Monday, August 31, 2015

Ministry of Just Being There

If there’s one characteristic that fits most of us, it’s being busy. We rush from place to place, one appointment to the next, frantic to squeeze one more thing into the inflexible limits of a 24-hour day. We feel guilty if we’re not actually doing something. However, sometimes the best thing we can do is just be there.

We see an example in the Old Testament book of Job. The central character of this account, Job had lost everything – livestock, barns, servants, sons and daughters, and finally his health. And none of it because of anything he’d done wrong.

Upon hearing about Job’s successive calamities, his friends Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar rushed to his side. They offered sympathy and tried to give him comfort. “Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was” (Job 2:13).

Zophar so good…I mean, so far. They were there for him, wept with him, showed compassion, and kept their mouths shut for seven complete days. Then they made a critical mistake. After hearing Job bemoan his plight, they decided to do something. It was time to fix the problem, the three agreed, and took turns insisting Job must have brought this adversity upon himself, so he needed to fess up, tell God what he’d done wrong, and seek His forgiveness.

This didn’t help joyless Job at all. It’s not recorded per se in the passage but he probably thought, “With friends like these, who needs enemies?” Maybe we can’t blame the friends for presuming somehow Job was being punished for his sins and repentance was in order. But what Job needed most was not advice or accusations, but simply for them to be there with him.

I thought of this after reading a comment from a writer in India I’ve gotten acquainted with. I’ll call him Raj. Like me, Raj and his wife have children and grandchildren, and he was telling about visiting their son’s family in Australia. They took the grandchildren to a playground nearby, and the first day no one was there. The next day a few children were already there and asked if they could join in playing.

Each day Raj, his wife and grandchildren visited the playground, they found more children there, all eager to join the playground festivities until the number had grown to more than two dozen. Raj started referring to them as “the team.”

One day they did not go to the playground, and Raj writes, “we got a surprise of our life the next day. More than a dozen children had come to our house, some with their toy guns, threatening to shoot and asking why I didn’t come to play. When we were leaving to return to India, they marked our departure with tears.”

What did my writing colleague from India do? Not much really. He was just being there, first with his grandchildren and then with other children who were eager to join them in some playground games. But by just being there, Raj gave what they needed most – a little love, attention, and some happy smiles.

It’s amazing what just being there can accomplish. When friends are grieving the loss of a loved one, what they need most is not our platitudes, or abundant words of comfort or assurances that time will heal the hurt, but for us to just be there showing we care.

I’ve mentioned before my friend, Gary Highfield, who wrote When ‘Want To’ Becomes ‘Have To!’ to tell his story of overcoming a childhood of dysfunction and poverty to build a surprisingly successful business career. Leveraging the message of his book, Gary now goes into public schools and meets with middle school and high school youths faced with similar adversity, helping to dispel their hopelessness and replace it with hope for a brighter future. Most of all, he’s just being there.

Some friends at our church are deeply invested in a midweek children’s program, working with boys and girls from poor, single-parent homes. For a couple of hours each week, youngsters are greeted with what they rarely find at home – focused attention, genuine love, and an escape from loneliness and bad influences. Again, our friends know the value of just being there.

I’ve experienced this myself in mentoring other men, visiting open-heart surgery patients as a volunteer, and picking up the phone and calling a friend I haven’t talked to in a while. Sometimes being there is the only thing you can do – but often it’s also the best thing to do.

There might be specific things we can do besides offer our physical presence, but being there is a necessary first step. Jesus referred to this when He told the crowd gathered around Him, “The righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ Then the King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me…’” (Matthew 25:34-46).

Do you have a desire to do something great for God? How about just being there?

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Hanging in the Balance

Balance and the struggle for achieving it are universal in the world around us.

We hear about the “balance of nature,” in which small ecological changes are counter-balanced by other incremental changes. The “balance of power” applies to many areas, ranging from sports to politics to global stability and security. Businesses monitor balance sheets to determine profitability – or the lack of it.

Balance is critical to our human lives, in both the mundane and the magnificent. Learning to walk or ride a bicycles are lessons in the fine art of balance. We marvel at “death-defying feats” of balance on a high wire at a circus, or when one of the “flying Wallendas” takes a stroll high above Niagara Falls or from one skyscraper to another.

