Monday, June 27, 2016

One Way, Or the Highway?

When I was a boy, my family occasionally ventured from suburban New Jersey to the “concrete jungle” of New York City. We had relatives living in Manhattan, and my dad was brave enough to drive into the city.

Once, without GPS to assist, Dad made a turn in Midtown only to discover he was going the wrong way on a one-way street. Realizing his error, he found a place to change direction before one of the NYPD’s finest could penalize him for his mistake. After correcting his course, my father quipped, “Well, I was only driving one way!”

In this instance it was no-harm, no-foul, but we’ve heard about drivers who, whether confused or impaired, have driven down the wrong side of a freeway with tragic results. As much as we’d like to think we’re free to choose any route we want, it’s obvious that in many cases the correct way to go isn’t multiple-choice.

If you’re hiking and find a chasm spanned by a rope bridge, you may feel wary about crossing on a contraption that swings under your feet. But to get across, it’s the one way. If you want to see your favorite team’s biggest game of the season in person, there’s only one way to get in. You’ll have to produce a ticket to gain entrance.

To become a medical doctor, it won’t suffice to enter a local pharmacy and buy a stethoscope, go to a uniform shop and purchase some scrubs, then declare yourself “Doctor.” There’s one way to become a certified physician: College, medical school, then extensive professional training.

If you need a blood transfusion, a pint of the purest tomato juice, or red Kool-Aid, or red grape juice will not do. Or blood from an animal. Only human blood will do the job, and even at that, it must be the right type. As your physician or attending nurse will affirm, there’s just one way.

And yet, people bristle when followers of Christ declare that Jesus is the one and only way to know God and spend eternity with Him. “How intolerant!” Others argue, “Who are you to judge?” Still others respond, “There are many ways to God. All that matters is that you’re sincere.”

I’m sure most drivers traveling the wrong direction on the interstate, crashing head-on with oncoming cars, were “sincere” in believing they were going the right way. They might not have seen the “One Way” or “Do Not Enter” signs on the roadway.

But saying Jesus is the one and only way isn’t my call. He’s the one that said it.Jesus answered, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me’” (John 14:6). Again, His words, not mine.

Talking to a crowd of people, Jesus informed them it’s His way or the highway. “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the way that leads to life, and only a few find it” (Matthew 7:13-14).

Some vehemently disagree, convinced all belief systems lead to the same destination. Or simply being “good enough” is sufficient. However, a thoughtful reading of the Scriptures doesn’t reveal such alternatives. However, this doesn’t mean those who affirm the biblical view are narrow-minded, “haters,” or lacking in tolerance.

My friend, Randy Nabors, explained this on his own blog as concisely and truthfully as anything I’ve ever heard. He wrote, “Truth is not hateful, but truth is intolerant of non-truth, and may feel hateful to those who don’t want to hear it or deny it.”

The good news is, as Jesus said, “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). He’s saying there truly is only one way – but it’s available to all willing to take it.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Resisting and Rejecting the 80:20 Rule

Have you heard of the so-called “80:20 Rule”? It’s the notion that in nearly every organization, about 80 percent of the work is done by 20 percent of the people. Meaning, of course, the other 80 percent of the folks perform only 20 percent of the work. I suppose some consider it their labor-saving strategy.

Apparently this has been documented by statistical methodology, but it’s also evident by casual observation. It’s commonly practiced in churches, volunteer organizations like PTAs, sports teams and community clubs, and various charitable groups and ministries. It happens in lots of businesses as well.

This guideline serves as the basis for the saying, “If you want to get something done, find a busy person to do it.”

Like it or not, that’s often the case. When a project needs to be undertaken, whether organizing a picnic, participating in a strategy group, or offering help to people in need, we’re likely to see the same folks stepping up to do the work every time. There can be any number of reasons to explain why this is so, but should this be the rule?

Consider the human body as an example. It’s designed in such a way that each part plays a valuable and indispensable role. My heart can’t do what the pancreas does, and my brain, as important as it is for directing the entire body, isn’t intended to do what my feet do. There’s no 80:20 rule in the human body – each organ performs its role. If they all do so properly and in harmony, we have what’s called a healthy body.

Years ago I met an unforgettable man, Ivan Brown, who became a highly respected law enforcement leader in Jamaica. The unusual thing about Ivan was that for much of his life, he had no hands. Early in his career as a police officer, he’d been pursuing a fugitive criminal through the Jamaican jungle. The machete-wielding felon attacked Ivan, cutting off both of his hands when Ivan raised his arms in self-defense.

