Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Integrity: Hard-Won, Easily Lost

“Rigid adherence to a code of behavior; the state of being unimpaired, soundness.” Those are among the dictionary definitions for integrity.

Driving across a bridge, we want to know it’s designed for 100% integrity, that it will support our vehicles every time, not just 95% or even 99% of the time. Similarly, when Prince William and Kate Middleton exchange marriage vows Friday, they’ll be assuming mutual integrity – that they will remain faithful 100% of the time, not just “most of the time” or when there’s not a more appealing option.

One reality of integrity is how difficult it is to maintain – yet so easy to lose. You can spend a lifetime building a reputation as a person of integrity, yet a single lapse can undermine everything you’ve done. Seems unfair, but consider this:

If someone were to insist you drink either a glass of poison or a glass of your favorite beverage with only a few drops of poison in it, which would you choose? If you’re sane, you’d say, “Neither!” In a sense it’s like that with integrity. Even a seemingly small act of dishonesty or breach of ethics can forever taint an otherwise stellar life of integrity.

What brings this to mind is the plight of Ohio State football coach Jim Tressel. He’s coached the Buckeyes honorably since 2001, compiling an outstanding record on the field and earning a reputation as someone of high moral character off the field. That reputation – trust in his integrity – has come under heavy assault following revelations he withheld information that some of his players had broken NCAA rules.

No one knows for certain why Tressel, who has even written books about character and values, lied by omission – failed to report the information to those in authority. But the fact remains: His integrity has suffered serious, perhaps permanent, damage.

I’m a Tressel admirer and hope he’ll survive the current firestorm and be better for it. But just as no one can be “a little bit pregnant,” you can’t be a little bit dishonest and hope to keep your integrity intact.

That’s why I appreciate so much the timeless wisdom found in the Old Testament book of Proverbs. Among many references to the importance of integrity, it states, “The integrity of the upright guides them, but the unfaithful are destroyed by their duplicity” (Proverbs 11:3). Sobering words for us all.

Monday, April 18, 2011

It’s Friday…But Sunday’s Coming!

As a boy attending a Good Friday worship service, I turned to my mother and honestly asked, “If this was the day Jesus was crucified, why do we call it ‘Good Friday’?”

That’s still a good question today.

Good Friday gets its goodness through the clarity of hindsight. When events took place that day more than 2,000 years ago, nothing seemed good about it – except to the executioners. It was a dark, depressing, dismal day. As those who had followed Him watched Jesus agonize on a crude wooden cross and die, this meant much more than losing a treasured friend. It meant the death of their cause, the dashing of hopes, the demise of a promising future they had envisioned.

Two days later, however, everything changed. As they learned about the empty tomb, and when Jesus appeared to them very much alive, the pain and grief of the preceding Friday was dispelled.

There are those who argue the resurrection is fable, a myth. The apostle Paul countered by observing: “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith…. But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead…so in Christ all will be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:14-22).

Evidence is irrefutable – except for those who simply refuse to believe. Hundreds of people personally witnessed the risen Christ just days after the crucifixion. Secular historians confirmed the resurrection account. The presence of million upon millions of followers of Jesus worldwide today – even in lands where such faith is forbidden – attests to this fact. And there are countless “new creations in Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:17), individuals whose transformed lives defy other explanation.

Still, why is it “Good” Friday? Why celebrate such a hideous execution? The Bible gives several reasons:

Forgiveness. “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him!” (Romans 5:8-9). “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

Life after death. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

New life for today. “We were buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life…. In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 6:4,11).

Is death ever a good thing, even for God? No. But when the Word that became flesh willingly went to the cross, to pay the penalty for the sins of mankind once and for all, death was defeated. "Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?" (1 Corinthians 15:51).

The atoning sacrifice was achieved. Our debt was paid in full. As a friend of mine liked to say, “Jesus took the rap for us.” And for that, it truly is Good Friday. It could never be better.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

American Dream – or Nightmare?

There’s been considerable rhetoric lately about the “American dream,” including the faltering economy’s effect on that quest. I’ve given this notion considerable thought, especially since this week commemorates the birth of Thomas Jefferson, one of America’s founding fathers and principal author of the Declaration of Independence.

The document opens with, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

We embrace this affirmation of the equality of all people, along with rights to life, liberty – and the pursuit of happiness. This sounds wonderful, but I fear we’ve distorted what it means, crippling how we view the American dream.

