the New Year, you might make coming alongside someone desperately in need of encouragement a practical and, as I noted, very inexpensive gift. All it would take would be a little time, a bit of energy, and a willingness to let him or her feel important, that they matter, and offer assurance that better days lie ahead.

In whose life would God like to use you as a Barnabas, an encourager, in the coming days? You might not have to look far. That person might be right in front of you at work, in your church, your neighborhood, or even in your home. It’s the gift that fits any budget.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Don’t Let a Defective Digit Defeat You

Because the lower left bar in the hour digit on this clock didn't
illuminate properly, it wasn't dependable for telling the correct time.
My mind had to be playing tricks on me! When I glanced at the digital alarm clock at the hotel, it read “5:58.” A few minutes later I looked at it again and it read “5:03.” I knew we were changing to Daylight Standard Time later that day, but was the clock programmed to reset itself?

Later in the evening when I checked the time it read “7:46.” But when I looked at it less than a half hour later, it read “9:10.” What in the world? I compared the time with my watch, as I had earlier in the day, and it was off by an hour. Was I hallucinating? Maybe the toll of travel in the Northeast was more than I had expected?

Then I realized the problem: The lower left bar in the digital numeral for the hour wasn’t properly illuminated. Unless you looked very closely, the 6 would appear to be a 5, and the 8 seemed to be a 9. Not a big deal, unless you needed to get up at 6 a.m., looked at the clock and thought it said 5 a.m., so you went back to sleep for an hour.

Isn’t it funny how the failure of one part can undermine the effectiveness of the whole? We’ve probably all had the experience of enjoying a nice, smooth drive down the highway when a flat tire suddenly spoiled the ride. Everything was great with the car – except for one tire. Or you’re finally about to finish that beautiful 500-piece puzzle and then discover one piece is missing. For some reason, having assembled a 499-piece puzzle isn’t nearly as satisfying.

We see this principle in the sports world all the time: An offensive lineman misses a key block, causing the running back to be tackled behind the line of scrimmage. In basketball, the point guard makes the perfect pass as his teammate glides toward the basket for the game-winning shot, but he drops the ball as time expires. How successful would a rowing team be if one of its competitors lost an oar?

Perhaps nowhere is the significance of every single part greater than in the body of Christ. The choir seems well-rehearsed for the Christmas cantata, but if Phoebe insists on singing off-key, the result will be the choral equivalent of finding a fly in your soup. Pastor Glutz might have prepared the most stirring sermon of his life, but it’ll be for naught if Herbie in the tech department doesn’t properly control the sound system.

Even more important is what transpires in the name of Jesus outside of what we typically call “the church.” As the apostle Paul wrote, “The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts, and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ…” (1 Corinthians 12:12). If you read a powerful book by your favorite Christian author, think about all the people who were involved in bringing the book to reality – the editors, graphic designers, proof readers, press operators, distributors, etc.

I’ve known people who were gifted evangelists, possessing unique abilities for communicating the gospel message to receptive, listening ears. But before they could speak at outreach meetings, it took other individuals to handle many details, ranging from selecting a venue and planning the event to inviting guests and preparing for follow-up on those who responded.

Stories from foreign missionaries stir us, hearing about God at work in various parts of the world, reaching men, women and children in different cultures. But without the help and support of many people in the United States, the missionaries couldn’t do the work they’ve been called to do.

We admire those with spiritual gifts that put them in the public eye, whether it’s a speaker, singer, author or denominational leader. But we’re all part of the “puzzle,” and without each one of us, the task would be incomplete.

As Paul wrote, “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ And the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you!’ On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor…. But God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body…” (1 Corinthians 12:21-25).

So even if you feel you’re laboring in obscurity for God, that no one notices or cares about what you’re doing, remember that He notices and cares – and that’s all that matters. Don’t be like the missing bar in the digital numeral. Each one of us has an important role to play; without us, the mission could fail.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Coping With Crisis – and Crises

With the arrival of Thanksgiving Day, we’re officially in the midst of the holiday season. Time for fun, frivolity, family and friends, we’re told. But what if this time of the year only magnifies feelings of frustration, failure, and even fear? When it seems you have little reason for giving thanks?

Recently I heard a description of the human condition: It seems there are three kinds of people – those who are in crisis, those who have just gotten out of a crisis, and those who are about to get into a crisis (whether they know it or not).

There’s good reason the term “crisis mode” is so widely used. Just when things seem to be going smoothly, and we’re about to proclaim, “life just can’t get any better than this!” some not-quickly-resolved dilemma decides to pop up, placing unavoidable bumps and ruts in the road.

