Monday, June 1, 2020

In an Infinite Galaxy, Is It Bad to Be Just One Star?

If you haven’t seen the film, “I Still Believe,” I heartily recommend that you view it soon. Especially if you remain cooped up in your house or apartment due to pandemic restrictions. We all can use an uplifting message during times like these. 

It’s one of those “based on a true story” movies, about Jeremy Camp, who would become one of today’s better-known Christian praise singers and songwriters. I mention this not to promote the movie, but to recount one poignant moment in it. Camp and his soon-to-be girlfriend, then fiancĂ© and wife, Melissa, are in a museum, staring at an illuminated depiction of the universe on the ceiling 

“I’m just one star in an infinite galaxy,” Melissa says in quiet humility. Then the love-struck Jeremy replies, “But some stars shine brighter than others.” (And everybody said, “Awwww!”) Seriously, there’s wisdom in both comments, something worth thinking about.

Because realistically, few of us are ever going to become household names, the kind of folks whose autographs we clamor for, or whose names frequently appear in magazines and maybe even history books. Out of billions of people in the world, we’re each just one of them. But that doesn’t mean we’re not important, that we don’t matter. 

Because when John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life,” that means you – and me. And God taking on human form – “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14) – not only to teach and live as an example, but also to die for our sins, is no insignificant act.

To continue the astronomy metaphor, our sun is a star, although according to astronomers and other scientists who study the universe, it’s not a very big one. Yet without the sun, life on this earth would be impossible. The galaxies outside of our own may contain much larger and more powerful stars, but the star at the center of our solar system is indispensable.

And yes, some stars do seem to shine brighter than others. In the world of science, for instance, there are Galileo, Copernicus, Newton, Kepler and a host of others whose discoveries proved world-changing. In business, invention and industry, we have Ford, Carnegie, Edison, Tesla, up to visionaries like Jobs and Gates. In the spiritual realm we have folks like Moses, David, the apostle Paul – and of course, Jesus.

But that doesn’t mean the rest of us, stars who don’t shine as brightly, aren’t valuable. Behind every bright, bursting star there are lesser stars that have served as guides, teachers, mentors, supporters and models to assist the brighter ones to excel. 

Anyone who has any familiarity of the Bible knows the apostle Paul, the one-time Christian persecutor who surrendered his life to Jesus and became a leader of the early Church. He also wrote much of the New Testament. But how many people know much about Barnabas? “Mr. B” was the one who sought out Saul after his conversion, became his mentor, and partnered with the apostle on several missionary journeys. Then, when they had a harsh disagreement over John Mark, Barnabas left Paul to become mentor to his nephew. Mark became the fellow who wrote the gospel by the same name.

I hardly consider myself a “bright star,” but I’m thankful for the people who served as stars in my life, including teachers who encouraged me to further my education and become a writer; employers who took chances on me when I had little experience to bring to the job; and many who had a profound impact on my life spiritually, through their living examples, biblical teaching, discipling and writings.

Do you regard yourself as a star – or at least, a moon reflecting the light of Christ? You should, because as Philippians 2:15 declares, “so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe as you hold out the word of life….” Whose life can you help to shine brighter?

Thursday, May 28, 2020

The One Certainty We Never Want to Talk About

I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty weary of all the non-stop, 24/7 COVID-19 virus reporting and commentary. Yes, it’s a serious issue. And yes, we all need to take necessary precautions. Those who don’t are endangering both themselves and others. Yes, this is not the time to cast all care to the winds. Maybe we’ll never have that kind of “time” again. So, wear a mask when in crowds, keep your distance, repress the urge to shake hands and hug, keep washing and sanitizing your hands regardless, and try to refrain from touching your face – no matter how lovely or handsome it happens to be.

But I can see the other side, too. Folks who, just as soon as restrictions began to be lifted, couldn’t wait to hop in the car, head to the mall, go to the beach, stroll through the park, or resume whatever favorite activities they’ve been denied. We’re all worn out byf the incessant gloom and doom, and have grown increasingly eager to recapture some brightness and hope. As the Scriptures affirm, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life” (Proverbs 13:12).

By now, even those most stable emotionally have nearly succumbed to the drumbeat of death tallies and less-than-optimistic projections for the future. Warding off a dreaded virus isn’t the way we desire to spend the immediate future, let alone the rest of our lives.

