Thursday, November 27, 2014

Giving Thanks…for EVERYTHING?

As we gather together with family and friends for another Thanksgiving Day, the tradition in many homes is to pause for a few moments to reflect and say a prayer of thanks. Typically we express gratitude for “blessings” like loving relationships, a warm home, the food we’re about to consume, safety, health, and the material resources at our disposal.

The cornucopia, the "horn of plenty."
The cornucopia is used as a symbol of this, representing the overflowing “bounty” many of us enjoy. We may still have wants, but if our true needs are met – food, clothing, shelter – we truly are blessed.

For followers of Jesus Christ, even though it’s not Christmas or Easter, we’ll also thank Him for the gift of His life, death and resurrection – along with all that means for us, not only today but also for tomorrow and eternity. His presence, protection, provision and peace will be remembered with thanksgiving by many.

An interesting passage in the Scriptures, however, offers a somewhat different perspective on how we should approach our giving of thanks and the things we should emphasize. We tend to define “blessings” in terms of good things we possess and experience, but 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 urges us to include every thing in our thanksgiving observances.

“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks” the passage instructs us.

These are the first three verses I ever memorized, because of their brevity. But they’re not short on meaning or magnitude.

The translation I’ve used above is from the New American Standard Version, but the New International Version states the same passage this way: “Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances.” The 19th verse adds, “for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”

I’ve pondered these verses a lot and reached the conclusion that when it says, “in everything give thanks,” the literal meaning is…every thing. So as we’re expressing thankfulness for our loved ones, homes, jobs, food, clothing, even the automobile in the garage, the TV on which we’ll be watching football games or holiday shows after a sumptuous dinner, our computers and other high-tech gizmos, we’re also told to give thanks for things we wish we didn’t have.

This means we’re to be thankful for the serious disease that has resisted a cure. Or the family conflict that no amount of holiday cheer can easily resolve. Or the financial burden you haven’t been able to lift. Or the addiction that continues to lurk in the background, relentless in its temptations. Or the unfulfilling, discouraging job you drag yourself to every day.

Or even things not so dire, yet hard to include in your Thanksgiving list – like a pesky neighbor you can’t get along with, or achy joints, a car that breaks down at the most inopportune times, or simply feeling at times like God just isn’t paying attention to what’s going on in this world.

Perhaps you could add to this list. So what are we to do with this admonition, “in everything give thanks”?

Well, we could ignore it; conclude someone must have translated the passage improperly; tell God it’s too hard to do or He doesn’t understand. Or we could just do as it says, giving thanks even for things that range from annoying to desperate. That’s what faith is all about, and why giving thanks for everything is not a “mission impossible."

Because we have God’s promises: “’For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans for welfare and not for calamity, to give you a future and a hope’” (Jeremiah 29:11) and “Do not fear, for I am with you; do not anxiously look about you, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, surely I will help you, surely I will sustain you with My righteous right hand” (Isaiah 41:10).

God says we’re to be thankful for everything, no matter what, because whatever it is, He’s right there with us, guiding us through, sometimes carrying us. And for that we should give thanks!

Monday, November 24, 2014

Good Four-Way Test

Years ago I was a member of the Rotary Club in the metropolis of Tomball, Texas (about 30 miles from Houston), but until a couple weeks ago I’d forgotten about a cornerstone philosophy for every good Rotarian.

I was at a Rotary luncheon in Norfolk, Neb. (another metropolis) with my friend, Steve, and at the opening of their meeting the members recited what’s known as “The Four-Way Test” of Rotary International. If you’re not familiar with it – and if happen to be under 40, you probably aren’t – it goes like this:
-        Is it the truth?
-        Is it fair to all concerned?
-        Will it build good will and better friendship?
-        Will it be beneficial to all concerned?

Imagine if everyone, not just Rotarians, took these guidelines to heart in their interactions and communication with other people. How different might things be?

For starters, I think about 75 percent of everything elected officials and candidates for public office say would have to be eliminated – and they’d have a lot of apologizing to do. If they’re humble enough, they might even seek forgiveness. When facts are distorted and opponents misrepresented, all for the sake of gaining political advantage, they violate all four.

At least half of what we read on Facebook, Twitter and other social media couldn’t be posted, because in many cases words are used as weapons to wound, not as tools for building up.

So-called “fans” of college and pro football teams would have to keep silent, because their boorish behavior and hateful criticisms too commonly are untrue, unfair, not conducive for good will and friendship, and hardly beneficial for anyone. The same applies to many parents at youth sporting events who despite having little real understanding of the game, shout and carry on in very disruptive ways.

