Monday, December 10, 2018

Got Spurs? Let Them Jingle, Jangle, Jingle

Pardon me for showing my age, but I’m reflecting on the “good old days” when I reveled in the Saturday morning cowboy shows on TV – in living black and white, no less. Characters like Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Hopalong Cassidy, and Wild Bill Hickok. They were the good guys, always standing up (or riding) for justice and what’s right.

They could shoot their pistols with uncanny accuracy from horses in full gallop, never lost their hats in pursuit, and were nothing but gentlemen around the ladies. What I remember in particular are spurs, those metallic accessories to their boots used for prodding their trusty steeds faster when the bad guys seemed about to get away. I’m not certain, but it seems I had a set of toy spurs myself when I was a boy for my cowboy-and-Indian play days.

I’ve never used spurs on a horse. Actually, I’ve never spent much time on a horse; I like looking at them, but never felt safe sitting atop one of them. But from what I understand, those spurs were handy for getting the animals moving and keeping them going in the proper direction. 

Did you know the Bible has a bit to say about spurs? Not in the rootin’, tootin’ cowboy sense. But right there in Hebrews 10:24 it says, “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds.” I don’t recall any other reference telling us that Jesus, or the apostles, or even the prophets had literal spurs attached to their sandals. Nevertheless, this term is aptly used.

This thing we call “the Christian life” isn’t easy. At times we’re coasting along on some spiritual high, feeling like we can handle any obstacles we confront. But other times, especially during uninspiring doldrum moments, it’s harder to keep going. Those are the times when we can use a little “spurring on” for continuing what God has called us to do.

The image of championship sports teams comes to mind. They have talented players, usually more than one at each position, who engage in spirited, healthy competition. These athletes challenge one another, but also support one another, rejoicing in one another’s success. Probably without being consciously aware of it, they’re spurring one another on toward higher levels of achievement and success.

That’s what we should be doing as followers of Jesus. As the next verse in Hebrews admonishes, “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another” (Hebrews 10:25).

Elsewhere in the Scriptures we find acknowledgements that the our trek through life can sometimes be tough, slow sledding. Galatians 6:9 cautions, “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” I suspect we’ve all experienced a bit of fatigue in well-doing, wondering if we can continue – or if what we’re doing is really accomplishing anything.

We find a similar exhortation in 1 Corinthians 15:58, “Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.” Reading this in the Word of God is a great reminder. Our expressions of similar sentiments to one another can be as well. A few words of timely encouragement never hurt.

The old cowboy song went, “I got spurs that jingle, jangle, jingle.” When we encounter a brother or sister in Christ who seems to be dragging, whether weary from expended efforts or simply discouraged, it’s time to spur them on, urging them to continue in their pursuit of love and good deeds. Let’s keep our “spurs” jingling, and jangling! 

Thursday, December 6, 2018

‘But We’ve Always Done It That Way!”

Why are there always three wise men in the Nativity scene?
There’s a story about an aging monk that had a pet cat. The feline was fine, except when its owner was engaging in silent meditation. Then its constant meowing and rubbing up against his leg was distracting, disrupting his spiritual reflection. So he decided to tie it to a tree during his quiet times. When he was finished, the monk would release the cat and bring it back into his room.

Time passed and one day the monk died, leaving behind his pet. His fellow monks dutifully continued to care for the cat just as their deceased brother had done. One day the cat also died; the monks obtained another cat to replace it in the dead monk’s memory. As they had with the other cat, once a day they would tie it to a tree.

When asked why they were doing that, the men of the holy order replied, “That’s what Brother Jerome always did. We never asked him why, but we don’t want to ruin his tradition.”

It’s been said that the seven last words of the church are, “But we’ve always done it that way!” Many traditions and practices are well-considered and worth perpetuating, but sometimes rituals are repeated simply out of habit (no pun on the monk story), without any good reason.

For instance: Orders of service that never change. The same types of music always being played, without variation. The same version of the Bible always being read without question. Sacraments performed on the same Sunday of each month. Identical prayers being repeated. Maybe the same Christmas program every year; the only changes being who fills the key roles of Mary, Joseph and Baby Jesus. Having three wise men in the Nativity scene, even though most likely the Magi didn’t arrive in Bethlehem until months after Jesus was born – and no one knows for certain there were three of them. 

It’s like Heather, who routinely would cut the ends off the Christmas ham while preparing it for her family’s holiday dinner. One day her husband, Henry, asked, “Honey, why do you cut the ends of the ham before putting it in the oven?” “Well,” she responded, “that’s the way my mom always did it.”

