Thursday, July 30, 2015

Life Through the Lens of a Camera

Principles of good photography mirror principles for good living.

“Life is like a camera: Just focus on what’s important, capture the good times, develop from the negatives, and if things don’t work out, just take another shot.”

Reading this post on Facebook, I resonated with it because that’s been my experience, both behind the camera and in life. It’s no secret I love to write. (Actually, like many professional writers, I hate to write – but I love to have written!) But my other passion, an avocation that at times has been central to my vocation, is photography.

I’ve enjoyed taking pictures most of my life, but didn’t seriously engage in photography before becoming a graduate teaching assistant in photojournalism in college. I learned about film developing and photo processing, but most of all had my first chance to take photos with a quality SLR camera, which at the time was a Nikkormat FTN.

When I became the editor of two suburban community newspapers, and then a business magazine, being able to photograph people I interviewed, as well as the settings where I traveled, proved invaluable.

Today, for the most part the days of film and the laborious task of printing photos have faded into artistic history with the advent of digital photography. It used to be when people asked, “Did you get any good pictures?” I’d reply that I would know as soon as the film had been processed and the photos printed. Now we can tell immediately. The camera’s digital viewer – whether on a true digital camera or a smart phone – shows whether we’ve captured the desired image. If not, we can easily discard unsatisfactory photos to free up space on the memory card.

So in a sense, life is indeed similar to the quote above. If we succeed in focusing on what’s truly important, rather than getting entangled by life’s minutiae and things of lesser importance, we can get a lot more accomplished – and enjoy it more as we do it. As my favorite devotional writer, Oswald Chambers, often stated in his book, My Utmost for His Highest, “good is the enemy of the best.” In other words, strive to discern what’s really important and concentrate on that, even when many other urgent needs are beckoning.

One reason I usually have a camera in hand as I travel is that I can capture interesting images that help me to recall enjoyable moments. Thankfully, we also have memories (at least most of us do) that help in storing away experiences we’ll long cherish.

An interesting thing about printing pictures from negatives is that the photo (the “positive”) is the opposite of the negative. Similarly in life, as we’re struggling through pain and hardship, we can learn to turn those bad experiences into positive, growing opportunities to enhance our lives moving forward. In Philippians 3:13-14, the apostle Paul wrote, “I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal of the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”

As Paul showed in other passages, he didn’t develop amnesia about his past, but didn’t dwell on his failings and wrong decisions. Instead, he used them as preparation for faithful, fruitful service to his Lord and the people God sent his way.

I love the last phrase in the original quote, "and if things don’t work out, just take another shot." This is so true in photography today – take a photo, check it out on the digital display, and if it’s not good enough, take another. We don’t have to worry any longer about wasting film. In life, of course, we can’t simply “delete” events and experiences we don’t like. At the same time, we do have the choice of either wallowing in the past and letting it swallow us up, or we can “take another shot” at whatever we were aiming at.

So much of life consists of the mundane, drudgery that seems devoid of purpose. Going nowhere fast describes a lot of everyday living. But if we’re willing to persevere, to remain focused on our goals, not letting ourselves become distracted by matters of lesser importance, we can eventually arrive at our intended destination.

As Paul exhorted followers of Christ in the ancient city of Corinth, Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 15:58). Elsewhere he wrote, “Let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we will reap if we do not grow weary” (Galatians 6:9).

So there we have it, a simple recipe for good photography – and successful living:
·       Focus on what’s important
·       Capture the good times
·       Develop from the negatives·        
·       If things don’t work out, take another shot.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Opportunity No Longer Opportune?

It used to be said, “When Opportunity knocks, don’t forget to answer the door.” Now, apparently, when Opportunity chooses to knock, we should respond by shouting, “Go away, you racist, sexist so-and-so!”

Recently University of California faculty members were provided a list of “microaggressive” terms to be avoided, words and phrases that could be construed as bigotry. Among them is the term, “land of opportunity.” Part of the reasoning, it seems, is that it “assert(s) that race and gender (do) not play a role in life successes.” Gee, who knew? Years ago when I was hiring staff people and discussed the opportunity they could have in working for us, I had no idea I was offending anyone. Sorry ‘bout that!

