Thursday, December 31, 2015

How to Get from Here to There

Another calendar year is poised to shift into our rearview mirrors. Gazing there typically brings a mixture of happiness, satisfaction, excitement, sadness, disappointment, regret, even remorse. Hopefully we’ve appreciated good times and successes and learned from failures. But 2016 is upon us, so it’s time to move forward.

Just as a foggy highway obscures what's ahead,
our view of the future remains unclear.
As someone has said, from the driver’s seat of a car the windshield is big and broad while the rearview mirror is small and narrow, and there’s good reason for that. The apostle Paul expressed it even better when he said, “Forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus… (Philippians 3:13-14).

How do we “press on”? We can step into the new year and let life happen, or be intentional and devise some sort of plan for what we would hope to experience and accomplish over the next 366 days. (Yes, we’re entering a leap year, so imagine how much more we can get done!) Granted, life does throw the proverbial curveballs, and we must deal with the unexpected, but as a wise man once told me, “If you aim at nothing, you’ll hit it every time.”

Some people embark on the new year with resolutions. “I resolve to…” or “I resolve not to….” A problem with resolutions, whether it’s to stop smoking, eat better, be more kind, or exercise more, is that once a resolution is broken we tend to conclude, “Oh well, that’s it. I knew I couldn’t do it. What’s the use?”

That’s why I prefer setting goals, focusing on different areas of my life – physical health, mental vitality, family and social relationships, finances, work, hobbies, and spiritual growth. Goals can span weeks, months, even the entire year. They provide something to aim at, understanding sometimes you miss the target and sometimes you hit the bulls-eye. At the very least, they provide a path for getting from here to there.

Many people are good at setting goals in certain areas – get a new job, pay off debt, buy a new car, start an exercise program, activities to nurture relationships with spouse and children, take up a new pastime. But spiritual goal-setting isn’t nearly as common. After all, aren’t the best goals measureable and attainable? How can you measure spiritual growth or a relationship with God?

True, only God can do that. But we can set goals that if pursued consistently can help in our desire to move forward spiritually. Like reading a passage of the Bible every day. As David wrote in Psalm 119:9-11, “How can a young man keep his way pure? By living according to your word. I seek you with all my heart; do not let me stray from your commands. I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you.”

This doesn’t happen automatically. It needs to be done thoughtfully and intentionally. Just as with human relationships, a relationship with God grows with time and attention. Some people find the first thing in the morning, before activities of the day become distractions, best for reading and studying the Scriptures. Others find evenings work best. When to consciously spend time with the Lord and His Word matters little – what does matter is that we do spend the time.

Prayer, of course, is important – talking to God and also listening to Him. Some of that, too, can be done at a specific time and place. But as 1 Thessalonians 5:17 tells us, “Pray without ceasing.” Location, posture and time might be helpful, but not as essential as seeking to stay in continual contact with God. So ensuring that we do devote time daily to prayer is of immeasurable value.

We’re told we can’t flourish in everyday service to God in isolation. We need to be a part of the body of Christ, adding our gifts and talents to what others are doing – and benefiting from them. “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17). “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another…” (Hebrews 10:24-25).

Even Jesus needed companionship and enjoyed the camaraderie of like-minded people. So why shouldn’t we?

There are many other areas we could explore that can enhance spiritual growth; perhaps you’re thinking of some now. The key is recognizing our part in growing spiritually requires an act of the will, trusting God won’t fail to do His part. “Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart. Commit your way to the Lord, trust in Him and he will do this: He will make your righteousness shine like the dawn, the justice of your cause like the noonday sun” (Psalm 37:4-6). How does that promise sound to you?

Monday, December 28, 2015

In God We Trust – Do We Really?

They appear on many of our coins and paper currency. Several states issue motor vehicle license plates bearing the words: “In God We Trust.” It’s a phrase millions across the United States have embraced since the mid-1950s, when Congress adopted it as a national motto.

There are those who vehemently oppose the phrase, claiming a violation of the so-called separation of church and state. But for many of us, “In God we trust” causes no offense. We use the four words easily, sometimes flippantly, whenever it suits us. But do we really mean them?

Of late I’ve been with groups of people, all professing faith in Jesus Christ, discussing recent events – including global terrorism. Several spoke strongly about escalating military activity in the Middle East to combat Islamic extremism. Some expressed their belief in needing to be well-armed personally, both to thwart acts of terror and deter anyone choosing to invade their homes.

