Monday, November 28, 2011

Black Fridays and Blue Christmases

My wife and I did not get caught up in the “Black Friday” craziness this year. We did get “amongst ‘em” a bit later in the day, just for a glimpse of the aftermath, but didn’t join the jamming of the stores late Thursday evening, or before the crack of dawn on Friday. (I prefer to listen for the “crack” first, and then get out of bed.)

I don’t know who invented this annual hysteria, but whoever it was (he/she/they), what an incredible idea. Feed on American materialism, stir in generous doses of greed, selfishness and covetousness, and you have a recipe to suit any retailer’s taste - and bottom line.

Instead of Santa Claus, shouldn't the symbols
of Christmas be the manger - and the cross?
Seriously, I don’t condemn those who make the “ultimate sacrifice” of forgoing sleep and such, in the quest for incredible bargains. Who doesn’t like saving money? But I wonder: Is this what Jesus had in mind on that first Christmas?

Recently I came across a quote from Roy L. Smith concerning Christmas in which he stated, He who has not Christmas in his heart will never find it under a tree.” I’d not heard of Mr. Smith before, but I totally agree.

Over the next several weeks, many of us will be searching for the perfect gift for a loved one or friend, but the truth is, Christmas really isn’t about stuff. I wish the Bible said that, but I can’t find those exact words. The general idea is there, however.

The apostle Paul, for example, wrote, For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). He also stated, “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Galatians 6:14). In other words, Paul was determined to “keep the main thing the main thing,” and not become distracted by lesser things.

Elvis Presley, among others, sang, “I’ll have a blue Christmas without you.” As the magic day draws near, let’s resolve to keep Christ in Christmas. It will be a blue Christmas without Him.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Thankful for the Good...and the Not-So-Good?

This Thanksgiving Day, what will you be thankful for?

I’d like to revisit something I’ve written about before. Growing up, Thanksgiving included imagery of Pilgrims and Indians joining for a common meal; the smell of turkey roasting in the kitchen; the sound of holiday parades and football games on TV. When dinner time arrived, we bowed our heads and said a prayer of thanks. The thank-you list usually included family, a warm house, health and, of course, the food.

One thing I can’t remember our ever expressing thanks for, though: Hardships we might have been facing at the time. Yet, in the Bible we are instructed, “In everything give thanks…” (1 Thessalonians 5:18).

When we hear “blessings,” we think of the “good stuff” – things we like and that make us happy. If our bank accounts have a surplus, we can pay our bills, are free of disease, and have our share of material possessions, we consider ourselves blessed. So we “praise God from whom all blessings flow,” as the old hymn tells us.

How do you give thanks
when you're not feeling festive?
But the admonition above is correct (in another translation, it reads, “give thanks in all circumstances”), does that mean we’re also supposed to be thankful for the not-so-good stuff – financial struggles, unemployment, disease, the loss of loved ones, even family strife?

Years ago, describing his spiritual journey, an African-American friend talked about poverty and racial discrimination he endured. But with a smile he would say, “Thank you, for adversity!” Another friend who endured the horrors of World War II, numerous physical ailments and business challenges, wrote a booklet called, “Saying ‘Thank You’ Even When You Don’t Feel Thankful.”

I think there’s validity to both responses. In my experience, when things go well, I’m tempted to pat myself on the back and take the credit. But when hardships occur, difficulties suddenly spinning out of control, that’s when I’m reminded of how desperately I need to rely on God. I believe the Scripture passage that says, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13), but lest I forget, life’s tough times reaffirm what Jesus said in John 15:5: “…apart from Me you can do nothing.”

Like a tree that grows especially strong and hardy because of adverse weather and environmental conditions, God often uses adversity to mold and refine us into the men and women He desires for us to become.

So this Thursday, as you gather with family and other loved ones, I hope things are going well and you have much for which to be thankful. But if you face nagging challenges that defy immediate resolution – perhaps even seem hopeless – I’d encourage you to give thanks for those as well. God promises to walk with us through our trials. “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5).