When opportunity knocks,
who is answering?
These days it’s not opportunity, but entitlement that has many people excited. If you’re a certain demographic, there are those who believe you’re automatically entitled, whether you’re deserving or not. Simply having the opportunity isn’t enough.

Looking over my life, I can recall many instances when I had opportunities – and other times when I didn’t. I was able to earn a high school diploma, then attend and graduate from college, earn a master’s degree, and then become hired for a succession of jobs that afforded me many opportunities for growth both professionally and personally.

But I never had the opportunity to play basketball in the NBA, college or even high school. Too short, too slow, too uncoordinated. Shame on those coaches for being so intolerant of my deficiencies!

I’ve never had the opportunity to become CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Guess I wasn’t brash enough to say “You’re fired!”, or good-looking enough to appear in TV commercials. And no one yet has given me the opportunity to perform brain surgery. (And countless thousands, whether they know it or not, are grateful for that.)

But then I think of my grandparents, who immigrated to the United States from Hungary, passing through the portals of Ellis Island outside New York City. They came to this country because they did view it as a “land of opportunity,” and seemed to forge reasonably happy, successful lives. My grandfathers worked in steel mills of McKeesport, Pa., and while they never earned more money than required for the daily needs of their families, I don’t recall my parents talking about anyone dying of starvation or suffering from other forms of deprivation.

Today we have men and women of all ethnicities and backgrounds that have risen to positions of prominence in virtually all strata of society. This doesn’t mean everyone is destined to hold roles of high influence, but that doesn’t mean they can’t experience fulfilling lives.

Thinking of opportunities, perhaps most important are the assurances the Bible gives us of what God offers to us all. In Jeremiah 29:11, we’re told He has a purpose for us all. “’For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’”

We’re given the opportunity to join with God in this great enterprise He’s established on earth. For we are God's fellow workers; you are God's field, God's building” (1 Corinthians 3:9).

The Lord extends to us the opportunity and privilege of serving as His representatives in a world that desperately needs to know and see Him in action in the lives of His people. “We are therefore Christ's ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ's behalf: Be reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5:20).

Perhaps best of all, God invites us to share in the most special of opportunities, to become members of His eternal family. For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, 'Abba! Father!' The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God” (Romans 8:15-16).

Jesus said, “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me” (Revelation 3:20). More than 35 years ago I answered the door when Jesus knocked, and when I get caught up in the busyness of life, He continues to knock, reminding me that He’s there, ready to spend time with me. This greatest opportunity of all is available to anyone who will accept it.

In many nations, men, women and children who profess faith in Christ face threats of violent persecution, even death. Today in the United States, opposition toward those who believe in the Bible and follow Jesus seems on the increase, but at least for now we have the opportunity – the freedom – to worship and order our lives according to our convictions.

And for those feel disinclined to believe in Jesus, the Bible, or even a God of all creation, that opportunity is there for them as well.

So do we live in the “land of opportunity”? In more ways than not, I’d have to say that we do.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Forgiveness: The Gift You Give Yourself

The response by some family members and friends of the victims of the shootings at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, along with members of the congregation, has heartened many, confused some, and confounded others.

The response of grieving friends
and family members of Emanuel
AME Church has added another
chapter to its rich story of faith.
One day after the shooter (whom I won’t name, since he’s already gotten enough notoriety) killed nine men and women, despite sitting among them for about an hour at a prayer meeting at the historic church, some surviving family members stated they had forgiven the assailant, despite his merciless and horrendous acts.

A spirited and sometimes agitated discussion and debate resulted, with some people hailing the expressions of forgiveness and other observers commenting it’s too early or perhaps even unwarranted for numerous reasons.

How can you forgive someone who for no cause at all has taken the life of a loved one? How do you forgive the unjustified hatred that would motivate such mayhem? And how can you forgive someone when he has not even shown any evidence of remorse or repentance?

From a purely human standpoint, it’s difficult if not impossible to do. One’s honest, natural response is for justice or vengeance. For some, forgiveness in the face of unthinkable evil seems like repaying the vicious with kindness. And for some it borders precipitously on condoning or excusing the heinous crime.

