Thursday, May 5, 2016

Why Can’t ‘Earth Day’ Be Every Day?

Why just one day to honor God's creation?
A couple of weeks ago many people across the United States celebrated “Earth Day,” a tribute to our planet and its ecological concerns. To date I haven’t heard about anyone celebrating Jupiter Day, and if you happen to find out when Saturn Day is, give me a ring, okay? Someone asked why we don’t observe Pluto Day, but I recalled scientific minds have determined Pluto isn’t really a planet. With it being the most distant orb in our solar system, I guess they’ve figured out Pluto’s too much of an outsider to be included. Besides, don’t they have a day for Pluto at Disney World?

Anyway, back to Earth Day. (We never really left, did we?) It’s wonderful that a special day has been designated to remind us of the importance of respecting our planet and all of its natural wonders. Right now at least, it’s the only planet we’ve got. But why should we mark Earth Day only one day a year? Why can’t we observe it every day?

Some people seem to take the attitude that we own this planet and have a right to do whatever they want, so they proceed to toss trash out their car windows, ignore wise recycling suggestions, and dismiss other environmentally friendly strategies. But are we “owners,” or just guests? Maybe we’re merely stewards given the responsibility of caring for what God created.

I look at it this way: A friend recently bought a condo in the Florida panhandle, and has invited us to stay there some time. If my wife and I take him up on his offer, we won’t trash the condo, strewing garbage all around, tearing up the furniture, throwing food at the walls, or failing to clean up the kitchen and bathroom. In fact, we’ll aim to leave the place as neat and cared for as it was upon arrival – perhaps even better.

In a similar way, we’re not permanent residents on Earth either. The Bible describes us as “aliens and strangers” (1 Peter 2:11), and says we’re to constantly be looking toward our eternal home. As for ownership, Psalm 24:1 declares, The earth is the Lord’s, and all it contains, the world, and those who dwell in it.”

There are those who contend Christians care nothing about the environment. But if anyone should be concerned about how the Earth is treated, it should be followers of Jesus Christ. First of all, because the opening chapters of Genesis tell us God was the Creator, that the Earth and everything else in the universe weren’t the product of cosmic chaos, time and chance. He had a very clear purpose and plan for all that He made, from plant life and animals to humankind.

But there’s a second, compelling reason why we should use – but not abuse – this planet we inhabit. After creating both male and female in His own image, we’re told, “God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves on the ground…. I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food’” (Genesis 1:25-28).

I understand this as God telling mankind, “I’m giving this Earth to you, entrusting it to your care.” Some theologians term this the “cultural mandate,” God’s directive for us to serve as His stewards and managers. He definitely didn’t give us license to trash it and destroy what He repeatedly declared to be “good.”

So how about this: Today, regardless of what the calendar says, or whatever those people who designate “days” have to say, this is Earth Day. And so is tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that. Because as the Scriptures tell us, “This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it” (Psalm 118:24). God has entrusted this day – and the planet He created – to us. Let’s use and take care of it wisely!

Monday, May 2, 2016

When the Weight Gets Too Heavy to Carry

Can you carry a medium-sized glass of water? Unless you’re restricted by a physical disability, you can with ease. For a while, that is. But what if you were forced to hold up that water glass for 30 minutes without stopping? Would it feel like it was getting heavier, even though in reality the weight hadn’t changed?

A water glass - and life's problems - can
become unbearable weights over time.
How about after an hour or two – how easy would carrying the glass seem then? Your hand and arm would probably start feeling achy. If you tried to carry the water glass continuously for an entire day, can you imagine how painful that would be? Your arm likely would become numb, maybe even paralyzed by the effort.

An online video made this point recently, not for encouraging people to lug glasses of water around all day, but to offer a metaphor for our all-too-common practice of carrying the worries and stresses that fill our lives, without help. Bearing them for a little while, a few minutes, isn’t much of a problem. But the longer we carry those burdens on our own, the heavier they become. They can even paralyze us after a while.

That’s one reason for the appeal of support groups, ranging from Alcoholics Anonymous to cancer survivors’ meetings to new parents’ gatherings. As glorious as life can seem at times, at other times it loads us down with cares and anxieties that seem unbearable. We’re cruising along thinking life’s a breeze, then boom! All of a sudden we’re overwhelmed. It might be a serious health problem, a troubled child, challenges at work, seemingly insurmountable financial issues, marital strife, or other personal struggles.

So what can we do? We might elect to “suck it up” or, at the urging of an unsympathetic family member or friend, “just deal with it.” And we try. But when the difficulty refuses to go away its weight becomes heavier, eventually so oppressive that we feel paralyzed, clueless concerning what to do – or what can be done. Unlike a glass of water you can put down if it gets too heavy, many of life’s challenges can’t just be set aside.

