Thursday, April 30, 2015

Beware of Counterfeits

Have you heard about how Federal agents are trained to spot counterfeit money? I did some research and verified the story is true: The agents are brought in for several days – even as long as a week – and spend more than 90 percent of the time inspecting…real currency.

Our susceptibility to counterfeits depends on
how well we know the real thing.
They examine elements of the genuine article methodically and meticulously, things like portraits and other artwork, Federal Reserve and Treasury seals, borders, serial numbers and paper quality. Agents pour over real money from every possible angle. They learn its details until it’s as familiar to them as their own hands.

Only then, after many hours of examining and becoming intimately acquainted with bonafide currency, are they introduced to counterfeit money for their consideration.

Knowing the real McCoy so well, the fake cash stands out as if printed on pink paper with red ink. (Of course, in a sense, the Federal government does print paper with red ink – but that’s a topic for some other time.)

Sadly, our world surrounds us with counterfeits. Expensive-looking watches, knock-off purses and shoes, high-end fashions and high-tech devices are often foisted on na├»ve consumers who think they’re getting a bargain. Instead, they’re receiving mere copies, falsified replicas of the real deal. Even romance has its counterfeit these days, with TV and the movies masquerading raging hormones and lustful motives as “true love.”

There’s an important principle to be learned here. To be capable of spotting a counterfeit, it makes sense to know the genuine article very well.

This is as true in the spiritual realm as anywhere. Some make the claim, “All religions are the same.” Others would say, “It doesn’t matter what you believe, just as long as you’re sincere.” These views sound reasonable – until we compare counterfeits with the stuff of genuine faith.

Are we to assume Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, Christianity and whatever other belief system you want to toss into the discussion are all essentially the same? They are alike in one respect – a shared conviction that even though we live in a material world, it has a very real spiritual dimension. After that, however, comparing them side by side reveals considerable – and irreconcilable – differences.

For the disciple of Christ, it’s helpful to know these differences. But even more important is having a clear understanding of what we believe – and why. The key is being so familiar with the Word of God, the Bible – just as Federal agents are familiar with genuine currency – that pretender belief systems become obvious.

In fact, Jesus assured His followers, If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free" (John 8:31-32). He promised we could know THE Truth, not someone’s opinion of what the truth should be.

The book of Acts offers an excellent example of the attitude to have when confronted with new spiritual claims: “Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (Acts 17:11). Another translation says they “searched the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (New American Standard).

In other words, these fervent truth-seekers from Berea knew the Scriptures extremely well, and as the apostle Paul taught in the synagogues, they would diligently compare what he said with what they knew to be true from the holy writings passed down through the centuries. “Accept no counterfeit!” might have been their motto.

The question is, are we in danger of being seduced by counterfeit teachings? The only way we can avoid this is to spend time studying, examining, meditating on and absorbing the real thing. Then, when faced with the counterfeit, we can recognize it and dismiss it for what it is.

Why are some people seduced by a Coach purse replica, a fake Rolex, or a counterfeit $20 bill? Because these look close enough to the actual item to deceive. But if you know the real thing, you can identify the counterfeit easily.

“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, April 27, 2015

Mired in the Mediocre

Think of someone you have greatly admired, a person who has inspired you in positive ways to become a better person. What are some of the qualities of that individual, the traits that make (or made) him or her stand out in the crowd?

Several qualities might come to mind. But in thinking about people that have had the most positive influence on my life, one common characteristic is their determination to pursue excellence. They might not have done everything exceedingly well, but the things most important to them were carried out to the best of their ability.

When we're at work, are we willing
to say "good enough" is enough?
We recently saw young Jordan Spieth not only win the fabled Masters championship but also destroy tournament records in the process. Our hearts have soared listening to extraordinary musical performances, perhaps George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” or Beethoven’s “Fifth Symphony.” When we consider again Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, our thoughts become transported by thoughts of what could be. Then there’s the surgeon that thrills us when, after performing an extremely difficult surgery on a loved one, assures us everything will be all right.

In each case we’re beneficiaries – directly or indirectly – of men and women devoted to their crafts, unwilling to accept anything less than excellence in what they do. They took innate talent and then invested the time and effort necessary to develop and refine their skills.

Many of us, however, have no idea what that is like. Ours is a time when most people opt to be observers of excellence rather than participants in it. And there’s a reason for this: Excellence is hard; mediocity is easy.

