Monday, October 15, 2018

Hands, Heads – or Hearts?

When you look at people, what do you see?

Recently I heard a speaker suggest that our perceptions of people typically lump them into one of three categories: Hands, Heads, or Hearts. Let me explain what this means.

When we view people as “hands,” we’re perceiving them as means for getting things done. Not much different than regarding a knife or fork for eating; shovel or hoe for gardening; or hammer or nail for doing home repairs. Basically, people are regarded as tools or mechanisms for accomplishing projects, goals and objectives. We can consider employees or coworkers in this way.

Viewing people as “heads” means they serve as measurements for success or effectiveness. We talk in terms of “head count.” On social media, we don’t really know most of our “friends” and contacts, but get excited by each one that “likes” something we’ve posted. Film producers eagerly anticipate box office reports of how many “heads” went to see their movies. Elections tally how many “heads” cast votes one way or another. Even churches are tempted to view congregants as “heads” – professions of faith, baptisms, members “joining the fold.”

The third alternative is to see people as “hearts” – real-life individuals, with faces, names, and genuine needs physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual in nature. I don’t recall in the Scriptures where Jesus ever saw people as hands or heads. But He definitely viewed them as hearts. In fact, that’s what stirred His own heart.

In John 11:35, we read the shortest verse in the English translations of the Bible: “Jesus wept.” It was right after the death of His friend, Lazarus, and He had just told the dead man’s sisters, Martha and Mary, I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die” (John 11:25-26). So why was He weeping?

The passage doesn’t specify the cause of Jesus’ tears – it might have been out of sympathy for the sorrow family and friends were feeling. He may have pondered how such tragedies ultimately were a consequence of the sinfulness of humankind. Jesus might have been responding to the reality that even though He soon would raise Lazarus from the dead, the man would have to die again. And of course, the Lord knew His own death would be necessary for the forgiveness of sins and salvation of those who would believe in Him.

No matter the “why,” it’s clear Jesus focused on the heart of the matter – and the hearts of people He encountered. Crowds of people (heads) surrounded Him one day, as recounted in Luke 8:40-48), but when a woman plagued by a bleeding problem for many years reached out, He responded to her heart’s deepest needs.

When He met a woman at a well in the Samaritan town of Sychar, Jesus spoke to her not only of her physical need for water, but also the spiritual thirst that had gone unquenched in multiple relationships. When He asked her to give Him a drink, Jesus did not see a “hand,” but a heart that had suffered a lifetime of pain.

In 1 Peter 2:21, we’re told Jesus left us an example so we should “follow in His steps.” He also instructed us to “do to others as you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12). Could one way of doing that be to make certain that when we see people, we see hearts – and not just hands, or heads?

Years ago I heard someone explain the difference between “liberal Christians” and “conservative Christians.” Liberal Christians, he said, see “soulless bodies,” meaning their concern was primarily for the physical, temporal needs of people. Conservative Christians, he said, see “bodiless souls,” meaning they seemed to care little about people’s earthly concerns but focused on spiritual, eternal needs.

When Jesus saw people, I believe He recognized both physical and spiritual needs – He saw hearts, not hands or heads. Maybe we should pray that we would have His heart, and become more attentive to the “hearts” all around us?

Thursday, October 11, 2018

David vs. Goliath Today

Most of us have some familiarity with the Bible’s account of David and Goliath. Young shepherd boy, armed with nothing more than a slingshot and a handful of stones, taking on the towering warrior who caused even seasoned Israelite fighters to cower in fear. Except David had one more asset – the power of Jehovah, the Lord God.

Having warded off bears and lions in protecting his sheep, David might have drawn from experience for a bit of courage. But ultimately, it was his faith and trust in God’s power and protection that prompted him to undertake what some might have viewed as an impulsive act. Confronting the giant Philistine, David declared:
“You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the Lord Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This day the Lord will hand you over to me…. All those gathered here will know that it is not by sword or spear that the Lord saves; for the battle is the Lord’s, and he will give all of you [Philistines] into our hands” (1 Samuel 17:45-47).

That’s exactly what happened. As it turned out, David needed only one stone. Propelled by the slingshot, the stone smashed Goliath in the forehead and down he went, one dead intimidator. In biblical math, one plus God equals an overwhelming victory.

We’re tempted to regard this as an entertaining story from long ago, but the same principles hold true today. We might never face a fierce physical giant, but sooner or later life presents each of us with “Goliaths” that are far more formidable than our resources. 

Are you facing a “giant” right now? Perhaps financial woes seem overwhelming. When my wife and I got married, I brought sizable credit card debt with me. It took us years to dig out of that hole, but with discipline – and a healthy dose of wise counsel, based on biblical principles about money management – we eventually became free of the trap that has captured so many.

