Thursday, October 20, 2016

Peace: Pursuing the Elusive

There's something peaceful, serene about a sunset.
If only all of life were so filled with peace.
Peace. Sounds nice, doesn’t it? Seems peaceful just to say the word. “Peace” – aaaahhhh! If only finding and experiencing peace were so easy, right?

When was the last time you truly felt at peace? Maybe you’re an easygoing, glass-is-half-full type of person that’s seldom ruffled. If so, congratulations. Your “peace meter” probably registers a lot higher on the scale than for most of us that find peace to be a highly desired, but very elusive commodity.

There are all kinds of factors that can disrupt our sense of peace: Family conflict. A large, unexpected bill that appears in the mailbox. A major repair required for the home or the car. An adverse health diagnosis.

It seems everywhere we look, there are
warnings of impending calamity.
If you suspect you’ve been feeling too peaceful of late, just turn on the news. That will remedy that. Between the natural disasters, acts of terror, traffic mayhem, unsettling economic forecasts, reports of violence and senseless killings, not to mention unrelenting, polarizing politics, you’d find more peace putting your hand into a tank of starving piranhas.

So where can we find peace and fill our longing for calm in the midst of life’s constant storms? We could just close our eyes, stick our fingers in our ears and sing, “La, la, la, la,” until we run out of breath. We can adopt a Pollyanna attitude, insisting on concentrating only on things positive and determinedly avoiding everything negative.

Or we can turn to the only true, uncompromising, ever-dependable source of peace, Jesus Christ. He promised, Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” Amazingly, Jesus said this fully aware of what lay ahead for Him: rejection by adoring followers, ridicule, torture and crucifixion. As unspeakable horror for Himself loomed in the near future, Jesus spoke confidently of peace.

The apostle Paul, no stranger to persecution – both as the inflictor and the victim – offered similar assurances. He wrote, “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” (Philippians 4:6-7).

Recently a friend was telling me about his open-heart surgery, when the heart is literally stopped for a period of time while coronary bypass grafts are performed. He spoke about the incredible sense of peace he felt, which truly transcended human understanding, even knowing there was a possibility of a stroke during the procedure, or even death if his heart did not restart. That was my experience as well nearly 10 years ago. Peace in the face of uncertainty.

Peace, in large measure, is a choice. We can focus on the chaos and turmoil in our lives and around the world, and our stomachs will be in a continual churning cycle. Or we can concentrate on Christ, trusting Him for peace in the midst of the storm.

That’s why I so appreciate the refrain from the old hymn: “Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in His wonderful face; and the things of earth will grow strangely dim, in the light of His glory and grace.”

Are you longing for peace today, but lacking it? Could be you’re looking for it in the wrong places.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Finding the Diamond in the Rough

You probably know that diamonds, as magnificent as they are, started off in very humble form – carbon which has been compressed under extreme pressure and high temperatures for a long time. Amazing what you can make out of a lump of coal.

As with most gems, it’s necessary to dig into mines to find diamonds. In a sense, life’s a lot like that – whether it concerns people or prized possessions. Sometimes you have to look hard and deep to discover the surprise below the surface.

We see this in business – an employee that initially seemed unremarkable, through hard work and perseverance, proves to be a prized staff member. Dedicated teachers are adept at finding hidden gems, students with special talents and affinities for particular subjects, if only they’re encouraged to develop them. Most sports teams thrive because, along with the obvious “star” players, athletic diamonds in the rough emerge.

When I applied for a job with CBMC, a ministry to business and professional people, I was asked to take an extensive psychological profile. The subsequent evaluation described me as “a diamond in the rough.” My prospective employers were advised if they were willing to be patient with me, I could prove to be a valued team member.

Patient they were, and I enjoyed 20 years with the parachurch ministry. I’d like to think I made some valuable contributions, not only to CBMC’s organizational mission but also for eternity. But that’s not for me to assess.

Studying the Bible we find God specializes in identifying and using diamond-in-the-rough types of people. This is basically how David, a humble shepherd boy, was chosen to be king of Israel. The prophet Samuel was sent to the house of Jesse to find the successor to the headstrong and disobedient King Saul. Jesse – the father – proudly presented all but one of his sons, each of whom seemed impressive. God, however, was not impressed.

The Lord prompted Samuel to inform the father, “The Lord has not chosen these….” Then he asked, “Are these all the sons you have?” To which Jesse replied, “There is still the youngest…but he is tending the sheep” (1 Samuel 16:10-11). Why bother with “Squirt,” right?

The prophet informed Jesse the selection process wasn’t done, so he should send for the overlooked shepherd boy. Upon his arrival, young David was immediately chosen as the king-to-be: “Then the Lord said, ‘Rise and anoint him; he is the one’” (verse 12).