The next Christmas the family went to Heather’s mom’s for dinner, and as expected, her mother cut the ends off the ham before putting in to bake. Henry seized the opportunity to ask, “Mom, that’s what Heather does – cuts the ends off the ham before baking it. Why do you do it?” The mother-in-law replied, “That’s what I learned from my mother.”

As it happened, Grandma was joining them for dinner, so after she arrived, Henry couldn’t wait to pop the question. “Grandma Harriet, why do you cut the ends of the Christmas ham?” Without blinking an eye, she answered, “Well, early on as a young bride, I only had a small baking pan, and the hams were always too big. So I cut off the ends so the ham would fit into it.”

Traditions and rituals are good, as long as their practice remains useful and purposeful. But to maintain them simply because “we’ve always done that way before” isn’t a very good reason. As Ecclesiastes 3:1 tells us, “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven.”

This suggests that time might one day come to end, when the “season” for a certain tradition has drawn to a close. It’s true even for our spiritual rituals, like a daily prayer or quiet time. Must they always take place at a specific time and/or place? When we study the Bible, do we follow the same routine, never bothering to “mix it up” and experiment with a new approach? If we ask a blessing before meals, do we use the same words every time? Do we always need to sit in the same spot during the worship service?

As long as these practices continue to enhance our walk with God, there’s probably no reason to change. But as devotional writer Oswald Chambers stated, let’s make sure they constitute our time with the Lord – and not just our time with our habit.

Monday, December 3, 2018

Absent from the Body, Present With the Lord

Gib is the gentle giant on the left.
Years ago, the rock band MercyMe recorded the hit tune, “I Can Only Imagine.” It later served as the inspiration for a theatrical film, telling the story behind the song and its message which ponders what heaven must be like. Don’t you sometimes wonder about this yourself?

These words take on deeper meaning when a dear friend or loved one who follows Christ passes away and it occurs to you that their wondering and imagining are over. For them, as the classic hymn “It is Well With My Soul” declares, faith has become sight. 

A couple weeks ago my friend, Gilbert (Gib), ended his year-long bout with cancer when he quietly drifted from this life to the next in his sleep. Over the months following his diagnosis and numerous treatments, Gib had voiced concern about the dying process, but never once did he fear the prospect of death. Many times he told me and others, “I can’t wait to see my Jesus.”

Even more than fishing, Gib loved
"fishing" in the name of Jesus.
When people learned Gib was dealing with cancer, they would predictably respond, “Oh, I’m so sorry.” He usually took this as an open door to tell them there was no reason for feeling sorry, that he was looking forward to going to heaven. Then he would kindly – but directly – ask if they had the same hope.

His hearers often marveled at his confidence; some called it courage. But as we studied the Scriptures together, Gib and I had talked about what the biblical term “hope” actually means – earnest expectation, confident assurance. And this is what Gib possessed until he drew his final breath. There was no hint of the tentative “hope-so” that comprises the best some people can muster as they consider their eternal destiny.

In 2 Corinthians 5:8, the apostle Paul writes, We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord." Gib could have written these words as well, and at last the Lord has granted this "preference." No longer encumbered by disease and earthly limitations, my friend is experiencing what I like to call the other side of eternity, since the Bible teaches that eternal life actually begins before death for all who have received Christ as Savior and Lord. "I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life" (1 John 5:13).

Gib was truly a gentle, congenial giant, the kind of man who never knew a stranger. Armed with a wonderful sense of humor, and a deep, resonant voice that could carry across the room, he thought nothing of striking up a conversation with anyone nearby, offering compliments and other pleasantries. Whether as an Uber driver, bass player in the church band, eating at a local restaurant, or sitting in a chair receiving his periodic chemotherapy treatments, he saw himself as an ambassador for his Lord. And he did his job well.

In the Bible we occasionally come across seeming imponderable statements, making us want to stop, scratch our heads, and ask, “Say what?” The declaration of Psalm 116:15 is one of these: Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints." 

How can a loving God delight in the death of His children? How can someone’s death be described as “precious”? I puzzled over that myself, until I realized what we perceive as the end of someone’s life is actually the beginning of a new one, unfettered by sin, pain, sorrow and all the hardships of our temporal lives.

But there’s another aspect to it as well. Think of a parent eagerly awaiting a beloved child’s return from a long stay in a distant land. I truly believe it’s that way with God the Father. As His children pass from this life, He is ready to welcome them, maybe even giddy with excitement. We talk about people “going home to be with the Lord.” According to the Scriptures, that’s exactly what it is, our heavenly Father with open arms receiving us to our real home.

I do wonder what is was like for Gib, as well as many other friends and loved ones, to be in the Savior’s presence for the first time. What a marvelous experience that must be, one that will never fade for all eternity. As 1 John 3:2 tells us, “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.” Imagine that, Jesus looking at us and instantly seeing an undeniable family resemblance!

