Thursday, March 5, 2015

A New Leaf – Or a New Life?

An old phrase we sometimes still hear concerns “turning over a new leaf.” This cliché, which apparently dates back to the 1500’s, alludes to the turning from one page (or leaf) of a book – the old-fashioned, paper kind – to a new one. Of course, these days when people talk of turning over a new leaf, they’re not making reference to a book – paper or Kindle version – but rather to beginning again, reforming, or making a fresh start.

People turning over a new leaf in their lives might desire to overcome an addiction, a behavioral problem, even a lack of motivation at work. Leave the old page behind and move onto a new one; start afresh.

Are you feeling a need to turn over a new leaf?
Have you ever tried to do this, turning over a new leaf in some area of your life? It might be as simple as deciding to quit watching so much TV or as urgent as trying to overcome a recurring, relationship-damaging struggle with anger. At the start of every year many of us make resolutions or set goals to turn over a new leaf and start doing – or stop doing – things we were not able to accomplish the year prior.

One common misconception about the Christian faith is that it requires taking a similar initiative – to turn over a new leaf spiritually speaking and attempt to clean up our act. That’s not the way it works, however, according to the Scriptures.

Two Bible passages I initially encountered years ago troubled me for some time. One of them said, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17). I thought, “How can this be true – at least for me? I don’t feel like a new creation. I’m still the same old knucklehead I’ve always been. Don’t tell me the old has gone – it sure seems like it’s still here. I’ve been trying to change, but it’s not happening!”

Another verse offered a similar idea, showing my understanding from the other passage wasn’t misconstrued: “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” (Galatians 2:20).

Nowhere do these verses direct the reader to “clean up your act,” or even “turn over a new leaf.” They talk about literal, spiritual renewal, orchestrated by God and not our own intentions. My efforts to change my own life, to undo lifelong patterns of wrong thinking and behavior, were as productive as trying to purify a piece of spoiled beef by wiping it off with a paper towel.

Recently I heard an observation by Ed Stetzer, president of LifeWay Research, about personal evangelism. He pointed out too often the focus of evangelistic efforts is to invite people to attend a church service or get them to join a particular congregation. That’s not what we’re called to be about as followers of Jesus, according to Stetzer. He stated ours is “not mission of recruitment, but mission of reconciliation.”

He cited 2 Corinthians 5:20-21 (not far from one of the bothersome verses I cited above), which says, “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were working his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

In one sense, that’s deep theology. But in another way of looking at it, it’s quite simple. As an old friend of mine used to say, “Jesus took the rap for me.” But He didn’t stop there. Jesus also offered us new life, the capacity to live the life God demands – but in His strength, not ours.

“Apart from Me, you can do nothing,” Jesus told His followers in John 15:5. And as the apostle Paul affirmed in Philippians 4:13, “I can do everything through (Christ) who strengthens me.”

Yes, it might be necessary for us to turn over a new leaf. But we need to understand that Jesus Christ is our leaf-turner.

Monday, March 2, 2015

How Do We Really Know?

Years ago I had the privilege of ghostwriting a book, The Gospel and the Briefcase, for Ted DeMoss, then the president of CBMC-USA, a ministry to business and professional people. My task was to create and write the book, using Ted’s personal story and anecdotes to communicate key principles from his life.

At times in preparing to write about a particular principle in the book, I would ask him to provide me with specific illustrations. However, since I had traveled with him on several occasions and heard him speak countless times, I sometimes simply chose familiar anecdotes – many of them very moving and dramatic – that Ted had included in his talks.

The end result was a book that read and sounded as if he had penned every word of it, even though technically I had been the writer. His wife, Edith, always thought Ted had somehow written the entire manuscript and I had just done some minor editing. And that’s the way it was intended.

How was I able to do that? I must admit I’ve been gifted with a good memory – at least in terms of being able to recount the content of speeches I’ve heard and interviews I’ve conducted. But I also spent a lot of time with Ted, hearing his stories so often I could practically tell them as well as he could. I knew his mannerisms, speech inflections, and personal style so well that I could capture that in “ghosting” his book.

Can we know Jesus said what He supposedly said?
I mention this not to commend myself but rather to answer one of the questions skeptics sometimes pose about the Bible. They ask, “Jesus never wrote any books, or portions of the Bible. How do we know He actually said what the Bible claims that He said?” Good question. How do we really know?

