Thursday, November 29, 2012

No Expiration Date

Virtually everything in everyday life has an expiration date.

When you buy food at the grocery store, particularly dairy products, do you check the expiration date? Occasionally I forget and discover several days or a week later that the milk remaining in the carton has expired and taken a turn for the worse. Or the formerly white cottage cheese has turned green, but not from envy.

These days virtually all consumable products – packaged lunchmeat, canned goods, cereals, even over-the-counter drugs, have expiration dates. “Best when used by,” “sell by,” “best enjoyed thru,” or simply, “Exp. Date.” Things get old. They spoil or get stale. They lose their usefulness. (Sometimes I suspect there must be one of those dates stamped on me somewhere.)

Even medication carries
expiration date warnings.
Computers and TVs don’t carry such dates, but we can readily recognize when their time is up. They just don’t have the speed, expanded features or capacities of the newer versions. Planned obsolescence is standard in the technology industry. We buy devices and they’re out of date almost before we learn how to use them.

That’s why I marvel at the Bible – and frankly, it's one of my reasons for writing this blog. Despite claims by some that the Scriptures are archaic and irrelevant, outmoded by “enlightened” 21st century society, I’ve found just the opposite.

Over the years as I’ve read through the Bible – some passages dozens of times – it’s proved to be timeless, just as important and meaningful as when the 39 Old Testament books and 27 New Testament books were written and compiled centuries ago.

Are you looking for wisdom on how to build a healthy, thriving marriage? You’ll find no greater advice than in the Scriptures. “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her…and the wife must respect her husband” (Ephesians 5:25-33). Not a simple solution for complex relationships, but a good starting point.

What about handling finances? The rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is servant to the lender” (Proverbs 22:7). “You cannot serve God and money” (Matthew 6:24). Those are just two of hundreds of verses the Bible offers about money and the uses – and abuses – of material wealth.

Wondering how to successfully raise children in a challenging, sometimes terrifying world? “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it” (Proverbs 22:6). “Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4). Again, a good foundation to build on.

Unlike most things, the Bible does not come with
any expiration dates.
Wanting to know how to succeed in the workplace? “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men” (Colossians 3:23). “All hard work brings a profit, but mere talk leads only to poverty” (Proverbs 14:23).

Questions about relationships? “The entire law is summed up in a single command: "Love your neighbor as yourself” (Galatians 5:14). “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12).

This hardly scratches the surface of the wisdom and instruction I’ve gained from reading the Bible almost daily for more than 30 years. Its depth on every topic of importance has amazed me, and yet there’s so much more to learn.

How is it that almost everything around us has time restrictions and limitations, but the Bible doesn't? I believe the reason is simple: Eternal truth has no expiration date.

Unlike passing fads (bellbottom pants, the Twist, long sideburns) and slang vocabulary (“cool,” “groovy,” “far out,” “hot”), the truths about life transcend time, culture and trends. Just as gravity is a physical constant, truth about human nature – especially truth found in the Scriptures – is equally constant and unchanging.

Monday, November 26, 2012

First the Dinosaur, Then the Dodo. Now the Twinkie?

Last week we learned the future of iconic Twinkies was in jeopardy.

When the dinosaur went extinct, nobody noticed. There weren’t any newspapers, because paper hadn’t been invented yet. And “nightly news” was still eons into the future. So when Vinnie the velociraptor breathed his last, it seemed no great loss. Paleontologists attribute the dinosaur demise to the Ice Age, theorizing the huge reptiles weren’t fond of chilling out.

When's the last time you saw
a dodo bird in your back yard?
Later the dodo bird passed from the scene. It’s said this flightless bird was native to the island of Mauritius, east of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. What we know of its existence was recorded in writings and artwork from the 16th and 17th centuries. Now all we have left is the haunting phrase, “Dead as a dodo bird.” Along with the complaint of irritated drivers, “You dodo!”

