Thursday, June 29, 2017

Pattern Followers, or Pattern Formers?

“Are we seeing a pattern here?” How many times have you heard someone ask this question? Usually it’s referring to observable behavior or recurring events, but we see patterns all around us in many ways.

Some people still use patterns for making dresses and other items of clothing. (Honestly, when was the last time someone you knew did that?) In the arts, we see patterns – rhythms and progressions in music; rhyme and meter in poetry and prose; geometric patterns in paintings, sculptures and photography. There are airplane flight patterns, and good wide receivers know how to run proper pass patterns in football.

Some of us are old enough to remember TV test
patterns. But they're not the only patterns
presented to us every day.
Do you remember TV test patterns? They were fixtures in the early days of television, long before 24/7 broadcasting was ever imagined. One way toddlers learn to talk is by listening to and observing speech patterns of their parents and others. Sadly, experts explore patterns of violence and terrorism.

But have you ever considered how we conduct our lives serves as a “pattern” for others to observe, and perhaps choose to follow?

This happens all the time. A younger sibling watches older sister or brother and emulates their behavior, good or bad. New employees are encouraged to meet with mentors and learn the patterns for success the more seasoned team members have used. Seeking to advance spiritually, young believers look to pastors, Sunday school teachers, or more mature believers to provide a pattern for growing in their faith.

The Bible talks about patterns, explaining they can be a good thing, but can be unfruitful, even destructive as well. So, we’re advised to be diligent to form the right pattern for others, and to select with care those whose life patterns we copy.

Writing to one of his disciples and fellow workers, the apostle Paul wrote, “Likewise, exhort the young men to be sober-minded, in all things showing yourself to be a pattern of good works, in doctrine showing integrity, reverence, incorruptibility, sound speech that cannot be condemned, that one who is an opponent may be ashamed, having nothing evil to say about you” (Titus 2:6-8, NKJV)

Hebrews 10:24 exhorts us to, “consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds.” The impact we can have on others, both in terms of offering encouragement and giving a pattern for others to follow, can be immeasurable. It’s a sober responsibility.

At the same time, we need remain alert to negative influences – patterns – presented by the world around us which too often refuses to look to God and His Word for guidelines. As Romans 12:2 admonishes, “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind...” (NIV). The Phillips translation of this verse offers strong imagery: “Don’t let the world squeeze you into its own mold, but let God remold your minds from within….”

Given the many kinds of patterns we encounter every day, the question we need to ask is, where are we finding the patterns we implement for our own lives, and what do the patterns look like that we are establishing for others?

Monday, June 26, 2017

Strength, in All of Its Weakness

Since the cardiac rehab center I used for the past 10 years closed, I’ve changed workout venues and undertaken a new fitness regimen. In the process, it’s caused me to think a lot about strength – what it is, and what it’s not.

Strength holds a lot of different meanings for folks. The word may cause us to think of the muscle-bound person that makes the free weights and weight machines in the gym cringe. Nations boast about military might, implying their enemies don’t dare try picking a fight. In sports, we often hear talk about “strength in numbers.” Businesses refer to “core competencies,” meaning their products, services and strategies that are the strongest.

I once heard a guy describe growing up in a female-dominated household. He said his mom was “strong as an acre of garlic.” (I’m not sure she was still alive to hear that description – but I do recall seeing him look over his shoulder as he said it.)

Bold criticism used to be defined as “strong statements,” but these days it seems everyone’s making comments that are bold, or brash, or bewildering. When everything that’s being said is “strong,” doesn’t that really mean that nothing is strong?

This classic photo of the RMS Titanic on the docks
of Southampton before its ill-fated voyage is an
historic example of weakness in strength.
Which provides a segue to my topic: Can strength become a weakness? We need look no further than the RMS Titanic, the supposed “unsinkable” passenger liner that came out a poor second in its encounter with an iceberg in the North Atlantic Ocean on April 15, 1912, costing more than 1,500 lives.

We have many biblical accounts of people weakened in moments of strength, including Samson, whose legendary strength seemed uncontainable – until he was seduced into revealing the source of his power. Strong and revered King David, called “a man after God’s heart,” caught a glimpse of a lovely young woman on a rooftop one evening, and his subsequent actions resulted in a series of tragic consequences.

