Thursday, March 21, 2019

Finding Tranquility in a Noisy World

Much as I hate to admit it, I’ve got an addiction – and I suspect you do, too. It’s an addiction to noise. 

We wake up and our sleep cobwebs are hardly dispersed before we flick on the TV, radio or grab our smartphones to find out what we’ve missed while we were sleeping. Getting into our cars, almost immediately we turn on the radio or CD player. If we go to the gym, we’re probably wearing headphones and listening to tunes or a message of some sort from an MP3 player.

At the coffee shop, eating lunch at a restaurant, or at the dinner table, we struggle to keep our hands off our phones, even though there are perfectly intelligent, conversational humans sitting within an arm’s length from us.

Noise. Noise. Noise. The constant din is so relentless, we’re almost oblivious to it. We lose the sense that sometimes, noise annoys. Occasionally we have that rare experience of being somewhere that’s quiet, where tranquility still exists. Then we begin a frantic search…for some noise. As if we require noise as much as we do oxygen, food or water.

The problem with noise is it makes it almost impossible to hear the Lord. The Scriptures speak of the “still, small voice” of God (1 Kings 19:12). This passage appears soon after the Lord had used the prophet Elijah as a virtual one-man band, fending off hundreds of false prophets representing counterfeit gods, and then accurately predicting the end of a 3½-year drought.

After receiving word the evil queen Jezebel had put a contract on his life, Elijah fled, physically, emotionally and spiritually spent. After giving the prophet time to recover from the stressful events, God had a special message for him. He sent a mighty wind, an earthquake and fire, but the Lord’s voice wasn’t in any of those. At last came a still, small voice – the gentle, understanding whisper of God telling Elijah it was time to return to action.

Sometimes when I meet with friends I ask, “What do you think the Lord is telling you these days?” Often they shrug their shoulders, no sure how to answer. It’s probably because they’ve been so immersed in noise – TV talk shows, music being piped into the mall, YouTube videos, or just preoccupation with apps on their smartphones – that there’s no way they could hear even if God spoke to them audibly.

I don’t have a simple remedy for this, being a fellow struggler with the “noise makers” of our day. My “addiction” truly is problematic. I find myself too often visiting favorite websites or checking out social media to see what my “friends” and contacts have been up to or what they’re saying. In the evenings, turning the TV on is almost a reflex.

But there are times, wonderful times, when the “sounds of silence” find me – and I find them happily refreshing. As I write this, the only sound I hear is that of my fingers tapping on the keyboard. A small airplane just flew over, but for a few brief moments, the accustomed noise has subsided.

Although there were no phone apps, TV programs, radio commentators, or even billboards to distract them, folks in biblical days still required intentionality to find quiet. Speaking to the psalmist, the Lord commanded, “Be still, and know that I am God…. I will be exalted in the earth” (Psalm 46:10). King David, with enemies in hot pursuit, wrote reflectively, “Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him” (Psalm 37:7).

In a recent meditation, Cindy Hess Kasper wrote about a college president urging her students to “power down” for an evening, setting aside the cell phones and stepping away from technology entirely for a while, so they could spend the time in prayer and listening to quiet, worshipful music. The effect for many of the students was a surprisingly pleasant respite from the frenzy of daily life.

Maybe we should consider something along those lines ourselves. Even more than once. As the old TV commercial used to say, “Try it. You’ll like it!”

Monday, March 18, 2019

The Saddest Verse in the Bible

One of the distinctives about the Bible is its candor, its unvarnished presentation of the failures and foibles of its principal characters. There’s no airbrushing, no whitewashing of even the most important individuals, no accounts told through rose-tinted glasses.

As we read the Scriptures, we encounter many passages about sin, disobedience, rebellion. It starts in the garden of Eden with Adam and Eve, continues with King David’s adultery and murder to cover up his sin, and carries through to the betrayal of Jesus by Judas Iscariot and Peter’s more subtle, but equally grievous betrayal as Jesus was being tried and tortured prior to His crucifixion.

So it’s questionable at best to declare one verse as the saddest in all of the Bible, but nevertheless, I have a nominee. In the 6thchapter of the Gospel of John, Jesus had just finished making some difficult statements that troubled many of those who had been avidly following Him. Jesus had declared, “I am the bread of life” (v. 35) and “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day” (v. 44). Not the simplest words to grasp.

These were definitely confounding for many of those listening to Him. “On hearing it, many of his disciples said, ‘This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?’” (v. 60). Jesus was not at all surprised by their reaction and made no attempt to pacify their perplexity. “…The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life. Yet there are some of you who do not believe.’ For Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe and who would betray him. He went on to say, ‘This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled him’” (vv. 63-65).