Such comments seem understandable. We need to protect ourselves, right? But especially for those who concur with the  “in God we trust” declaration, this focus seems concerning. It would appear that in reality, our trust is in military might, government intervention, and weaponry.

The Scriptures present a very different emphasis. Numerous accounts show how Israel – God’s chosen people – prevailed despite formidable odds solely because of divine intervention. As King David wrote, “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God” (Psalm 20:7)

David, described as having “a heart after God,” expanded on this perspective in a later psalm: “No king is saved by the size of his army; no warrior escapes by his great strength. A horse is a vain hope for deliverance; despite all its great strength it cannot save. But the eyes of the Lord are on those who fear him, on those whose hope is in his unfailing love, to deliver them from death and keep them alive in famine. We wait in hope for the Lord; he is our help and our shield”  (Psalm 33:16-20). In essence, “in God we trust.”

And we find similar sentiment in Proverbs 21:31, written by David’s son, King Solomon: “The horse is made ready for the day of battle, but victory rests with the Lord.”

When I read such statements, I’m tempted to say, “Yeah, but….” I’m not a pacifist, and take pride in knowing my father fought for our country during World War II. But as disciples of Jesus Christ, we’re clearly exhorted in the Bible to place our trust – totally – in God, not in rifles, cannons, tanks, warships, jet fighters, or tried and tested battle strategies.

Those are of little use in opposing what the Scriptures call the real enemy. “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12). The Scriptures tell us that more than terrorists – however they refer to themselves – the real battle is with a spiritual adversary unaffected by bullets and bombs.

As God’s adopted children we’re told not to fear or panic, but to demonstrate with our words and actions that indeed, “in God we trust.” Because Romans 8:38-39 offers this assurance: “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).

This doesn’t mean God wants us to be unarmed. But His weaponry of choice can’t be purchased in gun stores or sportsman’s warehouses. Here’s what the Lord wants us to employ for the battle that is as much spiritual as it is of “flesh and blood”: “Therefore put on the full armor of God…with the belt of truth…the breastplate of righteousness…the gospel of peace…the shield of faith…the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests” (Ephesians 6:13-18).

Some people have objected to the classic hymn, “Onward Christian Soldiers,” disliking its combative terminology. But the Bible says the Lord wants us fully armed, although not necessarily with guns and bullets. Are we properly arming ourselves with truth, righteousness, peace, faith, the message of salvation, knowledge of God as revealed in His Word, and prayer?

If we’re not, could it be we’re living in disobedience? Should we stop saying, “In God we trust”?

What if we got serious about putting on the full armor of God, as the passage commands, implementing it with zeal and gusto? What difference would that make? The difference might be amazing, “immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20).

Thursday, December 24, 2015

The Person of Every Year

TIME magazine recently announced its annual “Person of the Year,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The European head of state was selected over seven other final candidates, but for many of us, we’re poised to celebrate the One who could rightly be called “The Person of Every Year.”

We would be hard-pressed to identify anyone that’s ever walked the earth who has had greater impact than Jesus Christ, whose birth we celebrate each Christmas. For those of us who identify ourselves as followers of Christ, or “Christians,” He is our leader, teacher, example, inspiration, and guide. The Bible describes Jesus as Savior, Lord, the Good Shepherd, the True Vine, the Great Physician, and many other names. Perhaps I’ve left out one of your favorites.

But even for those who don’t profess faith in Christ, even those who vehemently reject Him and His claims to be the Son of God, God incarnate, Jesus’ influence in all of our lives remains unmistakable.

Consider: From time to time the secular media refer to someone who willingly volunteers to help a stranger, even at personal peril, as a “good Samaritan.” In Luke 10:25-37, Jesus told the parable of the good Samaritan to illustrate what He meant when commanding His followers to “love your neighbor as yourself.” That phrase itself has become a virtual cliché, regularly used by people of many faiths – and no faith – to assert our obligation to show compassion, mercy and generosity to those less fortunate than ourselves.

The so-called “Golden Rule,” which admonishes us to “do to others what you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12), is another of Jesus’ declarations – downright revolutionary for His time. It’s employed with abandon by those who insist on tolerance for all people, except perhaps for those who believe in and follow the One who said it first.

