Thursday, August 30, 2012

Fruits of Their Labors

Monday most of us will observe Labor Day, taking off from work to celebrate the virtues of work!

Labor Day dates to the late 1800’s, celebrating economic and social contributions of workers. It also serves as a time for many to enjoy the fruits of their labors. Except “their” is sometimes interpreted to mean “other people’s.” In other words, the fruits of other people’s labors.

Imagine this scenario. At Prestige University, one of the elite schools in the land, there's a stellar student appropriately named Stella. She’s earned all A’s and expects to become class valedictorian, graduating maximum cum laude (or something like that). Hard work, determination and sacrifice make her an example of what personal initiative can achieve.

But during her senior year, the student advisor informs her, “Stella, you’ve really applied yourself and done incredible work. I commend you. Unfortunately, Wilbur hasn’t applied himself and his classroom work has been mediocre at best. You see, he’s been preoccupied with other things. You know how distracting college life can be.

“Wilbur really feels badly about it – and we don’t want him feeling bad, do we? So we’re taking 15 points from each of your final grades and giving them to Wilbur. But even by removing those points, they’re still high enough for honor roll status…. Hope you won’t mind.”

Ridiculous, right? Yet that’s a line of reasoning these days. Business owners invest countless hours, sweat equity and sacrifice – sometimes teetering on the brink of bankruptcy (or beyond) – in pursuit of their dreams. They spend sleepless nights fretting over payroll, bills, capital expenditures, and growth plans. Now that they're reaping fruits of their labors, some in our society think those proceeds should be distributed to others that have contributed nothing.

I applaud efforts for giving people opportunities to get ahead, to ascend the ladder of success. But that doesn’t mean providing helicopters to carry them directly to the top.

Not everyone is born into the same environment; some people have more advantages than others to get started along life’s journey. Those that lack the necessary education, training and skills to find jobs they love should have access to those resources. But just as fictional Wilbur shouldn’t be entitled to share the academic rewards of Stella’s diligent studies, our Constitution doesn’t guarantee – or warrant – people getting something they’re not willing to earn.

In 2 Thessalonians 3:10, the apostle Paul gave this admonition: “For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: ‘If a man will not work, he shall not eat.’" Interestingly, even the Communist Manifesto included similar language, underscoring the importance of everyone working to make meaningful contributions to society.

Labor Day commemorates work and its intrinsic value. Work provides a basic livelihood as well as life purpose, a sense of achievement, and the dignity of being of worth, able to contribute significantly to others.

Years ago I authored a book called Business at Its Best: Timeless Wisdom from Proverbs for Today’s Workplace, exploring perspectives on work from Proverbs. Here are samples:

“The laborer’s appetite works for him; his hunger drives him on” (Proverbs 16:26).
“Do you see a man skilled in his work? He will serve before kings; he will not serve before obscure men” (Proverbs 22:29).
“He who tends a fig tree with eat its fruit, and he who looks after his master will be honored” (Proverbs 27:18).
“Diligent hands will rule, but laziness ends in slave labor” (Proverbs 12:24).

Work is hard – but it’s also good. So let’s celebrate it and do what we can to help others become noble participants in it. Anyone that’s willing is entitled to enjoy the fruits of their own labors.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Just Wondering

Here are some random questions I’ve wondered about while cruising down the highway of life – maybe you’ve considered some of them yourself:

If there is no God, why are people so aggressively opposing those that talk about and believe in Him? You don’t hear people protesting Santa Claus, the Easter bunny or the tooth fairy? Could it be because those really don’t exist, so why bother?

If we are all the result of random evolution, with no rhyme nor reason, no ultimate purpose, just inconsequential products of cosmic chaos, why do we even care – about the poor, the disadvantaged, economic inequities, little children that are mistreated, weaker people abused by stronger people? If it’s all about the “survival of the fittest” and nothing more, why don’t we just cheer on the “fittest” and boo the “unfit”?

In America, why do we drive on parkways and park in driveways?

If buses stop at bus stations, and trains stop at train stations, what should happen at your work station?

Why did God choose to take on human form 2,000 years ago, long before the invention of the Internet, smartphones, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and 24/7 news coverage and talk shows?

