Monday, December 31, 2012

Knowledge or Wisdom? You Choose

Proverbs is considered one of the Bible's "wisdom books."

Knowledge or wisdom – if you had to pick one or the other, which would you choose?

My father had a favorite saying to describe some people: “He’s so smart, he’s stupid.” His meaning, you might surmise, was just because individuals have a certain level of intelligence and may have acquired a substantial amount of information, that doesn’t ensure they know how to put it to use effectively.

Kind of like people that don’t have enough sense to get out of the rain.

There’s a link between wisdom and common sense. Some of the wisest people I’ve met didn’t have college degrees or a lot of what we used to call “book learning.” But if you were trying to make a decision or looking for practical advice, they were the ones I’d consult first.

One friend used to say, “I’ll never understand why, if we didn’t have time to do it right the first time, we have time to do it over again.” Another friend had a sign posted in his office, “Failure to plan on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part.”

Maybe not quotes we'd attribute to Einstein, or Newton, or da Vinci. Not the kind of material that would make you the life of the party at a Mensa International conference. Just the same, these observations make good sense.

How do you get wisdom? Some experts say it comes from experience, the experience of making good decisions. And how do you make good decisions? By making bad ones – and learning from them, they say.

We’re about to enter a new year. For many of us that signifies a chance for a new beginning. I’m a person that likes to review the year past and set goals for the year ahead. One worthwhile goal, it seems to me, would be to grow in wisdom. But how can we do that?

The book of Proverbs offers
much to think about.
You could make a bunch of poor decisions, try to learn from them and make better decisions down the road. That might work. But a simpler, less painful way I’ve found is to regularly read from the Old Testament’s book of Proverbs, one of the Bible’s so-called “wisdom books.”

I suspect most the readers of this blog, because of its content, are already people of faith or at least spiritual interest. But even if you’re not, hear me out.

For years I’ve made a daily practice of reading the chapter from Proverbs that coincides with the date of the month. For instance, today would be the day to read chapter 31, which happens to describe an exceptional woman, the so-called “the Proverbs 31 woman.”

Tomorrow I plan to start reading again from the beginning, chapter 1, which makes the declaration, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction” (Proverbs 1:6). Hey, the Bible said it, I didn’t.

I've found reading Proverbs so helpful, I often make notes
in margins about key principles it presents.
Why read Proverbs over and over, month after month, year after year? Maybe it’s because I’m dense and it takes time for things to sink in. But I’ve learned reading these simple yet profound verses serve as a continual reminder of what to do and how to think, and what not to do and how not to think.

Over the course of its 31 chapters (you might have to double up occasionally in February, and in months with 30 days), it covers a wide range of topics, including anger, handling conflict, discipline, seeking counsel and guidance, sexual temptation, hard work and laziness, discipline, speech and communications, generosity, inner motives, honesty and integrity, pride and humility, the use and abuse of money, planning, security, even leaving a legacy.

Proverbs offers practical wisdom for the workplace as well as one’s personal life. Groups of business and professional people – believers and non-believers – have met regularly to discuss how principles from Proverbs apply to their careers and circumstances.

Why not give it a try? Tomorrow, just for the heck of it, read chapter 1 of Proverbs, and the next day read chapter 2. See what you think. Some of the ideas might not connect with you, but you may find a few that make you go, “Hmmm!” You might even decide to read chapter 3, out of curiosity if for no other reason.

If you try it, let me know how it goes.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Are We Ignoring the Obvious?

Shootings take the lives of 20 young children and six adults in a Connecticut elementary school. Similar senseless, horrific events claim many other lives at high schools, colleges, entertainment and retail centers, and businesses across the country. Each tragedy prompts us to ask, “Why?” The question seems to defy answers.

We struggle to determine what can be done to curb such shocking outbursts of anger and violence. Debates about gun control intensify. Curiously, the morning of the Sandy Hook Elementary School slayings, a man went to an elementary school in China and slashed 22 children and one adult with a knife. Should knife control be added to the debate?

“How could a good, loving God allow something like this to happen?” some people ask. It seems strange that when something terrible occurs, people want to know why God didn’t intervene, but when things are going well, they hold Him at arm’s length as if to say, “Mind Your own business.”

