Monday, October 16, 2017

Legacy of a Lukewarm Life

You’ve probably heard about the guy that was asked, “What’s the greater problem, ignorance or apathy?” His response: “I don’t know, and I don’t care.” Many people today could say the same. If it doesn’t directly affect their lives, they have no interest. But is this as it should be?

Since I don’t know much about ignorance, I’ll focus on apathy – whether you care much about it or not. (Wink, wink.)

Despite the shouting, arguing and carryings-on we see and hear about in our society today, in reality we seem beset with an epidemic of apathy. We get this term from the Greek: “apathy” – “a” (without) and “pathos” (passion). We might get fired up about our favorite football team, whether we’re winning (“I love my team!”) or losing (“Fire the coach!”) But rarely does such passion spill over into our everyday lives and routines.

Sadly, this applies to too many who convene within the walls of what we commonly call “the church.” We sing the songs – or hymns, depending on how contemporary or traditional your congregation happens to be. Some raise hands, or sway, or shout “Amen” at appropriate times. There are those who even dance a bit in response to the music. But soon after exiting the doors and retreating to our real lives, the apathy – without passion – resets.

Imagine Jesus having to knock to receive
admittance into our hearts and homes.
This isn’t a new dilemma. In the book of Revelation, we read this listless, lethargic malady afflicted the ancient church. Addressing the church in the city of Laodicea, God says, “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one of the other! So, because you are lukewarm – neither hot nor cold – I am about to spit you out of my mouth” (Revelation 3:14-16).

Another translation says, “I will spew you out of my mouth.” I like that wording better. It pictures someone drinking or biting into something very distasteful and without hesitation, spewing it out, no matter where it happens to land. Like unpleasant food, or sour milk.

But “spewing” was the effect. The cause was the Laodicean church’s apathy, being “lukewarm” – neither cold nor hot toward things that matter to God. During worship services, or small group meetings, the men and women might have expressed their love and devotion to the Lord, but outside of those gatherings, it was hard to find evidence of Him at work in their lives.

“You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked” (Revelation 3:17). Tough words – but apparently directed to a bunch of folks going through the motions, whose hearts weren’t really in it.

We hear about children coming from “Christian homes” that go to college or get out on their own and, before long, disavow the faith they once professed. There’s much to be said about this, but perhaps in many instances it’s largely because their families were “neither cold nor hot” toward Christ in an everyday sense. Biblical values and virtues got lip service, but weren’t lived out on a genuine, consistent basis. Maybe kids who later reject the faith are living out that legacy.

Why is this? Even though followers of Jesus are increasingly targets of antagonism in the U.S.A., we’ve not yet approached the levels of persecution believers face in other lands. It’s easy, therefore, to feel comfortable – complacent – in our faith, never needing to count the cost and take a bold stand that might bear serious consequences. We’ve grown apathetic, “lukewarm” toward God.

I’m one that doesn’t like lukewarm food and drink. I prefer ice-cold beverages, and if my meal at home cools off, I’m prone to stick it in the microwave and “nuke” it for 15-20 seconds until it’s hot again. God feels the same way about us. He doesn’t want us to grow cold toward Him, but neither is He satisfied with lukewarm belief.

In the same chapter of Revelation, we find a verse we typically apply it to those who haven’t yet made commitments to Jesus Christ. However, the context shows it’s directed to people who already claim to be members of His family. “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me” (Revelation 3:20). I’ve seen paintings of this passage showing Jesus knocking on a door without an outside handle. Imagine Jesus needing to ask to be invited into our homes and our hearts?

How can we “heat up,” getting past lukewarm-ness? Sometimes it helps to hear someone tell a powerful story of what God has done in their life. We can read an inspiring book, or listen to heart-tugging spiritual music. But the best way is to spend time with the Lord in the Scriptures, as well as reflect on all He’s already performed in our lives.

The worst thing we can do is follow the example described in Psalm 78:9-11, which tells of, “The men of Ephraim, though armed with bows, turned back on the day of battle; they did not keep God’s covenant and refused to live by his law. They forgot what he had done, the wonders he had shown them.” Let’s not be like them. Let’s say no to “lukewarm.”

Thursday, October 12, 2017

How We All Can Make a Difference

We’ve all heard about NFL players, coaches and even owners taking a knee rather than standing respectfully during the National Anthem. (Since I write my posts two weeks in advance, who knows what they’ll be doing by the time this appears.) I’m not quite certain what this demonstration is all about. Basically, it boils down to their conviction that in so doing, they’re making a difference.

On that last point, I think we can all agree. We’d all like to make a difference, being able to participate in making positive changes in our very – perhaps hopelessly – fractured nation and world. The question is, what does it take to truly make a difference?

Protests, peaceful and some not so peaceful, might make participants feel like they’ve accomplished something, but increasingly these events seem more like outlets for spouting venom toward anyone with different views. They are accomplishing something – but is it positive?

