Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Ultimate Sacrifice

Sadly it seems every week, sometimes more often than that, we learn about someone making “the ultimate sacrifice” – a soldier dying in combat in the Middle East; a law enforcement officer getting killed while attempting to apprehend a violent criminal; even someone giving his or her life trying to save a perishing friend.

Would you be willing to make such a sacrifice for someone? Has that thought ever crossed your mind? Obviously it’s not something we plan for, or prepare to do. There’s no academic curriculum for would-be heroes, and it’s not something most of us aspire to. I’ve always thought actor and director Woody Allen had a sensible perspective: “I’m not afraid of dying. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”

This week, however, countless millions around the world will commemorate an event that lifted the term, “the ultimate sacrifice,” to a totally different level. More than 2,000 years ago, on a crude wooden cross atop a hillside outside of Jerusalem, Jesus Christ gave His life. We’ve seen paintings, sculptures, even movies and dramatic depictions of the crucifixion, but none of us can truly understand what it was like to die in such a way.

The Bible asserts Jesus’ death, unlike contemporary acts of heroism, was neither spontaneous nor unexpected. It was intended, central to His mission on earth. There was no other alternative for dealing with the plague afflicting 100 percent of humanity – the plague of sin.

Romans 5:8 tells us, “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

And lest we believe Jesus became caught up in a tragic chain of circumstances that spiraled out of control, He had informed His followers in advance, “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me…and I lay down my life for the sheep…. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father” (John 10:14-18).

Another distinction between Christ’s sacrifice and the noble, selfless acts performed by men and women is that His death was not an ending, but in a very real sense just a beginning. That’s why the day for remembering the crucifixion of Jesus is known as Good Friday, rather than “bad Friday” or “black Friday.”

The Sunday after His tomb was found empty, no longer required for the resurrected Christ. He not only had willingly offered Himself as the atoning sacrifice for the sins of mankind, but also had paved the way for His followers to experience life unlike anything they’d ever known: “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins…. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions – it is by grace you have been saved” (Ephesians 2:1-5).

So this week we remember the hideous day when Jesus hung on a cross, abandoned by all to the extent that He cried out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). Thankfully, we also celebrate Easter, the day when God once and for all achieved His victory over death.

For this we rightly declare, “Hallelujah! He is risen - He is risen indeed!”

Monday, March 25, 2013

Yes, No, Wait . . . Different!

Prayer is a curious thing, but those who believe in God and trust He’s actively involved in our daily lives do pray. The Bible exhorts, “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). Some people prefer certain postures or places for praying; others spontaneously pray whenever and wherever they feel the notion to do so. Even while driving. Hopefully, with their eyes opened.

It’s encouraging to hear someone say, “I’m praying for you,” even when we don’t fully understand how prayer really works or how those prayers will be answered. Regardless, I prefer that to words like, “I’m sending good thoughts your way.” I guess it’s better than sending bad thoughts. But I’d rather have people praying, even something like, “Lord, please bail out this knucklehead.”

Prayer's perplexing reality is its lack of a predictable cause-and-effect. We pray, but answers might be slow in arriving. I’ve come to realize, however, that’s not bad. Because it requires us to exercise the spiritual muscle called faith, trusting God hears and will answer – even if it's uncertain when or how.

Years ago a friend observed, “We treat God like a short-order cook.” He pointed out often we pray as if we’re placing an order at a restaurant, expecting it to be delivered promptly as specified. That’s not quite how it works. First of all, God isn’t here for us – we’re here for Him. And second, I’ve learned He understands what we think we want is not always what we need. “Father Knows Best,” as the old TV show title stated.

God always answers prayers, but in four different ways. Sometimes He says, “Yes.” We might pray for an ailing loved one and He does restore their health. Sometimes He says, ”No.” For instance, we decide on a house we wish to buy. Someone else’s offer on the house is accepted, however, and we’re forced to keep looking. Later we realize the house we did purchase was better. God already knew that.