In response, I offer my example. After spending much time with Ted, not only listening to him but also observing his life and forming a strong, positive relationship with him, I could present in writing his thoughts and perspectives so accurately even his own wife couldn’t tell the difference.

The four gospels of the Bible – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – were written by men who knew Jesus extremely well. Matthew and John were two of “the twelve” – Jesus’ closest disciples, the men that were with Him round the clock for three full years. It’s very possible many of their quotations from Jesus were statements He had made on numerous occasions in different settings to different groups.

Luke, a physician, was well-educated and very meticulous in gathering the facts and accounts of Jesus’ ministry. Although he apparently did not spend time with Him face to face, Luke, being a good medical practitioner, was methodical and precise in documenting the accounts that appear not only in the gospel of Luke but also the book of Acts.

The gospel of Mark was written by John Mark, a protégé of the apostle Paul. After Jesus’ death and resurrection, Paul was welcomed into the fold with the other apostles who had walked personally with Jesus Christ. Paul wrote of his own personal, supernatural encounter with Jesus when he was still known as Saul, the religious zealot. Paul’s life became transformed from persecutor of Christians to one of Jesus’ most devoted followers, and he invested deeply in the lives of young men like Mark.

Although their experiences with Jesus were not identical, each writer knew Jesus intimately and could easily and accurately recount what He had said. Their writings were not hearsay, like words passed around a circle in the game called “telephone,” where the final statement bears little likeness to the original by the time the circuit is complete.

So when we read that Jesus declared, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6), we have confidence that is what He said – and exactly what He meant.

When physician Luke reports Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23), we can trust that seemingly hard saying of Christ is true and accurate.

When Matthew recounts the so-called Sermon on the Mount, including statements like, “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44), we can be assured such a revolutionary statement is actually what the former tax collector heard Jesus say in person, probably on more than one occasion.

And there’s one other element to affirm the veracity of the words of Jesus in the Scriptures. The Bible says God had direct involvement in the writing of the 39 Old Testament and 27 New Testament books.

For instance, the apostle Peter – another of Jesus’ 12 closest followers – wrote, prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God” (2 Peter 1:21). And 2 Timothy 3:16 states, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.”

My friend Ted used to tell of meeting with a couple that had just committed their lives to Christ. He was guiding them through the Bible, pointing them to passages that would help them in their new spiritual life. When they came to 2 Timothy 3:16, Ted asked what they thought that meant. Without hesitating, the wife picked up her Bible and replied, “What it says to me is, God wrote a book!”

Wise words, from the mouth of a spiritual babe. Yes, God wrote a book – the Bible. And we can believe and trust in what it says. Even, and especially, the words of Jesus.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Giving – and the Federal Budget

If pastors ever want to ensure low attendance some Sunday, all they have to do is announce the week preceding that they’ll be preaching on tithing. Messages about money attract congregants like vinegar attracts honeybees. “All they want is money,” is a common complaint uttered by some about the contemporary church.

We don’t like being told how to handle our money, whether by the clergy, parents, friends, or sometimes, even our spouse. After all, it’s “my money,” isn’t it? I have every right to do with it as I choose, don’t I?

Whose money is it, anyway?
I don’t intend to explore the concept of tithing, but one principle has helped me over the years in not maintaining such a tight grip on my wallet. As a friend explained, from a biblical perspective it’s not “our” money. We are not “owners” of our possessions, including our cash and bank accounts, but stewards – or managers.

In His so-called Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30), Jesus told of a wealthy man who, before leaving on a journey, entrusted talents (some money) to his servants. He asked them to manage the money in an appropriate way during his absence, and upon his return, they would give an account of what they had done with it.

Two of the servants invested the talents wisely, doubling the amounts that had been entrusted to them. Both were commended for their stewardship and then informed they would be given even greater responsibilities: Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master” (Matthew 25:21.23).

The third servant, however, did nothing with the money entrusted to him, choosing instead to hide it until the rich owner returned. His explanation? Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground” (Matthew 25:24).

None of these servants owned the money in their possession, but still were expected to put it to good, productive use. In a similar way, we might work hard to earn our paychecks, but ultimately the money is not ours, but God’s. Our skills, abilities and gifts come from Him. He simply asks us to be wise in how we manage or use our financial resources. And if He asks us to give a portion of that directly to help in advancing His eternal kingdom, is that too much to ask?

