Thursday, May 31, 2012

Beginnings . . . and Endings

Not long ago I read a statement many of us should take to heart:Nobody can start a new beginning, but you can start today and make a new ending.”

I don’t remember the quotation’s source, but virtually all of us can look in the rearview mirror of our lives and see things we wish we could change. Some of us would like a fresh start, a clean slate, a complete “do-over.” Maybe star on a new reality show, “Extreme Do-over: Life Edition.”

Unfortunately, no one can do that. Time machines haven’t been invented (although writers like H.G. Wells have imagined them), so we can’t go back and try to fix past wrongs. Even if there were time machines, who knows if we could rectify anything?

Actions and decisions of days and years gone by are set, and sometimes consequences remain – accumulated debts, broken relationships, damaged health, disrupted careers. We can’t just go back to “START” and try again.

But we can determine today to create a new ending, one that looks very different from the way things seem to be heading.

Forgetting what lies behind, we need
to envision how our finish line should look.
Physically, we can stop procrastinating and undertake that exercise program we’ve been thinking about. We can start eating better. If necessary, we can start following the doctor’s orders.

Relationally, we can try to rebuild relationships. We can apologize, or ask forgiveness. We can dedicate the time and energy needed to bring about healing and reconciliation.

Financially, we can make an honest assessment of where we are, where we would like to be, and determine what steps are necessary to get there – even asking for help if needed.

Vocationally, we can quit complaining about our present job status and explore ways for making improvements, even if it means changing careers. It might require taking a risk, stepping outside our comfort zone – especially if that “comfort zone” is spelled MISERY. We can begin learning what we need to know, whether through books, online study, being mentored, or attending classes.

And some of us need to start today and make a new ending spiritually. That’s often the important first step in making the changes already mentioned. The curse of humanity is we all want to be our own gods. We want to determine our own destiny, captain our own ship, apart from God’s scrutiny and involvement. But when life is spiraling out of control, maybe we need to ask ourselves, “How’s that working for you?”

The Bible says, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” (2 Corinthians 5:17). This says we can have a new beginning – spiritually – and receive the assurance of a new ending.

If you have experienced this, you already understand. If you haven’t, maybe today is your day to start making a new ending.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Wisdom of Growing Grass

When we moved to Chattanooga 31 years ago, we had a lush, green lawn. The previous owner had devoted many hours to nurturing the grass, and his efforts showed. But having lived most of my life in New Jersey and Ohio, where grass seemed to grow with no effort, I didn’t continue the practice. I presumed the grass would take care of itself.

As the years passed, however, the grass became thinner and more sparse. Although bare patches appeared, I still reasoned if the grass was to grow it would do so without my help. I had not intention of spending money on growing grass that I would just have to cut.

Three decades later, our “lawn” had become a disaster. Blades of grass were few, and as most of the topsoil washed down the hill, even weeds were struggling to take root. Reluctantly, several weeks ago I decided it was time to spend some money…to grow grass.

Early growth can only be
strengthened through time
and attention.
A lawn service added topsoil, along with grass seed and straw, and we’re starting to see results. Much as I hate to spend money on watering the new grass, it’s necessary and I’ll do it diligently to ensure growth.  Hopefully, months from now the tender sprouts we see today will restore the rich groundcover we once had.

The same principle applies to spiritual growth. Just as with any relationship – spouse, children, relatives, friends – there is a cost involved to nurture a growing, maturing relationship with God. It won’t just happen without our conscious commitment.

Years ago I read a little booklet, “My Heart Christ’s Home,” in which author Robert Boyd Munger suggests having a specific time and place to meet with the Lord on a daily basis. He doesn’t take a legalistic stance, insisting a “good Christian” must spend X minutes or hours each day in Bible study and prayer. He simply points out God desires to spend time with us, and if we are to grow in intimacy with him, there can be no substitute for the investment of time.

In Psalm 119:9-11, King David wrote about the joy and benefits of spending time with God and the Scriptures: “How can a young man keep his way pure? By living according to your word…. I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you.”

In an earlier passage, David expressed his own yearning for time with God. “O God, you are my God, earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you, my body longs for you, in a dry and weary land where there is no water” (Psalm 63:1). Do you ever feel like that?