Then last week came the dire revelation that next in line for extinction could be the Hostess Twinkie. Hostess Brands, in the throes of a bitter, no-win labor dispute, announced plans to declare bankruptcy and liquidate the bakery company after 82 years.

The action placed the iconic Twinkie snack cakes, along with its equally non-healthy but taste-tempting cousins – Ho Hos, Ding Dongs, Suzy Qs and Sno Balls (as well as Wonder Bread) – into instant limbo, on the precipice of permanent elimination.

Imagine a world without Twinkies. We might be able to survive without Ho Hos, and even Ding Dongs. But no Twinkies? Could this signal the beginning of the end for life as we’ve known it?

I grew up with Twinkies, the cream-filled sponge cakes that along with Wonder Bread were advertised on kids’ TV programs like “The Howdy Doody Show.” (Howdy Doody’s gone, too, but let’s keep on point.) Back then we knew and cared little about calories, or the adverse effects of excessive sugar and fat grams. All that mattered was they tasted good, and seemed harmless.

Last week it was reported a number of potential suitors had stepped up to possibly rescue the Twinkie and its kin from baking oblivion. Perhaps. But even so, the shocking news surrounding an American dietary tradition was a grim reminder. There’s a time and season for everything – and when time’s up, beware.

Actually, the old book we know as the Bible said the same thing thousands of years ago, long before snack cakes were even a Twinkie in any baker’s eye. “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven” (Ecclesiastes 3:1). This passage was turned into lyrics for the song, “Turn! Turn! Turn!” by the American rock group, the Byrds, in the mid-60s.

The next verses talk about “a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance….”

The Woolworth's 5-and-10 department store was
a fixture for many Baby Boomers in their childhood.
Nothing in this life lasts forever. Countless fixtures of everyday life have passed from existence, ranging from the horse and buggy to 5-and-10 department stores and soda fountains to Brownie cameras to S&H green stamps to Tinker Toys. Here today, gone tomorrow.

So appreciate what you have – and who you have – while you can. Unlike cyclical natural seasons, which proceed from one to the next and then start over again, once the season for something has ended, it likely won’t be coming back.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Great Thing about Grace

On Thanksgiving Day, just before we dive into the turkey and fixings (I like that term, “fixings” – sounds like something was broken), in many of our homes a designated pray-er person will “say grace.” This practice comes in various forms and is meant in different ways.

Some prayers will have a “to whom it may concern” tone to them, directed to some nebulous “supreme being” or “the Man upstairs.” Others might sound something like Rickie Bobby (the Will Ferrell character in the movie, “Talladega Nights”), who insisted on praying to “little baby Jesus.” I’ve always chuckled at the guy whose honest “prayer” consisted of “Good food, good meat, good God, let’s eat!”

In many homes, however, saying grace will have a little more focus as families and friends, at least momentarily, cease from the festivities to pray to the God of the Bible.

Author Anne Lamott, who became a believer despite being raised in an atheistic home, recently commented in an article about this tradition of saying grace. She observed:

“I think we’re in it for the pause, the quiet thanks for love and for our blessings, before the shoveling begins…. We’re acknowledging that this food didn’t just magically appear…. We savor these moments out of time, when we are conscious of love’s presence, of Someone’s great abiding generosity for our dear and motley family, these holy moments of gratitude.”

I like her term, “the pause…before the shoveling begins.” How true. And how important this pre-feasting hesitation is; yet how nonchalantly we treat it. Too often we regard it, Lamott writes, as a “pro forma blessing,” a mere formality that’s a requirement of the holiday ceremony.

But if it’s true thanksgiving we’re after, perhaps it deserves more thought and attention. I’m not suggesting a pre-dinner sermon or some sanctimonious monologue, but a heartfelt acknowledgement to the Giver for whose provision we give thanks.

There’s one more thing that’s significant about this “saying grace.” Biblically, the word “grace” means unmerited favor, receiving from God what we didn't deserve and couldn't earn.

“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves. It is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8). Being “saved” – becoming a member of God’s family – isn't based on performance or worthiness, but solely based on His acceptance, freely offered.

