Monday, June 18, 2018

‘I’m With Him’

Being a journalist for most of my life has had its perks. Lucrative compensation wasn’t among them, unfortunately, but I did get to go to some interesting places. I had the privilege of meeting the late, highly respected Dr. Richard Halverson in the U.S. Senate Building when he was chaplain of the Senate. I got to go up to an exclusive restaurant atop one of the World Trade Center towers several years before they were destroyed by terrorists. 

A constable took me inside the police headquarters in Montego Bay, Jamaica. I even toured the inside a new electronic scoreboard at Ohio Stadium while the football mecca was being renovated some years back. Who knew those scoreboards are so huge, you could take up residence in one?

In each case, I couldn’t just stroll in on my own accord. I was with someone authorized to let me enter and guide me through. Although it never happened, if someone had challenged whether I was entitled to be allowed in, I would have just pointed to my host and said, “I’m with him.”

What if it’s like that when our earthly tour has come to an end and we’re standing in front of the proverbial “pearly gates”? What if, as some of us were taught in the door-to-door evangelism script, we encounter God at the entrance and He asks, “Why should I let you into My Heaven?” Maybe, instead of trying to recount the meritorious things we said and did, we’ll simply point to Jesus and say, “I’m with Him.”

Because that’s what the Scriptures teach over and over. For instance, Romans 5:8 asserts, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” As a friend used to paraphrase this verse years ago, “Christ took the rap for me.” 

Another passage in the same book elaborates the “with Him” concept in unequivocal terms: “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with”  (Romans 6:4-6).

Yet another “with Him” passage revolutionized my thinking – and my faith – when I read, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).

During His time walking the earth, Jesus loved the relationships He built with His followers. Mark 3:14 states, “He appointed twelve that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach.” Much in the gospels speaks about interactions Jesus had with His closest disciples. But the Scriptures also tell of how He eagerly anticipates our being with Him in the life to come.

In fact, 1 John 3:2 declares we not only will be with Christ, but “Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”

So one day, if the hypothetical question is asked, “Why should I let you into My Heaven,” we can respond not only, “I’m with Him,” but we’ll also make the amazing discovery that we’re like Him. The eternal family resemblance, apparently, will be unmistakable! 

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Another Ho-Hum Father’s Day?

This Sunday we’ll observe Father’s Day, another philanthropic event to bolster the greeting card industry and retail store sales. “What should we get Dad this year? Another tie?” “Dad doesn’t wear ties anymore, remember?” “Oh, yeah. How about a tool – does he need another hammer, or some screwdrivers? How about some more fishing lures?”

Father’s Day seems to lack the fanfare of Mother’s Day. In some respects, rightly so. After all, Mom carried Junior and little Susie around for nine months before Dad got into the act. In fact, I’ve explained the reason I was born in Giessen, Germany was simple: My mom had gone to be with my dad, stationed there in the Army. And I wanted to be close to her at the time.

It’s also true that the majority of single-parent homes are headed by women, all the more reason for moms to receive special honor and recognition. Working, often more than one job, and trying to raise kids alone at the same time, deserves tons of credit. Still, I think the father’s role is greatly underestimated and underappreciated.

Consider: TV ads for Mother’s Day run for weeks; commercials for Father’s Day appear mostly the week before, almost an afterthought. In TV shows, fathers are frequently portrayed as clueless buffoons. If not, they appear in the negative, as overbearing, abusive, or indifferent. If there’s a national Society for the Affirmation of Dads (SAD), I’d suggest they find a better PR firm.

Happy Father's Day!
Perhaps, being a dad and grandfather myself, I’m biased. But maybe it’s time we started giving fathers a benefit of the doubt. The job’s not easy, even for the most dedicated.

Without question, some fathers fit the descriptions above. But most fathers are making an effort, albeit imperfectly, but trying as best they can. Women seem more instinctive when it comes to relationships with their kids, perhaps because of their nine-month head start on the dads. My own father, a good, hard-working and faithful man, wasn’t the most nurturing, outwardly expressive person. But he was always there, ready to lend a hand whenever needed.

Factions of society seem intent on diminishing the role and importance of fatherhood, as if dads aren’t needed at all. A friend who works with young people in middle and high schools tells me that in some schools, up to 75 percent of the kids come from single-parent homes – most headed by women.

It’s politically incorrect to say so these days, but that wasn’t God’s design. From the start, the Lord said, “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18), and He wasn’t just referring to companionship and recreation. Because soon after, Adam and Eve began having children. They started by raising Cain, then had another as soon as they were Abel. (Sorry for the puns. No I’m not!) Anyway, God never said, “Okay, Adam, Eve’s pregnant. Your work here is done.”