Miraculously, Ivan survived the attack and after healing from his wounds, received prosthetic hands and forearms he learned to use with limited effectiveness. But they were never a suitable substitute for his real hands.

Throughout the remainder of his life, Ivan relied on others – especially his wife, Monica, and an assistant assigned to him – to serve as his hands. Even limited as he was, with their aid, his strong determination and even stronger faith, Ivan ascended the ranks of law enforcement, eventually rising to the rank of constable.

Always positive, and rarely without a smile, he never complained about the disability or circumstances that brought it about. But until his last day on earth, Ivan was a living testament to how important each part of the body is for fulfilling its intended function.

So this 80:20 “tradition,” with a minority within each group doing the majority of the work, seems sad – and unfortunate. Collectively we possess such talent, so many abilities, skills and such breadth of experience and interests. Why should a handful of people do all the work – and in truth, have all the fun – while the rest of us look on passively like spectators at a ballgame?

The Bible presents this view: “Now the body is not made up of one part but of many. If the foot should say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ it would not for that reason cease to be a part of the body…. If they all were one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body” (1 Corinthians 12:12-20).

What this means for us as followers of Jesus becomes clear when the apostle Paul writes, “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it” (1 Corinthians 12:27). As he noted earlier in the passage, “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, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other” (1 Corinthians 12:24-25).

That doesn’t mean everyone should sing in the choir, or teach a Sunday school class, or serve on a board of elders or deacons, or work in the nursery. We are all different. But rather than standing by watching a handful of people juggle their schedules and try to manage multiple responsibilities, we should each evaluate our strengths, as well as those specific areas where we sense God is directing us to serve – even outside the walls of the traditional church building.

If we hope to one day hear the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:23), from our Lord, it might be wise first to determine exactly where He desires for each of us to serve as His “instruments of righteousness” (Romans 6:13).

Monday, June 20, 2016

Living Under New Management

In a little more than four months, Americans from coast to coast will stream to the polls to elect not only a new President and Vice President, but also U.S. Senators and members of the House of Representatives. There are those who support the course our nation is on today and are looking for more of the same. Others are eager for the country to be “under new management,” hoping the direction the United States has taken will shift drastically.

Fresh starts often foster high hopes.
The idea of new management can be very appealing in many situations, whether for a once-popular restaurant, a retail store, or a major corporation where profits and consumer confidence need a strong boost. It’s the hope that under new management, necessary changes will take place, along with major improvements.

Sometimes even congregations could benefit from being under “new management,” especially in circumstances when it appears to be the senior pastor, and not God, who’s calling the shots.

Bringing it down to an even more personal level, has there ever been a time when you sensed a need for your own life to be “under new management”?

I remember years ago, as a fairly new believer, wrestling with a variety of issues – anger and anxiety being among them. How could a Christian think and act the way I was? I remember praying, asking God for “help” in overcoming these struggles. Despite my best efforts, however, I was making no progress. The “bolt” of spiritual strength I was anticipating from on high never seemed to come.

At the time I was also trying to come to terms with two verses I was memorizing. One was Galatians 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” The other passage was 2 Corinthians 5:17, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!”

“How can this be?” I wondered in frustration. “How can Jesus live in me spiritually with all this anger, my short temper, and the constant anxiousness I feel?” And I certainly did not feel like a “new creation.” I seemed like the same old flawed, troubled knucklehead I’d always been. I began to question whether I genuinely was a follower of Jesus Christ, or whether I was just fooling myself – and perhaps everyone else – just going through the motions, saying the right words.

Thankfully, around that time God put a man into my life who encouraged me to dig deeper into the Scriptures. He urged me to discover not who I felt I was, or who I thought I was, but what the Bible truly said about me and who I was in relation to Jesus as one of His followers. The key, I learned, was not relying on ever-shifting feelings, but instead starting to act upon God’s revealed truth.

For instance, Romans 6:4 states, “We were therefore buried with (Christ) through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” For me that meant if I believed and appropriated that promise, I could indeed be living “under new management.”

Another verse, Romans 6:11, expands on that idea: “In the same way, count (consider, reckon) yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.”  A bit later the apostle Paul added, “You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you” (Romans 8:12). What I’ve learned this means is that while the influence of sin is not dead to me, I am no longer enslaved or in bondage to it, as Paul explained in Romans 6:15-23.