Even Jesus rose early every morning to spend time with the Father, knowing it was vital for fulfilling His responsibilities each day: “Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place where he prayed” Mark 1:35).

A friend once said to me, “God isn’t a short order cook waiting expectantly for us to place our orders.” That’s true. Much as a husband longing to return home to a loving wife, or a parent yearning to embrace a beloved child separated by many miles, the Lord deeply desires time alone with each of us, talking, listening and, over time, seeing the seeds of His Word bear beautiful fruit in our lives. 

Thursday, May 24, 2012

That Wonderful Time of the Year

For those of us that sometimes feel pangs of guilt for watching a bit too much TV, this is the most wonderful time of the year. Finales of our favorite shows have been broadcast (leaving most of the central characters hanging – in some cases, literally) and we no longer feel obligated to report to the couch to watch the latest episodes, either live or via DVR.

Certainly the networks have conjured up programming to fill the void, but this year I’ve determined not to get caught up in the summer replacements. Instead I resolve to return to a former favorite pastime – reading books.

This artwork by Salvador Dali presents
an imaginative look at the passage of time.
These days, between TV, e-mail and the Internet, my book-reading time has been reduced to a fraction, much to my regret. Instead of the passive activity of staring at a TV monitor and having the writers and directors dictate what I should think, reading a book requires my conscious, intentional effort. It truly is interactive, and I’m eager to begin exploring what lies in the pages of the many worthy candidates that have been collecting on my bookshelves since last year.

I’m not one of those that believe TV is inherently evil – although an increasing number of shows would qualify for that description. But it does have a tendency to monopolize time that could be invested in better ways. My good friend Oswald Chambers (he died in 1917, but his classic devotional book, My Utmost For His Highest, still speaks to me every day) often says, “Good is the enemy of the best.”

So instead of whiling away hours this summer watching entertaining but pointless dramas, I plan to spend more time taking walks with my wife, horsing around with the grandkids, and gleaning from the insights of established, trusted writers who help me to distinguish the truly important from the merely urgent.

Ephesians 5:16 speaks of “redeeming (or making the best use) of the time, because the days are evil.” Time passes so quickly – you realize that more and more as you get older – and with it being in short supply, time is nothing to squander.

So I’m hoping to actively engage this summer in some real time redemption!

Monday, May 21, 2012

Rock City’s Been ‘Rockin’ for a Long Time

If you’ve traveled the Southeast much, you’ve probably seen a sign – perhaps on a barn roof – urging you to “See Rock City.” Today Rock City, one of the foremost landmarks in the Chattanooga, Tenn. area, marks its 80th anniversary. Who knew? Last time I was there, it didn’t look a day over 75!

Actually, promotional materials for the park, located on a brow of Lookout Mountain, Ga., tell us its massive rock formations are estimated to be more than 200 million years old. That’s a lot of anniversaries! How do they know it’s that old? Maybe they found a rock with a “born on” date.

Views from Rock City, 1,700 feet up, are amazing.
The Rock City website includes a motto, “Created by God and enhanced by man….” I like that, because I believe it’s true. Over its 80 years aka Rock City, the site’s natural beauty has received an almost-theme park type treatment. For children of all ages, Fairyland Caverns and Mother Goose Village feature black-lighted scenes of favorite fairy tale characters. There’s a swinging bridge for those that like to put into motion a view literally set in stone.

Special glasses allow visitors to gaze at seven states from the edge of Lover’s Leap. (Did you know the state borders aren’t officially marked in chalk or paint?)

Bottom line, the natural setting has been there a long time, well before anyone thought of turning it into a tourist attraction. More than 150 years ago, someone might have peered from there into some Civil War skirmishes. Before that Cherokee Indians might have reveled in the mountain vistas. Who knows what other natural inhabitants enjoyed those sights prior to that.

To me, visiting places like Rock City gives evidence of God’s creative work. Blue skies and billowy clouds looking down on lush vegetation, stately rock formations, even a waterfall. We couldn’t design and build something like that.

And you can’t convince me it’s the result of cosmic chaos. Things naturally move from order to disorder, not the other way around. You should see my desk most of the time!