“For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9). This isn’t referring to material wealth, but rather to the richness of a meaningful life.

The point is this: Even though most of us would consider ourselves fairly good people, we’re not deserving to even mention the Lord’s name, let alone be a part of His eternal family. And when we gather with family and friends around the Thanksgiving table, we can be thankful for the gift of life; the minds, talents and skills we have; the relationships we’ve enjoyed; and for love – given and received.

Everything beyond that is gravy, icing on the cake, whipped cream on the pie.

What did we really do to deserve such blessings? If we’re honest, we’ll admit we didn’t do anything. It’s grace. And perhaps that the greatest reason of all for “saying grace.”

Monday, November 19, 2012

A Great Quality You Can’t Be Proud to Have

If you were to single out one quality you most admire in other people, what would it be?

Determination? Intelligence? Charisma? Perseverance? Wisdom? Strength? Patience? Creativity? Enthusiasm? Compassion?

We'd probably like to have any of those qualities – especially those we don’t have now. You could list many others. But one quality receives almost universal admiration, yet it’s a trait you can’t be proud to have. Here’s a hint – we didn’t see much of it during the recent political campaigns:


Think about it: In sports and entertainment, there’s so much “Look at me!” Isn’t it refreshing when someone displays a humble, even self-effacing attitude? A star player that credits his team for success rather than mugging for the camera or hogging the spotlight? A celebrity that doesn’t seem full of herself?

People that don't demand the
spotlight intrigue us.
In his acclaimed book, Good to Great, author Jim Collins conducted extensive research to determine why top companies excelled. Results could not ignore the role of the CEO, Collins reported. But the leaders of those organizations exhibited two common traits – great determination, and great humility. In most cases, rather than accepting credit for how their businesses excelled, they redirected praise to their staff and employees.

There’s something endearing about high achievers with an “aw, shucks” attitude. Many of us gladly accept recognition for even small accomplishments. But in an time when people become famous simply for being famous, the person exhibiting genuine humility is an anomaly.

Did you hear the story about the service club member that received the award for having the most humility? They took back the award when he put it on display.

Humility and its antithesis, pride, can be traced to earliest recorded history. You could say the scriptural account of “the Fall of Man” resulted from a lack of humility – the desire of Adam and Eve to be gods of their own lives, rather than submit to their Creator.

One of my favorite books in the Bible, Proverbs, says much about humility and pride:

“Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall” (Proverbs 16:18).
“Before his downfall a man’s heart is proud, but humility comes before honor” (Proverbs 18:12).
“Humility and the fear of the Lord bring wealth and honor and life” (Proverbs 22:4).
“The crucible for silver and the furnace for gold, but a man is tested by the praise he receives” (Proverbs 27:21).

Of course, the greatest biblical example of humility is Jesus. Despite being God incarnate, He was born in the humblest of circumstances, dispensed with the luxuries of His time, relied on the kindness of people that followed Him, and willingly gave His own life for the sins of mankind. “And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death, even dead on a cross”  (Philippians 2:8).

What should Jesus expect of those claiming to be His followers? It’s simple: Pursue and practice humility. “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up” (James 4:10).

Whether you’re a Tim Tebow or a Norm Nobody, there’s something about humility that God finds very attractive.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Best Thing to Do Now

As Little Orphan Annie says, the sun will come up tomorrow.

I didn’t stay up to learn the final election results last Tuesday night. I value my sleep – not for beauty, that cause is lost. But since I had to get up around 5 the next morning, I needed my rest.

Good thing, too, because the re-election of President Barack Obama wasn’t confirmed until long past midnight. And the results from Florida still hadn’t come in. (Do we know even now how folks in Florida voted? Well, what do you expect when the state’s greatest claim to fame is a Mickey Mouse outfit?)

Anyway, early Wednesday I let the dog out and looked for the newspaper. But it hadn’t arrived – apparently the publishers held the presses until they could officially report the winner. No Truman-Dewey fiasco in Chattanooga!