At the movie theater in Aurora, Colo. earlier this year, the gunman’s weapon jammed or more people might have been killed. At Newtown, police said the gunman had additional weapons and ammunition, but took his own life. Perhaps God did intervene?

I’m not a gun person, and have no idea why anyone other than military and law enforcement personnel needs semiautomatic or assault weapons. Perhaps bans on those would be warranted.

But I doubt more stringent gun laws will end growing mayhem in the United States and around the world. Those intent on performing violent acts, especially people with imbalanced mental states, will find ways to obtain what they need. If not guns, they’ll opt for knives, machetes, sharpened pencils if necessary.

The problem is far deeper than available weaponry. Look at our entertainment industry. It glorifies killing in the movies, TV, and computer and video games. Just the other day, at the close of one of my favorite crime shows, one of the detectives killed a criminal, and moments later he and his partner walked away, sharing a joke. As if taking the life of a human being – even a bad one – was of no greater consequence than flicking lint off their slacks.

Video games turn killing into contests. The more you kill, the higher you score. “But it’s only make-believe,” game designers and movie producers say. “It’s just fantasy.” Perhaps, but these aren’t Pac-Man or Donkey Kong graphics – they’re designed to look as real as possible. And with mentally unstable individuals that easily mix reality and fantasy, are we surprised when they move “fun” from the world of fantasy and into the real world?

Daily our minds are bombarded with images and messages of murder and mayhem. No wonder some are adversely affected. As the Bible states, For as he thinks within himself, so he is” (Proverbs 23:7). Or to borrow the old computer phrase, “Garbage in, garbage out.”

But I believe the greatest factor is that for decades society has systematically and aggressively sought to eradicate God – and thoughts of Him – from our collective psyche. We’ve made the Ten Commandments (including “you shall not kill”) abhorrent. Symbols of faith are treated as offensive. Anyone expressing spiritual beliefs is conveniently discredited as “religious.”

When I was a boy in school, every day started with the Lord’s Prayer and reading a passage from the Bible (usually the Old Testament, perhaps in deference to Jewish students), along with the Pledge of Allegiance. I didn’t fret a single day that some gunman might enter the school and cause us harm.

Today, these practices are either prohibited in public schools or opposed. We’ve “evolved.” We’re “enlightened.” Really? Seriously?

I don’t believe we “took God out of the schools.” As they say, wherever there are tests and exams, He will always be summoned. And God is not subject to human legislation. But by attempting to remove the divine from our daily consciousness, whether in school, business, or even the playing fields, we’ve discarded our moral compass, the foundation for making good and informed decisions.

Proverbs 29:18 states, “When people do not accept divine guidance, they run wild” (New Living Translation). Another version puts it this way: “Where there is no prophetic vision the people cast off restraint.” Then the verse ends, “…but blessed is he who keeps the law.”

“Running wild.” “Casting off restraint.” Observing the landscape of 21st century society, don’t these descriptions sound appropriate?

When are we going to acknowledge the obvious – that there is evil in the world, and God is the only solution to this growing evil presence?

On Dec. 14, a troubled, perhaps deranged young man terminated the lives of 20 children and seven adults (including his mother) in Newtown, Conn. The chapter from Proverbs coinciding with that date included these words: “He who fears the Lord has a secure fortress, and for his children it will be a refuge” (Proverbs 14:26).

In refusing to rightly fear God, are we depriving our children of refuge?

Monday, December 24, 2012

Uninvited . . . to Your Own Birthday Party?

Can you imagine someone telling you about plans to stage a huge party for your birthday, and then informing you, “Oh, uh, by the way, you’re not invited. We really don’t want you there”?

How quickly would your jaw drop? Would you catch it in time before it hit the floor?

Then, before you could even say, “What?!”, the person would reply, “Oh, nothing personal. Well, actually, it is personal. If you were there, you’d make us feel uncomfortable, and it would have to be all about you. We really don’t want that.”

That’s basically what happens across much of America as we celebrate Christmas. The holiday that incorporates the name of Christ in its title will, in many quarters, have little or nothing to do with Jesus. In fact, great effort is often made to ensure He is excluded from consideration.