Psalm 111:2-4 declares: “Great are the works of the Lord; they are pondered by all who delight in them. Glorious and majestic are his deeds, and his righteousness endures forever. He has caused his wonders to be remembered….”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Valedictorians . . . and Worldviews

The Tennessee Legislature has been considering a bill to permit students to express religious beliefs through homework and art without fear of reprisal for presenting those views.

Opponents, of course, argue that’s a violation of the so-called separation of church and state. One legislator said she’s “a little bit confused,” thinking the legislation if passed would “pretty much blur the line” of separation.

I’m weary of this rhetoric. The Constitution clearly expresses the state cannot impose religion on the people. But nowhere does it deny individuals the right to express and integrate their faith wherever they are, even in public, government-sponsored settings.

The First Amendment states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….” That does not say someone relating spiritual beliefs – whether in homework, an artistic creation, or even a valedictory address – is “establishing religion.”  And it does not restrict where someone can freely exercise religious convictions.

To deny someone the right to communicate what they believe – as it relates to both subject and setting – seems a clear violation of another portion of the First Amendment, which further states, “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech….”

Just because we hold different views, must
we be prohibited from expressing those views?
I realize there are situations when free speech needs to be restricted – shouting “fire” in a crowded theater, for example. But whether in an essay, on an test, or even during a graduation address, to deny individuals the right to appropriately express their faith – or lack of it – within the context of their message, disregards both the intent and spirit of the revered First Amendment.

The underlying issue is “worldview.” If someone is an atheist, everything he or she sees, hears and interprets is sifted through a “there is no God” worldview grid. Similarly, someone possessing a deep faith in God views the world around them from the perspective of His existence and daily involvement in their lives.

In Acts 17:28, the apostle Paul wrote, “For in Him (Jesus Christ) we live and move and have our being.” His worldview was of God being vitally involved in every area of life.

Just as the oxygen we breathe surrounds our every step whether we acknowledge it or not, spiritual beliefs permeate our thoughts and actions. What we believe – or don’t believe – has a profound impact on what we do, how we think, how we respond to circumstances we confront, and how we interact with people and the world around us.

That does not justify proselytizing or belittling views of those who disagree with us. First Peter 3:15 provides an excellent guideline for communicating our beliefs, whether in a homework paper, a college exam, a podium, or a private conversation: “…Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.”

I can’t separate my faith from my everyday life any more than I can separate my head from my body. Nor should I be expected to do so. Isn’t it about time our government acknowledged that and ceased seeking to skew the fine principles of the Constitution to appease a vocal minority?

Monday, May 14, 2012

Who Do You Think You Are?

This week marks the season finale of “Who Do You Think You Are?”, in which celebrities explore their family heritage – aided by genealogists, historians, an ancestry website, and lots of money for travel in pursuit of clues.

This concept isn’t new. In 1977, Alex Haley’s book, Roots: The Saga of an American Family, captivated TV viewers as it tracked a black family’s history from Africa through slavery and through the Civil War.

The Daughters of the American Revolution bases membership on ability to trace family lineage to and before the Revolutionary War. Regardless of ethnicity or nationality, it’s intriguing, if possible, to learn who great-great-grandpa and great-great-grandma were.

That’s why family trees are fascinating. “Who were these people? What did they do? What were they like?”

My knowledge of family history stops with my grandparents. Both of my grandfathers immigrated to America from Hungary; my grandmothers either came from Hungary or were born to Hungarian parents in the U.S.A. I have no idea who preceded them. By the time I cared enough to ask, anyone having answers had passed away.

It would be nice to know what my paternal and maternal great- and great-great grandparents did, where they lived, etc. I remember someone saying there was a Hungarian prince somewhere in our family line – or maybe it was just a Hungarian who made prints. I’m not really sure.

I’ve been to Hungary twice, and actually stayed overnight in the town of Tamasi, but there was no time for family tree climbing – especially since I don’t speak the language.

But there’s another ancestry I’m even more interested in. Thankfully, there’s much more information about it. It’s my spiritual lineage, very different from my biological family. More than my physical DNA, this defines who I really am.

This includes the people who contributed – directly and indirectly – to my spiritual growth, and individuals that influenced the lives of those people. There are the brave immigrants who fled England for the New World in the 17th century, seeking religious freedom; Martin Luther, who examined the Scriptures and learned salvation comes by God’s grace, not by works, and insisted the Bible should not be exclusive to the clergy; and countless others God used to guide His people through the centuries.