Then the protests are over; after all, people have to go home and go to work. They do have to go to work, don’t they? Or take care of their families? They do, don’t they? Anyway, the protests end, but the poor are still poor, the oppressed still oppressed, the disenfranchised remain the same. What’s the end game? What has been accomplished?

Thinking about this, my friend Bryan made a good suggestion: "DO SOMETHING that really makes a difference. Be nicer to people. Treat people with respect." This goes back to following what Jesus taught nearly 2,000 years ago – loving our neighbor as ourselves, and doing for others as we would want them to do for us. If we were in dire circumstances, desperately in need of help, how would we like to be treated?

The apostle James pointed out, “What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds?... Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, ‘Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about his physical need, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” (James 2:14-17).

In my view, this is the problem with these protests. People get riled up, voice their complaints, and then go home, but lives of the individuals they supposedly are defending remain unchanged. Their “faith” – or at least moral conviction – stops short of engaging with and helping someone in real, tangible ways. If the time, energy and resources expended during these demonstrations were concentrated instead on doing the hard work of investing time, energy and resources in face-to-face acts of service, that would truly make a difference; a difference that can be life-changing.

Although some might disagree, no amount of posturing in any form will eradicate prejudice or insensitivity. We can't legislate hate. However, we can see lasting change take place – through changed hearts, starting with our own. Sadly, it seems evident there are forces in society that don't want that, whose agendas are advanced by inciting and sustaining anger, rage, dissension and hatred. We can stand by and let that happen, or resolve not fall in lockstep with anyone intent on stirring up humanity’s darkest elements.

When we watch the evening news, or read certain periodicals or postings on the Internet, it would appear hatred among various peoples has never been greater. But that’s not my experience or observation. I interact with people of different ethnicities and cultures often, whether at the YMCA, the mall, work, or spending time together at a restaurant. And I see others doing the same, with kindness, respect and mutual appreciation displayed openly and genuinely.

This isn’t to say there aren’t problems, because we all know there are. In some cities, more so than others. But we don’t have to be part of the problems – instead, we can choose to be part of the solutions. As one social media post wisely urged recently, “Turn off the news and love your neighbor.” Why listen to people harping about how bad things are when we can demonstrate how good things can be? That's what Jesus would do.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Building Us Up . . . or Tearing Us Down?

We can try, but no one can truly be an "island."
In 1624, poet John Donne wrote, “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main….” It’s the same today, nearly 400 years later. Some of us might like to live as autonomously as possible, but being “islands” isn’t possible. We influence – and are influenced by – the people that surround us, whether at work, in school, at home, wherever we go.

This raises several questions: What kind of influence will we have on others? What kind of influence will others have on us? And lastly, who will those people be?

A friend of mine, Scott, the CEO of a large corporation, offered the following insights:
“The people we surround ourselves with either raise or lower our standards. They either help us to become the best-version of ourselves, or encourage us to become lesser versions of ourselves. We become like our friends. No man becomes great on his own. No woman becomes great on her own. The people around them help to make them great.
We all need people in our lives who raise our standards, remind us of our essential purpose, and challenge us to become the best-version of ourselves.”

Scott’s right. To think we can maintain standards and values by ourselves denies reality. Those we spend the most time with have an impact on our lives whether we’re conscious of it or not. It’s critical that we choose those people wisely. Do we want to become the “best-version” or ourselves, or accept a much lesser version?

When a President is elected, much consideration is given to those comprising the President’s Cabinet and chief advisors. Their influence – as well as the responsibilities they shoulder – help define the Chief Executive’s success or failure. The new head of a company carefully selects his or her leadership team, knowing they can help in making key decisions. A football coaches chooses assistants not only for their skills and expertise, but also for values that complement his own.

We also should be diligent in determining who we will “hang out” with on a regular basis. Are they people who will raise our standards – or ones that have the effect of lowering them? Because this is so important, the Bible devotes much attention to it. Proverbs 27:17 points out, “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” This acknowledges there will be instances of necessary friction and heat; “sharpening” relationships sometimes produce sparks.

Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 presents profound observations about the impact we can have on one another. It states, “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their work. If one falls down, his friend can help him up. But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up…. Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.”

Sooner or later, we all stumble, fall down despite our best efforts. Who will be there to help us up? Will it be someone to steady us and get us back on track, or someone to cause us to fall even farther?

If our desire is to become the best-version of ourselves, we need others that offer encouragement and support. Regardless of our standing in society, we’d be wise to implement the admonition of Hebrews 10:24-25, “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together…but let us encourage one another….”

Even Jesus found it necessary to identify others to help with His redemptive mission, 12 men among many followers to carry on His work. It was a rag-tag, unpredictable bunch, but 11 of them eventually proved faithful in helping to establish the strong spiritual foundation upon which the Church – the body of Christ – still stands and grows. One of them, Judas Iscariot, failed the course, but even he served as an instrument for Jesus to accomplish His atoning sacrifice on the cross.

Again, the questions are worth pondering: Who are we influencing – and who are having the greatest influence on us? As Proverbs 18:24 says, “One who has unreliable friends soon comes to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.” We all need the latter – hopefully more than one.