Maybe you or a loved one are facing desperate health circumstances. Medical science has provided no solutions, and now you’re reluctantly preparing for the worst. Whether within our families, or with friends, we’ve all come too close and personal with situations like these.

Someone’s “Goliath” might be a complicated, extremely troubled marriage, or a job situation that makes the start of each new day seem like a prison sentence. It could be depression, or some overwhelming addiction. Whatever such circumstances may be, it’s hard not to lose hope. That’s when it’s helpful, even essential, to remember the lesson of David vs. Goliath.

As a shepherd, and later as king of Israel, David learned when the situation seemed most dire, God was more than capable of handling it – often in ways he couldn’t have anticipated. (Even with something as simple as a slingshot and stone.)

Ephesians 6:10 states it plainly: “Be strong in the Lord and the strength of His might.” We often err when we stick with the conviction that it’s all up to us, that we must give it all we have, and if we’re lucky God will give us a little boost to get us over the top. In reality, He isn’t there to “give us a hand.” Often, I’ve discovered, the Lord waits until we’ve exhausted every option and have nothing left. Then He responds, “Okay, now watch and see what I can do!”

One of my favorite verses is Isaiah 40:31, which says, but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.” Another translation expresses is as “those who wait on the Lord.” We don’t like waiting. We want to tackle it right now, get it over with. And we don’t like the idea of having to depend on God to resolve our pressing problems. But that’s what He enjoys doing best – when all else has failed, He shows us what He alone is able to do.

The apostle Paul, who encountered more than his share of seemingly impossible trials, knew firsthand about God’s sufficiency. He wrote, But He said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is perfected in weakness.' Therefore I will boast all the more gladly in my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ 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 12:9-10).

Delight in weakness? Being strong – when we’re weak? Apart from the ears and eyes of faith, that sounds like mumbo-jumbo. But that’s the way the Lord works. It’s like He’s saying to us, “No matter what your Goliath is, I can handle it. Trust me.” 

Monday, October 8, 2018

The Problem with Planning

Goals. Deadlines. Plans. Expectations. Dreams. These are all good, at least in principle. Most of the time. As the old saying goes, “If you aim at nothing, you’ll hit it every time.” However, as a modern paraphrase of the Robert Burns poem also points out, “The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.”

Plans are best written in pencil.
Sometimes, as most of us have discovered, plans aren’t worth the paper they’re written on. We encounter interruptions, unexpected obstacles, or our “ducks in a row” refuse to line up. Intentions that look so good one day fall short the next. Some have surmised that many of God’s greatest laughs must come as He previews our plans.

For many years I’ve been a strong advocate of goal-setting and planning. I learned to make constant companions of my day planners, and I’ve delighted in crossing off items on my to-do lists and writing in things to do in future days and weeks. Plan your work and work your plan. Our recent trip to Italy was the culmination on months of preparations. Just the other day, I scheduled my annual physical for next year. 

However, with the glorious 20:20 clarity of hindsight, I’ve learned plans should be elastic, sometimes even disposable. Because stuff happens – and sometimes it doesn’t. I think of aspirations I had in college; some of those came to fruition while others couldn’t have been more off-target. I couldn’t possibly have planned the directions my career would take or the things I would be able to achieve, along with the worthwhile goals I would never realize.

It’s humbling, sometimes humiliating, but always important to realize as much as we would like to believe the contrary, we’re not in control of many things that go on in our lives. As Proverbs 27:1 admonishes, “Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring forth.”

But we need to plan, don’t we? It’s irresponsible to face each new day with no idea of what we’re going to do, right? Yes, it is. But we need to balance that necessity with a recognition that God’s thoughts of what we should undertake might be very different from our own. “Now listen, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.’ Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that’” (James 4:13-15).

In His “sermon on the mount,” Jesus offered a similar warning about being too presumptuous about the future, even one day ahead. “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear… Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?... Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own” (Matthew 6:25-34).

Someone has wisely observed that “life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.” This doesn’t prohibit us from setting goals, planning for the future, or trying to figure out how to complete our “bucket list.” That new job or next promotion probably will require some preparations. Next summer’s vacation arrangements won’t take care of themselves. And forward-thinking for Christmas is well-advised. But these all should be filtered through a willingness to submit to God’s plans, knowing His are superior to our own.

As Jesus told his audience, “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33).