It’s amazing to think my spiritual family tree includes the apostles Paul, Peter and John; Paul’s mentor Barnabas; prophets like Elijah, Daniel, Isaiah and John the Baptist; as well as patriarchs Abraham, Jacob (Israel), Joseph, and King David.

Women are well-represented, including Abraham’s wife, Sarah; Rebekah, Rachel, Esther; a prostitute named Rahab; a bunch of ladies named Mary, and a Martha.

How do I know these are all branches of my spiritual family tree? In Genesis 12:3, God told Abram, “all peoples on earth will be blessed through you,” and in Genesis 17:16, He declared of Sarah, “she will be the mother of nations….”

Later, in 1 Corinthians 12:27, the Scriptures assures all followers of Jesus: “Now you are the body of Christ, and each of you is a part of it.”

I don’t know about you, but I’m excited about my spiritual family and look forward to meeting each of them face to face. We’ll have lots to talk about – including who we really are! 

Thursday, May 10, 2012

‘Let’s Get Physical!’

Commitment to consistent exercise is hard work, but the compensation in terms
of physical well-being makes it worthwhile.

One advantage of advancing years is perspective. When you’re young, you feel invincible, convinced you’ll live forever. You’re care-free, fearing nothing. (Maybe that’s why so many young people text while driving.)

As you get older, however, life’s hard knocks start adding up. You discover the saying, “Stuff happens!” is true. As with everyone else, you realize immortality isn’t your destiny.

Some days you wake up feeling great; life couldn’t be better. The next day, your shoulder’s sore, your neck has a crick, your knee aches, your back’s stiff. Welcome back to reality.

If we’re wise, we take steps – literally – to remain healthy and fit for as long as possible. We don’t want to be like the senior citizen who, in very advanced years, moaned, “If I’d known I was going to live this long, I would have taken better care of myself!”

Combining cardio activities with moderate
weight training can lead to well-rounded
physical fitness regardless of age.
I just finished my medical circuit – annual physical, visits with cardiologist and cardiothoracic surgeon. Thankfully the test results were good, but I know I’m bidding time. The day will come, like it or not, when the wear and tear from years past become evident.

But we can still strive to enhance our physical lives by exercising, eating right, taking medications if needed. That’s Dr. Arthur Agatston’s message in The South Beach Heart Program, a book I found helpful after my open-heart surgery in 2006. He doesn’t promise that by following his advice you’ll live forever – but you will stay healthy longer.

There’s an even better reason for addressing our physical well-being: Stewardship. We might think, “It’s my body, and I can do what I want to,” but our bodies are only “on lease.” God gave them to us, and as stewards we’re responsible for taking care of them as best we can.

For instance, the Bible asserts, “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you?” (That admonition, by the way, doesn’t authorize us to build a “bigger temple”!)

The Scriptures acknowledge life’s temporal nature: “Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands (2 Corinthians 5:1). In other words, don’t get too attached to our physical bodies, our “earth suits.” We don’t get to keep them. 

Nevertheless, we’re expected to care for what we’ve been given. God might have created mankind out of clay, according to the biblical account – but it was His clay!

That’s why for the past five years, I’ve taken my own advice: Three days a week of rigorous cardiac rehab classes, and power-walking 2-3 other days each week. Also, eating better than I used to, and taking my meds. And so far the effort and commitment have paid off.

I’ve adopted this simple motto: “I hate to exercise…but I love to have exercised!”

Monday, May 7, 2012

The Argument for Nothing

Imagine going into a furniture store in search of the perfect chair for your living room. After browsing awhile, you find one that is indeed perfect. The most comfortable chair you ever sat in. “Who’s the manufacturer?” you ask the salesperson. “No one manufactured it,” is the response.

“What? What do you mean, no one manufactured it?” “Exactly that. It’s amazing. One day we arrived for work and there was that chair in an empty space we’d had on the floor. No one made it. It just happened.”

Or suppose you visit a famous art gallery and a wonderful painting catches your eye. The colors are like nothing you’ve ever seen; the textures and contrasts are extraordinary; the creativity astounds you.