It seems, however, there’s an issue in play far greater than enduring the inconveniences of not being free to go here and there, doing this and that, as we were so accustomed. The daily statistics serve as a dismal reminder of a certainty: Death. They used to say, “The only things certain in life are death and taxes.” Well, even taxes have been postponed for the time being, if you haven’t yet filed your income tax return for last year. But death, it’s right there, staring us in the face. And if we forget, the grim news anchors and reporters on ABC, CBS, NBC, and cable news outlets seem to take a perverse delight in providing us with reminders.

Deep down we know the truth. Our days are numbered. One day, ready or not, we’re going to pass from this life. But not today, right? Or tomorrow, either. Or next week, or next month, or next year, if you don’t mind. As actor/director Woody Allen once said, “I’m not afraid of dying. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” We all can relate.

Not to add to the morbidity of these days, but this raises an even more profound issue. It comes down to a matter of faith – and where your faith happens to be. If you lack faith, trusting only in luck, karma, good fortune, serendipity or something similar, it’s hard to face each new day. With every tomorrow seeming more tenuous than ever, it’s easy to succumb to panic, despair, fear, or other unproductive emotions. How can one find peace amid such chaos?

That doesn’t mean those of us who find hope and assurance from the teachings of the Bible are exempt from anxiety and stress. Faith in Jesus Christ doesn’t mitigate the fact that we’re flesh and blood, with adrenaline and other stress hormones coursing through our veins to enable us to respond to external threats, whether it be a burglar or an unseen virus.

And yet, if we make the conscious decision to reestablish our trust in the Lord, and not the doomsday newscasters, we can indeed experience “the peace of God that transcends all understanding” described in Philippians 4:7. How can we have such peace, when everything we’ve known and relied on seems under attack? That’s why we’re told this peace “transcends” or “passes” all understanding. We can’t manufacture it. It truly comes from beyond ourselves. From God.

As much as we hate hearing about those who become victims of the dreaded virus, we can draw a positive from this dire time. It gives us an opportunity to do a personal reappraisal revisiting where our faith really lies. When circumstances are going well, we can claim to have faith – but we really don’t need it then. “I’ve got this,” we deceptively tell ourselves, thinking we’ve got every duck in a row. Ultimately, we don’t.

I like what Proverbs 24:10 has to say about this: “If you falter in times of trouble, how small is your strength.” We’ve all been riding an emotional rollercoaster over the past few months, hoping for good news but hearing mostly bad. But in the end, what’s our foundation? From where do we draw our strength? When it feels like we’re “walking through the valley of the shadow of death” (Psalm 23:4), where do we find ourselves turning for comfort and reassurance?

Monday, May 25, 2020

Freedom From a Slavery We’ve All Experienced

Discourse over the COVID-19 crisis has taken a curious turn in recent weeks with restrictions in place to prevent the spread of the virus being slowly lifted. Suddenly, concern has shifted to personal freedom. Does the government – federal and local – really have the authority to tell people not to go to work, or to engage in their favorite activities, including going to their chosen places of worship?

This flag displayed in historic Charleston,
S.C. honors our nation and all who gave
their lives to defend it.
This is particularly interesting as we observe another Memorial Day, dedicated annually to honor many thousands of Americans who have given their lives in wars through the centuries – all in the name of freedom. And I do hope that we all take some time to remember them and appreciate the fact that if it weren’t for them, we’d likely be living in some form of tyranny. They knew – and paid – the high cost of freedom.

Through the centuries, freedom has been at the forefront of the battlefield campaigns, seeking to ensure that citizens of the United States would be free to think and say and do whatever they wish. Blood shed both here and abroad, we recall on this national holiday, should not have been shed in vain.

We’ve become spoiled, but since the days of the Constitution’s writing, it’s become a basic American tradition to enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Now, unfortunately, many of us take this for granted. When something arises to impede that pursuit, whether a pandemic, government edicts or anything else, we tend to get annoyed – or worse.

Perhaps this a lesson to be learned from the pandemic. Not to take too lightly the right to jump in the car and go to the mall, earn a living, worship as we choose, or root for our favorite sports teams in real-time action

Often, when the subject of freedom arises, there are those who point to its ugly antithesis, slavery. This will always be a dark chapter in American history. In some ways, its repercussions continue to be felt today. Sadly, even though it’s not widely reported, for many nations around the world slavery remains a reality, an unchanged fact of social norms and customs. Whether slavery ever will be extinguished on a global scale remains to be seen.

