Monday, July 30, 2012

What the ‘Church’ Should Look Like (Part 1)

This church in Veszprem, Hungary was one
of many I saw in 1997 that looked beautiful
and stately, but was rarely used.

The institutional church receives lots of flak these days, and in some respects justifiably so. Nonbelievers perceive it as pompous, self-righteous, rigid, irrelevant. Even for those that regularly attend churches, it can seem distant, self-indulgent, out of touch, more focused on programs than people’s needs.

In my spiritual journey I’ve been involved with more than a half-dozen denominations, a dozen congregations, and held leadership and teaching roles in some. I’m not a church-hopper, but geographic moves and periodic urgings to seek a new “home” have given me insights into this unique, universal, spiritual family we call “the Church.”

One of the main problems, as I see it, is many churches act more like organizations than what the Bible says they should be – an organism. In 1 Corinthians 12:12 the apostle Paul describes the Church as “a unit, although it is made up of many parts, and though all its parts are many, they form one body.”

European churches present a unique
beauty, but often, as in American
congregations, vitality is sorely lacking.
This human body metaphor suggests one of the main functions I think a church should serve. (Later this week I’ll look at another.) Joining a local congregation should be like being admitted to a hospital.  When you’re ill and in need of urgent care, you don’t hear the hospital staff saying, “Come back later when you’re feeling better. We don’t want sick people in here.” Of course not.

Too often, however, people attending church feel they must act like they have it all together, like they truly “couldn’t be better.” In fact, every one of us is hurting in some way – carrying baggage from earlier in life, struggling with behavior patterns we can’t control, suffering from broken relationships. And most often, feeling apart from a healthy, growing relationship with the Creator.

Instead of being able to enter, pain and all, and openly share our “symptoms,” too often we feel the need to put on Sunday smiles – our happy masks – and disguise the hurt within.

The hospital comparison of apt, too, because typically when admitted for treatment it takes a while for the medical staff to diagnose the problem and identify the proper course of treatment. This is true spiritually as well. Romans 3:23 reminds us, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” So recognizing we’re all suffering from spiritual disease is simple; determining how to remedy strongholds of sin is more difficult.

Yes, the Church today – particularly in America – has many flaws. And as a member of the family, I have the right to admit that. But there’s still something special, unique about being a part of a body of believers sharing the same faith in Jesus, the one who declared, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). I know that sounds narrow, certainly not very “tolerant.” But He said it, not me.

Later this week, I’ll propose something else an effective church should look like.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

It’s All in the Finish

This weekend Summer Olympic competition begins and many of us will spend hours in front of the TV – or online – watching hundreds of the world’s greatest athletes battle for gold, silver and bronze in their respective events. Most of these will be thrilling to watch, but whether it’s swimming, track and field, basketball, soccer, field hockey, synchronized swimming or some other sport, there will be a common theme:

All that matters is how you finish.

Often as we observe the events, we will see athletes make a fast start, leading the field of competitors whether in the 1,500-meter run, a sprint, 200-meter butterfly, marathon or cycling. The question will be, can the athlete maintain the pace and be there at the finish?

Watching the recent U.S. Olympic swimming trials, for example, commentators frequently spoke about a swimmer’s “strong finish.” He or she might not lead early in the race, but the athlete had the capacity to finish strong, many times coming from behind to win. A gymnast might look great at the start of her balance beam routine, but will she bobble and fall off, or fail to nail her dismount? To win, a good start must be followed by an equally good finish.

This blog is not about sports, but often the world of athletics provides good metaphors for everyday life. Finishing well is one of them.

Apart from the Olympics, we’ve seen other examples. Joe Paterno, legendary football coach at Penn State, was regarded by many as the sport’s best ever. But revelations he apparently had knowledge of a former assistant’s sexual abuse of young boys over many years will forever tarnish his image. His statue has been removed. Decades ago another exceptional coach, Woody Hayes at Ohio State, also had commendable life accomplishments diminished when TV viewers witnessed his final act on a football field, a frustrated punch thrown at a player from the opposing team.

In “real life,” we also see examples of people that don’t finish nearly as well as they started: Couples exchanging wedding vows, aglow with love for one another, filing for divorce a few years later. A promising young employee that initially seems an up-and-coming star for the company, whose job performance lapses into mediocrity. A respected business executive caught up in ethical shortcuts. A nationally known political leader’s moral failures being exposed.

It’s easy to start well. You’re filled with excitement, enthusiasm and energy, confident of success. But as weeks, months and years pass, the challenge of persevering, the reality the task at hand demands endurance and daily rededication, can discourage and dishearten. The temptation arises to compromise cherished values and principles. A strong finish is no longer assured.