There’s a simple reason behind this. Earlier, God had informed Samuel, “The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). We tend to evaluate people according to the “look test.” God prefers the heart test, judging who the person really is on the inside.

Repeatedly in the Scriptures we find the Lord choosing the unlikely, the improbable, even the despised for His work. Jesus chose lowly fishermen, a hated tax collector, just plain ordinary people to be His followers – and after His crucifixion and resurrection, when He ascended to heaven, Jesus entrusted His eternal mission to this collection of characters people of the time viewed as rabble.

This should serve as encouragement for each of us. Maybe we don’t have the glowing resume or credentials of other people; we're certain they’re more qualified than we are, especially for the work of God’s kingdom. But human qualifications are often among the least of His concerns in the selection process.

As Proverbs 21:2 tells us, “All a man’s ways seem right to him, but the Lord weighs the heart.” Then it adds, “He who loves a pure heart and whose speech is gracious will have the king for his friend” (Proverbs 22:11). To God, if your heart’s right, you might be the diamond in the rough He intends to use! And if we’re paying attention, He might send some diamonds in the rough our way to help in what He’s called us to do.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Requirements . . . and a Request

Have you ever thought about how many requirements we must meet just to get through everyday, ordinary life?

For example, before we can drive solo, we’re required to have a driver’s license – and for that we’re required to take a driver’s test. Most states require drivers to buy auto insurance. In the United States we’re required to drive on the right side of the road; in Great Britain and in some other countries, the requirement is to drive on the left. Various laws set forth other requirements, ranging from how fast we drive to where we park our cars – and for how long.

What about getting married? Before exchanging “I do’s,” we’re required to produce a marriage license. Some churches require premarital counseling before the pastor performs the ceremony. A good idea, since most prospective brides and grooms simply don’t know what they don’t know.

Requirements are everywhere, whether it’s working and paying taxes, applying for college, or becoming certified in specific professions. To participate in elections – at least in theory – we’re required to be U.S. citizens, residents of a city and state, and registered as a legal voter.

But what about God? Have you ever thought about what He requires?

In response, some people would cite to-do lists of varying lengths, describing the behaviors, attitudes and actions they believe the Lord expects of His people.

Others might approach the question differently, citing Bible passages that emphasize salvation and the privilege of walking with God are predicated upon His grace – His unmerited favor – not performance.

To some extent, they would both be right. We have the Ten Commandments and other laws God has ordained, essentially telling us, “This is the way My people should think, sound and conduct themselves if they’re truly seeking to follow Me.”

At the same time, passages like Ephesians 2:8-9 and Titus 3:5 assert a relationship with God, being “justified,” isn’t based on anything we do. Some theologians express this as grace alone (sola gratia), faith alone (sola fide), and Christ alone (solus Christus).

So which is it? Does God require anything of us, or not? In Christianity, we’re inclined to make things more complicated than necessary. We find a brief, matter-of-fact answer to what the Lord requires in the Old Testament book of Micah, one of the so-called “minor prophets.” (I don’t think “minor” means Micah was underage of anything like that. Although the way Israelites responded to his warnings might have tempted him to drink.)

The passage says, He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). That’s it. Pretty easy, right?

But what does it mean to “act justly”? Or to “love mercy”? And exactly what does it look like to “walk humbly with your God”? As simple as these questions are, their answers are profound.

Who do you know that is doing these three things with any degree of consistency and success? How are we doing, individually, when it comes to acting justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God? Do we even think about it?

Lofty ideals and standards such as these are easy to verbalize, but extremely challenging to execute. Nevertheless, I can’t help wondering how different our world might be if we all got serious about these three things.

One other passage is worth a look as we ponder this divine requirement to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God. Except it’s not a requirement, but a request. Deuteronomy 10:12-13 says, “…what does the Lord your God ask of you but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to observe the Lord’s commands and decrees that I am giving you today for your own good?”

God will never coerce us into obedience. That’s why we’re requested to love and serve Him with all our heart and soul. If we have this relationship with the Lord, observing His commands and decrees isn’t burdensome, but rather an act of reverence and love. Especially knowing they have been given “for your own good.”

Put together, His requirement and His request offer a clear, unwavering guideline for what the people of God should look like. The question is, do we want to look like that?

Monday, October 10, 2016

‘Hello. What’s Your Name?’

Reconciled to the reality that I’m an introvert who out of necessity learned to become far more outgoing than is my natural inclination, I greatly admire the “people person.” This is someone who has no problem being the life of the party, the individual that strikes up a conversation with anyone.

