Monday, March 30, 2015

What’s in a Name?

The other day I was reading an article that said biblical names are declining in popularity. Aha. That’s why I haven’t heard of any babies lately being named Mephibosheth, Absalom, Hophni, Jereboam or Eliphelet! And given the ruthless reputation of Queen Jezebel (1 Kings 18-21), it’s no wonder that’s not a name of choice in maternity wards around the nation. Who would want their child associated with such an evil person?

There’s no question a name can have tremendous impact. For instance, when you hear the name Ponzi, what comes to mind? If you’re not familiar with it, Charles Ponzi was a businessman and con artist who in 1920 swindled trusting investors out of $20 million by promising spectacular returns on their investments. Today, his name is often associated with similarly devious schemes.

We can think of other names throughout history that immediately conjure negative images – Hitler, Genghis Khan, Benedict Arnold, Tokyo Rose. But names also can carry great positive meaning. If you think of a favorite relative, or someone you’ve worked with that was greatly admired, chances are that person’s name always brings a smile to your face and lifts your spirits.

This is why Proverbs 10:7 states, “The memory of the righteous will be a blessing, but the name of the wicked will rot.” Another verse reinforces that idea: “A good name is more desirable than great riches; to be esteemed is better than silver or gold” (Proverbs 22:1).

For a brief time, Charles Ponzi accumulated “silver and gold” at the expense of others, but to this day, his name is rotting, spoken with disdain and scorn.

It’s a sobering thought to wonder how people react when they mention or hear our own name. Do they utter it fondly, in a trusting or loving manner? Or do they want to spit it out, like a spoonful of bitter medicine?

So how can we gain – and maintain – a name worthy of being spoken? One way is by pursuing and seeking to uphold human virtues that most people value, such as integrity, humility, sincerity and compassion.

Galatians 5:22-23 offers a list of traits that would attract us to anyone. Having cited an array of distasteful behaviors, including sexual immorality, hatred, jealousy, fits of rage and selfishness, the passage declares, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control….”

Most of us would agree these are worthwhile qualities, but we’d also be quick to admit they’re not easily lived out. “I’d like to be like that, but I fail to do so more times than I can count!”

The following verses offer the “secret” for being able to manifest those qualities in a consistent manner. “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires. Since we live by (Christ’s) Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit” (Galatians 5:24-25).

What this tells me is that when it comes to living the so-called “Christian life,” holding to the standard of life God calls us to live, the reality is we can’t do it – not in our own strength. It’s beyond the capacity of what the Bible terms our “flesh,” our “sinful nature.” Instead, we have to rely on the power of Christ in us, agreeing with the apostle Paul when he wrote, “…I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20).

This is a simple truth – but one that demands an entire lifetime to learn, and relearn, and learn again. I know, because I’m still very much in the midst of the learning process.

Thankfully, I also have the assurance Paul cited in Philippians 1:6, “being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” According to this, even when I mess up – which is often – God is saying, “Don’t worry, you’re right on schedule.” 

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Preparing for the Trip?

Imagine planning to make two trips. One’s to the grocery store to buy a loaf of bread and a gallon of milk. The other is a year-long excursion around the world. Which trip would merit more preparation time?

Before leaving for the grocery store you might check to see if you’d need to add something to your list. Then you’d grab your wallet, keys and hop into your car. It’s a short trip, so you needn’t fret about forgetting something. You could easily go back.

To travel around the world, however, you’d have to be more prepared. You’d want to consider things like tickets, passports and visas, money and credit cards, clothing and various essentials, camera, maps, cell phone charger. Language guides for communicating in a foreign land. And for areas with health risks, you’d want to get necessary vaccinations.

Approaching everyday life, I sometimes find myself doing this in reverse. I become consumed with today, maybe thinking about tomorrow, but forgetting about life’s greater journey – especially the life to come.

We tend to fret, fuss and fume about “now” – needs, wants and demands. Stress levels peak, blood pressures spike, and anxieties escalate when problems arise. “What are we going to do?” we lament. But Jesus said we’re expending time and energy needlessly:

“So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or “What shall we wear?’ For even the pagans run after these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:31-33).

He’s not saying to ignore our needs. But once we’ve done all we know to do, the Lord says, “Relax. Take a chill pill. I’ve got this.” Instead of concentrating on the equivalent of a quick jaunt to the grocery store, Jesus is telling us – regardless of our age – to be preparing for the incredible journey yet to come.