I can’t say how I would respond – and hope I’ll never have to find out. But I’d like to think my reaction would mirror that of the grieving men and women at that noble African-American church. Because as followers of Jesus Christ, that’s what we’re instructed to do.

For one reason, if we’re to be like Christ, we should act as He did. On the cross, enduring the most excruciating form of execution mankind has ever conceived, He said, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). I won’t delve into the theology behind that statement, but not long before His crucifixion Jesus gave His followers a veiled reference when He said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23).

The apostle Peter elaborated on this, stating, To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps” (1 Peter 2:21).

Also, when Jesus made the statement people often quote, “Do not judge, and you will not be judged” (Luke 6:37), in the same breath He continued by saying, “Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.”

Our heads may shouting, “No, I can’t!” along with our hearts. But to that He simply replies, “Do it – because I said so.”

But there’s another good reason for forgiving even the most egregious wrongs. We can do it for ourselves. We talk a lot about the “pursuit of happiness,” and no one has ever found unrestrained anger and bitterness and wrath to be effective paths for becoming happy. All those emotions achieve is misery and multiplied pain. 

The apostle Paul wisely wrote, “In your anger, do not sin. Do not let the sun go down while you are angry” (Ephesians 4:26). He was not saying we don’t have a right to feel angry when wronged, whether the offense is minor or of unimaginable magnitude. He was telling us not to allow our ire – no matter how justified – to control us and fester, like an emotional cancer day after day.

You want to know courage and bravery? We saw in the faces of those men and women in Charleston, looking at the monster who had killed their beloved family members and friends, expressing forgiveness and essentially telling the shooter, “We will not allow you to cause any more death by stealing our joy and peace and hope. Your hatred will not govern our hearts.”

Monday, July 20, 2015

Never, Never, Never Give Up!

“Never, never, never give up!” This exhortation by Winston Churchill is one of the British statesman’s most-remembered quotations. It was adapted from a speech he gave in 1941 at the Harrow School in London, England.

His complete, original statement was, "Never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.''

At the time, England was in the early stages of World War II, and it served as a rallying cry to persevere in the face of great adversity. More than 70 years later, Churchill’s exhortation still makes good sense for any pursuit in life. It works if competing in a marathon, struggling to establish a successful business, working for a college degree, striving for a promotion at work, trying to learn a new skill, or even building a marriage. Maybe especially in building a marriage.

Today marks our 41st wedding anniversary, a milestone that is more the exception today than the rule. I cite this not for self-commendation, because if anything, my wife Sally deserves a gold medal for putting up with me over the years. We didn’t adopt it as a motto, but “never, never, never give up” has played a big part in our marriage spanning four decades.

Sometimes couples are asked the “secrets” to their longevity. You didn’t ask, but here are some quick words of advice I’d offer for achieving a long – and loving – marriage:
1)     Marry relatively young. If you wait to marry until your 40’s, reaching 40-plus years of marriage will require living into your 80’s.
2)     Live a long time regardless. Even if you marry in your 20’s, you’ll still need to enter your seventh decade to attain a 40-year marriage.
3)     Don't use the “D” word. If you never utter the word “divorce,” it never becomes a possibility. Too many couples, when they encounter difficulties in their relationship, say something like, “Well, maybe we should just get a divorce.” Suddenly it becomes an option on the table. So don’t do it.

The first two, of course, are in jest. There’s some other advice, however, my wife and I have followed through the years that has truly made a difference for us. It’s here for your consideration:

“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her…each one of you must love his wife as himself, and the wife must respect her husband” (Ephesians 5:25). Too often in a marriage, one spouse looks to the other for meeting all of his or her needs. When it says Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, it means He willingly died for His “bride.” He didn’t have to, but was willing to sacrifice Himself for the one He loved. This, the Bible says, should be the attitude of the husband.

Interestingly, wives aren’t commanded to sacrificially love their husbands, but to respect them. I’m hardly an expert on the dynamics of husbands and wives – other than what I’ve gained through trial and error. But one noted authority on marriage, Dr. Willard Harley, has observed one of the foremost things men desire in a marriage is admiration, to be respected. Sadly, when they don’t receive that in marriage, some are tempted to seek it elsewhere.