One of my favorite Scripture verses is Ecclesiastes 4:9, which says, “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their work.” This principle certainly applies to the work world, team sports, and even in tackling a household project. But nowhere is it more relevant than in the realm of parenting. Most moms do a great job when they have to go it alone, but in collaboration with a caring, devoted dad, chances are really good they’ll produce some outstanding kids.

Ultimately, we have our Heavenly Father, the One who has promised, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5). And think of the incredible love, mercy and grace of this Father who, as John 3:16 tells us, “so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” 

If this is the first time you’ve encountered this verse, you might think, “What kind of father is this?!” But it makes great sense when we realize that in Jesus Christ, God took on human form, not only to serve as our model and teacher, but also to become the necessary atoning sacrifice – theologians term it the “propitiation” – for the sins of mankind. It’s available to all who will believe in Him, placing their total trust and faith in Him and what He has done for us.

As for us earthly dads, we’re without excuse. If we need a good example of what a real father should look like, all we need to do is consult the Scriptures. This is the reason Jesus said, “So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’…your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:31-33).

Monday, June 11, 2018

Plain Truth and Main Things

Have you ever followed a literal rabbit trail? I haven’t, but having watched the course a typical rabbit takes, I imagine one would meander in multiple directions, depending on what happens while the rabbit’s hopping. However, I have taken many a figurative rabbit trail.

Sometimes in talking with someone, the conversation takes a sudden shift and I’m focusing on a different topic altogether. Later, I might even wonder how we got there from where we had been talking.

Christian theology is beset by rabbit trails of that sort. Although the Scriptures are printed in black and white (if you have a “red letter” edition highlighting Jesus’ words, also in red), there’s a lot of gray. For instance, where do the dinosaurs fit into the creation scenario? Or, what did Jesus really look like? 

These “gray areas” might lead Christians to debate – even argue over – matters such as what form baptism should take, what version of the Bible to read, who qualifies for leadership roles, what type of music is most suitable for worship, or exactly when the end times will arrive and how they will affect those still living and breathing.

It’s not that such concerns are unimportant, but as the late Ted DeMoss used to say, we’ve got to keep “the main thing the main thing.” Listening to Alistair Begg on the radio recently, he said something similar: “In the Bible, the main things are the plain things, and the plain things are the main things.”

Exactly what does that mean? I think DeMoss and Begg both were saying that although some elements of the Christian faith are disputable, and things in the Bible that are hard for even the most astute theologian to understand, there are plenty of truths and principles plainly expressed. Crystal clear. And those are the “main things” upon which God wants us to focus.

For instance, are there many ways to God? Is it “multiple choice,” depending on one’s preference or inclination? Jesus emphatically said no. “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). He also stated, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30). Such statements leave us with only three options: Either Jesus was lying; He was a lunatic, with a mentality comparable to a poached egg (as C.S. Lewis put it); or was telling the truth – He was God in the flesh.

What about earning eternal life on the basis of the good we do, weighed against the bad? That’s certainly one of the Bible’s main things, but it’s also very plain. “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). And Titus 3:5 affirms this reality, declaring, “he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.”

Okay, what about striving to live for God after we become saved by faith through His grace? Are we saved by grace but sanctified by sweat? What Jesus told His followers 2,000 years ago remains true today: “I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).

Plenty of other “main things” are plain in the Scriptures, but one of the most important is the final thing Jesus commanded before His ascension to Heaven: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations…teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20). 

More than anything, Jesus wants others to know Him, follow Him, and be fruitful in living out all that He and the Scriptures teach. As the apostle Paul wrote, asserting another main thing, We are therefore Christ's ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ's behalf: Be reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5:20).

What we commonly call “the Christian life” isn’t easy, but it’s simple. All we need to do is study and apply the plain things. After all, they are the main things.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

The Impact of One Person

“I want to make a difference!” How often have you heard these words – or expressed them yourself? Have you ever wondered what difference you’re actually making in this world, if any? 

Many aging Baby Boomers wonder about this. Having devoted their lives to the pursuit of success and fulfillment, they’re hoping to have accomplished something of lasting significance. People who work in “behind the scenes” professions, where their work is unlikely to merit much public notice, often wonder what difference they’re making in society. From experience, I know that writers, largely a solitary, introverted lot, pour our hearts onto a page or computer screen not knowing who’s reading what we write. Or how they’re responding.

Some people dismiss the what difference am I making question altogether, replacing it with the more skeptical, “What difference can one person make anyway?” How can a single individual have an noteworthy effect on more than a handful of folks in their immediate sphere of influence?

Maybe that was the motivation behind the mournful Three Dog Night song of late ‘60s, “One Is the Loneliest Number.” Yes, usually we can accomplish much more working with others than we can alone. But let’s not underestimate the impact of one person.

