Monday, December 30, 2013

To Get Paid More You Have to Be Worth More

The boots on the left are what Gary Highfield wore at the steel shop;
on the right are his first business shoes, which he's re-soled several times.

As each year draws to a close, many people review the past year and consider what changes they’d like to see in the coming year. I’d imagine fast-food workers that protested low wages can be counted among them.

You might recall thousands of employees at McDonald’s and other chains insisting the Federal minimum wage be increased. Some proposed the current minimum of $7.25 be more than doubled to $15 per hour. Working full-time at the current rate, they explained, it’s nearly impossible to pay their bills, much less get ahead in life.

From a pragmatic perspective this makes sense. A person working 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year at the present rate barely earns $15,000. And that’s before taxes and other deductions. Who can live on that, especially with a family?

If the government mandated the minimum wage be boosted to $15 per hour, that would raise the full-time fast-food worker’s annual pay to more than $31,000. Not bad for flipping burgers and asking customers, “Do you want fries with that?”

While I’m sympathetic toward people struggling to eke out a reasonable standard of living on low incomes, there might be a better approach than waiting and hoping for government or corporate largesse to lift them out of their circumstances.

Consider this: In a newspaper article about the workers’ protest, one man stated he’d been working in the fast-food industry for six years at the $7.25 hourly rate. Six years? Do you suppose he’s being held there at gunpoint? If his compensation is unsatisfactory, why hasn’t he done something during that time to prepare for a better paying and, probably, more fulfilling job?

Let me share some of what I learned from my friend, Gary Highfield, who recounts his life’s journey in When ‘Want To’ Becomes ‘Have To!’ – Breaking the Chains That Are Holding You Back. About 30 years ago, Gary was one of those underpaid hourly workers, performing manual labor for a steel fabricating company. He was making $7 an hour, hardly enough for a family of five to survive, much less thrive.

Desiring a better life for his wife and children, Gary applied for food stamps. His request was denied – he was earning 33 cents a day too much to qualify. Next he approached his boss for a $1 per hour pay increase. At that stage in Gary’s life, $2,000 more per year would have felt like he’d won the lottery. But his boss said no.

Poor Gary, right? Well, not as he tells it. Reflecting on those apparent setbacks, he notes the irony: “The worst thing that ever happened to me was the best thing that ever happened to me.”

Gary holds the shoes and boots that represent
different stages of his life and career, in front
of an office building where he made many sales.
Instead of resigning himself to a life of pinching every penny, or curling up in a fetal position and wallowing in self-pity, Gary took action. Realizing he couldn’t count on either the government or his employer to provide the better life he wanted, Gary stumbled onto an important principle: To get paid more, you have to become worth more.

He embarked on a comprehensive self-improvement program: strengthening interpersonal skills; learning sales and marketing secrets by attending seminars, reading books and listening to tapes; discovering how to dress to make a good impression; even pursuing a job relentlessly until he was hired for no reason other than his persistence.

What was the outcome? Within 18 months he had nearly tripled his income. He became the top salesperson at his company, and within several years was earning seven times what he had been making at the steel shop.

All this was due, in part, to not qualifying for food stamps and not receiving the pay raise he requested. These reversals taught him the difference between depending on someone else and depending on oneself.

Even when friends sounded doubtful, questioning the bold steps he was taking to improve life for himself and his family, and he encountered other obstacles, Gary refused to accept failure as a final verdict. As he says today, “Impossible isn’t possible…until you quit.”

Of course, he didn’t achieve this all by himself. People entered his life at key moments, ranging from a generous clothier to employers willing to give him a chance. Looking back, Gary regards many of these encounters as “divine appointments.” Without question, God was in the midst of his quest for a better life.

In the process he learned an important biblical truth: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him and He will direct your paths” (Proverbs 3:5-6). God has a purpose for each of us, and if we’re willing to step out in faith, He’ll reveal a plan beyond anything we could have envisioned.

So what about the protesting fast-food workers? For some, maybe there’s no other employment option. For others, however, the first step is realizing that unless they’re aspiring to management positions, McDonald’s probably isn’t a career destination but just a stop along the way. A second step is trying to figure out what they’d really like to do in life and determining how to achieve it.

As Gary would tell any of them, it won’t be easy. But the hard work, perseverance and sacrifice to get there will be worth it. The alternative? As he says, “If you fail to plan, you’re planning to fail.”

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Giving Shouldn’t Be Just a Holiday Thing

Christmas is over, so the season for gifts and giving is over, right?