One of those is my friend, Gary Highfield. As he and I would meet to collaborate on his book, When ‘Want To’ Becomes ‘Have To,’ I’d watch with amazement as he would easily interact with people he’d never met. He’d approach total strangers, whether to chat or ask them to serve as an instant “focus group” for an idea he was considering for his book.

Ease with people was one of the qualities that enabled him to become a top salesman for a national cellphone company. Gary’s book – about rising above a disadvantaged childhood – is enabling him to reach out to young people in circumstances much like he experienced. His goal is to instill in them hope for a brighter future.

Recently Gary mentioned a question he often uses to connect with people, whether a business person, a parent wrangling with a child, a student, or even a homeless person sitting on a curb. The question: “Hello. What’s your name?”

This question, he explained, is as profound as it is simple. “In high school, there are basically three kinds of kids: There are those who are known because of their achievements. Then there are those who are known because of the trouble they get into. And there’s a third group, those who are quiet, inconspicuous, the ones hardly anyone knows. They are virtually invisible.”

Then Gary added, “That last one’s the worst group to be in – and that’s where the most students are.” He understands this well, not only because of the students he encounters almost every day, but also because years ago, he was among them.

Think about it. The classic sitcom “Cheers” was set in a bar “where everyone knows your name.” As a friend of mine used to say, “The sweetest sound to anyone is the sound of their own name.” I’ll never forget how I felt the first time an article bearing my name was published in The Lantern, Ohio State’s student newspaper.

Getting back to the question, “What’s your name?” The gruffest among us might be inclined to respond, “Why do you want to know?” But imagine being in that third group of students – quiet, inconspicuous, basically ignored. Wouldn’t it be amazing to have someone walk up and actually be interested in knowing who you are?

How about the down-and-out individual perched on a downtown doorstep, the sort many of us typically ignore for fear of being asked for a handout. How would this person react if we stopped, looked directly into his or her eyes and said, “Hello. What’s your name?”

In the gospels, we see Jesus modeling this all the time: The woman with the incurable bleeding problem in Matthew 9 and Mark 5. The man in John 9 who had been born blind. The helpless paralyzed man lying on a mat, also described in Matthew 9.

My favorite is the so-called “woman at the well,” a Samaritan woman who came to get water at midday because other women despised her as an outcast. So she chose to fetch her water when no one else was around. In this account from John 4, we don’t know if Jesus inquired about her name, but what He said was just as startling. He asked, “Will you give Me a drink?” which was unheard of, since Jews didn’t associate with Samaritans and by custom, men didn’t speak with women they didn’t know.

She responded, You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” Jesus proceeded to reveal He actually knew the woman very well, describing her troubled circumstances and then offering her hope.

Jesus told the woman, Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:13).

We don’t know whether their conversation was recorded in its entirety, but do know what Jesus said to this woman – along with the simple act of acknowledging her existence, rescuing her from anonymity – transformed her life.

It’s amazing what just a few well-chosen, caring words can do. As I noted earlier, taking the initiative to interact with someone I don’t know goes beyond my comfort zone. But perhaps the Lord wants us to understand that comfort zones are vastly overrated.

After reaching out to a succession of “nobodies,” showing love they probably had not experienced in years, if ever, Jesus “saw the crowds (and) had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36). Then He declared, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”

Maybe we each could enlist to become part of that workforce, even if all we do is walk up to a stranger – in a restaurant, a school, an office, or on the street – look at them and say, “Hello. What’s your name?”

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Winning the War Over Weariness

Eagles, depicted in this statue at Lookout Mountain's Rock City,
soar above the chaos below them and are magnificent to behold.
Have you ever felt weary? Not just the kind of tired that’s dispelled by a night’s sleep, but a deep, inner weariness that lingers even after a brief nap, long weekend, or relaxing vacation?

Most of us have probably experienced this at some point in our lives. Maybe you’re there right now. One of my favorite Bible verses acknowledges this: “O God, you are my God, earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you, my body longs for you, in a dry and weary land where there is no water” (Psalm 63:1). So weariness obviously isn’t a new phenomenon.

Causes of weariness are many. Here are just several examples: The seemingly unending Presidential race and its continual haranguing, demeaning and posturing. The ever-present threat of terrorism and where it might manifest itself next. Civil and racial strife that’s escalated at an alarmingly rate. Relentless bickering over controversies both large and small. Continual gloom and doom reporting by the media, with little being offered to encourage or uplift. It seems our dear old USA has become a “dry and weary land” all of its own.

Then there are the burdensome everyday issues of life we confront that are so…daily. It might just be the weight of day to day household chores that never go away – get them done today, and tomorrow you have to do them all over again. The joys of parenthood tempered by the worries and frustrations of raising kids in the 21st century and hoping they’ll turn out all right. Going to work every day, trying to earn a livelihood but never seeming to get ahead. As someone has said, “The harder I try and the faster I go, the behinder I get.”