Then comes what I regard as the saddest verse in the Bible: “From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him” (John 6:66).

Imagine having been with Jesus – God in the flesh – for weeks, months, maybe even a year or two, hearing His unfathomable words of wisdom and observing His miraculous works. Blind people given sight, crippled people restored to unaided mobility, lepers having skin turned soft like infants, dead people being raised to life. And then, after hearing Him utter some puzzling pronouncements, turning away and no longer following Him.

Could anything be more heartbreaking than that?

The Scriptures tell us “the mark of the beast” – our spiritual enemy – is 666, so perhaps it’s appropriate that the address for this verse is John 6:66. It must be the work of the evil one to cause one-time followers of Jesus to turn away, forsaking Him and His teachings, upon learning what it fully means to follow Him.

Things aren’t much different today. We probably all know people, even friends or family members, who at one time seemed to be ardent Christ followers. They were attending worship services regularly, going to Bible studies, eagerly sharing their faith, maybe even engaging in vocational Christian ministry. But then, whether gradually or suddenly, their enthusiasm and commitment faded. One day we look up and find, like the folks in Jesus’ day, they had turned back and were no longer following Him.

Perhaps, as Jesus described in His parable of the sower, it’s that the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful” (Mark 4:19). This is why discipling – spiritual mentoring – is so vital for the health and growth of believers, not only those new to the faith but also those who have been following Jesus for years. We all need support, encouragement and accountability in our walk with the Lord.

My prayer is that I and those I care about will always be able to say, For in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Do you know of anyone who seems at risk of turning back and no longer following the Lord? How about you? What can you do to keep that from happening?

May our hearts echo the words of Peter, when Jesus asked His 12 closest disciples if they too wished to leave. Peter replied, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God" (John 6:68-69).

Thursday, March 14, 2019

It’s Time for Being Strong and Courageous

Over my years of reading the Bible I have learned a lot of things, but one of the most important is this: When God repeats something several times, pay attention. He wants to make a point, and doesn’t want us to miss it. For example: 

In giving the Ten Commandments, the Lord starts eight of them with “You shall not….” (Or, if you prefer KJV phraseology, “Thou shalt not….") It’s evident these are things He doesn’t want us to do. Also, reading the classic passage that conveys how God intended for us to relate to one another, we’re told repeatedly what love is – or at least what it’s supposed to be. “Love it patient, love is kind…always protects, always trusts always hopes, always perseveres…” (1 Corinthians 13:4-13). This repetition isn’t just for clever literary effect.

So recently as I read the conclusion of the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy and the start of the next one, Joshua, I took note when I saw one particular admonition being repeated: “Be strong and courageous.” 

As Moses was preparing to pass the leadership to Joshua, he knew the current residents of the Promised Land – Canaan – didn’t figure to be sending out welcoming committees. No one was displaying “Can’t we all just get along” bumper stickers on their chariots. So Moses told his people, “The Lord your God himself will cross over ahead of you. He will destroy these nations before you and you will take possession of their land” (Deuteronomy 31:3). 

This ragtag horde of Israelites had gone through a lot, and God had come through for them in every crisis. But time and again they had proved themselves short on faith and long on disobedience. So crossing the Jordan River didn’t mean they’d be home free. What Moses did next was instructive, not only for the people of Israel but also for those who seek to follow the Lord today.

He exhorted them, “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you” (Deuteronomy 31:6). Moses hardly took a breath before repeating it to the man God had chosen as his successor: “Then Moses summoned Joshua and said to him in the presence of all Israel, ‘Be strong and courageous, for you must go with this people into the land that the Lord swore to their forefathers to give them…. The Lord himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged’” (Deuteronomy 31:7-8).

So what does this have to do with us? The ancient Israelites lived in a very different time, of course, but their circumstances were perilous and tumultuous, not unlike what we’re facing today. Joseph had the Egyptians to deal with, David had Goliath, and Daniel had the Babylonians. In the 21stcentury, we have our own “Egyptians,” Goliaths and “Babylonians.”

Violence seems to dominate the newscasts just about every night. The other night, I counted four rapid-fire news stories about local tragedies before the news anchors let the meteorologist give a brief weather report. Wars big and small rage around the globe. Protests and unrest are exploding on every continent. The foundations of our nation seem under siege. Beliefs and principles many of us hold dear are being assailed. These days it seems up has become down; down is up.