In the blink of an eye Christmas has come and gone. Final choruses of carols on the radio and in shopping malls have been sung. Gifts have been exchanged, cleverly designed wrapping paper now lies in shreds, and shouts of delight (and groans of disappointment) are fading echoes. In some homes Christmas trees have been taken down, with brightly colored ornaments packed and stashed away for another 11 months.

Salvation Army bells have been silenced, collection buckets hauled back to storage until next Thanksgiving. Annual fund drives for the poor and hungry have ceased. Many of us have contributed what we could to our favorite causes. Now we resume life as usual, post-holidays.

It’s great we can use the Christmas season to call special attention to people in need. That’s why some people call it the season of giving. But people aren’t hungry only in December. They need food and clothes and have bills they can’t pay in February, too. As well as June, September, and every other month. Financial struggles have no season.

Some of our holiday giving might have been prompted by school or church-sponsored “adopt a family” initiatives. Some of us chose the last month of the year to give because of tax benefits derived from charitable giving. Some of us gave because we felt sorry for folks standing at store and mall entrances, braving the elements so “the least of these” could receive tangible help. Even if our motives weren’t the purest, what we gave will certainly help someone.

Now as we prepare to bid adieu to another year and launch a new one to the tune of “Auld Lang Syne” (or a more contemporary tune, if you prefer), it might be good to remind ourselves that generosity shouldn’t be just something we remember over the holidays. Jesus said, “It is more blessed to give than receive” (Acts 20:35), and He certainly wasn’t talking to His followers about the Christmas season.

One of the benefits of giving is receiving the satisfaction of knowing we’ve assisted or pleased someone else. That’s certainly a good reason to give at any time of the year. But giving is also a part of our calling and responsibility as followers of Christ.

In fact, the concept of giving to people we don’t even like provided the context when Jesus discussed the so-called “Golden Rule.” “But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you…. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:27-31).

Talk about hard sayings of Jesus! Being good to people who aren’t good to us? Then He explained, “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that…. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great…” (Luke 6:32-35).

When I read this, I’m tempted to shout, “Jesus, You’ve got to be kidding!” But that’s what He said. Definitely counter-cultural, right? But He did mention a “reward.” What’s that about?

He concluded His brief discourse about giving with this promise: “Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (Luke 6:37-38).

We all enjoy receiving good things. So Jesus said we should be just as eager to give, whenever the opportunity arises, trusting we won’t go wanting as a result. In fact, we’ll be blessed more than we could imagine. So even though the “season of giving” is over, don’t forget to keep giving.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Lots of Wants, But Not Many Needs


As Christmas nears, familiar scenes with the Christ child in the
manger are prominent, but there's a lot more to the story.

Years ago my family and I returned to Houston, Texas, where we lived for three years, to visit with family and old friends. I’ll always remember a former coworker’s answer when I asked how he, his wife and children were doing. “Well,” he said, “we have some wants, but we don’t have any needs.”

That was the first time I’d heard anyone express it that way, but it’s true for many of us. In our society, consumerism reigns, aiming to elevate our “wants” to the level of perceived needs. The more we get the merrier. We want a new smartphone, tablet or HD-TV, but we don’t need them. We go into stores and see the newest clothing styles on display, along with shoes, glitzy appliances and newly released CDs and DVDs. We want them – but don’t need them.

Being an admitted “bookaholic,” I have more books in my possession than I’ll probably ever read, but that doesn’t stop me from wanting more. I always seem to “need” more memorabilia and T-shirts for showing my avid support of the Ohio State Buckeyes.

Millions of people in this world truly need things like food, clothing, a safe place to live, or a job. But anyone reading this is probably affluent enough not to be counted among them. A need is something that can bring disastrous consequences if it’s not met. We might feel we need a new bracelet, watch or pair of earrings, a new coat or shirt, but could it be just a want?

I don’t mean to sound like Scrooge as we approach the magical morning of Christmas, when many of us will exchange gifts with loved ones. It’s a happy tradition, hopefully an opportunity to understand more fully why Jesus said it’s more blessed to give than to receive. At the same time, as we consider the true meaning of Christmas – the commemoration of Christ’s birth – we would be wise to recognize He came not to fulfill our wants, but to meet our most foundational need.

Starting with Adam and Eve, mankind has had a problem: Severed from a right relationship with God because of disobedience and rebellion against His laws and standards for living. The Bible calls it “sin.” Throughout history, people have tried to remedy this through something called “religion” – rituals, traditions, rules, dogma, and institutionalism. It’s what someone has called, “man’s best effort to reach God.”

