Monday, June 26, 2017

Strength, in All of Its Weakness

Since the cardiac rehab center I used for the past 10 years closed, I’ve changed workout venues and undertaken a new fitness regimen. In the process, it’s caused me to think a lot about strength – what it is, and what it’s not.

Strength holds a lot of different meanings for folks. The word may cause us to think of the muscle-bound person that makes the free weights and weight machines in the gym cringe. Nations boast about military might, implying their enemies don’t dare try picking a fight. In sports, we often hear talk about “strength in numbers.” Businesses refer to “core competencies,” meaning their products, services and strategies that are the strongest.

I once heard a guy describe growing up in a female-dominated household. He said his mom was “strong as an acre of garlic.” (I’m not sure she was still alive to hear that description – but I do recall seeing him look over his shoulder as he said it.)

Bold criticism used to be defined as “strong statements,” but these days it seems everyone’s making comments that are bold, or brash, or bewildering. When everything that’s being said is “strong,” doesn’t that really mean that nothing is strong?

This classic photo of the RMS Titanic on the docks
of Southampton before its ill-fated voyage is an
historic example of weakness in strength.
Which provides a segue to my topic: Can strength become a weakness? We need look no further than the RMS Titanic, the supposed “unsinkable” passenger liner that came out a poor second in its encounter with an iceberg in the North Atlantic Ocean on April 15, 1912, costing more than 1,500 lives.

We have many biblical accounts of people weakened in moments of strength, including Samson, whose legendary strength seemed uncontainable – until he was seduced into revealing the source of his power. Strong and revered King David, called “a man after God’s heart,” caught a glimpse of a lovely young woman on a rooftop one evening, and his subsequent actions resulted in a series of tragic consequences.

More than one pastor has strongly asserted, “one area I will never fail is in the area of relationships,” only to leave the ministry in disgrace due to sexual sins. This is one reason the apostle Paul offered this word of caution: “So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!” (1 Corinthians 10:12). Strengths can work to our benefit, but they can also lead to overconfidence, complacency, and self-destructive pride.

“The flip side of any strength is its weakness,” I once heard someone say. I’ve experienced that myself. Friends sometimes call me an encourager, but one of the greatest temptations I face is succumbing to discouragement. Just as coaches and managers in sports scout for weaknesses in strong opponents, maybe we need to “self-scout”’ to discern where our strengths might leave us vulnerable.

Looking at the converse of this is interesting. A weakness can actually become a strength – especially when we’re aware of it and deal with it appropriately: We can try to work on that area and strengthen it. We can strive to avoid situations where the weakness is exposed and can be exploited. Or better yet, turn to another source of strength.

The apostle Paul had been a proud, militant religious leader, persecuting and seeking to annihilate followers of Jesus Christ. However, after his life-changing meeting with Christ on the road to Damascus, the apostle recognized the weakness of his zeal and “strength” in opposing Him. He wrote about a “thorn in the flesh” that plagued him the rest of his life, an undisclosed affliction that ensured his humility.

Paul said three times he pleaded with God to remove the “thorn,” until he realized it was a blessing and not a curse. “…he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’  Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:8-10).

Seems to me what Jesus really wants is not followers who flex their own muscle and resolve, but ones so in tune with their weakness and insufficiency that they constantly call upon Christ to empower them to do whatever He calls them to do.

As Paul wrote a bit earlier, “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness” (2 Corinthians 11:30). Maybe if we become weak enough, we’ll see God exerting His strength through us in ways we could never have imagined.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Buyer – or Viewer – Beware!

Just as you can’t judge a book by its cover, it seems we can’t judge a movie by its previews. A few weeks ago, I took one of my grandchildren to a “sci-fi” movie. Judging from the previews, it promised to be a fun, lighthearted, even cartoonish film he’d like. Parts of it were indeed funny, even silly. It had a wise-cracking raccoon, a goofy-looking Gumby-like creature, and assorted other weird characters. All the ingredients for an enjoyable, family-oriented movie.

Sometimes the PG in "PG-13" can
stand for "pretty gross."
This film had earned the highest gross revenues for its opening week. Critics largely gave it two thumbs up, so I thought it would be a safe bet for a grandpa-grandson outing. Uh-uh.

