Monday, October 24, 2011

Happy Birthday, Miss Liberty!

Have you heard about Friday’s huge birthday celebration? The Statue of Liberty, one of America’s most iconic symbols, will officially be 125 years old. Designed by Frederic Bartholdi, the grand lady was dedicated on Oct. 28, 1886.

Growing up in New Jersey about 40 miles from New York City, I had numerous occasions to view the statue, though I’ve never stepped onto Liberty Island. In 2006 my wife and I passed the famed statue twice daily as we traveled by ferry to and from a friend’s home in Jersey City.

“Miss Liberty,” as she’s sometimes called, has always fascinated me. It’s partly because the statue in New York Harbor was one of my grandfathers’ first sights as they came from Hungary to the United States in the early 1900s. The statue stands just south of Ellis Island, where immigrants were processed upon arrival. What a vision she must have been for them as they anticipated forging new lives.

But it’s more than that. Since the founding of the United States, freedom has been foundational to our culture as is declared on the tablet in the statue’s left hand, measuring 23-feet, seven inches by 13-feet, seven inches. The tablet contains words from Emma Lazarus’s sonnet, “New Colossus”:

“Give me your tired, your poor,
your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

We regard the word “liberty” as synonymous to freedom, basic rights, emancipation, the right to choose, independence. Unfortunately, I think another word has been added to this list in recent decades that never was intended: Entitlement.

When my grandfathers as very young men set foot on American shores for the first time, they didn’t regard themselves as “entitled.” No one owed them anything. All they asked for was an opportunity, the privilege of pursuing an honest living in exchange for an honest day’s work.

Both labored in steel mills in McKeesport, Pa., hard, unglamorous work, but provided for their families. Samuel Tamasy had two sons and two daughters; George Katona had three sons and five daughters. All became respectable, productive citizens.

I hope in days to come we can return to the roots of liberty, that people arriving on U.S. shores shall indeed be able to find and pursue opportunities, without expecting anything handed to them or insisting on a certain material lifestyle. In the Bible’s New Testament we find an admonition I believe has undergirded the American notion of personal responsibility and initiative: “If a man will not work, he shall not eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10).

At the same time, let us not impede anyone motivated to work and achieve the satisfaction of building fruitful, meaningful lives. May the torch of liberty light their way.

Happy birthday, Miss Liberty!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Questions to Ask God

Suppose you were standing before God and had the opportunity to ask Him some questions. What would you ask?

Frankly, when we see the Lord face to face, I suspect we’ll be too dumbstruck to ask questions. After all, “…at the name of Jesus every knee should bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (Philippians 2:10-11). If anything, God will be the question-asker.

But let’s just suppose, hypothetically, there were such a Q&A session. I’m sure we’d ask about things like world hunger and poverty. Why the good die young. Why couples wanting children struggle to get pregnant while unfit parents have babies and abuse them. What about devastating hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes and tsunamis? How about life on other planets, or in other galaxies?

But I’d like to ask other, less profound but equally puzzling questions:
“Lord, when you created the mosquito, what was it that you were thinking?”
“Do You know why the chicken crossed the road? Chickens rarely cross the road, but I’ve seen a lot of possums, squirrels, cats and dogs, even armadillos in Texas, that tried – and many of them failed. Why did they try?”
“Why did You make fried chicken taste so good if it’s unhealthy to eat?”
Why don't acorns taste like
almonds or peanuts?
“What did come first – the chicken or the egg?” (Obviously, chickens raise a lot of questions.)
“You confused language after the tower of Babel was built, but why did you let Americans say we drive on parkways and park on driveways?”
“If you had decided to give us the Ten Commandments in the 21st century, would You still have had someone climb Mount Sinai to receive them on stone tablets, or would You have just sent a text?”
“Why did you decide morning should come so early in the day?”
“There are always so many acorns in the fall. Why aren’t they better for eating – like almonds or peanuts? I know squirrels and chipmunks need to be stock up for the winter, but we don’t sing about roasting acorns on an open fire.”
“Why do babies and children have so much energy they don’t know how to use, while older people lack energy for stuff they really need to do?”
“Why is it we can only go north so far, and then we start heading south, but no matter how far east we travel, it never turns into going west?”