Thursday, November 29, 2018

What Football Can Teach Us About Faith

Is your view of God that of a celestial football referee?
Traditional Thanksgiving weekend contests have taken place, and college football season is steaming toward bowl season and the College Football Playoffs. So there’s still time to consider what this uniquely American pastime can teach us about everyday life.

I used to wonder why the game’s still called “football,” when so little of it actually has to do with the foot. Yes, there’s placekicking, kickoffs and punting, but rules changes have substantially reduced the impact of foot on ball. But then a speaker pointed out that in this sport, almost everything revolves around where the football is located.

The “line of scrimmage,” for instance, is determined by where the officials place the ball. Penalties, such as “offsides,” also depend upon the football’s location and whether defensive players cross the “neutral zone” around the ball. The “goal line” comes into play when the football crosses it – or doesn’t – to decide things like touchdowns, safeties, and touchbacks.

When a quarterback drops back to pass, he’s throwing the football. And his intent is for a receiver to catch and advance it down the field. Conversely, defensive players either want to knock down the football so no one can catch it, or catch it themselves so their team will take over possession of the ball. The job of running backs is to hang onto the football and try to move it forward for first downs and touchdowns. 

Yes indeed, everything revolves around the football.

Why, when considering spiritual insights into everyday life, should we care at all about a silly game called football? Because as people created in God’s image, our lives – everything we do, say, and even think – should revolve around Him. 

When God gave Moses the 10 commandments to pass along to the Israelites, the first four specifically dealt with our relationship to Him. We’re not to follow other gods; we’re not to bow before manmade idols (“graven images”) in worship; we’re not to profane the name of the Lord in any way; and we’re to set aside one day of the week as “a Sabbath to the Lord your God” (Exodus 20:3-11).

A skeptic friend once commented that he thought God must be “pretty egotistical” if He demands our worship. I countered, “Well, if He created the entire universe and everything in it, keeps it functioning as intended, and provides for our every need, isn’t he deserving of honor, worship and praise? We recognize athletes for stellar performances, actors and musicians for their talent, and people holding elective office for their positions of leadership. Is it wrong for the Lord to expect recognition for everything He has done and continues to do, which dwarf any human achievement we can imagine?”

But there’s another, very different aspect of football also worth considering. It’s the role of the officials who maintain order, enforce the rules, and make it their aim to catch someone doing something wrong. 

We never see a referee running up to a player, patting him on the back, and saying, “Man, that was a great run!” or “What a clutch tackle that was!” or “Nice catch!” Do something wrong, however, and they call you on it immediately. First they throw the yellow flag, then announce for all the world to hear exactly what you did.

Sadly, this is how some people perceive God – as a divine “referee,” watching intently from the heavenly realms poised to throw the flag on anyone that gets out of line. Some people refer to the NFL as the “No Fun League,” and those with this perception of God might see Him as the No Fun Lord. Nothing could be further from the truth. 

God’s not surprised at all that we fail consistently to meet His holy standards. The Bible makes it clear: “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away” (Romans 3:10-18). So when we sin, which literally means “to miss the mark,” He’s not surprised at all. This has been the case since the beginning of time, humankind determined to function as its own god.

Unlike football referees, who dutifully enforce the rules by imposing prescribed penalties, God instead has provided the remedy – Jesus Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross – to offer forgiveness to anyone willing to receive it. As 2 Corinthians 5:21 declares, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” In the Old Testament we’re told, “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him [Jesus] the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:6).

Football operates by the “if you do the crime, you do the time” philosophy, immediately penalizing offenders for rules violations. In the realm of faith, however, God desires to forgive and to redeem, using His laws primarily as tutors to instruct us in how to achieve successful, fulfilling lives. “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).

The Lord not only offers us grace – His unmerited, undeserved favor – but also the faith needed to believe and receive His love and unconditional acceptance. So if you view God as a celestial referee eager to “throw the flag” when we mess up, maybe it’s time to take a fresh look at the Scriptures. 

Monday, November 26, 2018

How Much is Really Enough?

Financial advisors spend much of their time dealing with people who don’t have enough. Maybe they haven’t handled their finances wisely, amassing large amounts of debt. It might be because they’re not earning enough to support themselves and their families. Or it could be attributed to a variety of other reasons, including major, unexpected expenses, such as severe illnesses, or high repair/replacement costs for cars or “big ticket” items like air conditioners, furnaces, and roofs.

It’s tough when you really don’t have enough.

How should we respond when we're
being told too much is never enough?
However, some people have a very different question to answer: How much is enough? That’s something many of us never ask ourselves. Or, if we do, the response is typically the same. Years ago, one of the world’s richest men was reported to have been asked, “How much is enough?” To which he replied, “Just a little bit more.”