Thursday, October 4, 2018

What We Won’t Be Seeing in Heaven

The sun rising over the Tyrrhenian Sea reminds us of what
lies ahead for us on distant shores.
“What will Heaven be like?” That’s an interesting question to ponder, at least for those of us who believe our time on earth is just a tiny fraction of our eternal existence. The Bible speaks a lot about Heaven. Author Randy Alcorn wrote an expansive book on it, appropriately entitled Heaven. (I hope the creative mind that came up with the title received a huge bonus!) Other books and countless articles also have addressed the topic. But we still don’t know exactly what it will be like. 

Jesus told His followers, “In my Father’s house there are rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that 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 14:2-3). Other translations, instead of “rooms,” use terms like “many mansions” or “dwelling places.” While offering assurances of life after this one, Jesus didn’t volunteer other details.

Billowy clouds hover over this ancient,
ornate church in Assisi, Italy.
In 1 Corinthians 2:9 we read, “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man the things which God has prepared for those who love Him.” The apostle Paul was quoting from the Old Testament book of Isaiah. Some commentators have observed this applies to spiritual understanding we can’t gain from our senses. But it also could be alluding to what awaits us on “the other side of eternity.”

We wonder, therefore, what will we see there? And hear? And do? Good questions all, without definitive answers. So we speculate. But there’s another curious question worth considering: What won’t we see, or hear, or do in Heaven?

The answer to this could be many things. I doubt there’ll be a need for air conditioning. We probably won’t have Popsicles. Will we need bathtubs, or shaving cream? Don’t expect to have clocks or watches, even of the digital variety. I don’t think time will be an issue when we have all of eternity. Maybe we won’t even have Sunday school. But in giving this some thought, here’s a short list of serious, everyday things that, according to the Scriptures, we definitely won’t encounter:

Hospitals, doctors and nurses. Funeral homes, undertakers and cemeteries. Pain medications and opioids. Crutches, canes, wheelchairs and Band-aids. Ambulances, paramedics and EMTs. Police cars, law enforcement officers and jails. Homeless shelters and soup kitchens. Politicians and legislators. Courtrooms and lawyers. Murder mysteries. TV crime dramas. Horror movies. 

How do we know this? Because each of these is related disease, death, injury, discord, law breaking, hatred, ungodly thinking – and sin. According to the Scriptures, none of these will have a place in the eternal home God is preparing for us. In the last book of the Bible we read, He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:4). Things that bring pain and sorrow will be eliminated as “the old order.”

Isn’t it good to know death, sorrow and evil will not exist in Heaven? We won’t be turning on the evening news to get the day’s “body count.” There will be no need to fear a dreaded phone call bearing bad news about a loved one. We’ll not be awakened in the middle of the night by sirens announcing a fire, traffic accident, response to a misdeed, or someone’s health emergency. As Isaiah 25:8 declares, He will swallow up death forever. The Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from every face and remove the disgrace of His people from the whole earth. For the LORD has spoken.” 

And we won’t see elderly folks huddling around a table to compare their latest maladies, or bemoan the toll taken by the passage of years. We’ll be made new, and never again fret about getting old. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come to pass: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.' Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law of sin is the law” (1 Corinthians 15:54-56).

To be honest, I’m getting more and more eager to discover what we will not be seeing and experiencing in Heaven. How about you? 

Monday, October 1, 2018

Is There a Difference Between Belief and Faith?

Believing a plane can fly, and actually getting on one to fly somewhere
are two different things.
If you knew someone who builds birdhouses once in a while, what would you think if that person declared, “I’m a carpenter”? What would be the difference between him and the individual who pursues carpentry as a profession, building and renovating houses five days a week, 52 weeks a year?

When I was young, I would write poems from time to time, dabbled with composing short stories, and enjoyed writing letters. But it wasn’t until I began my career as a newspaper editor, writing scores of articles every week, that I felt I could legitimately describe myself as a “writer.” 

It obviously makes a difference how we use terms and what we mean when we use them. An occasional hobby does not a full-time vocation make.

I’m thinking about this because there seems to be a similar difference between intellectual belief and genuine faith. I believe the first President of the United States was George Washington, but I’ve never placed my faith in him. The same could be said of every President since, including the current occupant of the Oval Office.

When the meteorologist predicts rain for tomorrow morning, I believe her. Why would she lie? But do I really believe her? Tomorrow morning I’ll look out the door, and if I don’t spot any precipitation and the sidewalk is dry, I’ll probably consult my weather app before deciding whether I’ll need an umbrella for wherever I’m going. My belief in what the weather lady said didn’t translate into faith.

This is why we sometimes stumble over the use of the word “believe” in the Bible. We use the term easily, even flippantly, but belief doesn’t always equate to a genuine faith in Jesus Christ. After all, in James 2:19 we’re told, “You believe there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe – and shudder.” And I doubt anyone would suspect demons of being devoted followers of Jesus.

