Monday, April 30, 2012

‘Decoding’ the Secret

Years ago cereal boxes contained “secret decoder glasses” as prizes. The back of boxes had squares consisting of seemingly random assortments of colored dots. If you put on the red-lensed glasses, however, words appeared.

Without the specially colored lenses functioning as a revealing filter, the message remained hidden.

It’s somewhat similar in seeking to communicate biblical truth. As followers of Jesus, it seems clear – so obvious. But trying to convey heartfelt convictions to nonbelievers, the message often seems obscured. Almost as if they need secret decoder glasses.

C.S. Lewis, the brilliant one-time atheist turned Christian apologist, and author of many books on the nature of faith, stated: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen; not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”

That would imply that apart from the truths of Christianity, spiritual sight is impeded. The truths serve as the filter through which believers see reality. The Scriptures agree: The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Corinthians 4:4).

Another passage explains the Holy Spirit takes the red-lenses glasses role: “The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2:14).

Today the term “worldview” describes factors that influence how we perceive and interpret the world around us. My worldview undergirds much of what I write in this blog. Once I believed in God intellectually, but not in a personal or practical way. Now His truth in the Scriptures serves as my filter for understanding life. Christianity, to me, isn’t about rules, rituals, even religion. It’s about relationship – getting to know God, discovering His purpose, and finding ultimate meaning.

This is not being “better” than others, or “special.” It’s simply that God, for whatever reason, has graciously offered the equivalent of red-lensed glasses so we can see what He wants us to know.

How then can we relate God’s truth to the spiritually blind? Just as no amount of persuasion can give vision to those without physical sight, what’s needed first is prayer – for God “to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me” (Acts 26:18).

Unless God answers this prayer, as the apostle Paul declared, “you will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving…” (Acts 28:26).

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Has the 'American Pastime’ Passed Its Time?

Baseball season has started, in case you haven’t noticed. Still called the “American pastime,” I wonder if it’s primary function these days is to serve as a space-filler between the end of “March Madness” and the beginning of college football season.

Has the American pastime become past tense?

Yankee Stadium, the original.
As a boy, baseball was my favorite sport. Growing up in New Jersey, I became an ardent Yankee fan. I idolized Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, Yogi Berra and anyone else that wore the fabled pinstripes. Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio all came long before my time, but I revered them as well.

But that was a different time. Days of summer were still lazy, hazy, and crazy, idyllic times when friends played stickball in neighborhood streets from dawn well into dusk. TV had only a handful of channels. There were no cable TV, DVDs, computers, Internet or video games. No cell phones or texting to distract or alert us of something more urgent.

Then came the surge of football – college and pro – along with basketball and other faster-paced sports. Baseball became the tortoise to football’s hare, the slug to basketball’s water bug. As attention spans shortened, the fascination with ball cracking off bat dimmed, monotony replacing magnetism.

Recently, while celebrating the 65th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s debut as a member of the then-Brooklyn Dodgers, civic leaders and sports commentators debated why black athletes have declined in pro baseball. As if MLB powers-that-be had decreed the sport should discourage African-American involvement.

How silly. A major reason black participation has waned is the same reason young people of all colors and ethnic backgrounds show less interest in baseball. It’s basically a 19th and early 20th century sport trying to succeed in the 21st century. Let me offer some “for instances”:

The official "time clock" of baseball.
·      1) Unlike all other major sports – football, basketball, hockey and soccer – baseball is the only one without a time clock. (Actually, I think it has one. Only it’s called a sundial.)
        2) Football and basketball, college and pro, make ample use of video replay. Baseball traditionalists have dug in their heels, resisting video reviews in most cases, afraid umpires will get their feelings hurt if proved wrong by technology.
        3) After a game, players in other sports show sportsmanship by shaking the hands of their opponents. Winning baseball teams also shake hands on the field – with their teammates.
        4) Unlike other major sports, when players are removed from a baseball game, they can’t be put back in.
        5) In pro football and basketball, aspiring stars can envision arriving at “the next level” almost immediately. In baseball, players typically toil a year or two, often longer, in minor leagues before even getting a sniff of a Major League ballpark. In an age ruled by instant gratification, baseball can’t compete.

Perhaps you can think of some other similar contrasts, but baseball’s fashion has grown old-fashioned in our era of low attentiveness, high activity levels and rapid-fire TV and video programming.