Fortunately, with the Internet at my fingertips, I quickly learned the outcome. Gov. Romney had conceded, so that was that. My first thought was, “At least I hope we don’t have four more years of blaming President Bush for the poor economy. It’s time for President Obama to start shouldering some of that responsibility.”

Having already been outdoors, I knew the truth: The sky hadn’t fallen, contrary to some ardent conservatives’ fears, so it was okay to dress and go to my exercise class. And I felt uplifted by the words of that ageless philosopher, Little Orphan Annie: “The sun will come out, tomorrow. Bet your bottom dollar that tomorrow, there’ll be sun.”

I also had the assurance of Psalm 118:24 – “This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” Somehow I knew, despite the sounds of Obama bashers gnashing their teeth, God was not in heaven wringing His hands, fretting, “What am I going to do now?”

He knew then – and knows now – exactly what to do. And He does it quite well.

But what are we to do? For some reason I remembered the example of my late friend, Ted DeMoss, who more than 25 years ago made what seemed like an audacious statement. Then the president of CBMC-USA, the ministry I worked with for about 20 years, Ted said he prayed daily – by name – for top leaders of the then-Soviet Union. This was years before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the subsequent shredding of the Iron Curtain.

When Ted made that statement, my honest thought was, “What a silly thing to do. What can that accomplish?” How smart was I? I’m not saying Ted’s prayers directly led to Communism losing its fearsome grip in the USSR and Eastern Europe, but they certainly didn’t hurt.

Why did he pray that way? Because he believed in admonition of 1 Timothy 2:1-2, a passage I referred to last week. Simple and straight-forward, it says:

“I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercessions and thanksgiving be made for everyone – for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.”

It’s nestled alongside other biblical commands and guidelines, but how many of us do that? Seems we’d rather grumble and complain, when God says, “Pray – for everyone!” Those of us that follow Jesus Christ, regardless of political persuasion, should heed those words.

And while we’re at it, let’s add key leaders from Iran, Afghanistan, Syria, Israel and other Middle Eastern nations to our petitions. Who knows what God might do?

Monday, November 12, 2012

Anger: The ‘Feel-Good Emotion’?

A couple of weeks ago I watched a man in a drugstore launch into a tirade after discovering he had been sold the wrong brand of cigarettes and the manager wouldn’t let him exchange them for his preferred brand. The manager said it was because of some law, but the smoker wasn’t having any of it.

Frankly, I think any brand of cigarettes is the wrong brand, but that’s a different subject.

Anyway, I feared the customer would go “postal.” (Can you go postal in a drugstore?) He was mad, and his voice’s decibel level indicated he needed everyone within a two-mile radius to know his displeasure.

Can you guess that Florida Gators' head coach
Will Muschamp isn't happy? (BleacherReport photo)
Then Saturday, watching the Georgia-Florida football game, I saw the Gators’ head coach Will Muschamp almost pop a carotid artery as he berated one of his players for a mistake. I couldn’t lip-read what he was saying (and probably didn’t want to know), but the grimaces Muschamp’s face made must have taken hours in front of a mirror to perfect.

I don’t remember what provoked the coach’s anger, but at the time I wondered, “Mothers, is that the face of a man into whose tender, loving care you’ll entrust your sons while still in their formative years?”

These days everyone seems angry about something. “Tolerance” people pour waves of angry intolerance toward people they consider intolerant. TV and radio talk show commentators voice anger toward anyone not sharing their views. Parents get mad at their kids, and kids are angry at their parents.

Terrorists, of course, express hatred toward those that don’t share their ideologies. But even in private homes, anger can create terror between husband and wife.

Workplaces are hardly immune from angry displays. Furious bosses spew venom on employees that displease them, and frustrated employees increasingly vocalize and demonstrate their anger for a variety of reasons.

Why do we all seem so quick to display angry feelings? Does it make us feel good?