Consider another analogy I’ve used before: Many people who believe in jet airplanes refuse to board one. If we were to ask any of them if they believed the plane could take them to their intended destination, they’d probably say yes. But they’re still unwilling to entrust themselves to the aircraft and its crew. 

In their defense, Jesus did say in Matthew 28:20, lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age!" (But I don’t think that’s what He meant.) For whatever reason, while they may have intellectual belief, some folks lack the necessary faith to get on the plane, take a seat, strap in, and expect to arrive safely at their destination.

Actually, the Bible uses the word “believe” in different ways. One meaning relates to knowledge, like the time recounted in Matthew 14 when Jesus was walking on the water while His disciples were in a boat being buffeted by waves of the sea. When impetuous Peter saw Him, he asked Jesus, Lord, if it’s you…tell me to come to you on the water.” 

When Jesus said, “Come,” Peter responded by stepping out. Within moments, however, he must have had one of those “What was I thinking!” moments and began to go down into the water. Peter believed several things. He knew it was Jesus strolling across the surface of the water and the waves, and also that Jesus had invited him to step out of the boat. But he also knew walking on water wasn’t a normal human activity, so he took his eyes off Jesus and started sinking.

So what does it mean when the Bible says, in passages such as John 3:16 and John 3:36, “whoever believes” will have eternal life? In this case, the term involves far more than information and knowledge. Literally it means to entrust oneself to the object of belief. When I boarded planes to fly to and from Italy in July, I entrusted myself to the jetliner and the crew, believing – by faith – they would get me where I wanted to go.

This is why I use a simple “spiritual equation” when meeting with men in mentoring or discipling relationships: 
Belief + Trust = Faith 

I remember the days I believed in Jesus Christ in an intellectual sense. I can’t remember doubting the existence of Christ from a factual standpoint. But it wasn’t until I was about 30 years old that my belief transformed into genuine, saving faith and new life spiritually.

Consider the honesty of the father of a demon-possessed boy who approached Jesus, asking Him to heal his son – if He could. When Jesus replied, “’If [I] can?’ Everything is possible for one who believes,” the dad candidly responded, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief” (Mark 9:17-29).

We’ve probably all had times like that, when we wanted to believe God could do something specific in answer to our prayers, but couldn’t imagine how He could do it. So whether consciously or not, we think, “Lord, I do believe – enable me to overcome my unbelief.” The good news is, based on how Jesus interacted with the troubled father and his afflicted son, He’s more than willing to do just that.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Searching for Unity in the Midst of Hatred

Do you ever wonder what we would call our nation today if it were just being founded? On Sept. 9, 1776, the Continental Congress chose to name the country “the United States of America,” replacing the commonly used term, “United Colonies.” Even though there was not uniform agreement on every issue, the leaders and citizens of the new land were united enough on their desire for independence, to be freed from British rule.

These days, our nation seems not so much united as it is untied, even hopelessly divided, with opposing factions not only unable, but also unwilling to work toward any semblance of unity, or even compromise. But that’s to be expected, since both sides seem to harbor extreme dislike for each other. This is one of the reasons it’s so sad our culture has widely chosen to discount, even disparage, biblical teachings on how we’re supposed to get along with one another. 

Deep-seated animosity is hardly a 21stcentury invention – although these days people seem intent on perfecting it. King Solomon, in his timeless collection of wise observations, wrote, “Hatred stirs up dissension, but loves covers over all wrongs” (Proverbs 10:12).

Everywhere we look, from the halls of the White House to hyper-vocal protesters on the streets, we see hatred manifested in abundance. The love part of the proverbial admonition, however, is conspicuously absent. It’s hard to promote unity without at least some commonly shared sense of respect and cordiality.

Here we can see why teachings of Jesus Christ were so revolutionary for His day – and remain unprecedented today. In His well-known “sermon on the mount,” Jesus offered this challenge which must have elicited a collective “Say what?!” from His hearers:

“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. If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also…. Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:27-31).

This flew in the face of Old Testament teachings that advocated vengeance and retaliation, such as, if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise” (Exodus 21:23-25).

Jesus had not forgotten this; nor did He choose to ignore it. Instead, He acknowledged past teachings and practices, urging His followers to embrace a different path: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person…” (Matthew 5:38-39).

Not much has changed over 2,000 years, has it? Hatred and vitriol are spewed with incredible zeal, even from some who can quickly quote the biblical declaration that “God is love.” It’s just as hard for us to love our enemies, to show kindness to those we perceive as evil, as it was for those who were listening to Jesus speak in person.