Anne Sullivan (right) works with deaf and blind
Helen Keller in this public domain photo from
the New England Historic Genealogical Society.
Think of Desmond Doss, the conscientious objector in World War II portrayed in the film, “Hacksaw Ridge.” Doss refused to carry a weapon because of his religious convictions, but serving in the unarmed role of medic was personally responsible for saving the lives of dozens of wounded soldiers. He received the Congressional Medal of Honor for his acts of bravery and selflessness.

Or consider author, activist and lecturer Helen Keller, who became the first deaf-blind person to earn a bachelor of arts degree. It was her teacher, Anne Sullivan, who was able to break through young Helen’s sensory isolation, helping her to communicate, learn, and develop into a highly accomplished woman despite her disabilities.

As we read the Scriptures, we find numerous examples of God using individuals to carry out His purposes. Noah and his ark, as well as Jonah the reluctant prophet, come to mind. There was Joseph, responsible for bringing the people of Israel to Egypt during a devastating famine, and even Rahab, a prostitute who protected the Israelite spies as they sized up Jericho.

But there’s someone else who was called to my attention recently: Philip the apostle, who had an unexpected encounter with an Ethiopian eunuch on the desert road from Jerusalem to Gaza. In the story, recounted in Acts 8, an angel directed Philip to meet the official, a key aide to the queen of Ethiopia.

The unnamed man was in his chariot, reading a passage from the prophet Isaiah that refers to the coming Messiah. Recognizing the Ethiopian was struggling to understand what it meant, “Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus” (Acts 8:35). Placing his trust in Christ, the official spotted some water along the roadside and asked Philip to baptize him to confirm his new faith.

Almost immediately afterward, God’s Spirit whisked Philip away from there, and the Ethiopian “went on his way rejoicing” (Acts 8:39). But the story doesn’t end there. Christian historians say this individual not only held to his faith, but was used by God to establish the Church not only in Ethiopia but also throughout Africa.

Philip’s obedient encounter with this man might have been brief, but the impact was profound – and it continues to this day. Not bad for an afternoon’s work!

So, the next time you’re asking yourself, “What difference can I make?”, remember the answer: Only God knows.

Monday, June 4, 2018

The Curse of Not Living in the Moment

Maybe it’s the nature of a writer, requiring intense concentration to properly tackle the task at hand – whether it be an article, a book, or even an email. But when I’m “in the zone,” anything that interrupts my train of thought can be as disconcerting as having your car bumped from behind while sitting at a traffic light.

If my wife walks into my office to ask a question, or the grandkids stop by unexpectedly, I’m torn. I want to spend time with them, but there’s this “train” chugging along in my mind and I dare not let it get derailed.

I used to think I was alone in this, that it was just inherent selfishness and preoccupation with literary mission that caused me to often regard disruptions as inconveniences, rather than pleasant surprises. Then I read an entry in Philip Yancey’s excellent devotional book, Grace Notes, that confirmed this inclination isn’t unique to me.

Yancey wrote, “I tend to approach life as a sequence rather than as a series of moments. I schedule my time, set goals, and march onward toward their achievement. Phone calls, or any unscheduled event, I view as a jarring interruption. How different from the style of Jesus, who often let other people – interruptions – determine his daily schedule.”

Of course, you don’t have to be a writer to feel this way. All kinds of people feel annoyed when someone breaks their concentration. Heck, lots of folks hate being disturbed while watching TV, reading a book, or playing a video game on their smartphone.

Contrast that, as did Yancey, to “the style of Jesus,” whom we often see having His plans disrupted by individuals and by crowds. And without complaining at all. 

We see this early in each of the gospel accounts of His life. Matthew 4:24 tells us, “News about him spread all over Syria, and people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyze, and he healed them. Large crowd…followed him.”

Mark 1:40-41 recounts when “A man with leprosy came to him and begged him on his knees, ‘If you are willing, you can make me clean. Filled with compassion, Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. ‘I am willing,’ he said. ‘Be clean!’ Immediately the leprosy left him and he was cured.”

In neither case, or in the many other similar “unscheduled” encounters Jesus had during His earthly ministry, did He said, “Oh, man! What’s up with these people? Don’t they know I’m busy, that I’ve got more pressing things to do?” No, because as Yancey wrote, that wasn’t Jesus’ “style.” He perfectly mastered the distinction between the important and the merely urgent.

Sometimes I wonder how many opportunities I’ve ignored or missed out on, simply because I wasn’t willing to let others impose on or even reset my agenda for the moment. The Scriptures talk about “redeeming the time because the days are evil” (Ephesians 5:16). In other words, unlike money or other material possessions, we can’t acquire more of it. Once time is gone, it’s gone, never to be redeemed.

The refrain from the old hit song, recorded by Glen Campbell, Willie Nelson and many others, comes to mind: “Ain’t it funny how time slips away.” 