I’ve been prone to anger myself, but time has taught me the wisdom of choosing to not let off steam. Like a rapidly forming tornado, outbursts of anger appear and subside quickly, but leave fearsome paths of damage in their wake.

Maybe that’s why the Bible, particularly the book of Proverbs, has much to say about anger and its dangers:
“A fool shows his annoyance at once, but a prudent man overlooks an insult” (Proverbs 12:16).
“As charcoal to embers and as wood to fire, so is a quarrelsome man for kindling strife” (Proverbs 26:21).
“A fool gives full vent to his anger, but a wise man keeps himself under control” (Proverbs 29:11).

In the classic film “Network,” actor Peter Finch’s newsroom character urges viewers to go to their windows, open them and shout, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” Well, that might make us feel better, venting pent-up emotions, but what does it solve?

Better to follow this advice: “A hot-tempered man stirs up dissension, but a patient man calms a quarrel” (Proverbs 15:18). Angry words and actions aren’t the path to peace.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Home Is Where the . . . Office Is

I first heard the term nearly 20 years ago: “Hoffice.” It’s the combination of two words – home and office. A hoffice.

A friend said this was the wave of the future, people working out of offices in their homes. Since I’m often behind the curve when it comes to the latest trends, the idea seemed crazy to me. Work is somewhere you go to; it doesn’t come to you. I couldn’t imagine working out of an office in my own home.

Just so you know, I’m writing this blog in an office – in my home. That shows how “visionary” I was back then.

USA Today had an article last week on home-based work, reporting over the past decade an additional 4.2 million workers did their jobs from home at least one day a week. From 2005 to 2010, workers performing at least part of their job responsibilities out of their homes rose from 7.8% to 9.5%.

If you’re wanting to increase your income, you might want to consider doing some work from home. The article stated people working exclusively from home had a median household income more than $8,000 higher than strictly on-site workers. Not sure how that translates in my own situation, but it’s something worth thinking about.

Self-employed people are more likely to work from home than people employed by someone else, according to the study. That makes sense, since if you have your own business, one way to conserve expenses is working from home rather than paying for a separate work setting.

There are other advantages for a home office, foremost being the “commute.” My office is just two seconds from our bedroom, so it’s accessible for me 24/7. Beats driving 10 miles or more to work, as I did for most of my career. Rush-hour traffic occurs only when my dog gets into my path in the hallway.

But it’s also a liability – you can’t exactly “go home” from work. It’s always there. And if your work involves email and the Internet, it’s always beckoning.

Another challenge consists of potential distractions. In my case, part of my M.O., as with many writers, is procrastination. We hate to write – but love to have written. The hardest thing about writing is inertia, the effort required to get started. It’s much easier to do less mind-taxing things – like emptying (or filling) the dishwasher, fixing the bed, retrieving the mail, reading the newspaper, etc. – anything but doing the hard work of sitting at the keyboard and concentrating until blood oozes out of your forehead.

In most cases with a home office you also don’t have a boss to look in on you, so it requires discipline and self-motivation. But that’s what character is all about: Who you are when no one’s looking. So having a home office can be a character-builder.

For me, the greatest form of discipline and motivation is keeping in mind who my “boss” really is. In the Scriptures it says, “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him…. Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving” (Colossians 3:17,23).

That’s what I call accountability.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Exercising Your Right

Tomorrow is Election Day. The outcome of citizens streaming to the polls will determine who serves in the White House for the next four years. For those of us who voted early, it will be a bit anticlimactic. We’ve already cast our ballot for our candidate of choice – or the lesser of two evils – however you happen to regard the options.

But the key to this act is it’s our right – and a privilege at the same time. The Constitution guarantees that citizens of the United States have the right to vote, expressing their preference of persons they wish to represent them in government. But it’s also a privilege. Many nations do not offer such a right. Leaders command by force, and citizens of those lands are ruled without having influence in the matter.