Unfortunately, feeble attempts by unholy people to earn the favor of a holy God are about as effective as attempting to swim the Pacific Ocean. Even a champion swimmer will cover only a small fraction of the distance before having to give up and fall woefully short of the goal. In the face of this futility, God instead chose to provide the remedy Himself, reaching down to mankind and offering redemption – reconciliation through Jesus.

At sporting events, on highway overpasses, billboards and even drink cups we sometimes see the inscription, John 3:16. It’s become commonplace enough that it might seem like a cliché, but its meaning remains as profound as ever: “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.” This was truly the first Christmas gift.

Another passage underscores this truth: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).

Think about it – when Jesus willingly went to the cross to serve as our atoning sacrifice, the payment for our sins, how many sins had you and I committed by that time? The answer, of course, is none. We hadn’t been born yet. But if we’re honest, we’ve more than made up for lost time since entering the world. That’s why 1 Peter 3:18 tells us, For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.”

Unlike Old Testament sacrifices that were carried out daily by the Israelite priests, Jesus Christ’s sacrifice was once for all time – past, present and future.

So as we prepare to celebrate Christmas, visualizing the Nativity scene of a young mother, her betrothed husband and an infant lying in a makeshift cradle, let’s remember Jesus came to meet our deepest need – to become reconciled to God.

In our rebellious moments, we don’t even recognize that need. We want what we want, and if that’s contrary to God’s will, too bad. But Jesus didn’t come to appease our wants, our lust for having our own way. He came to fulfill the need we didn’t even know we had until He graciously revealed it to us. When images of Bethlehem come to your mind’s eye, don’t separate the cradle from the cross.

Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Getting to the Heart of the Matter


Things just aren’t made to last. How many people do you know that keep their cars 10 years or longer? Maybe a few, but not many. Some people purchase a new automobile every year or two, others hang onto them for several years. But we know that cars have a limited lifespan. Trade it in before it breaks!

The same applies to clothing, appliances, eyeglasses, even paint. Most smartphones have an expected life of two years. By the time our mobile provider contract is up, there’s a totally new version available that makes our old cell phone seem like it has a rotary dial. And computers? We might try to squeeze every day out of them that we can, but with the advances in technology, your computer is obsolete almost before you can get it home and plug it in.

We purchase things fully knowing that almost before we realize it, it’s time to replace them. “Planned obsolescence” is one term for it. Products are manufactured with enough durability that they don’t break or deteriorate within the first few months or years, but sooner or later they become old and worn, in need of replacement. Or the new version is so advanced we feel foolish clinging to the old one.

This model of the human heart, on Discovery Fit &
Health's website, shows an amazingly durable organ.
So I always marvel about the endurance and longevity of the human heart. We occasionally hear of people having heart transplants, but for most of us the heart we’re born with is the one we’ll take to the grave. That’s why coronary health is of increasing importance. People are living longer and if they don’t take precautions, heart disease looms in their future. If you have a heart attack you can’t simply go to a used heart store and get a new one.

A normal heart at rest can beat from 60 to 100 times per minute. The average person, according to the Mayo Clinic, has a resting heart rate of 72 beats per minute. That translates to 4,320 beats in one hour; 103,680 beats in a 24-hour day; 38 million beats in a single year. And that doesn’t include faster heart rates during times of exertion and stress. Applying those statistics to a 70-year human life span – and many people are living much longer than that – a single heart will beat non-stop more than 2.7 billion times. That is a lot of lub-dub, lub-dub, lub-dub!

In a day or so I’ll mark seven years since undergoing open-heart surgery. It involved four arterial bypasses and, for good measure, an entirely rebuilt ascending aorta. (The old one was on the verge of popping, which isn’t a good thing.) So when Christmas rolls around, I regard the past year as another gift. Other than the half-hour or so when my heart was stopped during surgery, with a heart-lung machine filling the gap, my heart has been beating and pumping without fail.

Over the succeeding years I’ve engaged in a consistent cardio exercise program (my resting heart rate is 60), I’ve tried to eat better (there’s still room for improvement), and I’ve taken my medications as prescribed. This marvelous blood-pumping machine God gave me more than six decades ago has served me well.

Most physicians and scientists would tell you the heart is nothing more than tissue and muscle, designed extremely well for performing a very specific task. The Bible, however, views the heart differently. It describes the heart as the seat of emotion – and motivation.