Speaking of which, a couple of our grandkids just arrived for a visit. Guess this would be a good time to take a break. See ya later!

Thursday, May 31, 2018

A Million Dollars – Or a Penny?

Suspend your disbelief for a moment, okay? Imagine someone approaches you today and offers a choice: He will give you one million dollars immediately, or one penny doubled every day for the next month. Which would you choose?

No, I don’t have insider knowledge of some wealthy magnate planning to make this offer. I haven’t consulted with Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Oprah Winfrey, or even Donald Trump. But as you’ll see, it’s an interesting exercise that illustrates an important principle. 

Most of us would probably leap at the $1 million offer. No brainer, right? But wait. At first it would seem anyone who opted to receive a penny the first day, then have it doubled the second day and each succeeding day for a month, would be the loser. But as they say, do the math.

Let’s suppose Joe accepts the $1 million. He even sets it aside to collect interest. Good decision, right? However, his friend Jim, a curious soul, elects to take the one penny the first day, doubling that amount every day for a month of 31 days. At first things go slowly for Jim – one cent, two cents, four cents, eight cents, 16 cents. Ho hum. But momentum starts building.

On day 10, Jim receives $5.12. Day 15 nets him $163.84; on day 20 he gets $5,242.88, and on day 25 Jim’s single day’s “earnings” are $167,772.16! The agreement of the one penny doubled daily for a total of 31 days, so the amount continues to multiply. On day 31, Jim is the recipient of…more than $10.7 million! Would you still rather take the $1 million up front?

This silly scenario represents the genius behind Jesus’ strategy for growing His Church around the world, a plan that’s been has largely ignored.

You might recall the Lord’s last words to His followers before ascending to Heaven. He told them, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations…teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you”(Matthew 28:19-20). We know it as the Great Commission. 

Instead of “making disciples,” however, much of Christianity has focused on making converts, producing spiritual babes without putting in the hard work to assist them in growing into maturing, spiritually reproducing disciples.

Let’s apply the monetary illustration to Jesus’ command. Suppose an established follower of Christ meets for a year with a younger believer, helping him or her to grow in their faith. At the end of that year, they both find someone else to disciple, effectively doubling or “multiplying” their number from two to four. One year later, each one finds another person to disciple – now there are eight. So far, not too impressive.

But like the example of the ever-doubling pennies, the numbers begin to surge geometrically. At year 10, assuming there’s no attrition, there would be 512 believers meeting and helping each other to grow. By year 20, the number has grown to 524,288! Projecting to year 30, following Jesus’ strategy and directive to “make disciples,” there would be nearly 537 million committed, fruitful followers of Jesus Christ having an eternal impact at home, at work, in their communities and the world around them.

By year 34, there would be more than 8.5 billion maturing, reproducing Christ followers – more than the current population of the world!

In reality, the issue isn’t numbers. If it were, Jesus would have issued production quotas. No, His desire was simply for us to make disciples who make disciples…who make disciples. Ultimately, men, women and young people all devoted to Christ and committed to following Him no matter what. Folks who, as Romans 6:11 states, “count [themselves] dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.”

How many people do we know like that, individuals willing to follow Jesus’ directive: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). That, in just a handful of words, is Jesus’ description of what a disciple looks like – the kind of people He commissioned to engage in consistently devoting themselves to ministering to others, life on life.

For more than 35 years, it’s been my privilege to meet one-to-one with other men, sharing from our lives and “spurring one another on to love and good deeds,” as Hebrews 10:24 expresses it. Not every one of them has gone on to give of his time and energy to help others grow, but a number of them have. In Isaiah 60:22 states, “The least of you will become a thousand.” If we’re willing, we can each play a small but important part in Jesus’ Great Commission, just as He asked us to do.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Remembering Those Who Served – Including the Living

These flags proudly remember the
sacrifices of those who served in battle,

and the many who gave their lives.
Today marks the observance of another Memorial Day, one of the most fitting holidays in the calendar year. War is a horror that has plagued humankind since the start of history, but that shouldn’t detract from our honoring and remembering those who gave their lives so that we could enjoy the freedoms we so readily take for granted.

I believe it should also be a day in which we think of those who may not have lost their lives in combat, but suffered serious injuries, both physical and emotional.

Two friends, both veterans of the Vietnam conflict, have wrestled for many years with a common wartime consequence, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This is a malady that most of us who have never served during wartime cannot fully understand or imagine. Yet its toll on countless thousands has been very real, even debilitating.

Today, my friends are devoting much of their time and energy to assisting others who, like themselves, survived combat physically, but have suffered a grave toll emotionally and mentally. The suicide rate among veterans who have suffered PTSD in combat is alarming; others find themselves homeless, unable to function properly upon returning to civilian life.

