Thursday, September 27, 2012

And Justice for All

Several weeks ago, I served on a jury for the first time. It was a personal damages case involving a man that had suffered severe permanent injuries in a traffic accident. The experience enlightened me on how our judicial system metes out justice.

As we listened to arguments from attorneys for both plaintiff and defendant, as well as witness testimony, the judge frequently reminded us that our judgment had to be based solely on the facts, evidence and testimonies presented, not hearsay, speculation or “gut feelings.”

There were times during the two-day proceeding when I wondered why certain information was not submitted, but could not factor that into my or the jury’s collective verdict. We could evaluate testimony according to the credibility of a particular witness, but couldn’t make decisions based on anything other than what was presented in court.

There were times during witness questioning or cross-examination when statements were overruled and we as the jury were instructed to disregard that information – just like on TV. The bottom line was, we could not deliberate based on “I think” or “I feel” or other possible factors that weren’t part of the official record. It was interesting to be not just an observer but an active participant in this process.

It got me thinking about the day the Bible says we each will face judgment. Hebrews 9:27 states, Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment.”  We are also told, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad” (2 Corinthians 5:10). Sounds ominous.

The difference is we will not be judged by a jury of our peers. God alone will serve as Judge, because only He is qualified to do so. How could any of us serve on a heavenly jury when we each would be as guilty as the defendant facing judgment? As Romans 3:23 says, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” In other words, there are no exceptions.

But the news isn’t all bad. The Bible says everyone that chooses to follow Christ need not fear God’s wrath and punishment. That’s already been taken care of. As the apostle Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:21, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” To state it another way, as a friend of mine expressed it, Jesus took the rap for us. He’s already served our sentence, paid our penalty.

And to put a stamp of emphasis on this reality, Romans 5:8 declares, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

I don’t know about you, but for me that’s really good news.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Enjoying the ‘Now’

Five-year-old Talan and 19-month-old Bryce
found lots of entertainment in a small fan.

I love deadlines. I hate deadlines. “Make up your mind, Bob.” Let me explain.

After decades of journalistic training, I’ve learned to respond to deadlines. Deadlines provide motivation – I need to get something accomplished by a certain day or time. Must keep my commitments. Without deadlines to aim at, the procrastination bug bites. I think of many things to do, anything except what I’m supposed to do: write and edit. So a deadline gives me the incentive to focus on the task at hand and not get distracted.

At the same time, deadlines can keep me from valuing the moment. Concentrating on what needs to be done for then, I’m tempted not to appreciate what’s happening now. The other day, for example, two of my grandsons were here, doing what grandsons do. Silly stuff. Playing. Being cute. On that day, however, I had a deadline. Trying to push a book project I’ve been working on toward completion.

Little Bryce is taking
his first steps, and having
a grand time in the process.
So I had a dilemma: Should I stick to my work and keep on schedule, closing my home office door so the grandsons wouldn’t interrupt? Or should I sneer at the deadline and spend time with the boys?

Ultimately I compromised, taking breaks to play with Talan and Bryce a bit, including taking some photos (they grow up so fast!), and then getting back to the task. Not ideal, but at least I didn’t ignore an opportunity to be with them, time I’d never be able to recapture.

Years ago, as editor of community newspapers, I gave myself to the job. Work weeks of 60-70 hours or more were the norm. I was building my career. But I was also missing out on classic moments when my daughters were growing up.

Hiding in a closet also
is great fun, according
to Talan.
Now my career, for what it’s worth, has basically been built. There still are projects to do – books, magazine articles, workplace meditations, letters and blogs. But I’m also trying to curb my workaholic tendencies so I can enjoy the now, special moments with family that will be etched in my memory (as long as I have one).

That’s why Ephesians 5:16 serves as a good reminder: Redeeming the time, because the days are evil.” Moments, once past, are gone forever. Savor them – or lose them.

When I read that verse, it reminds me of boyhood years when my mother collected S&H Green Stamps. You got them at the grocery store, pasted them into collector booklets, and when you had enough you “redeemed” them for useful items at “redemption centers.”

As I recall, the one thing you couldn’t redeem there was time. Hopefully, I’m succeeding in doing some of that now – without the stamps.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Most Difficult Commandment?

Critics of Christianity sometimes point to the Scriptures as a collection of restrictive rules and regulations, a system of arbitrary do’s and don’ts. I couldn’t disagree more, but let’s consider a few of those “rules” for a moment – specifically, some of the Ten Commandments.

We're told we shouldn’t lie. Who’s in favor of lying? What about murder? Anybody think that’s a good thing? Stealing? Who likes having stuff stolen from them? Adultery or greed? Let’s see a show of hands of everyone endorsing those.