That sounds ludicrous, doesn’t it? How could a person with great wealth be dissatisfied with what he or she already has? When that “little bit” is achieved, the target somehow moves just a tad farther out. Makes no sense, right? But we’ve all done it.

We don’t need fabulous wealth to wrestle with this “little bit more” issue. The boss gives us a raise at work, yet within weeks the additional compensation begins to seem inadequate, especially if we learn a coworker also got a pay increase and is earning more than we are. In setting career goals, we reason if we could just arrive at a certain level of income, that would make us happy. But once we get there, it appears we’ve set the bar too low.

And it’s not just about paychecks and bank accounts. We can have a closet full of clothes, yet strolling through a retail store, we can’t help thinking a new dress, shirt, or pair of shoes would really be a nice addition to the wardrobe. That 50-inch high-definition TV we already have is okay, but having a 65-inch model would even be better. We’re feeling satisfied with our five-year old car – until a neighbor drives up with a new one right off the showroom floor, loaded with accessories we didn’t even know were available.

We’ve just finished observing another Thanksgiving Day. For many of us, as we salivated over the array of food set before us, “just a little bit more” was the all-day answer to our “how much is enough” question. Long after we’d appeased our hunger, we were still treating our taste buds.

This is a “normal” human weakness it seems, which might be why God decided the last of His 10 commandments should be “You shall not covet…anything that belongs to your neighbor” (Exodus 20:17). Coveting what others have never leads to uplifting thinking. It may motivate us to work harder so we can have it too, but once we’ve attained “it,” it never seems to be enough. And this puts us at odds with others, the old “keeping up with the Joneses” mentality.

Proverbs 27:20 warns, “Death and Destruction are never satisfied, and neither are the eyes of man.” One translation of Proverbs 30:15 reads, Greed has twins, each named ‘Give me!’" What the Bible calls “the flesh” – our sinful nature – doesn’t understand what having enough means. It always wants more. 

The solution to this is making a conscious decision about what will be sufficient, what’s “enough,” even when opportunities emerge for us to acquire more. The apostle Paul, who experienced his share of both prosperity and deprivation during his lifetime, stated, I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want” (Philippians 4:12).

Out of that “classroom,” Paul reached an important conclusion: But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that” (1 Timothy 6:6-8).

Perhaps this is an important principle we all need to keep foremost in our minds, especially since the Christmas season is officially upon us. Over the next several weeks we’ll be bombarded with messages telling us about all the stuff we “deserve” and “need.” Have we learned the secret of being content? Can we distinguish genuine needs from wants? Are we willing to make a determination about how much is really enough?

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Being Thankful – Even When You’re Not

Since this blog post is appearing on Thanksgiving Day, I hope you’re reading it with a tummy filled with turkey, dressing “and all the trimmings.” What exactly are “all the trimmings”? Last time I checked, we don’t put Christmas ornaments on our turkeys, mashed potatoes, green bean casseroles, or pumpkin pies. And gorging on the holiday feast certainly doesn’t lend itself to “trimness.” So what’s up with all the trimmings?

Anyway, I want to wish everyone a happy Thanksgiving and trust you have already done so, or soon will take time to reflect on your reasons for being thankful. 

For many people, there’s lots for which to feel and express thanks. A good job, strong and growing family, enough money in the bank to pay all the bills (that could change in the weeks leading up to Christmas Day), personal health, and a place to call home. Unfortunately, for more than a few folks, some of those reasons for thankfulness are missing.

Over the past year I’ve learned of several friends confronting grim cancer diagnoses, or dealing with other serious health challenges. Unemployment, we’re told, is the lowest it’s been in years, but there still are those out of work – or unable to work due to some disability. Almost everyone faces family issues at one time or another; some are quickly resolved, others aren’t. Even during a strong economy, which many experts say we’ve been experiencing of late, financial help practitioners and bankruptcy attorneys aren’t agonizing over how to keep busy.

So if you’re among those feeling abundantly blessed and exceedingly thankful, good for you. But if your situation is very different from that, if you want to give thanks but don’t feel thankful, how do you respond?

The Scriptures offer help, since thankfulness is one of its central themes. In fact, one of the first Bible verses I learned – a very short one – speaks to it directly. In 1 Thessalonians 5:18 we’re told to, “give thanks in all circumstances,” adding why we should do so: “for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”

I understand. Saying to be thankful “because God says so” isn’t particularly helpful. Unless we tie our thanksgiving not only to what He has done, but also what we trust He’s going to do. In times of trouble and stress, I’m often reminded of Philippians 4:6-7, which urges, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

So when we’re praying, asking the Lord for direction, provision, intervention, or simply peace and hope in the midst of the turmoil we may be facing, we’re to begin giving thanks even then. Kind of like making a down payment on something we expect to acquire at a future time.