For instance, one translation of Proverbs 4:23 states, Keep your heart with all vigilance (guard your heart), for from it flow the springs of life.” As the prophet Samuel searched for a new king for the people of Israel, God told him, “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). And Jeremiah 17:9 declares, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?”

Obviously these passages aren’t referring to physical properties and functions of the human heart, but do suggest there may be a spiritual dimension to the marvelous muscle. For years following my surgery, I volunteered at the hospital, visiting patients who also had undergone open-heart procedures. It was not unusual for even strong, tough-looking men to have eyes fill with tears as they reflected on what they had just experienced – the fact they had ventured to death’s door and then stepped away.

So as I take time to reflect again on the blessing I have in a refurbished physical heart, I’m also reminded of Jesus’ admonition about the spiritual heart: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Perhaps He had in mind the warning from Proverbs 21:2, “All a man’s ways seem right to him; but the Lord weighs the heart.”

Where is your heart today?

Monday, December 16, 2013

Is Quality Still Job One?


Do you remember the Ford Motor Company commercial of years ago that proclaimed, “Quality is Job One”? According to the ad, the carmaker’s primary responsibility was to ensure buyers of its vehicles they would always receive the highest-quality products.

When I was reminded of this motto recently, it prompted me to wonder about quality: What is it, and how is it achieved? A recent visit to a plant operated by a manufacturing company I’ve been working with provided some insight into these questions.

We often think of quality in terms of something made with great precision and exquisite care. For instance, the Stradivarius violins and other stringed instruments handcrafted during the 17th and 18th centuries by members of the Stradivari family. Many experts consider these instruments – of which about 650 remain in existence today – to be unsurpassed in quality.

Whether it's slacks or shirts,
medication or canned goods, we expect
consistent quality every time.
That makes sense for things meticulously made one at a time. Time and effort can be devoted to making them as good as possible. But what about quality on a production line when hundreds or even thousands of something must be produced over a short period of time? As one of the men I was talking with at the manufacturing plant observed, quality is simply doing the job right each and every time. No exceptions.

Think of it this way: If you needed surgery, would you go to a surgeon whose success rate was only three out of five? For every three patients that did extremely well, two others died? Or how about an airline pilot with a 75% success rate on landings, meaning his planes crashed only one out of every four times? Would you be eager to travel on his aircraft?

When we look for quality, whether it’s prescription medicine, a can of beans, a computer or a mattress, we rightfully presume we’ll receive the manufacturer’s very best product every time we purchase it. As consumers we expect consistent, every-time quality and refuse to accept less than the highest standard.

But I sometimes wonder whether we have the same appreciation for quality when it comes to how we conduct our daily lives.

In Colossians 3:17 the apostle Paul wrote, “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” In case we might have missed that admonition, he reinforced it six verses later: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men.” That sounds like a pretty high standard.

To me this means whether we’re a mail carrier, grocery clerk, schoolteacher, engineer, airline attendant or server in a restaurant, whatever we do should be done with quality that would be suitable for God Himself. That means putting forth our very best every time, regardless of the circumstances.

Whether we’re painting a room, cooking a meal, or performing volunteer work, we should do it as if doing it for the Lord – because ultimately, we are. In the Old Testament the Israelites were instructed to give always from their “first fruits,” selecting the very best to present to the temple priests. To give second best, offering their castoffs even once, was unacceptable.

The Bible doesn’t use the phrase, but for followers of Christ, it’s clear that “quality is job one.” Jesus gave us His very best – including His life on the cross. He deserves our very best in return. Not once, or occasionally, but all the time.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Season of Lights


Christmas tree lights add to the celebratory spirit of the season.

If there’s one certainty about the Christmas season, it’s that we’re going to see lots and lots of lights. Lights on Christmas trees. Lights on poles along streets and roadsides. Lights on houses. Neighborhoods and communities even stage competitions to see who can design the most innovative, elaborate light displays – sometimes synchronized with accompanying music.

We see lights inside blow-up snowmen and reindeer. Candles in windows. Lights everywhere we look in the malls. Sometimes even Santa Claus can be spotted with lights dangling from his outfit.

I’m a big fan of these lights. In our home we have two lighted trees, one large and one small, along with the lights from inside our Dickens Village collection of miniature houses. Bright, warm, cozy-looking. Almost enough to encourage me to engage in some light humor.

With the Tennessee River running through town, Chattanooga residents conduct an annual Festival of Lights in which boaters decorate their crafts with lights – a water parade with floats literally afloat.

