Thursday, June 30, 2011

Freedom…and Red, White and Blue

Over this long July 4th weekend, we celebrate “the land of the free and the home of the brave,” as our national anthem concludes. Having been born on the Fourth of July, being a “Yankee Doodle Dandy” seems my birthright. Watching fireworks, or catching a glimpse of the red, white and blue unfurled against a clear blue sky, never fails to tug at my heartstrings.

One of the things I’m most proud of is our tradition of freedom. Freedom of speech enables us to express what’s on our mind. Freedom of religion allows us the worship – or not worship – as we choose. And freedom of the press empowers the media to write and report as they see fit. I don’t agree with everything people say, or the ways some people worship, or some of the news and commentary in newspapers, magazines, the Internet, TV and radio. But that’s what freedom is about.

This freedom did not come without a cost. Thousands of lives have been sacrificed on battlefields to protect our nation and preserve its freedoms. Men and women sacrificed time, energy, the very sweat of their brows, to provide for their families, teach young minds, explore the mysteries of science, provide civic leadership, and envision ways for making this world a better place.

The U.S.A. is called “the land of opportunity,” deservedly so. History has shown hard work, diligence, determination, creativity and vision will be rewarded. Even though recent years have been difficult economically, we still have the opportunity to pursue our callings, striving to use our unique gifts and abilities to the full – hopefully for the benefit of others.

But when thinking about freedom, we should not forget its source. Recently a TV network chose to edit the words “one nation under God” from a video of children reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. Despite that bow to “political correctness,” the fact remains – a primary impetus for our nation was spiritual. God indeed has blessed America. The question is, do we regard such blessing as a right, an entitlement, or as a gift with which we can bless others?

Those who follow Jesus know He made the ultimate provision for freedom. Galatians 5:1 tells us, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.” But interestingly, biblical freedom is equated to a form of slavery – “You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness” (Romans 6:18).

So as we celebrate another anniversary of the founding of our country and the freedoms it has bestowed, I rejoice even more in the freedom available to me – and to each of His children – through Jesus Christ. To become everything He created us to be!

Monday, June 27, 2011

What’s Up With Science These Days?

Facts aren’t what they used to be. At least in the world of science.

Recently I read two elements – for now known only as “number 114” and “number 116” – have been added to the Periodic Table of Elements. I haven’t memorized the names of the other 114 yet, and now we have two more!

I hate to see elements sitting on this Table without names, so let me suggest: Quizium, for the one that has everyone guessing what it does; and Confusium, since we don’t know if it’s the last one or not.

Granted, I’m not a scientific guy. I did well in biology, but in high school chemistry scraped by with a C, and in college earned a D in geology. (I still can’t distinguish between a rock and a mineral.) But it bothers me that you can’t count on the certainty of things like the Periodic Table. What’s science coming to these days, anyway?

Bad enough that astronomers last year determined Pluto really isn’t a planet. (Walt Disney was right – Pluto’s a dog.) All my life I was told the solar system had nine planets. Now it only has eight. After all these years, Pluto’s removed from “Who’s Who Among Planets.” Sounds Goofy to me.

Of course, it’s always been this way. Copernicus got everyone’s skivvies in a wad when he revealed the earth revolves around the sun, instead of vice versa.

Then Christopher Columbus (and others) proved the Earth isn’t flat. (After you’ve driven around Chattanooga, Tenn. as long as I have, sometimes you wish it was!)

What’s science’s next earth-shattering revelation: The sky really isn’t blue? Cows really can fly?

Don’t worry. It won’t be debunking the theory of evolution. Admitting this theory isn’t a fact would be devastating. The scientific community might have to seriously consider the existence of God. And what scientist worth his or her protons and electrons would want to do that?

As for me, I’m fine with the alternative to evolution. Speaking of skeptics, the Bible tells us, “They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator” (Romans 1:25).

I bet additions to the Periodic Table didn’t catch God by surprise.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Kind of Like Peeling an Onion

What’s the most ignorant, foolish statement you've ever heard?