Commentators on cable news networks – Fox, CNN, MSNBC and others – would often have to practice the adage that “silence is golden.” Or else reassemble their facts in ways that aren’t stacked strategically to support their ideological biases and delude viewers and hearers.

Marriages could be transformed, as husbands and wives chose discretion and consideration rather than emotional impulse for guiding their conversations and shaping their relationships.

Many educators would have to totally rewrite their curricula, since their course content too often is engineered to influence inquiring student minds into believing their propagandist teachings and philosophies. Similarly, the entertainment media would have to drastically revise and reproduce agenda-driven movies, TV programming and videos, all disguised as means to “entertain.”

And leaders of various religions – including many in Christianity – would be forced to carefully re-examine their dogmatic and often judgmental pronouncements. They could feel compelled to answer the penetrating question asked by Pontius Pilate, “What is truth?” (John 18:38), rather than presuming they already know.

If we all embraced Rotary’s “Four-Way Test,” we might all be persuaded to apply the exhortation of Ephesians 4:29, which tells us, Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.”

Can you imagine?

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Lessons from an Old Book

Recently I was thinking – as is my habit, and also the title of this blog – about people that talk about how antiquated and irrelevant they perceive the Bible to be. It’s a thousands-of-years-old book, they say, written and compiled in a totally different time, culture and environment. It no longer relates to contemporary living, they contend.

That’s interesting, because many of the values and principles we’ve embraced as a society – even today – can be traced to the Scriptures. Consider:

People are quick to say, "Love your neighbor." Where does that come from? The Bible, found in Mark 12:31. By the way, when Jesus made this enduring declaration, He described it as “the second greatest commandment.” What was the first and greatest commandment? “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30). With that established, He then said, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

People are also not hesitant to say we should, "Do to others as you would have them do to you." Where does that come from? The Bible, quoted in Luke 6:31.

We hear heart-touching stories about "good Samaritans," people who go out of their way – and sometimes risk considerable danger – to assist complete strangers. Where does that come from? The Bible, as part of Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, recorded in Luke 10:25-37!

From time to time we hear or read about someone straying away the strong values and practices of his or her family, but then returning after a time and being restored. We commonly refer to this person as a “prodigal son” (or daughter). Where does that come from? Of course, the Bible, a touching account also known as the parable of the lost son, told by Jesus and recounted in Luke 15:11-32.

Even in the entertainment world, movie titles unflinchingly use the term “sin,” and Las Vegas is nicknamed “Sin City.” Where does the notion of sin come from? The Bible, from front cover to back cover, describing humankind’s rebellion against God and proclivity for defying His laws that were intended for our own good.

There are many other examples I could cite, but I think I’ve made my point. It amazes me how easily – and in my opinion, ignorantly – people can choose to dismiss the Bible as being archaic, no longer applicable for life in the 21st century. There are many books we consider classics today, and while they remain good to read, they don’t relate to life as we know it.

But the Bible? Even though some would vehemently argue to the contrary, I’m convinced it’s as timeless and eternal as the God who inspired its writing. “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

Monday, November 17, 2014

Life With a Grain of Salt

When we give little credence to a statement, we say we’re “taking it with a grain of salt.” How appropriate, because if anything in the vast array of foodstuffs gets little consideration, it’s salt. It’s a condiment without a compliment.

We find all manner of saltshakers, but that’s for decorative purposes, not because we hold salt in high esteem. This time of year we can find turkey and pilgrim saltshakers, as well as Santa Clauses, snowmen and all things Christmas. But salt remains the Rodney Dangerfield of the seasoning world: It gets no respect.

When was the last time you agonized over what kind of salt to get? When I was younger I was a bit of a salt-aholic. I’d shake salt on anything even before I tasted it – soup, hamburgers, French fries, vegetables, it didn’t matter. I just liked the instant taste of salt. Then I learned too much salt might have detrimental effects, like raising blood pressure, so I elected not to salt away as I’d done previously. Much to my surprise, when I stopping adding salt, I discovered I could taste the salt already in the food.

All that said, salt still seems greatly underestimated and could stand better public relations treatment. Consider its uses: Immediately we think of adding or enhancing the flavor of food. But it does a lot more. For instance, being a preservative. In pioneer days – and even today, in areas where refrigeration isn’t available – salt is often used to preserve meat and prevent spoiling.

Entering the winter months, we’ll soon be reminded of how salt can melt snow and ice. It’s excellent for clearing driveways and sidewalks, as well as highways. Here is the South, when public works departments don’t plan ahead and salt the roads when winter storms are forecast, traveling becomes treacherous.

And there’s one other function of salt, although not nearly as desirable. It’s when salt gets into an open wound. If you’ve ever done that, it definitely stings.