From time to time we’ll hear about a “prodigal son” who returns to a family, a company, even a political party, after a time of “going astray.” Jesus didn’t use the term “prodigal,” but it comes from another of His parables, also referred to as the parable of the lost son or the two sons, found in Luke 15:11-32.

Jesus was unparalleled in His ability to use what writers call “verbal imagery,” communicating a truth through a vivid oral account. A picture on which to hang a principle. Perhaps this is why so many people remember His stories, even if they don’t understand or dismiss His theology.

Sometimes we hear people being described disparagingly as thinking too much of themselves – “she must think she walks on water.” Jesus did this literally, as recounted in Matthew 14:22-33. And more than one business executive has declared, “I sweat blood to get that account,” a phenomenon Jesus experienced the night before His crucifixion: And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground” (Luke 22:44).

Of course, Jesus’ uniqueness goes far beyond the words He spoke and His activities on earth. He is the only leader of any religion or belief system reported to have died and then be resurrected. Mohammad, Buddha, Moses, Confucius and others don’t and can’t make that claim.

He boldly declared, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father (God) except through me” (John 14:6), and also stated, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10). As C.S. Lewis stated, making such statements would mean Jesus either was a liar, a lunatic, or who He said He was – God in the flesh.

And to those who would accept His gift of forgiveness for their sins, possible only by His atoning death on the cross, Jesus made this promise: "In My Father's house are many dwelling places; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you. If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself, that where I am, there you may be also” (John 14:2-3).

So as we gather this Christmas with family, friends and loved ones, along with the familiar traditions we have adopted through the years, let’s not stop at reflecting on the pastoral scene of a young mother and father, and a baby in a crude feeding trough – hardly fitting accommodations for the One who would become known as the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

Let’s remember that Jesus Christ truly was – and is – like no other. He’s not the person of the year; for many of us, He’s the person of every year.

Monday, December 21, 2015

The Season of Lights

This time of year is commonly – and appropriately – known as “the season of lights.” Everywhere we look, from the malls to city streets to many of our homes, holiday lights shine brightly. Many neighborhoods have annual contests to determine whose display is prettiest, most elaborate, or even the most gaudy. It’s a time of year when tacky is considered classy by some.

With daylight shorter, the festive illumination serves to brighten the evening mood. Who needs streetlights when your neighbor’s house and yard are covered by 50,000 twinkling lights?

History buffs that study such things tell us the tradition of lighted Christmas trees dates back to 18th century Germany, although those lights consisted of flame-topped candles. I suppose local fire departments gave training courses on how to light the tree without burning down the house. Can you imagine what the Consumer Product Safety Commission would do today about lighting real Christmas trees with real candles? No doubt it would spark an inferno of controversy.

When it comes to Christmas lights, the folks at
Walt DisneyWorld's Hollywood Studios
have it figured out.
It’s said Edward H. Johnson, an associate of inventor Thomas Edison, displayed the first electrically lit Christmas tree in 1882 on Fifth Avenue in New York City. I can’t confirm this, but I understand Mr. Johnson was a bit hard of hearing, so when someone complimented him on the 80 red, white and blue incandescent light bulbs powered by electricity, he replied, “Watt?”

Seriously, the association between light and Christmas began many centuries before that. The Scriptures prophesied as such. Isaiah 9:2 declares, The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the shadow of death a light has dawned.” Bible scholars agree this is one of hundreds of Old Testament prophecies pointing to the coming Messiah, predictions fulfilled by the birth of Jesus Christ.

That is hardly the only reference to light in the Old Testament. Psalm 119:105 states, “Your word is lamp to my feet, a light to my path.” This passage refers to the Bible itself, but according to the New Testament, it also can be applied to Christ. The Gospel of John starts by announcing, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning…. The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:1-2, 14).

Jesus certainly didn’t rebuff references to Himself as “light.” In fact, He used the term for Himself repeatedly, declaring, “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12, 9:5). He stated, “I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness” (John 12:46).

As we survey the state of our present world, which many of us fear is falling under the shroud of gathering gloom – terrorism, senseless violence, unprecedented global disasters, and hostility replacing civil discourse – we can draw comfort and peace from the assurance that no one who believes in Christ should stay in darkness.

This light metaphor doesn’t stop with Jesus alone. While followers of Christ don’t generate light on our own, we’re charged to reflect His light to the world around us. "No one lights a lamp and puts it in a place where it will be hidden, or under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, so that those who come in may see the light (Luke 11:33).