Hopefully you sense my sarcasm. I believe the commandments, God’s rules and statutes, are intended for our good, like a car manufacturer stipulating how often to change the oil and what kind to use, the proper inflation for the tires, etc. Not to be restrictive, only to let you know how things work best, according to the designer.

Loving your enemies - Mission:Impossible,
or divine design?
Frankly, the most difficult commands of all to follow are not the “don’ts,” but the ones we’re told to do. Case in point: Jesus instructed His followers during His so-called Sermon on the Mount, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love (only) those who love you, what reward will you get?(Matthew 5:43-46).

Don’t you enjoy doing that – loving your enemies? I imagine when Jesus first said this, His hearers uttered a collective “What the…?” But this wasn’t a brand-new notion, even then. Hundreds of years earlier this Old Testament admonition had preceded it:

If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head, and the Lord will reward you” (Proverbs 25:22).

So, how are we doing with this? Well, radical Muslims are bombing and burning, spewing their vitriol toward hated Americans, all in the name of “peace.” As the Presidential election nears, rather than calm, thoughtful rhetoric, both sides of the political spectrum are pouring venom on one another, viciously attacking the opponent.

Gang warfare in many cities grows at alarming rates, and crazed individuals assault and kill innocent, unsuspecting citizens. Many schools now have security officers and metal detectors to protect students from violence. Films, TV shows and video games glamorize death and mayhem.

Is this how we’re supposed to win friends and influence people?

Two thousand years ago, Jesus gave us simple, straight-forward instructions: Love your enemies. The apostle Paul, writing to Christ followers in Rome, stated, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone (Romans 12:18). Easier said than done, right?

Seems to me, if the human race is “evolving,” we must be stuck in reverse.

Monday, September 17, 2012

What Difference Makers Really Look Like

We live in a star-struck, celebrity-centric society. We love to hear about the comings and goings, fumblings and failings of the rich, famous and powerful. Whether top athletes, movie and TV stars, or public figures, we seem to hunger for news about what their lives are like. Who is Taylor Swift hanging out with these days? What craziness are Tom Cruise and Charlie Sheen up to? What about Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, or the latest famous-for-being-famous celeb?

Even the British royal family gets into the act. Apparently we all want to know what they’re wearing or, more recently, what they’re not wearing. (Hey, even the royals must understand the virtues of an even, all-around tan.)

Trophies tarnish, but personal
influence lasts forever.
But is being a bonafide member of the “Who’s Who” set all that important? Think about this: What are the most prestigious awards or honors a person could receive: A Nobel Prize? Academy Award? An Emmy or a Grammy? Win a Super Bowl?

List the last 10 winners of the Nobel Prize – in any category. Name the last 10 Academy Awards for best picture, best actor or actress. Who won the Emmy for best comedy in 2007? Or won the Grammy for best album in 1998? Who won the Super Bowl in 2003?

A meditation I read recently by Max Lucado brought this to mind. As he points out, after people receive acclaim for being the best in their respective fields, “the applause dies. Awards tarnish. Achievements are forgotten.”

If recognition and media attention are as important as we tend to think, why don’t we have these accomplishments etched in our memory banks?

Contrast these forgotten, fading stars with people we will never forget, Lucado suggests: Ten people who taught you something worthwhile. Or five friends who helped you during a difficult time.

You can identify these people right away, can’t you? Because they made a real impact on your life. They spent time with you, invested in you, cared for you. For you, they were difference makers.

That’s how Jesus transformed everyone around Him – He spent time with them and they observed His life. In the case of His closest disciples, it was three years, 24/7.

The apostle Paul understood the importance of personal engagement. “We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well, because you had become so dear to us” (1 Thessalonians 2:8). This was no hit-and-run, whack them over the head with the Bible event, but an ongoing process of genuine care, compassion and concern.

So worry if you like about how someone you’ll never meet is doing – Jennifer Aniston, Elton John, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. As for me, I’m more interested in people that know me and care for me. And I want to try being like them with others.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Character vs. Reputation

“Character is who you really are. Reputation is who people think you are.”

A speaker made this statement recently and I’ve been pondering it since. I’ve heard character defined as “who you are when no one’s looking.” Experience tells me these statements are true because too often I’ve discovered the public face people present is not always an accurate reflection of who they are in private. In other words, what you see – or think you see – isn’t always what you get.

Perhaps the classic current example of this is Jerry Sandusky, who for decades built a reputation not only as an accomplished chief assistant coach to Penn State head football coach Joe Paterno, but also as a man with great compassion for troubled boys. This “great compassion” many presumed Sandusky possessed turned out to be the mask for a devious sexual predator.