One of our daughters competed in gymnastics for eight years, and she excelled on the balance beam, performing jumps and flips and cartwheels on a board just under four inches wide, about four feet above the floor. Maybe that’s one reason she grew into a well-balanced young woman.

Followers of Christ spending too much time in
the "stained glass aquarium" of the sanctuary
have minimal impact as His ambassadors.
Balance is tenuous and deserves our attention. Perfect balance for an extended period of time is rare, and sometimes isn’t desirable. For instance, the act of breathing results from the ever-shifting concentrations of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the body, prompting us to alternately inhale and exhale, inhale and exhale. 

Spiritually we confront a similar “balancing act.” Years ago I heard Dr. Howard Hendricks declare, “The only Christian I ever saw in perfect balance was one that was moving from one extreme to the other.” It seems we’re always on a spiritual pendulum ride in our quest to be “in the world but not of it,” as Jesus Christ referred to His followers in His so-called “high priestly prayer” on the evening preceding His crucifixion.

He prayed to the Father, “…they are still in the world…protect them by the power of your name…for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. My prayer is not that you will take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one” (John 17:6-19).

We live in a tangible, visible, temporary world but are called to keep foremost in our minds the world that is untouchable, unseen and eternal. That’s one reason the old hymn, “The Sweet By and By,” was so popular. It offered a reminder that no matter how attractive it is, this present life is passing. While we may enjoy it, we’re not to cling to it.

Being in the world without being of the world presents a constant struggle. Bible study, prayer and meditation contribute greatly to spiritual growth, but we can overdose even on such things, becoming as someone termed it, “so heavenly minded we’re no earthly good.”

Hebrews 10:25 exhorts, “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another….” This can include attending worship services, Sunday school, small group meetings, even meeting individually with other followers of Jesus. At the same time, we’re reminded, “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).

Ambassadors don’t spend their time in their native countries, but represent their nations in other lands. In a similar yet far more profound manner, we’re called to live in a world and society where biblical truth is largely shunned and often ridiculed. As Christ’s ambassadors, one of our jobs is to incarnate the truth of Christ wherever we go, seeking to show others the way of reconciliation.

And living in a material world, we confront the realities of bills and the allure of all manner of “stuff,” while God calls us to conduct lives of trust and generosity. “A generous man will prosper; he who refreshes others will himself be refreshed. People curse the man who hoards grain, but blessing crowns him who is willing to sell” (Proverbs 11:25-26).

The everyday journey of walking with Christ is indeed a balancing act, a delicate one. So next time you see me, don’t be surprised if my arms are outstretched while I teeter from one side to the other. Just trying to find my balance.

Monday, August 24, 2015

What Is Success, Anyway?

“Success” is a word we use casually, as if everyone has a universal understanding of what it means. We don’t.

We hear about the “American success story.” But what does that mean? What makes the story a “success”? Do we evaluate it according to income and net worth? Status? Fame? Size of house and make of car? Recognition in the community?

We tend to assign success labels to people with names everyone knows. In fact, if you’re known by a single name, such as folks in the music world like Reba or Cher, Bono or Adele, or athletes like Lebron or Kobe, A-Rod or Peyton, that means you’re really successful, right? But what about one-hit musical wonders, like “Earth Angel” in 1955, sung by the Penguins, or “Do You Love Me” by the Contours in 1962? Both made it to the Top Ten, but those artists shone like comets and then disappeared. Does that mean they weren’t successful?

This topic came up recently when someone on a writers’ social media site asked, "Is it possible to be a successful author after age 65?" When I read the question I thought, “Why can’t someone older than 65 be a successful writer?” Then it occurred to me it depends on how we define success.

If “success” means becoming the next John Grisham, J.K. Rowling, Stephen King, or Kathy Reichs, the answer’s probably no. But then a better question would be, “Is it possible to be a successful author at any age?” Because of all the millions of people who view themselves as writers, only a tiny percentage will ever make the New York Times bestsellers list.

However, if being successful means finishing a manuscript and having it published, by whatever means, then having it read by people in the intended audience large or small (besides one’s mother), then writers can be considered successful, whether they’re 25, 65, or 105. If they’ve enjoyed the process of writing, have done so to the best of their ability, and someone has benefited from what they’ve written, that’s a measure of success.