And displaying the light of Christ isn’t just a matter of words. It’s a lifestyle, a call to reflect His light through our everyday lives. “The path of the righteous is like the first gleam of dawn, shining ever brighter till the full light of day” (Proverbs 4:18). If the growing darkness is to be dispelled, our behavior must serve as one of the sources of illumination.

“Do everything without complaining or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe” (Philippians 2:14-15).

No one likes living in the dark, except perhaps those up to no good who pursue their illicit schemes under the cover of darkness. At this time of year, when beautiful, colorful lights sparkle happily around us celebrating the advent of Christmas, let’s remember the light we’ve received from Jesus Christ isn’t to be hoarded. It’s to be shared, shining truth and hope and joy and love in even the darkest of shadows.

The refrain from the old children’s song says, “this little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.” Even a little light, shining in a very dark room, can cast a surprising amount of illumination. So in these coming days, could it be that God is calling us – without complaining or arguing – to boldly display His light “so that those who come in may see the light”?

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Access Is Granted

Huge electronic scoreboards have become fixtures at major stadiums and arenas. Fans spend more time staring at computer-generated videos and graphics than they do watching the actual games. Have you ever wondered what those scoreboards look like on the inside?

Years ago Ohio Stadium was undergoing major expansion, and a new scoreboard was part of the renovation plan. A friend in Columbus, Doug, knew the project foreman. So when I was in town Doug asked if I’d like to take a tour of the updated stadium, including going inside the huge scoreboard. Buckeye fan that I am, I hesitated…for a nanosecond…then replied, “Do I want to see it? Do squirrels gather nuts for the winter?”

Some areas inside the massive scoreboard were large enough for a small apartment. And its inner workings were an amazing testimony to modern technology. But the point is, I couldn’t just barge into the stadium and insist on entering the scoreboard. I could see it only by being granted access from the person in charge. It wasn’t that I deserved it – I hadn’t done anything to merit the privilege. I just happened to know the right person who knew the right person who was qualified to provide the desired access.  

Similarly, the only way we could meet a prominent person, whether it be the President of the United States, our favorite actor or actress, a celebrated athlete, or a business magnate like Bill Gates or Warren Buffett, would be if we somehow received access to them. We can’t just show up and declare, “Hi, I’m here to see Lebron James” or, “Hello. I need to see Meryl Streep – now.”

The same holds true spiritually. We talk and think casually about prayer, that mystical form of communication with the living God. But have you ever considered what a wonderful, undeserved privilege it is to pray and speak to God – and ask Him to speak to us? How is it we can have instant, continual access to our Lord, the Creator and sustainer of the entire universe?

This time of year, as our annual celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ draws near, it’s important to remind ourselves that we can have unlimited, 24/7 access to God – but only because of what Jesus has done for us.

Hebrews 4:16 tells us that through Christ, who serves as our high priest, Let us then approach God's throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” Ephesians 2:18 adds, “For through him (Jesus Christ) we have access to the Father by one Spirit.”

Some people speak flippantly about speaking to “the Man Upstairs,” or “the Big Guy.” However, as we contemplate the pristine, pastoral scene of the Babe in a humble manger in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago, it wasn’t to pose for pretty Christmas cards that would be designed centuries later. He came to teach, model, be the atoning sacrifice for our sins – and to serve as our divine mediator: “For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:5).

Jesus is the one – the only one – who can provide us access to God. And not only access, but assurance that He will eagerly receive us into His presence. "This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything, according to His will, He hears us” (1 John 5:14).

Unlike with password-protected computers, secured websites, closely guarded companies and top-secret government sites, when we approach God in the name of Jesus Christ, we will never hear, “Access denied!”

Monday, December 14, 2015

Failure – Or Just a First Attempt?

Sometimes social media drives me crazy. The negativity, caustic comments and pompous, partisan pronouncements. And those are just from my friends and family members! (Just kidding.) But there are times when I see a post that makes me think, “That’s it! It says it all!”

One of those was a poster – I don’t know the original source – offering a refreshing take on something we’ve all encountered, probably numerous times: Failure. As a society we seem to have concluded failure’s a bad thing, something to ignore or deny. But as the words of this particular social media poster noted, if we redefine three words typically associated with failure, they can redirect us to success.