From ornaments to miniature lighted houses,
festive holiday decorations illuminate many homes.
My online research friend, Mr. Google, tells me the tradition of lighting Christmas trees dates back to 18th century Germany, using candles. Sometimes with sad consequences. (That might have been the origin of the phrase, "Don't try this at home.")

Thomas Edison used his incandescent light bulbs to provide Christmas illumination around 1880, and the Savoy Theatre in London became the first building in the world to be fully lighted for the holiday with electricity.

A couple of years later one of Edison’s associates, Edward Johnson, prepared the first electrically illuminated Christmas tree. There’s no truth to the rumor, however, that Debby Boone used that occasion to sing “You Light Up My Life” for the first time.

The point is, people have been lighting up things during the Christmas season for centuries. While the original motivation seems unclear, it likely has a practical basis, related to the fact December in many parts of the world has the shortest days and the darkest nights. That’s enough reason to load up on festive lights.

But there’s a more profound reason for making lights central to the celebration of Christmas. In Isaiah 9:2 it states, The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.” Then in Matthew 2:2, the Magi who had journeyed a long distance in search of the promised Messiah asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.”

Later, speaking to the multitude of people that were following him, Jesus declared, “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).

So it seems altogether appropriate to celebrate the Christmas season with a wide and often amazing assortment of beautiful, colorful lights, commemorating the birth of the One who promised “the light of life.” As it sometimes appears darkness in many forms is bearing down on us from every angle, we can use all the light we can get.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Whose Job Is Most Important?


What if someone came to your workplace – or even your home – and asked, “Whose job is the most important here?” How would you answer?

Our typical first response would be whoever ranks the highest in the organization’s pecking order. In a business or non-profit, that’s usually the president, CEO or owner. In a church it most likely would be the senior pastor. In a school it would be the principal. And in a home it could be either the husband or wife – that might depend on which one you asked.

But is this really true? Is the most important person the individual with the uppermost position in the company, or the person who’s paid the most, or the top-producing salesperson? Maybe – and maybe not.

The importance of one's job
depends on what needs to be
done - and when it's needed.
Suppose the guest restroom right off the lobby is dirty and stinky, and representatives for an important client are expected to arrive within the next half hour. How important is the custodian then?

Or consider the scenario when the celebrated, nationally known speaker has just arrived and is scheduled to address an eager audience in 10 minutes. Suddenly the power goes out, the room goes dark, and confusion is about to assume its reign. Whose job is most important now? It would probably be the in-house electrician, or the IT person if the problem happens to be computer-related.

The patient has undergone major surgery and seems to be recovering well. The renowned surgeon has done an amazing job saving the woman’s life. A few hours later, however, she begins experiencing a setback and the surgeon has long since left the hospital. The nurse arrives at the patient’s room, find her in great distress, and immediately springs into action. At that moment, whose job is most important – the surgeon’s or the nurse’s?

We tend to assign importance to those with the most power, prestige, wealth and other status measurements. In reality, however, the most important job belongs to the person that must perform the work urgently required at the moment.

In his heyday, evangelist Billy Graham attracted millions of men, women and children to his crusades, and through those events God changed countless lives. But as gifted as Dr. Graham was, he could never have made the impact that he did were it not for the organizers of the crusades; the people who coordinated arrangements at the various venues; those that got out the publicity, and especially those that invited friends and family members to hear him preach about Jesus. So, whose jobs were more important – Dr. Graham’s or all the other folks?

The apostle Paul might not have been writing about jobs specifically, but he addressed this when he exhorted believers in the church at Philippi, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look out not only for your own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3-4).

In other words, he could have said, “It’s not all about you,” or “You’re not as important as you might think you are.”

But there’s another side to this matter of important jobs. A bit later in the passage, Paul refers to the One who without question had the most important job, yet performed it with humility and without fanfare: “And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death, even death on a cross:” (Philippians 2:8).

This season, as we ponder the baby Jesus nestled in a manger in a smelly, noisy stable, let’s keep this image in the proper context. Without the cross, there would be no Christmas. No nativity scene. There was a crucially important job to be done – and only one person that could do it. And that’s why He came. While you’re nibbling on Christmas cookies, chew on that for a while.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Taking Things for Granted


Have you ever had a boss, family member, or even a spouse that rarely complimented you when you did something well, but was quick to bring it to your attention when you made a mistake? Makes you wonder, doesn’t it – if that person was so good at noticing when you did something wrong, why couldn’t he or she try to catch you doing something right?