How should we react? We could take lessons from nature and, like an ostrich, stick our heads into the sand. Or retreat into our shells like a turtle and hope all the bad stuff goes away. 

A better option would be to take our cues from the Scriptures, muster up our courage and face the hostile world around us in ways Jesus would. With love and compassion, but also with unwavering courage. 

Long before He took on human form in the tiny town of Bethlehem, Jesus received this prophetic description: "He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem” (Isaiah 53:3). Talk about not receiving a friendly welcome!

Then in Hebrews 4:15 we read, For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who was tempted in every way that we are, yet was without sin." Any time we want to complain, “But Lord, You just don’t understand,” He can reply, “Oh, yes, I definitely do.”

When terrifying circumstances of life press in on us, or we find ourselves perplexed by the chaos that threatens to overwhelm our society, we can do as Moses instructed his fellow Israelites, “be strong and courageous.” Because that’s exactly what Jesus did, and He promised, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).

Monday, March 11, 2019

Failure: Springboard to Success

There’s a disturbing trend in our society. It’s a condition, actually, an apparent allergy to…failure.

Take kids’ sports: Many of them don’t award championships anymore. Everyone gets participation trophies; better teams aren’t distinguished from those with less talented ones. In lower-age brackets, they often don’t even keep score. Why? We don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. Failing to win a Saturday morning soccer match, or finishing third in the youth baseball league could forever scar the “losers” for the rest of their lives. Or so we’re told.

While I’m no expert on the emotional and psychological ramifications of wins and losses on young minds, we’re in big trouble trying to shield our children and grandkids from failure. Because in our hostile, dispassionate world, not everybody wins. If you’re passed up for a promotion, the bosses don’t care if your feelings are bruised.

Not afraid to fail, Tim Tebow is
competing for a spot with the Mets.
Tim Tebow spoke about this recently. Remember the humble, clean-cut Heisman Trophy winner who briefly visited the NFL and today aspires for a spot on one of baseball’s major league teams? Despite his successes, Tebow also has known failure; by his own admission, he's better for it.

Speaking at the start of New York Mets’ spring training camp, Tebow explained his aspirations for reaching the major leagues after a so-so experience in pro football. He said: 

“You’re always going to have people that tell you that you won’t, that you can’t, that you shouldn’t. Most of those are people that didn’t, that wouldn’t, that couldn’t. Don’t be defined by outside sources. You go after your dream. 

“Succeeding or failing…it’s not having to live with your regret because I didn’t try. I just feel for all the young people out there that don’t go after something because they’re so afraid of failing. You’re going to live with a lot more regret than if you tried and you failed. I think a reason a lot of people don’t go after things is because of how much you will be criticized and, ‘what if I do fall flat on my face?’ 

“Fear and doubt creep in, and I don’t think that’s the healthiest way to live. I don’t want to have to live with doubt every day. Regardless of what everyone here has to say about me, that doesn’t define me…. There’s one thing that defines me, and that’s what God says about me.”

Tebow has been considered by some as a “polarizing figure,” largely because he’s a bold, unapologetic witness for Jesus Christ, who strives to live out the faith he professes. Which he’s done, win or lose. He won college football’s highest individual honor and led the Florida Gators to two national championships. But he’s also fallen far short of other goals, failing to translate his collegiate success to NFL stardom. Whether he’ll ever play in a major-league ballpark remains in question.

But as he says, “There’s one thing that defines me, and that’s what God says about me.” That should be our philosophy as well as followers of Jesus Christ, whether we’re IT technicians, law enforcement officers, school teachers, restaurant hosts, college students, homemakers, or construction workers.

And if you’re not failing sometimes, it’s only because you’re not trying. No one succeeds 100 percent of the time. Thomas Alva Edison, George Washington Carver, Steve Jobs and the Wright brothers all learned failure’s necessary for removing some of the obstacles to success.

Among the delights of reading the Scriptures are stories of God’s “failures,” men and women who endured hardships and survived hard knocks to become His servants and messengers. You don’t have to read long – Adam and Eve messed up in the third chapter of Genesis, and humankind has been following their “example” ever since.

Look at any of the central characters in the Old and New testaments, from Noah and Abraham, Jacob and David, to the apostles Peter and Paul, and you’ll find their failures devastated but didn’t define them.

Maybe that’s why God reminds us often our Christian “walk” will be filled with stumbles along the way.  In Isaiah 41:10, the Lord promises, “So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” 

In the previous chapter, the prophet writes, “…The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth…. He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint” (Isaiah 41:28-31).

In one of his wisdom books, King Solomon describes the need for support to overcome perilous falls and failures: “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!” (Ecclesiastes 4:9-10).

