Thursday, August 16, 2018

A Good Wife: One of God’s Greatest Blessings

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This troubadour, accompanied on accordion, provided a wonderful gondola serenade.
"He who finds a wife finds a good thing and obtains favor from the Lord.”

This statement from Proverbs 18:22 was written by King Solomon of Israel, one of the Bible’s most interesting characters. He is called the wisest man who ever lived. In 1 Kings 10:6-8, the queen of Sheba declared, The report was true that I heard in my own land of your words and of your wisdom, but I did not believe the reports until I came and my own eyes had seen it. And behold, the half was not told me. Your wisdom and prosperity surpass the report that I heard. Happy are your men! Happy are your servants, who continually stand before you and hear your wisdom!”

Despite his acclaim, it seems at times Solomon failed to take his own advice. For instance, the Scriptures tell us he amassed 1,000 wives and concubines during the course of his reign. In most cases, “being in love” wasn’t the issue. He wasn’t a multiple times guest on “The Bachelor.” These were political alliances, even though elsewhere in the Scriptures, God made clear His warning against acquiring numerous wives. Deuteronomy 17:17 says, “(the king) must not take many wives for himself, lest his heart go astray.” Which is exactly what happened to King Solomon, especially during his later years.

Nevertheless, Solomon held high the virtues of a strong, loving marriage. In writing Song of Solomon, the king authored a tribute to romantic love and devotion. And in Proverbs 5:18-19, he exhorted his male readers, May your fountain be blessed, and may you rejoice in the wife of your youth…may you ever be intoxicated with her love.”

He could just as easily have written, “She who finds a husband finds a good thing.” But of course, Solomon was writing from the standpoint of his experience and perspective as a husband – albeit many times over.

The isle of Capri was one of our favorite stops.
As I read passages such as these, I can’t help but think of how blessed I have been. And how I can identify with the opening verse above. My wife, Sally, and I recently observed our 44thwedding anniversary. We were in Venice, Italy, and on the eve of our anniversary we had the thrill of being able to celebrate with a gondola ride in the city of canals, serenaded by a talented local singer who was accompanied by a friend on the accordion. 

When I reflect over my teenage and young adult years, wondering who would become my wife, I could not have imagined a better mate. It’s been far more than a four decades-plus love affair. She’s been my best friend, companion, partner and supporter. Sally has followed me around the countryside as I pursued vocational opportunities, put up with my faults and foibles, and patiently let me strive to be the spiritual leader God has called me to be, even at those times when I failed or didn’t successfully communicate the what’s and why’s of decisions I made.

We’ve gone through tough times. Raising a family, wrestling with financial issues, coping with career changes, facing health struggles, and just the challenge of dealing with everyday life all make tough times a given. But I firmly believe it’s those times that have cemented our relationship, causing it to grow much stronger as a result.

In Romans 5:3-5 it states,“…but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.” I suspect that many marriages fail because one or both parties give up too soon – they fail to understand or appreciate the benefits of perseverance, how hanging in during those times when going gets tough can help in forging a relationship that can endure any storm. 

So yes, as Solomon wrote, I have found favor from the Lord in finding a good wife. And, if He’s willing, I look forward to continuing to enjoy this favor He has provided for years to come. Because we serve a God “who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20).

Monday, August 13, 2018

Matter of the Heart, Part II

Since I write my blog posts about two weeks in advance, this one is a bit “anticipatory.” Last week I was scheduled to undergo a second heart procedure, and my prayer is that as you read this, I’m already well along in my recovery process.

If you’ve been reading my blog over the years, at least once a year I’ve reflected on my open-heart surgery in December 2006, when I underwent an ARR (aortic root replacement) – having my entire ascending aorta replaced, including the aortic valve, along with four arterial bypass grafts. (Don’t I sound medical?) Anyway, my surgeon was up front from the start, pointing out that perhaps 10-12 years down the road, I’d need to have the aortic valve replaced. Apparently, replacement valves don’t come with lifetime guarantees.

My "heart pillow," a fond
souvenir from 2006.
The procedure I was to have is called a TAVR (Transcatheter Aortic Valve Replacement). This was determined after I had a TEE (Transesophageal Echocardiogram) administered several weeks earlier. (Now your medical alphabet is as good as mine!) This test showed my 11½-year old valve wasn’t working properly and had to be replaced. Actually, a bovine valve (consisting of cow tissue) was to be inserted inside the old one. If I seem more mooooo-dy these days, or develop an insatiable craving for milkshakes, that’s probably the reason.