Interestingly, the Bible often uses salt as a metaphor. In the Old Testament we read about Lot’s wife, who disobediently looked back at the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah being destroyed, then turned into a pillar of salt. She might have become the original Morton Salt girl.

Typically, however, the Scriptures apply the salt analogy to believers more positively. For instance, Jesus told His followers, ”Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can you make it salty again. Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with each other” (Mark 9:50). What’s that supposed to mean?

In another passage, perhaps elaborating on the same discussion, Jesus explained, “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men” (Matthew 5:13).

We sometimes hear of people described as “the salt of the earth,” meaning they represent the best and noblest elements of society. In the same way, Jesus was instructing His followers to display the highest, most desirable qualities of humanity.

The way we conduct our lives, for instance, can make life more appealing – like salt. Rather than being “thrown out and trampled,” disciples of Christ should reflect characteristics others enjoy being around. Galatians 5:22-23 describes “the fruit of the Spirit…love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” Since traits like these seem in short supply, who wouldn’t want to hang out with “salty” people like this?

Many people today believe the world is not getting better but worse, spiraling into violence, hatred, selfishness and hopelessness. Again, as “salt” we can work to help in preserving qualities like compassion, generosity, selflessness, peacefulness, love and genuine hope.

For those resisting the truth of Jesus Christ as declared in the Bible, our task is not to coerce, argue or oppose angrily, but as “salt” to live in such a way that hearts grown spiritually cold become warmed and melted. In 1 Peter 3:15, Jesus’ followers are told how to do this: “Always be prepared to give an answer (make a defense) to everyone who ask you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.” In other words, express our faith in Christ in an engaging, tasteful manner.

That being said, we must acknowledge the other aspect of salt. Mere mention of the name Jesus incites great animosity among some people otherwise touting the virtues of “tolerance.” We should not be surprised, because like salt in a wound, “Jesus” often brings to the surface old hurts and pain that sadly were inflicted in the name of Christ. While the Bible calls Jesus “the name above all names” (Philippians 2:9), it also describes Him as “a stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall” (1 Peter 2:8).

So let’s be salt today: Making biblical truth palatable; seeking to act as preservatives in a deteriorating world; melting cold hearts with the truth of Christ; and daring to risk stinging old wounds He may heal one day.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Wisdom of Patience

You find all kinds of interesting things on social media. Viewpoints that you agree with, perspectives that infuriate you, videos that make you laugh, others that make you cry, and photos that truly embody the adage, “a picture is worth a thousand words.”

I saw one of the latter recently, a large dog patiently and wisely waiting a few feet away as a skunk munches from his bowl of food. Not sure who took the photo, but the message is classic. Common sense may be a vanishing commodity among the human race, but it seems canines still know how to use it.

This got me thinking about how patience and wisdom converge – and how when exercised properly, they can save us from a world of hurt.

I think of wisdom as common sense with a college education. Although some of the wisest people I’ve met never took a college entrance exam. They gained their wisdom while attending the School of Hard Knocks & Experience. They’d be quick to agree that if a skunk should start gobbling your lunch, maybe staying hungry for a little while longer really isn’t that bad an option.

Sadly, patience isn’t such a prized quality anymore, either. We wait anxiously for that email, or texted photo, someone promised us just seconds ago. Nuking a frozen meal in the microwave for a couple of minutes seems like an eternity. We pay extra for that online treasure to ensure we receive it by FedEx tomorrow.

College grads change jobs almost as fast as they change their minds, unwilling to invest the time required to advance through the corporate ranks. “Why can’t I just start as CEO the first day?” Newlyweds exchange vows with visions of unending bliss, then decide to bail out after a year or two because the challenge of turning two very different individuals into a real husband-wife team is too difficult. Stockholders aren’t interested in long-range plans – they want huge dividends now.

From a spiritual perspective, however, patience isn’t just an option. It’s mandatory. I can think of times when I was eager to make a job change, but God kept saying, “Not yet.” He used Psalm 37 in particular to hammer home this idea for me. After reading encouraging words like, “Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart. Commit your way to the Lord, trust in him and he will do this…” (Psalm 37:4-5), I was thinking, “All right. I’m on it. Delight. Commit. Trust. Okay, Lord, let’s getting moving!”

A couple verses later, however, I read, “Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him” (Psalm 37:7). Huh? What’s up with that? Who wants to wait?

But that’s exactly what God wanted me to do. And in case I missed the instruction the first time, later in the same psalm He said, “Wait for the Lord and keep his way…” (Psalm 37:34). In fact, the more I looked into it, the more I realized He’s a big fan of patience and waiting. In Psalm 46:10, for example, God inspired the psalmist to write, “Be still and know that I am God.”