The apostle Paul understood this. That’s why he wrote, “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” (2 Corinthians 4:18). All this stuff we feel so concerned about? It will be gone before we know it. In the blink of an eye. So instead of staring at passing road signs, we should be envisioning the ultimate destination.

This doesn’t mean becoming so heavenly minded we’re no earthly good. But it challenges us to approach each day with a clear, uncompromising sense of what’s important.

Jesus described this in His so-called “Sermon on the Mount,” declaring, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal” (Matthew 6:19-20).

It’s never too early to start building a legacy. At the same time, it’s never too late. You’re familiar with the old saying, “You can’t take it with you”? That’s true, but at the same time Jesus is telling us, “You can send it on ahead of you – so it will be waiting on you.”

If we live in the light of an eternal perspective, there’s no telling what treasures will be waiting for us one day.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Perplexed By Priorities?

If variety is truly the spice of life, then 21st century living is truly one spicy existence. There’s no end to the possibilities for spending, investing – or squandering – our waking hours. Between work, family responsibilities, community activities, and an ever-growing number of options for occupying “leisure” time, we each could easily fill a 48-hour day – if there were such a thing. Maybe Congress should enact that into law.

So much to do, so little time
in which to do it!
Young men being mentored often ask (or imply), “Can you help me with my priorities?” They’re getting started with careers, perhaps newly married or beginning a family, and find themselves overwhelmed with commitments and obligations. And that’s not even counting fun stuff they like to do (or used to do) – fishing, golf, video games, fantasy football, mud runs, attending sporting events, going to movies, etc. How’s a person to balance all those things?

Much of the time, juggling facets of everyday life seems like trying to find balance on an old-fashioned seesaw. Now you’re balanced – and then you’re not.

So what’s the answer? How can we remain true to our priorities when many demands and opportunities make the task so perplexing?

There’s no simple solution, but here are some considerations. For instance, what are your priorities? Do you even know? What’s most important to you? If it’s your career and achieving success, that will dominate your time. But at what cost, especially if you’re married and/or have children? Are you willing to sacrifice time – quantity and quality – with them to pursue career dreams?

On the other hand, if family relationships are paramount, prioritizing those will affect your handling of work demands and aspirations. If acquiring wealth is your focus, it’s bound to impact other areas of your life. Because there’s a cost to making money. As Jesus said, “You cannot serve both God and mammon (money)” (Matthew 6:24). In other words, decide what your priorities are.

There are other considerations as well. For instance, whether at church or in an organization you belong to, there are always projects to be done – and somebody needs to do them. Is that somebody you? If you decide it’s not, do you still find it difficult to say no? Maybe you’re reluctant to disappoint the person who asks you, or afraid they’ll think less of you if you decline.

I’m an avid reader of Oswald Chambers’ writings, and one of his recurring statements is helpful: “A need doesn’t constitute a call.” In other words, just because something must be done doesn’t necessarily mean you’re the one to do it. The church might need singers in the choir, but if you can’t carry a tune in the shower, don’t feel badly about not volunteering. However, if there is something you’re well-suited to do, whether it’s working with children, doing repair work, or mentoring adults, that need might be calling you.

Another consideration is the level of commitment required. If you desire to excel at playing a musical instrument, for example, it won’t do to practice only 15 minutes a week. If you have want to compete in and complete a triathlon, you better be willing to devote many hours – every week for months – running, cycling and swimming. Either that or you’ll start something you have no chance of finishing.

Ohio State head football coach Urban Meyer has said, “Because of our limitations on time and energy, it is difficult to be completely dedicated to a large number of endeavors.” If you want to be a champion in one pursuit, you’ll have to neglect or ignore a host of other alternatives.

Os Chambers also wrote, “Good is the enemy of the best.” There are many good things we can do, but what are the best things, those we’re most qualified, experienced and gifted to do? Why attempt to be a jack-of-all-trades when you can become a master of one?

A couple of important principles have guided me in coping with the perplexities of competing priorities. One is to recognize for whom I’m ultimately doing things. “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men…. It is the Lord Christ you are serving” (Colossians 3:23-24). Is it acceptable to give God a half-hearted effort, or second best? No. At least not for me. So I’d better be certain I’m doing what He would want me to do, and then do it as well as I can, to please Him foremost.