So I’m calling this post, “Matter of the Heart, Part II.” Interestingly, my hospital wasn’t even doing the TAVR procedure until 2011, five years after my original surgery. Praise the Lord for advances in medical science and cardiac care!

Going in, the cardiologists and surgeons told me that given my overall physical shape, and relatively young age (this procedure is most commonly performed on people in their late 70s and 80s), I had a very good chance of coming through it with the proverbial “flying colors.” That’s my hope, even if I still can’t leap tall buildings in a single bound. But whether you’re having heart surgery or getting your tonsils out, there’s always some risk factor.

Prior to my first surgery, while pondering my then-uncertain future and reading my Bible, God directed me to Psalm 41:3, which read, “I will raise him from his sickbed and heal him of his disease.” I remember at the time it seemed as if this verse were printed in neon lights. From that moment, I felt “the peace that passes all understanding” (Philippians 4:7), even though I knew the Lord had every right to choose to take me from this earthly life if He so willed.

This time I saw no message in neon, but over the course of my reading came across Psalm 27, which included the following passages that seemed encouraging: 
“The Lord is my light and my salvation – whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life – of whom shall I be afraid?.... Though an army besiege me, my heart will not fear; though war break out against me, even then I will be confident…. [God’s] heart says of you, ‘Seek my face!’ Your face, Lord, I will seek…. Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord.”

As I’ve mentioned before, the Scriptures say a lot about the heart, even though most of the time it’s in reference to emotions and motivations. But in my experience, and in the years I served as a volunteer visiting patients who had just undergone open-heart surgery, I can’t help but believe God built a spiritual component into the organ whose primary role is to keep blood consistently coursing through the body. It’s a daunting, humbling feeling to know you’ve approached death’s door during heart surgery, yet haven’t passed through it. 

Proverbs 3:5-6 tells us to “Trust in the Lord with all your heart,” and in Psalm 51:10, King David prayed, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” Repeatedly, the foremost challenge for all who follow Jesus Christ is to keep their heart right.

As I write this, trusting I’ve come through my surgery well, I have two “desires of the heart”: To do all I can to keep my physical heart strong to serve my God, family, friends and everyone I encounter, and to keep my heart (my thoughts and motives) right with the Lord that I might live faithfully for Him and speak His truth for anyone who wishes to know more about Him. And may I say, as we hear so often in the South, “Bless your heart!”

Thursday, August 9, 2018

‘Pasta-Tense’ Perspectives on Italy

The Roman Colosseum, a vast amphitheater of historic lore,
remains a visual wonder to this day.
Do you have any idea how much old stuff they have in Italy?

In the United States, a building 25 years or older becomes a prime candidate for being razed, to be replaced by something shinier, sleeker and, well, newer. Not in Italy, or much of Europe for that matter, as I had the pleasant opportunity to observe. One reason for my recent blog “sabbatical” was that my wife and I had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to join a group tour of Italy. As a result, I can now attest there’s a lot of old stuff there – REALLY old stuff.

Unlike in the USA, where we’re quick to demolish domed stadiums, retail stores, hotels and all sorts of other structures the moment they start to exhibit the first signs of age, things in “the old country” were built to last. Perhaps, even as they were being constructed, architects and builders were considering how these grand facilities would present themselves years later in what we could term, the “pasta tense.”

Take the Roman Colosseum, for example. The revered amphitheater was built in the first century A.D. Even though it has taken a beating over the years, it remains a stately icon of history. No one’s booking the Colosseum for sporting events these days, but neither is anyone in Rome contemplating tearing it down and replacing it with a shopping mall or condominiums.

Artwork that defies description can be
seen everywhere in the Vatican.
The Sistine Chapel in Vatican City, known best for Michelangelo’s wondrous ceiling paintings, is young by comparison, dating back only to the 15thcentury. But more than 600 years later, it still mesmerizes many thousands of visitors daily, not only for its artistic beauty but also for the compelling spiritual messages captured by each work of art. The imagery – and truths – throughout the Vatican have endured the passing of time.

This “built to last” philosophy was evident everywhere we went, whether it was ancient Assisi, birthplace of St. Francis; the ruins of Pompeii, reminders of the once-prospering Roman city buried by the 79 A.D. eruption of Vesuvius; the hillside city of Montefiascone, or picturesque seaside communities like Positano and Sorrento.