If only we could see behind the masks.
This distinction between character and reputation is particularly significant at this time of year as political candidates desperately seek to convince us of their worthiness to be elected. They are all putting their best face forward, enticing us with ready smiles, clever rhetoric, apparent concern and genuineness. They're selling us an image. “Would I lie to you?” they all seem to be asking, sincerity oozing from their pores.

But that’s the problem: We really don’t know these people. We only know what we see – actually, what they’re willing to let us see. And their opponents are eager to make us believe what we think we’re seeing isn’t true at all.

How do we determine who’s right? I’d like an easy answer to that.

But that’s why character – and not reputation – is most important to God. In 1 Samuel 16:7 we’re told, “The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” Perhaps to underscore that point, Proverbs 16:3 says, “All a man’s ways seem right to him, but the Lord weighs the heart.”

Good character gives birth to a good reputation, but a good reputation does not ensure good character.

As I watch those aspiring for public office make bold promises, assuring me they are far more capable and better suited for office than their opponents, I think, “I hear their words and see their polished gestures and expressions, but wish I could see their heart.”

At times I’ve been disappointed to learn people weren't who I thought they were, but apparently that’s not a problem the Lord ever had. As curious followers clamored for Jesus after witnessing His miraculous acts, it says, “Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all men. He did not need man’s testimony about man, for he knew what was in a man” (John 2:23-24).

In a way, that’s good news: I needn't bother trying to fool the Lord, or attempt to convince Him I’m something I’m really not. He knows already. And He says, “I’ll take you as is.”

Monday, September 10, 2012

A Convergence of ‘Coincidence’

Tomorrow marks the 11th anniversary of “9/11,” one of the most horrific single events in American history. Many of us can readily answer, “Where were you?” when we learned that terrorists commandeered three jets filled with passengers and slammed them into the north and south towers of the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.

Repercussions continue to reverberate in many ways today, ranging from tight security at airports and public venues to prolonged U.S. involvement in Middle East conflict. Across the nation, our sense of safety and security remains severely wounded, perhaps never to heal. Any new threats of terrorism spikes our collective anxiety level.

But whenever I think of 9/11, I’m reminded of my good friend, Jerry, whose question about that day is, “Where weren’t you?”

Because Jerry should have been in the North Tower, perhaps on the 74th floor where he used to work. A headhunter in the investment industry, he had moved his office to Wall Street weeks before. But his routine was to commute from his home in Bayonne, N.J., ride a subway to the bowels of the World Trade Center, and then take an elevator up to 74. There he would check for mail that might have been left for him, as well as visit with friends, before descending and walking to work on Wall Street.

That morning, however, Jerry was nowhere near the World Trade Center due to a convergence of events some people would consider “coincidence” or luck.

About two months earlier, his wife, Camy, had died unexpectedly of an abdominal aneurysm. She had been Jerry’s “right hand,” on whom he relied for many things – including the high-tech clock radio she’d given him the previous Christmas.

The night of Sept. 10, Jerry had stayed up to watch his beloved New York Giants play in the “Monday Night Football” game. The contest ended late, so Jerry set the clock radio’s alarm to awaken him the next morning. As it turned out, he failed to set it correctly. “I never knew how to work that thing,” he said. “Camy always did it for me.”

As a result, the alarm did not sound as planned and Jerry overslept. Having no pressing appointments that morning, he decided to spend a leisurely hour drinking coffee and reading the morning paper in his kitchen before making a later commute.

So when United Airlines flight 11 crashed into the North Tower, and less than 15 minutes later United Airlines flight 175 speared the South Tower, Jerry was miles away in his home, by that time watching with stunned disbelief as the unthinkable events unfolded.

Coincidence? Luck? Jerry thinks not. Years before, a garage near the World Trade Center was bombed on the floor where he and Camy usually parked their car when both went to work in Manhattan. That day, however, Camy was ill, and Jerry had decided to remain home to care for her. So 9/11 was not the first time his life had been spared.

A devoted follower of Jesus Christ, Jerry believes God chose to protect him. While understanding he is not better or more worthy than thousands that lost their lives that day, including some of his friends, he trusts in the God who declares, “I know the plans I have for you, plans for welfare and not for calamity, to give you a future and a hope” (Jeremiah 29:11).

Ironically, Psalm 61:3 says of God, “For you have been my refuge, a strong tower against the foe.” That was certainly true for Jerry 11 years ago. He knows that's not a guarantee of immunity from hardship. Camy’s passing, while a factor in Jerry’s being spared on Sept. 11, 2001, demonstrates that.

But it does offer followers of Christ assurance that God is with us every moment of every day, unfolding His sovereign plan for our lives.