Even doing good things, the right things, can become wearisome. It’s become commonplace to hear of a respected public official, popular entertainer or prominent CEO resigning under the weight of responsibility and expectations. Thousands of pastors leave the pulpit each year, worn down by the demands of their ministry.

When we find ourselves stranded in the state of Weary, we have several alternatives: We can quit, declaring we’re fed up, tired as all get-out, and won’t take it anymore. We can try going into denial, sucking it up and putting on the proverbial happy-face. We can grumble and complain to anyone who’ll listen. Or we can turn to the Lord, seeking strength from Him that we can’t muster on our own.

Jesus understood this well when He offered this assurance to His followers: Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest(Matthew 11:28).

When we read this, it might be tempting in our moments of exasperation to respond, “Yeah, but You don’t understand, Jesus. You don’t know what I’m dealing with here.” Then we read this reminder that He does indeed understand:For consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart” (Hebrews 12:3).

Every day people quit – marriages, jobs, projects, or passions they have fervently pursued – because results they had hoped for haven’t materialized. All that effort, they conclude with resignation, expended for nothing. Sadly, too often they quit when they’re only a day, or one more attempt, from realizing their dreams.

This is why the Scriptures admonish us, “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up” (Galatians 6:9). Another passage echoes that promise: “Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58). In other less sanctified terms, keep on keepin’ on!

So if weariness has become an unwelcome but constant companion in your life, consider this: 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 40:30-31). Are you ready to soar?

Monday, October 3, 2016

Giving . . . Until It Helps

One thing I like about social media – and admittedly there are things I don’t like – is what you can learn that doesn’t make headlines in traditional media. For instance, author J.K. Rowling (you’ve heard of her “Harry Potter” books, right?) is reported to have become the first billionaire to fall from the Forbes World’s Billionaires list – because of charitable giving.

Lots of rich folks have been deleted from the list simply because they no longer possessed a net worth of more than a billion bucks. But apparently, Rowling’s the first to be eliminated because she’s too generous. Seems that rather than being a free spender, she’s become a free giver.

The report said she offered a simple explanation: “You have a moral responsibility when you’ve been given far more than you need, to do wise things with it and give intelligently.”

I don’t know about you, but this seems like the proverbial breath of fresh air. There are other mega-wealthy individuals known for their largesse, notably Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, who donate huge percentages of their incomes to causes they support. And just because Rowling’s now been “downgraded” to the ranks of multi-millionaires doesn’t mean she’ll have to fret over becoming a ward of the state any time soon.

But in these days when we hear so much about the needs of the oppressed, the down-and-out and the disenfranchised, it’s refreshing to hear about someone who’s as interested in doing something about it as saying something about it.

I know virtually nothing about Rowling. (I may be one of the few people who’s never read a Harry Potter book, or viewed one of his movies for that matter.) So I don’t know what sorts of charitable causes she favors. But at least she’s acting on her convictions enough to become a member of the “I Used to Be a Billionaire” club.

Chances are, you’re not a billionaire. So it would be easy to offer the excuse, “Well, if I were a billionaire, I’d give a lot of it away, too!” But we’ve all heard of billionaires and millionaires that share a common attitude toward their money: “It’s mine, mine, mine!” It seems how much you have isn’t really the determinant of how generous you are.

Rowling was hardly the first to recognize a responsibility for using one’s resources to help others. Jesus Christ made this statement about 2,000 years ago: From everyone who has been given much, much will be required; and to whom they entrusted much, of him they will ask all the more” (Luke 12:48).

Elsewhere, in preparing His disciples to go out on their first missionary foray, Jesus told them, “Freely you have received; freely give” (Matthew 10:8).

So even if we’re not a Rowling and never will be, the underlying principle is worth considering. For example: How do you feel when the pastor starts talking about money during his sermon, teaching what the Bible says about financial stewardship? Or when you’re watching a PBS drama or seeing a video of “golden oldies” music, and they have the nerve to interrupt your enjoyment of the program by asking you to support the network?

Do you think, “Well, that preacher done stopped preachin’ and started meddlin’”? Do you feel resentful that they would ask for your money? Do you protectively reach for your wallet or purse, as if they were planning to snatch it away from you?

Yes, we all have needs – along with our share of wants. But if we have a car, a decent place to live, a computer and access to the Internet, we’re wealthier than most people around the world. So it’s not a question of whether we can give. The issue is, are we willing to give?

So while pondering the “moral responsibility” to give, perhaps it might be good also to consider the privilege we have of giving to assist those with needs we don’t have. We just might discover the reality of what Jesus asserted: “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35).