Rock formations off coastal communities
like Capri command a sense of awe.
The imposing “faraglioni” rock formations off the island of Capri, which have adorned travelogues as well as theatrical films set in that area, leave their own lasting impressions – not of human imagination and construction, but of natural wonder.

During our 12-day travels across what the natives know as Italia, I found much to take note of and ponder. But the enduring qualities of what we saw firsthand ranked right at the top of the list.

Pride of workmanship, perseverance and creativity were represented in each, but in many cases, we could see another quality on display: devotion to the Creator God. In my view, it was a manifestation of the admonition from Colossians 3:23-24, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward.”

Renaissance painters, not only Michelangelo but also masters like Sandro Botticelli, Pietro Perugino, Pinturicchio, Domenico Ghirlandaio and Cosimo Roselli, labored countless hours on frescos and draperies to create scenes that depicted biblical characters and stories. Even if these artists were commissioned and compensated for their work, there is something exquisite and timeless about their work that could only have come through labors of love for their God.

Michelangelo's famed Pieta in St. Peter's Basilica.
Everywhere we visited in Italy we found churches and chapels boasting a level of craftsmanship rarely seen in our contemporary world. In fact, you might say in some respects they have an otherworldly quality to them, work undertken as a form of worship.

I suspect undergirding some of these projects was King Solomon’s declaration in Ecclesiastes 9:10, Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the realm of the dead, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.” If only we could see more people pursuing their work with that sort of passion and motivation today.

Monday, August 6, 2018

Adoption: A Most Delightful Word

One of the kindest, happiest words in the English language is adoption – particularly because it’s something we do voluntarily.

We have pet adoption centers, where lost and abandoned animals can find new homes and loving owners. You can “adopt” a highway, contributing financially to support its ongoing maintenance. Churches sometimes adopt a neighboring community, setting out a strategy for serving and ministering to its residents. Cities sometimes adopt a “sister city” in another country, using that connection to conduct meaningful social and cultural exchanges.

And you can adopt a child, whether an adolescent from a troubled home who has been shuttled around the foster care system, an orphan, or an infant whose biological parents either do not wish to raise it or are incapable of doing so.

Cam had his "day in court" last week.
Our family has been the delighted beneficiary of the latter on two occasions – seven years ago when we welcomed Mac into our clan, and just last week, having little Cam legally declared Mac’s adoptive brother after the requisite waiting period. To say they are a blessing would be among the greatest of understatements.

In both cases, the birth moms made the courageous and caring decisions not to pursue abortions to end their unwanted pregnancies. Instead, they determined to find a loving couple to take on the permanent responsibilities of parenting, nurturing and providing for their babies. That couple, in God’s providence, was our youngest daughter and her husband.

The interesting thing about adoption is that while the boys do not carry their parents’ DNA, they are every bit as much their sons as if they had been biological offspring. Our family regards them the same as the grandkids that do carry our genetic imprint. We can’t imagine life without them in our family.

It’s noteworthy that the concept of “adoption” is also important in God’s grand scheme of things, since it’s cited in numerous passages of the Scriptures, particularly the New Testament. It serves as a descriptive for how we become part of His family. 

Cam is one happy little boy.
In Romans 8:15 we’re told, “For you did not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the spirit of adoption by whom we cry out, ‘Abba, Father.’ The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” That term, “Abba,” best translated as “daddy,” showing the tender, intimate relationship we can enjoy with God as chosen members of His eternal family.

Galatians 4:5 states Jesus came, “to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons.” And Ephesians 1:4-5 declares, “just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love, having predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to himself.”

These and similar passages affirm becoming children of God is not automatic, but a gracious, intentional choice by the Lord, welcoming us into His fold. Even when we don’t feel like members of His family – or if a time should come when we don’t want to be – we remain adopted according to His perfect, unchanging will.

In Christian circles we sometimes hear discussions about the “security of the believer.” Can we mess up so badly that we lose our salvation? Is it like pulling petals off a daisy, “He loves me…He loves me not”? Knowing we have been adopted by God should quell such fears.

Just as our two adoptive grandsons were chosen to join our family, and by court decree can do nothing to undo that, we too have the everlasting assurance of being members of God’s family according to His holy, perfect decree. What the Lord has done, we can’t undo.

As Titus 3:5-7 affirms, “he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.” That, my friends, is what we call “Good News.”

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Love Your Neighbor. But Which Ones?