This, frankly, is heavy stuff, biblical truth I’m striving to trust in and act upon to this day. It sounds too good to be true. In reality, it’s good – but not too good. And it is true. I’ve discovered many of the revered giants of Christian history – people like Saint Augustine, A.W. Tozer, Andrew Murray, Oswald Chambers, Fanny Crosby, Hudson Taylor and countless others – have found freedom and great joy as they came to understand their identity in Christ, instead of who they sometimes felt like they were. In fact, years ago someone wrote a book called They Found the Secret, accounts of people who experienced the transforming impact of grasping what it means to be “in Christ.”

Sometimes I’m more successful in living out this truth than other times. What the Bible calls “the flesh” is stubborn, and old habits don’t die easily. But if we read, study and apply what the Scriptures teach, we’ll realize we can in fact be “under new management” spiritually, realizing Acts 17:28 – “For in him (Jesus) we live and move and have our being.”

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Does God Always Beat You?

For a time, these signs were everywhere.
Right in the middle of a department store, the little boy said, “Mommy, don’t beat me when we get home.” Puzzled and perplexed, the mother looked at her son and asked, “Honey, I never beat you. Why do you say that?” “Yes you do, Mommy. All the time. You always beat me to the front door.”

I heard this story at a recent men’s breakfast and we all chuckled. Ah, from the mouths of babes.
Obviously the child wasn’t talking about being paddled or abused, although the casual bystander might have jumped to that conclusion. He just didn’t like the idea of his mom, a grownup, always beating him to wherever he was going.

There’s humor, but also some truth, to this little exchange. Most of the time, we enjoy being the first – unless we’re confronted with something unpleasant, like having to get a shot at the doctor’s office, taking some vile-tasting medicine, or going to the dentist. Then we’re perfectly fine with, “Please, by all means, after you!”

In a sense, that’s also true for us spiritually. There are the times when we’re dead-set on having things our own way and follow whatever path we’ve decided to take. When we get there, we find God has arrived there first – and often we don’t like it. Especially when we know our “destination” doesn’t meet with His approval. That’s when we feel guilt, or conviction, and conclude God is nothing but a divine spoilsport. “He doesn’t want me to have any fun.”

But that’s the problem we sometimes have in knowing God is “omnipresent” – He’s everywhere. In one of his psalms, King David wrote, “Where can I go from your spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast” (Psalm 139:7-10).

When we’re in trouble, in distress, or confounded by life’s circumstances, it’s reassuring to know God is in every place, that wherever we go, He’s already “beat us” there. At times He may be silent or seem unresponsive to our complaints or pleas, but as Jesus promised His followers just before ascending to the heavenly realms, “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).

But when we’d rather be left alone to pursue our desires or plans without having to wonder what God thinks, it bugs us to know He beats us. And not just some of the time, but all of the time.

Recently billboards around my city of Chattanooga, Tenn. carried only one word: “UBIQUITOUS.” This word we rarely use in casual conversation is defined as “the property of being present everywhere…most commonly used in a religious context as an attribute of a deity or supreme being.” We’ve just learned these ads are part of a Coca-Cola marketing campaign to promote the idea that the soft drink can be found almost anywhere, even remote parts of the world.

But as God is described in the Bible, the term ubiquitous seems suitable – although the word “omnipresence” gives understanding of this divine attribute an even more universal scope. You might not find Coca-Cola atop Mount Everest or in the depths of the ocean, if you happen to go to such places, but you will find God there.

So, how does that work? How can someone be busy working at their desk in a place like Chattanooga and acknowledge God, then fly to a destination out of the country on business or for a vacation, maybe to China or South Africa, only to find He’s there, too?

Some of my most profound spiritual experiences have involved traveling to places like Brazil, Jamaica, Hungary, Germany, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Mexico, El Salvador, and Venezuela, where I discovered that despite geography, language and cultural differences, the same God I serve is at work there as well.

Sometimes life seems to be moving smoothly, no bumps in the road, no significant problems to address. At times like that we can shift into cruise control and enjoy the ride, giving little or no thought to the Lord. Then there are times when difficulties confront us no matter where we turn. Those are the times when God’s omnipresence, His ubiquitous nature, means the most.