Maybe that kind of approach was intended as a backhanded compliment. They expected us to do things properly, so it caught them by surprise when we made an error. (At least we’d like to think that was the case.) Sadly, isn’t that how we view many of the things we utilize every day?

For instance, when we stick the key in the ignition and the car starts up, we don’t call our friends and throw a party. But if we turn the key and nothing happens, or we hear only “click-click-click,” we’re ready to call the manufacturer, the dealership, the car repair service, or anyone who’ll listen to our complaints.

Cars are supposed to start. When they don’t, it catches us off guard. The same applies to TVs, furnaces and air conditioners, computers, cell phones and every other gadget we use on a regular basis. We take them for granted – until something goes wrong and we’re in crisis.

If you notice your knee
when it bends, that's not good.
Several weeks ago, while moving some boxes to my garage, I turned awkwardly and twisted my knee. The stab of pain I felt instantly told me I’d made a wrong move, although I wasn’t aware of doing anything unusual. Over the next days my always-reliable, never-causing-me-any-trouble knee hurt. It was a real pain in the…knee. I hobbled around, even having to miss several of my morning exercise classes. Ibuprophen became my buddy.

I felt my knee had betrayed me. Joints are to be seen, not felt. They're supposed to be taken for granted. When you’re conscious of your joints moving, something’s not right.

We tend to hold a similar attitude toward spiritual faith. Even if we claim faith is important in our life, we take it with the proverbial grain of salt. As long as things are going well, it’s easy to claim a strong faith in God. We say, “Thank you, Lord,” while patting ourselves on the back. But when problems arise, we wonder what’s wrong. “Lord, what have you done for me lately?”

Tough times reveal the genuineness of our faith. It doesn’t require a lot of faith when we’re feeling good, the bills are all paid, work’s going well, the car’s starting, our family’s in harmony, and the house is warm and cozy. But what happens to our trust and confidence in God when things aren’t going the way we want?

Hebrews 11:6 tells us, And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” I don’t believe God brings adversity into our lives to watch us squirm. But He allows hardships because through those situations we’re reminded how desperately we need Him.

Another verse, Hebrews 11:1, states “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” We don’t need to hope for resolutions to problems that are already solved, or for things we already possess. The eyes of faith assure us God will do for us those things we can’t see.

A friend has struggled with cystic fibrosis, a chronic lung disease, since childhood. Hard work and perseverance enabled him to live far beyond the most optimistic expectations of his physicians. He got married, had children and established a successful business career, despite his severe physical limitations. Through it all, his faith remained strong, trusting God for healing.

A few weeks ago he and his family saw their prayers answered. He received a double lung transplant, and today is progressing well in recovery, hopeful of many more years of fruitful life, loving his family and friends, and serving his Lord.

His faith gave substance to his hopes, evidence of God’s promise to restore his health when the medical experts said it wasn’t going to happen. He’s a living example of faith in action.

So the next time your faith is challenged, when your calm and tranquil life is disrupted by chaos, think of it as an opportunity to exercise that faith, to wait and see what God is going to do. And to be reminded that God is good – all the time.

Monday, December 2, 2013

3 Days With Gladys Penelope Snodgrass


Recently I spent three days driving around St. Louis, Mo., as well as towns nearby, with Gladys Penelope Snodgrass. Who? You probably know her by her nickname – GPS. I took her with me everywhere, and every time she told me where to go – in a very polite, considerate manner. It seems she has a keen understanding of directionally challenged individuals like me.

Meet "Gladys Penelope Snodgrass."
I decided to give her a name because when you spend that much time together, it seems unkind to remain so impersonal as to refer to the other “person” only as GPS. She actually sounded the way I’d imagine a Gladys Penelope Snodgrass should sound.

Several months ago I wrote about another GPS experience I had, pointing out how we follow instructions the navigational device gives with simple, trusting faith. If the voice says turn right, we turn right. If she says proceed 15 miles, we proceed as we’re told – she should know, right? (I say “she” because the voice sounds feminine. These days, who knows?)

But as “Gladys” and I traveled together, another principle came to mind. She was a constant companion, always available when needed. There wasn’t any need for unnecessary chit-chat. Gladys was direct and to the point. “In three-tenths of a mile, turn left onto Willow Street.” “In 1.1 miles take exit 26 on the right, then bear right.” “You have reached your destination.”

If she said, “Proceed 28 miles,” she remained quiet until about 27 miles had passed, then announced what I should do next. Always there, but never making a nuisance of herself, or demanding my attention. Simply ready and available, whenever needed.

