Monday, December 10, 2018

Got Spurs? Let Them Jingle, Jangle, Jingle

Pardon me for showing my age, but I’m reflecting on the “good old days” when I reveled in the Saturday morning cowboy shows on TV – in living black and white, no less. Characters like Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Hopalong Cassidy, and Wild Bill Hickok. They were the good guys, always standing up (or riding) for justice and what’s right.

They could shoot their pistols with uncanny accuracy from horses in full gallop, never lost their hats in pursuit, and were nothing but gentlemen around the ladies. What I remember in particular are spurs, those metallic accessories to their boots used for prodding their trusty steeds faster when the bad guys seemed about to get away. I’m not certain, but it seems I had a set of toy spurs myself when I was a boy for my cowboy-and-Indian play days.

I’ve never used spurs on a horse. Actually, I’ve never spent much time on a horse; I like looking at them, but never felt safe sitting atop one of them. But from what I understand, those spurs were handy for getting the animals moving and keeping them going in the proper direction. 

Did you know the Bible has a bit to say about spurs? Not in the rootin’, tootin’ cowboy sense. But right there in Hebrews 10:24 it says, “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds.” I don’t recall any other reference telling us that Jesus, or the apostles, or even the prophets had literal spurs attached to their sandals. Nevertheless, this term is aptly used.

This thing we call “the Christian life” isn’t easy. At times we’re coasting along on some spiritual high, feeling like we can handle any obstacles we confront. But other times, especially during uninspiring doldrum moments, it’s harder to keep going. Those are the times when we can use a little “spurring on” for continuing what God has called us to do.

The image of championship sports teams comes to mind. They have talented players, usually more than one at each position, who engage in spirited, healthy competition. These athletes challenge one another, but also support one another, rejoicing in one another’s success. Probably without being consciously aware of it, they’re spurring one another on toward higher levels of achievement and success.

That’s what we should be doing as followers of Jesus. As the next verse in Hebrews admonishes, “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another” (Hebrews 10:25).

Elsewhere in the Scriptures we find acknowledgements that the our trek through life can sometimes be tough, slow sledding. Galatians 6:9 cautions, “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” I suspect we’ve all experienced a bit of fatigue in well-doing, wondering if we can continue – or if what we’re doing is really accomplishing anything.

We find a similar exhortation in 1 Corinthians 15:58, “Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.” Reading this in the Word of God is a great reminder. Our expressions of similar sentiments to one another can be as well. A few words of timely encouragement never hurt.

The old cowboy song went, “I got spurs that jingle, jangle, jingle.” When we encounter a brother or sister in Christ who seems to be dragging, whether weary from expended efforts or simply discouraged, it’s time to spur them on, urging them to continue in their pursuit of love and good deeds. Let’s keep our “spurs” jingling, and jangling! 

Thursday, December 6, 2018

‘But We’ve Always Done It That Way!”

Why are there always three wise men in the Nativity scene?
There’s a story about an aging monk that had a pet cat. The feline was fine, except when its owner was engaging in silent meditation. Then its constant meowing and rubbing up against his leg was distracting, disrupting his spiritual reflection. So he decided to tie it to a tree during his quiet times. When he was finished, the monk would release the cat and bring it back into his room.

Time passed and one day the monk died, leaving behind his pet. His fellow monks dutifully continued to care for the cat just as their deceased brother had done. One day the cat also died; the monks obtained another cat to replace it in the dead monk’s memory. As they had with the other cat, once a day they would tie it to a tree.

When asked why they were doing that, the men of the holy order replied, “That’s what Brother Jerome always did. We never asked him why, but we don’t want to ruin his tradition.”

It’s been said that the seven last words of the church are, “But we’ve always done it that way!” Many traditions and practices are well-considered and worth perpetuating, but sometimes rituals are repeated simply out of habit (no pun on the monk story), without any good reason.