Ultimately, that’s what faith is all about. As Hebrews 11:1 tells us, “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” At the end of the same chapter, after citing numerous examples of people who maintained strong faith despite overwhelming circumstances, it states, “These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect” (Hebrews 11:39-40).

I close with this biblical admonition which precedes the command to give thanks in every circumstance: “Always be joyful; pray continually” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-17). If today’s a day when you couldn’t feel more blessed, rejoice and pray. If, however, today’s a day when we’re still anxiously waiting for God to “show up,” we should do the same – rejoice and pray. 

And give thanks. If not for present trials, then for the promise that He is faithful. “Delight yourself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart. Commit your way to the Lord, trust also in Him, and He will bring it to pass” (Psalm 37:4-5). 

Monday, November 19, 2018

Friends, Fake Friends, and Real Friends

When you hear the word “friend,” what comes to mind? 

These days, friend can mean many different things. We have “friends” on Facebook and other social media we’ve never met personally. We have no idea how old they are, where they work, what their lives are like. We might not know where they live. All we do know is sometimes they “like” or comment on something we’ve posted.

Real friends are a blessing, often a rare one.
We have “friends” at work, people we collaborate with on various projects. Outside of the workplace, however, we know little if anything about them. We have “friends” with whom we occasionally play golf, tennis, or maybe cards; friends we see only within the confines of the local church; neighborhood “friends” we wave at when we see them outside their homes; and friends we encounter through community events, school, or children’s sports teams. We probably wouldn’t choose them to accompany us on a walk through a dark alley.

What about “through thick and thin” friends, those folks who know us almost as well as we know ourselves, who have become integral to our lives? Do you have any of those? Are they a dying breed, destined to go the way of the dodo and the dinosaur?

It doesn’t have to be that way, even though today’s culture does little to encourage deep, meaningful relationships. We can’t be close friends with everyone; no one has that emotional capacity. But we all need someone (maybe more than one) we not only enjoy being with, but also can count on during tough times as well as good. You know, the “friend in need is a friend in deed” variety.

The Old Testament book of Proverbs, a collection of wisdom from King Solomon and other writers, says much about the values of true friendship, what it is, and what it isn’t. Here’s some advice on how to find a real friend like that:

Be selective. Not everyone should be invited into our inner circle of close friends. “A righteous man is cautious in friendship, but the way of the wicked leads them astray” (Proverbs 12:26). “A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother”  (Proverbs 18:24). Who is your “closer than a brother” friend?

Be wary of negative traits. People we spend considerable time with influence our thoughts and actions, good or bad.“Do not envy wicked men, do not desire their company; for their hearts plot violence, and their lips talk of making trouble” (Proverbs 24:1-2).“Do not make friends with a hot-tempered man, do not associate with one easily angered, or you may learn his ways and get yourself ensnared” (Proverbs 22:24-25).We have enough bad habits of our own without learning more from other people.

The best friends are constant. Anyone can be another’s friend when things are going well, or when they see a benefit in the relationship. But true friends remain during the hard times, when we have nothing to offer. “A friend loves for all times, and a brother is born for adversity” (Proverbs 17:17). In another Old Testament book, Solomon made this observation: “If one falls down, his friend can help him up. But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up!” (Ecclesiastes 4:10). When challenges and hardships arrive – as they will – it’s good to have someone there to walk with us through them.

Good friends make us better. We all can use true friends who have the ability to set our sights higher, both personally and professionally. “He who walks with the wise grows wise, but a companion of fools suffers harm” (Proverbs 13:20). “Listen to advice and accept instruction, and in the end you will be wise” (Proverbs 19:20).

Seek friends who aren’t afraid to tell the truth. People who focus on flattery, who always try to tell us what they think we want to hear, aren’t friends. They’re manipulators. “A lying tongue hates those it hurts, and a flattering mouth works ruin” (Proverbs 26:28). In contrast to that, the sincere, honest feedback of a friend, even when it’s hard to hear, can be like walking to a room filled with a wonderful aroma. “Perfume and incense bring joy to the heart, and the pleasantness of one’s friend springs from his earnest counsel” (Proverbs 27:9). 

True friends can be trusted. Few things are worse than being betrayed by someone we believed was a friend we entrusted with confidential information. Can you trust your friend? “A prudent man keeps his knowledge to himself, but the heart of fools blurts out folly” (Proverbs 12:23). “A gossip betrays a confidence; so avoid a man who talks too much” (Proverbs 20:19).