When considering God’s commands for mankind, we typically think about the “do-nots,” especially those specified in Exodus 20, Deuteronomy 5, and elsewhere. These include: Do not worship other gods; do not profane the name of God; do not murder; do not commit adultery; do not steal; do not lie; do not covet what others have.

But “don’t” commandments like these are relatively easy to observe. We would know if we murdered someone, or committed adultery, or stole something. If we’re told not to do something, and then we do it, we’d have to be in denial not to realize we’ve broken the command from God. The more difficult commandments are the ones framed in the positive, things the Lord said we should do.

Maybe that’s why, when a religious leader asked Jesus which is the greatest of all commandments – as recounted in Matthew 22 and Mark 12 – He didn’t offer a lists of don’ts. Instead, Jesus summarized the intent of all the commandments by stating two “simple” things to do: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There are no commandments greater than these” (Mark 12:30-31).

Sounds easy, right? Not really. How do we know when – and if – we’ve fully observed either one? The greatest commandment – to love God with all that we are and all we have – has been the subject of countless sermons, and many more to come. For now, I’d like to look at the second great commandment: to love our neighbor as ourselves. 

To underscore just how hard “loving your neighbor” can be, one time Jesus told another leader – called “an expert in the law” – that to inherit eternal life, he also should love God, and “love your neighbor as yourself.” Seeking clarification, this official inquired, “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29). Maybe this question was sincere; maybe the guy was just looking for some kind of exception. You can’t really love everyone, can you?  Regardless, it was a good question. One we each should ask of ourselves.

It applies to the ongoing debate about immigration on the southern borders of the United States. Opinions and positions are strong, and in many respects, polarized on this question. But I think it applies just as much – or perhaps more – to “neighbors” who without question reside legally within our national borders. 

Obviously, our “neighbor” could be someone who lives in the house or apartment next door, or across the street. It could be a person, couple or family we meet at church, whether we know them well or not. The “neighbor” Jesus is talking about could be the individual in the next office, or cubicle, or a person we meet on a sales call.

If we broaden the description, we might find our “neighbor” is the homeless person begging for cash downtown, or living in a makeshift tent under a bridge we drive over every day. Our neighbor could be a military veteran, homeless or not, who has returned from a field of battle bearing injuries and scars, some we can readily see – and some that we can’t. Most times, mental and emotional damages aren’t as evident or easy to identify. Are we as individuals, and as a nation, doing all we can to help these “neighbors,” not only to meet their immediate needs, but also so they can return to productive living?

One group of “neighbors” too often overlooked consists of native Americans, men, women and children who live on reservations, often in extreme poverty. Many of us have no idea of the plight they endure every day, or that the rates of suicide and alcoholism among American Indians far exceed the national average for all segments of society. How well are we loving these “neighbors”?

So while our elected officials continue to wrangle over questions surrounding immigrants who seek – legally or not – to cross our borders in hopes of becoming beneficiaries of the so-called “American dream,” we’d be remiss not to search our own hearts and ask how well we’re loving and tending to our “neighbors” who are already here.

Because, as 1 Timothy 5:8 tells us, But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” 

And, as we seek to become more diligent in loving our neighbors as ourselves, we find ourselves drawing closer to loving God the way we should. Because as Jesus said,whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40).

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Reaping Positives from Life’s Negatives

Sometimes we learn more from life's gutter balls than from its strikes.
I hate to exercise. But I love to have exercised (past tense.) Even though I’ve maintained a steady exercise routine for a couple of decades, more often than not, I conduct a brief debate with myself over whether to work out that day. Why exert today when you can put it off until tomorrow?

Yet, most times I relent and go anyway. The first few minutes are like trying to push a wet noodle up hill, but after I’ve warmed up it becomes a bit easier. Before I know it, the 45 minutes or hour I’ve designated for working out have passed. Then I’m very pleased I went to exercise – because it’s over.

I know a consistent workout is good for me, and even with the passing of years, I’m much healthier today than I would have been if I’d chosen not to go through the pain and strain. So in retrospect, I guess I don’t really “hate” exercising as much as I claim.

This principle applies to everyday life as well. Who among us would eagerly line up for financial struggles, family discord, work challenges, or health issues? We want our lives to be a smooth ride, kind of like sliding rapidly down a bobsled run – except without the precarious twists and turns. But in reality, it’s the difficulties that shape us, building character, perseverance, confidence and faith.

I don’t know who originated these thoughts, but they ring true: Pain leads to patience; hurt leads to humility; and suffering leads to strength. 