The first word was “Fail,” as in, “Woe is me! I’ve failed. How can I ever go on?” But what if we changed the word’s meaning, reinterpreting it as an acronym: “FAIL – First Attempt In Learning”? This brings to mind the adage, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”

There’s not one successful person living or dead who has avoided failure. But a big difference between those that later experienced success and those who remained mired in misery was a matter of perception. Those consigned to failure saw their efforts as meaning, “I can’t do it. I knew I couldn’t!” However, those able to leverage momentary failure into later success perceived their setbacks differently: “Well, that didn’t work. I’ll just have to try again, or take a different approach.”

A second word is “End.” A time of failure or defeat can be viewed as the end, an indication to give up. “No sense trying anymore.” Or it can be regarded as another acronym: “END – Effort Never Dies.” If every baseball player quit the first time he or she struck out, no one would be playing the game. Consistent and persistent effort often leads to proficiency and success.

Granted, there are times when we attempt something unsuccessfully and realize we haven’t enjoyed it, that it wouldn’t be worth the effort trying to become proficient. It might be painting, dancing, handicrafts, public speaking, sales, or some other pursuit. (For some people, this might include driving a car.) But even in cases like these, considering this the “end” might simply mean determining to do something else instead.

Then there’s one more word often associated with failure. It’s the dreaded “No” word. This was something I confronted while still in college, experimenting with a couple of part-time sales jobs to try and earn some extra money. After hearing “no” on several consecutive sales calls for both a book publishing company and a vacuum cleaner manufacturer, I realized I wasn’t cut out for a career in sales. Years later it was confirmed that I don’t have a single selling bone in my body.

But as with “Fail” and “End,” looking at “No” in a different way could prove revolutionary in moving toward the future. Instead of assuming that no is the equivalent of failure, we might it as yet another acronym: “NO – Next Opportunity.”

This is particularly true for job seekers. Over the years I had numerous interviews that did not lead to job offers. Resumes I sent out with high hopes didn’t merit as much as a return phone call. But I persisted, determining that if one door closed, another would open somewhere else. And as it turned out, after receiving a “no” more times than I would have liked, the “next opportunity” proved to be better than I could have imagined.

Knowing our tendency to become disheartened when confronted by failure, God offers many passages that encourage us to “keep on keepin’ on.” One of my favorites is Galatians 6:9, which urges, “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up (lose heart).”

Sometimes our spiritual pursuits also seem paved with failure. But again we’re reminded to persevere: “Therefore, my brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58). As with trying to grow a garden, when we must wait patiently to see tomatoes or green beans or whatever seeds we’ve planted finally germinate, we might not see immediate results from our spiritual labors. But we know that in time we’ll reap a harvest – in our own lives and in the lives of people God directs our way.

We also have this promise to cling to when failure seems certain: “being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6). Sounds like good news – especially since God never fails.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Never Underestimate Teamwork

Teamwork is important to a marching band's excellence, just
as it is for a football team, on the gridiron.

One of the best things about competitive sports, especially team sports, is observing how principles that contribute to athletic success also relate to everyday life. Athletes in sports like golf or tennis are basically on their own, vying for victory one-on-one. But in most other sports, the team dynamic is an integral part of what Wide World of Sports used to call “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.”

Taylor Decker, an All-American offensive tackle at the Ohio State University, emphasized this in explaining why he chose to return for his senior year and helped the Buckeyes to another very successful season. He could have left after his junior season and taken his talents to the National Football League but opted to complete his last year of collegiate eligibility.

“A huge reason I came back (was) for that brotherhood, that camaraderie in the locker room,” Decker said. “That’s what makes it fun. Because workouts aren’t really fun, and practice isn’t really fun, but doing it with your guys, doing it with people you love, that’s what makes it fun.”

These key ingredients for effective teamwork – camaraderie, mutual support, and merging of complementary skills – are crucial to a winning effort, not only on the gridiron, basketball court, baseball diamond and soccer field, but also in the business world, the military, music, even in marriage and parenting.

Living in the age of the “selfie,” when many people seem preoccupied with themselves, we’re at risk of devaluing the importance of teamwork. Everyone seems to be screaming, “Look at me!” Few are saying, “Look at us.” But in reality, living and working in isolation can limit us in more ways than one.

The Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes addresses this powerfully. It states, “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their work” (Ecclesiastes 4:9). Watching a football game, we see this demonstrated as offensive linemen join together to open holes for running backs and to protect the quarterback. But we also see it every day in our own lives.