If “sophisticated” people are such strong advocates of “tolerance,” why are they so vocally and viciously intolerant of people that don’t agree with them or share their values?

When did “democracy” come to mean minority rule?

Why does “honest politician” have to be an oxymoron?

Doesn’t it require more faith to believe God does not exist?

Why is it that more liberals focus on conservation, and more conservatives focus on liberation – from taxes?

When some people make bad decisions or foolish choices, why are they so quick to blame God for the consequences – “Why me?”

What does it really mean to be “born again”?

Why do we like to complain about “big government” – except when we want roadways repaired; emergency relief following disasters; protection from terrorism; safeguards for the foods, drinks and drugs we consume; traffic lights fixed; assurances of medical care when we need it; police and fire protection; restraints on offensive or fraudulent communications; regulations against unscrupulous businesses; military protection when necessary; safety in our use of all forms of mass transportation; and rigid quality standards for many types of products we buy?

When did we decide that good should be regarded as evil, and evil should be celebrated as good?

Why are “Jesus Christ” and “God” sometimes used as curse words, and not Buddha, Confucius, Vishnu, Krishna, Muhammad or Allah?

Knowing how messed up the human race is, why indeed did God so love 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)?

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Words of Dis-tinction?

Learned a new word the other day: “intinction.” I came across it while doing research on the website of a denomination I’m familiar with. At first I didn’t bother to check its meaning, but finally curiosity got to me.

Actually, it’s a theological term. If you’re unfamiliar with the word, it’s not surprising. Two pastor friends of mine had never heard of it before either, and both are seminary graduates.

Intinction, I learned, means dipping the bread (cracker or wafer, as the case may be) into the wine (or grape juice, depending on your congregation’s preference) during the observance of communion. The reason the word even appeared on the website is because the denomination was debating whether to declare intinction “an inappropriate method,” meaning the bread/cracker and wine/grape juice should instead be consumed in separate actions.

The apostle Paul said his
focus was Christ and the Cross.
My honest reaction, after suppressing a chuckle, was to ask, “Really? Seriously?” Of all the issues facing the modern church today, leaders are worrying about whether it’s “appropriate” to dip bread into wine while taking communion or if they must insist that congregants eat the bread and drink the wine separately? Apparently it’s a matter inquiring church minds must resolve.

Think of what the 21st century church is confronting today – declining attendance; young people leaving and not returning once they finish high school; divorce rates within the church nearly equaling that of nonbelievers; men regularly attending church addicted to pornography; responding to people living “alternative lifestyles”; or individuals simply wondering how to relate what they hear on Sunday mornings to real-life issues on Monday mornings or Thursday afternoons.

While all this is going on, church leaders are devoting time and energy to whether it’s right to dip the bread into the wine/juice during holy communion?

This seems symptomatic of what ails today’s church, dangerously close to becoming irrelevant in society. Focus is given to issues like “intinction” rather than ascertaining how to effectively convey to men, women and young people in the pews what it really means to live for Christ on a 24/7 basis, to truly experience “victory in Jesus” and not just sing about it. And how to serve as His witnesses in our Judeas, Samarias, and the uttermost parts of the world.

That’s why I appreciate the determination of the apostle Paul, who said,
For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). Well-intended church leaders would be wise to do the same. Otherwise, as they debate intinction, their churches march toward extinction.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Standing the Test of Time

During the recent Summer Olympics, one of the most enduring images was that of Gabby Douglas’s infectious smile after stunning the gymnastics world by capturing gold in the all-around competition. Later she joined her teammates atop the podium after winning the team competition. She became an instant media darling and won countless thousands of fans.

But her new fan base further expanded when, just after her all-around victory, she said:

“I give all the glory to God. It's kind of a win-win situation. The glory goes up to Him and the blessings fall down on me."

Like other followers of Christ, I was excited to hear that. These days more often than not, if God is acknowledged at all, it’s to place blame – but rarely to give credit. So it’s good hearing an exceptional young athlete give credit where it belongs.

But as much as I enjoy God being honored, there’s a dilemma with celebrity praise. It’s like placing a chip on your shoulder. Someone’s just waiting to knock it off. Think about Tim Tebow, now battling for playing time at quarterback with the New York Jets. He’s known for his outspoken faith, but you can bet many detractors are waiting – even hoping – for him to slip up.