I’ve certainly said my share of stupid things, but my purpose isn’t to regale you with my own depth of ignorance. Listening to the average political debate, we are exposed to more foolish statements than we can count. Actually, some very ignorant declarations can be heard every day in those bastions of higher learning – our colleges and universities.

But the most ignorant statement I’ve ever heard was from a friend – not a follower of Christ – who asserted (more than once), “The Bible’s a good primer. But you read it once and then you move on to something more sophisticated.” When he told me that, and months later repeated it, my jaw thudded to the ground.

How do you respond to that? In my friend’s thinking, he perceives the Bible as an elementary reading book. Then you advance to something like Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

Not wanting to ridicule this friend (OK, I guess I do a little), you just don’t find anything more sophisticated than the Bible. Saying you should read it once, then move on is like removing an onion’s top layer, then discarding the rest of it. That doesn’t make sense.

I doubt my friend has ever read through the Bible even once. He might have glanced through some passages, or heard people talk about what it says, but really read the Bible? I don’t think so.

To me, the Bible is the manual for living – from God. Kinda like a manual for operating a car, except once you read the section on how to run the air conditioner you’ve pretty much got that figured out. Having read through the Scriptures more than a dozen times over the years, however, I’ve discovered when you think you have something about God figured out, there’s a lot more to learn if you’re willing to dig a little deeper – and deeper, and deeper.

The book of Proverbs alone has a wealth of knowledge for enhancing the life of anyone that reads it, just one chapter a day. Business and professional people participate in Bible studies for years with nothing but Proverbs as their subject matter. Wisdom, honesty, money, integrity, relationships, sex, communications, leadership, ethics, anger: They’re all there in abundance.

If you’ve read my blog more than once, you know I often refer to the Scriptures. I don’t do this to sound religious or pious, because I’m neither . Time and experience have simply taught me the Bible is relevant and practical for every conceivable area of life. And we’re poorer for it if we don’t consider its truths.

As it says of itself, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Being one of its “satisfied customers,” I wholeheartedly agree.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Oprah, Calling and Passion

Oprah Winfrey recently brought her daily TV talk show to a close after 25 years and 4,561 episodes. Can you imagine doing anything for that long (excluding stuff like eating, breathing, etc.)? If nothing else, she deserves kudos for staying power.

Admittedly, Oprah hasn’t been one of my favorites. Along with the heart-tugging moments (and there were many), she embraced the wild and weird. Her spirituality was sometimes spurious, too eclectic and politically correct. But there’s no disputing she’s become an American icon.

I wouldn’t need 10 fingers to count the number of complete “Oprah Winfrey Show” episodes I viewed. But out of curiosity I did watch her last show, just to see what she would say.

Interestingly, she actually mentioned Jesus and “amazing grace.” To clarify her spiritual beliefs, Oprah explained she believes in “THE God.” OK. But what I found most intriguing were her opening comments on “calling,” which she cited among “the lessons that have been the anchor of my life and ones I hold most precious.”

“(This show is) what I was called to do,” Oprah told her finale’s audience. “…We all are called. Everybody has a calling, and your real job in life is to figure out what that is and get about the business of doing it.”

Her guests through the years, ranging from celebrities to volunteer workers to prisoners training dogs for injured military personnel, exhibited “the juice of doing what they knew they were meant to be doing,” the media magnate declared.

“Passion…that’s what a calling is. It lights you up and lets you know you are exactly where you are supposed to be, doing exactly what you’re supposed to be doing…. You have to make a living, but you also have to know what sparks the light in you, so that you in your own way can illuminate the world.”
From my perspective, she could have stopped there and her message would have been complete. When I mentor people, we talk a lot about calling – what has God uniquely designed and equipped them to do? In Leaders Legacy, the organization I work with, we encourage people to pursue their passion – their distinctive strengths and interests that, as Oprah said, light them up. What gives them good reason for getting out of bed in the morning?

If you can align your passion and your work, that’s ideal. As someone has said, “If you love what you do, you’ll never work another day in your life.”

The Bible states it this way: “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:10).