The good news is we don’t have to carry the weight alone. And we shouldn’t. God and true friends are more than willing to help in shouldering the burden. In fact, that’s exactly what Jesus told His followers: “Take my yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light” (Matthew 11:30).

In the Old Testament we find the same assurance: Cast your cares on the Lord and he will sustain you; he will never let the righteous be shaken” (Psalm 55:22). And the apostle Peter affirmed this promise when he wrote, “Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7).

At the same time, just as parts of the body support and contribute to the health of other parts, we as followers of Christ are called to support one another. As Galatians 6:2 instructs, “Carry each other's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2).

One of my favorite passages from the Scriptures expands on that idea. Hebrews 10:24-25 admonishes, “and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:24-25).

What’s in your “glass”? Have you been carrying it around for so long the weight has become almost too much to bear? Swallow your pride, humble yourself, and share the burden with someone else. They might not be able to solve your problem, but at the very least they can pray with you. They can remind you of God’s love and faithfulness, and share the load, at least emotionally. And who knows? They might even offer some ideas you haven’t considered that could prove helpful in some way.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Is Happiness God’s Desire for Us?

From time to time we hear people say things like, “I know God wants me to be happy.” Some TV preachers make similar statements, declaring with broad smiles that since we’re God’s children, He wants us to be happy, frequently interpreted to mean we can have and do anything we want.

But is happiness really God’s primary goal and desire for us?

This came to mind while reading the online journal of a friend who has waged a lifelong battle with Cystic Fibrosis, a debilitating, genetic disorder that affects the lungs primarily but also other organs. There is no cure for CF, and it’s one of the most widespread life-shortening genetic diseases around the world.

David, who has far exceeded doctors’ projections for his lifespan, often speaks about the joy of the struggle he and his family have experienced. It’s noteworthy, however, that he rarely uses the words “happy” or “happiness.” Because the difference between joy and happiness is almost as dramatic as night and day.

Much of what David’s had to endure in his treatments have not made him, his wife or children happy. Despite all that hardship – and there’s been a lot of it – they have never lost their joy.

Joy, especially for followers of Christ, comes from within. It involves emotion, but is based more on enduring faith and trust in God rather than external events. It can enable us to experience peace and comfort even in the midst of severe difficulties. That’s why we’re exhorted to, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds” (James 1:2).

Happiness, however, is largely predicated on happenings. I can feel happy about getting a new car, but if someone backs into it in the mall parking lot, my happiness suddenly disappears. If I receive a promotion and a sizable salary increase at work, I feel happy. But if I return home and discover major repairs are needed, consuming my pay raise and more, then as the Everly Brothers used to sing, “bye-bye happiness.”

So what does the Bible say about this? In some Bible translations the word “blessed” is translated “happy.” But this doesn’t describe a state of perpetual bliss. In fact, Psalm 94:12, which says, “Blessed is the one you discipline, Lord, the one you teach from your law,” has also been translated, “Joyful are those you discipline” and “Lord, happy is the man you discipline….” How often do we feel happy when undergoing some form of discipline?

Another passage, Psalm 1:1, states, “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked…” but also can be translated, How happy is the man who does not follow the advice of the wicked….” In many cases, the alternate uses of “blessed” and “happy” seem directly related to one’s willingness to obey and uphold God’s laws and standards.

This isn’t to say God is opposed to seeing us happy. He doesn’t frown when we listen to a comedian who provokes us to belly laughter. God’s not annoyed when we enjoy a nice vacation, get that hoped-for new job, earn good grades, or even receive an unexpected gift. He just wants us to maintain a proper perspective, recognizing life isn’t always happy – or fair.

As King Solomon wrote, “When times are good, be happy; but when times are bad, consider this: God has made the one as well as the other. Therefore, no one can discover anything about their future” (Ecclesiastes 7:14). The New Living Translation expresses it this way: “Enjoy prosperity while you can, but when hard times strike, realize that both come from God. Remember that nothing is certain in this life.”

If we make happiness our goal, we’re going to spend much of our lives very disappointed. Random forces around us usually don’t conspire to make us happy. But if our desire is to experience and exhibit the joy of the Lord, He promises us, “No problem. I can do that for you!”

Monday, April 25, 2016

Brain Power: Separate, or Shared?

One of the most profound statements I ever heard is, “Not one of us is as smart as all of us.” Ponder that for a moment.

Today we’re inclined to celebrate independence and individuality, and on the surface there’s nothing wrong with that. Every one of us is unique and there’s no reason we should be squeezed into someone else’s mold. However, we tend to ignore, overlook or underestimate the power of synergy, the collective impact of complementary gifts and talents, intelligence and different points of view.

