Thursday, December 29, 2011

Fresh Starts . . . and New Goals

Have you recovered from the Christmas commotion? Frantic searches for gifts; festive and sometimes stressful family gatherings; frenetic attempts to finish work projects so you can enjoy time off in peace?

The last gifts are barely unwrapped and we’re already wrestling with some of mankind’s most compelling questions: How to celebrate the arrival of the New Year? How long will it take to get used to writing “2012”? How to pay the “merry Christmas” expenses?

But a greater question is what 2012 will offer: What joys, disappointments, achievements and surprises lurk at the turn of the calendar?

The sun is setting on an old year,
making room for a new one.
The ballyhooed transition from 11:59 p.m. on Dec. 31, 2011 to 12:01 a.m. on Jan. 1, 2012 is largely a global timeline convenience, but it still spawns hope and anticipation – an opportunity to start fresh, vowing to avoid past mistakes and determining to make corrections in the new year.

Columnist Craig Wilson of USA Today wrote, “The best thing about 2012 is that it is a blank slate – a year when anything can happen.... The future? A wide-open road.” 

So what will be written on your “slate”? What course will your “wide-open road” follow?

Some people make resolutions: “I resolve to (fill in the blank).” As I’ve written before, I never make resolutions. They’re easy to break, and once broken, we discard them. Instead, I set goals – tangible, measurable targets, both short-term and long-term. They may include losing a few pounds or learning something new. Or they might be to work on being healthier or more fit, or read some mind-expanding books.

As each new year starts, I maintain an annual tradition of reviewing the year past and setting specific goals for the months ahead. Goals will relate to work, relationships, finances, my physical well-being. Perhaps you’ll do the same.

But have you ever considered setting spiritual goals as well? Granted, we can’t truly gauge spiritual growth. As I see it, God is the only one that can accurately measure that. However, we can set goals that can enhance our spiritual state. Goals like spending time in the Scriptures each day, or reading a challenging, thoughtfully written devotional book. Memorizing some meaningful Bible verses. Setting aside specific time to pray each day.

Everyone’s goals must be their own, but while you’re considering the intellectual, physical and relational aspects of your life, I’d encourage you to also set a goal or two to address the spiritual facet of your life.

In Isaiah 43:18-19, God reminds us to always be looking forward, eager to see what He is going to do: “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland.”

Living in a world that seems to have more than its share of desert and wasteland, I plan to set a few spiritual goals to make sure I’m open to what God wants to show me – and teach me – during the coming year. 

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Babies, Change . . . and Christmas!

We wish everyone a blessed, joyous Christmas!

Little babies have a way of changing things in big ways. We’ve been reminded of this firsthand throughout this year with the addition of two delightful little grandsons. They burst upon the scene in a big way in January and February, and we’ll never be the same!

For our family this Christmas will be unlike any other; once again we get to observe the special day through the eyes of a little one.

More than 2,000 years ago, another little baby initiated some really big changes with his inauspicious appearance in a tiny hamlet known as Bethlehem. Even before his arrival, this baby had a resume unlike any other: “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6).

From that humble beginning, the Bible tells us, the baby – named Jesus – grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men” (Luke 2:52). He is also described as “the Word (that) became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14).

Later in the same chapter, John the Baptist declared Him, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).

Thankfully, Jesus did not remain a baby, even though at this time of year we focus on his birth. His role as Lamb of God, taking upon himself the sin of the world as he hung from a hideous cross, makes His birth worth celebrating.

As we pause to celebrate another Christmas, I hope you’re embracing the truth of Jesus Christ more tightly than ever.

Merry Christmas – and as Tiny Tim said in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, “God bless us, every one!”

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Incredible Human Machine

Imagine a machine that operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for more than 70 years, without missing a beat. Wouldn’t that be incredible?

We have such a non-stop machine: It’s called the human heart. Consider these facts:

According to the Mayo Clinic, a normal resting heart rate for an adult is 60 to 100 beats per minute. Choosing an average of 72 beats per minute as the norm, this means a person’s heart beats 4,320 times in one hour, 103,680 times in a 24-hour day. That also means in just one year, a healthy individual’s heart beats nearly 38 million times. Extend that over a 70-year life span (and many of us will live much longer than that) and you have a heart beating approximately 2.7 billion times! And that does not include accelerated heartbeats due to exercise, fear, illness or stress.