But when considering both freedom and slavery, in one real sense, we’ve all been enslaved. At least if we’re to believe what the Bible tells us.

“Jesus replied, ‘Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed’” (John 8:34-36). So there’s bad news and good news. First, the bad news: From the beginning of time, sin has been the greatest slave owner of all. Adam and Eve set the precedent, when they defied one simple command God had given them. Since then, like a gene in our individual DNA, sin has been ensnaring us all and fights hard not to let go.

In a powerful passage, Romans 5-8, the apostle Paul explores this problem in depth. He writes, “just as sin entered the world through the one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned…” (Romans 5:12). There are no exceptions to this dreadful fact.

Then, the apostle begins to unfold the good news, expounding on the importance of Jesus Christ’s death and then, His resurrection: “For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:17).

Later, Paul raises the subject of slavery – to sin. “When you were slaves to sin, you were free from the control of righteousness. What benefit did you reap at that time from the things you are now ashamed of? Those things result in death! But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves to God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life” (Romans 6:21-22).

The apostle continues to expand on that truth in the succeeding chapters, but it boils down to the reality that apart from Christ, even though it seemed we were “free,” we actually we enslaved to sin, its impulses and desires. Being born again, made new in Christ, however, releases us from sin’s destructive tyranny. As he writes elsewhere, in Galatians 5:1, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.”

So as we pause in remembrance of the brave soldiers who sacrificed their lives so we in America could enjoy the rights and freedoms we have, it would be good to reflect on an even greater sacrifice: Jesus Christ giving His life on the cross to provide the necessary atonement for a debt we could never pay, and offer freedom from sin, the tyrant that cannot be bound by nationality or ethnicity, culture, language or gender. Remember – and never forget.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

The Joy of Feeling – and Being – Very Special

During my early days of being an official grandfather, I went to pick up one of my granddaughters at her preschool. You know the old Art Linkletter TV show, “Kids Say the Darnedest Things”? My granddaughter was like that, saying one cute-ism after another.

On this particular day, she said something from her car seat in the back of my car that made me laugh out loud. I told her, “You’re special!” Her reply, without a single moment’s hesitation, was, “You didn’t know that, Pop?” Which made me laugh all the more.

The trust is, she was – and continues to be – special. What a blessing that is, to know that you’re special. What about you? Do you consider yourself special?

I don’t know how many times I’ve talked with people who would look down, shuffle their feet a bit, and self-consciously say, “Aw, I’m nothin’ special.” This sounds incredibly humble, to be so self-effacing, Much better than the person who struts around as if they’re convinced they are God’s greatest gift to whatever they do or wherever they happen to be.

But being made to feel special is such a joy, especially when people and forces in the world around us seem to conspire to make us feel exceedingly un-special. The fact is, particularly for those of us who are children of God, we truly are special. How do we know? Because, as the old children’s song informs us, “The Bible tells (us) so.”

Speaking to the Israelites shortly before they were to make their long-anticipated entrance into the Promised Land, their leader, Moses, declared, “What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the Lord our God is near us whenever we pray to him? And what other nation is so great as to have such righteous decrees and laws as this body of laws I am setting before you today?” Deuteronomy 4:7-8).

Indeed, the people of Israel were special, chosen by God and given His unique system of laws to guide every aspect of their lives. Some of those laws were actually incorporated into the Constitution of the United States, precepts for treating people with justice and equality, and according them with certain rights and freedoms. 

But after Jesus Christ’s death, burial and resurrection, just as the thick veil of the Jewish temple was torn apart from top to bottom, the barrier between Jews and non-Jews was torn down forever. God’s love, grace and mercy became available to people of every nation, culture and language. All who call upon the name of the Lord Jesus would become special – because God ordained it to be so.

We see this truth affirmed elsewhere in the Scriptures. Psalm 139:14 says we are “fearfully and wonderfully made” by an all-powerful, all-knowing Creator God. Then the apostle Paul explains just how important and set apart are we as members of the eternal family of God. He wrote, “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession” (1 Peter 2:9). 