Lastly, on a more serious note, I’d probably ask, “How could You love us so much that You would give Your only Son, so that anyone truly believing in Him would have eternal life? And as much as we have messed up Your world, why didn’t You just scrap the whole project and start over?”

Monday, October 17, 2011

‘Tomorrow We Could Be Yesterday’

In a recent episode of the TV legal drama, “Harry’s Law,” defense attorney Tommy Jefferson, recognizing the best days of his career will soon be past, makes this observation to a colleague: “Savor the moment…for tomorrow we could be yesterday.”

On Sunday, those words from a fictional character seemed astute in light of the death of Indy Car race driver Dan Wheldon in a horrific crash just 12 laps into a race in Las Vegas.

At age 33, married and the father of two young sons, Wheldon seemed to have everything anyone could want. Already a two-time winner of the famed Indianapolis 500, it appeared a wonderful future awaited him. But screeching tires, grinding metal and fire ended it abruptly.

It served as a grim reminder of the adage that urges us to “stop and smell the roses.” Because those roses – and the special, unique episodes we encounter in life – fade all too quickly, never to be recovered.

Too often, even early in my seventh decade, I still get consumed by tasks and deadlines, failing to pause and appreciate the wonder and beauty of an instant – a grandchild’s giggle, a brilliant sunrise, quiet times with my wife.

That’s probably why the Bible urges us to cherish the majesty of the moment. It says, “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12). It also talks of “Redeeming the time, because the days are evil” (Ephesians 5:16). Or as another translation expresses it, “making the most of every opportunity….”

Wheldon’s death hearkens to that of NASCAR icon Dale Earnhardt during the Daytona 500 in 2001. Earnhardt was far more famous, but Wheldon’s passing is no less tragic – or any less cautionary for everyone that awoke this morning to take another breath.

Many of us seem in such a great hurry. If we’re honest, we’re not always certain of our destination, but we’re getting there fast! Coursing through life at such a pace, do we ever consider what we might be missing along the way?

Instead of always peering into the future, striving for things just beyond our grasp, maybe we should listen to Tommy Jefferson and “savor the moment…for tomorrow we could be yesterday.”

Friday, October 14, 2011

Government: What Size Fits All?

I’m confused: We hear talk by Tea Party partisans and other conservatives about “big government,” but I’m not sure what they mean. Or if they really mean what they say.

People that know me understand I’m somewhat conservative politically, but I prefer to describe myself as moderate. The Bible says, “There is no one righteous, not even one” (Romans 3:10), and I think that’s especially true in politics, regardless of party affiliation. So I doubt either the Democrats or the Republicans have all the answers to our nation’s problems. Even if they did, they’d probably manipulate them for their political advantage.

I understand gripes about the size and cost of government, but do we really want “smaller” government? For example, when hurricanes or earthquakes or tornadoes hit, one of the first questions asked is, “What’s the government doing to help?” Anxiety about the rise of global terrorism is checked by our confidence that “the government” is closely watching potential threats. (But we don't want them watching us.)

The stately U.S. Custom House in Charleston, S.C.
Driving along an interstate highway, when our tires hit a pothole, we grumble in frustration, “When’s the government going to repair this road?!” Should our community experience a surge in crime, we expect the police – essentially, the government – to do something about it.

If the U.S. Postal Service follows through on its proposal to reduce service, perhaps eliminate Saturday delivery – or even when factors delay normal delivery – many of us will complain about inadequate service by this quasi-government agency. We demand that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration ensure our foods and medications are safe for consumption, and that the Drug Enforcement Agency rigorously uphold laws concerning controlled substances.

We want less government intrusion into our private lives, but expect the government to regulate who can get married to who, protect the lives of the unborn (as well as children already born), and safeguard us from hazards of tobacco smoke. We want government to protect the environment, pets and other animals, maintain our national and state parks, and clear our streets of snow.

The list could go on, but here’s the point: We apparently want less government, except when we want more government to protect, preserve or promote our personal interests.

I’m all in favor of increasing government efficiency. There’s an old saying, “Work expands to fit the time allotted,” and I suspect in many government agencies there are 50 workers where 30 could do the work just fine, or where instead of one person doing the work of three, four people are “struggling” to perform the work of one.