My father served in World War II; I remember many nights during my childhood when he would awaken, screaming. He never talked of his wartime experiences, but I know the nightmares were a byproduct of what this twice-wounded, two Purple Heart and one Bronze Star recipient had seen, heard and felt on the battlefields of Europe and Northern Africa. We knew little, if anything, about PTSD back then.

I remember how shamefully Vietnam vets were treated in the late 1960s and early 1970s when they returned home. They had gone to serve their country, doing what they thought was right, even though many at home questioned America’s wisdom in its involvement. Their noble, yet largely unappreciated, service reminded me of something Jesus said to His followers: “Greater love has no man than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends” (John 15:13).

Thousands of U.S. soldiers did just that, lying lifeless on East Asian fields of conflict. Others lay down their normal lives, returning to American soil physically, but shattered just the same, not the people mentally or emotionally they once had been. Even if they didn’t think it in so many words, their sacrificial service was truly an act of love.

But as we commemorate the sacrifices of so many, in far too many wars, I can’t help but think of an even greater sacrifice, that of the Lord Jesus Christ. Going to the cross to die for the sins of mankind, paying an incomprehensible price on our behalf, Jesus epitomized that “greater love.” As Romans 5:8 declares, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

This Memorial Day, please take a few moments to remember those who gave so much for us. And especially think of Jesus, the One who gave more than we could ever imagine – so that we could receive far more than we could ever deserve.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Where Has Your Best Thinking Gotten You?

No one can say their life has gone exactly as planned. There are always twists and turns we didn’t expect, even if we now find ourselves in the general vicinity of where we’d hoped to be. Sadly, however, many people assess the chaos of their lives and wonder, “How in the world has it turned out like this?”

Can you recall times when your "best thinking"
wasn't as good as you thought it was?
Speaker James McDonald recalled a time when he was wrestling with some difficulties and discussed his dilemma with someone he respected. Upon hearing the tale of woe, the friend replied, “You’re where your best thinking has gotten you.” 

This friend wasn’t commending McDonald’s cognitive skills, but observing that he had acted according to what he thought was best at the time. The circumstances – or consequences – facing him were the result. Sometimes our “best thinking” brings about the desired outcome, but other times it doesn’t. Especially when we don’t factor in important variables.

I recall numerous times making decisions based on the information I had, only to learn I didn’t know everything that was necessary. Other times my “best thinking” was based solely on my impulses at the moment, not considering future ramifications of what I intended to do. Oops!

Okay, if we acknowledge our very best thinking can be flawed at times, how can we avoid making wrong choices, especially ones we’ll later regret? To benefit from thinking that’s really the best, the Scriptures advise we need two things: Sound, trusted counsel, and the wisdom of the timeless, always reliable Word of God.

Some decisions obviously don’t require a lot of consultation, like what to wear to the movies, what to have for dinner, or which candy bar to buy. But there are other decisions, such as those that potentially could have a major impact on our lives financially, our career, or serious family issues. At times like that, Proverbs 11:14 gives a timely warning: “For lack of guidance a nation falls, but many advisers make victory sure.” A similar verse affirms, “Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed” (Proverbs 15:22).

Even then, we should make every effort to carefully choose our advisers. We want to align our “best thinking” with the best thinking of others with wise insight into the dilemma we’re facing. As Proverbs 13:20 says, “He who walks with the wise grows wise, but a companion of fools suffers harm.”

Then there’s the counsel from the Scriptures themselves. As Joshua succeeded Moses in leading the Israelites and prepared to guide them into the unknowns of the Promised Land, God directed, “Do not let the Book of the Law depart from your mouth; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful” (Joshua 1:8).

Someone has said one of the challenges of raising babies is “they don’t come with a manual.” In reality, we do have a manual available to us. It’s called the Bible. It might not tell how to change a diaper, or provide a remedy for colic, but it does offer sound, proven guidance for dealing with the formidable challenges of daily living. Experience has taught me that by trusting and following it, our “best thinking” becomes much better than it would have been without it.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Legacy: The Impact That Keeps on Giving

The term “legacy” isn’t going away any time soon. It became a fixture of my own vocabulary in 2001, when I joined the team of a non-profit named Leaders Legacy. Since then, it seems just about everyone has jumped on the legacy bandwagon. We hear about it on TV and radio, online, and many businesses have made it a focal point for their planning.

Despite living in times that encourage a right-now, gotta-have-it-immediately mindset, there’s a growing awareness of the need for a longer term view, that what we do and say today can live on many years after we’ve checked out of this life.

Maybe it’s a Baby Boomer thing, members of a generation aging and wondering whether they’ve made any difference at all in this world. I heard legacy discussed again recently when Mart Green, board chair of Hobby Lobby, spoke at a local leadership prayer breakfast.