Today, Jerry has remarried. He and his wife, Gracie, know without question he’s still here not because of coincidence or luck. It’s only because of God’s grace.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Power of a Personal Invitation

Have you ever considered the power of a personal invitation – the potentially life-changing impact it can have on someone?

Recently a speaker talked about that, drawing from his own life. As he talked, I realized the influence personal invitations have had in my life as well.

I think of being invited to become a part of the high school marching and concert bands. My exposure to quality music, and how it’s created, has given me a lifelong love for music of most kinds. (I might need another invitation if I’m to appreciate hip-hop and bluegrass.)

There was the invitation I received to spend six weeks one summer with my uncle and aunt in Houston, Texas while I was a teenager. That experience taught me a lot about hard work, initiative, learning to persevere, and also introduced me to spiritual truth in ways I’d never seen previously.

Being invited to submit an essay for a local writing competition, then winning, gave me confidence maybe I had a bit of talent for the craft.

I can think of many other invitations that proved instrumental in my life – to attend someone’s church; to try something new from a career standpoint; enjoy the hospitality in the home of very special people; participate in meetings with inspirational leaders; attend conferences and workshops where I learned much personally, professionally and spiritually.

What invitations have been special in your life, opportunities that have helped to shape who you are – or are becoming?

There’s another side to this question: To whom can we extend an invitation, perhaps to meet for coffee or lunch, just to talk and get acquainted? Or invite someone to begin a mentoring relationship with you? Maybe you could invite someone – even a family – to a social gathering, a special event, or a setting you think they might enjoy or find meaningful?

In the New Testament, we see how an invitation changed the lives of people in an entire town. Jesus had spoken to a woman in Samaria, an act unthinkable for that time and culture. He showed genuine concern for this “woman at the well.” At the close of their conversation, the woman excitedly told the townspeople, “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Christ?” (John 4:29).

Curious, residents of the community went to check out this unusual individual. The passage later states, “Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony” (John 4:39). She had issued a simple invitation – come and see. Because of that, many lives were changed forever.

What invitation might you extend – or respond to? It could change you, or others, forever.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Grappling With the Generation Gap

During a recent trip to Ohio, I stumbled into the generation gap, a danger for all Baby Boomers.

I was telling an old joke to our 17-year-old granddaughter, Kara. The punch line was a reference to the popular Christmas song, “Home for the Holidays,” written in the 1950’s. At the end the joke, Kara just stared at me, still awaiting the punch line. She wasn’t familiar with the song, so the humorous twist was all for naught.

Whether it’s issues surrounding the upcoming Presidential election, differences in values, or facts we presume are commonly understood, the generation gap is real – and widening.

Recently I read about students born in 1994 just entering college – the “class of 2016.” Their reality is startlingly different from that of my generation. Like it or not, we must recognize and appreciate these differences if we’re to have any meaningful impact on them. Here are some examples of “normal” life to them:

-Children of cyberspace, many are addicted to “electronic narcotics.”
-They have no clue phrases such as “forbidden fruit,” “the writing on the wall,” “the Good Samaritan” and “the promised land” originated in the Bible.
-The assassinations of Abraham Lincoln and JFK are equally “ancient history.”
-For most of their lives, maintaining relations between the U.S. and the rest of the world has been a woman’s job. And women have always piloted warplanes and space shuttles.
-They might never have seen a real telephone booth.
-“The Twilight Zone” involves vampires, not Rod Serling.
-There has always been pro football in Jacksonville, but never in Los Angeles.
-Most of their news comes from YouTube.
-Many can’t conceive of bound encyclopedias on bookshelves.
-They wonder why their parents refer to DVDs and CDs as “tapes.”
-They believe that “in the beginning”…there was cable TV.

This list could go on indefinitely. It seems humorous to “senior citizens,” but it’s important not to dismiss these differences. Because they’re important if we’re to “connect.”

Recently I’ve started mentoring two sharp young men; I’m at least 30 years older than each, so I must remember life as I’ve known it is far different from theirs. They can benefit from my wisdom, but I can’t expect them to share my nostalgia over “the good ole days.”

Thankfully, contrary to prevailing opinion, matters of faith are not so outdated. The message of sin, grace and mercy, forgiveness and redemption is as necessary today as ever. But in light of the generational divide, our methodology for communicating this message, the Good News, must adapt.

Hebrews 13:8 assures us Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever,” but how we convey that truth to a new generation is the challenge. Particularly in helping them grasp its practicality in a world of smartphones, the Internet, 24/7 media, electronic books, and problems besetting mankind we never envisioned when I was a college student in the late ‘60s.

So we need to heed the admonition of Colossians 4:5-6, “Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.”