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil, but rejoices in the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7). These words are often recited at wedding ceremonies, but too frequently forgotten before the reception starts.

This passage says love isn’t merely a warm, fuzzy emotion. It’s a commitment, a determination to make something whole and beautiful by the merging of two imperfect, broken human beings who resolve to seek the best for one another.

We all desire to be happy in marriage, but never-ending happiness and perpetual bliss are the stuff of fairy tales, not real-life marital relationships. There will be sadness and strife, anger and frustration. My wife and I have weathered financial problems, career hurdles, parenting challenges, illness (open-heart surgery and cancer treatment) and other forms of adversity. If anything, these difficulties have all made us stronger and drawn us closer together.

And the final phrase of the 1 Corinthians 13 passage, “always perseveres,” echoes Churchill’s famed quote. In resolving to “never, never, never give up,” a marriage won’t just survive. It will thrive – and hopefully serve as an example to other fellow strugglers.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

What Jesus Said – and What He Didn’t

What’s the true measure of being famous? Is it having someone write your biography? I can think of some “famous only for being famous” people whose biographies weren’t worth writing, let alone reading. But what about a book consisting of your most notable quotations?

I own several quotation books, including volumes of statements by C.S. Lewis, Oswald Chambers, G.K. Chesterton and Abraham Lincoln. I also have several books with assorted quotes from various sources, but to have one’s own quotations book, that’s impressive.

Even Jesus is the focus for quotations books, such as The Complete Sayings of Jesus and Quotable Jesus. Of course, the best resources for what Jesus said are the four gospels, along with other New Testament statements. But compiling “the complete sayings of Jesus” seems a bit presumptuous. After all, John 21:25 states, “Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.”

Although the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John provide a three-dimensional picture of Jesus Christ, it’s foolish to assume they contain everything of significance He said and did during His time on earth.

I mention this because Jesus is being quoted a lot these days, often to support a wide variety of viewpoints. Some people’s “Jesus Christ Quote Book,” however, would probably consist of only one or two pages, because they seem focused on two of Jesus’ declarations: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31), and “Do not judge, or you too will be judged” (Matthew 7:1).

Both without doubt are profound, powerful statements. But like most thoughts that are expressed, they should be considered in proper context.

For instance, when Jesus said we’re to love our neighbors as ourselves, He was responding to someone who had asked which commandment He considered most important. Jesus replied, “The most important one is this…the Lord our God, the Lord is one. 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 12:29-30). He then added the admonition to love our neighbors.

For some reason, many people that cite Jesus’ exhortation about loving others “forget” the first part of His statement. Probably just a simple oversight.

When Jesus said we shouldn’t judge others, unless we want to be judged by the same standard, He wasn’t advocating a “live and let live,” laissez-faire, “do whatever you want to do” attitude. He was stating, “For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (Matthew 7:2). The Bible clearly states that, like it or not, God will judge us all. So when we’re tempted to judge others, we should first take an honest, serious appraisal of ourselves.

While citing some of Jesus’ statements, people often overlook many of His other unequivocal exhortations. For instance, many of us like to be in charge, and reject being under the authority of others. Yet Jesus said, "Whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant" (Mark 10:43). Two verses later He declared, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Another of Jesus’ tough teachings we tend to overlook is Luke 9:23, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” Whoa! Deny self? Take up our cross – die to self? Who wants that? Maybe that’s why this quote isn’t frequently mentioned.

Not only do people selectively tell us what Jesus said (or think He said), but they also assert what He didn’t say – at least based on the gospels. For instance, they claim Jesus never said anything about homosexuality or gay marriage. In a sense, that’s true – there are no direct statements attributed to Jesus in the four gospels on those and some other topics. But then again, He never talked about texting while driving, animal cruelty, leaving children in hot cars, or being addicted to drugs, but we can hardly conclude He was in favor of those.

As noted in that last verse of the gospel of John, Jesus did and said lots of things not recorded in the biblical accounts. We don’t have a moment-by-moment transcript of all His conversations and interactions with people. But what we have is very instructive and informative.

For instance, Jesus knew the Old Testament law, and those laws addressed many of the issues some people claim He spoke nothing about. He said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished” (Matthew 5:17-18). And the Old Testament does address issues Jesus didn’t comment on directly.