For instance: Orders of service that never change. The same types of music always being played, without variation. The same version of the Bible always being read without question. Sacraments performed on the same Sunday of each month. Identical prayers being repeated. Maybe the same Christmas program every year; the only changes being who fills the key roles of Mary, Joseph and Baby Jesus. Having three wise men in the Nativity scene, even though most likely the Magi didn’t arrive in Bethlehem until months after Jesus was born – and no one knows for certain there were three of them. 

It’s like Heather, who routinely would cut the ends off the Christmas ham while preparing it for her family’s holiday dinner. One day her husband, Henry, asked, “Honey, why do you cut the ends of the ham before putting it in the oven?” “Well,” she responded, “that’s the way my mom always did it.”

The next Christmas the family went to Heather’s mom’s for dinner, and as expected, her mother cut the ends off the ham before putting in to bake. Henry seized the opportunity to ask, “Mom, that’s what Heather does – cuts the ends off the ham before baking it. Why do you do it?” The mother-in-law replied, “That’s what I learned from my mother.”

As it happened, Grandma was joining them for dinner, so after she arrived, Henry couldn’t wait to pop the question. “Grandma Harriet, why do you cut the ends of the Christmas ham?” Without blinking an eye, she answered, “Well, early on as a young bride, I only had a small baking pan, and the hams were always too big. So I cut off the ends so the ham would fit into it.”

Traditions and rituals are good, as long as their practice remains useful and purposeful. But to maintain them simply because “we’ve always done that way before” isn’t a very good reason. As Ecclesiastes 3:1 tells us, “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven.”

This suggests that time might one day come to end, when the “season” for a certain tradition has drawn to a close. It’s true even for our spiritual rituals, like a daily prayer or quiet time. Must they always take place at a specific time and/or place? When we study the Bible, do we follow the same routine, never bothering to “mix it up” and experiment with a new approach? If we ask a blessing before meals, do we use the same words every time? Do we always need to sit in the same spot during the worship service?

As long as these practices continue to enhance our walk with God, there’s probably no reason to change. But as devotional writer Oswald Chambers stated, let’s make sure they constitute our time with the Lord – and not just our time with our habit.

Monday, December 3, 2018

Absent from the Body, Present With the Lord

Gib is the gentle giant on the left.
Years ago, the rock band MercyMe recorded the hit tune, “I Can Only Imagine.” It later served as the inspiration for a theatrical film, telling the story behind the song and its message which ponders what heaven must be like. Don’t you sometimes wonder about this yourself?

These words take on deeper meaning when a dear friend or loved one who follows Christ passes away and it occurs to you that their wondering and imagining are over. For them, as the classic hymn “It is Well With My Soul” declares, faith has become sight. 

A couple weeks ago my friend, Gilbert (Gib), ended his year-long bout with cancer when he quietly drifted from this life to the next in his sleep. Over the months following his diagnosis and numerous treatments, Gib had voiced concern about the dying process, but never once did he fear the prospect of death. Many times he told me and others, “I can’t wait to see my Jesus.”

Even more than fishing, Gib loved
"fishing" in the name of Jesus.
When people learned Gib was dealing with cancer, they would predictably respond, “Oh, I’m so sorry.” He usually took this as an open door to tell them there was no reason for feeling sorry, that he was looking forward to going to heaven. Then he would kindly – but directly – ask if they had the same hope.

His hearers often marveled at his confidence; some called it courage. But as we studied the Scriptures together, Gib and I had talked about what the biblical term “hope” actually means – earnest expectation, confident assurance. And this is what Gib possessed until he drew his final breath. There was no hint of the tentative “hope-so” that comprises the best some people can muster as they consider their eternal destiny.

In 2 Corinthians 5:8, the apostle Paul writes, We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord." Gib could have written these words as well, and at last the Lord has granted this "preference." No longer encumbered by disease and earthly limitations, my friend is experiencing what I like to call the other side of eternity, since the Bible teaches that eternal life actually begins before death for all who have received Christ as Savior and Lord. "I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life" (1 John 5:13).