So what if the holiday is called Christ-mas? Isn’t it really all about exchanging gifts and Santa Claus and eating good food and spending time with family and friends you don’t see the rest of the year?

Why would the birth of a child be such a
turning point in the history of mankind?
It’s not new, but more than ever in our age of political correctness we sponsor "holiday parties" and schools close for "winter break," instead of Christmas parties and Christmas vacation. In many retail stores and restaurants, employees wish us “Happy holiday” instead of “Merry Christmas.” Nativity scenes on public display are regarded as offensive and intolerant.

And of course we hear profound, high-sounding opinions from “sophisticated” thinkers, commentators and columnists, even religious leaders, discussing and debating “what is the real meaning of Christmas?” To me, such rhetoric is as pointless as analyzing the meaning of spaghetti, or the meaning of a bathrobe. The meaning’s so obvious the question shouldn’t merit a response. But if you exclude Christ from Christmas, you certainly do need to formulate some other explanation for the celebration.

Now if someone asked why we celebrate Christmas on Dec. 25, I’d agree that’s a worthwhile question. No one knows for certain the date Jesus was born. It likely wasn’t Dec. 25. Maybe it was March 17, October 21, or perhaps July 4. Who knows? And what difference does that really make?

The point is that we do celebrate the birth of Christ, aware that had it not been for His life, His death on the cross, His burial and His resurrection, there would be no need to commemorate His birth. Without each of those events, Jesus would be just another forgotten individual born to Jewish parents in the ancient Middle East.

But as John 1:14 informs us, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”

God willingly chose to come and live with us, experiencing life as a human being – its joys, its frustrations, its pain, temptations and sorrows. Whenever we want to say, “God, You just don’t understand,” He replies, “Oh, yes I do. I’ve been there and done that.”

He didn’t stay as “little baby Jesus,” but became a man, healing the sick, giving sight to the blind, raising the dead, giving hope to the hopeless, and dying for sins He didn’t commit – so that we could receive forgiveness we don’t deserve. That, I’m convinced, is the real meaning of Christmas.

So as you gather with your loved ones to celebrate Christmas, enjoy the gifts and the food, the banter and the hugs. But please, let Jesus – the Christ of Christmas – be a welcomed guest at His own party.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Best Gift of All?

Christmas is synonymous with gifts – given and received. One of our preoccupations this time of year is what to get for that special person, family or friend. Will they like it? What if they don’t? And from time to time we’re asked, “What would you like for Christmas?”

If I were to ask you that question, you could probably rattle off at least several things. And the ones you mention would be different from mine, or someone else I might ask. But six years ago today I gained a new appreciation for a gift I’d already had.

Dec. 20, 2006 I joined what fellow members often refer to as “the zipper club.” A renowned cardiothoracic surgeon cut open my chest and performed life-saving heart surgery, giving me four coronary artery bypass grafts (referred to by professionals as CABG or “cabbage”), along with an aortic root  replacement – an entirely new ascending aorta. Then they sewed me back up, hence the “zipper.”

My original aorta was more than twice the normal size, and that’s not recommended. Picture a balloon being blown up to its maximum – and then blowing more air into it. Not a big deal with a balloon, but it is with an aorta. The bursting of an aortic dissection, an aneurysm or abnormal enlargement in the aorta, took the life of popular comedian John Ritter in 2003.

Following my surgery, my heart pillow
became my best friend whenever I had
to cough or sneeze.
So when I awoke after the 4½-hour surgery, I knew I’d received a gift – another day of life. Going in, my surgeon had said that given my age and overall physical condition, I had a 95% chance of getting through the surgery well. Of course, that also meant a 5% chance of not making it – during a major procedure like that, any number of problems or complications can occur. Thankfully, I had none.

In the days leading up to my surgery, while pondering my uncertain  future, I came across a Bible verse that I embraced as a promise from God. It said, “The Lord will sustain him on his sickbed and restore him from his bed of illness” (Psalm 41:3). God kept His promise, and on Christmas Day five days later, I understood I’d received a wonderful gift.