No one is perfect, but true friends – people we want to be around us – should fit the criteria above. Do you have anyone like this? Many people, especially men, don’t. If not, we’re told to pray, asking God to send this kind of person our way. “You do not have because you do not ask God” (James 4:2).

Thursday, November 15, 2018

One Letter Short of Danger

I’m mad. Because there seems to be so much anger these days, and there doesn’t seem to be anything that anyone can do about it.

It’s apparent this pervasive, perplexing problem isn’t going away any time soon. Curiously, even though there’s so much anger being expressed and exhibited in our society, if we were to ask folks exactly why they’re mad, some would be quite hard-pressed to give a reasonable answer. Just the same, they’re angry. Maybe you are, too.

We have angry protests. And people angrily protesting the protests. And irate protesters opposing the protesters of the original protests. We see talking heads on the news networks, exchanging harsh words with guests and one another. These “talking heads” aren’t really talking; they’re definitely not discussing. They’re yelling, screaming, cussing and carrying on, often totally unaware of – or unconcerned about – how much they’re embarrassing themselves and irritating everyone else.

Social media, which began as a good idea, a convenient means for people to reach out to other people they otherwise wouldn’t contact because of distance or other obstacles, has largely turned into a catch basin for anger, hatred, and vitriolic verbal barbs. Our homes, schools, workplaces, highways, even churches have no immunity to the explosive epidemic of anger besetting our society and the world.

It would be nice to explain away the prevailing negativity as just people letting off steam. But it’s more than that. Recently I heard someone make an observation about why we can’t just dismiss angry outbursts and demonstrations as just a passing fancy. She said:
“Anger is one letter short of DANGER.”

I can’t help but believe this is a reality we can’t simply ignore. Dangers presented by surging anger are becoming increasingly more evident. We even have some prominent celebrities endorsing dramatic and hostile displays, apparently convinced that’s the only way they can advance their respective views and ideologies. 

How are we to respond? Well, we could fight fire with fire, as the adage suggests. However, there might be a better way. Perhaps as much as any time in the past, we need to think and act in ways counter to the prevailing culture. 

One way is to eliminate angry responses from our behavioral “toolbox.” As Colossians 3:8 teaches, But now you must put aside all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your mouth.” Easier said than done, you say? I understand – all too well. Anger and I have been close companions for most of my life. But the same chapter presents the “how-to” for overcoming our tendency to answer anger with anger.

It talks about “putting on the new self,” the life we received when Jesus Christ came into our lives. Therefore, since you have been raised with Christ, strive for the things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:1-3).

Later it elaborates, since you have taken off the old self with its practices, and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator… Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Bear with each other and forgive any complaint you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you” (Colossians 3:9-13).

Following these admonitions isn’t easy. But then again, nowhere in the Scriptures does it say living as God requires should be easy. In fact, it’s impossible – in our own strength. We can’t do these things, and in reality, we don’t want to. When people make us angry, we want to make certain they know it. 

But that’s not what Jesus expects. This “new self” is the term the Bible uses to describe the “new creations” we become when He comes into our lives spiritually, beginning His lifelong process of transforming us into the men and women He wants us to be. In the Scriptures, the only time we see Jesus demonstrating anger is toward religious leaders oblivious to their own hypocrisy. He didn’t even offer angry responses to His accusers and executioners.

In a passage about relationships, we’re told, “’In your anger do not sin’: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold” (Ephesians 4:26-27). These verses are often applied to the context of marriage – don’t go to bed mad. But they easily relate to interactions with other people as well, whether at work, our neighbors, or antagonistic commentators on TV.

In serving as “Christ’s ambassadors,” as 2 Corinthians 5:20 describes us, we can shine light in dark places if we just learn that we can disagree, but do so without being disagreeable. Then we can steer clear of danger.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Valuable Lesson from a Donkey

A friend reminded me of a fable about a hapless donkey that somehow fell into a well. The water in the well wasn’t very deep, but it had no way of getting out. When townspeople discovered the animal’s plight, they tried to devise a solution to save it, but it seemed impossible.

When confronted with challenges, we can either
let them weigh us down or strive to overcome them.
Finally the citizens determined that if they couldn’t extricate the donkey from the well, the humane thing would be to bury it alive rather than let it die a slow death of starvation. So they began shoveling dirt into the well. The donkey, however, had different ideas. It would shake off each shovelful of dirt and let it fall to the well’s floor.

As the dirt falling from above began to accumulate, the animal realized it could step up onto the dirt pile and raise itself higher in the well. Eventually, the dirt had filled most of the well and the donkey, cleverly perched on top of it, simply stepped out of the well to safety.

The principle from this fable is one we could apply to many problems we encounter on our journey through life. The donkey could have decided he was doomed and accepted his fate. He could have given up and become buried under the dirt. Instead, he kept shaking it off and rising up under the challenge until he had overcome his dilemma and stepped out into freedom.