I mention these statistics because five years ago today, my heart actually was taking a break for 30-40 minutes, replaced by a heart-lung machine as a cardiothoracic surgeon and his team “fixed my heart.” Overall the procedure lasted about six hours. Four arterial bypass grafts and a rebuilt ascending aorta later, I was “good to go.” Not really – several months of recovery and rehab followed. But thanks to the skills of my surgeon and the excellent post-op care I received, I’m sitting here blogging, having just finished another round of strenuous cardio exercises.

When I volunteer at the hospital where I had my surgery, visiting people who’ve just had similar procedures, I often remind them they’ve been given a gift – the gift of a new day, with even better days ahead. Lying in a hospital bed recovering on Christmas Day 2006, I was disappointed not be home. But I was happy to still be around – and to be with my family.

My conclusion, as I also mention to patients I visit, was after coming through such critical surgery, God wasn’t finished with me (or them) yet. So the question becomes, “Okay, Lord, what do you want me to do now?”

In the Old Testament, God makes an interesting statement: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 36:26). As another Christmas nears, that truly is a remarkable gift.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Death of a Champion for Atheists

Christopher Hitchens, noted author, essayist, intellectual and, as some described him, “the public face of atheism,” has died at the age of 62. Cause of death was reported as pneumonia, a complication of esophageal cancer.

Whenever anyone dies, it raises questions both about the life they lived and the life – if any – that comes after. Hitchens, to his dying breath apparently, stridently maintained his conviction that there is no God and that this life is all there is, so “make your last days the best ones.”

I never read any of Hitchens’ books. For the first 30 years of my life I lived as a practical atheist, even though I attended church and had an intellectual belief in God. So I never felt a need to read why someone like Hitchens was so convinced of his disbelief. I had been familiar enough with my own.

But it’s interesting that he wrote, “I’m an unbeliever who believes in skepticism. I’m only sure about being unsure.” In that light, it logically follows that if, as Hitchens believed, the end of life is indeed the end of everything, then he has no conscious knowledge of it. But if he was wrong in his disbelief, now he truly knows.

Commenting on Hitchens’ death, Joel Siegel of ABC News stated, “Critics assumed his cancer diagnosis, in 2010, would lead Hitchens to repent and embrace God. But he remained a proud non-believer to the very end….”

That is a very telling observation, because pride is probably the greatest obstacle to belief. Pride resulted in the original sin, as both Eve and Adam essentially concluded, “Just who does God think He is to tell us we can’t eat the fruit of that tree?” And it’s pride to this day that keeps many people from humbling themselves to acknowledge God, then asking themselves the penetrating question, “If there is a God, what does He expect of me?”

Psalm 14:1 makes this bold declaration: “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” If that is true, Mr. Hitchens now knows for certain.

What I know for certain is, as Israelite leader Joshua said thousands of years ago, “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15) 

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Problem of Impossibility

As we anticipate another Christmas, sometimes it seems we’re pondering the imponderable: A virgin becoming pregnant and having a child. God “becoming flesh,” being born under very ordinary circumstances in an inconspicuous setting. A stable accommodating divinity. This baby growing up, becoming peerless teacher, role model, and ultimately, Savior.

The Christmas story seems so incredible,
no one would have imagined it.
From a human perspective, it would be easy to label all of the above as impossibilities. Certainly agnostics and atheists prefer to relegate the New Testament narrative to “myth” or “fable.” Yet once again, on Dec. 25, countless millions will celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. Many of them can attest to the life-changing, transformational impact of being followers of Jesus.

No other person’s life has influenced mankind to the magnitude of the carpenter from Nazareth, the one called “the good shepherd,” “the way, the truth and the life,” “the true vine,” “the Lamb of God,” “the light of the world.”

Still, God taking on human form? It seems so…impossible. But then, that’s what God is all about – doing the impossible, existing and working beyond the scope of human comprehension. As the angel responded in Luke 1:37 when Mary asked how she, a virgin, could bear a child: “For nothing is impossible with God.”

Later in the same book, Jesus made a similar declaration: “What is impossible with men is possible with God” (Luke 18:27).