As the refrain from the wonderful praise song states, “When you don’t see His plan, when you can’t trace His hand, trust His heart.” For that we can be thankful.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Of Statues, Reputations and Legacies

Most of us vividly recall news coverage of Saddam Hussein’s statue being knocked down in Baghdad, Iraq in 2003. For decades Saddam had ruled the Middle Eastern nation, and the statue had stood in silent homage to his exalted position. In the end, however, his status was reduced to images of gleeful Iraqi citizens destroying that icon.

In the now-defunct Soviet Union, statues and pictures of Lenin and Stalin were removed in similar rituals. Once dominant leaders disgraced, their most tangible images forever swept from public view.

So it seemed intriguing when a friend recently posted this question on Facebook: “Do you think the Joe Paterno statue in front of Beaver Stadium should come down?”

Not to equate former Penn State coach Paterno’s alleged wrongdoings with those of Saddam, Lenin or Stalin, but I do see some similarities.

In each case, the men were the face of their nation (in the case of “Joe Pa,” the “Nittany Lion Nation”). They all were strong individuals, always in control, deferring to no one. And in each case, they allowed loyal followers to violate one of God’s foremost commandments: “You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath…” (Exodus 20:4) It could be argued that in the process, the first commandment was also broken: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3).

This statue in Charleston, S.C. pays
homage to South Carolina statesman
John C. Calhoun. Since he's been dead
more than 150 years, it's unlikely
his statue is in any danger of having
to be removed.
Humanity loves erecting statues to honor celebrated leaders and achievers. On our recent vacation trip to Charleston, S.C., we saw statues of numerous individuals that played key roles in the city’s history. It’s appropriate to recognize noble contributions of dedicated and gifted leaders, but when it comes to putting up statues in their honor, we tread unstable ground – especially if the honorees are still living.

Statues typically take months, even years, to create. Reputations – and legacies – require a lifetime. But sadly, they all can be destroyed in moments – through bad decisions, unethical or immoral conduct, poor choices, or dark secrets suddenly revealed.

Maybe that’s why we’re advised to “avoid even the appearance of evil” (1 Thessalonians 5:22). Our reputations – and legacies – hang in the balance.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Payback By Paying Forward

Did you read last week about the two women that had a tire blow on their car on an interstate near Menomonie, Wis.? A stranger and his wife stopped to help them replace the tire. About 15 minutes later, they all were heading their merry way. Just a nice little Good Samaritan story, right? – happily ever after?

About a quarter-mile down the road, the women spotted the same pickup truck the man and his wife had been riding in. It was stopped along the side of the roadway, the man’s wife waving frantically for help.

A flat tire turned out to be a double
blessing in disguise.
Turned out the man had gone into cardiac arrest and one of the women, a nursing assistant, was able to administer CPR and revive him until emergency personnel could arrive. Talk about “one good turn deserves another”!

Years ago there was a film called “Pay It Forward,” based on the idea that if someone performs an act of kindness for you, the best way to repay it is by doing a random kind act for someone else. But rarely does the idea of paying it forward have such an immediate, reciprocal effect.

At first the women felt somewhat guilty, thinking perhaps the strain of changing the tire had precipitated the heart episode. But the helpful stranger and his wife understood the reality: the spontaneous exchange had actually saved his life.

It’s likely the man had a heart condition that would have manifested itself in a different way; at another time and place, there might not have been someone to respond with help he needed.

Some might credit this to luck or serendipity, even “good karma.” But as an old hymn by William Cowper states, “God works in mysterious ways His wonders to perform.” Who’s to say He didn’t orchestrate this series of circumstances to help a man that didn’t even realize he had a need?

In the Old Testament, God declares, “’For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the Lord. ‘As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts’” (Isaiah 55:8-9).