Gib was truly a gentle, congenial giant, the kind of man who never knew a stranger. Armed with a wonderful sense of humor, and a deep, resonant voice that could carry across the room, he thought nothing of striking up a conversation with anyone nearby, offering compliments and other pleasantries. Whether as an Uber driver, bass player in the church band, eating at a local restaurant, or sitting in a chair receiving his periodic chemotherapy treatments, he saw himself as an ambassador for his Lord. And he did his job well.

In the Bible we occasionally come across seeming imponderable statements, making us want to stop, scratch our heads, and ask, “Say what?” The declaration of Psalm 116:15 is one of these: Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints." 

How can a loving God delight in the death of His children? How can someone’s death be described as “precious”? I puzzled over that myself, until I realized what we perceive as the end of someone’s life is actually the beginning of a new one, unfettered by sin, pain, sorrow and all the hardships of our temporal lives.

But there’s another aspect to it as well. Think of a parent eagerly awaiting a beloved child’s return from a long stay in a distant land. I truly believe it’s that way with God the Father. As His children pass from this life, He is ready to welcome them, maybe even giddy with excitement. We talk about people “going home to be with the Lord.” According to the Scriptures, that’s exactly what it is, our heavenly Father with open arms receiving us to our real home.

I do wonder what is was like for Gib, as well as many other friends and loved ones, to be in the Savior’s presence for the first time. What a marvelous experience that must be, one that will never fade for all eternity. As 1 John 3:2 tells us, “Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” Imagine that, Jesus looking at us and instantly seeing an undeniable family resemblance!

Thursday, November 29, 2018

What Football Can Teach Us About Faith

Is your view of God that of a celestial football referee?
Traditional Thanksgiving weekend contests have taken place, and college football season is steaming toward bowl season and the College Football Playoffs. So there’s still time to consider what this uniquely American pastime can teach us about everyday life.

I used to wonder why the game’s still called “football,” when so little of it actually has to do with the foot. Yes, there’s placekicking, kickoffs and punting, but rules changes have substantially reduced the impact of foot on ball. But then a speaker pointed out that in this sport, almost everything revolves around where the football is located.

The “line of scrimmage,” for instance, is determined by where the officials place the ball. Penalties, such as “offsides,” also depend upon the football’s location and whether defensive players cross the “neutral zone” around the ball. The “goal line” comes into play when the football crosses it – or doesn’t – to decide things like touchdowns, safeties, and touchbacks.

When a quarterback drops back to pass, he’s throwing the football. And his intent is for a receiver to catch and advance it down the field. Conversely, defensive players either want to knock down the football so no one can catch it, or catch it themselves so their team will take over possession of the ball. The job of running backs is to hang onto the football and try to move it forward for first downs and touchdowns. 

Yes indeed, everything revolves around the football.

Why, when considering spiritual insights into everyday life, should we care at all about a silly game called football? Because as people created in God’s image, our lives – everything we do, say, and even think – should revolve around Him. 

When God gave Moses the 10 commandments to pass along to the Israelites, the first four specifically dealt with our relationship to Him. We’re not to follow other gods; we’re not to bow before manmade idols (“graven images”) in worship; we’re not to profane the name of the Lord in any way; and we’re to set aside one day of the week as “a Sabbath to the Lord your God” (Exodus 20:3-11).

A skeptic friend once commented that he thought God must be “pretty egotistical” if He demands our worship. I countered, “Well, if He created the entire universe and everything in it, keeps it functioning as intended, and provides for our every need, isn’t he deserving of honor, worship and praise? We recognize athletes for stellar performances, actors and musicians for their talent, and people holding elective office for their positions of leadership. Is it wrong for the Lord to expect recognition for everything He has done and continues to do, which dwarf any human achievement we can imagine?”

But there’s another, very different aspect of football also worth considering. It’s the role of the officials who maintain order, enforce the rules, and make it their aim to catch someone doing something wrong. 

