Thursday, March 31, 2016

Day for Fools in a Foolish Age

Tomorrow, April 1, is affectionately known as “April Fool’s Day.” We’ve designated almost every date to honor something these days, ranging from corn dogs and donuts to cancer awareness and canines. So why not have a day for celebrating fools and foolishness?

For the most part it’s a harmless observance. Some people try to trick friends into believing a falsity, like saying that their shoes are untied – a bit embarrassing for someone wearing sandals who looks anyway. “April Fool’s!” But throughout history, it seems there’s been no shortage of folks willing to play the fool; some have done so extremely well.

Greek philosopher Plato commented, “Wise men speak because they have something to say; fools because they have to say something.” Martin Luther King Jr. sagely observed, “We must learn together as brothers or perish together as fools.” Charles Darwin reputedly stated, “I love fools’ experiments. I am always making them.”

Some of the world’s famous statesmen were acutely aware of the peril of fools and foolishness. Benjamin Franklin observed, “Any fool can criticize, condemn and complain – and most fools do.” French military and political leader Napoleon Bonaparte offered a different slant: “Impossible is a word to be found only in the dictionary of fools.”

Writers seem inclined to think about fools and foolishness a lot. For instance, Russian playwright and author Anton Chekhov opined, “No psychologist should pretend to understand what he does not understand…. Only fools and charlatans know everything and understand nothing.” And French philosopher Voltaire commented, “Prejudices are what fools use for reason.” American writer, editor and critic Edgar Allan Poe offered this perspective: “I have great faith in fools – self-confidence, my friends will call it.”

And there’s the famous quote of unknown origin, “A fool and his money are soon parted.” Sad to admit, there was a time when that described me. The Bible speaks to this: “Of what use is money in the hand of a fool, since he has no desire to get wisdom?” (Proverbs 17:16).

The Scriptures also have a lot to say about fools and their folly, but not in the funny, ha-ha, April Fool’s sense. The book of Proverbs offers dozens of verses that address the topic directly. For instance, the opening chapter declares, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction” (Proverbs 1:7). Proverbs 10:14-15 expands on that idea: “Wisdom is found on the lips of the discerning, but a rod is for the back of him who lacks judgment. Wise men store up knowledge, but the mouth of a fool invites ruin.”

Foolishness, the Scriptures point out, is not an exclusively masculine pitfall. “The wise woman builds her house, but with her own hands the foolish one tears hers down” (Proverbs 14:6). Another passage, in sharp contrast with earlier verses about the virtues of wisdom, informs us, “A foolish woman is clamorous, she is simple and knows nothing. For she sits at the door of her house, on a seat by the highest places of the city, to call to those who pass by…. ‘Whoever is simple, let him turn in here.’”

Regarding family relationships, we’re told, “A wise son brings joy to his father, but a foolish man despises his mother” (Proverbs 15:20). Another passage states, “A foolish son brings grief to his father and bitterness to the one who bore him” (Proverbs 17:25). Other types of relationships are important, too, as Proverbs 13:20 points out: Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm.”

Our society has encouraged a philosophy that excuses people from their own failures and foolish actions. When they make unwise choices, the consequences are – we’re told – always someone else’s fault. This apparently isn’t a new perspective: “A man’s own folly ruins his life, yet his heart rages against the Lord” (Proverbs 19:3).

The Bible’s commentary on fools, folly and foolishness is not limited to Proverbs. Citing the evils of greed and self-indulgence, Jesus described a rich man who smugly determined that in his quest to accumulate more and more, he would build larger barns to store it all. In the story, the man reasoned, “I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years; take your ease; eat, drink and be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul will be required of you; then whose will those things be which you have provided?’” (Luke 12:16-20).

But the greatest indictment against foolish thinking is found in Psalm 14:1, which declares, “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God’….” On the day when people like that stand in judgment before their Creator, April Fool’s Day will be the least of their concerns.