And to avoid the procrastinator in me, another passage reminds me not only to pursue what I’m doing with gusto, but also to do it when the opportunity presents itself: Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the realm of the dead, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom” (Ecclesiastes 9:10). Why postpone to a tomorrow we might never see?

It’s still not easy to resolve the problem of too much to do in too little time. But knowing and pursuing our bedrock priorities is a step toward determining what we should be doing with the time we have - and what things are little more than distractions.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Facing – and Embracing – the Inevitable

I heard somewhere that researchers have discovered a key element for living a long life: Keep having birthday parties. And be sure to be in attendance.

The alternative is to depart from the scene and have other people continue to commemorate your birthday, as we do with George Washington, Elvis and others, even though they’re no longer around to join the celebration.

But the reality is, if you live long enough, aging is inevitable. It’s something to face – and hopefully, to embrace. This should be the case even though our society seems fixated on youth. Every year newer and fresher starlets are trotted out. Many advertisers tend to direct their messages toward teens and 20-somethings. Out with the old and in with the new, as they say.

Jennifer Lawrence, star of the “Hunger Games” trilogy, “American Hustle,” “Silver Linings Playbook” – and it seems about half of the movies being released by Hollywood these days – is the current darling of the younger set in the world of entertainment. She’s 24 and right now, the poster child for America’s youth movement. But for us all, time continues its relentless march and before we know it, Ms. Lawrence will start sporting the occasional wrinkle and find herself headed down the same path as another Jennifer – Aniston – who, believe it or not, lacks just a few years from qualifying for AARP membership!

I think Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw summarized many of our sentiments when he said, “Youth is a wonderful thing. What a crime to waste it on children.”

My aunt and uncle, Barbara and Joe Tamasy, shown
with a relative during a visit to Veszprem, Hungary,
were examples of embracing the aging process. 
Being a young person is filled with its awkward moments, encountering experiences for the first time and figuring out what to do with them. But it’s the same for those of us who are aging. We’ve never been this way before. The spring in our step isn’t the same, we’re not as agile, we can’t jump as high or fast – and dare not do it anyway, for fear of breaking or straining something.

There’s a whole array of products out there we never needed before, but now we examine them with interests – ointments, medications, cushions, sight and hearing aids. Our physicians tell us how well we’re doing “for our age.” As the late Phyllis Diller said, “Maybe it's true that life begins at fifty. But everything else starts to wear out, fall out, or spread out.”

But again, aging shouldn’t be something we face with regret and trepidation. It’s to be embraced. Poet Robert Browning wrote, “Grow old with me! The best is yet to be.” We’ve never been here before, so we don’t know what great adventures still lay ahead.

For one thing, most older people possess a treasure of wisdom they lacked in their earlier years. Wisdom, someone has said, comes from making good decisions. And being able to make good decisions came from making bad decisions – which we all have made in abundance!

Then we have decades of accumulated experiences we can continue to enjoy and benefit from. Author Madeleine L’Engle expressed it this way: “The great thing about getting older is that you don't lose all the other ages you've been.”

Most of all, the Bible affirms aging should be regarded as a gift, not a consequence of living a long time. Romans 12:2 says we’re to be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is--his good, pleasing and perfect will.” And as a wise friend of mine pointed out, this includes the aging process.

The Scriptures tell us that in one sense, “50 shades of gray” is a desirable state: “The glory of young men is their strength, gray hair the splendor of the old” (Proverbs 20:29).

And the wisdom acquired through the passage of years can pay rich dividends, as Proverbs 24:3-4 affirms: “By wisdom a house is built, and through understanding it is established; through knowledge its rooms are filled with rare and beautiful treasures.” Just as Rome was not built in a day, neither is a full, noble and rewarding life.

So if you, like myself, are wadding through this uncertain stage of life called aging, welcome it with enthusiasm. And if you’re still a young person with no clue what the aging process is like, be patient – you’ll get there soon enough! 

Monday, March 16, 2015

What Inspires You?

On a social media site for writers I sometimes visit, one contributor asked readers to define what the word “inspiring” means to them. We hear this word used a lot, but it seems to hold a host of very different meanings. What does it mean for you?

Since you asked (didn’t you?), here’s what it means for me. “Inspiring” has many levels. A sunrise, for instance, can be inspiring: Beauty, a new day, a bright, fresh start. A TV show or film also can be inspiring, especially when it tells the story of someone overcoming adversity and great odds. A baby’s smile can be inspiring: Innocence, happiness, hope.