We find this affirmed in the Scriptures. Romans 5:3-6 tells us, “…we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.”

To assure us that’s not a misprint or mistranslation, James 1:2-4 declares, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”

Walking or running on a treadmill, riding an exercise bike and lifting weights produce a good physical workout that tones and strengthens muscles, builds stamina and enhances our overall physical well-being. Circumstances in life can do much the same, challenging our resolve, helping us to build determination and, if we’re willing, strengthening our trust and faith in the Lord. For whatever reason, success and good times – those moments when we can revel in carefree living – can’t do that for us.

So, like exercising, I have hated going through money struggles, career uncertainties, family conflicts, some serious health challenges, even times when I’ve questioned my faith. But I’m thankful to have gone through each of them. They taught me a lot about myself – and even more about the Lord and the absolute confidence I can have in Him.

At the same time, I know the adversities haven’t ended. Just when we complete one stage of life and think, “Phew! Glad that’s over with!” along comes another one with its own menu of difficulties. But I’m okay with that, because as the anonymous writer said, pain leads to patience. Hurt leads to humility. Suffering leads to strength. And who among us couldn’t use a little more patience, or humility, or strength?

Monday, July 9, 2018

Wading into the Waiting Game

Whoever enjoys waiting, raise your hand. Next, tell us how long you’ve had problems telling the truth! I doubt any of us has much use for having to wait, although I suppose some can tolerate it more than others. 

I hate standing in line at the grocery store, especially behind someone whose casual conversation with the cashier indicates they have nothing to do for the rest of the day. And don’t get me started on my propensity for selecting the slowest-moving line. Sometimes I think traffic lights are programmed with a pernicious capacity for testing our patience. “Come on! Turn green already! What’s the holdup?”

By all accounts, however, waiting at a doctor’s office is the worst. Whether it’s for a wellness visit, sickness, or we’re there for some kind of treatment, we already hate being there. Having to wait only adds to what ails us. Recently I was scheduled for a medical procedure at a local hospital. My wife, who had to drive me home afterward, and I arrived promptly at 8:30 a.m., as instructed. Before long we were guided to a short-stay treatment room and told my case was next. The medical staff should be ready for me a little after 10. So, we waited.

As the clock approached 11, we asked what was going on. “Very soon,” we were told, but noon passed, then 12:30. Apparently the doctors and staff went to lunch. Everybody’s got to eat, right? Except for the patient who hadn’t eaten since 9 the previous evening. “Either get this procedure going,” I thought, “or bring me a cheeseburger!”

They finally took me into the treatment lab just after 1 p.m. The procedure was completed and I awoke from the anesthetic around 3, but we had to stay another eight hours before I was fit to leave! By the time the nurse signed my release, I wanted to run out of there – although they warned that wouldn’t be wise.

The other day my wife was preparing to leave for a day of babysitting with the grandkids when she discovered a tire on her vehicle was flat. She took my car instead, and I called for roadside assistance. Since changing a tire these days has become more complicated than solving a Rubik’s Cube, I willingly endured the 50-minute wait for the repair service to arrive. In this case, the wait was worth it. So I’ve had my share of waiting of late. It’s not fun, but sometimes it’s necessary.

Waiting is integral to the spiritual life as well. Many times God has said “Go!” and I’ve eagerly gone, but sometimes He’s said, “Wait!” I haven’t been as thrilled with that. Only in hindsight could I discern why I needed to wait – and why the Lord knew exactly what He was doing by keeping me in His “waiting room.”

Reading the Scriptures, it’s amazing how often God requires His people to wait on Him and the fulfillment of His plans. Abraham and Sarah were promised a son, but had to wait years for son Isaac. Joseph was central to the Lord’s plan to save the people of Israel from famine and relocate them to Egypt, but he had to suffer a series of seemingly unjust waits to prepare him for that role.

When time came for the Israelites to be freed from slavery in Egypt, God handpicked Moses to lead the way. But first he had to withstand 40 years in exile. The apostle Paul, following his dramatic conversion on the road to Emmaus, was placed in God’s waiting room for years, “marinating” him until he was ready to serve as a key leader of the early Church.

Faith is an important part of waiting, whether it’s anticipating the nurse calling you back to the examining room, or going into “pause mode” while God carries out His will – His timetable, not ours. When we take to heart God’s promises and accept them by faith, the waiting becomes easier.