But if you had the chance, what governmental agencies and functions would you simply eliminate?

While we’re complaining about governmental intrusions we don’t like, and taxes we don’t want to pay, it might be good to do what God has commanded: “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God” (Romans 13:1) Like it or not, we're stuck with government. Unless, that is, you're a fan of chaos and anarchy. So we might as well make the best of it.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Who Do You Think You Are?

Imagine entering a restaurant, sitting down at someone’s table and proceeding to start nibbling on their French fries. After momentary surprise, one of the more civil questions they might ask is, “Who do you think you are?”

I don’t recommend snatching someone else’s food under any circumstances, but that’s a question worth asking: “Who do you think you are?”

When I was in the fourth grade, my mother attended a parent-teacher conference. When she got home, she said my teacher, Mr. Mazzochi, had stated he felt I was “college material.” Until then, I hadn’t given going to college a thought. No one in my family had ever gone to college, so it wasn’t something I’d been contemplating. But from that day, because of my teacher’s kind words, I saw myself as “college material” and conducted myself accordingly through high school.

Once I arrived at college, my freshman English instructor, Mrs. Looser, began to affirm my writing potential. She even suggested I might want to consider a career in writing. I’d enjoyed writing as a hobby, but until then had never considered it vocationally. But that started me thinking as an aspiring writer. More than 40 years later, that’s what I’ve become – a veteran journalist who has written everything from newspaper articles to books.

I mention this because the Bible asserts, “as a man thinks in his heart, so is he” (Proverbs 23:7), and we do tend to behave in terms of how we perceive ourselves. This is why it’s so damaging for a parent to demean a child, calling him or her “stupid” or “worthless.” If someone we’re supposed to love and respect says such a thing, we’re inclined to believe it and act accordingly.

Similarly, I become annoyed by people claiming to follow Jesus Christ that continually say, “I’m just a sinner, saved by grace.” Although that’s true theologically, and sounds humble and self-effacing, the Bible says we are much more than that.

For instance, 1 Peter 2:9 says we are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God.” Wow! In numerous passages, followers of Jesus are referred to as “saints.” And Romans 9:26 calls us “children of the living God.” Isn’t that cool?

If I wake up in the morning, frown in the mirror and remind myself, “I’m just a sinner…saved by grace,” I’ll appreciate God’s grace but probably act as I think of myself – a sinner. We don’t think it consciously, but it’s almost like saying, “Let’s see what sins I can commit today.”

However, what if I start the day trusting in what the Bible says about me? That God has chosen me, I’m part of His royal priesthood, I belong to Him, I’m a saint (without the need for some denominational governing body to declare me so), and I’m a child of the living God – won’t those realities make a difference in how I approach my everyday responsibilities and challenges?

And this is more than just positive thinking or self-talk. The Scriptures also declare that as followers of Jesus we all are a “new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17) and “Christ lives in me (each of us)” (Galatians 2:20), empowering us to live the life we could never live on our own.

So the question remains: “Who do you think you are?”

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Changing the World, One Jobs at a Time

The Apple logo, under Steve Jobs' leadership, became an American classic.

Here I sit, writing with my iMac desktop computer, a marvel of modern invention. Within arm’s reach rests my first-generation iPad, a slender little device that makes laptop computers seem passé. I think back to the mid-80’s and my first computer, a Macintosh 512k (crude by today’s standards) that instantaneously weaned me from electric typewriters.

I mention these because the man chiefly responsible for each, Steve Jobs, died yesterday at the age of 56.

Although I never met the iconic co-founder of Apple Computers, I did write him a note in 2010. Years before I’d been coerced into switching from a Mac to a PC, so I wanted to tell Jobs how thrilled I was returning “home” to the world of Macintosh.

The iPad has brought "tablet"
computers into the mainstream.
Today his passing is mourned, his many achievements celebrated. Numerous people shared in the work, but much credit for the ever-evolving Macs, iBooks, iPads, iPods, iPhones, iTunes, Apps, and various innovative operating systems has deservedly gone to Jobs.

He was, without a doubt, a world-changer. This architect of cutting-edge technology helped to revolutionize the way we work, communicate – and live.