And how did He know the law so well? We’re told in 2 Timothy 3:16, “All Scripture is inspired by God….” And Jesus boldly announced, which the Jewish priests took as a blasphemous claim, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30). In essence, He not only read and studied the Scriptures; He authored them.

Moral of the story? Be cautious when proclaiming what Jesus did and didn’t say.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Temptation: The Equal Opportunity Troublemaker

“I can overcome anything – except temptation.” I don’t know who first made this admission, but it was probably Adam and Eve. And we’ve been saying it ever since. Must be “part of our DNA.”

The first biblical couple, of course, had been given everything they needed in the Garden of Eden, and God had provided unlimited access to all but one thing – the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, which stood in the middle of the garden. That alone was off limits, out of bounds, verboten. But like little kids told not to touch a hot stove, or to keep their fingers out of the cookie jar, the temptation was too much to withstand.

Just because the flower looks pretty, that
doesn't mean it's not a pesky weed.
They probably didn’t run immediately to the forbidden tree to sample its forbidden fruit. They most likely strolled all around paradise, enraptured by all they saw, tasted, smelled and experienced, but every once in a while would glance at the tree labeled “Don’t Touch.” Eventually, their glances turned to longing and, prodded by the tempter, Adam and Eve started thinking, “Why can’t we eat from that tree? What’s so special about that one? Is its fruit better than all the others we’ve already tried? Why won’t God let us have fruit from that tree? If God is truly a loving God, He’d let us have it too!”

Ultimately the temptation won out. They eased over to the taboo tree, plucked a piece of fruit and took a bite. Hence they engaged in what theologians call “the original sin,” instigating the Fall of Man, and we’ve been wrestling with temptation and sin ever since.

As someone has wisely noted, if sin wasn’t fun, we wouldn’t want to do it. Stuff we don’t like or don’t want to do doesn’t trouble us at all. I’m not tempted to eat liver, or Brussels sprouts – I don’t like them. But hotdogs and French fries, pizza, or an ice cream sundae, those are another matter. I’m not tempted to squander hours watching the craziness of the Kardashians, “The Bachelor” or “Honey Boo-Boo,” but can easily become mesmerized by a marathon of “Twilight Zone” episodes or repeats of “NCIS.”

Being made in the image of a Creator God, we have repaid Him by becoming amazingly creative, even in the types of temptations that captivate us. We’re tempted by greed, gluttony, sexual lust and cravings of other kinds, selfishness, envy, anger, resentment, pride, independence from God, arrogance, even – as one website recently pointed – taking questionable shortcuts to success. Why invest time and struggle and energy if we can achieve our goals the “easy way”?

“I can’t help it!” we offer as justification when temptation gets the best of us and we succumb to sin. “The devil made me do it!” we protest, echoing the excuse of Flip Wilson’s “Geraldine” from TV years ago. “I’m only human!” we explain, essentially implying it’s God’s fault.

But we can’t blame God because the Scriptures assure us He will never tempt us to sin. James 1:13-14 declares, “When tempted, no one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone, but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed.”

Earlier in this passage it does state God “tests” us: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance…” (James 1:2-4). But there’s great difference between “tempting” and “testing.”

Tempting is being presented with an opportunity to do wrong, to sin. Testing, on the other hand, has the positive goal of presenting us with an opportunity to grow spiritually, to excel in our faith. It’s like the difference between one athlete who, as the big game approaches, elects not to work out and instead spends the day drinking beer and eating potato chips, while another spends several hours in the training room, doing everything necessary for being at his best for the game.

We can play the “Nobody’s perfect” card, a convenient alibi for doing – or not doing – as we know we should. But as an old friend of mine pointed out, “You can’t keep the birds from flying over your head, but you can prevent them from building a nest in your hair.”

Certain temptations vex each one of us, and what tempts me might not faze you. But we all know our own temptations and through diligence we can avoid what James describes: “…after desire is conceived, it gives birth to sin, and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death” (James 1:15).

Fortunately, the Scriptures promise that temptation followed by sin doesn’t have to be our “default setting.” There’s a way out, it says: “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and He will not let you be tempted beyond your ability but with the temptation will also provide the way of escape” (1 Corinthians 10:13). 