For instance, Psalm 46:10 admonishes, “be still and know that I am God.” The only way we can do that is if we trust the Lord’s character, know He’s in control, and is after our best interests. For someone dealing with a terminal disease, that’s easier said than done. But not impossible, as several of my friends have demonstrated.

Psalm 37 presents both an action plan – and an advisory to wait: “Trust in the Lord, and do good…. Delight yourself also in the Lord, and He shall give you the desires of your heart. Commit your way to the Lord, trust also in Him, and He shall bring it to pass.... Rest in the Lord and wait patiently for Him” (Psalm 37:3-7). Then, in case we missed it the first time, the psalm adds, “…those who wait on the Lord, they shall inherit the earth” (verse 9), and “Wait on the Lord and keep His way” (verse 34).

The trusting, delighting and committing aren’t too bad. At least they feel like we’re doing something. It’s the resting and waiting that cause me difficulty.

Through the years, God has taught that if I’m willing to wait, even if reluctantly, He will indeed “do exceeding abundantly beyond anything we could ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20). Not so sure about that? Just you wait!

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Canyons, Conceptions – and Cocoons

Imagine all that was involved in forming the Grand Canyon.
Have you ever seen one of those gossip magazines at the grocery store with a cover photo of a beautiful actress, except she’s not wearing any makeup? Who knew so much work went into making someone look gorgeous! 

Beauty, of course, isn’t restricted to the realms of Hollywood. We find it all around us: spectacular sunrises or sunsets; scenery right after a snowfall; the pallet of colorful leaves in the autumn, or another of nature’s myriad wonders. We have manmade beauty: inspiring works of art; stirring  and complex musical compositions; a poem that grabs hold of the heart, or a stunning work of architecture. 

Occasionally, as I’ve written before, I even encounter something that seems truly deserving of the term, “Awesome!” But to my shame, rarely do I feel appropriate appreciation for all that was involved in bringing about that awesomeness. 

This exquisite porcelain creation in
Herend, Hungary took many hours
of painstaking artistry.
Take the Grand Canyon, for example, or other wondrous vistas around the world, even if they don’t quite match the famed Arizona landmark’s grandeur. We can’t begin to conceive the factors and forces that combined to create them. Years ago I visited Herend, Hungary, where I viewed exhibits of rare and exquisite porcelain and china treasured by collectors around the world. Painstaking artistry has gone into creating those pieces, some dating back to the 1800s, but we see only the finished product.

When we admire paintings or sculptures from art’s grand masters, we hardly fathom what went into each work’s conception or the years of preparation that led up to its execution. We can enjoy compositions by Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, Chopin and many others, but can we fully comprehend the inspiration – and perspiration – expended to complete such majestic works?

Even the simplest things manage to escape my understanding. As the late author and poet Maya Angelou wrote, “We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.”

As a butterfly flits from flower to flower, do we stop to ponder its prior journey from caterpillar to cocoon – the struggle it endured before arriving at such delicate beauty? There’s perhaps no more compelling symbol of rebirth in nature.

This leads me to consider the even more profound phenomenon of spiritual rebirth. Jesus told Nicodemus, the Jewish leader, “no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again” (John 3:3). Then, for emphasis, Jesus restated, “You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit” (John 3:7-8).

One way of understanding this powerful declaration is that becoming a part of God’s eternal family doesn’t involve making improvements – it requires total transformation, far more wondrous than what butterflies go through. As 2 Corinthians 5:17 says, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” 

Most often, however, this “instant” transformation has been a long time in the making. In my case, even though I had an intellectual belief in God, it took more than 30 years before I was willing to embrace Jesus Christ as both Savior and Lord. And yet, that was just the beginning. Ever since, God has been to work in and through my life, continuing to mold and shape me into the person He desires for me to be. I have been engaging, sometimes unwittingly or even unwillingly, in what Philippians 2:12 describes as, “working out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” In other words, discovering how to work out what God has already worked in.

In terms of “beauty,” the Christian life is a bit of a mixed bag. At times we might strike others as splendid new creations, but at other times we slip back into the old forms of our past life, almost as if a butterfly could slip back to being a caterpillar. Maybe God should slap a sign on our backs reading, “Work in Progress.”