Monday, March 28, 2016

What God Thinks About Women

An open-minded reading of the Scriptures reveals Jesus
was perhaps the greatest feminist of all.
Since my wife and I have four daughters, seven granddaughters (plus one on the way), one great-granddaughter, and a daughter-in-law, I suppose you could say I’m very cognizant of women and women’s issues. Often I find myself immersed in the world of femininity. I’ve also read through the Bible, all 66 books, many times. So when I hear people say things like “Christianity is chauvinistic,” or “the Bible is sexist” or “opposed to women’s rights,” I can’t help scratching my head.

True, according to the creation account, Adam – a male – was the first human God introduced to the world. But not long afterward, the Lord declared, “It is not good that man should be alone” (Genesis 2:18), so He decided make for him a “helper” or literally, a “completer.” This completer’s name was Eve, not Steve. Even though the Old Testament was written in Hebrew, it was God’s way of saying, “Vive la difference!” as the French later would express it.

I’m not interested in challenging arch-feminists to a debate, but if we look at just four of many possible examples through the eyes of Jesus, we’ll find women are held in extremely high esteem by the Son of God.

Consider, for instance, Jesus’ resurrection. Granted, all of the 12 primary disciples that followed Him everywhere had been men, fitting the culture of the day. But have you ever thought about who were the first witnesses at the empty tomb? It was women. “It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them, who told these things to the apostles” (Luke 24:10). I’m convinced this was not due to happenstance, but because God wanted to entrust this happy news – the announcing of this event central to the heart of Christianity – to women, giving them the great privilege and honor of informing others.

How about the woman who entered the house of Simon the leper in the town of Bethany. She proceeded to break an alabaster container and pour expensive perfume over Jesus’ head – and He did not discourage her from doing it. When some present responded indignantly, arguing the woman had foolishly squandered the fragrant oil, Jesus defended her and declared, She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her" (Mark 14:8-9). Does that sound like someone thinking lowly of this woman?

We see the account of Jesus in John 4, interacting with a Samaritan woman – the “woman at the well” – as His disciples went into the town of Sychar. The culture of the day would have dictated that Jesus not even address her because, 1) she was a Samaritan, people who were despised by the Jews, and 2) she was a woman. But He spoke to her with sensitivity and compassion, without judgment even though she had been married five times and at the time was living with a man not her husband. Jesus recognized not only her social and relational struggles, but also her deeper spiritual yearnings.

And then we encounter a woman that the Pharisees – the self-righteous religious leaders of the day – had “caught in an act of adultery” (John 8:3). The culture of the day demanded she, not the man she was with, be stoned for her sin. But Jesus intervened, instructing her pious accusers, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” After the men had sheepishly dropped their stones and retreated, Jesus turned to her and said, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?" When she responded, "No one, sir," Jesus concluded the matter by saying, "Then neither do I condemn you…. Go now and leave your life of sin" (John 8:7-11).

I could present numerous other examples from the Bible, both Old and New testaments. Entire books have been written on this topic. But only those ignorant of the Bible, or unwilling to give it an honest, unbiased look, could possibly conclude Christianity – and the God of the Bible – are in any way anti-women.

Jesus was, undoubtedly, counter-cultural in many ways, including His perspective of women. But that’s because as the Son of God, God in the flesh, He was showing His view was – and remains – the right view.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Bad Day, Good Day, Best Day

I think I’ve mentioned this before, but I’ll never forget the Good Friday I attended church with my mother when I was a boy and asked, “If Jesus was crucified on this day, why do we call it ‘Good Friday’? What’s good about it?”

Years later, I’ve learned there is a very good reason for calling the day we commemorate this week Good Friday, although when the events were unfolding, the only people who viewed it as good were the arrogant, self-righteous religious leaders. As they observed Jesus Christ hanging from the cross in excruciating pain, many of them probably were thinking – and saying – “Good riddance!”

For Jesus’ followers the day certainly didn’t seem good. Their leader was dying and they felt helpless to intervene. The cause they’d enlisted in seemed over. The day even turned into thick darkness from noon to 3 p.m. “Now from the sixth hour until the ninth hour there was darkness over all the land” (Matthew 27:45).