Legacy has been defined, Green said, as “something transmitted, or received by others.” He elaborated that one’s legacy consists of “something someone’s achieved that continues to live on after they die.” He likened it to passing a baton during a foot race. A relay team can have a big lead, but if the baton fails to pass from one runner to the next, all is lost.

One’s legacy can come in many forms, including success in the workplace, fame, or contributions to society. Some people regard their estate or net worth at their time of death as their legacy. But many successful business people, celebrities, and wealthy individuals from decades or centuries ago aren’t even dim memories today.

So how do we build a lasting, meaningful legacy? Dr. Billy Graham, who surely left a legacy that figures to continue for a long, long time, offered this view: “The greatest legacy one can pass on to one’s children and grandchildren is not money or other material things accumulated in one’s life, but rather a legacy of character and faith.”

Simply put, but it says a lot. Proverbs 10:7 seems to agree: “The memory of the righteous will be a blessing, but the name of the wicked will rot.” If that sounds too blunt, consider Proverbs 13:9: “The light of the righteous shines brightly, but the lamp of the wicked is snuffed out.”

Lots of people may come to mind that are remembered for unsavory reasons, but who designs to do that? We all hope to leave a mark in life for positive reasons, don’t we? That’s why striving to build an eternal, spiritual legacy is wise.

The Israelites – and all of God’s people today – were given this admonition: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up” (Deuteronomy 6:5-7).

One of the greatest investments we can make isn’t measured by dollar signs. It’s our children and the kind of people we’ve helped them become. As Proverbs 17:6 states, Children's children are a crown to the aged, and parents are the pride of their children." But the Scriptures make clear that physical offspring aren’t the only source of an enduring legacy. Spiritual children can be as well.

Years ago a friend showed me a special verse, Isaiah 43:4, in which God tells His followers, “Since you are precious and honored in my sight, and because I love you, I will give men in exchange for you, and people in exchange for your life.” Sounds like a fair trade to me. 

And 2 Timothy 2:2 gives a multi-generational picture of what this looks like. “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will also be qualified to teach others.” That, from the Lord’s point of view, is a legacy that matters.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Discipline Isn’t a Dirty Word

When you hear the word discipline, what comes to mind? 

Discipline is a versatile word with a variety of useful meanings. There’s the discipline of a talented musician, practicing for hours daily to refine her talents. Or the discipline gifted athletes use – perhaps a tennis player, ice skater or runner – to refine their skills for competing at a high level. Or the discipline a goal-oriented person uses to stay focused and avoid becoming distracted from the objective.

For some, however, the word “discipline” carries negative connotations, like it’s a dirty word. Take, for example, the parent who says, “I never discipline my children.” This may mean the individual somehow believes parental guidance stifles, that it inhibits a child from discovering his or her uniqueness. I don’t think discipline is detrimental in that respect, but perhaps that’s a subject for a future discussion. 

More likely, the parent equates discipline with punishment. As in addressing wrong or inappropriate behavior with a spanking, withholding something good, isolating them, or some other penalty. However, as we read and trust the Scriptures, it becomes clear discipline isn’t optional. It’s mandatory. In fact, if we’re sincere about following Jesus Christ, discipline should be anticipated – and welcomed.

A trellis "disciplines" roses
to flourish in all their beauty.
Proverbs 19:18 warns, “Discipline your children while there is still hope.” Proverbs 3:12 states, the Lord disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in.” Hebrews 12:5-11 expresses it most eloquently, observing, My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son. Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father?... No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.

What does this discipline look like? Does God sit us in a corner, or put a dunce cap on our heads when we don’t do right? Does He lash out at us in anger to demonstrate His displeasure? We find the answer in Ephesians 6:4, which says, “Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the discipline and instruction that comes from the Lord.” The purpose is not to frustrate or discourage.

The Greek word for discipline in this passage has several shades of meaning, including training, instruction, chastisement, and correction. But based on what? Another passage, 2 Timothy 3:16, informs us: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness.” We’re to use the Bible to “train up a child in the way he should go,” as Proverbs 22:6 explains it.

It’s clear that from God’s perspective, our approach to discipline – whether it’s for our children, someone we’re mentoring, or our own lives – shouldn’t be based on a whim, personal preference, or whatever happens to be the current trend in our society or culture. Discipline should be based on what the Lord reveals and teaches in His Word.

Whenever I think of discipline, I envision a tomato plant tied to a stake to ensure it grows vertically, not horizontally. Or a rose bush climbing a trellis. In both cases, they aren’t being restricted or harmed. They’re being “disciplined” to grow as they should, so they can be most productive.