The good news about the Good News is that, indeed, God isn’t finished with us even after we become “born again.” As Philippians 1:6 affirms, “being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”

At that moment we will realize the fulfillment of the assurance given to us in 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.” Perhaps then, more than ever, we’ll appreciate all the work that’s required to create a thing of true beauty.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Proud to Be an American, Prouder as a Citizen of Another World

American flag adorn a pier on the Tennessee River in Chattanooga, Tenn.
We’re about to celebrate another Independence Day. Yes, in England they also have a July 4th, but from what I hear, they would remove it from the calendar if they could. To which all patriotic Americans can say, “Nah, nah, nah-nah, nah!”

Speaking of “patriotic,” nearly 70 years ago the spirit of patriotism grabbed hold of me and to date, hasn’t let go. Born on the Fourth of July, I still get chills when I see our Star Spangled Banner waving above. I delight in “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” regarding myself as one, and have yet to hear a John Philip Sousa march that I didn’t like. Someone had a good idea when they recorded Kate Smith singing, “God Bless America,” even when it’s played in its scratchy, non-digital form.

My grandparents immigrated from Hungary to the USA, passing through Ellis Island, even though I doubt they could speak a word of English (or American) upon arrival. But they settled into homes in Pennsylvania and became contributors to their communities. My grandfathers provided for their families by performing hard labor for long hours in steel mills, and became proud, naturalized Americans.

While World War II was being waged, my father bravely fought in the midst of it, collecting wounds in Europe and Northern Africa as he served as an officer in both armored and infantry divisions of the U.S. Army. Later, he gave more than a year of his life while stationed in South Korea in the aftermath of the Korean War, and wrapped up his military career commuting to New York City, where he was assigned another role. He even worked many years in the U.S. Postal Service.

In light of all the above, I admit it miffs me when disrespect is directed toward our nation, its flag, and those who served courageously so that today we’re not under Nazi, Communist, or even Muslim rule. Our beleaguered Constitution still guarantees the rights of free speech and dissent, but I sometimes wonder whether misguided protesters aren’t actually biting the hand that has fed them so extravagantly.

Certainly, bad things have been perpetrated in the name of the red, white and blue, but show me a nation where that hasn’t been the case. If there is one, maybe the dissatisfied should move there if the United States doesn’t meet their lofty standards.

Even in writing this, however, I recognize, as the old spiritual tells us, “This world ain’t my home, I’m just a-passin’ through.” Speaking of our tendencies toward sin, the apostle Peter wrote, Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers to abstain from fleshly lusts which wage war against the soul” (1 Peter 2:11). Why submit to earthbound temptations, he was saying, when heaven is our real home?

Hebrews 11:13-16, speaking of biblical predecessors whose lives were characterized by great faith, often in the face of formidable opposition, expresses the same sentiment from a slightly different angle: All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth…. Instead, they were longing for a better country – a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.

Even in the Old Testament we find the affirmation that for every follower of Jesus Christ, our true citizenship is not in this nation, or even this planet.For we are foreigners and sojourners in Your presence, as were all our forefathers. Our days on earth are like a shadow, without hope” (1 Chronicles 29:15).

So as I nod in assent to the words of the Lee Greenwood song, “Proud to Be an American,” I’m far prouder to know I’ve been chosen to be a child of God, a citizen of a Kingdom I’ve yet to see, but look forward to with great anticipation, by faith. As Philippians 3:20 declares, For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Creativity and God’s Image

We find one of the Bible’s most intriguing statements in its very first chapter: “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, in our likeness…'” (Genesis 1:26). So few words; so much substance.

The possessive pronoun, “our,” referring to the Trinity of God the Father, Jesus Christ the Son and the Holy Spirit, has prompted countless books as theologians and authors seek to plumb the Trinity’s unfathomable depths with hopelessly limited human understanding. But that’s not my focus.

God's creation, combined with
"re-creation" in His image.
What in the world does “in our image, in our likeness” mean? Is it saying God has two eyes, two arms, two legs, two feet, etc.? I doubt you could find any Bible scholars in their right mind who believe that. Then what’s it mean?

I don’t claim to be an absolute authority, but I’ve thought a lot about being made “in His image," and have reached some conclusions that seem helpful. Think of a portrait, or quality photograph of someone. The image in that piece of art or photo isn’t the real person, but in some ways serves as a visual representation of that individual. 

When we look in a mirror, we again see an image – a reflection – of ourselves, even though what we see isn’t the actual person. It shows a perspective of our external self, but doesn’t show all of us. We can see our innermost being, especially thoughts, beliefs and motivations.

In demonstrating love, compassion, joy, generosity, mercy, reasoning, and many of other virtues, we “image bearers” display attributes of God, albeit imperfectly and incompletely.