Then, shortly after uttering the sorrowful words, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me,” we’re told, “Jesus cried out again with a loud voice, and yielded up His spirit” (Matthew 27:47-50). The cross and the nails had done their work, and the One the crowd had hailed just days before was dead.

But suddenly a bad day started turning into a good day. First, the thick veil that divided the Holy of Holies in the temple from the outer areas, restricting admittance only to the ordained priests, “was torn in two from top to bottom” (Matthew 27:51). This fact, often glossed over in discussions of the crucifixion, was truly a miracle. It’s said the veil was so strong teams of horses could not pull it apart. And yet, at the precise moment Jesus died, it split from the top to its bottom, symbolically removing the barrier that denied common people direct access to God.

Later it would be written, For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:5). No longer did everyday people have to rely on a human priest to serve as their intercessor with God. There was no longer a veil or any other kind of obstacle to keep unholy mankind from humbly approaching a holy God.

A centurion, having observed the manner in which Jesus died, as well as experiencing an earthquake and other unexplainable events concurrent with His death, declared, “Truly this was the Son of God!” (Matthew 27:54).

When Jesus’ body was mercifully buried in a tomb donated by a wealthy man, Joseph from the town of Arimathea, that Friday still seemed oppressively gloomy. But by Sunday, that horrific day had transformed into a very good Friday as the implications of Christ’s death were defined by His resurrection.

Romans 5:8 declares, “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Had Jesus remained dead, His body continuing to lie in repose in that tomb, He would have been nothing more than another dead prophet. But that Sunday morning, which we commemorate on Easter, the tomb had been vacated.

An angel, reassuring two women who had gone to visit the tomb, made the astounding announcement that continues to echo today: “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for He is risen, as He said” (Matthew 28:5-6). Inside the tomb, the women found nothing except His burial clothes, neatly folded as if He were saying, “I don’t need these anymore.”

Because of this, unlike with leaders of every other religious movement who have died through the centuries, people who follow Jesus – commonly known as Christians – worship a risen, living Savior. And through the power of spiritual rebirth can state, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).

That’s how a very bad day became a very good day, leading up to the best day – the day we now know and celebrate as Easter.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Surprise, Surprise, Surprise!

Do you remember Gomer Pyle, the cuddly sitcom character portrayed by Jim Nabors? As a na├»ve Southern bumpkin blissfully navigating life as a U.S. Marine, Gomer often greeted his sometimes-friend, sometimes-nemesis, Sgt. Carter, by announcing. “Surprise, surprise, surprise!” in his hayseed accent.

Well, I’ve been wondering if, when we get to Heaven, and someone like Gomer Pyle were there to greet us, whether we’d also be welcomed with the words, “Surprise, surprise, surprise!”

If there’s a Heaven – and I have no doubt about that – we can only speculate what it will be like. The Bible speaks quite a bit about it. Randy Alcorn actually wrote a 560-page book, appropriately named Heaven, detailing what he believes the Scriptures tell us. But as it states in 1 Corinthians 2:9, No eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no mind has imagined what God has prepared for those who love him." At best, as a popular MercyMe song expresses, we can only imagine.

So we can expect many surprises when we get there, things far beyond human comprehension. Someone has said we’ll likely be surprised by who we see there, who we don’t see there, and – once the reality of being in the presence of our holy God has sunk in – even surprised and overwhelmed with gratitude that He allowed us to be there.

But there’s another kind of surprise I’m anticipating, one suggested by another tune from years ago, “Thank You,” by Ray Boltz. The song’s refrain, “Thank you for giving to the Lord,” is repeated – referring to giving not only money but also time, prayer and care.

Envision a scenario in which a tour guide, if not Gomer Pyle then maybe someone like Joey Tribbiani in the sitcom, “Friends.” He welcomes us saying, with a big smile, “Hi, how ya doin’?” Then he commences to give the proverbial cook’s tour of the celestial realms. Afterward he asks something like, “So, do you see anyone you know?” We look around and recognize faces of old friends and loved one who arrived before us. As we continue glancing around, other faces seem somewhat familiar, but not as easy to identify.