“Equal” does not mean identical. We are each unique – abilities, interests, motivations, etc. Not everyone is suited for college, just as we don’t all have high mechanical or technical aptitudes. Not everyone has the capacity to own or run a company, just as we’re not all skilled at writing or painting. And not everyone has the drive – or desire – to use adversity as a springboard to success.

However, some people presume this “pursuit of happiness” should include guarantees of its attainment. A problem with happiness is, as with the dog that chases cars, we don’t always know what to do once we have it. What makes us happy one minute can make us miserable the next.

We tend to equate this “pursuit” in tangible terms. So the “American dream” translates into big houses, expensive cars and jewelry, and other trappings of material prosperity and status. But pursuing the “dream” on these terms can become a nightmare.

When James Truslow Adams coined this term in 1931, he didn’t define it as “stuff.” He wrote, “It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable…regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”

This, I believe is the true American dream: striving toward what men and woman are innately capable – “endowed by their Creator,” as the Declaration of Independence affirms. Or to borrow the U.S. Army motto, “Be all you can be.”

To me this should include affording to everyone the opportunity and resources for understanding and maximizing their inherent capabilities. After that, no guarantees.

For people lacking the initiative or interest to become all they can be, so be it. That’s their problem, not society’s. With rewards come responsibilities. As 2 Thessalonians 3:10 states, “…’If a man will not work, he shall not eat.’”

Jesus told the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30) in which a master gave his servants differing amounts of money. He later had them report on how they used what they had received – and they were rewarded according to their stewardship.

If the pursuit of happiness can be summed up as “the one who dies with the most toys wins,” we’ve sadly missed the mark. A much better measuring stick is, “What did you do with what God gave you?”

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Returning to My Roots, Literarily

When I was a freshman in college, an English instructor affirmed I had promising writing ability and urged me to nurture it. Because of her encouragement, I changed my major to English, which seemed more appropriate for an aspiring writer.

As the academic year ended, however, I began reconsidering. Not whether to become a writer, but whether I should major in English. I remember thinking, “I don’t want to spend my life writing about flowers and trees.” So I decided to major in journalism, which meant transferring to another institution. From my very first class in journalism it was vocational love at first sight.

The other day, however, it struck me that even though I’m a journalist, flowers and trees still provide me occasional subject matter. But it’s not because I’m fixated on petals and pansies. Nearly 100 years ago, journalist and poet Joyce Kilmer (a guy, by the way), wrote a poem called “Trees,” in which he states, “I think that I shall never see a poem lovely as a tree…. Poems are made by fools like me, but only God can make a tree.”

I’m not much of a poet, but I concur with Kilmer’s literary sense that trees and flowers, arrayed in countless colors, shapes and designs, are glorious examples of God’s creative hand. So from time to time I write about them – and photograph them – conveying by word and image a reflection of His creation.

In Romans 1:20 it says, “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.”

Just as artists deserve praise for beautiful paintings, and composers merit commendation for stirring concertos, we should worship and glorify the God of all eternity for His handiwork. When I write about it, or capture it photographically, I believe I’m doing just that.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Do You Ever Wonder . . .

…what some people are thinking? Like the person who loads up on alcohol and then decides it’s a good idea to drive home, imperiling anyone and everyone in his path?

Or like Charlie Sheen or Lindsay Lohan? (Actually I think the reason they continue generating negative publicity is they have stopped thinking.)

Or the Florida pastor who, after much publicity and debate, proceeded with a mock trial of the Quran and burned it publicly?

It’s hard to say which of the above is worse; they're all crazy in different ways. But I find the pastor’s actions particularly unsettling. If his desire was to ignite violent protests in the Middle East, he succeeded. If he was seeking to perpetuate the myth that Christians are all narrow-minded, bigoted, intolerant, and ignorant, he probably succeeded.

All I know about this pastor is what I’ve heard through the media. But burning a copy of the Islamic holy book makes as much sense as stepping up to the school bully and calling him a sissy. We know how that’s going to end up. It's asking for trouble.

In the gospels, we don’t see Jesus burning the writings of Socrates, Plato or even Homer. He didn’t attempt to debunk Roman gods. His mission was to present the truth – and embody it. He also said, “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:31). Those who know Jesus as Savior and Lord would be deeply offended if people mutilated copies of the Bible, wouldn’t we?

The apostle Paul also didn’t waste time arguing against opposing viewpoints. He stated simply, “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). In other words, he recognized the importance of keeping the main thing the main thing – exalting the one true God and bringing Him glory.

Burning copies of the Quran won’t dissuade Muslim extremists. It only detracts from our calling to be salt and light in an increasingly distasteful and dark world.