Why put in countless hours practicing on a piano, mastering finger techniques and dexterity by performing monotonous scales over and over, when we can buy a CD or flip through the TV channels and find music to our liking? Why endure the tedium of perfecting fundamentals of a sport, repeating the drills until they become second nature, when we can just occasionally visit the course or court, have some fun, and then relax with a “cold one”? Why do all that hard work indeed, when we can settle for “good enough”?

Because when we witness outstanding accomplishments – an athlete excelling at the sport of choice, an educator inspiring students to chase after their dreams, or a businessperson investing the time and energy necessary to transform a vision into reality – we catch a glimpse of we could be, if only we weren’t content to remain mired in the mediocre.

There’s an even more compelling reason: God has entrusted us with certain abilities and gifts, and expects us to serve as stewards of those, using them for His glory.

In Matthew 25:14-30, Jesus told the story of the wealthy property owner who entrusted his servants with some of his property. To one he gave five talents, a second servant received two talents, and a third was given one talent. Apparently the disparity was based on the level of responsibility they had already demonstrated in handling his property.

The servants receiving five and two talents invested what had been entrusted to them, earning a substantial gain for the owner. They in turn were rewarded when the owner said, Well done, good and faithful servant. You were faithful with a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master” (Matthew 25:21,23). They understood the importance of excellence, pursued it, and were assigned greater authority.

However, the third servant had simply dug a hole and put the owner’s money in it. When the owner returned, the servant gave the money back, exactly as he had received it. His lack of initiative, choosing to settle for mediocrity, resulted in chastisement by his master. For him, nothing had been ventured – and everything was lost.

King Solomon, reflecting on the perplexities and frustrations of everyday life, advised, Whatever your hands find to do, do with all your strength” (Ecclesiastes 9:10). In other words, if something’s worth doing, it’s usually worth doing as well as you’re able.

And we should always consider for whom we are doing it. “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). If we keep that in mind, excellence should always be our goal – and mediocrity should never be an option.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Values and Decision-Making

Decision-making can be both fun and frustrating. Some decisions are simple and inconsequential: what to eat for breakfast; what shirt or dress to wear; what color to paint the wall; what restaurant to select for an evening meal.

Other decisions carry considerable weight: what college to attend and what to study; what career to pursue; who to marry; how to manage your finances; how to budget your time; which people to associate with; even what house to buy, and where to live.

So while some decisions fall under the “I don’t care, you pick” category, others can truly prove to be life-changing – for good or for not so good. So how do we go about deciding on the more important choices in life? An insightful quotation I read recently offers some helpful advice.

Even in all its grandeur, Disney's
famed Cinderella's Castle rests
on its foundation for stability.
Almost everyone has heard of Walt Disney, the creative visionary whose dreams turned into live and animated movies, TV programming, music, and theme parks. But other members of his family made important contributions to the success of the Disney brand. One of them was the late Roy E. Disney, whose father, Roy O. Disney – Walt’s brother – was co-founder of The Walt Disney Company.

The younger Roy spent many years as a senior executive with the company. His quote in question: “When your values are clear to you, making decisions becomes easier.” It’s a simple statement, but quite profound nonetheless.

Values the Disneys embraced through the years have guided them in developing such delightfully popular characters and projects as Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Goofy; “Mary Poppins”; TV’s Mickey Mouse Club, Disneyland and Walt Disney World; “Snow White”; “Toy Story,” Nemo, and a seemingly endless list of other entertainment classics.

In a sense, those values Roy Disney referred to served as the foundation for the Disney empire’s achievements many of us have enjoyed. But this is true not only for all things Disney, but also for any enterprise, whether a different kind of business or organization, a family, or even individuals. Making major decisions without the guidance of clearly established values typically leads to a murky result at best.

Jesus spoke about the importance of a foundation – the right foundation. “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, yet it did not fall, because it had the foundation of the rock” (Matthew 7:24-25).

He contrasted that with “a foolish man who built his house on the sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash” (Matthew 7:26-27).

The passage says many who heard these words were amazed, since Jesus spoke with great authority, but surely there were some who dismissed what He had to say. They had no interest in doing what He said or following His teachings. Sadly – according to Jesus – the values they were choosing instead were the equivalent of building sand castles.