I hope that won’t be the case for either Gabby or Tebow. I hope their expressions of faith stand the test of time. But over the years I’ve heard athletes give honor to God in many ways, only to bring dishonor to Him by drug and alcohol abuse, personal issues, generally boorish behavior. “I told you so,” cynics are quick to pronounce. “Another hypocritical Jesus freak. All talk and no action to back it up.”

I interviewed a prominent racecar driver years ago for a magazine, asking about his outspoken faith. He stated that ahead of his racing career, his faith and his wife came first. Within two years he was divorced, and adoring fans cringed listening to expletive-laced conversations with his pit crew during races. It’s seems a long time since that driver spoke publicly about God.

There was a rising pro tennis star, after one of his first major triumphs, telling about beginning every day by reading his Bible. Years later, after he had endured a sad series of life setbacks and misadventures, no one was asking him about God.

Taking a stand for God – particularly when you’re in the spotlight and the glare of 24/7 media scrutiny – can be precarious. Skeptics love to knock people off spiritual pedestals. And fame and fortune can put faith to the test.

That’s why the Bible offers the warning, “So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!” (1 Corinthians 10:12). It’s good advice for all that claim to follow Jesus, but especially for those in the public eye.

I sincerely hope, years from now, people like Gabby Douglas, Tim Tebow and others are still standing firm in their faith.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Messages of Music

Music has the capacity
to communicate on many levels.

If I have one regret in life it’s never having made the effort to become proficient with a musical instrument. I played drums in the high school marching and concert bands, and was in a little rock  band for awhile, but never devoted the time to advance beyond basic rudiments. As a consequence, the only drumming I do these days is on my car's steering wheel.

Nonetheless, music has always been important to me. I find it impossible to imagine a world without it. A couple of years ago our city gained a new radio station that calls itself “hippie radio,” and it constantly carries me down memory lane. I was never a true hippie, apart from the longish hair, paisley shirts and bellbottoms of the ‘60s, but loved the music. So every time I hear a tune by Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, The Doors, the Beatles or Cream (most of whom, sadly, are no longer with us) I’m transported to another time.

When I hear “Good Vibrations,” I think of a Beach Boys concert I attended in Houston where I concluded, “Wow, their harmony isn’t as good live.” Blood Sweat & Tears’ “You Made Me So Very Happy” reminds me of dancing with a lovely young lady in college and thinking, “Maybe this is what love is like.”

“Wipeout” reminds me of days I still envisioned myself becoming an accomplished drummer. It, along with “Surf City,” also conjures images of surfboards, baggy swimsuits, dark tans and sun-bleached hair. (I only tried to surf once, and wasn’t good at it, but the idea was fun.)

But it’s not just the “golden oldies” of the ‘60s and early ‘70s. I enjoy music of favorite TV shows. “Hawaii 5-0” has been recreated, keeping its original theme song, and the M*A*S*H theme song always reminds me of Hawkeye, Col. Potter, Corporal Klinger and “Hot Lips” Hoolihan. Movie soundtracks of classic films like “The Sound of Music,” “Gone With the Wind,” “Chariots of Fire,” “West Side Story,” “Rocky” and “Saturday Night Fever” also stir old emotions.

Music has spiritual connotations for me as well. During the holiday season, I can’t hear “Silent Night” without recalling Christmas Eve worship services as a boy, when it was sung bilingually in the Hungarian-American church we attended. Michael W. Smith’s “Friends” reminds me of attending the singer’s concert just days after a good friend had passed away after suffering from a rare disease.

“Great Is Thy Faithfulness” never ceases to reassure me even though I’m often not faithful, God always is. And I’ll never stop marveling at the inner strength of Horatio G. Spafford, who wrote “It Is Well with My Soul” in 1873, just days after losing his four daughters when the French steamer they and their mother were traveling on from America to Europe collided with a British vessel and sank.

Colossians 3:16 affirms the importance of music for growing in faith: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God.”

The Psalms, in fact, are a collection of songs from ancient Israel, heartfelt and honest in their lyrics. I’ve always been thankful for Psalm 100:1, which in one translation tells us to “Make a joyful noise….” That’s about the best I can do. God apparently not only decided I shouldn’t be a musician, but also not a singer.