One of the hardest answers to prayer is when He says, “Wait.” Many times, especially when facing career issues, I’ve felt frustrated by the admonition of Psalm 37:7, “Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him….” When a major job change seemed necessary, the last thing I wanted to do was wait. “Come on, Lord. I’m ready to go!” But He chose to make me wait. At times it forced me to be patient, not one of my strong traits. Maybe it was a matter of timing – the right opportunity wasn’t available yet. And sometimes He just wanted me to trust: “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10).

There’s a fourth way God answers prayer: Different. I remember in late 1980 when my tenure as editor of a community newspaper outside of Houston, Texas was concluding. I’d applied for positions I felt qualified for at several newspapers, but received no responses.

Then I heard about a job opening in Chattanooga, Tenn. The job was different from what I had been seeking. It proved to be exactly what I needed – and wanted. I can’t begin to tell how much my years there meant for me and my family, the opportunities and experiences that I’d never imagined.

So when God answers your prayers, He might say "yes," or "no," or "wait"...or "different."

Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Difference One Person Can Make

Many people need not so much a handout, but rather a hand up.

Apparently this has become the age of entitlements, with many people looking to Big Brother (aka the Federal government) for deliverance from whatever plight they find themselves in.

And many of us readily presume that’s the way it should be – whether it’s care for neglected children, unemployment assistance, alleviation of poverty, finding relief from troubled relationships, or whatever the dilemma might be. “Hey, Uncle Sam: We need help over here!”

As a result, we’re inclined to collectively shrug our shoulders and conclude, “What can I do?” Surrounded by a world filled with problems, it seems like any effort on our part to help wouldn’t amount to more than the proverbial drop of water in the ocean.

Recently, however, I met a man who happily did not take that attitude. Bruce, owner of an upscale clothing store, more than 20 years ago was approached by another man with a simple request: “I need help.”

The second man, Gary, had decided he could no longer settle for the hourly-wage, manual labor job he had. He desired to provide a better life for his family, but realized doing so would involve learning some things – including, as they used to say, how to “dress for success.” He had seen the sharp-looking men’s clothes in Bruce’s store window; one morning he mustered up the courage to go in and solicit some coaching so he could dress presentably for job interviews.

Bruce wasn’t obligated to help. Gary certainly didn’t fit the mold of his accustomed clientele. But Bruce did more than help. He offered Gary some valuable do’s and don’ts about proper attire and then, at pennies on the dollar, got him started with a wardrobe that would impress prospective employers.

Fast forward more than two decades: Gary has established a successful career as a sales executive, was able to extricate his family from a near-poverty level lifestyle, and now he’s eagerly imparting secrets of his success to others.

Bruce the clothier was just one piece in Gary’s career story, but an important piece. He saw a man eager to achieve a better life and willingly presented him with tools to help in doing just that.

I referred to Gary’s story in an earlier post. The book he’s written about his journey (which I’ve been privileged to edit) will be published soon. Suffice it to say, while millions are clamoring for the attention of the impersonal, uncaring governmental machine, each of us – like Bruce – should consider how we could make a positive contribution to the life of someone in our sphere of influence.

When Jesus said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35), one reason is because when we give to benefit others, we receive the joy of knowing we’ve enhanced the life of another. Having met Bruce, I know he feels that way.

The Bible also offers this admonition: “Do not withhold good from those who deserve it, when it is in your power to act. Do not say to your neighbor, ‘Come back later; I’ll give it tomorrow’ – when you now have it with you” (Proverbs 3:27-28).

Who’s within your reach right now that needs a helping hand in one way or another? While the wheels of bureaucracy continue turning exceedingly slow, you might discover an opportunity to be a one-person change agent. And to not respond might deprive you of a very special blessing.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Retirement: Friend or foe?

What will your retirement years be like:
Spectacular finale, or sputtering fizzle?

Retirement. Seldom has one word evoked such delight and fear at the same instant. For many in my Baby Boomer generation, that’s the case. And every day an average of 10,000 Baby Boomers are retiring.

How did you feel when you read or hear “retirement”? Excited? Confused? Filled with anticipation? Filled with anxiety?

Last week a friend told me about a man who confided that the prospect of imminent retirement filled him with dread. “How long does it take to die?” the man had asked him in earnest, implying once his working career came to an end, so would his reason for living.