There, in just a handful of words, we find the crux of the dilemma. We are asked, by faith, to believe in the seemingly impossible, trusting in a God unlimited by time, space, or circumstances. Disbelief doesn’t daunt Him; sin doesn’t stalemate Him.

Years ago, “Mission: Impossible” was a popular TV series. More recently, films starring Tom Cruise have carried the same title. But when it comes to carrying out missions impossible, Jesus Christ must rank as the all-time champion.   

Thursday, December 8, 2011

How Do You Rate on the ‘Cheerful’ Scale?

Children singing carols communicate Christmas cheer.

The other day we went to our nearby mall to do some shopping. Happy Christmas music filled the air; stores festively displayed the colors of the season; everyone seemed to be having fun.

This, we’re told, is the season of good cheer. And at least from outward appearances, it is. I observed people visiting with friends also out “holiday hunting.” Others went solo, searching for a special gift or unique treasure to give a loved one or friend. “It’s the most wonderful time of the year,” the popular Christmas song reminds us.

Or is it?

Ornaments and tinsel don't
always make for a cheery season.
Studies have shown at this time of year, many are plagued by depression. Feelings of isolation, despair, even thoughts of suicide, seep through the glaze of gaiety, the fa├žade of frivolity. And no wonder: High unemployment; unresolved financial problems; rampant crime; global unrest; the ever-present threat of terrorism.

I even heard someone say this week that, at least in some areas, the traditional pledge “to be cheerful” has been removed from the Girl Scout pledge. “It’s not realistic for these times” was the explanation. Girl Scouts no longer expected to be cheerful? What’s the world coming to?

But I get it. Stress often intensifies during the Christmas season: Trying to please everyone on the gift list, feeling obligated to attend holiday events, wondering how to pay the “cost of Christmas.” Not to mention being reminded of lingering hurts and strained relationships. Where’s the “cheer” in all that?

The cheer, I’ve discovered, is in focusing on the real what – and who – of Christmas. It’s not about toys, tinsel or treats. It’s about Jesus, and as long as we remember that, we can rely on His cheerful promise: “In this world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

Monday, December 5, 2011

Making More By Providing Less?

You have to give the U.S. Postal Service credit for attempting to “think outside the box.” Only I can’t figure out which box they’re trying to think outside of.

Conventional business wisdom tells us keys to success and prosperity include providing quality products and/or services, along with generous doses of customer service. But it seems the Postal Service isn’t worried about appearing to be “conventional.”

Officials have announced that as bankruptcy looms, by next spring customers can expect less service – including elimination of any assurance that first-class mail will be delivered within one day. And delivery might be reduced from six days to five. But not to worry: Service may be slower and less satisfactory, but at least they plan to charge more for it!

The historic old post office in downtown
Charleston, S.C. is an artist marvel.
Forget about the motto, “Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” Instead, it seems the new postal mantra will be, “Whenever!” (On a side note, Greek historian Herodotus coined the adage more than four centuries before the birth of Christ – and from all accounts, the economy in Greece is in dire straits these days. So I guess that means it’s okay to ditch the motto.)

Years ago I heard a speaker comment on the railroad industry, which for years had been the long-distance travel choice of Americans. However, railroad magnates got confused: Rather than recognizing their job was to provide efficient transportation, they focused on running trains. As a result, railroaders eventually lost their preeminent position to airlines, motorcoach companies and other modes of mass transportation.

I suspect the Postal Service has fallen victim to the same narrow thinking. Rather than recognizing their job was to deliver communications, they concentrated on the transport of written and printed materials and parcels. As a result, the quasi-government entity has steadily lost ground to UPS, FedEx and other delivery services, not to mention e-mail and the Internet.

While in college, I worked at a local post office for a couple of summers, but I’m certainly no expert on how to fix the Postal Service. I do recall, however, that even then there seemed little or no incentive for working hard – or working well. “Why bother, the union’s got your back” was a prevailing attitude I sensed.

Too bad the so-called “separation of church and state” is monitored so vigorously. I think if those who head the U.S. Postal Service were to heed some advice from the Bible, it could help a lot: “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might…” (Ecclesiastes 9:10) and ”Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men” (Colossians 3:23).

Cutting service significantly while increasing costs might seem like a good way to eliminate the postal shortfall, but in the process the USPS might ultimately cut off its nose to spite its face. Half-hearted effort wins no customers. That’s no way to do business.