But I am a good listener!

Monday, August 13, 2012

Dressing for Success – or Failure?

School has resumed in many states, and will soon in others. I can remember when Labor Day was not only a commemoration of hard work, but also the artificial demarcation between summer vacation and the start of a new school year. Now school has already been in session for nearly a month by the time Labor Day arrives.

The commencing of another school year also means the renewal of issues that administrators and school boards confronted the previous year. One of those is the school dress code: What is appropriate to wear – and what is not.

Being a teacher in a tank top
can be a 'tank-less" jobs.
What surprised me recently was reading that several states have had to enact dress codes…for teachers.

Seems the problem of short shorts, bare midriffs, tank tops, holey jeans and flip-flops is not exclusive to students. Some teachers seem to delight in dressing in slovenly attire as well.

We often hear about rebellious students and teachers frantically trying to maintain control in the classroom. My dad always used to say that if you dressed like a slob, people would treat you like a slob. Apparently students believe that about their teachers.

Years ago Dress for Success became a bible about what to wear – and what not to wear – to advance in the business world. Fashions have changed through the three decades since, to the point where “business casual” now seems the height of workplace fashion, but the principle still holds true. We make an impression – a lasting one, for good or ill – by how we initially look to people.

It’s true “you can’t judge a book by its cover,” but when was the last time you bothered to read a book that looked like its cover was designed in a garbage can?

Problems in public schools today are many and complex, but it seems to me at the very least, if teachers want to be respected and listened to so their students will learn from them, the least they could do is dress in a manner that’s worthy of respect.

Proverbs 10:17 says, “He who heeds discipline shows the way to life….” Carefully, thoughtfully selecting what to wear when you’re seeking to inspire students toward better lives would be good discipline.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

There’s More There to This Square

How many squares do you see?

If you’ve been on Facebook recently, you probably saw the square above. Browsers were asked the actual number of squares in the illustration.

At first glance we see the obvious – 16 larger squares, eight smaller ones, and the large square that includes them all. But if you start counting squares within the larger squares, you find more. I’ve counted 40, although I haven’t read the official tally.

For me, the point of this is there’s often more to things than we notice at first glance. For instance, some of my best friends are people that didn’t impress me initially, but as I got to know them better I discovered there was much more to them than I had realized. (Hopefully some have found that true of me as well.)

Computers, or even smartphones, are similar. Utilitarian that I am, I typically use my iMac or iPhone for specific tasks. When I discover other things they can do I wasn’t aware of, I want to smack my forehead and scold myself, “Why didn’t you know about this earlier?”

Years ago a friend of mine made an interesting statement about the Scriptures. He said he believed the Bible was “a good primer…but then you move on to something more sophisticated.” That, in my opinion, is probably the most uninformed statement in the history of mankind.

As a senior in high school, I read the Bible cover to cover, front to back, as a personal goal. Upon finishing it I closed it and told myself, “Well, I’ve read the Bible,” and proceeded to decide what to read next. Frankly, at that stage of my life I understood very little about what I had read in the Bible. It was a version written in archaic English, which didn’t help, but my thinking then wasn’t far from my friend’s view.

Over the years, however, I’ve learned like the square above, there’s a lot more to the Word of God than first meets the eye. As I’ve said before – like peeling an onion and finding another layer below the one you just removed – the Bible has multiple layers of meaning and truth, far more than anyone could master in a lifetime.

I’ve read through the Scriptures numerous times over the years and each time I discover insights and understanding I didn’t see before. Reading specific passages repeatedly, such as a chapter of Proverbs each day, unfolds new things even though I’ve read and meditated over them previously.

So when the apostle Paul writes in 2 Timothy 3:16-17, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man (and woman) of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work,” I’m convinced that’s true.

The Bible in fact is “a good primer.” But you’ll never find or read anything more sophisticated.

Monday, August 6, 2012

To Finish Well . . . Don’t Finish Everything

I’ve written several times about finishing well, including just before the Summer Olympics opened. Recently I remembered someone’s advice from years ago: To finish well, don’t try to finish everything you start.

