Monday, February 29, 2016

Are You Ready to Take the ‘Leap’?

What will you do with your extra day?
Have you ever grumbled, “I could get so much more done if only I had more time”? Well, congratulations! Thanks to the calendar and the cosmological calculations of science, we’ve been granted an additional 24 hours this year.

It’s not often we get to do something on the 29th day of February. It’s possible only once every four years. So what should we do with this rare “opportunity”? How should we use an additional day we’ve been afforded?

We have plenty of options. We could sleep late, even hibernate if it happens to be a snowy day. Nothing like catching up on our sleep, right? We could take a vacation day, but since the 29th falls on a Monday this year, that’s not likely without the boss’s approval. Maybe we could take part of the day to assess how we’re progressing on our New Year’s resolutions or goals. Still early enough in the year to make course corrections if needed.

How we use day 366 this year is really a matter of personal choice, but if we believe what Psalm 118:24 declares, we’re assured, “This is the day which the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” Although we tend to take for granted each morning when we awaken, in reality every day is a gift. No guarantees. So this year God has provided us with one additional gift.

It would be easy to treat this one extra day in business-as-usual fashion. Unless, of course, you’re among the less than three percent of people who were actually born on Feb. 29, in which case you get to celebrate your bonafide birthday for the first time in four years. Most of us, however, might regard the day that causes this year to “leap” with a casual shrug. That probably would be unfortunate.

While we’re not instructed to become enslaved to our clocks and calendars, the Bible reminds us we’re as much stewards of our time as we are of our money, our talents and material resources. Ephesians 5:16 speaks of “making the most of your time, because the days are evil.” That’s not to say there’s anything intrinsically wrong with any particular day, but what we do with the time – or don’t do with it – will determine whether it’s been a good day or not.

We could simply view Feb. 29 as a day that forestalls the arrival of March 1 by 24 hours. Or we could treat it as truly a special day, one for doing something we’ve been intending to do for too long: making a phone call we should have made a while ago; reaching out to someone we’ve neglected for too long; turning off the TV and picking up that great book we never seem to get around to reading; or tackling a task or project that’s fallen victim to our procrastinations.

Since every fourth year we observe as “leap year,” maybe this would be the perfect time to take the leap and use this plus-one day in a very special, even unusual way. Who knows? Maybe by “redeeming the time,” as the venerated King James Version translates it, we’ll be able to look back and realize, “You know, that was a very, very good day!”

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Persevering – or Just Enduring?

Don’t you admire people that engage in endurance competitions? The annual Iditarod Sled Dog Race, for example, covers more than 1,000 miles, traversing from Anchorage to Nome, Alaska. (Apparently there’s no place like Nome.) And in Ironman Triathlons competitors swim in open water for 2.4 miles, ride a bike for 112 miles, and cap it off with a 26.2-mile run. The still-popular reality TV series “Survivor” takes endurance to new heights (and lows) with each season.

It takes a special person to participate in, much less win, such contests. But in a sense, we’re all involved in an endurance race – we call it everyday life. It’s interesting how differently people view this. You’ve probably seen the bumper sticker that says, “Life is tough. And then you die.” That’s how life seems sometimes, isn’t it?

What keeps us going? What should keep us going? A while ago I heard an interesting distinction between endurance – and perseverance. Endurance, the speaker pointed out, can mean just hanging on, trying to survive. Perseverance, on the other hand, involves more than that: It’s maintaining a singular focus and refusing to become distracted by extraneous matters.

Perhaps that’s why some people excel and succeed, while others wallow in mediocrity. The person settling for endurance is like someone aboard a boat that sinks and clinging desperately to a life preserver, hoping someone will come to his rescue. A person in this same situation who perseveres, however, doesn’t get distracted by sharks or the surrounding waves; she tries to find a solution, rather than waiting for the solution to find her.

The innovator that perseveres pursues the dream and refuses to accept failure as permanent. After several attempts that fail, this person simply concludes, “Now we know ways this won’t work. So we’ll try something else.”

A person faced with a physical disability could simply endure, dwelling on his or her limitations. Or they can take a different approach, focusing on capabilities not restricted by their disabilities. That’s why people like violinist Itzhak Perlman, acclaimed tenor Andrea Bocelli, and author-speaker-artist Joni Eareckson Tada are so inspirational. They refused to let polio, blindness or paralysis prevent them from discovering and refining their gifts.

And nearly 50 years after her death, Helen Keller, who overcame both blindness and deafness to earn a college degree and become a noted author, political activist and lecturer, remains a classic example of perseverance.

Advancing from mere endurance to perseverance to attain success isn’t a virtue meant only for extraordinary individuals. It also applies to the entrepreneur, schoolteacher, scientist, small business owner, aspiring athlete, inventor, and virtually any other field of endeavor.

Years ago my friend Mike was blindsided by a legal crisis that virtually consumed 18 months of his life. He could have curled up into a fetal position of self-pity, reasoning that his circumstances were grossly unfair. Instead, he persevered through this difficult time, gaining priceless life lessons in the process. He’s currently finishing a book to share what he learned.