In a similar, yet far more profound way, that’s one way I see my relationship with God. He asks us to follow His direction with simple faith – “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him and He will direct your paths” (Proverbs 3:5-6). At the same time, He’s with us continually, not imposing Himself on us, but ever-present.

Jesus promised His followers “I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). Earlier in the Bible the Lord also assured us, “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” (Isaiah 41:10).

As I drove around St. Louis and the surrounding region, my good friend Gladys was there with me, ready to help when needed. Because I trusted the GPS – despite having no understanding of how it works – I rightly presumed it would guide me to my destination, and even if I missed a turn it would “recalculate” and get me back on course.

When Psalm 23 tells me “the Lord is my Shepherd,” I can have confidence that just as a flock of sheep maintain a simple, unwavering confidence in the constant presence and care of their shepherd, God promises to do the same for me. And for every member of His “flock.”

We don’t have to fully understand how He works, why He sometimes answers our prayers in one way and at other times in a different way, but He promises to get us to where we need to go. If we’re willing to let Him guide us.

So if you ever feel alone, even disconnected from God, just remember Gladys Penelope Snodgrass. She was always there when I needed her. To a far greater extent, God gives us the assurance that He will be, too.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Black Friday, Charcoal Thursday?


Are you one of those people that can’t wait for the day after Thanksgiving to do your best to boost the American economy through your pursuit of great bargains on the so-called “Black Friday”?

Happily, this year you don’t have to wait. Many retail institutions have kindly agreed to open their doors early. Not even in the wee hours of Friday morning, but Thursday evening, while remnants of the turkey-basted holiday still lie scattered on tables and kitchen counters across the USA. Don’t you just love this country?

Doze-inducing tryptophan is still coursing through our veins; some of the Thanksgiving Day football games haven’t even kicked off yet; helium still holds some of the holiday parade balloons aloft, and we have an early opportunity to engage in that great American holiday – spending money we don’t have to buy gifts for people we don’t even like that much, to give them things they don’t really need.

But that’s what America, capitalism and conspicuous consumption are all about right? Especially at Christmas.

I’ll never forget President George W. Bush’s cautionary closing words when he spoke the day following the events of 9/11: “Don’t stop shopping.” He understood, of course, our national economy is based on our propensity for buying stuff, satisfying our wants as well as our needs. That holds true even in times of frivolity and celebration. If we all suddenly decided to take a spending sabbatical, even a week or two, it would usher in economic chaos.

So if you hear the siren song of the mall around 6 p.m. or so on Thanksgiving Day, don’t feel guilty if you feel compelled to rush right over and take out your credit cards – or cash, if you’re into that kind of thing – and spend, spend, spend to save. You’ll be a true patriot, giving the U.S. economy a much-needed shot in the arm. Don’t even think of it as Thanksgiving Day – rather, in deference to Black Friday, call it Charcoal Thursday. (Especially if you managed to overcook the turkey a bit.)

But while you’re doing that, consider the advice Jesus gave to followers and curiosity seekers while delivering His sermon on the mount:

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, whether moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:19-21).

Don’t let me Scrooge all over your very early Christmas preparations. I’ll admit to enjoying the seasonal gift exchange tradition myself. But while we’re singing about having ourselves a merry little Christmas and roasting chestnuts over an open fire, it’s never too early to start remembering the real reason for the season.

It’s not about things concealed in pretty paper and bows that will break, fall apart or wear out before the next Christmas rolls around. They’re nice and fun and all that. But ultimately, the Christmas season is – or should be – about a much greater treasure.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Giving Thanks When You Don’t Feel Thankful


Sometimes blessings seem to be overflowing.
 But what about times when they're not?

Thanksgiving means different things to many people: Pilgrims and native Americans sharing a meal; turkeys – living, or roasted and stuffed; family and friends getting together to stuff themselves; traditional football games; Grandma’s favorite recipes; holiday parades; pecan or pumpkin pie. Some people actually see it as a day for truly giving thanks to God for blessings they’ve experienced over the past year.

But what if the day arrives and you don’t feel thankful? You’ve recently lost a dear loved one; confronted seemingly insurmountable financial problems; dealt with serious health issues; faced intense family conflict; lost a job, or just feel like has dealt you a bad hand in general and there’s no re-deal. How can you be thankful for things such as these?

Years ago I helped my friend, Albert, write a booklet about his life titled, “Saying ‘Thank You’ Even When You Don’t Feel Thankful.” Those who know him understand he’s had many reasons for not feeling thankful.