That’s why, perhaps with a sigh of relief, the apostle Paul wrote at the end of his life, I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7). He wasn’t writing about an athletic competition – he was referring to victory in “the game of life.”

Through the years I’ve observed many people also start fast spiritually, but slow down as they near the finish line. Sometimes they drop out of the race entirely. But I’m thankful for many examples of men and women I’ve known that finished their race in the faith – and finished well. Every day they inspire me to do the same.

So as you watch some of the Olympic events over the next couple of weeks, take a moment: Ask yourself, “How am I doing in my own race? Am I doing what I need to do to finish well?”

Hopefully your answer will be a positive one. But if not, what needs to change?

Monday, July 23, 2012

It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s a…Book! What’s a Book?

Writing a blog, you never know where inspiration will come from. At least I don’t. Just this morning I saw this photo, posted by a Facebook friend in Poland. What a visual statement about our times!

All five of the people seated are reading, but what’s the guy on the right using? For people of my generation, that’s a silly question. But in centuries to come, might sociologists, anthropologists – and even educators – be discussing the relative merits of that antiquated communication device, that thing called the “book”?

Imagine the conversation: “The book was a simple tool, really. It had no on-off switch, required no batteries, nor could it be recharged. When you were finished reading you…well, you put it down, often never to pick it up again, and you picked up another…book!” “Really? How quaint. What primitive times those were!”

If you were to look in my family room, you’d see I’ve placed great value on simple, non-electronic instruments known as books. Even though I do much of my reading these days on computers, a tablet (in my case, an iPad), and now a smart phone, I’ll never lose my deep affection for real books. Part of it’s sensory: They have a distinctive feel, the paper and ink, the gloss on the cover, the heft, especially of classic literary tomes. Then there’s the smell, even of musty books that have been around for a long time; it gives them character. And the sound, the rustle of pages as they turn, the satisfied “thump” books make when you close them.

No question, digital books and other publications on tablets and smart phones are convenient, and add no additional weight after being downloaded. I recall many times lugging books in a briefcase to keep me company while traveling.

But there’s something about a book, holding it, carrying it, opening it time and again as you advance along the journey the author has created for you. Somehow, turning pages as you proceed toward your destination – the last page – allows you to bond with the book, sometimes resulting in a cherished, lifelong friendship.

As time passes, I realize, I’ll be a member of a shrinking minority. Increasingly, people will know books as something you retrieve with the touch of a screen, and read with the deft flip of a fingertip. No matter – as long as people continue to read, I guess it doesn’t matter what media are used for accessing the books.

And I hope that, despite increasingly sophisticated technology, people will always be drawn to that timeless, most treasured book of all, the Bible. Whether in paper or visible digitally, I’m convinced it’s the one resource for experiencing life as God intended.

After all, we’re told, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). No matter whether it’s read in paper form or on some technological medium – just as long as it’s read.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

‘He Who Finds a Wife . . .’

Thirty-eight years ago we said, "I do." I'd do it all over again!

The writer of Proverbs asks, “An excellent wife, who can find? For her worth is far above jewels” (Proverbs 31:10). Thirty-eight years tomorrow, God found one for me. That was when Sally and I exchanged wedding vows. My friends are probably astounded any woman would (or could) stick with me for that long!

To be honest, on that day I didn’t realize how blessed I was – or would be. But today I do – and am.

When people recite “I do’s,” they know little of what lies ahead. That’s good, because even the best marriage is a rollercoaster; ups and downs abound. Sally and I could never have imagined what the years would bring, but with God’s strength we persevered, enjoying the good and weathering the not-so-good. And there’s been much more good than bad.

Sally’s had to put up with a lot. I dragged her from Ohio and her family, where she’d lived all her life, more than 1,000 miles away to Houston, where I pursued vocational goals and dreams. She endured my 75-hour workweeks (not including daily 30-minute commutes to and from work), dutifully and lovingly caring for our young family while I forged a career as a journalist.

Later we moved to Chattanooga, closer to home for her, but still having to tolerate a husband rushing off to early-morning meetings or traveling around the country in pursuit of subjects for magazine articles. She’s even accepted the uncertainties of paychecks when financial support was low.

But most of all, she’s loved me and stood by me, accepting my faults, and inspiring me to become a better person, husband, father and grandfather.

In the last chapter of Proverbs, the “Proverbs 31 woman” is described. I doubt the writer had someone specific in mind; it’s a composite of traits godly women display. But in numerous ways, Sally fits the description.