So every morning when I awake to start a new day, I’m reminded of this gift. Not one of us is assured of tomorrow, but going through a major illness or complex surgery makes that reality more apparent. That’s what I point out to recent open-heart surgery patients I visit as a volunteer at the hospital where I had my surgery.

During a season when we think in terms of “stuff” – clothing, jewelry, toys, books, games, all manner of electronics and technology – we need to remember that just being physically present with friends and family on Christmas morning is truly a gift. The simple acts of living and breathing are easily taken for granted; but when we think about loved ones that are no longer with us, we realize there is no guarantee.

Every day is, indeed, a gift.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Why Relax When We Can Worry?

If there’s something most of us excel at, with little training, experience or effort, it’s worrying. Even when we have nothing to worry about, when things are going well, we sometimes find ourselves imagining what bad things could happen.

Frankly, our world provides much for us to worry about. For instance, some people believe the ancient Mayan calendar has prognosticated a cataclysmic global event for Dec. 21. It has something to do with the winter solstice and a calendar cycle they called the 13th b’ak’tun. (I didn’t even know there was a 12th b’ak’tun! As for the calendar itself, I have no idea whether it was designed for a wall or desktop.)

What if some massive worldwide disaster does occur? Are we talking earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, floods, blizzards? Maybe the Internet will crash. What if our cell phones become useless? Or Facebook and Twitter disappear?

Of course, we don’t need global catastrophe to start worrying. The economy has stressed many of us. We worry about loved ones – their health, safety, decisions they make. We agonize about personal finances, fearful we won’t make it to the next paycheck. We fret over careers – what if I get fired or laid off; what if I don’t get that promotion or pay raise I’m counting on? We worry about whether a sudden pain is something more than a minor twinge.

And if we’re not worrying about any of the above, we fret about whether our favorite TV show will be cancelled; whether our college team will get that heralded recruit; or whether kumquat prices will soar. The future is a scary place.

Yes, we love to worry, even though at least 90 percent of the things we worry about never come to pass. Of all human pursuits, worry is among the least productive. I’ll never forget the wisdom of someone that pointed out, “Today is the tomorrow I worried about yesterday.”

How counterproductive is it to worry? I understand that in German, the word for worry means, “to strangle.” The Greek term for worry can be translated “to divide the mind.” Neither definition puts a positive spin on worrying. “What are you doing?” “Oh, I’m just sitting around, strangling my sense of tranquility.” Or, “I’m just trying to split my brain in two.”

I’ve heard another description of worry as “a futile thing. It’s somewhat like a rocking chair – although it keeps you occupied, it doesn’t get you anywhere.” Sound like anything you’ve been doing lately?

Down deep we know these things, but for some reason, worrying gives us a small measure of solace. It enables us to feel like we’re doing something when there’s nothing else to do.

There is an alternative. We can stop worrying. Yeah, but how? Well, we could let God do the worrying for us. We’re told in 1 Peter 5:7, “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.” He’s willing to take our burdens and cares. And since we worry about things we can’t control anyway, why not hand them over to the One who is in control?

We find similar counsel in Philippians 4:6-7, which tells us, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

Give up our anxieties, cease worrying, and experience peace. Not a bad exchange.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Hobnobbing With the Rich and Famous

Have you ever thought of driving directly to the White House, going straight
to the front door and having immediate access to the President?

Imagine driving along Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., turning into the driveway at 1600 and proceeding through the security gate without even having to acknowledge the military personnel standing guard at the entrance.

You park in front of the White House, knock on the front door and announce you’re there to see the President. You’re immediately invited in and escorted directly to the Oval Office, where the President waits eagerly for you. No pomp, no circumstance.

No way, you say?

Or consider this: You decide you’d like to meet and hang out with Bill Gates, multibillionaire founder of Microsoft, or corporate magnate Warren Buffett. Wouldn’t it be nice to arrive unannounced, then proceed straight to their office where you’re greeted without preliminaries or formalities?

Not big on business tycoons? Well, think of your favorite actor (male or female – political correctness says women aren’t to be called “actresses” anymore). Or your favorite singer or entertainer. Or your favorite athlete. Envision any one of them, and then imagine being able to meet them, without having to endure a screening process or dealing with a protective administrative assistant or intermediary.