It might be in a hospital, where we or a loved one awaits surgery for a serious, even life-threatening malady. It might be sitting at the kitchen table confronted by a stack of bills and a checkbook lacking the funds needed to pay those bills. It might be in the boss’s office, about to receive bad news about our job. No matter the circumstances, isn’t it a source of comfort and reassurance to know that whatever we’ll have to face, God has already beat us there?

“’For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future’” (Jeremiah 29:11). In other words, God is saying, “Fear not, My child, I’ve beat you there. Now watch how I work things out for you.”

Monday, June 13, 2016

It Doesn't Happen By Accident

From time to time we hear about endangered species – things like butterflies, elephants, rhinos, certain forms of oceanic and plant life. Recently we heard about the controversial shooting and killing of a western lowland silverback gorilla after a little boy somehow entered its enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo. We feel protective of endangered species because once the last of their kind is gone, they can’t be recreated.

Which leads me to consider a different type of “endangered species” that appears under assault these days. It doesn’t consist of flesh and blood, or even tiny molecules, but it’s indispensable for life as we have known it. I’m thinking about wisdom.

Like the proverbial wise old owl,
wisdom is hard to find these days.
We’re blessed – or cursed, probably both – with living in an age when information of all kinds has never been so plentiful. I can’t remember the last time I saw a new set of encyclopedias; I’m not sure they’re even produced anymore since they’d be out of date before leaving the printing press. But even with so much information and knowledge literally at our fingertips, there’s no guarantee it will be combined with wisdom.

We hear politicians and celebrities voicing pompous, bombastic comments on all manner of topics, speaking loudly and with conviction. But that doesn’t mean they know what they’re talking about. We read about corporate executives making key decisions often to the detriment of their customers and companies. One can know much and still be a fool.

Wisdom can be defined as, “the soundness of an action or decision with regard to the application of experience, knowledge, and good judgment.” The key words there, I believe, are “soundness” and “good judgment.” Anyone in a position of authority can issue directives, but can they do so with wisdom, a sense of doing what’s right and best for all concerned?

Unfortunately, we can’t go to the supermarket or our favorite department store, walk down an aisle and purchase wisdom by the quart or the pound. It’s not a commodity. And similar to the endangered species mentioned above, true wisdom increasingly seems in rare supply. So where can we get it?

For starters, it’s not something we stumble upon by accident or suddenly possess after a good night’s sleep. “My, I can’t believe how wise I’ve gotten overnight!” No, the wisest people are often those who actually don’t realize how wise they are – but others do. Some might use other terms for it, like sagacity, keen insight or discernment, but wisdom typically rests with those who have sought after it deliberately.

We can gain wisdom through experience, especially in the aftermath of our mistakes and failure. I say can gain wisdom because some people seem intent on making the same dumb mistakes and rejecting any wisdom they could have gleaned from them. We also can gain wisdom by observing and learning from people we encounter that obviously have it. How do they act? What do they say? What are their perspectives on matters of importance to us?

Then there’s another never-fails source of wisdom: the Word of God. As I’ve noted in my book, Business At Its Best, there’s no more comprehensive source of wisdom and insight for today’s workplace, the home, marriage and family than the Bible. Even if you never read any portion of it besides the book of Proverbs (I’d highly recommend the other 65 books as well), you’d still find more wisdom than you’ll ever find in any college classroom or corporate boardroom.

It tells us the quest for wisdom should be intentional. No one accumulates wisdom by accident. "My son, if you accept my words and store up my commands within you, turning your ear to wisdom and applying your heart to understanding...then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God" (Proverbs 2:1-5).

Another passage says we should pursue wisdom for our own good. “He who gets wisdom loves his own soul; he who cherishes understanding prospers” (Proverbs 19:8).

And it assures us that if we desire to become wise, we’d better resolve to hang out with people that already have it. “Walk with the wise and become wise, for a companion of fools suffers harm” (Proverbs 13:20). The book of wisdom also admonishes, “Listen to advice and accept instruction, and in the end you will be wise” (Proverbs 19:20).

Just as we can’t expect to become healthy in a quarantined hospital room, or acquire a strong work ethic from people lacking initiative, we’ll not find wisdom by associating with foolish folks. “The wisdom of the prudent is to give thought to their ways, but the folly of fools is deception” (Proverbs 14:8).