What a dismal perspective: Work your tail off for 30-40 years, apply for Social Security, gather up whatever retirement savings you’ve managed to accumulate, buy an annuity, and then curl up in your bed, waiting for your heart to cease beating.

There seem at least two central problems involved:
1) For many people, life and work seem synonymous. When asked, “What kind of work do you do?”, we interpret that to mean, “Who are you?” Careers and vocations often shape our sense of identity.
2) Retirement has come to mean you stop working; you no longer have anything to contribute; or like it or not, you must commence a “vacation” that lasts the rest of your life.

In actuality, none of these is true – or at least shouldn’t be true. Work consumes many of our waking hours, and if we’re fortunate enough to enjoy it, work can give fulfillment. It also can enhance our sense of purpose. But it shouldn’t define us to the point that the end of work amounts to the end of meaningful life.

Although it would seem as if “retirement” should appear somewhere in the Bill of Rights, the idea of retiring – at least as it’s known today – hardly existed prior to the end of World War II. I know, that’s a long time ago. But for most of recorded history, people continued to work until no longer physically able. Idyllic retirement notions of rocking chairs, shuffleboard, steering a Winnebago cross-country, and day-after-day golf were unimagined by our ancestors.

This isn’t to say some kind of transition isn’t in order as we age. Getting older typically means reduced strength and stamina, but that doesn’t mean we must stop working entirely or no longer have anything of value to offer society.

Interestingly, the Bible says little about retirement. The only reference, as we use the term today, concerned Levites, the Israelite priests: “but at the age of fifty, they must retire from their regular service and work no longer” (Numbers 8:25). Even then it adds, “They may assist their brothers in performing their duties…but they themselves must not do the work….” So even after retirement, the priests were to mentor and consult with their younger peers.

Hopefully soon I’ll start collecting my well-earned Social Security benefits. These days the Federal government calls this an “entitlement,” and I agree in one sense: I and my employers over my more than 45-year working career have paid many thousands into my account under the Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA). So I’m entitled to start receiving what I’ve set aside. But that doesn’t mean I can no longer work – or no longer have worth.

In a future post I’ll suggest ways retirement – the rest of your life – can become the best of your life. But for now, instead of envisioning your retirement years like a fizzling firecracker, imagine them like the grand finale of a fireworks show. All that’s gone before is just preparation for a big, spectacular finish.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Power of Perseverance

What do you have on your horizon that keeps you going?

Why persevere when you can quit? Quitting takes a lot less effort, it’s not as time-consuming, and you don’t have to suffer disappointment of trying and not succeeding.

Now I’ll remove tongue firmly planted in cheek. Seriously, I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately. It appears the virtues of hard work, determination and initiative are in rapid decline in our society. It seems so much easier to give up, take the quick way out – or simply wait for someone else to do the labor and come to our aid. Where’s my bailout?

This week I cited the distinction between endurance (just hanging on in difficult times) and perseverance (doggedly pursuing a goal with utmost confidence you will achieve it). If we study the life stories of the world’s great achievers, we’ll find they had at least one trait in common: the commitment to persevere, no matter how overwhelming the odds seemed against them, resolved to reach where they set out to go.

One reason this has been on my mind is because of a book I’ve been editing for a friend, an inspiring account of someone that grew up in constant turmoil, survived a disadvantaged environment few of us can imagine, received a limited education, and yet set his sights on achieving a better life for himself and his family. And, despite many “wise” souls who declared he couldn’t do it, he succeeded – as an entrepreneur and business executive.

When the book is published I’ll tell you more about it, but the point is this: If you want a recipe for a life worth living, perseverance is an essential ingredient.

It seems this truth is recognized in many cultures. A Japanese proverb, for example, states, “Fall seven times, stand up eight.” A Buddhist saying puts it this way: “If we are facing in the right direction, all we have to do is keep on walking.”

Poet Robert G. Ingersoll wrote, “The greatest test of courage on earth is to bear defeat without losing heart.” And Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, observed, “Don’t feel entitled to anything you didn’t sweat and struggle for.”