Again, you’re still thinking, “No way.”

Everyone knows you can’t get access to important, famous individuals without some complicated procedure. Few are granted the privilege of meeting such people personally. You need an “in,” a contact within the person’s entourage that can arrange such a meeting. Even then, you know it will be extremely brief, kind of a “nice to meet you, now be on your way” type of encounter.

Their status makes “stars” virtually untouchable. You can’t just “hobnob” with the rich and famous – they’re sheltered in a protective bubble. They can’t be bothered by the common man. “If you want to meet me, read my book. Or buy my album. Watch me on TV or in the movies. Send a request, and if you’re lucky, someone will arrange to send you an autographed photo – maybe my real autograph.”

We know the rules, the protocol. As much as we’d like being up close and personal with our favorite famous folks, we understand that likelihood is only slightly better than our sprouting wings and flying around the world.

But there's one exception – one rich, very famous person with whom instant, unrestricted access is possible. In fact, it’s promised. That “person” is God, the Creator of the universe, the one who owns “the cattle on a thousand hills,” according to Psalm 50:10. We don’t have to finagle our way through an AAA (angelic administrative assistant).

An intermediary was in fact necessary, but all the preliminary work has been done. Ephesians 3:12 declares, “In (Christ) and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence.” Expanding on that, Hebrews 4:16 states, So let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most.”

Just as the children of the President of the United States or the child of an entertainment superstar would have access not available to anyone else, God is always ready to welcome His children without red tape. Our prayers and petitions are never put on hold.

And it’s all because of what Jesus did on our behalf, more than 20 centuries ago. That’s good to remember at this time of year.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Learning to Look for ‘Invisible People’

Strolling through the local mall the other day, I realized we’re surrounded by what we could call “invisible people.”

Not people that are literally invisible. (Although that does remind me of the story about the Invisible Man, who on his wedding day made his bride mad because he didn’t show up.) No, I’m referring to people we pass by regularly, without giving them a moment’s consideration.

As I passed a security guard, I heard him engaged in conversation with a woman at one of the Christmas charity booths. I’d seen this fellow before, but hadn’t thought of him in a real-person sort of way. He’s not a snappy dresser, and doesn’t carry himself in a way that would command attention, so although I’d noticed him, I hadn’t really looked at him or wondered, “I wonder who he is? I wonder what his life is like? What are his hopes and dreams?”

I overheard him say something about God, but didn’t want to eavesdrop. It simply struck me that this fellow I’d never met had some opinion of the divine – even though I hadn’t heard enough to know where on the theological spectrum his views would fall.

This got me thinking about other “invisible people” there – custodial staff; people working at gaudy kiosks; the little old man sitting at the bench in the corner, looking like he had nothing to do and nowhere to go; weary kids wanting Mom or Dad to take them home.

Frankly, it’s easy for me to ignore people like this. Even though I’ve sometimes been described as “relational,” I’m really not an outgoing, “people person.” I’ve never been accused of being the life of the party – at such gatherings, unless I connect with someone, I’m inclined to become “invisible” myself. Reaching out to others takes effort for me.

But that’s still no excuse for looking past people whose lives are just as important as our own.

Recently a friend recounted being approached in the parking lot at another mall by a man of a different ethnic background. In broken English the man asked where a particular department store was located. Suspecting this might be a prelude to ask for a handout, my friend was reluctant to engage in conversation. When the man stated his car had broken down, my friend felt sure a plea for cash was next.

Finally he pointed the man across the vast parking lot and briefly watched him begin the trek to the store, a long walk on a very cold, windy day. Suddenly conscience – or conviction – seized my friend and, despite reservations, he pursued the man and offered him a ride to the store.

What began as a threat to my friend’s comfort zone, or even fear for his safety, suddenly transformed into friendly conversation. The man needing directions, it turned out, was the pastor of a small church serving a minority community in a city nearby. This “invisible person” was a fellow follower of Jesus.