We never see a referee running up to a player, patting him on the back, and saying, “Man, that was a great run!” or “What a clutch tackle that was!” or “Nice catch!” Do something wrong, however, and they call you on it immediately. First they throw the yellow flag, then announce for all the world to hear exactly what you did.

Sadly, this is how some people perceive God – as a divine “referee,” watching intently from the heavenly realms poised to throw the flag on anyone that gets out of line. Some people refer to the NFL as the “No Fun League,” and those with this perception of God might see Him as the No Fun Lord. Nothing could be further from the truth. 

God’s not surprised at all that we fail consistently to meet His holy standards. The Bible makes it clear: “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away” (Romans 3:10-18). So when we sin, which literally means “to miss the mark,” He’s not surprised at all. This has been the case since the beginning of time, humankind determined to function as its own god.

Unlike football referees, who dutifully enforce the rules by imposing prescribed penalties, God instead has provided the remedy – Jesus Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross – to offer forgiveness to anyone willing to receive it. As 2 Corinthians 5:21 declares, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” In the Old Testament we’re told, “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him [Jesus] the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:6).

Football operates by the “if you do the crime, you do the time” philosophy, immediately penalizing offenders for rules violations. In the realm of faith, however, God desires to forgive and to redeem, using His laws primarily as tutors to instruct us in how to achieve successful, fulfilling lives. “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).

The Lord not only offers us grace – His unmerited, undeserved favor – but also the faith needed to believe and receive His love and unconditional acceptance. So if you view God as a celestial referee eager to “throw the flag” when we mess up, maybe it’s time to take a fresh look at the Scriptures. 

Monday, November 26, 2018

How Much is Really Enough?

Financial advisors spend much of their time dealing with people who don’t have enough. Maybe they haven’t handled their finances wisely, amassing large amounts of debt. It might be because they’re not earning enough to support themselves and their families. Or it could be attributed to a variety of other reasons, including major, unexpected expenses, such as severe illnesses, or high repair/replacement costs for cars or “big ticket” items like air conditioners, furnaces, and roofs.

It’s tough when you really don’t have enough.

How should we respond when we're
being told too much is never enough?
However, some people have a very different question to answer: How much is enough? That’s something many of us never ask ourselves. Or, if we do, the response is typically the same. Years ago, one of the world’s richest men was reported to have been asked, “How much is enough?” To which he replied, “Just a little bit more.”

That sounds ludicrous, doesn’t it? How could a person with great wealth be dissatisfied with what he or she already has? When that “little bit” is achieved, the target somehow moves just a tad farther out. Makes no sense, right? But we’ve all done it.

We don’t need fabulous wealth to wrestle with this “little bit more” issue. The boss gives us a raise at work, yet within weeks the additional compensation begins to seem inadequate, especially if we learn a coworker also got a pay increase and is earning more than we are. In setting career goals, we reason if we could just arrive at a certain level of income, that would make us happy. But once we get there, it appears we’ve set the bar too low.

And it’s not just about paychecks and bank accounts. We can have a closet full of clothes, yet strolling through a retail store, we can’t help thinking a new dress, shirt, or pair of shoes would really be a nice addition to the wardrobe. That 50-inch high-definition TV we already have is okay, but having a 65-inch model would even be better. We’re feeling satisfied with our five-year old car – until a neighbor drives up with a new one right off the showroom floor, loaded with accessories we didn’t even know were available.

We’ve just finished observing another Thanksgiving Day. For many of us, as we salivated over the array of food set before us, “just a little bit more” was the all-day answer to our “how much is enough” question. Long after we’d appeased our hunger, we were still treating our taste buds.

This is a “normal” human weakness it seems, which might be why God decided the last of His 10 commandments should be “You shall not covet…anything that belongs to your neighbor” (Exodus 20:17). Coveting what others have never leads to uplifting thinking. It may motivate us to work harder so we can have it too, but once we’ve attained “it,” it never seems to be enough. And this puts us at odds with others, the old “keeping up with the Joneses” mentality.