This was not a misquote, or a statement He made that was reported out of context. In fact, Jesus expanded on what He had said so there could be no misunderstanding:

“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. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ lend to ‘sinners,’ expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father in merciful” (Luke 6:32-36).

Loving our enemies? Doing good to people who scheme against us? Performing acts of kindness for people in no position to ever return the favor? Who can do that? Who wants to do that? And yet, that’s exactly what Jesus expected of His followers then – and still does now. 

As He said in John  14:15, If you love Me, you will keep My commandments.” Based on our attitudes and actions toward those with whom we disagree, whose beliefs and values seem diametrically opposed to our own, do we truly love Jesus? Would there be enough evidence to convict us?

What if we took His admonitions to heart and started putting them into practice? Now that would be revolutionary!

Monday, September 24, 2018

Taking Truth to the Negotiating Table?

It’s time to revisit a topic in the forefront of many people’s minds these days. Pontius Pilate, confronted with what to do with Jesus, whom religious leaders regarded as rabble-rouser at best and outright threat at worst, famously asked, “What is truth?” (John 18:38). Lots of people these days seem to be wondering the same thing.

We tend to treat truth as a negotiable commodity, like going into a grocery store and choosing between brands and flavors of jelly (or jam or preserves), kinds of deli meat, or varieties of cereal. Everyone likes multiple choices, don’t we? 

If you’re old enough, you remember having only three TV stations – or if you’re not that old, about a dozen cable channels. Boring, right? (Today we have hundreds of channels from which to choose, and still can’t find anything worth watching!) When cars were invented, Henry Ford said something like, “You can have your Model T in any color you want – as long as it’s black.” Can you conceive of not having dozens of makes, models, sizes and styles of cars, vans, SUVs and trucks, not to mention color schemes or accessory options?

Lots of folks view spirituality the same way. They recoil at the notion that there could be such a thing as absolute spiritual truth. I read this post recently on social media: 
“One can believe they have a corner on the truth and God’s will, but that would be true of any number of people from any number of religions.” 
In other words, who’s to say that Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and all the other “isms” aren’t equally true? (Despite the fact that even a cursory comparison reveals they differ greatly on many key points, often diametrically opposed and irreconcilable.)

Should we agree that truth is simply a matter of what’s right in the eyes of the beholder? As long as one is sincere – or convinced? Kumbaya, anyone?

Well, drawing cues from everyday life we discover truth isn’t nearly so negotiable. Take, for example, commonplace realities like gravity, blood, or even roadways.

What would you think of someone who said, “I’m jumping off this cliff. My truth says I won’t fall, that instead I’ll soar like an eagle”? Gravity has little interest in what our “truth” tells us. What goes up must come down, like it or not.

If we need a blood transfusion, in most cases a blood type matching our own is required. Tomato juice or red fruit punch won’t do; not even blood from a cow or a camel. No matter what someone decides they want their “truth” about their blood to be, the type of blood they have is the type they will need.

Many roadways are very clearly designated for one way. Especially highways. We don’t want some driver deciding “her truth” says it’s okay to drive south in the northbound lane. We’ve all heard about what happens when one person’s truth collides with someone else’s truth on the interstate.

There’s a tendency to balk when we’re told there’s only one way to achieve a desired objective. But imagine a passenger of the Titanic, struggling to stay afloat in the frigid waters as the fabled ocean liner sinks to the ocean floor. (This is shortly after the ship captain’s “truth” told him the Titanic was unsinkable, and that there couldn’t be an iceberg in the vicinity poised to rip a hole in the ship’s hull.) 

A lifeboat comes across the frantic passenger treading water. There’s room for one more person in the lifeboat, and it’s the swimmer’s last chance for survival. Yet he emphatically refuses to climb in, insisting he’ll wait for a larger rescue boat. His own “truth” convinces him this isn’t his one and only option. How long do you think his truth would keep him alive?

For this reason, when we read Jesus make the seemingly audacious statement,“I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6), we should at least take a moment to consider the magnitude of His claim. Many argue, “Jesus is the only way? No way!” Then they move along pursuing their own way, their “truth.”

But Jesus didn’t make that assertion just once. He made it clear truth was of eminent importance for Him, such as the time He addressed the esteemed Pharisees: Jesus said to them, ‘If God were your Father, you would love me, for I have come here from God. I have not come on my own; God sent me…. You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies. Yet because I tell the truth, you do not believe me!’" (John 8:42-45).

Harsh, tough words, right? Jesus apparently hadn’t read Dale Carnegie’s book about how to win friends and influence people. But sometimes there’s no soft-pedaling, no sugarcoating the truth.

