Monday, May 30, 2016

Worth Taking Time to Remember

Even though war has been part of human history virtually from the start, no one in their right mind enjoys war, even the thought of it. (With the possible exception of defense contractors.) The old John Wayne movies of the 1940’s made combat seem like a great experience, a wonderful way for bonding and building camaraderie with fellow soldiers. But the movies lied.

As a boy, I remember my father awakening some nights, crying out as if terrified of something. Then he would return to sleep, never to discuss those episodes. Either he forgot his nightmares or chose to avoid talking about them. He also never mentioned his wartime experiences. As an officer in infantry and armored divisions of the Army, Dad saw war firsthand in World War II, in the Battle of the Bulge as well as in northern Africa. He was proud of his military service, but offered no stories about the “glories” of war.

So each Memorial Day I honor the courageous service of my father, along with many thousands of others who answered the call of duty to fight against tyranny, oppression and evil. Some, like Dad, were fortunate to return alive. Others were not. When I was in high school the conflict in Vietnam was escalating; while I was in college it grew into a full-scale, poorly conceived war that took thousands of lives, as Washington, D.C.’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial attests.

I’m thankful I was never called to serve, but admire everyone who did. In one way or another, they each paid a considerable price to protect America. In recent years, our military men and women have been serving in totally different environments, fighting on sand rather than rice paddies. Often they have returned home maimed physically, psychologically and emotionally. They deserve our thanks – and our assistance as they strive to rebuild their lives as civilians. I fear too many of them are not receiving nearly as much help as they require.

So I don’t see Memorial Day as a time for glorifying warfare or celebrating who won the battles and who lost. War, no matter how we look at it, is tragic. But that’s no excuse for not recognizing noble and heroic service.

The Scriptures emphasize the need for memorials to offset short memories. We see the Israelites being exhorted to remember the past – its pain, sorrows and failures. By establishing memorials, God’s people would be inspired to become more faithful, more devoted to Him, and less inclined to nurture the human weaknesses that lead to senseless wars.

After freeing the people of Israel from four centuries of slavery in Egypt, God commanded that in a variety of ways they would establish “a memorial for the Israelites before the Lord” (Exodus 30:16), so they would never forget what He had done to liberate them from oppression.

Festive observances also were created for that purpose. “Also at your times of rejoicing – your appointed feasts, New Moon festivals – you are to sound the trumpets over your burnt offerings and fellowship offerings, and they will be a memorial for you before your God. I am the Lord your God” (Numbers 10:10).

After assuming leadership of the Israelites after Moses’ death, Joshua saw the importance of causing the people to remember the past – its tragedies and triumphs – and not allow memories to fade with the passage of years. “…Each of you is to take up a stone on his shoulder…to serve as a sign among you. In the future, when your children ask you, ‘What do these stones mean?’ tell them… These stones are to be a memorial to the people of Israel forever” (Joshua 4:6-7).

The Christian sacrament of communion also serves as a memorial. Prior to His crucifixion, Jesus and His followers observed the Passover meal in which He distributed the elements to represent the sacrifice He was about to undertake. And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, "This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me" (Luke 22:19).

Memorials and memorial observances serve as antidote for our attention deficit disordered lifestyles, in which it can truly be said of us, “How quickly they forget.”

So I hope this Memorial Day you will pause to remember those who paid so dearly in the fields of combat – and also the One who made the ultimate sacrifice not only for this life but also for the life to come.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Living for a Legacy?

“What is your purpose? What is the legacy you want to leave?”

These are questions J. Frank Harrison III, chairman and CEO of Coca-Cola Consolidated, often asks when speaking, leading training sessions, or doing interviews in his company. Speaking at an annual leadership prayer breakfast, he explained these questions concern topics many people have never seriously pondered.

Like the ripple a single drop of water makes
in a pond, our legacies can radiate a long way.
For lots of young people, matters like purpose and legacy seem irrelevant. Many of us tend to drift through life, “like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind,” as James 1:6 describes it. We react as situations arise, with little concern about long-term benefits or consequences. But we begin to write our legacy from the time we can start making conscious decisions.