Wait: Isn’t it bad to have unfinished business, to not follow through on commitments? That’s not what he meant. His point was that to succeed over a long period of time – to finish well – we need to focus on what we do best and not become consumed by things that take us off course.

The Summer Olympic Games provide examples. At 6-foot-4, Michael Phelps could have been a good volleyball player, or might have enjoyed baseball or other sports. But he concentrated on his special abilities as a swimmer. Four Olympics and 12 years later, he has won a total of 22 medals – 18 of them gold – making him the most decorated Olympian in history.

As a boy, Jamaica’s Usain Bolt’s favorite sport was soccer. A teacher recognized his giftedness as a runner, however, and encouraged that skill. Today Bolt is one of only three men to have won the Olympic 100-meter dash twice, making him “the world’s faster runner.”

My favorite devotional writer, Oswald Chambers, said, “Good is the enemy of the best.” In other words, we all are presented with good opportunities – but they can get in the way of the best things, those we are uniquely qualified to do.

This is an excellent principle for evaluating opportunities we all receive to engage in worthwhile activities, from taking a new job to serving on a committee to dedicating many hours to a favorite hobby. Just because something is good, that doesn’t mean it’s the best use of our time and energy. And if we start something and later determine our choice was wrong, the best thing for everyone involved might be to set it aside.

Proverbs 4:27 offers this admonition: Don't get sidetracked; keep your feet from following evil.” In a sense, good things can actually become evil if they divert us from doing the best things, those pursuits God has prepared that we are equipped to do better than someone else.

When we say no to good things to focus on the best things, that doesn’t mean the other things won’t get done. It just means other people might have to do them – if they’re worth doing at all. And for them, those might be the best things to do.  

Thursday, August 2, 2012

What the ‘Church’ Should Look Like (Part 2)

Years ago I heard the story of a hippie-type couple searching for spiritual truth. Their home was an old school bus and they wore tattered blue jeans, so they didn’t dress the part of typical churchgoers – at least in those days. But they had started to visit one particular congregation anyway, and intrigued by what they heard, continued to attend.

At the same time, they frequented a bar where they formed some friendships.

As it happened, the couple both came down with a temporary but debilitating illness, so they holed up in their school bus for days, too sick and weak to venture out. One afternoon there was a knock at the door of the bus. Outside stood a group of people, arms filled with food, concerned because they hadn’t seen the couple in quite some time. It was their friends…from the bar.

Later the couple would become followers of Christ, but admitted at that moment in their lives, “If we had had to make a choice, whether to join the church or to join the bar, we would have joined the bar.” True story.

A praise song declares, “They will know we are Christians by our love,” but too often that’s not the case. We’re so busy judging people according to how they dress, how they talk, or how they act, we don’t have time – or the inclination – to show them actual love. The kind Jesus modeled.

That’s why I’ve concluded – along with being like a hospital, as I wrote earlier this week – the Church in the 21st century should be kind of like a bar. Or pub, or tavern, if you prefer.

Displayed at the Hollywood Entertainment Museum,
this bar served as the setting for the "Cheers" TV sitcom.
I’m not talking about breaking out six packs of beer, downing shots of whisky, or mixing margaritas while the offering plates are being passed. But there’s something comfortable, non-threatening about the atmosphere of a bar. After all, it’s the place, if you remember the old theme song for the “Cheers” sitcom:

Where everybody knows your name,
and they're always glad you came.
You wanna be where you can see,
our troubles are all the same
You wanna be where everybody knows
Your name.”

Country-western singer Toby Keith is not one that’s noted for personal piety, but in his song, “I Love This Bar,” he describes a setting, complete with a very diverse collection of people, the hippie-type couple might have identified with:

“I love this bar
It's my kind of place
Just walkin' through the front door
Puts a big smile on my face….”

Isn’t that how a local congregation should seem? Everyone knows your name – can you say that about your church, if you attend one? Are they truly glad you came, regardless of the baggage you drag through the door? Are they honest enough to recognize their troubles are the same as yours? And when you walk through the front door, does it put a big smile on your face?

In Hebrews 10:25 we’re told, “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another – and all the more as you see the day approaching.” It would be a lot easier if it were a place where everybody knew your name and was always glad you came. Wouldn’t it?