What about parenting? Does “success” mean raising a child smart enough to attend and graduate from a prestigious (and expensive) university, earn advanced degrees, and then settle into a career that brings prominence and great financial rewards? Or does it mean having a child that upholds and lives according to high moral standards, grows into a loving and compassionate individual, recognizes his or her innate abilities and gifts, and uses them to serve others in meaningful ways?

The same perspectives could be applied to any field of endeavor. We celebrate captains of industry. One of them, Donald Trump, gets a lot of attention these days, but is he really more “successful” than the single mom who leverages her craft skills into a cottage industry to meet the everyday needs of her family? Or the schoolteacher who pursues his role as a calling, not a job, and in the course of his career becomes a positive role model for hundreds of children? Or law enforcement officers that regard their work as opportunities to serve and protect the public, regardless of color, ethnicity, age or gender?

The Bible doesn’t say much about success specifically. The word appears only once in the original translations, but that single use is revealing: “This book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it; for then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have success” (Joshua 1:8).

In other words, God sees success as learning and implementing His truth in our everyday lives, following His principles for experiencing a fruitful, rewarding life.

Ephesians 2:10 declares, “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” Success, from His perspective, is figuring out what those “good works” are and striving to carry them faithfully.

We find a similar statement in the apostle Paul’s second letter to his young protégé, Timothy. After stating, "All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness,” the apostle adds, “so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

Earlier Paul had written to Timothy, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15).

When we buy a new high-tech device, whether it’s a wide-screen, high-definition TV or the newest generation PC, one measure of success in owning them is whether we set them up and use them as directed to the operating manual. In a similar – yet far more profound – way, in God’s view success for us is striving to discern His truth and living according to it.

We might never merit any edition of “Who’s Who,” but if the Lord knows who we are and we’re recipients of His unconditional love, that’s a formula for ultimate success.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

The Gift of Sleep

The young live with the delusion that they know everything. Especially in the teen years. I remember it well: Suddenly you think you’re in the possession of the world’s greatest knowledge. But as we get older, and hopefully grow wiser, it becomes obvious we don’t know nearly as much as we thought.

We don’t even have to wait until our teen years to become established know-it-alls. I recall a time when I was in Maryland visiting with an aunt, uncle and cousin. It seems I was about 10 years old. For whatever reason I declared, “It’s too bad we have to sleep. If we could stay awake all the time, we could do so many more things.”

My uncle, probably in his 40s at the time, burst into laughter. “Never go to sleep? Are you kidding?” Decades later I understand why he saw the humor in my brash statement. Yes, on average we spend about one-third of our lives with eyes shut and minds in neutral, but that’s a gift. An absolute, necessary, priceless gift.

For frazzled parents, sometimes the most beautiful
sight can be a sleeping child.
For parents, sleep is beneficial not only for themselves but also for giving them a much-needed respite from their precious, but demanding, energy-sapping offspring. Many evenings, between 8 and 9, a collective sigh of relief escapes as little ones around the globe close their eyes, drift into Dreamland, and Mom and Dad shift their mental gears from high alert.

At different stages of life we may choose to limit sleep, whether we’re in college cramming the night before an important exam, putting in extra hours to meet an important deadline at work, or trying to complete necessary chores at home that have been neglected for too long.

But eventually, sleep does – and must – come. And most of the time, to borrow the famous phrase of the legendary TV icon Speedy Alka-Seltzer, “Oh, what a relief it is!” Just as our smartphones, tablets and laptop computers need recharging, so do our minds and bodies, especially after periods of high stress. Sleep is how we do it.

Not surprisingly, the Bible has lots to say about sleep – its use, and abuse. At times, whether we’re fretting over unpaid bills, a family crisis, or challenges at work, sleep doesn’t come easily. Our minds keep spinning, seeking desperately to find solutions.

Sometimes sleeplessness is necessary, even helpful. We might awaken in the middle of the night, the proverbial idea-lightbulb glowing with a solution. But often God is telling us not to worry and agonize over our pressures and problems. Instead, He says, get some sleep and things will be easier to deal with in the morning.

“It is useless for you to work so hard from early morning until late at night, anxiously working for food to eat; for God gives rest to his loved ones” (Psalm 127:2). Much of the time, when we feel at wit’s end, the Lord is telling us, “Chill out. Get some sleep. I’ve got this.”