Sometimes the Lord provides answers to our prayers even before we’ve had enough sense to pray – and in ways we could never have dreamed.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Rutted Road to Finishing Well

This week I wrote about an American icon, Dr. Billy Graham, who marked his 93rd birthday. Despite the debilitating effects of Parkinson’s Disease, the revered evangelist has remained steadfast in his resolve to live for Christ and proclaim Him to others. By all accounts, he is finishing well.

Also this week, another American icon, legendary Penn State football coach Joe Paterno, has been the focus of much attention. Unfortunately, the spotlight has been not nearly as flattering for “Joe Pa.”

The all-time winningest coach at the big-time college level, the 84-year-old Paterno is now facing harsh scrutiny and criticism. He failed to be more forthright upon learning of his longtime No. 1 assistant and once “heir apparent,” Jerry Sandusky, sexually abusing young boys over many years. New developments in this scandal seem to be unfolding by the hour.

Wednesday Paterno announced he will retire at the end of this season. In a formal statement, he expressed regrets about the sad drama and said, “I wish I had done more.”

“I wish I had done more.” That reminded me of the powerful film, “Schindler’s List.” It’s about Oscar Schindler, a prosperous businessman who undertook a courageous strategy to save as many Jews as possible from the Nazi concentration camps. Despite having intervened to save hundreds of Jews from certain death, in a closing scene he laments, “I wish I had done more.”

Unlike Schindler, who acted at great risk and personal cost (even though not a Jew), it appears Paterno did little more than the bare minimum. With almost mythical status and power in his community, the coach certainly didn’t need to wait for his athletic director or other officials to act. Legally, it seems, Paterno had covered his bases – but morally, he could have done more. Much more.

Now, because he didn’t, numerous young men will carry scars from their encounters with a predatory adult for years, even a lifetime.

But beneath the horror of this specific tale lies a profound truth: It’s relatively easy to start well – it’s finishing well that’s problematic. The road is rutted, filled with potholes, but it’s the course we each must follow. A noble life, characterized by kind and charitable acts, can still become derailed if we’re not careful.

It’s not a matter of being judgmental. Just as poet Robert Frost wrote, I still have “miles to go before I sleep.” And if my life has any meaningful legacy at all, it can’t be tarnished by stupid decisions – or indecision – even late in my life.

That’s probably why, at the close of his life, the apostle Paul wrote – maybe with a sigh of relief – “I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race. I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7).

Monday, November 7, 2011

Happy Birthday, Dr. Graham!

Last week we marked the Statue of Liberty’s 125th anniversary; today we celebrate another American icon – Dr. Billy Graham – who turns 93.

Dr. Graham, according to all accounts, has truly done it right. A firebrand as a young evangelist, his style mellowed somewhat over the succeeding years, but he never lost his focus – or zeal for Jesus Christ and telling others about Him.

He was sometimes criticized for befriending Presidents on all sides of the spectrum, but in reality, politics was never Jesus’ thing either. His boldest political statement was “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” (Mark 12:17). Jesus said His kingdom is not of this world, and Dr. Graham has devoted a lifetime to pointing people to that kingdom.

I met him years ago at a Christian journalists’ conference. We talked for only about two minutes, but for that brief encounter Dr. Graham’s attention was fully directed at me, not the next person in line.

Having been in parachurch ministry for more than 30 years, sadly I’ve met a number of celebrated leaders who exuded a “what a pleasure it is for you to meet me” attitude. But Dr. Graham was not one of them. Despite his fame and many accolades, this struck me as a man who genuinely reflected the character and humility of his Savior.

Having bid farewell to his beloved wife, Ruth, some years ago, Dr. Graham now anticipates his own homegoing. He addresses that in his newest book, Nearing Home. In it he writes, “We are not meant for this world alone. We are meant for Heaven, our final home.”

That does not mean followers of Jesus should not seek to have a positive influence on lives in this physical, material world, but our priorities should always remind us this life is not the destination – it’s only the first stage of an eternal journey.