In 1 Chronicles 12:32, the Bible speaks of “the men of Issachar who understood the times and knew what they should do.” Maybe what baseball needs today is to find some men of Issachar, and then listen to them.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Legacies of Two Legends

Last week we lost icons from disparate realms of American society, both of whom forged enduring legacies.

Dick Clark burst into public consciousness as host of “American Bandstand.” I remember watching groups like Danny and the Juniors (“Rock and Roll is Here to Stay”), Diana Ross and the Supremes, the Four Seasons, the Beach Boys and Paul Revere and the Raiders, as well as vocalists like Connie Francis, Chubby Checker, Brenda Lee, Frankie Avalon, Ike and Tina Turner, and Bobby Darin.

Dick Clark (AP photo)
The Philadelphia-based “American Bandstand” regulars, who had their own fans, introduced us to dances like the Stroll, the Twist, the Pony, the Monster Mash.

Clark then expanded into entertainment entrepreneurship, hosting game shows, founding awards shows, and finally, creating what many people will most remember him for, Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve.

His seeming perpetual youth, prior to suffering a debilitating stroke in 2004, earned him the label of “America’s oldest teen.” Without question, Dick Clark left an indelible mark on music and entertainment.

Entertainment was hardly the genre of choice for Charles Colson, the other departed icon. Politics was his initial arena, gaining notoriety as a driving force in Richard Nixon’s administration and being convicted as a key figure behind the Watergate break-in. For many in the unforgiving media, Colson’s involvement in that scandal dominated his obituary coverage.

However, through the humiliation of that scandal and subsequent imprisonment, Colson became a changed man and, ultimately, a major voice for Christianity in the U.S. and around the world.

Charles Colson
Along with President Jimmy Carter, Colson brought the term “born again” into common conversation with his autobiography, Born Again. He went on to write many other books and countless articles about the intersection of faith with everyday life and public service. A popular and eloquent speaker, Colson cast aside the stereotype of Christians being unthinking dreamers. Instead, he helped establish Christianity as both reasonable and rational, worthy of earnest debate and defense.

I had the privilege of hearing Colson speak on several occasions and interviewed him once for a magazine article, finding him engaging, challenging, and genuine in his devotion to Jesus Christ.

Along with his role in biblical apologetics – defense of the faith – Colson also founded Prison Fellowship, a ministry to prisoners, ex-prisoners and their families. His own experiences in prison helped him to realize, “You can’t leave a person in a steel cage and expect something good to come out of him when he is released.” His focus on compassionate prisoner rehabilitation, anchored in Christ’s transforming power, was revolutionary.

Dick Clark changed how we were entertained. Chuck Colson provided evidence of how lives can be changed, turning self-driven ambition into selfless service. He also proved God can use even pride and imprisonment for His divine purposes: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).

Thursday, April 19, 2012

View from the ‘Empty Nest’

The “empty nest” can be a wonderful place: Children are grown and raised, perhaps married, involved in careers, raising their own kids, and building their lives. Grandkids come over, get spoiled, then go home to mommy and daddy.

In between visits, husband and wife can rekindle their relationship – older and wiser, having survived together the challenges and struggles of marriage and family life.

This has been true for Sally and me. We love time with our children and grandchildren. Being Grandma and Pop is everything – and more – than expected. But we also relish evenings together, watching favorite TV shows or reading books, and going out to dinner, just the two of us.

Yes, the empty nest is a good place – usually.

Earlier this week, however, another type of “empty nest” wasn’t as enjoyable. Just before Easter we found a nest in a bush outside our front door. Inside it were three tiny, yet-to-hatch eggs, watched vigilantly by a mama robin. We observed our little “Easter eggs” from a distance, careful not to disturb the doting parent.

A couple days later I noticed one of the eggs had disappeared. Then, two days ago, all three eggs were gone, mama was nowhere in sight, leaving only a truly empty nest.

One day the mama bird was preparing
for eggs to hatch, the next day all were gone.
It was too soon for the baby birds to hatch, acclimate to life outside the shell, and attend flight school. A cat most likely discovered the nest, situated just a few feet above the ground. (An orange cat was on our front porch yesterday, ogling the nest. I suspect it was the perpetrator, but we don’t have DNA evidence.)

In any case, there will be no little robin cheeps to hasten mama’s delivery of worms (or whatever they eat). Mother robin, if not also a victim of the predator, might be off mourning somewhere. Avian dreams of nurturing little offspring, teaching them to spread their wings and fly, have died. Tomorrow’s hopes have become today’s disappointment.

That’s kind of how it is for many of us. We anticipate and project into the future – vacations, major purchases, special outings. We set aside funds for college and retirement; we make early preparations for Christmas. No room for interruptions or altered plans.