We read about the stressed-out prophet Elijah, who successfully confronted false prophets, saw God perform miraculous acts, and accurately predicted the end to a 3½-year drought. But when he heard the evil queen Jezebel had demanded that he be killed, Elijah fled, emotionally, physically and spiritually spent.

“’I have had enough, Lord,’ Elijah said. ‘Take my life. I am no better than my ancestors.’ Then he lay down under the tree and fell asleep…. All at once an angel touched him and said, ‘Get up and eat.’… He ate and drank and then lay down again” (1 Kings 19:4-6). Rather than chastising the courageous man of God, the Lord prescribed food – and sleep – to enable him to re-energize for further service.

Often in response to a crisis we want to shout, “Do something! Anything! Just do something!” But sometimes the best something to do is get some sleep, even a quick “power nap” to help clear the cobwebs from our overtaxed minds.

At the same time the Bible offers another perspective. It says sleep is beneficial, but not to excess. “Do not love sleep or you will grow poor; stay awake and you will have food to spare” (Proverbs 20:13). “I went past the field of the sluggard… the man who lacks judgment…. I applied my heart to what I observed and learned a lesson from what I saw. A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest – and poverty will come on you like a bandit and scarcity like an armed man” (Proverbs 24:30-34).

So the principle of moderation applies: You sleep, you reap. But you snooze, you lose.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Worshiping in All the Wrong Places

Having the right object of worship can help us learn to focus
on people and their interests, rather than our own.

A social media post recently declared that in the United States “we need to put the worship of the almighty dollar aside, and take care of people first.” I agree, to a point. Capitalism, consumerism and materialism seem to have converged, resulting in obeisance to money and things, at the expense of concern for the needs of people.

These days we think and talk a lot about not only those suffering from abject poverty, but also people working hard, often with more than one job, who still can’t seem to get ahead. Too much week, or month, always remaining at the end of their pay.

So the solution, it seems, is simple: Cease the mindless worship of the so-called almighty dollar and instead, start doing unto others as we would have them do unto us. Alas, like most simple solutions, it just ain’t that easy.

For those who do worship money, whose answer to “How much is enough?” is “Just a little bit more,” they’re going to need more motivation than a simple plea to “stop!” Their response is likely to be something like, “Why? Why should I even care? Ya gotta look out for number one. I’ve got mine, so go get your own.”

For most us, if we were to hear that kind of reaction, we’d recoil in horror: How insensitive! How uncaring! How selfish! And yet, our society constantly tells us, “it’s all about me” – so why should we worry about the needs of others? We reply, because it’s the right thing to do! According to whom? If we’re nothing but products of mindless, purposeless evolution, why should we have any concern about one another? Survival of the fittest and all that.

Years ago, a country song bemoaned, “looking for love in all the wrong places.” I suspect one reason we’ve lost compassion and sensitivity for people around us is because we’ve focused our worship in all the wrong places. MBA programs in the vaunted business schools may teach about the bottom line, maximizing productivity, squeezing the most out of the people working for you, and how to grow one’s unique brand globally, but how many of them spend time on how to selflessly serve the interests of customers, clients and employees?

I referred to this in a recent post, but the decided shift from the sacred toward the secular in recent decades has “freed” decision-makers from wondering, “What does God think about this?” or “What would Jesus do?” as the faddish WWJD bracelets used to remind us. If our god isn’t the almighty dollar, then it’s our own self-interests. When we worship self, it’s a demanding, uncompromising “deity.”

However, when we truly worship the God of all eternity, not with mere lip service but with passion and devotion, “self” has a way of diminishing in our focus. John the Baptist, upon realizing who Jesus Christ was, said, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). Another translation states it this way: He must become greater; I must become less." There is a direct correlation.

Genuine worship of God doesn’t mean adhering to rigid rituals and regulations, but understanding that part of our purpose, one of the reasons He placed us on this planet we call Earth, is to serve and be of help to others. Jesus stated it this way: The King will answer and say to them, 'Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me'” (Luke 10:27).

When God is excluded from our considerations, when we don’t feel bothered to ask or pray about how to properly use our resources, as well as the authority we have in our respective spheres of influence, we certainly aren’t troubled by annoying questions about what He thinks. Which can “liberate” us from feelings of concern about our fellow man, woman or child.