I’ve learned – as have many of my friends – that having clear values in fact does ease the decision-making process, especially for challenging matters. Do we dabble in the areas of temptation to which we know we’re susceptible? Do we pursue lofty goals that could prove detrimental to cherished relationships? Do we spend more than we can afford on things we want, resulting in becoming “servant to the lender,” as Proverbs 22:7 describes it? Do we devote time to unproductive diversions, at the expense of more important commitments?

We don’t need to become legalistic, placing a taboo on anything that hints at being fun. But as my friend Oswald Chambers often states in his devotional writings, even good things can be the enemy of things that are best for us.

So as we strive to clarify and then hold true to our values, as Roy E. Disney suggested, we can discover that making key decisions is much easier than we thought.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Being Strong and Courageous

If someone came alongside of you, put an arm around your shoulders and said, “Be strong and courageous,” how would you react? Would you say, “Thanks, that sounds like a great idea!” or would you reply, “Are you kidding me? Do you have any idea what I’m facing?”

Over the years a number of people have called me an encourager. I appreciate the compliment, even though I’m not sure it’s always true. The Bible teaches all followers of Christ are bestowed with spiritual gifts, and I do think a gift I have is encouragement. However, as is often the case, a strength can also become a weakness.

Most days I feel encouraged and optimistic, and try to pass that perspective along to others. But sometimes it seems discouragement lurks just outside my door, eager to pounce whenever the opportunity presents itself. I can be cruising along, enjoying my rose-colored glasses view of life, when something happens and BOOM, I’m hyper-discouraged.

Being strong and courageous requires more
than flexing well-toned muscles.
One definition of the word encourage is to “inspire with courage, spirit, or hope.” This makes sense, because when I’m being encouraged by someone else, it takes more than a “don’t worry, be happy” type of exhortation. It’s the act of imparting courage – because often that’s exactly what circumstances demand.

Amid the chaos of this thing we affectionately call “life,” at times it requires courage just to get out of bed and confront the day. Then, after turning on the morning news, we need courage to resist the temptation to crawl back into bed and pull the covers over our heads!

As I recently began reading the Old Testament book of Joshua, it was interesting to see things haven’t changed in the thousands of years since that narrative took place. The Israelites were about to realize the promise God had made 40 years earlier, entering the Promised Land and experiencing for the first time the “land of milk and honey.”

Many of the people of Israel imagined they’d soon be thinking, “We’ve got it made!” They would be leaning back in their recliners, sipping cool drinks, and proclaiming, “Ah, this is the life!” But God was saying, “Not so fast, my friends.”

Joshua had just succeeded Moses as the Israelites’ leader, and was about to command them to cross the Jordan River. But first God had a few choice words for Joshua, instructions he would need to follow more times than he could have guessed.

What did God say? “Be strong and courageous…. Be strong and very courageous…. Be strong and courageous.” Are you seeing a pattern here, that God had a point of emphasis He didn’t want Joshua – or the Israelites – to miss? This command appears three times within the first nine verses of the opening chapter of Joshua.

Why the repetition? Because the Israelites would certainly be entering a land overflowing with everything they needed, but it wouldn’t become theirs easily. They would encounter formidable opposition, other peoples not particularly thrilled with surrendering control of their good stuff.

So the Israelites and Joshua, as their leader, would definitely need to be strong and courageous. It might have been worthy of a picture postcard (if such things had existed then), but the Promised Land wasn’t a place for weak hearts – or weak knees. Interestingly, the people of Israel must have realized that as well. Upon affirming their commitment to follow Joshua, they also exhorted him to “be strong and courageous” (Joshua 1:18).

Seems to me the Lord might be telling us the same thing. This was not a directive reserved only for itinerant Israelites. In His last days with the disciples, Jesus was telling them that very quickly “business as usual” for them would be over. His earthly ministry was about to end.

The disciples, clueless about the monumental events about to unfold, were distressed. Jesus told them to calm down: "These things I have spoken to you, so that in Me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world" (John 16:33).

Turmoil enveloping our world can seem daunting, even overwhelming. Looking to our national and international leaders, can we be blamed for occasionally wondering whether all they’re doing is rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic? If ever there were a time that called for strength and courage, it’s now.

It’s the last portion of Jesus’ declaration that makes this more than Pollyanna thinking. After telling His followers to “take courage,” He added the assurance, “I have overcome the world.”