Many times our difficulties threaten to bury us as well. Problem piles upon problem, and we’re tempted to succumb to despair. However, if we remember the lesson of the donkey, we can regard these challenges as stepping stones rather than tombstones. 

It may seem like a puzzling reality, but we learn much more from difficulties and failure than we do from prosperity and success. For instance, financial problems often are the result of poor decision-making. Impulsive purchases, spending more than we’re earning, presuming upon God by accumulating debt. Or our priorities might be out of whack, causing harm to relationships and preventing us from accomplishing cherished goals.

At times the consequences of self-inflicted woes threaten to cover us up. We can choose to let that happen. Or we can learn from bad experiences, pursue ways of properly resolving them, and use this “dirt” to climb above our circumstances.

Followers of Christ, however, differ from the donkey in one crucial way. The donkey worked to resolve its problem solely through its own initiative. There was no one to help him. When our best efforts prove insufficient for the challenges we face, we have the assurance that we don’t have to confront them alone.

The apostle Paul, who dealt with multiple crises during his life as a disciple of Jesus, observed, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13). In fact, Jesus Himself stated that if our desire is to do things of eternal value, we can’t accomplish them on our own strength. “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).

Toward the close of his letter to the church in the city of Ephesus, Paul offered this encouragement: Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power" (Ephesians 6:10). In our culture, many of us have learned the “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” mentality. However, unlike the donkey who was clever enough to use the dirt as a means for achieving freedom from the well, the Lord wants us to rely on Him whenever we confront perplexing dilemmas.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t respond by doing whatever seems appropriate, but often even our best efforts aren’t enough. For this reason the apostle exhorted another group of believers to live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience” (Colossians 1:10-11).

When we’ve inadvertently fallen into some “well,” we don’t have to fall victim to the “dirt” cascading down on us. Instead, we can trust in the wisdom, guidance and power of God to lift us back to solid ground.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Keep Your Grudge in the Garage

Sometime ago, someone asked a country bumpkin if he had a grudge. “Sure do!” he replied with pride. “It’s big ‘nuf fer two cars, ‘cept that’s where I keep my four-wheeler and lawn tractor.”

Garage, “grudge.” Same thing, right? Unfortunately, no. I like having a garage, especially since I have an aversion to getting into an icy car that’s been sitting out in the freezing cold all night. Not my favorite way of “chillin’ out.” But having a grudge – better yet, nursing one – rarely, if ever, has any positive value.

Most of us know what it is to hold onto a grudge. Perhaps someone stung us with harsh words, or has treated us disrespectfully. When we’ve been wronged at work, we’re tempted to harbor a grudge for the offense. Maybe a neighbor has done or said something particularly annoying, maybe more than once. Why not hold a grudge against them for that? In sports, it’s common for rival teams to hold grudges against each other, attitudes that foment into hatred and hostility. 

Even in our churches, individuals or families refuse to speak to one another for some reason. Jesus said, A new commandment I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so also you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35). But apparently some people don’t think that applies to circumstances that justify mutual antagonism.

That’s not to minimize the emotional and relationship impact of being wronged. Wounds inflicted by others, whether by people close to us or strangers, are often slow to heal. Resentment and anger are normal responses to being hurt. However, clinging to a grudge and refusing to release it can do much harm – even to ourselves.

On his radio program a while ago, Dr. David Jeremiah suggested there are four different things to do with a grudge: Curse it. Rehearse it. Nurse it. Or reverse it. And we’ve probably done each of these at one time or another. 

We curse a grudge every time we see the offending party and feel a renewed surge of negative emotions. We rehearse it by reminding ourselves of the harm done, what happened, when it happened and by whom, and how it felt. We nurse it by treating the grudge as some cherished possession, refusing to let it go for fear the wrong won’t somehow be avenged.

Or we can reverse it, recognizing that hanging onto a grudge typically brings more harm to ourselves than to the one we feel is deserving of our wrath. In presenting His model prayer – what we know as “the Lord’s Prayer” – Jesus instructed us to ask God to “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” (Matthew 6:12).

He also said, a few verses later, For if you forgive men their trespasses, your Heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive yours” (Matthew 6:14-15). 

When I read those words, I want to respond, “But Lord, You don’t understand. After what they did (or said) to me, how can I offer forgiveness?” Then I remember Jesus on the cross, enduring the most cruel, excruciating form of execution, and yet being able to say of His executioners, Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).

In harboring ill will toward those who have offended or harmed us, our behavior mirrors theirs. As Dr. Jeremiah said, “Our enemy overcomes us when we become like our enemy.”