That’s why it’s important, when we remember Jesus’ command to “love your neighbor as yourself,” to also keep in mind His prerequisite to that statement: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind” (Luke 10:27). If we love God with everything we are and everything we have, loving our neighbors as ourselves won’t be such a struggle. It may even become a privilege.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Gifts Are For the Giving, Not For the Keeping

If someone were to give you a gift that you would consider of great worth or having tremendous meaning, what would it be?

A car, an expensive piece of jewelry, some new high-tech device, or a special item of clothing? Money? Maybe tickets to a concert by your favorite musical group, or to one of your favorite team’s games? An antique? Perhaps something that reminds you of a loved one?

What do you do with your gifts?
When we receive valuable gifts, we typically view them either as something to put into use or something to store in a safe place where they can be retrieved easily. We typically don’t think of them, however, as something to be given away.

From God’s perspective, however, gifts are quite different. They aren’t intended for holding onto, but rather to be utilized for the benefit of others. The greatest gift, the Scriptures tell us, is that of eternal life and a never-ending relationship with God. As the familiar verse, John 3:16, tells us, “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.”

This gift doesn’t end there, however. That’s just the start. When God comes into our lives, we not only learn to appreciate all He has done for us, but become eager to share this gift with others. Granted, some that profess faith in Jesus seem intent only on persuading others to their way of thinking, but the apostle Paul expressed what our pure motivation should be in offering this gift from God to others: “For Christ's love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died” (2 Corinthians 5:14).

In addition to this gift of salvation and acceptance into God’s eternal family, the Bible says the Lord gives each of His children specific spiritual gifts intended for use in serving Him and the people He sends our way.

There’s not universal agreement on what these spiritual gifts are, even though Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12 list a number of them. These include evangelism, teaching, encouragement (exhortation), giving, leadership, mercy, service (helping), prophecy, wisdom, discernment, and others. Some authorities would add gifts such as creative communication, craftsmanship, and even counseling.

The Bible clearly states not one of us has all of the gifts, but all with genuine faith in Christ have received at least one spiritual gift. It also declares that all gifts are of equal importance, even though we tend to esteem some observable gifts more than others. “The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is in Christ” (1 Corinthians 12:12).

So from God’s viewpoint, the issue is not what our spiritual gifts are, but how – and if – we’re willing to use them. Will we regard them for what they are, precious and of great value, and consciously strive to employ them for the benefit of others?

Early in my walk of faith with Christ, I envied people with visible gifts like evangelism, teaching and leadership. “Why can’t I be like that?” I wondered. Some people I knew regularly met others asking the biblical question, “What must I do to be saved?” I never encountered people like that. I got to know people with substantial financial resources who were unbelievably generous, without hesitation giving to help others – individuals as well as to charitable causes. I would give what I could, but for whatever reason God never entrusted me with great wealth to pass along to others.

Finally I came to recognize the gifts He had given to me. One clue was the repeated opportunities the Lord sent my way to use them. It occurred to me that while I don’t give a lot of thought to my spleen and liver, I really couldn’t get along without them. Similarly, God was telling me He didn’t intend for me to become an evangelist, or a philanthropist. All He wanted me to do was be faithful with what He did give me – what He had called me to be and to do in the body of Christ.

Years ago in the little town of Tomball, Texas, a little old man named Jimmy liked to recite a poem at our weekly service club meetings. It wasn’t necessarily about spiritual gifts, but the message fits:
A song isn’t a song until it’s sung;
A bell isn’t a bell until it’s rung.
Now love wasn’t given into your heart to stay –
For love isn’t love until you give it away.

In the same way, the spiritual gifts God entrusts to us aren’t intended for us to keep. They truly become gifts when we give them away.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Who Me, Worry?

Flashback from my teenage years: In the heyday of the satirical MAD magazine, its mascot and cover boy, Alfred E. Neuman, was known by the famous tagline, “What, me worry?” The iconic, gap-toothed fellow certainly didn’t appear smart enough to worry, even if there was something worth worrying about.

For many of us, however, this isn’t true. In fact, a friend once told me, “I can’t think of anything I should be worrying about. That worries me.” These days there’s no shortage of worrisome matters competing for our concern, ranging from global terrorism to natural disasters to the how our favorite football team will fare in the fall to the everyday uncertainties of life.