Proverbs 27:20 warns, “Death and Destruction are never satisfied, and neither are the eyes of man.” One translation of Proverbs 30:15 reads, Greed has twins, each named ‘Give me!’" What the Bible calls “the flesh” – our sinful nature – doesn’t understand what having enough means. It always wants more. 

The solution to this is making a conscious decision about what will be sufficient, what’s “enough,” even when opportunities emerge for us to acquire more. The apostle Paul, who experienced his share of both prosperity and deprivation during his lifetime, stated, I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want” (Philippians 4:12).

Out of that “classroom,” Paul reached an important conclusion: But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that” (1 Timothy 6:6-8).

Perhaps this is an important principle we all need to keep foremost in our minds, especially since the Christmas season is officially upon us. Over the next several weeks we’ll be bombarded with messages telling us about all the stuff we “deserve” and “need.” Have we learned the secret of being content? Can we distinguish genuine needs from wants? Are we willing to make a determination about how much is really enough?

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Being Thankful – Even When You’re Not

Since this blog post is appearing on Thanksgiving Day, I hope you’re reading it with a tummy filled with turkey, dressing “and all the trimmings.” What exactly are “all the trimmings”? Last time I checked, we don’t put Christmas ornaments on our turkeys, mashed potatoes, green bean casseroles, or pumpkin pies. And gorging on the holiday feast certainly doesn’t lend itself to “trimness.” So what’s up with all the trimmings?

Anyway, I want to wish everyone a happy Thanksgiving and trust you have already done so, or soon will take time to reflect on your reasons for being thankful. 

For many people, there’s lots for which to feel and express thanks. A good job, strong and growing family, enough money in the bank to pay all the bills (that could change in the weeks leading up to Christmas Day), personal health, and a place to call home. Unfortunately, for more than a few folks, some of those reasons for thankfulness are missing.

Over the past year I’ve learned of several friends confronting grim cancer diagnoses, or dealing with other serious health challenges. Unemployment, we’re told, is the lowest it’s been in years, but there still are those out of work – or unable to work due to some disability. Almost everyone faces family issues at one time or another; some are quickly resolved, others aren’t. Even during a strong economy, which many experts say we’ve been experiencing of late, financial help practitioners and bankruptcy attorneys aren’t agonizing over how to keep busy.

So if you’re among those feeling abundantly blessed and exceedingly thankful, good for you. But if your situation is very different from that, if you want to give thanks but don’t feel thankful, how do you respond?

The Scriptures offer help, since thankfulness is one of its central themes. In fact, one of the first Bible verses I learned – a very short one – speaks to it directly. In 1 Thessalonians 5:18 we’re told to, “give thanks in all circumstances,” adding why we should do so: “for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”

I understand. Saying to be thankful “because God says so” isn’t particularly helpful. Unless we tie our thanksgiving not only to what He has done, but also what we trust He’s going to do. In times of trouble and stress, I’m often reminded of Philippians 4:6-7, which urges, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

So when we’re praying, asking the Lord for direction, provision, intervention, or simply peace and hope in the midst of the turmoil we may be facing, we’re to begin giving thanks even then. Kind of like making a down payment on something we expect to acquire at a future time.

Ultimately, that’s what faith is all about. As Hebrews 11:1 tells us, “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” At the end of the same chapter, after citing numerous examples of people who maintained strong faith despite overwhelming circumstances, it states, “These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect” (Hebrews 11:39-40).

I close with this biblical admonition which precedes the command to give thanks in every circumstance: “Always be joyful; pray continually” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-17). If today’s a day when you couldn’t feel more blessed, rejoice and pray. If, however, today’s a day when we’re still anxiously waiting for God to “show up,” we should do the same – rejoice and pray. 

And give thanks. If not for present trials, then for the promise that He is faithful. “Delight yourself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart. Commit your way to the Lord, trust also in Him, and He will bring it to pass” (Psalm 37:4-5). 