Suddenly, rather than reveling in the ease of living, we’re more apt to agree with Mr. Murphy, whose law insists, “If anything can go wrong, it will.” If this describes your frame of mind right now, when the prevailing holiday mood of “happy, happy, happy” seems to have escaped you, take heart. You’re not alone.

This is why apostles Paul and James felt led to write we’re to “rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope” (Romans 5:3-4), and “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).

In the midst of the struggle, particularly in a season when we’re supposed to feel overflowing happiness, it’s not easy to “rejoice” or “consider it pure joy.” Not quite the words that come to our minds. But if we trust in God and His revealed Word, we’re assured this is exactly what we should do – and can do.

But again, we’re not alone. We’re not the only ones suffering pain inwardly, even if, like us, they force their faces to display happy smiles. And we shouldn’t have to endure our trials and hurts alone, either. We can turn to others for comfort, and thank God as we’re doing it. “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God” (2 Corinthians 1:2-4).

Sometimes, in the midst of our own adversity, the best remedy is offering comfort to someone else. It can take our minds off our own troubles. We might discover our difficulties aren’t as bad as we thought. And we may find that giving comfort to another is the greatest Christmas gift we could give, one that gives both ways.

Lastly, and most important, we can turn to Jesus. We’re told, For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are -- yet he did not sin (Hebrews 4:15). Having taken on human flesh, enduring all of life’s challenges, He can say, without hesitation, “Child, I understand. I truly do.”

So if Thanksgiving for you is just the beginning of weeks of festive celebration, enjoy it! But if, like many others, the happiness of this season only serves to heighten your personal pain, look to the Lord with hope and confidence, knowing He is using this time in your life – no matter how hard – for your and His ultimate good and purpose.

Believing God is in control, and trusting that He genuinely has your best interests at heart, you then can do as 1 Thessalonians 5:18 exhorts us to do: “give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”

Monday, November 21, 2016

Unity, Without Uniformity

Despite discord, Times Square displays signs of unity.
My wife and I had the opportunity to spend some time in New York City just days before the Presidential election. As a boy growing up in New Jersey, I used to get into “The City” often, but hadn’t been there for more than 10 years. As we walked and toured around Manhattan, I was impressed once more by the incredible diversity that characterizes the “city that never sleeps.”

A tour bus guide commented that only 2 in every 5 residents of New York City is American-born. This bore itself out as we heard people talk. There were times when it was rare to hear an actual “American” accent. (Even of the “New Yawk” variety.) We saw people of virtually every ethnicity, and as for fashion, it was clear that in the Big Apple, anything and everything goes.

Yet, in the midst of the diversity there were unifying factors. American flags hung from many buildings, often more than one. In the heart of Times Square, a brightly lit flag gleamed in its red, white and blue. We made our initial visit to the Statue of Liberty, and its symbolism of freedom and liberty seemed strong.

This poster at a 9/11 memorial museum
captures the spirit we need.
Going to Ellis Island, also for my first time, scenes and photographs reminded us of the countless thousands of immigrants who were processed there sharing a common goal – to experience a better life, one much better than they’d known in their homeland. All of my grandparents had passed through those halls early in the 1900s, so it was a poignant time for me.

So now, with the 2016 Presidential election campaign mercifully over, hopefully along with much of its rancor, vitriol and antagonism, it’s time for people across America to refocus on who we have been – and who we should continue to be – the UNITED States of America. We seem to have become “Untied” for too long.

At the same time, we must understand that unity does not, and should not, mean uniformity. With the blessed diversity we can observe in our nation’s great cities and increasingly, even our small towns, it’s important to recognize we can be different and yet celebrate spirit of genuine unity.

This applies especially for those of us who profess to be disciples of Jesus Christ. The apostle Paul wrote powerfully about this to the church in ancient Philippi: If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose” (Philippians 2:1-2).

I purposely highlighted the words “if” and “then” in the passage, because it’s what is known in the world of grammar as a conditional statement – if certain things are true, then a specific conclusion should follow.

An enduring symbol
for liberty - and unity.
Within the body of Christ that we affectionately call “the Church,” there is great diversity. Not only in terms of age, gender, ethnicity and other demographics, but also doctrines, traditions, worship styles, music, and other factors that shape our beliefs and practices. But as Paul also wrote, it’s important not to let those differences create wide, uncrossable divides. He wrote to the church in Corinth, For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). Don’t major in the minors.

As followers of Jesus, we can fall into the trap of participating in the continued stoking of the fires of division and discord. Or we can strive to find and nurture bonds that make for unity, while acknowledging we’re not asked nor called to insist on uniformity.

This does not mean sacrificing our convictions or compromising our faith, but it does involve recognizing there is beauty in diversity – a quality Jesus knew so well. After all, “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). And it’s one big, wonderful, diverse world.