This principle reminds me of how “our money” – the taxes we pay to the Federal government – are being used. We often hear, from both Democrats and Republicans, about the “government” funding various projects, ranging from education to highways. Our elected officials, from the President to members of Congress to those who serve at the local government level, seem to view themselves as owners of tax revenues, authorized to use the funds as they choose.

But lately there’s been a strong pushback, taxpayers complaining that in reality the government – Federal, state and local – has no money of its own. They note that in a real sense, government leaders are basically managers – stewards – asked to use the funds entrusted to them with wisdom and frugality.

Government seems to have stepped into the role of the wealthy man in the Bible, described by one of his servants as “a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed.”

This isn’t advocating non-payment of taxes. In fact, I believe all U.S. citizens have a responsibility to pay their fair share to support functions of government, ranging from law enforcement and emergency responders who come in times of need to road crews that pave our streets and fill in potholes. If God has prospered us financially, we have an obligation to help in supporting not only His work, but also the public works from which we all benefit.

But wouldn’t it be nice if our elected officials took their own stewardship more soberly? That rather than spending tax monies like drunken sailors, heedless of budgets and growing deficits, they would realize they have merely been entrusted with tax revenues – resources provided by American taxpayers? That they have the responsibility for using them with great care and discretion, rather than acting as if they’d been given a blank check for unconscionable, reckless spending?

Monday, February 23, 2015

Integrity, Like Pregnancy, Is All Or Nothing

Much of life we perceive in 50 shades of gray, so to speak. It all depends on your point of view. But some things are stark black and white. Like being pregnant. You can’t be “a little bit pregnant.” A woman either is – or she’s not. It’s the same with integrity. One can’t have “a little bit of integrity.” It’s pretty much all or nothing.

Once again the thorny issue of integrity has popped up, thrust into the spotlight by a figure in the public eye. This time, instead of a football coach or politician, it was NBC News anchor Brian Williams, an admired member of the national media, who “earned” the spotlight of scrutiny.

Information surfaced disputing Williams’ story of having been aboard a military helicopter in Iraq that was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade in 2003, a report that had seemed to grow over the years. Confronted by eyewitness accounts debunking his claim, Williams admitted “a mistake in recalling the events.” NBC News, faced with an assault to both Williams’ and its own credibility, suspended him for “misrepresenting the facts.”

Even a tiny crack can be the start of a spoiled egg,
a sinking ship, or a shattered reputation.
Another example of the strength – and fragility – of integrity. We can spend our lives building a reputation for integrity, and this can serve us well. But it can all be destroyed in a moment, even by a isolated occasion of misjudgment or misbehavior.

But why should someone who has been trusted for years and years suddenly have that swept away by a lapse in honesty? Maybe it’s not fair – but that’s the way it is.

Whether you’re a media star, business leader, educator, pastor, police officer, parent or a spouse, trust is not optional to the “job description.” It’s essential, non-negotiable. If someone were to put a drop of poison in your favorite beverage, you wouldn’t want to drink it even though the poison would be only an infinitesimal percentage of its volume. In a similar way, a tiny bit of deceit can spoil a lifetime of trust and confidence.

That’s why I’m so impressed by the wisdom of the Bible. It tells it like it is, even though we often don’t like what it says. For instance, “The man of integrity walks securely, but he who takes crooked paths will be found out” (Proverbs 10:9). Another passage underscores the point: “The integrity of the upright guides them, but the unfaithful will be destroyed by their duplicity” (Proverbs 11:3).

Just as a tiny crack can cause a ship to sink, even a small act of deception can bring about the destruction of one’s once-sterling reputation.

I don’t know how the rest of the Brian Williams saga will play out. Some might ask, isn’t it harsh to condemn a man for distorting the truth on such a seemingly inconsequential matter? Shouldn’t he be forgiven?

Yes, forgiveness certainly could be warranted. As we so often hear, nobody’s perfect. But it’s also important to recognize our actions – good and bad – have consequences. When a person is in a position of public trust, as someone like Williams has been, there are expectations, even demands, for retaining that trust. Once that is compromised, it’s not easily regained.

But as someone wisely said, when we point a finger at someone else, the other fingers are pointed toward us. Rather than looking down our noses, reveling in the quandary resulting from someone else’s moral or ethical misdeeds, we need to remember we’re all only one selfish, thoughtless, reckless act away from a similar plight. As the Bible reminds us, “So if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!” (1 Corinthians 10:12).