One of our greatest human tendencies is to gravitate toward people “like us,” and exclude all others from our field of view. But consider the example of Jesus: He was always looking for the unlikely person – the Samaritan woman; Zacchaeus, the little guy climbing a tree to see Him; the crippled man whose friends took a risk and lowered him through a roof; smelly fishermen; a woman accused of adultery; a despised tax collector.

Maybe that’s an example we should strive to follow, especially this Christmas season.

“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3,4). 

Thursday, December 6, 2012

If You Won the Lottery . . .?

What would you do if you won the lottery? I don’t mean a $10 instant prize, or even $100 or $1,000. I mean the BIG lottery?

Last week the national Powerball award topped $580 million, and people bought winning tickets in Missouri and Arizona. Seems appropriate one would be sold in the “Show Me State.” When the winner arrives to collect his or her share, they will say, “Show me the ticket,” and the winner will reply, “Show me the money!”

I’m not a gambler. If I played a game of poker, I’d only want chips made from potatoes. When my financial advisor tested my “risk tolerance,” I came out only slightly more adventurous than a person demanding to be strapped into his chair at the local restaurant. “Nothing ventured, nothing gained,” the investment adage goes, but as far as I’m concerned, nothing ventured, nothing lost.

So breaking form last week, I bought a lottery ticket. My wife said why not, our chances were as good as the other 150 million people that bought tickets. I also thought it would be interesting to honestly consider what I would do if I won. If you don’t buy a ticket (they’re $2, in case you don’t know), you have zero chance of winning – so I bought a ticket to ponder the “what if” question.

Asking, “What would I do if I won the lottery?” typically refers to use of the money. You could be philanthropic and contribute part of it to your church, help the poor, or support the war against hangnails. You could give some of it to loved ones and friends, or buy them lavish gifts. You could invest it – wisely or recklessly, take your pick. Or you could do your best to spend it all on selfish indulgences.

But when I ask myself, “What would I do…?” my question is more along the lines of “what would it do to me?” Being optimistically pessimistic, I thought about winning – and then losing.

I’ve heard stories of lottery millionaires whose lives were ruined by instant wealth. I’d like to think if I won a lot of money I’d utilize it wisely, but since I’ve never had millions, I can’t be certain. As 1 Timothy 6:10 states, “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.”

What if I shared some of the money with family members, but they didn’t think I gave them enough, that I was being stingy? And I’d probably find I had lots of “friends” and far-removed relatives I’d never heard of prior to my sudden affluence. Proverbs 19:4-6 says, “Wealth brings many friends…and everyone is the friend of a man who gives gifts.”

We’d probably have to change our phone number (we still have a landline), or move to avoid pesky solicitors. I’d have to get off Facebook. Being famous for being famous has its downsides.

Think of other possible consequences. One mathematics expert calculated that compared to winning the lottery, you’re three times more likely to die from a falling coconut; seven times more likely to die from fireworks, and far more likely to die from flesh-eating bacteria. If I had won, that could mean chances of experiencing such dire calamities would be even greater. I wouldn’t want to spend my remaining days being worried about falling coconuts, fearful of attending another 4th of July fireworks celebration, or risk becoming germophobic.

There’s something to be said for not being wealthy. A huge bank account could result in becoming prideful, arrogant and self-reliant. When I pray, “give us this day our daily bread,” I want to mean it.

Proverbs 30:8-9 says: “Keep falsehood and lies far from me; give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’ Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonor the name of my God.” 

Lord, give me just enough – and that will be enough.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Dog-gone Canines!

A friend of mine recently wrote a loving tribute after his family’s dog died. I can relate to their loss. Been there, done that. Several times.

Canines somehow manage to work their way into your heart with a wag of a tail – and then stay there. They arrive with trusting eyes, wagging so hard their whole body shakes, ready to lick your hand or face whenever you’re near. You can leave them and when you return, they’re patiently waiting. No recrimination, no pouting, just a look that says, “Hey, you’re home! Hooray!”

When mankind decided to domesticate dogs, it was one of the best ideas ever. For many people, they do become man’s best friend – you can ignore them, neglect them, even forget to feed them, and they’re still there for you. They’ll fetch a ball or stick, delight in a dog biscuit, and lie down just about anywhere you let them. When you call them, they scamper to your feet.