If He were standing among us today, I believe Jesus would say the same thing. As He told Jews who were following Him, If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32).

And how can we find this truth? How can we know it? Jesus gave this answer as well: "When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father – the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father – he will testify about me” (John 15:26). 

Thursday, September 20, 2018

‘Hiding the Word’ in Your Heart

Do you know your home address? How about your phone number? What about your Social Security number? If you’re a football fan, do you know the star players on your favorite team? Can you recite the Pledge of Allegiance, or sing the words to the Star-Spangled Banner?

I ask those questions because I’ve often heard people say, “Oh, I can’t memorize.” That’s the excuse they use for not trying to memorize passages from the Bible. But the truth is, if something is important enough to us, we can memorize it. A more critical question is, “Does the Word of God mean enough to you to want to try committing some of it to memory?”

More than 30 years ago, I would have counted myself among the “can’t memorize” crowd. The idea of memorizing a verse from the Scriptures seemed daunting. Until I attended a conference at our church and the speaker offered a shortcut.

He asked who in attendance had tried memorizing anything from the Bible, and some hands went up. Then he responded, “Okay, for those of you who didn’t raise your hands, I’m going to show you that you can memorize Scripture.” He proceeded to take us to 1 Thessalonians 5:17 and said, “Here’s your verse: ‘Pray without ceasing.’”

I thought, “That’s it? Three words?” That was it, although the speaker suggested we also commit to memory the “address” – 1 Thessalonians 5:17. That way, if we ever needed to refer to the verse, we could find it in the Bible.

But the speaker wasn’t finished. “Now that you’ve learned that verse – three words – look at the verse preceding it: ‘Rejoice always.’” That was 1 Thessalonians 5:16. So in about a minute’s time, we had two verses in our memory bank, five words in all. Finally, he pointed us to one other verse, 1 Thessalonians 5:18, which says, “In everything give thanks.” Much tougher to learn – four words!

That wasn’t so bad. Three consecutive verses, “Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In everything give thanks.” My adventure in committing passages of Scripture to heart had begun.

But why even bother memorizing Bible verses? The goal isn’t to show how “holy” or religious we are. This isn’t about spiritual one-upmanship, showing off for a fellow believer. It’s about doing as King David wrote in Psalm 119:9,11 – “How can a young man keep his way pure? By living according to your word…. I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you.”

Remember the ‘WWJD” fad of years ago, “What Would Jesus Do?” Not a bad question to ask in principle, but I often wondered, how can we know what Jesus would do if we’ve not read and memorized from the Bible what Jesus did?

Of course, most of the passages in the Bible are more than two, three or four words long. It takes effort and practice to memorize them, but I’ve found doing so much more rewarding than I could have imagined when I started. About that time I joined a small group Bible study that required memorizing a number of verses. We had built-in accountability, since every week we had to recite to one another the verses we had learned over the past week. 

I can’t tell you how many times this practice has come in handy, whether sharing some truths from the Scriptures with a friend, talking with a non-believer about my faith, or trying to get God’s perspective about an important decision I needed to make.

For instance, a longer passage I learned became my “life verse,” one I reflect on often: “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). Recently a friend who is dealing with an advanced stage of cancer shared this verse, explaining how it comforts her as she faces an uncertain future.

A similar passage, Isaiah 26:3, affirms the confidence we can have as followers of Jesus: “The steadfast of mind You will keep in perfect peace, because he trusts in You.” Like a handyman being able to turn and instantly grab the right tool from the toolbox, having verses like this safely stored in our memory bank is a great source of comfort and assurance. 

Even if there’s not a Bible readily available – as is often the case – we can have the Word of God accessible for our use in the proverbial “blink of an eye.” So the next time you come across a verse or passage that seems particularly meaningful to you, why not try memorizing it? You might need it again sometime.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Accepting the Gift Nobody Wants

What was the worst gift you ever received? A gaudy tie for Father’s Day? Or a nifty kitchen appliance when you really were hoping for a romantic gift, like flowers or jewelry? 

A well-intended aunt had a habit of giving some of the most undesirable gifts you could imagine. One Christmas when I was a teenager she gave me several pairs of stretchy red, yellow and white socks, not remotely on my wardrobe wish list.

We enjoy receiving gifts we want. But have you ever thought about pain being a “gift”? That’s the contention of author Philip Yancey and the late Dr. Paul Brand, who collaborated on several books exploring the problem of pain from a spiritual perspective. One of their books is titled, PAIN: The Gift Nobody Wants.

In another of Yancey’s books, Where Is God When It Hurts?, he introduces Dr. Brand, a physician who devoted his life to living and working with leprosy patients in different parts of the world. A great danger these individuals faced, Brand discovered, was suffering or worsening injuries due to an inability to feel pain.