For a recovering alcoholic, the “way of escape” can mean not entering the local bar. The person wanting to remain faithful to his or her spouse might need to avoid a compromising setting with an attractive coworker on a business trip. Maybe the “shopaholic” needs to avoid the mall. The embittered family member may need to extend forgiveness, even if undeserved or not requested.

Temptations are all around us, beckoning to us like roadway billboards. But they don’t have to assemble nests in our hair.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

When All Else Fails . . .

It may seem old-fashioned, but perhaps these are times
when it would help it we remembered to pray.

It’s sometimes said that when you point a finger toward someone else, at least three fingers point back toward yourself. And as I write today, that’s exactly what I’m doing – pointing at myself.

Many of us, in one way or another, carry considerable concern about events transpiring in the United States – and around the world. We fret over terrorism and its ever-present threat to our safety and well-being. Issues of racism and other forms of discrimination weigh heavily on many of our hearts. Every morning the chatty news shows darken our moods, telling us about new dangers looming before us.

There are myriad other matters, ranging from poverty and economics to the present and future leadership of our nation to the incessant, often embittered cultural clashes going on all around us. We wring our hands. We mutter, grumble and complain. We verbalize our views via social media, as well as in casual conversations that can quickly escalate into debates and arguments. But in the end, we often feel dispirited and helpless, powerless to do anything to facilitate changes we believe are so needed.

What’s a person to do? At such times, I’m often reminded of the exhortation, “When all else fails…pray.”

Too often prayer – even for those of us who profess to follow and worship Jesus Christ, not only as Savior but also as Lord – becomes that last resort, something we turn to when nothing else has seemed to work. Admittedly, that’s the case for me. I worry, fret, vent my frustrations, even wonder how I could intervene directly. Then it occurs to me that maybe it might help to pray.

In actuality, prayer should be one of the first things we undertake, definitely something we continue to do as we are pursuing other courses of action. However, this doesn’t necessitate stopping in our tracks and dropping to our knees, or scurrying to some location that seems appropriately spiritual. Prayer should be as simple as the act of turning to a friend to converse, or picking up our cell phone and making a quick call.

One of the first Bible verses I ever learned was 1 Thessalonians 5:17, “pray without ceasing.” (How hard can it be to memorize a passage consisting of just three words?) If you prefer an even more concise version, it’s translated, “pray continually,” in the New International Version.

As I pondered these simple yet profound words, it occurred to me we’re being told to remain in a continual attitude of prayer, rather than restricting it to specific times and places. And I think that’s as God intends. One of the last things Jesus declared before ascending to heaven was, “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).

Yes, prayer can take the form of  comfortable, casual communication, but there’s also a sense of urgency surrounding it. Repeatedly in the Scriptures we instructed to pray. James 5:16 states, “The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.”

Despite his lofty status as a leader of the early Church, the apostle Paul also understood the importance of prayer: “Pray also for me, that whenever I open my mouth, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel…. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should” (Ephesians 6:19-20).

I’ve made mention of this passage before, but in 2 Chronicles 7:14 God assures, “if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”

The fact is, praying fervently can be extremely humbling. It’s an admission of our need for and dependence on God, and if we’ve waited “until all else fails,” we’re also acknowledging we’ve exhausted all other alternatives.

I know there are some who would disagree, but I’m convinced one of the reasons our great country has reached a crossroads of conflict and dissension, seeing a growing divide instead of unity which once defined our land, is because we’ve eliminated God from the equation. Instead of turning to Him for answers, for His mercy and grace and love to be manifested in us and through us, we’ve determined to do things our own way, apart from Him.

In the coming days and months, if the past is any predictor, divisions and disunity and discord figure to escalate rather than evaporate. Civil discourse seems virtually impossible anymore. So we can give up, conceding all is beyond hope. Or we can pray, humbling ourselves – getting over ourselves – and surrendering to God’s sovereign intervention as He responds to our persistent intercessions.

As we’re advised in Philippians 4:6, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” I wonder what would happen if we determined to do this consistently and continually. When tempted to gripe and moan, instead we would pray. When inclined to type a sharp retort on Facebook or Twitter, instead we would pray. When moved to lash out in anger, instead we would pray.