Recently, after yet another senseless shooting in a Louisiana motion picture theater, a news commentator asked two eyewitnesses if they had ever thought about going to see a movie and being confronted by someone bringing a gun and opening fire. “What a dumb question,” I thought. Do we sit in our homes, worrying about whether an airplane will fall on top of them? That happens once in a while, you know. Do I drive down the road, fretting that a sinkhole will suddenly open up, swallowing my car and me? That occasionally occurs, too. If we agonized about every potential calamity we might encounter, we’d never go or do anything.

Sure there are things we should be concerned about and when appropriate, take precautions. Like not leaving a toddler sitting on a kitchen counter unattended. Or trying to drive defensively, in case the operator of the approaching car does something stupid. Or striving to live within our income, even setting aside some money if possible, in case of unexpected expenses.

But imagine how much mental and emotional energy unnecessary that worry costs us. In one of her books, the late Corrie ten Boom, who experienced more than her share of hardship and grief, wrote, “Worry does not empty tomorrow of its sorrow, it empties today of its strength.”

It also has the effect of inviting gloom into an otherwise bright, carefree day. Some unknown sage put it this way: “Worry pulls tomorrow's cloud over today's sunshine.”

I’ve not been a stranger to worry over the years. In difficult times, if you can’t think of anything to do, worrying at least feels like you’re doing something. Adapting MAD magazine’s mantra, I’ve sometimes admitted, “What me, worry? Uh…yeah!” But as ten Boom and Mr./Ms. Anonymous have noted, all that worry really accomplishes is to pull a potential shadow from the future and use it to enshroud the present.

So if we’re not to worry, what should we do? Many admonitions from the Scriptures are helpful, but three immediately come to mind. One is Philippians 4:6-7, which says, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

The second is 1 Peter 5:7, which simply states, “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.” And the third is Isaiah 41:10, which pictures us in the midst of turmoil: “Do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”

Reading these passages, we’re tempted to respond, “That’s easier said than done.” True, but our response reveals what we believe about God. Walking with God always comes down to obedience, putting faith into action. As Oswald Chambers writes, “Even at the risk of being thought of as fanatical, you must obey what God tells you.”

So when tempted to repeat the immortal words of Alfred E. Neuman and ask ourselves, “What, me worry?” as people of faith our answer should be, “No, I’m trusting God instead.”

Thursday, August 6, 2015

No Greater Love Than This

The killings of four U.S. Marines and one Navy petty officer in Chattanooga, Tenn. on July 16 marked yet another episode in the growing, tragic narrative of extremist violence across our land. The debate about the how’s and why’s rages on, but in the days following the tragic events, in which the shooter also was killed, two positives emerged – if such a thing is possible.

One was the incredible bravery demonstrated by the military personnel and law enforcement officers who responded. In fact, after doing all they could to guide innocent bystanders to safety, two Marines reportedly rushed back to the reserve facility hoping to subdue the shooter and protect others that were in harm’s way.

Marine Staff Sgt. David Wyatt and Marine Gunnery Sgt. Thomas Sullivan had guided nearly 20 people out of a building and beyond a security fence before returning when they discovered two were missing. Wyatt and Sullivan lost their lives attempting to save others.

Jesus said, Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends” (John 15:13). He said this prophetically about His own crucifixion for the sins of mankind, but the principle is universal. What greater, more courageous sacrifice can anyone make than to offer their life for another?

A poster at a memorial site shows photos
of the Marines and Navy petty officer who died.
We hear of acts like this in times of war and in response to violence, but it also applies any time we willingly place the interests and well-being of others ahead of our own. As Philippians 2:3-4 states it: “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.”

Surely those noble Marines didn’t re-enter the building with the intent of dying, but were willing to do so if necessary. They were looking out for the interests of others.

The other positive was the incredible show of compassion and pride exhibited by citizens of Chattanooga and its surrounding area, as well as hometowns of the other fallen military heroes. For each of the funeral processions of Wyatt, Sullivan, Sgt. Carson Holmquist, Lance Cpl. Squire “Skip” Wells and Petty Officer 2nd Class Randall Smith, many thousands lined the routes.

American flags of all sizes were waved all along the roadways, on highway overpasses and in the cemeteries. Homemade signs of support were held high, and tears were shed, even by those that never personally met any of the shooting victims. I’ve never seen such a mass display of the Stars and Stripes, even on July 4th.