I’ve never fancied cats. They seem so…disinterested. But dogs are a different animal – literally and figuratively. If you ever want to see a good example of unconditional love, get a dog. Feed it a couple of times, give it a treat, pat its head or rub its tummy, and you’ve got a buddy for life.

In my lifetime I’ve had six dogs. My first real experience was Markham, a Toy Manchester Terrier we got “pre-owned.” A previous owner had abused him. When we first saw him, his tail was between his legs, his ears were folded down, and he flinched whenever you reached out to him.

But he got over the mistreatment he’d received and proved to be a great dog with a wonderful temperament. While I was single, a couple of my dates referred to him as “a rat,” because he was small and mostly black. That was the last Markham and I would see of them. “Love me, love my dog” was my motto.

He lived to be nearly 15 years old and set the stage for my becoming a lifelong dog lover.

Now we have a Chihuahua-terrier mix named Molly. She’s 14 and doesn’t hear anything but loud noises, so if you want her to scamper to you, you have to make a commotion. But she’s the latest – and perhaps last – in a line of good dogs. I’m now at the age myself where another dog could outlive me, so Molly might not have a successor.

On a deeper level, I think when God created dogs He had a very special purpose for them. Yes, some actually have work to do, like herding sheep or cattle, leading the blind, sniffing out crime, or catching varmints. But as I mentioned, they also demonstrate love without conditions, independent of the owner’s performance. They accept you, warts and all.

This is also one of the great distinctions between what the Bible reveals about God and perspectives other spiritual disciplines offer: Only in the Scriptures do we see love offered, unconditionally and undeservedly, by the Lord of the universe.

In the original Greek of the New Testament, the word that expresses this is “agape.” Not a warm, fuzzy kind of love at all, but a sacrificial, selfless love. The kind we rarely see in everyday life.

But more than 2,000 years ago it was on public display on a cross atop a hill of disgrace. Romans 5:8 states, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Chronologically speaking, Jesus paid the price for our sins long before each of us even thought of committing the first one.

That’s why in a few weeks we will observe "Christ-mas." Because without the incredible, unconditional love freely poured out on the Cross, there would be no reason for Christmas. 

Thursday, November 29, 2012

No Expiration Date

Virtually everything in everyday life has an expiration date.

When you buy food at the grocery store, particularly dairy products, do you check the expiration date? Occasionally I forget and discover several days or a week later that the milk remaining in the carton has expired and taken a turn for the worse. Or the formerly white cottage cheese has turned green, but not from envy.

These days virtually all consumable products – packaged lunchmeat, canned goods, cereals, even over-the-counter drugs, have expiration dates. “Best when used by,” “sell by,” “best enjoyed thru,” or simply, “Exp. Date.” Things get old. They spoil or get stale. They lose their usefulness. (Sometimes I suspect there must be one of those dates stamped on me somewhere.)

Even medication carries
expiration date warnings.
Computers and TVs don’t carry such dates, but we can readily recognize when their time is up. They just don’t have the speed, expanded features or capacities of the newer versions. Planned obsolescence is standard in the technology industry. We buy devices and they’re out of date almost before we learn how to use them.

That’s why I marvel at the Bible – and frankly, it's one of my reasons for writing this blog. Despite claims by some that the Scriptures are archaic and irrelevant, outmoded by “enlightened” 21st century society, I’ve found just the opposite.

Over the years as I’ve read through the Bible – some passages dozens of times – it’s proved to be timeless, just as important and meaningful as when the 39 Old Testament books and 27 New Testament books were written and compiled centuries ago.

Are you looking for wisdom on how to build a healthy, thriving marriage? You’ll find no greater advice than in the Scriptures. “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her…and the wife must respect her husband” (Ephesians 5:25-33). Not a simple solution for complex relationships, but a good starting point.

What about handling finances? The rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is servant to the lender” (Proverbs 22:7). “You cannot serve God and money” (Matthew 6:24). Those are just two of hundreds of verses the Bible offers about money and the uses – and abuses – of material wealth.