There’s that word “special” again. Moses assured the Israelites, you are a holy people belonging to the LORD your God. The LORD has chosen you to be His prized possession out of all the peoples on the face of the earth” (Deuteronomy 14:2). And in much the same way, we’re promised, He gave Himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds” (Titus 2:14).

Now, try to tell me that doesn’t make us special!

Monday, May 18, 2020

How Would You Like to Win the Coin Flip?

Remember American football? You might recall it – that sport with the oblong ball that’s kind of pointed on both ends? Many of us watched it avidly as recently as last February’s Super Bowl, but with all that’s gone on during the unprecedented months since, it seems like a distant memory. The recent NFL draft did give fans a measure of hope that, even with social distancing, we will again watch soccer-style kickers launching footballs toward the end zone sometime in the fall.

Maybe you’re not a football fan and couldn’t care less about when it starts up again. But I mention it just to refer to the event that occurs before each game begins. No, I don’t mean when the marching band steps onto the field, or even when the national anthem is played. I’m thinking about the magic moment when the referee gathers captains from both teams for…the coin toss.

By way of review, the official has a special coin that he flips into the air. Captains from the visiting team shout “heads” or “tails,” and how the coin falls determines who kicks off and who gets the ball to begin the day’s action. We talk in terms of who “wins” the coin toss, even though it has little to do with the ultimate outcome of the game.

I bring it up because in the Scriptures we find kind of a “coin toss.” Except in this case, God is the coin flipper – and it’s win-win for all of His children.

This coin, as I envision it, says “Grace” on one side and “Mercy” on the other. Because as the Bible describes them, grace and mercy can be considered two sides of the same coin. Let me explain:

“Grace” in the Scriptures is defined as “unmerited favor.” We don’t deserve it, and we can’t earn it. Ephesians 2:8-9 explains, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.” This tells us that grace is “receiving what we don’t deserve” – God’s favor.

Mercy, on the other hand, is “not receiving what we do deserve” – God’s wrath and eternal punishment. Titus 3:5 states, “[God] 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.” And 1 Corinthians 5:17 declares, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” The Lord has done for us what we could never do for ourselves. He’s made us born again, brand new in Jesus Christ.

Ultimately, God’s grace and His mercy both flow out of His love for us, undeserved and unconditional. Romans 5:8 puts it this way: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

Question: How many sins had you committed by the time Jesus Christ died on the cross more than 2,000 years ago? Obviously, none. Yet this verse says “while we were still sinners,” He died for us (past tense). Unlike us, God’s isn’t restricted by the confines of time, so in Christ He could pay the just penalty for all sins, past and present and future.

I don’t know about you, but this truth this excites me and provides great assurance. Many centuries ago, before my great-great-great-great-great grandparents (and beyond that) were even born, Jesus was making atonement for sins I was yet to commit. His incomprehensible love was on display, and His grace and mercy were in action so that one day I could receive what I don’t deserve, and not receive what I do deserve. How can this be anything but good, incredibly good news?

Right now, no one knows for certain when football – college or pro – will resume. But one thing we can know. All those who are part of God’s family have won the coin flip! “Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12). 

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Enduring Opposition Beyond Our Comprehension

Imagine being hired for a job, but even before you can report to work, people who didn’t favor your hiring already begin condemning you: your qualifications, character, capabilities, values, even your physical appearance and traits.

Nothing changes after arriving on the job. You dive into your responsibilities, learning as you go and striving to be as diligent as you can, but the critics are unrelenting. They quote what you say out of context, or misquote you to suit their nefarious purposes. All your achievements and good deeds are ignored or flipped around into fodder for more criticism.

In both corporate and public meetings, you’re bombarded with fierce attacks and strong opposition, and no matter how you respond, you’re criticized. Talk about a no-win situation! Would you sign up for a situation like that?

We can see examples of this in everyday life, but the greatest example of all is found in the four gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Jesus Christ was rejected by people in his hometown. His miracles delighted some, but filled others with fear. He set strict guidelines for following Him, and many who had thronged to Him then rejected Him.“From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him” (John 6:66).

It’s impossible for our finite human minds to fully grasp the magnitude of what Jesus did for us. In 1 Corinthians 5:21, the apostle Paul wrote of Jesus Christ, “God made him who knew no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” As a friend of mine used to say, in the vernacular of the day, “Jesus took the rap for us.” Who does this? 