It talks about “working with eager hands” and “getting up while it’s still dark…providing food for her family.” This woman “sets about her work vigorously, her arms strong for her tasks.” I can’t count how many times she’s gotten up in very early hours to prepare meals, especially on holidays. Or when she has done whatever was needed for our children and grandchildren – even babysitting and running helpful errands on days off from work.

The passage describes the husband “respected at the city gate.” My wife hasn’t begrudged the many times I’ve tried to fill that image, participating in Bible studies or mentoring and discipling other men, leaving family responsibilities to her. She’s been my girlfriend, best friend, partner and confidant.

Elsewhere in Proverbs it says, “He who finds a wife finds what is good and receives favor from the Lord” (Proverbs 18:22). In my case, God’s favor has been abundant – far more than I ever hoped.

Near the end of Proverbs 31 it says of the woman, “Her children arise and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her.”

Happy anniversary, my beloved wife!

Monday, July 16, 2012

Do You Need More Faith?

For more than 5½ years I’ve been attending cardiac rehab exercise classes three times a week. At the end of each year the staff do a brief review and ask about fitness goals for the next year. Last time I told the physical therapist I wanted more muscles.

“What?” she asked. “More muscles,” I repeated. “Stronger muscles?” she inquired. “No, I just want additional muscles, maybe two, or four.”

Actually, I didn’t say that. Wouldn’t it have been foolish if I had? When we’re born, the muscles we will use throughout life are already there. They’re not very strong and will require lots of developing, but the muscle groups are all in place. They just need to be strengthened with time. You have to learn to use what you’ve got.

I think of that when I hear people say something like, “I need more faith” or “I just don’t have enough faith.” It’s tempting to ask, “How much more do you need? Three pounds? Another quart?” The Bible indicates that, like muscles in the body, faith – what we might call spiritual muscle – is supplied as God sees fit.

For instance, Romans 12:3 urges, “…think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you.” This passage says when Jesus Christ comes into our lives, we receive “a measure of faith” – apparently whatever God determines we need. Because in 2 Peter 1:3 we are told, His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.”

The problem is, we really don’t like living by faith. We want to trust and act upon what we can see and touch. That’s why 2 Corinthians 5:7 reminds us, We live by faith, not by sight.”

Like muscles, we don’t need more faith. We need to exercise the faith we have to make it stronger. Life provides plenty of opportunities: career crossroads, financial difficulties, health challenges, family problems, sudden crises. When confronted with the unknown and uncertain, do we cower in fear, or power through the issues in our own strength? Or do we stop, admit the situations are beyond our control, and then, in faith, ask God to intervene?

I don’t possess what the Bible terms the “gift of faith,” but over the years the Lord has guided us through numerous faith-building experiences, circumstances that seemed overwhelming but in retrospect were opportunities to step aside and see what God could do.

A friend of mine used to say, “Thank God for adversity.” Hardships that seemed insurmountable had forced him to trust the Lord when there were no alternatives. And in the process, his faith grew stronger.

Are you exercising your faith today, enabling it to grow stronger, or trying to “tough it out” on your own, letting your spiritual muscles atrophy?

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Most Powerful TV Events?

Yesterday Sony Electronics and Nielsen released a study drawn from more than 1,000 Americans on what they considered the most “universally impactful” televised moment of the last 50 years. As such surveys tend to be, its findings were interesting – and revealing.

Before I heard the results, I had expected to hear people cite the first appearance of the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show (I guess Elvis Presley debuted prior to the “last 50 years” criteria), a particularly memorable sports moment, or maybe something like the final episode of “M*A*S*H.”

But the events deemed most “impactful” largely concerned events related to death, destruction and tragedy. The horrors of Sept. 11, 2001 ranked at the top – understandably so. Next was 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, followed by the O.J. Simpson murder trial verdict in 1995, the Challenger space shuttle disaster in 1988, and the death of Osama bin Ladin last year.

Other top TV moments included the 2011 earthquake in Japan, 1999’s shootings at Columbine High School, the 2010 BP oil spill, Princess Diana’s funeral in 1997, the recent death of Whitney Houston, and the capture and execution of Saddam Hussein in 2006.

The first “happy” televised event came in at No. 13, Barack Obama’s Presidential acceptance speech, followed by the 2011 royal wedding.

Of the top 20 most powerful TV moments, only three did not relate to death or violence, but even the other one involved gore (in a sense) – the Bush-Gore Presidential election results.

If this survey is accurate of Americans overall, what does this say about us? Cynics might say we delight in taking a voyeuristic approach to death, mayhem and calamity, that there’s something therapeutic in vicariously experiencing someone else’s misfortune.