Leaders Legacy, the non-profit I’ve worked for over the past 15 years, began using “legacy” long before it became a buzzword. Now it’s used almost everywhere. From the start, its founder Dave Stoddard understood a life is best lived when guided by a well-defined purpose and directed to achieve a specific legacy. Our motto has been, “Building great leaders who build great leaders,” because the true test of leaders is not what’s accomplished while they’re in charge, but what happens after they’re gone.

A legacy isn’t something we select for ourselves. It’s the sum of our being – what we’ve lived for, the lives we’ve touched, and the difference we’ve made along the way. At the same time, leaving a worthwhile legacy doesn’t happen by accident. If we approach life haphazardly, without even a basic plan for a guide, our legacy will reflect that. As someone has said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.”

I’m thinking of a longtime friend whose rich, enduring legacy was solidified years ago. I met Robert Foster in 1981, soon after joining CBMC as editor; Bob was on the national board, heading the publications committee. In Bob I found a man of extremely high character and integrity, a very wise and caring person, deeply committed to serving his Lord, Jesus Christ, and others. He loved being an ambassador for Christ through his work, time he invested in men and women to assist in their spiritual growth, and in the ministries and missions he was involved with throughout his life.

Bob, who at 92 recently entered hospice with terminal cancer, has been a sterling example of someone finishing well in life. Even after his 90th birthday, he participated in a mission to China to tell people about Jesus. Whenever he was in meetings, he was an E.F. Hutton-kind of person: When he spoke, people listened. Because they knew what he said would be meaningful.

Without question, if Bob had been asked, “What is your purpose? What is the legacy you want to leave?” he could have answered without hesitation.

Nearly 2,000 years ago, the apostle Paul also had such certainty. In fact, in an Amplified Bible translation of Philippians 3:10, he declares, “For my determined purpose is that I may know Him (Jesus) – that I may progressively become more deeply and intimately acquainted with Him, perceiving and recognizing and understanding the wonders of His person more strongly and more clearly….”

As for his legacy, later in the letter to believers in Philippi Paul instructs, “Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put into practice. And the peace of God will be with you” (Philippians 4:9). Nearing the end of his life, the apostle wanted them to be continuing the work he had done so diligently, laid on the foundation of Jesus Christ. His actions flowed from who he was and the God he knew.

We see similar admonitions throughout the Scriptures: Moses entrusting leadership of the Israelites to Joshua; Elijah literally passing his mantle on to Elisha; David transferring the kingship of Israel to his son, Solomon. And especially Jesus, just before His ascension, directing His followers, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations…teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you…” (Matthew 28:19-20).

As His followers, we each should have a clear sense of purpose, as well as a vision for what kind of legacy we’d like to leave. If there is any doubt, it’s never too late to ask ourselves: What is my purpose? What is the legacy I want to leave? Then, once we’ve determined where we’re going, we just have to figure out how to get there.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Hard Work – Or Heart Work?

“Nothing worth having comes easy.” “Hard work does not guarantee success but no success is possible without hard work.” “All roads that lead to success have to pass through Hard Work Boulevard at some point.” “There is no substitute for hard work” (Thomas Edison).

These are just a handful of hundreds of salient quotations about the necessity of hard work for achieving meaningful goals and objectives. They apply to any endeavor, whether it’s gaining a useful education, forging a rewarding career, mastering a musical instrument, honing skills in a specific craft or hobby, building a family, excelling in athletic pursuits, writing a book, or even losing weight. The easy way, on the other hand, is usually the surest path to failure.

As Proverbs 6:10-11 points out, "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." Another verse, Proverbs 14:23, adds, “All hard work brings a profit, but mere talk leads only to poverty.”

But sometimes, hard work frankly isn’t worth it. For instance, for people lacking certain innate skills, no matter how hard they work, it’s unlikely they’ll approach success. For instance, on a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being the highest), my singing skills would probably rate a .5, so I’m not going to exert any effort trying to become vocal soloist with the local symphony. My mechanical aptitude isn’t much better, so I have no intention of trying to refurbish an old car or build a house – or even a birdhouse – any time soon.