A jet in flight needs to make course corrections, as does a ship sailing across an ocean. Discipline becomes an effective means for making necessary course corrections in our own lives, as well as those of our children, people who work for us, and even those we mentor and disciple. Our goal is to teach them what they need to know, correct when they’ve veered off course, rebuke wrong thinking and behavior, and train them in the best ways to live. 

A disciplined life is intentional and purposeful, ultimately a life that seeks to serve and honor our God. An undisciplined life, lacking focus and a clear target, never knows when, or if, it’s hitting the mark.

Monday, May 14, 2018

The Spiritual Sides of Spring

Blossoms on our dogwood tree are our most vivid reminder of spring's promise.
This may come as a shock to anyone reading this up North, but it’s springtime! While the last vestiges of winter were continuing to pummel the Western, Midwestern and Northeastern states, we folks here in the South were already having the thrill of firing up our lawnmowers and trimming our lawns several times. So for those just starting to delight in the warmer weather, be advised that for some of us, it’s been here for awhile.

Actually, mine probably doesn’t qualify as a lawn, since there probably aren’t more than 15-20 legitimate blades of grass in my front and side yards combined. But at least it’s green, and when the weeds are closely cut they don’t look much different.

Every year one persistent
tulip announces spring's
return.
Every spring’s arrival not only marks an end to winter’s chill, but also brings a bit of spiritual symbolism. As buds pop out on once-barren limbs, we’re reminded of new birth, a recurring theme in the Scriptures. In reference to spiritual rebirth, 2 Corinthians 5:17 observes,  “…the old has gone, the new has come!” 

Everywhere we turn, we find evidence of that: flowering buds giving way to green leaves; colorful flowers emerging from the ground to make their annual appearance; birds returning home after their winter “vacations”; bees buzzingly going about their work, and squirrels scampering across roadways and clambering up trees.

The deadness and dormancy of winter bows out, succeeded by the chirps and rustlings of yet another spring bursting forth in all of its glory. For the spiritually minded, it also serves as a reminder of Jesus’ promise that, I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). And for those who have received Him into their lives, that we too can “walk in newness of life,” as Romans 6:4 terms it.

If the goal were to grow
weeds, I'd be the best
in our neighborhood.
There’s another type of symbolism that spring offers, however, that’s not so exuberating. It’s the nefarious weeds I referred to earlier that ignore our unwelcome mat and persist in showing up, sometimes next to the beautiful plants and flowers we enjoy.

In one of His messages to His followers, recorded in Matthew 13:24-30, Jesus spoke about the wheat and the tares, weeds that commonly grow in the midst of grain. At first they appear very much alike, but before long the wheat and tares can be easily distinguished and must be separated. The tares must be gathered and destroyed, He said, until only the wheat remains. 

The weeds that infiltrate the monkey grass that lines our front walkway are like that. At first they’re indistinguishable, but before long they become evident for even casual observers to notice. Insidious sins that creep into our lives are like that. At first, hardly anyone notices; maybe not even ourselves. But over time they make their presence known, and their seductive, negative influence on our lives becomes undeniable.

Wise King Solomon used a different analogy with the same meaning when he wrote, Catch for us the foxes, the little foxes that ruin the vineyards, our vineyards that are in bloom” (Song of Solomon 2:15). At first the pesky thoughts and behaviors we cultivate seem of little consequence, but then we discover them guiding us down paths we never intended to take. The best way to deal with them, like weeds and little foxes, is to get rid of them as soon as we become aware of their presence.

Before long we’ll find ourselves again mired in the “dog days of summer,” but until then we have the opportunity to benefit from the many reminders of renewal, of rebirth. And also to become refreshed about the need for vigilance to prevent the “weeds” in our lives from taking root – and taking over.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

It Takes a Village...to Raise a Believer

It takes a "village" for us to become all we can be spiritually.
It’s been said it takes a village to raise a child. I have mixed feelings about that declaration, but over my years of following Jesus Christ, it’s become clear that it does take a “village” to raise a believer to spiritual maturity and fruitfulness.

So many people over the years have had a positive impact in my life spiritually, I’ve lost count. If I were to paraphrase the famous poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, I’d write, “How do they inspire (or challenge, or encourage) me? Let me count the ways.” 

Some have helped me in reading and studying the Bible. Others have taught me how to apply what I’ve read, embracing the reality that it’s as much for the now-and-now as it is for the sweet by and by. At a time when I was struggling to “do” Christianity, God sent individuals into my life that showed who the Bible teaches we truly are in Christ, and that it’s about the Lord working in and through us. The pressure isn’t on me to “do,” because it’s already done, they taught me.

Pastors, speakers and writers have given me many deep and invaluable insights into principles from the Scriptures. But more than anything, it’s been “lay people” serving as models of what true followers of Jesus look like that have made the most profound impressions on my life.