More than one pastor has strongly asserted, “one area I will never fail is in the area of relationships,” only to leave the ministry in disgrace due to sexual sins. This is one reason the apostle Paul offered this word of caution: “So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!” (1 Corinthians 10:12). Strengths can work to our benefit, but they can also lead to overconfidence, complacency, and self-destructive pride.

“The flip side of any strength is its weakness,” I once heard someone say. I’ve experienced that myself. Friends sometimes call me an encourager, but one of the greatest temptations I face is succumbing to discouragement. Just as coaches and managers in sports scout for weaknesses in strong opponents, maybe we need to “self-scout”’ to discern where our strengths might leave us vulnerable.

Looking at the converse of this is interesting. A weakness can actually become a strength – especially when we’re aware of it and deal with it appropriately: We can try to work on that area and strengthen it. We can strive to avoid situations where the weakness is exposed and can be exploited. Or better yet, turn to another source of strength.

The apostle Paul had been a proud, militant religious leader, persecuting and seeking to annihilate followers of Jesus Christ. However, after his life-changing meeting with Christ on the road to Damascus, the apostle recognized the weakness of his zeal and “strength” in opposing Him. He wrote about a “thorn in the flesh” that plagued him the rest of his life, an undisclosed affliction that ensured his humility.

Paul said three times he pleaded with God to remove the “thorn,” until he realized it was a blessing and not a curse. “…he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’  Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:8-10).

Seems to me what Jesus really wants is not followers who flex their own muscle and resolve, but ones so in tune with their weakness and insufficiency that they constantly call upon Christ to empower them to do whatever He calls them to do.

As Paul wrote a bit earlier, “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness” (2 Corinthians 11:30). Maybe if we become weak enough, we’ll see God exerting His strength through us in ways we could never have imagined.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Buyer – or Viewer – Beware!

Just as you can’t judge a book by its cover, it seems we can’t judge a movie by its previews. A few weeks ago, I took one of my grandchildren to a “sci-fi” movie. Judging from the previews, it promised to be a fun, lighthearted, even cartoonish film he’d like. Parts of it were indeed funny, even silly. It had a wise-cracking raccoon, a goofy-looking Gumby-like creature, and assorted other weird characters. All the ingredients for an enjoyable, family-oriented movie.

Sometimes the PG in "PG-13" can
stand for "pretty gross."
This film had earned the highest gross revenues for its opening week. Critics largely gave it two thumbs up, so I thought it would be a safe bet for a grandpa-grandson outing. Uh-uh.

I discovered the writers and directors saw fit to add some other “ingredients” – dashes of profanity (totally unnecessary), along with splashes of sexual innuendo, some not very subtle. Once it became evident these had been sprinkled throughout the production, we left.

It’s hard to figure out why the Hollywood elite think vulgarity equates with sophistication, enlightenment, and “coolness.” In my view, it’s a reflection of puerile thinking, a desperately low-level worldview. Makes me wonder whether these folks start their mornings by gargling used toilet water.

I’m not na├»ve. I understand we live in a world where most folks don’t use words like “golly,” “gosh,” “darn” and “drat” to express their most base emotions. And leaving profane language out of many adult movies probably would make them seem unrealistic to many viewers. However, had the cussing and sexual references been omitted from this film, it would have been no less entertaining. In the world of Hollywood, why bother with bright, imaginative writing when four-letter words can easily fill the gaps in dialogue?

Most of us don’t aspire to ever write motion picture scripts. But we all communicate, and it helps to have guidelines for conveying our messages effectively. I’ve learned basic principles from the Bible can be applied to communications in any of its many forms. Whether writing emails, dashing off texts, having conversations, “tweeting,” speaking at public meetings, sending a letter to the editor, or crafting the next great American novel, these guidelines offer a solid framework for effective, productive expression.

One passage speaks directly to the issue: Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen(Ephesians 4:29). When we speak, write, text, or comment on social media, is our intention to edify, to build up – or are we seeking to tear down?

Elsewhere the apostle Paul admonished believers in the church at Philippi, “…whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things” (Philippians 4:8).

Living in a world that puts less and less stock in virtuous thinking, it can seem difficult to find communications that qualify as true, noble, right and pure. But that doesn’t mean we must respond in kind. As Proverbs 4:23 admonishes, “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.”

I like how it was presented on a church marquee a friend of mine saw recently: “Tweet others the way you want to be tweeted.” Because our words, whether in a theatrical film or a friendly chat, have power. The power to heal or to harm, to affirm or to attack, to promote or to poison.