Not that planning is wrong. Waiting until the last minute can be problematic, even disastrous. But putting all of our ducks in a row and expecting them to stay that way can backfire. While getting ready for tomorrow, today happens.

Sometimes interruptions are good – surprise calls from friends and loved ones; unexpected job offers; unanticipated windfalls. But other times, “tomorrow interrupted” provokes emotions ranging from annoyance to despair.

So it helps to balance future thinking with present living. The Bible says as much. Ephesians 5:16 urges, redeeming the time, because the days are evil.” And in Matthew 6:34, Jesus advised His followers, “do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”

So let’s appreciate the day we have. As someone has said, (even though it’s a bit corny), “Today is a gift. That’s why we call it the present.”

Monday, April 16, 2012

What Are Requirements for Greatness?

What qualities are required for someone to be considered “great”?

As a journalist, I’ve been privileged to meet a number of individuals we would describe as “great” – Jesse Owens, Dr. Billy Graham, Jack Nicklaus, Joni Eareckson Tada. But what made them great? What are key ingredients to the recipe for greatness?

Talent is one, for sure. Skill is another, learning and refining one’s giftedness. Then there are determination and perseverance. For leaders, vision, charisma, decisiveness and ability to inspire are important. Many other “ingredients” for greatness could be listed, but two that don’t typically come to mind are consistency and reliability.

Think of music’s “one-hit wonders.” These singers or groups produced one hit song, then vanished from the entertainment horizon. They found a formula for momentary stardom, but could not repeat it with consistency.

The same applies to athletes. Years ago a running back gained more than 200 yards in the Super Bowl, winning Most Valuable Player honors. But that was the apex of his career – he never again approached that moment of greatness. (You probably don’t even remember his name.) To achieve sports greatness requires reliability, being dependable for top efforts every time.

Considering “great” authors through history, their styles, genres and subject material might have differed, but they all could be relied on for consistent writing excellence. This also holds true for artists, composers, business leaders and innovators.

How does this relate to us? Most of us won’t rank among history’s greats in any area, but we can still be great within our own spheres of influence – our homes, workplaces, communities. We don’t have to be the most talented, gifted or skilled; but we must be consistent and reliable.

Anyone can be “great” for a minute or two, but a truly great mom or dad, friend or colleague demonstrates reliability day or night, sunshine or storm, happy or blue. Great people may not stand out in a crowd, but are consistently caring, loving, hardworking, faithful, and ready to do whatever is needed – whenever.

I don’t know if the label of “great” is something we should strive for. In fact, in the Old Testament, God offered this warning: “Should you then seek great things for yourself? Seek them not...” (Jeremiah 45:5).

However, we should make every effort to do our best with opportunities presented to us. The Bible sets the highest of standards for how we conduct our daily lives: “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:17).

As followers of Jesus, how we live out our lives reflects on our relationship with Him. So in that respect, we should strive for greatness. By being consistent and reliable.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Red, the New Blonde?

Maybe it’s just me, but there seems to be an explosion of female redheads on TV and in the movies these days.

On many of the TV shows I watch regularly – including “Castle,” “Unforgettable,” “Body of Proof” and “Fringe” – at least one of the central characters has flaming red hair. In fact, on “Castle,” both the mother and daughter of the star (Richard Castle, played by brown-headed Nathan Fillion) are redheads. And in “Unforgettable,” Poppy Montgomery portrays star detective Carrie Wells. From 2002 to 2009, Montgomery starred in “Without a Trace”…as a blonde.

Many works of art, classic and
contemporary, celebrate
the red-haired female.
I’ve also noticed TV commercials embracing the trend. Spots ranging from fast-food restaurants to cell phone providers have female characters with “pelo rojo” (which I think is Spanish for red hair).

Some actresses have naturally red hair, including Amy Adams, Julianne Moore, Emma Stone, Isla Fisher and Marcia Cross. But since statistically only one to four percent of the world’s population is comprised of redheaded people, what in the name of Lucille Ball is going on?

I haven’t read anything definitive, but apparently the powers-that-be in entertainment have decreed that red is the new blonde.

Used to be, dating back to the days of Jean Harlow, Marilyn Monroe and Grace Kelly, it was reasoned that gentlemen prefer blondes. (Somebody really ought to make a movie with that title.) But perhaps blonde has become pass̩, demanding something more distinctive Рsuch as bright red tresses that, as least on the digital screen, are no longer as uncommon as they once were.