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Going Clockwise in a Counter-Clockwise World

Technology has touched our lives in many ways, some good and some bad. It’s even intensified the communications gap between generations. Take the evolution of the telephone, for example. If you can define the meaning of “party line” or explain why we still talk about “dialing” the phone, chances are very good you’re a Baby Boomer. A millennial has no clue what those terms mean.

And if you can remember the days of using a knob for changing channels on the TV; how it was necessary to maneuver the “rabbit ears” to get good TV reception, or even referred to the device as a “television set,” again you’re probably a member of the so-called Boomer generation.

As clocks change, in generations to come,
how will we know if we're going
clockwise or counter-clockwise?
In this digital age – when time on most of our watches, clocks and cell phones appears in numerals like 3:45 and 10:17, without hour, minute and sweeping second hands – how long will we still understand what it means to go “clockwise” or “counter-clockwise”?

I started wondering about this at our local mall early one morning during my power-walking regimen. Like most of the walkers, I was going counter-clockwise, just as stockcars and thoroughbred horses do when racing in the United States. Then I noticed one fellow who’d resolved to go against the flow, like a salmon choosing to swim downstream rather than upstream like the rest of its finny friends.

This gentleman was a stranger, but judging from his gray hair and the ponytail cascading down his back, he might have been a remnant of the hippie era, staging an ambulatory protest against conformity. Since most of the walkers weren’t moving very quickly, risks of a head-on collision were slight. But it did seem disconcerting to pass Mr. Clockwise going in a contrary direction.

Then it occurred to me that as followers of Jesus Christ, part of our calling could be described as choosing a clockwise path in an increasingly counter-clockwise world.

Romans 12:2 warns, “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.”

Another passage exhorts followers of Christ, “Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For everything in the world – the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does – come not from the Father but from the world” (1 John 2:15-16).

Tough words for sure, and perhaps a bit difficult to accept. After all, we live in the world, don’t we? If everyone else is going counter-clockwise, why should we be different?

And just what is “the pattern of this world”? What is “loving the world” all about?

We get the “pattern” in part from the media and popular culture. They’re constantly telling us what to think and believe, sometimes in ways that clearly contradict teachings of the Bible. This applies to individual behavior, moral convictions and ethical standards. If we disagree with shifting values, society tells us we’re out of step and need to get with the program.

We see it in society’s pervasive emphasis on materialism, the underlying message being that true happiness and fulfillment are found in money and things we possess. We even have churches and TV evangelists that affirm this perspective.

Then we have political correctness and the so-called “thought police,” trying to press us into their mold. They often bring to life the biblical description, “They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity…they not only continue to do these things but also approve of those who practice them” (Romans 1:29-32). Not only that, but if we don’t concur with their redefining of morality and acceptable behavior, we’re portrayed as bigots, haters, narrow-minded and judgmental.

Yes, it seems in many ways to be a follower of Jesus today means to go against the tide, or to go clockwise in a counter-clockwise world. But it was the same for Jesus Himself. His was the ultimate “road less traveled,” and we’re called to do much the same, as He directs.

Is it easy going against the flow? Maybe in a mall, but definitely not in the world around us. But as Jesus said, Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it(Matthew 7:14).

Monday, February 16, 2015

Going Fast . . . Or Far?

The late Frank Sinatra sang many famous songs during his more than 60-year career as an entertainer, but one of the most memorable is “My Way,” which he released in 1969. Today, more than four decades later, it seems many people embrace “I did it my way” as their personal motto.

There’s a lot to be said about individual achievement – the resolve, determination, perseverance and single-mindedness often involved in attaining lofty goals and aspirations. In a sense, the Declaration of Independence set the stage for this philosophy when the leaders of 13 colonies agreed in 1776 it was time to “do it their way,” apart from England, by forming the United States.

But there also are limitations to individual initiative. I was reminded of this while viewing the film, “The Good Lie,” the story of a small group of Sudanese refugees who fled tyranny in their homeland and ultimately found a new home for themselves in Kansas City, Mo. At the conclusion of the movie, an African proverb was displayed that well-summarized their amazing pilgrimage:
“If you want to go fast, go alone.
If you want to go far, go together.”

In sports, and much of life, we can achieve much
more together than we can on our own.
We see the truth of this adage exhibited in every area of endeavor. Where would comedian Bud Abbott have been without his sidekick, Lou Costello? What would Orville Wright have accomplished without the aid of his brother, Wilbur? Working out of a one-car garage, William Hewlett and David Packard teamed with others to form a company, Hewlett-Packard, that one day would become the world’s leader in manufacturing personal computers.