There might be something to that, but I suspect there’s a greater, more universal factor: It’s been said the only certainties in life are death and taxes. But according to a recent report, only 51% of Americans pay Federal income tax, so that leaves just one certainty.

Old or young, rich or poor, regardless of race, gender or beliefs, death is the one equalizer. Not to sound morbid, but death is an integral part of life – whether it pertains to a plant, a puppy, or a person. So with major events in which lives are lost, whether in traffic and boating accidents, natural disasters or violent acts, we tend to pay attention. Why do you think nightly TV news broadcasts often start with such reports?

God understands this all too well. And that’s why the central verse in all of the Bible is so well-known in one translation or another, even by those who refuse to believe: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

With death all around us, it’s good news to know that life – eternal life – is available to us, if only we’re humble enough to receive it.

Monday, July 9, 2012

‘Heaven…’ and ‘Hunger…’

Recently I read two books that could hardly have been more different.

Heaven Is For Real by Todd Burpo is the best-selling, non-fiction account of a father (and pastor) whose four-year-old son, Colton, survives the nearly fatal aftermath of a ruptured appendix and afterward offers intriguing revelations from his near-death experience.

The Hunger Games, even better-selling, is a novel by Suzanne Collins and now a major theatrical film. The first book in a trilogy, it presents the reader with a kind of literary “Survivor” for teenagers, in which the losers are not voted off, but are carted off in body bags.

Heaven recounts that several months after Colton’s miraculous recovery, he starts remembering events related to his in hospital crisis. Even though unconscious in an operating room, Colton knew his father was alone in a room, pleading with God for help, while his mother was elsewhere praying with family members over the phone. Over the succeeding weeks, the boy recalls other things – about being in heaven, meeting his grandfather and his stillborn sister, and Jesus.

In Hunger Games, there is no heaven, no God, only an oppressive “Big Brother” type of government in which teens in various districts of the country serve as pawns, for entertainment value and for state control. Using guile, instinct and innate abilities, randomly selected contestants in the Hunger Games compete in a literal fight to the death, in which only one person can “win.”

Reading Heaven Is For Real, I found myself wondering, “Is that exactly how it is in heaven? Is Colton’s story ‘for real,’ without embellishment or explanation outside of the supernatural?” It would be – and will be – nice if this account is accurate. I suppose there is only one way we all will find out. But the underlying element in this book can be summed up in a single word: Hope.

Not a “hope-so” we often use in everyday life, wishing or desiring for something to be so – “I hope it won’t rain today.” “I hope I get that promotion.” “I hope she gets better.” No, the hope expressed in Heaven Is For Real is based on confident assurance, the earnest expectation that the promises of the Bible that there is life after death are true, whether the details look exactly as Colton describes them or not.

The Hunger Games, admittedly a very entertaining and relatively inoffensive saga, suggests no hope. In it humankind is the pinnacle, and the tale focuses on humans at their best and worst. Timeworn elements – the hero (or heroine) triumphing over great odds; love conquering all; and determination assuring victory, all are there. But for the most part the spiritual dimension of life is absent – either deemed unnecessary or unwanted by the author.

If anything, Hunger pay homage to the human spirit, the “we can do it if we try” type of mindset. And to an extent, that’s good – hard work, resolve, and refusal to give up are qualities too often lacking in our society. But to insist it’s all up to us, there is nothing else – or no One else – to turn to in times of crisis, is a conclusion I cannot accept.

Before reading Burpo’s book, I was already convinced heaven is for real. If Colton has given us a glimpse of what’s to come, that’s great. But even if it’s very different from what he described, I’m looking forward to it nonetheless.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Watching Under the Influence

Did you hear Walt Disney Co. recently announced its plan to start advertising only healthier foods to children on its TV channels and other media? The company believes the commercials have been contributing to the alarming incidence of obesity among children and adolescents.

Over the next four months, Americans will be “treated” to a saturation of another type of commercial – political TV, radio and Internet ads for Presidential and Congressional candidates. Millions upon millions of dollars will be spent to convince voters their candidates are the right ones to serve them and govern in Washington, D.C.

Clearly, powers-that-be in the media and marketing understand the persuasive punch of the broadcast image. What strikes me as strange is no one has raised the same concern over increasingly violent acts and immoral behavior in programming the commercials support.

It’s almost as if they believe when we watch or hear commercials endorsing products, services or people we’re supposed to think, “You can persuade me now.” But when we watch dramas in which good guys and bad guys are killed amid floods of blood and gore, or voyeuristically observe adults hopping indiscriminately from bed to bed, we’re not affected in the slightest?