I like this perspective from American philosopher and poet George Santayana: “The Difficult is that which can be done immediately, the Impossible is that which takes a little longer.”

The greatest insights on perseverance I’ve ever read can be found in the Bible. One of my favorites is 2 Corinthians 4:16-18, “Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”

I don’t know about you, but that’s what keeps me persevering!

Monday, March 11, 2013

Life on a Treadmill

My thrice-weekly exercise regimen of cardio and weight training includes 15-20 minutes on the treadmill each day. Right-left, right-left. It’s a rigorous commitment to going nowhere – but making great time! Seconds click past, I work up a sweat, and my heart gets pumping. When I finish, however, I’m still in the same place I started.

Isn’t life like that sometimes? Actually, it’s often like that. We’re moving as fast as possible, doing everything we can think of, feeling like we’re making excellent progress, then ultimately realize we’re getting nowhere.

Maybe it’s a career, working day after day, year after year, a steady dose of the mundane mixed with a dash or two of interesting and different. In the end we can’t help but wonder, “Am I really accomplishing anything?” As someone has said, the problem with being caught up in the rat race is the rat never seems to win.

How's life on the treadmill going for you?
Home life’s the same way: Changing diapers, preparing meals, washing clothes, chauffeuring kids from place to place, putting dishes in the dishwasher (and taking them out), vacuuming and mopping the floors, fixing the bed, mowing the lawn, carrying out the trash, watching a bit of TV, doing a little reading, and tumbling into bed. Just so we can do it again the next day.

Makes us want to belt out the refrain from old Peggy Lee song, “It that all there is?”

Like it or not, the “treadmill” is a big part of everyday life. Sometimes it seems like competing in a marathon with no finish line. Grudgingly, we persist. We endure. But does it have to be that way?

My favorite devotional writer, Oswald Chambers, observed:

“Perseverance is more than endurance. It is endurance combined with absolute assurance and certainty that what we are looking for is going to happen.”

See the distinction? Some people must endure chronic pain with little or no hope of relief. Or someone might endure a difficult work situation out of necessity – to leave would mean being unemployed. But perseverance means steadfastly pursuing a goal, having a desired objective in sight.

That’s why I return to the treadmill three times a week, trudging along step after step, getting no place fast. My goal is staying fit, keeping trim, and avoiding a rerun of my 2006 open-heart surgery. I don’t just endure each outing; I persevere with those ends in mind.

The apostle Paul frequently wrote about this. He said, “…we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character hope. And hope does not disappoint us…” (Romans 5:3-5). Elsewhere he stated, “I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14). His clear focus enabled him to keep on keepin’ on.

Another apostle, James, made this observation: “…know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:3-4).

Helen Keller overcame incredible physical adversity to build a inspiring life that left an indelible mark. Despite being blind and deaf, she observed, “We can do anything we want if we stick to it long enough.”

Too many people these days, it seems, have settled for endurance. Why not set goals, even lofty ones, and then persevere, determined to achieve them – even if it demands everything we have?

Thursday, March 7, 2013

The Dreaded Curveball

Although I’ve lost my boyhood love affair with baseball (these days I much prefer football and basketball, especially the college variety), I’m still aware this time of year is when Major League baseball teams are busily at work in Florida and Arizona – getting in shape, working on fundamentals, and preparing for another 162-game season.

This is when pundits predict the year’s “phenoms”, young players soon to be compared with the all-time greats in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. Many of those “can’t miss” standouts will indeed miss. The reason, especially for hitters, will be a culprit known as “the dreaded late-breaking curveball.”

A friend, James, who has played some baseball in his time, has observedt:

“It curves right about the time it gets to home plate. Most hitters’ eyes are focused on where they think they are going to hit the ball – and not on the ball itself.”

Personally, I never advanced in baseball beyond the Little League level, and didn’t do very well even there. But over a span of more than six decades of living, life has thrown lots of curveballs my way. Too many times, especially when I was younger, I had an annoying habit of swinging and missing. As James noted, I was more concerned about where I would hit the “ball” than paying attention to where the “ball” was going.