Let’s face it: As we survey all that’s going on around us, it seems pretty obvious that all else has indeed failed. So let’s pray.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Outward Appearances Can Be Deceiving

“Beauty is only skin deep – but ugliness goes clear to the bone!” This nonsensical saying dates back to my boyhood years, but underscores our human fixation with how we look on the outside.

Most of us really do have a thing about outward appearances. We draw conclusions about people based on the houses they live in, cars they drive, vacations they take, jobs they have, even the books they read and movies they see.

We watch the ”beautiful people” – stars from Hollywood and all realms of the entertainment world strolling red carpets, regaled in their finest attire (or in some cases, lack of attire). We gaze at their smiling faces and presume what nice people they must be. Experts on political campaigning tell us the candidates most likely to win are those that succeed at looking good on the TV screen, who can project themselves as personable, attractive, approachable, sincere, clever, and “just like us.” It’s call telegenics.

The problem with using outward
appearances to judge people is
we can't see their hearts.
Makes me wonder if Abraham Lincoln, gawky and ordinary-looking as he was, would ever have had a chance at the Presidency had he been running today.

But this concentration on how folks look on the outside isn’t limited to celebrities and politicians. When we meet someone new, most of us find ourselves – consciously or subconsciously – sizing them up based on their externals.

We assess them based on how they’re dressed and groomed, the way they smell, and their natural physical attributes: Pretty (or not). Strong (or weak). Successful (or not). Intelligent and/or educated (or not). Wealthy, middle class, or poor. Happy and friendly, or angry and aloof.

One national magazine recently reported in the near future cosmetic surgery will become, for most people, not a matter of “if,” but rather, “when” and “how much.” Largely, all in the name of “lookin’ good.” The reasoning is if people are going to gauge who we are according to our outward appearance, we might as well do whatever we can to enhance the effect.

Even though Jesus said, “Do not judge or you too will be judged” (Matthew 7:1), we do it anyway. We appraise people according to gender and age, for good or ill. For instance, if I’m leaving a restaurant and hold the door for a women going in, she may regard me as polite, maybe even gentlemanly – or she might think I’m condescending and sexist. Even though we’ve never met, the woman could make a snap judgment about me based on what she sees and her biases.

Have you ever observed an elderly person driving a car a bit slowly and concluded something like, “That person really should take a new driver’s test. Probably shouldn’t even be on the road”? Many of us have, and yet we know nothing about that person – except what we can observe outwardly.

I remember a time when I was in college – many years ago – being stopped by police officers, even though I had done nothing wrong. My “crime” was wearing my hair long enough to fit me into the category of “those hippie types.” Yes, I was “profiled,” long before anyone used the term.

Fixation with outward appearances, of course, is central to racism and other forms of prejudice. We make assumptions about people that look a certain way, and react accordingly, without knowing anything about who they truly are. Why bother getting to know people when you can fit them into handy, one-size-fits-all stereotypes, right?

Thankfully, God isn’t that way. In fact, the Bible says He’s just the opposite. In searching for someone to succeed King Saul to lead the nation of Israel, the prophet Samuel learned, “The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). On that basis, God chose an unassuming sheepherder – David – to become king. A young man who initially didn’t look the part, but as it turned out, was “a man after God’s own heart” (Acts 13:22).

Years later, David’s son, Solomon, who succeeded him as king, made a similar observation: “All a man’s ways seem right to him, but the Lord weighs the heart” (Proverbs 21:2).

Outwardly we may appear to have the purest motives. We might have even convinced ourselves that our intentions are the best for everyone involved. But God sees behind well-crafted fa├žades and examines our hearts, sometimes revealing motivations not as noble or pure as we might want people to believe.

One time Jesus confronted the prideful, self-assured religious leaders of His day. He minced no words: Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean” (Matthew 23:27). Not exactly the way to win friends and influence people, but Jesus was calling it as He saw it – viewing their sinful, self-righteous hearts.

Unfortunately, we can’t peer into someone’s heart as God can. But we can ask Him for wisdom as we interface with others. Then we can invest the time necessary to get acquainted with them, seeking to know their inner person before jumping to conclusions that might prove way off base.