We don’t have to seek out failure. It will find us. But if we have any doubt about what God can do with people who fail, all we need to do is turn to the 11th chapter of Hebrews, where God presents His “hall of faith.” In addition to Old Testament patriarchs cited above, we read about Moses, who stumbled more than once; Rahab the prostitute, Samson, Samuel, and others.

If they could fail and yet be used by God, to the point that they received special recognition in the Scriptures, so can we!

Thursday, March 7, 2019

What’s the Use, Anyway? What’s OUR Use?

Looking into our silverware drawer the other day, I noticed something: The spoons, forks and knives weren’t laying in their respective sections asking, “What is my purpose?” “Am I of any use?” “What’s the meaning of being a utensil?” 

There are two reasons for that. First, of course, they’re inanimate; inanimate things don’t talk – or think. (Unless they’re performing in a “Beauty and the Beast” movie where the cups, saucers and candlesticks all prance around and talk with abandon.) Secondly, it’s because the person who picks them up is the one who determines their purpose, use, and meaning.

For example, someone decides the immediate use of a spoon is for eating a bowl of cereal or ice cream, or for stirring creamer into a cup of coffee. The user determines the purpose, not the spoon. The same could be said about forks, knives, spatulas, ladles, etc.

It seems we spend an inordinate amount of time wondering such things of ourselves. We tend to ponder imponderables like: Why am I here? What’s the meaning of life? Or the penetrating question a cinematic theme song of decades ago asked, “What’s it all about, Alfie?”

Not that there’s anything wrong with thinking about these deep matters. We’d all like to believe we’re here for a good reason, that we’re not cosmic accidents lacking purpose or plan. But if our trust is in God, His wisdom and sovereignty, maybe it’s not healthy getting into a mental tangle over this.

Reading recently from my favorite devotional book, My Utmost for His Highest, author Oswald Chambers suggested, “We should quit asking ourselves, ‘Am I of any use?’ and accept the truth that we really are not of much use to [God]. The issue is never of being of use, but of being of value to God Himself. Once we are totally surrendered to God, He will work through us all the time.”

When we first read this, it can sound somewhat demeaning. What does Chambers mean, “we really are not of much use to God”? But the Lord’s work proceeded quite well for countless years before we arrived on the scene, and His work will continue long after we’re gone. So as much as it pains us to admit, we’re not indispensable.

At the same time, we are privileged to know that God can and will use us. In Jeremiah 29:11, He declares, “For I know the plans I have for you…plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future.”

Earlier in the same book God says, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations” (Jeremiah 1:5). It’s amazing to consider that even before he became a gleam in his mother’s eyes, the prophet Jeremiah had been chosen by God for a very special work.

Most of us haven’t been selected to serve as prophets, or preachers, or foreign missionaries, but as followers of Jesus Christ we can have the assurance that He does have a very special role for us – a calling we each have been created uniquely to fulfill.  

As the apostle Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians asserts, “But God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honor to the parts that lacked it…. Now you are the body of Christ, and each of you is a part of it. And in the church God has appointed [people with different gifts]….” (1 Corinthians 12:24-28). 

Just as each fork, spoon and knife in our kitchen drawer can provide very useful service according to our wishes, each of us can rejoice that when and as needed, God “will work through us all the time,” as Chambers wrote. So with joy, as Paul exhorted believers in ancient Rome, we can “offer [ourselves] to God…and offer the parts of [our] body to him as instruments of righteousness” (Romans 6:11-13).

Monday, March 4, 2019

How Good is Your Serve?

Do you know what sport Jesus played? According to the Bible, He said it was tennis: “The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve” (Mark 10:45). And He urged His followers to watch out for His return.

Okay, just kidding. That’s not at all what He meant. I know that. But it does clearly say that, despite being the Son of God – God incarnate – Jesus came to serve us. What does that mean?

Jesus Christ came to serve - but
not on the tennis court!
Christ’s service to us took many forms. He served by teaching, giving timeless principles for living rewarding and successful, "abundant" lives. He directly healed many people of their disabilities and diseases. He provided a model for us to follow in how we conduct our own lives. 

Most important, He made the ultimate sacrifice in the most profound sense, dying on the cross as the once-for-all-eternity atonement for the sins of mankind. “The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God” (Romans 6:10). Or as 1 Peter 3:18 expresses it, “For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the Spirit.”

Jesus the servant. What images does that conjure up in your mind? Better yet, if someone were to call you a servant, how would you react? That’s a very valid consideration, because after reviewing all He did for us, 1 Peter 2:21 admonishes, To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.” Just as Jesus did not shy away from being a servant to us, part of our calling as His followers is to be servants for others.