After we’ve finished spotting people from our temporal lives, the guide – or perhaps the Lord Himself – starts introducing us to people we never met face to face, but whose lives were touched by something we said or did, maybe things we don’t even recall or weren’t aware of at the time.

The Boltz song describes people that gave to support missionaries, performed acts of generosity and compassion, taught a Sunday school class, or invested in someone’s life in other ways.

There’s no limit to how we can have a positive, everlasting impact in the life of another person, simply by saying or doing what God impresses upon our hearts to do. One biblical truth not often mentioned is that in heaven there will be rewards, bestowed in recognition of faithful service and stewardship of the gifts and resources God entrusted to us on earth.

For instance, 2 Corinthians 5:10 states, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.” The Bible clearly asserts our eternal destiny is solely “by grace through faith…and not by works” (Ephesians 2:8-9). But there still will be accountability for how we lived.

So what has God placed in your hands to use in serving others? What opportunities is He sending so you can reflect the presence of Christ to other people? When the day comes, who might be waiting to say “thank you” for something you did – or said? What will be your “surprise, surprise, surprise”?

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Nothing Out of the Ordinary

We’re enamored by famous people, celebrities and superstars. We gather by the thousands for their concerts. We throng to their public appearances and book signings. Judging by the array of gossip magazines and tabloid newspapers, not to mention late-night TV shows and online “news,” we can’t get enough information about them.

An industry has emerged with the sole purpose of making people famous for no reason other than being famous. Members of the Kardashian family and “stars” of other TV reality shows come to mind. Many of us know far more than necessary about people like Lindsay Lohan, Miley Cyrus, and Justin Bieber. If you were to ask any of them to identify their greatest achievement to date, they should answer, “Becoming famous.”

It takes people of all kinds - famous
and unknown - to build our lives.
Yet fame and being famous aren’t as important as we might believe. For every well-known individual that’s become a household name, hundreds, even thousands of people who will never gain public acclaim are making noble contributions to society. Consider the soldiers in the Middle East, serving for low wages, facing daily threats of being killed or maimed. Law enforcement officers have received lots of negative attention of late – at times justified – but countless thousands quietly walk their beats or cruise the streets, poised to step forward to protect us if needed, even knowing they do so at their own risk.

When we visit a doctor’s office or get admitted to a hospital, nurses whose names we’ll never remember attend to our maladies and offer comfort and compassion. We hear about “teachers of the year,” but countless others equally deserving of honor instruct in obscurity, solely for the joy of helping to influence young minds in a positive way. When we enter our 24/7 supermarkets and see products neatly displayed on shelves and floors swept and mopped clean, it’s because of not-famous grocery clerks faithfully performing their jobs virtually unseen.

The list could go on, but every day we benefit from ordinary people doing things that make our lives a little easier, safer, cleaner and more enjoyable. Each time I’ve read the Bible, it’s struck me how God seems to have a special affection for plain ole, ordinary people.

Years ago I heard a little song, “Ordinary People,” written by Mom Winans. (Not to be confused with other songs also called “Ordinary People,” by John Legend or Neil Young.) The one I’m thinking about has a very simple message that affirms we don’t have to be famous or someone extraordinary to make a difference. Here’s a portion of it:

Just ordinary people,
God uses ordinary people,
He chooses people just like me and you
Who are willing to do as He commands.

God uses people that will give Him all
No matter how small your all may seem to you,
Because little becomes much
As you place it in the Master’s hand.

Think about it: For decades Christianity’s most famous person has been Dr. Billy Graham. Each of his worldwide evangelistic crusades attracted many thousands, but by the time he arrived in a city to speak, most of the hard work had already been done. News releases were sent and advertising paid for to publicize the event; venues were secured and then prepared for the huge crowds; many people gathered to undergird the meetings with prayer; volunteers handled myriad details; friends invited friends to attend, and plans were made to follow up on people responding to the messages.