Once you’ve discovered what God has called you to do, and you have the opportunity to do it, the blessings flow.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Dying Off the Vine

The rebuilding has begun. Shattered lives slowly being put together. Towns being reconstructed. Homes being restored. But nightmares of April’s horrific tornadoes smashing through Alabama, northern Georgia and southeastern Tennessee linger. As do similar memories in Joplin, Missouri and other ravaged communities.

The most massive tornadoes bypassed our part of the Tennessee Valley, but the devastation of smaller twisters remains:

Roots of trees, once buried deep, pointing helplessly toward the sky. Trunks of tall trees that stood proudly for years now chain-sawed into sections, good for nothing more than to be split for fireplaces next winter. Tree limbs that had extended gracefully, now broken and splintered, their chlorophyll-deprived leaves fading to dulled brown.

Those severed limbs are perhaps least important, yet their rapidly deteriorating beauty teaches a vital lesson, practical and stern: Branches depend totally upon their source of life – the tree trunk or the vine. Detached, they die. No leaves. No fruit. Just decay.

Jesus used the vine as a metaphor for how essential it is to remain attached to Him. “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). The tornado-wrenched branches throughout our area bring imagery to this truth.

Do you ever wonder – with so many people professing to be “Christians” or “born again” – why we see so little evidence of Christ’s reality and presence in our society? I think it’s because we’re trying to be branches separate from the Vine.

“Pull yourself by your own bootstraps” has been America’s mantra. “God helps those that help themselves,” people declare, as if it’s written in the Bible. It’s not. “God is my co-pilot.” According to the Scriptures, God doesn’t want to be “co”-anything.

To the contrary, the apostle Paul wrote, “I can do everything through him (Jesus Christ) who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:13). With Christ we can do anything God calls us to do; without Christ we can’t do anything of consequence. “No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me…I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit – fruit that will last,” Jesus said (John 15:4,16).

I don’t know about you, but I want my life to bear fruit. And not the kind that spoils.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Not How You Start, But How You Finish

Over the Memorial Day weekend, two of the year’s biggest motor races vividly depicted a sobering reality of life: It’s not how you start, but how you finish.

In the 100th Indianapolis 500, rookie JR Hildebrand seemingly had victory firmly in his grasp. But while passing a lapped car in the final turn of the last lap - checkered flag waving in the distance - Hildebrand’s car lost its grip and slammed into the outside wall, allowing trailing Dan Wheldon to race past for the prestigious victory.

Hildebrand, sliding across the finish line on three wheels, still finished second. But in racing, second place is simply the first loser.

Hours later, in NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600, the circuit’s longest race, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. seemed victorious. However, also on the last turn of the final lap, Earnhardt’s car ran out of gas, allowing Kevin Harvick to get the checkered flag. Five other drivers passed before the Earnhardt vehicle coasted across the finish line.

If racing were a morality play, its moral last Sunday was in your face: It’s not how you start, but how you finish that counts.

One kind of race: "Racing for the Cure"
One appeal of sports is they offer a microcosm of many situations we face every day. They model teamwork and cooperation; show the positives and negatives of competition; the rewards of dedication; importance of following the rules, and striving for excellence.

And the value of perseverance: Anyone can start well, but how many people remain in the race to finish well?

Now in my early 60s, I realize more of my earthly life lies behind me than ahead of me, but I’ve not reached the end of my own race. As poet Robert Frost wrote, I have “miles to go before I sleep.” So the challenge before me remains – how well will I finish?

A friend in California that I met 30 years ago recently observed his 91st birthday. Most remarkable about his life is not the decades he’s spanned, nor his continued good health, but his zeal. Bob’s overriding desire is to finish well.

That’s why the apostle Paul’s last words remain so poignant. Exhorting his disciple, Timothy, Paul – who often used athletic metaphors – wrote, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness…” (2 Timothy 4:7-8).

Paul wasn’t boasting. He had witnessed many that began strong but failed to finish. And he had overcome more than his share of obstacles along the way. It seems that knowing he was in his final days, Paul was breathing a sigh of relief, saying, “I see the finish line. I’ve made it!”

My hope is that I – and you – will one day be able to say the same.