Monday, November 19, 2018

Friends, Fake Friends, and Real Friends

When you hear the word “friend,” what comes to mind? 

These days, friend can mean many different things. We have “friends” on Facebook and other social media we’ve never met personally. We have no idea how old they are, where they work, what their lives are like. We might not know where they live. All we do know is sometimes they “like” or comment on something we’ve posted.

Real friends are a blessing, often a rare one.
We have “friends” at work, people we collaborate with on various projects. Outside of the workplace, however, we know little if anything about them. We have “friends” with whom we occasionally play golf, tennis, or maybe cards; friends we see only within the confines of the local church; neighborhood “friends” we wave at when we see them outside their homes; and friends we encounter through community events, school, or children’s sports teams. We probably wouldn’t choose them to accompany us on a walk through a dark alley.

What about “through thick and thin” friends, those folks who know us almost as well as we know ourselves, who have become integral to our lives? Do you have any of those? Are they a dying breed, destined to go the way of the dodo and the dinosaur?

It doesn’t have to be that way, even though today’s culture does little to encourage deep, meaningful relationships. We can’t be close friends with everyone; no one has that emotional capacity. But we all need someone (maybe more than one) we not only enjoy being with, but also can count on during tough times as well as good. You know, the “friend in need is a friend in deed” variety.

The Old Testament book of Proverbs, a collection of wisdom from King Solomon and other writers, says much about the values of true friendship, what it is, and what it isn’t. Here’s some advice on how to find a real friend like that:

Be selective. Not everyone should be invited into our inner circle of close friends. “A righteous man is cautious in friendship, but the way of the wicked leads them astray” (Proverbs 12:26). “A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother”  (Proverbs 18:24). Who is your “closer than a brother” friend?

Be wary of negative traits. People we spend considerable time with influence our thoughts and actions, good or bad.“Do not envy wicked men, do not desire their company; for their hearts plot violence, and their lips talk of making trouble” (Proverbs 24:1-2).“Do not make friends with a hot-tempered man, do not associate with one easily angered, or you may learn his ways and get yourself ensnared” (Proverbs 22:24-25).We have enough bad habits of our own without learning more from other people.

The best friends are constant. Anyone can be another’s friend when things are going well, or when they see a benefit in the relationship. But true friends remain during the hard times, when we have nothing to offer. “A friend loves for all times, and a brother is born for adversity” (Proverbs 17:17). In another Old Testament book, Solomon made this observation: “If one falls down, his friend can help him up. But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up!” (Ecclesiastes 4:10). When challenges and hardships arrive – as they will – it’s good to have someone there to walk with us through them.

Good friends make us better. We all can use true friends who have the ability to set our sights higher, both personally and professionally. “He who walks with the wise grows wise, but a companion of fools suffers harm” (Proverbs 13:20). “Listen to advice and accept instruction, and in the end you will be wise” (Proverbs 19:20).

Seek friends who aren’t afraid to tell the truth. People who focus on flattery, who always try to tell us what they think we want to hear, aren’t friends. They’re manipulators. “A lying tongue hates those it hurts, and a flattering mouth works ruin” (Proverbs 26:28). In contrast to that, the sincere, honest feedback of a friend, even when it’s hard to hear, can be like walking to a room filled with a wonderful aroma. “Perfume and incense bring joy to the heart, and the pleasantness of one’s friend springs from his earnest counsel” (Proverbs 27:9). 

True friends can be trusted. Few things are worse than being betrayed by someone we believed was a friend we entrusted with confidential information. Can you trust your friend? “A prudent man keeps his knowledge to himself, but the heart of fools blurts out folly” (Proverbs 12:23). “A gossip betrays a confidence; so avoid a man who talks too much” (Proverbs 20:19).

No one is perfect, but true friends – people we want to be around us – should fit the criteria above. Do you have anyone like this? Many people, especially men, don’t. If not, we’re told to pray, asking God to send this kind of person our way. “You do not have because you do not ask God” (James 4:2).