Many of the patriarchs of the faith – Noah, Abraham, Joseph, Moses, David, the prophets, Peter, Paul and others – became experts at being patient, whether they liked it or not. God’s timing, they discovered, wasn’t the same as theirs. Yet in the end they were wise enough to realize His plans and intentions were far better than anything they could have imagined.

So next time you’re feeling antsy and something inside of you is screaming, “Do something! Anything! Even if it’s wrong!”, remember the skunk feasting on the dog’s food while Fido is wisely keeping his distance. You’ll rarely go wrong by exercising patience and wisdom.

Monday, November 10, 2014

A Case for Measured Speech

I recently came across an interesting observation about the spoken word that bears repeating:

"He who thinks by the inch, and talks by the yard, should be kicked by the foot."

This is one of those “anonymous” quotes that can’t be credited to any single individual, but Mr. or Ms. Anonymous had it right. It ranks right up there with, “When all has been said and done, more has been said than done.”

We live in a society – and a world, I suppose – where there is no lack of words. “Talk is cheap,” the adage reminds us. Maybe the price of talk should be a lot higher so we’d be forced to use words more economically and strategically.

Years ago many of us saw commercials that declared, “When E.F. Hutton speaks, people listen.” Alas, E.F. Hutton, founder of the iconic stock brokerage firm, is no longer with us. The sentiment, however, still seems sound. When we practice measured speech, waiting to give ample thought before opening our lips and permitting words to escape, what we say can become more valued.

I still remember how people admired a friend of mine years ago, a man who would sit in board meetings, attentively listening but rarely speaking. Like ole E.F. Hutton, when Bob spoke, people were quick to listen because they knew what he had to say was worth considering.

This is one reason, when I hear someone discount the Bible as outdated and irrelevant, I’m tempted to reply, “Are you stupid, or what?” Because on so many levels, the Scriptures are eminently practical – including the areas of speech and human discourse.

For instance, the Bible affirms the principle behind the unattributed quote above, in different words: "When there are many words, sin is unavoidable, but he who restrains his lips is wise" (Proverbs 10:19). This happens to be a personal favorite, because over much of my life I’ve had a bothersome habit of putting my mouth in drive while my mind was still in park. Hopefully I’ve gotten somewhat better in that regard over the years.

Everywhere, it seems, people are intent on demeaning people they don’t agree with. Whether we like them or not, these folks fall into the category the Bible would classify as “our neighbor.” So it’s convicting to read, “A man who lacks judgment derides his neighbor, but a man of understanding holds his tongue” (Proverbs 11:12).

What about being a person that’s known for meaningful, uplifting speech? There’s good news, according to the Scriptures: “From the fruit of his lips a man is filled with good things, as surely as the work of his hands rewards him” (Proverbs 12:14).

We can choose to use our words as weapons, or apply them like a soothing balm. “Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing” (Proverbs 12:18).

In Proverbs alone, the so-called “the book of wisdom,” more than 50 verses relate directly to the spoken word, in both its most positive and most perverse forms. But the problem of indiscreet speech was not just an issue for Old Testament readers.

After drawing comparisons to a bit in a horse’s mouth, and a small rudder directing the course of a ship, the Bible declares, “Likewise the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on ire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body…. With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness” (James 3:3-10).

When talking about the power and pitfalls of human speech, the Bible doesn’t equivocate. We’re admonished to be wise, judicious, thoughtful and caring in what we say – and what we don’t. These days, when it seems word pollution is as great an environmental problem as any, the “sounds of silence” could become a wonderful gift.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

What’s Something Worth?

My vintage record albums, vestiges of my youth,
apparently aren't worth what I thought they were.

There are two kinds of people: Those that like garage sales, and those that don’t. I count myself among the latter.

My wife and daughters enjoy staging garage sales, gathering stuff from around the house they no longer want or need and seeing if other people will buy them. They also like to visit other people’s garage sales to see what “treasures” they may discover.

On the other hand, I think garage sales are more trouble than they’re worth. You spend all that time sorting through your possessions, deciding what you want to part with, price it, display it, and then hope someone sees value in what you’re offering. Then you have to gather up and put away what’s left. The only time I think it’s worthwhile is when you’ve made enough money to justify the time invested.

But one universal element of garage sales is very interesting, as someone reminded me recently. We might present an item for sale and put a price on it, but people are only willing to pay what they think it’s worth. One person’s junk is another person’s treasure, and vice versa.