He grew up in the Netherlands during World War II, enduring great poverty and near-starvation. He and his family subsisted on tulip bulbs and occasional sugar beets. One result of malnutrition was contracting tuberculosis and being confined to a bed for more than three years, 2½ of those in a hospital far from his family.

After immigrating to the United States, Albert worked hard and eventually became a successful entrepreneur, but has endured various vocational setbacks and other illnesses, including cancer. He’s got every reason to not be thankful, whether at Thanksgiving or any other time. And yet, he’s perhaps the most joyful, thankful person I know.

Why? He insists there’s only one reason – his relationship with Jesus Christ and confidence that no matter what happens, God is with him every step along the way, providing comfort, strength and whatever else is needed to endure and overcome his adversities.

Albert explains, “God is in control of all things. When you accept Christ, your life is going to be totally changed. One of those changes is that you realize everything is going to be all right, no matter what.

“I have seen God prove this in my life many times,” he says. “I’ve had half of a lung removed because of a faulty biopsy report. One night I was riding in a car on the German Autobahn. Suddenly a car stopped directly in front of us. We struck it going about 95 miles an hour, yet I was able to walk away from the accident. And I’ve had many ups and downs in business.

“God never promises things will be easy when you become a Christian, but He does promise He will take care of you no matter what the circumstances may be.”

For Albert, reflecting on his life’s highs and lows, one passage from the Bible sums up the hope – confident assurance and earnest expectation – that has sustained him during his adult life: “Be joyful always; pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18).

Having known Albert for more than 30 years, I know these are not empty words or platitudes, but the heartfelt expression of a man who has walked intimately with God and wouldn’t trade his life with anyone or for anything.

I hope when Thanksgiving Day arrives this Thursday, you’ll find much for which to be thankful. If not, I hope that like my friend, you’ll have the faith to give thanks even if you don’t feel thankful. 

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Challenges of Change

Like the relentless, always changing waves of the sea,
everyday life and work are subject to constant change.

How do you react to change? Does it make you excited, eager to tackle the new and unfamiliar? Does it fill you with dread, terrified by what lies ahead? Or do you respond, “Well, it depends – what kind of change are we talking about?”

In Leaders Legacy, the organization I work with, we use a motivational assessment tool, the Birkman Method, a great help with leaders we are coaching and mentoring. One of the key components the Birkman identifies is how much change people want and can manage effectively.

Some people have a strong need for change. They find repetitive routines despiriting and energy draining. From their standpoint, the more change the better. Other people, however, aren’t fond of change. In fact, some resist it in all forms. Slight alterations to their work environment, a store closing at their local mall, or even moving the furniture around at home, can be disconcerting.

Most of us probably fit somewhere in the middle. Variety is the spice of life – as long as it’s not too spicy, right? And in reality, change is a lot more palatable when it’s on our terms, or at least we feel we’ve had input into what changes are made, and how.

But love it, like it or hate it, change is here to stay. The saying used to be that there are two certainties in life – death and taxes. Now there’s a third – change. Whether it’s technology, the economy, political trends, the weather, sports, or society in general, change is the only constant.

Ecclesiastes 3 starts with the declaration, “To everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under heaven. A time to be born, and a time to die…a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance…” (verses 1-4). If those words sound familiar, most were part of a rock song in the ‘60s, “Turn! Turn!” by The Byrds.

Time’s relentless march ages our bodies, turns babies into children and then adults, wears out our clothes, and brings decay to our cherished machines. As soon as we grow accustomed to anything, it changes. It seems like spring was just yesterday, and today we’re in the midst of autumn. Before you blink your eyes, winter will be here.

Don’t you sometimes wish we could slow down change? Wouldn’t it be nice if some things never changed? We’re hard-pressed to find much in the natural world that doesn’t change, but in the spiritual realm we’re assured we can trust in a faithful, unchanging God.

“I the Lord do not change,” He declares in Malachi 3:6, and Hebrews 13: 8 promises, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.”

What does this mean for us? When we read God’s promises to His people, we can trust those promises will be fulfilled for us – just as they have for believers through the centuries. He offers us grace, love and mercy, and won’t withhold them because He’s changed His mind.

And as we look beyond this life toward the life to come, we can anticipate what Jesus assured His followers 2,000 years ago: “Do not let your heart be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am” (John 14:1-3).

If you were on a boat in the midst of a storm, it would be very reassuring to know the vessel was securely anchored. With Christ – in the midst of change, turmoil, even distressing circumstances – we have that anchor, unaffected by the howling winds and crashing waves we might be forced to confront.