Wondering how to successfully raise children in a challenging, sometimes terrifying world? “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it” (Proverbs 22:6). “Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4). Again, a good foundation to build on.

Unlike most things, the Bible does not come with
any expiration dates.
Wanting to know how to succeed in the workplace? “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men” (Colossians 3:23). “All hard work brings a profit, but mere talk leads only to poverty” (Proverbs 14:23).

Questions about relationships? “The entire law is summed up in a single command: "Love your neighbor as yourself” (Galatians 5:14). “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12).

This hardly scratches the surface of the wisdom and instruction I’ve gained from reading the Bible almost daily for more than 30 years. Its depth on every topic of importance has amazed me, and yet there’s so much more to learn.

How is it that almost everything around us has time restrictions and limitations, but the Bible doesn't? I believe the reason is simple: Eternal truth has no expiration date.

Unlike passing fads (bellbottom pants, the Twist, long sideburns) and slang vocabulary (“cool,” “groovy,” “far out,” “hot”), the truths about life transcend time, culture and trends. Just as gravity is a physical constant, truth about human nature – especially truth found in the Scriptures – is equally constant and unchanging.

Monday, November 26, 2012

First the Dinosaur, Then the Dodo. Now the Twinkie?

Last week we learned the future of iconic Twinkies was in jeopardy.

When the dinosaur went extinct, nobody noticed. There weren’t any newspapers, because paper hadn’t been invented yet. And “nightly news” was still eons into the future. So when Vinnie the velociraptor breathed his last, it seemed no great loss. Paleontologists attribute the dinosaur demise to the Ice Age, theorizing the huge reptiles weren’t fond of chilling out.

When's the last time you saw
a dodo bird in your back yard?
Later the dodo bird passed from the scene. It’s said this flightless bird was native to the island of Mauritius, east of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. What we know of its existence was recorded in writings and artwork from the 16th and 17th centuries. Now all we have left is the haunting phrase, “Dead as a dodo bird.” Along with the complaint of irritated drivers, “You dodo!”

Then last week came the dire revelation that next in line for extinction could be the Hostess Twinkie. Hostess Brands, in the throes of a bitter, no-win labor dispute, announced plans to declare bankruptcy and liquidate the bakery company after 82 years.

The action placed the iconic Twinkie snack cakes, along with its equally non-healthy but taste-tempting cousins – Ho Hos, Ding Dongs, Suzy Qs and Sno Balls (as well as Wonder Bread) – into instant limbo, on the precipice of permanent elimination.

Imagine a world without Twinkies. We might be able to survive without Ho Hos, and even Ding Dongs. But no Twinkies? Could this signal the beginning of the end for life as we’ve known it?

I grew up with Twinkies, the cream-filled sponge cakes that along with Wonder Bread were advertised on kids’ TV programs like “The Howdy Doody Show.” (Howdy Doody’s gone, too, but let’s keep on point.) Back then we knew and cared little about calories, or the adverse effects of excessive sugar and fat grams. All that mattered was they tasted good, and seemed harmless.

Last week it was reported a number of potential suitors had stepped up to possibly rescue the Twinkie and its kin from baking oblivion. Perhaps. But even so, the shocking news surrounding an American dietary tradition was a grim reminder. There’s a time and season for everything – and when time’s up, beware.

Actually, the old book we know as the Bible said the same thing thousands of years ago, long before snack cakes were even a Twinkie in any baker’s eye. “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven” (Ecclesiastes 3:1). This passage was turned into lyrics for the song, “Turn! Turn! Turn!” by the American rock group, the Byrds, in the mid-60s.

The next verses talk about “a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance….”

The Woolworth's 5-and-10 department store was
a fixture for many Baby Boomers in their childhood.
Nothing in this life lasts forever. Countless fixtures of everyday life have passed from existence, ranging from the horse and buggy to 5-and-10 department stores and soda fountains to Brownie cameras to S&H green stamps to Tinker Toys. Here today, gone tomorrow.

So appreciate what you have – and who you have – while you can. Unlike cyclical natural seasons, which proceed from one to the next and then start over again, once the season for something has ended, it likely won’t be coming back.