In track and field, we see sprinters competing on their own, but usually in longer events, groups of runners compete together, sometimes as teams. We see stock car drivers maneuvering their cars at high speeds on their own, but if you’re traveling on a commercial jet from coast to coast, you want a crew of people in the cockpit.

We may never achieve the notoriety of famous entertainers, athletes or entrepreneurs, but we’d all be wise to approach life from a “we did it our way” perspective than the standoffish “my way.” This truth is expressed repeatedly throughout the Bible, a clear warning against going it alone, urging us instead to seek support, encouragement and strength from one another.

Proverbs 27:17 declares, “As iron sharpens iron, so one man (woman) sharpens another.” In another of the so-called “wisdom books,” King Solomon of Israel observes,
“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” (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12).

Ironically, it was when they failed to heed this advice that Solomon and his father, King David, suffered their greatest failures.

The spiritual life, I’ve discovered, also proves the “go fast, go alone…go far, go together” principle. People make professions of faith and appear to be making rapid progress spiritually, but because they don't connect with other believers, their growth eventually stagnates and over time they disappear from the scene entirely.

This is one reason we’re admonished, “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another…” (Hebrews 10:24-25).

The Bible describes those who follow Jesus Christ as the “body of believers” – “you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it” (1 Corinthians 12:27). Just as even healthy human organs will die apart from the body, the most determined, well-intentioned believers will flounder without consistent fellowship with other devoted followers of Christ.

So if your goal personally, professionally or spiritually is simply to go fast, you can try going on your own. But if you want to go far, enduring for the long haul, going together with others is the better plan.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Motivated By Fear – Or Love?

For some a sunrise like this might seem fearsome,
but others would view it as an act - and artwork - of love.

Recently I exchanged perspectives with some folks on social media, offering our views on what motivates people to do what they do. Fear, one of them said, is the greatest motivator.

In one respect, I don’t disagree. Fear is what keeps us from stepping into traffic or driving too fast. Fear keeps a child from touching a hot stove, especially after having made the mistake of doing that once. Fear is what keeps us glued to the morning TV news shows, waiting to find out what the catastrophe du jour happens to be – and what we can do about it. Fear of consequences can help to curb bad behavior. And with many religions, fear is what holds people to rituals and rules, no matter how curious or restrictive.

But I believe there can be a much greater motivator in life: Love. It’s love that pushes a single mom out the door to work a second, or third job to provide for her children. It’s love that pulls a parent out of a warm, cozy bed in the middle of the night to comfort a crying infant. It’s love that convinces a husband to defer a compelling, very justifiable “want” so he can purchase something nice for his wife instead.

Even more than these, love inspires acts of mercy and compassion to help people that can’t help themselves – and who couldn’t possibly repay the kind deeds received from others. And it’s love that insists on doing whatever is necessary to deliver someone else from danger, even if it means the “ultimate sacrifice.” As Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).

Love is a recurring theme in the Bible, as summarized by the familiar verse, “For 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). It was God’s love for us – and utter hatred of sin that has separated mankind from Him – that sent Jesus to the cross to become what many theologians term the “propitiation” or “atonement” for sin.

Followers of Jesus are commanded to love one another, but even that is a result of God’s doing. “We love, because He first loved us,” 1 John 4:19 tells us. And it is out of appreciation for God’s love and concern for the spiritual well-being of others that should prompt believers in Christ to share their faith with others – not judgmental attitudes or intolerance: For Christ's love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died (to their old, sinful selves)” (2 Corinthians 5:14).

The so-called “love chapter” of the Bible, 1 Corinthians 13, which is often repeated at weddings, describes love as patient, kind, protecting, truthful, trusting, hopeful, persevering and unfailing. At the same time, genuine love, it says, is not envious or boastful, prideful or rude, self-seeking or easily angered or grudging. These noble qualities aren’t easily manufactured, but are best cultivated through the power of Christ.

This passage also concludes by saying, And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13). One of the reasons for this is that when believers die and go to their eternal home, their faith will have become sight and their hope – which the Bible defines as earnest expectation and confident assurance – will have turned into reality. Enduring, unconditional love will be all that remains of those three.

Books have been written about God’s love and the love we should demonstrate to others. But suffice it to say, I’d choose love over fear as a motivator any day.