When we hear the word “servant,” we typically think in negative terms. We come up with synonyms like “servitude,” “indentured servant,” or even “slavery.” We consider such a role demeaning, representing a lower station in life, whether it’s the downstairs servant staff many of us saw portrayed on the TV series, “Downton Abbey,” or the dutiful housekeeping staff at a hotel. Most of us dislike being treated as servants, whether at work or in our homes.

And yet, serving – and being a servant – is regarded as a noble office by many. Mother Teresa, who devoted her life to aiding the poor and dying in Calcutta, India, said, “Give of your hands to serve and your hearts to love.” Robert K. Greenleaf, author of the acclaimed book Servant Leadership, offered the view, “Good leaders must first become good servants.”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. often challenged his audiences to pursue lives of service, helping others. He observed, “Not everybody can be famous. But everybody can be great, because greatness is determined by service. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You don't have to know about Plato or Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein's theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace and a soul generated by love.” 

Without question, Jesus epitomized all of the above and much more. Which places an onus on each of us who professes to be among His followers. When we hear the word “Christlike,” we think in terms like being patient, peaceful and friendly. But humility and willingness to serve others are traits that lie at the heart of Christlikeness. 

The apostle Paul stated it this way: “We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. Each of us should please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. For even Christ did not please himself but, as it is written: ‘The insults of those who insult you have fallen on Me’” (Romans 15:1-3).

So, whether in the classroom, the office, the neighborhood…or even on the tennis court, who can you serve today?

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Teachability: the Greatest Growth Ability

What do you think are the most important qualities for someone who desires to grow spiritually? We could list numerous possibilities. But from personal experience – in getting to know people who are living out their faith in incredible ways; striving to mentor and disciple other men, and seeking to grow in my own faith – I would rank teachability at or near the top.

Teachability isn't so much
about teaching as it is
about learning.
I’m not referring to the ability to teach, but rather the ability to be taught; willingness to learn from others. Because not everyone is teachable, and I must admit there have been times when I was among them. Often in the Scriptures we see the term “stiff-necked” to describe such people. 

For instance, in Exodus 34:9, Moses speaks to God about his frustration in leading a people determined to live contrary to what they had been instructed: "’Lord,’ he said, ‘if I have found favor in your eyes, then let the Lord go with us. Although this is a stiff-necked people, forgive our wickedness and our sin, and take us as your inheritance.’" Basically, Moses – whom God had appointed to lead the Israelites – is saying, “There’s no teaching these folks!”

King Solomon addressed this a number of times in the book of Proverbs, including willingness to accept correction as a sign of teachability. He admonished, “Do not rebuke a mocker or he will hate you; rebuke a wise man and he will love you” (Proverbs 9:8). Solomon also observed, “He who heeds discipline shows the way to life, but whoever ignores correction leads others astray” (Proverbs 10:17).

There are other important aspects to teachability beyond being willing to receive discipline and constructive criticism. One is determining to put to use what you’ve learned. The writer of Proverbs declared, "Whoever heeds life-giving correction will be at home among the wise" (Proverbs 15:31). Writing to his protégé, Timothy, the apostle Paul instructed, “Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you” (Philippians 4:9).

Being teachable means more than simple acquisition of information. Again writing to Timothy, Paul warned of what he termed “terrible times in the last days.” The apostle described people having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people…always learning but never able to come to a knowledge of the truth” (2 Timothy 3:5,7). Seems like this could apply today just as well as it did thousands of years ago. 

The teachable person is someone who doesn’t hoard what he or she has learned, but is eager to pass it along to others. Paul drew a verbal picture of multi-generational discipleship when he told Timothy, “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others” (2 Timothy 2:2). The teachable person is one who in turn resolves to teach others – paying it forward.

And how do we succeed in cultivating a teachable spirit? An indispensable element, I’ve discovered, is an old-fashioned virtue called humility – being humble enough to recognize that we don’t know it all, that we can learn from others, and our lives and the lives of others can be enhanced by what we learn.

Another apostle, James, addressed this when he equated teachability with wisdom: “Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom” (James 3:13).

What’s the moral of this “story”? First of all, we’re never too old to learn. You can teach “old dogs” new tricks, if they are willing to be taught. It can be humbling to have to admit we’ve been wrong about something, or didn’t know as much as we thought we did. But once we’ve learned something important, we also need to be willing to share it so others can benefit and hopefully, grow spiritually as well.