A stirring speech can be inspiring, ranging from Patrick Henry’s brief “give me liberty or give me death” declaration to Abraham Lincoln’s concise but iconic Gettysburg Address to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famed “I Have a Dream” oration. We can find sermons inspiring, gifted preachers expounding upon biblical truths and explaining them in practical terms. Many times I’ve found inspiring people of strong faith that determinedly and effectively live out what they believe. “Faith without deeds is useless” (James 2:20).

Being a creative person, I find it inspiring to hear a song beautifully sung, study a piece of art imaginatively crafted, view a film skillfully directed and produced, or read a book beautifully written. With each creation, these artists reflect the image of the Creator.

Then there are individuals who have been inspiring to us personally. After reading the question posed above, I replied: “Inspiring means motivating you to aim higher than you’ve ever aimed; to become more than you’ve ever been; to envision your fondest dreams and hopes being transformed into reality.”

A number of people have served in this way for me, particularly in nudging me toward a professional career as a writer: My fourth-grade teacher who appraised me as “college material”; my freshman English instructor in college who suggested I consider becoming a writer.

There were the men who saw enough potential to hire me as a newspaper editor and then, publications director for a ministry to business and professional people, giving me venues for expanding my skills in numerous ways.

And then there was my good friend Dave, who stepped to the other side of eternity more than a year ago. I was at a career juncture in 2001 and contemplating some changes. Dave, whom I had known for more than a decade, had recently formed a non-profit organization. He envisioned me having opportunities to more fully develop my talents as a writer and editor, so he said, “if you ever need a place where you can flourish and become all God wants you to be, we’ve got a place for you.” Talk about inspiring me to be and to become more than I’d ever been!

But there’s one more person who has inspired me more than all of those mentioned above. Jesus Christ has been inspiring me since 1978 in more ways than I could ever express. He has served as the ultimate example of love – real love. Romans 5:8 states, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Who does that? Only Jesus. No one forced Him to the cross outside of His will. He not only went there willingly, to provide the perfect atonement for our sins, but also understood that was His purpose.

Once we grasp the depth and magnitude of such a sacrifice, how can it not be inspiring? The apostle Paul wrote, “For Christ’s love compels (constrains) us…” (2 Corinthians 5:14). In a similar way, my mission as a writer, editor and mentor has been to serve the Lord and seek to serve others in His name.

Jesus inspires even how I approach my work. In the workplace, it’s tempting to cut corners, to sometimes give less than our best if we can get away with it. Why wear yourself out, right? Who’s going to know? Well, God will know, and as someone has said, we should pursue our work as performing for an audience of One. The Bible agrees: “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus…. Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to win their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord. Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men” (Colossians 3:17-23).

As humans we can never replicate the grandeur of a sunset or an expanse like the Grand Canyon. The most intricately designed airplanes can’t compete with the delicate yet awesome grace of a gull or eagle gliding across the sky. But inspired by all we see, hear and experience around us, we can find ourselves striving for greater heights of achievement ourselves, pursuing excellence and realizing the fulfillment of what we’ve been created to be and to do. 

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Somebody Needs to Do Something

Have you ever seen or heard of something happening that made you think, ”Somebody really needs to do something about that”? Maybe it was a situation in your child’s school, or a problem in your neighborhood. Perhaps it was a broader issue in your community.

Then there are the many, sometimes insidious dilemmas confronting our world today: Poverty. Terrorism. World hunger. Disease. Violence. Neglected children. Political corruption. Disasters. Unethical business leaders. Educational inequities. Domestic abuse. People with disabilities.

No doubt you could add to this list. Many mornings I get out of bed thinking things are going fairly well, but then I listen to the news and realize the world is even worse than the day before. It seems overwhelming. What are we to do?

Wikipedia's image of "The Scream,"
by artist Edvard Munch, shows one
common response to society's ills.
Well, there’s always hand-wringing. There’s a lot of that going on – wring, wring, wring. And gnashing of teeth. Dentists really like it when we do that. We could all hold our hands to our faces and shriek, like the image in “The Scream,” a series of paintings by Norwegian Expressionist artist Edvard Munch from the late 1890’s and early 1900’s. Shrieking helps, doesn’t it?