But how can we persevere when it seems the best we can do is simply endure? “Gutting it out,” as they say. We can call upon resources beyond ourselves. The apostle Paul, no stranger to hardships, wrote, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13).

His experiences also enabled him to write with confidence, “…we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope” (Romans 5:3-4). Paul maintained a singular focus – to fulfill the calling God had given him. And he refused to be distracted, even by persecution and numerous hardships.

Citing Romans 8:37, Oswald Chambers expressed it well: The things we try to avoid and fight against – tribulation, suffering, and persecution – are the very things that produce abundant joy in us. ‘We are more than conquerors through Him (Jesus Christ)’ in all these things; not in spite of them, but in the midst of them.” So, shall we just endure – or will we persevere? Which we choose could make a great difference.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Choosing Between Wings and Weights

Way back in the late ‘80s, a chick-flick named “Beaches” featured a song called “Wind Beneath My Wings” by Bette Midler. While the film itself was largely forgettable, the song rose to the top of the Billboard singles chart and won two Grammy Awards.

It became No. 1 elsewhere, too. You might be surprised to know it was the most-played song at British funerals, according to a 2002 poll in the United Kingdom. Maybe their version of the old gospel hymn, “I’ll Fly Away”?

The film is about two women who, despite very different backgrounds and personalities, become BFFs before anyone ever heard the term, “best friends forever.” They encourage and hold each other up through an assortment of personal hardships, hence the “wind beneath my wings” metaphor.

When I heard this song again recently on an oldies radio station, it struck me that there basically two kinds of friends – those who serve as wings and others who serve as weights. Wing-friends are those who uplift us emotionally, spiritually and sometimes even physically. My friend, Dave, whose way-too-early passing we remembered a couple of weeks ago, was one of those.

I remember the day we sat down in a restaurant and he told me about how he had started his non-profit, Leaders Legacy. I was looking to change jobs at the time and Dave commented, “If you need a place where you can flourish and become everything God wants you to be, we’ve got a place for you.” Within a few months I joined the Leaders Legacy team and it indeed has become a place where I could accomplish many things I’d never dreamed of doing.

Over the years I’ve been fortunate to have a number of friends like that, people who encouraged me and sometimes saw things in me I couldn’t see myself. We all need those kinds of friends at various stages in our lives.

Unfortunately, there are other “friends” who prove to be more like weights, whether by being poor influences, tempting us to head in directions we should avoid, or by failing to uplift us with words of affirmation and encouragement. Sadly, millions of people find themselves surrounded by supposed friends who more closely resemble weights than wings.

Perhaps the reasoning is it’s better to have unhealthy friendships than to have no friends at all. But life’s too short to spend it hanging out only with folks that bring us down and constantly dampen our spirits. We all need those who help to provide “wind beneath our wings.” But how do we find them?

Of course, followers of Christ know He’s the one who ultimately fulfills that role. But God also has known from the beginning, “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18). We all need someone “with skin on” to accompany us through this journey called life. So the Scriptures offer some helpful criteria for us in choosing who that should be.

Proverbs 27:17 states, for example, “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” We need people to sharpen us, who can challenge and inspire us in becoming everything God has designed for us to be. Along the same lines, the writer of Hebrews 10:24 admonishes us to “consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds.”

If we want to hear bad, disheartening news, we don’t have to search far. We’re surrounded by it. So we must be intentional in seeking out people who act like good news when they show up and uplift us with their positive, affirming interaction. “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (Ephesians 4:29).

We all need such edifying people in our lives. But even more, we should strive to be people like that for others. This is why Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 admonishes, “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their work. If one falls down, his friend can help him up…. Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.” Weights or wings? Which will it be?

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Information . . . or Transformation?

We’ve all benefited from the so-called “Information Age.” Thanks to the digital revolution, our knowledge-based society provides facts about practically everything literally at our fingertips, via desktop computer, laptop, tablet, smartphone, even a smart-watch. Nearly everything we want to know, now accessible with a few taps of our fingers thanks to the wonders of cyberspace.

We have unlimited information
from nearly unlimited sources.
In many respects it’s been a good thing. Whether a recipe, home remodeling advice, the latest on our favorite sports team, financial trends, or information about a nagging medical problem, it’s all there. And why wait for tomorrow’s newspaper when we can read online reports of breaking news almost as it happens?

Years ago I cherished rare bits of information I could find about Ohio State sports. Now many websites can tell me the latest. Friends in Columbus say I know more about what’s going on with the Buckeyes than they do. Whatever we need to know is within arms reach. I even did research for this post in the comforts of my home office, gleaning information from my computer monitor. I haven’t visited a real library in years.

But this information, it’s not all good. We’ve stumbled simultaneously upon the “misinformation age.” Postings disguised as fact on biased websites, or disseminated via social media or email, might be anything but true. When I grew up Spam was canned meat – now spam is a means for hoodwinking people from their money or leaving them vulnerable to devious schemes. Have you heard from that rich African prince who wants to share his wealth with you, if only you send him a hefty deposit?

One other danger lurks within this cornucopia of information. Knowledge available to us seems limitless, but knowledge doesn’t equate to wisdom. Because wisdom involves understanding how to properly use the information at our disposal.