“Who painted this?” you inquire of the curator. “Nobody.” “Huh? What do you mean, nobody?” “I mean that it had no painter. We had a blank space on the wall here, then one day the painting just appeared.”

Nothing more than a cosmic accident?
Of course such conversations seem ridiculous. You couldn’t have a chair, table, car, camera, or article of clothing without someone that made it. Fine art or music, whether they suit your tastes or not, are created by artists, usually with specific purposes in mind.

Engineers, architects and contractors all know whether it’s a building, a bridge, a skyscraper or a house, someone must conceive, design and build it.

And yet we have a whole realm of science – evolution – that insists to the contrary. This incredible, beautiful, complex, intricate, unpredictable yet wonderfully ordered world we live in, they say, is a byproduct of chance. It wasn’t God, or even some kind of intelligent designer, that made it – it just happened, the result of billions of years that followed the so-called “Big Bang.”

Advocates of evolution declare the evidence is indisputable. Really? Where is there evidence, even one example, that something has ever come out of nothing without some cause, some conditions already in existence for making it occur?

Even the wisdom of the musical, “The Sound of Music,” indirectly disputes such an assertion. In the happy song, “Something Good,” there’s the refrain, “Nothing comes from nothing…nothing ever could.” Makes sense to me.

For those who insist there is no God, or choose to ignore His existence, evolution offers a somewhat plausible alternative explanation. Except for the fact, never disproven by any realm of science, that nothing comes from nothing. Therefore, this world – and the universe surrounding it – could not have “evolved” from absolutely nothing. (There are many other arguments against traditional views of evolution, but flawed reasoning about things and their beginnings provides a good starting point.)

Even though I don’t claim to understand the how’s and why’s of the divine mind, I’m quite comfortable with the Bible’s alternative explanation to evolution: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1).

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Do We Even Have a Prayer?

Centuries ago, Charles Dickens opened his classic novel, A Tale of Two Cities, with “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times….” If he were writing today, Dickens might be inclined to start with “It wasn’t the best of times – and things were getting worse.”

Not wanting to sound ancient, but when I attended school as a boy, the biggest problems were spitballs (crumpled bits of paper either tossed or blown through a straw), running in the hallways, chewing gum, and going up the down staircase. Really bad kids smoked in rest rooms. Today, our schools must deal with loaded guns and other weapons, drugs and alcohol (even at grade-school levels), all manner of violence, physical and psychological bullying, and classrooms on the edge of anarchy.

Violence on college campuses has become all-too commonplace. Once-respected leaders at all levels of government, business, education, athletics and religion have perpetrated acts of gross unethical and immoral conduct. Broadcast news reports routinely open with gruesome accounts of murder and mayhem. Entertainment media flaunt and applaud behavior that would have been unthinkable only decades ago. It’s reported 3.4 of every 1,000 babies starts out life suffering from some form of chemical addiction withdrawal due to drug abuse by mothers. Terrorism is an ever-present fear and threat.

I’m an optimist at heart, but I see little reason for optimism about our society’s course. What should be our response? We complain, criticize, gripe, moan and groan, even judge and condemn. We look to politics to solve our nation’s ills, believing with the “right” people in the right offices, things will turn around. We employ any means possible for imposing our moral will on others.

Somehow I doubt any of that will cure the national malaise. Instead, it might be wise to follow the time-worn adage: “When all else fails, pray.”

Today is the National Day of Prayer. In light of what we see transpiring daily across our land – and around the world – it could be the most pivotal day of the year. Of course, many of us (even those that consider themselves among God’s faithful) won’t take time to pray. Maybe we really don’t believe in the power of prayer, or think it’s more productive to “do something,” even if it’s just worrying and wringing our hands.

But 2 Chronicles 7:14 in the Bible’s Old Testament suggests there is nothing more important than to pray: “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”

The onus is clearly on God’s people, those “called by My name,” to humble ourselves, sincerely seek Him and turn from our own disobedient ways. This passage says nothing about trying to “fix” society – God will do that, if we humbly pray and submit ourselves to Him.

Yes, it seems our world is going to Hades in the proverbial hand-basket, but the Bible proclaims our part is to pray. Then God will do His part. Another verse reaffirms this conviction: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God” (Philippians 4:6).

Seems simple enough. So what are you going to do: scream and shout and dance about? Or pray?