This isn’t unique for me. Many times in both the Old and New testaments we find proof that a living, growing faith in the Lord can’t be achieved in isolation. Virtually all of the great people in the Scriptures had others come alongside to support them and, when necessary, prod them along. 

The Bible affirms we desperately need others to become all God intends for us to be. For instance, Proverbs 27:17 states, “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” Sometimes this amounts to constructive conflict, similar to the friction of one knife blade being used to sharpen another. 

We tend to select friends who affirm us, who think similarly to the way we do. But good friends – true friends – also are those who care enough, and have the courage, to tell us what we need to hear, not just what we want to hear. “Perfume and incense bring joy to the heart, and the pleasantness of one’s friend springs from his earnest counsel,” we’re told in Proverbs 27:9. That’s the value of accountability groups, as well as peer advisory groups that many business and professional people find helpful. We need that for our journey of faith as well.

In the Bible, the human body serves as a metaphor for the Church, the body of Christ. It points to the roles and functions of different body parts, and how they work together. “The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts, and though all its parts are many, they form one body…. If the foot should say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body…. But in fact God has arranged the parts of the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be…. Now you are the body of Christ, and each of you is a part of it” (1 Corinthians 12:12-27).

As followers of Christ grow in maturity and fruitfulness, we learn of our importance – and how much we need others – for effectively fulfilling God’s purposes. As Ephesians 4:12-13 states, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” 

Just as Jesus’ first disciples learned invaluable lessons by being “with Him” (Mark 3:14), the so-called “Christian life” isn’t a solo act. We need each other to grow, receive support, and complement one another’s gifts and talents in our quest to be used by God to advance His kingdom.

Monday, May 7, 2018

A Good Leader Is a Good Learner

Everyone knows one of the more common definitions of a teenager: A very young adult who thinks he or she knows everything. I know this for a fact, because I was at that stage of life once – and yes, I did think I knew everything. What a shock to discover I didn’t!

But the know-it-all misconception doesn’t cease with the passage of the teen years. We probably all have had times when we thought we knew more than anyone else, so we were unwilling to consider what they had to say. Especially regarding an important decision we were weighing. Sometimes it’s humbling to have to admit to someone, “I don’t know,” or to approach someone else for advice.

Learning should be
a lifelong pursuit.
But evidence has shown that good leaders are good learners, and in some respect, we are all leaders. Every one of us has people that look up to us, or have chosen to follow us as their examples. It might be our children or grandchildren, coworkers or people that report to us at work, friends, or individuals we encounter at church. Presenting ourselves as know-it-alls is an excellent way to lead folks in the wrong direction.

How do we know this? President John F. Kennedy said, “Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.” But I value even more what the Bible says on the topic. The Old Testament book of Proverbs, a collection of timeless principles and probabilities, repeatedly addresses the importance of learning. For instance, Proverbs 23:13 urges us to. "Apply your heart to instruction and your ears to words of knowledge." In other words, make it a priority in your life.

Later in the same chapter we’re told the information and knowledge gained through the process of learning is a precious commodity: “Buy the truth and do not sell it; get wisdom, discipline and understanding" (Proverbs 23:23).

I have to confess there have been times when I was full of myself – eager to share the limited knowledge I had, but unwilling to consider viewpoints that differed from my own. Hopefully over time I’ve trained myself to become a better learner. Whether by reading books, exposing myself to newspaper and magazine columns that offer opinions that differ from my own, or having a friendly, meaningful discussion with someone who sees things differently than I do, I’ve learned much over the years.

Christian conferences and retreats have helped in that respect, hearing from a variety of speakers who challenged my thinking and preconceptions about what the Bible says, what it means, and how it relates to everyday living. And one of the great eye-openers is having a healthy interaction with someone from a different culture, ethnicity, or social group.

Seems to me that one of the maladies of modern society is a growing smugness, the unwarranted certainty that there’s nothing we can learn from people who don’t think exactly as we do. On some college campuses, students are actually being “protected” from worldviews and opinions contrary to their own. This amazes me – I always thought colleges were places young men and women went to learn, not to be indoctrinated.

Another valuable form of learning is when we receive much-needed correction from someone who cares enough to alert us about harmful thinking and behaviors, even if their constructive criticism may sting at that moment. I’m thankful for the men and women over the years who invested the time to set me straight when my path was becoming crooked. I like how Proverbs 25:12 puts it: “Like an earring of gold or an ornament of fine gold is a wise man’s rebuke to a listening ear.” 

Albert Einstein, who clearly understood the value of learning, said, “Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school.” I’d venture to guess that 99 percent of the useful things I’ve learned in life came after my college years.

And for me, the greatest source for learning has been God’s Word, the Scriptures. I love the confidence expressed by King David, who wrote, Open my eyes, that I may behold wonderful things from Your law” (Psalm 119:18).