My first job in journalism was serving as editor of a small community newspaper. I was the entire editorial staff, the proverbial “cook and bottle washer.” I did everything from covering city government and school board meetings to writing wedding announcements and obituaries. It was an excellent learning experience, but I felt relieved several years later when the publisher agreed to let me hire an assistant to share the load.

As a father, it’s been my joy and privilege to team with my wife in raising our children and now, pitching in to help with the grandkids from time to time. That’s one reason I so admire the resolve of single parents, striving by themselves to do the job of parenting that’s best done by mom and dad together.

The biblical passage continues, “If one falls down, his friend can help him up. But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up” (Ecclesiastes 4:10). We often see this in action on the football field, when a player is tackled or knocked down and a teammate extends a hand to help him back to his feet. But daily life also has a way of knocking us down, too, and it’s encouraging when a “teammate” – whether at work or in the home – offers a hand to help us back up.

A final portion of the Ecclesiastes passage relates to the gridiron, but I’ve experienced it many times and in many ways during my own life: “Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken” (Ecclesiastes 4:12). This is one of the values of business partnerships. The principals not only share in the financial investment, but also team together to overcome obstacles, combat adversity, and share their respective talents and gifts in the pursuit of common goals and objectives.

This principle holds true spiritually as well. As Hebrews 10:24-25 admonishes us, “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another….”

Another new year is bearing down on us, and some of us will be setting goals or resolutions to grow spiritually and become more effective ambassadors for Jesus Christ. We’d be wise to recognize this can’t be done in a vacuum, that as we see throughout the Scriptures, spiritual growth and service to the Lord also is a “team sport.”

Who are you going to team with in 2016 to become all you can be for God?

Monday, December 7, 2015

Struggle Today, Strength Tomorrow

From time to time we read about machines that can enable us to lop off pounds simply by standing on them as they shake us all about. Kind of like doing the hokey-pokey, but with even less effort.

Fad diets promise to make us svelte within days, cancelling out months and even years of bad eating habits and poor lifestyle practices. “Take these pills.” “Eat this menu.” “Try this regimen for just five days.” This, we’re promised, will free us of inches and pounds without so much as breaking a sweat.

Sounds great, especially at this time of year when temptations of lavish holiday meals, seasonal treats, Christmas cookies and other high-taste, high-calorie offerings bombard our senses through New Year’s Day. I know this all too well – my body still hasn’t recovered from last year’s onslaught of Thanksgiving Day, a trip to Walt Disney World, and Christmas, and already another year-end round of festivities has arrived. Laying waste to your waistline isn’t a good thing!

Recently a sign caught my eye that fits all of us hoping to survive the holidays without turning into human replicas of the famed Goodyear blimp. It might bolster our determination when we try to return to sane eating within the next few weeks. It said, “Struggle Today, Strength Tomorrow.”

The problem is most of us seem allergic to struggle. We like shortcuts, pain-free living, anything but struggle and strain. We hate the adage, “No pain, no gain.” Instead, we want the gain without the pain. Easy does it – the easier the better. Overindulge? Sure. Overwork? No way.

But in reality, what the sign stated is true. Struggle today often does lead to strength tomorrow. Take, for example, the little caterpillar struggling to fashion a protective cocoon, then at the right time working and straining to get out of it, transforming into a beautiful butterfly through this wondrous, strenuous process.

After open-heart surgery in 2006, I resolved to go through the recommended rehab program, which included healthier eating, taking prescribed medications, and embarking in a regular exercise regimen several times a week. Nine years later I’m still taking my meds faithfully and exercising 5-6 times a week. I’ve slipped a bit on the eating part, but aim to get back on track there, too. The point is, it hasn’t been easy. Every day I go to the rehab center thinking, “I hate to exercise.” But at the end of the session, I honestly love to have exercised. And my overall physical health has benefited. The struggle indeed has resulted in strength.

Apparently this is why we’re often reminded in the Scriptures not to underestimate the value of the struggle. The apostle Paul, no stranger to adversity of many kinds, wrote, “we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us” (Romans 5:3-5).

In case we missed it the first time, another apostle – James – revisits this idea in his letter. “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:2-4).

Many of us long to possess strong, overcoming faith. These passages tell us that without it being tested by the fires of struggle, our faith will never exhibit the strength we would desire. Because faith, being “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1), becomes confirmed only when struggles give us no alternative other than to exercise it. And sometimes over a long, arduous period of time.