We therefore have a choice: We can accept what Jesus said as a promise and follow the exhortation of the apostle Paul, who wrote, Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power” (Ephesians 6:10). Or we can dismiss it, arguing, “Jesus, You don’t understand what we’re up against here.”

I’m thinking that being strong and courageous – in His strength – is the better option.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Don’t Judge – But Don’t Condone, Either

The statement caught my eye. It’s been expressed many times, but merits reviewing again: “Don’t judge someone just because they sin differently than you.” Ponder that for a moment.

There’s much wisdom in that statement. Because, the Bible asserts, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). As a wise theologian noted, “When the Bible says ‘all,’ it means…ALL.” It also says, in even stronger language, “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one” (Romans 3:10-12).

Wow! That sounds all-inclusive. No exceptions. So who are we to judge the sins of others?

The Bible states judging isn't 
our job. God doesn't need help. 
It’s easy to feel judgmental about the bad behavior of others if we can’t identify with their practices. For example, if you’ve never wrestled with a weight problem, it’s easy to “judge” someone who’s obese. But anyone that’s had a tendency to overindulge in alcohol can feel sympathetic toward someone with a drinking problem. Does this make the overweight person a worse sinner than the drunk? Certainly not. They both, as the passage above states, have fallen short of God’s glory, His perfect standard. As we all have, each in our own ways.

Years ago a friend called whom I hadn’t talked with in several years. He was distraught and needed someone to talk with. We met soon afterward, and he confided to being a self-described “sex addict.” His job required him to travel extensively, and he'd been diligent to feed his addiction wherever he went. Remorse came after his sins "found him out." 

Admittedly I was surprised. I’d known this fellow for years and never suspected he had this kind of problem. But I didn’t respond with words of condemnation. Nor did I wave a cross in his face, telling him what a terrible person he was. Neither did I pat him on the shoulder and say, “Hey, man, no problem. It’s all good. Nobody’s perfect.”

Jesus made it clear: Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven” (Luke 6:37). At the same time, He didn’t instruct us to condone, endorse, or even ignore the sins of others when they become evident.

We find a classic example in the gospel of John, when Jesus is confronted by religious leaders prepared to stone a woman caught in adultery. After listening to those “teachers of the law and Pharisees” describe the circumstances, He tells them, "If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her." Perhaps shamed in being forced to confront their own guilt, one by one the men walk away, leaving behind their “weapons” as they go.

There it is – don’t judge the sins of others. Jesus was making that clear. However, sometimes we forget what happened next.

After the men have departed, Jesus and the woman are standing there alone. He asks her, "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?" She responds, "No one, sir." Jesus then replies, "Then neither do I condemn you," but doesn’t stop there. He concludes by telling her, "Go now and leave your life of sin." Or as other translations say, "Go and sin no more" (John 8:3-11).

So we're not to judge others – because we all sin in different ways and are equally reprehensible before a holy God. And yet, we’re never instructed to condone or endorse wrongful actions, even though the prevailing culture of our times seems to insist we must.

While He did not condemn the woman clearly caught in sin – Jesus knew the law – the Lord did not excuse her. He didn’t say, "Hey, girl, it's okay. Ya gotta do what ya gotta do." No, He simply told her, “Go and sin no more.”

That, to me, is the biblical model of how to react to the sins of others. We’re not to judge – that’s God’s job, and He doesn’t need our help. But contrary to what “tolerant” society advocates, we’re not instructed to blindly accept, justify or applaud the sins of others, whatever those might be.

In love, with grace and understanding, we’re to offer support and encouragement for broken people trying to deal with and overcome their sins, recognizing our own brokenness and knowing we also have fallen far short from God’s perfect and divine standard.

And we’re to apply the words of Jesus to ourselves. He’s telling us as well to “go and sin no more.” In our own ability, this often seems difficult – maybe even impossible. That’s why it’s important to remember, echoing the words of the apostle Paul, “I can do everything through him (Jesus) who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:13). We can’t – but He can.

Monday, April 13, 2015

The Importance of Guarding Our Heart

Almost every day we hear something about heart disease, whether on a news report, a TV commercial, or a post on the Internet. And to an extent, that’s justified. We cringe at the sound of “cancer,” but heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women of most ethnicities in the United States. The overriding message is we need to learn how to guard our hearts from a variety of dangers.