So how do we deal with life’s curveballs, especially when we don’t know they’re coming – a major surprise at work, a sudden family crisis, a financial hardship that materializes out of the blue, a dire health diagnosis?

My friend offered this suggestion: “The key to dealing with the late-breaking curves life throws at us is to keep our eyes not on the problem or on what we think the solution is, but on the One who can knock the problem out of the park – on our Lord.”

That’s why I find passages like this one from my biblical friend Isaiah so comforting: “So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand” (Isaiah 41:10).

And Isaiah’s old buddy, Jeremiah, presents this divine promise: “’For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future’” (Jeremiah 29:11).

Even if you’ve never played an inning of baseball in your life, be assured the “curveballs” will come. So put on your batting helmet, crouch in the batter’s box, wait for the pitch – and try to keep your eye on the ball. But when you swing and miss, as we all sometimes do, be assured God is standing there with you. He won’t let you strike out.

Monday, March 4, 2013

‘Your Truth’ and ‘My Truth’

Truth has taken a beating lately. Everyone apparently knows what it is – but no one agrees on “it.” But before you let that truth spoil your day, take heart. Society, in all its wondrous ingenuity, has found a solution:

We now have “your truth” and “my truth.”

Happily, the intelligentsia of Celebrity-ville are leading the way. Pop diva Rihanna, for instance, informs us, “I just live my truth.” We find consummate wise man and constant center of controversy, actor Charlie Sheen, telling all who will listen, “All I can do is speak my truth.” And maturing actress Dakota Fanning has described life as a quest for “finding her truth.”

Isn’t it wonderful? Just decide what you want “your truth” to be and there you have it. And no one can tell you differently. No one-size-fits-all. Choose whatever size you like. Very convenient.

But Hollywood, courtesy of Jack Nicholson in “A Few Good Men,” also gives us this insight: “You can’t handle the truth!”

The problem is, truth in real life isn’t always accommodating. In the physical realm we refer to truth as “physical laws.” Suppose I’m in a small plane and on a whim, elect to jump out sans a parachute. Based on “my truth,” I’ve decided I don’t believe anymore in gravity. Sadly, that won’t stop me from impersonating a pancake once I converge with terra firma.

Similarly, suppose “my truth” objects to the physical law that states two objects can’t occupy the same space at the same time. Despite my objection, if I step in front of a moving bus, “my truth” will be overruled.

But that’s physical law. When people say “my truth,” they’re referring to beliefs, especially as they relate to morals and ethics, right? OK. In the 1930s and early 1940s, Adolf Hitler, an avowed Darwinist, determined to give evolution a boost by exterminating millions of Jews. We call this the Holocaust, and rightly so. But that was Hitler’s “truth.”

In the 1800s, thousands of slave owners operated according to “their truth” in owning slaves, treating and using men, women and children as little more than animals. It took courageous individuals of conviction like William Wilberforce, Abraham Lincoln and others, who held to a different “truth,” to abolish this horrendous and inhumane practice. These “truths” collided and could not coexist.

Former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, convicted of sexually molesting numerous boys over many years, apparently adopted a “truth” that such behavior was not wrong.

We could cite numerous examples of business leaders, politicians and sports figures who also acted according to “their truth,” engaging in all manner of morally and ethically scandalous behavior for their own ends. 

Therein lies the problem: Do we have the option to select truth according to our personal preference? Society would say yes – that is, unless society disagrees with “your truth.”

When I’ve engaged with some people in spiritual discussions, they’ve conveniently responded with, “Well, that’s your truth.” In one sense, they’re right. It’s what I understand as truth, but not because that’s what I want it to be. I hold to biblical truth because I believe that’s exactly what it is.

Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). That’s His words, not mine. Heck, if it was up to me, I’d probably go with the mantra, “any way’s the right way – as long as you’re sincere.” But it’s not up to me.

He also stated, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). We talk a lot about freedom these days, but do we really know what it is? Jesus promised freedom in the broadest and grandest sense. And from experience and observation, I’ve discovered truth really can – and will – set anyone free that’s willing to embrace it.

To me, the issue is not “your truth” or “my truth.” At issue is…God’s truth.