Sadly, many of our fellow Americans will “elect” not to vote, either out of apathy, inconvenience, the conviction that neither candidate deserves their vote, or simply because they didn’t take time to register. Too bad, because it’s a wonderful right to participate in the selection of those that lead our nation.

The great question, of course, is who will win. Already there is gnashing of teeth over what will happen if “my” candidate doesn’t win. Our country will “go to hell in a hand-basket,” people argue. Strangely, we hear this complaint from both sides.

Years ago we didn’t have early voting, so first Tuesdays of November were special days, everyone streaming to their election sites en masse. We’d wait anxiously for results, without much clue about what the outcome would be. Today, however, it seems everyone does polls, projecting who will win, garnering the most electoral votes. We even get reports on early voting. So some of the suspense is gone.

But suspense is gone in another respect, too. For everyone fearful of what will happen if the opposition candidate wins – liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat – we have assurance from the Bible.

In 1 Timothy 2:1-2, the apostle Paul writes, “I urge, therefore, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanks giving be made for everyone, for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quite lives with all godliness and holiness.” What that says to me is no elected official is beyond God’s control.

It also says, Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God” (Romans 13:1).

If we believe this, it means God is not in heaven wringing His hands, fretting over who wins the election. He’s got it figured out. “I’ve got this,” He’s telling us. That’s not to say we shouldn’t vote, shrugging our shoulders and concluding, “Why bother, if God’s already got it handled?” We still have the responsibility – and stewardship – to take part in the political process, even when we feel what we do is of little consequence.

The confidence we can have is that the “governing authorities,” just as everything else in this world, fall under God’s sovereign will and direction, so whether our candidate of choice wins or not, we need not fear the future. 

As a great speaker once said, “God knows what He’s doing, and He does it quite well.” 

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Better Than Butting Heads?

I don’t know about you, but the Presidential debates left me weary and frustrated. Articulate and well-rehearsed men aggressively engaged in verbal jousting, determinedly bent on asserting their superiority and subduing the opponent through the force of rhetoric. Frequently I felt the only thing that mattered during the debates wasn’t what was right, but whether the respective foes prevailed. Kind of reminded me of images I’ve seen of goats butting heads.

However, an illustration I came across recently offers a striking contrast. Years ago a man found himself involved in a heated dispute with another individual and was struggling to find a way for bringing the conflict to a mutually acceptable resolution. Then two goats on a mountainside showed the way.

Sometimes conflict resolution requires
no ifs, ands, or butts.
Pondering his dilemma one morning, the man noticed the goats approaching one another on a narrow path, one headed up and the other headed down. When they saw each other, they backed up and lowered their heads. It appeared they were about to charge. “This can’t be good,” the man thought, knowing butting heads on a precarious path at the edge of a mountain would be disastrous for one animal, and perhaps both.

What happened next was unexpected. The goat that stood lower on the path, the one that had been ascending, suddenly lay down, enabling the other to step over its back and proceed downward. Once the obstruction had passed, the upward-bound goat got on its feet and continued its climb.

Most likely it was an instinctive response, but the outcome was “win-win” for both of the goats. Neither got hurt; both got what they wanted.

Too often, whether in the workplace, the home, or even churches, we seem to lack that instinct. Convinced there is only one right way – “my way” – we run over or through whomever or whatever has the misfortune of getting in our way. If butting heads is what it takes, go for it.

The Scriptures, however, tell us there’s a better way. It often uses words like submit and subject to describe relationships in proper order. (Hint: The prefix “sub” implies being “under.” Just as a submarine goes under water, to submit or become subject to others means consciously and intentionally putting oneself under another.)

In 1 Peter 5:5-6, for example, younger people are told “be submissive to those who are older…clothe yourselves with humility toward one another.” And in general, we are to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21).

This notion, of course, doesn’t fly well in a “look out for No. 1” society, where everyone seems to be elbowing for an advantage. But as the goats demonstrated, often the path of least resistance is submission. Giving up our rights to be right in deference to the greater good.

Too bad politicians can’t seem to get that message.