Tell me, how does that work?

When I was young, there was TV violence. Roy Rogers, the Lone Ranger, Superman, detectives and law enforcement officers all wielded weapons and tried to help good prevail over evil. But we didn’t have to endure multiple killings and full-color bloodbaths. These days, even kids’ cartoons are liberally laced with vivid acts of mayhem.

And sex wasn’t treated as a commodity, an act as inconsequential as a handshake. Bombshells like Charlie’s Angels and Angie Dickinson used sensuality in their roles, but we didn’t see men and women (and now men and men, and women and women) carousing like dogs in heat.

I’m no expert, but could it be that the alarming rate of murders in society today can be attributed, at least in small degree, to the devaluing of human life as communicated through TV, movies, the Internet, even video games? Or that the reason so many people silently suffer the emotional devastation of “hooking up” or being “friends with benefits” is because to not be sexually active (we used to call it “promiscuous”) is to be regarded as abnormal?

Of course, no one is holding guns to our heads as viewers, so we share in the blame. The Bible offers sound advice on this subject: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things” (Philippians 4:8).

In the vast cesspool we call 21st century “entertainment,” it’s extremely hard to find anything that fits any of those adjectives. True? Noble? Pure? Admirable? What’s that?

So – folks at Disney and other entertainment meccas – while you’re rightfully trying to save the world from Twinkies, chili dogs and sugared cereals, why don’t you attempt to do the same with .38s, grenade launchers, and stripteases masquerading as romance?

Monday, July 2, 2012

Just How ‘United’ Is the U.S.A.?

Being born on July 4th, making me what composer George M. Cohan called “A Yankee Doodle Dandy,” I’ve always had great fondness for Independence Day. I wear American flag T-shirts, we proudly display the American flag in front of our house, and I’m always stirred when patriotic songs like “Stars and Stripes Forever” are played.

The observance, of course, commemorates bold statesmen like Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Patrick Henry signing documents in 1776 declaring the new nation’s independence from Great Britain. (Wish I could have been there!) This act created the United States of America, but 236 years later one has to wonder just how “united” the U.S.A. really is.

We’re a nation polarized on many issues. A great divide tears at the very fabric of the U.S.A., with citizens in sharp, passionate and sometimes vitriolic disagreement on issues ranging from abortion to firearms, from healthcare to immigration, from sexual preferences to whether we should be “one nation under God.” We seem more untied these days than united.

How did we get this way?

Over the past several years I’ve had the privilege of writing two books about successful, privately owned companies that have now reached the fourth generation of family ownership. These businesses are among the tiny minority of companies that manage to remain “in the family” for more than two generations. That’s because it’s not easy to pass along values, vision and ideals from one generation to the next. Especially in a complex entity like a company – or a country. These businesses have been the exceptions.

A “generation” is typically defined as about 30 years, the span during which children grow up and start producing the next generation. Doing the math, this would mean the U.S.A. is well into its eighth generation. Considering how difficult it is to perpetuate a successful enterprise even to generation No. 4, it’s little wonder our nation is wobbling with generations 7 and 8.

It used to be “democracy” was synonymous with being governed by the majority, but in recent decades, “minority rule” seems to have taken over. Every special interest group is flexing its muscle, the vocal minority imposing its will on a comparatively silent majority.

Perhaps one factor contributing to this fragmentation is confusing unity with uniformity or unanimity. When the U.S. Constitution states, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” that does not mean identical. When it talks about the “inalienable right” to “the pursuit of happiness,” this does not imply guarantees or entitlement. The individual carries the responsibility for engaging in this pursuit. But as a society, we seem to have forgotten that.

The Bible offers one of the best descriptions of unity found anywhere: “If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose” (Philippians 2:1-2).

Of course, we can’t consider this as a guideline because of the U.S. Supreme Court’s edict in 1947 about the so-called “separation of church and state.” This judgment has since become construed to mean not only that the state cannot impose religion upon the people, but also that people must avoid any inclusion of faith in the public square.

Gradually, our nation has drifted away from a conscious awareness of God’s involvement in daily affairs of mankind – despite declarations to the contrary by founding fathers like Jefferson, Adams, George Washington and others. And it seems God, understanding He’s no longer welcome, has graciously withdrawn. Without a constant spiritual compass, we’ve acquired a condition described in the Bible as everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25). This description seems apt for where our “tolerant,” politically correct society today.

So the real question is not how did we get this way, but rather, where will we go from here?