Do you – or someone you know – want to be wise? We won’t find it by sitting under a tree hoping it will bonk us on the head. We need to go after it, searching for it in places and with people where it’s in ample supply. Then we’ll discover its benefits: “By wisdom a house is built, and through understanding it is established; through knowledge its rooms are filled with rare and beautiful treasures” (Proverbs 24:15-16).

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Better Than Disney World!

The Flower Garden Festival at EPCOT was spectacular.
Growing up in New Jersey, a highlight for me every summer was a trip to an amusement park. Often it would be to Asbury Park, although we occasionally went to the famed Palisades Park, which became the subject of a hit rock ‘n roll song by Freddie Cannon in 1962 that was later recorded by several other groups.

This is a vintage view of Palisades Park in New Jersey.
Experiencing the ups and downs, round and arounds, merry-go-rounds, even upside-downs, of the amusement park rides was always a treat. We learned firsthand what it means to say, “Life is a rollercoaster.” Dietary “nutrients” for the day consisted of cotton candy, hotdogs and Cokes – aren’t those the basic food groups? We felt life couldn’t top those warm afternoons. It was always sad when the time came to leave.

Then as an adult I encountered Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif. for the first time, and several years later went to Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla. I’d been a big fan of Walt Disney’s “Wonderful World of Color” and the “Mickey Mouse Club” on TV as a boy, which showed glimpses of the parks, but was totally unprepared for experiencing them in person. These amazing entertainment centers made old-fashioned amusement parks seem as exciting as a sandbox with a toy shovel.

If you’ve been to one of the either of these sites, you know what I mean. The creativity, imagination, artistry, variety, and attention to detail are nearly overwhelming. Recently, I and many of our family members once again enjoyed the Magic Kingdom, EPCOT, Animal Kingdom and Hollywood Studios theme parks at Disney World, and I was just as impressed as I’d been on previous visits.

Not to disparage the traditional amusement parks with the rickety, lattice-work wooden rollercoasters, carousels and Tilt-a-Whirls, but they can’t compare with the thrills that captivate each of the five senses at a place like Disney World.

Spending time with Walt and Mickey
is always memorable.
Granted, if you don’t like mingling with masses of people (as Yogi Berra notably said, “Nobody goes there anymore – it’s too crowded”) or walking for miles around the parks in Florida’s heat and humidity, those “Mickey Mouse outfits” probably aren’t for you. But the point is, many things in life seem just fine until you’re introduced to something that dwarfs (pardon the pun) anything you’ve known before.

There’s an even more profound parallel in the spiritual realm. I’m convinced this life, as great as it can seem in many ways, is just a hint, little more than a tiny taste, of the unimaginable wonders that await each of God’s children when our days on earth are over. The apostle Paul commented on this when he wrote, “What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived – the things God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9).

Jesus made this the focus of a promise to His followers while anticipating His imminent crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension to heaven. He was giving them a “preview of coming attractions” when He stated, “My Father's house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you?” (John 14:2).

The book of Revelation abounds with descriptions of the heavenly realm, in essence assuring us despite our earthbound thinking, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!”

Why does this matter? Look at it this way: If you’re going to an old-style amusement park – and there are still lots of them around – you simply hop in the car, buy tickets and enter for a few hours. Then you return to your everyday routine.

However, if you’re going to a place like Disney World – or on some extended vacation – a lot of preparation is needed. Where are you going to stay? What tickets will you need? What clothes and other provisions will you require? In other words, you want to be ready for the trip.

Also, it’s not enough to know we’re destined a place that far exceeds anything we’ve known in this world. Because if it’s going to be as wonderful as we expect – even “awesome” – then wouldn’t we want to let other people in on the “secret,” so they can experience it as well?

I get not one penny for saying nice things about Disney World or other amazing places I’ve visited – like the Grand Canyon, New York City, a classic football game at Ohio Stadium, or Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany – but wouldn’t hesitate to tell others about my experiences there. Having received a sampling of what’s awaiting all who have placed their trust in Jesus Christ, wouldn’t we want to communicate this to others so they also have the opportunity to experience “the foretaste of glory divine,” as the old hymn says?

The book of Revelation states, “I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband…. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying of pain, for the old order of things has passed away…. He who was seated on the throne said, ‘I am making everything new!’” (Revelation 21:2-5).

I’m looking forward to being part of the vast audience witnessing this. And I’d sure like to share the experience with my friends.