One of the questions facing Apple today is how the company will fare – particularly long-term – without Jobs’ heart and genius. He resigned from the company in August, but now his departure is final. Who – if anyone – will succeed him as the dreamer, envisioning the next wonders to turn life as we know it upside-down?

Reflecting on this late corporate and societal giant, I can’t help thinking of a world-changer in another realm. About 2,000 years ago Jesus Christ sparked a revolution of his own, a spiritual one. When He left this earth, many also wondered who would carry on His work; who would safeguard and perpetuate His legacy of love, grace and redemption.

Unlike Jobs, Jesus departed with a fail-proof plan in place. He had a small, growing band of followers. But more than that, He left behind a part of Himself. Before His crucifixion and resurrection, Jesus told His disciples, “It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you…. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth” (John 16:7,13).

The folks at Apple would love it if somehow Jobs’ spirit, vision and zeal could have stayed behind. Now they must hope someone steps into that void. But with Jesus, He didn’t just leave a cadre of admirers, sharers in a noble cause. He left His own Spirit, not only to guide His followers but also to empower them to carry on the work He had begun.

“…I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God” (Galatians 2:20). In that handful of words lies the secret to the so-called “Christian life,” the key for becoming – in a very different sense than Steve Jobs – world-changers.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Mountaintops . . . and Valleys

We much prefer "soaring like eagles" to descending into the valley.

Have you ever had a “mountaintop experience,” that moment when you felt so inspired, so energized, so exhilarated you felt you could tackle the world? One that sent you riding waves of emotion and renewed hope?

Such moments present themselves in many ways: At a milestone event, like a wedding or the birth of a child. An encounter with a very special person. During a retreat, conference, or worship service.

I remember returning from Washington, D.C. years ago after interviewing several wonderful individuals for magazine articles. It seemed like I was flying higher than my airplane. I’ve taken part in Christian conferences and conventions with the “best of the best” speakers. After feasting on their biblical wisdom and insight, I thought to myself, “Okay, Lord, I’m ready for anything!”

I even had a “mountaintop experience” years ago viewing the Grand Canyon for the first time, which essentially is a humongous hole in the ground. Witnessing its vastness and grandeur profoundly broadened my appreciation for God’s unlimited creation.

The problem with mountaintops is we can’t remain there. Even climbers that conquer the great peaks of the world eventually must come down. And that’s where the problem lies.

Recently in My Utmost for His Highest, my friend Oswald Chambers – I call him “friend” because he and his timeless devotional have been part of my life for many years – wrote about how we like to revel in “times of exaltation on the mountain.”

Then he noted, “The true test of our spiritual life is in exhibiting the power to descend from the mountain…. We are not made for the mountains, for sunrises, or for the other beautiful attractions of life – those are simply intended to be moments of inspiration. We are made for the valley and the ordinary things of life, and that is where we have to prove our stamina and strength.”

Frankly, sometimes following a visit to the mountaintop I experienced a severe letdown, even mild depression. “Why can’t I just stay up there?” I’ve wondered.

The ninth chapter of Mark in the New Testament tells about Jesus and his “inner circle of three” – Peter, James and John – having a similar experience. Atop “the mount of transfiguration,” the disciples saw Jesus’ clothes turn dazzling white and they had a brief encounter with biblical patriarchs Elijah and Moses.

What did they do? They wanted to pitch tents right there and soak in the experience. But soon they were alone with Jesus, preparing to descend to the valley below. Talk about a literal “downer”! But there, in the company of the crowds, Jesus’ followers had to begin applying truths and principles they learned from Him.

The same holds true today. We can find ourselves enraptured by a glorious hymn, a rousing choral presentation, or stirring solo. A powerful spiritual message touches our heart, prompting us to declare undying devotion to God. But then comes Monday morning, Tuesday afternoon, and we’re stuck in mundane stuff of every day – handling irate customers, changing diapers, paying bills – desperately wondering what had us so excited.

We all want to “soar on wings like eagles” as described in Isaiah 40:31, but more often than not, we need to wander around in “the valley of the shadow of death” (Psalm 23:4), trying to make sense of darkness and gloom all around us. It’s at those times, if we listen, that we hear the Lord’s comforting words: “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5).