But where’s the vengeance, the making amends, if we willfully relinquish our “right” to harbor what seem to be well-deserved grudges? First of all, God declared, “Vengeance is mine” (Hebrews 10:30). Before we can utter our collective, “Yeah, but…”, we read about those to whom this admonition was originally addressed:
Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you endured in a great conflict full of suffering. Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. You suffered along with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions [in heaven]” (Hebrews 10:32-34).

If anyone had justifiable cause to nurse a grudge, it was those folks. But God insisted He alone had the right to judge, and avenge if necessary.

There’s one more reason for being willing to release grudges, even toward those who make no secret of their malice toward us. King Solomon made this startling observation: If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head, and the Lord will reward you” (Proverbs 25:21-22).

Some have said, “Don’t get mad. Get even.” But as followers of Christ, we have a third option: Get free. We don’t have to remain in bondage to destructive feelings; we can release them and entrust them to our just and faithful God.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Our Story, History, and His Story

“What’s your story?” Has anyone ever asked you that? Because each of us has a story. In fact, as my late friend Dave Stoddard used to say, there’s always a “story behind the story.” That’s one of the things that make every one of us so interesting and intriguing. 

Some would like to pigeon-hole us into convenient little categories, assigning one-size-fits-all labels. But in reality, we’re complex individuals with stories behind our stories – sometimes exhilarating, sometimes tragic, and usually somewhere in between. Many of us have spent moments in our lives wondering, “Who am I?” However, we rarely encounter people that ask us, “Who are you?” and are genuinely interested in hearing our answer.

We all have a unique story to tell one another.
For believers, it's also God's story.
The panhandler we spot on the street? He has a story. The nurse in the hospital’s intensive care unit? She has a story. The executive speaking animatedly into the smartphone at the coffee shop? Single parents wrangling toddlers filled with energy? The placard-carrying protester? They all have their own unique stories.

Our stories are imbedded in history – our personal history: backgrounds, key events, experiences good and bad, values and beliefs that have combined to shape us into the individuals we have become and are still becoming.

Within the family of faith we often celebrate stories of lives intersecting with a Person, Jesus Christ, who oversees a lifelong process of transforming us into what 2 Corinthians 5:17 calls “new creations.” We call these stories “testimonies,” and for well over 30 years I’ve had the privilege of writing many of them in the form of articles and even books.

Time after time, these have given me opportunities to see God in a way different from what I’ve seen in my own life. They’ve expanded my understanding of Him, appreciating how He’s worked in the lives of other people. Their stories – their histories – are actually His story in them.

Like a captivating novel, these real-life stories don’t end with an opening chapter. They become personal testimonies that grow and develop with the passage of years, even each passing day. And like a novel we can’t put down, His story in each of us includes twists and turns we never envisioned.

But our stories, our testimonies, aren’t precious gems for hiding away. They’re intended to be used and shared. They’re beneficial in many ways, including these three:

Personal edification. The faith journey isn’t a sprint; it’s a marathon. Reflecting back on our lives with Jesus a year or two, or more, we can perceive some of what the Lord has been doing over that time. Like watching a plant grow one day at a time, spiritual growth usually is indiscernible from one moment to the next. But comparing where we were years ago with where we are today reminds us of God’s faithfulness in our lives, how He has provided and intervened for us at crucial moments.

In its entirety, 2 Corinthians 5:17 states, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” This “newness” isn’t instantly complete, but the result of God changing us a little at a time. That’s so one day we will experience the promise of 1 John 3:2, “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.”

Mutual encouragement. When we hear from one another what the Lord has been doing in our lives, it gives new understanding of who He is, how He works, and why our faith in Him is more than a wish or a hope-so – a confident, unwavering assurance of His presence and transforming power. I think of many friends whose stories inspired me as I learned about God’s work in lives very different from mine.

In his second letter, the apostle Peter mentioned another apostle, Paul, who couldn’t resist telling what Jesus had done for him: “Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him” (2 Peter 3:15). Another passage admonishes, “Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds” (Hebrews 10:23-24).

Our experience. One of the great things about a personal testimony is that it’s irrefutable. People may disagree with our theology, or spiritual practices and traditions. But our testimonies – God’s story in us – come from what we know firsthand, our personal experience. In my own life, being made a “new creation” has included dispelling much of the anger, anxiety, selfishness and other flaws that ruled my life for many years. I’m still being “transformed by the renewing of [my] mind” as Romans 12:2 states, but today I’m quite different from the person I used to be.

And this we long to share with others. As yet another apostle, John, wrote, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched – this we proclaim concerning the Word of life…. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us…” (1 John 1:1-5).

Through our testimonies, we can share God’s story with others whenever the opportunities present themselves. Then we can be “ready always to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (1 Peter 3:15).