However, writing has been my passion for as long as I can remember. In fact, even though I’ve spent countless hours doing it and believe time and practice have helped to hone my literary skills, it’s more “heart work” than hard work. As someone once said – and many have repeated – if you love your work, you’ll never really work another day in your life.

That doesn’t mean if you’re not passionate something, like about cutting grass, washing the dishes or taking out the trash, you’re excused from doing it when necessary. Daily chores and some assignments in the workplace have to be done even if we don’t love having to do them. But heart work definitely makes hard work easier. So given that we all are limited to 24 hours a day and seven days in a week, doesn’t it make sense to devote much of that time to pursuits we’re passionate about, ones we also happen to be skilled or gifted at doing?

And when that passion is linked to a sense of calling or mission, we won’t find it necessary to pick ourselves up by the scruff of the neck to get going. As author and motivational speaker Steve Pavlina wrote, “When you live for a strong purpose, then hard work isn’t an option. It’s a necessity.”

For followers of Jesus Christ, our passion for Him – and His love for us – should provide more than enough motivation to be involved somehow in the work of His eternal kingdom. The apostle Paul wrote unapologetically, “if we are out of our mind, it is for God; if we are of sound mind, it is for you. For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that One died for all, therefore all died…. Therefore we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making His appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ: Be reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5:13-20).

Without question, fulfilling the calling God had given Paul was hard work, agonizingly so. He encountered great adversity, persecution, physical hardship, imprisonment, and moments when he was at the brink of death. But having become convinced that nothing could ever separate any of God’s children from His divine love (Romans 8:38-39), Paul’s heart work enabled him to endure the hard work.

What’s your heart work, that thing (or those things) capable of turning the necessary hard work into a pleasure and a privilege, rather than a bother and a burden?

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Friends Shape Who We Are Tomorrow

Charlie “Tremendous” Jones, a noted motivational speaker, used to say, “Five years from now you’ll be the same except for the people you meet and the books you read.” A wise observation, but I’d add, “and the friends you make.” Because friends profoundly influence our lives, for good or for ill.

Few things compare to experiences enjoyed
through a good friendship.
A quotation I found recently elaborates: “The people we surround ourselves with either raise or lower our standards. They either help us to become the best version of ourselves or encourage us to become lesser versions of ourselves. We become like our friends….”

The Bible offers some practical observations as well. For example, “He who walks with the wise grows wise, but a companion of fools suffers harm” (Proverbs 13:20). Another passage states, “Do not make friends with a hot-tempered man, do not associate with one easily angered, or you may learn his ways and get yourself ensnared” (Proverbs 22:24-25).

During my life, for the most part, I’ve found myself among people with strong values and solid character. I don’t take credit for that, because during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s I could have easily been drawn into the growing drug culture. Somehow I avoided making those associations. Not that my collegiate experience was pristine, but I never became part of the “turn on, drop out” mentality popularized by Dr. Timothy Leary and others.

I say “somehow,” but God – even when I didn’t realize it – was leading me away from temptation and delivering me from evil, to paraphrase Jesus’ model prayer (Matthew 6:9-13, Luke 11:2-4). He has often protected me from myself when necessary, including graciously surrounding me with good friends.

We see examples every day of the impact friendships have. People receiving public honor tell how friends encouraged and challenged them along the way. Others recount how friends’ support and prayers helped them to endure unimaginable hardships. Sadly, in very different ways the nightly news is splashed with reports of individuals who, in the company of unsavory friends, engaged in all manner of illegal activities. Gang warfare across our nation can be attributed in part to people choosing the wrong friends to set standards and expectations for their lives.

Some of my favorite songs deal with the importance of friends and friendship, tunes like James Taylor’s “You’ve Got a Friend” and Michael W. Smith’s “Friends.” And the theme song from the TV sitcom, “Golden Girls” – “Thank You for Being a Friend” – never fails to provoke a smile. There are few things better than a longtime, trusted friend with whom we’ve shared both good times and bad. As Proverbs 17:17 states, “A friend loves for all times, and a brother is born for adversity.”