Yancey writes, “Pain is not God’s great goof. The sensation of pain is a gift – the gift that nobody wants. More than anything, pain should be viewed as a communication network. A remarkable network of pain sensors stands guard duty with the singular purpose of keeping me from injury…. For the majority of us, the pain network performs daily protective service. It is effectively designed for surviving life on this sometimes hostile planet.”

He quotes Brand who, drawing from decades of professional experience, determined, “…as a physician I’m sure that less than one percent of pain is in this category we might call out of control. Ninety-nine percent of all pain that people suffer are short-term pains: correctable sensations that call for mediation, rest, or a change in a person’s lifestyle.”

This seems counterintuitive. We recoil at even the thought of pain, seeking to avoid it if possible. Over-the-counter pain medications fly off the shelves at pharmacies and retail stores. Stringent restrictions now govern opiates and other prescription pain medications, seeking to curb epidemic abuse. Many people attempt to avoid or overcome pain by other means, ranging from alcohol and recreational drugs to immersing themselves into various forms of distraction.

But could it be, as Yancey suggests, that “pain is not God’s great goof”? Twelve years ago, while power-walking, I felt unusual chest pressure and soreness in my left arm and wrist. I’d never experienced those sensations before, so when they recurred the next day, I had the good sense to consult my physician. 

A battery of tests determined I not only had several arterial blockages, but also an enlarged aorta which could have taken my life. I had not felt the severe chest pain often depicted on TV and in films, but that pressure was still deemed “pain” by the doctors who diagnosed my problems and performed surgery.

If we’re hammering a nail and hit our thumb instead, pain alerts us so we don’t keep whacking away and exacerbate the hurt. 

One of the problems diabetics often face is that over time, nerve endings become desensitized. As a result, they can suffer bruises or more serious injuries, even aggravate them, without being aware of it because they don’t feel pain to alert them of the damage.

A great example of pain is found in the Old Testament book of Job. In a devastating series of events, Job lost his worldly possessions, his children, and his health. The only thing he didn’t lose was his wife. When she told him to “curse God and die,” Job might have wondered why she was still around.

Job presents a classic discourse on the problem of pain, the subject of countless books, sermons and articles. One important thing to remember is that even in the depths of Job’s misery, the Lord was never absent. As the account of God’s sovereignty and grace concludes, we even see Job’s fortunes reversed.

The apostle Paul suffered from some persistent malady, although we’re not told what it was. He wrote, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But 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 2:7-10).

Sometimes, as Paul said, it’s only through weakness – through pain – that we can experience God’s grace most profoundly.

Hard as it may seem, the next time we feel a twinge, an ache, or even a stabbing pain, before rushing for an immediate remedy, maybe we should first thank God for His “gift.” We can also cling to the promise from the Bible’s last book: “He will wipe away ever tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away”  (Revelation 21:4).

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Coping With All the Foolishness

Have you noticed foolishness on the increase in our society today? Seems it’s growing in epidemic proportions, whether on TV, social media, personal conversations, public debates, even from the pulpits of more than a few churches. Sometimes you can’t help thinking, “Huh? Say what?! Are you serious?”

I won’t get into specifics, because I’m aware that what one person perceives as foolishness is what someone else understands as good sense. Kind of like one man’s junk being another man’s treasure. But recently I came across some good suggestions on how to deal with fools and their folly whenever you encounter them.

For many years I’ve made an almost-daily practice of reading the chapter of Proverbs corresponding to the date of the month. So the day I’m writing this, I’ve turned to the 26thchapter of Proverbs, which has much to say about fools and folly. Obviously, foolishness isn’t an innovation of the 20th or 21st centuries. King Solomon, who wrote much of Proverbs, had to cope with his share of fools several thousand years ago. He demonstrated foolishness at times in his own life. So he devoted portions of several chapters to sharing his conclusions.

Proverbs aren’t written as commands, but rather as principles. Or probabilities. Even if you never read any other parts of the Bible, from the book of Proverbs you can glean an abundance of insights into the human condition and practical wisdom on how to live. What struck me most as I read this particular chapter were verses 4 and 5, which at first glance seem to contradict each other. Except they don’t.

They advise, “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you will be like him yourself. Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes.” Uh, okay, Solomon, which is it? Should we respond to a foolish person, or not? I believe the answer the king would give is: Both.

Let’s take them one at a time. I think verse 4 is referring to folks who say something so outrageous, so off-the-wall, you’re certain they’ve just arrived from the dark side of the moon. There’s a tendency to talk down to their level in an attempt to expose their folly, but in the process we can come across as just as foolish. Being the bull-headed fellow I sometimes am, I’ve been guilty of that on more than one occasion. 