Writing many centuries earlier, Isaiah prophetically expanded on that, giving us a powerful, penetrating description of the opposition and abuse the promised Messiah would face: 
“He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:2-5).

Throughout the gospels we read how the religious leaders – the Pharisees, the Sadducees and other Jewish officials – mounted their false accusations against Jesus, despite His extreme humility, profound teaching and inexplicable miracles. They questioned His methods, motivations and message. He was hauled before a “court” in which the verdict had been predetermined, leading to humiliating accusations, excruciating torture, and ultimately, public execution on a crude Roman cross.

How could Jesus endure this? Why would He endure it? We find the answer in Hebrews 2:17-18:
“For this reason he had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.”

Jesus willingly endured abuse that was utterly and totally undeserved; inconceivable opposition and pain. He was doing so willingly, fully prepared to give His life for you, for me, and any who would accept His perfect and unconditional gift. “Yet to all who received him, to those who believe in his name, he gave the right to become children of God – children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God” (John 1:12-13). 

And yet…many still reject Him.

Monday, May 11, 2020

Have We Forgotten How to Turn On Our Thinking Caps?

Modern living in the 21stcentury has brought us many advantages, but sometimes advancements have drawbacks as well. One of them, I’m afraid, is a diminished capacity for thinking.

Take, for example, how the TV dominates many homes. We sit on our couches staring at the screen, human sponges passively absorbing content without actively challenging what we see and hear. An exception, of course, is when we argue with news commentators espousing views contrary to our own. Otherwise, when “experts” are thrust in front of our eyes, we’re told their opinions are beyond questioning.

We’ve got Alexa and Siri to gather information, saving us the trouble of having to do it ourselves. With just a tad more effort, we can let Google do the job. Increasingly “smart” homes can be programmed to set and change the temperature, turn lights on and off, tell us who’s at the front door, cook our meals, wake us up and serenade us to sleep. And lots of other stuff. No human thinking required.

Video games and apps restrict our brain activity to the point that we’re puzzled when asked, “What book have you been reading lately?” Because for some of us, that’s an activity we haven’t been doing at all. It takes too much reading, comprehending and physically turning pages for thoroughly modern 21stcentury guys and gals.

This increasingly broad intellectual vacuum can take its toll spiritually as well. We let preachers and celebrity speakers talk to us about God without demanding any interaction from us at all. As if spiritual growth is something that occurs by osmosis. We “sit under” biblical authorities and marvel at their keen insights and understanding.

Unfortunately, allowing them to do all the Bible reading and study, then informing us about what it says, compares to going into a fine restaurant – remember those days? – ordering a meal, and having someone else chew up our food, then spit it out and let us swallow it. Not a very pleasant thought, right? Eww!

I’m thankful for all the wonderful men and women of God who have contributed to my spiritual journey, but one’s walk with the Lord was never intended to be a spectator sport. I think of when Moses’s successor, Joshua, exhorted the Israelites as they prepared to venture into the Promised Land: “Do not let this Book of the Law depart from your mouth; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful” (Joshua 1:8).

In some Christian circles, the term “meditate” or “meditation” is the equivalent of a four-letter word. It conjures images of people seated cross-legged in lotus positions, humming mind-numbing mantras. But that’s not at all what meditation involves for followers of Jesus. Instead, it means intense thinking, pondering and reflecting on the truths God sets out for us in His Word.

There’s another passage that immediately comes to mind. Thinking about what it takes to become a faithful, fruitful servant of God, King David wrote, “How can a young man keep his way pure? By living according to your word…. I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you” (Psalm 119:9-11). It seems David had not only read the Scriptures, but also committed some of it to memory so he could “chew on it” on a regular basis.

Then there’s the apostle Paul, who in effect was giving the secret to surviving the negative, discouraging atmosphere in which we live today. He exhorted his readers, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things” (Philippians 4:8). When I read this, I envision someone concentrating intently on the truths and precepts, the principles, virtues and values we find presented in the Bible.

Years ago, children’s TV shows would encourage young viewers to “turn on your thinking caps.” Maybe it’s time to revisit those days – at least to the extent of becoming people who enjoy thinking and wondering about important things, rather than letting people tell us what to think.