Jesus Christ spent most of His time hanging out with ordinary people. In selecting His disciples, He didn’t choose civic or religious leaders, the “movers and shakers” of the towns where He spoke, taught and healed. He chose obscure fishermen, humble folks, a despised tax collector. Acts 4:13 tells us, When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus.”

For the first 30 years of His life on earth, Jesus also would have been described as ordinary, a simple carpenter. Early in His ministry, He returned to His hometown and began to teach, but some of the townspeople resented an “ordinary person” having such impact. “’Where did this man get things things?’ they asked. ‘What’s this wisdom that has been given him, that he even does miracles! Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?’ And they took offense at him” (Mark 6:2-3).

The Scriptures are littered with accounts of how God used common, unassuming men, women, and even children to carry out His work. This should encourage us all, knowing we don’t have to be the smartest or most articulate or most skilled person for Him to utilize in a very special way for His glory. He loves to use the ordinary to accomplish the extraordinary. As the song says, “little becomes much as you place it in the Master’s hand.”

Monday, March 14, 2016

Beware of Destination Addiction

When you take a trip, are you a stop-and-smell-the-flowers type, or more like the gotta-get-there, the-sooner-the-better traveler? I’m more the latter. We have a destination, I mentally calculate how long it should take to get there, and we’re on our way. Detours along the route are annoying. If we start the trip with specific stops factored into the itinerary, I’m okay with that. But when trip interruptions are impromptu, I might stop, but I’ll do it grudgingly.

To my detriment, I suppose, it’s all about the destination.

Recently I was reading about another type of destination fixation. The article actually called it “destination addiction,” and involves ephemeral concepts like happiness, or success. It’s “the idea that happiness is in the next place, the next job, or even the next partner. Until you give up the idea that happiness is somewhere else, it will never be where you are.”

Have you ever known someone like that? Have you been someone like that? Are you someone like that now?

I recall seeing a sign years ago that offered simple directions: “You can’t get there from here. You have to go someplace else first.” Too often many of us approach life that way. We’re not happy where we are, so we surmise it’s because happiness just happens to live somewhere else. Maybe it was here for a while, but then it moved. So our solution is to embark on an exhaustive search to find it.

If we don’t leap for joy when it’s time to get up and go to work, instead of trying to determine how to become a better employee, we decide the answer’s in finding a better job. If we’re not enjoying our home the way we once did, we figure there’s no alternative but to move somewhere else. And if our marriage seems to lack the spark it once had, we conclude the answer is to find happiness in someone else. You can’t get there from here, right?

Sadly, the quest for things like happiness and success are like the mirage in the desert. It appears off in the distance, but when you get to where you thought it was, it’s not there.

Repeatedly the Bible speaks to this widespread desire for something else, something better to satisfy our deepest yearnings. It was directly addressed in the Ten Commandments: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife…his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor” (Exodus 20:17). God wasn’t intending to be a divine spoilsport; He just understood that no matter where we are or what we have, our sinful nature is to prefer what someone else possesses.

Jesus told a parable about a rich man whose crops were so abundant he lacked space for storing them. So he decided the solution would be to replace his existing barns with bigger ones. Then he’d have plenty of room, no matter how much he could amass. “And I’ll say to myself, ‘You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’” (Luke 12:13-21).

Contrast that with the apostle Paul, who had one destination in mind and one only. He wrote, “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation” (Philippians 4:11-12).

Those of us living in the 21st century, in which contentment is regarded almost as a sin while we’re tugged constantly to pursue more or better or different, Paul’s words seem shocking. But it goes back to certainty about his singular destination, one that didn’t waver according to his mood or feelings at a particular moment: “I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14).

We’re all enticed by the “greener grass,” the notion that if we can just get from where we are to what appears more appealing over there, then we will be happy. Then, for sure, we will find love, achieve success, or experience fulfillment.

The only thing is, those already are over “there” are convinced they’d find the same things if they could only be with us over “here.” No wonder we never stop asking, “Are we there yet?”