I know this firsthand, since both of my parents died of heart disease, and I’m a survivor. More than eight years ago I underwent open-heart surgery, and since then – for the most part – I’ve been diligent to take care of my heart. This has included regular, rigorous exercise; trying to eat properly (again, for the most part!), and taking medications as prescribed. But what concerns me even more is a different form of “heart disease” we tend to overlook.

The determination to "guard your
heart" must be intentional.
Proverbs 4:23 admonishes, “Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.” In this instance, the passage is not referring to an organ, the cardiac muscle that keeps blood pulsing through our veins and arteries. It’s addressing our minds – the origin of our desires and motives.

The word wellspring is not a term we hear every day. One definition is “a continuous, seemingly inexhaustible source or supply of something.” So in this instance, when the Proverbs passage talks about the heart, it’s about protecting the source of what we think, how we feel, the attitudes we hold, and ultimately, who we are and how we act.

How do we go about guarding this “wellspring”? Well, it depends. Sometimes a change in environment is in order. As my friend, Jim Lange, noted recently in his own blog, environmental factors can affect our hearts positively or negatively. In some instances a change of place is needed – going to a different location to clear your head, to get your “heart” right again. This is why vacations can provide wonderful, restorative therapy.

But sometimes changing the physical environment isn’t an option. It’s our “natural habitat,” where we live and work, the people with whom we interact, along with the information available to us on a daily basis. For this reason it’s important to sort out what we allow to fill our minds, just as a programmer would monitor and control software being used in a computer.

As Jim noted, sometimes it’s toxic people – those that are perpetually negative, whose conversations are anything but uplifting and edifying. If we want to remain in a healthy, positive state of mind, more than a small dose of such individuals can be very detrimental.

Years ago I was an avid reader of horror novels, books in which elements of the occult were described in detail. After my pastor gave a sermon on what the Bible teaches about occult practices, I asked him whether my enjoyment of fiction on that topic was out of line. He gave an excellent response: “You’ve got to decide that. But consider this – when you read those books, are they pointing you toward God, or away from Him?”

Guarding our hearts doesn’t just mean avoiding negative “programming” for our minds. In today’s workplace, where men and women often work together intensely on demanding projects, married people must be cognizant of the threat of romantic entanglements and take preventive measures. Extramarital affairs, according to the experts, most commonly result not from spontaneous “one-night stands” but from relationships that slowly drift from working relationships into friendships and then emotional attachments, long before physical intimacy occurs.

So guarding our hearts in the workplace requires setting up appropriate boundaries well in advance of possible temptations. As King Solomon write, “Catch for us the foxes, the little foxes that ruin the vineyards, our vineyards that are in bloom” (Song of Solomon 2:15). Minor, seemingly harmless words, gestures and actions can lead to major consequences.

Just as proper exercise, nutrition and medication work in positive ways to ensure heart health, we also can take steps to promote the well-being of our mental and emotional “heart.” As King David wrote, “How can a young man keep his way pure? By living according to your word…. I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you” (Psalm 119:9-11).

The apostle Paul added, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things” (Philippians 4:8).

In approaching the challenge of “guarding our hearts,” being proactive is far better than being reactive, once the harm has already been done. 

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Where IS God?

As I’ve written in a previous post, in the midst of life’s tragedies – and there are many – it’s not unusual nor surprising to hear people wondering, or even ask ourselves, “Where was God?” It’s a very good and valid question to ask, not only for skeptics but also for people of faith.

This question was raised frequently after the events of 9/11. It was posed when hurricanes Katrina and Sandy wreaked havoc in different parts of the United States. Some asked this recently when another tornado barreled through already ravaged portions of Oklahoma. It's probably often heard on bloody battlefields. This question certainly was on the minds of family members and friends after learning that a co-pilot had intentionally steered a jet carrying their loved ones into the side of a mountain in the French Alps, killing everyone aboard.

This question defies easy answers. In our humanness, we’d like for God to intervene and prevent every calamity, whether it involves a single individual or masses of people, such as the Boston Marathon bombing or a school shooting. Such tragedies do occur, however, and sometimes we can’t help but wonder, “Where was God when this was happening? Why didn’t He act to stop it?”

A student took this photo
the evening after a tornado
struck an Oklahoma town.
We can’t possibly find an answer apart from what we can see only through the eyes of faith. The atheist or agnostic can point to such grievous occurrences and declare, “See, there’s no God! How could your ‘loving God’ permit such things to occur?” Even those of us who do believe are inclined to ask “Why?” or at least, as some have suggested, “What?” In other words, what are we to learn from this tragedy?