Those that assembled were not warmongers – just men, woman and young people with great pride in being citizens of the United States, greatly appreciative of the sacrifices made by our men and women in uniform, and sharing sympathy for the great losses by family members and friends.

A wooden cross joined a display of American flags
at a memorial set up near the recruiting office.
While the grief shared by the mourners was profound, this great show of support must have helped to provide much-needed strength. The Scriptures tell us about, “…the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4).

Most in the crowd certainly had not experienced that kind of loss, but we’ve all known our share of sorrow, enabling us to offer some small measure of comfort to the survivors. In a letter to the Chattanooga community following her son’s funeral, Sgt. Wyatt’s mother, Deborah Boen, wrote. “Even in our sorrow, we feel that God’s blessing us with the outpouring of love from this community. We…were in awe of all who stood in the hot sun to honor our son and all the fallen heroes. We saw it all, and felt all the love showered upon us.”

Even in times of great tragedy and the aftermath of heinous acts of violence, God’s grace and mercy – and the best of humankind – can shine through.

Monday, August 3, 2015

The Problematic Promise of Prosperity

Who is not in favor of prosperity? No one I know. Singer Sophie Tucker once said, “I’ve been rich, and I’ve been poor, and rich is better.” Even if we can’t relate to the rich part, if given a choice none of us would opt for poor. At the very least, it’s nice to have a few dollars still in the bank when the next paycheck arrives.

In the business world, prosperity is of paramount importance. It’s reflected in the “bottom line,” measuring whether a company is profitable and how well it’s serving its shareholders. Regularly the media report on economic indicators, showing whether our country as a whole is prospering. Presidents are evaluated in part by the flows and ebbs of U.S. prosperity during their terms.

Prosperity is a concern even for non-profits, including churches. If contributions aren’t sufficient, not only to cover expenses but also to empower organizations in pursuit of their respective missions, potential beneficiaries of their services will suffer.

So prosperity’s always a good thing, right? Not necessarily. In fact, if we’re not careful, prosperity can distract us, even steer us down the wrong road.

Do you have a hold on your things --
or do they have a hold on you?
C.S. Lewis, a one-time atheist who became an ardent Christian apologist and author of beloved books on faith for both adults and children, came to that conclusion. In The Screwtape Letters, Lewis observed: “Prosperity knits a man to the World. He feels that he is ‘finding his place in it,’ while really it is finding its place in him. His increasing reputation, his widening circle of acquaintances, his sense of importance, the growing pressure of absorbing and agreeable work, build up in him a sense of being really at home in earth.”

The Bible describes followers of Jesus as “aliens and strangers” on earth (Hebrews 11:13 and 1 Peter 2:11), but prosperity has a way of making us feel right at home – and reluctant to leave. In addition, having all of our needs met as well as many of our wants can greatly diminish our sense of dependence on God.

Perhaps this is why the writer of the next to last chapter in Proverbs declared, “…give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’ Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonor the name of my God” (Proverbs 30:8-9).

In the 1960s, Americans were settling into the post-World War II economic boom, beginning an unprecedented era of material prosperity. About the same time, judicial edicts and legislation were being formulated that essentially declared our exalted nation no longer needed God. Seems the writer in Proverbs might have been right. Coincidence – or direct correlation?

Jesus did not oppose prosperity outright, but offered these words of warning: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21). Three verses later He declared, “You cannot serve both God and money.”

Does this mean we should err on the side of caution by taking vows of poverty or practicing lives of self-denial? This might be the Lord’s call for some, but for most of us it’s more a matter of being diligent to maintain a proper perspective about God, ourselves and our stuff. We find the guideline for this in the Old Testament book of Joshua, where God is providing instructions to the man who has just replaced Moses as the leader of the huge, wandering band of Israelites:
“Do not let this Book of the Law depart from your mouth; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful” (Joshua 1:8).

If we strive to keep God foremost in our lives, focusing on His truths and principles, we can succeed in avoiding the trap of letting our material possessions become idols and mini-gods in our daily lives. True prosperity, we’re told, is living according to God’s “owner’s manual” and becoming everything He intended for us to be. Whether that means hefty savings accounts and residences fit for Better Homes & Gardens and HGTV, or just having the satisfaction of paying the bills every month, what matters is being “prosperous and successful” from His point of view.

What is prosperity to you? As Jesus would say, it depends on where your treasure is.