Or, and here’s a novel thought, we could try to do something about the problems that concern us most. How about writing a letter to the editor? That might have some value, or a post on Facebook or Twitter could alert some folks. And we can send financial contributions to support organizations and causes dear to our hearts. But those are hands-off, detached approaches – no rolling up our sleeves, getting our hands dirty, or becoming personally involved.

What if we actually made an effort to become directly engaged in addressing some of these troubles?

Recently I was reminded of a declaration that should inspire each of us: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” Or as some observers have suggested, we’re either part of the solution, or we’re part of the problem.

But as we’ve already noted, the problems – local, national and global – are ubiquitous. There’s no escaping them. What can one person do? Here’s a simple truth: Nobody can do everything, but everybody can do something. Since each of us is a somebody, we all can and should do something.

Okay, but what? Look at the statement again: Be the change you wish to see in the world. What change would you like to see? If you’re concerned about children growing up in disadvantaged homes, lacking sufficient parental guidance, you could become a mentor investing in some of their lives one on one. You could become a tutor, helping young people with a subject you enjoy, whether it’s math, science, or even English as a second language.

You could volunteer in a myriad other ways, ranging from participating in a local soup kitchen or food bank to working at a crisis counseling center to visiting with shut-ins, people in hospitals or nursing homes. You could give time to one of the local schools; there are many ways to do so.

Are you fed up with politics, as many of us are, convinced we’re suffering from a vacuum of dedicated, selfless leaders? Maybe you could run for office and become one of those striving to fill this void. Or you can identify a candidate you really believe in and give time and energy to helping him or her get into office. Ideas like these are just scratching the surface.

Then there are spiritual needs. If you believe, as I do, that solving life’s greatest problems ultimately is the result of lives transformed by Jesus Christ, you can start investing in others to help them grow spiritually – and find yourself growing as well. As 2 Timothy 3:17 tells us, the purpose of the Scriptures is “so that the man (and woman) of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”

The bottom line is simple: If it were up to you, what changes would you like to help bring about in the world? What problems or issues weigh heavily on your heart? Once you’ve figured that out, all you have to do is consider what you could do personally to engage in being part of the change you wish to see.

This is our privilege. But it’s also our obligation, a responsibility we’re given by God. James 4:17 teaches, “If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn't do it, it is sin for them.” A sobering admonition.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Working It Out

Exercise is important, not only for body but also for spirit.

When I started in a cardiac rehab class about eight years ago, part of my recovery process after having had open-heart surgery, the first step was an orientation session. During that time one of the staff did an evaluation, seeking to determine where I was physically and establishing where I wanted to be.

I don’t recall the specific conversation. I do remember looking at all of the exercise equipment and thinking it seemed a bit daunting. But I think the nurse did a quick appraisal and said something like, “Arm muscles? Check. Leg muscles? Check. Heartbeat? Check. Now, Mr. Tamasy, exactly what would you like to do with those muscles? How would you like to train them as we work on your overall condition?”

Since I’d been an avid power-walker prior to my surgery, but hadn’t really been using any fitness equipment like treadmills, rowing machines, exercise bikes, weight machines and free weights, I didn’t have a good answer for her. But one thing was clear – even though my muscles were already there, they weren’t going to tone and strengthen themselves. I would have to be doing some work, strenuous work. And to have any lasting result, I would have to do that work with some consistency and dedication.

It’s kind of like that spiritually. The Bible says God gives each of His children “a measure of faith” (Romans 12:3), but it’s our responsibility to exercise that faith – to put it to work. Sometimes crises in our lives – issues at work, family problems, financial and health struggles – leave us with no alternative but to put our faith into action. These occasions can be extremely beneficial since they enable God to show us what He can do, when we’re helpless or at a loss as to what we should do to remedy or resolve the situation.

At other times, we’re called to exercise our faith simply during the course of daily living. We might not be confronting dire circumstances or insurmountable obstacles, but we still need faith to apply the truths and teachings God gives us through the Scriptures.

For instance, loving our neighbor as ourselves, as Leviticus 19:18 instructed and was affirmed by Jesus in Matthew 19:19 and in other passages of the New Testament. Or believing, as Jesus declared, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). “Really?” we ask, to which He responds, “Trust Me. I know what I’m doing.”