Occasionally we do see glimpses of God in very unexpected ways. An infant, still secured in her car seat, survives an accident that claimed the life of her mother. Emergency responders rush to the child’s aid after hearing an unexplained voice that simply called, “Help me.”

In the aftermath of 9/11, we viewed a cross that somehow became fashioned from steel girders during the destruction of the Twin Towers. And recently, a student took a photo of a utility pole in Oklahoma after an F-1 tornado had stormed through town. The bottom portion of the pole had been severed, and the cross tie of the pole was suspended by wires, creating the image again of…a cross.

Such images are interesting – and I don’t believe coincidental. But lest we read too much into what they mean, I think there’s a more important question we should be asking: “Where IS God?”

Thankfully, this isn’t a question that requires speculation or supposition. Because we find the answer in the Scriptures, most notably Psalm 139, where the psalmist writes:

“Where can I go from your Spirit? When can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the seas, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast…even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you” (Psalm 139:7-12).

So the answer to the question, “Where is God?” is simple – everywhere. The theological term for this is omnipresent. The Bible teaches there is nowhere we can go where God is not. He is with us during the good times (when we often don’t even care whether he’s there or not), and He’s there in the bad times, ready to comfort, console, strengthen and, when He determines it’s time, usher us to our eternal home.

If we are confident in this, that God is indeed everywhere, the question concerning where was God when some tragedy occurred might be more easily resolved. As the student commented after taking the photo of the utility pole cross, "Just found this after the tornado. God is with us."

Monday, April 6, 2015

What Are We to Do About Poverty?

How do you feel when you’re walking down a city street and someone approaches you asking for “spare change” or some kind of help? How do you respond?

Do you avoid eye contact and keep walking? Do you pause, politely listen to what the person has to say, and then simply say, “Sorry, I can’t help you”? Do you wish you could peer into the heart of the individual to determine whether there’s a real need – or if this is just one of those I call “the professional poor”? Or do you reach for your wallet, or purse, give some money, and then wonder if you did the right thing?

Randy Nabors' book, MERCIFUL,
offers to help answer questions
many of us ask about poverty.
I’ve done all of the above. One day the receptionist at work summoned me to the front desk to talk with someone seeking help. The man, whose name – like mine – was Robert, asked to speak in private, then told me his car was being repaired. The serpentine belt had broken, he said, and he lacked $18.57 to pay the bill.

I had gone to the bank earlier that day to withdraw cash, so I couldn’t honestly use the “I didn’t have any money” excuse. Since the fellow shared my first name I thought, “Maybe this isn’t a coincidence; perhaps the Lord sent him to me for help.” And “Robert” hadn’t made a general request. He needed a specific amount. So I gave him $20. He thanked me and went on his way.

Weeks later I was talking to a friend who worked at the post office downtown. When I recalled this episode, he laughed. “Oh, that’s the serpentine-belt guy. He comes by the post office once in a while with the same story!”

When I looked in the mirror later that day, I was almost certain the word “SUCKER!” was written across my forehead.

But scenarios like this are a real dilemma. And not all the people who seek assistance are con artists. So what are we to do about the poor – and the larger issue of poverty?

There’s no easy, one-size-fits-all solution, but my friend, Randy Nabors, has just published a book that will be a great resource for many of us who really would like to help those in need, but are puzzled about what are the best things to do.

His book is entitled, MERCIFUL: The Opportunity and Challenge of Discipling the Poor Out of Poverty. (It’s available on There has been much written about the issue of poverty, from many perspectives. But Randy has unique credentials to address this ever-present problem – and suggest workable solutions.

He experienced poverty himself, growing up in the projects of Newark, N.J. with a single mom and several sisters. He never knew his father, and if it weren’t for members of a caring church in their community, Randy could easily have become a sad statistic of urban blight and despair. Instead, involvement in the church taught him simple but important things – such as what a healthy family looked like; how men properly treated their wives, and how to work.

Through the kindness and generosity of a Christian businessman, Randy was able to do what is unimaginable for most inner city youths – go to college. He proceeded to attend seminary, taking along his wife, Joan, whose family had also lived in the projects. Together they struggled, one day at a time, sometimes not knowing the source of their next meal, but determined to pursue Randy’s calling to become a pastor and return to minister to the urban poor.