Let’s look at just one of these divine attributes: Creativity. The first verse in the Scriptures tells us, “In the beginning, God created…” (Genesis 1:1). His first act involving our physical world was to create it. As His human image bearers, we can observe and participate in creativity in many areas of life – art, literature, fashion, construction, even the design of cereal boxes. 

There is one important difference, however. We must “create” using ideas and materials that already exist. God created out of absolute nothing, what theologians term ex nihilo. No less a personage than Walt Disney confirmed this years ago.

My late friend, Bob Foster, owned a popular dude ranch in Colorado Springs, Colo., and one year Disney was among his guests. As the two of them sat on a porch outside the main cabin, admiring the mountains, majestic pine trees and other natural wonders of God’s creation, Disney made a wise observation. He commented that while God engaged in creation, his job was “re-creation,” recognizing whether it was color, sound, concepts or physical structures, everything “Disney” came from things readily available. He never truly created anything.

Thinking about being in the image of God, there’s no greater example than Jesus Christ. Hebrews 1:4 tells us, “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being….” Limiting Himself to human form, Jesus became all we needed to know about God, even though because of physical constraints, Jesus did not reveal all of God there is to know.

I like how Dr. Paul Brand and Philip Yancey phrased it in their excellent book, In His Image, in which Brand the physician utilizes his knowledge of the human body to draw spiritual parallels. They write that Jesus became “the finite, visible expression of the infinite, invisible, inexpressible God.”

And yet, we still have the privilege of representing God’s image, of being His “ambassadors,” as 2 Corinthians 5:20 states it. “Now then, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through us: we implore you, on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God.” This passage does not use the word “image bearers” or “in His image,” but just as ambassadors are imbued with the authority to represent their nations, we too are called to accurately represent our God.  

Monday, June 25, 2018

One of Life’s Biggest Words: ‘If’

Have you ever considered how big the little word “if” is? Consider a few simple examples:
“We will go on a picnic tomorrow if it doesn’t rain.” 
“If the Tigers beat the Bears, they go to the championship game.”
“We’ll buy that new car if I get that raise.”

But there are even bigger “ifs” that have had far greater influence in the course of humanity, such as:
What if the colonists had lost heart and given up their fight for freedom from England?
What if Jonas Salk hadn’t discovered a cure for polio?
What if the Allied forces had not prevailed on D-Day?
What if people had accepted the opinion of Ken Olsen, a technology pioneer, who declared, "There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home”?

Sometimes we can get in trouble by dwelling on the “what ifs” of life, but even the Bible seems to put a high premium on “if,” although it approaches the term in a somewhat different way.

Proverbs 2:1-5, for example, presents a classic “if-then” scenario:
“My son, if you accept my words and store up my commands within you, turning your ear to wisdom and applying your heart to understanding, and if you call out for insight and cry aloud for understanding, and if you look for it as for silver and search for it as for hidden treasure, then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God.”

This says it’s conditional – if we do what’s instructed, to sincerely and earnestly pursue wisdom and understanding, then we will gain a deeper, more profound, life-changing understanding of God. Looking at it from the opposite perspective, if we don’t engage in this pursuit, then we can’t expect to experience God in any meaningful way.

These “if-then” conditions God sets forth aren’t found only in Proverbs. They appear also in Philippians 2:1-3, where the apostle Paul wrote:
“If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being of one spirit and purpose.”

I particularly like this passage, because it’s framed almost in a sarcastic way. It’s like Paul chiding the believers in the ancient city of Philippi, “You do have encouragement from being united with Jesus, right? You do find comfort from His love, right? You do have fellowship with God through His Spirit, right? You do experience His tenderness and compassion, right? Well, if that’s the case, then avoid divisiveness. Be like-minded, share the same love from God and for one another, be united in spirit and purpose!”

An amazing admonition. And it all hinges on one little word: If. 

In a sense, the word “if” defines one’s faith in Christ. If the Scriptures aren’t true, if – as skeptics are some fond of saying – that it’s all fantasy, fiction, fable, then nothing really matters. We’re fated to live in a meaningless, purposeless, directionless world. However, if what the Scriptures say is true, that trusting our lives to Jesus Christ is indeed Good News, that makes all the difference in the world!

So the question we all must address, along with the answer we provide, is very simple: What if? How we respond can’t help but shape our lives, the here and now, along with our eternal destiny, in the hereafter.