There is no telling how many people have been touched through Dr. Graham’s ministry of more than six decades. But if each of us could have just one-tenth of one percent of that impact, this world no doubt would be a far better place.

So, happy birthday, Dr. Graham!

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Giving a Reason for His Hope

As you get older, you start turning to the obituaries each morning to see if anyone’s listed you might know. One comedian used to quip he’d read the obits every day to make certain he wasn’t in them – if not, then he would proceed with his plans for the day.

This morning I read the obituary of a man I hadn’t known until I heard him a couple of weeks ago, telling a lunchtime group the story of how he had committed his life to Jesus Christ. As he spoke, the man – whose first name was Porter – acknowledged his time on earth was short. He’d already reached the most optimistic limit of the doctors’ prognosis after being diagnosed with terminal cancer.

But he communicated no sense of fear, despair or anger. Having devoted much of his life to alcohol and self-indulgence, Porter was thankful for years of sobriety, new purpose in life, and most of all, assurance of life after death.

His objective in speaking was not to “earn points” with God in his waning moments. He wished only to share with friends and colleagues the difference Jesus had made in his life – and encourage them to embrace Him as well. Porter had prepared himself, as the Bible exhorts believers, “to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have…with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15).

Despite earlier failings, Porter had become reconciled with his family. As he spoke, he resonated “hope,” which the Bible defines as confident assurance, earnest expectation. He wasn’t seeking more time, or a miracle of healing. This man just wanted to share the “good news” he had discovered one more time, urging others to receive it as well.

In sports, an athlete recovering from an injury is often described as “day to day.” In reality, we are all day to day. The question is what will we do with the day we have? And if we knew with certainty we had only weeks, perhaps days left to live, how would we use them?

Porter, having been saved from the shipwreck that had been his life, spent his last moments throwing a life preserver toward anyone that would take it. And now he’s experiencing the full reality of what Jesus meant when He said, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10).

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Tattoos…Outside and Inside

Did you hear about the fellow – a reformed skinhead – who underwent 25 surgeries over 16 months to have elaborate tattoos removed from his face, neck and hands?

Bryon Widner had undergone a change of heart and renounced his racist, white supremacist ideology, but the external trappings of his former life remained etched into his skin, in places he couldn’t possibly conceal. It cost an estimated $35,000 to have the “ink” – swastikas, the word “HATE,” and various other racist symbols and words – removed.

His story was presented as a documentary, “Erasing Hate,” on MSNBC. The expense was one thing; the pain he endured to remove evidence of his self-mutilation was even worse.

Not long ago, flipping through an old high school yearbook, I was reminded of what we once looked like. “What were we thinking?” I chuckled, marveling at the teased hairstyles and kooky clothes back then. At the time, it was “cool.” Decades later, we wouldn’t be caught dead looking that way.

Mr. Widner’s tale is cautionary for us all – and not just because (in my opinion) tattoos adorning someone’s body are like graffiti on the Washington Monument. Markings of what once seemed “cool” can mar us for a lifetime.

“Never do something you’ll regret in the morning, or next week, or next year.” Good advice, but in the moment, whether as impetuous youths or weak-thinking adults, we make dumb decisions. Then one day we regain sanity and wonder, “What was I thinking?”

In reality, we have all carried “tattoos” of one sort or another. Sometimes we have worn them on the inside rather than the outside, not as readily visible but there just the same: tattoos like anger, prejudice, pride, selfishness, self-righteousness, etc.

The fact is, unless we’ve maimed ourselves outwardly, we can conceal our flaws from the external world. But what matters most of all is what’s inside. That’s why God declares in 1 Samuel 16:7, “Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”

You can paint a garbage can in bright, pretty colors, but on the inside it still contains garbage. Our challenge is not only to look presentable on the outside, but also be acceptable to the One that studies the heart. The good news is that we don’t have to do the work; God is willing to perform the renovation project – if we’re willing.

“Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2). The One who died for our sins will do the transformation: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20).