I discovered the writers and directors saw fit to add some other “ingredients” – dashes of profanity (totally unnecessary), along with splashes of sexual innuendo, some not very subtle. Once it became evident these had been sprinkled throughout the production, we left.

It’s hard to figure out why the Hollywood elite think vulgarity equates with sophistication, enlightenment, and “coolness.” In my view, it’s a reflection of puerile thinking, a desperately low-level worldview. Makes me wonder whether these folks start their mornings by gargling used toilet water.

I’m not na├»ve. I understand we live in a world where most folks don’t use words like “golly,” “gosh,” “darn” and “drat” to express their most base emotions. And leaving profane language out of many adult movies probably would make them seem unrealistic to many viewers. However, had the cussing and sexual references been omitted from this film, it would have been no less entertaining. In the world of Hollywood, why bother with bright, imaginative writing when four-letter words can easily fill the gaps in dialogue?

Most of us don’t aspire to ever write motion picture scripts. But we all communicate, and it helps to have guidelines for conveying our messages effectively. I’ve learned basic principles from the Bible can be applied to communications in any of its many forms. Whether writing emails, dashing off texts, having conversations, “tweeting,” speaking at public meetings, sending a letter to the editor, or crafting the next great American novel, these guidelines offer a solid framework for effective, productive expression.

One passage speaks directly to the issue: Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen(Ephesians 4:29). When we speak, write, text, or comment on social media, is our intention to edify, to build up – or are we seeking to tear down?

Elsewhere the apostle Paul admonished believers in the church at Philippi, “…whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things” (Philippians 4:8).

Living in a world that puts less and less stock in virtuous thinking, it can seem difficult to find communications that qualify as true, noble, right and pure. But that doesn’t mean we must respond in kind. As Proverbs 4:23 admonishes, “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.”

I like how it was presented on a church marquee a friend of mine saw recently: “Tweet others the way you want to be tweeted.” Because our words, whether in a theatrical film or a friendly chat, have power. The power to heal or to harm, to affirm or to attack, to promote or to poison.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Stop the World…I Want to Get Off!

Years ago, there was a Broadway play called, “Stop the World – I Want to Get Off.” Opening in 1961, it ran for 485 performances. It was even turned into a movie and was revived from time to time, but the most memorable part of the production was its title. It was set against the backdrop of a circus and the central character, Littlechap, would shout, “Stop the world!” whenever he encountered something unpleasant.

Maybe the world needs an emergency brake.
I feel that way sometimes, wanting to yell, “Stop the world!” It seems the backdrop for just about everything these days is some kind of circus, whether it’s politics and the menagerie we fondly call Washington, D.C.; the clowns who dominate our national media; the garish sideshow we know as the entertainment industry, or the sad state of many of the once-esteemed centers of higher learning that seem to specialize in college indoctrination, not education.

But that’s merely the iceberg’s tip. It seems like every moment there’s reason for wanting to yell, “Stop, the world, I want to get off!” Deranged terrorists intent on killing people in the name of their god. Protesters demanding tolerance while demonstrating just how intolerant they are toward anyone that doesn’t agree with them and their causes. So many other examples of mankind’s unlimited capacity for inhumanity toward one another.

Then there are the personal struggles and pain that are part and parcel of the human condition. We could easily justify throwing in the proverbial towel – until we remember that our hope is not (or should not be) in this imperfect world.

The apostle Paul listed the many hardships he had encountered since his conversion to faith in Jesus Christ – “hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Corinthians 4:8-9).

Then he made this observation: We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our  body…. Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal”  (2 Corinthians 4:10-18).

Perhaps there were moments for Paul, too, when the “stop the world, I want to get off!” thought passed through his mind. However, he never forgot his mission – and he never forgot where his focus needed to remain. “… while we wait for the blessed hope – the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good” (Titus 2:13-14).

Waiting for “the blessed hope – the glorious appearing of Jesus Christ.” That’s what uplifts me, gives me encouragement whenever life’s circumstances take a bad turn, or I foolishly subject myself to the barrage of continuous bad news and the relentless parade of examples of just how sinful, self-absorbed and depraved humankind can be.

The time will come when God Himself shouts, “Stop the world!” and He commences with an incredible “do over” that once and for all eradicates sin, pain, grief, death and every other affliction that has infected this world. Until then, we need to do as Paul did – cling to “the blessed hope of Jesus Christ.”