Through the centuries one of the more problematic scripture passages for some theologians has been Philippians 2:12, which commands believers, “as you have always obeyed…continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” They read this and say, “Wait a minute! Doesn’t the Bible teach that salvation – being redeemed and put into right standing with God – has nothing to do with our works?”

That’s correct. The Bible says, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). And Titus 3:5 concurs, stating, “he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but according to his mercy.”

So then, which is it? Are we saved by God’s grace and mercy – His unmerited favor – or not? Yes, we are. But just as the person who is either recovering from surgery or some kind of illness, or one that simply wants to get into better shape physically, must exercise the muscles they already have, we too must exercise the spiritual “muscle” – faith – that God gives to each of His people.

When I was starting my rehab exercise class, my intent was not to acquire new muscles but rather to use and strengthen the ones I already had. In a similar manner, the Lord calls His followers to put into use the faith He has given them, to develop it, strengthen it, and prepare themselves for the purposes and work God has for them.

As the Bible teaches, we don’t have to work to become saved. We work – exert our faith – because we are saved, out of gratitude to God and a desire to glorify Him as we put our faith into action. In fact, if we don’t use it, that could be an indication that our faith isn’t genuine at all.

The apostle James asked this penetrating question when he wrote, “What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such a faith save him?” (James 2:14). That’s like believing, following an employment interview, that you’ve been given a job but then never showing up for work. What good is that?

James wraps up his discussion on this topic by observing, “In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. But someone will say, ‘You have faith; I have deeds.’ Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that – and shudder” (James 2:17-19).

So the next time you go out for a job, head to the fitness club for a workout, even compete in some strenuous event like a mud run, marathon or triathlon, ask yourself: “What am I doing to exercise my faith? How am I working out my salvation – working out what God has already worked into me?”

Thursday, March 5, 2015

A New Leaf – Or a New Life?

An old phrase we sometimes still hear concerns “turning over a new leaf.” This cliché, which apparently dates back to the 1500’s, alludes to the turning from one page (or leaf) of a book – the old-fashioned, paper kind – to a new one. Of course, these days when people talk of turning over a new leaf, they’re not making reference to a book – paper or Kindle version – but rather to beginning again, reforming, or making a fresh start.

People turning over a new leaf in their lives might desire to overcome an addiction, a behavioral problem, even a lack of motivation at work. Leave the old page behind and move onto a new one; start afresh.

Are you feeling a need to turn over a new leaf?
Have you ever tried to do this, turning over a new leaf in some area of your life? It might be as simple as deciding to quit watching so much TV or as urgent as trying to overcome a recurring, relationship-damaging struggle with anger. At the start of every year many of us make resolutions or set goals to turn over a new leaf and start doing – or stop doing – things we were not able to accomplish the year prior.

One common misconception about the Christian faith is that it requires taking a similar initiative – to turn over a new leaf spiritually speaking and attempt to clean up our act. That’s not the way it works, however, according to the Scriptures.

Two Bible passages I initially encountered years ago troubled me for some time. One of them said, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17). I thought, “How can this be true – at least for me? I don’t feel like a new creation. I’m still the same old knucklehead I’ve always been. Don’t tell me the old has gone – it sure seems like it’s still here. I’ve been trying to change, but it’s not happening!”

Another verse offered a similar idea, showing my understanding from the other passage wasn’t misconstrued: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).

Nowhere do these verses direct the reader to “clean up your act,” or even “turn over a new leaf.” They talk about literal, spiritual renewal, orchestrated by God and not our own intentions. My efforts to change my own life, to undo lifelong patterns of wrong thinking and behavior, were as productive as trying to purify a piece of spoiled beef by wiping it off with a paper towel.

Recently I heard an observation by Ed Stetzer, president of LifeWay Research, about personal evangelism. He pointed out too often the focus of evangelistic efforts is to invite people to attend a church service or get them to join a particular congregation. That’s not what we’re called to be about as followers of Jesus, according to Stetzer. He stated ours is “not mission of recruitment, but mission of reconciliation.”

He cited 2 Corinthians 5:20-21 (not far from one of the bothersome verses I cited above), which says, “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were working his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

In one sense, that’s deep theology. But in another way of looking at it, it’s quite simple. As an old friend of mine used to say, “Jesus took the rap for me.” But He didn’t stop there. Jesus also offered us new life, the capacity to live the life God demands – but in His strength, not ours.