Of course, from a spiritual perspective, there can be no friend better than Jesus Christ. I can still hear Tennessee Ernie Ford singing the old hymn, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” When He walked the earth, Jesus told His followers, “You are My friends if you do what I command you.  No longer do I call you servants, for a servant does not understand what his master is doing. But I have called you friends, because everything I have learned from My Father I have made known to you” (John 15:14-15).

Can you imagine that, Jesus Christ – God incarnate – saying to us, “You are My friends”? If a movie star we admired, a celebrated author, a famous vocalist or musician, or internationally renowned business executive were to say, “You are my friend,” that would be impressive. But for the Son of God to say that to each one of His followers, that is truly – dare I use the word? – AWESOME!

Without the slightest doubt, He is enabling me to become the very best version of myself. I hope you can say that as well.

Monday, May 16, 2016

A ‘City Slickers’ Look at One Thing

In the 1991 film “City Slickers,” there’s an exchange between the resident cowboy, Curly (Jack Palance), and vacationing urban greenhorn Mitch (Billy Crystal). Curly asks Mitch, “Do you know what the secret to life is?” Then he holds up one finger, looks at it, and says, “This.” Mitch responds, “Your finger?” Curly shakes his head, then replies, “One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and the rest don’t mean (anything).”

Giving Curly his full attention, Mitch asks, “That’s great, but what is the ‘one thing’?” Then Curly smiles and answers, “That’s what you have to find out.”

That little interaction alone is worth the price of renting the video. In these days of short attention spans, ADHD lifestyles, copious communications, and distractions by the dozens, the ability to concentrate on one thing is becoming a lost art.

We eat meals, watch TV, and monitor social media on our smartphones or tablets all at the same time. Even going out to a restaurant for dinner, we mumble at our eating partners while texting friends, checking the weather or ball scores, or watching the TV over our shoulders. The “secret to life,” it would seem, is trying to accomplish as many things as possible all at the same time, not just one thing. Multi-tasking is regarded a consummate virtue.

But I think Curly was right. If we can figure out what that one thing is, we’ll have figured out the secret to life and can stick to it. It can guide us in everything we do. In high school, for example, some athletes succeed in multiple sports, but for most of them to excel at the collegiate level – even more as professionals – they need to determine that “one thing,” the sport in which they perform best, even dominate the opposition.

Lebron James could have starred in college football as a wide receiver or tight end. However, he chose to focus on basketball and as a result, has become one of the NBA’s all-time greats. The sister-brother duo of Karen and Richard Carpenter recorded multiple vocal hits from 1969 until her death in 1983. Karen was a talented drummer, but it was her flawless voice that propelled the Carpenters to music stardom. Her distinctive melodies still captivate listeners today.

Of course, Curly of “City Slickers” was speaking in a broader sense than just vocation or talent. Because people can excel in specific areas of life and still remain clueless about “the secret to life.” If someone were to ask you about the one thing that can reveal that secret, how would you respond? Success? Wealth? Family? Love? Health?

The apostle Paul, writing to believers in the ancient church in Corinth, was bold and unwavering in declaring what he’d determined was that one thing, the secret to life. For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified(1 Corinthians 2:2).

Paul was explaining he saw no point in aimless dialogue, getting entangled in disputes over petty differences. Instead, he resolved to concentrate on Christ, acknowledging, I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling, and my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith would not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God” (2 Corinthians 2:3-5).

Speaking in Athens, an ancient city defined by polytheistic idol worship, Paul asserted Jesus Christ was more than a focal point for his faith; Christ was the foundation for the person he had become: “For in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).

Had Paul been questioned by Curly of “City Slickers,” undoubtedly he would have identified Jesus Christ as the singular secret to life. Jesus Himself declared, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10).

Perhaps that’s the most profound question we each must answer: What is that one thing, the secret to life? And if we conclude the answer’s not Jesus, then what is it?