I saw this demonstrated repeatedly during my years as a newspaper and magazine editor. Writers, editors, photographers and designers all contributed their parts for producing each publication – every time the whole was greater than the sum of the parts. The finished product was always better than I could have imagined, especially if I had tried to do it all myself – or if only people with skill sets matching mine had been involved.

Woodrow Wilson, the 28th President of the United States, apparently had found this to be true as well. He stated, “I not only use all the brains that I have, but all that I can borrow.” I agree. Long ago I concluded I don’t know it all – although occasionally I might act as if I think otherwise. But it’s true. None of us knows it all, or even close. So I’ve been grateful for many opportunities to bounce ideas off others and get their perspectives, as well as reap some of the wisdom and experience of people who’ve wrestled with the same issues that I have.

A spiritual principle behind this can be traced to the beginnings of creation. When God declared, “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18), He wasn’t referring just to companionship. Throughout the Scriptures we see people working in tandem. Some of the greatest failures recorded in the Bible involved people who determined to operate in isolation. Cain, who killed his brother Abel in a fit of jealousy, King Saul, and Judas Iscariot are just three case studies.

To avoid the often-tragic consequences of wrong thinking and poor decision-making in solitude, we’re encouraged to do as President Wilson suggested: “use all the brains…that I can borrow.” Proverbs 27:9 states it this way: Oil and perfume make the heart glad, and the sweetness of a friend comes from his earnest counsel.”

A bit later in the same chapter we find this principle presented from a slightly different angle: “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17). I’ve found this particularly important for spiritual growth – often called discipling, discipleship, or even mentoring.

Early in my life I struggled with trying to understand how to apply biblical teachings and integrate my faith into my everyday life, especially at work. Thankfully over the years I encountered many people who faithfully strived to follow Jesus’ admonition to “let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). They became living examples of faith in action.

Throughout His ministry, Jesus constantly surrounded Himself with other people, prompting many lively interactions. Then Barnabas was instrumental in the life of the apostle Paul after his conversion and during the early years of his spiritual growth and ministry. Paul wrote of how highly he valued not only camaraderie, but also mutual support and encouragement from other men like Silas, Timothy, and Epaphroditus.

He even commended John Mark, Barnabas’ cousin, whom at one time had been written off as being unworthy to be involved in the work of the Gospel. Later Paul welcomed Mark back into the fellowship. “Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry”  (2 Timothy 4:11). This one-time outcast proceeded to become the author of the gospel of Mark.

In 2 Timothy 2:2, Paul emphasized the importance of hanging out with like-minded people and passing along what was learned in the process: “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.”

So whether we’re collaborating with colleagues at work, undertaking a project at home or in the neighborhood, or trying to resolve a personal challenge, it’s wise to always remember that not one of us is as smart as all of us. It’s not a sin to pool brainpower.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

The Awesome Power of Seduction

Seduction. When you read the word, what comes to mind? According to Hollywood, it’s a beautiful, shapely woman eager to entice those that get a glimpse of her. Or a young, buff male flexing six-pack abs for adoring females. That’s one type of seduction, but there are many others – and most of them have nothing to do with sex.

The Bible talks a lot about seduction. It even devotes an entire chapter of Proverbs to the topic. In my book, Business At Its Best: Timeless Wisdom from Proverbs for Today’s Workplace, I discuss the practicality, honesty and everyday relevance of the book of Proverbs. And chapter 7 of Proverbs gives an unflinching, down-to-earth look at “seduction.”

How to overcome seduction's magnetic power?
This chapter does utilize the sexual temptation scenario, giving the image of a young man (“a youth who lacked judgment”) walking very determinedly into a specific neighborhood where he encounters a woman “dressed like a prostitute and with crafty intent.” They meet, probably not by chance, and head off together.

The passage explains what happens next: “With persuasive words she led him astray; she seduced him with her smooth talk. All at once he followed her like an ox going to the slaughter, like a deer stepping into a noose…little knowing it will cost him his life” (Proverbs 7:21-23). How would you like to be described that way?

But the principle that underlies this passage concerns more than illicit sex. Because temptations present themselves in many seductive forms, and in our uniqueness, some are stronger magnets for us than others. For example, success can become a seductress when it becomes a mini-god, the focus of our time, attention, energy, even worship – especially when its pursuit harms relationships, or causes us to compromise convictions.

The lust for materials things, a sin our consumer society particularly favors, has seduced countless men and women, even within the body of Christ. It’s what causes us to insist on “more, more, more!” when an honest, objective assessment of our possessions would tell us we have more than enough. Money for its own sake offers powerful enticement, irresistible for some.