To remedy that inclination, Solomon offered this reminder: “A fool finds no pleasure in understanding but delights in airing his own opinions” (Proverbs 18:2). Even if such a person physically hears what you’re saying, he or she isn’t listening. They’re not interested in learning, considering a different point of view, or having wrongful thinking corrected. So that’s why we’re admonished, “don’t answer a fool according to his folly.” Don’t respond in like manner.

However, that doesn’t mean we should always remain silent in the presence of foolishness. If we’re interacting with someone and strongly disagree with their statements or conclusions, we can attempt to point out their error. If we find they are receptive to ideas that differ from their own, we can have an honest, even cordial discussion.

There have been times in my life when someone was kind enough to point out foolish thinking on my part and, when I was willing to listen and mull over what they had to say, I’ve learned the error of my ways. At least I’ve discovered that just because I think or believe a certain way, that doesn’t mean other people don’t have reasons for thinking differently. 

This is why King Solomon observed, “The wise in heart are called discerning, and pleasant words promote instruction” (Proverbs 16:23). I’m grateful for the times when God gave me enough wisdom to recognize my own foolishness when someone was caring enough to point it out.

“A man finds joy in giving an apt reply – and how good is a timely word” (Proverbs 15:23). As a headstrong young man, I had my share of foolishness that needed to be exposed and expelled. I praise the Lord for sending people my way who were armed with apt replies and timely words to help in setting me straight in both my thinking and my actions.

Moral of the story: When we cross paths with someone who can best be described by one of my favorite words, “knucklehead,” we can attempt to guide them to clearer thinking. But if we perceive their minds are like trapdoors, locked from the inside, give them a wide berth. “Folly delights a man who lacks judgment, but a man of understanding keeps a straight course” (Proverbs 15:21).

Monday, September 10, 2018

The Original ‘Nick at Nite’

This was the "Nick@Nite" logo
used by the Nickelodeon Channel,
Have you or your kids ever watched “Nick@Nite,” programs broadcast in the evening by the Nickelodeon cable channel? It features syndicated series, children’s-oriented films and some original programming. We rarely watch it, unless one of our grandkids is visiting, but did you know there was another “Nick at night” about 2,000 years ago?

This “Nick” was Nicodemus, a member of the Pharisees, the Jewish ruling council, in the days of Jesus. In an amazing encounter recounted in the gospel of John (chapter 3:1-21), Nicodemus went to see Jesus at night, under the cover of darkness, presumably so he would not be observed by his peers and open to their ridicule. This evening interaction revealed a foundational spiritual truth.

Nicodemus kicked off the conversation by stating, “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.” As He so often did, Jesus responded in a very unexpected way, answering a question the Pharisee had not even asked: “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” 

The religious leader’s first inclination might have been to do a double-take, thinking something like, “Huh? What?” But then he asked, “How can a man be born when he is old?... Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!” Jesus quickly explained He was not referring to physical birth, but rather spiritual renewal and transformation.

“I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear the sound but cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit” (John 3:5-8).

In 1976, in the days leading up to the Presidential election, then-candidate Jimmy Carter brought the term, “born again Christian,” into mainstream consciousness when he gave an interview in the most unlikely of places, Playboy magazine. Over the decades since then, “born again” has been used – and misused – countless times. But there’s no mistaking what Jesus meant during his interaction with Nicodemus.

He wasn’t referring to a simple change of thinking, attitude or philosophy. Neither was Jesus insisting upon the adoption of a new ideology or belief system. He was introducing “Nick” – and us – to a fundamental principle of the Christian faith. We can’t have a genuine, life-changing relationship with God without being born again spiritually. 

In Ephesians 2:1-25, we’re told, “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient…. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ….” In another letter, the apostle Paul wrote, “I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20).

Grasping this truth, this reality, has been transforming for me, as I suspect it was for Nicodemus, who later became one of Jesus’ devoted followers. Being a person who does checklists and enjoys crossing off my “to-do’s,” I had been trying “to do” the Christian life, with very little success – but much frustration. Sometimes I still forget, or get distracted and fall back into my old “I can do this myself” habits. Then the Lord reminds me of what He said elsewhere, “apart from Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). 

I know I’ve written about this before, but I remember how long it took for this truth to really sink in. Jesus said, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free” (John 8:32). I can’t overstate how freeing it has been to “get it,” knowing that it’s not about what I can do for the Lord, but rather, what He wants to do in me and through me. Understanding this makes all the difference, every minute of every day!