“Apart from Me, you can do nothing,” Jesus told His followers in John 15:5. And as the apostle Paul affirmed in Philippians 4:13, “I can do everything through (Christ) who strengthens me.”

Yes, it might be necessary for us to turn over a new leaf. But we need to understand that Jesus Christ is our leaf-turner.

Monday, March 2, 2015

How Do We Really Know?

Years ago I had the privilege of ghostwriting a book, The Gospel and the Briefcase, for Ted DeMoss, then the president of CBMC-USA, a ministry to business and professional people. My task was to create and write the book, using Ted’s personal story and anecdotes to communicate key principles from his life.

At times in preparing to write about a particular principle in the book, I would ask him to provide me with specific illustrations. However, since I had traveled with him on several occasions and heard him speak countless times, I sometimes simply chose familiar anecdotes – many of them very moving and dramatic – that Ted had included in his talks.

The end result was a book that read and sounded as if he had penned every word of it, even though technically I had been the writer. His wife, Edith, always thought Ted had somehow written the entire manuscript and I had just done some minor editing. And that’s the way it was intended.

How was I able to do that? I must admit I’ve been gifted with a good memory – at least in terms of being able to recount the content of speeches I’ve heard and interviews I’ve conducted. But I also spent a lot of time with Ted, hearing his stories so often I could practically tell them as well as he could. I knew his mannerisms, speech inflections, and personal style so well that I could capture that in “ghosting” his book.

Can we know Jesus said what He supposedly said?
I mention this not to commend myself but rather to answer one of the questions skeptics sometimes pose about the Bible. They ask, “Jesus never wrote any books, or portions of the Bible. How do we know He actually said what the Bible claims that He said?” Good question. How do we really know?

In response, I offer my example. After spending much time with Ted, not only listening to him but also observing his life and forming a strong, positive relationship with him, I could present in writing his thoughts and perspectives so accurately even his own wife couldn’t tell the difference.

The four gospels of the Bible – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – were written by men who knew Jesus extremely well. Matthew and John were two of “the twelve” – Jesus’ closest disciples, the men that were with Him round the clock for three full years. It’s very possible many of their quotations from Jesus were statements He had made on numerous occasions in different settings to different groups.

Luke, a physician, was well-educated and very meticulous in gathering the facts and accounts of Jesus’ ministry. Although he apparently did not spend time with Him face to face, Luke, being a good medical practitioner, was methodical and precise in documenting the accounts that appear not only in the gospel of Luke but also the book of Acts.

The gospel of Mark was written by John Mark, a protégé of the apostle Paul. After Jesus’ death and resurrection, Paul was welcomed into the fold with the other apostles who had walked personally with Jesus Christ. Paul wrote of his own personal, supernatural encounter with Jesus when he was still known as Saul, the religious zealot. Paul’s life became transformed from persecutor of Christians to one of Jesus’ most devoted followers, and he invested deeply in the lives of young men like Mark.

Although their experiences with Jesus were not identical, each writer knew Jesus intimately and could easily and accurately recount what He had said. Their writings were not hearsay, like words passed around a circle in the game called “telephone,” where the final statement bears little likeness to the original by the time the circuit is complete.

So when we read that Jesus declared, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6), we have confidence that is what He said – and exactly what He meant.

When physician Luke reports Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23), we can trust that seemingly hard saying of Christ is true and accurate.

When Matthew recounts the so-called Sermon on the Mount, including statements like, “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44), we can be assured such a revolutionary statement is actually what the former tax collector heard Jesus say in person, probably on more than one occasion.

And there’s one other element to affirm the veracity of the words of Jesus in the Scriptures. The Bible says God had direct involvement in the writing of the 39 Old Testament and 27 New Testament books.

For instance, the apostle Peter – another of Jesus’ 12 closest followers – wrote, prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God” (2 Peter 1:21). And 2 Timothy 3:16 states, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.”

My friend Ted used to tell of meeting with a couple that had just committed their lives to Christ. He was guiding them through the Bible, pointing them to passages that would help them in their new spiritual life. When they came to 2 Timothy 3:16, Ted asked what they thought that meant. Without hesitating, the wife picked up her Bible and replied, “What it says to me is, God wrote a book!”

Wise words, from the mouth of a spiritual babe. Yes, God wrote a book – the Bible. And we can believe and trust in what it says. Even, and especially, the words of Jesus.