International evangelist Luis Palau was asked to compare Third World Christians he had met with Christians in America. He offered the view that many believers in America are “afflicted with the lust of the mind.” Unlike Third World disciples of Jesus, having no other choice but to live out their faith every day, Americans seem more zealous for gathering information about God and the Bible than putting into action what they’ve learned.

I heard about a man who for years was known for his devotion to reading Christian books, attending workshops, seminars and conferences, listening to spiritual messages, attending prayer meetings, and taking various classes on the Bible. Yet he’d never shared his faith with anyone. When asked why, he replied, “Oh, I just don’t know enough yet.”

Sadly, these days we’re more interested in information than in transformation. Some people are like those described by the Bible as always learning but never able to come to a knowledge of the truth” (2 Timothy 3:7). Reading the Scriptures, memorizing and meditating on various verses, attending worship services and hearing stirring sermons are good. But God’s desire for us is that we “not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2).

In His well-known parable of the sower found in Matthew 13, Jesus spoke about various kinds of “seed” (the Word of God). Some fell on paths where birds consumed them, on shallow soil where plants soon withered, or among thorns where growth was quickly choked off. Only the seeds that fell on good soil bore lasting fruit. Jesus was cautioning us to make sure that when we receive the truth it falls into fertile soil. That consists of receptive hearts eager to put that information into practice. In other words, willingness to become transformed, not just serve as seed holders.

After the apostle Paul declared, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness,” he explained what it’s useful for: “so the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

When Paul told his readers about the Good News of Jesus Christ, he wasn’t offering just facts and information. He was teaching about its transforming capacity. “I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile” (Romans 1:16). The result, he wrote, is “just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (Romans 6:4). In the process, we become “a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

When we read the Scriptures or a book by our favorite Christian author, attend a worship service or conference, or listen to Bible-based radio message, if all we’re looking for is information, we’re shortchanging ourselves. Because with God, it’s not about information – it’s about transformation.

Monday, February 15, 2016

What Do Others See As Your Identity?

Logos communicate an image or idea instantly.
In business, identity is critical. We see it with quickly recognizable logos – for example, Nike, KFC, BMW, or New York Yankees. Business cards are designed to instantly convey who you are and what you do. When a company comes up with a unique product, they take legal steps to establish their trademark. And more and more these days, enterprises become extremely protective of their brand, who they are as a whole – think NASCAR, or Disney.

What do you think of when you see this silhouette?
What do people think when they see your "logo"?
Have you ever considered, even if you don’t own a business or head a company, that you also have a “logo,” “business card,” “trademark” and “brand” by which others can assess who you are and what you stand for?

Recently I read the following that speaks to that: “Your smile is your logo, your personality is your business card, how you leave others feeling after an experience with you becomes your trademark.” And I would add, “whether others aspire to be like you is your brand.”

Think about it: Whenever we have an encounter with someone else, whether in the workplace, neighborhood, supermarket, school, even a ball field, we make an impression. And impressions are lasting, sometimes indelible. People associate us with an image we’ve created – in essence, our logo, our business card, our trademark, and our brand.

So what does your personal “logo” look like? Is it a smile that makes others smile as well, or a frown that darkens someone’s otherwise sunny day? When people look at your “business card,” are they drawn to you as a person they want to hang around with – or when they see you approach, do they look for somewhere to hide?

I’ve been around people whose “trademark” was extremely appealing. They had the innate capacity to turn my frown upside-down. There have been others, however, who made the Grim Reaper seem like the life of the party. And there have been some individuals who, even though they’d be embarrassed if I said so, exhibited qualities I greatly admired and wished to emulate in my own life. In other words, I appreciated their “brand.”

A logo, trademark, even a
business card, make up
a brand - literally and
You might be thinking – as I do – that's easier for some people to pull off than others. Energetic, effervescent, gregarious people seem to attract others like magnets without much effort. Folks swarm around them, thinking, “I’ll have what she’s having.” What about introverts (and I’m one) who have to labor at engaging effectively with others. Are our logo, business card, trademark and brand doomed from the start?

For followers of Jesus, we will always have the personalities – winsome or otherwise – we’ve been hard-wired with from birth, but we have an advantage: He can, and desires, to manifest His life through us. Reading about His life in the gospels, we find Jesus had people flocking to Him all of the time. “News about him spread all over Syria, and people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases…. Large crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and the region across the Jordan followed him” (Matthew 4:24-25).

That’s nice, but what does it have to do with us and how we interact with people around us? Actually, it has a lot to do with it. Because, as Galatians 2:20 says of each believer in Jesus, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.”

If that’s true, what’s the result? Simply that when people encounter us, they should feel – consciously or subconsciously – that they are in His presence as well. As the Scriptures tell us, “But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and manifests through us the sweet aroma of the knowledge of Him in every place. For we are a fragrance of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing; to the one an aroma from death to death, to the other an aroma from life to life” (2 Corinthians 2:14-15). 

Would people say you exhibit the “fragrance of Christ”? If people were to describe your logo, trademark or brand, would they say that Jesus Christ is a significant part of it? Is He an integral part of your identity, of who you are?