So I think it’s right to say, no pain – no gain. No struggle – no strength. 

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Identifying the Real Enemy

These days it seems we have no shortage of enemies. There’s the network of radical Islamic terrorists motivated by unfathomable hatred. Then there are perpetrators of gun violence that take the lives of thousands each year. If you’re a liberal politically, conservatives are the enemy. And for conservatives, it’s the liberals. For football teams, the enemy consists of the players on the other side of the line of scrimmage.

We could list many other “enemies” worth considering, but I can’t help but wonder: Are we failing to focus on the real enemy, the one that lurks in our own back yards?

In a “Pogo” comic strip from years back, the namesake possum declares, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” The context for the ironic quip, used for Earth Day both in 1970 and 1971, was mankind’s self-inflicted environmental problems. However, we could apply this reasoning to other aspects of life as well.

Many people suffer from health problems brought on by their own bad habits – smoking, excessive consumption of alcohol, chemical abuse, unhealthy diets, lack of proper exercise. Yes, it’s sad when they encounter disease and chronic illness, but in many cases, they were their own worst enemies.

Plenty of individuals find themselves weighed down by great emotional distress brought on by bitterness, anger, unwillingness to forgive, jealousy, envy, fear and anxiety. These reactions to life’s circumstances are understandable to an extent, but when we harbor destructive feelings, embracing them like dear friends, then whose fault is that? We’ve found the enemy – it’s us.

Throughout the Bible one of the undergirding messages is the consequence of focusing on self. It started with Adam and Eve, the first – but hardly the last – humans to declare, “I want what I want – and I want it NOW!” They also were the first in attempting to protect “self.”

When God discovered they had ignored His instructions and sampled fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, Adam became the first “buck-passer.” Confronted by God about this act of disobedience, Adam quickly replied, “This woman you put here with me – she gave me some fruit from the tree – and I ate it” (Genesis 3:12). He not only blamed Eve, but in essence he was telling God that He was responsible. “It was that woman You created, God! Don’t blame me.”

Then Eve, quickly grasping the blame-game strategy herself, told God, “The serpent (Satan) deceived me, and I ate” (Genesis 3:13). Long before the Flip Wilson character, Geraldine, uttered the words, Earth’s first woman was declaring, “The devil made me do it!”

Many years later, not much has changed. We still wrestle grandly with admitting mea culpa, Latin for “it’s my fault.” Or as younger people say in their vernacular, “My bad!” We see it in high-ranking politicians, who deny knowledge of any wrongdoing when scandals arise or accuse the opposing party of disabling their good intentions.

Business leaders, celebrities, star athletes and others follow the same tactics when caught in ethical, legal or moral failures. “I didn’t do it!” they say in their own defense, knowing full well that yes, they did.

But we don’t have to be headliners to wrangle with this pernicious enemy that will never go away – self. Marriages die and families are destroyed because spouses decide they must have what they want, even if it exacts a great cost on everyone else involved. Even among so-called followers of Christ, we often hear the excuse, “I know God wants me to be happy.” Where, exactly, does it say that in the Scriptures? (Unless you subscribe to the Bible as interpreted and twisted by the health-and-wealth, prosperity evangelists.)

In fact, again and again God in His Word affirms, as Pogo discovered, “We have met the enemy – and he is us.” This is why we’re repeatedly exhorted to deny the insistent demands of self. Jesus told His followers, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). In other words, be willing to die to ourselves, our selfish desires and determination to have it our way.

The sixth chapter of Romans explains it’s not a matter of seeking to repress our self-oriented motives, but rather to surrender them entirely and exchange them for the new spiritual life we’re offered through Jesus Christ: “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too many live a new life” (Romans 6:4), and “In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus” Romans 6:11).

Whether it’s an Islamic extremist making the arrogant, horrific decision to take the lives of innocent “infidels,” a political leader resolving to do anything – whatever it takes – to attain a desired elective office, or a husband or wife opting to cast sacred vows aside in their “pursuit of happiness,” ultimately there’s one common enemy: Self.

Sadly, as I’ve learned so well in my own life, self doesn’t die easily. But if we’re wishing to experience the fulfilling, fruitful life God promises and desires for each of us, the only way is to die daily to self and appropriate the life we have in Christ.