Wouldn’t we want other people to do the same for us?

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Confessions of an Unapologetic Flag-Waver

Is patriotism dead? On life support, perhaps? In some ways it would appear to be. Protesters burn American flags for various reasons – or non-reasons – and many pundits view that as their right to free speech.

Immigrants from other nations benefit from living in the U.S.A., but show disrespect for American traditions. On the West Coast, Muslim residents of a housing complex protested when a fellow resident proudly displayed the flag, claiming it was offensive and made them feel threatened. Can we say, “Really? Seriously?”

Statesmen in the past seemed to revel in the Stars and Stripes, but today numerous elected officials apparently view such practices as wearing an American flag lapel pin, or even putting their hands over their heart during the singing of the National Anthem as beneath their dignity. Celebrities, many of whom have enjoyed firsthand the benefits of “the American dream,” boldly declare how ashamed they are of America.

Again, the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to free speech – politically correct, of course – so I suppose they’re exercising that right. But as a bonafide “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” born on the 4th of July, I would hope this Independence Day the patriots among us will again rise up and declare our pride in our flag, our nation, and in being true Americans.

The United States is far from perfect, and people are entitled to object in a dignified manner to injustices and wrongdoing. But when I see the 50 stars on a field of blue, along with the stripes of red and white, I don’t see them symbolizing materialism and greed, prejudice or social disparity. I see them as representing the courage of men, women and children who came to our shores centuries ago to start a new life. I see them as emblematic of the thousands upon thousands of lives sacrificed to protect the values and principles upon which this nation was established.

The website,, discusses the colors of the American flag and what they represent:
The colors red, white, and blue did not have meanings for the Stars and Stripes when it was adopted in 1777. However, the colors in the Great Seal did have specific meanings. Charles Thompson, Secretary of the Continental Congress, reporting to Congress on the Seal, stated:
"The colors of the pales (the vertical stripes) are those used in the flag of the United States of America: White signifies purity and innocence, Red, hardiness & valour, and Blue, the color of the Chief (the broad band above the stripes) signifies vigilance, perseverance & justice."
Also, from a book about the flag published in 1977 by the House of Representatives:
"The star is a symbol of the heavens and the divine goal to which man has aspired from time immemorial; the stripe is symbolic of the rays of light emanating from the sun."

I wholeheartedly believe we can respect and revere the American flag, which has weathered storms both internal and external, while acknowledging much remains to be done on many fronts to better serve and protect its citizens. Even though my immediate ancestors came to the United States in the early 1900s, they and subsequent generations have enjoyed much of what this nation and its society have to offer. For that I’m extremely grateful, and hope that in some small way I’ve been not only a beneficiary but also a contributor.

That being said, I don’t believe we are – or ever truly were – a “Christian nation.” There has always been room for disparate beliefs, as well as unbelief. And history shows our founding fathers reflected the spectrum of these. But our Declaration of Independence speaks of all men being “created equal,” not evolving, and “being endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” Our statesmen through the centuries have affirmed belief in the divine, ranging from George Washington, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, to Abraham Lincoln, to more contemporary Presidents and government leaders.

The United States has long stood as unique among the world’s nations. Some have termed it, ‘The Great Experiment.” While I can’t prove it empirically, I believe our nation has prospered in large measure due to the blessings of God to whom we as a people have given deference, as least until recent decades.

Today our flag flies in figurative tatters, battered by unconscionable violence, strife and discord that would hardly be reflective of how a “Christian nation” should act. But we’re not without hope. It will require taking to heart – and putting into practice – an Old Testament promise that’s often repeated, but soon forgotten:

If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land” (2 Chronicles 7:14).

Dating back to the 1960s, first our judicial system and then our houses of law determined we didn’t need God. Perhaps we’d become so prosperous as a nation that we concluded we should declare independence from Him. And God, although sovereign, seems to have acquiesced, telling us, “If I’m not wanted, I’ll withdraw and remove My hand from you. See how that works out.”

I may be in the minority, but in my view, it’s not working very well. On this Independence Day, maybe it’s time to consider that independence from God isn’t such a great idea.