Pride, which C.S. Lewis declared lies at the heart of all sins, can be particularly seductive. It can seduce us into becoming puffed up over achievements, thinking more highly of ourselves than we ought. It tempts us to feel offended when someone doesn’t treat us the way we “deserve” to be treated. And it can lure us into feelings of superiority or arrogance toward others. There are many other ways the sin of unrestrained, self-centered pride approaches us in seductive guise.  

In any case, for something to be seductive, it has to be attractive. As someone pointed out to me years ago, “If sin wasn’t fun, we wouldn’t want to do it.”

Let’s concede we’re constant targets for seduction in one or more manifestations. How do we deal with this? The seventh chapter of Proverbs not only describes the power of seduction, but also proposes how to overcome it. And it’s not all that complicated: “Say to wisdom, ‘You are my sister,’ and call understanding your kinsman; they will keep you from the adulteress, from the wayward wife with her seductive words” (Proverbs 7:4-5).

In seeking wisdom, we’ll be able to recognize temptation and its seductions for what they really are. Rather than yielding – using the cop-out excuses, “Well, nobody’s perfect” or “I’m only human” – the wisdom of God promises, “You do have a choice. You don’t have to give in to it. The seductress can’t ‘make’ you do anything.” She can suggest – but she can’t force.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Thinking About Light – and Darkness

Not long ago I saw the familiar car bumper sticker that says “Co-Exist,” comprised of various symbols including a peace sign, the Islamic crescent, the Star of David, and the cross. It’s an interesting mix and an appealing idea, kind of along the lines of “Why can’t we all just get along?”

In some respects there’s nothing wrong with that. We should be able to appreciate different viewpoints, and respect those having beliefs other than our own. If we associate with and listen only to people that reinforce our prejudices, how will we learn and grow? Times when people challenged what I believed have often proved to be opportunities to revisit my own convictions and ask myself, “Why do I believe that?” But in reality, some things simply can’t co-exist.

Even a tiny candle has the power
to cast away darkness. 
Take for example, light and darkness. Complete darkness ceases to exist even in the presence of a single lit candle. Turn on a bright overhead light and, like Elvis, darkness leaves the building. True darkness has no alternative but to cower in the presence of light.

Perhaps this is why, especially on topics of profound depth and strong conviction – including faith, religion and spirituality – the notion of totally opposite points of view “co-existing” is at best unlikely and, for all intents and purposes, impossible. I submit as an example two men, both of great intellect, highly educated, and from the same part of the world.

Stephen Hawking, an English theoretical physicist, cosmologist affiliated with the renowned University of Cambridge, and acclaimed author, has said, “There is probably no heaven, and no afterlife either.” A declared atheist who believes science alone holds all the answers of the universe, Hawking has offered his opinion that, “Heaven is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.”

Another Britisher, Dr. John Lennox, professor of mathematics at the equally esteemed University of Oxford, philosopher of science, and staunch defender of the Christian faith, posits an opposing view: “Atheism is a fairy story for those who are afraid of the light.” His view is that science and matters of faith need not – and should not – be regarded as mutually exclusive.

Even the most starry-eyed Pollyanna would be hard-pressed to reconcile such contradictory perspectives. Judging from their credentials, neither Hawking nor Lennox is lacking in intelligence, reasoning powers or educational pedigree. Yet they have reached totally different conclusions. So which one is right?

We might as well ask: which is right, light or darkness?

The Bible speaks a lot about both. Jesus, never one to hem or haw on important matters, was even bold enough to declare, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). A bit later He added, “I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me should walk in darkness” (John 12:46). According to Jesus, light is a far better choice than darkness – and stated He was the one certain way for finding light that can’t be extinguished.

Elsewhere Jesus asserted He had no intention of keeping this light to Himself – and neither should we. In fact, He assured His followers, “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden…. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:14-16).

It’s interesting that our society seems committed to redefining what is light and what is darkness. This is hardly a new phenomenon. Thousands of years ago the prophet Isaiah warned, Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter” (Isaiah 5:20).

Sadly, many in the media, the political realm, centers of so-called higher education, and in some cases, even churches, affirm a mantra that darkness is good, and therefore light should be avoided. This message appeals to what the Bible calls our “flesh” or “sinful nature,” and can be strongly seductive. So we have a choice. We can follow the path society directs, or heed the admonition of the apostle Paul: For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light” (Ephesians 5:8). It’s a pivotal choice no one can make for us.

In doing so, we should keep in mind this assurance: “The path of the righteous is like the first gleam of dawn, shining ever brighter till the full light of day” (Proverbs 4:18).