Or maybe it’s just a reflection of the state of the U.S. government, which has made normative red tape and budgets drowning in red ink.

Years ago there was a popular business book called Dress for Success. Could be that casting centers in Hollywood have a similar book called Red Tresses for Successes.

All I know is regardless of how you change the packaging, what’s inside (the inner person) will always be what counts the most.

Thousands of years ago, Israel was searching for a king to replace Saul, who proved to be a royal failure. The prophet Samuel was directed to the family of Jesse, who had a collection of fine, rugged-looking sons. Several of them passed the “look test” as likely candidates to succeed Saul, but God rejected them all. Instead He chose the youngest of the brothers, a humble shepherd boy named David.

Why? As God explained to Samuel, “The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).

And that, my friends, is how God looks at us as well. 

Monday, April 9, 2012

Easter’s Over, Now What?

We returned from a trip out of town to discover a different kind of “Easter egg” for the holiday weekend. In our absence, a mama bird had assembled a nest in a holly bush in front of our house and deposited three little eggs in it. Since then she has been diligently hovering over the eggs, waiting for them to bring forth new life.

This got me thinking about the Easter holiday and what it ultimately means. The Easter bunny has retreated to its rabbit hole, wherever that is. Easter eggs have been gathered. Traditional Easter dinners (ours is ham and potato salad, plus extras) have been consumed. Jellybeans are fast disappearing. So should we just forget about Easter until next year?

I don’t think so. In fact, for followers of Jesus, every day should be a celebration – and manifestation – of Easter. Because the resurrection of Christ means not only the forgiveness of sins and the promise of life after death, but the provision of new life…before death.

As I’ve mentioned before, Oswald Chambers is one of my favorite writers and I regard him as an old friend – even though he died in 1917. His words in My Utmost for His Highest, his revered devotional book, often speak unvarnished truth. His April 8 entry nails the significance of Easter:

“(Christ’s) resurrection means He has the power to convey His life to me. When I was born again, I received the very life of the risen Lord Jesus Himself…. His resurrection means…that we are raised to His risen life, not our old life…we can know here and now the power and effectiveness  of His resurrection and can ‘walk in newness of life’ (Romans 6:4).”

Just as those tiny bird eggs are poised to produce new life just outside the door, “(Christ’s) Spirit can work the very nature of Jesus into us, if we will only obey Him,” Chambers points out. Or as Galatians 2:20 asserts, “I have been crucified with Christ and 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, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

So while the Easter bunny, eggs and jellybeans are fading memories, the life-changing impact of Easter – Christ’s resurrection – can be an everyday reality for each one of us. And that, I believe, is worth a hallelujah!

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

One Life for Another

What would it take for you to give up your life for someone else?
If you’re a parent, you probably would do anything necessary to save the life of a child, even at the risk of your own. A husband or wife might also perform a heroic deed if their spouse were in dire straits.

We have heard stories of soldiers undertaking extraordinary steps of courage to protect or save fallen comrades. Police officers and firefighters frequently are called to put their lives on the line for the sake of others.

But what would it take for you to offer your life on behalf of a stranger?

Occasionally we hear a news account of a individual putting their own life in harm’s way to assist someone they’ve never met – perhaps a person drowning, in a car accident, or similar calamity. But more often we hear about people choosing to stand passively by, watching while a person’s life is in jeopardy, perhaps being beaten or attacked. “Why get involved? It’s none of my business.”

That by far is the more common course.

Perhaps this is one reason Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Self-sacrifice is not the natural order of things. Rather, we ask, “What’s in it for me?” and if the answer is not enough, we defer.

But that’s not what Jesus did. His great love, far beyond anything we can comprehend, motivated Him to carry out the greatest act of self-sacrifice ever recorded . As the apostle Paul wrote, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).

Jesus’ death on the cross was not because we deserved it, as if we were worthy of His atonement. He did it out of love, offering His mercy and grace. By definition, mercy means not receiving what we do deserve, and grace means receiving what we do not deserve.

Thankfully, as we will observe this Friday, He gave His life for each of us, rag-tag sinners and self-absorbed hypocrites, so that we might receive forgiveness, new life, and the promise of life after death.

If it were not for what we call Good Friday, there would have been no Easter. And without Easter, there would be no cause for celebrating Christmas.

But this weekend we do mark both Good Friday and Easter, all because Jesus chose to give His life for someone else – for you and for me. As 2 Corinthians 5:21 tells us, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

Happy Easter!