At a garage sale, the seller’s opinion doesn’t matter. Beauty – or treasure – is in the eye of the beholder. The same principle holds true for other types of transactions, whether you’re selling an old car, a piece of furniture or a collectible.

Not long ago I decided it was time to purge a portion of my collection of vinyl records, some of them nearly 50 years old. I took them to a local store to see what I could get. I understand how retailing works, so I wasn’t expecting to receive the store price for similar vintage albums, but recordings by Country Joe and the Fish, Paul Anka, the Four Seasons and Chubby Checker ought to worth at least $5-10 dollars each, right? Well, the shop proprietor didn’t think so. Apparently my fond memories of music from bygone days weren’t worth as much as I had imagined.

Extend this idea of someone being willing to pay only what they think something is worth into the spiritual realm. An oft-repeated verse, embraced by some and scorned by others, is John 3:16, “For God so loved the worth that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” What does that say about how God values us?

Jesus Christ, God incarnate, came to earth not only to live and teach and model how to live, but also to make the once-and-for-all-atonement for the sin of mankind, that we might be redeemed – absolved of the punishment for our own wrongdoing and rebellion against God. Why? Because we’re such nice folks? Not hardly.

Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). There is, according to the Scriptures, no “plan B.” God didn’t have to pay the penalty for our sins, to “take the rap for us” as an old friend used to say. But God did. Why? Because, as John 3:16 tells us, He loved the world – and each of us – that much.

In His teachings, Jesus gave numerous examples of lost treasures – including a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a lost son. The shepherd, the owner of the missing coin, and the father of the “prodigal son” each placed premium value on what had been lost. These parables served as examples of how much God values His children, and the extremes He’s willing to take to find them and bring them into His family.

On TV’s “Antique Roadshow,” people bringing an old stool, a painting they found stashed in an attic, or a vase they inherited from Aunt Bertha are amazed to discover their seemingly ordinary object is worth hundreds, even thousands of dollars. In an even more profound sense, that’s how God sees us. We might regard ourselves as quite ordinary, but in His view we’re priceless, truly worth dying for. Think about that for a while. 

Monday, November 3, 2014

Voting: An Act of Obedience

This week millions of people across the nation will stream to the polls to cast their votes on a variety of local, state and national races and issues. Sadly, millions of others will opt to stay home, refusing to exercise their right to vote.

Every year the outcomes of major elections are determined by a minority of voters who take the time to make it to the voting booth. Then the inactive majority proceeds to grumble about decisions made by officials they didn’t elect. I’m of the opinion that if you don’t vote, you should lose your right to complain.

But for followers of Jesus, there’s more reason for making the effort to vote than just being able to mutter and gripe in good conscience. It’s also an act of faithfulness and obedience to God.

We seem to think that government was an invention from the ever-innovative mind of mankind. However, the Bible says otherwise: “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established” (Romans 13:1). Knowing mankind’s annoying proclivity for following its own selfish, self-serving ways, God established government to create laws, maintain order and protect us from ourselves.

That being said, as citizens of a democracy in which we have – and should enjoy – the Constitutional right to vote, we should recognize this is our opportunity to participate in the governing process that God has ordained.

Interestingly, two people, even fellow believers, can look at the same candidate – or the same issue – and reach different conclusions on how to vote. And that’s okay. That’s why we cast our ballots in private. What matters is that we do vote, and hopefully do so well-informed about the candidates and issues being contested.

In fact, the same Bible passage seems to suggest participating in the governmental process by voting is more than a right; it’s an obligation. “Consequently, he who rebels against authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves…. For he is God’s servant to do you good…an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience” (Romans 13:2-5).

Do you desire for your community, your state and your nation to be governed in a manner that pleases God? Then vote for the candidates and issues you believe most closely align with biblical values. Even if the outcomes aren’t as you would like, at least you’ve done what you could.

And after the election, the Scriptures teach, our responsibility doesn’t end. In fact, it’s just begun. Then, God tell us, we’re to pray. As the apostle Paul wrote, “I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone – for kings and all those in authority…” (1 Timothy 2:1-2). What if you don’t like the elected official? What if he or she is not aligned politically or ideologically with your personal views? God says we’re to pray anyway.

Years ago, long before the Iron Curtain fell, I knew a very godly man who prayed for each of the top leaders of the then-Soviet Union – individually, by name. At the time I questioned the wisdom of this, but then the Berlin Wall was destroyed, the iron fist of Communism in Eastern Europe lost its grip, and millions of oppressed men, women and children received their first taste of freedom. Who’s to say my friend’s faithful prayers didn’t play a significant role in what transpired?

So vote. It’s not only your civic duty; it’s also your spiritual duty. And then...pray!