And that’s what he did, serving many years as pastor of New City Fellowship in Chattanooga, Tenn., a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural congregation with members from every economic level. Guided by Randy’s vision, the church established a very intentional, effective ministry to the poor, providing not only immediate relief but also helping those in need learn how to help themselves and become self-sustaining, productive citizens – and in many cases, church leaders.

The Bible says much about our responsibility to address the needs of the poor, but perhaps the most compelling, convicting passage I’ve ever read is Ezekiel 16:49, “Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; but they did not help the poor and needy.” We could easily replace “Sodom” with “America,” because in many respects we too have become arrogant, overfed and unconcerned.

Randy’s book isn’t just his story, but a comprehensive, well-considered guide for dealing with a pervasive problem in proactive, life-changing ways. Today some people think the answer is simply providing more benefits and raising the minimum wage. Others staunchly contend it’s a matter of poor people taking the initiative to seek out a job.

He points out this problem is far more complex, more deeply rooted than the so-called liberal and conservatives camps understand or are willing to admit. But it’s not hopeless – MERCIFUL offers many real-life stories of people who found the dignity of no longer being dependent on others, for the first time experiencing hope and joy through the power of community, caring relationships, and faith in a God who promises to provide for His children.

And Randy affirms that in coming to the aid of others, there is another kind of joy – just as Jesus described: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me…. I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:35-40).

What the poor need – according to Randy, a man who knows better than most of us, having been both beneficiary and benefactor in the war on poverty – Is not pity or dispassionate handouts that only perpetuate misery. They need mercy – biblical mercy that manifests the love of God in both tangible and practical ways that feed people not only for a day, but also for a lifetime.

MERCIFUL. The title makes sense. As the Scriptures tell us, “And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).

Thursday, April 2, 2015

The Holiday Some People Love to Hate

As holidays go, it seems Easter occupies one of the bottom rungs on the marketing ladder. Sure, it has Easter bunnies, jellybeans and candy rabbits, but it definitely lacks the hype of Christmas, or even Thanksgiving.

Christmas has Santa Claus, reindeer, elves, greeting cards, wrapping paper, trees and tinsel, carols, TV specials, and a selling machine that now begins around the middle of September. Thanksgiving has turkey and dressing, pilgrims, pumpkin pie, parades, stomach-busting feasts, and football games.

By contrast, about all Easter really has is…Jesus Christ. And that’s as it should be.

Symbols that surround Easter – like three crosses on Calvary and an empty tomb – aren’t the stuff that make Madison Avenue ad agencies jump for joy, but for followers of Jesus they are indispensable elements of their faith. Without the cross and the vacated tomb representing the resurrected Christ, there would be no cause for either Christmas or Thanksgiving. At least not in a spiritual sense.

And maybe that’s why Easter will never rise to the top of the all-time holiday hits list.

Because there’s something about a cross, and a tomb that’s empty, and a resurrected Lord who declares, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).

Because when so many in the world argue, “Well, if there is a God, I believe there are many ways to God,” Jesus simply replies, “That’s not so.” Instead, He affirms, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10).

Because God says we need not fear death – with only one condition: Jesus. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son” (John 3:16-18).

My last post was about names and the power of names, ones that can evoke strong mental and emotional responses. The Bible asserts there is one name that defies comparison: “Therefore God exalted him (Jesus) to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name” (Philippians 2:9).

What is the impact of this name, Jesus? The passage continues, “that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:10-11).

To this some might state, “This doesn’t sound very inclusive!” Others might protest, “Where is the tolerance in that?”

The “tolerance” is in Jesus going to the cross, not for any wrong He had done, but for all of the wrongs – the sins – others had done. “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). He literally hated the sin but loved the sinners, dying on our behalf.

And then, He offered not only forgiveness but also a transforming new life. “We were therefore buried with him in baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (Romans 6:4).

So I’m glad Easter doesn’t rank with Christmas or even Thanksgiving in terms of commercial holidays. Because it’s about a gift, a reason for celebration that is priceless beyond anything this world could ever offer. Something that, sadly, some people so resent that they hate the day for what it means.

Easter commemorates the day when an angel proclaimed to the women who had come to visit the grave of Jesus that “He is not here; he has risen, just as he said” (Matthew 28:6).

And because of this, every man, woman and child who professes the name of Jesus – the entire worldwide body of Christ – can declare, “Hallelujah!”